Archive for the ‘Australia’ category

Freedom of association under threat in Australia

March 19, 2008

Those who like me have followed the VSM (voluntary student membership) issue closely, may know that Australian students, unlike students here (except in Auckland University) have a real choice about whether or not to join a students association.

This however was not always the case. Although VSU (voluntary student unionism, the Australian name for VSM) was implemented in Western Australia from 1994 to 2002, and Victoria from 1994 to 2000, it was only in 2006 that membership of student unions became voluntary, thanks to legislation passed by the Howard Government the previous year.

Overall, Australian Labor has been more conservative than NZ Labour here, as shown by its support for strong defence forces, big tax cuts, and previously VSU (despite initial opposition). Aussie Labor also hasn’t shown the same nanny state streak Helen has.

However, there is no doubt Labor is a left wing party, and there are signs that it might U-turn again on VSU. The new Labor Government has released a disscussion paper on the issue, and Youth Minister Kate Ellis, who has called the policy a “disaster” is visiting universities to see what the effects are. And the student unions want their free money supply back. The National Union of Students (their NZUSA) has made the main issue for a meeting with Government ministers not student debt, high fees or low living standard, but surprise, surprise … repealing VSU.

We don’t need to worry too much. The latest position on VSU is the possibility of a form of compulsory membership, but capping the fee at $100 and banning from being spent on political representation (an interesting compromise, which means no misrepresentation, but still forces students to fund services they do not use). And half the Senate is controlled by the Coalition and family First who supported the VSU legislation, meaning it could be blocked there.

With the prospect of a National government sympathetic to VSM here, this will be an issue to watch.


John Howard says sorry (almost)

October 12, 2007

John Howard has given a very interesting speech in Sydney dismorning. Its not his normal unapolegitc self, but instead talks about the need for reconciliation with the aboriginal people of Australia. He doesn’t quite says sorry for the past, but almost does. Andrey young has a good piece on it here (including the full text of the speech. The only real policy anounced in the speech is to hold a referendum to add a preamble into the Australian constitution to recognise the status of aboriginal Australians as the first inhabitants of Australia, their culture and “their special (though not seperate) place within a reconciled, indivisable nation”.

One can question if Howard is genuine or not. On one hand there is an election coming up, and this speech may have something to do with it. On the other hand, Howard is getting old (he’s 68) and likely to retire from politics whatever the election outcome. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is thinking of his legacy, and will prefer to be remembered as the PM who started a national reconciliation process than the one who refused to apoligise for the stolen generation. As he will probably get voted out at the election, we probably won’t get to find out.

The other question is wether or not he will be believed. Howard does have a record of being economical with the truth during the “children overboard affair“. And Howard has a long history of not doing much about aboriginal rights during his 11 years as Prime Minister. Despite this, it appears some aboriginal Australians are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I have doubt if the electorate will.

Overall I agree with a lot of what Howard said in that speech. Australia needs some form of reconciliation and will have to one day address the issues surounding how the aboriginal people were treated unfairly in the past. But it must do so in a way that does not involve racial seperatism, or giving special treatment to one race over another (i.e. “affirmative action”). Unfortunately, with all Howard’s political baggage he will not be taken seriously on this. Hopefully a future Australian government might.

John Howard is finished

September 4, 2007

Read this poll. Its all over for the Liberals in Australia, and John Howard. End of story.

Although I was reluctant to write of the Liberals previously, due the fact a comeback (like in 2001) isn’t impossible, the new margin is just a it too big this close to the election (which will probably be in November). Howard has governed Australia since 1996, with strong economic preformance. I see three reasons for the poor coalition polling despite Australia’s economic preformance (ranked in order of importance):
1) Kevin Rudd. Has a lot of similarities to John Key, and comes across as a nice, non-threatning guy. For voters who are tired of Howard, presents a fresh alternatives. Ever since he became leader, Labor has been polling descisively higher than the coalition.
2) Howard stayed too long as Prime Minister. This is closely linked with point one above. The experiences of Blair, Clark, Bush, Howard, and other western leaders show that ruling for 18 years like Menzies is not possible today. Voters tire of leaders in their third term. The fact voters flirted with latham for a long time before rejecting him should (in hindsight) have warned Howard of this. Admitedly, last year I failed to relise this, as I supported Howard staying against a leadership bid by Costello. This has really hit home after Rudd became leader. Unfortuantely it is too late now to change leaders, as it would be seen as a sign of panic.
3) WorkChoices. While this measure was hardly draconian, but the initial (pollitically stupid) absence of a no-disadvantage test (ie a rule requiring the new agreement to be no worse than the old one) led to unions convincing many voters that it was a draconian attack on workers rights, and the coalition has never managed to shake this perception of. In hindsight, WorkChoices was (politically) trying to do too much too quickly, if it was to be done at all (the later would be cowardly, politicians have a moral duty to do whats right for the country, even if it at times hurts them in the polls).

A possible forth reason would be the labor strategy of (other than on Workchoices) giving no big policy difference with the coalition, cemeting Howrds legacy (which is why I don’t worry about Rudd becoming PM) but denying any wedge issue for a comeback.

Labor policy

August 30, 2007

One important election issue in Australia is Industrial relations (IR), and the Howard government’s “work choices”  programme. Before disscussing the new Labor industrial relations policy, It is important to understand the current system. Under workchoices, there is now a single National system of industrial Relations laws, instead of 8 State or territory ones (a sensible move, given that many bussinesses, if not operating internationally, operate Australia wide) , and the creation of a new authority called the Australian Fair Pay Commision to oversee the system, and set the minimum wage. Employees sign “Australian workplace agreements” (AWA) with their employer, which last for a period of five years, setting out the employment conditions. AWAs can be individual agreements, but collective agreements also allowed. There are 5 minimum employment conditions that all AWAs must agree to, namely a minimum wage of $13.74 per hour (generous compared to New Zealand), 4 weeks paid annual leave with 5 weeks for shift workers, 10 days personal leave, the option of up to a year of unpaid parental leave, and 38 hours per week to constitute normal hours. Companies with fewer than 101 employees are exempt from unfair dismmisal laws, and unfair dissmisal laws don’t apply to workers who have been employed for less than 6 months, or those who have been dismissed for “bona fide” operational reasons. Strikes and industrial action is allowed after secret ballots, in a narrow range of circumstances, the full details avaliable here. Significently, unions will not be allowed to strike during the life of an agreement, only when negotiating new agreements. The sources for the above information are linked.

Yesterday, Labor anounced its Industrial Relations policy, which will phase out AWAs by 2012. The minimum standards will be expanded to include public holidays (employees must have the right to these, and if required to work on one, be given an alternative day of with extra pay), paid leave for jury or other community service, a right for parents with children under 5 to get flexible woking hours (this can be refused on reasonable bussiness grounds with permission from a new “Fair Work Australia” authority, which will be a fusion of several existing groups including the Australian Fair Pay Commision, and will be given the power to hear (instead of the courts) unfair dissmissal cases. Also under the new minimum standards, employees will need to be given certain information from employers about their legal rights, and a right to redundancy pay. The protection for companies with fewer than 101 employees from unfair dissmissal rights would be removed. With the abolition of AWA’s, employers would be forced to negotiate with a collectively with employees (e.g. a trade union) if employees voted for that in a secret ballot, whereas under the existing system an employer can veto a collective agreement and refuse to negotiate with a union.

In conclusion, WorkChoices is hardly the end of workers rights as some of its opponents make out. It does guarenttee several minimum conditions in law (which should safe guard basic employment rights), but does seriously reduce the power of Unions, and makes it easy for employers to dissmiss unproductive employees. Having said that, the Labor proposal is not extremist (by keeping the 6 month probationary period, is more right wing in that aspect than Wayne Mapp’s “90 day no rights Bill”) and will not make the economy collapse. It is more softening the rougher edges of WorkChoices than overturning it.

Abortion in Australia

August 23, 2007

In Australia, unlike many other countries, abortion is a State issue, meaning that different laws apply in different states. In most states (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania), abortion law is unclear, and historical court rulings have allowed abortion in cases where pregnancy poses a threat to the life or health (including “mental health”) of the woman, or in other “hard cases”. In practice, as in New Zealand abortion exists on demand. In the Australian Capital territory, and Western Australia the legal ambiguity has been resolved by formally legalising abortion on demand, although with some restrictions in Western Australia. Victoria looks set to follow this pattern, with the Government planning to introduce a Bill to achieve this. This represents both a danger and opportunity for pro-lifers. The downside is it means that no future court can reverse the Menhennitt ruling, the 1969 court ruling which allowed abortions to be preformed where the woman faces “a serious danger to her life or her physical or mental health (not being merely the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth)” in the continuation of pregnancy, or a strict interpretation of the ruling (20 000 abortions are preformed every year in Victoria, and its unlikely many of the 20 000 would involve a “serious danger” “not being … normal” to her health). The upside is that is does give the pro-life side the opportunity to (hopefully) pass ammendments to the Bill, to restrict abortions in certain circumstances, as they managed to do in Western Australia in 1998, with the new law requiring girls under 16 to inform one parent and prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy except in casses where the fetus is abnormal or disabled.

The other piece of news about abortion in Australia is at the federal level. Currently, the australian taxpayer is required to fund abortions at home (as its included in the medicare health scheme), but doesn’t have to overseas, as Australia has rules prohibiting foreign aid funds going to groups that preform or promote abortion. A liberal MP is trying to remove that ban, but it won’t be voted upon until next year. This means it will be vote on by a Parliament with a Labor majority (asuming Rudd wins, which is likely given current polling) as will the Bill in Victoria. However, there is no guarentee that the pro-life side will loose on these issues as the Australina Labor party is more centrist than the New Zealand one.

Wedge politics

June 26, 2007

Recently the Australian government anounced a serries of tough measures to deal with child abuse in aboriginal communities. Child abuse is a serious problem in aboriginal communitites. While it is good to see action being taken, given that Australia is only months wawy from an election, and the political advantage Howard can gain from the issue (made to look like a strong leader willing to help people, ability to split the ALP, categorise opponenets as making excuses for child abuse) it looks like its wedge politics being played. Colin James has speculated that Helen Clark might try a similar wedge politics strategy here to win in 2008. It’s an interesting thought, but it is difficult to see any issue that can be used this way.

Now some bad news.

May 15, 2007

It appears there may be a change of government across the Tasman too. In the latest Newspoll. The coalition went down 1 point to 36% and Labor up 2 to 50% with the primary vote. When it came to the two party preferred preference,the coalition went down 2 to 41%, while Labor went up 2 to 59%. There’s more bad news when it comes to preferred PM. Kevin Rudd is on 49% (up 3%) and John Howard is down 2% to 37%. Whats particularly bad about this poll, is it comes after an excellent budget, including large tax cuts,  Howard watering down work choices, and Labor producing an extremist pro-union industrial relations policy. The bad news continues in Howard’s own Bennelong seat, with a poll showing Labors McKew outpolling him 46% to 44%. I know Howard has come from behind in several past elections, 2001 being the best example, but he will need a pretty massive comeback to win this one.