Monthly Archives: September 2019

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Talking points out the window as pollies switch from postmodern to the surreal

”We just have to bind together as a party and get on with it!”: Joel Fitzgibbon made quite an appearance on Channel Seven’s Sunrise program. Photo: Jonathan Carroll As the 43rd Parliament lurches towards its nether end, the vibe around the place grows increasingly postmodern. Which is to say – deconstructed, self-referential, culturally relative and, in select cases, more incoherent than the poetry of typewriter-bound monkeys.

On Tuesday Labor MP and serial Julia Gillard irritant Joel Fitzgibbon began the day with what a jazz cigarette-smoking post-structuralism student would call a very ”meta” television appearance – an interview in which he deconstructed the very process of being interviewed.

Breakfast television host David Koch asked Fitzgibbon about the uniformly disastrous for Labor poll results splashed across three newspapers on Tuesday.

”Joel, Joel, Joel, are you shattered by this?” Kochie asked.

”Hang on, Kochie!” cried the Member for Hunter, with the sort of ebullience and maniacal eye-glint of a man about to go over the top of a rain-and-rat-sodden trench. ”I just brought the manual with me! I’ll see what it says!” he said, and then he held up an actual manual, which looked a lot like the ”talking points” MPs of both sides are issued with daily.

The talking points everybody knows about, but nobody is supposed to talk about.

”It says I should say, ‘Polls come and go but the only poll that matters is on election day!’ ” Fitzgibbon laughed.

In the same interview, Fitzgibbon mentioned there was a seminar being held in Parliament House for retiring MPs and quipped: ”I hope there is not a rush for the door!” Then he pointed out that he had, a few months ago, ”suggested that the party wanted to think about new directions and paths” – a reference to his support for a Kevin Rudd revival, so passive-aggressive it would make your mother-in-law blush.

And then, in a final flourish: ”We just have to bind together as a party and get on with it!”

Just as the Prime Minister’s communications strategy team was about to call in a drone strike, the Member for the Queensland seat of Moreton, Graham Perrett, took to ABC Radio, and operations had to be redirected.

”We are in more trouble than Indiana Jones,” he admitted.

Asked whether he thought Rudd should return as Labor leader to stem the catastrophic electoral tide, Perrett answered in idiosyncratic fashion.

”If my aunt had testicles, she’d be my uncle, wouldn’t she,” he said.

Yes, we suppose she would. We’re just not quite sure where that leaves us, other than in the obvious place – that is, more confused than the gender identity of Graham Perrett’s mother’s sister.

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Coalition steps back from workplace bullying moves

A law to help employees achieve a better work-life balance could pass Parliament with the Coalition’s support – but only if new powers to tackle bullying are removed.

Fairfax Media has learned that the opposition will move amendments to the Gillard government’s Fair Work Amendment Bill that would strike out the new anti-bullying powers for the Fair Work Commission and also the increased ability for unions to meet in lunchrooms.

The action comes despite the Coalition declaring last month that it would support the bullying powers – so long as they also covered union conduct and included a ”filter” to prevent vexatious complaints.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten described the new stance as a backflip by a party ”choosing to play politics rather than to protect vulnerable workers”.

But opposition sources insist the Coalition will still legislate for the bullying powers, as per its policy, if elected on September 14 and had merely proposed simple amendments to allow the government’s own workplace law to pass this month.

The manoeuvring follows Tuesday’s declaration by key independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor that they would not support workplace changes unless they had bipartisan backing. The hung Parliament means the Labor government needs support from either the Coalition or most crossbench MPs to get laws through the House of Representatives.

The Fair Work Amendment Bill, currently being debated in the lower house, would expand the right for employees to request flexible work arrangements, require employers to consult with employees about changes to regular rosters or ordinary work hours, and adjust the way in which parental leave can be taken.

The bill would also require the Fair Work Commission to take into account the principle of penalty rates for unsociable hours when setting award conditions – a move flowing from the ACTU campaign against ”insecure work”.

The proposed bullying measures, meanwhile, would give Fair Work the power to issue an order to prevent workplace bullying from continuing.

Fair Work would be required to start dealing with each case within 14 days, in a move the government argued would give people a new speedy avenue to resolve bullying problems before they escalated in severity.

Business groups have warned the measure would overlap the work of existing state-based health and safety regulators. Last month’s budget earmarked an extra $21 million over four years to help Fair Work deal with the cases.

In a letter to the government on Monday, opposition workplace relations spokesman Eric Abetz pointed to Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott’s call for bipartisanship. Senator Abetz flagged Coalition amendments, including the removal of the section dealing with bullying.

”While the Coalition supports measures to stop workplace bullying, the provisions contained within this bill require significant amendment and should be excised until such a time as such changes have occurred,” he wrote.

Senator Abetz also flagged the removal of a section about union right of entry to lunchrooms and the employer paying the costs of union travel to remote work locations.

He stressed the simplicity of the opposition’s proposed changes, which did not involve contentious tinkering with wording but rather the removal of entire sections. With the changes the opposition would support the bill, Senator Abetz said.

But Mr Shorten attacked the Coalition, saying it had previously acknowledged the importance of dealing with workplace bullying.

”They indicated they cared about providing an avenue to victims of bullying, to make sure the issues were resolved quickly and effectively,” he said.

”We now know they were crocodile tears.”

Debate on the bill is due to continue on Wednesday.

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Piercing world record attempt spiked

Brendan Sawczuk was set up to attempt a world record next weekend, but has been forced to reconsider. Photo: DAVE TEASESource: Illawarra Mercury

A Wollongong man who was poised to claim a place in Guinness World Records says he is devastated at the book’s decision to “rest” the record he was going to break.

Body piercing specialist Brendan Sawczuk spent $3500 on materials ahead of his June 16 attempt on the record, for the most people body-pierced in one hour by one person.

He planned to pierce 120 nostrils in 60 minutes at his Wollongong salon, Pierce Xpress, to beat existing record-holder Rhonda Polley, who pierced 64 people in Melbourne on September 18, 2010.

Guinness approved Mr Sawczuk’s application in January but by late May, when he wrote again to check if Ms Polley’s record still stood, he was told the record had been rested.

“This … means that no-one can attempt this record and become a new record holder and therefore is not a category that we wish to pursue further,” a representative for the franchise wrote in an email.

In a later email, a representative said the decision was made on health and safety grounds but – bizarrely – a new “most people pierced in one hour” record category had been created – the same as the former category but without the requirement for a single person to perform the piercings.

The change meant Mr Sawczuk could still likely break the record, but his new record would be easily beaten by a group of people performing piercings at once.

“They could get 500 [piercers] and … do one each,” Mr Sawczuk said.

Mr Sawczuk, who was preparing sterilised, individualised piercing kits in the lead-up to his attempt, believed the new category posed a greater health and safety risk.

“They’re saying to me they’re worried about one person going quick, yet they’re encouraging multiple people to go quick, doing multiple skin penetrations in the one premises, which is more unsterile,” he said.

“If there was some sort of logical explanation, I could accept it and move on but it’s very contradictory.”

In an email, a Guinness representative told Mr Sawczuk the franchise’s records were constantly under review.

“Whilst we do not think this to be the case, in this instance we have become concerned that the record category, when limited to one piercer, may encourage the applicant to perform the process at a greater speed, potentially at the cost of the quality of aftercare,” the email read.

“We wanted to avoid the record category reflecting the fastest time to undertake a piercing and as such we felt this record category should not be limited to one piercer and should be increased to a team of unlimited size. Having said that, the record category may still be attempted by an individual.”

More than 120 people had volunteered to be pierced as part of Mr Sawczuk’s record attempt.

He said he still planned to make the attempt but it could be delayed as his correspondence with Guinness continued.

Europe heads in the right direction

With Swedish cities roiled for weeks now by rioting unemployed immigrants, many observers see a failure of the country’s economic model. They are wrong. The Swedish/Scandinavian model that has emerged over the past 20 years has provided the only viable route to sustained growth Europe has seen in decades.

Europeans should remember that perceptions of strength and weakness change fast. In the 1980s, Scandinavian countries stood for chronic budget deficits, high inflation and repeated devaluations. In 1999, The Economist labelled Germany “the sick man of the euro” – a monument of European sclerosis, with low growth and high unemployment.

Now, the spectre of devaluation has disappeared from northern European countries. Budgets are close to balance, with less public expenditure and lower tax rates, while economic growth has recovered. The transformation of the old European welfare state started in northern Europe, and is proceeding to most of the rest of the continent.

Today, it is difficult to imagine the mindset that prevailed before Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in the US in 1981. Thatcher’s greatest achievement was the liberalisation of the British labour market, while Reagan turned the tide with his inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The moral superiority of high marginal income taxes suddenly waned. Free-market ideas took hold.

In northern Europe, the transformation of the welfare state started in Denmark in 1982. In deep financial crisis, traditionally social democratic Denmark elected a conservative prime minister, Poul Schluter, a jovial man with a bow tie. One of his first decisions was to peg the Danish krone to the Deutschmark to stop the inflation-devaluation cycle. The Danish peg – now to the euro – still holds.

Schluter’s second big decision was to deregulate the Danish economy, which now has the world’s largest number of enterprises per citizen. But he left the country’s high taxes and welfare state in place.

In the early 1990s, Norway, Sweden and Finland experienced a horrendous real-estate, banking and currency crisis. Output fell and unemployment skyrocketed. In 1991, Swedish voters broke the reign of the Social Democrats, electing a coalition government under conservative prime minister Carl Bildt, who called his program “the only way”. Bildt tried to follow Schluter’s lead, but, in 1992, Sweden was forced to devalue – though his deregulation of markets did work well.

Sweden’s greatest achievement was a gradual cut in public spending by no less than one-fifth of GDP from 1993 to 2007. Meanwhile, Sweden’s public debt was reduced from 73 per cent of GDP to 39 per cent, while taxes have been cut repeatedly. The Social Democrats returned to power in 1994, but they accepted Bildt’s new fiscal policies, and carried out a revolutionary pension reform in 1998 that tied benefits to payments.

In parallel with the Scandinavian crisis, communism collapsed in eastern Europe in 1989 and in 1991 in the Baltic states. Poland’s first post-communist finance minister, Leszek Balcerowicz, showed an amazed world how communism could be abolished and a market economy built almost instantly. The rest of central Europe and the Baltic states followed his lead.

Former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar was the most radical European reformer. In 1994, he introduced a flat personal income tax, a policy most eastern European countries have since adopted. In 1999, when Laar became prime minister again, he abolished the tax on corporate profit, which was harming entrepreneurship. As a consequence of the ensuing tax competition, corporate tax rates have fallen to 15 to 25 per cent in most European countries.

More broadly, Estonia has revolutionised public finances. Since 1992, it has maintained a more or less balanced budget, with hardly any public debt. It slashed public expenditure and capped spending at 35 per cent of GDP – the same level as in the US.

As free-market thinking has taken hold and similar reforms have proliferated, the social welfare state is being transformed into a social welfare society.

The systematic reforms in Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and Estonia have much in common. First, all were caused by a profound crisis of the social welfare state: falling output, rising unemployment, large budget deficits, inflation and devaluation. Without severe crisis, no significant reform was likely.

Second, a change of government prompted reforms and gave them democratic legitimacy. Reform does not require a state of emergency, as is often argued.

Third, reforms require a strong leader. No major reform has been undertaken through consensus.

Finally, fundamental reform of the social welfare state requires leaders who embrace free-market ideas. Rethinking requires a new ideology, and, after one country has shown shows the right direction, neighbours often follow.

Europe has now reached the point at which most of its laggards are prepared to accept the social welfare society. This humane European capitalism is now hastening towards crisis-ridden southern Europe.

Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, and author of How Capitalism Was Built.

© Project Syndicate, 2013.

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ASIC slammed over CBA failure

ASIC has been lashed over its failure to investigate the claims of whistleblowers at the centre of Commonwealth Bank’s financial planning scandal in a heated exchange during a Senate estimates hearing.

Nationals senator John Williams slammed ASIC deputy chairman Peter Kell over a 16-month delay between the time whistleblowers first approached the corporate regulator and ASIC’s belated move to seize the files of CBA financial planner Don Nguyen.

The hearing follows a Fairfax Media investigation that found the CBA had concealed improprieties by a top financial planner who once controlled about $300 million in retirement savings on behalf of at least 1300 clients.

The misconduct by Mr Nguyen, who has been banned by ASIC for seven years, allegedly includes forging client signatures, creating unauthorised investment accounts and overcharging. Some clients lost more than half their life savings, forcing them to seek assistance from Centrelink as they battled with CBA for compensation.

Senator Williams compared the case to that of insolvency practitioner Stuart Ariff, who was jailed for six years in 2011 on fraud charges. ”To me this sounds like Stuart Ariff mark two,” Senator Williams said. Whistleblowers contacted ASIC by fax about Mr Nguyen’s activities on October 30, 2008, but ASIC did not investigate the allegations until the whistleblowers visited ASIC’s offices in early 2010.

Fairfax Media found bank staff took part in a cover-up that allegedly included the falsification of documents after Mr Nguyen left the bank in an apparent bid to stall or limit compensation amounts.

”I believe in that fax it said there was some urgency in ASIC securing the files as they are being cleaned up. Why did it take ASIC 16 months to follow up on that fax, and numerous emails from the whistleblowers, to act in relation to the Commonwealth Financial Planning files?” Senator Williams asked.

Mr Kell declined to comment on the timing of ASIC’s investigation but defended its handling of what he said was a ”large and complex matter”.

”It has been a landmark achievement that has completely changed the way the bank does business.”

He said leadership of the bank’s financial planning division ”was changed wholesale” and $23 million had been recovered for 202 investors.

He refused to say whether ASIC would refer to police the allegations that signatures had been forged on some documents.

Senator Williams responded: ”There are $1.3 trillion in superannuation funds in our nation, and this nation is going to rely on good, sound, clean advice for financial planning. You are the corporate watchdog, and I expect you, if you see wrongdoings and criminal acts, you report them.”

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