Rudd's amateurs keep digging holes

From any rational standpoint, the government should have well and truly won the argument about its great big new tax on mining.

Just about every respectable economist in the country has endorsed it, and the only real opposition has come from the financially self-interested miners themselves and from the politically-driven coalition parties. Others have suggested that the government’s proposals could be tweaked here and there, but no-one has taken seriously the predictions of ruin the multi-billionaires are promulgating in their advertisements.

Not only do the miners have form – they have cried wolf when their super profits have been threatened in the past – but the claims they have made are badly misleading, if not downright lies. As Treasury Secretary Ken Henry pointed out last week, they did not save Australia from recession; in fact, unlike the economy as a whole, they fell into it themselves. They sacked more than 15% of their workers; if all other employers had been as ruthless, unemployment would have jumped from under 5% to over 19%.

The tax is not retrospective; past profits are not affected, only future ones. Tax rates change all the time, and established businesses and individuals cannot claim that they are retrospective simply because the rate was something else when they were established or born. The alcopops tax was not considered retrospective, although alcopops were already being manufactured and marketed when it was introduced. And the new tax would not see the miners paying 57% tax – unless their profit levels reached an extraordinary 50%. If they made a healthy 10%, they would in fact be paying less than they are now.

The hard fact is that because commodity prices have risen fantastically in the past few years, the miners are now paying only about half what they used to, and this is not fair. End of story. So why is the government so defensive?

Well, because, as the ETS campaign – or lack of one – showed, its ministers couldn’t sell a cold beer in the Simpson Desert. They have now resorted to a professional campaign, a move which is politically desperate and morally dubious and which, with the government already on the nose, could well provoke a public backlash.

And it has a lot of ground to make up. Last week alone we were told authoritatively that the miners’ effective tax rate was 13%, 14%, 17%, 19%, 27.8%, 41.3%, and 43% – and those are just the ones I remember. It all depended on whether you included state royalties, subtracted concessions, and were talking about taxable income or tax actually paid.

By allowing this kind of confusion to develop the government gives credence to the idea that it doesn’t really know what it is talking about; that it has not, in the miners’ words, thought it through. There are times, and this is one of them, when Rudd and his troops look like a bunch of amateurs.

The only thing that saves them is that their opponents look even sillier.

The politically superfluous Julie Bishop has done it again: Tony Abbott’s loyal deputy has committed a breach of security so absurd that even The Australian’s Greg Sheridan has felt moved to attack her for embarrassing his first love, the spooks.

Admittedly it was more a matter of ignorance than design: Bishop did not understand the difference between stealing a real identity and forging a fictitious one. The latter is indeed common practice throughout spookdom, but the former is considered unacceptable between allies, and Stephen Smith really had no option but to react strongly against Israel’s blatant abuse.

Bishop responded to her very public gaffe by first denying that she had said it, then claiming to have misunderstood the very straightforward question, and finally casting doubt on the evidence against Mossad, which Australia’s top police and intelligence agencies had found to be conclusive.

Her performance transcended mere incompetence; it crossed the line into farce on the Barnaby Joyce level. It was not surprising that more than one government member accidentally referred to her as “Bronwyn Bishop”. Abbott’s front bench boasts not one, but two mad blondes. Let the jokes begin.

Malcolm Fraser formally resigned from the Liberal Party in December, but in fact the parting took place more than a decade ago.

Fraser had put up with constant carping about his government from the left; this was only to be expected. But over the years his own party had joined in, calling his time in office the wasted years: he twice won landslide victories which included senate majorities, but failed to implement the radical neo-liberal program the right expected.

The end came when his former lieutenant John Howard was elected as prime minister, and not only continued the criticism but raised it to new heights. Fraser saw this as a deliberate act of treachery and replied in kind, thus endearing himself to his former sworn foes.

The left was already coming around to him because of his charity work, environmentalism and anti-racist agenda, but it was the attacks on Howard that did the trick. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But it is worth recalling just why Fraser was so hated in the first place.

He came to power in the most ruthless manner possible, having undermined one leader (Harold Holt) and destroyed two others (John Gorton and Billy Snedden) and then dragged the country to the brink of anarchy or even civil war with a series of outrageous and unprecedented breaches of convention.

In government he was nice to whales, Aboriginals and (right wing) Vietnamese asylum seekers, but declared war on the unions and on public education and health; he effectively destroyed Whitlam’s Medibank, which Hawke had to reinvent as Medicare. His best known attempt at economic reform was the sale of the children’s merry-go-round in Canberra.

Even his supposed allies weren’t immune: he dudded the mainly conservative premiers and gloated about it, and betrayed Margaret Thatcher over Zimbabwe. And his private life wasn’t too flash either: his overseas adventures with women led to a parliamentary question on notice (never answered) and culminated in him losing his trousers in Memphis. His idea of a joke was to load his fellow drinkers’ coat pockets with pickled onions.

And of course throughout his parliamentary career he was seen as a hard line right winger, a radical conservative. So: if the squire of Nareen, the crazy grazier, finds the extremism of Tony Abbott too horrible too tolerate, where does that leave the rest of us?


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