Miscellany: The biggest regional rort

The biggest regional rort

The rain during February, and the controversy over the regional funding rorts, ought to be an opportunity to think about ongoing government regional rort – drought-relief.

In November last year the Federal Government granted farmers a third successive year of drought relief in lots of areas around Australia. The cost – more than $100 million. According to the AFR (17 November 2004) farmers had already pocketed some $550 million in drought relief during the current drought from the Federal Government alone. The States also rush to help as well.

Yet when anyone raises questions about drought relief policy they get howled down as anti-Australian, anti-farmer and biased against the hard-working country folk who are the backbone of our country.

The reality is that, while many of the folk are hard-working, drought relief is probably one of the most irrational policies – on social, environmental and economic grounds – around.

Miscellany is a great believer in the power of thought experiments. Whenever he hears of drought relief he does a thought experiment on the 1987 recession when he was running an SME. It was a tough time – but did anyone rush in and offer me a subsidy to tide me over? Similarly do we offer ice-cream makers a subsidy if there is a very cold winter or soft drink makers a subsidy if there is a very cold summer?  Of course not.

But if it gets a bit dry then everybody falls over themselves to offer farmers as many subsidies as possible.

What makes it particularly galling is that it is also extremely bad policy.

First, think for a moment on Australia’s climate. Drought is not exactly unusual. Duh – do you really get surprised if you live on the land and the rain stops coming? Duh – while you not be able to predict precise timings do you really think it won’t happen to you and if it does it’s a freakish event? Duh – is risk management only for city businesses?

Second, think for a moment about our environment. Now the tree-huggers love targeting the forestry countries but many farmers are the real environmental vandals of the bush with land-clearing and unsustainable farming practices. A few years ago Miscellany drove through giant dust storms in Victoria’s Mallee where farmers just kept ploughing the land in readiness for wheat which never got enough rain to return a reasonable crop. Drought-proofing properties – generally at least – usually involves improved environmental practices.

Third, when there’s no drought relief about there are subsidies to the milk industry to compensate for de-regulation; to the sugar industry for any old reason at all; and, to all farmers for various business advice services.

During the last election campaign the issue generated hardly a word except for some talk about how to re-name it into some sort of structural adjustment program. It’s rather like “interrogations” becoming “interviews” – change the words and then just move on.

Media coverage of the issues – as opposed to the droughts – is also meagre. All the Victorian media covered stories about how drought was still a big problem for many farmers within days of moving on from their storm clean-up stories.

Fortunately, there are some exceptions. One of the most notable was The AFR’s Alan Mitchell (9-10 October 2004) in a piece headlined “survival of the incompetent”.

A great piece which demonstrates what an economically and environmentally irrational policy the Government has on drought. The argument – the incompetent, the unprepared and the under-capitalised got rewarded for failure with your taxes.

So the $80 million odd doled out to various bankrupt railways and clogged creeks is actually rather small beer. Just don’t expect quite as much media and political attention on the bigger rort.

A great market for PR

The Howard Government is not bad on the advertising spend front although it has never been that keen on spending too much money with more than a few PR agencies from the list of usual suspects.

But they have nothing on the Bush administration. When they came to power in 2000 PR spending was $39 million and (according to the FT 9 February 2005) it was $88.2 million. Health, education and housing spending are going down in the latest Budget but PR spending is going up.

Some of it – of course – has been going for cash for comment deals with various conservative commentators such as Armstrong Williams although the sums are derisory compared to those paid to Laws and Jones.

Animal farm – déjà vu all over again

Towards the end of Animal Farm – as everyone remembers – the pigs and the humans start to resemble each other.

While this is generally regarded as a commentary on the Stalinists its most apposite reading today is how the conservatives have started to resemble the Stalinists. After all, some of the vicious vituperation from right-wing commentators resembles nothing more than  the sort of hate-filled rhetoric which used to be regarded as the characteristic of totalitarian diatribes.

Now the resemblance has been made even clearer by the Right itself. In the current debate about Social Security privatisation in the US the liberals have been making much of a 1983 Cato Journal article about a Heritage Foundation conference on “re-building” Social Security.

One presentation (Butler and Gemanis Cato Journal Vol 3 no 2 Fall 1983) is remarkably prescient in describing exactly how the Social Security debate is being played out by the proponents of change. In describing their strategy the authors say: “…..we would do well to draw a few lessons from the Leninist strategy”.

…and the language in the article could have come straight out of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

Tony Parkinson

Tony Parkinson is the international editor of The Age. He is a very useful columnist to read from time to time. You hear the straight Bush line without the disbenefit of having to look at the President’s idiot grin while listening.

Just last week he had another go at the UN oil-for-food scandal and pointed out how corrupt and awful the UN was; ending up on a refrain, to which  returns regularly, about how this scandal explains the line so many nations took before the Iraq invasion.

Now some actions by some UN staff and consultants were corrupt. But what is at least equally interesting is that the single biggest source of revenue going to Saddam came from oil smuggling to Jordan and Turkey which was known about, and condoned by, the US Governments of both Clinton and Bush. When Miscellany was in Jordan in 2001 he once innocently asked someone about various convoys of oil tankers only to get a wry smile in response – so it was probably also an open secret throughout the Middle East then as well as being a widely-reported issue today.

Yet whenever Parkinson writes about the UN oil-for-food program this fact never seems to get a guernsey. It’s not as if the accusations are just the wild leftist ragings of Pilgers, Fisks and Monbiots. Most of the journalistic hard yakka on the subject has been done by the FT and some of the best reporting on it has been in The Economist.

Yet Parkinson seems, as far as Miscellany’s checks go, not to have talked about it in his attacks on the UN on the issue. There are many possible explanations for this. He may not think breaches of UN sanctions condoned by the US and the UK are newsworthy. He may not be aware of them. He may be aware of them but has decided not to focus attention on them for some reason or other.

Whichever or whatever, it seems an extremely curious – indeed unusual – position for an expert on foreign affairs.

It’s the charges stupid

The media and the Government are working themselves into a lather over Mr Habib. Kim is demonstrating that a few promises don’t make a spot-changing overhaul.

But to Miscellany it all seems fairly simple. Habib was imprisoned and interrogated. He was then released without being charged by an administration which hasn’t been particularly precious about civil rights and wrongful imprisonment.

Now he is suffering character assassination through leaks and attacks under parliamentary privilege. The most poignant, in the light of the 100,000 plus dead in Iraq, is the accusation that he mixed with people who “killed innocent civilians.” That’s a charge which might be embarrassing for quite a few others as well as Mr Habib.

Miscellany has no idea whatsever of what Mr Habib is like, what he has done or what he might have been thought to have done. But he has the rather old-fashioned view is that if he isn’t going to be charged then he ought to have – along with the rest of us – some refuge in all those very conservative, British legal traditions our leaders espouse but seem reluctant to put into practice.

They make them tough in Israel

There have been some extraordinarily tough and dashing Israelis. Miscellany’s favorite has always been Moshe Dayan.

But just how tough, brave and dashing must that expelled Israeli diplomat have been – he was going to spend Christmas with Phillip Ruddock!