Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Confected outrage? Or genuine debate? Increases to the GST and tax reform

I am delighted to hear some of the debate occurring on Radio National and the news at the moment. Not at the tone of the debate, but at the content.

The Coalition has indicated it is considering tax reform. It has clearly said that it isn't ruling anything in or ruling anything out at this stage. The idea of an increase to the GST is definitely on the table.

Labor, by virtue of the fact that it is in opposition, is crying wolf, and confecting a huge issue about the fact that the GST is a 'regressive tax', whatever that means. It is pointing to the fact that an increase to the GST will have a disproportionate impact on the poor, which is not contentious.

The Coalition, in respose, is arguing that before it publishes its policy, it will put together a cohesive package which includes compensation to low-income-earners. It is talking about lowering the personal tax rate, but also real compensation for those who are below the tax free threshold anyway.

This debate, to me, has actually been fairly productive. Although we don't have any definite time-frame for a proper policy, (other than 'before the next election'), we suddenly seem to have a leader who is willing to take the time to consult widely, and formulate policy by consensus, rather than by fiat or on an ad-hoc basis. I think this can only be better for Australia, regardless of what policies they implement.

The bigger issue here is that the debate has suddenly matured. Not enormously, but noticeably. The biggest improvement is that the ALP and the LNP are both taking positions based on their fundamental theoretical origins, and not on what is the most popular.

The Coalition, as with most economically conservative governments, has an approach centred on lower taxes, and smaller government. (I am separating, for the moment, social policy with economic policy.) Therefore, their debate has been framed around the following concepts:

  • Reducing government spending instead of increasing tax revenue;
  • Improving the 'tax mix' to be as economically responsible as possible;
  • Spending being limited to the most important and fiscally responsible initiatives; and
  • Streamlining government operations. 
Therefore the Coalition is refusing to agree to any proposition which alleges that we need to raise more money in tax. Their default response is 'we don't need to tax more, we need to spend less.'

Then, when pressed on their discussions about tax reform, they argue that they are not increasing the total tax intake, but instead playing with the 'tax mix' to ensure that taxes are as fair and as effective as possible. 

The ALP, on the other hand, has an economic policy based on bigger government, better regulations, and a stronger safety net. By default, this means that they offer more and better services (IE education, health, public transport) but necessarily intend to tax higher. Thus they align more closely with some of the Scandinavian countries, even if they would never dare to tax that much. 

Shorten and Plibersek have been quick to point out that we are in a deficit, and that we need to be raising more money, but have been equally quick to jump on any hint of an increase to the GST. 

It is very frustrating to listen to these arguments over and over, because we can't have any sensible debate until one party decides to publish their policies. 

But what is somewhat encouraging is that the ALP and the LNP are finally displaying something of a division in their approaches, based on their history and policies. We are finally having a debate which acknowledges the differences on principles, and the difference in styles of government. 

And there is a glimmer, just a glimmer, of a debate where the economic arguments are being separated from the social arguments, so we can finally get something done!

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Confected Outrage: The Dyson Heydon scandal

Here is the quick and dirty version of what's happened so far:

  • Abbott creates the Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption, and appoints a famous Liberal jurist, former High Court Judge Dyson Heydon as the Commissioner. 
  • Before the Commission starts Heydon receives and accepts an invitation to talk at a Liberal Party fundraiser. 
  • The Commission proceeds, and extends longer than expected. 
  • The Unions become aware of the fundraiser, and cause a shit-storm. 
  • Heydon is asked to recuse himself. 
  • Heydon refuses. 
What happens now is up to speculation, but it is probably safe to assume that the Unions will appeal his refusal to recuse himself to the Courts, leading to the unique position where a former member of the highest Court in the land is being judged by his former inferiors. 

But here's the thing - I don't care if Heydon was going to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser (just so long as he didn't get there by chopper on the public dime!)

Let's put this in perspective. Heydon has never hidden the fact that he is a conservative. Indeed, he wouldn't have been selected by Abbott to head the Royal Commission if he was anything but! This isn't new, it isn't surprising, and it isn't uncommon. 

So, it isn't surprising that he was asked to speak at a Liberal fundraiser, nor that he accepted. Indeed, if the fundraiser had been 3 weeks after the end of the Commission, nobody would have batted an eyelid! But because the fundraiser was DURING the Commission, suddenly everyone is accusing him of bias! This is totally inconsistent; we knew he was biased, (or at least the facts which support the accusation of bias aren't new), and the Unions didn't do anything about it!

Let me be clear: I think having an arch-conservative lead a commission into the Trade Unions, traditionally the basis of Labor's power, is ridiculous, but how many Royal Commissions have been politically motivated? With some notable exceptions, I would argue that most of them have been! 

This Royal Commission has clearly been a political witch-hunt. It has called Gillard, Shorten, and a whole host of other Labor personnel into the spotlight in a transparent effort to discredit them. So we should be condemning this whole Commission, right?

Well, not really, because there is no doubt that the Unions have been corrupt in so many ways. Slush funds are the least of it! So there is no doubt that a proper investigation is warranted. 

I argue that the Royal Commission is the wrong way to investigate offences, and that the police should have been given a mandate to investigate all instances of alleged corruption, but that's a story for another day. We have the Commission, and it is investigating corruption, and that is a good thing. 

So I accept that the Commission exists. I accept that it is headed by Heydon, who I accept is an arch-conservative. I accept that there is no other way the Commission would ever have been created by a Coalition government! I also accept the fact that he speaks at Liberal party fundraisers. I don't actually care! 

I also respect Heydon as a former High Court Judge, and he has shown over many years that he has a truly exceptional legal mind. 

He has been a little stupid in some ways, and criticising counsel for not reading something carefully has come back to bite him, but in this case, his biggest failure was being naive in not cancelling the fundraiser, because of what it would look like. 

Let me put it another way. The allegation of apprehended bias is based on the fact that he accepted an invitation to speak at a fundraiser, but the strength of that allegation is nothing compared to the facts already on the record about his political leanings. Why are we surprised? What exactly has changed? 

Monday, 24 August 2015

AdLaw Group - $22k Law Jobs - Why this is a problem.

I read this article on The Australian, which set out a little bit about the AdLaw group's $22k law jobs. The comments on the article, however, demonstrated just how little people understand about what it takes to become a lawyer. I thought I would try to clear that up.

I acknowledge the irony - this explanation will appear on a blog written by a lawyer, and probably read mostly by... well, me, but a few people around me who DO know what it takes to become a lawyer.

How does one become a lawyer?
This sounds like a simple question, but there is a bit more to it than is obvious.

Firstly, and obviously, one must earn a law degree. This involves completing the requisite courses to the requisite standard... duh.

Secondly, (in South Australia at least) you have to complete a post-graduate program, called a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. This involves the practical side of working as a lawyer, and includes at least 6 weeks' placement with a law firm (or legal body, such as the Crown or DPP). Frankly, this practical experience is the most valuable part of the Graduate Diploma, and is why people who work in legal firms as secretaries and clerks are often the most sought-after graduates - they have simply been around the business, and know what they are doing.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Joe Hockey's 'living away from home' entitlements - why aren't we more upset by this?

The Bishop scandal has nearly blown over, but I want to draw attention back to the ongoing abuse of 'entitlements'. I suspect most politicians will tread carefully for a while, but without some form of accountability, I doubt there will be a long-term change in attitude.

But why aren't we more upset by Hockey's taxpayer funded accommodation in Canberra? Whatever the numbers, the facts seem to be as follows:

  • Hockey owned a house in Canberra, which at some stage, he transferred to his wife (or to a company run by his wife). 
  • He claims 'living away from home' expenses, which he uses to pay his wife (or his wife's company) rent. 
  • The effect is that he is renting from his wife, and the taxpayer is paying the rent. 
I have said before that politicians should be given privileges associated with their office. They SHOULD be able to travel around their electorate to meet people, attend official functions, They should also be able to live comfortably when they are away from home, and a 'living away from home' allowance is most appropriate. 

But this just stinks. I am certain that it is within the rules, but can anyone say that it feels right? To me, it feels morally insidious, and I can't believe that we aren't screaming about this from the roof-tops!

I am not certain that 'rules' can fix it. I do think that integrity could. The 'living away from home' allowance, or indeed ANY allowance or privilege shouldn't ever be used to profit the person, or their associates. They or their family (or their political party, Bronnie...) shouldn't be better off because of the privileges. 

I don't see things changing, and that is depressing. 

Music Video of the Day - 'School Song' from 'Matilda: The Musical', Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin

We went to Sydney on the weekend to see Matilda: The Musical. Anything by Tim Minchin is usually funny, but this was spectacular. 

The following song introduced us to the school, 'this living hell.'

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Friday, 31 July 2015

Young Lawyers' Golgen Gavel Competition 2015

I had the great pleasure to once again represent... myself at the Young Lawyers Golden Gavel competition last night. Although I didn't win (again), I had a heap of fun, and got a free bottle of wine! Yay!

The YLGGC is a 5 minute stand-up routine, where we are given our topics 48 hours prior. Usually the topics are funny, except the ones they give me.

This year's topic was "Yes father: 5 reasons why nepotism in the legal profession is underrated." Urgh. Naturally enough, I spent most of my time off-topic, but at least I got a few laughs.

Other topics were "The Bronwyn Bishop guide to creatively billing your clients", "I withdraw that, Your Honour: 5 things you should never say during sentencing", "Things that should never slip out of your mouth in court" and "How your friends know you are a lawyer".