States could use their own Xenophon

28 September 2016

The disillusionment of countless Australian voters with their political scene was probably one of the clearest things to come out of the Federal election in July.  But all too often, they had nowhere else to go when it came to shunning the established political parties.

It’s true that the Senate, with its system of proportional representation, gives minor parties more of a chance of winning seats, because it depends on the size of their vote in any given state.  The House of Representatives, on the other hand, requires a strong base of voter support within a certain region for any minor player wanting to run.  Here you’ve got to be well known across lots of rural townships, or many local suburbs, within a concentrated area to have a chance of winning.  You need only look at the crossbenchers who sit in the House of Reps now – for example, Andrew Wilkie represents a large group of suburbs within the Tasmanian capital Hobart, while Cathy McGowan represents a large number of rural townships across Victoria’s north-east.  This need for concentrated support is why minor parties don’t win seats in the House of Reps as often as they win them in the Senate.

But even though minor parties are more likely to win Senate seats, they still need a large share of the vote across whatever state they’re running in.  Over time, minor parties such as the Democrats and the Greens have won Senate seats with solid support bases, but often they’ve needed preferences from others to actually get elected.  Not many minor parties or Independents have been elected without preferences.

At the July election, many crossbenchers won seats in the Senate.  In fact, there are more of them than before the election.  But the overall support for those lucky enough to be elected wasn’t that large.

People point to the success of Pauline Hanson, the controversial political figure now back in Federal Parliament after nearly two decades away from it.  She’s won a Senate seat in Queensland, and having formed her own political party, she’s got three colleagues there with her from various states.

But their support wasn’t overly strong.  They won two seats in Queensland with around 9.1 per cent of the vote there.  They also won less than half of that size of the vote in both New South Wales and Western Australia, and picked up a seat in both state.  Despite their success, their vote outside Queensland wasn’t much better than that of some rivals.

Winning less votes than them in NSW was another crossbencher elected, David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democrats.  Because their vote was quite low, I wouldn’t consider them the sort of people to whom voters would turn if they were unhappy with the established parties.

Nick Xenophon of South Australia was very different.  He and his party won more than a fifth of the vote there, which was a big result.  It’s clear that he’s the politician for whom South Australian will vote, regardless of whether they lean left or right, when they can’t stand the established parties.

There will be other crossbenchers in the Senate from different states, but their support isn’t as strong as that for Xenophon in South Australia.  I believe that the other states could use their own version of Xenophon, capable of winning over disillusioned voters from the left and the right alike, and maybe some of the people elected to the Senate of late mightn’t be there.

I hope that NSW, for a starter, will one day have its own Xenophon.  Hopefully it will.

 

Votes spread out for this Independent

30 August 2016

With the results settled from the 2016 Federal election, only recently have they been published in great detail.  Now people can look closely at the detailed results and analyse them.  Of course, in some cases the amount of detailed data is enormous, but you can find ways to filter the data and find what you’re looking for with greater ease.

And I’ve now taken time to analyse my vote in the contest for twelve Senate seats in New South Wales.  Unfortunately I was among the many candidates to have been defeated, but I’m happy to have won a decent helping of votes across the state.

Because of how many Senate candidates there were in New South Wales, it took a massive 1065 counts for candidates to be elected.  And I made it to about the 400th count before being eliminated from the contest, so I almost made it to the halfway mark.  Considering that I was up against lots of political parties and groups with more votes, this could be regarded as impressive.

An analysis of the NSW Senate vote, on a booth-by-booth basis, shows votes spread out across the state for this Independent.

Trying to get to every corner of the state was never a realistic possibility.  But enough word got out to reach many places far and wide.

While there’s no point in stating the number of votes that I won, what follows is an indication of where most of my votes came from.

My biggest total vote was in the electorate of Berowra, in Sydney’s north.  Close behind was Bennelong, also in Sydney’s north.  And after that came Calare, in central NSW.  I note that these three electorates also returned my largest numbers of ordinary votes, meaning votes cast on election day or in early voting centres.

I also got better-than-average votes in the rural electorates of Farrer, New England, Cowper, and Eden-Monaro.  The same goes for Dobell on the Central Coast, Mackellar on Sydney’s northern beaches, and Mitchell in Sydney’s north-west.

But the big surprise was the individual booth where I got the biggest number of votes – it was an early voting centre in Tamworth, in the state’s north.

I also got good votes at early voting centres in Mount Druitt in western Sydney, Queanbeyan in the state’s south, and Muswellbrook in the Hunter region.  In terms of localities I got good votes in the Epping area in Sydney’s north, the Condell Park area in Sydney’s south-west, the Gulgong area in the bush, and the Ourimbah area on the Central Coast.  I got smaller votes in various other places.

The results of the election can be analysed if people want to find them.  These results have impressed me and inspired me to go again in future.

 

Independent thanks voters

30 July 2016

The Federal election of 2016 draws to a close, after weeks of counting.  It’s now apparent that the Turnbull Coalition Government has won with a bare majority, if it has a majority at all, in the House of Representatives.  What it had before the election was a need to deal with crossbenchers in the Senate, and after the election it’ll still have to deal with them.

But it’s clear that I’m among the many Senate candidates to have been defeated in the race for Senate seats.

Despite this disappointment, I willingly thank you as the voters in New South Wales who showed support for me.  I was always up against it, standing by myself, without the advantage of support or resources from a political party, let alone the ability to reach every corner of the state, but I had nothing to lose by standing, and I’m proud of the fact that I picked up votes in many parts of the state.

In the coming month, once the election results are all in, I’ll be able to analyse where I picked up votes, and I expect to be touched when I see confirmed where the votes came from.

I stand by everything that I stated positions on, both during the course of the campaign and before it.  I still care about improving public transport in urban Australia, building up rural infrastructure, protecting our best farmland, simplifying our tax system, and various other things.  I can only pray that the newly-elected politicians bound for our national capital, and those returning to it, will act on those things.  Meanwhile, someday, I’ll run again for sure.

One of the nicest things from this election is that there’ll be people of integrity on the floor of Federal Parliament, despite what many voters think.  And it’s nice to see that one Senate candidate, from another state, has managed to get elected arguably on the basis of votes below the black line on the ballot paper alone.

Fair and appropriate should it be that this Independent thanks the voters of NSW whose votes came this way on 2 July.  This one will be back, praying that you will all take care and stay safe.

 

Transport and art not expendable over debt

29 June 2016

I respect the fact that the Federal Government has a major budget deficit to deal with, and that spending needs to be reduced in many areas.  But we’ll argue forever over what sort of public spending is necessary and what is unnecessary.

However, I nominate a few things which, in my opinion, shouldn’t have to live with reduced public funding – transport and art.

I’ve long been a strong believer in expanding transport links, especially public transport links in major cities.  Public transport isn’t as attractive to private investors as tolled motorways.  You can see where your money comes from on a tolled motorway, namely via what used to be a toll booth and is now a mounted electronic device, under which drivers hear electronic tags beep on their vehicles as they pass through, taking money from registered accounts whenever they use the tollway.  On the other hand, where you get your money from investing in public transport isn’t so clear, at least directly.

The benefits of public transport aren’t measured simply by how much money goes into some investor’s pocket when people use it.  Instead, the benefits come in the form of fewer cars on roads, less traffic gridlock, less environmental pollution, faster travel times, and less time away from work or home or both.

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I saw a major newspaper run a story with an actual price tag on the economic cost of inadequate public transport.  This story said that traffic gridlock in Sydney alone cost the economy about $1.5 billion per month, or $18 billion per annum, in lost productivity.  When you consider that governments have long been scared of spending a few billion dollars on building new public transport links, because of the prospect of budget deficits and the appearance of being clumsy economic managers, I’d argue that keeping people stuck in their cars for the sake of maintaining a budget surplus is counterproductive.  A budget surplus built on refraining from spending on public transport, thus keeping people stuck in gridlock when they could be working, is a mirage and a fraud.

I could go on about the kind of public transport that Sydney really needs in order to reduce its car dependence and subsequent traffic gridlock.  But just a handful of projects, albeit not of the sort that the NSW Premier is building, would do more to reduce the gridlock than any motorway or road tunnel.  Economic productivity is only boosted when you get people and goods and services from one place to another in a quicker time, and the short-term cost of such spending on public transport is more than worthwhile.

On the other hand, it’s arguable what benefits lie in public spending on arts.  But I’m in favour of such spending, as long as it’s productive, and I oppose recent reductions in spending on arts and on bodies funding them.

It’s true that art can be something of a lottery.  Artists can create incredible works, and they need ideal environments in which to show them off.  Naturally, not all art ends up appealing to wider audiences as artists might expect, but how often have we heard stories of artistic works actually winning people over despite being written off as boring in the eyes of experts?

Over time, many art festivals have become popular enough to attract commercial sponsorship, but a lack of popularity doesn’t necessarily mean that some festival should stripped of funding altogether.  Sometimes, especially when people are doing it tough financially and don’t have as much to spend on tickets to cinemas or theatres, they might be tempted to visit a local art exhibition if, as a result of a public grant, entry is free, or maybe costing only a dollar or two dollars – the equivalent of a gold-coin donation.  Not all art exhibitions or programs will pull in masses of people, but sometimes they succeed in ways that few expect.

Of course, countless organisations function with their members’ money, rather than public money.  I’ve been involved for years with community theatre groups, whose people perform on stage for the love of it, and I’ve been playing with a concert band full of people who love playing musical instruments – they don’t necessarily seek public grants to survive, although they just need decent facilities, be they community halls or the like, to store their equipment and practice for performances.  I know of such organisations being relocated because of the cost of facilities or because someone else is prepared to pay big money to take their premises.

But I see nothing wrong with public funding for touring theatre groups or community bands or simple organisations inviting people to paint or build things.  It’d be great if they could rely on commercial sponsors to survive and thrive, but an inability to attract such private sponsorship shouldn’t disqualify them from support.

These facts make me consider transport and art not expendable over paying off debt.  It’s not worth cutting spending on everything, for any reason.

 

Sydney’s airport solution doesn’t fly

28 June 2016

Since the Coalition won office at a state election in New South Wales in 2011, numerous construction projects have begun in Sydney.  The mass of building makes the Coalition pride itself as appearing to get things moving, after years of incompetence and inertia while the Labor Party was in office before.

But nobody seems to have asked whether the Coalition is building what Sydney actually needs.  And I believe that much of the stuff being built is wrong.

Sydney doesn’t need new inner city motorways or road tunnels, and it doesn’t need a railway line with tunnels just over a foot too small for the city’s existing trains to use.  Nor does Sydney need the monstrous eyesores which are the new convention and exhibition facilities at Darling Harbour.  But the Coalition has been building them, purely for the sake of appearing to be doing something, and hardly any questions have been asked on whether Sydney actually needs them.

Another thing on course to be built, despite years of questioning about the need for it, is a new airport at Badgerys Creek on Sydney’s outer western fringe.  This proposed airport has been on drawing boards for decades.  The thought has been that Sydney’s existing airport, beside Botany Bay at Mascot, should close because of how near it is to residential areas, and that a new airport should be built elsewhere in the Sydney basin.  For longer than I can remember, politicians have sent mixed messages about whether Sydney would get another airport, whether at Badgerys Creek or some other part of the city’s outer fringes, where populations are smaller and spread out over wider areas.

Certainly during the time of John Howard, who was Prime Minister for nearly twelve years and remains highly regarded in Coalition circles long after his departure from politics, plans for an airport at Badgerys Creek were off agendas.  But after Howard left the political scene, the plans were revived.  The Labor Party has seemingly been in two minds over building an airport there, but it’d arguably like to close the airport at Mascot because it holds many seats near the airport and residents have long complained about noise from planes there, even though it’s been there longer than anyone living near it.

In my opinion, arguments surrounding this issue have yet to be resolved.  One of these is that Sydney Airport doesn’t operate to its capacity.  Whether due to noise curfews at night or other factors, many people have argued that the airport is able to handle more planes coming and going than it currently does, although I don’t support a lifting of nighttime curfews as such.  Ideally, we shouldn’t be looking at a second airport unless we know, beyond question, that the current airport is operating at its capacity, and I don’t believe that the capacity question has been answered.

Yet it seems that the proposed airport at Badgerys Creek is going ahead, purely because of politicians wanting to appear to be doing things.  The NSW Premier, Mike Baird, has been particularly active getting various construction projects started, regardless of whether Sydney really needs them or not, and with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull being of the same political colour as the popular Baird, he seems to have hitched himself to Baird’s bandwagon, possibly because of being unable or unwilling to suggest alternative ideas.

Apart from the question of whether or not Sydney Airport is operating at its capacity, I note that suggestions have been floated to build or upgrade airports well outside Sydney, with high-speed rail links, so as to take pressure off Sydney Airport.  While there’s long been opposition to the Badgerys Creek idea, other localities outside Sydney have been suggested.  Both Goulburn and Canberra have among the suggested locations, and both lie more than two hours away from Sydney by road.  And a few years ago I saw a proposal to build an airport north of Sydney at Wyong, on the Central Coast, also with a high-speed rail link.  I’d ask if people in those areas really are willing to have airports capable of supporting Sydney Airport, before we think of forcing a new airport on Badgerys Creek, where much opposition exists to it both there and in nearby areas like the Blue Mountains.

You might argue that building an airport at Badgerys Creek would create jobs in Sydney’s outer west.  But are these jobs really the right ones when questions linger over whether the airport is really necessary?  I feel the same way about the argument about jobs when it comes to the issue of mining and coal-seam gas on quality farmland – it might generate local jobs in the short term, but there’s too great a long-term cost in having some sort of accident at a mine or gas site potentially damage the land, and leave it forever unsuitable for growing food.

When looking at Badgerys Creek and various other questionable things being built, I feel that Baird looks too much like the character Jim Hacker from the television comedy YES, MINISTER.  At one point, Hacker has his traits described as “lots of activity but no actual achievement” – this could well describe Baird, who looks popular but is misguided.

And with Turnbull seemingly right behind Baird and his questionable agenda, the two of them together make me think of a line in the popular film STAR WARS, where a question comes up on who’s more foolish – “the fool or the fool who follows him”.

For the time being, the notion of Badgerys Creek as Sydney’s airport solution simply doesn’t fly – if you’ll pardon the pun.  It doesn’t make sense, unless the airport at Mascot is proven to be operating at its capacity.  Mascot must be utilised fully before we waste resources on a new airport with benefits still questionable.

 

Negative gearing needs some limits

25 June 2016

Tax reform debates in this country have been varied over time.  But it wasn’t really until this year that anybody touched off a serious debate on a tax arrangement known as negative gearing.  And it generated quite a bit of debate.

Basically, negative gearing is a practice by which you can buy an investment property and claim any loss from it as a tax deduction, assuming that the rent paid by people living on the property is less than the cost of having it.

This practice of negative gearing has existed for many decades.  It was abolished for a few years during the 1980s, but restored after a massive campaign from the real estate industry, which argued that the absence of negative gearing had caused a shortage of rental properties and a rise in rent prices, especially in Sydney.  Mind you, it was pointed out that there didn’t seem to be similar problems in other big cities, so might the whole argument about negative gearing have been more a “Sydney thing” than anything else?

To understand negative gearing, you have to understand what happens when you buy a property, whether to live in as your home or to rent out to someone else.  You’d think that surely people buy a property because it’s where they want to live.  But for whatever reason, many people buy properties purely for investment purposes, and let others live in them and pay rent for living there.

Regardless of whether you buy a property to live in or rent out, unless you’re very wealthy, you’d have to get a loan from a bank or some other lending institution to do so.  And when you get that kind of loan, whilst gradually paying it back over time, you also pay interest on the loan, which is added to what you pay back.

But unlike when you live on the property that you buy, apart from paying interest, you normally have to pay other expenses associated with a property that you invest in and rent out to someone else.  These can include things like maintenance of the property, and body corporate fees if the property is an apartment or a flat.

When you rent out a property, ideally you’d want the rent to cover the interest that you pay on it, plus any other costs associated with owning the property – these can be referred to as running costs.  But what happens when nobody will live in it unless you charge rent which is less than the running costs, meaning that you’d lose money on the property?  It’s true that property prices, especially in big cities, are generally thought to be always rising, which could offset any loss from running costs, but for now I won’t go into that, to avoid complicating the argument, because not all properties in all places rise in value over time.

Nonetheless, the possibility of a loss on an investment property is where negative gearing comes in.  If the rent paid to you is less than the running costs on your property, you can claim the difference as a loss in your income, and if your income is lowered, you pay less in the form of income tax.  Therefore, the loss on your property can be a tax deduction.

For argument’s sake, you might own an investment property with running costs of $600 per week, but you only get $500 per week in rent, hence a weekly loss of $100.  With negative gearing, you can take that loss of $100 out of your regular income, and therefore reduce your tax.

Critics of negative gearing argue that this kind of tax arrangement costs Australia billions of dollars every year in lost tax revenue.  Defenders argue that most people engaging in negative gearing aren’t wealthy at all, although they don’t necessarily explain how it helps people to actually own their own homes.  Indeed, some defenders have argued that most people engaging in negative gearing earn less than $80,000 in annual income – the equivalent of about $1,540 per week.

But a new issue arises from mentioning that amount of $80,000.  Australia’s income tax system has several thresholds, meaning levels above which you pay more tax, and one such threshold sits at $80,000 – if you earn more than that amount, you pay a higher rate of tax.  Therefore, as an example, if you have $1,600 in weekly income and you lose $100 per week from an investment property, you can take that loss of $100 from your income, thus reducing your income to $1,500 per week – which would put you below that threshold of $80,000 and enable you to avoid paying a higher rate of tax.

This arrangement looks like a form of tax avoidance.  Even if most people engaging in negative gearing aren’t exactly wealthy, it looks like a rort.

Moreover, there’s nothing in tax law stating that you can’t claim a tax deduction if you own more than one investment property.  It’s probably fair to argue that, as individuals, most investors only have one such property, regardless of whether they also own a property in which they live or they pay rent themselves to live on some other investor’s property.  But to my knowledge, negative gearing is open to all investors, whether they have one property or a dozen properties.  And given that you’d probably have to be extraordinarily wealthy to buy lots of investment properties, it arguably wouldn’t sit well with taxpayers to know that most of the benefits of negative gearing are going to wealthy people who don’t need them.

Also, despite concerns about housing shortages, I’ve seen disturbing stories about empty properties, with countless houses and units having nobody living in them.  How can this be happening?

I believe that negative gearing should stay, because most people engaging in it aren’t wealthy, but it needs some limits.  Taxpayers shouldn’t be propping up wealthy people who least need or deserve this kind of tax break.

 

Lost chances to save rural water

23 June 2016

I remember driving through central and southern New South Wales on a weekend escape about ten years ago, in the middle of months of 2006.  Back then, many parts of the country were in drought, in a big way.  During my weekend escape, I saw a lot of nice country, even though much land was really dry.

My escape took me a round trip through townships including Bathurst, Blayney, Cowra, Grenfell, Young, Cootamundra, Wagga Wagga, Narrandera, Leeton, Griffith, Goolgowi, Weethalle, Forbes, and Orange.  It was an enjoyable escape, taking me to places that I’d never seen before.  One of my most vivid memories of that escape was having to negotiate my way through a large herd of cows crossing the road between Grenfell and Young – it’s quite something to try moving forward, really slowly, with your vehicle surrounded by big cows!

Despite the pleasant sight of the countryside that I saw, the effect of drought was plain to see in many places.  The land looked really dry, even though some patches still looked healthy.

But what stuck with me was something that I saw while driving between Leeton and Griffith, in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.  Having driven up a long and straight stretch of highway there, I turned onto a road heading to Griffith.  On both sides of this road, I could see what looked like citrus fruit trees, and they looked dead.  I don’t claim to know if these trees usually look like this outside seasons when fruit grows on them, or whether the drought had left them in a bad state – maybe that’s a sign of a city slicker’s ignorance on my part.  Nonetheless, near many rows of these trees, I could also see long trenches in the ground, and they were totally dry.  I assumed that these trenches supplied water to the trees, though they weren’t supplying water at that time.

Some months after I visited this region, I heard about a major pipeline project in rural Victoria, known as the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline.  This involved building pipelines to replace existing irrigation channels and trenches.  The idea was that these pipelines would save much water which would otherwise be lost in the channels and trenches.  Water was either evaporating in the air, or seeping into the ground around the channels and trenches.  By converting them into pipelines, the loss of water through evaporation and seepage would be reduced significantly.

The Wimmera Mallee Pipeline later had me thinking back to the trenches that I saw in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.  I couldn’t help wondering how much water was disappearing from those trenches, and how much could be saved if they were converted into pipelines.  In a time of severe drought, with water in scarce supply, any project to save water would seem like a no-brainer.

Of course, farmers and irrigators have been coming up with new ways of saving water, whether through building pipelines in place of trenches, or other projects which might never have occurred to most of us.  But is it unreasonable to ask how much water we could be saving around the country if we replaced old-fashioned irrigation channels and trenches, depending on their practicality for farmers and irrigators on a case-by-case basis?  Have we witnessed some lost chances to save rural water in particular?

I don’t claim to know how many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars the agricultural sector contributes to the Australian economy every year.  But whatever its worth, if it’s delivering so much off the back of only a fraction of the water available to it, how much more could it be delivering if it had pipelines in place to save more water for agricultural use, as well as environmental flows?

It’s a pity that, during the drought ten years ago, the Federal Government of the time had a healthy budget surplus, in contrast to today’s massive budget deficit, but seemingly didn’t put any of its surplus into more projects like the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline.  What would’ve happened if some of that surplus went into building pipelines and upgrading other water infrastructure in rural Australia – without having to resort to building dams on rivers and messing with their natural flows?  With a bit of national foresight, farmers and irrigators could’ve been contributing so much more to the Australian economy as a result.

Despite the need to reduce public spending, I fully support some form of spending on water projects in rural Australia, so as to save water, which would otherwise be lost to evaporation and seepage.  I pray that the Wimmera Mallee Pipeline has proven to be immensely beneficial to the Victorian region through which it runs, but what kind of difference would more pipelines like that make?

Notwithstanding that today the Federal Government has a major budget deficit to deal with, the failure to invest in upgrading water infrastructure previously, when there was a budget surplus, represents a lost opportunity.  With water said to be more scarce in future years, we can’t afford lost chances to save rural water in particular, no matter what it costs in the short term.