Sunday, October 28, 2007

Committee Hearing - Australian Honeybee Industry

I will be discussing the meeting of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, on August 8 2007.

The reference for this meeting was the future development of the Australian honeybee industry. The terms of reference for the Committee were:
To inquire into and report on:
Honey bee industry in terms of:
1. Its current and future prospects.
2. Its role in agriculture and forestry.
3. Biosecurity issues.
4. Trade issues.
5. The impact of land management and bushfires.
6. The research and development needs of the industry.
7. Existing industry and Government work that has been undertaken for the honey bee industry.

Present at the hearing were members of the committee, and four delegates from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC).

The hearing adhered to these terms very closely, with the majority of discussion on current and future prospects, biosecurity issues, and the research and development needs of the industry. These areas - particularly the third – are perhaps somewhat predictable, given the witnesses in attendance, and their affiliation with the scientific community.

The RIRDC essentially pushed for an increase in funding for the honeybee industry, with Chairman Desmond Cannon at one point agreeing to an assertion that the current funding was “chickenfeed”.

Throughout this hearing, I was struck by the sympathetic way in which the Committee approached the RIRDC’s presence at the hearing. There seemed to be quite a good rapport between the two groups, and it often felt as though the RIRDC was simply going through the motions and being led by the Committee’s questions. A perfect example came when the Chair of the Committee, The Hon Alby Schultz, says that the level of funding “is still chickenfeed… in terms of what we really required?”, to which the RIRDC agreed, as mentioned above.

The Committee is also quite willing to allow the RIRDC to overstate their case. At one point, Margaret Thomson from the RIRDC says that “$4 to $6 billion of industry would be impacted upon by the varroa destructor mite if it were to infect Australia. This figure was significantly higher than the Committee expected, that figure being $2 billion, and came about as Ms Thomson spoke of the total size of indirectly involved industries, not the impact upon them.

The varroa mite actually took up a significant amount of time in the hearing, in relation to its threat as a biosecurity hazard. Again, the RIRDC were well armed with financial information, pointing to the mite’s occurrence in New Zealand. The NZ government spent $800,000 trying to stop the mite spreading from the North to the South Island, whereas Australia currently spends only $20,000. The RIRDC also suggest that Australia could be significantly more secure against the risk of infestation for only $1,000, a number taken by the Committee as representing extremely good value on a cost-benefit basis given the honeybee industry generates around $60 million.

However, the RIRDC made sure the Committee understood the level of risk facing Australia. There are multiple mentions of “colony collapse disorder”, an issue currently effecting the US and New Zealand honeybee industries. In response to a direct question about the apiary knowledge of Australia, the RIRDC say that Australia is “probably just above the developing countries”.

Overall, I think the Committee process allows interest or lobby groups to succinctly and openly state their case to Parliament. However, the need to construct quick, precise and meaningful communication is enormous. Given the wide-ranging nature of such Committees, the ability to distil an entire issue into a small message gives lobbyists a considerable advantage, while the importance of being across all areas of an issue is very obvious.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

And another thing...

How do the rugby media justify their reporting?

In august this year, Wallabies Lote Tuqiri and Matt Dunning were at the centre of a media storm when a man they met attacked a taxi driver outside their hotel.

Predictably the media went into a feeding frenzy, saying the pair were irresponsible, asking what they were doing drinking in the lead-up to a world cup, and generally getting very hyped up about the whole situation.

And then, after the Rugby World Cup victory over Wales, we get this... Now forgive me for being a cynic, but how are the two any different? If anything, it's worse. A national player in a foreign country, as part of a larger group of clearly inebriated players, engaging in a juvenile contest with some English tourists. It's essentially indecent exposure, in a foriegn country, while drunk as a skunk!

And it's all turned into a bit of a laugh, because the author, Greg Growden thinks boys will be boys. What a load of rubbish. The media made a mistake by going after Dunning and Tuqiri, and the conpiracy theorists who think Tuqiri was targeted because of his rugby league background have more cause for concern, since rugby pureblood Dan Vickerman gets off scott-free.

I'm not advocating either behaviour, but the media reaction to both incidents was absolutely appalling. how no other news source thought it worth a mention is beyond me, and the ARU was extremely lucky not to have wolves at the door baying for sacking of Wallaby staff members.

The players actions were out of line, but the media turned a blind eye to one, and kicked up a storm in a tea-cup over the other.

Rugby World Cup disaster, Kiwis maintain proud tradition

The dream is over. The Wallabies much trumpeted charge at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France came to an abrupt, and unexpected end overnight, losing 12-10 to England. It was a mesy effort from Australia, and it looked like England clearly wanted it more.

The Marseille meltdown will be felt for a long time in Aussie rugby. First of all, coach John Connolly has left on a sour note, and Wallaby stalwarts Geroge Gregan and Steven Larkham have been farewelled in the most underwhelming manner possible. Not only that, but ARU CEO John O'neill's comment earlier in the week that "we all hate England" could so easily now mean "we all hate losing to England".

Of course, things looked up for the ARU when raging hot, unbackable, walk-up start favourites New Zealand bottled it a few hours later against France in Cardiff. No doubt the Land of the long white cloud is today the land of the long white flag, with the All Blacks seemingly destined to remain stuck on a solitary world cup triumph. You've gotta feel for them though, and here's my advice for Kiwi rugby fans for the next for years, and follow it to the letter, because it another four years, it'll help dull the pain.

But what does this mean for the rest of the Cup? Well, for a start, it puts to the sword any hopes of a southern hemisphere quadrella of finalists, and it puts some serious doubts on a southern winner, with the antipodean representatives the flambouyant and unpredictable Fijians, the plucky Argentinians, and my least favourite team ever, South Africa. So come on Fiji and Argentina! But I'll tip France to get over over South Africa in final.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Questions, questions, questions, but no answers

Strap yourselves in folks, it's a lengthy contribution for my first substantial post.

Let’s look at federal parliamentary question time for August 16, 2007. It was a day of charged issues, and a government desperately defending itself from a buoyant opposition. The big issues today were uranium exports to India, the US sub-prime mortgage collapse and what it means for Aussie battlers, local government issues in Queensland, workplace relations and that old chestnut, Iraq.

The Coalition government was on the back foot for most of the session, and not one government question was directed to an opposition member. Every opportunity the government had, they took that great Australian political tradition, the Dorothy Dix question, and ran with it.

Regarding uranium, the government performed pretty solidly, stressing their need for safeguards and necessary checks and balances to ensure India won’t use Australian uranium to develop nuclear weapons. Admirable stuff, and it’s the same line they used when approving uranium sales to China.

The real question here though, is India’s refusal to sign the UN Nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Neighbouring Pakistan has also failed to sign the NPT. As non-signatories, there’s a threat that India and Pakistan could become involved in a nuclear arms race, stemming from a long-time rivalry, and the disputed ownership of the Kashmir territory. Somewhat ironically, India also shares a border with China, a member of the nuclear club, and some Indian officials have perceived a threat from the Asian super-power. Things start getting a bit murky for the government when these factors, and India’s nuclear history come into the picture.

The issue received a lot of discussion in both houses of parliament, and the government stuck to their guns, so to speak. John Howard in the House of Reps and Helen Coonan in the Senate trotted out almost identical speeches in defence of uranium exports, saying that Australia would insist on safeguards, that Australia had the largest uranium reserves in the world and should take advantage of the fact. Throw in a line about nuclear power helping to reduce the impacts of climate change in one of the world’s emerging industrial powers, and the key messages are really starting to hit home.

In both houses of parliament, the government touted India’s “good non-proliferation record”. Unfortunately, in May 1998, India conducted a series of nuclear tests, and announced it had developed nuclear weaponry. Within a month, Pakistan announced that it had acquired nuclear capabilities as well. Since then, relations between the two countries have been relatively stable, if somewhat standoffish. But if it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and it walks like a duck… chances are it’s a nuclear arms race trapped in a bad metaphor.

In the Senate, the government was critical of Labor’s use of Pakistani cricketer turned politician Imran Khan’s comments that uranium in India would lead to such a race. Maybe it’s a fair point, but Khan has been a member of the Pakistani parliament for more than five years, and the Prime Minister is known to enjoy more than a passing association with cricket. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw cricket balls.

Of course the biggest problem for the government was workplace relations. Shadow Industrial Relations Minister Julia Gillard went after the government, in particular IR Minister Joe Hockey. The thrust of Gillard’s argument was that Australian Workplace Agreements were going to be processed by “overseas backpackers”, who would be unfamiliar with the Australian industrial system of award wages, penalty overtimes rates and so on. Hockey danced around the question, and attacked ALP policy, while Gillard pushed for answers by asking a second, and then third revised version of her original question.

Hockey couldn’t give a substantial answer, but he said that Gillard should be happy with overseas workers, given the fine job foreign nurses and doctors do in Australian hospitals, no doubt a jibe at Gillard previous health portfolio.
Unable to get a straight answer, Gillard turned her attention to Prime Minister John Howard, quoting his commitment that AWAs would be monitored with “Australian commonsense”. Howard countered by saying that Australian values aren’t dependent on where someone is born. I’m not sure how that fits with the brand-new immigration test, but opposition members were pretty unhappy with Howard’s statement, and member for Calwell Maria Vamvakinou was ordered to leave the House for being disorderly.

Our last port of discussion was the ongoing Australian military presence in Iraq. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Robert McClelland asked how Foreign Minister Alexander Downer could continue to say that Australia’s effort in Iraq was a success, given the loss of life, insurgent violence and so forth. Downer’s response was heavy with sarcasm, thanking McClelleand for his first question as Shadow Minister. Downer defended the government’s position on Iraq, insisting that to get out of Iraq with the job unfinished would be a far greater failure than the losses already incurred. Basically, he was saying that since there was a far worse failure possible, the current situation was a success. It seems like a pretty tenuous link, and it drew a lot of criticism from the opposition.

However, it’s in Downer’s response that a glimpse of PR practice comes into view.
In the previous days, McClelland released a media alert, outlining almost to the letter, the exact ammunition he was to use in question time against Downer. This seems akin to handing over your game plan to the opposition coach, and it certainly looks like bad politics.

Other observations I had from the session:
• Since each speaker has about seven minutes to address each question, there’s a premium on time, and being concise is absolutely critical.
• Be on message. The government’s steady line on the Indian uranium issue was a great example of political messaging. By picking a line, and staying the course in the face of criticism, the government not only looks and sounds united, but there’s an underlying sense of credibility and organisation. Of course, it helps when your messages contain logical advantages and sound reasoning. Which makes me wonder why they even tried to defend India’s nuclear proliferation stance…
• The government continually used its opportunities to pose friendly questions, rather than attacking the opposition directly. Instead, members launched into time consuming speeches, eating up valuable attacking time for the opposition. This chewed a lot of time, and helped the government avoid stronger questioning later in the session.

But of course, question produced a series of brutally funny lines. From Downer’s mocking of McClelland, to Joe Hockey’s attempt to dodge the backpacker question by saying that “they don’t wear back packs to work” the presence of former Labor Minister Gareth Evans in the gallery was the source of much mirth. Evans drew a backhanded compliment from Peter Costello, when Costello described Evans as, “the best Shadow Treasurer in a decade”.
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd welcomed Evans, making the thinly veiled observation that it was good to have “an experienced foreign minister” back in the chamber. However, the Prime Minister was to have the last laugh, turning Rudd’s jibe on it’s head, and commending the Opposition Leader for putting a premium on experience.

It was a minor victory in the scheme of things, but a reminder that today captured the key issues of the coming election campaign: economic management, where the US sub-prime collapse registered only one question in each House, while the opposition’s almost unblinking focus was on industrial relations, and to a lesser extent foreign policy. But perhaps the PM’s comment on experience will see that issue rise once again.

But for now, we’ll just sit and wait for an election date to be set, and watch the tension build.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Welcome to the blog

So here it is, the blog I've started for Public Affairs.

Stay tuned for developments in politics, sport, business and general humanity related business.

Thanks for dropping in, see you again soon!