Brown Study

Brown Study

23 February 2013

23 February 2013

I wish I had been to the Francis Bacon exhibition in Sydney before, rather than after, I wrote that Julia Gillard seems to be pathologically accident-prone and that we should expect more falling ministers, leaking backbenchers and chaotically designed, hopelessly implemented decisions. I had just done the rounds of Bacon’s vivid and visceral paintings when, in the gallery bookshop, I came across his favourite saying emblazoned on fridge magnets and other memorabilia for sale: ‘I believe in deeply ordered chaos’. Ms Gillard could not have put it better herself, and she puts it into practice with increasing frequency.

Since I noted this alarming trend, the chaos has continued and we have had more evidence that this is a seriously unstable government, likely to go off on a frolic of its own without any warning. Worse, its erratic gyrations are now beyond bizarre and are giving rise to real concern about what unexpected tripwires lie in wait if you want to invest or set up a business.

Examples are legion. First, there is the unique mining tax that gives no tax, like the biblical paps that give no suck, a triumph in bad planning. What is doubly strange about the tax is that the three mining giants were allowed to design it for their own convenience. No wonder it failed to produce any revenue. But this incompetence is compounded by the government’s plan to redraw the tax, which, at the behest of the Greens, it probably will. How can we claim to be a stable and predictable country when we change the tax regime so frequently and after commitments have been made in reliance on the current law? Second, it must now be obvious that the government has declared war on superannuation under the guise of closing some so-called loopholes. Again, how can we encourage self-reliance, thrift and personal investment when the goalposts are continually being moved during the game? The same goes for private health insurance. Why can’t they leave it alone so that people can plan their personal budgets with confidence?

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Then there is the issue that still rankles with me: the botched tender for Australia’s overseas TV service, won (sort of) by the ABC. This was real banana republic stuff: manipulating a tender to make sure your own resident acolyte is successful, against the advice of an independent panel. Overseas and local investors must wonder if their own tenders will be subject to such brazen government intervention. I hope the opposition run with this issue, as it has everything that sums up the Rudd-Gillard era: bad planning, incompetent administration, a tilting of the scales to favour the Left — and a hint of corruption.

Then, this week, the launch of one momentous reform and the results of another; the former is the hacking away at tax deductions for research and development, while installing public servants in industry to share their bountiful wisdom in increasing productivity and jobs; the latter is the result of a unique Gillard venture to entice 450 mature maths and science teachers into schools: it produced 14.

Judges, ex-judges, academics and other worthies continue to demand more money for the courts and legal aid; the retiring chief judge of the Federal Court, Patrick Keane, is the latest to join the list. They all mean well, but the fault in their case is that they are asking for more money for an old system, without accepting any blame or holding out hope for real reform. Unfortunately, the legal system is stuck in the labyrinthine procedures of the 18th century, with pleadings, discovery, complicated procedural rules and lots of incentive for litigants to logjam the process and a system that is preoccupied with ritual rather than getting results. Surely a simplified system can be devised under which disputants have to state in words of one syllable what their dispute is and with a fast-track method of mediation and arbitration that will help them to settle their differences quickly and cheaply. But if more money is thrown at an unreformed system that thrives on adding complexity and delay, I can guarantee it will continue to fail to meet the real needs of people and companies.

You can learn a lot from the past, and one source I have been looking at lately is the series of 35 television interviews conducted by John Freeman between 1959 and 1962 called Face to Face. It is simply brilliant and I recommend it to anyone interested in politics and intellectual entertainment. Freeman works his way steadily through Carl Jung, Martin Luther King, Adlai Stevenson, Jomo Kenyatta and Lord Hailsham and onto Tony Hancock, Dame Edith Sitwell, Cecil Beaton, John Osborne and many more, all of whom respond well. Only one invited guest declined to be interviewed: Marlene Dietrich, who replied ‘You can’t afford me.’ Not only do you learn a lot about events of the time from interviews with the movers and shakers, but you see in full flight the lost art of the interview and what a powerful tool it used to be. Freeman’s questions are real questions, not the self-important speechmaking and posturing assertions we see today, and they are probing but respectful questions, with no interruption of the answers, not the aggressive hectoring of today that forces the subject into a shell, or the tedious, rote-like recital of memorised lines from which we learn nothing and from which the evasive interviewee walks away scot free. What a loss.

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