The Week in Politics
The highlight of this week is the Prime Ministerial visit to the United States which started on Thursday and will take place over three days in Washington.
The Prime Minister will meet with President Trump and Vice-President Pence, the heads of intelligence agencies, the top brass in the Pentagon and the Secretaries of the Treasury and Homeland Security.
The Secretary of the Treasury, Gary Cohn, will also brief state and territory Premiers and the delegation of top business people on the new US tax laws and the prospects for the US economy.
The Premiers of NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia and the Chief Ministers of the ACT and the Northern Territory will hold discussions with US state governors who are holding their annual National Governors’ Association meeting in Washington at the same time.
The exchanges will focus on infrastructure development and financing. Malcolm Turnbull will deliver the keynote address to the meeting.
Mr Turnbull told journalists on Wednesday that the NGA conference would create huge opportunities for Australian and American businesses and governments.
Mr Turnbull will meet with the President on Saturday. The American press is likely to be focussed on Australia’s gun control in the light of yet another school shooting, this time in Florida.
There will also be discussion of North Korea’s nuclear programme and America’s relations with China.
Experts are saying that, after a shaky start, Malcolm Turnbull is one of the six or seven leaders around world who has established a rapport with the President.
On another issue, Tony Abbott caused a storm when he told a Sydney Institute audience on Tuesday night that immigration should be drastically reduced.
Contrary to reporting Mr Abbott proposed that the numbers admitted under the temporary visa should be curtailed.
He said that this would reduce the demands for housing and infrastructure in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne.
Treasurer Scott Morrison says that cuts of the magnitude demanded by Tony Abbott would reduce government revenues by $5-6 billion over four years.
From the Gallery • The Stuntmeister’s at it again: Despite his change of status from smallish fish in big pond to big fish in smallish pond, Nick Xenophon certainly hasn’t lost his fondness for the odd spot of political stuntsmanship. His latest outing in this unique area of his expertise involves a two and a half minute campaign advertisement featuring a chorus of warbling SA Best candidates, skateboarding and (just kill us now) a rap-dancing former Senator. Among other gems the jingle, the tune of which Cory Bernardi reckons has taken up permanent residence in his head, includes the lines “Stop soaring power prices, kids going interstate, change to SA Best before it’s too damn late” after which, clad in hospital-issue attire, he leaps out of a bed which could more profitably have been occupied by a real patient. In another section he joins a troupe of Bollywood lovelies in a dance through a supermarket aisle although the significance of this bit has so far escaped us. The main message of the ad seems to be, as the chorus carols: “We’re the best, we’re SA Best, come on and put us to the test, make a change in the nick of time, forget the rest vote SA Best.” We think it’s pretty safe to say that it doesn’t represent a major challenge to the “It’s Time” campaign ad that contributed to the victory of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972.
• And again? According to our favourite news outfit, ‘The Betoota Advocate’, the erstwhile Senator paused in mid-tirade about transport and the price of electricity to summon a staffer to hand him a cooler bag. The media types who’d assembled to cover Mr Xenophon’s live press conference appeared somewhat perplexed as the 59-year old politician polished off eight litres of Farmers Union Iced Coffee – roughly thirteen 600 millilitre cartons. The product, which was launched in 1977 when Farmers Union was a co-operative of South Australian dairy farmers, achieved iconic status culminating in 2015 when it was listed as the highest selling non-alcoholic beverage in the state, making SA the only region in the world where the ubiquitous coca cola doesn’t hold the top spot. Still, it works for Nick: after the stunt, his SA Best Party was apparently polling a 90% approval rating.
•More power than you can poke a stick at: And speaking of South Australia, not only does Premier Jay Wetherill have Elon Musk’s promise to provide a battery with the capacity to power at least 50,000 homes, German company Sonnen will establish a battery production plant in Adelaide to produce 50,000 energy storage systems over the next five years. The Premier is understandably cock-a-hoop about the deal since Sonnen will relocate its headquarters from Sydney to the City of Churches. The batteries will no doubt be deeply attractive to those households which avail themselves of his promise to offer interest-free loans to fund the installation of solar or battery systems in the event that Labor’s re-elected on March 17.
The Australian Government has delivered the next step towards a digital identity solution with the release of a national Trusted Digital Identity Framework for organisations wanting to provide digital identity services.
The Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Transformation Michael Keenan, we want to make it easier for the Australian people to interact with their government.
Digital identity will give people simple, safe and secure access to multiple government services online and be able to be accessed at home, at work or on the go.
The Australian Government currently has more than 30 different logins for digital services.
People who choose to use a digital identity would only need to prove their identity once and then be able to re-use this across a range of government services.
Research commissioned by Australia Post estimates a digital identity solution could save up to $11 billion each year from reduced administration, fraud and a better customer experience.
For example, there are currently around 750,000 applications for tax file numbers every year that can only be completed by visiting an Australia Post or Centrelink service centre or sending certified copies of identity documents to the Australian Taxation Office. This can take up to 40 days.
For people who have a digital identity, this process could be reduced to just minutes.
The Government has engaged extensively with the financial sector, privacy advocates, digital identity experts and the public to develop the standards.
The first component of the framework sets strict standards for organisations wanting to provide digital identity services.
The Trusted Digital Identity Framework is available on the Digital Transformation Agency website:https://www.dta.gov.au/what-we-do/policies-and-programs/identity/.
The Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Ret’d) will travel to Switzerland from 25 to 28 February to represent Australia at the High-Level Segment of the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The Governor-General will deliver Australia’s National Statement to the High-Level Segment during our first session as a new Human Rights Council member. The High-Level Segment is the most prominent event on the Council’s annual calendar.
Australia took its seat on the Council, which is the world’s peak body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights, on 1 January 2018.
The Governor-General will also meet United Nations Secretary-General His Excellency Mr António Guterres and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
As part of a wider bilateral visit, Sir Peter will meet with the President of the Swiss Confederation HE Dr Alain Berset.
The Governor-General will also attend a commemorative service at the Commonwealth War Graves in Vevey, visit the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva and meet with Australian business representatives in Zurich.
Is Peter Dutton the Most Powerful Man in Australia?
It is arguable that Peter Dutton has more control over the lives of Australians than any other person on the planet.
He determines the levels of migration to Australia which in turn determines the pressure on housing and infrastructure. He controls the movements of Australians in and out of the country.
He has access to our metadata as part of the maintenance of national security and he controls the investigation of those of us who may be perpetrators or victims of counter-espionage.
He also has control of any goods that we bring in from overseas in this age of online shopping.
From this perspective, and the way that his portfolio intersects with policy objectives such as multiculturalism, refugee policy and human rights obligations, it’s a pity that Peter Dutton has become the Turnbull government’s self-elected head kicker.
For the people to trust the somewhat draconian measures that the Department of Home Affairs wishes to enact through the Parliament, the Minister needs to be imbued with a certain gravitas.
For Dutton to spend every question time laying the boot into unionists seems inconsistent with such an approach.
The Minister is proposing to amend laws such as the Foreign Fighters legislation so that he can remove citizenship from people who have fought with groups such as ISIS.
This legislation will need the support of the crossbench if it is to become law.
In this context it’s important not to frighten the horses which is probably why negotiations with the crossbenchers are being left to Alan Tudge, the Minister for Citizenship.
From this point of view Peter Dutton’s address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, which was the first time he had laid out his views on his new super Department, took on added significance.
He told his audience that Australian voters pay on results and the government has delivered.
It has made Australia safer by cancelling the visas of 3,000 hardened criminals, including key members of bikie gangs, and sent them home.
It was this need for a safe and secure Australia that had led to the creation of the Department of Home Affairs which established greater co-operation between the Australian Federal Police and the border control authorities.
The Turnbull government is acting to protect Australians in a changed security environment.
In addition Australia’s sensitive information is a target for foreign powers as demonstrated by the Dastyari case.
There are also growing volumes of drugs coming into the country.
Reviews have established the need for better co-ordination between the agencies that deal with security, which is why the new Department has now been established.
The new Department of Home Affairs model is close to the prototype of the UK Home Office rather than the US Department of Homeland Security.
Mr Dutton has three priorities: to keep Australians safe, particularly from terrorism; to build a cohesive society; and to promote national prosperity.
Commenting on Tony Abbott’s calls for a cut to immigration he said that the flow of migrants needed to be managed in the way John Howard had controlled it.
This went to the quality as well as the quantity of migrants however he acknowledged that the flow of migrants could put pressure on infrastructure and housing.
To this extent he seemed to be at odds with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, who had made the point that the current high volume of immigration contributed between $5 and 6 billion to the Australian budget over four years.
The problem is that this revenue is collected by the Commonwealth whereas the burden is borne by the states.
The key to keeping Australia safe from terrorism is to prevent the return to Australia of foreign fighters.
Another threat is the terrorists’ use of encrypted communications.
The government wants to enact legislation to ensure that communications companies have an obligation to offer mechanisms to decrypt messages.
Mr Dutton also wants to change the laws that prevent him from removing citizenship from terrorists.
He is also concerned at the large quantities of crystal meth and cocaine being imported into Australia using sophisticated commercial methods.
The government will appoint a senior AFP officer to a position that will target organised crime.
This position will take on both drug and child pornography criminals.
The Minister says that Australian institutions have a unique character forged from its history, creating a country that is based on a “fair go.”
While this has enabled us to accept a huge number of immigrants from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, we need to nurture our national character.
We have world leading resettlement services but we ask in exchange that immigrants show loyalty to Australia.
The emphasis on English language and social and cultural awareness is an essential component of this as is the ability to speak frankly about problems such as those posed by Sudanese gangs in Melbourne.
He said he would continue to speak out on these matters.
He would also like to see primary school students and others pledge allegiance to Australia and its traditions.
Cybersecurity is a growing issue in Australia which is why the government established a Cybersecurity Centre.
The objective of this Centre is to improve the cyber-literacy of ordinary Australians so they can protect themselves.
The government needs to manage the migration programme to ensure that we have a supply of skilled migrants who young and productive in order to maximise the benefit for the economy.
The Department of Home Affairs is using sophisticated data analytics to control immigration.
It is also using a trusted traders system to simplify the issuing of visas to employees of key employers who are part of international supply chains and require foreign workers for the management of those supply chains.
It’s hoped that this arrangement can be extended to many more companies over the next few years as they take up the opportunities provided by free trade agreements.
The Minister said that Australia is not in the midst of an economic crisis. The economy is growing and conditions are improving for both businesses and workers.
The Home Affairs Department will help economic development while minimising the risk which should be the objectives of any Australian government, taking into account the growing internationalisation of the economy.
Asked why there have not been more prosecutions for espionage offences, Mr Dutton said that the emphasis is on disruption of potential threats rather than collecting evidence for prosecution.
He added that, within the confines of domestic and international law, he believed that he could modify the Foreign Fighters legislation so that he could render foreign fighters stateless.
Minister Dutton did his best to reassure Australians that the new Department existed to protect them rather than to intrude on their lives however there’s no doubt that civil libertarians and other human rights organisations will be sceptical of his motives and administration.