Victorian policies, side by side

November 26, 2010

One day out from the Victorian elections, and – if possible – the level of ennui is even higher than during the Federal poll. Apart from a few committed pamphleteers and online trolls, most people’s attitude seems to be summed up in one word: ‘meh‘.

That could have something to do with the fact that both major parties and the Greens spent a great deal of time in this campaign simply attacking each other. The Labor Party is all about waste; the Coalition will destroy the public service; the Greens will make you take cold showers! (And no, I’m not exaggerating on that last one – it was part of an anti-Greens Twitter campaign that purported to reveal the ‘truth’ about the consequences of Greens policies on coal-fired power stations.)

Now I don’t know about you, but I like to make my voting decisions based on policy, not on who had the most ridiculous claims or nastiest insults. So with that in mind, here’s a quick-and-dirty comparison of some key areas of policy for most of the parties contesting the Victorian election. Let’s focus on Public Transport, Health and Education.

Policy statements are taken from the parties’ websites: Labor, Sex Party, Country Alliance, DLP, Family First and Liberals. I have not separately listed National Party policies, as they are in coalition with the Liberal Party and their policies are folded into the latter’s website.

Full disclosure: I’m currently volunteering for the Australian Sex Party. As such, while I’ll list policies, I won’t comment on them.

Public Transport

This is a huge area of concern for Victorians, to judge from questions directed at John Brumby and Ted Baillieu throughout the campaign. Metro Trains’ poor record, ‘black holes’ in Melbourne’s train system and overcrowding on some heavily-travelled lines (Dandenong and Pakenham being two of the most notorious) have seen most parties make highly-publicised announcements.

Australian Labor Party

Labor’s budgeted $432 million for public transport infrastructure and development. They’re promising more train services to Geelong, more bus services lasting longer into the night and a shuttle bus from Clayton Station to Monash University. In terms of maintenance and upgrade, Labor plans to make over train stations, buy new train carriages, and work on updating Melbourne’s ageing tracks and signalling system. The flagship policy is a pledge to establish a Safety Control Centre to monitor trains by CCTV and be in constant contact with stations which will all be staffed.

Australian Sex Party

The flagship policy for this party is a 24-hour public transport system on weekend, to be manned by security personnel. Other areas of concern are the Metro Rail Tunnel – with the Sex Party calling for stages One and Two to be simultaneously planned and delivered, upgrading Melbourne’s signalling system to take advantage of new technologies, and the separation of regional and metropolitan services to allow the regional network to be upgraded to a metro-style system.

Country Alliance

No listed policy.

Democratic Labor Party

No listed policy.

Family First

Family First has focused on encouraging more Victorians to use the metropolitan transit system. To this end they advocate implementing various (though unspecified) strategies, abolishing Zone 2 ticketing in favour of a single-zone system, conductors on all trams for safety and to reduce fare evasion, and guards on trains. They have also called for a feasibility study into the idea of building a tunnel to connect the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway, and for improvements to the most dangerous and congested intersections and railway crossings.

Greens

In keeping with a general focus on initiatives to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the Greens have set out a suite of policies. They have called for upgrades to Melbourne’s rail system (including the elimination of bottlenecks), more staff to improve passenger safety, revised scheduling to include more express train services for long lines, frequent and direct light rail, rail links to Tullamarine Airport, Rowville and Doncaster, improved disability access to buses and trams, giving traffic signal priority to road-based public transport and new trains with longer carriages to reduce crowding. Regionally, the Greens advocate restoring passenger train services (including direct services between Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo), estabilishing a feasibility study into location and costs for a very-high-speed passenger train service between Melbourne and Sydney, and investigating the feasibility of opening rural school bus services to the general public. Acceleration of construction of the Principal Bicycle Network, and increased road space for cyclists would be encouraged. A combined ministry for planning and transport would be established, and all proposed road network expansions would have to be valuated against alternative public transport solutions on environmental and social grounds.

Liberal/National Coalition

Running with the ‘safety and security’ angle, the Coalition have promised 900 Victoria Police Protective Service officers at train stations, as well as 350 Transit Police to ride along. They have also pledged to spend $130 million to build a Kilmore-Wallan bypass, and to construct new bus shelters in the Yarra Ranges.

Health

As in most elections, the Health policy tends to be diffused by including ‘social agenda’ policies such as those surrounding abortion, euthanasia and reproductive technologies. I’ve deliberately excluded these issues from this policy area.

Australian Labor Party

Labor has promised to boost numbers of medical personnel: 2800 additional nurses, doctors and other health professionals over the next two years to improve nurse-patient ratios. 200 more nurses will be recruited specifically for palliative care, cancer, geriatric and rehabilitation wards. Elective surgery operations are promised to increase by 50,000, and an extra 300,000 outpatient appointments created. Along with this, patients needing an initial appointment for treatment of hip or knee osteoarthritis will be seen within eight weeks. Labor has also promised to increase emergency department capacity to treat 315,000 additional patients, 70,000 more dental care places, 300 new specialist and GP training places and 50 doctor places in rural and regional Victoria.

Australian Sex Party

The Sex Party’s policy focuses largely on community-based initiatives. It has called for protection of community health services under the new, nationally-managed plan, for communities to be included in planning new initiatives, and resourcing for community health support for sex workers, culturally and linguistically diverse populations, HIV sufferers, indigenous people, rural communities, the elderly and those affected by age-related illness and the transgender community. Additional areas of concern are sexual health initiatives, including state-funded sexual health clinics and inclusion of a range of sexual health treatments on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme regardless of the age and gender of patients. On mental health, the Sex Party has advocated for ongoing funding and expansion for early intervention initiatives such as Headspace and ORYGEN, community education, social support services and funding for qualified, secular counsellors in schools.

Country Alliance

In keeping with its focus on rural and regional concerns, the Country Alliance has called for the establishment of basic standards for access to medical and dental care within rural Victoria and identification of those communities who do not meet those standards, and for 20 scholarships per Upper House region to be offered each year to attract doctors to regional areas.

Democratic Labor Party

The DLP’s health policy is entirely conflated with what can only be described as a ‘social agenda’ policy. Picking through it, there is one specific health initiative: increase in the allocation of funding for palliative care facilities for the terminally ill.

Family First

Family First has called for an increase in funded doctor and nurse training places, support for medical personnel who work in rural and regional communities – in the form of subsidised public indemnity insurance and reduced stamp duty to aid relocation, more acute and aged-care beds, and more respite carers. In other health areas, they have advocated more support for alcohol/drug rehabilitation groups, more detoxification centres, and more mental health inpatient beds.

Greens

The Greens have called for more community health centres (including co-location of GPs in those areas), nurse practitioners, increased access for concession cardholders to public dental care, improved integration between health services, better conditions for home care and personal care workers, and accreditation standards for ‘non-traditional’ practitioners, including registers and complaints procedures. They have pledged to reduce waiting times in hospitals and increase outpatient services and institute ‘healthy eating’ programs (including requirements for school canteens to provide healthy food choices). Maternal and Child Health Services would be expanded, particularly in the areas of midwifery and post-natal depression treatment.

Liberal/National Coalition

The Coalition has promised new ambulance stations and a 50% decrease in ambulance subscription fees, upgrades and new hospitals in regional areas, and they have pledged to ban ‘bongs’ and related paraphernalia. In the area of mental health they have promised to set up a $10 million Mental Illness Research Fund, central co-ordination of inpatient mental health beds, and an education/employment program to increase workforce participation of those living with mental illness.

Education

The policies outlined vary wildly, from new national programs to smaller, individually-focused issues.

Australian Labor Party

The big announcement for Labor was the ‘Education for Life’ initiative. This program, aimed at Year 9 students, is budgeted at $208 million, and includes a two-week residential camp. It is aimed to teach financial literary, bushfire awareness, community service, public speaking, first aid, advanced water safety, self-defence, and alcohol/drug awareness. Labor has also promised $1.7 billion for school upgrades, provision of Primary Welfare and Home School Liaison Officers (the precise nature of which – psychologist, social worker, chaplain – would be determined by the school itself), rural ‘virtual’ classrooms and four new bilingual secondary schools. For non-government schools Labor has pledged to increase funding to 25% of that given to government schools, and to provide professional development for teachers and principals.

Australian Sex Party

The Sex Party has called for an end to the government school chaplaincy program, to be replaced by qualified psychological counsellors, as part of a general advocacy for a secular public school system. Special Religious Instruction programs would be replaced by curriculum-based comparative religion and ethics classes. They have also advocated age-appropriate sex education classes, beginning in primary years with safety, body image and self-esteem, and a program to educate students on the safe use of information/communication technologies. Private schools would be required to implement inclusive, non-discriminatory policies.

Country Alliance

In keeping with its focus on rural and regional concerns, the Country Alliance has called for the establishment of basic standards for access to education services within rural Victoria and identification of those communities who do not meet those standards.

Democratic Labor Party

The DLP has called for a voucher system so that parents may choose to send their children to non-government schools without financial penalty, at the same time advocating for redistribution of funding to allow government schools to compete on an equal basis. Government allowances for students would be rolled into a single, non-means-tested, Universal Living Allowance and tax deductibility for when deferred HECS fees are paid. TAFE courses would receive more funding, the Howard government’s ‘Voluntary Student Unionism’ legislation would be rolled back and a professional institute to oversee teacher performance would be established. Finally, the DLP has advocated ‘an education system based on the promotion of competence appropriate for the age and status of each student in a range of skills, including numeracy, literacy, social and civic participation, health skills and knowledge and an informed appreciation of the religious, moral and ethical codes to which the mainstream community adheres’.

Family First

Family First has a suite of policies: reduced class sizes, focus on numeracy and literacy skills, so-called ‘plain English’ school reports, financial literacy programs, relationship programs designed to promote marriage and family life, more TAFE colleges, promotion of the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) as pathways for students who do not want to go to university. They have also called ‘genuine choice’ for parents in selecting a school that supports their family’s values.

Greens

The Greens have called for two years’ free pre-school education for all children, no fees and charges for the public education system, a full range of education programs for compulsory schooling years including special-needs education, locally-targeted initiatives, optimum class sizes and implementation of education ICT including video conferencing. Assessment and reporting would be aimed at integrating and supporting learning rather than ‘competition’. All levels of education would be integrated into a flexible network to assist students throughout their learning periods. For educators, the Greens have advocated better remuneration, professional development and accountability, financial transparency and non-discriminatory staff recruitment and enrolment practices. Finally, all public schools buildings (renovated or new) would be required to achieve best practice Ecologically Sustainable Development standards.

Liberal/National Coalition

The Coalition has promised funding for existing and new schools, including the establishment of Years 11 and 12 at Somerville Secondary College. Truancy laws would be enforced. The Victorian College of the Arts attracted particular attention, with the Coalition pledging $6 million to cover its current shortfall, as well as a return to its former independent status. The Rock Eisteddfod would receive $800,000. They have matched Labor’s commitment to raising funding for Catholic schools to 25%, and promised to make Victorian teachers the highest-paid in Australia. Finally, the Coalition would expand the powers of principals to ban ‘dangerous items’, and to search, suspend or expel students at their discretion.

*****

Phew. Well, there you are. That’s the Big Three this election. Of course, every party has a raft of other policies on everything from euthanasia to water to programs for specific regions, and I urge you to look them up. I deliberately did not include climate change initiatives, mainly because almost all the parties have no specific climate change policy, and their environment policies are often mixed up with regional initiatives.

Hopefully, though, you have an idea of what’s behind all those press conferences and jargon-laden rhetoric, and can make some informed decisions.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. It might ‘only’ be a State election, but many of these policies will directly affect us in a way that grand federal initiatives often don’t. It’s your democratic right and your responsibility – please use it.


Victorian Leaders’ Debate

November 7, 2010

Warning: contains flippant remarks.

Time for a look at my home state of Victoria now. With an election looming on November 27 that looks to deliver another significant result to the Greens, and perhaps another minority government, the major parties have repeatedly hammered home the point that they want to lead in their own right. It’s fair to say, however, that the Greens were the elephant in the room when the leaders’ debate between Premier John Brumby and Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu took place, with moderators and panellists repeatedly mentioning their likely effect on the election outcome.

In a nice touch of serendipity – or perhaps irony – the debate was held on the 5th of November.

The first question was predictable. Both leaders were asked why they deserved Victorian votes.

Ted Baillieu led off with a litany of Victoria’s woes. Although he was a ‘proud Victorian, a very, very proud Victorian’, Baillieu shook his head sadly over problems of violent crime, deteriorating country roads, a planning system that ‘cannot be trusted’, children in state protection being neglected, rising water and power bills, and – startingly – long and ‘secret’ waiting lists for hospital treatment. He slipped in some stock phrases from the Federal Liberal playbook about ‘endless waste and mismanagement’ before promising a series of law and order reforms guaranteed to warm the hearts of conservatives everywhere – more police on the streets, a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to violent crime (whatever that means), and tougher sentencing. After that he waxed lyrical with promises to do everything from fix country roads to changing how hospitals are managed and embraced the idea of a ‘modern, open accountable government’ that would put an end to ‘cover-ups, secrecy and incompetence’. In short, Baillieu promised to save the world.

John Brumby went for the folksy approach, regaling the panel with the story of how he’d visited apprentices at Geelong TAFE. These politically savvy and civic-minded young people represented all Victorians, it appears – what they wanted was a strong economy, good jobs and for Victoria to keep its AAA credit rating. Accordingly, Brumby pledged to create 300,000 new jobs over the next five years, pointing out for good measure that Victoria has – thanks to Labor – the lowest payroll tax rate in 36 years. It was important to keep the jobs coming, he asserted.

Something strange happened then. In a rare display of psychic power, Brumby started channelling Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He rhapsodised about the ‘transformative power’ of education, something he’d always been ‘passionate’ about, and felt was of intense importance to every Victorian. To prove it, he listed the government’s achievements – the placement of more than 10,000 new teachers and support staff into the system, new buildings and schools across the state, and more investment in education to ensure every child had the opportunity to gain ’21st century skills’ (though presumably, not the ability to use Twitter).

Ian Henderson, the moderator, indulged in a little forward planning at this point. He commented that there was now a third force in politics, not represented at the debate – though perhaps for the last time. This was no doubt welcome news to many Greens voters who already suffered through the Federal campaign with little attention. Why then, asked the moderator, are voters dissatisfied with the traditional duopoly?

Brumby refused to be drawn. Others could make that judgment, but the ALP was about putting forward ‘positive policies, especially ‘progressive social policies’.

Then the dance began in earnest. Baillieu, asked about where the Liberals would direct their preferences, went on the attack. There was a Greens/Labor alliance in Tasmania, and now one in Canberra. Labor had done deals in the past with the Greens!

Moderator: ‘So what will you do?’

Baillieu: ‘Mr Brumby needs to answer if he’s done another deal.’

Moderator: ‘I asked for your preferences.’

Baillieu: ‘The issue is, will John Brumby preference the Greens.’

Brumby chimed in, noting that Liberal preferences were likely to determine the outcome in inner city seats (as they did in the election of Greens MP Adam Bandt). This was ‘a raging issue’, he said; there was a crisis in the Liberal Party about where preferences should be directed.

‘I’ve never heard so much hypocrisy in my life!’ declared Baillieu, brandishing an ALP how to vote card from the last election that directed preferences to the Greens. ‘John Brumby has to delcare if another deal has been done’.

Moderator (with apparently infinite patience): ‘When will we find out what you’re doing?’

Baillieu (finally, in a grumpy tone): ‘Before the election.’

This ridiculous exchange went on, reaching its absurdest height when Baillieu declared that Brumby – in saying he had not spoken to the Greens, did not envisage a power-sharing deal with them and was competing to govern in his own right – was, in fact, ‘going out of his way’ to avoid answering a question on preferences. He seemed unaware of his own apparent inability to answer any question on Liberal Party preferences whatsoever. Asked about disillusionment in his own core support base, Baillieu snapped, ‘I don’t accept that, the question is for John Brumby, he’s had a long term relationship with the Greens’.

At that point the moderator and panellists gave up, but their expressions were unmistakable pictures of frustration and not a little disgust.

The debate moved on, and Brumby’s answers featured an interesting element not usually present in debates – the mea culpa. He acknowledged that he had spoken hastily and thoughtlessly when he told journalists they ‘didn’t need to know’ information about proposed new trams. Although he was right to withhold commercial-in-confidence information, he said, he should not have answered in that way. He also admitted that an Ombudsman’s report into child protection showed that his government was not doing enough, and that he’d moved to put new funding and new measures in place. Finally, when asked about Black Saturday, he said that it was clear the system had failed, and for that he was sorry, he accepted that responsibility and was committed to the best possible response in any future crises.

Baillieu constantly interrupted everyone else – in fact, his entire manner could best be described as ‘don’t waste my time’. He relentlessly pursued Brumby on the question of government advertisements, though was unable to name any ad that was a ‘Labor party political ad’. When Brumby was asked about the number of people in ‘communications’ jobs in the government (between 800-1000), Baillieu refused to accept his answer. Brumby pointed out that many people in communications were not concerned with the public at all, but rather keeping lines open between and within government departments, but Baillieu was adamant that it was about ‘spin’.

One feature of this debate was the ‘quick question’, which only allowed for a 30 second answer – and it was here that the debate really showed that it was out of touch with people’s concerns. While we spent 20 minutes listening to Baillieu not answer a question about Liberal preferences, we were given almost no time at all to hear the candidates’ views about adoption by same-sex couples. Baillieu simply rejected the idea. Brumby tried to cram some more information into his answer, which amounted to ‘I’m not sure, but I want the Law Review to look at it’.

Baillieu had his moment in the sun on law and order. Violence had been ‘normalised’, it was a ‘major cultural issue’ that they had to ‘turn around’. He commited to a further 17,000 police and to place 940 protective service officers on all major metropolitan and regional trams and trains until the end of service each night. Asked how he could change the culture, Baillieu repeated the ‘more police on streets, zero tolerance’ mantra, then added a potentially worrying coda. Police needed to be given the capacity and powers to enforce the law. He didn’t elaborate on exactly what that might entail, but given the new move-on and stop-and-search powers, one can speculate. On his first day in government, he concluded, he would institute tougher sentencing and do away with home detention. All this, he declared, had been originally rejected by the government, only to be hurriedly adopted at the last moment.

Brumby had some different ideas about changing a culture of violence. He referred to school programs raising awareness of cyber-bullying and tougher liquor licensing laws, as well as general programs of information and awareness for the community.

Quick question number two asked about banning smoking in public places. Baillieu said he would wait to see what VicHealth recommended. Brumby said there were no plans to ban smoking, and started to talk about other programs in place and proposed to help people quit – but was cut off by the time limit.

The Wonthaggi desalination plant came in for some scrutiny. Brumby, asked if he had ignored advice not to proceed, said he had made the right decision. ‘All advice coming to the government from the Bureau and CSIRO is that erratic climate patterns are likely to be more frequent’, and therefore it was important to guarantee water security for the next 30-40 years. Bailieu was confronted with his own promise of a desalination plant, made four years ago, and reminded that he had continually said since that Labor’s plant was ‘never needed’. He responded that the Liberal Party would honour the contracts and build the plant, but that it was ‘huge’, ‘very expensive’, and that Victorians would be paying for water they may not even require. His own plan had been for a ‘modestly-sized, modestly-priced’ plant.

There was grudging acceptance from Baillieu that Brumby’s government had managed the economy well during the Global Financial Crisis, but even that was qualified. The surplus was ‘skinny’, propped up by funds from the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ – and anyway, it was all ultimately due to the good work of Howard and Costello. Victoria was now in a situation of escalating debt, he asserted, and – apparently advocating a kind of 12-step ‘State Treasurers Anonymous’ program – the first step was to recognise that there was a problem.

Asked how he would bring down this debt, Baillieu made a very odd answer. ‘Imagine how much better off we would be if we hadn’t had those cost overruns in major projects,’ he said.

Brumby argued that the budget was not ‘skinny’, but rather ‘comfortably in surplus'; the only state, in fact, forecasting surpluses over the whole of the forward estimates period. He pointed out that Victoria’s share of debt was lower than when Labor first took power – then assumed the Voice of Doom. Baillieu had promised he would not add ‘one more dollar’ to the debt, but had also promised $7.5 billion in spending. In order to keep both commitments, he would have to cut spending to hospitals (including the new children’s hospital at Monash), schools and public sector jobs.

Quick question number three asked if either leader would introduce a $1 betting limit on poker machines. Brumby said he was in the process of instituting pre-commitment technologies, but had no plans to introduce betting limits. Baillieu jumped in to add hastily that he was the ‘first’ to raise the idea of pre-commitment technologies, and might look at lower bet limits.

As mentioned above, Brumby apologised for the systemic failures in dealing with the Black Saturday bushfires. He was at pains to point out the unique circumstances, while not trying to belittle the problem. ‘Systems failed, and for that I am eternally sorry,’ he said. He went on to mention that steps were being taken to deal with future situations, including $861 million spent on warning systems, and boosting numbers of fire fighters. Baillieu’s comment? ‘The government erred before the fires, and has erred in the longer term, but I won’t criticise John Brumby for his performance at the time. There were countless recommendations for change from reports, which were not accepted.’

Finally arriving at closing statements, Baillieu borrowed some Obama-talk and spend time calling for ‘change’. He pointed out he was an architect by training, which apparently proved he was focused on the future. ‘I see problems and I want to fix them,’ he said. He liked ‘nothing better’ than building the future.

Brumby gave out a round of thanks to the moderator, panellists, Baillieu, linesmen and ballboys, before promising that Labor would be the same ‘stable, experienced, strong’ government it was currently – only more so. Hospitals would be built, more nurses, doctors and police employed, and schools and pre-schools supported. For the first time he mentioned the impending closure of Hazelwood’s coal-fired power station, and his commitment to making Victoria the ‘solar capital of Australia’. (One can’t help thinking this should have been mentioned right up front, given the current state of turmoil over tackling climate change in the Federal arena.) Finally, he acknowledged that Labor could do better, and committed to do just that.

In the end, the debate boiled down to this:

* an incredibly rude Opposition leader who seemed unable to let anyone else speak, who was constitutionally incapable of even acknowledging that preference deals might, perhaps, possibly be done, and who was a little too enthusiastic about the idea of putting more police with greater powers on the streets.

* a Premier whose folksy manner seemed forced, but who managed to admit his own government’s failings even as he refused to talk to the Greens, while sounding the alarm on the apocalyptic consequences that would follow if the Liberal Party was elected.

* a Moderator who probably needed a Bex and a good lie-down.

* an audience whose bread-and-butter concerns were relegated to 30 second grabs, while they were forced to listen to 20 minutes of ducking and weaving on how-to-vote cards.

All in all, not a good result.


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