Victorian Senate Group AB: The Democratic Process

As I reach the Australian Democrats, I breathe a sigh of relief, as one who has entered an oasis of sanity.  In fact, I get four relatively sane parties in a row, if you count WikiLeaks, because this seems to be the vaguely-sensible left enclave on the Victorian Senate Paper.  It’s always nice to find a party that doesn’t make you want to weep for the future of this country…

The Democrats turned out to be my favourite party last time, if I recall correctly, though an ungrouped independent who isn’t running this time actually got my first preference.  So I have high hopes for a bit of sanity and compassion… even if it is from a party who really has reached endangered species status.

Oh no, I say this and then I look at their two group voting tickets and the first people they preference are the Animal Justice Party, which I have to say does not look good.  They also like Drug Law Reform, Stable Population, HEMP, Bullet Trains and the Secular Party.  I am disappointed, but not really surprised, to notice that they have put Family First ahead of the Greens, who they view as rivals.  I’m actually not sure if this is still really the case – the Greens have moved up a bracket, numbers-wise, and I suspect the Democrats’ real competition comes from the Sex Party, who they have preferenced quite high at 21-22.  They do eventually get around to Labor and Liberal, who are right next to each other and are simply swapped around between tickets.  This is interesting, because I think they used to do a single ticket, and it used to be for the Coalition, but I could be remembering wrongly.  The bottom of the ticket is reserved for the rabid Right, in particular the One Nation and the CEC, though the two fishing parties and the Smokers Rights are also part of their bottom 5.

Not bad, at any rate.

The Democrats’ website has a simple green and gold theme with ‘Sustainable Prosperity’ in the header.  They also want to know whether I want a fair go for everyone (I do, but I’m afraid I don’t join political parties), and their rotating front page flips between compassion for asylum seekers, sustainable energy, Aboriginal equality, getting ready for peak oil and sustainable population. In fact, they have a higher proportion of environmental policies up front than the Greens do, which is fascinating – though of course, they can afford to, because they are not fighting the stereotype of being environmentalist nutcases or ‘extremists’ as certain other parties would like to call them.

The Democrats talk about a ‘triple bottom line of social justice, the environment and the economy’, and have a slogan of ‘honesty, tolerance and compassion’.  We are informed that they are about long-term thinking and negotiation, and point out that they were ‘defending the environment when it wasn’t trendy to do so’, take that, Greens!

They have a huge number of policies, all as individual PDFs, which are an utter pest for me to download and read, thank you so much, Democrats!  I will focus on the eleven ‘action plans’ which they have designed for the 2013 election, but may pull out a few of the others, just because I like them.  Incidentally, all policies are apparently decided by a ballot of their members, which is rather nice, and reflects well on their members, too.

On the Environment, the Democrats are the only party who state outright that they want to raise the carbon tax, as they view it as the most efficient way to drive the shift to sustainable energy production.  A strong and controversial start!  They also want a better national feed in tariff for renewable energy, and to required higher standards of energy efficiency in white goods, houses and cars.  They want to increase the renewable energy target, reduce fossil fuel subsidies – you know, I only discovered those during this election, and I am astonished and appalled that we still have them! – and facilitate renewable development while phasing out coal.  They are against nuclear power, and against fixed connection charges for utilities, as they are a regressive tax, and also discourage renewable energy.

They have an interesting and I think very good policy on drivers licence / vehicle registration fees, and how we might be fairer and make driving more ‘user pays’:

Current driver’s licence and vehicle registration charges levied by the states are among the most regressive tax instruments in use in Australia. They also have no environmental value in that the taxation is not related to vehicle usage of efficiency.
By increasing existing fuel excise the same revenues can be raised as now in a much more efficient manner. The bulk of this revenue would go towards funding national vehicle injury insurance scheme that would replace the various State schemes.
The result would be a user-pays scheme which would help encourage car-pooling, public transport and other non-car transport.
The average car owner paying about $700 per annum (Victorian city rego) for vehicle registration and licence costs could expect to pay $1.90 per day extra in fuel excise. Drivers of more efficient cars or persons that do not drive very much would pay substantially less.
I really love this.

Speaking of transport, the Democrats want to shift most new road funding to sustainable transport, such as public transport, freight rail, and bike tracks.  They also want to mandate minimum fuel efficiency standards for new and imported cars.

They have a lot to say about the environment, some of which is covered in other policies, so I will come back to those sections later.  They want to create better recycling systems, reduce packaging waste, and make a mandatory 5-year warranty period for whitegoods, improving the durability of such goods, reducing waste, and saving consumers money.

The Democrats want to protect biodiversity, and some of their more innovative ideas include the encouragement of private investment in covenanted, high conservation land, and maximising Indigenous involvement in biodiversity conservation and land management.  They want to expand marine wildlife parks, particularly around the Great Barrier Reef, infuriating fishing parties everywhere.  They also want to cease broad-scale land clearing and logging. They have an urban water plan and an irrigation plan; the former once again suggests billing by usage, rather than having service charges, and funding public investment in water infrastructure, and also funding rebates for water tanks and retrofitting plumbing devices to save water.  Their solution to the Murray Darling Basin is to replace a tax on farm income with a tax on water.  I’d be really interested to see how this would actually pan out – would smaller farmers be disadvantaged against farmers backed by large corporations?

I don’t really understand their Global Climate Action plan, so I’m going to quote it in full.  It does sound entirely unlike anything else I’ve read, and as though they’ve thought through some of the reasons why emissions targets haven’t worked, so it may well be worth a look by someone who understands economic markets better than I do (i.e., anyone at all, really):

So far attempts to get a global climate change agreement in place have had little success.
The key reason for this is the preoccupation with setting emission targets for different countries with very different emissions per capita. China and India will never agree to a per capita CO2 limit below what is allowed for the USA, Canada and Australia but the USA, Canada and Australia will not accept a per capita CO2 limit so far below what they emit now.
To bypass this problem we propose that agreement is sought on a standard global carbon price based on a formula using a basket of currencies and/or commodities. National governments would agree to set a carbon price at this level and could use the revenue to reduce taxes on labour or income but not to subsidise or compensate fossil fuel production or use.
This would provide a simple, clear and steady global carbon price. Since this is a tax shift not a tax rise, the countries that went first suffer no relative economic disadvantage.

On Animal Welfare, the Democrats are opposed to live animal exports and want to ban battery hens, which would be fantastic.  They make the interesting point that animal cruelty cases are currently prosecuted by the RSPCA rather than the police, and comment that it is inappropriate to have charities undertaking police work on quite a lot of levels.  Funding is one of them, but the link is also made between animal abuse and violence against humans.  I agree with all of this, but I think it might be difficult to get the police to really put a lot of time and effort into animal welfare, because crimes against humans will always come first, and from what I gather, the police has trouble even keeping up with those.

Actually, the Democrats have clearly been hanging around with the Animal Justice Party, because I recognise several of these points and some of the logic behind them.  We are reminded, for instance that ‘animals are sentient beings, deserving respect and protection from inhumane treatment.  They have a worth beyond their usefulness to humans’.  The bit about animal abuse and violence against humans is also familiar.  The Democrats also seem a bit worried about animal experimentation, and want to do a lot more reviewing and monitoring (our AEC would just love that), and support alternatives to animal use in scientific and educational research.  I think most scientists support that, too.  Seriously, researchers really don’t do mouse experiments for fun.

I like their policies for food labelling which identifies the production system for animal-derived foods, and labels vegetarian and vegan products.

My mind has just gone to what it would be like if everyone got their way on labelling: we already have all ingredients listed, there are declarations of gluten, nuts, eggs and dairy; some things are labelled kosher or halal; we want to label things that are made or produce in Australia, and now we want to label everything that is vegan or vegetarian.  Then you have the Heart Foundation Tick, the Low GI logo, the name of the product and anything the manufacturer wants to say about it.  This could get kind of magnificently epic, especially on small products – I mean, you can fit a lot of information on the side of a loaf of bread, but what about a little jar of sun-dried tomatoes, or one of those small, gourmet cheeses?

… I am actually in favour of all this labelling, because I’m the sort of person who reads everything on the side of a packet, but I do wonder about the practicalities.  I see lots of logos in our future.

We now move on to Population and Immigration.  Like the Stable Population party, the Democrats are concerned about keeping Australia’s population at an ecologically sustainable level.  They start with asylum seekers, who they point out are actually a very small proportion of our migrants, and are found, in 90% of cases, to be genuine refugees.  The Democrats are also stopping the boats by putting people on planes, but they’ve put a bit more thought into it than Palmer United.  They propose “selling permanent residency and air tickets to validated asylum seekers in neighbouring countries. The price would be set at about the same rate as that charged by people smugglers for the boat trip.”

All accepted refugees will be granted permanent visas, and non-authorised arrivals will not be subject to detention without compelling security or public health reasons.  They are also absolutely against Australia’s current practice of effectively imprisoning asylum seekers indefinitely without any trial, and demand that anyone locked up as a security risk be put on trial immediately or released if there is insufficient evidence under Australian law.  Go, Democrats!

On the whole, I like this, but I do want to know what a ‘validated’ asylum seeker is, and who does the validating.  Is this off-shore processing by another name?  Beyond that, though, it sounds as though it might actually work.  The Democrats add that they advocate an overall reduction in the number of migrants, but that this would be done by a reduction in economic migrants, to offset changes in asylum seeker numbers.

On the domestic front, they share the Stable Population Party policy of scrapping the baby bonus and covering child benefits for the first two children only, except in the case of multiple births.  They also do not support public funding for fertility treatments beyond the first two children.  This sounds fair enough.  Similarly, they want foreign aid to have as one of its objectives to reduce population growth, by, essentially, improving the lives and status of women (and educating women has been shown to be one of the fastest ways to improve entire communities – I’m afraid I don’t have time to look up the original studies, but the World Bank one is here, and there is an excellent overview here.), as well as providing access to family planning and contraceptives.

Speaking of foreign aid, the Democrats would also like to increase it to 0.7% of the GDP, and to use this aid better:

Australia has failed to meet its UN obligations on foreign aid and recently further cut aid in the latest budget. Worse, much of the aid budget is actually used for non-aid purposes such as boosting livestock export and persecuting asylum seekers.

Ouch.  Their priorities for funding would be to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat disease, ensure sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development.

I like this a lot.  Nobody is surprised.

We have already touched on the Democrats’ desire to replace the Farm income tax with a water tax, eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and raise the Carbon Tax.  They would use some of the revenue from the Carbon Tax to raise the Tax Free Threshold to $30,000, which sounds like a much better way to distribute that money.  They want to phase out negative gearing, and put a land tax on commercial and foreign owned land – these are both things that would help make housing more affordable for people who only want to have one.  They also want to add a junk food tax and create higher taxes for high alcohol drinks.

Oh, and they won’t raise the GST or reduce the exemptions.  It’s rather brave of them even to mention the GST, don’t you think?  It sort of reminds us of what happened last time the Democrats made promises about taxes…

The Democrats have a lovely education policy, with free and universal kindergarten for three and four year-olds, a free and well-resourced public education system, free tertiary education, re-funding of TAFE colleges, and indigenous students to be taught as far as possible by qualified indigenous teachers.  I really hope they can get this latter idea through, because it’s such good modelling of what is possible.

They want to improve school retention rates by letting students choose between two streams in secondary school – a tertiary and a vocational one, which they could be moved between.  They also want a special needs stream for students who are unable to participate in the other two streams without disrupting the rest of the class.  “The objective would be to re-introduce these students to the main streams as soon as possible or alternatively to get them to the same level of knowledge as the other students in different ways. It is likely the funding for this third stream would be many times higher than the other streams on a per student basis.”

I think this is an excellent idea.  I also think that mentioning the word ‘streaming’ in conjunction with education is what Sir Humphrey would call a ‘courageous decision’.  Teachers’ unions really hate streaming.  The Australian population tends to object to anything smacking of saying that anyone is better than anyone else, so they are likely to hate it too.  But oh, we really, truly do need to bring back decent vocational education and make it respectable in its own right, not a ‘second-best’ thing you do if you aren’t bright enough for ‘real’ education.  Depending on how you worked this out, it could be really good.

I would also note that I’d want this decision to be made fairly late in high school – I think we make kids specialise far too early as it is, and this looks like it would be the sort of choice that sets one’s life direction.  And what if a young adult wanted to go back and go to University after all – or to leave University and become a plumber?  Would they have to start from scratch?  The German system has a similar form of streaming, and it’s very rigid about this sort of thing, which can disadvantage kids who don’t do well coming out of primary school but might develop later.

The Democrats want to tie drivers’ licenses to finishing year 12, except in particular cases, ‘to act as a powerful incentive for wavering students to remain in the education system until they have sufficient knowledge to be employable’.  Again, this worries me, because it could really disadvantage those who are not academically inclined.

They want to improve the language education system, so that kids can continue from primary school to high school with the same language, and suggest that all primary and secondary schools within a region should teach the same second language, and do so more immersively.

I like this, but I would like it even more if there was a choice of languages in a given region.  Also, how big is the region?  What happens if your parents move house and everyone at your new school has been studying Greek, not Italian, for the last five years?

Private schools would only get funding subject to the following conditions:

  • Accept care of allocated special needs children.
  • Be open to students of any religious or non-religious background.
  • Not conduct religious instruction during core school hours

Sounds fair to me.

On Accountability, the Democrats would like to reform Freedom of Information to minimise government secrecy, and they want to strengthen whistleblower protection.  They would also like to cap political donations, ban those that have strings attached or come from overseas, and require full disclosure of donations accepted.  They want to create a Commissioner for Ministerial and Parliamentary Ethics, and they want to reform politicians’ salaries and entitlements, and if I understand them correctly, they want parliamentarians to have benchmarks and KPIs, which I find mildly hilarious.

The Democrats want to support the arts, particularly indigenous arts.  They want to have better arts teaching in schools (hooray!), and establish a ‘living wage for bona fide emerging artists, and extend unemployment programs to include work experience, arts business training, apprenticeships and employment in the arts for professional artists’.

This is absolutely wonderful and I’m all for it.

Finally, we have the defence policy, which I don’t feel qualified to comment on in detail, but it leans heavily towards defence rather than taking on what they call a ‘Deputy Sheriff’ role in overseas conflicts.  They don’t believe we should use force in international disputes, and that as a small and relatively unpopulous country, we can’t really ‘project power’ over our ASEAN neighbours.  They are in favour of involvement in UN peacekeeping, and are in favour of nuclear disarmament and banning cluster munitions; they also want to take better care of our veterans.

This is a long, long post already, so I’m not going to go into all the other policies on the Democrats’ website.  I will note that they are feminist and pro-choice in ways that warm my heart, in favour of harm-minimisation drug policies and the legalisation of cannabis, in favour of a good public health system, and that they “accept and celebrate human sexual and gender identity diversity”.  In fact, if this last is important to you, I’d suggest reading their policy in full, because it really is very good indeed.

Altogether, then, the Democrats are looking like a sane and rather interesting moderate-left party, with some great social justice ideas and quite a nice ethic.  I’m not sure all of their policies would work, but they seem to have at least thought about costings, and they do have a broad, compassionate and intelligent political platform.

I rather like them.

11 thoughts on “Victorian Senate Group AB: The Democratic Process

  1. Re: the split ticket: the Dems have run a split ticket for as long as there have been split tickets, the odd state election since their vote collapsed notwithstanding.

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