Julia’s Year of Living Rigorously
The sudden resignation of Murray-Darling Basin Authority chair, Mike Taylor, was a reminder that with complex national reforms, there’s many a slip between cup and lip.
Two schools of thought emerged. One cast Mr Taylor’s departure as a setback because a strong advocate of a healthy river system had been muzzled. The other held that an enviro-fundamentalist who saw the good as the enemy of the great, had bowed out clearing the way for a workable deal for the river.
Actually both are true.
The Government in any event favours the latter version. It is all too aware that when the final Basin Plan is ticked off in Cabinet 12 months from now, it then has to clear the parliament. There, it will be put up as a regulation - a “disallowable instrument” to be voted up or down ‘holus-bolus’. Remember, the Government controls neither house.
Understandably perhaps, Mr Taylor saw the Authority’s role as above politics: to use the best available science to set sustainable diversion limits. In other words, work out how much water the rivers need and from there, work out how much can be siphoned off for irrigation etc upstream. It may seem hard-line but it is entirely consistent with the assertion to which everyone pays lip service: that a healthy river is in the interests of all.
Since the August 21 election, and particularly since it realised how strongly river communities felt about losing water entitlements, the Government’s new Water Minister, Tony Burke, has taken a broader view. He says the Water Act requires the Authority to ``optimise’’ social, economic and environmental impacts of water allocation policy.
If politics is the art of the possible, Mike Taylor’s removal tells us all we need to know about how things will proceed from here. Put another way, the final result lies further along but still firmly within the continuum of compromise framed by human and environmental needs. South Australians of course hope that means a marked improvement downstream. But the somewhat purist goal of ending a century of parochial interests and upstream plundering has been revealed as a pipe-dream.
It’s just one of the big ticket national reform items destined to fall well short of perfect next year. The national school curriculum, scheduled to start in 2011, also faltered this week.
With states dragging their heels, a genuine nation-wide curriculum for English, history, maths and science in years 1 to 10, will not take shape before 2013. The setback, furiously spun as something else, follows closely on the embarrassing last-minute delay to MySchool 2.0 which was to provide financial information on every school in the land and should by now be up and running.
Everywhere it seems, the Government is getting a lesson in ‘real politik’. More are to come. By this time next year, half the states will have shifted to the Coalition side, with another, (Qld) expected to follow early in 2012.
Unanimous agreements with states (Kevin Rudd called it cooperative federalism) have gone from the unlikely category towards the one marked “impossible”. Take health and hospitals reform. Already it is clear that Mr Rudd’s national funding takeover of hospitals is in trouble. WA had never signed up anyway and Victoria is no longer on board after its change of government.
Still Ms Gillard remains determined to hit the ground running in 2011 - her nominated year of delivery. Parliamentary sittings may have been slightly back-loaded to the second half of the year (when the Greens assume the balance of power in the Senate), but MPs return to Canberra on February 8. And she has called a COAG meeting of state premiers for February 14 in a bid to kick-along the digital broadband agenda and to get momentum back into the ailing health reform process.
As it happens, 2011 is 65 years from 1946, the first year of the post-war baby boom. That boom continued until 1961 - the year of the PM’s birth. This makes next year the one in which the first boomers reach pensionable age. A grey tsunami looms.
Demographer, Bernard Salt says it means fitting 4.5 million retirees into the crowded space currently occupied by 2.5 million over the next few years. The resources implications are daunting. Yet politicians are certainly not talking about the need for higher taxes to fund it.
“I don’t see people really grasping the extent of what lies ahead,” Salt told the National Press Club.
“We need to get more people to pay more tax to fund what is required in the health system.”
“I’ve got a very confronting observation for you: whatever amount of money you are able to raise, it ain’t gonna to be enough. We will be working longer, you will be paying more tax, we’ll be dragging in more skilled workers and it still is not going to be enough and that comes down to the expectations of the baby boomers, the ‘Me’ generation ... and that goes beyond health, infrastructure, education, so it’s managing the unmanageable.”
Encouragingly, there are signs this will be a driving theme of the May Budget. Building on its 2009 decision to progressively lift the retirement age from 65 to 67, the Government is now looking at a range of measures aimed at increasing participation rates for seniors - basically, keeping them in the workforce in some capacity and offering incentives like re-training, and perhaps favourable tax treatment for part-time work.
Salt’s point is that people are simply not paying enough tax over their lives to keep them in retirement in the manner to which they have become accustomed. And he says with many young people not getting serious about entering the workforce until their mid-twenties, and then looking to retire in their fifties, two thirds of their lives are spent not paying tax. It is imply not enough to cover their pre-work costs of schooling and their post-work costs of healthcare during an increasingly long retirement - now averaging 24 years.
Ms Gillard is currently taking a pre-Christmas break. She is going to need it.
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