The Mad Hatter's loose in Parliament House

The way the media and independents are calling it, the Coalition is late for a very important date – running the country.

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't..."

The 'Mad Hatter', in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

There is an air of unreality to goings-on in parliament this week. The minds of our political representatives are fixed on whatever version of reality they’ve chosen to replace the current mess.

Here are a few examples, by way of illustration.

Small Business Minister Gary Gray stood in the senate courtyard with Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business Bernie Ripoll to promote a consultation paper on changes to the laws governing the burgeoning franchise sector of the economy.

It’s an important issue – the number of Australians sinking substantial portions of their personal wealth into franchise businesses is growing, making franchising an important route to SME-led economic growth. At last count there were 73,000 franchise businesses, employing 400,000 workers.

Gray and Ripoll spoke about the need to harmonise state laws governing franchising. The report they released yesterday includes 18 recommendations for this sector, including:

– strengthening the obligations of parties to act in good faith in a franchise;

– a stronger enforcement regime including financial penalties for code breaches;

– improving disclosure on issues such as online trading; and

– better dispute resolution mechanisms including regulating attribution of costs to franchisees.

That all sounds pretty real until one considers that both men know their work will be picked up by the Coalition, which is expected to take government in a landslide, and will form part of the Liberal/Nationals’ extensive agenda for small business reforms.

That is, the consultation process they have started cannot be finished and acted on in the dying weeks of the Labor government. In this context, Gray and Ripoll’s media conference was little more than a plaintive recording of the fact that ‘it was Labor’s idea’!

Later in the day Bob Katter held two media conferences, with a brief pause between them to avoid any confusion.

He wanted to raise two issues: firstly to promote his legislation for the breaking up of the Coles/Woolies duopoly in the groceries retail market; and secondly the growing debt crisis in rural Australia.

On the first point, Katter complained that in the UK, the two biggest retailers have 29 per cent of the market, and in the US “The Americans are screaming blue murder because WalMart and their competitor have now reached about 23 per cent market share. Here we have two supermarkets with a market share of over 80 per cent, so if they decide to cut down the amount of money they are going to pay farmers and jack up the price to the consumers, they can, because there is no competition.”

On the second point, Katter talked about one-in-two farms in areas of Western Australia, and one-in-three or one-in-four in Queensland, and worse in Victoria, that are headed for financial collapse.

He’s backing calls from farmers for a ‘Reconstruction Board’ approach to reform, that would involve holding properties on the public balance sheet until they can trade their way out of debt. This would be broadly similar to the US Troubled Asset Relief Program, which held ‘troubled’ financial assets until they became ‘untroubled' again – meaning the taxpayer underwrote the risk, but did not end up losing money.

Katter was raising important points, sadly drowned out today by all the Labor leadership guff filling the press. But halfway through the first media conference, without batting an eyelid Katter segued into this quote: “We said today ... to Mr Hockey, that you’ve got a choice early in the new year if you’re Treasurer, of watching collapse [of thousands of farms], and the implications for the banks ... [with] $12 billion in at-risk debt by early next year...”

It’s as if Hockey, and the Abbott government, were already governing. And we know from Business Spectator readers’ comments, that many people wish that were the case.

Meanwhile, The Australian newspaper in its editorial today is coaching Kevin Rudd in all the policy problems (most of which he started) that he’ll need to fix if he takes the reins of Labor and becomes prime minister once more at the next election (which could be earlier than September 14 if that reality transpired).

So where does the reality lie? We have a Labor government trotting out its “announceables” as if nothing were happening; independents and lobbyists working with the new Abbott/Hockey government already; and the continuing national fantasy that Kevin Rudd will emerge like a butterfly from the chrysalis of his former disgrace and lead us all back to the Eden he had planned for us in the first place.

We might as well issue psychotropic drugs to members of the press gallery and see what other realities we can come up with. It couldn’t get much weirder.

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