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Funding the 12-metre platypus, and other decisions that troubled the Howard government

Funding the 12-metre platypus, and other decisions that troubled the Howard government

John Howard’s ministers wrestled with many weighty policy issues in 2003, but a surprising one that troubled them was the size of Australia’s presence at a looming World Expo in Japan.

Cabinet papers released by the National Archives of Australia on Monday show ministers wanted to avoid offending the Japanese government with an excessively small presence.

But they also wanted to avoid upsetting the finance department by having an excessively extravagant one.

Cabinet met on 23 June 2003 and agreed it would be important for Australia to take part in the World Expo, to be held in Japan’s Aichi prefecture two years later. The stated reasons included that Japan was Australia’s largest export market (it has since been overtaken by China).

The cabinet minute also highlighted that Australia and Japan had “close shared views on strategic issues and Japan was strongly supportive of Australia’s position on Iraq”.

“Japan has high expectations that Australia will participate in the exposition and is likely to consider a decision not to participate as a slight,” the document said.

“Australia’s participation in the exposition is likely to be raised during the prime minister’s forthcoming visit to Japan.”

Australia’s pavilion ended up featuring a 12-metre platypus statue – apparently one of the most photographed exhibits at the expo – and its cafe served crocodile rolls and kangaroo burgers.

Ministers agreed that “the costing of $51m calculated in preparatory work for the proposal, based on a ‘size five’ design, was too expensive and was not necessary to meet Japanese expectations of Australia’s participation in the exposition”.

But ministers also felt “the option of a ‘size three’ or smaller size design … would not be credible and may be criticised as inadequate to promote Australia”.

With hindsight the solution may appear obvious, and indeed they duly agreed to split the difference and go with “size four”.

Nauru on the verge

Many other decisions the Howard government faced in 2003 were not so easily resolved. The biggest call was to send Australian forces to join the US-led invasion of Iraq, to “disarm” Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction that were subsequently never found.

In the months after that decision, the immigration department was examining the implications for Australia’s refugee and migration programs. The immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, said the government should “have arrangements in place to allow for the voluntary and, when appropriate, involuntary return of Iraqis [from Australia] when prevailing security conditions permit”.

On 16 June, cabinet backed the extension of offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, because construction of a Christmas Island facility was not expected to be finished before early 2006.

A cabinet submission noted that Nauru’s financial situation was “parlous”.

“It remains on the verge of bankruptcy as government revenue is declining and expenditure cannot be met. The population lacks basic services and infrastructure is degraded. Critical infrastructure such as power and telecommunications is being kept from collapse by Australian assistance.”

Free trade agenda

Trade featured heavily in the government’s deliberations throughout the year.

In March, the cabinet agreed to pursue a “genuinely comprehensive” free trade agreement with the US, while mindful that the Americans would “propose changes to regulatory arrangements in a number of areas that are likely to raise domestic sensitivities”. These included the pharmaceutical benefits scheme – which ended up being a political flashpoint when the deal was signed a year later.

John and Janette Howard with then US president George W Bush and his wife, Laura, during a visit to Canberra in October 2003. Photograph: David Foote, Michael Jones/National Archies of Australia

Ministers were told that Australian negotiators would not give final agreement on any individual proposal until the entire deal was agreed. The aim was to “help us to resist any US pressure to concede an ‘early harvest’ in any particular sector, which could reduce our negotiating leverage”.

An attached communications and media strategy said briefings would target a number of groups, including the mainstream press, “to counter negative assessments of the FTA that could otherwise gain influence among community opinion leaders”.

In addition to “regular background briefings for key journalists and commentators”, the strategy suggested enlisting business and industry groups “as allies in advocating the benefits of the agreement”.

The government was also exploring how to boost trade with China. Cabinet papers show Beijing would agree to a study into a possible free trade agreement but only in return for concessions such as Australia recognising China as a “market economy”.

The government was open to exploring some form of compromise, but the Australian Customs Service told cabinet that China was “likely to pocket any concession offered while continuing to demand recognition as a market economy”.

Push for privatisation

Amid a range of domestic issues including drought, bushfires and water reform, the government continued its strong ideological commitment to privatisation. In June 2003 the cabinet decided to introduce legislation “as soon as possible” to enable the full privatisation of Telstra, although ministers were aware this was a sensitive issue among the Nationals.

The communications minister, Richard Alston, privately warned colleagues that the privatisation of Telstra would only gain “crucial support in regional Australia” if the government showed it was serious about “future-proofing” regional telecommunications services.

Workplace relations was another ideological battleground, with Tony Abbott seeking cabinet approval on 1 April to quickly announce the establishment of an Australian Building and Construction Commission, in line with the findings of a Coalition-ordered royal commission.

Abbott, the employment and workplace relations minister, told his colleagues unions were “attempting to discredit the report” so a slow response by the government would “give critics of the royal commission the opportunity to mount a protracted campaign against any reform”.

Unions have long opposed setting up an industry-specific regulator, but the cabinet papers reveal that was a position also broadly shared by Treasury and the finance department. Treasury also warned that the “proposed solution appears particularly unsuited to the identified problem”.

Spam alert

In July, the cabinet authorised a crackdown on a very different and much more recent problem. The government was drafting legislation to ban spam, except where people either opted in or had an existing business relationship with the sender.

“The volume of spam worldwide has increased significantly in the past two years,” Alston told his cabinet colleagues.

“A key reason for this rapid growth is the extremely low cost of obtaining e-mail addresses and the even lower cost of sending messages (~ 0.00032 and 0.000082 cents respectively).

“The volume of spam is expected to continue to escalate, in part due to the hacking and virus-like techniques being used to send it and to circumvent spam filters.”

The government drafted a media release headlined “Out Damn Spam”. Its efforts have so far proved unsuccessful.

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