Ozvote ’07 – Foreign Affairs & Education debates

The debates are coming thick and fast. So is the increasingly strident rhetoric. Sadly, the policies are pretty thin on the ground.

Good examples of this came in yesterday’s two debates – between Alexander Downer and Robert McLelland on Foreign Affairs, and Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith on Education. Far from anything concrete which the voter could use to assess real prospects for the future, we got a combination of lies, damn lies and insults.

You’ll have to forgive me if my tone gets a little flippant or scornful. What I saw yesterday was – unequivocally – the low point of the campaign. So far.

First, the Foreign Affairs debate.

Downer opened with some stirring nationalism – our single pillar is Australia. (He didn’t explain what this meant.) After asserting that Labor had 3 pillars (again, not explained), he went on to give us the now-familiar Shiny List of Good Stuff the Howard Government’s Done. We have good relationships with countries in the region. We have doubled our exports. We have Free Trade agreements with the US, Singapore and Thailand, which helps us lift people out of poverty in other countries.

Then came the whoppers. According to Downer, the following can also be listed among the great Coalition achievements. We have secured our borders. We are fighting effectively against terrorism – in fact, we are dealing major blows to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and we have caused a ‘dramatic decline’ in terrorism in Indonesia. (In an aside, he mentioned offhandedly that he wouldn’t be making submissions to the Indonesian government to have the condemned Bali bombers’ death sentences commuted.) And we are leading the fight against climate change.

(I pause for the picking up of jaws from the floor.)

Labor, in Downer’s view, doesn’t like trade. It doesn’t like helping foreign governments. Its priorities are wrong. Labor wants countries to be dependent on us. It’s inexperienced. It’ll send us into an uncontrollable decline on the world stage. Only the Coalition can save us now.

McLelland’s opening–- again, now familiar with Labor speakers – was delayed by his detailed thanks to the Chair, the audience, his opponent and Mrs Downer, who was apparently present to support her husband. He commented on how governments of both ‘persuasions’ had helped build Australia’s international reputation. Pleasantries over, the knives came out.

The Howard government acts contrary to Australian values. We don’t lead the way in climate change – in fact, we are international pariahs for our failure to ratify Kyoto. We are not succeeding in Iraq – it’s a disaster, said McLelland, and rolled out the appalling statistics of civilian deaths, military deaths, displaced people and overall cost. He quoted former Australian commander in chief Peter Cosgrove and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who have both said publicly that they believe our involvement in Iraq has increased the likely threat of terrorism.

McLelland warmed to his subject, condemning the Howard government for never clearly defining our objectives, for not supplying clear direction to our troops, for being the only government in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ without an exit strategy, and for using the excuse that sanctions had failed to invade Iraq – when in fact, the Australian Wheat Board (whose export license was granted by Downer) was undermining sanctions with its kickbacks and rorts. Having delivered this indictment, McLelland used the last minutes of his speech to say that Labor would lead in global negotiations on climate change, and implement an exit strategy on Iraq.

Question time followed, whereby Downer repeatedly stated that the Iraq war is succeeding – or at least, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, that he didn’t ‘deep-six’ a proposal for worldwide nuclear disarmament, that the techniques used by our intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies in interrogating detainees are ‘consistent with our human rights standards and civil liberties’–- and that his government objects if they see others not applying the same standards. (He did not, of course, mention the US government’s redefinition of ‘torture’.) McLelland reiterated his Message of Doom – the Asia-Pacific region is self-destructing, Iraq is a disaster, Iran has been emboldened by our meddling in the Middle East, and the sky is falling.

A moment of levity relieved an otherwise tedious debate of ‘is so! is not!’, when a journalist asked Mr Downer to speak French (a sly poke at Downer’s previous criticism of Kevin Rudd’s greeting the Chinese leadership in Mandarin at APEC). Downer obliged by introducing himself. McLelland, not to be outdone, quipped, “I can’t speak Mandarin – although I have eaten one or two in my time”.

The only other moment of interest was the question that utterly blindsided Downer – did he now accept that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war was a mistake, and did he accept that there were parallels with the situation in Iraq as regards military action based on deliberately distorted intelligence? Knowing what he knows now, did he regret Australia’s involvement in Iraq?

Downer, clearly unprepared for the question to come in that form, floundered for a bit, laughing about ‘Oh no, I’ll be asked about the Battle of the Somme next!’. When he did answer, however, he reiterated his party line – Saddam=bad, invasion=good – without once answering the question.

McLelland’s response was stronger. On Vietnam, he was unequivocal – it was a mistake. On Iraq, he pointed out that even the US Secretary of Defence had questioned the decision to invade – and then he repeated his party line – invasion=bad, Iran=scary.

There was very little in the way of policy announcement during the debate – in fact, nothing we didn’t already know. The Coalition will stay in Iraq, and pursue Free Trade Agreements with many more countries, including China and India. Labor will pull 1/3 of our troops out of Iraq, leaving the rest in ‘overwatch’ and ‘support’ positions, but out of combat. Downer was self-congratulatory, McLelland was the Voice of Doom. And so it went.

Commentators noted afterwards that the two had been ‘playing for a draw’. The only difference was that Downer simply couldn’t avoid scoring an ‘own goal’ on Iraq – after all, he was hardly likely to undermine the party line.

The Education debate wasn’t much better.

Julie Bishop opened with the Shiny List, and the Dream for a Better Tomorrow. Mixed in with the ‘imagine this’ motif were the lies. In this case, however, her lies were even more outrageous than Downer’s. Australia is ranked in the ‘top handful’ of OECD countries that invest in their education system. The Coalition has increased funding for schools and universities every year since gaining power. It has ‘rekindled an interest in Australian history’. Universities are in the best financial situation ever.

(I pause again – are your jaws getting sore yet? Mine were.)

Bishop segued effortlessly from happy-fluffy land to warnings of Teh Evil on the horizon. ‘We’ must get away from ‘state parochialism’. ‘We must break the nexus between unions and schools and the “one-size-fits-all’ approach to teachers”’. ‘We’ must liberate universities from the Dawkins/Labor ‘straitjacket’ of mediocrity. Most alarming of all, ‘we must move on from the fads and ideologies of the past twenty years’.

Smith’s opening, too, followed the predictable path. Thanks Chair, thanks Opponent, thank you linesmen, thank you ballboys. (Dear me, I am getting flippant.) Like Bishop, he rhapsodised about the Possibilities in Our Future – and immediately followed it up with the counter-statistics. Australia does not lead the world in education in any way – in fact, we’re either stagnating or going backwards. Our secondary school retention rate has not increased from its current figure of 75% in the last decade, we have rated last or equal last for investment in early childhood education in the OECD for the last six years, university funding is down while HECS costs are up, teacher qualifications are declining, etc.

With all the sledging, it was hard to pick out the policies – more often, both debaters criticised each other’s ideas or challenged their figures. This is the best I could do.

Bishop – technical colleges will be increased by 100. Universities will be encourage to seek sources of funding from business, so they are not ‘dangerously reliant’ on one form of revenue. The ‘progressive curriculum’ developed to date in secondary schools will be systematically removed and a national curriculum, controlled from Canberra and approved by Federal politicians, put in its place. Teachers will be paid using ‘innovative salary models’ that ‘reward excellence’. And she reiterated the ‘parents deserve a choice’ rap – adding, this time, the nasty implication that applying a means test to education-spending tax rebates would prevent parents from choosing private schools for their children.

(I’m just going to break in here. This is an utterly outrageous lie. Means testing would not prevent any parent from making the same choice of schools. What it would do is prevent the wealthiest parents from gaining yet another tax break on something they’d be doing anyway. To suggest that means testing would somehow hurt ‘ordinary Australian parents’ is nothing short of deceptive.)

Smith – full-fee domestic places at university will be abolished. Absolutely no deregulation of fees with low-cost loans schemes to fund universities. A national school curriculum is absolutely necessary, but must not be written by politicians – under a Labor government, the curriculum would draw on the existing good programs and be mutually agreed to by State, Territory and Commonwealth governments as well as representatives of Catholic and independent schools. Existing teachers will be retrained and upskilled, and the image of the profession will be rehabilitated.

Smith also did something that rated highly with many commentators. When Bishop brought up the notorious ‘hit list’ of the Latham leadership (in which Commonwealth funding would be taken from private schools and given to government ones), Smith unequivocally stated that he accepted the policy was ‘wrong’ and ‘divisive’ – and guaranteed it would not be reinstated.

(Breaking in again. I liked the Hit List. I thought it was a bloody good idea for government funding to go to government schools, rather than supplementing the already comfortable financial position of private ones. Nonetheless, a willingness to own up to past mistakes counts for a lot.)

Yes, those were the highlights. Sad, huh?

The stand-out from both these debates was the level of lying that was undertaken by the Coalition speakers. Both Downer and Bishop flew in the face of all reports about the dire state of both our education system and the war in Iraq – and they did so without apology and without regard for the Australian people. Whatever the intended message, I think it’s fair to say that viewers came away from those debates with a sour taste in their mouths. No one likes being lied to – and no one likes being taken for a fool.

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