New paradigm or new paranoia?

September 29, 2010

Day Two of the 43rd Parliament, and the first Question Time. We might be living in the era of the Great New Paradigm, but it feels awfully like the Same Old Crap.

After yesterday refusing to give Simon Crean a pair to attend the National Press Club, the Opposition relented at 8.30pm last night. I’ve already mused on their possible reasons for doing so. At the time, I wondered if this was a shot across the bow from the Coalition. It seems that I might have been generous in that assessment.

Today in Question Time Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Home Affairs, revealed that he, too, had been refused a pairing arrangement. In this case, though, he wasn’t being denied an opportunity to speak to the media; O’Connor was supposed to attend National Police Remembrance Day services on behalf of the government. This day commemorates and honours all those members of law enforcement who have lost their lives in pursuit of their duty, so it would seem only reasonable that a senior Minister participate. Apparently, the Coalition didn’t agree.

O’Connor went on to note that, as with Crean, the Opposition changed its mind at the eleventh hour, enabling him to attend. Again – what was the point of denying the pairing in the first place? The Coalition only made itself look mean-spirited; the initial denial was a snub to law enforcement, and the backflip was patronising. What does it hope to achieve?

At the moment, all the Coalition has done is give the government ammunition. Every time it denies a pair, the government finds a way to bring that up in Question Time. It’s not even necessary to be nasty about it, either; the person at the despatch box only has to sweetly thank the Opposition for changing its mind, and the damage is done.

Is this really just a way to keep the government on the hop? Keep them guessing, never knowing when a pair might be granted or denied?

The problem of numbers in the House was dealt a further blow today when the Opposition reneged on another part of its parliamentary reform agreement. This concerned changing the standing orders to include ‘re-committing’ votes – that is, allowing a member who didn’t make it into the chamber in time through no fault of their own to cast their vote after the fact. In a delicately balanced House, this would go a long way to assuaging anxieties that an ill-timed trip to the bathroom might be the downfall of legislation.

Only five days ago, Christopher Pyne confirmed that he would honour that part of the agreement. He even indicated that the Opposition might be inclined to grant the right to re-commit in cases where ‘extreme carelessness’ was to blame.

Sounds like a great instance of co-operation, doesn’t it? But don’t get your hopes up.

Today, Pyne moved an amendment that turned a sensible, civil agreement into a potential walk of shame. Now, instead of automatically granting the right to re-commit, a debate will have to be held on whether standing orders can be suspended to allow the vote to be re-taken. The point of the debate is to force the hapless member who had missed the vote can be put through the wringer to justify their absence. This is potentially humiliating. It’s also another weapon in the Coalition’s arsenal. They can now force any member, right up to the PM, to answer a barrage of questions and effectively beg for the right to have their vote counted.

Pyne did this at a time when the government did not have all members present in the House – specifically, Tanya Plibersek was absent, probably through no fault of her own. The irony of using her absence to strike down the very reform designed to prevent such exploitation can surely not have been lost on either Pyne or Abbott – certainly not if their wide smiles were any indication.

So now we have a situation of extreme tension. Both sides will be trying to second-guess each other, to figure out when it might be all right to go to the bathroom, or make an important phone call. John Alexander, newly-elected Liberal Member for Bennelong, joked that it was lucky he was an athlete, since Parliament House was so large that he might not be able to make it to the chamber within four minutes (the time allocated for members to assemble for a vote).

It’s not all that funny, now.

So in the first two days of the new Parliament we’ve seen the Coalition renege on not one, but three parts of the reform agreement it signed in apparent good faith. They’ve refused to pair the Speaker. They’ve embarked on a campaign to create deep uncertainty regarding pairing in general (and I should point out here that pairing is a long-standing arrangement in the Parliament even without these reforms). Now they’ve refused to allow members to re-commit votes.

After the re-committal vote, someone on Twitter crowed, ‘Look out Joolya, here comes the no-confidence motions!’ (sic) Other responses were similarly smug – and even allowing for the vagaries of textual interpretation, the glee was unmistakable. Some of these tweets were from Coalition MPs. They were congratulating themselves for breaking their contract and destabilising the Parliament.

And the government is sinking to the same level. For all that the new Question Time was faster, less obviously argumentative and well-controlled by Speaker Harry Jenkins (who appears to have adopted a ‘Take No Crap’ attitude), the government still engaged in character assassination of the Opposition. Julia Gillard continually accused Tony Abbott of being a ‘wrecker’. Wayne Swan employed some surprisingly subtle insults, and even Kevin Rudd took the opportunity to poke the Opposition about asylum seekers when answering a question about floods in Pakistan.

About the best thing one could say about the new paradigm is that things happen faster, and that the Speaker is less inclined to grant license for personal attacks and antics. That doesn’t however, stop Julie Bishop hiding behind Parliamentary privilege while she attacks Gillard and mangles Shakespearean metaphors. (Dear? Lady Macbeth didn’t kill anyone.)

This isn’t a new paradigm. It’s a new paranoia, and every member of the House – especially on the government side – may well find themselves slipping into a state of hyper-vigilance as they constantly try to work out what’s coming next.

Finally, an annoying autobiographical pause: lately, I’ve faced a few accusations that I am not being ‘fair’ to the Coalition. In my defence, I will say that I am being absolutely fair. I quote where possible, provide references wherever possible, and invite any and all readers to check Hansard, watch or listen to Parliament themselves, and see whether I have misrepresented them.

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The beginning of the end?

September 28, 2010

On this, the opening day of the 43rd Parliament of Australia, I’d like to pause for a moment, and extend my deepest sympathies to Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie and Adam Bandt on the death of their hopes for political goodwill and electoral responsibility.

It’s a sad tale. A Parliament, brimming with potential and enthusiasm, fired up with possibilities for reform, cut down before its time – really, it’s enough to bring a tear to the eye. Devastated mourners are everywhere, wailing, ‘It could have been so beautiful!’ Their voices are almost loud enough to drown out the embittered mutterings of those gathered in the corners – ‘We told you this would happen. You were foolish to get attached’.

Actually, it’s not a sad tale at all. It’s a shameful one.

First, the wholly undignified scramble to form government, in which we saw the Coalition alternately instruct, cajole and threaten the Independents. That episode also featured the birth of the ‘Labor-Green’ scare campaign, using a sadly out-of-date ‘Reds under the Bed’ playbook. The whole business was redeemed, though, when both major parties signed on to a raft of parliamentary reforms designed to streamline government business, give backbenchers a voice and encourage bipartisanship.

Then, when it looked like Rob Oakeshott might be a candidate for Speaker, the Coalition suddenly ‘discovered’ that some of the reforms to which they’d agreed might be ‘constitutionally questionable’. They ignored the fact that their own strategist, Grahame Morris, had suggested to Oakeshott that his appointment to the Chair might prevent deadlock or outright failure of Parliament. They dodged the question of why they’d signed on in the first place. They engaged their own ‘independent expert’ to test the constitutionality of the agreement to pair the Speaker – said expert being Senator George Brandis. Now, Brandis does happen to be a constitutional lawyer, but ‘independent’? Well, given that the Coalition’s choice of firm to test their election costings was associated with former Liberal WA Premier Charles Court, perhaps there is more than one definition of ‘independent’ out there.

The Solicitor-General was consulted. His verdict? Pairing the Speaker was no different to pairing any other two MPs – an informal ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ did not breach the constitution. Good news, right? But wait. The Coalition decided that the Solicitor-General was, in fact, wrong, and chose to believe Senator Brandis instead. On the basis of that, they withdrew their support for pairing arrangements.

You have to give them points for consistency, I suppose. First the Treasury, now the Solicitor-General – it seems the Coalition doesn’t trust any government department.

Faced with that, Oakeshott felt he had no choice but to back away from the idea of taking the Speaker’s Chair. Predictable political manoeuvring followed, and it seemed for a while that former Coalition Whip Alex Somlyay might step into the role of Deputy Speaker and agree to pairing – in direct defiance of his party’s position. He too, though, changed his mind, amid speculation that Tony Abbott had applied a great deal of pressure to get him to do so.

In the end, the Speakership fell to Harry Jenkins, reducing Labor’s nominal majority in the House to one seat. Now, given how vocal that Coalition had been in advocating his appointment, you might expect a degree of respect and goodwill. Not so. The traditional opening statement of the Prime Minister – containing a slap at the Coalition’s behaviour regarding the Speakership – was greeted with rowdy heckling and scornful laughter from the Opposition benches. The Opposition Leader’s reply contained remarks about the Speaker that went well beyond cheeky, and earned him a rebuke from the Chair.

We still don’t have a Deputy Speaker. The Nationals popped up and reminded their Coalition partners that, traditionally, the Deputy should be drawn from their ranks. The Liberals challenged Labor to nominate one of their own MPs, which would bring the House into parity. Labor sat back and watched the Coalition argue with itself, while Rob Oakeshott on QandA last night vehemently rejected the idea of taking the position himself. All indicators point to Bruce Scott of the Nationals, but with the way things have proceeded up to now, who knows?

In a few moments, the House will be officially open for business, and the Governor-General will announce the government’s agenda for this term. Usually, this is straightforward – but the Coalition have already fired their first official salvo in this ‘kindler, gentler polity’.

Simon Crean, the Minister for Regional Australia, is scheduled to appear at the National Press Club tomorrow afternoon. Customarily, when an MP or Senator appears at the Press Club, or undertakes official duties that require their absence from the Parliament, the opposing side agrees to a pairing arrangement. If any vote takes place during that time, someone from the other side of the House will sit out, maintaining the usual balance of seats.

The Coalition have refused to allow a pair for Simon Crean, should any votes be called tomorrow. This placed Crean in an untenable position. The government’s majority is fragile, and the absence of a single vote might be the difference between workable government and a slew of blocked legislation and no-confidence motions. Under those circumstances, Crean had no choice but to apologise to the Press Club.

The strategy is clear. The Coalition intends to hold the government to ransom. Effectively, they wish to control the movements of government ministers – and the Prime Minister herself. If this tactic of withholding pair arrangements continues (and there is no reason to think it will not), we may see Tanya Plibersek’s vote lost because she is not granted a pair when she is in labour. We may see the Foreign Minister shackled to a Canberra desk instead of attending G20 meetings. The Prime Minister could well find herself having to schedule her official duties and the legislative agenda based on the whim of the Opposition. This is pure obstruction, designed to frustrate the government and bring about a premature end to the 43rd Parliament.

This is not ‘robust debate’. This is not ‘ferocious opposition’. This is a blockade, a siege. It’s a more blatant version of the ‘Just Say No’ strategy employed by the Coalition during the last Parliament.

And it goes further than votes. With the Coalition threatening to withhold pairs, government ministers may find themselves unable to fulfil vital parts of their duties. The National Press Club Address isn’t just a nice lunch for the media – it’s broadcast live, and is a way for the public to hear their government representatives speak at length on their portfolios, and be questioned. Community Cabinets provide unprecedented access to Parliamentarians. Meetings with leaders of foreign countries, important trade talks, meetings with business – all of these now stand threatened.

Undoubtedly, some will now call for an early election, claiming the situation cannot be resolved satisfactorily. Perhaps that’s a Plan B for the Coalition – but I think Abbott’s words to his party room say more about its real goals. The Coalition want to force a situation in which they can win a vote of no-confidence. All they have to do is wait until Labor simply cannot cancel a couple of official engagements, and they will strike.

At that point, the Governor-General traditionally asks the Opposition if they can form government. The Coalition may be counting on the Independents’ desire to keep Parliament running at all costs, and expect them to support an overthrow of the Labor government. I think that’s an unreasonable expectation – Windsor and Oakeshott have already expressed their disgust at the Coalition’s tactics thus far, and Bandt is unlikely to support a party that has already ruled out any form of carbon pricing.

Which puts us back to an early election – and then watch the spin. The Coalition will claim they ‘had no choice’. The Labor government was ‘unworkable’ – they didn’t have a mandate, they had unreasonable expectations, the Coalition is the party of stable government, etc.

What they won’t say is the truth – that, from the moment they were denied government by the Independents, they have worked tirelessly to ensure that this Parliament cannot work. That they made a decision to deliberately destabilise government, hamstring the legislature and harm the nation, and ruthlessly set about accomplishing that aim – in short, to acquire executive power at any cost.

This is a dreadful prospect for Australia, and I have no doubt that there will be those who strive to prevent such an outcome. Those people – Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie and Tony Crook – deserve our absolute support, because they will be working for a higher goal than personal political power. They may be the only ones who can lift us out of this situation – and hopefully, they haven’t yet accepted the idea that the dream is dead.

And if the worst happens, and we do end up back at the polls? I can only hope that there will be enough voices reminding the public of just who was really responsible for putting us there – and that the electorate will respond accordingly.

UPDATE

Reports are now coming in that the Opposition has changed its mind, and will offer Crean a pair arrangement for tomorrow – but only because the booking with the Press Club had already been made. That immediately raises the question: why refuse the pair in the first place? It’s unclear as to whether this reversal is in response to loud criticism from Labor and some areas of the media, or whether it’s simply another tactic. This might well be the Coalition’s way of saying to Labor, ‘You depend on us for permission to act’ – a shot across the bow, so to speak – and making it clear that, next time, Labor might not be so lucky.


Who has the ‘right’ to speak?

September 27, 2010

Full disclosure: this post deals heavily with blogging, Twitter and their place in media. I do not claim to be impartial on the subject.

There’s no doubt that both the blogosphere and Twitter are having an ever stronger influence on Australian politics, and political media coverage. Sky News promotes use of particular hashtags (subject tags that allow you to track a particular topic) for its political programs, and even dangles the tempting promise that they might use your tweets to interrogate their panellists. (And yes, this has happened with my tweets – there’s something very satisfying about seeing a pundit actually confronted by unexpected questions from ‘somewhere out there’.) ABC1 integrated Twitter into its QandA forum, to the point where Twitter often staggers under the barrage of tweets. The ABC even faced questions in Senate Estimates about the appropriateness of adopting a particular hashtag for tweeting commentary about the Budget Reply Speech – #budgies. ABC Director Mark Scott explained patiently that the hashtag was already in wide use, and that the ABC and other media had adopted it in order to reach that audience. The Senators in question seemed honestly unable to comprehend the idea that major media organisations had nothing to do with setting the agenda there; how could a few individuals have that kind of influence?

Then there are the blogs. I’m not going to list all the blogs that deal, even tangentially, with Australian politics; there are just too many. Check the Blogroll for some of the best. And they are being read, and distributed, and considered in all sorts of surprising places.

Some people are getting a little uncomfortable with that, it seems.

Grog’s Gamut is a blogger. He writes under a pseudonym, but hardly goes to extraordinary lengths to conceal his identity. During the election, a particular post criticising the media for not questioning the leaders closely on the issues attracted wide attention; even Mark Scott quoted the article and cited it as one of the factors leading the ABC to investigate and perhaps overhaul their coverage. James Massola, writing for The Australian, mused at length about the effect of the ‘blogocracy’ on people’s reading habits.

That’s all very positive; but then today Massola apparently decided that there was a deep issue of public concern here, and took it upon himself to ‘out’ the blogger. It was time, apparently, that the Australian public knew who they were reading.

The horrible truth? Grog’s Gamut is ‘just this guy, you know’?

In a startling coincidence, The Australian also published an opinion piece by its Media Editor, Geoff Elliott, proclaiming that bloggers and tweeters had no right to anonymity.

I’m going to quote the whole thing: it’s just that full of irony.

‘IF you are a public servant and blogging and tweeting, sometimes airing a partisan political line, do you deserve anonymity? No.

Journalists and editors grant anonymity to sources and whistleblowers but Grog’s Gamut, or as we know now, Greg Jericho, is an active participant in the public debate via Twitter and his blog. The ABC’s managing director Mark Scott cited “Grog’s Gamut” criticism of media’s election coverage at an ABC news meeting and as a result “we adjusted our strategy”.

Fair enough. But if you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public’s right to know who you are. It is the media’s duty to report it.’

This is truly a marvel of hypocrisy. Bear in mind, this is the same paper that published an anonymous opinion piece slamming the Gillard government and calling for the Greens to be ‘destroyed at the ballot box’. Where was the public’s right to know then?

And then there’s the article ‘outing’ the blogger. He was ‘unmasked’. He was repeatedly referred to as ‘anonymous’ – because apparently The Australian, despite using anonymous writers, does not understand what a pseudonym is all about. He is showing a ‘clear’ political preference, in breach of the Australian Public Service’s code of conduct. Clear character assassination – which appears to be something of a speciality of the News Limited paper.

Massola didn’t bother to inform the ‘public’ that he had known who the blogger was for nearly a year. So why the sudden urge to ‘out’ him now? At the very least, this is a beat-up in search of a byline – and this story, published 90 minutes ago, seems to bear that idea out. Massola has gathered a sampling of the discussions going on today and reprinted them, along with chunks of Grog’s reply to the original ‘outing’.

There’s also more than a bit of second-class citizen mentality going on here. Not five minutes ago, I was told that Twitter was for ‘opinions, not journalism’. (Ironically, this came from a journalist via Twitter.) This, despite the fact that many journalists regularly used Twitter to send snippets of news from media conferences during the election before filing stories. This, despite the fact that Twitter is often the first place a story breaks, and citizen coverage of events is more accessible than ever before. The recent gas explosion and devastating fire in San Bruno is a case in point; many of the first pictures and stories from people on the scene came via Twitter.

Then there are the blogs. Bloggers are regularly derided – we’re not ‘real’ journalists, apparently. No matter how much research we carry out, how carefully we check our sources or cultivate our contacts, we’re still just ‘individuals’ who give ‘opinions. The definition of ‘real’ is awfully slippery. It seems to hinge on whether one is currently employed by a major media organisation.

But it all boils down to this question:

Who has the right to speak publicly about Australian politics, and who confers that right?

On the face of it, the question’s a no-brainer. We all have the right to speak, don’t we? Despite the truism that one shouldn’t discuss politics or religion with polite company, it’s not hard to get into a conversation about the government or an election with everyone from work mates at the pub to friends at the beach to the person who scans your groceries at the local supermarket. No one is suggesting that this is in any way inappropriate.

Speak out on the internet, however, and you won’t just attract differences of opinion. You’ll be questioned on everything as to why you’re ‘hiding’ behind a username or a funny-looking avatar, to whether you are ‘really’ Paul Howes or one of the ‘faceless men of Labor’ in disguise. If you are particularly unlucky, they won’t even engage with the points you make – they’ll just attack you personally and try to publicly smear you.

Public debate, that great institution so lauded by Geoff Elliott, needs to be protected from the bloggers. And the tweeters. It is unconscionable that someone using a pseudonym should make a point, state an opinion, or report news on Australian politics. Of course, that doesn’t apply to News Limited or other major media organisations. It’s those dangerous individuals – who after all, might disagree with the blatant anti-Green, pro-Liberal bias regularly trotted out by News Limited – who must be unmasked at all costs.

I should point out here that News Limited aren’t the only media organisation jumping on this bandwagon. Numerous journalists have expressed their opinions today that there should be no ‘right’ to so-called anonymity (few, however, have advocated applying this to ‘real’ journalists). Perhaps the next point of attack will be other bloggers who post under a pseudonym, such as Possum Comitatus and Tobias Ziegler at Crikey. We may well die of irony poisoning if it keeps up, since these criticisms are coming via Twitter and the blogosphere.

Of course, in making this all about whether someone has the right to use a pseudonym, the real issues are effectively obscured. Grog’s critique of media coverage drops off the radar; bloggers and tweeters defend their right to speak under other names, and – happy day! – everyone forgets that these bloggers are raising valuable issues about Australian politics that are worthy of public discussion. Problem solved. The mainstream media gets to preserve their exclusive club of ‘real’ journalists, ignore the fact that citizen journalism is here to stay – and not look too closely at why people feel, more than ever, that they can find better treatment of the issues on blogs than on TV or in newspapers.

It was the blogs and Twitter that dissected the policies during the election. If you wanted the nuts and bolts of a policy, you wouldn’t find it on Sky News, or even the ABC (something that Mark Scott acknowledged) – you’d go to a blog and follow the research the blogger used through the information and links provided. (And that’s another thing – when was the last time a newspaper provided you with the tools to fact-check their stories?)

Mainstream media might have more resources – but the time is long past when they might be able to claim to be the voice of the people.

These days, the people are speaking for themselves – and they are holding all Australian politicians and media to account.


Scapegoating – Villawood according to Scott Morrison

September 23, 2010

It’s deja vu all over again. People in detention centres self-mutilating, on hunger strikes, threatening suicide – it’s just like during the Howard years. Unlike back then, though, this isn’t taking place out at Woomera, in the middle of nowhere. It’s happening at Villawood in Sydney.

On Monday, a Fijian national jumped to his death to avoid deportation after his claim for asylum was denied. Yesterday and throughout last night other detainees climbed onto the roof and threatened to do the same. They also gashed their stomachs and spelled out ‘SOS’ with what looked like either towels or bedsheets on the lawn. After being up there overnight, they were finally persuaded to come down, at which point some where taken to hospital to be treated for dehydration and lacerations.

Today, another group is on the roof, threatening suicide. This time the people are Chinese nationals, including a pregnant woman.

All these people have demanded that their rejected asylum claims be re-assessed (or, in the case of an Iraqi national yesterday, processed). The government made it clear that they would not meet demands delivered under such circumstances.

Within an hour of the original suicide, the Coalition started doing the rounds of the media, each successive event only fuelling their rhetoric. Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison was the major critic, speaking in print, on radio and on TV. Clearly, this was a failure of Labor’s asylum seeker policy, he argued. The boats are coming ‘in floods’, our borders are not safe, Labor has ‘sent a signal’ to people smugglers that Australia is ‘open for business’.

To make matters worse, Morrison asserted that if there hadn’t been so many boat arrivals, our detention centres would not be so badly crowded. ‘Obviously’ there was unacceptable psychological pressure at work on these protesters.

Hold on. Back up a moment there. How about some facts?

1. Villawood is not overcrowded. Morrison is attempting to obscure the issue by conflating the situation at Christmas Island (where there is a crowding problem) with that at Villawood.

2. With a couple of exceptions, the current protesters are not boat arrivals. Most arrived by plane on tourist or student visas and overstayed.

3. Again, with a few exceptions, the majority of the current protesters had already been processed, and deemed not to be genuine refugees. Contrary to what the Coalition implies, this is not a simple yes/no situation. Every claim is thoroughly checked, and a full appeals process is automatic.

4. The presence of boat-borne asylum seekers in Villawood in no way forces visa overstayers to take such extreme actions. For Morrison to suggest otherwise is not merely irresponsible, but actually inflammatory. There’s a wink and a nod to the ‘queue-jumper’ argument at work here; the Coalition would have us believe that a boat arrival is immediately advanced to the front of the processing queue, displacing those whose claims are already underway. This is simply not true.

See what Morrison is doing there? It’s called scapegoating. The people involved in the current situation have nothing to do with boat-borne asylum seekers; they arrived legally and attempted to circumvent the visa system by remaining in the country. Only after they were caught did they ask for asylum. Now, it’s perfectly possible that someone genuinely in need of asylum might become involved in the refugee system this way – but these people were processed, and found not to have credible claims. Morrison would have us believe that these are people who were robbed of their rights; and the culprits are the very asylum seekers who risk their lives to flee terrible situations in their home countries.

Morrison is running a line here that encourages all Australians to vilify those who are not in a position to speak for themselves. As Mac pointed out in his blog, it’s a deliberate campaign of dehumanisation that appeals to the basest, most xenophobic qualities in the Australian people.

Frankly, it’s disgusting.

In a way, none of us should be surprised that it’s come to this. The Coalition’s anti-‘boat people’ rhetoric has only ever grown more shrill – even as their spokespeople mutter words like ‘compassion’ and ‘fairness’, they’ve carefully crafted a narrative of grasping, sneaky ‘foreigners’ who want to take advantage of our prosperity and our basic good nature. Of potential terrorists who throw away their identification papers, who come with plans to radicalise our Muslim youth (already scapegoated and stereotyped) and bring the War on Terror to our cities. Of rich people who simply can’t be bothered waiting patiently in the ‘queue’, who force ‘real’ refugees to wait with saint-like patience in camps while their places are stolen away.

What we’re getting from Morrison right now is just the logical extension of this narrative. Once you accept all the above, it’s not a big step to believe that boat-borne asylum seekers might be responsible for someone’s suicide, and the events that follow from that.

What’s going on at Villawood is an extremely serious situation. The Fijian man who committed suicide, it now appears, knew that he would be deported. Counsellors had mentioned that he seemed depressed; no one, however, considered him a suicide risk. The government announced there would be an enquiry into his death, and rightly so – but to claim he was pressured into jumping because of the presence of asylum seekers is reprehensible. It completely obscures the man himself, co-opting his pain for the purposes of making a political point.

In a way, Morrison is dehumanising that Fijian man just as thoroughly as he is asylum seekers. The difference is in the spin; the Fijian was a desperate man victimised by an incompetent government and ‘illegal’ ‘boat-people’, while asylum seekers are evil connivers who are so dangerous that they can cause someone to kill themselves.

This is the kind of talk that led to the Cronulla riots. Morrison here is approaching the actions of Alan Jones in that situation, who whipped up a frenzy against ‘Muslim youth’. Unlike Jones, Morrison is stopping short of actually advocating that ‘Aussies’ take to the streets – but then, does he really need to go that far anyway? We’ve all seen how that kind of xenophobic talk can be read as permission to act by those who are inclined to do so – against Muslims, family planning clinics, the list goes on.

Morrison’s been all over the media. He should get out there again – and this time, apologise for his lies and his xenophobic hate-mongering.

Then he should call up that Fijian man’s family, and apologise to them for turning his death into a political bludgeon.

After that, he should fade to the back bench until he learns how to be an ethical human being.


Euthanasia and territory rights

September 20, 2010

Senator Bob Brown doesn’t waste any time. Before the new Parliament even gets to the doors, he’s signalled that he intends to introduce a private members’ bill aimed squarely at one of the most divisive issues in Australian social politics – euthanasia.

In 1996 the Northern Territory passed legislation decriminalising voluntary euthanasia – that is, a situation in which someone takes their own life in order to avoid protracted terminal suffering. Nine months later, the Howard government introduced and passed a bill to override those laws, exploiting the fact that, under Australia’s peculiar system, none of its Territories enjoy the same level of autonomy as the states. Although both the NT and the Australian Capital Territory have Self-Government legislation, in reality a Federal government can change or deny the provisions of those Acts.

Brown considers this an unconscionable interference, and wants to take steps to ensure that the NT can make its own laws in respect of end-of-life issues. Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled that she would allow a conscience vote on the matter.

Conscience votes are serious stuff. For most bills, the party cabinets decide how their members as a whole will vote, and members must be bound by that – the infamous ‘party line’. (The notable exception was the Australian Democrats – all sitting members participated in deliberations to determine how they would vote.) Should someone vote against the declared stance, they are said to ‘cross the floor’; literally, they leave their seat and move to the other side of the chamber during vote counting. If a conscience vote is declared, however, no direction is given, freeing members to vote according to their individual beliefs. The exception to this is if a party has already declared a position on the issue at hand – for example, ALP members are not free to vote their consciences on abortion-related legislation, due to the party’s declared support for reproductive choice.

Historically, conscience votes tend to concern highly controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, same-sex relationships, family law, war crimes, and certain areas of parliamentary procedure. Debate often gets tangled up with issues of religion and bio-ethics. Unlike most legislation, the outcome of a conscience vote is almost impossible to predict.

This is a huge risk for Gillard. Critics are already spinning her announcement as ‘proof’ that the Labor minority government is ‘held hostage’ by the Greens. If Brown’s bill passes, those voices may well be joined by those who believe euthanasia is morally and legally wrong.

Brown’s bill, in itself, does not call for legislation of euthanasia. It’s targeted at federal legislation. Should the bill pass, the NT would be free to re-introduce the issue in its own Parliament – but it would not be compelled to do so.

There’s a wider issue at work here, though. More generally, Brown is zeroing in on the federal government’s power to run roughshod over the territories’ right to self-government. In doing so, he puts the Labor government in an uncomfortable position. Issues of same-sex civil unions have already caused a good of deal of wrangling between the Australian Capital Territory and the federal government, with territory legislation repeatedly overturned or blocked, and the Legislative Assembly subjected to what can only be described as federal intimidation. The so-called ‘Northern Territory Intervention’, in which territory laws relating to indigenous peoples were overwritten by federal legislation, is another point of contention.

There are plenty of complex legal issues at work here. Technically, the federal government does have the right to these kinds of actions, although the justifications used often skate right up to the edge of legal trickery. Additionally, there are moral considerations. Should the federal government be able to repeal a law passed by a territory government simply because it doesn’t like it? Doesn’t this simply disenfranchise the citizens of that territory, a majority of whom voted for their direct representatives?

And in the case of the Northern Territory, are there really any good reasons for it to remain a second-class citizen? Why not grant states’ rights? The ACT is in a different situation – after all, it was specifically created to be a national capital, beholden to no particular state – but no such justification exists for the Northern Territory.

The issue of territory sovereignty, linked to the fraught question of legal voluntary euthanasia via this proposed bill, creates a potential minefield for Parliamentarians. Allowing a conscience vote puts increased pressure on members. There are two distinct areas of concern here, and there’s no guarantee that a member who supports territory rights would also be in favour of voluntary euthanasia. Or vice-versa.

Perhaps this is why Tony Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, are doing the media rounds right now attacking Brown’s bill. They’re not criticising the idea of euthanasia – in fact, one could say they are carefully not doing so. Instead, their strategy aims to paint Brown as politically naive, and out of touch with the ‘real’ concerns of Australian people. Abbott made several references over the last two days to ‘bread and butter’ economic issues, which he says are far more important than repealing the ban on the NT’s legislation. This is a curious tactic to employ, given how emotionally charged the whole question of euthanasia becomes at the drop of a hat. It’s as though the Coalition want to keep this as far from their Shadow Cabinet as possible.

Kevin Andrews, the original sponsor of the bill overturning the NT’s laws, appears to be designated as the person who’ll fight this bill on its merits. People ‘don’t want’ euthanasia legislation, he claims. ‘Every attempt’ to introduce it at state level has failed. Of course, here he’s being disingenuous. Strictly speaking, he’s not saying anything that isn’t true – he’s just not mentioning that a territory did pass the legislation and was prevented from implementing it.

What no one in the Coalition wants to do, it appears, is tackle the question of territory rights. By attempting to restrict the issue entirely to euthanasia, and further undermine its importance by implying that is frivolous, the Coalition seems to be hoping that they can avoid the thornier question. If they can’t, they’re damned either way. They’ll be forced to either defend or repudiate the Howard government’s interference. If they defend it, they look like autocrats – and they’re dragged into the general euthanasia question. If they repudiate it, the euthanasia question again becomes relevant, and in addition they leave themselves open to attack on every instance of intervention.

Brown’s certainly right in saying that territory rights are at stake here. In choosing the test case of the euthanasia laws, however, the Greens may have undermined themselves. If either issue dominates, it’s very possible that the bill will fail – not on its merits, but simply because the two issues have eroded rather than bolstered support for each other.


Oakeshott – mad with power or man of good intentions?

September 17, 2010

Parliament will sit for the first time in the new term on September 28. Before they can get started, the House of Representatives needs to elect a Speaker. Traditionally, that Speaker was drawn from the government’s side, often elected unopposed, and dragged to the Speaker’s chair. That last is a quaint holdover from the days when being the Speaker was an unenviable task that no one wanted – although perhaps not so outdated, given the way the Parliament is shaping up.

Before the hung Parliament became a reality, the assumption was that, in the event of a Labor victory, Harry Jenkins would continue in the position. It seems that’s no longer something we can take for granted.

The Independent Member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, confirmed a few days ago that he was interested in the job if nominated by another Member. In doing so, he triggered a storm of criticism.

Media commentators suggested that Oakeshott’s central role in determining government had gone to his head, that his ego was out of control. Perhaps he had been lured by the substantial pay rise. Andrew Wilkie worried that Oakeshott would lose his independent voice through the necessity of working closely with Labor. Moreover, since the Speaker does not traditionally have a vote, a valuable independent could effectively find himself muzzled. Unnamed sources told Malcolm Farr that the Member for Lyne was ‘too soft’ to deal with what promises to be an unruly House. Rumours that the Coalition intends to fight every possible point of order have those same sources worried that a tough, experienced Speaker will be needed to counter such obstructionism.

From the Coalition’s side has come a considerable amount of character assassination. Snide remarks about Oakeshott taking 20 minutes to deliver a ruling might be appropriate, even funny, when coming from a comedian, but they hardly constitute legitimate concerns about someone’s fitness for the job. Christopher Pyne even suggested that it was a matter of not knowing how the Constitution operated.

As for the commenters on various News Limited articles – well, I won’t bother repeating rhetoric worthy of the Tea Party.

Abbott refuses to support Oakeshott. Gillard, hedging her bets, has sought legal advice as to whether it’s even possible.

And the man himself? Interviewed this morning, Oakeshott said he was concerned that the House might fall at the first hurdle. With both major parties deadlocked on 72 seats, it’s likely that neither would want to give up a vote, leaving them even more dependent on cross-benchers to pass or block legislation. There might well be a ‘Mexican stand-off’, he said, and he was ‘trying to unlock the situation’. He pointed out that he would be happy for someone else to take the Speaker’s chair if agreement could be reached on both sides, but the way things were shaping up, he felt it might be a case of ‘if not me, then who?’ and wanted to see where people stood.

Oakeshott also said he worried that the Coalition appears to be reneging on the Parliamentary reforms to which both major parties had agreed – in particular, the agreement to ‘pair’ the Speaker. This reform would offset the loss of the Speaker’s vote by sitting out someone else (probably the Deputy Speaker) who could be expected to vote differently. Liberal strategist Grahame Morris suggested the change, Oakeshott noted, but now it seems that the Coalition has no intention of honouring the agreement.

There might be ego involved, but Oakeshott has apparently considered what most people don’t want to face – that, for all the landmark reforms and undertakings given in the post-election period, simple political manoeuvring may derail the Parliament before it even gets started. Electing a Speaker from the cross-benches safeguards against that possibility. It doesn’t need to be Oakeshott, of course – any one of the six could fill the position – but he seems to be the only one who’s putting his hand up.

Is he inexperienced? Of course, but so was every Speaker who first came to the chair. As he pointed out, ‘there’s no Speaker’s school’. Nor is there any test of office – convention often dictates the nomination of a senior backbencher, but this election has already shown that convention can be overturned. It’s an open question as to whether or not Oakeshott would be up to the challenge of bringing an unruly House to order; like most Speakers, he’s untested.

Would he lose his independence? That’s a real danger. Pairing the Speaker would alleviate the problem to an extent, but in reality, most Speakers have tended to support the government of the day. There are only a handful of significant situations in which this has not happened; in 1982, for example, Speaker Sir Billy Snedden refused to support the Coalition government against Opposition frontbencher Bob Hawke. Again, though, we have no way of knowing how Oakeshott would behave (despite the Coalition’s new epithet for him, ‘Labor Independent’).

All in all, Oakeshott appears to have good intentions. If he’s guilty of any failing here, it might simply be that he’s more focused on the workings of the Parliament as a whole than on simply representing his electorate.

And that is a flaw that one might well wear as a badge of pride.


What’s in a name?

September 15, 2010

We appear to have become a nation obsessed with semantics.

Since Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of her Cabinet line-up on Saturday last week, the commentary has zeroed in on two ‘issues’ – the appointment of Kevin Rudd to the Foreign Ministry, and the absence of the word ‘Education’ in any of the portfolios.

The former is understandable, if a little tiresome. Rudd’s relegation to a subordinate position, when three years ago he was the one making the appointments, was always going to attract attention. Much has been made of his apparently ‘stony’ face and ‘disengaged expression’ during the swearing-in ceremony that took place at Yarralumla yesterday. It seems that no amount of denial or reassurance on his part will stop that, and I suspect it will simply be a matter of time before the media and the Opposition find something else to talk about.

When it comes to the question of portfolio names, however, the arguments get a little silly. Correction – they get very silly.

True, Gillard had not named an Education Minister. What she had done was split up the portfolios between two other Ministries – Schools, Early Childhood and Youth under Peter Garrett; and Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations under Chris Evans. For a government self-admittedly preoccupied with educational matters, this looked at first glance like a remarkable oversight on her part. Universities were particularly worried; to all intents and purposes, it appeared as though tertiary education was being treated as entirely vocational. The unfortunate result of the initial announcement was that people – perhaps with some justification – thought that education was being devalued.

The Opposition went to town, and pundits everywhere pounced on this disquiet. Instead of evaluating the situation, however, media shook their heads over what a ‘bad look’ it was, and accepted without question whatever they were being told by those with a vested interest in undermining the new government’s reputation.

In perhaps the most obviously example, the Opposition proclaimed that Gillard had actually forgotten to name an Education Minister. One particular sound bite of this was replayed ad nauseam by Sky News – a particularly irresponsible move on their part, since it gave legitimacy to something that was not merely spin, but an outright lie.

The government eventually responded to concerns expressed by universities, and by the time the respective Ministers formally took up their responsibilities, the word ‘Education’ had appeared in their titles. Of course, by this time, the damage was doe, and the Opposition could then argue that the government was playing ‘catch-up’.

All this, because a single word was left out of a Ministerial title.

It can be argued that perceptions matter. That it’s important to have a clear understanding of what a Ministry actually does. In that case, the government’s failure to provide that clarity is an elementary error which will likely prove to be a continuing thorn in its side.

But, you know, it cuts both ways.

Take a look at the Coalition’s Shadow Ministry, for example.

Most positions are still held by their incumbents, although Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment to Communications and Broadband was clearly the opening salvo in what is likely to be a vicious campaign against the NBN. There are a whole slew of new Shadow Parliamentary Secretaries, including the hapless Tony Smith, whose woeful performance during the election campaign saw him banished from the Communications Ministry with lightning speed. There is a good summary, including links to websites, on The Notion Factory.

An initial failure to name a Shadow for Mental Health was quickly corrected, with Concetta Fierravanti-Wells taking on that responsibility in addition to Shadow for Ageing. There are also, apparently, two Ministers for Regional Development; Barnaby Joyce and Bob Baldwin. It’s not clear whether this is an error in the list released to the media, or actual appointments.

Some of the names for the Shadow portfolios, though, are very telling.

Andrew Robb is still the Shadow for Finance and De-regulation. He’s got an additional title now, however, that doesn’t mirror Penny Wong’s Ministry. He’s also responsible for Debt Reduction. Then there’s Scott Morrison, whose pre-election portfolio of Immigration has been expanded to include Productivity. Finally we have Jamie Briggs, who’ll chair the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee.

See what they did there?

Those three Shadow portfolios are intended to be a constant reminder of Coalition policies and criticisms. You can just bet that any time Robb or Morrison turn up, their staff will insist on the full titles. Every time Robb comments on the ‘massive debt’, his title will be there underscoring the point. Every time Morrison takes on the asylum seeker and immigration issues, his title will underpin the Coalition argument that Australia needs to consider the effect on the economy first, and humanitarian considerations later (if at all).

As for Jamie Briggs – honestly, it’s so ham-fisted I’m embarrassed for them. This committee, linked to a truly crass website called LaborWaste, apparently exists for only one purpose – to discredit the government wherever possible. Apart from semi-regular media releases liberally sprinkled with ‘scare’ words, the website (adorned with a version of Labor’s own logo, something that may not be entirely legal) asks people to provide ‘tip offs’. Yes, that’s right – dob in the government today. You too can send in your complaints (you can even attach documents of up to 10Mb) and help participate in what’s little more than an exercise in muck-raking.

The so-called ‘waste’ claims are not examined, nor is any evidence provided. In fact, the most commonly cited ‘proof’ is a statement allegedly made by a Liberal Senator or MP castigating the government for its ‘mismanagement’. The title of the committee is a dead giveaway – this isn’t about impartial scrutiny at all. It starts with the assumption that any money the government spends is wasteful.

The irony here is unbelievable. Here is a committee, and a website, designed to perpetuate a central pillar of the Opposition’s election campaign and sloganeering – unnecessary expenditure. But back up a second. Running and staffing such committees costs money. Building, maintaining and monitoring websites costs money. Sending out media releases is cheaper than it used to be thanks to email, but someone is still being employed to sit there and write them. Granted, they’ll save a lot of money by not doing any actual scrutiny, but when you get right down to it, the committee is nothing more than an expensive, dirty, propaganda engine.

So if we’re going to point fingers at the government’s failure to include the word ‘Education’ in Ministerial titles, we should probably spend a bit of time looking at the linguistic tactics of the Opposition – which are far more revealing.

In this ‘kinder, gentler’ polity, this ‘collegial’ atmosphere, those tactics make it very clear what the Opposition really plans to do for the next three years. Abbott didn’t even bother to deny it this morning on ABC radio. He made it clear that the Coalition still consider themselves a ‘government-in-waiting’ – and now, they’re just waiting to step in when ‘inevitably’ the government loses the confidence of the Independents. (He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that, even if there is a loss of confidence, the Independents won’t automatically turn around and crown him Prime Minister.)

In the meantime, the Opposition appear to be doing everything they can to undermine the government even before the new Parliament sits for the first time – and the use of ‘slogan’ Shadow Ministry title is just another weapon in that attack.


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