Q&A with Fiona Patten, Australian Sex Party

October 27, 2010

It’s fair to say that the majority of media coverage of the Australian Sex Party during the election tended towards one of three types: the flippant – like this article about Austen Tayshus announcing he would run against Tony Abbott in the seat of Warringah; the bemused – as in innumerable panel discussions on the likes of Sky News’ Agenda programs; or the outraged – such as Christian Democrat MP Fred Niles’ attempt to excuse the evidence that pornography had been found on his computer by saying he was ‘researching’ the Sex Party (which he considered dangerous). It’s also fair to say that, for the most part, very little attention was paid to any policy platforms that didn’t involve pornography or the proposed internet filter.

As a result, anyone could have been forgiven for thinking the Sex Party was a one-issue party whose only purpose was to promote controversial issues of sexuality. This image was probably helped along by the eye-catching T-shirts worn by volunteers during the campaign:

Fiona Patten shows off those bright T-shirts

Now the election results are in, though, and the Sex Party surprised many people with their polling. It gained 260,000 Senate votes in Victoria (roughly 2%), coming third overall and narrowly missing out on a Senate seat after preferences. In the House of Representatives, Sex Party candidates finished fourth overall. Its best result was, surprisingly, in the Northern Territory, where the party gained more than 5% of the vote, and polled over 15% in some booths.

People are now taking a second look – and there’s a lot more to the Sex Party than they might first have thought. Far from being a narrowly-focused special interest group, the Sex Party aims to establish itself in the niche once occupied by the Australian Democrats – as a ‘major minor party’ with broad policy platforms across a range of issues, holding crucial, independent seats in Parliament.

Fiona Patten, the Sex Party’s founder and spokesperson, attended a Q&A with the Secular Society at La Trobe University on October 21. The choice of venue and audience is interesting: this was not a huge rally sponsored by highly visible groups with large memberships. Instead, she spoke to a small but interested audience at an event that had no media value whatsoever. That she could do this is partly due to the relatively minor status of the Sex Party; however, by agreeing to come along, Patten showed that she was willing to engage the community on even this small level.

Patten’s opening talk focused on some of the issues that the Sex Party has identified as among the most crucial for their campaign for the upcoming Victorian election. She spoke passionately about the current preoccupation among politicians with censoring or banning pornography and erotica, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the systemic sexual abuse of children by clergy (particularly within the Roman Catholic Church). For example, she cited how the New South Wales Government recently passed legislation allowing police to determine what classification should be given to material they may encounter – a power normally only granted to the Australian Classification Board. If a retailer does not agree with any police assessment, they will need to pay hundreds of dollars to have material formally classified. In talking about this bill, Patten paid tribute to Labor MP Amanda Fazio, who crossed the floor to support a Greens amendment to remove these police powers from the bill – and thus put herself at risk of expulsion from the party.

Patten linked the discussion on the prevalence of sexual abuse of children to a key Sex Party policy – sex education for all children from an early age. This would not only address the usual subjects of anatomy and reproduction, but also teach children about consent and abuse, encouraging them to report any inappropriate sexual contact. Education would take into account the increasing use of new technologies, to make children aware of potential issues surrounding them (such as cyber-predators and use of mobile phones to distribute sexual content to minors).

Both major parties came in for strong criticism for their willingness to accommodate the Australian Christian Lobby, an organisation that opposes same-sex marriage and blames the aforementioned sexual abuse on churches being ‘infiltrated by the gays’. Even Gillard, a self-proclaimed atheist, took the trouble to appear at one of their events to talk about her government’s priorities. When asked if she would attend a similar gathering organised by the Atheist Foundation of Australia, however, she refused. Patten also pointed out the large number of Parliamentarians who are members of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, a number which she says hardly reflects the diversity of religious belief and non-belief in Australia.

In her blunt, sometimes abrasive style, Patten took aim at the disparity in school funding in Australia. While she recognises a need for funding to both private and public schools, she sees a double standard at work. Donations made to private or religious schools are tax-deductible; the same, however, is not true of public schools. She said she welcomed contributions on this issue, as the Sex Party was developing its policy on the subject.

The party has a mainly consistent stance on the intersection of religion with civil society. This encompasses not only matters of public education, but also extends to issues like abortion, stem cell research and support for the teaching of ethics in schools as part of the proposed National Curriculum.

The exception is the Sex Party’s call for a Royal Commission to be established to look into institutionalised child sexual abuse. Here, governmental intervention is completely justified by the fact that these ‘appalling’ crimes are often concealed by organisations, and never prosecuted. Unfortunately, it is a policy that is unlikely to be supported by either of the major parties, although common ground could almost certainly be found with the Greens.

On the subject of pornography, Patten made it clear that she did not advocate allowing exploitative or abusive material to be freely available. In fact, she was adamant that material featuring children, in particular, did not constitute pornography, but was a criminal act. In contrast, she pointed out that current laws regarding banned content were inconsistent to the point of nonsense. For example, depictions of lactation or female ejaculation are prohibited. ‘It shouldn’t be banned just because you might not like it,’ she said. Sex Party policy calls for a national Non-Violent Erotica classification that encompasses all forms of media (including computer games), and the establishment of a legal ‘X’ rating, which includes fetish erotica. The party also advocates training members of the Classification Board, to keep them aware of issues of sexuality and subculture.

Asked if she agreed with studies showing that access to pornography actually lowered the rate of sex crime, Patten said that in her opinion there was no real correlation between the two. Good sex education and healthy sexual relationships lowered sexual crime, she asserted.

Two of the most controversial policies espoused by the Sex Party concern euthanasia and drug laws. The party advocates a complete decriminalisation of all illegal drugs. Rather than treat drug use as a legal matter, it should be seen as a health issue. There is more danger to the public in keeping drugs illegal than in the drugs themselves, Patten argued. She cited the case of Portugal, which has implemented this decriminalisation policy, spending funds formerly earmarked for law enforcement on health education and health care. Far from becoming a ‘drug mecca’, the incidence of drug use has actually declined, and drug-related crime is virtually non-existent.

Voluntary euthanasia is endorsed by the Sex Party – not as a conscience vote for all members, but as a matter of party solidarity. Patten, who has worked with the Die with Dignity Association to develop this platform, described it as a ‘flagship’ policy. She acknowledged that there is no ‘single’ solution to this issue, but does suggest that there should be less government intervention in people’s end-of-life situations, and more consultation between people and their doctors.

On matters of Industrial Relations, the Sex Party’s policies to date focus mainly on improving conditions for sex workers. Patten commented that this is a policy area under development, as is dealing with the problem of climate change. She was at pains to point out that she felt it was more important to be thoroughly informed about an issue before announcing a policy than to rush out something under-developed to grab headlines.

Perhaps the most striking and refreshing feature of Fiona Patten’s visit to La Trobe was her readiness to admit that she did not have all the answers. Rather than indulge in sloganeering, or retreat to the safe ground of criticising either the Government or the Opposition (although there was plenty of that!), she was willing to canvass other opinions, acknowledged her own lack of knowledge on certain issues, and encouraged her audience to engage with the Sex Party on issues of policy development. It’s a far cry from the polished spin we are used to seeing from Gillard, Abbott and the like.

You could put it down to inexperience, although Patten is clearly media-savvy and quick on the uptake. Perhaps when the Sex Party becomes more practised in the business of politics, we’ll start seeing some slick phrases and elegant evasions of the question. On the other hand, Patten’s own confrontational style may well prevail, and Sex Party representatives could join the likes of Tony Windsor as those strangest of creatures – politicians who give a straight answer.

And when asked whether she would ever change the name of the party to become more mainstream, Patten was characteristically direct. She made no apologies. The name is controversial, she says, and captures people’s attention. That’s exactly what the Sex Party wants – to grab the attention of the Australian people, and engage with them.

‘And you can’t miss our t-shirts,’ she laughs, showing a slide of a polling booth volunteer resplendent in bright yellow with the word ‘SEX’ emblazoned in red across the chest.

The Sex Party seems to have set its sights on becoming what the Australian Democrats once were – the centrist party focused on civil liberties and equality. Although it’s early days, it might just do that.


Myth-busting: New detention centres

October 25, 2010

It was only a matter of time before the lies – I’m sorry, the myths – got so thick on the ground that another one of these posts was going to be needed.

This time it’s about asylum seekers. Last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a series of new initiatives, including releasing children and ‘at-risk’ families into community detention rather than keeping them in detention centres. She also announced that two new centres would be developed, at Northam in Western Australia and Inverbrackie in South Australia. These centres would enable the dismantling of the temporary accommodation on Christmas Island, and mean that motels did not have to be used when numbers were too great.

The respective communities erupted. They held public meetings, in which they vented their spleen at the government, and at asylum seekers in general. They were ‘betrayed’, they shouted. Having ‘illegals’ in their towns (or even within 20 km of them) would be disastrous. Services would be under unacceptable strain. The Adelaide Hills are a known tourist spot – the tourism economy would suffer, because no one would want to come there. For that matter, where’s the benefit to us? They should have asked us. None of this would have happened if the government wasn’t so ‘soft’ on these people. Worst of all, what if their kids came to our schools?

All of this, of course, is based on a few simple, but utterly toxic myths.

Myth No. 1: Our detention centres are overcrowded because the government ‘softened’ its border protection policies. That’s why it has to build new centres now.

The Coalition likes to say that those who engage in the despicable trade of exploiting desperate people have ‘a good product to sell’, because refugees are no longer processed in Nauru or subject to Temporary Protection Visas. This is an outrageous piece of outright fabrication.

People smugglers do not sell an outcome. They are not in the business of making sure their ‘clients’ are safely delivered to the destination of their choice. They are in the business of making money – of taking advantage of those whose circumstances are so dire that they will be willing to sell everything they own, and sometimes sell themselves into hock for years to come. And they know there will always be a market. Whether they get intercepted in the Indian Ocean or make it all the way to Christmas Island makes no difference to them. The money has already changed hands, somewhere back in the home countries or in Indonesia.

Understand, we’re not talking about some kind of cut-price cruise line, here. Someone fleeing to another country for asylum doesn’t get to shop around. Usually, they’re stuck with doing an under-the-table deal which is more like a gamble – because people smugglers don’t guarantee safe delivery. They take the money, shove the refugees on a boat which is, more often than not – barely seaworthy, hire a crew from off the docks, and then wash their hands of the whole affair. If the boat sinks in the Indian Ocean and the crew are taken into custody, it’s an acceptable loss, because the important thing is the tens of thousands of dollars in the hands of those who bear no sense of accountability for whatever happens after the cash hits the palm.

People smugglers don’t care.

So there is no ‘good product to sell’. This isn’t taking advantage of a clearance sale, or shopping on Amazon because the dollar is near parity. People who need to flee will do so if they possibly can, even if it means taking the chance that they will be detained indefinitely – because at least on Christmas Island, their chances of being tortured and executed are minimal.

Myth No. 2: People have a ‘right’ to feel anxious about the idea of having a detention centre nearby.

This is the kind of statement that prompted Julian Burnside’s accusation that Australians are racists – and I can certainly understand his frustration. It’s okay to worry about the idea of refugees near you? Why?

Detention centres have existed in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne for years. There is no appreciable rise in the crime rate that could be attributed to the presence of people held behind security fences. Services to the community have not become stretched. (Sydney’s road bottlenecks can hardly be blamed on people who are not even allowed out to walk to the shops.) There is no evidence that refugees, detained in Villawood and Broadmeadows, take away anything from the permanent residents. What’s more, the government have promised that there will be no danger of that happening in Northam and Inverbrackie. If there is a possibility that services might be compromised, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen further committed to bolster those services wherever necessary.

But wait, cried the residents of Woodside (near Inverbrackie) – then they’ll get better services than we do, and that’s not fair. There’s no basis for this at all. The government promised no negative effect on services to the community. That’s everyone – and even if they decide to pay for a few on-site doctors in the detention centres, that hardly constitutes favouritism. At worst, it preserves the status quo.

The anxiety appears to go further, though. Listening to the people in Woodside and Northam, it seems that there is a fundamental objection to the presence of asylum seekers anywhere on Australian soil. If they’re housed in the middle of the desert, that’s marginally acceptable – although it’s clear that many people think even that is too ‘soft’. Suggest putting them in – or even near – a community, however, and the hysteria ramps up to an incredible degree.

Myth No. 3: The tourism economy in the Adelaide Hills would be under threat, and there’d be no economic benefit to local businesses.

This is just plain wrong. Detention centres usually source their supplies from local businesses wherever possible – if anything, boosting the economy. This was pointed out to some of the Woodside protesters. Their response? That won’t happen with us – the government will just go to Adelaide. There’s no basis for this assertion whatsoever. It flies in the face of existing practice – a practice the government has committed to continue.

As for the tourism question – well, where to start? The detention centre is located at the existing disused army base at Inverbrackie. Like most army bases, it’s difficult to distinguish the housing from what might be found in any suburb (with the exception of high-end areas, of course). The houses look like all the others. Sure, there’ll be a fence, and guards, but there were guards when the base was in use.

The people making this objection seem to think that the existing base will be razed, and a giant edifice of ugly concrete with coils of barbed wire, observation towers, spotlights and slavering German Shepherds will take its place. That simply isn’t going to happen. In addition, Inverbrackie is only one small part of the Adelaide Hills. To suggest that tourists will shy away from the entire region because there are refugees living on an old army base is – not to put too fine a point on it – ludicrous.

Myth No. 4: The government betrayed us by not consulting us prior to making the decision.

The answer to this one is – no, they didn’t. The government is under no obligation to ask people if they want a detention centre within easy driving distance. In fact, the government doesn’t have to ask to do a lot of things – build offices, grant land for prisons, or acquire people’s homes for infrastructure projects. You may not agree with it, but it’s how the country is set up. So, no, the government was never required to go cap in hand to people within 100km of Northam and ask if it was okay with them to have a detention centre an hour’s drive away. They weren’t even required to announce it.

Myth No. 5: Having ‘their’ kids in ‘our’ schools is dangerous.

I’m sorry, but this is racist.

It’s completely unfounded. There is little difference between a refugee and a newly-arrived immigrant child. Both may have language difficulties. Both may take time to build social bonds with other children (although that’s true of any kid in a new school). The kid who had to endure a long and potentially dangerous sea voyage, followed by detention, may have emotional and psychological issues – who wouldn’t?

The people who made this objection couldn’t say exactly what was wrong with the idea of refugee kids going to school in their communities. For the most part, they fell back on the old ‘but they came here illegally’ argument. Leaving aside for the moment that it’s completely incorrect to refer to asyum seekers as illegal, how can that possibly indicate danger to other children? Are these people afraid that the kid from Sri Lanka might suddenly leap up in the middle of story time and rip open his parka to reveal a suicide bomb vest? Turn on his fellow kids and attempt to stab them with safety scissors?

Please.

Maybe it’s about overcrowding. Maybe the people of Woodside are worried about potentially increasing class sizes. But wait – didn’t the government already say that if there was any possibility of strain to community services, that they would address that problem?

So what lies at the bottom of this objection to asylum seeker children in schools? Whenever politicians are asked about this, they always give the same answer: it’s understandable that people would feel anxious.

See Myth No. 2 above.

Of course, no amount of mythbusting done here is going to matter in this debate – because the politicians aren’t interested in the real situation.

The Coalition sees nothing wrong with xenophobia, apparently. Jamie Briggs, Member for Mayo, was highly visible at Woodside, nodding sympathetically whenever someone told them they were afraid or angry or betrayed. Scott Morrison, Shadow Immigration Minister, chastised the government for not taking ‘community concerns’ into account. Senator Mitch Fifield tutted about the ‘failure’ of the government’s asylum seeker policies putting unfair strain on the people of Woodside and Northam.

The Labor government is no better. Chris Bowen says he ‘understands there are concerns’. That’s ‘reasonable’.

And not one of these people actually stand up and say, ‘No, you’re wrong. You have a completely incorrect idea of the real situation. You’ve listened to scare-mongering and lies, and you’re letting xenophobia control you. I believe you’re better than this. I believe you really are a compassionate person, and wouldn’t want to see anyone suffer. Sit down with me and let me show you the facts, come and meet some asylum seekers, maybe then you can see this fear for what it is – a shameful political tactic that considers ruining people’s lives and well-being a good way for scoring points in some obscure game.’

Maybe it wouldn’t change die-hard xenophobes. But wouldn’t it be an amazing and wonderful thing if someone other than Senator Sarah Hanson-Young actually got out there and tried??

Imagine if your local member (mine is Martin Ferguson, Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism) stood up in front othe media and said, ‘You have nothing to fear. We were wrong to let you think you did.’

Yeah, never going to happen. But sometimes, you have to dream.

It’s either that or weep.


Open Thread – our own Afghanistan debate

October 21, 2010

Coming soon: a report on the Q&A with the Australian Sex Party’s Fiona Patten at La Trobe University this week. But first …

This week saw the first Parliamentary debate on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. This was one of the key elements in the Labor Party’s agreement with the Greens, and welcomed by Independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott. Thanks to the wonders of technology, anyone who cares to has been able to follow the debate.

Most of the speakers are fairly predictable. This is a ‘just war’, we have to ‘stay the course’, etc. There were a few highlights, though. Julia Gillard kicked off the proceedings by announcing that our troops would be in Afghanistan until at least 2014, and that Australia would likely be ‘engaged’ there for the rest of the decade. Tony Abbott urged us to be careful that we didn’t execute a de facto ‘Western takeover’. Sussan Ley, unexpectedly, called for future military engagements to be subject to a Parliamentary vote. Adam Bandt said we should get our troops out as soon as possible, and Andrew Wilkie nearly broke down while reading the names of every Australian soldier killed while serving in Afghanistan to date.

It can be enlightening to hear what our politicians have to say on the matter – especially when, in effect, they’re committing us to the longest war we have yet participated in, outstripping the Vietnam conflict.

But what about the rest of us? You know, us – the ‘Australian public’, the ones our politicians are supposed to listen to and represent. We’ve heard a lot this week about what ‘Australians want’, mostly from people who, I suspect, neither know nor care what we do want.

So let’s have our own mini-debate. Let’s talk about why we’re in Afghanistan.

What are we hoping to achieve?

Have our objectives changed over the years?

Should we have gone there in the first place?

Are we really ‘denying terrorists a safe haven’?

Do we have the right to impose our political system on another country?

Should we talk to the Taliban and other factional powers in the region, instead of propping up the increasingly shaky and corrupt Karzai government?

What if our actions there are making the situation worse?

And what about next time?

Please, encourage people to add their feelings, engage with each other – get a real discussion going. This may be only one small forum, but it’s a forum that wants to hear what everyone thinks.


Kids out of detention – it’s a start

October 18, 2010

Just when you’re ready to give up hope on all politicians forever, some of them go and do something worthwhile. Those fighting for the humane treatment of asylum seekers got a win today.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced that the government would expand the use of existing resident determination powers to move unaccompanied minors and ‘at-risk’ families out of isolated detention facilities, and into community detention instead.

What’s community detention? Simply put, it’s housing these particular asylum seekers in existing facilities (Bowen suggested disused aged care residences or church properties, as well as some private housing) and allowing them to become part of the community. They will most likely be required to undertake some sort of reporting regime, and children would be subject to a curfew. In addition, if their housing was the kind of hostel where there are on-site personnel, those personnel would report regularly to the Department of Immigration.

Children will attend school – in fact, will be required to do so unless there are extenuating circumstances. In addition, Bowen announced greater access to mental health care for all asylum seekers.

Bowen expects the majority of children, and a ‘substantial portion’ of at-risk families, to be in community detention by June 2011. That means nearly 700 children will be out of detention centres, long identified as extremely damaging to mental and emotional health.

Now, if all that sounds just a bit familiar, it might be due to this story that appeared in The Age yesterday. Senator Sarah-Hanson Young of the Greens confirmed that the details as put to her by media were ‘in keeping’ with discussions she had with Bowen in the last week.

The Opposition leapt on that. Here was proof, they said, that ‘Labor might be in government, but the Greens are in power’. That slogan, trotted out ad nauseam over the next twenty-four hours, presumably was intended to be a killing thrust in the Opposition’s campaign to scare the country into running back into the Conservative fold. It’s really just a variation on a theme; the Greens are a dangerous risk to the economy/jobs/Our Way of Life, and now the government is in debt to them and has to do whatever they say.

Clearly, that was on Gillard’s mind today. After delivering the good news on getting kids out of detention, she stressed that this was entirely the government’s idea. There was no deal with ‘any other party’. There were no discussions with ‘any other party or parliamentarian’. None. And in case she wasn’t fully understood, she went on to repeat it later.

Bowen acknowledged that he had spoken with Senator Hanson-Young ‘at the beginning of the new term’, but not lately, and not with regard to this plan. There was clearly an element of selective reporting there; it’s hard to believe that any discussion with the Senator would not involve the issue of children in detention, given how passionately she has championed the cause of asylum seekers. Equally, though, it’s likely they did not talk about any specific plan.

So the government was playing it a bit tricky there, but the aim was clear – to strongly refute any claim that Labor was in any way beholden to the Greens. It’s an understandable goal, but one that is disappointing. The Opposition have succeeded in panicking Labor, and in doing so, Labor runs the risk of alienating a strong potential alley. The Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate from July next year – their support may be the only way Labor can implement its agenda.

And for what gain? To reassure us? The public and most welfare organisations have repeatedly called for detention of children to end. Today’s announcement shows that the government is capable of compassion, rather than simply dogwhistling. Would it really have damaged the government to show that it had been in discussion with the Greens – indeed, with anyone?

It wasn’t all good news today – though on balance, the tone was positive. Gillard went on to announce that temporary tent facilities at Christmas Island would be decommissioned, and that motels would no longer be used to house an overflow of asylum seekers. This is partly because of community detention, and partly because two new facilities will be developed. One is the Northam Defence Training Camp, located around 80km north-east of Perth, which will house up to 1500 single men. The other is the Inverbrackie Defence Housing Facility, 37km north of Adelaide, for up to 400 family members.

To guard against potential overflow of asylum seekers in the future, two contingency detention accommodation sites will be developed. The 11 Mile Antenna Farm in Darwin will house single men. The existing Transit Immigration Facility at Broadmeadows in Melbourne will also be expanded.

Bowen was quick to point out that all asylum seekers will still be initially detained for health and security checks, before decisions can be made about moving some people into community detention. He also said it would be ‘irresponsible’ to simply throw open the gates and release all families and children at once, without making sure there was an infrastructure in place to support them.

On the face of it, that’s a perfectly reasonable statement. It remains to be seen what delays may arise, but in principle, the idea that there should be a good support structure for people coming suddenly into the community is a sensible one. This is especially true given these people may well be traumatised from the situation they fled, the risky voyage they undertook or their experiences in detention centres. It’s particularly heartening to see that the mental health of asylum seekers is at last being addressed.

Bowen said one surprising thing today; he acknowledged that Australia had the ‘toughest mandatory detention system in the world’. That’s not news to anyone, of course – but Bowen didn’t then attempt to excuse it. Previously the government has been at great pains to put up all sorts of justifications – most appallingly, the idea that they are responding to ‘understandable’ community concern (read: xenophobia encouraged by scare-mongering politicians and talk radio hosts). Not this time.

Is this the sign of an overall move towards more compassionate treatment of asylum seekers? I’d like to think so, but I think we will still see men in detention centres, possibly going on hunger strikes or climbing up on the roof to call attention to their situation.

Getting rid of the tents on Christmas Island? Updating facilities? Providing mental health care? And getting kids out of a toxic, damaging detention situation? It’s a start.

But that’s all it is. And the government shouldn’t think it can now rest on its compassionate laurels.

Australia still has a long way to go. And there will be people questioning and calling the government to account. It won’t be the Opposition – if anything, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison will lead the fear-frenzy with cries of ‘soft on border protection’ and ‘armada of boats’.

It will be the Greens, Andrew Wilkie, and people like you and me who continue to speak up and challenge the idea that Australia is under attack from desperate people fleeing persecution. It’s the small voices that start the groundswell. That the government has finally agreed to release children is a sign that – even in this one way – that groundswell is starting to become hard to ignore.

At least, that’s what I hope.


Should government have funded MacKillop religious celebrations?

October 17, 2010

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Today’s blog may be about the events surrounding the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, but it is not a debate about atheism vs religion.

And while we’re getting things out of the way, full disclosure time. I spent quite some time arguing with myself over whether to do this, but in the end I was persuaded by some of the idiocy taking place on Twitter right now that I’ll save time this way.

I am not a Catholic, lapsed or believing. I am a person of faith, and that faith is my own business. I am also a strong supporter of keeping all religion out of schools and public institutions.

Right. Now that nonsense is out of the way, let’s get to the meat of it.

You’d probably have to be living under a rock not to know that today an Australian nun named Mary MacKillop becomes a Catholic saint. Over the last week, it was difficult to avoid the media coverage. Sky News runs stories about it every bulletin, and has set up a ‘headquarters’ in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. ABCNews24 likewise. Both have given over a significant portion of broadcast time to the ceremony itself. The big media winner is the Australian Public Affairs Channel, though – their non-stop coverage of all things MacKillop started on Saturday morning. (Curiously, the Australian Christian Channel elected not to cover the canonisation ceremony.) Social media isn’t far behind with discussions, debates, arguments and outright slanging matches.

Almost all commentators (whether paid journalists or people just giving their opinion) seem happy to grant that Mary MacKillop’s achievements in life were remarkable. Her work in education, her refusal to stand by silently as children were being abused, and her determination garner little more than praise. Opinions are, of course, sharply divided over the issues of miracles and sainthood. What’s not being talked about is the level of government support.

So let’s talk about that.

The government earmarked $1.5 million for the celebrations here in Australia. Add to that the travel, accommodation, security and associated expenses for Kevin Rudd, Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce and Ursula Stephens, and let’s not forget the ABC while we’re at it. That’s a sizeable amount of public money set aside for a specific religious celebration.

It’s also worth remembering that the announcement of the funding was made during the campaign, during a time when Julia Gillard was coming under fire for declaring herself an atheist. To many, that looked like pandering. Now Kevin Rudd and Julie Bishop have made an incredible show of bipartisanship, co-authoring an article about Mary MacKillop.

Is this kind of expenditure warranted for a purely religious celebration, and a partisan one at that? For that matter, should the government publicly fund religious celebration at all?

There are approximately five million people in Australia who identified themselves as ‘Catholic’ on the last census. That’s a significant number, but one could hardly say Australia is a Catholic nation. (In fact, until 1820, Catholicism was suppressed in the New South Wales colony.) The Constitution specifically prohibits anything of the kind:

116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

That being said, there is a curious disconnect with regard to Australian politics. The Preamble to our Constitution makes reference to ‘Almighty God’. Parliament is opened with a clearly Christian prayer, including the Anglican version of the Lord’s Prayer. Now these things may well be a holdover from our days as an British colony – a country whose head of state is also head of the Anglican Church – but they are still there.

So is Australia a ‘Christian nation’, as is often claimed (notably by the Australian Christian Lobby)? No. Certainly, the census suggests that the majority of Australians identify themselves as affiliated with one of the Christian faiths (but the Australian Bureau of Statistics acknowledges this does not necessarily reflect active participants in religion). Even if we assume a level of commonality between those faiths that may not exist, for purposes of generalisation, it still does not make us in any way an officially religious nation – nor do numbers necessarily legitimise spending for a particular religion.

I happen to think it is unreasonable for the government to fund any form of religious observance – and make no mistake, the canonisation ceremony is exactly that, conducted within a Mass celebrated by the Pope.

Religious institutions enjoy tax-free status in Australia. A religion can take advantage of this in a number of ways – not least of which could be the provision of homes and cars for its clergy (see recent investigations of Hillsong, for example). Part of the rationale behind is the recognition that religions provide certain services for their members, said services being considered important enough to exempt these institutions from the same revenue-gathering as other organisations, so that the money they receive from their members or activities can be used by the religion. This is an enormous concession. To then follow it up with public money for services which are aimed primarily at furthering that particular religion goes well beyond the point at which religions should be involuntarily supported by all Australians.

Even if you think that there is a place for government to support religion, the issue arises of favouritism. When was the last time a government spent money on a Muslim celebration? A Jewish one? Hindu? Or any other religion you care to name? It doesn’t. So, if public money is to be spent on a Catholic celebration, why not those of other religions? Is it unreasonable to think that funding (for example) Hanukkah celebrations is at least as worthy as this canonisation?

Raising these issues is a fraught business. Too often, those who are critical of the money being spent on the canonisation are met with accusations of ‘religious intolerance’, persecution of hapless Christians (note: not Catholics, Christians), and – most extraordinarily – the claim that this kind of criticism would never be levelled at Muslims.

The beat-up is sadly typical – the claim is that Christians are unfairly attacked for their religious beliefs, that they are held to a different standard from all other religions, and even prevented from speaking – and it’s all the fault of the ‘sneering secularists’ (to quote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Gerard Henderson on Insiders this morning). These lefty elitists call any criticism of Islam ‘Islamophobia’, but get stuck into Christians every chance they can, apparently.

Reality check.

Muslims come in for far more than their ‘fair share’ of criticism. It’s not exaggerating to say the rhetoric is hysterical. Every religion, for that matter, comes under fire somewhere. My own is frequently subject to ridicule. And you don’t have to identify as religious to attract criticism and attack – remember the storm that erupted over Gillard’s avowed atheism?

No religion should be subjected to hate speech and distortion – and sadly, there’s been all too much of that taking place on the social media sites lately. Equally, though, no religion should be exempt from criticism.

And when public money is set aside for a particular religious observance, the question should be asked: is this is a good use of that money? Was there better use, with more application for the wider Australian community, for what was spent getting four politicians to Rome and aiding an event put on by one of the wealthiest entities in the world?

The Atheist Foundation of Australia suggested that money could be put towards cancer research, something that has the potential to benefit all Australians regardless of their particular religious position. That statement attracted considerable anger from people identifying themselves as ‘people of faith’. I have to wonder, though – would there been half as much outrage if the suggestion had come from a different source – say, the Peter McCallum Cancer Research Centre?

The money is spent now, but the question remains. Is this sort of expenditure of public money appropriate, in a country where almost half of the population identifies as having no Christian belief, and nearly 20% no religious belief at all?

Or – and this is the cynical part – is all this government support simply about attracting tourist dollars in the form of pilgrims coming to visit Mary MacKillop’s tomb in Sydney, or her home town of Penola, South Australia?

I leave the question open.


Abbott – the real backstabber

October 14, 2010

You have to wonder, really, just what’s going on in Tony Abbott’s head right now. It seems he’s hell-bent on tearing down the reputation of our public institutions. As @Paul_Jarman so succinctly put it, he may well have ‘jumped the shark’ this time.

First, it was Treasury. During the election campaign, Abbott and his Coalition colleagues repeatedly tried to tear down Treasury’s credibility. They claimed that Treasury was responsible for leaking some of their costings, at the behest of the caretaker Labor government, and withheld their numbers from the Charter of Budget Honesty. Once it became clear that the election was going to deliver a hung parliament, Abbott developed his argument even further. When the Independents asked to see the Coalition’s ‘independent’ costings, Abbott refused – and gave several reasons for doing so, all of which were outrageous.

Treasury was incompetent – it couldn’t handle the job of assessing the costings. Treasury was untrustworthy – they leaked documents when told to do so. Worst of all, Treasury was so corrupt that it would deliberately ‘fiddle’ with the numbers in order to make the Coalition look bad. Even though Abbott eventually consented to let the costings be examined – resulting in the discovery of a $7-11 billion shortfall – the accusations still get trotted out from time to time.

Not content with attempting to destroy Treasury’s standing as the economic managers of the country, Abbott next took aim at the Solicitor-General. Part of the agreement with the Independents that was signed by both major parties dealt with the matter of pairing the Speaker. Although his representative had signed off on this, Abbott reneged, claiming that such an arrangement was unconstitutional.

The Solicitor-General investigated the idea, and concluded that there was no bar to an informal pairing arrangement. That wasn’t good enough for Abbott. He engaged his own lawyer – Senator George Brandis – who, unsurprisingly, backed up his leader. Armed with that information, Abbott set about declaring that the Solicitor-General was not only wrong, but perhaps a little bit suspect – after all, he was part of the government’s public service, wasn’t he? Abbott would therefore trust Brandis’ opinion, he stated.

By the time the 43rd Parliament opened, Abbott had attacked two of the most crucial government departments – the one responsible for managing our economy, and the one called upon to deliver the definitive legal opinions on constitutional and legislative matters.

This week, he’s gone after the military. Three Australian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan were charged with manslaughter, dangerous conduct, failing to comply with a lawful general order and prejudicial conduct after a raid in which five Afghani children were killed. Brigadier Lyn McDade, the military’s chief prosecutor, brought the charges – and became the subject of a dreadful campaign of abuse and threats as a result. You might think that, after Abbott worked himself up into a lather chastising Gillard for allegedly ‘politicising’ our participation in the war in Afghanistan*, he might stay well out of this court martial issue. Not so.

Abbott let fly with an extraordinary spray. Gillard, he said, was at fault here. Australian soldiers were being ‘stabbed in the back’, and the government should be doing something about it. Now, although ostensibly aimed at Gillard, Abbott’s comments have graver implications. There is a strong insinuation here that the military justice system either does not work, or that McDade is abusing her position – and that the military are allowing her to do so. By not intervening, therefore, Gillard’s government condones this kind of abuse. What’s more, Abbott carefully did not contradict radio host Alan Jones, who – when interviewing the Opposition Leader – described McDade as a woman who had never fought on the front line, and who had ‘too much uncontrolled power’.

The military justice system is completely independent of Government, as Defence Minister Stephen Smith pointed out today. The Prime Minister cannot intervene, nor should she. At best, the government could make some submissions to the military. Even the Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, and the executive director of the Defence Force Association, Neil James, were moved to comment. Both criticised the Opposition Leader’s remarks and stated that they were supportive of the legal process – and urged all defence personnel to be the same.

Yet Abbott maintains that Gillard should get involved on behalf of the accused soldiers. In other words, that political power should be brought to bear on the military, with the aim of pressuring McDade to drop the charges altogether – to do an end run around the legal process. To help the process along, Abbott seems happy to consent by silence to the character assassination of the chief prosecutor.

Abbott’s position is easy to see – our soldiers in wartime should not be subject to this sort of prosecution. It’s not far removed from the US saying that they would not participate in the International Court, in case their soldiers were prosecuted. Australia, like the US and Great Britain, mercilessly pursued German war criminals from World War II, and recently hanged Saddam Hussein, yet Abbott’s words suggest that there are two standards at work here. Crime in war cannot be committed by ‘our’ side, only ‘the enemy’.

It is precisely this attitude that leads to the creation of justice systems in the first place – impartial organisations dedicated to the pursuit of justice for all, rather than being subject to the whims of politicians. In fact, this was part of the rationale behind the formation of our own system under John Howard’s government. It’s a laudable goal, but one that Abbott now seems to think should be dictated to by the government. In fact, it seems likely that he would have interfered in this prosecution had we ended up with a Liberal-National minority government.

So now Abbott has three notches on his belt. He has called into question Treasury, the Solicitor-General’s office and the military justice system. You have to ask, what might be next – the Australian Electoral Commission, perhaps? Will we see legal challenges to election results that don’t favour the Coalition?

It’s difficult to discern a sound political strategy in what Abbott is doing. More and more, he seems to be on an uncontrolled slash-and-burn. Despite his protestations that he is ‘holding the government to account’, and ‘engaging in robust debate’, the real effect of his words and actions serves only to undermine his character. He’s like the angry kid in the sandpit who kicks over the other children’s sandcastles, because he didn’t win the blue ribbon and the praise from the teacher. He blamed his recent drop in popularity on the Prime Minister calling attention to his ‘jetlag’ gaffe, but the truth may have more to do with his apparent willingness to disparage without foundation anyone or anything that may stand in his way – in effect, to be the backstabber he accuses Gillard of being. Remember, Abbott still considers himself the Prime Minister-in-waiting.

What kind of Prime Minister builds his argument for legitimacy of government by tearing down the foundations of the country?

Yesterday, Abbott described himself as the gatekeeper for the nation’s values. ‘I am the standard bearer for values and ideals which matter and which are important,’ he said. Which values might those be? That the ends justify the means? That it doesn’t matter who or what is damaged, discredited or torn down, as long as power is ‘properly’ vested in the ‘legitimate’ contender (Abbott himself)? Or that, while truth might be the first casualty of war, integrity is the first casualty of politics?

* I refuse to call it the ‘War on Terror’. That title is nonsensical – we are at war with Afghani people, not some abstract emotion.


Machiavellian bastardry or masterful misdirection?

October 11, 2010

Tony Abbott’s ‘truth parrot’* appears to have taken flight. Perhaps there is no room for it to perch on his shoulder now that the hyperbole monkey is clinging to his back?

In an interview he gave just before flying to Afghanistan, Abbott let fly at Prime Minister Julia Gillard, accusing her of an act of ‘Machiavellian bastardry, low bastardry’. That’s a serious accusation. Gillard must have done something terrible, right? What could she have possibly done to attract that kind of condemnation?

According to Abbott, what Gillard did was tell the media she’d invited him to accompany her to Afghanistan even though she knew he’d already booked his own trip. As a result, he was backed into a corner and ‘spoke out of turn’ when he said he didn’t want to be jetlagged for the Tory party conference in London. This, apparently, makes her worse than any other Prime Minister ever. How dare she play politics with Our Brave Boys (and Girls) Risking Their Lives For Freedom, God and Country?

His colleagues were quick to wave their own jingoistic banners, tutting about the ‘low act’ Gillard had committed. Senator Mitch Fifield this morning on Sky was particularly strident in his condemnation, and called on the Prime Minister to apologise. After all, she ‘knew’ about the trip, she ‘knew’ Abbott could not make his plans public for security reasons, and she ‘deliberately’ tried to make it look like Abbott didn’t care about Our Brave etc., by telling people she had slept well.

Reality check.

The media did receive the information that Abbott had declined to accompany Gillard to Afghanistan. The information did not come from the Prime Minister’s office but was confirmed by them when media asked.

Abbott, when asked why he didn’t go with Gillard, said he did not want to be jetlagged. This was not a statement made under pressure, nor was he manoeuvred into it.

In a media conference, Gillard was asked ‘how she was sleeping’. The question got a huge laugh from the media pack. Gillard responded that she knew there were comments flying around about Abbott, and that his sleeping arrangements were his business. She went on, grinning, to mention that she had managed to fit in a visit to Zurich as well as Afghanistan, and still got eight hours’ sleep.

Abbott’s colleagues later asserted that he had ‘locked in’ his travel arrangements over a month ago, and that Gillard knew it when she made the invitation. Gillard denied this.

Whether the Prime Minister knew about the Opposition Leader’s travel arrangments is a matter of dispute, but a few things are clear. Nothing forced Abbott to make the ‘jetlag’ comment. Gillard certainly took advantage of his gaffe and got in a sideswipe of her own, but she in no way implied that he didn’t care about the troops. If anything, she took aim at his much-touted ‘Action Man’ status. A cheap shot? Definitely. ‘Playing politics’ with our war situation? Hardly.

It is curious, though, why this issue should rear its head again. After all, the Coalition has the Murray-Darling Basin report to attack. Why keep on with this?

This article in the Sydney Morning Herald might have something to do with it.

A document has surfaced bearing the signatures of Brian Loughnane and Brad Henderson, Federal Directors of the Liberal and National parties. In that document, the Coalition affirms that it is aware that the report prepared on its costings by WHK Horwath does not constitute an audit. That document was dated August 18, 2010. The very next day, both Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb repeatedly asserted that the report was an audit. Mitch Fifield described this today as merely a matter of ‘semantic debate’, and that Hockey was using the word in a ‘colloquial sense’.

Peter Martin reported on this in The Age back on August 20. He pointed out that a firm engaged in this kind of business has a legal and ethical obligation to make sure its clients understand the precise nature of the report – in other words, to make sure the Coalition knew it was not getting an audit of its costings. At the time, WHK Horwath stated that it had done so.

At the time, the story died fairly quickly. The election result and the ensuing focus on the Independents saw to that. Now, though, we have a document proving that WHK Horwath fulfilled its obligations, and that the Coalition was well aware that it had not secured an audit. Either Hockey and Robb were never told this – which beggars belief – or they deliberately and repeatedly lied to the Australian public. Even as late as last week, the Coalition were still saying their costs had been ‘audited’.

At the very least, this is a situation in which the Coalition’s ‘money men’ were provided with plausible deniability. At worst, it is evidence that the Coalition were willing to do and say anything to undermine Labor’s chances of winning the election, and maximise their own. These lies went hand-in-hand with the Coalition’s constant accusations of corruption within Treasury – and they demonstrate an astounding contempt for both the political process and the Australian public.

Is it any wonder Abbott is letting the hyperbole monkey out to play?

And the media is lapping it up. The ‘bastardry’ comment is running the board in terms of the headlines. Occasionally, someone comments that no one forced Abbott to say ‘jetlag’. By contrast, the question of the WHK Horwath document, and its implications, is getting almost no air time.

The Coalition is good at this. It knows that if you can control the news cycle, you can successfully obscure your own vulnerabilities and misdeeds. This is classic misdirection – the loud noise and light show that allows the magician to make the rabbit disappear without the audience seeing where it went. And the Australian public are the audience – they’re here for the spectacle, here to be fooled.

At least, that seems to be the Coalition’s view. I’d like to think people won’t be fooled by the magic words and the ‘look over there!’ tactics.

I think we’ll have a long wait if we sit back and expect the media to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. After all, it’s more entertaining to play sound bites of Abbott quivering in outrage and channelling the hyperbole monkey than to engage in a reasoned discussion of the difference between an audit and a review, right?

But if we don’t start ignoring the razzle-dazzle and the cries of ‘J’accuse!’ we may well find, come election time, that we only remember the spectacle, and not the real information being drowned out by it.

And we forget that information at our peril – because that is what tells us what any prospective government will be like if it gets its hands on power.

* A marvellous phrase coined by the ABC’s Annabel Crabb.

UPDATE: Fran Kelly, speaking on ABCNews24’s The Drum tonight, reported that her investigations into the whole Afghanistan trip situation had borne interesting fruit. Far from confirming the Opposition’s claims, it seems that the government did not leak the information that Abbott had been invited to accompany the Prime Minister. That was heard by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Phil Coorey ‘on the grapevine’. The Prime Minister’s office confirmed an offer had been made, but said that Abbott had not yet given them an answer. Abbott’s office said exactly the same thing, right up until the day before Abbott’s ‘jetlag’ comment. The ‘Gillard knew and is trying to make political points’ spin did not start until after Abbott’s gaffe and the resulting media frenzy.

Tonight, as Christopher Pyne accuses Gillard of ‘back alley bitchiness’, it’s worth remembering what Fran Kelly was able to find out with a couple of phone calls. And kudos to The Drum for actually tracking down the facts.


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