Kindness is killing – Abbott’s welfare Newspeak

March 31, 2011

We woke this morning to find out that the Opposition were about to reveal some new policies, targeted at ‘welfare reform’. Commentators remarked excitedly that here, at last, was a sign that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was listening to all those criticisms of how negative he’d been. (Mind you, very few of those criticisms came from said commentators.)

Strategically leaked details looked alarming – toughen up work for the dole, cut disability pension recipients by up to 60%, quarantine half of all long-term welfare payments and force people into work – but we had to wait until 2pm to find out the whole story.

Abbott’s choice of venue was curious: a rugby club. It’s not exactly the kind of location one associates with welfare reform; maybe some health announcements about nutrition and fitness, or a sports policy, but not the dole. Be that as it may, the speech commenced – and it was a poisonous, insidious exercise in stigmatising the poor, couched in Newspeak. The code to decipher this follows below.

Welfare is Economics.

First, Abbott tried to reframe the issue. It wasn’t about welfare reform, it was about economic reform. It’s possible he thought this might endear him to those concerned with the budget bottom line – and certainly, he did his level best to get in a few jabs at the government’s proposed carbon price and mining tax. What he may not have counted on, however, was that he also gave the clear impression that his focus was squarely on money, not on the human beings who would be affected by his policies.

After that we were treated to what appeared to be a de facto censure motion. Perhaps Abbott was feeling nostalgic for Question Time.

Labor is Labor/Greens.

He repeatedly attacked Labor, referring to the ‘Gillard/Brown government’. More Newspeak. If the correct form of address for any government was to refer to it by the surnames of all those who formed the ruling coalition, surely he should have said the ‘Gillard/Brown/Wilkie/Oakeshott/Windsor government’? And why, then, did we never hear the former government referred to as the ‘Howard/Fisher government’?

Of course, Abbot wasn’t the slightest bit interested in correct forms of address. This was about promoting the idea that Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown is at least a Deputy, but more likely a co-ruler – neither of which is true.

One wonders what Wayne Swan would have to say about his summary demotion by the Opposition Leader.

Opposition is Government.

Bizarrely, Abbott went on to extol the virtues of the former Howard government – many members of which, he helpfully pointed out, currently sit on the Opposition Front Bench. Then he urged his audience to judge the Opposition not on its record in the current position, but ‘on our results in government’.

Some twenty minutes later, Abbott appeared to finally exhaust his list of accusations – many of which contained outright lies and strategic misrepresentations – and turn to the putative ‘real issue’. He started by telling us what a government should not do, most of which could be boiled down to the brief phrase, ‘don’t create a nanny state’.

(Nanny state. It’s such a marvellously meaningless term – good for all occasions, but completely lacking in substance.)

Help is Harm.

A strong government, Abbott argued, should not ‘create a domineering state at the expense of purposeful persons in a free civil society’. Take a moment to unpack that, and remember the context. Abbott is leading up to the idea that a government – by assisting the poor, the unemployed and the disabled – is actually hurting them and, by extension, hurting the country.

Deciding to Target Welfare Recipients is ‘My Hand was Forced’

Then came a truly outrageous statement – that welfare reform was necessary because the Labor government had not made ‘significant savings’. It’s not that he wants to do it, but he has no choice. If the Labor government had done their job properly, he wouldn’t be standing here proposing changes to welfare.

Which is, of course, nonsense. These policies are recycled, tougher versions of ideas dating back to the Howard era – or should I say, the ‘Howard/Fisher era’.

As for the policies themselves? They were every bit as draconian as the leaks promised, and worse.

Unemployment is Bludging

Anyone under 50 receiving unemployment benefits for six months should be forced to do Work for the Dole. This program is ridiculously flawed – it’s little more than make-work at less than minimum wage. Participants have little choice as to where they will be sent, and usually learn no useful job skills. Past programs include sending people to file folders and staple newsletters; and even in jobs where training is promised, it rarely materialises due to time constraints in the organisations where they are placed.

People under 30 were targeted for a special provision. If an unskilled job existed in their area, they would be forced to take it, or lose their benefits. Indeed, Abbott suggested, people should be forced to relocate to areas that had such unskilled labour shortages. In other words, it’s great that you spent thousands on a good education, but they really need grape pickers in the Barossa, so off you go.

Welfare-Dependent is Incompetent and Untrustworthy

Anyone who is welfare-dependent for six months should have half of their payment quarantined ‘for the necessities of life’.
Never mind that quarantining is specifically designed to protect children whose parents neglect them. Never mind that almost every recipient of welfare robs Peter to pay Paul every fortnight, because their benefit is simply not enough to allow them to meet the deadlines of bills, rent or house payments.

Abbott bolstered his argument by commenting that ‘if it was right for the Territories’ it must be right in the rest of Australia. There’s a nasty little assumption at the basis of this; that people on welfare cannot or will not manage their money responsibly, and therefore the government must do that for them.

Funny, sounds like a ‘domineering state’ to me.

Disabled is Able

Abbott moved on to the disabled. Fully 60% of those on the Disability Support Pension, he alleged, suffered from ‘potentially treatable’ conditions. (Of course, he didn’t say where he got those figures.) Those people should be taken off the DSP and put onto a ‘new’ benefit, and encouraged to return to work. Now, we already have a benefit available for those with medium-term illnesses or injuries – it’s called Sickness Benefit – but Abbot either didn’t know that, or didn’t care. He also didn’t bother to delineate the criteria by which ‘potentially treatable’ would be determined, or suggest ways in which the government might assist in rehabilitating people. Perhaps he believes that those who ‘want to work’ will find a way to pay for their own therapy – on a benefit that does not even approach the minimum wage.

Of course, Abbott acknowledged, this might not fix our skilled labor shortage – but he had a solution for that, too. The government should simply increase the number of 457 (skilled work) visas! We can fill those jobs with people from overseas!

Yes, you read that right. The man who lavished praise upon the Howard government – the government that systematically cut funding to higher education and levelled an ever-increasing financial burden on tertiary students, while cutting their access to financial assistance – is now complaining of a skills shortage. But the answer isn’t to boost the upskilling of Australians, oh no – we should just import people, and send Australians to be cleaners in Karratha.

Abbott could have announced an incentive program to encourage skilled workers to relocate. We do that with doctors already – why not extend those incentives to other highly skilled professions?

He could have suggested setting up a jobs-matching scheme, to match up job vacancies with suitable candidates. Oh wait, we used to have one of those – it was called the Commonwealth Employment Service. Whatever happened to that? That’s right – the wonderful Howard government privatised it and parcelled its work out to a series of agencies, most of which folded after they were unable to meet Howard’s restrictive funding criteria.

Support is Disempowerment, Compassion is Cruelty, Kindness is Killing

Abbott wound up his speech by telling us all that compassion was a wonderful thing, but we needed to ensure that compassion is not ‘misguided’. Such a mistake, he said, ‘over time, breaks down the social fabric’. His policies would be good for ‘national morale’, and people would feel better about themselves because of these measures.

I’m sure the disabled parent who has to regularly explain to the landlord that they can’t pay the rent on time because their cash flow has been cut in half will feel better.

I’m sure the unemployed engineer who accumulated a huge education debt and now has to work as a grape picker while overseas workers are handed visas and jobs in his field will feel better.

And I’m sure the person forced off disability support because someone arbitrarily decided they were now magically ‘treatable’, and who reads an article about cutting company tax for the wealthiest corporations, will really feel that boost in national morale.

Abbott’s proposals are not ‘kind’. They are not ‘compassionate’. They are not – as they are now hideously being called in the media – ‘tough love’.

These so-called ‘reforms’ are based on Howard-era policies, vilifying the poor and penalising the disabled and unemployed. They’re predicated on the ridiculous notion that anyone who is not working does not want to work, and is therefore a drain on the public purse. Shades of the 1996 federal election and the beat-up by A Current Affair on the Paxton family. They’re designed to make those of us who do work turn on the ‘bludgers’, without a shred of evidence to justify the anger and vilification.

Abbott didn’t provide any incentives. He didn’t propose training, job-matching, rehabilitation, or any form of positive support. And he apparently doesn’t care that his policies, if implemented would force already overstrained charities like the Salvation Army, Anglicare or St Vincent de Paul to try to accommodate the needs of potentially thousands more people whose only crime is to be unemployed or disabled.

Undoubtedly, Abbott’s proposals will be astonishingly popular with News Limited – although we’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s editorials, the glowing praise given by The Australian’s Jennifer Hewett on Sky’s PM Agenda seems a fair indicator of what’s to come. Channel Ten’s 5PM news – describing Abbott’s proposals as a ‘crackdown’ – decided to do a vox pop outside a Centrelink office – presumably so it could catch people handing in their Newstart forms.

In fact, there’s been no media criticism to speak of – at worst, Abbott’s ideas have simply been presented without comment.

But all the Newspeak in the world can’t obscure what Abbott is really saying – that money is more important than people, and that corporations deserve help from the government when the most vulnerable citizens do not.

And that – while neither new, nor unexpected – is an utter disgrace.


Gillard’s ‘Indian’ solution for asylum seekers?

March 25, 2011

Remember when Gillard announced plans to get asylum seeker children out of detention centres and into the equivalent of community halfway houses? To provide them with mental health care? Speed up processing asylum seekers’ claims? At the time, I wrote:

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

Remember when the High Court ruled that boat-borne asylum seekers were entitled to appeal denied claims in Australian courts? My comment then:

‘Unless the government moves to introduce some particularly dodgy legislation, the implications of this High Court decision are far-reaching.’

Well, the government neither rested on its laurels nor tried to bring in dodgy laws. Instead, they pulled a dirty trick – one that is as callous as it is sneaky.

Ashmore Reef is a tiny speck of Australian land in the Indian Ocean, only fully exposed at low tide. Before 2001, it was a favourite destination for boat-borne asylum seekers, even though there is no infrastructure to speak of, and its wells are subject to viral and bacterial contamination. Once landed, those from the boat could claim asylum from Australia, invoking the provisions of the Migration Act, including access to the Australian legal system. Former Prime Minister John Howard’s government removed that option in 2001, excising Ashmore Reef, Christmas Island, Cartier Island and the Cocos Islands from Australia’s migration zone. This made it possible to treat anyone arriving there by boat to be treated as an ‘offshore’ asylum seeker; Australia is under no obligation to issue a visa, and there is no access to the courts.

After the recent unrest at the overcrowded Christmas Island detention centre, the Labor government announced that the facility was closed to new arrivals – put ‘on bypass’, as it were. Future asylum seekers would be processed in mainland centres. Of course, that immediately raised the question of the refugee claimants’ legal status – as onshore arrivals, they would have full access to the courts and be able to apply for visas. The Opposition was particularly quick to seize the opportunity to make political capital out of this possibility, trotting out the well-worn ‘failed border protection policies’ and ‘lost control of our borders’ slogans.

It looks like the government might have found its own ‘Indian solution’ to that potential problem.

Last night it announced that an intercepted boat bound for the mainland was briefly forced to detour to Ashmore Reef. The passengers were offloaded, and transferred to two Border Protection Command vessels, before continuing towards Broome. According to a Customs spokesperson, this happened purely for ‘operational’ reasons: ‘The use of two vessels ensured the passengers had more comfort and provided them with additional facilities’.

On the face of it, that’s a remarkably thoughtful act. The boats that carry asylum seekers are usually crowded, often unseaworthy, providing little or no sanitary facilities. A quick stop-off to transfer people so that they can undertake the last 2000 km or so in comfort seems like a good idea.

It all sounds very compassionate and concerned – right up until you realise that in doing this, Customs stripped those people of their legal rights. The moment their feet touched Ashmore Reef, they lost the right to apply for a visa. They may also have lost their right to full access to the courts.

It’s a callous move designed to take advantage of the Howard government’s original despicable actions, and the naiveté of the asylum seekers. What makes it even more disgusting is the transparent whitewash attempt.

The High Court decision may well put a spoke in this sneaky little plan. It ruled that all asylum seekers are to be treated equally in terms of the Migration Act, regardless of their mode of travel. A little while ago, however, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, however, declared he had advice to the contrary – that this boatload would be treated as ‘offshore’ asylum seekers.

So much for ‘operational’ concerns. So much for the refugees’ ‘comfort’. Bowen’s words give the lie to Customs’ explanation for the detour and show it up for the pathetic excuse it was.

The government appears to be gambling that it can interpret the High Court decision to suit itself. If it can get away with classifying this latest boatload of asylum seekers as ‘offshore’, it succeeds on two fronts. First, it can save itself the trouble of having to fund access to courts for boat-borne refugees. Second – and perhaps this is, in fact, their primary concern – it removes one line of attack from the Opposition. If they can simply factor in an Ashmore Reef stop-over for every boat interception, it avoids a great deal of trouble.

What doesn’t seem to factor anywhere in the Government’s ‘Indian solution’ is any sense of compassion for the people it herded ashore and tricked into possibly giving up their legal rights. Just political expediency.

Just like John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’.

We’ll have to wait and see if the High Court decision renders the Government’s dirty tricks pointless. In the meantime, we can hope that Bowen might come to some understanding of ‘humane behaviour’ and ‘fair play’.

I’m not holding my breath, mind you.


Married to the lynch mob

March 24, 2011

There’s a truism that says Australia is the 51st state of the US – a McDonalds on every corner, a rather pathetic desire to curry favour with the President, and a willingness to be screwed over in treaties and trade agreements by an ally.

After yesterday, I think, we can really claim that title. Yesterday, we saw the Tea Party come to Australia, with all its hysteria, fake claims of ‘grass-roots’ sentiment and lies. And – just as in the US – we saw a conservative political party try to convince us that they weren’t causing the hysteria, just listening to ‘the silent majority’ finally rise up and exercise their right of free speech.

Radio station 2GB – home of ultra-conservative ‘shock jocks’ like Alan Jones – helped organise a protest rally against the government’s proposed carbon pricing scheme at Parliament House yesterday. According to the Australian Federal Police, about 1500 people gathered on the lawn, led by former rock singer Angry Anderson. In the crowd were One Nation, the anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights and former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson. On the platform were discredited scientists, self-styled ‘experts’ and carefully chosen ‘ordinary Australians’.

And the Coalition came out to meet them with open arms.

All well and good. People have a right to protest, despite the best efforts of politicians like former Prime Minister John Howard and former Liberal Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen (who infamously legislated to declare any gathering of three or more people in a public place an ‘unlawful assembly’). That right isn’t limited to any cause, or restricted to reasoned debate in conference halls. When people feel passionately, they want to be visible, and they want to be heard.

But what happened in Canberra yesterday went far beyond ‘protest’ – it was an ugly mob, and the Coalition pandered to it and whipped it into a frenzy.

Speaker after speaker mounted the platform to address the rally. Every one of them repeated the lies that form the now-familiar Coalition message: that Prime Minister Gillard’s broken promise on a carbon price was a deliberate deception on her part; that every Australian would suffer terribly by being forced to pay a carbon tax; and – with the notable exception of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – that climate change was simply not happening.

Well, they can lie. They should, and are, being called on those lies, but it’s free speech, right? As Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer repeatedly yelled over both Labor MP Nick Champion and Sky’s Keiran Gilbert this morning, they’re ordinary Australians who are allowed to have their views heard. Even if those views are the kind of personal insults yelled by Pauline Hanson (who fronted the cameras to attack Gillard for being unmarried with no children).

Except this isn’t about free speech. This isn’t about the person who carried a sign protesting against everything from the ‘carbon tax’ to the IMF, the UN and ‘one world government’. This isn’t about the person who carried the brightly-coloured placard that made ingenious use of fridge magnets to spell out ‘NO LABOUR CARBON TAX’. It’s not even about the ‘My Mom Is Cold’ sign that popped up. (And can anyone explain that? Anyone?)

This is about the so-called alternative Prime Minister of Australia standing on a platform with his senior colleagues, scare-mongering and lying, while standing in front of this sign (photo credit to the ABC’s Latika Bourke):

Notice the flames of hell?

This is about Senator Barnaby Joyce trembling with anger and screaming red-faced into the microphone, ‘She lied to you! She lied to you!‘, then smiling and nodding as the crowd roared, ‘BITCH! BITCH! BITCH!’

This is about not one of the Coalition speakers asking the crowd to show respect for the Prime Minister – or even for the office of Prime Minister. Every single one of them either stood silently with approving smiles while the crowd roared, or actually encouraged further abuse.

It was a mob virtually baying for Gillard’s blood, and being encouraged to do it.

Unsurprisingly, those actions provoked shock and outrage – although, to listen to some media outlets, you’d be forgiven for thinking the rally was just an excitable picnic rather than a sustained personal attack on the Prime Minister. Senator Bob Brown sent a letter to the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon expressing his feelings of disgust at the abuse they’d hurled at her, along with his wish that Abbott would apologise for endorsing such sentiments.

Abbott, however, was having none of that. Late last night he issued a statement saying he regretted the actions of ‘a small group of people’ – but no apology, no admission that he and his colleagues had helped fuel the situation. Confronted by the media this morning, he expanded on those remarks. Let’s take a look.

‘A few people went over the top … naturally I regret that … but I can understand that people feel passionate.’

A few people? There were hundreds of people waving abusive signs and chanting ‘Bitch!’ and even ‘Kill the Witch!’. A sky writer even gave us the benefit of his opinion at an opportune moment. And it was particularly impressive how many of those signs were identical and professionally produced.

But what about this?

Abbott: ‘Let’s face it, this is a Prime Minister who told us before the election that there will be no carbon tax … it was unfortunate that some ppl chose to go a bit over the top yesterday … I would urge all people to conduct this debate with respect … but if we are going to build respect for the democratic process in this country it is important for the Prime Minister to seek a mandate for her carbon tax.’

‘It’s a pity when some people go a little over the top … it would have been better for everyone if the Prime Minister had said “I don’t want to deceive you, there will be a carbon tax” … if the Prime Minister had been straight with the Australian people before the election we wouldn’t be in quite the situation we’re now in.’

A ‘little over the top’? Calling for violence to be done to the Prime Minister of the country?

Just in case we didn’t pick it up, Abbott kept repeating that the ‘real’ problem here was Gillard’s broken promise – what he consistently referred to as a ‘lie’ or ‘deception’.

Yes. You read that right. It’s Gillard’s fault. She made these poor people howl for her blood. If only, if only she hadn’t ‘lied’, we could all be having tea and scones right now.

In the real world, Mr Abbott, we call that ‘blaming the victim’.

Then there was this gem:

‘People are entitled to feel pretty unhappy … I want the protest to be civil … but let’s not get too precious about these things.’

No, let’s not get concerned about the fact that the Coalition egged the protesters on to louder and more abusive expressions of intended violence. Let’s not worry about Joyce’s endorsement of the kind of abuse we consider unacceptable if it’s yelled in the street. Let’s not get precious, because after all, she brought it on herself.

Asked why he and his colleagues addressed the rally, Abbott replied: ‘I thought it was important that … politicians should speak with them.’

Oh, how disingenuous. Abbott was just doing what politicians should do – speak to the people. After all, other politicians go out to see protesters on the lawns of Parliament House – why shouldn’t he?

Because other politicians confine their actions to talking one-on-one with protesters. Other politicians listen to grievances – they don’t deliver speeches designed to turn a rally into a screaming lynch mob. Other politicians carefully demur when asked by protesters to endorse their slogans.

In other words, Mr Abbott, other politicians speak with protesters, not to them.

Abbott even suggested that Gillard was at fault for not going out to speak to the protesters, as he had. Given the mood of the crowd, she would have been mad to do that. We’ve already seen people throwing shoes at politicians and burning their pictures – and that’s without the Coalition helpfully whipping them along. Watching that rally yesterday, I don’t think many people could doubt that Gillard’s safety would have been at risk.

Abbott tried to shift the blame to Gillard. He tried the old ‘oh, it was just a few mavericks’ line. He tried the free speech and ‘caring politician’ defence. In short, he did everything he could to excuse himself – everything but apologise. In the words of Jake Blues:

But – as Keiran Gilbert asked this morning – what more could he have done?

How about this?

He could have asked the crowd to stop yelling abuse.

He could have insisted that the ‘Bitch’ sign be taken down while any Coalition representative was on the platform.

He could have made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any of his colleagues encouraging abuse.

He could have forbidden any Coalition representative from addressing the crowd as a whole, and confined his actions to listening.

But he did none of these things. By mounting that platform yesterday, he married the Coalition to the lynch mob

Abbott should now apologise without reservation on behalf of himself and his parliamentary colleagues. And he should stop treating the Australian people as idiots. After yesterday, he has no basis left for his persistent claims that he is not contributing to fear and anger. After yesterday, he has no credibility whatsoever.

Independent MP Tony Windsor was pooh-poohed when he expressed the concern that the anti-carbon price rhetoric was becoming so inflammatory that it might well spill over into violence directed at those politicians who supported it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say he was mocked – everyone from politicians to media to tweeters rubbished the idea.

After yesterday, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it?

Mr Abbott and his colleagues need to realise that sooner or later, violence may well erupt as a result of their lies and fear-mongering. And if it does, and all their protests of ‘free speech’ and ‘it’s not our fault’ will mean exactly nothing. They will have blood on their hands.

What’s truly frightening – and after yesterday, seems even more likely – is the idea that they know that already, and they simply don’t care.

AFTERWORD:

Two senior Coalition members chose not to attend the rally yesterday – Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, and former leader Malcolm Turnbull. Neither of them gave their reasons – perhaps it was political expediency, perhaps a recognition of just how inappropriate and damaging it would be.

What’s important is that they did not endorse, either by their presence or their words, the abuse, offensive language or threats of violence that occurred – unlike their leader and their colleagues.

For their common sense, they should be commended.


Gillard and the Bible – it’s all about the votes

March 22, 2011

By now, no one should be surprised to hear that the Labor government is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. With the exception of a few outspoken mavericks, the message is pretty solid: no change to the Marriage Act. Add to that the fact that the Coalition have managed to gain traction – at least in some areas – with their accusation that the Greens are ‘really’ in power, and it was probably inevitable that the government would try to present itself as a distinct entity, policy-wise.

That’s exactly what Prime Minister Julia Gillard appeared to be trying to do on Sky News’ Australian Agenda last week. The result, however, was a series of incredible statements that delighted the Coalition as much as it enraged many Labor supporters and social progressives.

Gillard labelled herself a ‘cultural traditionalist’ – which is nothing less than a synonym for ‘social conservative’. Fair enough. There are plenty of social conservatives out there, looking to the past to provide guidance on how to live today. Many of them even acknowledge the fact that they need to set their personal beliefs aside when it comes to social issues. Not Gillard. Her loyalty to her ‘old-fashioned’ upbringing leads her to oppose same-sex marriage – even though the Marriage Act never contained an exclusively heterosexual provision until former Prime Minister Howard shoe-horned one into it.

Gillard’s newly-declared social conservatism is pretty selective, mind you. She’s staunchly pro-choice when it comes to abortion, a vocal supporter of women’s representation in the workplace and the rights of indigenous people to full participation in society. On the issue of same-sex marriage, however, she’s adamant.

But it was what followed this ‘cultural traditionalist’ re-badging that had jaws hitting the floor. Gillard – the avowed atheist Prime Minister – lauded the Christian Bible as a positive, foundational influence on ‘our’ culture. It is so important, apparently, that it is ‘impossible to understand Western literature’ – and, by extension, Western law and culture – without it. Not that she’s advocating religion, oh no – but coming on the heels of her avowed ‘cultural’ opposition to same-sex marriage, it’s not difficult to connect the dots.

Gillard talked about the necessity of understanding Bible stories. Which stories might those be? The story of how a man who threw out his concubine and their son into the desert because his wife was jealous? The story of how that same man was prepared to kill his remaining son to show his faith in God? How about the story of how a woman secured victory for the Israelites by first seducing, then murdering an enemy war leader?

The suspicion has to be, though, that Gillard – who’d just finished voicing her belief that heterosexual marriage had a ‘special status’ – had Sodom and Gomorrah in mind. You know, the story of the evil cities, destroyed by God because they were places where men had sex with other men?

But hold up a moment. Let’s take up Gillard’s recommendation, and really look at the story, which can be found in Genesis. There’s no indication as to why God wants to destroy the cities – just that there is an ‘outcry’ against them. The one instance where male-male sex is even mentioned is in a sequence where a group of men threaten to gang-rape two angels – and this happens after the descruction is decreed. And just incidentally, the sole ‘righteous man’ in the city tries to protect the angels by offering his daughters up as substitute rape victims. Not exactly the story most people tell, is it?

Gillard’s right – you can learn important things by reading Bible stories. In this case, you can learn that a story long used to deny same-sex attracted men equality is actually completely different.

Maybe Gillard was thinking of Leviticus, where there are a whole slew of laws set down for the ancient Israelite people – including prohibitions against male-male sex, punishable by exile. That’s fairly clear – but then why doesn’t Gillard have a problem with men who engage in sex with menstruating women? Or recommend that a man who curses his parents be executed?

Oh, maybe she’s just thinking of Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he warns that those who engage in same-sex intercourse are evil and will suffer God’s wrath. But then she doesn’t seem equally concerned with gossips (read: leakers), who will apparently suffer the same fate.

All of which is a revolting display of cherry-picking, but ultimately, means nothing.

Why?

Because we are not a theocracy.

We are a secular nation. We have specific Constitutional prohibitions against any form of mandated religion. And make no mistake – for all Gillard’s claims that what she’s talking about is ‘cultural’, the reality is that she appeals to a religious text to justify her actions as Prime Minister in denying equal rights to same-sex attracted people.

Gillard is simply trying to hide behind a smokescreen, here. It’s not ‘religious’, it’s ‘cultural’. It’s not about exalting one religion’s doctrine, it’s about staying true to an ‘important part of our culture’. Classic spin – reframe the issue, change the language, and obscure the truth.

And it’s a fair bet that the truth, in this situation, is that Gillard is dogwhistling to the Australian Christian Lobby and similarly vocal conservative Christians.

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all. Despite Gillard’s protestations that she would treat people of all faiths equally, it’s very clear that the only faith she has any time for is that espoused by the most socially regressive lobby group in Australia. And why? Because it’s vocal. Because it consistently pushes the lie that it is representative of all Christians, who – when all sects are lumped together – remains the single largest represented religious group on the Australian census. In other words, it’s about buying votes.

This is hypocrisy on a grand scale.

It is absolutely nonsensical. There are no dire economic consequences foreseeable by removing discrimination against same-sex couples – in fact, a University of Queensland study suggests an economic boost from marriage licence fees and wedding costs. There are no dire social consequences foreseeable – the old myth that ‘kids need a mum and dad or else they’ll grow up to be juvenile delinquents or worse – homosexual‘ has been well and truly debunked. No one is seriously suggesting Australian society will shatter into tiny pieces because ‘Heather has Two Mommies’.

Labor’s oft-stated opposition to same-sex marriage always rang hollow. ‘We don’t want it because, um, it’s traditionally between a man and woman, and besides, the Marriage Act says so’. They hung their argument on legislation, and recently-amended legislation at that. Now, perhaps, we see what’s really at work.

Whether Gillard’s new justification is political expedience or an admission that conservative religious beliefs influence her far more than her atheism might suggest is irrelevant.

What’s relevant is that Gillard gave legitimacy to prejudice, and enshrined it in an appeal to a mythical Golden Age.

Maybe that will get her the votes she needs to govern in her own right at the next election. But those votes come at the expense of the hopes and dreams of Australians. In granting authority to a bigoted minority, Gillard has coldly dismissed the fact that she is condoning prejudice and perpetuating victimisation.

And who are those victims? They’re the people next door. They’re the people we work with, and socialise with every day. They’re the people who service our cars, fix our computers, stack our supermarket shelves and teach our children. They’re same-sex attracted people who simply want to enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. They want to get married. As long as they are denied that right, the message is clear: they do not have ‘special status’. They are not ‘real’ couples. Their love is not worthy of recognition by the State. All in the name of votes.

And for that, Prime Minister Gillard, you should hang your head in shame.


A time to bear witness

March 12, 2011

Last night a massive earthquake hit just off the coast of Japan. The quake measured 8.9 on the Richter scale – the highest in Japanese recorded history – and generated a series of tsunamis. The highest wave measured over 7 metres. Over 1200 tweets per minute raced in as the wave, clocked at 900 kilometres per hour, swept away buildings, cars and people. Some of those tweets came from people trapped in their cars and carried by the water up to 4 kilometres inland. Aftershocks continue – many register 5.0 or greater on the Richter scale.

Every news channel showed live footage of those tsunamis sweeping inland via NHK Television. Their helicopter flew ahead of the wave, dispassionately recording and transmitting as people tried to outrun the water in their cars. Such was the speed of the tsunami that some buildings, which had caught fire in the initial quake, were carried along, still burning.

At the time of writing, nearly 400 people are confirmed dead. In Miyagi prefecture, police report up to 300 bodies on the shore near where the tsunami struck. 1000 people are officially missing, presumed dead. Villages are smashed flat. Ships and boats lie stranded on farmland, and piles of cars and trucks are tangled up with the remains of buildings. News agencies report that people are buried alive under rubble, calling out for help.

There is a nuclear emergency taking place in Fukushima prefecture. The 40-year-old plant shut down its power according to earthquake protocol and started the backup diesel generator. It failed. Temperatures are rising and radiation may be leaking – levels up to 8 times normal are already registering. Radioactive steam may cause an explosion – or if the core is exposed, a runaway reaction.

This comes on the heels of the devastating Christchurch earthquake.

That followed Cyclone Yasi in north Queensland.

And before that, the floods that tore through Queensland, including the so-called ‘inland tsunami’ that nearly destroyed much of the Lockyer Valley.

This is not a time to turn away and think about something else, because it’s too upsetting. This is not a time for politics. This is not a time for racism or jingoism. This is not a time for sermons about repentance and the end of the world, or finger-pointing. No matter what your politics may be, no matter what religion you subscribe to, if any – this is a time to remember that down where it matters, we are all humans, and we all suffer.

This is a time to bear witness.

UPDATE:

Radioactive steam was released from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant to relieve the steadily-rising pressure on the reactor. At this stage, no one knows if a meltdown has, or will take place.

The confirmed death toll stands at 613.

Actor George Takei(of Star Trek and Heroes fame) has been constantly updating his Twitter account with news and information on where and how to donate to the relief appeal. This update, however, is the one that stands out.

‘Today we are all Japanese … ‘


Anti-Greens ratf*ckers come out for Mardi Gras

March 6, 2011

Last night was the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. This year, 135 floats made their way through Sydney street, celebrating queerness in all its wonderful and outrageous manifestations. Highlights of the night for me were: the giant sequined whale from Taronga Zoo (because queer penguins need love too, apparently); the ’78ers (those amazing people who started out marching in protest and founded a tradition that has become part of Sydney life); the Rainbow Babies (celebrating the New South Wales Parliament finally passing laws to allow same-sex adoption); and a couple of mystery guests.

A surprise appearance from our fearless leader and her Opposition counterpart - or their stand-ins, at least.

It was a night for making statements, the strongest of which forcefully made the case for marriage equality. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has repeatedly introduced bills calling for the Marriage Act to be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry, marched in the thick of the throng. Given such an atmosphere, it was probably inevitable that some slightly less positive sentiments would make an appearance.

So was anyone really surprised to see a slew of badly-printed anti-Greens posters suddenly appearing taped to telephone poles around Oxford Street? The Conscience Vote’s ‘fabulous informant’ snapped some pictures:

LOOK OVER HERE!

First, the scream sheet, following a time-honoured tabloid tradition. “DO THE NSW GREENS OPPOSE GAY RIGHTS?” Now that it’s got your attention, it gives you just a little more information: ‘By boycotting Israel, the NSW Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is not a capital offence, or even a crime’. Finally, the admonition: ‘Choose freedom. Don’t vote Green on March 26’.

Cunning, eh? It’s even printed on green paper. That’ll get the message across to those ‘gays’.

For those who were more detail-oriented (or who perhaps just had a little more time to kill while waiting for a taxi), some considerate souls also posted the full text version:

Note the scattergun approach.

The cutaway quote from the scream sheet heads up the litany of Terrible Truths, but it doesn’t stop there. The Greens, it charges, also oppose democracy – because they’ve called for a boycott of Israel, and Israel is the ‘only’ democratic country in the Middle East. And they support ‘terror’ – because Hezbollah and Iran want to attack Israel, and by boycotting Israel, the Greens are on their side.

Seeing a theme here? And I don’t just mean the breathingtakingly, mindbogglingly hamfisted excuse for logic. It’s all about Israel. The Greens hate Israel – therefore the Greens must hate homosexuals and democracy. And support Evil Dictators and Terrorist Organisations. We must stop these terrible people gaining any sort of representation in ‘our’ government. The fate of Israel depends on it!

It’s barely worth ripping down the arguments used here – they are transparently spurious. Whoever wrote this piece of nonsense deliberately misstated facts and massacred logical thinking. Mind you, they also credit the Greens with an astonishing amount of influence – if they call for a boycott of Israel, gay people will be killed, Hezbollah and Iran will attack and the Last Bastion of Democracy (TM) in the region will fall.

So, it’s all about Israel. But who could be the Concerned Citizens behind this poster campaign? Who are these brave souls, who subjected themselves to driving rain, loud music and an onslaught of glitter and leather to bring their message of Imminent Disaster to the unsuspecting people of Oxford Street?

The crucial point is revealed in the last paragraph: “DO THE GREENS HATE CHRISTIANS?” The authors of this poster were already drawing a very long bow, but this is the point where the string snaps violently: ‘By boycotting Israel, the Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population’. Adopting a somewhat pleading tone, the authors cry plaintively, ‘Christians are people too’.

I smell a ratf*ck.

Remember the One Vote videos during the 2010 Federal campaign? Similar anti-Greens message, similar mixture of fabrication and a similar amount of scare-mongering mangled arguments. Similar production values, too – although in the ‘One Vote’ case, it was a failure of web design.

The Conscience Vote and The Notion Factory traced those ‘concerned citizens’ back to the Christian Democratic Party. This latest effort, however, is likely to prove much harder to track down. Not only is it (thus far) confined to photocopied posters on cheap paper, it’s devoid of any information as to who might be responsible.

But really, that’s the point. We’re supposed to think this doesn’t originate with a political party, or even a lobby group. We’re encouraged to believe that this really is some kind of grass-roots, spontaneous uprising of The People, forced to take to the streets because their voices are not heard in the corridors of power. It’s heartwarming, really.

And of course, it’s complete rubbish.

I’m not about to point the finger at anyone. It might not be the CDP behind this latest offering. After all, there’s a fine tradition of ratf*cking in Australian politics.

But it is very interesting how the same language, the same sentiments and the anonymity just keep turning up – all directed at one political party.

This time, however, it looks like the minds behind this strategy badly misread their target demographic – my fabulous informant tells me he witnessed people reading the posters and laughing.


Every hour of every day

March 1, 2011

Last week, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised to fight the government’s proposed carbon pricing mechanism ‘every hour of every day’.

Well, we’ve had a taste of that already. And it’s putrid.

Yesterday’s Question Time started off fairly predictably. Continuing a strategy has characterised much of their approach to Parliament, the Opposition hammered Gillard on the question of trust. She said she wouldn’t, but now she’s doing it. How can we ever trust her, etc. Nothing new there – tedious, but very much a case of ‘same old, same old’.

Then Abbott dropped the first ‘official’ accusation of lying. Speaker Harry Jenkins demanded he withdraw the slur and rephrased the question. A full five minutes later, after much weaselling and complaining, Abbott fixed a very nasty grin on his face and replaced the word ‘lie’ with the phrase ‘may have been less than honest’.

At the same time, the Opposition in the Senate attempted to censure the government. Their leader, Senator Eric Abetz, indulged in a top-of-the-voice screaming rant, much of which was directed at Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong – on the grounds that she had been the Climate Change Minister before the 2010 election. The shouting continued for nearly half an hour.

Abbott followed suit not long after, backed up by Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey. This time, they managed to shoehorn ‘lie’ into the shout-fest three times without challenge.

The change of language is significant. The Opposition is no longer content to say, ‘it’s a broken promise’. Somewhere along the line they decided, perhaps, it wasn’t strong enough. So now we have the accusation that Gillard deliberately lied in order to win government. That’s a much more serious – and much more personal – attack. It’s calculated to draw on the sense of anger we rightly feel when we discover someone set out to deceive us, and succeeded. Much like the anger directed at Shadow Treasurer Joe ‘Fully Audited’ Hockey, when he was caught out misleading the public on the Coalition’s election costings.

And of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s utterly irrelevant whether Gillard did deliberately lie, whether she was convinced to change her mind through the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee’s deliberations, whether she was pressured by the Greens or the Independents, or whether (at the absurd extreme) she’d decided to flip a coin. The Opposition claims the right to say what was in Gillard’s mind, both before the election and now.

The censure motions failed. Of course, they were never going to succeed, anyway. The Opposition simply doesn’t have the numbers, and with Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne and Member for Cowan Luke Simpkins barred from the Chamber for their conduct, the most they could hope for in the House was that the Independents would break step with the government. Even then, the best possible result was a tied vote – which the Speaker would resolve in favour of the government.

But that was never the point. In bringing these censure motions, the Opposition was doing little more than playing to the gallery. They uttered a few juicy soundbites and told the evening news that it was all about ‘lying’ now. And like faithful parrots, the media repeated the message. In interviews and panel discussions for the rest of the night and this morning, the Opposition cried ‘lie’, and the media obligingly pressured the government to ask why it ‘lied’.

Of course, when former Prime Minister John Howard backflipped on the idea of a GST, it wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t a broken promise. It was a principled stand that he took after receiving advice that it was the right thing to do. And he took it straight to an election – although, in fact, it was back on the agenda over a year before the 1998 election, and not flagged as an election policy until after Howard called the poll.

Gillard’s change of policy came about under similar circumstances to Howard’s. Like him, she made a knee-jerk commitment to something under pressure from media and political opponents. Like him, she received continual pressure to revoke that commitment. And like him, she reversed her position.

None of which, of course, matters to the Coalition. They went merrily on their way.

The low point of the failed censure motion came when Abbott mangled a Shakespearean analogy, comparing Gillard to Lady Macbeth, killing ‘Banquo’ (i.e. former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd), and now believing that ‘a little water clears her of this deed’. Of course, Lady Macbeth actually killed no one, settling for the role of ‘encouraging wife’, or at worst, ‘accessory before the fact’ – something that Abbott’s education would surely have told him. Never mind that. There’s a popular conception of Lady Macbeth as a vicious murderer willing to kill anyone who gets in the way of her path to personal power – a bloody, dangerous madwoman.

Abbott played to that shamelessly. The implication could not have been clearer. Gillard was not only a liar – she was also vicious and insane.

Then this morning, Shadow Health Minister Peter Dutton appeared on Sky News’ AM Agenda, and took the scare/smear campaign right to the gutter. As host Kieran Gilbert repeated the Opposition’s lines, Trade Minister Craig Emerson attempted to explain how the government’s plan would operate. Dutton interrupted with this:

‘Craig sounds like Colonel Gaddafi at the moment, saying everybody’s in favour of me, nobody is rising up against me … like Chemical Ali, honestly, honestly.’

Yes. Dutton apparently decided it would be a fine idea to compare Emerson to a delusional mass murderer guilty of crimes against humanity, so out of touch with reality that he believes protesting citizens are hallucinating on drugs administered to them by al Qaeda. Just for good measure, he threw in the name of a man rightly reviled for using mustard gas and nerve gases to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurdish civilians – who followed up this atrocity with an attempt to commit genocide, and who was unrepentant even as he was taken to be executed for his crimes.

Vicious and insane.

To say that Emerson was offended would be a gross understatement. He demanded a retraction from Dutton, repeatedly stating how outraged and insulted he felt:

‘I think that’s pretty offensive … I would rather you not use comparisons with a killer in Iraq and me, all right? You might think that’s flippant and funny, I think it’s bloody disgraceful, you understand that, I think that is bloody disgraceful, and there is a line here Peter, which you have crossed which you should not pass’.

Dutton completely ignored him – and Gilbert blithely went on quoting from the Opposition playbook. At no time did Gilbert attempt to stop Dutton – even with something as mild as, ‘Steady on, Peter’.

One such outrageously insulting comparison might be charitably called a misstep. The fact that Dutton followed up his leader’s offensive behaviour – indeed, going even further – shows something is rotten in the state of the Coalition (to mangle a Shakespearean metaphor of my own). At the very least, Dutton took his lead from Abbott – possibly reasoning that it looked like a pretty nifty idea, and sounded good when thundered around the Chamber yesterday. That’s almost excusable – if Dutton provides an immediate, unqualified apology.

At worst, this is an actual strategy of escalation. It starts by painting the Prime Minister as sneaky and deliberately deceptive (in itself nothing too surprising, but the language is a lot stronger than usual), then rapidly becomes an attempt to link members of the Labor government with behaviour so inhumane, so completely lunatic that their continued existence in power constitutes an immediate threat to all Australians on a par with nerve gas and genocide.

This goes well beyond hyperbole.

But notice what the Coalition are not saying. Absent is any form of rational debate. The Coalition are not bothering to provide any evidence that the proposed carbon price scheme will be a catastrophe – nor have they put forward a credible alternative plan beyond the fatally-flawed ‘Direct Action Plan’ they took to the 2010 election.

Instead, it’s all about telling their own lies (like the one about Arthur & Rita whose business electricity bill will go up by $1500 per year despite its imminent takeover by K-Mart*) and making personal attacks on Gillard and any Minister who defends the plan – attacks that go far beyond the usual accusations of ‘government incompetence’. This is not an Opposition doing its job of holding the government to account. This is not an alternative government putting forward ideas that counter the government and suggest different solutions.

This is just the opening salvo in Abbott’s ‘every hour of every day’ campaign.

And if they’ve sunk this low already, how much grubbier can they get?

* Thanks to Twitter user @mjwill90 for information about the K-Mart takeover.

UPDATE:

Just in case we were in any doubt about whether the Coalition supported Dutton’s disgusting remarks, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop backed him up this afternoon. Equating Emerson with Gaddafi was ‘warranted’, apparently. ‘It is obvious that Peter was using it as a metaphor for the measure of delusion within Labor over the carbon tax,’ she said.

So it’s okay to compare someone to a mass murderer, in Bishop’s eyes – because the important thing is to make sure they understand that person is deluded. Of course, she didn’t explain quite why it was necessary to include comparisons to mass murderers in order to get that point across …

Perhaps it was just for ’emphasis’.

It’s a bad look, any way you slice it. Either it’s a case where someone was demonised by comparisons to infamous killers in order to brand them as dangerous, or where those with mental illness were insulted by having their struggles callously used to score a political point.

And Bishop, by defending Dutton, sent a very clear message that the Coalition thinks it’s perfectly acceptable. That the Lady Macbeth, Gaddafi and Chemical Ali comparisons are a deliberate strategy.

Ms Bishop? It’s not acceptable.


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