Lest we forget – Anzac Day’s not for politics

April 25, 2011

Today is Anzac Day. As always, strong emotions get stirred up around this time. Some wax nostalgic, some speak out forcefully against war – and some use it as their own personal political platform. Whether that be to decry rape of women and girls in wartime, or to criticise the immense Defence budget that appears to remain untouchable despite shortfalls in other areas of governmental responsibility, the response from the media and the public is usually immediate and unequivocal.

It’s simply not on.

Anzac Day is sacrosanct. No matter what you think about any particular war, or the behaviour of soldiers in war, we should honour those who fell in the service of the country. That’s the code that transcends questions of left and right wing – and woe betide anyone who draws attention to themselves on this day by violating that. Those who do usually find themselves the subject of disapproving newspaper headlines and scathing editorials, often for days afterwards. And – for once – social media tends to be in lockstep.

This year that code was broken by Jim Wallace, head of the Australian Christian Lobby, via Twitter. He took the opportunity to use Anzac Day to push racist and homophobic slurs:

‘Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!’

It produced instant fury among tweeters, who fired back that Wallace was ‘despicable’, ‘a homophobe’, ‘a bigot’ – well, you get the idea. After about an hour of this, Wallace tweeted an apology:

‘Okay you are right my apologies this was the wrong context to raise these issues. ANZACs mean to much to me to demean this day, not intended.’

Notice that Wallace is not apologising for the sentiment, only the timing. So, on any other day, Wallace thinks it would be perfectly fine for him to link Australian deaths in war to his organisation’s ongoing campaign against same-sex marriage (and queer people in general) – not to mention his preoccupation with some imagined creeping ‘Arab menace’. Just not today.

Remind you of anything – say,

The Australian initially confined its remarks to presenting the story as an example of ‘Twitter outrage’, but by the time The Herald-Sun published its version of events, the spin was well and truly on.

Wallace’s comment had been ‘misinterpreted’. He hadn’t intended to ‘demean our veterans’. But

‘I think that the nature of our society that our soldiers fought for was based on Judeo-Christian heritage.’

Because, apparently, it demeans our veterans to imply they might have fought for equality and respect.

Not to be outdone by News Limited, The Sydney Morning Herald helped Wallace to further rewrite history. It wasn’t that he wanted to say that Australian soldiers hadn’t fought for everyone – why, he’s sure that during the ‘time of Anzacs’, there were ‘not only gays but Afghans in Australia’ (my emphasis). And he should know, after all, because he was a soldier.

The ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ chestnut was trotted out in the Fairfax media, too, and this time we were treated to a little more justification. Society back then was very different, that’s all he was saying, and we should try to preserve that.

(@Doc_Loki offered the opinion that the late T.E. Lawrence would probably have been very surprised to learn he wasn’t fighting for ‘Islamics’ – given his British government-sanctioned role in assisting the so-called ‘Arab revolt’ against the Ottoman Turks in World War I.)

Fairfax approached the Returned Services League, but couldn’t get a comment. No one, it seems, bothered to contact any of the various Islamic Councils, queer community groups or even the Australian Defence Forces (which now recognise same-sex relationships) until The Sunshine Coast Daily – not exactly the paper with the widest circulation – this evening. (Sadly, even that paper minimised the issue in its headline, calling it merely a ‘gaffe’.)

So the media has pretty much given Wallace a pass, and politicians aren’t talking.

A bit different to how they treated Catherine Deveny’s now-infamous tweet about Bindi Irwin, which resulted in her being sacked from Channel Nine, isn’t it?

Wallace has the ear of the Prime Minister – in fact, his lobby group has unprecedented access to the highest levels of Australian government, under the guise of representing the ‘largest’ religious group in Australia. No other religious organisation – no other community organisation, for that matter – has so much influence on public policy.

This is the group, remember, who vehemently oppose anti-bullying initiatives in schools aimed at breaking down homophobia … who claim that religions (read: their particular religion) should be allowed to discriminate against single parents, queer people, atheists, etc … who actively endorse misinformation and bullying tactics used by anti-abortion activists … and who, apparently, see nothing wrong with twisting statistics, whipping up community outrage and outright lying in order to further their agenda.

(When the ACL’s website comes back up, dig around again. Their stance on Special Religious Instruction in public schools is particularly enlightening.)

Julia Gillard’s staff was definitely watching Twitter today, so they can hardly fail to have seen the deluge of tweets condemning Wallace for his comments, and calling on her to rescind his special access to the office of the Prime Minister. So far, this has been met with a resounding silence – and I’m not holding my breath for this to change any time soon.

Don’t forget that for all her proclaimed atheism, Gillard holds the Christian Bible in special regard. For all her claims that she would treat people of all faiths equally, she has never attempted to redress the imbalance that ensures that the loudest voice she hears is that of a Pentecostal group masquerading as the definitive representative of ‘Australian Christianity’.

Wallace should be publicly repudiated – by the ADF, the RSL, religious organisations and the government. This is not someone waving a placard at a rally. This is someone who claims to be the spokesperson for 13 million people, who co-opted a day of national mourning and remembrance for the purposes of his own bigoted agenda and made a public statement that was blatantly divisive and hateful.

But, it seems, there are double standards everywhere you look. Say you’re an atheist who vehemently criticises the place of religion in Australian society, and you can be fired for an offensive tweet about another celebrity. Say you’re a photographer trying to depict children in an artistic way, and you can find senior politicians taking time out to condemn you for being ‘inappropriate’. Say you’re a Muslim speaking out against racism and Islamophobic policies, and you can find yourself subject to a barrage of criticism on all sides from religious and political leaders.

Say you’re a Christian with a narrow lobby-group agenda taking advantage of a national day to push your bigotry, and you have mainstream media falling over itself to give you a platform to tell everyone that you didn’t mean to make your offensive tweet on a particular day – and you won’t even get rapped over the knuckles for it.

Something there is deeply wrong. If it’s wrong to use Anzac Day to push a radical feminist message, it’s equally wrong to use it to push a religious fundamentalist one. And that’s something the media needs to learn.

I’ll leave it to Ben Cooper of Gay Marriage Rights Australia to make the final – and most important – point:

‘ANZAC day is a day where we can give thanks to these brave men and women, and celebrate our multicultural democracy and our belief in fairness, justice and equality. It is not a day where people vilify our fellow Australian or play politics.’

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.

Lest We Forget.

(Endnote: Wallace deleted his tweet – but of course, nothing is ever really gone on the internet. Thanks to @mikestuchbery for the quick work on the screen capture.)

Open Thread – the Budget

April 21, 2011

We all know it’s coming. We all know it’s going to be ‘tough’ (to quote Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Treasurer Wayne Swan, Finance Minister Penny Wong and a host of others). Yes, Budget time looms again on the horizon – and it’s becoming a de facto election battleground.

Already we’ve seen both the Government and the Opposition in a race to the bottom on welfare. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott delivers a new ‘plan’ or ‘package’ almost every day, which – in his own words – is designed to be ‘a test for government’. All up, it’s a rather ridiculous competition on which side can claim to be fiscally tougher, while challenging the other to fund various areas of Australian life.

Most of this, of course, is simple posturing. We have no details. Oh, the occasional figure gets waved around in a vague manner, but that figure is so hung about with caveats and ‘I’m not playing a rule in, rule out game’ that frankly, it might as well have been pulled out of a hat. For all we know, that’s exactly what’s going on.

None of this is new. It’s almost an article of faith that as Budget time approaches, this sort of dollar-based manoeuvring and points-scoring dominates the political discussion. But it is frustrating. Government money is public money, and our job is to wait and see what they want to do with it. Little wonder, then, that polls fluctuate wildly.

With that in mind, it’s time for The Conscience Vote to put up another Open Thread, and here are some thoughts to kick that off.

What do you want to see out of the Budget?

The government’s promised to keep to its self-imposed schedule to bring Australia back into surplus. Given the terrible disasters that struck earlier this year, and the massive cleanup bill, should they consider moving that date back rather than cutting too deeply into public funds?

Are there any areas that need more funds, not less?

Are there any areas that are already overfunded, in your opinion – and what should the government do about that?

Most of all – why do you think these things should happen?

Go wild. Make a wish list. This isn’t about crunching the numbers – it’s about what you think Australia needs, right now, regardless of what either Gillard or Abbott say.

Honesty, thy name is Kevin

April 5, 2011

Integrity in major party politics may not be dead.

ABC1’s Q and A program last night featured the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. There were a few others on the panel, but for the most part, the focus was all on the former Prime Minister. (In retrospect, the producers must have wondered if they slipped up by not making it a single guest show.)

Inevitably, the question was asked – did Rudd regret his decision to delay putting the ETS legislation to Parliament for a third time?

Now, we’re all comfortable with the way Q and A operates. We get a few questions that seem to be drafted by party strategists, the odd incoherent rant and a few intelligent enquiries that are inevitably sidestepped and spun into an opportunity to deliver a political message.

That’s not what we got last night. Rudd looked up at the questioner and said simply, ‘I think my judgment then was wrong.’

La Trobe University politics lecturer Robert Manne, sitting next to Rudd, commented idly, ‘It’s very rare in Australian politics for that to happen’.


Contrast Gillard on the carbon price announcement – the so-called ‘broken promise’, the alleged ‘lie’. Even after she admitted that yes, she had changed her mind, she made a point of stressing that it was because of ‘changed circumstances’ (the minority government). She wasn’t ‘wrong’ to have ruled out a carbon tax during the election campaign; it was all about what had happened to her.

Contrast Abbott on paid parental leave or carbon pricing. He eventually said he’d changed his mind – and vigorously defended his right to do so.

Rudd, last night, copped it on the chin. He told us he’d been assailed from all sides by his own party, each pushing their own point. Some wanted the ETS permanently shelved. Some wanted to push aside, despite the hostile Senate. Rudd looked for the middle ground, hoping that he could gamble on the Senate changing in the next election. By delaying the ETS, he thought he’d found it.

It sounded like it was shaping up as typical spin. They made me do it, I didn’t want to, but they made me! Indeed, Julie Bishop – who seemed completely unable to stop herself from repeatedly interrupting with remarks that clearly she thought were clever, but which only showed her to be doing a fine job playing the role of Party animal – said that several times. Rudd wasn’t having any of that, however.

‘It was the wrong call,’ he said. ‘You make mistakes in public life. That was a big one. I made it … and I’m responsible’.

No attempt to lay the blame off on the so-called ‘faceless men’. No attempt to say he was forced into it. Rudd was clear about it; he was the man at the top, he wanted to unify his party and preserve a piece of legislation in which he believed. He failed. He was wrong. His fault.

It’s what people have been waiting to hear from Rudd – or, in fact, from any politician. Honesty, accountability, integrity. And – if the audience reaction and the Twitter feed are anything to go by – it shocked everyone who heard it. Within minutes, messages of congratulation flooded in addressed to Rudd’s Twitter.

But, of course, overnight, the worm turned – the ‘worm’, in this case, being the media, the pundits, and the pollies.

Rudd had ‘breached cabinet confidentiality’, he’d ‘gone rogue’ – Sky News. Rudd ‘exposed the deep splits that are damaging this government’ – George Brandis on AM Agenda. NineMSN’s report on Rudd included a mention of the latest Newspoll as ‘more trouble for the government’ (apparently, Rudd’s powers include an ability to influence polls that have already concluded). The Herald-Sun focused on the fact that Rudd ‘did not specifically clear the Prime Minister’. Cabinet was ‘split’ – the Sydney Morning Herald (apparently trying to convince us that ‘normal’ Cabinet meetings feature lockstep thinking). And Crikey commented that Rudd ‘put the knife into Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan’.

The thesaurus was in demand this morning. It was ‘extraordinary’, ‘incredible’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘devastating’. Possibly the tamest word used to describe Rudd’s words was ‘entertaining’.

But what’s missing here?

The reporting is uniformly negative. Even when the articles start by commenting on the ‘frankness’ Rudd displayed, they quickly drop that and move on to the ‘juicier’ stuff.

We bitch and moan about how our politicians don’t answer questions. We lament that everything they say is spin and lies dressed up as concern for ‘working families’. Where oh where, we cry, can we find honesty?

We saw it last night. We saw a former Prime Minister make the choice to admit the mistake, take all the responsibility without making excuses, and refuse to allow anyone on that panel to spin his words into anything other than he meant. He didn’t accept Manne’s compliment, or attempt to show himself as somehow better than anyone else.

But he was better.

Does it make up for the catastrophic decision to shelve the ETS, an action that severely damaged the government in the eyes of the Australian people? No.

Does it make up for his many other mistakes, particularly the botched home insulation program? Absolutely not.

But then – and this is the crucial thing – Rudd didn’t ask us forget all that. He didn’t even ask us to excuse or forgive him.

Should he have said, ‘Sorry’? Maybe. But what he did do was show us a man who had learned a bitter lesson.

Oh, we all loved to call him ‘Kevin 747’ when he raced around the world apparently currying favour with other countries. We tsked that he was ‘Kevin 24/7’ when he worked his Department into the ground, forcing them to keep up with his own punishing schedule. And who could forget ‘Kevin O’Lemon’?

But what we saw last night was just Kevin Rudd, the sadder and wiser man.

The last Q and A questioner commented that sometimes positive results can flow from personal disasters, and asked Rudd if he’d learning anything from being ousted as Prime Minister. Rudd laughed it off, but I think his earlier answer was the real one.

Rudd acted with integrity and honesty last night. It’s what we said we wanted in our politicians.

We shouldn’t allow media spin and partisan punditry to distract us from that. And we should require all our politicians act the same way, all the time.

We have that ability. We should start exercising it.

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