Shooting the Messenger

May 31, 2011

Remember the ‘No Carbon Tax’ rally back in March? The howling mob, the incredibly offensive signs, the crowd of Coalition MPs on the platform in front of Parliament House, and Angry Anderson out front exhorting the troops to rise up?

At the time, the Coalition were adamant that these ‘ordinary people’, who allegedly represented the majority of Australians, should be allowed to speak. Their voices, it argued, had a right to be heard. No one should try to shut them down. In fact, they spent quite some time that week – both in Parliament and in the media – accusing the government of attempting to silence rightful protest.

There’s no doubt that the government made much of the presence of the League of Rights and of Pauline Hanson. Their own accusations centred on the idea that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott should never have agreed to link himself with them – and, by implication, with some of their views, which could charitably be called racist – by addressing the rally. Being associated with them was a very bad look for Abbott politically, but the notion that Hanson’s voice could be effectively dismissed because of her beliefs about other issues was rightly condemned.

Hanson had a right to speak. She also had a’ right’ to be called out for her part in perpetuating a series of lies about the proposed carbon price, but countering someone’s view is not the same as silencing them – or suggesting that what they have to say can just be dismissed out of hand.

Jump forward to last Sunday. The Daily Telegraph published a story about a new advertising campaign in support of setting a carbon price. The ‘Say Yes’ campaign was put together by a group of non-government organisations like the Climate Institute, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and supported by a number of prominent Australians. The television ad, due to air the next day, would feature actors Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton as part of a group talking about the benefits of tackling climate change and pricing carbon.

The headline for this story? ‘Carbon Cate Blanchett Tells Aussies to Pay Up over Carbon Charge’. The first few words? ‘Cate Blanchett has sparked outrage in the community’.

Not bad, considering that the ads hadn’t even aired at the time the story went to print.

The article went on to detail how Family First, the Australian Family Association and Coalition Senator Barnaby Joyce all thought that Blanchett was completely out of line for going on record to support a carbon price. The Telegraph was happy to support that argument – and so was launched an extraordinary series of personal attacks on Blanchett with an ugly subtext.

The most common criticism centred on her personal wealth – the Telegraph helpfully provided the figure, also informing readers that Blanchett was an ambassador for ‘luxury car brand Audi’. Subtext: she’s not like us because she has money – and besides, she’s a hypocrite because she promotes a car ‘ordinary’ people can’t afford.

Terri Kelleher, from the AFA, offered up a few snide remarks about how it was ‘easy’ for a multi-millionaire to endorse a carbon price – she could afford it. Subtext: Blanchett doesn’t care about ‘ordinary’ people, she’s just doing it for the publicity.

Barnaby Joyce said, ‘$53 million gives you a whole heap of latitude to care about a lot of things’. In his opinion, she was being ‘self-indulgent’ and commented further, ‘I love your acting Cate, but stick to what you’re good at’. Subtext: Well, it’s hardly subtext, is it? Joyce – who gave interview after interview on this matter – was flat-out telling Blanchett to be a good girl and quiet down.

Gerard Henderson, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, took a swipe at what he called a ‘double standard’. Because Blanchett is an actor who travels, he argued, she has a huge carbon footprint. If she lived like Mother Theresa, maybe Australians could take her seriously. Never mind Blanchett’s personal attempts to minimise that footprint through various measures – that can all be dismissed because she’s part of what he calls the ‘jet-setting eco-brigade’ (which, according to Henderson, includes carbon price advocate Tim Flannery). Subtext: because she’s rich, she cannot be pure of heart – and besides, she’s a hypocrite because she travels.

Radio 2UE criticised Blanchett’s mere presence in the campaign. Evoking schoolyard popularity contests, Jason Morrison said it was just about setting up ‘a cool group’ to make it ‘trendy’, to set up an ‘intellectual elite’. Subtext: she thinks she’s better than us and wants to make us feel like we have to conform.

Grahame Morris, Liberal strategist, offered this catty comment: ‘Cate Blanchett can’t go from one side of a room to the other without a director to tell her “please walk”‘. Subtext: she is not doing this of her own accord – the government is manipulating her.

Then there was Parliament. During Question Time yesterday, Abbott moved to suspend standing orders. This is one of the Opposition’s favourite tactics. It gives them the opportunity to push their message for an extended period of time, without fear of being called to account for deliberate misrepresentations and outright lies. (It’s called ‘Parliamentary privilege’, and it’s dreadfully abused.) Although the motion was nominally about Prime Minister Julia Gillard, much of Abbott’s attack centred on Blanchett. Here’s a sample:

‘You do not give special weight to celebrities who live in Hollywood half the year where there is no carbon tax’. Subtext: Blanchett is a hypocrite. Apparently the fact that California does price carbon slipped his mind. As did the fact that Blanchett lives in Sydney – not Hollywood.

‘People who live in eco-mansions have a right to be heard … but not ahead of the ordinary working people of this country’. Subtext: Blanchett is not ‘one of us’.

‘This is a Prime Minister who’s happy to listen to actors, but she won’t listen to voters’. Subtext: Blanchett is unfairly privileged by a pandering government.

And so it went … on and on and on, into last night and again today. Every Coalition MP who could get a few moments in front of a camera or in print hammered the same line of attack. The most cunning was the notion that maybe Blanchett did have the right to speak, but really, how much weight could you give what she says? It’s not like she understands how ‘real’ people live.

At the height of it, some called for a boycott on Blanchett’s films.

Yeah. That’ll show her.

Absurdly, Senator George Brandis, appeared on ABC1’s QandA last night, asserted that the Coalition were not attacking Blanchett personally. As did Joe Hildebrand on behalf of News Ltd – the very organisation that led the media barrage against her wealth.

(Strange that Angry Anderson didn’t come in for the same level of scrutiny. No one published his annual income or suggested he didn’t have a right to front a rally against a carbon price.)

There’s a name for this. It’s called an ad hominem argument. It’s used to discredit a speaker, and so avoid engaging with them on any substantial issue. There are several ways in which such an argument can be employed – and all of them were used against Blanchett.

Never mind that Blanchett is only one of six speakers in the television ad – the others are actor Michael Caton; a self-funded retiree who volunteers for Greenpeace; a man who assists businesses to reduce their carbon footprint; a tradesman; and a single mother who works as an accountant. All the scrutiny is on the easy target.

It’s a nasty, and sadly, effective strategy. Make enough noise, and no one will listen to what’s being said in the ad. Everyone gets very neatly sidetracked – and suddenly it’s not about pricing carbon, it’s about whether you think Cate Blanchett has a right to speak.

And it’s totally ludicrous. It was bad enough that the government suggested Pauline Hanson’s views on a carbon price could be effectively ignored on the basis of her beliefs regarding immigration. Hanson is rightly condemned for her racist statements – but that has nothing to do with tackling climate change.

To launch an all-out attack that smears someone for being rich, that suggests she has forfeited her voice because she travels, and which calls her everything from a hypocrite to an intellectual elitist to being so brainless that she should just sit down right now – well, that’s going far beyond the pale.

Businessman and millionaire Dick Smith admitted that he had been asked to join the ‘Say Yes’ campaign. Unlike Blanchett, Smith refused – but not because he didn’t support the idea of establishing a price on carbon. He said he was too ‘gutless’ – because he feared that the Murdoch press would attack and smear him.

I wonder why he thought that might happen.

It’s a shameful display – and it shows that there is a real reluctance to engage with a positive message. It’s easy to attack Gillard in Question Time and keep yelling that she ‘lied’ about a ‘carbon tax’. It’s easy to scream lies at a rally and shout down others in panel interviews. It’s very easy to shoot the messenger and dismiss, rather than discuss, the science.

It’s a lot harder to front up to a rational debate – to willingly explore the issue, learn about the science, and fully investigate the options.

And so, while we’re distracted by the spectacle of media and politicians tearing down the same woman they clasped to their collective bosom when she won an Academy Award, the opportunity to mitigate human-induced climate change founders again.

National Sorry Day

May 26, 2011

It’s National Sorry Day. But didn’t we already make the capital-A ‘apology’?

Yes. We did make that Apology – shamefully late, and only after a landslide change of government. And it remains one of the most moving speeches ever delivered in the Australian Parliament.

I was at La Trobe University on the day the Apology was delivered. At the time, I wrote:

It was a day in which I can say I was proud to be an Australian, and proud of my elected representatives – well, most of them, anyway. It’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time.

I also wrote that there was a long road ahead.

Three years later, and the road is still long. Indigenous people still struggle with the consequences of white settlement, and government policies that dispossessed them of their land, declared them to be flora, damaged their culture and left emotional and physical scars that still haven’t healed. Perhaps they never will.

Yes, there have been some steps down that road, but there is still so much, much more to do. Children need access to quality education. Life expectancy is still far too low when compared to other Australians. Indigenous peoples are still not recognised in our Constitution.

Worst of all, some now want to move backwards. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu recently announced that his ministers no longer had to follow protocol in recognising indigenous peoples as traditional owners of the land in their speeches. Why? Because it’s ‘dictatorial’. Because it’s ‘too politically correct’.

Or perhaps because it’s an uncomfortable truth that some people still don’t want to face – because if they do, they must also acknowledge that there is blood on their hands. That, even though they might not personally have done anything ‘wrong’, they share the responsibility for the actions of their ancestors. It’s so much easier to sweep it away and hide behind this vague notion that there is something distasteful about stating what is simply true.

And so we come back to the Apology, and why we should keep saying sorry. It’s important that we don’t forget what led to the Apology, why it was necessary in the first place. That we remember how families were torn apart, how children were taught to despise and disown their heritage, how people suffered because Australian people and Australian government were so arrogant as to think they could do as they liked, in the name of ‘assimilation’ and ‘civilisation’.

On National Sorry Day, I say to indigenous peoples that I am sorry. And that I will never forget.

The People’s Forum no one saw

May 24, 2011

I’ve been watching the Climate Change Forum currently underway in Canberra, part of the government’s Climate Change Commission. This coincides with the expected release of the Commission’s first report, The Critical Decade, on Monday.

There’s a panel of experts in everything from ecology to economics to geology and emergency management. In the audience are representatives from all areas of Australian life including agriculture, and small business.

Each question-and-answer session tackles a different aspect of the climate – the science itself, consequences of climate change if left untackled, ways to reduce emissions, and economic incentives to promote renewable energy – to name a few. The experts speak in clear language largely devoid of jargon and explain some of the more complex issues in clear and simple ways.

In this morning’s session the panel fielded questions from a farmer, an activist from an environmental campaigner, and – surprisingly – Shadow Communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull, who had apparently been sitting quietly in the back for quite some time. (His presence, in particular, lends an air of bipartisanship to the Commission – and creates a potential headache for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who has repeatedly refused to have anything to do with it.) Not everyone was happy with the answers they get, but significantly, no one was complaining that they didn’t understand or were being fobbed off, either.

It’s probably the single best strategy the government could employ. One of the strongest criticisms levelled at former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over his proposed carbon pricing scheme was that his cabinet were either unwilling or unable to explain any part of it in simple language. Now, Rudd has an enormous vocabulary, and he’s not afraid to wield it – but that’s exactly what didn’t work, and the Coalition capitalised on that.

It seems as though someone in the current government had that in mind when organising this forum. It’s less of an info-dump by experts, and more like an episode of the ABC’s QandA (minus the political spin that inevitably occurs when politicians appear on the latter show). Ordinary people and experts are trading questions, answers, suggestions, complaints. It’s extraordinarily informative.

So the question inevitably arises: why is this forum getting such limited transmission?

You can only see it if you’re able to access the high-definition ABC News Channel – or if you have cable television, you can watch Sky News. Mind you, it’s not on the main Sky channel. You need to go to their ‘multiview’ section, which provides a tiny picture and truly shocking sound quality via a camera microphone – not even a media split for the audio. And you can just bet that – at most – there’ll be a tiny sound grab on the news bulletins about it. Depressingly, the most likely piece of footage we’ll see is the farmer whose frustration at not gaining enough support for soil carbon initiatives boiled over until he was shouting into the microphone.

This forum is exactly what’s needed to ‘sell’ the government’s carbon pricing and climate change strategy. It answers the demand for information, not just from so-called ‘interested parties’ like steel manufacturers or agribusiness, but from Australian people in general. The science is explained clearly, suggestions are welcome, complaints are heard – nothing is obfuscated or blocked from discussion. Most importantly, perhaps, it is a rational, patient voice to answer fear-mongering and misinformation with facts.

It does what no amount of glossy advertising or tedious media conference speeches can do. And yet the majority of people won’t even know it’s happening, let alone be able to access it.

The government’s decision to keep this forum largely invisible makes no sense. It can only help the cause – and the presence a senior Coalition MP like Malcolm Turnbull participating constructively in the discussions lends even more legitimacy to the government’s whole strategy.

Perhaps the government decided no one would be interested – but then, isn’t the whole point to inform people so that they will support action on climate change?

Perhaps it thought that spending the money to buy more accessible television time was wasteful – but that’s hardly going to stand up after some of the government’s more lavish advertising campaigns.

Or perhaps – and I think this is most likely, and most dreadful – they simply didn’t think at all.

There’s a lot of talk in the media about how the Coalition’s near-constant criticism undermines the government and muddies the waters so that Gillard can’t get her message out – but really, the government don’t need any help from the Opposition.

They’re doing fine all by themselves.

They’ve squandered the opportunity to reach a significant percentage of the Australian population on a major policy area. In doing so, they’ve effectively ceded the advantage to Abbott. He’s out there nearly every day visiting businesses and telling them that the sky is falling and how their way of life will be destroyed by a carbon tax – and he’s not going to stop any time soon.

This would be bad enough, no matter what the proposed legislation. In the case of combating climate change, though, it’s potentially catastrophic. The government has a responsibility to inform Australians about all aspects of this issue. It’s not enough just to say, ‘The science is settled,’ and indulge in a bit of mud-slinging at the Opposition – people need to know the why and the how.

The Climate Forum, with its articulate experts capable of both formulating the plans and communicating the issues, was the perfect vehicle to answer those questions.

But instead of supporting the forum – of securing air time on a free-to-air analog channel, and playing it during the evening prime-time slot instead of after most people are either at work or otherwise occupied for the day – they relegated it to a limited, interested audience whose minds are likely already made up about climate change.

The government blew it. We can hope that somehow, the information presented at the forum will get out to where it’s needed – not mediated through the politicians, or the news, or pundits, or any one of a dozen lobby groups for and against action on climate change. That is something entirely out of their hands now.

It shouldn’t be. Some things are too important.

Fair and balanced?

May 19, 2011

One of the most rewarding – and most deeply frustrating things about being a news junkie is that you get to see a lot more than the few soundbites that make the evening bulletins. Rewarding, because you get to hear what politicians say in context, and in full, when you watch the media conferences. Frustrating, because you also become rapidly aware that the treatment given to politicians is astonishingly uneven.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott all gave media conferences this morning, and the contrast between how the media treated Senator Brown, and how it treated the two leaders, could not have been more marked.

In Brown’s conference, the questions and answers flowed pretty easily at first. For example:

What did Brown think of Malcolm Turnbull’s apparent disloyalty to Coalition climate change policy in his appearance on Lateline last night? Brown: ‘He’s been loyal to Australia and to the common sense that says we must tackle climate change … he’s exhibiting a wider loyalty’.

How about the UK government’s announcement of a 50% carbon reduction target, should Australia do the same thing?
Brown: ‘Australia has to take that into account … (but) the UK is not Australia’. Then came the first criticism from Brown: The maturity of the debate in Australia is very much under question … the Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility to take for debasing that maturity’.

Asked about what sort of measures should be in place to ensure the carbon price scheme is ‘shyster-proof’, Brown responded simply, ‘Good ones’. He then addressed the journalist directly, pointing out that his position on a particular issue was misrepresented by that journalist in an article, and commenting, ‘Back to the question, we’ve got to look at shysterism and fabrication all over the place and do what we can’. (my italics)

That was the turning point. From then, the questioning became increasingly aggressive. Now, there’s nothing wrong with aggressive questioning in itself. It’s one of the ways the media can force a politician to answer. That’s not what happened here. Several times journalists attempted to interrupt Brown in his answers, and one journalist repeatedly interrupted Brown, describing his answers as ‘political gobbledygook’. She didn’t preface this with the phrase, ‘With respect, Senator …’, which usually accompanies a criticism.

Then Hugh Riminton dropped the bomb. He referred to Brown’s recent description of News Limited papers as ‘hate’ media’, and asked if this was a change in tactics for the Greens leader: ‘Are you on the front foot?’

Brown replied: ‘Yes, I’m being very much on the front foot here because I think the media – with some very, very good exceptions – can at times lose track of the fact that it’s part of the process of moving Australia into a much more secure future … some heat needs to be put onto those sections of the media which are trying to drag this process down’.

A journalist off-camera asked if Brown meant The Australian, and challenged him to name a paragraph, repeatedly interrupting Brown’s answer in an angry voice. Brown commented, ‘You compare and contrast and take on politicians and other sections of the media, but you don’t like it when we take you on … don’t be so tetchy’.

That statement apparently angered a 2UE journalist, who started haranguing Brown: ‘You just come out here every day and just bag out the Murdoch press …. why are you so obsessed with it … you bag out the Murdoch press, anyone you don’t like’. This went on for several more minutes, with the journalist not so much asking questions as taking Brown to task. It was difficult to follow Brown’s responses, due to the interruptions. Off-camera, several others called out, ‘Why won’t you answer the questions.’

It was a more aggressive and lively media conference than I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly, the media had no fear of Brown’s position as a party leader and influential Senator – in fact, their treatment of him bordered on completely disrespectful.

Gillard received very different handling. Questions were asked in an orderly manner, and in neutral tones. She was asked about Brown’s comments on the Murdoch media, the carbon price, and the UK government. Unless the question allowed her to score against the Opposition, she dodged it and served up a good helping of government talking points instead.

She was never pushed to answer the question, never interrupted and never subjected to insults or raised voices. Even when she brought up a recent example of The Australian misrepresenting the position of Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, she was not attacked.

Abbott, visiting a Sanitarium manufacturing plant on the Central Coast, was even more blatant in his refusal to directly answer questions. While challenged twice on Malcolm Turnbull’s comments, the questions were respectful in tone and did not interrupt. Abbott responded by restating coalition climate change policy, attacking the government (‘Our way is the smart way … theirs is the dumb way’) and bluntly informing the journalist that he was ‘completely misunderstanding Malcolm’s approach’.

Again, no attack followed this comment, and Abbott cut off that line of questioning. No one protested.

The rest of Abbott’s conference consisted of journalists asking questions, Abbott regurgitating talking points and criticism of the government, and never being challenged for it. Asked if Sanitarium had said they would suffer terribly under the ‘carbon tax’, Abbott replied that everyone would suffer. Asked if he thought Brown’s comments about the Murdoch media were fair, Abbott responded that Brown should tell the public about his dealings with Treasury on carbon pricing.

Not one of these evasions was challenged. Abbott controlled the media from start to finish.

This is not balanced coverage. This is not equal treatment. Each of these three leaders is enormously influential. What they say and how they say it informs the public in a way that no amount of sound bites can do. The media, as the sector that has the responsibility of bringing that information to us, should at the very least ensure that they subject them all to the same rigorous questioning. Why was Abbott allowed to turn the entire Q&A session into another platform for his message, while ignoring what was actually asked? Why was Gillard permitted to dodge a question on just how high she was prepared to consider setting her carbon price? And why was Brown the only one repeatedly challenged when his answers didn’t satisfy?

For that matter, why was Brown treated with far less respect than Abbott? Perhaps because – despite the Greens’ central role in policy and legislation under the minority government – he’s still portrayed as a Johnny-come-lately, an ‘extreme’ leader of a ‘fringe’ party. Or perhaps because he challenged some of the media for doing exactly what they are doing – giving the government and the Opposition a pass on actually providing any information, while focusing on trivial issues, misrepresenting people’s positions and generally engaging in blatant bias.

Exhibit A, the report that hit The Herald-Sun online front page at 12.30pm today.

The report was nominally about Brown’s press conference. The headline? ‘Greens Leader has no plans to return’.

That should read ‘retire’, and speaks to how quickly the article was produced (and just how valuable sub-editors are, but that’s another story).

Sky’s headline, ‘Browned-off leader takes on media’, was a little better, but the story was the same.

Instead of talking about carbon pricing, asylum seekers or anything else that was actually asked of Brown (including the announcement he had made at the beginning of the media conference regarding a current enquiry before the Senate), the article opened with the news that Brown did not plan to retire any time soon. It mentioned that Brown had referred to Rupert Murdoch, who had just celebrated his 80th birthday with no plans for retirement.

Rupert Murdoch is, of course, the owner of News Limited, which controls The Herald-Sun and Sky.

The only other mention of the media conference conflated Brown’s response to the question about shysters with his response to the question directly about News Limited. Their selective reporting characterised Brown as taking a cheap shot at one reporter, to which all the assembled media rightly took offence – and that when they did so, Brown abruptly ended the conference.

Compare and contrast with the actual events, an audio transcript of which is available on the Greens website.

These are major news organisations. The Herald-Sun’s circulation alone is over half a million readers. They have a responsibility to report the news fairly and accurately, and to clearly label anything that is opinion. Their own code of ethics emphasises this:

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

And sadly, this is precisely what we don’t get.

Today is just a snapshot. The mainstream media gets away with this every day. And Murdoch media, at least, doesn’t take kindly to being criticised.

But this is precisely why they should be criticised. They should be held accountable to their own code of ethics, and be made to remember their obligations to the public.

Until they are, the only alternative is to find out for yourself what was really said, by whom, and in what context. Footage or transcripts of media conferences can usually be found with little difficulty.

It can be … enlightening.

Conversation with my daughter

May 16, 2011

Watching a report on asylum seekers on 7.30 tonight, one of our daughters spoke up unexpectedly: ‘I don’t understand. Shouldn’t we help them? Why do they keep talking about how they should stop the boats?’

‘Yes, we should help them,’ I said.

‘Then why do they want to stop the boats? What’s wrong with the boat people?’

We tried to explain that there was nothing wrong with asylum seekers, that they were scared people who couldn’t live in their home countries any longer because of war or not being allowed to practise their religion. That sometimes they needed to leave so urgently that they made a risky trip in a boat halfway across the world to look for a country that would let them live there.

‘So we should help them, but why don’t people want them to come here?’

Oh boy.

‘Is it too expensive? Aren’t there enough houses? I could share my room with my sister again and someone could live here,’ she offered.

‘No, it’s just … well, some people worry that if too many refugees come there won’t be enough jobs. And some people worry that refugees might make Australia too different.’

‘That’s silly,’ she declared confidently.

‘And, some people are just, well, afraid.’

‘Why are they afraid of boat people?’

How do you explain xenophobia to a ten-year old? We did our best, but to our daughter – who’s played and learned alongside kids from countries all around the world since she was a toddler – it didn’t make sense.

Then she thought she had the answer. ‘Well, someone should tell them that they shouldn’t be scared. The Prime Minister or the government should tell people. Then they wouldn’t be trying to stop the boats all the time and we could help those people. Why don’t the government do that?’

There was, simply, nothing we could say to that except, ‘Sorry but we don’t know.’

I felt ashamed to have to say that. Not because I didn’t know, but because I had to admit to my daughter that her Prime Minister didn’t have the simple humanity to stand up and say, ‘No one has anything to fear from asylum-seekers.’

I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that the government – that she trusts has everyone’s best interests at heart – cares more about polls than people in need.

I couldn’t tell her that the government lacked the courage to smack down the nay-sayers and the fear-mongers. I couldn’t tell her that the number of voices actually speaking out to say, ‘You have your facts completely wrong, and you should have the decency to help people’, is vanishingly small.

And I couldn’t tell her that – with a government frantically pandering to xenophobes, and an Opposition engaging in the worst sort of behaviour and claiming it does so in the name of ‘compassion’ – the chances of this situation changing were practically nil.

I want my daughter to be proud of her country. I want her to be able to say she is hopeful for the future, and that she trusts her elected representatives to do what is right – not what is expedient and will win elections.

I want to be able to look my daughter in the eye and say, ‘We have a great government that is helping people in terrible situations, and teaching our citizens how to be compassionate, that is leading by example and speaking out against those would capitalise on fear and lies’.

As it is, I could only say to her, ‘You’re right. Our government should be doing these things. And I don’t know why it isn’t, but we can do what we can to change things, and try to make things better’.

She went off to get ready for bed puzzled, and disappointed.

I’m ashamed of my government. I’m ashamed of the Opposition. I’m ashamed that those who should set an example in compassion and human decency dress up their venal, petty vote-chasing as some kind of ‘principled stand’.

And I’m angry – because my daughter lost a little more of her innocence tonight.

No, Nanna, your TV won’t kill you

May 12, 2011

In Tuesday night’s Budget speech, Treasurer Wayne Swan announced that the government would allocate funds that will assist pensioners to get ready for the switch-off of analogue television in 2013. Under this program, digital set-top boxes will be installed, pensioners will be taught how to navigate the new system, and twelve months’ technical support will be available if needed.

Sounds like a fine idea, right? You’d be surprised.

The Master Electricians’ Association warned yesterday that the government’s program might attract ‘shonky and shoddy’ operators who would risk the lives of young, unqualified workers. These evil businessmen, lured by the promise of a quick $300, would send our hapless children into roof spaces to get electrocuted. Twirling their mustaches, they would pressure our vulnerable pensioners to sign up for products they don’t need.

Then, presumably, they would lean back in their baby seal fur covered chairs, light a cigar with a page from the Constitution, prop up their feet on their piles of money and congratulate themselves on a job well done.

The Coalition, never slow to capitalise on a potential scare campaign, immediately jumped on this idea. Their original criticism – that the program was simply wasteful – was quickly shelved, and a new message, designed to strike fear into the hearts of the elderly, hit the airwaves.

Digital television will kill your Nanna! Your house will burn down while you’re watching Masterchef! It’s pink batts all over again! The sky is falling! Won’t somebody think of the apprentices?!

Okay, stop. Breathe.

Installing a set-top box is practically idiot proof. You can walk into a shop, buy one off the shelf, take it home and hook it up. Unless you’re stupid enough to try this while standing in a bathtub full of water, the direst consequence you’re likely to suffer is a headache from the sheer frustration of trying to work out which cable goes where.

Of course, if the irritation levels spike you may find yourself shelling out for another box, but that’s another story. But the point is, installing a set-top box is about as difficult as plugging in a DVD player. You don’t need any qualifications other than the ability to plug cable A into socket B.

Seems pretty straightforward – but surely that can’t be all there is to it? The warnings are so dire, there must be some hidden danger. Ah, I know! Maybe those pensioners will need new antennas! That must be it.

So I rang Nathan at New Image Antennas, and asked him. What qualifications do you need to install an antenna? Are there any electrical dangers?

He was, frankly, bemused.

To install a new antenna, you don’t need any qualifications other than the ability to not fall off a roof. Of course, it helps if you know exactly what kind of antenna to buy, and for that Nathan recommended hiring a technician. They’d get up on your roof using safety gear and wave a signal meter around to figure out the quality of signal you can receive, get the antenna for you and install it.

Electrical danger? None.

I queried Nathan repeatedly about this and he was absolutely sure that there was no electrical risk.

But surely it can’t be that straightforward?

Wait, how about this? Pensioners live in old houses, right? They’ll probably need their antenna cabling replaced! Yes, I know, that’s a ridiculous stereotype, but go with it for a moment. So, obviously you need a master electrician to do that, and this is why the Master Electricians Association is pounding the Drums of Doom. Mystery solved.

Except you don’t.

What you need is a Certificate II in Telecommunications qualification. That’ll teach you all the ins and outs (no pun intended) of laying cable, including how not to staple your fibre-optic, CAT5, coaxial or whatever cable to electrical conduits. If you want to be really picky, you can then specialise in a Certificate II in Telecommunications Cabling.

You do not need to be a fully qualified electrician.

It’s hard to find a real safety concern here. The fact that there is a huge number of antenna installation operators out there already, regularly performing installation tasks, begs the question: why on earth would the Master Electricians Association be so adamant now that Imminent Disaster Looms on the Horizon?

The possibilities aren’t comfortable to contemplate: they range from the venal to the political.

What it comes down to, though, is that a particular organisation took it upon themselves to push a panic button for reasons that appear to be utterly without foundation. And apparently, that panic button was just too Big, Red and Shiny for the Coalition to resist.

You see, people can only get worked up to a point about ‘government waste’. It’s familiar rhetoric, and it’s been over-used to the point where it degenerates into meaningless noise and people stop paying attention.

But ‘Nannas in danger’? ‘Our most vulnerable citizens at risk’? ‘Young lives endangered by shonky operators’? Well, the headlines just write themselves. You can almost hear them delivered in that stern, condemnatory voice-over while ads for A Current Affair or Today Tonight show footage of Evil Rip-off Artists running for cover away from the Crusading Reporter on the Case, can’t you?

It’s rubbish. It’s a tabloid headline – and like most tabloids, its factual basis is close to zero.

It’s an open question as to whether Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will try to push this scare campaign in his Budget Reply speech tonight. I’d like to think he’ll have more substantial criticisms of the Budget than raising the spectre of TVs lurking in the corner of the lounge just waiting to explode.

I’m not hopeful, though.

(Caveat: I am not an electrician. The information provided is from technicians and educational institutions.)

Pointless, heartless, racist – Gillard’s ‘refugee swap’

May 10, 2011

The Budget is imminent, but right now everyone’s talking about the government’s proposed ‘refugee swap’ program.

Sounds like a bad reality TV show, doesn’t it? ‘The tribe has spoken’, ‘you’ve been voted out of the Big Brother detention centre’ – in other words, no refugee status for you. If only that were the case.

Prime Minister Gillard announced this deal with Malaysia on May 7. Simply put, Australia plans to ship 800 asylum seekers directly to Malaysia (rather than to an ‘offshore’ processing centre), and in return 4000 refugees already resident there will be re-settled here. This swap will cost around $292 million, and apparently deal a ‘big blow’ to people smugglers.

Just how is this one-off deal going to ‘remove the product’ (to use the odious – but empty – phrase so beloved of the Coalition)? Well, Gillard didn’t exactly spell that out. She did make an obscure reference to sending people ‘to the back of the queue’ – another completely meaningless phrase, but one that clearly dogwhistles to those who’ve traded on the mythical idea that there is a queue, and that it can be jumped.

The implication is pretty clear, though. This deal is designed to send a message to would-be asylum seekers – not to people smugglers. Baldly put, it goes like this: we’ve sent your lot to Malaysia before, and we can do it again. Don’t think that you can risk your life to get to Australia, because we’ll just intercept your boat, turn you around and dump you on a country with an appalling human rights record. To add insult to injury, we’ll take five times as many from that country and foot the bill for them to live here.

And just who are these people, who are apparently so worthy that Gillard is prepared to expand Australia’s humanitarian refugee quota and pay a substantial amount of money to transport here? The likelihood is that they are Christians who fled from Burma with the help of – wait for it – people smugglers.

Now, there is no doubt that Burma is a country in terrible turmoil. Between natural disasters and the oppressive military regime, life there is clearly unbearable for tens of thousands of people. But what, exactly, is the difference between these refugees and those who attempt the sea voyage to Australia?

This is all about pandering to those who believe that some refugees are more deserving than others. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison peddle this idea on a regular basis, weaving a tale of people languishing in refugee camps all over the world, enduring with near saint-like patience while unscrupulous characters use their wealth and privilege to steal their chances at freedom and a better life.

I wish that were an exaggeration – but that is, in essence, one of the pillars of Coalition asylum seeker policy. Of course, it’s utter rubbish.

Both groups pay exorbitant amounts to flee – and they raise this money by selling every asset they own or borrowing money from lenders who are happy to recoup their investment via an extended period of extortion. The idea that those who come by boat are, in effect, idle rich who are a bit miffed with conditions in their homeland and so dip into their huge savings accounts has no basis in fact.

Both enter countries ‘illegally’ – insofar as fleeing persecution, crossing a border, approaching the authorities of that nation and requesting asylum is illegal. Which, of course, it isn’t.

Both have legitimate reasons to seek asylum, and in the vast majority of cases, are granted refugee status by the UNHCR.

And of course, Australia is by no means the only possible destination for those currently in Malaysia.

So where, exactly, is the difference between those who flee overland and those who come by sea? What makes one group more deserving of Australia’s welcome?

Is it because Gillard thinks these refugees in Malaysia might stand a better chance of ‘integrating’ into Australian society? There’s no evidence to suggest this might be the case. They’re not necessarily fluent English speakers, and it’s not like they have any familiarity with the staples of Australian life (McDonalds, Best and Less, wandering around in bikinis on Bondi Beach).

Do the refugees in Malaysia, perhaps, have special skills that we desperately need? It’s unlikely. Most refugees in Malaysia, while able to travel freely throughout the country, work illegally in unskilled labour (since they are unable to obtain work permits). They might well be highly skilled, but we have no way of knowing. Even if Malaysian authorities do keep such records, they won’t necessarily do us any good. Under the proposed agreement, Malaysia nominates which refugees Australia gets. We have little, if any, say in the choice.

Could it be, perhaps, that one group isn’t Muslim? Of course, asylum seekers who come by boat are of many different faiths, but the perception is that they are a homogenous group of Muslims who ‘aren’t like us’. They ‘wouldn’t integrate’. (We are apparently supposed to infer that Christians from other countries would.) That’s a perception the Coalition and News Limited are happy to foster – along with the suspicion that terrorists might lurk in their midst.

Now, it seems, the government is willing to do the same. They’re not saying that, oh no – but when you unpack the Malaysian deal, there’s just no good reason for it.

It doesn’t deter people smugglers. They know there will always be someone desperate enough to pay them, someone who gambles that just maybe they can end up somewhere better. Gillard’s claims that her ‘one-for-five’ swap will have any effect on the people smuggling trade are utterly without foundation – because the smugglers largely don’t care what might happen to the people they transport. The bottom line is money – and pushing a boatload of asylum seekers over to Malaysia won’t prevent them from acquiring a healthy bank balance.

It doesn’t streamline the refugee claims process, nor does it send anyone to the back of the ‘queue’. It merely offloads a responsibility that would otherwise have been ours onto another country. Worse, it removes protection from asylum seekers – Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN’s Convention on Refugees.

Remember when Gillard categorically ruled out re-opening the detention centre on Nauru because that country hadn’t signed the UN Convention? Rings a little hollow now, doesn’t it? (Incidentally, Gillard’s recent proposal – that the Manus Island centre be re-opened – failed to take into account that Papua New Guinea had also never signed the Convention. But that’s another story.)

It doesn’t prevent unrest, protests and violence at Australian detention centres. Gillard isn’t proposing to remove people from the system, just to re-direct the next 800 who turn up in the Indian Ocean. Nothing in this deal addresses the problems of overcrowding, long delays in processing or the psychological distress that is a known consequence of extended detention.

What it does do is enshrine the idea that some people – who just happen to be non-Arabic and non-Muslim – are worthy to have the government take extraordinary measures to aid them, while others do not even qualify for the most basic of human decencies.

Those others, by the way, may include pregnant women and children.

Abbott referred to this deal as a ‘Malaysian Solution’. It isn’t a solution. It isn’t even a stopgap measure designed to take the pressure off a system in crisis.

At best, it’s a token effort in the government’s ongoing struggle to convince the public that it’s working towards a ‘regional’ solution to the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers.

At worst, it’s a clear message that Muslims – or those who ‘look’ like Muslims – aren’t welcome here. That they aren’t ‘good enough’, or ‘worthy enough’ to justify the pitiful expense of processing their asylum claims in our excised zone, let alone on our mainland.

Last session in Parliament, Gillard frequently referred to the words and actions of former Prime Minister John Howard in a remarkably complimentary fashion. It seems now that she’s adopted another infamous saying of his, captured in the first few seconds of this ad:

The daylight between the government and Howard’s policies – and between the government and the Opposition – is shrinking fast. Both try to dress up xenophobia as something necessary to benefit Australia – either to ‘protect our borders’, or to ‘show fairness’. The pretence is wearing increasingly thin, though.

The Opposition point out that this latest ‘one-for-five’ deal is a pointless attempt to salvage a system in crisis, and that it’s bad for Australia. They’re right – but not for the reasons they think.

It’s not bad for us because we’ll get 4000 more already-processed refugees able to be immediately settled in the community. It’s not bad for us because we’re likely to get Malaysia’s cast-offs.

It’s bad for us because our Prime Minister has made it clear that she will cater to racists and fear-mongers by dumping Muslim asylum seekers in yet another perilous situation. It’s bad because it tells the world that Australia doesn’t want you if you’re not ‘the right sort of person’.

And it’s bad because it perpetuates the lie that people in desperate need are scheming, untrustworthy and inhumane. It dehumanises them by labelling them ‘queue-jumpers’, and further undermines the efforts of those who work to see all people treated with dignity.

Shame on you, Prime Minister. And shame on you, Mr Abbott, for scoring political points rather than truly holding the government to account for this revolting excuse for policy.

%d bloggers like this: