Migration Act changes are completely without humanity

September 19, 2011

Last week the government announced it would seek to change the Migration Act. Now, we can get a look at exactly what it is they want to do.

The proposed amendments give the Minister near-absolute power – and just incidentally removes those pesky human rights considerations.

Section 198A allows the Minister to designate a country for off-shore processing. In its current form, that designation needs to meet certain criteria:

(3) The Minister may:

(a) declare in writing that a specified country:

(i) provides access, for persons seeking asylum, to effective procedures for assessing their need for protection; and
(ii) provides protection for persons seeking asylum, pending determination of their refugee status; and
(iii) provides protection to persons who are given refugee status, pending their voluntary repatriation to their country of origin or resettlement in another country; and
(iv) meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection; and

(b) in writing, revoke a declaration made under paragraph (a). (my emphasis)

The government proposes to repeal this sub-section entirely. Instead, they want to substitute this:

@198AB Offshore processing country

(1) The Minister may, in writing, designate that a country is an offshore processing country.

(2) The only condition for the exercise of the power under subsection (1) is that the Minister thinks that it is in the public interest to designate the country to be an offshore processing country.

(3) The power under subsection (1) may only be exercised by the Minister personally.

(4) If the Minister designates a country under subsection (1), the Minister may, in writing, revoke the designation.

(5) The rules of natural justice do not apply to the exercise of the power under subsection (1) or (4).

(6) A designation under subsection (1), or a revocation under subsection (4), is not a legislative instrument. (my emphasis)

Yes, you read that right. If this amendment passes, the Immigration Minister can simply declare that any given country (indeed, any overseas territory, protectorate or colony) is a suitable place to send asylum seekers. The country doesn’t have to meet any standards for protection of those people; in fact, it doesn’t have to concern itself with human rights at all. Forget being a signatory to the UN Conventions on Refugees – the Minister doesn’t even have to make sure there’s somewhere for asylum seekers to be adequately housed.

It also attempts to head off any further High Court action on behalf of asylum seekers. ‘The rules of natural justice do not apply’? That’s a big ‘screw you’ to anyone who might even think about trying to stop the Minister from exercising these incredibly wide-ranging powers.

All of which is apparently to be done ‘in the public interest’. What does that even mean? Whose interest? It’s a wonderful phrase that – evokes nobility and self-sacrifice, but under close examination reveals itself to be nothing more than a way to avoid providing any real reason for doing whatever you want to do.

Just to drive the point home, the government wants to include a few lines in section 198A about exactly why they consider they’re justified:

(c)it is a matter for the Minister to decide which countries should be designated as offshore processing countries; and

(d) the designation of a country to be an offshore processing country need not be determined by reference to the international obligations or domestic law of that country.

That’s about as blatant as it gets. It’s the government saying, ‘We’ll do what we want’. Worse, it deliberately flies in the face of Australia’s obligations as signatories to those oh-so-troublesome UN Conventions. If the Minister feels like it, he doesn’t have to take any of our international responsibilities into consideration.

There’s some attempt at pacifying those who might object to this arrangement. The Minister has to hand over any documents he used in making his determination to Parliament within two days of designating an offshore processing country. Presumably, this would allow Parliamentary scrutiny. It’s an attempt at transparency – and that can only be a good thing, right?

But wait.

@198AC Documents to be laid before Parliament

(4) The sole purpose of laying the documents referred to in subsection (2) before the Parliament is to inform the Parliament of the matters referred to in the documents and nothing in the documents affects the validity of the designation. Similarly, the fact that some or all of those documents do not exist does not affect the validity of the designation.

(5) A failure to comply with this section does not affect the validity of the designation. (my emphasis)

In other words, this is nothing more than a show. The Minister doesn’t have to seek UNHCR approval – and even if he does, and the UNHCR says no, it doesn’t matter. He can ignore any advice he gets that doesn’t give him the answer he wants. All he has to do is bundle up the documents and table them. It’s utter contempt for Parliament.

Richard Marles, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Affairs, appeared on Sky news’ AM Agenda this morning. When questioned on these proposed changes, he offered a truly outrageous justification. The government has no choice, he argued. It’s because of the High Court – if they hadn’t made all these ‘new’ restrictions, we could be shipping people to Malaysia right now.

That dastardly High Court. Look at what they did. They ruled that we couldn’t send people to a country with a terrible human rights record. They declared that we had to meet our international obligations as regards human rights. No wonder the government was ‘forced’ to strip out every possible protection for asylum seekers from the legislation. What could they do, after all?

It was a weaselling little attempt to avoid criticism, and to his credit, Marles didn’t look comfortable saying it. Nonetheless, he did – and repeated it several times.

Sky’s David Speers then confronted Marles with the Labor Party’s own national policy platform: that protection claims made in Australia ‘will be assessed by Australians on Australian territory’. Marles’ response?

We have to stop the boats. This is about protecting asylum seekers.

I’m sure those desperate people will feel very protected when they’re forced onto planes and sent to a country that doesn’t even pretend to care about their safety.

There are literally not enough ways to spell out how wrong this legislation is – it’s reactionary, punitive, and completely without humanity. And that’s without even going into detail about the provisions dealing with children, which are – if anything – even worse.

Of course, it has to pass both Houses. The Greens have already unequivocally declared that under no circumstances would they support such amendments. The government’s hopes, then, lie with the Coalition, but it’s not looking promising. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott slammed the proposed changes, and Shadow Climate Spokesperson Greg Hunt criticised the removal of any reference to Australia’s international obligation.

Before we start lauding the Opposition for its apparent defence of ‘basic human decency’ (to quote Abbott), though, it’s worth taking a look at what else it’s saying. You guessed it – Nauru, Nauru, Nauru.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged the Coalition to support the amendments on the basis that if they ever do get into power, they’d be able to send people to Nauru without worrying about legal challenges. The Opposition doesn’t agree – it rejects the government’s legal advice. Nauru can be used right now. Nauru is ‘effective and humane’. The Prime Minister should ‘pick up the phone’.

Of course, the Prime Minister has no intention of doing anything of the kind. The government is committed to the Malaysian ‘five-for-one’ deal, and the proposed amendments are designed to make sure that deal is carried out. The Coalition hates the very idea of Malaysia.

And so we have a stalemate. As long as Malaysia’s on the table, the Coalition doesn’t want to pass the legislation. Worryingly, though, Hunt said that there’s still the possibility of working with the government on further amendments. If those amendments rule out Malaysia, however, the government is unlikely to come to the table.

The government has engaged with the Coalition in a headlong race to the bottom on this issue. If their amendments pass, they’ll have won.

Labor may well be under fire from within its own ranks, however. Labor’s Left faction last week failed to pass a motion requiring the government to return to its own platform, and full onshore processing – but Senator Doug Cameron this morning gave an indication that the faction might well vote against the proposed legislation. Although Cameron told ABC 774 this morning that he was bound by the decisions of the caucus, he pointed out that he was also bound by the national platform. His colleague, Member for Fremantle Melissa Parke, also hinted at a revolt from the Left. The faction meets tonight, ahead of tomorrow’ caucus meeting.

This is an invidious position for the government – wedged from both the Right and the Left. Labor deserves little sympathy, though. Its current predicament is the result of a cascade of bad policy decisions that started when it decided to abandon its own platform in favour of a so-called ‘regional solution’ that was little more than a re-badged Pacific Solution. The error was compounded by the deal with Malaysia – a one-off exchange of 800 asylum seekers for 4000 refugees on which the government pinned all its hopes of ‘stopping the boats’. Given the chance to get itself out of this quagmire by the High Court, it decided instead to simply change the rules. And in its eagerness to appear even tougher on so-called ‘border protection’ than the Coalition, it’s proposed legislation which has nothing to recommend it, and which should be widely and loudly condemned.

If it passes, it won’t stop the boats and it won’t ‘break the people smuggler’s business model’. As long as there are people desperate to flee war and persecution, there will be someone with a boat willing to fleece them for all they’re worth. (There will also be someone with a boat willing to give whatever help they can – not all people smugglers are moustache-twirling criminals.) As long as transit countries continue to look the other way upon receipt of a few hefty bribes, those boats will pick up their load of miserable human cargo and set off over the Indian Ocean and get away with it. Changing the Migration Act will do nothing to prevent that.

What will happen if the Act is changed is that the Minister will gain unprecedented power. It will breach Australia’s international obligations. It will confirm to the world that we are a country unwilling to shoulder even a tiny part of the refugee burden. It will show that we are xenophobic, heartless, racist and self-involved to the point where we would rather send people in need into appalling and inhuman situations rather than allow them a place in our community.

And it will make a mockery of our National Anthem – at least, the second verse that hardly anyone ever hears anymore:

‘Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;

With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.’

My emphasis. And my reminder – this Australia may be an ideal rather than reality, but it’s an ideal the government would put even further out of reach.

There is still time.

UPDATE: During Question Time today, Gillard was eager to point out that ‘substantial changes’ had been made to the proposed amendments, to assuage concerns that human rights weren’t going to be respected. Just how substantial are these changes?

At first glance, they appear very reassuring. The Minister is directed to ‘have regard’ to whether a proposed country is prepared to assure that asylum seekers will be properly processed and not simply sent on to a country where they won’t be protected. Except … ‘the assurances referred to in paragraph (3)(a) need not be legally binding’.

Gillard seems to think it’s outrageous to suggest that they should. How dare we require a country to bind itself legally to protect the people we send there?

So much for ‘substantial changes’.

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Yours truly on TV

September 16, 2011

Just a quick update for subscribers and general passers-by …

I’ll be appearing on a short segment called ‘Spit the Dummy’ on The Contrarians show, which screens live on Sky News (channel 601 cable) at 4.15 pm today. It will be available online sometime afterwards at Sky’s website.

The segment is pretty much an extended vox pop, but I will be left to the not-so-tender mercies of a panel whose tendency to interrupt and mock is well-established. I’m hoping I can give as good as I get, and at least say something on interest.

Wish me luck!


The carbon price debate: a little light relief

September 14, 2011

The debate on the government’s Clean Energy Bills package (the so-called ‘carbon tax’) is in full swing. We’re two and a half hours into what’s promised to be a 35 hour debate – and we can already identify some recurring themes. Let’s take a look.

First up, we have Forward to the future! This government arguments boils down to: ‘first a trading scheme, then flying cars!’ Well, not exactly – but it’s a relentlessly utopian view. Here the emissions trading scheme is held to be the key to all forms of future energy innovation – which then, apparently, leads to Australia entering a new Golden Age of Wonder. Presumably with a Kitchen of the Future!

To counter that, we have Back to the Stone Age. This one relies entirely on the idea that we’re all basically addicted to electricity, and our lives will fall apart when the trading scheme kicks in. We won’t be able to turn on our air conditioners! We will freeze in winter because we can’t use our heaters! Worst of all – we might have to ration our television viewing!

The horror.

Next up, More capitalist than thou. This is one of my personal favourites. We should depend on the market! The market will save us from dangerous climate change! The market will stop the ice from melting! Bow down to the god of the market! A tried-and-true conservative argument.

Except it isn’t the Coalition saying this – it’s the government.

(Oddly, I couldn’t find a humorous video for this one.)

Not to be outdone, the Coalition retaliate with Greens under the bed. The government is at the mercy of those Socialist Luddite Extreme Greens, who want to take away our freedom and spit on our flag! Comrade Brown is the only one who wants this ‘carbon tax’, and he’s blackmailing the government to get it! Run for your lives! We must protect Our Way of Life and Our Right to Pollute!

And just in case all that’s a bit too esoteric, there are the old standbys.

Liar, liar, pants on fire! Everyone, sing along with me now: Gillard lied to us! She said there wouldn’t be a carbon tax and now she’s got one! Never mind that these bills are not a bloody carbon tax (as some of us have been screaming for months, and Malcolm Farr finally recognised this morning.)

And finally, But all the cool kids are doing it. California’s doing it! Canada’s doing it! South Korea says it’s going to do it! If we don’t do it, we’ll be left behind! We’ll be … we’ll be … carbon dorks. Muuuuum …

All of which is by way of saying that there are no new arguments in this debate. We’ve heard them all before – ad nauseam. So here’s my proposal. How about the Coalition simply tables its leaked ‘confidential’ talking points, the government tables a few Gillard’s press releases, and we all just get on with it?


Let’s have a real conversation about asylum seekers

September 13, 2011

There was an opportunity. The government was given a real chance by the High Court to regain some of its lost ground against the Coalition. More to the point, it had the chance to regain some shred of humanity and compassion. It could have used the High Court decision to jettison the whole idea of offshore processing once and for all. Certainly, that’s what the Left of the ALP – and increasing numbers of the Australian public – wanted.

The government isn’t interested. It’s wedded to the idea that sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia – a country with a terrible human rights record, who won’t sign any agreement that forces them to comply with human rights considerations – is the only possible way to ‘break the people smuggler’s business model’. Accordingly, it’s decided that the best thing it can do is change the Migration Act so that no pesky High Court can get in its way next time.

Ah, the convenience of legislation. Want to do something reprehensible that’s condemned by international organisations and banned by the judiciary? Just change the law. Then you can do what you want. Never mind that it’s ultimately a useless gesture, since it’s capped at 800. Never mind that it contravenes long-standing Labor policy. Never mind that in doing so, Australia will undermine its position as a signatory of the Refugee Conventions. Never mind that this is a gross abuse of power. If it means the government can get those 800 people packed onto planes and out of sight, they’ll do it.

And that’s exactly what they took to Caucus yesterday. Despite an attempt by Left faction leader Senator Doug Cameron to win a vote calling for onshore processing, ‘over half’ of the Caucus voted to change the Migration Act instead. The government plans to make sure that there cannot be any legal impediment to sending asylum seekers offshore. Additionally, it wants to change the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act, so it can shirk its responsibilities under the Refugee Conventions by doing the same to unaccompanied minors.

This is the equivalent of a child throwing a tantrum when the rules say he’s out of the game. Anyone with kids has probably seen it – first there’s an attempt to bluster, then negotiate, then bully, and finally the child is left with two options. He can take his bat and ball and go home, or he can decide that the game has new rules.

‘Bang bang! I shot you, you’re dead!’
‘Did not, missed me!’
‘Did too, you’re dead!’
‘It’s my game and I say I’m not dead, so ner!’

Et cetera.

Behold … your elected representatives in their full glory.

The Greens won’t support any change to the Migration Act. They were out in front of the media so quickly that the initial stories on the government’s plan had barely been filed. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was particularly scathing; as far as the Greens are concerned, the government would be breaching its UN obligations.

To get the amendments passed, then, the government needs the support of the Coalition. To that end, they offered Opposition Leader Tony Abbott a briefing on the legal implications of the High Court judgment – a briefing advising him that both Nauru and Manus Island as alternative offshore destinations were also ruled out by the High Court decision. The idea was to convince him to support the amendments when they come before the Parliament, on the grounds that if Abbott ever became Prime Minister, it would benefit him just as much as the current governments.

But there’s a sticking point for Abbott, apparently. The government has no intention of using an amended Act for anything but the resurrection of its Malaysian deal. And Abbott has no intention of letting the government off the hook on the subject of re-opening the Nauru processing centre. The consistent message coming out of the Opposition is that Nauru is the only possible solution.

Gillard’s having none of that, though. When asked this morning, she said, ‘Going to Nauru is the equivalent of getting a ticket to Australia’, and quoted figures showing how many Nauru detainees ended up settling in Australia when their refugee claims were approved.

And there you have it. Despite constant avowals of how ‘humanitarian’ the government is, despite claims of being ‘compassionate’, the Prime Minister let the truth slip out. The government’s declared intent is to keep refugees away from Australia at all costs. (Oh, unless someone else has already done the hard work of processing asylum seeker claims, of course.) And why? Because if they’re here in Australia, they’re entitled to the protection of law – again, thanks to the High Court.

You’d think the Coalition would be on board with that, given the kind of responses given by Abbott and his front-benchers in interviews on the subject. Judging by the speeches they made in the House today, however, Abbott wants no part of any bipartisan effort to entrench executive power in this particular area. It’s a curious stance – surely it would benefit them?

Perhaps Abbott’s holding out in the hope that Gillard will finally cave in and re-open Nauru. Perhaps he’s trying to wring as many concessions as possible out of the government, including an admission that the government needs the Coalition to get them out of a gigantic mess. Or perhaps Abbott’s decided that he can always change the Act later, and he can get a far better result by watching the government fail to get amendments through the Parliament.

With any luck, pride will undo both major parties. The longer each refuses to budge on exactly which country it wants to use as a ‘dump and forget’ centre for our asylum seekers, the harder it will be to reach any kind of deal.

In the meantime, the Coalition is merrily pushing the line that with the Malaysia deal scuttled, Australia has ‘no border protection policy’. Yes, that’s right, folks – any moment now the boats will pull up on St Kilda Beach or surf into Bondi, and we’ll be invaded by thousands of asylum seekers who will force us to eat halal meat and wear burqas. Quick, circle the wagons, hide the women and the silver!

It’s ludicrous. Of course Australia has an asylum seeker policy (and no, I won’t play into the scare-mongering by calling it ‘border protection’). We have a policy of intercepting boats. We have a policy of mandatory detention. We have a processing centre on Christmas Island – which, let’s not forget, is excised from our Migration Zone anyway. We have processing centres onshore. We have an entire bureaucracy that works with the UN to process refugees then re-settle or deport them according to the outcome of their cases.

But it’s much better for the Coalition if it can create the impression that there is a complete policy void in this area. It plays right into the hands of the panic-mongers who seem to think that people in boats somehow threaten our very way of life. And it allows the Coalition to continue pushing Nauru as the tried-and-true ‘solution’ which is the only way to save us from a terrible fate.

And the media is utterly complicit in this.

Think about it. How often, lately, have you heard a commentator or reporter say that there’s ‘no border protection policy’?

And while we’re at it – when was the last time you heard someone in the media flat-out ask a politician exactly why we can’t have onshore processing? Given that it’s been in place for decades and – political rhetoric notwithstanding – has never been shown to encourage either people smuggling or people seeking asylum, why isn’t anyone nailing politicians in place and forcing them to answer this? Not often, I’ll bet.

Here are a few questions they could ask:

What evidence do you have that Australia’s long history of onshore refugee processing directly increased the number of asylum seeker boats?

Why are you prepared to spend millions of dollars in a third country, and risk Australia’s international reputation, rather than convert a few abandoned military bases onshore?

Exactly what is so frightening about asylum seekers that they must be kept away from Australia at all costs?

Why do you persist in referring to asylum seekers as a ‘product’ peddled by people smugglers, instead of calling them what they are – human beings?

Why do you persist in employing punitive measures against desperate people, and calling it ‘compassionate’?

If you really want to ‘break the people smugglers’ business model’, why don’t you simply fly asylum seekers to processing centres? You could save millions currently spent on keeping up the Coast Guard and Navy presence and detaining and prosecuting people smugglers – and the people smugglers wouldn’t be able to make any profit from the misery of others.

You see, it doesn’t matter what you believe on this issue – these questions should be asked. Politicians should be held to account for what they say, and required to show evidence to justify their policy decisions. This is what news media are for – asking uncomfortable questions and demanding real answers, investigating all sides of a question and providing that information to the public.

At the moment, this just isn’t happening. As long as media continue to unquestioningly accept politicians’ talking points, it never will.

We can see it happening right in front of us with the asylum seeker issue. So how about it, media – think you might want to stop letting politicians control the message and start subjecting them all to unwavering close scrutiny? There’s still time. The opportunity’s been missed, but not lost. If we’re going to have this conversation, then let’s talk about all the options.

If you do, then maybe – just maybe – the people who risk their lives to flee to a country where they can be safe and free, might actually find that country.

I’m sure it’s buried here somewhere under all the politics …


A sleazy new low for Abbott

September 8, 2011

Remember back in March, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wanted to address an anti-‘carbon tax’ rally on the Parliament House lawns? That was so important, apparently, that he felt it necessary to request a ‘pair’ from the government, in case a vote was called. Even though Abbott was effectively asking for freedom to slander the government and encourage hateful and violent sentiments, Labor granted him that pair. Thus secure in the knowledge that his absence wouldn’t upset any Coalition plans, Abbott hurried off to get himself married to the lynch mob.

The rally Tony Abbott couldn't miss

Fast forward to around three weeks ago, where Abbott declared that he would not grant pairs to the government during debate over the 13 bills that make up its Clean Energy Future package. He backed up the threat with immediate action, denying a pair to Arts Minister Simon Crean so that he could not attend the funeral of Margaret Olley AC, one of Australia’s great artists. This meant that his own colleague, Malcolm Turnbull, was also unable to attend the funeral. It was a particularly puzzling act – the absence of both Crean and Turnbull would have balanced the numbers anyway – unless you take into account that this was a shot across the bow.

Abbott quickly followed it up by denying the Prime Minister a pair so that she could meet a fellow head of state. In that case, Gillard had no choice but to risk that no vote would be called – it was that, or deliver an inexcusable snub to the President of the Seychelles.

Now it’s Craig Thomson’s turn. You probably remember him – during the last sitting of Parliament, the Opposition used Parliamentary privilege to consistently assert that Thomson was guilty of multiple acts of fraud, and incidentally employed sex workers (because a good ol’ morality campaign never goes astray). The New South Wales police, who looked into the matter after Opposition Senator George Brandis decided to make a few phone calls putting pressure on the state’s Police Minister, announced that it had insufficient evidence to even warrant launching a full investigation – let alone bring charges. Effectively, this means that Thomson has no case to answer, at least in NSW.

Not that this matters to the Opposition. Abbott declared that NSW had very high standards of proof that needed to be met in order to bring charges – so high, in fact, that even with all the ‘evidence’ that it had, it couldn’t go any further. Brandis chimed in with his own brand of spin, asserting there was prima facie evidence of Thomson’s guilt – though apparently the NSW police don’t agree. The message was clear – no let-up on Thomson in the near future.

But the Coalition may have undone themselves this time. As part of the ongoing campaign against the government in general, and Thomson in particular, Abbott has denied Thomson a pair in the upcoming session. ‘No way,’ Abbott said. ‘We have made it crystal clear that only in the most extraordinary circumstances will pairs be offered for the carbon tax vote.’

Well, that’s somewhat softer than his earlier ‘not under any circumstances’ stance. Which begs the question – for what apparently trivial reason has Thomson been denied a pair?

His wife is due to give birth soon.

Yes, you read that right. Attending the birth of your child, supporting your spouse in labour – that’s not enough reason to miss a vote in Parliament.

Remember, this is the man who asked for and received a pair merely in order to attend a violent, hate-filled rally in order to make a speech and get his photo taken in front of signs recommending Gillard burn in hell. It’s arguably ‘extraordinary’ – but more important than being there for the birth of your child?

Abbott prides himself on being a family man. Remember during the election, when he took every possible opportunity to sideswipe Gillard for being unmarried and childless? When his wife Margie accompanied him on the campaign trail, and his daughters sat in the audience during speeches to the faithful? And that’s without listing the numerous times he’s used his ‘Dad’ status to bolster his opinions on everything from abortion to same-sex marriage.

Yet he doesn’t consider the birth of another man’s child sufficiently ‘extraordinary’ to allow a pair.

Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne confirmed Abbott’s statement. He went further, claiming that it was up to the government to make sure it didn’t schedule any votes while Thomson was with his wife and new baby. This is nonsensical in the extreme. Debate and votes are usually scheduled in advance – is Pyne suggesting the government employ a psychic to determine when the birth will be? He also completely ignored the possibility that the Opposition might take advantage of numbers to attempt a suspension of standing orders to attempt a censure or throw the bills back into committee. In other words – what he said is simply meaningless.

Perhaps the Coalition thinks the baby should just wait until it can be squeezed into a packed schedule. After all, ‘the first duty of members of parliament is to be in the parliament when critical votes are taken,’ as Abbott said. Never mind his own record of sleeping through a crucial vote on the ETS under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, or Pyne’s own vote missed through bungled scheduling – a vote that was re-cast after the Coalition insisted it was ‘only fair’ that Pyne be allowed to record his vote anyway.

That baby has no business interfering with the business of Parliament, by the Coalition’s reasoning – and Thomson’s wife should really be more considerate about her timing.

This isn’t just petty politicking. It isn’t even simple, mean-spirited points-scoring. This is sleazy. Not content with smearing Thomson’s reputation from the safety of Parliament (and perhaps not coincidentally, suggesting that he’s a poor husband), Abbott has now attacked Thomson just for wanting to be with his wife when she’ll need him. Apparently Abbott doesn’t realise the contradiction there – he’s as happy to attack Thomson for being a supportive husband as for allegedly being a two-timing lowlife.

With any luck, this will backfire on the Opposition. Thomson was cleared by the NSW police – just pursuing him on that matter runs the risk of looking like a witch-hunt. Add to that the absolutely inexcusable refusal of a pair, and it rapidly takes on the odour of persecution.

It’s a serious misstep – there are few people who wouldn’t make an exception to business as usual for such an important family matter, and even diehard Coalition voters are likely to think Abbott’s gone too far. He needs to back down immediately; he can easily save face while doing so, say he’s consulted with his colleagues, made an exception in this one case, wax lyrical again about the importance of family – really, whatever works. But he needs to do it quickly before he poisons his unending election campaign irrevocably.

A frequent charge levelled by the Opposition is that the current government lacks ‘compassion’. They should scrap the ‘carbon tax’ to show compassion for the ‘forgotten families’. They should send asylum seekers to Nauru to show compassion. They should scrap the mining tax. Et cetera.

This is an opportunity for Abbott to walk his own walk. Grant Thomson a pair, apologise for even suggesting his family’s welfare should be sacrificed, and provide an example with which he can task the government on future occasions.

It’s a win-win, Mr Abbott. But something tells us you won’t see it that way.

UPDATE:

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey considerably softened the Coalition’s stance on the pairing issue this morning. Appearing on the Sunrise program, he informed Environment Minister Tony Burke that, ‘If you tell us when the vote will be I’m sure we will be very reasonable’. (Notice the attempt to make the Coalition’s sleazy tactics the fault of the government?)

Hockey added, ‘We are not going to deny a person the chance to be at the birth of his child’, which seems like a laudable sentiment. Unfortunately, at the same time Abbott was telling the Today Show that he supported Pyne’s comments from yesterday. Confusion in the ranks? Or Hockey caving in under pressure?

A moment ago, Sky News reported that Abbott has since refined his position. Apparently now it might be possible for Thomson to be granted ‘brief relief’ if his wife goes into labour. It’s not at all clear what that means, but it certainly suggests that Abbott would impose a time limit on any pairing granted. In that time limit, Thomson would have to travel from Parliament House to the airport, get a seat on a flight, fly to Sydney, and take a cab from Mascot Airport to the hospital. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to spend supporting his wife.

Presumably, it would be Mrs Thomson’s fault if her labour went longer than Abbott thought it should. Just like it’s the government’s ‘fault’ that the Coalition won’t grant him a pair.


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