Shameful Australia Day shouldn’t be obscured by spin

January 28, 2012

Remember when Australia Day was all about having a barbecue, going to the beach or just generally bludging at home? Remember when the pressing issue of the day was whether you’d bought enough ice, or had your radio tuned to Triple J? Oh sure, there was always muttering from boring people who said the day had ‘lost its meaning’. And lately, a lot more people have jumped on the ‘Invasion Day’ bandwagon in an annual display of disapproval for the way indigenous Australians were treated by the first colonists. (Which is not to denigrate those who work tirelessly to redress the situation, or those who have to bear the scars of its heritage.) Mostly, though, Australia Day was an excuse for a long weekend, and nobody gave it much thought beyond that.

This year is different. If no one remembers anything else from Australia Day, they’ll remember the footage of Prime Minister Julia Gillard being dragged to safety from the Lobby restaurant in Canberra by her protective detail, surrounded by angry protesters from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

The Prime Minister is dragged to safety by her protective detail. (photo via Getty Images)

Regardless of your personal opinion of Gillard, her government or politics in general, it’s a shocking image. And the footage is even more confronting. People banging on the glass windows of the restaurant, screaming. Gillard being rushed down the steps, stumbling and ending up almost being carried after she nearly fell. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott hurrying along, surrounded by the Prime Mister’s detail. Protesters pushing against the police line. A woman triumphantly holding up Gillard’s shoe, lost in the panic, as though it were some kind of trophy. (And that shoe later turned up for sale on eBay.)

It was an ugly display, and it did nothing good for the cause of the Tent Embassy.

So what happened? How did a largely peaceful – albeit angry – protest on the lawn of Parliament House turn into a howling mob?

First reports said it was because Abbott had called for the Tent Embassy to be torn down. Social media erupted in outrage. The milder responses called Abbott irresponsible. The more extreme labelled him ‘racist’ and ‘scum’.

Then the actual footage surfaced. Abbott was asked if he thought the Tent Embassy was still ‘relevant’, or whether it was time to ‘move on’. He gave a long, rambling answer that ended with ‘it’s probably time to move on‘.

At which point the outrage turned on the Tent Embassy. The protesters had ‘deliberately’ twisted Abbott’s words. They’d behaved ‘like animals’. Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr opined that the Embassy should have been ‘quietly packed up years ago’. And this morning, so-called ‘non-partisan online activist community’ Menzies House (in actuality, a right-wing mouthpiece for Coalition policy founded by Senator Cory Bernardi), announced the launch of its latest website, closethetentembassy.com. Describing the Embassy as racist, illegal and ‘reverse-apartheid’, Menzies House even had the unbelievable cheek to quote Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in support of what is little more than a dogwhistle to racists. Apparently the irony of this was lost on them.

But wait … the saga’s not over.

Last night, one of Gillard’s media staffers, Tony Hodges, resigned. He admitted that he’d spoken to someone about Abbott’s comments, adding that the Opposition Leader was in the Lobby restaurant. That ‘someone’ informed indigenous activist Barbara Shaw at the Tent Embassy, but what subsequently went out over the loudspeaker to the crowd was not Abbott’s actual quote, but something far more inflammatory – that Abbott had said the Embassy should be torn down.

And suddenly – incredibly – Abbott was the victim. It was a conspiracy within the government! Abbott was set up! The media unit incited a riot to get at Abbott, and it backfired!

Never slow to capitalise on any perceived advantage, Abbott and Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne went on the attack in full spin mode. It was a ‘grubby business,’ said Abbott. (Not the violence, mind you – the ‘grubbiness’ was all the PM’s fault.) It was ‘the most serious security incident to befall our nation’s leaders for quite a few years’. (Notice how he refers to himself as the Prime Minister’s equal?) ‘A member of the Prime Minister’s senior staff was trying to trigger something … potentially dire … for political advantage’. (Point of fact: Hodges was only recently promoted to a junior media position.) Most hilariously hypocritical of all: the Prime Minister needs to ‘stop the spin’ about this issue.

Then came the absolutely unsubstantiated claims – that the information was ‘fed’ to the Tent Embassy, that it was ‘deliberately false’, and that Abbott’s location was ‘classified’. There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest any deliberate fabrication on Hodges’ part. Equally, there’s no evidence that Hodges in any way intended to create any kind of disturbance, let alone what actually happened.

As for the suggestion that Hodges somehow leaked ‘classified’ information – well, where do I begin? Abbott’s basically suggesting that anyone who spotted him, and picked up the phone to tell their mates, would somehow be guilty of espionage.

Abbott was quick to praise the actions of the Prime Minister’s security detail, who – at Gillard’s request – escorted him safely from the building. They were under no obligation to do so, as the Opposition Leader is not usually afforded the same protections as the Prime Minister. The footage shows that as soon as she was made aware that her security considered the situation to be deteriorating, Gillard moved to make sure Abbott was safe. It was an entirely decent act, and Gillard has in no way tried to capitalise on it. There was little else Abbot could do than be gracious.

Except that on Saturday Agenda, Abbott was asked by Chris Kenny, ‘You’re not suggesting the Prime Minister was aware of this, that she sanctioned this?’ His answer? ‘She has to give a full explanation.’ Abbott’s ‘sure there are decent people in the Prime Minister’s office,’ but nonetheless it’s up to Gillard to explain herself to the Australian people. He’s not suggesting anything, but …

Not to be outdone, Pyne publicly called for a police inquiry into Hodges’ actions, and the extent to which the Prime Minister’s media unit was involved – not that he’s actually asked the police. And he doesn’t have to, really. With News Limited merrily repeating unsubstantiated rumours and printing what amounts to Coalition talking points, a real policy inquiry would just get in the way.

Right now, the news services are reporting that Hodges mentioned Abbott’s location to Kim Sattler, the Secretary of UnionsACT, who passed it on to Barbara Shaw. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the Coalition will use this information, given their persistent stereotyping of union leaders as Labor ‘lackeys’ and ‘thugs’. It’s certainly helped along by the media description of Sattler as a ‘national Labor figure’ and ‘well-connected’. Never mind that Sattler denies saying anything to Shaw.

But let’s back up a bit. What we know is that a junior media staffer admitted he mentioned Abbott’s location to someone, who passed it on to Shaw – and that somewhere along the line the message was distorted to include a false quote about tearing down the Tent Embassy. What we know is that protesters at the Tent Embassy, hearing that distorted message, surrounded the Lobby restaurant, engaged in intimidation and violent tactics, pushed against police lines. What we know is that the Prime Minister’s security detail judged the situation to be unsafe, removed Gillard and escorted Abbott out at her request.

The rest is supposition and spin.

What remains, then, is a shameful display of behaviour that did nothing but harm the cause of indigenous rights, and the Tent Embassy in particular. Footage of Gillard being held up by her bodyguard has turned up all over the world, including on some of the US’ biggest news and current affairs programs. It conveyed an image of Australia that we should all repudiate.

Keep that in mind over the next few days, as Abbott pulls the victim’s mantle over himself, Pyne thunders self-righteous condemnation, and Gillard is pursued by media who are apparently more interested in rumour than reporting.

Because ultimately, that’s what this Australia Day was all about – a Prime Minister forced to flee on the advice of trained security professionals with protesters in pursuit …

(photo courtesy The Sydney Morning Herald)

… and the display of a trophy gained through mob intimidation.

(photo courtesy Brisbane Times)

And it’s inexcusable.


A man of his word

January 21, 2012

We’re still two and a half weeks away from Parliament’s resumption, but the wheeling and dealing is in full swing. It was pretty clear something was in the works when former Speaker Harry Jenkins retired and Coalition MP Peter Slipper took his place. The buffer provided to Labor’s numbers in the House was too good to be true – they had the option now to get out of some sticky situations without risking their hold on government.

Not least of these potential issues was poker machine reform. Bringing in legislation to fight problem gambling was crucial to securing Tasmanian Independent member for Denison Andrew Wilkie’s support in forming goverment – but the campaign mounted by Clubs Australia was immediate, well-funded and brutal. You couldn’t have missed the signs if you went anywhere near a club or pub – giant cardboard stand-ups shrieking that the government was going to make us purchase a ‘licence to punt’, that local kids’ sports clubs would be deprived of dressing rooms and uniforms. Our whole Aussie way of life would be threatened!

(Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Honestly, I don’t know how we survive as a nation, with all these dire threats to ‘our way of life’.)

The reality, of course, was that Clubs Australia was flatly lying. The proposal was for mandatory pre-commitment technology – which is a fancy way of saying ‘individual smart cards that limit how much you can spend in total at any one time’. Along with this, more money for programs designed to help problem gamblers and the possibility of limiting just how big your bets can be via so-called ‘low intensity’ machines, which impose a maximum bet per spin and carry a much lower jackpot.

Nonetheless, the scare campaign was effective. Labor backbenchers, particularly in New South Wales, started seriously worrying about their chances for re-election as Clubs Australia brought pressure to bear on them as individuals. The Opposition chimed in with their own head-shaking and tut-tutting about ‘draconian reforms’ and ‘nanny states’. By the end of 2010 – if you’ll forgive the metaphor – the smart money backed the idea that Labor would find a way to renege on the Wilkie deal, and still retain government.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, accompanied by Families and Community Service Minister Jenny Macklin, delivered the deathblow today. Instead of introducing legislation that would mandate the installation of pre-commitment technology in poker machines across the board, the government announced a trial of said measures – that won’t start until 2013, and will be carried out only in the Australian Capital Territory. Just in case the trial has a good result – in other words, tallies with what the Productivity Commission has already recommended and the experience of other countries has shown works – new machines built after next January must have the pre-commitment software already installed. Not activated, mind you. That won’t happen until at least 2016 – in other words, well after the next election.

Gillard also ruled out imposing bet limits or mandating low-intensity machines, on the grounds that installing the necessary software in existing machines would be far too expensive. Never mind that it would be a matter of modifying existing software, which is far less expensive than complying with the stringent rules surrounding the implementation of entirely new software in poker machines.

Almost as an afterthought, she announced a daily $250 withdrawal limit at ATMs located in venues with poker machines. Oh, and there’ll be warning signs on the pokie screens.

It’s all about ‘the realities of minority government’, Gillard lamented. We had to make compromises on carbon pricing, and we just have to do the same thing here. She asserted that she knew legislation could not pass the House, and therefore wasn’t going to make the attempt.

Unlike carbon pricing – which Gillard repeatedly said she would establish – this is an unequivocally broken promise. Actually, it goes further – it’s breaking the written contract she signed with Andrew Wilkie in return for his support. This is exactly what happened when the Coalition reneged on its contract with the Independents to re-commit votes and pair the Speaker.

(Oh, and just incidentally … the Coalition also promised to introduce pre-commitment technology in return for Wilkie’s support. Not that you’d notice from the way they talk about it now.)

Wilkie repeatedly warned that he would withdraw support if Labor did not live up to its undertakings. Gillard’s called his bluff, and now the ball is in his court. Even if he does follow through on his threats, it won’t necessarily endanger the government – Wilkie’s already made it clear that he would not automatically support the Opposition, nor that he would always vote against the government in no confidence motions.

So what would it mean? For the government, it puts them back in the same situation as when Harry Jenkins was Speaker; holding onto power by the slimmest of margins. A single vote against them by an Independent or Greens MP could be enough to defeat legislation. It would be a case of ‘second verse, same as the first’.

The implications for Wilkie are far more profound. In his negotiations with both major parties, and in his personal conduct in Parliament, he’s shown himself to be relentlessly ethical. He stood up to the government on asylum seeker policy and live exports, and only supported carbon pricing after he was assured that the most financially disadvantaged Australians would be protected. His refusal of Abbott’s lavish offers of funds for his electorate, in favour of wider programs that would benefit the nation as a whole as well as his own area, sent a clear message; this was someone who support could not simply be bought.

Now he’s in a position where he needs to demonstrate that he’s also someone who can’t be taken for granted, or dismissed. If he withdraws support from the government, he risks being forever branded as the man who prevented pokies reform – regardless of the truth of the matter. If he doesn’t, he becomes a target for the Opposition, who certainly won’t hesitate to brand him an opportunist at best, a Labor lackey at worst.

When Wilkie signed his deal with Labor, I wrote that he was shaping up to be the government’s conscience. Now we’ll see whether he can resist the temptation to settle for a watered-down, toothless version of his dream reform – or whether he’ll remind the government that agreements work two ways, and that there are consequences for treating written contracts are optional and dismissing individuals as undeserving of their fidelity.

UPDATE:

Wilkie just announced that he has withdrawn support from the Labor government. He will no longer guarantee to pass Supply bills or back the government in no confidence motions. His agreement with Gillard, which he described as ‘a pact with the Australian people’, was specific; ‘a deal’s a deal. Our democracy is much too precious to trash with broken promises and back-room deals’. He stated that he had ‘no option’ but to withdraw support, and went on to give the Labor government a thorough serve. Being able to trust politicians is even more important than poker machine reform, he added.

He added that he will not block the government’s proposed pokies legislation, even though it falls well short of the agreed measures. Rather, he will treat it as a first step, and continue to work for real reform.

Watching his media conference, it was clear that this was difficult for Wilkie. He said he held out hope that the Prime Minister would honour the agreement, even as late as last night. He said he’d kept faith with his undertakings, even to the point of passing a Budget containing Social Security changes with which he disagreed. His disappointment and disgust with the government was unmistakable.

Even then, he praised Gillard for making a minority government into a workable institution. There was nothing grudging or half-hearted about it, either.

No doubt the Opposition will leap upon this announcement with glee. Expect Tony Abbott to crow that this is the consequence of Gillard ‘dudding’ Wilkie, as she apparently ‘dudded’ the rest of us on a whole slew of other issues. In fact, expect the Coalition to cruise on this all the way through to when Parliament resumes on the 7th of February. And let’s face it, the chances are good that Abbott’s pontifications are likely to get more air time than anything Wilkie can say.

But here’s what’s important: today an elected representative refused to compromise his ethics. Wilkie proved himself a man of his word when it counted.

That’s a rare trait in a politician; and it shouldn’t be. Wilkie demonstrating good faith should not be a cause for comment, but as our Parliament stands, he’s the exception rather than the rule. He’s a man with both idealism and integrity … and perhaps instead of regarding that as naive and a little bit cute, we could admire it and expect the same standard of behaviour from the rest.

Because it won’t happen until we demand it.


Never mind hygiene, how about some manners?

January 10, 2012

Ah, Summer. The time of slow news days, photo opportunities for local pollies in their own electorate, and the occasional human interest story about Opposition Leader Tony Abbott just missing out on a close call with a shark down at Manly Beach. Unfortunately, it’s also a time when politicians tend to get a little … indiscreet with their words.

Exhibit A: Opposition MP Teresa Gambaro.

Ms Gambaro’s got it all worked out – and by ‘it’, I mean that pesky immigrant problem. You know, the one that apparently affects every facet of our lives, yet somehow fails to make much more than the slightest blip on people’s personal radars. And just what is that problem?

Hygiene.

Yes, you read that right. According to Gambaro, immigrants just doesn’t understand ‘Australian norms’. They don’t know how to line up in a queue, or wear deodorant on public transport. These things are part of our Australian way of life, gosh darn it, and it’s about time these immigrants were taught how to fit in. Cultural awareness classes, that’s what they need. But how to do it?

Perhaps we could offer a Certificate I in Being Australian at TAFE, specifically target at migrants. We could teach them the time-honoured traditions of the sausage sizzle and the post-footy booze-up. We could instruct them in the proper way to apply white zinc and yell at cricket umpires. Special practical classes could teach them how to hold the deodorant spray the required few inches from the armpit, and just how long to hold down the trigger. For advanced students, elective units in using roll-ons might be a good idea. And while we’re at it, we can practice lining up – perhaps at the canteen at lunchtime.

Of course, we’ll have to employ only the most qualified teachers for such an important course. The government could look at offering incentives to encourage tertiary students to take up a career in Cultural Awareness Training.

But why stop there? After all, learning shouldn’t stop when people leave school, right? We need to put community initiatives in place, and while we’re at it, we can cut the jobless numbers at the same time.

We’ll need Bath Inspectors to make sure people are taking the required number of baths or showers each week. We can’t trust those immigrants to self-report on this issue – it’s far too important. For that matter, there should be Handwashing Monitors installed in all schools and public toilets, just to make sure proper procedure is followed. (Hmm, perhaps we’ll also need to teach them how much soap to use, and how to shampoo their hair.)

Then there’s public transport. Obviously, we’ll need a Whiff Patrol to travel at peak times, with the ability to issue infringement notices compelling those with un-deodorised armpits to undertake refresher courses in hygiene.

We’re also going to need Queue Police. We can’t have those dastardly immigrants spoiling our orderly queue culture. It could undermine our whole way of life. They need to know their place.

Or wait, perhaps Gambaro is in the pocket of Big Deodorant, and this is all designed to push Rexona sales …

… I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore.

What the hell was Gambaro thinking?!

It would be nice to believe this was just the result of a really bad communication skills day. Unfortunately, it seems far more likely it was simply unthinking racism on her part. No doubt Gambaro would say that she didn’t intend to be offensive; she genuinely wants people to be part of ‘our’ culture. And in a way, that’s more worrying than if she had meant to offend. This is the Coalition’s citizenship spokesperson, effectively telling those who wish to become part of our society that they are dirty and ill-mannered, and need to learn civilised behaviour.

Sounds just a tad colonial, doesn’t it?

To be fair, Gambaro also pointed out that many immigrants aren’t aware of some rather more crucial aspects of living in Australian society, such as their rights under a tenancy agreement or Medicare. Had she confined her remarks to these issues, there might even have been some value in the whole interview – because there are real problems with our migration and citizenship program, not least of which is our insistence that migrants be able to spell English words, while we do nothing to prepare them for dealing with our bureaucracies and legal systems.

As it stands, Gambaro’s offensive remarks put her right up there with Senator Cory ‘Islamicisation-by-stealth-through-halal-meat’ Bernardi. It’s utterly shameful that an elected representative – and one charged with the important task of ensuring the government provides the best possible immigration system – uses her ability to command media attention to send a message any even remotely sensible person would regard as nonsensical at best, highly insulting at worst.

It’s not hygiene lessons that are needed here … it’s lessons in basic empathy and good manners. And it isn’t immigrants who should be taking them, Ms Gambaro. It’s you.

(And FYI … telling people you’re the child of migrant parents doesn’t excuse you, either.)


2011 in review, or What I Did On My Blog

January 1, 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 25,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


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