The PM strikes back

February 24, 2012

Prime Minister Julia Gillard didn’t waste time firing back at Kevin Rudd after he finally announced his decision to contest Monday’s Labor leadership ballot. And she came out swinging.

This contest, she said, was all about ‘who has got the character … the temperament … the strength’ to not only go up against Tony Abbott, but to carry through significant, long-term reforms. ‘This isn’t Celebrity Big Brother,’ she said, repeating an earlier swipe aimed at Rudd’s exhortations to the Australian public to pressure their Labor representatives. She was confident and reassured by the promises of support she’d received from her colleagues.

She talked up her government’s legislative agenda to date – means testing on private health insurance, the Mining Resource Rent Tax, job creation and carbon pricing. In a classic incumbent’s campaign speech, she spoke of her desire to deliver further reforms in these areas, adding ‘a new approach to school funding and skills training, the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme and assistance for threatened industries such as manufacturing.

In a further reminder that she was the person currently holding the office of Prime Minister, she noted that she’d spent the day out and about visiting schools and industry, and consulting with the public. It was almost as though she was slotting this conference into a busy daily schedule, but had much more important things to do – if only she could get this leadership nonsense out of the way.

‘Talk is easy. Getting things done is hard, and I am the person who gets things done,’ she said – and here she made her first misstep. ‘Who delivered carbon pricing? I did. Who delivered means testing for private health insurance? I did.’ And on she went, apparently taking personal credit for a whole slew of policies.

Now, I don’t think she really was trying to tell us that she had single-handedly accomplished everything her government had done – but it was a bad look. In recent days, her supporters have made a point of attacking Kevin Rudd’s non-consultative, micro-managing style, citing it as one of the reasons they had pressured him from office. To have Gillard now speaking only of what she had accomplished – particularly when Rudd had been careful to speak of ‘his government’ – looked churlish at best.

Like Rudd, Gillard spent a good deal of time attacking Tony Abbott, branding him a nay-sayer with no real interest in pursuing a strong future economy. This was a familiar refrain to any viewer of Question Time, and one of the Prime Minister’s strengths. She tends to be at her best when she has a clear target, speaking with both conviction in her own policies and contempt for Abbott’s ‘wrecking’, and she didn’t hold back here. In a leader’s debate during an election campaign, the Worm would definitely have approved.

She managed to avoid mentioning her challenger by name until she opened the floor for questions – but then she let loose, with the same vitriol she’d directed at Abbott only a few moments before.

Rudd was untrustworthy. He was ineffectual – he lacked method, purpose, or ability to get things done’. He had failed to deliver a price on carbon even when he had a majority government. As Prime Minister, he had so little support that he was allowed to resign rather than be humiliated in a challenge. He ‘undermined’ and ‘destabilised’ her government (I lost count after the fourth time she used those particular words in those few answers). She implied he could not be trusted to keep to his undertaking not to seek a further challenge to her leadership. Most damning of all, she asserted that he had not denied engaging in confidential briefings with media undermining the government.

‘Australians can have confidence in me that no matter how hard it gets, I’ve got the determination and the personal fortitude to see things through’, she said.

The list of accusations stood in stark contrast to Rudd’s remarks a little earlier. Rudd had asserted that Gillard was unable to lead the party to victory against Abbott, and that she had convinced him to shelve the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. He implied factional heavies might try to intimidate his supporters, and called on her to guarantee that wouldn’t happen. His major criticisms were reserved for her perceived inability to win the election.

And there was one crucial element of Gillard’s spray that is frankly untrue. Her recitation of the history of carbon pricing legislation failed to mention some crucial facts. The Greens never supported the CPRS, and refused to compromise. That forced Rudd’s government to seek support from the Coalition – and he gained it. Right up until the time Tony Abbott, backed by former Senator Nick Minchin and long-serving MP Bronwyn Bishop, challenged and won the leadership by one vote. At that point, all deals were off. It was only after that time that the legislation was shelved.

To make matters worse, Gillard did not rule out the possibility that she might dismiss Rudd’s supporters – notably, Martin Ferguson – from Cabinet, if she won the ballot. She would appoint her Cabinet on merit alone, she said. That’s a fair statement, but in the context of Rudd’s ‘olive branch’, delivered earlier to her supporters, looks ungracious.

The final stumble occurred when Gillard asserted that, ‘You shouldn’t be dragged down by someone who is on your own side’. Social media monitoring the conference exploded with cries of ‘Pot, meet Kettle!’ and accusations of hypocrisy.

It’s difficult to understand how Gillard could have handled that situation so clumsily. She appeared genuinely angry throughout whenever she spoke of Rudd or the challenge, in a way that she’s never directed at Tony Abbott. That anger’s shown through quite a bit in the last few days. All indications are that she has more than enough support to retain her position as Prime Minister, but she seems to be fighting this ballot like a general election – and that she believes her real opponent is not Tony Abbott, but the colleague she ousted.

In the light of the public campaign against Rudd from her supporters, it does nothing for the Prime Minister’s cause. She needs to stay out of the mud and concentrate on her strengths – the fact that she has held a minority government together in the face of unrelenting attacks by the Coalition, pushed through a huge amount of legislation and endured opposition from some of the biggest special interest groups in the country. She can stand on that record, and should do so. Attacking the man makes her look worried and ungracious, and obscures her achievements.

With the exception of Nick Champion, there’s a conspicuous silence from Rudd’s supporters today. I’m sure that will change over the weekend – and we’ll see members of both camps going head to head. It will be interesting to see if the contenders can keep above the melee.

The return of Rudd the campaigner

February 24, 2012

Kevin Rudd just announced that – as expected – he will contest the Labor leadership on Monday. And his first open move in this contest was a series of political master strokes.

In what was less a simple informative media conference than it was a stump speech, Rudd said he wanted ‘to finish the job he was elected to do’. His government’s political agenda was interrupted by the machinations of the factions, and he has a vision for a ‘better Australia’ and a ‘better Australian Labor Party’.

Although he talked up his chances of taking the leadership, Rudd made a point of ruling out a second challenge. He’d go to the back bench and represent his electorate.

The factions came in for quite a kicking, as Rudd repeated his accusations that factional ‘heavies’ had attempted to intimidate backbenchers by threatening to dis-endorse them at the next election. He called on Gillard to guarantee that ‘no Australian Labor Party member of the House of Representatives or the Senate will have their pre-selection changed as a result of how they vote on Monday’. Additionally, he called for a ‘truly secret ballot’, implying that the usual practice involved those same heavies using standover tactics. And he fired a shot across the bow – if he gets the leadership back, he intends to undertake broad party reform, including reducing the power of the factions:

‘That power should be transferred to its ‘rightful’ position – to each and every member of the elected members of the party’.

Party reform also featured his first mea culpa: that he was wrong to take away from Caucus the power to elect the Ministry. He promised to return that power if he regained the leadership.

With that out of the way, he moved on to the major thrust of his job application – his declared ability to beat Opposition Leader Tony Abbott at the next election. ‘I’m not prepared to stand idly by and see our nation’s future wasted by an Abbott government,’ he said. ‘If we don’t change, the Labor Party is going to end up in Opposition … we will all end up on the back bench, and the Opposition back benches at that … this is the cold, stark reality’. He went on to lay out exactly how dreadful Abbott – who he described as ‘having his feet firmly in the past’ – would be as Prime Minister.

Lest anyone think the task was just too daunting, he added, ‘Beating Mr Abbot is vital … and it is achievable … he is entirely beatable’.

It was an incredibly slick piece of political theatre. The attention to detail was amazing – almost certainly choreographed by Bruce Hawker, who could safely be called his campaign manager for this ballot. The conference took place in a government building, against a backdrop of a deep blue curtain. The lectern was flanked by two large Australian flags. It could only have looked more Prime Ministerial if the Governor-General had been standing by Rudd’s shoulder.

Rudd’s manner was relaxed. He looked utterly at ease, friendly when the words called for it, stern on the subject of party reform, and full of grim conviction when stating his utter opposition to Abbott. He frequently made eye contact with the media in the room, and the cameras in front of him. Although he was reading from a speech, he’d clearly practised the delivery.

And speaking of that speech … as an announcement of candidacy, it was a great piece of campaigning. The language was simple, straightforward – none of the tongue-twisting, ‘programmatic specificity’ type phrases which were such a gift for comedians during his tenure as Prime Minister. This wasn’t a speech for a small group of Parliamentarians; it was an appeal to the dream of Labor, invoking Chifley’s ‘light on the hill’. Rudd seemed to be saying to the faithful who’d drifted away, disenchanted, that they could return to a Golden Age (real or imagined).

He put the focus squarely on the next election. Much of his speech had little to do with Gillard – it was all about the looming threat of a Coalition government, and the terrifying possibility of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. With that rhetoric, Rudd didn’t have to mention Gillard at all; it was enough to talk up both the fear, and the ‘solution’.

Ruling out a second challenge was perhaps the most cunning piece of Rudd’s strategy. It will be particularly easy for him to keep to this undertaking, should he lose – because he never ruled out being ‘drafted’. He can lose, go to the back bench, work hard in an election campaign and, likely, keep his seat in Opposition. His presence there will be a reminder that he was an alternative, who might have had a better chance against Abbott. And, like Caesar, he can be offered the crown again and again, until he can legitimately claim he is acceding to the will of the party.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Rudd conference was the reaction of the media. It’s fair to say that the questions were blunt, and the tone assertive, bordering on aggressive. Rudd smiled, answered some questions, dodged others and generally controlled the room. He dropped another bombshell by confirming that Gillard and Wayne Swan had pressured him to shelve his original carbon pricing scheme, and further, that Gillard had urged him not to re-visit the idea until Abbott accepted climate change as a reality. Then he added that nonetheless, he accepted full responsibility for the decision.

Something strange happened then. From questions about leadership, leaks and ‘white-anting’, suddenly the media started asking Rudd policy questions. What would he do about carbon pricing? How would he fix the asylum seeker system?

And Rudd engaged them on every question. If he didn’t provide a lot of specifics, he showed he was abreast of broader issues well outside his former Foreign Affairs portfolio. He sounded like a Prime Minister.

Is this going to make any difference to the numbers? Probably not. He’ll still almost certainly lose. But with this announcement, he may lose a lot more narrowly than the Gillard camp is proclaiming. Already media speculation is daring to contemplate the outside possibility of a Rudd win.

Perhaps more importantly, Rudd just reminded people that he’s a very, very good political operator, and a formidable campaigner.

Gillard’s presser is due momentarily. Her response is sure to be fascinating.

Win-win for Rudd

February 23, 2012

As expected, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has called a leadership ballot for Monday, citing a need to settle the issue ‘once and for all’. Rudd is still to declare whether he will contest that ballot, although it’s likely.

With that in mind, let’s examine some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Rudd loses with the support of more than a third of the caucus.

Result: Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem for Gillard. To have the support of two-thirds of the caucus should be conclusive. In fact, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott won his challenge against Malcolm Turnbull by only one vote, he spun the narrowest of victories as indicative of party unity.

There is a problem, though. Gillard’s supporters are out there talking down Rudd’s support as vanishingly small, well short of having enough numbers to even mount a challenge under party rules. If they are proved wrong, it raises the question of whether Rudd is a viable alternative to Gillard – perhaps not today, but soon. The Keating model. And once the question is raised, Rudd becomes a focus for discontent with Gillard.

Gillard tried to stave that off in her speech today by effectively challenging Rudd to a dare. She announced that if she lost – adding quickly that she did not expect that to happen – she would go to the back bench and promise never to challenge again, and called on Rudd to make a similar undertaking. Of course, that’s nonsensical. Any such undertaking isn’t worth the bytes it’s recorded on (oh dear, the old print metaphors really are the best). There are any number of get-out clauses, from the tried-and-true ‘I know I promised but people are begging me’ to the weak but difficult to refute ‘that was then, the world has changed’.

So she’s left with Rudd on the back bench as a credible alternative who’s free to speak his mind, not bound by the usual constraints on Ministers.

Scenario 2: Rudd loses comprehensively.

Result: This should spell the end of Rudd’s leadership ambitions. But again, he could employ the Keating model. This time, though, he keeps his head down. He publicly supports the government when called on to specifically do so, but looks pained about it. He reminds the media at every turn that he is a back bencher, and refers them to appropriate Ministers or to Gillard herself.

And, as in the previous scenario, he becomes a focus for discontent among back benchers. A leader ignores the possibility of a back bench revolt at their peril – after all, there are more of them than the Cabinet, many with personal axes to grind on behalf of their individual electorates.

Both of these scenarios presume that the Coalition wins the next election. On the strength of polling trends, this seems likely. Rudd losing a challenge now and going to the back bench sets him up as someone to lead Labor out of the electoral wilderness. He has a proven track record in winning elections – and not via the skin of his teeth, either.

Scenario 3: Rudd wins.

It’s an outside chance, at best. Although Centrebet reports that Rudd’s odds are shortening (no link provided, in the interests of avoiding spam trackbacks, but it’s easy enough to find), enough Labor figures have already declared support for Gillard to make it unlikely that he could snatch victory. But let’s look at it anyway – just for fun.

Obviously, there would be a huge sense of personal achievement for Rudd, not to mention a fair amount of ‘best served cold’ satisfaction. It might also bring disaffected, left-leaning voters back to the party – those who objected to the way Gillard became Prime Minister in the first place, or who reject her policy stances (which can be described as Centre Right at best). If Rudd bullies through his stated aims on party reform, constraining the power of the factions and unions, it removes a key plank from Abbott’s anti-Labor platform. And he just might squeak an election victory, if enough voters forgive him for the political manoeuvring he undertook to get back the top job.

Even if he doesn’t win the next election, he can argue to keep the leader’s job in Opposition, on the grounds that he needs time to consolidate reforms.

An outside chance, yes – but it has to be one he’s considered.

Scenario 4: Rudd does not challenge.

This is by far the least likely scenario. All the rhetoric suggests Rudd is positioning himself to contest the leadership on Monday – and possibly that he expects to lose, setting up the groundwork for a later challenge (at least, according to Labor strategist and Rudd backer Bruce Hawker). In the interests of completeness, though …

It’s a very, very dangerous strategy. Rudd risks looking like a coward, talking big about the need for good leadership and touting his own credentials, then not following through. He also risks having his supporters – both public and Parliamentary – turn on him.

On the other hand, if he’s clever enough, he can spin it. His speeches weren’t a job application – he was defending himself, and warning people of the need to work hard to (a) defeat Abbott and (b) come through the looming Eurozone financial crisis. It would take some brilliant speechifying – and while he’s capable of it, I think it’s too great a risk.

So there you have it.

But no matter what scenario ends up being played out, Rudd’s already won. He’s drawn out into the spotlight the venom with which Gillard’s supporters regard him. Steve Gibbons called him a ‘psychopath’. Simon Crean said he was a ‘prima donna’. Nicola Roxon advised us to get over the idea that he’s a ‘messiah’. And from Treasurer Wayne Swan (also Treasurer under Rudd) came an extraordinarily petulant spray that his media advisors clearly never saw until it was too late.

This morning, Rudd spoke about the damaging nature of those comments, how they showed disunity and helped only the Coalition. He urged those speaking out on his behalf not to be drawn into the same kind of personal comments, confined his remarks to policy decisions, and talked himself up rather than criticise of Gillard herself.

By contrast, Gillard – already under fire for not chastising her Cabinet and supporting Rudd as Foreign Minister – engaged in similar personal attacks this morning. She accused him of everything from deliberately sabotaging the 2010 election campaign to single-handedly paralysing the government through his ‘chaotic work patterns’ to responsibility for her government’s inability to communicate its agenda (something she’s previously ascribed solely to Abbott).

Rudd also gave credit to Gillard’s government for pushing through reforms – with the reminder that these were begun by his own government. Gillard characterised the Rudd government as entirely ineffectual, and claimed solely for herself those same reforms.

The language was clear. The contrast was clear. And yes, you can say that Rudd was talking in private, leaking to the media, undermining Gillard privately. Maybe he was. Politicians do that. Remember Gillard arguing against Rudd’s proposed pension increases? Remember the leaks against Rudd? And still, no one has yet come out and categorically stated that they were briefed in a de-stabilising campaign by Rudd, or named any followers who have allegedly done so.

Rudd’s not a white knight, by any means. He’s a slick political operator, as is Gillard. You only have to look at how they’re handling this issue. It’s a textbook in politics.

But Rudd’s the clear victor in one sense. He exposed the vicious side of Gillard’s team. He blindsided her by resigning from Cabinet without warning. He’s reminded people of why he became Labor leader, and why the Australian public elected him the first place.

And now he’s effectively barricaded against the media for around 24 hours. It does give Gillard a clear field – but it also means that the media will zero in on her wherever she goes. She already displayed her temper once this morning at a particularly insistent journalist.

You can bet the pressure won’t let up until Monday morning. And in the meantime, Rudd can monitor, strategise and assess the situation.

He may not have the numbers, but so far, he’s ahead on points.

Kevin Rudd resigns as Foreign Minister

February 22, 2012

After a week of feverish speculation, triggered by a leaked video, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd tonight resigned his post in a late-night media conference from Washington DC.

He didn’t mince words, either. ‘I cannot continue to serve as Foreign Minister if i do not have Prime Minister Gillard’s full support,’ he said, adding that Gillard had refused to unequivocally support him against particularly vicious comments from Parliamentary colleagues, notably Regional Minister Simon Crean. By contrast, Rudd had indicated support – though it was definitely lukewarm – with his statements that there was no leadership challenge on, and re-affirming her position as Prime Minister. The current situation – with MPs and advisors popping up at every possible opportunity was a ‘distraction from the real services of government’, and having a damaging effect on business. It was also, he said, taking the focus away from the current Queensland election campaign, and Premier Anna Bligh deserved better.

He had some harsh words for factional players within the Party, referring to his own sudden forced resignation from the top job as removal ‘by stealth’, and that it must never happen again. That was, he said, the reason he’d made his resignation announcement now, and that he would make a further announcement on ‘his future’ before Parliament sits again next week.

Most damningly, he gave us this scathing opinion of the media frenzy that’s surrounded the question of the leadership, seemingly since the day after Gillard came to power:

‘The Australian people regard this affair as little better than a soap opera, and they are right; and under the current circumstances, I won’t be part of it’.

And it has been a soap opera. Sky News referred to the speculation as going on for ‘weeks and weeks and weeks’ – as though it had nothing to do with that at all. Which is, of course, utter rubbish. The media are, perhaps, more responsible for creating the soap opera than any tensions between Rudd and Gillard. It’s undeniable that Rudd is still incredibly angry about the way he was removed – but it’s equally undeniable that the media have taken every opportunity to suggest an imminent leadership challenge. And not just for weeks, either.

After all, a soap opera is nothing more than private drama without the cameras, the reviewers and the ratings people, is it?

So, of course, speculation is now rife as to Rudd’s next move. The bulk of commentators are convinced he will spend the weekend making frantic phone calls and alliances, and challenge Gillard for the leadership on Monday. In this respect, he would be following the same plan he carried out when he deposed Kim Beazley in 2006. What’s more, the playbook throws his actions into sharp contrast with Gillard’s. Rather than orchestrate an eleventh hour ultimatum delivered from a position of power, Rudd publicly submitted his resignation and went to the back bench.

This time, though, commentators believe that Rudd doesn’t have the numbers. If he fails, he goes to the back bench, and the pressure will be on him to resign from politics altogether – or at least announce that he will not stand again for the seat of Griffith. The idea that he wouldn’t, according to Sky’s David Speers, is ‘farcical’.

There’s another possibility. Rudd may not challenge. He might go to the back bench now, and bide his time. His resignation, together with other issues on which Labor has lost traction (largely thanks to relentless campaigning from the Coalition), could be the final element that ensures Labor loses power at the next election. At that point he could easily convince the Party that Gillard was unfit to keep the leadership; that – to quote him on Beazley in 2006 – what is needed is ‘a new style of leadership’, to save the country from the damage that might be done by a Coalition government.

It’s a strategy that worked well for former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Of course, this assumes that Rudd is willing to Labor be soundly defeated. Is he quite that Machiavellian? Sure enough of himself that the Australian people would forgive him such a cold-blooded strategy, and that Labor voters would be willing to vote for him after living under a Coalition government? The suddenness of today’s announcement, coming as it did in the middle of the night while Rudd was in the capital of our most powerful ally, can be read as Rudd deciding to blindside the Prime Minister just before the evening news, ensuring he would be the story for the weekend. Or, as Graham Richardson suggests, there are articles due to be released tomorrow that are potentially very damaging for Rudd.

Or it could simply be that he snapped, unable to take any more pressure from both the party and the media. Which, given his temper, isn’t that unlikely.

There’s no doubt this is a gift to the Coalition – and an earthquake for Labor. It’s the Independents who’ll come in for close scrutiny this weekend, however.

Andrew Wilkie has already withdrawn his support from Gillard, and, as usual, is playing his cards close to his chest. His hatred for the Coalition is well-known, though that’s no guarantee. Since earlier this week, when he was briefly embroiled in the soap opera by way of a misreported conversation with Rudd, he’s been quiet.

Tony Windsor, speaking to media tonight, suggests an election might be necessary, but a change of leadership now was very risky. Judging by his performance in Parliament to date, whatever decision he makes now will be exceedingly well-considered.

Rob Oakeshott is nowhere to be seen.

Interestingly, Bob Katter may be the wild card. His refusal to support Gillard as PM was based, in large part, by his distaste for the tactics used to remove Rudd. Should Rudd challenge and win, he may change allegiances – or at least be more inclined to listen to Federal Labor. We still haven’t heard from him, either.

The question for Labor, then, becomes whether its members can set aside personal animosity and vote for the person they feel has the best chance of beating Abbott at the next election. Although there’s no specific current polling, Labor’s miserable figures on both Two Party Preferred and Preferred Prime Minister questions suggest that Gillard can’t do it. Her own unpopularity with the public compared to Rudd only reinforces that. (And interestingly, take a look at the informal poll in the link above from The Age.)

But it’s the caucus who’ll decide the leadership, in the end. They’ll have to weigh up whether they want to preserve the kind of factionalism that ousted Rudd in the first place – or take their chances with someone they treated appallingly for the sake of retaining government, and hope his words of needed party reform are just that – words.

The Prime Minister will be releasing her statement later tonight, but won’t front the media until tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

The contenders - Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the man she forced out, ex-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd

Reflections on the Darwin bombings

February 19, 2012

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942.

My grandfather was an Army cook, stationed in Darwin during 1942 and ’43. The only stories he ever told about his time there were funny little anecdotes about giant crocodiles, pranks played on the officers with the help of indigenous trackers, and baking hundreds of scones at a time. He used to joke that he didn’t know how to make small portions for a meal, so that’s why Nan did all the cooking.

That was on his good days. For the most part, I remember a withdrawn, nervous man who watched ANZAC Day parades with an unexplained bitterness. Who rose at dawn every day, drank a cup of tea and ate two pieces of buttered toast, then spent the day downing bottle after bottle of beer. Who smoked so much that it yellowed the net curtains in the lounge room and flew into uncontrollable rages over seemingly nothing.

My great-aunts and uncles told me that before he left he used to be a bit of a larrikin, turning up to take my Nan to the pictures on a motorcycle, always ready for a laugh.

But my grandfather lived through the February 19 bombings. When he returned in early 1944, he’d changed completely.

As a child, all I knew about Australia during World War II was that we fought overseas, and that three mini-submarines were intercepted in Sydney Harbour. I never learned at school that nearly 300 people had died when the Japanese attacked … I never knew the names of the ships that were sunk … or that Darwin was virtually destroyed. We learned about Gallipoli and the Light Horse from World War I, Kokoda and the Burma Railway … but no one told us about the terror and slaughter visited upon Darwin that started at 9.58 am on February 19, 1942, the first time Australian soil was attacked by a foreign power.

And my grandfather kept silent for the rest of his life. He wouldn’t allow the subject to be discussed at all, and my Nan respected that. When, rummaging in the back of an old wardrobe, I found his medals, he grabbed them from me and through them out – then locked himself in the bedroom to which he’d retreated as he became more and more ill.

Today, I know he suffered terribly from post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then, I just thought he was a bad-tempered old man.

When I finally discovered what had happened in Darwin, I went digging. It was one of the most painful pieces of research I’d ever conducted – but I finally felt I understood my grandfather, who was on the wharf when the pier was destroyed and had to swim for his life.

My own children will know about the Darwin bombings, and I’ll ask them to pass it on to theirs. I’ll be asking other parents to help me petition their school to observe this day with a flag ceremony. I’ll make sure they know about their grandfather.

The proposed National Curriculum includes teaching students about what happened at Darwin, and at Broome, Townsville, Katherine – all across the top end. That it should only now be part of the essential history of our nation is both incredible and dreadful. But at least generations to come will know. Not to foster anger against Japan, but to remember those things that made us who we are as a nation. And so that no other child ever has to wonder why their loved ones act as they do.

On the 70th anniversary of the Darwin bombings, I want to close by saying I love you, Gramps. I hope you’re at peace now. And I wish I’d known while you were alive.

John ('Jack') Edward Bassett, and Florence May Bassett - my grandparents

Daily Tele asylum seeker story is just rabble-rousing

February 17, 2012

Just when you think you’ve seen it all.

In a week where Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop trivialised fear and suffering, Four Corners embarrassed itself with possibly the worst beat-up yet screened on the so-called ‘Labor leadership tensions’ and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott repeatedly ascribed apparent powers of time travel to the not-yet-implemented carbon pricing scheme, it was something of a relief when Parliament rose yesterday.

But then there was this.

In what might be charitably described as the most revolting and prejudicial piece of muckraking journalism since Scott Morrison was invited to complain about the injustice of letting refugees attend funerals on Christmas Island, today’s Daily Telegraph tried to whip up its readers into a frenzy of envy and righteous indignation. Its target? Asylum seekers. Specifically, the amount of money being spent on readying homes for community detention and helping families set up a new life in Australia.

The headline was a bit of a give-away, really. The article, written by Gemma Jones, was worse – thinly-veiled racist sentiment disguised as appeals for a ‘fair go’ for our celebrated ‘working families’.

You see, these asylum seekers are getting a big ol’ hand-out. They get places to live, beds to sleep in, medical treatment, and even food. It’s … it’s … outrageous! We’re doing it hard right now, on our $180,000 a year incomes, and soon we’ll have to pay for our own health insurance! Not to mention the evil ‘carbon tax’! No wonder there’s an armada of boats on our horizon!

Mike Stuchbery took on the racism in brilliant, scathing style, exposing the truly ugly face that lies behind the fake concern for ‘fairness’. I cannot recommend his article highly enough – but maybe have a soothing cup of tea to hand. You’ll need it.

I wanted to take a closer look at the claims made in the Telegraph, though. So here’s a reality check.

First the claims, and their nasty implications.

There are 97 homes scattered around suburban Sydney (Ashfield, Bankstown, Cabramatta, etc) that the government is in the process of setting up for community detention. The rent on these homes averages $416 a week. Phone and electricity connections will be covered.

The government’s spending around $10,000 to set up these homes, buying every from fridges to coathangers to plasma televisions.

Every family moving in will get a package of goods worth around $7100 (for a family of five). That package includes a hamper containing milk, bread, butter, cleaning products and ‘essentials’ (air quotes courtesy the Tele. If they’ve got more kids, they’ll get more money. And if they have a baby, they’ll get a $750 pack of basic supplies.

Along with all that luxury, detainees may ask to have certain other items considered: bikes, rollerblades, computers, internet access, iPods, etc.

On top of everything, they get a benefit, free medical, dental and pharmaceutical treatment, and free education.

All of which is paid for by you, the working taxpayer. You’re helping these people live high on the hog so they can kick back and watch DVDs while you struggle to put food on the table.

And now, a little reality.

The median house rental price in Bankstown as of July 2011 was $440. In Cabramatta this month, it’s $400. These houses do not belong to the detainees. The government holds the leases.

Let’s get to the ‘luxuries’. The Tele helpfully furnished us with a list, so I’ve done a bit of research on the government’s apparent extravagance, looking for mid-range items without bulk or commercial discounts. White goods mentioned in the article were sourced from the Good Guys. Furniture was source from Fantastic Furniture. And then I compared these costs with my own home. For the record, we’re a family of four earning approximately 50% above the average national wage.

A mid-range, 8 kg washing machine was $807. Ours cost us $1400.

A microwave oven was $207. It’s been a while, but it was around the same price for us.

A DVD player (or in this case, a DVD/HDD player/record) was $188). We don’t have one of these anymore – we upgraded to using a computer media centre.

A reasonably sized side-by-side refrigerator/freezer was was $1874. That’s about what we paid.

The article listed an alarm clock radio. I had to go to Harvey Norman to find that one – for a whopping $27. In fact, this is exactly the same model I bought for my kids last Christmas.

As for the plasma television, I had to look high and low to find a price on a television this size. Eventually I found this one for $369. It’s worth pointing out that if you’re reading this blog on a desktop computer, your monitor is probably the same size as this ‘luxury’. Our own TV is around 42 inches, and cost us nearly $1000 when we got it on sale.

And you can’t buy an old-style, CRT television for love nor money these days.

And now for the furniture, which the Tele helpfully tells us includes mattresses, lounges, coathangers and ‘containers for biscuits. I assumed that the government didn’t actually expect detainees to sleep on the floor, and included bed frames, drawers, coffee tables, and the usual accessories.

The most expensive queen bedroom package at Fantastic Furniture costs $1499; a comparable single bedroom package is $769). By contrast, my last mattress cost nearly $2000 and the bed frame $1000. So, even before factoring in the two bedside tables ($300 each) and the tallboy ($800), that’s twice the price.

I don’t really need to go into detail about my kids’ loft beds and mattresses, do I?

Moving into the living areas, the most expensive ‘home starter’ package costs $4999).

Now, we just bought a new lounge suite. It was an exciting moment in our house, since we haven’t had a new one since … well, ever. It cost us $2500. Add to that an entertainment unit, coffee table, side tables, dining table and chairs … you see where this is going, right?

Moving on to the heights of absurdity … we buy our coat hangers from Coles, and it usually costs us $12-15 for a box of 20 wooden ones. A biscuit container can cost anything from $10.00 for Decor plastic ware, to over $100 for specialist earthenware from a big-name brand. I’m guessing the government isn’t springing for Waterford Crystal.

Then there’s the welfare. As Immigration Minister Chris Bowen points out, asylum seekers are not permitted to work while their claims are processed. Some support is necessary, and this is on a par with pensions. Asylum seekers often arrive with untreated medical conditions, some quite serious. Is the Tele really suggesting they not receive care?

And let’s not forget the ‘welcome hamper’, which the Tele seems to think contains the rough equivalent of a magnum of Moet, pate de foie gras and caviar. The hamper actually contains the very basics of setting up a home, for goodness’ sake. We give more to our kids when they move out for the first time! I did visit Coles Online to source some prices – but honestly, it’s not worth it. The claim that giving people these items is in some way a terrible thing is just not worth dignifying with that much work. Ditto the baby supplies.

But hold up a second: none of that matters, because here’s the real kicker.

Almost all of the costs cited by the Tele are for the initial establishment of rental homes that will be used by multiple families. These people will be in community detention. They will have to move out when their claims are processed. Quoting Bowen, again: ‘People do not keep the goods, they remain in a house when a family moves out and are used by the next people who move in.’

And the rest of the costs? Are the least we can do. Is the Tele honestly suggesting that we shouldn’t pay for basic set-up supplies for people who arrive on our shores with nothing more than the clothes on their backs? That we shouldn’t buy nappies for babies?

The article is beyond misleading. It is vicious rabble-rousing guaranteed to stir up fear and resentment against some of the most vulnerable people in the country. A little basic fact-checking shows that this is not a case of wasteful government spending, pork-barrelling or any other type of mismanagement or corruption. Did no one think to do this? Or did they just decide that the sensation value outweighed any petty concerns like facts?

What sickens me is the creeping suspicion that this is exactly what the Daily Telegraph did. That they made the cynical, reprehensible decision to publish this article because they knew it would appeal to the most mean-spirited impulses in Australian people. And therefore make them money from sales and advertising.

And if the cries to ‘stop the boats’ get louder? If the already inhumane treatment of the majority of detainees becomes worse as a result of politicians grabbing for votes? If a few more asylum seekers are spat on in the streets, subjected to racist bullying and outright violence from those who feel they’re ‘getting it easy’?

That’s not the Tele’s problem, is it? They just print the news. And if something bad comes of anything they produce? That’ll be a good story. Of course, it won’t be their fault.

Well, here’s some breaking news for you, News Limited. You are not printing news. You’re making it up. You are not producing good journalism. You’re pandering to the lowest impulses in human nature. You are not informing the public. You’re taking advantage of people’s trust in news services (and yes, people do still trust the mainstream media, goodness knows why) to lie to them and encourage them to adopt a xenophobic mob mentality.

You’re a disgrace to news production. Gemma Jones is a disgrace to her profession. And every sub-editor, fact-checker or proof-reader who let that article go through is complicit.

And you won’t get away with it for much longer, if there’s any justice left in the world.

Party of no policy?

February 15, 2012

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re in the middle of an election campaign. Between lobby groups buying up television advertising, drop-in visits from the Leader of the Opposition to every kind of business from dry cleaners to aluminium plants, and what seems like at least one opinion poll every freakin’ day, it sure seems like it.

There’s no election date called. There’s no election date even on the horizon. But the campaign is in full swing. Given this, I decided to take a look at what policies were out there from the ‘alternative government’.

Let’s see …

Repeal the carbon pricing scheme with all associated rebates, compensation and industry assistance. Presumably this includes the lifting of the tax-free threshold and pensioner allowances.

Repeal the Mining Resources Rent Tax.

Repeal the means test for the 30% private health insurance rebate.

Scrap the NBN. It’s unclear whether that includes ripping out the infrastructure already in place and returning those areas already connected to copper.

Close Trades Training Centres.

Rip up any deals that might be made with Malaysia regarding asylum seekers, discontinue community detention and reinstitute processing on Nauru and Temporary Protection Visas.


But surely there are actual, concrete, positive policies out there? Maybe the media just isn’t reporting them. So I swung by the Liberal Party’s website to take a look. And there they were. Policy documents. Policies on health, energy, transport, the economy … you name it.

But wait.

Every single policy document is from the 2010 election.

None of the mini-essays from the relevant Shadows date from later than 2010.

And the odd piece of writing from this year? Falls into one of two categories: either relentless criticism of Labor; or a promise to repeal, scrap or otherwise abolish nearly every major accomplishment of the government.

If Abbott wants an election so badly – as he claims he does – surely he should start releasing alternative policy? If it’s imperative to stop the government from implementing its policy, or – god forbid – being re-elected, why not show us a better option? Motherhood statements are all very well, but they are no substitute for concrete policy.

It’s really no wonder that the most common parody of the Opposition is that they are the ‘Noalition’.

And lest readers complain that I am unfairly concentrating on the Opposition, I’d like to point out that government policy is under constant scrutiny as legislation comes before the House and the Senate. Those policies can be thoroughly analysed.

It’s very, very hard to examine what amounts to nothing more than the word ‘NO’, repeated ad nauseam.

Perhaps we will get some real policy announcements from the Opposition when the election date is finally announced. But given their track record of refusing to provide policies that have enough detail to be verified?

I’d have to say … no.

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