NDIS launch obscured by political noise

April 30, 2012

When you’re a political blogger, you never know what you’re going to get (unless it’s an attempted censure motion by the Opposition in Question Time, of course). There are good days – some juicy bit of policy to pick apart, strategy to analyse, election campaigns to follow. There are frustrating days – when all you have to work with is the same old message. And there are dead days.

But on some days, it just doesn’t do to get out of bed.

Today is one of those days.

It might surprise you to know that Gillard launched the National Disability Insurance Scheme today, committing $8 billion and commencing building for the initial sites a year ahead of the Productivity Commission. The NDIS was supposedly bipartisan, yet now the Coalition is backing away from it, describing it in ‘aspirational’ terms and trying to point the finger at the government as somehow being at fault for going ahead with it.

Substantial policy stuff, the NDIS is the kind of program that has been needed for decades, and hundreds of people have worked tirelessly to lobby successive governments on the matter. For this to finally be happening – funds committed, legislation passed – is a real victory for disabled people, their relatives and their carers.

And if you want to find out about it, you have to wait until the bottom of the half hour on the news channels – because, apparently, there are much more important things to discuss. Because, apparently, political scandal, hypocrisy and the demonstrated contempt of our politicians for both the political process and their representatives rates higher in media priorities than letting vulnerable sectors of society know they will be able to access help they desperately need.

First, there’s the ongoing Craig Thomson saga. The embattled Member for Dobell remains firmly in the Opposition’s sights, despite never having a single charge levelled against him, either civil or criminal. There’s been a Fair Work Australia investigation into the Health Services Union, with which Thomson was involved before entering Parliament. Nothing has come of it to date. FWA found it was probable that the union criminally misused member funds. The Australian Federal Police called for a proper brief. To date, they have not received one.

Nonetheless, the Opposition were relentless. Thomson should resign! Thomson is tainted! The PM is clinging to power through a corrupt vote! This government is illegitimate! Et cetera.

Either Abbott employs a team of super-psychics, who can discover dirt that no one else in the country can find, or this is simply the same grandiose political manoeuvring that’s led him to call for an election on almost a daily basis since the Coalition’s loss in 2010. Either way, he kept at it, and finally got a victory.

The government was firmly behind Thomson and firmly on message. He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence. There are no grounds to remove him. We support him. Which is exactly what they should have done. But then yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that Thomson had been expelled from Labor Caucus, and would move to the cross-benches.

To make matters worse, she went on to say that Speaker Peter Slipper, who stood aside when allegations of fraud were made against him by a former staffer, would continue to be out of the Speaker’s chair until civil proceedings from that same staffer were resolved. It was another about-face; right up until the day before the government staunchly defended Slipper’s right to return to the Speaker’s chair if he was not facing criminal charges, while the Opposition called for him at least to stay out of the job until the civil matter was resolved, and preferably resign altogether.

In both cases, she justified the action as stemming from a public perception of a shadow over the Parliament. In other words, it looked bad to keep supporting them.

It’s a big call, but this is very probably the weakest thing Gillard’s done since becoming Prime Minister. She allowed herself to be stampeded by an Opposition led by someone Independent MP Tony Windsor describes as ‘a rabid dog’, and did exactly what he’d been demanding.

Maybe she thought this would defuse the issue. With Thomson out of the Caucus, maybe Abbott would have no talking points. If so, it was a shocking misjudgment. Having gained ground on the Thomson issue, Abbott immediately upped the stakes. It’s not good enough to have Thomson out of the caucus, he argued. His vote shouldn’t be counted at all – it was ‘tainted’, and Gillard would rely on that corrupt vote, rendering the entire government illegitimate. The only way out of this situation was – you guessed it – an election. ‘There is nothing wrong with our country that a change of government can’t fix,’ he said today at yet another media conference on the evils of the carbon price and the mining tax.

Of course, he’s not going to attempt a no confidence motion, because he knows he won’t win. Thomson would vote with the government, as would Bandt. Wilkie’s a question mark, but self-interest alone may lead him to support the government (given the Coalition’s oft-repeated dedication to tearing him out of his seat at the next election). The crucial votes, then, are those of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott – and neither of them support Abbott’s policies. The likely result, then, is a tie, which would be resolved in the negative by Acting Speaker Anna Burke, Labor MP for Chisholm.

But Abbott doesn’t need to bring a no confidence motion. He just needs to keep grabbing the media spotlight, and hammering home his message. Gillard’s backdown on Thomson and Slipper is the best thing to happen to him, and he will capitalise on that every moment he can, while continually pushing for more capitulation. At the same time, he can sideswipe Windsor and Oakeshott by implying in the national media that they’re not listening to their constituencies, who want the minority government gone. And of course, he doesn’t have to provide any evidence – with much of the media slavishly repeating his assertions as fact, and Gillard giving them legitimacy by backing down.

And let’s no forget these standards Abbott sets for the government don’t apply to the Opposition in his eyes. Oh, no. Just take a look, and you decide how far the hypocrisy goes.

Coalition front-bencher Sophie Mirabella is entangled in civil action at the moment connected with a probate case – but Abbott won’t ask her to step aside until it’s resolved.

Senator Mary Jo Fisher was the subject of criminal proceedings, and stepped aside from her Senate Committee position while they were underway – but continued to be paid for that role, and was never called upon to resign altogether.

The Coalition was happy to accept Peter Slipper’s vote when allegations were made against him in 2003, arguing that there were no charges against him – yet now says the government must not do the same with Thomson.

On the subject of poaching Parliamentarians for political advantage – in 1996, Labor Senator Mal Colston left the ALP at the urging of the Coalition, who installed him (as a nominal Independent) as Deputy President of the Senate. A year later he was charged with defrauding the Commonwealth – yet continued to serve in the Senate right through the investigation period.

And finally, Abbott’s declaration today that ‘I don’t do deals’, when asked why he didn’t approach Windsor and Oakeshott directly to gain their support for a no confidence motion – despite offering a swag of money (including no less than $1 billion for the Royal Hobart Hospital) to Andrew Wilkie for his vote to form government in 2010.

And knowing all this, Gillard still backed down. It’s a monumental blunder, and Abbott is far too wily a political animal not to seize on that weakness. Any way you look at it, you can file this under ‘FUBAR’.

At least we have a little absurdity to relieve the seemingly unending round of blunder, bluster, hypocrisy and posturing. Strangely, that comes in the form of mining magnate Clive Palmer.

We’ve seen a lot of Palmer lately. He’s become a bit of a poster child for opposition to the mining tax and carbon price packages – and, apparently makes good television. He secured a guernsey on QandA to regale us all with his considered opinions on how the Greens were running the government and exporting all our jobs to China. He got the media running to Canberra for his announcement that the Greens were, in fact, funded by the CIA – then, when confronted by the ridiculousness of his own claim, grinned and claimed he’d done it deliberately to pull focus away from a government announcement.

This is the man who wants to build Titanic II (thought apparently without the help of James Cameron); who thinks cutting off government subsidies to millionaires will jeopardise their children’s future (perhaps they’ll only have three cars and two homes); and who avowedly ‘loves to litigate’. He’s a long-time contributor to the Queensland Liberal National Party, a vocal opponent of anything that smacks of environmental responsibility and a staunch defender of the right to cut benefits to poor people while maintaining upper class welfare.

And now he wants to go into politics. Specifically, he wants to run against Treasurer Wayne Swan in the seat of Lilley at the next federal election. He announced he would seek LNP pre-selection today against a backdrop emblazoned with the motto ‘Swan’s Song’ – not the clearest of messages, mind you. Palmer put his metaphorical hand on his heart and pledged to work to ‘grow the nation’s prosperity and lift standards in Parliament’. Of course, he doesn’t see why he should give up his business while he’s actually in Parliament. It’s ‘only a small family company’, after all.

Yeah, you read that right.

Uh, Mr Palmer? Have you ever heard of a little thing called ‘conflict of interest’? It’s when your private interests and investments clash directly with your duty as a Parliamentarian. You’re proposing to sit in Parliament as a member of a government that is pledged to repeal taxes and schemes that you’ve shouted far and wide will significantly disadvantage you – and yet you think you can continue to run your mining company at the same time?

(Mind you, this isn’t the first time Palmer’s taken a run at federal politics. As far back as 1984, he stood for pre-selection in the LNP and was soundly defeated.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that he was beaten by Peter Slipper.)

Seriously, Mr Palmer, get a political strategist to go with that media advisor you so desperately need. Even Abbott isn’t comfortable with this – he repeatedly refused to endorse you today. Take a hint.

Even before the sun’s set, this is the kind of day in politics we’ve got. And this is what’s taking up all the air in the media. ABCNews24 just announced their afternoon current affairs program would focus on Thomson and Palmer. Not a whiff about the NDIS. Really, it’s enough to make anyone interested in actually examining policy weep.

Like I said, some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed.

Lest We Forget

April 25, 2012

Today is ANZAC Day, when we remember those who served in our military forces in wars ranging from as far away as Gallipoli to as close as Darwin. We remember those who gave their lives, and those whose lives were changed forever.

All around the country people were up before dawn, gathering at cenotaphs and shrines. Here in Melbourne, with the rain bucketing down in the chill dark, veterans, serving members of the ADF, relatives, school groups, and people who simply felt moved to be present stood in silence. Then, as The Last Post was played, the rain let up for one brief moment.

Today’s parades will echo that first march by Australian and New Zealand veterans in England. My own youngest children and their Grade 6 class will march for the first time with the 2nd 14th Battalion. They were so excited and yet so aware of how serious this is that – for the first time in their lives – they begged to be allowed to go to bed early.

In many small towns, the names of those who served are read out to honour them. I’d like to do the same on The Conscience Vote today, and so I’ll start with members of mine and my husband Brett’s families. Even though my family history is spotty at best, I have their names.

I invite any commenter to add the names of their loved ones who served in any war, past or present, on any side. Anti-war diatribes or partisan politics posted in comments will be immediately deleted, however. Today is about remembrance.

Private John Edward Bassett, 55 Anti-Aircraft Regiment. My maternal grandfather, who survived the 1942 Darwin bombings.

Harold Humphries, RAAF. My great-uncle, shot down and killed in action.

Private Albert Humphries, 2nd AIF. My great-uncle, captured by Japanese forces. We believe he died on the Burma-Thailand Railway.

Corporal Laurence Arthur Weaver, 2/2 Australian Malaria Control Unit. My paternal grandfather, who served in the Battles of Morotai and Borneo.

Peter Weaver, Royal Australian Infantry. My uncle, who served in Vietnam.

Nicholas Elliott, British Marine Medical Corps. Brett’s paternal great-grandfather, who served at the Battle of the Somme.

Carmello Azzopardi, RAN. Brett’s maternal great-grandfather, who served in the Battle of Jutland and on the HMS Ajax.

Dean Azzopardi, RAN. Currently posted to Cairns.


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Lest We Forget.

ANZAC - Lest We Forget

The plaque at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance

A reality check on the Peter Slipper ‘scandal’

April 23, 2012

It’s not exactly news by now that Peter Slipper has stepped down from his Parliamentary role as Speaker. That much is clear – but that’s where the clarity ends, and the obfuscation, spin, accusations and general idiocy begin.

So let’s take a look – and a bit of a reality check – at what we actually have before us.

We have a compensation complaint made by James Ashby, a former staffer for Slipper, and lodged with the Federal Court, that alleges Slipper handed him blank Cabcharge vouchers for personal use. That’s an allegation of fraud, a criminal offence.

That complaint also alleges a raft of sexual harassment claims that would do any Hollywood thriller proud. Ashby claims that Slipper only hired him in order to pursue a sexual relationship, repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances, and even that Slipper asked him for a massage – which he provided – and responded to it in a sexual way.

Along with this Ashby claims that Slipper’s alleged behaviour was known about as far back as 2003 (and that there is video evidence of this), and that there was a cover-up by the then Howard government. For this, he is suing the Commonwealth, claiming that it did not provide a safe workplace.

The accusations of fraud – and, now, misuse of other entitlements – are under investigation from the Finance Ministry. The Australian Federal Police confirmed it was notified, and would ‘assess’ the claims.

Slipper denied – strenuously denied – all of it. Nonetheless, he stepped aside from his role as Speaker, saying that he believed that was appropriate pending the outcome of those investigations.

Ugly, right?

But let’s get a few things straight.

No criminal charges of fraud have been filed to date. (Not for lack of urging on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s part, mind you – it really seems as though he believes the Australian Federal Police as his to order around.)

No criminal charges of sexual offences have been filed to date, despite some of the accusations potentially falling under stalking and breaches of the Telecommunications Act.

There is no formal investigation being undertaken by the Federal Police. Their spokesperson has confirmed only that ‘the AFP is aware of the new allegations of fraud and will be taking action to assess that information’.

No allegations have even come before the Court, let alone been proven. Documents were lodged. That’s it so far.

Given all of this, Slipper is absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence. There’s no question about it. Abbott and his colleagues should not be out there referring to these matters as though they were beyond question. In particular, his Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis, who is always so quick to remind us that he is a qualified lawyer (and so quick to forget that so is the Prime Minister), should be the first to remind his own party of this fact.

Oh, Abbott’s clever enough to avoid saying anything that’s actually defamatory. He talks about the government, not the man – but no one can mistake the message. It’s ‘tawdry’. It’s ‘squalid’. The government should ‘die of shame’. And let’s not forget the ‘sleazy’ deal made to elevate Slipper to the Speakership. The language is clear – it’s the language of gutter sexuality.

And the media is quite happy to go with it. It’s a ‘scandal’. Some are even happily adopting Abbott’s actual language – Paul Sheehan in the Sydney Morning Herald seems to like the word ‘tawdry’. A few moments ago, Channel Ten asked itself, ‘How did Labor not know who it was getting into bed with?’ (my italics) All the focus is on the sexual allegations, even if only as metaphor.

(And just by the way, media – what’s with the constant repetition of ‘a male staffer’? We can all see Ashby’s male. We know his name, and it’s not ambiguous. Why do you keep reminding us of his gender? Could it be that you think you can drum up a bit more outrage, make it more ‘dirty’ or ‘disgusting’, by focusing on alleged sexual behaviour between two men? Perish the thought.)

It’s worth repeating. Slipper did not stand down because of civil complaints of sexual harassment. He stood down pending the outcome of investigations into alleged financial impropriety.

It wasn’t required of him – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time a Parliamentarian continued to serve while his use of entitlements was under investigation – but he judged it the proper thing to do.

That’s not good enough for the Coalition, apparently. Christopher Pyne wants Slipper to be ‘suspended’ until the civil allegations are also resolved. Never mind that when former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and former Education Minister Michael Wooldridge were involved in civil actions – in Turnbull’s case, for hundreds of millions of dollars – both continued to serve in the Parliament.

Of course, there’s politics at the heart of all this. It’s as though someone wrapped the whole issue up in a big bow and handed it straight to the Coalition. With Slipper stepping down, the government returns to its previous one-seat majority. This won’t make it impossible to pass legislation – the best the Coalition could likely hope for is a tied vote, which would be resolved by Deputy Speaker (and Labor MP) Anna Burke – but it does give Abbott even more ammunition for his tried-and-tested diatribes against minority government.

(Always carefully failing to mention that any Coalition government would also be a minority, of course. That’s what happens when four different parties decide to work together.)

Abbott says he’s unlikely to try for a no-confidence motion when Parliament resumes on May 8. He says he doesn’t do such things ‘lightly’ – but that rings rather oddly against his other assertions. He’s claimed that ‘the strength of the whole democratic process relies essentially on the good name of the Speaker’s office’. If so, why isn’t he rushing to place a no-confidence motion on the Parliamentary agenda, and making his case to the Independents and Adam Bandt? Surely that would be the only appropriate, and responsible action?

Or could it be that Abbott won’t even try because he knows such a motion would fail? Perhaps he realises that he’s gained a reputation as the Opposition Leader Who Cried Wolf for his many attempts to censure the government (now around 50) for everything from legislating a price on carbon to allegedly bringing Australia to the point of financial ruin. No-confidence motions are traditionally incredibly serious – you just don’t attempt them unless the situation is urgent and potentially threatens the Parliament.

But then, censure motions are also supposed to be used only for serious purposes. Abbott’s made that into a joke – to the point where people now informally bet on what time he’ll move his next one. Perhaps now he’s reaping the consequences of that.

But back to Peter Slipper, and the allegations against him.

In December 2010, I wrote about the arrest of Julian Assange. At the time, I commented on the storm of accusations of ‘conspiracy’ that surrounded this issue. There was a rock-solid belief that Assange was little more than the victim of what amounted to a multi-national conspiracy designed to bring down Wikileaks – that the allegations made against him, and contained in the Interpol warrant under which he was arrested, were entirely fabricated. There was no evidence to suggest that this was the case at all – what we had instead was an appalling outbreak of rape apologism and ‘blame the victim’ mentality aimed at the two women involved in the complaint.

And this belief wasn’t confined to any one area, either. Mainstream media, politicians, bloggers, tweeters, Facebook users – the outcry was amazing. Leaving aside any question of Assange’s guilt or innocence (which is for a court to decide, if the cases ever come to trial), and leaving aside the question of conspiracy, one thing united these people – their absolute adherence to the presumption of innocence.

Assange is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But – and here’s the thing – we’re not seeing the same courtesy being extended to Peter Slipper. Mainstream media have all but convicted him of being a serial sexual predator. Opposition politicians likewise skate right up to the edge of a defamation suit. And as for social and new media – well, some of what’s being said doesn’t bear repeating. Dip a toe into the #auspol thread on Twitter if you’re feeling particularly like being revolted.

The reminder today that Slipper is an Anglican priest only added fuel to the more vicious of these commenters. Of course the allegations must be true, right? Everyone knows that priests abuse children, so Slipper must be guilty.

Yes, it really is that ugly.

What it comes down to is this: Peter Slipper is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He is entitled not to have his reputation destroyed. He is entitled to expect that any and all investigations into his alleged conduct will not be subject to political pressure, if not outright interference. In short, he is entitled to the same rights as every other citizen of Australia.

If – and I stress if – investigations conclude that he is guilty of misconduct, or a court finds him guilty of fraud, or sexual harassment – then he will pay the appropriate penalty. Until that time, he is an innocent man, and it’s about time organisations like the Opposition and News Ltd started remembering that.

The only truly shameful thing about this entire business is that anyone should have to point that out.

We’re ‘entitled’ to be outraged, Mr Hockey

April 19, 2012

Last night Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey came out swinging on ABC1’s Lateline program. His topic of choice? Australia’s alleged culture of ‘universal entitlement’, and how we had to stop expecting the government to pay for everything.

Of course, by ‘entitlement’, he was referring to Australia’s welfare and benefits systems, often referred to as Social Security. It was a shambles. A shemozzle. It had to be fixed. Look at the US, he cried. Look at the UK. Their debts are huge, and we’re in danger of going the same way! It’s time for decisive action, and Hockey’s our man for it, apparently. We need to cut this runaway welfare spending while we still can, or we’ll end up like the US. He actually managed to convey the impression that the reason Europe and the US were plunged into the Global Financial Crisis was the fault of welfare spending, rather than under-regulation, irresponsibility and sheer criminal activity from banks and regulators alike.

But the real target of this plan isn’t the government, of course. It’s the most vulnerable people in our society – the chronically ill, the young single parents, the old and the unemployed. Hockey’s plan is aimed squarely at the very people most in need, and he’s not ashamed of it. In fact, he seems proud of it – and utterly contemptuous of the people he proposes to further disenfranchise and disadvantage.

The clue is in how he talked about the issue. He repeatedly used the word ‘entitlements’.

From the World English Dictionary:

entitle (vb)

1. to give (a person) the right to do or have something; qualify; allow
2. to give a name or title to
3. to confer a title of rank or honour upon

Seems pretty straightforward, right? If someone is ‘entitled’ to something, they have the right to receive it. An ‘entitlement’, therefore, is what said person should receive.

But this is a word that’s taken on a very nasty meaning in recent years. We hear people described as having ‘a sense of entitlement’, that they believe they can demand special treatment. In other words, that the world – or in this case, the government – owes them a living.

And that’s the sense in which Hockey is using the word. He could have talked about ‘benefits’, ‘pensions’, ‘government allowances’ – any one of a dozen synonyms. He chose to use the word ‘entitlements’, to invoke the implicit idea that those who receive such benefits don’t deserve them. And lest anyone think it was an innocent choice, we have Hockey’s own statement that there is ‘a lot of spending by government which many voters see as their entitlement’.

In essence, this is no different from the way the Liberals under former Prime Minister John Howard repeatedly targeted those receiving government benefits. They helped whip up the outrage that led to A Current Affair’s notorious ‘Paxton Controversy‘, in which the program vilified and defamed a family caught in a cycle of dependence on government assistance. They positively encouraged the view that anyone – anyone – who was on unemployment benefits was simply a ‘dole bludger’, who would rather sit and home and watch TV than do an honest day’s work. They insinuated that those receiving disability pensions were faking their illnesses, and that a woman on a single-parent pension just ‘didn’t want to work’. They introduced ‘Work for the Dole’, which can best be described as demeaning make-work that looked suspiciously like it was designed to get as much as possible for as little as possible, with the added benefit of humiliating the people forced into it.

At the same time they introduced non means-tested ‘Baby Bonus’ and private health insurance rebates, handing out significant sums of money to those in the top tax brackets. They didn’t even bother to establish any but the most rudimentary criteria for eligibility: all that anyone needed to qualify was a birth certificate or a receipt from an insurance provider. This was certainly welcome relief for those who fell into that ever-widening crater between needing government support just to go to the doctor’s and those who could pick and choose their private hospital and get that elective surgery whenever they wished.

The Coalition thought it was ‘fair’ to provide those same benefits to those who demonstrably didn’t need any help from the government whatsoever. They cut taxes and put in place rebates that ensured Australia’s highest income earners were better off than ever. While they were doing all this, they made it harder and harder for those in genuine need to even gain a Health Care Card to enable them to get medical treatment – let alone help them get out from under spiralling debts, manage their chronic illnesses or stay home with a baby because was no possible way to afford child care.

And Joe Hockey, mouthpiece for the Coalition, wants to do it all again. When pressed on why the Liberals said they’d repeal the means test for the private health insurance rebate, he dodged the question. When asked about the Baby Bonus, likewise. Oh, and they re-affirmed their commitment to establishing a Paid Parental Leave scheme that guaranteed full income replacement for all Australians regardless of income (despite the ever-widening gap between the Coalition’s spending promises and available Budget funds). If those schemes are quarantined from Hockey’s guillotine, all that’s left are the benefits for those who depend on government help just to get through the day.

Hockey read us a lecture on how this might be brutal, but it was ‘financially sustainable’. He exhorted to look to ‘Asia’ as a role model and embrace ‘filial piety’ – in other words, expecting help from the government was a sign that we were failing in our responsibilities to our relatives. We were children raised by ‘bad parents’, he insisted, who had instilled in us a sense that the government would look after us.

Here’s a news flash, Mr Hockey – it is the government’s job to look after us. We elect the government to build our roads, manage our borders, represent us to the world, regulate the systems on which we depend, protect us from (to coin a phrase) ‘enemies foreign and domestic). We also elect our government to help look out for those in our society who are not able to help themselves – the destitute, the chronically ill, the disadvantaged. We expect that our government will be there for us when a flood or cyclone devastates our town and tears away the infrastructure built with our money.

We pay taxes and levies to provide the government with revenue to do these things. Income tax, fuel tax, sales tax, company tax, levies of various kinds, and of course the GST – there is not one person in this country who is exempt from taxes. Despite what’s often said by those who subscribe to the ‘dole bludger’ rhetoric, an unemployed person pays taxes every time they fill up their car or do their shopping. To suggest otherwise is a poisonous untruth, and that unemployed person has the right to expect their government will assist them if they need it.

As Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this morning, ‘If Australians think they’re entitled to Medicare, aged pensions … they’re right’.

And as for your idea that we should look at Asia, Mr Hockey – just which part did you have in mind? Let’s look at a few countries, just on the issue of public health care.

Let’s start with China’s Communist-Capitalist hybrid, where an adult leaves his family and lives in a faraway city just to find enough work to lift them (barely) out of subsistence? Where huge construction projects reap billions for a few companies, but then stand empty for years because no one can afford to move into the apartment complexes? Where the young nouveau-riche spend millions on collecting sports cars while the elderly in the provinces go without medical treatment and die from diseases that simple nutrition can prevent?

But China is also in the process of overhauling their health care system to provide near-universal health care, for the cost of about 10 yuan per person after provincial and national government contributions. Their public health infrastructure lags sadly behind, and if someone has the misfortune to need to visit a clinic in the country, they’re only covered for 60% of their bill – but reform is in progress.

So which part of China should we emulate? The universal health care, or the massive class divide that exists as a result of China’s race to outrun the US?

How about India? That’s a booming economy – and it eclipses the millions who live in abject poverty. It has a maternal and neonatal death rate that is simply appalling. For every person with a good job and health care, there are thousands dying in rural areas because its public health spending is less than 2% of its Gross Domestic Product.

Or how about South Korea, which has a well-developed public health system subsidising development of hospital and medical services, and financial assistance for most of its population to cover medical bills and social disadvantage?

Which one of those, Mr Hockey?

Our health care and welfare systems have real problems – in some areas, they’re utterly broken. Nonetheless, we still enjoy a higher life expectancy than most developed economies. Our maternal and neonatal death rates are lower than most developed countries. We don’t have raging epidemics of measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and a whole host of diseases preventable by vaccination. We’re lucky. We have some incredible medical personnel, and we are in a position to take advantage of the latest research.

We also have public money – our money – allocated to public health care. Our vaccinations are subsidised, if not actually free. Our poor have access to subsidised medicines and aids. Our chronically ill and disabled are not thrown out into the street and left to beg for scraps.

Can we do more? Yes, we can, and we should. We shouldn’t be talking about cutting that kind of spending, Mr Hockey – we should be increasing it.

Remember, Mr Hockey? It’s our money. We hand it to the government in trust that our needs will be properly met. If your party isn’t prepared to do that, then why on earth do you think we should give it to you? It will be no comfort to us to have your fabled ‘large Budget surplus’ when our most vulnerable are suffering – and you still maintain that there’s something wrong with them expecting you to help.

You should be ashamed of yourself.

Tony Abbott, secret Socialist

April 16, 2012

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – sometimes he’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Today, he was out making the rounds of the businesses and calling media conferences in order to warn us all about the dangers of the ‘carbon tax’ – again. Honestly, you have to wonder if the local businesses in Canberra keep a look-out when Parliament is sitting, just in case he’s cruising the streets looking for a photo op.

Imagine it.

‘Hey, Jim? There’s the Oppo Leader’s car again.’

‘Quick, turn the sign around! We’ll hide behind the counter and be really quiet.’

But I digress.

Today’s speech was pretty much the same as all his other speeches … ‘great Australian business, manufacturing is our lifeblood, carbon tax will destroy the economy, government out of touch, etc, etc, ad nauseam‘. Yawn … cut, paste, move on. But then there was this gem:

‘I call on the workers of Australia to rise up, to rise up against this carbon tax and let the government know – ‘

Wait, what??

Did Abbott just call for a workers’ revolution? Is he really – gasp – a Secret Socialist???

Oh my god. It all makes sense.

Maybe that’s why he’s been so quick to point the finger at Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He’s trying to deflect suspicion from the Commie pinko skeletons in his own closet! He’s not really an economic and social conservative – that’s just a cover. All this time, he’s been hiding a Che Guevara t-shirt in his bottom drawer and hiding copies of Das Kapital and Chairman Mao’s little red book inside those biographies of Robert Menzies. He’s a sleeper agent, and now he’s revealed himself to the world. Any moment now, his horde of Secret Socialist Ninjas will leap into action.

I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Think about it. Why else would he wear red budgie smugglers?

The Secret Socialist Revealed!

Can you see him embracing the union representatives? Leading the Workers’ March on Canberra, standing proudly in front of the banners, chanting ‘the workers united will never be defeated’? Exhorting the crowd and storming into the House of Representatives to seize the Parliament for the people? Hand on heart, singing the Internationale (or possibly ‘Do you Hear the People Sing?’ from Les Miserables)?

Yeah. Me neither.

The idea of Abbott as Workers’ Champion is so ludicrous that there’s really nothing to be gained by arguing the point. His party’s policies at best ignore the needs and rights of Australian workers – but you don’t need me to tell you that.

So there’s really only one thing to be done here – and that’s to treat this ridiculous ‘rise up, workers’ routine for what it is.

Pure comedy.

Bob Brown resigns

April 13, 2012

Senator Bob Brown today resigned from the leadership of the Australian Greens and as a member of the Senate.

It’s fair to say that this was the single most bloodless leadership transition in Australia’s recent political history. There were no poisonous comments from party MPs, no middle of the night ultimatums, no sense that a leader was being removed to allow a party to renege on earlier voting agreements.

And – most startlingly – there were no leaks to the media.

None. Not a one.

There was a party room meeting this morning, where Brown announced his decision to resign. His deputy, Christine Milne, was elected unanimously to succeed him. And then the party simply trooped out and handed the media the news.

And everyone was utterly blind-sided. For once, ‘Breaking News’ actually meant something. We weren’t subjected to days (if not weeks) of speculation, backgrounding, commentary and rumour increasingly being presented as fact. Instead, we had an initial announcement, followed by the extremely pleasant sight of watching pundits scramble to analyse the situation on the hop.

It was … civilised. About as far removed as it’s possible to get from the public spectacle of that terrible Rudd/Gillard stoush earlier this year. And a far cry from the eleventh-hour manoeuvres that stripped Malcolm Turnbull of the Coalition leadership in order to prevent Rudd’s emissions trading scheme from passing the House.

It was a smooth transition, even to the point of the Greens deciding that they would hold another party meeting today to elect their new deputy leader – allowing members to consider their positions, discuss nominations and make up their minds rather than force them to make an immediate vote.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in characteristic style, gave his opinion on Brown’s time in Parliament. You couldn’t exactly call it a tribute:

‘The deal with the Greens has been an enormous problem for Julia Gillard. I think all too often Bob Brown has looked like the real Prime Minister of this country. I think that Bob Brown has been a very strong force in Australian politics in recent years … I would say too strong a force in Australian politics.’ (my italics)

Pure Abbott. Even a backhanded compliment comparing Brown to Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp didn’t soften his statement, especially as Abbott immediately followed that up with a confident prediction that ‘turbulent times’ lay ahead for the Greens.

I suppose it was too much to expect anything more gracious, or even decent, from someone who used the death of someone like Margaret Whitlam to score a cheap political point. But really

We’re not talking about a leader who was turfed out by his own party. We’re not seeing a political career end in disgrace and controversy. Brown’s resignation is a dignified exit from politics at a point when the Greens are at their strongest, accomplished with integrity. In the words of Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim, Brown ‘carried his bat’.

Compare Abbott’s words to those of Prime Minister Julia Gillard: she thanked Brown for ‘his remarkable contribution to state & federal politics over 3 decades’, and noted his contributions on the Franklin Dam, carbon pricing and how he ‘bravely used his own experience’ to work towards gay rights.

She went on to describe him as ‘a figure of integrity with a deep love for this country and its environment’, his career ‘driven by passion’.

No nasty little digs, no pronouncements of doom, and – most importantly – no mean-spirited opportunism.

Abbott probably commands more of the media cycle than any other politician. Sky and ABC News24 don’t cut away from his media conferences the way they did with Brown’s. His words are repeated, and repeated, (and repeated ad nauseam) and his slogans are slavishly adopted. He has plenty of opportunities to say what he thinks about the Greens, and Brown – and he takes them. It’s not like he needs to seize every moment to make a point.

It’s almost as though he’s incapable of that sort of gracious acknowledgement. Or perhaps he feels that if he gives even an inch, it would be a sign of weakness. Either way, it’s very, very poor behaviour.

Regardless of personal politics, no one can deny that Brown gave his heart and soul to bringing about reform on social and environmental issues. He took a one-issue state party and, with the help of like-minded people, built it into a true third party in Australian politics. The Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, and have a representative in the House.

And that’s without looking at his personal contributions to social justice, both within and outside politics. The ABC has published a great – but short – summary of his work as a trailblazer, and I highly recommend it.

He deserves to at least have all of that acknowledged by our political leaders, not least the so-called ‘alternative Prime Minister’. It’s called statesmanship, and it’s something in which Abbott is sadly lacking.

It’s to be hoped, at least, that his sour, petty points-scoring won’t eclipse the tributes that are rightly due Senator Bob Brown and his accomplishments. He is a rare force in politics, and – whatever side of the fence you fall down on – he remains a man of conviction.

Senator Brown, for your contributions to social justice, raising Australia’s awareness of environmental concerns, helping secure protection for fragile ecosystems and bringing about carbon pricing initiatives … this writer thanks you. Your career exemplifies the service to the people that should be at the heart of all political representation, and you will be missed.

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