Abbott kicks off: second verse, same as the first

January 31, 2013

Yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured us that – despite announcing the election date seven months early – the campaign had not actually begun. Today, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott fell right into her trap, and came out swinging in full campaign mode.

His address to the National Press Club left no doubt that as far as he was concerned, knowing the poll date was a signal to ramp up the rhetoric. Right from the beginning, he spoke as though he was directly addressing the Australian public – that he was listening to ‘you, the Australian people’. Now, while the NPC is televised, it’s primarily a forum for the media to listen to a long speech and get an extended time for questions. Not for Abbott, though.

In rapid succession, he ran through his well-known talking points. The ‘carbon tax’ will go. The Mining Resources Rent Tax will go. The boats will be stopped (‘we’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again’). It was all about the people – but not all the people. Abbott wants to ‘reach out to all the decent people of our country’, to those migrants who have come to our country ‘not to change our way of life, but to share it’.

Mr Abbott? Senator Cory Bernardi called. He wants his dogwhistle back.

With that established, Abbott settled in, and for the next hour we were treated to a barrage of negative campaigning. Most of it was familiar stuff – the Prime Minister ‘fibbed’ about the ‘carbon tax’, ‘faceless men’ of Labor, big spending, more taxes, puppets of the Greens, protecting people of bad character like Craig Thomson and former Speaker Peter Slipper, etc, etc. There were more than a few jaw-droppers mixed in with that.

First, he claimed that people are saving more than ever before – but only because they don’t trust the government. It conjures up visions of old ladies surrounding by jars full of five cent pieces, or stuffing bank notes into their mattresses. It’s ridiculous and overblown – not to mention there isn’t a shred of proof for such an assertion.

We were treated to a few moments of outright silliness. Abbott claimed he had ‘never been anti-union’, that he ‘deeply respects women’s choices’, and – this is my favourite – that ‘no decent government should ever deliberately set out to divide Australians’.

I guess it’s okay if the Opposition does it.

There were some expected personal slurs, delivered in a rather slippery fashion. Abbott reminded us he has three daughters and a wife, and therefore understands and champions women’s needs. His wife Margie, he informed us, was a Girl Guide Leader. No need to point out that the PM was in a childless de facto relationship with a hairdresser, after all that. He told us he wasn’t ‘just a glorified tourist from Canberra’ – perhaps a reference to his photo ops in the middle of disasters, or maybe just letting us know yet again that he’s visited 215 small businesses since the 2010 election. Then Abbott all but called the PM a coward, stating that he wasn’t afraid to get out and ‘get an ear-bashing’ from the people. It was an obvious reference to the hysterical anti-carbon tax rally on the lawns of Parliament House where protesters bayed for blood under the approving smiles of the Opposition.

Then came the clearly outrageous – and possibly defamatory – statement that the Prime Minister’s office had ‘orchestrated a riot on Australia Day‘. To say this twists the known facts is only the start. What we know is that a former staffer told someone that Abbott had made apparently derogatory comments about the Tent Embassy, and through miscommunication, that led to an angry outburst from indigenous activists that resulted in the Prime Minister and Abbott being escorted to safety by security personnel. There has never been any evidence that a ‘riot’ (a legal term, one never applied to the situation by prosecutors) was planned out of the PM’s office.

And then during questions, Abbott was asked about the resignation today of South Australian Liberal leader Isobel Redmond. In his response, Abbott clearly stated that it was only due to ‘electoral malfeasance’ that the ALP had won the last state election. He didn’t point the finger specifically at either the Electoral Commission or Labor, but the implication was clear. It was his ‘illegitimate government’ message all over again.

Despite Abbott’s assertions that he had already presented the Opposition’s plans the last time he appeared at the NPC – around a year ago – there was little that was new, and nothing of substance. In fact, he stated proudly that the Coalition would only release its policy costings after the government had released theirs – as though the election were nothing more than a giant game of chicken.

What little we did get in the way of policy was hardly encouraging. In government, the Coalition would not only scrap the ‘carbon tax’, the MRRT and the NBN, but also get rid of the Schoolkids’ Bonus, and the Low Income Superannuation Contribution Scheme (funded through the mining tax). He wouldn’t be drawn on whether the carbon price compensation would be withdrawn, or whether Labor’s tax cuts would be removed, but he’s often said that without a carbon price, no one needs a compensation scheme. He also hinted that he would look at removing the means test for the private health insurance rebate.

Incredibly, he remarked that families wouldn’t be hurt by the removal of the Schoolkids’ Bonus.

(On a personal note, that one had me gobsmacked. My two girls started secondary school this year, and without that bonus, we would have had a struggle paying for the associated costs – and that’s to go to a public school. I’m lucky – we’re relatively comfortable, financially speaking. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a single parent, or a single, low-income household trying to cope.)

Possibly the most telling moments came in response to questions. Abbott had made statements on several occasions to the effect that, should he be elected but face a hostile Senate who refused to pass the ‘carbon tax’ repeal, he would call a double dissolution election in 2014. He was asked if he thought that was akin to saying he didn’t trust the Australian people to know their own minds, that it showed an arrogant disregard? His response? Labor wouldn’t be stupid enough to ‘ensure’ they stayed in Opposition for a long time by refusing the repeal – but in the unlikely event they did, he would indeed dissolve the Parliament.

A double dissolution election is a serious matter. The provision exists so that if Parliament is simply unworkable (for example, a Senate that refuses to pass the Budget), the people have an opportunity to show their preferences and elect new representatives. It’s not there so that a leader can throw a tantrum if his favourite piece of legislation is blocked. That Abbott would repeatedly affirm his willingness to throw Parliament into disarray if he didn’t get his way shows an appalling amount of arrogance.

That was only hammered home by his response to a question about trust. Reminded that when he was Health Minister, Abbott broke a promise not to increase the Medicare Safety Net threshold, he excused himself by saying he was ‘rolled’ by his colleagues. Then he paused, broke into a broad grin and said, ‘But now I am the authority’.

This is not the thinking of a party leader, first among equals. This is someone who gives the clear impression that holding the Prime Ministership is a mandate to do whatever he wishes – and that if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll simply do whatever he can to get rid of those who stand in his way.

That, frankly, is the thinking of a would-be dictator.

Abbott wound up with a call to arms: ‘I’m ready, the Coalition is ready, Australia is ready’.

The question is: ‘Are we ready to elect someone who thinks the democratic process is his personal servant?’

Election 2013 – we’ve set a date!

January 30, 2013

It’s finally happened! After all the speculation, after the incessant cries of ‘Election, now!’ from the Opposition, and the whimpers from the electorate of ‘how long will this never-ending campaign go on, anyway?’, Prime Minister Julia Gillard set a date for the 2013 Federal Election.

Put it in your calendar apps, folks: the date is Saturday, September 14, 2013.

(Or, for those of you who still use paper diaries, I’m told there’s this thing called a pen that works without being plugged in and charged! It doesn’t even use the internet! Ahem. But I digress.)

In setting this date, the Prime Minister accomplished several pieces of brilliant political strategy. Some she was happy to foreground, but others snuck in under the radar. So let’s have a close look.

The most obvious – and one she used to tweak the collective nose of the media at the National Press Club – is that it takes away the potential for speculation about the date to be read into every move the government makes. This sort of opinion piece is a staple in the months leading up to an election. With it removed, the government has an opportunity to better force media focus onto issues of substance, rather than whether the PM’s itinerary takes her anywhere near Yarralumla.

The other overt effect is that it pushes the Opposition onto the back foot with regard to costings. As the PM was happy to point out, with such a long lead time before Parliament dissolves and the campaign officially begins, the Coalition has no excuse not to deliver its costings to Treasury and release them to the public. In her own words, ‘No surprises also means no excuses’.

The Coalition has previously claimed that they were not given enough time to submit costings, or that access to Treasury was limited due to election campaign pressures. Now, they will have the May Budget, and more time than any Opposition has had in decades to thoroughly develop, cost and release their policies. Of course, they may try recycling the argument they used in 2010, that Treasury was effectively too corrupt to be trusted with their costings – but that didn’t work too well last time around.

And then there are the covert effects.

Clearly, this date fulfils her promise to Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to ensure her government served its full term – and on that score, the government needs all the help it can get. Both MPs immediately expressed their approval of the date, in interviews shortly after the announcement. Windsor says the PM spoke with them some weeks ago, and agreed there were only a few dates that could realistically be chosen – though he stopped short of saying the decision was made at that time.

While this has little effect on the electorate, it buys her good credit should this election also result in a minority government – and with the rise of minor parties and Independents, that’s a real possibility. It also offsets Labor’s backdown on its promise to Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie poker machine regulation. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon also endorses the early announcement, as do the Greens. This leaves the Coalition out on a limb. They have to join the chorus of approval – which they will no doubt do grudgingly, suggesting that it’s about time the PM ‘took their advice’, a tactic that will backfire horribly with the public (no one likes those who say ‘I told you so’. If they don’t, they look like hypocrites.

Lastly, there’s possibly the sneakiest effect. The PM went to great lengths to stress that announcing the date was not a de facto campaign launch. ‘I do so not to start the nation’s longest election campaign … it should be clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning,’ she said. Now, obviously this is disingenuous; campaigning will be inevitable in the coming months, and anything not actually labelled as a campaign statement will certainly be interpreted as one by both media and the opposing parties. It does, however, give Labor something of a moral high ground, not to mention an excuse not to answer curly election promise questions until after the writs are delivered.

More useful for the government is the probable consequence for the Opposition. The Coalition has already been roundly criticised for conducting what amounts to a non-stop election campaign since the 2010 election, calling for another poll even before the Parliament sat for the first time. On numerous occasions, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has declared that he will not rest until he ‘changes the government’, which he considers illegitimate due to its minority status. In fact, this sentiment underpins virtually every statement the Coalition makes.

It’s hard to imagine that Abbott would stop now. Indeed, this week he launched what he called a ‘mini-campaign’, apparently intended to bolster his falling approval numbers, and undercut any gains Labor might make. Now, he needs to deal with the reality of a fixed election date 227 days away. Given his propensity for hammering home a message ad nauseam (usually while wearing a Hi-Vis vest), and holding a media conference virtually every day, we face the possibility that he will simply step up this activity.

Imagine it. Seven months of election campaigning. Seven months of Abbott recycling slogans like ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Axe the Tax’. Seven months of vicious rhetoric and media stunts.

Sorry about that.

If the government has any intelligent people in its media unit whatsoever, they won’t rise to the bait. They’ll let Abbott have his head, and – to mix a metaphor – he’ll hang himself. People are already tired of the unofficial campaign. The backlash is likely to be devastating in terms of poll numbers.

In one stroke, Labor has rendered the myth of the ‘inevitable 2013 Coalition victory’ powerless. And the Opposition knows it – which may account for its first appalling statements on the election date. It happens to be Yom Kippur, arguably the most important holy day in the Jewish religious calendar. The Coalition wasn’t about to let that golden opportunity go by.

See what they did there?

This is amateur hour stuff. See how evil and mean-spirited Labor is! They chose to have an election on a religious holiday! What a terrible thing to do to these poor Australians! We would never do that!

Let’s not forget the ugly side of those tweets, the tacit accusation of anti-Semitism. And every politician knows that labelling your opponent as anti-Jewish has incredible emotional appeal, and can be a real vote-getter.

It’s not even worth arguing about whether Labor is anti-Semitic, whether it’s as good a supporter of Australian Jews (and, by extension, Israel) as the Coalition. That’s just a stupid diversion, and it’s surprising to see Turnbull, in particular, trying on this idiocy. (It remains to be seen if any others will jump on this bandwagon, or whether the Coalition media unit has managed to keep them away from Twitter).

Elections will always be a problem for someone. Maybe they’ll fall on religious holy days (and when was the last time you heard a politician complain about any other religion’s being inconvenienced). Maybe it’ll be the AFL Grand Final. Maybe you’re flying to Bali that day, or stuck in floodwaters or in hospital. None of that should present an obstacle to your fulfilling your duty as a citizen of this country. It’s really very simple.

We have early and postal voting in this country.

That’s right. We can participate in our democratic process and live our lives. Amazing, isn’t it?

That the Coalition would even consider this sort of strategy is ridiculous. It shows how unprepared they were for the announcement of the election date. One imagines that even now, their media unit is busy shredding Abbott’s prepared speech for his appearance tomorrow at the National Press Club, and frantically scribbling.

It will be interesting to see what he has to say. I’m fairly sure he won’t mention Yom Kippur – but the damage is done.

In the meantime, we can at least breathe a sigh of relief. We know when the sausage sizzles will be.

Floods, photo-ops, and the ghost of levies past

January 28, 2013

As I write, large areas of Queensland are underwater. Residents in Ipswich and Bundaberg are scrambling to evacuate before the expected flood peak – but already their homes and businesses are awash. Some houses are expected to be washed away by the force of the water. In the last few days, the areas surrounding Bundaberg were battered by no less than six tornadoes. The Brisbane River is rising, tearing away pontoons and boardwalks, sending boats downstream, and expected to peak around dinner time. Meanwhile on the Gold Coast, the tail end of Cyclone Oswald lashes the streets of Surfer’s Paradise and the Nerang River broke its banks a few hours ago.

And in the Lockyer Valley, people are isolated, some breaking down under the stress.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s not quite a carbon copy of the 2011 floods, but it’s pretty damned close. Back then, 78 people lost their lives, and countless others lost everything they had. The damage might not be as bad this time around, but it’s a terrible situation – and it’s almost impossible to imagine the trauma being suffered by those who have to go through this again. In some cases, they’d only just finished repairing the damage from two years ago.

To make matters worse, northern New South Wales is also under threat. Lismore residents have been told to prepare to evacuate, as the Tweed River rises, and rises.

Needless to say, the media are all over it. Wall-to-wall coverage on Channel 9 and Sky, frequent updates on ABC News 24, live blogs from newspapers – we can have it all. And that’s without following any particular #qldfloods or similar hashtags. Back in 2011, we saw then Premier Anna Bligh receiving constant updates from emergency services, holding frequent media conferences to deliver important information and urge people to keep their spirits up, and in general, doing what a Premier should do.

Today, we’ve seen the current Premier, Campbell Newman, grabbing every photo opportunity possible. In possibly the most egregious of these, he stood out in the rain clad in a regulation ‘Man-from-Snowy-River’ long coat with the local mayor. With rain dripping from his nose, he frequently interrupted the mayor’s attempt to answer questions about the situation on the ground, and how his constituents were handling things. Newman had his own message to get out – that his government had it under control, and was already looking towards the clean-up. This, before the scope of the disaster can possibly be known – and not without a swipe or two at the former Bligh government.

To back him up, Newman made what can only be regarded as an astoundingly stupid move, politically speaking. He invited Opposition Leader Tony Abbott up to Queensland to ‘tour’ the flood areas. And then we had photos of Abbott filling a sandbag. Of Abbott and Newman studying a map with fierce concentration. Of Abbott moving amongst ‘the people’ with patented handshake and clap-on-the-shoulder ‘you’ll be right, mate’ gestures. And why was Abbott there? Apparently, Newman thought it was important that the ‘alternative Prime Minister’ be fully informed.

Really, we’ve all heard the jokes about Queensland living in the 1950s, but has Newman never heard of a phone?

The stupidity wasn’t confined to Newman and Abbott, though. The Opposition’s Indigenous spokesperson, Andrew Laming, decided to make sure his boss got all the attention he deserved, and took to Twitter.

Indeed, where was the Prime Minister? Why, she was in Victoria with Premier Ted Baillieu, visiting emergency service personnel who had spent the majority of last week fighting ferocious bushfires. Those fires are contained now, but may still burn for months. Nonetheless, the immediate emergency was over – making it a far more appropriate time for a politician to be holding media conferences on site. Arguably, the best time for such an activity is never – but if such is inevitable in politics, then surely the time to make political capital out of disaster is well after the emergency is past?

But hey, that’s politics, right? Stupid MPs mugging for the cameras and popping on their Hi-Vis vests and hard hats for the sake of a good photo?

Maybe. But then there’s this.

Remember back in 2011, when the government introduced a flood levy to help pay for reconstruction from the disastrous floods? You know, the one Tony Abbott said was a cruel impost on the poor? The one he declared would put paid to anyone ever again voluntarily donating to any other disaster relief?

The one we all paid, and no one bemoaned the loss of an average of $1.74 each week?

Well, Abbott’s at it again. The floods haven’t even peaked, and already he’s raising the spectre of The Evil Taxing Labor Government. Oh, he’s being sneaky about it. He’s not going to come right out and say that there will be a new flood levy, but – and he hates to say it – ‘It doesn’t matter what the problem is; spend more, tax more is the Labor Party’s solution’.

Of course, he’s happy to quickly remind people that his Opposition fought the flood levy tooth and nail two years ago. Oh, but now’s not the time to bring politics into it, he hastens to add. Just as long as we’re clear on the Opposition’s principles, and we’ve had the idea planted in our heads that the government will bring in another levy after these floods.

His work here is done. Sandbag filled, soundbite delivered, poison injected. He can return to his high-and-dry home secure in the warm glow of knowledge of a job well done.

But hold on a moment. Suppose he’s right? Suppose the government does decide a new one-off levy is warranted? Or even – say it ain’t so – a Disaster Relief Fund, such as was proposed after the 2011 floods and Cyclone Yasi? How terrible, exactly, would it be?

Probably about as terrible as it already has been. A negligible amount taken from our salaries, in order to help those whose lives have been shattered by fire, flood, or cyclone. Something we wouldn’t even notice. That’s what Abbott – and by extension, Newman – wants us to fear. In the midst of disaster, he wants us to focus on how well he fills sandbags and how Labor is coming to take your hard-earned money away.

It’s shameful, and it shouldn’t go unanswered. For every shovelful of sand Abbott hefts, how many hundreds are being moved off-camera? How many thousands of emergency service personnel risk their lives to save people from drowning or burning to death, while he poses by a Rural Fire Service fire truck in his protective gear? And how many of those emergency services workers are injured, or even lose their lives, while he bleats about the evils of parting with $1.74 per week in order to give our fellow Australians just a little bit of help?

Do we know who they are, those people? Not unless they’re in the background, in which case it’s, ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Tony Abbott?’

It should be the other way around. ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Gary/Jen/whoever?’

Better yet, it should be, ‘Hey, look at those incredibly brave people putting themselves at risk to save other people, and they’re not even getting paid. Real heroes. Isn’t it great that the pollies keep out of their way and make sure they’ve got the resources to do their jobs?’

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.

Open Letter to Jenny Macklin

January 2, 2013

Dear Ms Macklin,

I understand that being the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in the Second Gillard government as well as the Federal Member for Jaga Jaga must be an incredibly difficult job. You have to participate in government debates and voting, wade through all that paperwork, open community centres, hold press conferences, and who knows what else. Then there’s all that travel – whew! All those demands on your time must be terrible.

So I can understand why you wouldn’t necessarily be sympathetic to those who are about to be booted off their sole parent pensions and onto Newstart. If you have to work, so should they – and they should stop whining about not having enough money to pay for all their little extras. Right? If they can’t stretch $35 a day to cover their costs, either they need to learn how to budget, or just get a job.

It’s great to see you leading the way on this, too. When our leaders set an example, it always makes me proud to be an Australian. You might want to talk to the people who issue your transcripts, though. Somehow your assertive statement that you could live on the dole got lost in the works. You should really work to find it – stand up for your beliefs!

It seems to me that you’ve unfairly come under fire lately, what with that ‘extreme Greens’ fellow, Mr Bandt issuing that absurd challenge. Fancy him claiming you couldn’t live on $245 a week. I’m sure you’d have no trouble cutting down from your current $6321 – and you could easily do without your travel allowance, accommodation allowance, electoral allowance and all the rest.

It’s all about tightening the belt, as I’m sure you know. Why, my friend @theriverfed and I were talking about this just today, and she was very much of the same mind. In fact, she came up with a little list that you might find useful. Perhaps your office would like to distribute it to those single parents who’ll be ringing you up in the weeks to come.

How to be a Single Parent on Newstart Allowance

1. Live somewhere really cheap. Get used to it being socially isolating, with bad public transport. It’s affordable. Estimate about 75% of your income = rent.

2. Use your $15 petrol/public transport allowance getting to half a dozen different shops to get cheapest the food possible, non-bulk (since you certainly can’t afford either a chest freezer or bulk food prices).

3. Never, ever go anywhere for social purposes. Even if you don’t need to buy a coffee, you can’t afford to get there.

4. Be really grateful that your sister pays for you to have a telephone and your mother buys your child shoes, if you are lucky.

5. In winter, when the park is out of the question, act like going to the play area at Bunnings is a really fun treat for the kids. Add a $2.50 snag? Luxury.

6. Forget about replacing stuff that breaks. Never going to happen. Even if it was a necessary thing.

7. Learn to live with paying bills late.

8. Get really, really stingy. Like counting squares of toilet paper stingy.

9. Get over the shame of buying stuff with 5 and 10 cent pieces. And learn to love Home Brand everything.

10. Learn to cut hair, make your own bread, and just eat whatever your child leaves on his plate.

11. Finally, try really, really hard to avoid depression. Chances are you won’t succeed and all access to support has
disappeared. But Lifeline is still free.

So in conclusion, Ms Macklin, I hope you will be encouraged to continue your campaign to shake single parents out of their complacent, easy lives. It’s about time we saw some tough love.

Oh, and Ms Macklin? Do get back to the Australian people when you’ve given up all your benefits, blocked access to your savings, bought a public transport card and restricted yourself to $245 per week for a few months. Perhaps you could borrow some children as well. I, for one, wait breathlessly to hear how easily you managed your extravagant new income to pay rent, childcare, school fees, utility bills, groceries, transport, etc.

It’ll be a real lesson, I’m sure.


The Conscience Vote

(Credit goes to @theriverfed for her marvellous 11-point list.)

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