The return of Rudd – so now what?

June 27, 2013

Last night everything came to a head – the constant speculation, the outrageous op-eds, and the inevitable cries of ‘What the hell is going on here?’ from the Australian people. Faced with a petition calling for a Special Caucus meeting to decide the Labor leadership, Prime Minister Julia Gillard called a spill for 7pm. In an exclusive interview with Sky News’ David Speers, she invited ‘challengers’, and insisted that the loser leave politics at the next election.

Of course, she didn’t utter the name ‘Kevin Rudd’, but there was only ever one contender. This was to be nothing less than a final showdown. And – unlike the bungled attempt by Simon Crean in March this year – Rudd stepped up. His style could not have been more different. The Prime Minister gave a quiet, exclusive interview. Rudd held a press conference in the Caucus Room, effectively sending a message that he already held the high ground, and was reaching out to all viewers.

As the time wore down, rumours and leaks were everywhere. Rudd had the numbers. Gillard had the numbers. This person was switching allegiances. Nothing new, really – but then there was a bombshell. Bill Shorten, widely regarded as the ‘kingmaker’ of the Labor Party, head of the National Right and instrumental in removing Rudd in 2010, announced that he would be supporting Rudd. He brought around seven votes with him, and from there the tide turned. Water Minister Tony Burke, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Finance Minister Penny Wong, both stalwart Gillard supporters, also decided to support Rudd.

The result: 57-45. Kevin Rudd was sworn in – again – as Prime Minister this morning.

For some, this was something for which they’d been waiting since 2010. For others, it was nothing less than a coup – and here I confess myself entirely bemused. Gillard supporters – themselves the beneficiaries of a leadership challenge that toppled a sitting Prime Minister – cried foul. Turnabout, it seems, is not fair play when it comes to Gillard being ousted.

It’s worth taking a look at those who changed their votes, however. Why would they abandon Gillard, after supporting her for so long? The answer is simple, and brutal: this was never about anything but winning the upcoming election – or at least, minimising the damage if the Coalition takes government.

Sounds venal, doesn’t it? Self-serving? Grasping?

Of course it is.

Remember those polls? Even the best said that under Gillard, Labor faced decimation at the ballot box. The Coalition would likely hold both Houses by majority, rendering the Greens ineffective in the Senate and Independents like Andrew Wilkie entirely powerless. Labor stood to lose Queensland and Western Australia in the Senate, as well as key seats formerly considered safe. At worst, Labor would cease to have any discernible effect as a political party for a very long time.

Then there were all those other polls, that showed Rudd was by far preferred leader, and might even make a fight out of the election. And finally, internal polling that confirmed the worst fears of everyone in the party. Under those circumstances, any politician is going to think long and hard about not only their own future, but that of their party.

Carr said on Lateline last night that ‘suddenly the next election has become very contestable. … Our achievements … were at risk from an Abbott government’. Wong said it was ‘a difficult decision’, made ‘in the best interests of the Labor party’, to make the next election a real contest.

And what about Shorten, the so-called power behind the throne? As he made his announcement, the Minister looked anything but happy. On his face was the look of a man swallowing a bitter pill. He knew he’d be the target of everything from criticism to outright hatred for changing sides, even making the point himself that his political career would probably suffer, possibly even end altogether. He may well have sacrificed himself for the party. That’s not something any politician does lightly.

Anthony Albanese was elected and sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister, beating Simon Crean 61-38. That Crean ran at all was remarkable. If he expected to be rewarded for his attempt to bring on a spill, he was sadly mistaken. Albanese has shown himself throughout to be someone who works entirely for the party, and stayed loyal to the leader. His appointment will go far to heal breaches, after almost half the front bench resigned their portfolios last night. Likewise the unanimous election of Penny Wong as Senate Leader. The other key position, Treasurer, has fallen to Chris Bowen.

As I write, Prime Minister Rudd makes his first speech to the House, acknowledging former Prime Minister Gillard and lauding her accomplishments. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott delivered a speech almost identical to the one he made when Gillard first took office, changing little other than gender references. There was even a reference to the ‘faceless men’, backed up a few minutes later by Immigration Shadow Scott Morrison, who referred to Shorten as ‘the Kingslayer’. Back to normal.

Abbott squashed any talk of a no confidence motion, but the electioneering has already started. He’s called for an immediate election (earliest possible date: August 3), recycling the accusation that the Australian people have – again – been cheated of their right to elect their Prime Minister. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Abbott knows full well that we elect our government, not our government’s leader. Of course, any given leader may sway our vote, but once the party is in power (or Opposition, for that matter), that leader can be changed at any time. That’s how a party-based Parliamentary system works.

So now what?

Rudd faces a choice: keep the September 14 election date, and use the time to establish himself as leader of a party capable of bringing the fight to the Coalition; bring the election date forward, and go immediately into full campaign mode; or push the date back to its latest possible time, hold more sitting weeks and consolidate legislation.

As Prime Minister, he gains an incumbent’s advantage; right up until the election period officially starts, he can still act in an executive fashion. He has the time to show how his policies will differ sufficiently from both the Coalition and his predecessor to justify his re-election. This will particularly centre on issues of climate change, asylum seekers and marriage equality (to which Rudd is a recent convert).

Any option has dangers. Rudd’s popularity may well wane with time, leaving Labor’s election chances in the doldrums. Long election campaigns always test the patience of the electorate, and in this case, the Coalition is likely to run an almost entirely negative strategy aimed at destroying Rudd. They have plenty of ammunition – some of the comments from Gillard’s supporters during the 2012 leadership challenges were positive gifts to the Opposition.

Bringing on an earlier election, however, has its own risks. Rudd and his new Ministry need to clearly show themselves as a cohesive team. The new Ministers only have a short time to establish their credentials as things stand, which allows the Coalition to argue that their side (populated by many of former Prime Minister John Howard’s cabinet) has the necessary experience.

I suspect Rudd will leave the election date at September 14. It’s the best compromise. It won’t be an easy three months, though; the Opposition will be relentless, and the government needs to push its message through the debris of last night’s challenge. Rudd will continue his tactic of stumping for local members. In fact, he’ll be all over the media – pressers, interviews, QandA, various current affairs programs. He’ll face innumerable questions about the leadership challenge, as will those who changed their votes to support him.

It remains to be seen if the media will finally stop asking those questions, since now – in the words of The Age – they can have a debate about policy and ideas. (Sarcasm definitely intended).

And for the rest of us? There’s no doubt Labor has a new spring in its collective step. We may well actually see a contest in September, not a fait accompli that delivers us at least three years of rubber-stamp government.

Regardless of whether you support Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, the Greens or anyone else, that has to be a good result.

Australian politics is the poorer for the loss of Oakeshott and Windsor

June 26, 2013

Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are two reasons why this minority government has – in spite of all dire mutterings and pronouncements of doom – functioned, and functioned well. It’s due to their insistence on examining legislation on its merits, refusing to be pressured by either the Government or the Opposition, that we have been faced with neither paralysis nor a runaway agenda. They’ve taken pains to consult with everyone from the Prime Minister to fellow Independent Andrew Wilkie to their local constituents, and helped broker significant parliamentary reforms.

And for their pains, what have they received? I’ve already written about the amount of ridicule levelled at Oakeshott for his tendency to speak his mind at length. Windsor became the target of an extraordinary amount of venom from the National Party, accused of everything from treason to megalomania. Nonetheless, they’ve continued to do their jobs, and done them well.

Their dedication to behaving as politicians should – as representatives who put the nation’s interests above their own gain – has gained them little praise, and far too much criticism. Australian politics is richer for their contribution.

And now, Australia will be far poorer.

This morning, Oakeshott announced that he will not contest the September 14 election. He described the last three years as the toughest of his life – which, frankly, is an understatement. Remember, this man has been subject to relentless criticism simply for doing his job.

He was followed a little later by a tearful Tony Windsor, who cited family and health issues as the reason for his resignation. He added that the ‘vitriol’ to which he’d been subjected had affected his family, and said, ‘I don’t really want to be here in three years’ time’.

With their resignations, their respective seats will probably return to the National Party, adding to what looks like an increasingly decisive Coalition victory in September. Senator Barnaby Joyce should now successfully move to the Lower House without Windsor to stand against him in New England. Lyne is a little more uncertain; the landslide to Oakeshott in 2010 left both major parties neck and neck.

This is a dreadful day for Australian politics. After the election, there will be two less independent voices, two fewer voices of reason. If the minor parties don’t succeed in increasing their share of seats, there’s a real possibility the Coalition will control both Houses outright. That would reduce the Senate to nothing more than a rubber stamp for any legislation (or, indeed, any of the Coalition’s promised repeals). Opposition would be completely ineffective. Even with Windsor and Oakeshott in the Parliament, we may well see that result. The more voices to speak up, to question, to represent a different point of view, however, at least there would be proper scrutiny.

Both men made the point that they’re not ‘quitting’. Oakeshott, in particular, said he had no fear of the upcoming election campaign. There’s no doubt, though, that bullying was a factor – and I don’t use the word lightly. Being subjected, day after day, to relentless harassment, wears down even the strongest of us.

Some might say that constant criticism is something any politician should expect. Of course, that’s true. Just as with the vicious insults heaped on the Prime Minister, however, there is a material difference between criticising someone’s decisions and attacking the person.

Christopher Pyne just remarked piously on the curious fact that people never believe it when a politician announces their resignation ‘for family reasons’, even though that’s why most politicians leave. Not five minutes later, he asserted that the ‘real’ reason Windsor and Oakeshott were leaving was because they didn’t want to lose their seats in September. It’s not only an asinine statement, given their 2010 election results – it’s a perfect example of the nonsense to which the Independents have been subjected.

Oakeshott and Windsor deserve praise – not because they were knights in shining armour, or martyrs to a cause. They deserve praise because they are reasonable men who took their job seriously. Because they insisted on scrutiny, and research, and consultation. Because they always tried to act in the best interests of the nation, even when it had the potential to damage their own causes.

Because they did their work wisely, and well.

Mr Oakeshott, Mr Windsor, the nation will be poorer without your voices in Parliament. You have been an example of how politics should work. You are men of integrity who did not flinch in the face of enormous pressure. We can only hope that future politicians will look to your example, rather than some of the more volatile, high profile figures of today.

Thank you, Mr Oakeshott.

Thank you, Mr Windsor.

We wish you well.

We can start the policy debate

June 24, 2013

In my last post, I took aim at The Age’s contention that it was ‘impossible’ to have a policy debate as long as Julia Gillard remained our Prime Minister. I stand by what I wrote then: as long as the media continues to give space to articles and op-eds which speculate about how long she will keep the top job or how hard it is to write about policy, the less actual scrutiny of policy and ideas there will be.

That said: to suggest for one moment that Rupert Murdoch or Gina Rinehart lurk in the background like megalomaniacal overlords, chuckling evilly as they manipulate the election in order to get the result they want, is patently ridiculous. There are any number of studies pointing to media bias in one form or another (or even that the media roughly evens out), and that’s clearly something that these organisations should acknowledge, and, possibly, correct. This does not prove conspiracy.

I grew up in a media household. My stepfather worked for both Fairfax (as Features Editor) and News Limited (in various roles, including editor-in-chief for the Gold Coast Bulletin). My brother now also works for News Limited. Over the years, no directives came down demanding that editorial content favour any given political party. No subtle discouragements filtered through to reporters that they should ‘go hard’ on one leader, while giving another a free pass. Was there bias? Almost certainly. Was it part of a greater agenda? No.

Attributing what’s going on in our media to conspiracy just avoids the real issue – which is how to make policy the focus of political coverage. It won’t happen by accusing News Limited of being a pawn in Murdoch’s nefarious schemes, or saying that Gina Rinehart’s interest in Fairfax is the ‘real’ reason The Age ran that editorial. It probably won’t even happen by demanding that the media start asking some real questions. The questions have to come from the rest of us in whatever way we can ask them.

Hit politicians’ websites. Write to them. Visit them when they’re on the rounds promoting something – their itineraries can usually be obtained, especially for backbenchers moving around their own electorates – and ask them face to face. Ask about the policies on their websites – or why they don’t have policies easily obtainable.

Get involved.

Heck, start a blog, write about what you want to know, and ping it straight at politicians. Most of them these days have Facebook or Twitter accounts. Make social media work. The most common criticism levelled at social media is that it’s no more than an echo chamber, out of touch with reality. To an extent, that’s true. You only have to spend a bit of time reading the #auspol timeline to realise just how much bandwidth is given over to partisan rubbish – and a staggering amount of truly vile sentiment. It makes ‘Ditch the Witch!’ look like a compliment.

That doesn’t mean these must be the only voices to be using social media, however – or even the dominant voices. Just as the mainstream media is not the only voice.

I wrote that if The Age isn’t writing about policy, they have no one to blame but themselves. The same is true for all of us. We shouldn’t wait to have our electoral choices spoon-fed to us.

If your reason for not voting Labor at the next election is ‘Julia Gillard knifed Kevin Rudd’ … if you take the dreadful, misogynist attacks against the Prime Minister as a reason to vote for her … if you spend your time arguing about whether Rudd or Gillard should be leader, rather than scrutinising policy from all sides … then you’re contributing to an already huge problem. You’re enabling a policy-free zone to proliferate.

We can do better than that. We can stop mindlessly marching to the beat being set for us. Ask yourself: who does it serve to have all the attention focused anywhere but policy?

It certainly doesn’t serve us – the people who will determine the outcome of the next election.

Perhaps Rudd will challenge Gillard tomorrow. Perhaps Gillard will step down, or be forced out. Turnbull might challenge Abbott (yes, I know, virtually impossible). But let’s be blunt: what matters, ultimately, are the policies each party takes to the election. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the leader doesn’t matter: of course they do. It’s why Keating challenged Hawke, and why Costello didn’t challenge Howard. But the leader isn’t the be-all and end-all of an election.

It’s time we all started remembering that. So here’s my proposal: let’s ask the questions that really matter.

Let’s ask the Coalition why most of their stated policies to date involve little more than reversing everything accomplished by the Rudd and Gillard governments. Let’s ask the Greens what they plan to do if the Coalition successfully repeals carbon pricing. Let’s ask the Independents what they would do if we end up with another minority government. And let’s ask Labor for more detail about the Gonski reforms, and how it plans to address shortfalls in project mining tax revenue.

It will be up to us on September 14 – but we shouldn’t wait until then. We should start now.

For the sake of the nation, the media should do its job

June 22, 2013

If you’re a reader of Fairfax newspapers, this is what you woke up to today:

‘It is time for Julia Gillard to stand aside as leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, as Prime Minister of Australia, so that vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate can flourish once again. Ms Gillard should do so in the interests of the Labor Party, in the interests of the nation and, most importantly, in the interests of democracy.’

No, really.

You’d expect to read something this pompous from the likes of Andrew Bolt or Gerard Henderson, both of whom are known for their grandiose language and outrageous sentiment. But from The Age? Offered not as one journalist’s opinion, but as the endorsed view of the entire newspaper?

It gets worse.

Assuring us that the paper ‘does not advocate this lightly,’ the editorial went on to say:

‘The Age’s overriding concern is that, under Ms Gillard’s leadership, the Labor Party’s message about its future policies and vision for Australia is not getting through to the electorate. Our fear is that if there is no change in Labor leadership before the September 14 election, voters will be denied a proper contest of ideas and policies – and that would be a travesty for the democratic process.’ (my italics)

It’s not necessary to quote most of the rest. Voters are ‘distracted’ by Labor leadership tensions. The electorate is ‘despairing’ of internal party tensions. Australia deserves a government that can clearly lay out its plans and policies. Oh, and here I will quote:

‘Mr Abbott is being allowed to run almost entirely unchallenged with his preposterous claim that a Coalition government would “stop the boats”, in part by turning back the pathetic trail of rickety vessels laden with asylum seekers’

It’s all in the interests of democracy, you understand. It would be a terrible thing if the Coalition gained control of both Houses, and Labor was unable to step up in Opposition to hold them to account. For all these reasons, the editorial gravely tells us, Prime Minister Julia Gillard should resign.

The arrogance and blinding irony in this editorial are unbelievable.

The Age apparently wants its readers to see it as a victim, shaking its head sorrowfully. ‘We would give you substantial policy debate. We want to discuss real issues, and get to the heart of things. If only, if only, we could do that. It’s not our fault. It’s all because of Gillard. If she was gone, everything would be better’.

Back up a step or two there. I have a few questions for you, Fairfax. And for the rest of the media.

At what point did Gillard hold a gun to your metaphorical heads and force you to write endless, speculative op-eds about the Labor leadership?

At what point did Gillard, or any of her Ministers, refuse to talk about policy?

At what point did Gillard put you in a position where you were ‘unable’ to challenge Tony Abbott on – well, anything, really?

For that matter, since when has the Federal Government had any control over your editorial standards or content? (With the exception of the ABC – and even then, the government can’t prevent coverage of issues.)

If the Australian people aren’t informed about policy, media, whose fault is that? The answer is very simple: yours. Every time you choose to give space to yet another tired op-ed that attempts to convince your readers that a leadership challenge will happen any moment now, that’s one less article about policy, or legislation before the house, or even – heaven forbid – question why we’re still being polled about whether we’d prefer Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott as leader.

Forget the op-eds for a moment. What about the interviews, especially on television? There’s your chance to get some real back-and-forth going on policy. Get some Labor politicians in the studio with you, and make them answer the hard questions. There’s your ‘ideas and policies’ right there.

Except that’s not what happens. It’s practically formulaic by now. The script goes something like this: interviewer asks a question about the leadership; Labor interviewee answers and then tries to move on to policy; interviewer persists in asking the same leadership questions, ignoring anything else the interviewee has to say.

Here’s a particularly egregious example – click through to 15:50 minutes. Craig Emerson, Minister for Trade, was Leigh Sales’ guest on ABC 730 last Thursday. Emerson did not avoid the initial questions about leadership. When he attempted to move on to talking about policy, however, Sales repeatedly interrupted him with what amounted to variations on the Rudd/Gillard theme. Even as this was occurring, Sales asked why Labor couldn’t get its message out.

Emerson, rightly, pointed out that he was trying to do so.

And it’s in this atmosphere that Fairfax publishes its faux-reluctant editorial, blaming the Prime Minister for ‘distracting’ the Australian people.

Breaking news, Fairfax: if we’re distracted, it’s not because of the Prime Minister. It’s because what we see and read, day after day, is what you and News Limited want to serve up to us.

Try this for an experiment. See if you can get through one interview without mentioning Kevin Rudd, or ‘leadership tensions’. See if you can actually write one op-ed that is entirely focused on policy. Contrary to what you’d have us believe, there’s plenty out there – at least on the Labor side. You might ask the Coalition about their lack of policy while you’re at it.

But – to coin an unmistakably Australian phrase – don’t come the raw prawn with us. Don’t claim you have nothing to write about. Don’t claim the Prime Minister possesses some sort of press-gagging superpower.

If the lack of policy debate in this country is what truly concerns you – then start one.

For the sake of the nation, indeed.

UPDATE: After the incredible amount of responses to this post (and the debates that are still going), I thought that a follow-up post was needed. We can start the policy debate.

Shame, Australia – no recognition for same-sex marriage

June 20, 2013

The Senate just voted against an amendment recognising same-sex marriages performed overseas, in countries far more enlightened than ours.

The vote was 28-44. Overwhelming.

And one of the most mean-spirited votes I’ve seen. If ever there was a vote that showcased spite and prejudice, this was one.

The prejudice was easy to see. All the usual arguments – marriage is between a man and a woman, ’twas ever thus, talk fast and loud and make sure no one realises we only defined it as such in 1984 – with a hefty dollop of pseudo-Christian jingoism. Yes, pseudo-Christian. When more and more Christians are supporting marriage equality, when queer clergy are ordained, when church spokespersons acknowledge they cannot dictate to those not of their faith, appeals to the idea that Australia is a quasi-theocracy are revealed for what they really are – convenient rubbish.

We’re a secular country. We always have been. We even have Constitutional provisions to prevent us from becoming ruled by any given religion. That’s a good, and necessary thing – and it doesn’t only protect those who hold no religious belief. It protects everyone.

But this is an old argument. Any time someone dares to suggest that marriage equality in any form is desirable, the religious argument is trotted out, looking increasingly tattered. In today’s debate, the most objectionable comments came from West Australian Liberal Senator Dr Chris Back.

He asserted that the only reason – the only reason – this debate was occurring, was in order to prevent the Opposition from thoroughly debating ‘important’ legislation. Important. Talk about a slap in the face.

Just what was this important legislation? Well, he mentioned the education reforms – and those are important, sure. The claim that debating recognition of same-sex marriages made overseas would significantly harm debate on education, however, simply does not follow. For Senator Back, though, it was undeniable.

As if attempting to reduce the issue to a mere annoyance wasn’t enough, Back apparently decided that mockery would be a fine way to argue, and invited the Chamber to join him. He painted a picture of two (presumably) lesbians in their wedding dresses crying as their Parisian marriage was ignored by Australian law – as though that was something funny.

He also made the utterly ridiculous argument that we wouldn’t deny women the vote just because Saudi Arabia does, or do away with speeding laws because European autobahns don’t have speed limits.

And then he had the audacity to accuse supporters of the amendment of engaging in propaganda – scare tactics, emotive argument, ad hominem argument, and mindless repetition.

Uh, Senator Back? You just described your own side’s tactics. Oh, except you forgot the lies. Lies about the Marriage Act, lies about the effect of same-sex marriage on children, lies about virtually everything in this debate – including the increasing number of Australians who support marriage equality.

Perhaps the result of the final vote shouldn’t have come as a surprise. With Labor allowing a conscience vote, and the Opposition firmly against, the only way it could have succeeded was if a significant number of Liberals crossed the floor.

I would, however, like to congratulate Senator Sue Boyce, who defied her party both on this amendment, and on an amendment to end discrimination against LGBTI people (especially couples) in aged-care facilities.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that the result of this vote was, as I wrote earlier, entirely mean-spirited.

Think about it. If the amendment had passed, who would have been hurt?

Heterosexual couples? Hardly. They wouldn’t even have to compete for a date with a marriage celebrant.

Children? How? If they’re the kids of a same-sex union, then their parents are just as married as the next kid at school.

Society? Please. More committed, legally recognised marriages with all the obligations and protections of those solemnised in Australia actually stabilise social groups.

Oh, wait. I know how recognising a same-sex marriage made overseas might be harmful.

Our kids might ask awkward questions.

‘Mum, if Johnny’s Dads got married in New Zealand, how come they’re not married here?’

‘Say, Dad, did you know Angie’s Mums are married, but only in some countries? How weird is that?’

‘Mum, you know how you and Dad and Aunty Jess and Aunty Jan got married on holiday? Why are you allowed to be married here, but not them?’

That’s what this comes down to – a fear that, if we do recognise the marriages made overseas between same-sex couples, that even more people will start to question the utterly arbitrary laws that discriminate against marriage equality in general. Currently well over 60% of Australians support equality, and that number is only rising.

Heaven forfend.

This is a shameful day for Australia. Extending our recognition of marriages made overseas would be such a simple thing. It would hurt no one; in fact, it would only increase both happiness and social stability. It would show us to be a nation that is both compassionate and fair-minded, able to extend our congratulations to even more of our citizens for choosing to formalise their loving commitment to each other.

Instead, our elected representatives showed themselves – yet again – to be narrow-minded, prejudiced, manipulative and hard-hearted.

Australia falls further and further behind the rest of the world every day when it comes to social justice. Today was one more example.

What happened in the Senate today probably won’t even make the evening news broadcasts, which in itself is disgraceful. And the majority of those who voted to deny same-sex couples even this most basic of recognition probably won’t have any trouble sleeping tonight.

They should. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. And they should be made aware of just how badly their blithe politicking affects the very people they claim to represent.

Dear media, write about something else

June 19, 2013

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election coming. It’s about this time we should be seeing politicians nailed to the wall about their record, and their policies. So what do we get from our media?

Do we hear about the 1632 children being held in detention solely because their parents risked their lives to seek asylum in Australia? Children who grow up in an atmosphere of utter despair, in conditions of squalor, and with no realistic hope of escape any time soon? For that matter, do we hear that Parliament’s own Human Rights Committee sounded a note of warning, urging MPs to comply with our international obligations?

Do we hear about the Coalition’s plan to flout international law, and Australia’s treaty obligations, by deporting any refugee convicted of a crime with a sentence of 12 months or more back to their home country? To speed up the process, any such refugee would lose their ‘normal rights of appeal’. (Yes, you heard that right. No judicial process for you, refugee person, even if you were wrongly convicted. We’ll put you on a plane and fly you right back into the hands of the country you fled in fear for your life. Bye-bye, now.)

Do we hear about the Coalition’s lack of any substantial education policy, other than to reverse anything the government manages to set in place? Christopher Pyne doesn’t think the education system needs fixing – oh, except for that pesky National Curriculum. That’s got to go. Too ‘black armband’. We can’t have our kids growing up thinking our history contains anything shameful.

How about the major parties marching in lockstep to preserve a duopoly between Coles and Woolworths, which causes immense harm to primary producers and small businesses? The complete silence on Arts funding? The government’s undignified scramble away from legislation to regulate poker machines? The Coalition’s intent to widen an already huge gap between wealthy and low income families through a number of policies, including its misnamed Paid Parental Leave (only available to women) and removing means testing on so-called ‘middle class welfare’ schemes like the Schoolkids’ Bonus?

Do we hear incisive analysis about the issues? Informed, reasoned commentary? Close questioning in interviews?

We do not.

What we do hear is, day after day, the same pap regurgitated.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott visits yet another small business, telling us that the ‘carbon tax’ is killing the country. Or the mining tax. Or both. The script is so predictable that one suspects he may, at times, be talking in his sleep. But that’s perfectly all right, because no one is likely to ask him any hard questions.

Yet another opinion piece pops up, telling us that Kevin Rudd’s supporters are massing for a tilt at the leadership, and that Labor is on the verge of self-destruction. That a challenge is imminent. Ignore anything that Labor politicians actually say – just keep presenting the conjecture as fact. Sooner or later, it’s got to be true, right? Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.

And then there are the endless, endless discussions of polls – but only some polls. Only the polls that show the government heading towards an unprecedented defeat. Only the polls that show Rudd is more popular than the Prime Minister. Don’t worry about the polls that have consistently shown a different trend, which – at least – suggest that closer analysis might be in order. Don’t worry about polls showing Abbott’s popularity pales in comparison to that of the leader he ousted, Malcolm Turnbull.

Think I’m exaggerating? Watch the headlines on the hourly ABC News24 and Sky bulletins. Go and look at the headlines under ‘Politics’ on the Fairfax or News Limited’s websites. Discount anything written by a politician, and here’s a sample of what you get:

(from Fairfax)
‘For Fix Sake, Someone Sort Out Rudd and Gillard’
‘The Loved and the Loathed’ (Gillard and Rudd, of course)
‘Little Wonder Caucus Mired in its Pool of Tears’

(from News Ltd)
‘Kevin Rudd Can’t Save Labor’
‘Gone-ski, Me? Not Today Anyway’ (Fairfax makes Lewis Carroll references, News Ltd makes puns)
‘G-G on Hand in Case of Coup’
‘Blocking Kevin Won’t Leave Julia a Martyr’

To be fair, there were a couple of articles about issues other than the Labor leadership. One was a very short update on how 457 Visa legislation might not pass the House. Another expressed astonishment at the social media backlash that followed Senator Cory Bernardi’s column yesterday, in which he claimed he’d been vindicated in his assertion that same-sex marriage would lead to multiple marriage and bestiality. By far, though, the majority of media coverage has been the same old same old.

Now, sure, breathless speculation about an imminent Constitutional crisis makes for great headlines. What a story – it’s got action, it’s got conflict, it’s got drama – and best of all, there’s no need to make sure that the facts are correct. Because there are no facts. It’s all one big hypothetical, and if it never happens, well, no harm, no foul, right? The next story can always be about how Rudd’s faction ‘backed away’. Meanwhile, there’s always another Abbott presser.

This is the kind of rubbish that clutters up political journalism, buries – or even outright ignores – substantial policy debate and criticism, and is served up to us. Is it any wonder that people turn increasingly to independent media?

Here’s a heretical thought for the mainstream media. Why not stop writing about how Rudd might challenge Gillard? Sure, keep an ear to the ground, and if a challenge is on, be there on the ground – but in the meantime, there’s plenty of news to go around. Get stuck into the Coalition on their resounding lack of policy. Pin down the government on their appalling asylum seeker legislation. Do some bloody analysis on Greens policies. Hell, spend some time with the Independents – all of them – and find out what they plan to bring to their election campaigns.

For the love of Murphy, write about something else.

I promise it won’t hurt. You might just find your audiences start re-engaging. And those readers and viewers would have some real content to accompany what they get from independent media. Everybody wins.

Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?

The Menu Nobody Saw

June 13, 2013

Yesterday, we learned about an offensive menu produced for a fundraising dinner held by the Queensland Liberal National Party to assist their star candidate for the seat of Fisher, Mal Brough. At that time, Brough apologised for that menu, which he said had been prepared by someone outside the LNP. Joe Hockey, his guest of honour, said he hadn’t seen it, but condemned it anyway – and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott condescended to say it was ‘tacky’.

By 8pm last night, however, the story had changed. The restaurant owner, who that afternoon had been unable to recall even holding the event, suddenly remembered intricate details. He was the author of that document, he declared. He’d done it as a ‘private joke’, and no one had seen it except his son. Somehow, that ‘fake’ menu was left lying around where one of his staff could get at it, and that person posted it on Facebook ‘for political purposes’.

What was truly amazing, though, was that after that statement, Brough declared that he hadn’t seen the menu, after all. He’d simply apologised because he thought it was the right thing to do. It’s all the fault of the person who exposed the menu, who Brough insinuated was untrustworthy (claiming the man had been sacked from his job at the restaurant) and pursuing a shadowy political agenda. Oh, and in the space of one interview, he went from saying he never saw the menu, to declaring that the menu wasn’t even there.

Frankly, this story is utterly implausible.

Follow me here. This is what we’re being asked to believe:

A restaurant owner would have us believe he’d suffered a memory lapse that caused him to forget catering a political fund-raising dinner with the Shadow Treasurer as its guest of honour.

That same owner later remembered not only the event, but also creating, formatting and publishing the offending document – a task that would have taken a good deal of time out of a busy restaurateur’s day.

The document – apparently a private joke – was never shown to any of the guests.

The document was then effectively stolen by a staff member, who ‘leaked’ it for ‘political purposes’.

We should all just accept that explanation and move on.

That’s the meal we’re being asked to swallow (if you’ll excuse the analogy) – and which the media appears to accept without question.

So let’s question it, shall we?

Let’s accept for the moment that the owner did create that menu, and that it was never distributed. Where, then, is the menu that was used on the night? Restaurants don’t commonly throw away the menus they draw up for special events; they’re a valuable resource, especially if the client is (or may become) a regular.

Even if that menu has disappeared, where are the chef’s notes? Where are the receipts for the ingredients purchased for the evening? Either this restaurant has the worst office organisation in Australia, or someone’s being selective with the facts.

Then there’s the creation of the offending menu itself. It wasn’t scribbled on a piece of paper; that took time, and at least a little thought – not to mention a few clicks. Go to Google Images, type in ‘KFC Gillard’ and have a quick browse – but be prepared. All that work, for a ‘joke’ that the owner says he shared only with his son. If that’s really the case, why go to all the trouble? He could have saved himself a lot of time by simply having a conversation.

And finally, what about Brough’s statement? Yesterday there was no ambiguity; Brough had apparently seen the menu and knew it was not prepared by an LNP member. Today, he says he didn’t see the menu at all.

Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? In 24 hours, one person’s regained detailed memories of an event that took place months ago, while another appears to have forgotten what he said the day before.

No, there’s just not a lot of credibility in this new ‘explanation’. The story keeps changing, and at least one of the parties (Brough) has form in giving misleading statements. It’s all a little bit convenient.

It’s probable that the owner did create the menu, but it’s simply unbelievable that it was kept away from the guests. At the very least, we know there was one printed copy – and what’s more likely? That it was shown to one person and then left lying around for someone to steal (since it was allegedly ‘private’), or that it did the rounds of at least the most important guests? Remember, Brough did admit to seeing the menu yesterday.

This attempt to make the issue go away is ham-fisted at best. It’s just one in a long series of incidents at Coalition (or Coalition-friendly) events where the Prime Minister has been the target of ‘jokes’ and insults that can only be described as repugnant. No amount of backpedalling, cries of ‘we knew nothing about this!’ and claims that this is some underhanded government strategy can make the story more credible.

What is giving this story traction and credibility is that no one in the mainstream media is asking the right questions. No one is following up on the restaurant employee who said they saw the menu out in the dining room. No one is challenging the owner to prove his claims, or even pressing him on why he changed his story. And no one is pinning Brough to the wall for his categorical statements yesterday. We’re just being told, over and over, the new story.

To carry the food analogy one step too far, I don’t like being spoon-fed – it’s lazy journalism, and it’s insulting to the people who look to the media for answers.

It’s a little difficult to get those answers when there’s a wall between people like Brough and the rest of us – but at least we can ask the questions. We shouldn’t simply accept the word of a man known to be elastic with the truth, or a man unwilling to provide proof for a frankly unbelievable story.

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