With nine days to go, it’s wall-to-wall election ads on TV and flyers in every mailbox. But there was time for one more debate between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott. Conducted in a ‘town hall’ style at Rooty Hill in Western Sydney, nobody expected anything new. In fact, though, we heard new promises and perhaps new policies.
Treasurers’ debates. They’re not usually exciting, and this was no exception. Nonetheless, this face-off by Chris Bowen and Joe Hockey wasn’t just duelling numbers or trading slogans. There were a few surprises.
It might not have been the most polished or nuanced; but it was certainly the most honest and most passionate debate we’ve yet seen – or are likely to see – in this election.
We’ve heard it thousands of times. It’s a three word slogan, a caricature, and recently, a shorthand way of describing Coalition policy both inhumane and in violation of our international obligations.
STOP THE BOATS.
By far, the aspect of Tony Abbott’s asylum seeker policy that has attracted the most criticism is the plan to somehow turn around boats holding asylum seekers and shoo them back to Indonesian waters. Apparently envisioning the Australian Navy and Coast Guard as little more than bully-boy escort ships, Mr Abbott’s always seemed confident that very little could possibly go wrong with his idea. Apart from the people smugglers possibly resorting to deliberately scuttling their ships. Or Indonesia refusing to let the boats land. Or, well, anything. Still, Abbott never seemed anything but serene. And today we found out why.
There’s another aspect to the Coalition’s policy. Abbott and his Shadow Spokesperson for Stopping the Boats, Scott Morrison, have been holding out on us. Such teases. Yes, they have a secret weapon up their sleeves – and it’s a doozy. They’re going to ‘smash the people smugglers’ business model’, and they’re going to do it with a combination of Orwellian public relations know-how and good ol’-fashioned capitalism.
They’re going to buy the boats.
Yep. With the help of the infallible intelligence that has already worked so well in stopping people smugglers, a Coalition government will identify which poor Indonesian fisherfolk have been offered money for their leaky boats, and … offer them more. Naturally, the aforementioned poor fisherfolk will want to take Australia’s money, and voila! – problem solved. No boats, no boat people.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Of course, this is a scheme with more holes than the boats the Coalition say they’re prepared to buy. For a start, it depends on identifying which fishing boats are, shall we say, up for negotiation. It assumes our intelligence is good enough – and so far, our record isn’t brilliant on that score. After all, if we were able to figure out who was cruising the docks around Indonesia inspecting boats for nefarious purposes, why not tap them on the shoulder and introduce them to the wonders of law enforcement? Not only would it take a people smuggler out of the picture, it’d be a darn sight cheaper.
Let’s say we don’t know exactly who’s making these offers. I don’t know, maybe they’re running around in Mexican wrestling masks or wearing bags on their heads. Anything’s possible, right? It still doesn’t prevent the transaction from being intercepted, much like a narcotics or drugs bust – and it doesn’t require us to buy a bunch of boats.
Just what are we going to do with these boats, anyway?
Offer them to schools as compensation for taking away the Schoolkids Bonus? Wow, think about it – one boat per child. We could offer VCAL training in boat-building and navigation, with electives in evading the Coast Guard. We could run excursions out in Port Philip Bay or Sydney Harbour – or, for schools further away from the coast, we could just kick out the rickety bottoms and hold a special Students Division of the Henley-on-Todd Regatta.
Or maybe it would be better to put those boats to good use directly combating people smuggling? We could string them all together in a long line and place them just on the border of international waters, so that any boats we couldn’t buy up won’t be able to get through. That’d be a great photo op for Prime Minister Abbott, straddling two fishing boats, one foot on each deck, gazing sternly into the distance. Think about that on a billboard in Indonesia.
Of course, it would be cheaper if we could just get the boats delivered to us, rather than pay for the shipping … oh, wait.
No, the Coalition have a better idea. They’re just going to destroy the boats.
Yup. Stop the boats, buy the boats, sink the boats.
I’m sure the parents of Australia will feel a warm glow knowing that the money they could have used to buy uniforms, textbooks and other school necessities will instead be heading off to another country to buy boats that are unseaworthy, and that will simply be scuttled.
And – what should be the most obvious problem – by saying we would be prepared to simply buy any boat that we were told was up for sale – we would be creating a market. For all the Coalition’s protestations that this would only happen where we had good intelligences, this is a scheme just begging to be exploited. It would be incredibly easy to set up a fake situation resulting in Australia buying a secondhand, rickety boat – and the fisher in receipt of this money now has the option to buy a better boat. Multiply that a few dozen times and you have the beginnings of a series of rorts, or even a boat-buying ring or six. Scott Morrison even acknowledged this during the policy announcement, when he refused to name exactly how much money the Coalition planned to set aside for buying boats.
Perhaps the scheme should be called ‘Operation Fishing Boat Upgrade’. Or maybe ‘Operation The Price is Right’.
Part two of today’s revelations involved the announcement that the Coalition wanted to set up a little something it called ‘Village Watch’. Put simply, this is a scheme whereby people would be encouraged to spy on each other, and ‘bounties’ would be paid if information led to an arrest or ‘disruption’ to people smuggling activities.
Nothing could go wrong with that idea, could it?
While they’re at it, the Coalition wants to put more members of the Australian Federal Police into Indonesia, and even give them some ‘vessels’ to patrol their own waters. (Presumably, these won’t be the same boats they plan to buy.) It’s all about a regional solution – but there was one crucial point missing from the policy.
That’s right. This is all about what Mr Abbott wants to do. He wants to take Australian public money – from a budget he says is in such a state of crisis that he must cut entitlements to parents of schoolchildren and low paid workers – and spend it to set up a boat-buying scheme and a spy network in another country, without having even a provisional agreement from that country.
Scott Morrison described this policy as ‘commonsense’. I beg to differ. It could only be more ludicrous if Mr Abbott decided to ride into battle on a Zodiac, firing a glitter cannon at a people smuggler’s boat. It’s the very definition of a ‘thought bubble’ – it sounds impressive, looks shiny, has no substance and is suddenly created from nowhere.
Except it didn’t. According to Morrison, the Coalition didn’t just come up with these ideas while watching the last debate and playing a drinking game.
They’ve been working on it for four years.
Like I said – you can’t make this stuff up. And that’s what’s so dreadful about it.
It’s less than three weeks to the Federal Election on September 7, so let’s take a step back from the campaigns to look at actual voting. In every election, there are misconceptions, half-truth and outright lies peddled by various groups, all designed to do one thing: convince you that your vote is only worth what they say it is.
That’s the first lie. Let’s bust the rest.
MYTH 1: I live in a safe seat. My vote won’t make any difference.
Political parties just love this one. The more they can convince voters that any given seat will remain in the hands of the current holder, the less work they have to do to keep those voters happy – and that gives them more time and money to campaign in marginal seats they might be in danger of losing. Prime Ministers and senior Ministers tend to hold ‘safe’ seats. Politicians tapped to be future leaders often move to a safe seat held by a party member who might be about to retire. It’s all very organised and stable.
Except when it isn’t. Safe seats may well be anything but. Usually, a seat would be considered safe if, at the previous election, the candidate won with 60% or more of the vote. At the 2007 election, however, a shock result saw Prime Minister John Howard lose his seat in a massive swing to Labor novice Maxine McKew. Howard became only the second sitting Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his seat (the first being Stanley Bruce in 1929). And in this year’s election, there are seats held with margins of over 12% that are considered ‘in play’.
When it comes to your vote, then, questions of ‘safe’ and ‘marginal’ are somewhat less meaningful than perhaps they used to be. It’s possible to overturn a safe seat with only a handful of votes. One of those could be yours.
MYTH 2: It doesn’t matter how I number my House of Representatives ballot, as long as I mark the party I want as number one.
This is a common mistake. The green House of Reps ballot requires you to number all boxes, and often people feel that they only need to focus on which candidate they designate as their first preference. As a result, they simply number the remaining positions straight down the paper.
Preferences determine the outcome of most marginal seats. That could mean a result that at first seems unlikely. For example, a Greens candidate ahead in first preference votes could well be defeated after second preferences were counted, if most of those preferences were for one of the major parties. The way you organise your preferences ensures you have the greatest possible influence on the outcome.
MYTH 3: A vote for a minor party or Independent is just a waste.
Oh dear. Another great piece of misinformation from the major parties – and one you’re likely to hear as you front up at the polling booth. The argument goes like this:
1. Minor parties/Independents don’t get elected.
2. You want to make sure your vote counts, don’t you?
3. You should cast your vote for a party that will get elected.
It’s all based on that first premise – which is rubbish. You only have to look at the Parliament just gone to see that. In the Lower House, we had four Independents and a Greens MP. In the Senate, there were 9 Greens, 1 DLP and 1 Independent. The make-up of that Parliament meant that the government of the day was required to be far more open to negotiation than previous, two-party situations.
There’s no clearer illustration that a vote for minor parties or Independents can be extremely effective.
MYTH 4: Electing someone from a minor party or an Independent will lead to a Parliament that doesn’t work.
You’ve heard this one from the Coalition, both in and out of Parliament’s chambers. Peppered with wonderfully ridiculous terms like ‘shambolic’, ‘unworkable’, ‘held hostage’, the Opposition did its level best to paint the 43rd Parliament, and particularly the minority government under Labor, as utterly useless.
Of course, it’s nonsense. That Parliament passed hundreds of pieces of legislation, including major reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, carbon pricing, and the Better Schools program. Additionally, it implemented a number of reforms to the way Parliaments conduct their business – streamlining Question Time, briefing minor party and Independent MPs and giving them access to Treasury for costings being only a few.
As for the notion that the Parliament was ‘held hostage’ – again, this is entirely down to a Coalition attempt to damage the Labor government. The idea there was to convince voters that Labor was somehow so beholden to the Greens that it would betray its own base just to hang onto power.
The minority government worked, whether people (or the Coalition) liked it or not. There’s no reason to think that another minority government would be any different.
Oh, and since Liberal leader Tony Abbott never bothers to remind voters – any Coalition government has also been a minority government, comprising the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Country Liberal Party, and the Liberal National Party. Those governments functioned – and, presumably, Mr Abbott thinks any future Coalition minority governments would do so again.
MYTH 5: It doesn’t make any difference if I vote above or below the line in the Senate, so I might as well save myself some time.
Oh, where to start with this one?
How can I put this simply? IT MATTERS.
Now, it can be an utter pain to fill in every little box, making sure that you haven’t doubled up or skipped a number. If you live in Victoria, this election is likely to be particularly onerous for you. But don’t be tempted to simply stick a number above the line and be done with it.
Why? Because once you do that, you’ve given your vote away to that party. And while you may think that party represents your views, what about those to whom it’s directed preferences? Do you even know who those parties or individuals are, for that matter?
It’s not too hard to find out the preferences for each Senate ticket – all the information is clearly available on the Australian Electoral Commission website. And there are a few unpleasant surprises when you do look. For a start, some tickets in Victoria didn’t even lodge their preferences with the AEC – so you have no way of knowing what would happen if you did simply hand over your vote.
Then there’s the issue of the Wikileaks Party. Broadly considered sympathetic to Left-leaning parties, the WLP was expected to direct preferences to the Greens – and, allegedly, had indicated that it would do so. Instead, it preferenced the extreme Right-wing Australia First Party in New South Wales; and in Western Australia, preferenced the National Party above the Greens.
WLP supporters demanded an explanation, and were told that the NSW preferences came about as the result of an ‘administrative error’.
There are no clearer illustrations of the need to know where your preferred party directs its preferences, and of the need to vote below the line in the Senate. To put it bluntly, it’s the only way your vote can be truly representative.
Thankfully, there are some very clever people out there at Below the Line. They’ve collected the ballot positions and full tickets for all seats and both Houses, and are in the process of setting up their ballot editors. You can find out who’s running in your electorate or State, organise your voting preferences with these editors and print those out on a sheet to take with you into the polling booth. Yes, you still have to write down a lot of numbers, but the majority of the work is already done.
CONCLUSION: So there you have it. Five myths, all easily busted. If you’re skeptical about politicians when they talk about policy, then it’s worth extending that to anything they say about voting. The vote is your power – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
First there was Labor’s Papua New Guinea Solution. Then there was the Coalition’s ‘Pacific Solution 2.0’. Both were harsh, and both rightly attracted criticism from asylum seeker advocates, human rights organisations and the public. Now the Coalition’s one-upped itself, with today’s announcement targeting the approximately 30,000 asylum seekers currently in detention – or, as Liberal leader Tony Abbott called them, the ‘old arrivals’.
Here’s a sample of the preamble to this policy announcement:
‘Illegal arrivals … if you can’t stop the boats, you’re not capable of governing this country … stop the boats … stop the boats … 30,000 who have come illegally by boat … we’ve always said people who come illegally by boat will not be granted permanent residency … those who come illegally by boat will get Temporary Protection Visas … come illegally … people who are here illegally by boat’.
That was in less than three minutes.
Of course, none of that was news to anyone who’s ever heard Abbott blow this particular dogwhistle. The Coalition runs on the theory that a lie repeated often enough will be accepted as truth. Asylum seekers who come by boat are not ‘illegal’. They are referred to in both international treaties and our Department of Immigration and Citizenship as ‘irregular’ or ‘unauthorised’ maritime arrivals:
‘The preferred terms for boat arrivals as used by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) are ‘unauthorised boat arrivals’ or ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ and, as noted above, people arriving by such means who then claim asylum are entitled to do so.’
Not that this has ever deterred the Coalition from pushing their lie. And yes, it is a lie. Coalition members, including Abbott, have been repeatedly informed of the truth, and deliberately choose not to speak it.
To return to today’s announcement …
The Coalition apparently decided that putting in place new policies to deal with further arrivals wasn’t enough. It announced retroactive strategies aimed at clearing out what it described as a ‘legacy backlog’ of asylum seekers waiting in detention centres for their claims to be processed. Kicking off with a paraphrase of former Prime Minister John Howard’s infamous slogan – ‘This is our country and we determine who comes here‘ – Abbott described what would happen to those 30,000 people (who, he asserted, were hoping for a Labor victory so that they could settle here permanently).
Their claims will be ‘fast-tracked’, under a ‘triage’ system. What that boils down to is that after a fast pass, anyone who might not be granted refugee status would be quickly processed, have their claim looked over and then ‘put on a removal pathway’. This includes anyone in community detention; if, during ‘triage’, they appear likely to be denied refugee status, they would be immediately returned to detention centres.
After that, ‘likely’ claims would be processed. Anyone finally granted refugee status would be given a Temporary Protection Visa for up to three years, assessed on a case by case basis. For the entirety of that time, TPV holders who were granted a welfare payment would be required to be in a Work for the Dole program. They would also be denied family reunion.
When their TPV expired, their refugee claims would be assessed again and if a Coalition government decided they no longer had any fear of persecution, they would be deported.
Almost as an aside, the Coalition’s Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison added that anyone even suspected of throwing away identifying documents would automatically be denied refugee status. ‘They won’t just go to the back of the queue,’ he said. ‘They won’t be in the queue at all.’
The final part of this ‘streamlined’ process would be the abolition of the Refugee Review Tribunal. Abbott noted that under the current system, 80% of those initially denied refugee status had their cases overturned on appeal. ‘That’s why Australians are questioning whether this a fair system,’ he said.
In response to questions, Abbott said he was confident that this plan, together with Operation Sovereign Borders, would see the number of boats drop to three per year by ‘well into’ his first term, certainly by 2016. He described this as ‘the happy situation that was brought about by the Howard government’.
There is nothing, nothing happy about this.
This is a system designed to do only one thing; kick as many people as possible out of Australia. It’s not intercepting a boat and processing asylum seeker claims offshore, or even settling people offshore. It’s targeting people who are already here.
And why? Purely so that the Coalition can say it’s ‘fixed the boat problem’. Not only will they stop the boats, they’ll punish those who already got here by boat. Asylum seekers would be entirely at the mercy of a system for which there is no independent oversight, no independent review, no recourse to even the most basic of rights.
DIAC would not have to prove that someone deliberately destroyed documents; it would be enough to be suspicious.
The ‘fast-track’ process (which Abbott likened to the system under Howard) virtually guarantees that grievous mistakes will be made, potentially sending people back into situations that would endanger their lives – but neatly avoiding the accusation that we are breaking our non-refoulement obligations, because after all, it was a mistake. Oops.
Even if someone is found to be a refugee, they would have no opportunity to build any kind of life here in Australia. Assuming they would qualify for welfare, they would need to work for the pittance they’d receive. (Funny thing – if you have to work for it, it’s hardly welfare.) It sets up a whole new lower class who would be dependent on relatives or charity organisations just to survive.
Perhaps they could serve in Abbott’s Green Army.
The Coalition knows what it’s doing. Morrison said, ‘We want to end the process where “no” becomes “yes” under an appeal’.
You read that right. The Coalition doesn’t want there to be any chance that a decision made by DIAC might be found to be wrong.
Morrison added, ‘The UNHCR says you don’t have to have both judicial and administrative processes’. The Coalition wants to go back to a pure administrative system; ‘it works better for us,’ said Morrison. ‘We’re not obliged to give [asylum seekers] the same rights as we are our citizens’.
There you have it. And while it’s possible there could be more inhumane asylum seeker policies, short of actually locking people up in the equivalent of Abu Ghraib, it’s hard to see how.
And yet Scott Morrison says the Coalition will deal with people ‘in accord with basic human decency’.
And yet Tony Abbott says the Coalition will ‘discharge its humanitarian obligations’.
This plan is neither ‘decent’ or ‘humane’. And for Abbott to describe it as bringing about a ‘happy situation’?
Words fail me.
Last night’s Leaders’ Debate should have been an opportunity to hear the candidates being closely questioned. It should have been a chance to have policies put up directly against each other. It should have been a moment where hard questions were put, and pressure kept up to force Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to actually provide some answers.
It wasn’t. The debate was disappointing, at best – and not just because the questions were clearly given to the candidates long beforehand. There were at least two clear ‘gifts’, one for each candidate – in Parliament, they’d be called Dixers – and the last question was almost served up on a platter to allow a policy announcement.
I’m only going to look at a couple of significant moments from the question and answer period, however, because I want to focus on the commentators, post-debate.
Generally, Abbott’s answers tended to be either riddled with slogans, or entirely composed of criticism of Labor. At one point, he referred to Labor’s policies as ‘waffle’, and at another, laughed derisively during Rudd’s answer. Rudd, as sitting Prime Minister, had the advantage of being able to base his answers on the government’s achievements, and go on to talk up new policies. There were few surprises, policy-wise, but it’s rare to see major announcements during a debate.
Rudd stumbled badly on the question of whether a Labor government would build a second airport for Sydney. Although his answer was essentially the same as Abbott’s – ‘we’ll have a look at that with some experts’ – he failed to point the finger at either the former Howard government or New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. He could have said that earthworks were actually in progress, stopped by Howard. He could have said that O’Farrell had absolutely refused to work with federal Labor. It’s anyone’s guess why he didn’t, but then he compounded the error by pointing out that there were infrastructure needs right across the country. No one likes to hear that their needs might be less important, no matter how true that may be.
For his part, Abbott came a cropper on the issue of aged care. The Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’ booklet has a vague paragraph promising an ‘agreement’ with providers in the sector. Pressed for detail on actual policy, Abbott had nothing to add. In fact, he grudgingly admitted he would keep the reforms passed under Labor.
Abbott also ruled out any changes to the GST – but was unable to answer why, in that case, the GST would be part of his promised tax review. He also tried to say that any change to the GST would have to involve the agreement of all States and Territories, and therefore unlikely even if he were looking at that. Speers pulled him up immediately for that piece of misinformation. A sitting government has the ability to change the current legislation, without undertaking any consultation.
But it was the last question, leaked some time earlier, that drove the biggest wedge between the leaders – that of marriage equality. The two answers could not have been more different. For Abbott, the issue was settled last term. Besides, there were much more important things. Effectively, the Coalition considered marriage equality a dead, second-order (at best) issue. Abbott did offer a sop at the conclusion of his answer, suggesting that the party room might look at the situation if anything changed. He certainly gave the impression, though, that it wasn’t worth holding your breath.
Rudd reiterated his change of heart, and commitment to marriage equality, calling it a ‘mark of decency’. Then came the election promise. Within the first 100 days of a Labor government, they would introduce legislation removing the impediments within the Marriage Act, and allow a conscience vote. It’s still highly unlikely that such a bill would pass, given the Coalition’s stance, but – unlike Labor’s former position – this would be a bill introduced by a Minister and backed by the Prime Minister. Such things carry their own weight and, while Labor would still have to deal with its own Right faction’s opposition, it gives them a stronger base from which to begin.
So much for questions. Let’s look at how the commentators and audience polls wrapped it up. Having the debate broadcast far and wide provided the opportunity for a real cross-section of viewers. Here’s how the polls saw the debate:
Channel Ten (One HD) = Rudd 61 – Abbott 39
Channel Nine (GEM) = Rudd 59 – Abbott 41
Channel Seven = Abbott 68 – Rudd 32
ABC = Rudd 71 – Abbott 29
Fairly decisive, you’d think. With one exception, every poll gave the debate to Rudd. The ABC’s poll, conducted via Twitter, could rightly be set aside as have a particularly limited audience – but even without that, on balance Rudd won the debate.
But then there were the commentators, who, almost as though they were working from the same script, gave the debate to Abbott. This was particularly startling in the case of the ABC, who published the results of their own polls, then proceeded to completely ignore them.
And why did Abbott ‘win’?
Because Rudd ‘started off nervously’.
Because Abbott ‘sounded confident’.
Because – you have to love the vagueness of this – Abbott ‘looked Prime Ministerial’.
Finally – and this was the point where credibility went out the window – no less a personage than Laurie Oakes asserted that Abbott had won, not in spite of his reliance on three word slogans, but because of them.
Yeah, you read that right.
Because, apparently, the essential qualities in judging whether someone is a good debater have nothing to do with the substance of their arguments. Or how well they refute their opponent’s points. No, no. It’s all about style.
Oscar Wilde observed that those who used the phrase ‘style over substance’ was a marvellous and instant indicator of a fool.
Now, call me the product of a bygone generation, but when I was at school, we were taught that debates are won on the quality of your argument. We were taught how to construct initial statements, build on those, and to rebut and dismantle our opponents’ arguments. We were assessed on those criteria, and the winner was whoever could do that better. Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I thought that was still how we determined who won our debates.
Oh, silly me. I keep forgetting that modern political reporting has less to do with issues of substance and more to do with whether Kevin Rudd’s hair was mussed up by the wind or Julia Gillard’s shoes sank into the lawn. It’s about whether the person in front of the cameras grabs attention with some snappy talking points, not whether they’re actually saying something of significance.
Think I’m exaggerating? Go take a look. The number one story to come out of last night’s debate is whether Rudd broke the rules by taking notes to the podium with him. And whether Abbott, lauded as being ‘note-free’, might also have had notes, as claimed by Lindsay Coombs, who tweeted a screen-grab showing notes on Abbott’s podium.
(For what it’s worth? The note issue is – and should be – a non-issue. Rudd made no attempt to conceal his notes, and said that as far as he knew, having them was permitted. Clearly, he was wrong. Last night’s setup was the exception rather than the rule for debates. It’s possible Rudd did assume he could act as usual. But really, is there any need to prevent someone from taking notes into a debate? What does it prove? It’s not as though a Prime Minister is required to operate under exam conditions – he has access to experts, briefs, any amount of needed information.)
So this is where we are. What should have been a way for us to learn more about the policies of the new major parties, vigorously debated, analysed at length with the precision that comes from long experience in political journalism – was a farce. Commentators ignored clear poll results, dismissed substance in favour of style, and focused on the existence of a few typed pages.
And today, those same commentators complain that last night’s debate was boring, and that no one will want to watch any others. How ‘lucky’, they said, that Channels Nine and Ten had secondary (read: less popular) channels to carry the broadcast.
I suggest that perhaps those commentators might better use their skills as judges on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’, or similar shows. Meanwhile, perhaps we could have a real debate – and get some real analysis, while we at it.