Freedom of speech for some

April 6, 2014

First they came for the Racial Discrimination Act.

Wrapping himself in the banner of ‘free speech’, our Attorney-General, George Brandis, proclaimed the equivalent of ‘let bigots be bigots’. Our Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson (he of right-wing think tank Institute of Public Affairs fame), stood shoulder to shoulder with Brandis and condemned the current laws as ‘bizarre’. Wilson – whose appointment was supposed to deliver ‘balance’ to the Human Rights Commission – claimed that, as things stand, members of any given ethnic group could racially abuse each other without consequence, but if the abuse came from outside the group, it was illegal. Curtailing one person’s freedom of speech like that was just plain wrong.

The solution? Remove virtually all of Sections 18c, d and e of the Act, and replace it with incredibly narrow language. Instead of it being an offense to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’, the proposed changes would replace those words with ‘vilify’ and ‘intimidate’. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too terrible. But then we get to the definitions.

‘Vilify’ is defined as ‘to incite hatred against a person or a group of persons’. That sounds very strong, but there’s nothing in the act that might indicate exactly how that might manifest. It wouldn’t be enough, under the proposed changes, to show that you were insulted or humiliated – you would have to prove that something was said that actively caused others to hate you.

‘Intimidate’ has been changed even further. The proposed definition means ‘to cause fear of physical harm’. Not emotional or psychological fear. It wouldn’t be enough to be so terrified of constant verbal harassment that you no longer dared to go into certain places. It wouldn’t be enough that your mental health was affected. Unless you could show that you were going to be attacked, the Act wouldn’t apply.

To make matters worse, the proposed changes are bound about with a raft of exemptions that render them all but useless. The current Act provides exemptions for artistic, academic or scientific purposes, or reporting a matter of public interest – but what Brandis announced would protect almost every form of public discourse:

‘This section does not apply to words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.

It’s hard to envisage any arena in which hate speech would not, therefore, be protected.

And what about that pesky ‘balance’ issue? Wilson’s claim that the current Act allows people of any given ethnic group to abuse each other doesn’t stand up under even the most cursory inspection. There’s no exemption on those grounds; anyone who contravenes the Act commits an offence. What Brandis proposes would do nothing to change that. In fact, it would simply become easier to entrench racism in public discussion.

But hey, it’s all in the name of freedom of speech, right? We can warm ourselves with that thought. Maybe we’ll upset a few people (but it’s not like they’re Aussies, not real Aussies), but we’ll be champions of the right to free expression. And it doesn’t even have to be ‘true’ – everyone has the right to their opinion. After all, we’re a ‘robust society’, we can handle a bit of public criticism, surely?

Oh, but wait.

Then they came for so-called ‘environmental boycotts’. You see, companies need ‘protection’ from those pesky greenie pinko lefty commos, who have this annoying habit of identifying products and practices that harm the environment. And then they have the audacity to suggest that people not buy from those companies, with the aim of pressuring them into changing the way they conduct themselves. It worked with Tasmanian timber company Ta Ann; they not only embraced green certification, but also now speak out in favour of co-operation with environmental groups. And currently, those groups are protected by the Consumer and Competition Act.

According to the government, however, this isn’t freedom of speech, though. This is what amounts to sabotage. How dare those greenies have anything to say about businesses?

The inconsistency is baffling. And it only gets worse.

Then they came for the public servants. Specifically, those who work in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Under new regulations, anyone who works for the PM & C would be gagged from making any form of political comment on social media. A specific case study concerned criticism of the Prime Minister, but the rules extend to comments on any MP or party, or their policies.

In other words, if you work for the government, you can’t talk about the government.

And don’t think you can get around it by anonymising yourself, either. If your mate in the next cubicle at PM & C knows your username on Twitter, he’s supposed to dob you in. That’s right, folks, the government actually encourages public servants to effectively conduct surveillance on each other.

It’s not just at work, on work computers. These regulations apply any time. anywhere. Whether you’re lying on the beach in Kuta, posting about how happy you are not to be back in Australia at the moment because you’re so upset at the government’s asylum seeker policies, or you’re at the pub and see a funny political gif showing Clive Palmer twerking that you want to RT on Twitter, you’re breaking the rules. Even if you happen to work for PM & C and write a ‘Mummy’ blog in your spare time, you don’t get to say anything about the government.

And if you happen to like writing book reviews about, say, Quarterly Essays, the latest offering from David Marr, Annabel Crabb, or the like, you definitely don’t get to speak. Maybe if you gave Battlelines a favourable review, you’d be okay, but I guess that would depend on your ability to sell out.

One wonders if standing in front of banners screaming, ‘DITCH THE WITCH!’ would count. And just how far criticism of non-government MPs would be punished. But surely not. This is about fairness, isn’t it? Certainly, Tim Wilson thinks so.

So let’s get this straight.

Freedom of speech for all – unless you’re an environmental activist group or a public servant. Then they’ll throw the book at you.

Protection from public criticism for all – unless you belong to an ethnic group and are being subjected to hate speech. Then you should just suck it up and learn not to be so thin-skinned.

Yeah. Sounds fair.

By now – seven months after the last election – the comment that the Abbott government has its priorities completely skewed is getting to be a tired old saw. Whether it’s paid maternity leave for rich women at the expense of the School Kid’s Bonus and welfare for orphans of war veterans; claiming ‘green’ credentials while moving heaven and earth to abolish organisations that encourage green energy development; or appointing astonishingly biased critics of the National Curriculum to ‘review it’ and ‘restore balance’, the government has shown itself to be riddled with hypocrisy. One suspects it’s even proud of that.

These proposed speech laws and regulations are just one symptom, but they are among the most dangerous. Freedom of speech is not absolute; we don’t have the right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, about whoever we want. We can’t publish lies in the media – hello, Andrew Bolt. We can’t rouse a riot and endanger lives – remember Cronulla, anyone? We cannot falsely advertise. We must tell the truth in court. All of these restrictions serve to aid social cohesion. At the same time, we can speak out if we have knowledge of wrongdoing. We can bring reasonable criticism to bear on our government.

Arguably, this last freedom is the most important. A government that attempts to make itself exempt from criticism, that punishes its citizens for speaking about its own policies and actions, edges close to the very dangerous territory of fascism. And that’s not something anyone should simply dismiss as completely impossible.

Gosh, it’s lucky I don’t work for the government. I would have lost my job before the end of the first paragraph.

Advertisements

Who needs science when you’ve got Wiki?

October 24, 2013

There are days when you read the political news and know that you’ll walk away angry.

There are days when you despair.

There are even days – rare, but they do happen – when a tiny, tiny shred of hope is kindled.

And then there are days like today, when you simply have to pick your jaw up off the floor and try not to let the sheer stupidity of it all overwhelm you.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the Coalition has a somewhat – shall we say – problematic relationship with the notion of climate change, and what might be done to mitigate its effects. Historically, the Liberal/National Parties have held more positions on the subject than might be found in the Kama Sutra. Malcolm Turnbull was toppled from the leadership just before he could commit to supporting the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, thanks to the machinations of former Senator Nick Minchin, the Coalition’s very own ‘faceless man’. As for the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the term ‘weather vane’ is used without irony to describe his feelings on the subject. Famously describing climate change as ‘absolute crap’, the PM apparently had a change of heart and was prepared to embrace the science – but only up to a point.

Currently, New South Wales is embroiled in an ongoing bushfire emergency. Of the three major firefronts, one is burning over 40,000 hectares. Around 200 houses have been destroyed, with countless others damaged. One man lost his life, and a water-bombing aircraft has crashed, killing the pilot. Between unpredictable winds, high temperatures and heavy undergrowth, the hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes are constantly having to respond to new emergencies. And it’s only October – months earlier than the ‘usual’ fire season.

Now, these are by no means the worst bushfires ever seen in NSW, or even the earliest. The fact that they are taking place, however, combined with the unseasonal weather, inevitably brings up the question of whether climate change is a major contributor. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was unequivocal on the subject. Although she stopped short of directly addressing the current fires, she pointed to studies showing that there was a known link between the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, and wildfires. She was joined by scientists and climate activists in calling for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases, and criticising the Coalition government’s determination to repeal carbon pricing.

Unsurprisingly, the Coalition rejected that argument. The Prime Minister wasn’t simply content with that, however. When asked what he thought about Figueres’ statement, Abbott replied that she was ‘talking through her hat’. Australia has always had bushfires; they are ‘part of the Australian experience’.

You have to admit, that’s pretty impressive. In one short interview, the PM managed to not only insult a senior figure in the UN, but also to dismiss the pain, stress and loss of everyone caught up in these fires. It takes real skill to be that insensitive.

But it gets better.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt was quick to back up his leader. His contribution was to flatly deny that Figueres’ statement had even taken place. According to Hunt, Figueres had a conversation with the PM in which she ‘very clearly and strongly’ said there was no link. Continuing his role as unofficial, unwanted spokesperson, he said Figueres had been misrepresented. Never mind the plethora of footage contradicting him.

Not content with putting words in Figueres’ mouth, Hunt apparently felt it was necessary to support Abbott’s arguments. Now, you’d think the right approach – especially from someone with the academic ability to gain a Bachelor of Laws and win a Fulbright Scholarship – would be to gather your evidence and distil it down to a few pithy talking points.

You’d think.

Hunt had a different idea. For reasons passing understanding, he told the BBC World Service that bushfires occurred during the hotter months of the year, and had done so since before European settlement. And just how did he know that?

He’d … wait for it … ‘looked up what Wikipedia said, just to see what the rest of the world thought’.

Wikipedia.

I wish I were making this up.

Our Environment Minister proudly announced – to the world – that his go-to source for facts and figures was an online pseudo-encyclopedia famous for its lack of oversight, inaccuracies, biases and edit wars.

A website on which the words of a scientist are indistinguishable from the words of a zealot, where celebrities are declared dead, and where harassed moderators frequently have to ‘lock’ pages to prevent users with an axe to grind from posting information that damages reputations. To say it’s unreliable is like saying a flood makes you ‘a little wet’.

Children are cautioned at primary school not to rely on Wikipedia. At secondary school, they’re positively discouraged from using it at all – and by tertiary level, it’s completely unacceptable. (I remember delivering that particular admonition to my first year students every semester – right after the warnings about plagiarism.)

The stories range from the serious to the utterly absurd. Take the long-running edit war over Caesar Salad. For over two years, editors have argued over whether this dish was invented in Ancient Rome or (relatively) modern Mexico, and tussled over the vexed question of whether adding tomatoes means you have to change the name. Then there’s the Great Scientology Edit War, which led ultimately to Wikipedia’s moderators banning the Church from editing its own pages. That final decision came after four years of back-and-forth that spilled over into mainstream media and threats of legal action, as ex-members sought to represent their negative experiences, only to have their work removed by current members bent on ‘correction’ (or sanitisation, depending on your point of view).

Oh, and let’s not forget the premature obituaries – like that of Apple’s Steve Jobs. News of his ‘death’ – originally an on-file obituary misprinted by Bloomberg – hit Wikipedia within seconds, back in 2008. Jobs, of course, was alive and well, but for the short time he was ‘dead’ on the internet, pandemonium reigned.
Perhaps this was a contributing factor in the way Apple’s stock plummeted later that year, when a fake article reported Jobs had suffered a heart attack.

Hunt himself fell victim to this sort of tampering after his statement hit the media. His page was edited to say that he ‘uses Wikipedia for important policy research’. Another gem noted that, since becoming Environment Minister, ‘He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise’. Soon after, the page was locked – but his comments about using Wikipedia are still there.

I could go on, but really, the point hardly needs to be made. Wikipedia may be handy for a quick look-up when nothing’s riding on the accuracy of your information. It may even be useful to lead you to other sources with a good deal more credibility. But when you’re the Federal Environment Minister, dealing with a serious situation in which lives, homes and businesses are under threat, you owe it to Australians to do at least some credible research.

This is the man who co-authored a thesis which concluded that a ‘pollution tax’ linked to the market was the best way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and runaway climate change. Presumably, he was required to provide good supporting references, so he hardly has any excuse for such a fatuous statement. But this is the example he’s prepared to set for the rest of the world.

Hunt is apparently happy for the world to know that our government is prepared to take the word of a group of unknown contributors – many of whom have little or no credentials – rather than listen to the experts on its own (now disbanded) Climate Change Commission. To represent us as so unwilling to even consider the possibility of a link between wildfires and climate change that we’d rather elevate a poorly-supervised website to the status of science.

It’s embarrassing. And it’s dangerous. Hunt’s ridiculous behaviour today is, unfortunately, just a symptom of the dumbing-down taking place in all areas of government right now, treating us like children and expecting us to believe whatever they tell us just because it comes from a place of power.

We need to be careful that we don’t let the sheer stupidity of it blind us to that fact – and that we don’t let it go unchallenged.


Election Eve Round-up

September 6, 2013

With under 24 hours to go, pretty much all that can be said about this election has been said. The media know this; they’ve run out of new questions. They’re reduced to repeatedly asking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd if he’ll stay in Parliament after his apparently inevitable defeat, and how long before Abbott repeals the ‘carbon tax’. Oh, and how Margie will like living in the Lodge.

Of course, what they are not asking – and for the most part, have not asked – is how the Coalition can justify handing out middle and upper class welfare dollars to those who least need it, while cutting funds for vital public transport infrastructure and for indigenous legal aid. They’re not asking how the Greens plan to force a majority government of either stripe to go along with their policies. And – with the notable exception of the Wikileaks Party debacle – they’ve ignored the minor parties altogether.

Instead, the News Ltd media this morning gave us a full-page photo of Abbott in close-up with the Australian flag behind him. The headline? ‘IT’S TONY’S TIME’.

Nope. No bias there. It has to be said, though, that it’s one of the Murdoch empire’s milder headlines. At least they managed not to Godwin themselves.

One notable exception in the lacklustre media coverage was the revelation last night that the Coalition had a hitherto unannounced policy for an opt-out internet filter. Broken by the ABC’s Latika Bourke and ZDNet’s Josh Thomas, the news sent the Shadow Communications Spokesperson, Malcolm Turnbull, into frantic damage control. Turnbull’s attempt to quash the story failed miserably when the policy was discovered on the Liberal Party’s website, Taylor published the audio evidence, and Bourke pointed out that Paul Fletcher (Turnbull’s junior) had walked her through the policy in detail. On The Project, Joe Hockey was blindsided. By 8.00 pm, the official line coming from the Coalition was that the policy – which was an old memo, never adopted – had been published in error by an unnamed staffer. An alternative version also popped up, stating that the policy had been ‘badly worded’.

Whatever the truth, the news was clearly damning. Whether that makes any difference to the vote, however, is another story. Arguably, the Coalition were never likely to attract many ‘net voters’, anyway – but at least it made the news.

Barring another such policy explosion, there’ll be little more coming from either major party before the polls open. With such a short time to go, however, there’s still time to read up on the parties, their policies, and some notable commentators in the independent media.

On the mythical beast that is the Coalition’s ‘costings’, Greg Jericho has a ripper of a piece over at The Guardian. Jericho points out what virtually no one in the major media has bothered to mention; what was released yesterday was not costings. It was a short document with few numbers, no detail and none of the bottom-line working-out that should be made available, presented to journalists ten minutes before the media conference. And we’re all supposed to take it on faith that the Coalition got everything right.

For in-depth analysis of the parties and group tickets, particularly in Victoria, Cate Speaks is your go-to blogger. If you can think of a party contesting this election, Cate’s put them under the microscope and turned the magnification up high.

Another very good site for summary and analysis, particularly of Senate candidates, is Butterfly’s Wings. Merinnan also looks into each party’s preferences, and where an above-the-line vote is likely to end up.

Over at the ABC, Antony Green’s Election Guide will take you around the country and show you every electorate in detail. (Okay, so it’s not independent media, but it’s an indispensable guide).

And for the policies themselves, here are the links to the websites, in alphabetical order. If I’ve forgotten anyone, please comment and provide a link, and I’ll update this post.

Animal Justice Party

Australia First

Australian Christian Party

Australian Democrats

Australian Greens

Australian Labor Party

Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party

Australian Sex Party

Australian Voice Party

Bank Reform Party

Building Australia Party

Bullet Train for Australia

Christian Democratic Party

Citizens Electoral Council

Country Alliance

Democratic Labor Party

Drug Law Reform Party

Family First

Fishing and Lifestyle Party

Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party

Katter’s Australian Party

Liberal Party

Liberal Democratic Party

No Carbon Tax Climate Skeptics

One Nation

Outdoor Recreation Party

Palmer United Party

Pirate Party of Australia

Republican Party of Australia

Rise Up Australia Party

Save the Planet

Secular Party

Senator Online

Shooters and Fishers Party

Smokers Rights Party

Socialist Equality Party

Stable Population Party

Stop CSG Party

Wikileaks Party

Finally, there’s Below the Line, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It provides a simple, user-friendly way for everyone to tackle those ridiculously long Senate ballot papers. In this election, with so many minor parties and with the looming prospect of both Houses being held by one party, voting below the line is more important than ever.

So that’s it, folks. Please, take some time, read up on the policies and some of the excellent analysis that is out there. Your vote is more than important – it’s crucial.

Tomorrow I’ll be live blogging and tweeting from early in the day. Please ‘call in’ with sausage sizzle reviews, dodgy tactics and dirty tricks (photos gratefully accepted), exit polls and anything else you see happening around town.

It’s all up to us now. Let’s do it.

UPDATE:

How could I forget the most crucial website of all? The Election Sausage Sizzle Map, for all your sausage, cake stall and school fete needs on Election Day – all those small, but necessary things that sustain us all. Where would we be without them?

Sausage sizzlers of the nation, I salute you. And I’ll have mine with onions and tomato sauce, thanks.


Leaders’ Debate 11/8/13 – style, not substance?

August 12, 2013

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.


Campaign 2013: Not an auspicious start

August 5, 2013

2013 Campaign, Day 1.

Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m rather over it already. In the last 24 hours, these are just a few examples of how things are shaping up.

On the politician front, we saw Clive Palmer, head of the Palmer United Party, assert that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ‘afraid’ to debate him. This fear, he claimed, was because Labor had no ideas, and couldn’t make a decent counter-argument to his calls for a ‘revolution’. I didn’t see any flags or chanting crowds with upraised fists, and Palmer wasn’t wearing a beret with a red star badge on it, so I’m not quite sure what he means by that. But then, he could be right. It’s hard to make a counter-argument when there isn’t something against which to argue.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, speaking on behalf of his leader, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott grudgingly praised each other’s families when pressed to name one good quality about their opposite numbers. Ah, family. Isn’t it heart-warming that even bitter enemies can say, ‘Well, at least they love their kids?’

Of course, had Julia Gillard still been Prime Minister, we’d have heard nothing of the kind. Likely, Abbott would have given us one of his trademark snide comments, while reminding us all that he’s married with kids. At least that issue is neutralised, though that’s hardly something of which we should be proud. The presence or absence of family is in no way an indicator of whether someone can be an effective Prime Minister.

With his early morning media appearances over, Abbott decided to get some work done early. No sense waiting until the election actually takes place, is there? Of course not. Democratic process? Pffft.

Abbott wrote to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, virtually instructing them to cease their activities. Thoughtfully, he also gave its employees plenty of advance notice that he’d be shutting them down altogether once he was in government.

Tony Abbott's letter to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation

Tony Abbott’s letter to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (my emphasis)

While he was at it, he told the media that he’d informed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet of his first activity as Prime Minister – which would, of course, be repealing the ‘carbon tax’.

The arrogance is breathtaking. Publicly, Abbott’s out there saying it’s going to be a long, hard fight, that it’s hard to win from Opposition, that Labor has the advantage. Privately, he’s already throwing his weight around the Canberra bureaucracy, claiming the authority of a Prime Minister and, apparently, expecting to be treated like one.

And then there were the Greens. Oh dear, dear, dear.

Now, no one could ever accuse the Greens of lacking in absolute commitment to their principles, and a willingness to pursue them with passion. But leader Christine Milne’s media conferences last night and today were, frankly, cringe-worthy.

She spent the bulk of her media time calling both major parties ‘cruel’, so many times that even experienced commentators lost count. This was largely directed at their respective asylum seeker policies, and it’s fair to say that at best those policies could be considered completely self-interested. A word repeated too many times, however, loses its impact, and that’s what happened here – particularly after Milne extended her accusations of cruelty to include environmental policies.

The other problem was that Milne backed herself into a corner on the issue of another possible minority government. After her condemnation of both Labor and the Coalition on asylum seeker policy, she stated flatly that the Greens would not, under any circumstances, enter into an agreement with the Coalition. Of course, the natural follow-up question was, would the Greens back Labor – and that’s where she came unstuck. It was clear Milne was more inclined to agree to that arrangement, but since she’d described both parties as almost identical in their ‘cruelty’, she had no justification for saying so. Instead, she fell back on repeating she wouldn’t support Labor’s ‘Papua New Guinea gulags’.

To say the media smelled blood in the water then was an understatement. Her appearances dissolved into incoherence.

Speaking of the media …

The Daily Telegraph’s front page left us in no doubt as to their opinion.

The Daily Telegraph's calm and measured start to its election campaign coverage.

The Daily Telegraph’s calm and measured start to its election campaign coverage.

Hilariously, the paper solemnly assured us that it was declaring its support for the Coalition ‘calmly and reasonably’, that it would not ‘play Labor’s game’.

I pause for howls of derisive laughter.

News Limited can hardly be accused of showing bias towards the government. A quick perusal of their headlines and op-eds shows that. For them to claim otherwise is a bald-faced lie. Today’s headline, though, goes one step beyond even Fairfax’s pathetic bleat that under Gillard’s leadership, it was impossible for the media to have a policy-driven debate.

The Telegraph isn’t merely complaining. It’s outright telling people how to vote. Yes, this tends to happen as a campaign goes on, but on Day 1? In tones best reserved for a pub owner dealing with a few rowdy drinkers? And on the front page?

This is nothing more than the Tele treating its readers as mindless mugs. Where Fairfax wrung its hands and wailed, News Ltd has opted for the blunt instrument approach. It’s crass, it’s obvious, and it’s insulting.

Finally, this piece of do-it-yourself campaign material deserves a mention, if only because it shows just how toxic the political atmosphere is right now.

It turned up in the form of three badly printed, badly photocopied pages shoved in the mailbox of a friend. That friend lives in a predominantly middle-class, ‘Anglo’ neighbourhood – which is right next door to one of the largest concentrations of Middle Eastern and Muslim populations in Melbourne. Here’s a sample:

Anti-asylum seeker campaign material

Anti-asylum seeker campaign material

In case it’s difficult to read, it boils down to: all refugees are trying to get to Australia so they can claim welfare payments. Once they’re here, they go back to their own countries, bring over fake families, and then settle down to have as many children as possible so they can claim even more welfare money. Just to be sure the message is properly communicated, the anonymous author/s of this piece of ranting garbage draw a false contrast between post-WWII European migrants (‘ALL THEY EVER ASKED FOR WAS A JOB, ANY JOB NO MATTER HOW DIRTY, STINKING LOW PAID IT WAS’ – original punctuation and capitalisation) and ‘refugees’ (who ‘GET NAMES THAT ARE MILES LONG AND UNIDENTIFIABLE’ … who ask ‘WHAT CAN I GET, WHAT WILL YOU PAY ME FOR JUST LANDING ON YOUR SHORES/COMING TO AUSTRALIA’.)

These pages are accompanied by selected ‘Letters to the Editor’ badly clipped out, pasted crookedly and photocopied, with helpful commentary in the white spaces.

There’s no organisation identified as being behind this material, although the use of the word ‘LEVIATHAN’ to name the text file from which it’s printed suggests the author’s have read at least a few articles in The Australian or the odd right-wing blog (which is rather fond of using that word to describe welfare or taxation of any sort).

Nonetheless, this is the direct result of a political discourse that thinks nothing of using a vulnerable group of faceless people as little more than a football. Scoring political points by stirring up ill-feeling against asylum seekers is, unfortunately, an effective tactic. It panders to the most xenophobic aspects of human character – and in doing so, tacitly gives approval for the kind of propaganda that paints all asylum seekers as potential welfare cheats, breeding uncontrollably in order to overwhelm the ‘real’ Australians and bring in sharia law.

I’m sure there’s more out there, from Christopher Pyne absurdly claiming three different policy decisions in less than 24 hours to the Katter Australian Party supporter in a giant hat who photo-bombed an ABC News24 reporter who was desperately trying to fill time while waiting for the Prime Minister’s plane to land.

This is just a sample.

And it’s only Day 1.

Strap in, folks, and lay in a good supply of whatever gets you through all this.

You’ll need it.


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.


%d bloggers like this: