The Culture Wars are back

April 22, 2013

Grab your rose-coloured glasses, run up the Union Jack and get spotting those black armbands. Yes, the culture wars are back.

Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne fired the latest salvo in our Federal-Election-campaign-that-isn’t, today. His target was the National Curriculum, specifically, the study of History – and the irony quotient was thick on the ground.

We shouldn’t take a ‘black armband view’ of history. We ‘should know the truth about it’. Best of all, ‘we shouldn’t allow it to colour our present and our future’. And what does all that mean? Why, that our National Curriculum is too ‘politically correct’ and that we need to ‘restore’ the importance of Anzac Day and our (wince) ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’.

Take a moment. Pick your jaw up off the floor – or stop laughing.

No, this isn’t some weird moment of de ja vu. You haven’t been transported back to the Howard era, and I haven’t been reading the fantastic imaginings of Keith Windschuttle. This is right now. Today.

Pyne says it will be the Coalition’s ‘first education priority’ to rewrite the National History Curriculum. It must be done! Our kids are in danger! They will not learn the truth about Anzac Day and our national identity! Why, we even have an expert – a one-man think tank named Dr Kevin Donnelly – telling us so.

Back up a minute, Nelly.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the truly astounding notion that it’s more important to shred the National Curriculum than, say, deal with issues of literacy, school funding, special programs, etc. (But, wow, couldn’t we go to town on that?) Just exactly how is this dreadful curriculum destroying Our Way of Life?

Here’s a novel idea. Let’s take a look. The document is freely available, after all.

Let’s see, now. Prep (or Foundation) level focuses on family history, and how family events are commemorated. Seems okay. Ditto Year 1 – oh, but wait. The kids are taught to look at how family structures may be different ‘now’, as opposed to in their parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods. Potential minefield there. Heaven forbid they learn about blended families, single parent families, ‘grandparent’ families or even – gasp – same-sex families.

Perhaps Mr Pyne wants to make sure kids deny the evidence of their own experience? Or is it just that he doesn’t want his government to be seen condoning such terrible situations?

Uh, Mr Pyne? Your Coalition has made damned sure that none of us are under any illusions there. We know what you think of us.

We move on, to local history in Year 3 (complete with projects that encourage kids to look at structures like local war memorials). Nothing wrong with that – but uh-oh, here’s where it gets ‘unacceptable’. Here we have the first mention of indigenous peoples. Kids are taught about the important of Country and Place, and about national holidays. Oh, they get taught about Anzac Day, but they also get taught about National Harmony Day, and Sorry Day. How dare we ask kids to think of anything to be as important as Anzac Day?

It gets worse! Now, we’re supposed to ask kids to consider Anzac Day as a holiday similar to Christmas Day – or Ramadan – or Chinese New Year! Or Independence Day in the US!

We have to teach them about our first contact with indigenous peoples, Asian migration to the goldfields, giving the vote to women and to indigenous people, the contribution of migrants, the environment movement, reconciliation around the world, Asia (specifically China) in the modern world, and even (horror of horrors), the spread of Islam.

Terrible, isn’t it?

Now, maybe if that was all our kids were being taught, Pyne might have a point. Except it isn’t.

Our kids also learn about Anzac Day … and the ancient world … the rise of Christianity … Federation … World War II … the First Fleet … the Eureka Stockade (whoops, better not include that one, we might give the kids the idea we approve of unionism) … Aussie Rules football (for goodness’ sake) … Kokoda … etc … etc.

Now, I went through school (in the 70s and 80s), but I’ve got a pretty good memory (and some of the textbooks, dear me). From Grade Prep to 6, we learned virtually no history. In Year 7, we had some fun learning about ‘cavemen’ and ancient Greece (history, apparently, started with the Greeks). Year 8 was medieval European history (specifically Christian-based – those evil Saracens, dontcha know), and Year 9 was Australian History.

It’s worth pointing out that when I say ‘Australian’ history, I’m talking ‘British’. There was a nod to the Aboriginals who came out to watch the First Fleet, but otherwise, the concept of terra nullius was firmly entrenched. All those explorers – Dampier, Cook, Burke, Hume – apparently wandered around or landed on a really big island with strange animals and no people. Except for the occasional ‘native tracker’, who seemed to spring from nowhere and act the part of the good little servant, we didn’t find out anything about the indigenous peoples. Oh, except for the occasional anecdote about ‘savages’ who attacked the white settlers.

We did spend a lot of time learning about Gallipolli – how it was all about mateship, and our brave men playing cricket on the beaches at Anzac Cove. At no time did we learn that it was a terrible defeat, or that our war dead were virtually led into a killing field. We had Australia Day dress-ups (oh, those colonial bonnets) in Primary School and Anzac Day ceremonies in High School.

(And while we’re on the subject of Anzac Day, you really have to wonder why Pyne and his ‘expert’ are so worried. Thanks to former Prime Minister John Howard, all our schools have flagpoles – and they use them. Anzac Day is commemorated every year with the minute’s silence. Primary kids learn about the origins of Anzac Day, are allowed to take the day off to march in the parade for their grandfathers, or even accompany marchers from battalions associated with their school (as my own children did last year, marching with the 2/14 Battalion in honour of Bruce Kingsbury, VC, after whom their school was named). It’s a part of school life in a way it never was during my early years – back then, we stood in silence but never really understood why.)

We learned about Chinese people on the goldfields, but not about the White Australia Policy. We learned about Changi and the Burma Railway, but not that we interned people in camps during World War II.

In short, we learned a piecemeal version of the history of our own country, and largely pretended the rest of the world didn’t matter. The National History Curriculum offers a much more comprehensive course that gives us ‘warts and all’ – as any student of history knows, you have to read the good with the bad, or you end up learning nothing. So where, exactly, is the ‘very one sided, politically correct view’ that so worries the Coalition?

You have to love that phrase, ‘politically correct’. It’s such a good insult to throw around. Say something that makes people uncomfortable? You’re politically correct. Point out where privilege is operating and people are/were disenfranchised? Likewise – and worse, you have a ‘black armband’ view. The Coalition seems to think it’s important that we don’t tell our kids what we did, what our ancestors did, what our country was like in the past and what its place is in the world.

This is a very dangerous way of thinking. It’s a truism that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What the Coalition proposes is not that we forget the past, but that we actively bury it. That we distort it. That we lie to our children and tell them that nobody really got hurt in white settlement, that Gallipolli was glorious and that we’re a homogenous, ‘Judeo-Christian’, white society – and that, by implication, everyone else is not really ‘Australian’.

It’s not just a step backwards. It’s a giant leap straight into the arms of propaganda – because, make no mistake, that is exactly the aim of the Coalition’s proposed ‘rewrite’. Donnelly, claims that those responsible for drafting the National Curriculum ‘are hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that make this nation unique’.

The key phrase there is ‘grand narrative’. Simply put, a grand narrative is an overarching story-of-stories that is used to replace smaller, more detailed stories. Most of the time, such a narrative leaves out or obscures more than it explains. In this case, Donnelly claims that the National Curriculum undermines the grand narrative of Australia’s British heritage and its debt to Europe (read: Britain, or at least northern Europe, possibly France if we’re feeling generous).

And well it should. However much Donnelly, Pyne and Howard would like it to be otherwise, Australia is not – and has never been – a little piece of Britain. We are far more complex, and our history is far richer. We do every student a disservice by trying to teach them otherwise.

You might not agree with the current (or proposed) school funding split. You might think NAPLAN is a horrible idea, and MySchool a waste of time. But when it comes to either teaching our kids the whole story, or giving them a pretty meagre pick-n-mix view of history – it should be a no-brainer.

And if giving the kids a perspective on Australia’s place in the world, our indigenous history, and the way we’ve been shaped by religions, cultures and political beliefs of all kinds – if giving them that makes us politically correct …

Let’s aim for a score of 10/10.

Advertisements

Seeking Asylum: The Punishment that Fits No Crime

October 22, 2012

Things are looking up for the government. The first study on the effect of carbon pricing indicates a related fall in carbon emissions, without the stupendous price hikes predicted by the Opposition. Australia comfortably won the vote to gain a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite Opposition pessimism, doubt, and what looked suspiciously like sour grapes. Prime Minister Gillard’s numbers are up, and the government has even started to fight back in two-party preferred polls.

Yes, things are pretty rosy – and you know what happens next, don’t you?

The Opposition shift the ground. There’s always another issue on which they can fall back. This time, it’s asylum seekers – again. Specifically, the Coalition decided to take aim at the government’s part-adoption of the Pacific Solution, detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

The Greens don’t want anyone on Nauru (or in mandatory detention at all, for that matter) – but are low on specifics as to how to implement their preferred ‘regional approach’. The government won’t tell us exactly how their ‘no advantage’ system is supposed to work – that is, how long asylum seekers on average would have to wait to be processed and granted refugee status. We’ve got some vague statements about making sure that those who come on boats don’t manage to get ahead of people ‘in the queue’ in refugee camps – never mind that the ‘queue’ simply doesn’t exist – but no numbers whatsoever.

Surprisingly, the one party who are giving us details is the Coalition. And those numbers are, frankly, horrifying.

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison announced that, under a Coalition government, asylum seekers should expect to be detained on Nauru for a minimum of five years. In what looked remarkably like a game of ‘Dare-You-Double-Dare-You’, he suggested the government adopt the same position, while Immigration Minister Chris Bowen countered by urging the Coalition to get on board the Malaysia solution. As usual, neither side wants to give an inch.

But let’s look at the Coalition’s proposal a bit more closely. Five years minimum mandatory detention. By anyone’s standards, that’s a long time to be stuck on an island with no idea whether you will eventually receive some certainty for your future. Add to that the fact that these are effectively stateless people, confined to sub-standard camps with poor facilities in a landscape devastated by phosphate mining, and sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius with very high humidity. Then take into account the fact that they can’t leave. They can’t decide to go for a walk, see a movie, have a picnic, or go shopping for a treat.

Looks a lot like a prison, doesn’t it? Of course, prisoners have an allowance, which they are allowed to spend. Asylum seekers simply cannot receive any form of financial assistance until they are out of detention – when they can apply for help from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. Generally, too, it’s a fairly straightforward process to visit a prisoner – you don’t need to find money for an international flight and visa, have a current passport, and jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to gain permission to enter the detention centre.

While we’re on the subject of comparing prisons and asylum seeker detention centres, let’s look at that number again – at least five years. How does that stack up to sentences given to convicted prisoners?

According to a 2011 report prepared by the Sentencing Council of Victoria, of 228 people who received a custodial sentence for the crime of rape,
over 80% were sentenced to less than six years
. Half of those were eligible for parole in under four years.

Less than four years. Those who commit rape, a crime which our society regards as one of the worst outrages that can be inflicted on a human being, are imprisoned for roughly the same time it takes to complete a university degree – or hold two Federal elections. Under the Coalition’s plan, asylum seekers would be detained for at least a year longer.

Why such a long detention period? What have asylum seekers done, to warrant such strict conditions?

The short answer is: NOTHING.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. Despite the oft-repeated assertions of Morrison and his Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, people are absolutely entitled to seek asylum in Australia – and we have an obligation to process them, if not re-settle them in our country. We are, after all, signatories to Refugee Conventions. By referring to them as illegal, however, the Coalition plants the idea that something shifty is going on here.

It goes further. The Coalition suggests such people may not be ‘real’ refugees. Often they arrive without identification – what have they got to hide? They pay huge amounts (around US$4000) to people smugglers – why are they trying to get ahead of all those (real) refugees waiting patiently in camps around the world? If they’ve got money, why don’t they just leave normally? Any attempt to bring even a little factual evidence – or even logic – into the discussion is met with blustering rhetoric and accusations of being ‘soft on border protection’.

And make no mistake – Abbott knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that the official term used for boat-borne asylum seekers is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’. He knows they’re not doing anything wrong by trying to get here. He knows that detaining people for long periods on remote islands, preferably ones that are not even part of Australia, tends to fade from the headlines if there are no faces to go with the protestations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If he plays the waiting game long enough, there will only be a few voices speaking up against a xenophobic attitude that he has done nothing to counter, and everything to encourage.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the Coalition should be now insisting on what can only be called an entirely punitive sentence for people who have committed no crime, circumvented no process, and are simply trying to save themselves and their families. It’s business as usual – demonise the victims, while claiming to ‘protect’ them from evil people smugglers and risky boat voyages.

Oh, and that five years? Is the low end of what the Coalition thinks is appropriate for mandatory detention. Morrison gave no figures for the maximum time an asylum seeker could be detained. Given that even twelve months’ detention on Nauru under the Pacific Solution resulted in adverse mental health outcomes that afflict refugees to this day, the prospect of five, six, or even more years smacks of outright, deliberate cruelty.

Lest we let the government off scot-free, however, it’s worth repeating: the Coalition have given us a minimum number. The government have given us nothing. We have no idea how long the government would be happy to keep someone in detention, other than some vague mutterings about being equivalent to the ‘average’ time taken to process someone in a camp in our region. As the UNHCR pointed out, though, it’s impossible to even establish an average time. It’s a meaningless concept – and since there is evidence of people in camps waiting for ten years or more, that ‘no advantage’ test starts to take on truly horrifying possibilities. The government seems to think that if one person suffers terrible hardship and interminable delays in having their refugee claim processed, then it’s acceptable for others to undergo the same ordeal. So sorry, but you understand how it is – we have to be fair, after all.

It’s not ‘fair’. It’s coldly, calculatedly inhumane. Whether it’s the government’s ‘we’re-not-telling’ or Morrison’s ‘five-years-and-counting’ solution, the treatment of asylum seekers has gone way past a race to the bottom. The major parties know that this issue can be manipulated in an election campaign, and are only too eager to play to the xenophobic strain that seems to run right through Australian society (with the help of certain areas of the media) if it will gain them votes.

Now, maybe I’m doing Prime Minister Gillard and Abbott a disservice. Maybe they do care about the welfare of asylum seekers, and the way they deal with them is sacrificing personal feelings for the long-term gain of the ‘top job’.

That only makes it worse.

Whichever way the next election goes, asylum seekers lose. They will be packed off, out of sight, to Nauru (or Manus Island, or Malaysia), and treated like prisoners of war who have no idea who is winning, or if it will ever end. Sadly, this is the best outcome – because even if the boats don’t stop coming, and the current strategy proves to be an utter failure, neither party is likely to retreat from a hard-line stance. They’d lose far too much face, and give their opposition a great deal of ammunition. The alternative is to become even more punitive, more harsh – and given the appalling state of affairs that exists now, that possibility is terrible. Human lives would become less than pawns.

And we would all be culpable.


It’s the end of the world as we know it

July 2, 2012

Day 2 under the cruel yoke of the ‘carbon tax’.

It’s true. It’s all true. How blind we were not to see it! This toxic tax is destroying us all.

I’m reporting to you from my bunker in Townsville, where the unseasonably warm weather is just one sign of how devastating this tax has been. Now, what I have to say might shock readers,, but I’m committed to bring you the truth – no matter how ugly.

As I write this, I look around me at the ruin of our civilisation. In this once-neat middle-class suburb, I can see lawns that need mowing, dogs romping – without leashes in the park opposite, and the raucous, triumphant laughter of the lorikeets drowns out the sound of the lamenting populace.

Tony Abbott was right. This tax is hurting us all. Why, just last night we were forced to choose between Masterchef and The Block. What sort of government institutes a tax that divides families like that?

And it gets worse. We’d planned a family roast dinner, but because of the carbon tax, the meat was undercooked and we had to eat in the dark.

Today, we plan to venture out into the chaos to see what can be salvaged. We’ll have to walk, of course – we need to conserve what little petrol remains for when we’ll inevitably have to flee. It’s just a question of where. We could probably survive in the mountains, but it might be better for us to sell whatever we can and get on a boat. I’m sure we could find a country generous enough to take in carbon tax refugees.

It’s the children who suffer most, and my heart breaks to see them. My niece can no longer access Facebook, and my teenage nephew had to wake up at (dear god) 7.00 am and go to work.

My computer’s batteries are dying now, so I’ll have to finish this entry and hope it gets out. People need to know.

Just remember – it’s only going to get worse from here. Soon, we’ll be reduced to living in armed camps and eating each other for food – uncooked, of course. Tony Abbott warned us and we didn’t listen.

And he couldn’t possibly be wrong, could he? Just look at the evidence.


A reality check on the Peter Slipper ‘scandal’

April 23, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugly, right?

But let’s get a few things straight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, it really is that ugly.

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

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

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


Daily Tele asylum seeker story is just rabble-rousing

February 17, 2012

Just when you think you’ve seen it all.

In a week where Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop trivialised fear and suffering, Four Corners embarrassed itself with possibly the worst beat-up yet screened on the so-called ‘Labor leadership tensions’ and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott repeatedly ascribed apparent powers of time travel to the not-yet-implemented carbon pricing scheme, it was something of a relief when Parliament rose yesterday.

But then there was this.

In what might be charitably described as the most revolting and prejudicial piece of muckraking journalism since Scott Morrison was invited to complain about the injustice of letting refugees attend funerals on Christmas Island, today’s Daily Telegraph tried to whip up its readers into a frenzy of envy and righteous indignation. Its target? Asylum seekers. Specifically, the amount of money being spent on readying homes for community detention and helping families set up a new life in Australia.

The headline was a bit of a give-away, really. The article, written by Gemma Jones, was worse – thinly-veiled racist sentiment disguised as appeals for a ‘fair go’ for our celebrated ‘working families’.

You see, these asylum seekers are getting a big ol’ hand-out. They get places to live, beds to sleep in, medical treatment, and even food. It’s … it’s … outrageous! We’re doing it hard right now, on our $180,000 a year incomes, and soon we’ll have to pay for our own health insurance! Not to mention the evil ‘carbon tax’! No wonder there’s an armada of boats on our horizon!

Mike Stuchbery took on the racism in brilliant, scathing style, exposing the truly ugly face that lies behind the fake concern for ‘fairness’. I cannot recommend his article highly enough – but maybe have a soothing cup of tea to hand. You’ll need it.

I wanted to take a closer look at the claims made in the Telegraph, though. So here’s a reality check.

First the claims, and their nasty implications.

There are 97 homes scattered around suburban Sydney (Ashfield, Bankstown, Cabramatta, etc) that the government is in the process of setting up for community detention. The rent on these homes averages $416 a week. Phone and electricity connections will be covered.

The government’s spending around $10,000 to set up these homes, buying every from fridges to coathangers to plasma televisions.

Every family moving in will get a package of goods worth around $7100 (for a family of five). That package includes a hamper containing milk, bread, butter, cleaning products and ‘essentials’ (air quotes courtesy the Tele. If they’ve got more kids, they’ll get more money. And if they have a baby, they’ll get a $750 pack of basic supplies.

Along with all that luxury, detainees may ask to have certain other items considered: bikes, rollerblades, computers, internet access, iPods, etc.

On top of everything, they get a benefit, free medical, dental and pharmaceutical treatment, and free education.

All of which is paid for by you, the working taxpayer. You’re helping these people live high on the hog so they can kick back and watch DVDs while you struggle to put food on the table.

And now, a little reality.

The median house rental price in Bankstown as of July 2011 was $440. In Cabramatta this month, it’s $400. These houses do not belong to the detainees. The government holds the leases.

Let’s get to the ‘luxuries’. The Tele helpfully furnished us with a list, so I’ve done a bit of research on the government’s apparent extravagance, looking for mid-range items without bulk or commercial discounts. White goods mentioned in the article were sourced from the Good Guys. Furniture was source from Fantastic Furniture. And then I compared these costs with my own home. For the record, we’re a family of four earning approximately 50% above the average national wage.

A mid-range, 8 kg washing machine was $807. Ours cost us $1400.

A microwave oven was $207. It’s been a while, but it was around the same price for us.

A DVD player (or in this case, a DVD/HDD player/record) was $188). We don’t have one of these anymore – we upgraded to using a computer media centre.

A reasonably sized side-by-side refrigerator/freezer was was $1874. That’s about what we paid.

The article listed an alarm clock radio. I had to go to Harvey Norman to find that one – for a whopping $27. In fact, this is exactly the same model I bought for my kids last Christmas.

As for the plasma television, I had to look high and low to find a price on a television this size. Eventually I found this one for $369. It’s worth pointing out that if you’re reading this blog on a desktop computer, your monitor is probably the same size as this ‘luxury’. Our own TV is around 42 inches, and cost us nearly $1000 when we got it on sale.

And you can’t buy an old-style, CRT television for love nor money these days.

And now for the furniture, which the Tele helpfully tells us includes mattresses, lounges, coathangers and ‘containers for biscuits. I assumed that the government didn’t actually expect detainees to sleep on the floor, and included bed frames, drawers, coffee tables, and the usual accessories.

The most expensive queen bedroom package at Fantastic Furniture costs $1499; a comparable single bedroom package is $769). By contrast, my last mattress cost nearly $2000 and the bed frame $1000. So, even before factoring in the two bedside tables ($300 each) and the tallboy ($800), that’s twice the price.

I don’t really need to go into detail about my kids’ loft beds and mattresses, do I?

Moving into the living areas, the most expensive ‘home starter’ package costs $4999).

Now, we just bought a new lounge suite. It was an exciting moment in our house, since we haven’t had a new one since … well, ever. It cost us $2500. Add to that an entertainment unit, coffee table, side tables, dining table and chairs … you see where this is going, right?

Moving on to the heights of absurdity … we buy our coat hangers from Coles, and it usually costs us $12-15 for a box of 20 wooden ones. A biscuit container can cost anything from $10.00 for Decor plastic ware, to over $100 for specialist earthenware from a big-name brand. I’m guessing the government isn’t springing for Waterford Crystal.

Then there’s the welfare. As Immigration Minister Chris Bowen points out, asylum seekers are not permitted to work while their claims are processed. Some support is necessary, and this is on a par with pensions. Asylum seekers often arrive with untreated medical conditions, some quite serious. Is the Tele really suggesting they not receive care?

And let’s not forget the ‘welcome hamper’, which the Tele seems to think contains the rough equivalent of a magnum of Moet, pate de foie gras and caviar. The hamper actually contains the very basics of setting up a home, for goodness’ sake. We give more to our kids when they move out for the first time! I did visit Coles Online to source some prices – but honestly, it’s not worth it. The claim that giving people these items is in some way a terrible thing is just not worth dignifying with that much work. Ditto the baby supplies.

But hold up a second: none of that matters, because here’s the real kicker.

Almost all of the costs cited by the Tele are for the initial establishment of rental homes that will be used by multiple families. These people will be in community detention. They will have to move out when their claims are processed. Quoting Bowen, again: ‘People do not keep the goods, they remain in a house when a family moves out and are used by the next people who move in.’

And the rest of the costs? Are the least we can do. Is the Tele honestly suggesting that we shouldn’t pay for basic set-up supplies for people who arrive on our shores with nothing more than the clothes on their backs? That we shouldn’t buy nappies for babies?

The article is beyond misleading. It is vicious rabble-rousing guaranteed to stir up fear and resentment against some of the most vulnerable people in the country. A little basic fact-checking shows that this is not a case of wasteful government spending, pork-barrelling or any other type of mismanagement or corruption. Did no one think to do this? Or did they just decide that the sensation value outweighed any petty concerns like facts?

What sickens me is the creeping suspicion that this is exactly what the Daily Telegraph did. That they made the cynical, reprehensible decision to publish this article because they knew it would appeal to the most mean-spirited impulses in Australian people. And therefore make them money from sales and advertising.

And if the cries to ‘stop the boats’ get louder? If the already inhumane treatment of the majority of detainees becomes worse as a result of politicians grabbing for votes? If a few more asylum seekers are spat on in the streets, subjected to racist bullying and outright violence from those who feel they’re ‘getting it easy’?

That’s not the Tele’s problem, is it? They just print the news. And if something bad comes of anything they produce? That’ll be a good story. Of course, it won’t be their fault.

Well, here’s some breaking news for you, News Limited. You are not printing news. You’re making it up. You are not producing good journalism. You’re pandering to the lowest impulses in human nature. You are not informing the public. You’re taking advantage of people’s trust in news services (and yes, people do still trust the mainstream media, goodness knows why) to lie to them and encourage them to adopt a xenophobic mob mentality.

You’re a disgrace to news production. Gemma Jones is a disgrace to her profession. And every sub-editor, fact-checker or proof-reader who let that article go through is complicit.

And you won’t get away with it for much longer, if there’s any justice left in the world.


Shameful Australia Day shouldn’t be obscured by spin

January 28, 2012

Remember when Australia Day was all about having a barbecue, going to the beach or just generally bludging at home? Remember when the pressing issue of the day was whether you’d bought enough ice, or had your radio tuned to Triple J? Oh sure, there was always muttering from boring people who said the day had ‘lost its meaning’. And lately, a lot more people have jumped on the ‘Invasion Day’ bandwagon in an annual display of disapproval for the way indigenous Australians were treated by the first colonists. (Which is not to denigrate those who work tirelessly to redress the situation, or those who have to bear the scars of its heritage.) Mostly, though, Australia Day was an excuse for a long weekend, and nobody gave it much thought beyond that.

This year is different. If no one remembers anything else from Australia Day, they’ll remember the footage of Prime Minister Julia Gillard being dragged to safety from the Lobby restaurant in Canberra by her protective detail, surrounded by angry protesters from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

The Prime Minister is dragged to safety by her protective detail. (photo via Getty Images)

Regardless of your personal opinion of Gillard, her government or politics in general, it’s a shocking image. And the footage is even more confronting. People banging on the glass windows of the restaurant, screaming. Gillard being rushed down the steps, stumbling and ending up almost being carried after she nearly fell. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott hurrying along, surrounded by the Prime Mister’s detail. Protesters pushing against the police line. A woman triumphantly holding up Gillard’s shoe, lost in the panic, as though it were some kind of trophy. (And that shoe later turned up for sale on eBay.)

It was an ugly display, and it did nothing good for the cause of the Tent Embassy.

So what happened? How did a largely peaceful – albeit angry – protest on the lawn of Parliament House turn into a howling mob?

First reports said it was because Abbott had called for the Tent Embassy to be torn down. Social media erupted in outrage. The milder responses called Abbott irresponsible. The more extreme labelled him ‘racist’ and ‘scum’.

Then the actual footage surfaced. Abbott was asked if he thought the Tent Embassy was still ‘relevant’, or whether it was time to ‘move on’. He gave a long, rambling answer that ended with ‘it’s probably time to move on‘.

At which point the outrage turned on the Tent Embassy. The protesters had ‘deliberately’ twisted Abbott’s words. They’d behaved ‘like animals’. Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr opined that the Embassy should have been ‘quietly packed up years ago’. And this morning, so-called ‘non-partisan online activist community’ Menzies House (in actuality, a right-wing mouthpiece for Coalition policy founded by Senator Cory Bernardi), announced the launch of its latest website, closethetentembassy.com. Describing the Embassy as racist, illegal and ‘reverse-apartheid’, Menzies House even had the unbelievable cheek to quote Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in support of what is little more than a dogwhistle to racists. Apparently the irony of this was lost on them.

But wait … the saga’s not over.

Last night, one of Gillard’s media staffers, Tony Hodges, resigned. He admitted that he’d spoken to someone about Abbott’s comments, adding that the Opposition Leader was in the Lobby restaurant. That ‘someone’ informed indigenous activist Barbara Shaw at the Tent Embassy, but what subsequently went out over the loudspeaker to the crowd was not Abbott’s actual quote, but something far more inflammatory – that Abbott had said the Embassy should be torn down.

And suddenly – incredibly – Abbott was the victim. It was a conspiracy within the government! Abbott was set up! The media unit incited a riot to get at Abbott, and it backfired!

Never slow to capitalise on any perceived advantage, Abbott and Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne went on the attack in full spin mode. It was a ‘grubby business,’ said Abbott. (Not the violence, mind you – the ‘grubbiness’ was all the PM’s fault.) It was ‘the most serious security incident to befall our nation’s leaders for quite a few years’. (Notice how he refers to himself as the Prime Minister’s equal?) ‘A member of the Prime Minister’s senior staff was trying to trigger something … potentially dire … for political advantage’. (Point of fact: Hodges was only recently promoted to a junior media position.) Most hilariously hypocritical of all: the Prime Minister needs to ‘stop the spin’ about this issue.

Then came the absolutely unsubstantiated claims – that the information was ‘fed’ to the Tent Embassy, that it was ‘deliberately false’, and that Abbott’s location was ‘classified’. There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest any deliberate fabrication on Hodges’ part. Equally, there’s no evidence that Hodges in any way intended to create any kind of disturbance, let alone what actually happened.

As for the suggestion that Hodges somehow leaked ‘classified’ information – well, where do I begin? Abbott’s basically suggesting that anyone who spotted him, and picked up the phone to tell their mates, would somehow be guilty of espionage.

Abbott was quick to praise the actions of the Prime Minister’s security detail, who – at Gillard’s request – escorted him safely from the building. They were under no obligation to do so, as the Opposition Leader is not usually afforded the same protections as the Prime Minister. The footage shows that as soon as she was made aware that her security considered the situation to be deteriorating, Gillard moved to make sure Abbott was safe. It was an entirely decent act, and Gillard has in no way tried to capitalise on it. There was little else Abbot could do than be gracious.

Except that on Saturday Agenda, Abbott was asked by Chris Kenny, ‘You’re not suggesting the Prime Minister was aware of this, that she sanctioned this?’ His answer? ‘She has to give a full explanation.’ Abbott’s ‘sure there are decent people in the Prime Minister’s office,’ but nonetheless it’s up to Gillard to explain herself to the Australian people. He’s not suggesting anything, but …

Not to be outdone, Pyne publicly called for a police inquiry into Hodges’ actions, and the extent to which the Prime Minister’s media unit was involved – not that he’s actually asked the police. And he doesn’t have to, really. With News Limited merrily repeating unsubstantiated rumours and printing what amounts to Coalition talking points, a real policy inquiry would just get in the way.

Right now, the news services are reporting that Hodges mentioned Abbott’s location to Kim Sattler, the Secretary of UnionsACT, who passed it on to Barbara Shaw. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the Coalition will use this information, given their persistent stereotyping of union leaders as Labor ‘lackeys’ and ‘thugs’. It’s certainly helped along by the media description of Sattler as a ‘national Labor figure’ and ‘well-connected’. Never mind that Sattler denies saying anything to Shaw.

But let’s back up a bit. What we know is that a junior media staffer admitted he mentioned Abbott’s location to someone, who passed it on to Shaw – and that somewhere along the line the message was distorted to include a false quote about tearing down the Tent Embassy. What we know is that protesters at the Tent Embassy, hearing that distorted message, surrounded the Lobby restaurant, engaged in intimidation and violent tactics, pushed against police lines. What we know is that the Prime Minister’s security detail judged the situation to be unsafe, removed Gillard and escorted Abbott out at her request.

The rest is supposition and spin.

What remains, then, is a shameful display of behaviour that did nothing but harm the cause of indigenous rights, and the Tent Embassy in particular. Footage of Gillard being held up by her bodyguard has turned up all over the world, including on some of the US’ biggest news and current affairs programs. It conveyed an image of Australia that we should all repudiate.

Keep that in mind over the next few days, as Abbott pulls the victim’s mantle over himself, Pyne thunders self-righteous condemnation, and Gillard is pursued by media who are apparently more interested in rumour than reporting.

Because ultimately, that’s what this Australia Day was all about – a Prime Minister forced to flee on the advice of trained security professionals with protesters in pursuit …

(photo courtesy The Sydney Morning Herald)

… and the display of a trophy gained through mob intimidation.

(photo courtesy Brisbane Times)

And it’s inexcusable.


Conscience vote on marriage equality an insult

November 15, 2011

After declaring earlier this year that she supported the ‘traditional definition of marriage’, and saw no reason to change it, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that she would allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. This is a remarkable turn-around, given the strength of Gillard’s previous declarations on the subject.

But hey – a conscience vote! Not only is the question going to come up in Parliament, but MPs and Senators will be free to speak their minds. That’s brilliant, right? Those who advocate for marriage equality should be dancing in the streets, surely.

Reality check.

A conscience vote on same-sex marriage will almost certainly fail in the House.

Despite polls as recent as this morning showing nearly 70% support for same-sex marriage, enough MPs oppose it to ensure any bill’s defeat, even with a so-called ‘free vote. The Coalition overwhelmingly opposes the issue, while Labor is split.

That’s not to say that governments should be ruled by opinion polls. ‘Weather-vaning’ not only brings no votes, but also contributes to a picture of a party or politician as entirely inconsistent (and therefore untrustworthy). There’s also the question of conviction – if a party makes a decision to support or oppose a particular issue, it then needs to demonstrate unity.

So what is the point of a conscience vote, then?

It helps to take a look at what issues have attracted such votes in the past. The majority deal with so-called ‘social issues’ – sexual behaviour, medical procedures such as abortion, medical experimentation such as cloning, euthanasia and capital punishment. In 1996, for example a conscience vote allowed the Federal Government to strike down a Northern Territory law permitting euthanasia.

The argument for a conscience vote in these instances usually centres on the idea that these are areas of life that are likely to cause division within any given political party. Moreover, they are so important that an MP may feel compelled to vote against their party’s policy, thus demonstrating disunity. ‘Crossing the floor’ is a serious decision. It can result in a member’s expulsion from their party, seriously damaging their chances of re-election.

Arguably, however, the real reason behind assigning a conscience vote on these issues has little to do with their importance, and much to do with the weight of religious lobbying. Groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby wield a great deal of influence in the political arena. By allowing a conscience vote, a party leader can assume a posture of appeasement by publicly declaring a position consistent with theirs, while apparently granting others the ‘right’ to disagree. Former Prime Minister John Howard took that a step further in 2006, castigating those members of his party who conscience votes disagreed with his own, religiously-motivated position.

This is certainly the position taken in a paper produced for the Australian Council of Social Services in 2009.

At first glance, this appears reasonable. Some issues, apparently, should be a matter for the individual conscience, not the party line. But hold on a moment. Let’s take abortion. It’s been a matter for conscience votes in the past (most notably, perhaps, the RU486 bill of 2006). Today, however, Labor does not allow a conscience vote on matters of reproductive freedom. It has a firm, stated policy supporting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy (albeit with certain caveats). The Liberal-National Coalition also has a firm policy, opposing that stance.

So what changed? Did everyone in both parties suddenly undergo the blinding realisation that their side was ‘right’, thus removing the need for a free vote?

Or perhaps some new facts came to light that took the issue out of the realm of belief and opinion altogether?

Nothing of the kind.

A generous explanation might say it was a decision made by cabinet and caucus that reproductive freedom was an issue that demanded a strong, united stance in support of a position for which the majority felt a strong conviction.

An uncharitable explanation might say that it was simply politically expedient, given each party’s analysis of public opinion.

Either way, it shows that a conscience vote is little more than a sop to party members who agitate for policy change, and a nod and a wink to religious pressure groups. For all the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘too important to dictate a position’, the reality is that these are simply hot-potato issues. Party leaders don’t like that; vehement division in public opinion is a nightmare when you’re trying to attract votes from all areas of society.

Nonetheless, they’ve done it. Gillard sought the moral high ground by proclaiming that the carbon price was ‘the right thing to do’, and did not allow any form of conscience vote on that issue. There’s the abovementioned abortion policy. What’s so different about same-sex marriage?

The short answer is: nothing.

At its base, Gillard’s announcement of a conscience vote on this issue is an insult. It’s a safe bet for the Prime Minister, who’s already announced that she’d vote against it; she knows any such vote will fail. And once it does, she can claim a demonstrated mandate for refusing to revisit the issue on a policy basis. Much like the referendum over a Republic, the details wouldn’t matter. Gillard could hide behind the numbers.

The argument for a conscience vote rests on the premise that some things are too important to be left to party policy.

I’d argue that there are some things that are too important to be allowed to be hijacked by political expediency. As Rainbow Labor said today, ‘Matters of equality should not be the subject of a conscience vote’ (my italics). At its heart, same-sex marriage is just that – a matter of equality.


%d bloggers like this: