ACT’s marriage bill is only the beginning

October 22, 2013

The ACT passed its same-sex marriage bill today. Congratulations, and it’s about time.

Picture via Sky News Australia

Picture via Sky News Australia

It’s not the bill they wanted. It isn’t comprehensive. It won’t allow trans or intersex, or non-binary gender identifying people to marry. The ACT’s Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, had the bill re-drafted after receiving legal advice that its original language would leave it vulnerable to a High Court challenge (already threatened by the Liberal government). The result was a much smaller victory than was hoped for, and no doubt there will be many, many people who feel both let down and excluded. There’s certainly a fair amount of bitterness flying around social media today.

The idea that this bill needed to be amended in such a way to even have a hope of standing up to a legal challenge is, at the very least, disappointing. At worst, it’s infuriating.

But it doesn’t take away the fact that the ACT passed a bill to allow same-sex marriage. It doesn’t take away the fact that this is a landmark reform. And it doesn’t take away the fact that a Territory government was prepared to stand up to a conservative government and pass a law that will redress so much of the damage done by the Marriage Act and its narrow definitions.

The ACT managed it through some clever legal manoeuvring, taking advantage of a loophole in the Marriage Act which, ironically, was created by the Howard government’s insistence on defining marriage as taking place between ‘a man and a woman’. Rather than attempting to change that, the new law stands alone in applying solely to same-sex couples. It operates side-by-side with the Commonwealth’s law, and the Territory is confident that this will be the defining characteristic that allows it to remain on the books.

The Chief Minister has already said that, as far as she’s concerned, there is more work to be done. She signalled that if the law withstood the expected challenge, the Territory would seek to pass further laws extending marriage to those couples excluded by the one passed today. This first law is the test.

That it should even have to be a test is utterly repugnant – but that has been the history of the bill all along.

Attorney-General George Brandis wrote to Gallagher, ‘urging’ her not to go ahead with the bill. His reasoning? Marriage should be uniform across all States and Territories. Of course, what he really meant was, ‘uniform according to one limited definition’.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the government would challenge the law. His reasoning? Marriage has a ‘traditional’ definition. Traditional, of course, meaning, ‘enshrined in law since 1984 on the basis of special pleading’.

This law hurts nobody. No one will be required to ‘get gay married’, nor will they be required to give up their heterosexual marriage. Yes, I’m being absurd, but the notion that same-sex marriage somehow hurts or undermines heterosexual unions warrants this level of scorn.

What this law will do is redress a great wrong. It will celebrates love. It acknowledges that nearly 70% of Australians support doing away with the artificial distinction between marriage based entirely on gender. To be pseudo-economic about it, having this law in place increases the Gross National Happiness – which always bodes well for governments, even if all they want to talk about is the Budget deficit or unemployment rate.

And yet.

We have a government that – even before the debate really got off the ground in the ACT Parliament – decided that this law could not be allowed to stand.

If the Abbott government carries out its threat to challenge the ACT’s same-sex marriage law, it will not be about tradition, or uniformity, or any other of its usual excuses.

It will be pandering to a vocal minority of religious lobby groups who feel they have the right to dictate that we should all live by their doctrines.

It will be vicious discrimination from a government that feels its job is to control how people live their lives, and punish them for who they love.

It will be narrow-minded pettiness from a government so obsessed with image, to the point that it cannot bear to be seen to lose even one of its self-imposed battles.

It will be the action of a government that acts like a spoiled child, refusing to let anyone else be happy unless they play by rules that only it can define – rules which it can change on little more than a whim.

And if – heaven forfend – such a challenge were upheld by the High Court, it would not be a victory. It would be a day of shame.

It’s not often I urge readers to take to the streets, to sign petitions, to campaign unceasingly and take the fight to the politicians and the media. But there are some things that should be defended, passionately and unceasingly. Marriage equality is one of those. What the ACT did today was take the first, huge step towards true equality, by locking into law the right for same-sex couples to marry. It’s not good enough for us to sit back and watch while the Federal Government acts – again – like a bully determined to get its own way, no matter who gets hurt. It’s not good enough for us to simply complain, or lash out at those who would do this to us, or the ones we love, or even the stranger in the street who deserves the same rights as everyone else.

We are better than that. And this is only the beginning.

lesbian couple


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.


Q&A with Joe Miles, Pirate Party of Australia

September 5, 2013

With less than 48 hours to go before the polls open – and that may be a cause for relief or depression, depending on your political point of view – let’s step back from the major parties and take an in-depth look at a newcomer. The Pirate Party of Australia is one of a huge number of minor groups contesting this election, but it is far from the usual single-issue ticket.

The party has its origins in Europe, founded in 2006 and fielding successful candidates in the 2009 European Parliament elections. At the time of writing there are Pirate Party representatives in governments across Europe. The Australian branch was founded in 2008.

Through the wonders of the internet, I (virtually) sat down with Joe Miles, the PPA’s lead Senate candidate for Victoria.

CV: Could you tell us a little of your background, including why you decided to go into politics?

Joe: I’m a new dad, I’ve been working as a Welfare Worker since 2006 (ish) mostly working with people who have an intellectual disability and who are on their way into (or out of) prison. It’s work I’m proud of, and being able to look at myself in the mirror after work is a bonus too. Not realising it, I got into politics as a shop steward in my third job. It was the only good thing about that job. I began to read, and learn to speak up and speak out. I moved to queer politics somewhere around 2008 or 2009, and added deep-green to my pink flag-waving activities somewhere around Edinburgh in 2010ish.

Aristotle says we’re all political animals, and I think he’s right – we all enter politics in some way, I just decided to do it publicly and under the pirate banner.

CV: The name ‘Pirate Party’ opens candidates up to all sorts of lampooning and charges of being a single-issue group (as evidenced in the way the Sex Party has been treated); given that, why join and run for a party with that name?

Joe: I liken our name to “The Greens” – Green is a colour, not a political persuasion, but the name is the signpost to the idea. Any questions I get on our name get dealt with in around 6 seconds, especially on hearing about Pirate MEPs and Pirates in the Icelandic and German city governments.

To be honest, the name the perfect ice-breaker. No-one is guarded around people who call themselves Pirates – political conversation flows uninhibited, and conversations about solutions to problems are freer. This isn’t normal. The usual conversation is base and unhelpful, the name Pirate Party helps a lot in getting around this. I’ve had long discussions with people who wouldn’t call themselves ‘political’ about the types of decision-making they’d like to see.

CV: Let’s move on to look at specific policies. Your education policy would require a massive restructure for the tertiary sector, which is already overstressed in terms of teacher/student ratios and research/teaching balance. What is your timeline for that restructure, and how would you pay for these reforms, given your policy to reduce HECS-based funding?

Joe: The tertiary restructure is mostly to do with the third point; ‘Defund administrative functions and organisations associated with monitoring, surveillance, government reviews and data collection’. There’s a world of potential resources used for compliance that could otherwise be spent on instruction or research. These changes would provide savings, not more burden, and these savings could be unleashed.

There’s no rigid time-line for this, though there’s been consultation with ACT and NSW academia on this policy, and I’d suggest 3 years is the common wisdom. That’s for both the student-teacher ratio and the teaching-support ratio.

CV: On the subject of hate speech – many would say your policy allows an anything-goes approach not only in terms of speech, but also in terms of incitement to violence; how do you address that? Do you have a law enforcement policy that encompasses ‘hate crime’?

Joe: The policy covers speech that someone may be offended by, not speech which incites to violence. There are common law provisions against incitement, harassment, intimidation – that would stay in effect. Our policy is to remove an almost radical subjectivity from the system.

We propose repealing Part 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Apart from the last point of 1(a), it deals with being offended. The last point (intimidation) can be more than ably dealt with by preexisting legislation. Most intimidation is (I think, rightfully) viewed as a kind of assault.

‘Hate speech’ involves an incitement to violence, abuse, intimidation or other discriminatory action. Hate speech is already effectively illegal, without the need for part 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In fact, this Part adds absolutely nothing of value to public safety, but it does chill speech.

CV: You’ve called for a US debate style, which is arguably little more than a feistier version of ours. Often nothing is done to call candidates on their misinformation or failure to answer questions; how would the PPA ensure candidates are made to answer properly?

Joe: In US style debates the candidates are forced to talk off the cuff, they then can be followed up on and made to engage with each other. Good moderation and effective debate opponents would allow a kind of self-correcting that would incentivise answering questions well.

Though key here is an independent debate commission (or committee or whatever the name may be) – specific rule sets can devised and moderators can be tasked with things like keeping the candidates engaging properly.

CV: The Pirate Party says it supports Fibre to the Premises broadband; does this mean you support the ALP’s NBN project?

Joe: Yes.

CV: Your energy policy expresses support for the ZCA2020 Stationary Energy Plan; could you expand on that?

Joe: In short, we aim for 100% renewables inside 10 years, with a concerted program. It would be paid for by a partial sale of the project on completion, a levy and the fact it is a profitable exercise. We view it as not only an investment in our environment, but a quintessential financial investment – build this now to save both repair, maintenance and fuel costs in the future.

CV: Do you support an Emissions Trading Scheme? If so, what model?

Joe: A floating price doesn’t work, except for speculators. There’s been very little in the way of action in Europe considering the time an ETS has been running, contrasting with Australia – a flat price for a short period has solid results. It’s a cliché, but business loves certainty.

We support a carbon price until Australia’s investment in renewables is so great a carbon price (or any other mechanism, for that matter) is redundant.

CV: Your marriage policy calls for the Marriage Act to be repealed altogether. Such a move would likely be resisted by parliamentarians and by many sectors of the community, including those who advocate for marriage equality. Wouldn’t it be simpler to reverse the Howard era changes to the Act, rather than legislate an entirely new civil unions act?

Joe: Aiming merely to amend the Marriage Act is to aim to leave a loaded gun on the table – those amendments could be rewound easily by any theocratic-minded conservative government. As you’ve suggested, it would be simple to amend the Howard era changes.

That’s why we have as policy a new Act – any attempt at regressing would be obvious. Our societal view on the validity of romantic relationships (and which body defines ‘valid’) is evolving, this policy just keeps pace. There are always people resistant to change – that’s why people voted “No” in the 1967 referendum.

CV: Finally, if the PPA gains a seat in the Senate, it’s likely to bring with it a great responsibility in terms of balance of power. In those circumstances, would you go it alone or ally with a party with larger representation, such as the Greens?

Joe: We won’t join a voting bloc. We’ll vote according to our principles, with our goals being to get our policy aims realised, apply transparency provisions to all relevant legislation and make sure decisions of the House uphold human rights.

* * * * *

And there you have it. The PPA is no fly-by-night ticket; it takes its politics and its goals seriously, and it’s in it for the long haul. Its policies are more detailed than any I’ve seen published, even attempting to provide a general idea of costings. In terms of preferences, the party has achieved an unprecedented level of transparency, exposing to the public the internal workings of what can only be described as an exemplar of democratic process at work.

Whether the Pirate Party of Australia can secure a seat in the next Parliament will almost certainly depend on those preferences. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that there is real potential for the PPA to become a formidable force in Australian politics in time to come.


The return of Rudd – so now what?

June 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lest We Forget

April 25, 2012

Today is ANZAC Day, when we remember those who served in our military forces in wars ranging from as far away as Gallipoli to as close as Darwin. We remember those who gave their lives, and those whose lives were changed forever.

All around the country people were up before dawn, gathering at cenotaphs and shrines. Here in Melbourne, with the rain bucketing down in the chill dark, veterans, serving members of the ADF, relatives, school groups, and people who simply felt moved to be present stood in silence. Then, as The Last Post was played, the rain let up for one brief moment.

Today’s parades will echo that first march by Australian and New Zealand veterans in England. My own youngest children and their Grade 6 class will march for the first time with the 2nd 14th Battalion. They were so excited and yet so aware of how serious this is that – for the first time in their lives – they begged to be allowed to go to bed early.

In many small towns, the names of those who served are read out to honour them. I’d like to do the same on The Conscience Vote today, and so I’ll start with members of mine and my husband Brett’s families. Even though my family history is spotty at best, I have their names.

I invite any commenter to add the names of their loved ones who served in any war, past or present, on any side. Anti-war diatribes or partisan politics posted in comments will be immediately deleted, however. Today is about remembrance.

Private John Edward Bassett, 55 Anti-Aircraft Regiment. My maternal grandfather, who survived the 1942 Darwin bombings.

Harold Humphries, RAAF. My great-uncle, shot down and killed in action.

Private Albert Humphries, 2nd AIF. My great-uncle, captured by Japanese forces. We believe he died on the Burma-Thailand Railway.

Corporal Laurence Arthur Weaver, 2/2 Australian Malaria Control Unit. My paternal grandfather, who served in the Battles of Morotai and Borneo.

Peter Weaver, Royal Australian Infantry. My uncle, who served in Vietnam.

Nicholas Elliott, British Marine Medical Corps. Brett’s paternal great-grandfather, who served at the Battle of the Somme.

Carmello Azzopardi, RAN. Brett’s maternal great-grandfather, who served in the Battle of Jutland and on the HMS Ajax.

Dean Azzopardi, RAN. Currently posted to Cairns.

 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Lest We Forget.

ANZAC - Lest We Forget

The plaque at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance


Department of dirty tricks

August 24, 2011

In Australian politics, there’s a little thing called pairing. Until this Parliament, it was confined to the Senate, but as part of negotiations to form minority government, all parties agreed to extend that arrangement to the House of Representatives. It was all very decent, and designed to ensure that government could function. At the time, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stated he would ‘honour the agreement’, that he ‘made the agreement in good faith and will keep to the agreement’.

It’s a shame, really, that the agreement was threatened on the opening day of the 43rd Parliament. Two government ministers – Regional and Arts Minister Simon Crean and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor – were refused pairs. In O’Connor’s case, that would have prevented him from attending the National Police Remembrance Day services, a grave insult to law enforcement.

At the eleventh hour, after considerable pressure from media, the public and (reportedly) their own back bench, the Opposition relented and granted the pairs. Since that time, pairs have been routinely granted. In fact, it looked like the whole incident might simply have been a case of the Opposition testing the waters.

But wait.

Earlier this week Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced that he would no longer grant the government a ‘pair’ under any circumstances during the upcoming debate over carbon price legislation. His objective was clear: to force the government to either delay the debate or to renege on its responsibilities to the country. No more appearances at the Press Club. No opening ceremonies for the NBN. No overseas trips to G20 conferences. In other words, to make government unworkable.

Ultimately, of course, Abbott’s aim is to have the government throw up its hands and consign the legislation to the ‘too hard’ basket. But perhaps it’s simply sabre-rattling, another shot across the bow like last year.

This time, though, the Opposition has already made good on its threat – and it’s worth nothing that this happened before any debate on carbon price legislation even started.

Crean was a victim again. He was granted a pair so that he and Malcolm Turnbull could attend the funeral of artist Margaret Olley AC, who died last month. The arrangement was made some time ago, in writing. Today the Opposition withdrew from that agreement.

It was a direct insult to Olley’s family, and to her memorial. As Leader of the House Anthony Albanese commented, ‘It was appropriate that the Australian government be represented … [and there is] no one more important than the Arts Minister to do so’. Not that this apparently mattered to the Opposition.

As if that wasn’t enough, Abbott also withdrew a previously granted pair from the Prime Minister. She was scheduled to meet today with the visiting President of the Seychelles. Protocol for these matters demanded her attendance, and as a result she had no choice but to be absent from the chamber and missed a vote.

And about that vote …

In recent days Member for Dobell Craig Thomson has come under fire from the Opposition over a convoluted series of events involving a mobile phone, one (or possibly more) escort agencies, a defamation suit and a legal defence fund. Basically, the accusations boil down to this: that Thomson, while working for the Health Services Union, misused his corporate credit card to splurge on sex workers, sued Fairfax newspapers for defamation about it and ran up such a huge legal bill that he needed the Labor Party to bail him out just so that he could avoid bankruptcy and stay in Parliament.

Never mind that Thomson is not charged with any offence. Never mind that the HSU isn’t looking to recover funds. Never mind, in fact, that Thomson has always claimed that others had access to both the credit card and the mobile phone in question. The Opposition think they smell blood in the water, and want Thomson gone so they can force a by-election.

Much of the pressure has come under the umbrella of Parliamentary privilege, which means that Thomson can’t stop the Opposition from stating as fact what amounts to little more than conjecture. Neither can the Prime Minister prevent the now-constant insinuations that she knew what was going on and may even have colluded in some wrongdoing. But that’s not all – Senator George Brandis, apparently acting in his capacity as Shadow Attorney-General, wrote to the New South Wales police urging them to open an investigation. He seemed disgruntled by the news that the Australian Federal Police had already said there was no grounds for such an inquiry.

Yesterday the NSW police said they’d assess whether it was worth opening an investigation. This is pretty much standard procedure when they receive a complaint. That didn’t stop Abbott claiming in Parliament that Thomson was ‘under investigation’, of course. Nor did it stop Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne from attempting to force Thomson to front Parliament and ‘explain himself’.

That was the vote that Gillard missed. Fortunately for the government, the Coalition failed to get an absolute majority of 76 votes, which is required for such procedural motions. Nonetheless, Pyne claimed a moral victory because more people had voted for the motion than against it.

(Sound familiar? Remember Abbott’s ‘moral victory’ at the 2010 election, otherwise known as ‘we got more seats than you’?)

It was an exercise in blatant hypocrisy. Under the Howard government, the Coalition repeatedly refused to force MPs and Senators whose behaviour was in question to explain themselves to Parliament. Famously, this included former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was saved from having to answer questions from all comers about his knowledge of the Australian Wheat Board Scandal.

Here are a couple of choice quotes:

Prime Minister John Howard, 2007: ‘The appropriate thing for me to do is to let the police investigation run its course’.

Senator George Brandis, 2007: ‘We’re entitled to the presumption of innocence.’

It seems that presumption doesn’t extend to a Labor Parliamentarian, however. Thomson has already been pressured to resign as Chair of the Economics Committee (although he is still a member), and the calls for him to resign from Parliament altogether are becoming increasingly shrill.

Meanwhile, Senator Mary Jo Fisher, currently the only Parliamentarian who is charged with a criminal offence, absented herself from her position as Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Communications, but retains it. That position earns her $12,000 per year.

She, however, has the full support of not just her party, but all sides of government:

Tony Abbott – ‘The party is right behind her and supporting her in this tough time.’

Senator Nick Xenophon – ‘The presumption of innocence is paramount.’

Anthony Albanese – ‘She’s entitled to that presumption of innocence.’

Craig Thomson, apparently, is not – at least according to the Coalition.

Really, it’s all about overthrowing the Labor government by any means necessary. If that means offering insult to visiting dignitaries or families of Australians, so be it. If it means hiding behind Parliamentary privilege in order to smear a man charged with no crime, that’s okay too. (But not, mind you, if it’s a case where the Coalition might lose any of its own Parliamentary influence.) The Department of Dirty Tricks is working overtime – and the tactics just get more and more questionable.

The Opposition have tried to excuse themselves at every turn, but the reality is that they have reneged on an agreement they signed in 2010, abused Parliamentary privilege and attempted to interfere with the work of the judiciary. Then there are the constant accusations of corruption in Treasury and the Solicitor-General’s Department.

Albanese commented today that Abbott appeared to think that the Lodge was his birthright.

It’s hard to disagree with that suggestion. And more and more, it seems that the Opposition isn’t going to let a little thing like democratic process get in the way of helping Abbott achieve his ambition.


Carbon tax armageddon!

February 25, 2011

Last night’s sleep was quite peaceful. This morning, however, I woke up to discover the end of the world was at hand.

The cause of this imminent apocalypse? Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement yesterday that the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee had reached an agreement regarding a price on carbon.

The scheme would start in 2012, with a fixed price for the first three to five years. After that, the plan is to move to a flexible cap-and-trade system – although there is provision in the scheme for delaying that, should circumstances warrant it. Those circumstances could include Australia’s signing up to a new Kyoto-style treaty, price fluctuations due to new countries implementing similar schemes, and the extent to which industry moves to cleaner and more efficient technologies. Agricultural emissions would be exempt. (As one amused newsreader put it, ‘Farting cows are safe’.)

Built into the program is compensation for ‘those households and communities most needing help’. Further provision is made for encouraging investment in clean technologies and improving natural carbon capture (so-called ‘carbon sinks’ of plantations and waterways).

As yet, there are no figures. But the plan is out there – and the first years of its operation would be ‘very like a tax,’ according to Gillard.

Those words were blood in the water for the Coalition, and they moved in for the kill. ‘A broken promise!’ cried Tony Abbott. ‘She said there would not be a carbon tax while she was in government! An utter betrayal of the Australian people! A blatant denial of democracy! A conspiracy of the Parliament against the people! How can the Australian people trust this Prime Minister on anything anymore?’ His colleagues’ voices rose to join the increasingly hysterical attack, accompanied by the media.

Gillard’s defence against this accusation is weak. This morning she fell back on the excuse that she’d repeatedly said during the election campaign that Labor believes climate change is real and human-induced, and that the most efficient way of dealing with it is through a market-based mechanism. That’s true.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, what’s also true is that she did rule out a carbon tax. Her statement during the campaign was unequivocal; she left herself no wiggle room, and now her words are coming back to haunt her.

Is it a broken promise? Technically, yes – and it always makes people uneasy to think that their elected representatives might promise anything to get into government, then do what they like once installed. Certainly, this theme was used to great effect by Labor during the 2010 election campaign. They raised the spectre of the imminent return of WorkChoices to spook the electorate into shying away from the Coalition. In a way, then, this is just a case of Gillard’s chickens coming home to roost.

But it’s hardly the first time a Prime Minister has broken a campaign promise, nor is it confined to Labor. Possibly the most infamous broken promise in recent times is John Howard’s much-quoted ‘never ever’ statement – as in, ‘There’s no way a GST will ever be part of our policy … Never ever. It’s dead. It was killed by voters at the last election‘.

That promise was broken 18 months after Howard became Prime Minister in 1996. When confronted, he at first tried to reframe the situation – he didn’t mean ‘never’, he only mean ‘never’ in his government’s first term. As time passed, though, Howard abandoned the whole idea of providing an excuse. Yes, he broke a promise. Yes, it was a shame – but it was the right thing to do. He fronted up to the accusations of betrayal and wore them like a badge of pride.

And he got away with it.

That’s what Gillard needs to do here. She’s made the whole question of action on climate change a matter of high principle, so important that it requires urgent action. Given that, any hint that she’s uneasy with breaking that promise just provides another avenue of attack.

And the attacks are getting more strident, and more personal. A few moments ago, in a media conference, Abbott advised Gillard to ‘make an honest woman of herself’. The clear implication is that Gillard is no more than a slut willing to whore herself out to get what she wants – and that it’s Bob Brown who’s taking advantage of that. It’s not an insult you’d ever hear directed at a male politician – and it’s outrageous that Abbott should take a disagreement about policy and turn it into an opportunity for sexual smear.

Of course, Gillard can’t come right out and state the obvious: that the increased Greens vote in the last election (delivering the balance of power and its first Lower House member) was a signal that a significant portion of Australia supports action on climate change. So she needs to stand up and say words to the effect of, ‘Yes, I promised that. Yes, I shouldn’t have let an interviewer push me into that position. This is what I believe is right, what will benefit Australia now and in the future. I am committed to building a cleaner, more energy-efficient country for all of us, and contributing to a global effort.’

As long as the Coalition are able to keep hammering her on this broken promise, Gillard’s attention is deflected from the real battle – countering the scare campaign they’ve already commenced.

And herein lies the ‘end of the world’ hysteria. This is a sample of some of the Coalition’s allegations.

Households will be slugged an extra $300 per year in electricity charges! Petrol will cost 6.5c more per litre! Food will go up! Soon no one will be able to afford to turn on the lights! Small business will be forced into bankruptcy! Virtually every price will go up! Industry will be unable to compete internationally! It’s an assault on Australia’s standard of living!

You could be forgiven for wondering when Chicken Little joined the Coalition.

The numbers, of course, are plucked out of thin air. Abbott’s based them on a figure bandied around by the Australian Industry Group after a few economists got together around a dart board and tried to guess what kind of price per tonne of carbon might be set. No one in the Coalition have any idea what price is being considered.

Why not? Because none of them are part of the MPCCC.

They chose not to be. In fact, Abbott made it a point of principle. The whole notion of a carbon price (or ‘carbon tax’, as he insists on calling it regardless of whether he’s talking about a tax, a cap-and-trade system or a hybrid model) is something that Abbott firmly excluded from Coalition policy. ‘There will be no carbon price on consumers under a Coalition government,’ he said last year. Curious, then, that he won’t commit to repealing anything Gillard wants to put into place.

Never ever, Mr Abbott?

But this is the point. Abbott doesn’t know anything about proposed prices. He doesn’t want to know. He’s set a policy position, and facts would only get in the way. Sabra Lane on ABC Radio National’s AM program this morning asked him to explain where he got his numbers. Abbott’s response? ‘Well, surely, it’s not going to be zero’.

It’s not about facts, for Abbott. It’s about his avowed intent to bring down the government. If he has to lie, or fudge the figures, or don a rubber mask and jump out from behind a melting iceberg shouting, ‘Booooo!’ to do it, he will.

And he seems to think he will ride into government on the back of a so-called ‘people’s revolt’.

That one took even the media – well-versed in weathering the hyperbole of politicians – back a few steps. One questioner commented, ‘That’s a fairly dramatic term’.

That’s an understatement. Given the turmoil we’ve seen in North Africa recently – most particularly, the horrific massacres of protesters in Libya – it’s inevitable that someone hearing the phrase ‘people’s revolt’ would think of people in the streets calling for a revolution against an oppressive government that is destroying the country.

This isn’t a ‘shit happens’ moment. This phrase – repeated several times since – is deliberately designed to cause unease. Abbott knows he can’t panic the Australian people into the kind of action we saw in Egypt; but he also knows that even suggesting a linkage is likely to have an unsettling effect. Add that to the fudged figures, the lies and the sexual smear on Gillard, and you have the beginnings of a concerted campaign.

What’s perhaps most repugnant is Abbott’s suggestion that this will be some kind of ‘grass roots’ movement, the celebrated ‘Aussie battlers’ and ‘working families’ rising up spontaneously to defend their way of life. That it won’t in any way be driven by big business, mining companies or the Opposition.

Sound familiar? It should. Over in the United States, they call it the Tea Party – the so-called ‘people’s movement’ that is funded, sponsored, backed and peopled by the Republicans.

The hardline stance on asylum seekers with its dogwhistles and outright bigotry, the determination to seize government at any cost, and the willingness to use tactics that from personal smear to blatant lying to prevent anything that looks like a vaguely ‘Leftist’ policy being implemented – more and more, it seems Abbott is not much lurching to the Right as running full-tilt into its embrace.

Now he has Labor’s carbon price mechanism to attack. Get ready for an ugly few months – because the balance of power in the Senate will change in July, and Abbott knows this is the best chance he’ll get to topple the government.


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