A PM’s tears, two words and seventy seconds of silence

February 9, 2011

It was a day when Parliament was entirely given over to condolence motions to victims of the recent natural disasters, and celebrating the life of Corporal Richard Atkinson, killed in action in Afghanistan earlier this month. It was a day when Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Nationals Leader Warren Truss, among others, almost broke down during their speeches.

And it was a day when the Coalition finally released their proposed budget cuts to pay for flood relief.

All in all, a pretty full news cycle in terms of Australian politics. There was so much to choose from – bipartisanship, stories about those who died in the floods, pulling apart the budget cuts to see if they stacked up. It was a veritable smorgasbord.

So what became the focus of media attention?

A Prime Minister’s tears, two words and seventy seconds of silence.

Julia Gillard’s speech of condolence started fairly conventionally, setting the scene with formal words. Then, a few moments later, there was this:

‘Here today, it’s with very great sorrow that I offer words of condolence to Australians who are now facing this hard journey and to assure them they won’t travel that hard journey alone – we won’t let go Mr Speaker, we won’t let go.’

As she said those words, Gillard’s throat seemed to close over and her voice started to thicken and shake. As she continued, it was clear she was fighting back tears – a fight she lost. It wasn’t until her closing remarks that she was able to compose herself. Even then, as she sat down, she looked shattered, surreptitiously wiping tears away while she listened to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s speech.

Those watching and commenting via the internet were stunned. There was clear empathy for Gillard, which was summed up by a tweet from @AshGebranious – ‘Behold Australia. The real Julia’.

But then came the unbelievable accusations that Gillard was ‘faking it’. Internet commentary was vicious – the mainstream media was more circumspect, but still …

Andrew Bolt danced around the issue – paraphrased, his blog (published within minutes of the speech’s conclusion) boiled down to, ‘I won’t say she faked it, but it’s awfully interesting that she should cry just when everyone’s talking about how wooden she is’. He developed his theme later in The Daily Telegraph: it was ‘too perfect, and timed too well’. Everyone would always wonder if those tears were real, he opined – not that he thought that, of course. Dennis Shanahan was a little more clever, confining himself to remarks that crying wouldn’t save Gillard in the eyes of Australia. The 3AW blog commented cynically that it was ‘better late than never’.

See what they did there?

It’s not that they disbelieve her. It’s just that she was so ‘wooden’ and ‘robotic’ that, well, it’s difficult to credit. People could be forgiven for distrusting it. Why, only on Monday night people were talking about it on QandA.

Never mind that Warren Truss, hardly renowned for displaying emotional vulnerability, struggled to control his voice during his own speech. There was not even a hint that Truss might be faking it.

Never mind that Gillard – a notoriously private person who struggles to keep her personal life away from her political one – had tears in her eyes during the Apology to the Stolen Generations. That’s long forgotten.

The emotion that Gillard displayed yesterday was very, very real. To believe she was faking, you’d have to credit her with a talent for acting worthy of Oscar nomination. To believe she was faking, you’d have to accept that she is so completely without any moral sense that she would deliberately work herself into a state where she nearly broke down several times just to get a bump in her approval rating.

Watch this video – it’s a small snippet of the whole thing. There’s nothing fake going on.

Then there was the sh*tstorm in a teacup that boiled over on Tony Abbott last night, courtesy of Channel 7.

Over three months ago Abbott, visiting troops in Afghanistan, engaged a group of soldiers in conversation about. The topic was the recent death of Lance-Corporal Jared McKinney. Ostensibly off-camera, the mic was nonetheless live and it was possible to make out what was being said. On being told, ‘”Was everything done perfectly? Absolutely not. Was it tragic? Absolutely,’ Abbott nodded thoughtfully. He replied, ‘It’s pretty obvious that, uh, well, that sometimes shit happens’. At the time, the soldiers appeared to agree, and certainly no one visible in the footage seemed to take offence. Something must have pinged on Liberal strategists’ radars, though, because for the Opposition engaged Channel 7 in an FOI fight to prevent the incident being aired.

Finally confronted with it by reporter Mark Riley, laptop in hand, Abbott replied, ‘Look, you’ve taken this out of context. You weren’t there. I would never seek to make light of the death of an Australian soldier.’ Riley challenged him to supply the context. Abbott’s reaction was extraordinary.

He stood staring at Riley for a full 70 seconds (although only 24 seconds was aired due to time constraints, according to Channel 7’s Jodie Speers), jerking his head rapidly up and down and shaking slightly. Finally he said only, ‘I’ve given you the response you deserve’, and left.

Media and commentwitters alike leaped to their keyboards to get their reactions out. Shock was quickly followed by condemnation, but it wasn’t long before it settled down into a prevailing opinion that there was nothing wrong with what Abbott said, but rather his reaction to being shown the footage – and that the real villain of the piece was Mark Riley.

Laurie Oakes said Abbott was ‘stupid’, while Hugh Riminton described it as an ‘ugly’ day for the Opposition Leader. There was wide support on the internet for the notion that Abbott should simply have punched Riley in the nose for pulling a stunt like that.

Then came the analysis, and the speculation. Abbott was clearly restraining his fury during that long silence. Why didn’t he just deliver the smackdown to Riley? Was he lost for words? Can he just not handle an off-the-cuff situation? Was this the beginning of the end? Would it trigger a leadership spill?

It didn’t stop there. Over twelve hours later, it’s still the lead story. Members of the Australian Defence Force were invited to comment, as were Lance-Corporal McKinney’s family. Anthony Albanese took the opportunity to sink the boot in, trying to create the impression that Abbott was completely insensitive.

And the man himself? Well, he was out on radio early this morning explaining himself with ever-more frayed patience.

All this over two words and seventy seconds of silence.

‘Shit happens’. It’s one of those all-purpose phrases that can mean everything from callous dismissal of another’s trouble to a philosophical observation that sometimes all the preparation in the world can’t prevent things going wrong. In Abbott’s case, it was fairly obvious that he meant the latter. There was nothing insensitive about it. At worst, it was a clumsy attempt at camaraderie – Abbott trying to show rough sympathy to those who were all too familiar with the feeling of being powerless, who know that you simply can’t anticipate every possibility. That sometimes, shit just happens.

The death of a soldier is something that strikes people deeply. Usually it’s someone who is young, perhaps with a young family, who’s put themselves in harm’s way because we have asked them to do so. We hold it almost sacred – you don’t politicise, you don’t criticise, and you certainly don’t exploit it for a sound bite.

Think of the anger and disgust that surges whenever someone comes out on Anzac Day to protest against war. Even people who might ordinarily feel that war is a terrible evil will condemn someone who decides to profane that day.

Now put yourself in Tony Abbott’s shoes. An opportunistic reporter fronts up to needle him about what must have been a very difficult conversation – and chooses to do it on a day when emotions are already raw. The sense of mourning in the Parliament yesterday was very real, and it’s fair to say that few in the chamber were unaffected. Add to that the fact that part of those speeches dealt with the death of another soldier serving in Afghanistan.

Suddenly 70 seconds of silence starts to look pretty understandable, doesn’t it?

Watch the video. The interview starts about 1:30 minutes in, but it’s clear from the surrounding context that the aim was always to exploit Lance-Corporal McKinney’s death.

Sure, as a politician Abbott probably should have had an answer ready to clarify his remarks and rebuke Riley. Maybe he did have one. He knew he was going to be interviewed about his trip to Afghanistan, although perhaps not the specific questions. But when the moment came, Abbott didn’t react as a politician. He was a man furious with someone who exploited a soldier’s death.

What’s remarkable is that Abbott didn’t verbally flay Riley. He held it in and got himself under control enough to shut down the interview. I’m not sure many of us could have had that kind of restraint under the same circumstances.

So in the end, what we saw yesterday were two political leaders who, for a few moments, weren’t politicians. They were vulnerable human beings showing us sorrow and outrage.

In our political milieu, the most frequent criticism of our elected representatives is that they are not ‘genuine’ – that all we get are scripted remarks designed to deflect scrutiny and convey exactly no information, and confected emotion carefully calculated for maximum appropriateness. It’s extraordinary, then, that on a day when we saw politicians revealed as people, they received such vicious criticism. Gillard and Abbott were pilloried for doing exactly what we said we wanted them to do – step out from behind the political masks and show us the ‘real’ people underneath.

It’s a truism that we get the government we deserve. If yesterday is anything to go by, if our leaders retreat to the safety of scripts and media advisors, we have no one to blame but ourselves.


Open Thread – our own Afghanistan debate

October 21, 2010

Coming soon: a report on the Q&A with the Australian Sex Party’s Fiona Patten at La Trobe University this week. But first …

This week saw the first Parliamentary debate on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. This was one of the key elements in the Labor Party’s agreement with the Greens, and welcomed by Independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott. Thanks to the wonders of technology, anyone who cares to has been able to follow the debate.

Most of the speakers are fairly predictable. This is a ‘just war’, we have to ‘stay the course’, etc. There were a few highlights, though. Julia Gillard kicked off the proceedings by announcing that our troops would be in Afghanistan until at least 2014, and that Australia would likely be ‘engaged’ there for the rest of the decade. Tony Abbott urged us to be careful that we didn’t execute a de facto ‘Western takeover’. Sussan Ley, unexpectedly, called for future military engagements to be subject to a Parliamentary vote. Adam Bandt said we should get our troops out as soon as possible, and Andrew Wilkie nearly broke down while reading the names of every Australian soldier killed while serving in Afghanistan to date.

It can be enlightening to hear what our politicians have to say on the matter – especially when, in effect, they’re committing us to the longest war we have yet participated in, outstripping the Vietnam conflict.

But what about the rest of us? You know, us – the ‘Australian public’, the ones our politicians are supposed to listen to and represent. We’ve heard a lot this week about what ‘Australians want’, mostly from people who, I suspect, neither know nor care what we do want.

So let’s have our own mini-debate. Let’s talk about why we’re in Afghanistan.

What are we hoping to achieve?

Have our objectives changed over the years?

Should we have gone there in the first place?

Are we really ‘denying terrorists a safe haven’?

Do we have the right to impose our political system on another country?

Should we talk to the Taliban and other factional powers in the region, instead of propping up the increasingly shaky and corrupt Karzai government?

What if our actions there are making the situation worse?

And what about next time?

Please, encourage people to add their feelings, engage with each other – get a real discussion going. This may be only one small forum, but it’s a forum that wants to hear what everyone thinks.


Abbott – the real backstabber

October 14, 2010

You have to wonder, really, just what’s going on in Tony Abbott’s head right now. It seems he’s hell-bent on tearing down the reputation of our public institutions. As @Paul_Jarman so succinctly put it, he may well have ‘jumped the shark’ this time.

First, it was Treasury. During the election campaign, Abbott and his Coalition colleagues repeatedly tried to tear down Treasury’s credibility. They claimed that Treasury was responsible for leaking some of their costings, at the behest of the caretaker Labor government, and withheld their numbers from the Charter of Budget Honesty. Once it became clear that the election was going to deliver a hung parliament, Abbott developed his argument even further. When the Independents asked to see the Coalition’s ‘independent’ costings, Abbott refused – and gave several reasons for doing so, all of which were outrageous.

Treasury was incompetent – it couldn’t handle the job of assessing the costings. Treasury was untrustworthy – they leaked documents when told to do so. Worst of all, Treasury was so corrupt that it would deliberately ‘fiddle’ with the numbers in order to make the Coalition look bad. Even though Abbott eventually consented to let the costings be examined – resulting in the discovery of a $7-11 billion shortfall – the accusations still get trotted out from time to time.

Not content with attempting to destroy Treasury’s standing as the economic managers of the country, Abbott next took aim at the Solicitor-General. Part of the agreement with the Independents that was signed by both major parties dealt with the matter of pairing the Speaker. Although his representative had signed off on this, Abbott reneged, claiming that such an arrangement was unconstitutional.

The Solicitor-General investigated the idea, and concluded that there was no bar to an informal pairing arrangement. That wasn’t good enough for Abbott. He engaged his own lawyer – Senator George Brandis – who, unsurprisingly, backed up his leader. Armed with that information, Abbott set about declaring that the Solicitor-General was not only wrong, but perhaps a little bit suspect – after all, he was part of the government’s public service, wasn’t he? Abbott would therefore trust Brandis’ opinion, he stated.

By the time the 43rd Parliament opened, Abbott had attacked two of the most crucial government departments – the one responsible for managing our economy, and the one called upon to deliver the definitive legal opinions on constitutional and legislative matters.

This week, he’s gone after the military. Three Australian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan were charged with manslaughter, dangerous conduct, failing to comply with a lawful general order and prejudicial conduct after a raid in which five Afghani children were killed. Brigadier Lyn McDade, the military’s chief prosecutor, brought the charges – and became the subject of a dreadful campaign of abuse and threats as a result. You might think that, after Abbott worked himself up into a lather chastising Gillard for allegedly ‘politicising’ our participation in the war in Afghanistan*, he might stay well out of this court martial issue. Not so.

Abbott let fly with an extraordinary spray. Gillard, he said, was at fault here. Australian soldiers were being ‘stabbed in the back’, and the government should be doing something about it. Now, although ostensibly aimed at Gillard, Abbott’s comments have graver implications. There is a strong insinuation here that the military justice system either does not work, or that McDade is abusing her position – and that the military are allowing her to do so. By not intervening, therefore, Gillard’s government condones this kind of abuse. What’s more, Abbott carefully did not contradict radio host Alan Jones, who – when interviewing the Opposition Leader – described McDade as a woman who had never fought on the front line, and who had ‘too much uncontrolled power’.

The military justice system is completely independent of Government, as Defence Minister Stephen Smith pointed out today. The Prime Minister cannot intervene, nor should she. At best, the government could make some submissions to the military. Even the Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, and the executive director of the Defence Force Association, Neil James, were moved to comment. Both criticised the Opposition Leader’s remarks and stated that they were supportive of the legal process – and urged all defence personnel to be the same.

Yet Abbott maintains that Gillard should get involved on behalf of the accused soldiers. In other words, that political power should be brought to bear on the military, with the aim of pressuring McDade to drop the charges altogether – to do an end run around the legal process. To help the process along, Abbott seems happy to consent by silence to the character assassination of the chief prosecutor.

Abbott’s position is easy to see – our soldiers in wartime should not be subject to this sort of prosecution. It’s not far removed from the US saying that they would not participate in the International Court, in case their soldiers were prosecuted. Australia, like the US and Great Britain, mercilessly pursued German war criminals from World War II, and recently hanged Saddam Hussein, yet Abbott’s words suggest that there are two standards at work here. Crime in war cannot be committed by ‘our’ side, only ‘the enemy’.

It is precisely this attitude that leads to the creation of justice systems in the first place – impartial organisations dedicated to the pursuit of justice for all, rather than being subject to the whims of politicians. In fact, this was part of the rationale behind the formation of our own system under John Howard’s government. It’s a laudable goal, but one that Abbott now seems to think should be dictated to by the government. In fact, it seems likely that he would have interfered in this prosecution had we ended up with a Liberal-National minority government.

So now Abbott has three notches on his belt. He has called into question Treasury, the Solicitor-General’s office and the military justice system. You have to ask, what might be next – the Australian Electoral Commission, perhaps? Will we see legal challenges to election results that don’t favour the Coalition?

It’s difficult to discern a sound political strategy in what Abbott is doing. More and more, he seems to be on an uncontrolled slash-and-burn. Despite his protestations that he is ‘holding the government to account’, and ‘engaging in robust debate’, the real effect of his words and actions serves only to undermine his character. He’s like the angry kid in the sandpit who kicks over the other children’s sandcastles, because he didn’t win the blue ribbon and the praise from the teacher. He blamed his recent drop in popularity on the Prime Minister calling attention to his ‘jetlag’ gaffe, but the truth may have more to do with his apparent willingness to disparage without foundation anyone or anything that may stand in his way – in effect, to be the backstabber he accuses Gillard of being. Remember, Abbott still considers himself the Prime Minister-in-waiting.

What kind of Prime Minister builds his argument for legitimacy of government by tearing down the foundations of the country?

Yesterday, Abbott described himself as the gatekeeper for the nation’s values. ‘I am the standard bearer for values and ideals which matter and which are important,’ he said. Which values might those be? That the ends justify the means? That it doesn’t matter who or what is damaged, discredited or torn down, as long as power is ‘properly’ vested in the ‘legitimate’ contender (Abbott himself)? Or that, while truth might be the first casualty of war, integrity is the first casualty of politics?

* I refuse to call it the ‘War on Terror’. That title is nonsensical – we are at war with Afghani people, not some abstract emotion.


Machiavellian bastardry or masterful misdirection?

October 11, 2010

Tony Abbott’s ‘truth parrot’* appears to have taken flight. Perhaps there is no room for it to perch on his shoulder now that the hyperbole monkey is clinging to his back?

In an interview he gave just before flying to Afghanistan, Abbott let fly at Prime Minister Julia Gillard, accusing her of an act of ‘Machiavellian bastardry, low bastardry’. That’s a serious accusation. Gillard must have done something terrible, right? What could she have possibly done to attract that kind of condemnation?

According to Abbott, what Gillard did was tell the media she’d invited him to accompany her to Afghanistan even though she knew he’d already booked his own trip. As a result, he was backed into a corner and ‘spoke out of turn’ when he said he didn’t want to be jetlagged for the Tory party conference in London. This, apparently, makes her worse than any other Prime Minister ever. How dare she play politics with Our Brave Boys (and Girls) Risking Their Lives For Freedom, God and Country?

His colleagues were quick to wave their own jingoistic banners, tutting about the ‘low act’ Gillard had committed. Senator Mitch Fifield this morning on Sky was particularly strident in his condemnation, and called on the Prime Minister to apologise. After all, she ‘knew’ about the trip, she ‘knew’ Abbott could not make his plans public for security reasons, and she ‘deliberately’ tried to make it look like Abbott didn’t care about Our Brave etc., by telling people she had slept well.

Reality check.

The media did receive the information that Abbott had declined to accompany Gillard to Afghanistan. The information did not come from the Prime Minister’s office but was confirmed by them when media asked.

Abbott, when asked why he didn’t go with Gillard, said he did not want to be jetlagged. This was not a statement made under pressure, nor was he manoeuvred into it.

In a media conference, Gillard was asked ‘how she was sleeping’. The question got a huge laugh from the media pack. Gillard responded that she knew there were comments flying around about Abbott, and that his sleeping arrangements were his business. She went on, grinning, to mention that she had managed to fit in a visit to Zurich as well as Afghanistan, and still got eight hours’ sleep.

Abbott’s colleagues later asserted that he had ‘locked in’ his travel arrangements over a month ago, and that Gillard knew it when she made the invitation. Gillard denied this.

Whether the Prime Minister knew about the Opposition Leader’s travel arrangments is a matter of dispute, but a few things are clear. Nothing forced Abbott to make the ‘jetlag’ comment. Gillard certainly took advantage of his gaffe and got in a sideswipe of her own, but she in no way implied that he didn’t care about the troops. If anything, she took aim at his much-touted ‘Action Man’ status. A cheap shot? Definitely. ‘Playing politics’ with our war situation? Hardly.

It is curious, though, why this issue should rear its head again. After all, the Coalition has the Murray-Darling Basin report to attack. Why keep on with this?

This article in the Sydney Morning Herald might have something to do with it.

A document has surfaced bearing the signatures of Brian Loughnane and Brad Henderson, Federal Directors of the Liberal and National parties. In that document, the Coalition affirms that it is aware that the report prepared on its costings by WHK Horwath does not constitute an audit. That document was dated August 18, 2010. The very next day, both Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb repeatedly asserted that the report was an audit. Mitch Fifield described this today as merely a matter of ‘semantic debate’, and that Hockey was using the word in a ‘colloquial sense’.

Peter Martin reported on this in The Age back on August 20. He pointed out that a firm engaged in this kind of business has a legal and ethical obligation to make sure its clients understand the precise nature of the report – in other words, to make sure the Coalition knew it was not getting an audit of its costings. At the time, WHK Horwath stated that it had done so.

At the time, the story died fairly quickly. The election result and the ensuing focus on the Independents saw to that. Now, though, we have a document proving that WHK Horwath fulfilled its obligations, and that the Coalition was well aware that it had not secured an audit. Either Hockey and Robb were never told this – which beggars belief – or they deliberately and repeatedly lied to the Australian public. Even as late as last week, the Coalition were still saying their costs had been ‘audited’.

At the very least, this is a situation in which the Coalition’s ‘money men’ were provided with plausible deniability. At worst, it is evidence that the Coalition were willing to do and say anything to undermine Labor’s chances of winning the election, and maximise their own. These lies went hand-in-hand with the Coalition’s constant accusations of corruption within Treasury – and they demonstrate an astounding contempt for both the political process and the Australian public.

Is it any wonder Abbott is letting the hyperbole monkey out to play?

And the media is lapping it up. The ‘bastardry’ comment is running the board in terms of the headlines. Occasionally, someone comments that no one forced Abbott to say ‘jetlag’. By contrast, the question of the WHK Horwath document, and its implications, is getting almost no air time.

The Coalition is good at this. It knows that if you can control the news cycle, you can successfully obscure your own vulnerabilities and misdeeds. This is classic misdirection – the loud noise and light show that allows the magician to make the rabbit disappear without the audience seeing where it went. And the Australian public are the audience – they’re here for the spectacle, here to be fooled.

At least, that seems to be the Coalition’s view. I’d like to think people won’t be fooled by the magic words and the ‘look over there!’ tactics.

I think we’ll have a long wait if we sit back and expect the media to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. After all, it’s more entertaining to play sound bites of Abbott quivering in outrage and channelling the hyperbole monkey than to engage in a reasoned discussion of the difference between an audit and a review, right?

But if we don’t start ignoring the razzle-dazzle and the cries of ‘J’accuse!’ we may well find, come election time, that we only remember the spectacle, and not the real information being drowned out by it.

And we forget that information at our peril – because that is what tells us what any prospective government will be like if it gets its hands on power.

* A marvellous phrase coined by the ABC’s Annabel Crabb.

UPDATE: Fran Kelly, speaking on ABCNews24’s The Drum tonight, reported that her investigations into the whole Afghanistan trip situation had borne interesting fruit. Far from confirming the Opposition’s claims, it seems that the government did not leak the information that Abbott had been invited to accompany the Prime Minister. That was heard by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Phil Coorey ‘on the grapevine’. The Prime Minister’s office confirmed an offer had been made, but said that Abbott had not yet given them an answer. Abbott’s office said exactly the same thing, right up until the day before Abbott’s ‘jetlag’ comment. The ‘Gillard knew and is trying to make political points’ spin did not start until after Abbott’s gaffe and the resulting media frenzy.

Tonight, as Christopher Pyne accuses Gillard of ‘back alley bitchiness’, it’s worth remembering what Fran Kelly was able to find out with a couple of phone calls. And kudos to The Drum for actually tracking down the facts.


While we worried about jetlag and passion …

October 8, 2010

… things of real interest have been happening.

It appears that Tony Abbott’s ‘jetlag’ gaffe, and the faux outrage manufactured by his Parliamentary colleagues, has paid off. The media have zeroed in on this issue, barely examining the dissension in Coalition ranks over industrial relations. Meanwhile, Julia Gillard’s comment that foreign affairs was ‘not her passion’, nor the reason she got into politics in the first place, has been analysed and dissected to an incredible extent.

Neither of these comments are big news. Abbott, perhaps inadvertently, made an insensitive remark. Gillard – again, perhaps without much thought beforehand – came off sounding naive. In neither case, though, did we see any kind of significant revelation.

Sky News is the big winner here in terms of trying to beat up stories. Virtually every one of their political programs this week raised the non-issues with their guests. Party strategists, MPs, former leaders and independent analysts were all called upon to explain exactly what the two leaders might have meant by their words. The ABC is not far behind, though. The programs The Drum spent a considerable amount of time on both, even after panellists dismissed the comments as perhaps silly, but otherwise insignificant. The 7.30 Report also took a few shots.

Uncharacteristically, The Australian excoriated both leaders. They reserved their harshest criticism for Gillard, though, somehow divining that what she really meant was that she had no interest at all in foreign affairs, and that her comments damaged Australia’s standing in the eyes of the world. Abbott, by contrast, was only ‘monstrously stupid’.

And the list goes on.

It fell to Tony Wright of The Age to put it into perspective. Neither Gillard nor Abbott behaved in ways that might be considered unusual for travelling Prime Ministers. Australia has a long – and embarrassing – tradition of foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to foreign affairs.

The crucial difference between them is in how their own parties handled the questions that came afterwards in that desperate media scramble to make something out of potentially juicy comments. Labor’s approach was simple – stress that Gillard had been talking about why she got into politics in the first place, and that she had immediately committed to giving foreign affairs her full attention. The Coalition, on the other hand, embarked on a confused and ultimately self-defeating campaign. First they attacked Labor, then switched tactics to proclaim that Abbott had already arranged to travel to Afghanistan before he received the invitation to accompany Gillard. As I wrote here, they managed to give the impression that there was a story behind Abbott’s gaffe. And the media were all over it.

They still are – and while these ridiculous non-issues dominate the political commentary, this is what is not being reported about both leaders:

* Gillard has signalled her intent to open research and development treaty negotiations with the European Union. You’d think this would have garnered more attention than it did; after all, one of the criticisms leveled at Kevin Rudd was that he neglected our relations with Europe in favour of the Asia-Pacific region. It also has great potential for Australia to regain some of its lost standing in terms of scientific innovation, and perhaps stop the ‘brain-drain’ that has seen many of our scientists relocate offshore because they cannot get funding here.

* Gillard stopped off to bolster Australia’s bid for the World Cup soccer tournament. If successful, this could see a huge influx of tourist dollars, boosting the economy.

* Gillard met with Japan’s representative and plans to follow up with a State visit. This is another area where the former Rudd government came in for a great deal of criticism; some experts even claim that our relations with Japan were badly damaged by Australia’s stance on whaling and apparent preference for establishing ties with China.

* Abbott attended the Tory party conference in London, using the occasion to comment at length on how he intended to learn from the English conservative example how to effectively repair the damage from ‘profligate Labor government’ spending. It didn’t matter that Australia and Great Britain are worlds apart, economically speaking; nor that there is a wide policy gap between Australia’s Liberal party and the Tories (who are socially liberal, and believers in action on climate change); what was important was to be seen as establishing ties with a comrade across the pond. In this, Abbott was stepping outside his role as Opposition Leader and positioning himself as an alternative Prime Minister – a clear signal that he has not abandoned the belief that he is one by-election away from power.

* After talking with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Abbott said he was pleased to report that Britain had decided to ‘no longer neglect’ Australia. Even without noting the patronising colonial overtones, it’s easy to see the agenda at work here. Again, Abbott is not acting as an Opposition Leader. He has no authority to negotiate on Australia’s behalf – but a chat between like-minded individuals is a good way to establish foreign policy credentials. Abbott’s also signalling to the Liberal Party base that – unlike Labor – the Coalition acknowledges and embraces Australia’s historical loyalty to its nominal Head of State. It’s a position worthy of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, who once waxed lyrical about the Queen; ‘I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die’.

* Perhaps serendipitously, Abbott has also been able to effectively bury the news that nine Coalition MPs (four on the record) have been grumbling about industrial relations; they want a policy supporting individual workplace agreements and exemptions for small business from unfair dismissal laws. Labor spokespeople may sound the ‘WorkChoices is back!’ alarm, but it seems no one is listening.

* Today the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will release its draft report into water allocations. Rumours already abound suggesting its recommendations will be damaging to farmers, and thankfully, the media are starting to look at this issue. Hopefully, when the report is made public, it will knock the ‘jetlag’ and ‘not my passion’ non-stories right out of the news cycle.

Amazing, isn’t it? Who would have thought so much might be happening in a week where every second political story seemed to be about whether Tony Abbott really was an ‘Iron Man’ or Julia Gillard was embarrassing us on the world stage?

And wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to wade through 779 articles about Gillard’s ‘lack of passion’ to find out what else our Prime Minister was doing while representing Australia to the world?


Abbott’s jetlag excuse – more than it seems?

October 5, 2010

Julia Gillard is in Brussels right now on her first official overseas trip as Prime Minister. Apart from attending the Asia-Europe meeting, she’ll be expected to meet with as many other national leaders as possible. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s floated the idea of a new research and development treaty with the European Union, stopped off in Zurich to sweet-talk the heads of FIFA into awarding Australia the 2022 World Cup, visited troops in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province and talked with leaders in Kabul. To say this is a busy week is definitely an understatement.

Tony Abbott, meanwhile, is travelling to London to meet with the British Prime Minister David Cameron for the Tory party conference. He had been invited to accompany Gillard to Afghanistan, but declined the offer. When asked why, he initially said that he felt that travelling to Afghanistan before going on to London would leave him jetlagged. He added that he he felt it was important that he do the trip to England ‘justice’.

This is pretty much a gaffe of the first order. Media leaped on his remarks with glee, serving them up to Labor politicians in the hope of getting a snarky soundbite. Gillard indulged in a little comparison, commenting that she had managed to get eight hours’ sleep despite her busy schedule, but otherwise let the issue fall flat. Some members of the public, meanwhile, were outraged. The father of an Australian soldier recently killed in Oruzgan province was particularly scathing; for him, Abbott’s remarks were nothing short of disrespectful to his son’s memory.

Should Abbott have chosen his words more carefully? Of course he should have; no one suggested that he meant to be disrespectful to Australian troops, but he left himself wide open for criticism. But really? Talk about a non-story.

Except for what Abbott’s party men did a little later.

Senator George Brandis came out of his corner swinging on the subject. How dare anyone criticise Abbott, he thundered. Meeting with Cameron was the most important thing any politician could do in Europe. Gillard, he sneered, was simply ‘speed-dating’, while Abbott was consulting the leader of a sovereign country. “A profligate Labor government drove Britain into deeper levels of debt than Britain had ever known in peace time … just as we’ve had in Australia,” Brandis said, implying that Abbott would be discussing our dire economic situation with the Man Who Will Save Britain.

Joe Hockey wasn’t far behind. The invitation to visit Afghanistan was nothing more than ‘silly’, and by making it, Gillard was playing ‘political games’. Of course Abbott would visit the troops – in fact, he had always been planning to do just that – so Gillard’s inviting him to travel with her was ‘low-rent politics’. He finished up with a warning that made no sense at all: ‘It’s Julia Gillard that is playing this game of snakes and ladders, and I say to Julia Gillard, be very careful of where you are treading.’

Oddly, Senator Barnaby Joyce offered the most reasonable comment. Abbott knew he’d made a mistake, was now going to rectify that mistake by visiting the troops, and for that he should be commended.

It’s important to point out here that all these responses were far out of proportion to any comments made by Labor, and even by the media. The sudden, vicious attacks from Brandis and Hockey turned a momentary gaffe into an issue of note.

Brandis’ contribution sent the message to Europe that, in Australian eyes, it was simply unimportant compared to Great Britain. It trivialised Gillard’s meetings with the heads of NATO, the European Union, Korea and China. It was also sexist; I think it’s fair to say that no male Prime Minister would ever be accused of ‘speed-dating’ world leaders.

And Hockey? The notion that it’s ‘silly’ to invite the Opposition Leader undertake a bipartisan trip to visit Australia’s troops serving overseas defies logic. Even if Abbott had always planned to visit the troops later (which seems unlikely, given he said nothing about any such ideas until after his ‘jetlag’ comment), surely he could have said as much to Gillard and the public at the time the invitation was first extended? Hockey’s assertion goes further, however; apparently, even the very idea is laughable. Using Hockey’s reasoning, it is simply ridiculous to expect that both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader might appear in the same place at the same time to give support to the troops.

Both of Abbott’s would-be defenders have inflicted more damage on the Liberal leader than any of his own words. But why on earth would they do this? Was this a case of standard attack politics – divert attention from one’s own problems by creating an issue out of nothing? Were they just caught on the hop, and unable to come up with anything more substantial?

I suspect this is all a very clumsy diversion. Today, The Australian reported that several Coalition MPs had expressed dissatisfaction with Abbott’s hands-off position on industrial relations. Two of the loudest were Steve Ciobo, dumped from the Coalition’s frontbench after the election, and Jamie Briggs, the man appointed to head up the so-called ‘Committee to Scrutinise Government Waste’. These are not small voices, and for them to be so openly critical of their leader exposes the party to severe criticism.

Labor were quick to capitalise on the report, proclaiming that here was ‘proof’ that WorkChoices was not – as Abbott claimed – ‘dead, buried, cremated’. Coalition MPs scrambled to provide damage control, but there was real potential for this to become a real point of vulnerability that Labor could exploit, both in the House and to the media. The alternative was to meet the ‘jetlag’ comments head on, and attempt to spin that situation as both exemplary behaviour by Abbott and a matter for criticism of Labor.

Unfortunately, that strategy did more harm than good. Abbott now vehemently asserts that his trip to Afghanistan has been planned ‘for a long time’, but cannot explain why he did not volunteer the information earlier – nor can he justify why he made the ‘jetlag’ remarks in the first place. He apologised to the families of soldiers killed while serving overseas, but could only say that his words were ‘ill-chosen’.

Meanwhile, his defenders – intentionally or not – gave the impression that the Coalition is completely disinterested in bipartisanship where supporting our troops is concerned, trivialised important meetings with leaders from around the world and communicated to those leaders that they believe attending a political party conference is more important than treaty negotiations and briefings on the war in Afghanistan.

It’s a very bad look for the Coalition, and particularly for Abbott. They appear to be gambling that the industrial relations issue will be overtaken by ‘jetlag’. Labor certainly won’t forget about it, though – and hopefully, neither will the media.

Abbott should have to answer some very pointed questions about his words, his defenders and his dissenters. If this interview with Laurie Oakes tonight is any indication, such questions are likely to prove extremely uncomfortable for the Coalition.


Election Day – Semi-live blog

August 21, 2010

Well, good morning, all.

Remember how you woke up this morning, rolled over, and got up with a nagging feeling that you were supposed to be doing something today?

Put down that coffee.

You need to VOTE!!!

Yes, the polls are open, and it’s time to go exercise those flabby democratic rights we all carry around with us. (Okay, maybe not so flabby, but hey – it’s early and I could never resist a bad metaphor in the morning.)

So let’s kick off this semi-live blog-scapade. I’ll be popping in and updating periodically throughout the day and into the night until we have a result (or the world ends, whichever comes first).

Links will be (as usual) via Twitter and Facebook – and as I said, feel free to follow me on Twitter, @crazyjane13.

____________________

12:54pm

Definitely no result tonight. Many of us are afraid to sleep, in case we wake up to dinosaur-riding Nazis marauding through the streets …

But for now, it’s time to close off this semi-live blog. Thanks for sticking with us, and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.

Sleep well …

11:51pm

Abbott’s speech is a huge contrast to Gillard’s. She was careful not to claim victory, or even appear to be exhibiting any form of hubris. He’s talked up the responsibility of belonging to a party, and gleefully announced that Labor has lost its majority – and therefore its legitimacy. He’s claiming that there is no way Labor could form a minority government and function effectively. Not content with that, he’s brought up the ‘execution of a Prime Minister’ by ‘the faceless men of the Labor factions’.

The arrogance is unbelievable. Without a majority, without being able to claim a mandate of any kind, without being anywhere near a result, he’s acting as though the result is foregone. The tone of this speech could not be more different to Gillard’s. She was gracious, acknowledged Abbott as a formidable opponent, congratulated the Independents and Bandt.

All Abbott has done is congratulate himself, and sneer at those who ‘don’t feel so victorious’ tonight. And he’s getting wild applause for it – especially when he says ‘stop the boats’.

Oh wait, he’s just said he’ll be ‘talking to the Independents’ in the next few days. That’s the first time he’s acknowledged them. How very – patronising of him.

11:16pm

Gillard has stepped up to the podium to acknoweldge that the vote will not be decided tonight, along with a great walloping spoonful of flattery for the Independents and Adam Bandt. After all, they’ll be the ones who are most likely to decide which major party gets to call itself the government.

These are the people who will probably decide how our country is governed for the next three years:

Bob Katt
Tony Windsor
Andrew Wilkie
Rob Oakeshott
Adam Bandt.

Go, look them up.

10:51pm

Still no result. We’re running out of cupcakes, and may be forced to resort to the cooking sherry before long.

The good news: Steven Fielding looks to be gone. Dead. Cremated. Buried.

The bad news: some people with utterly appalling political judgment appear to have elected Wendy Francis to the Senate in his stead. Yeah, you know who you are.

Meet the new wingnut, same as the old wingnut.

In completely bizarre out-of-left-field news, it looks like Uncle Wilson may have lost his seat. o_O We are in shock.

9.34pm

According to the ABC, the Coalition has edged ahead with 70 seats.

The AEC is still saying Labor 51%, Coalition 49%.

Just in case, we have switched to bourbon.

8.30pm

The Australian Electoral Commission is calling Melbourne for Greens candidate Adam Bandt.

It also looks likely that the seat of Denison in Tasmania will go to Independent Andrew Wilkie, formerly of the Greens. You might remember him from his ASIO days, when he acted as a whistleblower over ‘ethical conflicts’ related to Australia’s participation in the Iraq war.

With four Independents and a Green in the Lower House, a hung Parliament is looking increasingly likely. We may wake up to a minority Labor government formed by Coalition with the Greens.

Meanwhile, the party is in full swing. The sacrifical Sex Party cupcakes have been regretfully consumed, and we are starting on the Liberal ones – except no one wants to eat those.

7:20pm

Guests are arriving with baked goods. We have party-themed cupcakes (including a handful of blue-iced cakes with icing spelling out ‘NO!‘), and a huuuuuuge number of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

This is going some way to assuage our anxieties regarding the current count prediction, which is swinging between the major parties.

We are all consoled by the idea that Adam Bandt looks set to take Melbourne, though.

6:51pm

People beginning to arrive. Thrashing out rules for the election drinking game: 1 drink for every seat gained by Labor, 1 drink for every seat gained by Liberal, scull every time someone says ‘bellwether’.

Someone’s suggested sculling every time someone says ‘too close to call’, but we all agreed that was a short slide to crashing, drunken disaster.

Meanwhile ABCNews24 are calling Bennelong for the Coalition and Eden-Monaro to remain with the ALP.

5:15pm

Channel Nine’s exit poll says Labor 52, Coalition 48. Reports that Bruce Hawker (Labor strategist and sometime pundit) is currently wearing a sharklike grin. Opinions are divided as to what that portends.

4:30pm

First exit polls are in from Sky’s poll of 30 electorates.

2PP: Labor 51, Coalition 49.

The pollster says this does not include safer Labor seats, and so the national result will be more likely:

2PP: Labor 52, Coalition 48.

Primary vote breakdown:
ALP 42
Coalition 45
Greens 9
Other 4

With a margin of error, of course.

3:10pm

As both major leaders have now voted, the news networks have nothing to talk about until exit polls start trickling in. Consequently, they are concentrating on minutiae: ABCNews24 is doing a series of live crosses to marginal seats where they have reporters on the ground, while Sky’s talking heads are desperately trying to find something that say that hasn’t been said a hundred times already today.

In other news, a sewage truck has crashed in Cattai in Sydney’s northwest, and former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett has called Mark Latham a ‘turkey’. Somehow, these two items go together rather well.

2:14pm – UNSUBSTANTIATED REPORT, confirmation pending

Overheard in Sydney Airport earlier this morning, a senior Liberal party figure on the phone:

‘Joe Hockey?! … Yeah, look he’s fine, sure … but as leader? … Yeah … nah … Look, let’s just wait till six o’clock before we make any decisions.’

2:00pm

My democratic duty is done. Unsurprisingly, there was a conspicuous absence of Liberal volunteers at my Batman polling booth. I can report, however, that the sausages are satisfyingly crisp and the volunteers are generous with the onions.

Meanwhile, ABC Online has picked up the story about Libs dressing as Greens. The Queensland branch of the Labor Party has made a formal complaint.

1:06pm

Thanks to @dfhannah and @Cap_Slog, we now have a picture of those Liberal volunteers posing as Greens.

Apparently some volunteers also can’t respect the ‘no electioneering inside the polling place’ rules, as we can see in this picture from @infectedarea.

12:09pm

Reports coming in from Stirling, Canning and Ryan saying Liberal volunteers are posing as Greens and handing out Liberal-first, Labor-last how to vote cards.

And @annabelcrabb has unconfirmed reports that David Bradbury, Labor candidate for Lindsay, has dressed his volunteers in plain blue shirts with no logos. Voters could be forgiven for mistaking them for Liberal volunteers.

11:45am

The spirit of Australian entrepreneurism (or maybe just opportunism) is alive and well in the electorate. The sausage sizzle monopoly is being challenged by a number of new competitors. Baked goods are featuring heavily, although at least one polling booth is offering wine and cheese for those of us who need to start drinking really early. Sources do not say whether the wine in question was Chardonnay.

11:20am

First reports of dirty tricks are surfacing. In the seat of Ryan, people dressed in shirts with the message ‘Voting Greens?’ are apparently handing out how-to-vote cards for the Liberal Party, advising voters to preference Labor last (via @girlgerms).

10:30am

There’s not a lot of news right now – although Sky is, hilariously, already showing (unsurprisingly) a seat count of Libs = 0, Labor = 0. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have plenty of scheduled media events throughout the day.

Rumour has it that sausage sizzle quality may be down this year; Abbott has already promised a Royal Commission into this scandal.

On a more serious note, the Defence Department has just announced that two Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan were killed while on patrol looking for improvised explosive devices. Gillard will be speaking to the media, but not taking questions about it.

The war in Afghanistan hasn’t figured heavily in the campaign so far (with the exception of the Greens, who have been calling for an exit strategy). This news, coming on Election Day, could have an unforeseen effect on voters’ last-minute decisions.


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