Labor’s task – unite behind Shorten, and do it quickly

October 13, 2013

It was supposed to be an exercise in participatory democracy. It was supposed to show the country that the Australian Labor Party was open and inclusive when it came to deciding who its leaders would be. Most of all, it was supposed to be a signal that Labor had moved beyond the kind of factional manoeuvring that had turfed out two sitting Prime Ministers.

It captivated news cycles, drawing attention away from the new Abbott government as pundits tried to find the flaw in the system, and waited with bated breath for attack-type electioneering that never materialised. The campaign between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was civil to the point of being almost boring. The two men praised each other’s record in Parliament, and refused to be drawn when invited to criticise. If anything, they were in danger of being seen as too similar.

The procedure was simple – the candidate who achieved an overall majority of votes would be elected leader. That majority was composed of 50% of Federal Caucus, and 50% of rank-and-file membership votes. In theory, this would achieve the most representative result, and silence those critics who insisted that Labor was entirely at the mercy of its factions, ignoring the membership.

There was an inherent problem in the procedure, however. If the caucus and the membership voted different ways, and the Caucus vote was ultimately the deciding factor, the result could easily be seen as a sign that nothing had really changed. For the procedure to be seen as truly ‘representative’ and free of factional politicking, the new leader needed to be elected via the rank-and-file vote. It’s all in the perception.

Unfortunately for Labor, the new leader – Bill Shorten – was elected on the Caucus vote. His numbers broke down this way:

Caucus vote: 63.9% (55 of 86)
Rank-and-file vote: 40% (12,196 of 30,426)
Overall vote: 52.2%

It’s absolutely clear that Shorten did not have the confidence of the rank-and-file – and with the new procedure effectively weighting the result such that one Caucus vote is roughly equivalent to 350 membership votes, it’s fair to say that this system does not provide a clear picture of the party’s wishes. Nor is it necessarily truly representative. Unless the rank-and-file overwhelmingly votes against the Caucus, their preferred candidate has little chance of gaining the leadership. More likely, factions within the Caucus will continue to exert control.

These flaws leave Labor entirely vulnerable to attack from the Coalition government, on grounds with which the latter are entirely comfortable. The situation is worsened by the election of Bill Shorten, who is perhaps irrevocably tainted by his past actions. His ties to the unions are, perhaps, the least of the problem. Labor has always drawn much of its strength from the union movement. His role as the prime mover in removing first Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard, from their positions as Prime Minister, however, is far more damaging to Labor in Opposition.

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

The attack ads and speeches write themselves. Labor has handed the Coalition a perfect way to avoid scrutiny. Take the asylum seeker issue, for example. Let’s say Shorten holds a press conference criticising the government over its high-handed attitude towards Indonesian sovereignty. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison need not answer any charge Shorten might bring – he has a script available to him to deflect attention onto the ‘ongoing disunity’ within Labor.

It’s already happening. Within minutes of the announcement, Jamie Briggs fronted the media. As expected, he called on Shorten to vote to repeal carbon pricing – but on the heels of that came the first test of the new script, courtesy of the media. What did Briggs think of the fact that the Caucus and the rank-and-file had voted differently? Briggs obligingly picked up his cue, and the rest was entirely predictable.

Of course, none of this speaks to Shorten’s ability to lead Labor. There’s no reason to believe he will be anything but a good leader – and, however flawed the new system, he was properly elected. The problem is entirely in the perception, and manipulating perceptions is a key strength of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his front bench. Shorten is vulnerable, and there’s every reason to think Abbott will exploit both his history and the leadership ballot result. Had Albanese been elected, there would be no such opportunity for the Coalition, but there is little point in wasting time on counter-factuals.

In the coming days, Albanese’s action will go far towards countering any message of disunity. He’s seen as perhaps the most loyal of Labor’s front bench, putting the party first and wearing that loyalty on his sleeve. There’s no doubt he will attract a great deal of media scrutiny, looking for any sign that his support for Shorten is anything but unconditional – and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll find one.

The heavy lifting cannot be purely left to Albanese, however. One of Labor’s major failings, both in government and during the election campaign, was its inability to clearly communicate its message. It’s true that the media had largely written the narrative, often without even speaking with Labor – or had discounted the party entirely. It’s also true that the Coalition embraces the tactic of ‘repeat something often enough and others will come to believe it’. Nonetheless, Labor did not – and perhaps could not – cut through, and the election result was partly of its own making.

Now, in Opposition, the party has an opportunity to rehabilitate its image – but it must be a party-wide effort. With Shorten as leader, an uphill battle has become that much harder. Labor needs to do everything possible to bury Shorten’s history – not deny it, not attempt to explain it away, but to drown it out with a show of unity that is not undermined by disgruntled factional members or damaged by strategic leaks. (And no, this doesn’t mean Kevin Rudd. People really need to get over it.)

Above all, Labor needs to do it quickly. It can’t afford to let the government gain any momentum with a disunity message – it has to take the fight right up to the coalface of policy, and show itself entirely unmoved by the insistence that it has no choice but to fall into line with the Coalition’s platform. If the party falls in behind Shorten and sticks to its stated principles, it can become an extremely effective Opposition.

If it doesn’t, it will only have itself to blame.

Liveblog – the marriage equality debate.

December 3, 2011

Morning, folks. Kicking off the #marriageequality debate soon, though a conscience vote looks to be a foregone conclusion. #alpnc

8.45am And, we’re off. First up, delegates will pass a motion recognising today as International Day of People with Disability. #alpnc

This is a suspension of standing orders, so the agenda is interrupted. Have to wonder about this move, coming right before the #marriageequality debate. Is this designed to be a pointed reminder that it’s ‘less important’, a ‘second-tier’ issue?

8.54am If this is an attempt to pull the focus off #marriageequality, it’s a pretty poor one. #alpnc

8.57am Gillard makes the point that PMs don’t usually move motions at #alpnc. Underscores this as a political move. Pretty dirty politics.

I receive a tweet from @AustralianLabor telling me that ‘We are celebrating International Day of People with Disability and the great reform that Labor is working to implement #NDIS'(National Disability Insurance Scheme) … presumably in response to my tweets about this motion possibly being a cynical move … a distraction to take the focus off #marriageequality and relegate the debate to a second-order issue.

9.01am Over-egging the pudding a bit here. Disability a worthy cause, but this is gilding the lily, eating into #marriageequality time. #alpnc

9.02am Listen closely to the ‘equality and dignity’ rhetoric in this motion. Now remember that when #marriageequality comes up. #alpnc

9.12am Looks like the #marriageequality debate will now start at 9.30am. Meanwhile, Labor pulling out all the stops to position themselves as compassionate champions of equality with the NDIS.

Unsurprisingly, the motion passes unanimously.

9.20am After the NDIS motion, Macklin acknowledges traditional owners of the land. Whoops, probably should have happened earlier. #alpnc

9.21am Macklin banging the ‘compassion’ drum again. Really setting themselves up as champions of fairness here. #alpnc

9.24 Macklin: ‘We are a party that hears the voices of the voiceless’. Then stresses this is about the ‘most’ disadvantaged people. #alpnc

There are some deeply cynical political moves here. Labor paints itself as ‘fair’, concerned with ‘equality’ and ‘dignity’ – but makes sure that everyone knows there is a hierarchy of disadvantage. Undoubtedly, those calling for a conscience vote or arguing against same-sex marriage will use this same argument – which, paraphrased, boils down to ‘we’ve done heaps for you, be thankful, others are in greater need’.

Debate on the proposed conscience vote will *precede* Wong and Barr’s motion to amend the party’s policy. Very sneaky move, there.

9.30am @AustralianLabor hastens to reassure me that a Welcome to Country ceremony was held yesterday.

9.31am And now amendments relating to indigenous issues. #alpnc

9.37am Still on indigenous issues. Big slaps aimed at the Victorian government for making acknowledgment of traditional ownership ‘optional’ – but a resounding silence on the Northern Territory intervention.

9.39 am It just gets more cynical. If the Left doesn’t cave in to the Right and support a conscience vote, it will fail. The Right has already said they won’t support a formal change to policy. What are we left with? Status quo?

.46am Here we go … Gillard’s conscience vote up for discussion now. #alpnc

9.47am Gillard to speak first, arguing for a conscience vote on #marriageequality. Yet she’s not actually HERE. #alpnc

Gillard out of the room, so debate is suspended ENTIRELY. Shame. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.49am Oh wait, there she is. Not a good look. #alpnc

Gillard’s speech on #marriageequality starts with a ‘few words’ on jobs, growth and fairness. #alpnc

9.51am And from jobs, the PM moves to education. Which apparently also wants to get married. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.52am Jobs, growth, fairness, health care, disabilities. Aaaand #marriageequality? #alpnc

Gillard stresses that this debate must be had in a climate of respect. #alpnc #marriageequality

Of course, she did this after making sure everyone was reminded of *her* view on the subject.

9.54am Gillard: this is a ‘deeply personal’ debate; she stresses the need for respect for religion. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.55am Gillard now falsely claims that marriage was always a question of conscience. Doesn’t mention 2004. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.56am Gillard: ‘Whatever we determine to do with our platform … we should accord the views of all respect.’ #alpnc #marriageequality

Note that Gillard’s talk of ‘respect’ leaned heavily on the idea that religion should be respected *more*. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.57am Notice that Gillard didn’t actually address the ISSUE at all. Just the need for a conscience vote. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.58am Smith, like Gillard, doesn’t address the issue. And Smith fails to mention the 2004 changes. #alpnc #marriageequality

Smith says a conscience vote should depend on whether there’s a ‘deeply held personal belief’. So, we’ll see one on uranium then?

10am Shorter Gillard/Smith: we should respect discrimination and bigotry. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.01am Andrew Barr now up to speak on a direct platform change. HUGE applause and cheering. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.02am Barr, at least, speaks to the issue. #alpnc #marriageequality.

10.03am Impressed that Barr reminded delegates that this issue affects more than just ‘gay people’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Barr: ‘I can see no good reason for denying marriage to same-sex couples’.

10.0am Barr is choking up. ‘We’re not nameless and faceless people … we’re members of the community like everyone else’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.06am Barr reminds delegates that this issue is ‘intensely felt’ by those who cannot marry. #alpnc #marriageequality

Standing ovation and cheers for Barr. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.09am Wong: if people were denied marriage on the basis of race, ‘there is not a person in this room that would countenance it!’ #alpnc

Huge applause and cheers. Wong is totally fired up.

10.11am Wong: ‘Do not ask us any longer to accept our relations being treated as less worthy … there is nothing to fear from equality’. #alpnc

10.12am Someone yelling from the audience ‘it’s against natural law’ (Joe de Bruyn?). Cries of ‘Shame!’ from the audience. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.13am Another standing ovation as Wong wraps up. #alpnc #marriageequality.

10.14am Big hug for Penny Wong from Tanya Plibersek. But now Joe de Bruyn is up to support conscience vote. #marriageequality #alpnc

10.15am de Bruyn: this should be decided with our heads, not our emotions. Scornful laughter from the delegates. #alpnc #marriageequality

de Bruyn: Heterosexual marriage has been that way ‘since the dawn of humanity’. More laughter. #alpnc #marriageequality

de Bruyn: Same-sex marriage cannot, of itself, produce children. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.16am de Bruyn, of course, doesn’t mention that infertile heterosexual couples are allowed to marry. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.17am de Bruyn just undermines his ‘marriage is historical’ argument by referencing the 2004 amendments. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.18am de Bruyn: ‘Are we going to turn our back today on something we’ve said is a core value?’ Delegates roar: YES! #alpc #marriageequality

10.19am de Bruyn references the ACL petition, which he falsely claims is ‘over 100,000 signatures’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.20am de Bruyn trying to claim that the petition for #marriageequality is somehow sleazy, because many signatories didn’t give their electorates.

After his rhetorical call-and-answer fails, de Bruyn moves on to warning that people will lose seats over it.

10.21am de Bruyn lying through his teeth about petitions and community support for #marriageequality. #alpnc

10.25am Faulkner: ‘Human rights can never be at the mercy of individual opinions or individual prejudices’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Faulkner: ‘It is not for governments to *grant* human rights, but to recognise and protect them’. Huge applause. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.28am Faulkner: we don’t have a conscience vote on going to war. Pacifists can’t vote with their consciences. #alpnc #marriageequality

Faulkner: We compelled young men to go to war through conscription – no conscience vote then. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.29am Faulkner: ‘A conscience vote on human rights is not conscionable’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.30am Standing ovation for Faulkner, too. Now Deborah O’Neill up to speak for a conscience vote. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.31am O’Neill supports a conscience vote. Asks for respect from those who disagree with her. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.33am O’Neill trying to run the difficult line that Labor’s ‘done enough’, and marriage is ‘not a rights issue’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.36am O’Neill: ‘changing the platform will not remove the terror of homophobia’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.37am Michelle Lancy up now to support Barr-Wong. ‘There are 2 opposing views here today, love and hate’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Lancy nearly crying: ‘I do this for the children whose beds I’ve sat at when they’ve attempted suicide’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Lancy: ‘I’m bringing my Christianity and my humanity in here today’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Standing ovation for Lancy. Now Mark Arbib. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.41am Mark Arbib wants to support both amendments. Huh?? #alpnc #marriageequality

10.42am Arbib asks how could he tell a potentially gay daughter she can’t get married? #alpnc #marriageequality

10.44am Arbib says the platform must change, but the only way it will work today is via conscience vote. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.44am *None* of the pro-conscience vote speakers admits that the 2004 ‘man & woman’ amendment was NOT a conscience vote. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.45am Anthony Albanese up! #alpnc #marriageequality

10.49am After an Adobe AIR malfunction …

Albo reminds Labor of its history on fighting HIV, passing laws against discrimination; calls on the party to keep it up. #alpnc

10.50am Delegate Polly up, very little applause. Claims she was ‘invited not to turn up’. #alpnc #marriageeqaulity

Polly says she respects Wong – but not enough to let her marry, apparently. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.51am Polly with the ‘some of my best friends are gay’ argument. (facepalm) #alpnc #marriageeqaulity

Polly: ‘Marriage is the heart of our community … it’s our way of life’. Possibly also Mabo and the vibe? #alpnc #marriageeqaulity

10.52am Polly: ‘Marriage is the basis of our social fabric’ – which is funny, given our PM is ‘living in sin’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.53am Polly would like to point out that only heterosexuals can use the word ‘marriage’. Teh Gayz can have ‘unions’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Polly says we should be allowed to have different views – but only on some issues, it seems. #alpnc #marriagequality

10.54am Now Tanya Plibersek: ‘the time for this great change has come’.

10.56am Plibersek: We can focus on jobs and growth and fairness at the same time. We don’t have to choose. #alpnc #marriageequality

Plibersek: ‘I’m also here representing my straight constituents’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.57am Plibersek says she’s here for the teenagers who are being told their love is ‘not right’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.59am Plibersek: It’s not good enough to say to one group of people, ‘you’re almost equal’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Plibersek: ‘Almost equal is not good enough’. I may cry. #alpnc #marriageequality

11.00am No further speakers. Time for the votes. Conscience vote first, and a count is called for. #alpnc #marriageequality

11.04am I wonder if the #alpnc will publish a list of who voted which way on this? #marriageequality

11.07am Albo’s down on the stage watching the count. #alpnc #marriageequality

The tension is palpable – both in the room and on Twitter.

11.09am Call for delegates opposed to the conscience vote to raise their cards. Applause and cheers. #alpnc #marriageequality

So hard to gauge the voting, but looks to be very close. #alpnc #marriageequality

11.13am 208 for the conscience vote, 184 against. Conscience vote is carried. #alpnc #marriageequality

I am apparently over the daily limit for sending tweets. This cannot be happening right now.

11.15am Barr-Wong amendment passes on the voices.

11.20am Well, since Twitter’s cut me off, I’ll wind up the liveblog here. Labor’s in an interesting situation now … marriage equality is now officially included in their party platform, but any vote on the issue must be one of conscience. It’s likely such a vote would fail, given the Coalition’s declaration that they will vote en bloc to oppose such a change to the Marriage Act.

Nonetheless … how long, I wonder, before we see another private members’ bill from the Greens? Or even better, a private members’ bill co-sponsored by Wong, Albanese and Bandt?

Marriage equality and Labor’s national conference

December 2, 2011

The Australian Labor Party’s 46th National Conference starts today – and rarely has a meeting of politicians attracted such attention from so many areas of Australian society.

It’s got a full agenda – discussions on the sale of uranium to India, fundamental changes in how the leader is elected and possibly even the institution of a US-style primary system to decide pre-selection in individual electorates. The big issue, however, is same-sex marriage. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has already signalled she intends to propose that the issue be declared one of conscience – that is, to allow members to vote according to their own beliefs rather than along party lines. Rainbow Labor, led by Andrew Barr and Senator Penny Wong, in conjunction with the Left faction, intend to push for the adoption of same-sex marriage as part of the national policy platform.

Yesterday, Barr said that he thought he might have the numbers to win that argument. With Left and Independent factions determined to push for a firm platform, only twelve votes are needed from the Right. Last night, however, the Right announced they intend to vote in a bloc for Gillard’s solution. It comes down to numbers at this point.

For an issue that many commentators (such as former Labor Minister Graeme Richardson and Labor historian Troy Bramston) dismiss as ‘not first-order’, not ‘centrepiece’, same-sex marriage has become the major focus of this conference. Members of the Right accused the Left this morning of ‘pressuring’ people, union leader Joe de Bruyn voiced his vehement opposition to same-sex marriage under any circumstances, and – reportedly – some Labor MPs announced they would cross the floor if the party did change its policy platform, and risk expulsion. Interestingly, there’s been far less media time given to the Left – only Andrew Barr has had any substantial air time.

Paul Howes, head of the Australian Workers Union, managed to be sanctimonious, hypocritical and just plain wrong this morning when he was asked about the impending discussion. ‘Labor has a long and proud history of allowing conscience votes on these issues,’ he said, and went on to castigate those members of Labor’s Left who are pushing for a party policy on same-sex marriage, for daring to attempt to force their beliefs on others.

Honestly, where do I start with that one?

Howes, in high dudgeon, practically vibrated with righteous indignation as he tried to claim the moral high ground here. And oh, doesn’t it make for a good sound bite when someone passionately defends freedom of choice? Surely no reasonable person could argue with the idea that politicians must be able to hold to their own beliefs on important issues?

The problem here is that Howes ignores a basic fact of politics – that politicians are elected not to vote their own consciences, but to represent their electorates. And given that overwhelmingly, almost every poll shows a massive groundswell of support for same-sex marriage (at least 60% in favour), Howes is effectively advocating that Labor selectively ignore those voters. Coming from a man who regularly points to popular support to shore up his positions on various issues, this is inconsistency at best, hypocrisy at worst.

And let’s face it, most of us hold strong beliefs on a variety of issues. My religion, for example, was strongly opposed to the idea of invading Iraq. My religion absolutely rejects the idea that children should be exposed to religious indoctrination while attending a government school. Neither of these issues has ever been exposed to a conscience vote, nor are they likely to be. The so-called ‘moral issues’, such as abortion and euthanasia, are the ones that receive that dubious privilege.

What makes these ‘moral issues’? Nothing more than the fact that some religions declare them to be so. It’s cherry-picking of the worst kind – you won’t find many people arguing that there is a need for conscience votes on whether to allow women access to high office or to prohibit the sale of contraception, despite these issues being apparently as important to those religions.

Yet it’s perhaps even more disgusting that Howes chose to take this line, given that his appeals obscure the fact that, in effect, he’s advocating that Labor continue to deny that same freedom to others – just because some people don’t like the idea of same-sex couples being married. In this, he is no different from those Christian fundamentalists who declare that marriage equality would somehow destroy civilisation as we know it.

These are the same people who scream bloody blue murder when they think Australia is being ‘converted by stealth’ to Islam if they eat halal meat without realising it. These are the same people who raise their hands in horror and lament the death of ‘Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage’ if their kids come home from school saying, ‘Happy Holidays’, instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. And these are the people who argue passionately that no one, no one, has the right to prevent them from living according to their beliefs.

And yet … by writing and upholding in law the idea that some love and commitment is less deserving of recognition – by, in effect, saying that only those forms of union that conform to their beliefs are worthy and legitimate – they force their beliefs on everyone.

But deep down, they know that. They know exactly what they’re doing. If they’re honest, they’ll say so proudly and point to some idea of divine ‘truth’ to back themselves up. If not, you can see it in their eyes. They’ll squirm and dance and fall back on mealy-mouthed appeals to ‘tradition’ – which, of course, means only those traditions they feel like preserving. And Howes, by clasping to his bosom this completely hypocritical ‘Champion of Freedom’ mantle, has put himself firmly in the camp of people like the Coalition’s Cory Bernardi and Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby.

And let’s not forget that Howes is just plain wrong, too.

Labor has not historically allowed conscience votes on ‘these issues’. In 2004, when the Marriage Act was changed to explicitly exclude same-sex couples, no conscience vote was either asked for or allowed. Labor simply voted its party line, which was to enshrine mean-spirited discrimination in law. If, as Howes and others have claimed, the issue of marriage is so important as to require that MPs be allowed to wrestle with their consciences, why weren’t they allowed to do so then?

Gillard, during the 2010 election campaign, proudly declared that Labor’s policy platform specifically included reproductive freedom for women. Back then, that issue was so important that it required party unity. To now claim, as she and supporters from the Labor Right have done, the exact opposite where same-sex marriage is concerned, frankly beggars belief. And raises more than the whiff of suspicion that those who hold this position are attempting to curry favour with one minority group by discriminating against another – and yes, fundamentalist Christians are a minority group, protestations by Wallace and his cronies notwithstanding.

No one’s life will be threatened if same-sex couples are legally married. No country will go to war with us over this. There’s no reputable conflicting science, as there is with matters of human cloning (which, incidentally, the Prime Minister supported during a conscience vote in 2007). By trying to place same-sex marriage on a par with issues of abortion and euthanasia, Gillard and the Labor Right are trying to sweep under the rug the real issue of equality. We no longer socially ostracise or legally penalise heterosexual couples who choose to co-habit rather than marry. We no longer prohibit interracial marriage. We don’t even require people to show ’cause’ for divorce. Those are the issues which should be discussed in conjunction with this question.

Marriage is a secular institution. Sorry, religious folks, but there it is. For a long time now the State has been solemnising marriages without benefit of church or clergy. As such, the State should serve all people equally.

Let’s suppose someone wanted to bring in a law designed to exclude a particular religious group from the right to marry. The screams of outrage would be heard from orbit. After all, it’s an utterly nonsensical notion, right? Yes. It is – as nonsensical as the idea of excluding an entire section of the population from marriage for being same-sex attracted.

The ALP National Conference will tackle this issue tomorrow. At this point, it looks like Gillard will get the result she wants. Which will, no doubt, be a great relief for her. She won’t have to worry about fending off interview questions about whether she has the support of the party. She can say she’s done the ‘moral thing’, and ‘listened’ to the party.

What she won’t be able to say is what Queensland Deputy Premier Andrew Fraser said when State Labor passed same-sex civil unions legislation two nights ago: ‘Today was a momentous occasion for civil rights’.

This issue now hangs on whether twelve people out of around 200 decide that those fundamental human rights are more important than a handful of religious beliefs and cultural prejudices. That equality is more important than doctrine, and that allowing the expression of love and commitment is more important than allowing bigotry to remain enshrined in Australian law.

Gillard argued in her keynote speech this morning that ‘fairness begins in the workplace’. That may be so – but why should fairness end at the altar?.

Gillard also said that ‘only Labor can govern for all’. I wonder how those who she denies the same rights she has the choice to embrace or reject would feel about that statement. When did ‘govern for all’ become ‘exclude those whose issues might upset Labor’s polling numbers’?

Perhaps those members should go home tonight and wrestle with their consciences on those issues. There’s an opportunity here for Labor to show itself to be a champion of human rights, regardless of personal belief – it shouldn’t be missed.


In response to requests, I’ll be live-blogging the same-sex marriage debate tomorrow on Twitter and posting a summary here afterwards. Feel free to follow me on Twitter, or to follow the hashtags #alpnc and/or #marriageequality.

This is not bipartisanship

August 22, 2011

I think we all owe Opposition Leader Tony Abbott an apology.

There’s been so much criticism of the Opposition for refusing to work with the government to pass significant reforms. As each bill comes up for debate, they propose a raft of amendments or try to push the bill back to a Senate committee. They push votes wherever possible, calling for divisions as a way of gambling on the reality of minority government to perhaps deliver them an unexpected win. At every turn, they’ve made it clear that they’re just not interested in co-operation.

And the government doesn’t exactly have clean hands on this issue, either. For all the talk of offering olive branches and a seat at the table for Opposition MPs, they’ve carefully manoeuvred to ensure that if this did occur, it would undermine policy positions.

But really, we’ve judged them too harshly. Last week we saw a heartwarming display of bipartisanship. Two, in fact, one right on the heels of the other. We saw what happens when major parties work together.

What we saw was the major parties banding together to kill two Private Member’s Bills on the second reading.

Just what were these bills, that they could prompt such a lockstep response?

One was from Independent Andrew Wilkie. The other was from Greens MP Adam Bandt. Both addressed the issue of live exports. Wilkie urged the government to – at a minimum – ensure that Australian standards of humane slaughter be insisted upon as part of contracts with other countries, while urging a permanent ban on trading with countries that did not meet these standards. Bandt called for the outright abolition of the trade, insisting that it made both economic and compassionate sense for slaughter to take place in Australia, under Australian standards.

The two MPs supported each other, which was why they were able to call for a division when the second reading came to a vote. It was a pitiful sight, however, to see Wilkie and Bandt sitting together to the right of the Chair, while the major parties crowded in to sit shoulder to shoulder on the Opposition benches. The scene wasn’t helped by an apparent technical problem which shut off half the lights in the Chamber, casting a rather dismal gloom over already depressing proceedings.

With less than five Members voting for the bills, there was no need to take a count in either case. Wilkie and Bandt got their names recorded in Hansard, but that was it.

A futile gesture? Perhaps. Certainly Bandt was well aware that the major parties had no intention of supporting his bill, and remarked on it in his second reading speech. Both he and Wilkie sat with rueful yet resigned expressions during the division.

But was it simply a waste? After all, this isn’t the first time that the major parties have joined forces to shut down the minority members. In the Senate, for example, the Greens suffer this on a regular basis. Just ask Senator Sarah Hanson-Young how often she’s tabled a bill on same-sex marriage, or protection for asylum seekers. In every case, Labor and the Coalition have killed those bills. In fact, it’s a wonder that Bandt’s motion calling on MPs to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage was passed at all.

But then, that was a non-binding resolution. A toothless tiger, effective only to the extent that anyone felt like going along with the recommendation.

Minority government has the potential to open up Parliamentary proceedings. One vote can make all the difference, as we’ve seen a number of times (notably when Rob Oakeshott nearly provoked a crisis by voting against a Speaker’s ruling). Some feel that there’s an imbalance at work there, that these ‘balance-of-power’ Members wield influence far above their actual representation.

Yet no one provides commentary on a minority government where there is little difference between the major parties. For all the Opposition is out there trying to erode confidence in the government on matters as diverse as carbon pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes, they are quick to close ranks when a minority Member proposes a socially liberal or environmental policy. In fact, the major differences between Labor and the Coalition on such matters are largely a matter of detail. Both are committed to mandatory offshore detention; both are resolutely opposed to same-sex marriage; both have no interest in overhauling the live export industry. Ultimately whether one supports Nauru and the other supports Malaysia as an asylum seeker destination is irrelevant; both oppose the idea of on-shore detention, or even doing away with a mandatory detention system at all.

So when the Greens pop up with a bill challenging these essential statuses, the differences melt away to nothing, and suddenly we have a united Parliament. It’s arguable, in fact, that much of the Opposition’s obstructionist stance towards Labor stems from purely ideological opposition to the presence of the Greens and Independent support of the government. The rhetoric’s a dead giveaway at times – remember ‘Labor may be in government, but the Greens are in power’?

It says something about a government when bipartisanship is something that gets employed not for the good of the country, but primarily to silence minority voices. What we have now is a far cry from the united efforts of successive government to dismantle the White Australia Policy. ‘Opposition for opposition’s sake’ is not simply an accusation to be levelled at the Coalition; the government appears to enthusiastically embrace that stance when it comes to matters as diverse as gambling machine reform and live exports, despite a lot of high-flown rhetoric about caring for animal and human welfare.

But hey – on the bright side, at least we know the major parties are capable of working together. I’m not sure you can call it bipartisanship, though – more like bipartisan bullying. The equivalent of two schoolyard gangs banding together to make sure the little kids and the nerds don’t get to the canteen before the bell rings.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had real bipartisanship? If we had elected representatives that worked together for the good of the country instead of simply using their majority to silence minority voices?

Yeah, I know … tell her she’s dreaming.

It’s Rhyme Time, kids!

July 18, 2011

So, here we are in the second week of the election campaign – I mean, the second week of the Carbon Price Death-match, brought to you by Thunderdome. Prime Minister Julia Gillard is making good on her promise to ‘wear out her shoe leather’ by travelling around the country spruiking the carbon price package to all and sundry. Other Labor MPs are out haunting all the shopping centres in their electorates, and the first of the pro-carbon price television ads hit the screen over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the Opposition is no less fervent in pushing out their message that any second now the sky will fall in, and the only alternative is the immediate sacrifice of every Labor and Greens representative to whatever gods may deign to take pity on us for our hubris. Witchfinder, sorry, Senator Barnaby Joyce, in particular, cuts a fine figure up on those platforms – one can almost see him in Puritan garb and a tall black hat, holding a flaming torch. Not to be outdone, his leader, Tony Abbott, is busily handing out the pitchforks.

It’s the election campaign we get when we aren’t having an election campaign – and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s dragged on for over a year. Because it has. Since his defeat in 2010, Abbott has never let up on the accusation that in some way, the Coalition are the rightful government, and the machinations of those dastardly Independents thwarted ‘the will of the people’. It’s not quite ‘We was robbed!’, but it’s close. To help them along, the Coalition have Labor’s proposed carbon price package – which they gleefully snapped up, twisted, bastardised and whored out to service the fears of every Australian who doesn’t quite grasp the science or the economics.

We can all chant along with the litany: prices will go up! Emissions will go up! The coal industry is dooooooooomed! You will huddle around your guttering candles in the winter because you won’t be able to afford heating, or lighting, or food, etc, etc.

And it’s not about to let up, either. Better strap in, sit back and take a travel sickness pill – it could be two years before the federal election. This is just the beginning.

But, lest we all resort to heavy drinking because of the sheer, mind-numbing tedium of hearing the same rhetoric, Abbott has a new message – one that might sound familiar to US expatriates.

In his last few appearances, Abbott waxed lyrical about the bravery of ‘a certain other country’ that stood up for itself and shouted, ‘No taxation without representation!’ That, he says, is directly related to what’s going on here the carbon price.

Yes. You read that right.

And just in case we don’t understand, Abbott’s happy to provide the ‘Aussie’ version of that slogan: ‘No tax collection without an election’.

I suppose a six word slogan is an improvement on a three word one … but not much. Still, it sounds good – until you actually take a good look at what he’s saying here.

‘No taxation without representation’ was a catch-cry used by British colonists in the 13 American colonies, taken from Irish protesters who’d been using it for around 20 years. The colonists protested that they were asked to pay taxes without gaining any form of direct representation in the English Parliament. They were ruled from afar, expected to support the Crown, but there was no one to represent their interests. In other words, they were exploited.

It’s a stirring call to arms. No one wants to feel disenfranchised or dictated to by their rulers. Certainly, it worked in the American case, leading to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolutionary War.

But wait … is this in any way related to what’s going on in Australia right now? Let’s see. Every adult is not only able to, but required to vote. Looks like representation to me. Oh, but Abbott changed the slogan, didn’t he?

Yes, he did – to something utterly meaningless. ‘No tax collection without an election’? What does that even mean? We should have an election every year before we put in our income tax returns? Or every quarter when we lodge our BAS statements for the GST? Well, surely not; the country would rapidly grind to a halt if we had to do that.

So what’s this about? It’s simple, and sad – someone in Abbott’s camp decided that a nifty rhyming slogan would be a good idea. Rhyming slogans tend to stick in the mind; they are an apparently clever way of summing up an issue in a way that fits on bumper stickers and dodges analysis. You can almost see the thought processes at work. ‘Hey, didn’t the Americans do that once? You know, that Tea Party thing? We could do that. I mean, look at how successful the Tea Party has been in getting into Congress, yeah, we should go with that idea. Okay, so … rhymes, rhymes. Hmm, we want to push the idea of an early election, so what rhymes with election … protection … confection … erection … how about collection? Yeah, that’s it. Wow, that looks good.’

It’s memorable, all right. You can chant it. In terms of meaning, though, it’s right up there with ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ or ‘It’s Lean and it’s Cuisine’. And like any advertising slogan, its sole purpose is to get people to repeat it over and over, until – like Pavlov’s puppies – it’s the first thing they think of when they hear the words ‘carbon tax’.*

This is about getting people to stop thinking at all. Once you win that battle, you don’t have to worry about pesky little things like facts and figures. You can say what you like and dismiss everything that you don’t.

Climate scientists say we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and favour a market mechanism? They don’t matter, because there are a few out there who say otherwise – let’s talk about them, because that’s ‘fair’. Economists support the carbon price package and look with disfavour on ‘Direct Action’? Pshaw, what do economists know about the economy, anyway? Detailed plans for compensation and encouraging development of renewable energies exist, complete with strong modelling showing a positive outcome? Lie through your teeth and say that it’s nothing of the kind. Oh, and don’t forget to keep saying that whole towns will vanish and the mining industry will collapse – any evidence to the contrary can be safely ignored.

Just keep chanting that slogan, because it’s all about the catchy rhyme, and nothing at all to do with the American Revolution analogy, right?

Because, surely, Abbott’s not really trying to draw a parallel between the American Revolution and the carbon price package, is he? He wouldn’t really want to promote the idea that Australians are exploited by a government that wants to act like a dictator, take their money and do what it wants with it, would he? And he definitely wouldn’t be pushing a coded message that the country’s in such dire straits that only an armed uprising could free them from their oppressors – right?

Perish the thought.

* For further edification regarding political advertising, I highly recommend The Gruen Nation.

Pointless, heartless, racist – Gillard’s ‘refugee swap’

May 10, 2011

The Budget is imminent, but right now everyone’s talking about the government’s proposed ‘refugee swap’ program.

Sounds like a bad reality TV show, doesn’t it? ‘The tribe has spoken’, ‘you’ve been voted out of the Big Brother detention centre’ – in other words, no refugee status for you. If only that were the case.

Prime Minister Gillard announced this deal with Malaysia on May 7. Simply put, Australia plans to ship 800 asylum seekers directly to Malaysia (rather than to an ‘offshore’ processing centre), and in return 4000 refugees already resident there will be re-settled here. This swap will cost around $292 million, and apparently deal a ‘big blow’ to people smugglers.

Just how is this one-off deal going to ‘remove the product’ (to use the odious – but empty – phrase so beloved of the Coalition)? Well, Gillard didn’t exactly spell that out. She did make an obscure reference to sending people ‘to the back of the queue’ – another completely meaningless phrase, but one that clearly dogwhistles to those who’ve traded on the mythical idea that there is a queue, and that it can be jumped.

The implication is pretty clear, though. This deal is designed to send a message to would-be asylum seekers – not to people smugglers. Baldly put, it goes like this: we’ve sent your lot to Malaysia before, and we can do it again. Don’t think that you can risk your life to get to Australia, because we’ll just intercept your boat, turn you around and dump you on a country with an appalling human rights record. To add insult to injury, we’ll take five times as many from that country and foot the bill for them to live here.

And just who are these people, who are apparently so worthy that Gillard is prepared to expand Australia’s humanitarian refugee quota and pay a substantial amount of money to transport here? The likelihood is that they are Christians who fled from Burma with the help of – wait for it – people smugglers.

Now, there is no doubt that Burma is a country in terrible turmoil. Between natural disasters and the oppressive military regime, life there is clearly unbearable for tens of thousands of people. But what, exactly, is the difference between these refugees and those who attempt the sea voyage to Australia?

This is all about pandering to those who believe that some refugees are more deserving than others. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison peddle this idea on a regular basis, weaving a tale of people languishing in refugee camps all over the world, enduring with near saint-like patience while unscrupulous characters use their wealth and privilege to steal their chances at freedom and a better life.

I wish that were an exaggeration – but that is, in essence, one of the pillars of Coalition asylum seeker policy. Of course, it’s utter rubbish.

Both groups pay exorbitant amounts to flee – and they raise this money by selling every asset they own or borrowing money from lenders who are happy to recoup their investment via an extended period of extortion. The idea that those who come by boat are, in effect, idle rich who are a bit miffed with conditions in their homeland and so dip into their huge savings accounts has no basis in fact.

Both enter countries ‘illegally’ – insofar as fleeing persecution, crossing a border, approaching the authorities of that nation and requesting asylum is illegal. Which, of course, it isn’t.

Both have legitimate reasons to seek asylum, and in the vast majority of cases, are granted refugee status by the UNHCR.

And of course, Australia is by no means the only possible destination for those currently in Malaysia.

So where, exactly, is the difference between those who flee overland and those who come by sea? What makes one group more deserving of Australia’s welcome?

Is it because Gillard thinks these refugees in Malaysia might stand a better chance of ‘integrating’ into Australian society? There’s no evidence to suggest this might be the case. They’re not necessarily fluent English speakers, and it’s not like they have any familiarity with the staples of Australian life (McDonalds, Best and Less, wandering around in bikinis on Bondi Beach).

Do the refugees in Malaysia, perhaps, have special skills that we desperately need? It’s unlikely. Most refugees in Malaysia, while able to travel freely throughout the country, work illegally in unskilled labour (since they are unable to obtain work permits). They might well be highly skilled, but we have no way of knowing. Even if Malaysian authorities do keep such records, they won’t necessarily do us any good. Under the proposed agreement, Malaysia nominates which refugees Australia gets. We have little, if any, say in the choice.

Could it be, perhaps, that one group isn’t Muslim? Of course, asylum seekers who come by boat are of many different faiths, but the perception is that they are a homogenous group of Muslims who ‘aren’t like us’. They ‘wouldn’t integrate’. (We are apparently supposed to infer that Christians from other countries would.) That’s a perception the Coalition and News Limited are happy to foster – along with the suspicion that terrorists might lurk in their midst.

Now, it seems, the government is willing to do the same. They’re not saying that, oh no – but when you unpack the Malaysian deal, there’s just no good reason for it.

It doesn’t deter people smugglers. They know there will always be someone desperate enough to pay them, someone who gambles that just maybe they can end up somewhere better. Gillard’s claims that her ‘one-for-five’ swap will have any effect on the people smuggling trade are utterly without foundation – because the smugglers largely don’t care what might happen to the people they transport. The bottom line is money – and pushing a boatload of asylum seekers over to Malaysia won’t prevent them from acquiring a healthy bank balance.

It doesn’t streamline the refugee claims process, nor does it send anyone to the back of the ‘queue’. It merely offloads a responsibility that would otherwise have been ours onto another country. Worse, it removes protection from asylum seekers – Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN’s Convention on Refugees.

Remember when Gillard categorically ruled out re-opening the detention centre on Nauru because that country hadn’t signed the UN Convention? Rings a little hollow now, doesn’t it? (Incidentally, Gillard’s recent proposal – that the Manus Island centre be re-opened – failed to take into account that Papua New Guinea had also never signed the Convention. But that’s another story.)

It doesn’t prevent unrest, protests and violence at Australian detention centres. Gillard isn’t proposing to remove people from the system, just to re-direct the next 800 who turn up in the Indian Ocean. Nothing in this deal addresses the problems of overcrowding, long delays in processing or the psychological distress that is a known consequence of extended detention.

What it does do is enshrine the idea that some people – who just happen to be non-Arabic and non-Muslim – are worthy to have the government take extraordinary measures to aid them, while others do not even qualify for the most basic of human decencies.

Those others, by the way, may include pregnant women and children.

Abbott referred to this deal as a ‘Malaysian Solution’. It isn’t a solution. It isn’t even a stopgap measure designed to take the pressure off a system in crisis.

At best, it’s a token effort in the government’s ongoing struggle to convince the public that it’s working towards a ‘regional’ solution to the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers.

At worst, it’s a clear message that Muslims – or those who ‘look’ like Muslims – aren’t welcome here. That they aren’t ‘good enough’, or ‘worthy enough’ to justify the pitiful expense of processing their asylum claims in our excised zone, let alone on our mainland.

Last session in Parliament, Gillard frequently referred to the words and actions of former Prime Minister John Howard in a remarkably complimentary fashion. It seems now that she’s adopted another infamous saying of his, captured in the first few seconds of this ad:

The daylight between the government and Howard’s policies – and between the government and the Opposition – is shrinking fast. Both try to dress up xenophobia as something necessary to benefit Australia – either to ‘protect our borders’, or to ‘show fairness’. The pretence is wearing increasingly thin, though.

The Opposition point out that this latest ‘one-for-five’ deal is a pointless attempt to salvage a system in crisis, and that it’s bad for Australia. They’re right – but not for the reasons they think.

It’s not bad for us because we’ll get 4000 more already-processed refugees able to be immediately settled in the community. It’s not bad for us because we’re likely to get Malaysia’s cast-offs.

It’s bad for us because our Prime Minister has made it clear that she will cater to racists and fear-mongers by dumping Muslim asylum seekers in yet another perilous situation. It’s bad because it tells the world that Australia doesn’t want you if you’re not ‘the right sort of person’.

And it’s bad because it perpetuates the lie that people in desperate need are scheming, untrustworthy and inhumane. It dehumanises them by labelling them ‘queue-jumpers’, and further undermines the efforts of those who work to see all people treated with dignity.

Shame on you, Prime Minister. And shame on you, Mr Abbott, for scoring political points rather than truly holding the government to account for this revolting excuse for policy.

Honesty, thy name is Kevin

April 5, 2011

Integrity in major party politics may not be dead.

ABC1’s Q and A program last night featured the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. There were a few others on the panel, but for the most part, the focus was all on the former Prime Minister. (In retrospect, the producers must have wondered if they slipped up by not making it a single guest show.)

Inevitably, the question was asked – did Rudd regret his decision to delay putting the ETS legislation to Parliament for a third time?

Now, we’re all comfortable with the way Q and A operates. We get a few questions that seem to be drafted by party strategists, the odd incoherent rant and a few intelligent enquiries that are inevitably sidestepped and spun into an opportunity to deliver a political message.

That’s not what we got last night. Rudd looked up at the questioner and said simply, ‘I think my judgment then was wrong.’

La Trobe University politics lecturer Robert Manne, sitting next to Rudd, commented idly, ‘It’s very rare in Australian politics for that to happen’.


Contrast Gillard on the carbon price announcement – the so-called ‘broken promise’, the alleged ‘lie’. Even after she admitted that yes, she had changed her mind, she made a point of stressing that it was because of ‘changed circumstances’ (the minority government). She wasn’t ‘wrong’ to have ruled out a carbon tax during the election campaign; it was all about what had happened to her.

Contrast Abbott on paid parental leave or carbon pricing. He eventually said he’d changed his mind – and vigorously defended his right to do so.

Rudd, last night, copped it on the chin. He told us he’d been assailed from all sides by his own party, each pushing their own point. Some wanted the ETS permanently shelved. Some wanted to push aside, despite the hostile Senate. Rudd looked for the middle ground, hoping that he could gamble on the Senate changing in the next election. By delaying the ETS, he thought he’d found it.

It sounded like it was shaping up as typical spin. They made me do it, I didn’t want to, but they made me! Indeed, Julie Bishop – who seemed completely unable to stop herself from repeatedly interrupting with remarks that clearly she thought were clever, but which only showed her to be doing a fine job playing the role of Party animal – said that several times. Rudd wasn’t having any of that, however.

‘It was the wrong call,’ he said. ‘You make mistakes in public life. That was a big one. I made it … and I’m responsible’.

No attempt to lay the blame off on the so-called ‘faceless men’. No attempt to say he was forced into it. Rudd was clear about it; he was the man at the top, he wanted to unify his party and preserve a piece of legislation in which he believed. He failed. He was wrong. His fault.

It’s what people have been waiting to hear from Rudd – or, in fact, from any politician. Honesty, accountability, integrity. And – if the audience reaction and the Twitter feed are anything to go by – it shocked everyone who heard it. Within minutes, messages of congratulation flooded in addressed to Rudd’s Twitter.

But, of course, overnight, the worm turned – the ‘worm’, in this case, being the media, the pundits, and the pollies.

Rudd had ‘breached cabinet confidentiality’, he’d ‘gone rogue’ – Sky News. Rudd ‘exposed the deep splits that are damaging this government’ – George Brandis on AM Agenda. NineMSN’s report on Rudd included a mention of the latest Newspoll as ‘more trouble for the government’ (apparently, Rudd’s powers include an ability to influence polls that have already concluded). The Herald-Sun focused on the fact that Rudd ‘did not specifically clear the Prime Minister’. Cabinet was ‘split’ – the Sydney Morning Herald (apparently trying to convince us that ‘normal’ Cabinet meetings feature lockstep thinking). And Crikey commented that Rudd ‘put the knife into Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan’.

The thesaurus was in demand this morning. It was ‘extraordinary’, ‘incredible’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘devastating’. Possibly the tamest word used to describe Rudd’s words was ‘entertaining’.

But what’s missing here?

The reporting is uniformly negative. Even when the articles start by commenting on the ‘frankness’ Rudd displayed, they quickly drop that and move on to the ‘juicier’ stuff.

We bitch and moan about how our politicians don’t answer questions. We lament that everything they say is spin and lies dressed up as concern for ‘working families’. Where oh where, we cry, can we find honesty?

We saw it last night. We saw a former Prime Minister make the choice to admit the mistake, take all the responsibility without making excuses, and refuse to allow anyone on that panel to spin his words into anything other than he meant. He didn’t accept Manne’s compliment, or attempt to show himself as somehow better than anyone else.

But he was better.

Does it make up for the catastrophic decision to shelve the ETS, an action that severely damaged the government in the eyes of the Australian people? No.

Does it make up for his many other mistakes, particularly the botched home insulation program? Absolutely not.

But then – and this is the crucial thing – Rudd didn’t ask us forget all that. He didn’t even ask us to excuse or forgive him.

Should he have said, ‘Sorry’? Maybe. But what he did do was show us a man who had learned a bitter lesson.

Oh, we all loved to call him ‘Kevin 747’ when he raced around the world apparently currying favour with other countries. We tsked that he was ‘Kevin 24/7’ when he worked his Department into the ground, forcing them to keep up with his own punishing schedule. And who could forget ‘Kevin O’Lemon’?

But what we saw last night was just Kevin Rudd, the sadder and wiser man.

The last Q and A questioner commented that sometimes positive results can flow from personal disasters, and asked Rudd if he’d learning anything from being ousted as Prime Minister. Rudd laughed it off, but I think his earlier answer was the real one.

Rudd acted with integrity and honesty last night. It’s what we said we wanted in our politicians.

We shouldn’t allow media spin and partisan punditry to distract us from that. And we should require all our politicians act the same way, all the time.

We have that ability. We should start exercising it.

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