Honesty is its own punishment

March 19, 2013

There’s an old saying that goes something like this:

How do you know when a politician is lying? Their lips are moving.

This has never been more true in recent times. Lies about children being thrown overboard. About young single women trying to get pregnant so they can buy televisions with their baby bonus. About people who ‘jump the queue’ so they can laze around on welfare. About same-sex marriage threatening our Judeo-Christian way of life. About unions, who only exist to line their pockets. About those same unions not being responsible for sacking leader after leader. About third parties who hold themselves, self-righteously, above the trough.

And it goes on. Lies, lies, lies. And the worst lies of all? The ones that we hear, day after day, when someone says that an issue is ‘too important to politicise’ – and then goes to to do exactly that.

Abortion. The National Disability Insurance Scheme. Asylum Seekers. Newstart. Climate change. Bridges, trains, the NBN, the list goes on.

And not one party is immune. Not Labor, with its ringing tones of condemnation. Not the Coalition, with its fake sorrow that the government ‘just doesn’t listen’. Not the Greens, with their insistence that only they truly care, even as they’re busily politicising every issue that comes near them.

And you know what’s really sad about all this? The few people in Parliament who aren’t solely interested in scoring political points, or holding power for power’s sake, are either silenced or sidelined as nuts.

Look at the ridicule heaped on Bob Katter. This is a man who stands up, time and again, and politically shoots himself in the foot for his beliefs. He champions his farmers, excoriates the duopoly of Coles and Woolworths, roundly criticises all and sundry for taking advantage of indigenous people. He gets very little air time, either in the Parliament or the media – and when he does, what gets reported has nothing to do with what he says. Instead, there’s laughter if he can’t get his question out in the allotted time, or applause if he does. There are barely concealed smirks around the chamber when he rises.

How about Tony Windsor, possibly the sole voice of sanity in the House of Representatives? He holds a huge amount of power – his vote can make or break legislation, and he knows it. When he gets asked how he’ll vote, he says he’ll consider the matter very carefully, and refuses to be drawn. That’s not good enough, apparently, and out come the accusations that he’s a traitor, that he holds his seat under false pretenses, since what people ‘really’ wanted was for him to support the Coalition. Then there’s the uglier muttering, never quite said to his face, but implicit in so many comments from media outlets – that he’s power-mad, and just enjoys making the major parties wait upon him.

That same accusation gets flung at Rob Oakeshott, but it seems to be far more ‘fun’ to make comments about his tendency to be long-winded in his speeches. Ever since his joint speech with Windsor announcing support for a Labor government back in 2010 – in which his contribution lasted around 17 minutes – people make a point of ridiculing him. Strangely, those same people don’t stop to consider there may be a good reason for such comprehensive answers – that perhaps Oakeshott may simply want to be clearly understood. Heaven forbid.

Andrew Wilkie – accused of everything from being a turncoat from the Liberal Party to something of a tinpot dictator destined to fall in some kind of 2013 election ‘coup’ – exposed the hypocrisy of the entire minority government bargaining process, at least as far as the Coalition was concerned. For that he was viciously attacked, and the Coalition simply haven’t let up. His concern for problem gambling made him the target of an amazing smear campaign, and when he was hung out to dry by the government, his justified anger received nothing but indifference.

Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie & Tony Windsor

Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie and Tony Windsor

These are the MPs who hold the balance of power in the House. These four men have exercised their responsibilities wisely and well. They don’t play the game. They don’t lie to make themselves look better, or to score a point. They engage with their electorates and across social media personally. Take a look at their Twitter feeds and see how many threats they receive every day – threats of personal harm, harm to their families, even death. The language is vicious, and frightening.

Of course, they’re not the only ones to receive that kind of abuse. The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader are just as much victims as the Independents, and that is something we shouldn’t forget – or condone. It doesn’t matter who the targets are – there’s no excuse for threatening someone’s safety.

But this is about honesty. This is about not playing the game of politics with false pronouncements of truth and compassion. This is about what happens to those who do their jobs without always looking to the next poll, or the next election, but who actually want to get something done – even at the expense of their own careers. Does anyone believe Wilkie, Oakeshott and Windsor are under any illusions that both major parties will go easy on them in the upcoming campaign? The Coalition’s already said it will throw everything it’s got at them – don’t think the government will do any less, or the Greens in Tasmania.

We live in an era where lies are spoken with utter sincerity by those who are supposed to represent us, and go unchallenged by those who are supposed to investigate and interrogate on our behalf. We live in a country where those who buck this trend are attacked, abused, undermined and ridiculed.

Honesty is its own punishment, I guess. And if that doesn’t make you wake up and start doing something – well, I guess nothing will. And you’ll get the government you deserve, come September.

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Election 2013 – we’ve set a date!

January 30, 2013

It’s finally happened! After all the speculation, after the incessant cries of ‘Election, now!’ from the Opposition, and the whimpers from the electorate of ‘how long will this never-ending campaign go on, anyway?’, Prime Minister Julia Gillard set a date for the 2013 Federal Election.

Put it in your calendar apps, folks: the date is Saturday, September 14, 2013.

(Or, for those of you who still use paper diaries, I’m told there’s this thing called a pen that works without being plugged in and charged! It doesn’t even use the internet! Ahem. But I digress.)

In setting this date, the Prime Minister accomplished several pieces of brilliant political strategy. Some she was happy to foreground, but others snuck in under the radar. So let’s have a close look.

The most obvious – and one she used to tweak the collective nose of the media at the National Press Club – is that it takes away the potential for speculation about the date to be read into every move the government makes. This sort of opinion piece is a staple in the months leading up to an election. With it removed, the government has an opportunity to better force media focus onto issues of substance, rather than whether the PM’s itinerary takes her anywhere near Yarralumla.

The other overt effect is that it pushes the Opposition onto the back foot with regard to costings. As the PM was happy to point out, with such a long lead time before Parliament dissolves and the campaign officially begins, the Coalition has no excuse not to deliver its costings to Treasury and release them to the public. In her own words, ‘No surprises also means no excuses’.

The Coalition has previously claimed that they were not given enough time to submit costings, or that access to Treasury was limited due to election campaign pressures. Now, they will have the May Budget, and more time than any Opposition has had in decades to thoroughly develop, cost and release their policies. Of course, they may try recycling the argument they used in 2010, that Treasury was effectively too corrupt to be trusted with their costings – but that didn’t work too well last time around.

And then there are the covert effects.

Clearly, this date fulfils her promise to Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to ensure her government served its full term – and on that score, the government needs all the help it can get. Both MPs immediately expressed their approval of the date, in interviews shortly after the announcement. Windsor says the PM spoke with them some weeks ago, and agreed there were only a few dates that could realistically be chosen – though he stopped short of saying the decision was made at that time.

While this has little effect on the electorate, it buys her good credit should this election also result in a minority government – and with the rise of minor parties and Independents, that’s a real possibility. It also offsets Labor’s backdown on its promise to Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie poker machine regulation. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon also endorses the early announcement, as do the Greens. This leaves the Coalition out on a limb. They have to join the chorus of approval – which they will no doubt do grudgingly, suggesting that it’s about time the PM ‘took their advice’, a tactic that will backfire horribly with the public (no one likes those who say ‘I told you so’. If they don’t, they look like hypocrites.

Lastly, there’s possibly the sneakiest effect. The PM went to great lengths to stress that announcing the date was not a de facto campaign launch. ‘I do so not to start the nation’s longest election campaign … it should be clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning,’ she said. Now, obviously this is disingenuous; campaigning will be inevitable in the coming months, and anything not actually labelled as a campaign statement will certainly be interpreted as one by both media and the opposing parties. It does, however, give Labor something of a moral high ground, not to mention an excuse not to answer curly election promise questions until after the writs are delivered.

More useful for the government is the probable consequence for the Opposition. The Coalition has already been roundly criticised for conducting what amounts to a non-stop election campaign since the 2010 election, calling for another poll even before the Parliament sat for the first time. On numerous occasions, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has declared that he will not rest until he ‘changes the government’, which he considers illegitimate due to its minority status. In fact, this sentiment underpins virtually every statement the Coalition makes.

It’s hard to imagine that Abbott would stop now. Indeed, this week he launched what he called a ‘mini-campaign’, apparently intended to bolster his falling approval numbers, and undercut any gains Labor might make. Now, he needs to deal with the reality of a fixed election date 227 days away. Given his propensity for hammering home a message ad nauseam (usually while wearing a Hi-Vis vest), and holding a media conference virtually every day, we face the possibility that he will simply step up this activity.

Imagine it. Seven months of election campaigning. Seven months of Abbott recycling slogans like ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Axe the Tax’. Seven months of vicious rhetoric and media stunts.

Sorry about that.

If the government has any intelligent people in its media unit whatsoever, they won’t rise to the bait. They’ll let Abbott have his head, and – to mix a metaphor – he’ll hang himself. People are already tired of the unofficial campaign. The backlash is likely to be devastating in terms of poll numbers.

In one stroke, Labor has rendered the myth of the ‘inevitable 2013 Coalition victory’ powerless. And the Opposition knows it – which may account for its first appalling statements on the election date. It happens to be Yom Kippur, arguably the most important holy day in the Jewish religious calendar. The Coalition wasn’t about to let that golden opportunity go by.

See what they did there?

This is amateur hour stuff. See how evil and mean-spirited Labor is! They chose to have an election on a religious holiday! What a terrible thing to do to these poor Australians! We would never do that!

Let’s not forget the ugly side of those tweets, the tacit accusation of anti-Semitism. And every politician knows that labelling your opponent as anti-Jewish has incredible emotional appeal, and can be a real vote-getter.

It’s not even worth arguing about whether Labor is anti-Semitic, whether it’s as good a supporter of Australian Jews (and, by extension, Israel) as the Coalition. That’s just a stupid diversion, and it’s surprising to see Turnbull, in particular, trying on this idiocy. (It remains to be seen if any others will jump on this bandwagon, or whether the Coalition media unit has managed to keep them away from Twitter).

Elections will always be a problem for someone. Maybe they’ll fall on religious holy days (and when was the last time you heard a politician complain about any other religion’s being inconvenienced). Maybe it’ll be the AFL Grand Final. Maybe you’re flying to Bali that day, or stuck in floodwaters or in hospital. None of that should present an obstacle to your fulfilling your duty as a citizen of this country. It’s really very simple.

We have early and postal voting in this country.

That’s right. We can participate in our democratic process and live our lives. Amazing, isn’t it?

That the Coalition would even consider this sort of strategy is ridiculous. It shows how unprepared they were for the announcement of the election date. One imagines that even now, their media unit is busy shredding Abbott’s prepared speech for his appearance tomorrow at the National Press Club, and frantically scribbling.

It will be interesting to see what he has to say. I’m fairly sure he won’t mention Yom Kippur – but the damage is done.

In the meantime, we can at least breathe a sigh of relief. We know when the sausage sizzles will be.


Kevin Rudd resigns as Foreign Minister

February 22, 2012

After a week of feverish speculation, triggered by a leaked video, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd tonight resigned his post in a late-night media conference from Washington DC.

He didn’t mince words, either. ‘I cannot continue to serve as Foreign Minister if i do not have Prime Minister Gillard’s full support,’ he said, adding that Gillard had refused to unequivocally support him against particularly vicious comments from Parliamentary colleagues, notably Regional Minister Simon Crean. By contrast, Rudd had indicated support – though it was definitely lukewarm – with his statements that there was no leadership challenge on, and re-affirming her position as Prime Minister. The current situation – with MPs and advisors popping up at every possible opportunity was a ‘distraction from the real services of government’, and having a damaging effect on business. It was also, he said, taking the focus away from the current Queensland election campaign, and Premier Anna Bligh deserved better.

He had some harsh words for factional players within the Party, referring to his own sudden forced resignation from the top job as removal ‘by stealth’, and that it must never happen again. That was, he said, the reason he’d made his resignation announcement now, and that he would make a further announcement on ‘his future’ before Parliament sits again next week.

Most damningly, he gave us this scathing opinion of the media frenzy that’s surrounded the question of the leadership, seemingly since the day after Gillard came to power:

‘The Australian people regard this affair as little better than a soap opera, and they are right; and under the current circumstances, I won’t be part of it’.

And it has been a soap opera. Sky News referred to the speculation as going on for ‘weeks and weeks and weeks’ – as though it had nothing to do with that at all. Which is, of course, utter rubbish. The media are, perhaps, more responsible for creating the soap opera than any tensions between Rudd and Gillard. It’s undeniable that Rudd is still incredibly angry about the way he was removed – but it’s equally undeniable that the media have taken every opportunity to suggest an imminent leadership challenge. And not just for weeks, either.

After all, a soap opera is nothing more than private drama without the cameras, the reviewers and the ratings people, is it?

So, of course, speculation is now rife as to Rudd’s next move. The bulk of commentators are convinced he will spend the weekend making frantic phone calls and alliances, and challenge Gillard for the leadership on Monday. In this respect, he would be following the same plan he carried out when he deposed Kim Beazley in 2006. What’s more, the playbook throws his actions into sharp contrast with Gillard’s. Rather than orchestrate an eleventh hour ultimatum delivered from a position of power, Rudd publicly submitted his resignation and went to the back bench.

This time, though, commentators believe that Rudd doesn’t have the numbers. If he fails, he goes to the back bench, and the pressure will be on him to resign from politics altogether – or at least announce that he will not stand again for the seat of Griffith. The idea that he wouldn’t, according to Sky’s David Speers, is ‘farcical’.

There’s another possibility. Rudd may not challenge. He might go to the back bench now, and bide his time. His resignation, together with other issues on which Labor has lost traction (largely thanks to relentless campaigning from the Coalition), could be the final element that ensures Labor loses power at the next election. At that point he could easily convince the Party that Gillard was unfit to keep the leadership; that – to quote him on Beazley in 2006 – what is needed is ‘a new style of leadership’, to save the country from the damage that might be done by a Coalition government.

It’s a strategy that worked well for former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Of course, this assumes that Rudd is willing to Labor be soundly defeated. Is he quite that Machiavellian? Sure enough of himself that the Australian people would forgive him such a cold-blooded strategy, and that Labor voters would be willing to vote for him after living under a Coalition government? The suddenness of today’s announcement, coming as it did in the middle of the night while Rudd was in the capital of our most powerful ally, can be read as Rudd deciding to blindside the Prime Minister just before the evening news, ensuring he would be the story for the weekend. Or, as Graham Richardson suggests, there are articles due to be released tomorrow that are potentially very damaging for Rudd.

Or it could simply be that he snapped, unable to take any more pressure from both the party and the media. Which, given his temper, isn’t that unlikely.

There’s no doubt this is a gift to the Coalition – and an earthquake for Labor. It’s the Independents who’ll come in for close scrutiny this weekend, however.

Andrew Wilkie has already withdrawn his support from Gillard, and, as usual, is playing his cards close to his chest. His hatred for the Coalition is well-known, though that’s no guarantee. Since earlier this week, when he was briefly embroiled in the soap opera by way of a misreported conversation with Rudd, he’s been quiet.

Tony Windsor, speaking to media tonight, suggests an election might be necessary, but a change of leadership now was very risky. Judging by his performance in Parliament to date, whatever decision he makes now will be exceedingly well-considered.

Rob Oakeshott is nowhere to be seen.

Interestingly, Bob Katter may be the wild card. His refusal to support Gillard as PM was based, in large part, by his distaste for the tactics used to remove Rudd. Should Rudd challenge and win, he may change allegiances – or at least be more inclined to listen to Federal Labor. We still haven’t heard from him, either.

The question for Labor, then, becomes whether its members can set aside personal animosity and vote for the person they feel has the best chance of beating Abbott at the next election. Although there’s no specific current polling, Labor’s miserable figures on both Two Party Preferred and Preferred Prime Minister questions suggest that Gillard can’t do it. Her own unpopularity with the public compared to Rudd only reinforces that. (And interestingly, take a look at the informal poll in the link above from The Age.)

But it’s the caucus who’ll decide the leadership, in the end. They’ll have to weigh up whether they want to preserve the kind of factionalism that ousted Rudd in the first place – or take their chances with someone they treated appallingly for the sake of retaining government, and hope his words of needed party reform are just that – words.

The Prime Minister will be releasing her statement later tonight, but won’t front the media until tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

The contenders - Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the man she forced out, ex-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd


Marriage equality bills to hit Parliament today

February 13, 2012

Today ALP backbencher Stephen Jones will introduce a bill into the House of Representatives calling for marriage equality. Greens MP Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie will introduce a similar co-sponsored bill, containing a specific provision that will exempt religious ministers from solemnising marriages between a same-sex couple.

I’d like to be optimistic, even enthusiastic, about this. But I’m afraid I really, really can’t.

Because unless Opposition Leader Tony Abbott loosens his stranglehold on the Coalition’s consciences, the bills will fail.

We’ve already seen what happens when Bandt or Wilkie tries to introduce ‘controversial’ legislation. The major parties fall into lockstep against them. Granted, the ALP passed the resolution at its last conference to make marriage equality a matter of conscience, so perhaps there might be a few more bums on seats sitting with the two minority MPs this time around. But there are enough Labor members determinedly opposed to same-sex marriage to ensure the bills suffer a resounding defeat.

Jones’ bill may fare more kindly. After all, he’s a Labor man, and even those who won’t support Bandt and Wilkie on principle might vote for one of their own. Again, though, the bill runs up against the Coalition’s refusal to allow its members a conscience vote.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has already signalled her intention to introduce a marriage equality bill later in the year. This is as clear a signal as she could send that she expects today’s bills to fail – and probably her own as well. At this point, the strategy appears to be one of simply flooding the Parliament with similar bills in the hope that it will wear down MPs’ resolve – and that in the end, they might vote for it just to get the issue out of the way.

That this strategy should even have to be considered, let alone employed, is shameful. It’s a matter of civil rights – human rights – that are denied to Australian citizens. Worse, it’s a matter of a privileged majority not wanting to have that privilege ‘sullied’ by having to share it.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the numbers will be there. Maybe some Coalition members will defy Abbott’s decree and cross the floor to support marriage equality – or at least inform him privately that they intend to do so, at which point I predict a swift reversal of the ‘no conscience vote’ stance. Maybe the rest of the ALP will realise that clinging to privilege and discrimination flies in the face of everything that party supposedly stands for, and support a bill.

It’s possible.

It’s also possible politicians will stop lying in Parliament, abandon mindless party loyalty in favour of the good of the people, and remember that they are our servants, not our masters.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.


A man of his word

January 21, 2012

We’re still two and a half weeks away from Parliament’s resumption, but the wheeling and dealing is in full swing. It was pretty clear something was in the works when former Speaker Harry Jenkins retired and Coalition MP Peter Slipper took his place. The buffer provided to Labor’s numbers in the House was too good to be true – they had the option now to get out of some sticky situations without risking their hold on government.

Not least of these potential issues was poker machine reform. Bringing in legislation to fight problem gambling was crucial to securing Tasmanian Independent member for Denison Andrew Wilkie’s support in forming goverment – but the campaign mounted by Clubs Australia was immediate, well-funded and brutal. You couldn’t have missed the signs if you went anywhere near a club or pub – giant cardboard stand-ups shrieking that the government was going to make us purchase a ‘licence to punt’, that local kids’ sports clubs would be deprived of dressing rooms and uniforms. Our whole Aussie way of life would be threatened!

(Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Honestly, I don’t know how we survive as a nation, with all these dire threats to ‘our way of life’.)

The reality, of course, was that Clubs Australia was flatly lying. The proposal was for mandatory pre-commitment technology – which is a fancy way of saying ‘individual smart cards that limit how much you can spend in total at any one time’. Along with this, more money for programs designed to help problem gamblers and the possibility of limiting just how big your bets can be via so-called ‘low intensity’ machines, which impose a maximum bet per spin and carry a much lower jackpot.

Nonetheless, the scare campaign was effective. Labor backbenchers, particularly in New South Wales, started seriously worrying about their chances for re-election as Clubs Australia brought pressure to bear on them as individuals. The Opposition chimed in with their own head-shaking and tut-tutting about ‘draconian reforms’ and ‘nanny states’. By the end of 2010 – if you’ll forgive the metaphor – the smart money backed the idea that Labor would find a way to renege on the Wilkie deal, and still retain government.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, accompanied by Families and Community Service Minister Jenny Macklin, delivered the deathblow today. Instead of introducing legislation that would mandate the installation of pre-commitment technology in poker machines across the board, the government announced a trial of said measures – that won’t start until 2013, and will be carried out only in the Australian Capital Territory. Just in case the trial has a good result – in other words, tallies with what the Productivity Commission has already recommended and the experience of other countries has shown works – new machines built after next January must have the pre-commitment software already installed. Not activated, mind you. That won’t happen until at least 2016 – in other words, well after the next election.

Gillard also ruled out imposing bet limits or mandating low-intensity machines, on the grounds that installing the necessary software in existing machines would be far too expensive. Never mind that it would be a matter of modifying existing software, which is far less expensive than complying with the stringent rules surrounding the implementation of entirely new software in poker machines.

Almost as an afterthought, she announced a daily $250 withdrawal limit at ATMs located in venues with poker machines. Oh, and there’ll be warning signs on the pokie screens.

It’s all about ‘the realities of minority government’, Gillard lamented. We had to make compromises on carbon pricing, and we just have to do the same thing here. She asserted that she knew legislation could not pass the House, and therefore wasn’t going to make the attempt.

Unlike carbon pricing – which Gillard repeatedly said she would establish – this is an unequivocally broken promise. Actually, it goes further – it’s breaking the written contract she signed with Andrew Wilkie in return for his support. This is exactly what happened when the Coalition reneged on its contract with the Independents to re-commit votes and pair the Speaker.

(Oh, and just incidentally … the Coalition also promised to introduce pre-commitment technology in return for Wilkie’s support. Not that you’d notice from the way they talk about it now.)

Wilkie repeatedly warned that he would withdraw support if Labor did not live up to its undertakings. Gillard’s called his bluff, and now the ball is in his court. Even if he does follow through on his threats, it won’t necessarily endanger the government – Wilkie’s already made it clear that he would not automatically support the Opposition, nor that he would always vote against the government in no confidence motions.

So what would it mean? For the government, it puts them back in the same situation as when Harry Jenkins was Speaker; holding onto power by the slimmest of margins. A single vote against them by an Independent or Greens MP could be enough to defeat legislation. It would be a case of ‘second verse, same as the first’.

The implications for Wilkie are far more profound. In his negotiations with both major parties, and in his personal conduct in Parliament, he’s shown himself to be relentlessly ethical. He stood up to the government on asylum seeker policy and live exports, and only supported carbon pricing after he was assured that the most financially disadvantaged Australians would be protected. His refusal of Abbott’s lavish offers of funds for his electorate, in favour of wider programs that would benefit the nation as a whole as well as his own area, sent a clear message; this was someone who support could not simply be bought.

Now he’s in a position where he needs to demonstrate that he’s also someone who can’t be taken for granted, or dismissed. If he withdraws support from the government, he risks being forever branded as the man who prevented pokies reform – regardless of the truth of the matter. If he doesn’t, he becomes a target for the Opposition, who certainly won’t hesitate to brand him an opportunist at best, a Labor lackey at worst.

When Wilkie signed his deal with Labor, I wrote that he was shaping up to be the government’s conscience. Now we’ll see whether he can resist the temptation to settle for a watered-down, toothless version of his dream reform – or whether he’ll remind the government that agreements work two ways, and that there are consequences for treating written contracts are optional and dismissing individuals as undeserving of their fidelity.

UPDATE:

Wilkie just announced that he has withdrawn support from the Labor government. He will no longer guarantee to pass Supply bills or back the government in no confidence motions. His agreement with Gillard, which he described as ‘a pact with the Australian people’, was specific; ‘a deal’s a deal. Our democracy is much too precious to trash with broken promises and back-room deals’. He stated that he had ‘no option’ but to withdraw support, and went on to give the Labor government a thorough serve. Being able to trust politicians is even more important than poker machine reform, he added.

He added that he will not block the government’s proposed pokies legislation, even though it falls well short of the agreed measures. Rather, he will treat it as a first step, and continue to work for real reform.

Watching his media conference, it was clear that this was difficult for Wilkie. He said he held out hope that the Prime Minister would honour the agreement, even as late as last night. He said he’d kept faith with his undertakings, even to the point of passing a Budget containing Social Security changes with which he disagreed. His disappointment and disgust with the government was unmistakable.

Even then, he praised Gillard for making a minority government into a workable institution. There was nothing grudging or half-hearted about it, either.

No doubt the Opposition will leap upon this announcement with glee. Expect Tony Abbott to crow that this is the consequence of Gillard ‘dudding’ Wilkie, as she apparently ‘dudded’ the rest of us on a whole slew of other issues. In fact, expect the Coalition to cruise on this all the way through to when Parliament resumes on the 7th of February. And let’s face it, the chances are good that Abbott’s pontifications are likely to get more air time than anything Wilkie can say.

But here’s what’s important: today an elected representative refused to compromise his ethics. Wilkie proved himself a man of his word when it counted.

That’s a rare trait in a politician; and it shouldn’t be. Wilkie demonstrating good faith should not be a cause for comment, but as our Parliament stands, he’s the exception rather than the rule. He’s a man with both idealism and integrity … and perhaps instead of regarding that as naive and a little bit cute, we could admire it and expect the same standard of behaviour from the rest.

Because it won’t happen until we demand it.


Malaysia deal dead in the water – for now

August 31, 2011

The Full Bench of the High Court has ruled 5-2 in favour of the asylum seekers slated for Malaysia as part of Gillard’s deal.

The injunction prohibiting their removal from Australia is now permanent.

The High Court, expediting their decision, ruled that asylum seekers cannot be processed offshore unless the Minister for Immigration can demonstrate that human rights will be protected in accordance with section 198A of the Immigration Act. The Minister cannot simply declare a country has adequate human rights protections – he must demonstrate it.

By implication, this could rule out any country which is not a signatory to UN Conventions on Refugees – including Nauru and Manus Island. The Court did not specifically rule on this, however.

Unaccompanied minors cannot be sent offshore for processing unless an additional written consent is issued by the Minister.

No appeal is possible to this decision.

The Malaysia ‘one for five’ deal is, at this point, dead in the water.

A summary of the judgment can be found here and the full transcript here.

It’s a huge win for opponents of offshore detention, and a massive blow to the government. At every turn, it has been thwarted in efforts to ship the asylum seeker’ problem’ out of sight and (presumably) out of mind. Right now, the government is in a bind – but they have a couple of options open to them.

They can attempt to amend the Migration Act in order to water down s. 198A – effectively removing clause 3(iv), which currently requires that any proposed offshore destination ‘meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection‘. (my emphasis)

In the current political climate, this would be an uphill battle at best. The Greens will vehemently oppose any attempt to remove human rights from the legislation, and it’s a fair bet that Independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott would do likewise. The government’s only hope, then, would be to enlist the Coalition’s support.

It’s a possibility. This ruling hurts the Coalition as much as it does the government, since the Opposition’s own asylum seeker policy hinges entirely on re-opening the Nauru detention centre built with Australian money under the Howard administration. It might well serve their interests to throw in with the government – although it would significantly weaken them, given their frequent declarations that no good policy or legislation has ever come out of the Gillard government. With enough spin, they might succeed in convincing the public that they’ve had to step in to ‘rescue’ bad policy, but it would be a very risky move.

The government’s other option is to return to the policies espoused under the Rudd government, processing asylum seekers either onshore or on Christmas Island. The Opposition consistently attacked these ideas, blaming them for a surge in boat arrivals. The night before he was forced to resign, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cautioned against any ‘surge to the Right’ in this area. Julia Gillard’s actions since assuming the officer of Prime Minister, however, have taken Labor closer and closer to the Coalition’s hardline stance.

There is an opportunity now for the Gillard government to abandon the offshore system altogether, using the High Court ruling as a shelter against criticisms of ‘backflip’. Minister Chris Bowen could claim that his hand was forced by the judiciary. That, however, assumes that the government does not, in fact, wholeheartedly support offshore detention and similar harsh measures.

We’ve yet to hear from the government, and have no idea when it will make an announcement. At this point, it’s all speculation as to what they might do next. If you have a recommendation for them, I urge you to email your local MP, Minister Bowen and/or Prime Minister Gillard. You can be sure that certain groups on both sides of the issue are already doing so. Don’t let them give the government the impression they speak for you.

In the meantime, this is a decision worthy of celebration. The dreadful plan to send asylum seekers to a country where they would be completely unprotected by even lip service to human rights conventions is absolutely blocked. For now, at least, Australia has regained a little compassion.

It’s shameful that we needed the Full Bench of the High Court to force us to do that.


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.


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