Paging Doctor Entsch – a new week of political shenanigans

March 19, 2012

It’s the start of a new Parliamentary week, we haven’t reached Question Time yet, and already the shenanigans are in full swing.

First, the hapless member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, was in the headlines again. Last week, Thomson was taken to hospital suffering abdominal pains. Initial reports said it was appendicitis, but that was not confirmed and tests would be carried out. He was released from hospital, but given a medical certificate for the week as he would be unable to take part in Parliamentary business – including votes.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Ordinarily, an MP who was ill would automatically be granted a pair. In fact, as Malcolm Farr pointed out today, no less than three Opposition MPs needed to take extended sick leave within the last year, and were readily granted pairs. None of them had medical certificates, nor were they asked to provide them. Which is all very civilised, and only to be expected.

Or so you would think.

Opposition Whip Warren Entsch announced this morning that Thomson would be granted a pair – but only for one day. The medical certificate was ‘vague’, he said, listing only ‘abdominal pain’ as the reason for absence. ‘It could just be constipation,’ he said. Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne backed him up. It was ‘suspicious’. A more detailed certificate was clearly required before further pairs could be granted.

Paging Doctors Entsch and Pyne … oh wait, you’re not medical doctors?

It’s outrageous behaviour. Not only is it unprecedented to disallow a pair for an ill MP, to question the validity of that person’s medical certificate suggests that the Opposition regard Thomson’s doctor as either untrustworthy enough to falsify a diagnosis or too incompetent to make a correct one. Either way, it is an insult.

Doctors deliberately give vague reasons on medical certificates – most often, the stated reason for absence is ‘a medical condition’. This is to protect patients’ privacy, something that is taken very seriously here in Australia.

Oh … unless you happen to be a woman, have had an abortion, and had your records fall into Tony Abbott’s hands.

After that unpleasant beginning to the day, politics descended into pure farce.

We started off with Tony Abbott, holding forth on Queensland’s state Wild Rivers legislation. These laws limit development along certain river systems in northern Qld, to protect their environmental status. Abbott seeks to overturn that legislation via a private member’s bill. As might be imagined, that bill has run into its fair share of obstacles, not least being its blatant intent to abrogate state’s rights. It has gone to committee after committee, all of which have recommended further investigation and amendment – including those on which sit Opposition MPs. Undeterred, Abbott attempted today to bring the bill on for debate (and presumably a vote) before Parliament rises at the end of this week.

it was an extraordinary performance. With metaphorical hand clasped firmly on heart, his voice choked with emotion and perhaps even a teary gleam in his eyes, Abbott launched into a passionate appeal to ‘decency’ and ‘honour’. Someone must stand up for the indigenous people of Cape York, he cried! They are being strangled with ‘Green Tape’ (yes, you read that right, green tape, how terribly witty) when all they want to do is live their lives as they have always done!

How could the government allow this to happen to such good people, these ‘caretakers of the land since time immemorial’? And yes, that’s a quote. Does the government believe that the indigenous people are incapable of taking care of their land? How could they think such a thing? Surely these people had the right to use their lands for more than just ‘spiritual ownership’?

To say there was more than a whiff of the ‘noble savage’ argument about Abbott’s speech is wildly understate the case. This is the man who not two months ago argued that the Tent Embassy was probably ‘no longer relevant’ to today’s issues. The same man who argued the night before the Apology to the Stolen Generations against saying ‘sorry’ under any circumstances. And yet there he was this morning, extolling the virtues of the ‘wise’ and ‘respected’ indigenous peoples.

Of course, it’s possible Abbott had a change of heart. But sadly, no. This is no more than a continuation of a bun-fight that’s been going on for around a year now. The Cape York indigenous communities are split on the question of the Wild Rivers laws. Some, like the Carpentaria Land Council, have no problem with them. Others – notably, lawyer and economic and social development advocate Noel Pearson – see the laws as restricting the right of indigenous peoples to utilise their lands without government interference.

And who does Abbott count among one of his close friends? Mr Pearson.

It’s not the first time Abbott has attempted to make Pearson’s views stand as somehow representative of a united, homogeneous community. They’re not, and Independent MP Rob Oakeshott has called him on it before. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to stop Abbott trying, no matter how ineffectual his efforts are – or much it shows up his hypocrisy where indigenous peoples are concerned.

After that, we were treated to the spectacle of Shadow Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison trying to get standing orders suspended to bring on an immediate enquiry. It seemed to have something to do with Customs, and Glock handguns, and possibly Australia Post – although it was difficult to tell, given the speed at which he rattled out the wording of his motion. Unfortunately for him, he forgot to read the House’s procedures closely, and his motion was disallowed.

Undaunted, he tried it on again a little later, and we were treated to one of the nastier strategies available to the government. Within 30 seconds of Morrison rising, Leader of Government Business Anthony Albanese popped up to move a gag motion. Unsurprisingly, that one succeeded – the Independents have shown themselves to be notoriously impatient with attempts to hijack the House’s business. Having gagged Morrison, Albanese went on to gag Justice, Customs and Border Protection Shadow Michael Keenan – and with that, the motion was dead in the water and could not go on to a vote.

A disgruntled Coalition exited the Chamber, but not without a parting shot courtesy Bronwyn Bishop, Shadow Spokesperson for Ageing. She stopped by the Speaker’s chair and pointing an accusing finger at him, saying clearly, ‘Something will have to be done about this. It will not be tolerated’.

Frankly, if I’d been in Slipper’s chair at that point, I’d have named Bishop there and then. It’s bad enough to see the disrespect shown the position of Speaker during Question Time – to have a member effectively threaten the Speaker should be absolutely unacceptable.

It’s been a full morning – and we’re only just now getting to Question Time. I dread to think what’s coming up.

Any bets on how long until Abbott tries to suspend standing orders for a censure – the 49th since this Parliament was convened – today?


It wasn’t Abbott who called for the suspension – it was Doctor Pyne, MD. Who, in concert with Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, took advantage of Thomson’s absence to engage in the kind of backstabbing we tell our children is utterly unacceptable. Bishop – as ridiculous as it sounds – even went so far as to suggest that Thomson, and the Health Services Union, was somehow connected to the Mafia.

All this aimed at a man who was not there to defend himself, who suffers from an illness that may very well be exacerbated – if not caused – by stress, who has been convinced of no crime and at worst faces an investigation.

Where I come from, we call that cowardice.

National Sorry Day

May 26, 2011

It’s National Sorry Day. But didn’t we already make the capital-A ‘apology’?

Yes. We did make that Apology – shamefully late, and only after a landslide change of government. And it remains one of the most moving speeches ever delivered in the Australian Parliament.

I was at La Trobe University on the day the Apology was delivered. At the time, I wrote:

It was a day in which I can say I was proud to be an Australian, and proud of my elected representatives – well, most of them, anyway. It’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time.

I also wrote that there was a long road ahead.

Three years later, and the road is still long. Indigenous people still struggle with the consequences of white settlement, and government policies that dispossessed them of their land, declared them to be flora, damaged their culture and left emotional and physical scars that still haven’t healed. Perhaps they never will.

Yes, there have been some steps down that road, but there is still so much, much more to do. Children need access to quality education. Life expectancy is still far too low when compared to other Australians. Indigenous peoples are still not recognised in our Constitution.

Worst of all, some now want to move backwards. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu recently announced that his ministers no longer had to follow protocol in recognising indigenous peoples as traditional owners of the land in their speeches. Why? Because it’s ‘dictatorial’. Because it’s ‘too politically correct’.

Or perhaps because it’s an uncomfortable truth that some people still don’t want to face – because if they do, they must also acknowledge that there is blood on their hands. That, even though they might not personally have done anything ‘wrong’, they share the responsibility for the actions of their ancestors. It’s so much easier to sweep it away and hide behind this vague notion that there is something distasteful about stating what is simply true.

And so we come back to the Apology, and why we should keep saying sorry. It’s important that we don’t forget what led to the Apology, why it was necessary in the first place. That we remember how families were torn apart, how children were taught to despise and disown their heritage, how people suffered because Australian people and Australian government were so arrogant as to think they could do as they liked, in the name of ‘assimilation’ and ‘civilisation’.

On National Sorry Day, I say to indigenous peoples that I am sorry. And that I will never forget.

Sorry business is healing business

February 13, 2008

This isn’t a dispassionate narrative. I don’t think it’s really possible to be dispassionate about this issue. But I have tried to put some of the more obviously personal stuff in brackets.

I went in to La Trobe today to watch the Apology to the stolen generations delivered – the uni had set it up on all campuses in lecture theatres. The venue I was in was around 3/4 full, and the mood was expectantly euphoric.

That atmosphere was only briefly broken, at the beginning, when the ABC’s coverage began with a recap of the issue to date, and John Howard’s face appeared on the screen. At that point, people in the audience hissed and booed.

In Parliament, past Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were present. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser also turned out, to his credit. John Howard was conspicuous by his absence – we expected it, but it did leave a sour taste in the mouth to think that he couldn’t put aside his pride for this one day.

In fact, a number of Liberal Members were also absent, and they deserve to be named and shamed.

Wilson Tuckey walked out of the chamber after the Lord’s Prayer was recited – apparently he respects Christianity, but not the feelings of indigenous people. He was joined by Don Randall.

Alby Schulz and Sophie Mirabella also didn’t feel they needed to attend. Schulz had said he wouldn’t be there, but Mirabella, it seems, didn’t feel the need to give notice.

Mark Vaile was also not there for Rudd’s speech – although he apparently did turn up just in time to join the vote. He had to leave the chamber unexpectedly – at least, that’s what he said when he hurriedly phoned Sky News a few minutes ago to explain his actions.

Personally, I didn’t spot Tony Abbott anywhere on the front bench. After his disgusting performance on Lateline last night, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t dare show his face. And, as a friend said, his daughter did have a big party last night.

Every other seat was filled.

In the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery, members of the stolen generations and their descendants were seated on the floor with the MPs. The upper galleries were packed with Australians of all races. In the Great Hall, hundreds gathered to watch the screens. Parliament House lawns, with the Tent Embassy, were crowded, and all over Australia, people gathered in public places to hear a few long-overdue words.

The Apology was the first order of business. From there, he told the story of Nanna Fejo (sp?), who was taken from her family by ‘the welfare men. At this point, the tears were coming fast, both in the chamber and all around me.

Rudd did not, at any point, directly sledge Howard’s government by name, but he made it very clear where he felt the bulk of the blame lay in terms of the long inaction on this issue, even as he acknowledged that responsibility lay with ‘successive governments’ of all kinds. He asserted sternly that the stolen generations were not ‘little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon’ for academics and historians. The present terrible situation was the result of ‘deliberate, calculated policies of the State‘ (my emphasis).

He did what so many people have failed to do. He explained, clearly and simply, why we should be saying sorry. He told a horrifying story, and the dry recitation of statistics that followed it only made it worse, somehow. He quoted from a report made by the Northern Territory’s ‘Protector of Natives’ (and isn’t that just an appalling title?) made in the 1920s, which confidently predicted the complete extinction of the Aboriginal race, and applauded the ‘forced extraction of children’ (Rudd’s words) that was helping hasten the process of eradicating Aboriginal culture. Rudd looked directly at Nelson at the point where he laid heavy emphasis on the word ‘facts’ – not just stories, not political rhetoric, but facts.

(Mick Dodson, interviewed later, pointed out that indigenous people call funerals, ‘Sorry Business’. He also pointed out that it was also ‘healing business’, but the healing business couldn’t begin until the sorry business was properly done. Now do you get it, Mr Howard?)

On the question of intergenerational responsibility, he noted that ‘some’ had used it as an excuse to avoid apologies – oh, we didn’t do anything wrong, why should we apologise? He then drove the point home – some Members of Parliament who were elected during the time when children were being literally ripped from their mother’s arms were still serving in this very chamber at this time. ‘We, the Parliaments of this nation, are ultimately responsible’.

(And think about it – we say ‘oh, sorry’, when we accidentally bump into someone and they spill their coffee. In fact, we say ‘sorry’ when our kids do it, or the people we’re with at the time. We know we didn’t mean to do it, but we acknowledge that what happened was wrong and had bad consequences. We do this all the time. Why did it take so long for our leaders to do what comes so easily?)

In what may have been a poke at the Howard government’s citizenship test, he spoke about Australian ‘core values’ – well, about one in particular. The concept of the ‘fair go’ – and he challenged anyone listening to him to argue that indigenous people had received a fair go. Then, echoing famous election strategies of the past, he reiterated ‘It’s time … it’s time …'”, and added his own version of the Apology.

‘As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry. And I offer you this apology without qualification.’

Turning to the representatives of the stolen generations, he said, ‘Nothing I can say today can take away the pain’, but he hoped that saying sorry would help ease it a little. To non-indigenous Australia, he challenged them (taking a leaf out of John Grisham’s book) – imagine if what had happened to the indigenous people of Australia, happened to you. Imagine if it had happened to us.

(Just stop and think about that for a moment.)

Acknowledging that symbolism was nothing without substance – in a nod to 1 Corinthians 13, that without action the Apology was just a ‘clanging gong’ – Rudd moved on to concrete promises. In a decade, he promised to halve the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia in literacy, numeracy, the ‘obscenity’ of infant mortality, life expectancy and employment prospects. In five years, he promised that every indigenous four-year-old child would be attending early childhood education.

At this point, he rocked the Opposition back on its heels. Looking directly at Nelson, Bishop and the Liberal front bench, Rudd argued that Parliamentarians needed to ‘move beyond our infantile bickering’ on the subject of indigenous affairs. To that end, he proposed a Joint Policy Commission, led by himself and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson, which would implement his government’s policies, including constitutional recognition, and challenged Nelson to commit to that initiative today.

(The audience at LTU erupted into laughter and applause at this point.)

He wound up with the exhortation to all Australians to ’embrace with awe these great and ancient cultures’.

The standing ovation in the chamber was echoed in the Great Hall, the Lawns and at LTU. I can only imagine it was the same elsewhere. Then – as if the government hadn’t shown its respect adequately enough – the entire Labor side of the House turned around and solemnly applauded the representatives of the stolen generations in the chamber.

Brendan Nelson started out on such a good note. He stood ‘strongly in support’ of the Apology, and recognised the indigenous people of the Canberra area. He said that what had been done to the stolen generations must be acknowledged ‘with shame’. He even said ‘we say sorry’, which must have caused a few ulcers to gripe back in the Liberal Party room – and wherever John Howard is now.

Then he kinda went off the rails.

First, he celebrated the First Fleet’s ‘gritty determination’ to build a new nation for themselves, the indigenous people and ‘people to come’. It was that kind of spirit that made Australia a great country.

Then, he acknowledged that indigenous people had made ‘involuntary sacrifices’ to help Australia become the great economic and social nation it is today.

Though ‘disputed in motive and detail’, Nelson seemed to reluctantly agree that taking children from their families had been a bad thing. ‘We need to understand what happened, and why it happened’ – and he urged us to consider the pain of ‘not only those who were removed, but those who did the removing and those who supported it’. Hammering the ‘good intentions’ message that has characterised the manoeuvring of the Opposition in recent days, he lamented the ‘unintended consequences’ of the assimilation policy.

(At this point, three-quarters of the crowd in Federation Square turned their backs on the big screens, chanting ‘Get him off’, and did not turn back until he had finished. The motion was mirrored in the Great Hall in Canberra – where people cried out ‘Shame!’, and on the Parliament House lawns. In Perth, the outcry from the audience was so angry that the broadcast feed was cut altogether. In the theatre at LTU, Nelson was booed and hissed loudly, with angry comments coming from several quarters. Personally, I felt sick – Nelson was talking to his base, not to the people. After the first few sentences, virtually nothing he said had any meaning for me at all.)

‘There will be no compensation fund, nor should there be.’ No amount of dollars would ease the pain of those who were hurt by this ‘painful but necessary policy’.

(More outrage from the audiences. At this point, I was thinking it was lucky Nelson was protected by security in the Parliament, as even in the gallery, there were people muttering angrily. A quick shot of Bob Hawke’s face showed him pass quickly from incredulous anger to disgusted cynicism.)

Then – and this was perhaps the single most ridiculous part of his speech – Nelson invoked the Australian war dead, indigenous and non-indigenous lying side by side in foreign soil. Don’t forget what they went through.

(Did he think it was Anzac Day? Had he forgotten that indigenous soldiers were, for a long time, denied access to RSLs and parades? Had he forgotten that veterans’ groups had turned their backs on their fellow soldiers?)

Not to be outdone on the ‘practical politics’ issue, Nelson decided to have a crack at the ‘immediate’ problems facing indigenous people – causing their ‘existential aimlessness’. (What?) After a quick nod to the problems of infant mortality, life expectancy and social inequality, he zeroed in on the Little Children are Sacred report.

Where Rudd told a story of a woman stolen as a child by white authorities, deprived of her mother, her culture and her religion (being randomly assigned ‘Methodist’ when she was separated from her brother, who suddenly became a ‘Catholic’), Nelson gave us sickening tales of sexual abuse perpetrated by indigenous people on each other. He told us about children raped and murdered, young girls gang-raped, and a baby who was raped ‘while her mother sat drinking’. He championed the Northern Territory ‘intervention’ and sternly challenged Rudd to report “regularly” on its progress – then, almost as an afterthought, said he’d support the Joint Policy Commission.

(What Nelson didn’t mention was the shattering of cultures that had directly contributed to the situations he cited – a shattering which was the immediate and ongoing result of the policies of assimilation and removal. He didn’t talk about the systematic destruction of self-respect, the psycho-social shocks visited again and again on the first people of the country, or the complete failure of his own government to address the problem when it first knew about it. One woman in the LTU audience cried out loudly, ‘Shame on you!’)

Finally, Nelson gave us a thumbnail biography of Neville Bonner, Australia’s first indigenous Member of Parliament – and didn’t fail to mention that he’d been in the Liberal Party.

He also got a standing ovation from the floor – but not from the gallery, and very few people watching gave more than a few token claps.

The vote, needless to say, was unanimous, and greeted by applause, tears, and shouts.

After the vote, Rudd, Jenny Macklin (Minister for Indigenous Affairs) and Nelson left the floor and walked to the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery, where they individually paid their respects to every member of the stolen generations’ delegation. The delegation gave Rudd a coolamon (a baby-carrier, made of bark) to symbolise the birth of a new, reconciled nation (and like any kid, it’s got a lot of learning to do now). The coolamon was presented to the Speaker by Rudd and Nelson, who accepted it on behalf of the Parliament.

(There’ll be reams and reams written on what happened today, I’m sure. For some, it didn’t go far enough. For others, too far. There are mutters of fear about compensation claims and suspicious murmurings about empty gestures. There’s a very long road ahead. From this writer’s point of view, however, it was a day in which I can say I was proud to be an Australian, and proud of my elected representatives – well, most of them, anyway. It’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time.)

Apology to the Stolen Generations – actual text

February 13, 2008

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and Governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

(Actual text of the apology read in the Australian Federal Parliament, Wednesday 13th February, 2008.)

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