Gracious in defeat on carbon pricing? Hardly.

November 8, 2011

The government’s package of carbon price related bills has finally passed both Houses of Parliament. Despite months of scare campaigning from the Opposition, hundreds of column inches given over in editorials and opinion pieces, astro-turfed rallies on Parliament House lawns, and hours and hours and hours of hysterical lies, the bills have passed.

Even at the last minute, the Opposition tried every possible tactic to delay the final vote in the Senate. They tried for amendment after amendment, which were designed to render the bills useless and which had no chance of passing. Senator Eric Abetz led a desperate charge to suspend standing orders after debate ended, arguing that there hadn’t been sufficient time to examine the legislation properly.

Of course, he carefully didn’t mention that of the nearly 30 hours allotted for debate, almost all the Opposition’s speeches boiled down to nothing more than, ‘Gillard lied to us and we should have an election’. Virtually no substantive debate whatsoever.

When that failed, votes on the last amendments were held up by Opposition Senators leaving the Chamber to force longer-lasting divisions. And what did they gain from that? Around 12 minutes in total.

In the end, though, the vote was called. Even during the vote, there were objections. Could the Opposition hear the question again? Why were they being asked to vote on a whole group of bills at once? (Never mind that this was agreed upon when the bills first came before the Senate.) They did everything but sneak out and set off the fire alarm – and I’m not sure it didn’t cross their minds.

The vote was decisive – 36-32. And a packed Senate gallery erupted with cheers and applause.

So that’s it. End of story, right?

Foolish optimists.

Within seconds, Abetz was on his feet again wanting a suspension of standing orders. The reason? He wanted to have a chance to condemn Labor politicians for their ‘betrayal’ of the Australian people. By name. At length. It was all about the ‘will of the people’. Why couldn’t Labor just accept it?

Accept what, exactly? The result of the 2010 election, when we voted in such a way as to bring about a minority government? The dozens and dozens of polls showing popular support for pricing carbon dioxide emissions? Oh, of course not. The ‘will of the people’ is what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says it is, apparently.

Senator George Brandis thundered that it was the ‘most infamous day in politics’ in Australian history. He railed against the government’s ‘alliance of infamy’ with the Greens, and contemptuously dismissed the ‘ragtag bunch of people in the gallery’ who’d applauded the vote. Finally, he warned that, come the next election, the Australian people would make sure that Labor wore ‘the crown of thorns’ and would crucify them.

That particular metaphor might have worked better had not Senator Barnaby Joyce been – at the same moment – telling the media that this was in fact, the ‘biggest betrayal since Judas betrayed Jesus’. The part of Judas, it seems, was played by Independent Tony Windsor. ‘Jesus’ was presumably the mythical ‘forgotten families’ so beloved of the Coalition of late.

Not to be outdone, Senator Ian MacDonald practically frothed at the mouth in his condemnation of the government. In a stunning display of utter hypocrisy, he objected violently to Senator Evans referring to the Opposition as being ‘wreckers’ – and then went on to name the Members for Corangamite and Deakin as ‘gutless wonders’ who were too ‘cowardly’ to speak on the bills. To add insult to injury, he referred to the Prime Minister as a ‘liar’, and when asked to withdraw, he argued with the Chair that he had a right to say it because ‘it’s been said a thousand times’. And besides, he muttered, it was ‘true’.

(Incidentally, this is what the Prime Minister actually said before the last election: ‘I don’t rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism … I rule out a carbon tax.’ And what do we have? An Emissions Trading Scheme. Not a tax.)

And so it went. Speaker after speaker, all contributing nothing of substance – in fact, throwing a tantrum worthy of a room full of three year olds.

I used to help out at my local university Co-Op childcare centre. If any of those kids tried behaviour like that, we’d have put them in Time Out. It’s a great shame there wasn’t the same disciplinary option available in the Senate chamber today.

The upshot? The vote was defeated on voices alone. The Opposition didn’t even try for a division. But it wasn’t over. Out they trotted to front the media with their dire predictions of imminent doom for the government and the Greens, and the End of All Employment in Australia. Those left in the Senate chamber bravely soldiered on, pulling quorum to interrupt debate over some of the related bills (such as those designed to assist the steel industry) and regurgitating the same tired old arguments.

Many of us had parents or teachers who counselled us to be ‘gracious in defeat’. Certainly I was always told that the grown-up thing to do when you lost was to congratulate your opponent and to move on. Perhaps the Opposition wasn’t as fortunate. Nonetheless, it’s not too late for them to learn.

Mr Abbott? Mr Truss? Mr Abetz? Opposition members? GROW UP. You lost the vote. Accept that. We’re not asking you to congratulate the Prime Minister, although it would be the gracious and adult thing to do.

If you still want to repeal all this legislation, you’ll have your chance to put your case to us at the time the next election is called. And if we don’t vote you in, perhaps you might finally accept ‘the will of the people’. Do us all a favour, and hold your water until then.

* * * * *

Dear Diary,

Day 1 of our oppression under the Socialist Green Carbon Tax of Doom. Sky not fallen. No anarchy in the streets. Dishes still need washing. Cat still needs feeding. Opposition still complaining.

Same old, same old.


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.


Married to the lynch mob

March 24, 2011

There’s a truism that says Australia is the 51st state of the US – a McDonalds on every corner, a rather pathetic desire to curry favour with the President, and a willingness to be screwed over in treaties and trade agreements by an ally.

After yesterday, I think, we can really claim that title. Yesterday, we saw the Tea Party come to Australia, with all its hysteria, fake claims of ‘grass-roots’ sentiment and lies. And – just as in the US – we saw a conservative political party try to convince us that they weren’t causing the hysteria, just listening to ‘the silent majority’ finally rise up and exercise their right of free speech.

Radio station 2GB – home of ultra-conservative ‘shock jocks’ like Alan Jones – helped organise a protest rally against the government’s proposed carbon pricing scheme at Parliament House yesterday. According to the Australian Federal Police, about 1500 people gathered on the lawn, led by former rock singer Angry Anderson. In the crowd were One Nation, the anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights and former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson. On the platform were discredited scientists, self-styled ‘experts’ and carefully chosen ‘ordinary Australians’.

And the Coalition came out to meet them with open arms.

All well and good. People have a right to protest, despite the best efforts of politicians like former Prime Minister John Howard and former Liberal Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen (who infamously legislated to declare any gathering of three or more people in a public place an ‘unlawful assembly’). That right isn’t limited to any cause, or restricted to reasoned debate in conference halls. When people feel passionately, they want to be visible, and they want to be heard.

But what happened in Canberra yesterday went far beyond ‘protest’ – it was an ugly mob, and the Coalition pandered to it and whipped it into a frenzy.

Speaker after speaker mounted the platform to address the rally. Every one of them repeated the lies that form the now-familiar Coalition message: that Prime Minister Gillard’s broken promise on a carbon price was a deliberate deception on her part; that every Australian would suffer terribly by being forced to pay a carbon tax; and – with the notable exception of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – that climate change was simply not happening.

Well, they can lie. They should, and are, being called on those lies, but it’s free speech, right? As Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer repeatedly yelled over both Labor MP Nick Champion and Sky’s Keiran Gilbert this morning, they’re ordinary Australians who are allowed to have their views heard. Even if those views are the kind of personal insults yelled by Pauline Hanson (who fronted the cameras to attack Gillard for being unmarried with no children).

Except this isn’t about free speech. This isn’t about the person who carried a sign protesting against everything from the ‘carbon tax’ to the IMF, the UN and ‘one world government’. This isn’t about the person who carried the brightly-coloured placard that made ingenious use of fridge magnets to spell out ‘NO LABOUR CARBON TAX’. It’s not even about the ‘My Mom Is Cold’ sign that popped up. (And can anyone explain that? Anyone?)

This is about the so-called alternative Prime Minister of Australia standing on a platform with his senior colleagues, scare-mongering and lying, while standing in front of this sign (photo credit to the ABC’s Latika Bourke):

Notice the flames of hell?

This is about Senator Barnaby Joyce trembling with anger and screaming red-faced into the microphone, ‘She lied to you! She lied to you!‘, then smiling and nodding as the crowd roared, ‘BITCH! BITCH! BITCH!’

This is about not one of the Coalition speakers asking the crowd to show respect for the Prime Minister – or even for the office of Prime Minister. Every single one of them either stood silently with approving smiles while the crowd roared, or actually encouraged further abuse.

It was a mob virtually baying for Gillard’s blood, and being encouraged to do it.

Unsurprisingly, those actions provoked shock and outrage – although, to listen to some media outlets, you’d be forgiven for thinking the rally was just an excitable picnic rather than a sustained personal attack on the Prime Minister. Senator Bob Brown sent a letter to the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon expressing his feelings of disgust at the abuse they’d hurled at her, along with his wish that Abbott would apologise for endorsing such sentiments.

Abbott, however, was having none of that. Late last night he issued a statement saying he regretted the actions of ‘a small group of people’ – but no apology, no admission that he and his colleagues had helped fuel the situation. Confronted by the media this morning, he expanded on those remarks. Let’s take a look.

‘A few people went over the top … naturally I regret that … but I can understand that people feel passionate.’

A few people? There were hundreds of people waving abusive signs and chanting ‘Bitch!’ and even ‘Kill the Witch!’. A sky writer even gave us the benefit of his opinion at an opportune moment. And it was particularly impressive how many of those signs were identical and professionally produced.

But what about this?

Abbott: ‘Let’s face it, this is a Prime Minister who told us before the election that there will be no carbon tax … it was unfortunate that some ppl chose to go a bit over the top yesterday … I would urge all people to conduct this debate with respect … but if we are going to build respect for the democratic process in this country it is important for the Prime Minister to seek a mandate for her carbon tax.’

‘It’s a pity when some people go a little over the top … it would have been better for everyone if the Prime Minister had said “I don’t want to deceive you, there will be a carbon tax” … if the Prime Minister had been straight with the Australian people before the election we wouldn’t be in quite the situation we’re now in.’

A ‘little over the top’? Calling for violence to be done to the Prime Minister of the country?

Just in case we didn’t pick it up, Abbott kept repeating that the ‘real’ problem here was Gillard’s broken promise – what he consistently referred to as a ‘lie’ or ‘deception’.

Yes. You read that right. It’s Gillard’s fault. She made these poor people howl for her blood. If only, if only she hadn’t ‘lied’, we could all be having tea and scones right now.

In the real world, Mr Abbott, we call that ‘blaming the victim’.

Then there was this gem:

‘People are entitled to feel pretty unhappy … I want the protest to be civil … but let’s not get too precious about these things.’

No, let’s not get concerned about the fact that the Coalition egged the protesters on to louder and more abusive expressions of intended violence. Let’s not worry about Joyce’s endorsement of the kind of abuse we consider unacceptable if it’s yelled in the street. Let’s not get precious, because after all, she brought it on herself.

Asked why he and his colleagues addressed the rally, Abbott replied: ‘I thought it was important that … politicians should speak with them.’

Oh, how disingenuous. Abbott was just doing what politicians should do – speak to the people. After all, other politicians go out to see protesters on the lawns of Parliament House – why shouldn’t he?

Because other politicians confine their actions to talking one-on-one with protesters. Other politicians listen to grievances – they don’t deliver speeches designed to turn a rally into a screaming lynch mob. Other politicians carefully demur when asked by protesters to endorse their slogans.

In other words, Mr Abbott, other politicians speak with protesters, not to them.

Abbott even suggested that Gillard was at fault for not going out to speak to the protesters, as he had. Given the mood of the crowd, she would have been mad to do that. We’ve already seen people throwing shoes at politicians and burning their pictures – and that’s without the Coalition helpfully whipping them along. Watching that rally yesterday, I don’t think many people could doubt that Gillard’s safety would have been at risk.

Abbott tried to shift the blame to Gillard. He tried the old ‘oh, it was just a few mavericks’ line. He tried the free speech and ‘caring politician’ defence. In short, he did everything he could to excuse himself – everything but apologise. In the words of Jake Blues:

But – as Keiran Gilbert asked this morning – what more could he have done?

How about this?

He could have asked the crowd to stop yelling abuse.

He could have insisted that the ‘Bitch’ sign be taken down while any Coalition representative was on the platform.

He could have made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any of his colleagues encouraging abuse.

He could have forbidden any Coalition representative from addressing the crowd as a whole, and confined his actions to listening.

But he did none of these things. By mounting that platform yesterday, he married the Coalition to the lynch mob

Abbott should now apologise without reservation on behalf of himself and his parliamentary colleagues. And he should stop treating the Australian people as idiots. After yesterday, he has no basis left for his persistent claims that he is not contributing to fear and anger. After yesterday, he has no credibility whatsoever.

Independent MP Tony Windsor was pooh-poohed when he expressed the concern that the anti-carbon price rhetoric was becoming so inflammatory that it might well spill over into violence directed at those politicians who supported it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say he was mocked – everyone from politicians to media to tweeters rubbished the idea.

After yesterday, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it?

Mr Abbott and his colleagues need to realise that sooner or later, violence may well erupt as a result of their lies and fear-mongering. And if it does, and all their protests of ‘free speech’ and ‘it’s not our fault’ will mean exactly nothing. They will have blood on their hands.

What’s truly frightening – and after yesterday, seems even more likely – is the idea that they know that already, and they simply don’t care.

AFTERWORD:

Two senior Coalition members chose not to attend the rally yesterday – Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, and former leader Malcolm Turnbull. Neither of them gave their reasons – perhaps it was political expediency, perhaps a recognition of just how inappropriate and damaging it would be.

What’s important is that they did not endorse, either by their presence or their words, the abuse, offensive language or threats of violence that occurred – unlike their leader and their colleagues.

For their common sense, they should be commended.


R-E-S-P-E-C-T

November 18, 2010

I have two girls in primary school. Along with their science projects, their times tables and reading courses, they participate in a lifeskills program. Some of the subjects covered there include how to deal with bullying and conflict resolution. Most importantly, they are taught some common courtesies of human interaction – not interrupting when someone else is talking, not trying to shout people down, listening and responding well to what they are hearing.

It all hangs on one word – RESPECT.

This morning Senators Stephen Conroy (he much-maligned Minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy) and Barnaby Joyce (Shadow for Regional Development, Local Government and Water) were guests on Sky News’ AM Agenda show. The plan was that reporter Ashleigh Gillon would first interview Conroy about the growing pressure on the government to release the NBN business plan, and later bring Joyce into the conversation.

Joyce had other ideas.

Conroy was in the middle of answering a question when Joyce decided to barge in. The studio microphones picked him up at first, but he could be clearly heard, raising his voice to drown out both Conroy and Gillon. For his part, Conroy seemed happy to sink to Joyce’s level, and in short order an orderly interview degenerated into a shouting match peppered with ridicule and stinging insults. Gillon tried repeatedly to regain some sense of order, pointing out that ‘Gentlemen, if you keep on talking at each other but not listening this isn’t going to work’.

Both men completely ignored her. Judging by the grins on their faces, they were both enjoying themselves far too much to worry about little things like courtesy, and the fact that they were live on a national TV program. It was a points-scoring match, nothing more, and frankly, a very poor example.

It’s called bullying – and Ashleigh Gillon was caught in the middle, doing her best to control the situation and being completely disrespected by both Conroy and Joyce.

Luckily my kids were already on their way to school, so I didn’t have to explain to them why they needed to respect each other when grown-ups – our elected representatives, no less – were ‘allowed’ to be as rude as they like. But they’ve seen Question Time before, and they’re well aware of the fact that our Parliament is, at times, a barely-controlled brawl.

And speaking of Question Time … maybe it was the long break between sessions, but so far this sitting we’ve seen MPs being warned, and – in the case of Christopher Pyne, Shadow for Education – actually ejected from the chamber. Speaker Harry Jenkins has delivered lecture after lecture reminding members that it is not simply a courtesy to listen to someone in silence, it is the rule – Standing Order 65(b). He might as well be reading from Alice in Wonderland, for all the notice people take of him. At times, even, members he’d just reprimanded jumped up to argue with him.

While all that was going on, both Opposition and government engaged in the same kind of ridiculous point-scoring we saw with Conroy and Joyce today. Gillard mocked Abbott, Pyne insulted Gillard, Hockey and Albanese traded verbal blows across the table, and Julie Bishop hissed

The Speaker has powers that people like Ashleigh Gillon don’t. He’s able to penalise MPs for this kind of behaviour, and while reluctant to apply those penalties, he’s shown he will do so given sufficient provocation. Being ejected from the chamber is no light thing – it shows up in Hansard, and it’s a black mark against the MP in question. It should be a form of public shaming, that someone is unable to control themselves long enough to take part in an orderly process. To look at Christopher Pyne and the Opposition yesterday, however, you could be forgiven it was all a big joke, and that Pyne was simply going to get a cup of tea.

And when these members return to the chamber? They go right back to the same verbal sparring, disrespect and rowdy behaviour.

Right now we’re waiting to see the vote on Greens MP Adam Bandt’s motion to get members to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage, as well as some votes on whether we’ll finally find out the NBN business case and get better funding for mental health. All pretty important stuff.

And what happened? Pyne jumped up with a motion that two other motions be voted on – one of which would push the same-sex marriage vote back even further – and spent nearly ten minutes sniping at the government, accusing them of deliberately leaving those motions off the agenda. Anthony Albanese, acting as Leader of the House, returned fire with mockery and more stupid points-scoring. Already it’s become so heated that the Speaker has had to rise in his place – which is a signal to the chamber that everyone better shut up right now – and both Pyne and Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop have been reprimanded.

It’s a pretty clear signal that what’s important here is not the substance of the motions, but whether either of the major parties can get in a few barbs and make their opponents look stupid and/or corrupt.

None of this is clever. It might be mildly amusing at times (we do like a well-delivered put-down, after all), but it’s no way to run a country.

So we wait, until they’ve run out of points to score and finally get on with some actual governing. Meanwhile, it might well behoove the major parties to listen to the words of a song that my children learned as part of their lifeskills program – and maybe spend a bit of time thinking about the kind of example they set, and whether they are proud of how well they are conveying the message that what matters is not substance, but the ability to browbeat and insult your opponent into silence.


Should government have funded MacKillop religious celebrations?

October 17, 2010

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Today’s blog may be about the events surrounding the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, but it is not a debate about atheism vs religion.

And while we’re getting things out of the way, full disclosure time. I spent quite some time arguing with myself over whether to do this, but in the end I was persuaded by some of the idiocy taking place on Twitter right now that I’ll save time this way.

I am not a Catholic, lapsed or believing. I am a person of faith, and that faith is my own business. I am also a strong supporter of keeping all religion out of schools and public institutions.

Right. Now that nonsense is out of the way, let’s get to the meat of it.

You’d probably have to be living under a rock not to know that today an Australian nun named Mary MacKillop becomes a Catholic saint. Over the last week, it was difficult to avoid the media coverage. Sky News runs stories about it every bulletin, and has set up a ‘headquarters’ in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. ABCNews24 likewise. Both have given over a significant portion of broadcast time to the ceremony itself. The big media winner is the Australian Public Affairs Channel, though – their non-stop coverage of all things MacKillop started on Saturday morning. (Curiously, the Australian Christian Channel elected not to cover the canonisation ceremony.) Social media isn’t far behind with discussions, debates, arguments and outright slanging matches.

Almost all commentators (whether paid journalists or people just giving their opinion) seem happy to grant that Mary MacKillop’s achievements in life were remarkable. Her work in education, her refusal to stand by silently as children were being abused, and her determination garner little more than praise. Opinions are, of course, sharply divided over the issues of miracles and sainthood. What’s not being talked about is the level of government support.

So let’s talk about that.

The government earmarked $1.5 million for the celebrations here in Australia. Add to that the travel, accommodation, security and associated expenses for Kevin Rudd, Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce and Ursula Stephens, and let’s not forget the ABC while we’re at it. That’s a sizeable amount of public money set aside for a specific religious celebration.

It’s also worth remembering that the announcement of the funding was made during the campaign, during a time when Julia Gillard was coming under fire for declaring herself an atheist. To many, that looked like pandering. Now Kevin Rudd and Julie Bishop have made an incredible show of bipartisanship, co-authoring an article about Mary MacKillop.

Is this kind of expenditure warranted for a purely religious celebration, and a partisan one at that? For that matter, should the government publicly fund religious celebration at all?

There are approximately five million people in Australia who identified themselves as ‘Catholic’ on the last census. That’s a significant number, but one could hardly say Australia is a Catholic nation. (In fact, until 1820, Catholicism was suppressed in the New South Wales colony.) The Constitution specifically prohibits anything of the kind:

116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

That being said, there is a curious disconnect with regard to Australian politics. The Preamble to our Constitution makes reference to ‘Almighty God’. Parliament is opened with a clearly Christian prayer, including the Anglican version of the Lord’s Prayer. Now these things may well be a holdover from our days as an British colony – a country whose head of state is also head of the Anglican Church – but they are still there.

So is Australia a ‘Christian nation’, as is often claimed (notably by the Australian Christian Lobby)? No. Certainly, the census suggests that the majority of Australians identify themselves as affiliated with one of the Christian faiths (but the Australian Bureau of Statistics acknowledges this does not necessarily reflect active participants in religion). Even if we assume a level of commonality between those faiths that may not exist, for purposes of generalisation, it still does not make us in any way an officially religious nation – nor do numbers necessarily legitimise spending for a particular religion.

I happen to think it is unreasonable for the government to fund any form of religious observance – and make no mistake, the canonisation ceremony is exactly that, conducted within a Mass celebrated by the Pope.

Religious institutions enjoy tax-free status in Australia. A religion can take advantage of this in a number of ways – not least of which could be the provision of homes and cars for its clergy (see recent investigations of Hillsong, for example). Part of the rationale behind is the recognition that religions provide certain services for their members, said services being considered important enough to exempt these institutions from the same revenue-gathering as other organisations, so that the money they receive from their members or activities can be used by the religion. This is an enormous concession. To then follow it up with public money for services which are aimed primarily at furthering that particular religion goes well beyond the point at which religions should be involuntarily supported by all Australians.

Even if you think that there is a place for government to support religion, the issue arises of favouritism. When was the last time a government spent money on a Muslim celebration? A Jewish one? Hindu? Or any other religion you care to name? It doesn’t. So, if public money is to be spent on a Catholic celebration, why not those of other religions? Is it unreasonable to think that funding (for example) Hanukkah celebrations is at least as worthy as this canonisation?

Raising these issues is a fraught business. Too often, those who are critical of the money being spent on the canonisation are met with accusations of ‘religious intolerance’, persecution of hapless Christians (note: not Catholics, Christians), and – most extraordinarily – the claim that this kind of criticism would never be levelled at Muslims.

The beat-up is sadly typical – the claim is that Christians are unfairly attacked for their religious beliefs, that they are held to a different standard from all other religions, and even prevented from speaking – and it’s all the fault of the ‘sneering secularists’ (to quote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Gerard Henderson on Insiders this morning). These lefty elitists call any criticism of Islam ‘Islamophobia’, but get stuck into Christians every chance they can, apparently.

Reality check.

Muslims come in for far more than their ‘fair share’ of criticism. It’s not exaggerating to say the rhetoric is hysterical. Every religion, for that matter, comes under fire somewhere. My own is frequently subject to ridicule. And you don’t have to identify as religious to attract criticism and attack – remember the storm that erupted over Gillard’s avowed atheism?

No religion should be subjected to hate speech and distortion – and sadly, there’s been all too much of that taking place on the social media sites lately. Equally, though, no religion should be exempt from criticism.

And when public money is set aside for a particular religious observance, the question should be asked: is this is a good use of that money? Was there better use, with more application for the wider Australian community, for what was spent getting four politicians to Rome and aiding an event put on by one of the wealthiest entities in the world?

The Atheist Foundation of Australia suggested that money could be put towards cancer research, something that has the potential to benefit all Australians regardless of their particular religious position. That statement attracted considerable anger from people identifying themselves as ‘people of faith’. I have to wonder, though – would there been half as much outrage if the suggestion had come from a different source – say, the Peter McCallum Cancer Research Centre?

The money is spent now, but the question remains. Is this sort of expenditure of public money appropriate, in a country where almost half of the population identifies as having no Christian belief, and nearly 20% no religious belief at all?

Or – and this is the cynical part – is all this government support simply about attracting tourist dollars in the form of pilgrims coming to visit Mary MacKillop’s tomb in Sydney, or her home town of Penola, South Australia?

I leave the question open.


I hate Mondays – the Coalition’s bad day

August 9, 2010

This may not be a good week for the Coalition. At the very least, it’s been an awfully bad day.

First, Joe Hockey, Shadow Treasurer, started off his debate speech sounding a lot like he was praising the government. ‘Our destiny is bountiful … the world wants our services … agriculture … innovation’. It’s one thing to include love of country and hope for the future in an opening argument – it’s quite another to give every indication that you think the country is in a wonderful situation. Once you do that, it’s hard to then make the point that things are so dire that your party needs to step in and clean up the mess.

Then there was the matter of expenditure figures. First, Tony Abbott said that the Coalition has planned to spend $18 billion. Later, Joe Hockey announced the figure was nearly $26 billion.

Asked to account for the discrepancy on Sky News’ PM Agenda this afternoon, Senate Opposition leader Barnaby Joyce stammered, stuttered and blustered. He protested that the Coalition’s costings would be given to Treasury to evaluate. He excused himself on the grounds that they didn’t have access to the latest figures. He accused Labor of destabilising the country to the point that the Coalition was having difficulty even working out its costings. And when reminded that he was being asked about expenditure, not costings, he took on a faintly alarmed expression and went on the attack.

At which point he rewrote history, and elevated Mark Latham to a position he once coveted (and may still do so). He referred to Julia Gillard being confronted by ‘a former Prime Minister’.

Andrew Robb, the Coalition’s putative Finance minister, was quickly rolled out to clarify the situation. There is no discrepancy, he explained. Hockey’s figures simply include Labor’s mining tax. Abbott’s did not.

Hold on a minute. Back up there.

This was a discrepancy in the Coalition’s expenditure figures. Why, then, would Hockey’s numbers include an as yet non-existent mining tax which is their opponent’s policy? A tax, moreover, that the Coalition have promised that they have no intention of ever implementing?

So as Monday draws to a close, we have: a Shadow Treasurer waxing lyrical about a bountiful life under Labor; that same Treasurer, his leader, his Senate leader and his colleague in Finance unable to explain a $7 billion discrepancy in expenditure figures; and the aforementioned Senate leader apparently unaware that his party defeated Mark Latham.

Tony Abbott could be forgiven, right now, for thinking that he has a lot in common with Garfield – that Monday is out to get him. I imagine he’d dearly love to draw a line under today, and hope that this doesn’t carry over into tomorrow’s news cycle.

There are some very important unanswered questions, though – and we can only hope that those in the media with access to him don’t forget to keep asking them.


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