Bob Brown resigns

April 13, 2012

Senator Bob Brown today resigned from the leadership of the Australian Greens and as a member of the Senate.

It’s fair to say that this was the single most bloodless leadership transition in Australia’s recent political history. There were no poisonous comments from party MPs, no middle of the night ultimatums, no sense that a leader was being removed to allow a party to renege on earlier voting agreements.

And – most startlingly – there were no leaks to the media.

None. Not a one.

There was a party room meeting this morning, where Brown announced his decision to resign. His deputy, Christine Milne, was elected unanimously to succeed him. And then the party simply trooped out and handed the media the news.

And everyone was utterly blind-sided. For once, ‘Breaking News’ actually meant something. We weren’t subjected to days (if not weeks) of speculation, backgrounding, commentary and rumour increasingly being presented as fact. Instead, we had an initial announcement, followed by the extremely pleasant sight of watching pundits scramble to analyse the situation on the hop.

It was … civilised. About as far removed as it’s possible to get from the public spectacle of that terrible Rudd/Gillard stoush earlier this year. And a far cry from the eleventh-hour manoeuvres that stripped Malcolm Turnbull of the Coalition leadership in order to prevent Rudd’s emissions trading scheme from passing the House.

It was a smooth transition, even to the point of the Greens deciding that they would hold another party meeting today to elect their new deputy leader – allowing members to consider their positions, discuss nominations and make up their minds rather than force them to make an immediate vote.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in characteristic style, gave his opinion on Brown’s time in Parliament. You couldn’t exactly call it a tribute:

‘The deal with the Greens has been an enormous problem for Julia Gillard. I think all too often Bob Brown has looked like the real Prime Minister of this country. I think that Bob Brown has been a very strong force in Australian politics in recent years … I would say too strong a force in Australian politics.’ (my italics)

Pure Abbott. Even a backhanded compliment comparing Brown to Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp didn’t soften his statement, especially as Abbott immediately followed that up with a confident prediction that ‘turbulent times’ lay ahead for the Greens.

I suppose it was too much to expect anything more gracious, or even decent, from someone who used the death of someone like Margaret Whitlam to score a cheap political point. But really

We’re not talking about a leader who was turfed out by his own party. We’re not seeing a political career end in disgrace and controversy. Brown’s resignation is a dignified exit from politics at a point when the Greens are at their strongest, accomplished with integrity. In the words of Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim, Brown ‘carried his bat’.

Compare Abbott’s words to those of Prime Minister Julia Gillard: she thanked Brown for ‘his remarkable contribution to state & federal politics over 3 decades’, and noted his contributions on the Franklin Dam, carbon pricing and how he ‘bravely used his own experience’ to work towards gay rights.

She went on to describe him as ‘a figure of integrity with a deep love for this country and its environment’, his career ‘driven by passion’.

No nasty little digs, no pronouncements of doom, and – most importantly – no mean-spirited opportunism.

Abbott probably commands more of the media cycle than any other politician. Sky and ABC News24 don’t cut away from his media conferences the way they did with Brown’s. His words are repeated, and repeated, (and repeated ad nauseam) and his slogans are slavishly adopted. He has plenty of opportunities to say what he thinks about the Greens, and Brown – and he takes them. It’s not like he needs to seize every moment to make a point.

It’s almost as though he’s incapable of that sort of gracious acknowledgement. Or perhaps he feels that if he gives even an inch, it would be a sign of weakness. Either way, it’s very, very poor behaviour.

Regardless of personal politics, no one can deny that Brown gave his heart and soul to bringing about reform on social and environmental issues. He took a one-issue state party and, with the help of like-minded people, built it into a true third party in Australian politics. The Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, and have a representative in the House.

And that’s without looking at his personal contributions to social justice, both within and outside politics. The ABC has published a great – but short – summary of his work as a trailblazer, and I highly recommend it.

He deserves to at least have all of that acknowledged by our political leaders, not least the so-called ‘alternative Prime Minister’. It’s called statesmanship, and it’s something in which Abbott is sadly lacking.

It’s to be hoped, at least, that his sour, petty points-scoring won’t eclipse the tributes that are rightly due Senator Bob Brown and his accomplishments. He is a rare force in politics, and – whatever side of the fence you fall down on – he remains a man of conviction.

Senator Brown, for your contributions to social justice, raising Australia’s awareness of environmental concerns, helping secure protection for fragile ecosystems and bringing about carbon pricing initiatives … this writer thanks you. Your career exemplifies the service to the people that should be at the heart of all political representation, and you will be missed.


Waiting for tomorrow all of my life

July 1, 2011

So, it’s been a long time between posts. Part of that is due to illness and deadlines … but let’s be honest here. Most of it is simple disenchantment.

And that’s something I thought I’d never say about politics. I’ve lived, slept and breathed political issues and events for as long as I can remember. In fact, the whole reason for starting this blog was to communicate that love (the unkind might say, obsession) to others – because political engagement is important. It’s not a matter of turning up once every few years to tick a few boxes – or worse, simply voting ‘Mickey Mouse’ and then complaining until the next time that things haven’t got any better. It’s about doing something to shape your world.

But dear God, the current state of Federal politics is as bad as I’ve ever seen it.

It’s not like the wheels are falling off. Legislation’s been passed, resolutions made, the Budget funded. On the whole, government infrastructure is barrelling along merrily – pensions paid, building projects underway, the NBN rolling out. You only have to compare Australia to the United States to see that we’re far better off – after all, we’re not calling emergency Parliamentary sessions to try to raise our credit limit just to keep functioning.

But to hear the Opposition and the pundits talk, we’re one step away from social collapse and riots in the streets. The flood levy will take food from kiddies’ mouths! The mining tax will destroy our major primary industry! The carbon tax will cause the sky to fall and civilisation as we know it will no longer exist! Plain packaging on cigarettes takes away our freedom of choice and turns us into a nanny state! And let’s not forget the oft-repeated lie that any moment now, the Greens will seize the balance of power in the Senate and we’ll all be forced to go back to horse-and-cart travel and hand-grinding our wheat for bread.

The polls show that Tony Abbott is leading Julia Gillard by one per cent! More people want Kevin Rudd to be Prime Minister than Julia Gillard! The government is failing, and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But wait – Abbott will bring back WorkChoices, install notorious climate change denier (and some say, troll) Lord Monckton as his official science adviser and give the richest people in the country even more money while taxing the poor right out of their homes!

The Greens! The Greens will save us! But wait, incoming Senator Lee Rhiannon wants to destroy the coal industry. Bob Brown will drag us kicking and screaming to the altar of Marx! People will get gay married! Only an early election will save us! Only a plebiscite will save us!

The hysteria goes on … and on … and on.

And there’s only so long you can battle that sort of thing. You can speak out, you can write blogs, you can contact your local member or relevant Minister, hold protest rallies, but after a while it starts to feel that no one who’s in any position of power cares. Because the loudest voices are the ones with the most money, right?

The Minerals Council mounts a campaign to tell us that mining companies will be forced to close, leaving thousands out of work and whole towns bereft of the income they need to survive – while they close yet another deal guaranteed to bring them millions in selling coal for steel manufacture to China.

Big Tobacco waves lawsuits at the government to try to frighten them into dumping the idea for plain packaging while filing record profit statements and intimidating into silence people whose loved ones are dying because of their products.

The gambling industry lies through its teeth to panic venues and patrons into opposing any form of strategy that might mitigate the harm of problem gambling that is any stronger than a sign saying, ‘Don’t gamble too much’, also while recording huge profits.

GetUp puts out statement after statement, but sinks to the same level of attack and just looks amateurish and bolshy in comparison.

Pro-carbon price ads suffer from having dared to put a known face to the campaign – and the simple argument that ‘hey, this is a good thing’ comes across as ridiculously weak against the fear-filled rhetoric it tries to counter.

And then there are the election ads. Yes, not even a year after the last election, we already have to put up with the kind of rubbish that usually only litters our viewing in the run-up to a national vote. No substance, just clever-clever lines, half-truths and catchy phrases designed to bypass critical thought and stick in the mind.

Meanwhile, one in five Australians doesn’t want either Gillard or Abbott to lead the country. No one knows what to think. No one knows who to believe. Should we blame the minority government? The Independents? Surely things wouldn’t be this bad if we had a clear majority? To the polling booths! Let’s elect a government with a mandate! That’ll fix everything!

I wrote back in September last year that:

‘We have a government. We don’t have to endure another election campaign. The Independents and Adam Bandt have secured strong Parliamentary reforms that will change the way business is done in the House. Local members will find that their voices are louder, and more likely to be heard. We’ll see election advertising closely scrutinised, and some actual information communicated to the People via both advertising and Question Time in Parliament. We have a government committed to serving out a full term, and that will have to seek consensus to pursue its legislative agenda.

Whether you’re left- or right-leaning, this can only be a cause for celebration.’

How wrong I was.

Maybe things will change when the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate. Maybe the big reforms – carbon pricing, tertiary education, mental health, water, human rights, asylum seekers – will finally happen. Maybe we’ll even see Parliament itself get the shake-up we were promised – more substantive questions, less abuse of process and less outright bullshit being flung around in the name of scoring a couple of political points and maybe getting your head on the evening news.

Yeah, maybe things will be better tomorrow – but then, I’ve been waiting for tomorrow all of my life.


Fair and balanced?

May 19, 2011

One of the most rewarding – and most deeply frustrating things about being a news junkie is that you get to see a lot more than the few soundbites that make the evening bulletins. Rewarding, because you get to hear what politicians say in context, and in full, when you watch the media conferences. Frustrating, because you also become rapidly aware that the treatment given to politicians is astonishingly uneven.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott all gave media conferences this morning, and the contrast between how the media treated Senator Brown, and how it treated the two leaders, could not have been more marked.

In Brown’s conference, the questions and answers flowed pretty easily at first. For example:

What did Brown think of Malcolm Turnbull’s apparent disloyalty to Coalition climate change policy in his appearance on Lateline last night? Brown: ‘He’s been loyal to Australia and to the common sense that says we must tackle climate change … he’s exhibiting a wider loyalty’.

How about the UK government’s announcement of a 50% carbon reduction target, should Australia do the same thing?
Brown: ‘Australia has to take that into account … (but) the UK is not Australia’. Then came the first criticism from Brown: The maturity of the debate in Australia is very much under question … the Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility to take for debasing that maturity’.

Asked about what sort of measures should be in place to ensure the carbon price scheme is ‘shyster-proof’, Brown responded simply, ‘Good ones’. He then addressed the journalist directly, pointing out that his position on a particular issue was misrepresented by that journalist in an article, and commenting, ‘Back to the question, we’ve got to look at shysterism and fabrication all over the place and do what we can’. (my italics)

That was the turning point. From then, the questioning became increasingly aggressive. Now, there’s nothing wrong with aggressive questioning in itself. It’s one of the ways the media can force a politician to answer. That’s not what happened here. Several times journalists attempted to interrupt Brown in his answers, and one journalist repeatedly interrupted Brown, describing his answers as ‘political gobbledygook’. She didn’t preface this with the phrase, ‘With respect, Senator …’, which usually accompanies a criticism.

Then Hugh Riminton dropped the bomb. He referred to Brown’s recent description of News Limited papers as ‘hate’ media’, and asked if this was a change in tactics for the Greens leader: ‘Are you on the front foot?’

Brown replied: ‘Yes, I’m being very much on the front foot here because I think the media – with some very, very good exceptions – can at times lose track of the fact that it’s part of the process of moving Australia into a much more secure future … some heat needs to be put onto those sections of the media which are trying to drag this process down’.

A journalist off-camera asked if Brown meant The Australian, and challenged him to name a paragraph, repeatedly interrupting Brown’s answer in an angry voice. Brown commented, ‘You compare and contrast and take on politicians and other sections of the media, but you don’t like it when we take you on … don’t be so tetchy’.

That statement apparently angered a 2UE journalist, who started haranguing Brown: ‘You just come out here every day and just bag out the Murdoch press …. why are you so obsessed with it … you bag out the Murdoch press, anyone you don’t like’. This went on for several more minutes, with the journalist not so much asking questions as taking Brown to task. It was difficult to follow Brown’s responses, due to the interruptions. Off-camera, several others called out, ‘Why won’t you answer the questions.’

It was a more aggressive and lively media conference than I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly, the media had no fear of Brown’s position as a party leader and influential Senator – in fact, their treatment of him bordered on completely disrespectful.

Gillard received very different handling. Questions were asked in an orderly manner, and in neutral tones. She was asked about Brown’s comments on the Murdoch media, the carbon price, and the UK government. Unless the question allowed her to score against the Opposition, she dodged it and served up a good helping of government talking points instead.

She was never pushed to answer the question, never interrupted and never subjected to insults or raised voices. Even when she brought up a recent example of The Australian misrepresenting the position of Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, she was not attacked.

Abbott, visiting a Sanitarium manufacturing plant on the Central Coast, was even more blatant in his refusal to directly answer questions. While challenged twice on Malcolm Turnbull’s comments, the questions were respectful in tone and did not interrupt. Abbott responded by restating coalition climate change policy, attacking the government (‘Our way is the smart way … theirs is the dumb way’) and bluntly informing the journalist that he was ‘completely misunderstanding Malcolm’s approach’.

Again, no attack followed this comment, and Abbott cut off that line of questioning. No one protested.

The rest of Abbott’s conference consisted of journalists asking questions, Abbott regurgitating talking points and criticism of the government, and never being challenged for it. Asked if Sanitarium had said they would suffer terribly under the ‘carbon tax’, Abbott replied that everyone would suffer. Asked if he thought Brown’s comments about the Murdoch media were fair, Abbott responded that Brown should tell the public about his dealings with Treasury on carbon pricing.

Not one of these evasions was challenged. Abbott controlled the media from start to finish.

This is not balanced coverage. This is not equal treatment. Each of these three leaders is enormously influential. What they say and how they say it informs the public in a way that no amount of sound bites can do. The media, as the sector that has the responsibility of bringing that information to us, should at the very least ensure that they subject them all to the same rigorous questioning. Why was Abbott allowed to turn the entire Q&A session into another platform for his message, while ignoring what was actually asked? Why was Gillard permitted to dodge a question on just how high she was prepared to consider setting her carbon price? And why was Brown the only one repeatedly challenged when his answers didn’t satisfy?

For that matter, why was Brown treated with far less respect than Abbott? Perhaps because – despite the Greens’ central role in policy and legislation under the minority government – he’s still portrayed as a Johnny-come-lately, an ‘extreme’ leader of a ‘fringe’ party. Or perhaps because he challenged some of the media for doing exactly what they are doing – giving the government and the Opposition a pass on actually providing any information, while focusing on trivial issues, misrepresenting people’s positions and generally engaging in blatant bias.

Exhibit A, the report that hit The Herald-Sun online front page at 12.30pm today.

The report was nominally about Brown’s press conference. The headline? ‘Greens Leader has no plans to return’.

That should read ‘retire’, and speaks to how quickly the article was produced (and just how valuable sub-editors are, but that’s another story).

Sky’s headline, ‘Browned-off leader takes on media’, was a little better, but the story was the same.

Instead of talking about carbon pricing, asylum seekers or anything else that was actually asked of Brown (including the announcement he had made at the beginning of the media conference regarding a current enquiry before the Senate), the article opened with the news that Brown did not plan to retire any time soon. It mentioned that Brown had referred to Rupert Murdoch, who had just celebrated his 80th birthday with no plans for retirement.

Rupert Murdoch is, of course, the owner of News Limited, which controls The Herald-Sun and Sky.

The only other mention of the media conference conflated Brown’s response to the question about shysters with his response to the question directly about News Limited. Their selective reporting characterised Brown as taking a cheap shot at one reporter, to which all the assembled media rightly took offence – and that when they did so, Brown abruptly ended the conference.

Compare and contrast with the actual events, an audio transcript of which is available on the Greens website.

These are major news organisations. The Herald-Sun’s circulation alone is over half a million readers. They have a responsibility to report the news fairly and accurately, and to clearly label anything that is opinion. Their own code of ethics emphasises this:

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.

And sadly, this is precisely what we don’t get.

Today is just a snapshot. The mainstream media gets away with this every day. And Murdoch media, at least, doesn’t take kindly to being criticised.

But this is precisely why they should be criticised. They should be held accountable to their own code of ethics, and be made to remember their obligations to the public.

Until they are, the only alternative is to find out for yourself what was really said, by whom, and in what context. Footage or transcripts of media conferences can usually be found with little difficulty.

It can be … enlightening.


Kindness is killing – Abbott’s welfare Newspeak

March 31, 2011

We woke this morning to find out that the Opposition were about to reveal some new policies, targeted at ‘welfare reform’. Commentators remarked excitedly that here, at last, was a sign that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was listening to all those criticisms of how negative he’d been. (Mind you, very few of those criticisms came from said commentators.)

Strategically leaked details looked alarming – toughen up work for the dole, cut disability pension recipients by up to 60%, quarantine half of all long-term welfare payments and force people into work – but we had to wait until 2pm to find out the whole story.

Abbott’s choice of venue was curious: a rugby club. It’s not exactly the kind of location one associates with welfare reform; maybe some health announcements about nutrition and fitness, or a sports policy, but not the dole. Be that as it may, the speech commenced – and it was a poisonous, insidious exercise in stigmatising the poor, couched in Newspeak. The code to decipher this follows below.

Welfare is Economics.

First, Abbott tried to reframe the issue. It wasn’t about welfare reform, it was about economic reform. It’s possible he thought this might endear him to those concerned with the budget bottom line – and certainly, he did his level best to get in a few jabs at the government’s proposed carbon price and mining tax. What he may not have counted on, however, was that he also gave the clear impression that his focus was squarely on money, not on the human beings who would be affected by his policies.

After that we were treated to what appeared to be a de facto censure motion. Perhaps Abbott was feeling nostalgic for Question Time.

Labor is Labor/Greens.

He repeatedly attacked Labor, referring to the ‘Gillard/Brown government’. More Newspeak. If the correct form of address for any government was to refer to it by the surnames of all those who formed the ruling coalition, surely he should have said the ‘Gillard/Brown/Wilkie/Oakeshott/Windsor government’? And why, then, did we never hear the former government referred to as the ‘Howard/Fisher government’?

Of course, Abbot wasn’t the slightest bit interested in correct forms of address. This was about promoting the idea that Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown is at least a Deputy, but more likely a co-ruler – neither of which is true.

One wonders what Wayne Swan would have to say about his summary demotion by the Opposition Leader.

Opposition is Government.

Bizarrely, Abbott went on to extol the virtues of the former Howard government – many members of which, he helpfully pointed out, currently sit on the Opposition Front Bench. Then he urged his audience to judge the Opposition not on its record in the current position, but ‘on our results in government’.

Some twenty minutes later, Abbott appeared to finally exhaust his list of accusations – many of which contained outright lies and strategic misrepresentations – and turn to the putative ‘real issue’. He started by telling us what a government should not do, most of which could be boiled down to the brief phrase, ‘don’t create a nanny state’.

(Nanny state. It’s such a marvellously meaningless term – good for all occasions, but completely lacking in substance.)

Help is Harm.

A strong government, Abbott argued, should not ‘create a domineering state at the expense of purposeful persons in a free civil society’. Take a moment to unpack that, and remember the context. Abbott is leading up to the idea that a government – by assisting the poor, the unemployed and the disabled – is actually hurting them and, by extension, hurting the country.

Deciding to Target Welfare Recipients is ‘My Hand was Forced’

Then came a truly outrageous statement – that welfare reform was necessary because the Labor government had not made ‘significant savings’. It’s not that he wants to do it, but he has no choice. If the Labor government had done their job properly, he wouldn’t be standing here proposing changes to welfare.

Which is, of course, nonsense. These policies are recycled, tougher versions of ideas dating back to the Howard era – or should I say, the ‘Howard/Fisher era’.

As for the policies themselves? They were every bit as draconian as the leaks promised, and worse.

Unemployment is Bludging

Anyone under 50 receiving unemployment benefits for six months should be forced to do Work for the Dole. This program is ridiculously flawed – it’s little more than make-work at less than minimum wage. Participants have little choice as to where they will be sent, and usually learn no useful job skills. Past programs include sending people to file folders and staple newsletters; and even in jobs where training is promised, it rarely materialises due to time constraints in the organisations where they are placed.

People under 30 were targeted for a special provision. If an unskilled job existed in their area, they would be forced to take it, or lose their benefits. Indeed, Abbott suggested, people should be forced to relocate to areas that had such unskilled labour shortages. In other words, it’s great that you spent thousands on a good education, but they really need grape pickers in the Barossa, so off you go.

Welfare-Dependent is Incompetent and Untrustworthy

Anyone who is welfare-dependent for six months should have half of their payment quarantined ‘for the necessities of life’.
Never mind that quarantining is specifically designed to protect children whose parents neglect them. Never mind that almost every recipient of welfare robs Peter to pay Paul every fortnight, because their benefit is simply not enough to allow them to meet the deadlines of bills, rent or house payments.

Abbott bolstered his argument by commenting that ‘if it was right for the Territories’ it must be right in the rest of Australia. There’s a nasty little assumption at the basis of this; that people on welfare cannot or will not manage their money responsibly, and therefore the government must do that for them.

Funny, sounds like a ‘domineering state’ to me.

Disabled is Able

Abbott moved on to the disabled. Fully 60% of those on the Disability Support Pension, he alleged, suffered from ‘potentially treatable’ conditions. (Of course, he didn’t say where he got those figures.) Those people should be taken off the DSP and put onto a ‘new’ benefit, and encouraged to return to work. Now, we already have a benefit available for those with medium-term illnesses or injuries – it’s called Sickness Benefit – but Abbot either didn’t know that, or didn’t care. He also didn’t bother to delineate the criteria by which ‘potentially treatable’ would be determined, or suggest ways in which the government might assist in rehabilitating people. Perhaps he believes that those who ‘want to work’ will find a way to pay for their own therapy – on a benefit that does not even approach the minimum wage.

Of course, Abbott acknowledged, this might not fix our skilled labor shortage – but he had a solution for that, too. The government should simply increase the number of 457 (skilled work) visas! We can fill those jobs with people from overseas!

Yes, you read that right. The man who lavished praise upon the Howard government – the government that systematically cut funding to higher education and levelled an ever-increasing financial burden on tertiary students, while cutting their access to financial assistance – is now complaining of a skills shortage. But the answer isn’t to boost the upskilling of Australians, oh no – we should just import people, and send Australians to be cleaners in Karratha.

Abbott could have announced an incentive program to encourage skilled workers to relocate. We do that with doctors already – why not extend those incentives to other highly skilled professions?

He could have suggested setting up a jobs-matching scheme, to match up job vacancies with suitable candidates. Oh wait, we used to have one of those – it was called the Commonwealth Employment Service. Whatever happened to that? That’s right – the wonderful Howard government privatised it and parcelled its work out to a series of agencies, most of which folded after they were unable to meet Howard’s restrictive funding criteria.

Support is Disempowerment, Compassion is Cruelty, Kindness is Killing

Abbott wound up his speech by telling us all that compassion was a wonderful thing, but we needed to ensure that compassion is not ‘misguided’. Such a mistake, he said, ‘over time, breaks down the social fabric’. His policies would be good for ‘national morale’, and people would feel better about themselves because of these measures.

I’m sure the disabled parent who has to regularly explain to the landlord that they can’t pay the rent on time because their cash flow has been cut in half will feel better.

I’m sure the unemployed engineer who accumulated a huge education debt and now has to work as a grape picker while overseas workers are handed visas and jobs in his field will feel better.

And I’m sure the person forced off disability support because someone arbitrarily decided they were now magically ‘treatable’, and who reads an article about cutting company tax for the wealthiest corporations, will really feel that boost in national morale.

Abbott’s proposals are not ‘kind’. They are not ‘compassionate’. They are not – as they are now hideously being called in the media – ‘tough love’.

These so-called ‘reforms’ are based on Howard-era policies, vilifying the poor and penalising the disabled and unemployed. They’re predicated on the ridiculous notion that anyone who is not working does not want to work, and is therefore a drain on the public purse. Shades of the 1996 federal election and the beat-up by A Current Affair on the Paxton family. They’re designed to make those of us who do work turn on the ‘bludgers’, without a shred of evidence to justify the anger and vilification.

Abbott didn’t provide any incentives. He didn’t propose training, job-matching, rehabilitation, or any form of positive support. And he apparently doesn’t care that his policies, if implemented would force already overstrained charities like the Salvation Army, Anglicare or St Vincent de Paul to try to accommodate the needs of potentially thousands more people whose only crime is to be unemployed or disabled.

Undoubtedly, Abbott’s proposals will be astonishingly popular with News Limited – although we’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s editorials, the glowing praise given by The Australian’s Jennifer Hewett on Sky’s PM Agenda seems a fair indicator of what’s to come. Channel Ten’s 5PM news – describing Abbott’s proposals as a ‘crackdown’ – decided to do a vox pop outside a Centrelink office – presumably so it could catch people handing in their Newstart forms.

In fact, there’s been no media criticism to speak of – at worst, Abbott’s ideas have simply been presented without comment.

But all the Newspeak in the world can’t obscure what Abbott is really saying – that money is more important than people, and that corporations deserve help from the government when the most vulnerable citizens do not.

And that – while neither new, nor unexpected – is an utter disgrace.


Carbon tax armageddon!

February 25, 2011

Last night’s sleep was quite peaceful. This morning, however, I woke up to discover the end of the world was at hand.

The cause of this imminent apocalypse? Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement yesterday that the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee had reached an agreement regarding a price on carbon.

The scheme would start in 2012, with a fixed price for the first three to five years. After that, the plan is to move to a flexible cap-and-trade system – although there is provision in the scheme for delaying that, should circumstances warrant it. Those circumstances could include Australia’s signing up to a new Kyoto-style treaty, price fluctuations due to new countries implementing similar schemes, and the extent to which industry moves to cleaner and more efficient technologies. Agricultural emissions would be exempt. (As one amused newsreader put it, ‘Farting cows are safe’.)

Built into the program is compensation for ‘those households and communities most needing help’. Further provision is made for encouraging investment in clean technologies and improving natural carbon capture (so-called ‘carbon sinks’ of plantations and waterways).

As yet, there are no figures. But the plan is out there – and the first years of its operation would be ‘very like a tax,’ according to Gillard.

Those words were blood in the water for the Coalition, and they moved in for the kill. ‘A broken promise!’ cried Tony Abbott. ‘She said there would not be a carbon tax while she was in government! An utter betrayal of the Australian people! A blatant denial of democracy! A conspiracy of the Parliament against the people! How can the Australian people trust this Prime Minister on anything anymore?’ His colleagues’ voices rose to join the increasingly hysterical attack, accompanied by the media.

Gillard’s defence against this accusation is weak. This morning she fell back on the excuse that she’d repeatedly said during the election campaign that Labor believes climate change is real and human-induced, and that the most efficient way of dealing with it is through a market-based mechanism. That’s true.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, what’s also true is that she did rule out a carbon tax. Her statement during the campaign was unequivocal; she left herself no wiggle room, and now her words are coming back to haunt her.

Is it a broken promise? Technically, yes – and it always makes people uneasy to think that their elected representatives might promise anything to get into government, then do what they like once installed. Certainly, this theme was used to great effect by Labor during the 2010 election campaign. They raised the spectre of the imminent return of WorkChoices to spook the electorate into shying away from the Coalition. In a way, then, this is just a case of Gillard’s chickens coming home to roost.

But it’s hardly the first time a Prime Minister has broken a campaign promise, nor is it confined to Labor. Possibly the most infamous broken promise in recent times is John Howard’s much-quoted ‘never ever’ statement – as in, ‘There’s no way a GST will ever be part of our policy … Never ever. It’s dead. It was killed by voters at the last election‘.

That promise was broken 18 months after Howard became Prime Minister in 1996. When confronted, he at first tried to reframe the situation – he didn’t mean ‘never’, he only mean ‘never’ in his government’s first term. As time passed, though, Howard abandoned the whole idea of providing an excuse. Yes, he broke a promise. Yes, it was a shame – but it was the right thing to do. He fronted up to the accusations of betrayal and wore them like a badge of pride.

And he got away with it.

That’s what Gillard needs to do here. She’s made the whole question of action on climate change a matter of high principle, so important that it requires urgent action. Given that, any hint that she’s uneasy with breaking that promise just provides another avenue of attack.

And the attacks are getting more strident, and more personal. A few moments ago, in a media conference, Abbott advised Gillard to ‘make an honest woman of herself’. The clear implication is that Gillard is no more than a slut willing to whore herself out to get what she wants – and that it’s Bob Brown who’s taking advantage of that. It’s not an insult you’d ever hear directed at a male politician – and it’s outrageous that Abbott should take a disagreement about policy and turn it into an opportunity for sexual smear.

Of course, Gillard can’t come right out and state the obvious: that the increased Greens vote in the last election (delivering the balance of power and its first Lower House member) was a signal that a significant portion of Australia supports action on climate change. So she needs to stand up and say words to the effect of, ‘Yes, I promised that. Yes, I shouldn’t have let an interviewer push me into that position. This is what I believe is right, what will benefit Australia now and in the future. I am committed to building a cleaner, more energy-efficient country for all of us, and contributing to a global effort.’

As long as the Coalition are able to keep hammering her on this broken promise, Gillard’s attention is deflected from the real battle – countering the scare campaign they’ve already commenced.

And herein lies the ‘end of the world’ hysteria. This is a sample of some of the Coalition’s allegations.

Households will be slugged an extra $300 per year in electricity charges! Petrol will cost 6.5c more per litre! Food will go up! Soon no one will be able to afford to turn on the lights! Small business will be forced into bankruptcy! Virtually every price will go up! Industry will be unable to compete internationally! It’s an assault on Australia’s standard of living!

You could be forgiven for wondering when Chicken Little joined the Coalition.

The numbers, of course, are plucked out of thin air. Abbott’s based them on a figure bandied around by the Australian Industry Group after a few economists got together around a dart board and tried to guess what kind of price per tonne of carbon might be set. No one in the Coalition have any idea what price is being considered.

Why not? Because none of them are part of the MPCCC.

They chose not to be. In fact, Abbott made it a point of principle. The whole notion of a carbon price (or ‘carbon tax’, as he insists on calling it regardless of whether he’s talking about a tax, a cap-and-trade system or a hybrid model) is something that Abbott firmly excluded from Coalition policy. ‘There will be no carbon price on consumers under a Coalition government,’ he said last year. Curious, then, that he won’t commit to repealing anything Gillard wants to put into place.

Never ever, Mr Abbott?

But this is the point. Abbott doesn’t know anything about proposed prices. He doesn’t want to know. He’s set a policy position, and facts would only get in the way. Sabra Lane on ABC Radio National’s AM program this morning asked him to explain where he got his numbers. Abbott’s response? ‘Well, surely, it’s not going to be zero’.

It’s not about facts, for Abbott. It’s about his avowed intent to bring down the government. If he has to lie, or fudge the figures, or don a rubber mask and jump out from behind a melting iceberg shouting, ‘Booooo!’ to do it, he will.

And he seems to think he will ride into government on the back of a so-called ‘people’s revolt’.

That one took even the media – well-versed in weathering the hyperbole of politicians – back a few steps. One questioner commented, ‘That’s a fairly dramatic term’.

That’s an understatement. Given the turmoil we’ve seen in North Africa recently – most particularly, the horrific massacres of protesters in Libya – it’s inevitable that someone hearing the phrase ‘people’s revolt’ would think of people in the streets calling for a revolution against an oppressive government that is destroying the country.

This isn’t a ‘shit happens’ moment. This phrase – repeated several times since – is deliberately designed to cause unease. Abbott knows he can’t panic the Australian people into the kind of action we saw in Egypt; but he also knows that even suggesting a linkage is likely to have an unsettling effect. Add that to the fudged figures, the lies and the sexual smear on Gillard, and you have the beginnings of a concerted campaign.

What’s perhaps most repugnant is Abbott’s suggestion that this will be some kind of ‘grass roots’ movement, the celebrated ‘Aussie battlers’ and ‘working families’ rising up spontaneously to defend their way of life. That it won’t in any way be driven by big business, mining companies or the Opposition.

Sound familiar? It should. Over in the United States, they call it the Tea Party – the so-called ‘people’s movement’ that is funded, sponsored, backed and peopled by the Republicans.

The hardline stance on asylum seekers with its dogwhistles and outright bigotry, the determination to seize government at any cost, and the willingness to use tactics that from personal smear to blatant lying to prevent anything that looks like a vaguely ‘Leftist’ policy being implemented – more and more, it seems Abbott is not much lurching to the Right as running full-tilt into its embrace.

Now he has Labor’s carbon price mechanism to attack. Get ready for an ugly few months – because the balance of power in the Senate will change in July, and Abbott knows this is the best chance he’ll get to topple the government.


Cyclone Yasi and some thoughts on those ‘religious explanations’

February 3, 2011

First, on a personal note …

My brother and his family live in Townsville, on the Ross River. They decided not to evacuate ahead of Cyclone Yasi, because their house is made according to new building codes specifically designed to withstand cyclones – and because there were a lot of other people who needed those evacuation shelters. Besides, their home is far enough from the river that it would take a truly horrific storm surge or flood to inundate them – and that wasn’t predicted. So they moved their valuables upstairs, laid in supplies and settled down in the laundry to wait it out.

Cyclone Yasi made landfall around midnight last night, but even before then, they were being lashed by strong winds and nearly horizontal rain. They lost the landline early in the evening. We kept in touch during landfall, and then I managed to get a bit of sleep before hearing from him again at dawn, Townsville time. My poor niece, who’s about the same age as my youngest daughters, was terrified – she kept saying to her Dad that she didn’t want him to go to sleep, because then he couldn’t keep her safe.

All we could do down here in Melbourne was keep sending our love to her.

This morning there’s a lot of damage in terms of trees and power lines down, and debris is everywhere. Part of the ceiling will need to be replaced, and it’ll be a while before they get their landline back, apparently. They’ve been asked to conserve water, since the water treatment plant has lost power and several pipes were damaged.

People slightly north of them didn’t get off so lightly. Early reports say the towns of Cardwell and Tully are devastated. No reported loss of life at this stage, though, which is a huge relief.

All in all, my brother’s family are very fortunate – so far. Winds are still high, and they’re still watching the river nervously, as another storm surge is due soon and the rain is bucketing down. He texted me a little while ago to tell me that the river, which he can see from his front room, was running backwards. Apparently the tidal surge, backed by the high winds, had enough force to push against the natural flow.

Again, we’re back to a waiting game.

At this point, I just want to have a bit of a rant. I know I’m sleep-deprived, and wobbling between relief that my loved ones are safe, apprehension that it’s not over and they may still be flooded out, and sorrow about what I’m learning about the damage in the region.

Nevertheless …

I can understand why people seek some kind of transcendent explanation for disasters, both personal and regional. Certainly the Twitter feed last night was full of messages to the effect of, ‘Jeeeeeeeez, what has Queensland done to deserve this?’ We want to believe there’s some kind of reason that terrible things happen. Part of the healing/grieving process afterwards always involves this kind of questioning.

But frankly, the idea that people can just blithely waltz uninvited into the middle of someone else’s pain with glib explanations about ‘God’s plan’ or ‘God’s punishment’ is offensive. It’s bad enough we get people like Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella and Greens leader Bob Brown duelling climate change theories while Queenslanders are sandbagging their homes or digging bodies out of the mud. We don’t need religion as well.

People might be out there on the internet posting about their situation on Facebook and Twitter. They might be telling perfect strangers standing in front of them in the supermarket queue how worried they are about their relatives in the cyclone zone. In the immediate aftermath, they might laugh distractedly or burst into tears and babble into a microphone for a reporter. If people choose to share that fear and trauma with others, it’s their way of coping, of reaching out. They want to know that someone out there hears them and acknowledges what they’re going through – even if it’s only someone with a weird username like ‘Bobluvsballoons999’ who they don’t know and will never talk to again.

And if they want to seek transcendent explanations, they’ll ask. They’ll go to their churches, ring their clergy, ask friends who share their faith.

They don’t want to be told that the reason their family is in serious danger is because we have an atheist Prime Minister and an ‘openly gay’ Greens leader, so we’d better turf them out and make a good, heterosexual, Christian man the leader of our country. (That one came courtesy of Danny Nalliah and Catch the Fire Ministries; but the disgusting Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t far behind with its howling, gleeful condemnation).

They’re not interested in platitudes about the-Lord-working-in-mysterious-ways-His-wonders-to-perform, or how there’s a Lesson in this for all of us. They don’t want to hear about how all this was predicted in Revelation and by the way, it’s repentance time, step right this way, we have counsellors waiting to pray with you.

They couldn’t care less that their situation is so much less horrible than what’s going on in Egypt or Brazil or wherever, and they should be thankful.

And they’re particularly not interested in how these disasters are the harbingers of the Great New Age Ascension as Gaia births herself into a new Utopian Era and we should all come and ‘midwife’ the changes so that we can go the next level. As if the terror of a little girl hearing her neighbourhood tear apart around her can be assuaged by telling her she can ‘level up’ and go play with the benevolent aliens – assuming she survives.

So all you proselytising, insensitive bastards … take your religion and peddle it elsewhere.

You don’t get the right to capitalise on people’s pain any more than politicians do. You’re not entitled.

You want to help? Pull on some gumboots and fill some sandbags. Get into the disaster areas and help with cleanup. Sit silently beside someone who’s crying their eyes out and hand them tissues and a cup of tea. Wear your uniforms or your badges if you must, so that anyone who wants to find you can do so, but don’t you dare presume that gives you an invitation to spruik your particular philosophy.

You’d be the first to exclaim at how unfeeling it would be if a bunch of particularly militant atheists fronted up to tell disaster victims that there was no God, it was all just blind chance that they got hurt, so sorry.

Have some simple, decent, human compassion. Don’t hand them your carefully marked-up Bible or waft your patchouli-drenched crystals over them. Give them a hug, bring them a blanket and make vaguely comforting noises.

Then leave them alone. Believe me, if they want to find you, they will.


Tony Abbott’s economic opportunism

January 20, 2011

First, Senator Bob Brown displayed astonishing insensitivity by using Australia’s flood disasters to bash the coal companies and promote the mining tax. Then, Shadow Minister for Innovation Sophie Mirabella played fast-and-loose with the facts about Wivenhoe dam and exploited people’s suffering to espouse a climate change denial argument.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott apparently felt it was time for him to have a turn on the ‘Capitalise on Disaster’ ride.

We had some warning of the thrust of his argument – he mentioned it last week (while the Brisbane River was rising to its peak). At the time, it didn’t get much media attention, which is understandable given the situation. Evidently that was unacceptable to Abbott, because he repeated and expanded on his initial remarks in a media conference in Sydney on January 18.

Abbott has a solution to the problem of how the government can assist the people of Queensland in flood recovery and bring the budget back to surplus in 2012-13 as promised. It’s a simple one – scrap the NBN and so-called ‘cash for clunkers’ programs and redirect unspent stimulus funds.

It may be that Abbott thought his solution would seem like a stroke of economic brilliance. In keeping with the Coalition’s ‘stop the waste’ mantra, apparently compassionate to people’s suffering and great for Australia’s economic position? What more could the people want?

Well, some actual thinking might help.

Abbott would have us believe that scrapping a multi-billion dollar initiative like the NBN is easy. Just shut it down, right? What he failed to mention is that the NBN is not a proposed program, but one in the process of being rolled out across the country. The first stages are already in place, tenders granted, people employed, contracts signed. These things can’t be unravelled with the stroke of a pen. At the very least, backing out of those contracts would open the government up to a potential mountain of litigation, with accompanying costs.

To trash the NBN now would likely cost money, not to mention the knock-on effect of hundreds of NBNCo employees suddenly unemployed, construction materials lying around unused, etc.

It’s a no-brainer that Abbott would then lead the charge in crying, ‘White elephant!’ Never mind that such waste would be the direct result of the government taking his advice. The Coalition would hardly be likely to pass up another opportunity to bash Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Communication Minister Senator Stephen Conroy.

And that’s the real point of Abbott’s announcement – opportunism. The floods are just another way for Abbott to reframe what he’s said all along – that the NBN is too expensive and unnecessary. Of course, he’s not going to say that. No, this is about saving the taxpayers from being hit with a levy to help pay for the massive cost of rebuilding much of Queensland. This is about helping the poor people who lost everything.

The subtext is clear: it’s irresponsible and insensitive of the government to build the NBN when people are suffering. We all ‘know’ that the NBN is not necessary – why, just look at how well the internet helped out during the floods. We didn’t have the NBN then, so that just proves we don’t need it at all. This is just another way for Labor to spend your money, because that’s what they like to do – spend, spend, spend. And now, look! They want to have their cake and eat it too. They’ll build this ‘unnecessary’ NBN, and they’ll tax you, the working families, to get money to do what they should be doing anyway – helping Queenslanders. You shouldn’t have to pay for their inability to manage the economy.

It’s a fatuous argument, riddled with holes.

Let’s take the most ridiculous of Abbott’s assertions – that the role played by internet users during the floods proves we don’t need an NBN. It’s an absolute fact that websites and social were hugely important. Police and emergency services used Facebook and Twitter to make announcements and quash rumours. People went out and took photos of encroaching floodwaters, and advised when they found roads cut. When scam artists decided to pose as charity collectors, Twitter exposed them and warned others. People were able to contact loved ones when phones failed, call for help (as did the Fairfield RSPCA, prompting a huge response from people willing to foster animals) and keep informed in an unprecedented way.

Nonetheless, users reported that their browsers often slowed to a crawl or locked up altogether, that their wireless servers dropped out in the severe weather, and they found their bandwidth choked as thousands all tried to find out what was going on. These are inherent problems with wireless – and yet Abbott would have us believe that we need nothing better.

Then there’s his argument that it’s unfair to ask the taxpayer to foot the bill for flood recovery. This is not only disingenuous – no matter whether the money comes from the NBN or a levy, it’s still coming out of taxpayers’ pockets – but sells the Australian people short. We might begrudge a tax hike to bail out a bank, give politicians a pay rise or prop up a failing industry, but when it comes to helping out those who have suffered through disasters, we’re happy to pay a little more. We’ll donate to appeals, take part in charity auctions, pay a bit more at tax time, give our time and labour, and go through our possessions to see what we can give. Sure, we might grumble at paying a bit more for our vegetables, but we do it.

That’s because the Australian people understand what Abbott apparently doesn’t – that the people in need are our neighbours, our friends and our families. That we know we can depend on each other.

In running this argument, Abbott has displayed nothing but rank opportunism and a woeful inability to understand how people respond to disaster. He tried to evoke the spectre of unfair treatment and oppressive government, but succeeded only in exposing himself as willing to use disaster and devastation to promote the same old political rhetoric.

And, coming from a man who was vocal in his criticism of Bob Brown’s calls for a mining tax to pay for flood recovery, Abbott showed himself to be as big a hypocrite than his parliamentary colleague Sophie Mirabella.

As a final observation, there have been two politicians whose behaviour has been above reproach during this crisis – and both could easily said to have been ‘on the nose’ with the public before. One is Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who has shown commitment, determination and compassion – even to the point of announcing a full and transparent inquiry into causes of the floods and what might be done to mitigate future disasters.

The other is Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. From being discovered in a Brisbane street wading through flood waters to help people evacuate, to interviews with the media, he has focused entirely on the people of Queensland. He’s refused to be drawn on political arguments like budgets and alleged state government mismanagement, and won’t comment on the kind of arguments advanced by Brown or Abbott. At every turn, he’s talked about helping people recover, rebuild and deal with the trauma they’ve undergone.

Curious, isn’t it? Bob Brown, Sophie Mirabella and Tony Abbott should take some time to look back at media coverage of Bligh and Rudd – and learn a few lessons about tact, appropriateness and simple humanity.


The difference between foot-in-mouth and exploitation

January 19, 2011

Bob Brown isn’t the only politician putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to the floods currently besieging large parts of Australia, it seems. In The Punch today, Shadow Minister for Innovation Sophie Mirabella decided to give us her considered opinion – complete with a characteristically crass swipe at Brown’s comments. Her words, however, go far further than Brown’s ‘make the coal industry pay’ remarks.

Floods are ‘natural’, she wrote. What short memories we silly humans have. Why, every week it seems we have a ‘one in 200 year’ flood, but if we really looked we’d see that floods have always been with us.

Having set a fairly patronising tone, Mirabella settled in to what appeared to be the real object of her article – a diatribe against those who believe that climate change contributes to extreme weather events. She singled out climate activist and academic Professor Tim Flannery as the ringleader of this ‘alarmist’ group, who are apparently so powerful and persuasive that they can make people believe things that simply aren’t true – like the idea that our actions can affect global weather patterns. With scorn fairly dripping from the page, she derided as ‘arrogant’ the very notion that humans could be such ‘all-powerful weather makers’.

See what she did there? This is actually a very sneaky and clever strategy. We tend to think we are fairly powerless in the grand scheme of things (whether harming the planet or influencing an election outcome) – and in the face of natural disasters such as these floods, that idea is exacerbated. You only have to spend a little time reading and listening to the words of those in the Lockyer Valley to get a sense of just how helpless and overwhelmed people feel. Mirabella capitalised on that shamelessly. The barely-concealed subtext is, ‘How could we possibly be powerful enough to do such mighty things? The mere notion is ridiculous!’

It’s a technique often used by those who argue that climate change is either (a) not happening or (b) nothing to do with us. It looks humble, but it’s a false humility. Humans can, and have affected the planet via everything from wholesale deforestation to nuclear accidents and bombs. To pretend otherwise is its own special brand of arrogance, and one Mirabella embraced with enthusiasm.

She followed up with the classic climate change denial argument: ‘… these cyclical weather patterns, with random extreme events, have always been part of our nation’s and indeed our planet’s history. They are not new. They are not more ferocious. They are not “payback” for the Queensland Coal Industry … They are not nature’s way of punishing modern man for his sins. They are simply natural events.’ Actually, it’s not an argument – it’s a series of assertions designed to shut down debate. Mirabella offered no evidence other than to list dates of past floods, and relied on misdirection and blatant misstatements to obscure the gaping hole in her arguments. While Brown’s comments were ill-advised at best, at no time did he say that the floods were some kind of ‘payback’ from a vengeful Mother Nature – but it served Mirabella’s purpose to suggest otherwise.

(As an aside, it’s curious to see such blatant denial rhetoric from Mirabella – especially since her party has a stated policy on the need to reduce carbon emissions. At the very least, it poses questions for the Liberal Party as to its position on climate change – have they returned to the days of ‘absolute crap’ and Nick Minchin’s Senate tirades about hysterical pseudo-science?)

The misstatements kept coming. Mirabella’s explanation for why the floods were so back hinged on her ability to obscure a few basic principles of flood mitigation. It’s all about Wivenhoe dam, she said. If those operating the dam had kept to its ‘original purpose’ and not ‘ignored the lessons of the past’, the water levels would not have been dangerously high when the ‘big wet’ arrived. She ended her article with a pious exhortation not to forget ‘the lessons of history’ in our ‘shock and grief’ over the devastation of the floods.

Mirabella relied on people’s basic ignorance of the rather specialised area of dam management. Yes, levels were high, but water releases had been taking place since November 2010. Wivenhoe was never at capacity – ‘100% full’ does not mean there is no more room, but refers to the drinking water level (about 1.1 cubic kilometre of the total 2.6 cubic kilometre storage). There is a further 115% storage available for flood mitigation before the dam is in danger of overtopping. Before it reaches that level controlled releases are made to reduce stress on the infrastructure.

She also misstated the dam’s ‘original purpose’. Though originally considered in response to the 1974 floods, Wivenhoe was never intended to be purely for flood mitigation. It was also constructed to supply drinking water to south-east Queensland, and even serves to supply storage for Wivenhoe hydro-electric power station.

None of that matters to Mirabella, apparently. She seemed content to capitalise on another predictable consequence of natural disasters – the need to find someone to blame. By lying, she exploited the sense of hurt and outrage growing in those who suffered from the floods.

Herein lies the contrast between her article and Bob Brown’s comments. Nothing Brown said was a lie.

Certainly, one can argue as to how much the coal industry – by virtue of supplying the fossil fuel – contributes to climate change, but even the Coal Association itself doesn’t deny there is an effect. Mirabella, however, ignored clear, well-known facts for the sole purpose of discrediting the idea that human contributions to climate change need to be addressed. She didn’t confine herself to attacking Brown, either – which would have been politically understandable given his comments about the floods – but struck out indiscriminately.

In doing so, she politicised the suffering of people around Australia in an unconscionable way. Her criticism of Brown for taking the opportunity to link the floods to climate change was disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst. Given that she had plenty of time to consider her position in light of the reception given Brown’s comments, the latter seems more likely.

And there is just no excuse for smearing those in charge of Wivenhoe dam, nor for misleading and panicking people. Mirabella’s lies and rhetoric callously exploited people who are suffering, who have lost everything and face disruption to their lives for perhaps months to come – all in the name of scoring dubious political points.


Open mouth, insert foot: Bob Brown on the floods

January 17, 2011

In the last week we saw three-quarters of Queensland devastated by floods, with 20 lives lost and possibly more bodies still unrecovered. New South Wales and Tasmania were also hit, and Victoria is currently in the grip of its own flood crisis in the north and west of the state. Even Western Australia saw some flooding.

The damage bill is likely to be enormous – much of Queensland’s infrastructure will need to be rebuilt, and that’s without even taking into account private home repairs and rebuilding. Disruptions to industry will affect food production and export, as well as mining revenue.

During this time, politicians are taking care to watch their words very closely. Anna Bligh, Queensland’s Labor Premier, shows herself to be a competent and compassionate leader, completely on top of the situation and showing her empathy for the people of her state. As Liberal Party strategist Grahame Morris noted somewhat wryly, ‘It’s just as well for the Opposition that there isn’t going to be a state election any time soon.’

By contrast, Prime Minister Julia Gillard appears to periodically undergo personality suppression. Delivering announcements about monetary assistance from the Commonwealth, she looks robotic and aloof, especially comparing to Bligh. Nonetheless, she says all the right things – even if they do come off sounding a little like platitudes.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sounded a bum note when he visited Brisbane late last week. Interviewed by Sky’s Kieran Gilbert, Abbott made a point of saying how important it was to have a healthy budget surplus to deal with crises like the floods. In itself, that skated right up to the point of political commentary – but he followed it up by saying this (presumably the floods) was why he had always been skeptical of the current government’s ability to bring the budget back to surplus. It’s probably just as well for Gilbert that he couldn’t see the Twitter feed at that point, which exploded with advice that boiled down to, ‘You’re standing on a balcony, toss him over!’ No one, it seemed, wanted to hear political spin while the Brisbane River was flooding the streets of Queensland’s capital and lives were being lost.

Later, Abbott was heard to quote a Bible verse in which the writer observes that God makes it rain on both the good and evil alike. Perhaps he meant it philosophically. It sounded flippant.

But the Foot-in-Mouth Award in the current situation really has to go to Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens. During an interview, Brown delivered a truly stunning argument that went something like this. Burning coal puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases warm the ocean – its temperature is demonstrably going up. When this happens, the weather gets more extreme. More extreme weather = the kind of floods going on right now. The solution? Institute the originally-planned mining tax right now, and make the coal mining companies pay for rebuilding the infrastructure.

Let’s leave aside the whole ‘is-the-climate-changing-and-is-it-our-fault’ debate right now, because that’s not really the point. It’s not about the truth or otherwise of Brown’s assertions. It’s about what many saw as – at best – an incredibly tactless comment, and at worst as a blatant political act devoid of compassion.

Brown’s motives were surely well-intentioned. After all, if you’re looking for a way to drive home the dangers of unchecked climate change, the floods are a perfect example. It’s difficult to deny that something extraordinary is going on. Perhaps if he’d simply observed that the terrible toll taken by the floods showed how important it was for us to address climate change to avoid the same kind of disasters in the future, he would have gotten a better reception.

By going further and suggesting what was obviously designed to be punitive action against the coal industry, Brown undermined his own message. Suddenly it wasn’t about dealing with current and future crises, but about sticking it to one of the Greens’ perceived ‘enemies’. He unwittingly confirmed every hysterical stereotype of the ‘greenie’ – more concerned about the ‘environment’ than human lives, seeing ‘global warming’ at every turn and willing to use tragedy to prove a political point and bash big business. At that point, any truth contained in Brown’s original message becomes lost – and the way is open for others to claim the moral high ground.

Ralph Foreman, representing the Coal Association, appeared on PM Agenda this afternoon to do just. Now wasn’t the time for ’emotional’ and ‘off-the-cuff’ rhetoric, he suggested. We don’t know that these floods are caused by climate change – we should let the scientists do their work. After all, the coal industry supports the idea of action on climate change – they’ll ‘work with anyone’ on a carbon price – but Brown’s comments are ‘not the sort of irrational thinking that we want to see introduced into this debate’.

Foreman went on to point out how much his industry would suffer as a result of the floods. It will take weeks to pump out the mines and an unknown time to make infrastructure repairs. All the time the companies will take ‘a substantial hit’ to their revenues – Queensland’s state revenues will be affected by the loss of royalties. Nonetheless, coal companies are already contributing ‘substantially’ to the Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal, and expect to give more money.

In that one interview, the coal industry managed to position itself as a rational and mature participant in the climate change debate, as well as a victim of the floods doing its best to pitch in and help everyone else recover. Brown – and by extension, the Greens – were successfully painted as callous and out of touch with reality.

Andrew Bolt and his ilk must have been fairly dancing for joy when they heard Brown’s comments.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Brown is the kind of mindless hippie fanatic certain news outlets like to suggest he is – far from it. But in calling for a tax clearly designed to punish the coal mining industry, Brown played into the hands of those very people. It was an extraordinarily naive thing to do, and I can only speculate as to what prompted it.

Maybe he was shocked at the extent of the floods. Maybe it was frustration – he looked at something that might have been much less dreadful if climate change had been tackled earlier. Maybe he was tired. Or maybe it was just a case of his mouth running ahead of his inner media advisor in the heat of an interview.

Whatever his reasons, Brown and the Greens now have to quickly move into damage control mode. They need to be out there doing the rounds of the media clarifying his remarks – and taking the hits. Brown needs to acknowledge that what he said was at least ill-advised, and show that he is mindful of how the floods nearly crippled one state, and badly disrupted others.

The Greens have made a huge tactical error. The coal industry has already capitalised on it – and when the time comes to look at the mining tax and carbon tax in Parliament, the odds are good that the Coalition will do the same thing. Abbott has a perfect opportunity to position his party as more ‘humane’ than the Greens – they care about people, not making cheap political points. (Yes, yes, I know, but how often have we heard that?) There’s real potential for central reforms of the Gillard government to be fatally undermined. The Coalition have already signalled their unwillingness to come to the negotiating table – the last thing the Greens should do is provide them with a justification for doing so.

Right now very few people want to hear theories about La Nina, or climate change, or whether more flood mitigation dams might have saved Gatton and Grantham from being virtually wiped out. People have been killed, lost their homes, their livelihoods, and whole communities are gone. Queensland in particular has only just begun to count up the cost of rebuilding. Some people at this point don’t know where they will live. In such situations, people want to hear that their elected representatives understand what’s happening and are doing everything they can to make things better. They’ll punish anyone who takes their pain and turns it into a political point, no matter what party they belong to or what they believe.

The human face of this disaster is what was lost when Brown started to talk about climate change and mining taxes – now he needs to bring it back.


Constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples – at last?

November 8, 2010

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that the government will take the first steps in keeping a key election promise, albeit one that gained almost no media attention. Australians will go to the polls to vote in a referendum aimed at changing the Constitution to recognise the first peoples.

Flanked by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and Attorney-General Robert McLelland, Gillard noted that the Constitution, the ‘foundation document of our system of government’, currently failed to recognise indigenous Australians. Although the Apology to the Stolen Generations was a critical step in healing the relationship between the first peoples and those who came to Australia later, she stressed that it was only one part of the process.

The government is putting a great deal of work into reforming early education, housing and services such as medical and mental health care (particularly in remote indigenous communities), but ‘More dollars are not enough,’ she said. It was necessary to reform the way those dollars were used, to help rebuilding the positive social and economic norms of family life. The next step, while continuing those practical measures, was constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

There was widespread community support and bipartisanship in the Parliament for this measure, she said. Former Prime Minister John Howard had spoken about it to the Sydney Institute in 2007. Tony Abbott supported it – in fact, it was part of the official policy suite the Coalition took to the last election, as did the Greens and Independent MPs. The notable exception in her list was Bob Katter, although Gillard did not elaborate on whether he opposed constitutional recognition or had simply not made his views clear on the subject.

As Robert McLelland pointed out, only eight referenda have ever been passed, out of 44 put to the Australian people to date. Crucially, he added, one of those that passed was the 1967 referendum recognising indigenous peoples as citizens, allowing them to vote. That constitutional change passed with around 90% support.

Part of this low number stems from the particular rules surrounding referenda. A proposition must first pass both Houses of Parliament, then be put to the people. In order to pass, it have the support of both a majority of the people and a majority of states. Territorians’ votes only count towards the national total. In at least five cases, failure to gain a majority of states defeated the referendum, even with overwhelming support from most Australians.

Gillard and McLelland were clearly aware of this potential problem. ‘If this [referendum] is not successful, there will not be another like it,’ Gillard warned. In order to head off any looming difficulties, she announced the establishment of an expert panel by the end of the current year. This panel will work throughout 2011 and report back to government by the end of that year. Made up of both indigenous and non-indigenous people, community leaders and constitutional experts, the panel will work with organisations such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and Reconciliation Australia.

Part of the panel’s remit includes the actual wording of the proposed constitutional change, but a major task will be to build consensus throughout the Australian community. ‘This conversation needs to involve all Australians, and we look forward to their input,’ Gillard said. Asked if this would include town hall-type meetings, she replied that the panel would largely determine its own methodologies. ‘We want to encourage debate and discussion in as many different forums as possible,’ Macklin added.

Macklin went on to say that the Prime Minister would be writing to the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Greens leader Bob Brown and the Independent MPs, inviting them to participate in this process. She said the government also welcomed suggestions from all members of the community as to who could be invited to serve in this capacity.

‘Respect is critical to close the gap,’ she finished up. Australia must improve practical issues such as health, education and jobs, but respect and self-respect were critical to the success of these reforms. It was necessary, she said, that the place of indigenous peoples’ place in Australian society ‘should be understood to be that special place that many of us already understand it to be’.

Gillard quashed the idea that this was mere tokenism. ‘There’s a false divide between working practically and working to increase trust,’ she said. ‘In fact they go hand in hand … building trust can make practical things possible. To make a life you do have to feel that you are recognised and respected.’

Undoubtedly there will be those who see a parallel between this expert panel and the one formed to investigate options for placing a price on carbon. They are identical approaches to different problems – both are designed to bring about a desired end, while seeking consensus from the Australian community. Whether people will raise the same objections, however, is debatable.

John Roskam from the Institute of Public Affairs, speaking on Sky News, was the first to raise public objection. The Constitution was ‘not a place for symbolism’, he argued, nor to ‘make important moral sentiments’. Australians could respect indigenous peoples, but were likely to be ‘very wary of tinkering with the Constitution to achieve a symbolic outcome’. Worst still, he suggested that the ‘practical implications’ of this proposal had not been considered. What if it created ‘two Australias’?

The ‘two Australias’ argument is particularly insidious. It plays on fear of difference – in effect, is indistinguishable from the arguments against multiculturalism during the Hawke/Keating years. If we recognise ‘they’ are different from ‘us’, then ‘we’ will be divided. ‘They’ might get special treatment, and ‘we’ will lose out.

Reconciliation Australia has some very good answers to these fears. Canada has long recognised its indigenous peoples in its Constitution. Treaties exist between the United States and around 390 indigenous tribes, and the Waitangi Treaty has been in force in New Zealand since 1840. None of these nations are splintering apart due to this recognition.

As for ‘special treatment’, Reconciliation Australia notes:

Acknowledging Indigenous Australians in the preamble in a way that recognised and valued their special place as the first Australians would not give them more rights than other Australians. Changing the body of the Constitution to include equality and protection from discrimination would give all Australians the benefit of better rights protections. (my emphasis)

Then there’s the question of whether changing the Constitution is ‘appropriate’. Roskam there did exactly what Gillard had warned against – created a divide between symbolic and practical measures. As Gillard pointed out, constitutional recognition is a matter of respect, and directly affected the relationship between first peoples and those colonists who arrived later. In reducing this proposition to ‘mere’ symbolism, he’s implying that the issue is too trivial for such an important document.

I imagine that those who voted against the 1967 referendum thought granting citizenship to indigenous peoples was ‘trivial’, too.

It’s absolutely outrageous that Roskam should treat the issue in this way. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda wrote passionately of how important constitutional recognition was to him.

Throughout school and civic life we are taught that the constitution is the fabric that holds us together. So what sort of message does it send when there is no recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our constitution? What message does that absence send after Australia lent its formal support in April last year to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

The potential, almost subliminal, messages people take away from it – especially younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – cannot be good for our self-esteem, sense of self-worth and value.

That pretty much sums it up, I think. This is far too important to be pissed away by xenophobia and racism disguised as ‘respect for the Constitution’.


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