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’.

Euthanasia and territory rights

September 20, 2010

Senator Bob Brown doesn’t waste any time. Before the new Parliament even gets to the doors, he’s signalled that he intends to introduce a private members’ bill aimed squarely at one of the most divisive issues in Australian social politics – euthanasia.

In 1996 the Northern Territory passed legislation decriminalising voluntary euthanasia – that is, a situation in which someone takes their own life in order to avoid protracted terminal suffering. Nine months later, the Howard government introduced and passed a bill to override those laws, exploiting the fact that, under Australia’s peculiar system, none of its Territories enjoy the same level of autonomy as the states. Although both the NT and the Australian Capital Territory have Self-Government legislation, in reality a Federal government can change or deny the provisions of those Acts.

Brown considers this an unconscionable interference, and wants to take steps to ensure that the NT can make its own laws in respect of end-of-life issues. Prime Minister Julia Gillard signalled that she would allow a conscience vote on the matter.

Conscience votes are serious stuff. For most bills, the party cabinets decide how their members as a whole will vote, and members must be bound by that – the infamous ‘party line’. (The notable exception was the Australian Democrats – all sitting members participated in deliberations to determine how they would vote.) Should someone vote against the declared stance, they are said to ‘cross the floor’; literally, they leave their seat and move to the other side of the chamber during vote counting. If a conscience vote is declared, however, no direction is given, freeing members to vote according to their individual beliefs. The exception to this is if a party has already declared a position on the issue at hand – for example, ALP members are not free to vote their consciences on abortion-related legislation, due to the party’s declared support for reproductive choice.

Historically, conscience votes tend to concern highly controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, same-sex relationships, family law, war crimes, and certain areas of parliamentary procedure. Debate often gets tangled up with issues of religion and bio-ethics. Unlike most legislation, the outcome of a conscience vote is almost impossible to predict.

This is a huge risk for Gillard. Critics are already spinning her announcement as ‘proof’ that the Labor minority government is ‘held hostage’ by the Greens. If Brown’s bill passes, those voices may well be joined by those who believe euthanasia is morally and legally wrong.

Brown’s bill, in itself, does not call for legislation of euthanasia. It’s targeted at federal legislation. Should the bill pass, the NT would be free to re-introduce the issue in its own Parliament – but it would not be compelled to do so.

There’s a wider issue at work here, though. More generally, Brown is zeroing in on the federal government’s power to run roughshod over the territories’ right to self-government. In doing so, he puts the Labor government in an uncomfortable position. Issues of same-sex civil unions have already caused a good of deal of wrangling between the Australian Capital Territory and the federal government, with territory legislation repeatedly overturned or blocked, and the Legislative Assembly subjected to what can only be described as federal intimidation. The so-called ‘Northern Territory Intervention’, in which territory laws relating to indigenous peoples were overwritten by federal legislation, is another point of contention.

There are plenty of complex legal issues at work here. Technically, the federal government does have the right to these kinds of actions, although the justifications used often skate right up to the edge of legal trickery. Additionally, there are moral considerations. Should the federal government be able to repeal a law passed by a territory government simply because it doesn’t like it? Doesn’t this simply disenfranchise the citizens of that territory, a majority of whom voted for their direct representatives?

And in the case of the Northern Territory, are there really any good reasons for it to remain a second-class citizen? Why not grant states’ rights? The ACT is in a different situation – after all, it was specifically created to be a national capital, beholden to no particular state – but no such justification exists for the Northern Territory.

The issue of territory sovereignty, linked to the fraught question of legal voluntary euthanasia via this proposed bill, creates a potential minefield for Parliamentarians. Allowing a conscience vote puts increased pressure on members. There are two distinct areas of concern here, and there’s no guarantee that a member who supports territory rights would also be in favour of voluntary euthanasia. Or vice-versa.

Perhaps this is why Tony Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, are doing the media rounds right now attacking Brown’s bill. They’re not criticising the idea of euthanasia – in fact, one could say they are carefully not doing so. Instead, their strategy aims to paint Brown as politically naive, and out of touch with the ‘real’ concerns of Australian people. Abbott made several references over the last two days to ‘bread and butter’ economic issues, which he says are far more important than repealing the ban on the NT’s legislation. This is a curious tactic to employ, given how emotionally charged the whole question of euthanasia becomes at the drop of a hat. It’s as though the Coalition want to keep this as far from their Shadow Cabinet as possible.

Kevin Andrews, the original sponsor of the bill overturning the NT’s laws, appears to be designated as the person who’ll fight this bill on its merits. People ‘don’t want’ euthanasia legislation, he claims. ‘Every attempt’ to introduce it at state level has failed. Of course, here he’s being disingenuous. Strictly speaking, he’s not saying anything that isn’t true – he’s just not mentioning that a territory did pass the legislation and was prevented from implementing it.

What no one in the Coalition wants to do, it appears, is tackle the question of territory rights. By attempting to restrict the issue entirely to euthanasia, and further undermine its importance by implying that is frivolous, the Coalition seems to be hoping that they can avoid the thornier question. If they can’t, they’re damned either way. They’ll be forced to either defend or repudiate the Howard government’s interference. If they defend it, they look like autocrats – and they’re dragged into the general euthanasia question. If they repudiate it, the euthanasia question again becomes relevant, and in addition they leave themselves open to attack on every instance of intervention.

Brown’s certainly right in saying that territory rights are at stake here. In choosing the test case of the euthanasia laws, however, the Greens may have undermined themselves. If either issue dominates, it’s very possible that the bill will fail – not on its merits, but simply because the two issues have eroded rather than bolstered support for each other.

Greens back Labor for government

September 1, 2010

The Greens have just announced that Adam Bandt will throw his support behind the Labor Party in its bid to form government.

This takes Labor’s seat total to 73, although Senator Bob Brown was careful to point out that this is not a formal coalition arrangement. Bandt will support Labor in any no confidence motion, and not vote to block the Budget. If we count Crook as supporting the LNP Coalition (although this is by no means certain), the count is tied up – again.

In order to get the Greens’ support, Labor has signed off on a long list of undertakings.

In the area of parliamentary reform, there will be:

* Restrictions on political donations, that would effectively undo the changes wrought by the Howard government.

* Introduction of legislation to ensure truth in political advertising.

* A leaders’ debates commission, presumably to prevent the sort of nonsense that went on in this campaign. These debates may well include the leader of the ‘third party’ – as it stands, of course, this would be the Greens.

* Two and a half hours for parliamentary debate on private members’ bills. This is a significant win; under the current system, the party Whips make all the decisions on how much time is allotted, including whether to allow debate at all. Obviously, then, any ‘unpopular’ bill can effectively be killed before it gets a decent hearing. We saw this happen to Senator Sarah Hanson-Young when she introduced a bill amending the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage in February this year.

* A ‘move’ towards fixed three-year terms. From the language, it’s clear that Labor has not agreed outright to support the idea, but at least it would be discussed.

* Establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Committee, accessible by all federally elected members. This committee appears to be an expansion of the Charter of Budget Honesty, in that it would have the ability to provide information and costings on all proposed programs.

* Treasury documents to be accessible to the Greens. This one is likely to cause alarm in some quarters.

Other undertakings include:

* A parliamentary debate on Australia’s role in the war in Afghanistan. Incumbent Defence Minister John Faulkner signalled his support for such a debate during the campaign, and it would become a reality under a new Labor government.

* A referendum on Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples as the first Australians. Both parties listed this in their election policy statements.

* The formation of a climate change committee, made up of elected representatives and experts on climate change. Brown stressed that membership was dependent on a belief in the reality of climate change and a commitment to a carbon price. The committee would investigate options and present its deliberations and recommendations to Parliament. This effectively replaces key parts of both Labor and Greens policy, including the highly-criticised ‘citizens’ assembly’ proposed by Labor during the campaign.

The glaring absence here is any undertaking on same-sex marriage. Asked about that, Brown confirmed that the matter was raised, but that no agreement could be reached.

Brown went on to say that, should the LNP Coalition form government, the Greens would not automatically take an obstructionist stance. He did state unequivocally, however, that his preference was for a Labor government, which he believed was more able to deliver both stable and effective good governance. He also absolutely ruled out any support for Temporary Protection Visas for asylum seekers – a stance that puts a major hole in the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy.

With Bandt now declared for Labor, pressure now falls even more heavily on the four Independents and Tony Crook. Andrew Wilkie has already stated that he is prepared to consider supporting neither major party, if he considers them incapable of forming good government. He may find that he has sidelined himself, however – if the three country Independents vote as a bloc, his support may well becoming meaningless.

Crook is playing it close to the chest. All we have from him is a stated wish to be considered a cross-bencher, and complete rejection of a mining tax.

As for the country Independents? Part of Bob Katter’s wish list appeared on the front page of the Townsville Bulletin. He’s asking for 10% of all mining royalties to be directed towards infrastructure in north Queensland, indigenous health funding, new dams and weirs for irrigation purposes, effective broadband for the bush, commitment to the CopperString power line project, and a ban on cheap imports of bananas.

The first deal has been struck, and now the horsetrading begins in earnest.

* * * * *

A postscript – the Coalition are already taking to the media attacking the Bandt-Labor deal, exactly as Bob Brown predicted. Scott Morrison, their spokesperson on immigration, slammed the Greens for not making asylum seeker issues part of their arrangement with Labor. He also referred to the ‘Labor-Greens Coalition’ several times, despite knowing full well that there is no formal coalition arrangement. This might be pure spin, a misguided attempt to panic the electorate and the Independents. The economy is in danger! The Greens want to destroy us all, and now Labor wants to help them!

It could also be an indicator. If the LNP Coalition really do see the Bandt-Labor deal as a formal alliance, perhaps that’s also how they view any pledged support to form government. In that case, Katter, Wilkie, Oakeshott, Windsor and Crook might well take that into consideration – none of them want to enter into a binding coalition, but Abbott’s government just might expect them to act as though they have.

Passion and conviction – the Greens campaign launch

August 1, 2010

It wasn’t a slick, professional event. The lighting was bad, the sound quality patchy, the speeches unpolished and the video montage decidedly amateurish. It looked like something thrown together in a university Media Studies class.

But it had some things we haven’t seen in the campaign so far.

Passion. Conviction. And vision.

Forget about the dodgy cardboard lectern. Forget about the embarrassing acoustic rendition of ‘Great Southern Land’ by a visibly nervous Warren H. Williams. Forget that Bob Brown stumbled over a speech that was in dire need of a proofreader, and that Christine Milne appeared to have resurrected a twinset and pearls from the 1950s. All of these things are matters of style, window-dressing at best. I’m sure there will be any number of commentators making the point that it shows the great divide between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ parties (although I suspect what it mainly shows is the great divide between the financial resources of the parties).

Focus, instead, on what was actually said.

Right out of the blocks, Bob Brown moved to quell suspicions that the Greens would not negotiate if they held the balance of power in the Senate. He listed the stimulus packages, noting that the Greens had negotiated for changes to protect jobs and to boost infrastructure in schools before voting to pass the packages. Almost as an aside, he noted that the Coalition had opposed them.

That said, Brown was quick to criticise both the ALP and the Coalition, drawing the distinction between their ‘bickering, the shortsightedness, the leadership spills and the failure of vision’ with his own party. The Greens, he said, have demonstrated stability and look to the future. He managed to both praise and damn the government in talking about the proposed mining tax. Rudd’s government had a great idea to get money to the nation, Gillard was bullied by the Big Three mining companies, and Abbott rejected the idea out of hand. Any way you look at it, he said, the result was a loss of money for schools and health.

In what I am sure will be a well-quoted sound bite, he said of the government, ‘If you say you’re moving forward, you have to know where you’re going’.

Having dispensed with both the ALP and Coalition, Brown gave us details of the Greens’ policies. It should be noted that none of these were accompanied by costings announcements. At the same time, these were only a handful of a comprehensive policy package you can find on the website.

On health, Brown proposed a national dental scheme, ‘Denticare’, and an end to junk food advertising (see here for a perspective on this policy). He also suggested the formation of a task force to look at how technology now available to us could be used to assist older Australians in maintaining independent living as long as possible.

In terms of our political system, Brown announced that the Greens would seek a referendum on an Australian republic, an anti-corruption commission and lobby for above-the-line voting in the Senate. He also proposed to end a minister’s power of veto over legislation passed in the Northern and Australian Capital Territories.

Environmentally, national recycling laws, marine reserves and an absolute ban on any nuclear waste dumps were on the agenda, along with a pledge to protect native forests.

Brown interrupted the policy roll-out here to talk about why the Greens voted down the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. He claimed that the scheme would ‘give $22 billion to polluters over ten years, and fail to reduce emissions’. Australia does, however, need a carbon tax, in order to fund development of renewable energy – ‘let’s tax the polluters,’ he said.

By far the most popular announcements were on asylum seekers, high speed rail and same-sex marriage. Asylum seekers should be treated ‘decently’, sent home if not genuine but otherwise settled in Australia and give our wholehearted support. High-speed rail between cities was long overdue – there’s been a network in Japan since the 1960s, but Australia’s major parties had voted the Greens proposal down. ‘We won’t let that go,’ Brown stated.

Calling for an end to marriage discrimination, Brown displayed real anger. ‘If South Africa … Argentina … Catholic Spain can get rid of that discrimination, why can’t you, Julia Gillard? Why can’t you, Tony Abbott?’

There were also calls for a full parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan, flexible work hours for carers of all kinds, and freedom for Tibet.

Summing up, Brown said, ‘The coalition offers deadlock or dominance. Neither are good for democracy. We Greens offer a responsible review of every proposal put before the people of this country’. Australians had a choice: ‘vote for the last century with the big parties … or vote for us Greens, and bring this country into the 21st century’.

Without costings, it’s impossible to analyse the financial implications of the Greens’ policies. It also makes the Greens a target for the major parties, who can claim that anything proposed is fiscally irresponsible. (That’s a line that’s been working for the Coalition, certainly. If Labor is ‘incompetent with the economy’, the Greens are ‘dangerous extremists’.) The other problem with analysing policy from a campaign launch is that it’s necessarily light on detail.

There’s nothing in the announced policy positions that leaps out as immediately objectionable. Dental care is sure to be derided as financially unachievable (by the Coalition, at least), but it would be difficult for either party to portray dental care as undesirable. High speed rail is likely to be very popular, going by questions submitted to the ABC’s Q&A program, lobbying in Community Cabinets and various opinion pieces in regional media. It is also a point on which both major parties are weak.

Announcements about freedom for Tibet are unlikely to play well with much of the electorate, who tend to consider that local issues are far more important than the fate of a country that is neither a trading partner nor a military ally. It is a cause celebre for the Greens, however; they have been speaking out against the Chinese invasion for many, many years, and the party faithful may well expect to hear it again in this election – as a matter of principle, if nothing else. Similarly, the call for a debate on Afghanistan may well provoke criticism. Australia’s presence in that war has become an article of faith for the major parties. Unlike the invasion of Iraq, the public at large have accepted that we are justified in being there.

The real sticking points will be the mining tax, carbon tax and same-sex marriage. The Coalition is flatly opposed to all three, and will continue to use the Greens’ position (and their preference deals) to bolster a scare-campaign against voting Labor. The ALP has committed to a carbon tax ‘eventually’, and has brokered a deal on the mining tax. That deal, however, is one that the Greens do not accept, and Brown warned that they would be lobbying for a higher rate to be levied against the mining companies. This may hang up the mining tax in Senate negotiations, assuming the Greens do win the balance of power.

Finally, on the issue of same-sex marriage, the major parties are in lockstep. Both have absolutely ruled out any possibility of drafting legislation to remove or amend the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act (1961). The Greens have tried to introduce legislation before – most recently Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in February this year. You can read about how the major parties treated the proposal here. The Greens have virtually no chance of accomplishing this reform. It was important, however, for them to make the point – they are the only party likely to be represented in Parliament that supports removing all forms of discrimination based on a person’s sexuality.

All in all, it was a great relief to hear that much conviction stated without apology and without reserve. The Greens know many of their positions will be controversial, if not downright rejected. Knowing that, they stated them anyway.

The age of the conviction politician is not dead; they’ve all just moved away from the major parties. And that is a real tragedy for Australian politics, and the Australian people.

A final word: While both Sky News and ABC News24 promised to carry the launch live, only Sky covered the entire program. ABC News24 gave us a slick video montage of Tony Abbott while Lin Hatfield-Dodds and Warren H. Williams were making the introductory remarks, and only crossed to the Canberra Convention Centre for the ‘major speeches’. Once Bob Brown had apparently finished speaking, they cut back to the studio – leaving Sky to be the only channel covering his final remarks, and introduction of the Greens’ candidates and sitting Senators. If you didn’t have cable TV or the ability to stream Sky’s feed, you had no chance of seeing the entire event.

Had that launch been for the ALP or Coalition, I have no doubt that at least one free-to-air network would have carried the entire program without interruption. And since the Greens are likely to become major players in the new Australian government, I can only wonder at ABC News 24’s decision to relegate them to second place behind recycled Coalition campaign footage.

It’s something that the ABC might want to think about for the rest of the campaign, perhaps. People are interested in what the so-called minor parties are saying and doing – and surely it is the place of our national broadcaster to bring that information to us??

Guest post: Greens health policy – my big fat perspective

July 22, 2010

Today is the first of a planned series of guest posts from bloggers, academics and wonks who follow particular issues very closely, and over time have developed a huge amount of knowledge in them. We’re kicking off with a post by Bri King, professional counsellor, academic and Fat Acceptance advocate. Her blog Fat Lot of Good focuses on issues related to the ‘obesity epidemic’, Health At Every Size and size-related discrimination. She gives us her perspective on the policy announced by Greens leader Bob Brown yesterday calling for tighter rules surrounding the sale of junk food and alcohol.


Greens Health Policy – my big fat perspective

There has been a flurry of media reporting today regarding the Green’s call for a levy on junk food and alcohol advertising: advertising which is apparently going to ‘cut Australia’s growing obesity problem’. As a fat woman, mother, academic, Fat Acceptance advocate and professional counsellor I have issues with what is being attributed to the Greens, but maybe not the issues you think.

Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with a levy on junk food and alcohol advertising. Advertising and commercialism in general leave me cold. As far as I am concerned, you can take all food and alcohol advertisements off TV and radio and out of print media, no skin off my nose. However what is being brushed over in the media reporting is that the levy applies to manufacturers who choose not to display nutritional information regarding their product. Aside from the implicit assumption that people are fat solely because of the type of food they choose to eat, having nutritional information attached to products would actually help people with allergies and specific medical requirements and so making that type of information readily available is a good thing.

Banning vending machines containing soft drink, crisps, chocolate and other sweets from schools isn’t a bad idea but to my knowledge there isn’t a plethora of vending machines in Australian schools anyway. Removing ‘junk food’ advertisements from TV during times young children are more likely to be viewing doesn’t bother me either.

The Greens are promoting the application of a French model (not the long legged type) that was adopted in 2004 to combat the perceived increase in fat French people. What is interesting that according to the OECD statistics available online, the number of overweight/obese people (over 15 years of age) in France increased a miniscule .8% between 2000 and 2006. There are no more recent statistics available and there are no statistics concerning those less than 15 years of age at all. The life expectancy of the French has also increased during those years, so how do we even know the French legislation is having any effect at all? We don’t. But adopting similar legislation makes us look like we are doing something and we all know we have to be seen as doing something about all the fatties in our country. Right? Wrong. But more on that later. I fully realise that this sort of legislation exudes the faint odour of the Nanny State and Big Brother and government intervention in the private lives of citizens and that does concern me to a point but I have bigger, fatter fish to fry.

What I take the most issue with is the blatant misrepresentation of the so called ‘obesity problem’ in Australia (not to mention the rest of the world). This misrepresentation (or blatant distortion) isn’t necessarily being perpetuated by Bob Brown or the Greens Health Policy. The blame for the distinct and very obvious ‘hate on the fatties’ slant falls directly at the feet of the media. The quotes attributed to Bob Brown do not mention the words ‘obese’, ‘obesity’, ‘obesity epidemic’ or even ‘overweight’. These words (and headlines) have been specifically selected by the media in order to stir up the obesity epi-panic because after all, doesn’t everyone love to hate on the fatties?

The medical profession diagnoses obesity using the BMI (Body Mass Index). The BMI was never designed to be applied to individuals; it was originally designed for application to populations. The BMI does not take into consideration either muscle mass, hereditary factors, side effects of medication, ethnic origins or any of a host of reasons as to why an individual might be considered ‘overweight’. Not to mention that in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Americans became overweight and obese overnight when the CDC changed the arbitrary weight designations in the BMI. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that using the BMI to condemn a large (no pun intended) segment of the population is a colossal error of judgement, yet the medical profession continue to label people using this problematic evaluation.

Fat people are not the burden on society that government, health professionals and the media would have us think. There is a lot of fat-hating propaganda out there and if you take the time to analyse the studies and statistics that a lot of this misinformation stems from, you will see for yourself that the problem is not as much of a problem as we are led to believe, if indeed a problem at all.

What should be given a higher priority is encouraging and enabling people to have the option to eat a varied and nutritional food intake (if they choose to do so) and enabling people to participate in and enjoy physical movement (again, if they so choose). There is an old saying that ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. The same is true for people and ‘healthy diet’ and exercise. We cannot mandate individuals in terms of what they eat and what exercise they do. What we can do is ensure people have the choice, that socio-economic status and other factors do not have undue influence on what people eat and what activity they choose to participate in. We need to remember that health is not a moral imperative and until there is a ban on other so-called ‘chosen’ behaviour such as driving and sports, we should not deny fat people health care on the basis of their weight.

A lot of people think fat is a choice. ‘Eat less and exercise more!’ we are told. Unfortunately it isn’t always that simple, despite the media proliferation of diet plans and the simplistic lamentations of some health professionals. It doesn’t matter if fat is a choice or not, because this sort of simplification misses the point altogether. The point is that fat people (just like thin people, average people, black people and every other sort of person) deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. End of story.

So if the Greens were to get their policy up and running and they did raise the estimated $4 million dollars a year, they would be best to implement a Health At Every Size paradigm which encourages people to adopt a varied and balanced diet based on mindful eating and to engage in physical activity which they find pleasurable rather than punitive – regardless of weight. The Greens policy has the potential to enact positive benefits for the Australian population but it also runs the risk of continuing to demonise fat people, a group of our society who are already deeply stigmatised and marginalised. While the Greens will never be in government they do have considerable influence on the passing of legislation and Bob Brown and his party need to remember they represent all Australians, not just the thin ones.

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