Dear media, write about something else

June 19, 2013

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election coming. It’s about this time we should be seeing politicians nailed to the wall about their record, and their policies. So what do we get from our media?

Do we hear about the 1632 children being held in detention solely because their parents risked their lives to seek asylum in Australia? Children who grow up in an atmosphere of utter despair, in conditions of squalor, and with no realistic hope of escape any time soon? For that matter, do we hear that Parliament’s own Human Rights Committee sounded a note of warning, urging MPs to comply with our international obligations?

Do we hear about the Coalition’s plan to flout international law, and Australia’s treaty obligations, by deporting any refugee convicted of a crime with a sentence of 12 months or more back to their home country? To speed up the process, any such refugee would lose their ‘normal rights of appeal’. (Yes, you heard that right. No judicial process for you, refugee person, even if you were wrongly convicted. We’ll put you on a plane and fly you right back into the hands of the country you fled in fear for your life. Bye-bye, now.)

Do we hear about the Coalition’s lack of any substantial education policy, other than to reverse anything the government manages to set in place? Christopher Pyne doesn’t think the education system needs fixing – oh, except for that pesky National Curriculum. That’s got to go. Too ‘black armband’. We can’t have our kids growing up thinking our history contains anything shameful.

How about the major parties marching in lockstep to preserve a duopoly between Coles and Woolworths, which causes immense harm to primary producers and small businesses? The complete silence on Arts funding? The government’s undignified scramble away from legislation to regulate poker machines? The Coalition’s intent to widen an already huge gap between wealthy and low income families through a number of policies, including its misnamed Paid Parental Leave (only available to women) and removing means testing on so-called ‘middle class welfare’ schemes like the Schoolkids’ Bonus?

Do we hear incisive analysis about the issues? Informed, reasoned commentary? Close questioning in interviews?

We do not.

What we do hear is, day after day, the same pap regurgitated.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott visits yet another small business, telling us that the ‘carbon tax’ is killing the country. Or the mining tax. Or both. The script is so predictable that one suspects he may, at times, be talking in his sleep. But that’s perfectly all right, because no one is likely to ask him any hard questions.

Yet another opinion piece pops up, telling us that Kevin Rudd’s supporters are massing for a tilt at the leadership, and that Labor is on the verge of self-destruction. That a challenge is imminent. Ignore anything that Labor politicians actually say – just keep presenting the conjecture as fact. Sooner or later, it’s got to be true, right? Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.

And then there are the endless, endless discussions of polls – but only some polls. Only the polls that show the government heading towards an unprecedented defeat. Only the polls that show Rudd is more popular than the Prime Minister. Don’t worry about the polls that have consistently shown a different trend, which – at least – suggest that closer analysis might be in order. Don’t worry about polls showing Abbott’s popularity pales in comparison to that of the leader he ousted, Malcolm Turnbull.

Think I’m exaggerating? Watch the headlines on the hourly ABC News24 and Sky bulletins. Go and look at the headlines under ‘Politics’ on the Fairfax or News Limited’s websites. Discount anything written by a politician, and here’s a sample of what you get:

(from Fairfax)
‘For Fix Sake, Someone Sort Out Rudd and Gillard’
‘The Loved and the Loathed’ (Gillard and Rudd, of course)
‘Little Wonder Caucus Mired in its Pool of Tears’

(from News Ltd)
‘Kevin Rudd Can’t Save Labor’
‘Gone-ski, Me? Not Today Anyway’ (Fairfax makes Lewis Carroll references, News Ltd makes puns)
‘G-G on Hand in Case of Coup’
‘Blocking Kevin Won’t Leave Julia a Martyr’

To be fair, there were a couple of articles about issues other than the Labor leadership. One was a very short update on how 457 Visa legislation might not pass the House. Another expressed astonishment at the social media backlash that followed Senator Cory Bernardi’s column yesterday, in which he claimed he’d been vindicated in his assertion that same-sex marriage would lead to multiple marriage and bestiality. By far, though, the majority of media coverage has been the same old same old.

Now, sure, breathless speculation about an imminent Constitutional crisis makes for great headlines. What a story – it’s got action, it’s got conflict, it’s got drama – and best of all, there’s no need to make sure that the facts are correct. Because there are no facts. It’s all one big hypothetical, and if it never happens, well, no harm, no foul, right? The next story can always be about how Rudd’s faction ‘backed away’. Meanwhile, there’s always another Abbott presser.

This is the kind of rubbish that clutters up political journalism, buries – or even outright ignores – substantial policy debate and criticism, and is served up to us. Is it any wonder that people turn increasingly to independent media?

Here’s a heretical thought for the mainstream media. Why not stop writing about how Rudd might challenge Gillard? Sure, keep an ear to the ground, and if a challenge is on, be there on the ground – but in the meantime, there’s plenty of news to go around. Get stuck into the Coalition on their resounding lack of policy. Pin down the government on their appalling asylum seeker legislation. Do some bloody analysis on Greens policies. Hell, spend some time with the Independents – all of them – and find out what they plan to bring to their election campaigns.

For the love of Murphy, write about something else.

I promise it won’t hurt. You might just find your audiences start re-engaging. And those readers and viewers would have some real content to accompany what they get from independent media. Everybody wins.

Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?


The Culture Wars are back

April 22, 2013

Grab your rose-coloured glasses, run up the Union Jack and get spotting those black armbands. Yes, the culture wars are back.

Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne fired the latest salvo in our Federal-Election-campaign-that-isn’t, today. His target was the National Curriculum, specifically, the study of History – and the irony quotient was thick on the ground.

We shouldn’t take a ‘black armband view’ of history. We ‘should know the truth about it’. Best of all, ‘we shouldn’t allow it to colour our present and our future’. And what does all that mean? Why, that our National Curriculum is too ‘politically correct’ and that we need to ‘restore’ the importance of Anzac Day and our (wince) ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’.

Take a moment. Pick your jaw up off the floor – or stop laughing.

No, this isn’t some weird moment of de ja vu. You haven’t been transported back to the Howard era, and I haven’t been reading the fantastic imaginings of Keith Windschuttle. This is right now. Today.

Pyne says it will be the Coalition’s ‘first education priority’ to rewrite the National History Curriculum. It must be done! Our kids are in danger! They will not learn the truth about Anzac Day and our national identity! Why, we even have an expert – a one-man think tank named Dr Kevin Donnelly – telling us so.

Back up a minute, Nelly.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the truly astounding notion that it’s more important to shred the National Curriculum than, say, deal with issues of literacy, school funding, special programs, etc. (But, wow, couldn’t we go to town on that?) Just exactly how is this dreadful curriculum destroying Our Way of Life?

Here’s a novel idea. Let’s take a look. The document is freely available, after all.

Let’s see, now. Prep (or Foundation) level focuses on family history, and how family events are commemorated. Seems okay. Ditto Year 1 – oh, but wait. The kids are taught to look at how family structures may be different ‘now’, as opposed to in their parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods. Potential minefield there. Heaven forbid they learn about blended families, single parent families, ‘grandparent’ families or even – gasp – same-sex families.

Perhaps Mr Pyne wants to make sure kids deny the evidence of their own experience? Or is it just that he doesn’t want his government to be seen condoning such terrible situations?

Uh, Mr Pyne? Your Coalition has made damned sure that none of us are under any illusions there. We know what you think of us.

We move on, to local history in Year 3 (complete with projects that encourage kids to look at structures like local war memorials). Nothing wrong with that – but uh-oh, here’s where it gets ‘unacceptable’. Here we have the first mention of indigenous peoples. Kids are taught about the important of Country and Place, and about national holidays. Oh, they get taught about Anzac Day, but they also get taught about National Harmony Day, and Sorry Day. How dare we ask kids to think of anything to be as important as Anzac Day?

It gets worse! Now, we’re supposed to ask kids to consider Anzac Day as a holiday similar to Christmas Day – or Ramadan – or Chinese New Year! Or Independence Day in the US!

We have to teach them about our first contact with indigenous peoples, Asian migration to the goldfields, giving the vote to women and to indigenous people, the contribution of migrants, the environment movement, reconciliation around the world, Asia (specifically China) in the modern world, and even (horror of horrors), the spread of Islam.

Terrible, isn’t it?

Now, maybe if that was all our kids were being taught, Pyne might have a point. Except it isn’t.

Our kids also learn about Anzac Day … and the ancient world … the rise of Christianity … Federation … World War II … the First Fleet … the Eureka Stockade (whoops, better not include that one, we might give the kids the idea we approve of unionism) … Aussie Rules football (for goodness’ sake) … Kokoda … etc … etc.

Now, I went through school (in the 70s and 80s), but I’ve got a pretty good memory (and some of the textbooks, dear me). From Grade Prep to 6, we learned virtually no history. In Year 7, we had some fun learning about ‘cavemen’ and ancient Greece (history, apparently, started with the Greeks). Year 8 was medieval European history (specifically Christian-based – those evil Saracens, dontcha know), and Year 9 was Australian History.

It’s worth pointing out that when I say ‘Australian’ history, I’m talking ‘British’. There was a nod to the Aboriginals who came out to watch the First Fleet, but otherwise, the concept of terra nullius was firmly entrenched. All those explorers – Dampier, Cook, Burke, Hume – apparently wandered around or landed on a really big island with strange animals and no people. Except for the occasional ‘native tracker’, who seemed to spring from nowhere and act the part of the good little servant, we didn’t find out anything about the indigenous peoples. Oh, except for the occasional anecdote about ‘savages’ who attacked the white settlers.

We did spend a lot of time learning about Gallipolli – how it was all about mateship, and our brave men playing cricket on the beaches at Anzac Cove. At no time did we learn that it was a terrible defeat, or that our war dead were virtually led into a killing field. We had Australia Day dress-ups (oh, those colonial bonnets) in Primary School and Anzac Day ceremonies in High School.

(And while we’re on the subject of Anzac Day, you really have to wonder why Pyne and his ‘expert’ are so worried. Thanks to former Prime Minister John Howard, all our schools have flagpoles – and they use them. Anzac Day is commemorated every year with the minute’s silence. Primary kids learn about the origins of Anzac Day, are allowed to take the day off to march in the parade for their grandfathers, or even accompany marchers from battalions associated with their school (as my own children did last year, marching with the 2/14 Battalion in honour of Bruce Kingsbury, VC, after whom their school was named). It’s a part of school life in a way it never was during my early years – back then, we stood in silence but never really understood why.)

We learned about Chinese people on the goldfields, but not about the White Australia Policy. We learned about Changi and the Burma Railway, but not that we interned people in camps during World War II.

In short, we learned a piecemeal version of the history of our own country, and largely pretended the rest of the world didn’t matter. The National History Curriculum offers a much more comprehensive course that gives us ‘warts and all’ – as any student of history knows, you have to read the good with the bad, or you end up learning nothing. So where, exactly, is the ‘very one sided, politically correct view’ that so worries the Coalition?

You have to love that phrase, ‘politically correct’. It’s such a good insult to throw around. Say something that makes people uncomfortable? You’re politically correct. Point out where privilege is operating and people are/were disenfranchised? Likewise – and worse, you have a ‘black armband’ view. The Coalition seems to think it’s important that we don’t tell our kids what we did, what our ancestors did, what our country was like in the past and what its place is in the world.

This is a very dangerous way of thinking. It’s a truism that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What the Coalition proposes is not that we forget the past, but that we actively bury it. That we distort it. That we lie to our children and tell them that nobody really got hurt in white settlement, that Gallipolli was glorious and that we’re a homogenous, ‘Judeo-Christian’, white society – and that, by implication, everyone else is not really ‘Australian’.

It’s not just a step backwards. It’s a giant leap straight into the arms of propaganda – because, make no mistake, that is exactly the aim of the Coalition’s proposed ‘rewrite’. Donnelly, claims that those responsible for drafting the National Curriculum ‘are hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that make this nation unique’.

The key phrase there is ‘grand narrative’. Simply put, a grand narrative is an overarching story-of-stories that is used to replace smaller, more detailed stories. Most of the time, such a narrative leaves out or obscures more than it explains. In this case, Donnelly claims that the National Curriculum undermines the grand narrative of Australia’s British heritage and its debt to Europe (read: Britain, or at least northern Europe, possibly France if we’re feeling generous).

And well it should. However much Donnelly, Pyne and Howard would like it to be otherwise, Australia is not – and has never been – a little piece of Britain. We are far more complex, and our history is far richer. We do every student a disservice by trying to teach them otherwise.

You might not agree with the current (or proposed) school funding split. You might think NAPLAN is a horrible idea, and MySchool a waste of time. But when it comes to either teaching our kids the whole story, or giving them a pretty meagre pick-n-mix view of history – it should be a no-brainer.

And if giving the kids a perspective on Australia’s place in the world, our indigenous history, and the way we’ve been shaped by religions, cultures and political beliefs of all kinds – if giving them that makes us politically correct …

Let’s aim for a score of 10/10.


The media should not be the message

February 2, 2013

Sometimes I despair of our media, I really do.

Today Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans announced their resignations from the Ministry and the Parliament. Evans will stay on until a replacement can be found for him, and Roxon will step down at the next election. Both said they’d discussed their plans with the Prime Minister a year ago, and decided that their family obligations (and in the case of Evans, the long commute from Perth) were the major factors in their decisions. They stressed their decisions were not due to a lack of confidence. The Prime Minister added that she’d decided to make the announcement now, after the election date was set and before Parliament sits again next Tuesday.

Cue the wild speculation. Cue the hyperbole. Cue a mainstream media frenzy, hurriedly written scream-sheet stories, and any number of pundits dragged from their Saturday brunches to give us their ‘expert’ analysis.

This is probably my favourite headline: Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Campaign In Disarray As Chris Evans Resigns And Robert McLelland May Vacate His Seat. Really, all it needs are four or five exclamation marks.

The campaign – you know, the one that hasn’t commenced, except in the minds of headline writers – is ‘stuttering’. The resignations are ‘shock’. The carefully chosen photo of the PM blowing her nose is captioned as ‘an emotional PM’. The government is ‘in chaos’. It’s triggered a ‘major reshuffle in Cabinet’ (affecting four out of over thirty Ministers is major, it seems). These resignations are a vote of no confidence in Labor. No less than seven – count ’em, seven – Labor Parliamentarians are about to resign. Oh, and these resignations are ‘really’ about punishing Kevin Rudd’s supporters. (The niggling detail that Roxon was one of Rudd’s most vicious critics when he challenged for the Prime Ministership last year seems to have escaped some reporters.)

Never mind that seven Liberal Parliamentarians have also announced their intention to resign. Most of them gave similar reasons – family commitments, felt they’d served their electorate well but wanted to move on, etc. Judi Moylan is one of those. She’s well known for crossing the floor on asylum seeker issues to oppose the Coalition’s draconian measures, and being a vocal critic of the Pacific Solution. Strangely, no reporter’s suggested that she was ‘invited’ to resign because of this.

And how about Mal Washer? He’s gone head to head with Abbott himself. His was one of the loudest voices arguing that Abbott should not have the right to veto the abortifacient drug RU486, and opposed Abbott’s proposal to make teens’ medical records accessible to parents. Again, no one has ever speculated on whether he’s being pushed.

I guess ‘personal reasons’ only apply to Coalition members when leaving Parliament. No Labor politician would do that – there must be a hidden (or not-so-hidden) agenda. At least as far as our media is concerned.

One reporter even helpfully suggested to Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne, in a media conference today, that it was a case of ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’. Well done, that journalist. Your cheque from Peta Credlin is in the mail.

Parliamentarians leaving before an election is nothing new, and the degree to which their departure might cause problems for their party varies. For example, before 2007’s election, 16 Coalition members resigned – including two who were under scrutiny for links to a convicted fraudster and for failing to make proper financial disclosures. Arguably, for Roxon and Evans to go now serves the government well; it allows time for the new appointees to settle into their roles and prove themselves. Not that you’d hear that from the media.

Then there’s the matter of the election date announcement. Senator George Brandis, Shadow Attorney-General, all but called the Prime Minister a liar in his appearance on Lateline, suggesting that had an ulterior motive. How curious, he said, that this happened just the day before former Labor, now Independent MP Craig Thomson was arrested and charged with fraud. Not that he’s saying anything, oh no, but isn’t it curious?

Pyne took up that theme today, but – as usual – went one step further. The PM had announced the election when she did simply so that she could avoid a by-election in Thomson’s electorate, he asserted.

For reasons passing understanding, these statements went entirely unchallenged.

For a start, it’s a ridiculous notion. If Thomson is convicted of fraud and sentenced to 12 months or more in jail, he will have to step down, and that will trigger a by-election. Announcing the date of the national poll does nothing to change that, and any political journalist would know it. So why did no one go after him?

Secondly, this is the third time in as many days that the Coalition has either implied or outright said that the PM is lying. There is no Parliamentary privilege here to protect them, yet they’re getting away with it. There’s not even a token ‘Mr Pyne, are you really accusing the PM or lying’ soft question.

And while we’re at it, what about the media and the circumstances surrounding Thomson’s arrest? Very interesting, those. Someone tipped off the media that the arrest was about to take place, and as a result some very tasty footage of Thomson being escorted out of his office by no less than six burly detectives was obtained. Remember, this man was arrested on suspicion of fraud – he was not considered violent, or known to be armed. But oh, what a lovely circus that was. And of course, no one employed by a news organisation who was there is going to ask questions about just where they got their information. Even though they should.

I know it’s an old and tired drum, but I’m going to keep beating it. News media exists for a number of reasons – but feeding soft questions to politicians and letting them get away with rehearsed answers that amount to mere noise is not one of them. We have a right to expect that if a politician makes unsubstantiated accusations, investigative reporters will uncover the truth and present it without fear or favour. We have a right to expect that a news organisation will attempt to be objective – or at least not show outright partisanship in its reportage. Op-ed columns (or more commonly, these days, blogs) are almost always going to display some leaning towards left or right, but there’s no excuse for the Daily Telegraph article mentioned above. That’s not news. It’s a Coalition media release dressed up in respectable clothing.

So often, mainstream organisations direct sneers towards independent and citizen media. This usually takes the form of accusations that bloggers, etc., are (a) not bound by journalistic ethics, (b) not properly trained (and therefore don’t know what they’re writing about), or (c) biased.

Insert obvious declaration of self-interest here. I’m not going to pretend that such accusations don’t infuriate me, and that’s at least partly because some blogs are little more than mouthpieces for a party line. But the rise of independent media isn’t just about having access to the internet, especially where politics is concerned. It’s born of frustration.

When the media people pay for is blatantly partisan … when the reporters appear to be either too lazy to ask hard questions or too oblivious to realise they’re being managed … when they don’t seem able to do even a little research into the claims of politicians … sooner or later, we’ll start to speak up for ourselves.

Maybe we don’t have access to the politicians (and I hereby invite any politician who’d like to be interviewed by independent media to step right up, leave your email address in the comments; I’d love to sit down with you), but we can ask the questions. We can challenge the message and demand answers instead of evasions and slogans. We can be aware that we have the power to shape the message, and the responsibility to do so in a way that relies on facts, not spin or outright fabrication.

In other words, we can be what the mainstream media should be – Marshall McLuhan’s watchdog of the mind.

Here’s an idea. Let’s replace the Canberra press gallery with independent media for the first sitting of 2013, and see what they produce. Let’s hold independent media to the standards of mainstream media, and judge the questions asked in pressers accordingly.

I think the results would be … interesting.

Even better, though, would be a situation where independent and mainstream media co-existed to call all politicians to account, to inform the public of the facts and to safeguard against the political desire to change not only what we think, but how we think.


Sexism, misogyny, and a Speaker’s scalp

October 9, 2012

We’re pretty much inured to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s regular attempts to suspend Question Time. Almost every time the Parliament sits, a new ‘crisis’ manifests that forces him to his feet in order to yell across the chamber for ten minutes or so. Usually it’s either the ‘Toxic Tax Based on a Lie’ or how the government’s ‘Lost Control of our Borders’. At this point, there’s often a collective switch-off from those watching. After all, we’ve heard it before – and every time, the attempt to suspend Question Time fails.

Not so today. This time, the government said, bring it on.

And the reason? The Opposition wanted Speaker Peter Slipper gone. It wasn’t enough that he stepped aside while the court case brought against him by James Ashby was still underway. He had to go. Immediately. It was time to make history, and use the Constitutional power granted to the Parliament to remove the Speaker.

Abbott started in high gear, and just got louder. Slipper was a misogynist, he said. He was sexist. Look at the disgusting text messages he’d sent, comparing a vulva (though he used a far less polite word) to the kind of mussels you buy in a jar at the Fish and Chip Shop. Look at his behaviour towards James Ashby. Look at the way he just happened to boot Sophie Mirabella from the House so that she couldn’t cast a vote on the carbon price – that was not only sexist, it was also partisan! Forget that Mirabella was being continually disruptive; apparently if she’d been a man (or, presumably, a woman on the government benches), she could have escaped discipline.

Of course, none of this is proven. The case is underway, the judgment currently reserved. Some of the text messages were released to the media, but there were no grounds for saying that Slipper was guilty of the allegations Ashby’s brought against him. It’s a niggling little detail, and one Abbott seemed happy to skip over. So, for that matter, were the other Coalition speakers, notably Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne.

With Slipper’s character thoroughly delineated as a sleazy, woman-hating popinjay (oh yes, the formal procession through the halls of Parliament House came in for plenty of ridicule), it was time for the Opposition to turn on Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and it was quickly apparent that she (and through her, the Labor government) was the real target.

The least of Gillard’s sins was poor judgment in appointing Slipper in the first place. What was that? The LNP backed Slipper for pre-selection since 1993, and only dumped him when he became Speaker, leaving them down a vote? Pshaw. Details. Astonishingly, according to Pyne, it was one thing to support this man – who had allegedly brought the Parliament into utter disrepute – in his quest for a local seat, but quite another for him to be Speaker. Pyne didn’t elaborate on exactly where the line should be drawn, but presumably there’s a sliding scale. I’m sure the good people of Fisher would be pleased to know that the LNP were happy to help them elect a man of such low character.

But back to Gillard. She ‘forced’ former Speaker Harry Jenkins aside (oh, and let’s not forget to slip in a mention of the midnight assassination of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd). She dared to ‘lie’ to the Australian people about carbon pricing just so she could hold onto power. She was ambitious, grasping for power (and isn’t it interesting that ambition is only a failing in a woman). The Opposition even intimated that she knew about the Slipper/Ashby issue when she appointed the Speaker, making her culpable in this denigration of the Parliament. Finally, she was a hypocrite. Some of her own members had made sexist remarks, and she hadn’t told them off.

She, she, she, she, she. Over and over, the Coalition speakers refused to give the Prime Minister the benefit of her title, or even adopt the convention of using her surname. As my grandmother used to say, ‘She’s the cat’s mother’; ironic when you remember Julie Bishop’s cat-scratch moment towards Gillard in another memorable Question Time. And as Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said when he spoke against the motion: ‘If you used the Prime Minister’s title instead of just ‘she’ all the time, you might have a shred of credibility’.

For a series of speeches designed to make the case that Slipper was a sexist and misogynist who needed to be dismissed at all costs, there was a remarkable degree of sexism shown by the Opposition. But nothing matched up to one comment from Abbott, which sent shock waves through the chamber and those watching on social media:

‘This government should have already died of shame’.

And just to make sure we heard, he repeated it. Again and again.

It was utterly unconscionable. Barely a week after the Daily Telegraph reported that Radio 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones had told the Sydney University Young Liberals Club that Gillard’s late father had ‘died of shame’, there was Abbott invoking the same sentiments.

It’s a familiar theme for the Opposition. Sophie Mirabella, after organising an anti-carbon price demonstration outside Albanese’s electoral office (featuring placards with such lovely sentiments as ‘Tolerance is our demise’), told him that his mother had died of shame.

Quite a coincidence. But who really believes that? Abbott had to know what he was doing. After all, he’d been hounded by the media for nearly a week about Jones’ comments, and forced to defend his decision to keep accepting invitations to appear on Jones’ show (from which over 70 major sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, have withdrawn their support). It was clearly aimed straight at the Prime Minister. Perhaps Abbott hoped to throw her off her stride when she rose to reply.

He couldn’t have picked a worse tactic.

Gillard let fly. Almost shaking with rage, she condemned Abbott for his hypocrisy in bringing this motion, given his history of sexist comments and alleged unacceptable behaviour towards women. Pointing at Abbott, she declared, ‘I will not be lectured by this man on misogyny and sexism. Not now, not ever.’

With devastating effect, Gillard used Abbott’s own sexist and misogynist words against him. His assertion that inequality might not be a ‘bad thing’. His claim that women were ‘physiologically’ unsuited to positions of authority. (Here he was echoing Alan Jones, who infamously declared that women in power in Australia were ‘destroying the joint’.) The outrageous statement that abortion was ‘the easy way out’. And so it went.

Gillard declared that Abbott was using a double standard in seeking to remove Slipper for sexist comments, and vowed that she would not allow that to rule the Parliament. Her fury was palpable, and for once, Abbott didn’t turn his back. There was a court case under way, and Parliament had no right to pre-empt the judgment. Slipper had voluntarily stepped aside, she reminded the House. She would not permit Abbott to impose a standard to which neither he, nor his Opposition colleagues, would adhere.

There was one moment when Gillard’s emotions threatened to overcome her – when she finally spoke about Jones’ comments, telling Abbott, ‘The government is not dying of shame. My father did not die of shame. If anyone should be ashamed, it is the Leader of the Opposition who should be ashamed of his behaviour.’

The motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 69-70. There were no questions, no points of order. Just an incredible eruption, immediately followed by business as usual.

But we saw something today. We saw an Opposition attempt to paint itself as a champion of morality and a protector of women – led by a man notorious for sexist language and bullying behaviour. We saw an Opposition attempt yet again to turn the House into a kangaroo court; Julie Bishop went even further, stating that it didn’t matter that there was as yet no verdict.

But we also saw a Prime Minister who seems to have finally been pushed too far. The bland, polished, vaguely condescending voice reminiscent of a tranquillised Margaret Thatcher gave way to a passionate, cutting anger. No mockery, no stock phrases, no cut-and-paste speeches praising the government’s record. This was the Gillard of old, the Deputy Prime Minister who took on all comers and did more than hold her own.

It’s a Gillard we haven’t seen for a long time.

Whether the government’s successful defence today of Slipper’s position as Speaker will prove a continuing problem remains to be seen. The outcome of the court case will, presumably, determine his future in the chair. In the meantime, the Opposition will undoubtedly find yet more ‘reasons’ to attempt a censure, or force an election. Having embarked on this course from the moment he was denied government, Abbott will not let up until after the next election – an election he expects to win with a majority comparable to that gained by the LNP in the Queensland state election.

The question is, though: will Gillard return to the measured, soporific cadences that many have described as seeming ‘fake’, ‘put on’? (And the question must be asked: did she adopt that way of speaking in the first place because she was told she’d appear ‘shrill’ otherwise?)

Or will it be the Prime Minister we saw today, who takes the fight to Abbott and confronts the Opposition tactics forcefully and without apology?

For Labor’s sake, it will need to be the latter.

UPDATE:

Peter Slipper has just announced in the House of Representatives that he will tender his resignation from the Speakership to the Governor-General. In an emotional speech, he said the House was more important than his own future. ‘Nothing is more important than the preservation of the dignity of our parliamentary institutions.’ According to Anthony Albanese, Slipper made his decision after today’s vote and informed the government. Slipper’s likely successor is his Deputy, Anna Burke, who has been fulfilling the Parliamentary role of Speaker since he stood aside.

This comes four minutes after Slipper tweeted, ‘Sources say Steve Lewis/News Ltd plan 2 run story based on untruths from certain LNP members&volunteers who worked on my last LNP campaign’. We can only wait to see what comes next, but one thing is clear; Abbott gained a valuable scalp today, as Slipper now joins Craig Thomson on the backbench. It’s a victory that – for all his sober words tonight as he said Slipper had done ‘the right thing’ – Abbott won’t hesitate to exploit. Stay tuned for more claims that the government relies on ‘tainted votes’ to stay in power.

It’s a pretty ugly day in Australian politics.


What’s good for the goose …

May 23, 2012

Tonight, you’ll probably hear that ‘the government shut down debate on Craig Thomson’ during Question Time today. Certainly, that’s the message Opposition Leader Tony Abbott undoubtedly hopes you’ll believe – that the government is ‘running a protection racket’ and is willing to subvert (or possibly pervert) the processes of Parliament to do it. The Opposition just wants to ‘call the Prime Minister to account’.

But how true is that?

Let’s take a look at what happened today. It’s convoluted, but see if you can follow me here.

At first it was all business as usual. The Opposition uttered dire warnings about the impending ‘carbon tax’ – which, due to its terrifying ability to travel back in time, apparently caused aluminium manufacturer Norsky Hydro to go belly-up. The government responded with Dixers designed to highlight the upcoming ‘clean energy package’ of compensation and the latest OECD report, which shows Australia to have the best economy in the developed world.

Then the questions about Craig Thomson. The usual stuff, which I won’t bother repeating here. It was obvious what was coming.

At 2.45 pm, Abbott sought leave to move that the Prime Minister be forced to explain to the House whether she believed Thomson’s statement, why he was still in Parliament, and a few other things that were lost in the shouting. Refused leave, he tried – for the 56th time in the life of this Parliament – to suspend standing orders, in order to allow him to move the motion just denied.

Still with me?

Leader of the House Anthony Albanese objected, saying that the matter had been referred to the Privileges Committee, and shouldn’t be further debated. The Speaker was willing to allow it, though, so off Abbott went. And immediately ignored the Practice of the House, which makes it clear that he should not make an argument about the substance of his proposed motion, just explain why it was necessary to suspend standing orders.

It’s a fine line, and it’s one that the Opposition cross every chance they get. Of course, whoever’s in the Speaker’s chair pulls them up on it, but it doesn’t stop them. Abbott, in particular, abuses his privileged status as Leader to flout the rules, and today was no exception. He launched into a diatribe against the Prime Minister, demanding, ‘Do you believe Craig Thomson?’, and accused the government (again) of running ‘a protection racket’.

The government was having none of it today. Albanese interrupted to point out what Abbott was doing, and the Speaker cautioned the Opposition Leader before allowing him to continue. Abbott – without apparently blinking – went straight back to his attack. Cue Albanese.

Repeat.

Repeat.

Finally, Albanese moved to gag Abbott. It was a motion the government couldn’t win (since the Independents are notoriously reluctant to support a gag), and didn’t. What it did accomplish was to waste enough time to run out the allotted time for Abbott’s speech.

Up stepped Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne. And it was Groundhog Day. Again. Mercifully, however, Albanese only objected once before moving to gag. Again he was defeated, and again enough time wasted that the SSO attempt fell in a heap. The Prime Minister promptly closed down Question Time at that point, with over half an hour wasted.

But it’s not over.

At that point Abbott asked Deputy Speaker Anna Burke if, from now on, the clock could be stopped for future divisions and Points of Order. The motive was obvious: if the clock was stopped, then the Opposition would have all the allotted time to say their piece. Receiving an unsatisfactory answer (that it would be up to Speaker Peter Slipper, absent from the chamber but still in charge), he tried another tactic.

Given that the Budget had been referred to a Senate committee, was it even possible to ask questions about it? Here he was angling for a ruling that would allow him to argue that if so, he should be able to bring up the Thomson issue as much as he wanted. It was a nonsensical question, and Burke gave it short shrift – of course they could talk about the Budget, but no ruling. Pyne tried to push her, but she stood firm; it was a matter for the Speaker to make rulings.

Then this from Pyne: ‘If you’re loath to make a ruling, and the Opposition disagree with you, then how can we move dissent?’

Anyone else see the veiled threat of a vote of no confidence there?

Finally, the House moved on – nearly an hour after Question Time was derailed by the Opposition – but Abbott had one more card to play, and it was an act of breathtaking chutzpah.

He called a media conference to complain that the government was preventing debate in the House.

This is the man who shut down Question Time at 2.45pm, with over 30 minutes remaining.

This is the man who refused to keep to the rules of debating SSO motions because it was apparently more important to insult the Prime Minister and deliver a soundbite for the evening news than to respect House Practice.

This is the man who led the call for Craig Thomson to ‘explain himself’ to the House by making a statement in Parliament, and got his wish.

This is the man who led the call for that same statement to be referred to the Privileges Committee, because he claimed that Thomson had misled the Parliament.

Complaining that it was the government preventing debate.

Complaining that Thomson got a whole hour, while ‘we didn’t get one minute’.

Complaining that it was ‘a travesty of a Parliament … a travesty of democracy’.

In Australian Rules Football, I think it’s fair to say that the entire Opposition would cop a 50-metre penalty for time-wasting.

Now, obviously the government accomplished some pretty deft procedural manoeuvring today, and Albanese did succeed in derailing the Opposition’s attempt to call out the PM. But are they actually preventing debate?

Let’s see.

They could have prevented Thomson from giving his statement. They didn’t.

They could have refused to answer any questions from media or in Parliament about the issue. They didn’t. In fact, Gillard had answered two question, with supplementaries, just minutes before Abbott attempted to suspend standing orders.

And, when a Matter of Public Importance on the issue was debated, they could have limited the speakers and time allotted to the usual number. They didn’t. In fact, no less than eight speakers addressed the matter, three of whom were from the Opposition. Usually, it’s a maximum of five, taking up an hour.

Can the Opposition really say that they’ve been prevented from speaking on the issue of Craig Thomson’s alleged wrongdoings? Especially when they’ve also virtually monopolised the media coverage on the subject?

Or is it just that they don’t like to face the fact that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?

If Abbott is really so incensed about the government using procedural tactics to interfere with his own strategies, I have a solution for him. How about both sides enter into a written contract to refrain from doing so in the future? He can promise that Pyne, Bronwyn Bishop and the like don’t repeatedly interrupt the Prime Minister’s answers with spurious Points of Order designed to prevent her from delivering a decent soundbite. He can promise that he won’t use the MPI as a soapbox, and actually use it for its appointed purpose.*

And while he’s at it, he can promise not to try any more end-runs around the judicial process in order to make his political points.

I’m sure the government would be happy to do the same.

Wouldn’t they.

*(If you’re interested, take a look at the guidelines on Matters of Public Importance, and maybe spend a little time thinking about how often the Opposition uses this tactic to gain a free debating platform in the House – and whether their claims satisfy the definition.)


Craig Thomson’s day in kangaroo court

May 21, 2012

Another day, another way in which the state of Australian politics sinks lower and lower. We reached the gutter about the time the Opposition decided that it wasn’t going to grant pairs for the purposes of allowing the Prime Minister to great foreign heads of state, or for a backbencher to be at the bedside of his wife as she delivered their child.

We got to the sewer when allegations of sexual harassment and improper use of funds against Speaker Peter Slipper (and yes, he is still the Speaker, certain commentators’ assertions to the contrary) were capitalised upon by the Coalition. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was only the loudest of his party in denouncing Slipper – and, of course, the government. Slipper was tried and convicted by the Opposition, with the enthusiastic co-operation of the media, and pressured to step down from his position until the matter comes to civil court. That pressure continues even now, and Slipper’s name may well be irrevocably tainted, regardless of the outcome of the civil case.

I’m not quite sure what comes below that. Perhaps the bedrock, because today Parliament treated us to the unedifying spectacle of an MP forced to ‘prove’ his innocence against a series of unsubstantiated, highly questionable allegations ranging from electoral fraud to (apparently) frequenting a brothel.

It was surely a coincidence that this was the same member who’d been denied a pair to be with his wife – the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson. Persecution? Surely not.

Well, front Parliament Thomson did, and delivered an hour-long speech that started with a few choice quotes from the death threats he’d received. He defended himself from the allegations against him, contained in the Fair Work Australia report into the Health Services Union. He denied any wrongdoing whatsoever, and alleged in turn that he had been deliberately set up by those who were unhappy with the changes he’d made to the way the union operated. He named Marco Bolano, an HSU official, as having threatened to ‘ruin’ his political career by ‘setting him up with hookers’. Of course, he could not prove much of what he asserted was untrue – and acknowledged as much, but he did thoroughly tear apart the FWA report, pointing out how much of it weighed on the uncritical acceptance of testimony by Kathy Jackson and Michael Williamson, both of whom he said opposed him from the beginning.

Thomson reserved his harshest criticism for the Opposition, who he said had stirred up a ‘lynch mob’ against him, and for the media. Nearly in tears, he described the hounding he’d received from the latter, singling out Channel 7, who he said had stationed a crew underneath his bathroom window, while his pregnant wife was showering. (For the record, Channel 7 later issued a statement denying only the presence of any reporters under the window.)

About the Opposition he said this, ‘You have damaged democracy’. I think it’s fair to say, however, that this criticism could be just as easily levelled at the government, who expelled him from the Caucus some weeks ago in an obvious attempt to put him at arms’ length. After months of previous support, it looked like the government was cutting him loose while it still could, and it lent weight to the idea that he was as good as convicted already.

It was clear that Thomson was both furious and deeply upset. And he had every right to be, because between them, the Parliament and the media forced him into actions he should never have had to undertake.

What’s so terrible about making him front Parliament? Oh, just two little things – the presumption of innocence, and the separation of powers. Two little things that underpin our judiciary and our system of government.

All Australians are considered innocent until proven guilty. Thomson has not fronted a court. He has not been charged. As of this writing, there is no indication that he will be charged. A report was handed down by Fair Work Australia, a statutory body with no authority to bring prosecutions or make determinations of law – something it acknowledged in the report – and passed on to other bodies. The NSW police brought no charges. The Australian Electoral Commission found the report in error as regards its assertions of wrongdoing on Thomson’s part. The Victoria police are still looking.

Not that this, apparently, matters to either the Opposition or the media.

Then there’s the matter of separation of powers. This isn’t quite as clear-cut here in Australia as it is places like the United States, but one thing is unequivocal: only courts of law have the power to make findings in law. Even a Federal Commission can only make recommendations – it can’t enforce them. The Parliament’s only judicial power is in the area of contempt of Parliament, and even then the decisions are subject to review by Federal Court.

Thomson is entitled to his day in court, fairly and without prejudice. That idea isn’t good enough for the Opposition, who have kept up consistent pressure to force him to make a statement to Parliament ‘explaining himself’. The Parliament’s reputation was in danger! It was a ‘stinking, putrid mess’! Et cetera. They lost no opportunity to cram it into questions to Ministers, interviews with obliging media, and hijacked Question Time twice in the last sitting alone in an attempt to suspend Standing Orders and drag Thomson to the dock.

They finally got their wish – perhaps just because Thomson couldn’t take it any more. He certainly looked like a man at the end of his tether, and no wonder. He hadn’t been legally represented, or a jury of peers. There was no judge, no sworn testimony, no finding made against him, but he was treated as a convicted criminal making a plea for mercy.

In any court in the country, that would be considered a miscarriage of justice.

But, oh wait – we’re not in a court, are we? Unless it’s a kangaroo court.

Surprise, surprise – they weren’t satisfied with what they heard. As soon as Thomson sat down, Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne was on his feet, wanting the Parliament to ‘take note’ of the statement. Basically, the Opposition wanted another crack at Thomson, and through him, at the government. They tried this no less than three times, and each time failed – twice due to political manoeuvring on the government’s part, and once because the Opposition did not gain an absolute majority.

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey pronounced it ‘a moral victory’ in booming tones reminiscent of a revival tent preacher or a priggish schoolmaster. It wasn’t. It wasn’t any kind of victory.

The reputation of the Parliament suffers every day in its present form. Contrary to Abbott’s oft-repeated assertions, that’s not because it’s a minority government. Let’s not forget, after all, that were the Coalition in power it would also constitute a minority government. It’s not suffering because Craig Thomson continues to represent the people of Dobell – he was duly elected, and has done nothing to warrant his being removed from that seat. And it’s certainly not suffering for lack of key legislation passing through both Houses.

It’s suffering because time and again, some of the most fundamental standards of Australian culture and society are flouted.

The courtesy to let someone speak without being shouted down – ignored every Question Time.

The decency to keep personal attacks on someone’s marital status, sexuality, mental health, etc., out of public and Parliamentary discourse – ignored at every possible turn.

The respect for Parliamentary procedure that enables it to function at all – exploited, twisted and sometimes outright dismissed.

The adherence to the principle of the presumption of innocence – Exhibits A and B, Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper.

The acknowledgement that the Parliament is not a court, and not entitled to decide the guilt or innocence of anyone.

The basic standard of behaviour we teach our children – that you do not tell lies. And no, I’m not talking about the ‘carbon tax’ – I’m talking about the Opposition’s willingness to play fast and loose with facts, statistics and law whenever it suits them.

And finally, the integrity not to set out to deliberately ruin a man’s life, his family’s peace of mind and his chances of ever being trusted again just because you think it might win you an election.

Craig Thomson is entitled to every protection under the law. He has been treated shamefully, and even if he is guilty of the allegations made by Fair Work Australia, the chances of an untainted prosecution are close to zero, thanks to the concerted efforts of the Opposition and the media.

I’ve said all that before. I shouldn’t have to keep saying it. No one should.

UPDATE:

Oh, and lest anyone still doesn’t get it …


Paging Doctor Entsch – a new week of political shenanigans

March 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

Or so you would think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

Where I come from, we call that cowardice.


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