Abbott’s Ministry – One woman, no science, 12,000 jobs

September 16, 2013

We now know the make-up of Prime Minister Elect Tony Abbott’s new Ministry – and if it’s a sign of things to come, there are some features that may well be warning signs. For the most part, Abbott made good on his promise to simply remove the word ‘Shadow’ from his front bench. There were a few surprises, however, on which I’ll elaborate below.

Cabinet

Prime Minister – Tony Abbott
Parliamentary Secretary – Josh Frydenberg
Parliamentary Secretary – Alan Tudge

Deputy Prime Minister; Infrastructure and Regional Development – Warren Truss
Assistant – Jamie Briggs

Treasurer – Joe Hockey
Assistant – Senator Arthur Sinodinos
Parliamentary Secretary – Steve Ciobo

Agriculture – Senator Barnaby Joyce
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Richard Colbeck

Attorney-General; Arts – Senator George Brandis

Communications – Malcolm Turnbull
Parliamentary Secretary – Paul Fletcher

Defence – Senator David Johnston
Assistant – Stuart Robert
Parliamentary Secretary – Darren Chester

Education; Leader of Government Business in the House – Christopher Pyne
Assistant – Sussan Ley
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Scott Ryan

Employment; Assisting the Prime Minister on the Public Service; Leader of the Senate – Senator Eric Abetz
Assistant – Luke Hartsuyker

Environment – Greg Hunt
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Simon Birmingham

Finance – Senator Mathias Cormann
Parliamentary Secretary – Michael McCormack

Foreign Affairs – Julie Bishop
Parliamentary Secretary – Brett Mason

Health and Sport – Peter Dutton
Assistant – Senator Fiona Nash

Immigration and Border Protection – Scott Morrison
Assistant; Assisting the Prime Minister for Women – Michaelia Cash

Indigenous Affairs – Senator Nigel Scullion

Industry – Ian McFarlane
Parliamentary Secretary – Bob Baldwin

Small Business – Bruce Billson

Social Services – Kevin Andrews
Assistant – Senator Mitch Fifield
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Trade and Investment – Andrew Robb

Speaker – Bronwyn Bishop

Whip – Philip Ruddock

Outer Ministry

Assisting Ministers, plus:

Veterans Affairs; Assisting the Prime Minister on the Century of ANZAC; Special Minister for State – Senator Michael Ronaldson

Human Services – Marise Payne

Justice – Michael Keenan

The first, and most glaring, issue is the lack of women in the Cabinet. Out of 20 Ministers, there is only one, Julie Bishop, who stays with Foreign Affairs. In the Outer Ministry there are three ‘Assistant Ministers’ (positions that, under Labor, were called ‘Junior Ministries’), one Parliamentary Secretary, and one Minister – and, of course, Bronwyn Bishop is Abbott’s Speaker-designate. That’s still only 7 appointments out of 42 positions.

When it was in Opposition, the Coalition made much of Labor’s supposed betrayal of its commitment to relatively equal representation, both on its front bench and in its Caucus. Now in government, Abbott could only say he ‘wished’ there could be at least two women in his Cabinet, and mentioned his regret at losing Sophie Mirabella (who looks increasingly likely to lose her seat of Indi). He added that there were many talented women ‘knocking at the door’, but that in the end, he was faced with a wealth of talent and a dearth of positions, and reminded us that the Coalition chooses its representatives based on merit, rather than ‘quotas’ or any other system.

But how true is that? Take a look at the case of Senator Fierravanti-Wells. She was apparently talented enough to serve in Abbott’s Shadow Ministry, in the portfolios of Ageing and Mental Health. She has a strong background in law, was a Policy Advisor for the New South Wales Shadow Minister for Policy and Regional Development, and served as Senior Private Secretary to John Fahey, then NSW Premier. How is she less qualified to fulfil a Cabinet role – or even a Junior, sorry, Assistant Ministry – than, say, Luke Hartsuyker, who was never elected to state government (managing his family’s tourism business before entering federal politics, and then also serving as a Shadow Minister under Abbott)?

For that matter, how is Fierravanti-Wells less qualified to serve than Paul Fletcher, he of the ‘opt-out internet filter’ debacle just prior to the election? He kept his job as Parliamentary Secretary to Malcolm Turnbull, while Fierravanti-Wells was effectively demoted. Does that sound like a meritocracy at work?

Abbott says he’s ‘disappointed’ at the lack of women in Cabinet. This is enormously disingenuous. He is the one person responsible for choosing his Ministers, beholden to neither Caucus nor colleagues. For him to shake his head and feign regret about his own choices is inexcusable.

Oh, and just in case the message wasn’t clear enough – under Abbott there will be no Minister for the Status of Women. Instead, he’ll be advised by Parliamentary Secretary Michaelia Cash, when she’s not helping Scott Morrison turn back the boats. Or was it buy back the boats?

Then there’s the Curious Case of the Missing Portfolios. Where is Science? Housing? Mental Health? Ageing? Higher and Early Childhood Education? Disabilities? Resources and Energy?

Abbott had an explanation for some of these absences. He wanted to institute ‘title deflation’, he said, mocking the long Ministerial titles under the outgoing Labor government. For example, the Education portfolio would encompass Higher and Early Childhood Education, with specific responsibilities divided up as Christopher Pyne directed. Mental Health would be folded into Health, and Disabilities and Ageing into Social Services (in the Outer Ministry). Science, it seems, is to be ‘deflated’ almost out of existence. Abbott said that it would largely be taken care of by the Industry Minister.

On the face of it, these seem like reasonable propositions – set up ‘umbrella’ Ministries, under which similar issues can rest, with a single Minister overseeing all. Cast your mind back to the election campaign, though. (I know, I know, we’ve all tried to move on, but bear with me.) On several occasions, the Coalition emphasised the importance of mental health, including allocating significant funds for new beds, and programs such as Headspace. In fact, Abbott suggested that it would be one of its top health priorities – yet there is not even an Outer Ministry assigned to it.

Abbott also announced a number of initiatives aimed at assisting seniors, and improving aged care facilities. With his Shadow Minister for Ageing, Bronwyn Bishop, beside him, he castigated Labor’s handling of the issue and signalled his intention to restructure the aged care system. These are significant, complex initiatives, but again, apparently not complex enough to require the undivided attention of a Minister.

The situation is even worse with disabilities. The Coalition has promised to establish the National Disability Insurance Scheme, arguably the most sweeping reform in the sector. As with ageing, however, Abbott seems to believe that it can be handled by an Outer Minister responsible for the entire Social Services portfolio.

Then there’s Science. Of course, there is overlap between industry and science, but the two are hardly in lockstep. While industry looks to science for innovation, the processes of research, theoretical and experimental sciences are not necessarily driven by industry needs. Consider much of astrophysics, for example. There may be, eventually, practical applications for the study of quasars or the search for planets capable of sustaining life, but these are so far into the future that they are effectively unforeseeable. Even a great deal of medical science is exploratory, rather than focused on a problem-solving, industry-applicable approach. To be blunt, innovation and application depends on theory and experimentation.

And, of course, having Science swallowed up by Industry will take those pesky climate change concerns out of the equation. Or is that too cynical? You be the judge.

The decision to subsume important areas of governance into larger Ministries sends clear signals that conflict with the Coalition’s stated election priorities. That in itself is a huge cause for concern. There is, however, another consequence that may hold the key to why Abbott is willing to field criticism for these moves, and it lies in another election promise – to axe more than 12,000 jobs in the Public Service.

When asked how he would decide which jobs would go, Abbott spoke vaguely of ‘natural attrition’, a remarkably slippery phrase. Often, attrition occurs when someone retires and their position is not filled by a new employee. In this case, however, the new Ministry structure leaves entire departments without a Minister or a portfolio. Undoubtedly, some of the employees will need to move across (say, from Mental Health and Ageing to Health) – but there is no faster way to shed jobs than the kind of restructuring that will need to take place in order to put the Coalition’s proposed ‘streamlined’ and ‘deflated’ Ministry into effect. No one needs to be sacked – the jobs just don’t exist anymore, so sorry, thanks for your service.

So what do we have?

A Cabinet of 20 with one woman.

A claim that there are simply not enough talented women in the Coalition, which is nothing short of a slap in the face to a highly experienced former Shadow Minister.

A series of portfolios that have disappeared, with an unconvincing assurance that Ministers will make the right decisions as to how to properly oversee the issues they addressed.

A slaving of science to industry.

The groundwork laid for potentially thousands of job losses under the guise of ‘natural attrition’ and ‘restructuring’, all overseen by Senator Eric Abetz’s ‘assistance’ on the Public Service.

The Ministry is set to be sworn in on Wednesday. This, according to Abbott, will be ‘Day One’ – and we will, he says, see a difference immediately.

He’s right. Whether it’s a difference that will benefit us, however, is another story.

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Operation The Price Is Right

August 23, 2013

We’ve heard it thousands of times. It’s a three word slogan, a caricature, and recently, a shorthand way of describing Coalition policy both inhumane and in violation of our international obligations.

STOP THE BOATS.

By far, the aspect of Tony Abbott’s asylum seeker policy that has attracted the most criticism is the plan to somehow turn around boats holding asylum seekers and shoo them back to Indonesian waters. Apparently envisioning the Australian Navy and Coast Guard as little more than bully-boy escort ships, Mr Abbott’s always seemed confident that very little could possibly go wrong with his idea. Apart from the people smugglers possibly resorting to deliberately scuttling their ships. Or Indonesia refusing to let the boats land. Or, well, anything. Still, Abbott never seemed anything but serene. And today we found out why.

There’s another aspect to the Coalition’s policy. Abbott and his Shadow Spokesperson for Stopping the Boats, Scott Morrison, have been holding out on us. Such teases. Yes, they have a secret weapon up their sleeves – and it’s a doozy. They’re going to ‘smash the people smugglers’ business model’, and they’re going to do it with a combination of Orwellian public relations know-how and good ol’-fashioned capitalism.

They’re going to buy the boats.

Yep. With the help of the infallible intelligence that has already worked so well in stopping people smugglers, a Coalition government will identify which poor Indonesian fisherfolk have been offered money for their leaky boats, and … offer them more. Naturally, the aforementioned poor fisherfolk will want to take Australia’s money, and voila! – problem solved. No boats, no boat people.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Of course, this is a scheme with more holes than the boats the Coalition say they’re prepared to buy. For a start, it depends on identifying which fishing boats are, shall we say, up for negotiation. It assumes our intelligence is good enough – and so far, our record isn’t brilliant on that score. After all, if we were able to figure out who was cruising the docks around Indonesia inspecting boats for nefarious purposes, why not tap them on the shoulder and introduce them to the wonders of law enforcement? Not only would it take a people smuggler out of the picture, it’d be a darn sight cheaper.

Let’s say we don’t know exactly who’s making these offers. I don’t know, maybe they’re running around in Mexican wrestling masks or wearing bags on their heads. Anything’s possible, right? It still doesn’t prevent the transaction from being intercepted, much like a narcotics or drugs bust – and it doesn’t require us to buy a bunch of boats.

Just what are we going to do with these boats, anyway?

Offer them to schools as compensation for taking away the Schoolkids Bonus? Wow, think about it – one boat per child. We could offer VCAL training in boat-building and navigation, with electives in evading the Coast Guard. We could run excursions out in Port Philip Bay or Sydney Harbour – or, for schools further away from the coast, we could just kick out the rickety bottoms and hold a special Students Division of the Henley-on-Todd Regatta.

Or maybe it would be better to put those boats to good use directly combating people smuggling? We could string them all together in a long line and place them just on the border of international waters, so that any boats we couldn’t buy up won’t be able to get through. That’d be a great photo op for Prime Minister Abbott, straddling two fishing boats, one foot on each deck, gazing sternly into the distance. Think about that on a billboard in Indonesia.

Of course, it would be cheaper if we could just get the boats delivered to us, rather than pay for the shipping … oh, wait.

No, the Coalition have a better idea. They’re just going to destroy the boats.

Yup. Stop the boats, buy the boats, sink the boats.

I’m sure the parents of Australia will feel a warm glow knowing that the money they could have used to buy uniforms, textbooks and other school necessities will instead be heading off to another country to buy boats that are unseaworthy, and that will simply be scuttled.

And – what should be the most obvious problem – by saying we would be prepared to simply buy any boat that we were told was up for sale – we would be creating a market. For all the Coalition’s protestations that this would only happen where we had good intelligences, this is a scheme just begging to be exploited. It would be incredibly easy to set up a fake situation resulting in Australia buying a secondhand, rickety boat – and the fisher in receipt of this money now has the option to buy a better boat. Multiply that a few dozen times and you have the beginnings of a series of rorts, or even a boat-buying ring or six. Scott Morrison even acknowledged this during the policy announcement, when he refused to name exactly how much money the Coalition planned to set aside for buying boats.

Perhaps the scheme should be called ‘Operation Fishing Boat Upgrade’. Or maybe ‘Operation The Price is Right’.

Part two of today’s revelations involved the announcement that the Coalition wanted to set up a little something it called ‘Village Watch’. Put simply, this is a scheme whereby people would be encouraged to spy on each other, and ‘bounties’ would be paid if information led to an arrest or ‘disruption’ to people smuggling activities.

Nothing could go wrong with that idea, could it?

While they’re at it, the Coalition wants to put more members of the Australian Federal Police into Indonesia, and even give them some ‘vessels’ to patrol their own waters. (Presumably, these won’t be the same boats they plan to buy.) It’s all about a regional solution – but there was one crucial point missing from the policy.

Indonesian co-operation.

That’s right. This is all about what Mr Abbott wants to do. He wants to take Australian public money – from a budget he says is in such a state of crisis that he must cut entitlements to parents of schoolchildren and low paid workers – and spend it to set up a boat-buying scheme and a spy network in another country, without having even a provisional agreement from that country.

Scott Morrison described this policy as ‘commonsense’. I beg to differ. It could only be more ludicrous if Mr Abbott decided to ride into battle on a Zodiac, firing a glitter cannon at a people smuggler’s boat. It’s the very definition of a ‘thought bubble’ – it sounds impressive, looks shiny, has no substance and is suddenly created from nowhere.

Except it didn’t. According to Morrison, the Coalition didn’t just come up with these ideas while watching the last debate and playing a drinking game.

They’ve been working on it for four years.

Like I said – you can’t make this stuff up. And that’s what’s so dreadful about it.


The dangers of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’

July 26, 2013

There’s a ‘national emergency’ on our borders. Did you know that? I’m looking at you, beachfront dwellers. Surely you’ve noticed? Have you alerted the appropriate authorities? Laid in supplies? Built barricades and taken up arms?

You haven’t? Tsk. Clearly, you are not Doing Your Bit For The Country. Where is the Spirit of Anzac? Get out there and Support Our Boys!

What’s that, you say? What could possibly be so terrifyingly urgent that it requires us to declare a state of national emergency?

Asylum seeker boats.

Yes, you read that right. Let’s get serious.

Invasion Imminent - according to the Coalition

Invasion Imminent – according to the Coalition

Not to be outdone by the government’s deal with Papua New Guinea, the Coalition has gone one better, releasing its own policy for tackling the asylum seeker issue.

It’s called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, and proposes militarising the entire situation.

We’ll get to examining that, but first let’s take a look at the language. It’s probably true to say that many people won’t read past a summary, and perhaps an introduction, and the writers of this document appear to have taken that into account.

In the Introduction alone, the word ‘illegal’ is used five times to describe asylum seeker boats. The Coalition knows very well that it is not illegal to seek asylum in this way, yet has insisted on using the term. It’s difficult to see any reason for that other than to polarise opinion against asylum seekers – and with that underlying its entire argument, the Coalition quickly throws out a plethora of statistics to drive home the point that Australia is, effectively, under attack. These statistics look impressive, but what’s really going on here?

There’s a comparison between boat arrivals in 2007 and today. That’s it; just the raw numbers. There’s no reference to the changing global situation, the incredibly slow processing time for people in camps, nor, indeed, the fact that people are often not safe even within these camps. The so-called ‘push’ factors that prompt people are entirely glossed over.

There’s a reference to the ‘queue’, with boat arrivals virtually declared not to be genuine refugees before any processing has taken place. Rather, the Coalition asserts that they are simply cashed-up and selfish:

‘These people [in camps] are genuine refugees … denied a chance at resettlement by people who have money in their pocket’.

Of course, there is no acknowledgement that linking irregular maritime arrivals with our humanitarian intake was a political move instituted by the former Howard government, completely out of the hands of asylum seekers.

There are large dollar amounts mentioned, all apparently wasteful spending on failed policies. This money, the Coalition suggests, should have been spent on causes far more deserving, such as education, infrastructure, and hospitals. Again, we have the argument that in some way, asylum seekers are responsibly for denying people their ‘rightful’ portion – this time, Australians themselves. This is dogwhistling of an almost deafening sort; it appeals to the basest, most insecure feelings in the electorate, planting the seed of fear that somehow we – and our children – will suffer if we don’t do something to stop it.

Oh, and let’s not forget the numbers of drownings at sea. Of course, any death at sea is a terrible thing, but the Coalition would have us believe that these are entirely the government’s fault. What it doesn’t want people to remember are disasters like the loss of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, resulting in the death of 353 people, or the sinking of SIEV 4 due to the strain of being towed – after shots were fired across its bow. Both these events happened on a Coalition government’s watch, and, to some extent, we contributed to them.

Having bombarded us with statistics, the Coalition gives us the meat of its policy. It boils down to this:

A single, ‘3-star ranking’ military commander would be in charge of dealing with asylum seeker boats. This commander is to be appointed by the Chief of the Defence Force, and report directly to the Minister for Immigration. An extraordinary amount of power would be concentrated in the hands of the commander, who would command a Task Force drawn from no less than 16 agencies, including six ministries and Australia’s intelligence agencies.

The Coalition offers this justification for such a move:

‘The scale of this problem requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation’.

Because there’s nothing more terrifying and dangerous to Australian security than a boat crammed full of unarmed men, women and children risking their lives, right?

To really drive home the point, ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ would be overseen by the National Security Committee. It’s a neat piece of reasoning – we tell you it’s a national emergency, we wrap it up in khaki and paranoia, and we sell it to you as something not only necessary, but actually good.

And what would this commander and his task force actually do?

First, there’s the question of detention. The Coalition spent quite a bit of media time last week asserting that it would never ‘outsource’ processing of asylum seekers. That seems to have disappeared into the ether, as this new policy commits to using both Nauru and Manus Island, and to ‘ensure resettlement in Australia is not guaranteed’. Remember, only last week, Manus Island, and Papua New Guinea in general, were apparently not fit to house anyone.

Temporary Protection Visas get a look-in, as does denying family reunions. Just in case that isn’t tough enough, the Coalition would also completely refuse to process anyone they even suspect might have destroyed identifying documents. There is no presumption of innocence here. The burden of proof is on the asylum seeker to convince officials that, if they don’t have papers, it’s for a good reason.

Where the policy gets really disturbing, however, is in the greatly expanded role of the Navy. The Coalition have long trumpeted its ‘tow back the boats’ policy. It’s still there, but with a few twists. Not only would the Navy be instructed to intercept boats in our own waters, but also to intercept and board vessels outside our sea borders, particularly if that vessel was thought to originate from Sri Lanka (note: not ships registered in Sri Lanka, merely leaving its waters). If asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were found on such a vessel, they would be forcibly removed and sent back immediately.

There is no end to the issues that this raises. Leaving aside the fact that Indonesia has repeatedly said they would not accept boats towed back to their territorial waters and dumped there, what the Coalition proposes has the potential to affect our relations with countries both in the region, and globally.

Boarding a vessel in international waters (the so-called ‘high seas’) is problematic, to say the least. It’s an act that can only legally be undertaken in extreme circumstances, prescribed by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), to which Australia is a signatory nation. Part VII spells out the limits of action – including the right of any ship not engaged in illegal acts to undertake ‘innocent passage’. To do otherwise could be called piracy. It could also be called an aggressive act against a sovereign nation. And the Coalition wants to use our Navy to commit these acts against unarmed, helpless civilians.

Alarm bells were certainly ringing at the Australian Defence Force when this policy booklet hit the internet. General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force quickly tweeted:

The ADA later released a statement on the policy. In the clearest possible terms, it stated that the ADF believed that asylum seeker arrivals were unequivocally a civil law enforcement matter. It went on to assert that military intervention should only be called upon in a ‘real emergency’, and that party politics had no place in military matters.

‘There is surely no need for the measures described in Operation Sovereign Borders to be led by a military officer, either on secondment or as part of his or her military duties directly.’

As if that weren’t enough to unravel the policy, the ADA statement went on to point out that the Coalition’s plans – particularly in terms of altering the chain of command and putting a civilian in charge of operational matters – may well be in breach of Westminster conventions, the Defence Act and the Constitution.

There are serious problems with the Coalition’s policy that go beyond issues of whether we should have ‘picked up the phone to Nauru’ or taken into account that Indonesia might object to a policy designed to deter asylum seekers from leaving their shores. What the Coalition proposes is nothing less than turning the military into an arm of civil law enforcement, using it to commit acts that not only breach our responsibilities under the LOSC, but could potentially cause diplomatic incidents with both our near neighbours and other countries around the world.

There was a great deal of derisive laughter when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggested the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy (at the time, reduced to a few motherhood statements) might lead to diplomatic conflict.

I doubt many people are laughing at that idea now.


Election 2013: A tale told by an idiot

June 10, 2013

It’s time. Time for the media to bring out tired old speculation about the Labor leadership; time for obsessive focus on a single, arguably self-interested poll that indicates an ever-greater victory for the Federal Coalition; time for backbench politicians in marginal seats to become the hottest headlines in political reporting.

Yes, it’s time.

And if you spotted the mangling of an old election slogan here … well, that’s rather the point. The September 14 election looms ever closer. The Coalition helpfully told us last week that we’d passed the hundred-day mark – though why it would bother is a bit of a puzzler. After all, the Coalition hasn’t stopped campaigning since the result of the 2010 election. Notwithstanding, the official election campaign is about to begin, and all parties are getting ready in their own way.

The government is at pains to point out how much legislation has been passed under Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s leadership. Led by carbon pricing, the mining tax, the National Broadband Network, increasing the compulsory superannuation contribution from 9% to 12%, education reform, and the NDIS, the government have passed over 300 pieces of legislation. ‘Obviously’, this points to a stable, functioning government.

Then there are those polling numbers, that so rarely seem to go the government’s way. Gillard seems unable to take a trick, especially when it comes to the Newspoll. ‘Surely’ this indicates the people don’t want another Labor government.

And let’s not forget the Greens and Independents. Without them, the government could not have passed so many bills. They ensured a full term of Parliament, and helped institute Parliamentary reforms that gave a greater voice to cross-benchers. Their influence is ‘out of proportion’.

But you know what? None of that matters.

The amount of legislation passed by the government is irrelevant.

The polling numbers are irrelevant.

The stability of the Parliament is irrelevant.

Oh, and that little thing called policy? Irrelevant.

Why?

Because this election will be about nothing more than ideology.

The facts don’t matter, you see.

It doesn’t matter whether the Federal Coalition refuses to delineate its policies, or to have what little detail it releases costed through Treasury. It doesn’t matter that the two major parties are effectively in lockstep on asylum seeker policy, pursuing an increasingly inhumane agenda. And it certainly doesn’t matter that the Prime Minister has managed to administrate a minority government in an effective, consultative way.

What will matter in this campaign is nothing more than a narrative created by the Federal Coalition. The story it wants to tell is one of desperation; of a weak Prime Minister manipulated by factional ‘warlords’, a government at the mercy of an ‘extreme’ left-wing minor party, and a country at the mercy of crippling taxes levied upon a populace that simply cannot afford to pay for the government’s ineptitude. Add to that a hefty whack of xenophobia (‘the boats, the boats!’) and the hackneyed ‘Rudd wants his job back’ motif, and there you have it.

The Coalition’s description of itself is, of course, far more optimistic. Its narrative boils down to, ‘Under us, you’ll have more money and sleep safely in your beds at night’. It’s all sleight of hand, of course; you’re expected to believe that somehow the Coalition – the so-called ‘party of the free market’ – can force power companies to drop their prices, simply by removing the carbon price. You’re also supposed to believe that refugee boats will stop coming – or, if they do come, that there’ll be no ‘convicted Egyptian jihadist terrorists’ roaming free to (presumably) threaten Our Way Of Life. Never mind the increasing evidence that said ‘terrorist’ may well be nothing of the kind. It’s all about how many times you say something – not whether it’s true.

Labor’s story isn’t much better. It got spooked by the Coalition’s unrelenting insistence on knowing when the Budget would be in surplus – at a time when the majority of the Western world was struggling with deficits of, in some cases, trillions of dollars. It made the critical mistake of promising big, then having to walk back expectations. That’s a gift to the Coalition. The polls are terrible, but rather than eat any form of humble pie and promise to listen to the electorate, Labor’s strategy is to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault’. And out comes the increasingly tattered spectre of WorkChoices and the threat of razor gangs rampaging through the halls of the public service. Labor’s trying to recapture its old image of ‘the workers’ champion’ – whether or not its deeds match its words.

The minor parties, of course, criticise everybody. The Greens and the Katter United Party make for odd bedfellows, but when it comes to ideology, you can’t beat them. Both are light on policy, heavy on rhetoric. So far, that’s working – and perhaps Labor, in particular, should have looked at the election results and seen that.

The voices crying in the wilderness are the Independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. They’re Parliament’s equivalent of the strange uncles that one has to invite to the family reunion, but no one wants to get trapped in a corner listening to them. A pity, that, since they’re the only ones talking policy and making sense. They’re not interested in narratives; they want to hear some policy detail. How quaint.

Duelling narratives. It would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating.

And the media are enthusiastically complicit. Here’s a sample, just from recent news.

Dennis Atkins is particularly good at this game. ‘Labor sent packing by nearing gallows poll‘! ‘Federal Labor a dead government walking as September election approaches‘!

The Sydney Morning Herald zeroed in on the Labor leadership. Tony Wright opined that Labor MPs are under a self-imposed vow of silence. That article was helpfully accompanied by a poll asking readers who they’d like to see as leader. Jacqueline Maley urged the ‘Ice Queen’ to thaw. That article featured the following astonishing description of Federal Labor:

‘Some are traumatised and attacking each other, some are so depressed they’re literally packing up in anticipation of their ruination at the polls, and some have just gone bonkers.’

Bonkers. There’s some hard-hitting analysis right there.

It goes on. Latika Bourke, on ABCNews24’s Breakfast News, spoke solemnly of a ‘mood of despair and despondency’ in Labor, this morning. And last week Chris Uhlmann threw around phrases like ‘death rattle’ and ‘the September poll feels more like a coronation’. Mind you, that article did, at least, point out that Education Shadow Christopher Pyne was telling porkies about the Prime Minister – although Uhlmann didn’t quite go as far as to call Pyne a liar. He said, carefully, that Pyne ‘really needs to get better Labor sources’.

So there you have it. No substantive discussion of policy. No policy, for the most part. Just endless regurgitation of old ideas and advertising slogans served up to us disguised as meat. Why not? It worked in 1972, when Whitlam, with little more than a catchy tune, convinced the Australian people that record low unemployment and a high Australian dollar were dire circumstances that required them to vote in a new government.

And we’re expected to swallow it all. We’re not supposed to ask questions, or demand detail. Silly electorate; anyone would think this election was something serious.

This campaign is already nearly three years long. The final days will be, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Unless, of course, we make it clear that we won’t settle for that. Unless we demand something more. Something better.


Busting the asylum seeker myths

August 15, 2012

Some of the most shameful debate in the history of Australian politics is taking place right now. Over 40 Coalition speakers rise, one after the other, to gloat about the Gillard government’s decision to cave in and re-open Nauru and Manus Island as asylum seeker detention centres. Oh, wait, sorry, they’re ‘processing centres’ now. That makes all the difference.

These dreadful speeches are replete with smugness, scorn and electioneering – but the worst, and most dangerous aspects are the lies. Every single speaker is lying, without shame and without consequences. Parliamentary privilege protects them. They can say whatever they like, and get away with it.

You know what? I don’t think they should get away with it. I think they should be called to account – and since the mainstream media seems unwilling to do it (witness the complete failure to call Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on his lies to the media yesterday), I guess it’s up to the rest of us.

So here goes. Let’s bust some myths.

Myth No. 1: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are committing an illegal act.

It is not illegal to seek asylum, regardless of how someone arrives in the country. The proper designation for those who come by boat is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’. The Coalition knows this. The media know this – the Press Council is very careful to urge its members not to criminalise asylum seekers.

In contrast, those who overstay their visas do commit an illegal act, and can be deported.

CONCLUSION: BUSTED.

Myth No. 2: Without offshore processing, Temporary Protection Visas and turning boats around, we will be flooded with asylum seekers coming on boats.

This is a favourite argument of scaremongers and xenophobes. What it boils down to is:

Yet almost all asylum seekers who arrive by boat immediately declare their intentions and enter into the processing system. Visa overstayers, by contrast, often take great pains to hide their unlawful status and keep working. And just to drive the point home, boat-borne asylum seekers add up to around one-tenth of visa overstayers.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 3: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are simply wealthy ‘queue-jumpers’ who use their money to force ‘real’ refugees to wait even longer for resettlement.

The idea of an orderly ‘queue’, where saintly refugees wait patiently to be re-settled while selfish, cashed-up ‘illegals’ bully their way to the front is both pervasive and pernicious. For many asylum seekers, it is not a matter of simply turning up at a refugee camp halfway around the world and talking to the UNHCR. Often, there are no camps, or diplomatic representation, in or near their countries of origin – and thus, there is no queue.

If they do make it to a camp, the strain on the system is so great that they may wait up to a decade to be resettled – and all the while, they are displaced persons, often living in tents and dependent on foreign aid. And these camps are not always secure, either; it’s not unknown for armies or paramilitary groups to raid, looking for ‘dissidents’. Is it any wonder people fleeing for their lives would look to any means possible?

Oh, and one more thing – it was the former Howard government that decided to include boat-borne asylum seekers in our total refugee quota. They created the fiction of a queue.

As for the idea that only the rich (read: and therefore the undeserving) can afford to pay a people smuggler, the UNHCR has found that generally, asylum seekers only pay up to $A5000 – and often, whole families will pool their resources to find that sum.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 4: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat deliberately get rid of their passports so that they cannot be sent back to their country of origin.

There is simply no evidence to support this. Certainly, many asylum seekers arrive without identification papers, but this can be for many reasons. Firstly, someone fleeing persecution may have had their papers confiscated or destroyed to prevent them leaving by normal means. They may have lost papers if they needed rescue from a sinking ship. They may indeed have destroyed their own papers, because they fear being identified by those who seek to imprison or execute them. And there may be a small minority who want to ensure they can’t ever be sent back to risk a resurgence of the state of affairs that prompted them to leave in the first place.

Conclusion: PARTIALLY TRUE, BUT NOT NECESSARILY FOR THE REASONS THE COALITION SAY.

Myth No. 5: Denying family reunion under the special humanitarian programs will deter husbands and fathers from making the boat voyage.

This is one of the recommendations of the Houston panel – and for the life of me, I can’t see how they could come to this conclusion. Neither can Amnesty International and a dozen other refugee organisations. Special humanitarian family reunions were instituted precisely to prevent women and children risking the boat voyage. It resulted in the journey being undertaken primarily by men, although there are still significant numbers of women and children travelling.

Axing the family reunion program will have no deterrent effect whatsoever. It is far more likely to increase the numbers of whole families on boats, wanting to secure a safe haven for re-settlement together. It will not remove the impetus for people to seek asylum through whatever means possible, merely ensure that it endangers more people. Given the possibility of waiting a decade in a refugee camp, living in utter poverty, raising children in an unsafe location, and risking a single boat voyage to possible safety and a new life – families are likely to opt for the latter. It’s a terrible choice either way.

Conclusion: BUSTED FROM SHEER STUPIDITY.

Myth No. 6: Anyone who opposes offshore processing does not believe in the security of the nation-state and has no interest in keeping Australia ‘safe’.

This particular assertion was made by Bronwyn Bishop in Parliament today. According to her, those ‘on the Left’ have a vested interest in tearing down the concept of the nation-state, and opening the borders to anyone who wants to come here, regardless of their origins or intentions.

Apart from the patent absurdity of referring to anyone who opposes offshore processing as necessarily ‘Leftist’, this is cherry-picking to an amazing degree. Bishop quoted former Senator Bob Brown’s declaration that he would like to see a global consciousness of all people as ‘Earthlings’ as evidence that Leftists seek the destruction of sovereign states, when in fact that statement was made in context of urging global action on climate change. She also conveniently ignored the fact that many of Labor’s declared Left, including the outspoken Senator Doug Cameron, have accepted the recommendations made by the expert panel for offshore processing.

Then there’s the idea that offshore processing will somehow keep Australia safe. Bishop here is dog-whistling. That’s all. There’s no evidence to suggest that boat-borne asylum seekers are in any way

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 7: Offshore processing (preferably combined with TPVs and turning back boats) is the only way to stop the boats and break the people smugglers’ ‘business model’.

This is a particularly cunning idea. It sets up the proposition that the boats must be stopped, and challenges anyone to prove that there is a better way of doing this than via Coalition policy.

But take a step back. Why must the boats be stopped? The usual answer is that the voyage is dangerous – people smugglers tend to run a cut-rate operation, and little niggling details like seaworthiness are often overlooked. This much is true – but it begs the question. People only get on boats – and risk their lives – when they feel they have no other alternative.

So what are the alternatives? Increasing our humanitarian intake is one, and this was recommended by the Houston panel. Contributing more money to improving the efficiency and speed of asylum seeker processing is another – and if the government has funds to renovate Nauru and Manus Island, it has funds to contribute to this. Finally, there is the option of bringing asylum seekers directly to Australia via safe means, and processing them here. All of these would be far more likely to reduce the number of dangerous boat voyages and take profits from people smugglers.

As for the claim that these measures stop boats, it’s worth noting that the Pacific Solution did nothing of the kind. There were years when no boats arrived, but in the lead-up to the 2007 election, numbers jumped sharply and were on the rise again. This coincided with a resurgence of unrest in Afghanistan and Africa.

Conclusion: MISLEADING AND BUSTED.

I could go on – the claim that discarding the Pacific Solution made more boats come, that asylum seekers threaten our border, that our naval vessels are suffering from metal fatigue because they’re being used to rescue asylum seekers – but really, these are the major points. These are the most vicious of the lies. This is what the Coalition says, and keeps saying, apparently operating under the theory that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth in people’s minds. This is the strategy of the parties that violated international maritime law with the Tampa, violated our obligations under UN treaties, subjected countless innocent people to shameful and damaging treatment, and continue to tell the world that they are ‘compassionate’ and ‘sensible’.

They are nothing of the kind – and they’ve successfully dragged the government down to their level. Not that it took much persuasion, in the end. Perhaps under Rudd it would have been different. We’ll never know.

What we do know is that this whole issue is surrounded by self-serving, disgusting lies. Those lies should be exposed for what they are, every time they’re uttered.

And apparently it’s up to us to do it, since (with few exceptions) our representatives won’t.


Party of no policy?

February 15, 2012

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re in the middle of an election campaign. Between lobby groups buying up television advertising, drop-in visits from the Leader of the Opposition to every kind of business from dry cleaners to aluminium plants, and what seems like at least one opinion poll every freakin’ day, it sure seems like it.

There’s no election date called. There’s no election date even on the horizon. But the campaign is in full swing. Given this, I decided to take a look at what policies were out there from the ‘alternative government’.

Let’s see …

Repeal the carbon pricing scheme with all associated rebates, compensation and industry assistance. Presumably this includes the lifting of the tax-free threshold and pensioner allowances.

Repeal the Mining Resources Rent Tax.

Repeal the means test for the 30% private health insurance rebate.

Scrap the NBN. It’s unclear whether that includes ripping out the infrastructure already in place and returning those areas already connected to copper.

Close Trades Training Centres.

Rip up any deals that might be made with Malaysia regarding asylum seekers, discontinue community detention and reinstitute processing on Nauru and Temporary Protection Visas.

Well.

But surely there are actual, concrete, positive policies out there? Maybe the media just isn’t reporting them. So I swung by the Liberal Party’s website to take a look. And there they were. Policy documents. Policies on health, energy, transport, the economy … you name it.

But wait.

Every single policy document is from the 2010 election.

None of the mini-essays from the relevant Shadows date from later than 2010.

And the odd piece of writing from this year? Falls into one of two categories: either relentless criticism of Labor; or a promise to repeal, scrap or otherwise abolish nearly every major accomplishment of the government.

If Abbott wants an election so badly – as he claims he does – surely he should start releasing alternative policy? If it’s imperative to stop the government from implementing its policy, or – god forbid – being re-elected, why not show us a better option? Motherhood statements are all very well, but they are no substitute for concrete policy.

It’s really no wonder that the most common parody of the Opposition is that they are the ‘Noalition’.

And lest readers complain that I am unfairly concentrating on the Opposition, I’d like to point out that government policy is under constant scrutiny as legislation comes before the House and the Senate. Those policies can be thoroughly analysed.

It’s very, very hard to examine what amounts to nothing more than the word ‘NO’, repeated ad nauseam.

Perhaps we will get some real policy announcements from the Opposition when the election date is finally announced. But given their track record of refusing to provide policies that have enough detail to be verified?

I’d have to say … no.


Never mind hygiene, how about some manners?

January 10, 2012

Ah, Summer. The time of slow news days, photo opportunities for local pollies in their own electorate, and the occasional human interest story about Opposition Leader Tony Abbott just missing out on a close call with a shark down at Manly Beach. Unfortunately, it’s also a time when politicians tend to get a little … indiscreet with their words.

Exhibit A: Opposition MP Teresa Gambaro.

Ms Gambaro’s got it all worked out – and by ‘it’, I mean that pesky immigrant problem. You know, the one that apparently affects every facet of our lives, yet somehow fails to make much more than the slightest blip on people’s personal radars. And just what is that problem?

Hygiene.

Yes, you read that right. According to Gambaro, immigrants just doesn’t understand ‘Australian norms’. They don’t know how to line up in a queue, or wear deodorant on public transport. These things are part of our Australian way of life, gosh darn it, and it’s about time these immigrants were taught how to fit in. Cultural awareness classes, that’s what they need. But how to do it?

Perhaps we could offer a Certificate I in Being Australian at TAFE, specifically target at migrants. We could teach them the time-honoured traditions of the sausage sizzle and the post-footy booze-up. We could instruct them in the proper way to apply white zinc and yell at cricket umpires. Special practical classes could teach them how to hold the deodorant spray the required few inches from the armpit, and just how long to hold down the trigger. For advanced students, elective units in using roll-ons might be a good idea. And while we’re at it, we can practice lining up – perhaps at the canteen at lunchtime.

Of course, we’ll have to employ only the most qualified teachers for such an important course. The government could look at offering incentives to encourage tertiary students to take up a career in Cultural Awareness Training.

But why stop there? After all, learning shouldn’t stop when people leave school, right? We need to put community initiatives in place, and while we’re at it, we can cut the jobless numbers at the same time.

We’ll need Bath Inspectors to make sure people are taking the required number of baths or showers each week. We can’t trust those immigrants to self-report on this issue – it’s far too important. For that matter, there should be Handwashing Monitors installed in all schools and public toilets, just to make sure proper procedure is followed. (Hmm, perhaps we’ll also need to teach them how much soap to use, and how to shampoo their hair.)

Then there’s public transport. Obviously, we’ll need a Whiff Patrol to travel at peak times, with the ability to issue infringement notices compelling those with un-deodorised armpits to undertake refresher courses in hygiene.

We’re also going to need Queue Police. We can’t have those dastardly immigrants spoiling our orderly queue culture. It could undermine our whole way of life. They need to know their place.

Or wait, perhaps Gambaro is in the pocket of Big Deodorant, and this is all designed to push Rexona sales …

… I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore.

What the hell was Gambaro thinking?!

It would be nice to believe this was just the result of a really bad communication skills day. Unfortunately, it seems far more likely it was simply unthinking racism on her part. No doubt Gambaro would say that she didn’t intend to be offensive; she genuinely wants people to be part of ‘our’ culture. And in a way, that’s more worrying than if she had meant to offend. This is the Coalition’s citizenship spokesperson, effectively telling those who wish to become part of our society that they are dirty and ill-mannered, and need to learn civilised behaviour.

Sounds just a tad colonial, doesn’t it?

To be fair, Gambaro also pointed out that many immigrants aren’t aware of some rather more crucial aspects of living in Australian society, such as their rights under a tenancy agreement or Medicare. Had she confined her remarks to these issues, there might even have been some value in the whole interview – because there are real problems with our migration and citizenship program, not least of which is our insistence that migrants be able to spell English words, while we do nothing to prepare them for dealing with our bureaucracies and legal systems.

As it stands, Gambaro’s offensive remarks put her right up there with Senator Cory ‘Islamicisation-by-stealth-through-halal-meat’ Bernardi. It’s utterly shameful that an elected representative – and one charged with the important task of ensuring the government provides the best possible immigration system – uses her ability to command media attention to send a message any even remotely sensible person would regard as nonsensical at best, highly insulting at worst.

It’s not hygiene lessons that are needed here … it’s lessons in basic empathy and good manners. And it isn’t immigrants who should be taking them, Ms Gambaro. It’s you.

(And FYI … telling people you’re the child of migrant parents doesn’t excuse you, either.)


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