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.

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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 …


Craig Thomson, political football

May 8, 2012

Fair Work Australia’s report into alleged misuse of funds by the Health Services Union finally made it to the public last night. And there’s some pretty damning stuff in there. FWA found numerous breaches of the union’s rules, not to mention inappropriate spending on everything from chocolates, to escort services, to political campaign funding. The chief culprit, it stated, was MP Craig Thomson, along with former heads Michael Williamson and Kathy Jackson. FWA further recommended civil action be commenced.

Cue the screaming and the howling from the Opposition.

Thomson must resign! Thomson is a criminal! Thomson’s vote is ‘tainted’, and should not be accepted by the Prime Minister! Gillard is ‘clinging to power’ by allowing Thomson’s vote to count! Hang him! Burn him! Tar and feather him and ride him out of Canberra on a rail!

(Well, maybe not that last part – but the sentiment is there.)

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott thundered that this was a ‘stinking, putrid mess’. Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis scolded the government for relying on a tainted vote. On ABC1’s QandA last night, Kelly O’Dwyer opined that the whole affair smacked of a government cover-up. And let’s not forget that old standard – we want an election, right now, dammit!

Meanwhile, Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has promised to ‘rectify any deficiencies’ in legislation, so that this sort of ‘disturbing’ event can never happen again. Of course, he added quickly, Thomson was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and the union movement just had a few ‘bad apples’, so no one should jump to any conclusions.

Ahem.

I’d like to pause here for a moment, and suggest you ruminate on this portrait of Craig Thomson:

Craig Thomson, Member for Dobell

No, I’m not kidding.

This isn’t about decency, or morals, or integrity. It isn’t about some kind of endemic corruption in ‘the union movement’ (which, contrary to the best propaganda of conservative politics, is not a great monolith of Australia-hating Communists). It’s not about whether the Parliament is cast into disrepute – if it can survive the Whitlam dismissal and the Australian Wheat Board scandal, it can survive one MP under investigation for alleged misuse of funds before he was a Parliamentarian. (After all, it survived investigations into Senators Mal Colston and Mary Jo Fisher, not to mention former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.)

It’s about Thomson being used as a political football.

The government think they’re playing keepings-off with him, by booting him out of the Labor Caucus and sending him to the cross-benches. The Opposition think they’re in the last quarter of a Grand Final, with an open goal in front of them and an imminent election win as the trophy – and Abbott’s lining up with his boot. The media are right there with kick-to-kick commentary.

And the public are falling for it.

Thomson is an innocent man, unless a court of law proves him to be otherwise. Just like Fisher, Colston, Downer, and any number of other MPs who’ve been the subject of investigations, Royal Commissions and trial-by-media. The people of Dobell, who voted for him, have the right to remain represented in the Parliament unless Thomson is proven guilty. The FWA’s report may well represent definitive evidence – but it’s not up to the government, the Opposition, the media, or the so-called ‘Twitterati’ to say so. That’s why we have courts of law. That’s why we have s.44 of the Constitution, which sets out the grounds for disqualification from Parliamentary office, and which clearly shows that Thomson is more than eligible to remain in his seat as matters stand. (And thanks to commenter archiearchiveFCD for the Constitutional reminder.)

But all of this is beside the point. Thomson is a political football, being skilfully deployed to deflect attention from the imminent Budget with its long-promised surplus, the allegations against Speaker Peter Slipper, possible Opposition collusion with staffer James Ashby in those allegations, and the lack of any tangible Opposition policy whatsoever.

I recommend we let the police and the courts do their jobs, and turn off the Sports Channel.


NDIS launch obscured by political noise

April 30, 2012

When you’re a political blogger, you never know what you’re going to get (unless it’s an attempted censure motion by the Opposition in Question Time, of course). There are good days – some juicy bit of policy to pick apart, strategy to analyse, election campaigns to follow. There are frustrating days – when all you have to work with is the same old message. And there are dead days.

But on some days, it just doesn’t do to get out of bed.

Today is one of those days.

It might surprise you to know that Gillard launched the National Disability Insurance Scheme today, committing $8 billion and commencing building for the initial sites a year ahead of the Productivity Commission. The NDIS was supposedly bipartisan, yet now the Coalition is backing away from it, describing it in ‘aspirational’ terms and trying to point the finger at the government as somehow being at fault for going ahead with it.

Substantial policy stuff, the NDIS is the kind of program that has been needed for decades, and hundreds of people have worked tirelessly to lobby successive governments on the matter. For this to finally be happening – funds committed, legislation passed – is a real victory for disabled people, their relatives and their carers.

And if you want to find out about it, you have to wait until the bottom of the half hour on the news channels – because, apparently, there are much more important things to discuss. Because, apparently, political scandal, hypocrisy and the demonstrated contempt of our politicians for both the political process and their representatives rates higher in media priorities than letting vulnerable sectors of society know they will be able to access help they desperately need.

First, there’s the ongoing Craig Thomson saga. The embattled Member for Dobell remains firmly in the Opposition’s sights, despite never having a single charge levelled against him, either civil or criminal. There’s been a Fair Work Australia investigation into the Health Services Union, with which Thomson was involved before entering Parliament. Nothing has come of it to date. FWA found it was probable that the union criminally misused member funds. The Australian Federal Police called for a proper brief. To date, they have not received one.

Nonetheless, the Opposition were relentless. Thomson should resign! Thomson is tainted! The PM is clinging to power through a corrupt vote! This government is illegitimate! Et cetera.

Either Abbott employs a team of super-psychics, who can discover dirt that no one else in the country can find, or this is simply the same grandiose political manoeuvring that’s led him to call for an election on almost a daily basis since the Coalition’s loss in 2010. Either way, he kept at it, and finally got a victory.

The government was firmly behind Thomson and firmly on message. He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence. There are no grounds to remove him. We support him. Which is exactly what they should have done. But then yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that Thomson had been expelled from Labor Caucus, and would move to the cross-benches.

To make matters worse, she went on to say that Speaker Peter Slipper, who stood aside when allegations of fraud were made against him by a former staffer, would continue to be out of the Speaker’s chair until civil proceedings from that same staffer were resolved. It was another about-face; right up until the day before the government staunchly defended Slipper’s right to return to the Speaker’s chair if he was not facing criminal charges, while the Opposition called for him at least to stay out of the job until the civil matter was resolved, and preferably resign altogether.

In both cases, she justified the action as stemming from a public perception of a shadow over the Parliament. In other words, it looked bad to keep supporting them.

It’s a big call, but this is very probably the weakest thing Gillard’s done since becoming Prime Minister. She allowed herself to be stampeded by an Opposition led by someone Independent MP Tony Windsor describes as ‘a rabid dog’, and did exactly what he’d been demanding.

Maybe she thought this would defuse the issue. With Thomson out of the Caucus, maybe Abbott would have no talking points. If so, it was a shocking misjudgment. Having gained ground on the Thomson issue, Abbott immediately upped the stakes. It’s not good enough to have Thomson out of the caucus, he argued. His vote shouldn’t be counted at all – it was ‘tainted’, and Gillard would rely on that corrupt vote, rendering the entire government illegitimate. The only way out of this situation was – you guessed it – an election. ‘There is nothing wrong with our country that a change of government can’t fix,’ he said today at yet another media conference on the evils of the carbon price and the mining tax.

Of course, he’s not going to attempt a no confidence motion, because he knows he won’t win. Thomson would vote with the government, as would Bandt. Wilkie’s a question mark, but self-interest alone may lead him to support the government (given the Coalition’s oft-repeated dedication to tearing him out of his seat at the next election). The crucial votes, then, are those of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott – and neither of them support Abbott’s policies. The likely result, then, is a tie, which would be resolved in the negative by Acting Speaker Anna Burke, Labor MP for Chisholm.

But Abbott doesn’t need to bring a no confidence motion. He just needs to keep grabbing the media spotlight, and hammering home his message. Gillard’s backdown on Thomson and Slipper is the best thing to happen to him, and he will capitalise on that every moment he can, while continually pushing for more capitulation. At the same time, he can sideswipe Windsor and Oakeshott by implying in the national media that they’re not listening to their constituencies, who want the minority government gone. And of course, he doesn’t have to provide any evidence – with much of the media slavishly repeating his assertions as fact, and Gillard giving them legitimacy by backing down.

And let’s no forget these standards Abbott sets for the government don’t apply to the Opposition in his eyes. Oh, no. Just take a look, and you decide how far the hypocrisy goes.

Coalition front-bencher Sophie Mirabella is entangled in civil action at the moment connected with a probate case – but Abbott won’t ask her to step aside until it’s resolved.

Senator Mary Jo Fisher was the subject of criminal proceedings, and stepped aside from her Senate Committee position while they were underway – but continued to be paid for that role, and was never called upon to resign altogether.

The Coalition was happy to accept Peter Slipper’s vote when allegations were made against him in 2003, arguing that there were no charges against him – yet now says the government must not do the same with Thomson.

On the subject of poaching Parliamentarians for political advantage – in 1996, Labor Senator Mal Colston left the ALP at the urging of the Coalition, who installed him (as a nominal Independent) as Deputy President of the Senate. A year later he was charged with defrauding the Commonwealth – yet continued to serve in the Senate right through the investigation period.

And finally, Abbott’s declaration today that ‘I don’t do deals’, when asked why he didn’t approach Windsor and Oakeshott directly to gain their support for a no confidence motion – despite offering a swag of money (including no less than $1 billion for the Royal Hobart Hospital) to Andrew Wilkie for his vote to form government in 2010.

And knowing all this, Gillard still backed down. It’s a monumental blunder, and Abbott is far too wily a political animal not to seize on that weakness. Any way you look at it, you can file this under ‘FUBAR’.

At least we have a little absurdity to relieve the seemingly unending round of blunder, bluster, hypocrisy and posturing. Strangely, that comes in the form of mining magnate Clive Palmer.

We’ve seen a lot of Palmer lately. He’s become a bit of a poster child for opposition to the mining tax and carbon price packages – and, apparently makes good television. He secured a guernsey on QandA to regale us all with his considered opinions on how the Greens were running the government and exporting all our jobs to China. He got the media running to Canberra for his announcement that the Greens were, in fact, funded by the CIA – then, when confronted by the ridiculousness of his own claim, grinned and claimed he’d done it deliberately to pull focus away from a government announcement.

This is the man who wants to build Titanic II (thought apparently without the help of James Cameron); who thinks cutting off government subsidies to millionaires will jeopardise their children’s future (perhaps they’ll only have three cars and two homes); and who avowedly ‘loves to litigate’. He’s a long-time contributor to the Queensland Liberal National Party, a vocal opponent of anything that smacks of environmental responsibility and a staunch defender of the right to cut benefits to poor people while maintaining upper class welfare.

And now he wants to go into politics. Specifically, he wants to run against Treasurer Wayne Swan in the seat of Lilley at the next federal election. He announced he would seek LNP pre-selection today against a backdrop emblazoned with the motto ‘Swan’s Song’ – not the clearest of messages, mind you. Palmer put his metaphorical hand on his heart and pledged to work to ‘grow the nation’s prosperity and lift standards in Parliament’. Of course, he doesn’t see why he should give up his business while he’s actually in Parliament. It’s ‘only a small family company’, after all.

Yeah, you read that right.

Uh, Mr Palmer? Have you ever heard of a little thing called ‘conflict of interest’? It’s when your private interests and investments clash directly with your duty as a Parliamentarian. You’re proposing to sit in Parliament as a member of a government that is pledged to repeal taxes and schemes that you’ve shouted far and wide will significantly disadvantage you – and yet you think you can continue to run your mining company at the same time?

(Mind you, this isn’t the first time Palmer’s taken a run at federal politics. As far back as 1984, he stood for pre-selection in the LNP and was soundly defeated.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that he was beaten by Peter Slipper.)

Seriously, Mr Palmer, get a political strategist to go with that media advisor you so desperately need. Even Abbott isn’t comfortable with this – he repeatedly refused to endorse you today. Take a hint.

Even before the sun’s set, this is the kind of day in politics we’ve got. And this is what’s taking up all the air in the media. ABCNews24 just announced their afternoon current affairs program would focus on Thomson and Palmer. Not a whiff about the NDIS. Really, it’s enough to make anyone interested in actually examining policy weep.

Like I said, some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed.


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.


A sleazy new low for Abbott

September 8, 2011

Remember back in March, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wanted to address an anti-‘carbon tax’ rally on the Parliament House lawns? That was so important, apparently, that he felt it necessary to request a ‘pair’ from the government, in case a vote was called. Even though Abbott was effectively asking for freedom to slander the government and encourage hateful and violent sentiments, Labor granted him that pair. Thus secure in the knowledge that his absence wouldn’t upset any Coalition plans, Abbott hurried off to get himself married to the lynch mob.

The rally Tony Abbott couldn't miss

Fast forward to around three weeks ago, where Abbott declared that he would not grant pairs to the government during debate over the 13 bills that make up its Clean Energy Future package. He backed up the threat with immediate action, denying a pair to Arts Minister Simon Crean so that he could not attend the funeral of Margaret Olley AC, one of Australia’s great artists. This meant that his own colleague, Malcolm Turnbull, was also unable to attend the funeral. It was a particularly puzzling act – the absence of both Crean and Turnbull would have balanced the numbers anyway – unless you take into account that this was a shot across the bow.

Abbott quickly followed it up by denying the Prime Minister a pair so that she could meet a fellow head of state. In that case, Gillard had no choice but to risk that no vote would be called – it was that, or deliver an inexcusable snub to the President of the Seychelles.

Now it’s Craig Thomson’s turn. You probably remember him – during the last sitting of Parliament, the Opposition used Parliamentary privilege to consistently assert that Thomson was guilty of multiple acts of fraud, and incidentally employed sex workers (because a good ol’ morality campaign never goes astray). The New South Wales police, who looked into the matter after Opposition Senator George Brandis decided to make a few phone calls putting pressure on the state’s Police Minister, announced that it had insufficient evidence to even warrant launching a full investigation – let alone bring charges. Effectively, this means that Thomson has no case to answer, at least in NSW.

Not that this matters to the Opposition. Abbott declared that NSW had very high standards of proof that needed to be met in order to bring charges – so high, in fact, that even with all the ‘evidence’ that it had, it couldn’t go any further. Brandis chimed in with his own brand of spin, asserting there was prima facie evidence of Thomson’s guilt – though apparently the NSW police don’t agree. The message was clear – no let-up on Thomson in the near future.

But the Coalition may have undone themselves this time. As part of the ongoing campaign against the government in general, and Thomson in particular, Abbott has denied Thomson a pair in the upcoming session. ‘No way,’ Abbott said. ‘We have made it crystal clear that only in the most extraordinary circumstances will pairs be offered for the carbon tax vote.’

Well, that’s somewhat softer than his earlier ‘not under any circumstances’ stance. Which begs the question – for what apparently trivial reason has Thomson been denied a pair?

His wife is due to give birth soon.

Yes, you read that right. Attending the birth of your child, supporting your spouse in labour – that’s not enough reason to miss a vote in Parliament.

Remember, this is the man who asked for and received a pair merely in order to attend a violent, hate-filled rally in order to make a speech and get his photo taken in front of signs recommending Gillard burn in hell. It’s arguably ‘extraordinary’ – but more important than being there for the birth of your child?

Abbott prides himself on being a family man. Remember during the election, when he took every possible opportunity to sideswipe Gillard for being unmarried and childless? When his wife Margie accompanied him on the campaign trail, and his daughters sat in the audience during speeches to the faithful? And that’s without listing the numerous times he’s used his ‘Dad’ status to bolster his opinions on everything from abortion to same-sex marriage.

Yet he doesn’t consider the birth of another man’s child sufficiently ‘extraordinary’ to allow a pair.

Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne confirmed Abbott’s statement. He went further, claiming that it was up to the government to make sure it didn’t schedule any votes while Thomson was with his wife and new baby. This is nonsensical in the extreme. Debate and votes are usually scheduled in advance – is Pyne suggesting the government employ a psychic to determine when the birth will be? He also completely ignored the possibility that the Opposition might take advantage of numbers to attempt a suspension of standing orders to attempt a censure or throw the bills back into committee. In other words – what he said is simply meaningless.

Perhaps the Coalition thinks the baby should just wait until it can be squeezed into a packed schedule. After all, ‘the first duty of members of parliament is to be in the parliament when critical votes are taken,’ as Abbott said. Never mind his own record of sleeping through a crucial vote on the ETS under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, or Pyne’s own vote missed through bungled scheduling – a vote that was re-cast after the Coalition insisted it was ‘only fair’ that Pyne be allowed to record his vote anyway.

That baby has no business interfering with the business of Parliament, by the Coalition’s reasoning – and Thomson’s wife should really be more considerate about her timing.

This isn’t just petty politicking. It isn’t even simple, mean-spirited points-scoring. This is sleazy. Not content with smearing Thomson’s reputation from the safety of Parliament (and perhaps not coincidentally, suggesting that he’s a poor husband), Abbott has now attacked Thomson just for wanting to be with his wife when she’ll need him. Apparently Abbott doesn’t realise the contradiction there – he’s as happy to attack Thomson for being a supportive husband as for allegedly being a two-timing lowlife.

With any luck, this will backfire on the Opposition. Thomson was cleared by the NSW police – just pursuing him on that matter runs the risk of looking like a witch-hunt. Add to that the absolutely inexcusable refusal of a pair, and it rapidly takes on the odour of persecution.

It’s a serious misstep – there are few people who wouldn’t make an exception to business as usual for such an important family matter, and even diehard Coalition voters are likely to think Abbott’s gone too far. He needs to back down immediately; he can easily save face while doing so, say he’s consulted with his colleagues, made an exception in this one case, wax lyrical again about the importance of family – really, whatever works. But he needs to do it quickly before he poisons his unending election campaign irrevocably.

A frequent charge levelled by the Opposition is that the current government lacks ‘compassion’. They should scrap the ‘carbon tax’ to show compassion for the ‘forgotten families’. They should send asylum seekers to Nauru to show compassion. They should scrap the mining tax. Et cetera.

This is an opportunity for Abbott to walk his own walk. Grant Thomson a pair, apologise for even suggesting his family’s welfare should be sacrificed, and provide an example with which he can task the government on future occasions.

It’s a win-win, Mr Abbott. But something tells us you won’t see it that way.

UPDATE:

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey considerably softened the Coalition’s stance on the pairing issue this morning. Appearing on the Sunrise program, he informed Environment Minister Tony Burke that, ‘If you tell us when the vote will be I’m sure we will be very reasonable’. (Notice the attempt to make the Coalition’s sleazy tactics the fault of the government?)

Hockey added, ‘We are not going to deny a person the chance to be at the birth of his child’, which seems like a laudable sentiment. Unfortunately, at the same time Abbott was telling the Today Show that he supported Pyne’s comments from yesterday. Confusion in the ranks? Or Hockey caving in under pressure?

A moment ago, Sky News reported that Abbott has since refined his position. Apparently now it might be possible for Thomson to be granted ‘brief relief’ if his wife goes into labour. It’s not at all clear what that means, but it certainly suggests that Abbott would impose a time limit on any pairing granted. In that time limit, Thomson would have to travel from Parliament House to the airport, get a seat on a flight, fly to Sydney, and take a cab from Mascot Airport to the hospital. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to spend supporting his wife.

Presumably, it would be Mrs Thomson’s fault if her labour went longer than Abbott thought it should. Just like it’s the government’s ‘fault’ that the Coalition won’t grant him a pair.


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