Q&A with Joe Miles, Pirate Party of Australia

September 5, 2013

With less than 48 hours to go before the polls open – and that may be a cause for relief or depression, depending on your political point of view – let’s step back from the major parties and take an in-depth look at a newcomer. The Pirate Party of Australia is one of a huge number of minor groups contesting this election, but it is far from the usual single-issue ticket.

The party has its origins in Europe, founded in 2006 and fielding successful candidates in the 2009 European Parliament elections. At the time of writing there are Pirate Party representatives in governments across Europe. The Australian branch was founded in 2008.

Through the wonders of the internet, I (virtually) sat down with Joe Miles, the PPA’s lead Senate candidate for Victoria.

CV: Could you tell us a little of your background, including why you decided to go into politics?

Joe: I’m a new dad, I’ve been working as a Welfare Worker since 2006 (ish) mostly working with people who have an intellectual disability and who are on their way into (or out of) prison. It’s work I’m proud of, and being able to look at myself in the mirror after work is a bonus too. Not realising it, I got into politics as a shop steward in my third job. It was the only good thing about that job. I began to read, and learn to speak up and speak out. I moved to queer politics somewhere around 2008 or 2009, and added deep-green to my pink flag-waving activities somewhere around Edinburgh in 2010ish.

Aristotle says we’re all political animals, and I think he’s right – we all enter politics in some way, I just decided to do it publicly and under the pirate banner.

CV: The name ‘Pirate Party’ opens candidates up to all sorts of lampooning and charges of being a single-issue group (as evidenced in the way the Sex Party has been treated); given that, why join and run for a party with that name?

Joe: I liken our name to “The Greens” – Green is a colour, not a political persuasion, but the name is the signpost to the idea. Any questions I get on our name get dealt with in around 6 seconds, especially on hearing about Pirate MEPs and Pirates in the Icelandic and German city governments.

To be honest, the name the perfect ice-breaker. No-one is guarded around people who call themselves Pirates – political conversation flows uninhibited, and conversations about solutions to problems are freer. This isn’t normal. The usual conversation is base and unhelpful, the name Pirate Party helps a lot in getting around this. I’ve had long discussions with people who wouldn’t call themselves ‘political’ about the types of decision-making they’d like to see.

CV: Let’s move on to look at specific policies. Your education policy would require a massive restructure for the tertiary sector, which is already overstressed in terms of teacher/student ratios and research/teaching balance. What is your timeline for that restructure, and how would you pay for these reforms, given your policy to reduce HECS-based funding?

Joe: The tertiary restructure is mostly to do with the third point; ‘Defund administrative functions and organisations associated with monitoring, surveillance, government reviews and data collection’. There’s a world of potential resources used for compliance that could otherwise be spent on instruction or research. These changes would provide savings, not more burden, and these savings could be unleashed.

There’s no rigid time-line for this, though there’s been consultation with ACT and NSW academia on this policy, and I’d suggest 3 years is the common wisdom. That’s for both the student-teacher ratio and the teaching-support ratio.

CV: On the subject of hate speech – many would say your policy allows an anything-goes approach not only in terms of speech, but also in terms of incitement to violence; how do you address that? Do you have a law enforcement policy that encompasses ‘hate crime’?

Joe: The policy covers speech that someone may be offended by, not speech which incites to violence. There are common law provisions against incitement, harassment, intimidation – that would stay in effect. Our policy is to remove an almost radical subjectivity from the system.

We propose repealing Part 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Apart from the last point of 1(a), it deals with being offended. The last point (intimidation) can be more than ably dealt with by preexisting legislation. Most intimidation is (I think, rightfully) viewed as a kind of assault.

‘Hate speech’ involves an incitement to violence, abuse, intimidation or other discriminatory action. Hate speech is already effectively illegal, without the need for part 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In fact, this Part adds absolutely nothing of value to public safety, but it does chill speech.

CV: You’ve called for a US debate style, which is arguably little more than a feistier version of ours. Often nothing is done to call candidates on their misinformation or failure to answer questions; how would the PPA ensure candidates are made to answer properly?

Joe: In US style debates the candidates are forced to talk off the cuff, they then can be followed up on and made to engage with each other. Good moderation and effective debate opponents would allow a kind of self-correcting that would incentivise answering questions well.

Though key here is an independent debate commission (or committee or whatever the name may be) – specific rule sets can devised and moderators can be tasked with things like keeping the candidates engaging properly.

CV: The Pirate Party says it supports Fibre to the Premises broadband; does this mean you support the ALP’s NBN project?

Joe: Yes.

CV: Your energy policy expresses support for the ZCA2020 Stationary Energy Plan; could you expand on that?

Joe: In short, we aim for 100% renewables inside 10 years, with a concerted program. It would be paid for by a partial sale of the project on completion, a levy and the fact it is a profitable exercise. We view it as not only an investment in our environment, but a quintessential financial investment – build this now to save both repair, maintenance and fuel costs in the future.

CV: Do you support an Emissions Trading Scheme? If so, what model?

Joe: A floating price doesn’t work, except for speculators. There’s been very little in the way of action in Europe considering the time an ETS has been running, contrasting with Australia – a flat price for a short period has solid results. It’s a cliché, but business loves certainty.

We support a carbon price until Australia’s investment in renewables is so great a carbon price (or any other mechanism, for that matter) is redundant.

CV: Your marriage policy calls for the Marriage Act to be repealed altogether. Such a move would likely be resisted by parliamentarians and by many sectors of the community, including those who advocate for marriage equality. Wouldn’t it be simpler to reverse the Howard era changes to the Act, rather than legislate an entirely new civil unions act?

Joe: Aiming merely to amend the Marriage Act is to aim to leave a loaded gun on the table – those amendments could be rewound easily by any theocratic-minded conservative government. As you’ve suggested, it would be simple to amend the Howard era changes.

That’s why we have as policy a new Act – any attempt at regressing would be obvious. Our societal view on the validity of romantic relationships (and which body defines ‘valid’) is evolving, this policy just keeps pace. There are always people resistant to change – that’s why people voted “No” in the 1967 referendum.

CV: Finally, if the PPA gains a seat in the Senate, it’s likely to bring with it a great responsibility in terms of balance of power. In those circumstances, would you go it alone or ally with a party with larger representation, such as the Greens?

Joe: We won’t join a voting bloc. We’ll vote according to our principles, with our goals being to get our policy aims realised, apply transparency provisions to all relevant legislation and make sure decisions of the House uphold human rights.

* * * * *

And there you have it. The PPA is no fly-by-night ticket; it takes its politics and its goals seriously, and it’s in it for the long haul. Its policies are more detailed than any I’ve seen published, even attempting to provide a general idea of costings. In terms of preferences, the party has achieved an unprecedented level of transparency, exposing to the public the internal workings of what can only be described as an exemplar of democratic process at work.

Whether the Pirate Party of Australia can secure a seat in the next Parliament will almost certainly depend on those preferences. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that there is real potential for the PPA to become a formidable force in Australian politics in time to come.

Rudd vs Abbott – People’s Forum no. 3

August 29, 2013

With nine days to go, it’s wall-to-wall election ads on TV and flyers in every mailbox. But there was time for one more debate between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott. Conducted in a ‘town hall’ style at Rooty Hill in Western Sydney, nobody expected anything new. In fact, though, we heard new promises and perhaps new policies.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott shake hands after the People's Forum

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott shake hands after the People’s Forum

Live-tweeted with annotations, brought to you via Storify.

Palmer vs Katter at the National Press Club

August 26, 2013

It might not have been the most polished or nuanced; but it was certainly the most honest and most passionate debate we’ve yet seen – or are likely to see – in this election.

Party leaders Bob Katter and Clive Palmer

Party leaders Bob Katter and Clive Palmer

Live-tweeted with annotations, brought to you via Storify.

Leaders’ Debate 11/8/13 – style, not substance?

August 12, 2013

Last night’s Leaders’ Debate should have been an opportunity to hear the candidates being closely questioned. It should have been a chance to have policies put up directly against each other. It should have been a moment where hard questions were put, and pressure kept up to force Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to actually provide some answers.

It wasn’t. The debate was disappointing, at best – and not just because the questions were clearly given to the candidates long beforehand. There were at least two clear ‘gifts’, one for each candidate – in Parliament, they’d be called Dixers – and the last question was almost served up on a platter to allow a policy announcement.

I’m only going to look at a couple of significant moments from the question and answer period, however, because I want to focus on the commentators, post-debate.

Generally, Abbott’s answers tended to be either riddled with slogans, or entirely composed of criticism of Labor. At one point, he referred to Labor’s policies as ‘waffle’, and at another, laughed derisively during Rudd’s answer. Rudd, as sitting Prime Minister, had the advantage of being able to base his answers on the government’s achievements, and go on to talk up new policies. There were few surprises, policy-wise, but it’s rare to see major announcements during a debate.

Rudd stumbled badly on the question of whether a Labor government would build a second airport for Sydney. Although his answer was essentially the same as Abbott’s – ‘we’ll have a look at that with some experts’ – he failed to point the finger at either the former Howard government or New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. He could have said that earthworks were actually in progress, stopped by Howard. He could have said that O’Farrell had absolutely refused to work with federal Labor. It’s anyone’s guess why he didn’t, but then he compounded the error by pointing out that there were infrastructure needs right across the country. No one likes to hear that their needs might be less important, no matter how true that may be.

For his part, Abbott came a cropper on the issue of aged care. The Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’ booklet has a vague paragraph promising an ‘agreement’ with providers in the sector. Pressed for detail on actual policy, Abbott had nothing to add. In fact, he grudgingly admitted he would keep the reforms passed under Labor.

Abbott also ruled out any changes to the GST – but was unable to answer why, in that case, the GST would be part of his promised tax review. He also tried to say that any change to the GST would have to involve the agreement of all States and Territories, and therefore unlikely even if he were looking at that. Speers pulled him up immediately for that piece of misinformation. A sitting government has the ability to change the current legislation, without undertaking any consultation.

But it was the last question, leaked some time earlier, that drove the biggest wedge between the leaders – that of marriage equality. The two answers could not have been more different. For Abbott, the issue was settled last term. Besides, there were much more important things. Effectively, the Coalition considered marriage equality a dead, second-order (at best) issue. Abbott did offer a sop at the conclusion of his answer, suggesting that the party room might look at the situation if anything changed. He certainly gave the impression, though, that it wasn’t worth holding your breath.

Rudd reiterated his change of heart, and commitment to marriage equality, calling it a ‘mark of decency’. Then came the election promise. Within the first 100 days of a Labor government, they would introduce legislation removing the impediments within the Marriage Act, and allow a conscience vote. It’s still highly unlikely that such a bill would pass, given the Coalition’s stance, but – unlike Labor’s former position – this would be a bill introduced by a Minister and backed by the Prime Minister. Such things carry their own weight and, while Labor would still have to deal with its own Right faction’s opposition, it gives them a stronger base from which to begin.

So much for questions. Let’s look at how the commentators and audience polls wrapped it up. Having the debate broadcast far and wide provided the opportunity for a real cross-section of viewers. Here’s how the polls saw the debate:

Channel Ten (One HD) = Rudd 61 – Abbott 39
Channel Nine (GEM) = Rudd 59 – Abbott 41
Channel Seven = Abbott 68 – Rudd 32
ABC = Rudd 71 – Abbott 29

Fairly decisive, you’d think. With one exception, every poll gave the debate to Rudd. The ABC’s poll, conducted via Twitter, could rightly be set aside as have a particularly limited audience – but even without that, on balance Rudd won the debate.

But then there were the commentators, who, almost as though they were working from the same script, gave the debate to Abbott. This was particularly startling in the case of the ABC, who published the results of their own polls, then proceeded to completely ignore them.

And why did Abbott ‘win’?

Because Rudd ‘started off nervously’.

Because Abbott ‘sounded confident’.

Because – you have to love the vagueness of this – Abbott ‘looked Prime Ministerial’.

Finally – and this was the point where credibility went out the window – no less a personage than Laurie Oakes asserted that Abbott had won, not in spite of his reliance on three word slogans, but because of them.

Yeah, you read that right.

Because, apparently, the essential qualities in judging whether someone is a good debater have nothing to do with the substance of their arguments. Or how well they refute their opponent’s points. No, no. It’s all about style.

Oscar Wilde observed that those who used the phrase ‘style over substance’ was a marvellous and instant indicator of a fool.

Now, call me the product of a bygone generation, but when I was at school, we were taught that debates are won on the quality of your argument. We were taught how to construct initial statements, build on those, and to rebut and dismantle our opponents’ arguments. We were assessed on those criteria, and the winner was whoever could do that better. Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I thought that was still how we determined who won our debates.

Oh, silly me. I keep forgetting that modern political reporting has less to do with issues of substance and more to do with whether Kevin Rudd’s hair was mussed up by the wind or Julia Gillard’s shoes sank into the lawn. It’s about whether the person in front of the cameras grabs attention with some snappy talking points, not whether they’re actually saying something of significance.

Think I’m exaggerating? Go take a look. The number one story to come out of last night’s debate is whether Rudd broke the rules by taking notes to the podium with him. And whether Abbott, lauded as being ‘note-free’, might also have had notes, as claimed by Lindsay Coombs, who tweeted a screen-grab showing notes on Abbott’s podium.

(For what it’s worth? The note issue is – and should be – a non-issue. Rudd made no attempt to conceal his notes, and said that as far as he knew, having them was permitted. Clearly, he was wrong. Last night’s setup was the exception rather than the rule for debates. It’s possible Rudd did assume he could act as usual. But really, is there any need to prevent someone from taking notes into a debate? What does it prove? It’s not as though a Prime Minister is required to operate under exam conditions – he has access to experts, briefs, any amount of needed information.)

So this is where we are. What should have been a way for us to learn more about the policies of the new major parties, vigorously debated, analysed at length with the precision that comes from long experience in political journalism – was a farce. Commentators ignored clear poll results, dismissed substance in favour of style, and focused on the existence of a few typed pages.

And today, those same commentators complain that last night’s debate was boring, and that no one will want to watch any others. How ‘lucky’, they said, that Channels Nine and Ten had secondary (read: less popular) channels to carry the broadcast.

I suggest that perhaps those commentators might better use their skills as judges on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’, or similar shows. Meanwhile, perhaps we could have a real debate – and get some real analysis, while we at it.

The carbon price debate: a little light relief

September 14, 2011

The debate on the government’s Clean Energy Bills package (the so-called ‘carbon tax’) is in full swing. We’re two and a half hours into what’s promised to be a 35 hour debate – and we can already identify some recurring themes. Let’s take a look.

First up, we have Forward to the future! This government arguments boils down to: ‘first a trading scheme, then flying cars!’ Well, not exactly – but it’s a relentlessly utopian view. Here the emissions trading scheme is held to be the key to all forms of future energy innovation – which then, apparently, leads to Australia entering a new Golden Age of Wonder. Presumably with a Kitchen of the Future!

To counter that, we have Back to the Stone Age. This one relies entirely on the idea that we’re all basically addicted to electricity, and our lives will fall apart when the trading scheme kicks in. We won’t be able to turn on our air conditioners! We will freeze in winter because we can’t use our heaters! Worst of all – we might have to ration our television viewing!

The horror.

Next up, More capitalist than thou. This is one of my personal favourites. We should depend on the market! The market will save us from dangerous climate change! The market will stop the ice from melting! Bow down to the god of the market! A tried-and-true conservative argument.

Except it isn’t the Coalition saying this – it’s the government.

(Oddly, I couldn’t find a humorous video for this one.)

Not to be outdone, the Coalition retaliate with Greens under the bed. The government is at the mercy of those Socialist Luddite Extreme Greens, who want to take away our freedom and spit on our flag! Comrade Brown is the only one who wants this ‘carbon tax’, and he’s blackmailing the government to get it! Run for your lives! We must protect Our Way of Life and Our Right to Pollute!

And just in case all that’s a bit too esoteric, there are the old standbys.

Liar, liar, pants on fire! Everyone, sing along with me now: Gillard lied to us! She said there wouldn’t be a carbon tax and now she’s got one! Never mind that these bills are not a bloody carbon tax (as some of us have been screaming for months, and Malcolm Farr finally recognised this morning.)

And finally, But all the cool kids are doing it. California’s doing it! Canada’s doing it! South Korea says it’s going to do it! If we don’t do it, we’ll be left behind! We’ll be … we’ll be … carbon dorks. Muuuuum …

All of which is by way of saying that there are no new arguments in this debate. We’ve heard them all before – ad nauseam. So here’s my proposal. How about the Coalition simply tables its leaked ‘confidential’ talking points, the government tables a few Gillard’s press releases, and we all just get on with it?

Open Thread – our own Afghanistan debate

October 21, 2010

Coming soon: a report on the Q&A with the Australian Sex Party’s Fiona Patten at La Trobe University this week. But first …

This week saw the first Parliamentary debate on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. This was one of the key elements in the Labor Party’s agreement with the Greens, and welcomed by Independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott. Thanks to the wonders of technology, anyone who cares to has been able to follow the debate.

Most of the speakers are fairly predictable. This is a ‘just war’, we have to ‘stay the course’, etc. There were a few highlights, though. Julia Gillard kicked off the proceedings by announcing that our troops would be in Afghanistan until at least 2014, and that Australia would likely be ‘engaged’ there for the rest of the decade. Tony Abbott urged us to be careful that we didn’t execute a de facto ‘Western takeover’. Sussan Ley, unexpectedly, called for future military engagements to be subject to a Parliamentary vote. Adam Bandt said we should get our troops out as soon as possible, and Andrew Wilkie nearly broke down while reading the names of every Australian soldier killed while serving in Afghanistan to date.

It can be enlightening to hear what our politicians have to say on the matter – especially when, in effect, they’re committing us to the longest war we have yet participated in, outstripping the Vietnam conflict.

But what about the rest of us? You know, us – the ‘Australian public’, the ones our politicians are supposed to listen to and represent. We’ve heard a lot this week about what ‘Australians want’, mostly from people who, I suspect, neither know nor care what we do want.

So let’s have our own mini-debate. Let’s talk about why we’re in Afghanistan.

What are we hoping to achieve?

Have our objectives changed over the years?

Should we have gone there in the first place?

Are we really ‘denying terrorists a safe haven’?

Do we have the right to impose our political system on another country?

Should we talk to the Taliban and other factional powers in the region, instead of propping up the increasingly shaky and corrupt Karzai government?

What if our actions there are making the situation worse?

And what about next time?

Please, encourage people to add their feelings, engage with each other – get a real discussion going. This may be only one small forum, but it’s a forum that wants to hear what everyone thinks.

Greens back Labor for government

September 1, 2010

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

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

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

In the area of parliamentary reform, there will be:

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

* Introduction of legislation to ensure truth in political advertising.

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

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

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

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

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

Other undertakings include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

Rooted – the failed ‘people’s forum’

August 12, 2010

The public doesn’t expect much from political debates anymore. It’s rare that someone will get caught out on their own words, or turn in a performance so woeful that people forget everything they say and focus on their lack of poise. For that, we have to turn to an interviewer of the calibre of Kerry O’Brien (who’s racking up an impressive list so far this campaign – Kevin Rudd, Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard all discomfited, tripped-up, and off-message). So it’s fair to say that expectations were not high about the so-called ‘People’s Forum’ held at the evocatively-named Rooty Hill RSL Club.

The idea was that Galaxy pollsters would randomly select 200 ‘undecided’ voters via phone calls, who would spend two hours grilling first Gillard, then Abbott. They’d get to ask their own questions, which apparently wouldn’t be vetted beforehand by either of the media organisations sponsoring the forum – Sky News and the Daily Telegraph.

Right about there was when the wheels fell off.

Of that 200, three were quickly ‘outed’ in the Twitterverse as committed Liberal voters or actual members of the Young Liberals. One even had a media profile confirming it – Joel, who was a former housemate on Channel Ten’s Big Brother reality show. Another was known to live well outside the Rooty Hill area, and yet another confided that he was ‘not really’ a swinging voter, but had participated in Galaxy focus groups because he enjoyed the work.

This took less than 15 minutes to discover by ordinary people watching and commenting online. Why couldn’t Galaxy find out the same thing? Did they do any background work at all on their chosen group?

Four out of 200 with dodgy backgrounds? That’s not much, you might think. These weren’t just audience members, though. They were up at the microphone questioning Gillard and Abbott.

And about those questions.

Sky said repeatedly last night that they had no part in selecting what would be asked – in fact, no one did. They would have us believe that they allowed people to simply file up to the microphone and say whatever was on their minds. In a live broadcast. No mechanism in place to prevent obscenity, outright abuse, wingnuttery or any one of a dozen possible problems.

Maybe they did. But maybe they should have done. Because what we got was a series of very hard questions thrown at Gillard. Here’s a sample, stripped of preamble:

* Are the people who orchestrated the ‘knifing’ of Rudd going to be rewarded in government?
* What responsibility do you bear for the failure of the ETS, insulation and BER? (The ETS turned up twice.)
* Where’s the money coming from? (This one turned up twice).
* Can you give a guarantee you won’t backflip on your promises?
* How can you guarantee you’ll stay a full term as Prime Minister?

It’s worth singling out two questioners in particular. One was a young woman extraordinarily well-informed on legal issues, who hammered Gillard on the question of same-sex marriage. She quoted Act after Act to illustrate how nonsensical the major parties’ position was, and finished up with the bitter observation, ‘The Bible says we can’t have sex, and you ignore that, but you won’t let us marry’.

The other was a woman who took issue with the Labor ads featuring footage of former Treasurer Peter Costello express his opinion that Abbott did not understand economic issues. ‘We know it isn’t true,’ she said. ‘Peter Costello went on Sky News and said it wasn’t true. That’s blatantly dishonest … if you have no integrity on this, how can I give you my vote?’ She remained unconvinced when told that the entire series of quotes were freely available would confirm that Costello was not taken out of context.

At least some of the questions appeared to have been very well-written – even to the point of using well-worn phrases common to Liberal tirades against Labor. It’s possible that was a coincidence.

But then there were the questions they asked Abbott:

*How bad will it be if Labor gets an ETS?
* Why would it be good for me to vote Liberal? (This came from the Big Brother Young Liberal.)
* How are your policies superior to Labor’s?
* Why shouldn’t private enterprise build a broadband network with some help from government? (This questioner substantially restated the Coalition’s announced policy.)
* Superclinics are bad, so what will you do about primary health care?

These are incredibly ‘soft’ questions. Most people commenting online described them as ‘Dorothy Dixers’ – referring to the parliamentary practice of giving leading questions to backbenchers so that Ministers can spruik their own achievements and lambaste the Opposition. Having watched innumerable hours of Question Time, I can confirm that the questions Abbott received were suspiciously similar to Dixers.

He received one apparently tricky question on the subject of asylum seekers. ‘They’re not illegal … why would you treat them with a lack of compassion?’ She received some applause for this, but Abbott’s answer – that it’s really about treat people smugglers as criminals – was much more warmly received. It seems Abbott’s ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ argument goes over well in western Sydney – which makes me wonder just how hard that question really was.

Many people online wondered if Abbott would get the same harsh treatment on same-sex marriage as Gillard. He didn’t. The questioner, who had been seated in the front row, was nowhere to be seen for much of his session. She did try to talk to him afterwards, but he brushed her off.

The whole forum had the atmosphere of a US Tea Party – thoroughly astroturfed, from start to finish. There were just enough people in there who weren’t in step to make it look authentic, but viewers are more politically-savvy these days, and quickly smelled a rat.

It’s fair to say that Sky was barraged complaints via emails and tweets during and after the forum. The commentators afterwards were at pains to point out that Sky had nothing to do with choosing either the participants or the questions. There was clearly some embarrassment about Joel’s appearance, but that’s as far as it went.

Online, speculation is still running hot that the whole forum was a set-up. The two media organisations involved were both owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose support for conservative politicians is notorious. (We’re talking about the man who owns Fox News in the US, after all.) Abbot’s questions appeared to have been written by the same people who prepare Dorothy Dixers in Parliament, and Gillard’s appeared to have come straight out of the Coalition’s attack-politics playbook.
There were even suggestions that Galaxy was part of the conspiracy.

I don’t think it’s necessary to look for shadowy deals in back rooms. Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence, after all. Galaxy either didn’t cast its net wide enough (given the inclusion of experienced focus group participants) or simply took people at their word when they said they were ‘undecided’. Certainly, they appear to have done no background research. Someone should also have vetted the questions, to ensure a ‘soft-hard’ mix for both leaders.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to find really undecided voters at this late stage of the campaign. It’s also difficult to tell if someone is lying about their political affiliations to get selected. This is why there should have been background checks. It only took minutes to find Joel, after all. Ditto on the questions: the imbalance was so obvious that even my self-confessed ‘politically naive’ friend was spluttering with indignation. If there was an astroturfing attempt in progress, at least something could have been done to prevent it.

So maybe it was just a monumental screw-up. But it was somewhat alarming to find that an email had been sent to the tweeter who exposed two Liberal supporters, demanding that the relevant tweets be immediately deleted unless they could provide ‘photographic evidence’. it seems someone was watching the Twitter feed and moving quickly to squash this story. Apparently that ‘someone’ doesn’t really understand Twitter – there had already been numerous re-tweets of the original information, and the same thing happened to the ‘take-down’ announcement.

I leave speculation on who that ‘someone’ was to you.

The media have universally declared a ‘win’ for Abbott, and Sky is congratulating itself on a job well done. Personally, I feel confident in declaring a complete loss. The forum should have been a vehicle for people to access their politicians directly – people who aren’t part of political parties, or the media, or lobby groups. The participants were supposed to be our representatives from across the political spectrum, asking the questions we wanted to hear about issues of real concern. Instead we got a well-scripted and decidely partisan staged event, at which we heard nothing new and were thoroughly disenfranchised.

It was a lot like Question Time, really. A failure – from start to finish.

Ozvote 07 – the Health debate (repost)

August 11, 2010

With the Health debate between Minister Nicola Roxon and Shadow Peter Dutton looming on the agenda today, I thought I’d repost my analysis of the 2007 debate. Remember, at that time, the current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was the Health Minister. Looking back can be enlightening sometimes.


The National Press Club has been the scene for two crucial debates in the upcoming Federal Election. Yesterday, Treasurer Peter Costello debated Opposition Treasury spokesperson Wayne Swan. The worm handed the prize directly to Swan (with nearly 60% approval rating), although most commentators gave it narrowly to Costello – based, it seems, more on Swan’s nerves than any real difference in economic policy. The hold-out was Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes phone poll, which – as with the leaders debate – came down squarely in favour of Costello (65%).

Today was the Health debate. Health Minister Tony Abbott versus Opposition Health spokesperson Nicola Roxon. It looked like it was shaping up to be a good stoush, even without the worm – who, no doubt, was recovering from a good deal of fatigue. It’s done a fair bit of climbing and diving lately.

But then Tony Abbott didn’t turn up to begin.

Or bother sending a message explaining why he was late.

Or when he might make it, if at all.

Or apologising.

In his absence, Nicola Roxon held what can only be described as a highly genial press conference, marred only by a moment of mud-slinging when she described Abbott as a consummate buck-passer whose highest priority was keeping John Howard out of trouble. Every time a question was asked, she spoke directly to the reporter and thanked him/her for it – which gave the whole process a slightly surreal air reminiscent of ‘Dorothy Dixers’ during Question Time. She even offered, when one journalist mentioned his question had originally been for Abbott, to do an impersonation of him – an offer which was greeted by a great deal of laughter from the press corps.

Roxon’s policy announcements bring the Labor commitment to Health up to $2 billion. This is largely concentrated on preventative medicine, lowering elective surgery waiting lists, equitable pay for nurses (with the inevitable dig at WorkChoices) and providing dental care for 1 million people. The press corps didn’t let her off, either – but she seemed cool, and had answers readily available.

Abbott finally turned up 35 minutes late and apologised, but ‘even in an election campaign things go awry’. The apology was perfunctory, and, judging by the reaction of the press corps, not well received.

His opening statement lost a lot of steam – largely because many of his points had already been attacked by both Roxon and the press corps. In the face of the huge criticism levelled at private health insurance gap and loss of Commonwealth public hospital funding, his roll call of Coalition health achievements sounded pretty hollow. It wasn’t helped by his insistence that the problem with public hospitals was solely the fault of ‘State Labor governments’ and attacks on both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, while claiming to want to end ‘the blame game’.

Abbott’s response to questions was completely different to Roxon’s. His manner was hectoring, there were no ‘thank yous’, and every answer was prefaced by an extended attack on Federal Labor. Most often, the target was Kevin Rudd, which struck this writer as slightly bizarre, given the presence of Roxon sitting right next to him. Abbott’s treatment of her tended to give the impression he considered her ineffectual and hardly worth his while to notice, but if it was a strategy, it backfired badly. Coming on the heels of his failure to arrive on time for the debate, it looked like rudeness.

His other main strategy was the time-honoured politician’s tactic of refusing to answer questions directly. In this, he contrasted poorly with Roxon, whose answers – while somewhat long-winded (which didn’t always play well with the press corps) – tended to be directed at the substance of the question. Policy announcements were difficult to pick out of the rhetoric, being bounded around with equal parts Coalition-praising and Labor-damning. In fact, in both his opening statement and in answer to questions, the only policy he even mentioned was the much-criticised ‘local boards for public hospitals’ idea.

Finally, the question for which this writer had been waiting came. Why hadn’t Abbott taken better care when making his travel arrangements, and why didn’t he have a deputy available to take his place, if necessary? Abbott’s response? He had to be at a campaign launch, and – ‘given the speed of planes’ – it was impossible to be there any earlier than he actually arrived. The inference could be drawn, then, that Abbott considered the debate of minor importance, able to be sacrificed in favour of a campaign launch, without even the courtesy of an explanation via Airphone.

In closing, Abbott rang the bell of ‘our record, our record (which was, by then, becoming something of a broken record). Roxon picked up that refrain, but showed the negative side of an 11-year Coalition government. That was a particularly dangerous strategy, but she concluded with what is becoming Labor’s clarion call in this election – the appeal to the ‘ordinary Australian with everyday worries’.

Lacking a worm, I’d have to conclude that the debate was a clear win to Roxon (as did the majority of Sky’s commentators). Many of the points on which she outstripped Abbott had nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with respect – respect for the press corps, the opponent, and the desire of people to hear direct answers to direct questions. Coming on the heels of Abbott’s sledging yesterday of asbestosis sufferer and campaigner Bernie Banton, this counts heavily against him. Roxon’s policy announcements came across as sound and well-considered, with a big emphasis on specific programmes (although she didn’t speak specifically as to how Labor planned to increase the workforce of skilled hospital workers). Abbott’s were vague, consisting largely of attacks on State Labor governments and a sketchy plan for a massive increase in hospital bureaucracies at the local level – while all the while insisting that Australia has, apparently, never had it so good.

It was pretty clear that Abbott knew he’d lost, too. As the two debaters shared the traditional handshake for the cameras afterwards, Roxon commented that Abbott could have made it to the debate on time. Abbott’s response was to snarl out the side of his mouth, ‘That’s bullshit, you’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?’ while maintaining a fixed smile.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast with yesterdays’ debate. Costello was clearly the polished politician, and Swan a nervous nelly. Today, Roxon was relaxed, chatty, serious where she needed to be and solid all the way through. Abbott, despite his long experience as Health Minister, came across as rude, out of touch and a political novice.

Fear & buildings at the Press Club – the population debate

August 10, 2010

It was with heavy heart that I tuned in to the Population Debate held on August 5. With all the xenophobic dogwhistling from both parties, I fully expected that the ‘debate’ would actually turn out to be a series of arguments about whether Nauru or East Timor was a better place to put those dangerous asylum seekers, and just how many immigrants would be turned away. The presence of Scott Morrison – the Coalition’s spokesperson on Immigration – as the debating partner for the Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke, seemed to confirm my worst fears.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Tony Burke’s opening argument. Immigration, he said, was only a short-term fix to the problem of creating a sustainable population environment. Making promises to reduce the total national number of immigrants does not address the real problem – that Australia’s infrastructure and population needs vary wildly all over the country. People in Western Sydney face intolerable traffic jams, people in regional areas face skills shortages. What’s needed is an approach that looks at decentralisation and regional solutions, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

He listed a series of government achievements: doubled roads funding, increasing funding for rail, decentralised housing programs. Then came a list of proposals to address the problem of our ageing population – increased superannuation guarantee, increased retirement wage and re-skilling programs.

Scott Morrison’s argument could not have been more different. Immigration, he said, has made us what we are today. When managed well it is a fair and orderly process, and the Rudd government inherited a program that ‘Australians trusted’. Then, out it came – ‘illegal’ boat arrivals.

Every boat that arrives takes the place of a refugee waiting patiently in the ‘queue’. Morrison painted the latter as bearing up with saint-like serenity while moustache-twirling people on boats took advantage of their purity for their own evil ends. These poor people in the queue are ‘orderly’, they deserve our first choice, Morrison said.

At this point protesters, who had somehow made it into the National Press Club, started shouting, ‘fair go for refugees’. Morrison’s response was to become louder and more strident, until he was nearly yelling to be heard. It was a stark contrast to Gillard’s calm, measured reaction to the protester in Queensland who broke in to her media conference on climate change.

At the top of his voice, Morrison laid out the Coalition’s plan for dealing with asylum seekers. Temporary Protection Visas for everyone, universal offshore processing on Nauru, and turning back the boats. ‘This is a battle of resolve and we intend to win it as we did before,’ he shouted.

Our population is rising, for which Morrison blamed the government. He gave no reasons to back up his statement. The problem is immigration; and infrastructure development won’t fix that. He finished by quoting Howard: ‘We will decide who comes to our country, and in what circumstances they come’.

Given the disparity in their opening arguments, it was predictable that many of the questions they faced would be about the asylum seeker issue. Asked about towing back the boats, Burke replied that although former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had backed that idea, they now knew that ‘no country would accept a boat’, and that the boats would be scuttled. Morrison said a boat would be turned back if seaworthy, and pooh-poohed Burke’s response. It’s no great secret, he said, that people smugglers would ‘do and say anything to try to frustrate govt policy’.

When it was pointed out that a 1994 study on population reached 27 million, our quality of life would degrade sharply, Burke admitted that both sides had been way behind action on the issue, and that ‘we need to ‘fess up’ and address the issues. Morrison claimed he had raised the infrastructure issue as Shadow Minister for Immigration, but that the Minister had to decide how many people were going to come to Australia.

Burke also suggested that we should look at whether we can continue to put suburbs on top of our best soils, given our needs for food and water will increase. There was no response from Morrison.

Pushed to justify why asylum seekers were a threat to Australia, Morrison backed off. ‘It’s about the fairness and integrity of our immigration program,’ he said. The Coalition would rather see people from (for example) the camps on the Thailand/Burma border come here. ‘We’ll ensure the refugees come from the people in the greatest need’. Settlement in Australia was not guaranteed, he added; anyone in Nauru would be required to make applications for settlement in other countries. He went on to note that although the total number of acceptances were falling, people are still here because of the appeals process.

Burke tried to bring the debate back to infrastructure and decentralisation. Mining and agricultural areas need more people to fill skills shortages, while congested areas can’t handle what they have now. Encourage decentralisation, tailor the approach by the region and listen to what people on the ground need. Predictably, Morrison was having none of that. It’s about immigration, he said. Up to 30% of new immigrants settle in urban centres, and that won’t change in the short term. He also alleged that there would be no new infrastructure or services to deal with current problems.

Finally, in closing arguments, Burke stuck firmly to his ‘no immigration content’ plan. It’s not enough to say that it’s difficult to decentralise – ‘we can do this … we have to be willing to say we can deal with issues differently to how we did it in the past’. The mining boom, retirees moving to regional areas and the National Broadband Network will all assist decentralisation.

Morrison, too, stayed true to this theme. ‘Immigration has everything to do with it,’ he said. (Morrison’s emphasis). The Coalition would not surrender to people smugglers, it was committed to put Australia on a sustainable population path and had a real plan. He finished up by observing that Chris Evans, the Immigration Minister, was not there to debate him. Unsurprising, given it was a population debate.

So let’s break it down.

The Minister for Sustainable Population talked about upgrading Australia’s roads and rail, decentralising the population, looking at new suburban planning based on agricultural needs, better communications networks and a tailored, regional approach to the challenges of our diverse settlement patterns. He remarked that cutting immigration would do nothing to solve the existing problems or the problems of the future, and that asylum seeker policy was irrelevant to this debate.

The Shadow for Immigration talked about asylum seekers. And asylum seekers. And asylum seekers. He blew the dogwhistle so hard, and so often, that it’s a wonder we didn’t get reports of an outbreak of canine deafness in the immediate area of the National Press Club.

And what was he doing there, anyway? Who thought Morrison was a good match-up for Burke? It’s no wonder he didn’t speak to questions of infrastructure – his portfolio is Immigration (although you might be forgiven for thinking he was the Shadow for Stopping the Scary Boat People).

It was a completely mismatched debate. The question is, why? Did the Coalition not have anyone shadowing Tony Burke, who could speak on the issues? Nope – Cory Bernardi is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for both Population and Infrastructure. He would have been ideally suited to stand up with Burke.

Maybe Bernardi wasn’t available and they sent Scott Morrison along instead. Nope, still doesn’t make sense. Why would you send your Immigration spokesperson to take the place of your specialist on population and infrastructure? And if there was a replacement, why was it not announced as such at the start of the debate?

It certainly looks like the substitution was deliberate – as if the whole point were to drag Labor into an asylum seeker debate, so the Coalition could try to jam them up on the East Timor policy.

If so, it sends one of several bad messages to the electorate. Either: the Coalition has no policy for infrastructure and sustainable population; they have dismissed the issue as unimportant; they are unprepared to debate Burke; or they are trying to push this election so it is fought solely on asylum seeker policy.

And just on that last possibility? Today’s announcement of the Coalition’s communications strategy was overshadowed by an earlier media conference at which Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison announced the result of talks with Nauru about offshore processing of asylum seekers. When the broadband policy was announced by Tony Smith and Andrew Robb, the latter responded to forceful questioning by evoking – again – the spectre of the boats.

Add to that Abbott’s refusal to apologise for appropriating the image of an unseaworthy boat on which five Australian citizens died – not even an asylum seeker boat – for the Coalition’s scare ads, and the picture becomes depressingly clear.

The Coalition had a real opportunity to bring out some forward-looking policy. Instead, they chose to play the fear card. They could have looked at targeting immigration to areas looking for skilled workers – instead, they told us about Temporary Protection Visas and Nauru. You don’t do that unless you’ve got an agenda – and this debate clearly shows their hand.

The debate was a clear win to Tony Burke – and a big gain for Labor, since they showed they are able to separate asylum seekers from every other issue in this election.

It’s a pity the same can’t be said for the Coalition.

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