Kevin Rudd resigns as Foreign Minister

February 22, 2012

After a week of feverish speculation, triggered by a leaked video, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd tonight resigned his post in a late-night media conference from Washington DC.

He didn’t mince words, either. ‘I cannot continue to serve as Foreign Minister if i do not have Prime Minister Gillard’s full support,’ he said, adding that Gillard had refused to unequivocally support him against particularly vicious comments from Parliamentary colleagues, notably Regional Minister Simon Crean. By contrast, Rudd had indicated support – though it was definitely lukewarm – with his statements that there was no leadership challenge on, and re-affirming her position as Prime Minister. The current situation – with MPs and advisors popping up at every possible opportunity was a ‘distraction from the real services of government’, and having a damaging effect on business. It was also, he said, taking the focus away from the current Queensland election campaign, and Premier Anna Bligh deserved better.

He had some harsh words for factional players within the Party, referring to his own sudden forced resignation from the top job as removal ‘by stealth’, and that it must never happen again. That was, he said, the reason he’d made his resignation announcement now, and that he would make a further announcement on ‘his future’ before Parliament sits again next week.

Most damningly, he gave us this scathing opinion of the media frenzy that’s surrounded the question of the leadership, seemingly since the day after Gillard came to power:

‘The Australian people regard this affair as little better than a soap opera, and they are right; and under the current circumstances, I won’t be part of it’.

And it has been a soap opera. Sky News referred to the speculation as going on for ‘weeks and weeks and weeks’ – as though it had nothing to do with that at all. Which is, of course, utter rubbish. The media are, perhaps, more responsible for creating the soap opera than any tensions between Rudd and Gillard. It’s undeniable that Rudd is still incredibly angry about the way he was removed – but it’s equally undeniable that the media have taken every opportunity to suggest an imminent leadership challenge. And not just for weeks, either.

After all, a soap opera is nothing more than private drama without the cameras, the reviewers and the ratings people, is it?

So, of course, speculation is now rife as to Rudd’s next move. The bulk of commentators are convinced he will spend the weekend making frantic phone calls and alliances, and challenge Gillard for the leadership on Monday. In this respect, he would be following the same plan he carried out when he deposed Kim Beazley in 2006. What’s more, the playbook throws his actions into sharp contrast with Gillard’s. Rather than orchestrate an eleventh hour ultimatum delivered from a position of power, Rudd publicly submitted his resignation and went to the back bench.

This time, though, commentators believe that Rudd doesn’t have the numbers. If he fails, he goes to the back bench, and the pressure will be on him to resign from politics altogether – or at least announce that he will not stand again for the seat of Griffith. The idea that he wouldn’t, according to Sky’s David Speers, is ‘farcical’.

There’s another possibility. Rudd may not challenge. He might go to the back bench now, and bide his time. His resignation, together with other issues on which Labor has lost traction (largely thanks to relentless campaigning from the Coalition), could be the final element that ensures Labor loses power at the next election. At that point he could easily convince the Party that Gillard was unfit to keep the leadership; that – to quote him on Beazley in 2006 – what is needed is ‘a new style of leadership’, to save the country from the damage that might be done by a Coalition government.

It’s a strategy that worked well for former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Of course, this assumes that Rudd is willing to Labor be soundly defeated. Is he quite that Machiavellian? Sure enough of himself that the Australian people would forgive him such a cold-blooded strategy, and that Labor voters would be willing to vote for him after living under a Coalition government? The suddenness of today’s announcement, coming as it did in the middle of the night while Rudd was in the capital of our most powerful ally, can be read as Rudd deciding to blindside the Prime Minister just before the evening news, ensuring he would be the story for the weekend. Or, as Graham Richardson suggests, there are articles due to be released tomorrow that are potentially very damaging for Rudd.

Or it could simply be that he snapped, unable to take any more pressure from both the party and the media. Which, given his temper, isn’t that unlikely.

There’s no doubt this is a gift to the Coalition – and an earthquake for Labor. It’s the Independents who’ll come in for close scrutiny this weekend, however.

Andrew Wilkie has already withdrawn his support from Gillard, and, as usual, is playing his cards close to his chest. His hatred for the Coalition is well-known, though that’s no guarantee. Since earlier this week, when he was briefly embroiled in the soap opera by way of a misreported conversation with Rudd, he’s been quiet.

Tony Windsor, speaking to media tonight, suggests an election might be necessary, but a change of leadership now was very risky. Judging by his performance in Parliament to date, whatever decision he makes now will be exceedingly well-considered.

Rob Oakeshott is nowhere to be seen.

Interestingly, Bob Katter may be the wild card. His refusal to support Gillard as PM was based, in large part, by his distaste for the tactics used to remove Rudd. Should Rudd challenge and win, he may change allegiances – or at least be more inclined to listen to Federal Labor. We still haven’t heard from him, either.

The question for Labor, then, becomes whether its members can set aside personal animosity and vote for the person they feel has the best chance of beating Abbott at the next election. Although there’s no specific current polling, Labor’s miserable figures on both Two Party Preferred and Preferred Prime Minister questions suggest that Gillard can’t do it. Her own unpopularity with the public compared to Rudd only reinforces that. (And interestingly, take a look at the informal poll in the link above from The Age.)

But it’s the caucus who’ll decide the leadership, in the end. They’ll have to weigh up whether they want to preserve the kind of factionalism that ousted Rudd in the first place – or take their chances with someone they treated appallingly for the sake of retaining government, and hope his words of needed party reform are just that – words.

The Prime Minister will be releasing her statement later tonight, but won’t front the media until tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

The contenders - Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the man she forced out, ex-Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd

Advertisements

A new low for Julie Bishop

February 14, 2012

Question Time in the House of Representatives has always contained an element of theatre. We’ve come to expect, even look forward to it. There’s nothing like a well-aimed barb or clever turn of phrase to liven up what could otherwise be an intensely boring evasion disguised as an answer. Just look at Treasurer Wayne Swan’s responses, for instance. The insults are clumsy, and the figures are dull. Defence Minister Stephen Smith has a similar problem – there just aren’t that many amusing things to say about war – but he’s accorded a little more respect, given the serious nature of his portfolio. They’re the exceptions rather than the rule, though. For the most part, we can appreciate the wit – and occasionally, the artistry – in a well-crafted question or answer.

But there are some things you don’t exploit, that you don’t trivialise, in order to make political points. You just don’t.

Unless you’re Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, apparently.

Bishop, who also shadows Foreign Affairs, has come in for a great deal of criticism lately, for asking Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd questions about everything except matters related to his portfolio. It’s a bit of a joke, really, and more than a few commentators have speculated about the apparent flirtation being carried on across the despatch box.

Today, she started her question by asking about the recent coup d’etat in the Maldives – and people sat up and took notice. Could this finally be a relevant question?

No.

She went on to describe the situation like this: Mohammed Nasheed, the democratically-elected leader of the Maldives was turfed out by his deputy Doctor Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who claims not to have been involved in any plotting. The deputy, in fact, claims that there was no coup, and that Nasheed resigned voluntarily. Given the accounts conflicted so strongly, the police had announced their intention to investigate both stories.

Wouldn’t Mr Rudd agree that the deputy should ‘come clean’ with his people about his level of involvement? Wouldn’t Mr Rudd agree that ‘honesty’ was important?

It doesn’t take a literary scholar to see the subtext there. Bishop explicitly drew a parallel between Rudd being ousted as Prime Minister and an armed, violent coup. She likened factional intra-party wrangling to the beating, torture and detention of civilians.

And the Opposition front benches, led by the loud voice of Leader Tony Abbott, erupted into raucous, derisive laughter and calls of ‘Good one!’

Rudd started with a pointed comment about the scarcity of foreign affairs questions, but there was no humour in the rest of his answer. He tore into Bishop and the Opposition for trivialising the situation in the Maldives, his anger clearly visible.

And rightly so. The question was utterly offensive. It dismissed people’s suffering, and made an absolute mockery of people’s fear. It invited us to have a chuckle – to excuse thuggery and institutionalised violence. That the Speaker did not immediately rule the question out of order is puzzling. Perhaps he felt that Rudd would satisfactorily deal with the issue.

But really, it’s not that surprising that Bishop would come with such a contemptible tactic. Look at the language the Opposition have used to describe Rudd’s forced resignation and Gillard’s assumption of the Prime Ministership. Rudd was ‘knifed’. Gillard ‘assassinated him’. It was ‘a dark day’ when a ‘democratically elected leader’ could be ‘stabbed in the back’ by ‘the faceless men of Labor’, the ‘Sussex Street death squads’.

It’s not surprising – but it is revolting. Whatever anyone’s opinion of the way Gillard initially became Prime Minister, it’s a far cry from an armed coup. There were no riots in the streets, no police beatings, no dissenting voices being ‘disappeared’.

Bishop may have thought she was being clever, asking the Foreign Affairs Minister an apparently relevant question that was designed to be a big ‘gotcha’.

There was nothing clever about it – and Bishop succeeded only in showing herself to be both clearly uninterested in her nominal portfolio, and – worse – utterly devoid of compassion for the suffering of others.

Bishop should come into the House and state on the record that she unequivocally apologises to the people of the Maldives. And she should be thoroughly grilled about it by the media.

Neither of these is likely to happen – because god forbid we should think about anything other than Rudd’s ‘imminent’ leadership challenge. You know, the one that’s been ‘imminent’ for over a year now.

Maybe if there was less wild speculation and more oversight, Bishop could be made to account for her actions. And she should be. There’s simply no excuse.


Anti-Greens ratf*ckers come out for Mardi Gras

March 6, 2011

Last night was the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. This year, 135 floats made their way through Sydney street, celebrating queerness in all its wonderful and outrageous manifestations. Highlights of the night for me were: the giant sequined whale from Taronga Zoo (because queer penguins need love too, apparently); the ’78ers (those amazing people who started out marching in protest and founded a tradition that has become part of Sydney life); the Rainbow Babies (celebrating the New South Wales Parliament finally passing laws to allow same-sex adoption); and a couple of mystery guests.

A surprise appearance from our fearless leader and her Opposition counterpart - or their stand-ins, at least.

It was a night for making statements, the strongest of which forcefully made the case for marriage equality. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has repeatedly introduced bills calling for the Marriage Act to be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry, marched in the thick of the throng. Given such an atmosphere, it was probably inevitable that some slightly less positive sentiments would make an appearance.

So was anyone really surprised to see a slew of badly-printed anti-Greens posters suddenly appearing taped to telephone poles around Oxford Street? The Conscience Vote’s ‘fabulous informant’ snapped some pictures:

LOOK OVER HERE!

First, the scream sheet, following a time-honoured tabloid tradition. “DO THE NSW GREENS OPPOSE GAY RIGHTS?” Now that it’s got your attention, it gives you just a little more information: ‘By boycotting Israel, the NSW Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is not a capital offence, or even a crime’. Finally, the admonition: ‘Choose freedom. Don’t vote Green on March 26’.

Cunning, eh? It’s even printed on green paper. That’ll get the message across to those ‘gays’.

For those who were more detail-oriented (or who perhaps just had a little more time to kill while waiting for a taxi), some considerate souls also posted the full text version:

Note the scattergun approach.

The cutaway quote from the scream sheet heads up the litany of Terrible Truths, but it doesn’t stop there. The Greens, it charges, also oppose democracy – because they’ve called for a boycott of Israel, and Israel is the ‘only’ democratic country in the Middle East. And they support ‘terror’ – because Hezbollah and Iran want to attack Israel, and by boycotting Israel, the Greens are on their side.

Seeing a theme here? And I don’t just mean the breathingtakingly, mindbogglingly hamfisted excuse for logic. It’s all about Israel. The Greens hate Israel – therefore the Greens must hate homosexuals and democracy. And support Evil Dictators and Terrorist Organisations. We must stop these terrible people gaining any sort of representation in ‘our’ government. The fate of Israel depends on it!

It’s barely worth ripping down the arguments used here – they are transparently spurious. Whoever wrote this piece of nonsense deliberately misstated facts and massacred logical thinking. Mind you, they also credit the Greens with an astonishing amount of influence – if they call for a boycott of Israel, gay people will be killed, Hezbollah and Iran will attack and the Last Bastion of Democracy (TM) in the region will fall.

So, it’s all about Israel. But who could be the Concerned Citizens behind this poster campaign? Who are these brave souls, who subjected themselves to driving rain, loud music and an onslaught of glitter and leather to bring their message of Imminent Disaster to the unsuspecting people of Oxford Street?

The crucial point is revealed in the last paragraph: “DO THE GREENS HATE CHRISTIANS?” The authors of this poster were already drawing a very long bow, but this is the point where the string snaps violently: ‘By boycotting Israel, the Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population’. Adopting a somewhat pleading tone, the authors cry plaintively, ‘Christians are people too’.

I smell a ratf*ck.

Remember the One Vote videos during the 2010 Federal campaign? Similar anti-Greens message, similar mixture of fabrication and a similar amount of scare-mongering mangled arguments. Similar production values, too – although in the ‘One Vote’ case, it was a failure of web design.

The Conscience Vote and The Notion Factory traced those ‘concerned citizens’ back to the Christian Democratic Party. This latest effort, however, is likely to prove much harder to track down. Not only is it (thus far) confined to photocopied posters on cheap paper, it’s devoid of any information as to who might be responsible.

But really, that’s the point. We’re supposed to think this doesn’t originate with a political party, or even a lobby group. We’re encouraged to believe that this really is some kind of grass-roots, spontaneous uprising of The People, forced to take to the streets because their voices are not heard in the corridors of power. It’s heartwarming, really.

And of course, it’s complete rubbish.

I’m not about to point the finger at anyone. It might not be the CDP behind this latest offering. After all, there’s a fine tradition of ratf*cking in Australian politics.

But it is very interesting how the same language, the same sentiments and the anonymity just keep turning up – all directed at one political party.

This time, however, it looks like the minds behind this strategy badly misread their target demographic – my fabulous informant tells me he witnessed people reading the posters and laughing.


While we worried about jetlag and passion …

October 8, 2010

… things of real interest have been happening.

It appears that Tony Abbott’s ‘jetlag’ gaffe, and the faux outrage manufactured by his Parliamentary colleagues, has paid off. The media have zeroed in on this issue, barely examining the dissension in Coalition ranks over industrial relations. Meanwhile, Julia Gillard’s comment that foreign affairs was ‘not her passion’, nor the reason she got into politics in the first place, has been analysed and dissected to an incredible extent.

Neither of these comments are big news. Abbott, perhaps inadvertently, made an insensitive remark. Gillard – again, perhaps without much thought beforehand – came off sounding naive. In neither case, though, did we see any kind of significant revelation.

Sky News is the big winner here in terms of trying to beat up stories. Virtually every one of their political programs this week raised the non-issues with their guests. Party strategists, MPs, former leaders and independent analysts were all called upon to explain exactly what the two leaders might have meant by their words. The ABC is not far behind, though. The programs The Drum spent a considerable amount of time on both, even after panellists dismissed the comments as perhaps silly, but otherwise insignificant. The 7.30 Report also took a few shots.

Uncharacteristically, The Australian excoriated both leaders. They reserved their harshest criticism for Gillard, though, somehow divining that what she really meant was that she had no interest at all in foreign affairs, and that her comments damaged Australia’s standing in the eyes of the world. Abbott, by contrast, was only ‘monstrously stupid’.

And the list goes on.

It fell to Tony Wright of The Age to put it into perspective. Neither Gillard nor Abbott behaved in ways that might be considered unusual for travelling Prime Ministers. Australia has a long – and embarrassing – tradition of foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to foreign affairs.

The crucial difference between them is in how their own parties handled the questions that came afterwards in that desperate media scramble to make something out of potentially juicy comments. Labor’s approach was simple – stress that Gillard had been talking about why she got into politics in the first place, and that she had immediately committed to giving foreign affairs her full attention. The Coalition, on the other hand, embarked on a confused and ultimately self-defeating campaign. First they attacked Labor, then switched tactics to proclaim that Abbott had already arranged to travel to Afghanistan before he received the invitation to accompany Gillard. As I wrote here, they managed to give the impression that there was a story behind Abbott’s gaffe. And the media were all over it.

They still are – and while these ridiculous non-issues dominate the political commentary, this is what is not being reported about both leaders:

* Gillard has signalled her intent to open research and development treaty negotiations with the European Union. You’d think this would have garnered more attention than it did; after all, one of the criticisms leveled at Kevin Rudd was that he neglected our relations with Europe in favour of the Asia-Pacific region. It also has great potential for Australia to regain some of its lost standing in terms of scientific innovation, and perhaps stop the ‘brain-drain’ that has seen many of our scientists relocate offshore because they cannot get funding here.

* Gillard stopped off to bolster Australia’s bid for the World Cup soccer tournament. If successful, this could see a huge influx of tourist dollars, boosting the economy.

* Gillard met with Japan’s representative and plans to follow up with a State visit. This is another area where the former Rudd government came in for a great deal of criticism; some experts even claim that our relations with Japan were badly damaged by Australia’s stance on whaling and apparent preference for establishing ties with China.

* Abbott attended the Tory party conference in London, using the occasion to comment at length on how he intended to learn from the English conservative example how to effectively repair the damage from ‘profligate Labor government’ spending. It didn’t matter that Australia and Great Britain are worlds apart, economically speaking; nor that there is a wide policy gap between Australia’s Liberal party and the Tories (who are socially liberal, and believers in action on climate change); what was important was to be seen as establishing ties with a comrade across the pond. In this, Abbott was stepping outside his role as Opposition Leader and positioning himself as an alternative Prime Minister – a clear signal that he has not abandoned the belief that he is one by-election away from power.

* After talking with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Abbott said he was pleased to report that Britain had decided to ‘no longer neglect’ Australia. Even without noting the patronising colonial overtones, it’s easy to see the agenda at work here. Again, Abbott is not acting as an Opposition Leader. He has no authority to negotiate on Australia’s behalf – but a chat between like-minded individuals is a good way to establish foreign policy credentials. Abbott’s also signalling to the Liberal Party base that – unlike Labor – the Coalition acknowledges and embraces Australia’s historical loyalty to its nominal Head of State. It’s a position worthy of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, who once waxed lyrical about the Queen; ‘I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die’.

* Perhaps serendipitously, Abbott has also been able to effectively bury the news that nine Coalition MPs (four on the record) have been grumbling about industrial relations; they want a policy supporting individual workplace agreements and exemptions for small business from unfair dismissal laws. Labor spokespeople may sound the ‘WorkChoices is back!’ alarm, but it seems no one is listening.

* Today the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will release its draft report into water allocations. Rumours already abound suggesting its recommendations will be damaging to farmers, and thankfully, the media are starting to look at this issue. Hopefully, when the report is made public, it will knock the ‘jetlag’ and ‘not my passion’ non-stories right out of the news cycle.

Amazing, isn’t it? Who would have thought so much might be happening in a week where every second political story seemed to be about whether Tony Abbott really was an ‘Iron Man’ or Julia Gillard was embarrassing us on the world stage?

And wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to wade through 779 articles about Gillard’s ‘lack of passion’ to find out what else our Prime Minister was doing while representing Australia to the world?


Ozvote ’07 – Foreign Affairs & Education debates

November 16, 2007

The debates are coming thick and fast. So is the increasingly strident rhetoric. Sadly, the policies are pretty thin on the ground.

Good examples of this came in yesterday’s two debates – between Alexander Downer and Robert McLelland on Foreign Affairs, and Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith on Education. Far from anything concrete which the voter could use to assess real prospects for the future, we got a combination of lies, damn lies and insults.

You’ll have to forgive me if my tone gets a little flippant or scornful. What I saw yesterday was – unequivocally – the low point of the campaign. So far.

First, the Foreign Affairs debate.

Downer opened with some stirring nationalism – our single pillar is Australia. (He didn’t explain what this meant.) After asserting that Labor had 3 pillars (again, not explained), he went on to give us the now-familiar Shiny List of Good Stuff the Howard Government’s Done. We have good relationships with countries in the region. We have doubled our exports. We have Free Trade agreements with the US, Singapore and Thailand, which helps us lift people out of poverty in other countries.

Then came the whoppers. According to Downer, the following can also be listed among the great Coalition achievements. We have secured our borders. We are fighting effectively against terrorism – in fact, we are dealing major blows to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and we have caused a ‘dramatic decline’ in terrorism in Indonesia. (In an aside, he mentioned offhandedly that he wouldn’t be making submissions to the Indonesian government to have the condemned Bali bombers’ death sentences commuted.) And we are leading the fight against climate change.

(I pause for the picking up of jaws from the floor.)

Labor, in Downer’s view, doesn’t like trade. It doesn’t like helping foreign governments. Its priorities are wrong. Labor wants countries to be dependent on us. It’s inexperienced. It’ll send us into an uncontrollable decline on the world stage. Only the Coalition can save us now.

McLelland’s opening–- again, now familiar with Labor speakers – was delayed by his detailed thanks to the Chair, the audience, his opponent and Mrs Downer, who was apparently present to support her husband. He commented on how governments of both ‘persuasions’ had helped build Australia’s international reputation. Pleasantries over, the knives came out.

The Howard government acts contrary to Australian values. We don’t lead the way in climate change – in fact, we are international pariahs for our failure to ratify Kyoto. We are not succeeding in Iraq – it’s a disaster, said McLelland, and rolled out the appalling statistics of civilian deaths, military deaths, displaced people and overall cost. He quoted former Australian commander in chief Peter Cosgrove and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who have both said publicly that they believe our involvement in Iraq has increased the likely threat of terrorism.

McLelland warmed to his subject, condemning the Howard government for never clearly defining our objectives, for not supplying clear direction to our troops, for being the only government in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ without an exit strategy, and for using the excuse that sanctions had failed to invade Iraq – when in fact, the Australian Wheat Board (whose export license was granted by Downer) was undermining sanctions with its kickbacks and rorts. Having delivered this indictment, McLelland used the last minutes of his speech to say that Labor would lead in global negotiations on climate change, and implement an exit strategy on Iraq.

Question time followed, whereby Downer repeatedly stated that the Iraq war is succeeding – or at least, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, that he didn’t ‘deep-six’ a proposal for worldwide nuclear disarmament, that the techniques used by our intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies in interrogating detainees are ‘consistent with our human rights standards and civil liberties’–- and that his government objects if they see others not applying the same standards. (He did not, of course, mention the US government’s redefinition of ‘torture’.) McLelland reiterated his Message of Doom – the Asia-Pacific region is self-destructing, Iraq is a disaster, Iran has been emboldened by our meddling in the Middle East, and the sky is falling.

A moment of levity relieved an otherwise tedious debate of ‘is so! is not!’, when a journalist asked Mr Downer to speak French (a sly poke at Downer’s previous criticism of Kevin Rudd’s greeting the Chinese leadership in Mandarin at APEC). Downer obliged by introducing himself. McLelland, not to be outdone, quipped, “I can’t speak Mandarin – although I have eaten one or two in my time”.

The only other moment of interest was the question that utterly blindsided Downer – did he now accept that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war was a mistake, and did he accept that there were parallels with the situation in Iraq as regards military action based on deliberately distorted intelligence? Knowing what he knows now, did he regret Australia’s involvement in Iraq?

Downer, clearly unprepared for the question to come in that form, floundered for a bit, laughing about ‘Oh no, I’ll be asked about the Battle of the Somme next!’. When he did answer, however, he reiterated his party line – Saddam=bad, invasion=good – without once answering the question.

McLelland’s response was stronger. On Vietnam, he was unequivocal – it was a mistake. On Iraq, he pointed out that even the US Secretary of Defence had questioned the decision to invade – and then he repeated his party line – invasion=bad, Iran=scary.

There was very little in the way of policy announcement during the debate – in fact, nothing we didn’t already know. The Coalition will stay in Iraq, and pursue Free Trade Agreements with many more countries, including China and India. Labor will pull 1/3 of our troops out of Iraq, leaving the rest in ‘overwatch’ and ‘support’ positions, but out of combat. Downer was self-congratulatory, McLelland was the Voice of Doom. And so it went.

Commentators noted afterwards that the two had been ‘playing for a draw’. The only difference was that Downer simply couldn’t avoid scoring an ‘own goal’ on Iraq – after all, he was hardly likely to undermine the party line.

The Education debate wasn’t much better.

Julie Bishop opened with the Shiny List, and the Dream for a Better Tomorrow. Mixed in with the ‘imagine this’ motif were the lies. In this case, however, her lies were even more outrageous than Downer’s. Australia is ranked in the ‘top handful’ of OECD countries that invest in their education system. The Coalition has increased funding for schools and universities every year since gaining power. It has ‘rekindled an interest in Australian history’. Universities are in the best financial situation ever.

(I pause again – are your jaws getting sore yet? Mine were.)

Bishop segued effortlessly from happy-fluffy land to warnings of Teh Evil on the horizon. ‘We’ must get away from ‘state parochialism’. ‘We must break the nexus between unions and schools and the “one-size-fits-all’ approach to teachers”’. ‘We’ must liberate universities from the Dawkins/Labor ‘straitjacket’ of mediocrity. Most alarming of all, ‘we must move on from the fads and ideologies of the past twenty years’.

Smith’s opening, too, followed the predictable path. Thanks Chair, thanks Opponent, thank you linesmen, thank you ballboys. (Dear me, I am getting flippant.) Like Bishop, he rhapsodised about the Possibilities in Our Future – and immediately followed it up with the counter-statistics. Australia does not lead the world in education in any way – in fact, we’re either stagnating or going backwards. Our secondary school retention rate has not increased from its current figure of 75% in the last decade, we have rated last or equal last for investment in early childhood education in the OECD for the last six years, university funding is down while HECS costs are up, teacher qualifications are declining, etc.

With all the sledging, it was hard to pick out the policies – more often, both debaters criticised each other’s ideas or challenged their figures. This is the best I could do.

Bishop – technical colleges will be increased by 100. Universities will be encourage to seek sources of funding from business, so they are not ‘dangerously reliant’ on one form of revenue. The ‘progressive curriculum’ developed to date in secondary schools will be systematically removed and a national curriculum, controlled from Canberra and approved by Federal politicians, put in its place. Teachers will be paid using ‘innovative salary models’ that ‘reward excellence’. And she reiterated the ‘parents deserve a choice’ rap – adding, this time, the nasty implication that applying a means test to education-spending tax rebates would prevent parents from choosing private schools for their children.

(I’m just going to break in here. This is an utterly outrageous lie. Means testing would not prevent any parent from making the same choice of schools. What it would do is prevent the wealthiest parents from gaining yet another tax break on something they’d be doing anyway. To suggest that means testing would somehow hurt ‘ordinary Australian parents’ is nothing short of deceptive.)

Smith – full-fee domestic places at university will be abolished. Absolutely no deregulation of fees with low-cost loans schemes to fund universities. A national school curriculum is absolutely necessary, but must not be written by politicians – under a Labor government, the curriculum would draw on the existing good programs and be mutually agreed to by State, Territory and Commonwealth governments as well as representatives of Catholic and independent schools. Existing teachers will be retrained and upskilled, and the image of the profession will be rehabilitated.

Smith also did something that rated highly with many commentators. When Bishop brought up the notorious ‘hit list’ of the Latham leadership (in which Commonwealth funding would be taken from private schools and given to government ones), Smith unequivocally stated that he accepted the policy was ‘wrong’ and ‘divisive’ – and guaranteed it would not be reinstated.

(Breaking in again. I liked the Hit List. I thought it was a bloody good idea for government funding to go to government schools, rather than supplementing the already comfortable financial position of private ones. Nonetheless, a willingness to own up to past mistakes counts for a lot.)

Yes, those were the highlights. Sad, huh?

The stand-out from both these debates was the level of lying that was undertaken by the Coalition speakers. Both Downer and Bishop flew in the face of all reports about the dire state of both our education system and the war in Iraq – and they did so without apology and without regard for the Australian people. Whatever the intended message, I think it’s fair to say that viewers came away from those debates with a sour taste in their mouths. No one likes being lied to – and no one likes being taken for a fool.


%d bloggers like this: