Bob Brown resigns

April 13, 2012

Senator Bob Brown today resigned from the leadership of the Australian Greens and as a member of the Senate.

It’s fair to say that this was the single most bloodless leadership transition in Australia’s recent political history. There were no poisonous comments from party MPs, no middle of the night ultimatums, no sense that a leader was being removed to allow a party to renege on earlier voting agreements.

And – most startlingly – there were no leaks to the media.

None. Not a one.

There was a party room meeting this morning, where Brown announced his decision to resign. His deputy, Christine Milne, was elected unanimously to succeed him. And then the party simply trooped out and handed the media the news.

And everyone was utterly blind-sided. For once, ‘Breaking News’ actually meant something. We weren’t subjected to days (if not weeks) of speculation, backgrounding, commentary and rumour increasingly being presented as fact. Instead, we had an initial announcement, followed by the extremely pleasant sight of watching pundits scramble to analyse the situation on the hop.

It was … civilised. About as far removed as it’s possible to get from the public spectacle of that terrible Rudd/Gillard stoush earlier this year. And a far cry from the eleventh-hour manoeuvres that stripped Malcolm Turnbull of the Coalition leadership in order to prevent Rudd’s emissions trading scheme from passing the House.

It was a smooth transition, even to the point of the Greens deciding that they would hold another party meeting today to elect their new deputy leader – allowing members to consider their positions, discuss nominations and make up their minds rather than force them to make an immediate vote.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in characteristic style, gave his opinion on Brown’s time in Parliament. You couldn’t exactly call it a tribute:

‘The deal with the Greens has been an enormous problem for Julia Gillard. I think all too often Bob Brown has looked like the real Prime Minister of this country. I think that Bob Brown has been a very strong force in Australian politics in recent years … I would say too strong a force in Australian politics.’ (my italics)

Pure Abbott. Even a backhanded compliment comparing Brown to Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp didn’t soften his statement, especially as Abbott immediately followed that up with a confident prediction that ‘turbulent times’ lay ahead for the Greens.

I suppose it was too much to expect anything more gracious, or even decent, from someone who used the death of someone like Margaret Whitlam to score a cheap political point. But really

We’re not talking about a leader who was turfed out by his own party. We’re not seeing a political career end in disgrace and controversy. Brown’s resignation is a dignified exit from politics at a point when the Greens are at their strongest, accomplished with integrity. In the words of Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim, Brown ‘carried his bat’.

Compare Abbott’s words to those of Prime Minister Julia Gillard: she thanked Brown for ‘his remarkable contribution to state & federal politics over 3 decades’, and noted his contributions on the Franklin Dam, carbon pricing and how he ‘bravely used his own experience’ to work towards gay rights.

She went on to describe him as ‘a figure of integrity with a deep love for this country and its environment’, his career ‘driven by passion’.

No nasty little digs, no pronouncements of doom, and – most importantly – no mean-spirited opportunism.

Abbott probably commands more of the media cycle than any other politician. Sky and ABC News24 don’t cut away from his media conferences the way they did with Brown’s. His words are repeated, and repeated, (and repeated ad nauseam) and his slogans are slavishly adopted. He has plenty of opportunities to say what he thinks about the Greens, and Brown – and he takes them. It’s not like he needs to seize every moment to make a point.

It’s almost as though he’s incapable of that sort of gracious acknowledgement. Or perhaps he feels that if he gives even an inch, it would be a sign of weakness. Either way, it’s very, very poor behaviour.

Regardless of personal politics, no one can deny that Brown gave his heart and soul to bringing about reform on social and environmental issues. He took a one-issue state party and, with the help of like-minded people, built it into a true third party in Australian politics. The Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, and have a representative in the House.

And that’s without looking at his personal contributions to social justice, both within and outside politics. The ABC has published a great – but short – summary of his work as a trailblazer, and I highly recommend it.

He deserves to at least have all of that acknowledged by our political leaders, not least the so-called ‘alternative Prime Minister’. It’s called statesmanship, and it’s something in which Abbott is sadly lacking.

It’s to be hoped, at least, that his sour, petty points-scoring won’t eclipse the tributes that are rightly due Senator Bob Brown and his accomplishments. He is a rare force in politics, and – whatever side of the fence you fall down on – he remains a man of conviction.

Senator Brown, for your contributions to social justice, raising Australia’s awareness of environmental concerns, helping secure protection for fragile ecosystems and bringing about carbon pricing initiatives … this writer thanks you. Your career exemplifies the service to the people that should be at the heart of all political representation, and you will be missed.


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?


Let’s have a real conversation about asylum seekers

September 13, 2011

There was an opportunity. The government was given a real chance by the High Court to regain some of its lost ground against the Coalition. More to the point, it had the chance to regain some shred of humanity and compassion. It could have used the High Court decision to jettison the whole idea of offshore processing once and for all. Certainly, that’s what the Left of the ALP – and increasing numbers of the Australian public – wanted.

The government isn’t interested. It’s wedded to the idea that sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia – a country with a terrible human rights record, who won’t sign any agreement that forces them to comply with human rights considerations – is the only possible way to ‘break the people smuggler’s business model’. Accordingly, it’s decided that the best thing it can do is change the Migration Act so that no pesky High Court can get in its way next time.

Ah, the convenience of legislation. Want to do something reprehensible that’s condemned by international organisations and banned by the judiciary? Just change the law. Then you can do what you want. Never mind that it’s ultimately a useless gesture, since it’s capped at 800. Never mind that it contravenes long-standing Labor policy. Never mind that in doing so, Australia will undermine its position as a signatory of the Refugee Conventions. Never mind that this is a gross abuse of power. If it means the government can get those 800 people packed onto planes and out of sight, they’ll do it.

And that’s exactly what they took to Caucus yesterday. Despite an attempt by Left faction leader Senator Doug Cameron to win a vote calling for onshore processing, ‘over half’ of the Caucus voted to change the Migration Act instead. The government plans to make sure that there cannot be any legal impediment to sending asylum seekers offshore. Additionally, it wants to change the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act, so it can shirk its responsibilities under the Refugee Conventions by doing the same to unaccompanied minors.

This is the equivalent of a child throwing a tantrum when the rules say he’s out of the game. Anyone with kids has probably seen it – first there’s an attempt to bluster, then negotiate, then bully, and finally the child is left with two options. He can take his bat and ball and go home, or he can decide that the game has new rules.

‘Bang bang! I shot you, you’re dead!’
‘Did not, missed me!’
‘Did too, you’re dead!’
‘It’s my game and I say I’m not dead, so ner!’

Et cetera.

Behold … your elected representatives in their full glory.

The Greens won’t support any change to the Migration Act. They were out in front of the media so quickly that the initial stories on the government’s plan had barely been filed. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was particularly scathing; as far as the Greens are concerned, the government would be breaching its UN obligations.

To get the amendments passed, then, the government needs the support of the Coalition. To that end, they offered Opposition Leader Tony Abbott a briefing on the legal implications of the High Court judgment – a briefing advising him that both Nauru and Manus Island as alternative offshore destinations were also ruled out by the High Court decision. The idea was to convince him to support the amendments when they come before the Parliament, on the grounds that if Abbott ever became Prime Minister, it would benefit him just as much as the current governments.

But there’s a sticking point for Abbott, apparently. The government has no intention of using an amended Act for anything but the resurrection of its Malaysian deal. And Abbott has no intention of letting the government off the hook on the subject of re-opening the Nauru processing centre. The consistent message coming out of the Opposition is that Nauru is the only possible solution.

Gillard’s having none of that, though. When asked this morning, she said, ‘Going to Nauru is the equivalent of getting a ticket to Australia’, and quoted figures showing how many Nauru detainees ended up settling in Australia when their refugee claims were approved.

And there you have it. Despite constant avowals of how ‘humanitarian’ the government is, despite claims of being ‘compassionate’, the Prime Minister let the truth slip out. The government’s declared intent is to keep refugees away from Australia at all costs. (Oh, unless someone else has already done the hard work of processing asylum seeker claims, of course.) And why? Because if they’re here in Australia, they’re entitled to the protection of law – again, thanks to the High Court.

You’d think the Coalition would be on board with that, given the kind of responses given by Abbott and his front-benchers in interviews on the subject. Judging by the speeches they made in the House today, however, Abbott wants no part of any bipartisan effort to entrench executive power in this particular area. It’s a curious stance – surely it would benefit them?

Perhaps Abbott’s holding out in the hope that Gillard will finally cave in and re-open Nauru. Perhaps he’s trying to wring as many concessions as possible out of the government, including an admission that the government needs the Coalition to get them out of a gigantic mess. Or perhaps Abbott’s decided that he can always change the Act later, and he can get a far better result by watching the government fail to get amendments through the Parliament.

With any luck, pride will undo both major parties. The longer each refuses to budge on exactly which country it wants to use as a ‘dump and forget’ centre for our asylum seekers, the harder it will be to reach any kind of deal.

In the meantime, the Coalition is merrily pushing the line that with the Malaysia deal scuttled, Australia has ‘no border protection policy’. Yes, that’s right, folks – any moment now the boats will pull up on St Kilda Beach or surf into Bondi, and we’ll be invaded by thousands of asylum seekers who will force us to eat halal meat and wear burqas. Quick, circle the wagons, hide the women and the silver!

It’s ludicrous. Of course Australia has an asylum seeker policy (and no, I won’t play into the scare-mongering by calling it ‘border protection’). We have a policy of intercepting boats. We have a policy of mandatory detention. We have a processing centre on Christmas Island – which, let’s not forget, is excised from our Migration Zone anyway. We have processing centres onshore. We have an entire bureaucracy that works with the UN to process refugees then re-settle or deport them according to the outcome of their cases.

But it’s much better for the Coalition if it can create the impression that there is a complete policy void in this area. It plays right into the hands of the panic-mongers who seem to think that people in boats somehow threaten our very way of life. And it allows the Coalition to continue pushing Nauru as the tried-and-true ‘solution’ which is the only way to save us from a terrible fate.

And the media is utterly complicit in this.

Think about it. How often, lately, have you heard a commentator or reporter say that there’s ‘no border protection policy’?

And while we’re at it – when was the last time you heard someone in the media flat-out ask a politician exactly why we can’t have onshore processing? Given that it’s been in place for decades and – political rhetoric notwithstanding – has never been shown to encourage either people smuggling or people seeking asylum, why isn’t anyone nailing politicians in place and forcing them to answer this? Not often, I’ll bet.

Here are a few questions they could ask:

What evidence do you have that Australia’s long history of onshore refugee processing directly increased the number of asylum seeker boats?

Why are you prepared to spend millions of dollars in a third country, and risk Australia’s international reputation, rather than convert a few abandoned military bases onshore?

Exactly what is so frightening about asylum seekers that they must be kept away from Australia at all costs?

Why do you persist in referring to asylum seekers as a ‘product’ peddled by people smugglers, instead of calling them what they are – human beings?

Why do you persist in employing punitive measures against desperate people, and calling it ‘compassionate’?

If you really want to ‘break the people smugglers’ business model’, why don’t you simply fly asylum seekers to processing centres? You could save millions currently spent on keeping up the Coast Guard and Navy presence and detaining and prosecuting people smugglers – and the people smugglers wouldn’t be able to make any profit from the misery of others.

You see, it doesn’t matter what you believe on this issue – these questions should be asked. Politicians should be held to account for what they say, and required to show evidence to justify their policy decisions. This is what news media are for – asking uncomfortable questions and demanding real answers, investigating all sides of a question and providing that information to the public.

At the moment, this just isn’t happening. As long as media continue to unquestioningly accept politicians’ talking points, it never will.

We can see it happening right in front of us with the asylum seeker issue. So how about it, media – think you might want to stop letting politicians control the message and start subjecting them all to unwavering close scrutiny? There’s still time. The opportunity’s been missed, but not lost. If we’re going to have this conversation, then let’s talk about all the options.

If you do, then maybe – just maybe – the people who risk their lives to flee to a country where they can be safe and free, might actually find that country.

I’m sure it’s buried here somewhere under all the politics …


Malaysia deal dead in the water – for now

August 31, 2011

The Full Bench of the High Court has ruled 5-2 in favour of the asylum seekers slated for Malaysia as part of Gillard’s deal.

The injunction prohibiting their removal from Australia is now permanent.

The High Court, expediting their decision, ruled that asylum seekers cannot be processed offshore unless the Minister for Immigration can demonstrate that human rights will be protected in accordance with section 198A of the Immigration Act. The Minister cannot simply declare a country has adequate human rights protections – he must demonstrate it.

By implication, this could rule out any country which is not a signatory to UN Conventions on Refugees – including Nauru and Manus Island. The Court did not specifically rule on this, however.

Unaccompanied minors cannot be sent offshore for processing unless an additional written consent is issued by the Minister.

No appeal is possible to this decision.

The Malaysia ‘one for five’ deal is, at this point, dead in the water.

A summary of the judgment can be found here and the full transcript here.

It’s a huge win for opponents of offshore detention, and a massive blow to the government. At every turn, it has been thwarted in efforts to ship the asylum seeker’ problem’ out of sight and (presumably) out of mind. Right now, the government is in a bind – but they have a couple of options open to them.

They can attempt to amend the Migration Act in order to water down s. 198A – effectively removing clause 3(iv), which currently requires that any proposed offshore destination ‘meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection‘. (my emphasis)

In the current political climate, this would be an uphill battle at best. The Greens will vehemently oppose any attempt to remove human rights from the legislation, and it’s a fair bet that Independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott would do likewise. The government’s only hope, then, would be to enlist the Coalition’s support.

It’s a possibility. This ruling hurts the Coalition as much as it does the government, since the Opposition’s own asylum seeker policy hinges entirely on re-opening the Nauru detention centre built with Australian money under the Howard administration. It might well serve their interests to throw in with the government – although it would significantly weaken them, given their frequent declarations that no good policy or legislation has ever come out of the Gillard government. With enough spin, they might succeed in convincing the public that they’ve had to step in to ‘rescue’ bad policy, but it would be a very risky move.

The government’s other option is to return to the policies espoused under the Rudd government, processing asylum seekers either onshore or on Christmas Island. The Opposition consistently attacked these ideas, blaming them for a surge in boat arrivals. The night before he was forced to resign, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cautioned against any ‘surge to the Right’ in this area. Julia Gillard’s actions since assuming the officer of Prime Minister, however, have taken Labor closer and closer to the Coalition’s hardline stance.

There is an opportunity now for the Gillard government to abandon the offshore system altogether, using the High Court ruling as a shelter against criticisms of ‘backflip’. Minister Chris Bowen could claim that his hand was forced by the judiciary. That, however, assumes that the government does not, in fact, wholeheartedly support offshore detention and similar harsh measures.

We’ve yet to hear from the government, and have no idea when it will make an announcement. At this point, it’s all speculation as to what they might do next. If you have a recommendation for them, I urge you to email your local MP, Minister Bowen and/or Prime Minister Gillard. You can be sure that certain groups on both sides of the issue are already doing so. Don’t let them give the government the impression they speak for you.

In the meantime, this is a decision worthy of celebration. The dreadful plan to send asylum seekers to a country where they would be completely unprotected by even lip service to human rights conventions is absolutely blocked. For now, at least, Australia has regained a little compassion.

It’s shameful that we needed the Full Bench of the High Court to force us to do that.


The dizzying heights of absurdity

July 5, 2011

Back for the last week of sitting before Parliament’s winter recess, and the rhetoric flies thick and fast. The insults are as predictable as ever, the twisting of facts as despicable as ever … but really, we have reached the dizzying heights of absurdity.

Last night the government confirmed that it will finally release the full details of their carbon price plan on Sunday. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has air time booked on the ABC for the announcement, that will be followed up (under the ABC Charter) with response time from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott immediately following.

Coming on the heels of the announcement that fuel will be exempt from the carbon price for private individuals and small businesses, it looked like the long-promised detail would finally materialise.

But then the Opposition weighed in – and apart from the usual lines, we had this from Tony Abbott.

The fuel exemption will not last – if it happens at all. Why? Because he says so.

And how can he prove that? Well, look at what he said in the election campaign. He said – repeatedly – that ‘as night follows day’ there’d be a carbon tax, and lo and behold, he was right. Therefore, he’s right about this.

Yes, Tony Abbott has the power to predict the future. Now that’s a quality we need in a leader, right?

Honestly, it’s ridiculous. And it’s not the silliest we’ve had this week.

We had Barnaby Joyce on Sky News flatly refusing to countenance any evidence of global sea temperature rises, and rubbishing the credibility of the CSIRO while he was at it. We saw him state that ‘things go in cycles’, that there was ‘hardly any change’, and trot out the old chestnut of ‘it got cooler in the last ten years’.

We had Abbott and Hockey both implying (in several different addresses to media) that economists simply couldn’t be trusted, because they didn’t support the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ plan.

And then …

We had Coalition Senators this morning deliberately misrepresenting the role of carbon dioxide in pollution and climate change. At least, we should hope it’s deliberate – because otherwise it reveals a truly terrifying stupidity.

The argument went something like his. How could carbon dioxide be a pollutant? It’s not listed as a pollutant in these books we have here. Don’t plants breathe it?

And wait – 60-70% of our food is made up of carbon. Does that mean we sit down every night to a big plate of pollution?

I wish I were making this up – or even exaggerating.

And what does it all indicate? Apart from a truly astonishing lack of understanding, there are two possibilities as to what’s going on here.

Possibility 1. The Coalition are beginning to openly embrace something that they have vehemently pooh-poohed for some time now. This constant mockery and rubbishing of science points to absolute denialism. Not simply rejecting the idea that human activity has, and is affecting the global climate, mind you – this is outright refusal to acknowledge any global climate change. That’s been the stated position of people like Joyce and former Senator (and kingmaker) Nick Minchin for a long time.

Possibility 2. The Coalition may or may not accept the science, but they have decided that it simply doesn’t matter. They made the political decision to oppose the government, the Greens, and anyone else who urges action to combat climate change. They set out a strategy designed to spread misinformation and confusion, and to cause fear and outright panic in as many sectors of Australia as possible – for one reason only.

To undermine the government, demonise the Greens and ensure a Coalition election victory in 2013, if not much sooner.

I’m not sure which is worse, here – the idea that the Coalition are just cynical opportunists, or that they really believe what they’re saying. Either way … when the country’s representatives come out with absurdities like ‘carbon is good for us, it’s in our food’ as a counter-argument to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Something’s very wrong.


Waiting for tomorrow all of my life

July 1, 2011

So, it’s been a long time between posts. Part of that is due to illness and deadlines … but let’s be honest here. Most of it is simple disenchantment.

And that’s something I thought I’d never say about politics. I’ve lived, slept and breathed political issues and events for as long as I can remember. In fact, the whole reason for starting this blog was to communicate that love (the unkind might say, obsession) to others – because political engagement is important. It’s not a matter of turning up once every few years to tick a few boxes – or worse, simply voting ‘Mickey Mouse’ and then complaining until the next time that things haven’t got any better. It’s about doing something to shape your world.

But dear God, the current state of Federal politics is as bad as I’ve ever seen it.

It’s not like the wheels are falling off. Legislation’s been passed, resolutions made, the Budget funded. On the whole, government infrastructure is barrelling along merrily – pensions paid, building projects underway, the NBN rolling out. You only have to compare Australia to the United States to see that we’re far better off – after all, we’re not calling emergency Parliamentary sessions to try to raise our credit limit just to keep functioning.

But to hear the Opposition and the pundits talk, we’re one step away from social collapse and riots in the streets. The flood levy will take food from kiddies’ mouths! The mining tax will destroy our major primary industry! The carbon tax will cause the sky to fall and civilisation as we know it will no longer exist! Plain packaging on cigarettes takes away our freedom of choice and turns us into a nanny state! And let’s not forget the oft-repeated lie that any moment now, the Greens will seize the balance of power in the Senate and we’ll all be forced to go back to horse-and-cart travel and hand-grinding our wheat for bread.

The polls show that Tony Abbott is leading Julia Gillard by one per cent! More people want Kevin Rudd to be Prime Minister than Julia Gillard! The government is failing, and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But wait – Abbott will bring back WorkChoices, install notorious climate change denier (and some say, troll) Lord Monckton as his official science adviser and give the richest people in the country even more money while taxing the poor right out of their homes!

The Greens! The Greens will save us! But wait, incoming Senator Lee Rhiannon wants to destroy the coal industry. Bob Brown will drag us kicking and screaming to the altar of Marx! People will get gay married! Only an early election will save us! Only a plebiscite will save us!

The hysteria goes on … and on … and on.

And there’s only so long you can battle that sort of thing. You can speak out, you can write blogs, you can contact your local member or relevant Minister, hold protest rallies, but after a while it starts to feel that no one who’s in any position of power cares. Because the loudest voices are the ones with the most money, right?

The Minerals Council mounts a campaign to tell us that mining companies will be forced to close, leaving thousands out of work and whole towns bereft of the income they need to survive – while they close yet another deal guaranteed to bring them millions in selling coal for steel manufacture to China.

Big Tobacco waves lawsuits at the government to try to frighten them into dumping the idea for plain packaging while filing record profit statements and intimidating into silence people whose loved ones are dying because of their products.

The gambling industry lies through its teeth to panic venues and patrons into opposing any form of strategy that might mitigate the harm of problem gambling that is any stronger than a sign saying, ‘Don’t gamble too much’, also while recording huge profits.

GetUp puts out statement after statement, but sinks to the same level of attack and just looks amateurish and bolshy in comparison.

Pro-carbon price ads suffer from having dared to put a known face to the campaign – and the simple argument that ‘hey, this is a good thing’ comes across as ridiculously weak against the fear-filled rhetoric it tries to counter.

And then there are the election ads. Yes, not even a year after the last election, we already have to put up with the kind of rubbish that usually only litters our viewing in the run-up to a national vote. No substance, just clever-clever lines, half-truths and catchy phrases designed to bypass critical thought and stick in the mind.

Meanwhile, one in five Australians doesn’t want either Gillard or Abbott to lead the country. No one knows what to think. No one knows who to believe. Should we blame the minority government? The Independents? Surely things wouldn’t be this bad if we had a clear majority? To the polling booths! Let’s elect a government with a mandate! That’ll fix everything!

I wrote back in September last year that:

‘We have a government. We don’t have to endure another election campaign. The Independents and Adam Bandt have secured strong Parliamentary reforms that will change the way business is done in the House. Local members will find that their voices are louder, and more likely to be heard. We’ll see election advertising closely scrutinised, and some actual information communicated to the People via both advertising and Question Time in Parliament. We have a government committed to serving out a full term, and that will have to seek consensus to pursue its legislative agenda.

Whether you’re left- or right-leaning, this can only be a cause for celebration.’

How wrong I was.

Maybe things will change when the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate. Maybe the big reforms – carbon pricing, tertiary education, mental health, water, human rights, asylum seekers – will finally happen. Maybe we’ll even see Parliament itself get the shake-up we were promised – more substantive questions, less abuse of process and less outright bullshit being flung around in the name of scoring a couple of political points and maybe getting your head on the evening news.

Yeah, maybe things will be better tomorrow – but then, I’ve been waiting for tomorrow all of my life.


Kindness is killing – Abbott’s welfare Newspeak

March 31, 2011

We woke this morning to find out that the Opposition were about to reveal some new policies, targeted at ‘welfare reform’. Commentators remarked excitedly that here, at last, was a sign that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was listening to all those criticisms of how negative he’d been. (Mind you, very few of those criticisms came from said commentators.)

Strategically leaked details looked alarming – toughen up work for the dole, cut disability pension recipients by up to 60%, quarantine half of all long-term welfare payments and force people into work – but we had to wait until 2pm to find out the whole story.

Abbott’s choice of venue was curious: a rugby club. It’s not exactly the kind of location one associates with welfare reform; maybe some health announcements about nutrition and fitness, or a sports policy, but not the dole. Be that as it may, the speech commenced – and it was a poisonous, insidious exercise in stigmatising the poor, couched in Newspeak. The code to decipher this follows below.

Welfare is Economics.

First, Abbott tried to reframe the issue. It wasn’t about welfare reform, it was about economic reform. It’s possible he thought this might endear him to those concerned with the budget bottom line – and certainly, he did his level best to get in a few jabs at the government’s proposed carbon price and mining tax. What he may not have counted on, however, was that he also gave the clear impression that his focus was squarely on money, not on the human beings who would be affected by his policies.

After that we were treated to what appeared to be a de facto censure motion. Perhaps Abbott was feeling nostalgic for Question Time.

Labor is Labor/Greens.

He repeatedly attacked Labor, referring to the ‘Gillard/Brown government’. More Newspeak. If the correct form of address for any government was to refer to it by the surnames of all those who formed the ruling coalition, surely he should have said the ‘Gillard/Brown/Wilkie/Oakeshott/Windsor government’? And why, then, did we never hear the former government referred to as the ‘Howard/Fisher government’?

Of course, Abbot wasn’t the slightest bit interested in correct forms of address. This was about promoting the idea that Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown is at least a Deputy, but more likely a co-ruler – neither of which is true.

One wonders what Wayne Swan would have to say about his summary demotion by the Opposition Leader.

Opposition is Government.

Bizarrely, Abbott went on to extol the virtues of the former Howard government – many members of which, he helpfully pointed out, currently sit on the Opposition Front Bench. Then he urged his audience to judge the Opposition not on its record in the current position, but ‘on our results in government’.

Some twenty minutes later, Abbott appeared to finally exhaust his list of accusations – many of which contained outright lies and strategic misrepresentations – and turn to the putative ‘real issue’. He started by telling us what a government should not do, most of which could be boiled down to the brief phrase, ‘don’t create a nanny state’.

(Nanny state. It’s such a marvellously meaningless term – good for all occasions, but completely lacking in substance.)

Help is Harm.

A strong government, Abbott argued, should not ‘create a domineering state at the expense of purposeful persons in a free civil society’. Take a moment to unpack that, and remember the context. Abbott is leading up to the idea that a government – by assisting the poor, the unemployed and the disabled – is actually hurting them and, by extension, hurting the country.

Deciding to Target Welfare Recipients is ‘My Hand was Forced’

Then came a truly outrageous statement – that welfare reform was necessary because the Labor government had not made ‘significant savings’. It’s not that he wants to do it, but he has no choice. If the Labor government had done their job properly, he wouldn’t be standing here proposing changes to welfare.

Which is, of course, nonsense. These policies are recycled, tougher versions of ideas dating back to the Howard era – or should I say, the ‘Howard/Fisher era’.

As for the policies themselves? They were every bit as draconian as the leaks promised, and worse.

Unemployment is Bludging

Anyone under 50 receiving unemployment benefits for six months should be forced to do Work for the Dole. This program is ridiculously flawed – it’s little more than make-work at less than minimum wage. Participants have little choice as to where they will be sent, and usually learn no useful job skills. Past programs include sending people to file folders and staple newsletters; and even in jobs where training is promised, it rarely materialises due to time constraints in the organisations where they are placed.

People under 30 were targeted for a special provision. If an unskilled job existed in their area, they would be forced to take it, or lose their benefits. Indeed, Abbott suggested, people should be forced to relocate to areas that had such unskilled labour shortages. In other words, it’s great that you spent thousands on a good education, but they really need grape pickers in the Barossa, so off you go.

Welfare-Dependent is Incompetent and Untrustworthy

Anyone who is welfare-dependent for six months should have half of their payment quarantined ‘for the necessities of life’.
Never mind that quarantining is specifically designed to protect children whose parents neglect them. Never mind that almost every recipient of welfare robs Peter to pay Paul every fortnight, because their benefit is simply not enough to allow them to meet the deadlines of bills, rent or house payments.

Abbott bolstered his argument by commenting that ‘if it was right for the Territories’ it must be right in the rest of Australia. There’s a nasty little assumption at the basis of this; that people on welfare cannot or will not manage their money responsibly, and therefore the government must do that for them.

Funny, sounds like a ‘domineering state’ to me.

Disabled is Able

Abbott moved on to the disabled. Fully 60% of those on the Disability Support Pension, he alleged, suffered from ‘potentially treatable’ conditions. (Of course, he didn’t say where he got those figures.) Those people should be taken off the DSP and put onto a ‘new’ benefit, and encouraged to return to work. Now, we already have a benefit available for those with medium-term illnesses or injuries – it’s called Sickness Benefit – but Abbot either didn’t know that, or didn’t care. He also didn’t bother to delineate the criteria by which ‘potentially treatable’ would be determined, or suggest ways in which the government might assist in rehabilitating people. Perhaps he believes that those who ‘want to work’ will find a way to pay for their own therapy – on a benefit that does not even approach the minimum wage.

Of course, Abbott acknowledged, this might not fix our skilled labor shortage – but he had a solution for that, too. The government should simply increase the number of 457 (skilled work) visas! We can fill those jobs with people from overseas!

Yes, you read that right. The man who lavished praise upon the Howard government – the government that systematically cut funding to higher education and levelled an ever-increasing financial burden on tertiary students, while cutting their access to financial assistance – is now complaining of a skills shortage. But the answer isn’t to boost the upskilling of Australians, oh no – we should just import people, and send Australians to be cleaners in Karratha.

Abbott could have announced an incentive program to encourage skilled workers to relocate. We do that with doctors already – why not extend those incentives to other highly skilled professions?

He could have suggested setting up a jobs-matching scheme, to match up job vacancies with suitable candidates. Oh wait, we used to have one of those – it was called the Commonwealth Employment Service. Whatever happened to that? That’s right – the wonderful Howard government privatised it and parcelled its work out to a series of agencies, most of which folded after they were unable to meet Howard’s restrictive funding criteria.

Support is Disempowerment, Compassion is Cruelty, Kindness is Killing

Abbott wound up his speech by telling us all that compassion was a wonderful thing, but we needed to ensure that compassion is not ‘misguided’. Such a mistake, he said, ‘over time, breaks down the social fabric’. His policies would be good for ‘national morale’, and people would feel better about themselves because of these measures.

I’m sure the disabled parent who has to regularly explain to the landlord that they can’t pay the rent on time because their cash flow has been cut in half will feel better.

I’m sure the unemployed engineer who accumulated a huge education debt and now has to work as a grape picker while overseas workers are handed visas and jobs in his field will feel better.

And I’m sure the person forced off disability support because someone arbitrarily decided they were now magically ‘treatable’, and who reads an article about cutting company tax for the wealthiest corporations, will really feel that boost in national morale.

Abbott’s proposals are not ‘kind’. They are not ‘compassionate’. They are not – as they are now hideously being called in the media – ‘tough love’.

These so-called ‘reforms’ are based on Howard-era policies, vilifying the poor and penalising the disabled and unemployed. They’re predicated on the ridiculous notion that anyone who is not working does not want to work, and is therefore a drain on the public purse. Shades of the 1996 federal election and the beat-up by A Current Affair on the Paxton family. They’re designed to make those of us who do work turn on the ‘bludgers’, without a shred of evidence to justify the anger and vilification.

Abbott didn’t provide any incentives. He didn’t propose training, job-matching, rehabilitation, or any form of positive support. And he apparently doesn’t care that his policies, if implemented would force already overstrained charities like the Salvation Army, Anglicare or St Vincent de Paul to try to accommodate the needs of potentially thousands more people whose only crime is to be unemployed or disabled.

Undoubtedly, Abbott’s proposals will be astonishingly popular with News Limited – although we’ll have to wait for tomorrow’s editorials, the glowing praise given by The Australian’s Jennifer Hewett on Sky’s PM Agenda seems a fair indicator of what’s to come. Channel Ten’s 5PM news – describing Abbott’s proposals as a ‘crackdown’ – decided to do a vox pop outside a Centrelink office – presumably so it could catch people handing in their Newstart forms.

In fact, there’s been no media criticism to speak of – at worst, Abbott’s ideas have simply been presented without comment.

But all the Newspeak in the world can’t obscure what Abbott is really saying – that money is more important than people, and that corporations deserve help from the government when the most vulnerable citizens do not.

And that – while neither new, nor unexpected – is an utter disgrace.


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