Mythbusting the Vote

August 19, 2013

It’s less than three weeks to the Federal Election on September 7, so let’s take a step back from the campaigns to look at actual voting. In every election, there are misconceptions, half-truth and outright lies peddled by various groups, all designed to do one thing: convince you that your vote is only worth what they say it is.

That’s the first lie. Let’s bust the rest.

MYTH 1: I live in a safe seat. My vote won’t make any difference.

Political parties just love this one. The more they can convince voters that any given seat will remain in the hands of the current holder, the less work they have to do to keep those voters happy – and that gives them more time and money to campaign in marginal seats they might be in danger of losing. Prime Ministers and senior Ministers tend to hold ‘safe’ seats. Politicians tapped to be future leaders often move to a safe seat held by a party member who might be about to retire. It’s all very organised and stable.

Except when it isn’t. Safe seats may well be anything but. Usually, a seat would be considered safe if, at the previous election, the candidate won with 60% or more of the vote. At the 2007 election, however, a shock result saw Prime Minister John Howard lose his seat in a massive swing to Labor novice Maxine McKew. Howard became only the second sitting Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his seat (the first being Stanley Bruce in 1929). And in this year’s election, there are seats held with margins of over 12% that are considered ‘in play’.

When it comes to your vote, then, questions of ‘safe’ and ‘marginal’ are somewhat less meaningful than perhaps they used to be. It’s possible to overturn a safe seat with only a handful of votes. One of those could be yours.

MYTH 2: It doesn’t matter how I number my House of Representatives ballot, as long as I mark the party I want as number one.

This is a common mistake. The green House of Reps ballot requires you to number all boxes, and often people feel that they only need to focus on which candidate they designate as their first preference. As a result, they simply number the remaining positions straight down the paper.

Preferences determine the outcome of most marginal seats. That could mean a result that at first seems unlikely. For example, a Greens candidate ahead in first preference votes could well be defeated after second preferences were counted, if most of those preferences were for one of the major parties. The way you organise your preferences ensures you have the greatest possible influence on the outcome.

MYTH 3: A vote for a minor party or Independent is just a waste.

Oh dear. Another great piece of misinformation from the major parties – and one you’re likely to hear as you front up at the polling booth. The argument goes like this:

1. Minor parties/Independents don’t get elected.
2. You want to make sure your vote counts, don’t you?
3. You should cast your vote for a party that will get elected.

It’s all based on that first premise – which is rubbish. You only have to look at the Parliament just gone to see that. In the Lower House, we had four Independents and a Greens MP. In the Senate, there were 9 Greens, 1 DLP and 1 Independent. The make-up of that Parliament meant that the government of the day was required to be far more open to negotiation than previous, two-party situations.

There’s no clearer illustration that a vote for minor parties or Independents can be extremely effective.

MYTH 4: Electing someone from a minor party or an Independent will lead to a Parliament that doesn’t work.

You’ve heard this one from the Coalition, both in and out of Parliament’s chambers. Peppered with wonderfully ridiculous terms like ‘shambolic’, ‘unworkable’, ‘held hostage’, the Opposition did its level best to paint the 43rd Parliament, and particularly the minority government under Labor, as utterly useless.

Of course, it’s nonsense. That Parliament passed hundreds of pieces of legislation, including major reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband Network, carbon pricing, and the Better Schools program. Additionally, it implemented a number of reforms to the way Parliaments conduct their business – streamlining Question Time, briefing minor party and Independent MPs and giving them access to Treasury for costings being only a few.

As for the notion that the Parliament was ‘held hostage’ – again, this is entirely down to a Coalition attempt to damage the Labor government. The idea there was to convince voters that Labor was somehow so beholden to the Greens that it would betray its own base just to hang onto power.

The minority government worked, whether people (or the Coalition) liked it or not. There’s no reason to think that another minority government would be any different.

Oh, and since Liberal leader Tony Abbott never bothers to remind voters – any Coalition government has also been a minority government, comprising the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Country Liberal Party, and the Liberal National Party. Those governments functioned – and, presumably, Mr Abbott thinks any future Coalition minority governments would do so again.

MYTH 5: It doesn’t make any difference if I vote above or below the line in the Senate, so I might as well save myself some time.

Oh, where to start with this one?

How can I put this simply? IT MATTERS.

Now, it can be an utter pain to fill in every little box, making sure that you haven’t doubled up or skipped a number. If you live in Victoria, this election is likely to be particularly onerous for you. But don’t be tempted to simply stick a number above the line and be done with it.

Why? Because once you do that, you’ve given your vote away to that party. And while you may think that party represents your views, what about those to whom it’s directed preferences? Do you even know who those parties or individuals are, for that matter?

It’s not too hard to find out the preferences for each Senate ticket – all the information is clearly available on the Australian Electoral Commission website. And there are a few unpleasant surprises when you do look. For a start, some tickets in Victoria didn’t even lodge their preferences with the AEC – so you have no way of knowing what would happen if you did simply hand over your vote.

Then there’s the issue of the Wikileaks Party. Broadly considered sympathetic to Left-leaning parties, the WLP was expected to direct preferences to the Greens – and, allegedly, had indicated that it would do so. Instead, it preferenced the extreme Right-wing Australia First Party in New South Wales; and in Western Australia, preferenced the National Party above the Greens.

WLP supporters demanded an explanation, and were told that the NSW preferences came about as the result of an ‘administrative error’.

There are no clearer illustrations of the need to know where your preferred party directs its preferences, and of the need to vote below the line in the Senate. To put it bluntly, it’s the only way your vote can be truly representative.

Thankfully, there are some very clever people out there at Below the Line. They’ve collected the ballot positions and full tickets for all seats and both Houses, and are in the process of setting up their ballot editors. You can find out who’s running in your electorate or State, organise your voting preferences with these editors and print those out on a sheet to take with you into the polling booth. Yes, you still have to write down a lot of numbers, but the majority of the work is already done.

CONCLUSION: So there you have it. Five myths, all easily busted. If you’re skeptical about politicians when they talk about policy, then it’s worth extending that to anything they say about voting. The vote is your power – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Marriage equality bills to hit Parliament today

February 13, 2012

Today ALP backbencher Stephen Jones will introduce a bill into the House of Representatives calling for marriage equality. Greens MP Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie will introduce a similar co-sponsored bill, containing a specific provision that will exempt religious ministers from solemnising marriages between a same-sex couple.

I’d like to be optimistic, even enthusiastic, about this. But I’m afraid I really, really can’t.

Because unless Opposition Leader Tony Abbott loosens his stranglehold on the Coalition’s consciences, the bills will fail.

We’ve already seen what happens when Bandt or Wilkie tries to introduce ‘controversial’ legislation. The major parties fall into lockstep against them. Granted, the ALP passed the resolution at its last conference to make marriage equality a matter of conscience, so perhaps there might be a few more bums on seats sitting with the two minority MPs this time around. But there are enough Labor members determinedly opposed to same-sex marriage to ensure the bills suffer a resounding defeat.

Jones’ bill may fare more kindly. After all, he’s a Labor man, and even those who won’t support Bandt and Wilkie on principle might vote for one of their own. Again, though, the bill runs up against the Coalition’s refusal to allow its members a conscience vote.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has already signalled her intention to introduce a marriage equality bill later in the year. This is as clear a signal as she could send that she expects today’s bills to fail – and probably her own as well. At this point, the strategy appears to be one of simply flooding the Parliament with similar bills in the hope that it will wear down MPs’ resolve – and that in the end, they might vote for it just to get the issue out of the way.

That this strategy should even have to be considered, let alone employed, is shameful. It’s a matter of civil rights – human rights – that are denied to Australian citizens. Worse, it’s a matter of a privileged majority not wanting to have that privilege ‘sullied’ by having to share it.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the numbers will be there. Maybe some Coalition members will defy Abbott’s decree and cross the floor to support marriage equality – or at least inform him privately that they intend to do so, at which point I predict a swift reversal of the ‘no conscience vote’ stance. Maybe the rest of the ALP will realise that clinging to privilege and discrimination flies in the face of everything that party supposedly stands for, and support a bill.

It’s possible.

It’s also possible politicians will stop lying in Parliament, abandon mindless party loyalty in favour of the good of the people, and remember that they are our servants, not our masters.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.


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.


Married to the lynch mob

March 24, 2011

There’s a truism that says Australia is the 51st state of the US – a McDonalds on every corner, a rather pathetic desire to curry favour with the President, and a willingness to be screwed over in treaties and trade agreements by an ally.

After yesterday, I think, we can really claim that title. Yesterday, we saw the Tea Party come to Australia, with all its hysteria, fake claims of ‘grass-roots’ sentiment and lies. And – just as in the US – we saw a conservative political party try to convince us that they weren’t causing the hysteria, just listening to ‘the silent majority’ finally rise up and exercise their right of free speech.

Radio station 2GB – home of ultra-conservative ‘shock jocks’ like Alan Jones – helped organise a protest rally against the government’s proposed carbon pricing scheme at Parliament House yesterday. According to the Australian Federal Police, about 1500 people gathered on the lawn, led by former rock singer Angry Anderson. In the crowd were One Nation, the anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights and former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson. On the platform were discredited scientists, self-styled ‘experts’ and carefully chosen ‘ordinary Australians’.

And the Coalition came out to meet them with open arms.

All well and good. People have a right to protest, despite the best efforts of politicians like former Prime Minister John Howard and former Liberal Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen (who infamously legislated to declare any gathering of three or more people in a public place an ‘unlawful assembly’). That right isn’t limited to any cause, or restricted to reasoned debate in conference halls. When people feel passionately, they want to be visible, and they want to be heard.

But what happened in Canberra yesterday went far beyond ‘protest’ – it was an ugly mob, and the Coalition pandered to it and whipped it into a frenzy.

Speaker after speaker mounted the platform to address the rally. Every one of them repeated the lies that form the now-familiar Coalition message: that Prime Minister Gillard’s broken promise on a carbon price was a deliberate deception on her part; that every Australian would suffer terribly by being forced to pay a carbon tax; and – with the notable exception of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – that climate change was simply not happening.

Well, they can lie. They should, and are, being called on those lies, but it’s free speech, right? As Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer repeatedly yelled over both Labor MP Nick Champion and Sky’s Keiran Gilbert this morning, they’re ordinary Australians who are allowed to have their views heard. Even if those views are the kind of personal insults yelled by Pauline Hanson (who fronted the cameras to attack Gillard for being unmarried with no children).

Except this isn’t about free speech. This isn’t about the person who carried a sign protesting against everything from the ‘carbon tax’ to the IMF, the UN and ‘one world government’. This isn’t about the person who carried the brightly-coloured placard that made ingenious use of fridge magnets to spell out ‘NO LABOUR CARBON TAX’. It’s not even about the ‘My Mom Is Cold’ sign that popped up. (And can anyone explain that? Anyone?)

This is about the so-called alternative Prime Minister of Australia standing on a platform with his senior colleagues, scare-mongering and lying, while standing in front of this sign (photo credit to the ABC’s Latika Bourke):

Notice the flames of hell?

This is about Senator Barnaby Joyce trembling with anger and screaming red-faced into the microphone, ‘She lied to you! She lied to you!‘, then smiling and nodding as the crowd roared, ‘BITCH! BITCH! BITCH!’

This is about not one of the Coalition speakers asking the crowd to show respect for the Prime Minister – or even for the office of Prime Minister. Every single one of them either stood silently with approving smiles while the crowd roared, or actually encouraged further abuse.

It was a mob virtually baying for Gillard’s blood, and being encouraged to do it.

Unsurprisingly, those actions provoked shock and outrage – although, to listen to some media outlets, you’d be forgiven for thinking the rally was just an excitable picnic rather than a sustained personal attack on the Prime Minister. Senator Bob Brown sent a letter to the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon expressing his feelings of disgust at the abuse they’d hurled at her, along with his wish that Abbott would apologise for endorsing such sentiments.

Abbott, however, was having none of that. Late last night he issued a statement saying he regretted the actions of ‘a small group of people’ – but no apology, no admission that he and his colleagues had helped fuel the situation. Confronted by the media this morning, he expanded on those remarks. Let’s take a look.

‘A few people went over the top … naturally I regret that … but I can understand that people feel passionate.’

A few people? There were hundreds of people waving abusive signs and chanting ‘Bitch!’ and even ‘Kill the Witch!’. A sky writer even gave us the benefit of his opinion at an opportune moment. And it was particularly impressive how many of those signs were identical and professionally produced.

But what about this?

Abbott: ‘Let’s face it, this is a Prime Minister who told us before the election that there will be no carbon tax … it was unfortunate that some ppl chose to go a bit over the top yesterday … I would urge all people to conduct this debate with respect … but if we are going to build respect for the democratic process in this country it is important for the Prime Minister to seek a mandate for her carbon tax.’

‘It’s a pity when some people go a little over the top … it would have been better for everyone if the Prime Minister had said “I don’t want to deceive you, there will be a carbon tax” … if the Prime Minister had been straight with the Australian people before the election we wouldn’t be in quite the situation we’re now in.’

A ‘little over the top’? Calling for violence to be done to the Prime Minister of the country?

Just in case we didn’t pick it up, Abbott kept repeating that the ‘real’ problem here was Gillard’s broken promise – what he consistently referred to as a ‘lie’ or ‘deception’.

Yes. You read that right. It’s Gillard’s fault. She made these poor people howl for her blood. If only, if only she hadn’t ‘lied’, we could all be having tea and scones right now.

In the real world, Mr Abbott, we call that ‘blaming the victim’.

Then there was this gem:

‘People are entitled to feel pretty unhappy … I want the protest to be civil … but let’s not get too precious about these things.’

No, let’s not get concerned about the fact that the Coalition egged the protesters on to louder and more abusive expressions of intended violence. Let’s not worry about Joyce’s endorsement of the kind of abuse we consider unacceptable if it’s yelled in the street. Let’s not get precious, because after all, she brought it on herself.

Asked why he and his colleagues addressed the rally, Abbott replied: ‘I thought it was important that … politicians should speak with them.’

Oh, how disingenuous. Abbott was just doing what politicians should do – speak to the people. After all, other politicians go out to see protesters on the lawns of Parliament House – why shouldn’t he?

Because other politicians confine their actions to talking one-on-one with protesters. Other politicians listen to grievances – they don’t deliver speeches designed to turn a rally into a screaming lynch mob. Other politicians carefully demur when asked by protesters to endorse their slogans.

In other words, Mr Abbott, other politicians speak with protesters, not to them.

Abbott even suggested that Gillard was at fault for not going out to speak to the protesters, as he had. Given the mood of the crowd, she would have been mad to do that. We’ve already seen people throwing shoes at politicians and burning their pictures – and that’s without the Coalition helpfully whipping them along. Watching that rally yesterday, I don’t think many people could doubt that Gillard’s safety would have been at risk.

Abbott tried to shift the blame to Gillard. He tried the old ‘oh, it was just a few mavericks’ line. He tried the free speech and ‘caring politician’ defence. In short, he did everything he could to excuse himself – everything but apologise. In the words of Jake Blues:

But – as Keiran Gilbert asked this morning – what more could he have done?

How about this?

He could have asked the crowd to stop yelling abuse.

He could have insisted that the ‘Bitch’ sign be taken down while any Coalition representative was on the platform.

He could have made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any of his colleagues encouraging abuse.

He could have forbidden any Coalition representative from addressing the crowd as a whole, and confined his actions to listening.

But he did none of these things. By mounting that platform yesterday, he married the Coalition to the lynch mob

Abbott should now apologise without reservation on behalf of himself and his parliamentary colleagues. And he should stop treating the Australian people as idiots. After yesterday, he has no basis left for his persistent claims that he is not contributing to fear and anger. After yesterday, he has no credibility whatsoever.

Independent MP Tony Windsor was pooh-poohed when he expressed the concern that the anti-carbon price rhetoric was becoming so inflammatory that it might well spill over into violence directed at those politicians who supported it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say he was mocked – everyone from politicians to media to tweeters rubbished the idea.

After yesterday, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it?

Mr Abbott and his colleagues need to realise that sooner or later, violence may well erupt as a result of their lies and fear-mongering. And if it does, and all their protests of ‘free speech’ and ‘it’s not our fault’ will mean exactly nothing. They will have blood on their hands.

What’s truly frightening – and after yesterday, seems even more likely – is the idea that they know that already, and they simply don’t care.

AFTERWORD:

Two senior Coalition members chose not to attend the rally yesterday – Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, and former leader Malcolm Turnbull. Neither of them gave their reasons – perhaps it was political expediency, perhaps a recognition of just how inappropriate and damaging it would be.

What’s important is that they did not endorse, either by their presence or their words, the abuse, offensive language or threats of violence that occurred – unlike their leader and their colleagues.

For their common sense, they should be commended.


Unpacking Gillard’s green program cuts

January 31, 2011

All the focus right now is on the flood levy. Gillard’s announcement last week that for one year, Australians will pay a small amount to help fund rebuilding infrastructure in areas devastated by the recent floods is the topic of the moment.

The rural Independents want a promise of a permanent natural disaster relief fund in return for their vote. New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally wants a special deal so her constituents pay less than the rest of the country. The Opposition is determined to vote against the levy. In an extraordinary display of patronising false humility, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott even volunteered to help Gillard find more things to cut in the budget if it was too hard for her. If his intention was to portray himself as willing to be helpful, it backfired horribly – instead, he created an impression of someone with a superiority complex patting the ‘poor little girl’ on the head. It didn’t help that, over the weekend, he said that voting on the flood levy might be the opportunity his Coalition needs to oust Labor and get back into government.

But while all this is going on, the rest of Gillard’s announced plans to pay for flood recovery are flying under the radar. There was some initial comment from the Greens and the media, but it was quickly lost in the wrangling over the levy.

So let’s have a look at what else is part of this flood recovery package.

Funds will be redirected from infrastructure projects. In her address to the National Press Club, Gillard indicated six roads projects in Queensland would be delayed by one to three years, providing $325 million. Premier Anna Bligh endorsed these delays the same day as they were announced.

Gillard said she would announced a further $675 million, sourced from delays to existing projects, in the coming days.
She also announced caps on a series of programs, including the National Rental Affordability Scheme and the LPG Vehicle Scheme. In education, the Capital Development Pool and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council will be discontinued. Some existing programs – the Building Better Regional Cities and Priority Regional Infrastructure Program – will have their funds redirected to rebuilding flood-damaged infrastructure.

There’s been little, if any comment on this.

It’s the third part of the package, though, that has the Greens in particular hopping mad.

A whole suite of so-called ‘green’ programs are to be either scrapped, deferred or capped.

The Cleaner Car Rebate Scheme (dubbed ‘cash for clunkers’ by the media), Green Car Innovation Fund and the Green Start Fund will be scrapped.

The Solar Hot Water Rebate, Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute and Solar Homes and Communities Plan will all have their funding capped. She explained that for some programs, the ‘cap’ was actually a reduction in the total funds available, as demand had not been as high as anticipated.

Finally, the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships and Solar Flagships programs will be deferred.

It would be fair to say that much of Australia did a double-take when they heard this announcement. Although there is by no means ‘complete consensus’ on the effect of climate change on extreme weather, it’s safe to say the majority of people favour ‘greening up’, if only to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and tackle pollution. Add to that the facts that securing the Greens’ support was vital for Labor to form government, that the Greens will soon hold the balance of power in the Senate and look to be significant players in the upcoming New South Wales election – and Labor’s plan looks like political suicide.

At the very least, it seems to make no sense at all. Labor’s tried to position itself as serious about tackling climate change. Gillard’s rhetoric on the subject of a carbon price has an unmistakable ‘line-in-the-sand’ quality, and she has shown every sign of being willing to do whatever it takes to bring that about. Why, then, would she slash funds from programs linked to one of Labor’s avowed policy pillars??

The clue is in Gillard’s speech:

‘The key to these carbon abatement program savings is my determination to deliver a carbon price.’

All other initiatives, she asserted, flow from the establishment of a price on carbon. Indeed, the pressure of increased carbon costs practically guarantees investment in renewable energy.

Politically, this is a clear attempt to wedge the Greens. If they want programs to tackle climate change, they’ll need to support Labor’s eventual plan for a carbon price. It’s an incredibly risky move. Labor has to walk a fine line here to avoid alienating the Greens entirely, which could see us right back where we were under Kevin Rudd – with a hostile Senate pressuring the government from both the right and left.

Last time that happened, it brought down the Prime Minister. That Labor is willing to take that chance again may be a sign of Gillard’s confidence in her ability to sell something unpopular – or it may be a giant bluff.

This strategy may not have a formal name, but it’s familiar. It’s called ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’.

But politics aside, what are the practical consequences of the proposed cuts to these green programs?

By not going ahead with the Cleaner Cars Rebate, the government rids itself of a program that was unpopular from the start. Both the Opposition and the Greens rubbished the proposal, which would see car buyers given a modest rebate when they traded in old cars for newer, greener models. A similar program in the US suffered cost blowouts, and was widely seen to have done little to encourage drivers to choose energy-efficient vehicles. Although this program was part of Labor’s election promises, breaking it is unlikely to attract much criticism – especially given where the money will go.

And here’s a curious thing about that money – it was sourced, originally, from programs that included Solar Flagships and Carbon Capture and Storage. Both these programs are now slated for deferment as part of the flood recovery package.

Solar Flagships was scheduled to fund two large-scale solar power stations in 2011. This will now be delayed. Gillard has not said for how long, but confirmed that the project was not scrapped. The effect of the delay is difficult to calculate; it’s unknown how much time it would take to build the stations and get them connected to the national grid. Clearly, any further dependence on coal-fired power than is necessary presents a problem, however.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an initiative fraught with problems. Apart from being a technology which seems increasingly unviable, with limited – if any – application in Australia, there are now indications that existing installations are now leaking dangerously. Greens Senator Christine Milne noted back in 2008 that the problems with CCS could lead to increased costs for Australian taxpayers, since the government would be liable for any leaks.

Deferring funding to the Carbon Capture and Storage Institute gives the government a bet each way. If the technology does indeed prove unviable, there can be no claims of waste. If, on the other hand, the Institute starts making real headway with CCS, the government can re-allocate funding in the future. Either way, there are few practical problems associated with re-directing money from this program to flood recovery.

The Green Start program is another millstone around Labor’s neck. Set up to replace their failed Green Loans program, Green Start had already been largely scrapped over a month ago. Gillard’s announcement at the Press Club was really only the final nail in the coffin. Funding was set aside to compensate businesses who might be adversely affected by the closure of Rounds 1 and 2. What little remains will now go towards flood recovery.

The Green Cars Innovation program has had real problems. Widely seen as supporting the automotive industry at the expense of ‘real’ action on climate change, money already granted to companies has seen little in the way of results so far. Of only four cars supposed to be manufactured with the help of the program, only one (the hybrid Toyota Camry) is on the road. The others are due to roll out some time this year. The program has already had its funding lowered due to lower than expected demand, and came in for serious criticism from the Greens.

The capped programs, whose funding pools are to be reduced guided by lack of demand, are still in place. Expected uptake for the Solar Hot Water and Homes and Communities plans did not eventuate. It’s arguable that demand may increase, especially in the areas affected by floods. As things stand, however, the money is unspent and some is able to be re-directed. Unless installation of solar hot water skyrockets in the near future, there will still be rebates available. The government also leaves the way open for raising the ceiling at a later date if demand does increase.

So these cuts to green programs boil down to scrapping two programs that was unlikely to have much beneficial effect on emissions, scrapping another that would have closed down in a month’s time, lowering the ceiling on programs whose uptake was lower than expected, and deferring funding for an initiative fraught with technological problems. As noted above, the effect of deferring Solar Flagships is unknown.

Other ‘green’ programs remain in place. These include school solar funding, the Renewable Energy Venture fund, money for getting renewable power generators connected to the grid, tax deductions for business that improve their energy efficiency rating, new mandatory standards for vehicle emissions and power stations, and a substantial Green Building fund.

Whatever the real situation as regards these proposed program cuts and caps, the problem is that they look bad. The government needs to do a lot more to sell this part of its flood recovery package to parliament and the public alike. They could do worse than start by giving people the information they need to truly assess the effect of these changes.

But then again, asking a government to treat its people as intelligent human beings with a right to know the facts of any given situation has always been a big ask. And we’re all culpable in this – we’ve let our elected representatives get away for too long with giving us only half the facts. This needs to change – and this is as good an opportunity as the current government is ever likely to get.


Constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples – at last?

November 8, 2010

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that the government will take the first steps in keeping a key election promise, albeit one that gained almost no media attention. Australians will go to the polls to vote in a referendum aimed at changing the Constitution to recognise the first peoples.

Flanked by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and Attorney-General Robert McLelland, Gillard noted that the Constitution, the ‘foundation document of our system of government’, currently failed to recognise indigenous Australians. Although the Apology to the Stolen Generations was a critical step in healing the relationship between the first peoples and those who came to Australia later, she stressed that it was only one part of the process.

The government is putting a great deal of work into reforming early education, housing and services such as medical and mental health care (particularly in remote indigenous communities), but ‘More dollars are not enough,’ she said. It was necessary to reform the way those dollars were used, to help rebuilding the positive social and economic norms of family life. The next step, while continuing those practical measures, was constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

There was widespread community support and bipartisanship in the Parliament for this measure, she said. Former Prime Minister John Howard had spoken about it to the Sydney Institute in 2007. Tony Abbott supported it – in fact, it was part of the official policy suite the Coalition took to the last election, as did the Greens and Independent MPs. The notable exception in her list was Bob Katter, although Gillard did not elaborate on whether he opposed constitutional recognition or had simply not made his views clear on the subject.

As Robert McLelland pointed out, only eight referenda have ever been passed, out of 44 put to the Australian people to date. Crucially, he added, one of those that passed was the 1967 referendum recognising indigenous peoples as citizens, allowing them to vote. That constitutional change passed with around 90% support.

Part of this low number stems from the particular rules surrounding referenda. A proposition must first pass both Houses of Parliament, then be put to the people. In order to pass, it have the support of both a majority of the people and a majority of states. Territorians’ votes only count towards the national total. In at least five cases, failure to gain a majority of states defeated the referendum, even with overwhelming support from most Australians.

Gillard and McLelland were clearly aware of this potential problem. ‘If this [referendum] is not successful, there will not be another like it,’ Gillard warned. In order to head off any looming difficulties, she announced the establishment of an expert panel by the end of the current year. This panel will work throughout 2011 and report back to government by the end of that year. Made up of both indigenous and non-indigenous people, community leaders and constitutional experts, the panel will work with organisations such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and Reconciliation Australia.

Part of the panel’s remit includes the actual wording of the proposed constitutional change, but a major task will be to build consensus throughout the Australian community. ‘This conversation needs to involve all Australians, and we look forward to their input,’ Gillard said. Asked if this would include town hall-type meetings, she replied that the panel would largely determine its own methodologies. ‘We want to encourage debate and discussion in as many different forums as possible,’ Macklin added.

Macklin went on to say that the Prime Minister would be writing to the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Greens leader Bob Brown and the Independent MPs, inviting them to participate in this process. She said the government also welcomed suggestions from all members of the community as to who could be invited to serve in this capacity.

‘Respect is critical to close the gap,’ she finished up. Australia must improve practical issues such as health, education and jobs, but respect and self-respect were critical to the success of these reforms. It was necessary, she said, that the place of indigenous peoples’ place in Australian society ‘should be understood to be that special place that many of us already understand it to be’.

Gillard quashed the idea that this was mere tokenism. ‘There’s a false divide between working practically and working to increase trust,’ she said. ‘In fact they go hand in hand … building trust can make practical things possible. To make a life you do have to feel that you are recognised and respected.’

Undoubtedly there will be those who see a parallel between this expert panel and the one formed to investigate options for placing a price on carbon. They are identical approaches to different problems – both are designed to bring about a desired end, while seeking consensus from the Australian community. Whether people will raise the same objections, however, is debatable.

John Roskam from the Institute of Public Affairs, speaking on Sky News, was the first to raise public objection. The Constitution was ‘not a place for symbolism’, he argued, nor to ‘make important moral sentiments’. Australians could respect indigenous peoples, but were likely to be ‘very wary of tinkering with the Constitution to achieve a symbolic outcome’. Worst still, he suggested that the ‘practical implications’ of this proposal had not been considered. What if it created ‘two Australias’?

The ‘two Australias’ argument is particularly insidious. It plays on fear of difference – in effect, is indistinguishable from the arguments against multiculturalism during the Hawke/Keating years. If we recognise ‘they’ are different from ‘us’, then ‘we’ will be divided. ‘They’ might get special treatment, and ‘we’ will lose out.

Reconciliation Australia has some very good answers to these fears. Canada has long recognised its indigenous peoples in its Constitution. Treaties exist between the United States and around 390 indigenous tribes, and the Waitangi Treaty has been in force in New Zealand since 1840. None of these nations are splintering apart due to this recognition.

As for ‘special treatment’, Reconciliation Australia notes:

Acknowledging Indigenous Australians in the preamble in a way that recognised and valued their special place as the first Australians would not give them more rights than other Australians. Changing the body of the Constitution to include equality and protection from discrimination would give all Australians the benefit of better rights protections. (my emphasis)

Then there’s the question of whether changing the Constitution is ‘appropriate’. Roskam there did exactly what Gillard had warned against – created a divide between symbolic and practical measures. As Gillard pointed out, constitutional recognition is a matter of respect, and directly affected the relationship between first peoples and those colonists who arrived later. In reducing this proposition to ‘mere’ symbolism, he’s implying that the issue is too trivial for such an important document.

I imagine that those who voted against the 1967 referendum thought granting citizenship to indigenous peoples was ‘trivial’, too.

It’s absolutely outrageous that Roskam should treat the issue in this way. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda wrote passionately of how important constitutional recognition was to him.

Throughout school and civic life we are taught that the constitution is the fabric that holds us together. So what sort of message does it send when there is no recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our constitution? What message does that absence send after Australia lent its formal support in April last year to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

The potential, almost subliminal, messages people take away from it – especially younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – cannot be good for our self-esteem, sense of self-worth and value.

That pretty much sums it up, I think. This is far too important to be pissed away by xenophobia and racism disguised as ‘respect for the Constitution’.


Abbott – the real backstabber

October 14, 2010

You have to wonder, really, just what’s going on in Tony Abbott’s head right now. It seems he’s hell-bent on tearing down the reputation of our public institutions. As @Paul_Jarman so succinctly put it, he may well have ‘jumped the shark’ this time.

First, it was Treasury. During the election campaign, Abbott and his Coalition colleagues repeatedly tried to tear down Treasury’s credibility. They claimed that Treasury was responsible for leaking some of their costings, at the behest of the caretaker Labor government, and withheld their numbers from the Charter of Budget Honesty. Once it became clear that the election was going to deliver a hung parliament, Abbott developed his argument even further. When the Independents asked to see the Coalition’s ‘independent’ costings, Abbott refused – and gave several reasons for doing so, all of which were outrageous.

Treasury was incompetent – it couldn’t handle the job of assessing the costings. Treasury was untrustworthy – they leaked documents when told to do so. Worst of all, Treasury was so corrupt that it would deliberately ‘fiddle’ with the numbers in order to make the Coalition look bad. Even though Abbott eventually consented to let the costings be examined – resulting in the discovery of a $7-11 billion shortfall – the accusations still get trotted out from time to time.

Not content with attempting to destroy Treasury’s standing as the economic managers of the country, Abbott next took aim at the Solicitor-General. Part of the agreement with the Independents that was signed by both major parties dealt with the matter of pairing the Speaker. Although his representative had signed off on this, Abbott reneged, claiming that such an arrangement was unconstitutional.

The Solicitor-General investigated the idea, and concluded that there was no bar to an informal pairing arrangement. That wasn’t good enough for Abbott. He engaged his own lawyer – Senator George Brandis – who, unsurprisingly, backed up his leader. Armed with that information, Abbott set about declaring that the Solicitor-General was not only wrong, but perhaps a little bit suspect – after all, he was part of the government’s public service, wasn’t he? Abbott would therefore trust Brandis’ opinion, he stated.

By the time the 43rd Parliament opened, Abbott had attacked two of the most crucial government departments – the one responsible for managing our economy, and the one called upon to deliver the definitive legal opinions on constitutional and legislative matters.

This week, he’s gone after the military. Three Australian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan were charged with manslaughter, dangerous conduct, failing to comply with a lawful general order and prejudicial conduct after a raid in which five Afghani children were killed. Brigadier Lyn McDade, the military’s chief prosecutor, brought the charges – and became the subject of a dreadful campaign of abuse and threats as a result. You might think that, after Abbott worked himself up into a lather chastising Gillard for allegedly ‘politicising’ our participation in the war in Afghanistan*, he might stay well out of this court martial issue. Not so.

Abbott let fly with an extraordinary spray. Gillard, he said, was at fault here. Australian soldiers were being ‘stabbed in the back’, and the government should be doing something about it. Now, although ostensibly aimed at Gillard, Abbott’s comments have graver implications. There is a strong insinuation here that the military justice system either does not work, or that McDade is abusing her position – and that the military are allowing her to do so. By not intervening, therefore, Gillard’s government condones this kind of abuse. What’s more, Abbott carefully did not contradict radio host Alan Jones, who – when interviewing the Opposition Leader – described McDade as a woman who had never fought on the front line, and who had ‘too much uncontrolled power’.

The military justice system is completely independent of Government, as Defence Minister Stephen Smith pointed out today. The Prime Minister cannot intervene, nor should she. At best, the government could make some submissions to the military. Even the Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, and the executive director of the Defence Force Association, Neil James, were moved to comment. Both criticised the Opposition Leader’s remarks and stated that they were supportive of the legal process – and urged all defence personnel to be the same.

Yet Abbott maintains that Gillard should get involved on behalf of the accused soldiers. In other words, that political power should be brought to bear on the military, with the aim of pressuring McDade to drop the charges altogether – to do an end run around the legal process. To help the process along, Abbott seems happy to consent by silence to the character assassination of the chief prosecutor.

Abbott’s position is easy to see – our soldiers in wartime should not be subject to this sort of prosecution. It’s not far removed from the US saying that they would not participate in the International Court, in case their soldiers were prosecuted. Australia, like the US and Great Britain, mercilessly pursued German war criminals from World War II, and recently hanged Saddam Hussein, yet Abbott’s words suggest that there are two standards at work here. Crime in war cannot be committed by ‘our’ side, only ‘the enemy’.

It is precisely this attitude that leads to the creation of justice systems in the first place – impartial organisations dedicated to the pursuit of justice for all, rather than being subject to the whims of politicians. In fact, this was part of the rationale behind the formation of our own system under John Howard’s government. It’s a laudable goal, but one that Abbott now seems to think should be dictated to by the government. In fact, it seems likely that he would have interfered in this prosecution had we ended up with a Liberal-National minority government.

So now Abbott has three notches on his belt. He has called into question Treasury, the Solicitor-General’s office and the military justice system. You have to ask, what might be next – the Australian Electoral Commission, perhaps? Will we see legal challenges to election results that don’t favour the Coalition?

It’s difficult to discern a sound political strategy in what Abbott is doing. More and more, he seems to be on an uncontrolled slash-and-burn. Despite his protestations that he is ‘holding the government to account’, and ‘engaging in robust debate’, the real effect of his words and actions serves only to undermine his character. He’s like the angry kid in the sandpit who kicks over the other children’s sandcastles, because he didn’t win the blue ribbon and the praise from the teacher. He blamed his recent drop in popularity on the Prime Minister calling attention to his ‘jetlag’ gaffe, but the truth may have more to do with his apparent willingness to disparage without foundation anyone or anything that may stand in his way – in effect, to be the backstabber he accuses Gillard of being. Remember, Abbott still considers himself the Prime Minister-in-waiting.

What kind of Prime Minister builds his argument for legitimacy of government by tearing down the foundations of the country?

Yesterday, Abbott described himself as the gatekeeper for the nation’s values. ‘I am the standard bearer for values and ideals which matter and which are important,’ he said. Which values might those be? That the ends justify the means? That it doesn’t matter who or what is damaged, discredited or torn down, as long as power is ‘properly’ vested in the ‘legitimate’ contender (Abbott himself)? Or that, while truth might be the first casualty of war, integrity is the first casualty of politics?

* I refuse to call it the ‘War on Terror’. That title is nonsensical – we are at war with Afghani people, not some abstract emotion.


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