Conscience vote on marriage equality an insult

November 15, 2011

After declaring earlier this year that she supported the ‘traditional definition of marriage’, and saw no reason to change it, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that she would allow a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. This is a remarkable turn-around, given the strength of Gillard’s previous declarations on the subject.

But hey – a conscience vote! Not only is the question going to come up in Parliament, but MPs and Senators will be free to speak their minds. That’s brilliant, right? Those who advocate for marriage equality should be dancing in the streets, surely.

Reality check.

A conscience vote on same-sex marriage will almost certainly fail in the House.

Despite polls as recent as this morning showing nearly 70% support for same-sex marriage, enough MPs oppose it to ensure any bill’s defeat, even with a so-called ‘free vote. The Coalition overwhelmingly opposes the issue, while Labor is split.

That’s not to say that governments should be ruled by opinion polls. ‘Weather-vaning’ not only brings no votes, but also contributes to a picture of a party or politician as entirely inconsistent (and therefore untrustworthy). There’s also the question of conviction – if a party makes a decision to support or oppose a particular issue, it then needs to demonstrate unity.

So what is the point of a conscience vote, then?

It helps to take a look at what issues have attracted such votes in the past. The majority deal with so-called ‘social issues’ – sexual behaviour, medical procedures such as abortion, medical experimentation such as cloning, euthanasia and capital punishment. In 1996, for example a conscience vote allowed the Federal Government to strike down a Northern Territory law permitting euthanasia.

The argument for a conscience vote in these instances usually centres on the idea that these are areas of life that are likely to cause division within any given political party. Moreover, they are so important that an MP may feel compelled to vote against their party’s policy, thus demonstrating disunity. ‘Crossing the floor’ is a serious decision. It can result in a member’s expulsion from their party, seriously damaging their chances of re-election.

Arguably, however, the real reason behind assigning a conscience vote on these issues has little to do with their importance, and much to do with the weight of religious lobbying. Groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby wield a great deal of influence in the political arena. By allowing a conscience vote, a party leader can assume a posture of appeasement by publicly declaring a position consistent with theirs, while apparently granting others the ‘right’ to disagree. Former Prime Minister John Howard took that a step further in 2006, castigating those members of his party who conscience votes disagreed with his own, religiously-motivated position.

This is certainly the position taken in a paper produced for the Australian Council of Social Services in 2009.

At first glance, this appears reasonable. Some issues, apparently, should be a matter for the individual conscience, not the party line. But hold on a moment. Let’s take abortion. It’s been a matter for conscience votes in the past (most notably, perhaps, the RU486 bill of 2006). Today, however, Labor does not allow a conscience vote on matters of reproductive freedom. It has a firm, stated policy supporting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy (albeit with certain caveats). The Liberal-National Coalition also has a firm policy, opposing that stance.

So what changed? Did everyone in both parties suddenly undergo the blinding realisation that their side was ‘right’, thus removing the need for a free vote?

Or perhaps some new facts came to light that took the issue out of the realm of belief and opinion altogether?

Nothing of the kind.

A generous explanation might say it was a decision made by cabinet and caucus that reproductive freedom was an issue that demanded a strong, united stance in support of a position for which the majority felt a strong conviction.

An uncharitable explanation might say that it was simply politically expedient, given each party’s analysis of public opinion.

Either way, it shows that a conscience vote is little more than a sop to party members who agitate for policy change, and a nod and a wink to religious pressure groups. For all the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘too important to dictate a position’, the reality is that these are simply hot-potato issues. Party leaders don’t like that; vehement division in public opinion is a nightmare when you’re trying to attract votes from all areas of society.

Nonetheless, they’ve done it. Gillard sought the moral high ground by proclaiming that the carbon price was ‘the right thing to do’, and did not allow any form of conscience vote on that issue. There’s the abovementioned abortion policy. What’s so different about same-sex marriage?

The short answer is: nothing.

At its base, Gillard’s announcement of a conscience vote on this issue is an insult. It’s a safe bet for the Prime Minister, who’s already announced that she’d vote against it; she knows any such vote will fail. And once it does, she can claim a demonstrated mandate for refusing to revisit the issue on a policy basis. Much like the referendum over a Republic, the details wouldn’t matter. Gillard could hide behind the numbers.

The argument for a conscience vote rests on the premise that some things are too important to be left to party policy.

I’d argue that there are some things that are too important to be allowed to be hijacked by political expediency. As Rainbow Labor said today, ‘Matters of equality should not be the subject of a conscience vote’ (my italics). At its heart, same-sex marriage is just that – a matter of equality.

Advertisements

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 evil of the Malaysian solution

June 3, 2011

WARNING: This article contains graphic descriptions of torture and links to videos containing graphic violence.

The Gillard government’s proposed deal with Malaysia to get rid of its asylum seeker problem just goes from bad to worse. It’s not sealed yet – and may never be, as Shadow Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison keeps insisting – but it looks a lot more likely than the East Timor processing centre idea ever did.

Bad enough that the government intends to dump 800 of its asylum seekers into a country that has not signed the UN Convention on Refugees – a country over which we have no possible influence (unlike Nauru, which is effectively dependent on our money just to survive).

Bad enough that the government wants to take five times as many people back – people who’ve already been processed in Malaysia and found to be refugees.

Bad enough, the ridiculous argument that this deal would ‘remove the product’ for people smugglers to peddle.

But now documents have surfaced that show some of the wheeling and dealing taking place away from public scrutiny. What those documents show is just how much the government is willing to entertain – and it’s appalling.

Gillard maintained absolutely that Australia would determine who was sent overseas, and who would be accepted in return. She said repeatedly in Parliament that Malaysia did not have any kind of veto in that respect.

Yet this is exactly what Malaysia wants – the right to pick and choose who they want to offload on us, while ensuring they get the best possible deal.

Then there’s the matter of children. One of Labor’s biggest sticks for beating the former Howard government over the head was the dreadful prospect of children ‘behind razor wire’. There’s no doubt that particular image did a lot to turn people away from the kind of open-ended detention policies that former Prime Minister Rudd vowed to abolish. And then there was the announcement in October last year that children in detention would be re-settled in the community and given help from social services.

But lo and behold, the government now refuses to guarantee that children won’t be sent to Malaysia. Unaccompanied children. To do otherwise would ‘send the wrong message’ to the people smugglers, and suddenly we’d see even more children turning up on boats without relatives, apparently.

Right. Because the idea that children will be processed exactly the same as they currently are will immediately cause people smugglers to go out and advertise.

This is nothing but punitive – and it will do nothing to deter parents whose choices are to risk their kids being one of 800 sent to Malaysia, or risk their kids being killed by staying where they are. All it achieves is to frighten already desperate people, and put them through yet more trauma.

Finally – and most disgustingly – the documents reveal that Malaysia wants to excise two words from the proposed deal. Just two words – that’s all. How much of a difference could that make? And just what are those words, anyway?

Human. Rights.

Yes. Malaysia, apparently, doesn’t want to be troubled by such pesky notions. They’re not signatories to any Conventions – so why should they be bound by any other agreement? They’ve got a good system going there. They can detain people for up to 60 days without charge or representation. They allow refugees to be in the community – but won’t allow them to work legally or protect them from exploitation and abuse. They turn a blind eye to police brutality.

And they can cane people – even tourists – for such serious crimes as drinking beer in public. Technically, only men can be caned, but it’s a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Amnesty International calls caning a form of torture. We’re not talking about a whack across the butt with a ruler in the Principal’s office, either. Caning is carried out in a prison yard with multiple witnesses present.

The victim is naked except for an apron tied around the waist that exposes the buttocks. They are tied to an A-frame and the strokes – up to 24 with a length of rattan of varying thicknesses (depending on the severity of the crime) – are administered at full force. The official administering the caning must ensure that the tip hits the victim’s body – increasing the pain.

The initial stroke raises a welt. Typically, the skin splits and bleeds as subsequent blows land on the same area. The victim may convulse or shake uncontrollably, cry out and break down emotionally. Officials wearing gloves and surgical masks flank the victim, sometimes lacing their fingers behind his head to hold him closer to the A-frame.

Horrifically, those same officials may pat the victim’s head while the abuse is taking place. Perhaps they think they’re being kind.

The entire sentence must be carried out in one session – unless the victim passes out or suffers some other kind of medical crisis from the pain and shock.

But it’s not all bad – they do take the victim to the prison hospital afterwards.

This is the system Malaysia seeks to preserve. This is the system into which the government is committed to sending people already traumatised by war or persecution. People exploited, beggared and sometimes enslaved by despicable opportunists. People who risk their lives to escape to a better place.

This is the system into which our government is prepared to send children who may not even have a parent to shelter behind.

Sustainable Population Minister Tony Burke backed up Immigration Minister Chris Bowen in the media. It’s only a preliminary document, they insisted. It’s not the actual deal. There are lots of issues to work through.

But it’s what they didn’t say that made their performance utterly contemptible.

They didn’t say that children would be protected.

And they didn’t say that ensuring the preservation of human rights would be a deal-breaker.

The implications are disturbing, to say the least. That the government is prepared to even consider such revolting provisions shows just how far they are willing to go to grab back a few votes and appear ‘tough on asylum seekers’. It shows that they believe building up their image is more important than the safety, well-being and quality of life of the most vulnerable people.

There’s a word for this behaviour when it happens in the schoolyard. It’s called bullying.

Yes, Prime Minister – you are a bully. Your Immigration Minister is a bully. Your Population Minister is a bully. And every member of your party that doesn’t outright condemn you and fight to stop this terrible deal is guilty of hiding behind a bully rather than doing something to stop you.

What Howard did with the Pacific Solution was horrible, and his government should always be rightly condemned. He, too, was a bully.

But what Gillard proposes is far, far worse. In fact, it’s simply evil.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was asked today why she wasn’t out there marching in the streets leading people in protest against this deal.

It’s a good question. Australians were traumatised by seeing evidence of the unbelievable cruelty meted out to cattle in Indonesian slaughterhouses. They mobilised – and now we have enquiries, bans in place, bills to ban live export of cattle entirely, and any number of other measures are beginning.

Are we going to have to see a young teenaged boy tied up to a post and caned until he cries, bleeds and faints before we’ll do the same for asylum seekers?

Are we going to have to show many more videos like this one?

What will it take?


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.


Carbon tax armageddon!

February 25, 2011

Last night’s sleep was quite peaceful. This morning, however, I woke up to discover the end of the world was at hand.

The cause of this imminent apocalypse? Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement yesterday that the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee had reached an agreement regarding a price on carbon.

The scheme would start in 2012, with a fixed price for the first three to five years. After that, the plan is to move to a flexible cap-and-trade system – although there is provision in the scheme for delaying that, should circumstances warrant it. Those circumstances could include Australia’s signing up to a new Kyoto-style treaty, price fluctuations due to new countries implementing similar schemes, and the extent to which industry moves to cleaner and more efficient technologies. Agricultural emissions would be exempt. (As one amused newsreader put it, ‘Farting cows are safe’.)

Built into the program is compensation for ‘those households and communities most needing help’. Further provision is made for encouraging investment in clean technologies and improving natural carbon capture (so-called ‘carbon sinks’ of plantations and waterways).

As yet, there are no figures. But the plan is out there – and the first years of its operation would be ‘very like a tax,’ according to Gillard.

Those words were blood in the water for the Coalition, and they moved in for the kill. ‘A broken promise!’ cried Tony Abbott. ‘She said there would not be a carbon tax while she was in government! An utter betrayal of the Australian people! A blatant denial of democracy! A conspiracy of the Parliament against the people! How can the Australian people trust this Prime Minister on anything anymore?’ His colleagues’ voices rose to join the increasingly hysterical attack, accompanied by the media.

Gillard’s defence against this accusation is weak. This morning she fell back on the excuse that she’d repeatedly said during the election campaign that Labor believes climate change is real and human-induced, and that the most efficient way of dealing with it is through a market-based mechanism. That’s true.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, what’s also true is that she did rule out a carbon tax. Her statement during the campaign was unequivocal; she left herself no wiggle room, and now her words are coming back to haunt her.

Is it a broken promise? Technically, yes – and it always makes people uneasy to think that their elected representatives might promise anything to get into government, then do what they like once installed. Certainly, this theme was used to great effect by Labor during the 2010 election campaign. They raised the spectre of the imminent return of WorkChoices to spook the electorate into shying away from the Coalition. In a way, then, this is just a case of Gillard’s chickens coming home to roost.

But it’s hardly the first time a Prime Minister has broken a campaign promise, nor is it confined to Labor. Possibly the most infamous broken promise in recent times is John Howard’s much-quoted ‘never ever’ statement – as in, ‘There’s no way a GST will ever be part of our policy … Never ever. It’s dead. It was killed by voters at the last election‘.

That promise was broken 18 months after Howard became Prime Minister in 1996. When confronted, he at first tried to reframe the situation – he didn’t mean ‘never’, he only mean ‘never’ in his government’s first term. As time passed, though, Howard abandoned the whole idea of providing an excuse. Yes, he broke a promise. Yes, it was a shame – but it was the right thing to do. He fronted up to the accusations of betrayal and wore them like a badge of pride.

And he got away with it.

That’s what Gillard needs to do here. She’s made the whole question of action on climate change a matter of high principle, so important that it requires urgent action. Given that, any hint that she’s uneasy with breaking that promise just provides another avenue of attack.

And the attacks are getting more strident, and more personal. A few moments ago, in a media conference, Abbott advised Gillard to ‘make an honest woman of herself’. The clear implication is that Gillard is no more than a slut willing to whore herself out to get what she wants – and that it’s Bob Brown who’s taking advantage of that. It’s not an insult you’d ever hear directed at a male politician – and it’s outrageous that Abbott should take a disagreement about policy and turn it into an opportunity for sexual smear.

Of course, Gillard can’t come right out and state the obvious: that the increased Greens vote in the last election (delivering the balance of power and its first Lower House member) was a signal that a significant portion of Australia supports action on climate change. So she needs to stand up and say words to the effect of, ‘Yes, I promised that. Yes, I shouldn’t have let an interviewer push me into that position. This is what I believe is right, what will benefit Australia now and in the future. I am committed to building a cleaner, more energy-efficient country for all of us, and contributing to a global effort.’

As long as the Coalition are able to keep hammering her on this broken promise, Gillard’s attention is deflected from the real battle – countering the scare campaign they’ve already commenced.

And herein lies the ‘end of the world’ hysteria. This is a sample of some of the Coalition’s allegations.

Households will be slugged an extra $300 per year in electricity charges! Petrol will cost 6.5c more per litre! Food will go up! Soon no one will be able to afford to turn on the lights! Small business will be forced into bankruptcy! Virtually every price will go up! Industry will be unable to compete internationally! It’s an assault on Australia’s standard of living!

You could be forgiven for wondering when Chicken Little joined the Coalition.

The numbers, of course, are plucked out of thin air. Abbott’s based them on a figure bandied around by the Australian Industry Group after a few economists got together around a dart board and tried to guess what kind of price per tonne of carbon might be set. No one in the Coalition have any idea what price is being considered.

Why not? Because none of them are part of the MPCCC.

They chose not to be. In fact, Abbott made it a point of principle. The whole notion of a carbon price (or ‘carbon tax’, as he insists on calling it regardless of whether he’s talking about a tax, a cap-and-trade system or a hybrid model) is something that Abbott firmly excluded from Coalition policy. ‘There will be no carbon price on consumers under a Coalition government,’ he said last year. Curious, then, that he won’t commit to repealing anything Gillard wants to put into place.

Never ever, Mr Abbott?

But this is the point. Abbott doesn’t know anything about proposed prices. He doesn’t want to know. He’s set a policy position, and facts would only get in the way. Sabra Lane on ABC Radio National’s AM program this morning asked him to explain where he got his numbers. Abbott’s response? ‘Well, surely, it’s not going to be zero’.

It’s not about facts, for Abbott. It’s about his avowed intent to bring down the government. If he has to lie, or fudge the figures, or don a rubber mask and jump out from behind a melting iceberg shouting, ‘Booooo!’ to do it, he will.

And he seems to think he will ride into government on the back of a so-called ‘people’s revolt’.

That one took even the media – well-versed in weathering the hyperbole of politicians – back a few steps. One questioner commented, ‘That’s a fairly dramatic term’.

That’s an understatement. Given the turmoil we’ve seen in North Africa recently – most particularly, the horrific massacres of protesters in Libya – it’s inevitable that someone hearing the phrase ‘people’s revolt’ would think of people in the streets calling for a revolution against an oppressive government that is destroying the country.

This isn’t a ‘shit happens’ moment. This phrase – repeated several times since – is deliberately designed to cause unease. Abbott knows he can’t panic the Australian people into the kind of action we saw in Egypt; but he also knows that even suggesting a linkage is likely to have an unsettling effect. Add that to the fudged figures, the lies and the sexual smear on Gillard, and you have the beginnings of a concerted campaign.

What’s perhaps most repugnant is Abbott’s suggestion that this will be some kind of ‘grass roots’ movement, the celebrated ‘Aussie battlers’ and ‘working families’ rising up spontaneously to defend their way of life. That it won’t in any way be driven by big business, mining companies or the Opposition.

Sound familiar? It should. Over in the United States, they call it the Tea Party – the so-called ‘people’s movement’ that is funded, sponsored, backed and peopled by the Republicans.

The hardline stance on asylum seekers with its dogwhistles and outright bigotry, the determination to seize government at any cost, and the willingness to use tactics that from personal smear to blatant lying to prevent anything that looks like a vaguely ‘Leftist’ policy being implemented – more and more, it seems Abbott is not much lurching to the Right as running full-tilt into its embrace.

Now he has Labor’s carbon price mechanism to attack. Get ready for an ugly few months – because the balance of power in the Senate will change in July, and Abbott knows this is the best chance he’ll get to topple the government.


Nothing to apologise for, Mr Andrews?

December 22, 2010

Dr Mohammed Haneef is an innocent man. He is an Indian citizen who came to Australia to pursue his medical career – and his life as a medical registrar at Gold Coast Hospital was abruptly shattered in 2007 by a series of events that saw him incarcerated, victimised and demonised. Presiding over that whole affair was then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews.

Three years later, Dr Haneef returned to Australia to seek compensation for loss of wages, the damage to his reputation and the personal suffering he was forced to endure. Today, he reached a settlement with government solicitors – an undisclosed amount, of course, but one with which Haneef seemed very happy.

Talking to the media afterwards, Haneef stated that he would like to visit Australia again to see friends and relatives. He also said he would consider seeking re-employment at Gold Coast Hospital. In light of what he went through, that is truly remarkable.

Inevitably, the question arose within the commentariat: should Kevin Andrews apologise for Dr Haneef’s treatment? Tim Smith, Councillor for the City of Stonnington, seemed outraged at the very idea. Kevin Andrews is an honourable man, he protested. He had some bad advice, but he did what he thought was right. There is literally nothing for which an apology is due.

Nothing to apologise for?

Let’s set the Wayback Machine for July 2, 2007, and see.

First the Federal Police arrest Dr Mohamed Haneef as he was leaving the country to return to India to visit his wife and newborn daughter.

They hold him for over 200 hours before finally charging him with giving his mobile SIM card to a cousin who allegedly blew up a car at Glasgow Airport. The card, of course, was recovered from the wreck. This is, mind you, not an intentional support of terrorism, but a ‘reckless act’ … whatever that means. It’s also, it seems, suspicious that Dr Haneef only bought a one-way ticket.

Then the Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, revokes Haneef’s visa on ‘character’ grounds, i.e. that he associates with known terrorists. This, of course, refers to his cousin. Never mind that the British authorities have decided, by this time, that said cousin is not only not a known terrorist, he’s not even a suspected terrorist. Such details are unimportant, apparently – and Haneef is headed for a detention centre pending deportation – mind you, booting him out of the country will come after they’ve convicted him.

As the farce grinds on, whoops! The AFP realise that the SIM Card of Doom was not found in the wreck at Glasgow Airport, but seized in evidence from Liverpool – 300 km away. They also realise that a particular piece of evidence used to make the initial allegations is, in fact, nothing of the kind. This ‘evidence’ is supposedly Haneef’s diary, which he consistently denies as being anything to do with him. In fact, the Australian police were presenting their own notes to the doctor, and insisting that he explain them. Of course, he can’t.

Enter the Director of Public Prosecutions. He steps in to check out everything, and lo and behold! – suddenly Haneef is released on July 27. Amazingly, there is no evidence to link Haneef with terrorist groups, evil SIM cards or, indeed, Osama bin Ladin (who, I’m sure, would have made an appearance eventually). That should be the end of it, but instead Haneef heads off to home detention. Because his visa’s still revoked, and Andrews isn’t budging on his ‘character’ judgment – lack of evidence notwithstanding. Apparently, an Immigration Minister is blessed with a preternatural ability to see the Evil That Men Do – or Think. Andrews also hints darkly that he has a secret dossier.

Over a year later, the AFP finally clear Haneef’s name and return his passport – but not his work visa. The good doctor decides he’s had enough. He’s been systematically victimised, had his character publicly assassinated, and has a long fight on his hands just to be allowed to stay in the very country that’s screwed him over so royally. To no one’s surprise, he gets on a plane to India and his family, where he’s welcomed with flowers and cheers.

Oh wait – one person’s surprised. Kevin ‘I Know Something You Don’t Know’ Andrews. He, apparently, thinks it’s suspicious that Haneef would want to turn his back on Australia and all those highly dubious laws that make it permissible to drag a doctor off the ward and into indefinite detention, kick him out of the country and publicly defame him – for no good reason. Andrews, apparently, still has information that will justify his outrageously draconian actions – and if we’re very good little boys and girls, he might just condescend to show us.

Even if we do get to see this damning information that even the Brits don’t have (or else they would never have released Haneef’s cousin), it’s unlikely that anything in that dossier can even begin to justify what was done to Dr Haneef in the name of ‘protecting Australia from terrorism’. Our government and law enforcement overreacted massively and came close to destroying a man’s life. Certainly, they destroyed his career, and his faith in justice.

But wait …

Kevin ‘Sees All, Knows All’ Andrews, surprise, surprise, suddenly says that it might not be possible to release the dossier after all. If he does, it might jeopardise an ‘ongoing investigation’ being undertaken by both Australian and British law enforcement.

Hang on, didn’t the Federal court establish that there was no connection between Haneef and any terrorist-related activities or groups? And didn’t the British already say they had no interest in Haneef’s cousin (remember him, the one with the cursed SIM card)?

It’s likely that the only thing releasing this ‘dossier’ would jeopardise is Mr. Andrews’ job. It would show everyone just how baseless his actions were, how flawed and prejudiced the investigation was, and how he manipulated a disgusting piece of legislative xenophobia – possibly for no other reason to satisfy his own sense of pique at being thwarted by the courts.

The Clarke Inquiry of 2008 concludes that the case against Haneef is ‘completely deficient’. It stops short of calling for Andrews’ resignation, however. In fact, it pretty much lets him off the hook altogether, stating that Andrews probably acted out of a genuine belief that Haneef had terrorist connections. There’s a faint whiff of criticism in the Inquiry’s report directed at Andrew’s failure to analyse all the information provided, but even then, Clarke is only ‘puzzled’.

So, back in 2010 …

Does Kevin Andrews need to apologise?

Why is this a question that even needs to be asked?

Andrews not only refuses to apologise, but commented publicly today that no legal action taken by Haneef would ever have succeeded had it come to court. The government, apparently, will issue an apology, which is commendable. Those who really need to front up, however – Andrews, former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock and former Prime Minister John Howard – have no intention of doing so.

This quasi-mythical dossier should be released – because what we have is a paraphrased extract of a chat room conversation between Haneef and his brother that talks about Haneef’s newborn daughter and his planned trip to India. There has never been even one piece of evidence that might suggest Haneef is a terrorist or associates with them. Yet, on the basis of a Minister’s say-so, he was treated as though his guilt was not merely likely, but already proved beyond any doubt.

Andrews, Ruddock and Howard avoided having to answer the hard questions in 2008. In 2010, they should be compelled to do so. They should also be compelled to apologise publicly to Dr Haneef and his family, and that apology should be broadcast.

Instead it seems that – yet again – the only apology that will ever come out of the Howard years is one delivered by others.


Gillard – the pandering atheist?

August 6, 2010

It seems our atheist Prime Minister thinks it’s a good idea to talk to the Australian Christian Lobby, following in the footsteps of her predecessors.

This is the same group, mind you, who came out strongly with cries of alarm over Julia Gillard’s avowed atheism, and warned that Christians would be unlikely to vote for her. The same group who, every election, somehow manages to get the leaders of both major parties to visit and be subjected to questioning on its policies from a remarkably narrow religious point of view. The group who sends a questionnaire to all parties asking for their policies and commitments.** The questions range from concerns over same-sex marriage, to euthanasia, to insistence on occupying a place in the national curriculum and – incredibly – to a request for all parties to commit to never allow the introduction of sharia law in Australia. The questions are clearly designed to elicit a particular answer – one that claims to reflect the values of all Christians in Australia.

They do not.

Because make no mistake, the ACL is not representative of the majority of Christians in Australia. Despite its claims, the views it espouses are largely aligned with a particular Pentecostal type of Christianity – one that has featured heavily in US politics, both federal and local. We’re talking the kind of lobby group that advocates getting elected to school boards in order to ban science texts that teach evolution, and block informed sex education that doesn’t boil down to ‘don’t do it’. Back in 2007, I looked into the ACL, and its claim to speak for all Christians.

So if it is, in reality, such a small group, why do the leaders front up, year after year? Why do the parties fill out their questionnaire?

It would be nice to think that our leaders were concerned with reaching out to people of all faiths. Sadly, this just isn’t true. Gillard popped up at a fundraising dinner associated with the Catholic Church’s efforts to canonise Mother Mary MacKillop last night, and now says she will meet with the ACL. Her party has already answered its questions.

But has Gillard said she will give equal time to representatives of the various Muslim communities in Australia? Jewish? Buddhist? Pagan? Agnostic? Atheist? She has not. In fact, she has made no attempt whatsoever to adhere to the statement she made when first asked about her own beliefs – that she would treat all people of faith equally.

If Gillard is serious about that, she will take steps to meet with groups that are representative of the diversity of faiths in Australia. If she really wants to treat everyone equally, she’ll answer their questionnaires. And she’ll also answer questions from atheist groups.

There is no sign that this will happen. What it looks like from here is that Gillard is pandering to what she perceives to be an influential lobby group – and that she is so eager to have their votes that she will risk alienating a huge number of people in Australia.

We expected this from Howard, and from Rudd. Both of them were very clear about how much their religious beliefs influenced their political decisions. Abbot has been very cagey about his faith so far this election, but has said nothing to imply that he won’t continue to look to it for guidance.

But from a Prime Minister who wears her religious position proudly, and who says that she will treat all faiths equally? Gillard made the Australian people a promise – and unless she moves fast, she will stand revealed as no different from her predecessors – willing to treat some people as more equal than others.

**(As an aside, I was deeply disappointed to see that the Greens, who in 2007 refused to answer any of the ACL’s
questions, had decided to partially engage with them this time around. In the last election the Greens made it clear that they would not be engaging with the ACL, who they considered unrepresentative of anything but a vocal minority with extreme views. This time, targeted for apparently ‘godless humanist’ views by the Christian Democrats, the Greens seem to be trying to pacify the loudest voices – and as a result, their strongly principled stand is undermined by what looks a lot like fear.)


%d bloggers like this: