Going behind the hysteria to examine the PNG deal

July 20, 2013

Yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia and Papua New Guinea had entered into a Regional Refugee Agreement, to address the issue of boat-borne asylum seekers.

In a joint media conference, Rudd spelled out the plan. Asylum boats will be intercepted as usual, taken to Christmas Island for preliminary processing (medical and security checks), then moved to the Manus Island detention facility for refugee assessment under UN protocols and supervision. Those deemed to be genuine refugees under the UN convention will either be settled in PNG, or in a third country. Those who do not meet the refugee criteria will be deported to their home countries or – if that was not possible – to another country. No refugee processed on Manus would be resettled in Australia.

In return, Australia will increase its humanitarian intake, upgrade and expand the Manus detention centre, and significantly invest in PNG infrastructure. There is no cap on the number of asylum seekers who may be processed through Manus.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that media – mainstream, independent and social – figuratively exploded as this announcement rolled out. The overwhelming reaction was negative. People swore that the ALP had forever lost their vote, that Rudd was showing his racist colours, that he was just using the plight of people to win an election. It was, in short, hysterical.

Over the years, I’ve condemned hardline policies relating to asylum seeker issues, regardless of their origin. At its base, this is a human issue. Not a political one. There are human beings involved, who are fleeing for their lives and seeking a safe haven. There is nothing dangerous about that – those who bleat about ‘border security’ and ‘protection’ deliberately play on fears and insecurities that have nothing to do with the people who become victims all over again just for wanting safety for themselves and their families.

But – and here’s the thing – there is an issue here. Not that there are hordes arriving on our shores to take our jobs and threaten our wimmins, all while turning us into Muslims with their sneaky ways (thank you, Senator Bernardi). The issue is that, no matter what, people are still putting themselves in the hands of criminals who have no interest in preserving life once money has changed hands. And people are dying at sea. Nothing – nothing – has changed that; not relaxing entry requirements, threatening to send people to Malaysia, or actually sending them to Nauru.

So, with that in mind, I took a look at this arrangement between Australian and Papua New Guinea.

Before moving on to discuss the Agreement in detail, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.

1. Australia has not ‘slammed the door on refugees’, despite the incendiary headlines of today’s Age.

The RRA does not apply to those who are deemed refugees using normal channels, only those who arrive by boat (or who are intercepted on their way here). We still have a humanitarian intake and resettlement, which was increased last year by 6000, with further increases flagged over time.

That this is painfully obvious, and yet apparently ignored by those reporting the story in the media, smacks of nothing more than scare-mongering for the purposes of ratings and profit. It’s completely irresponsible to suggest that this RRA would let to Australia refusing any refugees.

2. The RRA is not a reinstatement of the infamous ‘White Australia’ policy.

Where do I start, with this one? It’s so ridiculous it shouldn’t have to be addressed – yet social media is full of cries to the effect that the RRA constitutes racial profiling, as part of an official policy to deny ‘brown-skinned’ people a place in Australian society. This is nothing more than an assertion – there isn’t a shred of evidence to back it up. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest otherwise.

Under the White Australia policy, would-be immigrants (note: not refugees) who did not conform to a certain ‘Britishness’ (or, at least, northern European Anglophones), were either denied entry altogether, or required to pass prohibitively difficult tests. Some of these tests were deliberately administered in a language unknown to the person seeking entry, virtually guaranteeing that they would fail. The choice of language for these tests was at the discretion of the administering officer.

The abolition of this policy, over time and by both Left and Right leaning governments, is one of Australia’s great achievements. That is absolutely undeniable. But to suggest that the RRA with Papua New Guinea seeks to reinstate it ignores – wilfully ignores – a number of facts.

As mentioned above, we still have a humanitarian refugee intake. Refugees are not immigrants in the usual sense. They are people fleeing unbearable conditions in their own countries, seeking resettlement elsewhere. Determination of refugee status is made according to certain conventions set down by the UN and agreed to by signatories.

Additionally – and surely this should not have to be pointed out – the overwhelming majority of people granted refugee status are not ‘white’ in any sense of the word. Refugees resettled here tend to be Iraqi, Afghani, Somali, or Tamil – and will likely continue to be, until conditions in their home countries change drastically. They are not about to be denied refugee status on the basis of their ethnicity.

3. The RRA is not purely an ‘election quick-fix’ (The Age editorial notwithstanding).

Now, there’s no doubt that this arrangement with Papua New Guinea cuts the legs out from under the Coalition’s stated intentions towards asylum seekers. It is likely to provide some deterrent for those who might otherwise fall prey to people smugglers’ assurances of resettlement and citizenship. (And the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has wasted no time in spreading that message far and wide, with posters popping up all over asylum seeker support pages on Facebook.) It has the advantage of being a signed agreement, rather than a simple, unilateral announcement – and there is detail available, which is more than could be said for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’.

That said, all those potential election benefits also have substantial effects. This is not merely a case of trading slogans. It’s arguable that the government is participating in a race to the bottom, but this is nothing new where asylum seekers are concerned. They have been pawns for years now, for all sides of politics. The real issue is policy itself.

So, if the RRA is neither a slammed door nor a new White Australia policy, what is it?

Our Navy and Coast Guard will still patrol for boats, and still escort them to Christmas Island. Asylum seekers who have come by boat will still be held in offshore detention, pending processing. Refugees will be resettled. The difference? Where those refugees – and only those refugees – will end up.

There are, however, real concerns with this agreement.

First, it begs the question of why we need offshore detention in the first place. So-called ‘pull factors’ have never been properly demonstrated. Despite the Coalition’s oft-repeated assertions, there is no proof that the Pacific Solution ‘stopped’ anything. There was a drop in boat arrivals, but in the global context, that is more likely attributable to the situation in home and transit countries. The difference between the Pacific Solution and the RRA is that it absolutely rules out resettlement in Australia. If boats drop in number once the RRA is in place, that may show that having Australia as a destination is, indeed a pull factor.

Second, the state of the Manus detention facility. To put it bluntly, it’s a dump. The housing is temporary, there are pools of stagnant water all over the camp (creating a malaria risk), and as late as July 12 this year, the UNHCR stated that the centre did not meet international standards.

Australia has pledged to spend whatever is necessary to make the permanent facility both up to standard, and able to handle up to 6000 people. And this brings us back to the earlier problem; if we’re prepared to spend that much money (and invest in PNG’s infrastructure) to keep people out of the country, why not spend money to refurbish, expand or even build new centres on the mainland? (Leaving aside, of course, the utterly insupportable decision to excise the mainland from our Migration Zone.)

Rudd’s answer is likely to be that this is a regional issue, deserving of a regional solution. That’s true enough – but is this the best we can do? The government proposes that Australia play the dual roles of bank and conference organiser. Both are undeniably important, but should we be expecting PNG – a country which we will have to prop up financially – to do most of the work for us?

The RRA may well stop boats leaving Indonesia – or, at least, preserve a status quo when it comes to our Navy and Coast Guard. Certainly, it’s nullified the issue where the Coalition is concerned – and the Greens, for all their passion, still have little detail to support them beyond assertions that we should expand our humanitarian refugee intake and restore the family reunion program. Politically, it’s a win. For all the rhetoric, Labor are unlikely to lose many votes with this agreement.

Morally, though? There are real questions that need to be answered, not least of which is: at what point did we decide we would no longer even consider processing boat-borne refugees – any refugees – on our own land?

That’s what is important here. Not hysteria, not deliberately misleading headlines, not hodge-podge rallies responding with the speed of a knee-jerk to a few bullet points.

Asking the right questions. Calmly, implacably, and constantly.


The return of Rudd – so now what?

June 27, 2013

Last night everything came to a head – the constant speculation, the outrageous op-eds, and the inevitable cries of ‘What the hell is going on here?’ from the Australian people. Faced with a petition calling for a Special Caucus meeting to decide the Labor leadership, Prime Minister Julia Gillard called a spill for 7pm. In an exclusive interview with Sky News’ David Speers, she invited ‘challengers’, and insisted that the loser leave politics at the next election.

Of course, she didn’t utter the name ‘Kevin Rudd’, but there was only ever one contender. This was to be nothing less than a final showdown. And – unlike the bungled attempt by Simon Crean in March this year – Rudd stepped up. His style could not have been more different. The Prime Minister gave a quiet, exclusive interview. Rudd held a press conference in the Caucus Room, effectively sending a message that he already held the high ground, and was reaching out to all viewers.

As the time wore down, rumours and leaks were everywhere. Rudd had the numbers. Gillard had the numbers. This person was switching allegiances. Nothing new, really – but then there was a bombshell. Bill Shorten, widely regarded as the ‘kingmaker’ of the Labor Party, head of the National Right and instrumental in removing Rudd in 2010, announced that he would be supporting Rudd. He brought around seven votes with him, and from there the tide turned. Water Minister Tony Burke, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Finance Minister Penny Wong, both stalwart Gillard supporters, also decided to support Rudd.

The result: 57-45. Kevin Rudd was sworn in – again – as Prime Minister this morning.

For some, this was something for which they’d been waiting since 2010. For others, it was nothing less than a coup – and here I confess myself entirely bemused. Gillard supporters – themselves the beneficiaries of a leadership challenge that toppled a sitting Prime Minister – cried foul. Turnabout, it seems, is not fair play when it comes to Gillard being ousted.

It’s worth taking a look at those who changed their votes, however. Why would they abandon Gillard, after supporting her for so long? The answer is simple, and brutal: this was never about anything but winning the upcoming election – or at least, minimising the damage if the Coalition takes government.

Sounds venal, doesn’t it? Self-serving? Grasping?

Of course it is.

Remember those polls? Even the best said that under Gillard, Labor faced decimation at the ballot box. The Coalition would likely hold both Houses by majority, rendering the Greens ineffective in the Senate and Independents like Andrew Wilkie entirely powerless. Labor stood to lose Queensland and Western Australia in the Senate, as well as key seats formerly considered safe. At worst, Labor would cease to have any discernible effect as a political party for a very long time.

Then there were all those other polls, that showed Rudd was by far preferred leader, and might even make a fight out of the election. And finally, internal polling that confirmed the worst fears of everyone in the party. Under those circumstances, any politician is going to think long and hard about not only their own future, but that of their party.

Carr said on Lateline last night that ‘suddenly the next election has become very contestable. … Our achievements … were at risk from an Abbott government’. Wong said it was ‘a difficult decision’, made ‘in the best interests of the Labor party’, to make the next election a real contest.

And what about Shorten, the so-called power behind the throne? As he made his announcement, the Minister looked anything but happy. On his face was the look of a man swallowing a bitter pill. He knew he’d be the target of everything from criticism to outright hatred for changing sides, even making the point himself that his political career would probably suffer, possibly even end altogether. He may well have sacrificed himself for the party. That’s not something any politician does lightly.

Anthony Albanese was elected and sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister, beating Simon Crean 61-38. That Crean ran at all was remarkable. If he expected to be rewarded for his attempt to bring on a spill, he was sadly mistaken. Albanese has shown himself throughout to be someone who works entirely for the party, and stayed loyal to the leader. His appointment will go far to heal breaches, after almost half the front bench resigned their portfolios last night. Likewise the unanimous election of Penny Wong as Senate Leader. The other key position, Treasurer, has fallen to Chris Bowen.

As I write, Prime Minister Rudd makes his first speech to the House, acknowledging former Prime Minister Gillard and lauding her accomplishments. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott delivered a speech almost identical to the one he made when Gillard first took office, changing little other than gender references. There was even a reference to the ‘faceless men’, backed up a few minutes later by Immigration Shadow Scott Morrison, who referred to Shorten as ‘the Kingslayer’. Back to normal.

Abbott squashed any talk of a no confidence motion, but the electioneering has already started. He’s called for an immediate election (earliest possible date: August 3), recycling the accusation that the Australian people have – again – been cheated of their right to elect their Prime Minister. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Abbott knows full well that we elect our government, not our government’s leader. Of course, any given leader may sway our vote, but once the party is in power (or Opposition, for that matter), that leader can be changed at any time. That’s how a party-based Parliamentary system works.

So now what?

Rudd faces a choice: keep the September 14 election date, and use the time to establish himself as leader of a party capable of bringing the fight to the Coalition; bring the election date forward, and go immediately into full campaign mode; or push the date back to its latest possible time, hold more sitting weeks and consolidate legislation.

As Prime Minister, he gains an incumbent’s advantage; right up until the election period officially starts, he can still act in an executive fashion. He has the time to show how his policies will differ sufficiently from both the Coalition and his predecessor to justify his re-election. This will particularly centre on issues of climate change, asylum seekers and marriage equality (to which Rudd is a recent convert).

Any option has dangers. Rudd’s popularity may well wane with time, leaving Labor’s election chances in the doldrums. Long election campaigns always test the patience of the electorate, and in this case, the Coalition is likely to run an almost entirely negative strategy aimed at destroying Rudd. They have plenty of ammunition – some of the comments from Gillard’s supporters during the 2012 leadership challenges were positive gifts to the Opposition.

Bringing on an earlier election, however, has its own risks. Rudd and his new Ministry need to clearly show themselves as a cohesive team. The new Ministers only have a short time to establish their credentials as things stand, which allows the Coalition to argue that their side (populated by many of former Prime Minister John Howard’s cabinet) has the necessary experience.

I suspect Rudd will leave the election date at September 14. It’s the best compromise. It won’t be an easy three months, though; the Opposition will be relentless, and the government needs to push its message through the debris of last night’s challenge. Rudd will continue his tactic of stumping for local members. In fact, he’ll be all over the media – pressers, interviews, QandA, various current affairs programs. He’ll face innumerable questions about the leadership challenge, as will those who changed their votes to support him.

It remains to be seen if the media will finally stop asking those questions, since now – in the words of The Age – they can have a debate about policy and ideas. (Sarcasm definitely intended).

And for the rest of us? There’s no doubt Labor has a new spring in its collective step. We may well actually see a contest in September, not a fait accompli that delivers us at least three years of rubber-stamp government.

Regardless of whether you support Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, the Greens or anyone else, that has to be a good result.


We can start the policy debate

June 24, 2013

In my last post, I took aim at The Age’s contention that it was ‘impossible’ to have a policy debate as long as Julia Gillard remained our Prime Minister. I stand by what I wrote then: as long as the media continues to give space to articles and op-eds which speculate about how long she will keep the top job or how hard it is to write about policy, the less actual scrutiny of policy and ideas there will be.

That said: to suggest for one moment that Rupert Murdoch or Gina Rinehart lurk in the background like megalomaniacal overlords, chuckling evilly as they manipulate the election in order to get the result they want, is patently ridiculous. There are any number of studies pointing to media bias in one form or another (or even that the media roughly evens out), and that’s clearly something that these organisations should acknowledge, and, possibly, correct. This does not prove conspiracy.

I grew up in a media household. My stepfather worked for both Fairfax (as Features Editor) and News Limited (in various roles, including editor-in-chief for the Gold Coast Bulletin). My brother now also works for News Limited. Over the years, no directives came down demanding that editorial content favour any given political party. No subtle discouragements filtered through to reporters that they should ‘go hard’ on one leader, while giving another a free pass. Was there bias? Almost certainly. Was it part of a greater agenda? No.

Attributing what’s going on in our media to conspiracy just avoids the real issue – which is how to make policy the focus of political coverage. It won’t happen by accusing News Limited of being a pawn in Murdoch’s nefarious schemes, or saying that Gina Rinehart’s interest in Fairfax is the ‘real’ reason The Age ran that editorial. It probably won’t even happen by demanding that the media start asking some real questions. The questions have to come from the rest of us in whatever way we can ask them.

Hit politicians’ websites. Write to them. Visit them when they’re on the rounds promoting something – their itineraries can usually be obtained, especially for backbenchers moving around their own electorates – and ask them face to face. Ask about the policies on their websites – or why they don’t have policies easily obtainable.

Get involved.

Heck, start a blog, write about what you want to know, and ping it straight at politicians. Most of them these days have Facebook or Twitter accounts. Make social media work. The most common criticism levelled at social media is that it’s no more than an echo chamber, out of touch with reality. To an extent, that’s true. You only have to spend a bit of time reading the #auspol timeline to realise just how much bandwidth is given over to partisan rubbish – and a staggering amount of truly vile sentiment. It makes ‘Ditch the Witch!’ look like a compliment.

That doesn’t mean these must be the only voices to be using social media, however – or even the dominant voices. Just as the mainstream media is not the only voice.

I wrote that if The Age isn’t writing about policy, they have no one to blame but themselves. The same is true for all of us. We shouldn’t wait to have our electoral choices spoon-fed to us.

If your reason for not voting Labor at the next election is ‘Julia Gillard knifed Kevin Rudd’ … if you take the dreadful, misogynist attacks against the Prime Minister as a reason to vote for her … if you spend your time arguing about whether Rudd or Gillard should be leader, rather than scrutinising policy from all sides … then you’re contributing to an already huge problem. You’re enabling a policy-free zone to proliferate.

We can do better than that. We can stop mindlessly marching to the beat being set for us. Ask yourself: who does it serve to have all the attention focused anywhere but policy?

It certainly doesn’t serve us – the people who will determine the outcome of the next election.

Perhaps Rudd will challenge Gillard tomorrow. Perhaps Gillard will step down, or be forced out. Turnbull might challenge Abbott (yes, I know, virtually impossible). But let’s be blunt: what matters, ultimately, are the policies each party takes to the election. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the leader doesn’t matter: of course they do. It’s why Keating challenged Hawke, and why Costello didn’t challenge Howard. But the leader isn’t the be-all and end-all of an election.

It’s time we all started remembering that. So here’s my proposal: let’s ask the questions that really matter.

Let’s ask the Coalition why most of their stated policies to date involve little more than reversing everything accomplished by the Rudd and Gillard governments. Let’s ask the Greens what they plan to do if the Coalition successfully repeals carbon pricing. Let’s ask the Independents what they would do if we end up with another minority government. And let’s ask Labor for more detail about the Gonski reforms, and how it plans to address shortfalls in project mining tax revenue.

It will be up to us on September 14 – but we shouldn’t wait until then. We should start now.


For the sake of the nation, the media should do its job

June 22, 2013

If you’re a reader of Fairfax newspapers, this is what you woke up to today:

‘It is time for Julia Gillard to stand aside as leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, as Prime Minister of Australia, so that vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate can flourish once again. Ms Gillard should do so in the interests of the Labor Party, in the interests of the nation and, most importantly, in the interests of democracy.’

No, really.

You’d expect to read something this pompous from the likes of Andrew Bolt or Gerard Henderson, both of whom are known for their grandiose language and outrageous sentiment. But from The Age? Offered not as one journalist’s opinion, but as the endorsed view of the entire newspaper?

It gets worse.

Assuring us that the paper ‘does not advocate this lightly,’ the editorial went on to say:

‘The Age’s overriding concern is that, under Ms Gillard’s leadership, the Labor Party’s message about its future policies and vision for Australia is not getting through to the electorate. Our fear is that if there is no change in Labor leadership before the September 14 election, voters will be denied a proper contest of ideas and policies – and that would be a travesty for the democratic process.’ (my italics)

It’s not necessary to quote most of the rest. Voters are ‘distracted’ by Labor leadership tensions. The electorate is ‘despairing’ of internal party tensions. Australia deserves a government that can clearly lay out its plans and policies. Oh, and here I will quote:

‘Mr Abbott is being allowed to run almost entirely unchallenged with his preposterous claim that a Coalition government would “stop the boats”, in part by turning back the pathetic trail of rickety vessels laden with asylum seekers’

It’s all in the interests of democracy, you understand. It would be a terrible thing if the Coalition gained control of both Houses, and Labor was unable to step up in Opposition to hold them to account. For all these reasons, the editorial gravely tells us, Prime Minister Julia Gillard should resign.

The arrogance and blinding irony in this editorial are unbelievable.

The Age apparently wants its readers to see it as a victim, shaking its head sorrowfully. ‘We would give you substantial policy debate. We want to discuss real issues, and get to the heart of things. If only, if only, we could do that. It’s not our fault. It’s all because of Gillard. If she was gone, everything would be better’.

Back up a step or two there. I have a few questions for you, Fairfax. And for the rest of the media.

At what point did Gillard hold a gun to your metaphorical heads and force you to write endless, speculative op-eds about the Labor leadership?

At what point did Gillard, or any of her Ministers, refuse to talk about policy?

At what point did Gillard put you in a position where you were ‘unable’ to challenge Tony Abbott on – well, anything, really?

For that matter, since when has the Federal Government had any control over your editorial standards or content? (With the exception of the ABC – and even then, the government can’t prevent coverage of issues.)

If the Australian people aren’t informed about policy, media, whose fault is that? The answer is very simple: yours. Every time you choose to give space to yet another tired op-ed that attempts to convince your readers that a leadership challenge will happen any moment now, that’s one less article about policy, or legislation before the house, or even – heaven forbid – question why we’re still being polled about whether we’d prefer Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott as leader.

Forget the op-eds for a moment. What about the interviews, especially on television? There’s your chance to get some real back-and-forth going on policy. Get some Labor politicians in the studio with you, and make them answer the hard questions. There’s your ‘ideas and policies’ right there.

Except that’s not what happens. It’s practically formulaic by now. The script goes something like this: interviewer asks a question about the leadership; Labor interviewee answers and then tries to move on to policy; interviewer persists in asking the same leadership questions, ignoring anything else the interviewee has to say.

Here’s a particularly egregious example – click through to 15:50 minutes. Craig Emerson, Minister for Trade, was Leigh Sales’ guest on ABC 730 last Thursday. Emerson did not avoid the initial questions about leadership. When he attempted to move on to talking about policy, however, Sales repeatedly interrupted him with what amounted to variations on the Rudd/Gillard theme. Even as this was occurring, Sales asked why Labor couldn’t get its message out.

Emerson, rightly, pointed out that he was trying to do so.

And it’s in this atmosphere that Fairfax publishes its faux-reluctant editorial, blaming the Prime Minister for ‘distracting’ the Australian people.

Breaking news, Fairfax: if we’re distracted, it’s not because of the Prime Minister. It’s because what we see and read, day after day, is what you and News Limited want to serve up to us.

Try this for an experiment. See if you can get through one interview without mentioning Kevin Rudd, or ‘leadership tensions’. See if you can actually write one op-ed that is entirely focused on policy. Contrary to what you’d have us believe, there’s plenty out there – at least on the Labor side. You might ask the Coalition about their lack of policy while you’re at it.

But – to coin an unmistakably Australian phrase – don’t come the raw prawn with us. Don’t claim you have nothing to write about. Don’t claim the Prime Minister possesses some sort of press-gagging superpower.

If the lack of policy debate in this country is what truly concerns you – then start one.

For the sake of the nation, indeed.

UPDATE: After the incredible amount of responses to this post (and the debates that are still going), I thought that a follow-up post was needed. We can start the policy debate.


Dear media, write about something else

June 19, 2013

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an election coming. It’s about this time we should be seeing politicians nailed to the wall about their record, and their policies. So what do we get from our media?

Do we hear about the 1632 children being held in detention solely because their parents risked their lives to seek asylum in Australia? Children who grow up in an atmosphere of utter despair, in conditions of squalor, and with no realistic hope of escape any time soon? For that matter, do we hear that Parliament’s own Human Rights Committee sounded a note of warning, urging MPs to comply with our international obligations?

Do we hear about the Coalition’s plan to flout international law, and Australia’s treaty obligations, by deporting any refugee convicted of a crime with a sentence of 12 months or more back to their home country? To speed up the process, any such refugee would lose their ‘normal rights of appeal’. (Yes, you heard that right. No judicial process for you, refugee person, even if you were wrongly convicted. We’ll put you on a plane and fly you right back into the hands of the country you fled in fear for your life. Bye-bye, now.)

Do we hear about the Coalition’s lack of any substantial education policy, other than to reverse anything the government manages to set in place? Christopher Pyne doesn’t think the education system needs fixing – oh, except for that pesky National Curriculum. That’s got to go. Too ‘black armband’. We can’t have our kids growing up thinking our history contains anything shameful.

How about the major parties marching in lockstep to preserve a duopoly between Coles and Woolworths, which causes immense harm to primary producers and small businesses? The complete silence on Arts funding? The government’s undignified scramble away from legislation to regulate poker machines? The Coalition’s intent to widen an already huge gap between wealthy and low income families through a number of policies, including its misnamed Paid Parental Leave (only available to women) and removing means testing on so-called ‘middle class welfare’ schemes like the Schoolkids’ Bonus?

Do we hear incisive analysis about the issues? Informed, reasoned commentary? Close questioning in interviews?

We do not.

What we do hear is, day after day, the same pap regurgitated.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott visits yet another small business, telling us that the ‘carbon tax’ is killing the country. Or the mining tax. Or both. The script is so predictable that one suspects he may, at times, be talking in his sleep. But that’s perfectly all right, because no one is likely to ask him any hard questions.

Yet another opinion piece pops up, telling us that Kevin Rudd’s supporters are massing for a tilt at the leadership, and that Labor is on the verge of self-destruction. That a challenge is imminent. Ignore anything that Labor politicians actually say – just keep presenting the conjecture as fact. Sooner or later, it’s got to be true, right? Even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.

And then there are the endless, endless discussions of polls – but only some polls. Only the polls that show the government heading towards an unprecedented defeat. Only the polls that show Rudd is more popular than the Prime Minister. Don’t worry about the polls that have consistently shown a different trend, which – at least – suggest that closer analysis might be in order. Don’t worry about polls showing Abbott’s popularity pales in comparison to that of the leader he ousted, Malcolm Turnbull.

Think I’m exaggerating? Watch the headlines on the hourly ABC News24 and Sky bulletins. Go and look at the headlines under ‘Politics’ on the Fairfax or News Limited’s websites. Discount anything written by a politician, and here’s a sample of what you get:

(from Fairfax)
‘For Fix Sake, Someone Sort Out Rudd and Gillard’
‘The Loved and the Loathed’ (Gillard and Rudd, of course)
‘Little Wonder Caucus Mired in its Pool of Tears’

(from News Ltd)
‘Kevin Rudd Can’t Save Labor’
‘Gone-ski, Me? Not Today Anyway’ (Fairfax makes Lewis Carroll references, News Ltd makes puns)
‘G-G on Hand in Case of Coup’
‘Blocking Kevin Won’t Leave Julia a Martyr’

To be fair, there were a couple of articles about issues other than the Labor leadership. One was a very short update on how 457 Visa legislation might not pass the House. Another expressed astonishment at the social media backlash that followed Senator Cory Bernardi’s column yesterday, in which he claimed he’d been vindicated in his assertion that same-sex marriage would lead to multiple marriage and bestiality. By far, though, the majority of media coverage has been the same old same old.

Now, sure, breathless speculation about an imminent Constitutional crisis makes for great headlines. What a story – it’s got action, it’s got conflict, it’s got drama – and best of all, there’s no need to make sure that the facts are correct. Because there are no facts. It’s all one big hypothetical, and if it never happens, well, no harm, no foul, right? The next story can always be about how Rudd’s faction ‘backed away’. Meanwhile, there’s always another Abbott presser.

This is the kind of rubbish that clutters up political journalism, buries – or even outright ignores – substantial policy debate and criticism, and is served up to us. Is it any wonder that people turn increasingly to independent media?

Here’s a heretical thought for the mainstream media. Why not stop writing about how Rudd might challenge Gillard? Sure, keep an ear to the ground, and if a challenge is on, be there on the ground – but in the meantime, there’s plenty of news to go around. Get stuck into the Coalition on their resounding lack of policy. Pin down the government on their appalling asylum seeker legislation. Do some bloody analysis on Greens policies. Hell, spend some time with the Independents – all of them – and find out what they plan to bring to their election campaigns.

For the love of Murphy, write about something else.

I promise it won’t hurt. You might just find your audiences start re-engaging. And those readers and viewers would have some real content to accompany what they get from independent media. Everybody wins.

Wouldn’t that be a fine thing?


Why the Menu Matters

June 12, 2013

By now, pretty much everyone’s seen, or at least heard about, that menu, produced for a fundraising dinner held for Liberal National Party member Mal Brough. The guest of honour was Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, lending a hand in the effort to oust Independent Peter Slipper from his seat.

Remember Mr Slipper? Former Speaker, toppled after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against him – allegations in which Mr Brough played a significant part? Oh, and let’s not forget, Brough himself admitted that he’d ‘misled’ people about the situation in order to help bring about Slipper’s downfall. But I digress.

The food presented for the dinner was, as expected, rather fancy. It’s the sort of thing you’d see at very high-end restaurants. That wasn’t the issue. It was the way the dishes were described. Now, you’d expect to see a little mockery of the opposing side at an electioneering function, and this was no exception. Kevin Rudd was compared to a goose at this one.

But then there was the way the menu referred to the Prime Minister:

The menu for Mal Brough's fundraising dinner

The menu for Mal Brough’s fundraising dinner

‘small breasts, big thighs, and [a derogatory reference to her genitalia]’. (I’ve blacked out the most offensive part of the description.)

Any way you look at that, it’s almost breathtakingly disgusting. The Prime Minister – the elected head of government – discussed in terms that wouldn’t be acceptable in the workplace, let alone a so-called fundraiser. A vicious attack on her physical appearance and her gender. Yes, her gender. When you start referring specifically to someone’s genitalia in such terms, you’re attacking their gender.

No doubt it was meant to be funny. I bet the guests got a big chuckle out of it, too. There’s nothing like mean-spirited mockery to really set the tone of an evening. More fun than teasing the ‘weird kid’ in the playground, right?

The menu made it to the public arena via the evening’s chef, in response to a tweet from Hockey:

One suspects the chef was less than impressed with Hockey pointing the finger at the Prime Minister and calling her behaviour offensive, given his attendance at the dinner – and his failure, at the time, to condemn the menu.

Brough was quick to get his face on television to say the menu was ‘inappropriate’ – but none of his people had drawn up that menu, and he didn’t know who did.

Inappropriate. That’s one word for it.

Hockey tweeted:

That, frankly, is absurd. He was the guest of honour. A copy of the menu was, according to the chef, placed on each table. Are we really supposed to believe that Hockey didn’t even glance at it? That no one pointed out the oh-so-hilarious descriptions?

And then there was Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, at a press conference with Steve Ciobo (who commented on Lateline that the Prime Minister was likely to ‘get her throat slit’), shaking his head and solemnly declaring that it was ‘tacky’ – but that we should also condemn ‘squalid’ jokes at union dinners. And by the way, wasn’t it convenient that this menu came to light at a time when the Prime Minister was under fire from her own party?

One after another, all three representatives from the Coalition worked to diminish the seriousness of the issue. Whether it was tepid language, attempts to divert or a completely unbelievable alibi, the reaction from the Coalition has fallen far short of the mark.

But really, what else should we have expected? Remember, we are talking about a Coalition that, under Abbott’s leadership, has never hesitated to making crude, sexist and violent remarks about the Prime Minister. Remember this?

Abbott fronting the 'No Carbon Tax' rally, backed by abusive signs

Abbott fronting the ‘No Carbon Tax’ rally, backed by abusive signs

At that rally, Opposition Senator Barnaby Joyce positively encouraged that placard-waving crowd to chant, ‘Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!’ People screamed for the Prime Minister (the ‘witch’) to be killed. Not one Coalition member out there spoke out against that. Abbott, in fact, even suggested the Prime Minister had brought it on herself.

Hockey stayed well away, but didn’t condemn any of it. Hmm, sounds familiar. Perhaps he ‘didn’t see’ any of those signs.

The menu is only the latest in a long series of sexist, violent attacks on the Prime Minister. It’s not merely disrespecting the office. It’s not picking out a long nose, or big ears, and highlighting them in a cartoon. These are sustained, specific attacks targeting the Prime Minister as a woman. The description of the offensive dish literally encouraged the diners to consider themselves cutting apart, chewing and swallowing those parts of a woman’s body that display her gender. This isn’t coming from some extremist group, hell-bent on armed revolution. This is either being endorsed by, or originating from, the Opposition – the Coalition that may well be elected to office in September.

At the time of the ‘No Carbon Tax’ rally, Independent MP Tony Windsor sounded a note of warning about the violent rhetoric. If it continued, and worsened, he said, he was afraid that it might spill over into actual violence. He was mocked mercilessly for ‘overreacting’.

But here we are, with MPs suggesting that the Prime Minister be murdered (and ex-MP Peter Reith suggesting that she commit suicide). Here we are, with MPs laughing about offensive, sexist descriptions before digging into the dish that was supposed to stand for her.

And here we are, with an Opposition Leader – possibly soon-to-be Prime Minister – who apparently thinks that it’s only ‘tacky’ or ‘unfortunate’ when someone suggests assaulting or even killing a woman.

Think about that.


Election 2013: A tale told by an idiot

June 10, 2013

It’s time. Time for the media to bring out tired old speculation about the Labor leadership; time for obsessive focus on a single, arguably self-interested poll that indicates an ever-greater victory for the Federal Coalition; time for backbench politicians in marginal seats to become the hottest headlines in political reporting.

Yes, it’s time.

And if you spotted the mangling of an old election slogan here … well, that’s rather the point. The September 14 election looms ever closer. The Coalition helpfully told us last week that we’d passed the hundred-day mark – though why it would bother is a bit of a puzzler. After all, the Coalition hasn’t stopped campaigning since the result of the 2010 election. Notwithstanding, the official election campaign is about to begin, and all parties are getting ready in their own way.

The government is at pains to point out how much legislation has been passed under Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s leadership. Led by carbon pricing, the mining tax, the National Broadband Network, increasing the compulsory superannuation contribution from 9% to 12%, education reform, and the NDIS, the government have passed over 300 pieces of legislation. ‘Obviously’, this points to a stable, functioning government.

Then there are those polling numbers, that so rarely seem to go the government’s way. Gillard seems unable to take a trick, especially when it comes to the Newspoll. ‘Surely’ this indicates the people don’t want another Labor government.

And let’s not forget the Greens and Independents. Without them, the government could not have passed so many bills. They ensured a full term of Parliament, and helped institute Parliamentary reforms that gave a greater voice to cross-benchers. Their influence is ‘out of proportion’.

But you know what? None of that matters.

The amount of legislation passed by the government is irrelevant.

The polling numbers are irrelevant.

The stability of the Parliament is irrelevant.

Oh, and that little thing called policy? Irrelevant.

Why?

Because this election will be about nothing more than ideology.

The facts don’t matter, you see.

It doesn’t matter whether the Federal Coalition refuses to delineate its policies, or to have what little detail it releases costed through Treasury. It doesn’t matter that the two major parties are effectively in lockstep on asylum seeker policy, pursuing an increasingly inhumane agenda. And it certainly doesn’t matter that the Prime Minister has managed to administrate a minority government in an effective, consultative way.

What will matter in this campaign is nothing more than a narrative created by the Federal Coalition. The story it wants to tell is one of desperation; of a weak Prime Minister manipulated by factional ‘warlords’, a government at the mercy of an ‘extreme’ left-wing minor party, and a country at the mercy of crippling taxes levied upon a populace that simply cannot afford to pay for the government’s ineptitude. Add to that a hefty whack of xenophobia (‘the boats, the boats!’) and the hackneyed ‘Rudd wants his job back’ motif, and there you have it.

The Coalition’s description of itself is, of course, far more optimistic. Its narrative boils down to, ‘Under us, you’ll have more money and sleep safely in your beds at night’. It’s all sleight of hand, of course; you’re expected to believe that somehow the Coalition – the so-called ‘party of the free market’ – can force power companies to drop their prices, simply by removing the carbon price. You’re also supposed to believe that refugee boats will stop coming – or, if they do come, that there’ll be no ‘convicted Egyptian jihadist terrorists’ roaming free to (presumably) threaten Our Way Of Life. Never mind the increasing evidence that said ‘terrorist’ may well be nothing of the kind. It’s all about how many times you say something – not whether it’s true.

Labor’s story isn’t much better. It got spooked by the Coalition’s unrelenting insistence on knowing when the Budget would be in surplus – at a time when the majority of the Western world was struggling with deficits of, in some cases, trillions of dollars. It made the critical mistake of promising big, then having to walk back expectations. That’s a gift to the Coalition. The polls are terrible, but rather than eat any form of humble pie and promise to listen to the electorate, Labor’s strategy is to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault’. And out comes the increasingly tattered spectre of WorkChoices and the threat of razor gangs rampaging through the halls of the public service. Labor’s trying to recapture its old image of ‘the workers’ champion’ – whether or not its deeds match its words.

The minor parties, of course, criticise everybody. The Greens and the Katter United Party make for odd bedfellows, but when it comes to ideology, you can’t beat them. Both are light on policy, heavy on rhetoric. So far, that’s working – and perhaps Labor, in particular, should have looked at the election results and seen that.

The voices crying in the wilderness are the Independents, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. They’re Parliament’s equivalent of the strange uncles that one has to invite to the family reunion, but no one wants to get trapped in a corner listening to them. A pity, that, since they’re the only ones talking policy and making sense. They’re not interested in narratives; they want to hear some policy detail. How quaint.

Duelling narratives. It would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating.

And the media are enthusiastically complicit. Here’s a sample, just from recent news.

Dennis Atkins is particularly good at this game. ‘Labor sent packing by nearing gallows poll‘! ‘Federal Labor a dead government walking as September election approaches‘!

The Sydney Morning Herald zeroed in on the Labor leadership. Tony Wright opined that Labor MPs are under a self-imposed vow of silence. That article was helpfully accompanied by a poll asking readers who they’d like to see as leader. Jacqueline Maley urged the ‘Ice Queen’ to thaw. That article featured the following astonishing description of Federal Labor:

‘Some are traumatised and attacking each other, some are so depressed they’re literally packing up in anticipation of their ruination at the polls, and some have just gone bonkers.’

Bonkers. There’s some hard-hitting analysis right there.

It goes on. Latika Bourke, on ABCNews24’s Breakfast News, spoke solemnly of a ‘mood of despair and despondency’ in Labor, this morning. And last week Chris Uhlmann threw around phrases like ‘death rattle’ and ‘the September poll feels more like a coronation’. Mind you, that article did, at least, point out that Education Shadow Christopher Pyne was telling porkies about the Prime Minister – although Uhlmann didn’t quite go as far as to call Pyne a liar. He said, carefully, that Pyne ‘really needs to get better Labor sources’.

So there you have it. No substantive discussion of policy. No policy, for the most part. Just endless regurgitation of old ideas and advertising slogans served up to us disguised as meat. Why not? It worked in 1972, when Whitlam, with little more than a catchy tune, convinced the Australian people that record low unemployment and a high Australian dollar were dire circumstances that required them to vote in a new government.

And we’re expected to swallow it all. We’re not supposed to ask questions, or demand detail. Silly electorate; anyone would think this election was something serious.

This campaign is already nearly three years long. The final days will be, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Unless, of course, we make it clear that we won’t settle for that. Unless we demand something more. Something better.


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