Sexism, misogyny, and a Speaker’s scalp

October 9, 2012

We’re pretty much inured to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s regular attempts to suspend Question Time. Almost every time the Parliament sits, a new ‘crisis’ manifests that forces him to his feet in order to yell across the chamber for ten minutes or so. Usually it’s either the ‘Toxic Tax Based on a Lie’ or how the government’s ‘Lost Control of our Borders’. At this point, there’s often a collective switch-off from those watching. After all, we’ve heard it before – and every time, the attempt to suspend Question Time fails.

Not so today. This time, the government said, bring it on.

And the reason? The Opposition wanted Speaker Peter Slipper gone. It wasn’t enough that he stepped aside while the court case brought against him by James Ashby was still underway. He had to go. Immediately. It was time to make history, and use the Constitutional power granted to the Parliament to remove the Speaker.

Abbott started in high gear, and just got louder. Slipper was a misogynist, he said. He was sexist. Look at the disgusting text messages he’d sent, comparing a vulva (though he used a far less polite word) to the kind of mussels you buy in a jar at the Fish and Chip Shop. Look at his behaviour towards James Ashby. Look at the way he just happened to boot Sophie Mirabella from the House so that she couldn’t cast a vote on the carbon price – that was not only sexist, it was also partisan! Forget that Mirabella was being continually disruptive; apparently if she’d been a man (or, presumably, a woman on the government benches), she could have escaped discipline.

Of course, none of this is proven. The case is underway, the judgment currently reserved. Some of the text messages were released to the media, but there were no grounds for saying that Slipper was guilty of the allegations Ashby’s brought against him. It’s a niggling little detail, and one Abbott seemed happy to skip over. So, for that matter, were the other Coalition speakers, notably Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne.

With Slipper’s character thoroughly delineated as a sleazy, woman-hating popinjay (oh yes, the formal procession through the halls of Parliament House came in for plenty of ridicule), it was time for the Opposition to turn on Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and it was quickly apparent that she (and through her, the Labor government) was the real target.

The least of Gillard’s sins was poor judgment in appointing Slipper in the first place. What was that? The LNP backed Slipper for pre-selection since 1993, and only dumped him when he became Speaker, leaving them down a vote? Pshaw. Details. Astonishingly, according to Pyne, it was one thing to support this man – who had allegedly brought the Parliament into utter disrepute – in his quest for a local seat, but quite another for him to be Speaker. Pyne didn’t elaborate on exactly where the line should be drawn, but presumably there’s a sliding scale. I’m sure the good people of Fisher would be pleased to know that the LNP were happy to help them elect a man of such low character.

But back to Gillard. She ‘forced’ former Speaker Harry Jenkins aside (oh, and let’s not forget to slip in a mention of the midnight assassination of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd). She dared to ‘lie’ to the Australian people about carbon pricing just so she could hold onto power. She was ambitious, grasping for power (and isn’t it interesting that ambition is only a failing in a woman). The Opposition even intimated that she knew about the Slipper/Ashby issue when she appointed the Speaker, making her culpable in this denigration of the Parliament. Finally, she was a hypocrite. Some of her own members had made sexist remarks, and she hadn’t told them off.

She, she, she, she, she. Over and over, the Coalition speakers refused to give the Prime Minister the benefit of her title, or even adopt the convention of using her surname. As my grandmother used to say, ‘She’s the cat’s mother’; ironic when you remember Julie Bishop’s cat-scratch moment towards Gillard in another memorable Question Time. And as Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said when he spoke against the motion: ‘If you used the Prime Minister’s title instead of just ‘she’ all the time, you might have a shred of credibility’.

For a series of speeches designed to make the case that Slipper was a sexist and misogynist who needed to be dismissed at all costs, there was a remarkable degree of sexism shown by the Opposition. But nothing matched up to one comment from Abbott, which sent shock waves through the chamber and those watching on social media:

‘This government should have already died of shame’.

And just to make sure we heard, he repeated it. Again and again.

It was utterly unconscionable. Barely a week after the Daily Telegraph reported that Radio 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones had told the Sydney University Young Liberals Club that Gillard’s late father had ‘died of shame’, there was Abbott invoking the same sentiments.

It’s a familiar theme for the Opposition. Sophie Mirabella, after organising an anti-carbon price demonstration outside Albanese’s electoral office (featuring placards with such lovely sentiments as ‘Tolerance is our demise’), told him that his mother had died of shame.

Quite a coincidence. But who really believes that? Abbott had to know what he was doing. After all, he’d been hounded by the media for nearly a week about Jones’ comments, and forced to defend his decision to keep accepting invitations to appear on Jones’ show (from which over 70 major sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, have withdrawn their support). It was clearly aimed straight at the Prime Minister. Perhaps Abbott hoped to throw her off her stride when she rose to reply.

He couldn’t have picked a worse tactic.

Gillard let fly. Almost shaking with rage, she condemned Abbott for his hypocrisy in bringing this motion, given his history of sexist comments and alleged unacceptable behaviour towards women. Pointing at Abbott, she declared, ‘I will not be lectured by this man on misogyny and sexism. Not now, not ever.’

With devastating effect, Gillard used Abbott’s own sexist and misogynist words against him. His assertion that inequality might not be a ‘bad thing’. His claim that women were ‘physiologically’ unsuited to positions of authority. (Here he was echoing Alan Jones, who infamously declared that women in power in Australia were ‘destroying the joint’.) The outrageous statement that abortion was ‘the easy way out’. And so it went.

Gillard declared that Abbott was using a double standard in seeking to remove Slipper for sexist comments, and vowed that she would not allow that to rule the Parliament. Her fury was palpable, and for once, Abbott didn’t turn his back. There was a court case under way, and Parliament had no right to pre-empt the judgment. Slipper had voluntarily stepped aside, she reminded the House. She would not permit Abbott to impose a standard to which neither he, nor his Opposition colleagues, would adhere.

There was one moment when Gillard’s emotions threatened to overcome her – when she finally spoke about Jones’ comments, telling Abbott, ‘The government is not dying of shame. My father did not die of shame. If anyone should be ashamed, it is the Leader of the Opposition who should be ashamed of his behaviour.’

The motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 69-70. There were no questions, no points of order. Just an incredible eruption, immediately followed by business as usual.

But we saw something today. We saw an Opposition attempt to paint itself as a champion of morality and a protector of women – led by a man notorious for sexist language and bullying behaviour. We saw an Opposition attempt yet again to turn the House into a kangaroo court; Julie Bishop went even further, stating that it didn’t matter that there was as yet no verdict.

But we also saw a Prime Minister who seems to have finally been pushed too far. The bland, polished, vaguely condescending voice reminiscent of a tranquillised Margaret Thatcher gave way to a passionate, cutting anger. No mockery, no stock phrases, no cut-and-paste speeches praising the government’s record. This was the Gillard of old, the Deputy Prime Minister who took on all comers and did more than hold her own.

It’s a Gillard we haven’t seen for a long time.

Whether the government’s successful defence today of Slipper’s position as Speaker will prove a continuing problem remains to be seen. The outcome of the court case will, presumably, determine his future in the chair. In the meantime, the Opposition will undoubtedly find yet more ‘reasons’ to attempt a censure, or force an election. Having embarked on this course from the moment he was denied government, Abbott will not let up until after the next election – an election he expects to win with a majority comparable to that gained by the LNP in the Queensland state election.

The question is, though: will Gillard return to the measured, soporific cadences that many have described as seeming ‘fake’, ‘put on’? (And the question must be asked: did she adopt that way of speaking in the first place because she was told she’d appear ‘shrill’ otherwise?)

Or will it be the Prime Minister we saw today, who takes the fight to Abbott and confronts the Opposition tactics forcefully and without apology?

For Labor’s sake, it will need to be the latter.

UPDATE:

Peter Slipper has just announced in the House of Representatives that he will tender his resignation from the Speakership to the Governor-General. In an emotional speech, he said the House was more important than his own future. ‘Nothing is more important than the preservation of the dignity of our parliamentary institutions.’ According to Anthony Albanese, Slipper made his decision after today’s vote and informed the government. Slipper’s likely successor is his Deputy, Anna Burke, who has been fulfilling the Parliamentary role of Speaker since he stood aside.

This comes four minutes after Slipper tweeted, ‘Sources say Steve Lewis/News Ltd plan 2 run story based on untruths from certain LNP members&volunteers who worked on my last LNP campaign’. We can only wait to see what comes next, but one thing is clear; Abbott gained a valuable scalp today, as Slipper now joins Craig Thomson on the backbench. It’s a victory that – for all his sober words tonight as he said Slipper had done ‘the right thing’ – Abbott won’t hesitate to exploit. Stay tuned for more claims that the government relies on ‘tainted votes’ to stay in power.

It’s a pretty ugly day in Australian politics.


A new low for Julie Bishop

February 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tony Abbott, the boy who cried ‘Censure!’

June 16, 2011

Few would argue that under the current government, Question Time in the House of Representatives has become little more than a farce. Questions from the Opposition tend to be variations on the themes of ‘When will the government abandon its toxic carbon tax’ or ‘When will the government pick up the phone to the President of Nauru’. Add a liberal sprinkling of revisionist history on Building the Education Revolution, a soupcon of ‘you knifed Kevin Rudd’ and garnish liberally with transparent Dorothy Dixers designed to allow the government to verbally bash the Opposition – and you can just about write the script for each sitting day.

Then there’s the censure motions. Out of 28 sessions of Question Time, the Opposition has attempted to suspend standing orders preparatory to censuring the Prime Minister or the Treasurer no less than twelve times. It’s become so common that those who tune in each day to join the Twitter #qt conversation run a mock sweep on what time it will be before Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stands up to utter the familiar lines, ‘I move that so much of standing orders be suspended’. That group includes many members of the media who are physically present in the Canberra press gallery as well as independent journalists, teachers, lawyers, full-time parents, students and a host of others. It’s quite a remarkable cross-section.

There’s no doubt that these constant censure motions are a source of both hilarity and frustration for those watching. On the one hand, the predictable nature of it all is utterly absurd. On the other, however, it disrupts proceedings and wastes the Parliament’s time.

The motions to suspend are always defeated. Really, it comes across as an exercise in futility.

So why do they do it? Is it such a matter of deeply-held principle for the Opposition? Or is it – as many suspect – an opportunity for the Coalition to make long speeches accusing the government of everything from forgetfulness to incompetence to criminal behaviour – all protected by Parliamentary privilege. Factor in the daily Matters of Public Importance – where various Opposition speakers deliver long diatribes to a largely empty House – and it starts to look more and more as though the Coalition are just going with the theory that something repeated often enough eventually enters the public consciousness as truth.

It’s a clumsy ploy, to say the least. And it carries the very real risk that people will not believe, but rather ‘switch off’ as soon as they realise it’s being tried once again.

Today’s Question Time was a case in point.

At 2.25 pm, Abbott moved to suspend standing orders in order to censure the Prime Minister. The immediate reaction from those watching was confusion that he’d chosen to do it so early – usually, the motion happens just before 3 pm. That quickly gave way to the usual dissatisfaction and mockery from the Twitter gallery as the government benches emptied. The consensus could well be summed up as, ‘Meh, we’ve seen it all before’. We had indeed – out of three sessions this week, this was the second time Abbott employed this tactic.

There was one significant difference this time, though. Abbott was acting on a motion brought by Greens MP Adam Bandt earlier today:

That this House:

(1) condemns the Gillard Government’s deal with Malaysia that would see 800 asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters and sent to Malaysia; and

(2) calls on the Government to immediately abandon this proposal.

That motion passed 70-68, with the support of Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and KAP MP Bob Katter. A similar motion was passed by the Senate in May, making this the first time on Parliamentary record that both Houses had directly condemned the government. It wasn’t quite open revolt – such motions are not binding, but it was a very clear signal to the Prime Minister that she did not have the support of the Parliament on her Malaysia policy.

Her refusal to accede to the motion set up the conditions for a censure, and rightly so. Finally, Abbott had firm grounds. It was an opportunity not to be wasted – but waste it he did.

Unable to confine his argument to condemnation of the Malaysia plan, Abbott couldn’t resist extolling the virtues of Nauru. ‘There is a better way … Nauru is a humane solution! It’s cost-effective! There are no whipping posts in Nauru.’ It was the same argument the Coalition pushed all this week.

Julie Bishop, seconding the motion, was similarly unable to keep to the issue. She covered a wide range of subjects in accusatory tones: ‘She’s betrayed her leader … this arrogant Prime Minister looked down the barrel of a camera and said “There will be no carbon tax under a govt I lead”.’

The vote eventually saw the motion to suspend standing orders defeated – and the effective end of Question Time with less than half of its alloted 90 minutes/20 questions expired. All in all, it accomplished precisely nothing.

Abbott had strong grounds for a censure. He could have built an effective argument based on the Bandt motion alone, stressing the Parliament’s lack of support for a policy widely condemned as futile at best, inhumane at worst. He could have pointed out that a leader prepared to ignore the Parliament’s expressed will set a dangerous precedent. He could have appealed to everything from people’s sense of humanity to the need for democracy to be consultative.

He might have started that way – but he fell back on the same old formula – haul out every campaign slogan, every slur, every tired bit of rhetoric the Opposition has employed against this government. In so doing, he virtually assured it would fail – and he lost the support of any who might otherwise have put aside party loyalties.

Perhaps there was no chance that the censure could work. It would have taken the co-operation of all the Independents, Katter and Bandt to accomplish that. But the attempt was rightly made.

When the vote was defeated, someone on the Opposition benches called out, ‘A moral victory!’

It wasn’t. It was a wasted opportunity to properly criticise the government. And it was a wasted opportunity to gather public support for an issue with potentially dreadful consequences.

Abbott’s cried ‘Censure!’ so many times, and for such trivial reasons. People have come to expect that anything he says on the subject will be the same kind of noise, designed to do little more than get a few sound-bites into the evening news. Crudely put, it just looks like he wants the attention.

Now, at a time when a censure was not only appropriate but almost necessary, no one can be bothered to listen.

The Coalition have already made comments pointing the finger at Bandt, who did not support them on the motion to suspend standing orders. The implication is clear: Bandt doesn’t have the courage of his convictions when push comes to shove.

But really, Abbott’s got no one to blame but himself here. Gillard is free to defy the Parliament – because he couldn’t stop himself from crying ‘Wolf!’ once too often.


Abbott the wrecker – straight from the horse’s mouth

February 7, 2011

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott met with his Shadow Cabinet today. The topic was flood recovery, the aim to come up with an alternative plan to Labor’s two-pronged approach of flood levy and spending cuts. Tipped off that Abbott was going to interrupt proceedings to make an announcement, the media – mainstream, new and social – pricked up its ears.

Since the release of details of the flood levy, the Coalition have insisted that the entire amount for flood relief could be raised through spending cuts. To date, however, there have been no specifics. Apart from a re-hash of the ‘NBN is bad’ message and a vague notion that – because devastating floods have occurred – we don’t need a water buyback scheme, it’s been all about the rhetoric. There’s ‘fat in the budget’. There are ‘savings to be had’. Abbott is happy to sit down ‘in a spirit of bipartisanship’ to show Labor exactly where those might be. The Coalition, it seems, are great believers in the idea that if you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it.

What we expected today, then, were a few details as to exactly where Abbott had found the ‘fat’.

What we got was five minutes of railing against the government – accompanied by Abbott’s trademark ‘I’m really savouring this moment’ grin – followed by a reassurance that people supported the Coalition, and that details would be forthcoming. Soon.

Shades of the Abbott-Hockey-Robb merry-go-round during the election campaign. Heavy on the sizzle, light – or in this case, non-existent – on the sausage.

But what we did get was the clearest possible indication of the Coalition’s goals in this Parliamentary session.

‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government,’ he said.

‘Every month that this government lasts is, in a sense, a worse month for our country than it should be … it’s our job to bring about change for the better.’

So much for ‘we’re just trying to hold the government to account’. So much for ‘we need to provide a credible alternative government’.

You can’t spin this. It’s a declaration; the Coalition are dedicating themselves to bringing down the Labour government, before July rolls around and the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate.

Listening to Abbott, you could be forgiven for thinking that the election campaign has already started. He accused the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ (yes, he’s still using that line) of being ‘addicted to taxes, addicted to spending and … [having] no agenda for the country other than its own survival’. They ‘can’t be trusted with money’, and they know it. (The mere fact that they’ve established an oversight authority to ensure that all flood recovery money is properly spent proves it, apparently.) The Coalition has a ‘better’ plan, but we won’t find out about it in a hurry.

Sound familiar? Remind you of August last year? It should.

In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, it’s ‘de ja vu all over again’.

There’s one crucial difference, though. It’s only been six months since the election.

That doesn’t seem to matter to the Coalition, though. Their entire attitude since the Independents decided to support Labor has been that this is not a legitimate government, and that somehow the Liberal/National parties were cheated of their ‘rightful’ place as leaders of the country. The ‘we were robbed’ rhetoric dropped off fairly quickly, but the sentiment remains. They protested that they weren’t just out to ‘wreck’ everything the government tried to do, but their actions showed a consistent, almost mindless adherence to the principle of ‘if Labor’s for it then we’re agin it’.

Now we have it confirmed straight from the horse’s mouth. Abbott says it’s the Coalition’s ‘job’ to change the government. The only way to do that is to force an election, preferably before the dreaded ‘Labor-Greens alliance’ comes into full effect. And – short of unforeseen circumstances necessitating a by-election – that means blocking the government at every turn, until there is no alternative for Gillard but to declare the government unworkable and call a double dissolution.

It’s an incredibly risky proposition. To make it work, Abbott needs the three Independents on side. That means either wedging them against their own electorates’ best interests, or convincing them that the government simply can’t deliver what it promised. Either will take a good deal of wrangling. Senator Barnaby Joyce in particular is vicious in his attacks on Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and even manages to incur the wrath of Bob Katter (arguably the most right-leaning of the three).

Even if the Coalition can’t convince the Independents, however, they can create a bottleneck. When nothing gets done, people get frustrated; and sometimes, the most appealing alternative is to simply wipe the slate clean and start again.

Whether Abbott can manage to bring down the government is arguable. What’s clear, though, is that he intends to try, and he’s not even bothering to hide it anymore.

Yesterday on Insiders, the Opposition Leader twisted and turned over an incredibly insensitive email asking for donations for the Coalition’s campaign to stop the flood levy that was sent just as Cyclone Yasi bore down on far north Queensland. He refused to take any responsibility, or even apologise on behalf of his party. In an otherwise lightweight interview, he stammered and sweated and would only say that it wasn’t his fault – and in any case, he was just concerned for the well-being of all Australians.

Today, with Deputy Leader Julie Bishop giggling at his side, he embraced the role of wrecker with a huge smile and undisguised relish. Gone was the serious man worried about small business and working families, the self-proclaimed protector of Australia’s standard of living. Instead we were treated to Abbott-as-headkicker, gleefully aggressive and seemingly interested in nothing more than the opportunity to usurp the throne.

It was all a little bit Richard the Third, really.

So the next time Tony Abbott or the Coalition stands up on television or at an event and says they’re just looking out for the ordinary Australian, remember his words today:

‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government.’

This isn’t about us. This is about ‘vaulting ambition’, that takes nothing into account but itself. And if we are thrown into turmoil by Opposition blockades, stalled programs and – potentially – another expensive election campaign and the chaos that would result from a Coalition government killing one initiative-in-progress after the other?

That’s just a price we’ll have to pay.


Tragedy at Christmas Island

December 15, 2010

This morning a boat from Indonesia, carrying perhaps 70 or 80 asylum seekers reportedly from Iraq and Iran, crashed into the cliffs near Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island. At the time of writing, it’s not known how many have survived. Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan confirmed ‘some rescues’ this afternoon, but the full extent of the tragedy is still unfolding.

Footage and pictures from the are shows how the boat broke up in the heavy seas until only debris was left. Christmas Island residents, standing helplessly on the cliffs above, described how they tried to throw lifejackets to the people in the water, only to have them flung back by the high winds. One woman broke down as she told Sky News how she heard screaming, and saw babies children falling into the water. A man who went out on the rocks to try to pull people to safety said he could see people being flung against the rocks by the waves.

The pictures don’t begin to encompass the horror that took place today – and it’s not over yet. Some critically injured people were airlifted to hospitals – but how many of those who survived lost loved ones?

I can’t help but think of the SIEV X disaster, back in 2001. Around 146 children, 142 women and 65 men lost their lives when a dreadfully overcrowded boat sank in international waters. These people, like those in the current situation, were heading for Australia to seek asylum.

Unlike today’s events, though, those deaths happened far away from any cameras. In fact, it was three days before Australia learned of a ‘certain maritime incident’.

Their deaths became the subject of a Senate Select Committee enquiry. They also became political capital in a Federal election that delivered John Howard’s Coalition a decisive victory. The question inevitably arises: just how will this terrible incident be exploited?

Swan stonewalled most media questions that dealt with the wider issue of asylum seeker policy. ‘The rescue is ongoing,’ he said, over and over. ‘The priority … is the rescue.’ Gillard, who was on leave, has cut short her holiday to return to Canberra.

The Coalition’s current spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison, was remarkably circumspect in his comments. He confined himself to saying only that ‘worst fears’ had been realised, in his media conference this afternoon. He also stressed repeatedly that now wasn’t the time to discuss policy. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop was likewise very careful to avoid making political comments.

A generous interpretation of their behaviour would say that they are showing respect for the situation. A cynical one would point to how dangerous it is to politicise a tragedy before a decent interval has elapsed. For whatever reason, our politicians are currently keeping the focus firmly on the incident.

Much of the media are likewise treading carefully. Comment on asylum seeker policy has been largely restricted to fairly neutral recaps of the history of asylum seeker landings in Australia.

Would that columnists like Andrew Bolt could show a similar level of respect. This afternoon’s blog, entitled ‘Blood on their hands’ is a real piece of work. In Bolt’s mind, apparently, he was a voice crying in the wilderness for at least a year. ‘I told Julia people would die!’ is his refrain. He points his journalistic finger, trembling with indignation, at the Labor government and commands Gillard to resign. After all, these people were ‘lured to their doom by her laws’.

He also finds it necessary to point out that Gillard previously interrupted her holiday to appear with Oprah Winfrey in Melbourne. The implication is clear: she has time to deal with trivia, but it’s doubtful whether she’ll front up and take her lumps for this.

Of course, he prefaces all these remarks with a handy-dandy little graph to show everyone just how terrible Labor’s asylum seeker policy really is – helpfully adorned with a big yellow dot to mark the point when former Prime Minister John Howard instituted the Pacific Solution. Just in case his readers didn’t realise that this was all about denouncing the Labor government.

It’s disgusting. Actually, well beyond disgusting. This isn’t just politicising a tragedy – this is wallowing with morbid glee in death and trauma. Bolt’s one concession to the human beings at the centre of all this is to use the words ‘ghastly tragedy’. Everything else is schadenfreude and exploitation.

Of course, Bolt isn’t the only one quick to shove their heads in front of a camera or a computer in order to join in the political fray. Jonathan Green at The Drum chronicled some of the rush to judgment by both bloggers and commenters.

For once, our politicians are behaving better than those they represent.

Sadly, it’s pretty much guaranteed that this won’t last. All too soon we’ll see the pollies going head to head. The Opposition will probably give us a softer version of Bolt’s rhetoric – and it’s perhaps a blessing that Parliament won’t sit again until February, so we won’t get the full-blown hyperbolic rantings that usually characterise this debate. The government will defend its policies, perhaps conceding to a Senate enquiry that is likely to conclude – as with SIEV X – that there was little Australia could have done to save this latest boat. Of course, if the polls show the Opposition gaining traction, we might see new, ‘tougher’ policy – which would undoubtedly bring the Greens and the Independents into the arena.

All of that is inevitable. As much as we’d like to wish otherwise – that the debate can be sane, rational and above all compassionate – there’s little chance we’ll get more than each party’s message. If we’re very lucky, we might hear Andrew Wilkie deliver a stinging rebuke to both major parties – not that they’ll be listening.

We can shrug and say that’s the nature of politics. And in a way, it is. But it’s my hope – and, I believe, the hope of many Australians – that politicians would keep at the forefront of their minds the fact that many, many people died today in terrifying circumstances. That they listen to the stories of the survivors, and those who risked their own lives to save them. That they know the names of the dead and never forget them.

And above all, that they realise that they have no right – none – to exploit their deaths to make a political point.

Are you listening, Andrew Bolt?

I didn’t think so.


Should government have funded MacKillop religious celebrations?

October 17, 2010

Let’s get this out of the way up front. Today’s blog may be about the events surrounding the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, but it is not a debate about atheism vs religion.

And while we’re getting things out of the way, full disclosure time. I spent quite some time arguing with myself over whether to do this, but in the end I was persuaded by some of the idiocy taking place on Twitter right now that I’ll save time this way.

I am not a Catholic, lapsed or believing. I am a person of faith, and that faith is my own business. I am also a strong supporter of keeping all religion out of schools and public institutions.

Right. Now that nonsense is out of the way, let’s get to the meat of it.

You’d probably have to be living under a rock not to know that today an Australian nun named Mary MacKillop becomes a Catholic saint. Over the last week, it was difficult to avoid the media coverage. Sky News runs stories about it every bulletin, and has set up a ‘headquarters’ in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. ABCNews24 likewise. Both have given over a significant portion of broadcast time to the ceremony itself. The big media winner is the Australian Public Affairs Channel, though – their non-stop coverage of all things MacKillop started on Saturday morning. (Curiously, the Australian Christian Channel elected not to cover the canonisation ceremony.) Social media isn’t far behind with discussions, debates, arguments and outright slanging matches.

Almost all commentators (whether paid journalists or people just giving their opinion) seem happy to grant that Mary MacKillop’s achievements in life were remarkable. Her work in education, her refusal to stand by silently as children were being abused, and her determination garner little more than praise. Opinions are, of course, sharply divided over the issues of miracles and sainthood. What’s not being talked about is the level of government support.

So let’s talk about that.

The government earmarked $1.5 million for the celebrations here in Australia. Add to that the travel, accommodation, security and associated expenses for Kevin Rudd, Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce and Ursula Stephens, and let’s not forget the ABC while we’re at it. That’s a sizeable amount of public money set aside for a specific religious celebration.

It’s also worth remembering that the announcement of the funding was made during the campaign, during a time when Julia Gillard was coming under fire for declaring herself an atheist. To many, that looked like pandering. Now Kevin Rudd and Julie Bishop have made an incredible show of bipartisanship, co-authoring an article about Mary MacKillop.

Is this kind of expenditure warranted for a purely religious celebration, and a partisan one at that? For that matter, should the government publicly fund religious celebration at all?

There are approximately five million people in Australia who identified themselves as ‘Catholic’ on the last census. That’s a significant number, but one could hardly say Australia is a Catholic nation. (In fact, until 1820, Catholicism was suppressed in the New South Wales colony.) The Constitution specifically prohibits anything of the kind:

116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

That being said, there is a curious disconnect with regard to Australian politics. The Preamble to our Constitution makes reference to ‘Almighty God’. Parliament is opened with a clearly Christian prayer, including the Anglican version of the Lord’s Prayer. Now these things may well be a holdover from our days as an British colony – a country whose head of state is also head of the Anglican Church – but they are still there.

So is Australia a ‘Christian nation’, as is often claimed (notably by the Australian Christian Lobby)? No. Certainly, the census suggests that the majority of Australians identify themselves as affiliated with one of the Christian faiths (but the Australian Bureau of Statistics acknowledges this does not necessarily reflect active participants in religion). Even if we assume a level of commonality between those faiths that may not exist, for purposes of generalisation, it still does not make us in any way an officially religious nation – nor do numbers necessarily legitimise spending for a particular religion.

I happen to think it is unreasonable for the government to fund any form of religious observance – and make no mistake, the canonisation ceremony is exactly that, conducted within a Mass celebrated by the Pope.

Religious institutions enjoy tax-free status in Australia. A religion can take advantage of this in a number of ways – not least of which could be the provision of homes and cars for its clergy (see recent investigations of Hillsong, for example). Part of the rationale behind is the recognition that religions provide certain services for their members, said services being considered important enough to exempt these institutions from the same revenue-gathering as other organisations, so that the money they receive from their members or activities can be used by the religion. This is an enormous concession. To then follow it up with public money for services which are aimed primarily at furthering that particular religion goes well beyond the point at which religions should be involuntarily supported by all Australians.

Even if you think that there is a place for government to support religion, the issue arises of favouritism. When was the last time a government spent money on a Muslim celebration? A Jewish one? Hindu? Or any other religion you care to name? It doesn’t. So, if public money is to be spent on a Catholic celebration, why not those of other religions? Is it unreasonable to think that funding (for example) Hanukkah celebrations is at least as worthy as this canonisation?

Raising these issues is a fraught business. Too often, those who are critical of the money being spent on the canonisation are met with accusations of ‘religious intolerance’, persecution of hapless Christians (note: not Catholics, Christians), and – most extraordinarily – the claim that this kind of criticism would never be levelled at Muslims.

The beat-up is sadly typical – the claim is that Christians are unfairly attacked for their religious beliefs, that they are held to a different standard from all other religions, and even prevented from speaking – and it’s all the fault of the ‘sneering secularists’ (to quote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Gerard Henderson on Insiders this morning). These lefty elitists call any criticism of Islam ‘Islamophobia’, but get stuck into Christians every chance they can, apparently.

Reality check.

Muslims come in for far more than their ‘fair share’ of criticism. It’s not exaggerating to say the rhetoric is hysterical. Every religion, for that matter, comes under fire somewhere. My own is frequently subject to ridicule. And you don’t have to identify as religious to attract criticism and attack – remember the storm that erupted over Gillard’s avowed atheism?

No religion should be subjected to hate speech and distortion – and sadly, there’s been all too much of that taking place on the social media sites lately. Equally, though, no religion should be exempt from criticism.

And when public money is set aside for a particular religious observance, the question should be asked: is this is a good use of that money? Was there better use, with more application for the wider Australian community, for what was spent getting four politicians to Rome and aiding an event put on by one of the wealthiest entities in the world?

The Atheist Foundation of Australia suggested that money could be put towards cancer research, something that has the potential to benefit all Australians regardless of their particular religious position. That statement attracted considerable anger from people identifying themselves as ‘people of faith’. I have to wonder, though – would there been half as much outrage if the suggestion had come from a different source – say, the Peter McCallum Cancer Research Centre?

The money is spent now, but the question remains. Is this sort of expenditure of public money appropriate, in a country where almost half of the population identifies as having no Christian belief, and nearly 20% no religious belief at all?

Or – and this is the cynical part – is all this government support simply about attracting tourist dollars in the form of pilgrims coming to visit Mary MacKillop’s tomb in Sydney, or her home town of Penola, South Australia?

I leave the question open.


Coalition campaign launch – out-Howarding Howard

August 8, 2010

Right now I have a song stuck in my head. It’s playing over and over and over. It’s the Coalition’s campaign theme song, complete with jingoistic lyrics that sounded a little like they were written by John Williamson’s less-talented apprentice:

“It’s the aussie way/ to see things through/ to get things done/ to be true blue … now’s the time/ to get things right/ shine on australia /let’s stand up and fight … so stand up australia and support real action’.

That song was played every single time a new speaker fronted up to the podium.

And they rolled them out from every level of government. First we had Campbell Newman, the Mayor of Brisbane, giving us the long list of his achievements – everything from a new bus depot to tree planting. He was followed by WA Premier Colin Barnett. Predictably, Barnett sounded the warning bell on the idea of the mining tax.

Warren Truss, Leader of the Nationals and aspiring Deputy Prime Minister, was next, as the voice of regional Australia. His speech was largely confined to motherhood statements on how people from regional Australia needed more support with study, internet access and transport. A promise of several four-lane highways was followed up by the remarkable observation that ‘every labor cabinet minister lives in a capital city’. The implication was clear: Labor doesn’t understand, and doesn’t want to know about the needs of rural and regional Australia. He didn’t spell it out, but then, he really didn’t need to do so. Everyone in the room understood what he wasn’t saying.

Following him was Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. Fresh from her stare-off victory against Gerald the Gnome on ABC’s Yes We Canberra, she jumped straight into her designated role as the Coalition’s attack dog. Her speech consisted of some of the strongest vitriol yet heard in the campaign, mixed up with equal parts scorn and withering sarcasm. ‘Shallow end of the gene pool’ was one of her milder descriptions of the ALP.

She played the experience card, then. Government, she said was ‘not a job for amateurs’. The Coalition was made up of people who had ‘done it before’. The team was led by a man who had been a ‘competent’ health minister, who was particularly effective’ in women’s health. ‘People are alive today, and they thank Tony Abbott for it,’ she said, and proceeded to introduce him as everyone’s friend, an experienced politician and the man who would lead the Coalition back to government.

Abbott led off by praising ‘a deputy I can trust, a predecessor who’s a friend and a former Prime Minister who’s a hero’. The latter was obviously Howard, but commentators were unsure as to whether the ‘predecessor’ was supposed to refer to Malcolm Turnbull. As for his comments about Julie Bishop, Abbott might well have been hoping that the party faithful would choose not to recall how she has been the trusted deputy of no less than three Liberal leaders to date.

Accolades done with, Abbott settled down to the task of defining himself in opposition to Labor. It’s what he’s done all through this campaign so far – first a criticism of Labor, then a statement about how he’s not like that. All of that was fairly predictable – but he was just winding up. Invoking the spectre of 1975, he thundered, ‘Our task is nothing less to save Australia from the worst government in its history’.

In one moment, he managed to link the current election with one of the most infamous events in Australia’s political history, and attempt to paint himself as a crusading saviour appearing in its time of need to ‘restore honour and integrity to Australian public life’.

That hyperbole may well come back to haunt him, not least because the Liberal member most closely associated with the Whitlam dismissal, Malcolm Fraser, was conspicuously absent from the gathering, after having delivered a scathingly negative verdict on Abbott. Diehard Labor voters are still particularly bitter about 1975 – it’s a tale handed down to the next generation with an admonition to never forget what was done to Whitlam’s government. It’s just possible that Abbott’s attempt to scare the electorate could backfire, and send wavering Labor faithful rallying around the standard.

Abbott indulged in more criticism before giving us the timetable for his first few months as Prime Minister – something that even Sky News (normally very well-disposed towards the Liberal leader) called ‘an act of hubris’. It looked as though he was taking his election for granted.

Day 1 is going to be very busy for the putative PM. Abbott plans to be on the phone to Nauru to reopen its asylum seeker processing centre, discontinue Labor’s Building the Education Revolution program, and ‘safeguard those who make their living from the sea’ (in some unspecified way). Oh, and he’ll lift the mining tax – the one that hasn’t actually been levied yet.

Later that week he’ll call a meeting of the Cabinet and the National Security Committee, which he promised to chair and make sure all his ministers attended (a barely-disguised dig at allegations that Gillard had not done so). Presumably he’ll actually appoint the Cabinet sometime between stopping programs that don’t currently exist and phoning Nauru.

He’ll also be asking Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey to set up a ‘Debt Reduction Taskforce’ to prepare a plan to start ‘repaying the debt’. That’s a little confusing, since he has already been touting some $40 billion of ‘savings’ apparently designed to do what he’s now saying will need to be investigated.

While Robb and Hockey are busy with their calculators, Abbott will forge ahead for the next month preparing an economic statement outlining ‘risks and opportunities’, releasing the Murray-Darling basin plan, visiting countries in the region to ‘repair’ trade and alliance relations, reassuring ‘frightened householders’ that they’ll get reimbursed before their roofs spontaneously burst into flame, and changing Question Time rules to prevent ministers from obfuscation and filibustering.

After that he’ll settle down for a more leisurely two-month period of recruiting for the Green Army, having a COAG meeting that will not adjourn until all states agree on local boards and beds for public hospitals, miscellaneous small business reforms, preparing for the Emissions Reduction Fund, forming a National Violent Gang Squad (which is not as alarming as it sounds), and a side-trip to Afghanistan to ‘reassure’ Australia’s soldiers that they are supported.

If my tone sounds a bit flippant, well, all that’s about to change.

‘Those thinking of voting Green,’ said Abbott, needed to know that the Coalition would meet their 2020 emission targets – but not through taxes. Those targets will be met by buying soil abatements and tree planting (and see my earlier blog on the Coalition’s climate change policy for the potential problems there). To underscore the point that the Coalition is absolutely opposed to a carbon tax of any kind, Abbott added, ‘We will never damage our economy with futile gestures’.

Futile gestures. The party that claims it is the ‘only one’ with a climate change policy dismissed and derided the idea that is largely accepted as the only one – short of direct governmental intervention – that can push countries towards a lower carbon economy.

It got nastier.

On paid parental leave, Abbott extolled the virtues of the Coalition’s policy. The ‘most conservative instinct of all’ was to have a family, and there was a ‘natural instinct’ for women to have children – so the Coalition, by extension, was only helping what comes naturally. This is a statement straight out of the 1950s, right up there with ‘one for Mum, one for Dad, and one for the country). It implies that anyone who does not want children is somehow unnatural. It’s impossible to say if it was a deliberate swipe at Gillard (who has no children), but it would certainly be something that anyone hearing it could be expected to conclude.

Then Abbott sounded the dogwhistle that pretty much everyone had been waiting for – the imminent threat of asylum seekers on our borders, apparently the major reason that Labor is slipping in the polls. He’ll ‘stop the boats’. He’ll reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas for all asylum seekers. He’ll re-open Nauru and send all asylum seekers there. Convicted people smugglers will be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of 12 months. Repeat offenders will be sentenced to 10 years.

But … the same penalties will be applied to anyone who ‘assists’ a people smuggler, or who ‘conceals or harbours a non-citizen’. Have a think about that. How is such a ‘crime’ going to be discovered? Where would you look? Obviously, you’re not going to go knocking on doors trying to find out if Auntie Flo from Birmingham has overstayed her visa. So how on earth could you spot these dastardly ‘non-citizens’?

Well, for a start you wouldn’t bother looking for Auntie Flo. You’d look for asylum seekers who’d arrived by boat – and how would you find them? You’d start by looking at refugee advocacy groups, who have a long history of non-cooperation with the idea of mandatory detention. Sounds a little like a veiled threat, really.

But here’s the real kicker.

The offence of concealing and harbouring a ‘non-citizen’ already exists.

Under S.233E of the Migration Act 1958, offenders are to be penalised with a prison term of 10 years, or 1000 penalty units, or both. So Abbott promised nothing new. He merely reminded people of what is already in place. Why do that? Why announce a policy whose previous existence can be ascertained with two minutes’ work on Google? Because he wanted to look tough and hoped no one would figure out he wasn’t actually promising anything? Because he was sending a warning to refugee advocacy groups? Because he didn’t even know that it already existed?

None of these options is at all palatable – and coupled with the re-introduction of the draconian measures utilised by the Howard government, it makes for truly disturbing news.

Abbott wound up by describing his political creed as ‘genial and pragmatic’. I’ll leave the judgment of ‘pragmatic’ as an exercise for the reader. But ‘genial’? After listening to all the criticism (both sly and overt) over the campaign, after hearing him employ xenophobic fear-mongering language on the subject of asylum seekers, and after seeing him apparently give carte blanche to his candidates to engage in inflammatory rhetoric aimed squarely at people rather than policies?

I’m going to have to disagree on that one. He’s out-Howarded John Howard at his worst.

And I still have that song in my head.


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