Rudd’s marriage equality line in the sand

September 3, 2013

Kevin Rudd’s appearance on the ABC’s QandA program was always going to be a drawcard. Whether you were looking to see him roundly criticised for everything from challenging for the leadership to the PNG asylum seeker policy, hoping for some substance, or just wanting to see some sign that Labor might not be doomed at Saturday’s election, there was a reason to tune in. And he didn’t disappoint.

This format – alone in front of a live audience – is where Rudd reveals both his best and worst self. Best, in that he can let rip on issues where he feels real conviction. Worst, in that he has a terrible poker face where his temper is concerned. If he’s getting angry with a line of questioning, you can see it.

There was a little of both last night. He completely failed to break through on the issue of superannuation, and at one point looked ready to give host Tony Jones an ear-bashing when the latter challenged him on his constant use of the misleading ‘$70 billion black hole’ phrase. (For the record? The number was confirmed by both Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Shadow Finance Spokesperson Andrew Robb – but not during this election campaign, and not on the current set of Coalition policies.) On the other hand, his ability to admit where he’d made mistakes in the past, and to own those mistakes rather than make excuses, went over well with the audience.

Where both sides of the man came together was on the question of marriage equality – and it was an amazing thing to see.

The questioner described himself as a ‘pastor’, and gave a rambling statement about Rudd changing his position on various issues, before zeroing in on marriage. It wasn’t quite a case of a trembling finger of rage pointed from the pulpit, but it was close. The questioner actually quivered. It was clear that, whatever else he’d said, the real reason for his anger was that he felt personally insulted by Rudd’s change of heart on marriage equality.

Rudd started off mildly enough, but then asked the questioner whether his view was that homosexuality was normal. The pastor answered with the claim that ‘we’ – he and his fellow pastors – performed weddings between men and women, that the Bible was clear on marriage and homosexuality, etc, and why didn’t Rudd believe the words of Jesus. At that point, Rudd’s whole demeanour changed. His words became passionate, and his manner full of conviction; and he took the questioner to task. Watch it:

For political tragics (like your obedient correspondent) who loved The West Wing, it was a familiar moment – a leader pushed too far on questions of social justice, fighting back as a member of that religion. There was no doubt that Rudd didn’t give a damn about that questioner’s vote, or the votes of anyone who felt the same way. Nor was he simply trying to grab the so-called ‘gay’ vote – his earlier announcements on the subject of marriage equality had already signalled his intention to introduce legislation, and support it. Rudd, simply, was telling it like he saw it.

But there was something else going on, something not immediately obvious. Rudd’s answer wasn’t just a declaration of support for marriage equality. It was a line in the sand.

There are any number of people or groups on the other side of that line, including influential factional bosses of his own party such as Joe de Bruyn of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union. Arguably the biggest, however, is the Australian Christian Lobby.

This group claims to represent ‘Australia’s Christians’. I’ve written before about the staggering misrepresentation in such claims, and how virtually no media outlet bothers to correct them. The ACL is homophobic, anti-choice, anti-secular education and little more than a mouthpiece for certain fundamentalist groups. Hiding behind the mantle of ‘Christian’, it has, in the past, successfully spooked Premiers, Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders, and political parties have bent over backwards to answer the imperious ‘policy questionnaire’ it sends out at election time. (The notable exception is the Greens, which has, at least some of the time, politely told the ACL where it can put its questions.)

As the issue of marriage equality has grown in Australia, the ACL’s tone has become ever more shrill, to the point of hysteria. It seeks promises from political leaders that they will not tamper with the ‘sanctity of marriage’, and for the most part, the parties have made such promises. Whether directly – as in the case of the Rise Up Australia Party (another mouthpiece, this time for a Pentecostal church – Catch the Fire Ministries), or indirectly, as in Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s weasel words about a possible party room discussion sometime in the distant future, the ACL gets what it wants.

In the past, Rudd did his fair share of pandering to Australian Christians. Even then, his language was considerably less enthusiastic than some. During a 2007 ‘debate’ with former Prime Minister John Howard hosted by the ACL, Rudd repeatedly hammered the points of tolerance and diversity, and acknowledged the fact that Christians were not a homogenous mass devoid of individual thinking. Nonetheless, the fact he was prepared to take the time to address the ACL showed Rudd acknowledged its power as a lobby group.

Because, let’s not forget, that’s what the ACL is – a lobby group. The clue is in the name, people.

The pastor who angrily demanded of Rudd that he ‘live by Jesus’ words’ was Matt Prater, from New Hope Brisbane. It’s one of those ‘non-church churches’ that claims to provide an alternative to the mainstream churches – which, according to places like New Hope, have lost the ‘truth’ of God’s message. This is exactly the kind of place that signs up to the ACL.

Prater was singing from the ACL hymn book. He was not simply asking for a religious exemption from having to perform same-sex marriages – he believed all Australians must live by his church’s interpretation of select portions of the Bible (and the Old Testament, at that – Jesus was silent on the question of homosexuality and same-sex marriage). That’s called Dominionism (so-called ‘God’s kingdom on earth’), and it’s the backbone of the ACL’s principles. Nobody gets a choice, because ‘God knows best’, and the ACL (and its affiliates) know what God wants. And politicians have let these religious groups get away with it, giving them – at best – a cautious wag of the finger.

After last night, though, the ACL and those who subscribe to its tenets are on notice. Rudd signalled that, as far as the Labor Party is concerned, the ACL’s influence is irrelevant.

That might not be entirely true – never underestimate the power of the pulpit. Just ask the Catholics who were around when the Democratic Labor Party split off from the ALP in the 1950s. It’s possible Rudd hammered a pretty big nail in Labor’s coffin last night.

What matters, though, is that the issue of marriage equality last night become important enough that a major party was prepared to send a message to a big lobby group that it would rather do without the votes than compromise its support.

And – no matter what the outcome on Saturday – we shouldn’t lose sight of it.

Goodness knows there will be few enough moments of which we can really feel proud when we look back on this campaign. We should celebrate what we can.


Rudd vs Abbott – People’s Forum no. 3

August 29, 2013

With nine days to go, it’s wall-to-wall election ads on TV and flyers in every mailbox. But there was time for one more debate between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott. Conducted in a ‘town hall’ style at Rooty Hill in Western Sydney, nobody expected anything new. In fact, though, we heard new promises and perhaps new policies.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott shake hands after the People's Forum

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott shake hands after the People’s Forum

Live-tweeted with annotations, brought to you via Storify.


Leaders’ Debate 11/8/13 – style, not substance?

August 12, 2013

Last night’s Leaders’ Debate should have been an opportunity to hear the candidates being closely questioned. It should have been a chance to have policies put up directly against each other. It should have been a moment where hard questions were put, and pressure kept up to force Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to actually provide some answers.

It wasn’t. The debate was disappointing, at best – and not just because the questions were clearly given to the candidates long beforehand. There were at least two clear ‘gifts’, one for each candidate – in Parliament, they’d be called Dixers – and the last question was almost served up on a platter to allow a policy announcement.

I’m only going to look at a couple of significant moments from the question and answer period, however, because I want to focus on the commentators, post-debate.

Generally, Abbott’s answers tended to be either riddled with slogans, or entirely composed of criticism of Labor. At one point, he referred to Labor’s policies as ‘waffle’, and at another, laughed derisively during Rudd’s answer. Rudd, as sitting Prime Minister, had the advantage of being able to base his answers on the government’s achievements, and go on to talk up new policies. There were few surprises, policy-wise, but it’s rare to see major announcements during a debate.

Rudd stumbled badly on the question of whether a Labor government would build a second airport for Sydney. Although his answer was essentially the same as Abbott’s – ‘we’ll have a look at that with some experts’ – he failed to point the finger at either the former Howard government or New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. He could have said that earthworks were actually in progress, stopped by Howard. He could have said that O’Farrell had absolutely refused to work with federal Labor. It’s anyone’s guess why he didn’t, but then he compounded the error by pointing out that there were infrastructure needs right across the country. No one likes to hear that their needs might be less important, no matter how true that may be.

For his part, Abbott came a cropper on the issue of aged care. The Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’ booklet has a vague paragraph promising an ‘agreement’ with providers in the sector. Pressed for detail on actual policy, Abbott had nothing to add. In fact, he grudgingly admitted he would keep the reforms passed under Labor.

Abbott also ruled out any changes to the GST – but was unable to answer why, in that case, the GST would be part of his promised tax review. He also tried to say that any change to the GST would have to involve the agreement of all States and Territories, and therefore unlikely even if he were looking at that. Speers pulled him up immediately for that piece of misinformation. A sitting government has the ability to change the current legislation, without undertaking any consultation.

But it was the last question, leaked some time earlier, that drove the biggest wedge between the leaders – that of marriage equality. The two answers could not have been more different. For Abbott, the issue was settled last term. Besides, there were much more important things. Effectively, the Coalition considered marriage equality a dead, second-order (at best) issue. Abbott did offer a sop at the conclusion of his answer, suggesting that the party room might look at the situation if anything changed. He certainly gave the impression, though, that it wasn’t worth holding your breath.

Rudd reiterated his change of heart, and commitment to marriage equality, calling it a ‘mark of decency’. Then came the election promise. Within the first 100 days of a Labor government, they would introduce legislation removing the impediments within the Marriage Act, and allow a conscience vote. It’s still highly unlikely that such a bill would pass, given the Coalition’s stance, but – unlike Labor’s former position – this would be a bill introduced by a Minister and backed by the Prime Minister. Such things carry their own weight and, while Labor would still have to deal with its own Right faction’s opposition, it gives them a stronger base from which to begin.

So much for questions. Let’s look at how the commentators and audience polls wrapped it up. Having the debate broadcast far and wide provided the opportunity for a real cross-section of viewers. Here’s how the polls saw the debate:

Channel Ten (One HD) = Rudd 61 – Abbott 39
Channel Nine (GEM) = Rudd 59 – Abbott 41
Channel Seven = Abbott 68 – Rudd 32
ABC = Rudd 71 – Abbott 29

Fairly decisive, you’d think. With one exception, every poll gave the debate to Rudd. The ABC’s poll, conducted via Twitter, could rightly be set aside as have a particularly limited audience – but even without that, on balance Rudd won the debate.

But then there were the commentators, who, almost as though they were working from the same script, gave the debate to Abbott. This was particularly startling in the case of the ABC, who published the results of their own polls, then proceeded to completely ignore them.

And why did Abbott ‘win’?

Because Rudd ‘started off nervously’.

Because Abbott ‘sounded confident’.

Because – you have to love the vagueness of this – Abbott ‘looked Prime Ministerial’.

Finally – and this was the point where credibility went out the window – no less a personage than Laurie Oakes asserted that Abbott had won, not in spite of his reliance on three word slogans, but because of them.

Yeah, you read that right.

Because, apparently, the essential qualities in judging whether someone is a good debater have nothing to do with the substance of their arguments. Or how well they refute their opponent’s points. No, no. It’s all about style.

Oscar Wilde observed that those who used the phrase ‘style over substance’ was a marvellous and instant indicator of a fool.

Now, call me the product of a bygone generation, but when I was at school, we were taught that debates are won on the quality of your argument. We were taught how to construct initial statements, build on those, and to rebut and dismantle our opponents’ arguments. We were assessed on those criteria, and the winner was whoever could do that better. Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I thought that was still how we determined who won our debates.

Oh, silly me. I keep forgetting that modern political reporting has less to do with issues of substance and more to do with whether Kevin Rudd’s hair was mussed up by the wind or Julia Gillard’s shoes sank into the lawn. It’s about whether the person in front of the cameras grabs attention with some snappy talking points, not whether they’re actually saying something of significance.

Think I’m exaggerating? Go take a look. The number one story to come out of last night’s debate is whether Rudd broke the rules by taking notes to the podium with him. And whether Abbott, lauded as being ‘note-free’, might also have had notes, as claimed by Lindsay Coombs, who tweeted a screen-grab showing notes on Abbott’s podium.

(For what it’s worth? The note issue is – and should be – a non-issue. Rudd made no attempt to conceal his notes, and said that as far as he knew, having them was permitted. Clearly, he was wrong. Last night’s setup was the exception rather than the rule for debates. It’s possible Rudd did assume he could act as usual. But really, is there any need to prevent someone from taking notes into a debate? What does it prove? It’s not as though a Prime Minister is required to operate under exam conditions – he has access to experts, briefs, any amount of needed information.)

So this is where we are. What should have been a way for us to learn more about the policies of the new major parties, vigorously debated, analysed at length with the precision that comes from long experience in political journalism – was a farce. Commentators ignored clear poll results, dismissed substance in favour of style, and focused on the existence of a few typed pages.

And today, those same commentators complain that last night’s debate was boring, and that no one will want to watch any others. How ‘lucky’, they said, that Channels Nine and Ten had secondary (read: less popular) channels to carry the broadcast.

I suggest that perhaps those commentators might better use their skills as judges on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’, or similar shows. Meanwhile, perhaps we could have a real debate – and get some real analysis, while we at it.


Election 2013 – the real date

August 4, 2013

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visited Governor-General Quentin Bryce today to request that she issue writs for an election of the House of Representatives and half the Senate.

The date will be September 7, and the campaign begins tomorrow.

There’s really only one thing to say now …


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.


Husic’s oath a cause for celebration, not abuse

July 2, 2013

Prime Minister Rudd’s new cabinet was announced and sworn in yesterday. Though there were few surprises, there were several appointments of note – and one who attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese picked up the Communications portfolio in addition to his current responsibilities for Infrastructure and Transport. This is a natural, and very clever move. The NBN is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in our history, and Albanese is a practised debater with a proven ability to think on his feet. You couldn’t find a better advocate for what will undoubtedly be a major plank in Labor’s election campaign.

Mark Butler, who’s perceived to be somewhat above the usual gutter-level politics of day to day governing, moves from Mental Health and Ageing to Climate Change and Environment. It’s a major step up for Butler, but his appointment conveys the message that the portfolio is in safe – and, perhaps more importantly, untainted hands.

There are 11 women in Rudd’s cabinet, including a number who enter the ministry for the first time, such as Melissa Parke, who heads up the newly created International Development portfolio. Given Rudd’s emphasis on engagement with the Pacific Region, and China in particular, this is a major responsibility.

Inevitably, those who supported Rudd all the way along were rewarded. Recent convert Bill Shorten picked up Education along with Workplace Relations; and far be it from me to suggest that there’s more than a little irony in his taking on almost identical responsibilities to those first held by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the first Rudd cabinet. Encouragingly, though, many of those who held ministries under Gillard retained those positions (such as Penny Wong with Finance), or were reshuffled (O’Connor moving from Immigration to Employment).

It’s a new cabinet, with very little time for a shake-down cruise. Far from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s sneer that this is ‘not the B team, it’s the C team,’ however, more than half of Rudd’s ministers are extremely experienced, both as politicians and in various portfolios, many of those major areas of responsibility. Their expertise will be available to new ministers, who will also be ably served by their departments.

The transition to the new cabinet went off without a hitch. The swearing-in ceremony is a formality at best; though technically able to do so, a Governor-General is hardly likely to object to any appointments. Usually, the new minister reads out a Christian oath or secular affirmation and signs a copy of said oath, which is then witnessed and proclaimed by the Governor-General. Yesterday, something new happened.

For the first time, an Australian cabinet minister swore their oath upon the Koran.

The person in question was Ed Husic, new Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and for Broadband. At his election in 2010, he was the first Muslim to enter Parliament, and took his oath alongside Jewish MPs Josh Frydenberg and Michael Danby (who swore on what The Age fatuously called ‘the Jewish bible’).

The evening news reported Husic’s use of the Koran in a relatively neutral way, commenting on it as a curiosity more than anything else. Social media was more polarised. Husic’s Facebook page became a battleground for religious commentary that went far beyond general argument, and entered the realm of personal abuse directed at the MP.

With the breathtaking arrogance that seems to accompany only the truly uninformed, Husic was told: that it was ‘impossible’ for him to take that oath, since Islam and democracy were completely incompatible; that he was committing ‘treason’; that his appointment was un-Constitutional; that he’s not a ‘real’ Muslim, so shouldn’t use the Koran; that he was exploiting Australia for his own (no doubt nefarious) purposes; and – at the height of the absurdity – that Husic’s appointment meant sharia law was on the verge of being instituted.

This is why we can’t have nice things, Australia.

Husic made a decision to take his oath of office upon the holy book of his religion – which he was perfectly entitled to do. Nothing in our Constitution prohibits that, despite those amateur Constitutional Scholars who quoted s.116 as justification for their ranting. That particular section guarantees that the government may not establish a religion, nor impose a religious test for office. No minister is required to make an oath upon a religious text – they always have the option of taking a secular affirmation.

The notion that Islam is incompatible with democracy simply shows the ignorance of those asserting such nonsense. Islam is a religion; it is not a political system. Whether it is the dominant religion within a country may influence the politics, but there is a world of difference between that and a theocracy.

As for the accusation of the country being on the verge of the sudden imposition of sharia law – well, really. There’s ridiculous, and then there’s the kind of idiocy that leaves one open-mouthed with awe. This is on a par with Senators Cory Bernardi and Mitch Fifield thundering that we are being ‘forced’ into eating halal meat, leading to ‘Islamisation-by-stealth’ of our ‘Christian’ country. According to the wingnuts on Husic’s Facebook page, however, our way of life is in danger. Oh, and apparently shows just how low Rudd is willing to go.

I confess, that one escapes me. Perhaps the poster was suggesting that Husic has secret powers over ‘The Muslims’, and will instruct them all to vote for Rudd in the upcoming election – on the condition that Rudd will bring in sharia law as soon as he takes office?

That Husic’s appointment as a Parliamentary Secretary should provoke such bigotry is perhaps not surprising, although it is disgusting – and shows just how far we have to go.

The election of an indigenous person to Parliament was a moment of celebration, lauded by all comers – and rightly so. Politicians often trot out their children-of-migrants credentials, telling fond anecdotes about when their parents first came to this country. People, apparently, like to feel that they have something in common with their representatives. Unless they’re Muslim, I guess. Oh, it was fine for Husic to be a Muslim while he was a lowly backbencher, but in the cabinet? That’s going too far.

There’s more than a whiff of tokenism about that, a sense that Australian Muslims should be satisfied with having someone in Parliament who’s ‘one of them’ (never mind that Islam, like Christianity, is a religion with many sects and diverging beliefs). What more do ‘they’ want?

I don’t know about what ‘they’ want, but what we should want is more diversity. More voices bringing different perspectives, different heritages, different ideas. We should celebrate the fact that Husic felt he could show his commitment to serving us by taking the oath on his religion’s holy book, as we should celebrate others who take affirmations or swear on other sacred texts.

Diversity does not dilute; it enriches. It allows us to embrace what is new, while affirming traditions that continue to serve us well. In doing so, we become a stronger, more compassionate nation.

Congratulations on your appointment, Mr Husic.


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.


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