Election 2013: A tale told by an idiot

June 10, 2013

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

Yes, it’s time.

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

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

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

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

But you know what? None of that matters.

The amount of legislation passed by the government is irrelevant.

The polling numbers are irrelevant.

The stability of the Parliament is irrelevant.

Oh, and that little thing called policy? Irrelevant.

Why?

Because this election will be about nothing more than ideology.

The facts don’t matter, you see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Married to the lynch mob

March 24, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice the flames of hell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was this gem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about this?

He could have asked the crowd to stop yelling abuse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFTERWORD:

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

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

For their common sense, they should be commended.


Every hour of every day

March 1, 2011

Last week, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised to fight the government’s proposed carbon pricing mechanism ‘every hour of every day’.

Well, we’ve had a taste of that already. And it’s putrid.

Yesterday’s Question Time started off fairly predictably. Continuing a strategy has characterised much of their approach to Parliament, the Opposition hammered Gillard on the question of trust. She said she wouldn’t, but now she’s doing it. How can we ever trust her, etc. Nothing new there – tedious, but very much a case of ‘same old, same old’.

Then Abbott dropped the first ‘official’ accusation of lying. Speaker Harry Jenkins demanded he withdraw the slur and rephrased the question. A full five minutes later, after much weaselling and complaining, Abbott fixed a very nasty grin on his face and replaced the word ‘lie’ with the phrase ‘may have been less than honest’.

At the same time, the Opposition in the Senate attempted to censure the government. Their leader, Senator Eric Abetz, indulged in a top-of-the-voice screaming rant, much of which was directed at Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong – on the grounds that she had been the Climate Change Minister before the 2010 election. The shouting continued for nearly half an hour.

Abbott followed suit not long after, backed up by Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey. This time, they managed to shoehorn ‘lie’ into the shout-fest three times without challenge.

The change of language is significant. The Opposition is no longer content to say, ‘it’s a broken promise’. Somewhere along the line they decided, perhaps, it wasn’t strong enough. So now we have the accusation that Gillard deliberately lied in order to win government. That’s a much more serious – and much more personal – attack. It’s calculated to draw on the sense of anger we rightly feel when we discover someone set out to deceive us, and succeeded. Much like the anger directed at Shadow Treasurer Joe ‘Fully Audited’ Hockey, when he was caught out misleading the public on the Coalition’s election costings.

And of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s utterly irrelevant whether Gillard did deliberately lie, whether she was convinced to change her mind through the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee’s deliberations, whether she was pressured by the Greens or the Independents, or whether (at the absurd extreme) she’d decided to flip a coin. The Opposition claims the right to say what was in Gillard’s mind, both before the election and now.

The censure motions failed. Of course, they were never going to succeed, anyway. The Opposition simply doesn’t have the numbers, and with Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne and Member for Cowan Luke Simpkins barred from the Chamber for their conduct, the most they could hope for in the House was that the Independents would break step with the government. Even then, the best possible result was a tied vote – which the Speaker would resolve in favour of the government.

But that was never the point. In bringing these censure motions, the Opposition was doing little more than playing to the gallery. They uttered a few juicy soundbites and told the evening news that it was all about ‘lying’ now. And like faithful parrots, the media repeated the message. In interviews and panel discussions for the rest of the night and this morning, the Opposition cried ‘lie’, and the media obligingly pressured the government to ask why it ‘lied’.

Of course, when former Prime Minister John Howard backflipped on the idea of a GST, it wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t a broken promise. It was a principled stand that he took after receiving advice that it was the right thing to do. And he took it straight to an election – although, in fact, it was back on the agenda over a year before the 1998 election, and not flagged as an election policy until after Howard called the poll.

Gillard’s change of policy came about under similar circumstances to Howard’s. Like him, she made a knee-jerk commitment to something under pressure from media and political opponents. Like him, she received continual pressure to revoke that commitment. And like him, she reversed her position.

None of which, of course, matters to the Coalition. They went merrily on their way.

The low point of the failed censure motion came when Abbott mangled a Shakespearean analogy, comparing Gillard to Lady Macbeth, killing ‘Banquo’ (i.e. former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd), and now believing that ‘a little water clears her of this deed’. Of course, Lady Macbeth actually killed no one, settling for the role of ‘encouraging wife’, or at worst, ‘accessory before the fact’ – something that Abbott’s education would surely have told him. Never mind that. There’s a popular conception of Lady Macbeth as a vicious murderer willing to kill anyone who gets in the way of her path to personal power – a bloody, dangerous madwoman.

Abbott played to that shamelessly. The implication could not have been clearer. Gillard was not only a liar – she was also vicious and insane.

Then this morning, Shadow Health Minister Peter Dutton appeared on Sky News’ AM Agenda, and took the scare/smear campaign right to the gutter. As host Kieran Gilbert repeated the Opposition’s lines, Trade Minister Craig Emerson attempted to explain how the government’s plan would operate. Dutton interrupted with this:

‘Craig sounds like Colonel Gaddafi at the moment, saying everybody’s in favour of me, nobody is rising up against me … like Chemical Ali, honestly, honestly.’

Yes. Dutton apparently decided it would be a fine idea to compare Emerson to a delusional mass murderer guilty of crimes against humanity, so out of touch with reality that he believes protesting citizens are hallucinating on drugs administered to them by al Qaeda. Just for good measure, he threw in the name of a man rightly reviled for using mustard gas and nerve gases to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurdish civilians – who followed up this atrocity with an attempt to commit genocide, and who was unrepentant even as he was taken to be executed for his crimes.

Vicious and insane.

To say that Emerson was offended would be a gross understatement. He demanded a retraction from Dutton, repeatedly stating how outraged and insulted he felt:

‘I think that’s pretty offensive … I would rather you not use comparisons with a killer in Iraq and me, all right? You might think that’s flippant and funny, I think it’s bloody disgraceful, you understand that, I think that is bloody disgraceful, and there is a line here Peter, which you have crossed which you should not pass’.

Dutton completely ignored him – and Gilbert blithely went on quoting from the Opposition playbook. At no time did Gilbert attempt to stop Dutton – even with something as mild as, ‘Steady on, Peter’.

One such outrageously insulting comparison might be charitably called a misstep. The fact that Dutton followed up his leader’s offensive behaviour – indeed, going even further – shows something is rotten in the state of the Coalition (to mangle a Shakespearean metaphor of my own). At the very least, Dutton took his lead from Abbott – possibly reasoning that it looked like a pretty nifty idea, and sounded good when thundered around the Chamber yesterday. That’s almost excusable – if Dutton provides an immediate, unqualified apology.

At worst, this is an actual strategy of escalation. It starts by painting the Prime Minister as sneaky and deliberately deceptive (in itself nothing too surprising, but the language is a lot stronger than usual), then rapidly becomes an attempt to link members of the Labor government with behaviour so inhumane, so completely lunatic that their continued existence in power constitutes an immediate threat to all Australians on a par with nerve gas and genocide.

This goes well beyond hyperbole.

But notice what the Coalition are not saying. Absent is any form of rational debate. The Coalition are not bothering to provide any evidence that the proposed carbon price scheme will be a catastrophe – nor have they put forward a credible alternative plan beyond the fatally-flawed ‘Direct Action Plan’ they took to the 2010 election.

Instead, it’s all about telling their own lies (like the one about Arthur & Rita whose business electricity bill will go up by $1500 per year despite its imminent takeover by K-Mart*) and making personal attacks on Gillard and any Minister who defends the plan – attacks that go far beyond the usual accusations of ‘government incompetence’. This is not an Opposition doing its job of holding the government to account. This is not an alternative government putting forward ideas that counter the government and suggest different solutions.

This is just the opening salvo in Abbott’s ‘every hour of every day’ campaign.

And if they’ve sunk this low already, how much grubbier can they get?

* Thanks to Twitter user @mjwill90 for information about the K-Mart takeover.

UPDATE:

Just in case we were in any doubt about whether the Coalition supported Dutton’s disgusting remarks, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop backed him up this afternoon. Equating Emerson with Gaddafi was ‘warranted’, apparently. ‘It is obvious that Peter was using it as a metaphor for the measure of delusion within Labor over the carbon tax,’ she said.

So it’s okay to compare someone to a mass murderer, in Bishop’s eyes – because the important thing is to make sure they understand that person is deluded. Of course, she didn’t explain quite why it was necessary to include comparisons to mass murderers in order to get that point across …

Perhaps it was just for ’emphasis’.

It’s a bad look, any way you slice it. Either it’s a case where someone was demonised by comparisons to infamous killers in order to brand them as dangerous, or where those with mental illness were insulted by having their struggles callously used to score a political point.

And Bishop, by defending Dutton, sent a very clear message that the Coalition thinks it’s perfectly acceptable. That the Lady Macbeth, Gaddafi and Chemical Ali comparisons are a deliberate strategy.

Ms Bishop? It’s not acceptable.


Vicvotes 2010 – the count semi-live

November 27, 2010

The Victorian election is over. We’ve cast our votes, been thoroughly drenched, and now it’s all down to the counting. Right now I can confidently predict many, many absentee days in the coming week due to colds and hangovers.

6.00pm

A Sky News exit poll delivered a staggering 54-46 win to the Coalition.

8.00pm

Sky is happily calling the election for the Coalition. ABCNews24 is more circumspect – but they just lost their internet feed, so right now they’re flannelling wildly. The Twitterverse is making helpful suggestions, like ‘Give Antony Green an iPad and wireless – STAT!’

Even though it’s still early days, there looks to be a big swing on to the Coalition.

Maxine Morand, ALP candidate for Mount Waverley, has all but conceded.

Independent Craig Ingram in East Gippsland has thrown in the towel, delivering his seat to the Liberals.

The ABC is showing 10 seats tipping to the Coalition.

It appears that the Greens, who were tipped to pick up Brunswick and Northcote, may well have been scuttled by the Liberals’ preferencing the ALP. Melbourne is still in play, but it’s very very early days yet.

I … am drinking.

8.30pm

With the loss of Craig Ingram, the only Independent in the Victorian Lower House has gone, replaced by a National MP.

The ABC have all but called the election for the Coalition. With nearly 30% of the votes being cast in pre-polls, some close seats may swing, but the overall result appears to be a resounding dictionary.

Labor has conceded South Barwon.

Weirdly, Sky has dropped back to a somewhat more cagey stance, handing the Coalition 37 out of the required 45 seats.

Approximately 50% of the vote has been counted. At most, 70% can be counted tonight.

9.00pm

Possibly the single most sickening part of this election count is the Twitter feed. It’s one thing to express joy, or even relief, when your preferred party gets up. It’s another to indulge in rabid insults and schadenfreude. Why laugh at the Greens or Family First because there’s been a swing against them? Why gleefully announce that Labor voters would be committing suicide? It’s not a laughing matter.

And yes, I’d say the same thing if Labor voters were indulging in the same behaviour.

9.30pm

Things you can kiss goodbye for the next four years:

Any hope of Victoria following the lead of South Australia in officially supporting same-sex marriage.

Home detention and suspended sentences.

Double jeopardy. The Coalition have promised to institute new legislation so that someone acquitted in a court of law can be re-tried for the same crime.

Any hope of a conscience vote on euthanasia.

Qualified psychological counsellors in schools – principals will have the discretion to put in their own welfare officers, who do not need to have formal counselling or social work training.

Things you can look forward to for the next four years:

Increased stop-and-search powers for police.

Unprecedented powers for school principals to search, confiscate, suspend and expel students.

Police surveillance for anyone who has served a sentence for arson-related offences.

9.45pm

The ABC says 48 seats for the Coalition.

Sky says ALP 43, Coalition 42, with 3 in doubt.

Things are definitely weird when the Murdoch vehicle won’t call it for the Coalition. And Peter Reith, former minister in the Howard government (infamously associated with the waterfront lockout), commented that he thought the ABC was ‘premature’ to call it so early.

10.00pm

Sky … ALP 43, Coalition 44. 1 in doubt.

If the ALP picks up that seat, we would have a hung Parliament.

Rob Hulls, currently Attorney-General, just took the stage at Labor HQ in Broadmeadows. He’s saying it’s too close to call, and will depend on pre-poll votes. ‘Our government has been sent a clear message from Victorians … we understand that we need to do better … Labor has heard the message.’ His prediction? Hung Parliament.

The big question is: where is John Brumby??

During Hulls’ speech, Sky dropped its numbers to ALP 40, Coalition 43, with 5 in doubt.

10.30pm

Commentators are backing off with astonishing rapidity from their original calls. Whether Hulls’ speech convinced them, or they are having to take into account new numbers, is an open question – but now the phrase ‘hung Parliament’ features in their conversations.

Interestingly, the idea of a hung Parliament seems to automatically carry with it the accusation that voters are ‘indecisive’. There’s little room for the possibility that people may have started to shake off the idea that a two-party result is the only viable result for workable government. Minority government is very, very common around the world, and hardly unheard of here in Australia. Is it fear of abandoning the known for the new?

Sky keeps putting seats back in doubt as margins narrow. If this election has taught us anything, perhaps it’s that premature announcements are good for only one thing – keeping the graphics department in television stations busy.

And here is where I prove I’m psychic: if we do end up with a hung Parliament, the first words out of the Coalition’s mouths will be, ‘The Victorian people have given us a mandate, because we won more seats’.

11.00pm

Not five minutes after my prediction, Kelly O’Dwyer uttered the ‘mandate’ mantra.

A very quick-and-dirty crunch of the numbers shows that the Australian Sex Party have a chance of picking up Legislative Council seats in both the Northern and Western Metropolitan regions. This, of course, does not include pre-polling.

Brumby has just taken the stage at Labor HQ. He’s running with the ‘too close to call, likely hung Parliament’ strategy.

Of course, a hung Parliament in this case will most likely mean we go back to the polls around Christmas time. Brumby knows this – that’s why he and Hulls are taking the time to go through their policy agenda, laying the groundwork.

11.30

Baillieu has taken to the stage. ‘The election result may be uncertain,’ he says, mugging furiously for the cameras as raucous laughter erupts in the room. Actually, I’d have to agree with the tweeter who remarked that the mood was ‘feral’. Unlike Brumby and Hull, Baillieu is full of nothing but self-congratulation. To hear him talk, you’d think that the Liberals have already won in a landslide. Now, the swing against Labor is substantial, and definitely reflects badly on the government – but there is no result yet, and Baillieu is coming off as unbelievably arrogant. He’s completely unable to speak about any other party with anything but contempt.

Labor only held onto many of its seats because of Greens preferences, according toa sneering Baillieu, and the room erupts again with boos and angry shouts. There’s a definite Tea Party vibe in Liberal HQ tonight. Curiously, Baillieu forgets to mention that Labor has held some inner-city seats because of Liberal preferences.

12.00am

No result. Counting continues into the night, but it’s time to close out this blog post.

Waking up will be interesting tomorrow.


Victorian policies, side by side

November 26, 2010

One day out from the Victorian elections, and – if possible – the level of ennui is even higher than during the Federal poll. Apart from a few committed pamphleteers and online trolls, most people’s attitude seems to be summed up in one word: ‘meh‘.

That could have something to do with the fact that both major parties and the Greens spent a great deal of time in this campaign simply attacking each other. The Labor Party is all about waste; the Coalition will destroy the public service; the Greens will make you take cold showers! (And no, I’m not exaggerating on that last one – it was part of an anti-Greens Twitter campaign that purported to reveal the ‘truth’ about the consequences of Greens policies on coal-fired power stations.)

Now I don’t know about you, but I like to make my voting decisions based on policy, not on who had the most ridiculous claims or nastiest insults. So with that in mind, here’s a quick-and-dirty comparison of some key areas of policy for most of the parties contesting the Victorian election. Let’s focus on Public Transport, Health and Education.

Policy statements are taken from the parties’ websites: Labor, Sex Party, Country Alliance, DLP, Family First and Liberals. I have not separately listed National Party policies, as they are in coalition with the Liberal Party and their policies are folded into the latter’s website.

Full disclosure: I’m currently volunteering for the Australian Sex Party. As such, while I’ll list policies, I won’t comment on them.

Public Transport

This is a huge area of concern for Victorians, to judge from questions directed at John Brumby and Ted Baillieu throughout the campaign. Metro Trains’ poor record, ‘black holes’ in Melbourne’s train system and overcrowding on some heavily-travelled lines (Dandenong and Pakenham being two of the most notorious) have seen most parties make highly-publicised announcements.

Australian Labor Party

Labor’s budgeted $432 million for public transport infrastructure and development. They’re promising more train services to Geelong, more bus services lasting longer into the night and a shuttle bus from Clayton Station to Monash University. In terms of maintenance and upgrade, Labor plans to make over train stations, buy new train carriages, and work on updating Melbourne’s ageing tracks and signalling system. The flagship policy is a pledge to establish a Safety Control Centre to monitor trains by CCTV and be in constant contact with stations which will all be staffed.

Australian Sex Party

The flagship policy for this party is a 24-hour public transport system on weekend, to be manned by security personnel. Other areas of concern are the Metro Rail Tunnel – with the Sex Party calling for stages One and Two to be simultaneously planned and delivered, upgrading Melbourne’s signalling system to take advantage of new technologies, and the separation of regional and metropolitan services to allow the regional network to be upgraded to a metro-style system.

Country Alliance

No listed policy.

Democratic Labor Party

No listed policy.

Family First

Family First has focused on encouraging more Victorians to use the metropolitan transit system. To this end they advocate implementing various (though unspecified) strategies, abolishing Zone 2 ticketing in favour of a single-zone system, conductors on all trams for safety and to reduce fare evasion, and guards on trains. They have also called for a feasibility study into the idea of building a tunnel to connect the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway, and for improvements to the most dangerous and congested intersections and railway crossings.

Greens

In keeping with a general focus on initiatives to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the Greens have set out a suite of policies. They have called for upgrades to Melbourne’s rail system (including the elimination of bottlenecks), more staff to improve passenger safety, revised scheduling to include more express train services for long lines, frequent and direct light rail, rail links to Tullamarine Airport, Rowville and Doncaster, improved disability access to buses and trams, giving traffic signal priority to road-based public transport and new trains with longer carriages to reduce crowding. Regionally, the Greens advocate restoring passenger train services (including direct services between Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo), estabilishing a feasibility study into location and costs for a very-high-speed passenger train service between Melbourne and Sydney, and investigating the feasibility of opening rural school bus services to the general public. Acceleration of construction of the Principal Bicycle Network, and increased road space for cyclists would be encouraged. A combined ministry for planning and transport would be established, and all proposed road network expansions would have to be valuated against alternative public transport solutions on environmental and social grounds.

Liberal/National Coalition

Running with the ‘safety and security’ angle, the Coalition have promised 900 Victoria Police Protective Service officers at train stations, as well as 350 Transit Police to ride along. They have also pledged to spend $130 million to build a Kilmore-Wallan bypass, and to construct new bus shelters in the Yarra Ranges.

Health

As in most elections, the Health policy tends to be diffused by including ‘social agenda’ policies such as those surrounding abortion, euthanasia and reproductive technologies. I’ve deliberately excluded these issues from this policy area.

Australian Labor Party

Labor has promised to boost numbers of medical personnel: 2800 additional nurses, doctors and other health professionals over the next two years to improve nurse-patient ratios. 200 more nurses will be recruited specifically for palliative care, cancer, geriatric and rehabilitation wards. Elective surgery operations are promised to increase by 50,000, and an extra 300,000 outpatient appointments created. Along with this, patients needing an initial appointment for treatment of hip or knee osteoarthritis will be seen within eight weeks. Labor has also promised to increase emergency department capacity to treat 315,000 additional patients, 70,000 more dental care places, 300 new specialist and GP training places and 50 doctor places in rural and regional Victoria.

Australian Sex Party

The Sex Party’s policy focuses largely on community-based initiatives. It has called for protection of community health services under the new, nationally-managed plan, for communities to be included in planning new initiatives, and resourcing for community health support for sex workers, culturally and linguistically diverse populations, HIV sufferers, indigenous people, rural communities, the elderly and those affected by age-related illness and the transgender community. Additional areas of concern are sexual health initiatives, including state-funded sexual health clinics and inclusion of a range of sexual health treatments on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme regardless of the age and gender of patients. On mental health, the Sex Party has advocated for ongoing funding and expansion for early intervention initiatives such as Headspace and ORYGEN, community education, social support services and funding for qualified, secular counsellors in schools.

Country Alliance

In keeping with its focus on rural and regional concerns, the Country Alliance has called for the establishment of basic standards for access to medical and dental care within rural Victoria and identification of those communities who do not meet those standards, and for 20 scholarships per Upper House region to be offered each year to attract doctors to regional areas.

Democratic Labor Party

The DLP’s health policy is entirely conflated with what can only be described as a ‘social agenda’ policy. Picking through it, there is one specific health initiative: increase in the allocation of funding for palliative care facilities for the terminally ill.

Family First

Family First has called for an increase in funded doctor and nurse training places, support for medical personnel who work in rural and regional communities – in the form of subsidised public indemnity insurance and reduced stamp duty to aid relocation, more acute and aged-care beds, and more respite carers. In other health areas, they have advocated more support for alcohol/drug rehabilitation groups, more detoxification centres, and more mental health inpatient beds.

Greens

The Greens have called for more community health centres (including co-location of GPs in those areas), nurse practitioners, increased access for concession cardholders to public dental care, improved integration between health services, better conditions for home care and personal care workers, and accreditation standards for ‘non-traditional’ practitioners, including registers and complaints procedures. They have pledged to reduce waiting times in hospitals and increase outpatient services and institute ‘healthy eating’ programs (including requirements for school canteens to provide healthy food choices). Maternal and Child Health Services would be expanded, particularly in the areas of midwifery and post-natal depression treatment.

Liberal/National Coalition

The Coalition has promised new ambulance stations and a 50% decrease in ambulance subscription fees, upgrades and new hospitals in regional areas, and they have pledged to ban ‘bongs’ and related paraphernalia. In the area of mental health they have promised to set up a $10 million Mental Illness Research Fund, central co-ordination of inpatient mental health beds, and an education/employment program to increase workforce participation of those living with mental illness.

Education

The policies outlined vary wildly, from new national programs to smaller, individually-focused issues.

Australian Labor Party

The big announcement for Labor was the ‘Education for Life’ initiative. This program, aimed at Year 9 students, is budgeted at $208 million, and includes a two-week residential camp. It is aimed to teach financial literary, bushfire awareness, community service, public speaking, first aid, advanced water safety, self-defence, and alcohol/drug awareness. Labor has also promised $1.7 billion for school upgrades, provision of Primary Welfare and Home School Liaison Officers (the precise nature of which – psychologist, social worker, chaplain – would be determined by the school itself), rural ‘virtual’ classrooms and four new bilingual secondary schools. For non-government schools Labor has pledged to increase funding to 25% of that given to government schools, and to provide professional development for teachers and principals.

Australian Sex Party

The Sex Party has called for an end to the government school chaplaincy program, to be replaced by qualified psychological counsellors, as part of a general advocacy for a secular public school system. Special Religious Instruction programs would be replaced by curriculum-based comparative religion and ethics classes. They have also advocated age-appropriate sex education classes, beginning in primary years with safety, body image and self-esteem, and a program to educate students on the safe use of information/communication technologies. Private schools would be required to implement inclusive, non-discriminatory policies.

Country Alliance

In keeping with its focus on rural and regional concerns, the Country Alliance has called for the establishment of basic standards for access to education services within rural Victoria and identification of those communities who do not meet those standards.

Democratic Labor Party

The DLP has called for a voucher system so that parents may choose to send their children to non-government schools without financial penalty, at the same time advocating for redistribution of funding to allow government schools to compete on an equal basis. Government allowances for students would be rolled into a single, non-means-tested, Universal Living Allowance and tax deductibility for when deferred HECS fees are paid. TAFE courses would receive more funding, the Howard government’s ‘Voluntary Student Unionism’ legislation would be rolled back and a professional institute to oversee teacher performance would be established. Finally, the DLP has advocated ‘an education system based on the promotion of competence appropriate for the age and status of each student in a range of skills, including numeracy, literacy, social and civic participation, health skills and knowledge and an informed appreciation of the religious, moral and ethical codes to which the mainstream community adheres’.

Family First

Family First has a suite of policies: reduced class sizes, focus on numeracy and literacy skills, so-called ‘plain English’ school reports, financial literacy programs, relationship programs designed to promote marriage and family life, more TAFE colleges, promotion of the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) as pathways for students who do not want to go to university. They have also called ‘genuine choice’ for parents in selecting a school that supports their family’s values.

Greens

The Greens have called for two years’ free pre-school education for all children, no fees and charges for the public education system, a full range of education programs for compulsory schooling years including special-needs education, locally-targeted initiatives, optimum class sizes and implementation of education ICT including video conferencing. Assessment and reporting would be aimed at integrating and supporting learning rather than ‘competition’. All levels of education would be integrated into a flexible network to assist students throughout their learning periods. For educators, the Greens have advocated better remuneration, professional development and accountability, financial transparency and non-discriminatory staff recruitment and enrolment practices. Finally, all public schools buildings (renovated or new) would be required to achieve best practice Ecologically Sustainable Development standards.

Liberal/National Coalition

The Coalition has promised funding for existing and new schools, including the establishment of Years 11 and 12 at Somerville Secondary College. Truancy laws would be enforced. The Victorian College of the Arts attracted particular attention, with the Coalition pledging $6 million to cover its current shortfall, as well as a return to its former independent status. The Rock Eisteddfod would receive $800,000. They have matched Labor’s commitment to raising funding for Catholic schools to 25%, and promised to make Victorian teachers the highest-paid in Australia. Finally, the Coalition would expand the powers of principals to ban ‘dangerous items’, and to search, suspend or expel students at their discretion.

*****

Phew. Well, there you are. That’s the Big Three this election. Of course, every party has a raft of other policies on everything from euthanasia to water to programs for specific regions, and I urge you to look them up. I deliberately did not include climate change initiatives, mainly because almost all the parties have no specific climate change policy, and their environment policies are often mixed up with regional initiatives.

Hopefully, though, you have an idea of what’s behind all those press conferences and jargon-laden rhetoric, and can make some informed decisions.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. It might ‘only’ be a State election, but many of these policies will directly affect us in a way that grand federal initiatives often don’t. It’s your democratic right and your responsibility – please use it.


Victorian Coalition campaign launch

November 17, 2010

In the lead-up to every election, political parties ‘launch’ their campaigns – usually some time after the first promises have been made, hands shaken and babies kissed. The event is little more than a pep rally for the faithful, at which old leaders are trotted out and families turn on their glassy-eyed smiles for the camera. There might be a few policy announcement, but for the most part, launches are all about motherhood statements.

Of course, there are exceptions. The federal Labor campaign launch in 2007 was peppered with specifics; how much spent, how many things it would buy, and how many people would benefit. The Greens launch for the federal election this year, while unable to provide the hard numbers, was full of details. These are exceptions; but what we got from the Victorian Coalition this time around set a new low in lack of substance.

The campaign slogan stuck to the front of the lectern should have been a dead give-away: ‘Fix the Problems. Build the Future’. Right there you know what’s in store – a diatribe about what a terrible government Victoria suffers under right now, and a non-specific ‘vision’ of how it will all be different if the Coalition are elected instead.

Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott set the tone, indulging in a good headkicking of John Brumby’s Labor government. He didn’t quite manage to work in ‘Stop the Boats’, but otherwise tarred Victorian Labor with almost all the accusations he regularly flings at the federal government. Waste, mismanagement, betrayal of the people – it would have been an easy speech for Abbott’s writers. They could have cut and pasted much of it.

‘Our job is not to save the Labor party, our job is to save Victoria,’ he thundered to wild applause. Then Abbott switched tactics, bringing a message of hope for the believers. ‘You can almost hear the tectonic plates shifting … not towards a hung parliament … but towards a coalition majority … [that will] get things done and have the courage of its convictions.’ Stirring stuff.

After a quick refresher course on the Coalition’s mission statement – lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom, a
strong family and ‘values which have stood the test of time, Abbott wound up by comparing Ted Baillieu to former Premier Jeff Kennett, and added a little garnish of jingoism. ‘As Australian patriots we support policies which will work and build a stronger and better future for this great country.’

See what he did there?

It all sounds very reasonable. After all, who wouldn’t want policies that will work? Who wouldn’t want a better future? Ah, but wait. We’re not talking about just any policies here, oh no. The policies that will ‘work’ are clearly those of the Coalition (given we are, after all, at a Coalition campaign launch). The logical inference, then, is that if you do not support those policies, you are not a patriot. You are un-Australian. Why do you hate this great country of ours?

In case viewers and listeners didn’t get the message, Ted Baillieu opened up with, ‘I love this state! I love this state!’, completed with a pause for enthusiastic applause. After an embarrassed moment, a few belated ‘whoo-hoos’ were heard around the room. Undaunted, Baillieu plowed on, and soon hit his stride.

Our streets are not safe, he warned. He’d spoken to families whose loved ones had been ‘bashed, stabbed or even murdered’, and they were crying out for action. Our transport system was failing. Bushfire-affected families had been forgotten, planning and infrastructure was in ruins, the sky was falling. ‘More of the same is simply not good enough,’ Baillieu yelled.

But, lest we all throw ourselves off the burned-out shells of buildings in our anarchic cities in despair, Baillieu had a message of hope. ‘There is a great Victoria … it’s the Victoria that first emerged 160 years ago with the courage, ambition and aspiration of new settlers. They came in search of new opportunities … unconcerned by fear or distance … what they lacked in labour, skills or technology, they more than covered with determination and passion.’

Ted Baillieu, it appears, is an enthusiastic support of the principle of terra nullius. Before a bunch of British capitalists, seal-hunters and convict ‘guards’ decided that settling Victoria might be a good idea in order to exploit resources and stop the damn Frenchies from getting another colony, Victoria was an unspoiled Eden. It was a land just waiting for white people, and let’s not talk about sites of habitation dating back 35,000 years, diorite mining and established trade networks with the Aboriginal peoples. No no, it’s all about the Pioneer Spirit.

These dauntless types ‘simply got on with it … they dreamed of a future for our state [and] inspired others to go on and build that future’. As time went on, more and more new arrivals were attracted by this visionary settlement, and ‘our multicultural heart’ was formed. ‘No one understands the value of opportunity better than those who came looking for a new start,’ asserted Baillieu.

Unless those people turn up in boats fleeing persecution, right, Ted?

The grand vision of prosperity is all different now – because of Labor, of course. Victorian families are in dire circumstances, struggling to cope with failing services, rapidly rising bills, increasingly unaffordable housing, an economy dependent on population growth and, ‘above all’, escalating debt. ‘Victorians have been asked to tolerate, accept and regard as normal record levels of violence, unsafe streets, unreliable public transport, crumbling country roads, local communities being ignored, a planning system without certainty or confidence … vulnerable children left unprotected … secret hospital waiting lists, under-resourced schools, secrecy and incompetence, waste and mismanagement, and inadequate investigations of corruption. No one should consider this as normal!’

Excuse me a moment while I check my perimeter defences, field-strip and clean my arsenal and throw some chunks of scavenged meat to my slavering guard dogs.

Yes, that’s right. Baillieu’s vision of Victoria – the state he ‘loves’ – is one of a fall from grace. In the golden age of the pioneers, people of spirit and drive came here with their dreams of a capitalist utopia and built something marvellous. (Presumably, these people would have voted Liberal if there had been such a party in those days.) But then, the dastardly, moustache-twirling Labor men (with apologies to former Premier Joan Kirner) snuck in and ruined it all. Weep, weep, for the lost glory.

Excuse me again for a moment. I have to go hold up some old ladies for their pensions so I can get my kids on a secret hospital waiting list – and siphon some diesel for my all-terrain vehicle so I can drive them across the battle-scarred landscape.

Twenty minutes into Baillieu’s speech, and still no policy announcement. Not one. Nada. But wait – here comes the Coalition’s plan.

The Coalition will ‘maintain surplus … get rising debt under control … ensure state taxes are fair and competitive,’ said Baillieu, adding for good measure – in case he hadn’t made the point strongly enough – that people no longer felt safe. ‘We stand for more jobs, safe streets, safe and reliable public transport, quality country roads, strong families and communities, a planning system that works, better access to hospitals, more support for schools and teachers, cutting waste – a government that you and all Victorians can trust.’ All these claims were, he stated, ‘fully costed and fully budgeted’.

Fantastic. Here comes the policy. Now we’ll see some good, chunky detail giving us a credible alternative government.

At which point Baillieu thanked everyone for coming, and left the stage to wild applause.

Wait … what?????

That was it? Not one number? Not one specific policy measure? A bunch of motherhood statements tacked onto the end of some revisionist history and dystopian scare-mongering??

Now, as I said in the beginning, campaign launches are all about revving up the faithful, so perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect a lot of detail. But even the faithful need some sausage with their sizzle – and any swinging voter that tuned in out of curiosity would have been left with the clear impression that the Victorian Coalition was long on criticism, short on policy.

Of course there are policy statements available on the web (and I’ll be looking over them in the days to come). But if you go to the trouble of setting up a big, well-publicised event, invite the media along and have it televised – shouldn’t you at least attempt to show yourselves in the best possible light?

Baillieu’s Coalition appears not to think so. The strategy seems to be entirely about trying to scare Victorians into voting for them. If that means they have to grossly overstate crime figures, misrepresent community attitudes and mislead the public into holding the State government responsible for local and federal government purviews – well, that’s excusable. The important thing, after all, is to get elected.

They’re going to have to do better than that, though. It’s not enough to run down your opponents and mutter darkly about a ‘Labor-Greens alliance’. Voters need to know that you’d do better.

Right now, they don’t know any such thing.


Victorian Leaders’ Debate

November 7, 2010

Warning: contains flippant remarks.

Time for a look at my home state of Victoria now. With an election looming on November 27 that looks to deliver another significant result to the Greens, and perhaps another minority government, the major parties have repeatedly hammered home the point that they want to lead in their own right. It’s fair to say, however, that the Greens were the elephant in the room when the leaders’ debate between Premier John Brumby and Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu took place, with moderators and panellists repeatedly mentioning their likely effect on the election outcome.

In a nice touch of serendipity – or perhaps irony – the debate was held on the 5th of November.

The first question was predictable. Both leaders were asked why they deserved Victorian votes.

Ted Baillieu led off with a litany of Victoria’s woes. Although he was a ‘proud Victorian, a very, very proud Victorian’, Baillieu shook his head sadly over problems of violent crime, deteriorating country roads, a planning system that ‘cannot be trusted’, children in state protection being neglected, rising water and power bills, and – startingly – long and ‘secret’ waiting lists for hospital treatment. He slipped in some stock phrases from the Federal Liberal playbook about ‘endless waste and mismanagement’ before promising a series of law and order reforms guaranteed to warm the hearts of conservatives everywhere – more police on the streets, a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to violent crime (whatever that means), and tougher sentencing. After that he waxed lyrical with promises to do everything from fix country roads to changing how hospitals are managed and embraced the idea of a ‘modern, open accountable government’ that would put an end to ‘cover-ups, secrecy and incompetence’. In short, Baillieu promised to save the world.

John Brumby went for the folksy approach, regaling the panel with the story of how he’d visited apprentices at Geelong TAFE. These politically savvy and civic-minded young people represented all Victorians, it appears – what they wanted was a strong economy, good jobs and for Victoria to keep its AAA credit rating. Accordingly, Brumby pledged to create 300,000 new jobs over the next five years, pointing out for good measure that Victoria has – thanks to Labor – the lowest payroll tax rate in 36 years. It was important to keep the jobs coming, he asserted.

Something strange happened then. In a rare display of psychic power, Brumby started channelling Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He rhapsodised about the ‘transformative power’ of education, something he’d always been ‘passionate’ about, and felt was of intense importance to every Victorian. To prove it, he listed the government’s achievements – the placement of more than 10,000 new teachers and support staff into the system, new buildings and schools across the state, and more investment in education to ensure every child had the opportunity to gain ’21st century skills’ (though presumably, not the ability to use Twitter).

Ian Henderson, the moderator, indulged in a little forward planning at this point. He commented that there was now a third force in politics, not represented at the debate – though perhaps for the last time. This was no doubt welcome news to many Greens voters who already suffered through the Federal campaign with little attention. Why then, asked the moderator, are voters dissatisfied with the traditional duopoly?

Brumby refused to be drawn. Others could make that judgment, but the ALP was about putting forward ‘positive policies, especially ‘progressive social policies’.

Then the dance began in earnest. Baillieu, asked about where the Liberals would direct their preferences, went on the attack. There was a Greens/Labor alliance in Tasmania, and now one in Canberra. Labor had done deals in the past with the Greens!

Moderator: ‘So what will you do?’

Baillieu: ‘Mr Brumby needs to answer if he’s done another deal.’

Moderator: ‘I asked for your preferences.’

Baillieu: ‘The issue is, will John Brumby preference the Greens.’

Brumby chimed in, noting that Liberal preferences were likely to determine the outcome in inner city seats (as they did in the election of Greens MP Adam Bandt). This was ‘a raging issue’, he said; there was a crisis in the Liberal Party about where preferences should be directed.

‘I’ve never heard so much hypocrisy in my life!’ declared Baillieu, brandishing an ALP how to vote card from the last election that directed preferences to the Greens. ‘John Brumby has to delcare if another deal has been done’.

Moderator (with apparently infinite patience): ‘When will we find out what you’re doing?’

Baillieu (finally, in a grumpy tone): ‘Before the election.’

This ridiculous exchange went on, reaching its absurdest height when Baillieu declared that Brumby – in saying he had not spoken to the Greens, did not envisage a power-sharing deal with them and was competing to govern in his own right – was, in fact, ‘going out of his way’ to avoid answering a question on preferences. He seemed unaware of his own apparent inability to answer any question on Liberal Party preferences whatsoever. Asked about disillusionment in his own core support base, Baillieu snapped, ‘I don’t accept that, the question is for John Brumby, he’s had a long term relationship with the Greens’.

At that point the moderator and panellists gave up, but their expressions were unmistakable pictures of frustration and not a little disgust.

The debate moved on, and Brumby’s answers featured an interesting element not usually present in debates – the mea culpa. He acknowledged that he had spoken hastily and thoughtlessly when he told journalists they ‘didn’t need to know’ information about proposed new trams. Although he was right to withhold commercial-in-confidence information, he said, he should not have answered in that way. He also admitted that an Ombudsman’s report into child protection showed that his government was not doing enough, and that he’d moved to put new funding and new measures in place. Finally, when asked about Black Saturday, he said that it was clear the system had failed, and for that he was sorry, he accepted that responsibility and was committed to the best possible response in any future crises.

Baillieu constantly interrupted everyone else – in fact, his entire manner could best be described as ‘don’t waste my time’. He relentlessly pursued Brumby on the question of government advertisements, though was unable to name any ad that was a ‘Labor party political ad’. When Brumby was asked about the number of people in ‘communications’ jobs in the government (between 800-1000), Baillieu refused to accept his answer. Brumby pointed out that many people in communications were not concerned with the public at all, but rather keeping lines open between and within government departments, but Baillieu was adamant that it was about ‘spin’.

One feature of this debate was the ‘quick question’, which only allowed for a 30 second answer – and it was here that the debate really showed that it was out of touch with people’s concerns. While we spent 20 minutes listening to Baillieu not answer a question about Liberal preferences, we were given almost no time at all to hear the candidates’ views about adoption by same-sex couples. Baillieu simply rejected the idea. Brumby tried to cram some more information into his answer, which amounted to ‘I’m not sure, but I want the Law Review to look at it’.

Baillieu had his moment in the sun on law and order. Violence had been ‘normalised’, it was a ‘major cultural issue’ that they had to ‘turn around’. He commited to a further 17,000 police and to place 940 protective service officers on all major metropolitan and regional trams and trains until the end of service each night. Asked how he could change the culture, Baillieu repeated the ‘more police on streets, zero tolerance’ mantra, then added a potentially worrying coda. Police needed to be given the capacity and powers to enforce the law. He didn’t elaborate on exactly what that might entail, but given the new move-on and stop-and-search powers, one can speculate. On his first day in government, he concluded, he would institute tougher sentencing and do away with home detention. All this, he declared, had been originally rejected by the government, only to be hurriedly adopted at the last moment.

Brumby had some different ideas about changing a culture of violence. He referred to school programs raising awareness of cyber-bullying and tougher liquor licensing laws, as well as general programs of information and awareness for the community.

Quick question number two asked about banning smoking in public places. Baillieu said he would wait to see what VicHealth recommended. Brumby said there were no plans to ban smoking, and started to talk about other programs in place and proposed to help people quit – but was cut off by the time limit.

The Wonthaggi desalination plant came in for some scrutiny. Brumby, asked if he had ignored advice not to proceed, said he had made the right decision. ‘All advice coming to the government from the Bureau and CSIRO is that erratic climate patterns are likely to be more frequent’, and therefore it was important to guarantee water security for the next 30-40 years. Bailieu was confronted with his own promise of a desalination plant, made four years ago, and reminded that he had continually said since that Labor’s plant was ‘never needed’. He responded that the Liberal Party would honour the contracts and build the plant, but that it was ‘huge’, ‘very expensive’, and that Victorians would be paying for water they may not even require. His own plan had been for a ‘modestly-sized, modestly-priced’ plant.

There was grudging acceptance from Baillieu that Brumby’s government had managed the economy well during the Global Financial Crisis, but even that was qualified. The surplus was ‘skinny’, propped up by funds from the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ – and anyway, it was all ultimately due to the good work of Howard and Costello. Victoria was now in a situation of escalating debt, he asserted, and – apparently advocating a kind of 12-step ‘State Treasurers Anonymous’ program – the first step was to recognise that there was a problem.

Asked how he would bring down this debt, Baillieu made a very odd answer. ‘Imagine how much better off we would be if we hadn’t had those cost overruns in major projects,’ he said.

Brumby argued that the budget was not ‘skinny’, but rather ‘comfortably in surplus’; the only state, in fact, forecasting surpluses over the whole of the forward estimates period. He pointed out that Victoria’s share of debt was lower than when Labor first took power – then assumed the Voice of Doom. Baillieu had promised he would not add ‘one more dollar’ to the debt, but had also promised $7.5 billion in spending. In order to keep both commitments, he would have to cut spending to hospitals (including the new children’s hospital at Monash), schools and public sector jobs.

Quick question number three asked if either leader would introduce a $1 betting limit on poker machines. Brumby said he was in the process of instituting pre-commitment technologies, but had no plans to introduce betting limits. Baillieu jumped in to add hastily that he was the ‘first’ to raise the idea of pre-commitment technologies, and might look at lower bet limits.

As mentioned above, Brumby apologised for the systemic failures in dealing with the Black Saturday bushfires. He was at pains to point out the unique circumstances, while not trying to belittle the problem. ‘Systems failed, and for that I am eternally sorry,’ he said. He went on to mention that steps were being taken to deal with future situations, including $861 million spent on warning systems, and boosting numbers of fire fighters. Baillieu’s comment? ‘The government erred before the fires, and has erred in the longer term, but I won’t criticise John Brumby for his performance at the time. There were countless recommendations for change from reports, which were not accepted.’

Finally arriving at closing statements, Baillieu borrowed some Obama-talk and spend time calling for ‘change’. He pointed out he was an architect by training, which apparently proved he was focused on the future. ‘I see problems and I want to fix them,’ he said. He liked ‘nothing better’ than building the future.

Brumby gave out a round of thanks to the moderator, panellists, Baillieu, linesmen and ballboys, before promising that Labor would be the same ‘stable, experienced, strong’ government it was currently – only more so. Hospitals would be built, more nurses, doctors and police employed, and schools and pre-schools supported. For the first time he mentioned the impending closure of Hazelwood’s coal-fired power station, and his commitment to making Victoria the ‘solar capital of Australia’. (One can’t help thinking this should have been mentioned right up front, given the current state of turmoil over tackling climate change in the Federal arena.) Finally, he acknowledged that Labor could do better, and committed to do just that.

In the end, the debate boiled down to this:

* an incredibly rude Opposition leader who seemed unable to let anyone else speak, who was constitutionally incapable of even acknowledging that preference deals might, perhaps, possibly be done, and who was a little too enthusiastic about the idea of putting more police with greater powers on the streets.

* a Premier whose folksy manner seemed forced, but who managed to admit his own government’s failings even as he refused to talk to the Greens, while sounding the alarm on the apocalyptic consequences that would follow if the Liberal Party was elected.

* a Moderator who probably needed a Bex and a good lie-down.

* an audience whose bread-and-butter concerns were relegated to 30 second grabs, while they were forced to listen to 20 minutes of ducking and weaving on how-to-vote cards.

All in all, not a good result.


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