A representative Parliament? Tell her she’s dreaming

June 14, 2011

I had the most wonderful dream last night. I dreamed that politicians, asked to appear on media panel shows and radio interviews, engaged on the issues. I dreamed that three word slogans and blatant spin doctoring were somehow removed from the political vocabulary. I dreamed of passionate, substantive debate – that each side acknowledged the good ideas of the other, and owned up to their own mistakes. I dreamed that politicians worked together to get stuck into the really difficult issues – climate change, asylum seekers, mental health, indigenous health, true equality – without fear of losing the next election or its campaign donations.

I dreamed of an Australian Parliament that truly put the country’s welfare first, ahead of party ideology, ahead of points-scoring and vote-buying.

I woke up to this.

Peter Dutton, Shadow Spokesperson for Health and Ageing, appeared with Trade Minister Craig Emerson on Sky News’ AM Agenda program. He had this to say on asylum seekers: Nauru is the only possible solution for us to deal with this ‘problem’. Over there, people would be free to roam in the community, and even attend church. The Nauruans would welcome them, just like they did last time. It’s the only humane solution.

Humane. How does Dutton not choke on that word?

Nauru is a tiny, water-starved island only 21km across – a worked-out phosphate mine. It is completely dependent on other nations, primarily Australia, for almost everything. It is utterly isolated. Dutton’s declaration that asylum seekers sent there would be free to roam in the community is nonsensical – it’s not like they can disappear into the wider community, is it? Where would they go? Attempt to swim to the Solomon Islands, over 1000km away?

And you can just bet the Nauruan government is willing to bend over backwards to get the detention centre re-opened. They know a good cash cow when they see one. Australian money helps keep the bankrupt nation afloat. When the Pacific Solution was scrapped by the Rudd government, they were deeply dismayed at the loss of funds.

And Peter Dutton says this was humane. Innocent people were exiled to this island in handcuffs, repeatedly bullied to rescind their claim for refugee status, detained for long periods of time in conditions that would be unacceptable for prisoners of war, suffer physical and mental illness, self-harm and even attempt suicide. How could that possibly be humane?

But then Craig Emerson extolled the virtues of sending asylum seekers to Malaysia or Manus Island. It’s a ‘regional solution’. Clearly that is better than simply sending people back to Nauru.

I’ve already written about the potential dangers of Malaysia for asylum seekers. To even suggest that the government’s proposed refugee swap is in some way beneficial for those people is ludicrous.

But what about Manus Island in Papua New Guinea? That was part of the Pacific Solution. That might be a better place.

Well, it’s bigger than Nauru … around 100km x 30km.

Other than that … let’s see. Isolation, mental and physical illness, abuse of human rights … sound familiar?

Then there was Aladdin Sisalem, the ‘forgotten asylum seeker’, who was detained alone in the Manus Island centre well after its supposed closure.

And just by the way, Papua New Guinea also has a history of mistreating asylum seekers, and beating confirmed refugees.

The so-called success of every one of these ‘solutions’ depends entirely on the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ principle. If asylum seekers aren’t visible, they might as well not exist. Politically, that’s a big win. Never mind the systemic abuses of power and human rights – documented facts of record.

There was a Senate Committee investigation into the Pacific Solution, and Nauru in particular. One submission documented the conditions in the camps, and the plight of the asylum seekers held there. In the words of one interviewed detainee:

‘Nauru is not a camp for human, it is a jail just like a hell.’

Another investigation, undertaken by Oxfam, concluded that any way you slice it, the price of Australia’s offshore detention policy is ‘too high’.

Green Senator Sarah Hanson-Young wrote a stinging editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald today condemning the government’s ‘regional solution’, side-swiping the Coalition along the way. She made some excellent points, including the fact that Australia is shirking its legal obligations towards refugees.

But even she couldn’t resist throwing in a party political ad.

These are the people we elected. It’s no use saying, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for them!’ We did. We all did. And then we sit on our hands for three years until the next election, vote again and wonder why nothing changes.

Hanson-Young urged people to take to the streets in support of humane treatment for asylum seekers. While we’re at it, we could march in support of same-sex marriage, tackling climate change, equal pay, or any one of a dozen causes.

Or how about this? We take to the streets to protest against politicians who care more about votes than people. We march in support of a working Parliament committed to the good of the country rather than the perpetuation of ideology. We wave our banners and call for real debate. We stop traffic in the capital cities of Australia. We take the passion that we disseminate amongst all those causes, and focus it straight at Canberra, and say to politicians, ‘You serve us, and it’s about time you remembered that!’



I just woke up again.


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.


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.

Ozvote 07 – the Health debate (repost)

August 11, 2010

With the Health debate between Minister Nicola Roxon and Shadow Peter Dutton looming on the agenda today, I thought I’d repost my analysis of the 2007 debate. Remember, at that time, the current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was the Health Minister. Looking back can be enlightening sometimes.


The National Press Club has been the scene for two crucial debates in the upcoming Federal Election. Yesterday, Treasurer Peter Costello debated Opposition Treasury spokesperson Wayne Swan. The worm handed the prize directly to Swan (with nearly 60% approval rating), although most commentators gave it narrowly to Costello – based, it seems, more on Swan’s nerves than any real difference in economic policy. The hold-out was Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes phone poll, which – as with the leaders debate – came down squarely in favour of Costello (65%).

Today was the Health debate. Health Minister Tony Abbott versus Opposition Health spokesperson Nicola Roxon. It looked like it was shaping up to be a good stoush, even without the worm – who, no doubt, was recovering from a good deal of fatigue. It’s done a fair bit of climbing and diving lately.

But then Tony Abbott didn’t turn up to begin.

Or bother sending a message explaining why he was late.

Or when he might make it, if at all.

Or apologising.

In his absence, Nicola Roxon held what can only be described as a highly genial press conference, marred only by a moment of mud-slinging when she described Abbott as a consummate buck-passer whose highest priority was keeping John Howard out of trouble. Every time a question was asked, she spoke directly to the reporter and thanked him/her for it – which gave the whole process a slightly surreal air reminiscent of ‘Dorothy Dixers’ during Question Time. She even offered, when one journalist mentioned his question had originally been for Abbott, to do an impersonation of him – an offer which was greeted by a great deal of laughter from the press corps.

Roxon’s policy announcements bring the Labor commitment to Health up to $2 billion. This is largely concentrated on preventative medicine, lowering elective surgery waiting lists, equitable pay for nurses (with the inevitable dig at WorkChoices) and providing dental care for 1 million people. The press corps didn’t let her off, either – but she seemed cool, and had answers readily available.

Abbott finally turned up 35 minutes late and apologised, but ‘even in an election campaign things go awry’. The apology was perfunctory, and, judging by the reaction of the press corps, not well received.

His opening statement lost a lot of steam – largely because many of his points had already been attacked by both Roxon and the press corps. In the face of the huge criticism levelled at private health insurance gap and loss of Commonwealth public hospital funding, his roll call of Coalition health achievements sounded pretty hollow. It wasn’t helped by his insistence that the problem with public hospitals was solely the fault of ‘State Labor governments’ and attacks on both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, while claiming to want to end ‘the blame game’.

Abbott’s response to questions was completely different to Roxon’s. His manner was hectoring, there were no ‘thank yous’, and every answer was prefaced by an extended attack on Federal Labor. Most often, the target was Kevin Rudd, which struck this writer as slightly bizarre, given the presence of Roxon sitting right next to him. Abbott’s treatment of her tended to give the impression he considered her ineffectual and hardly worth his while to notice, but if it was a strategy, it backfired badly. Coming on the heels of his failure to arrive on time for the debate, it looked like rudeness.

His other main strategy was the time-honoured politician’s tactic of refusing to answer questions directly. In this, he contrasted poorly with Roxon, whose answers – while somewhat long-winded (which didn’t always play well with the press corps) – tended to be directed at the substance of the question. Policy announcements were difficult to pick out of the rhetoric, being bounded around with equal parts Coalition-praising and Labor-damning. In fact, in both his opening statement and in answer to questions, the only policy he even mentioned was the much-criticised ‘local boards for public hospitals’ idea.

Finally, the question for which this writer had been waiting came. Why hadn’t Abbott taken better care when making his travel arrangements, and why didn’t he have a deputy available to take his place, if necessary? Abbott’s response? He had to be at a campaign launch, and – ‘given the speed of planes’ – it was impossible to be there any earlier than he actually arrived. The inference could be drawn, then, that Abbott considered the debate of minor importance, able to be sacrificed in favour of a campaign launch, without even the courtesy of an explanation via Airphone.

In closing, Abbott rang the bell of ‘our record, our record (which was, by then, becoming something of a broken record). Roxon picked up that refrain, but showed the negative side of an 11-year Coalition government. That was a particularly dangerous strategy, but she concluded with what is becoming Labor’s clarion call in this election – the appeal to the ‘ordinary Australian with everyday worries’.

Lacking a worm, I’d have to conclude that the debate was a clear win to Roxon (as did the majority of Sky’s commentators). Many of the points on which she outstripped Abbott had nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with respect – respect for the press corps, the opponent, and the desire of people to hear direct answers to direct questions. Coming on the heels of Abbott’s sledging yesterday of asbestosis sufferer and campaigner Bernie Banton, this counts heavily against him. Roxon’s policy announcements came across as sound and well-considered, with a big emphasis on specific programmes (although she didn’t speak specifically as to how Labor planned to increase the workforce of skilled hospital workers). Abbott’s were vague, consisting largely of attacks on State Labor governments and a sketchy plan for a massive increase in hospital bureaucracies at the local level – while all the while insisting that Australia has, apparently, never had it so good.

It was pretty clear that Abbott knew he’d lost, too. As the two debaters shared the traditional handshake for the cameras afterwards, Roxon commented that Abbott could have made it to the debate on time. Abbott’s response was to snarl out the side of his mouth, ‘That’s bullshit, you’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?’ while maintaining a fixed smile.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast with yesterdays’ debate. Costello was clearly the polished politician, and Swan a nervous nelly. Today, Roxon was relaxed, chatty, serious where she needed to be and solid all the way through. Abbott, despite his long experience as Health Minister, came across as rude, out of touch and a political novice.

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