Sexism, misogyny, and a Speaker’s scalp

October 9, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘This government should have already died of shame’.

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

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

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

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

He couldn’t have picked a worse tactic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

It’s a pretty ugly day in Australian politics.

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Craig Thomson’s day in kangaroo court

May 21, 2012

Another day, another way in which the state of Australian politics sinks lower and lower. We reached the gutter about the time the Opposition decided that it wasn’t going to grant pairs for the purposes of allowing the Prime Minister to great foreign heads of state, or for a backbencher to be at the bedside of his wife as she delivered their child.

We got to the sewer when allegations of sexual harassment and improper use of funds against Speaker Peter Slipper (and yes, he is still the Speaker, certain commentators’ assertions to the contrary) were capitalised upon by the Coalition. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was only the loudest of his party in denouncing Slipper – and, of course, the government. Slipper was tried and convicted by the Opposition, with the enthusiastic co-operation of the media, and pressured to step down from his position until the matter comes to civil court. That pressure continues even now, and Slipper’s name may well be irrevocably tainted, regardless of the outcome of the civil case.

I’m not quite sure what comes below that. Perhaps the bedrock, because today Parliament treated us to the unedifying spectacle of an MP forced to ‘prove’ his innocence against a series of unsubstantiated, highly questionable allegations ranging from electoral fraud to (apparently) frequenting a brothel.

It was surely a coincidence that this was the same member who’d been denied a pair to be with his wife – the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson. Persecution? Surely not.

Well, front Parliament Thomson did, and delivered an hour-long speech that started with a few choice quotes from the death threats he’d received. He defended himself from the allegations against him, contained in the Fair Work Australia report into the Health Services Union. He denied any wrongdoing whatsoever, and alleged in turn that he had been deliberately set up by those who were unhappy with the changes he’d made to the way the union operated. He named Marco Bolano, an HSU official, as having threatened to ‘ruin’ his political career by ‘setting him up with hookers’. Of course, he could not prove much of what he asserted was untrue – and acknowledged as much, but he did thoroughly tear apart the FWA report, pointing out how much of it weighed on the uncritical acceptance of testimony by Kathy Jackson and Michael Williamson, both of whom he said opposed him from the beginning.

Thomson reserved his harshest criticism for the Opposition, who he said had stirred up a ‘lynch mob’ against him, and for the media. Nearly in tears, he described the hounding he’d received from the latter, singling out Channel 7, who he said had stationed a crew underneath his bathroom window, while his pregnant wife was showering. (For the record, Channel 7 later issued a statement denying only the presence of any reporters under the window.)

About the Opposition he said this, ‘You have damaged democracy’. I think it’s fair to say, however, that this criticism could be just as easily levelled at the government, who expelled him from the Caucus some weeks ago in an obvious attempt to put him at arms’ length. After months of previous support, it looked like the government was cutting him loose while it still could, and it lent weight to the idea that he was as good as convicted already.

It was clear that Thomson was both furious and deeply upset. And he had every right to be, because between them, the Parliament and the media forced him into actions he should never have had to undertake.

What’s so terrible about making him front Parliament? Oh, just two little things – the presumption of innocence, and the separation of powers. Two little things that underpin our judiciary and our system of government.

All Australians are considered innocent until proven guilty. Thomson has not fronted a court. He has not been charged. As of this writing, there is no indication that he will be charged. A report was handed down by Fair Work Australia, a statutory body with no authority to bring prosecutions or make determinations of law – something it acknowledged in the report – and passed on to other bodies. The NSW police brought no charges. The Australian Electoral Commission found the report in error as regards its assertions of wrongdoing on Thomson’s part. The Victoria police are still looking.

Not that this, apparently, matters to either the Opposition or the media.

Then there’s the matter of separation of powers. This isn’t quite as clear-cut here in Australia as it is places like the United States, but one thing is unequivocal: only courts of law have the power to make findings in law. Even a Federal Commission can only make recommendations – it can’t enforce them. The Parliament’s only judicial power is in the area of contempt of Parliament, and even then the decisions are subject to review by Federal Court.

Thomson is entitled to his day in court, fairly and without prejudice. That idea isn’t good enough for the Opposition, who have kept up consistent pressure to force him to make a statement to Parliament ‘explaining himself’. The Parliament’s reputation was in danger! It was a ‘stinking, putrid mess’! Et cetera. They lost no opportunity to cram it into questions to Ministers, interviews with obliging media, and hijacked Question Time twice in the last sitting alone in an attempt to suspend Standing Orders and drag Thomson to the dock.

They finally got their wish – perhaps just because Thomson couldn’t take it any more. He certainly looked like a man at the end of his tether, and no wonder. He hadn’t been legally represented, or a jury of peers. There was no judge, no sworn testimony, no finding made against him, but he was treated as a convicted criminal making a plea for mercy.

In any court in the country, that would be considered a miscarriage of justice.

But, oh wait – we’re not in a court, are we? Unless it’s a kangaroo court.

Surprise, surprise – they weren’t satisfied with what they heard. As soon as Thomson sat down, Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne was on his feet, wanting the Parliament to ‘take note’ of the statement. Basically, the Opposition wanted another crack at Thomson, and through him, at the government. They tried this no less than three times, and each time failed – twice due to political manoeuvring on the government’s part, and once because the Opposition did not gain an absolute majority.

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey pronounced it ‘a moral victory’ in booming tones reminiscent of a revival tent preacher or a priggish schoolmaster. It wasn’t. It wasn’t any kind of victory.

The reputation of the Parliament suffers every day in its present form. Contrary to Abbott’s oft-repeated assertions, that’s not because it’s a minority government. Let’s not forget, after all, that were the Coalition in power it would also constitute a minority government. It’s not suffering because Craig Thomson continues to represent the people of Dobell – he was duly elected, and has done nothing to warrant his being removed from that seat. And it’s certainly not suffering for lack of key legislation passing through both Houses.

It’s suffering because time and again, some of the most fundamental standards of Australian culture and society are flouted.

The courtesy to let someone speak without being shouted down – ignored every Question Time.

The decency to keep personal attacks on someone’s marital status, sexuality, mental health, etc., out of public and Parliamentary discourse – ignored at every possible turn.

The respect for Parliamentary procedure that enables it to function at all – exploited, twisted and sometimes outright dismissed.

The adherence to the principle of the presumption of innocence – Exhibits A and B, Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper.

The acknowledgement that the Parliament is not a court, and not entitled to decide the guilt or innocence of anyone.

The basic standard of behaviour we teach our children – that you do not tell lies. And no, I’m not talking about the ‘carbon tax’ – I’m talking about the Opposition’s willingness to play fast and loose with facts, statistics and law whenever it suits them.

And finally, the integrity not to set out to deliberately ruin a man’s life, his family’s peace of mind and his chances of ever being trusted again just because you think it might win you an election.

Craig Thomson is entitled to every protection under the law. He has been treated shamefully, and even if he is guilty of the allegations made by Fair Work Australia, the chances of an untainted prosecution are close to zero, thanks to the concerted efforts of the Opposition and the media.

I’ve said all that before. I shouldn’t have to keep saying it. No one should.

UPDATE:

Oh, and lest anyone still doesn’t get it …


NDIS launch obscured by political noise

April 30, 2012

When you’re a political blogger, you never know what you’re going to get (unless it’s an attempted censure motion by the Opposition in Question Time, of course). There are good days – some juicy bit of policy to pick apart, strategy to analyse, election campaigns to follow. There are frustrating days – when all you have to work with is the same old message. And there are dead days.

But on some days, it just doesn’t do to get out of bed.

Today is one of those days.

It might surprise you to know that Gillard launched the National Disability Insurance Scheme today, committing $8 billion and commencing building for the initial sites a year ahead of the Productivity Commission. The NDIS was supposedly bipartisan, yet now the Coalition is backing away from it, describing it in ‘aspirational’ terms and trying to point the finger at the government as somehow being at fault for going ahead with it.

Substantial policy stuff, the NDIS is the kind of program that has been needed for decades, and hundreds of people have worked tirelessly to lobby successive governments on the matter. For this to finally be happening – funds committed, legislation passed – is a real victory for disabled people, their relatives and their carers.

And if you want to find out about it, you have to wait until the bottom of the half hour on the news channels – because, apparently, there are much more important things to discuss. Because, apparently, political scandal, hypocrisy and the demonstrated contempt of our politicians for both the political process and their representatives rates higher in media priorities than letting vulnerable sectors of society know they will be able to access help they desperately need.

First, there’s the ongoing Craig Thomson saga. The embattled Member for Dobell remains firmly in the Opposition’s sights, despite never having a single charge levelled against him, either civil or criminal. There’s been a Fair Work Australia investigation into the Health Services Union, with which Thomson was involved before entering Parliament. Nothing has come of it to date. FWA found it was probable that the union criminally misused member funds. The Australian Federal Police called for a proper brief. To date, they have not received one.

Nonetheless, the Opposition were relentless. Thomson should resign! Thomson is tainted! The PM is clinging to power through a corrupt vote! This government is illegitimate! Et cetera.

Either Abbott employs a team of super-psychics, who can discover dirt that no one else in the country can find, or this is simply the same grandiose political manoeuvring that’s led him to call for an election on almost a daily basis since the Coalition’s loss in 2010. Either way, he kept at it, and finally got a victory.

The government was firmly behind Thomson and firmly on message. He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence. There are no grounds to remove him. We support him. Which is exactly what they should have done. But then yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that Thomson had been expelled from Labor Caucus, and would move to the cross-benches.

To make matters worse, she went on to say that Speaker Peter Slipper, who stood aside when allegations of fraud were made against him by a former staffer, would continue to be out of the Speaker’s chair until civil proceedings from that same staffer were resolved. It was another about-face; right up until the day before the government staunchly defended Slipper’s right to return to the Speaker’s chair if he was not facing criminal charges, while the Opposition called for him at least to stay out of the job until the civil matter was resolved, and preferably resign altogether.

In both cases, she justified the action as stemming from a public perception of a shadow over the Parliament. In other words, it looked bad to keep supporting them.

It’s a big call, but this is very probably the weakest thing Gillard’s done since becoming Prime Minister. She allowed herself to be stampeded by an Opposition led by someone Independent MP Tony Windsor describes as ‘a rabid dog’, and did exactly what he’d been demanding.

Maybe she thought this would defuse the issue. With Thomson out of the Caucus, maybe Abbott would have no talking points. If so, it was a shocking misjudgment. Having gained ground on the Thomson issue, Abbott immediately upped the stakes. It’s not good enough to have Thomson out of the caucus, he argued. His vote shouldn’t be counted at all – it was ‘tainted’, and Gillard would rely on that corrupt vote, rendering the entire government illegitimate. The only way out of this situation was – you guessed it – an election. ‘There is nothing wrong with our country that a change of government can’t fix,’ he said today at yet another media conference on the evils of the carbon price and the mining tax.

Of course, he’s not going to attempt a no confidence motion, because he knows he won’t win. Thomson would vote with the government, as would Bandt. Wilkie’s a question mark, but self-interest alone may lead him to support the government (given the Coalition’s oft-repeated dedication to tearing him out of his seat at the next election). The crucial votes, then, are those of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott – and neither of them support Abbott’s policies. The likely result, then, is a tie, which would be resolved in the negative by Acting Speaker Anna Burke, Labor MP for Chisholm.

But Abbott doesn’t need to bring a no confidence motion. He just needs to keep grabbing the media spotlight, and hammering home his message. Gillard’s backdown on Thomson and Slipper is the best thing to happen to him, and he will capitalise on that every moment he can, while continually pushing for more capitulation. At the same time, he can sideswipe Windsor and Oakeshott by implying in the national media that they’re not listening to their constituencies, who want the minority government gone. And of course, he doesn’t have to provide any evidence – with much of the media slavishly repeating his assertions as fact, and Gillard giving them legitimacy by backing down.

And let’s no forget these standards Abbott sets for the government don’t apply to the Opposition in his eyes. Oh, no. Just take a look, and you decide how far the hypocrisy goes.

Coalition front-bencher Sophie Mirabella is entangled in civil action at the moment connected with a probate case – but Abbott won’t ask her to step aside until it’s resolved.

Senator Mary Jo Fisher was the subject of criminal proceedings, and stepped aside from her Senate Committee position while they were underway – but continued to be paid for that role, and was never called upon to resign altogether.

The Coalition was happy to accept Peter Slipper’s vote when allegations were made against him in 2003, arguing that there were no charges against him – yet now says the government must not do the same with Thomson.

On the subject of poaching Parliamentarians for political advantage – in 1996, Labor Senator Mal Colston left the ALP at the urging of the Coalition, who installed him (as a nominal Independent) as Deputy President of the Senate. A year later he was charged with defrauding the Commonwealth – yet continued to serve in the Senate right through the investigation period.

And finally, Abbott’s declaration today that ‘I don’t do deals’, when asked why he didn’t approach Windsor and Oakeshott directly to gain their support for a no confidence motion – despite offering a swag of money (including no less than $1 billion for the Royal Hobart Hospital) to Andrew Wilkie for his vote to form government in 2010.

And knowing all this, Gillard still backed down. It’s a monumental blunder, and Abbott is far too wily a political animal not to seize on that weakness. Any way you look at it, you can file this under ‘FUBAR’.

At least we have a little absurdity to relieve the seemingly unending round of blunder, bluster, hypocrisy and posturing. Strangely, that comes in the form of mining magnate Clive Palmer.

We’ve seen a lot of Palmer lately. He’s become a bit of a poster child for opposition to the mining tax and carbon price packages – and, apparently makes good television. He secured a guernsey on QandA to regale us all with his considered opinions on how the Greens were running the government and exporting all our jobs to China. He got the media running to Canberra for his announcement that the Greens were, in fact, funded by the CIA – then, when confronted by the ridiculousness of his own claim, grinned and claimed he’d done it deliberately to pull focus away from a government announcement.

This is the man who wants to build Titanic II (thought apparently without the help of James Cameron); who thinks cutting off government subsidies to millionaires will jeopardise their children’s future (perhaps they’ll only have three cars and two homes); and who avowedly ‘loves to litigate’. He’s a long-time contributor to the Queensland Liberal National Party, a vocal opponent of anything that smacks of environmental responsibility and a staunch defender of the right to cut benefits to poor people while maintaining upper class welfare.

And now he wants to go into politics. Specifically, he wants to run against Treasurer Wayne Swan in the seat of Lilley at the next federal election. He announced he would seek LNP pre-selection today against a backdrop emblazoned with the motto ‘Swan’s Song’ – not the clearest of messages, mind you. Palmer put his metaphorical hand on his heart and pledged to work to ‘grow the nation’s prosperity and lift standards in Parliament’. Of course, he doesn’t see why he should give up his business while he’s actually in Parliament. It’s ‘only a small family company’, after all.

Yeah, you read that right.

Uh, Mr Palmer? Have you ever heard of a little thing called ‘conflict of interest’? It’s when your private interests and investments clash directly with your duty as a Parliamentarian. You’re proposing to sit in Parliament as a member of a government that is pledged to repeal taxes and schemes that you’ve shouted far and wide will significantly disadvantage you – and yet you think you can continue to run your mining company at the same time?

(Mind you, this isn’t the first time Palmer’s taken a run at federal politics. As far back as 1984, he stood for pre-selection in the LNP and was soundly defeated.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that he was beaten by Peter Slipper.)

Seriously, Mr Palmer, get a political strategist to go with that media advisor you so desperately need. Even Abbott isn’t comfortable with this – he repeatedly refused to endorse you today. Take a hint.

Even before the sun’s set, this is the kind of day in politics we’ve got. And this is what’s taking up all the air in the media. ABCNews24 just announced their afternoon current affairs program would focus on Thomson and Palmer. Not a whiff about the NDIS. Really, it’s enough to make anyone interested in actually examining policy weep.

Like I said, some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed.


A reality check on the Peter Slipper ‘scandal’

April 23, 2012

It’s not exactly news by now that Peter Slipper has stepped down from his Parliamentary role as Speaker. That much is clear – but that’s where the clarity ends, and the obfuscation, spin, accusations and general idiocy begin.

So let’s take a look – and a bit of a reality check – at what we actually have before us.

We have a compensation complaint made by James Ashby, a former staffer for Slipper, and lodged with the Federal Court, that alleges Slipper handed him blank Cabcharge vouchers for personal use. That’s an allegation of fraud, a criminal offence.

That complaint also alleges a raft of sexual harassment claims that would do any Hollywood thriller proud. Ashby claims that Slipper only hired him in order to pursue a sexual relationship, repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances, and even that Slipper asked him for a massage – which he provided – and responded to it in a sexual way.

Along with this Ashby claims that Slipper’s alleged behaviour was known about as far back as 2003 (and that there is video evidence of this), and that there was a cover-up by the then Howard government. For this, he is suing the Commonwealth, claiming that it did not provide a safe workplace.

The accusations of fraud – and, now, misuse of other entitlements – are under investigation from the Finance Ministry. The Australian Federal Police confirmed it was notified, and would ‘assess’ the claims.

Slipper denied – strenuously denied – all of it. Nonetheless, he stepped aside from his role as Speaker, saying that he believed that was appropriate pending the outcome of those investigations.

Ugly, right?

But let’s get a few things straight.

No criminal charges of fraud have been filed to date. (Not for lack of urging on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s part, mind you – it really seems as though he believes the Australian Federal Police as his to order around.)

No criminal charges of sexual offences have been filed to date, despite some of the accusations potentially falling under stalking and breaches of the Telecommunications Act.

There is no formal investigation being undertaken by the Federal Police. Their spokesperson has confirmed only that ‘the AFP is aware of the new allegations of fraud and will be taking action to assess that information’.

No allegations have even come before the Court, let alone been proven. Documents were lodged. That’s it so far.

Given all of this, Slipper is absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence. There’s no question about it. Abbott and his colleagues should not be out there referring to these matters as though they were beyond question. In particular, his Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis, who is always so quick to remind us that he is a qualified lawyer (and so quick to forget that so is the Prime Minister), should be the first to remind his own party of this fact.

Oh, Abbott’s clever enough to avoid saying anything that’s actually defamatory. He talks about the government, not the man – but no one can mistake the message. It’s ‘tawdry’. It’s ‘squalid’. The government should ‘die of shame’. And let’s not forget the ‘sleazy’ deal made to elevate Slipper to the Speakership. The language is clear – it’s the language of gutter sexuality.

And the media is quite happy to go with it. It’s a ‘scandal’. Some are even happily adopting Abbott’s actual language – Paul Sheehan in the Sydney Morning Herald seems to like the word ‘tawdry’. A few moments ago, Channel Ten asked itself, ‘How did Labor not know who it was getting into bed with?’ (my italics) All the focus is on the sexual allegations, even if only as metaphor.

(And just by the way, media – what’s with the constant repetition of ‘a male staffer’? We can all see Ashby’s male. We know his name, and it’s not ambiguous. Why do you keep reminding us of his gender? Could it be that you think you can drum up a bit more outrage, make it more ‘dirty’ or ‘disgusting’, by focusing on alleged sexual behaviour between two men? Perish the thought.)

It’s worth repeating. Slipper did not stand down because of civil complaints of sexual harassment. He stood down pending the outcome of investigations into alleged financial impropriety.

It wasn’t required of him – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time a Parliamentarian continued to serve while his use of entitlements was under investigation – but he judged it the proper thing to do.

That’s not good enough for the Coalition, apparently. Christopher Pyne wants Slipper to be ‘suspended’ until the civil allegations are also resolved. Never mind that when former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and former Education Minister Michael Wooldridge were involved in civil actions – in Turnbull’s case, for hundreds of millions of dollars – both continued to serve in the Parliament.

Of course, there’s politics at the heart of all this. It’s as though someone wrapped the whole issue up in a big bow and handed it straight to the Coalition. With Slipper stepping down, the government returns to its previous one-seat majority. This won’t make it impossible to pass legislation – the best the Coalition could likely hope for is a tied vote, which would be resolved by Deputy Speaker (and Labor MP) Anna Burke – but it does give Abbott even more ammunition for his tried-and-tested diatribes against minority government.

(Always carefully failing to mention that any Coalition government would also be a minority, of course. That’s what happens when four different parties decide to work together.)

Abbott says he’s unlikely to try for a no-confidence motion when Parliament resumes on May 8. He says he doesn’t do such things ‘lightly’ – but that rings rather oddly against his other assertions. He’s claimed that ‘the strength of the whole democratic process relies essentially on the good name of the Speaker’s office’. If so, why isn’t he rushing to place a no-confidence motion on the Parliamentary agenda, and making his case to the Independents and Adam Bandt? Surely that would be the only appropriate, and responsible action?

Or could it be that Abbott won’t even try because he knows such a motion would fail? Perhaps he realises that he’s gained a reputation as the Opposition Leader Who Cried Wolf for his many attempts to censure the government (now around 50) for everything from legislating a price on carbon to allegedly bringing Australia to the point of financial ruin. No-confidence motions are traditionally incredibly serious – you just don’t attempt them unless the situation is urgent and potentially threatens the Parliament.

But then, censure motions are also supposed to be used only for serious purposes. Abbott’s made that into a joke – to the point where people now informally bet on what time he’ll move his next one. Perhaps now he’s reaping the consequences of that.

But back to Peter Slipper, and the allegations against him.

In December 2010, I wrote about the arrest of Julian Assange. At the time, I commented on the storm of accusations of ‘conspiracy’ that surrounded this issue. There was a rock-solid belief that Assange was little more than the victim of what amounted to a multi-national conspiracy designed to bring down Wikileaks – that the allegations made against him, and contained in the Interpol warrant under which he was arrested, were entirely fabricated. There was no evidence to suggest that this was the case at all – what we had instead was an appalling outbreak of rape apologism and ‘blame the victim’ mentality aimed at the two women involved in the complaint.

And this belief wasn’t confined to any one area, either. Mainstream media, politicians, bloggers, tweeters, Facebook users – the outcry was amazing. Leaving aside any question of Assange’s guilt or innocence (which is for a court to decide, if the cases ever come to trial), and leaving aside the question of conspiracy, one thing united these people – their absolute adherence to the presumption of innocence.

Assange is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But – and here’s the thing – we’re not seeing the same courtesy being extended to Peter Slipper. Mainstream media have all but convicted him of being a serial sexual predator. Opposition politicians likewise skate right up to the edge of a defamation suit. And as for social and new media – well, some of what’s being said doesn’t bear repeating. Dip a toe into the #auspol thread on Twitter if you’re feeling particularly like being revolted.

The reminder today that Slipper is an Anglican priest only added fuel to the more vicious of these commenters. Of course the allegations must be true, right? Everyone knows that priests abuse children, so Slipper must be guilty.

Yes, it really is that ugly.

What it comes down to is this: Peter Slipper is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He is entitled not to have his reputation destroyed. He is entitled to expect that any and all investigations into his alleged conduct will not be subject to political pressure, if not outright interference. In short, he is entitled to the same rights as every other citizen of Australia.

If – and I stress if – investigations conclude that he is guilty of misconduct, or a court finds him guilty of fraud, or sexual harassment – then he will pay the appropriate penalty. Until that time, he is an innocent man, and it’s about time organisations like the Opposition and News Ltd started remembering that.

The only truly shameful thing about this entire business is that anyone should have to point that out.


One last ‘Order!’ for Harry

November 24, 2011

To some extent, we’ve come to expect ambushes from our Parliament under the minority government. Maybe it’s Opposition Leader Tony Abbott trying for yet another censure, or an Independent suddenly announcing ‘no deal’ on legislation unless certain conditions are met. Regardless, we know that there are some constants. One is the utter lack of anything resembling a non-party line from the major parties. The other is the presence of the Speaker, who gets dragged to the Chair when a new Parliament opens, and stays there until the next one begins.

All that changed today when Harry Jenkins, Member for Scullin, dropped a bombshell. He announced that he after 1387 days, he would step down as Speaker, effective immediately.

He explained that while he had done his best to uphold the Speaker’s traditional neutrality, distancing himself from party matters in this minority government situation, he had become ‘progressively frustrated at this structure’. He wanted to engage in Parliamentary and policy debate, and therefore his resignation was necessary. Without further elaboration as to his reasons, Harry – as he is affectionately called by thousands of Twitter fans and political wonks both amateur and professional – simply thanked his staff and the Clerks, not forgetting to tip a nod to his ‘trouble and strife’, Michelle, in the gallery.

Clearly caught unawares, Abbott was nonetheless quick on his feet. As might be expected, he praised Harry’s service to the Parliament – but apparently, he couldn’t resist the temptation to make a few political remarks. He commented no less than three times in his very short speech how unexpected it all was, how ‘out of the blue’. Not content with that, he then surmised that there must be ‘extraordinary’ things happening in the Labor Party for this to happen – and there was no mistaking the smirk on his face.

For her part, Gillard withheld her remarks until later today. It’s expected she’ll make a formal speech thanking Harry at the start of Question Time, for maximum broadcast coverage.

Harry was appointed Speaker after the 2010 election. Unusually, he’s become one of the most recognisable figures in Parliament – second only to party leaders and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

It’s often said lately that Question Time bears more resemblance to the playground than to halls of statecraft. It’s also often said that without Harry, there would be nothing to stop it degenerating into utter chaos. Harry’s trademark bellow of ‘Order!’ (usually rendered ‘Orrr-daaahhhhh!’in text) came to define him as a man struggling to maintain some semblance of civilised discourse among an increasingly rowdy rabble of politicians.

Any Speaker faces the charge of partisanship, but in Harry’s time in the Chair, it seemed that he erred on the side of caution. Although quick to wield the notorious phrase, ‘The Member will leave the chamber for one hour under 94A’ to those who persistently bucked his authority, Harry was as likely to pull up the Prime Minister for blatant irrelevance as he was Education Shadow Christopher Pyne for arguing a point of order. There were also times when the Opposition Leader blatantly defied the Chair, and engaged in both disruptive and unParliamentary conduct – Harry, respecting the office, declined to do more than issue an informal admonishment.

Although Harry stated his reason for leaving was a wish to engage in Parliamentary process, one can’t help but wonder how far his ‘frustration’ was a product of his daily battle to maintain order. Back in June, defiance of his ruling set the House careering towards a Parliamentary crisis, averted only when Members realised that their behaviour might disrupt their own tenuous positions. Given incidents like this, along with persistent arguments, tantrums at the despatch box and ratbag behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated in a primary school, it’s likely no one would blame him if he’d resigned long before now.

As tweeter @Riotcub commented: ‘Unexpected resignation? Not to anyone who has watched QT. I’ve been waiting for Harry to say “fuck y’all” for a while.’

With his resignation, Deputy Speaker Peter Slipper takes on the primary role. His situation bears scrutiny; a former member of the National Party, he defected to the Queensland Liberal National Party in 1987. His seat of Fisher is currently under pressure, with the party considering holding early pre-selection votes as punishment for Slipper inviting long-time friend Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd to his electorate. Former Howard government Minister Mal Brough, announced he was prepared to challenge Slipper for the seat. If an early pre-selection is called, Slipper’s remarks on the subject indicate he would seriously consider resigning from the LNP and moving to the cross-benches. From that position, he could comfortably take the Chair and weaken the Opposition’s ability to influence Parliament.

With Slipper in the Chair, and the government holding a 76-73 majority, we could expect to see poker machine legislation and possibly the proposed changes to the Migration Act introduced into the House.

Labor went into caucus, joined by Harry for the first time since the election. By contrast, Peter Slipper was noticeable by his absence from the Coalition party room.

The government has already indicated it would select Slipper as the new Speaker, and Slipper is apparently prepared to take up the role. Abbott immediately responded that no Coalition MP would endorse that selection, which would put the matter in the hands of Adam Bandt and the Independents.

In his media conference, Abbott tried hard to turn Harry’s resignation into a cheap political stunt ‘to shore up its numbers’. ‘This is a government that lost its way, then it lost its majority, and now it’s lost its Speaker’, he said, invoking the spectre of the Whitlam dismissal to bolster his doomsaying. He followed that up with the incorrect assertion that it was the government’s responsibility to provide a Speaker from its own ranks, or it should expect to lose office.

He then made it clear that ‘anyone’ from the Coalition who accepted the Speakership would be expected to immediately resign. Not once would he mention Peter Slipper by name, and even claimed to have ‘not looked for him’ in the party room. The ostracism has already begun – and Abbott’s actions will almost certainly drive Slipper to the cross-benches. And if that happens, the Opposition Leader will have placed his own party in a weakened state with clear evidence of division, no matter how loudly he thunders about ‘a government in crisis’ and ‘a bad day for democracy’.

In all the political wrangling, however, let’s not lose sight of Harry’s contribution as Speaker. He did an oustanding job in a thankless role, and put up with harassment, defiance and outright abuse. Abbott’s attempt to sully his decision to resign should not detract from Harry’s service or from his integrity.

Harry concluded his resignation speech with ‘I go placidly with my humour intact’. As last words go, those would have been particularly good. But there was one last moment that was pure Harry.

As the applause swelled and MPs stood to acknowledge him, Harry bellowed one last cry of ‘Order!’

UPDATE:

As expected, Peter Slipper is the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. Anna Burke, Labor Member for Chisholm, is the new Deputy.

Mind you, this result didn’t come about until after a good 30 minutes of utter farce. After Slipper was nominated, Pyne rose nine times to nominate Labor backbenchers for the position. His speeches for each nomination were little more than cut-and-paste jobs – Labor is trashing the Westminster tradition, the Member for X is honourable and capable, why would Labor overlook the Member for X, etc. Really, he might as well have simply stood and said, ‘I nominate the Member for X – ditto’.

Each Labor nominee, unsurprisingly, declined.

Finally, an exasperated Tony Windsor nominated Christopher Pyne – ‘because it might be the only way we get him to shut up’. Pyne reacted with red-faced fury, accusing Windsor of turning the Parliament into ‘high farce’.

High farce, Mr Pyne? Your Question Time performances certainly qualify as that. Your ridiculous chorus line of nominations qualifies as that. Your Party’s incessant censure motions, your constant bleating that democracy is dead, your currying favour with extremist groups and riot-inciting shock-jocks not only make Parliamentary process a farce, but show absolute contempt for the very traditions you claim to hold so dear.

In a final show of petulance, the Opposition refused to applaud Slipper’s elevation to Speaker, turned their backs and began talking loudly as he was dragged to the Chair (in the best Westminster tradition). A few deigned to notice him – they shouted ‘Shame on you!’

If anyone should feel shame today, it is the members of the Opposition. The government outplayed them, and they did not even have the good grace to congratulate the new Speaker – the man they expelled from their own party because he dared to accept a role of considerable responsibility that demands integrity.

Many warm words were said in praise of Harry immediately afterwards – but no doubt, what makes the evening news will be the spectacle of Pyne’s parade of nominations, and his sputtering rage when Windsor called him out for making a fool of himself and wasting the Parliament’s – and the country’s – time.

And the farce isn’t over. Question Time has just started. Pyne’s first question (or rather, accusation)? ‘We know you did secret deals to make Harry resign, admit it!’

And Tony Abbott, predictably, has just called for a censure.

Same old, same old.


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