The cynical exploitation of child abuse

July 22, 2011

Time for another guest post! Today’s offering is from writer and blogger Loki Carbis, who, in his own words, has ‘a lifelong addiction to pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes’. He blogs about life, popular culture and politics at The Centre Cannot Hold.

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Stephen Conroy was in the news again, and as usual, the topic was internet censorship.

It seems that three of our biggest ISPs – Telstra, Optus and Primus – have decided to voluntarily filter material related to child sexual abuse. In a bit of black eye to Conroy, they’re using a list of sites provided by Interpol rather than by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, specifically citing legal issues regarding the authority of the ACMA.

Everyone involved was quick to say that this is not censorship, despite it meeting every part of the definition of the term, and Conroy tried hard to spin this as a victory for his policy, calling it an interim measure while certain issues regarding the jurisdiction of the ACMA were worked out, i.e. the fact that it doesn’t have the legal authority to do what Conroy wants it to, and that the government doesn’t want to try changing the laws when they can’t do it without the cross-benchers’ support.

The lies can be this blatant, because after all, who’s going to stand up and argue against measures aimed at preventing child abuse?

This is despite the fact that it is painfully clear that this is not the only thing the government is out to censor. This is apparent from both from two things: the leaked blacklists we’ve seen to date, and from the ACMA’s own rather generous description of its role.

One of the blacklist leaks we saw last year was a list of categories that would be censored, one of which was swimwear – although I doubt very much that this means we won’t be able to watch Olympic swimming online next year. Another was lingerie, and yet it’s unlikely that the content of new season clothing catalogues will change much either.

As for ACMA, the standard they aim for is that a website “potentially contains child abuse material” rather than actually containing it (emphasis mine). And of course, there’s no burden of proof here – accusation is apparently enough. There’s also no mechanism of notification if your site is blacklisted, and no sanctioned means of appealing that decision.

One of the arguments we’ve heard again and again in this argument is that the internet censorship provision are just one part of a concerted move against child sexual abuse. But if that’s truly the case, the question needs to be asked: why is it that this is the only part we’ve heard anything about?

Even a government as inept at framing and selling policy as the Gillard government has repeatedly shown itself to be must surely recognise that no one is going to oppose increased spending on hunting down paedophiles? You would think that even they can recognise a chance to get the media onside for once, not to mention a golden opportunity to wedge Tony Abbott good and hard – even his automatic urge to criticise any and all government spending might think twice in this case. Not to mention how well this could shore up government credentials on the right. But no, they Gillard government remains committed to its policy of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

There is no increased funding for relevant police units, no new international agreements with other nations and trans-national bodies, no money for advertising campaigns to get the public involved, no increase in the importance of the Working with Children check, or greater stringency being applied in making the check.

Why doesn’t the government go after the producers of child abuse materials directly? After all, that’s the point in this at which the actual sexual abuse occurs – looking at pictures of child sexual abuse isn’t a good thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it no more abuses the child again than looking at a photo of a corpse kills that person again. Attacking the problem at its source, rather than dealing with a symptom, might just work.

Why, if the government is committed to fighting this fight on a number of fronts, are we only ever hearing about one of them, while the rest of the government’s plans remain as invisible to us as they’d like their blacklists to be?


There’s more to the NBN than YouTube

December 21, 2010

The government released the business case for its National Broadband Network yesterday. In a marathon media conference, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy and NBNCo CEO Mike Quigley talked up the high points.

In a nutshell, it boils down to: the business plan was examined and found to be good. At the most conservative estimates of uptake, taxpayers would still see their investment (now set at $27.5 billion) returned with a 7% gain. Wholesale prices range from $24 per month for 12 Mbps to $150 per month for 1 Gbps. Pressed to give an idea of what a retail figure might be, Conroy favoured the questioner with a pitying look and pointed out that you don’t show your hand when you’re trying to build a competitive market.

So, for about $1.5 billion more than originally announced, the minimum expected outcome is to pay back the investment and then some. The wholesale prices are far below the hundreds of dollars that were bandied about by the Coalition during the year. The country will be thoroughly connected, and the regions won’t suffer if the demand is likely to be low. The NBN will be available in places that private companies would consider too remote (read: unprofitable) to connect.

Cue the storm of criticism. On the mild side of things was the Coalition’s predicted response of, ‘Yes, yes, that’s all very well, but where’s the cost-benefit analysis?’, which is a question deserving of an answer. You might be forgiven, however, for missing that in the hysteria that’s building now.

Perhaps sensing that the average viewer really didn’t care about the difference between a cost-benefit analysis and a business case, the Coalition reverted to more high-flown rhetoric. It’s a $50 billion white elephant! It’s monstrous! (And no one can say ‘monstrous’ in those terribly disappointed tones like Shadow Communications Spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull.)

Senator George Brandis hinted darkly that the government must be hiding something. The NBN business case was supposed to run to 400 pages, but only 160 pages were released.

There was this from the Sydney Morning Herald. The NBN will cost $24 wholesale per month? Why, that’s outrageous! We can get ADSL2+ already for about that. Why should we be forced to pay for something we don’t want?

In The Australian, there was this assertion: we ‘know’ that most people will only want 12 Mbps, so why should we pour all this public money into building something faster?

The Herald-Sun cried, ‘Won’t someone think of the networks?’ After all, it warned, the NBN will kill free-to-air and pay television, because everyone will watch the internet instead.

And my personal favourite: the questioner in yesterday’s media conference who asked, in tones of confected outrage, why the government was willing to spend all this money on the NBN while people were stuck in traffic in Western Sydney and waiting for operations in hospitals. Is it so important to allow people to upload videos of themselves at high speed? What about our schools?

That’s a lot of objections. Taken at face value, they paint a picture of a fatally-flawed plan that no one wants and that will drag the country into financial ruin.

Funny thing is, most of those criticism just don’t stand up under scrutiny.

Let’s start with the ‘$50 billion white elephant’. This figure has been a favourite of the Coalition for months now. In fact, they’ve done a reasonable job of muddying the waters with it. Unfortunately, it’s a mythical number. The amount of money allocated from public funds is $27.5 billion. That’s it. The remainder, adding up to approximately $43 billion, is to be sourced from private investment – so even the total amount is less than the Coalition claims will be ripped out of ‘taxpayers’ money’.

Where did the $50 billion figure come from, anyway? Well, it’s debate hyperbole. It’s a figure that the Coalition used during debates on the Telstra separation bill and in Question Time to scare-monger about the NBN. How do we know it will cost what the government says, they asked. Maybe it will be $50 billion … maybe 100. We just don’t know. Except we do.

Then there’s Brandis, with his deep suspicions that the government are hiding a terrible secret in the unreleased pages of the business case. Why can’t we see them? What have they got to hide? The answer, according to Conroy, is just a bit anti-climactic; they’re ‘hiding’ commercial-in-confidence data. This is absolutely no different to any other business case. It’s common sense; if you’re trying to build a project with commercial and competitive intentions, you don’t go telling the world your fall-back position or your planned tactics to get the best possible return. You just don’t.

How about the claim that people will be forced to sign up to the NBN? Frankly, I’m embarrassed for Fairfax. This story was put to bed months ago. To trot it out again now just looks like fear-mongering. It’s very clear; there is nothing in the NBN plan that will remove choice from people. Everyone is free to opt in or to stay with their current situation. The fibre will be laid; that doesn’t mean you’ll be forced at gunpoint to sign on. In this, it’s no different to a telephone line. New houses are automatically supplied with the cabling for a telephone line – but the tenants are in no way required to sign up to a Telco.

Then there’s the ‘no one wants this’ argument. The thinking runs something like this; your average household probably doesn’t ‘need’ stupidly high speed connections to the internet. We can upload our videos now, so why would we pay more for something that won’t get us anything?

This is a pretty sneaky one. It’s arguable that many households won’t want more than about 12 Mbps, at least at first. The problem is that not every user of the internet is one of these homes. If you’re running student accommodation, you’re going to want a service that doesn’t slow to a crawl the minute half of the residents log on. If you’re a small business moving data, you want something fast. If you’re big business, an educational institution or a department at any level of government, it’s a no-brainer.

(And just by the way, there are plenty of homes out there with several members all wanting to access the net at once – and if you’re stuck on ADSL2+, you know the frustration that comes with watching your bandwidth grind to a halt because just one more person needs to do their email.)

And that’s without even looking at potential future needs. Conroy pointed out over and over that the NBN was ‘future-proofed’. What that means is that yes, right now it might be a bit more than the family at 47 Generic Street need so that they can do their homework and download movies – but the applications for internet communication are growing all the time. In ten years’ time, we don’t want to be in the position of having to start all over again, just to meet the demand. It’s called forward planning.

The dire warnings that the NBN will kill television might sound familiar. That’s because they’re recycled, with very little change, from the same warnings that were sounded when pay television first came to Australia. If people have pay TV, they won’t watch free-to-air, and people won’t invest, and there will be no good programs, etc. etc. Well, in over 20 years, that hasn’t happened. There are more free-to-air channels than ever, showing first-run quality programs from both overseas and made here in Australia. New programs are still being made here.

And there’s no reason to think this won’t continue when the NBN is implemented. Internet TV – either live stream or download – already exists. It hasn’t killed television networks anywhere in the world yet, even in those places where high-speed broadband is in place. The idea that we can have one or the other, but not both, stems from a false assumption – that there’s a finite amount of viewing out there, and not everyone can have a share of the pie. In practice, the reverse seems to be true.

What Internet TV is likely to do is democratise television. Currently, there are a few community broadcasters in Australia that limp along, supported largely by donations. They often have very weak signals, and can’t be picked up by many televisions – and if you have pay TV, forget it. Your tuner won’t even acknowledge community broadcasters exist. Using the internet removes the need for massive capital outlay just to get set up – signal towers, just for a start, become irrelevant. The internet creates a space, and where a space is created, it tends to be filled very quickly. In this case, it will be filled by those who don’t have the profile or money to compete with the big television networks and production companies.

Will these new internet channels be good? Well, as with current television, I suspect we’ll see a fair amount of rubbish. But it’s hardly the End Of TV As We Know It.

And so we come to the ‘people-are-dying-in-gridlock-waiting-for-operations’ criticism. When asked this, Conroy responded with barely-contained anger – and not without cause. This argument, frankly, is rubbish.

For a start, many of the problems cited are the responsibility of the States. Last time anyone looked, the Federal government had not nationalised roads or hospitals. Schools are slightly different; they exist in a strange limbo where both governments get to look after them (and, all too often, neither do).

Then there’s the implication that, by building the NBN, the government is somehow taking away money that can be ‘better’ spent on things that people ‘really’ want and need. This is called rank populism. There’s no basis to it at all, but it sounds good. No government projects have been starved of funds to pay for the NBN.

Far nastier is the insinuation that the government just doesn’t care about the real needs of the battlers. If they did, they wouldn’t be spending our hard-earned money on a ‘video entertainment system’ (to quote George Brandis on AM Agenda this morning). Conroy’s response was scathing; he detailed a series of initiatives that were either already in place or to be implemented next year directed at schools and hospitals, and joint projects with the State governments on roads and infrastructure.

To drive the point home, Conroy listed a handful of the benefits of the NBN. For health: E-health, the ability for ageing people to stay at home and be properly monitored, and better communications between health services in metropolitan and remote areas. For education: online learning, access for those in remote areas to real-time learning environments, and whole-class access to virtual learning environments all over the world. He even had an answer to Western Sydney’s gridlock: high-speed tele-commuting.

All of that is a far cry from the accusation that the NBN is good for nothing but allowing people to take stupid videos with their mobile phones and upload them to YouTube or Facebook. (And do we detect a note of snobbery in those who deride the idea of people uploading their personal videos and displaying them to the world? Why, I believe we do.)

So what’s left? Well, it pretty much comes down to the objection that there is no cost-benefit analysis. This is a question that keeps coming up – and the answers seem a little wishy-washy. Either there’s a problem with commercial-in-confidence data, or it’s just not possible to adequately do such an analysis on future benefits as yet unknown. The Coalition, of course, is having a field day with the latter idea.

Mind you, when was the last time we saw a cost-benefit analysis for a defence material purchase? Or new medical imaging equipment for hospitals? Now, some might object that we don’t need one for things that are self-evidently ‘good’.

But we’re talking about a massive infrastructure upgrade that will touch almost every area of Australian life – from traffic lights to train switching, health monitoring to real-time consultation, online and virtual learning to tele-commuting. We’re talking about putting in place a system with capacity to expand in the future and potentially transform the way we live. Might we not then argue that very high-speed broadband, made available throughout Australia, is also self-evidently good?

When did we lose sight of the idea that not everything in life has to be about profit? When did we give up the idea that quality of life may be just as important – if not more – as how much money rolls in?

We’ve seen higher education suffer because, somewhere along the line we got the notion that universities should be places of profit rather than of learning. We’ve seen health suffer because we figure that it’s more important to have a good profit margin than extend affordable health care to everyone in the country.

Maybe we should learn from those disasters and try looking at the NBN as something that builds and enhances the nation, rather than a bunch of numbers on a balance sheet.

And if that means we see a few thousand more drunk videos turning up on YouTube – well, I’m sure the country will be able to withstand the onslaught.

After all, we’ve managed to cope with reality TV and talk shows …


R-E-S-P-E-C-T

November 18, 2010

I have two girls in primary school. Along with their science projects, their times tables and reading courses, they participate in a lifeskills program. Some of the subjects covered there include how to deal with bullying and conflict resolution. Most importantly, they are taught some common courtesies of human interaction – not interrupting when someone else is talking, not trying to shout people down, listening and responding well to what they are hearing.

It all hangs on one word – RESPECT.

This morning Senators Stephen Conroy (he much-maligned Minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy) and Barnaby Joyce (Shadow for Regional Development, Local Government and Water) were guests on Sky News’ AM Agenda show. The plan was that reporter Ashleigh Gillon would first interview Conroy about the growing pressure on the government to release the NBN business plan, and later bring Joyce into the conversation.

Joyce had other ideas.

Conroy was in the middle of answering a question when Joyce decided to barge in. The studio microphones picked him up at first, but he could be clearly heard, raising his voice to drown out both Conroy and Gillon. For his part, Conroy seemed happy to sink to Joyce’s level, and in short order an orderly interview degenerated into a shouting match peppered with ridicule and stinging insults. Gillon tried repeatedly to regain some sense of order, pointing out that ‘Gentlemen, if you keep on talking at each other but not listening this isn’t going to work’.

Both men completely ignored her. Judging by the grins on their faces, they were both enjoying themselves far too much to worry about little things like courtesy, and the fact that they were live on a national TV program. It was a points-scoring match, nothing more, and frankly, a very poor example.

It’s called bullying – and Ashleigh Gillon was caught in the middle, doing her best to control the situation and being completely disrespected by both Conroy and Joyce.

Luckily my kids were already on their way to school, so I didn’t have to explain to them why they needed to respect each other when grown-ups – our elected representatives, no less – were ‘allowed’ to be as rude as they like. But they’ve seen Question Time before, and they’re well aware of the fact that our Parliament is, at times, a barely-controlled brawl.

And speaking of Question Time … maybe it was the long break between sessions, but so far this sitting we’ve seen MPs being warned, and – in the case of Christopher Pyne, Shadow for Education – actually ejected from the chamber. Speaker Harry Jenkins has delivered lecture after lecture reminding members that it is not simply a courtesy to listen to someone in silence, it is the rule – Standing Order 65(b). He might as well be reading from Alice in Wonderland, for all the notice people take of him. At times, even, members he’d just reprimanded jumped up to argue with him.

While all that was going on, both Opposition and government engaged in the same kind of ridiculous point-scoring we saw with Conroy and Joyce today. Gillard mocked Abbott, Pyne insulted Gillard, Hockey and Albanese traded verbal blows across the table, and Julie Bishop hissed

The Speaker has powers that people like Ashleigh Gillon don’t. He’s able to penalise MPs for this kind of behaviour, and while reluctant to apply those penalties, he’s shown he will do so given sufficient provocation. Being ejected from the chamber is no light thing – it shows up in Hansard, and it’s a black mark against the MP in question. It should be a form of public shaming, that someone is unable to control themselves long enough to take part in an orderly process. To look at Christopher Pyne and the Opposition yesterday, however, you could be forgiven it was all a big joke, and that Pyne was simply going to get a cup of tea.

And when these members return to the chamber? They go right back to the same verbal sparring, disrespect and rowdy behaviour.

Right now we’re waiting to see the vote on Greens MP Adam Bandt’s motion to get members to canvass their electorates on same-sex marriage, as well as some votes on whether we’ll finally find out the NBN business case and get better funding for mental health. All pretty important stuff.

And what happened? Pyne jumped up with a motion that two other motions be voted on – one of which would push the same-sex marriage vote back even further – and spent nearly ten minutes sniping at the government, accusing them of deliberately leaving those motions off the agenda. Anthony Albanese, acting as Leader of the House, returned fire with mockery and more stupid points-scoring. Already it’s become so heated that the Speaker has had to rise in his place – which is a signal to the chamber that everyone better shut up right now – and both Pyne and Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop have been reprimanded.

It’s a pretty clear signal that what’s important here is not the substance of the motions, but whether either of the major parties can get in a few barbs and make their opponents look stupid and/or corrupt.

None of this is clever. It might be mildly amusing at times (we do like a well-delivered put-down, after all), but it’s no way to run a country.

So we wait, until they’ve run out of points to score and finally get on with some actual governing. Meanwhile, it might well behoove the major parties to listen to the words of a song that my children learned as part of their lifeskills program – and maybe spend a bit of time thinking about the kind of example they set, and whether they are proud of how well they are conveying the message that what matters is not substance, but the ability to browbeat and insult your opponent into silence.


Gillard’s Gang of Many

September 12, 2010

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her Cabinet yesterday. As expected, Kevin Rudd is the new Foreign Minister, while Stephen Smith has moved to Defence. Although no one should have been surprised by this, the Opposition immediately went on the attack. Deputy Opposition Leader and putative Foreign Affairs Shadow Julie Bishop fronted the media with a cheerfully nasty smile that clashed oddly with her words. Australia’s ‘worst diplomat’ was in charge of our relations with the rest of the world, she warned, an arrangement likely to cause untold damage to our international reputation. The smile made her look almost gleeful about the prospect.

Some portfolios were left untouched, or received extra responsibilities. Wayne Swan is Treasurer and Deputy PM; Nicola Roxon is Minister for Health; Anthony Albanese holds Transport and Infrastructure, as well as being Leader of the House; and Jenny Macklin remains in Families, Housing, Community Services & Indigenous Affairs. Robert McLelland is still Attorney-General, and Martin Ferguson stays with Mining, Resources and Tourism.

In a blow that had ‘internet nerds sobbing into their keyboards’ (to quote @mikestuchbery), Stephen Conroy remains responsible for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. He also picked up an additional responsibility; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity. This, apparently, means his job now includes reassuring the PM that the NBN won’t run massively over budget.

The rest of the Cabinet, though, is a different story.

Penny Wong apparently requested a move out of the Climate Change portfolio. Her reasons for doing so are unknown, but that hasn’t stopped speculation. Whatever the case, she is now the new Minister for Finance. She replaces Lindsay Tanner in one of the four senior roles in Cabinet. Disgustingly, this appointment has already attracted condemnation from members of the public who take issue with her sexuality. Of course, these people cannot say exactly how it might interfere with her ability to do her job – they conveniently ignore her demonstrated intelligence and competence in both the private and government sectors.

Climate Change and Energy Efficiency is the responsibility of Greg Combet. The appointment of the former ACTU Secretary and Parliamentary troubleshooter, who stepped in to clean up after the failed home insulation scheme, has some speculating that his task here may be of a similar nature. Given that getting any form of carbon price legislation through is likely to be a monumental task, however, I suspect that it might be more to do with recognising the need for a skilled negotiator.

Simon Crean now holds a newly-created portfolio, Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government. This is clearly a nod to the concerns of the Independents. He’s also been made responsible for the Arts. The two sit oddly together; we can only hope that this won’t mean a sudden increase in bush ballads.

Chris Evans is the Minister for Jobs, Skills & Workplace Relations. Gillard clarified this morning on the ABC’s Insiders program that this also included undergraduate higher education. Kim Carr, meanwhile, holds Innovation, Industry & Science, which includes postgraduate and research-based higher education. This preserves the split first instituted by Rudd’s government, but may well prove to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

The rest of the education sector was, surprisingly, handed over to Peter Garrett. In a public show of confidence in the former Environment Minister, Gillard named him Minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth.

Garrett’s former portfolio is rolled into a new ‘super-Ministry’. Tony Burke is now the Minister for Sustainable Population, Communities, Environment & Water.

Craig Emerson has been promoted to Trade, and Immigration (likely to be a portfolio fraught with controversy) handed over to Chris Bowen. Finally, Joe Ludwig is Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

In the Junior Ministry, the following appointments were made:

Tanya Plibersek – Human Services and Social Inclusion (picking up one of Gillard’s former responsibilities, but losing Housing)

Brendan O’Connor – Home Affairs, Justice, Privacy and Freedom Of Information

Kate Ellis – Employment Participation, Childcare, and the Status of Women

Nick Sherry – Small Business, and Assistant to Minister for Tourism

Warren Snowdon – Veterans’ Affairs, Defence Science and Personnel

Mark Butler – Mental Health and Ageing

Gary Gray – Special Minister of State

Jason Clare – Defence Materiel

Any Cabinet position for Mark Arbib or Bill Shorten, widely touted as the so-called ‘faceless men’ responsible for orchestrating the challenge against Rudd, was always going to draw criticism. Even if Gillard had banished them both to the back bench, it would have drawn comment. As it is, Shorten is now the Assistant Treasurer, and Arbib is Minister for Indigenous Employment and Economic Development, Sport and Social Housing and Homelessness.

A full list including Parliamentary Secretaries, with links to the individual members’ websites, is available at The Notion Factory.

All in all, this Cabinet is a very strange mix. Education is diffused over three separate Ministries, while Arts has been bizarrely paired with Regional Australia. There is no longer a separate Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities; presumably Bill Shorten’s former purview is re-absorbed into the wider Ministry of Health. Tony Burke’s ‘super-portfolio’ straddles everything from Infrastructure to Agriculture to Transport, and seems likely to be more of a ‘coordinating Ministry’ than anything else.

It’s difficult to discern Labor’s thinking here. Gillard made a point of touting the ‘co-operative’ approach all through negotiations with the Independents, and perhaps that feeds into some of the decisions. Certainly, to get much of Labor’s proposed policy agenda worked up into legislation, multiple areas of responsibility will need to be canvassed. It’s debatable, though, whether this diffuse approach will foster that process, or actually inhibit it.

Tony Abbott will name his Shadow Cabinet next week. Matching up talents against Labor’s choices is likely to be a task of some magnitude, and the results will be nothing if not interesting.


Ozvote ’07 – Communications debate.

November 19, 2007

The Communications debate was mostly about broadband. Facts and figures were disputed back and forth, along with the inevitable accusations of cost blowouts and unrealistic budgets.

Senator Helen Coonan, the Howard government’s Communications Minister, waxed lyrical about the ‘lifeblood of the Australian economy’. Her government would deliver – is, she asserted, already delivering – speed of up to 12 megabits/second. With the use of the Wimax wireless network, an ‘upgrade path’ to 70 mbit/sec was in the works, which would reach the most remote regions of Australia. In the meantime, an expert task force would ‘continue to pursue a new fibre network’ in large regional centres and capital cities. Wimax was clearly the jewel in the broadband crown for the Coalition. Coonan stated repeatedly that it had delivered speeds of 12 mbit/second over a distance of 25km in the Cape York Peninsula.

Labor’s Stephen Conroy promised a 5 year build of a fibre-to-node network (delivering speeds 40 to homes and business up to 40 times faster than currently available, and 100 mbit/sec to educational institutions) that would be a progressive switch-on as each part of the network was completed. Prices would be set by an independent statutory authority, rather than the Minister in closed session with Telstra. All this would be accompanied by the already-announced computers-in-schools, along with internet kiosks and educational programs for seniors.

Policies rolled out, the two representatives got down to the business of tearing apart each other’s proposals.

Coonan was adamant that Labor could not deliver its package within five years. Her estimate was at least 2013. She also accused Labor of underfunding, of promising coverage that was not ‘scientifically possible’, and of having no idea of the complexities involved in rolling out national high-speed broadband.

Conroy also appealed to science. The Coalition’s claims of delivering 12 mbit/sec over 25 km, were he said, completely misleading, and even the provider in question (Internode) did not claim to be able to do that reliably. He muttered darkly about politicians doing deals behind closed doors that were neither transparent nor fair, and pointed out that the Coalition’s network was not only somewhere in the ether but had completely failed to account for capital cities and major regional centres.

(A little aside here … going over these claims in some detail, both have made telling points. Fibre-to-node is expensive, and the cost of building nodes in remote regions may well be prohibitive. This could eat into Labor’s promised 98% coverage. Wimax, on the other hand, is nowhere near as reliable as Coonan has claimed. Wireless broadband is fraught with problems – dead spots, interference from other signals, and reflection from buildings cancelling out incoming signals. Most problematically, wireless suffers from bandwidth dependence – with more users in an area, there is more demand on bandwidth and speeds drop accordingly, and if the allotted bandwidth is not reserved, wireless users may be sharing with other radio signals – leading, again, to lower speeds and potential interference. Internode will not guarantee a 12mbit/sec speed – it has said that speeds ‘up to’ 12 mbit/sec can be achieved.)

I’ve made it sound all very civilised. It wasn’t. The viewing audience was treated to the most disgusting display of bad manners yet exhibited in this campaign. The moderator, Sky’s David Speers, did his best, but even he was shouted down.

The major offender was Helen Coonan . She repeatedly interrupted both Conroy and Speers, raising her voice and stridently proclaiming ‘Steve doesn’t have a clue’, ‘Nonsense!’, ‘anyone who knows anything about broadband’ and laughing derisively any time Conroy spoke about Labor’s policies. When Conroy was asked by the moderator how much of Australia would have broadband by the end of the next term of politics, Coonan shouted, ‘NONE!’ She talked over Conroy and Speers, and was completely unwilling to allow either of them to speak if she felt her point needed to be repeated again.

Speers asked her several times to stop interrupting. He was unfailingly polite, although it was clear from his face that he was becoming exasperated. Coonan was unmoved.

So often when one party is being rude in an argument, the other finds themselves joining in just to be heard. This happened with Conroy – several times he visibly lost patience with Coonan’s tirade and interrupted her. Unlike Coonan, though, he displayed some self-control and reined himself in – and apologised to Speers.

The real moment of disgust, for this viewer, came when Speers attempted to move the conversation on from broadband to other communications issues such as media ownership. This came after a back-and-forth exchange of ‘yes you do! no we don’t!’ regarding the source of funding for broadband, and, frankly, was getting tiresome. Speers jumped in after Conroy finished his last statement and said, ‘We really need to move on from broadband,’ and started to ask his next question.

Coonan’s response? A cry of ‘That’s not fair!’, followed by two more minutes of diatribe about how Labor was uninformed, inexperienced, etc., raising her voice to completely drown out Speers.

This was the height of arrogance. All through these debates, the Coalition speakers have been characterised by a lack of respect for their opponents. They have tended to treat questions from the floor or from reporters as necessary evils that must be tolerated – or, in the case of Alexander Downer, laughed at and derided as absurd and irrelevant. They have had to be warned over and over again for going over time and for interrupting. They have made personal attacks on their opponents.

Coonan, however, was by far the worst. Second only to Abbott’s abuse of Nicola Roxon, her behaviour has shown the nastiest side of Coalition politics. In this, they are led by their Prime Minister and Peter Costello, whose press conference behaviour has become increasingly unpleasant.

They have shown themselves condescending to the media, abusive to their political opponents (listen to Peter Costello on Bob Brown, sometime) and dismissive of the Australian people’s real concerns about their everyday expenses and their workplaces. Whatever you think of their policies, it cannot be denied that their behaviour has been inexcusable.

Labor’s nose isn’t clean. Rudd stoops to it – his rhetoric is subtler, but there’s no doubt he’s calling Howard a fuddy-duddy. So does Gillard, and Conroy.

What I’ve noticed, though, in watching virtually non-stop coverage of press conferences, policy launches and debates, is this – while Labor might throw the occasional ball of mud, for the most part they’ve avoided attacking the Coalition representatives as people. If they attack Peter Costello, for example, they attack him on his avowed love of industrial relations reform. They don’t call him an incompetent liar. Nicola Roxon’s characterisation of Tony Abbott as rude and careless (when he failed to turn up for the Health debate until it was more than half over) was personal, and there’s no getting away from that.

In terms of playing the man, though, the Coalition takes the prize.

It’s a truism in politics that voters respond to the person as much as to the message. If that’s the case, then the Coalition are in trouble. The Australian public don’t, as a general, rule, like being treated as though they were idiots. There’s a certain sneaking respect for the clever putdown – but they don’t appreciate rudeness for rudeness’ sake.


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