Dancing the Gillard Re-Shuffle

December 12, 2011

There’s a new dance show sweeping Canberra. It’s called the Gillard Re-Shuffle, and it’s hitting the boards just in time for the holiday season. Inspired by the retirement stylings of Nick Sherry, Minister for Small Business, these new fancy moves will undoubtedly put bums on seats for, oh, a matter of days. Of course Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, in his new, self-appointed role of the ‘grinch’ judge for Canberra’s Got Talent, is expected to provide his scathing commentary – but really, we expected that.

So who are the lucky Chorus members finally moving up to the front of the stage? Let’s take a look – and while we’re at it, we might spare a moment’s thought for those whose footwork just doesn’t keep up with the Prime Minister anymore.

Greg Combet, already dancing up a storm in Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, will also learn the moves for Industry and Innovation. In a sneaky switch-up, he’ll be backed up by Chris Evans, who takes over from Kim ‘Comrade’ Carr in Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research. Carr himself will be relegated to the Outer Ministry (or more accurately, the Outer Darkness) in Manufacturing and Defence Materiel.

Brendan O’Connor incorporates into his routine a sideways move, which will bring him into step with Peter Garrett on Education.

Jenny Macklin gives us some Disability Reform to go with her current role in Indigenous and Community Services, and Robert McLelland will display his skills in the excitingly-named but somewhat confusing role of Emergency Management, Housing and Homelessness.

Bill Shorten, long-time ‘faceless man’ of Labor’s Outer Ministry, steps up into a plum solo role in Employment and Workplace Relations, with a bit of Superannuation thrown in for good measure. His place in the supporting cast will be taken up by Mark Arbib, who’ll now be Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Small Business and Sport. As part of his new role, he’ll also be lead performer of business in the Senate.

Sadly, Shorten’s new move somewhat eclipsed the more exciting developments in choreography.

Mark Butler’s finally getting his big break; he’ll take his moves in Mental Health, Ageing and Social Inclusion to the spotlight.

Crowd favourite and QandA veteran Tanya Plibersek is going to wow us with her undoubtedly brilliant interpretation of the Health Ministry.

And finally, Nicola Roxon steps up to take on the traditionally male role of Attorney-General, with additional appearances in Privacy and Freedom of Information. This is a real opportunity for her to shine, especially with a Big Tobacco Freedom of Costume lawsuit looming on the horizon.

Of course, these big dance productions are always cut-throat, and we did have casualties. Comrade Carr was relegated and Kate Ellis lost her supporting role in Status of Women. A retrospective show-reel of their accomplishments will, presumably, be included in the upcoming DVD release.

So there we have the highlights. Few real surprises, some possibly interesting developments, and some sadly unsurprising appointments of Parliamentarians widely considered to be the major movers behind 2010’s shock replacement of former lead dancer Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard.

‘The Gillard Re-Shuffle’ opens in February 2012. We’ll be watching with interest to see how this new company performs.

*****

(Oh, and if the tone of this article is flippant – it’s because frankly, I just can’t get worked up about this. All last weekend the media was full of ‘ooh, ah, faceless men, scary factionalism’ stuff, as though this re-shuffle was something both unique and significant. The reality? Nothing about this is either surprising or unprecedented. Prime Ministers regularly reward those who support them, and just as regularly demote those who break ranks or simply become too unpopular. It’s about as thrilling as a reality TV show or one of those interminable ‘talent’ quests. So this is all the time I’m going to spend on it – there are some real issues out there in the Australian political landscape that deserve some scrutiny.)

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Nuclear power or same-sex marriage? Why choose?

December 1, 2010

If you’ll forgive the bridge metaphor, lately it seems that the government just can’t take a trick. If they stand on principle, they’re not listening to the electorate. If they talking about re-examining policy, they’re weak, deceptive or just plain fractured. Either way, it ends up all over the media – and you can practically see the Opposition rubbing its hands together with glee. They’ve got the government between a rock and hard place, and they’re going to exploit that as far as they possibly can.

It’s no wonder people increasingly feel that politicians simply don’t know or don’t care what’s really going on outside Canberra. Legitimate debate is as poisonous to a party’s image as principled stances. What’s worse, where debate on a subject is both necessary and, apparently, possible, all too often it becomes undermined by those seeking to shut it down in favour of their own agenda.

That’s what’s going on right now. Two issues, both the subject of firm Labor policy, are being challenged from within the party. Not only is this being framed as a problem, the issues have now been pitted against each other.

First it was Sports Minister Senator Mark Arbib, who challenged the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage. He called for the party to debate changing the policy at their national conference next year. Then Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong broke her long and much-criticised silence on the subject to support the idea. Their voices joined those of Human Services Minister Tanya Plibersek and Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, whose support for the right of same-sex couples to marry was already on record.

Coming on the heels of Greens MP Adam Bandt’s successful motion in the House of Representatives calling on all members to canvass their electorates on the subject, it looked like a groundswell was in motion. Certainly Joe de Bruyn, head of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, thought so. He delivered a stern warning to Prime Minister Julia Gillard that his union wouldn’t stand for ‘pandering’, and recommended she get on with tackling ‘real issues that the ordinary person in the electorate cares about’.

There it is again. There’s that calculated, belittling, marginalising language. It’s not a ‘real’ issue. Hardly anybody cares about same-sex marriage, certainly not an ‘ordinary person’. It’s a despicable tactic, getting far too much unanswered airplay lately.

But it gets nastier.

Last night, Energy Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and Senator Mark Bishop recommended that Labor should also re-examine its policy against nuclear power in Australia, adding that it was ‘at least as important’ as the issue of same-sex marriage. Seems like a fair call. No matter what your personal stance on nuclear power or same-sex marriage might be, both are equally deserving of consideration.

Well, you’d think so. But New South Wales Senator Steve Hutchins had other ideas. Nuclear power was not just as important as same-sex marriage. ‘It is more important for the country’s future than gay marriage and it affects a lot more people,’ he said.

Now, there’s no denying that nuclear power would directly affect far more people. Everyone needs access to electricity; not everyone wants to formalise a same-sex relationship. That’s a no-brainer. But what Hutchins said goes well beyond this apparently obvious point. He’s added an insidious little wrinkle to the ‘it’s just not that important’ argument. To give time to a debate on same-sex marriage, by Hutchins’ logic, is just plain irresponsible – and he was happy to provide some rhetoric that goes beyond hyperbole to border on the outright ridiculous to ‘prove’ it.

Nuclear power is an urgent issue, he’s argued. If we’re going to talk about a carbon price, and alternative energy, we need to at least talk about adding nuclear to the mix. If we give time to these ‘fringe’ issues like same-sex marriage, why we could all find ourselves living like Neanderthals and burning down our houses just to stay warm!

I’m not exaggerating here. This is his direct quote: ‘I cannot see us returning to living in the cave and burning fallen timber to keep us warm’.

Apparently Senator Hutchins, de Bruyn and some conservative voices in the media, think that politicians have a limited allotment of policy debating ability – and that it has to be divided up carefully. In order to do that, one must set priorities, and it’s unacceptable to ‘squander’ that limited amount on something as unimportant as same-sex marriage.

It also tries to position supporters of a same-sex marriage debate in opposition to those who want to address our power needs. Naturally, the former will be moved to defend their right to a debate – and it’s all too easy to be drawn into the trap of belittling the nuclear issue as way of conveying the necessity of dialogue about same-sex marriage. It’s a tricky thing to avoid, especially on those issues that engage our most passionate emotions – and I have to wonder whether this is deliberate, or just a fortunate side-effect for Hutchins and his ilk.

This is, perhaps, the worst argument yet brought against same-sex marriage. (It’s not the most ridiculous – that distinction is reserved for ‘because the Marriage Act says so’.) Not only does it tacitly argue against the issue, it urges people not to even consider it. And, just in case people feel that it couldn’t do any harm to just talk, it asserts that doing so will actually cause harm – that talking about same-sex marriage might threaten our ability to meet even the most basic needs of our society.

This is pernicious. When someone tells you not to talk about something because it’s ‘trivial’, there’s always the possibility that you might disagree – or perhaps just get annoyed enough with such a high-handed attitude to do it anyway. But this – this appeals to you as a responsible citizen, as a parent, as someone who wants to provide safety and comfort for your loved ones. This argument whispers to you that if you give time to thinking about same-sex marriage – no matter how well-intentioned you are – you might hurt us all. You might even be complicit in dragging us back to the Stone Age.

And, of course, it’s UTTER RUBBISH.

We’re human beings. We’ve got pretty big brains, and – all evidence to the contrary – we are capable of thinking about multiple issues. Yes, how we generate our power is a huge priority – it’s something with the potential to affect all life on the planet. But does that mean we cannot also think about something that might only affect a relatively small number of us? Will debating same-sex marriage prevent us from investigating renewable, or even nuclear, energy?

I shouldn’t even have to ask that question.

It’s not something the government can officially argue, and they know it. In defending their opposition to same-sex marriage, they’ve clung to the indefensible ‘Marriage Act’ justification. Now it looks as though both the Left and Right factions of the Labor Party want that policy changed – or at least want it re-examined. For the first time, members of the Senior Ministry have spoken out in favour of that.

But are they being applauded? Far from it. The Opposition leaped at the chance to spin this as ‘a clear sign that the government is fracturing’ (thank you, Steve Ciobo from this morning’s AM Agenda program), that they are held hostage to the Greens and hijacked by minority interests. The mainstream media question whether this means Gillard is soon for the chop, if her Ministers are in revolt against her. Voices in queer media carp about Wong’s ‘hypocrisy’.

There aren’t a lot of people out there applauding Mark Arbib – most of them think he’s a ‘factional warlord’ who’s just salivating in anticipation of toppling another Prime Minister. Anthony Albanese has been on the receiving end of abuse. Tanya Plibersek, still away from politics with her new baby, has been spared a lot of scrutiny – and Penny Wong has copped the worst of the lot. Now, you can argue that, to a certain extent, these people deserve criticism for not speaking out earlier, or more firmly.

What’s happening, though, is that those who are now publicly calling for a change from within Labor party ranks are being pilloried by not only their opponents, but those whose cause they champion. Meanwhile, Gillard moves to quell debate with authoritative pronouncements. Worse, Steve Hutchins and Joe de Bruyn get away with poisonous arguments designed to send this issue back into the streets and the blogs – and try to enlist the fabled ‘ordinary people’ to help them do it.

These marginalising, false arguments should be challenged at every turn. It’s not a question of choosing between talking about nuclear power or talking about same-sex marriage; both are equally deserving of consideration, and equally able to be considered by the same party at the same national conference.

What if those who want to see every Australian have the same rights to marry regardless of gender or sexual orientation focused on destroying those arguments in a calm, reasoned way – by refusing to compete, or apologise, and by saying there is room at the debating table for many issues? What if there was a real effort to encourage more politicians – both government and Opposition, state and federal – to scrutinise their policies without fear of being criticised for being slow to act, or held hostage to extremists, or on the verge of fragmentation?

There might be a possibility that those ‘ordinary people’ – the ones Steve Hutchins apparently thinks can be frightened into suppressing debate on same-sex marriage – would start to listen, and discuss it themselves.

We might even find to time to talk rationally about nuclear power while we’re at it.


New paradigm or new paranoia?

September 29, 2010

Day Two of the 43rd Parliament, and the first Question Time. We might be living in the era of the Great New Paradigm, but it feels awfully like the Same Old Crap.

After yesterday refusing to give Simon Crean a pair to attend the National Press Club, the Opposition relented at 8.30pm last night. I’ve already mused on their possible reasons for doing so. At the time, I wondered if this was a shot across the bow from the Coalition. It seems that I might have been generous in that assessment.

Today in Question Time Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Home Affairs, revealed that he, too, had been refused a pairing arrangement. In this case, though, he wasn’t being denied an opportunity to speak to the media; O’Connor was supposed to attend National Police Remembrance Day services on behalf of the government. This day commemorates and honours all those members of law enforcement who have lost their lives in pursuit of their duty, so it would seem only reasonable that a senior Minister participate. Apparently, the Coalition didn’t agree.

O’Connor went on to note that, as with Crean, the Opposition changed its mind at the eleventh hour, enabling him to attend. Again – what was the point of denying the pairing in the first place? The Coalition only made itself look mean-spirited; the initial denial was a snub to law enforcement, and the backflip was patronising. What does it hope to achieve?

At the moment, all the Coalition has done is give the government ammunition. Every time it denies a pair, the government finds a way to bring that up in Question Time. It’s not even necessary to be nasty about it, either; the person at the despatch box only has to sweetly thank the Opposition for changing its mind, and the damage is done.

Is this really just a way to keep the government on the hop? Keep them guessing, never knowing when a pair might be granted or denied?

The problem of numbers in the House was dealt a further blow today when the Opposition reneged on another part of its parliamentary reform agreement. This concerned changing the standing orders to include ‘re-committing’ votes – that is, allowing a member who didn’t make it into the chamber in time through no fault of their own to cast their vote after the fact. In a delicately balanced House, this would go a long way to assuaging anxieties that an ill-timed trip to the bathroom might be the downfall of legislation.

Only five days ago, Christopher Pyne confirmed that he would honour that part of the agreement. He even indicated that the Opposition might be inclined to grant the right to re-commit in cases where ‘extreme carelessness’ was to blame.

Sounds like a great instance of co-operation, doesn’t it? But don’t get your hopes up.

Today, Pyne moved an amendment that turned a sensible, civil agreement into a potential walk of shame. Now, instead of automatically granting the right to re-commit, a debate will have to be held on whether standing orders can be suspended to allow the vote to be re-taken. The point of the debate is to force the hapless member who had missed the vote can be put through the wringer to justify their absence. This is potentially humiliating. It’s also another weapon in the Coalition’s arsenal. They can now force any member, right up to the PM, to answer a barrage of questions and effectively beg for the right to have their vote counted.

Pyne did this at a time when the government did not have all members present in the House – specifically, Tanya Plibersek was absent, probably through no fault of her own. The irony of using her absence to strike down the very reform designed to prevent such exploitation can surely not have been lost on either Pyne or Abbott – certainly not if their wide smiles were any indication.

So now we have a situation of extreme tension. Both sides will be trying to second-guess each other, to figure out when it might be all right to go to the bathroom, or make an important phone call. John Alexander, newly-elected Liberal Member for Bennelong, joked that it was lucky he was an athlete, since Parliament House was so large that he might not be able to make it to the chamber within four minutes (the time allocated for members to assemble for a vote).

It’s not all that funny, now.

So in the first two days of the new Parliament we’ve seen the Coalition renege on not one, but three parts of the reform agreement it signed in apparent good faith. They’ve refused to pair the Speaker. They’ve embarked on a campaign to create deep uncertainty regarding pairing in general (and I should point out here that pairing is a long-standing arrangement in the Parliament even without these reforms). Now they’ve refused to allow members to re-commit votes.

After the re-committal vote, someone on Twitter crowed, ‘Look out Joolya, here comes the no-confidence motions!’ (sic) Other responses were similarly smug – and even allowing for the vagaries of textual interpretation, the glee was unmistakable. Some of these tweets were from Coalition MPs. They were congratulating themselves for breaking their contract and destabilising the Parliament.

And the government is sinking to the same level. For all that the new Question Time was faster, less obviously argumentative and well-controlled by Speaker Harry Jenkins (who appears to have adopted a ‘Take No Crap’ attitude), the government still engaged in character assassination of the Opposition. Julia Gillard continually accused Tony Abbott of being a ‘wrecker’. Wayne Swan employed some surprisingly subtle insults, and even Kevin Rudd took the opportunity to poke the Opposition about asylum seekers when answering a question about floods in Pakistan.

About the best thing one could say about the new paradigm is that things happen faster, and that the Speaker is less inclined to grant license for personal attacks and antics. That doesn’t however, stop Julie Bishop hiding behind Parliamentary privilege while she attacks Gillard and mangles Shakespearean metaphors. (Dear? Lady Macbeth didn’t kill anyone.)

This isn’t a new paradigm. It’s a new paranoia, and every member of the House – especially on the government side – may well find themselves slipping into a state of hyper-vigilance as they constantly try to work out what’s coming next.

Finally, an annoying autobiographical pause: lately, I’ve faced a few accusations that I am not being ‘fair’ to the Coalition. In my defence, I will say that I am being absolutely fair. I quote where possible, provide references wherever possible, and invite any and all readers to check Hansard, watch or listen to Parliament themselves, and see whether I have misrepresented them.


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