Craig Thomson, political football

May 8, 2012

Fair Work Australia’s report into alleged misuse of funds by the Health Services Union finally made it to the public last night. And there’s some pretty damning stuff in there. FWA found numerous breaches of the union’s rules, not to mention inappropriate spending on everything from chocolates, to escort services, to political campaign funding. The chief culprit, it stated, was MP Craig Thomson, along with former heads Michael Williamson and Kathy Jackson. FWA further recommended civil action be commenced.

Cue the screaming and the howling from the Opposition.

Thomson must resign! Thomson is a criminal! Thomson’s vote is ‘tainted’, and should not be accepted by the Prime Minister! Gillard is ‘clinging to power’ by allowing Thomson’s vote to count! Hang him! Burn him! Tar and feather him and ride him out of Canberra on a rail!

(Well, maybe not that last part – but the sentiment is there.)

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott thundered that this was a ‘stinking, putrid mess’. Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis scolded the government for relying on a tainted vote. On ABC1’s QandA last night, Kelly O’Dwyer opined that the whole affair smacked of a government cover-up. And let’s not forget that old standard – we want an election, right now, dammit!

Meanwhile, Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has promised to ‘rectify any deficiencies’ in legislation, so that this sort of ‘disturbing’ event can never happen again. Of course, he added quickly, Thomson was entitled to the presumption of innocence, and the union movement just had a few ‘bad apples’, so no one should jump to any conclusions.


I’d like to pause here for a moment, and suggest you ruminate on this portrait of Craig Thomson:

Craig Thomson, Member for Dobell

No, I’m not kidding.

This isn’t about decency, or morals, or integrity. It isn’t about some kind of endemic corruption in ‘the union movement’ (which, contrary to the best propaganda of conservative politics, is not a great monolith of Australia-hating Communists). It’s not about whether the Parliament is cast into disrepute – if it can survive the Whitlam dismissal and the Australian Wheat Board scandal, it can survive one MP under investigation for alleged misuse of funds before he was a Parliamentarian. (After all, it survived investigations into Senators Mal Colston and Mary Jo Fisher, not to mention former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.)

It’s about Thomson being used as a political football.

The government think they’re playing keepings-off with him, by booting him out of the Labor Caucus and sending him to the cross-benches. The Opposition think they’re in the last quarter of a Grand Final, with an open goal in front of them and an imminent election win as the trophy – and Abbott’s lining up with his boot. The media are right there with kick-to-kick commentary.

And the public are falling for it.

Thomson is an innocent man, unless a court of law proves him to be otherwise. Just like Fisher, Colston, Downer, and any number of other MPs who’ve been the subject of investigations, Royal Commissions and trial-by-media. The people of Dobell, who voted for him, have the right to remain represented in the Parliament unless Thomson is proven guilty. The FWA’s report may well represent definitive evidence – but it’s not up to the government, the Opposition, the media, or the so-called ‘Twitterati’ to say so. That’s why we have courts of law. That’s why we have s.44 of the Constitution, which sets out the grounds for disqualification from Parliamentary office, and which clearly shows that Thomson is more than eligible to remain in his seat as matters stand. (And thanks to commenter archiearchiveFCD for the Constitutional reminder.)

But all of this is beside the point. Thomson is a political football, being skilfully deployed to deflect attention from the imminent Budget with its long-promised surplus, the allegations against Speaker Peter Slipper, possible Opposition collusion with staffer James Ashby in those allegations, and the lack of any tangible Opposition policy whatsoever.

I recommend we let the police and the courts do their jobs, and turn off the Sports Channel.


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.

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