Beer, cigarettes and cruises – the government’s attack strategy

May 15, 2014

It didn’t take long for the implications of the Coalition government’s first Budget to sink in. Within moments of Treasurer Joe Hockey resuming his seat, representatives of every sector from community welfare to big business filed out to front the media. What they had to say came as no surprise to anyone – business liked the Budget. Almost no one else did.

Arguably, it’s the flagged changes to Medicare that caused the most outrage – the $7 ‘co-payment’ for GP, pathology and some Emergency Department visits, and the $5 increase to medicines. Deservedly so, too. The government would have us believe it’s about spreading the ‘heavy lifting’ in order to resolve the ‘Budget emergency’ and move us quickly back to surplus. The logic is inconsistent, though. If the GP charge is all about helping out the fiscal bottom line, why earmark $5 out of every $7 to go into a medical research fund? For that matter, why not just continue to fund the CSIRO?

The numbers are one thing. Consider this, though – the government is effectively asking every single Australian to make a decision about their own health, no matter how unqualified they are. Does your kid have abdominal pains that cause him to scream? Flip a coin – heads it’s wind, tails it’s appendicitis. How about this – it’s flu season. Pay for the FluVax now, or take the risk that you won’t need to see the doctor later for an antibiotic prescription?

Ludicrous? Yes. Dangerous? Absolutely.

Oh, but no one would be so silly, would they? Mr Hockey certainly doesn’t think so. He’s got it all worked out. You see, it’s about whether we’re selfish or sensible. Why, that $7 isn’t so much to ask. It’s the equivalent of giving up a couple of beers or a third of a pack of cigarettes. Really, who wouldn’t make that sacrifice for their own health, or that of their family?

See what he’s doing there? It’s a rather nasty piece of character assassination. In so many words, Hockey laid down a series of assumptions – that people on low incomes are not concerned for their health, that they’d rather spend their money on beer and cigarettes than on their families, and that they need to take a good hard look at themselves. He didn’t quite come out and call them ‘bogans’, but the inference was practically screaming to be made. And we all know that bogans are lazy, selfish dole bludgers, right?

On Tuesday night, Hockey gushed about how wonderful it would be for people to know that their contribution to the Medical Research Future Fund might one day save their children’s lives. Today, he’s playing hardball, running back to the tried-and-true formula of ‘blame the victim’. He wants to be able to argue that if people suffer as a result of Medicare changes, it’ll be their own fault.

Then there’s what on the agenda for the aged pension – including the family home in the assets test, indexation against inflation, and a rise in the qualifying age to 70. Seniors groups are up in arms. Every one of these changes is potentially destructive. The family home has historically been exempt from the assets test, and for good reason. It’s often not until near retirement that a housing loan is paid off, and in the current housing market, the value of any given house is likely to be considerably inflated from its original asking price. A house bought for under $100,000 thirty years ago could now – conservatively speaking – be worth more than $500,000. If that value is included in a person’s assets, it would render them ineligible for the pension. Their only option would be to sell that home, downsize, and invest the remainder. Even for those of us who are younger, that’s a hugely stressful undertaking, with no guarantee of a good outcome.

Raising the retirement age also places a burden on older people. The idea is predicated on the fact that we live longer. What it doesn’t take into account, though, is that we are not living better. Medical science has become very, very good at saving lives, but it’s still playing catch-up on how to improve the quality of life for people over 60. It shows in the strain on our aged care system, where there is a dearth of available medium-care facilities – and what there is often exists in an uncomfortable middle ground between low-care ‘retirement villages’ and high-care beds.

Again, though, the government’s got an answer to objections. According to Deputy PM Warren Truss, senior just want to have their cake and eat it, too. The argument goes like this: people retire, they cash in their superannuation, go on cruises and spending sprees, and when the money’s gone, cry poor and hold out their hands for welfare. They’re just sponges. They should ‘learn to live within their means’.

Well, of course. Heaven forbid that people who have worked all their lives and put as much money into their superannuation as they can afford be allowed to actually enjoy their retirement. And let’s not mention how they often use substantial amounts of superannuation to pay off debt.

What Mr. Truss deliberately didn’t say is that money put into superannuation is taxed going in and coming out, not to mention income tax over the years. People have already contributed three times over to their own retirements. There’s also the fact that many simply don’t have enough superannuation to see them through, whether as a result of being in low-paying jobs, or simply because Australia didn’t even have a compulsory superannuation scheme before 1992.

It’s niggling little details like this that the government wants kept out of public discussion. Every pensioner and every low-income earner with children who get their faces on The Project, A Current Affair or any of the morning shows, everyone who wants to know why they are being targeted for such draconian measures, is another slip in the polls. (Despite what any government MP says, they do watch those figures.)

This tactic – blaming those who will be worst affected – is nothing short of bluster and bullying. It’s Hockey and Truss working as a tag team to kick people when they’re down. And it’s a huge mistake. Had the government stuck to its original strategy of attempting to accentuate the potential for positive outcomes, it would still have been an unpopular Budget, but that’s all – and unpopular things go away in politics.

That opportunity’s been lost, however. The Budget is irrevocably cast as not merely strict, but outright vindictive. The government has a huge problem on its hands, now. Opposition parties have flagged their intention to block key legislation (notably, Medicare changes), and the Coalition may well find itself facing Hobson’s choice – to ride it out, and risk paralysing the government, or pull the trigger on a Double Dissolution, and risk losing government altogether.


A PM’s tears, two words and seventy seconds of silence

February 9, 2011

It was a day when Parliament was entirely given over to condolence motions to victims of the recent natural disasters, and celebrating the life of Corporal Richard Atkinson, killed in action in Afghanistan earlier this month. It was a day when Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Nationals Leader Warren Truss, among others, almost broke down during their speeches.

And it was a day when the Coalition finally released their proposed budget cuts to pay for flood relief.

All in all, a pretty full news cycle in terms of Australian politics. There was so much to choose from – bipartisanship, stories about those who died in the floods, pulling apart the budget cuts to see if they stacked up. It was a veritable smorgasbord.

So what became the focus of media attention?

A Prime Minister’s tears, two words and seventy seconds of silence.

Julia Gillard’s speech of condolence started fairly conventionally, setting the scene with formal words. Then, a few moments later, there was this:

‘Here today, it’s with very great sorrow that I offer words of condolence to Australians who are now facing this hard journey and to assure them they won’t travel that hard journey alone – we won’t let go Mr Speaker, we won’t let go.’

As she said those words, Gillard’s throat seemed to close over and her voice started to thicken and shake. As she continued, it was clear she was fighting back tears – a fight she lost. It wasn’t until her closing remarks that she was able to compose herself. Even then, as she sat down, she looked shattered, surreptitiously wiping tears away while she listened to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s speech.

Those watching and commenting via the internet were stunned. There was clear empathy for Gillard, which was summed up by a tweet from @AshGebranious – ‘Behold Australia. The real Julia’.

But then came the unbelievable accusations that Gillard was ‘faking it’. Internet commentary was vicious – the mainstream media was more circumspect, but still …

Andrew Bolt danced around the issue – paraphrased, his blog (published within minutes of the speech’s conclusion) boiled down to, ‘I won’t say she faked it, but it’s awfully interesting that she should cry just when everyone’s talking about how wooden she is’. He developed his theme later in The Daily Telegraph: it was ‘too perfect, and timed too well’. Everyone would always wonder if those tears were real, he opined – not that he thought that, of course. Dennis Shanahan was a little more clever, confining himself to remarks that crying wouldn’t save Gillard in the eyes of Australia. The 3AW blog commented cynically that it was ‘better late than never’.

See what they did there?

It’s not that they disbelieve her. It’s just that she was so ‘wooden’ and ‘robotic’ that, well, it’s difficult to credit. People could be forgiven for distrusting it. Why, only on Monday night people were talking about it on QandA.

Never mind that Warren Truss, hardly renowned for displaying emotional vulnerability, struggled to control his voice during his own speech. There was not even a hint that Truss might be faking it.

Never mind that Gillard – a notoriously private person who struggles to keep her personal life away from her political one – had tears in her eyes during the Apology to the Stolen Generations. That’s long forgotten.

The emotion that Gillard displayed yesterday was very, very real. To believe she was faking, you’d have to credit her with a talent for acting worthy of Oscar nomination. To believe she was faking, you’d have to accept that she is so completely without any moral sense that she would deliberately work herself into a state where she nearly broke down several times just to get a bump in her approval rating.

Watch this video – it’s a small snippet of the whole thing. There’s nothing fake going on.

Then there was the sh*tstorm in a teacup that boiled over on Tony Abbott last night, courtesy of Channel 7.

Over three months ago Abbott, visiting troops in Afghanistan, engaged a group of soldiers in conversation about. The topic was the recent death of Lance-Corporal Jared McKinney. Ostensibly off-camera, the mic was nonetheless live and it was possible to make out what was being said. On being told, ‘”Was everything done perfectly? Absolutely not. Was it tragic? Absolutely,’ Abbott nodded thoughtfully. He replied, ‘It’s pretty obvious that, uh, well, that sometimes shit happens’. At the time, the soldiers appeared to agree, and certainly no one visible in the footage seemed to take offence. Something must have pinged on Liberal strategists’ radars, though, because for the Opposition engaged Channel 7 in an FOI fight to prevent the incident being aired.

Finally confronted with it by reporter Mark Riley, laptop in hand, Abbott replied, ‘Look, you’ve taken this out of context. You weren’t there. I would never seek to make light of the death of an Australian soldier.’ Riley challenged him to supply the context. Abbott’s reaction was extraordinary.

He stood staring at Riley for a full 70 seconds (although only 24 seconds was aired due to time constraints, according to Channel 7’s Jodie Speers), jerking his head rapidly up and down and shaking slightly. Finally he said only, ‘I’ve given you the response you deserve’, and left.

Media and commentwitters alike leaped to their keyboards to get their reactions out. Shock was quickly followed by condemnation, but it wasn’t long before it settled down into a prevailing opinion that there was nothing wrong with what Abbott said, but rather his reaction to being shown the footage – and that the real villain of the piece was Mark Riley.

Laurie Oakes said Abbott was ‘stupid’, while Hugh Riminton described it as an ‘ugly’ day for the Opposition Leader. There was wide support on the internet for the notion that Abbott should simply have punched Riley in the nose for pulling a stunt like that.

Then came the analysis, and the speculation. Abbott was clearly restraining his fury during that long silence. Why didn’t he just deliver the smackdown to Riley? Was he lost for words? Can he just not handle an off-the-cuff situation? Was this the beginning of the end? Would it trigger a leadership spill?

It didn’t stop there. Over twelve hours later, it’s still the lead story. Members of the Australian Defence Force were invited to comment, as were Lance-Corporal McKinney’s family. Anthony Albanese took the opportunity to sink the boot in, trying to create the impression that Abbott was completely insensitive.

And the man himself? Well, he was out on radio early this morning explaining himself with ever-more frayed patience.

All this over two words and seventy seconds of silence.

‘Shit happens’. It’s one of those all-purpose phrases that can mean everything from callous dismissal of another’s trouble to a philosophical observation that sometimes all the preparation in the world can’t prevent things going wrong. In Abbott’s case, it was fairly obvious that he meant the latter. There was nothing insensitive about it. At worst, it was a clumsy attempt at camaraderie – Abbott trying to show rough sympathy to those who were all too familiar with the feeling of being powerless, who know that you simply can’t anticipate every possibility. That sometimes, shit just happens.

The death of a soldier is something that strikes people deeply. Usually it’s someone who is young, perhaps with a young family, who’s put themselves in harm’s way because we have asked them to do so. We hold it almost sacred – you don’t politicise, you don’t criticise, and you certainly don’t exploit it for a sound bite.

Think of the anger and disgust that surges whenever someone comes out on Anzac Day to protest against war. Even people who might ordinarily feel that war is a terrible evil will condemn someone who decides to profane that day.

Now put yourself in Tony Abbott’s shoes. An opportunistic reporter fronts up to needle him about what must have been a very difficult conversation – and chooses to do it on a day when emotions are already raw. The sense of mourning in the Parliament yesterday was very real, and it’s fair to say that few in the chamber were unaffected. Add to that the fact that part of those speeches dealt with the death of another soldier serving in Afghanistan.

Suddenly 70 seconds of silence starts to look pretty understandable, doesn’t it?

Watch the video. The interview starts about 1:30 minutes in, but it’s clear from the surrounding context that the aim was always to exploit Lance-Corporal McKinney’s death.

Sure, as a politician Abbott probably should have had an answer ready to clarify his remarks and rebuke Riley. Maybe he did have one. He knew he was going to be interviewed about his trip to Afghanistan, although perhaps not the specific questions. But when the moment came, Abbott didn’t react as a politician. He was a man furious with someone who exploited a soldier’s death.

What’s remarkable is that Abbott didn’t verbally flay Riley. He held it in and got himself under control enough to shut down the interview. I’m not sure many of us could have had that kind of restraint under the same circumstances.

So in the end, what we saw yesterday were two political leaders who, for a few moments, weren’t politicians. They were vulnerable human beings showing us sorrow and outrage.

In our political milieu, the most frequent criticism of our elected representatives is that they are not ‘genuine’ – that all we get are scripted remarks designed to deflect scrutiny and convey exactly no information, and confected emotion carefully calculated for maximum appropriateness. It’s extraordinary, then, that on a day when we saw politicians revealed as people, they received such vicious criticism. Gillard and Abbott were pilloried for doing exactly what we said we wanted them to do – step out from behind the political masks and show us the ‘real’ people underneath.

It’s a truism that we get the government we deserve. If yesterday is anything to go by, if our leaders retreat to the safety of scripts and media advisors, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Coalition campaign launch – out-Howarding Howard

August 8, 2010

Right now I have a song stuck in my head. It’s playing over and over and over. It’s the Coalition’s campaign theme song, complete with jingoistic lyrics that sounded a little like they were written by John Williamson’s less-talented apprentice:

“It’s the aussie way/ to see things through/ to get things done/ to be true blue … now’s the time/ to get things right/ shine on australia /let’s stand up and fight … so stand up australia and support real action’.

That song was played every single time a new speaker fronted up to the podium.

And they rolled them out from every level of government. First we had Campbell Newman, the Mayor of Brisbane, giving us the long list of his achievements – everything from a new bus depot to tree planting. He was followed by WA Premier Colin Barnett. Predictably, Barnett sounded the warning bell on the idea of the mining tax.

Warren Truss, Leader of the Nationals and aspiring Deputy Prime Minister, was next, as the voice of regional Australia. His speech was largely confined to motherhood statements on how people from regional Australia needed more support with study, internet access and transport. A promise of several four-lane highways was followed up by the remarkable observation that ‘every labor cabinet minister lives in a capital city’. The implication was clear: Labor doesn’t understand, and doesn’t want to know about the needs of rural and regional Australia. He didn’t spell it out, but then, he really didn’t need to do so. Everyone in the room understood what he wasn’t saying.

Following him was Julie Bishop, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. Fresh from her stare-off victory against Gerald the Gnome on ABC’s Yes We Canberra, she jumped straight into her designated role as the Coalition’s attack dog. Her speech consisted of some of the strongest vitriol yet heard in the campaign, mixed up with equal parts scorn and withering sarcasm. ‘Shallow end of the gene pool’ was one of her milder descriptions of the ALP.

She played the experience card, then. Government, she said was ‘not a job for amateurs’. The Coalition was made up of people who had ‘done it before’. The team was led by a man who had been a ‘competent’ health minister, who was particularly effective’ in women’s health. ‘People are alive today, and they thank Tony Abbott for it,’ she said, and proceeded to introduce him as everyone’s friend, an experienced politician and the man who would lead the Coalition back to government.

Abbott led off by praising ‘a deputy I can trust, a predecessor who’s a friend and a former Prime Minister who’s a hero’. The latter was obviously Howard, but commentators were unsure as to whether the ‘predecessor’ was supposed to refer to Malcolm Turnbull. As for his comments about Julie Bishop, Abbott might well have been hoping that the party faithful would choose not to recall how she has been the trusted deputy of no less than three Liberal leaders to date.

Accolades done with, Abbott settled down to the task of defining himself in opposition to Labor. It’s what he’s done all through this campaign so far – first a criticism of Labor, then a statement about how he’s not like that. All of that was fairly predictable – but he was just winding up. Invoking the spectre of 1975, he thundered, ‘Our task is nothing less to save Australia from the worst government in its history’.

In one moment, he managed to link the current election with one of the most infamous events in Australia’s political history, and attempt to paint himself as a crusading saviour appearing in its time of need to ‘restore honour and integrity to Australian public life’.

That hyperbole may well come back to haunt him, not least because the Liberal member most closely associated with the Whitlam dismissal, Malcolm Fraser, was conspicuously absent from the gathering, after having delivered a scathingly negative verdict on Abbott. Diehard Labor voters are still particularly bitter about 1975 – it’s a tale handed down to the next generation with an admonition to never forget what was done to Whitlam’s government. It’s just possible that Abbott’s attempt to scare the electorate could backfire, and send wavering Labor faithful rallying around the standard.

Abbott indulged in more criticism before giving us the timetable for his first few months as Prime Minister – something that even Sky News (normally very well-disposed towards the Liberal leader) called ‘an act of hubris’. It looked as though he was taking his election for granted.

Day 1 is going to be very busy for the putative PM. Abbott plans to be on the phone to Nauru to reopen its asylum seeker processing centre, discontinue Labor’s Building the Education Revolution program, and ‘safeguard those who make their living from the sea’ (in some unspecified way). Oh, and he’ll lift the mining tax – the one that hasn’t actually been levied yet.

Later that week he’ll call a meeting of the Cabinet and the National Security Committee, which he promised to chair and make sure all his ministers attended (a barely-disguised dig at allegations that Gillard had not done so). Presumably he’ll actually appoint the Cabinet sometime between stopping programs that don’t currently exist and phoning Nauru.

He’ll also be asking Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey to set up a ‘Debt Reduction Taskforce’ to prepare a plan to start ‘repaying the debt’. That’s a little confusing, since he has already been touting some $40 billion of ‘savings’ apparently designed to do what he’s now saying will need to be investigated.

While Robb and Hockey are busy with their calculators, Abbott will forge ahead for the next month preparing an economic statement outlining ‘risks and opportunities’, releasing the Murray-Darling basin plan, visiting countries in the region to ‘repair’ trade and alliance relations, reassuring ‘frightened householders’ that they’ll get reimbursed before their roofs spontaneously burst into flame, and changing Question Time rules to prevent ministers from obfuscation and filibustering.

After that he’ll settle down for a more leisurely two-month period of recruiting for the Green Army, having a COAG meeting that will not adjourn until all states agree on local boards and beds for public hospitals, miscellaneous small business reforms, preparing for the Emissions Reduction Fund, forming a National Violent Gang Squad (which is not as alarming as it sounds), and a side-trip to Afghanistan to ‘reassure’ Australia’s soldiers that they are supported.

If my tone sounds a bit flippant, well, all that’s about to change.

‘Those thinking of voting Green,’ said Abbott, needed to know that the Coalition would meet their 2020 emission targets – but not through taxes. Those targets will be met by buying soil abatements and tree planting (and see my earlier blog on the Coalition’s climate change policy for the potential problems there). To underscore the point that the Coalition is absolutely opposed to a carbon tax of any kind, Abbott added, ‘We will never damage our economy with futile gestures’.

Futile gestures. The party that claims it is the ‘only one’ with a climate change policy dismissed and derided the idea that is largely accepted as the only one – short of direct governmental intervention – that can push countries towards a lower carbon economy.

It got nastier.

On paid parental leave, Abbott extolled the virtues of the Coalition’s policy. The ‘most conservative instinct of all’ was to have a family, and there was a ‘natural instinct’ for women to have children – so the Coalition, by extension, was only helping what comes naturally. This is a statement straight out of the 1950s, right up there with ‘one for Mum, one for Dad, and one for the country). It implies that anyone who does not want children is somehow unnatural. It’s impossible to say if it was a deliberate swipe at Gillard (who has no children), but it would certainly be something that anyone hearing it could be expected to conclude.

Then Abbott sounded the dogwhistle that pretty much everyone had been waiting for – the imminent threat of asylum seekers on our borders, apparently the major reason that Labor is slipping in the polls. He’ll ‘stop the boats’. He’ll reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas for all asylum seekers. He’ll re-open Nauru and send all asylum seekers there. Convicted people smugglers will be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term of 12 months. Repeat offenders will be sentenced to 10 years.

But … the same penalties will be applied to anyone who ‘assists’ a people smuggler, or who ‘conceals or harbours a non-citizen’. Have a think about that. How is such a ‘crime’ going to be discovered? Where would you look? Obviously, you’re not going to go knocking on doors trying to find out if Auntie Flo from Birmingham has overstayed her visa. So how on earth could you spot these dastardly ‘non-citizens’?

Well, for a start you wouldn’t bother looking for Auntie Flo. You’d look for asylum seekers who’d arrived by boat – and how would you find them? You’d start by looking at refugee advocacy groups, who have a long history of non-cooperation with the idea of mandatory detention. Sounds a little like a veiled threat, really.

But here’s the real kicker.

The offence of concealing and harbouring a ‘non-citizen’ already exists.

Under S.233E of the Migration Act 1958, offenders are to be penalised with a prison term of 10 years, or 1000 penalty units, or both. So Abbott promised nothing new. He merely reminded people of what is already in place. Why do that? Why announce a policy whose previous existence can be ascertained with two minutes’ work on Google? Because he wanted to look tough and hoped no one would figure out he wasn’t actually promising anything? Because he was sending a warning to refugee advocacy groups? Because he didn’t even know that it already existed?

None of these options is at all palatable – and coupled with the re-introduction of the draconian measures utilised by the Howard government, it makes for truly disturbing news.

Abbott wound up by describing his political creed as ‘genial and pragmatic’. I’ll leave the judgment of ‘pragmatic’ as an exercise for the reader. But ‘genial’? After listening to all the criticism (both sly and overt) over the campaign, after hearing him employ xenophobic fear-mongering language on the subject of asylum seekers, and after seeing him apparently give carte blanche to his candidates to engage in inflammatory rhetoric aimed squarely at people rather than policies?

I’m going to have to disagree on that one. He’s out-Howarded John Howard at his worst.

And I still have that song in my head.

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