Carbon tax armageddon!

February 25, 2011

Last night’s sleep was quite peaceful. This morning, however, I woke up to discover the end of the world was at hand.

The cause of this imminent apocalypse? Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement yesterday that the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee had reached an agreement regarding a price on carbon.

The scheme would start in 2012, with a fixed price for the first three to five years. After that, the plan is to move to a flexible cap-and-trade system – although there is provision in the scheme for delaying that, should circumstances warrant it. Those circumstances could include Australia’s signing up to a new Kyoto-style treaty, price fluctuations due to new countries implementing similar schemes, and the extent to which industry moves to cleaner and more efficient technologies. Agricultural emissions would be exempt. (As one amused newsreader put it, ‘Farting cows are safe’.)

Built into the program is compensation for ‘those households and communities most needing help’. Further provision is made for encouraging investment in clean technologies and improving natural carbon capture (so-called ‘carbon sinks’ of plantations and waterways).

As yet, there are no figures. But the plan is out there – and the first years of its operation would be ‘very like a tax,’ according to Gillard.

Those words were blood in the water for the Coalition, and they moved in for the kill. ‘A broken promise!’ cried Tony Abbott. ‘She said there would not be a carbon tax while she was in government! An utter betrayal of the Australian people! A blatant denial of democracy! A conspiracy of the Parliament against the people! How can the Australian people trust this Prime Minister on anything anymore?’ His colleagues’ voices rose to join the increasingly hysterical attack, accompanied by the media.

Gillard’s defence against this accusation is weak. This morning she fell back on the excuse that she’d repeatedly said during the election campaign that Labor believes climate change is real and human-induced, and that the most efficient way of dealing with it is through a market-based mechanism. That’s true.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, what’s also true is that she did rule out a carbon tax. Her statement during the campaign was unequivocal; she left herself no wiggle room, and now her words are coming back to haunt her.

Is it a broken promise? Technically, yes – and it always makes people uneasy to think that their elected representatives might promise anything to get into government, then do what they like once installed. Certainly, this theme was used to great effect by Labor during the 2010 election campaign. They raised the spectre of the imminent return of WorkChoices to spook the electorate into shying away from the Coalition. In a way, then, this is just a case of Gillard’s chickens coming home to roost.

But it’s hardly the first time a Prime Minister has broken a campaign promise, nor is it confined to Labor. Possibly the most infamous broken promise in recent times is John Howard’s much-quoted ‘never ever’ statement – as in, ‘There’s no way a GST will ever be part of our policy … Never ever. It’s dead. It was killed by voters at the last election‘.

That promise was broken 18 months after Howard became Prime Minister in 1996. When confronted, he at first tried to reframe the situation – he didn’t mean ‘never’, he only mean ‘never’ in his government’s first term. As time passed, though, Howard abandoned the whole idea of providing an excuse. Yes, he broke a promise. Yes, it was a shame – but it was the right thing to do. He fronted up to the accusations of betrayal and wore them like a badge of pride.

And he got away with it.

That’s what Gillard needs to do here. She’s made the whole question of action on climate change a matter of high principle, so important that it requires urgent action. Given that, any hint that she’s uneasy with breaking that promise just provides another avenue of attack.

And the attacks are getting more strident, and more personal. A few moments ago, in a media conference, Abbott advised Gillard to ‘make an honest woman of herself’. The clear implication is that Gillard is no more than a slut willing to whore herself out to get what she wants – and that it’s Bob Brown who’s taking advantage of that. It’s not an insult you’d ever hear directed at a male politician – and it’s outrageous that Abbott should take a disagreement about policy and turn it into an opportunity for sexual smear.

Of course, Gillard can’t come right out and state the obvious: that the increased Greens vote in the last election (delivering the balance of power and its first Lower House member) was a signal that a significant portion of Australia supports action on climate change. So she needs to stand up and say words to the effect of, ‘Yes, I promised that. Yes, I shouldn’t have let an interviewer push me into that position. This is what I believe is right, what will benefit Australia now and in the future. I am committed to building a cleaner, more energy-efficient country for all of us, and contributing to a global effort.’

As long as the Coalition are able to keep hammering her on this broken promise, Gillard’s attention is deflected from the real battle – countering the scare campaign they’ve already commenced.

And herein lies the ‘end of the world’ hysteria. This is a sample of some of the Coalition’s allegations.

Households will be slugged an extra $300 per year in electricity charges! Petrol will cost 6.5c more per litre! Food will go up! Soon no one will be able to afford to turn on the lights! Small business will be forced into bankruptcy! Virtually every price will go up! Industry will be unable to compete internationally! It’s an assault on Australia’s standard of living!

You could be forgiven for wondering when Chicken Little joined the Coalition.

The numbers, of course, are plucked out of thin air. Abbott’s based them on a figure bandied around by the Australian Industry Group after a few economists got together around a dart board and tried to guess what kind of price per tonne of carbon might be set. No one in the Coalition have any idea what price is being considered.

Why not? Because none of them are part of the MPCCC.

They chose not to be. In fact, Abbott made it a point of principle. The whole notion of a carbon price (or ‘carbon tax’, as he insists on calling it regardless of whether he’s talking about a tax, a cap-and-trade system or a hybrid model) is something that Abbott firmly excluded from Coalition policy. ‘There will be no carbon price on consumers under a Coalition government,’ he said last year. Curious, then, that he won’t commit to repealing anything Gillard wants to put into place.

Never ever, Mr Abbott?

But this is the point. Abbott doesn’t know anything about proposed prices. He doesn’t want to know. He’s set a policy position, and facts would only get in the way. Sabra Lane on ABC Radio National’s AM program this morning asked him to explain where he got his numbers. Abbott’s response? ‘Well, surely, it’s not going to be zero’.

It’s not about facts, for Abbott. It’s about his avowed intent to bring down the government. If he has to lie, or fudge the figures, or don a rubber mask and jump out from behind a melting iceberg shouting, ‘Booooo!’ to do it, he will.

And he seems to think he will ride into government on the back of a so-called ‘people’s revolt’.

That one took even the media – well-versed in weathering the hyperbole of politicians – back a few steps. One questioner commented, ‘That’s a fairly dramatic term’.

That’s an understatement. Given the turmoil we’ve seen in North Africa recently – most particularly, the horrific massacres of protesters in Libya – it’s inevitable that someone hearing the phrase ‘people’s revolt’ would think of people in the streets calling for a revolution against an oppressive government that is destroying the country.

This isn’t a ‘shit happens’ moment. This phrase – repeated several times since – is deliberately designed to cause unease. Abbott knows he can’t panic the Australian people into the kind of action we saw in Egypt; but he also knows that even suggesting a linkage is likely to have an unsettling effect. Add that to the fudged figures, the lies and the sexual smear on Gillard, and you have the beginnings of a concerted campaign.

What’s perhaps most repugnant is Abbott’s suggestion that this will be some kind of ‘grass roots’ movement, the celebrated ‘Aussie battlers’ and ‘working families’ rising up spontaneously to defend their way of life. That it won’t in any way be driven by big business, mining companies or the Opposition.

Sound familiar? It should. Over in the United States, they call it the Tea Party – the so-called ‘people’s movement’ that is funded, sponsored, backed and peopled by the Republicans.

The hardline stance on asylum seekers with its dogwhistles and outright bigotry, the determination to seize government at any cost, and the willingness to use tactics that from personal smear to blatant lying to prevent anything that looks like a vaguely ‘Leftist’ policy being implemented – more and more, it seems Abbott is not much lurching to the Right as running full-tilt into its embrace.

Now he has Labor’s carbon price mechanism to attack. Get ready for an ugly few months – because the balance of power in the Senate will change in July, and Abbott knows this is the best chance he’ll get to topple the government.


A symphony of dogwhistling

February 17, 2011

Australian Federal politics hit a new low this week.

On February 15, funerals were held for victims of the Christmas Island shipwreck on December 15 last year. The media were right there to show us the terrible grief of the relatives, some of whom were detainees flown down to Sydney by the government. One was an eight-year-old boy who lost his entire family; only his father’s body was recovered to be laid to rest. It’s difficult to see how anyone viewing the footage, or seeing the pictures of a devastated woman wailing uncontrollably, could fail to be moved – and indeed, most of the commentary was entirely sympathetic.

And then there was Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison. In a radio interview with Chris Smith on 2GB, he made it clear that he completely opposed the government’s decision to use public funds to fly the relatives down for the funerals, provide them with accommodation and then return them to Christmas Island.

He played the ‘waste’ card: ‘its only one of a litany of cost blowouts’.

He played the ‘lost control of the borders’ card: ‘as long as they will not stop the boats then these costs – whether its motels, or this incident, whether its excursions, whether it’s all the things that are taking place – none of that stops.’

He played the ‘community concerns’ card: ‘I think people would be, rightly from what they’ve heard, angry about this’.

And finished off with the ‘fairness’ card: ‘if people wanted to attend the funeral from Sydney, for example, who may have been relatives of those who wanted these funeral services, well, they could have held the service on Christmas Island and like any other Australian, who would have wanted to go to the funeral of someone close to them, they would have paid for themselves to get on a plane and go there.’

At every turn he was encouraged by Smith, who encouraged Morrison to ‘go hard’ to find out just how much taxpayer money was spent. In fact, Smith went even further, pointing out that no flood victim had been buried at public expense. Here, Morrison balked, but only for a moment. Together, they displayed an incredible amount of insensitivity and shameless exploitation of others’ tragedy.

The outcry was immediate from all sides. Yet the Coalition backed Morrison up. Fiona Nash said it was ‘entirely inappropriate’ to spend the money. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott refused to criticise, even going so far as to say Morrison had a point. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey didn’t toe the party line, and even he didn’t directly address Morrison’s comments, saying only, ‘I would never seek to deny a parent or a child from saying goodbye to their relative’.

Even that mild criticism drew fire from within Coalition ranks, however. In an extraordinary attack, an anonymous ‘senior Liberal staffer’ charged that Morrison was only stating Coalition party policy, and that Hockey was guilty of manipulating the tragedy and grandstanding. The article went on to call for him to be sacked.

That’s right. Hockey, by saying that he would show compassion for bereaved relatives, committed an unforgivable act that should cost him his job. Morrison was entirely right to say it was a ‘waste’, and to insinuate some kind of special treatment that was denied to ordinary Australians.

Only Judith Troeth and Russell Broadbent – both of whom have frequently spoken out urging compassion and fair treatment for asylum seekers – actually distanced themselves from Morrison.

Eventually Morrison conceded that he might have erred – but not in the substance of his comments. He said nothing about his insensitivity, his shameless dogwhistling or his exploitation of a terrible situation. No, it was his timing that was at fault. This mealy-mouthed excuse for an apology was praised by Abbott as showing ‘a lot of guts’. And, lest anyone think there was an actual backdown happening, Abbott went on to say how important a ‘tough border protection’ policy was, even if they ‘went a little bit too far’.

A little bit?

That was just the start of a veritable symphony of dogwhistling this week. Senator Gary Humphries got his solo next, tabling a petition to Parliament calling for a moratorium on Muslim immigration and to give priorities to Christians. He hastened to assure us that he didn’t support the ideas in the petition: ‘Many muslims are my friends and I hope they’ll remain my friends’, he said. But he had an ‘obligation to fulfil or place before the Parliament points of view of citizens’.

Seems entirely reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s not that Humphries wanted to do it – why, some of his best friends are Muslims – but he just didn’t have a choice. After all, it’s important to make sure community concerns are brought to Parliament.

The petition was signed by three people.

That’s right. Three people are apparently enough to ensure that their views are brought to the attention of our highest elected representatives. What a wonderful democracy we live in, where even the tiniest of groups have such champions.

But it’s interesting how often this exact same petition, apparently the work of the Christian Democrats, seems to crop up – 48 times to date since 2007, according to the Canberra Times, by representatives from all sides of politics. Nor is it even the first time Humphries has tabled it.

Apparently Humphries thinks these three people have such an urgent and representative community concern that it warrants multiple submissions. And he has the backing of his leader.

The Coalition would have us believe they are just letting the voices of the community be heard, even if they don’t agree with the sentiments.

It begs the question – are the Coalition seriously suggesting that they table every petition they receive? When was the last time they tabled a petition calling for something they didn’t at least tacitly support? Let’s take same-sex marriage. There are dozens of petitions out there calling for marriage equality – yet a quick perusal of petitions presented to the House show that Coalition MPs (including Morrison) tabled only those opposing the idea.

So I suggest an experiment. Do exactly as the Christian Democrats have – get up a petition with three signatures. Call for the immediate release from detention of asylum seekers who are unaccompanied minors, either to extended family or fostering in the community. Send the petition to 35 MPs across the spectrum of Parliament. And see how many actually bother to table it.

The dogwhistling didn’t end with Humphries. Morrison got to make an encore performance, courtesy a suspiciously convenient leak to the Sydney Morning Herald. According to the unnamed source, at a Shadow Cabinet meeting last year, Morrison apparently urged his colleagues to ‘capitalise’ on anti-Muslim sentiments in some areas of the Australian community, particularly the ‘failure’ of Muslim immigrants to ‘integrate’. Apparently this drew sharp criticism from Foreign Affairs Shadow Julie Bishop and former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who pointed out Coalition immigration policy was ‘non-discriminatory’. Ruddock, it seems, was particularly vocal.

Philip Ruddock. The man who oversaw the shameful conduct of Australia over the Tampa crisis.

Other attendees at that meeting agreed there was anti-Muslim sentiment, but thought it could be ‘misconstrued’ if they actively campaigned against Muslim immigration.

On the face of things, this looks like someone in the Coalition took advantage of the current situation to metaphorically hang Morrison out to dry. But then there’s Steve Ciobo’s comments on AM Agenda this morning. While he wouldn’t comment directly on the alleged leak – pointing out only that he wasn’t there so couldn’t say if it was true, he was more than happy to wax lyrical on the general question of immigration – and this is where the dogwhistles became deafening.

It was almost possible to play ‘dogwhistle bingo’ with what he said.

The Coalition are ‘listening to the voices of the community’.

There are ‘community’ concerns about migrants who apparently don’t want to ‘integrate’.

‘The Australian people’ have a genuine concern that people who come to our culture, which is ‘quintessentially Australian’, should ‘embrace Australian values’.

We have to remember that Tamil Tigers – terrorists who are known to target innocent civilians – came in ‘illegally’ on boats. And Labor made it easy for them to do it.

Well that’s my scorecard filled up.

At no time did Ciobo distance himself from Morrison’s alleged comments to Shadow Cabinet. Oh, he didn’t come right out and say he agreed, but then he didn’t have to, did he?

The ‘leak’ is convenient. It allows the Coalition to insulate the leadership and be seen to repudiate the most extreme statements against asylum seekers – and Muslims in particular – while clearly signalling their affirmation of the general idea. Morrison is a perfect mouthpiece for this; he’s already in trouble this week over his comments about the funerals, and is well-known for his hardline stance against boat-borne asylum seekers.

The fact that there’s no condemnation of Morrison is telling, as is the fact that so far, the only people to speak on the matter have been those who claim they ‘weren’t there’. Shadow Environment spokesperson, Greg Hunt, made the by-now familiar statement that the Coalition is all about fairness and equal treatment – but went on to say he endorsed the Coalition’s suggestion that government funding be cut to ‘Islamic’ schools in Indonesia. Why? Community concerns. ‘I think you’ll find that lots of people have very strong views,’ he said.

Interesting that the Coalition only seems interested in listening to those that are anti-Islamic and anti-asylum seeker.

This week’s events come on the heels of a slew of xenophobic comments from the Coalition. Kevin Andrews – the man responsible for the shameful treatment of Dr Mohammed Haneefwarning about the danger of ‘enclaves’ of Muslims who refuse to ‘properly’ disperse into the community, and force us to eat halal meat and we don’t even know it. Senator Mitch Fifield suggested Australia would become a nation of ‘parallel societies’ where sharia law reigned in some areas. Senator Cory Bernardi – the man who called for a ban on burqas because ‘criminals’ might use them to disguise their identities – thundered about the looming disaster of a ‘cultural divide’, and urged us all to do something ‘before it’s too late’.

‘I, for one, don’t want to eat meat butchered in the name of an ideology that is mired in sixth century brutality and is anathema to my own values,’ he said.

It’s worth noting that none of these comments received any criticism from the Coalition leadership.

Unbelievably, Fifield also went on to caution us against the danger of ‘rising ethnic hatred’ – which could be prevented, he suggested, by making sure that ‘everyone’ signed up to ‘mainstream values’. Presumably, these are the same values to which Ciobo referred.

And just what are these values?

According to Ciobo, they are: respect for the rule of law, tolerance, and equal respect for men and women.

Yes, you read that right.

Excuse me, I’m just going to check on the neighbour’s dog. I think her ears may be bleeding right now.

This is indefensible. It’s xenophobia of the most despicable kind – an inflammatory mix of lies, fear-mongering and appeal to the idea that someone else might be getting a better deal. As for the unmitigated gall of suggesting that immigrants are all basically bigoted, sexist criminals …

There have been calls for Scott Morrison to be sacked. But really, what’s the point? He’s just saying what most of the Coalition apparently believe (with the notable, and commendable, exceptions of Troeth and Broadbent).

If the Coalition claim otherwise, they should be pursued until they either completely repudiate the sentiments or admit that. This shouldn’t be allowed to die with the news cycle.

And they could do worse than actually practise their own avowed set of ‘Australian values’.

UPDATE: The article calling for Hockey to be sacked has been taken down from the Menzies House site. The editor claims this is because readers objected to the fact that it was published anonymously. And just who were these ‘readers’? According to Michelle Grattan, it seems that one of them was Cory Bernardi. Curious, that. It should be noted, however, that the original article was attributed to a ‘senior adviser to a shadow Minister’, and that the site had agreed to their request to remain anonymous.

Perhaps a copy exists out there, somewhere. In the meantime, thanks to @Andy_Downunda for finding most of the text quoted in the Ozpolitic Forum, about halfway down the page.


Repression is not reform, Mr Baillieu

February 15, 2011

Newly-installed Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu isn’t wasting any time making good on those campaign promises. Or at least, making good on some – those that have a potentially devastating effect on the way we live. It’s all about religion, you see. Specifically, it’s all about how insisting on compassion, decency and above all fairness unfairly discriminates against a few vocal conservative groups.

The former Brumby government laid down a series of changes to Equal Opportunity legislation that would have taken effect in August. Religious organisations would have had to prove that they had good reasons for refusing employment or services to people beyond the basic excuse of, ‘We don’t agree with how they live their personal lives’. Under these changes, such organisations would have had to show that employing someone who was gay, or a single parent, would ‘undermine’ the organisation’s beliefs or that the job in question required someone who conformed to the faith in question.

Christian lobby groups – most particularly the Australian Christian Lobby – complained bitterly at what they characterised as an attack on freedom of religion, particular religious schools. Well, now they’ve got a government who speaks their language, and that is prepared to allow these organisations to go on discriminating against anyone they don’t like.

This is what the Attorney-General, Robert Clark, had to say in this article in The Age:

‘The 2010 legislation is a far-reaching attack on the freedom of faith-based organisations and freedom of religion and belief. The amendments will restore tolerance and a sense of the fair go. Faith-based organisations and political organisations should be free to engage staff that uphold their values.’

He went on to talk about the ‘direct attack’ on religious schools, implying that somehow, the Liberal government were protecting parents’ rights to choose a good education for their children. This was further rationalised by the claim that the issue had been ‘well-canvassed’.

Well-canvassed among the vocal – and rabid – minority of the Australian Christian Lobby, perhaps. A minority that, for reasons passing understanding, seems to have the ear of government at every level.

This is an appalling decision by the Victorian government. This policy decision doesn’t only prevent reform that would allow real fairness. It sends a clear message that these organisations can go even further. By scrapping the proposed reforms, Baillieu is effectively saying to these organisations – you can do what you like, and we’ll back you up. We consider your interests to be more important than those of single parents, queer people, and those who don’t believe as you do.

This is the party that frequently rails against the idea of giving in to ‘special pleading’ from ‘minority groups’. Apparently, it’s only some minority groups, however.

Baillieu’s government thinks this is a great piece of reform, and they’ve trotted out the clichés to back themselves up. It’s a ‘fair go’. It’s about ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’.

It’s nothing of the kind.

It’s a warning: conform or be punished. And it’s targeted at people who already suffer massive discrimination simply for being who they are.

Oh, it all seems very reasonable. After all, if you’re not a member of this kind of religion, why would you want to work for them, or seek their help? But it’s not that simple. Understand, we’re not talking about church membership here, where belief – or even, the will to believe, could be considered a reasonable requirement. This unlimited power to discriminate extends to any business that describes itself as a religious organisation. That’s a broad spectrum, encompassing everything from schools to charities to community-based organisations to health care.

Single mum looking for a part-time job now that the kids are at school? Young gay school-leaver seeking to work in a gap year before going to uni? Devout Muslim woman wanting to help the local community by working for a welfare agency?

Need not apply.

In rural areas, sometimes these religious organisations are the only ones available. Baillieu’s so-called ‘reforms’, then, have
potential knock-on effects that could disrupt people’s lives. The only job going for teachers in any given town might be in the local Catholic school (the only one in the area) – but if the most qualified applicant is an atheist or in a de facto same-sex relationship, that school can legally refuse to employ them on those grounds alone. So that teacher faces two equally unpalatable choices; seek a job much further away, perhaps requiring hours of travel or even moving to another town, or forget about the idea of becoming a teacher in their home town.

What if a single woman employed by a religious charity became pregnant, and elected to keep the baby? She could be dismissed. Ditto the man who, after wrestling with his own sense of self for many years, finally accepts that he is a woman, and needs to transition.

And it goes further. A religious school would be able to pick and choose its teachers. Evolution? Sex education (beyond abstinence)? Forget it. And the kid who’s discovering her sexual identity is something other than what she’s been told is ‘normal’? Well, she’d better be prepared to keep it quiet, because her principal might just decide she needs to go elsewhere.

Oh, and just as a point of contrast … a convicted criminal would have more protection under Equal Opportunity in Victoria than a bisexual man or a pagan if Baillieu has his way.

Baillieu and Clark are happily condoning the kind of prejudice that leads to mental illness, violence and suicide. Worse, they’re actually championing it. Their ‘wide canvass’ doesn’t seem to have included people like these teens, who wrote of their experiences with homophobia at school:

I tried to kill myself because I was so badly teased at school for being a lesbian.. it never ended and I got severe depression and I saw no other way to be happy, I was in hospital for 2 months trying to control my depression and because doctors thought I would hurt myself again if they let me out and it also forced me to drop out of school.
(Claudia, 16 years)

i thought about it so much, i came close just as many times. but for some reason i never bought myself to try. i did have a complete plan though, i took a week to plan the whole thing out. (Craig, 16 years)

(Source: Writing Themselves In Again: 6 years on, 2nd national report on the sexual health & well-being of same-sex attracted young people in Australia, via La Trobe University)

These are the kind of kids who exist in a school system where there are programs to address issues of homophobia and violence, and where teachers are encouraged to support same-sex attracted students. Imagine these kids under Baillieu’s ‘reforms’. Because their parents want them to get a good education, or because there’s no decent public school available, they attend an independent school (most of which, as the ACL has noted on many occasions, are at least nominally religious). No teachers for them to turn to when they are victimised, no positive role model with whom they can identify. An unmistakable message that there is something ‘wrong’ with them for being queer – or even suspecting that they might be so.

This isn’t about ‘freedom’. Baillieu and Clark, with this plan, would sacrifice the well-being – and perhaps the lives – of Victorians just so they can pander to groups that believe they have the (literally) God-given right to demonise others. The very same people who tend to howl about how badly they are discriminated against if another religious group wants to exclude them, or if Mardi Gras tells them their lying rhetoric alleging all gay men are pedophiles isn’t permitted in their celebrations.

And they have the nerve – the absolute, outrageous nerve – to tell us it’s reform. It’s fair.

This is not reform, Mr Baillieu – it’s repression, pure and simple. You can dress it up with buzzwords designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, because after all, none of us like to feel we’re being denied a fair deal. But there is nothing fair about this.

The Shadow Minister, Martin Pakula, weaselled when asked whether Labor would support Baillieu on this plan. He said Labor would have to look at the amendments. That’s not good enough, Mr Pakula. Your government wanted to bring in these changes in the first place. Your government was the one that really undertook a wide canvass. You know just how important it is that these groups not be allowed to reduce people to outcasts. No amount of appeals to sacred texts can disguise the fact that what they want is the ability to arbitrarily declare some people less worthy than others. Despite their often-repeated claim that Australia is a ‘Judeo-Christian’ nation, we are a country of diverse beliefs, none of which should be subject to favourable treatment or prejudice. We are not a country subject to the doctrine of one interpretation of one religion.

And we should not be a country that turns a blind eye to the deliberate attempts of a lobby group to strip away the rights of those they simply do not like.


Egypt: the revolution will be tweeted

February 12, 2011

Right now I’m watching pretty much non-stop coverage of the situation in Egypt. As of about 4.00 am our time, the military is in charge. President Hosni Mubarak – after 18 days of stubborn refusal – finally stepped down and retreated with his family to their summer home at Sharm el-Sheikh. Nearly two million people are in Tahrir Square, celebrating.

Leaders from President Obama to the Danish PM to our own PM and Foreign Minister have fronted cameras, talking about how pleased they are to see that the ‘will of the people’ has been heeded, and that now the work of building a strong, free democracy starts.

Iran, as part of their annual Islamic Revolution celebrations, claims full credit, taking a bit of time to make sure their ‘Death to America! Death to Israel!’ sentiments are clearly heard. No one’s listening, though.

In Tahrir Square people are waving – not burning – the Egyptian flag. They’re climbing on tanks – not to fight the military, because the military are right in there with them, and there are no guns in sight. You can hear singing, clapping and cheering. It’s been nearly ten hours since they learned Mubarak was gone, and people just keep coming to join the party.

It’s not a revolution without bloodshed. Nearly 300 people are estimated to have been killed, most peaceful demonstrators who were set upon by police and thugs bussed into Cairo to break up the protests. They’re considered martyrs. Countless others were injured, including many journalists.

At the height of the protests, and Mubarak’s attempted crackdown, journalists were targeted to be harassed and terrorised. Al Jazeera’s hotel room was raided, and all their communications equipment confiscated. Possibly the most well-known blogger in Egypt, Sandmonkey, was detained and his blog suspended. One by one, the internet providers in the nation were shut down.

But an Al Jazeera journalist, after his release, obtained a mobile phone and went back to Tahrir Square. His press credentials were revoked, so he started phoning in ‘citizen journalist’ reports and tweeting. Sandmonkey followed suit. Journalists sent their stories via satellite. Facebook and Twitter – the catalysts for this action – ran hot with people in the middle of the protests determined to be heard and to let the world know what was happening. Google and Twitter co-operated to set up Speak to Tweet, so that people without access to the internet could make a mobile phone call, speak their message and have it translated to a tweet. It even automatically attached the most common hashtag for the crisis – #egypt – to allow for maximum exposure.

The protesters tweeted about where they were due to meet, what medical supplies they needed, how everyone was feeling, and – perhaps most crucially – what was happening to them.

And everywhere, people joined in the scrutiny. The calls for Mubarak’s resignation were repeated by people in hundreds of countries. All those voices, all saying the same thing, all crying out for support and freedom for the Egyptian people.

Without those people with their phones, the world would not have known about the deaths and arrests. We would not have heard about the police threats to rape men who stood on the barricades to protect the injured and those resting inside.

Without them, we might have believed that pro-Mubarak demonstrators had triggered aggression from the protesters in the Square. We might have suspected, but would not have known that they were carrying police-issue riot shields, batons and tear gas.

Without the hastily cobbled-together satellite links, we would not have seen how those same thugs threw Molotov cocktails into the crowds.

This was not a mediated revolution. Sure, CNN edited together some fantastic packages of footage, and every news service had its pet expert. But from Facebook and Twitter we could hear the voices of people on the ground, people who were willing to risk their lives for an ideal of freedom and who felt they simply couldn’t wait any longer.

We could click on the links to the photos taken with mobile phones in poor light, showing protesters being carried in bleeding.

We could read the grief and anger from those who believed, and fought, and came close to despair.

Now, finally, we can switch around the channels and see the mainstream media showing us the celebrations. And they are wonderful.

But I will never forget the words of the people who were down there in the Square, or out in Alexandria – not spoken into a microphone and edited by a news service, but raw and emotional, typed at white heat. And the way the world slowly turned its attention to something that – only a few years ago – would have happened at one remove, presented to us with commentary and neatly-edited footage.

And it’s not over yet. This is the first step. Something could still go horribly wrong, as it did in East Timor after the 1999 referendum. The difference is that this time, everyone will be watching.

A post that scrolled by on Twitter almost too fast to read (as hundreds of messages poured in every minute) caught my eye. It said, ‘There are no journalists and people. Everyone is a journalist today’.

Next time Facebook annoys the hell out of me with Farmville requests, or Twitter seems full of nothing but trolls and inane Foursquare messages, I’m going to remember Egypt, and the signal that couldn’t be stopped.

Fireworks in Tahrir Square as people celebrate Mubarak's departure


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.


The flood recovery inspectorate – practical politics or weakness?

February 8, 2011

Yesterday Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said that the Coalition would do everything ‘humanly’ possible to bring down the Labor government. Today it’s off to a flying start, and its first target is the creation of a proposed ‘reconstruction inspectorate’ announced by Gillard.

The inspectorate is tasked with overseeing all federally-funded rebuilding projects, to make sure the money is spent wisely. Along with this new oversight body, Gillard said that the states would have to provide independently audited financial statements to support any claim on government funds to rebuild infrastructure.

She appointed former Liberal Premier and federal Finance Minister John Fahey to head up the inspectorate, which will have the power to examine contracts, inspect projects, investigate complaints and help develop tendering process and management systems. It would not duplicate the powers of the newly-created Queensland Recovery Authority, but rather provide a new level of checks and balances.

Fahey is joined by experienced managers from well-respected firms: Martin Albrecht from the mining and construction corporation Thiess and Matt Sheerin from financial firm Deloitte. Gillard also announced that Brad Orgill, who conducted the Building the Education Revolution inquiry, would join the Queensland Reconstruction Authority Board.

Abbott initially slammed the idea of an inspectorate. It was an unnecessary new level of bureaucracy, and proof that the government was addicted to spending. The government and Treasury should be able to handle this task.

But let’s take a look at this proposed inspectorate. This body is not designed to take the place of organisations that actually call for tenders, prepare the financial statements and carry out the rebuilding work. Their purpose is advisory and precautionary. In essence, Gillard created a think tank who, based on years of experience in finance and construction, has the power to prevent the kind of debacle that can result from poor oversight of a major project. The insulation scheme is a case in point.

And it’s headed up by a former Liberal MP. Why a Liberal? There are a few possibilities here, about equally plausible.

First, Fahey is eminently qualified. Over his political career he served at both state and federal levels, with considerable experience in handling major projects and large expenditures.

Second, he’s not a serving MP. He can be said to be politically disinterested.

Third, he’s a former Liberal Minister. He has no reason to co-operate in any potential cover-up of questionable or wasteful spending that might occur. In fact, he’s as close to above reproach as any politician is likely to get. Many would remember how, in 1994, he tackled a would-be assassin who tried to target Prince Charles.

Fourth, as a Liberal, his appointment can be said to show bipartisanship.

Finally, appointing Fahey – and the inspectorate itself, more generally – to oversee expenditure on such a sensitive project sends a message to Australians that the government understands that it needs to take care with public money. Indeed, Gillard herself hinted at this as the primary reason for creating the body.

Practically, there is no downside to the inspectorate, no matter where you place yourself in the political spectrum. If you think the government cannot be trusted with money, then the inspectorate is a way to pull them into line. If you think that, despite the best of intentions, things go wrong occasionally, then it’s an insurance policy. If you think that everything will proceed without a major hitch, then it’s a good advisory body to have around, and a talent pool on which to draw in making big decisions.

It may be that, overnight, the Coalition realised this.

This morning the Coalition dropped the attack on the idea of the inspectorate. Instead, the new message – faithfully repeated in Parliament House doorstops – was that Labor had simply acknowledged that the only person capable of managing money was a Liberal. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey was particularly pleased with the opportunity to expound on this. His grin got wider and wider as he drove home the point – repeatedly – that Labor has proved everything the Coalition has been saying about them. When media attempted to ask him about the – as yet non-existent – proposed Coalition spending cuts, he informed them that what they ‘should’ be reading and writing about was how Labor had effectively endorsed the Coalition as better economic managers.

The suggestion is ludicrous. The Coalition would have us believe that the government has knowingly dealt itself a death blow, by yielding the field on an issue that has been a point of attack for the Opposition, and an area of concern for the public. That Gillard would undermine fatally the government’s long-held stance that it can, and has, managed the economy well in very difficult times. That she would deliver a public slap in the face to Treasurer Wayne Swan and Finance Minister Penny Wong.

The idea has potential traction with the public, however. Based on the failure of the insulation program alone, many people are already inclined to view the Labor government as unable to manage money. That perception is helped along by the Coalition’s constant mis-reporting of the Orgill Inquiry into the BER program as an utter disaster. The reality is that less than 3% of schools had valid cause for complaint regarding value for money or quality of workmanship; nonetheless the message has stuck that the BER – like the insulation scheme – failed.

Given this predisposition, people might well believe that creation of the recovery inspectorate does represent confirmation of their fears.

But here’s an interesting point: remember the Australian Wheat Board scandal, when it was uncovered that agricultural companies were paying kickbacks to circumvent UN sanctions on the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq during the Oil-for-Food program? And how the government’s Cole inquiry was unable to find any evidence that the Howard government knew, condoned or tacitly authorised said kickbacks? Professor Stephen Bartos at the University of Canberra presented a paper showing that lack of a ‘strong sceptical and dispassionate regulator’ was a key failure that allowed the illegal activities to take place – indeed, to flourish.

Far from proving a lack of economic management ability, independent oversight is a sensible, practical way of ensuring value for money. It has the bonus of being a political shield, but the primary benefit is protection of public funds and the needs of the flood disaster victims.

It remains to be seen whether Labor can effectively counter this new Coalition strategy. In doing so, they’ll have to tread very carefully. It’s always risky when governments acknowledge past mistakes and take steps to ensure they do not repeat them. Gillard’s initial announcement held a good mix of humility, sincerity and determination – but Abbott and the Coalition seem now determined to portray that as an admission of weakness and incompetence.

Sadly, it will probably come down to whose rhetoric is louder, repeated more often and makes for better sound bites. And the Coalition isn’t about to let up. If there’s one thing they know how to do well, it’s control the news cycle.


Abbott the wrecker – straight from the horse’s mouth

February 7, 2011

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott met with his Shadow Cabinet today. The topic was flood recovery, the aim to come up with an alternative plan to Labor’s two-pronged approach of flood levy and spending cuts. Tipped off that Abbott was going to interrupt proceedings to make an announcement, the media – mainstream, new and social – pricked up its ears.

Since the release of details of the flood levy, the Coalition have insisted that the entire amount for flood relief could be raised through spending cuts. To date, however, there have been no specifics. Apart from a re-hash of the ‘NBN is bad’ message and a vague notion that – because devastating floods have occurred – we don’t need a water buyback scheme, it’s been all about the rhetoric. There’s ‘fat in the budget’. There are ‘savings to be had’. Abbott is happy to sit down ‘in a spirit of bipartisanship’ to show Labor exactly where those might be. The Coalition, it seems, are great believers in the idea that if you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it.

What we expected today, then, were a few details as to exactly where Abbott had found the ‘fat’.

What we got was five minutes of railing against the government – accompanied by Abbott’s trademark ‘I’m really savouring this moment’ grin – followed by a reassurance that people supported the Coalition, and that details would be forthcoming. Soon.

Shades of the Abbott-Hockey-Robb merry-go-round during the election campaign. Heavy on the sizzle, light – or in this case, non-existent – on the sausage.

But what we did get was the clearest possible indication of the Coalition’s goals in this Parliamentary session.

‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government,’ he said.

‘Every month that this government lasts is, in a sense, a worse month for our country than it should be … it’s our job to bring about change for the better.’

So much for ‘we’re just trying to hold the government to account’. So much for ‘we need to provide a credible alternative government’.

You can’t spin this. It’s a declaration; the Coalition are dedicating themselves to bringing down the Labour government, before July rolls around and the Greens take the balance of power in the Senate.

Listening to Abbott, you could be forgiven for thinking that the election campaign has already started. He accused the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ (yes, he’s still using that line) of being ‘addicted to taxes, addicted to spending and … [having] no agenda for the country other than its own survival’. They ‘can’t be trusted with money’, and they know it. (The mere fact that they’ve established an oversight authority to ensure that all flood recovery money is properly spent proves it, apparently.) The Coalition has a ‘better’ plan, but we won’t find out about it in a hurry.

Sound familiar? Remind you of August last year? It should.

In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, it’s ‘de ja vu all over again’.

There’s one crucial difference, though. It’s only been six months since the election.

That doesn’t seem to matter to the Coalition, though. Their entire attitude since the Independents decided to support Labor has been that this is not a legitimate government, and that somehow the Liberal/National parties were cheated of their ‘rightful’ place as leaders of the country. The ‘we were robbed’ rhetoric dropped off fairly quickly, but the sentiment remains. They protested that they weren’t just out to ‘wreck’ everything the government tried to do, but their actions showed a consistent, almost mindless adherence to the principle of ‘if Labor’s for it then we’re agin it’.

Now we have it confirmed straight from the horse’s mouth. Abbott says it’s the Coalition’s ‘job’ to change the government. The only way to do that is to force an election, preferably before the dreaded ‘Labor-Greens alliance’ comes into full effect. And – short of unforeseen circumstances necessitating a by-election – that means blocking the government at every turn, until there is no alternative for Gillard but to declare the government unworkable and call a double dissolution.

It’s an incredibly risky proposition. To make it work, Abbott needs the three Independents on side. That means either wedging them against their own electorates’ best interests, or convincing them that the government simply can’t deliver what it promised. Either will take a good deal of wrangling. Senator Barnaby Joyce in particular is vicious in his attacks on Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and even manages to incur the wrath of Bob Katter (arguably the most right-leaning of the three).

Even if the Coalition can’t convince the Independents, however, they can create a bottleneck. When nothing gets done, people get frustrated; and sometimes, the most appealing alternative is to simply wipe the slate clean and start again.

Whether Abbott can manage to bring down the government is arguable. What’s clear, though, is that he intends to try, and he’s not even bothering to hide it anymore.

Yesterday on Insiders, the Opposition Leader twisted and turned over an incredibly insensitive email asking for donations for the Coalition’s campaign to stop the flood levy that was sent just as Cyclone Yasi bore down on far north Queensland. He refused to take any responsibility, or even apologise on behalf of his party. In an otherwise lightweight interview, he stammered and sweated and would only say that it wasn’t his fault – and in any case, he was just concerned for the well-being of all Australians.

Today, with Deputy Leader Julie Bishop giggling at his side, he embraced the role of wrecker with a huge smile and undisguised relish. Gone was the serious man worried about small business and working families, the self-proclaimed protector of Australia’s standard of living. Instead we were treated to Abbott-as-headkicker, gleefully aggressive and seemingly interested in nothing more than the opportunity to usurp the throne.

It was all a little bit Richard the Third, really.

So the next time Tony Abbott or the Coalition stands up on television or at an event and says they’re just looking out for the ordinary Australian, remember his words today:

‘We will be doing everything we humanly can to get rid of a bad government.’

This isn’t about us. This is about ‘vaulting ambition’, that takes nothing into account but itself. And if we are thrown into turmoil by Opposition blockades, stalled programs and – potentially – another expensive election campaign and the chaos that would result from a Coalition government killing one initiative-in-progress after the other?

That’s just a price we’ll have to pay.


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