Q&A with Joe Miles, Pirate Party of Australia

September 5, 2013

With less than 48 hours to go before the polls open – and that may be a cause for relief or depression, depending on your political point of view – let’s step back from the major parties and take an in-depth look at a newcomer. The Pirate Party of Australia is one of a huge number of minor groups contesting this election, but it is far from the usual single-issue ticket.

The party has its origins in Europe, founded in 2006 and fielding successful candidates in the 2009 European Parliament elections. At the time of writing there are Pirate Party representatives in governments across Europe. The Australian branch was founded in 2008.

Through the wonders of the internet, I (virtually) sat down with Joe Miles, the PPA’s lead Senate candidate for Victoria.

CV: Could you tell us a little of your background, including why you decided to go into politics?

Joe: I’m a new dad, I’ve been working as a Welfare Worker since 2006 (ish) mostly working with people who have an intellectual disability and who are on their way into (or out of) prison. It’s work I’m proud of, and being able to look at myself in the mirror after work is a bonus too. Not realising it, I got into politics as a shop steward in my third job. It was the only good thing about that job. I began to read, and learn to speak up and speak out. I moved to queer politics somewhere around 2008 or 2009, and added deep-green to my pink flag-waving activities somewhere around Edinburgh in 2010ish.

Aristotle says we’re all political animals, and I think he’s right – we all enter politics in some way, I just decided to do it publicly and under the pirate banner.

CV: The name ‘Pirate Party’ opens candidates up to all sorts of lampooning and charges of being a single-issue group (as evidenced in the way the Sex Party has been treated); given that, why join and run for a party with that name?

Joe: I liken our name to “The Greens” – Green is a colour, not a political persuasion, but the name is the signpost to the idea. Any questions I get on our name get dealt with in around 6 seconds, especially on hearing about Pirate MEPs and Pirates in the Icelandic and German city governments.

To be honest, the name the perfect ice-breaker. No-one is guarded around people who call themselves Pirates – political conversation flows uninhibited, and conversations about solutions to problems are freer. This isn’t normal. The usual conversation is base and unhelpful, the name Pirate Party helps a lot in getting around this. I’ve had long discussions with people who wouldn’t call themselves ‘political’ about the types of decision-making they’d like to see.

CV: Let’s move on to look at specific policies. Your education policy would require a massive restructure for the tertiary sector, which is already overstressed in terms of teacher/student ratios and research/teaching balance. What is your timeline for that restructure, and how would you pay for these reforms, given your policy to reduce HECS-based funding?

Joe: The tertiary restructure is mostly to do with the third point; ‘Defund administrative functions and organisations associated with monitoring, surveillance, government reviews and data collection’. There’s a world of potential resources used for compliance that could otherwise be spent on instruction or research. These changes would provide savings, not more burden, and these savings could be unleashed.

There’s no rigid time-line for this, though there’s been consultation with ACT and NSW academia on this policy, and I’d suggest 3 years is the common wisdom. That’s for both the student-teacher ratio and the teaching-support ratio.

CV: On the subject of hate speech – many would say your policy allows an anything-goes approach not only in terms of speech, but also in terms of incitement to violence; how do you address that? Do you have a law enforcement policy that encompasses ‘hate crime’?

Joe: The policy covers speech that someone may be offended by, not speech which incites to violence. There are common law provisions against incitement, harassment, intimidation – that would stay in effect. Our policy is to remove an almost radical subjectivity from the system.

We propose repealing Part 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Apart from the last point of 1(a), it deals with being offended. The last point (intimidation) can be more than ably dealt with by preexisting legislation. Most intimidation is (I think, rightfully) viewed as a kind of assault.

‘Hate speech’ involves an incitement to violence, abuse, intimidation or other discriminatory action. Hate speech is already effectively illegal, without the need for part 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In fact, this Part adds absolutely nothing of value to public safety, but it does chill speech.

CV: You’ve called for a US debate style, which is arguably little more than a feistier version of ours. Often nothing is done to call candidates on their misinformation or failure to answer questions; how would the PPA ensure candidates are made to answer properly?

Joe: In US style debates the candidates are forced to talk off the cuff, they then can be followed up on and made to engage with each other. Good moderation and effective debate opponents would allow a kind of self-correcting that would incentivise answering questions well.

Though key here is an independent debate commission (or committee or whatever the name may be) – specific rule sets can devised and moderators can be tasked with things like keeping the candidates engaging properly.

CV: The Pirate Party says it supports Fibre to the Premises broadband; does this mean you support the ALP’s NBN project?

Joe: Yes.

CV: Your energy policy expresses support for the ZCA2020 Stationary Energy Plan; could you expand on that?

Joe: In short, we aim for 100% renewables inside 10 years, with a concerted program. It would be paid for by a partial sale of the project on completion, a levy and the fact it is a profitable exercise. We view it as not only an investment in our environment, but a quintessential financial investment – build this now to save both repair, maintenance and fuel costs in the future.

CV: Do you support an Emissions Trading Scheme? If so, what model?

Joe: A floating price doesn’t work, except for speculators. There’s been very little in the way of action in Europe considering the time an ETS has been running, contrasting with Australia – a flat price for a short period has solid results. It’s a cliché, but business loves certainty.

We support a carbon price until Australia’s investment in renewables is so great a carbon price (or any other mechanism, for that matter) is redundant.

CV: Your marriage policy calls for the Marriage Act to be repealed altogether. Such a move would likely be resisted by parliamentarians and by many sectors of the community, including those who advocate for marriage equality. Wouldn’t it be simpler to reverse the Howard era changes to the Act, rather than legislate an entirely new civil unions act?

Joe: Aiming merely to amend the Marriage Act is to aim to leave a loaded gun on the table – those amendments could be rewound easily by any theocratic-minded conservative government. As you’ve suggested, it would be simple to amend the Howard era changes.

That’s why we have as policy a new Act – any attempt at regressing would be obvious. Our societal view on the validity of romantic relationships (and which body defines ‘valid’) is evolving, this policy just keeps pace. There are always people resistant to change – that’s why people voted “No” in the 1967 referendum.

CV: Finally, if the PPA gains a seat in the Senate, it’s likely to bring with it a great responsibility in terms of balance of power. In those circumstances, would you go it alone or ally with a party with larger representation, such as the Greens?

Joe: We won’t join a voting bloc. We’ll vote according to our principles, with our goals being to get our policy aims realised, apply transparency provisions to all relevant legislation and make sure decisions of the House uphold human rights.

* * * * *

And there you have it. The PPA is no fly-by-night ticket; it takes its politics and its goals seriously, and it’s in it for the long haul. Its policies are more detailed than any I’ve seen published, even attempting to provide a general idea of costings. In terms of preferences, the party has achieved an unprecedented level of transparency, exposing to the public the internal workings of what can only be described as an exemplar of democratic process at work.

Whether the Pirate Party of Australia can secure a seat in the next Parliament will almost certainly depend on those preferences. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that there is real potential for the PPA to become a formidable force in Australian politics in time to come.


Rudd vs Abbott – People’s Forum no. 3

August 29, 2013

With nine days to go, it’s wall-to-wall election ads on TV and flyers in every mailbox. But there was time for one more debate between Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott. Conducted in a ‘town hall’ style at Rooty Hill in Western Sydney, nobody expected anything new. In fact, though, we heard new promises and perhaps new policies.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott shake hands after the People's Forum

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott shake hands after the People’s Forum

Live-tweeted with annotations, brought to you via Storify.


The Culture Wars are back

April 22, 2013

Grab your rose-coloured glasses, run up the Union Jack and get spotting those black armbands. Yes, the culture wars are back.

Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne fired the latest salvo in our Federal-Election-campaign-that-isn’t, today. His target was the National Curriculum, specifically, the study of History – and the irony quotient was thick on the ground.

We shouldn’t take a ‘black armband view’ of history. We ‘should know the truth about it’. Best of all, ‘we shouldn’t allow it to colour our present and our future’. And what does all that mean? Why, that our National Curriculum is too ‘politically correct’ and that we need to ‘restore’ the importance of Anzac Day and our (wince) ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’.

Take a moment. Pick your jaw up off the floor – or stop laughing.

No, this isn’t some weird moment of de ja vu. You haven’t been transported back to the Howard era, and I haven’t been reading the fantastic imaginings of Keith Windschuttle. This is right now. Today.

Pyne says it will be the Coalition’s ‘first education priority’ to rewrite the National History Curriculum. It must be done! Our kids are in danger! They will not learn the truth about Anzac Day and our national identity! Why, we even have an expert – a one-man think tank named Dr Kevin Donnelly – telling us so.

Back up a minute, Nelly.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the truly astounding notion that it’s more important to shred the National Curriculum than, say, deal with issues of literacy, school funding, special programs, etc. (But, wow, couldn’t we go to town on that?) Just exactly how is this dreadful curriculum destroying Our Way of Life?

Here’s a novel idea. Let’s take a look. The document is freely available, after all.

Let’s see, now. Prep (or Foundation) level focuses on family history, and how family events are commemorated. Seems okay. Ditto Year 1 – oh, but wait. The kids are taught to look at how family structures may be different ‘now’, as opposed to in their parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods. Potential minefield there. Heaven forbid they learn about blended families, single parent families, ‘grandparent’ families or even – gasp – same-sex families.

Perhaps Mr Pyne wants to make sure kids deny the evidence of their own experience? Or is it just that he doesn’t want his government to be seen condoning such terrible situations?

Uh, Mr Pyne? Your Coalition has made damned sure that none of us are under any illusions there. We know what you think of us.

We move on, to local history in Year 3 (complete with projects that encourage kids to look at structures like local war memorials). Nothing wrong with that – but uh-oh, here’s where it gets ‘unacceptable’. Here we have the first mention of indigenous peoples. Kids are taught about the important of Country and Place, and about national holidays. Oh, they get taught about Anzac Day, but they also get taught about National Harmony Day, and Sorry Day. How dare we ask kids to think of anything to be as important as Anzac Day?

It gets worse! Now, we’re supposed to ask kids to consider Anzac Day as a holiday similar to Christmas Day – or Ramadan – or Chinese New Year! Or Independence Day in the US!

We have to teach them about our first contact with indigenous peoples, Asian migration to the goldfields, giving the vote to women and to indigenous people, the contribution of migrants, the environment movement, reconciliation around the world, Asia (specifically China) in the modern world, and even (horror of horrors), the spread of Islam.

Terrible, isn’t it?

Now, maybe if that was all our kids were being taught, Pyne might have a point. Except it isn’t.

Our kids also learn about Anzac Day … and the ancient world … the rise of Christianity … Federation … World War II … the First Fleet … the Eureka Stockade (whoops, better not include that one, we might give the kids the idea we approve of unionism) … Aussie Rules football (for goodness’ sake) … Kokoda … etc … etc.

Now, I went through school (in the 70s and 80s), but I’ve got a pretty good memory (and some of the textbooks, dear me). From Grade Prep to 6, we learned virtually no history. In Year 7, we had some fun learning about ‘cavemen’ and ancient Greece (history, apparently, started with the Greeks). Year 8 was medieval European history (specifically Christian-based – those evil Saracens, dontcha know), and Year 9 was Australian History.

It’s worth pointing out that when I say ‘Australian’ history, I’m talking ‘British’. There was a nod to the Aboriginals who came out to watch the First Fleet, but otherwise, the concept of terra nullius was firmly entrenched. All those explorers – Dampier, Cook, Burke, Hume – apparently wandered around or landed on a really big island with strange animals and no people. Except for the occasional ‘native tracker’, who seemed to spring from nowhere and act the part of the good little servant, we didn’t find out anything about the indigenous peoples. Oh, except for the occasional anecdote about ‘savages’ who attacked the white settlers.

We did spend a lot of time learning about Gallipolli – how it was all about mateship, and our brave men playing cricket on the beaches at Anzac Cove. At no time did we learn that it was a terrible defeat, or that our war dead were virtually led into a killing field. We had Australia Day dress-ups (oh, those colonial bonnets) in Primary School and Anzac Day ceremonies in High School.

(And while we’re on the subject of Anzac Day, you really have to wonder why Pyne and his ‘expert’ are so worried. Thanks to former Prime Minister John Howard, all our schools have flagpoles – and they use them. Anzac Day is commemorated every year with the minute’s silence. Primary kids learn about the origins of Anzac Day, are allowed to take the day off to march in the parade for their grandfathers, or even accompany marchers from battalions associated with their school (as my own children did last year, marching with the 2/14 Battalion in honour of Bruce Kingsbury, VC, after whom their school was named). It’s a part of school life in a way it never was during my early years – back then, we stood in silence but never really understood why.)

We learned about Chinese people on the goldfields, but not about the White Australia Policy. We learned about Changi and the Burma Railway, but not that we interned people in camps during World War II.

In short, we learned a piecemeal version of the history of our own country, and largely pretended the rest of the world didn’t matter. The National History Curriculum offers a much more comprehensive course that gives us ‘warts and all’ – as any student of history knows, you have to read the good with the bad, or you end up learning nothing. So where, exactly, is the ‘very one sided, politically correct view’ that so worries the Coalition?

You have to love that phrase, ‘politically correct’. It’s such a good insult to throw around. Say something that makes people uncomfortable? You’re politically correct. Point out where privilege is operating and people are/were disenfranchised? Likewise – and worse, you have a ‘black armband’ view. The Coalition seems to think it’s important that we don’t tell our kids what we did, what our ancestors did, what our country was like in the past and what its place is in the world.

This is a very dangerous way of thinking. It’s a truism that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What the Coalition proposes is not that we forget the past, but that we actively bury it. That we distort it. That we lie to our children and tell them that nobody really got hurt in white settlement, that Gallipolli was glorious and that we’re a homogenous, ‘Judeo-Christian’, white society – and that, by implication, everyone else is not really ‘Australian’.

It’s not just a step backwards. It’s a giant leap straight into the arms of propaganda – because, make no mistake, that is exactly the aim of the Coalition’s proposed ‘rewrite’. Donnelly, claims that those responsible for drafting the National Curriculum ‘are hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that make this nation unique’.

The key phrase there is ‘grand narrative’. Simply put, a grand narrative is an overarching story-of-stories that is used to replace smaller, more detailed stories. Most of the time, such a narrative leaves out or obscures more than it explains. In this case, Donnelly claims that the National Curriculum undermines the grand narrative of Australia’s British heritage and its debt to Europe (read: Britain, or at least northern Europe, possibly France if we’re feeling generous).

And well it should. However much Donnelly, Pyne and Howard would like it to be otherwise, Australia is not – and has never been – a little piece of Britain. We are far more complex, and our history is far richer. We do every student a disservice by trying to teach them otherwise.

You might not agree with the current (or proposed) school funding split. You might think NAPLAN is a horrible idea, and MySchool a waste of time. But when it comes to either teaching our kids the whole story, or giving them a pretty meagre pick-n-mix view of history – it should be a no-brainer.

And if giving the kids a perspective on Australia’s place in the world, our indigenous history, and the way we’ve been shaped by religions, cultures and political beliefs of all kinds – if giving them that makes us politically correct …

Let’s aim for a score of 10/10.


Does the ACL want blood on its hands?

January 6, 2011

Well, it’s a new year, and a new Victorian government. Sadly, though, it looks like the same old bigotry rearing its ugly head.

This time, it’s about bullying in schools, and the ever-popular concerned citizens who think it’s time Premier Ted Baillieu understood that the current funding situation to address this problem is just too darn unfair. Bullying is a big problem, after all, and our elected representatives need to make sure that taxpayers’ money is spent properly. Accordingly, they’re up in arms, determined to champion the needs of Our Precious Children against the ‘ideological agenda’ of questionable groups.

Sounds reasonable, right? The last thing most parents would want is to see kids become the victims of people pushing narrow and potentially damaging ideas. And bullying is a huge problem, so it’s important to make sure the best possible steps are being taken to protect and educate the kids.

But wait. Who are these Corrupters of Our Youth?

Apparently, it’s the Safe Schools Coalition of Victoria.

This dangerous organisation is a network of schools, Rainbow Network Victoria, the Foundation for Young Australians and interested individuals. Its purpose is to promote school environments where same-sex attracted people are able to find acceptance and support. As part of its work, the SSCV produces information and education resource packages for schools, as well as offering courses in dealing with issues of intolerance and fear.

Pretty scary, huh? Why, you can just see the agenda dripping from their webpage.

Now we know who the ‘enemy’ is – so just who are these Noble Crusaders for Fairness? It’s our old friends, the Australian Christian Lobby. You remember, the lobby group that claims to represent all Christians in our ‘Judeo-Christian’ country? In fact, the ACL does nothing of the sort. They are not an ecumenical or interfaith group – rather, they espouse a narrow and intolerant set of values set squarely in opposition to issues that include equal rights, diversity of religion and freedom of expression. They’re also pretty adept at obscuring the differences that exist between the Christian faiths and are not above inflating their numbers to make a political point.

As lobby groups go, they’re very well-organised. They created an image for themselves of an organisation representing ‘mainstream’ values, speaking for the ‘majority’ of Australians. They’ve been so successful at this that successive Prime Ministers (John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard) afford them special attention. Political parties go out of their way to help that image along by responding to their heavily-slanted ‘values questionnaire’ at election time. Needless to say, the same privileges are not extended to lobby groups claiming to represent Muslims, atheists or any other faith. The ACL are pretty shrewd marketers. But they are not representative of most Christians in Australia.

Now we know who the players are. But just what grievous act did the SSCV commit that moved the ACL to call for Baillieu to cut funding to anti-bullying programs aimed at addressing homophobia and similar issues?

The SSCV sent a letter to schools reminding them that the upcoming Pride March will take place around the same time that classes commence, in case any students want to attend.

Yes, you read that right.

The ACL were outraged. How could the Victorian government be involved with an organisation that promoted events that were ‘no place for young children’? It’s absolutely unacceptable for taxpayers’ money to be used to ‘persuade children to attend a gay pride march’ or take up an ‘alternative lifestyle’. That money should be spent on the ‘wider context’ of bullying, not some vocal minority’s agenda.

According to the ACL, the SSCV aren’t using their funding to keep schools informed and encourage a sense of self-worth and acceptance in students. No, no, they’re actually taking funding away from ‘real’ bullying.

See what they did there?

It’s actually horribly clever.

They appeal to the ‘reasonable expectations’ of parents. Not every parent is queer, or has a queer kid, right? Bullying is a terrible thing that affects all sorts of kids, right? Doesn’t it make sense, then, to make sure we have the best possible programs to stop bullying?

You can almost see people’s heads nodding. Well, of course. But unpack the ACL’s position a little more, and you can see the really ugly side.

ACL: ‘Gay’ is a ‘lifestyle’, and it’s not one we should encourage our kids to take up.

Leaving aside the whole question of genetics, ‘lifestyle choice’ or whatever, the question remains – why not? What’s so bad about being gay that the ACL feels kids must be protected from it at all costs?

Now, obviously there’s a religious dimension here. The ACL has never made any secret of its belief that same-sex attraction is against ‘God’s law’. But it’s nastier. Look at what they said in the Star Observer article:

ACL Victorian director Rob Ward said gay pride marches were “no places for young children” …

This harks right back to a disgusting strategy employed by organisations – usually backed by the same brand of religion as the ACL – that attempts to link homosexual behaviour with pedophilia. They’ve written reams on the subject. If you have a strong stomach and can rein in your anger, just Google the two terms.

It hardly needs saying that there is no correlation between the two – but we are talking about an organisation that doesn’t scruple to misrepresent its numbers in order to push its agenda. Why would a little consideration like absolute lack of factual evidence get in the way of that?

Of course, the ACL doesn’t come right out and say that, but then they don’t have to, do they? There are plenty of other people out there saying that for them – including Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile. And with the current preoccupation with sexualisation of children’s images, child exploitation material and child safety, it’s never far from a parent’s mind.

That particular idea is contemptible – but there’s more, and it borders on the downright dangerous.

ACL: Baillieu should yank funding out of SSCV (and presumably other organisations working to promote sexual diversity) and put it to better use in a ‘wider context’.

This is a tried-and-true ploy; appealing to some notion of ‘fairness’. Is it fair, they ask, for these minority groups to get money to push their ideas while the majority suffer? Why should they get special treatment?

Of course, it’s utter rubbish. The SSCV does not take money from any other anti-bullying initiative – or any other school program, for that matter. They have a one-off grant for $80,000 from the former Brumby government. Compare that to the $800,00 pledged by Baillieu to the school chaplaincy program – a program specifically allowed to promote a particular religion inside public schools – and things fall into perspective.

The ACL wants to muddy the waters by spreading the lie that the SSCV is a tiny group getting more than its ‘fair share’ of public funding. If it succeeds, and Baillieu responds by choking off further funding, the ACL will count it as a victory. Of course, there is no guarantee that the paltry amount earmarked for the SSCV would find its way into any other anti-bullying initiative – but that’s not really the point. The ACL wants to make it very clear that there is no place in Victorian schools for any such program that addresses the needs of same-sex attracted kids.

In other words, bullying is bad, but it’s not as bad to bully the queer kid. We can have programs about not picking on the little kid, not singling out the ‘weird-looking’ kid, not reducing a kid to tears because they have braces or belong to a particular racial group – because that’s ‘real’ bullying. Hounding a kid into suicidal depression for being queer isn’t a signal that we should be teaching kids acceptance of diversity – on the contrary, we should do everything we can to convince that queer kid that there’s something ‘wrong’ with feeling the way he does. We should ‘get help for her’. We should ‘support them by showing them that being queer is bad.

Already, too many queer kids drop out of school because of the bullying and intolerance they suffer. Queer kids are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.

And every time that kind of bullying isn’t dealt with quickly and effectively, it sends a message to the bully that what they’re doing is acceptable. That’s the kind of lesson they’ll carry into adult life, and perhaps parenthood.

If the ACL gets its way, an organisation doing far more than its fair share of heavy lifting in trying to combat homophobia and promote diversity will have what little money it does receive choked off. Without money, the SSCV will have to depend on volunteers and donations. Inevitably, there would be a scale-back of programs – not because they wanted to, but because they simply couldn’t afford it. The result would be a void where there is a real, urgent need.

And the next time a queer kid tries to kill himself, or gets bashed to within an inch of her life, the ACL and Ted Baillieu will have blood on their hands.

What frightens me is the idea that the ACL, at least, simply wouldn’t care.


Victorian policies, side by side

November 26, 2010

One day out from the Victorian elections, and – if possible – the level of ennui is even higher than during the Federal poll. Apart from a few committed pamphleteers and online trolls, most people’s attitude seems to be summed up in one word: ‘meh‘.

That could have something to do with the fact that both major parties and the Greens spent a great deal of time in this campaign simply attacking each other. The Labor Party is all about waste; the Coalition will destroy the public service; the Greens will make you take cold showers! (And no, I’m not exaggerating on that last one – it was part of an anti-Greens Twitter campaign that purported to reveal the ‘truth’ about the consequences of Greens policies on coal-fired power stations.)

Now I don’t know about you, but I like to make my voting decisions based on policy, not on who had the most ridiculous claims or nastiest insults. So with that in mind, here’s a quick-and-dirty comparison of some key areas of policy for most of the parties contesting the Victorian election. Let’s focus on Public Transport, Health and Education.

Policy statements are taken from the parties’ websites: Labor, Sex Party, Country Alliance, DLP, Family First and Liberals. I have not separately listed National Party policies, as they are in coalition with the Liberal Party and their policies are folded into the latter’s website.

Full disclosure: I’m currently volunteering for the Australian Sex Party. As such, while I’ll list policies, I won’t comment on them.

Public Transport

This is a huge area of concern for Victorians, to judge from questions directed at John Brumby and Ted Baillieu throughout the campaign. Metro Trains’ poor record, ‘black holes’ in Melbourne’s train system and overcrowding on some heavily-travelled lines (Dandenong and Pakenham being two of the most notorious) have seen most parties make highly-publicised announcements.

Australian Labor Party

Labor’s budgeted $432 million for public transport infrastructure and development. They’re promising more train services to Geelong, more bus services lasting longer into the night and a shuttle bus from Clayton Station to Monash University. In terms of maintenance and upgrade, Labor plans to make over train stations, buy new train carriages, and work on updating Melbourne’s ageing tracks and signalling system. The flagship policy is a pledge to establish a Safety Control Centre to monitor trains by CCTV and be in constant contact with stations which will all be staffed.

Australian Sex Party

The flagship policy for this party is a 24-hour public transport system on weekend, to be manned by security personnel. Other areas of concern are the Metro Rail Tunnel – with the Sex Party calling for stages One and Two to be simultaneously planned and delivered, upgrading Melbourne’s signalling system to take advantage of new technologies, and the separation of regional and metropolitan services to allow the regional network to be upgraded to a metro-style system.

Country Alliance

No listed policy.

Democratic Labor Party

No listed policy.

Family First

Family First has focused on encouraging more Victorians to use the metropolitan transit system. To this end they advocate implementing various (though unspecified) strategies, abolishing Zone 2 ticketing in favour of a single-zone system, conductors on all trams for safety and to reduce fare evasion, and guards on trains. They have also called for a feasibility study into the idea of building a tunnel to connect the Eastern Freeway to the Tullamarine Freeway, and for improvements to the most dangerous and congested intersections and railway crossings.

Greens

In keeping with a general focus on initiatives to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the Greens have set out a suite of policies. They have called for upgrades to Melbourne’s rail system (including the elimination of bottlenecks), more staff to improve passenger safety, revised scheduling to include more express train services for long lines, frequent and direct light rail, rail links to Tullamarine Airport, Rowville and Doncaster, improved disability access to buses and trams, giving traffic signal priority to road-based public transport and new trains with longer carriages to reduce crowding. Regionally, the Greens advocate restoring passenger train services (including direct services between Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo), estabilishing a feasibility study into location and costs for a very-high-speed passenger train service between Melbourne and Sydney, and investigating the feasibility of opening rural school bus services to the general public. Acceleration of construction of the Principal Bicycle Network, and increased road space for cyclists would be encouraged. A combined ministry for planning and transport would be established, and all proposed road network expansions would have to be valuated against alternative public transport solutions on environmental and social grounds.

Liberal/National Coalition

Running with the ‘safety and security’ angle, the Coalition have promised 900 Victoria Police Protective Service officers at train stations, as well as 350 Transit Police to ride along. They have also pledged to spend $130 million to build a Kilmore-Wallan bypass, and to construct new bus shelters in the Yarra Ranges.

Health

As in most elections, the Health policy tends to be diffused by including ‘social agenda’ policies such as those surrounding abortion, euthanasia and reproductive technologies. I’ve deliberately excluded these issues from this policy area.

Australian Labor Party

Labor has promised to boost numbers of medical personnel: 2800 additional nurses, doctors and other health professionals over the next two years to improve nurse-patient ratios. 200 more nurses will be recruited specifically for palliative care, cancer, geriatric and rehabilitation wards. Elective surgery operations are promised to increase by 50,000, and an extra 300,000 outpatient appointments created. Along with this, patients needing an initial appointment for treatment of hip or knee osteoarthritis will be seen within eight weeks. Labor has also promised to increase emergency department capacity to treat 315,000 additional patients, 70,000 more dental care places, 300 new specialist and GP training places and 50 doctor places in rural and regional Victoria.

Australian Sex Party

The Sex Party’s policy focuses largely on community-based initiatives. It has called for protection of community health services under the new, nationally-managed plan, for communities to be included in planning new initiatives, and resourcing for community health support for sex workers, culturally and linguistically diverse populations, HIV sufferers, indigenous people, rural communities, the elderly and those affected by age-related illness and the transgender community. Additional areas of concern are sexual health initiatives, including state-funded sexual health clinics and inclusion of a range of sexual health treatments on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme regardless of the age and gender of patients. On mental health, the Sex Party has advocated for ongoing funding and expansion for early intervention initiatives such as Headspace and ORYGEN, community education, social support services and funding for qualified, secular counsellors in schools.

Country Alliance

In keeping with its focus on rural and regional concerns, the Country Alliance has called for the establishment of basic standards for access to medical and dental care within rural Victoria and identification of those communities who do not meet those standards, and for 20 scholarships per Upper House region to be offered each year to attract doctors to regional areas.

Democratic Labor Party

The DLP’s health policy is entirely conflated with what can only be described as a ‘social agenda’ policy. Picking through it, there is one specific health initiative: increase in the allocation of funding for palliative care facilities for the terminally ill.

Family First

Family First has called for an increase in funded doctor and nurse training places, support for medical personnel who work in rural and regional communities – in the form of subsidised public indemnity insurance and reduced stamp duty to aid relocation, more acute and aged-care beds, and more respite carers. In other health areas, they have advocated more support for alcohol/drug rehabilitation groups, more detoxification centres, and more mental health inpatient beds.

Greens

The Greens have called for more community health centres (including co-location of GPs in those areas), nurse practitioners, increased access for concession cardholders to public dental care, improved integration between health services, better conditions for home care and personal care workers, and accreditation standards for ‘non-traditional’ practitioners, including registers and complaints procedures. They have pledged to reduce waiting times in hospitals and increase outpatient services and institute ‘healthy eating’ programs (including requirements for school canteens to provide healthy food choices). Maternal and Child Health Services would be expanded, particularly in the areas of midwifery and post-natal depression treatment.

Liberal/National Coalition

The Coalition has promised new ambulance stations and a 50% decrease in ambulance subscription fees, upgrades and new hospitals in regional areas, and they have pledged to ban ‘bongs’ and related paraphernalia. In the area of mental health they have promised to set up a $10 million Mental Illness Research Fund, central co-ordination of inpatient mental health beds, and an education/employment program to increase workforce participation of those living with mental illness.

Education

The policies outlined vary wildly, from new national programs to smaller, individually-focused issues.

Australian Labor Party

The big announcement for Labor was the ‘Education for Life’ initiative. This program, aimed at Year 9 students, is budgeted at $208 million, and includes a two-week residential camp. It is aimed to teach financial literary, bushfire awareness, community service, public speaking, first aid, advanced water safety, self-defence, and alcohol/drug awareness. Labor has also promised $1.7 billion for school upgrades, provision of Primary Welfare and Home School Liaison Officers (the precise nature of which – psychologist, social worker, chaplain – would be determined by the school itself), rural ‘virtual’ classrooms and four new bilingual secondary schools. For non-government schools Labor has pledged to increase funding to 25% of that given to government schools, and to provide professional development for teachers and principals.

Australian Sex Party

The Sex Party has called for an end to the government school chaplaincy program, to be replaced by qualified psychological counsellors, as part of a general advocacy for a secular public school system. Special Religious Instruction programs would be replaced by curriculum-based comparative religion and ethics classes. They have also advocated age-appropriate sex education classes, beginning in primary years with safety, body image and self-esteem, and a program to educate students on the safe use of information/communication technologies. Private schools would be required to implement inclusive, non-discriminatory policies.

Country Alliance

In keeping with its focus on rural and regional concerns, the Country Alliance has called for the establishment of basic standards for access to education services within rural Victoria and identification of those communities who do not meet those standards.

Democratic Labor Party

The DLP has called for a voucher system so that parents may choose to send their children to non-government schools without financial penalty, at the same time advocating for redistribution of funding to allow government schools to compete on an equal basis. Government allowances for students would be rolled into a single, non-means-tested, Universal Living Allowance and tax deductibility for when deferred HECS fees are paid. TAFE courses would receive more funding, the Howard government’s ‘Voluntary Student Unionism’ legislation would be rolled back and a professional institute to oversee teacher performance would be established. Finally, the DLP has advocated ‘an education system based on the promotion of competence appropriate for the age and status of each student in a range of skills, including numeracy, literacy, social and civic participation, health skills and knowledge and an informed appreciation of the religious, moral and ethical codes to which the mainstream community adheres’.

Family First

Family First has a suite of policies: reduced class sizes, focus on numeracy and literacy skills, so-called ‘plain English’ school reports, financial literacy programs, relationship programs designed to promote marriage and family life, more TAFE colleges, promotion of the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) and Vocational Education and Training (VET) as pathways for students who do not want to go to university. They have also called ‘genuine choice’ for parents in selecting a school that supports their family’s values.

Greens

The Greens have called for two years’ free pre-school education for all children, no fees and charges for the public education system, a full range of education programs for compulsory schooling years including special-needs education, locally-targeted initiatives, optimum class sizes and implementation of education ICT including video conferencing. Assessment and reporting would be aimed at integrating and supporting learning rather than ‘competition’. All levels of education would be integrated into a flexible network to assist students throughout their learning periods. For educators, the Greens have advocated better remuneration, professional development and accountability, financial transparency and non-discriminatory staff recruitment and enrolment practices. Finally, all public schools buildings (renovated or new) would be required to achieve best practice Ecologically Sustainable Development standards.

Liberal/National Coalition

The Coalition has promised funding for existing and new schools, including the establishment of Years 11 and 12 at Somerville Secondary College. Truancy laws would be enforced. The Victorian College of the Arts attracted particular attention, with the Coalition pledging $6 million to cover its current shortfall, as well as a return to its former independent status. The Rock Eisteddfod would receive $800,000. They have matched Labor’s commitment to raising funding for Catholic schools to 25%, and promised to make Victorian teachers the highest-paid in Australia. Finally, the Coalition would expand the powers of principals to ban ‘dangerous items’, and to search, suspend or expel students at their discretion.

*****

Phew. Well, there you are. That’s the Big Three this election. Of course, every party has a raft of other policies on everything from euthanasia to water to programs for specific regions, and I urge you to look them up. I deliberately did not include climate change initiatives, mainly because almost all the parties have no specific climate change policy, and their environment policies are often mixed up with regional initiatives.

Hopefully, though, you have an idea of what’s behind all those press conferences and jargon-laden rhetoric, and can make some informed decisions.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. It might ‘only’ be a State election, but many of these policies will directly affect us in a way that grand federal initiatives often don’t. It’s your democratic right and your responsibility – please use it.


Victorian Coalition campaign launch

November 17, 2010

In the lead-up to every election, political parties ‘launch’ their campaigns – usually some time after the first promises have been made, hands shaken and babies kissed. The event is little more than a pep rally for the faithful, at which old leaders are trotted out and families turn on their glassy-eyed smiles for the camera. There might be a few policy announcement, but for the most part, launches are all about motherhood statements.

Of course, there are exceptions. The federal Labor campaign launch in 2007 was peppered with specifics; how much spent, how many things it would buy, and how many people would benefit. The Greens launch for the federal election this year, while unable to provide the hard numbers, was full of details. These are exceptions; but what we got from the Victorian Coalition this time around set a new low in lack of substance.

The campaign slogan stuck to the front of the lectern should have been a dead give-away: ‘Fix the Problems. Build the Future’. Right there you know what’s in store – a diatribe about what a terrible government Victoria suffers under right now, and a non-specific ‘vision’ of how it will all be different if the Coalition are elected instead.

Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott set the tone, indulging in a good headkicking of John Brumby’s Labor government. He didn’t quite manage to work in ‘Stop the Boats’, but otherwise tarred Victorian Labor with almost all the accusations he regularly flings at the federal government. Waste, mismanagement, betrayal of the people – it would have been an easy speech for Abbott’s writers. They could have cut and pasted much of it.

‘Our job is not to save the Labor party, our job is to save Victoria,’ he thundered to wild applause. Then Abbott switched tactics, bringing a message of hope for the believers. ‘You can almost hear the tectonic plates shifting … not towards a hung parliament … but towards a coalition majority … [that will] get things done and have the courage of its convictions.’ Stirring stuff.

After a quick refresher course on the Coalition’s mission statement – lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom, a
strong family and ‘values which have stood the test of time, Abbott wound up by comparing Ted Baillieu to former Premier Jeff Kennett, and added a little garnish of jingoism. ‘As Australian patriots we support policies which will work and build a stronger and better future for this great country.’

See what he did there?

It all sounds very reasonable. After all, who wouldn’t want policies that will work? Who wouldn’t want a better future? Ah, but wait. We’re not talking about just any policies here, oh no. The policies that will ‘work’ are clearly those of the Coalition (given we are, after all, at a Coalition campaign launch). The logical inference, then, is that if you do not support those policies, you are not a patriot. You are un-Australian. Why do you hate this great country of ours?

In case viewers and listeners didn’t get the message, Ted Baillieu opened up with, ‘I love this state! I love this state!’, completed with a pause for enthusiastic applause. After an embarrassed moment, a few belated ‘whoo-hoos’ were heard around the room. Undaunted, Baillieu plowed on, and soon hit his stride.

Our streets are not safe, he warned. He’d spoken to families whose loved ones had been ‘bashed, stabbed or even murdered’, and they were crying out for action. Our transport system was failing. Bushfire-affected families had been forgotten, planning and infrastructure was in ruins, the sky was falling. ‘More of the same is simply not good enough,’ Baillieu yelled.

But, lest we all throw ourselves off the burned-out shells of buildings in our anarchic cities in despair, Baillieu had a message of hope. ‘There is a great Victoria … it’s the Victoria that first emerged 160 years ago with the courage, ambition and aspiration of new settlers. They came in search of new opportunities … unconcerned by fear or distance … what they lacked in labour, skills or technology, they more than covered with determination and passion.’

Ted Baillieu, it appears, is an enthusiastic support of the principle of terra nullius. Before a bunch of British capitalists, seal-hunters and convict ‘guards’ decided that settling Victoria might be a good idea in order to exploit resources and stop the damn Frenchies from getting another colony, Victoria was an unspoiled Eden. It was a land just waiting for white people, and let’s not talk about sites of habitation dating back 35,000 years, diorite mining and established trade networks with the Aboriginal peoples. No no, it’s all about the Pioneer Spirit.

These dauntless types ‘simply got on with it … they dreamed of a future for our state [and] inspired others to go on and build that future’. As time went on, more and more new arrivals were attracted by this visionary settlement, and ‘our multicultural heart’ was formed. ‘No one understands the value of opportunity better than those who came looking for a new start,’ asserted Baillieu.

Unless those people turn up in boats fleeing persecution, right, Ted?

The grand vision of prosperity is all different now – because of Labor, of course. Victorian families are in dire circumstances, struggling to cope with failing services, rapidly rising bills, increasingly unaffordable housing, an economy dependent on population growth and, ‘above all’, escalating debt. ‘Victorians have been asked to tolerate, accept and regard as normal record levels of violence, unsafe streets, unreliable public transport, crumbling country roads, local communities being ignored, a planning system without certainty or confidence … vulnerable children left unprotected … secret hospital waiting lists, under-resourced schools, secrecy and incompetence, waste and mismanagement, and inadequate investigations of corruption. No one should consider this as normal!’

Excuse me a moment while I check my perimeter defences, field-strip and clean my arsenal and throw some chunks of scavenged meat to my slavering guard dogs.

Yes, that’s right. Baillieu’s vision of Victoria – the state he ‘loves’ – is one of a fall from grace. In the golden age of the pioneers, people of spirit and drive came here with their dreams of a capitalist utopia and built something marvellous. (Presumably, these people would have voted Liberal if there had been such a party in those days.) But then, the dastardly, moustache-twirling Labor men (with apologies to former Premier Joan Kirner) snuck in and ruined it all. Weep, weep, for the lost glory.

Excuse me again for a moment. I have to go hold up some old ladies for their pensions so I can get my kids on a secret hospital waiting list – and siphon some diesel for my all-terrain vehicle so I can drive them across the battle-scarred landscape.

Twenty minutes into Baillieu’s speech, and still no policy announcement. Not one. Nada. But wait – here comes the Coalition’s plan.

The Coalition will ‘maintain surplus … get rising debt under control … ensure state taxes are fair and competitive,’ said Baillieu, adding for good measure – in case he hadn’t made the point strongly enough – that people no longer felt safe. ‘We stand for more jobs, safe streets, safe and reliable public transport, quality country roads, strong families and communities, a planning system that works, better access to hospitals, more support for schools and teachers, cutting waste – a government that you and all Victorians can trust.’ All these claims were, he stated, ‘fully costed and fully budgeted’.

Fantastic. Here comes the policy. Now we’ll see some good, chunky detail giving us a credible alternative government.

At which point Baillieu thanked everyone for coming, and left the stage to wild applause.

Wait … what?????

That was it? Not one number? Not one specific policy measure? A bunch of motherhood statements tacked onto the end of some revisionist history and dystopian scare-mongering??

Now, as I said in the beginning, campaign launches are all about revving up the faithful, so perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect a lot of detail. But even the faithful need some sausage with their sizzle – and any swinging voter that tuned in out of curiosity would have been left with the clear impression that the Victorian Coalition was long on criticism, short on policy.

Of course there are policy statements available on the web (and I’ll be looking over them in the days to come). But if you go to the trouble of setting up a big, well-publicised event, invite the media along and have it televised – shouldn’t you at least attempt to show yourselves in the best possible light?

Baillieu’s Coalition appears not to think so. The strategy seems to be entirely about trying to scare Victorians into voting for them. If that means they have to grossly overstate crime figures, misrepresent community attitudes and mislead the public into holding the State government responsible for local and federal government purviews – well, that’s excusable. The important thing, after all, is to get elected.

They’re going to have to do better than that, though. It’s not enough to run down your opponents and mutter darkly about a ‘Labor-Greens alliance’. Voters need to know that you’d do better.

Right now, they don’t know any such thing.


What’s in a name?

September 15, 2010

We appear to have become a nation obsessed with semantics.

Since Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of her Cabinet line-up on Saturday last week, the commentary has zeroed in on two ‘issues’ – the appointment of Kevin Rudd to the Foreign Ministry, and the absence of the word ‘Education’ in any of the portfolios.

The former is understandable, if a little tiresome. Rudd’s relegation to a subordinate position, when three years ago he was the one making the appointments, was always going to attract attention. Much has been made of his apparently ‘stony’ face and ‘disengaged expression’ during the swearing-in ceremony that took place at Yarralumla yesterday. It seems that no amount of denial or reassurance on his part will stop that, and I suspect it will simply be a matter of time before the media and the Opposition find something else to talk about.

When it comes to the question of portfolio names, however, the arguments get a little silly. Correction – they get very silly.

True, Gillard had not named an Education Minister. What she had done was split up the portfolios between two other Ministries – Schools, Early Childhood and Youth under Peter Garrett; and Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations under Chris Evans. For a government self-admittedly preoccupied with educational matters, this looked at first glance like a remarkable oversight on her part. Universities were particularly worried; to all intents and purposes, it appeared as though tertiary education was being treated as entirely vocational. The unfortunate result of the initial announcement was that people – perhaps with some justification – thought that education was being devalued.

The Opposition went to town, and pundits everywhere pounced on this disquiet. Instead of evaluating the situation, however, media shook their heads over what a ‘bad look’ it was, and accepted without question whatever they were being told by those with a vested interest in undermining the new government’s reputation.

In perhaps the most obviously example, the Opposition proclaimed that Gillard had actually forgotten to name an Education Minister. One particular sound bite of this was replayed ad nauseam by Sky News – a particularly irresponsible move on their part, since it gave legitimacy to something that was not merely spin, but an outright lie.

The government eventually responded to concerns expressed by universities, and by the time the respective Ministers formally took up their responsibilities, the word ‘Education’ had appeared in their titles. Of course, by this time, the damage was doe, and the Opposition could then argue that the government was playing ‘catch-up’.

All this, because a single word was left out of a Ministerial title.

It can be argued that perceptions matter. That it’s important to have a clear understanding of what a Ministry actually does. In that case, the government’s failure to provide that clarity is an elementary error which will likely prove to be a continuing thorn in its side.

But, you know, it cuts both ways.

Take a look at the Coalition’s Shadow Ministry, for example.

Most positions are still held by their incumbents, although Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment to Communications and Broadband was clearly the opening salvo in what is likely to be a vicious campaign against the NBN. There are a whole slew of new Shadow Parliamentary Secretaries, including the hapless Tony Smith, whose woeful performance during the election campaign saw him banished from the Communications Ministry with lightning speed. There is a good summary, including links to websites, on The Notion Factory.

An initial failure to name a Shadow for Mental Health was quickly corrected, with Concetta Fierravanti-Wells taking on that responsibility in addition to Shadow for Ageing. There are also, apparently, two Ministers for Regional Development; Barnaby Joyce and Bob Baldwin. It’s not clear whether this is an error in the list released to the media, or actual appointments.

Some of the names for the Shadow portfolios, though, are very telling.

Andrew Robb is still the Shadow for Finance and De-regulation. He’s got an additional title now, however, that doesn’t mirror Penny Wong’s Ministry. He’s also responsible for Debt Reduction. Then there’s Scott Morrison, whose pre-election portfolio of Immigration has been expanded to include Productivity. Finally we have Jamie Briggs, who’ll chair the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee.

See what they did there?

Those three Shadow portfolios are intended to be a constant reminder of Coalition policies and criticisms. You can just bet that any time Robb or Morrison turn up, their staff will insist on the full titles. Every time Robb comments on the ‘massive debt’, his title will be there underscoring the point. Every time Morrison takes on the asylum seeker and immigration issues, his title will underpin the Coalition argument that Australia needs to consider the effect on the economy first, and humanitarian considerations later (if at all).

As for Jamie Briggs – honestly, it’s so ham-fisted I’m embarrassed for them. This committee, linked to a truly crass website called LaborWaste, apparently exists for only one purpose – to discredit the government wherever possible. Apart from semi-regular media releases liberally sprinkled with ‘scare’ words, the website (adorned with a version of Labor’s own logo, something that may not be entirely legal) asks people to provide ‘tip offs’. Yes, that’s right – dob in the government today. You too can send in your complaints (you can even attach documents of up to 10Mb) and help participate in what’s little more than an exercise in muck-raking.

The so-called ‘waste’ claims are not examined, nor is any evidence provided. In fact, the most commonly cited ‘proof’ is a statement allegedly made by a Liberal Senator or MP castigating the government for its ‘mismanagement’. The title of the committee is a dead giveaway – this isn’t about impartial scrutiny at all. It starts with the assumption that any money the government spends is wasteful.

The irony here is unbelievable. Here is a committee, and a website, designed to perpetuate a central pillar of the Opposition’s election campaign and sloganeering – unnecessary expenditure. But back up a second. Running and staffing such committees costs money. Building, maintaining and monitoring websites costs money. Sending out media releases is cheaper than it used to be thanks to email, but someone is still being employed to sit there and write them. Granted, they’ll save a lot of money by not doing any actual scrutiny, but when you get right down to it, the committee is nothing more than an expensive, dirty, propaganda engine.

So if we’re going to point fingers at the government’s failure to include the word ‘Education’ in Ministerial titles, we should probably spend a bit of time looking at the linguistic tactics of the Opposition – which are far more revealing.

In this ‘kinder, gentler’ polity, this ‘collegial’ atmosphere, those tactics make it very clear what the Opposition really plans to do for the next three years. Abbott didn’t even bother to deny it this morning on ABC radio. He made it clear that the Coalition still consider themselves a ‘government-in-waiting’ – and now, they’re just waiting to step in when ‘inevitably’ the government loses the confidence of the Independents. (He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that, even if there is a loss of confidence, the Independents won’t automatically turn around and crown him Prime Minister.)

In the meantime, the Opposition appear to be doing everything they can to undermine the government even before the new Parliament sits for the first time – and the use of ‘slogan’ Shadow Ministry title is just another weapon in that attack.


Open thread – election priorities

July 25, 2010

I’m still plowing through the various announcements of the ALP on climate change, so in the meantime I’m throwing open this thread.

We’re hearing a lot about ‘what Australians want’, this election – yet I don’t recall many of us actually being asked. So in this open thread, I’m asking the question:

What are your top three election priorities?

To kick it off, mine are (in no particular order):

Restoration of student services and financial relief for tertiary students

Targeted funding to address the widening gap between services available in public and private schools

Mental and dental health care available to those who can’t afford the incredibly high fees that providers charge.


Labor policy – national trade cadetships

July 21, 2010

Over the last two days, Julia Gillard has outlined the ALP’s policy on apprenticeships and trade training. Yesterday, she announced National Trade Cadetships, and today, official work experience places. Both of these were announced at press conferences, where details were verbally conveyed. The policy document on the cadetships can be found here on the ALP website.

The scheme will have two streams, foundation cadetships and pre-apprentice cadetships.

Foundation cadetships are designed to assist students who may be considering some kind of trade career, but do not know what kind they want to pursue. It would teach basic skills like workplace health and safety, teamwork, and self-development, along with literacy and numeracy. The final structure would be developed by the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority (ACARA), the organisation responsible for developing the national curriculum, in conjunction with Skills Australia and various industry skills councils.

Pre-apprentice cadetships are targeted programs for those students who have already made a decision as to what type of trade career they wish to pursue. It would teach specific vocational skills within a group of trade ‘families’ (for example IT and construction). Like the Foundation cadetships, these would be developed by ACARA in conjunction with relevant industry skills councils. They would also be accredited courses as pathways to formal apprenticeships, with credit recognised for achieving competencies in areas such as occupational health and safety.

Both forms of cadetship can be undertaken alongside the usual school curriculum. Alternatively, they can be used to fast-track towards a desired career.

According to the figures quoted in the policy, this initiative will cost $3.1m over 2 years.

At the end of the policy was an attack on the proposal announced by the Coalition to close existing trade training centres and scrap plans for new ones, as well as a claim that the Howard government’s technical schools program had failed. It ran for half a page as a series of bullet points.

The cadetships proposal goes hand-in-hand with the Trade Training Centres (TTC) program, which has come in for quite a bit of criticism. Of a promised 2650 centres (one for each secondary school), only 22 are projected to be up and running by next year. Another point of contention has been raised by the Liberal Party, which claims that these centres merely duplicate existing vocational arrangements in schools, and the role of TAFEs.

The slow delivery of these centres is a big problem for Labor. Unless the rate of roll-out increases dramatically, Labor will have difficulty meeting its commitments for cadetships by 2012. This could set back the cadetships program even further, and may even result in a failure of the project.

The question of duplication of service is a bit more slippery, however. The TTC program is designed to either build new centres or upgrade existing arrangements for vocational education in schools. The funds allocated to the program are constrained – they can only be used for equipment or capital works programs, such as rewiring old buildings or constructing new ones. The program guidelines specifically state that applications for funding must avoid ‘duplication of existing infrastructure’.

On the question of the cadetships program itself, a potential pitfall exists. Students who elect to pursue a cadetship rather than continue their secondary education may find, down the track, that they have painted themselves into a corner. If transition to formal apprenticeships is not facilitated, those students may be in a position where they are specifically, but not generally skilled. This could materially affect their chances of future employment.

Now admittedly, this is a nit-pick. Students would have the option of side-by-side training and secondary education. The foundation cadetships also provide basic skills applicable to a wide range of occupations, avoiding the problem of over-specialisation. It is a concern, though. If the program were implemented, students should be informed of their choices and their potential consequences.

Following on from the cadetships proposal, today Gillard announced that a Labor government would introduce up to 50,000 official work experience places, each lasting for 2 weeks, to commence from 2012. This would be administered by existing group training organisations, who are currently responsible for helping students finding apprenticeships. Undertaking work experience under this program would be accredited towards completion of a Certificate course.

Work experience, of course, is nothing new. It has existed for decades as part of the Australian secondary school system. I remember spending two weeks at The Age delivering mail, making coffee and occasionally being pressed into service as a copy-typist when the workload increased (most memorably, taking dictation of a very long report from Parliament from Michelle Grattan – a formative experience, perhaps). These arrangements have generally been made on an ad hoc basis, however. Students may work alongside their parents, or approach local businesses. Occasionally, organisations such as the Leader group of newspapers will offer a limited number of places.

Labor’s program attempts to impose a formal structure on this arrangement, specifically targeted at trades occupations. Students would not have the pressure to make their own arrangements. Additionally, it would go a long way to resolving the problem of a student being stuck in a work experience position that neither interests them, nor facilitates a career choice.

It is projected to cost $25m.

The program, of course, depends on TTCs, just like the cadetships proposal. Because of this, it is vulnerable to the same potential problems of delay or failure. On the face of it, though, there is little to criticise here apart from the time taken to roll out the program. In itself, the work experience idea seems sound.


Ozvote ’07 – Foreign Affairs & Education debates

November 16, 2007

The debates are coming thick and fast. So is the increasingly strident rhetoric. Sadly, the policies are pretty thin on the ground.

Good examples of this came in yesterday’s two debates – between Alexander Downer and Robert McLelland on Foreign Affairs, and Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith on Education. Far from anything concrete which the voter could use to assess real prospects for the future, we got a combination of lies, damn lies and insults.

You’ll have to forgive me if my tone gets a little flippant or scornful. What I saw yesterday was – unequivocally – the low point of the campaign. So far.

First, the Foreign Affairs debate.

Downer opened with some stirring nationalism – our single pillar is Australia. (He didn’t explain what this meant.) After asserting that Labor had 3 pillars (again, not explained), he went on to give us the now-familiar Shiny List of Good Stuff the Howard Government’s Done. We have good relationships with countries in the region. We have doubled our exports. We have Free Trade agreements with the US, Singapore and Thailand, which helps us lift people out of poverty in other countries.

Then came the whoppers. According to Downer, the following can also be listed among the great Coalition achievements. We have secured our borders. We are fighting effectively against terrorism – in fact, we are dealing major blows to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and we have caused a ‘dramatic decline’ in terrorism in Indonesia. (In an aside, he mentioned offhandedly that he wouldn’t be making submissions to the Indonesian government to have the condemned Bali bombers’ death sentences commuted.) And we are leading the fight against climate change.

(I pause for the picking up of jaws from the floor.)

Labor, in Downer’s view, doesn’t like trade. It doesn’t like helping foreign governments. Its priorities are wrong. Labor wants countries to be dependent on us. It’s inexperienced. It’ll send us into an uncontrollable decline on the world stage. Only the Coalition can save us now.

McLelland’s opening–- again, now familiar with Labor speakers – was delayed by his detailed thanks to the Chair, the audience, his opponent and Mrs Downer, who was apparently present to support her husband. He commented on how governments of both ‘persuasions’ had helped build Australia’s international reputation. Pleasantries over, the knives came out.

The Howard government acts contrary to Australian values. We don’t lead the way in climate change – in fact, we are international pariahs for our failure to ratify Kyoto. We are not succeeding in Iraq – it’s a disaster, said McLelland, and rolled out the appalling statistics of civilian deaths, military deaths, displaced people and overall cost. He quoted former Australian commander in chief Peter Cosgrove and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who have both said publicly that they believe our involvement in Iraq has increased the likely threat of terrorism.

McLelland warmed to his subject, condemning the Howard government for never clearly defining our objectives, for not supplying clear direction to our troops, for being the only government in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ without an exit strategy, and for using the excuse that sanctions had failed to invade Iraq – when in fact, the Australian Wheat Board (whose export license was granted by Downer) was undermining sanctions with its kickbacks and rorts. Having delivered this indictment, McLelland used the last minutes of his speech to say that Labor would lead in global negotiations on climate change, and implement an exit strategy on Iraq.

Question time followed, whereby Downer repeatedly stated that the Iraq war is succeeding – or at least, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, that he didn’t ‘deep-six’ a proposal for worldwide nuclear disarmament, that the techniques used by our intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies in interrogating detainees are ‘consistent with our human rights standards and civil liberties’–- and that his government objects if they see others not applying the same standards. (He did not, of course, mention the US government’s redefinition of ‘torture’.) McLelland reiterated his Message of Doom – the Asia-Pacific region is self-destructing, Iraq is a disaster, Iran has been emboldened by our meddling in the Middle East, and the sky is falling.

A moment of levity relieved an otherwise tedious debate of ‘is so! is not!’, when a journalist asked Mr Downer to speak French (a sly poke at Downer’s previous criticism of Kevin Rudd’s greeting the Chinese leadership in Mandarin at APEC). Downer obliged by introducing himself. McLelland, not to be outdone, quipped, “I can’t speak Mandarin – although I have eaten one or two in my time”.

The only other moment of interest was the question that utterly blindsided Downer – did he now accept that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war was a mistake, and did he accept that there were parallels with the situation in Iraq as regards military action based on deliberately distorted intelligence? Knowing what he knows now, did he regret Australia’s involvement in Iraq?

Downer, clearly unprepared for the question to come in that form, floundered for a bit, laughing about ‘Oh no, I’ll be asked about the Battle of the Somme next!’. When he did answer, however, he reiterated his party line – Saddam=bad, invasion=good – without once answering the question.

McLelland’s response was stronger. On Vietnam, he was unequivocal – it was a mistake. On Iraq, he pointed out that even the US Secretary of Defence had questioned the decision to invade – and then he repeated his party line – invasion=bad, Iran=scary.

There was very little in the way of policy announcement during the debate – in fact, nothing we didn’t already know. The Coalition will stay in Iraq, and pursue Free Trade Agreements with many more countries, including China and India. Labor will pull 1/3 of our troops out of Iraq, leaving the rest in ‘overwatch’ and ‘support’ positions, but out of combat. Downer was self-congratulatory, McLelland was the Voice of Doom. And so it went.

Commentators noted afterwards that the two had been ‘playing for a draw’. The only difference was that Downer simply couldn’t avoid scoring an ‘own goal’ on Iraq – after all, he was hardly likely to undermine the party line.

The Education debate wasn’t much better.

Julie Bishop opened with the Shiny List, and the Dream for a Better Tomorrow. Mixed in with the ‘imagine this’ motif were the lies. In this case, however, her lies were even more outrageous than Downer’s. Australia is ranked in the ‘top handful’ of OECD countries that invest in their education system. The Coalition has increased funding for schools and universities every year since gaining power. It has ‘rekindled an interest in Australian history’. Universities are in the best financial situation ever.

(I pause again – are your jaws getting sore yet? Mine were.)

Bishop segued effortlessly from happy-fluffy land to warnings of Teh Evil on the horizon. ‘We’ must get away from ‘state parochialism’. ‘We must break the nexus between unions and schools and the “one-size-fits-all’ approach to teachers”’. ‘We’ must liberate universities from the Dawkins/Labor ‘straitjacket’ of mediocrity. Most alarming of all, ‘we must move on from the fads and ideologies of the past twenty years’.

Smith’s opening, too, followed the predictable path. Thanks Chair, thanks Opponent, thank you linesmen, thank you ballboys. (Dear me, I am getting flippant.) Like Bishop, he rhapsodised about the Possibilities in Our Future – and immediately followed it up with the counter-statistics. Australia does not lead the world in education in any way – in fact, we’re either stagnating or going backwards. Our secondary school retention rate has not increased from its current figure of 75% in the last decade, we have rated last or equal last for investment in early childhood education in the OECD for the last six years, university funding is down while HECS costs are up, teacher qualifications are declining, etc.

With all the sledging, it was hard to pick out the policies – more often, both debaters criticised each other’s ideas or challenged their figures. This is the best I could do.

Bishop – technical colleges will be increased by 100. Universities will be encourage to seek sources of funding from business, so they are not ‘dangerously reliant’ on one form of revenue. The ‘progressive curriculum’ developed to date in secondary schools will be systematically removed and a national curriculum, controlled from Canberra and approved by Federal politicians, put in its place. Teachers will be paid using ‘innovative salary models’ that ‘reward excellence’. And she reiterated the ‘parents deserve a choice’ rap – adding, this time, the nasty implication that applying a means test to education-spending tax rebates would prevent parents from choosing private schools for their children.

(I’m just going to break in here. This is an utterly outrageous lie. Means testing would not prevent any parent from making the same choice of schools. What it would do is prevent the wealthiest parents from gaining yet another tax break on something they’d be doing anyway. To suggest that means testing would somehow hurt ‘ordinary Australian parents’ is nothing short of deceptive.)

Smith – full-fee domestic places at university will be abolished. Absolutely no deregulation of fees with low-cost loans schemes to fund universities. A national school curriculum is absolutely necessary, but must not be written by politicians – under a Labor government, the curriculum would draw on the existing good programs and be mutually agreed to by State, Territory and Commonwealth governments as well as representatives of Catholic and independent schools. Existing teachers will be retrained and upskilled, and the image of the profession will be rehabilitated.

Smith also did something that rated highly with many commentators. When Bishop brought up the notorious ‘hit list’ of the Latham leadership (in which Commonwealth funding would be taken from private schools and given to government ones), Smith unequivocally stated that he accepted the policy was ‘wrong’ and ‘divisive’ – and guaranteed it would not be reinstated.

(Breaking in again. I liked the Hit List. I thought it was a bloody good idea for government funding to go to government schools, rather than supplementing the already comfortable financial position of private ones. Nonetheless, a willingness to own up to past mistakes counts for a lot.)

Yes, those were the highlights. Sad, huh?

The stand-out from both these debates was the level of lying that was undertaken by the Coalition speakers. Both Downer and Bishop flew in the face of all reports about the dire state of both our education system and the war in Iraq – and they did so without apology and without regard for the Australian people. Whatever the intended message, I think it’s fair to say that viewers came away from those debates with a sour taste in their mouths. No one likes being lied to – and no one likes being taken for a fool.


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