Cyclone Yasi and some thoughts on those ‘religious explanations’

February 3, 2011

First, on a personal note …

My brother and his family live in Townsville, on the Ross River. They decided not to evacuate ahead of Cyclone Yasi, because their house is made according to new building codes specifically designed to withstand cyclones – and because there were a lot of other people who needed those evacuation shelters. Besides, their home is far enough from the river that it would take a truly horrific storm surge or flood to inundate them – and that wasn’t predicted. So they moved their valuables upstairs, laid in supplies and settled down in the laundry to wait it out.

Cyclone Yasi made landfall around midnight last night, but even before then, they were being lashed by strong winds and nearly horizontal rain. They lost the landline early in the evening. We kept in touch during landfall, and then I managed to get a bit of sleep before hearing from him again at dawn, Townsville time. My poor niece, who’s about the same age as my youngest daughters, was terrified – she kept saying to her Dad that she didn’t want him to go to sleep, because then he couldn’t keep her safe.

All we could do down here in Melbourne was keep sending our love to her.

This morning there’s a lot of damage in terms of trees and power lines down, and debris is everywhere. Part of the ceiling will need to be replaced, and it’ll be a while before they get their landline back, apparently. They’ve been asked to conserve water, since the water treatment plant has lost power and several pipes were damaged.

People slightly north of them didn’t get off so lightly. Early reports say the towns of Cardwell and Tully are devastated. No reported loss of life at this stage, though, which is a huge relief.

All in all, my brother’s family are very fortunate – so far. Winds are still high, and they’re still watching the river nervously, as another storm surge is due soon and the rain is bucketing down. He texted me a little while ago to tell me that the river, which he can see from his front room, was running backwards. Apparently the tidal surge, backed by the high winds, had enough force to push against the natural flow.

Again, we’re back to a waiting game.

At this point, I just want to have a bit of a rant. I know I’m sleep-deprived, and wobbling between relief that my loved ones are safe, apprehension that it’s not over and they may still be flooded out, and sorrow about what I’m learning about the damage in the region.

Nevertheless …

I can understand why people seek some kind of transcendent explanation for disasters, both personal and regional. Certainly the Twitter feed last night was full of messages to the effect of, ‘Jeeeeeeeez, what has Queensland done to deserve this?’ We want to believe there’s some kind of reason that terrible things happen. Part of the healing/grieving process afterwards always involves this kind of questioning.

But frankly, the idea that people can just blithely waltz uninvited into the middle of someone else’s pain with glib explanations about ‘God’s plan’ or ‘God’s punishment’ is offensive. It’s bad enough we get people like Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella and Greens leader Bob Brown duelling climate change theories while Queenslanders are sandbagging their homes or digging bodies out of the mud. We don’t need religion as well.

People might be out there on the internet posting about their situation on Facebook and Twitter. They might be telling perfect strangers standing in front of them in the supermarket queue how worried they are about their relatives in the cyclone zone. In the immediate aftermath, they might laugh distractedly or burst into tears and babble into a microphone for a reporter. If people choose to share that fear and trauma with others, it’s their way of coping, of reaching out. They want to know that someone out there hears them and acknowledges what they’re going through – even if it’s only someone with a weird username like ‘Bobluvsballoons999′ who they don’t know and will never talk to again.

And if they want to seek transcendent explanations, they’ll ask. They’ll go to their churches, ring their clergy, ask friends who share their faith.

They don’t want to be told that the reason their family is in serious danger is because we have an atheist Prime Minister and an ‘openly gay’ Greens leader, so we’d better turf them out and make a good, heterosexual, Christian man the leader of our country. (That one came courtesy of Danny Nalliah and Catch the Fire Ministries; but the disgusting Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t far behind with its howling, gleeful condemnation).

They’re not interested in platitudes about the-Lord-working-in-mysterious-ways-His-wonders-to-perform, or how there’s a Lesson in this for all of us. They don’t want to hear about how all this was predicted in Revelation and by the way, it’s repentance time, step right this way, we have counsellors waiting to pray with you.

They couldn’t care less that their situation is so much less horrible than what’s going on in Egypt or Brazil or wherever, and they should be thankful.

And they’re particularly not interested in how these disasters are the harbingers of the Great New Age Ascension as Gaia births herself into a new Utopian Era and we should all come and ‘midwife’ the changes so that we can go the next level. As if the terror of a little girl hearing her neighbourhood tear apart around her can be assuaged by telling her she can ‘level up’ and go play with the benevolent aliens – assuming she survives.

So all you proselytising, insensitive bastards … take your religion and peddle it elsewhere.

You don’t get the right to capitalise on people’s pain any more than politicians do. You’re not entitled.

You want to help? Pull on some gumboots and fill some sandbags. Get into the disaster areas and help with cleanup. Sit silently beside someone who’s crying their eyes out and hand them tissues and a cup of tea. Wear your uniforms or your badges if you must, so that anyone who wants to find you can do so, but don’t you dare presume that gives you an invitation to spruik your particular philosophy.

You’d be the first to exclaim at how unfeeling it would be if a bunch of particularly militant atheists fronted up to tell disaster victims that there was no God, it was all just blind chance that they got hurt, so sorry.

Have some simple, decent, human compassion. Don’t hand them your carefully marked-up Bible or waft your patchouli-drenched crystals over them. Give them a hug, bring them a blanket and make vaguely comforting noises.

Then leave them alone. Believe me, if they want to find you, they will.


Unpacking Gillard’s green program cuts

January 31, 2011

All the focus right now is on the flood levy. Gillard’s announcement last week that for one year, Australians will pay a small amount to help fund rebuilding infrastructure in areas devastated by the recent floods is the topic of the moment.

The rural Independents want a promise of a permanent natural disaster relief fund in return for their vote. New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally wants a special deal so her constituents pay less than the rest of the country. The Opposition is determined to vote against the levy. In an extraordinary display of patronising false humility, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott even volunteered to help Gillard find more things to cut in the budget if it was too hard for her. If his intention was to portray himself as willing to be helpful, it backfired horribly – instead, he created an impression of someone with a superiority complex patting the ‘poor little girl’ on the head. It didn’t help that, over the weekend, he said that voting on the flood levy might be the opportunity his Coalition needs to oust Labor and get back into government.

But while all this is going on, the rest of Gillard’s announced plans to pay for flood recovery are flying under the radar. There was some initial comment from the Greens and the media, but it was quickly lost in the wrangling over the levy.

So let’s have a look at what else is part of this flood recovery package.

Funds will be redirected from infrastructure projects. In her address to the National Press Club, Gillard indicated six roads projects in Queensland would be delayed by one to three years, providing $325 million. Premier Anna Bligh endorsed these delays the same day as they were announced.

Gillard said she would announced a further $675 million, sourced from delays to existing projects, in the coming days.
She also announced caps on a series of programs, including the National Rental Affordability Scheme and the LPG Vehicle Scheme. In education, the Capital Development Pool and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council will be discontinued. Some existing programs – the Building Better Regional Cities and Priority Regional Infrastructure Program – will have their funds redirected to rebuilding flood-damaged infrastructure.

There’s been little, if any comment on this.

It’s the third part of the package, though, that has the Greens in particular hopping mad.

A whole suite of so-called ‘green’ programs are to be either scrapped, deferred or capped.

The Cleaner Car Rebate Scheme (dubbed ‘cash for clunkers’ by the media), Green Car Innovation Fund and the Green Start Fund will be scrapped.

The Solar Hot Water Rebate, Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute and Solar Homes and Communities Plan will all have their funding capped. She explained that for some programs, the ‘cap’ was actually a reduction in the total funds available, as demand had not been as high as anticipated.

Finally, the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships and Solar Flagships programs will be deferred.

It would be fair to say that much of Australia did a double-take when they heard this announcement. Although there is by no means ‘complete consensus’ on the effect of climate change on extreme weather, it’s safe to say the majority of people favour ‘greening up’, if only to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and tackle pollution. Add to that the facts that securing the Greens’ support was vital for Labor to form government, that the Greens will soon hold the balance of power in the Senate and look to be significant players in the upcoming New South Wales election – and Labor’s plan looks like political suicide.

At the very least, it seems to make no sense at all. Labor’s tried to position itself as serious about tackling climate change. Gillard’s rhetoric on the subject of a carbon price has an unmistakable ‘line-in-the-sand’ quality, and she has shown every sign of being willing to do whatever it takes to bring that about. Why, then, would she slash funds from programs linked to one of Labor’s avowed policy pillars??

The clue is in Gillard’s speech:

‘The key to these carbon abatement program savings is my determination to deliver a carbon price.’

All other initiatives, she asserted, flow from the establishment of a price on carbon. Indeed, the pressure of increased carbon costs practically guarantees investment in renewable energy.

Politically, this is a clear attempt to wedge the Greens. If they want programs to tackle climate change, they’ll need to support Labor’s eventual plan for a carbon price. It’s an incredibly risky move. Labor has to walk a fine line here to avoid alienating the Greens entirely, which could see us right back where we were under Kevin Rudd – with a hostile Senate pressuring the government from both the right and left.

Last time that happened, it brought down the Prime Minister. That Labor is willing to take that chance again may be a sign of Gillard’s confidence in her ability to sell something unpopular – or it may be a giant bluff.

This strategy may not have a formal name, but it’s familiar. It’s called ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’.

But politics aside, what are the practical consequences of the proposed cuts to these green programs?

By not going ahead with the Cleaner Cars Rebate, the government rids itself of a program that was unpopular from the start. Both the Opposition and the Greens rubbished the proposal, which would see car buyers given a modest rebate when they traded in old cars for newer, greener models. A similar program in the US suffered cost blowouts, and was widely seen to have done little to encourage drivers to choose energy-efficient vehicles. Although this program was part of Labor’s election promises, breaking it is unlikely to attract much criticism – especially given where the money will go.

And here’s a curious thing about that money – it was sourced, originally, from programs that included Solar Flagships and Carbon Capture and Storage. Both these programs are now slated for deferment as part of the flood recovery package.

Solar Flagships was scheduled to fund two large-scale solar power stations in 2011. This will now be delayed. Gillard has not said for how long, but confirmed that the project was not scrapped. The effect of the delay is difficult to calculate; it’s unknown how much time it would take to build the stations and get them connected to the national grid. Clearly, any further dependence on coal-fired power than is necessary presents a problem, however.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an initiative fraught with problems. Apart from being a technology which seems increasingly unviable, with limited – if any – application in Australia, there are now indications that existing installations are now leaking dangerously. Greens Senator Christine Milne noted back in 2008 that the problems with CCS could lead to increased costs for Australian taxpayers, since the government would be liable for any leaks.

Deferring funding to the Carbon Capture and Storage Institute gives the government a bet each way. If the technology does indeed prove unviable, there can be no claims of waste. If, on the other hand, the Institute starts making real headway with CCS, the government can re-allocate funding in the future. Either way, there are few practical problems associated with re-directing money from this program to flood recovery.

The Green Start program is another millstone around Labor’s neck. Set up to replace their failed Green Loans program, Green Start had already been largely scrapped over a month ago. Gillard’s announcement at the Press Club was really only the final nail in the coffin. Funding was set aside to compensate businesses who might be adversely affected by the closure of Rounds 1 and 2. What little remains will now go towards flood recovery.

The Green Cars Innovation program has had real problems. Widely seen as supporting the automotive industry at the expense of ‘real’ action on climate change, money already granted to companies has seen little in the way of results so far. Of only four cars supposed to be manufactured with the help of the program, only one (the hybrid Toyota Camry) is on the road. The others are due to roll out some time this year. The program has already had its funding lowered due to lower than expected demand, and came in for serious criticism from the Greens.

The capped programs, whose funding pools are to be reduced guided by lack of demand, are still in place. Expected uptake for the Solar Hot Water and Homes and Communities plans did not eventuate. It’s arguable that demand may increase, especially in the areas affected by floods. As things stand, however, the money is unspent and some is able to be re-directed. Unless installation of solar hot water skyrockets in the near future, there will still be rebates available. The government also leaves the way open for raising the ceiling at a later date if demand does increase.

So these cuts to green programs boil down to scrapping two programs that was unlikely to have much beneficial effect on emissions, scrapping another that would have closed down in a month’s time, lowering the ceiling on programs whose uptake was lower than expected, and deferring funding for an initiative fraught with technological problems. As noted above, the effect of deferring Solar Flagships is unknown.

Other ‘green’ programs remain in place. These include school solar funding, the Renewable Energy Venture fund, money for getting renewable power generators connected to the grid, tax deductions for business that improve their energy efficiency rating, new mandatory standards for vehicle emissions and power stations, and a substantial Green Building fund.

Whatever the real situation as regards these proposed program cuts and caps, the problem is that they look bad. The government needs to do a lot more to sell this part of its flood recovery package to parliament and the public alike. They could do worse than start by giving people the information they need to truly assess the effect of these changes.

But then again, asking a government to treat its people as intelligent human beings with a right to know the facts of any given situation has always been a big ask. And we’re all culpable in this – we’ve let our elected representatives get away for too long with giving us only half the facts. This needs to change – and this is as good an opportunity as the current government is ever likely to get.


Open mouth, insert foot: Bob Brown on the floods

January 17, 2011

In the last week we saw three-quarters of Queensland devastated by floods, with 20 lives lost and possibly more bodies still unrecovered. New South Wales and Tasmania were also hit, and Victoria is currently in the grip of its own flood crisis in the north and west of the state. Even Western Australia saw some flooding.

The damage bill is likely to be enormous – much of Queensland’s infrastructure will need to be rebuilt, and that’s without even taking into account private home repairs and rebuilding. Disruptions to industry will affect food production and export, as well as mining revenue.

During this time, politicians are taking care to watch their words very closely. Anna Bligh, Queensland’s Labor Premier, shows herself to be a competent and compassionate leader, completely on top of the situation and showing her empathy for the people of her state. As Liberal Party strategist Grahame Morris noted somewhat wryly, ‘It’s just as well for the Opposition that there isn’t going to be a state election any time soon.’

By contrast, Prime Minister Julia Gillard appears to periodically undergo personality suppression. Delivering announcements about monetary assistance from the Commonwealth, she looks robotic and aloof, especially comparing to Bligh. Nonetheless, she says all the right things – even if they do come off sounding a little like platitudes.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sounded a bum note when he visited Brisbane late last week. Interviewed by Sky’s Kieran Gilbert, Abbott made a point of saying how important it was to have a healthy budget surplus to deal with crises like the floods. In itself, that skated right up to the point of political commentary – but he followed it up by saying this (presumably the floods) was why he had always been skeptical of the current government’s ability to bring the budget back to surplus. It’s probably just as well for Gilbert that he couldn’t see the Twitter feed at that point, which exploded with advice that boiled down to, ‘You’re standing on a balcony, toss him over!’ No one, it seemed, wanted to hear political spin while the Brisbane River was flooding the streets of Queensland’s capital and lives were being lost.

Later, Abbott was heard to quote a Bible verse in which the writer observes that God makes it rain on both the good and evil alike. Perhaps he meant it philosophically. It sounded flippant.

But the Foot-in-Mouth Award in the current situation really has to go to Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens. During an interview, Brown delivered a truly stunning argument that went something like this. Burning coal puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases warm the ocean – its temperature is demonstrably going up. When this happens, the weather gets more extreme. More extreme weather = the kind of floods going on right now. The solution? Institute the originally-planned mining tax right now, and make the coal mining companies pay for rebuilding the infrastructure.

Let’s leave aside the whole ‘is-the-climate-changing-and-is-it-our-fault’ debate right now, because that’s not really the point. It’s not about the truth or otherwise of Brown’s assertions. It’s about what many saw as – at best – an incredibly tactless comment, and at worst as a blatant political act devoid of compassion.

Brown’s motives were surely well-intentioned. After all, if you’re looking for a way to drive home the dangers of unchecked climate change, the floods are a perfect example. It’s difficult to deny that something extraordinary is going on. Perhaps if he’d simply observed that the terrible toll taken by the floods showed how important it was for us to address climate change to avoid the same kind of disasters in the future, he would have gotten a better reception.

By going further and suggesting what was obviously designed to be punitive action against the coal industry, Brown undermined his own message. Suddenly it wasn’t about dealing with current and future crises, but about sticking it to one of the Greens’ perceived ‘enemies’. He unwittingly confirmed every hysterical stereotype of the ‘greenie’ – more concerned about the ‘environment’ than human lives, seeing ‘global warming’ at every turn and willing to use tragedy to prove a political point and bash big business. At that point, any truth contained in Brown’s original message becomes lost – and the way is open for others to claim the moral high ground.

Ralph Foreman, representing the Coal Association, appeared on PM Agenda this afternoon to do just. Now wasn’t the time for ‘emotional’ and ‘off-the-cuff’ rhetoric, he suggested. We don’t know that these floods are caused by climate change – we should let the scientists do their work. After all, the coal industry supports the idea of action on climate change – they’ll ‘work with anyone’ on a carbon price – but Brown’s comments are ‘not the sort of irrational thinking that we want to see introduced into this debate’.

Foreman went on to point out how much his industry would suffer as a result of the floods. It will take weeks to pump out the mines and an unknown time to make infrastructure repairs. All the time the companies will take ‘a substantial hit’ to their revenues – Queensland’s state revenues will be affected by the loss of royalties. Nonetheless, coal companies are already contributing ‘substantially’ to the Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal, and expect to give more money.

In that one interview, the coal industry managed to position itself as a rational and mature participant in the climate change debate, as well as a victim of the floods doing its best to pitch in and help everyone else recover. Brown – and by extension, the Greens – were successfully painted as callous and out of touch with reality.

Andrew Bolt and his ilk must have been fairly dancing for joy when they heard Brown’s comments.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Brown is the kind of mindless hippie fanatic certain news outlets like to suggest he is – far from it. But in calling for a tax clearly designed to punish the coal mining industry, Brown played into the hands of those very people. It was an extraordinarily naive thing to do, and I can only speculate as to what prompted it.

Maybe he was shocked at the extent of the floods. Maybe it was frustration – he looked at something that might have been much less dreadful if climate change had been tackled earlier. Maybe he was tired. Or maybe it was just a case of his mouth running ahead of his inner media advisor in the heat of an interview.

Whatever his reasons, Brown and the Greens now have to quickly move into damage control mode. They need to be out there doing the rounds of the media clarifying his remarks – and taking the hits. Brown needs to acknowledge that what he said was at least ill-advised, and show that he is mindful of how the floods nearly crippled one state, and badly disrupted others.

The Greens have made a huge tactical error. The coal industry has already capitalised on it – and when the time comes to look at the mining tax and carbon tax in Parliament, the odds are good that the Coalition will do the same thing. Abbott has a perfect opportunity to position his party as more ‘humane’ than the Greens – they care about people, not making cheap political points. (Yes, yes, I know, but how often have we heard that?) There’s real potential for central reforms of the Gillard government to be fatally undermined. The Coalition have already signalled their unwillingness to come to the negotiating table – the last thing the Greens should do is provide them with a justification for doing so.

Right now very few people want to hear theories about La Nina, or climate change, or whether more flood mitigation dams might have saved Gatton and Grantham from being virtually wiped out. People have been killed, lost their homes, their livelihoods, and whole communities are gone. Queensland in particular has only just begun to count up the cost of rebuilding. Some people at this point don’t know where they will live. In such situations, people want to hear that their elected representatives understand what’s happening and are doing everything they can to make things better. They’ll punish anyone who takes their pain and turns it into a political point, no matter what party they belong to or what they believe.

The human face of this disaster is what was lost when Brown started to talk about climate change and mining taxes – now he needs to bring it back.


Nuclear power or same-sex marriage? Why choose?

December 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it gets nastier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, of course, it’s UTTER RUBBISH.

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

I shouldn’t even have to ask that question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vicvotes 2010 – the count semi-live

November 27, 2010

The Victorian election is over. We’ve cast our votes, been thoroughly drenched, and now it’s all down to the counting. Right now I can confidently predict many, many absentee days in the coming week due to colds and hangovers.

6.00pm

A Sky News exit poll delivered a staggering 54-46 win to the Coalition.

8.00pm

Sky is happily calling the election for the Coalition. ABCNews24 is more circumspect – but they just lost their internet feed, so right now they’re flannelling wildly. The Twitterverse is making helpful suggestions, like ‘Give Antony Green an iPad and wireless – STAT!’

Even though it’s still early days, there looks to be a big swing on to the Coalition.

Maxine Morand, ALP candidate for Mount Waverley, has all but conceded.

Independent Craig Ingram in East Gippsland has thrown in the towel, delivering his seat to the Liberals.

The ABC is showing 10 seats tipping to the Coalition.

It appears that the Greens, who were tipped to pick up Brunswick and Northcote, may well have been scuttled by the Liberals’ preferencing the ALP. Melbourne is still in play, but it’s very very early days yet.

I … am drinking.

8.30pm

With the loss of Craig Ingram, the only Independent in the Victorian Lower House has gone, replaced by a National MP.

The ABC have all but called the election for the Coalition. With nearly 30% of the votes being cast in pre-polls, some close seats may swing, but the overall result appears to be a resounding dictionary.

Labor has conceded South Barwon.

Weirdly, Sky has dropped back to a somewhat more cagey stance, handing the Coalition 37 out of the required 45 seats.

Approximately 50% of the vote has been counted. At most, 70% can be counted tonight.

9.00pm

Possibly the single most sickening part of this election count is the Twitter feed. It’s one thing to express joy, or even relief, when your preferred party gets up. It’s another to indulge in rabid insults and schadenfreude. Why laugh at the Greens or Family First because there’s been a swing against them? Why gleefully announce that Labor voters would be committing suicide? It’s not a laughing matter.

And yes, I’d say the same thing if Labor voters were indulging in the same behaviour.

9.30pm

Things you can kiss goodbye for the next four years:

Any hope of Victoria following the lead of South Australia in officially supporting same-sex marriage.

Home detention and suspended sentences.

Double jeopardy. The Coalition have promised to institute new legislation so that someone acquitted in a court of law can be re-tried for the same crime.

Any hope of a conscience vote on euthanasia.

Qualified psychological counsellors in schools – principals will have the discretion to put in their own welfare officers, who do not need to have formal counselling or social work training.

Things you can look forward to for the next four years:

Increased stop-and-search powers for police.

Unprecedented powers for school principals to search, confiscate, suspend and expel students.

Police surveillance for anyone who has served a sentence for arson-related offences.

9.45pm

The ABC says 48 seats for the Coalition.

Sky says ALP 43, Coalition 42, with 3 in doubt.

Things are definitely weird when the Murdoch vehicle won’t call it for the Coalition. And Peter Reith, former minister in the Howard government (infamously associated with the waterfront lockout), commented that he thought the ABC was ‘premature’ to call it so early.

10.00pm

Sky … ALP 43, Coalition 44. 1 in doubt.

If the ALP picks up that seat, we would have a hung Parliament.

Rob Hulls, currently Attorney-General, just took the stage at Labor HQ in Broadmeadows. He’s saying it’s too close to call, and will depend on pre-poll votes. ‘Our government has been sent a clear message from Victorians … we understand that we need to do better … Labor has heard the message.’ His prediction? Hung Parliament.

The big question is: where is John Brumby??

During Hulls’ speech, Sky dropped its numbers to ALP 40, Coalition 43, with 5 in doubt.

10.30pm

Commentators are backing off with astonishing rapidity from their original calls. Whether Hulls’ speech convinced them, or they are having to take into account new numbers, is an open question – but now the phrase ‘hung Parliament’ features in their conversations.

Interestingly, the idea of a hung Parliament seems to automatically carry with it the accusation that voters are ‘indecisive’. There’s little room for the possibility that people may have started to shake off the idea that a two-party result is the only viable result for workable government. Minority government is very, very common around the world, and hardly unheard of here in Australia. Is it fear of abandoning the known for the new?

Sky keeps putting seats back in doubt as margins narrow. If this election has taught us anything, perhaps it’s that premature announcements are good for only one thing – keeping the graphics department in television stations busy.

And here is where I prove I’m psychic: if we do end up with a hung Parliament, the first words out of the Coalition’s mouths will be, ‘The Victorian people have given us a mandate, because we won more seats’.

11.00pm

Not five minutes after my prediction, Kelly O’Dwyer uttered the ‘mandate’ mantra.

A very quick-and-dirty crunch of the numbers shows that the Australian Sex Party have a chance of picking up Legislative Council seats in both the Northern and Western Metropolitan regions. This, of course, does not include pre-polling.

Brumby has just taken the stage at Labor HQ. He’s running with the ‘too close to call, likely hung Parliament’ strategy.

Of course, a hung Parliament in this case will most likely mean we go back to the polls around Christmas time. Brumby knows this – that’s why he and Hulls are taking the time to go through their policy agenda, laying the groundwork.

11.30

Baillieu has taken to the stage. ‘The election result may be uncertain,’ he says, mugging furiously for the cameras as raucous laughter erupts in the room. Actually, I’d have to agree with the tweeter who remarked that the mood was ‘feral’. Unlike Brumby and Hull, Baillieu is full of nothing but self-congratulation. To hear him talk, you’d think that the Liberals have already won in a landslide. Now, the swing against Labor is substantial, and definitely reflects badly on the government – but there is no result yet, and Baillieu is coming off as unbelievably arrogant. He’s completely unable to speak about any other party with anything but contempt.

Labor only held onto many of its seats because of Greens preferences, according toa sneering Baillieu, and the room erupts again with boos and angry shouts. There’s a definite Tea Party vibe in Liberal HQ tonight. Curiously, Baillieu forgets to mention that Labor has held some inner-city seats because of Liberal preferences.

12.00am

No result. Counting continues into the night, but it’s time to close out this blog post.

Waking up will be interesting tomorrow.


We don’t need your permission, Your Holiness

November 22, 2010

Although this post doesn’t directly bear on Australian politics, it does relate to some of the issues surrounding the imminent Victorian state election. Parties are positioning themselves on issues relating to human sexuality. The most obvious, of course, is same-sex marriage. Saturday’s Equal Love rally in Melbourne saw State Education Minister Bronwyn Pike break ranks with her party to speak out. She was joined by Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens. In contrast, the Democratic Labor Party went on Sky News to strongly oppose same-sex marriage on religious and (increasingly spurious) cultural grounds, and Ted Baillieu, speaking for the Coalition, simply issued a blunt ‘no, I don’t support it’.

Same-sex marriage isn’t the only such issue, however. In the seat of Richmond, Greens candidate Kathleen Maltzahn has taken aim at sex workers, and the Sex Party in particular for putting forward policies targeted at securing rights and protections for them.

Adoption by same-sex couples is also on the table. Premier John Brumby has already flagged his intention to review the laws surrounding this issue, and both the Sex Party and the Greens have policies calling for same-sex couples to be treated as equal under the law.

And that’s without going into abortion policy, access to reproductive technology, sex education and surrogacy!

Sexuality, it seems, is a bigger issue than it might appear in the Victorian election. It probably pales in comparison to people’s preoccupation with an efficient and comprehensive public transport system, but it’s there. People are thinking and talking about it.

With all that in the air, recent statements by the Pope deserve a closer look. There are a lot of Catholic voters in Victoria, and at least one political party – the DLP – with its roots firmly in the Catholic Church and its doctrines. And while, at first glance, the Pope’s words might not seem at all related to any of the above, take a closer look.

The Pope now thinks it’s okay ‘in some circumstances’ to use condoms. How nice of him. But wait, just what are those circumstances?

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” said the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics …

“There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes.”

And this ‘softening’ of a hard-line anti-condom stance is being ‘cautiously welcomed’ by HIV activists and health experts. The AMA even likes it.

I don’t think so.

This isn’t any kind of softening. This is the Pope saying, ‘what you’re doing is wrong, and you get one chance to avoid the wages of sin. I’m being generous here – I’m letting you use a condom but you’d better come to your senses.’

Gosh, whatever can he be talking about? Oh wait, of course, he’s talking about anal sex between men. Which is, of course, wrong. His one example is a little homily about a rentboy – who, implicitly, is infected with HIV – who might be ‘allowed’ to wear a condom so he doesn’t spread the disease to any of his clients. Of course, the Pope’s not condoning it, oh no. He wants said rentboy and his clients to realise that, by generously granting permission to protect themselves, they are expected to – what was the phrase – develop a ‘more humane’ sexuality. In other words, stop what you’re doing and be heterosexual or celibate.

And make no mistake, the Pope’s not saying the client gets to use the condom. No, no, it’s the filthy whore who needs to protect the client – who, after all, can be redeemed. Never mind that sexually-transmitted HIV has to come from somewhere, usually the client – in Pope World, just making yourself available for paid sex appears to automatically ensure you’re infected.

Of course, female prostitutes don’t get a look in. They don’t get the special dispensation. And why should they? After all, this whole sorry mess came about because of a woman, didn’t it? It’s one thing to give men the chance to get on the straight and narrow, but a ‘fallen woman’ doesn’t get the same chance. They reap what they sow.

Oh, and forget about using condoms as contraception. The Church is rock-solid on that one. No special dispensations, either. You don’t want kids? You can’t have kids because it would endanger your life/pass on genetic abnormalities/send you to the poorhouse? You have one option – don’t have sex. Because we all know that sex only has one purpose, right?

There’s a lot of talk about how it might be a small thing, but at least people will be protected.

No, they won’t.

Contrary to Papal belief, most prostitutes are extremely careful about the use of condoms. Many will actually refuse a client who won’t wear a condom. (Oh but wait, the clients don’t have to, do they?)

Yes, there are exceptions – people who are victims of sexual trafficking, who don’t get that kind of choice, and people who are either too stupid or too uncaring to take precautions so that they don’t pass on the infection. Now, I’m going to give the Pope some credit for brains here. I’m going to assume that he doesn’t really think some trafficker of underage boys in Thailand will now sit up and say, ‘Hey, the Pope said it’s kind of okay to give my kids condoms, better go do that’.

So what’s the Pope’s real point?

This little pronouncement of the Pope’s – which the Church are already rushing to say isn’t ‘magisterial’ (i.e. insert disclaimer here) – isn’t some indicator that maybe his religion is finally waking up to a few realities of life. It’s not a ‘compassionate’ acknowledgment that there are terrible diseases out there that can destroy the lives of innocent people. (Remember, this is the same guy who said condoms didn’t protect anyone against AIDS, and banned his African followers from using them.)

This is about some kind of horrible pseudo-redemptive ‘lesson’. Some things aren’t permitted, and you’d just better consider yourself lucky that he’s giving you the chance to wake up and toe the line. After all, unless sexuality is ‘humanised’ – i.e., stop with the buttsex you filthy men – not even a condom will save you. If AIDS doesn’t get you, Hell will. And that goes double for sex workers.

And just to spell it out in really blunt language: this is not really about protecting anyone. Although the Pope – when asked – admitted that using condoms might ‘reduce infection’, he was very clear that the real purpose of this ‘permission’ is purely to give people enough time to repent. It’d be a good thing if people (see: men who have anal sex) didn’t infect others, but condoms are not a ‘moral solution’.

This is entirely in keeping with the Church’s historical aversion to the free exercise of sexuality between consenting adults. That the Pope is dressing it up with grudging little concessions doesn’t alter that one bit. It’s still about dictating what expressions of sexuality are permissible. To paraphrase a certain former Prime Minister: he will decide who gets to have sex, and under what circumstances they can have it.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find that just a tad offensive – particularly when it comes at a time when we are at last talking and acting on issues that have for too long been branded as ‘immoral’ or banished to the too-hard basket by politicians with both eyes on the numbers and none on the people.

So, Your Holiness? Take your oh-so-gracious, lesser-of-two-evils concession and shove it. We don’t need your permission to love each other. We don’t need your permission to protect ourselves from infections that have nothing to do with God and everything to do with blind shitty luck And we don’t need you to tell us we can’t have sex unless we’re prepared to risk pregnancy. We will care for each other without your ‘help’.

We live in the 21st Century, and you have no power over us.


Same-sex marriage – yes, it’s that important

November 15, 2010

Greens MP Adam Bandt will introduce a Marriage Equality Amendment bill into the House tonight. Simply put, the amendment will call for the definition of marriage to be changed in order to include same-sex marriages.

Both major parties have already signalled that they have no intention of supporting this bill. Neither will allow a conscience vote. Government Senator Mark Arbib, a former leader of the Labor right, said in an interview last week that he believed Labor should change this policy, and said he would raise the question at the next national conference in 2012. It’s possible that the parliamentary party could consider it sooner, but there’s no guarantee of that. Labor Senator Doug Cameron, an outspoken member of Labor’s left faction, rejected the idea of a conscience vote – because, he said, it is ‘absolutely crazy’ for the party not to endorse same-sex marriage. Even with pressure coming from both the left and right, however, Prime Minister Gillard stands firm. Labor policy does not support marriage equality.

The Coalition, for its part, remains in lockstep. No same-sex marriage. At all.

Given all this, Bandt’s bill looks utterly doomed. It won’t even make it to the Senate. Why, then, introduce it at all? Well, there are several reasons. There’s always the hope that someone might cross the floor to support it, even though it could well be political suicide (at least for Labor MPs). It keeps the issue alive in the Parliament. And – perhaps most importantly – it keeps the issue alive in the public sphere. It forces parliamentarians to keep justifying their stances, and subjects them to close scrutiny.

And on the subject of those stances – let’s take a long, close look. (And yes, I’m going to leave aside religious objections here – they have no place in a political debate in a secular parliament.)

The major justification for not supporting marriage equality hangs on two points: the ‘traditional’ view of marriage, and the definition of marriage as contained in the Marriage Act 1961 – or rather, the definition as amended:

Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.
Certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.

Let’s start with the second point. Because of the way marriage is defined in the Act, politicians argue it simply is not possible to allow same-sex marriage. Indeed, to hear people like Gillard talk, you might think that this definition is possessed of an eternal quality that binds even those who might disagree with it. ‘That’s just the way it is’ seems to be the way the thinking goes.

Reality check.

That definition, originally crafted by former Liberal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, did not exist in law until 2004. In fact, there was no definition of marriage. Ruddock’s amendment was, according to the Howard government, designed to bring the Act into line with common-law understanding. In other words, everyone ‘knew’ that marriage was between a man and woman, and it simply hadn’t been necessary to define it before.

That, of course, brings up a question: what made it necessary to define marriage as between a man and a woman in 2004? It was all about ‘protecting’ marriage – so what was the threat? Answer: the desire of same-sex couples to marry. This definition was brought into law – with the shameful, weaselly co-operation of the then Labor Opposition – purely to deny same-sex couples the right to formalise their relationships in the eyes of Australian law and society on an equal basis with mixed-sex couples.

So much for the immutable nature of Australian law.

And then there’s the rest of the definition, which is equally out of touch with Australian society. It presumes that a marriage will be lifelong, and that the partners will stay faithful to each other. One only has to look at the massive divorce statistics to see that this is far from true. One-third of marriages ends in divorce, and divorced partners often remarry. This is in clear violation of the definition of marriage – but do we see anyone in Parliament calling for tougher penalties for those who break that vow?

Of course not. The very idea is ludicrous – and politicians know that. It’s a rare MP who would stand up and argue that divorce should not be allowed in our society. Presumably, these representatives are aware of the definition of marriage – and yet they seem able to ignore that particular section.

So where is the consistency? The answer is short and brutal – there is none. Those who quote the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act as a good reason to deny same-sex couples equal rights are simply hiding behind it. Perhaps they have a religious objection that they don’t want to disclose, because they are worried they’ll lose votes – which goes beyond cowardly to downright deceptive. Perhaps they have a poll result that tells them they’ll win more votes by opposing same-sex marriage – in which case they should fire their pollsters. Galaxy’s 2010 poll showed that 62% of all those surveyed supported marriage equality, and 80% of respondents aged 18-24 years of age.

Or maybe it’s the ‘traditional view of marriage’ argument. After all, marriage has always been between a man and a woman, right? Think again. Even in so-called ‘Western’ society, same-sex relationships have had equal weight of law at various periods throughout history.

Another ‘traditional’ argument has a somewhat Darwinian slant. The most important thing a species can do is survive, right? And they do that by reproducing, right? So marriage is really about continuing the species – and therefore denying marriage to same-sex couples makes sense.

Wow. Where do I start? Let’s take that argument to its logical extreme. If we accept it, we would need to make sure that anyone seeking to marry was not only capable of reproducing, but would commit to doing so. No marriage for infertile people, or anyone not wanting to pass on genetic abnormalities, or even just not wanting to have children, for whatever reason. Oh, and if a marriage didn’t produce children, the licence would have to be revoked, and possibly some kind of penalty would be applied.

Absolute nonsense. The mere idea flies in the face of people’s essential rights to self-determination – and while those rights may not be enshrined in Australian law, they form the assumed basis for much of our social freedoms and protections. Why, it would be like denying couples of different races the right to marry! No sane, right-thinking person would dream of applying such a draconian regime.

Yet apparently ‘sane, right-thinking’ people don’t see that, in denying the right of same-sex couples of marry, they are doing exactly the same thing.

Exactly one week ago, Prime Minister Gillard announced that she would hold a referendum with a view to changing the words of our Constitution to acknowledge the first peoples, who have long been wrongly disenfranchised by our society. This was couched in terms of ‘respect’ and ‘healing’. To quote Gillard:

‘There’s a false divide between working practically and working to increase trust. In fact they go hand in hand … building trust can make practical things possible. To make a life you do have to feel that you are recognised and respected.’

Noble words, and a truly noble goal. (And I am absolutely not attempting to downplay the significance of this historic resolution.) Yet this is the same Prime Minister who hides behind the weaselly justification that she is bound by the amended definitions of the Marriage Act, and who tries to excuse that by talking about all the practical measures her government has put in place to remove discrimination against same-sex couples.

Apparently, she doesn’t see the hypocrisy of holding such a double standard. She doesn’t think allowing same-sex attracted people the same ‘symbolic’ right of marriage as is granted to other-sex attracted people has any value. At least, not any value that might justify the serious step of changing a definition in law that was only made in order to deny those rights. For Gillard, Abbott and the major parties, it’s enough to allow same-sex couples to be recognised by Centrelink – what else could they possibly want?

What else, indeed? Only the right to fully partake of Australian society without discrimination. Only the right to publicly show their commitment to a beloved other – and have that commitment recognised throughout the country. Only the right not to be treated as second-class citizens, ‘separate but equal’ (and what a filthy phrase that is).

As long as the government enshrines this discrimination, the tireless work of those who give their time, money and – sometimes, horribly – their lives to build trust, rapport and respect between all Australians regardless of their sexuality will continue to be undermined. It’s easy to look at other problems in Australia – continuing discrimination and disenfranchisement of indigenous people, the terrible burdens of living with mental illness or caring for someone with disability, and the dreadful racism against people of Muslim faith – and say that same-sex marriage is a ‘minor’ issue compared to what else is going on.

It’s not a minor issue – none of them are. It’s a matter of building what former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described as ‘a future that embraces all Australians … based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.’

And that’s why Bandt’s bill is so important, and why it, or something like it, must keep being presented to Australian Parliaments – both state and federal. It may be not be as ground-breaking as the Apology, but without it, we will never have that future.

(The GetUp ‘Marriage Matters’ campaign has a form where you can leave your local MP a letter urging him to support the amendment.)


Constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples – at last?

November 8, 2010

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that the government will take the first steps in keeping a key election promise, albeit one that gained almost no media attention. Australians will go to the polls to vote in a referendum aimed at changing the Constitution to recognise the first peoples.

Flanked by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and Attorney-General Robert McLelland, Gillard noted that the Constitution, the ‘foundation document of our system of government’, currently failed to recognise indigenous Australians. Although the Apology to the Stolen Generations was a critical step in healing the relationship between the first peoples and those who came to Australia later, she stressed that it was only one part of the process.

The government is putting a great deal of work into reforming early education, housing and services such as medical and mental health care (particularly in remote indigenous communities), but ‘More dollars are not enough,’ she said. It was necessary to reform the way those dollars were used, to help rebuilding the positive social and economic norms of family life. The next step, while continuing those practical measures, was constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

There was widespread community support and bipartisanship in the Parliament for this measure, she said. Former Prime Minister John Howard had spoken about it to the Sydney Institute in 2007. Tony Abbott supported it – in fact, it was part of the official policy suite the Coalition took to the last election, as did the Greens and Independent MPs. The notable exception in her list was Bob Katter, although Gillard did not elaborate on whether he opposed constitutional recognition or had simply not made his views clear on the subject.

As Robert McLelland pointed out, only eight referenda have ever been passed, out of 44 put to the Australian people to date. Crucially, he added, one of those that passed was the 1967 referendum recognising indigenous peoples as citizens, allowing them to vote. That constitutional change passed with around 90% support.

Part of this low number stems from the particular rules surrounding referenda. A proposition must first pass both Houses of Parliament, then be put to the people. In order to pass, it have the support of both a majority of the people and a majority of states. Territorians’ votes only count towards the national total. In at least five cases, failure to gain a majority of states defeated the referendum, even with overwhelming support from most Australians.

Gillard and McLelland were clearly aware of this potential problem. ‘If this [referendum] is not successful, there will not be another like it,’ Gillard warned. In order to head off any looming difficulties, she announced the establishment of an expert panel by the end of the current year. This panel will work throughout 2011 and report back to government by the end of that year. Made up of both indigenous and non-indigenous people, community leaders and constitutional experts, the panel will work with organisations such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and Reconciliation Australia.

Part of the panel’s remit includes the actual wording of the proposed constitutional change, but a major task will be to build consensus throughout the Australian community. ‘This conversation needs to involve all Australians, and we look forward to their input,’ Gillard said. Asked if this would include town hall-type meetings, she replied that the panel would largely determine its own methodologies. ‘We want to encourage debate and discussion in as many different forums as possible,’ Macklin added.

Macklin went on to say that the Prime Minister would be writing to the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Greens leader Bob Brown and the Independent MPs, inviting them to participate in this process. She said the government also welcomed suggestions from all members of the community as to who could be invited to serve in this capacity.

‘Respect is critical to close the gap,’ she finished up. Australia must improve practical issues such as health, education and jobs, but respect and self-respect were critical to the success of these reforms. It was necessary, she said, that the place of indigenous peoples’ place in Australian society ‘should be understood to be that special place that many of us already understand it to be’.

Gillard quashed the idea that this was mere tokenism. ‘There’s a false divide between working practically and working to increase trust,’ she said. ‘In fact they go hand in hand … building trust can make practical things possible. To make a life you do have to feel that you are recognised and respected.’

Undoubtedly there will be those who see a parallel between this expert panel and the one formed to investigate options for placing a price on carbon. They are identical approaches to different problems – both are designed to bring about a desired end, while seeking consensus from the Australian community. Whether people will raise the same objections, however, is debatable.

John Roskam from the Institute of Public Affairs, speaking on Sky News, was the first to raise public objection. The Constitution was ‘not a place for symbolism’, he argued, nor to ‘make important moral sentiments’. Australians could respect indigenous peoples, but were likely to be ‘very wary of tinkering with the Constitution to achieve a symbolic outcome’. Worst still, he suggested that the ‘practical implications’ of this proposal had not been considered. What if it created ‘two Australias’?

The ‘two Australias’ argument is particularly insidious. It plays on fear of difference – in effect, is indistinguishable from the arguments against multiculturalism during the Hawke/Keating years. If we recognise ‘they’ are different from ‘us’, then ‘we’ will be divided. ‘They’ might get special treatment, and ‘we’ will lose out.

Reconciliation Australia has some very good answers to these fears. Canada has long recognised its indigenous peoples in its Constitution. Treaties exist between the United States and around 390 indigenous tribes, and the Waitangi Treaty has been in force in New Zealand since 1840. None of these nations are splintering apart due to this recognition.

As for ‘special treatment’, Reconciliation Australia notes:

Acknowledging Indigenous Australians in the preamble in a way that recognised and valued their special place as the first Australians would not give them more rights than other Australians. Changing the body of the Constitution to include equality and protection from discrimination would give all Australians the benefit of better rights protections. (my emphasis)

Then there’s the question of whether changing the Constitution is ‘appropriate’. Roskam there did exactly what Gillard had warned against – created a divide between symbolic and practical measures. As Gillard pointed out, constitutional recognition is a matter of respect, and directly affected the relationship between first peoples and those colonists who arrived later. In reducing this proposition to ‘mere’ symbolism, he’s implying that the issue is too trivial for such an important document.

I imagine that those who voted against the 1967 referendum thought granting citizenship to indigenous peoples was ‘trivial’, too.

It’s absolutely outrageous that Roskam should treat the issue in this way. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda wrote passionately of how important constitutional recognition was to him.

Throughout school and civic life we are taught that the constitution is the fabric that holds us together. So what sort of message does it send when there is no recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our constitution? What message does that absence send after Australia lent its formal support in April last year to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

The potential, almost subliminal, messages people take away from it – especially younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – cannot be good for our self-esteem, sense of self-worth and value.

That pretty much sums it up, I think. This is far too important to be pissed away by xenophobia and racism disguised as ‘respect for the Constitution’.


Victorian Leaders’ Debate

November 7, 2010

Warning: contains flippant remarks.

Time for a look at my home state of Victoria now. With an election looming on November 27 that looks to deliver another significant result to the Greens, and perhaps another minority government, the major parties have repeatedly hammered home the point that they want to lead in their own right. It’s fair to say, however, that the Greens were the elephant in the room when the leaders’ debate between Premier John Brumby and Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu took place, with moderators and panellists repeatedly mentioning their likely effect on the election outcome.

In a nice touch of serendipity – or perhaps irony – the debate was held on the 5th of November.

The first question was predictable. Both leaders were asked why they deserved Victorian votes.

Ted Baillieu led off with a litany of Victoria’s woes. Although he was a ‘proud Victorian, a very, very proud Victorian’, Baillieu shook his head sadly over problems of violent crime, deteriorating country roads, a planning system that ‘cannot be trusted’, children in state protection being neglected, rising water and power bills, and – startingly – long and ‘secret’ waiting lists for hospital treatment. He slipped in some stock phrases from the Federal Liberal playbook about ‘endless waste and mismanagement’ before promising a series of law and order reforms guaranteed to warm the hearts of conservatives everywhere – more police on the streets, a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to violent crime (whatever that means), and tougher sentencing. After that he waxed lyrical with promises to do everything from fix country roads to changing how hospitals are managed and embraced the idea of a ‘modern, open accountable government’ that would put an end to ‘cover-ups, secrecy and incompetence’. In short, Baillieu promised to save the world.

John Brumby went for the folksy approach, regaling the panel with the story of how he’d visited apprentices at Geelong TAFE. These politically savvy and civic-minded young people represented all Victorians, it appears – what they wanted was a strong economy, good jobs and for Victoria to keep its AAA credit rating. Accordingly, Brumby pledged to create 300,000 new jobs over the next five years, pointing out for good measure that Victoria has – thanks to Labor – the lowest payroll tax rate in 36 years. It was important to keep the jobs coming, he asserted.

Something strange happened then. In a rare display of psychic power, Brumby started channelling Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He rhapsodised about the ‘transformative power’ of education, something he’d always been ‘passionate’ about, and felt was of intense importance to every Victorian. To prove it, he listed the government’s achievements – the placement of more than 10,000 new teachers and support staff into the system, new buildings and schools across the state, and more investment in education to ensure every child had the opportunity to gain ’21st century skills’ (though presumably, not the ability to use Twitter).

Ian Henderson, the moderator, indulged in a little forward planning at this point. He commented that there was now a third force in politics, not represented at the debate – though perhaps for the last time. This was no doubt welcome news to many Greens voters who already suffered through the Federal campaign with little attention. Why then, asked the moderator, are voters dissatisfied with the traditional duopoly?

Brumby refused to be drawn. Others could make that judgment, but the ALP was about putting forward ‘positive policies, especially ‘progressive social policies’.

Then the dance began in earnest. Baillieu, asked about where the Liberals would direct their preferences, went on the attack. There was a Greens/Labor alliance in Tasmania, and now one in Canberra. Labor had done deals in the past with the Greens!

Moderator: ‘So what will you do?’

Baillieu: ‘Mr Brumby needs to answer if he’s done another deal.’

Moderator: ‘I asked for your preferences.’

Baillieu: ‘The issue is, will John Brumby preference the Greens.’

Brumby chimed in, noting that Liberal preferences were likely to determine the outcome in inner city seats (as they did in the election of Greens MP Adam Bandt). This was ‘a raging issue’, he said; there was a crisis in the Liberal Party about where preferences should be directed.

‘I’ve never heard so much hypocrisy in my life!’ declared Baillieu, brandishing an ALP how to vote card from the last election that directed preferences to the Greens. ‘John Brumby has to delcare if another deal has been done’.

Moderator (with apparently infinite patience): ‘When will we find out what you’re doing?’

Baillieu (finally, in a grumpy tone): ‘Before the election.’

This ridiculous exchange went on, reaching its absurdest height when Baillieu declared that Brumby – in saying he had not spoken to the Greens, did not envisage a power-sharing deal with them and was competing to govern in his own right – was, in fact, ‘going out of his way’ to avoid answering a question on preferences. He seemed unaware of his own apparent inability to answer any question on Liberal Party preferences whatsoever. Asked about disillusionment in his own core support base, Baillieu snapped, ‘I don’t accept that, the question is for John Brumby, he’s had a long term relationship with the Greens’.

At that point the moderator and panellists gave up, but their expressions were unmistakable pictures of frustration and not a little disgust.

The debate moved on, and Brumby’s answers featured an interesting element not usually present in debates – the mea culpa. He acknowledged that he had spoken hastily and thoughtlessly when he told journalists they ‘didn’t need to know’ information about proposed new trams. Although he was right to withhold commercial-in-confidence information, he said, he should not have answered in that way. He also admitted that an Ombudsman’s report into child protection showed that his government was not doing enough, and that he’d moved to put new funding and new measures in place. Finally, when asked about Black Saturday, he said that it was clear the system had failed, and for that he was sorry, he accepted that responsibility and was committed to the best possible response in any future crises.

Baillieu constantly interrupted everyone else – in fact, his entire manner could best be described as ‘don’t waste my time’. He relentlessly pursued Brumby on the question of government advertisements, though was unable to name any ad that was a ‘Labor party political ad’. When Brumby was asked about the number of people in ‘communications’ jobs in the government (between 800-1000), Baillieu refused to accept his answer. Brumby pointed out that many people in communications were not concerned with the public at all, but rather keeping lines open between and within government departments, but Baillieu was adamant that it was about ‘spin’.

One feature of this debate was the ‘quick question’, which only allowed for a 30 second answer – and it was here that the debate really showed that it was out of touch with people’s concerns. While we spent 20 minutes listening to Baillieu not answer a question about Liberal preferences, we were given almost no time at all to hear the candidates’ views about adoption by same-sex couples. Baillieu simply rejected the idea. Brumby tried to cram some more information into his answer, which amounted to ‘I’m not sure, but I want the Law Review to look at it’.

Baillieu had his moment in the sun on law and order. Violence had been ‘normalised’, it was a ‘major cultural issue’ that they had to ‘turn around’. He commited to a further 17,000 police and to place 940 protective service officers on all major metropolitan and regional trams and trains until the end of service each night. Asked how he could change the culture, Baillieu repeated the ‘more police on streets, zero tolerance’ mantra, then added a potentially worrying coda. Police needed to be given the capacity and powers to enforce the law. He didn’t elaborate on exactly what that might entail, but given the new move-on and stop-and-search powers, one can speculate. On his first day in government, he concluded, he would institute tougher sentencing and do away with home detention. All this, he declared, had been originally rejected by the government, only to be hurriedly adopted at the last moment.

Brumby had some different ideas about changing a culture of violence. He referred to school programs raising awareness of cyber-bullying and tougher liquor licensing laws, as well as general programs of information and awareness for the community.

Quick question number two asked about banning smoking in public places. Baillieu said he would wait to see what VicHealth recommended. Brumby said there were no plans to ban smoking, and started to talk about other programs in place and proposed to help people quit – but was cut off by the time limit.

The Wonthaggi desalination plant came in for some scrutiny. Brumby, asked if he had ignored advice not to proceed, said he had made the right decision. ‘All advice coming to the government from the Bureau and CSIRO is that erratic climate patterns are likely to be more frequent’, and therefore it was important to guarantee water security for the next 30-40 years. Bailieu was confronted with his own promise of a desalination plant, made four years ago, and reminded that he had continually said since that Labor’s plant was ‘never needed’. He responded that the Liberal Party would honour the contracts and build the plant, but that it was ‘huge’, ‘very expensive’, and that Victorians would be paying for water they may not even require. His own plan had been for a ‘modestly-sized, modestly-priced’ plant.

There was grudging acceptance from Baillieu that Brumby’s government had managed the economy well during the Global Financial Crisis, but even that was qualified. The surplus was ‘skinny’, propped up by funds from the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ – and anyway, it was all ultimately due to the good work of Howard and Costello. Victoria was now in a situation of escalating debt, he asserted, and – apparently advocating a kind of 12-step ‘State Treasurers Anonymous’ program – the first step was to recognise that there was a problem.

Asked how he would bring down this debt, Baillieu made a very odd answer. ‘Imagine how much better off we would be if we hadn’t had those cost overruns in major projects,’ he said.

Brumby argued that the budget was not ‘skinny’, but rather ‘comfortably in surplus’; the only state, in fact, forecasting surpluses over the whole of the forward estimates period. He pointed out that Victoria’s share of debt was lower than when Labor first took power – then assumed the Voice of Doom. Baillieu had promised he would not add ‘one more dollar’ to the debt, but had also promised $7.5 billion in spending. In order to keep both commitments, he would have to cut spending to hospitals (including the new children’s hospital at Monash), schools and public sector jobs.

Quick question number three asked if either leader would introduce a $1 betting limit on poker machines. Brumby said he was in the process of instituting pre-commitment technologies, but had no plans to introduce betting limits. Baillieu jumped in to add hastily that he was the ‘first’ to raise the idea of pre-commitment technologies, and might look at lower bet limits.

As mentioned above, Brumby apologised for the systemic failures in dealing with the Black Saturday bushfires. He was at pains to point out the unique circumstances, while not trying to belittle the problem. ‘Systems failed, and for that I am eternally sorry,’ he said. He went on to mention that steps were being taken to deal with future situations, including $861 million spent on warning systems, and boosting numbers of fire fighters. Baillieu’s comment? ‘The government erred before the fires, and has erred in the longer term, but I won’t criticise John Brumby for his performance at the time. There were countless recommendations for change from reports, which were not accepted.’

Finally arriving at closing statements, Baillieu borrowed some Obama-talk and spend time calling for ‘change’. He pointed out he was an architect by training, which apparently proved he was focused on the future. ‘I see problems and I want to fix them,’ he said. He liked ‘nothing better’ than building the future.

Brumby gave out a round of thanks to the moderator, panellists, Baillieu, linesmen and ballboys, before promising that Labor would be the same ‘stable, experienced, strong’ government it was currently – only more so. Hospitals would be built, more nurses, doctors and police employed, and schools and pre-schools supported. For the first time he mentioned the impending closure of Hazelwood’s coal-fired power station, and his commitment to making Victoria the ‘solar capital of Australia’. (One can’t help thinking this should have been mentioned right up front, given the current state of turmoil over tackling climate change in the Federal arena.) Finally, he acknowledged that Labor could do better, and committed to do just that.

In the end, the debate boiled down to this:

* an incredibly rude Opposition leader who seemed unable to let anyone else speak, who was constitutionally incapable of even acknowledging that preference deals might, perhaps, possibly be done, and who was a little too enthusiastic about the idea of putting more police with greater powers on the streets.

* a Premier whose folksy manner seemed forced, but who managed to admit his own government’s failings even as he refused to talk to the Greens, while sounding the alarm on the apocalyptic consequences that would follow if the Liberal Party was elected.

* a Moderator who probably needed a Bex and a good lie-down.

* an audience whose bread-and-butter concerns were relegated to 30 second grabs, while they were forced to listen to 20 minutes of ducking and weaving on how-to-vote cards.

All in all, not a good result.


Myth-busting: New detention centres

October 25, 2010

It was only a matter of time before the lies – I’m sorry, the myths – got so thick on the ground that another one of these posts was going to be needed.

This time it’s about asylum seekers. Last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a series of new initiatives, including releasing children and ‘at-risk’ families into community detention rather than keeping them in detention centres. She also announced that two new centres would be developed, at Northam in Western Australia and Inverbrackie in South Australia. These centres would enable the dismantling of the temporary accommodation on Christmas Island, and mean that motels did not have to be used when numbers were too great.

The respective communities erupted. They held public meetings, in which they vented their spleen at the government, and at asylum seekers in general. They were ‘betrayed’, they shouted. Having ‘illegals’ in their towns (or even within 20 km of them) would be disastrous. Services would be under unacceptable strain. The Adelaide Hills are a known tourist spot – the tourism economy would suffer, because no one would want to come there. For that matter, where’s the benefit to us? They should have asked us. None of this would have happened if the government wasn’t so ‘soft’ on these people. Worst of all, what if their kids came to our schools?

All of this, of course, is based on a few simple, but utterly toxic myths.

Myth No. 1: Our detention centres are overcrowded because the government ‘softened’ its border protection policies. That’s why it has to build new centres now.

The Coalition likes to say that those who engage in the despicable trade of exploiting desperate people have ‘a good product to sell’, because refugees are no longer processed in Nauru or subject to Temporary Protection Visas. This is an outrageous piece of outright fabrication.

People smugglers do not sell an outcome. They are not in the business of making sure their ‘clients’ are safely delivered to the destination of their choice. They are in the business of making money – of taking advantage of those whose circumstances are so dire that they will be willing to sell everything they own, and sometimes sell themselves into hock for years to come. And they know there will always be a market. Whether they get intercepted in the Indian Ocean or make it all the way to Christmas Island makes no difference to them. The money has already changed hands, somewhere back in the home countries or in Indonesia.

Understand, we’re not talking about some kind of cut-price cruise line, here. Someone fleeing to another country for asylum doesn’t get to shop around. Usually, they’re stuck with doing an under-the-table deal which is more like a gamble – because people smugglers don’t guarantee safe delivery. They take the money, shove the refugees on a boat which is, more often than not – barely seaworthy, hire a crew from off the docks, and then wash their hands of the whole affair. If the boat sinks in the Indian Ocean and the crew are taken into custody, it’s an acceptable loss, because the important thing is the tens of thousands of dollars in the hands of those who bear no sense of accountability for whatever happens after the cash hits the palm.

People smugglers don’t care.

So there is no ‘good product to sell’. This isn’t taking advantage of a clearance sale, or shopping on Amazon because the dollar is near parity. People who need to flee will do so if they possibly can, even if it means taking the chance that they will be detained indefinitely – because at least on Christmas Island, their chances of being tortured and executed are minimal.

Myth No. 2: People have a ‘right’ to feel anxious about the idea of having a detention centre nearby.

This is the kind of statement that prompted Julian Burnside’s accusation that Australians are racists – and I can certainly understand his frustration. It’s okay to worry about the idea of refugees near you? Why?

Detention centres have existed in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne for years. There is no appreciable rise in the crime rate that could be attributed to the presence of people held behind security fences. Services to the community have not become stretched. (Sydney’s road bottlenecks can hardly be blamed on people who are not even allowed out to walk to the shops.) There is no evidence that refugees, detained in Villawood and Broadmeadows, take away anything from the permanent residents. What’s more, the government have promised that there will be no danger of that happening in Northam and Inverbrackie. If there is a possibility that services might be compromised, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen further committed to bolster those services wherever necessary.

But wait, cried the residents of Woodside (near Inverbrackie) – then they’ll get better services than we do, and that’s not fair. There’s no basis for this at all. The government promised no negative effect on services to the community. That’s everyone – and even if they decide to pay for a few on-site doctors in the detention centres, that hardly constitutes favouritism. At worst, it preserves the status quo.

The anxiety appears to go further, though. Listening to the people in Woodside and Northam, it seems that there is a fundamental objection to the presence of asylum seekers anywhere on Australian soil. If they’re housed in the middle of the desert, that’s marginally acceptable – although it’s clear that many people think even that is too ‘soft’. Suggest putting them in – or even near – a community, however, and the hysteria ramps up to an incredible degree.

Myth No. 3: The tourism economy in the Adelaide Hills would be under threat, and there’d be no economic benefit to local businesses.

This is just plain wrong. Detention centres usually source their supplies from local businesses wherever possible – if anything, boosting the economy. This was pointed out to some of the Woodside protesters. Their response? That won’t happen with us – the government will just go to Adelaide. There’s no basis for this assertion whatsoever. It flies in the face of existing practice – a practice the government has committed to continue.

As for the tourism question – well, where to start? The detention centre is located at the existing disused army base at Inverbrackie. Like most army bases, it’s difficult to distinguish the housing from what might be found in any suburb (with the exception of high-end areas, of course). The houses look like all the others. Sure, there’ll be a fence, and guards, but there were guards when the base was in use.

The people making this objection seem to think that the existing base will be razed, and a giant edifice of ugly concrete with coils of barbed wire, observation towers, spotlights and slavering German Shepherds will take its place. That simply isn’t going to happen. In addition, Inverbrackie is only one small part of the Adelaide Hills. To suggest that tourists will shy away from the entire region because there are refugees living on an old army base is – not to put too fine a point on it – ludicrous.

Myth No. 4: The government betrayed us by not consulting us prior to making the decision.

The answer to this one is – no, they didn’t. The government is under no obligation to ask people if they want a detention centre within easy driving distance. In fact, the government doesn’t have to ask to do a lot of things – build offices, grant land for prisons, or acquire people’s homes for infrastructure projects. You may not agree with it, but it’s how the country is set up. So, no, the government was never required to go cap in hand to people within 100km of Northam and ask if it was okay with them to have a detention centre an hour’s drive away. They weren’t even required to announce it.

Myth No. 5: Having ‘their’ kids in ‘our’ schools is dangerous.

I’m sorry, but this is racist.

It’s completely unfounded. There is little difference between a refugee and a newly-arrived immigrant child. Both may have language difficulties. Both may take time to build social bonds with other children (although that’s true of any kid in a new school). The kid who had to endure a long and potentially dangerous sea voyage, followed by detention, may have emotional and psychological issues – who wouldn’t?

The people who made this objection couldn’t say exactly what was wrong with the idea of refugee kids going to school in their communities. For the most part, they fell back on the old ‘but they came here illegally’ argument. Leaving aside for the moment that it’s completely incorrect to refer to asyum seekers as illegal, how can that possibly indicate danger to other children? Are these people afraid that the kid from Sri Lanka might suddenly leap up in the middle of story time and rip open his parka to reveal a suicide bomb vest? Turn on his fellow kids and attempt to stab them with safety scissors?

Please.

Maybe it’s about overcrowding. Maybe the people of Woodside are worried about potentially increasing class sizes. But wait – didn’t the government already say that if there was any possibility of strain to community services, that they would address that problem?

So what lies at the bottom of this objection to asylum seeker children in schools? Whenever politicians are asked about this, they always give the same answer: it’s understandable that people would feel anxious.

See Myth No. 2 above.

Of course, no amount of mythbusting done here is going to matter in this debate – because the politicians aren’t interested in the real situation.

The Coalition sees nothing wrong with xenophobia, apparently. Jamie Briggs, Member for Mayo, was highly visible at Woodside, nodding sympathetically whenever someone told them they were afraid or angry or betrayed. Scott Morrison, Shadow Immigration Minister, chastised the government for not taking ‘community concerns’ into account. Senator Mitch Fifield tutted about the ‘failure’ of the government’s asylum seeker policies putting unfair strain on the people of Woodside and Northam.

The Labor government is no better. Chris Bowen says he ‘understands there are concerns’. That’s ‘reasonable’.

And not one of these people actually stand up and say, ‘No, you’re wrong. You have a completely incorrect idea of the real situation. You’ve listened to scare-mongering and lies, and you’re letting xenophobia control you. I believe you’re better than this. I believe you really are a compassionate person, and wouldn’t want to see anyone suffer. Sit down with me and let me show you the facts, come and meet some asylum seekers, maybe then you can see this fear for what it is – a shameful political tactic that considers ruining people’s lives and well-being a good way for scoring points in some obscure game.’

Maybe it wouldn’t change die-hard xenophobes. But wouldn’t it be an amazing and wonderful thing if someone other than Senator Sarah Hanson-Young actually got out there and tried??

Imagine if your local member (mine is Martin Ferguson, Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism) stood up in front othe media and said, ‘You have nothing to fear. We were wrong to let you think you did.’

Yeah, never going to happen. But sometimes, you have to dream.

It’s either that or weep.


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