Gillard and the Bible – it’s all about the votes

March 22, 2011

By now, no one should be surprised to hear that the Labor government is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. With the exception of a few outspoken mavericks, the message is pretty solid: no change to the Marriage Act. Add to that the fact that the Coalition have managed to gain traction – at least in some areas – with their accusation that the Greens are ‘really’ in power, and it was probably inevitable that the government would try to present itself as a distinct entity, policy-wise.

That’s exactly what Prime Minister Julia Gillard appeared to be trying to do on Sky News’ Australian Agenda last week. The result, however, was a series of incredible statements that delighted the Coalition as much as it enraged many Labor supporters and social progressives.

Gillard labelled herself a ‘cultural traditionalist’ – which is nothing less than a synonym for ‘social conservative’. Fair enough. There are plenty of social conservatives out there, looking to the past to provide guidance on how to live today. Many of them even acknowledge the fact that they need to set their personal beliefs aside when it comes to social issues. Not Gillard. Her loyalty to her ‘old-fashioned’ upbringing leads her to oppose same-sex marriage – even though the Marriage Act never contained an exclusively heterosexual provision until former Prime Minister Howard shoe-horned one into it.

Gillard’s newly-declared social conservatism is pretty selective, mind you. She’s staunchly pro-choice when it comes to abortion, a vocal supporter of women’s representation in the workplace and the rights of indigenous people to full participation in society. On the issue of same-sex marriage, however, she’s adamant.

But it was what followed this ‘cultural traditionalist’ re-badging that had jaws hitting the floor. Gillard – the avowed atheist Prime Minister – lauded the Christian Bible as a positive, foundational influence on ‘our’ culture. It is so important, apparently, that it is ‘impossible to understand Western literature’ – and, by extension, Western law and culture – without it. Not that she’s advocating religion, oh no – but coming on the heels of her avowed ‘cultural’ opposition to same-sex marriage, it’s not difficult to connect the dots.

Gillard talked about the necessity of understanding Bible stories. Which stories might those be? The story of how a man who threw out his concubine and their son into the desert because his wife was jealous? The story of how that same man was prepared to kill his remaining son to show his faith in God? How about the story of how a woman secured victory for the Israelites by first seducing, then murdering an enemy war leader?

The suspicion has to be, though, that Gillard – who’d just finished voicing her belief that heterosexual marriage had a ‘special status’ – had Sodom and Gomorrah in mind. You know, the story of the evil cities, destroyed by God because they were places where men had sex with other men?

But hold up a moment. Let’s take up Gillard’s recommendation, and really look at the story, which can be found in Genesis. There’s no indication as to why God wants to destroy the cities – just that there is an ‘outcry’ against them. The one instance where male-male sex is even mentioned is in a sequence where a group of men threaten to gang-rape two angels – and this happens after the descruction is decreed. And just incidentally, the sole ‘righteous man’ in the city tries to protect the angels by offering his daughters up as substitute rape victims. Not exactly the story most people tell, is it?

Gillard’s right – you can learn important things by reading Bible stories. In this case, you can learn that a story long used to deny same-sex attracted men equality is actually completely different.

Maybe Gillard was thinking of Leviticus, where there are a whole slew of laws set down for the ancient Israelite people – including prohibitions against male-male sex, punishable by exile. That’s fairly clear – but then why doesn’t Gillard have a problem with men who engage in sex with menstruating women? Or recommend that a man who curses his parents be executed?

Oh, maybe she’s just thinking of Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he warns that those who engage in same-sex intercourse are evil and will suffer God’s wrath. But then she doesn’t seem equally concerned with gossips (read: leakers), who will apparently suffer the same fate.

All of which is a revolting display of cherry-picking, but ultimately, means nothing.

Why?

Because we are not a theocracy.

We are a secular nation. We have specific Constitutional prohibitions against any form of mandated religion. And make no mistake – for all Gillard’s claims that what she’s talking about is ‘cultural’, the reality is that she appeals to a religious text to justify her actions as Prime Minister in denying equal rights to same-sex attracted people.

Gillard is simply trying to hide behind a smokescreen, here. It’s not ‘religious’, it’s ‘cultural’. It’s not about exalting one religion’s doctrine, it’s about staying true to an ‘important part of our culture’. Classic spin – reframe the issue, change the language, and obscure the truth.

And it’s a fair bet that the truth, in this situation, is that Gillard is dogwhistling to the Australian Christian Lobby and similarly vocal conservative Christians.

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all. Despite Gillard’s protestations that she would treat people of all faiths equally, it’s very clear that the only faith she has any time for is that espoused by the most socially regressive lobby group in Australia. And why? Because it’s vocal. Because it consistently pushes the lie that it is representative of all Christians, who – when all sects are lumped together – remains the single largest represented religious group on the Australian census. In other words, it’s about buying votes.

This is hypocrisy on a grand scale.

It is absolutely nonsensical. There are no dire economic consequences foreseeable by removing discrimination against same-sex couples – in fact, a University of Queensland study suggests an economic boost from marriage licence fees and wedding costs. There are no dire social consequences foreseeable – the old myth that ‘kids need a mum and dad or else they’ll grow up to be juvenile delinquents or worse – homosexual‘ has been well and truly debunked. No one is seriously suggesting Australian society will shatter into tiny pieces because ‘Heather has Two Mommies’.

Labor’s oft-stated opposition to same-sex marriage always rang hollow. ‘We don’t want it because, um, it’s traditionally between a man and woman, and besides, the Marriage Act says so’. They hung their argument on legislation, and recently-amended legislation at that. Now, perhaps, we see what’s really at work.

Whether Gillard’s new justification is political expedience or an admission that conservative religious beliefs influence her far more than her atheism might suggest is irrelevant.

What’s relevant is that Gillard gave legitimacy to prejudice, and enshrined it in an appeal to a mythical Golden Age.

Maybe that will get her the votes she needs to govern in her own right at the next election. But those votes come at the expense of the hopes and dreams of Australians. In granting authority to a bigoted minority, Gillard has coldly dismissed the fact that she is condoning prejudice and perpetuating victimisation.

And who are those victims? They’re the people next door. They’re the people we work with, and socialise with every day. They’re the people who service our cars, fix our computers, stack our supermarket shelves and teach our children. They’re same-sex attracted people who simply want to enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. They want to get married. As long as they are denied that right, the message is clear: they do not have ‘special status’. They are not ‘real’ couples. Their love is not worthy of recognition by the State. All in the name of votes.

And for that, Prime Minister Gillard, you should hang your head in shame.


Anti-Greens ratf*ckers come out for Mardi Gras

March 6, 2011

Last night was the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. This year, 135 floats made their way through Sydney street, celebrating queerness in all its wonderful and outrageous manifestations. Highlights of the night for me were: the giant sequined whale from Taronga Zoo (because queer penguins need love too, apparently); the ’78ers (those amazing people who started out marching in protest and founded a tradition that has become part of Sydney life); the Rainbow Babies (celebrating the New South Wales Parliament finally passing laws to allow same-sex adoption); and a couple of mystery guests.

A surprise appearance from our fearless leader and her Opposition counterpart - or their stand-ins, at least.

It was a night for making statements, the strongest of which forcefully made the case for marriage equality. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has repeatedly introduced bills calling for the Marriage Act to be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry, marched in the thick of the throng. Given such an atmosphere, it was probably inevitable that some slightly less positive sentiments would make an appearance.

So was anyone really surprised to see a slew of badly-printed anti-Greens posters suddenly appearing taped to telephone poles around Oxford Street? The Conscience Vote’s ‘fabulous informant’ snapped some pictures:

LOOK OVER HERE!

First, the scream sheet, following a time-honoured tabloid tradition. “DO THE NSW GREENS OPPOSE GAY RIGHTS?” Now that it’s got your attention, it gives you just a little more information: ‘By boycotting Israel, the NSW Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is not a capital offence, or even a crime’. Finally, the admonition: ‘Choose freedom. Don’t vote Green on March 26′.

Cunning, eh? It’s even printed on green paper. That’ll get the message across to those ‘gays’.

For those who were more detail-oriented (or who perhaps just had a little more time to kill while waiting for a taxi), some considerate souls also posted the full text version:

Note the scattergun approach.

The cutaway quote from the scream sheet heads up the litany of Terrible Truths, but it doesn’t stop there. The Greens, it charges, also oppose democracy – because they’ve called for a boycott of Israel, and Israel is the ‘only’ democratic country in the Middle East. And they support ‘terror’ – because Hezbollah and Iran want to attack Israel, and by boycotting Israel, the Greens are on their side.

Seeing a theme here? And I don’t just mean the breathingtakingly, mindbogglingly hamfisted excuse for logic. It’s all about Israel. The Greens hate Israel – therefore the Greens must hate homosexuals and democracy. And support Evil Dictators and Terrorist Organisations. We must stop these terrible people gaining any sort of representation in ‘our’ government. The fate of Israel depends on it!

It’s barely worth ripping down the arguments used here – they are transparently spurious. Whoever wrote this piece of nonsense deliberately misstated facts and massacred logical thinking. Mind you, they also credit the Greens with an astonishing amount of influence – if they call for a boycott of Israel, gay people will be killed, Hezbollah and Iran will attack and the Last Bastion of Democracy (TM) in the region will fall.

So, it’s all about Israel. But who could be the Concerned Citizens behind this poster campaign? Who are these brave souls, who subjected themselves to driving rain, loud music and an onslaught of glitter and leather to bring their message of Imminent Disaster to the unsuspecting people of Oxford Street?

The crucial point is revealed in the last paragraph: “DO THE GREENS HATE CHRISTIANS?” The authors of this poster were already drawing a very long bow, but this is the point where the string snaps violently: ‘By boycotting Israel, the Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population’. Adopting a somewhat pleading tone, the authors cry plaintively, ‘Christians are people too’.

I smell a ratf*ck.

Remember the One Vote videos during the 2010 Federal campaign? Similar anti-Greens message, similar mixture of fabrication and a similar amount of scare-mongering mangled arguments. Similar production values, too – although in the ‘One Vote’ case, it was a failure of web design.

The Conscience Vote and The Notion Factory traced those ‘concerned citizens’ back to the Christian Democratic Party. This latest effort, however, is likely to prove much harder to track down. Not only is it (thus far) confined to photocopied posters on cheap paper, it’s devoid of any information as to who might be responsible.

But really, that’s the point. We’re supposed to think this doesn’t originate with a political party, or even a lobby group. We’re encouraged to believe that this really is some kind of grass-roots, spontaneous uprising of The People, forced to take to the streets because their voices are not heard in the corridors of power. It’s heartwarming, really.

And of course, it’s complete rubbish.

I’m not about to point the finger at anyone. It might not be the CDP behind this latest offering. After all, there’s a fine tradition of ratf*cking in Australian politics.

But it is very interesting how the same language, the same sentiments and the anonymity just keep turning up – all directed at one political party.

This time, however, it looks like the minds behind this strategy badly misread their target demographic – my fabulous informant tells me he witnessed people reading the posters and laughing.


Carbon tax armageddon!

February 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he got away with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never ever, Mr Abbott?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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