Never mind hygiene, how about some manners?

January 10, 2012

Ah, Summer. The time of slow news days, photo opportunities for local pollies in their own electorate, and the occasional human interest story about Opposition Leader Tony Abbott just missing out on a close call with a shark down at Manly Beach. Unfortunately, it’s also a time when politicians tend to get a little … indiscreet with their words.

Exhibit A: Opposition MP Teresa Gambaro.

Ms Gambaro’s got it all worked out – and by ‘it’, I mean that pesky immigrant problem. You know, the one that apparently affects every facet of our lives, yet somehow fails to make much more than the slightest blip on people’s personal radars. And just what is that problem?

Hygiene.

Yes, you read that right. According to Gambaro, immigrants just doesn’t understand ‘Australian norms’. They don’t know how to line up in a queue, or wear deodorant on public transport. These things are part of our Australian way of life, gosh darn it, and it’s about time these immigrants were taught how to fit in. Cultural awareness classes, that’s what they need. But how to do it?

Perhaps we could offer a Certificate I in Being Australian at TAFE, specifically target at migrants. We could teach them the time-honoured traditions of the sausage sizzle and the post-footy booze-up. We could instruct them in the proper way to apply white zinc and yell at cricket umpires. Special practical classes could teach them how to hold the deodorant spray the required few inches from the armpit, and just how long to hold down the trigger. For advanced students, elective units in using roll-ons might be a good idea. And while we’re at it, we can practice lining up – perhaps at the canteen at lunchtime.

Of course, we’ll have to employ only the most qualified teachers for such an important course. The government could look at offering incentives to encourage tertiary students to take up a career in Cultural Awareness Training.

But why stop there? After all, learning shouldn’t stop when people leave school, right? We need to put community initiatives in place, and while we’re at it, we can cut the jobless numbers at the same time.

We’ll need Bath Inspectors to make sure people are taking the required number of baths or showers each week. We can’t trust those immigrants to self-report on this issue – it’s far too important. For that matter, there should be Handwashing Monitors installed in all schools and public toilets, just to make sure proper procedure is followed. (Hmm, perhaps we’ll also need to teach them how much soap to use, and how to shampoo their hair.)

Then there’s public transport. Obviously, we’ll need a Whiff Patrol to travel at peak times, with the ability to issue infringement notices compelling those with un-deodorised armpits to undertake refresher courses in hygiene.

We’re also going to need Queue Police. We can’t have those dastardly immigrants spoiling our orderly queue culture. It could undermine our whole way of life. They need to know their place.

Or wait, perhaps Gambaro is in the pocket of Big Deodorant, and this is all designed to push Rexona sales …

… I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore.

What the hell was Gambaro thinking?!

It would be nice to believe this was just the result of a really bad communication skills day. Unfortunately, it seems far more likely it was simply unthinking racism on her part. No doubt Gambaro would say that she didn’t intend to be offensive; she genuinely wants people to be part of ‘our’ culture. And in a way, that’s more worrying than if she had meant to offend. This is the Coalition’s citizenship spokesperson, effectively telling those who wish to become part of our society that they are dirty and ill-mannered, and need to learn civilised behaviour.

Sounds just a tad colonial, doesn’t it?

To be fair, Gambaro also pointed out that many immigrants aren’t aware of some rather more crucial aspects of living in Australian society, such as their rights under a tenancy agreement or Medicare. Had she confined her remarks to these issues, there might even have been some value in the whole interview – because there are real problems with our migration and citizenship program, not least of which is our insistence that migrants be able to spell English words, while we do nothing to prepare them for dealing with our bureaucracies and legal systems.

As it stands, Gambaro’s offensive remarks put her right up there with Senator Cory ‘Islamicisation-by-stealth-through-halal-meat’ Bernardi. It’s utterly shameful that an elected representative – and one charged with the important task of ensuring the government provides the best possible immigration system – uses her ability to command media attention to send a message any even remotely sensible person would regard as nonsensical at best, highly insulting at worst.

It’s not hygiene lessons that are needed here … it’s lessons in basic empathy and good manners. And it isn’t immigrants who should be taking them, Ms Gambaro. It’s you.

(And FYI … telling people you’re the child of migrant parents doesn’t excuse you, either.)


A symphony of dogwhistling

February 17, 2011

Australian Federal politics hit a new low this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little bit?

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

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

The petition was signed by three people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well that’s my scorecard filled up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just what are these values?

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

Yes, you read that right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fear & buildings at the Press Club – the population debate

August 10, 2010

It was with heavy heart that I tuned in to the Population Debate held on August 5. With all the xenophobic dogwhistling from both parties, I fully expected that the ‘debate’ would actually turn out to be a series of arguments about whether Nauru or East Timor was a better place to put those dangerous asylum seekers, and just how many immigrants would be turned away. The presence of Scott Morrison – the Coalition’s spokesperson on Immigration – as the debating partner for the Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke, seemed to confirm my worst fears.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Tony Burke’s opening argument. Immigration, he said, was only a short-term fix to the problem of creating a sustainable population environment. Making promises to reduce the total national number of immigrants does not address the real problem – that Australia’s infrastructure and population needs vary wildly all over the country. People in Western Sydney face intolerable traffic jams, people in regional areas face skills shortages. What’s needed is an approach that looks at decentralisation and regional solutions, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

He listed a series of government achievements: doubled roads funding, increasing funding for rail, decentralised housing programs. Then came a list of proposals to address the problem of our ageing population – increased superannuation guarantee, increased retirement wage and re-skilling programs.

Scott Morrison’s argument could not have been more different. Immigration, he said, has made us what we are today. When managed well it is a fair and orderly process, and the Rudd government inherited a program that ‘Australians trusted’. Then, out it came – ‘illegal’ boat arrivals.

Every boat that arrives takes the place of a refugee waiting patiently in the ‘queue’. Morrison painted the latter as bearing up with saint-like serenity while moustache-twirling people on boats took advantage of their purity for their own evil ends. These poor people in the queue are ‘orderly’, they deserve our first choice, Morrison said.

At this point protesters, who had somehow made it into the National Press Club, started shouting, ‘fair go for refugees’. Morrison’s response was to become louder and more strident, until he was nearly yelling to be heard. It was a stark contrast to Gillard’s calm, measured reaction to the protester in Queensland who broke in to her media conference on climate change.

At the top of his voice, Morrison laid out the Coalition’s plan for dealing with asylum seekers. Temporary Protection Visas for everyone, universal offshore processing on Nauru, and turning back the boats. ‘This is a battle of resolve and we intend to win it as we did before,’ he shouted.

Our population is rising, for which Morrison blamed the government. He gave no reasons to back up his statement. The problem is immigration; and infrastructure development won’t fix that. He finished by quoting Howard: ‘We will decide who comes to our country, and in what circumstances they come’.

Given the disparity in their opening arguments, it was predictable that many of the questions they faced would be about the asylum seeker issue. Asked about towing back the boats, Burke replied that although former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had backed that idea, they now knew that ‘no country would accept a boat’, and that the boats would be scuttled. Morrison said a boat would be turned back if seaworthy, and pooh-poohed Burke’s response. It’s no great secret, he said, that people smugglers would ‘do and say anything to try to frustrate govt policy’.

When it was pointed out that a 1994 study on population reached 27 million, our quality of life would degrade sharply, Burke admitted that both sides had been way behind action on the issue, and that ‘we need to ‘fess up’ and address the issues. Morrison claimed he had raised the infrastructure issue as Shadow Minister for Immigration, but that the Minister had to decide how many people were going to come to Australia.

Burke also suggested that we should look at whether we can continue to put suburbs on top of our best soils, given our needs for food and water will increase. There was no response from Morrison.

Pushed to justify why asylum seekers were a threat to Australia, Morrison backed off. ‘It’s about the fairness and integrity of our immigration program,’ he said. The Coalition would rather see people from (for example) the camps on the Thailand/Burma border come here. ‘We’ll ensure the refugees come from the people in the greatest need’. Settlement in Australia was not guaranteed, he added; anyone in Nauru would be required to make applications for settlement in other countries. He went on to note that although the total number of acceptances were falling, people are still here because of the appeals process.

Burke tried to bring the debate back to infrastructure and decentralisation. Mining and agricultural areas need more people to fill skills shortages, while congested areas can’t handle what they have now. Encourage decentralisation, tailor the approach by the region and listen to what people on the ground need. Predictably, Morrison was having none of that. It’s about immigration, he said. Up to 30% of new immigrants settle in urban centres, and that won’t change in the short term. He also alleged that there would be no new infrastructure or services to deal with current problems.

Finally, in closing arguments, Burke stuck firmly to his ‘no immigration content’ plan. It’s not enough to say that it’s difficult to decentralise – ‘we can do this … we have to be willing to say we can deal with issues differently to how we did it in the past’. The mining boom, retirees moving to regional areas and the National Broadband Network will all assist decentralisation.

Morrison, too, stayed true to this theme. ‘Immigration has everything to do with it,’ he said. (Morrison’s emphasis). The Coalition would not surrender to people smugglers, it was committed to put Australia on a sustainable population path and had a real plan. He finished up by observing that Chris Evans, the Immigration Minister, was not there to debate him. Unsurprising, given it was a population debate.

So let’s break it down.

The Minister for Sustainable Population talked about upgrading Australia’s roads and rail, decentralising the population, looking at new suburban planning based on agricultural needs, better communications networks and a tailored, regional approach to the challenges of our diverse settlement patterns. He remarked that cutting immigration would do nothing to solve the existing problems or the problems of the future, and that asylum seeker policy was irrelevant to this debate.

The Shadow for Immigration talked about asylum seekers. And asylum seekers. And asylum seekers. He blew the dogwhistle so hard, and so often, that it’s a wonder we didn’t get reports of an outbreak of canine deafness in the immediate area of the National Press Club.

And what was he doing there, anyway? Who thought Morrison was a good match-up for Burke? It’s no wonder he didn’t speak to questions of infrastructure – his portfolio is Immigration (although you might be forgiven for thinking he was the Shadow for Stopping the Scary Boat People).

It was a completely mismatched debate. The question is, why? Did the Coalition not have anyone shadowing Tony Burke, who could speak on the issues? Nope – Cory Bernardi is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for both Population and Infrastructure. He would have been ideally suited to stand up with Burke.

Maybe Bernardi wasn’t available and they sent Scott Morrison along instead. Nope, still doesn’t make sense. Why would you send your Immigration spokesperson to take the place of your specialist on population and infrastructure? And if there was a replacement, why was it not announced as such at the start of the debate?

It certainly looks like the substitution was deliberate – as if the whole point were to drag Labor into an asylum seeker debate, so the Coalition could try to jam them up on the East Timor policy.

If so, it sends one of several bad messages to the electorate. Either: the Coalition has no policy for infrastructure and sustainable population; they have dismissed the issue as unimportant; they are unprepared to debate Burke; or they are trying to push this election so it is fought solely on asylum seeker policy.

And just on that last possibility? Today’s announcement of the Coalition’s communications strategy was overshadowed by an earlier media conference at which Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison announced the result of talks with Nauru about offshore processing of asylum seekers. When the broadband policy was announced by Tony Smith and Andrew Robb, the latter responded to forceful questioning by evoking – again – the spectre of the boats.

Add to that Abbott’s refusal to apologise for appropriating the image of an unseaworthy boat on which five Australian citizens died – not even an asylum seeker boat – for the Coalition’s scare ads, and the picture becomes depressingly clear.

The Coalition had a real opportunity to bring out some forward-looking policy. Instead, they chose to play the fear card. They could have looked at targeting immigration to areas looking for skilled workers – instead, they told us about Temporary Protection Visas and Nauru. You don’t do that unless you’ve got an agenda – and this debate clearly shows their hand.

The debate was a clear win to Tony Burke – and a big gain for Labor, since they showed they are able to separate asylum seekers from every other issue in this election.

It’s a pity the same can’t be said for the Coalition.


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