It’s the start of a new Parliamentary week, we haven’t reached Question Time yet, and already the shenanigans are in full swing.
First, the hapless member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, was in the headlines again. Last week, Thomson was taken to hospital suffering abdominal pains. Initial reports said it was appendicitis, but that was not confirmed and tests would be carried out. He was released from hospital, but given a medical certificate for the week as he would be unable to take part in Parliamentary business – including votes.
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
Ordinarily, an MP who was ill would automatically be granted a pair. In fact, as Malcolm Farr pointed out today, no less than three Opposition MPs needed to take extended sick leave within the last year, and were readily granted pairs. None of them had medical certificates, nor were they asked to provide them. Which is all very civilised, and only to be expected.
Or so you would think.
Opposition Whip Warren Entsch announced this morning that Thomson would be granted a pair – but only for one day. The medical certificate was ‘vague’, he said, listing only ‘abdominal pain’ as the reason for absence. ‘It could just be constipation,’ he said. Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne backed him up. It was ‘suspicious’. A more detailed certificate was clearly required before further pairs could be granted.
Paging Doctors Entsch and Pyne … oh wait, you’re not medical doctors?
It’s outrageous behaviour. Not only is it unprecedented to disallow a pair for an ill MP, to question the validity of that person’s medical certificate suggests that the Opposition regard Thomson’s doctor as either untrustworthy enough to falsify a diagnosis or too incompetent to make a correct one. Either way, it is an insult.
Doctors deliberately give vague reasons on medical certificates – most often, the stated reason for absence is ‘a medical condition’. This is to protect patients’ privacy, something that is taken very seriously here in Australia.
Oh … unless you happen to be a woman, have had an abortion, and had your records fall into Tony Abbott’s hands.
After that unpleasant beginning to the day, politics descended into pure farce.
We started off with Tony Abbott, holding forth on Queensland’s state Wild Rivers legislation. These laws limit development along certain river systems in northern Qld, to protect their environmental status. Abbott seeks to overturn that legislation via a private member’s bill. As might be imagined, that bill has run into its fair share of obstacles, not least being its blatant intent to abrogate state’s rights. It has gone to committee after committee, all of which have recommended further investigation and amendment – including those on which sit Opposition MPs. Undeterred, Abbott attempted today to bring the bill on for debate (and presumably a vote) before Parliament rises at the end of this week.
it was an extraordinary performance. With metaphorical hand clasped firmly on heart, his voice choked with emotion and perhaps even a teary gleam in his eyes, Abbott launched into a passionate appeal to ‘decency’ and ‘honour’. Someone must stand up for the indigenous people of Cape York, he cried! They are being strangled with ‘Green Tape’ (yes, you read that right, green tape, how terribly witty) when all they want to do is live their lives as they have always done!
How could the government allow this to happen to such good people, these ‘caretakers of the land since time immemorial’? And yes, that’s a quote. Does the government believe that the indigenous people are incapable of taking care of their land? How could they think such a thing? Surely these people had the right to use their lands for more than just ‘spiritual ownership’?
To say there was more than a whiff of the ‘noble savage’ argument about Abbott’s speech is wildly understate the case. This is the man who not two months ago argued that the Tent Embassy was probably ‘no longer relevant’ to today’s issues. The same man who argued the night before the Apology to the Stolen Generations against saying ‘sorry’ under any circumstances. And yet there he was this morning, extolling the virtues of the ‘wise’ and ‘respected’ indigenous peoples.
Of course, it’s possible Abbott had a change of heart. But sadly, no. This is no more than a continuation of a bun-fight that’s been going on for around a year now. The Cape York indigenous communities are split on the question of the Wild Rivers laws. Some, like the Carpentaria Land Council, have no problem with them. Others – notably, lawyer and economic and social development advocate Noel Pearson – see the laws as restricting the right of indigenous peoples to utilise their lands without government interference.
And who does Abbott count among one of his close friends? Mr Pearson.
It’s not the first time Abbott has attempted to make Pearson’s views stand as somehow representative of a united, homogeneous community. They’re not, and Independent MP Rob Oakeshott has called him on it before. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to stop Abbott trying, no matter how ineffectual his efforts are – or much it shows up his hypocrisy where indigenous peoples are concerned.
After that, we were treated to the spectacle of Shadow Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison trying to get standing orders suspended to bring on an immediate enquiry. It seemed to have something to do with Customs, and Glock handguns, and possibly Australia Post – although it was difficult to tell, given the speed at which he rattled out the wording of his motion. Unfortunately for him, he forgot to read the House’s procedures closely, and his motion was disallowed.
Undaunted, he tried it on again a little later, and we were treated to one of the nastier strategies available to the government. Within 30 seconds of Morrison rising, Leader of Government Business Anthony Albanese popped up to move a gag motion. Unsurprisingly, that one succeeded – the Independents have shown themselves to be notoriously impatient with attempts to hijack the House’s business. Having gagged Morrison, Albanese went on to gag Justice, Customs and Border Protection Shadow Michael Keenan – and with that, the motion was dead in the water and could not go on to a vote.
A disgruntled Coalition exited the Chamber, but not without a parting shot courtesy Bronwyn Bishop, Shadow Spokesperson for Ageing. She stopped by the Speaker’s chair and pointing an accusing finger at him, saying clearly, ‘Something will have to be done about this. It will not be tolerated’.
Frankly, if I’d been in Slipper’s chair at that point, I’d have named Bishop there and then. It’s bad enough to see the disrespect shown the position of Speaker during Question Time – to have a member effectively threaten the Speaker should be absolutely unacceptable.
It’s been a full morning – and we’re only just now getting to Question Time. I dread to think what’s coming up.
Any bets on how long until Abbott tries to suspend standing orders for a censure – the 49th since this Parliament was convened – today?
It wasn’t Abbott who called for the suspension – it was Doctor Pyne, MD. Who, in concert with Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, took advantage of Thomson’s absence to engage in the kind of backstabbing we tell our children is utterly unacceptable. Bishop – as ridiculous as it sounds – even went so far as to suggest that Thomson, and the Health Services Union, was somehow connected to the Mafia.
All this aimed at a man who was not there to defend himself, who suffers from an illness that may very well be exacerbated – if not caused – by stress, who has been convinced of no crime and at worst faces an investigation.
Where I come from, we call that cowardice.
Remember when Australia Day was all about having a barbecue, going to the beach or just generally bludging at home? Remember when the pressing issue of the day was whether you’d bought enough ice, or had your radio tuned to Triple J? Oh sure, there was always muttering from boring people who said the day had ‘lost its meaning’. And lately, a lot more people have jumped on the ‘Invasion Day’ bandwagon in an annual display of disapproval for the way indigenous Australians were treated by the first colonists. (Which is not to denigrate those who work tirelessly to redress the situation, or those who have to bear the scars of its heritage.) Mostly, though, Australia Day was an excuse for a long weekend, and nobody gave it much thought beyond that.
This year is different. If no one remembers anything else from Australia Day, they’ll remember the footage of Prime Minister Julia Gillard being dragged to safety from the Lobby restaurant in Canberra by her protective detail, surrounded by angry protesters from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Regardless of your personal opinion of Gillard, her government or politics in general, it’s a shocking image. And the footage is even more confronting. People banging on the glass windows of the restaurant, screaming. Gillard being rushed down the steps, stumbling and ending up almost being carried after she nearly fell. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott hurrying along, surrounded by the Prime Mister’s detail. Protesters pushing against the police line. A woman triumphantly holding up Gillard’s shoe, lost in the panic, as though it were some kind of trophy. (And that shoe later turned up for sale on eBay.)
It was an ugly display, and it did nothing good for the cause of the Tent Embassy.
So what happened? How did a largely peaceful – albeit angry – protest on the lawn of Parliament House turn into a howling mob?
First reports said it was because Abbott had called for the Tent Embassy to be torn down. Social media erupted in outrage. The milder responses called Abbott irresponsible. The more extreme labelled him ‘racist’ and ‘scum’.
Then the actual footage surfaced. Abbott was asked if he thought the Tent Embassy was still ‘relevant’, or whether it was time to ‘move on’. He gave a long, rambling answer that ended with ‘it’s probably time to move on‘.
At which point the outrage turned on the Tent Embassy. The protesters had ‘deliberately’ twisted Abbott’s words. They’d behaved ‘like animals’. Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr opined that the Embassy should have been ‘quietly packed up years ago’. And this morning, so-called ‘non-partisan online activist community’ Menzies House (in actuality, a right-wing mouthpiece for Coalition policy founded by Senator Cory Bernardi), announced the launch of its latest website, closethetentembassy.com. Describing the Embassy as racist, illegal and ‘reverse-apartheid’, Menzies House even had the unbelievable cheek to quote Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in support of what is little more than a dogwhistle to racists. Apparently the irony of this was lost on them.
But wait … the saga’s not over.
Last night, one of Gillard’s media staffers, Tony Hodges, resigned. He admitted that he’d spoken to someone about Abbott’s comments, adding that the Opposition Leader was in the Lobby restaurant. That ‘someone’ informed indigenous activist Barbara Shaw at the Tent Embassy, but what subsequently went out over the loudspeaker to the crowd was not Abbott’s actual quote, but something far more inflammatory – that Abbott had said the Embassy should be torn down.
And suddenly – incredibly – Abbott was the victim. It was a conspiracy within the government! Abbott was set up! The media unit incited a riot to get at Abbott, and it backfired!
Never slow to capitalise on any perceived advantage, Abbott and Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne went on the attack in full spin mode. It was a ‘grubby business,’ said Abbott. (Not the violence, mind you – the ‘grubbiness’ was all the PM’s fault.) It was ‘the most serious security incident to befall our nation’s leaders for quite a few years’. (Notice how he refers to himself as the Prime Minister’s equal?) ‘A member of the Prime Minister’s senior staff was trying to trigger something … potentially dire … for political advantage’. (Point of fact: Hodges was only recently promoted to a junior media position.) Most hilariously hypocritical of all: the Prime Minister needs to ‘stop the spin’ about this issue.
Then came the absolutely unsubstantiated claims – that the information was ‘fed’ to the Tent Embassy, that it was ‘deliberately false’, and that Abbott’s location was ‘classified’. There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest any deliberate fabrication on Hodges’ part. Equally, there’s no evidence that Hodges in any way intended to create any kind of disturbance, let alone what actually happened.
As for the suggestion that Hodges somehow leaked ‘classified’ information – well, where do I begin? Abbott’s basically suggesting that anyone who spotted him, and picked up the phone to tell their mates, would somehow be guilty of espionage.
Abbott was quick to praise the actions of the Prime Minister’s security detail, who – at Gillard’s request – escorted him safely from the building. They were under no obligation to do so, as the Opposition Leader is not usually afforded the same protections as the Prime Minister. The footage shows that as soon as she was made aware that her security considered the situation to be deteriorating, Gillard moved to make sure Abbott was safe. It was an entirely decent act, and Gillard has in no way tried to capitalise on it. There was little else Abbot could do than be gracious.
Except that on Saturday Agenda, Abbott was asked by Chris Kenny, ‘You’re not suggesting the Prime Minister was aware of this, that she sanctioned this?’ His answer? ‘She has to give a full explanation.’ Abbott’s ‘sure there are decent people in the Prime Minister’s office,’ but nonetheless it’s up to Gillard to explain herself to the Australian people. He’s not suggesting anything, but …
Not to be outdone, Pyne publicly called for a police inquiry into Hodges’ actions, and the extent to which the Prime Minister’s media unit was involved – not that he’s actually asked the police. And he doesn’t have to, really. With News Limited merrily repeating unsubstantiated rumours and printing what amounts to Coalition talking points, a real policy inquiry would just get in the way.
Right now, the news services are reporting that Hodges mentioned Abbott’s location to Kim Sattler, the Secretary of UnionsACT, who passed it on to Barbara Shaw. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the Coalition will use this information, given their persistent stereotyping of union leaders as Labor ‘lackeys’ and ‘thugs’. It’s certainly helped along by the media description of Sattler as a ‘national Labor figure’ and ‘well-connected’. Never mind that Sattler denies saying anything to Shaw.
But let’s back up a bit. What we know is that a junior media staffer admitted he mentioned Abbott’s location to someone, who passed it on to Shaw – and that somewhere along the line the message was distorted to include a false quote about tearing down the Tent Embassy. What we know is that protesters at the Tent Embassy, hearing that distorted message, surrounded the Lobby restaurant, engaged in intimidation and violent tactics, pushed against police lines. What we know is that the Prime Minister’s security detail judged the situation to be unsafe, removed Gillard and escorted Abbott out at her request.
The rest is supposition and spin.
What remains, then, is a shameful display of behaviour that did nothing but harm the cause of indigenous rights, and the Tent Embassy in particular. Footage of Gillard being held up by her bodyguard has turned up all over the world, including on some of the US’ biggest news and current affairs programs. It conveyed an image of Australia that we should all repudiate.
Keep that in mind over the next few days, as Abbott pulls the victim’s mantle over himself, Pyne thunders self-righteous condemnation, and Gillard is pursued by media who are apparently more interested in rumour than reporting.
Because ultimately, that’s what this Australia Day was all about – a Prime Minister forced to flee on the advice of trained security professionals with protesters in pursuit …
… and the display of a trophy gained through mob intimidation.
And it’s inexcusable.
It’s National Sorry Day. But didn’t we already make the capital-A ‘apology’?
Yes. We did make that Apology – shamefully late, and only after a landslide change of government. And it remains one of the most moving speeches ever delivered in the Australian Parliament.
I was at La Trobe University on the day the Apology was delivered. At the time, I wrote:
I also wrote that there was a long road ahead.
Three years later, and the road is still long. Indigenous people still struggle with the consequences of white settlement, and government policies that dispossessed them of their land, declared them to be flora, damaged their culture and left emotional and physical scars that still haven’t healed. Perhaps they never will.
Yes, there have been some steps down that road, but there is still so much, much more to do. Children need access to quality education. Life expectancy is still far too low when compared to other Australians. Indigenous peoples are still not recognised in our Constitution.
Worst of all, some now want to move backwards. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu recently announced that his ministers no longer had to follow protocol in recognising indigenous peoples as traditional owners of the land in their speeches. Why? Because it’s ‘dictatorial’. Because it’s ‘too politically correct’.
Or perhaps because it’s an uncomfortable truth that some people still don’t want to face – because if they do, they must also acknowledge that there is blood on their hands. That, even though they might not personally have done anything ‘wrong’, they share the responsibility for the actions of their ancestors. It’s so much easier to sweep it away and hide behind this vague notion that there is something distasteful about stating what is simply true.
And so we come back to the Apology, and why we should keep saying sorry. It’s important that we don’t forget what led to the Apology, why it was necessary in the first place. That we remember how families were torn apart, how children were taught to despise and disown their heritage, how people suffered because Australian people and Australian government were so arrogant as to think they could do as they liked, in the name of ‘assimilation’ and ‘civilisation’.
On National Sorry Day, I say to indigenous peoples that I am sorry. And that I will never forget.
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’.
The Greens have just announced that Adam Bandt will throw his support behind the Labor Party in its bid to form government.
This takes Labor’s seat total to 73, although Senator Bob Brown was careful to point out that this is not a formal coalition arrangement. Bandt will support Labor in any no confidence motion, and not vote to block the Budget. If we count Crook as supporting the LNP Coalition (although this is by no means certain), the count is tied up – again.
In order to get the Greens’ support, Labor has signed off on a long list of undertakings.
In the area of parliamentary reform, there will be:
* Restrictions on political donations, that would effectively undo the changes wrought by the Howard government.
* Introduction of legislation to ensure truth in political advertising.
* A leaders’ debates commission, presumably to prevent the sort of nonsense that went on in this campaign. These debates may well include the leader of the ‘third party’ – as it stands, of course, this would be the Greens.
* Two and a half hours for parliamentary debate on private members’ bills. This is a significant win; under the current system, the party Whips make all the decisions on how much time is allotted, including whether to allow debate at all. Obviously, then, any ‘unpopular’ bill can effectively be killed before it gets a decent hearing. We saw this happen to Senator Sarah Hanson-Young when she introduced a bill amending the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage in February this year.
* A ‘move’ towards fixed three-year terms. From the language, it’s clear that Labor has not agreed outright to support the idea, but at least it would be discussed.
* Establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Committee, accessible by all federally elected members. This committee appears to be an expansion of the Charter of Budget Honesty, in that it would have the ability to provide information and costings on all proposed programs.
* Treasury documents to be accessible to the Greens. This one is likely to cause alarm in some quarters.
Other undertakings include:
* A parliamentary debate on Australia’s role in the war in Afghanistan. Incumbent Defence Minister John Faulkner signalled his support for such a debate during the campaign, and it would become a reality under a new Labor government.
* A referendum on Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples as the first Australians. Both parties listed this in their election policy statements.
* The formation of a climate change committee, made up of elected representatives and experts on climate change. Brown stressed that membership was dependent on a belief in the reality of climate change and a commitment to a carbon price. The committee would investigate options and present its deliberations and recommendations to Parliament. This effectively replaces key parts of both Labor and Greens policy, including the highly-criticised ‘citizens’ assembly’ proposed by Labor during the campaign.
The glaring absence here is any undertaking on same-sex marriage. Asked about that, Brown confirmed that the matter was raised, but that no agreement could be reached.
Brown went on to say that, should the LNP Coalition form government, the Greens would not automatically take an obstructionist stance. He did state unequivocally, however, that his preference was for a Labor government, which he believed was more able to deliver both stable and effective good governance. He also absolutely ruled out any support for Temporary Protection Visas for asylum seekers – a stance that puts a major hole in the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy.
With Bandt now declared for Labor, pressure now falls even more heavily on the four Independents and Tony Crook. Andrew Wilkie has already stated that he is prepared to consider supporting neither major party, if he considers them incapable of forming good government. He may find that he has sidelined himself, however – if the three country Independents vote as a bloc, his support may well becoming meaningless.
Crook is playing it close to the chest. All we have from him is a stated wish to be considered a cross-bencher, and complete rejection of a mining tax.
As for the country Independents? Part of Bob Katter’s wish list appeared on the front page of the Townsville Bulletin. He’s asking for 10% of all mining royalties to be directed towards infrastructure in north Queensland, indigenous health funding, new dams and weirs for irrigation purposes, effective broadband for the bush, commitment to the CopperString power line project, and a ban on cheap imports of bananas.
The first deal has been struck, and now the horsetrading begins in earnest.
* * * * *
A postscript – the Coalition are already taking to the media attacking the Bandt-Labor deal, exactly as Bob Brown predicted. Scott Morrison, their spokesperson on immigration, slammed the Greens for not making asylum seeker issues part of their arrangement with Labor. He also referred to the ‘Labor-Greens Coalition’ several times, despite knowing full well that there is no formal coalition arrangement. This might be pure spin, a misguided attempt to panic the electorate and the Independents. The economy is in danger! The Greens want to destroy us all, and now Labor wants to help them!
It could also be an indicator. If the LNP Coalition really do see the Bandt-Labor deal as a formal alliance, perhaps that’s also how they view any pledged support to form government. In that case, Katter, Wilkie, Oakeshott, Windsor and Crook might well take that into consideration – none of them want to enter into a binding coalition, but Abbott’s government just might expect them to act as though they have.
The emails have been flying back and forth between the major parties today, wrangling over the finer details of a possible second debate or ‘People’s Forum’. It’s apparently such important news that it’s relegated the death of a surfer from shark attack to well down in the headlines.
Meanwhile, there are some glaring silences on certain areas of policy. We literally just don’t hear about some things. There is a huge amount of attention being given to the relative merits of the respective paid parental leave and climate change policies, so much so that anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Australians have little else to concern them in this election. But we know that’s not true.
It only takes a quick scan of Twitter, Facebook, or any one of a dozen online forums to find otherwise. A short trip to the shops, or a wait outside the school to pick up your kids, will hear other things being mentioned. Usually, there’s a tone of puzzlement in these conversations – why are the politicians talking about such a small range of issues?
There are three main areas I’ve heard discussed – mental health, the Arts, and Indigenous issues. (Admittedly, the first has been used as a weapon by the Coalition when talking to the media – we have a policy, they don’t – but it doesn’t go much further than that.) So I decided to go digging around and see what’s actually on offer from Labor, the Coalition and the Greens.
What I found was a comprehensive set of policies that should be subjected to the closest scrutiny. For the most part, though, they have not even been announced, or at least not at a time when they’ve been covered by television news. Given that most of us now get our information from 5 or 6 pm bulletins, that’s a real oversight.
I’ve collected them in an overview, presented without comment for now.
Take a look at what you’re not learning in this election while the major parties, along with the major news organisations, tell you that ‘Breaking News’ is where or when a debate might be held, and whether Julia’s had her hair coloured again.
Australian Labor Party
You can find the policy document here. The entirety of its mental healthy policy follows:
* $276.9 million over four years will be invested in suicide prevention.
This is being spread across increasing places for psychology and psychiatry counselling, non-clinical support (social workers, relationship counsellors and the like) and carers. Some money will go to boosting Lifeline and other counselling services, and providing more services for men (statistically at greatest risk of suicide). Funds would be available to tackle the problem of ‘copycat’ suicides among younger people. The policy also mentions improving safety at suicide ‘hotspots’. It’s unclear what this means – nets around the Westgate Bridge, perhaps?
Part of the policy is aimed at helping existing organisations – Lifeline, beyondblue, and the like – with the work they are already doing. This includes tackling depression in the workplace, helping kids understand mental health issues that may arise in their families, and programs which help people suffering with mental illness to manage their everyday lives.
Other than that, Labor has said that mental health is a ‘second term’ priority for them.
Liberal/National Party Coalition
The policy document can be found here. In its nine pages, sprinkled liberally with criticisms of Labor, is the entirety of its mental health policy:
* $440 million to build 20 Early Psychosis Intervention Centres. (The bulk of this money will go into the initial setup of these centres – including staffing, while $40 million is set aside for ‘additional capital costs’.)
These centres would be targeted at young people (aged 15-24) who are deemed to be ‘at risk’ of psychosis, or who have suffered an initial psychotic episode. The emphasis would be on recovery and prevention of further psychosis.
* $832 million for 800 mental health beds.
These beds (20 acute, 20 sub-acute) would be placed in the Early Psychosis Centres.
* $225 million for 60 new youth headspace sites
This program, set up by the Howard government in 2006, is a system currently comprising a handful of centres and a website, aimed at educating young people about mental illness and providing them with ways to find help. It would be supported by the Early Psychosis Centres.
It’s worth noting that the Coalition has announced that this policy will be paid for by ‘re-directing’ funds earmarked by the current Labor government for GP super-clinics, e-Health, mental health and youth mental health programs.
Since the Greens do not have access to Treasury’s figures, their policies can only be considered as intentional, rather than completely defined. (And just as an aside, this puts the Greens at a tremendous disadvantage, since they are automatically vulnerable to accusations of ‘you can’t pay for that’. Political parties of every stripe should know what government monies are available.)
You can find the Greens’ entire health policy document here. On mental health, the Greens propose:
* Increase funding to mental health services in collaboration with states and territories, particularly to prevention models, and hospital and community-based support, assessment and suicide prevention services.
* Establish 24 hour community mental health services in a range of locations, staffed by the full range of mental health professionals.
* Expand community-based support services and agencies to support suffers and their carers in the community.
Australian Labor Party
The policy document can be found here. It’s notable for the outline of what is currently taking place and has already been completed. New policies include:
* 36 children and family centres across Australia, from the end of 2010, and creches in the Northern Territory. Indigenous parenting support services, starting in 2011. Expanding playgroup and mobile playgroup services. New and expanded Maternal and Child Health centres, including greater access to antenatal care and reproductive health.
* $62 million over four years to fight alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence in indigenous communities.
* Inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the forthcoming National Curriculum.
* Assistance with repatriation of indigenous human remains .
* Funding would continue and be expanded for existing programs such as language preservation, community broadcastings, arts centres, Stolen Generations family reunion, a Healing Foundation, early childhood education ($176 million) and safe houses and police in the Northern Territory.
* Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples as the First Australians.
* $1.59 billion to improve remote housing.
* Streamlining the Native Title process.
* $967 million for health and to fight chronic disease.
* $467 million to improve school outcomes for indigenous children.
* $1.95 billion to assist indigenous people in finding work.
* $98 million to ‘improve services’ to remote communities.
* $438 million to improve communities in the Northern Territory, including teachers, community workers and family support workers.
Liberal/National Party Coalition
You can find the policy document here. It includes the following:
* Establish a Director-General for Indigenous Policy Implementation in the Prime Minister’s Department.
This person would act as a monitor and liaison across government department and non-government organisations to facilitate the development of policies.
* Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples, to be put to referendum in 2013.
* $16 million over four years to support the Cape York Family Responsibilities Commission, aimed at helping community elders reduce school truancy.
The document also notes that Centrelink payment may be withheld if truancy continues.
* Fast-track the construction of boarding facilities to accommodate students from remote locations while they study.
* $8 million over four years to expand the Aboriginal Employment Strategy program.
* $8 million to support the Employment Covenant program set up by (among others) Andrew Forrest of Fortescue Metals.
* Abolish the permit system currently required to travel into indigenous areas in the Northern Territory, to facilitate tourism.
* Overturn the Wild Rivers Act, which currently protects Cape York rivers from fishing.
* $22 million over four years to improve dental health.
The policy document can be found here. It includes:
* Increased funding to community health and children’s health.
* Assistance to remote communities in dealing with the effects of climate change, including mosquito-borne disease.
* Establishing a 10 year housing plan.
* Supporting networks and policing to address issues of domestic violence and community safety.
* Amendment of the Heritage Protection and Native Title Acts, to protect cultural heritage and consistency with international laws.
* Requiring regular reporting on all indigenous initiatives by the Equal Opportunity Commission.
* Compensation for people who have unfairly lost land or wages.
* Working to preserve indigenous languages and culture.
* Supporting sustainable fishing, hunting and gathering practices.
Australian Labor Party
The policy document can be found here. It outlines current programs, and includes the following policies:
* $10 million for Australia Council funding.
This would allow the Australia Council to provide more grants for artistic projects of all kinds, as well as programs to encourage the Arts in young people and in schools.
* Move a series of programs under the umbrella of the Australia Council.
Programs such as Playing Australia, Festivals Australia and the Regional Arts Fund would be administered by the Australia Council and have access to Australia Council funds and corporate sponsorship programs.
* Investigate a new Arts funding model in conjunction with state and territory governments.
* Review the Australian film industry, with the aim of identifying areas of possible government intervention.
* Develop a plan to boost the Contemporary Music Industry.
* Continue to fund the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Indigenous Arts grants, preservation of indigenous languages and Artists-in-Residence programs.
EDIT (Thank you to Kat for the information)
* Joint funding with the Victorian state Labor government for the Victorian College of the Arts; an initial payment of $2 million, followed by $5.1 million each year.
Liberal/National Party Coalition
Try as I might, I cannot find an Arts policy on the website. All that I have been able to find is a few news reports such as this one. It summarises the following:
* $60 million into a loans fund to encourage local film development. Grants of $1-2 million would be given to match private investment.
* $14 million for regional arts, including grants of $100,000 for galleries that show local work.
* Loans for students who study music at institutions such as the Youth Chamber Orchestra would be eligible for a grant to purchase instruments, capped at $35,000.
The policy document is found here. It includes the following:
* Support and fund the Australia Council and the Commonwealth Art Bank.
* Introduce legislation for fixed-income support for emerging artists, and access to small business grants for artists who wish to make a living from their work.
* Scrutinise all international trade agreements to ensure the provisions do not adversely affect Australian artists.
* Introduce intellectual property legislation to protect artists’ rights.
* Provide funds to state governments to help them purchase venues for local arts groups.
Made it all the way through? Surprising how much is there, isn’t it?
This is part of the real meat that gets buried under rhetoric and headline-grabbing stunts. This is what we should know.
This isn’t a dispassionate narrative. I don’t think it’s really possible to be dispassionate about this issue. But I have tried to put some of the more obviously personal stuff in brackets.
I went in to La Trobe today to watch the Apology to the stolen generations delivered – the uni had set it up on all campuses in lecture theatres. The venue I was in was around 3/4 full, and the mood was expectantly euphoric.
That atmosphere was only briefly broken, at the beginning, when the ABC’s coverage began with a recap of the issue to date, and John Howard’s face appeared on the screen. At that point, people in the audience hissed and booed.
In Parliament, past Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were present. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser also turned out, to his credit. John Howard was conspicuous by his absence – we expected it, but it did leave a sour taste in the mouth to think that he couldn’t put aside his pride for this one day.
In fact, a number of Liberal Members were also absent, and they deserve to be named and shamed.
Wilson Tuckey walked out of the chamber after the Lord’s Prayer was recited – apparently he respects Christianity, but not the feelings of indigenous people. He was joined by Don Randall.
Alby Schulz and Sophie Mirabella also didn’t feel they needed to attend. Schulz had said he wouldn’t be there, but Mirabella, it seems, didn’t feel the need to give notice.
Mark Vaile was also not there for Rudd’s speech – although he apparently did turn up just in time to join the vote. He had to leave the chamber unexpectedly – at least, that’s what he said when he hurriedly phoned Sky News a few minutes ago to explain his actions.
Personally, I didn’t spot Tony Abbott anywhere on the front bench. After his disgusting performance on Lateline last night, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t dare show his face. And, as a friend said, his daughter did have a big party last night.
Every other seat was filled.
In the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery, members of the stolen generations and their descendants were seated on the floor with the MPs. The upper galleries were packed with Australians of all races. In the Great Hall, hundreds gathered to watch the screens. Parliament House lawns, with the Tent Embassy, were crowded, and all over Australia, people gathered in public places to hear a few long-overdue words.
The Apology was the first order of business. From there, he told the story of Nanna Fejo (sp?), who was taken from her family by ‘the welfare men. At this point, the tears were coming fast, both in the chamber and all around me.
Rudd did not, at any point, directly sledge Howard’s government by name, but he made it very clear where he felt the bulk of the blame lay in terms of the long inaction on this issue, even as he acknowledged that responsibility lay with ‘successive governments’ of all kinds. He asserted sternly that the stolen generations were not ‘little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon’ for academics and historians. The present terrible situation was the result of ‘deliberate, calculated policies of the State‘ (my emphasis).
He did what so many people have failed to do. He explained, clearly and simply, why we should be saying sorry. He told a horrifying story, and the dry recitation of statistics that followed it only made it worse, somehow. He quoted from a report made by the Northern Territory’s ‘Protector of Natives’ (and isn’t that just an appalling title?) made in the 1920s, which confidently predicted the complete extinction of the Aboriginal race, and applauded the ‘forced extraction of children’ (Rudd’s words) that was helping hasten the process of eradicating Aboriginal culture. Rudd looked directly at Nelson at the point where he laid heavy emphasis on the word ‘facts’ – not just stories, not political rhetoric, but facts.
(Mick Dodson, interviewed later, pointed out that indigenous people call funerals, ‘Sorry Business’. He also pointed out that it was also ‘healing business’, but the healing business couldn’t begin until the sorry business was properly done. Now do you get it, Mr Howard?)
On the question of intergenerational responsibility, he noted that ‘some’ had used it as an excuse to avoid apologies – oh, we didn’t do anything wrong, why should we apologise? He then drove the point home – some Members of Parliament who were elected during the time when children were being literally ripped from their mother’s arms were still serving in this very chamber at this time. ‘We, the Parliaments of this nation, are ultimately responsible’.
(And think about it – we say ‘oh, sorry’, when we accidentally bump into someone and they spill their coffee. In fact, we say ‘sorry’ when our kids do it, or the people we’re with at the time. We know we didn’t mean to do it, but we acknowledge that what happened was wrong and had bad consequences. We do this all the time. Why did it take so long for our leaders to do what comes so easily?)
In what may have been a poke at the Howard government’s citizenship test, he spoke about Australian ‘core values’ – well, about one in particular. The concept of the ‘fair go’ – and he challenged anyone listening to him to argue that indigenous people had received a fair go. Then, echoing famous election strategies of the past, he reiterated ‘It’s time … it’s time …’”, and added his own version of the Apology.
‘As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry. And I offer you this apology without qualification.’
Turning to the representatives of the stolen generations, he said, ‘Nothing I can say today can take away the pain’, but he hoped that saying sorry would help ease it a little. To non-indigenous Australia, he challenged them (taking a leaf out of John Grisham’s book) – imagine if what had happened to the indigenous people of Australia, happened to you. Imagine if it had happened to us.
(Just stop and think about that for a moment.)
Acknowledging that symbolism was nothing without substance – in a nod to 1 Corinthians 13, that without action the Apology was just a ‘clanging gong’ – Rudd moved on to concrete promises. In a decade, he promised to halve the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia in literacy, numeracy, the ‘obscenity’ of infant mortality, life expectancy and employment prospects. In five years, he promised that every indigenous four-year-old child would be attending early childhood education.
At this point, he rocked the Opposition back on its heels. Looking directly at Nelson, Bishop and the Liberal front bench, Rudd argued that Parliamentarians needed to ‘move beyond our infantile bickering’ on the subject of indigenous affairs. To that end, he proposed a Joint Policy Commission, led by himself and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson, which would implement his government’s policies, including constitutional recognition, and challenged Nelson to commit to that initiative today.
(The audience at LTU erupted into laughter and applause at this point.)
He wound up with the exhortation to all Australians to ‘embrace with awe these great and ancient cultures’.
The standing ovation in the chamber was echoed in the Great Hall, the Lawns and at LTU. I can only imagine it was the same elsewhere. Then – as if the government hadn’t shown its respect adequately enough – the entire Labor side of the House turned around and solemnly applauded the representatives of the stolen generations in the chamber.
Brendan Nelson started out on such a good note. He stood ‘strongly in support’ of the Apology, and recognised the indigenous people of the Canberra area. He said that what had been done to the stolen generations must be acknowledged ‘with shame’. He even said ‘we say sorry’, which must have caused a few ulcers to gripe back in the Liberal Party room – and wherever John Howard is now.
Then he kinda went off the rails.
First, he celebrated the First Fleet’s ‘gritty determination’ to build a new nation for themselves, the indigenous people and ‘people to come’. It was that kind of spirit that made Australia a great country.
Then, he acknowledged that indigenous people had made ‘involuntary sacrifices’ to help Australia become the great economic and social nation it is today.
Though ‘disputed in motive and detail’, Nelson seemed to reluctantly agree that taking children from their families had been a bad thing. ‘We need to understand what happened, and why it happened’ – and he urged us to consider the pain of ‘not only those who were removed, but those who did the removing and those who supported it’. Hammering the ‘good intentions’ message that has characterised the manoeuvring of the Opposition in recent days, he lamented the ‘unintended consequences’ of the assimilation policy.
(At this point, three-quarters of the crowd in Federation Square turned their backs on the big screens, chanting ‘Get him off’, and did not turn back until he had finished. The motion was mirrored in the Great Hall in Canberra – where people cried out ‘Shame!’, and on the Parliament House lawns. In Perth, the outcry from the audience was so angry that the broadcast feed was cut altogether. In the theatre at LTU, Nelson was booed and hissed loudly, with angry comments coming from several quarters. Personally, I felt sick – Nelson was talking to his base, not to the people. After the first few sentences, virtually nothing he said had any meaning for me at all.)
‘There will be no compensation fund, nor should there be.’ No amount of dollars would ease the pain of those who were hurt by this ‘painful but necessary policy’.
(More outrage from the audiences. At this point, I was thinking it was lucky Nelson was protected by security in the Parliament, as even in the gallery, there were people muttering angrily. A quick shot of Bob Hawke’s face showed him pass quickly from incredulous anger to disgusted cynicism.)
Then – and this was perhaps the single most ridiculous part of his speech – Nelson invoked the Australian war dead, indigenous and non-indigenous lying side by side in foreign soil. Don’t forget what they went through.
(Did he think it was Anzac Day? Had he forgotten that indigenous soldiers were, for a long time, denied access to RSLs and parades? Had he forgotten that veterans’ groups had turned their backs on their fellow soldiers?)
Not to be outdone on the ‘practical politics’ issue, Nelson decided to have a crack at the ‘immediate’ problems facing indigenous people – causing their ‘existential aimlessness’. (What?) After a quick nod to the problems of infant mortality, life expectancy and social inequality, he zeroed in on the Little Children are Sacred report.
Where Rudd told a story of a woman stolen as a child by white authorities, deprived of her mother, her culture and her religion (being randomly assigned ‘Methodist’ when she was separated from her brother, who suddenly became a ‘Catholic’), Nelson gave us sickening tales of sexual abuse perpetrated by indigenous people on each other. He told us about children raped and murdered, young girls gang-raped, and a baby who was raped ‘while her mother sat drinking’. He championed the Northern Territory ‘intervention’ and sternly challenged Rudd to report “regularly” on its progress – then, almost as an afterthought, said he’d support the Joint Policy Commission.
(What Nelson didn’t mention was the shattering of cultures that had directly contributed to the situations he cited – a shattering which was the immediate and ongoing result of the policies of assimilation and removal. He didn’t talk about the systematic destruction of self-respect, the psycho-social shocks visited again and again on the first people of the country, or the complete failure of his own government to address the problem when it first knew about it. One woman in the LTU audience cried out loudly, ‘Shame on you!’)
Finally, Nelson gave us a thumbnail biography of Neville Bonner, Australia’s first indigenous Member of Parliament – and didn’t fail to mention that he’d been in the Liberal Party.
He also got a standing ovation from the floor – but not from the gallery, and very few people watching gave more than a few token claps.
The vote, needless to say, was unanimous, and greeted by applause, tears, and shouts.
After the vote, Rudd, Jenny Macklin (Minister for Indigenous Affairs) and Nelson left the floor and walked to the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery, where they individually paid their respects to every member of the stolen generations’ delegation. The delegation gave Rudd a coolamon (a baby-carrier, made of bark) to symbolise the birth of a new, reconciled nation (and like any kid, it’s got a lot of learning to do now). The coolamon was presented to the Speaker by Rudd and Nelson, who accepted it on behalf of the Parliament.
(There’ll be reams and reams written on what happened today, I’m sure. For some, it didn’t go far enough. For others, too far. There are mutters of fear about compensation claims and suspicious murmurings about empty gestures. There’s a very long road ahead. From this writer’s point of view, however, it was a day in which I can say I was proud to be an Australian, and proud of my elected representatives – well, most of them, anyway. It’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time.)
Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and Governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
(Actual text of the apology read in the Australian Federal Parliament, Wednesday 13th February, 2008.)