Freedom of speech for some

April 6, 2014

First they came for the Racial Discrimination Act.

Wrapping himself in the banner of ‘free speech’, our Attorney-General, George Brandis, proclaimed the equivalent of ‘let bigots be bigots’. Our Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson (he of right-wing think tank Institute of Public Affairs fame), stood shoulder to shoulder with Brandis and condemned the current laws as ‘bizarre’. Wilson – whose appointment was supposed to deliver ‘balance’ to the Human Rights Commission – claimed that, as things stand, members of any given ethnic group could racially abuse each other without consequence, but if the abuse came from outside the group, it was illegal. Curtailing one person’s freedom of speech like that was just plain wrong.

The solution? Remove virtually all of Sections 18c, d and e of the Act, and replace it with incredibly narrow language. Instead of it being an offense to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’, the proposed changes would replace those words with ‘vilify’ and ‘intimidate’. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too terrible. But then we get to the definitions.

‘Vilify’ is defined as ‘to incite hatred against a person or a group of persons’. That sounds very strong, but there’s nothing in the act that might indicate exactly how that might manifest. It wouldn’t be enough, under the proposed changes, to show that you were insulted or humiliated – you would have to prove that something was said that actively caused others to hate you.

‘Intimidate’ has been changed even further. The proposed definition means ‘to cause fear of physical harm’. Not emotional or psychological fear. It wouldn’t be enough to be so terrified of constant verbal harassment that you no longer dared to go into certain places. It wouldn’t be enough that your mental health was affected. Unless you could show that you were going to be attacked, the Act wouldn’t apply.

To make matters worse, the proposed changes are bound about with a raft of exemptions that render them all but useless. The current Act provides exemptions for artistic, academic or scientific purposes, or reporting a matter of public interest – but what Brandis announced would protect almost every form of public discourse:

‘This section does not apply to words, sounds, images or writing spoken, broadcast, published or otherwise communicated in the course of participating in the public discussion of any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.

It’s hard to envisage any arena in which hate speech would not, therefore, be protected.

And what about that pesky ‘balance’ issue? Wilson’s claim that the current Act allows people of any given ethnic group to abuse each other doesn’t stand up under even the most cursory inspection. There’s no exemption on those grounds; anyone who contravenes the Act commits an offence. What Brandis proposes would do nothing to change that. In fact, it would simply become easier to entrench racism in public discussion.

But hey, it’s all in the name of freedom of speech, right? We can warm ourselves with that thought. Maybe we’ll upset a few people (but it’s not like they’re Aussies, not real Aussies), but we’ll be champions of the right to free expression. And it doesn’t even have to be ‘true’ – everyone has the right to their opinion. After all, we’re a ‘robust society’, we can handle a bit of public criticism, surely?

Oh, but wait.

Then they came for so-called ‘environmental boycotts’. You see, companies need ‘protection’ from those pesky greenie pinko lefty commos, who have this annoying habit of identifying products and practices that harm the environment. And then they have the audacity to suggest that people not buy from those companies, with the aim of pressuring them into changing the way they conduct themselves. It worked with Tasmanian timber company Ta Ann; they not only embraced green certification, but also now speak out in favour of co-operation with environmental groups. And currently, those groups are protected by the Consumer and Competition Act.

According to the government, however, this isn’t freedom of speech, though. This is what amounts to sabotage. How dare those greenies have anything to say about businesses?

The inconsistency is baffling. And it only gets worse.

Then they came for the public servants. Specifically, those who work in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Under new regulations, anyone who works for the PM & C would be gagged from making any form of political comment on social media. A specific case study concerned criticism of the Prime Minister, but the rules extend to comments on any MP or party, or their policies.

In other words, if you work for the government, you can’t talk about the government.

And don’t think you can get around it by anonymising yourself, either. If your mate in the next cubicle at PM & C knows your username on Twitter, he’s supposed to dob you in. That’s right, folks, the government actually encourages public servants to effectively conduct surveillance on each other.

It’s not just at work, on work computers. These regulations apply any time. anywhere. Whether you’re lying on the beach in Kuta, posting about how happy you are not to be back in Australia at the moment because you’re so upset at the government’s asylum seeker policies, or you’re at the pub and see a funny political gif showing Clive Palmer twerking that you want to RT on Twitter, you’re breaking the rules. Even if you happen to work for PM & C and write a ‘Mummy’ blog in your spare time, you don’t get to say anything about the government.

And if you happen to like writing book reviews about, say, Quarterly Essays, the latest offering from David Marr, Annabel Crabb, or the like, you definitely don’t get to speak. Maybe if you gave Battlelines a favourable review, you’d be okay, but I guess that would depend on your ability to sell out.

One wonders if standing in front of banners screaming, ‘DITCH THE WITCH!’ would count. And just how far criticism of non-government MPs would be punished. But surely not. This is about fairness, isn’t it? Certainly, Tim Wilson thinks so.

So let’s get this straight.

Freedom of speech for all – unless you’re an environmental activist group or a public servant. Then they’ll throw the book at you.

Protection from public criticism for all – unless you belong to an ethnic group and are being subjected to hate speech. Then you should just suck it up and learn not to be so thin-skinned.

Yeah. Sounds fair.

By now – seven months after the last election – the comment that the Abbott government has its priorities completely skewed is getting to be a tired old saw. Whether it’s paid maternity leave for rich women at the expense of the School Kid’s Bonus and welfare for orphans of war veterans; claiming ‘green’ credentials while moving heaven and earth to abolish organisations that encourage green energy development; or appointing astonishingly biased critics of the National Curriculum to ‘review it’ and ‘restore balance’, the government has shown itself to be riddled with hypocrisy. One suspects it’s even proud of that.

These proposed speech laws and regulations are just one symptom, but they are among the most dangerous. Freedom of speech is not absolute; we don’t have the right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, about whoever we want. We can’t publish lies in the media – hello, Andrew Bolt. We can’t rouse a riot and endanger lives – remember Cronulla, anyone? We cannot falsely advertise. We must tell the truth in court. All of these restrictions serve to aid social cohesion. At the same time, we can speak out if we have knowledge of wrongdoing. We can bring reasonable criticism to bear on our government.

Arguably, this last freedom is the most important. A government that attempts to make itself exempt from criticism, that punishes its citizens for speaking about its own policies and actions, edges close to the very dangerous territory of fascism. And that’s not something anyone should simply dismiss as completely impossible.

Gosh, it’s lucky I don’t work for the government. I would have lost my job before the end of the first paragraph.


Who needs science when you’ve got Wiki?

October 24, 2013

There are days when you read the political news and know that you’ll walk away angry.

There are days when you despair.

There are even days – rare, but they do happen – when a tiny, tiny shred of hope is kindled.

And then there are days like today, when you simply have to pick your jaw up off the floor and try not to let the sheer stupidity of it all overwhelm you.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the Coalition has a somewhat – shall we say – problematic relationship with the notion of climate change, and what might be done to mitigate its effects. Historically, the Liberal/National Parties have held more positions on the subject than might be found in the Kama Sutra. Malcolm Turnbull was toppled from the leadership just before he could commit to supporting the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, thanks to the machinations of former Senator Nick Minchin, the Coalition’s very own ‘faceless man’. As for the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the term ‘weather vane’ is used without irony to describe his feelings on the subject. Famously describing climate change as ‘absolute crap’, the PM apparently had a change of heart and was prepared to embrace the science – but only up to a point.

Currently, New South Wales is embroiled in an ongoing bushfire emergency. Of the three major firefronts, one is burning over 40,000 hectares. Around 200 houses have been destroyed, with countless others damaged. One man lost his life, and a water-bombing aircraft has crashed, killing the pilot. Between unpredictable winds, high temperatures and heavy undergrowth, the hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes are constantly having to respond to new emergencies. And it’s only October – months earlier than the ‘usual’ fire season.

Now, these are by no means the worst bushfires ever seen in NSW, or even the earliest. The fact that they are taking place, however, combined with the unseasonal weather, inevitably brings up the question of whether climate change is a major contributor. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was unequivocal on the subject. Although she stopped short of directly addressing the current fires, she pointed to studies showing that there was a known link between the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, and wildfires. She was joined by scientists and climate activists in calling for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases, and criticising the Coalition government’s determination to repeal carbon pricing.

Unsurprisingly, the Coalition rejected that argument. The Prime Minister wasn’t simply content with that, however. When asked what he thought about Figueres’ statement, Abbott replied that she was ‘talking through her hat’. Australia has always had bushfires; they are ‘part of the Australian experience’.

You have to admit, that’s pretty impressive. In one short interview, the PM managed to not only insult a senior figure in the UN, but also to dismiss the pain, stress and loss of everyone caught up in these fires. It takes real skill to be that insensitive.

But it gets better.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt was quick to back up his leader. His contribution was to flatly deny that Figueres’ statement had even taken place. According to Hunt, Figueres had a conversation with the PM in which she ‘very clearly and strongly’ said there was no link. Continuing his role as unofficial, unwanted spokesperson, he said Figueres had been misrepresented. Never mind the plethora of footage contradicting him.

Not content with putting words in Figueres’ mouth, Hunt apparently felt it was necessary to support Abbott’s arguments. Now, you’d think the right approach – especially from someone with the academic ability to gain a Bachelor of Laws and win a Fulbright Scholarship – would be to gather your evidence and distil it down to a few pithy talking points.

You’d think.

Hunt had a different idea. For reasons passing understanding, he told the BBC World Service that bushfires occurred during the hotter months of the year, and had done so since before European settlement. And just how did he know that?

He’d … wait for it … ‘looked up what Wikipedia said, just to see what the rest of the world thought’.

Wikipedia.

I wish I were making this up.

Our Environment Minister proudly announced – to the world – that his go-to source for facts and figures was an online pseudo-encyclopedia famous for its lack of oversight, inaccuracies, biases and edit wars.

A website on which the words of a scientist are indistinguishable from the words of a zealot, where celebrities are declared dead, and where harassed moderators frequently have to ‘lock’ pages to prevent users with an axe to grind from posting information that damages reputations. To say it’s unreliable is like saying a flood makes you ‘a little wet’.

Children are cautioned at primary school not to rely on Wikipedia. At secondary school, they’re positively discouraged from using it at all – and by tertiary level, it’s completely unacceptable. (I remember delivering that particular admonition to my first year students every semester – right after the warnings about plagiarism.)

The stories range from the serious to the utterly absurd. Take the long-running edit war over Caesar Salad. For over two years, editors have argued over whether this dish was invented in Ancient Rome or (relatively) modern Mexico, and tussled over the vexed question of whether adding tomatoes means you have to change the name. Then there’s the Great Scientology Edit War, which led ultimately to Wikipedia’s moderators banning the Church from editing its own pages. That final decision came after four years of back-and-forth that spilled over into mainstream media and threats of legal action, as ex-members sought to represent their negative experiences, only to have their work removed by current members bent on ‘correction’ (or sanitisation, depending on your point of view).

Oh, and let’s not forget the premature obituaries – like that of Apple’s Steve Jobs. News of his ‘death’ – originally an on-file obituary misprinted by Bloomberg – hit Wikipedia within seconds, back in 2008. Jobs, of course, was alive and well, but for the short time he was ‘dead’ on the internet, pandemonium reigned.
Perhaps this was a contributing factor in the way Apple’s stock plummeted later that year, when a fake article reported Jobs had suffered a heart attack.

Hunt himself fell victim to this sort of tampering after his statement hit the media. His page was edited to say that he ‘uses Wikipedia for important policy research’. Another gem noted that, since becoming Environment Minister, ‘He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise’. Soon after, the page was locked – but his comments about using Wikipedia are still there.

I could go on, but really, the point hardly needs to be made. Wikipedia may be handy for a quick look-up when nothing’s riding on the accuracy of your information. It may even be useful to lead you to other sources with a good deal more credibility. But when you’re the Federal Environment Minister, dealing with a serious situation in which lives, homes and businesses are under threat, you owe it to Australians to do at least some credible research.

This is the man who co-authored a thesis which concluded that a ‘pollution tax’ linked to the market was the best way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and runaway climate change. Presumably, he was required to provide good supporting references, so he hardly has any excuse for such a fatuous statement. But this is the example he’s prepared to set for the rest of the world.

Hunt is apparently happy for the world to know that our government is prepared to take the word of a group of unknown contributors – many of whom have little or no credentials – rather than listen to the experts on its own (now disbanded) Climate Change Commission. To represent us as so unwilling to even consider the possibility of a link between wildfires and climate change that we’d rather elevate a poorly-supervised website to the status of science.

It’s embarrassing. And it’s dangerous. Hunt’s ridiculous behaviour today is, unfortunately, just a symptom of the dumbing-down taking place in all areas of government right now, treating us like children and expecting us to believe whatever they tell us just because it comes from a place of power.

We need to be careful that we don’t let the sheer stupidity of it blind us to that fact – and that we don’t let it go unchallenged.


ACT’s marriage bill is only the beginning

October 22, 2013

The ACT passed its same-sex marriage bill today. Congratulations, and it’s about time.

Picture via Sky News Australia

Picture via Sky News Australia

It’s not the bill they wanted. It isn’t comprehensive. It won’t allow trans or intersex, or non-binary gender identifying people to marry. The ACT’s Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, had the bill re-drafted after receiving legal advice that its original language would leave it vulnerable to a High Court challenge (already threatened by the Liberal government). The result was a much smaller victory than was hoped for, and no doubt there will be many, many people who feel both let down and excluded. There’s certainly a fair amount of bitterness flying around social media today.

The idea that this bill needed to be amended in such a way to even have a hope of standing up to a legal challenge is, at the very least, disappointing. At worst, it’s infuriating.

But it doesn’t take away the fact that the ACT passed a bill to allow same-sex marriage. It doesn’t take away the fact that this is a landmark reform. And it doesn’t take away the fact that a Territory government was prepared to stand up to a conservative government and pass a law that will redress so much of the damage done by the Marriage Act and its narrow definitions.

The ACT managed it through some clever legal manoeuvring, taking advantage of a loophole in the Marriage Act which, ironically, was created by the Howard government’s insistence on defining marriage as taking place between ‘a man and a woman’. Rather than attempting to change that, the new law stands alone in applying solely to same-sex couples. It operates side-by-side with the Commonwealth’s law, and the Territory is confident that this will be the defining characteristic that allows it to remain on the books.

The Chief Minister has already said that, as far as she’s concerned, there is more work to be done. She signalled that if the law withstood the expected challenge, the Territory would seek to pass further laws extending marriage to those couples excluded by the one passed today. This first law is the test.

That it should even have to be a test is utterly repugnant – but that has been the history of the bill all along.

Attorney-General George Brandis wrote to Gallagher, ‘urging’ her not to go ahead with the bill. His reasoning? Marriage should be uniform across all States and Territories. Of course, what he really meant was, ‘uniform according to one limited definition’.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the government would challenge the law. His reasoning? Marriage has a ‘traditional’ definition. Traditional, of course, meaning, ‘enshrined in law since 1984 on the basis of special pleading’.

This law hurts nobody. No one will be required to ‘get gay married’, nor will they be required to give up their heterosexual marriage. Yes, I’m being absurd, but the notion that same-sex marriage somehow hurts or undermines heterosexual unions warrants this level of scorn.

What this law will do is redress a great wrong. It will celebrates love. It acknowledges that nearly 70% of Australians support doing away with the artificial distinction between marriage based entirely on gender. To be pseudo-economic about it, having this law in place increases the Gross National Happiness – which always bodes well for governments, even if all they want to talk about is the Budget deficit or unemployment rate.

And yet.

We have a government that – even before the debate really got off the ground in the ACT Parliament – decided that this law could not be allowed to stand.

If the Abbott government carries out its threat to challenge the ACT’s same-sex marriage law, it will not be about tradition, or uniformity, or any other of its usual excuses.

It will be pandering to a vocal minority of religious lobby groups who feel they have the right to dictate that we should all live by their doctrines.

It will be vicious discrimination from a government that feels its job is to control how people live their lives, and punish them for who they love.

It will be narrow-minded pettiness from a government so obsessed with image, to the point that it cannot bear to be seen to lose even one of its self-imposed battles.

It will be the action of a government that acts like a spoiled child, refusing to let anyone else be happy unless they play by rules that only it can define – rules which it can change on little more than a whim.

And if – heaven forfend – such a challenge were upheld by the High Court, it would not be a victory. It would be a day of shame.

It’s not often I urge readers to take to the streets, to sign petitions, to campaign unceasingly and take the fight to the politicians and the media. But there are some things that should be defended, passionately and unceasingly. Marriage equality is one of those. What the ACT did today was take the first, huge step towards true equality, by locking into law the right for same-sex couples to marry. It’s not good enough for us to sit back and watch while the Federal Government acts – again – like a bully determined to get its own way, no matter who gets hurt. It’s not good enough for us to simply complain, or lash out at those who would do this to us, or the ones we love, or even the stranger in the street who deserves the same rights as everyone else.

We are better than that. And this is only the beginning.

lesbian couple


Abbott’s Ministry – One woman, no science, 12,000 jobs

September 16, 2013

We now know the make-up of Prime Minister Elect Tony Abbott’s new Ministry – and if it’s a sign of things to come, there are some features that may well be warning signs. For the most part, Abbott made good on his promise to simply remove the word ‘Shadow’ from his front bench. There were a few surprises, however, on which I’ll elaborate below.

Cabinet

Prime Minister – Tony Abbott
Parliamentary Secretary – Josh Frydenberg
Parliamentary Secretary – Alan Tudge

Deputy Prime Minister; Infrastructure and Regional Development – Warren Truss
Assistant – Jamie Briggs

Treasurer – Joe Hockey
Assistant – Senator Arthur Sinodinos
Parliamentary Secretary – Steve Ciobo

Agriculture – Senator Barnaby Joyce
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Richard Colbeck

Attorney-General; Arts – Senator George Brandis

Communications – Malcolm Turnbull
Parliamentary Secretary – Paul Fletcher

Defence – Senator David Johnston
Assistant – Stuart Robert
Parliamentary Secretary – Darren Chester

Education; Leader of Government Business in the House – Christopher Pyne
Assistant – Sussan Ley
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Scott Ryan

Employment; Assisting the Prime Minister on the Public Service; Leader of the Senate – Senator Eric Abetz
Assistant – Luke Hartsuyker

Environment – Greg Hunt
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Simon Birmingham

Finance – Senator Mathias Cormann
Parliamentary Secretary – Michael McCormack

Foreign Affairs – Julie Bishop
Parliamentary Secretary – Brett Mason

Health and Sport – Peter Dutton
Assistant – Senator Fiona Nash

Immigration and Border Protection – Scott Morrison
Assistant; Assisting the Prime Minister for Women – Michaelia Cash

Indigenous Affairs – Senator Nigel Scullion

Industry – Ian McFarlane
Parliamentary Secretary – Bob Baldwin

Small Business – Bruce Billson

Social Services – Kevin Andrews
Assistant – Senator Mitch Fifield
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Trade and Investment – Andrew Robb

Speaker – Bronwyn Bishop

Whip – Philip Ruddock

Outer Ministry

Assisting Ministers, plus:

Veterans Affairs; Assisting the Prime Minister on the Century of ANZAC; Special Minister for State – Senator Michael Ronaldson

Human Services – Marise Payne

Justice – Michael Keenan

The first, and most glaring, issue is the lack of women in the Cabinet. Out of 20 Ministers, there is only one, Julie Bishop, who stays with Foreign Affairs. In the Outer Ministry there are three ‘Assistant Ministers’ (positions that, under Labor, were called ‘Junior Ministries’), one Parliamentary Secretary, and one Minister – and, of course, Bronwyn Bishop is Abbott’s Speaker-designate. That’s still only 7 appointments out of 42 positions.

When it was in Opposition, the Coalition made much of Labor’s supposed betrayal of its commitment to relatively equal representation, both on its front bench and in its Caucus. Now in government, Abbott could only say he ‘wished’ there could be at least two women in his Cabinet, and mentioned his regret at losing Sophie Mirabella (who looks increasingly likely to lose her seat of Indi). He added that there were many talented women ‘knocking at the door’, but that in the end, he was faced with a wealth of talent and a dearth of positions, and reminded us that the Coalition chooses its representatives based on merit, rather than ‘quotas’ or any other system.

But how true is that? Take a look at the case of Senator Fierravanti-Wells. She was apparently talented enough to serve in Abbott’s Shadow Ministry, in the portfolios of Ageing and Mental Health. She has a strong background in law, was a Policy Advisor for the New South Wales Shadow Minister for Policy and Regional Development, and served as Senior Private Secretary to John Fahey, then NSW Premier. How is she less qualified to fulfil a Cabinet role – or even a Junior, sorry, Assistant Ministry – than, say, Luke Hartsuyker, who was never elected to state government (managing his family’s tourism business before entering federal politics, and then also serving as a Shadow Minister under Abbott)?

For that matter, how is Fierravanti-Wells less qualified to serve than Paul Fletcher, he of the ‘opt-out internet filter’ debacle just prior to the election? He kept his job as Parliamentary Secretary to Malcolm Turnbull, while Fierravanti-Wells was effectively demoted. Does that sound like a meritocracy at work?

Abbott says he’s ‘disappointed’ at the lack of women in Cabinet. This is enormously disingenuous. He is the one person responsible for choosing his Ministers, beholden to neither Caucus nor colleagues. For him to shake his head and feign regret about his own choices is inexcusable.

Oh, and just in case the message wasn’t clear enough – under Abbott there will be no Minister for the Status of Women. Instead, he’ll be advised by Parliamentary Secretary Michaelia Cash, when she’s not helping Scott Morrison turn back the boats. Or was it buy back the boats?

Then there’s the Curious Case of the Missing Portfolios. Where is Science? Housing? Mental Health? Ageing? Higher and Early Childhood Education? Disabilities? Resources and Energy?

Abbott had an explanation for some of these absences. He wanted to institute ‘title deflation’, he said, mocking the long Ministerial titles under the outgoing Labor government. For example, the Education portfolio would encompass Higher and Early Childhood Education, with specific responsibilities divided up as Christopher Pyne directed. Mental Health would be folded into Health, and Disabilities and Ageing into Social Services (in the Outer Ministry). Science, it seems, is to be ‘deflated’ almost out of existence. Abbott said that it would largely be taken care of by the Industry Minister.

On the face of it, these seem like reasonable propositions – set up ‘umbrella’ Ministries, under which similar issues can rest, with a single Minister overseeing all. Cast your mind back to the election campaign, though. (I know, I know, we’ve all tried to move on, but bear with me.) On several occasions, the Coalition emphasised the importance of mental health, including allocating significant funds for new beds, and programs such as Headspace. In fact, Abbott suggested that it would be one of its top health priorities – yet there is not even an Outer Ministry assigned to it.

Abbott also announced a number of initiatives aimed at assisting seniors, and improving aged care facilities. With his Shadow Minister for Ageing, Bronwyn Bishop, beside him, he castigated Labor’s handling of the issue and signalled his intention to restructure the aged care system. These are significant, complex initiatives, but again, apparently not complex enough to require the undivided attention of a Minister.

The situation is even worse with disabilities. The Coalition has promised to establish the National Disability Insurance Scheme, arguably the most sweeping reform in the sector. As with ageing, however, Abbott seems to believe that it can be handled by an Outer Minister responsible for the entire Social Services portfolio.

Then there’s Science. Of course, there is overlap between industry and science, but the two are hardly in lockstep. While industry looks to science for innovation, the processes of research, theoretical and experimental sciences are not necessarily driven by industry needs. Consider much of astrophysics, for example. There may be, eventually, practical applications for the study of quasars or the search for planets capable of sustaining life, but these are so far into the future that they are effectively unforeseeable. Even a great deal of medical science is exploratory, rather than focused on a problem-solving, industry-applicable approach. To be blunt, innovation and application depends on theory and experimentation.

And, of course, having Science swallowed up by Industry will take those pesky climate change concerns out of the equation. Or is that too cynical? You be the judge.

The decision to subsume important areas of governance into larger Ministries sends clear signals that conflict with the Coalition’s stated election priorities. That in itself is a huge cause for concern. There is, however, another consequence that may hold the key to why Abbott is willing to field criticism for these moves, and it lies in another election promise – to axe more than 12,000 jobs in the Public Service.

When asked how he would decide which jobs would go, Abbott spoke vaguely of ‘natural attrition’, a remarkably slippery phrase. Often, attrition occurs when someone retires and their position is not filled by a new employee. In this case, however, the new Ministry structure leaves entire departments without a Minister or a portfolio. Undoubtedly, some of the employees will need to move across (say, from Mental Health and Ageing to Health) – but there is no faster way to shed jobs than the kind of restructuring that will need to take place in order to put the Coalition’s proposed ‘streamlined’ and ‘deflated’ Ministry into effect. No one needs to be sacked – the jobs just don’t exist anymore, so sorry, thanks for your service.

So what do we have?

A Cabinet of 20 with one woman.

A claim that there are simply not enough talented women in the Coalition, which is nothing short of a slap in the face to a highly experienced former Shadow Minister.

A series of portfolios that have disappeared, with an unconvincing assurance that Ministers will make the right decisions as to how to properly oversee the issues they addressed.

A slaving of science to industry.

The groundwork laid for potentially thousands of job losses under the guise of ‘natural attrition’ and ‘restructuring’, all overseen by Senator Eric Abetz’s ‘assistance’ on the Public Service.

The Ministry is set to be sworn in on Wednesday. This, according to Abbott, will be ‘Day One’ – and we will, he says, see a difference immediately.

He’s right. Whether it’s a difference that will benefit us, however, is another story.


Rudd vs Abbott – People’s Forum no. 3

August 29, 2013

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

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

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

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


Operation The Price Is Right

August 23, 2013

We’ve heard it thousands of times. It’s a three word slogan, a caricature, and recently, a shorthand way of describing Coalition policy both inhumane and in violation of our international obligations.

STOP THE BOATS.

By far, the aspect of Tony Abbott’s asylum seeker policy that has attracted the most criticism is the plan to somehow turn around boats holding asylum seekers and shoo them back to Indonesian waters. Apparently envisioning the Australian Navy and Coast Guard as little more than bully-boy escort ships, Mr Abbott’s always seemed confident that very little could possibly go wrong with his idea. Apart from the people smugglers possibly resorting to deliberately scuttling their ships. Or Indonesia refusing to let the boats land. Or, well, anything. Still, Abbott never seemed anything but serene. And today we found out why.

There’s another aspect to the Coalition’s policy. Abbott and his Shadow Spokesperson for Stopping the Boats, Scott Morrison, have been holding out on us. Such teases. Yes, they have a secret weapon up their sleeves – and it’s a doozy. They’re going to ‘smash the people smugglers’ business model’, and they’re going to do it with a combination of Orwellian public relations know-how and good ol’-fashioned capitalism.

They’re going to buy the boats.

Yep. With the help of the infallible intelligence that has already worked so well in stopping people smugglers, a Coalition government will identify which poor Indonesian fisherfolk have been offered money for their leaky boats, and … offer them more. Naturally, the aforementioned poor fisherfolk will want to take Australia’s money, and voila! – problem solved. No boats, no boat people.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Of course, this is a scheme with more holes than the boats the Coalition say they’re prepared to buy. For a start, it depends on identifying which fishing boats are, shall we say, up for negotiation. It assumes our intelligence is good enough – and so far, our record isn’t brilliant on that score. After all, if we were able to figure out who was cruising the docks around Indonesia inspecting boats for nefarious purposes, why not tap them on the shoulder and introduce them to the wonders of law enforcement? Not only would it take a people smuggler out of the picture, it’d be a darn sight cheaper.

Let’s say we don’t know exactly who’s making these offers. I don’t know, maybe they’re running around in Mexican wrestling masks or wearing bags on their heads. Anything’s possible, right? It still doesn’t prevent the transaction from being intercepted, much like a narcotics or drugs bust – and it doesn’t require us to buy a bunch of boats.

Just what are we going to do with these boats, anyway?

Offer them to schools as compensation for taking away the Schoolkids Bonus? Wow, think about it – one boat per child. We could offer VCAL training in boat-building and navigation, with electives in evading the Coast Guard. We could run excursions out in Port Philip Bay or Sydney Harbour – or, for schools further away from the coast, we could just kick out the rickety bottoms and hold a special Students Division of the Henley-on-Todd Regatta.

Or maybe it would be better to put those boats to good use directly combating people smuggling? We could string them all together in a long line and place them just on the border of international waters, so that any boats we couldn’t buy up won’t be able to get through. That’d be a great photo op for Prime Minister Abbott, straddling two fishing boats, one foot on each deck, gazing sternly into the distance. Think about that on a billboard in Indonesia.

Of course, it would be cheaper if we could just get the boats delivered to us, rather than pay for the shipping … oh, wait.

No, the Coalition have a better idea. They’re just going to destroy the boats.

Yup. Stop the boats, buy the boats, sink the boats.

I’m sure the parents of Australia will feel a warm glow knowing that the money they could have used to buy uniforms, textbooks and other school necessities will instead be heading off to another country to buy boats that are unseaworthy, and that will simply be scuttled.

And – what should be the most obvious problem – by saying we would be prepared to simply buy any boat that we were told was up for sale – we would be creating a market. For all the Coalition’s protestations that this would only happen where we had good intelligences, this is a scheme just begging to be exploited. It would be incredibly easy to set up a fake situation resulting in Australia buying a secondhand, rickety boat – and the fisher in receipt of this money now has the option to buy a better boat. Multiply that a few dozen times and you have the beginnings of a series of rorts, or even a boat-buying ring or six. Scott Morrison even acknowledged this during the policy announcement, when he refused to name exactly how much money the Coalition planned to set aside for buying boats.

Perhaps the scheme should be called ‘Operation Fishing Boat Upgrade’. Or maybe ‘Operation The Price is Right’.

Part two of today’s revelations involved the announcement that the Coalition wanted to set up a little something it called ‘Village Watch’. Put simply, this is a scheme whereby people would be encouraged to spy on each other, and ‘bounties’ would be paid if information led to an arrest or ‘disruption’ to people smuggling activities.

Nothing could go wrong with that idea, could it?

While they’re at it, the Coalition wants to put more members of the Australian Federal Police into Indonesia, and even give them some ‘vessels’ to patrol their own waters. (Presumably, these won’t be the same boats they plan to buy.) It’s all about a regional solution – but there was one crucial point missing from the policy.

Indonesian co-operation.

That’s right. This is all about what Mr Abbott wants to do. He wants to take Australian public money – from a budget he says is in such a state of crisis that he must cut entitlements to parents of schoolchildren and low paid workers – and spend it to set up a boat-buying scheme and a spy network in another country, without having even a provisional agreement from that country.

Scott Morrison described this policy as ‘commonsense’. I beg to differ. It could only be more ludicrous if Mr Abbott decided to ride into battle on a Zodiac, firing a glitter cannon at a people smuggler’s boat. It’s the very definition of a ‘thought bubble’ – it sounds impressive, looks shiny, has no substance and is suddenly created from nowhere.

Except it didn’t. According to Morrison, the Coalition didn’t just come up with these ideas while watching the last debate and playing a drinking game.

They’ve been working on it for four years.

Like I said – you can’t make this stuff up. And that’s what’s so dreadful about it.


Indecent, Inhumane, Unhappy – the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy

August 16, 2013

First there was Labor’s Papua New Guinea Solution. Then there was the Coalition’s ‘Pacific Solution 2.0′. Both were harsh, and both rightly attracted criticism from asylum seeker advocates, human rights organisations and the public. Now the Coalition’s one-upped itself, with today’s announcement targeting the approximately 30,000 asylum seekers currently in detention – or, as Liberal leader Tony Abbott called them, the ‘old arrivals’.

Here’s a sample of the preamble to this policy announcement:

‘Illegal arrivals … if you can’t stop the boats, you’re not capable of governing this country … stop the boats … stop the boats … 30,000 who have come illegally by boat … we’ve always said people who come illegally by boat will not be granted permanent residency … those who come illegally by boat will get Temporary Protection Visas … come illegally … people who are here illegally by boat’.

That was in less than three minutes.

Of course, none of that was news to anyone who’s ever heard Abbott blow this particular dogwhistle. The Coalition runs on the theory that a lie repeated often enough will be accepted as truth. Asylum seekers who come by boat are not ‘illegal’. They are referred to in both international treaties and our Department of Immigration and Citizenship as ‘irregular’ or ‘unauthorised’ maritime arrivals:

‘The preferred terms for boat arrivals as used by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) are ‘unauthorised boat arrivals’ or ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ and, as noted above, people arriving by such means who then claim asylum are entitled to do so.’

Not that this has ever deterred the Coalition from pushing their lie. And yes, it is a lie. Coalition members, including Abbott, have been repeatedly informed of the truth, and deliberately choose not to speak it.

To return to today’s announcement …

The Coalition apparently decided that putting in place new policies to deal with further arrivals wasn’t enough. It announced retroactive strategies aimed at clearing out what it described as a ‘legacy backlog’ of asylum seekers waiting in detention centres for their claims to be processed. Kicking off with a paraphrase of former Prime Minister John Howard’s infamous slogan – ‘This is our country and we determine who comes here‘ – Abbott described what would happen to those 30,000 people (who, he asserted, were hoping for a Labor victory so that they could settle here permanently).

Their claims will be ‘fast-tracked’, under a ‘triage’ system. What that boils down to is that after a fast pass, anyone who might not be granted refugee status would be quickly processed, have their claim looked over and then ‘put on a removal pathway’. This includes anyone in community detention; if, during ‘triage’, they appear likely to be denied refugee status, they would be immediately returned to detention centres.

After that, ‘likely’ claims would be processed. Anyone finally granted refugee status would be given a Temporary Protection Visa for up to three years, assessed on a case by case basis. For the entirety of that time, TPV holders who were granted a welfare payment would be required to be in a Work for the Dole program. They would also be denied family reunion.

When their TPV expired, their refugee claims would be assessed again and if a Coalition government decided they no longer had any fear of persecution, they would be deported.

Almost as an aside, the Coalition’s Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison added that anyone even suspected of throwing away identifying documents would automatically be denied refugee status. ‘They won’t just go to the back of the queue,’ he said. ‘They won’t be in the queue at all.’

The final part of this ‘streamlined’ process would be the abolition of the Refugee Review Tribunal. Abbott noted that under the current system, 80% of those initially denied refugee status had their cases overturned on appeal. ‘That’s why Australians are questioning whether this a fair system,’ he said.

In response to questions, Abbott said he was confident that this plan, together with Operation Sovereign Borders, would see the number of boats drop to three per year by ‘well into’ his first term, certainly by 2016. He described this as ‘the happy situation that was brought about by the Howard government’.

Happy.

There is nothing, nothing happy about this.

This is a system designed to do only one thing; kick as many people as possible out of Australia. It’s not intercepting a boat and processing asylum seeker claims offshore, or even settling people offshore. It’s targeting people who are already here.

And why? Purely so that the Coalition can say it’s ‘fixed the boat problem’. Not only will they stop the boats, they’ll punish those who already got here by boat. Asylum seekers would be entirely at the mercy of a system for which there is no independent oversight, no independent review, no recourse to even the most basic of rights.

DIAC would not have to prove that someone deliberately destroyed documents; it would be enough to be suspicious.

The ‘fast-track’ process (which Abbott likened to the system under Howard) virtually guarantees that grievous mistakes will be made, potentially sending people back into situations that would endanger their lives – but neatly avoiding the accusation that we are breaking our non-refoulement obligations, because after all, it was a mistake. Oops.

Remember Cornelia Rau? OrVivian Solon?? They were just the high-profile ‘mistakes’ under Howard’s plan.

Even if someone is found to be a refugee, they would have no opportunity to build any kind of life here in Australia. Assuming they would qualify for welfare, they would need to work for the pittance they’d receive. (Funny thing – if you have to work for it, it’s hardly welfare.) It sets up a whole new lower class who would be dependent on relatives or charity organisations just to survive.

Perhaps they could serve in Abbott’s Green Army.

The Coalition knows what it’s doing. Morrison said, ‘We want to end the process where “no” becomes “yes” under an appeal’.

You read that right. The Coalition doesn’t want there to be any chance that a decision made by DIAC might be found to be wrong.

Morrison added, ‘The UNHCR says you don’t have to have both judicial and administrative processes’. The Coalition wants to go back to a pure administrative system; ‘it works better for us,’ said Morrison. ‘We’re not obliged to give [asylum seekers] the same rights as we are our citizens’.

There you have it. And while it’s possible there could be more inhumane asylum seeker policies, short of actually locking people up in the equivalent of Abu Ghraib, it’s hard to see how.

And yet Scott Morrison says the Coalition will deal with people ‘in accord with basic human decency’.

And yet Tony Abbott says the Coalition will ‘discharge its humanitarian obligations’.

This plan is neither ‘decent’ or ‘humane’. And for Abbott to describe it as bringing about a ‘happy situation’?

Words fail me.


Leaders’ Debate 11/8/13 – style, not substance?

August 12, 2013

Last night’s Leaders’ Debate should have been an opportunity to hear the candidates being closely questioned. It should have been a chance to have policies put up directly against each other. It should have been a moment where hard questions were put, and pressure kept up to force Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to actually provide some answers.

It wasn’t. The debate was disappointing, at best – and not just because the questions were clearly given to the candidates long beforehand. There were at least two clear ‘gifts’, one for each candidate – in Parliament, they’d be called Dixers – and the last question was almost served up on a platter to allow a policy announcement.

I’m only going to look at a couple of significant moments from the question and answer period, however, because I want to focus on the commentators, post-debate.

Generally, Abbott’s answers tended to be either riddled with slogans, or entirely composed of criticism of Labor. At one point, he referred to Labor’s policies as ‘waffle’, and at another, laughed derisively during Rudd’s answer. Rudd, as sitting Prime Minister, had the advantage of being able to base his answers on the government’s achievements, and go on to talk up new policies. There were few surprises, policy-wise, but it’s rare to see major announcements during a debate.

Rudd stumbled badly on the question of whether a Labor government would build a second airport for Sydney. Although his answer was essentially the same as Abbott’s – ‘we’ll have a look at that with some experts’ – he failed to point the finger at either the former Howard government or New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. He could have said that earthworks were actually in progress, stopped by Howard. He could have said that O’Farrell had absolutely refused to work with federal Labor. It’s anyone’s guess why he didn’t, but then he compounded the error by pointing out that there were infrastructure needs right across the country. No one likes to hear that their needs might be less important, no matter how true that may be.

For his part, Abbott came a cropper on the issue of aged care. The Coalition’s ‘Real Solutions’ booklet has a vague paragraph promising an ‘agreement’ with providers in the sector. Pressed for detail on actual policy, Abbott had nothing to add. In fact, he grudgingly admitted he would keep the reforms passed under Labor.

Abbott also ruled out any changes to the GST – but was unable to answer why, in that case, the GST would be part of his promised tax review. He also tried to say that any change to the GST would have to involve the agreement of all States and Territories, and therefore unlikely even if he were looking at that. Speers pulled him up immediately for that piece of misinformation. A sitting government has the ability to change the current legislation, without undertaking any consultation.

But it was the last question, leaked some time earlier, that drove the biggest wedge between the leaders – that of marriage equality. The two answers could not have been more different. For Abbott, the issue was settled last term. Besides, there were much more important things. Effectively, the Coalition considered marriage equality a dead, second-order (at best) issue. Abbott did offer a sop at the conclusion of his answer, suggesting that the party room might look at the situation if anything changed. He certainly gave the impression, though, that it wasn’t worth holding your breath.

Rudd reiterated his change of heart, and commitment to marriage equality, calling it a ‘mark of decency’. Then came the election promise. Within the first 100 days of a Labor government, they would introduce legislation removing the impediments within the Marriage Act, and allow a conscience vote. It’s still highly unlikely that such a bill would pass, given the Coalition’s stance, but – unlike Labor’s former position – this would be a bill introduced by a Minister and backed by the Prime Minister. Such things carry their own weight and, while Labor would still have to deal with its own Right faction’s opposition, it gives them a stronger base from which to begin.

So much for questions. Let’s look at how the commentators and audience polls wrapped it up. Having the debate broadcast far and wide provided the opportunity for a real cross-section of viewers. Here’s how the polls saw the debate:

Channel Ten (One HD) = Rudd 61 – Abbott 39
Channel Nine (GEM) = Rudd 59 – Abbott 41
Channel Seven = Abbott 68 – Rudd 32
ABC = Rudd 71 – Abbott 29

Fairly decisive, you’d think. With one exception, every poll gave the debate to Rudd. The ABC’s poll, conducted via Twitter, could rightly be set aside as have a particularly limited audience – but even without that, on balance Rudd won the debate.

But then there were the commentators, who, almost as though they were working from the same script, gave the debate to Abbott. This was particularly startling in the case of the ABC, who published the results of their own polls, then proceeded to completely ignore them.

And why did Abbott ‘win’?

Because Rudd ‘started off nervously’.

Because Abbott ‘sounded confident’.

Because – you have to love the vagueness of this – Abbott ‘looked Prime Ministerial’.

Finally – and this was the point where credibility went out the window – no less a personage than Laurie Oakes asserted that Abbott had won, not in spite of his reliance on three word slogans, but because of them.

Yeah, you read that right.

Because, apparently, the essential qualities in judging whether someone is a good debater have nothing to do with the substance of their arguments. Or how well they refute their opponent’s points. No, no. It’s all about style.

Oscar Wilde observed that those who used the phrase ‘style over substance’ was a marvellous and instant indicator of a fool.

Now, call me the product of a bygone generation, but when I was at school, we were taught that debates are won on the quality of your argument. We were taught how to construct initial statements, build on those, and to rebut and dismantle our opponents’ arguments. We were assessed on those criteria, and the winner was whoever could do that better. Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I thought that was still how we determined who won our debates.

Oh, silly me. I keep forgetting that modern political reporting has less to do with issues of substance and more to do with whether Kevin Rudd’s hair was mussed up by the wind or Julia Gillard’s shoes sank into the lawn. It’s about whether the person in front of the cameras grabs attention with some snappy talking points, not whether they’re actually saying something of significance.

Think I’m exaggerating? Go take a look. The number one story to come out of last night’s debate is whether Rudd broke the rules by taking notes to the podium with him. And whether Abbott, lauded as being ‘note-free’, might also have had notes, as claimed by Lindsay Coombs, who tweeted a screen-grab showing notes on Abbott’s podium.

(For what it’s worth? The note issue is – and should be – a non-issue. Rudd made no attempt to conceal his notes, and said that as far as he knew, having them was permitted. Clearly, he was wrong. Last night’s setup was the exception rather than the rule for debates. It’s possible Rudd did assume he could act as usual. But really, is there any need to prevent someone from taking notes into a debate? What does it prove? It’s not as though a Prime Minister is required to operate under exam conditions – he has access to experts, briefs, any amount of needed information.)

So this is where we are. What should have been a way for us to learn more about the policies of the new major parties, vigorously debated, analysed at length with the precision that comes from long experience in political journalism – was a farce. Commentators ignored clear poll results, dismissed substance in favour of style, and focused on the existence of a few typed pages.

And today, those same commentators complain that last night’s debate was boring, and that no one will want to watch any others. How ‘lucky’, they said, that Channels Nine and Ten had secondary (read: less popular) channels to carry the broadcast.

I suggest that perhaps those commentators might better use their skills as judges on ‘Australia’s Got Talent’, or similar shows. Meanwhile, perhaps we could have a real debate – and get some real analysis, while we at it.


Campaign 2013: Not an auspicious start

August 5, 2013

2013 Campaign, Day 1.

Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m rather over it already. In the last 24 hours, these are just a few examples of how things are shaping up.

On the politician front, we saw Clive Palmer, head of the Palmer United Party, assert that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ‘afraid’ to debate him. This fear, he claimed, was because Labor had no ideas, and couldn’t make a decent counter-argument to his calls for a ‘revolution’. I didn’t see any flags or chanting crowds with upraised fists, and Palmer wasn’t wearing a beret with a red star badge on it, so I’m not quite sure what he means by that. But then, he could be right. It’s hard to make a counter-argument when there isn’t something against which to argue.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, speaking on behalf of his leader, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott grudgingly praised each other’s families when pressed to name one good quality about their opposite numbers. Ah, family. Isn’t it heart-warming that even bitter enemies can say, ‘Well, at least they love their kids?’

Of course, had Julia Gillard still been Prime Minister, we’d have heard nothing of the kind. Likely, Abbott would have given us one of his trademark snide comments, while reminding us all that he’s married with kids. At least that issue is neutralised, though that’s hardly something of which we should be proud. The presence or absence of family is in no way an indicator of whether someone can be an effective Prime Minister.

With his early morning media appearances over, Abbott decided to get some work done early. No sense waiting until the election actually takes place, is there? Of course not. Democratic process? Pffft.

Abbott wrote to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, virtually instructing them to cease their activities. Thoughtfully, he also gave its employees plenty of advance notice that he’d be shutting them down altogether once he was in government.

Tony Abbott's letter to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation

Tony Abbott’s letter to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (my emphasis)

While he was at it, he told the media that he’d informed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet of his first activity as Prime Minister – which would, of course, be repealing the ‘carbon tax’.

The arrogance is breathtaking. Publicly, Abbott’s out there saying it’s going to be a long, hard fight, that it’s hard to win from Opposition, that Labor has the advantage. Privately, he’s already throwing his weight around the Canberra bureaucracy, claiming the authority of a Prime Minister and, apparently, expecting to be treated like one.

And then there were the Greens. Oh dear, dear, dear.

Now, no one could ever accuse the Greens of lacking in absolute commitment to their principles, and a willingness to pursue them with passion. But leader Christine Milne’s media conferences last night and today were, frankly, cringe-worthy.

She spent the bulk of her media time calling both major parties ‘cruel’, so many times that even experienced commentators lost count. This was largely directed at their respective asylum seeker policies, and it’s fair to say that at best those policies could be considered completely self-interested. A word repeated too many times, however, loses its impact, and that’s what happened here – particularly after Milne extended her accusations of cruelty to include environmental policies.

The other problem was that Milne backed herself into a corner on the issue of another possible minority government. After her condemnation of both Labor and the Coalition on asylum seeker policy, she stated flatly that the Greens would not, under any circumstances, enter into an agreement with the Coalition. Of course, the natural follow-up question was, would the Greens back Labor – and that’s where she came unstuck. It was clear Milne was more inclined to agree to that arrangement, but since she’d described both parties as almost identical in their ‘cruelty’, she had no justification for saying so. Instead, she fell back on repeating she wouldn’t support Labor’s ‘Papua New Guinea gulags’.

To say the media smelled blood in the water then was an understatement. Her appearances dissolved into incoherence.

Speaking of the media …

The Daily Telegraph’s front page left us in no doubt as to their opinion.

The Daily Telegraph's calm and measured start to its election campaign coverage.

The Daily Telegraph’s calm and measured start to its election campaign coverage.

Hilariously, the paper solemnly assured us that it was declaring its support for the Coalition ‘calmly and reasonably’, that it would not ‘play Labor’s game’.

I pause for howls of derisive laughter.

News Limited can hardly be accused of showing bias towards the government. A quick perusal of their headlines and op-eds shows that. For them to claim otherwise is a bald-faced lie. Today’s headline, though, goes one step beyond even Fairfax’s pathetic bleat that under Gillard’s leadership, it was impossible for the media to have a policy-driven debate.

The Telegraph isn’t merely complaining. It’s outright telling people how to vote. Yes, this tends to happen as a campaign goes on, but on Day 1? In tones best reserved for a pub owner dealing with a few rowdy drinkers? And on the front page?

This is nothing more than the Tele treating its readers as mindless mugs. Where Fairfax wrung its hands and wailed, News Ltd has opted for the blunt instrument approach. It’s crass, it’s obvious, and it’s insulting.

Finally, this piece of do-it-yourself campaign material deserves a mention, if only because it shows just how toxic the political atmosphere is right now.

It turned up in the form of three badly printed, badly photocopied pages shoved in the mailbox of a friend. That friend lives in a predominantly middle-class, ‘Anglo’ neighbourhood – which is right next door to one of the largest concentrations of Middle Eastern and Muslim populations in Melbourne. Here’s a sample:

Anti-asylum seeker campaign material

Anti-asylum seeker campaign material

In case it’s difficult to read, it boils down to: all refugees are trying to get to Australia so they can claim welfare payments. Once they’re here, they go back to their own countries, bring over fake families, and then settle down to have as many children as possible so they can claim even more welfare money. Just to be sure the message is properly communicated, the anonymous author/s of this piece of ranting garbage draw a false contrast between post-WWII European migrants (‘ALL THEY EVER ASKED FOR WAS A JOB, ANY JOB NO MATTER HOW DIRTY, STINKING LOW PAID IT WAS’ – original punctuation and capitalisation) and ‘refugees’ (who ‘GET NAMES THAT ARE MILES LONG AND UNIDENTIFIABLE’ … who ask ‘WHAT CAN I GET, WHAT WILL YOU PAY ME FOR JUST LANDING ON YOUR SHORES/COMING TO AUSTRALIA’.)

These pages are accompanied by selected ‘Letters to the Editor’ badly clipped out, pasted crookedly and photocopied, with helpful commentary in the white spaces.

There’s no organisation identified as being behind this material, although the use of the word ‘LEVIATHAN’ to name the text file from which it’s printed suggests the author’s have read at least a few articles in The Australian or the odd right-wing blog (which is rather fond of using that word to describe welfare or taxation of any sort).

Nonetheless, this is the direct result of a political discourse that thinks nothing of using a vulnerable group of faceless people as little more than a football. Scoring political points by stirring up ill-feeling against asylum seekers is, unfortunately, an effective tactic. It panders to the most xenophobic aspects of human character – and in doing so, tacitly gives approval for the kind of propaganda that paints all asylum seekers as potential welfare cheats, breeding uncontrollably in order to overwhelm the ‘real’ Australians and bring in sharia law.

I’m sure there’s more out there, from Christopher Pyne absurdly claiming three different policy decisions in less than 24 hours to the Katter Australian Party supporter in a giant hat who photo-bombed an ABC News24 reporter who was desperately trying to fill time while waiting for the Prime Minister’s plane to land.

This is just a sample.

And it’s only Day 1.

Strap in, folks, and lay in a good supply of whatever gets you through all this.

You’ll need it.


The dangers of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’

July 26, 2013

There’s a ‘national emergency’ on our borders. Did you know that? I’m looking at you, beachfront dwellers. Surely you’ve noticed? Have you alerted the appropriate authorities? Laid in supplies? Built barricades and taken up arms?

You haven’t? Tsk. Clearly, you are not Doing Your Bit For The Country. Where is the Spirit of Anzac? Get out there and Support Our Boys!

What’s that, you say? What could possibly be so terrifyingly urgent that it requires us to declare a state of national emergency?

Asylum seeker boats.

Yes, you read that right. Let’s get serious.

Invasion Imminent - according to the Coalition

Invasion Imminent – according to the Coalition

Not to be outdone by the government’s deal with Papua New Guinea, the Coalition has gone one better, releasing its own policy for tackling the asylum seeker issue.

It’s called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, and proposes militarising the entire situation.

We’ll get to examining that, but first let’s take a look at the language. It’s probably true to say that many people won’t read past a summary, and perhaps an introduction, and the writers of this document appear to have taken that into account.

In the Introduction alone, the word ‘illegal’ is used five times to describe asylum seeker boats. The Coalition knows very well that it is not illegal to seek asylum in this way, yet has insisted on using the term. It’s difficult to see any reason for that other than to polarise opinion against asylum seekers – and with that underlying its entire argument, the Coalition quickly throws out a plethora of statistics to drive home the point that Australia is, effectively, under attack. These statistics look impressive, but what’s really going on here?

There’s a comparison between boat arrivals in 2007 and today. That’s it; just the raw numbers. There’s no reference to the changing global situation, the incredibly slow processing time for people in camps, nor, indeed, the fact that people are often not safe even within these camps. The so-called ‘push’ factors that prompt people are entirely glossed over.

There’s a reference to the ‘queue’, with boat arrivals virtually declared not to be genuine refugees before any processing has taken place. Rather, the Coalition asserts that they are simply cashed-up and selfish:

‘These people [in camps] are genuine refugees … denied a chance at resettlement by people who have money in their pocket’.

Of course, there is no acknowledgement that linking irregular maritime arrivals with our humanitarian intake was a political move instituted by the former Howard government, completely out of the hands of asylum seekers.

There are large dollar amounts mentioned, all apparently wasteful spending on failed policies. This money, the Coalition suggests, should have been spent on causes far more deserving, such as education, infrastructure, and hospitals. Again, we have the argument that in some way, asylum seekers are responsibly for denying people their ‘rightful’ portion – this time, Australians themselves. This is dogwhistling of an almost deafening sort; it appeals to the basest, most insecure feelings in the electorate, planting the seed of fear that somehow we – and our children – will suffer if we don’t do something to stop it.

Oh, and let’s not forget the numbers of drownings at sea. Of course, any death at sea is a terrible thing, but the Coalition would have us believe that these are entirely the government’s fault. What it doesn’t want people to remember are disasters like the loss of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, resulting in the death of 353 people, or the sinking of SIEV 4 due to the strain of being towed – after shots were fired across its bow. Both these events happened on a Coalition government’s watch, and, to some extent, we contributed to them.

Having bombarded us with statistics, the Coalition gives us the meat of its policy. It boils down to this:

A single, ’3-star ranking’ military commander would be in charge of dealing with asylum seeker boats. This commander is to be appointed by the Chief of the Defence Force, and report directly to the Minister for Immigration. An extraordinary amount of power would be concentrated in the hands of the commander, who would command a Task Force drawn from no less than 16 agencies, including six ministries and Australia’s intelligence agencies.

The Coalition offers this justification for such a move:

‘The scale of this problem requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation’.

Because there’s nothing more terrifying and dangerous to Australian security than a boat crammed full of unarmed men, women and children risking their lives, right?

To really drive home the point, ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ would be overseen by the National Security Committee. It’s a neat piece of reasoning – we tell you it’s a national emergency, we wrap it up in khaki and paranoia, and we sell it to you as something not only necessary, but actually good.

And what would this commander and his task force actually do?

First, there’s the question of detention. The Coalition spent quite a bit of media time last week asserting that it would never ‘outsource’ processing of asylum seekers. That seems to have disappeared into the ether, as this new policy commits to using both Nauru and Manus Island, and to ‘ensure resettlement in Australia is not guaranteed’. Remember, only last week, Manus Island, and Papua New Guinea in general, were apparently not fit to house anyone.

Temporary Protection Visas get a look-in, as does denying family reunions. Just in case that isn’t tough enough, the Coalition would also completely refuse to process anyone they even suspect might have destroyed identifying documents. There is no presumption of innocence here. The burden of proof is on the asylum seeker to convince officials that, if they don’t have papers, it’s for a good reason.

Where the policy gets really disturbing, however, is in the greatly expanded role of the Navy. The Coalition have long trumpeted its ‘tow back the boats’ policy. It’s still there, but with a few twists. Not only would the Navy be instructed to intercept boats in our own waters, but also to intercept and board vessels outside our sea borders, particularly if that vessel was thought to originate from Sri Lanka (note: not ships registered in Sri Lanka, merely leaving its waters). If asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were found on such a vessel, they would be forcibly removed and sent back immediately.

There is no end to the issues that this raises. Leaving aside the fact that Indonesia has repeatedly said they would not accept boats towed back to their territorial waters and dumped there, what the Coalition proposes has the potential to affect our relations with countries both in the region, and globally.

Boarding a vessel in international waters (the so-called ‘high seas’) is problematic, to say the least. It’s an act that can only legally be undertaken in extreme circumstances, prescribed by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), to which Australia is a signatory nation. Part VII spells out the limits of action – including the right of any ship not engaged in illegal acts to undertake ‘innocent passage’. To do otherwise could be called piracy. It could also be called an aggressive act against a sovereign nation. And the Coalition wants to use our Navy to commit these acts against unarmed, helpless civilians.

Alarm bells were certainly ringing at the Australian Defence Force when this policy booklet hit the internet. General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force quickly tweeted:

The ADA later released a statement on the policy. In the clearest possible terms, it stated that the ADF believed that asylum seeker arrivals were unequivocally a civil law enforcement matter. It went on to assert that military intervention should only be called upon in a ‘real emergency’, and that party politics had no place in military matters.

‘There is surely no need for the measures described in Operation Sovereign Borders to be led by a military officer, either on secondment or as part of his or her military duties directly.’

As if that weren’t enough to unravel the policy, the ADA statement went on to point out that the Coalition’s plans – particularly in terms of altering the chain of command and putting a civilian in charge of operational matters – may well be in breach of Westminster conventions, the Defence Act and the Constitution.

There are serious problems with the Coalition’s policy that go beyond issues of whether we should have ‘picked up the phone to Nauru’ or taken into account that Indonesia might object to a policy designed to deter asylum seekers from leaving their shores. What the Coalition proposes is nothing less than turning the military into an arm of civil law enforcement, using it to commit acts that not only breach our responsibilities under the LOSC, but could potentially cause diplomatic incidents with both our near neighbours and other countries around the world.

There was a great deal of derisive laughter when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggested the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy (at the time, reduced to a few motherhood statements) might lead to diplomatic conflict.

I doubt many people are laughing at that idea now.


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