When it’s a sword, apparently.
Remember back in 2010, when Education Minister Julia Gillard and the Faceless Men of Labor ‘knifed’ then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd? The lurid headlines trumpeting, ‘Assassination’? The pundits crying, ‘J’accuse!’ at everyone from Labor junior Ministers to union officials?
Of course you do. After all, it’s not like any of us have been allowed to forget it. As recently as two weeks ago, we were treated to yet another reminder courtesy of the Coalition, complete with dire warnings that federal Labor will ‘inevitably’ see Gillard suffer the same fate as her predecessor.
Back up a second. Let’s remember something. Rudd may have been urged to go, but he didn’t lose a leadership challenge. He resigned in the face of loss of confidence from his party room. Splitting hairs? Maybe, but hold that thought.
Last night, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu also resigned from his leadership position. An earlier leader, Denis Napthine, emerged from the party room as the new Premier as a tearful Baillieu made his farewells.
The headlines made it clear. Baillieu ‘walked away’. He ‘fell on his sword’. In the face of loss of confidence from his party room (not to mention potential corruption charges and a continued slump in the polls), he resigned.
Oh, but wait.
It’s not the same at all, clamoured the Coalition. Rudd was ‘executed’. And anyway, he was a bad PM. Baillieu was a good Premier, a ‘man of integrity‘ who had ‘put Victoria’s finances on a sustainable footing and made significant investments in infrastructure,’ to quote Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
Never mind the fact that earlier the same day, Victoria officially slipped into recession. It’s not nice to say bad things about an outgoing leader – unless that leader happens to be from the Labor Party, according to the Coalition playbook.
So let’s get this straight. When a Labor leader resigns under pressure from his party, he ‘gets knifed’. When a Liberal leader does the same thing, he ‘falls on his sword’. Is it just me, or is there something just a little ridiculous about that?
The Coalition will now reap everything it sowed when it sought to capitalise on the resignation of Rudd. The new Premier, in power under the same circumstances, is well and truly open to allegations of ‘assassination’ and ‘execution’ – and let’s not forget, Napthine himself was rolled as leader after poor polls and a split in the Coalition. Already, the accusations are flying thick and fast in the Victorian Parliament.
At least The Australian, ordinarily a bastion of Coalition support, didn’t go along with the ‘when-is-a-knife-not-a-knife’ spin attempt. Peter van Onselen was frankly incredulous at the turn of events in Victoria, describing the state Coalition as ‘rats in an experiment that did not learn from their mistakes’.
The frantic efforts to paint Baillieu as some kind of courageous and noble Roman general (notably absent from Parliament today) just won’t work. And the Coalition only has itself to blame. It wrote this script back in 2010, and ever since, have hammered it into public discourse without once stopping for breath. What goes round, comes round, as they say.
The big question, of course, is what – if any – effect this will have on Federal politics. It’s possible there will be none. Abbott’s very good at deflecting media attention, and Gillard risks a backlash from voters if she adopts the dramatic language usually directed at her. Neither stands to gain much (pending an early change of government in Victoria), and Abbott’s ‘sustainable finances’ gaffe is already the stuff of ridicule – so it won’t be long before he drowns it out with yet another criticism of the ‘carbon tax’ or the mining tax.
There is, though, one crucial lesson that we should take to the next Federal election – the knowledge that neither party can claim any sort of moral high ground in terms of loyalty to the leadership. Whether it’s resignation through coercion (as in the case of Rudd and Baillieu), or loss of position through a leadership spill (Nelson and Turnbull), ultimately doesn’t matter. Both parties are ruthless, and will do whatever it takes to gain (and hold) power. No leader is ‘safe’.
That’s something to remember next time you hear a politician wax lyrical about the stability of their party, or the instability of their opponent’s. In the words of Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar, just after the real assassination of Rome’s leader:
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!
(Julius Caesar, 3.1.111)
How many, indeed?
Sometimes I despair of our media, I really do.
Today Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans announced their resignations from the Ministry and the Parliament. Evans will stay on until a replacement can be found for him, and Roxon will step down at the next election. Both said they’d discussed their plans with the Prime Minister a year ago, and decided that their family obligations (and in the case of Evans, the long commute from Perth) were the major factors in their decisions. They stressed their decisions were not due to a lack of confidence. The Prime Minister added that she’d decided to make the announcement now, after the election date was set and before Parliament sits again next Tuesday.
Cue the wild speculation. Cue the hyperbole. Cue a mainstream media frenzy, hurriedly written scream-sheet stories, and any number of pundits dragged from their Saturday brunches to give us their ‘expert’ analysis.
This is probably my favourite headline: Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Campaign In Disarray As Chris Evans Resigns And Robert McLelland May Vacate His Seat. Really, all it needs are four or five exclamation marks.
The campaign – you know, the one that hasn’t commenced, except in the minds of headline writers – is ‘stuttering’. The resignations are ‘shock’. The carefully chosen photo of the PM blowing her nose is captioned as ‘an emotional PM’. The government is ‘in chaos’. It’s triggered a ‘major reshuffle in Cabinet’ (affecting four out of over thirty Ministers is major, it seems). These resignations are a vote of no confidence in Labor. No less than seven – count ‘em, seven – Labor Parliamentarians are about to resign. Oh, and these resignations are ‘really’ about punishing Kevin Rudd’s supporters. (The niggling detail that Roxon was one of Rudd’s most vicious critics when he challenged for the Prime Ministership last year seems to have escaped some reporters.)
Never mind that seven Liberal Parliamentarians have also announced their intention to resign. Most of them gave similar reasons – family commitments, felt they’d served their electorate well but wanted to move on, etc. Judi Moylan is one of those. She’s well known for crossing the floor on asylum seeker issues to oppose the Coalition’s draconian measures, and being a vocal critic of the Pacific Solution. Strangely, no reporter’s suggested that she was ‘invited’ to resign because of this.
And how about Mal Washer? He’s gone head to head with Abbott himself. His was one of the loudest voices arguing that Abbott should not have the right to veto the abortifacient drug RU486, and opposed Abbott’s proposal to make teens’ medical records accessible to parents. Again, no one has ever speculated on whether he’s being pushed.
I guess ‘personal reasons’ only apply to Coalition members when leaving Parliament. No Labor politician would do that – there must be a hidden (or not-so-hidden) agenda. At least as far as our media is concerned.
One reporter even helpfully suggested to Shadow Education spokesperson Christopher Pyne, in a media conference today, that it was a case of ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’. Well done, that journalist. Your cheque from Peta Credlin is in the mail.
Parliamentarians leaving before an election is nothing new, and the degree to which their departure might cause problems for their party varies. For example, before 2007′s election, 16 Coalition members resigned – including two who were under scrutiny for links to a convicted fraudster and for failing to make proper financial disclosures. Arguably, for Roxon and Evans to go now serves the government well; it allows time for the new appointees to settle into their roles and prove themselves. Not that you’d hear that from the media.
Then there’s the matter of the election date announcement. Senator George Brandis, Shadow Attorney-General, all but called the Prime Minister a liar in his appearance on Lateline, suggesting that had an ulterior motive. How curious, he said, that this happened just the day before former Labor, now Independent MP Craig Thomson was arrested and charged with fraud. Not that he’s saying anything, oh no, but isn’t it curious?
Pyne took up that theme today, but – as usual – went one step further. The PM had announced the election when she did simply so that she could avoid a by-election in Thomson’s electorate, he asserted.
For reasons passing understanding, these statements went entirely unchallenged.
For a start, it’s a ridiculous notion. If Thomson is convicted of fraud and sentenced to 12 months or more in jail, he will have to step down, and that will trigger a by-election. Announcing the date of the national poll does nothing to change that, and any political journalist would know it. So why did no one go after him?
Secondly, this is the third time in as many days that the Coalition has either implied or outright said that the PM is lying. There is no Parliamentary privilege here to protect them, yet they’re getting away with it. There’s not even a token ‘Mr Pyne, are you really accusing the PM or lying’ soft question.
And while we’re at it, what about the media and the circumstances surrounding Thomson’s arrest? Very interesting, those. Someone tipped off the media that the arrest was about to take place, and as a result some very tasty footage of Thomson being escorted out of his office by no less than six burly detectives was obtained. Remember, this man was arrested on suspicion of fraud – he was not considered violent, or known to be armed. But oh, what a lovely circus that was. And of course, no one employed by a news organisation who was there is going to ask questions about just where they got their information. Even though they should.
I know it’s an old and tired drum, but I’m going to keep beating it. News media exists for a number of reasons – but feeding soft questions to politicians and letting them get away with rehearsed answers that amount to mere noise is not one of them. We have a right to expect that if a politician makes unsubstantiated accusations, investigative reporters will uncover the truth and present it without fear or favour. We have a right to expect that a news organisation will attempt to be objective – or at least not show outright partisanship in its reportage. Op-ed columns (or more commonly, these days, blogs) are almost always going to display some leaning towards left or right, but there’s no excuse for the Daily Telegraph article mentioned above. That’s not news. It’s a Coalition media release dressed up in respectable clothing.
So often, mainstream organisations direct sneers towards independent and citizen media. This usually takes the form of accusations that bloggers, etc., are (a) not bound by journalistic ethics, (b) not properly trained (and therefore don’t know what they’re writing about), or (c) biased.
Insert obvious declaration of self-interest here. I’m not going to pretend that such accusations don’t infuriate me, and that’s at least partly because some blogs are little more than mouthpieces for a party line. But the rise of independent media isn’t just about having access to the internet, especially where politics is concerned. It’s born of frustration.
When the media people pay for is blatantly partisan … when the reporters appear to be either too lazy to ask hard questions or too oblivious to realise they’re being managed … when they don’t seem able to do even a little research into the claims of politicians … sooner or later, we’ll start to speak up for ourselves.
Maybe we don’t have access to the politicians (and I hereby invite any politician who’d like to be interviewed by independent media to step right up, leave your email address in the comments; I’d love to sit down with you), but we can ask the questions. We can challenge the message and demand answers instead of evasions and slogans. We can be aware that we have the power to shape the message, and the responsibility to do so in a way that relies on facts, not spin or outright fabrication.
In other words, we can be what the mainstream media should be – Marshall McLuhan’s watchdog of the mind.
Here’s an idea. Let’s replace the Canberra press gallery with independent media for the first sitting of 2013, and see what they produce. Let’s hold independent media to the standards of mainstream media, and judge the questions asked in pressers accordingly.
I think the results would be … interesting.
Even better, though, would be a situation where independent and mainstream media co-existed to call all politicians to account, to inform the public of the facts and to safeguard against the political desire to change not only what we think, but how we think.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured us that – despite announcing the election date seven months early – the campaign had not actually begun. Today, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott fell right into her trap, and came out swinging in full campaign mode.
His address to the National Press Club left no doubt that as far as he was concerned, knowing the poll date was a signal to ramp up the rhetoric. Right from the beginning, he spoke as though he was directly addressing the Australian public – that he was listening to ‘you, the Australian people’. Now, while the NPC is televised, it’s primarily a forum for the media to listen to a long speech and get an extended time for questions. Not for Abbott, though.
In rapid succession, he ran through his well-known talking points. The ‘carbon tax’ will go. The Mining Resources Rent Tax will go. The boats will be stopped (‘we’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again’). It was all about the people – but not all the people. Abbott wants to ‘reach out to all the decent people of our country’, to those migrants who have come to our country ‘not to change our way of life, but to share it’.
Mr Abbott? Senator Cory Bernardi called. He wants his dogwhistle back.
With that established, Abbott settled in, and for the next hour we were treated to a barrage of negative campaigning. Most of it was familiar stuff – the Prime Minister ‘fibbed’ about the ‘carbon tax’, ‘faceless men’ of Labor, big spending, more taxes, puppets of the Greens, protecting people of bad character like Craig Thomson and former Speaker Peter Slipper, etc, etc. There were more than a few jaw-droppers mixed in with that.
First, he claimed that people are saving more than ever before – but only because they don’t trust the government. It conjures up visions of old ladies surrounding by jars full of five cent pieces, or stuffing bank notes into their mattresses. It’s ridiculous and overblown – not to mention there isn’t a shred of proof for such an assertion.
We were treated to a few moments of outright silliness. Abbott claimed he had ‘never been anti-union’, that he ‘deeply respects women’s choices’, and – this is my favourite – that ‘no decent government should ever deliberately set out to divide Australians’.
I guess it’s okay if the Opposition does it.
There were some expected personal slurs, delivered in a rather slippery fashion. Abbott reminded us he has three daughters and a wife, and therefore understands and champions women’s needs. His wife Margie, he informed us, was a Girl Guide Leader. No need to point out that the PM was in a childless de facto relationship with a hairdresser, after all that. He told us he wasn’t ‘just a glorified tourist from Canberra’ – perhaps a reference to his photo ops in the middle of disasters, or maybe just letting us know yet again that he’s visited 215 small businesses since the 2010 election. Then Abbott all but called the PM a coward, stating that he wasn’t afraid to get out and ‘get an ear-bashing’ from the people. It was an obvious reference to the hysterical anti-carbon tax rally on the lawns of Parliament House where protesters bayed for blood under the approving smiles of the Opposition.
Then came the clearly outrageous – and possibly defamatory – statement that the Prime Minister’s office had ‘orchestrated a riot on Australia Day‘. To say this twists the known facts is only the start. What we know is that a former staffer told someone that Abbott had made apparently derogatory comments about the Tent Embassy, and through miscommunication, that led to an angry outburst from indigenous activists that resulted in the Prime Minister and Abbott being escorted to safety by security personnel. There has never been any evidence that a ‘riot’ (a legal term, one never applied to the situation by prosecutors) was planned out of the PM’s office.
And then during questions, Abbott was asked about the resignation today of South Australian Liberal leader Isobel Redmond. In his response, Abbott clearly stated that it was only due to ‘electoral malfeasance’ that the ALP had won the last state election. He didn’t point the finger specifically at either the Electoral Commission or Labor, but the implication was clear. It was his ‘illegitimate government’ message all over again.
Despite Abbott’s assertions that he had already presented the Opposition’s plans the last time he appeared at the NPC – around a year ago – there was little that was new, and nothing of substance. In fact, he stated proudly that the Coalition would only release its policy costings after the government had released theirs – as though the election were nothing more than a giant game of chicken.
What little we did get in the way of policy was hardly encouraging. In government, the Coalition would not only scrap the ‘carbon tax’, the MRRT and the NBN, but also get rid of the Schoolkids’ Bonus, and the Low Income Superannuation Contribution Scheme (funded through the mining tax). He wouldn’t be drawn on whether the carbon price compensation would be withdrawn, or whether Labor’s tax cuts would be removed, but he’s often said that without a carbon price, no one needs a compensation scheme. He also hinted that he would look at removing the means test for the private health insurance rebate.
Incredibly, he remarked that families wouldn’t be hurt by the removal of the Schoolkids’ Bonus.
(On a personal note, that one had me gobsmacked. My two girls started secondary school this year, and without that bonus, we would have had a struggle paying for the associated costs – and that’s to go to a public school. I’m lucky – we’re relatively comfortable, financially speaking. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a single parent, or a single, low-income household trying to cope.)
Possibly the most telling moments came in response to questions. Abbott had made statements on several occasions to the effect that, should he be elected but face a hostile Senate who refused to pass the ‘carbon tax’ repeal, he would call a double dissolution election in 2014. He was asked if he thought that was akin to saying he didn’t trust the Australian people to know their own minds, that it showed an arrogant disregard? His response? Labor wouldn’t be stupid enough to ‘ensure’ they stayed in Opposition for a long time by refusing the repeal – but in the unlikely event they did, he would indeed dissolve the Parliament.
A double dissolution election is a serious matter. The provision exists so that if Parliament is simply unworkable (for example, a Senate that refuses to pass the Budget), the people have an opportunity to show their preferences and elect new representatives. It’s not there so that a leader can throw a tantrum if his favourite piece of legislation is blocked. That Abbott would repeatedly affirm his willingness to throw Parliament into disarray if he didn’t get his way shows an appalling amount of arrogance.
That was only hammered home by his response to a question about trust. Reminded that when he was Health Minister, Abbott broke a promise not to increase the Medicare Safety Net threshold, he excused himself by saying he was ‘rolled’ by his colleagues. Then he paused, broke into a broad grin and said, ‘But now I am the authority’.
This is not the thinking of a party leader, first among equals. This is someone who gives the clear impression that holding the Prime Ministership is a mandate to do whatever he wishes – and that if he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll simply do whatever he can to get rid of those who stand in his way.
That, frankly, is the thinking of a would-be dictator.
Abbott wound up with a call to arms: ‘I’m ready, the Coalition is ready, Australia is ready’.
The question is: ‘Are we ready to elect someone who thinks the democratic process is his personal servant?’
It’s finally happened! After all the speculation, after the incessant cries of ‘Election, now!’ from the Opposition, and the whimpers from the electorate of ‘how long will this never-ending campaign go on, anyway?’, Prime Minister Julia Gillard set a date for the 2013 Federal Election.
Put it in your calendar apps, folks: the date is Saturday, September 14, 2013.
(Or, for those of you who still use paper diaries, I’m told there’s this thing called a pen that works without being plugged in and charged! It doesn’t even use the internet! Ahem. But I digress.)
In setting this date, the Prime Minister accomplished several pieces of brilliant political strategy. Some she was happy to foreground, but others snuck in under the radar. So let’s have a close look.
The most obvious – and one she used to tweak the collective nose of the media at the National Press Club – is that it takes away the potential for speculation about the date to be read into every move the government makes. This sort of opinion piece is a staple in the months leading up to an election. With it removed, the government has an opportunity to better force media focus onto issues of substance, rather than whether the PM’s itinerary takes her anywhere near Yarralumla.
The other overt effect is that it pushes the Opposition onto the back foot with regard to costings. As the PM was happy to point out, with such a long lead time before Parliament dissolves and the campaign officially begins, the Coalition has no excuse not to deliver its costings to Treasury and release them to the public. In her own words, ‘No surprises also means no excuses’.
The Coalition has previously claimed that they were not given enough time to submit costings, or that access to Treasury was limited due to election campaign pressures. Now, they will have the May Budget, and more time than any Opposition has had in decades to thoroughly develop, cost and release their policies. Of course, they may try recycling the argument they used in 2010, that Treasury was effectively too corrupt to be trusted with their costings – but that didn’t work too well last time around.
And then there are the covert effects.
Clearly, this date fulfils her promise to Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to ensure her government served its full term – and on that score, the government needs all the help it can get. Both MPs immediately expressed their approval of the date, in interviews shortly after the announcement. Windsor says the PM spoke with them some weeks ago, and agreed there were only a few dates that could realistically be chosen – though he stopped short of saying the decision was made at that time.
While this has little effect on the electorate, it buys her good credit should this election also result in a minority government – and with the rise of minor parties and Independents, that’s a real possibility. It also offsets Labor’s backdown on its promise to Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie poker machine regulation. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon also endorses the early announcement, as do the Greens. This leaves the Coalition out on a limb. They have to join the chorus of approval – which they will no doubt do grudgingly, suggesting that it’s about time the PM ‘took their advice’, a tactic that will backfire horribly with the public (no one likes those who say ‘I told you so’. If they don’t, they look like hypocrites.
Lastly, there’s possibly the sneakiest effect. The PM went to great lengths to stress that announcing the date was not a de facto campaign launch. ‘I do so not to start the nation’s longest election campaign … it should be clear to all which are the days of governing and which are the days of campaigning,’ she said. Now, obviously this is disingenuous; campaigning will be inevitable in the coming months, and anything not actually labelled as a campaign statement will certainly be interpreted as one by both media and the opposing parties. It does, however, give Labor something of a moral high ground, not to mention an excuse not to answer curly election promise questions until after the writs are delivered.
More useful for the government is the probable consequence for the Opposition. The Coalition has already been roundly criticised for conducting what amounts to a non-stop election campaign since the 2010 election, calling for another poll even before the Parliament sat for the first time. On numerous occasions, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has declared that he will not rest until he ‘changes the government’, which he considers illegitimate due to its minority status. In fact, this sentiment underpins virtually every statement the Coalition makes.
It’s hard to imagine that Abbott would stop now. Indeed, this week he launched what he called a ‘mini-campaign’, apparently intended to bolster his falling approval numbers, and undercut any gains Labor might make. Now, he needs to deal with the reality of a fixed election date 227 days away. Given his propensity for hammering home a message ad nauseam (usually while wearing a Hi-Vis vest), and holding a media conference virtually every day, we face the possibility that he will simply step up this activity.
Imagine it. Seven months of election campaigning. Seven months of Abbott recycling slogans like ‘Stop the Boats’ and ‘Axe the Tax’. Seven months of vicious rhetoric and media stunts.
Sorry about that.
If the government has any intelligent people in its media unit whatsoever, they won’t rise to the bait. They’ll let Abbott have his head, and – to mix a metaphor – he’ll hang himself. People are already tired of the unofficial campaign. The backlash is likely to be devastating in terms of poll numbers.
In one stroke, Labor has rendered the myth of the ‘inevitable 2013 Coalition victory’ powerless. And the Opposition knows it – which may account for its first appalling statements on the election date. It happens to be Yom Kippur, arguably the most important holy day in the Jewish religious calendar. The Coalition wasn’t about to let that golden opportunity go by.
Deeply disappointed that Julia Gillard chose to hold the election on Yom Kippur – the most solemn and sacred day of the Jewish year.
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) January 30, 2013
Gillard announces 14 Sept election. That’s Yom Kippur. This disenfranchises many Jewish Australians and is incredibly sloppy work. #npc
— Josh Frydenberg (@JoshFrydenberg) January 30, 2013
See what they did there?
This is amateur hour stuff. See how evil and mean-spirited Labor is! They chose to have an election on a religious holiday! What a terrible thing to do to these poor Australians! We would never do that!
Let’s not forget the ugly side of those tweets, the tacit accusation of anti-Semitism. And every politician knows that labelling your opponent as anti-Jewish has incredible emotional appeal, and can be a real vote-getter.
It’s not even worth arguing about whether Labor is anti-Semitic, whether it’s as good a supporter of Australian Jews (and, by extension, Israel) as the Coalition. That’s just a stupid diversion, and it’s surprising to see Turnbull, in particular, trying on this idiocy. (It remains to be seen if any others will jump on this bandwagon, or whether the Coalition media unit has managed to keep them away from Twitter).
Elections will always be a problem for someone. Maybe they’ll fall on religious holy days (and when was the last time you heard a politician complain about any other religion’s being inconvenienced). Maybe it’ll be the AFL Grand Final. Maybe you’re flying to Bali that day, or stuck in floodwaters or in hospital. None of that should present an obstacle to your fulfilling your duty as a citizen of this country. It’s really very simple.
We have early and postal voting in this country.
That’s right. We can participate in our democratic process and live our lives. Amazing, isn’t it?
That the Coalition would even consider this sort of strategy is ridiculous. It shows how unprepared they were for the announcement of the election date. One imagines that even now, their media unit is busy shredding Abbott’s prepared speech for his appearance tomorrow at the National Press Club, and frantically scribbling.
It will be interesting to see what he has to say. I’m fairly sure he won’t mention Yom Kippur – but the damage is done.
In the meantime, we can at least breathe a sigh of relief. We know when the sausage sizzles will be.
As I write, large areas of Queensland are underwater. Residents in Ipswich and Bundaberg are scrambling to evacuate before the expected flood peak – but already their homes and businesses are awash. Some houses are expected to be washed away by the force of the water. In the last few days, the areas surrounding Bundaberg were battered by no less than six tornadoes. The Brisbane River is rising, tearing away pontoons and boardwalks, sending boats downstream, and expected to peak around dinner time. Meanwhile on the Gold Coast, the tail end of Cyclone Oswald lashes the streets of Surfer’s Paradise and the Nerang River broke its banks a few hours ago.
And in the Lockyer Valley, people are isolated, some breaking down under the stress.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s not quite a carbon copy of the 2011 floods, but it’s pretty damned close. Back then, 78 people lost their lives, and countless others lost everything they had. The damage might not be as bad this time around, but it’s a terrible situation – and it’s almost impossible to imagine the trauma being suffered by those who have to go through this again. In some cases, they’d only just finished repairing the damage from two years ago.
To make matters worse, northern New South Wales is also under threat. Lismore residents have been told to prepare to evacuate, as the Tweed River rises, and rises.
Needless to say, the media are all over it. Wall-to-wall coverage on Channel 9 and Sky, frequent updates on ABC News 24, live blogs from newspapers – we can have it all. And that’s without following any particular #qldfloods or similar hashtags. Back in 2011, we saw then Premier Anna Bligh receiving constant updates from emergency services, holding frequent media conferences to deliver important information and urge people to keep their spirits up, and in general, doing what a Premier should do.
Today, we’ve seen the current Premier, Campbell Newman, grabbing every photo opportunity possible. In possibly the most egregious of these, he stood out in the rain clad in a regulation ‘Man-from-Snowy-River’ long coat with the local mayor. With rain dripping from his nose, he frequently interrupted the mayor’s attempt to answer questions about the situation on the ground, and how his constituents were handling things. Newman had his own message to get out – that his government had it under control, and was already looking towards the clean-up. This, before the scope of the disaster can possibly be known – and not without a swipe or two at the former Bligh government.
To back him up, Newman made what can only be regarded as an astoundingly stupid move, politically speaking. He invited Opposition Leader Tony Abbott up to Queensland to ‘tour’ the flood areas. And then we had photos of Abbott filling a sandbag. Of Abbott and Newman studying a map with fierce concentration. Of Abbott moving amongst ‘the people’ with patented handshake and clap-on-the-shoulder ‘you’ll be right, mate’ gestures. And why was Abbott there? Apparently, Newman thought it was important that the ‘alternative Prime Minister’ be fully informed.
Really, we’ve all heard the jokes about Queensland living in the 1950s, but has Newman never heard of a phone?
The stupidity wasn’t confined to Newman and Abbott, though. The Opposition’s Indigenous spokesperson, Andrew Laming, decided to make sure his boss got all the attention he deserved, and took to Twitter.
Tony Abbott at a Brisbane SES depot today. Where’s the PM?
— Andrew Laming (@AndrewLamingMP) January 28, 2013
Indeed, where was the Prime Minister? Why, she was in Victoria with Premier Ted Baillieu, visiting emergency service personnel who had spent the majority of last week fighting ferocious bushfires. Those fires are contained now, but may still burn for months. Nonetheless, the immediate emergency was over – making it a far more appropriate time for a politician to be holding media conferences on site. Arguably, the best time for such an activity is never – but if such is inevitable in politics, then surely the time to make political capital out of disaster is well after the emergency is past?
But hey, that’s politics, right? Stupid MPs mugging for the cameras and popping on their Hi-Vis vests and hard hats for the sake of a good photo?
Maybe. But then there’s this.
Remember back in 2011, when the government introduced a flood levy to help pay for reconstruction from the disastrous floods? You know, the one Tony Abbott said was a cruel impost on the poor? The one he declared would put paid to anyone ever again voluntarily donating to any other disaster relief?
The one we all paid, and no one bemoaned the loss of an average of $1.74 each week?
Well, Abbott’s at it again. The floods haven’t even peaked, and already he’s raising the spectre of The Evil Taxing Labor Government. Oh, he’s being sneaky about it. He’s not going to come right out and say that there will be a new flood levy, but – and he hates to say it – ‘It doesn’t matter what the problem is; spend more, tax more is the Labor Party’s solution’.
Of course, he’s happy to quickly remind people that his Opposition fought the flood levy tooth and nail two years ago. Oh, but now’s not the time to bring politics into it, he hastens to add. Just as long as we’re clear on the Opposition’s principles, and we’ve had the idea planted in our heads that the government will bring in another levy after these floods.
His work here is done. Sandbag filled, soundbite delivered, poison injected. He can return to his high-and-dry home secure in the warm glow of knowledge of a job well done.
But hold on a moment. Suppose he’s right? Suppose the government does decide a new one-off levy is warranted? Or even – say it ain’t so – a Disaster Relief Fund, such as was proposed after the 2011 floods and Cyclone Yasi? How terrible, exactly, would it be?
Probably about as terrible as it already has been. A negligible amount taken from our salaries, in order to help those whose lives have been shattered by fire, flood, or cyclone. Something we wouldn’t even notice. That’s what Abbott – and by extension, Newman – wants us to fear. In the midst of disaster, he wants us to focus on how well he fills sandbags and how Labor is coming to take your hard-earned money away.
It’s shameful, and it shouldn’t go unanswered. For every shovelful of sand Abbott hefts, how many hundreds are being moved off-camera? How many thousands of emergency service personnel risk their lives to save people from drowning or burning to death, while he poses by a Rural Fire Service fire truck in his protective gear? And how many of those emergency services workers are injured, or even lose their lives, while he bleats about the evils of parting with $1.74 per week in order to give our fellow Australians just a little bit of help?
Do we know who they are, those people? Not unless they’re in the background, in which case it’s, ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Tony Abbott?’
It should be the other way around. ‘Hey, who’s that in the photo with Gary/Jen/whoever?’
Better yet, it should be, ‘Hey, look at those incredibly brave people putting themselves at risk to save other people, and they’re not even getting paid. Real heroes. Isn’t it great that the pollies keep out of their way and make sure they’ve got the resources to do their jobs?’
Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.
Things are looking up for the government. The first study on the effect of carbon pricing indicates a related fall in carbon emissions, without the stupendous price hikes predicted by the Opposition. Australia comfortably won the vote to gain a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite Opposition pessimism, doubt, and what looked suspiciously like sour grapes. Prime Minister Gillard’s numbers are up, and the government has even started to fight back in two-party preferred polls.
Yes, things are pretty rosy – and you know what happens next, don’t you?
The Opposition shift the ground. There’s always another issue on which they can fall back. This time, it’s asylum seekers – again. Specifically, the Coalition decided to take aim at the government’s part-adoption of the Pacific Solution, detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.
The Greens don’t want anyone on Nauru (or in mandatory detention at all, for that matter) – but are low on specifics as to how to implement their preferred ‘regional approach’. The government won’t tell us exactly how their ‘no advantage’ system is supposed to work – that is, how long asylum seekers on average would have to wait to be processed and granted refugee status. We’ve got some vague statements about making sure that those who come on boats don’t manage to get ahead of people ‘in the queue’ in refugee camps – never mind that the ‘queue’ simply doesn’t exist – but no numbers whatsoever.
Surprisingly, the one party who are giving us details is the Coalition. And those numbers are, frankly, horrifying.
Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison announced that, under a Coalition government, asylum seekers should expect to be detained on Nauru for a minimum of five years. In what looked remarkably like a game of ‘Dare-You-Double-Dare-You’, he suggested the government adopt the same position, while Immigration Minister Chris Bowen countered by urging the Coalition to get on board the Malaysia solution. As usual, neither side wants to give an inch.
But let’s look at the Coalition’s proposal a bit more closely. Five years minimum mandatory detention. By anyone’s standards, that’s a long time to be stuck on an island with no idea whether you will eventually receive some certainty for your future. Add to that the fact that these are effectively stateless people, confined to sub-standard camps with poor facilities in a landscape devastated by phosphate mining, and sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius with very high humidity. Then take into account the fact that they can’t leave. They can’t decide to go for a walk, see a movie, have a picnic, or go shopping for a treat.
Looks a lot like a prison, doesn’t it? Of course, prisoners have an allowance, which they are allowed to spend. Asylum seekers simply cannot receive any form of financial assistance until they are out of detention – when they can apply for help from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. Generally, too, it’s a fairly straightforward process to visit a prisoner – you don’t need to find money for an international flight and visa, have a current passport, and jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to gain permission to enter the detention centre.
While we’re on the subject of comparing prisons and asylum seeker detention centres, let’s look at that number again – at least five years. How does that stack up to sentences given to convicted prisoners?
According to a 2011 report prepared by the Sentencing Council of Victoria, of 228 people who received a custodial sentence for the crime of rape,
over 80% were sentenced to less than six years. Half of those were eligible for parole in under four years.
Less than four years. Those who commit rape, a crime which our society regards as one of the worst outrages that can be inflicted on a human being, are imprisoned for roughly the same time it takes to complete a university degree – or hold two Federal elections. Under the Coalition’s plan, asylum seekers would be detained for at least a year longer.
Why such a long detention period? What have asylum seekers done, to warrant such strict conditions?
The short answer is: NOTHING.
Seeking asylum is not illegal. Despite the oft-repeated assertions of Morrison and his Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, people are absolutely entitled to seek asylum in Australia – and we have an obligation to process them, if not re-settle them in our country. We are, after all, signatories to Refugee Conventions. By referring to them as illegal, however, the Coalition plants the idea that something shifty is going on here.
It goes further. The Coalition suggests such people may not be ‘real’ refugees. Often they arrive without identification – what have they got to hide? They pay huge amounts (around US$4000) to people smugglers – why are they trying to get ahead of all those (real) refugees waiting patiently in camps around the world? If they’ve got money, why don’t they just leave normally? Any attempt to bring even a little factual evidence – or even logic – into the discussion is met with blustering rhetoric and accusations of being ‘soft on border protection’.
And make no mistake – Abbott knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that the official term used for boat-borne asylum seekers is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’. He knows they’re not doing anything wrong by trying to get here. He knows that detaining people for long periods on remote islands, preferably ones that are not even part of Australia, tends to fade from the headlines if there are no faces to go with the protestations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If he plays the waiting game long enough, there will only be a few voices speaking up against a xenophobic attitude that he has done nothing to counter, and everything to encourage.
It’s really no surprise, then, that the Coalition should be now insisting on what can only be called an entirely punitive sentence for people who have committed no crime, circumvented no process, and are simply trying to save themselves and their families. It’s business as usual – demonise the victims, while claiming to ‘protect’ them from evil people smugglers and risky boat voyages.
Oh, and that five years? Is the low end of what the Coalition thinks is appropriate for mandatory detention. Morrison gave no figures for the maximum time an asylum seeker could be detained. Given that even twelve months’ detention on Nauru under the Pacific Solution resulted in adverse mental health outcomes that afflict refugees to this day, the prospect of five, six, or even more years smacks of outright, deliberate cruelty.
Lest we let the government off scot-free, however, it’s worth repeating: the Coalition have given us a minimum number. The government have given us nothing. We have no idea how long the government would be happy to keep someone in detention, other than some vague mutterings about being equivalent to the ‘average’ time taken to process someone in a camp in our region. As the UNHCR pointed out, though, it’s impossible to even establish an average time. It’s a meaningless concept – and since there is evidence of people in camps waiting for ten years or more, that ‘no advantage’ test starts to take on truly horrifying possibilities. The government seems to think that if one person suffers terrible hardship and interminable delays in having their refugee claim processed, then it’s acceptable for others to undergo the same ordeal. So sorry, but you understand how it is – we have to be fair, after all.
It’s not ‘fair’. It’s coldly, calculatedly inhumane. Whether it’s the government’s ‘we’re-not-telling’ or Morrison’s ‘five-years-and-counting’ solution, the treatment of asylum seekers has gone way past a race to the bottom. The major parties know that this issue can be manipulated in an election campaign, and are only too eager to play to the xenophobic strain that seems to run right through Australian society (with the help of certain areas of the media) if it will gain them votes.
Now, maybe I’m doing Prime Minister Gillard and Abbott a disservice. Maybe they do care about the welfare of asylum seekers, and the way they deal with them is sacrificing personal feelings for the long-term gain of the ‘top job’.
That only makes it worse.
Whichever way the next election goes, asylum seekers lose. They will be packed off, out of sight, to Nauru (or Manus Island, or Malaysia), and treated like prisoners of war who have no idea who is winning, or if it will ever end. Sadly, this is the best outcome – because even if the boats don’t stop coming, and the current strategy proves to be an utter failure, neither party is likely to retreat from a hard-line stance. They’d lose far too much face, and give their opposition a great deal of ammunition. The alternative is to become even more punitive, more harsh – and given the appalling state of affairs that exists now, that possibility is terrible. Human lives would become less than pawns.
And we would all be culpable.
We’re pretty much inured to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s regular attempts to suspend Question Time. Almost every time the Parliament sits, a new ‘crisis’ manifests that forces him to his feet in order to yell across the chamber for ten minutes or so. Usually it’s either the ‘Toxic Tax Based on a Lie’ or how the government’s ‘Lost Control of our Borders’. At this point, there’s often a collective switch-off from those watching. After all, we’ve heard it before – and every time, the attempt to suspend Question Time fails.
Not so today. This time, the government said, bring it on.
And the reason? The Opposition wanted Speaker Peter Slipper gone. It wasn’t enough that he stepped aside while the court case brought against him by James Ashby was still underway. He had to go. Immediately. It was time to make history, and use the Constitutional power granted to the Parliament to remove the Speaker.
Abbott started in high gear, and just got louder. Slipper was a misogynist, he said. He was sexist. Look at the disgusting text messages he’d sent, comparing a vulva (though he used a far less polite word) to the kind of mussels you buy in a jar at the Fish and Chip Shop. Look at his behaviour towards James Ashby. Look at the way he just happened to boot Sophie Mirabella from the House so that she couldn’t cast a vote on the carbon price – that was not only sexist, it was also partisan! Forget that Mirabella was being continually disruptive; apparently if she’d been a man (or, presumably, a woman on the government benches), she could have escaped discipline.
Of course, none of this is proven. The case is underway, the judgment currently reserved. Some of the text messages were released to the media, but there were no grounds for saying that Slipper was guilty of the allegations Ashby’s brought against him. It’s a niggling little detail, and one Abbott seemed happy to skip over. So, for that matter, were the other Coalition speakers, notably Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop and Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne.
With Slipper’s character thoroughly delineated as a sleazy, woman-hating popinjay (oh yes, the formal procession through the halls of Parliament House came in for plenty of ridicule), it was time for the Opposition to turn on Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and it was quickly apparent that she (and through her, the Labor government) was the real target.
The least of Gillard’s sins was poor judgment in appointing Slipper in the first place. What was that? The LNP backed Slipper for pre-selection since 1993, and only dumped him when he became Speaker, leaving them down a vote? Pshaw. Details. Astonishingly, according to Pyne, it was one thing to support this man – who had allegedly brought the Parliament into utter disrepute – in his quest for a local seat, but quite another for him to be Speaker. Pyne didn’t elaborate on exactly where the line should be drawn, but presumably there’s a sliding scale. I’m sure the good people of Fisher would be pleased to know that the LNP were happy to help them elect a man of such low character.
But back to Gillard. She ‘forced’ former Speaker Harry Jenkins aside (oh, and let’s not forget to slip in a mention of the midnight assassination of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd). She dared to ‘lie’ to the Australian people about carbon pricing just so she could hold onto power. She was ambitious, grasping for power (and isn’t it interesting that ambition is only a failing in a woman). The Opposition even intimated that she knew about the Slipper/Ashby issue when she appointed the Speaker, making her culpable in this denigration of the Parliament. Finally, she was a hypocrite. Some of her own members had made sexist remarks, and she hadn’t told them off.
She, she, she, she, she. Over and over, the Coalition speakers refused to give the Prime Minister the benefit of her title, or even adopt the convention of using her surname. As my grandmother used to say, ‘She’s the cat’s mother’; ironic when you remember Julie Bishop’s cat-scratch moment towards Gillard in another memorable Question Time. And as Leader of the House Anthony Albanese said when he spoke against the motion: ‘If you used the Prime Minister’s title instead of just ‘she’ all the time, you might have a shred of credibility’.
For a series of speeches designed to make the case that Slipper was a sexist and misogynist who needed to be dismissed at all costs, there was a remarkable degree of sexism shown by the Opposition. But nothing matched up to one comment from Abbott, which sent shock waves through the chamber and those watching on social media:
‘This government should have already died of shame’.
And just to make sure we heard, he repeated it. Again and again.
It was utterly unconscionable. Barely a week after the Daily Telegraph reported that Radio 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones had told the Sydney University Young Liberals Club that Gillard’s late father had ‘died of shame’, there was Abbott invoking the same sentiments.
It’s a familiar theme for the Opposition. Sophie Mirabella, after organising an anti-carbon price demonstration outside Albanese’s electoral office (featuring placards with such lovely sentiments as ‘Tolerance is our demise’), told him that his mother had died of shame.
Quite a coincidence. But who really believes that? Abbott had to know what he was doing. After all, he’d been hounded by the media for nearly a week about Jones’ comments, and forced to defend his decision to keep accepting invitations to appear on Jones’ show (from which over 70 major sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, have withdrawn their support). It was clearly aimed straight at the Prime Minister. Perhaps Abbott hoped to throw her off her stride when she rose to reply.
He couldn’t have picked a worse tactic.
Gillard let fly. Almost shaking with rage, she condemned Abbott for his hypocrisy in bringing this motion, given his history of sexist comments and alleged unacceptable behaviour towards women. Pointing at Abbott, she declared, ‘I will not be lectured by this man on misogyny and sexism. Not now, not ever.’
With devastating effect, Gillard used Abbott’s own sexist and misogynist words against him. His assertion that inequality might not be a ‘bad thing’. His claim that women were ‘physiologically’ unsuited to positions of authority. (Here he was echoing Alan Jones, who infamously declared that women in power in Australia were ‘destroying the joint’.) The outrageous statement that abortion was ‘the easy way out’. And so it went.
Gillard declared that Abbott was using a double standard in seeking to remove Slipper for sexist comments, and vowed that she would not allow that to rule the Parliament. Her fury was palpable, and for once, Abbott didn’t turn his back. There was a court case under way, and Parliament had no right to pre-empt the judgment. Slipper had voluntarily stepped aside, she reminded the House. She would not permit Abbott to impose a standard to which neither he, nor his Opposition colleagues, would adhere.
There was one moment when Gillard’s emotions threatened to overcome her – when she finally spoke about Jones’ comments, telling Abbott, ‘The government is not dying of shame. My father did not die of shame. If anyone should be ashamed, it is the Leader of the Opposition who should be ashamed of his behaviour.’
The motion was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 69-70. There were no questions, no points of order. Just an incredible eruption, immediately followed by business as usual.
But we saw something today. We saw an Opposition attempt to paint itself as a champion of morality and a protector of women – led by a man notorious for sexist language and bullying behaviour. We saw an Opposition attempt yet again to turn the House into a kangaroo court; Julie Bishop went even further, stating that it didn’t matter that there was as yet no verdict.
But we also saw a Prime Minister who seems to have finally been pushed too far. The bland, polished, vaguely condescending voice reminiscent of a tranquillised Margaret Thatcher gave way to a passionate, cutting anger. No mockery, no stock phrases, no cut-and-paste speeches praising the government’s record. This was the Gillard of old, the Deputy Prime Minister who took on all comers and did more than hold her own.
It’s a Gillard we haven’t seen for a long time.
Whether the government’s successful defence today of Slipper’s position as Speaker will prove a continuing problem remains to be seen. The outcome of the court case will, presumably, determine his future in the chair. In the meantime, the Opposition will undoubtedly find yet more ‘reasons’ to attempt a censure, or force an election. Having embarked on this course from the moment he was denied government, Abbott will not let up until after the next election – an election he expects to win with a majority comparable to that gained by the LNP in the Queensland state election.
The question is, though: will Gillard return to the measured, soporific cadences that many have described as seeming ‘fake’, ‘put on’? (And the question must be asked: did she adopt that way of speaking in the first place because she was told she’d appear ‘shrill’ otherwise?)
Or will it be the Prime Minister we saw today, who takes the fight to Abbott and confronts the Opposition tactics forcefully and without apology?
For Labor’s sake, it will need to be the latter.
Peter Slipper has just announced in the House of Representatives that he will tender his resignation from the Speakership to the Governor-General. In an emotional speech, he said the House was more important than his own future. ‘Nothing is more important than the preservation of the dignity of our parliamentary institutions.’ According to Anthony Albanese, Slipper made his decision after today’s vote and informed the government. Slipper’s likely successor is his Deputy, Anna Burke, who has been fulfilling the Parliamentary role of Speaker since he stood aside.
This comes four minutes after Slipper tweeted, ‘Sources say Steve Lewis/News Ltd plan 2 run story based on untruths from certain LNP members&volunteers who worked on my last LNP campaign’. We can only wait to see what comes next, but one thing is clear; Abbott gained a valuable scalp today, as Slipper now joins Craig Thomson on the backbench. It’s a victory that – for all his sober words tonight as he said Slipper had done ‘the right thing’ – Abbott won’t hesitate to exploit. Stay tuned for more claims that the government relies on ‘tainted votes’ to stay in power.
It’s a pretty ugly day in Australian politics.
Day 2 under the cruel yoke of the ‘carbon tax’.
It’s true. It’s all true. How blind we were not to see it! This toxic tax is destroying us all.
I’m reporting to you from my bunker in Townsville, where the unseasonably warm weather is just one sign of how devastating this tax has been. Now, what I have to say might shock readers,, but I’m committed to bring you the truth – no matter how ugly.
As I write this, I look around me at the ruin of our civilisation. In this once-neat middle-class suburb, I can see lawns that need mowing, dogs romping – without leashes in the park opposite, and the raucous, triumphant laughter of the lorikeets drowns out the sound of the lamenting populace.
Tony Abbott was right. This tax is hurting us all. Why, just last night we were forced to choose between Masterchef and The Block. What sort of government institutes a tax that divides families like that?
And it gets worse. We’d planned a family roast dinner, but because of the carbon tax, the meat was undercooked and we had to eat in the dark.
Today, we plan to venture out into the chaos to see what can be salvaged. We’ll have to walk, of course – we need to conserve what little petrol remains for when we’ll inevitably have to flee. It’s just a question of where. We could probably survive in the mountains, but it might be better for us to sell whatever we can and get on a boat. I’m sure we could find a country generous enough to take in carbon tax refugees.
It’s the children who suffer most, and my heart breaks to see them. My niece can no longer access Facebook, and my teenage nephew had to wake up at (dear god) 7.00 am and go to work.
My computer’s batteries are dying now, so I’ll have to finish this entry and hope it gets out. People need to know.
Just remember – it’s only going to get worse from here. Soon, we’ll be reduced to living in armed camps and eating each other for food – uncooked, of course. Tony Abbott warned us and we didn’t listen.
And he couldn’t possibly be wrong, could he? Just look at the evidence.
Tonight, you’ll probably hear that ‘the government shut down debate on Craig Thomson’ during Question Time today. Certainly, that’s the message Opposition Leader Tony Abbott undoubtedly hopes you’ll believe – that the government is ‘running a protection racket’ and is willing to subvert (or possibly pervert) the processes of Parliament to do it. The Opposition just wants to ‘call the Prime Minister to account’.
But how true is that?
Let’s take a look at what happened today. It’s convoluted, but see if you can follow me here.
At first it was all business as usual. The Opposition uttered dire warnings about the impending ‘carbon tax’ – which, due to its terrifying ability to travel back in time, apparently caused aluminium manufacturer Norsky Hydro to go belly-up. The government responded with Dixers designed to highlight the upcoming ‘clean energy package’ of compensation and the latest OECD report, which shows Australia to have the best economy in the developed world.
Then the questions about Craig Thomson. The usual stuff, which I won’t bother repeating here. It was obvious what was coming.
At 2.45 pm, Abbott sought leave to move that the Prime Minister be forced to explain to the House whether she believed Thomson’s statement, why he was still in Parliament, and a few other things that were lost in the shouting. Refused leave, he tried – for the 56th time in the life of this Parliament – to suspend standing orders, in order to allow him to move the motion just denied.
Still with me?
Leader of the House Anthony Albanese objected, saying that the matter had been referred to the Privileges Committee, and shouldn’t be further debated. The Speaker was willing to allow it, though, so off Abbott went. And immediately ignored the Practice of the House, which makes it clear that he should not make an argument about the substance of his proposed motion, just explain why it was necessary to suspend standing orders.
It’s a fine line, and it’s one that the Opposition cross every chance they get. Of course, whoever’s in the Speaker’s chair pulls them up on it, but it doesn’t stop them. Abbott, in particular, abuses his privileged status as Leader to flout the rules, and today was no exception. He launched into a diatribe against the Prime Minister, demanding, ‘Do you believe Craig Thomson?’, and accused the government (again) of running ‘a protection racket’.
The government was having none of it today. Albanese interrupted to point out what Abbott was doing, and the Speaker cautioned the Opposition Leader before allowing him to continue. Abbott – without apparently blinking – went straight back to his attack. Cue Albanese.
Finally, Albanese moved to gag Abbott. It was a motion the government couldn’t win (since the Independents are notoriously reluctant to support a gag), and didn’t. What it did accomplish was to waste enough time to run out the allotted time for Abbott’s speech.
Up stepped Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne. And it was Groundhog Day. Again. Mercifully, however, Albanese only objected once before moving to gag. Again he was defeated, and again enough time wasted that the SSO attempt fell in a heap. The Prime Minister promptly closed down Question Time at that point, with over half an hour wasted.
But it’s not over.
At that point Abbott asked Deputy Speaker Anna Burke if, from now on, the clock could be stopped for future divisions and Points of Order. The motive was obvious: if the clock was stopped, then the Opposition would have all the allotted time to say their piece. Receiving an unsatisfactory answer (that it would be up to Speaker Peter Slipper, absent from the chamber but still in charge), he tried another tactic.
Given that the Budget had been referred to a Senate committee, was it even possible to ask questions about it? Here he was angling for a ruling that would allow him to argue that if so, he should be able to bring up the Thomson issue as much as he wanted. It was a nonsensical question, and Burke gave it short shrift – of course they could talk about the Budget, but no ruling. Pyne tried to push her, but she stood firm; it was a matter for the Speaker to make rulings.
Then this from Pyne: ‘If you’re loath to make a ruling, and the Opposition disagree with you, then how can we move dissent?’
Anyone else see the veiled threat of a vote of no confidence there?
Finally, the House moved on – nearly an hour after Question Time was derailed by the Opposition – but Abbott had one more card to play, and it was an act of breathtaking chutzpah.
He called a media conference to complain that the government was preventing debate in the House.
This is the man who shut down Question Time at 2.45pm, with over 30 minutes remaining.
This is the man who refused to keep to the rules of debating SSO motions because it was apparently more important to insult the Prime Minister and deliver a soundbite for the evening news than to respect House Practice.
This is the man who led the call for Craig Thomson to ‘explain himself’ to the House by making a statement in Parliament, and got his wish.
This is the man who led the call for that same statement to be referred to the Privileges Committee, because he claimed that Thomson had misled the Parliament.
Complaining that it was the government preventing debate.
Complaining that Thomson got a whole hour, while ‘we didn’t get one minute’.
Complaining that it was ‘a travesty of a Parliament … a travesty of democracy’.
In Australian Rules Football, I think it’s fair to say that the entire Opposition would cop a 50-metre penalty for time-wasting.
Now, obviously the government accomplished some pretty deft procedural manoeuvring today, and Albanese did succeed in derailing the Opposition’s attempt to call out the PM. But are they actually preventing debate?
They could have prevented Thomson from giving his statement. They didn’t.
They could have refused to answer any questions from media or in Parliament about the issue. They didn’t. In fact, Gillard had answered two question, with supplementaries, just minutes before Abbott attempted to suspend standing orders.
And, when a Matter of Public Importance on the issue was debated, they could have limited the speakers and time allotted to the usual number. They didn’t. In fact, no less than eight speakers addressed the matter, three of whom were from the Opposition. Usually, it’s a maximum of five, taking up an hour.
Can the Opposition really say that they’ve been prevented from speaking on the issue of Craig Thomson’s alleged wrongdoings? Especially when they’ve also virtually monopolised the media coverage on the subject?
Or is it just that they don’t like to face the fact that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?
If Abbott is really so incensed about the government using procedural tactics to interfere with his own strategies, I have a solution for him. How about both sides enter into a written contract to refrain from doing so in the future? He can promise that Pyne, Bronwyn Bishop and the like don’t repeatedly interrupt the Prime Minister’s answers with spurious Points of Order designed to prevent her from delivering a decent soundbite. He can promise that he won’t use the MPI as a soapbox, and actually use it for its appointed purpose.*
And while he’s at it, he can promise not to try any more end-runs around the judicial process in order to make his political points.
I’m sure the government would be happy to do the same.
*(If you’re interested, take a look at the guidelines on Matters of Public Importance, and maybe spend a little time thinking about how often the Opposition uses this tactic to gain a free debating platform in the House – and whether their claims satisfy the definition.)