Monthly Archives: March 2013

Stopping the Stupidity on Boats

There has been another asylum seeker tragedy in Australian waters. In the latest incident, following an increase in the number of maritime arrivals, two people died and two were critically injured. A total of 95 asylum seekers were rescued off the ship which capsized near Christmas Island on Monday. The debate over the issue, never far from the headlines, has again escalated since the overturning of the vessel. The same lines are being trotted out and the race to the bottom is continuing over an issue which Australia can do little to solve. There needs to be a different way of thinking on the issue, but that is impossible while there is political capital to be gained from ‘talking tough’.

The Gillard Government has, in the wake of the deaths, called on the Opposition to work with them to pass an amended deal with the Malaysian Government so that asylum seekers and proven refugees can effectively be traded by the two governments in a vain attempt to stem the increased flow of maritime arrivals in Australia.

The trouble is that offshore processing has achieved nothing and the Malaysian swap deal will also fail to make an impact on the so-called ‘problem’. The whole ‘cruel to be kind’ policy mantra has been shown up as a failure. Offshore processing along the same lines of what was enacted under the Howard Government has not halted the flow of asylum seeker vessels.

The whole issue, including the unfortunate deaths of the two asylum seekers needs to be rethought. The realities of the situation need to be assessed and the emotional politics completely removed from what should be an issue that is centred around the idea that asylum seekers are human beings. An acknowledgement of the different roles of the different players in the policy puzzle needs to be made.

First and foremost, refugee policy needs to be thought of as an issue where there can be domestic policy settings which contribute to working towards a ‘solution’, but also that there are other considerations which need to be taken into account. In fact, regional and international processes need to be factored into the equation, because asylum seekers do not magically arrive in the Asia-Pacific region. Domestic policy has a role, but its significance is much less than our politicians would have you believe.

As Australians, from our politicians down to ordinary everyday citizens, we also need to rethink the asylum seeker conundrum in another important way. We must view asylum seekers arriving by boat as a problem which is based on desperation, for the most part, rather than ‘failed policy’. We have a strong policy now and still have a high number of vessels coming into Australian waters.

The “blame game” over asylum seeker deaths has to stop too. It goes back to the idea that domestic policy now has little effect when it comes to people arriving in Australian waters on dangerous vessels seeking asylum. So government is not to blame, especially when they are resorting to inhumane acts in order to try to deal with the issue. We have to accept that it is the waiting game played by asylum seekers and those already granted refugee status which feeds the desperation that leads to risk-taking behaviour.

And finally, it is the asylum seekers themselves who are ultimately responsible for the actions they take, even though such actions are fueled by the desire to be in a better situation.

A Recipe for Chaos and Fatalism

The Prime Minister paid a visit to the Governor-General today for the swearing-in ceremony of her latest ministry. This is the second visit to Yarralumla in as many months for Julia Gillard and it comes just a matter of days after the ALP again found themselves facing a leadership spill, which this time did not happen. The election date was obviously firmly in mind in the ministerial considerations the Prime Minister again had to make ahead of the May budget session. The result – the continued perpetuation of some of the same issues which have plagued the Gillard Government.

Perhaps the most striking think about today’s announcement is the decision made by Julia Gillard to create multiple ‘ministers for everything’. Five existing ministers in the Gillard ministry now have extra portfolios.

Anthony Albanese has had Regional Development and Local Government added to his title, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus takes on the dual role of Special Minister of State and Minister for Public Service and Integrity and Craig Emerson snares Chris Bowen’s former role in Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research. Finally, Greg Combet becomes Minister for Climate Change, Industry and Innovation and Tony Burke adds Minister for the Arts to his already lengthy ministerial title.

Gillard backers have clearly been rewarded with the exception of Anthony Albanese, the conciliatory Rudd backer who has received the key portfolio of Regional Development which is a very neat fit with his existing responsibilities in Infrastructure and Transport.

There are just six months until the election. Obviously that has had a major impact on the distinct lack of change and renewal in the changes announced today at Government House. It would have been wise to promote existing talent, despite the electoral prospects of the ALP at the September 14 election. Some would consider that a waste of good people, but the best team should always be made available regardless of the state of play.

There were a number of new additions to the ministry, but for the most part they were underwhelming choices. Andrew Leigh and Gary Gray were the best appointments in the new ministry. Others elevated were Sharon Bird, Don Farrell, Catherine King, Michael Danby, Senator Jan McLucas, Senator Matt Thistlethwaite, Amanda Rishworth and Shayne Neumann.

If the Prime Minister was looking for a way to continue to foment chaos within her government, today she found it. Having so many ministers, already struggling with burdensome portfolios is not a smart political move at all. Yes, there is only six months to go until the polls and there will not be much more legislative work undertaken, but the policy effort must continue and will be stifled by the mega portfolios created today.

If ever you wanted a glimpse at the thinking of our leaders, without actually needing to hear an answer, you got it. Far from the bloated portfolios simply making policy work more difficult, the ministerial announcements also portray a fatalism within the Labor Party. That fatalism is obviously at the forefront of the Prime Minister’s mind, the reshuffle was designed by her.

If there was one strong positive about the announcement it is that there will apparently be a decrease in the size of government, or at least a bit of a streamlining of it. The Department of Climate Change will now merge with the Department of Industry and Innovation.

Like many problems, the solution to the personnel issue was rushed and ill-considered. There was a small amount of good done in the selections made, but it was cancelled out by the poor decisions.

Chaos will continue to reign and now the government quite clearly looks to have given up all electoral hope.

The Labor Leadership: the Winners, the Losers and the Journey to Unity

The Australian Labor Party had another very ordinary week last week. They have had a lot of ordinary weeks over the last two-and-a-half years, but the events of last week made that period of time for Labor one that they would surely rather forget. The ALP have also had two other periods of time they would rather forget, so the spill which never went ahead was not exactly a unique event. Labor has now had three leadership spills since coming to office in 2007. The first one was successful and the last two unsuccessful for very different reasons.

The spill which never was, happened to be truly bizarre. One of Rudd’s detractors, Simon Crean called on the Prime Minister to bring about a leadership spill and in the process got himself sacked from the ministry. It appeared he was trying to bring the issue to a head at the very least and quite possibly attempting to portray at least a facade of unity. Why else would one of Julia Gillard’s most vocal supporters stick his neck out like that?

There were some definite winners and losers last week. Prime Minister Julia Gillard came out of the botched spill itself a winner, but still damaged nonetheless. But there were other big winners last week and they were conservatism and liberalism. Simon Crean was obviously a big loser from what transpired. His ministerial colleagues who have backed Kevin Rudd since he was deposed have also paid a price, except for Anthony Albanese. And of course the last week will take a heavy toll on the Labor Party.

Julia Gillard again emerged victorious from a period of destabilisation. At each attempted coup the PM has triumphed. That in itself makes the Prime Minister a winner, but unfortunately for the Labor Party, it leaves them without electoral hope.

Conservatism is clearly a winner after last week. The Coalition returning to government becomes even more of an electoral certainty than it was the week before the failed leadership ballot. Voters will certainly crave government stability and willingly forego a more policy energetic government after the last three years.

Liberalism is a winner on two fronts. Obviously the Liberal Party does subscribe, in part, to the liberal tradition, even though the party has long been hijacked by the conservative ideology. So of course liberalism is, in part, on an electoral winner.

Liberalism also wins for another reason. Senior Labor MP and now former minister Martin Ferguson gave a considered speech about the future of the ALP upon resigning his post. He said that the party must regain the reforming mantle of the Hawke and Keating governments. Both these governments, though Labor in brand, can be considered to have a not insignificant association with the liberal tradition.

Some talented ministers and whips have now resigned their posts, all because of their association with the Rudd camp. This seems counter-intuitive when  there has been absolutely no question of ministerial wrongd0ing by any of those in question. They simply backed a man with an ego who, when push came to shove, failed to turn up. If showing unity is the game, then there should have been no resignations, whether they were pushed or took the plunge themselves.

In the case of Simon Crean it is not easy to argue he should have been spared. Sacking Simon Crean on the day was the only option available to Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, but she could consider bringing him back and that would not cost any political capital.

It is quite possible, even likely, that those ministers who have resigned do not wish to serve under Prime Minister Julia Gillard. But we will likely never know.

Some healing needs to take place within Labor to save some seats at the September 14 poll, but that cannot happen with former ministers heading to the back-bench.

That healing and quest for unity needs to go deeper than Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard electioneering together in August and September and it needs to start today.

When Politics Gets Ugly

Parliament is often very loud. Parliamentarians are regularly seen raising their voices at one another across the floor of the parliament. But it is not very often that a lot of noise comes from the public gallery. But earlier this week that is exactly what happened. A group of protesters, as they have once or twice before in this the 43rd parliament, raised their voices and heckled and called the Prime Minister those most creative and under-used names which will not be repeated here.

This week’s interruption, as the last one did, raised two main questions. The first is all about the standards of the public discourse and any improvement it requires. The second question is the most important and that is who is ultimately responsible for the tone and demeanour of political communication – any communication for that matter.

The tone and manner of all forms of communication, especially that of a political nature actually matters. We the public get frustrated with the behaviour of our politicians, frequently referring to them as different kinds of animals because of their rambunctious and at times obnoxious behaviour in parliament, most notably during Question Time.

Parliamentary debate, even during the hot-headed hour and ten minutes that is Question Time should be much more subdued and civilised. Obscene statements and generalisations should be kept to a minimum. More importantly, name-calling, despite our larrikin nature as Australians simply should not take place.

Despite the poor behaviour of our elected representatives, we should not be engaging in equally poor behaviour ourselves. Parliament should be treated with respect, regardless of the political colour of the government of the day. That means no childish name-calling from the galleries, despite what’s happening in the chamber.

What happened the other day was simply too much. The whole spectacle was ugly. The way the protesters chose to interact with the Labor Government demeaned the parliament. More importantly, it made the protesters look just as silly as the politicians they dislike. The actions of the protesters also unfortunately and rather unfairly. tarred with the same brush, those who might have a similar view of the current government, but express their disquiet in a different manner.

That’s not to say that protest is not a vital part of democracy. It is. But as with protest elsewhere, it should be conducted in a sensible manner and in a sensible forum or it does the cause behind it much harm.

The response to the loud behaviour of the observers was both fair and unfair. The Speaker was right to chastise the rowdy actions which took place this week. There should be a zero tolerance approach to an interruption of the parliament that is loud like that. Very few people outside of those involved in or sympathetic to the particular cause involved, ever take such actions seriously.

What was quite unfair about elements of the response was the apportioning of blame for the actions of those in the public gallery. The Coalition were singled out and blame was apportioned. Yes, the Coalition have been responsible for some pretty ordinary moments during this minority government, as have the ALP. But that was their actions and again, a rational response from those which view such behaviour is not to repeat it.

There is also a very important concept in liberal thought which is completely ignored by this purely political accusation levelled at the Liberal and National Party Coalition. That concept is one of responsibility for one’s own actions. Despite the sometimes over-the-top actions from the Opposition, it is the protesters and only the protesters, who are responsible for their actions.

It is important that the standards of political communication improve. It would cut down on some of the cynicism which surrounds politics, though not necessarily the political process itself. Both politicians and the public need to improve how they discuss and engage with politics.

First and foremost, politicians and punters alike are responsible for their own actions, not one side of politics or another.

Conroy’s Sad and Confused Mess

Those much talked about media reforms – the ones we have been concerned about since the Convergence Review and Finkelstein inquiry have finally surfaced from cabinet. Well you cannot really say they have surfaced, but rather we have some detail and a bunch of cryptic clues, some fill-in-the-blanks as to what the exact policy of the Gillard Government, and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy might actually look like. We even have a very ambitious and quite frankly ridiculous timeline for the passage of the required legislation. What we can ascertain is that the proposals look pretty ugly. It’s really a mess, the whole thing.

The reforms announced by Stephen Conroy include previously outlined local content requirement changes and the related permanent reduction in licensing fees for commercial television stations. Among the more controversial proposals is the inception of a so-called “Public Interest Media Advocate”, which would oversee the operation of the Press Council and have a say in mergers involving media corporations.

The whole thing is a complete and utter joke. After years of struggling in the polls, someone has to be blamed for the woes of the Labor Party and God forbid it be them taking a good hard look at themselves. No, instead Senator Conroy thinks that messing with the media is the one true answer to all the government’s problems.

For a start,  beefing up local content rules, despite how nice most broadcasters are being about them, is a stupid idea. Essentially it is outsourcing a chunk of the production decisions of each television broadcaster to the government. There is good local content out there, but if we continue to up the minimum amount of airtime given to local content, then viewer numbers will automatically drop away. Not all production companies are capable of a major success such as MasterChef or Underbelly and even the former was not an Australian concept in the first place. Decreasing program competition, any competition, never leads to a sound outcome.

TV stations will, for the most part, wear the new local content rules. Why wouldn’t they? They are, after all, set to receive a 50% discount on their licensing fees and permanently too. Of course companies would want to reduce costs as much as possible and that inevitably goes for those bringing us news and entertainment on the tube.

By far the most troubling concept is that of the Public Interest Media Advocate. The name alone should be warning enough that there is, at the very least, a subtle attempt to control media coverage on the way. People have been asking: what exactly is the public interest? Nobody can actually say. Even the minister with ‘communication’ in his title cannot actually explain that one, let alone why such a body is necessary.

And what about this idea about the advocate policing mergers? Hasn’t the Labor Government discovered we already have a regulator? They’ve blocked contentious merger attempts before. Why a new bureaucracy to achieve the same purpose? Only Labor would contemplate that.

The thing with companies though, is that they either respond to or think they can create markets. Media businesses are no different. They are doing one or the other, so the media landscape will only ever be as diverse as the public wants it to be. And if people are concerned, then they, like all proprietors in all fields – can take an entrepreneurial risk.

Stephen Conroy is kidding himself on the deadline for passage of the legislation too. It simply beggars belief that a package with so little detail will be given so little consideration. Then again, maybe this is an attempt to look tough on the media, leaving it up to the minority parliament to possibly vote down the legislation. But if this is true, the minister now has enough egg on his face in simply announcing intentions to pursue media reform.

A child could not have made so much of a mess if they tried their hardest to do so. Governments simply need to learn that their interference in our lives is often not welcome. Most people are rational and can make up their own minds about, well everything.

Latham Ignores History

On breakfast radio, former Labor leader Mark Latham gave his two cents about the predicament that the Australian Labor Party finds itself in at the present time. Latham’s views on the Australian Labor Party and the election came less than 48 hours after a thumping victory for the WA Liberals and Nationals at the state poll in the west. The former Opposition Leader made clear on the ABC’s AM program this morning, his views about Kevin Rudd and the question of the leadership of the Australian Labor Party as we amble towards the September 14 election.

To put it quite simply, Mark Latham’s thoughts on how to deal with Kevin Rudd appears to have been, like some of his past actions, the result of a brain snap. It is clear that Mark Latham has forgotten much of Australia’s recent political history. Or perhaps he like many Labor supporters, is simply wishing it away in his mind. Whatever the reason, the thought process was lacking.

Mark Latham’s brilliant advice to the ALP was for the Prime Minister to give Kevin Rudd a ministry, preferably Climate Change Minister. In making this point, Latham said that giving Rudd a ministry would be a “much better utilisation of Rudd’s talents than being Labor’s destabiliser-in-chief”.

Well Mark Latham is right about one thing here: it would be much better for the Labor Party to have a man of Rudd’s popularity in the ministry. People, on the whole, still seem willing to listen to what Kevin Rudd has to say and having one of the smarter members of the Labor team actually in the ministry would be a wise tactical decision.

Where Mr Latham’s argument fails him is his inability or perhaps unwillingness to remember what happened when the former PM was the Minister for Foreign Affairs. There was open hostility towards Prime Minister Julia Gillard from the vanquished and it all culminated in a leadership spill after which Kevin Rudd retreated to the backbench, becoming simply the MP for Griffith.

For Kevin Rudd and many of his supporters, being a part of Labor’s inner-circle would simply not be enough. We know that the backgrounding and sniping at the Prime Minister would continue right through until polling day. The only thing which would come close to bringing an end to the divisions within the party would be if he were to be given his old friend Wayne Swan’s portfolios – both of them. Even then, that most likely would not be enough for the man.

Something that needs to be kept in mind is that the worry within the Labor Party about the leadership is now far less about causing trouble for Julia Gillard because she knifed a first-term PM, and far more about worried backbench MP’s considering their best hope for electoral survival as election day nears.

The backgrounding and destabilisation now far less about causing trouble for the Julia Gillard than it was in the early days and far more about the poor poll predicament Labor find themselves in. For as long as the polls are bad for Labor, the rumbles about leadership change will continue.

In the interview Mark Latham also cautioned against Labor re-installing Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. If the polls are to be believed, there would certainly be a positive change amid a reversion to Kevin Rudd and Labor would become at the very least competitive, but poll-winning heroics would appear to be a far-fetched idea.

The long and the short of it is that Mark Latham is wrong on Rudd. There is no way to stop the ructions in Labor except to do much better in the opinion polls. The question of leadership change is more complicated, but ultimately, if we choose to believe the published numbers, then going back to Rudd, at least in theory, is a better decision.

A Tale of Two Election Campaigns and What One Means for the Other

The Australian Labor Party in Western Australia were roundly defeated at the state poll on Saturday. It would appear that the ALP have been reduced to just 19 seats in the 59 member lower house of the West Australian parliament. The WA Liberals could govern in their own right after Saturday’s election drubbing, but will not. Despite the huge win, Colin Barnett’s Liberal Party will again join with the WA Nationals to form a coalition government in the westernmost state. Together they won an estimated 40 seats.

It was not as big a win as the New South Wales Liberals experienced, nor the Queensland LNP, but it was a very significant victory for the Liberal team in Western Australia and an extra painful loss for the ALP in the state.

After such defeats – in fact, after almost all election losses, the usual questions are asked. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? Was the campaign strong? Were there external factors which influenced the result?

It is abundantly clear that there were a number of factors which, when put together, led to the election result we saw at the weekend. The electoral age of the Barnett Government was a factor as was the campaigns run by both the major political parties. The result was also undoubtedly influenced by the state that the federal ALP finds itself in.

We can learn a number of lessons from the WA result.

The first is that most political parties will almost automatically spend more than one term in government. That happened here after four years of minority rule by Colin Barnett and his team of Liberals and Nationals. But what might have shocked was the extent of the voters’ desire to see the Barnett Liberals serve out another four years in government. And in truth, the kind of result we witnessed cannot be simply explained as the electorate giving the government another chance. Voters clearly wanted to deliver much more than just another four years.

Both the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party ran strong campaigns. And both were praised in the media for their strong campaigning efforts. But obviously the Liberal Party ran the stronger campaign. It is impossible to argue against that assumption given the result. And both campaigns were also very positive and based around further developing Western Australia.

Since the results came in late on Saturday night, thoughts turned to what this meant for the Labor Party locally and nationally. Discussion, as it does after a string of poor poll results, also turned to the question of leadership. Funnily enough, there was no questioning of the suitability of the ALP leadership team in WA. Instead, talk turned to what the result might herald for the Gillard Government and its figurehead, Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

There is no doubt that the Labor brand is toxic. We discovered that pretty quickly after seeing Labor Governments fall around the country, in two cases, into a deep electoral abyss. But it is not WA Labor that is on the nose in a particularly major way, it’s the ALP in the federal parliament which people are particularly weary of.

Because it is the Labor name that is toxic, it really does not matter much about who the federal Labor leader and Prime Minister is. Even though polls say Kevin Rudd would win an election if he were to become PM again, realistically, the electoral prospects for the party are still dire. So if the federal parliamentary Labor Party heeded the calls of former WA parliamentarian Alannah MacTiernan, apart from an initial bounce and a prolonged narrowing in the election-winning lead of the coalition – there would not be the required poll surge past the opposition.

Perhaps the strangest part of the election result was the unwillingness of commentators to give much credit to the Barnett Government. The people are not particularly stupid. If they thought he was doing a terrible job they would never have given him as Premier, and his government, as much as an endorsement as they did on Saturday at the ballot box.

Saturday too was just another message for Canberra about what is coming their way in September. It has an inevitability to it. The result will cause further leadership rumbles, but whether or not the federal ALP go into a panic is yet to be seen.

It is however, unlikely.

Going Too Far With Policy and Generalisations

The politics of the asylum seeker issue is back in the headlines. Earlier this week we learned that an asylum seeker housed at Macquarie University on a bridging visa has been accused of sexual assault. This shameful crime has led to the Liberal Party streaking away in the so-called “race to the bottom”. We have seen further moves from liberal ideals mixed with the support of generalisations which give rise to xenophobic tendencies in some parts of the broader public. There has been a gross miscalculation of the issue and a complete exaggeration of any so-called ‘problem’.

In response to the alleged sex attack, the federal opposition have proposed a mandatory behaviour code for asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas. The Coalition has also pushed for the government to suspend all current bridging visas which have allowed a number of asylum seekers to live in the public while their asylum claims are processed.

No crime is ever forgivable and should be prosecuted by the law. And in this case and others of a similar nature, it will be. The man will have his day in court and answer for his alleged actions. We live in a liberal democracy and have this process, along with many others where people are made accountable for their actions.

Some people seem to think that the response of refugee advocates has been to legitimise the alleged crime. This is complete nonsense. Not one person is for a second giving any support to one of the most heinous criminal acts imaginable. They are however trying to put the whole issue into a sensible context based on reality and not some issue confected from emotion and irrational fear.

The problem of crime, it may surprise some, is not unique to asylum seekers. Crime is perpetrated by all kinds of people and for a number of different reasons. The Oscar Pistorius case shows that crime is not an issue for one section of the community but for the whole of society. Crime is not an asylum seeker problem, it is a human problem and people would do well to put the emotion to one side and realise that for themselves.

A big problem related to the asylum seeker debate is the treatment of all asylum seekers as if they are criminals. We lock most of them up while we process their refugee claims, some offshore and some onshore as if they have committed some criminal act. They have not. And the two proposals from the Coalition in the wake of the sexual assault treat asylum seekers as if they are all criminals regardless of whether a criminal act has been committed.

It is dumb and illogical to suggest that asylum seekers be subject to a code of behaviour. Everyone that comes to our shores is subject to our laws. A code of behaviour would just be a reiteration of those existing laws. It is merely an attempt to look tough and to appeal to those who are at the least very sceptical about asylum seekers in Australia.

Calling on the government to suspend all bridging visas is an equally silly idea. Again this feeds the generalisation that all asylum seekers are undesirable which is, in large part what motivates the xenophobia that pushes this issue into the absurd depths of idiocy we have come to expect when the politics of asylum seekers is raised – and it is raised too often now.

When it comes to asylum seekers, we see the Liberal Party veering further and further from the liberal ideals they were founded on. It is fundamentally illiberal to treat people differently under the law. It is also fundamentally illiberal to be hostile with regard to immigration, especially in the way that the Liberal Party are prosecuting their latest demands.

The 43rd parliament has seen some lows in asylum seeker policy that few would have predicted. The trouble is that the debate keeps plunging lower and lower to the point where there is not much further to go before rock bottom.

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