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Searching for a Nicer Parliament

Peter Slipper’s time in the Speaker’s chair is now officially over. An emotional Peter Slipper last night entered the House of Representatives yesterday after a long absence to officially inform the lower house of his intention to step aside. As we and half the world now know, this came just hours after a fiery motion brought on by the Coalition, seeking to have the Speaker sacked under s35 of the Australian Constitution. That debate brought to the world the now viral video of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s response to the motion.

The debate, brought on by the Abbott-led Opposition, called on the former Speaker to fall on his sword after court documents revealed a series of text messages quickly deemed inappropriate, by the Opposition. The tit-for-tat misogyny labelling spiral reached fever pitch at that moment, just days after the intervention in the growing dispute, by Tony Abbott’s wife Margie.

The usually abnormal, though under this 43rd parliament, slightly less bizarre and unpredictable day, saw some of the angriest scenes that we’ve encountered since the August 2010 election. Taking into account the much vaunted carbon price and the Craig Thomson and Health Services Union controversy, this makes the dubious achievement overnight all the more remarkable.

Peter Slipper is now gone and the former Deputy Speaker, Anna Burke who acted in the role in the imposed absence of Mr Slipper now occupies the position. Finally, the person that has been doing the job in the parliament for some time now, will actually get the monetary recognition deserved.

Attention will now turn to the performance of Speaker Anna Burke who has just chaired her first session of Question Time in the senior role. People will now begin to make judgements on the effectiveness of Ms Burke in pulling 150 children into line in the hammy theatre that is the House of Representatives freak show.

That is a tough ask and the precedent set by Peter Slipper and Harry Jenkins before him is a very high bar.

Harry Jenkins, as a Speaker from the ALP under both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was held in very high regard by both sides of the political divide. Even the Coalition was and continue to be very effusive in their praise of the now Member for Scullin who will be retiring from parliament at the next election.

The Opposition are right, Harry Jenkins as Speaker was very calm and reasonable, very nice, almost to a fault. In the role of Speaker there is a need to be very firm and it sometimes felt that too much went by the wayside. There were a number of moments when the nastiness in the chamber became all too much and it was at those times when Mr Jenkins was at his best.

It was only late last year, Christmas break a short time away for our parliamentarians, that the Member for Scullin stood aside as Speaker. Then, in what many wrongly thought at the time was a calculated political masterstroke, the Labor Government put Peter Slipper up as their candidate for the role. After a large number of failed Opposition attempts to nominate ALP MP’s and an Independent for the role, Peter Slipper ultimately prevailed and became the new parliamentary moderator.

It was his rule over the parliament that should be widely regarded as the strongest and most fair, particularly in light of the new standing order of “direct relevance”. It was Peter Slipper as Speaker who was willing to chastise and punish members of the government that had too often gotten away with nonsense that would have never been tolerated were it coming from the Opposition.

The now Independent MP for Fisher ruled with such fairness that government MP’s were often warned and occasionally booted. More importantly, government ministers continuously flouting the standing orders were brought to order, sat down or sent out for an hour under the Standing Orders for their childish indiscretions. Most memorable of these occasions was when the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, after days of Three Stooges references, was sent from the parliamentary floor.

From the experience of having Anna Burke in the chair for some time now during Question Time we can get a sense of what a full-time Speaker Anna Burke will bring to the role. So far that appears to be a low tolerance for Coalition nonsense mixed with some rulings on process which are very fair and balanced.

What this parliament needs, at the very least, in light of the increasing levels of disdain which the public feels toward the parliament and our politicians, is a Speaker more in the mould of Peter Slipper than not. Australia needs a Speaker that will not tolerate stupidity from both sides. We need a Speaker that is willing to take action against any MP, Liberal, National, Labor or otherwise who consistently contributes to the cacophony of noise and bile that makes our parliament sound more like an aviary than a place where adults make decisions which could have a positive or negative impact on the population.

Of course it would be folly to assume that any Speaker would be capable of cutting out all the ridiculous behaviour that goes on, particularly between 2 and 3:10pm. In the instance of this minority government, the extra noise and bad behaviour probably owes more to the unbridled jockeying and thirst for power than anything else. Emotions have been higher than usual because the government barely hangs on with a slim majority and the Opposition is probably salivating over just how close they are to seizing those benches on the other side of parliament.

Certainly, our representatives, all of them, have to also take it upon themselves to lift their standards of behaviour while in the parliament. Individual responsibility for sensible and adult behaviour. If our local members took it upon themselves to look at their antics and at the very least tone them down then the health of our Speaker’s would not deteriorate as rapidly as it must every time they take the chair.

We have about a year, most likely, until we will see majority government in this country again. Until then are we going to begin to encounter again that ‘kinder, gentler polity’ that was once spoken of? It might get slightly nicer, but don’t hold your breath.

Surveillance Cameras, Crime, Fear, False Promises and Assumptions

It is just a matter of weeks since the rape and murder of ABC staffer Jill Meagher, the truly saddening case of a young woman going out for drinks with colleagues, never to return home to husband of 3 years, Tom Meagher again. There’s a man before the courts facing charges over the assault and death, a swift end to the most difficult of investigations for police. It was CCTV footage that helped identify the perpetrator, not in the Brunswick street, but from a local shopfront. Inevitably, such a high-profile case has provoked some discussion, mostly sober, of the appropriateness or otherwise of the increased presence of these devices in our community.

Today Opposition Leader Tony Abbott pledged to spend $50 million over 4 years, via grants to local council areas, to be used for the purchase and installation of CCTV cameras in cities across the country. This reinstates a program of the former Howard Government, not the first planned resurrection of policy from the Howard years.

Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu though, as leader of the state where Jill Meagher disappeared, beat his federal colleague off the mark, in swift response to the heinous crime. Premier Baillieu has pledged $3 million for local councils, in an identical scheme to that of the federal Opposition Leader, again for local councils to procure more security cameras for the streets of Victoria.

The whole matter raises the age-old question: at what price do we diminish liberty?

To some extent that is a false question. Security cameras do not stop people from going about legal activities in a public place. Indeed, the presence of security cameras does not even stop people doing things that are illegal.

When looking at the privacy side of the equation, things get a little more blurred. There are some surveillance cameras in very strange places, locations which tread a very fine line and can stray into the territory of absurd over-utilisation. That in itself should be the biggest worry, rather than the simple existence of prying eyes in our streets and other public locations.

In the debate over whether or not to make use of, or increase the abundance of security cameras, there’s another interesting element. Avid supporters of increasing the saturation of CCTV cameras will say that they are a very good crime prevention tool. They will try to argue that the simple presence of these facilities cuts down crime before it happens there is simply little or no evidence of this.

What they are, as the Meagher case has proved, is a vital tool, when not overused and abused, for aiding law enforcement. They can capture illegal practices and aid in the identification of offenders. Sometimes this will lead to the quick apprehension of offenders, when manned by alert staff, usually of councils. Other times, they can lead to the arrest of alleged criminals days, weeks, months or years later.

Security footage also helps build a picture of events that may have preceded a crime. Referring back to the death of Jill Meagher, this is exactly what happened. The footage formed part of the story of the last hours in the life of the Melbourne resident. That narrative is crucial for investigators in filling in the blanks in cases that are tough to solve if a sequence of events is not established quickly.

Surveillance cameras and facilities do not make communities safer as you would be made to believe. In this sense, the use of them, the simple talk of beefing up capabilities is used to appeal to an emotion. Rhetoric about CCTV footage is successfully applied, appealing to the human need to feel safe and secure in our daily lives. Human beings are susceptible to being very passive and accepting when fears we have are harnessed by politicians.

The CCTV issue is a difficult one and there are no easy answers. There seems to be a right and a wrong way for governments to go about implementing further plans for the over-watch of the streets and public facilities of our towns and cities.

The highly publicised murder of Jill Meagher will serve as a catalyst for more surveillance cameras around our country and that’s not automatically a bad thing. At the same time, our politicians have a responsibility to not make false promises which appeal to easily manipulated emotions.

Hypocrisy is Here to Stay

Hypocrisy is something that we are literally faced with almost every day in politics and would only just play second fiddle to lies in politics. The rule that hypocrisy abounds lives on healthily whether you are talking local, state or federal politics. Hypocrisy in politics is a product of many things, not the least of which is a blind greed for power. But hypocrisy is not just a problem for politics, it’s a manifestation of human nature in wider society. Everyone is a hypocrite from time to time, even those of us that rail against it will inevitably fall into its trap, especially when fighting for something that we deeply believe in. That’s the lovely thing about feeling emotions for a cause.

Today, in the wake of the comments from Alan Jones about the Prime Minister’s father, the Liberal Party through Manager of Opposition Business and Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne accused former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the broader ALP of hypocrisy over the matter.

Speaking this morning, Mr Pyne said that Mr Rudd and the Labor Party have been guilty of “vomitous” hypocrisy.

Christopher Pyne stated that “it makes me feel vomitous…listening to the hypocrisy dripping, spewing from the mouths of the Labor ministers.”

But the Manager of Opposition Business singled out former PM Rudd for special treatment. Pyne argued, “Kevin Rudd for example, he worked as hard as he could to get onto Alan Jones when he was the Leader of the Opposition- he couldn’t get enough of Alan Jones.”

Kevin Rudd, like all politicians, is indeed guilty of hypocrisy, the most recent example brought to light. But by tomorrow there will undoubtedly be another example, or multiple displays of hypocrisy, you can be sure of that. The hypocrisy of one though, in an ideal world should not serve to legitimise the hypocrisy of others, but unfortunately that is a reality.

Hypocrisy is here to stay, in politics and in life. People will take the moral high ground from time to time. However, when we are or are not purveyors of double standards is inherently a product of the desires and wants of individuals or groups.

Hypocrisy is also a result of the need, particularly in the case of politicians, to have and maintain power and fight fire with fire. Politicians and to an extent people outside of the political sphere are capable of saying or doing anything in order to maintain hegemonic power.

There really is no point for politicians especially to lecture each other over hypocrisy. But for short-term political gain this will continue to happen and this phenomenon probably plays a major role in making politics an area which is to be avoided by the masses at just about any cost.

What we can hope for is less hypocrisy from our politicians. That is the only real eventuality we can have any hope for as comparatively less hypocritical beings to our parliamentary representatives. Even that though, for the most part, is a vain hope. Emotions and power relationships will continue to facilitate the need, rightly or wrongly- more leaning toward wrongly, for more “vomitous hypocrisy”.

Yes, Kevin Rudd is today’s hypocrite, there are probably others too. Who will the contenders be tomorrow?

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