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The Trajectory of Politics According to Malcolm Fraser

The most recent episode of One Plus One, a one-on-one interview based program was thought-provoking and delightfully honest. It was all about politics, past and present- though it was mainly about the present day political situation. The whole half hour show was about politics in the Australian context and where it is headed. The guest on the show was a former Prime Minister, an outspoken former member of the Liberal Party- Malcolm Fraser. And as always he was willing to tread where few dare when it comes to commenting on and critiquing the political discourse.

The half hour program identified four key issues in the front of Malcolm Fraser’s mind when it comes to Australian politics. Two of these issues are policy-based concerns and the other two about politics in a broader context. In short, the former Prime Minister is concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers, Australia being a dependent nation, career politicians and  that the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are becoming closer. More specifically on the latter point, Fraser is concerned about the Liberal Party and their eroding liberal values.

Malcolm Fraser, as a former Liberal Prime Minister, is perhaps the most well-known in terms of support for refugees and asylum seekers. During his time as the nation’s leader from 1975-1983, Australia took in nearly 250,000 Vietnamese refugees during and after the Vietnam War in which Australia participated.

Since leaving the parliament, Fraser’s commitment to the refugee cause has been maintained, if not expanded. He constantly lambasts Liberal and Labor alike for their unfortunate and often inhumane convergence on the asylum seeker issue.

And he is right to do so. To put it simply, the asylum seeker ‘issue’ is not an issue. There is no “peaceful invasion” and we are not being overtaken by undesirables. What is happening is that we are dealing with a world where regions are in significant conflict. That conflict is either within or between countries. And people movement is an impact of that disruption to peace.

We should take more refugees and can afford to. In the long-run, taking in more refugees will prove a cheaper option than pursuing and locking up those that arrive on our shores, like they have committed some heinous crime- which they have not.

And we need to treat asylum seekers better. There should be no rubbish talk or actions involving turning boats around or issuing Temporary Protection Visas. And we should not send asylum seekers to foreign lands to languish in truly atrocious conditions. These are all concerns held by Malcolm Fraser and he is right to be worried. Australia too should be worried.

There is another policy that worries the former PM and that is what he sees as an increasing dependence on the United States of America in terms of security and Australia’s broader foreign policy. He is both right and wrong.

Australia has had a long-held relationship with the United States of America, dating back chiefly to the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. And we have had strong diplomatic ties since. Our relationship too has escalated, particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks with our commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq and the recent move to station US Marines in the north of Australia.

But is this immediately a bad thing? Are we immediately, by extension, too dependent on the US? The answer to both questions is no, not necessarily. A number of nations enjoy similar relationships with allies. The trick here is that we not neglect our regional neighbours in the Asia-Pacific more generally and more specifically, in the Indo-Pacific. Australia can pursue an abiding relationship with the US and in our regional neighbourhood.

It is at this point where we begin to look at politics in a slightly broader sense, delving into the world of party politics and the modern politician, both of which Malcolm Fraser is wary of.

A significant concern of Malcolm Fraser’s, particularly in the last decade, has been the trajectory of the Liberal Party. Indeed it proved the catalyst for his resignation from the party he so proudly represented in the highest office in the land.

In short, Mr Fraser believes the Liberal Party is no longer the party of Robert Menzies. And he is largely correct. Over the last decade and a half the Liberal Party has become progressively more conservative in social policy, to the point of being regressive at times. Social liberalism has long given way to social conservatism and the remaining adherents to the former ideology are continuing to disappear.

The Liberal Party was set up, in the words of its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, “to be a progressive party, in no way conservative, in no way reactionary”. And indeed that is what it has largely become. There is still an allusion to individual rights and freedoms, but the conservative viewpoint within the party is clearly in the ascendancy. There needs to be a shift in the opposite direction, as the two theories are largely incompatible.

It is of not much concern that the Liberal Party are economically conservative. It is inherently sensible for government to live within its means and the Liberal Party has a long-established association with this particular ideology, most strikingly, in the Howard years.

Economic liberalism, in terms of support for public goods, is something that the Liberal Party should rediscover. The glory days when the Liberal Party were much more concerned about the provision of education and healthcare in particular have long passed.

The final concern Malcolm Fraser elaborated on during the interview with Jane Hutcheon was about the increasing prevalence of so-called ‘career politicians’. These are people who have little or no experience in the world outside of politics. These are people who have usually studied politics at university and gone to work as staffers of MP’s soon after graduation.

The ‘career politician’ Malcolm Fraser argues, is fast becoming a major issue for our democracy as political parties begin to favour party operatives more than talented candidates.

The major issue for present day politics however is the narrow skill set of our political representatives. Most are lawyers and former union officials and then business people. The latter is fine, particularly if they were small business owners in a previous life and so is a mix of former lawyers and union officials, but the point is that a broader skill needs to be represented in the parliament.

It is unquestionable that politics needs to be on a different trajectory. Right now we are headed even further toward rampant voter apathy and that is not healthy for a democracy such as ours, where to at least turn up to a polling booth on election day is compulsory.

A shift in ideology and in some public policy areas is also necessary.

The Ashby Decision and Living by the Same Rules

Earlier this week the Federal Court in Sydney threw out the sexual harassment suit against former Speaker Peter Slipper which was brought by his former staffer, James Ashby.

It was a spectacular turn of events after a tough year for Australian politics. The year has been book-ended by scandal, with allegations against Craig Thomson dominating debate particularly at the start of the political year. And now the dramatic collapse of the case against Peter Slipper, brought in April, sees the year end with a twist. 

Federal Court judge, Justice Steven Rares found that former Howard Government Minister and LNP candidate for Slipper’s electorate of Fisher, Mal Brough acted “in combination” with James Ashby and a second staff member ”to cause Mr Slipper as much political and public damage as they could inflict upon him.”

Of course the Gillard Government, as any would in the same position, has jumped on this and are now calling on Mal Brough to be disendorsed by the Queensland-based LNP.

But the ALP are seeking much, much more. Since the judgement was handed down, various Labor ministers and MP’s, including the Prime Minister have called upon Tony Abbott and other senior Coalition members to explain their knowledge of the affair.

And the government has not ruled out an inquiry into the events which have led to this crescendo.

Whether or not Mal Brough is disendorsed could depend on two factors: whether or not an appeal, (which James Ashby flagged his intentions of submitting), is successful, or whether the party organisation considers Brough damaged enough to not allow him to proceed with his candidacy for the Sunshine Coast electorate.

So far no appeal has been lodged and the LNP and senior federal Liberal MP’s have publicly endorsed Mal Brough to continue as their representative for Fisher in the 2013 election.

If no appeal is lodged, then of course Mal Brough should swiftly fall on his sword.

The case, in the way it is being prosecuted by the government, has strong parallels with the recently highly public AWU allegations levelled against Prime Minister Gillard.

Some members of the Labor Government appear to be alleging that there has been wrongdoing and a broader conspiracy involving shadow ministers in the federal Liberal Party.

Like the ALP required of the Opposition when the shoe was on the other foot, they will have to make clear what questions they have, but also which Liberal Party representatives should be answering those questions.  Further, the Labor Party needs to outline what acts of illegality or wrongdoing they are alleging transpired. And finally, the Gillard Government need to outline what evidence they have of wrongdoing.

There is a need for questions to be answered by senior Liberal MP’s, both to dispute the claims and for the sake of transparency.

Liberal MP’s were slow to react to the news and subject themselves to interviews about the claims. Some have however fronted the media in different parts of Australia and the world. But Christopher Pyne has so far avoided media scrutiny and Tony Abbott upon his return to Australia should perhaps face a slightly larger press pack, if anything for the sake of the image it would portray.

The next part of the equation is up to the Labor Party alone.

The ALP as a whole must outline what acts of illegality or moral wrongdoing they believe has occurred here. So far the strongest claim made by any Labor MP was of a broad conspiracy, but a number of senior Labor figures are singing slightly different tunes on this.

Finally, the Labor Party must produce hard evidence showing what they believe has gone on within the Liberal Party.

So far there is evidence of some communication between Christopher Pyne and James Ashby which has seen Mr Pyne change his story multiple times, but this does not prove collusion between the two, nor other unlawful acts. At the very least it is embarrassing and looks ugly.

Any proof that the Labor Party may have or think they may have of misdeeds will need to be presented. Labor might also use an inquiry as a vehicle for gathering evidence and that is their prerogative.

This saga is likely to extend well beyond Christmas and into the election year. But Labor, in the Prime Minister’s own words, must “put up or shut up.”

Be Cynical About the Timing of Electoral Law Changes, Not What They Seek to Ensure

New electoral laws passed under the Gillard Government may well have a not insignificant impact on election results according to an examination of Newspoll surveys. Under the legislation, people who are not currently enrolled, but are, or become eligible to vote will automatically be placed on the electoral roll.

The new laws which would see approximately 1.5 million people, mostly new voters, added to the Australian Electoral Commission roll could change election results by up to 1.5%.

While 1.5% may not actually seem like a particularly large percentage, in politics it can mean the difference between a term or two, perhaps three in power. In close contests such a margin could easily mean the difference between seizing government and languishing on the opposition benches for three years.

Under these laws, those with the most to lose are the Liberal and National Party’s. It is a long-observed trend that young people generally vote for Labor, even the Greens. So of course, Liberal Party MP’s were yesterday quite concerned about the possible effects to their vote from automatic and compulsory electoral enrolment.

But is that discontent and anger justified in terms of the way the franchise is conducted in Australia?

In Australia, whether you believe in it or not, we have compulsory voting.

Every three years those of voting age are required to vote in the national poll. Most do vote, with a percentage casting informal votes. But all in all, most people vote and do so correctly. There is also a relatively small number of people who fail to turn up to their local polling place at all and a fine is imposed on them.

So, with this compulsory voting system there should be an understanding that you are automatically enrolled to vote.

Although in conflict with my generally liberal beliefs, I believe that everyone of adult age should be required to head to polling booths on election day to vote. I believe this because I see it as the best chance of electing a government that is generally representative of the people.

But of course I am firmly in favour of a secret ballot and if you are silly enough to use your opportunity to vote just to doodle all over the ballot paper or write silly names or words next to candidates, well, then, feel free to go ahead and act like child. In fact, bugger off.

Anyway, back to the crux of the issue at hand.

While the new AEC laws are not that dramatic in terms of enfranchising all that should be voting, there is an argument that could be sensibly made about the timing of the amendment.

The new clause comes in at a time when the ALP is struggling electorally. The Labor Party have been behind in the polls for a prolonged period of time and still, despite some narrowing in the margin, look set to lose.

So of course, there is scope, in that sense, for some cynicism.

The law should have been the same way from the beginning of the commonwealth, or at the very least, if Labor were so worried about people missing out on the vote, from the start of their administration which began in late 2007.  But no, full voter enrolment is apparently a newfound thing for the ALP.

Anger about the laws themselves is misguided unless the Liberal Party supports changing the electoral rules to allow for voluntary voting. It’s not “rorting” the system when the system is compulsory voting, it’s ensuring that all people of voting age will have the opportunity to vote.

Feel free, however, to be cynical about the timing. Ask yourself the following questions: Why now? Why not from the beginning of the federation? Why not from the beginning of this Labor Government?

Social Media and the ‘Danger’ to the Liberal Party

Over the weekend Jessica Wright wrote an article  which appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald, saying that the Liberal Party had advised candidates not to post on social media and encouraged backbench MP’s to delete their social media accounts. The reported move comes ahead of the 2013 election and is said to have been made in order to, as one MP was quoted saying, “limit the stuff-ups and scandals.”

The reported decision from the head office of the federal Liberal Party is an interesting one and could, in itself, create more harm than it aims to prevent.

The move has already lead to a hashtag on social media site Twitter, #ThingsTooDangerousForTheLNP, with users posting examples of things which the Liberal Party might find to be either political trouble or politically dangerous.

Of course the first thing which springs to mind is the issue of trust. The party of the individual appears not to trust their own candidates to post sensible tweets and links.

Of course there has been examples of MP’s tweeting offensive remarks and that at all costs should be avoided. But the point is that candidates and backbenchers should be free to preach to the Twitterati about both their individual campaigns and the broader campaign of the Liberal Party. There may be slip-ups, but the presumption should be against that happening.

Deciding to urge prospective MP’s to close their social media accounts might also be in a bid to prevent previous poorly judged  or offensive comments from being unearthed by journalists and their opponent’s party officials.

This is a worry and should be far more of a concern to party headquarters than the less likely event of someone erring in the six to eleven months before the 2013 election. There has been a number of examples of harmful remarks being unearthed by the media, particularly during state election campaigns and there is the potential for this to happen.

But again the likelihood of this is low, though somewhat understandably an issue. But new “official” candidate accounts should be the response to this eventuality, rather than discouraging or banning taking to Facebook and Twitter to post status updates, information and tweets.

Aside from the obvious trust issues and considerations, which in the scheme of things are a minor issue, there are other factors which need to be considered around political engagement.

Both Facebook and Twitter, when used correctly, as they overwhelmingly are by political organisations and members, can be used to get information out fast and to a wide audience.

The positive potential of social media needs to be harnessed by all political parties in the age of social media.

It is true in the case of the Liberal Party that they would be hard-pressed finding fans on Twitter.

Twitter is overwhelmingly the domain of people left-of-centre on the political spectrum. What is also true of Twitter is that the politically engaged on the service generally identify with one party or another. There are very few ‘undecided’ voters on Twitter, so the potential to win votes on this platform is low.

However, Twitter’s importance as a fast and effective information source should render the relatively low possibility of attracting voters a secondary concern.

Voters will share news and policies and while this in itself will change few votes. However, the possibility of influencing the vote’s of others through Twitter users communicating with friends about their interactions with the political class is not something which should be ignored by the Liberal Party.

Voters  too want to feel like they are somewhat engaged in the political process. Twitter offers this potential more than any other platform through the ability to link-up with MP’s and candidates. While this will not sway many votes, engagement is incredibly important in both the short and long-term and may make some difference to the outcomes in marginal seats.

Facebook on the other hand is an entirely different proposition. All manner of people are on Facebook and that includes a significant cohort of voters who are up for grabs. So it follows that political party’s and their candidates should all harness this significant mode of communication for sending out information and policies which are of a local and national concern.

Again, Facebook as a pure information source, should also be positively harnessed by local MP’s and party candidates.

So of course, the two main social media platforms should be taken to with varying degrees of vigour. But they should be freely utilised.

A social media ban is foolish. Suggesting too, that candidates should not embrace the potential power of viral social media is equally silly, even for its potential pitfalls.

The Politics of The Stupidly Predictable: The ‘Ruddbull’ Q&A

In the week leading up to last night’s episode of ABC1 panel show Q&A, the instalment was billed as the Rudd and Turnbull show, the ‘two elephants in the room’, despite the fact that there was two other panellists, Judith Sloan and Heather Ridout. A new noun was spawned for the two former leaders, ‘Ruddbull’.

Despite the two female members of the panel, that’s basically what it was, the Rudd-Turnbull conversation hour with the occasional recognition of the other two guests on the show.

There were two questions you just knew were unfortunately going to be asked, either by a member of the audience or through a video question. After a good 53 minutes of intelligent questions and reasonable debate, a rarity for Q&A, those questions came.

The first question was along the lines of ‘Malcolm and Kevin: When will you take back the reins of leadership, reclaiming the place that rightly belongs to you in your respective political parties?’.

The second question that is usually asked when Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull are appearing publicly is equally as vapid, predictable and lacking in intellect. It is a question that, coming from a guest on a show about politics , actually reveals a distinct lack of understanding of both the ideological spectrum and the political realities of present day politics.

That question usually goes a little something like this- ‘Kevin and Malcolm: When are you two going to leave your respective political parties and form a third force in politics to conquer all evil in both the Liberal and Labor Parties?’

This might come as a shock to many, but both the Liberal and Labor Party dumped Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd some time ago now. Malcolm Turnbull was the first to go, dispatched in favour of the more conservative and anti-ETS  Tony Abbott. Then, half a year later, in the swiftest and rarest of prime ministerial coups, Kevin Rudd was gone in favour of Julia Gillard.

What may also surprise people is that despite the poll popularity of both Rudd and Turnbull, neither candidate can lay claim to the being the rightful ‘owner’ of the leadership. That is true of any candidate, despite popularity.

We know in theory that the polls say that is the contest people want. But the reality is different.

Rudd may be more popular with voters than Julia Gillard, but his popularity was sliding while still in office. Also, after having his reputation so heavily besmirched by his own party, by some of his own cabinet, there is absolutely no hope of him ever being returned. This is especially the case after being heavily defeated in the February leadership spill.

If Mr Rudd were returned, the Liberal Party would have a field day. As it is, their campaign strategy for the next election, in terms of targeting the ALP, has already been written.

The case for Mr Turnbull is slightly different.

It is true that under his leadership the polls were getting close and may have continued to improve for the Coalition as we neared the 2010 election, However, a first term defeat still would have been a very unlikely proposition, even though that nearly happened under Tony Abbott.

The simple fact with the Liberal side of politics is that Malcolm Turnbull was dumped in favour of Tony Abbott who managed to greatly excite the party’s base, increasingly conservative voters.

The positive for Turnbull is that the polls are narrowing and Tony Abbott continues to be an unpopular leader. Among Liberal voters, according to one poll, Malcolm Turnbull is preferred Liberal leader.

It is also the case that the carbon price, according to the polls, is becoming much less of an issue. If that trend continues, a pro-ETS leader in what was largely a pro-ETS party, but for electoral purposes, could again seize the leadership.

However, it is a case of ‘what-ifs’. It would seem that the polls are unlikely to change much more than they already have and if they do not narrow further in the coming months, the case for Turnbull leading the Liberal Party will again peter out.

But again, Turnbull is not the rightful heir of some kind of political kingdom.

In terms of the hilarious proposition that Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull hand in their membership cards and leave their respective parties to form a new political force, well, one can only laugh.

Of course largely, across politics, particularly in recent decades, there has been a significant amount agreement on policy grounds, over 80%, even during what is supposed to have been a destructive Abbott leadership.

Really, there should be more of a policy difference between both the Coalition and the Labor Party. There is however, in the real world of politics, the bane, many would say electoral reality, of populism.

What, in terms of major policy, do the two actually agree on? Very little actually. They may agree on outcomes, but as for the mode of getting there? Well there is clearly a difference.

Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull do both agree about acting on climate change, but so did most of the Liberal Party under Turnbull’s leadership and at least 44 Liberal MP’s in the leadership vote until the electoral popularity of the anti-carbon tax stance set in. So then obviously a number in the Liberal Party should actually leave it, not just Malcolm? I think not.

That really is the key similarity other than Kevin Rudd’s fake claim before the 2007 election to be an economic conservative. Malcolm Turnbull actually is one and has a history of economically conservative actions in an economically conservative government.

The only other key similarity is actually still a difference. Both Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull represent more of what their party used to be than what it is today. Kevin Rudd is a social democrat and Malcolm Turnbull a liberal conservative rather than a conservative liberal, some would even say a true liberal.

Of course populism means there will be other similarities between the two and between the political parties they represent, though they are not as deep and abiding as to allow for the formation of a political party with broad common interests.

Kevin Rudd is undoubtedly to the left of the current ALP and Malcolm Turnbull to the left of the Liberal Party. However, Turnbull is firmly placed on the right of the political spectrum and Rudd on the left.

Unfortunately, a show now more interested in the superficial, in personalities, or at the very least a narrow range of policy areas again strayed into the absurd.

What should be a serious political show must not indulge such strange, deluded and predictable thoughts and certainly not on a regular basis.

Newspoll and Mischievous Thoughts

The Prime Minister and her government have been enjoying some improvements to their poll fortunes in recent times. The Labor Party have been clawing back ground, at least as far as the Morgan, Nielsen and Newspoll results have shown. The Essential Poll on the other hand hovers at around the levels we have seen from that survey for some time now.

While it appears that the Newspoll is mischievous, bouncing like a kid on a pogo stick and now showing the ALP and the Coalition level-pegging, it appears that the electoral reality lies somewhere between Essential, Morgan and Nielsen where the real electoral prospects for the Labor Party seem to lie.

However, the improvement, while much less dramatic than Newspoll would have you believe, should be pause for some thought. In the Labor Party caucus room they would be pondering mostly positive thoughts. The belief that they are done for, while not dissipating at a rate of knots within the party room, would be receding slowly in the mind’s of some MP’s.

For the Liberal and National Party coalition thoughts would or at least should be turning to what they can do now, to how they can shift strategy to arrest the decline in their vote instead of having to play a game of catch-up.

But let’s for a moment, in the spirit of mischief, contemplate the options that might lie ahead for both the Labor Government and the Opposition. What would they be thinking? What scheming would be happening?

If the result really was level on a two-party preferred basis the ALP would be incredibly buoyant. They would feel that a win at the 2013 election was within reach. Labor Ministers and MP’s think that now in the wake of improving poll numbers, though that belief is still somewhat delusional. The election is far from being lost by the Liberal and National Party coalition.

The Liberal Party would be, if they had not already as a result of the declining numbers, be seriously questioning what might be going wrong. They would be looking at changing tack, changing strategy where their efforts on specific issues are losing traction.

The Coalition would also need to look at beginning to both refine and announce more aspects of their policy agenda. At the same time, they would need to continue to explain that the budget situation is tight. To not continue to further prosecute this case would result in one of the remaining areas of some strength for the Opposition falling away. To not continue talking about it would look like backing away from the validity of their arguments about the budget position.

In terms of leadership, there would be even further clear air for Julia Gillard. The Prime Minister would almost certainly be safe in the run-up to the 2013 election. To come back from the depths of despair, from record low votes, would cement Ms Gillard’s leadership position.

Kevin Rudd, already out of the leadership equation for the most part, would see his prospects for a return to Prime Minister, even in terms of the way his ego allows him to see things, almost completely vanish.

The third candidate idea too would practically cease being necessary.

Leadership of the Liberal Party would also be affected in some way by even poll results. Malcolm Turnbull would at least have distant sight of the leadership, especially if it was the case that the arguments against the carbon price continued to fall away.

Were poll results to actually reach the stage of being level it would be important that the Liberal Party had learned the lesson of Labor. That very public education in the perils of leadership transitions should have taught all political parties that a knee-jerk reaction to poor polling could have long-term negative consequences. There is a possibility though that this argument need only apply to a popular leader and Tony Abbott certainly cannot be characterised in that way.

In terms of going to an early election, ordinarily that would be on the table. However, with a minority government situation, supported by MP’s that want the parliament to go full-term, the chances of that outcome are almost non-existent.

Even if an early poll was a possibility, the decision to go to one would be fraught with danger. Electors could view a snap poll as a move of pure political expediency and therefore not take too kindly to the idea at all.

The polls are undoubtedly getting closer, but how close and how real the narrowing of margins is remains unclear. It is still on the naughty side to be talking of leadership change in the Opposition despite results being less assured. What is almost without doubt is the need for a shift in the focus of Coalition strategy.

A Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentence and Other Asylum Seeker Policies

Asylum seekers and refugees are never far from the headlines. Indeed from time to time stories involving them are among the most prominent in the news cycle. In recent times, boat arrivals of people seeking asylum have been more than weekly. The debate about what to do about the perilous journey, from Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka has been up there with the most politicised and most discussed issues of this 43rd parliament.

We have a new policy, a return to most aspects of the Pacific Solution that the Gillard Government continues to work towards implementing. This calls for offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island as happened under the Howard Government.

The Gillard Government has or is working toward implementing all of the recommendations of the expert panel on asylum seekers which was chaired by former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Houston. However, the Coalition want more.

The Opposition, through leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison have continued to call for the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas  (TPV’s). The Coalition have also called for a return to that policy that Indonesia do not like and will never allow to happen- turning back asylum seeker boats toward Indonesia.

In the case of TPV’s, the Labor Party, as part of the recommendations from the Houston panel are, in effect, implementing an iteration of the Howard Government measure which will cut out family reunion.

But of course, and rightly so, the ALP Government is against turning back the boats This is the case, one, because the ADF sees it as no longer feasible or safe and two, because Indonesia would voice their anger and discontent at our contempt for our regional neighbour.

But it is the evolution of the asylum seeker policy of the Tony Abbott led Opposition, apart from the already announced measures, that will add to the poor treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia who arrive by boat.

Last Friday the Opposition Leader announced an effective minimum prison sentence for the “offence” of seeking asylum, seeking refuge from the fear of, or from actual persecution. The no advantage test, part too of the recommendations of the expert panel, has so far not had a time in offshore detention applied to it. But Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party think it should be no less than 5 years. In the legal fraternity this would be termed a mandatory minimum sentencing provision.

Of course, since mandatory detention was introduced in the early 1990’s, we have had what amounts to a term in prison. At first, a time limit of less than a year was implemented by the Keating Government, but that was removed in favour of an indefinite stay. In effect, the indefinite nature of asylum detention will continue under a Liberal Government with a 5 year minimum stay. The time served would almost certainly be longer.

In further worrying comments, the Opposition also appeared to question the efficacy of a regional solution, saying that too much time was spent on discussing the problem in the region and not enough on tough deterrence measures.

Also of concern in the comments made at the end of last week was what appeared to be utter contempt for the work of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ asylum seeker and refugee organisation. Australia has long appeared to feel this way towards the UN about asylum seekers and refugees. However, that would seemingly accelerate under an Abbott Government.

The Coalition is obviously moving towards an aim of being the most punitive in Australia’s history toward asylum seekers and refugees. At the moment that is just rhetoric, but there is a strong chance that the strong words will become punishing deeds in government, also a strong possibility.

Far from just showing a desire to put forward the strictest regime for asylum seekers, the Abbott-led Opposition appear hell-bent on isolating Australia further from the way the region and the international community should deal with the asylum seeker question.

All this punishment and pain for what gain? Seeking asylum is not a crime, thought it appears there is a wish that it was. Either way, asylum seekers are going to be locked away for at least 5 years under a Coalition Government.

Appealing to Women a Game of Catch-Up

The public relations campaign to win over the hearts and minds of Australian’s for our various political parties continues. Today that PR battle accelerated with the all guns blazing entry into the political debate of the wife of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. This political intervention has come on a usually politically quiet Friday, a great time to get airplay. The purpose of this battle to win over the electorate, an attempt to alter a perception, some of which has been proved a reality, that Tony Abbott has a problem with women. So of course, it’s a logical step to have the number one woman in the life of Mr Abbott, his wife Margie, speak out about the man she knows so well.

The key long-term aim of the Margie Abbott media blitz is an attempt to shore up some support among women for the leader of the Coalition and the side of politics that he has represented since December 2009.

However, the main-game, as far as the short-term politics of the situation, is to counter the most recent of attacks that Abbott has faced over the way it is perceived he has dealt with women in light of recent events and unearthed allegations. This has been prompted by the s0-called ‘handbag hit-squad’, female Labor Party MP’s, who have used a situation involving the Acting Speaker, Anna Burke as well as recently unearthed allegations against Tony Abbott from his university days.

It is at this juncture that we reach the first problem. The Liberal Party, mostly through the women on the frontbench and other female MP’s, but also the wider caucus, have decided it is a good idea to refer to Labor women as the ‘handbag hit squad’.

Coming from women only the term, catchy, yet over the top, is okay, though not ideal as a catchphrase to be utilised. It demeans politics even further than politicians have demeaned the occupation before. However, women referring to each other in that way will have much less of an impact, perhaps none at all than if men were to do the same.

Unfortunately, there has been the odd instance where male Coalition MP’s have taken to using the phrase. That does not look good at all. That just reinforces perceptions and helps them evolve into further home truths. It is blatant sexism. Repel the attacks based on the latest perceived indiscretions, but especially from the men of the Liberal and National Party’s, sexist intervention is not needed.

But back directly to the issue at hand: Does Mr Abbott have a problem with women? The short answer is ‘yes’, but it is a little more complicated than just saying outright that Tony Abbott is not seen in a good light by women and that he has a problem with women outright. In fact, it is entirely arguable that Tony Abbott does not have a problem with women, but rather, a problem with women’s issues.

Tony Abbott has said some very stupid and offensive things over the years, from comments on women’s equality, to abortion and the want to deny reproductive rights. The majority of these came when a minister in the Howard Government, particularly around the time of, as well as before and after becoming Health Minister.

These beliefs, do they come from a purely deep-seated hatred of women or from a religious background, a freely chosen inculcation of outdated beliefs that should hold no relevance in a free society?

The answer is almost certainly the latter as David Marr has recently argued. Since his childhood, the Leader of the Opposition has been brought up to believe certain things. In adult life, he freely chose to continue his religious experience and held onto the perceived teachings of the Bible. But this does not make those beliefs ones that should be prosecuted by a political representative in a liberal democracy where individual choice is supposed to be a key tenet. Far from that, it’s just common decency to think of all being equal.

The attack against Abbott in relation to how he dealt with Deputy Speaker Anna Burke however, is just a convenient usage of some incredibly horrific remarks from the past. Old words have been used to artificially construct an argument that because he pushed the boundaries in parliament, his actions were because of a problem with the fairer gender. The accusation is so absurd as to be laughable. His recent behaviour is a product of many things, including a thirst for power and media attention, but it’s a real stretch to characterise being a bit obnoxious in parliament as disdain for women.

As for the alleged events in his university days? Well, they are just allegations at this stage that have not been proven one way or the other. If they were proven to be true, then that would change the ballgame.

The television and airwaves mini-blitz, because of the long-term and justified impression of Abbott as having a problem with women’s issues will probably amount to little benefit. It was slow getting off the mark, years too late. Instead, Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party will be playing catch-up and probably, if there is any actual gain, only achieve a small uptick in support.

But of course, the Liberal Party will continue to pursue this campaign. The Opposition have to at least try to appear as if they and Tony Abbott is speaking to a wide array of women that hold a wide array of beliefs, even if the reality is the opposite.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Question Time for Monday has now passed. A wide array of issues were examined in general. But first, the parliament spent the first half of Questions Without Notice expressing their condolences for the loss of six Australians since parliament rose for a short break. Those who died were 5 soldiers across two incidents in Afghanistan and the Prime Minister’s father who passed away suddenly at the weekend while Prime Minister Gillard was at the APEC Summit in Russia.

But just after 2:30pm, questions began in the lower house with spending priorities and the federal budget the main focus of the Tony Abbott led Opposition as well as asylum seekers early on.

The Gillard Government, with Wayne Swan as Acting Prime Minister breached a wider selection of issues including the economy as compared with the world, infrastructure and education.

Tomorrow of course presents the the very high possibility, indeed certainty of exactly the same kinds of issues being brought up during Question Time, with perhaps slight differences in the amount of time dedicated to each issue. But nonetheless, the same general formula and topics will be used to frame questions for Tuesday’s session of Questions Without Notice from Canberra.

Again, the Coalition will probably focus a large part of Question Time on the new and existing big spending items that the Gillard Government has announced. This includes the NDIS, the new dental health plan and the as yet undisclosed contribution to be negotiated with the states and territories to fund the Gonski recommendations in education.

The Liberal and National Party Opposition too, could decide to return to asking questions of the government over the carbon tax which recently saw the floor price dropped by the government as well as plans to purchase five power stations, crucial to combating polution, being scrapped last week.

In fact, it was quite a surprise given these developments and the fact that attacking the price on carbon has been a long-term strategy of the Coalition in and outside of the federal parliament. Perhaps the Opposition Leader did heed the words of Malcolm Turnbull last week, though the variety of issues that questions were asked on did remain narrow despite the slight change.

The ALP through the Dorothy Dixer will continue the strategy of examining a wide selection of government policy areas. That is likely to again include a mix of at least some of the following including carbon price compensation, the economy compared with others around the world, health, education, infrastructure and workplace relations.

We were blessed with comparatively improved behaviour, though a few MP’s did manage to test the patience of the Acting Speaker, the usual suspects really. Will they be as lucky tomorrow?

Question Time Ahead of Time

Everyone grab your HAZMAT suits, batten down the hatches, go out an purchase earplugs or earmuffs. Yes, after a month and a half break that institution we call Question Time returns to our television screens and radios on Tuesday. The winter break has flown by and as promised by our politicians, there has been little let-up in the political to-and-fro with the carbon tax and asylum seeker issues dominating the debate during the winter recess.

That seems the way that things will play out in Canberra this week during Question Time with carbon tax and asylum seeker politics set t0 be responsible for most of the noise during Questions Without Notice.

Power prices have been the debate over the last week with both the federal government picking a fight with the states over power bills which also brought in the federal Opposition with varying contributions from different MP’s to the debate, but the main ones being tied back to the carbon price.

It’s hard to see that electricity prices as they relate to the carbon tax will not be the major political battleground this week from the Coalition. The Abbott-led Opposition have dug in on this issue and will likely continue to prosecute the case of electricity related to the carbon price.

It’s also just as likely that, failing an electricity price specific attack on the Gillard Government related to the carbon tax, that other price rises associated with the price on carbon will form the basis of Coalition questions to the government.

The Labor Party too, through the use of the Dorothy Dixer will likely continue to try and hammer home the message of compensation for the price on carbon which commenced just weeks ago.

The Opposition, fresh from a fairly wide victory over immediate asylum seeker policy recommendations will likely turn up the heat on the Prime Minister and her government over the issue with the recommendations arguing the need to establish processing on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea as soon as possible.

The government will likely be fairly silent on the issue having been told by the expert panel on asylum seekers that their deal with Malaysia requires further work, so questions from the government benches on policy in this area will probably be scarce, perhaps non-existent.

The only major opportunity the government would have taken to get on the offensive over this policy area would be if the Opposition were going to oppose the legislation to be introduced into the parliament during the Tuesday sitting.

It will be interesting to see just how fired up both sides of parliament are after such a long break and whether or not this leads to the Speaker sending out one or two MP’s for an early coffee and cake.

Rest assured it won’t be such a quiet affair.

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