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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 Wednesday has come and gone. It was a rowdy affair from the start, but appeared to quiet down towards the end as the variation in Dorothy Dixer’s crept in and the initial boisterous behaviour of both sides over the carbon price questions relaxed just a little at least.

It was a little surprising that the Opposition did not choose to use just one more session of Question Time to have a bit of fun over the half-pike on asylum seeker policy which will see offshore processing return to Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the near future. The House of Representatives passed the amended bill just before Question Time today with the support of the Opposition and is assured of passing through the Senate.

Instead of just one more day attacking the Gillard Government over offshore processing, the Coalition chose to resume hostilities over the recently commenced price on carbon. This returns the debate to the long-term issue which has been the main debate of the 43rd parliament since that August 2010 statement from the Prime Minister just prior to the election that brought us a minority government.

The questions from the Liberal and National Party Opposition were largely centred around price rises and the carbon tax as they have been for some time and will likely continue to be right up until the next election due around mid-2013. Carbon tax questions were also about the broken promise as they have been since it was broken.

The government, for it’s part also chose to have a focus on the carbon price. Again, they too returned to their common strategy on the issue which is to highlight the compensation available to low and middle income earners in an attempt to compensate for associated price rises.

There were also Dorothy Dixer’s on the aslyum seeker bill that passed the lower house, as well as on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and education reform.

And so it goes that this gives us a hint of what is to come during Questions Without Notice on Thursday, the last session for the week.

It is now certain that, barring any last minute topical subjects, that Question Time will be dominated by questions from the Opposition on the carbon price as it applies to price rises as well as that promise.

The government will also likely return to the carbon price fight again with questions from backbenchers based around the payments and tax cuts that will be received in return for the introduction of the policy.

It is entirely possible that in the Dorothy Dixer mix will be questions on the NDIS and education reform as there were in the previous session.

With Standing Order 94a used on Wednesday and the noise in the parliament not abating, will there be more of the same tomorrow? Or will our parliamentarians ease into the weekend after a full-on week? The answer to the former is a definite ‘yes’ and the latter a certain ‘no’

Free Speech Monday in Australian Politics

Monday, after the early morning victory by Jamaican runner Usain Bolt and aside from the other action that has been and has continued to occur in England has been pretty much all about freedom of speech. The discussion about free speech today arose from a speech that Tony Abbott made to the right-wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. The Opposition Leader’s speech took on the topic of free speech from two separate, but linked directions.

In one instance it was about regulation of the media in general as far as government plans post-Finkelstein and Convergence Review. Those changes proposed in both inquiries would seek to place unwanted and unnecessary restrictions on our media in the future, stifling their ability to provide fearless criticism of dreadful governments of both political persuasions.

The second front in which freedom of speech was tackled was in relation to the recent Andrew Bolt racial villification case and the appropriateness or otherwise of having a Racial Discrimination Act with a very loose definition of wrongdoing. Section 18C of the Act was singled out for treatment. The broader narrative of the talk on free speech was also applied to the case of Andrew Bolt.

Among the proposals advocated for in the recent Finkelstein and Convergence Review’s are a News Media Council which would be a new regulatory body to oversee media outlets and an ownership test.

By far the most worrying recommendation and one that is reportedly being seriously considered is a public interest test on media stories. This would be an horrific encroachment of the government into regulating what kinds of stories a particular news outlet would be able to report on. No government should be able to determine what is news or otherwise, whether that be by direct government oversight or by legislation with an intent to limit the content journalists can put out. Access to a wide array of information from a variety of sources is extremely important.

As for a new regulatory body, well that too is problematic. Surely any new organisation proposed to oversee the media would have much more beefed up powers to punish certain perceived wrongs. This again is not a sensible move in seeking to make it difficult for a robust and diverse media to be frank and fearless in their reporting and commentary on particularly thorny issues.

An ownership test is just ridiculous. Anyone, from any background should be free to engage in journalism or commentary and equally should be freely available to criticism from others. Everyone should be free to take the entrepreneurial risk involved in establishing a news media company across all forms of communication. No government too should have the power to ever be able to say who can or cannot involve themselves in journalism and commentary because they might not be liked by that particular government for some reason or other.

But now to that more controversial aspect of Mr Abbott’s speech today and that was his announcement that an incoming Coalition Government would seek to repeal s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

This section of the Racial Discrimination Act deals with behaviour which is deemed to have offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated someone based on their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

This is likely to be an uncomfortable move for many with the Act in one way or another, despite the suspension of it during the Northern Territory intervention, having some level of bipartisan support or at least a political unwillingness of either side to touch it. That is until now.

But Mr Abbott did not advocate for there to be no law in the area of racial discrimination. Indeed he went on to say in his speech to the IPA that “any prohibitions on inciting hatred against or intimidation of particular racial groups should be akin to the ancient common law offences of incitement and causing fear.”

In advocating this stance the Opposition Leader did not say or imply that Andrew Bolt in writing the offending column he penned was right with what he said. Indeed Tony Abbott acknowledged that it was “almost certainly not his finest” and he also admitted “there may have been some factual errors.” Well it’s not a case of there possibly being factual errors in Bolt’s writing, there was, but as Mr Abbott has pointed out on numerous occasions, that is not the point.

Indeed with the Bolt case, you’ll find a number of people born early in the 20th century, even since then that have the wrong impression on various aspects of the indigenous issue, but should they all be subject to court action for holding fallacious views? No. Should they be corrected upon making such silly uninformed claims? Certainly, yes.

Just as someone should be free to say what they truly feel, providing it doesn’t incite hatred or cause fear, people who disagree with something should feel able to absolutely slam and demolish something which they disagree with and believe may have serious factual errors. Politics is about competing ideas. This is also something that the leader of the Opposition acknowledged.

Just as there is a case for only offences relating to incitement and causing fear, there is also a case for a much higher threshold test than the completely subjective one that exists under s18C of the current Racial Discrimination Act. This would be sensible middle ground whilst still allowing people to seek remedy within reason. Indeed it would be quite similar to the Abbott proposal today.

The most important thing is that our rights are at the very least not limited to unreasonable extremes and at absolute best, our freedom of speech is fully guaranteed save for when it causes incitement and fear.

That was free speech Monday.

The Sunday Sandwich (That’s a Wrap)

The hostilities in the battle that is Australian politics have ceased for the week as our politicians rest and recuperate for the last sitting week until the May budget begins next week. It was a frantic week in Australian politics with plenty of vigorous and often over the top debate. Parliament this week welcomed (well mostly), Senator Bob Carr, the new Gillard Government Minister for Foreign Affairs, a former NSW Premier and more recently private citizen who brought some public commentary baggage to the role and created controversy with comments this week on Papua New Guinea. Our politicians, particularly Coalition, ALP and the Greens were engaged in fierce debate over tax cuts to big and small business related to the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) before the Senate. There was also debate over the appointment of a new Future Fund chairperson and for a time, debate on customs and border protection.

Sadly, Saturday saw the passing of Margaret Whitlam, wife of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the age of 92 not long after a fall which saw her hospitalised. Gough and Margaret Whitlam shared an enduring partnership, a testament to their undying love for each other which lasted almost 70 years.

Parliament House in Canberra saw the arrival of a person who Labor seem to be resting an amount of their hopes on, Senator and new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr. The Senator sat on the back-bench for his first day of parliament after being officially welcomed as a member of the Senate on the first sitting day of the week. Later that day Senator Carr was sworn in by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce as a minister and member of the Executive Council.

It didn’t take long for the newly sworn minister to create controversy with comments threatening to impose sanctions on the PNG Government if their political woes are not resolved. This quickly drew rebuke from the government in Papua New Guinea and just as swiftly led to a political backdown of sorts with the Senator saying his comments were taken out of context.

The Minerals Resource Rent Tax, or MRRT for short again took a central role in the political debate of the nation, a part that it has played since the Gillard Government re-negotiated and re-framed. The MRRT, before the Senate has caused the Greens and the Coalition, according to the Labor Party at least agree that higher taxes for big business are the go, even though the Coalition have clearly stated that they oppose the tax and therefore the tax cuts associated with the package. The tax will go to a Senate vote next week.

The Future Fund has received a big focus this week through the Gillard Government selection for the role, businessman and recent education review chief David Gonski getting the gong. A government nomination for a public board is usually a political appointment so there is nothing new from this angle on the appointment of Mr Gonski.

What is different though about this is the utterly shambolic process entered into by the government and the fact that the ALP Government did not listen to the recommendation of the board. David Gonski was appointed to search for a replacement to the outgoing head of the Future Fund and to  consult with other members of the board for their thoughts. The board wanted current member, Peter Costello, the former Treasurer and creator of the fund and the government then went ahead this week and announced that the man who was to search for the replacement, Mr Gonski himself would be appointed to the role, ruffling feathers.

Customs and border security earned a place in Question Time and political debate in Canberra this week and in the NSW Parliament after an Australia Post licensee in the Sydney suburb of Sylvania Waters was charged with importing and selling 150 Glock firearms since August 23 last year police allege. Both Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell linked this crime to customs and border security.

Parliament returns again next week for the final sitting week before the budget is handed down by Treasurer Wayne Swan in May and looks set to continue to be a fiery affair. The Minerals Resource Rent Tax will face a vote this coming week in the Senate and looks set to be the focus of most debate in both chambers for the week and undoubtedly outside of the parliament. The Fair Work Investigation into Craig Thomson will surely share some of the focus at least as fair as the Coalition strategy goes. The only question remaining is what unknown issues will take up the remaining attention of our parliamentarians as they race toward the major fiscal announcement in May?

It’s All Toxic For Labor, the Question is How Much Time Can be Bought

The toxicity of the Labor Party thanks largely to the leadership looks set to continue, even if some form of action is taken, whether it be a successful spill for Gillard or Rudd followed by a sacking, a pure sacking of Rudd, no action taken or if an election were called by the Prime Minister to end the pain. However, it is also worth noting it is not just the leadership and the problems are just as much about policy and promise-breaking.

The leadership tension has clearly mounted, particularly in the last two or so weeks with Ministers warning the Rudd camp and even a back-bencher, Darren Cheeseman calling for the Prime Minister to fall on her sword. A video was leaked of a sweary Kevin Rudd, doing nothing to harm his prospects of returning to the top job.

It is likely that some form of action will be taken in the near future. This will either take the form of a spill, forced by Gillard supporters, not by those who support Kevin Rudd, or the Prime Minister stoking up the courage, with an extra seat buffer, to sack Rudd and send him not to the back-bench, but back to south Brisbane for a holiday.

What is seeming less and less likely as the days go by is for Kevin Rudd to continue in his portfolio of Foreign Affairs. In my view Rudd doesn’t have the numbers to be successful, at least in the event of an initial spill, but almost certainly would have enough support to continue the terminal pain, with possibly a third or slightly more of the caucus supporting him in that event.

But the Labor Party is in a toxic position and no course of action would likely save them from electoral oblivion.

A successful spill by either Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd on its own, with the failed candidate going to the back bench is one option would provide the most longevity for the Labor Government. However, this option would also prove more toxic in the long-term with the deposed candidate, at this stage likely to be Kevin Rudd, sent to the back bench and even more free to take shots at the leadership, de-stabilising the ALP even further electorally for the next one and a bit years.

Were Rudd to be successful it is also entirely possible that there would be ructions caused by Gillard supporters which would also have the same long-term impact as allowing Kevin Rudd to stay in the parliament.

No action, it should be noted, would have the same impact on the future election prospects of the Labor Party, with Kevin Rudd and his supporters able to continue the same distractions that have plagued the Government since he lost the Prime Ministership. They would last until the next election, if a challenge were not eventually mounted, but suffer badly.

So then there is the option of sacking Kevin Rudd, not just from the Cabinet and Foreign ministry, but also from the parliament. This would provide the Gillard Government some clear with the only clear alternative to Julia Gillard not even in the room anymore.

But this action is fraught with its own danger in that it would return the Government to the position they were in last year before Peter Slipper left the Liberal Party upon becoming Speaker. Then, any small mishap or misadventure could see Labor lose office, though that seems fairly unlikely at this point.

Further, were the Government to sack Rudd from the parliament, he may then choose to leave the parliament altogether, in a final act of vengeance toward the party that cut him down in his early days. This would trigger a by-election in which it is entirely possible a Liberal Party candidate could win. In that event, the Gillard backers would have to make damn sure that Mr Rudd would remain in the parliament as an Independent MP.

The final action is for the Prime Minister to call an election and this may end up being better for the ALP in the long-term even though they would face a very heavy loss at an imminent election.

The other downside of this is that a general election would likely leave the two antagonists in the fold, with a general election unlikely to throw either of them out. The current Prime Minister would almost certainly leave the parliament after an election loss, possibly leaving it open for Rudd to take the post of Opposition Leader.

Another possible outcome would be that another member of caucus, possibly a Shorten or a Combet, less likely a Crean or a Smith would take the leadership, hopefully learning from recent history. In that case Kevin Rudd would certainly leave the parliament, triggering a by-election, again leading to a possible Liberal victory in the seat of Griffith.

It is clear to me that the least toxic option would be for a fresh election which would most likely result in either one or both of the protagonists leaving the parliament, allowing for fresh, relatively untainted leadership. There are options for longevity in a Rudd or Gillard Government with no action taken but they both are likely capped at around 12-18 months. The middle ground is to sack Rudd and at least get rid of the leadership tensions, still leaving the policy and believeability factors and returning to the very tenuous parliamentary circumstances of just a few short months ago.

The ALP have a lot to mull over in the coming days, at most weeks before deciding on a course of action. The outcome will be interesting and for them must be the good of the party over the want of the egos behind the party. I am not too sure it will end that way.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Day 3 of federal parliament is upon us and will bring with it another rambunctious hour and a half of Question Time from the House of Representatives. We know what the issues will be but not from what angle they will be approached by either side, but the lines are drawn and both sides firmly mired in their respective positions of attack.

The Opposition will again focus on the economy in their attacks of the Government, as they have in the two sessions previous, basing their interrogation around perceived impacts of the carbon tax and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT), to not do so would work against much of the poll gains made.

It is also likely that events surrounding the Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson will be brought into question, again, as they have this week, not so much attacking the man, but attacking the glacial pace of the Fair Work Australia (FWA) investigation. It does so because FWA is the Prime Minister’s baby where under Kevin Rudd Prime Minister, workplace relations was in her portfolio, beginning the post WorkChoices era.

The Government will again focus on the economy from their viewpoint of comparative strength to other economies in relation to jobs, debt and deficit. The overwhelming percentage of Dorothy Dixer’s will focus on these areas from one angle or another.

The Government is also likely to take the opportunity through the Dorothy Dixer to talk about either the perceived benefits of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax and the NBN, perhaps even both as they try to establish credibility in delivery, albeit expensive action.

The new shorter questions, shorter answers, shorter Question Time has now been delivered thanks to Speaker Peter Slipper coming to the chair with his own thoughts on the way Question Time and the House of Representatives procedure more broadly should run. The much shorter questions and shorter answers are a good start but could be strengthened further as they have appeared to have little difference on the quality of Question Time, except to herd it into a slightly shorter package.

The final factor to keep an eye on for the final Question Time of the week will be the ever-present spectre of the censure motion being brought to bear by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott or perhaps Manager of Opposition Business, Christopher Pyne. With the almost routine manner  in which we have seen the motion appear it would be remiss of me to not include the eventuality, especially with the Gillard Government failing in so many areas.

Be listening or watching at 2pm AEDT to see what plays out in the theatre that is Question Time. Who will take the upper hand at the end of the first parliamentary sitting week, hoping to convert it into ongoing momentum for the political year?

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