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The Scary Role of Fear in Politics

In an election year there are a number of things that you can expect: promises,lies, aspirations, grand narratives, ho-hum narratives, pork-barreling, lies, lots of baby holding and frenetic campaigning, just to name a handful of things. But there is at least one other thing that is always present during election campaigns, and it’s a four letter word beginning with ‘f’. No it’s not that naughty word your parents told you never to say and then went ahead and used it themselves countless times. The word is fear and it will play a central role in the 6-10 months ahead.

But it would be naive to think that fear is simply a feature, perhaps even a creature born of elections. It’s not. Fear is an ever-present and mostly unfortunate reality when it comes to politics. It’s there, present almost daily in the political discourse in one form or another. And it will remain a major feature of politics, even if a slightly obscured one at times.

If there is anything of which fear is a creature, other than elections, it’s power. The overwhelming hunger for power has the ability to make politicians do a number of things and that includes creating and manufacturing fear. Fear is an all-powerful thing in politics. It can shift votes. Fear can sometimes mean the difference between taking government and staying in opposition or between staying in power and relinquishing the government benches.

The way fear is used during election campaigns is much the same as when it is taken advantage of in day-to-day politics. First and foremost, politicians want you to fear the opposition. So there is a relentless campaign from left and right to scare the pants off you, the undecided voter, because, well, clearly the rusted on supporters of a party are not going to be willingly sucked into believing the other side’s nonsense.  And this is often done by political leaders asking you, attempting to persuade you, by cajoling you into to fearing the future under their political enemies.

There are also politicians, unfortunately, who want you to fear others – to fear the outsider. Interestingly though, most politicians will not illuminate that fear, will not advertise their attempts at this kind of fear-mongering to the world in black and white for all to see. Instead they will subtly prompt you in a slightly tangental way.

In one way or another, in 2013 we will be asked to, or it will be subtly suggested, that we need to fear where jobs and the economy are headed and what the other side of politics might well do to jobs and the economy. And we will be asked to fear other factors external to Australia. For instance, we might be prompted with such loaded phrases as “peaceful invasion”.

As a voting public, we really should know that our politicians are trying to appeal to human emotions. We should be able to realise when we are being fed fact and when we are being force-fed fear. Some of us do know and we go along with that fear. Some of us illuminate the fact that we are at different but often regular points in the electoral cycle, being subjected to scare campaigns. And there are some of us who are just plain naive and like to think the best of everyone, even politicians engaged in a game of power.

The good news is that fear, even subtle attempts to imbue it in us, can be countered with facts. This requires heightened political engagement and a little research.

Above all else, know that even when you think you are not being played, you may well have actually fallen into the trap of believing something that falls into the category of fear.

Lessons Learned From Australian Politics in 2012

As if you didn’t already know, the year is fast coming to a close. A few weeks ago now was the end of a tumultuous year in the federal parliament which saw us experience more noise, more nonsense and more annoying antics than ever before, not to mention many new rules and regulations. As I remarked to someone the other night, politics is a continuous learning curve, even for those of us that observe it closely and perhaps a little to closely.

To that end, I thought I would share with my readers, some lessons that I have learned from Australian politics in 2012. And you, the reader, may have learned these lessons too.

CYNICISM AND POLITICS

Now, I know upon reading the title of this section, that you are probably thinking, but of course we should be cynical about politics. And you are right, we should, unfortunately, be cynical about politics. Politics for many, including seasoned observers, has an uncanny knack of disappointing, of making us feel like we should almost always expect bad things from our elected representatives.

What I have in fact discovered over the last twelve months, is that a little bit of cynicism does not go far enough. It has to be at the front of your mind at all times as you dissect what politicians say and do in the mad scramble to get power or to maintain dominance. And that is a shame, because politicians should always have the mantra of doing the right thing in the forefront of their minds, not how to continue to be politically dominant.

The cause for needing extra cynicism is probably largely down to the tight numbers in Parliament House, though you would have to argue that the starting level of cynicism required to view politics is already too high.

NEGATIVITY AND POLITICS

The year 2012 has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that negative politics works. We have also proved beyond any shadow of a doubt here in Australia, that it is much easier to engage in than positive policy discussion.

The polls have shown though, that there is such thing as too much and that has affected party votes and leader preferences.

But if there is one thing that political pundits are sick of more than anything, it is exactly the ridiculous level of negativity that infects the political debate. The broader population however have largely switched off from politics and did so a long time ago.

THE POLITICS OF PERSONALITIES

This year, above all others, politicians have spent a large amount of time attacking the character of each other and the way that each side of politics conducts themselves in the political debate. Politicians have done this at the expense of policy arguments, though hopefully, with 2013 being an election year, policies will be the order of the day.

The lesson however, is do not be too hopeful.

POLITICAL FATIGUE IS POSSIBLE

Of course the general public experience fatigue from the consumption of politics even after the smallest possible political meal on the nightly news’ bulletins. And the public at large has been subjected to chronic political fatigue syndrome.

But one thing I never thought possible, even at the start of the year after about one and a half years of minority government, was that I, a self-confessed political junkie would at times be too exhausted by our politics and that is a sad indictment on the state of the discourse.

PARTY NAMES AND IDEOLOGIES MEAN A LOT LESS

In 2012 we have seen, from time to time, more than I can ever remember, that party names and the political ideologies behind them are becoming even more redundant. In part this is because of the nature of the 43rd parliament and surely too, because of the increasing appeal of populism to political parties.

We’ve seen the Liberal Party become even less of a Liberal Party than under John Howard and have also seen Labor willing to ditch their core values more often than ever in the last 12 months. Both sides shifting has the potential to alienate people.

AND SO IT GOES…

The year ends in less than two weeks and after that same period of time an election year will be upon us. Soon, the year 2012 in Australian politics will mean very little, as the more important election year choices start being made.

Let’s hope it is a much more edifying spectacle.

Reason Excised From the Mainland

Reason and informed debate are both being used much less in politics than they should be. Too much time is focused on populist policies for political gain and not enough on well thought out ideas. The withdrawal of sensible thought has been accelerating during this 43rd parliament and it is a blight on both sides of politics.

There are two recent decisions in particular which best display the timidity of thought and action that now pervades our parliamentary process.The first is the “tactical withdrawal” from moving towards indigenous recognition in the Constitution in the preceding weeks. The second topical example is before the parliament at the present time and that is the decision to excise the whole of mainland Australia from the migration zone.

The former, indigenous acknowledgement in the Constitution received much more attention than the latter, the excision of Australia has. That in itself is a sad example, not just of the lack of reason and thought used in the political discourse, but also the wildly out of kilter priorities of those put forward by our political parties.

The excision of the mainland was not a policy advocated for by the government as part of the misguided response to asylum seeker policy. Instead, it was put forward by what was, in name only, an “expert panel”. However, it and all the other recommendations set out in the Houston report have been adopted wholeheartedly by a rapidly changing Australian Labor Party.

The ALP is a political grouping that appears to be doing its best, at least on asylum seeker and refugee policy, to appear a faction of the Liberal Party.  At the very least, they are playing wedge politics in an over-indulgent manner.

The policy of removing the Australian mainland from the migration zone defies all logic. As some have argued, it would be quite funny, if it were not sad and cruel, to believe anyone really thinks that pretending the mainland does not exist for the purposes of being able to send more largely desperate people for offshore processing, will help “stop the boats”.

Immigration detention is jail wherever it takes place. It is punitive and it is ugly. It is also something that should be beneath Australia as a mostly civilised nation. Funnily enough too, the spectre of detention has actually not deterred too many from risking their lives.

So why does the asylum seeker and refugee debate lack reason. First and foremost, because it appeals in some way to a fear of difference that some in our community hold onto. This area of government action also lacks commonsense because it is easier to appeal to fear, engage in knee-jerk responses and to punish than it is to invoke compassion and implement more comprehensive and sensible policies.

What of that much less discussed and debated issue, the one that should be of much more domestic concern than the over-inflated “boat people” “issue”? How about choosing not to pursue, for the moment at least, indigenous recognition in our Constitution?

The dropping of the process, the tossing of it into the too-hard basket is again a case of the easy way out.

Yes it is true that it would have been very difficult for the constitutional amendment to pass, especially when it was supposed to be posed at or before the 2013 election. The question would have required a majority of people in a majority of the states to say ‘yes’ to whatever the proposition put forward by the government and of course only 8 out of 44 referenda have successfully been prosecuted.

However, just because the circumstances are difficult does not mean that the process should have largely been abandoned. A smart approach would have been to acknowledge the difficulty in forging ahead with the vote on the timetable agreed on.

After doing that it would have been quite reasonable to say to the public and more importantly, our indigenous people, that we would like to forge ahead with the planned constitutional amendment, but in doing so would need more time to forge a strong consensus in the community.

The fact that we need more time to forge a consensus within the Australian public that indigenous people are indeed humans populating this country and did inhabit this country prior to our ancestor’s arrival is an uncomfortable thought too. It shows that perhaps some of the lack of reason it appears our politicians show might actually be more of a fear of losing power .

The apparent abandonment, or at least wariness  of the Coalition towards implementing the next best thing, a legislative instrument giving some form of recognition to indigenous people, gives pause for thought and defies sense.

Why would the Coalition give bipartisan support for constitutional change, including recommending a bipartisan committee, but then apparently baulk at the opportunity for an Act of Recognition, a meek and mild form of acknowledging a truth? Why seek a preference of separate statements to the parliament when the question of a statement proved difficult for some in the party back in 2008?  It just does not compute.

These are but two examples where logic and reason have been abandoned in Australian politics, both for similar but also divergent reasons. They are only two examples, others do exist and will continue to eventuate as a result of a number of factors, not the least of which are appealing to irrational fears and beliefs as well as a rampant desire, an uncontrollable lust for power and political dominance.

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.

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?

A Way to Look at the Individual Ingredients of Political Parties

Every so often a show comes along that breaks the mould. Excuse the cooking related pun but that is exactly what the show Kitchen Cabinet, hosted by Annabel Crabb and aired on ABC2 actually does. It takes your regular political interview and turns it on its head. It moves the political discourse away from the rough and tumble of our institutions and places it in the home’s, temporary or otherwise, of some of our political players. Far from just bringing out some of the personal stories of our politicians, the show, with its second season about to start, exposes the ingredients of the party politics cake.

Kitchen Cabinet will return to television screens next Wednesday, October 10th and promises to unearth some more individual truths from our politicians which will shed an important light on just how varied opinions can be within any given political party. There will of course be some who do not reveal as much or anything compared to other guests on the show, but for the most part individual thought processes will be discovered.

Failing that, the show will be responsible again for unearthing or at least bringing to a wider audience, stories about our politicians, their lives, what makes them tick as people. This has a lot to do with the relaxed location, the home or the flat or house in Canberra. What emerges, even from our media savvy politicians is at the very least is a much more relaxed and at ease communication style closer to a dinner chat than a political interview, when in reality it is still a political discussion.

What the broader viewing public often fail to see with our politicians is that behind party politics, which relies on falling into line behind a party-room decision, there are individuals, putting forward slightly different points of view.

Those views are of course discussed and debated, sometimes at length, behind closed doors, occasionally spilling out into public view through leaks from MP’s or journalists in the right place at the right time. Occasionally, individual views will spout forth out of the mouths of politicians directly in the media spotlight in public- think Barnaby Joyce as a most prescient example.

But for the most part, our politicians stick to “party discipline” and don’t reveal their position or at least won’t put a name to it, instead being referred to as ‘a disgruntled MP’ or ‘an inside source’.

From the advertisements for the show, we can already see that Bronwyn Bishop, long-time Liberal Party MP reveals she would not have brought in the controversial WorkChoices. What other stories of individual argument will we discover through the work of Annabel Crabb? Barnaby Joyce we know too, will also be a guest on the show and surely the serial “freelancer” will not disappoint.

In a way these candid discussions also show the lengths that politicians will go to, what they will put up with in order to wield political power for as long as possible. Politicians will, almost without fault, accept party decisions. That is just as much about accepting  and maintaining political power as it is about accepting the collective decision of a political machine that has discussed and debated an issue in an exhaustive manner.

Of course, save for the likes of Barnaby Joyce, we will not see frank and open discussions about current policy debates and that’s to be expected as the collective need for unity trumps almost all other views.

However, we can learn what individual members of parliament might think about a policy issue from the historical tidbits they offer up. We can reasonably, but not always accurately do so by linking a previous policy stance to an ideology and then extrapolate that to present issues. However, that can be blurred by the increasingly common practice of populism which has been known to overtake ideological linkages in recent years.

Kitchen Cabinet is certainly different and through that uniqueness will be illuminating as we seek to understand the politics of our nation and our individual parliamentary representatives. It might also help us to realise that just like us, surprisingly, our politicians are human.

Question Time Ahead of Time

The life of this tense, predictable and too unpredictable 43rd parliament enters another week as it screams even closer to the long winter recess with this week and then another two week sitting period left in June before over a months break. But for now there is still another 3 weeks of sitting before the parliamentarians and viewers of it get some respite from the rowdiness and almost formulaic approach to Question Time that has emerged over a period of time. Our parliamentarians might be having a winter break from parliament, but they won’t be going into political hibernation, the thirst for power and political momentum precludes that.

As always there is a small combination of areas which the Coalition will use in their pursuit of the Gillard Government during Question Time. It is quite likely to be full-on attack strategy today in the hour and a bit of Question Time, though shock and awe it will not be because the subjects of focus have been discussed and debated for some time in the broader political debate.

As has been said previously, the carbon price is nearing commencement, due to come into effect on the 1st of July, pretty much just a month away and will likely be the major focus during Question Time, perhaps, though this is the slightly unpredictable factor, being the matter of the focus of most Opposition questions.

Events surrounding Craig Thomson, the MP for Dobell are also likely to bear some focus during Question Time from the Coalition despite the fact that the subject and avenues of action around it have been exhausted and this goes to the very nature of this minority government with power being the main game in the halls of Canberra.

Leadership and confidence is also quite likely to enter the Question Time debate with whispers flaring up over the weekend, thanks to a policy announcement by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen on Friday which has brought divisions in the caucus out into the sunshine again.

There were also reports over the weekend in relationship to the leadership issue that Joel Fitzgibbon, the Chief Government Whip, a Gillard supporter had openly been counting numbers for a Rudd return to the Prime Ministership, a post he lost so unceremoniously.

Further to these areas of debate, a question or two, perhaps more to mix things up and keep them slightly different may well be on the believability of the predicted budget surplus and the spending contained within the budget.

A question or questions from the Abbott-led Opposition in relation the operation of the Fair Work Act, as well as Fair Work Australia, not in relation to the Craig Thomson/HSU matter will also be a distinct possibility.

The ALP Government, for its part will almost certainly continue its effectively sole focus since the budget and that is, selling the budget. The government will use the Dorothy Dixer to attempt selling aspects of the budget that will provide low and middle income earners with extra money for educating their kids and for their families.

The Government may choose to talk about the Clean Energy Future (read, carbon tax, carbon price) but this is likely to have much less of a focus given the controversial nature of the policy and is likely to focus on the compensation package provided in an attempt to blunt the inevitable costs of such a policy.

Events will be borne out from 2pm today and they are not for the faint-hearted.  Indeed only the masochistic political wonks around this fair rock of ours should delve into the frustrating wonder that is Question Time. But seriously, politics is really cool.

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