We might have been forgiven, after the extraordinary scenes last week in the parliament, having built up over months, would have begun to fizzle out to a spot-fire here and there. However, it seems that the government, our politicians, are firmly wedded to continuing to give the blaze, presumed under control, more oxygen. It would appear that, even in the case of some policy, the Gillard Government is set to prosecute it from a personal angle rather than a political angle about the sense or otherwise of Coalition policy.
Members of the Opposition yesterday, including Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, his deputy and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison made a flying visit to Indonesia yesterday. Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader was granted a rare privilege by the Indonesian Government, access to the ear of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Early in the day Mr Abbott made a speech where he said, for the relationship between Australia and Indonesia to continue to prosper, we and Indonesia, to continue to foster a culture of mutual respect would need to raise potential policy changes with each other.
Then, during his meeting with President Yudhoyono, the Opposition Leader, discussing the relationship between our two countries, including the issue of asylum seekers, Tony Abbott failed to talk about the proposed policy of turning back asylum seeker boats headed from Indonesia. Scott Morrison since stated that he had brought up the policy in his meeting with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
In and of itself, the leader of the Liberal Party not raising the issue is not a terribly horrific misstep. Neglecting to mention turning back the boats will appear clumsy and hypocritical in light of his words early yesterday both domestically and in Indonesia. The events of yesterday, no matter how trivial, were well and truly open to being spun by the ALP into an attack strategy.
It is important to mention that the Indonesian Government are well and truly aware of Liberal Party policy regarding asylum seekers. Our friends to the north have seen the plans in action before under the Howard Government. The Indonesians too, have actually heard about Abbott’s plan to resurrect the draconian measures that were part of the ‘Pacific Solution’.
It is no surprise and has been known for some time, that the Indonesians are not keen at all on receiving back asylum seeker vessels that have departed from their shores on the way to Australia. Indeed, they hate it. They will not be open to an Abbott Government pointing asylum seeker vessels back toward Indonesia.
To not mention the specifics of Abbott’s planned return to the Pacific Solution was clearly an attempt to avoid an embarrassing situation, of again being publicly rebuked by Indonesia. In light of his words yesterday though, a little embarrassment has though been suffered. However, that will probably pale in comparison with the real embarrassment that could have been inflicted over being shot down again on policy grounds.
What was very interesting about most of the verbal attacks mounted by the government was what, more correctly who, was attacked. Instead of most of the verbal barbs being directed at the Liberal Party or the inhumane policy, most of the venom was directed at Abbott himself with the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister accusing Mr Abbott of various things, including being “cowardly”, a “mouse” in Indonesia.
Very little focus in the put-downs was directed at the policy itself. It was raised by Chris Bowen that the Indonesians do not like the idea of boats being directed back to Indonesia and will never participate in it, but those words came as a secondary thought.
The government too, could have attacked the policy directly, not from the standpoint of the Indonesians not being willing to allow it to happen, but from the angle that it is just too horrifying, too unbelievable to even contemplate a government wanting to actually behave in a manner like that. Labor should have destroyed the proposal that way like they used to.
Could it be that the Gillard Government, after having already shifted dramatically to the right on asylum seekers and refugees did not want to appear too soft on asylum policy by not attacking it directly? That’s a possibility.
In any case, attacking the personal over the political is set to continue.
Politics is at quite the low ebb at the moment. Most of us get pretty frustrated from time-to-time about the way in which the major political parties are heading. We even get frustrated about certain issues that we wish the political party we most identify with would deal with in a way that we and the public overwhelmingly want. Essentially, we choose one of the two main parties, Liberal and National (Coalition) or the Australian Labor Party. Most of us don’t overwhelmingly agree with the platform of the party we vote for, whether that vote is delivered by first preference or flow of preferences.
This raises the question of the role that we play in the political process. Do we play a role entrenched in one of the political parties as a rank-and-file member? Do we seek committee or organisational representation within a party?
Or do we influence the political debate from the periphery? Is this influence from the outer limits of the political process at the ballot box? Or is it closer to the political discourse in the form of representing sectional interests trying to influence public policy?
Most importantly, what is best and most influential, change from within, or attempting to affect change just a little step away from political machinations?
This is a debate than will again be raised as a result of the public discussion entered into recently, particularly over the last week, but also for some months prior by the always intriguing and never dull Clive Palmer.
In recent times, the outspoken billionaire has both spoken strongly in favour of the Coalition stance on government taxes and then, more recently, strongly against the stance of both sides of politics on the charged issue of asylum seekers. Then there is the small matter today of a donation to Together Queensland to compensate workers sacked by the LNP administration.
Now, Clive Palmer isn’t one to be reliably taken on his word. He promised us he would run for Lilley, Wayne Swan’s seat, then elsewhere in Queensland but has since reneged on both counts, the latter supposedly over asylum seeker treatment by the Liberal and National Party at the federal level.
But let’s think the best of him and take him on his word that this is the legitimate reason he chose not to seek pre-selection for a parliamentary seat in Canberra. It’s not the first time he’s made a foray into the often ugly debate over some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
But is it best for him to not at least attempt to seek a seat in the parliament where he could have influenced the debate from within? Admittedly his stance over asylum seekers would have probably provided somewhat of a stumbling block, a big hurdle to get over in winning the chance to represent the LNP in the electoral race.
Put that aside for a minute. If there were enough like-minded people that chose to get so heavily involved in the process, and it’s a sure bet there would be a number of people, socially liberal in nature, then change could be influenced from within.
Even if it were just one person, Clive Palmer, or a small number of people, like in the parliamentary debate on refugees and asylum seekers at present, then engaging in the t0-and-fro with an honesty, forthrightness and passion would begin to influence change from with. Yes, the progress might well be slow, but it starts people talking.
But there is a role for those at the ballot box. More importantly in some ways there is a role for those organisations that directly engage in the political goings on.
Because people at the ballot box generally vote for a number of issues that a political party stands on, it often becomes blurred, even completely obstructed as to just how far that endorsement of the policies of any one political party goes.
Voters can attempt to force change by writing letters to their local MP or Ministers, can protest or can show their opinions on any particular issue through polls on topical issues. But these fora are not the best way to get involved in the change process. They are helpful but will likely result in even slower change than people massing from directly within.
Then there is somewhat of a middle ground of influence. That middle ground exists in engaging in special interest groups which often have direct access to politicians, bureaucrats and government and can therefore have a greater impact on the evolution of political debate. In truth, lobbying groups are much closer to having a direct influence on government policy than the middle ground on the scale between everyday voters and actually being in the parliament.
It’s clear that the closer you are to the political process, the more impact you can have on change. Mr Palmer, despite some of his failings, everyone has them, would have been best to continue his fight to pursue change from within. He undoubtedly still will, behind closed doors within the LNP organisation and through the media, but not directly through attempting to get into parliament. His independent voice, if it continues, might help attract more like-minded people into the party organisation and that is a positive.
Change from the boundaries while not the best, will still result in the shifting of minds over time, though the depth of this shift and the time taken to achieve change from this perspective is likely much shallower and will take much longer to foment.
We must realise as voters that our selection at the ballot box will likely be misinterpreted by government as a full endorsement of their policies. It is not and all possible action must be taken to let government know just what we think about everything that our elected representatives do.
To not engage fully is to be a passive participant and an enabler for the occasional, sometimes often, horrific decision which can be made by governments.