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A Royal Mess of Priorities

To say that Tuesday the 25th of March was an interesting day in Australian politics was an understatement. First up in the morning, we had the Attorney-General announce the long-awaited proposed changes to s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. And, as if that was not enough fuel for thought, in the late hours of the afternoon, on the day Governor-General Quentin Bryce completed her appointment, the Prime Minister announced the reinstatement of knights and dames in the Order of Australia.

Throw in the sentencing of Craig Thomson over the HSU scandal and the developing story involving Senator Arthur Sinodinos at ICAC and today could hardly have given political pundits and the public anymore fuel for debate.

After making an election commitment to repeal s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, the government released an exposure draft of proposed changes to the Act – changes which are remarkably similar to those I suggested last week. And of course that decision, which is to be debated before proceeding to the next stage, will be a heavily discussed and opined on topic in the Australian political discourse, particularly between now and April 30.

It was a government surprise coming in the late afternoon however, which really got social media talking. At 4pm, shortly before a farewell function for the outgoing vice-regal, the Prime Minister informed Australians that 2014 sees the return of knights and dames, albeit only four annually. Twitter erupted as those changes were announced. Jokes were rolled out thick and fast and the obligatory catchy hashtag was spawned.

This was a strange spectacle on Twitter. In the morning we had a very significant issue, in proposed changes to racial discrimination laws, given some substance by the government. Debate that, social media did – until about 4:01pm. Then it was all about Australia bringing back the Sirs and the Dames. And it continued in that fashion all night long. The s18c changes were paid scant regard, as with Craig Thomson’s sentencing and Senator Arthur Sinodinos’s ICAC hearing.

You are probably thinking, like me, that you know which issue was the most substantive, and which will have the biggest impact on Australian society and culture. Surely, for most reading this, it is not the return of an old titular honour which last ceased under Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Then again, I could be wrong. It all depends on whether the views of Twitter users as to what constitutes big news are reflective of that of broader society. If that is the case, then we are in a spot of trouble.

I am not entirely convinced that Twitter is always the best representation of society’s views. It is a mode for the loudest to express their views, however those with the loudest mouths often seem to express the most uncommon views in society. It is rarely a platform for the mainstream, more moderate of voices, though there are, as always, exceptions.

However, it does appear that the traditional media has taken notice of social media – as well they might when struggling to compete in a new media landscape. The major papers have, in varying degrees of absurdity, taken a stand on the smaller, more trivial issue of bestowing antiquated titles on people.

There was a theory being bandied about on Twitter, that the announcement on royally bestowed honours was used by the government as a distraction from the heat generated by the racial discrimination debate. If that is the case, shame on the majority of Australian’s for falling for it. We should have seen right through it as a non-issue and not been so incensed by what is a trivial matter in comparison.

The racial discrimination debate could change society. On the other hand, despite emotional protestations from republicans to the contrary, giving four people a year a title by appointment will have no impact on the Australian way of life. Making eminent people knights or dames will not create a renewed love for the monarchy. Only the sickening worship of these pseudo celebrities entrenches respect and admiration for the royal institution.

If republicans want a republic – and I consider myself one – we need to try much harder. If we think giving people titles will further entrench the monarchy, then perhaps we need to sharpen our arguments.

To be fair, our politicians need to learn how to prioritise better too. What was announced today was so inconsequential it should have been left off the government’s agenda for some time.

During the previous government, our political class spent a lot of energy on the often trivial nature of political debate. It seems there is a wish to continue down the path of being complicit in the dumbing down of debate and the avoidance of the hard issues.

The only question is whether we are being complacent, blissfully ignorant or willfully ignorant when it comes to deciding what matters most.

How Not to Start an Election Year

It has not been a pleasant week for Katter’s Australian Party, losing two candidates because of hate-filled comments in both the traditional media and on social media website, Twitter. And it would not have been a particularly good week for the gay and lesbian community in Australia, the target of these unhinged outbursts vilifying gays and lesbians. Now the Katter party candidate for the Victorian electorate of Wannon, Tess Corbett and Queensland Senate nominee Bernard Gaynor, a former party national general secretary, will no longer be representing the party at the 2013 federal election.

The first unforgivable, hateful and just plain baseless barbs came from Tess Corbett. The lower house candidate made the headlines for comparing homosexuals to paedophiles and added that it would be a sad day if equal rights for gays and lesbians were granted.

There is absolutely no chance that if homosexuals were given the right to marry, that paedophiles would naturally be given the right to marry children. For anyone to actually suggest that just beggars belief. Where was Tess Corbett found? There is no politician in the history of this country that would have ever countenanced such a move, let alone a majority of parliamentarians in the present day, ready to legalise such a heinous criminal activity.

Tess Corbett, in making such a statement, is quite clearly comparing or at the very least implying, that being a homosexual or engaging in homosexual sex is akin to a criminal act. In case she has not yet noticed, the latter has been outlawed for a while, though granted, it took Tasmania a little while longer than the rest of the country to repeal laws relating homosexual sex. But still, that battle has long been lost.

And then, as if Tess Corbett’s comments were not hostile enough towards the GLBTI community, Queensland Senate hopeful Bernard Gaynor chimed in with some textual diarrhoea. After an earlier tweet backing Tess Corbett after her comments to the media, Mr Gaynor said:

“I wouldn’t let a gay person teach my children and I’m not afraid to say it.”

This tweet at first glance appears to be linked to the debate over whether religious organisations should be allowed to discriminate against the gay and lesbian community in terms of employment. But other tweets make it clear that Gaynor believes parents should have the right to choose whether or not their son or daughter is taught by a gay or lesbian.

Whether a teacher is gay or lesbian will not make a shred of difference to the way a child is taught at school. The curriculum is the curriculum whether the teacher in question is same-sex attracted or not.

And Bernard Gaynor seems concerned too, by implication, that if his son or daughter had a gay or lesbian teacher, they might somehow magically persuade them to be of the same sexual orientation. Well, to put it in the clearest possible terms, being gay is perfectly natural. No amount of lessons from a gay man or a lesbian will transform anyone’s son or daughter into someone attracted to people of the same gender.

Katter’s Australian Party has a history of taking an anti-gay rights stance. Before the Queensland election the party ran an ad campaign which railed against Campbell Newman due to his personal support for same-sex marriage.

To top it all off, the party’s namesake tonight made a ridiculous statement on The Project tonight. Bob Katter claimed he was unaware of any homosexual having committed suicide in north Queensland. He also claimed not to care about the issue. Of course, Bob Katter has a history of wedging his foot firmly in his mouth, so we really should not be surprised.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Katter’s Australian Party are the most socially conservative political party, even to the point of being regressive in their views on the matter.

The rights that the gay and lesbian community have won, particularly over the last 5 years should not be threatened by any political force. We should all be equal under the law.

Thankfully, the electoral prospects of Katter’s Australian Party were not particularly good in the first place. In Queensland, where they had expected to do well electorally they only managed to have two candidates elected to the state parliament.  Then one LNP MLA defected just recently, making the party a band of three in the 89 seat Queensland parliament.

That’s not to say that the party will not go without success at the election. It is certainly a strong possibility that the new party will taste victory in a Senate contest or two, perhaps more. There might be success for Katter’s party in the lower house too, other than Bob Katter winning in Kennedy. Support anything like the levels reached in Queensland is however, almost certainly an impossible prospect.

The election year drama, faux pas and discriminatory statements have already started. There is still at least six months of these unedifying events ahead.

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.

Generalisations Flowing and Critical Thought Lacking Over Riotous Actions

The events on the weekend in Sydney and those in the days preceding them, across the world, were horrific. There are no nice words that can be said about the protests, riots, call them what you will, that have taken place in a number of countries, both in the Middle East and across the Western world. A small portion of the Islamic community in Australia, less than one thousandth of the Muslim inhabitants of Australia took to the streets of Sydney with violence and mayhem in mind. This was met as well with the urge for a small number to parade with disturbing placards, one in particular held by a young child.

These protests provoked strong reactions from the public, the traditional media, social media and politicians all rising to condemn the divisive actions of a small proportion of people hell-bent on causing trouble and being divisive. Those speaking out against the raucous and over-the-top actions quickly included leaders in the local Muslim community which is quite sizeable in and around Sydney.

The actions of the protesters, demonstrators, rioters, call them what you will show a complete lack of understanding of the thoughts of people in relation to what they themselves say was the issue- that is, the tacky, poorly made video by an American that wouldn’t even be considered good enough and tasteful enough for a Saturday Night Live skit. This tends to indicate, as some thinkers have pointed out over the last few days,

The reactions of those responding to the scenes on Saturday, in particular on social media- read Twitter, tended toward heavy generalisations and at times showed a complete lack of critical thought and comprehension.

The protesters, if the film was the issue, fail to realise that governments all over the world, including ours and more importantly, the United States of America, had roundly condemned the mean-spirited movie. That is to say, they didn’t like it one bit either. The film wasn’t even put together by the government, just one or two intellectually vacant people, one of whom is of questionable character.

But far from just the lack of realisation that most of the West and its governments had said that the film was horrible and at the very least in poor taste and at the most, downright offensive to Islam, the actions themselves were well out of proportion to any amount of offense caused.

As for the Twitter and other social media commentary in the wake of the events of the last week, again a vocal minority blew events out of proportion, trying to link the messy visuals to the whole Muslim population. Clearly that’s not the case.  If any critical thought whatsoever was used by those who, frankly are frightened by difference in the first place and seek to cause fear when a small number of people representing a particular group they despise, then they would have realised the acts were not representative.

If the social media commentary wasn’t bad enough,the perennial Senator for divisive communities, Senator Cory Bernardi engaged in crass generalisations himself. The politician from South Australia, no fan of multiculturalism, attempted to argue that the protests of few, while yes, extremely awful and necessarily despised, signalled a problem with multiculturalism.

The problem in this case, as a number of commentators have pointed out, is not a problem to do with multiculturalism. It is, first and foremost, a problem more to do with human nature than anything else. As those same commentators, like Waleed Aly have pointed out, it is also partially down to disaffection, but again this does not mean that the actions of a small minority can be justified, even for a millisecond. But it does raise the need for greater cross-cultural dialogue.

If we are to truly understand each other, some of us must first learn to critically think, not give in to emotional reactions to events in the world around us. Generalisations do us no favours either.

Foreign Investment and the Coalition With the National Party

Foreign investment has been in the media a lot recently. Increased talk about foreign investment as part of the Australian political discourse has amped up over the last few years in particular with reports of particularly Chinese-based companies buying up farmland, chiefly across New South Wales. It’s prompted raised concerns from some in Australian politics. The interesting thing is that most of the questioning of foreign investment in Australia, again mostly in relation to farmland has come from the conservative side of politics. What is not so surprising  is that most of the scepticism around foreigners buying up and investing in our country from the right side of politics has come from the National Party, the party traditionally of the farmers.

But what is very interesting about this and different from previous times is the willingness of the National Party’s major coalition partner, the Liberal Party to indulge the National’s in the debate with a proposal to examine more deeply, at a lower threshold, more of the proposed investments of companies from outside of Australia.

There’s been much mixed messaging from the Coalition, from National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce openly questioning the appropriateness of too much foreign investment at any opportunity, to Tony Abbott in China appearing to talk down to China about their investing in Australia whilst overseas as a guest in their country. Then just in the last week or so we had Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott both talking down the prospects of a change in foreign investment rules and scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Then today, flanked by Joe Hockey and Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced a discussion paper which flags a lowering of the purchase price of agricultural land and businesses at which the Foreign Investment Review Board will examine purchases.

The paper proposes that the FIRB look at purchases of agricultural land valued at over $15 million dollars and purchases by foreign companies of agriculture businesses valued at $53 million. This is way down from the current threshold at which injections of funds of $214 million and over are examined by the review board.

The change in policy has copped criticism from both sides of politics, with the ALP jumping at the chance to have a dig at the party of the free market for wanting to lower the scrutiny threshold.

But there’s also been criticism from their own side of politics, with not just conflicting words in the lead-up to today’s decision from Liberal and National Party politicians, but also from former Coalition MP Peter Reith who launched an attack on Twitter today. Mr Reith in comments today on social media said that the move was “crazy, stupid politics.”

Reith also said that the decision “is just a quick fix to satisfy the Nats, but which will come back to bite the national interest”. Peter Reith, in saying this is not far from the truth, perhaps even spot on with his comments.

The Nationals, in an incoming Coalition Government, which now appears a certainty, would have much higher influence within the joint party-room than they do at present in the current parliament. So this announcement today can easily be seen as a move to placate the National Party ahead of the next election. Tony Abbott and the Opposition leadership undoubtedly realise there will be much more competition of ideas and much more competitive and vigorous debate from two contradictory standpoints within the Coalition caucus.

But what about the decision itself and what Tony Abbott says it will mean for the future of foreign investment in Australia?

Well, for his part Mr Abbott says he wants to “make it absolutely crystal clear that the Coalition unambiguously supports foreign investment in Australia.” Further, he says “we need it, we want it, it is essential for our continued national prosperity.” He also said, “what’s very important though is that the public have confidence that the foreign investment we need and want is in Australia’s national interest.”

Well, it seems pretty ambiguous the level of support there is on one side of the Coalition for further foreign investment in Australia. The Liberal Party are undoubtedly all for it, with the current level of examination likely deemed more than sufficient, perhaps too much for a number in the Liberal and National Party room. But the National Party, particularly given the words of its loudest member, Senator Barnaby Joyce, is certainly far from sure about people from overseas investing in Australia.

The Coalition for its part says that the move is all about increased “scrutiny” of foreign investment decisions as they relate to agricultural land. But this standpoint, is actually to be taken as read and believed, has unintended consequences at best.

If it’s just about a ramped up level of scrutiny in foreign investment and every investment decision that applies to this lower threshold is given the tick of approval, then there’s just unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape for inevitable decisions.

But more likely, with the same “national interest” test applying, albeit at a lower monetary level, then smaller purchase decisions, much smaller ones in fact, will be denied if the national interest test requirements are not met.

Could this and other recent decisions and thought bubbles or proposals of a similar protectionist nature be a sign of things to come?

It’s The Olympics, Who’s Really Putting the Pressure on Whom?

The London 2012 Olympic Games are now in full-swing. The early hiccups in the weeks prior to the games have been put behind them and the Brits are putting on a great show, albeit with crowds that have more holes than a sieve. Not all sports have started, with events like track and field and cycling yet to come where we’re in with a real shot at a number of medals, some of them quite possibly golden. The swimming, a traditional strength of Australia’s has begun though, with our athletes coming out with less of the prized gold than we’re used to and expectations dashed in some cases. We have though won silver in bronze in events we weren’t expected to with up and comer’s and dark horses stepping up when it counts.

Anyway, our performances and the reactions of varying degrees of the athletes making the massive efforts in competing at the Olympics has sparked a rather vigorous debate on social media and the opinion pages. Are we as Australian’s, are the media placing such high expectations on our athletes that they feel crushed under the pressure to deliver for a medal-hungry Australian public? Or are the athletes themselves the ones that are expecting too much of themselves? Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above?

So far Australia has won 1 gold, 6 silver and 2 bronze. So six people have come very close and further two near winning a gold medal. Our one gold came courtesy of the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay. Once again our female swimmers are the ones that are far performing their male counterparts in the pool as competition at the aquatic centre nears an end for another Olympiad.

This is the first Twitter Olympics really. Well not the first one since the social media platform has been around, but the first one where so many athletes have taken to using the medium to pass on their thoughts as the prepare to and while they compete during the London games. Twitter users have undoubtedly been putting some pressure on our athletes, sending messages to them like “go for gold” and “you can smash ’em”. So it would be easy for our athletes to get caught up in the hype and get nervous about their performances.

Although the Olympics is supposed to be about and was all about amateurs performing at their peak, these days the men and women competing are nearly all professionals competing in their chosen sport full-time. They should know or have access to tools which help them shut out the thoughts and comments of those sending messages to our Olympians, much of which is actually just hero worship, the idolising of people by the masses who’ve inspired them.

Many of these athletes have performed very well in the past to get them to the highest level of competition. A small number of them performing well enough in the lead-up to London 2012 to have that expectation of medalling, even winning put on them by all and sundry.

Are the media placing unrealistic expectations on our athletes? For the most part, no. The media have generally given athletes the “favourite” tag only if the individual athletes have performed over and above their peers in the lead-up to the event. That doesn’t excuse the over the top commentary which at times appears to shame our athletes who’ve in the eyes of the media “failed” by winning a medal of a different colour, or not at all when they’ve been expected to win a gold. Any medal, indeed just to be there is a massive effort in itself.

Could the athletes themselves be placing amazing levels of stress on themselves, such extreme expectations that they are exhausted by the stress of trying to live up to their own expectations? The answer here is likely yes. But the athletes placing such high expectations on themselves are generally those that have performed so well in the lead-in events, the heats and the semi-finals.

All athletes too expect to do their best. Those competitors that have done well at national and international events in the years and months before the Olympics will always have immense hopes for their Olympic experience. They will inevitably expect that to continue when they come to the once in four year event that is the Olympic Games. Let’s face it, with the event being that rare and the effort needed just to be able to participate in such a high level of sport being above and beyond 99.9% of the population our athletes are bound to break down to some degree if they don’t live up to their high hopes.

Truth be told, no one group is putting expectations on our Olympians above and beyond any other group. Australian’s are generally putting some level of hopes on our athletes based on past performances and the media hype. Are the media wrong in saying “hey, they’ve performed very well, they’re a great chance of a gold medal”? No. Our participants themselves are also responsible for the strain that they put on themselves knowing full well what is required and what might happen in their events.

Therefore, it seems all parties are in some part to blame for the expectations put on our athletes including in large part the athletes themselves. Much of the expectation is based on very impressive past experiences. How we as viewers and the media respond to performances which don’t live up to expectations, well that’s a different story entirely.

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