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The Near Impossibility of Finding a Better Way to Help Refugees

The humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian conflict has dominated world news for days now, as thousands of people fleeing persecution try to get to a number of European nations. Some of these nations have pledged to contribute to addressing the resettlement issue, some with more meaningful contributions than their regional neighbours. It is as if there was no preparation for, or expectation of a mass people movement brought about by the conflict.

But as with every other refugee situation, this is a global situation which needs a worldwide response. But that does not mean that individual nations cannot make their own decisions about how many refugees to aid. The point is though, that all need to help. This includes Australia.

But it seems that Tony Abbott does not want to help. His language so far this week indicates that he has decided there is effectively a ‘no vacancy’ sign shining brightly for the world’s most desperate people to see. As a result, it is now laid bare for all to see that ‘stopping the boats’ is not about cutting down the number of asylum seeker deaths which happen at sea, but a far more sinister attempt to appeal to the crowd that thinks we should not accept outsiders in almost any case. And in terms of situations where a country should help people, this current event is one of the clearest examples of when to do so.

It has been heartening to see at least a couple of members of the Coalition saying publicly that we need to help some of the Syrian asylum seekers. The most striking and also highest ranking example being minister and National Party MP, Barnaby Joyce. The Agriculture Minister is someone who is known for a bit of a dislike of foreign capital in terms of farmland. The other example being Craig Laundy, an MP from a marginal seat with ethnic diversity, whom you would expect to have a more sympathetic view.

Leaving aside abolishing offshore processing of asylum seeker claims, there are three things which could be done in terms of refugee policy in this country, with an eye to playing our part in dealing with this emergency. However, it is likely none of these policies will be enacted, at least until a change of government. The three main options are a significant increase in the yearly quota, to a number closer to 30,000 or above, a temporary spike in the number of refugees we accept, or a more flexible policy which focuses on helping people from current and emerging conflicts.

A permanent increase to Australia’s humanitarian intake would help absorb some of the strain caused by the displacement of people across the globe. The increase would have to number in the thousands to have any meaningful impact and would have to be coupled with greater regional and global cooperation on the matter. This is also the least politically palatable option, which is a real shame.

One of the easiest things the Coalition Government could have done is said to the Australian people that we need to accept a temporary spike in our refugee intake. It is a small fringe element within our community who would not accept such a reasonable policy prescription. A temporary spike could last a year, or a number of years and that increase would solely be made up of refugees who have been forced out of Syria. Again though, the problem is too big to be overlooked at a regional and international level, and that is the hardest part of the equation.

A more permanent way of contributing to the management of this and other refugee events which may emerge over time is to gear our almost our entire humanitarian intake toward managing the flow of asylum seekers from current and emerging conflicts. This is a flexible approach which can be managed as new movements of displaced people occur. It also largely removes the politics as it would be impossible to sensibly argue that those we would be helping are not the exact definition of a refugee. Yet again though, world thinking needs to be aligned.

It seems however that we are destined for regressive and repressive thinking domestically, at least for the time being. And our wilful inaction, coupled with the same dastardly inaction from other countries, will mean people who are so obviously suffering are still dying at sea.

Justice, Politics and the Royal Commission Show

Dyson Heydon’s deliberations on whether or not he should stay at the helm of the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) after claims of apprehended bias are over. The former High Court Justice has dismissed the application from union lawyers and will continue in the role the Abbott Government appointed him to.

But the story it would seem is not yet over. The unions will consider a court appeal. The ALP, who stand to lose some political skin from the TURC, though probably not enough to lose the 2016 election, have decided that asking the Governor-General to remove Heydon is the way to go. It has been foreshadowed that the Australian Labor Party will couple this with attacks on the Liberal Party for their part in this situation, when parliament resumes from September 7.

In terms of principles of natural justice it is quite clear what should have happened in this instance. It is clear to almost anyone, except for the most wilfully blind supporters of the right side of politics that former Justice Heydon should have recused himself from further hearings of this commission. This would have blunted any attacks from Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. That Commissioner Heydon cancelled his appearance at the fundraiser at a later stage is irrelevant. The decision to say yes to attending the function in the first place says more than enough.

However, there is absolutely no case to say that the Royal Commission should not go ahead altogether. This is particularly the case now that the inquiry has been running for a number of months and is doing vital work, uncovering just how murky the world of industrial relations can be. Renewed calls from Labor for a police taskforce instead of the Royal Commission are a bit rich, considering they announced a commission of inquiry the topic of which similarly could have been examined by a special police body.

Back on the justice side of the equation, the Abbott Government could have used this opportunity to widen the terms of reference to include all forms of corrupt practices across institutions in the industrial relations space. If this had been done, then any squealing from the unions or the ALP about the continuation of the royal commission could have been met with derisory laughter, from both the Coalition and the electorate.

With an election less than a year away, it is worth a brief look at what the current state of affairs means for both the Coalition and Bill Shorten’s ALP.

The Coalition may gain a small amount of much needed political traction from the findings of the Royal Commission, particularly if there are further discoveries made about union activities during Bill Shorten’s time as a union representative. But it will not prove an electoral game-changer. A shift in electoral fortunes could only come from more substantive policy and political narrative changes made by the Abbott Government. That would have had to begin well before the people stopped listening. This critical point was likely reached more than 6 months ago.

The ALP is likely to suffer mildly as a result of future TURC hearings. There will be some more unease about the leadership of Bill Shorten, but the polls and the new rules around leadership challenges will make a change on that front almost an impossibility.

The Trade Union Royal Commission will not feature high on the list of reasons the Abbott Government will probably lose power in 2016. In fact to say it will be a feature at all is nonsense. This area of politics is generally one where most have a worldview firmly locked in on one side of the debate or the other.

There will be some more noise on this issue over the coming weeks, but it will likely not last. It is hard to sustain attacks on things which do not have wide appeal.

Australian politics will meander toward the next misstep or missteps. With every day we will get closer to the 2016 election. And the show that is the Trade Union Royal Commission will continue, with Dyson Heydon likely to remain in the chair.

Moving On is the Hardest Thing

The votes are in and the Liberal leadership spill has been averted. Tony Abbott remains the Prime Minister after a party room meeting at 9am confirmed his leadership. The Liberal Party voted 61-39 against a spill of the Leader and Deputy Leader Positions. Just how far into this story are we? Is it a novella or a saga which will continue to play out before our already astonished eyes? Australian politics since 2007 has certainly been an epic tale and will likely continue to be a volatile environment for all of the players, from the voters to the politicians.

The first point to make is both an obvious and not so obvious conclusion. On the face of it the vote of the Liberal Party caucus was an emphatic one. More than half of the MP’s gathered voted at the very least to give the Prime Minister more time.

On the other hand, 39 members of his parliamentary team – over 40% of them and likely multiple ministers – delivered a vote of no confidence in his leadership. And it is a point made by many observers that this is an untenable position. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke did not save his leadership from a very similar vote to that which the Liberal Party delivered today. And Julia Gillard did not recover from a much better position than the one furnished to Tony Abbott by Liberal MP’s.

It can easily be argued that the Prime Minister would not be able to recover politically if he received as little as 25 or more votes in today’s ballot. The public have largely switched off and that is largely because of Tony Abbott, but also Joe Hockey. It is not the fault of any backroom figures and any move to shift the blame to them is just ridiculous. Politicians make the final decisions and while it is the job of staffers to persuade against particular directions, it is not their fault if good advice is not heeded.

There can be little doubt that Tony Abbott’s leadership will continue to further implode. Prime Minister Abbott has had months to stop making mistakes, without the threat of a leadership spill and has not done so. In recent times he has even appeared to be making fun of his penchant for ‘captain’s calls’. Tony Abbott should be solemnly proving by his actions, at every opportunity, that he is no longer going to make these unilateral decisions. He has not.

The PM can continue to talk about getting himself and the party out of this invidious position, but it will likely be to no avail.

If there was any small skerrick of a chance of Tony saving himself and the Coalition, then the government would have to change or dump some of the policies. The overall narrative simply has to remain, and the public will accept that. Voters accepted the debt had to go under John Howard and Peter Costello – for 12 years. At the very least, the co-payment idea and knights and dames must no longer be countenanced, even at arm’s length or in consultation with others. Recent history shows any changes will be cosmetic.

The current Treasurer’s commission has to be terminated too, regardless of whether Tony Abbott wants to stay in the job or not. Joe Hockey has gone from a pretty good Shadow Treasurer to a hopeless and abrasive embarrassment in the Treasury portfolio. Mr Hockey lacks the temperament to be able to deal with difficult negotiations. He has been far too stubborn. The trouble here is that the best candidate for the job is also the ideal replacement to Prime Minister Tony Abbott – Malcolm Turnbull.

The Treasury portfolio does deliver a difficulty in terms of the leadership equation. If there is no change of the leadership of the Coalition and at the same time, the Treasury portfolio, within a month, any new economic team after that would have less than two months to prepare the budget.

If the Liberal Party were to give Tony Abbott a further 6 months as leader and keep the Treasurer, as has been reported, then problems would arise on that front too. An incoming leadership team and their likely new bean counter would have to sell or quickly dump elements of a budget delivered by a politically compromised team.

Obviously the situation is absolutely dire. The Coalition will be in an even worse position if a likely transition to a new leader is not handled well. Another spill would not look great, even thought it would almost certainly deliver a new Liberal leader. The Liberal Party will need to be mature and know that the best way forward, whether it be almost immediately or after 6 months, is an orderly transition. Tony Abbott will have to swallow his pride and resign when it gets to that point.

This is not an easy situation to be in. But it is a situation cultivated by less than a handful of people and allowed to continue by dozens more. The actions of a few in that handful of people could determine how the next 18 months plays out.

Spilling the Blood in the Nicest Possible Way

Things are hotting up on the Liberal leadership front. The backgrounding from disgruntled PM’s has now morphed into spectacularly public dissent.

Public statements from Abbott Government MP’s about Tony Abbott’s leadership began in a very dramatic fashion with Jane Prentice on the national broadcaster. And again today the ABC played host to an even more dramatic statement – Dennis Jensen revealed he had told Tony Abbott that he could no longer support his leadership. Throw in Warren Entsch calling for the issue to be resolved in the partyroom next week and Mal Brough giving qualified support for the leader and you have the beginnings of a very messy situation.

Australia has seen a lot of leadership change in the last 5 years. Governments have fallen and governments have imploded, with leadership contests becoming more common. Matters look certain to come to a head in the near future within the Liberal Party.

Because of the certainty of the impending events, some care must be taken that the party deals with this difficult situation in the least ugly way possible. The Liberals need to learn from lessons of the past and make the move as seamlessly as possible. That will probably be easier said than done.

The best option is no challenge at all. That does not mean that the situation should continue as is. That would be among the worst outcomes. Poll results of 57%-43% in the Labor Party’s favour would become the new norm. The no-challenge option means the Prime Minister resigning in the face of growing discontent among members of caucus. Given the Prime Minister’s defiance and rhetoric at the National Press Club on Monday, this is also the least likely eventuality. So the party will have to navigate the next best way forward.

Another terrible option would be waiting too long before a challenge or transition. The Coalition Government would be even further paralysed by the inability to perform the basic functions of government – much like the ALP were in the period between 2010 and 2013. The present situation should be resolved within a matter of days or weeks and definitely not months. The new leader needs more than a year to get people listening again.

In an ideal world, one leadership contest or a single transition to a new Prime Minister would make the best of a bad situation. That means going about the process in a particular way.

In the event of a leadership contest, all candidates should publicly pledge to leave politics – like Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd did in the last leadership spill of 2013 – if they lose the battle. But instead of pledging to leave politics at the next election which is about 18 months away, the losing candidate or candidates should pledge to leave politics immediately, forcing a by-election. This option might cause some voters to be a little angry in the short-term, but it would be the best way project an air of stability in the medium to long-term.

Even more important than the ease of the transition is the shift in policy and rhetoric. This has already commenced, though barely, under Tony Abbott, but needs to go further under his replacement. The party must realise that the the products need to be re-designed and the sales pitch altered. A fresh team in the problematic treasury, health, education and social services portfolios would help sell the message of change.

Tony Abbott and the Coalition face some difficult days and weeks ahead. But this issue needs a resolution and that solution has to lead to the best medium and long-term outcomes for the party. Egos cannot get in the way or the Liberal Party leadership issue will fester. And that is what really cooked the Australian Labor Party.

Just how quickly these events will reach a crescendo is yet to be determined. But this situation can be controlled and managed better than it has been so far.

Cooler heads must prevail.

Where’s That Button?

Calendars have only just been flipped over to February and already so much has happened in Australian politics this new year. In just a few weeks the government’s standing has gone from bad to worse. Many of the government’s woes over the last 18 months have been as a result of difficult policy decisions made in response to the less than ideal budgetary position. A lot of the government’s troubles are also down to Tony Abbott’s leadership and the style of governance he has allowed to linger. So far in 2015 all the missteps are down to Tony Abbott – and only Tony Abbott.

That brings us to today, the 2nd of February, 2015. The Prime Minister made a rare appearance at the National Press Club today in a bid to give the public a taste of a government finally engaging with the public and proving that they have begun to listen to voter concerns.

Election night in Queensland drew our attention to the address in spectacular fashion, with Jane Prentice nominating it as a forum at which the Prime Minister had to perform some kind of miraculous recovery effort – setting out a way to escape the doldrums.

Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Abbott was unable to perform this feat. There were ever so slight slivers of hope that the speech might give some kind of direction. At best it was a tired, spent leader trying to conjure up a final burst of energy, sprinting a bit, but wobbling at the crucial moment. At worst it was a display of arrogance and disdain for voters. Actually, it was probably a mix of the two.

The Prime Minister started by making some broad statements about what government should do and followed that with what his government had done and what it could both do, and do better.

In reality, what the Prime Minister should have done first was to move pretty swiftly into apology mode. Almost the whole speech could have been one long mea culpa, with a little bit of what he and the government were going to do for the next 18 months thrown in at the end.

Making broad statements about what governments should do is irrelevant when you have already achieved government. You draw attention to the fact that you are not doing those things if you need to spend time talking about them. Furthermore, it is the talk of an Opposition Leader and that is not a good look 18 months into office.

In other words, Tony Abbott had his speech in completely the wrong order.The resulting display was at least one-third waffle and two-thirds slight improvement.

The arrogance sprang from the way the Prime Minister took so long getting to what everyone was made to believe was the point of the speech – an apology for taking voters for mugs and a new way forward. In the case of a new way forward, we only got a brief glimpse of that, but again it was all vision and no substance. Again, something expected of Oppositions early on in a political term.

Shockingly, the Prime Minister also implied that voters were stupid and had encountered a “fit of absent-mindedness” in the Victorian and Queensland elections. Even a rookie politician knows that this kind of thought must not be put into words publicly, regardless of whether it is a correct observation or not.

It was tired precisely for the reasons mentioned above, in that there had been little thought and substance woven into the speech. And the Prime Minister looked tired too. There was very little energy put into the delivery, except when the PM mentioned the few things his government has actually done. The fact that came so early gave the address a valedictory feel.

Tony Abbott has spoken multiple times of hitting the reset button. On each occasion he has instead forgotten that the metaphorical button ever existed in the first place. Today was another one of those days for the struggling leader.

Today could have been Tony Abbott’s last chance to save his leadership and he did a very poor job of fighting for it . Or perhaps he knows that he is a spent force and today’s speech was simply going through the motions. He did however imply that his colleagues would have a fight on their hands to unseat him.

It is pretty clear from some of the facial expressions of his colleagues, captured on film throughout the hour, that they had noticed his suboptimal performance too.

Queensland Helps Break the Political Mould

In the world of politics there is a lot of talk about different eras. In most countries politics is referred to in terms of pre and post-war eras. In Australia we talk about pre and post war politics and even post-1975 Australia. And in the United States of America there is also discussion of a post-war era. Today in Australia, we can fairly comfortably talk of there being a post-2010 age of politics.

The Newman Government – and Campbell Newman himself – dramatically lost power in Queensland in what has to be one of the biggest shock results in politics, even eclipsing the hung parliament outcome in federal politics in 2010. To put it simply – nobody saw this coming, surely even the Australian Labor Party in Queensland.

A number of people argued after the Victorian election earlier this year and the hung parliament in 2010, that one-term governments could be the big new possibility in Australian politics. It was far from certain that it could be a new feature of Australian democracy on a semi-regular basis back when Daniel Andrews became Premier, but now it seems it can be seen that way. Barring drastic change in the fortunes of the federal coalition, it seems the Abbott Government will be a one term government.

The questions that will be asked a lot over the coming days and weeks are ‘what happened? And how/why did it happen?’. Without a doubt there were multiple factors, including things the LNP had control over and that they did not.

By far the biggest factor which the outgoing government in Queensland could control but failed to was how they governed the state. Campbell Newman and the LNP governed with an arrogance, surely in large part fuelled by the whopping majority handed to them by voters in 2012.But they also began governing without listening to voters. It is one of the simplest rules in democratic politics that you must listen to the public.

Even in conservative Queensland, it is hard to deny the fact that federal politics played a role. A number of state and federal Coalition MP’s admitted as much, including Jane Prentice in a most dramatic fashion on the ABC election night broadcast. Long gone is the time when you could safely say that federal issues had little or no bearing on state results. In this space, it has come very quickly to a point in time when most people are asking when Tony Abbott will lose his job as Prime Minister rather than if he will.

The assets question is an interesting one. It is a question that was put to Queensland voters by the LNP Government a while back and one the LNP thought they could build a case for on the back of deciding to lease some assets rather than sell them. However it seems that polling indicated it was one of the big issues on the minds’ of the voting public.

The cuts made by the LNP at the beginning of their tenure surely played a role in the devastating result too. Voters knew that the LNP had to make cuts and they always have to after a long-term Labor Government. It was the terrible and shady way this issue was dealt with which would have really annoyed the people of Queensland.

It is hard to argue that the ALP won this campaign, and therefore government. The whole campaign it felt like they were going through the motions. It was quite obvious that the only goal many in the party saw achievable was knocking over Campbell Newman in Ashgrove. To put it quite simply it was the LNP who lost government. They did so through a series of politically stupid decisions.

The LNP have to make some difficult choices now in order to become electable again in three years’ time. They have to pick a new leader and really think about which issues to keep on fighting on in the usual way and those where they need to have a different perspective.

In terms of the leadership question, it looks reasonably likely that the Liberal National Party will finally turn to Tim Nicholls. As far as experience in a key economic portfolio goes, he looks like the ideal candidate to replace Campbell Newman. The trouble with his candidacy will be the question of whether or not he is viewed by the public as damaged goods having been the Treasurer for Campbell Newman.

The LNP would really want to think long and hard about this very important consideration. The issue with John-Paul Langbroek and Lawrence Springborg, other than their ministerial association with the former government, will be their failed attempts at the party leadership in the past. However, working in their favour is the example of John Howard.

There is one other contender thrown up in the leadership equation, and that is Scott Emerson, the former Transport Minister. There is the ministerial association with the outgoing administration, however he has not been as heavily linked with a string of tough decisions as the other candidates have been. Mr Emerson would also be a lacklustre choice, but then so was Annastacia Palaszczuk and she will become the new Premier.

There are not a lot of certainties in Australian politics anymore. We will have to keep watching intently to see what else may happen and just what is possible the next time Queensland heads to the polls.

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.

Putting the Politics Into Public Appointments

The 2013 election result is almost set in stone. In that case, the Liberal and National Party coalition will form government after the September 14 poll, leaving the Australian Labor Party to do some soul-searching on the opposition benches. That means that from late this year, the incoming government would have the ability to make appointments to the various offices and positions across government and the public service. Almost on cue, debate has occurred over these potential appointments.

It has emerged that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sent a letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard urging that she not announce a successor to Governor-General Quentin Bryce whose term concludes next March, about 6 months after the election. The letter also chastises the PM for the recent reappointment of the Australian Electoral Commissioner and other public service appointments made recently.

In the letter, the alternative Prime Minister writes: ”The decision to announce these appointments subverts the established convention that no government should make decisions that are legitimately the province of a potential successor”. Yes, that old nugget again about the caretaker conventions which we have already debated during this, the 43rd parliament. You would have thought that little debate was well and truly settled. It is quite surprising it is being raised again, albeit in relation to a different topic.

Under the caretaker conventions, appointments should not be made by a government during the caretaker period of government. Further, if it is necessary for there to be an appointment made once parliament is dissolved, then it should be deemed a temporary role where the person nominated is acting in the role for a short period of time, If it is deemed necessary for the government to make a permanent appointment then, under the conventions, it is agreed that the Opposition be consulted with on that position.

As there was with the earlier protestations about the government following caretaker conventions, there is a slight problem – they do not apply to the present political situation. The Prime Minister has still not visited the Governor-General to ask that parliament be dissolved and that writs be issued for a general election. We are however in the unusual position where we have an election date. But for all intents and purposes, it means nothing in this scenario.

Where there is scope for some debate, at first glance anyway, is around the rumour of a government intending to make an appointment at a point in time so far from the present date and one which would take effect after an election they are likely to lose. And that is what has apparently prompted the letter from Tony Abbott to Julia Gillard. There is also a rumour going around the political world that an incoming Coalition Government would seek to make former Prime Minister John Howard Australia’s next Governor-General.

Quentin Bryce was announced as Australia’s Governor-General approximately five months before replacing outgoing vice-regal representative Major Michael Jeffery in 2008. A rather lengthy transition period seems to be the norm and that is not particularly problematic, given that it often involves relocation, though people often move at shorter notice for employment.

It is strange, if true, that the government would seek to make an appointment to the office of Governor-General some time before the election in September. There is absolutely no reason for any government to need to contemplate making an offer of employment for a position which is not vacant until March 2014.

The potential future appointment and the response to the whispers about it point to a disturbing part of our political culture – the need to make senior public service appointments political. Who lands senior public service roles should never be the plaything of political parties striving to make a point and stamp their authority, but it is. The so-called ‘jobs for the boys (and gals)’ culture is an unfortunate blight which rankles with voters in the early months after each election, to the point where many of us now accept it as the norm. Unfortunately, it colours our altogether negative view of politics and politicians.

Who lands what role should be less, though preferably devoid of politics and more about merit. We are a meritocratic society elsewhere, and when it comes to the public service, even largely ceremonial roles should be filled by the best, most accomplished fit.

When will politicians learn that their search for power shapes the way we view them?

When Politics Gets Ugly

Parliament is often very loud. Parliamentarians are regularly seen raising their voices at one another across the floor of the parliament. But it is not very often that a lot of noise comes from the public gallery. But earlier this week that is exactly what happened. A group of protesters, as they have once or twice before in this the 43rd parliament, raised their voices and heckled and called the Prime Minister those most creative and under-used names which will not be repeated here.

This week’s interruption, as the last one did, raised two main questions. The first is all about the standards of the public discourse and any improvement it requires. The second question is the most important and that is who is ultimately responsible for the tone and demeanour of political communication – any communication for that matter.

The tone and manner of all forms of communication, especially that of a political nature actually matters. We the public get frustrated with the behaviour of our politicians, frequently referring to them as different kinds of animals because of their rambunctious and at times obnoxious behaviour in parliament, most notably during Question Time.

Parliamentary debate, even during the hot-headed hour and ten minutes that is Question Time should be much more subdued and civilised. Obscene statements and generalisations should be kept to a minimum. More importantly, name-calling, despite our larrikin nature as Australians simply should not take place.

Despite the poor behaviour of our elected representatives, we should not be engaging in equally poor behaviour ourselves. Parliament should be treated with respect, regardless of the political colour of the government of the day. That means no childish name-calling from the galleries, despite what’s happening in the chamber.

What happened the other day was simply too much. The whole spectacle was ugly. The way the protesters chose to interact with the Labor Government demeaned the parliament. More importantly, it made the protesters look just as silly as the politicians they dislike. The actions of the protesters also unfortunately and rather unfairly. tarred with the same brush, those who might have a similar view of the current government, but express their disquiet in a different manner.

That’s not to say that protest is not a vital part of democracy. It is. But as with protest elsewhere, it should be conducted in a sensible manner and in a sensible forum or it does the cause behind it much harm.

The response to the loud behaviour of the observers was both fair and unfair. The Speaker was right to chastise the rowdy actions which took place this week. There should be a zero tolerance approach to an interruption of the parliament that is loud like that. Very few people outside of those involved in or sympathetic to the particular cause involved, ever take such actions seriously.

What was quite unfair about elements of the response was the apportioning of blame for the actions of those in the public gallery. The Coalition were singled out and blame was apportioned. Yes, the Coalition have been responsible for some pretty ordinary moments during this minority government, as have the ALP. But that was their actions and again, a rational response from those which view such behaviour is not to repeat it.

There is also a very important concept in liberal thought which is completely ignored by this purely political accusation levelled at the Liberal and National Party Coalition. That concept is one of responsibility for one’s own actions. Despite the sometimes over-the-top actions from the Opposition, it is the protesters and only the protesters, who are responsible for their actions.

It is important that the standards of political communication improve. It would cut down on some of the cynicism which surrounds politics, though not necessarily the political process itself. Both politicians and the public need to improve how they discuss and engage with politics.

First and foremost, politicians and punters alike are responsible for their own actions, not one side of politics or another.

Travel Ban Might be Just the Ticket

A Coalition meeting was today told by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that overseas travel is a no-no from now until the election. It is an interesting strategy and could tell us more about the political situation in Canberra than we think. It could also be just as much the case that the move is a prudent strategy in terms of connecting with the Australian electorate.

In announcing the overseas travel ban to his colleagues, Mr Abbott cited the possibility of an election at any time as reason enough to prevent his MP’s from  journeying around the world. Of course Prime Minister Gillard has already announced that the election will be on September 14, which leaves plenty of time for travel between now and polling day. So  it does appear a little odd, the alternative Prime Minister putting a stop to the jet-setting travel habits’ of MP’s.

But stranger things have happened. A Rudd return might actually have slightly more chance than Buckley’s. Kevin Rudd has ramped up the PR assault over the early part of 2013 and that has escalated spectacularly over the last 24 hours. Of course the chances are still remote, but it’s politics and a lot of intriguing things have happened over the last 5 years.

If there were to be a second stint from Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, Labor would want to make a quick transition from a Rudd return to a federal election. If a Prime Ministerial switch were to happen, calling an election would likely be an immediate move. In that event, the Coalition would want to have all MP’s ready and available to hit the campaign trail from the moment the election is called.

The move also has a not insignificant subtext. N0 overseas travel also implies a focus on promoting domestic policy concerns rather than “learning” about obscure nations that mean little to nothing for us in a diplomatic and political sense. Also, international travel is far from necessary for all MP’s. Indeed, most MP’s do not need to engage in travel.

Blocking overseas travel may be a prudent move, not just in terms of electoral readiness, but in terms of cutting down the potential for a public relations disaster which might annoy the public. The general public is at the very least suspicious, even downright against politicians embarking on ridiculously blatant junkets and so-called “study tours” overseas.

Okay, banning travel for a short period of time is probably not a massive vote winner, but it is a sensible move that might translate into some votes on election day.

A limited group of Liberal and National Party MP’s should however be exempt from any travel ban. Those in mind are the Opposition Leader himself, his deputy Julie Bishop who also happens to be Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, any other MP with a shadow portfolio which has an overseas focus, and parliamentarians on committees which require travel that would be in the national interest.

Restrictions on these representatives should still exist, but some reasonable leeway given.

In fact, while they are at it, the Coalition should plan to introduce tougher restrictions on MP travel. But of course they will not. The travel bug is a virulent thing. Politicians are struck down by it constantly. In many cases they could avoid the illness by not exposing themselves to so many perks. But why would they want to change that? The consequence is that they will continue to be infected.

We now see the underlying intent to focus on domestic issues. The next step is to put the policy meat on the bone. This should be a gradual thing as we move toward September.

That will be easier communicate with politicians’ feet firmly planted on Australian soil.

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