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Britain’s Moving on Marriage, Why Can’t We?

A draft bill which aims to establish marriage equality in England and Wales  has passed through the House of Commons – their equivalent of our House of Representatives. The vote was won by a handsome margin – 400 votes to 175 in the lower house in Britain. The Conservative Party, governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, allowed a conscience vote on the same-sex marriage bill put before the House. And a majority of Labor MP’s and Liberal Democrats voted in favour of the bill.

Unsurprisingly, given the recent history of the marriage debate in Australia, after the proposition was voted down by a wide margin in the Australian parliament and how strong support for gay marriage still is in Australia – the discussion of the successful vote in the United Kingdom quickly led to a discussion of the consequences of the move for the Australian cause.

As it has been from the start, the big issue was the comparison between the stance of the Conservative Party in the UK and that of the Liberal Party in Australia. The former, David Cameron’s Conservative Party, gave their MP’s a conscience vote in the parliament. Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party, with a history of granting conscience votes, opted not to go down the route of a conscience vote, using the excuse of going to the 2010 promising to keep the marriage act unamended.

Many will say that it is the Coalition held back the cause of equal marriage with their decision not to hold a conscience vote. The Liberal Party should certainly have allowed a conscience vote, hoping to at least appear more liberal than they have been. It is however far from certain, even with a conscience vote, that the bill would have passed the Lower House. At the very least it would have been a close-run thing.

It has also been said that today’s win in the UK will put pressure on the Liberal Party when it comes to marriage equality. Will it? Not necessarily. In fact, probably not. The Liberal Party will likely decide, at least for the foreseeable future – not to take their cues from outside and foreign influences. The move toward marriage equality in the UK should, even though it will not – prove that legislating for same-sex marriage is not a scary thing and not a step too far for conservatives.

Perhaps the best thing for the cause of gay marriage, as far as the Liberal Party is concerned, would be for the remaining liberal forces in the party, though they are rapidly dwindling, to continue to try to muster the political strength to call on the party to adopt a conscience vote. This in itself will not be an easy task. But there have been branch wins reported and if these continued, then the pressure will continue to mount on the parliamentary Liberal Party to change their stance.

Where the argument will not be won is through trying to claim that the issue would be a vote-winner for the Liberal Party. There is no doubt that marriage equality is at its most popular as a concept and a future reality in Australia. Polls continuously show that a majority of respondents favour amending the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. And that cuts across all political parties, even the Liberal Party.

But that does not translate into votes. On the face of it, it may seem like overwhelming support for an issue would equal votes if that policy direction was pursued. But contrary to what some appear to believe, most people do not vote on one single issue or even two or three. They might vote on the economy as a single issue, but very few would vote for marriage equality as a single issue. People voting for marriage equality are likely overwhelmingly vote for a political entity hoping to pursue a whole suite of progressive measures.

Really, what needs to be continually pointed out is that the demise of the sanctity of marriage will not come from gay marriage, but outside forces, more related to the way in which we live our lives.

The UK example should serve as a reminder to the Liberal Party that gay marriage is not an evil concept which conservatives must avoid at all costs. But minds will not be dramatically shifted because of what has happened in Britain.

The Liberal Party will however have to realise that a change to the Marriage Act is inevitable, even if they do not wish to go along with it.

To Tinker or Cut?

Just last week at the National Press Club came an announcement one of the first confirmed and specific funding cuts. Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, in his address flagged that the Coalition will dump the Schoolkids Bonus, a policy change made by the Gillard Government. The upfront payment replaced a tax refund, which required the provision of receipts before the payment was made. To date, the government has made payments to more than 1.2 million families, totaling $588 million dollars.

This decision caused some debate, but, in as important a policy area as education, there can always be more attention focused on the impacts of political actions.

In announcing the decision, Tony Abbott remarked that the Schoolkids Bonus was, “a cash splash with borrowed money”. Is it really that simple? Or should we be looking a little more critically and thoughtfully? And in conclusion, was it right for the Coalition to make the decision to dump the payment altogether?

In politics, every single decision, often every phrase, even almost every word is subjected to the political spin cycle. And politicians love to engage in hyperbole, even if they do not know how to pronounce it. And not much is different here.

The change made by the Gillard Government, in that sense, is open to being called exactly what Tony Abbott referred to it as. The timing of the move and new mode of delivery for the payment are questionable, at least on appearance. It’s an election year and probably close to 9 out of 10 people would expect the government to lose at the September 14 poll – the opinion polls have been saying so and even the betting has the Coalition as stark favourites. So the payment of course could be painted in a way as an electoral bribe. It is also borrowed money.

But on closer inspection, the payment itself is actually of the utmost importance. It’s to be used for the education of Australian children – our nation’s future. The Coalition will have you believe that the payment will not be used for education purposes in all cases and they may be right in some cases. But that way of thinking is very illiberal for a supposed Liberal Party. Conservatives see human nature as flawed, and not liberals. Liberals have a largely positive view of human nature.

Scrapping the payment altogether, apart from being illiberal, is also a bad thing for education and equality. For ‘equality’, read equality of opportunity – that should be the main game in education policy as equality of outcomes is a completely unattainable and unreasonable aim in the area of education policy.

We should be ensuring that absolutely every child and young adult has access to an education. It must not be a one size fits all approach, but access to education tailored to meet the needs of those engaged in it must be without roadblocks. That includes assisting families with the cost of school-related supplies.

What the Coalition should have done, rather than deciding to scrap the payment altogether, was announce that they will seek to reinstate the old Education Tax Refund. But of course the budget is in a bit of a mess and they have instead planned to cut funding in an area of policy-making which should be quarantined from cuts in most circumstances.

The decision is not an electoral game-changer, but it’s not a good choice of policy.

A Gradually Building Election Campaign

The Leader of the Opposition has launched the Coalition’s so-called “mini campaign”, the setting being the outer western suburbs of Sydney. That western Sydney is the focal point so early in an election year should come as no surprise given just how crucial the area is in any election. A mix of polls have shown that the Liberal Party could pick up a number of seats in the area. Lindsay, McMahon, Barton, Reid, Parramatta, Greenway, Watson, Werriwa, Fowler and Banks are all in play for the Coalition according to internal Labor polling from November last year.

The new year in politics has already been conducted at a frenetic pace. Amid natural disasters, we’ve already had a number of issues play out. But it is the election that matters. The election is due any time from August onward, but the tactical moves and campaigning, sound or otherwise, have started early. That’s what we have come to expect from Australian politics.

Looking at the mini campaign itself has the right move been made tactically? And in terms of the election campaign as a whole, what are the political realities and what is required from the opposition now, and as the election day hurtles toward us?

In an election year, it’s too early even for a short, but clearly forensic and politically calculated bombardment of electorates. The week ahead is clearly about trying to reverse the negative perceptions of Tony Abbott. That is fine, but it is too early for a political blitzkrieg. It gives off the wrong vibes. A short burst of campaigning is usually something associated with the final days of a campaign, especially when there is a late surge required.

Instead, what should be favoured is, at the present time, a similar yet different campaign method to the one deployed almost from the 22nd of August in 2010, the day after the surprise election result. What should be similar is the constant campaigning. However, it should be different in that it must have less of a campaign feel about it. The campaign should be much more muted – campaign fatigue has well and truly set in.

This short burst of election campaigning too, because of how early in the year it is, must be more about Tony Abbott listening to the concerns of voters than preaching to them. Yes, broad themes must be sold, but now is still a time for Tony Abbott to lend his ear to the voters of Australia rather than chew it off. Both leaders have been doing a lot of the latter.

From a public relations perspective, it might well have been better too, if the term ‘mini campaign’ was jettisoned. To have rephrased it as a listening tour would have been better, though in politics, both have negative connotations.

In the prism of the broader campaign, there have been complaints, as their has been throughout Mr Abbott’s leadership, that he has not released much policy. In any case it is still too early to release a broad range of fully-costed policies. But there must be a drip feed of policies and the refinement or jettisoning of existing ones – think paid maternity leave.

There is another reason why complaints about dearth of policy should not hold much weight. Because of the nature of the budget, a campaign lacking in major policy commitments, other than pre-existing ones, is a political reality. So the Opposition Leader can be forgiven in that sense too. The election will be one where a measure of austerity is the norm, even though Labor have been trying to frame it as otherwise in order to try to dent Coalition prospects.

The campaign will continue to evolve over the coming months. It will be testy and it will be tough. You can expect that there will be further campaign fatigue suffered by the community and that’s why the mini campaign and the early part of this year needs to involve more listening to the voter than speaking at them. It needs to build gradually.

And ultimately, because of the fiscal situation, there won’t be much in the way of substantive argument dominating the political discourse.

What to Look Forward to in Australian Politics This Year

Okay, so for some the title of this post will perhaps be a bit of a misnomer. There will be some that are really looking forward to what 2013 means in terms of Australian politics, and there will be others that have greeted the start of 2013 with a sense of dread. Regardless, it’s going to be an epic year on the frontline of the political battle, with the coming months a winner takes all period in politics.

So why will some think of politics in 2013 with a sense of foreboding, and others with a feeling of political glee? In short, it’s because of an event, an 8 letter word starting with ‘e’. Give up? Of course you don’t. You’re thinking, well duh, he’s clearly talking about the federal election. And you would be 100% correct.

Coalition supporters and those swinging voters that have long switched off Labor are itching to have their say at the ballot box. On the other side, you have some Labor supporters that think the job can still be done, who are relishing the contest. Then you have others who feel the election is lost- and it almost certainly is.

The election year will bring something that was conspicuously absent in 2012 and that is serious policy announcements and refinement of existing policies. The politics of personality will still be played and pursued with the same level of vim and vigour as it was last year, but at least there will be a much more positive side to the political discourse as the election- likely sometime from August, approaches.

But with the good of an election year also comes the not so good. Promises will be made and most kept. However, some will inevitably be broken. In years gone by, we had ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises, but this has been replaced. We still have policies readily announced, to be implemented as soon as possible, but now in the political lexicon we have a little something called ‘aspirational’ policies. The latter are policies that are usually big commitments and worth implementing, but because of fiscal concerns will be flagged as something for the future. But like non-core promises, surely some will never, ever be introduced.

This election year, do not expect big-spending promises- well, at least not new ones anyway. Expect the Opposition, as they have since the early days of the Labor Government, to spend a significant amount of time focusing on the budget position. According to the polls, good economic management is something strongly associated with the right side of the political spectrum, so why wouldn’t the Coalition take every chance to prosecute this?

Election years also bring carefully targeted spending commitments from governments struggling to maintain their grasp on power and that will not be any different, despite the poll result appearing to be a fait accompli.

Aside from the budget, expect taxation, chiefly the carbon price and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, to continue to be a major feature in the political to-and-fro. According to the polls, the former is becoming less of an issue for the government, though still it still at this stage presents a problem.

Budget and taxation aside, the election campaign, which feels like it has already been going for some time will largely be a case of both sides of the spectrum trying to position themselves as stable and able to provide effective government.

Like any given year, whether there is an election pending or not, parliamentary sessions take place. Expect the commonwealth parliament to be a slightly different beast, but not altogether foreign to those of us who observed parliamentary politics in 2012. Undoubtedly there will be much more substance in the parliamentary debate this year, but the same noise and antics will be an ever-present feature, with the theatre that is parliament convening for the first time this year in early February. But of course, the election is all that just about anyone in the general public cares about.

It’s only early January and things are yet to heat up, apart from the weather. But do not let the relative silence fool you, because 2013 is set to be one frenetic year. The election is the event to look forward to this year. Then again, maybe not.

The Ashby Decision and Living by the Same Rules

Earlier this week the Federal Court in Sydney threw out the sexual harassment suit against former Speaker Peter Slipper which was brought by his former staffer, James Ashby.

It was a spectacular turn of events after a tough year for Australian politics. The year has been book-ended by scandal, with allegations against Craig Thomson dominating debate particularly at the start of the political year. And now the dramatic collapse of the case against Peter Slipper, brought in April, sees the year end with a twist. 

Federal Court judge, Justice Steven Rares found that former Howard Government Minister and LNP candidate for Slipper’s electorate of Fisher, Mal Brough acted “in combination” with James Ashby and a second staff member ”to cause Mr Slipper as much political and public damage as they could inflict upon him.”

Of course the Gillard Government, as any would in the same position, has jumped on this and are now calling on Mal Brough to be disendorsed by the Queensland-based LNP.

But the ALP are seeking much, much more. Since the judgement was handed down, various Labor ministers and MP’s, including the Prime Minister have called upon Tony Abbott and other senior Coalition members to explain their knowledge of the affair.

And the government has not ruled out an inquiry into the events which have led to this crescendo.

Whether or not Mal Brough is disendorsed could depend on two factors: whether or not an appeal, (which James Ashby flagged his intentions of submitting), is successful, or whether the party organisation considers Brough damaged enough to not allow him to proceed with his candidacy for the Sunshine Coast electorate.

So far no appeal has been lodged and the LNP and senior federal Liberal MP’s have publicly endorsed Mal Brough to continue as their representative for Fisher in the 2013 election.

If no appeal is lodged, then of course Mal Brough should swiftly fall on his sword.

The case, in the way it is being prosecuted by the government, has strong parallels with the recently highly public AWU allegations levelled against Prime Minister Gillard.

Some members of the Labor Government appear to be alleging that there has been wrongdoing and a broader conspiracy involving shadow ministers in the federal Liberal Party.

Like the ALP required of the Opposition when the shoe was on the other foot, they will have to make clear what questions they have, but also which Liberal Party representatives should be answering those questions.  Further, the Labor Party needs to outline what acts of illegality or wrongdoing they are alleging transpired. And finally, the Gillard Government need to outline what evidence they have of wrongdoing.

There is a need for questions to be answered by senior Liberal MP’s, both to dispute the claims and for the sake of transparency.

Liberal MP’s were slow to react to the news and subject themselves to interviews about the claims. Some have however fronted the media in different parts of Australia and the world. But Christopher Pyne has so far avoided media scrutiny and Tony Abbott upon his return to Australia should perhaps face a slightly larger press pack, if anything for the sake of the image it would portray.

The next part of the equation is up to the Labor Party alone.

The ALP as a whole must outline what acts of illegality or moral wrongdoing they believe has occurred here. So far the strongest claim made by any Labor MP was of a broad conspiracy, but a number of senior Labor figures are singing slightly different tunes on this.

Finally, the Labor Party must produce hard evidence showing what they believe has gone on within the Liberal Party.

So far there is evidence of some communication between Christopher Pyne and James Ashby which has seen Mr Pyne change his story multiple times, but this does not prove collusion between the two, nor other unlawful acts. At the very least it is embarrassing and looks ugly.

Any proof that the Labor Party may have or think they may have of misdeeds will need to be presented. Labor might also use an inquiry as a vehicle for gathering evidence and that is their prerogative.

This saga is likely to extend well beyond Christmas and into the election year. But Labor, in the Prime Minister’s own words, must “put up or shut up.”

The Theoretical Budget Savings Proposal Capping a Week Of Shame

The politics of asylum seekers has been in the media a lot over the past 5 years, but has been an even more significant part of the political fabric during this term. Specifically, since August, the attention given to what should be a small issue, has accelerated beyond belief. It’s now as if both the major political parties are treating it as one of the biggest issues of the day. It’s simply not, especially in the way it is now being dealt with in a completely negative and dangerous manner by Liberal and Labor alike.

This week in particular has been the most toxic for the asylum seeker debate in recent history. Asylum seekers are now headed to Manus Island for offshore processing and languishing in tents so uncomfortable and so unlivable. To top it all off, asylum seekers that will be released into the community, as a result of the recent influx, will not be able to work.

To top it all off, the Opposition Leader today announced a backflip on asylum seeker policy and it’s not a positive one. Tony Abbott today announced that the Coalition would cut the recently increased humanitarian intake of 20,000 back down to 13,750.

The announcement today is a strange one, given that Mr Abbott and the Liberal Party, just months ago, put the offer of increasing the humanitarian intake on the negotiating table.

Despite the fact that both the Coalition and the ALP both do not understand people movements, let alone humanity, the announcement today shows not just a lack of understanding of refugee policy, but also a real disdain for some of the most vulnerable and desperate people.

The budget bottom-line was given today as the main reason for the policy change from the Coalition, saying that the measure would save the budget $1.4 billion over the forward estimates.

The Opposition, upon taking government would fast realise, having reduced the refugee intake so dramatically, that, at best, the boats will stop temporarily. At the  same time, pressure would be building up in refugee locations in the region, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, but also Sri Lanka.

Ultimately, the change in policy would lead to these vulnerable people taking the dangerous journey. There is also a strong chance that asylum seekers would ignore the supposed policy signal that the Liberal Party believes the change would send to boat people and people smugglers.

So of course, many of the costs associated with the problem, including sending Navy vessels to intercept asylum seeker vessels would actually remain and even increase, seriously putting in jeopardy the theoretical $1.4 billion budget saving.

Really then, it is clear that the decision today is not about saving money. It is again about being cruel while this time not even pretending to be kind. There is no favourable outcome from this policy for either asylum seekers or for the government except in terms of winning the xenophobic vote.

Tony Abbott also argued today that lifting the humanitarian intake to 20,000 would send the wrong signal to people smugglers. Well, he is right about it sending a signal. The change will make it harder for people smugglers to justify asking for thousands of dollars when thousands more people will be accepted into the country under the increased humanitarian intake. This is one thing that Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has been right about this week.

Again we have a case of a political leader focusing far too much attention toward domestic political expediency. In doing so, Mr Abbott and the modern-day Liberal Party display a distinct lack of understanding  of the broader refugee debate. In fact, there is a water-tight case that both sides are wilfully ignorant of most of the issues that contribute to irregular people movement. Populism has seen to it that the unusually emotionally charged issue will not be dealt with in a rational manner.

There are only partial answers to the solution. The issue is too immense for Australia to deal with on her own. It is both regional and global.

Maintaining the humanitarian intake at 20,000 under an Abbott Government would have contributed to cutting down the number of maritime arrivals.

The Costings Fetish and What it May Mean

Australian politics is undoubtedly at a strange place. Since the 2010 election when Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Labor Government scraped into the power with the support of the Greens and three Independent MP’s, all the usual hostilities have ramped up. Some new battles have even been established too. Much of this can be put down to one simple factor and that is the vicinity of power to the two political leaders. The Labor Party are just holding onto power, only just and the Liberal and National Party coalition still look very close to taking power at the 2013 election despite narrowing poll margins.

Of all the interesting and at times absurd events fomented by the fragile state of play, one of the most interesting has been the growing desire and outward protestations from the ALP , particularly over recent weeks and months, for the Coalition to cost their policies and do so now.

There are always calls from incumbent governments, it is true, for opposition parties to release and cost their policies as early as possible. Why would governments not want to do that? Were that to occur, to be common practice, it would certainly help the reigning political party or coalition to construct a strategy to rip apart the figures.

It has come to light this week that a relatively unusual event has occurred in Australian politics. The Gillard Government, it was revealed, asked Treasury to cost three existing Coalition policies. That analysis found that those three policies would come at a cost of $4.57 billion to businesses in the first year of a Coalition Government from 2013.

As was mentioned before, governments seeking costings in a rather energetic way has always been a bit of a thing. But now it appears to have developed into a fetish. Rarely before have the calls been so relentless and so vocal. Again, that mostly goes down to the thirst for either maintaining or gaining power, a hunger that both sides of politics have at the present time.

Really though, it is completely stupid to be asking, to be demanding that opposition parties release their policies so far out from the election. If the budget state is uncertain and your party have announced, or have a well-entrenched focus on achieving a particular budget outcome, then it would be folly to release your costed policies so far out from the election.

It is almost without doubt that the Coalition will either drop outright or alter, either in part or dramatically, their existing policies. You could almost be sure that the paid parental leave scheme will be different to the existing policy. The rhetoric around that policy has shifted and talk about it from the Coalition is no longer a priority, almost to the point of no words being uttered willingly about the proposed scheme.

Not only that, but the Opposition would surely be considering a number of cuts to existing government programs. That’s a hallmark of Liberal administrations.

An interesting thought does come to mind when thinking about the reasons for the Gillard Government seeking and then leaking costings of Liberal Party policies.

The possibility of a March election has been raised in the last week or so in response to a rush on the part of the Labor Party to get legislation through the parliament before it rises for the Christmas break.

Of course, running up to an election, as a government, you might want to look like you are getting things done, even though to some, too much government is a very bad thing. Australians though, on the whole, while they hate their government, whatever the political complexion, they tend to want, or rely on its intervention.

And so the recent suggestion of the Coalition has some weight. An early poll probably will not eventuate, but the thought must not be discounted.

Really, the most likely reason for the politicisation of Treasury is the thirst for more political blood. Surely the Gillard Government is itching for more momentum, to capitalise on recent movements.

It is the job of the Coalition to release their final suite of policies close enough to the election to put them in the context of the fiscal position but far enough out from the polls so that the public get a good look.

Now is too far out, despite what the Labor Party and sections of the media will have you believe.

Newspoll and Mischievous Thoughts

The Prime Minister and her government have been enjoying some improvements to their poll fortunes in recent times. The Labor Party have been clawing back ground, at least as far as the Morgan, Nielsen and Newspoll results have shown. The Essential Poll on the other hand hovers at around the levels we have seen from that survey for some time now.

While it appears that the Newspoll is mischievous, bouncing like a kid on a pogo stick and now showing the ALP and the Coalition level-pegging, it appears that the electoral reality lies somewhere between Essential, Morgan and Nielsen where the real electoral prospects for the Labor Party seem to lie.

However, the improvement, while much less dramatic than Newspoll would have you believe, should be pause for some thought. In the Labor Party caucus room they would be pondering mostly positive thoughts. The belief that they are done for, while not dissipating at a rate of knots within the party room, would be receding slowly in the mind’s of some MP’s.

For the Liberal and National Party coalition thoughts would or at least should be turning to what they can do now, to how they can shift strategy to arrest the decline in their vote instead of having to play a game of catch-up.

But let’s for a moment, in the spirit of mischief, contemplate the options that might lie ahead for both the Labor Government and the Opposition. What would they be thinking? What scheming would be happening?

If the result really was level on a two-party preferred basis the ALP would be incredibly buoyant. They would feel that a win at the 2013 election was within reach. Labor Ministers and MP’s think that now in the wake of improving poll numbers, though that belief is still somewhat delusional. The election is far from being lost by the Liberal and National Party coalition.

The Liberal Party would be, if they had not already as a result of the declining numbers, be seriously questioning what might be going wrong. They would be looking at changing tack, changing strategy where their efforts on specific issues are losing traction.

The Coalition would also need to look at beginning to both refine and announce more aspects of their policy agenda. At the same time, they would need to continue to explain that the budget situation is tight. To not continue to further prosecute this case would result in one of the remaining areas of some strength for the Opposition falling away. To not continue talking about it would look like backing away from the validity of their arguments about the budget position.

In terms of leadership, there would be even further clear air for Julia Gillard. The Prime Minister would almost certainly be safe in the run-up to the 2013 election. To come back from the depths of despair, from record low votes, would cement Ms Gillard’s leadership position.

Kevin Rudd, already out of the leadership equation for the most part, would see his prospects for a return to Prime Minister, even in terms of the way his ego allows him to see things, almost completely vanish.

The third candidate idea too would practically cease being necessary.

Leadership of the Liberal Party would also be affected in some way by even poll results. Malcolm Turnbull would at least have distant sight of the leadership, especially if it was the case that the arguments against the carbon price continued to fall away.

Were poll results to actually reach the stage of being level it would be important that the Liberal Party had learned the lesson of Labor. That very public education in the perils of leadership transitions should have taught all political parties that a knee-jerk reaction to poor polling could have long-term negative consequences. There is a possibility though that this argument need only apply to a popular leader and Tony Abbott certainly cannot be characterised in that way.

In terms of going to an early election, ordinarily that would be on the table. However, with a minority government situation, supported by MP’s that want the parliament to go full-term, the chances of that outcome are almost non-existent.

Even if an early poll was a possibility, the decision to go to one would be fraught with danger. Electors could view a snap poll as a move of pure political expediency and therefore not take too kindly to the idea at all.

The polls are undoubtedly getting closer, but how close and how real the narrowing of margins is remains unclear. It is still on the naughty side to be talking of leadership change in the Opposition despite results being less assured. What is almost without doubt is the need for a shift in the focus of Coalition strategy.

A Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentence and Other Asylum Seeker Policies

Asylum seekers and refugees are never far from the headlines. Indeed from time to time stories involving them are among the most prominent in the news cycle. In recent times, boat arrivals of people seeking asylum have been more than weekly. The debate about what to do about the perilous journey, from Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka has been up there with the most politicised and most discussed issues of this 43rd parliament.

We have a new policy, a return to most aspects of the Pacific Solution that the Gillard Government continues to work towards implementing. This calls for offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island as happened under the Howard Government.

The Gillard Government has or is working toward implementing all of the recommendations of the expert panel on asylum seekers which was chaired by former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Houston. However, the Coalition want more.

The Opposition, through leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison have continued to call for the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas  (TPV’s). The Coalition have also called for a return to that policy that Indonesia do not like and will never allow to happen- turning back asylum seeker boats toward Indonesia.

In the case of TPV’s, the Labor Party, as part of the recommendations from the Houston panel are, in effect, implementing an iteration of the Howard Government measure which will cut out family reunion.

But of course, and rightly so, the ALP Government is against turning back the boats This is the case, one, because the ADF sees it as no longer feasible or safe and two, because Indonesia would voice their anger and discontent at our contempt for our regional neighbour.

But it is the evolution of the asylum seeker policy of the Tony Abbott led Opposition, apart from the already announced measures, that will add to the poor treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia who arrive by boat.

Last Friday the Opposition Leader announced an effective minimum prison sentence for the “offence” of seeking asylum, seeking refuge from the fear of, or from actual persecution. The no advantage test, part too of the recommendations of the expert panel, has so far not had a time in offshore detention applied to it. But Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party think it should be no less than 5 years. In the legal fraternity this would be termed a mandatory minimum sentencing provision.

Of course, since mandatory detention was introduced in the early 1990’s, we have had what amounts to a term in prison. At first, a time limit of less than a year was implemented by the Keating Government, but that was removed in favour of an indefinite stay. In effect, the indefinite nature of asylum detention will continue under a Liberal Government with a 5 year minimum stay. The time served would almost certainly be longer.

In further worrying comments, the Opposition also appeared to question the efficacy of a regional solution, saying that too much time was spent on discussing the problem in the region and not enough on tough deterrence measures.

Also of concern in the comments made at the end of last week was what appeared to be utter contempt for the work of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ asylum seeker and refugee organisation. Australia has long appeared to feel this way towards the UN about asylum seekers and refugees. However, that would seemingly accelerate under an Abbott Government.

The Coalition is obviously moving towards an aim of being the most punitive in Australia’s history toward asylum seekers and refugees. At the moment that is just rhetoric, but there is a strong chance that the strong words will become punishing deeds in government, also a strong possibility.

Far from just showing a desire to put forward the strictest regime for asylum seekers, the Abbott-led Opposition appear hell-bent on isolating Australia further from the way the region and the international community should deal with the asylum seeker question.

All this punishment and pain for what gain? Seeking asylum is not a crime, thought it appears there is a wish that it was. Either way, asylum seekers are going to be locked away for at least 5 years under a Coalition Government.

Personal Over Political Even in Policy

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.

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