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Feb 14, 2014

Abbott's Closing the Gap speech might be the high point of the year

Tony Abbott's Closing the Gap speech was one of the best of recent times, but he will have nowhere to hide if results do not improve.

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The highlight of the political year may well have come early, on the second sitting day of Parliament for 2014, when the Prime Minister rose to deliver his first Closing the Gap statement. If you haven’t read the speech, you should: it was one of the best speeches by a politician of recent times, generously non-partisan, honest and personal, suggestive of how, beneath the appearance of the aggressive, highly partisan, relentlessly negative politician an intelligent, decent national leader could lurk.

Abbott, of course, can afford to be honest about the mediocre outcomes of six years of Closing the Gap, as they reflect more on the efforts of his predecessors than himself, and some might argue Abbott’s personal journey on indigenous issues is irrelevant to real outcomes. Moreover, it must amuse Paul Keating no end that the Coalition, which when he was prime minister subjected him to the most disgusting abuse and smear, now champions him as everything that contemporary Labor is not.

Nonetheless, Abbott’s speech represented a political and personal commitment to a better performance on Closing the Gap: in years to come, at the start of the parliamentary year in 2015 and 2016, poor results will reflect directly on him and there will be nowhere to hide from them, not after the language he used on Wednesday. That particularly applies to indigenous employment, where the performance of the Commonwealth government — a major employer in its own right — has been as poor on indigenous employment as anywhere else.

In contrast, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s speech had a tinge of partisanship about it. Maybe, since Abbott started using the visits of foreign leaders to Parliament to snipe at the then-government, the idea that nothing should be off-limits for party political point-scoring has become kosher. Certainly you can’t blame Labor for giving back to Abbott what he gave to them. But Shorten seemed at pains to say in his response that Labor reserved the right to aggressively pursue the government on indigenous issues. Well, of course it does; no one suggested otherwise. Shorten might have been better off displaying a little humility at the poor progress on some Closing the Gap indicators over the last six years. He did, however, make an excellent point that the sort of alcohol-fueled violence that generated such attention over the New Year’s period was a fact of life in indigenous communities, a point the mainstream media rarely makes.

There was another speech this week, on another subject, from a somewhat different politician. Member for Fairfax and mining magnate Clive “right?” Palmer took to the podium at the National Press Club to rail at the conspiracy that has sought to rob his party of a WA Senate seat. While doing so, though, he decided to have several cracks at News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch, including suggesting yet another conspiracy theory. Palmer claimed that environmental notices served on his mining companies (bearing in mind the “professor” title that Palmer loves to use is because he is an adjunct professor of management at Bond University’s School of Sustainable Development) had been got up through an unholy alliance between Australian journalist Hedley “Lamarr” Thomas, who has turned his forensic gaze on Palmer since Palmer ended his generous support for the Coalition, and Queensland Premier Campbell Newman.

Clive’s penchant for conspiracy theories, suing critics, outlandish claims and the occasional incoherent rant comes straight from the master himself, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, for whom Clive worked in the 1980s, but it’s hard to find any fault with this description of Rupert Murdoch:

“Rupert Murdoch is a person who swore an oath of allegiance to a foreign country, yet he thinks he can decide who our Prime Minister is going to be and manipulate the press in this country. I find that objectionable. That’s why he doesn’t like me. That’s why one day I got 14 articles in The Australian, a cartoon and a colour photo. I could never have afforded that.”

Clive thus went beyond what Labor politicians would dare say about News Corporation in public. The job of stating the obvious about the American mogul is left in Australian politics to independent MPs and the Greens.

And to finish the week, a follow-up to a piece we reported on Wednesday, about Attorney-General George Brandis’ inability to back up his claim that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden had placed Australian lives in danger. After Crikey explained how such claims about whistleblowers are routine and invariably not backed up evidence, Brandis arranged to be questioned yesterday about the basis for his claim. As it turned out, the source for Brandis’ claim about Snowden placing lives in danger was the noted perjurer James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, who lied under oath to Congress about NSA spying. Clapper addressed another congressional committee this week — not the one he lied to — and claimed that the information obtained by Snowden might reveal the names of US agents. As the New York Times immediately pointed out, none of the Snowden material published so far included names of agents or operatives.

And as The Atlantic pointed out overnight, national security officials and their media supporters are strangely quiet when government officials leak national security information themselves. And that applies every bit as much in Australia as in the US; there are plenty of serving and former intelligence officials who are happy to reveal operational details to their media cheerleaders, as long as it serves their own interests. The sort of frothing at the mouth engaged in by the Attorney-General this week is always reserved for actual whistleblowers, never for security officials or politicians who leak national security information for their own purposes.

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