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Australia

Sep 19, 2017

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Cometh the hour, cometh the half-man. Former prime minister John Howard returned to the fray last week, with a strong attack on the Yes contingent in the Coalition, for failing to specify the conditions for protection of religious freedom, should there be a successful Yes vote, and then an act in Parliament to ratify same-sex marriage.

Gor, it were just like old times weren’t it. The suburban solicitor, now snow-white of hair, with his improbable political charisma to a good 40% of the population — the lack of crazed rhetoric, the calm delivery, the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger delivery of a sheer unvarnished political lie. We should enjoy it while it lasts; it’s like going to a return tour by The Vines, the performance made more piquant by the quiet thought, he won’t be back round again. Nor him. Nor him.

“I I I I I feel that the provisions for religious freedom should have been enunciated it be-be-be before the plebiscite,” the Rodent said, or words to that effect. Sure, like the details of EU departure were spelt out before the Brexit referendum, where Howard supported the No case. Translation: it looks like the No case is going to lose the process we put in to delay same-sex marriage, and we will be faced with the ghastly prospect: not the Boschian disaster the No case purportedly envisages, but that, like New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Ireland and elsewhere, the change will pass without incident or knock-on.

John Howard has reappeared for one reason: there’s no real leadership in the No case, no figure flying the flag as s/he leaps over the trench parapet. But that’s been no great disadvantage to the No case, because there’s no leadership in the Yes case either. Both sides have been compelled into this hate-fuck of a political process, and there seems a curious decentredness to the whole process. Is this the new form of social politics? That we don’t need visible leaders anymore, that a process doesn’t need to be personified in an MLK, a Jane Jacobs, a Harvey Milk?

Well, good, maybe, if so. But not, if, as I suspect, the lack of a public leader is indicative of a lack of leadership, especially in the Yes case. Furthermore, the haunting fear might be that only one side is this disorganised. Though the No case lacks a public figure, I do not believe it lacks leadership or co-ordination. Why are its TV spots popping up, its leaflets in the Thai take-away, why are its campaigners in and around the last two shopping centres I visited?

Well, we already know the answer. The cultural right remains situated in face-to-face life, and its religious contingent have a collective consciousness that the cultural left has largely lost. The former submerge their self-hoods into boring services, boring meetings, boring demos. The cultural left have single demos that double as performance art extravaganzas. Then they go home, and “like” photos of the wittiest placards on their twibonned Instagram. The danger for the Yes case is that they won’t have done enough to convince advocates that simply expressing your affect is not enough to get out the vote. Any real encounter is worth twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred online ones. But real encounters — getting in the face of busy people — is icky, and doubly icky for the digital homesteaders of the Yes case.

This is how Yes might lose — in the same way that Brexit was lost, Trump became President, Obama lost Ted Kennedy’s seat, and the Senate, in his first term, and so on. I actually think they probably won’t, though I think the No case will leap far beyond their 30% base, but it will only be because of the rightness of the cause itself (in current liberal terms), as a simple extension of the domain of equality. There may not be much in it. The Yes case cannot find the enthusiasm to advocate for a right they believe, US-style, is implicit and God-given, rather than something to be politically achieved. The No case has spotted an opportunity to stop the progressive advance in its tracks, not merely in Australia, but in the Anglosphere West. They dream of the audacious upset, as they pound the pavements of Campsie, Ringwood, Semaphore, Mandurah, Indooroopilly. They will regard anything above 40% as a win, and use it accordingly.

But the Coalition No contingent is afeared they won’t get that – and hence the “religious freedom” bullshit. It is right up Howard’s alley, in that there isn’t a skerrick of evidence to build a case from. The plebiscite forces nothing, guarantees nothing, creates no greater legitimacy for Safe Schools, marrying bridges, bestiality, etc, per se, and the question of the staffing, etc, rights of religious-run hospitals, schools and businesses (beyond their actual work operation) is governed by other laws (as we noted last week). It’s a campaign built out of nothing.

But that’s where Howard’s right at home. Like his two compatriots of the last era of actual politics — Paul Keating and Bob Brown — Howard has to be in a political cause facing immediate extinction before he can get seriously excited. Those put-upon eyes, the face of the beleaguered and shunned petite bourgeoisie, the forgotten people, atop that coprophagic grin, as he summons a vision of three men marrying a tractor in St Patrick’s Cathedral, the priest officiating at police gunpoint. No one else has quite the gusto or the brio to do it. This is the man who, in 2013, proudly told us that he had taken a position accepting climate change because it was politically expedient.

Before the 2007 federal election, Howard pledged a re-elected conservative government would introduce an emissions trading scheme (ETS).

AAP reports he now says that was because by late 2006 his government hit a “perfect storm” with ongoing drought, severe water restrictions, bushfires and the release of the (Lord Nicholas) Stern Review and Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth

“To put it bluntly, ‘doing something’ about global warming gathered strong political momentum in Australia,” Mr Howard said in his written lecture.  

The voice of the Rodent. And now Geoff Cousins, a strategist who claims to have helped the Coalition defeat the 1988 multi-part referendum on federal/state powers, has claimed that Howard is simply replaying the “big fear” strategy developed then (the horror! Political cynicism used to the wrong purpose!)

Can Howard tease out, or switch back from Yes to No a crucial 3-4%? You bet he can. But part of what he is relying on to do so is the vacuum created by the absence of a truly forceful Yes campaign, one wholly abandoning discussion of fragility and harm and depression (real though these might be), and focused on one thing only: winning the vote, and winning it as something straightforward, obvious and unfussed. Maybe there’s a strategy in place, to minimise street-level politicisation to dampen the No vote or … I dunno. It might all be straightforward, but one can’t help but wonder at a political movement that doesn’t seem to want to be political — to such a degree that someone like the Rodent can plausibly re-insert themselves.

By contrast, for the Yes case, for the wider “progressive” agenda, this pile-on by the right is actually an opportunity. They’re throwing everything at this; the bad faith is immense. The sheer vacuity of their arguments around religious freedom is a gamble. Should it fail, and same-sex marriage become an unremarkable part of everyday life, then the utility of Big Fear — the idea that it can be switched to any issue, anywhere — will be much diminished. By no means dissolved, and there will still be issues which have a genuine conservative argument and side to them. Given all that, it seems unwise to be emphasising the victim status of a side that is trying to impose its will — because that is ultimately what politics is — and doing so on the affirmative, change-making side of the argument. The Yes case could really do with one or two big public faces/leaders now.

The result will be fascinating, the weeks to come will be fascinating, and for the Rodent, a last chance to see …

Federal

Sep 15, 2017

5 comments

Like most Australians, queer or otherwise, I will be glad when the marriage equality debate is over.

I have spent the last seven years of my life working within Australia’s LGBTI communities, marriage equality an incessant hum in the background.

I am sick of talking about it, I am sick of asking for it, and I do not want it, at least for myself.

Of course, when I receive my ballot paper in the mail for the postal vote on marriage equality I will vote yes, and I would hope most Australians will do the same. I do not begrudge anyone the opportunity to get married, and given how important the issue is to so many of my queer comrades, I hope it makes them happy. But I will never be an advocate for marriage equality, no matter how high it is held as a shining beacon of progress and “love” — an apparent panacea for everything that ails my communities.

The strangest thing about this endless debate is that it has forced queers to consider, constantly, our position on an issue as banal as marriage. Something that was once furthest from my mind (not because I couldn’t get married, but because the thought had never entered my head) is now a daily reality.

Somehow, marriage of all things has become the unexpected battleground for the fight against homophobia.

Well, not somehow. When the Howard government amended the Marriage Act in August of 2004 to define “marriage” as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”, it came in response to small numbers of Australian same-sex couples seeking to have weddings performed overseas recognised here.

Howard’s move was a pre-emptive strike. This was still early in what would become a wave of reform around the world — in 2004 when the Marriage Amendment Act was introduced, only the Netherlands, Belgium, a few Canadian provinces and Massachusetts in the US had legalised same-sex marriage.

There isn’t much of a history of agitating for marriage within queer communities, and even at the time, one queer advocate quoted on Lateline recognised the move as an attempt by Howard to wedge the Australian community on an issue very few people were talking about.

[Secret documents reveal the No campaign’s strategy to manipulate you]

I remember digging through the archives of the Star Observer when I worked there as a journalist and coming across an election special from a 1987 issue of the newspaper. Major-party candidates for inner-Sydney seats were asked to respond to questions about a range of issues relevant to the gay community. The closest any of it got to marriage came under the heading “Taxation”, with questions like: “What particular benefits does (sic) your party’s taxation policies offer single people?”

In at least one sense, Howard’s plan in 2004 worked. The amendment triggered the real beginning of a now 13-year lobbying campaign for marriage equality in Australia.

But despite its galvanising effect on LGBTI communities, Howard’s change to the Marriage Act was a conservative victory not just for its entrenchment of a very specific area of discrimination. It made marriage equality the centrepiece of a conservative LGBTI political movement wholeheartedly embracing the politics of respectability.

“Respectable” queers aren’t anything new. At least as far back as the 1960s there have been splits within queer political movements; then it was the “homophiles”, or assimilationists, and the liberationists, or those who sought sexual revolution as a way to dismantle harmful social structures rooted in sex, sexuality and gender.

While the politics of liberation have all but disappeared from mainstream LGBTI discourse (though not completely — small sections of queer political movements worldwide continue to align themselves with anti-capitalist projects, for example) assimilation has become our catch cry.

And by making marriage our flagship political issue, we have placed our desire to be “just like everyone else” front and centre.

Whenever I think about this my mind goes immediately to GetUp’s 2011 video promoting marriage equality, “It’s Time”. Astonishingly, the video has its own Wikipedia page, which, under “Reception”, links to a story in The Advocate calling the clip “possibly the most beautiful ad for marriage equality we’ve seen”.

Of course it is — there’s absolutely nothing queer about it. The first-person video shows the progress of a relationship with an adorable young man from meet-cute to marriage proposal, only revealing at the last moment that you’ve been seeing through the eyes of a second man the whole time. In other words: surprise! They were gays all along.

This is the pinnacle of marriage equality as respectability: promoting queers as literally indistinguishable from heterosexuals.

Respectability politics is the disavowal of everything we’re afraid might make people fear or dislike us in order to fit in, in order to benefit from the same systems we see enjoyed by rich, white heterosexuals. It’s the impulse we see when queers respond to accusations that we are “perverted” or “abnormal” by saying “no we’re not” instead of “what’s wrong with being abnormal?”

The fair question to ask is: what’s wrong with that?

A few things, I’d argue.

First, by denying our difference, we lose a connection to the struggles of our past and the specifics of our culture, both of which I think there is value in preserving.

Second, differences of gender and sexuality are fundamental. Pretending they do not exist simply strips us of the tools to combat future bigotry and discrimination based on that difference.

Third, and most importantly, there will always be queers unable to “pass” for respectable, even if they wanted to. These queers are the most marginalised in our communities: trans and gender nonconforming folk, poor queers, homeless queers, queers with mental illness, just for example. By wholeheartedly embracing respectability politics we leave these people behind.

We also leave issues behind. The criticism levelled perhaps most often at the discursive dominance of the marriage equality movement is that it drowns out every other issue affecting queer communities.

I would like to believe, at my more generous moments, that the fact we have been talking about marriage equality in mainstream political discourse for so long means attention has spilled over into other queer issues. We saw this to some extent with the Safe Schools debate last year, but it’s difficult to think of other examples.

[Helen Razer makes the queer case against gay marriage]

The amount of airtime given to marriage makes it hard to get other queer issues on the agenda, even within our own communities. The standard response to this, that we can care about more than one thing at the same time, is unconvincing. In practice, either we can’t or we don’t.

Just days after the postal plebiscite on marriage equality was announced, the New South Wales government introduced a bill into state Parliament that, if passed, would increase the penalty to up to six months in prison for not taking “reasonable precautions” to protect a partner from contracting an STI. This law would be a direct attack on the already marginalised communities in Australia disproportionately affected by HIV, including gay men.

The issue finally received some coverage this week, but other than a few HIV organisations and advocates, nobody had noticed until now.

While everyone is distracted by marriage, we are being criminalised.

This is a particularly pointed example, but it’s far from the only one. Exemptions to anti-discrimination law mean most religious employers can legally fire a person for being gay. Trans people are facing violence in our prison system. Intersex infants are routinely subjected to horrific “normalising” surgeries in Australian hospitals.

I hope that when marriage equality is here, and it will be, all the political capital we have accumulated over the course of this fight is channelled into some of these other issues, many of which are inconvenient reminders of the ways we are different.

My fear is that instead, that capital will evaporate as the now “respectable” queers — along with the rest of the country — breathe a sigh of relief that finally we are equal. (It doesn’t help that we’ve been making arguments for years now that marriage equality will solve our other problems, most notably mental illness and suicide in LGBTI communities.)

I want to be very clear: this is not an argument against marriage equality. I will be voting yes, and I will encourage others to do the same.

I understand how important this issue is to many queers, and I hope that marriage equality makes them feel as loved and accepted as we are told it will.

I also hope, however, that when this is all over, we remember how important it is not to leave anyone behind in the rush to be just like everyone else.

Australia

Aug 31, 2017

5 comments

It was a stark Perth image I will never forget. An attractive, white-haired woman, who was much younger than she looked and obviously discomforted, standing and leaning on a crutch in a meeting room at the Four Seasons hotel. Across the room, past a woman in a wheelchair, another middle-aged woman leant against the wall.

Standing, not because there weren’t enough seats among the 50 people crowded into a committee room, but because they were in too much pain to sit.

Welcome to the nightmarish world of thousands of Australian women who over the past decade had polypropylene mesh implanted in their bodies — sometimes without their knowledge. Many times after surgeons had down-played or glossed over the risks of crippling side effects.

And welcome to another public hearing of a Senate committee I fought to establish last year: a Perth hearing of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee into “the number of women in Australia who had had trans-vaginal mesh implants and related matters”.

The woman leaning on the crutch was Stella Channing. I don’t know how old she is but she has a young, impressively attentive daughter named Michaela, who hovered over her mother during the eight-hour public (and sometimes private) recounting of horror stories last week.

I now know that before being fitted with the controversial mesh Stella was a physical fitness instructor. She said that after persevering all day at the hearing she’ll “be in bed for a week”.

I won’t pre-empt the Senate committee here. We have more public hearings in Sydney and Canberra next month.

I will repeat though what I said in the Senate last year, that this is “one of the greatest medical scandals and abuses of mothers in Australia’s history.”

Our Perth visit was only happening because I was approached by Cass Chisholm, a victim and the founder of the Australian Pelvic Mesh Support Group. She emailed me from Perth, complaining that GPs, surgeons and politicians (state and federal) had ignored mesh victims for years.

The life raft group Cass and Stella are involved with started in 2014. At the beginning of 2017 they had 300 members. They now have more than 1,200.

When I agreed to meet her, Cass Chisholm took the red-eye from Perth to Melbourne that night. And a South Australian victim, Kim Blieschke, drove from Port Pirie to Adelaide and then flew on to Melbourne. 

(It wasn’t until I met other victims, who perched gingerly on chair’s edge and declined a taxi because they “preferred to stand up in the train”, that I realised the pain of car and plane travel for thousands of afflicted Australian women.)

Some of them retold their graphic and painful stories in Melbourne. And I want to thank all these brave women whose intimate experiences only should have been told behind closed doors to their doctors — if only their doctors had listened and believed them.

***

A federal election is due when? The rhetoric and hyperbole of this week — as we prepare for another bruising Canberra session next week — could have convinced you a poll was merely weeks away.

What language! From the Government frontbenchers came warnings of a Shorten Government producing 1984-style socialist economies. “East German”  in style, said Mathias Cormann. Like “Cuba”, said the Manchurian candidate, Josh Frydenberg.

On the other side we had Bill Shorten calling the Prime Minister “weak”. I think the word “coward” even snuck in there somewhere.

It’s all still far short of the Master Paul Keating’s jibes that “a soufflé never rises twice” (Andrew Peacock), “All tip, no iceberg” (Costello), or the Libs as “a dog returns to his vomit.”

Not quite that graphic yet, but a federal election is still two years away.

***

As the Yes or No debate intensifies over marriage equality, at least John Howard has come clean about the reason for the 2004 changes to the Marriage Act — which Labor supported. And which, when in office, Labor did not attempt to change despite having an atheist and progressive PM in Julia Gillard. And which did not go to a plebiscite.

Former Prime Minister Howard admitted recently that the main reason for the explicit man/woman tightening  of the Act was because the government did not want couples in same-sex relationships who married overseas to use the courts to set a precedent which could legalise same-sex marriage in Australia.

“What we didn’t want to happen in 2004 was for the courts to start adjudicating on the definition of marriage because that was a real threat in 2004 because some people who had contracted same-sex marriages in another country had the capacity to bring their issues before courts in Australia. There was no definition in the Marriage Act in 2004 for the simple reason it had never occurred to the people before 2004 that marriage was other than between a man and a woman.”

It has occurred to hundreds of millions of people around the world since then.

Australia

Aug 28, 2017

5 comments

By now, those who have been campaigning for years, for renaming of buildings, places on the map, statue “reframing” etc, must be feeling a little ambivalent. The issue has finally taken off, but not as a result of campaigns — such as that run by Gary Foley and Tony Birch to rename the former Redmond Barry building at Melbourne University — but as a result of global news coverage of statue removals in Virginia and elsewhere in the South.

‘Twas ever thus in Australia. When we’re not leading, our politics appears to be dictated in an automaton fashion. This time, however, it has joined to something local — the campaign to rename/reassign Australia Day, creating a movement of some power and authority. To a degree it may be another and wholly unintended consequence of the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Putting that issue to a contested, jerry-built process has meant that the bases of social life, fundamental arrangements, have to be debated and discussed. The pro-marriage equality movement has become positive and focused; the No case is talking about people being able to marry bridges.

Once you open the process of questioning one social institution, the whole question of how something comes to be a social institution at all, comes to front and centre. The argument for the plebiscite was that people should have a say about any momentous changes to the way our society is constituted; now they’re having it about why some momentous changes people would like to see aren’t on the agenda. Had the Coalition had a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, it would have slipped through without creating any sort of political turbulence, as it did when the Cameron government took it through in 2014.

[Change the date of Australia Day for patriotism’s sake!]

The right have added to the force of this new push by being utterly absurd about the moderate proposals being put forward to alter the framing of various statues. Stan Grant suggested that a Captain Cook statue with the words “discovered Australia”, be relabeled. There’s plenty of ways to make an accurate, descriptive labeling, avoiding the Eurocentric notion that Aboriginal people didn’t exist until white people saw them. But for all the fuss you’d think Grant had torched the Polly Woodside with a Molotov, all bandanna-ed up. The intent is obvious, especially as regards Grant; the once consumer friendly commercial TV star, now trying to negotiate a path where he can communicate complex ideas to a large audience base, is on the way to being constructed as an “angry Aborigine”, another disappointment.

The right are pushing absurdity, if they think they can simply, err, stonewall this one. They’re framing this as if indigenous/settler politics are still being played out in the 1970s, a militant movement facing an overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic society, one narrative against another. It’s only when such a simple relationship exists — conqueror and conquered, sovereign people and subject people — that entities such as statues can project authority. That’s part of the rhetorical trick of statues. They look as though authority flows from them, literally as the voice of the dead (it’s possible that many people, in the earliest city-states, did hear statues talking to them — i.e. their own internal monologue projected out onto them). But once the relatively unified cultural base on which they stand shatters, their authority and “voice” vanishes too.

That effect in Australia has less to do with the direct challenge to them — in some ways the ’70s campaigns were more high-profile and militant — than it does the shift in Australian society, via 70 years of continuous non-Anglo immigration: Mediterranean, then east Asian, Indian and African. Right up to the 1990s, the Anglo-Celtic (and far more Anglo than Celtic) narrative held, and so too did the statues’ authority. But as the immigration rates continued, at some point the society wheeled around — especially in Melbourne and Sydney, where most of these things are. Suddenly they were surrounded by non-Anglo people in their tens, then hundreds of thousands going to work, to school, wherever.

Few if any such people are protesting against the statues. But that’s exactly the point. It’s the growing indifference underneath them, that is making them easier to topple literally or figuratively. They won’t topple, or relabel themselves, but the fact that they are now not sites of answers, but of questions, means that defenders of them are suddenly on the defensive. They should be welcoming relabeling proposals such as Stan Grant’s as part of a genuine dialogue, not insisting that we have to accept the edicts of 1910.

[Fuck off, we’re full (of contradictions): the discontents of Australia Day]

Not ironically at all, John Howard has made a relatively rare public statement decrying the urge to “rip up history,” etc. It is extraordinary. The major event of the Howard era, for historians of the future, will be that large-scale immigration hit the tipping point when non-Anglo population went from being significant, to still-marginal, to being a dominant group as a collective. They will further note that Howard, after the 1996, and the 2001 victories, was the only politician in Australia with the moral and political authority to change this. He didn’t. Did he imagine that the country wouldn’t change? It seems so. 

The right developed a myth to try and combine large-scale immigration with a notion of Anglo-Celtic continuity — that “multiculturalism” was not an inevitable product of multi-ethnic immigration sources, but a piece of social engineering dreamed up by pointy-heads. Without it, apparently, everyone from everywhere, would be changing their surnames to “Watson”, and having a lamb roast on Sundays. Of course, the reverse was the case. As society has become multicultural in practice, it’s the right who have come up with one bad social engineering idea after another, from Brett Nelson’s “Simpson’s Donkey” celebrations, to Howard’s meddling with a conservative-drafted national curriculum that still wasn’t conservative enough, to the promulgation of “enduring Australian values”. That does not mean progressives will get their way on everything, or even most things — as I’ve noted the crucial knowledge-class divide is key to understanding the capacity for sudden reversals. And doubtless the hard-right and white supremacists will rally and counter-attack.  

But the right would be well-advised to get used to the idea of negotiating these things out. These political events are not merely sudden upsurges or random collocations of energy. They are, in part, the after-effects of something that has already happened, and which now cannot be undone. Perhaps as a compromise we could agree to a large statue of John Howard, in Earlwood, his childhood home, where in the 1950s his mother’s decision to go to a Methodist rather than Anglican church was a matter of some agonising — Earlwood, where 40% of the population were born overseas, 28% of the residents are Orthodox, and 22% speak Greek at home (and 7% Arabic, and 5% Italian). The plaque could read: “John Howard Prime Minister 1996-2007. He destroyed Anglo-Celtic Australia for ever.”

I very much hope we put it up in his lifetime. 

Federal

Jul 19, 2017

5 comments

Last week, Donald Trump Jr casually tossed a bucket of petrol onto the fire of allegations his father’s presidential campaign had colluded with Russia in the lead-up to last year’s election. In June 2016, Trump received an email from British publicist Rob Goldstone, offering to set up a meeting with a “Kremlin-backed” lawyer who was offering to provide the campaign with dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr’s response was as incriminating as it was clunky:  “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

He, along with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and adviser (and Trump Jr’s brother-in-law) Jared Kushner, met briefly with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and say they found that her claims were without substance. And we know all this because, in the immortal bewildered words of Jared Yates Sexton, who said he worked on the story for a year, “he just…he tweeted it out“.

The revelations have led to widespread debate as to whether a crime has been committed, and if so what. Australia has recently wrestled with the issue of foreign influence on our political system after the revelations of large donations flowing to both major parties from people connected with China’s ruling Communist Party. The law is fairly clear cut in Australia regarding donations from foreigners (while they can look bad for a politician, they’re legal). But what regulates political staff? If it were revealed an Australian political staffer had solicited or received compromising information about a political rival from a foreign government source, what would it mean legally?

[LEAKED: Donald Trump Jr’s diary]

Ministerial staff are covered by a statement of standards, requiring they, among other things “behave honestly” and “not make improper use of their position or access to information to gain or seek to gain a benefit or advantage for themselves or any other person”. But the enforcement of these standards is murky at best.

“For Australian ministerial staff, there is a real problem with accountability,” Dr Stephen Mills from the graduate school of government at the University of Sydney told Crikey. “For a ministerial staff member that’s committed misconduct, there’s no mechanism of accountability except to the minister.”

So while staff misbehaviour might make a politician look bad and the staffer might be forced to resign, as long as it’s not criminal, there’s no automatic mechanism for punishment.

“If a staffer was found to have, say, engaged with North Korea, and engaged in activity well beyond their scope, the only accountability would be through the minister, and of course through Parliament and the media,” Mills said.

The shielding of ministerial staff began to solidify during the children overboard affair. A Senate select committee on the matter sought evidence from ministerial staffers, but the Howard cabinet determined that ministerial staff would not be allowed to appear before the committee.

[Former top spy slams Trump: Watergate ‘pales’ next to Russian scandal]

“In the children overboard affair there were serious questions about the advice that ministerial staff to John Howard and Peter Reith had been giving,” Mills said. “And in the parliamentary enquiries that followed, that was identified as a real hole in the information provided.”

Howard defended this in Parliament on March 12, 2002:

“The government’s approach to this matter is based upon what I regard as a fairly succinct statement of principle that reads as follows: in my view, ministerial staff are accountable to the minister and the minister is accountable to the Parliament and ultimately, the electors. What we are doing in relation to this issue is following the convention that ministerial staff do not appear.”

The committee, chaired by Labor Senator Peter Cook, found in its report that the the management and distribution of information about the incident was “inimical to the transparency, accuracy and timeliness requirements that are vital for proper accountability. As a consequence, fair dealing with both the public and the agencies involved was seriously prejudiced.” The report also noted “the tendency of ministerial staff to act as quasi-ministers in their own right, and the lack of adequate mechanisms to render them publicly accountable for their actions”.  

Federal

Jul 14, 2017

5 comments

It’s been 10 years since John Howard’s government was voted out of office by the Australian electorate and he lost his seat of Bennelong. Last night, he gave us more proof that former prime ministers, if they are not doing good works with the Brookings Institute, should probably just stay home and watch Veep.

Howard was being interviewed by journalist Paul Kelly about Donald Trump and the “challenges and opportunities facing the US-Australia relationship” at an event for the United States Studies Centre. The centre is releasing a report by research fellow Dougal Robinson called “Make it Personal: Trump, Congress and Australia’s Avenues of Influence”, on July 25, for which this was a curtain-raiser. Howard will always be popular with the body because he gave it $25 million seed funding in 2006, although it is now looking for further funding.

About 10 minutes into the interview, he told Kelly that he had “increasingly become more of a sceptic on climate change”, which made me want to throw my notebook on the floor and stomp out; if he’s going to say something so obviously stupid about this issue, why should we listen to his opinions on anything?

Howard, along with his mini-me, Tony Abbott, is the reason why we are international pariahs in the area of climate change, with an honourable mention to the Greens  in 2009. If Bob Brown, applying the Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good rule, had voted with Labor for an emissions trading scheme in that year, it would have taken this political football out of play (and helped the planet). And doubling down on a dumb opinion is the mark of a wilful child, not a grown-up — what’s wrong with these people?

That remark came after Howard said that Europeans placed “a much higher premium on climate change than Americans”, adding that new French President Emmanuel Macron had blamed climate change for terrorism. (Wrong, in fact Macron had said, “I have tried to explain it to some: we can not pretend to fight terrorism effectively if we do not have a decisive action against climate warming or we will have to explain to people living in Chad, Niger and others that climate is not a problem.”)

We also discovered that the former PM didn’t like the Obama administration’s foreign policies, saying that they had led to a waning of American influence in global politics. “And we are paying the price for this in places such as the Ukraine … and the Middle East,” he said.

Which is a bit rich coming from the man who took us to war in Iraq over non-existent “weapons of mass disruption” and also told us that asylum seekers were deliberately throwing their children overboard (also false). No wonder a member of his own party, George Brandis, christened him either “the lying rodent” or simply “the rodent”, depending on which account you believe.

Howard told Kelly that Australia could trust Trump because his issues were just a matter of “style”.

“The style of President Trump is unusual … I accept that some of his style is provocative, but in the end it’s what he does that matters,” Howard said.

Which means that Howard thinks that the ongoing FBI investigation into Russia’s influence on the election, votes to repeal Obamacare, the firing of FBI director James Comey, revelations that Donald Trump Jr met with a Russian affiliate to get covert intelligence on Hillary Clinton and so on, are just matters of “style”. What would it take to get him alarmed — beating us at cricket? 

“I do think there’s a rush to judgement on this bloke, on Trump, which is understandable because he’s so powerful … but we’ve got to be careful we don’t fall through the trap of rushing to judgement,” he said.

Turnbull had performed “very well” in his negotiations with Trump, Howard says.

“I think Malcolm Turnbull came out of the exchange over the Manus Island deal as somebody who was sticking up for Australian national interests and that’s what a prime minister should do,” Howard said.

“I give him 10 out of 10 for that.”

Asked by a member of the audience about Trump’s remarks about women and people of colour, Howard said that this “brusque, deal-making, locker-room style may not be the whole man,” adding that he was a bit of a “rough diamond”. “There is a lot about his character that we are yet to learn. But given his position and authority, we should not jump to hasty conclusions.”

When Howard was asked about the role of the media, he talked up the influence of talkback radio, whose audience is now back in nappies. That the former PM continues to champion the fortunes of a man like Alan Jones — who yesterday told New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian that her head was “in a noose” — is a disgrace.

Responding to a question from The Australian newspaper, Howard said that Australia should not leave the Paris Climate Accord because remaining in it was government policy and Turnbull had already said that Australia would stay. “It’s irrelevant what my view is.” (I’m with you there, John).

Asked about the Prime Minister’s speech to the Policy Exchange think tank this week in which he pointed out that Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies had not named it a “conservative party”, Howard said the party had always been the custodian of both the “classical liberal tradition and the conservative tradition”.

“Let me say that people in the country who regard themselves as conservatives — you are always welcome in the Liberal Party,’’ Howard said.

And, in an obvious smack-down to apostates like Cory Bernardi: “Don’t waste your time on alternative conservative iterations: they will only end in tears.’’

He then went off for drinks with the board of the USSC, which might be hoping that being nice to him might get them some more cash. Just don’t mention climate change.

Media

Jun 16, 2017

5 comments

The revelation of Malcolm Turnbull’s daring foray into political satire at the Midwinter Ball brought to mind some of the other memorable moments that have stunned and delighted the crowd at the Canberra glitterati’s night of nights over the years. Kept from the public at the time thanks to the pact of silence between pollies and press, Crikey satirist Ben Pobjie (who swears he has actually been to a Midwinter Ball, and we believe him) reveals* them now in the new spirit of openness.

2001: Bronnie’s Big Night Out

Former minister and speaker Bronwyn Bishop was generally noted for her decorous nature, but there was one occasion on which she let her hair down (not literally, of course; that bun has never been seen in its natural state). At the 2001 Midwinter Ball, government and opposition MPs alike were treated to a display the likes of which most can only dream of witnessing, as the Hon. Mrs Bishop, to roars of approval, danced for a full 10 minutes atop her table. The routine grew more and more energetic, before Bronnie ended up simultaneously doing the splits and casting her underwear with gay abandon into the crowd (it earned over $10,000 for charity).

2003: The Man of Steel Minstrel Show

Prime Minister John Howard’s sense of humour was rarely mentioned during his reign, but the Midwinter Ball was always a chance for him to show his comic chops, and he really pushed the envelope at the 2003 ball, when the long-serving PM, instead of delivering a speech, performed a medley of classic New Orleans party tunes. Some were shocked by this break with tradition. Others were more shocked by the fact that Howard performed the entire set in blackface, in what he claimed was a heartfelt tribute to the genius of Professor Longhair. As he rolled boisterously through “Tipitina”, “Junko Partner” and “Iko Iko”, the crowd was divided between applause for the PM’s surprisingly energetic piano-playing and condemnation for the PM’s surprisingly energetic racism. The incident was never reported, but to this day Howard claims he was the inspiration for Chris Lilley’s character “S.mouse”.

2004: Latho’s Menagerie

The Australian political landscape got a blast of fresh air in 2004 with the arrival of maverick opposition leader Mark Latham, and the Midwinter Ball was no exception. Latham brought the house down with a full hour of mesmerising animal impressions, including a startlingly realistic portrayal of a gibbon filling out a tax return, and a hilarious imaginary conversation between former NSW premier Jack Lang and a gazelle. It was only when Latham’s now-notorious “sub-waistband” elephant impression made its appearance that the mood of the room turned from joy to nausea.

2006: Who’s On First?

The presence in Parliament of two politicians called Abbott and Costello was a gift from the comedy gods, and the then-minister for health and then-treasurer embraced the inevitable at the 2006 ball with their unique take on their namesakes’ most famous skit. Those who were there speak with awe of the spectacle, particularly Tony Abbott’s bold willingness to go off-script by responding to the Treasurer’s query “who’s on first?” with the answer “Me.” From there it got increasingly chaotic.

2008: Rudd’s Lecture

The usual morning-after photo galleries from the 2008 Midwinter Ball took longer than usual to arrive in the papers, for a very simple reason: the ball had lasted a full three days. This was because newly minted prime minister Kevin Rudd, upon taking the stage, ordered the doors to be locked and proceeded to present an exhaustive 70-hour lecture on Chinese culture and history, half of which he delivered in Mandarin. When the ball finally ended, many attendees compared it unfavourably to the Black Hole of Calcutta.

2009: Milne’s Melee

The 2009 ball was relatively quiet, apart from one memorable moment halfway through, when journalist Glenn Milne emerged from under a table holding a plastic sword and demanding “satisfaction”. Five minutes later, Milne, three security guards, and an unidentified Channel Nine employee lay unconscious.

2011: Gillard Goes Hard

Julia Gillard made a memorable stand against sexism with her “misogyny speech” in 2012, but she’d struck a similarly powerful blow, unseen by the public, a year earlier at the 2011 ball. Taking her cue from Indiana Jones love interest Marion Ravenwood, Gillard eschewed a lengthy speech, instead simply challenging every man in the room to a drinking contest, and quite literally drinking more than 50 of them under the table. The pile of senseless, vodka-bloated carcasses was an astounding sight, and those close to Ms Gillard say she was as lucid at the end as she had been at the start: while a doctor who was present expressed amazement, saying that the amount of alcohol consumed by the prime minister would’ve killed several dozen normal women. For her part, the first woman PM simply burped twice, ate an entire raw chicken, and walked home.

2013: Parliament Catches Crabbs

The 2013 wall was unique in being the only Midwinter Ball so far to take the form of an extended episode of Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet. Held in Barnaby Joyce’s house, only 16 people actually attended, and all got food poisoning.

2015: Bill Works Blue

The 2015 Midwinter Ball is perhaps the most notorious of all, as it was the site of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s legendary “Blue Address”. Shorten assumed his position behind the podium full of confidence and began dishing out some of his famous “zingers”. However, when his negative-gearing puns and gags about “what if Tony Abbott was Schapelle Corby” fell flat, the aspiring comedian grew increasingly desperate, and increasingly abusive. Accusing the audience of being “po-faced little f***s who wouldn’t know a f***ing joke if it jumped up and bit them on the f***ing c***”, Shorten proceeded to ramble semi-coherently about the differences between men and women, and make some deeply defamatory remarks about the cast of Sunrise, before repeatedly shouting “What’s the deal with Twitter?” with tears running down his cheeks. When he was finally dragged off stage, Shorten was attempting to mime a hypothetical sexual encounter between Laurie Oakes and Sophie Mirabella.

2016: The Stolen Ball

Last year’s ball was mostly notable for the amount of money it raised for charity: $345,000; and for the fact all of it was stolen by James Ashby, who used it to buy a yacht.

*Reveals, invents. Potato, potahto

Crikey Worm

May 30, 2017

5 comments

TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK

Talks continue between the Catholic school sector and the Turnbull government over what the sector says will be a shortfall in funding for some Catholic schools under Malcolm Turnbull‘s Gonski 2.0 plan. The Archdiocese of Brisbane has assured parents their fees would not be going up next year and thanked the federal government for a “commitment to fair and equitable funding”, according to Matthew Knott in the Fairfax papers. The Education Department has also announced funding would be maintained for the ACT Catholic system until 2021 under a “temporary” ­assistance package. This is in contrast to modelling by the National Catholic Education Commission and published in The Australian earlier this month that some schools could face fee hikes of up to $6000 because of the new funding model. But tensions continue between the Coalition and the Catholic Church over the possibility of less money for some Catholic schools, with senior Coalition figures including former prime minister John Howard involved in negotiations with high-level Church officials to calm the waters. 

The Gonski 2.0 funding passed the lower house yesterday with the help of independent Cathy McGowan and Rebekah Sharkie of the Nick Xenophon Team, after Labor, the Greens and independent Andrew Wilkie voted against it. A Senate inquiry into the changes will be held before an upper house vote in late June. 

SAFE AS HOUSES?

Australian asset manager Altair Asset Management has liquidated its share funds and handed back “hundreds of millions” to clients because it foresees an upcoming “calamity” in the property market, reports Patrick Commins in the Financial Review. “We think that there is too much risk in this market at the moment, we think it’s crazy,” said Altair chairman Philip Parker

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT: INDIGENOUS ADVISORY BODY DEBATE

After a three-day indigenous constitutional convention at Yulara last week, the “Uluru Statement of the Heart” released on Friday called for an indigenous political advisory body to be enshrined in the constitution, the establishment of a treaty commission and the beginning of a truth and recon­ciliation process. Indigenous leader Noel Pearson supported the proposal for an advisory body on Q&A last night, describing it as “the Tent Embassy in stone”. “We’re going to formalise the indigenous voice in this country, going to get out from under the fringes,” Pearson said

A draft model for such a body, written by constitutional law professor Anne Twomey, makes it explicit it would act only in an advisory capacity: “There would be no third house of parliament, no power of veto and no power of delay — simply a capacity on behalf of the ­indigenous advisory body to have its advice tabled in the parliament and internally considered by parliament in relation to a limited category of bills”.

One of the key lawyers in the landmark Mabo case, Bryan Keon-Cohen, has also voiced his support.”What are we worrying about, apart from politicians being gutless?” Unsurprisingly, the Institute of Public Affairs is against it, with boss John Roskam telling The Guardian it was “just as offensive as to give people a special say due to their religion, or gender or anything else”.

But the Coalition is split on the proposal. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce rubbished it as “overreach” that was “not going to happen”. But some Liberal MPs, including former constitutional lawyer Julian Leeser and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, see merit in the idea. 

WHAT’S ON TODAY

Canberra: Senate estimates today, with Health, Treasury, Employment and Defence continuing.

The Coalition joint party room will also meet, as will the Labor caucus.

Melbourne: Public hearings will continue for the parliamentary inquiry into youth justice centres.

There will also be a directions hearing in the Supreme Court for the man who has pleaded guilty to raping and murdering six-year-old Kylie Maybury on Melbourne Cup Day 1984. Fairfax’s Walkley-winning crime journo, John Silvester, has details of the case and how police tracked down the killer. 

Also in Melbourne, Rebel Wilson‘s defamation case against Bauer Media will continue. Yesterday the court was told “she had, in fact, signed lucrative contracts since the articles were published”, according to the Herald Sun.

Paris: Day three of the French Open, with Sam Stosur through to the next round

Sydney: US Senator John McCain will address the United States Studies Centre about the US/Australian alliance in Sydney today.

Sydney Airport will hold its AGM. 

READ ALL ABOUT IT

Health Minister Greg Hunt shoots down department’s secret hospital plan

Schapelle Corby can’t profit from drug conviction, lawyer says, as ‘calculated’ media strategy emerges

Treasurer Scott Morrison’s tough new rules will hold Australia’s top banking executives to account

Travel ban: Convicted paedophiles to have passports cancelled

THE COMMENTARIAT

For jaded voters, it’s a case of none of the above — David Crowe (The Australian $): “The dire results in today’s poll are a confirmation of the fall in Turnbull’s personal standing since early last year, when he put GST reform (and almost everything else) on the table and confused voters about what he stood for.”

Black lung: The proof we have failed our coal miners — John Birmingham (Brisbane Times): “If governments are going to insist on propping up a dying industry, the least they could do is enforce their own regulatory schemes to minimise the death rate at the actual coal face.”

TODAY IN TRUMP

Donald Trump has broken his silence over the stabbing of two men who tried to disrupt a racist tirade on a train in Portland, Oregon. Trump was criticised for failing to laud the two men who intervened, but he has now tweeted that the victims were “standing up to hate and intolerance”.

In Washington, DC, the power of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner appears to have waned after it was revealed he tried to set up a secret line of communications with the Russians in December last year. Kushner remains a key adviser, but insiders say he is no longer above reproach.

THE WORLD

North Korea has fired a ballistic missile, the third such test since liberal Moon Jae-in was elected as the President of South Korea, vowing to increase dialogue with the Stalinist state. In response to the test, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile … but China is trying hard!” — Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron has said the use of chemical weapons in Syria represents a “red line” that would spur his country to action after his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the French election, Macron accused Russia of a “hybrid strategy combining military intimidation and an information war”. Putin had hosted Macron’s rival Marine Le Pen in Moscow and was asked by reporters about interfering in the French election but said, “that doesn’t exist as a problem”. — The Guardian

WHAT WE’RE READING

At Cannes, an existential fight over technology, Netflix and the future of cinema (LA Times): “Cannes may be the pinnacle of cinematic prestige and hold an outsized reverence for the past, but it represents a mind set that, depending on one’s point of view, should either be valiantly upheld in the face of barbarians or eagerly torn down in the name of democracy.”

‘We are not amused’: Belgian monarchy angered by Burger King (Reuters): “Burger King is in trouble with Belgium’s monarchy over an advertising campaign asking Belgians to vote online to ‘crown’ the global fast-food giant the true ruler of the country where the U.S. brand will launch next month.”

Explainer: how and why Islamic State-linked rebels took over part of a Philippine city (The Guardian): “Facing losses in Syria and Iraq, Isis have increasingly looked to the Philippines to establish a province or ‘wilayat’ in the region, the report said.”

The story behind Jared Kushner’s curious acceptance into Harvard (Pro Publica): “Of the 400-plus tycoons on Harvard’s list — which included people who were childless or too young to have college-age offspring — more than half had sent at least one child to the university.”

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE

Federal

May 26, 2017

5 comments

One of the recent criticisms being levelled by supporters of Tony Abbott against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is that the government relinquished a political advantage by moving closer to Labor with this month’s budget. According to the delcons, “politics is about maximising differences”.

This blunt interpretation of the political maxim is unsurprising. Abbott’s reputation as a formidable opposition leader was based on him maximising the difference between the Coalition and Labor by opposing much of the Rudd and Gillard governments’ policy agenda.

Abbott convinced voters to distrust and despise the Labor government and promised to be whatever Rudd and Gillard were not. However, voters eventually tired of hearing what Abbott was against and wanted to know what he was for. That was when the wheels started to fall off the Abbott wagon.

It’s now 10 years since another successful opposition leader used a more nuanced product differentiation to defeat the government of the day. In what was an audacious move at the time, Labor leader Kevin Rudd deliberately positioned himself as an ideological extension of the prime minister, John Howard, on economic issues.

Rudd was accused of “me too-ism” and being Howard-lite, but the strategy was an effective one. Instead of maximising the differences, Rudd reduced the points of difference between himself and Howard, particularly those that were negatives for Labor, so that he could distil the focus onto the remaining few.

As a result, the opposition leader offered voters the same safe pair of hands as Howard, but with the bonus of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and scrapping WorkChoices.

This approach wasn’t about making voters despise and distrust Howard (although there were people who certainly felt that way about the PM), but giving them comfort that it was reasonable and responsible to replace the old warhorse with new stock from a reliable bloodline. This would allow the nation to continue to prosper while getting on with important issues like climate action.

[Turnbull and Morrison stake their political future on a shift to the centre]

Of course, after defeating Howard, events conspired against Rudd to prove the new PM was neither a climate champion nor the fiscal conservative he had claimed to be.

Both Abbott and Rudd’s experiences suggests successful product differentiation might win elections but it might not be enough to hold government.

Nevertheless, this month’s budget could be seen as an attempt by Turnbull and Morrison to emulate Rudd’s 2007 campaigning success. Like Rudd, Turnbull and Morrison have attempted to reduce and therefore distil the points of difference between Labor and the Coalition.

By trying to close off arguments over points of difference that traditionally are negatives for the Coalition — health, education, and the NDIS — the PM and Treasurer hope to keep the focus on the difference that is in their favour: superior economic management.

Just as Rudd offered sound economic management plus the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices, Turnbull and Morrison are arguing they’re the safe pair of hands to keep the economy strong while also delivering Labor goodies such as Gonski and NDIS.

That’s where the Treasurer’s favourite zinger comes into play. Ever since budget night, Morrison has been claiming the difference between a Liberal and a Labor budget is the Liberal budget is fully paid for. Meanwhile, Bill Shorten is doing his best Abbott impersonation by simply saying nope, nope, nope.

There’s no doubt voters are put off by Tweedledum politics and want to be presented with real choices. That doesn’t mean, however, they won’t respond positively to parties that agree on important policy matters such as health, education and the economy.

Nevertheless, the Turnbull government has undoubtedly taken a risk adopting a Rudd-like approach to product differentiation, given it’s based on hope rather than distrust and fear.

Healthy policy difference should always be a good thing to have in Australian politics. And fear in politics is something we can definitely do without.

Australia

May 24, 2017

5 comments

Ever since John Howard decided that the PM’s then-brand new Boeing BBJ VIP jets in 2002 had to be as uncomfortable as possible, there have been press gallery reporters, and perhaps political successors, pining for a less agonising way of covering long-distance trips.

Airbus has just rekindled those dreams by releasing details of a VIP version of its high-tech remake of its wide-body A330 capable of taking a select prime ministerial party non-stop from Canberra to London, or Washington DC, or just about anywhere!

It’s called the ACJ330NEO, and the media release says it can fly non-stop for 20 hours from Europe to Australia.

OK, let’s not quibble too much. Twenty hours and 17,400 kilometres non-stop coming eastbound isn’t the same as doing it non-stop in the other direction, nor long enough to do it from Canberra. But it could be done! All that is required is to eject one or two superfluous or under-performing members of the prime ministerial entourage at a range- and payload-critical moment and maybe 21 or 22 of the original contingent of 25 people could make it to Buckingham Palace.

Airbus, like Boeing, always seems to be very conservative in its range-payload estimates, which if you are trying to navigate the tricky airspace between Australia and Europe, even with top level approvals, is no doubt prudent on their part.

VIP jets don’t necessarily have to file flight plans consistent with commercial ETOPS rules either. There is no doubt on the specs that the ACJA330 will be a potent carriage, especially fitted out with enough room for full flat sleeper seats for all in an official party, compared to the exceedingly ordinary seating arrangements in the ancient, but alas, still under contract, VIP BBJs of RAAF Squadron 34.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with an opulently outfitted 737-based BBJ. Except that John Howard was concerned that they might be perceived as too luxurious for Australian political sensitivities some 15 years ago — hence the subsequent suffering. Even the PM would have found the sleeping arrangements grotesquely inferior to what Qantas, Emirates, Etihad, Singapore Airlines and so forth routinely offer to their premium customers today.

In its current technology forms, the A330 is well known to the RAAF as a multi-role tanker transport, as well as a major part of the wide-body fleets of Qantas and Virgin Australia.

However, by the time any Australian government has a VIP fleet free of contract obligations and in an environment where it might dare seriously canvass a more comfortable and versatile alternative to the BBJs there will almost certainly be ACJ350s on offer. We already know that from late next year there will be commercial A350s flying that might out-distance an ACJ330NEO, and that in the early 2020s, the technology for them to take around 100 passengers non-stop each way between Sydney or Melbourne should have been reliably established.

*This article was originally published at Plane Talking