Tagged: Julia Gillard

Midnight Oil: back on the borderline

IT’S OFFICIAL. Midnight Oil is back on the boards – or the borderline, if you like. The band flagged its intention to reform in May last year and has been teasing about an imminent return on its website all week. A world tour will kick off with a pub gig in Sydney in April before heading to Brazil, the US, Canada, Europe and New Zealand. After a run of Australian shows in October and November that will take in every state and territory, the group will finish at the Domain in Sydney on Armistice Day, 11 November.

Midnight Oil also announced they will reissue their entire catalogue in three box sets due out on 5 May: vinyl and CD collections of studio albums and EPs, plus the so-called “Overflow Tank”, a voluminous collection of mostly rare and previously unreleased material spread across four CDs and eight DVDs, presented in a miniature replica water tank. (Drummer Rob Hirst famously included a corrugated iron water tank as part of his onstage kit.)

The biggest news by far was the band’s intention to move beyond being a “catalogue act”, as Rob Hirst put it, and to record new material. Hirst said the band had been rehearsing and relearning its entire catalogue dating back to its self-titled debut album from 1978, but promised the group had new songs on the boil: “After all, there’s a lot to sing about these days, isn’t there?”

Indeed there is. As the guitarist, Jim Moginie, pointed out, people have short memories; many of the issues the band sang about on some of Australia’s best-known anthems are more relevant and urgent than ever.

It’s easy to say that the times suit a Midnight Oil comeback. In 1990 the band played a traffic-stopping gig outside the headquarters of oil company Exxon in Manhattan, after the grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker that spilled 10m gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. Today the former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who served the company for 40 years, is the US secretary of state.

Asked whether the band might soft-pedal on making political statements when it reaches the US, the singer, Peter Garrett – who left the group in 2002 for a 10-year career in parliament, where he was a cabinet minister in the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments – was apoplectic. “Maaaaate!” he spluttered. “Come on, what kind of question is that? Seriously, we’re going to try not to get deported, [but] the effect of Trump’s America will be to bring [people] out – whether it’s through music, whether it’s unions, whether it’s academics, whether it’s farmers, whoever – it will bring those people out.

“Healthy democracies sometimes need to react against craziness and ugliness and selfishness and stupidity and grotesquery, and you’ve got that in ample abundance in President Trump. He’s not a figure that’s engendering a great deal of respect from his own people. You can be sure they’re going to respond, and there’s no way that we won’t say what we think about it either.”

Still, for a group that built its reputation on political activism as much as its songs, today’s much-anticipated media conference was mostly about the music, which Hirst insisted was the real driving force that drew the band back together. “It’s almost as if the band has waited for this moment, but I can assure you that’s not true. It’s just pure happenstance,” he said.

Garrett asked: “How do you account for the fact that we played together for as long as we did? It’s not the Brady Bunch. It’s a bunch of people that love their music but are very different in some ways, and people have gone off and done other things.

“And yet I think there’s this residual sense that what we’ve been able to do up until now, we can still do, and we all feel it, and we’re not agonising and angsting over it. We just know that when we get in a room together, it’s a hallelujah moment, and we want a few more of those, and we want to share that with other people.”

Asked whether he had been practising his dance moves, Garrett was blunt. “Mate, let’s be really clear about that – that’s one thing I don’t need to rehearse,” he said. “Midnight Oil’s not a calculated exercise in producing something that has an effect. It’s much more an internal kind of spontaneous combustion that always happens, and it’ll still happen. I’ll go for the odd frolic, I’m sure.”

First published in The Guardian, 17 February 2017

Disclosure: I provided liner notes for Midnight Oil’s Overflow Tank box set, mentioned above

A message for men: don’t be a dickhead

The front page of The Age’s website last Thursday made for truly gruesome reading.

Once you got past the federal election coverage, and the Essendon supplements scandal, the headlines were overwhelmingly concerned with a series of brutal crimes against women, led by the appalling case of a parolee, Jason Dinsley, who had pleaded guilty to the murder and attempted rape of a Ballarat woman in April.

When the pathetic Dinsley couldn’t get it up, he decided to take his frustration out on his victim by bashing her with a cricket bat. Her four-year-old son was in the house at the time. He already had nearly 100 prior convictions by 2007, when he was imprisoned for six years for the violent rape and robbery of a 52-year-old woman.

Scroll down a little further and there, again, was the sad case of Johanna Martin, whom no one in the media seems to be capable of resisting calling by her better-known sex worker’s handle, Jazzy O, alongside pictures of her clad in a few well-placed Australian flags.

On trial for Martin’s murder was one of her clients, who also owed her $13,000. He claims she died accidentally in a “sex game”. But he didn’t report her death. Instead he pawned her jewellery and dumped her body in the street. His defence barrister argues a paltry $13,000 wouldn’t unduly trouble a woman allegedly worth $3 million.

Such contempt.

Later in the afternoon, up popped the case of Michael Pilgrim. In a minutely planned operation, Pilgrim had abducted another sex worker, of whom he had also been a client, and imprisoned her in a house in Gippsland, where he raped her daily in the deluded belief that she might develop Stockholm Syndrome and fall in love with him.

I was starting to feel a bit sick by then, and perhaps ill-advisedly I went back to the election news. What I found was a 24-hour cycle fixated on the federal opposition leader Tony Abbott – long pilloried for his archaic attitudes to women – stating that one of his female candidates might bring a little sex appeal to his campaign.

This was disputed by former Labor opposition leader Mark Latham, who thought Abbott must have had the beer goggles on, as she wasn’t even “that good a sort”. It showed, he said, that the would-be PM had “low standards”. Actually, both men are guilty of that. But not in the way Latham presumes.

To top all this off, we had a long-serving former Prime Minister who thought anyone who felt any of this was a bit, well, problematic ought to “get a life”. Well, excuse me John Howard, and anyone else, if you think I may be drawing too long a bow in all of this. But aren’t our leaders at least supposed to set a better example?

Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay thinks so. In an article for the Herald-Sun just three weeks ago, he said he had something to tell you: it’s all connected. And he challenged us: “When a woman is jeered, groped, bashed or raped I want you to consider the man who did it, and the culture that encouraged it,” he wrote.

He wanted prominent men, he said, to speak about this – both loudly and more often. It had to come from the men – male politicians, corporate and sporting leaders (they are all still mostly men) – to call out the sexism that underlay the violence. And if reducing a female politician’s credentials to her appearance isn’t sexism, what is?

“The casual groping, the sick sense of entitlement, the disrespect – all of it slowly erodes our attitudes towards women,” Lay wrote. “Bit by bit our standards are lowered until this kind of behaviour becomes a form of endorsement of violence towards women.”

What was that about standards again, Mr Latham?

Then Lay gave us the statistics. In the year up to March 2013, there were nearly 20,000 recorded offences of family violence in Victoria. And in the previous two financial years, the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service received more than 50,000 calls to its crisis hotline in Victoria alone.

The aforementioned headlines were all in a single day. I haven’t mentioned the cases of Jill Meagher, Sarah Cafferkey, or how Julia Gillard’s gender and appearance was used ruthlessly by her less evolved enemies to destroy her political credibility – which is not to say she didn’t inflict many wounds upon herself.

Because this is not a left/right issue, and nor is it a women’s issue. As Lay said, it’s actually a men’s issue, and a justice issue. And calling it as a man doesn’t mean forfeiting one’s masculinity, or sense of humour, or sexuality. It just means not turning a blind eye to men behaving like dickheads.

The price of outrage

Sometimes a story moves so fast it’s hard to keep up with. Such has been the case with the saga of Alan Jones. I wrote an open letter to 2GB on Saturday evening, shortly after news of Jones’ intemperate remarks to a gathering of Young Liberal students in Sydney broke. I then slept in on Sunday, prior to working my night job.

By the time I’d woken up, I’d already missed half the fun. Jones’ press conference yesterday, purportedly to apologise to the Prime Minister, has already been much discussed, and derided, for its transparent insincerity. To say Jones “doesn’t get it” doesn’t cover it. I shook my head, went to work, and after getting home at six in the morning, I slept late again.

While I was blearily shoving cereal down the hatch at midday, a petition launched by change.org to remove Jones from his duties was collecting over 30,000 signatures. I would guess that very few of them listen to 2GB, but that didn’t stop sponsors from withdrawing from Jones’ program: luxury car maker Mercedes-Benz; supermarket oligarchs Woolworths; tea-makers Dilmah; Freedom Furniture; the list goes on. The moral question for them now is whether or not they’ll resume their support for Jones when the opprobrium abates.

Jones has, of course, been pilloried from all quarters and all sides of politics, though, again, there’s been discussion about the timing and tenor of the condemnations: compare Malcolm Turnbull’s brisk and unequivocal condemnation to Tony Abbott’s relatively tardy and tame one. That’s all grist for the mill for commentators, and for the Labor Party. I’ll leave that there and return to the central theme.

Jones’ remarks would have created outrage at any time in any context. Outrage is, after all, part of his stock in trade. Nonetheless, it’s the timing here that’s really pushed his career to the limit; that forced him to “man up” (and note, even his apologies are gendered: the subtle implication throughout was that Gillard ought to do the same if she wanted to mess with the big boys).

Once, Jones would have scoffed at the most timid suggestion that he apologise. This time it’s different. It’s not just the sheer vindictiveness of what he said; it’s that it marks the symbolic bottoming-out of our public discourse that has been an increasing topic of debate essentially since Tony Abbott assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party.

It comes barely a fortnight after The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper with more than its own share of print-version shock jocks, launched a war on Twitter trolls. That it was a journalist from the same newspaper that broke the yarn (along with, it should be acknowledged, Twitter user @greenat16) is a wonderful irony.

As I wrote to 2GB, I wasn’t sure where they drew their own lines in the sand. But Australians, as I predicted, have drawn it for them, and sent a reminder to our political classes: the level of bile in public debate is starting to make us all sick. And, in this case, it’s social media users that stood up to the real trolls in our society. Not the twerps on Twitter; the ones with real power and influence.

Alan Jones is as entitled to his views as the rest of us. All of us occasionally say things that transgress the bounds of good taste, and nothing Jones said to a private gathering of young Tories was, as far as I can tell, defamatory, discriminatory or an incitement to violence. The same can’t be said of many of his previous utterances.

At the end of the day, the real question is why Jones and his ilk – Sandilands, Jackie O, Ray Hadley and the rest – should be afforded the continuing privilege of a microphone. That’s something that only their audiences, and the advertisers that enable their careers can really answer, but on the weekend they were reminded, again, that outrage cuts both ways – and trafficking in it comes at a cost.

Dear 2GB: an open letter regarding Mr Alan Jones

Dear 2GB,

First, an apology for wasting your time. I don’t listen to your radio station. I don’t even live in Sydney. And no, I’m no fan of Alan Jones; have even had a pop at him in print on the odd occasion. Given the respective size of our audiences, you could safely accuse me of pissing in the wind there.

Still, I feel compelled to write to you. And maybe I’m not even being fair, because Mr Jones didn’t suggest our Prime Minister’s father “died of shame” in his own daughter in the normal course of his duties on your radio station. He was freelancing, as it were, speaking to a gathering of about 100 Young Liberals in Sydney. Apparently they thought it was a brilliant speech. Perhaps I should take it up with them.

But the fact is that 2GB employs Mr Jones. He represents you – and your advertisers. And, as you would well know, he has form. It wasn’t that long ago that he suggested – repeatedly – that the Prime Minister be put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea.

I know, I know. The Australian Communication and Media Authority decided we shouldn’t take Mr Jones seriously there. That he, in his role as a mere entertainer, was simply expressing his contempt for the PM’s policies, and didn’t personally mean any harm. It’s not his fault if some whackjob out there decides one day he wants to make good on such threats.

The ACMA, presumably, doesn’t have jurisdiction over what Mr Jones says at a private gathering to a bunch of supplicating fans. That’s as may be. We do have freedom of speech in this country, and as abhorrent as his comments were, they weren’t illegal, nor should they be.

So I’m glad to take the opportunity to write to you, publicly and privately, to express my disgust.

And I did feel disgust. I know Mr Jones is paid well, in part, for his controversial views: we may not like them, but he’s difficult to ignore (much as, mostly, I do my best). But that couldn’t stop the wave of bile that collected in my stomach when I read of his comments, and listened to the audio. I was genuinely sickened. I’m sure most decent people would feel the same way.

You are doubtless aware of the increasing debate about the standard of public debate in this country, and the lack of civility in public discourse. And I am aware that, as a talkback radio station, you place a premium on broadcasters with robust views who attract a large and loyal base of listeners; not just Mr Jones, but Ray Hadley, Steve Price and Chris Smith. Yours is not an industry for shrinking violets.

My question to you, though, is simple. Where do you draw the line?

Well, I’m not sure where you draw it. But I suspect you’re about to find out where others draw it, because I anticipate that many of your advertisers won’t be too keen on continuing to extend their patronage to a broadcaster vicious enough to publicly heap shame on a grieving person for effectively killing her father.

You would also be well aware, of course, of the current debate surrounding trolling, since Mr Hadley has recently called on the government for “some form of regulation” of Twitter, after he found himself the subject of what he said were “criminally defamatory allegations” on the micro-blogging site. There has to be protection, he says, for “average people”.

Including, I would suggest, average people like the PM. Because Julia Gillard is not just a woman; not just the PM; she is a human being. Had Mr Jones made such comments on Twitter, they would – if reported – likely have seen him suspended or banned from the service.

Mr Jones is the voice of your radio station, if not the face. He is, of course, immensely popular with your listeners, and that has seen both he and 2GB through many a scrape together as he has repeatedly tested the boundaries of truth and taste in public broadcasting.

I put it to you that, on this occasion, Jones has gone far beyond the bounds of fair comment, and that even though his remarks were not made on 2GB, their extraordinary viciousness calls for some act of censure on your part. I therefore call on you to, at the very least:

* Publicly disassociate yourself from his statements, and

* Insist on him publicly and unreservedly apologising to the Prime Minister, both in writing and on his program, and

* Should that apology not be immediately forthcoming, demonstrate that you are serious about disowning his views by sacking him.

Because, as much as the bar has been lowered – and notwithstanding the role talkback radio has played in lowering it – there are still some standards, some benchmarks of common decency, to be upheld in public life. I hope this marks the point where 2GB quits playing limbo, and demonstrates that you have a mature role to play in public debate beyond rabble-rousing.

Misogynists and nut jobs need to turn down the volume

Last Friday, I saw something that disturbed me greatly: a young man wearing what appeared to be a home-made T-shirt featuring a caricature of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She had a bullet in her head.

That sort of thing, unfortunately, will be of little surprise to Gillard, who the day before had called out the “misogynists and nut jobs” on the internet, where calls for her assassination, both veiled and overt, proliferate.

They proliferate on talkback radio too. And it’s not just the callers. Alan Jones infamously suggested – on five occasions last year – that Gillard ought to be “put in a chaff bag” and dumped at sea.

Mysteriously, the broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, found in June that Jones’ comments did not incite violence or hatred – at least, not violence or hatred based on the PM’s gender. That was a relief, wasn’t it?

Let’s now look at the reality of last week’s events.

At the beginning of Gillard’s presser – the same one where she poured scorn on the nut jobs bent on her destruction – one of them strolled past security, entirely unchallenged, to personally deliver her a message on the dangers of “mind control”.

The day before that, a 52-year-old man avoided jail after threatening to kill Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and state Labor MP Jill Hennessy at a public function. He was highly agitated; both women were justifiably frightened.

Security is now being upgraded to the homes of MPs, as well as presumably being reviewed at Parliament House. We can be grateful that that’s all, for now. In the meantime, we desperately need to turn down the temperature of political debate.

Everyone, on both sides of politics, inside and outside the parliamentary chamber, needs to just stop for a moment. Step away from the computer, away from forums and comment threads and and Twitter. Don’t turn up your radio. Turn it off.

Go outside. Get a little air. For Pete’s sake, get a sense of perspective. That’s what’s lacking in Australia at the moment. The language is of catastrophe. Wrecking balls, python squeezes, crisis on our borders (mostly Kiwis coming by plane, as it happens).

True, those phrases come from the federal opposition. Tony Abbott has, in anyone’s estimation, been an opposition leader true to his pugilist past, vowing from the moment of his ascension to the job that opposition leaders were there to oppose.

He’s certainly a big reason for the relentless partisanship of our national debate. But he’s far from the only one, helped along as he is by the shock jocks and shit-stirrers and hate-mongers who have heaped vilification on our first female PM from day one.

Labor can play that game too, especially when it comes to tipping a bucket on themselves. If we’re to believe Wayne Swan, the only thing worse than a Tony Abbott-led Australia is one led by Kevin Rudd. The venom on all sides is astounding.

Gillard made an astute comment last week about Tea Party-style interventions perverting the tone of our politics, where even the hardest facts take a distant second place to a kind of rolling frenzy of vituperation.

She was right to observe that, with information bombarding all of us constantly, it’s becoming more and more difficult to parse that information effectively. And lies, repeated often enough, will always become truths to those predisposed to believe them.

Political debate, as we all know, has been mostly reduced  to sets of stock phrases, repeated ad nauseam to penetrate minds dulled, perhaps more than anything, by volume: not just of information, but the decibels with which the message is delivered.

It all reaches boiling point in the online environment, where the conspiracy theorists, the politically disenfranchised, and the manifestly unstable find themselves most at home.

Australia’s democracy has been distinguished by moderation. Bipartisanship is more common that frequently supposed, as both the Labor and Liberal parties have mostly tried to lay claim to the centre of political life. It’s an important factor in our stability.

Compare that to the current direction of US politics, where fear seems to be the guiding principle, and even the mention of gun control by a candidate from either major party is considered tantamount to political suicide, if not worse.

We can thank John Howard for delivering some of the tightest firearms restrictions in the developed world in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Unfortunately, no one can legislate for sanity.

It will only take one aggrieved soul with an axe to grind and sufficiently deluded conviction in his righteousness to change the way politics in this country is conducted forever. Let’s all take a deep breath, and hope it never comes to that.

First published in The Age, 28 August 2012

Pokies: rent-seekers win again

The gnashing of teeth over Julia Gillard’s betrayal of Andrew Wilkie over pokies reform has been entirely predictable. Is this some kind of political masterstroke? Is it just another demonstration of Gillard’s fundamental untrustworthiness? It’s all as telegraphed as an old boxer’s jab, and irrevocably lashed to the 24-hour news cycle. About the furthest anyone’s looking into this situation is the polls, and what it does to Gillard’s chances of re-election.

The far more important point about what Gillard’s backdown says about Australia’s rotten political culture has been almost entirely overlooked. And that is that the rent-seekers have won again.

They won in 2010, when some of the world’s largest and richest mining companies saw off the Resources Super Profits Tax with a $22 million advertising campaign that, in the end, helped kill off a popularly elected Prime Minister (not that Kevin 07, perhaps soon be be known as Kevin 12, was exactly blameless in his demise, but that’s another story).

That occasion saw the likes of Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest and Clive Palmer marching in the streets and carrying on like they’d all be rooned, I tells ya. The sight of Australia’s richest men and women playing the victim card – Rinehart (wealthiest of the lot) leading the chant of “Axe the tax!” – was so galling in its cheek that it’s a wonder the #Occupy movement didn’t start in Perth 2010, instead of New York 2011. Haven’t we heard all this somewhere before?

Let me digress for a minute longer before I get back to the pokies debacle. As reported yesterday, Rinehart’s wealth practically doubled last week by a cool $10 billion. She is so stupidly rich (it helps that she’s the dual beneficiary of her father Lang Hancock’s estate, and the longest resources boom in the country’s history) and her fortune growing so fast that, according to the revealing profile by Jane Cadzow that accompanied yesterday’s story, “it’s difficult for financial analysts to keep track of it”.

These days, when she’s not digging stuff up and squabbling with her children over control of her empire, she lends her considerable financial influence to matters of public policy. And it’s not just the millions she and her buddies poured into the anti-RSPT campaign. It’s the $165 million she sunk into buying a 10 percent stake of Channel 10, money seen as crucial to arch-brute Andrew Bolt getting a TV pulpit to add to his print and radio platforms. Then there’s the $120 million that’s bought her about four percent of Fairfax.

There’s also the money she’s used to fund the tours of fellow climate change sceptics like Christopher Monckton and lunches with Ian Plimer last year, as she railed against the introduction of the carbon tax.

Had the RSPT been introduced, according to 2010 Treasury modelling, the average worker would have been $450 a year better off. Gross Domestic Product would have increased by 0.7 percent; investment would have increased by 2.1 percent and prices on food, clothing, housing and transport were all expected to fall. This was meant to be the cure to our current two-speed economy, where mining of finite resources is galloping ahead of a field otherwise stuck in the starting blocks.

In an excellent op-ed late last year, Sydney Morning Herald economics writer Jessica Irvine wrote that rent-seeking used to be carried out away from the public eye, through political donations and long lunches. Now, with well-meaning laws aimed at circumventing such bribery, it’s done in public, through advertising campaigns.

Which brings me, finally, to Clubs Australia’s expensive and very successful “Won’t work, will hurt” campaign, despite polling showing overall support for the introduction of mandatory pre-commitment technology to poker machines running as high as 62 percent – but perhaps not in the marginal seats where the organisation is targeting its campaign.

Like Big Tobacco’s absurd astroturf-fronted putsch against plain packaging of cigarettes (which, in the interests of balance, I should mention that the government has so far stared down), “Won’t work, will hurt” is based on a logical contradiction: that a measure aimed at restricting the amount a person is able to gamble, via mandatory pre-commitment, can be completely ineffective – according to Clubs Australia boss Anthony Ball, it “won’t help a single problem gambler” – while at the same time killing off businesses, jobs and entire communities.

It’s an argument so inherently rhetorically unstable that it totters before you even need to produce figures to blow the whole teetering edifice over, starting with the fact that, according to the Australia Institute, Clubs Australia has overestimated the cost of implementing the technology by a factor of 10. Add to this deception the leaked industry document which revealed that the estimated drop in gaming revenues through the pre-commitment scheme would be 10-20 percent – half of that publicly estimated by Clubs Australia.

While not as obscenely cashed up as the mining industry, Clubs Australia hasn’t minded splashing the dough around in protecting its interests – around $3 million for its public campaign so far (remember “It’s UnAustralian“?), with plenty more in the bank. That’s not including the $200,000 it poured into the New South Wales Liberal and National Parties last year, according to The Power Index. Forty percent of the nation’s pokies are in New South Wales. In the lead-up to the NSW election last month, Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell signed a memorandum with Clubs Australia giving them $300 million of tax breaks on pokie revenues.

As Bernard Keane pointed out in Crikey yesterday, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Gillard has bailed on Wilkie as soon as it was practical to do so (ooh, about as long as it took for Peter Slipper to get comfy in the Speaker’s chair). Taking on the the clubs lobby in search of a meaningful solution to problem gambling was never Labor’s idea of a good time.

But as Irvine wrote back in October, we need to work out that we’re the ones ultimately being played for mugs by an advertising industry that’s helping to convince the public that what’s good for business is good for the country and good for you, too.

Because, well, they would say that. Wouldn’t they?

Wishin’ and hopin’ on gay marriage

It’s only three weeks ago that I ventured the opinion (along with many other commentators) that Julia had her mojo back, or at least was on the kind of roll that Labor hadn’t enjoyed for at least a couple of years. For the first time in her Prime Ministership, momentum seemed to be with her. Perhaps we should have known in advance that a stumble couldn’t be far away.

When the carbon tax bills were passed in early October, she spoke about being on the right side of history. She was correct. Whatever the Coalition crows about in opposition, they will not be able to escape the cost – be it political, economic or environmental – of climate change in even the short term. No amount of wishin’ and hopin’ will make this issue go away.

So too for same-sex marriage. Yet, for reasons best known to herself, Julia’s decided to put herself on the wrong side of history. I’m guessing it’s something to do with keeping those “faceless men” from the Right faction who installed her in power happy – notably the Catholic, socially conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association secretary Joe De Bruyn.

De Bruyn has issued dire warnings that Labor stands to lose up to 15 seats at the next election should it change its party platform to allow “equal access to marriage … irrespective of sex” at the ALP’s national conference this weekend. Yet the polls don’t indicate any such thing, with a clear majority of voters supporting the legal recognition of same-sex unions. According to a Herald/Nielsen poll two weeks ago, even 50 percent of coalition voters are in favour of change.

Here in Queensland, the state ALP has heaped further pressure on its federal colleagues by legalising same-sex civil unions overnight. The arguments against by the LNP were predictably risible, with opposition legal affairs spokesman Jarrod Bleijie telling parliament that “Civil partnerships is not on a priority list in the minds of Queenslanders … The passing of this bill will not save Queenslanders money, it will not ease cost of living pressures, it will not get our triple-A credit rating back.”

Well, so what? As Tim Dick writes for Fairfax online today:

“The arguments for the secular state admitting gay couples into civil matrimony are so clear, so well traversed, and those against dismissed so soundly, that we are left dealing with the twin remaining forces of opposition: political fear, and prejudice. There is not one valid reason to oppose civil marriage for gay people. None.Yet some think it ought not to be a priority, as if doing the right thing by fellow citizens should wait until the mythical day on which the rest of the public agenda is exhausted, when schools and hospitals want for nothing, when plagues and pestilence have been banished and when eternal peace has descended upon all the world. Until there is nothing else to do. Only then can the gays have their day.”

If gay marriage is not on anyone’s priority list (other than those who are directly affected by discrimination) then it’s hard to see how it’s going to have a major impact on the ALP’s electoral fortunes, other than perhaps win a few votes back from the Greens. Which in turn makes it harder to understand why Gillard has chosen to fight another battle she can’t win.

To recap, Gillard’s tried to shore up her right flank without doing herself any damage on her left by opting for a conscience vote. It’s backfired badly. Conscience votes are usually reserved for life and death issues (abortion and euthanasia), not human rights issues. For a supposedly progressive party which believes in equality of opportunity, this issue has long since passed the point of being a no-brainer.

Intellectually, she’s been totally outgunned. Repeating the blandishment that marriage is between a man and a woman doesn’t cut much ice when you have the likes of Penny Wong (from the Left) and ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr (from the Right) inside your own party, writing cogent and very personal arguments for change for both the broadsheet and online media alike.

The vote at the conference will be tight, but even if Gillard manages to hold her breath and the numbers with it, I can’t see it doing anything but damage to her authority and her dignity. Should the numbers go against her, there’s the risk of a party split, with some members on the Right indicating they’ll thwart any attempt to change the laws in parliament by crossing the floor. Should she hold sway, the issue will only continue to fester, with the party risking losing more votes and members to the Greens.

Labor has far more to gain than lose by rolling with the tide here. Hold it back and they’ll continue to be swamped. Oh, and there goes your mojo, Julia.

Has Julia got her mojo back?

At the moment, it’s only a whisper, and it may be well past too late. But there’s more than a hint in the last few weeks that Julia Gillard’s government may just have turned the corner.

Yes, there is the continuing political and humanitarian debacle over asylum seekers, but that is a failure of imagination, goodwill and commonsense that besmirches both sides of politics. Otherwise, Gillard’s had the best few weeks of her turbulent Prime Ministership. First she managed to secure the carbon tax’s passage through the Lower House. When Alan Joyce decided to play hardball with the unions by grounding his Qantas fleet, Julia (via Fair Work Australia) sent them post-haste back to the negotiating table, for once looking surefooted in what was, for her, familiar territory.

Then came the carbon tax again as it sailed comfortably through the Senate. Tony Abbott, who had all but pledged to nail himself to a cross to fight its introduction, chose this moment to attend a conservative leader’s forum in London. I wonder whether David Cameron took the opportunity to avail Tony of his views on climate change. The Tory British PM is an ardent supporter of a price on carbon. Just today, by the way, the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency warned that the world had possibly as little as five years to clean up its act before the tipping point of irreversible and dangerous climate change was reached.

It’s true, of course, that the introduction of a carbon price has done more than anything else to cruel Gillard’s Prime Ministership. This despite it being bipartisan political policy not much more than two years ago. And it’s also true that steps Australia makes to mitigate our carbon emissions won’t do much to stop the rest of the world from hurtling over the edge of that dangerous threshold, other than hopefully set an example for others. But those are arguments for another day. Right now, it’s Julia who’s got the initiative and Abbott who’s starting to look a little shaky as the political ground begins to shift beneath his feet.

Suddenly it’s looking like Julia who’s sniffed the breeze. Labor’s been chasing it’s tail for two years, but lately there are signs it might have rediscovered its sense of purpose. The clearest indication was Julia’s announcement today that her government would be phasing in significant pay increases to low-paid workers in the social and community sectors: up to 20 percent over the next six years. In particular, it’s a move that will reward women, who predominate in the community workforce but are paid abysmally for doing often difficult and demanding jobs.

Might it just be possible that Julia has looked past the headlines of the tabloids (and, of course, The Australian) and realised that the #Occupy/99 percent movement represents a cause that is tailor-made for her party? This is heartland stuff for Labor. At a time when our economy is charging ahead at warp speed thanks to the mining boom, yet the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever – and resentment at that fact is at an all-time high – it’s a good moment to be reaching back to pull those in danger of falling behind (not least with their rent or mortgage repayments) back into the fold.

As for Abbott, he suddenly has some real issues to worry about, and he’s started to come under some genuine scrutiny. As I’ve noted previously, he can’t say no forever. He’s made a series of clumsy public statements: not only his pledge in blood to repeal the carbon tax, but a less certain (non-core) promise to do the same with pokies legislation. On top of those were his muddled statements regarding Qantas, then he got a savaging for blowing the coalition’s economic management credentials regarding the mining tax and IMF.

So far, he’s been pretty mute on the prospect of a pay rise for some of our lowest-paid workers. He’s on dangerous ground now and he knows it. Julia’s finally forcing him to fight on her turf.

Another death in detention

Here’s a curious confluence of ostensibly non-related events.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard met the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Speaking ahead of the meeting, she delivered a sharp message about that nation’s human rights abuses, specifically of the Tamil population, after the defeat of the independence movement in 2009 brought about the end of a 26-year civil war. “We have consistently raised our concerns about human rights questions in the end stages of the [Sri Lankan] conflict,” Gillard said. “These need to be addressed by Sri Lanka, through its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.”

Rajapaksa has been accused of war crimes. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has already threatened to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, to be held in Sri Lanka in two years’ time.

Now let’s take a look in our own backyard.

Yesterday, a refugee being held in mandatory detention committed suicide in Villawood, New South Wales. He was the sixth asylum seeker to commit suicide in detention since September 2009 and the fourth at Villawood. He was a Tamil. He had been incarcerated for two years, although his claims for asylum had been finally approved in August. His release was delayed by ASIO while they conducted seemingly endless security checks.

His name was Jayasaker Jayrathana. He poisoned himself. He was just 27 years old.

Both the immigration minister, Chris Bowen, and opposition leader Tony Abbott have described the death as a tragedy. Well, they would, I suppose. They should be ashamed. Perhaps we should all be ashamed at what our country has become.

Bowen acknowledges that he can “understand people’s frustration”. I’m not quite sure “frustration” adequately covers the normal empathetic human response to an innocent man’s senseless and completely unnecessary death.

Tony Abbott’s response on PM yesterday is that if only we stop the boats, then we won’t have people in detention. That seems a little naive, doesn’t it? Abbott, of course, wants the government to return to its old policy of sending asylum seekers to the benighted hellhole otherwise known as Nauru.

While this might once have slowed the boats down for a while, it certainly didn’t stop them, and of course John Howard’s government was also an enthusiastic proponent of mandatory detention. Ask Cornelia Rau about her experiences at the hands of Amanda Vanstone.

In fact, the frank and fearless advice given by the head of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, last week was that detaining people does not, and never has deterred anyone from trying to get to Australia. That was during testimony to a Senate committee, just last week.

Let’s have some figures. Guy Coffey, in The Age today, points out that mandatory detention costs the nation around $1 billion a year. So we might as well ask what public good it is serving. (Coffey has conducted psychological evaluations of people in detention for 14 years.)

The short answer is: not bloody much. In the three months to September this year, there were 248 acts of self-harm committed (and over twice as many declarations of suicidal intent) across a population of around 2500 asylum seekers in three detention centres. These places are not much more than factories of mental illness.

Not only is that a humanitarian disgrace – effectively torturing those who have in many cases already fled torture – the repercussions are felt through our already overburdened health system for years. Why do we persist with this ghastly failure?

We have a credibility problem. We are hardly in any position to lecture other nation on human rights while we allow this barbarity to continue. Really, Australia needs to ask itself what sort of a country it wants to be.

You can’t say no forever

IN case you missed it, the carbon tax bills were passed by the House of Representatives yesterday. I’m pleased to report the sun came up this morning. I presume it will set again tonight and in spite of the nation’s dilemma, the world will most likely move on.

Julia Gillard and her minority government have a lot of problems and a lot of faults, but they’re correct when she says they’re on the right side of history here (or, more accurately, that Tony Abbott is on the fag end of it). It’s just a shame it took so long to get to this point, and that the debate over this issue in particular has exacted such a shocking toll on rational and civilised political discourse – not that things were exactly tea and biscuits inside or outside the parliamentary chamber when John Howard was in charge, mind you.

I am, in some ways, almost a cartoon stereotype of the lapsed Labor voter: having voted with not a little optimism, goodwill and hope for Kevin Rudd in 2007, my faith collapsed after his abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in early 2010. It was bad enough that the legislation was so utterly compromised in its desperation to appease big polluters that it offered virtually no incentive to change their practices at all. The fact that Rudd was by then already running scared of a craven chancer like Abbott – who has already supported all possible positions on this issue depending on which way the political wind was blowing – only made it more galling.

For me, Abbott’s ascent – his relentless cynicism, his willingness to all but sell his arse for power that would be singularly dangerous in his hands – has made Australian politics all but unbearable. Taking his cues from the US Tea Party Republicans, Abbott’s tactics since taking on the opposition leadership, almost by default, have been simple and brutally effective: oppose everything.

Unfortunately, the times suit him. Anne Summers, in her Monthly profile on Andrew Bolt, notes that to succeed in the media today, you need to create controversy: politics is less about a conflict of ideas than an increasingly shrill, rolling conflict of opinion. I’ve already written that, in this environment, expertise counts for nothing in the face of a howling mob – the kind that stormed the parliamentary gallery yesterday screaming that “democracy is dead”.

Abbott, an old rugby prop forward, is perfect to lead a mob. It’s the extreme language that he uses – most recently, yesterday’s “pledge in blood” to repeal the carbon tax if and when he takes office. It’s this sort of thing that gets him into trouble sometimes, such as when he stood in front of placards demonising Julia Gillard as a witch (and worse) at an earlier rally against the tax. I doubt it would even have occurred to him, until it was pointed out, that implicitly condoning such behaviour was less than prime ministerial; that it was his own fitness to govern that would be called into question.

But what’s Abbott to do now? You can’t say no forever, as the Go-Betweens once said. One wonders if this pledge in blood is a “carefully scripted remark”, or just part of the cut and thrust and bloody gore of politics, Abbott’s way. The business community at least now knows what it’s getting, and the smarter elements of it have been preparing accordingly for some time.

This is an issue that isn’t going to just go away. Everyone, including a large percentage of the same business community, knows Abbott’s so-called “direct action” policy to mitigate against climate change is a joke and at any rate, the legal obstacles against repealing yesterday’s legislation are formidable.

Former Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley never got the chance to keep his promise to roll back the GST. Abbott may be luckier than Beazley, but he is creating an almighty rod for his own back should he take office. If his pledge in blood turn out to have been made with his fingers crossed behind his back, the mob he has proved so adept at whipping up will surely turn on him.