Category: Australian politics

Out in the heartland, no rocker is safe from right-wingers

It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.

Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?

Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.

“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)

In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.

Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.

Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.

One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.

As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.

The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.

And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.

These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”

The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.

In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.

First published in The Guardian, 22 July 2015

With a little empathy, Turnbull changes the tone

Whatever you thought of Leigh Sales’ interview with Malcolm Turnbull on The 7.30 Report last night, it had a defining moment; one that has the potential to recast the fortunes of his government. It was a moment of empathy, and empathy is a quality that’s become an endangered species in public life.

Turnbull recalled when he was a partner at Goldman Sachs in New York. Everyone, he said, was earning big money. But he queried the CEO about whether they were deserving of their good fortune, pointing out that in the streets below them, there were taxi drivers working far longer hours for a fraction of the rewards they were receiving.

I nearly fell off my chair. As someone who’d driven a taxi for many years – and who occasionally had to shrug off barbs from those who clearly regarded my line of employment as a reflection on my intelligence, as well as my station in life – this was an extraordinary thing to hear. Especially from a conservative politician.

Turnbull readily accepted Leigh Sales’ proposition that he’s been lucky. He has been gifted with high intelligence, a good education, good health, a beautiful family, and he’s been able to convert all of it into enormous wealth, which only a tiny few are able to do no matter how lucky they are, or how hard they work.

But Turnbull wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His mother had deserted his family at a young age. And perhaps that’s given him another gift: the emotional intelligence, as he called it, to have the imagination to walk in somebody else’s shoes. It was, he said, was the most important quality for someone in his line of work.

“The fact that we have to recognise is that much of our good fortune is good fortune,” he said. Such a statement must have burned the ears of many of his conservative colleagues. Turnbull is richer than most of them put together, but his words signalled a huge shift in rhetorical emphasis away from the brutishness of his predecessor.

Empathy has been in short supply in the so-called land of the fair go these last two years. It was what went missing when Peter Dutton joked about rising sea levels in the South Pacific. It was missing from his apology, too, for not realising there was a boom microphone over his head at the time.

It was missing when Joe Hockey said that poor people don’t drive cars, and if they did, they didn’t drive them very far. It was missing when he said the key to breaking into the housing market was to get a good job that paid good money. (Frankly, empathy was missing on most of the occasions Hockey opened his cigar-hole.)

It was missing when Christopher Pyne opined that women would not be disproportionately effected by changes to higher education, because most of them would only go on to be nurses and teachers anyway. It was missing from the Abbott government’s attitude to same-sex marriage.

It was missing when the government attempted to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. All of the government’s empathy on that occasion was reserved for the very white Andrew Bolt. It was missing when George Brandis said people had a right to be bigots. It was missing when Bronwyn Bishop took that chopper to Geelong.

Symbolically, this collective lack of empathy can be summed up in Tony Abbott’s words: “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

Inevitably, this lack of care for others has spilled over into other aspects of our national life. The incessant booing of Adam Goodes. The continuing degradation and dehumanisation of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. Where once we found the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” we instead find fault.

The proof, of course, will be in the policies the Liberal Party takes to the election and, in the longer term, their outcomes. But with just a little empathy, Turnbull has changed the tone of the national conversation. It’s the first step towards saving his party from the sort of ideological drift – unhinged from the vicissitudes of life that effect ordinary people – that’s turned the US Republican Party into an unelectable circus.

All things dull and ugly

The headline on the Climate Spectator website said it all. “Approval of Adani’s mega coal mine overturned – for a skink and a snake, not a fried planet,” it read. The federal court’s decision, it went on, came down to “protecting two animals you’ve probably never heard of”: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The trade minister, Andrew Robb, apparently suffering from reptile rage, described the skink as a “patsy”, implying that opposition to the mine was based on a hatred for coal more than concern for a lizard that is rarely seen even by herpetologists. (The best way to find one is to look for the little piles of poop outside their burrows.)

Not since former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett called the Orange-bellied Parrot a “trumped-up corella”, when its critically endangered status proved problematic to the planned relocation of a chemical plant, have we seen such disdain heaped upon a critter for getting in the way of development.

Kennett’s attitude to the parrot – which has a wild population of about 35 – summed up the general care factor towards any animal that’s smaller than a whale and not as cute as a koala. Species such as the Leadbeater’s Possum and Tasmanian Devil have benefitted from broad public recognition. The skink has attracted mostly derision.

But the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act isn’t just there to protect the fauna and flora that adorn our national and state emblems. The act protects the obscure as well as the iconic. Or, as Monty Python put it: “All things dull and ugly; all creatures short and squat.”

So someone has to write in defence of the skink and the snake, for they are equally entitled to the benefit of the law that was introduced by the Howard government in 1999 (in exchange for the passage of the GST). The EPBC recognises, very simply, that these animals have a inherent right to exist and deserve our protection.

Actually, the Yakka Skink is pretty cool, as far as skinks go. For most people in the cities they’re those tiny black lizards that like to make their homes in and around ours. But the Yakka Skink is a whopper, up to 40 centimetres long. Unfortunately, it lives in Queensland’s brigalow belt, which has been smashed by land clearing.

The causes by which our fauna and flora become endangered might be obvious – habitat destruction, introduced predators, environmental pollution, changes to fire regimes – but the processes are often silent, as even formerly abundant species begin vanishing before our eyes.

The Regent Honeyeater, for example, once roamed in flocks of hundreds. Now it’s down to just a few hundred individuals, total. Last month, Birdlife Australia reported that even some of our most familiar birds, such as the Willie Wagtail, Laughing Kookaburra and Magpie, were suffering significant declines.

Australia has one of the highest extinction rates in the world. We have already lost nearly 10 percent of our mammals – around 30 of approximately 380 species. Many, many more as well as hundreds of our birds, reptiles, insects, plants and even trees are in imminent danger of joining the choir invisible.

Most of them are species we will never know the names of, let alone have direct experience with. Many are poorly known, or even yet to be scientifically described. But that does not make them any less worthy. All of them play a unique role in their respective ecologies.

We are witnesses to probably the greatest mass extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs; with resources scarce, we are being asked to decide what we can and can’t afford to save. Cases like the Yakka Skink test the depth of our commitment to environmental protection.

Giving oxygen to thieves

In early 2007, I found myself on the Atherton Tablelands, researching a story about politics in far north Queensland for the late, lamented Bulletin magazine. This was the year of John Howard’s demise and Kevin Rudd’s ascension, and I wanted to see how the men and women of the frontier saw the up-and-comer from their corner of the world.

The piece was called “The Seventh State of Mind”, an acknowledgment that, yes, Queensland is different, and north Queensland even more so. It also stemmed from a long conversation I had with Bob Katter, who neatly showed me how he would partition the state from Rockhampton up, with the aid of a folded serviette (which looks a bit like Queensland) and a knife.

Katter practically left me with my ears bleeding that day, but naturally I couldn’t resist leading my story with this prominent and long-serving politician’s call for secession. I reported plenty of other interesting views in my travels, including those of a Yungaburra lady who was convinced tampons were laced with asbestos and who sold “rainbow rags” (colourful sanitary pads) in her shop as an alternative.

But there was one person whose opinions I chose not to report. I encountered him in the township of Mt Molloy, and he regaled me with some startlingly racist views, including a claim that Aboriginal people had smaller brains. You don’t have look hard to find such views in the far north, but I decided that airing them would colour the entire piece. And anyway, why give oxygen to an oxygen thief?

I’m still not sure that was the entirely right thing to do, especially considering I also approached Pauline Hanson for a quote (as if her opinions were somehow less flammable). True, she didn’t say Aboriginal people had smaller brains, but the mere presence of the most polarising political figure of her generation had a way of enlivening any story back then. These days Hanson seems rather quaint.

I’m reflecting on all of this because I’m thinking about the ABC’s decision to invite Andrew Bolt onto The 7.30 Report last night, to talk about all the ways Adam Goodes is supposedly dividing the country. And the mother of the 13-year-old girl who called Goodes an ape, who thinks he is the one who should “man up” and apologise. At least she is part of the story, but did we really need her to kick the can of hate further down the road?

I’m also thinking about Kim Vuga, the “star” of SBS’s Go Back To Where You Came From. Vuga was recently invited to share her views on The Project, which were in turn widely reported upon. Vuga wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near a microphone not so long ago, her opinions so divorced from any quantifiable reality and so incoherently expressed that they amount to little more than spasms of rage.

Now, rage being the currency of our times, those opinions amount to ratings and clicks. Reporting someone’s views doesn’t have to mean endorsing them, of course. But the decisions made by producers, editors and journalists to allow one person’s views invariably means someone else’s silence. What public interest is being served by elevating Vuga, however temporarily, to national prominence?

Even if it was paranoid about being seen to be balanced, surely the ABC had other options available to it than Bolt, a man with more than enough platforms of his own from which to spruik. Lord knows we heard from enough white men yesterday about what racism really was, what it meant and what it felt like. If someone hadn’t bothered to ask Stan Grant, we might never have known.

We don’t ask Holocaust deniers their views about what really happened in World War II. We don’t ask anti-vaccination campaigners about autism. For the same reason, many media outlets are increasingly refusing to give climate change deniers inappropriate levels of airtime, for to do so would be to be guilty of  “false balance”, a recognition that someone’s media profile should not be out of proportion to their credibility.

And if you’re a contrarian or a conspiracy theorist, be you on my left or right flank, have at me. Because of course in the hyper-democracy that is the web the truth is out there – on the hundreds of fringe news sites, and thousands of Facebook pages, and the millions of comments attached to articles.

That’s where the views of Vuga and my old mate from Mt Molloy belong. And where they should remain.

Why Queensland will never Joh again

As the magnitude of the swing against the Liberal National Party in the Queensland election became clear on Saturday night, one unlikely voice cut through the sea of claptrap and said what his former colleagues would not. While ex-premier Campbell Newman, his potential replacement, Tim Nicholls and federal MP Jane Prentice frothed about the need to re-frame their party’s message in more palatable terms to the electorate, another former state Liberal Party leader – the once ridiculed Bruce Flegg – was prepared to admit the truth: his party had monumentally stuffed up.

Flegg was once the member for Moggill, a suburb of semi-rural acreage on the banks of the Brisbane River that seems to be populated almost entirely by retired doctors and veterinarians. In other words, it couldn’t be more blue-ribbon Liberal territory if you stuck a giant silver spoon on top of the Brookfield Town Hall. Flegg himself is a former GP. Last October, he lost his 10-year hold on the seat to another medico, Dr Christian Rowan (a former Queensland president of the Australian Medical Association) in a pre-selection battle that turned nasty.

So it’s probably not surprising that Flegg wasn’t shy about unloading on his party on election night. Nevertheless, his words should have cut to the bone. His favourite, which he mentioned several times, was “hubris”, but Flegg didn’t dwell on the usual political tropes of arrogance and deafness to criticism. Instead, he zeroed in hard on the Newman government’s sacking, then subsequent stacking, of the cross-party Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee in 2013 as the decisive moment that turned the public against the LNP.

Other observers have mentioned a host of other obvious factors: the sale of public assets; the sacking of 12,000 public servants (right before members of parliament awarded themselves a whopping pay rise); the disembowelling of environmental protections that, among other things, reduced the Great Barrier Reef to a shipping lane for the state’s coal interests; and the uncomfortably cosy relationship with those same interests that saw laws guarding against political donations diluted. Even a confected war with bikies didn’t work in the way a good old-fashioned law and order campaign once did.

But Flegg’s post-election comments spoke to exactly how far the LNP overstepped its mandate. Let’s be clear: as much as Annastacia Palaszczuk can take credit for digging the ALP out of the grave (after previously not having enough MPs to fill a maxi taxi, they’re going to need a bigger bus), Labor has not “won” this election. Rather, it’s the LNP and its agenda that’s been comprehensively repudiated. And while everyone is hyperventilating about what it all means for the federal coalition and Tony Abbott, it’s worth thinking for a moment about what it says about Queensland.

In my view, the LNP’s most colossal misjudgement was that the Queensland electorate – particularly those in the urban enclaves of greater Brisbane which hold so many of the state’s seats – somehow still pined for the days when Joh Bjelke-Petersen ruled the state with jack boots and an iron fist. (Actually, perhaps the first thing the party executive should do is sack whoever advised the LNP to get the word “strong” into every utterance, from every pulpit and press release, as often as possible.)

Large segments of the LNP still haven’t accepted history’s verdict on the Joh years. The gavel came down hard with Tony Fitzgerald QC’s report in 1989, which banished the conservatives from office for a generation, barring a Bob Borbidge blip in the mid-1990s. Newman, the former Brisbane Lord Mayor, was recruited as a putative premier from outside the parliament to put an acceptably urbane face on the newly merged Liberal and National Parties. Once elected, though – with a monumental majority that saw the ALP reduced to a rump – it took about five minutes for the “Here we Joh again” comparisons to start flying.

That Newman frittered away his political capital fast enough to lose the lot, including his own seat of Ashgrove, within a single term tells you a little about him, a little more about the times we live in, and a lot about Queensland. If it proves anything, it’s that the state learned the lessons of the Bjelke-Petersen era better, perhaps, than even many of the natives may have thought. Fitzgerald, surely, will be wearing a quietly satisfied smile.

You could see the portents of this result in the by-elections of Redcliffe and Stafford, held in February and July respectively last year. Both were fought substantially on issues of integrity and accountability. Redcliffe had long been a rolling disaster for the LNP, with first-term MP Scott Driscoll forced to resign from the party, then the parliament, due to financial irregularities that saw him fined $90,000. Both he and his wife are now facing serious charges including fraud and perjury. The seat fell to Labor’s Yvette D’Ath with a 17.2 percent swing.

The Stafford by-election, brought on by the resignation of Dr Chris Davis, was even more telling. Davis (another former Queensland AMA president) was a fierce internal critic of the government’s neutering of the Crime and Misconduct Commission and, especially, the relaxing of laws governing political donations. “The passage of recent government legislation affecting critical aspects of our democracy goes contrary to my value system and that of the majority of my electorate,” Davis said. He was right: the swing against the LNP in Stafford was even more savage than in Redcliffe, 18.6 percent.

In that context, the massive state-wide swing against the LNP on Saturday is perhaps less of an upset than it appeared. Of course, no one (not even the bookies) openly dared to back the ALP from such a parlous position. But really, it wasn’t about them. The LNP, convinced of its electoral invincibility and drunk on its own ideological Kool-Aid, had turned itself into the political equivalent of a suicide squad. Therein, at least, lies a lesson for Abbott and his federal colleagues.

We don’t know yet – and might not know for days or more – whether or not Labor has enough seats to govern in its own right or to form a potential minority government, a scenario a spooked LNP called a recipe for chaos ahead of the election. It should, in fact, be the best thing to happen to Queensland in years. With no upper house, politics in the Deep North has long been characterised by governments with huge majorities trampling over impotent oppositions and democratic safeguards alike. Hopefully, this close result will signal a return to moderation, transparency, and close-checking accountability. As for Bruce Flegg, he was on the money.

Arse-backwards in Queensland’s backwoods

It’s one of those things that gives us poor Banana Benders our backwoods reputation. In 1987, just as AIDS crashed into the national consciousness via the Grim Reaper advertisements, a brawl broke out in the Queensland National Party – its moral façade soon to be torn to shreds by Tony Fitzgerald QC – over contraception.

Mike Ahern, the progressive health minister and future premier, took a proposal to Cabinet to allow the sale of condoms through vending machines. The premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, rebuffed him. When students defied the ban and installed machines around university campuses, police were despatched to rip them from the walls in the dead of night.

Without so much as a shred of irony, Bob Katter Junior – then the minister for Aboriginal affairs in Joh’s infamously corrupt government – defended the ban with these immortal words: “Condoms are despicable things that won’t prevent the spread of AIDS but will encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon.”

A few years later, Katter promised to “walk backwards to Bourke if the poof population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001 percent”, adding for good measure, “Mind you, if the percentage is what they say it is in the rest of Australia, I’ll take to walking everywhere backwards.”

Bob is, shall we say, not for turning. Less than two years ago, at a rally against same-sex marriage, he lamented what the word gay had come to mean. “No one has the right to take that word off us,” he spluttered, as if it ever belonged to anyone.

But Bob doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. Hasn’t talked about it since his Katter Australia Party broadcast advertisements ahead of the Queensland state election, which suggested that a centre-right government led by Campbell Newman would legalise same-sex marriage. He couldn’t have been more wrong, of course.

Later, Bob described the ads as a mistake “of major proportions”. Naturally, he meant a political mistake. It was politics, rather than principle, that forced the resignation of a Victorian KAP candidate, Tess Corbett, after she stated that paedophiles would be next in line to “get rights”.

And it was politics that forced the Katter Australia Party to suspend another Queensland senate candidate – the improbably named Bernard Gaynor – after he said he didn’t want gays or lesbians teaching his kids. Gaynor is fighting his suspension, claiming (with some justification) that Katter privately agreed with his comments.

Will Katter disendorse himself for his own long history of homophobic statements? He’s not saying. He wouldn’t answer when The Project’s Charlie Pickering asked him to repudiate the equation of homosexuality and paedophilia. “You are taking me outside the area of my concern,” he said. He was certainly out of his comfort zone.

Nor would he answer on Steve Vizard’s The Circle when asked what motivated his antipathy towards gays and lesbians. “The truth is I don’t think about it at all,” he said last June. “Never have, never likely to in the future.” Pressed, he buried himself in his own book on camera, presumably to remind himself what an incredible race of people Australians are.

One could speculate that all this was possible evidence of repressed sexuality on Bob’s part, because it’s obvious from his public statements over the years that he’s spent a lot more time thinking about it than he cares to admit. But, like so many ageing white men of his era, he’s befuddled by the shift in public mood.

Not so long ago, his views were cheered. Here in Queensland, before homosexuality’s decriminalisation in 1990, The Courier-Mail rendered the word “gay” as I just have, in quotation marks, and employed a prominent columnist who frequently spewed the sort of rhetoric that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Westboro Baptist Church.

Katter is regarded warmly by many Australians outside of his Deep North constituency. A contradictory man (his heroes are Red Ted Theodore and Black Jack McEwen), he has deservedly won admiration as a voice for farmers driven to the wall by deregulation and an all-powerful supermarket duopoly.

But, like Pauline Hanson before him, he represents a longing for old certainties and values that the rest of us mostly view as outdated at best, and bigoted at worst. Like Hanson, he has attracted candidates driven by fear and anger, confused and alienated by a country that no longer resembles the one they grew up in.

If Katter wishes for his party to attract credible candidates and become a force beyond the provinces, he needs to revisit this issue. He could start by having a conversation with his gay half-brother, Carl. Then he needs to have a conversation with himself about whether this is working out for him.

Otherwise he might as well begin that long march backwards to Bourke.