Tagged: Tony Abbott

How did the Great Barrier Reef Foundation “win lotto”?

It was a classic piece of public relations. A week before the budget, the federal government announced it was committing half a billion dollars to the ailing Great Barrier Reef, with the immediate aims of enhancing water quality, culling outbreaks of invasive crown-of-thorns starfish and boosting scientific research funds that might aid the reef’s “resilience”.

There was no mention of climate change. That should not be surprising. The Turnbull government remains at war with itself over climate and energy policy, with many of its own members openly derisive of climate science and questioning Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement to keep rises in global average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius.

That cohort predictably includes former prime minister Tony Abbott and his backers.

Publicly, the government is still supportive of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, and remains roiled over the future of AGL’s Liddell power station, with pro-coal MPs urging Malcolm Turnbull to change competition laws to force the company to sell the station.

Turnbull and his environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, are walking a tightrope: trying not to poke the bear on the party’s right flank by reassuring regional Queensland of its continuing support of coal, while confronting the dire state of the reef and the many more jobs, and seats, which may be in peril on the basis of current trends.

In the last few days, we’ve found out where the government’s money to aid the reef is being directed. It’s not going to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body that’s entrusted with the reef’s custodianship and advises the government on its care and protection.

Nor is it going to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, or the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Instead, it’s going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a body with six full-time staff and five part-time staff, which generated a turnover of less than $8 million last year.

The body is focused on business cooperation. By its own description, the foundation “started with a small group of businessmen chatting at the airport while waiting for their flight, wanting to do something to help the Great Barrier Reef”. When asked, the government was not immediately able to say who these businessmen were.

The move to direct more than $443 million to this small foundation was so left-field it caught even its beneficiaries off guard. The foundation had not applied for the funds. “It’s like we’ve won lotto,” chief executive Anna Marsden told Fairfax’s Peter Hannam. “We’re getting calls from a lot of friends.”

Marsden said the organisation was seeking advice on how to cope with the sudden influx of funds.

In the past few days of Senate estimates hearings, more serious questions have been raised. There was no competitive tender process, and thus no opportunity for the government’s own scientific agencies to apply for the funds.

As Labor senator Kristina Keneally summed up: “I am trying to understand how [the] greatest single contribution from the government to the Great Barrier Reef in Australian history went to one foundation without a tender process, without advertising, without a competitive process and, it would seem, without an invitation from the government to the foundation to apply.”

To that end, Labor has lodged a Freedom of Information request. Others have pointed to the foundation’s links to corporate Australia, including fossil fuel behemoths BHP, Shell and Peabody Energy, as well as key banking figures.

“God help the Barrier Reef,” was the blunt response of the Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, who has been indefatigable in his scorn for untested scientific solutions such as sun-shields, underwater fans and anything that fails to address the core issues of global warming and immediate decarbonising of the economy.

Similarly, acting chief executive of the Climate Council, Dr Martin Rice, described the focus on water quality and culling starfish as “a golden Band-Aid solution, because it’s not really getting to the root cause of the problem with the bleaching, and that’s climate change.

“When you look at emissions, we’ve had three years of emissions rising in Australia, and any true test of effective climate policy comes down to whether our emissions are going up or down. So there is no credible energy or climate policy in Australia … [Our] emission reduction targets of 28 percent are woefully inadequate; they’re not aligned with the science,” he said.

“If the world was to go with Australia’s Paris commitments we would be on target for a three-to-four degree [increase in temperature] and that’s devastating. We’re not going to see our iconic Great Barrier Reef survive that. And that’s not just an environmental issue; it’s an economic one.”

But not everyone is in agreement about the foundation’s ability to deliver. Its website lists the CSIRO, the Smithsonian Institute and many of Australia’s sandstone universities as research collaborators, and its International Scientific Advisory Committee also includes GBRMPA chair Russell Reichelt.

Also on the committee is Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science and director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. As far back as 1999, Hoegh-Guldberg predicted that the Barrier Reef would lose most of its coral cover by 2040, a claim that caused considerable controversy at the time.

“The shock to me of having predicted in 1999 that the reef was in trouble was to actually live it over the last three years, and it’s not only the reef that we should be worried about,” he says. “It’s the impact that we’re now seeing across ecosystems which we depend on. There’s real questions about food security.”

Ten days before the government’s announcement, the scale of the threat to the Great Barrier Reef – and the calamity it has already experienced – was brutally spelled out in a new paper published by Nature, which The Atlantic described as “a kind of autopsy report for the debacle”.

Terry Hughes was the lead author of a team of 16 international researchers. The paper reported that over the course of the summers of 2016 and 2017, the reef experienced bleaching so severe that one in two of the corals had died. Usually, this happens slowly. When subjected to heat stress, coral species expel the algae which both provides them with their colour and with nourishment. If the algae doesn’t return quickly to recolonise the corals, they starve.

In the waters around and north of Port Douglas, previously the most pristine section of the park, the water was so hot that the corals died almost instantly. “They cooked,” Hughes said.

“You could say it has collapsed. You could say it has degraded. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong,” Hughes told The Atlantic. “A more neutral way of putting it is that it has transformed into a completely new system that looks differently, and behaves differently, and functions differently, than how it was three years ago.”

Hoegh-Guldberg doesn’t disagree with any of that, but he says that such a dire situation calls for outside-the-square thinking. “The downturn in the reef’s health has been rather dramatic, so we’ve got to start to do things differently,” he says. “I think it’s a welcome addition to what we need to do to solve this problem.”

Hoegh-Guldberg has an edge of desperation in his voice when he speaks to me. I put this directly to him. “That’s a very fair reading,” he agrees.

Hoegh-Guldberg is one of Australia’s most respected marine biologists. He is quick to point out that he sits on the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s advisory committee. But while political questions remain over the funding, and why it was directed to this small body, he argues the urgency of the situation means the reef’s defenders must work with what they have.

“I think it’s wake-up time. This is not some sort of green-washing exercise by industry. I would not be associated with this if it was. People who are not involved may be sniping, and scientists are very good at that, so I think we just have to have a level mind here. This is an unusual time that is needing a very unusual solution.

“What we have to realise is, there’s no way we’re going to solve this problem by not involving industry. We’ve got to turn this ship around by going into the helm and working with all players, and if we have the right governance then I don’t think that the things people are fearful of will eventuate.”

Hoegh-Guldberg is also positive about scientific approaches to anything that could help get the reef through while the climate might be stabilised. “I think there’s some really serious interest in whether or not you can introduce gently, over decades, heat-tolerant corals, and the jury’s out on whether that’s going to work and we need to know whether that can be done.

“The normal way science would go would be, ideas would be bubbling to the surface, then PhDs would be done. Then scientists would eventually write papers and it would be maybe five to 10 years before you had ideas in place to design technical solutions and so on. We don’t have that time.”

Reichelt also looked for a positive angle on the funding. He issued a press release saying it was a “game changer”. Alongside the $443.3 million going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, his authority is getting the balance of $42.7 million over the next six years for its joint field management program.

“This is a hugely positive outcome for the Great Barrier Reef and comes at a critical time after back-to-back mass coral bleaching triggered by the increasing pressure of global warming,” Reichelt said.

“We’re delighted to continue working with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation as they explore the possibilities this funding provides, including opportunities to seek co-funding from investors to add to this investment.”

Significant questions remain about the Turnbull government’s motivations and its processes. The funding allocation remains deeply curious. Again we see the federal government outsourcing what would normally be the work of a government agency to a private body. It is likely the Great Barrier Reef Foundation will be spending its newfound money before we know why it was chosen to receive it. But for at least some of scientists involved, that may be a good thing.

The Drones: Feelin Kinda Free

When right-wing columnist/performance artist Andrew Bolt heard the Drones’ single Taman Shud, he wrote that the band was “stamping on the ashes of the West’s musical traditions”. Supposedly offended by the thought that singer Gareth Liddiard didn’t give a toss about anything he said, he added: “critics like these make me feel like I’m offending exactly the right kind of people”.

Naturally, the Drones were delighted. First, they would no doubt feel exactly the same way about offending Bolt and his tabloid constituency. Second, the group has taken a serious left turn with their seventh album, Feelin Kinda Free. “We said ‘fuck it’ and went spaz,” Liddiard told The Guardian last October. He couldn’t have dreamed of a better critical endorsement than Bolt’s “stamping on the ashes” line.

“It’s a pretty weird record and you can dance to it,” Liddiard said of the album. “It’s time to have a groovy Drones record. We’re sick of being a bunch of drags.” With respect, Bolt’s description was pithier, more accurate and more complimentary. Taman Shud was one of the most compelling singles of last year, but good luck to anyone who hit the dance floor to its skittish rhythms.

Boredom, the sixth track on Feelin Kinda Free, is in a similar vein. If the Drones once came on like the mutant, brawling blues-punk offspring of the Birthday Party and the Beasts of Bourbon, this sounds more like the mostly forgotten Australian post-punk of Pel Mel and Sardine v. Frankly, it’s a lot more interesting and original, stamping all over the Drones’ own musical traditions.

“The best songs are like bad dreams,” mutters Liddiard in Private Execution. It’s a fabulous opening line – and what follows is a succession of nightmares. Always fascinated by Australian history, the Drones were once the musical equivalent of a McCubbin painting; pioneers trapped in foreign landscapes. Here they take a step into the avant-garde world of the Angry Penguins, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan.

The Angry Penguins movement was an interrogation, and rejection, of an earlier kind of Australian nationalism represented by the bush balladeers. Feelin Kinda Free is as decisive a repudiation, both of the Drones’ past and of the mythic, monocultural Australian vision of John Howard, Tony Abbott and, yes, Andrew Bolt: “I don’t give a fuck if you can’t stop the boats,” Liddiard sneers in Taman Shud.

The dominant themes here are immigration and its attendant cousin, paranoia. And Then They Came For Me finds Liddiard “feeling like I’ve overstayed”. On the album’s final track, Shut Down SETI, he imagines Fortress Australia overrun by aliens: “Do we need an overlord that finds us underwhelming? You don’t defend your house and home by jumping down a rabbit hole.”

Taman Shud and Boredom aside, Feelin Kinda Free slithers by like a serpent in search of its next meal. The feel is unhurried, but menacing. While the songs still stretch out like elastic, there are only eight of them, so at 41 minutes, the album doesn’t outstay its welcome. The emphasis is mostly on bass and percussion: guitars are heavily treated; frequently, you’d be forgiven for thinking there are no guitars at all.

The closest thing to anything from the Drones’ past is the agonised To Think I Was In Love With You, which sits squarely in the album’s centre without dragging it down. Otherwise, Feelin Kinda Free sounds like the work of a less dour and far more subversive band. Despite the subject matter and often funereal pace, it’s anything but a drag.

First published in The Guardian, 18 March 2016

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.

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.

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.

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

Bean-counters at the gates of Queensland

And here I was thinking that Queensland wasn’t about to return to the Dark Ages. That nice, “comparatively urbane” Campbell Newman wouldn’t do anything really dumb in his first fortnight, like, say, axe the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Would he?

Oh, wait. He would. He has.

“…The Queensland government has decided not to proceed with the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 2012 which will save Queensland taxpayers $244,475, not including the cost of resourcing the awards.

“The government would like to acknowledge all the sponsors, judges, stakeholders, entrants and winners for their valued contribution to the program to date.”

Well, that’s nice. Clearly though, their contributions are no longer valued – or perhaps more to the point, their contributions are nowhere near as politically valuable as a holy budget surplus. I can only guess, given the speed with which the axe has fallen, that literary prizes fall under the umbrella of the “waste and mismanagement” Newman railed against while in opposition.

On one hand, it’s smart politics. Newman will guess that not too many people in the arts sector will have voted for him, and probably never will. This won’t be news for more than five minutes outside of the minority of Queenslanders that actually, you know, read books.

As for the even tinier proportion who spend years writing them, well, at least we’ve got something to write about again. Now the barbarians bean-counters have stormed the gates and are busily looting and pillaging our quaint little hamlet (i.e. rummaging around the back of the couch in search of any spare 5c pieces that might help put the budget back in surplus), get ready for dark warnings about the return of the spectre of Bjelke-Petersen.

Perhaps Newman can contract the Deen Brothers (“All we leave behind are memories”) to knock down GoMA at 4am. That has the makings of a good play, actually – too bad it’ll probably have to be made in Sydney or Melbourne. How about prosecuting the local indie record store for stocking obscene titles? Hey, it didn’t work when Joh’s finest sent their shock troopers into Rocking Horse in 1988, but like Bob Roberts said, The Times Are Changin’ Back! 2012: the Reactionary Revolution starts here!

Seriously, though, now that Queensland is officially the only state without a government-embossed book award – for heaven’s sake, even the Northern Territory, with a population not much more than a 10th the size of Brisbane alone, has a Chief Minister’s literary prize – Newman might like to pause for a moment to consider the wider ramifications for Queensland’s cultural reputation.

It’s taken a long time even to begin to convince the rest of the country that we of the Deep North aren’t (to use John Birmingham’s favourite phrase) a state of slack-jawed provincials whose idea of refinement is playing the banjo with our toes. Might I suggest there are better ways of pinching a few pennies than effectively saying that the state places no value on reading, or writing, or introspection. Or even the very idea that political and cultural life is a dialogue that can play out in longer and more meaningful form than the 24-hour news cycle.

It’ll be interesting to see where the axe falls next. The Brisbane Writer’s Festival? The Queensland Music Festival? And, is this a harbinger of what arts policy under an Abbott government might look like?

Perhaps I’d better add, by way of a disclaimer, that the Brisbane City Council, under Campbell Newman, put a not insubstantial amount of money into Queensland Music Festival’s staging of Pig City as an event in 2007, for which the near-as-dammit original lineup of the Saints were persuaded to reform. But this is just a dumb, retrograde, mean move that in the long term will cost far more than it saves. Here we are, Queensland: Stranded all over again.

Oh yeah, and did I mention this is supposed to be the National Year of Reading?

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.