Unity is death

Monday, 27 July 2015    

In 2002, the up and coming shadow Immigration Minister launched a tough new line for Labor’s policy on asylum seekers. It wasn’t popular at Conference, but the hardheads felt it was necessary. Labor had lost an election on immigration, the current leader was unpopular and seen as weak, and Labor felt the Coalition was making hay with the perception Labor was too soft on asylum seekers. Labor went on to lose the next election with what was then the lowest primary vote in the post-war period.

In 2010, that former shadow Minister, now leader, Julia Gillard (for it was she), went into an election with a new tough line on asylum seekers. It wasn’t popular in the party, but the hardheads felt it was necessary. They and Gillard were worried that the Coalition was making hay with the perception Labor was too soft on asylum seekers. She went on to achieve what was then Labor’s second lowest primary vote in the post-war period.

After she was ousted in 2013, her successor, Rudd Mark II, then came out with Labor’s toughest anti-asylum seeker policy in its history and was promptly rewarded with what now stands as the lowest ever primary vote in the post-war period.

Now in 2015, the up and coming shadow Immigration Minister has launched a tough new line for Labor’s policy on asylum seekers. It wasn’t popular at Conference, but the hardheads felt it was necessary. Labor had lost an election on immigration, the current leader was unpopular and seen as weak, and Labor felt the Coalition was making hay with the perception Labor was too soft on asylum seekers. Hum-te-dum-te-dum.

In reality over the last twenty years, there is only one election that Labor has arguably not toughened up on its asylum seeker policy going into it, the 2007 election, and that being also the only election it has won in that twenty years.

There may not be a direct relation between softening up on asylum seekers and Labor winning an election, but there sure as hell isn’t one the opposite way.

In the recent series The Killing Season, Lachlan Harris, in talking of that 2007 election, said that Rudd had gone in with the brilliant strategy of following Howard because everyone knew that the best way to get people to vote against Howard was, er, to emulate him.

It is true that on the economy (and the NT intervention) Rudd trailed and aped Howard. But perhaps Harris didn’t think the Iraq War, Workchoices, the Pacific Solution, climate change and the Apology were important, because on each of those there were quite clear differences from Howard. In fact on those issues, if anything Howard was having to adapt and trail Rudd.

Harris is not alone in arguing this and the possible reason these differences may be forgotten was that on nearly all of them, Rudd was going with the flow – with the keenest sense of where that flow was heading than any Labor leader since the 1980s.

Dumping the Pacific Solution was so much going with the flow that the Liberals followed Rudd the following year in 2008 by dumping the Pacific Solution and TPVs themselves. The reason was the fading of the War on Terror, which Howard had slyly linked to refugees, especially those on the Tampa. So with the War on Terror fading so was the importance of maintaining a hard line, indeed, was the issue itself.

That context has not returned. Polls show that asylum seekers have remained a middling issue for the public, behind the normal concerns of health, education, the economy and (sometimes) national security. What has returned, indeed become even worse, is the insecurity of both parties, and asylum seekers remains the perfect football to kick around to express those insecurities. The right is concerned about sovereignty and authority, and the left is concerned about their eroding base – and the asylum seeker issue captures both sides.

It is why the current policy doesn’t even make much sense for what would be in the narrow sense of “national interest”, which would be more expected to see Australia be one of the leading industrialised countries for taking refugees, especially one in an Asian region surrounded by developing countries and wanting to maintain good relations with them. Instead it has a policy with mediocre intake and managing to conduct it while annoying the nearest neighbours, especially one of the most important ones to Australia’s immediate north.

If there were domestic grumbles, it would be regarded in much the same way as foreign aid, a “national interest” necessity that it is never felt much need to explain to the minority that worry about such things.

Nor does it even make much sense for electoral reasons. Success in stopping the boats hasn’t done the Coalition much good in the polls and for Labor the benefit’s even more dubious. Leaving aside the lack of causality between a tough asylum policy and electoral success described above, it is possible to construct a case why the tougher line on asylum seekers given to Shorten by National Conference on the weekend will be a mild negative.

First because it means Labor is again talking about what is the Coalition’s favourite topic. Second because it makes Shorten look inconsistent and expedient – which is sort of a problem for him at the moment with the voters. Thirdly no one will believe Labor will be as tough as the Coalition anyway, not because of what they do, which is, but because it retains that loyal fringe of mouthy hopefuls who believe they might not.

In fact there is little from the Conference that will help a leader widely perceived as untrustworthy, believing in nothing and willing to say anything to get elected. While journalists seem to believe Shorten’s wins has added to his authority, this is only inside the bubble of the Conference. What we are seeing here is not the revival of the Labor leadership but the exposing of the absence of any alternative, especially from the left.

On asylum seeker policy we had the unedifying sight of the left deputy leader going around and arguing for the turn back policy in left meetings at Conference while voting (by proxy) against it. Even on gay marriage, while we had a compromise that no doubt was excellent for all those concerned within the party leadership, you probably couldn’t have designed a position more likely to ensure it didn’t happen in the medium term in reality. A motion that would not bind MPs until after 2019 means that Abbott now has the perfect excuse not to drop his party’s own binding position while ensuring that the numbers from Labor won’t be sufficient to overturn the Coalition in the meantime.

The cave-in by the left was not because the left position’s in terms of numbers was weak, it was arguably a majority with the independents, but because the leader was weak and the left leadership had to go all out to ensure that he wasn’t embarrassed.

What we had in Conference was the affirmation of what had been evident since the election and the leadership election over nothing immediately following it. The protagonists Rudd and Gillard may have departed but the essence of what they were rowing about, the future of a party that has lost its social base, remains. Except now having got rid of the only solution they had, albeit one who would have cost those like Shorten his influence, they have nothing to replace it.

This is why the last few weeks have been so bad for Shorten as the Killing Season and the Royal Commission reminded everyone that Shorten was just more of the past. Now the conference on the weekend has also reminded that the left have nothing to replace him with. As a result, they still have no case for government, and that might suggest the link, because when they did, that’s when they were able to put something like a hapless group of refugees into the humanitarian perspective it deserves.


The hole in the middle of national security

Monday, 20 July 2015    

ZAKY MALLAH: Yeah. Yeah, sure. The Liberals now have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of Ministers like him.

TONY JONES: Okay. I think that’s a comment we are just going to rule totally out of order.

The anniversary of the shooting down of MH17 was an unfortunate reminder of how hollow the political and media outrage was that followed it. Read more …


The New Regionalism – another update

Thursday, 30 April 2015    

I feel desperately sorry for the parents of these people. I do. All of us as parents will feel that way, but the warnings have been there for decades.

John Howard reacting to the handing down of the death sentence to Andrew Chan April 2005

I have nothing critical to say about collaboration between the Federal Police and the Indonesian police, and I back up the Federal Police.

Kim Beazley April 2005

Australia’s foreign policy should have a Jakarta rather than a Geneva focus.

Tony Abbott gets his wish October 2013

In just over the last twenty years, there have been four Australians executed in South East Asia. Michael McAulife hanged in Malaysia in 1993, Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore in 2005, and Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran on Wednesday. And, of course, there is Pham Trung Dung, sentenced to death in Vietnam last year.

Yet while there was little outcry for the other executions, and of Pham Trung Dung (still on death row?), not a peep, it’s been the two of the Bali 9 that has caused the biggest political and diplomatic reaction from the Australian government.

There are a couple of reasons why this should be surprising. Read more …



Monday, 23 March 2015    

Greeting the false dawn of Australian conservatism.

Greeting the false dawn of Australian conservatism.

It’s been said that history shouldn’t be read backwards, but that’s the only way it can be done, and the furious re-writing of Fraser’s government, not least by the man himself, naturally says more about the preoccupations and defensiveness of the political scene today than what happened then. Read more …



Monday, 16 March 2015    

Happier days.   Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

Happier days. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.

Tony Abbott being insensitive 10 March 2015

Maybe the word ‘closure’, which I did use, wasn’t the right word, but the reality is there are 282 remote communities in WA, a number of them have less than 10 people, they are not viable communities. People can still go and visit their traditional lands, there is no barrier to people going out there and living if they wish to.

Colin Barnett being sensitive 5 March 2015

The services will cease. I would say therefore the communities will close.

Colin Barnett being less sensitive five minutes later

When people say a remark is insensitive, they usually mean it’s true, but shouldn’t have been said. In the case of Abbott’s lifestyle comments it alludes to a real shift in policy on remote communities, and Abbott has not only spelt it out, but put a blunt finger on the weakness of those opposing it.

The idea of shutting down remote communities because they are economically unviable is, of course, rubbish. Read more …



Tuesday, 10 February 2015    

I believe the team of Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard is the best leadership team for the Liberal Party and therefore part of the best leadership team of the Coalition for the country.

Kevin Andrews nails it

Consider this. In 1971, when Gorton was challenged for the leadership, Fraser had resigned as Defence Minister and openly attacked Gorton on the floor of the House as “not fit” for the PM’s office. The result was a leadership vote, a tie and Gorton resigning. In 1981, Fraser was the target this time with Peacock resigning as IR Minister over Fraser’s industrial relations policy and (something we’re not supposed to talk about these days) his refusal to withdraw recognition from Pol Pot. Peacock again used the floor of the House to openly attack Fraser in a speech accusing him of eroding the Cabinet system. The result was almost a year of open hostilities, finally ending when Fraser called a leadership vote and saw Peacock off.

Then we had what was supposed to be the third challenge to a sitting Liberal PM yesterday. This time there was no ministerial resignations, no open attack on the Prime Minister from the floor of the House, in fact no challenge at all. Nothing. Not a peep. Read more …


That woozy, sinking feeling

Monday, 2 February 2015    

Queensland does it again. When it’s not sending political figures to Canberra to shake up the major parties, it sends electoral disasters to do much the same.

Perhaps it’s best to start with the historical context – just to show there isn’t any. Read more …



Friday, 30 January 2015    

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

Conviction politicians hard to find anywhere. Australia’s Tony Abbott a rare exception. Opponent Rudd all over the place convincing nobody.

R Murdoch scribbling on a wall, 19 August 2013

Abbott again. Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin she must do her patriotic duty and resign.

Tagged R Murdoch 18 months later

You can imagine the thinking. “That Honours system I introduced is in danger of being ridiculed. What it needs is gravitas. I know!” And short of Elizabeth tapping herself on the shoulder, who better to do it than the Duke of Edinburgh, Baron of Greenwich, Earl of Merioneth etc. etc. etc. Read more …


Home front – an update

Wednesday, 24 December 2014    

We don’t blame the Pope for the IRA, and we don’t blame the Catholics living next door for the folly of some people, the folly and madness of some people who may claim a Christian motivation. And I think we need to be similarly carefully and cautious in these other areas.

T Abbott 17 December 2014

She might not even be Muslim or she could have just been warm!

Rachel Jacobs, instigator of #illridewithyou

If there was a sense that the political message went a bit adrift after the Martin Place siege, it was because the respective narratives both the left and the right were comfortably trotting along with over the last few months fell apart in the face of reality last week. Read more …



Thursday, 11 December 2014    

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

It’s all looking so eerily familiar. Read more …


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