During this year there have been several times when the debate has turned from being an attack on the politics of the Coalition to that of politicians in general. The anti-politics strain in this election year is now threatening to really take off over the Haneef case.
Remember what actually happened: recent UK bombing attempts led UK authorities to request that their Australian counterparts detain Haneef on evidence that his SIM card had been discovered in the burning Jeep at Glasgow airport. The UK evidence turned out to be wrong. However, for the UK authorities, it is no big deal. Since 11 September 2001, UK authorities have made 1,228 such anti-terrorists arrests of which only 1 in 5 had enough evidence to lead to even an anti-terrorist charge being made and a mere 41 cases (3% of those detained) were successfully upheld in court. In the eight arrests made around the recent attacks alone, four of them (including Haneef) were released without charge.
So in this context, for Australia’s first anti-terrorist detention to collapse is hardly exceptional. In the UK, despite nearly a thousand anti-terrorist arrests being made without even enough evidence to bring charges, there has been barely a murmur of concern. In Australia, one case has led to outrage. Yet calls for resignation have not been targeted at Mick Keelty, head of an AFP that was reported to have distorted the information in Haneef’s original transcript, or the DPP who allowed a prosecutor to go into court repeating the claim that the SIM card had been found in the Jeep despite it already being confirmed it had not – but to the Immigration Minister who denied Haneef his exit visa.
It is not surprising that the outrage has been less focused on the legal profession or its enforcers, as it is the legal profession that has been leading much of the attack. Since the time the legislation was drawn up, the legal profession has made clear that it is less concerned with the rights or wrongs of detention as such than the greater discretionary role politicians had in enforcing it.
Anti-terrorism legislation that brings in special powers to deal with what look like nihilistic amateurs, as though they were a paramilitary organisation like the IRA, was clearly introduced by the government for political, rather than operational purposes. The trouble is that political consensus has now faded, so the first time the government was pressured to use the powers it was a fiasco. The legal profession played a major role in making it one, not only its members in the DPP who made mistakes presenting evidence but Haneef’s lawyer who by-passed the legal process by leaking the transcript to the media. Most importantly, it was the Brisbane magistrate, Jacqui Payne, who claimed exceptional circumstances to prevent the legislation’s intent on denying bail that led to the Immigration Minister to block Haneef’s visa. It was this over-riding of the ruling of the Brisbane magistrate, rather than Haneef’s original detention, that really raised the ire of the legal profession.
It would be nice if this furore was really about civil liberties and the anti-terrorism powers were significantly reduced to be in proportion to the threat as it really exists – but it is not going that way. It looks more like special pleading from a legal profession for greater control over these extraordinary powers at the expense of politicians – a much less noble cause, whatever embarrassment it causes the current government. Now that it is taking this turn, watch the Labor party move. The government has been trying to drag Labor into this mess but Labor is getting increasingly good at sniffing out a way to use anti-politics to attack the government. Labor is now starting to distance itself from the government by calling for an inquiry headed by the judiciary (rather than politicians). No prizes for guessing who it will be recommending should have more control over the process.
Tuesday, 31 July 2007
During this year there have been several times when the debate has turned from being an attack on the politics of the Coalition to that of politicians in general. The anti-politics strain in this election year is now threatening to really take off over the Haneef case.
Monday, 30 July 2007
The ALP National Conference in May showed that Rudd was in the process of transforming the ALP. Moaning over Rudd’s ‘me-tooism’ shows that the media and the government are starting to get what this means. An interesting take on this was Michelle Grattan’s article in The Saturday Age. The make-over has three components:
Marginalising the unions
How marginalised the unions are in the party was not evident while they were being indulged by the leadership’s twin-track campaign against Workchoices. That campaign collapsed with the Theresa Rein affair, which exposed that Labor’s opposition to individual contracts and AWAs was a sham. Unions had little reaction, which allowed Rudd to scale back the campaign. One reason why Rudd has not ‘done a Blair’ and had a showdown with the unions is that there were few issues to beat them up on. They had their teeth pulled out happily during the Hawke/Keating years. Fortunately, however, the fuss made by the government over the rudeness of union leaders like Mighell and McDonald gave Rudd such an opportunity to parade his toughness on unions. Their expulsion was only for show, of course (McDonald has reportedly since renewed his party dues). However, it was enough to make clear, both in and outside of the ALP, that unions would have negligible influence in any future government.
Factions in decline
As with the decline of the unions, so goes the decline of the factions that they back. A highly significant development in the ALP is the preselection of ‘celebrity’ candidates from outside the party. This has very important implications for the factions as it breaks their primary hold over MPs - the threat of withdrawing backing for preselection. The clearest example of how the appointment of these candidates undermines the factions is Peter Garrett. He may have policies similar to the left faction but he is not in it. A lack of factional backing makes these candidates isolated within the party and highly dependent on the leadership. It was why Rudd has little trouble side-lining Garrett when he needed to move on Tasmanian logging last week. In doing so, he pretty effectively undermined the left’s influence on policy at the same time.
The internationalisation of the ALP
The unions and the factions have been largely hollow shells since the Keating years, however, their existence has at least kept the party in a reasonably stable (if demoralised) state. What has now given Rudd the ability to side-line them are more favourable conditions overseas. For the first time in many years, international political trends are moving the ALP’s way. Not only is the Iraq strategy unravelling but the anti-growth message in the global warming agenda suits Labor. Under the leadership of a former foreign affairs bureaucrat, not backed by any faction or union, the ALP is being internally ‘hollowed out’. But it is now able to take on the government on key questions of national security and the environment without running into problems. It allows the ALP to attack the government on climate change without needing to differentiate on logging. It can go in hard on issues like Iraq, without any pressure to take a position on Haneef.
The Haneef affair shows the government is clearly struggling with this new ALP. The irony is that, on its own, the fiasco is unlikely to create much electoral fall-out. It will probably be accepted by most of the electorate thinking it better to be safe than sorry. But the government’s reaction to Labor’s support is making it worse and will be incomprehensible to most. Kevin Andrews’ attack on Labor for not opposing the government will be clearly viewed as bizarre, but Abbott’s mocking of Gillard’s ‘echo’ on Haneef, replayed by Barrie Cassidy on Insiders yesterday, also looks like playing childish politics on national security. One notable exception, however, was Malcolm Turnbull who refused to defend Andrews’ comments on Sunday. Not surprising that it is another bussed-in celebrity who seems to be best keeping up with the game that is now being played.
Sunday, 29 July 2007
A curiously approving reaction from the media to what amounted to a virtual implosion at the top of the Victorian government with Bracks and Thwaites resigning for what appears to be no particularly compelling reason. Brumby, according to the ABC, would have been following if he hadn’t been offered the top job. In any other profession, for someone to walk away ‘at the top of the game’ would have been considered a waste of talent and perhaps a little self-indulgent.
Unfavourable comparisons to Howard seem a little unfair - at least he seems to appreciate it is an important job worth hanging on to. What a shame for his government his deputy doesn’t think it’s worth challenging for.
On last week’s Insiders, Barrie Cassidy had been giving Lindsay Tanner a hard time over Labor’s unwillingness to criticise government action over Haneef, when the following exchange took place: BARRIE CASSIDY: Just how fearful are you and Kevin Rudd and others of taking Government on, on national security issues? LINDSAY TANNER: We're not fearful at all, there is a simple response to that and that's Iraq. The Government has seriously compromised our national security by its continuing subservience to George Bush's adventure in Iraq. Seriously compromised our credibility in the wider world, seriously undermined Australia's good standing and our ability to devote resources to the serious national security issues in our region. We've no problems in debating national security with the Howard Government.
Barrie Cassidy promptly forgot Tanner’s reply as did most other media commentators over the last week as the Haneef case unravelled. Yet Tanner was making an important point on why Howard's wedges are not working.
Labor’s supposed vulnerability on being wedged presumes that it can be too well intentioned for its own good sometimes and that Howard can cause trouble by appealing to the electorate’s darker nature. Not only does this have a rather romantic view of the ALP (and a cynical one of the electorate) it suffers from taking such ‘wedge’ issues at face value. Labor becomes vulnerable on wedge issues when it exposes that it is on the wrong side of the more important issue behind it.
For example, Labor was vulnerable on Tampa because it had nothing to say on the more important issue of the breakdown in international relations at the time that meant Indonesia was becoming less inclined to stop illegal refugees passing through its waters.
This time, however, it is Howard who is on the wrong side of the real issue, the political ineffectiveness of the War on Terror that is unravelling in Iraq. It is because the government is losing the argument on Iraq (and what that means for the US alliance), which is why the Haneef affair is causing him problems. It is certainly not because Haneef was held with insufficient evidence. Terrorist suspects are constantly being detained on insufficient grounds in the UK and US and then released without becoming an issue. Howard’s problem is that he can’t pull together a consensus for using the extraordinary powers in the first place.
One of the key constituencies that Howard is losing is the legal profession. It was a Brisbane magistrate overturning the legislation’s intent on bail that forced the government to get directly involved and it was the legal background of the Queensland Premier that encouraged him to criticise the government’s handling of the case. This actually created quite a serious ‘wedge’ in the ALP between the Labor leader and the leading political figure of his home state, something that Howard claimed was simply Beattie speaking on Rudd’s behalf. So weak is Howard’s position that having created the wedge, he ended up denying it existed!
BARRIE CASSIDY: Just how fearful are you and Kevin Rudd and others of taking Government on, on national security issues?
LINDSAY TANNER: We're not fearful at all, there is a simple response to that and that's Iraq. The Government has seriously compromised our national security by its continuing subservience to George Bush's adventure in Iraq. Seriously compromised our credibility in the wider world, seriously undermined Australia's good standing and our ability to devote resources to the serious national security issues in our region. We've no problems in debating national security with the Howard Government.
Friday, 27 July 2007
Not a lot of sense in an article by SMH’s Peter Hartcher on Howard’s recent attack on the states. The problem is that he has confused the original intention of initiatives like the NT intervention, the Murray plan and the Haneef affair with how they have ended up.
None of these initiatives were started (or in the case of Haneef, escalated) by the federal government for the purpose of taking up a fight with the states. They were mainly attempts by the government to take control of the agenda and reaffirm the power of incumbency through action. The problem is that the dwindling political consensus behind the government has undermined the effectiveness of these actions and turned it into a squabbling mess.
That squabble has been less about political differences than being simply between separate branches of the state apparatus. For example, Howard’s fight with Beattie over Haneef is no more political than the one he is having with the legal profession (or the Brisbane magistrate who over-rode the presumption of bail denial that was embedded in the Anti-Terrorism legislation). Again, there is little political disagreement between the federal and WA governments over the rights and wrongs of the intervention in the indigenous communities, just a difference on which part of the state should do it. It would have made little difference whether they were Labor or Liberal state governments.
It is hard to see there is much benefit for Howard in all of this squabbling. As argued before, the threat of ‘coast-to-coast’ Labor governments does not make much sense (Hartcher also has a rather selective, and NSW-centric, reading of electoral history, forgetting the general coincidence of state and federal politics in the 1980s, 1960s, 1950s, 1940s etc.). These rows are likely to be seen for the petty squabbles they are and leave it open for Rudd to pose a new federalism of cooperation. Hartcher’s question on which side would benefit from this seems pretty easy to answer.
Thursday, 26 July 2007
It could have been Tony Jones was in bad form but last night’s Lateline interview with the PM would have to have been one of his worst. It wasn’t entirely his fault as the election campaign is now being littered with dead issues that were escalated by the government for political purposes but have since gone nowhere. The Murray initiative, the NT intervention and the Haneef case are still unresolved complex issues, but their political rationale has dissipated. The stonewalling of questions on interest rates shows that even the economy, that was supposed to be a key focus for the government, has been neutralised by Rudd’s campaign on grocery and housing costs. Jones resorted to again raising the week-old non-challenge from Costello and asking Howard whether the troops will be baking him a birthday cake.
Perhaps when parliament reconvenes the week after next, it will help revive an election campaign that was shutdown by Howard when he brought the political class’s greatest failure centre stage with his NT intervention, but signs are not promising.
Wednesday, 25 July 2007
The Age editorial this morning is missing the point on Rudd’s abandonment of opposition to logging in Tasmania. Rudd is not following Howard because he has to win votes. In fact it’s the opposite. There has not been a Labor leader for a long while under as little pressure to win votes to win an election as this one. He is abandoning the Green position because he now can.
Bob Brown’s warning that the Greens may withdraw preferences was closer to the mark. For nearly thirty years, Labor has needed the environmental issue to maintain anti-business credentials to manage the impact on its own constituency (both in the electorate and internally) of the declining role of the unions. The Greens have been major beneficiaries of this to have credibility as a separate entity (it is striking how much their policies simply ape the left-wing of the ALP). Now as Rudd starts reorganising the ALP around the international agenda (including climate change), he has less need for either the unions or domestic environmental issues to maintain unity. Ironically, this internal shift by Labor will probably then be bad news for the Greens and Brown's threat is starting to look rather stale.
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
So does the electorate want a fresh face or not? The Australian's Matt Price seems to think it does when it comes to Rudd v Howard, his colleague Dennis Shanahan thinks not when he’s reading Newspoll on Costello v Howard.
Maybe all the focus on face freshness is understandable given what seems the lack of policy difference between the figures but this election is still being ultimately decided on policy. No matter how unfashionable it is to say it in Australia, behind all the chatter around grocery prices, housing, health and the economy, it is international events that are the decider in this election, especially the difference between the government and Labor on Iraq and the new global agenda on climate change. A new Labor leader may have sped this up but not altered the better fit between Labor’s agenda and the changes in global politics. That is not to say the government could not have reacted to the changes in the global agenda, but it would have required a challenger to do so and Costello is not the man.
By adopting an environmental agenda for international purposes, it does change Labor’s relation to the Greens domestically. The anti-growth agenda of the environmental lobby has never been a comfortable one for a governing party like the ALP. Taking global warming as an international issue does give Labor more room to dump the Greens on which it has relied politically for almost a quarter of a century. Rudd’s abandonment of Labor’s opposition to logging in Tasmania (while promising $8m to investigate the effects of it on climate change!) signals this shift.
Monday, 23 July 2007
The government is apparently intent on bedding down between now and the election and just focussing on its economic strength. Well, that’s one way of putting it. Another is that it is becoming increasingly paralysed, but neither does it have the luxury of standing still – events over the last week show that it is slowly starting to fall apart.
One question that does not appear to have been asked of Howard following Costello’s comments is, why not sack him? After all, Costello’s comments are more insubordinate than Keating’s ‘Placido Domingo’ speech that forced Hawke to act. One obvious answer would be that Costello poses a lesser threat than Keating did. It is hard to think of a senior political figure so obviously manipulated by his colleagues for all the world to see like Costello is by Howard and Abbott. Calling Costello the “great economic reformer” and the “masterful parliamentary debater” are as much about taking advantage of his ego and political stupidity as Howard calling him “my obvious successor”. There is no better “obvious successor” for a PM who is intent on staying on as long as possible than someone who is incapable of taking the position for himself. Now it is highly unlikely to be handed to him on a plate either. An interesting editorial in The Australian summed up the damage Costello’s comments have done to his leadership hopes pretty well (although the electoral impact is probably overstated. It looks more like The Australian catching up to reality of the government’s increasingly likely defeat and side-stepping away from the corner it painted itself in by backing its political correspondent two weeks ago).
But although Costello is now even more harmless, neither does it help Howard not to have taken action against someone who has made it even harder for Howard to take credit for the economy. Howard’s problem is that his internal authority looks as though it is starting to wane as shown by the trouble he is having asserting his authority in his own base over the pre-selection of Towke. Forcing the issue with Costello may not let the Treasurer in, but may be destabilising enough to open up the leadership for someone else. Comments from Wayne Swan and the release of Labor’s focus group polling looks like a mischievous attempt to aggravate this.
But there is a more graphic example than The Australian editorial that the government is starting to lose its authority not only internally but also with its supporters in the wider establishment – the Haneef episode. In a way the outrage over the treatment of Haneef is a little false as the government is doing no more than acting within the sweeping powers of the Anti-Terrorism Bill it brought in with widespread approval three years ago. This was despite the possibility of the government abusing the open-ended detainee period being clearly flagged by submissions made at the time. The AFP’s apparently relaxed attitude to evidence partly reflects the presumption of guilt that is implicit in the use of such powers in the first place.
To this blog, the extraordinary measures contained in the Anti-Terrorism Bills are hard to justify on operational grounds. The organisational ability of those like the UK bombers is barely that of a Melbourne crime gang. Rather the measures look more politically motivated as a way for the government to present these vicious, but amateurish, nihilists as an extraordinary threat to national security. The trouble is that the political consensus behind the use of these powers is well and truly fading. It was the Brisbane Magistrate’s defiance of the legislation’s clear intent to deny presumption of bail that forced the government to hastily revoke Haneef’s visa. But by intervening in the legal process, the government has exposed itself to the dwindling media consensus about the War on Terror. As a result, Howard is being forced to back off from an issue that was supposed to be another core political strength.
The growing lack of cohesion means the government is damned if it acts, but increasingly damned if it doesn’t. The only alternative is to put a brave face on it when talking to Dennis Shanahan.
Saturday, 21 July 2007
A recent article by The Australian’s George Megalogenis claiming a link between voting and house prices has received quite a bit of approval from some commentators. This is surprising. For a start, it is pretty Sydney-centric (even to the point of making a silly claim that the government never wins without carrying NSW, forgetting the victories of the Melbourne Establishment’s favourite son in 1951, 1954 and 1961). Strong house prices may correlate with better government polling in WA but not in Queensland, and house prices are certainly not explaining the very strong Labor swing on in SA. The theory may not even apply in Sydney. The two-tier housing market there, with prices still buoyant in blue-ribbon Liberal seats, should not be assumed to translate to a better government performance. This next election may be less about Labor regaining its heartland than the Liberals losing theirs.
The real problem with the article is that it is yet another attempt to see voting as driven by the ‘hip-pocket’ nerve. This is a strange (and rather cynical) way of viewing the electorate, as though it was just a collection of isolated individual households totting up their bills to decide whom to vote for. It neither explains why hip-pocket issues work at some times but not others and why indeed people will sometimes vote on such issues against their financial interest (eg swapping tax cuts for reduced services).
It would seem more sensible to view voting behaviour in Australia as like anywhere else; influenced by international, national and local issues and how people see themselves in relation to them. Occasionally such issues impact voting directly, or translate through more immediate concerns. For example, the reaction against state spending in the Whitlam years translated to the popularity of Fraser’s tax cuts in the late 1970s. More recently, the doubt over Latham’s position on national security in 2004 translated to one of interest rates, even though the interest rate issue on its own made little sense (it could not explain why Labor won two elections after interest rates hit their peak in 1989 but lost one on the same record 15 years later).
Indeed, this year the hip-pocket nerve has been a very bad guide to electoral behaviour. Commentators expected the budget’s tax cuts this year to translate to a bounce – and they are still waiting. The trouble is, the government has no major theme to translate to the hip-pocket. Without it, any giveaway is treated as just a normal part of running the economy and an election, rather than related to one party or the other. The only ‘hip-pocket’ issue that had resonance was Rudd’s campaign on housing affordability and grocery prices. But this was more an anti-politics attack on detached politicians and their statistics than the cost-of living as such – or as Rudd put it, "The statistical averages don't reflect the day-to-day realities that so many families face."
With nothing to campaign on, the government is now hoping that the economy will be come to the rescue (Megalogenis’s comment that no government has ever lost after 16 years of uninterrupted economic growth is meaningless because this is the first time we have ever had such sustained growth since Federation), but it is struggling to explain why Rudd would be any different running it. Indeed, it is interesting to see one of the strongest proponents that the election will come down to nothing more than the wallet is Tony Abbott. With no agenda left, the power of the hip-pocket is becoming the last hope of even one of Howard’s most ideological Ministers as they head to defeat.
Friday, 20 July 2007
It was striking yesterday how much trouble interviewers had on landing blows on senior Liberals over Costello’s comments about Howard. Probably because there was little substance in them. Costello’s criticisms of Howard’s past record as Treasurer on interest rates and inflation are about as meaningful as the ones Howard make on Labor’s.
The truth is that, as Keating said in that notorious, and much more informative, interview last month on Lateline, there were only two real economic reforms; opening up to international markets and “pulling the teeth” of the unions. That was done by the time Howard took government and the rest of monetary policy was mostly handed over to the Reserve Bank. Howard can point to a strong economy, but his government has had little to do to make it so. When Costello called it the “greatest reforming government since Menzies” on AM yesterday, we know that we are in the hands of a true master of irony.
This was why Kerry O’Brien got a little closer with Howard when he quoted a more interesting source in the book, Howard's former chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, who noted that Howard was all about “getting into government and staying in government”. Howard in reply turned it into every politician’s job, but the question in Howard’s case is, for what purpose? It was essentially the same problem pointed out by the Stone ‘tricky and out of touch’ memo back in 2001, something Howard was able to address a few months later with the War on Terror, but only for a while.
Externally this affair will probably not make that much impact. The public will care little over whom Howard invites to dinner. It will help Labor in parliament cut dead any government attack on its economic record, but that will only reinforce the stalemate that already exists. The impact is likely to be more important internally. It will add to the sense of drift within the Liberal party and make it more likely its internal weaknesses will be exposed before, rather than after, the election. For Costello, the chances of him becoming leader (if he ever wanted it) are probably over.
Thursday, 19 July 2007
This is getting excruciating. If it was anybody else, it could have been argued that the criticisms of Howard published in a new book John Winston Howard this week were part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to undermine the PM towards a challenge. But don’t worry, it’s just Costello being petulant from a year ago when he was again being put in his place by Howard.
For both of them, however, this is hardly good news. Criticisms of Howard’s performance as a Treasurer and his negative influence on current spending is not very helpful for a PM running on economic management and fending off charges of using public money for his re-election. For Costello, this has all the negative destabilising fall-out from a challenge, but none of the resolution from actually launching one. No one in the party will thank him for that, making his eventual success on the day he finally makes a bid even less likely.
Wednesday, 18 July 2007
Bring back Malcolm Fraser. He’ll know what to do. Because before he became Australia’s National Conscience he was one of the most ruthless hatchet-men in the Liberal party, dispatching two of his own leaders, John Gorton and Billy Snedden, before his equally ruthless coup de grâce against Whitlam.
Roll forward thirty years and we have an ageing leader taking his government to what looks like a massive defeat, who is so vulnerable that a couple of comments by backbenchers are enough to set off leadership speculation in the media - but with no challenger in sight.
Usually when a prospective challenger claims that he is fully behind the leader, no-one believes them and looks for the signs of plotting. This time when Costello says he is not looking to challenge, everyone quite rightly believes him. The reply of his supporters is the rather pathetic excuse that he cannot sell himself in a few months. So here is a man with the possibility of a few months at the top job so he can pitch for a full term, who would prefer instead three years (at least) of opposition.
It doesn’t matter how long Costello has to sell himself, he has nothing to sell. If he did, he would have been hawking his wares already. Given that the PM stands for very little these days, the market-place is hardly crowded. But Costello's budget had no big idea except for a different way of funding education and Julie Bishop was claiming even that one had been pinched from her.
Meanwhile, Howard, having only one initiative that has gained any broad support, is now forced to take what is already a highly risky strategy up another notch. The Australian government is now threatening to invade another part of its own country by pressuring WA with a military intervention following the recent arrests in the Kimberly. However, while the puppet regime in the Northern Territory caved in with barely a whimper, the sovereign state of Western Australia is looking more resistant. As Brough carries through the logic of his intervention, and uses the military to pitch tents for social workers, he is at risk of the WA government exposing the impractical, and partisan political, basis of this entire venture.
Tuesday, 17 July 2007
So Dennis Shanahan was right. Howard’s rise in the preferred PM ranking in the last Newspoll was important. Armed with it, Howard apparently went into the Cabinet room yesterday and dared (‘invited’) the Cabinet to blame him for the government’s poor polling figures. No-one took him on, of course – and probably wouldn’t have, even if they were looking at more recent AC Nielsen ratings that showed the exact opposite. Ministers interviewed outside insisted of course there was no challenge to Howard.
The question is why not? By any objective reading of the polling figures the government is heading for a historic defeat. Despite this being clear since the Rudd ascendancy, political commentators have, until recently, refused to believe them. Now it seems to be only The Australian editorial team who is still expecting a repeat of 2001/2004. The Liberals are hardly a sentimental lot, yet it seems that the more serious the situation is getting, the more they seem to cling on to Howard.
The lack of a challenge is because there is no-one to challenge him. One of the pervading myths of this government is that Costello has always been a potential challenger to Howard - but there is nothing to suggest why he would be. Despite Howard clearly lacking a policy agenda nowadays, Costello has still yet to produce an alternative. If he had, we would have seen it in the few times he had the chance to steal the agenda this year. The clearest missed opportunity was the budget in May, a political failure reflecting the politician who brought it down.
It is this vacuum that is the secret to the current Liberal unity. Howard’s dare to Cabinet yesterday is a continuation of the dare he has issued repeatedly to the party implicit in his intention to ‘stay as long as the party wants me’. He can issue that dare because for years the Liberals have been operating in a domestic policy vacuum, which was already evident in the states and now, since the fading of the War on Terror, is evident federally too. The ultimate reason for that lack of agenda is the fact that most of it was completed by the Hawke/Keating government, which led to the hellish merry-go-round in the Liberal leadership during those years that enabled even Howard to have another go (and may even do the same for Downer in the future).
This policy vacuum is the missing factor that a perplexed government cannot see to explain its imminent defeat. Abbot looks genuinely uncomprehending over the current awful polls as he points to the strong economy. But what precisely is their economic programme that underpins it?
Without any real challenge, there is a deceptive calm over the government that disguises a much weaker internal situation. This may only come out when Howard goes, a reason why the party seems to be clinging to him now more than ever. For the moment, the only real outward sign is the growing inability of the leadership to keep control over its branches, as becoming evident not only in the dysfunctional Queensland party but also, after the recent preselections of Towke and Hawke, even in Howard’s own NSW base.
Monday, 16 July 2007
There is a subtle but critical point being missed by the media on Rudd’s campaign on grocery prices and housing affordability. This is not having a resonance because people are struggling to make ends meet as much as it feeds into an annoyance at the detachment of the government, and politicians in general. This is why no-one is especially concerned over what Rudd would do to deal with either issue, which is not very much. It is also why government protestations that people have never been so well off, that only a small minority (5%) according to the Reserve Bank are actually suffering ‘mortgage stress’, are having little impact.
In fact the government has been woeful at handling this. They have turned it into a fight between their statistics of the health of the economy and a Labor party playing on ‘populist’ issues. But by calling it populist, the government is playing right into Labor’s hands as they have essentially polarised the issue between them and the electorate, and revealed what this is really about - an attack on the political class.
It is the same reason that there is also resonance over taxpayers’ money being spent on aircraft and which is now extending to a whole range of expenditure on what are mostly fairly normal government activities.
The issue of the aircraft is interesting because it has revealed two important features of this attack. Firstly, Howard’s defence was to remind the media that they are also implicated given their calls for up-grading the aircraft especially following the Garuda plane crash in Indonesia. That taxpayers, rather than their multi-billion dollar employers, should pay for carrying political journalists around is one of the unspoken assumptions of Australian political life that highlights the close relationship that the media has with the political class of both right and left.
This close relationship is one important reason why the media has had such trouble getting to grips with the progress of this election year and the effectiveness of Rudd’s anti-politics strategy. Probably the clearest example was the confusion around the Budget in May, a parliamentary ritual on which Costello seemed to tick all the right boxes, but that Rudd bypassed through a TV ad and a modest school initiative. It is not surprising that one of the political journalists with the closest political contacts, The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan, should not only get events like the Budget so wrong but, along with his employer, be so sensitive to those outside commentators, like blogger Peter Brent, who do not move in the political circles that The Australian calls the ‘real world’.
The second interesting aspect of the aircraft issue is that it is a reminder that this is an attack on the whole political class, so it also implicates Labor. Rudd has broken a bi-partisan support on Prime Ministerial aircraft, which will undoubtedly affect him if he takes power. It is no coincidence that this attack is being led by members of Labor’s left, increasingly marginalised within their own party, and Rudd, arguably the leader most detached from the party’s organisation that Labor has ever had. (Rudd’s detachment from Labor’s organisation means that he has less trouble breaking with old Labor allies like the unions. But it also means they have no trouble paying him back. The weekend story on his brother’s donations to the coalition was leaked by an internal Labor source, according to Glenn Milne on Insiders. If true, this would be the second time, after a Labor MP passed on to the government an employee’s complaint on Theresa Rein’s business activities, that a Labor insider has exposed embarrassing details on Rudd’s family.) While this anti-politics strategy is helping Rudd get into the Lodge, he is creating a rod for his own back when he gets there.
Saturday, 14 July 2007
An article by Patrick Dodson in The Age highlights the muddled thinking coming from the land rights bureaucracy and why their strategy is doomed. He fails to see that by accepting the premise of Howard’s intervention that there is a child abuse epidemic in the NT (despite the lack of evidence), he invalidates the system he defends.
One reason why they may not be seeing this is because land rights activists are so used to using ‘victimhood’ politics to lobby for funding that child abuse is just being seen as an extension of it. But of course it isn’t. It goes too far and raises the whole question over individual responsibility. For example, he repeats a common claim that the existence of a child abuse epidemic should lead to more funding for housing, as though over-crowding was a sufficient excuse for adults in the house to allow this type of thing to happen.
This has led to a strange parallel debate between the land rights bureaucrats and the media who are taking the child abuse claims at face value. An example was an interview with one such activist on The 7.30 Report last week where, while she talked about long-term funding plans, the interviewer kept on asking why someone should not act immediately to protect children.
Fortunately for the land rights activists, the agenda of the government is not as clear as they claim. While the government wants to sweep away the land rights agenda, it has nothing to put in its place – and certainly not assimilation. To do so would require a normal level of basic amenities that Howard is clearly in no mood to provide as shown by the paltry costings he has earmarked for the venture.
Despite how the activists like to flatter themselves, this intervention is not about their agenda but the government using it to gain control of the election campaign. The script has not gone as Howard planned and he has failed to capitalise on it enough to use against Labor as shown by the cancelling of the special sitting. It did at least gain Howard some much-needed moral authority and stop Labor’s anti-politics strategy – for a while. But even that is now starting to return on the issue of grocery prices and now the PM’s aircraft as signalled by the return to the national media of Labor’s spokesperson on Public Accountability – the dreaded Penny Wong.
Friday, 13 July 2007
As if to prove yesterday’s post, Dennis Shanahan’s close ties with the real world have not been enough to prevent him missing the point on Rudd’s call for an inquiry into grocery prices. The misunderstanding is best summed up by the Treasurer’s appearance on The 7.30 Report. Costello’s reply that prices are already monitored by the ABS misses the point - the problem is that people do not believe them. The implication of Rudd’s attack, which he is also making on housing affordability, is that the political class is detached from the real cost of living and hiding behind statistics that do not reflect people’s reality. This was reinforced by the dismissive performance of the Treasurer, who must surely be the most politically inept member of a major party leadership since Billy Snedden.
This is not, as Shanahan says, appealing to the hip-pocket nerve, but something more powerful, antagonism towards the political class. In effect what Rudd is doing here is starting up again his anti-politics strategy of portraying the government as detached from the electorate, like he did over the use of Kirribilli - a strategy that was brought to a halt with the NT intervention. There is a real basis of truth in this charge as both parties have a dwindling social base that makes them more reliant on artificial means like focus groups and opinion polls to tell them what is happening in the electorate. Rudd is better at making this charge against the political class because he himself is detached from his own party. However, it does not necessarily make him any better at establishing ties with the electorate as suggested by his fairly cringing attempt to tie in with youth on his MySpace site.
Thursday, 12 July 2007
Back in May, after yet another false call on the end of the Rudd ascendancy by the media after what was supposed to be a vote-winning Budget, this blog suggested that the inability of media commentators to grasp the current political conditions would lead to a confidence crisis.
To see two extraordinary pieces by Dennis Shanahan and an editorial in a mass circulation paper like The Australian attacking a blogger (albeit one of the most sensible ones), Peter Brent at Mumble, it looks like we have one.
Shanahan’s article is interesting. He highlights the importance that the interpretation of the polls is being given by the political class, which makes it necessary for him to pick out even small trends that could lead to a change in electoral dynamics.
For someone so sensitive to the smaller trends, Shanahan, along with other commentators, have been remarkably insensitive to the larger message from the poll – that the government is heading for collapse. Persistently Labor’s lead has been dismissed as ‘soft’ and unsustainable in such strong economic conditions. Whether it was the budget, the Burke affair, the Anzac Day broadcast, terrorist attacks, media commentators have continually called the end of the Rudd honeymoon - and got it wrong.
Part of the reason for this failure to get to grips with this election year is given away by The Australian editorial, which justifies its confidence in getting it right this year by the fact they did so in 1998, 2001 and 2004. But it is precisely because they keep seeing current political trends through the prism of the past, which is why they have done so poorly in 2007. The continual expectation that Howard will inevitably erode Labor’s lead like he did in previous years has coloured their ability to judge the political impact of events this year. In Shanahan’s case this is especially clear on the impact of the Budget, that clearly was a political failure, but to Shanahan, a political triumph for Costello and the government.
Like Mumble, this blog’s view is that Shanahan is a good journalist and ironically, on the comments on which he is being attacked is actually much in agreement. Shanahan at least has the virtue of consistency unlike some other flakier journalists in the mainstream press such as Jason Koutsoukis, whose analysis has been so much all over the place that it is no wonder that he has resorted to the betting markets to tell him what is going on. Part of the reason for Shanahan’s consistency is his strong political contacts, even if his reports give the impression that they are stronger on one side of the political fence than the other.
The question is, what are these contacts worth now that the political class is itself struggling to get to grips with what is going on? When The Australian talks about those detached from the real world do they include a political class, which with its dwindling social base is forced to rely on focus groups and whose leaders ring up The Australian editorial office to get a jump on the opinion polls to tell them what is going on? It is precisely the charge that the political parties are out of touch that is one of the main attacks they have used against each other this year and which resonates so well with the electorate. The media’s close attachment with the Australian political class has not given them any great insights into the Australian electorate’s thinking in 2007, which is why alternative commentators like Mumble and Crikey can generate an audience and perhaps why a major paper like The Australian can be so extraordinarily sensitive to them.
Wednesday, 11 July 2007
The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan has received some flak over his comments that the latest 56/44 Newspoll marks a turnaround for the government. While acknowledging the two party preferred is unchanged, Shanahan, using a strange ‘sizzling sausage’ analogy (curiously also used by Downer the day before, did they go to the same BBQ?), argues that the recovery in preferred PM ranking is significant. Usually such a gloss on what are awful polls for the government should be taken no more than that expected from a newspaper aiming to be the preferred choice of the business traveller, but this time he may have a point.
Not for the reason given by Newspoll's CEO, who repeats the same mistake of others who have mis-read this year, namely seeing this election as a re-run of the past. But rather because although voting intentions have not changed since the last Newspoll in mid-June, the political environment has.
The NT intervention has altered the dynamic of this campaign. It has given a sense of purpose to the government and stopped Labor’s increasingly effective strategy of tapping into voter cynicism about Howard’s lack of agenda. Labor was translating this by talking about Howard being a ‘clever’ politician who had only one purpose, to stay in power. This is why the rise in Howard’s preferred PM ranking, not necessarily significant in itself, may be so in this case as it shows Howard has gone some way to addressing this issue.
Howard has yet to translate that gain into a shift in voting. He is struggling to work out how to use the NT intervention against Labor, which is why he is vacillating over whether to recall parliament for a special sitting on the issue. Labor has followed very closely behind the government to prevent this although The Australian editorial has correctly picked up one issue where Labor could run into trouble, if it maintains its support of the land rights lobby.
However, even if Howard does do this, it does not necessarily mean voters will switch support. Australian voters are unlikely to decide the government based on their position on indigenous affairs. Some issues can be politically important without being the ones voters think about at the polling station. In 2004, voters minds may have been on Latham’s lack of trustworthiness on interest rates on election day, but that trust had started to be undermined months earlier on the more significant issue of the US alliance.
And here we get to Howard’s real problem. Just as the NT intervention may be an issue that changes the dynamic of the campaign without directly changing voter intention, another more important event is happening thousands of miles away, which has not been given full significance in the Australian press. If the revolt of US Republicans over Bush’s Iraq strategy starts to gather momentum in the next few months it will create an excruciating dilemma for a government that only last week was claiming such a position would support terrorism. It would offset any gains from the NT intervention, create the potential for fragmentation in the Liberals and probably spell the end of this government.
Tuesday, 10 July 2007
The Iraqi foreign minister was reported to have warned that his government’s authority could be undermined if the growing Republican revolt over Bush’s Iraq policy translated to the withdrawal of US troops. Our foreign affairs minister must know how he feels. The timing of this revolt so close to the recent kerfuffle over Brendan Nelson’s comments suggests how boxed in the government is. It would be likely that Downer’s Washington contacts would have given him wind that a Republican reappraisal was underway and prompted Howard to consider downplaying the importance of Iraq from being solely about a global War on Terror to a regional issue of oil. However, this would have left him open to Labor accusations of cynicism and removed one of the few principled positions left for the government. Doing a U-turn on Iraq is not like doing one on Workchoices or GST.
One other thing; the sleeper of this election has been the eroding cohesion of the Liberals, something that has not has not yet come out because of the lack of any issue to divide them. If the Republican shift continues and the Australian government remains locked into its current position, Iraq may provide such an issue.
Monday, 9 July 2007
There is no doubt that the government was toying with toning down the importance of the Iraq policy last week with The Age picking up a shift even before Brendan Nelson’s comments. Attempts to bring in other reasons like oil for staying in Iraq is tempting because of the decreasing political effectiveness of the War on Terror. This was highlighted in the very same week when terrorism again hit the front pages of the Australian papers, but nowadays tends to be interpreted as a consequence of being in Iraq than a reason for invading it in the first place.
The danger in motivating Iraq on oil is that it adds to the cynicism over government actions. This would especially be a danger on something as important as war. As Costello noted on Insiders, “Australian troops don't fight for petrol prices”. Anti-political cynicism has been a constant danger for this agenda-less government and Labor was starting to take this attack to a new level around such issues as Kirribilli fund-raising and government ad spending.
The NT intervention was supposed to deal with that by giving a sense that the government was about more than just its re-election. While polls are showing there is still cynicism over why the government has done it, it does not extend to questioning the premise of the intervention. As Labor has accepted that there is an epidemic of child abuse and come in behind the government, it will find it hard to accuse Howard of being a ‘clever’ politician.
While the NT intervention has stopped Labor’s strategy dead, last week’s polls from Morgan and Galaxy suggests it has yet to take advantage of it to begin to clawback Labor’s lead. The problem is that the government has entered an area distinguished by one failure after another by the Australian political class. As a result, it has very little authority to act, as seen by the back-down on medical screening (now even NT police are moaning about the proposed alcohol ban). Nor have they found the authority for the intervention from discovering a child abuse epidemic, the evidence for which is weak, and becoming more exposed as such. While Brough must struggle to prevent the whole venture becoming a farce, bored soldiers are left to play football with the kids.
Labor’s attack on the government over special interests was not just a tactic. It was also a response to its own problem, the irrelevance of its ‘special’ interest of the unions. The NT intervention has brought that to an end for now. For the government, the NT intervention has partly dealt with the cynicism, but not enough to allow it to start to dump some of its baggage, like Iraq, that it now would like to. This has left both sides in limbo, but with Howard still well behind. Through the NT intervention and the attack on special interests, both leaders have shown they are willing to break new ground to win this election, even if it will be to the long term detriment of the political class as a whole. The actions of both have brought this election campaign to a standstill, but neither can they stay where they are. It looks like Howard's move.
Saturday, 7 July 2007
It would be laughable if it was not so disgraceful. Mal Brough and his military entourage continue their tour of the NT aboriginal communities in search of the elusive child abuse epidemic. A paper by Melbourne University Professor Botsman and comments from the co-author of a Commonwealth commissioned child protection report both suggest that he will not have much luck, with NT levels if anything being lower than the national average. An article by Mike Steketee in The Australian adds to the suspicion that child abuse claims are being talked up by some, such as the NT report’s authors, as a way of attracting more funding - irrespective of the distress such claims may cause parents in the communities. MAL BROUGH: I suppose you're wondering why all this lot are here? [pointing at the military] LOCAL RESIDENTS: We're wondering why you came. MAL BROUGH: The sad reality is that in many communities, little ones, even as young as this little one here, have actually been hurt. That may not be happening here, not saying it is, but in a lot of places it is happening. Only this week a 3 month old was bashed to death by a 17 year old father is the allegation. There's some really serious things happening to some little kids.
The 7.30 Report recorded the farce to which this whole business has descended when the cavalcade entered Santa Teresa on Thursday, a place already with a long-standing alcohol ban and according to the local policeman no history of either drug-use or child sexual abuse. This was not enough, however, to escape being one of the communities singled out by the government. Standing in front of a posse of police, government bureaucrats and soldiers before the bemused residents Brough entered into this enlightened exchange:
The residents’ main concern was less lurid than the Minister, namely over government plans to cut funded work programmes in the area. After being unable to give assurances on that issue and finding nothing in Santa Teresa, Brough then went 14 kilometres out of town where the unfortunate local residents are forced to go to have a drink. There he did find something to disturb him. Not only were there empty beer cans, but worse, the trees had been cut down for firewood presumably to warm up those forced to drink at night in the middle of nowhere. This seemed to upset the Minister.
MAL BROUGH: All the trees are gone. That's a lot of drinking. I mean, seriously, that's a lot of trees to go. That's extraordinary.“But this happened in more than 20 years” was the reply.
MAL BROUGH: I suppose you're wondering why all this lot are here? [pointing at the military]
LOCAL RESIDENTS: We're wondering why you came.
MAL BROUGH: The sad reality is that in many communities, little ones, even as young as this little one here, have actually been hurt. That may not be happening here, not saying it is, but in a lot of places it is happening. Only this week a 3 month old was bashed to death by a 17 year old father is the allegation. There's some really serious things happening to some little kids.
Friday, 6 July 2007
It used to be a comfort to the left to believe the Iraq invasion was all about oil. There now appears to be some in the government who think it will be of comfort to them.
To recall what the Iraq war really was about: the end of the Cold War in 1989 meant the US had lost a framework for asserting its interests not just in the third world, but also over other western powers. George Bush senior used Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as a way of bringing the major powers behind its leadership once again but the benefit was limited. Most major powers followed for a while but then fell away once the war was over. The following decade saw Clinton try a “humanitarian interventionism” solution but with limited success and US leadership over international affairs began to drift.
9/11 was rightly acknowledged by Bush junior as an opportunity to reassert that leadership with once again using Iraq as the means. However, relations between the major powers had drifted apart enough in the meantime that Iraq only made them worse, compounded by the fiasco of the actual occupation. Despite that, anti-terrorism had at least provided some framework for international relations and firmed up US ties with the UK and a few minor powers like Australia.
That framework is now unravelling to the extent that the alternative agenda on climate change from Europe and Japan is gaining ground. This has had a clear impact on Australian politics and is the ultimate reason why the Howard government is in trouble. Right now US presidential candidates are arguing how to restore US global leadership after the failure of the Iraq strategy.
To claim the Iraq war was mainly about oil is to deny nearly two decades of geopolitical reality. However, there is a reason why it may be tempting for some to do so. What was unusual about both Iraq wars was that there was little role for the left. The collapse of the Soviet Union and third world allies had effectively removed the left from international affairs. Even the most virulently anti-US protester would struggle to align with Saddam, a CIA stooge originally put in to deal with left-wing pan-Arab nationalism, like they did with, say, the Vietcong. Vietnam has oilfields, but the left would have seen the Vietnam war as one of national liberation. With nothing to identify with in the Iraq war, there was no other stance for the left than to try and reduce the whole thing to nothing more than oil.
If the oil argument gives comfort to a left excluded from the international agenda, it is highly surprising the Howard government thinks it will give comfort to them. It would have been extraordinary if Howard had given the speech he was reported to be about to make (the fact that Brendan Nelsen seems to have got the message mixed up indicates that Howard must have been thinking of it). By claiming it was about oil, he would have effectively given up on an anti-terrorism agenda, but more than that, would have abandoned Australia’s global pretences, both of which have propped up this policy bereft government well past its shelf life. It is likely they were thinking of it as a pragmatic regional response to the growing vacuum created by the failure of Bush’s War on Terror. As for the left, the government looks as though they were toying with the oil argument as comfort for a failed international agenda.
The vacuum is likely to create a brief return to regionalism in Australian foreign policy but this is not a comfortable position for the Australian political class that has always benefited from pretending it is a global player, and especially not for a government reliant on it. Rudd’s speech claims that Labor is prepared for it by focussing on the “Arc of Instability” just off Australian shores, which might do while the global warming agenda takes shape. For Howard, however, for whom his backdowns are seen as political genius rather than the signs of political weakness they really are, this is probably one compromise too far.
Thursday, 5 July 2007
A good question has been asked as to why last month’s arrest of the leader of a terrorist organisation responsible for the death of 92 Australians barely rated a headline, whereas the arrest of a suspect in a terrorist attempt on the other side of the world, which fortunately killed no-one, is receiving blanket coverage.
The different treatment shows that it is not so much the terrorist act itself that determines how they are covered, than what commentators choose to read into them. The British bombers offer a more amenable way of replaying the same old arguments that have been with us since 2001, on Australia’s role in the War on Terror and especially in Iraq.
There is something slightly distasteful about the way that those against the war continually use these acts to try and win an argument that they could not win at the time it mattered, when the troops actually went in. The terrorists themselves may claim it is a response to Iraq but their acts seem to have a striking inability to actually target the institutions that were responsible for it. Rather they prefer to attack nightclubs, entrances to airports, the morning tube train and other random public places.
The right, reasonably enough, remind that the greatest terrorist act happened before the war in Iraq (and even at the time some used 9/11 as a justification for their criticism of US foreign policy). But then the right give their own profundity to terrorist acts by claiming that it is a result of an international Islamic conspiracy, so justifying invasion into the Middle East. Then when they enter the region, terrorists have become a useful vehicle for the US and the UK to blame for their inability to control it. Downer gives the latest example of how Al Qaeda’s ‘surprising’ strength is talked up as a cover for the coalition’s incompetence.
The randomness and amateurism of these suicide acts look more nihilistic than a result of any particular clear political or religious cause. They have no more clear mission than that Adelaide naiveté currently residing in Yatala prison. It is their very emptiness that makes them able to be used by both the left and the right to conduct their own arguments, especially on foreign policy and Iraq.
The terms of that foreign policy debate are now changing. How far the political case behind Iraq and the War on Terror has collapsed is indicated by a report that Howard is now even prepared to hide behind one of the most cynical left arguments - that it was all about oil - to justify staying. Of course, it was not about oil but about the US using the Iraq invasion to retain its political prestige in the global order. It is the failure of that strategy which is why both Republicans and Democrats are prepared to consider leaving Iraq (and presumably its oil) if it will help them restore that prestige.
The collapse of the political case for Iraq has translated domestically with the government unable to even politically use the arrest of a suspected terrorist. Instead the saturation coverage is starting to descend to ranking Mohamed Haneef behind Bundaberg’s Dr Death as yet another example of the lousy recruiting practices of the Queensland health system.
Tuesday, 3 July 2007
Surely the surprising finding of the Galaxy poll was not that 58% thought Howard’s NT intervention was for electoral purposes but that 42% either didn’t or weren’t sure. That almost half would consider that Howard had dropped interest in his re-election for the plight of Aboriginal children does not sound like a very cynical electorate as some have claimed. It suggests that politically the basis of the intervention has been accepted. Even for the 58% believing there is a link to Howard’s re-election, it does not necessarily mean that they disagree with the move or think any less of Howard for it.
The tone of Crikey’s Christian Kerr that the poll’s modest 2% shift to Labor means the government now has to find something else is not quite right. It reflects an underestimation from some quarters of the political significance of this intervention. This move gives the government a moral authority that it has not had for some time and which it has not yet really exploited. But having done it, neither is this now something the government can just walk away from. As Milne said on Insiders, no major party has ever made indigenous affairs central to their re-election – for a very good reason. Indigenous affairs may be a rarely discussed political topic but that is not because it is unimportant but because it is the Australian political class’s greatest failure. It is why they are even willing to compromise on the application of its laws in this area. Having brought it to the centre of the political debate, Howard has started a process on which there is no going back.
However, as seen by the way the government is starting to equivocate, neither does he seem to have the authority to pursue it all the way. It is why they are so often needing to quote indigenous activists like Pearson.
It was interesting seeing Jenny Macklin on Insiders responding to the initiative in a much more astute way than suggested by Rudd’s concerns about land rights the other day. Labor looks as though it will be following very closely behind the government - so close behind its back that it will give the government no room to retreat. In doing so, Labor has the potential to expose that the government is not able to follow through what it has begun. Already it is starting to promise resources on health and policing that are pushing the government further than it wants to go. If it does follow this course, it will need to dump their former alliance to the land rights bureaucrats, something that shouldn’t be too hard given their now compromised position. As shown by Rudd’s recent stance with the unions, Labor nowadays is having no trouble distancing itself from former friends.
Monday, 2 July 2007
Given that the issue of health checks shows up the clearest gap between the threat as posed by the government and their political inability to act on it, any interview with Tony Abbott was always going to be a bit of a disaster although the interview on Nine's Sunday probably exceeded expectations. In trying to avoid the political difficulties of directly dealing with the child abuse problem through compulsory checks, which they themselves raised, the government is getting dragged where it does not want to go, down to more infrastructure funding.
Where he was more comfortable was when Oakes started to ask why they had not done this before. This may make the government look pushed into this by the election but if the problem really exists, what is wrong with that? Isn’t that what elections are for?
Of course the question that there actually is a child abuse epidemic is the real problem of this intervention. Following on from the previous post looking at the NT report, someone else has found a better quote that highlights the weak evidence behind this panic:
As no attempt has been made to create a national study of the prevalence of child sexual abuse in Australia, nor (more importantly for this Inquiry) to effectively estimate the extent of sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, the Inquiry has had to rely on the national (and NT) child protection datasets and NT criminal justice statistics. These can only provide information on reported cases of sexual abuse and are not able to provide an in-depth analysis of the nature and extent of sexual abuse in the communities.
However, when taken together with the high rate of STIs in children, and the clear anecdotal evidence of children’s early involvement in sexual activity and of sexual abuse in NT communities (see Part I), the Inquiry has concluded that the prevalence of sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities is a pressing problem that has been significantly under-estimated. However, a better estimate of the actual size of the problem is highly desirable.
Yet as the report notes, actual criminal cases are rare, while the reliance on STIs is questioned by Victorian child abuse experts quoted in the Sunday Age who note:
Detection of STIs among sexually active juveniles says nothing about the level of abuse, or the perpetrators. The same article gives fairly believable responses from the women of Yuendumu, who like those of Mutitjulu, keep asking for basic services but instead get a government "obsession” (as they call it) with child abuse. All just anecdotal, of course, like the report on which this intervention is based, but to this blog more believable as the typical situation in these communities than the lurid tales we have had for the past week.
Sunday, 1 July 2007
If an election campaign is going badly, probably best to suspend it. The old issues may still be talked about but they have been drained of meaning because now in the middle of it is the issue that cannot be political – the NT intervention. Not since the US and UK invaded Iraq to stop WMDs have so many people been running around telling everyone else to shut up – this is not a time for politics. But there is little political debate actually happening, the states are falling in line, the federal opposition is barely going by that name and the consensus that there is an epidemic of child abuse is even stronger than that very strong consensus (remember?) at the time of the Blix report that WMDs existed. Any dispute remains purely at the level of logistics.
One reason why Howard has created such a strong consensus on the key points is that he has driven a truck through the contradictions of indigenous politics - typified by the deeply flawed report that kicked all of this off. Not only did it propose remedial actions to a problem before providing conclusive evidence that it existed to the extent claimed, but the remedial actions themselves did not fit the problem they claimed was there.
If there really was clear evidence of child sexual abuse then surely the first priority would be to immediately remove the children from harm’s way and arrest the offenders. The sort of broader long-term social engineering the report proposes would surely have to happen only after the immediate safety of the child has been secured. This is the flaw in the report that has enabled Howard to dismiss its recommendations (to the complaints of its authors) and make his dramatic action.
In reality the report is typical of the tactics used by indigenous politics generally, the child abuse claims were a way of attracting attention to the real agenda, an upping of social worker intervention and funding into the indigenous communities. It was why substantiating the claims was secondary for the report. Howard has instead started off with the child abuse claims and swept the report’s real agenda away.
The same is happening to indigenous politics generally. There is some truth that a ‘land grab’ is underway on native titles. Not because the government wants the land, that is just silly, but Howard is sweeping away the political basis of land rights. Those who are trying to defend it are on a losing game. Firstly Howard has now shown what a sham land ‘rights’ were through the very act of so easily taking over control. More importantly, by agreeing to the premise of the intervention, land rights activists have fatally compromised their position. After all, how is it possible to support a system that has allowed such systematic widespread child abuse as the government claims? Like the report’s authors, land rights activists have used the abuse claims as a form of special pleading to their cause, but they have taken the politics of victimhood too far. They have still not woken up to the implications of what they are now arguing. A memo for next time: don’t campaign for self-determination on the politics of victimhood.
Someone who appears to be moving clear of this at the moment is Noel Pearson but he has the same problem as the others. However, he is shouting both sides so loudly, preaching indigenous self responsibility and support for an intervention that assumes indigenous people are incapable of being responsible enough to protect their children, that such contradictory rubbish looks in line with this state of transition.
There is another reason why Pearson is on the telly a lot. He is bashing the political class. This leads to another point that is suspending political debate – Howard has dragged to the centre of the election the biggest policy failure of the Australian political class, from both sides of the fence. To make such an issue out of such a historical failure is unprecedented. Even when Keating made reconciliation part of his agenda, the point was to settle down the problems caused by Mabo back to the old order. Howard’s action has now made that impossible and it is what he means when he says they cannot go back to the past. It has meant that no-one in the political class has a record or a position with any credibility from which to comment. Even Fraser, who has been rehabilitating himself by carrying on as though he’s seen Jesus since he left office, was unable to pull off criticising Howard and expecting everyone to forget his own record. Rudd has been wise enough to admit that it is not possible to return to the past but to pick his first fight on defending the land rights regime seems not very astute.
There is one final reason why the NT intervention has suspended debate. What is Howard’s alternative? Justifying the intervention on child abuse may have enabled Howard to sweep away the existing order and renounce the past, but past failures also undermine the authority to do anything new. He seems to be proposing direct rule but does not have the authority to take children under threat into care, for obvious historical reasons, as would normally happen. The government doesn’t even have the confidence to impose compulsory medical checks let alone the sort that would be needed to ascertain abuse. When people say that Howard is making policy on the run, what they mean is that he is retreating, but having got rid of the past, he has nowhere to go to. The result is what looks increasingly like an uncertain authority operating in a policy vacuum. Now where have we seen that before?