Friday, June 28, 2013

CAAANBRA: Leadership

When I started writing on Wednesday morning, I was considering the loss of two independents from the Australian political scene and what it might mean for future independents. Now, I’m contemplating the loss of at least six remarkable Australian parliamentarians, and even more from the front bench.

Alongside the devastating loss is the restoration of hope – just a tiny shard of hope - that perhaps the good people from the Left can keep Tony Abbott out of The Lodge.

Bringing us this drama was a media that ranged from slick and innovative to angry and partisan.

Extraordinary Gentlemen

Australia is poorer as we contemplate a future without the calming influences of two true-blue gentlemen who for many years have steadied the daily drama within Canberra’s galleries of power.

For many, this hung parliament has brought out the worst: from the leadership instability within the ALP to the mean-spirited Liberal decisions around when they would or wouldn’t grant a pair, from the revelations about Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper to the accusations hurled across the floor, from the political convenience of benching former speaker Harry Jenkins to the empty sloganeering of Tony Abbott, we have seen some of the lowest behaviour imaginable.

Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor gave us the very best they have. They were elected as independents in traditional National Party heartland seats, but the actuality of the hung parliament elevated their roles beyond their electorates. To the disgust of some who thought they should behave as National Party stand-ins, both of these men realised the weight of their added responsibility and made their decisions accordingly.

Their retirements are a double blow to the integrity of our political system. Without the requirements of a political party to drive their vote, these remarkable men were free to vote for what they believed was right, instead of what was politically required. Every vote was a conscience vote.

Most memorable during this period of consistent negativity and nastiness is the dignity these two independents carried with them. Rob and Tony are the examples all of our politicians, all of us, should emulate. Regardless of the stresses of their positions, the daily frustrations and the torrent of malice directed their way, these gentlemen remained good humoured, honourable and humble.

It seems unfair that as independents, these two just walk out of public life. If they belonged to a political party, they’d be Elder Statesmen, choosing which Embassy they wanted to run for a few years. Instead, they go home, which I’m sure is what each of them wants.

Go well, gentlemen, with our thanks. You made a difference.


In twitter style, each event gets its own hashtag to identify tweets which relate to that event. When Gillard toppled Rudd, it was #Spillard. Following that logic, last night’s leadership challenge should’ve been Spudd. But we all settled for #spill, it trended worldwide on and off for hours during the evening.

We know the story now: A petition was circulated to pressure Ms Gillard into calling a spill. Mr Rudd did not go to China. The spill was called for 7pm. Bill Shorten switched camps and voted for Rudd, as did Penny Wong. In fact, enough people changed sides to get Kevin Rudd over the line and back into the Prime Ministership. The best blow by blow description has been compiled by the ABC from Wednesday's tweets, mainly by ABC reporters.

Unfortunately, Mr Rudd’s victory is defeat for Australia’s first female Prime Minister. After the relentless attacks she’s had to endure, and the outstanding success she has had in reforming Australia’s education structures, introducing a price on carbon, brokering the MRRT, looking after the disabled in our communities and so much more, she deserves better than being dumped by the party that handed her the Prime Ministership.

Tony Abbott continues to describe the Labor Government as “dysfunctional”. It has certainly been entertaining, and I wouldn’t call it stable, but I can’t accept that a government which has achieved as much as this one has is dysfunctional. It’s highly functional, but like so much of the process of governing, it’s ugly. The best summation of the achievements of this Parliament is contained in Rob Oakeshott’s speech from earlier this week.

Prior to the vote on Wednesday evening, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd both confirmed that if they lost the leadership vote, they would resign from politics, ending the question of leadership. Julia Gillard did lose, and has confirmed that she will not recontest the safe Labor seat of Lalor, in Victoria. Sadly, some of Ms Gillard’s highest profile supporters have taken this a step further. Former Ministers Craig Emerson, Peter Garrett and Stephen Smith will not be recontesting their seats either.

Former Treasurer and ex-Deputy PM Wayne Swan will move to the back benches, where he’ll be surrounded by his former colleagues in the Ministry including Joe Ludwig, Steven Conroy and Greg Combet.

And still, Julia Gillard is the only woman to have resigned from Parliament this week.

Hate Media

I am sad, and more than a little scared at the likelihood of a future Australia under Tony Abbott, but I am appalled at the level of hatred in some tweets that have come from the right today. Not all conservative voters behave like undignified rabble on twitter, but some do – and some of them should know better.

Chris Kenny, a former Liberal political operative and journalist, now commentator for Sky News, tweeted

Get your dig in there Chris. It doesn’t need to be accurate or honest, just snarky and calibrated to benefit the Liberal Party, right?

Of course, you know that neither Oakeshott nor Windsor is leaving politics out of any desire to duck what Mr Kenny believes would be unacceptable results. People who can’t handle rejection well don’t go into politics. The truth is that Mr Windsor needs to manage some health issues and Mr Oakeshott is done. He’s been 17 years in politics and he’s done. Has Mr Kenny ever worked in the same job for seventeen years?

Sky News Australia has become Fox News Australia in all but name, and as the drama amplified yesterday, the conservative bias became more and more obvious. Paul Murray, whose show airs nightly at 9pm is setting himself up as Australia’s answer to Rush Limbaugh. He is an angry, bitter man filled with and fuelled by hatred for the Labor Party in general and Ms Gillard in particularly. His guests are almost exclusively from the right and further right, turning what was once a reasonably balanced news-chat show into the proverbial echo-chamber of simpering agreement.

Regular guests include former Howard Ministers Gary Hargraves and Peter Reith, Sky News colleague Janine Perrett, serial Gillard insulter Grace Collier, broadcaster Derryn Hinch, conservative (News Limited) columnist Janet Albrechtsen and her partner, Liberal Party has-been Michael Kroger, 2UE talkback colleagues Jason Morrison and John Stanley, economics writer for (News Limited’s) The Australian Adam Creighton, former Liberal Party staffer Chris Kenny, Andrew Stoner, leader of the NSW Nationals…and a light smattering of progressive guests like Peter Bentley of the McKell Institute and former Rudd staffer (and now MamaMia Mama) Jamila Rizvi, and current Labor MP Ed Husic plus some generalist commentators like PR pundit Prue MacSween and editor of the Australian Womens Weekly, Helen McCabe.

Sky News Australia should take notice of some of the comments that were floating on Twitter last night about Mr Murray’s performance. I don’t know if his preference for conservative-leaning guests is the result of an instruction from his employers, or is a personal choice to support the Opposition, but it’s obvious, and it’s far too close a Fox News clone for my liking.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


If there has been one single moment when Prime Minister Gillard blasted through the twin filters of her own spin team and partisan media interests, it was that afternoon when she stood her ground and stated in a tone as unforgiving as forged steel that she would not be lectured to by that man. The famous “Misogyny Speech” made international news, was viewed over 2 million times on You Tube and saw Prime Minister Gillard’s name amongst the finalists for the coveted position as Time Person of the Year.

Contrast that moment with today’s headline news. The Women’s Weekly, that final frontier of The Way We Were, reveals that Julia Gillard is knitting a baby kangaroo toy as a gift for Prince William and Princess Catherine’s baby. Awwww. Isn’t it sweet? Awwww. And so appropriately feminine. Would you like a cup of tea and a piece of home-made cream sponge while you knit, Ma’am?

It’s a solid gold, gift-wrapped, fur-lined ocean-going festival of punny witticisms for our glorious media. Headlines ranged from the Sydney Morning Herald’s “PM tried to knit herself out of the poll doldrums” to the Australian’s “Some yarn: Julia Gillard knits a royal roo”. Thank Dog Sue Lapperman still has her glorious sense of the absurd!

Former journalist and news presenter John Mangos was terribly serious:

“Julia knitting. Really? I am a strategic media consultant these days. And there is no way I would have approved of that.” 
He continued

 “I have nothing against knitting. Some of my best friends knit. I would rather my (Republican) Prime Minister try to run the country instead.”
Ignoring the condescendingly dull “some of my best friends are...” defence, John Mangos is not alone. Mumbrella is reporting that senior PR consultants have questioned the strategy behind the decision to feature this story in a women’s magazine. Out came the PR clich├ęs, including “trying to appeal to women voters” as a possible motive for what they see as an ill-advised decision. PR bigwigs are asking what the PM’s PR team was hoping to gain with such a soft issue.

That question suggests to me that those PR boffins are as lacking in creativity and perspective as those employed in the Prime Minister’s Office, not to mention the gormless media they serve. Priming the Prime Minister to appeal to women voters specifically is so terribly 2010, darling, and I’d be embarrassed to run a campaign like that, particularly in this political environment where favouring one gender over another is considered bad form. I just don't think the strategy behind Knittinggate is that serious.

In all likelihood, come September 15, Julia Gillard will not be the Prime Minister and Tony Abbott will be. A bit of knitting isn’t going to change that, for better or worse. There is nothing that the PM can do in a simple magazine shoot that would change the electoral certainty, so let’s get real.

The cat’s out of the bag, guys. The Prime Minister is a woman, and she knits.

My problem isn’t with the placement of the feature, but with the stylists, who should be strangled with their own made-in-Bangladesh designer-patterned tights. It’s the kind of photo you’d expect to see if you gave your grannie a discount voucher for a Glamour Makeover and Photography session. It’s safe and entirely unremarkable. Why not an action shot of the PM as Wonder Woman jabbing her knitting needles into the temple of a Tony Abbott Doll? Seriously, this photo concept rivals raw porridge for sheer visual excitement.

Let’s flip this around. Let’s assume that Julia is Julian, male, childless and living at The Lodge with his partner Tina, a hairdresser. Julian has a suitably blokey hobby: he does a bit of woodwork now and then to relax. There’s an election in less than three months time, and the polls say that Julian is unelectable. Julian’s media advisor suggests a photo of the PM whittling a kangaroo for the royal baby. The shoot is cute, and it goes to print in GQ.

What’s the reaction to the photos of the PM, appropriately decked out for a Canberra winter, in a handknitted jumper and jeans, sitting in his workshop out the back of the Lodge, whittling?

Certainly not the national outbreak of knit-mocking that seems to have overtaken the country, or at least my twitter feed. It’s knitting. It’s a hobby. Barack Obama loves a quick game of basketball. The Queen breeds corgis. Tony Abbott likes sports that require lycra, and posing for photographs while wearing the lyrca. Similarly, John Howard was a track suit model. Condaleeza Rice plays piano, Sarah Palin shoots moose, and according to Pravda – yes, Pravda - Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, has a passion for high-end fashion.

And the suggestion that the Prime Minister Gillard should stop with the handicrafts and get back to her job of “trying to run the country”? Is he really suggesting that a Prime Minister shouldn’t have a hobby, lest it detract from her job? Let’s not think too much about what Mr Mangos might be revealing about himself with that comment.

But feel the outrage! Australia is twisting itself in knots because a PM with a terminal popularity deficit knits a bit.

If it was Julian Gillard at his workbench, surrounded by the earthy aromas of sawdust and accompanied by his pet dog, would the reaction from the PR industry, the media and the public be as overwhelming?

One thing is certain. If Julia was Julian, conservative commentator and National Cleavage Censor Grace Collier would have less to say. In fact, I still don’t understand why Ms Collier thinks that women should dress like men in order to be “properly dressed”. It’s a fashion statement that harks back to the trouser suits of the 70s. Hilary Clinton might be impressed, but I doubt it.

And that’s both the problem and the solution. We know the Prime Minister is a woman and for about half the population, that should still be a reason to celebrate. What’s the problem with letting her be a woman, taking the cutesy photo for what it is, and getting on with the real news of the day – none of which involves the leadership of the ALP.

By the way, the late Baroness Thatcher had no hobbies. None at all.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Newmania: Must Try Harder

I’m not a constitutional lawyer, and yet I sit here, reading Section 96 of the Constitution of Australia, and pondering at the level of sheer arseholery enacted in its name.

This morning I had the pleasure of coffee and a chat with the Member for Chatsworth, Mr Steve Minnikin. Like most of Newmania’s state parliamentarians, he was launched to power in the electoral tsunami of 2012. It was always going to happen. Before the 2012 election, the seat of Chatsworth in Brisbane’s suburban south-east was the most marginal seat in the state. Mr Minnikin needed a swing the size of a gnat’s dick to be elected. He won the seat with a swing of 10.8%.

My meeting with Mr Minnikin was not so much a discussion around current state politics as it was a relaxed chat about life and politics and people. We were making peace from opposite sides of the political divide after a spiteful twitter exchange a month or so ago. We proved, if nothing else, that political opponents can be civil. 

Take note, Caaanbra; you can and must do better.

Mr Minnikin and I touched on one piece of policy though: I wanted to know how in the name of everything holy could King Campbell’s Government knock back $3.8 billion dollars in education funding – Gonski funding – from the federal government. It’s inconceivable to me that a state government which says it’s under critical financial pressure, and which is not delivering the results in education that we’d like, is refusing this colossal gift.

Let’s be honest: the only state doing consistently worse than Newmania in terms of education is the Northern Territory. It’s a record we in Newmania are rightly ashamed to hold.

The media (social and traditional) have dropped some hefty hints that King Campbell was refusing to accept Gonski on instruction from his mate Tony Abbott, in an attempt to undermine the Prime Minister’s record as the education reformer of the generation. That sounds plausible, right?

It seems that I was wrong.

Mr Minnikin referred me to Section 96 of the Australian Constitution, and made some fairly neutral sounding noises about a tug of war for power between the states and the Commonwealth. Section 96 looks like this:

During a period of ten years after the establishment of the Commonwealth and thereafter until the Parliament otherwise provides, the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit.
Strictly speaking, the Commonwealth has no designated constitutional power when it comes to school education. The states hold responsibility for education. Having said that, successive Commonwealth governments have dipped their oars into this area of state responsibility to the extent that now, the Gillard Government has high profile Peter Garrett as Minister for School Education. 

Sadly, the Newmanian Powers the Be have banned Mr Garrett from setting foot on public school grounds in Newmania, lest he use them as a stage from which to preach the merits of Gonski. (It could be worse - Mr Garrett could dance at the students.) In any case, that's a staggering political pissing competition when you consider that King Campbell is doing exactly what he's banned Mr Garrett from doing. Furthermore, Newmania's Education Minister, Prince Langbroek has admitted that Gonski would benefit around a thousand schools in his state.

One of the key points of the Gonski Review was the determination that management of schools was to remain with the states. Therefore, federal grants and monies offered would be administered by the state education authorities…but there are some strings. Those strings include changes in administration practices to address the issues of poor transparency and accountability which were identified in the Gonski Review.

Strangely, it is the existence of those strings provide the state’s exit plan. They are “Tied Grants”. If the state government doesn’t like any aspect of the Gonski package, including the amount of funding, the funding contribution expected of the states, the changes in administration practice, or even the fact that the Gonski reforms are being made by the Labor Government, they can refuse to accept the funding packing, and that's what they're doing. 

Let’s review this through the lens of the average voter who knows nothing about the Constitution of the Australia, and less about the detail of the Gonski reforms. More importantly, they don’t care. They want to know what’s in it for them, for their kids, grandkids and local schools. They have checked the Courier Mail and they know how much money is being allocated per school and they want their share of that.

There is $3.8 billion dollars sitting on the Gonski-shaped table and our state leader thinks that accepting that funding, making that commitment to improving the standard of education in Newmania is less important than maintaining a structural status quo.

And that is sheer bollocks.

Nothing is more important than improving the quality of education on offer in Queensland. Nothing.

Academic Bronwyn Hinz summarised the outcomes in her paper Schooling federalism: Gonski, Williams and reform prospects like this:
“…any change to schooling federalism will depend not only the federal structure and institutions, but also interacting political forces and opportunities, and entrenched patterns with cultural, political and economic aspects. Foremost among these, it seems, is pure politics.”
I believe that most politicians are, at their core, good people who want to make a positive difference in their community, their country or their state. Mr Minnikin and the rest of King Campbell’s Court can discuss Section 96 until their lips bleed and their ears fall off, but the choice is still their choice. Make that positive difference. Improve education outcomes for the children in this state, or don’t.

Everything else is just politics bullshit.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Culture Shocking

Culture Shock

When I think about the last seven days, all roads lead to Australia’s first female Prime Minister, and the consistent tide of sexist invective she attracts. To some extent, this was inevitable; as the first female Prime Minister in an environment where the Opposition is becoming increasingly conservative, there was bound to be more than a few detractors.

Still, it’s difficult to believe that in 2013, there are still men and women who have difficulty accepting a woman leader. It’s not entirely an age-related phenomenon either: someone who is 70 years old now was born in 1943. They were teenagers during the birth of rock n roll, and young adults during the social upheaval of the 1960s. In fact, parents in their 70s and 80s now are the parents who raised their daughters in the 60s, 70s and 80s to be anything we wanted to be, right up to and including Prime Ministers.

I wonder if perhaps our mothers and grandmothers forgot to prepare their sons for that bold future where women are – let’s be honest here – not equal, but less unequal than a generation or two ago.

Women for Gillard

It was only last week that Prime Minister Gillard spoke at a Women for Gillard launch. Her speech was controversial, laden as it was with oblique references to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s difficulty in relating to women and his record on reproductive rights. The speech was not particularly well received, especially by some conservative women who feel that the Women for Gillard group was trying to lecture that only a woman leader can address women’s’ issues.

Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton and Julia Gillard
That’s not the message that I took from the speech; I thought it was a fairly clumsy attempt to reintroduce Mr Abbott’s failure to address women’s issues effectively by exaggerating to the nth degree the probable consequences of an Abbott-led government. The men in blue ties will never succeed in banishing women from parliament, and wouldn’t even try...but it did serve to remind us all of Mr Abbott’s words from a 4 Corners episode in 2010:

“I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.”

There was a degree of backlash against the speech, but none as venomous or ill-considered Joe Hockey’s tweet:

“Gillard’s comments on abortion and the Coalition are desperate and offensive. She has never deserved respect and will never receive it.”

Yes, the speech did have that whiff of desperation, and I can see that the Opposition may have been offended by the contents of the speech. The second sentence in the tweet far surpassed any degree of offense in Ms Gillard’s speech though: it was personal.

After all of that, I’m still not entirely sure what Women for Gillard is. It seems to be a slogan related – possibly – to a Facebook page, but it doesn’t seem important or significant. In America, it’s perfectly normal to have female support groups for Presidential candidates – remember the Obama Mamas? – but then America hasn’t had a female Presidential candidate yet. In any case, my mother’s 90-something year-old neighbour Billie wants to join the Women for Gillard movement. Billie admires Prime Minister Gillard, and wants to support her. Somehow the message of “Women for Gillard” has been lost in the circus that followed.

A little ditty, tweeted by Grace Collier

As luck would have it, a certain menu was made public, and suddenly Ms Gillard’s rants about sexism and misogyny were more than just convenient for an unpopular female Prime Minister. They were fact. The Liberal Party approached high farce as firstly Mal Brough apologised for the menu, then the restaurateur sent a letter to Tony Abbott’s office, claiming the menu was a private joke. Next, May Brough was claiming that he was confused about the menu. Menugate was off and running, and despite many claims by conservative commentators and tweeters, there are still far too many unanswered questions and inconsistent “facts” to say that matter is closed.

Meanwhile, the business of governing moves on, and the business of selling the Gonski education reforms to the states waits for no-one. The Prime Minister ups her offer to Western Australia, and Howard Sattler opened his mouth and all but accused the Prime Minister of being a “beard” or “handbag” for her gay (obviously, because he’s a hairdresser) partner Tim.

All Hairdressers are Gay (and other stereotypes)

Social media, and media commentators went into meltdown for the third time in under a week as everyone twittered about whether or not Mr Sattler would have asked such impertinent questions about Janette Howard, or the late Hazel Hawke. Sattler was suspended and later sacked from his radio gig at 6PR, and was dumped from his job hosting a Liberal Party fundraiser later this month. Rumours are circulating that he may run for Liberal pre-selection for the seat of Perth and challenge for Stephen Smith’s seat.

That’s not the worst of the aftermath, though. Mr Sattler believes there is nothing offensive in what he said to the Prime Minister, he refused to accept a payout which included six months salary, and will be suing the station for wrongful dismissal. Points for conviction, Mr Sattler.

Howard Sattler & Piers Akerman

Piers Plunges In

By Saturday, it was looking as though Ms Gillard’s claims of sexist behaviour towards her had been proven, Mythbusters style. The conservative side of politics and commentary had been surprisingly though not entirely quiet…until the Sunday morning tv chat-fests. Controversy-magnet and conservative columnist with News Limited’s Daily Telegraph decided to defend Howard Sattler on national television by floating the idea that the Canberra Press Gallery has been whispering about Tim’s sexual preference since he moved into the Lodge with Ms Gillard.

I was particularly impressed by his determination that they couldn’t discuss The Issue (of Sattler’s termination) without discussing the possibility that Tim Matheson is homosexual. Actually, given that Tim’s sexuality was never the issue, yes you can. His bleating defence of his own folly appeared in the Online edition of News Limited titles some hours later. He should fiction to his resume; I'm sure he'd have a real talent for writing bodice-rippers.

There are petitions and campaigns to have the ABC commit to never having Piers Ackerman has a paid guest on Insiders (or presumably QandA) again.

They’re Called Boobs, Ed.

What works for Erin Brokovich is inappropriate for the Prime Minister, according to conservative Industrial Relations Consultant and occasional media commentator Grace Collier.

Erin Brokovich, her cleavage, and Julia Gillard
In an interview with Radio National yesterday, Ms Collier expressed her preference that the Prime Minister wears a blouse buttoned up closer to the neck with a jacket over the top. Observably, that’s Ms Collier’s preferred look, although the shirts tend to be of the Aloha variety, with wide lapels and colourful florals and patterns. It’s a good look for Hawaiian Shirt Friday, but for every day? No.

Honestly, I’d prefer Ms Collier wore a cross made out of duct tape across her mouth, but it wouldn't go with her brown jacket, so maybe not.

Ms Gillard and Ms Collier are going to keep on wearing whatever they like. It’s not as if Ms Gillard is wearing fishnets and a leather micro-mini…and as it turns out, the photo Ms Collier tweeted to prove her point was photo-shopped to make the Prime Ministerial top look lower cut than it is.

A quick stroll back through Ms Collier’s tweets and you’ll unearth all sorts of negative tweets about the Government, and yesterday was not the first time she expressed her opinions about Ms Gillard’s wardrobe choices. On May 29, she tweeted:

“In a first, the PM is seen sporting a propermSHIRT under her jacket. Is this the end for singlets and dumb chunky necklace under jacket look?”
Grace is no fan of the Prime Minister, as her Twitter feed confirms, but attacking any woman’s cleavage is stepping way over a line. Ironically, it’s the same line that Richards & Richards Restaurant stomped past with their ridiculous menu, and it’s an easy lesson: Don’t comment on any part of any woman’s body, ever.

Grace Collier, with accessories by the author
It’s Time

Despite the so-called trivial events of the past week that are distracting our media, our politicians and most of the rest of us, despite how unfair the whole thing has been for Ms Gillard, the waves of outrage are sparking conversations that we need to have. We need to determine what is acceptable. Do we really need to think about whether schoolboy smut is okay? Why do Kyle Sandilands and Alan Jones get away with their outrageous on-air performance but Howard Sattler gets the sack? Why do we accept media personalities who think it’s okay to chastise the Prime Minister for being late, or wish she was dumped out at sea in a chaff bag…or question her about her sex life?

The big question, of course, is whether a male Prime Minister would receive the same treatment. Would Tony Abbott react with white-knucked silence if the contents of his budgie smugglers was a punchline instead of the lycra togs? Does Joe Hockey expect to field questions about his sex life? How about Barnaby Joyce or Bob Katter? Do they get told by a part-time talking head they they’re showing too much flesh?

It’s important that we have these conversations about attitudes to women, if for no other reason than to remind us all to be aware of prejudice and stereotyping. The reaction this morning when a Melbourne radio personality suggesting boycotting the products of a victim of domestic violence unless she makes an example of herself is proof that these conversations do have an impact. Our national conversation about gender has far to go, but we’ve made a start.

Now, what other conversations do we need to have? Asylum Seekers and race issues is next on my list. What’s on your list?