Friday, July 30, 2010

The Wrong Bloke Got The Sack

As the second week of the election campaign draws to a close, it’s incredibly ironic that the Gillard Government finds itself struggling to retain control of the agenda. In the past week much discussion has been focused on Kevin Rudd, asking whether he was behind the infamous Cabinet leaks alleging that Julia Gillard opposed last year’s pension increase and the paid parental leave scheme. Much was made of Mr. Rudd’s campaign posters failing to include any reference whatsoever to the Party which dumped him from the leadership, prompting speculation that he might be deliberately distancing himself from his successor. Even in the first week of the campaign much media attention was focused on Mr. Rudd not making appearances, and when he finally did show up in public to simply launch his own local campaign in Brisbane the media coverage overshadowed the national campaigning of the new Prime Minister.

The Sydney Morning Herald has today reported that the ALP is now desperately pleading with the former Prime Minister to actively campaign for the Party outside his own electorate to help it shore up support on the national stage, especially in his home state of Queensland. The Herald reports that the Party is worried about a Queensland backlash against they way “their” Prime Minister was treated. In 2007, Labor won more seats in Queensland than they ever had before, largely on the strength of a campaign based on the “home town boy”. Three years later and the very same sentiments in Queensland could very well be working against Labor. But it’s not just Queensland that Labor has to worry about. Right across Australia there remains a lingering disquiet about the way in which Kevin Rudd was removed from his position, along with continuing concerns about the competency of a Government which managed to take a series of good ideas, like home insulation and a school building program, and turn them into perceived disasters.

It’s easy for people to arrive at the conclusion that the Party has tried to fix the poll results rather than fix the policies, by simply changing the leader rather than changing the approach. The opposition is right when they say that it might be a new leader but it is still the same party, with the same policies, and the same problems. But really, it’s worse than that because the process of brutally beheading the Party in the effort to cure the disease has revealed it to be far more focused on the pursuit of power itself rather than the purposes to which that power should be directed. And that is driven by the so-called faceless men who orchestrated the leadership change, responding to poor opinion poll results by scapegoating a leader who relied upon them for the very policy advice which led to the poor polls in the first place.

The accepted wisdom is that Kevin Rudd’s popularity collapsed after the decision to delay an emissions trading scheme until 2013. There were other factors, but this is seen as the turning point. After having told us that climate change is the “greatest moral challenge of our time”, many people were left wondering just what Mr. Rudd believed in when the suddenly became something that we could afford to put off for three years, and possibly indefinitely. But the truth is that the decision came from the Party not from the then Prime Minister. As reported previously, and confirmed again today in the Sydney Morning Herald, it was the tow Labor powerbrokers Senator Mark Arbib and Party Secretary Karl Bitar who insisted that Mr. Rudd must delay the emissions trading scheme. They clearly based their decision on what they thought the electorate wanted to hear rather than on any moral imperative to address the national interest. It’s enough to make you think that the wrong bloke got the sack.

As an unnamed source is quoted in the paper today, “Mark and Karl were absolutely insistent that Rudd had to dump the ETS. They pushed, prodded, cajoled and would not take ‘no’ for an answer. That was the big turning point in Kevin’s standing with the voters. It’s breathtaking now for Mark and Karl three months down the track to say, ‘Well, you’ve lost the people, you’ve got to go.’” Voters are entitled to feel not only that Kevin Rudd has been cheated by this shabby treatment, but more importantly that the voters themselves have been cheated too. That alone is enough for many people to feel that the Labor Party should be punished, regardless of any qualities that Julia Gillard may or may not have. The net result is that, at the end of the second week of the campaign, it appears that the opposition is not only gaining ground, but is also benefiting from a free ride. The constant focus upon the foibles of the Labor Party has meant that Tony Abbott has been able to get away with blatant inconsistencies without being subjected to the sort of scrutiny we might normally expect.

On that basis, Tony Abbott has won the first two weeks of the campaign, and is a hot contender to finish the job and win the election. Perhaps then Mark and Karl might see the error of their ways.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Knives Are Out

Masterchef might be over, but the knives are well and truly out. Not only is Julia Gillard under attack from within her own Party, but elements of the media appear to have joined the fray with gleeful enthusiasm. The front page of today’s Daily Telegraph features a most unflattering image of our Prime Minister photoshopped to look like a senior citizen, alongside the screaming headline comparing Julia Gillard’s future pension to that received by ordinary Australians. It is, of course, a reaction to the allegation that, as Deputy PM, Ms. Gillard opposed last year’s increase to the old age pension. Despite the fact that the Prime Minister has vigorously defended herself and insisted that her position was misrepresented, it has been enough to fan the fires that threaten to consume her re-election campaign.

Of course, there is a long way still to go in this election campaign, but the early indications seem to suggest that whatever honeymoon period Julia Gillard might have enjoyed has already evaporated. The series of embarrassments arising from the well publicised cabinet leaks has been damaging enough to add to the existing discomfort over the manner of the Prime Minister’s assent to the top job. The notion that any leader is having difficulty commanding his or her own party is enough to call into question their ability to lead the nation. In this way, internal efforts to undermine the Prime Minister can rapidly become self fulfilling prophecies, aided by the salivating hounds of the press eager to pursue any scent of blood, so that the public very quickly begins to ask if the leader’s own colleagues are reluctant to give her their support, why should the people of Australia?

Already, opinion polls are reflecting some impact, with Newspoll and Neilson both showing a fall in support for the Government. A Morgan poll has today identified, for the first time, Tony Abbott as Preferred Prime Minister, and analysis of talk back radio has shown a decline in callers expressing support for Julia Gillard, along with an increase in support for Mr. Abbott. The Daily Telegraph further reports that an on-line poll has shown “more than a third of Sydneysiders believe that a Prime Minister should be married,” and while such things really shouldn’t make a difference to whether or not someone can be the Prime Minister, even reporting such a finding could be seen as validating and promoting it. All in all, it is starting to look grim for Julia Gillard, even though the bookies still have her as favourite to win.

The real question of course is whether or not the same blowtorch is being applied to Tony Abbott’s credibility and credentials. It’s all very well to examine the shortcomings of the Prime Minister and the government that she leads, but that should not be allowed to lead to a situation where Tony Abbott and the Coalition win by default. Why is it that nobody is running a media campaign to undermine Mr. Abbott on the same sort of spurious grounds applied to Ms. Gillard? Why are there not headlines decrying Tony Abbott for opposing increases to the Age pension for the 12 years that he was a front bench member of the Howard Government? Why are there no surveys published indicating how many people think that a Prime Minister should not impose conservative religious views onto the nation? That sort of questioning might not be fair or justified, but it is no less valid than the equally idiotic tripe being served up about Julia Gillard’s martial status.

Let’s not forget that Tony Abbott is the man who told us that we should not believe everything he says because he cannot be relied upon to always tell “the gospel truth”. He is the same man who promised to leave industrial relations policy alone, and then in the next breath said that he could not give a rock solid iron clad guarantee that there would not be some adjustment to the finer details of the Fair Work legislation. He is the same man who has lambasted the Government for planning to introduce a “great big new tax” and then promised to introduce his own great big new tax to pay for a parental leave scheme. And let’s not forget that there was a time when Tony Abbott was opposed to any kind of paid parental leave, but now he wants us to believe that he has been struck by lightning on the road to Damascus.

I have said consistently that Tong Abbott is in it to win it, and can win it. But if he does, I would hate to think that it was because of Julia Gillard’s religious views, relationship status or gender. That would be not just unfair, it would be un-Australian.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cabinet Leaks Could Make Or Break PM

I have said it before and I will say it again. Never underestimate the ability of the Australian Labor Party to shoot itself in the foot. The series of apparent leaks from within the Party beginning with the allegation that Julia Gillard reneged on a deal to allow Kevin Rudd more time to improve his performance in the polls, and culminating in the accusation that Ms. Gillard opposed the last year’s pension increase and the introduction of paid parental leave, has given rise to speculation that there may be some within the Party actively attempting to sabotage the campaign. Naturally, the name Kevin Rudd immediately comes to mind, but he denies having anything to do with the leaks. Be that as it may, unless Laurie Oakes is making it all up, it appears that someone in the Labor Party is deliberately undermining Julia.

With more than three weeks of the election campaign still to come, there is ample time for even more damaging material to emerge, so the Prime Minister could be in for a torrid time. At the same time, Opposition leader Tony Abbott is most definitely in it to win it, and will seize upon any ammunition which might become available. Although Julia Gillard has been in office for three years, she is in the unique position of effectively having to prove herself all over again. People had readily accepted her as Deputy PM, but now that she has taken the top job, especially in the controversial circumstances that she did, people are assessing her all over again.

While most people are happy to put religious, gender , and relationship issues aside, there remains a substantial number of voters who still harbour some disquiet about an atheist woman with a live-in boyfriend moving into the Lodge. Others still have concerns over what they see as the unfair treatment of Kevin Rudd, not just because it is seen as a personal betrayal, but because it is also seen as a lack of respect for the office of the Prime Minister and the voters who feel that they were the ones who put Mr. Rudd in that office, and should have the right to decide whether or not to remove him from it. Some people are wondering whether the puppetmasters were motivated by the pursuit of good government or just good polling figures.

We will never know what would have happened of course, but I believe that Kevin Rudd could have and would have won the election, and that the move to dump him was the premature and desperate act of rattled numbers men who got cold feet in the face of a few negative poll results. Rather than fix the policies, they tried to fix the poll results, by changing the face of the leadership. It is a tactic which has been used repeatedly in New South Wales, and which has crated a succession of ex-Premiers without actually improving either the government or their popularity. It’s easy to arrive at the view that the powerbrokers have abused their power, and that Labor should be punished for it.

With the Prime Minister subject to those vulnerabilities, the ongoing attack on her leadership via this series of Cabinet leaks could well cost votes and perhaps even the election result. But while the Government might deserve to be punished, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Opposition deserves to be rewarded. Thus far, if we are to believe the opinion polls, the coalition remains the less attractive choice, giving Julia Gillard enough breathing space to respond to this attack from within, which might actually turn out to be an opportunity for her to demonstrate just how effective she can be as a leader.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Impact Of Human Activity

For decades now we have been told that we are gradually destroying our planet with pollution. The message has been repeated so often that two different responses have become commonplace. One is simply disbelief. Having been told about the risks of environmental degradation since before many of the population were even born has led some to feel that the hazard has been overstated. Sure, there’s plenty of litter in the environment, carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the atmosphere, and refuse in our waterways, but it’s a big world out there. Surely, it is still possible to get out of town, out into the wide open spaces and the fresh clean air and see for ourselves that there is still plenty of pristine environment out there and all this apocalyptic doom and gloom is exaggerated. Surely, the world is so big, and humanity is so insignificant in the overall scheme of things, that we can’t really be doing that much damage. That’s the disbelief.

The other common, but mistaken, belief is that we are already on the right track because we have heeded the warnings and have begun to take the appropriate action and is perhaps even more insidious. With the best intentions in the world, ordinary everyday people have become faithful recyclers and loyal participants in Clean Up Australia Day every year, doing their best to make a difference. But while those contributions are important and do make a genuine difference, it still may not be enough to save us all from ourselves. While you and I busily separate our glass and cardboard from the veggie peelings, other more powerful forces are undermining our efforts.

Climate change is only one part of the challenge that we as human beings are now confronting. For those who doubt that humans can have an impact on something as big as the atmosphere it is only necessary to look to the oceans to see an example of human activity creating a runaway disaster beyond our own control. Even leaving aside the enormous problems of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and other similar events, the impact of human refuse has already changed the nature of our oceans, possibly forever. The recently concluded voyage of the Plastiki, the catamaran constructed of recycled plastic bottles, has been staged to deliberately highlight the problem of ocean pollution, and provides the opportunity to inform ourselves of the true extent of the problem.

In 2006, a United Nations study concluded that every square mile, or about two and a half square kilometres, contains an average of 46 000 pieces of floating plastic. That’s every square mile, and there are 130 million square miles of ocean. That’s a man made disaster of an unimaginable scale, and a sure indication that we are indeed capable of messing up something as big as an ocean or an atmosphere. The trouble is that for the most part it is a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Not all of the plastic floats on the surface. Much of it is fragmented and hangs suspended in the water, aggregating in some places to form a dangerous inorganic sludge that might never be fully cleaned up. Much of it is swept by ocean currents out of the regular shipping lanes and into remote parts of the ocean such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, often described as covering an area the size of Texas.

But that’s not all. As well as the destructive contamination of the ocean, as well as the dangerous warming of the atmosphere, there is the unending devastation of modern warfare. Iraq is riddled with depleted uranium used in both Gulf Wars, contributing to a massive increase in cancers and birth deformities. Afghanistan is littered with unexploded ordnance, including indiscriminate cluster bombs. Misguided national leaders in control of countries such as North Korea and Iran are actively pursuing the acquisition of nuclear arms, and other including Pakistan already have them. A pessimist might be tempted to suggest that it’s only a matter of time before someone is mad enough to actually use them.

Either way, the truth is that the impact of the actions of human beings has already become a significant threat not only to ourselves, but to the planet overall. Climate change is just another one to be added to the list.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Give Them A Set Of Kitchen Knives

And the winner is… Masterchef. Quite clearly, the Leaders’ Debate on three of the free to air television channels would have had virtually no audience at all if the timeslot had not been changed to avoid conflicting with the Channel Ten cooking show. Masterchef officially pulled in almost four million viewers in the five major cities, with a peak audience of 5.75 million across the country. That’s about one in four men women and children, a staggering figure which makes it the third highest rating figure since Oztam ratings began, and the highest ever result for a non sporting event. By comparison, the political Leaders debate, simulcast on three different channels, managed to pull in just over 3 million viewers in the five major cities.

That still makes it the second most watched TV event of the year if you add all three networks together, but either way, it would seem that Australians are more interested in what’s on the kitchen bench than on the front bench. Of course, the debate itself was never going to offer anywhere near as much entertainment value, intrigue, or suspense as the cooking show, and in that sense it lived up to its promise not to deliver anything spectacular. While the Channel Nine Worm and the Channel Seven Pollie-Graph both awarded victory to Julia Gillard, many commentators have given Tony Abbot the top honours. Perhaps that’s the difference between judging the main course by its nutritional value or its presentation.

On presentation, both leaders were on their best behaviour not to be seen savaging each other because past experience has shown that aggressive and negative tactics are not well received by the viewing audience, or the knob twisters driving the Worm. On that score, I feel that it was Tony Abbott who appeared to be more “relaxed and comfortable”, while Julia Gillard appeared to be slightly more on edge. Perhaps she was anxious to be “moving forward”. But while presentation is important, and can make a considerable difference to the persuasiveness of an argument, it is the substance which should matter most. Sadly, last night’s debate failed to place much meat on the table at all.

In stark contrast to the Kevin 07 election, when there was a clear ideological divide between the evils of “Work No Choices” or the nirvana of “Forward With Fairness”, this election seems to be offering us a choice between beige and cream. Both sides are racing to address imaginary perils of population and boat people, offering increasingly fantastic solutions to problems which will never affect the majority of Australian voters, at the expense of addressing real and pressing needs for better infrastructure, better hospitals, and better transport. Nobody wants to do anything about climate change other than create more hot air, and nobody seems to be willing to say or do anything which might frighten the voters.

Perhaps it would all be more thrilling if we gave the candidates a set of kitchen knives.