They Said It
For Criticism Read Democracy
Like most successful politicians, John Howard is a complex personality. At times, the Prime Minister exhibits the considerable gift of not bearing grudges against past and present critics. On other occasions, however, he is super sensitive to criticism. Most notably when the issue involves immigration, broadly defined.
Last Wednesday.. he accused the ABC of running a "strong campaign against the Government" on asylum seekers. While declaring that he was "not complaining about the showing of the video" depicting asylum seekers at the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia, he objected to the "emphasis" which Lateline had "put on this issue".
He said the program's coverage of asylum seekers was "not consistent with its obligations to provide coverage of other current affairs issues", but did not list any issues which had not been properly covered during either program. Howard does not flinch if he receives criticism of his economic reform agenda - surplus budgets, privatisation, tax and industrial relations reform. But he and some of his supporters tend to regard critics of the Coalition's social agenda as denying the very legitimacy of the Howard Government.
Since the federal election, this view has been spelt out at length by two media commentators who are broadly supportive of the Howard Government - Les Carlyon and P.P. McGuinness - and by Shane Stone, the Liberal Party's federal president.
Carlyon led the critique with an article published in the December 4 issue of The Bulletin. He wrote that media critics of the Coalition regard Howard as an "interloper" who is "out of touch" with the electorate, a view which the author readily dismissed by reference to "Howard's third election win".
The essential problem with Carlyon's critique of what he termed "the anti-Howard brigade" was that it contained no supporting evidence of any kind. Not one critic of Howard was named. Rather, Carlyon's targets were variously classified as "they" (nine references), members of the "chattering classes" (eight references), "public intellectuals", "self-appointed intellectuals", "cultural commissars" and the like. Moreover, there was not even one direct quote from any of the (anonymous) critics.
At least Stone has named some names. His essential complaint was that media commentators, journalists and editors have become participants/politically compromised/unobjective. So much so that they have identified with "losers" (ie, Labor) and refuse to recognise "the legitimacy of the Howard Government". In short, this lot "just don't get it" (the term was used on five occasions) and are "unAustralian".
Stone's criticisms initially focused on the fact that early last year, a number of commentators predicted a Coalition defeat in the election. He named Hugh Mackay, Margo Kingston, Mike Steketee, Mike Seccombe and Phillip Adams. Yet he failed to mention that several of the Coalition's supporters also foresaw a Labor victory, including Stone in his private memo to Howard (which was leaked to Laurie Oakes and was published in The Bulletin on May 8). Stone described the Howard Government at the time as "dysfunctional" and "out of touch".
..Stone chose not to even mention many consistent media supporters of the Coalition - including Piers Akerman, Bettina Arndt, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Michael Duffy, Alan Jones and Christopher Pearson. And he seemed unaware that there were almost no media barrackers for Kim Beazley - and there are still virtually none for Simon Crean. Media opponents of the Government tend also to criticise Labor, albeit from the Left.
Clearly the elected government is entitled to govern and Howard deserves the respect that emanates from his office. But critics should be entitled to criticise a range of issues - including the Coalition's handling of asylum seekers just as Stone, McGuinness and others were critical of the Hawke government's policies on, for example, industrial relations, despite the fact that Bob Hawke had a clear mandate in his day.
It's called democracy. Australian elections are usually fairly close. In any event, "losers", of whatever political allegiance, are entitled to be heard. The proper role for the media in a pluralistic society is to ensure diversity of opinion. The Australian media have probably never been more balanced than at the moment. Howard, for example, has enjoyed much more support in both print and electronic outlets than his predecessors Malcolm Fraser and Robert Menzies.
Whatever the weaknesses of the ABC, it presents a greater diversity of views than a decade ago when Howard did not make any public criticisms of it. Lateline genuinely believes in debate - so much so that it regularly features supporters of Howard including Grahame Morris and Michael Baume.
The Government's position on asylum seekers has been heard on Lateline - and rightly so. Howard is entitled to complain if he believes his views are not being accurately or adequately reported. But that should be about it.
- Gerard Henderson, Sydney Morning Herald (Apr 30)
Unthinkable Brutality? Who Cares...
Last week the ABC's Lateline showed video footage taken inside the Curtin detention centre. It revealed scenes of asylum seekers banging their heads against concrete walls, of faces slashed and bloodied, of Afghan refugees in a state of hysteria and indescribable despair. The following night Lateline assembled a panel of three women who had worked at Woomera recently. One told us that hardly a day went by without some serious attempt at self-harm. Another said she had become involved in four cases where children had tried to commit suicide.
The Lateline programs stirred a little interest in the media, as had earlier condemnations of conditions inside the detention centres. Yet it was obvious that neither the government nor public opinion would be seriously influenced by what had been seen.
..There seem to me a number of puzzles about the way this country now routinely treats all asylum seekers. The first is of an almost technical kind. As I understand it, the system of dispatching all asylum seekers to highly unpleasant detention centres was originally designed as part of a deterrent strategy.. In late August, 2001, the Howard Government embarked on an even harsher policy of deterrence, namely the use of the navy to drive all asylum seekers from our shores. This policy appears to have worked. In the first four months of both 2000 and 2001 hundreds of Middle Eastern asylum seekers reached Australia. This year not one boat has arrived.
The implication is clear.. According even to the brutal logic of the government's own post-Tampa strategy, the continued imprisonment of hundreds of men, women and children, who have fled from some of the worst tyrannies in the world, has become completely purposeless.
..Over the past decade or so fewer than 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat. Of these only a few thousand have been allowed to live in the community. Given these numbers, the chance of an average Australian having actually met an asylum seeker, let alone having been discomfited in their daily lives by their presence, is genuinely remote.. A high level of abstract, free-floating hatred exists with regard to a human group hardly ever encountered in the flesh.
..Concerning immigration, in general, Australians appear to me to be obsessed by a fear of chaos and to be driven by a dystopian fantasy about the possibility of total control. Where European countries seem only moderately alarmed by the arrival of tens or even hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers or illegal immigrants, we seem to be thrown into a panic at the first sign of a refugee boat.
..One of George Orwell's most brilliant essays concerns the relationship of politics and language. Orwell was convinced that in his day political language was becoming increasingly corrupted by vagueness and abstraction, by the use of dead metaphors, prefabricated phrases, the passive rather than the active tense, the choice of Latin-based rather than Anglo-Saxon words. He believed that the corruption of language had a precise political purpose: the defence of the morally indefensible by the partial concealment of one's meaning not only from others but also from oneself.
In writing about politics and the English language, Orwell might have had Philip Ruddock in mind. On one typical occasion the minister was asked how he could justify the continued detention of the family of a traumatised six-year-old boy who no longer ate or drank or spoke. He answered thus: "Well, I do look at these issues in the context of humanitarian considerations and there are a broad range of issues that I have to look at, firstly in terms of whether or not we give up a refugee place that could otherwise go, in this case, to four other people, whose circumstances would, I suspect, be far more compelling."
This is not an extreme version of Ruddock-speak. For him a broken child has suffered an "adverse impact"; people who go on hunger strike or sew their lips together are involved in "inappropriate behaviours"; refugees who flee to the West in terror are "queue jumpers"; those who live without hope in forlorn refugee camps are "safe and secure"; while those who are dispatched to tropical prisons financed by Australia are part of the "Pacific solution".
By teaching Australians to think and speak like this, the minister has gradually helped to reconcile a goodly part of the nation to the unspeakable cruelties enacted daily, of the kind we were able to witness on Lateline a week ago.
- Robert Manne, The Age (Apr 29)
A Nation Looks For Leadership
John Howard was given a precious gift last November when the Australian public handed him a rare third term in office.
There was little doubt voters had decided to reward his strong leadership on illegal immigrants and the world security crisis after September 11.
Whether everyone agreed with him didn't matter. Howard was seen as strong – and the right man for the times. Since then, the Prime Minister has looked anything but the best man to lead the nation.
Thanks to a series of stumbling displays of ineptitude this year, the Howard Government has, in record time, managed to use up the public goodwill of last year's election.
The children-overboard scandal, the Peter Hollingworth controversy and Bill Heffernan's outrageous, ill-founded attacks on Justice Michael Kirby have all reflected poorly on the Prime Minister's office.
Howard's renowned sense of judgment and his ability to correctly pick the public mood have failed him dismally this year. He has given this country no clear agenda for the remainder of his term of office. Nobody knows what he hopes to achieve any more.
This period may well be remembered as the great lost years of Australian politics and society.
There are no bright new ideas coming out of Canberra on issues of importance to Australian families, such as the declining standards of our universities, our overcrowded hospitals, whether there will be pensions available for the elderly in a few years – and the pressing issue of illegal guns.
Howard has said he will decide his political future at the time of his 64th birthday, in July next year. But for the good of his reputation, for the good of his party – and most important, for the good of his fellow Australians – Howard must not wait until then to produce some sort of blueprint for the nation.
The danger he faces if he continues to mark time rather than governing the nation is that others may soon decide his fate for him. Some believe the time has already arrived for Treasurer Peter Costello to step out of the shadows and take over.
Costello has paid his dues. He will deliver his seventh Budget next month, and he has overseen the lowest interest rates in decades. To his credit, the Australian economy has continued to grow strongly while most others are in decline.
A republican who strongly supports Aboriginal reconciliation, Costello is a progressive, contemporary thinker with modern views on Australia's place in the world. But he's also enough of a big "L" Liberal not to scare conservative bluebloods who shudder at the thought of a "social democrat" in The Lodge.
John Howard has effected strong social reforms, especially in tax, and will be respected for his convictions. But the future doesn't lie in his 1950s vision of the white picket fence and black-and-white re-runs of The Don carving up the English cricket team.
The Prime Minister must be put on notice that it's not acceptable to let Australia drift along without any idea where it is headed.
He must once again take up the challenge of leading this nation, because he has been charged with a very great responsibility by the people of Australia.
- Editorial, Sunday Telegraph (Apr 28)
Wake Up And Smell The Voter Mistrust
The half-hearted debate over extending the parliamentary term for the House of Representatives from three years to four is a good example of how easily politicians can lose touch with the mood of the electorate.
This particular hare was set running by the retiring Liberal fundraiser, Ron Walker, who made the eminently sensible point - already taken up in most of the states - that the work of government could be carried out in a more responsible and measured manner if it were not bound by an election cycle as short as three years.
..Sniffing the possibility of a serious debate about parliamentary reform, other politicians and commentators soon began advocating the idea that a "hostile" Senate (one that frustrates the will of a government and forces it into negotiation and compromise) should be dealt with not by the double dissolution provided for by the constitution, but by a joint sitting of both houses of parliament. The theory here is that the government of the day would usually have a big enough majority in the House of Representatives to enable it to roll the Senate in a joint sitting.
They just don't get it, do they?
Voters would cheerfully support a four-year term, under certain conditions. They may well support other parliamentary reforms as well, but not the kind that give any government even more muscle than it has now, especially when the electorate is so finely balanced in its support for the major parties. Voters want more negotiation, not less.
It can be argued, of course, that the Senate, as presently constituted, is a seriously unrepresentative body that doesn't even do its intended job of protecting states' rights because it is just as bound by party allegiances as the lower house, and because senators can also be ministers.
It can also be argued that the system of voting for the Senate gives the minor parties a dream run. Clearly, the Greens and Democrats do not speak for most Australians in the way that Labor and the Coalition do, yet they wield quite awesome power in our present system of government.
Reform of the Senate may therefore be a good idea; doing away with its present power by smothering senators' voices in a joint sitting of both houses is no way to go about it.
..Qualitative research into voters' attitudes reveals strong support for the idea of a Senate making life difficult for governments by refusing to be a rubber stamp for their legislative programs. Voters who are suffering from terminal scepticism on the subject of politics are delighted to see a Senate pushing the government into compromise, negotiation and serious debate.
..The GST is a good example of how voters' minds work: they didn't want a GST in 1998, but they also didn't want a Labor government, so a hostile Senate looked like the way to achieve both their aims.)
The way people manipulate their votes between the two Houses of Parliament gives us an important clue to the kind of reforms they would accept. Four-year terms? Nice idea; could be a good thing, but . . .
That "but" is huge. It relates to fixed terms. We'd extend the parliamentary term quite cheerfully if it also meant taking away from prime ministers the power to toy with voters over the timing of elections. "Going early" as a means of capitalising on a particular political situation is repugnant to voters, who read it as a clear sign of politicians' cynicism. Similarly, prime ministers acting coy over the date of an election reinforces voters' disgust at the childishness of much political behaviour.
Four-year fixed terms are an idea whose time has come: voters will welcome anything that is likely to improve the behaviour of politicians and curb their arrogance. Reducing the power of the Senate would have the opposite effect and wouldn't get to first base with voters as disenchanted as the current crop.
- Hugh Mackay, The Age (Apr 27)
The Retreat Of The Public Intellectual
A turning point in the history of Australia's higher education was the comprehensive reorganisation that was initiated, and indeed imposed, from 1987 by John Dawkins, Bob Hawke's minister for education and training. I have little doubt that Dawkinisation will prove to have been the greatest single mistake of the Hawke-Keating years.
In those days we used to refer to a "binary" system of tertiary education, that is, "universities" and "the others", comprising specialised institutes of technology and teacher training colleges. Dawkinisation created a single, or unitary system, and the name university was applied to all the amalgamated bodies. The number of universities increased dramatically.
..Perhaps the most significant change was that universities were required to adopt the corporate model of governance, and to see themselves not only as communities of scholars, but as trading corporations as well. Is there no alternative? It seems, not.
The medium to long-term effect of this change in many universities was to put more emphasis on courses with strong and rising economic demand, at least for the short term.
..Between 1980 and 2000, full-time-equivalent university enrolments in Australia increased by 50 per cent, staff increased by only 6 per cent and the Commonwealth contribution fell by 3 per cent, making universities increasingly dependent on fees from overseas students.
By 2002 many of Australia's 38 universities have become increasingly instrumental and less speculative. In a market-driven society this is inevitable because - in the short term - the instrumental areas are where jobs are to be found.
A degree in business studies is likely to make a precise fit in the job market (Enron, Arthur Andersen and HIH were full of them). Degrees that try to explain the meaning of life are at a discount in many universities.
Universities have less to spend proportionally for expanding knowledge, pushing back the frontiers of the unknown - the traditional areas of university concern: philosophy, history, geography, the classics, literature, music, physics, chemistry, mathematics, archaeology, anthropology, astronomy. Law, medicine and the life sciences are expanding, but marketing, management and IT courses are doing best of all - answering the "How?" questions, not the "Why?"
..There are many current issues about which Australian universities seem to have little to say: the clash of civilisations and the problems of terrorism and dispossession, the international refugee crisis, Third World poverty, equitable resource use and intergenerational equity, extending the global reach of democracy and human rights; environmental issues - soil, water, desertification, greenhouse; racism and Aboriginal reconciliation; the republic and coming out of the closet on our constitutional arrangements, the future of public education, the distinction between education and training, some health issues, redefining values and the concept of "the public good".
..We live in deeply troubled times and I would hope that intellectuals could provide more leadership than they are at present.
The public intellectual is in retreat. We have more paid academics than at any time in history, but across the nation they have fallen strangely silent.
We are in the age of "wedge politics" when the deepest division is not between left and right (terms that now seem almost devoid of meaning), but between elite opinion and popular opinion. The term "academic" is routinely used in a denigratory way - to mean remote, pedantic, impractical or irrelevant.
The only consolation is that in the very long term it is the elite opinion that wins out.
- Barry Jones, The Age (Apr 26)
Let's Keep Out Of Distant Wars
It was 87 years ago today that our gallant forces landed at Gallipoli. Although our Federation of states was created when we became the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, many believe our European nation was born on the cliffs of Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. Our nation was united by a collective spirit for our forces in their heroic and treacherous landing there.
..It's time we recognised that Australia suffered great loss by being involved in wars that were solely in the interest of the British Empire – the two most significant being the Boer War and World War I. In saying this, I'm not depreciating in any way the great service and sacrifice of our armed forces in those conflicts. But I question the wisdom of Australia's political leadership in our involvement in wars so far away.
There are some journalists who have not experienced the horror of war but who crusade about the importance of Australia's involvement in World War I. In France, in the battle of the Somme, at Fromelles and Pozieres, we lost thousands of our young people – casualties in seven weeks on the Western Front were more than 23,000, three times the number of Gallipoli.
..It angers me that British general Douglas Haig, who butchered not only Australian troops but also British forces in those cruel years, is immortalised by a statue in Westminster.
Sixty thousand young Australian men and women perished during active service in World War I. Australia in that period had a population of only 5 million. Can you imagine what that huge loss of life meant to our nation? We lost the cream of our young people. Apart from the heartbreak, our young nation had to combat the loss of skills and productivity, not to mention the enormous cost to federal revenue of pension payments, hospitalisation and medical costs to service our veterans, many of whom were gassed and broken for the rest of their lives.
Of all the wars of the 20th century, World War II was a just war in the interests of world freedom and liberty, particularly for Australian people and their future.. During World War II, 550,000 Australians saw active service, but no division or group of people suffered such casualties or sadistic treatment as did the men and women of the 8th Division and its corps. The 22,000 members of our force were spread out in the defence of the Malay Peninsula, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Rabaul. We were a token force and our resources were inadequate to defend our positions, as Australia's other fighting forces were in the Middle East and Britain.
Our 8th Division represented 4 per cent of Australians who saw active service, but we represented 30 per cent of Australians who died during active service. But our people's dying and suffering didn't stop there. Because of the barbaric conditions and the sadistic treatment of our captors, our people continued to die at four times the rate of other veterans from 1945 to 1959, and since then they have continued to die at a 20 per cent higher rate. Only about 2500 out of our 22,000 comrades are still living.
After the first 2½ years as a Japanese POW, I wished to exterminate the Japanese race, but during the last year of the war I saw how the ordinary Japanese suffered and I grew as a human being. I found it was not the Japanese I hated but militarism and fascism. There is no progress in hate. It is negative and more destructive to the hater than to the hated.
The Australian people have a right to feel secure. But, in the 21st century, Australia should not be in a forward defence role. Neither should we be involved in answering another call of so-called powerful friends.
I have lived too many years to know that no person or nation can be completely independent, but on war and peace Australia should not be a camp follower. Our military forces should not be fighting in Afghanistan. Neither should they be drawn in support of the US crusade against Iraq. After all, war is not a solution to international conflicts – it creates only more violence.
- Tom Uren, Australian (Apr 25)
Rethink Referendums? Vote Yes
The Federal Government has generated proposals to change the Constitution to reform the Senate and to extend the life of the House of Representatives to four years. We need a community-based process to determine whether these ideas should go to the people at a referendum and, if so, in what form. Without community engagement, neither is likely to succeed at the ballot box.
Australians have a long record of voting no to constitutional change. Even bipartisan support has not guaranteed success. For four-year terms, bipartisan support may not be enough when many will wonder, fairly or unfairly, whether the proposal is motivated by political self-interest.
Over the past 101 years, Australians have voted on 44 proposed changes to the Constitution. Only eight have passed. More significantly, there has not been a successful referendum for a quarter of a century. In 1977 we voted to, among other things, set a retirement age of 70 years for High Court judges. Australia has since held failed referendums in 1984, 1988 and 1999.
..The referendum record shows that piecemeal change driven only by the major parties without adequate community consultation and education is likely to fail.. Merely allowing Australians to vote at a referendum is not enough to instil a sense of involvement, let alone a sense of ownership of the change. The Constitution gives the people the final say, and if that is all they are given, they are likely to use their power to vote no.
While the Constitution says that a proposal must be passed by the Federal Parliament and then by the people at a referendum, it is silent on how proposals are generated and how a referendum is undertaken. As a result, both these areas fall within the power of Federal Parliament and the province of political leadership.
The Parliament should convene a joint inquiry of both its houses to examine the referendum process and how it can be improved. This would allow Australians to make submissions on how they could be involved in the generation and design of reform.
One idea might be a constitutional convention held every decade, or more often as required. The convention could propose change as well as examine ideas put to it by a parliamentary inquiry, community advisory committee or majority of the states.
..Proposals for four-year terms and Senate reform have been generated without any meaningful involvement by the people. Now is the time for a process that will engage the community. Of course, this might lead to either proposal going no further or being replaced with a new idea. If so, this would be a more effective and cost-efficient outcome than moving directly to a referendum.
- Professor George Williams, Sydney Morning Herald (Apr 24)
More Pain At The Sharp End Of The Wedge
The proposed ban on single women accessing sperm banks and IVF clinics was a hell-for-leather debate in 2000, so now that John Howard wants to do it again, here's a reminder of the story so far.
In August 1999 a straight, single woman consulted a Melbourne gynaecologist specialising in reproductive technology. He believed he should assist but could not because Victorian law banned access to single women. He asked the Federal Court to rule that the Victorian law was overridden by the federal Sex Discrimination Act, which bans marital status discrimination in the provision of services.
As required when constitutional questions are raised, he advised state and federal attorneys-general, who had the right to intervene, and then to appeal. None was interested, including the federal Attorney-General, Daryl Williams.
In July 2000 Justice Ross Sundberg struck down the Victorian law. Howard suddenly cried foul, reversing his Government's lack of interest. He discovered a new, Howard right: "the right of a child born into this world to have the role model of both a mother and a father".
..On August 17, 2000 Williams released his proposed law. I thought there must be a drafting error, for it contradicted Howard's new right. Williams made it lawful for the states to refuse or restrict access "on the grounds of marital status". That meant states could ban de facto couples.
But Williams said this effect was intended, even though he'd just told Parliament his law meant the states could limit fertility treatments "to married women and those living in a de facto relationship".
Asked why he had discriminated against de facto couples for the first time in 16 years, since the Sex Discrimination Act had passed, he said the states should legislate "as they consider appropriate". Howard's office backed Williams.
How could Liberal Party women have condoned this deceit? West Australian Liberal Julie Bishop's state asserts it can discriminate by saying women married for a day can get access but de facto couples have to live together for five years before they can. She was outraged - the party room had approved Williams's bill sight unseen and he had not disclosed that it allowed discrimination against de facto couples. She protested to Howard and Williams. By the next afternoon, Howard backed down. A plan ripping apart the Labor Party was now threatening to tear apart his own.
The de facto scam only emphasised that the child's right to the care of a mother and father was not the basis of Government action, but a cover for it. If it was the basis, the new law would have guaranteed access to a single woman when her sperm donor or another man had agreed to be a father to the child.
By February 2001 the Senate committee examining the bill reported. Liberal moderate Marise Payne, the Democrats and Labor found the bill breached our international obligations. The bill never came to the Senate and lapsed when the election was called. (In August 2001 Williams gave Catholic bishops permission to appeal against the Sundberg decision, now more than a year old, to the High Court.)
Yet since last week, when the High Court threw out the appeal - partly on the basis that if the Government cared it would have intervened in the case earlier - Howard again finds the matter urgent. Just think of all those poor children born of single mothers through assisted reproduction without "a father" while Howard twiddled his thumbs!
Howard had said he might give the Liberals a conscience vote. Another unprecedented action, surely, proving yet again the relativism of his conscience. It wasn't a matter of conscience in 2000 - nor was the mandatory sentencing of children in the Northern Territory, where his concern for children's rights was non-existent and he turned down desperate pleas for a conscience vote from some Liberals.
He had considered a conscience vote simply as a means to further fracture the Labor Party, which was already deeply divided already over refugee policy. Perfect wedge politics.
His rethinking of the conscience vote yesterday may mean he feels there'll be enough dissenters in his party to risk defeat for the bill anyway, or at least to cause him embarrassment.
Using people desperate to have children for craven political purpose is not nice to see. That's politics, Howard style.
- Margo Kingston, Sydney Morning Herald (Apr 23)
Here's A Plot Worth Pondering
A couple of weeks ago after a Liberal Party Federal Council meeting in Canberra, the Prime Minister broke away from his minders and took the newly-elected NSW Liberal leader, John Brogden, for an arm-in-arm stroll. It was a simple gesture of welcome from a veteran Liberal Prime Minister to the fledgling, thirty-something NSW leader. No-one will know what passed between the two men that day. But those who observed the moment were struck by the image of the two leaders divided by more than a generation, wildly disparate life experiences and personal beliefs, but both of the same political party.
One, born during the war, the product of a close-knit, religious working-class family, married young and already an 18-year veteran of the Liberal Party when he entered parliament aged 35. The other, a Balmain boy, survivor of an alcohol-torn family, just 27 when he entered parliament and installed as leader at 33. The elder a champion of 1950s values and Anglo-Saxon traditions, the other a product of an era when being Australian meant more than being of white Anglo stock, when designer drugs edged out alcohol and AIDS was nothing new.
No-one doubts that Howard and Brogden clearly share the Liberal Party's core values, free will and the rights of the individual, small business, a belief in the family.
But their life experience and influences have shaped personal beliefs that are, in the end, irreconcilable.
Those who worked furiously behind the scenes to help engineer Brogden's elevation to the NSW leadership believe that it is these differences - this gulf - that, intelligently harnessed, will help Brogden in his battle to return NSW to a Coalition government.
John Howard has been an extraordinarily successful politician, but he is also one who has always kept the ideological reins very tight.. But today there are many, many Liberals who do not identify with their hard-line, right-wing approach to liberalism.
And what about the generation who are now on the cusp of becoming first-time voters, those Brogden describes as the lot who only know of the Whitlams as a rock band, not as a former prime minister and his wife?
..Despite the common political wisdom - that Australia remains in the grip of a continuing conservatism - key NSW Liberal thinkers and strategists sniff a softening in the wind. Community attitudes, they argue, are ripe for change and qualitative research is starting to suggest we are now formally entering a new cycle.
Immigration, they concede, is going through a hard cycle but that is because it was seen as a soft issue for so long.
"It will soften again, they all have cycles and they are not always in the same cycle or at the same stage of the cycle at the same time ... there is a constant theme emerging in research groups around the country. People are becoming far more communitarian in their attitudes ... there is a sea change going on. The boomers are moving on ... there are more and more senior executives in their mid-30s, a different way of thinking is emerging," said a senior Liberal strategist.
"We seem to be at the end of a cycle on economic management. The zealotry of the '80s and '90s on privatisation, for example, is over and we are moving into a more communitarian attitude. Some politicians will be perfectly placed to take advantage of this change, others will not because the positions they hold are so clearly staked out."
If this shift in the Australian consciousness does eventuate, John Brogden's state election strategy - a tough economic core supporting the conservative aspirations of middle Australia but with a softer approach to some social issues (drug addiction as a health issue, reconciliation, retention of state-owned assets) - will throw an entirely new dynamic into the Liberal Party.
..If nothing else, John Brogden has given Liberal Party moderates a skerrick of hope.
- Paola Totaro, Sydney Morning Herald (Apr 22)
The Senate Doesn't Need A Liberal 'Fix'
Remember "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"? That glib little slogan, so beloved of those who insist that Australia's institutions of government make it a paragon of democracy, has not been heard in the responses to last week's Liberal federal council meeting. Which is curious, because some of the ideas for Senate "reform" floated at that meeting would involve at least as radical a change to the system as any of the proposals the slogan has been used to attack in the past, such as popular election of the head of state or the inclusion in the constitution of a bill of rights.
The Liberals discussed the possibility of amending the constitution to allow a joint sitting of both houses of parliament to vote on legislation rejected three times by the Senate, instead of the existing requirement that a double-dissolution election must be held before a joint sitting. In other words, deadlocks between the houses would not be resolved by going to the people, and the government of the day could always be confident of being able to push its legislation through. The Prime Minister, John Howard - a prominent user of the "if it ain't broke . . ." line in the past - appeared to support the proposal by speaking of the Senate as a cause of "mischief to the system". Radical constitutional change is all right, it seems, so long as it is intended to remove checks on the power of the executive government.
One of the features that has distinguished the Federal Parliament from the Westminster parliament, and from most other national legislatures more or less modelled on Westminster, is strong bicameralism, that is, the two chambers are nearly equal in powers. The Senate can block any legislation passed by the House of Representatives, and amend any legislation except money bills.
..Proportional representation has ensured that the Senate represents a more diverse range of opinion than does the House of Representatives, which is dominated by the major parties, and the committee system has allowed a more intense scrutiny of legislation and government policy than typically happens in the lower house.
As the Senate is now constituted, it is effectively impossible for either of the major parties to gain a majority. And, ironically, this has meant that the deliberations of the Senate approximate more closely to the Westminster model than is the case in most actual parliamentary systems of government, including the one at Westminster. Under the model, governments are notionally "responsible" to parliament because they are formed from lower house majorities. But the emergence of strongly disciplined parties in modern parliamentary democracies has made nonsense of the model because it has meant that executive governments now set the agenda for legislatures, rather than the other way around; except, that is, in the Australian Senate, and in those state upper houses that are elected by proportional representation.
Those who are touting the joint-sitting idea will portray themselves as staunch partisans of Westminster and of democracy, but they are neither. The so-called reform they advocate would further concentrate power in the hands of the executive, and further restrict the means of rendering the executive accountable in between elections. When the democratic process is reduced to a three-yearly or four-yearly exercise in marking a ballot, the result is a kind of elective dictatorship.
If we want a more vigorous democracy, we should defend the existing checks on executive dominance provided by the Senate and the judiciary, and we should agitate for the genuine separation of powers that the Westminster system can no longer deliver.
- Ray Cassin, The Age (Apr 21)
Looking Back In Langour
Deregulation of workplace laws, expenditure cuts to sustain the budget bottom line, the sale of Telstra - these were the Howard Government's policy chart-toppers from its first term in 1996-98.. Senior members of the government are counting on these policies to form the basis of their third-term agenda.
Hundreds of thousands of extra voters swung to the Coalition at last November's election, so the government, refreshed with a renewed and expanded mandate, could have been expected to hit the ground running. Instead, it gave itself a three-month break before reconvening parliament, and the sitting schedule for most of this year is hardly punishing.
..The government is having trouble putting together a policy program for the next three years that is coherent, much less comprehensive. So much energy and money was spent during 2001 in the act of retaining office that the sense of letdown is palpable.
This leaves the Treasurer, Peter Costello, with a massive task in framing next month's budget. In political terms, this budget will probably be the most important in Costello's career.
Despite the recent cavalier dismissals by such eminences as the Liberals' federal president, Shane Stone, of any and all criticisms of the government, the Coalition needs to pick up some momentum, to get back on the front foot. If it does not, it will remain the stationary target it has been since the children-overboard issue blew up in its face two months ago.
..But while Costello and the Expenditure Review Committee do their worst, little else seems to be happening to suggest that the government is getting into its stride. Indeed, the tendency towards self-indulgence rarely seems too far away.
Shane Stone's speech to the Liberal Party's federal council meeting last week was a real wasted opportunity.. he took personal shots at individual journalists who dared to question aspects of the government's behaviour.
It was a foot-stamping, backward-looking display. Winners should be grinners. Why Stone would want to even acknowledge anybody's protests about the government's legitimacy five months after the election - especially in such an important setting - is baffling.
At the same time, speculation continues about the parliamentary leadership. The latest bout followed some temperate, considered comments by outgoing Liberal Party treasurer Ron Walker in which he offered the view that the party would never again be riven by blood feuds over the leadership as it had been in the 1980s. Walker also acknowledged Costello's claim to succeed Howard.
Walker handled it with aplomb but naturally it set the hares running - again. And why not? The prime ministership is the most important job in the nation. As Howard keeps everyone guessing, it is approaching limbo.
There will come a time - perhaps it has already arrived - when the transition, if it is to come, becomes a problem in terms not just of personality but of policy. Governments, even conservative ones, govern through programs that take several years to complete. Will Howard simply let the government idle as he contemplates his future?
..Part of the problem for the government lies in the arguments it used for its re-election. Before the election, it ran two themes: protection of the nation in uncertain times, and a sound economic performance. Immediately after the election, it dropped the former and argued - this was put most notably by the federal Liberal Party director Lynton Crosby - that it was purely the strength of the economy that saw the government re-elected.
Neither of these arguments helps the government form a broad third-term agenda. Keeping the economy ticking over is, of course, a vital part of any government's responsibilities. But it's not enough.
No matter how many tub-thumping speeches of self-justification are made or how much populist opinion polling is produced, they are no substitute for a fully envisioned legislative program.
- Shaun Carney, The Age (Apr 20)
Howard Faces Question Of Leadership Succession
Bob Carr became NSW Premier in 1995. He is now preparing himself to win a third four-year term next year. John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996. Yet many suggest that he should now be preparing himself for retirement.
What is the difference between the two? There are actually few objective factors to determine when a leader should retire. In fact, very few do. Sir Robert Menzies was the last Prime Minister to retire, in 1966, and there have only ever been two others.
By any objective criteria Howard should stay on. The pressure on him to depart is ageist and illogical. Though admittedly he did bring it upon himself by his own suggestion a couple of years ago that he would think about retirement when he was 63 or 64.
..By contemporary political standards Howard is now regarded as old. Politics is increasingly a young person's game. But objectively Howard is not old.
He is 12 months younger than Chief Justice Murray Gleeson of the High Court, for instance. Although Gleeson has only been in this job since 1998, he became NSW Supreme Court Chief Justice in 1988. He will serve till the retirement age of 70 for judges without any pressure to retire early.
Is Howard tired or worn out by politics in a way that Carr and Gleeson are not? This is always possible, though Howard says he has never felt better and he shows no sign of slowing down.
Is Howard no longer the "right man" for the job? This is harder to measure. Some might say that he is no longer "in tune with the times". But he never really has been. This has never been his strength anyway. And he has just won an election very easily.
..That's what Howard is faced with at the moment: the question of leadership succession. While Australian ministers often retire at elections, as Peter Reith, John Fahey and Michael Wooldridge did last November, Prime Ministers don't.
Most get beaten at elections or within their party rather than announce their retirement at an election.
They could retire neatly at an election but it would be seen as weakening the party's re-election chances. So Hawke was forced out in mid-term in 1991 and Menzies retired just under 12 months before the 1966 elections to give Harold Holt a chance.
Now the pressure is building on Howard. That raises a second issue: the pressure for an orderly succession to place Peter Costello in the job of Prime Minister.
Competition for leadership is a natural thing.. I believe that personal and ideological conflict is part and parcel of life in a political party.
There certainly was plenty in the McMahon, Gorton, Hasluck days. And just look at the conflict between Peter Collins, Kerry Chikarovski and John Brogden in the Liberal Party in NSW.
Not only is it unwise for parties to be pushing their leaders out too early, but it is a bad idea for parties to try to sanitise the succession.
Labor did it with Simon Crean and all the indications are that the Liberals will try to do it with Costello.
Within each of the major parties there are ideological and personal differences fighting for air. Modern parties try to stifle them. In the old days there was genuine competition whenever a leadership position became vacant.
Costello deserves to be the overwhelming favourite to succeed Howard when and if he steps down. But there should be a contest.
..More realistically, after Howard retires, the Liberal Party's health would be better for a Costello contest with Tony Abbott or Alexander Downer or Brendan Nelson.
The absence of a contest because of a lack of serious candidates shows that a political party has failed to find and promote talent within its ranks.
- John Warhurst, Canberra Times (Apr 19)
Give The Senate Back To All The People
John Howard won the 1996 federal election with a smashing 40-seat majority in the House of Representatives, yet he still faced a hostile Senate. Naturally, he and his new workplace relations minister Peter Reith sought to use their mandate for change and convert into legislation their labour-market reform proposals, on which they had campaigned during the election. And, in the face of Senate obduracy, they could have passed their legislation by moving to a double dissolution election and a joint sitting of both houses, as prescribed by the Constitution.
Tragically, however, Howard ruled out this option. Reith, now crippled as a consequence, had to negotiate with the then Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot to get the best deal he could through the Senate.. Yet the Senate has set its face against labour-market reform.
The Senate is indeed blameworthy, but the current demands for reform miss the target. The problem is not that the Senate is too powerful; it is much less powerful than the US Senate on which it was modelled. The problem is that today's Senate is grossly unrepresentative of the Australian people. This situation has arisen from the changes to the way in which senators were elected that were implemented by Arthur Calwell in 1949, and compounded by the increases in the Senate's size from 36 to 60, and now to 72, plus the four senators from the territories.
Today's Senate is dominated by the Greens and Democrats, who compete for the same small section of Australian voters (the Pharisee class) but who, nationwide, would not muster more than 10 per cent support for their policies.
Instead of railing against the power of the Senate, the Howard Government should use the Senate's refusal to pass desperately needed labour market reform legislation – such as the Government's plan to exempt small business from unfair-dismissal laws – as an opportunity to ask the Australian people for constitutional change. Such change should increase the Senate's powers, but at the same time it should turn the Senate into a body that is truly representative of Australian opinion.
The ideal model? The US Senate, which is the same model our constitutional fathers used more than a century ago.
Such a legislative body would have the power to reject budgets, refuse ratification of international treaties, confirm or reject judicial and ambassadorial appointments, and scrutinise very closely and continuously the actions of the executive government.
But senators under this system could not be ministers, or take any part in the executive government. The Senate's role would be legislative and inquisitorial, not governmental. The Senate would be a powerful institution, as it is in the US, and senators would be important people in our political life.
In the US, each of the 50 states has two senators, each elected for six years, but always elected separately. Every US senator is elected by a majority of voters in the state that they represent in the Congress. In Australia, we could have three senators from each state, each elected every two years, giving each a six-year term, or four senators elected for an eight-year term, giving us a Senate of 18 or 24 members respectively.
The constitutional fathers envisaged the creation of new states as Australia developed, along American lines. Now that the Senate is under scrutiny, it is time to reconsider the creation of new states, something which has always been opposed by existing state governments. North Queensland is the obvious and perennial candidate for statehood.. Four new states would provide 12 or 16 extra senators, making the Senate larger than it was in 1949.
Some say Australians are always opposed to constitutional change, without recognising what it is that the people have refused to endorse. But increasing the powers of the Senate and changing the mode of election of senators would turn that body into a truly representative one. It would increase the significance of the states as the source of senatorial authority through the election of one representative at each senate election.
Such a constitutional change would greatly increase democratic oversight of the power of the central government. It would also meet with the warm approval of the Australian people.
- Ray Evans (H.R. Nicholls Society), Australian (Apr 18)
It's Our Right To Ask The Hard Questions
Imagine a world where governments simply did what they liked, immune from questioning, cloaked in secrecy, with the people they govern told to shut up and cop it, whether you liked it or not. That's the world of Hitler; of Stalin and Pol Pot; of Milosevic and Mugabe. It is also the world the president of the Liberal Party of Australia, Shane Stone, envisages – if only he can get the nation's journalists to toe his line.
Fat chance of that – and we all should be grateful.
Shane Stone is the former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, who so misunderstood his electorate that he blew the easiest referendum of them all – for the territory to become a state.
..He quit as chief minister and wangled the job as Liberal Party president. As the nation's top exponent of wedge politics, his hands were all over the campaign to re-elect John Howard last year.
He wrote the celebrated memo after the Ryan by-election in Queensland, where he warned John Howard of the dangers of being seen as "mean and tricky". That became Howard's main rationale for overturning the fiscal rectitude of his Treasurer, Peter Costello, and squandering the national surplus in pursuit of votes.
And Stone, along with Howard, could see the value in the contrived "battle" to secure our borders against the danger of poor, homeless, desperate refugees, invading us on leaky boats.
Now, in an address to the Liberal conference last weekend, Stone has blamed the media for the on-going debate about the legitimacy of Howard's tactics.
The nub of his complaint is that "commentators have become participants" in the political process. He says some journalists, editors and commentators show their own political biases.
It may shatter Stone's view of the world, but hooray for that. We are all participants in the political process. As voters, we are entitled to hear the government's view; we are entitled to hear the view of the Opposition; we are entitled to hear the views of commentators, experts, and each other.
We are entitled to put the words of our political leaders under a microscope.. We have every right to expect that all sides of political, social, environmental, economic – you can go on forever – issues should be aired, debated and ultimately decided on by each of us.
We will all bring our own biases or perspectives to every issue, and sometimes we'll be in the majority; sometimes in the minority.
The place for all this to happen is, of course, the media. Newspapers have a centuries-long tradition of cocking a snook at the Establishment, pricking pomposity, and confronting governments and their agencies, and may it never change. A restricted or compliant Fourth Estate is a threat to democracy.
Radio's talkback, biased towards older and committed listeners, may not be an accurate measure of community feelings, but at least it is open and free.
Television is a powerful force for transparency and knowledge – as witnessed by this week's Four Corners, which showed us what really happened as Howard's warriors deterred and denied asylum seekers their international rights.
We all have a right to know the truth and to debate the circumstances surrounding it.
This is the political process, and Shane Stone and his supporters, who call for meek and obsequious silence from the Canberra Press Gallery, or commentators who hold views counter to the government's, should be laughed into a richly deserved oblivion.
- Mark Day, Daily Telegraph (Apr 17)
Unveiling The Naked Truth
There is a brand new political game in Australia. It's called leadership tease. As in: will John Howard step down as Prime Minister when he turns 64 in July, 2003? Or will he stay on in an attempt to lead the Coalition to a fourth successive win at the next election, due in late 2004 or early 2005?
..One point is for certain: the issue over whether John Howard will step down for Peter Costello next year is no media creation - despite what some friends of the Howard Government may assert.
..The most recent speculation on the Prime Minister's retirement plans was not created by a Canberra journalist in need of a story, but rather by Ron Walker, the Liberal Party's outgoing federal treasurer.
..It is understandable that the Prime Minister appears irritated about constant speculation concerning his political longevity. After all, he is a fit 62 and has won three elections in a row. It's just that Howard's political future was made an issue by the Prime Minister himself. No one else can be legitimately blamed for putting this matter on the political agenda. Not the Labor opposition, not Peter Costello's supporters and not the media.
It all started on July 26, 2000 - John Howard's 61st birthday. Interviewed by Philip Clark on ABC Radio in Sydney, the Prime Minister was asked about his career intentions.. The Prime Minister indicated that he would lead the Coalition to the 2001 election and added: "After that, obviously, one has to recognise I'll then be in my 63rd or 64th year and you start to ask yourself - and that's fair enough. And nothing is forever."
..Soon after it became accepted that if he won a third term, John Howard would assess his position as prime minister when he turned 64 in July, 2003.
..From that day on it was evident that there would be speculation about the Prime Minister's future, in the media and elsewhere, until he retired or was defeated. No advocacy by the likes of Michael Baume can realistically stop this.
There are some facts in this scenario that are indisputable. John Howard loves, even lives for, politics. He would be most reluctant to give up the prime ministership while he believes that he has a reasonable chance of a fourth win in a row. Yet the Prime Minister is also a realist. He knows that Australia's top political job has a limited tenure and that to lead the Coalition to the next campaign would make the Liberal Party succession an election issue.
..There has been very little passing-of-the-baton in Australian federal politics. In September, 1903, the conservative Edmund Barton stepped down for Alfred Deakin, and in October, 1915, Labor's Andrew Fischer handed over to Billy Hughes. That's about it, apart from Robert Menzies. Other prime ministers have been defeated by their colleagues, the electorate or death.
John Howard is attracted to the proposition of going at a time of his own choosing. Yet, as his mantra indicates, he just loves his job. So, what is going on in the prime ministerial mind? Does he have a (secret) plan to depart politics as a three-time-winner before the next election? Or does he envisage taking on Simon Crean and Labor in just under three years?
The most likely answer is that Howard has yet to reach his own decision about his own future. Which suggests that right now, he is teasing himself as well as the nation.
If this is the case, the speculation will continue. Both within and outside the media.
- Gerard Henderson, The Age (Apr 16)
A Time For Liberal Celebration
The sign behind John Howard yesterday had three lines: Getting on with the job, Protecting our economy, Protecting our borders. It could have had three words: Business as usual.
The rocky beginning to the government's third term has not changed the fundamentals. Howard is ascendant. He knows it. And he sees no need to depart from the formula that delivered him success. And why should he?
This didn't make for an inspiring speech at the Liberal Party's 49th federal council meeting in Canberra yesterday, but it did demonstrate a degree of certainty in uncertain times and no one in the audience was in the least disappointed.
The Prime Minister used the speech to explain why he won, to repeat the more-of-the-same election agenda, with its focus on defence and economic management, and to proclaim Australia a model society.
The election post-mortem was balanced and instructive and generally free of the overblown assault on media critics that was Shane Stone's contribution to the weekend, which is not to say Howard disagrees with his party president.
Most telling was the message to state Liberal leaders (and, for that matter, Simon Crean), who are all in opposition: "You never win elections in the modern environment believing you can profit only from the failures of your opponents."
The agenda was predictable, although the failure to mention health or education was noteworthy and the recognition of an increasingly borderless world economy sat uneasily with the focus on protecting borders from those seeking a better life.
But the declaration that Australia's respect and esteem in the world was now higher than it has ever been in history smacked of the kind of triumphalism Howard usually avoids.
Clearly, he was not talking about how Australia is regarded in Indonesia (or Asia generally), or Norway (or Europe generally), or the United Nations (or in multilateral forums like APEC).
One issue that was never going to be addressed was the question of succession. Howard was introduced by Peter Costello, who described the Prime Minister as the man who enabled the Liberals to "lead and do". Howard reciprocated with generous acknowledgement that Costello had carried the "grind" of day-to-day economic management.
The Prime Minister concluded with the assertion that, if they kept performing, there was no reason why they could not gather again after the next election and, "with quiet pride and satisfaction, celebrate another victory". He didn't sound like a man going anywhere.
- Michael Gordon, The Age (Apr 15)
Invite The People To View The Big Picture
It is not always true that Australia's republicans are a disunited lot. The chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, Greg Barns, at last appears to have come up with something upon which all of us, I think, can agree. With interest in four-year parliamentary terms increasing on both sides of politics, Barns last week seized on the Prime Minister's rather tentative endorsement of the idea that the necessary referendum might be held in conjunction with the next federal election.
Why not also hold indicative (non-binding) plebiscites on whether Australia should become a republic, and on what kind of republican institutions we should have, Barns asked. Why not, indeed.
..Barns and others who have argued for holding a two-part republic plebiscite in conjunction with the next election have done so on grounds of practicality and cost, and the same considerations obviously apply to the referendum that would be needed to introduce four-year parliamentary terms.
..Convenience and cost certainly would justify the conjunction of all three, but for me there is another reason. Conventional political wisdom has it that constitutional change is difficult in this country because a referendum proposal needs the support of a double majority (an overall majority of voters and a majority of voters in a majority of states). Referendums also tend to fail, so the line goes, unless there is support for what is being proposed across the political spectrum. Voters are mystified by constitutional questions, it is argued, so they feel secure in voting "yes" only if the matter seems uncontentious. This view, widely and uncritically held among academics, journalists and politicians, patronises the electorate. It also reveals a lack of imagination.
To most people who are not professionally engaged with the constitution, it is not so much mysterious as boring. They regard it as a set of technical rules, rather than as something that shapes, and thereby gives meaning to, their public lives as citizens. And if their historic tendency has been to prefer proposed changes that have bipartisan support, that is a measure of their suspicion of, and often their disengagement from, the political process. It is not a measure of their timidity or stupidity.
The challenge in constitutional reform is to find a way of reinvigorating the sense of citizenship, and this cannot be done without an imaginative dimension, an appeal to the big picture. The classic instance of success in doing so was the 1967 referendum allowing the Commonwealth to legislate for indigenous people. And the classic instance of failure was the 1999 republic referendum, when what has been called the minimalist approach, that is, don't tinker too much or the people won't wear it, was emphatically rejected.
A unique quality of the republic debate, with its focus on how the head of state should be chosen, is that it generates the imaginative dimension that is not easy to find in some other constitutional questions. If we ask who should be entitled to choose the head of state, we are necessarily asking about the relationship between citizens and their institutions of government. It is a question that leads to other questions, such as whether there should be a bill of rights, a treaty with indigenous Australians, and how long elected officials should serve before facing re-election.
A debate on four-year terms that is part of this wider debate would make it easier to successfully introduce four-year terms for both chambers. But the minimalists among Australian politicians who, like the Bourbons of old, seem to learn nothing and forget nothing, are now proposing that we allow four-year terms for the House and eight-year terms for the Senate. Do we really believe that the people would countenance giving anyone an eight-year mandate?
- Ray Cassin, The Age (Apr 14)
A Party In Search Of Purpose
The heartfelt and inventive submissions to Bob Hawke and Neville Wran proposing all manner of reforms to the Labor Party are piling up; more than 100 have already been lodged and the deadline extends until the end of May.
But Hawke and Wran, entrusted with marshalling the ideas and producing reform proposals of their own, have one hard decision to make at the outset that has nothing to do with problems inherent in the Labor Party organisation.
They must decide just how much Labor's desultory performance at last November's federal election was the result of the party structure and how much it owed to the leadership of Kim Beazley.
This will be particularly difficult for Hawke, whose personal affection for Beazley is well documented, but it will have to be done if the Hawke-Wran review is to be of any value.
..The overriding strategic goal during Labor's second term in opposition was to fall into office on the back of the Howard Government's perceived mistakes. History reveals the strategy as fatally flawed because once the government was able to create an environment in which it was seen to be mistake-proof - which happened with the Tampa "crisis" - Labor was robbed of what little political momentum it had gathered.
Beazley's failure to set out and argue for an alternate vision in the three years after Labor's predictable 1998 defeat ate away like acid at the party's electoral base.
New trade union research reflects the problem. It suggests working people actually felt more inclined to vote ALP when the party highlighted its attachment to so-called ordinary voters not through the promotion of "bread-and-butter" issues but through its willingness to defend their interests.
..But the research also showed that once Labor tried to minimise the differences between itself and the Liberals as part of its "small target" strategy, many workers changed their minds.
Someone who has seen the research put it this way: "Once the Labor Party stopped identifying itself with the notion that it was generally standing up for ordinary people and just wanted to concentrate on delivering in a couple of areas like education and health, the voters just said 'well, we'll go for the other mob because they give us lower interest rates'. In an auction with the Libs, Labor will always lose because the Libs do the greed thing much, much better. In some respects, it's unashamedly what they're about."
Just what Crean wants is not clear.. A reduction to 50/50 would seem to be the type of political compromise that marked the careers of Hawke and Wran. It would give Crean something to sell to the wider electorate, or at least to those who are presumed to be demanding that he "tame" his party.
..And the proposition that Labor is in the exclusive grip of unreconstructed Marxists still fighting the class war seems to have some holes. The biggest union in the ALP is the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. The SDA exerts considerable influence on the right of the party and commands a large chunk of votes on the national executive. Its federal secretary is Joe de Bruyn, a conservative Catholic whose social agenda is much closer to John Howard's than Simon Crean's.
..Union resentment at some of the comments by Labor MPs about the need for the ALP to diminish the prevalence of union representation within the party is high and getting higher.
But how does Labor recast itself? Something is clearly wrong. Its primary vote last year was the lowest since the 1906 election.
..The one thing that no number of reviews can instill in a political party is drive and passion. What has happened to the ALP in the past 20 years is that in many cases the individuals who have cared most about the party have been those with parliamentary ambitions.
This has tended to result in smarties and cynics, obsessed with not upsetting the applecart - that is, not challenging all the clever-clever orthodox campaigning strategies and thus not harming their personal career goals - prevailing within the party.
Their greatest period of influence was in 1998-2001, when they captured the ALP. It was also the Labor faithful's worst moment.
- Shaun Carney, The Age (Apr 13)
What Voters Want Is Real Reform ... Maybe
You could be forgiven for thinking constitutional reform in this country has mostly been about political gameplaying rather than altruism or a desire for an improved system of government.
Which is why moves to change the constitution nearly always fail. Politics devours the chances for real reform. As a result, we are stuck with a system which, while not terrible, could certainly be improved.
The trouble is that because constitutional reform has been hostage to politics, our leaders on both sides of the political divide seem interested only in marginal rather than fundamental changes.
..The overwhelming majority of federal government terms in Australia run for two-and-a-half years, and of that at least 12 months are taken up with prolonged electioneering in preparation for facing the people.
No wonder business groups have lobbied strongly at various times over the past few decades for four-year terms which are the norm in most Australian state parliaments.
..While John Howard is now saying he supports four-year terms for the lower house and is considering holding a referendum on this at the next election, he and Peter Reith campaigned ferociously against the proposal in 1988 when it was introduced by the Hawke Labor government.
Yet despite the fact that his Liberal opposition in 1988 ran a highly political campaign against fouryear terms, Howard is now raising the prospect of Simon Crean's Labor Party now using this issue as a "political wedge".
..No wonder the public is so cynical about politicians.
The desire for some idealism rather than cynicism in politics has been evident during the debate on stemcell research.
I have received numerous telephone calls and emails from people welcoming the debate involving Howard, Crean and the premiers, because it was seen as a genuine discussion about an important issue rather than a ploy to destroy a political opponent.
..Crean has realised the electorate wants not just the touch of excitement that Paul Keating boasted he would deliver, but a touch of enlightenment.
What we need to know is, if politicians can be trusted to keep political pointscoring out of it, does the electorate want a debate about improving democratic freedom and rights. Or are they content with policies to improve their upward mobility?
Do voters want inspiration as well as aspiration?
- Louise Dodson, The Age (Apr 12)
It'll Be Our Funeral
For Prime Minister John Howard to attend the Queen Mother's funeral in London was the most self-indulgent, frivolous and useless piece of prime ministerial travel in many a long year. It might have been forgivable if this was a PM who had made foreign policy a triumph. But apart from being pro-US, which is necessary but by no means sufficient for an Aussie PM, and making endless, useless trips to the UK, Howard doesn't really do foreign policy.
None of this, of course, is to make any criticism of the Queen Mother.. The point about this trip is that Howard neglects Australia's national interests to fulfil Menzies-like fantasies that were irrelevant even when Robert Menzies was enacting them. What next – Lord Howard of the Cinque Ports?
Howard's determination to spend precious prime ministerial foreign policy time on matters of no consequence to Australia puts him in great contrast to most national leaders, who take the view that their job is to advance their nation's interests. Certainly that is true of British leaders, including the Queen Mother who, despite her (wholly fictional) devotion to Australia, came here far, far fewer times in 101 years than Howard has been to London in six.
..Howard's devotion to London is typically and embarrassingly asymmetrical, like that of Menzies before him. Blair simply does not come here, whereas Howard has averaged nearly a trip a year to the UK as PM.
Most important of all, Howard has not made a single bilateral visit to 70 per cent of the nations of South-East Asia, which are all members of ASEAN. Howard has made bilateral visits to only Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, of all our South-East Asian neighbours.
This is astonishing and disgraceful for a serving prime minister six years in office. It is not fair to accuse Howard of taking us back to the 1950s, as is sometimes alleged; it is more like the 1850s. His travel pattern shows a contemptuous neglect of South-East Asia and Australia's national interests.
It has always been amazing that a man so obviously intelligent as Howard should be so utterly uninterested and incurious about the cultures and societies of the nations nearest to Australia. But this eccentricity, this anachronism of personality, need not be important so long as a PM recognises the need to advance our national interests.
Put crudely, if South-East Asia succeeds, it will be a fantastic market for us and act as our strategic shield, though offering itself some strategic competition. If it fails, it will be a source of instability and subject to terrorist infiltration, external state influence and a lot of other problems of first-order consequence for us. Either way, Australia needs to maximise its influence to help things work out favourably for us. This is Foreign Policy 101, pretty much as elementary as it gets.
There is a vast range of regional architecture being constructed, almost all of which excludes Australia. This represents a tremendous diplomatic failure by the Howard Government.
..ASEAN, for example, is concluding its internal free-trade agreement ahead of schedule. Australia is excluded. China and ASEAN have committed to concluding a broader free-trade agreement within the next 10 years. Australia is excluded. Thailand is working hard to establish a regular summit level meeting of ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea and India, which will be important in trying to integrate the booming Indian economy with the East Asian powerhouses. Once more, Australia is excluded. East Asia and Europe have an established summit process that European leaders, who wouldn't see an Australian PM from one decade to the next, regularly attend. You guessed it – Australia is excluded.
..Howard has also been derelict in his attention to Asian nations beyond South-East Asia. In six years as PM he has made one two-day visit to South Korea, our third largest export market (a far bigger market for us than the UK, by the way) and the site of one of the world's most important security problems.
Similarly, Howard has made just one even briefer visit to India despite its growing economic, strategic and cultural importance.
In Howard's Australia, it is the height of political incorrectness to say anything favourable about Paul Keating. But Keating worked hard to make it a normal part of a PM's job to be deeply involved in the affairs of Asia, not out of some dilettantish delight with Asian cultures but to deal Australia into the games that counted, to get the best result for Australia. Howard's reprise of Menzies empire pieties simply misses the point altogether.
- Greg Sheridan, The Australian (Apr 11)
Longer Terms Can Correct The Short-Sighted
For many voters, governments don't deserve two days four hours, let alone the two years four months they've served on average since federation. One answer is to hold more elections to call governments to account. But that would be impractical – the only smart solution is to give governments longer to prove their worth and deliver on their promises. Then if they fail, you toss them out for even longer.
With this in mind, federal Liberal treasurer Ron Walker's attempt to make four-year terms for the House of Representatives party policy is a good move. Longer terms mean fewer elections, which means taxpayer savings. The reduced drain on party finances might even deter shonky fundraising. But the greatest benefit is that four-year terms encourage long-term planning and application of policy. They extend the non-campaigning period by up to a year, ensuring the focus is on governing and not on re-election. This helps businesses plan, and improves policy formation.
And then there are the indirect benefits. Voters can make more informed choices after seeing a government perform longer, and as such will demand more of candidates.
Yet public opposition has ended many attempts to extend federal parliamentary terms. Only 32.91 per cent of voters supported four-year House and Senate terms in the 1988 commonwealth referendum – a result The Australian of the day called "an absolute debacle". This newspaper, it must be said, opposed the extended terms on offer.
But times have changed. The Senate has obstructed reforms, we have seen four-year terms work well in many states, Britain and New Zealand, and the need for national long-term policy thinking has grown to the point where three-year terms inhibit progress.
Voters can be encouraged to support longer parliamentary terms when the benefits are made clear and the parties unite. The defeat of longer terms in 1988 can be traced to the Coalition's opposition. Yet bipartisan support in 1995 ensured a vote to impose fixed four-year terms in NSW. The issue of fixed terms is problematic, as it affects the Westminster flexibility in calling elections. In theory, fixed terms offer much, but they can be a distraction. Both sides should focus on the main game – longer parliamentary terms.
Still, a hefty obstacle remains. Mr Walker wants the Liberals to support not only extended House terms but also an increase from six to eight years for the Senate. This suits John Howard, who led the fight against four-year terms for both houses in the 1988 referendum, but a decade later said it was a good idea to have more time for medium and long-term issues in the House. Opposition leader Simon Crean, despite Labor's history of wanting to limit the Senate, says "we probably have to" support eight-year terms in the upper house.
But unity is useless if the policy is bad – and extending Senate terms is very bad. The upper house rarely reflects the latest statement of voter intent at the ballot box, and increasing the term would make this worse. As former Labor MP Michael Lee put it before the 1988 referendum: "Eight years is too long a term for any politicians." And the fear of an even less democratic Senate crossed party lines. Labor's Robert Ray cited Liberal John Spender – "a person could sit in the Senate for eight years, growing old without having to face the people" – and the late Liberal MP Kevin Newman:_ "I could not tolerate a senator having an eight-year term . . . we might as well put him on the public service payroll and be done with it."
Most senators serve less than six years anyway. A cut to four might damage some egos but surely not their role. Rather, having to fight harder for re-election more often would make senators better politicians. The reduced term would do nothing to erode the Senate's independence, as proportional voting would still favour small parties. Indeed, full Senate elections every four years would reduce the quota needed to win a seat – again preserving the upper house's broad representation and role as a check on executive power.
We need to give federal governments four-year terms to deliver on promises and policies. But let's not risk that advance by giving increasingly irrelevant senators even more time to meddle with democratically mandated policies.
- The Australian, Editorial (Apr 10)
Ministerial Advisers Must Account For Their Actions
The sub-text to the exercise in accountability that constitutes the "children overboard" Senate inquiry has concerned executive privilege.
Labor and the Democrats have been grappling with whether to insist (through subpoena, if necessary) that ministerial advisers Hampton, Scrafton and Jordana front up to the committee to answer questions. Even if those three wished to do so voluntarily, the Government has forbidden them to do so.
The Government is using the excuse of the convention that ministerial advisers and personal staff have never been required to be accountable, to stonewall on the matter. That bypasses the critical point that, since the role of advisers has changed, it means the convention (if such it is) should not apply.
Some seem to propose that for Labor not to insist would be in its best interest as an alternative government. You know, do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
What if it is not in Labor's best interest? What if it is rather in their self-interest to use the less-pressured higher ground of the Opposition to not only help determine that all persons with an executive responsibility are required to front up to parliamentary committees, but also in the process determine the limits that apply?
In other words, set the ground rules now before non-Labor parliamentarians impose them on them at a future date.
The Clerk of the Senate is right - advisers and personal staff of ministers have no immunity from a Senate inquiry. The issue is not whether the Senate has the power, but why it does not exercise it.
There are three reasons. Firstly, as a threshold constraint, great powers should be exercised judiciously and with restraint. Senators have over the last century, with a notable exception or two, been careful of using the full powers available to them.
Secondly, and all-important in democratic politics, the numbers aren't there.
Thirdly, before the precedent can be broken and the convention discarded, executive privilege has to be better defined and the limits that apply to it established.
..Particularly over the last quarter-century, executive acceptance of ministerial responsibility - of ministers taking the rap for whatever is done in their name or their area of responsibility - has diminished. Ministers no longer accept full responsibility for what others do. That is one reason why ministers and bureaucrats are accountable to Parliament for matters that fall within their executive responsibilities.
Although there is no obligation for them to accept limited accountability, Senate Estimates Committees already accept limits to securing answers. Senators will accept, for instance, that bureaucrats' policy advice to Ministers, genuine national-security issues, genuine commercial-in-confidence matters, and Cabinet deliberations are all subject to executive privilege.
There would therefore be no difficulty with Messrs Hampton, Scrafton and Jordana fronting up to a Senate committee and claiming executive privilege on these types of grounds... Hampton, Scrafton and Jordana would not, however, be able to avoid answering questions where they have taken executive action, particularly if it was independent of the minister concerned.
..The number of staff employed as ministerial advisers has exploded as has their power. The function of some ministerial staff and advisers has changed so much over the last quarter-century that they no longer just advise. They act, and they exercise power.
On their own judgment, without reference to others, they may control who has access to ministers; determine what information reaches them and in what form; regulate inter-ministerial, inter-departmental and inter-parliamentary contacts; make decisions on behalf of ministers; and give directions to departments and agencies. In doing these things, they are indistinguishable from an Assistant Minister or Parliamentary Secretary.
On those grounds, they must be accountable to Parliament.
- Senator Andrew Murray, Australian Democrats, Canberra Times (Apr 9)
Succession In The Air
A small wave of leadership frisson rippled through the Liberal Party last week as John Howard again canvassed his date with political retirement.
Howard first broached the possibility of his quitting politics in the middle of this term in a radio interview with Philip Clark on ABC radio in July 2000. The question has dogged him ever since.
But what prompted most interest in last week's discussion was a comparison of the language Howard now uses about retirement compared with his original statements. Liberal Party tea-leaf readers were hard at it, trying to work out which way the PM was leaning.
..It was as if the interviewer this time around, Stan Zemanek, had brought a dead cat into the studio.
..Howard: "Stan, I was asked about all of this six months ago – during the election campaign – and I think I said then that – and I'll repeat – that a couple of years into my next term, and I've just started that term, I'll think about my future. But that's a long way off."
Zemanek: "You'll think about the future?"
Howard: "Yes, that's what I said then. But I'm not saying I'm going to retire. I just said I'd think about the future."
Zemanek: "Will you see out this term?"
Howard: "Stan, I answered that – what I said in the last – in the election campaign remains the position, when towards the end of next year – two years into my term – after I've turned 64, I'm going to have a look at it. I said I'd think about it. That doesn't mean I'm going to give it away."
Howard didn't sound too happy about the idea. In fact, you got the impression he'd rather talk about anything but.
Despite this, Costello's supporters remain confident that the "operational understanding" that would see Howard depart before the next election is still in place. "Yes, he will go," says one. "The Costello people generally are of that view." The Treasurer's supporters believe the party is already in transition from Howard and point to a number of signals. Among them:
Howard confidant and loyalist Shane Stone recently offered privately to stand down from the Liberal federal presidency at next week's meeting of the party's Federal Council in favour of his Costello equivalent, Michael Kroger..
..Howard's influence within the NSW division of the party is waning... Not only did they disregard Howard's very public backing of Chikarovski, but Brogden is from the moderate wing of the party, Howard's avowed factional enemy.
..After the 1996 election, praise for Howard in Liberal MPs' maiden speeches was de rigueur. This year the accolades were more subdued. The assessment of the Costello camp is that generally, regardless of factional alignment, there is an expectation among new Coalition MPs that it will be Costello and not Howard who will lead them into the next election.
But above all, it is the question of Howard's age that looms largest in the minds of the Liberal Party. Costello's cheer squad makes the point: unless Howard goes this time around, he will have to make a pledge to review his position again if he wins the next election at age 67. That, they say, is an "absurd" proposition.
..For the Liberal Party, the leadership succession and how it is handled remains the single biggest issue on the conservative side of politics. Howard is the only one who doesn't want to talk about it.
- Glenn Milne, The Australian (Apr 8)
We Have Crossed The Moral Divide
A balance between ethical and scientific considerations: that was how the Prime Minister, John Howard, described his proposal for national legislation allowing destructive experimentation on the existing surplus embryos from IVF, which the premiers accepted at the Council of Australian Governments on Friday. Apart from anything else that might be said about this compromise, the notion of "balancing" ethical considerations with considerations of some other kind is a strange one.
If a proposed course of action raises ethical questions, then the "ethical considerations" ought to override any others, just because they are ethical considerations. Thus, if the experiments carried out in Nazi concentration camps had resulted in some medical advance - a cure for cancer, say - it could not be said that, on balance, the actions of Dr Mengele and his associates were justified. But I should be charitable to the Prime Minister, and not complain too much about the imprecision of his language. After all, he was not trying to make a point about the nature of moral judgment; he was talking about the kind of "balance" that worries politicians, the balance between conflicting lobby groups.
In this case, the lobbies in conflict were some of Australia's most prominent medical scientists, backed by state premiers acutely aware of the economic worth of biomedical research, and various critics of destructive embryo experimentation, drawn mainly, though not only, from the churches. And, in political terms, the COAG compromise probably does reflect community sentiment. I suspect that most people, if advised that the cultivation of stem cells from discarded early-stage embryos would allow researchers to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease or motor-neurone disease, would say, "Yes, let's do it".
..The COAG compromise will, therefore, prevail, but only for a time. Some of the scientists, and some of the premiers, are already saying that the prohibition on using new embryos unreasonably restricts the growth of research. In a few years, the argument will begin all over again, and, in all likelihood, it will not only be about the use of the surplus embryos from IVF treatments; it will be about whether or not the law should allow so-called "therapeutic cloning", that is, the creation of embryos specifically for the purpose of destructive experimentation.
..Many, perhaps most, supporters of legal abortion would not deny that embryos and foetuses are in some sense human individuals; indeed, for that very reason, they like to remind their opponents that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is not one a woman makes lightly. But, they argue, since unborn humans are not fully developed persons, they do not have the full rights of persons, so their right to life cannot outweigh a woman's right to control her own body.
So, although in political terms many of the same faces may be appearing on each side in the stem-cell debate, as in the abortion debate, the two debates are not the same. The advocates of destructive experimentation on embryos do so on utilitarian grounds alone. They conjure up the appealing picture of a world free of some of the diseases that afflict us in order to justify the destruction of entities that, although their capacity for personhood is unrealised, share our humanity by virtue of having that capacity. In accepting this prospect, we have crossed a moral divide, and we are not the better for it.
- Ray Cassin, The Age (Apr 7)
Stem Cell Agreement A Win For Federalism
From unpromising beginnings, the debate on research on embryonic stem cells has proved an encouraging example of how co-operative federalism, through the Council of Australian Governments, can work for the greater good of Australians. It also shows how complex new moral questions thrown up by the march of technology can be resolved in a way that most - although certainly not all - Australians can support.
This is no small challenge because Australian society, more so than other western democracies, runs the gamut of social and moral attitudes from utilitarianism and secular humanism through the liberal and traditional religious traditions to Christian and Muslim fundamentalism. Finally, there will be a satisfactory expression of representative democracy when the legislation resulting from yesterday's COAG agreement is left to a conscience vote in the Federal Parliament.
Not everyone will be happy. Conservative church men, such as John Anderson, the deputy Prime Minister, and Peter Jensen, the evangelical Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, will argue that the agreement to allow research on stem cells produced from existing surplus embryos starts us on the "slippery slope" towards using human life for our own ends. Some voters may complain that their elected representatives should have disclosed before the election the strong religious or moral beliefs which they now say compel them to vote against the proposed legislation, although the views of the prominent Christian conservatives in the Howard Government are well known.
Some scientists will complain, with some justification, that the distinction between yesterday's embryos and today's embryos is an artificial one brought about by the need of the Prime Minister, John Howard, to ease his conscience.
Overall, though, most Australians should be glad that research that holds out the hope of curing deeply distressing diseases and saving human lives can now proceed. The agreement is, as Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said, a sensible compromise that will provide workable arrangements for most embryonic stem cell research planned by Australian scientists to proceed here, rather than being forced overseas. It also averts the prospect of a constitutional wrangle between the Commonwealth and the states, which wanted a more liberal approach, and all but ensures a uniform national approach.
Mr Howard, in particular, is to be congratulated for having moved a significant distance from his instinctive stance, as a committed, conservative Christian, to limit research to existing embryonic stem cells and ban the production of new ones. As late as yesterday morning, a fight looked on the cards as the Labor premiers lined up to criticise the Prime Minister's approach.
The sticking points were his insistence that research be limited to stem cells created from existing surplus IVF embryos, subject to a review in three years, and that embryo donors consent to the particular research proposed, not just therapeutic research.
Mr Howard gave way on consent when it was pointed out that research aimed at finding a cure for one disease, say leukemia, often throws up treatments for others, such as Alzheimer's.
The ban on creating stem cells from new surplus embryos will now automatically expire in three years. But it will be reviewed within 12 months by an ethics committee, which will look at how rigorously stem cell research is being monitored and regulated in each state, while the National Health and Medical Research Council will assess the adequacy of the supply and distribution of stem cells for existing and any new research needs.
If more are needed, and the safeguards against embryos being harvested for research are working, the moratorium on generating stem cells from new surplus IVF embryos may be lifted earlier.
This is a satisfactory outcome.
- Financial Review, Editorial (Apr 6)
PM Takes Illogical Line On Embryo Bill
It is not often a prime minister finds himself on the receiving end of a lecture about original sin. That's what happened on Tuesday when John Howard met Peter Jensen, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, to discuss whether research should be allowed on stem cells from "spare" embryos.
..Jensen's was one of a number of strong views for and against allowing the research which have been put to Howard in recent weeks. It's rare a PM takes on his shoulders alone ultimate responsibility for a Government decision involving groundbreaking issues of science and ethics, where experts and people of strongly held beliefs are so dramatically at odds.
That's what Howard did on this issue. He's come up with an attempted compromise in an area of absolutes. Not surprisingly, no-one was happy - not states, churches, or scientists.
The Government will put to Parliament a bill allowing the research on the up to 70,000 existing embryos left over from IVF treatment.
There will be strict controls. Donors must give approval. Embryos can't be created for research purposes. Indeed - and this has become a highly controversial aspect - even future "spare" embryos can't be used.
..The Government wants the states - all Labor - to introduce mirroring legislation. But the arbitrary cut-off date (from now) for "spare" embryos has them up in arms, led by NSW. Bob Carr thinks Howard is creating a distinction without a difference, and unnecessarily restricting the research potential by this condition.
Carr has played this issue hard. He obviously believes the balance of opinion among the public is that if this research helps people who are suffering from debilitating illnesses, they'll be behind a more liberal approach.
Both sides of politics are offering their members a rare conscience vote, reflecting the split opinion across the political spectrum.
Only weeks ago federal cabinet was headed towards a more hardline position than the PM has taken. Howard had given ministerial responsibility for the area to the Minister for Aging, Kevin Andrews, who was chair of the parliamentary committee that examined the issue last year.
..But Howard was uneasy. He said he wanted to have some discussions with experts. So began a fascinating consultative process that drew in some of the nation's top churchmen and leading scientists.
As the public debate raged, ministerial support for the ban waned. Cabinet had another discussion of the issue while Howard was in London.
..Yesterday the PM declared himself a conservative on the issue. But, he said, he could not see a moral distinction between letting a spare embryo die naturally and using it for research, and that was what weighed with him.
However, apart from this view about morality, there were also other forces pushing Howard to the position he's taken. One was the very strong argument that Australia stood to lose research if a ban was attempted. It's also highly questionable that the Federal Government would have the constitutional power to impose a prohibition.
..If - as they are indicating - the states decline to mirror the Commonwealth legislation because they think it is too restrictive, similar problems could arise to those that would be thrown up by a Commonwealth ban.
The more restrictive federal legislation would override state legislation, but could be vulnerable to High Court challenge.
Apart from the powers Howard says he's relying on, the Commonwealth could try to enforce its will by restricting research funding, but that would be a very dubious route. One would expect Howard's legislation to get through the Parliament. The conscience vote will spark a new wave of lobbying to individual MPs.
..The premiers are right about the illogicality of Howard's position on surplus embryos. The question is whether there is going to be a serious limitation of research in the three years between now and the review of the legislation that Howard proposes. By then, it's likely that more people would be accepting of the use of "surplus" embryos, especially if the benefits of such research becomes increasingly obvious.
- Michelle Grattan, Sydney Morning Herald (Apr 5)
Hearings Unearth Critical Issues
When the tortoise-like hearings of the Senate Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident (aka the children-overboard affair) resume today, they will continue to take evidence from the captain of HMAS Adelaide, Commander Norman Banks.
Significant as is the detail of the contentious naval operations in the Indian Ocean, it would be wrong not to analyse important but so far neglected aspects of Defence Secretary Allan Hawke's evidence with which the committee's proceedings opened.
It is not surprising that the fact that he had, in mid-March, a performance-appraisal interview with former Defence Minister Peter Reith attracted attention.
In principle, there is a case for involving a former minister in an appraisal unless there are clear reasons for not doing so. Such reasons would appear to be present in this case.
Reith has not retired into private life. He not only remains active, he remains active in defence matters as a consultant to a supplier firm.
While the appraisal interview was undoubtedly above board, it is not difficult to understand that those observers worried about ethics in government may be concerned about this case.
They will fear that the outcome of the interview will be influenced not only by Dr Hawke's performance whilst Reith was the minister but by departmental reactions to Reith's business activities.
The Senate committee will also take note that whilst Reith has time to take on appraisal work arising from his period as minister, from which there is an appearance of possible advantage, he has no such willingness to assist it with its inquiries where there are few signs of comparable advantage.
..The other matter that received a measure of attention was Dr Hawke's offer to resign because he had not taken sufficient steps to ensure Reith was not in any doubt that photographs appearing in the media related to the scene the day following the alleged children-overboard incident.
..The gravest matter raised by Dr Hawke's evidence has unfortunately received virtually no attention.
This is his decidedly limited view of the department Secretary's role concerning the children-overboard incident itself.
Apart from offering a view that the factual situation has still to be determined, notwithstanding Chief of the Defence Force Admiral Barrie's press conference in mid-March, Dr Hawke, with one exception, systematically deflected not only questions but also any responsibility on the basis that it was an "operational matter" and totally within CDF's bailiwick.
This approach derives from what is known in Defence as the diarchy.
Dr Hawke is probably right when he says the diarchy is not well understood. His self-professed purist view represents a considerable triumph for the Defence Force in minimising the civilian role in Defence.
..Keeping civilians in their place has been partly achieved since 1984 by appointing Secretaries with limited or no experience of Defence.
Dr Hawke is the first appointee since 1984 to have had any prior service in the department.
..No-one would argue that civilians should have any involvement in conduct of operations themselves.
The present imbroglio is arguably a consequence of too much concern for the Canberra end of the business and too little patience in awaiting a considered report from the responsible naval officer in charge of the operation itself.
But it is difficult to sustain a view that once an operational matter, especially one that, having run its course, has found its way into the political world at election time, it is outside the professional purview of the departmental Secretary.
..The Secretary has a unique position in a portfolio; the Secretary is part of the prime minister's top executive cadre whereas other chief executives in a portfolio are more obviously within the minister's court.
..It has been suggested in the present case (no doubt partly in jest) that commanders will henceforth need a political adviser by their side in operations.
But it is not unreasonable at the highest level that on any matter of parliamentary, political or electoral interest, the Secretary should play a role in support of the CDF.
- John Nethercote, Canberra Times (Apr 4)
Australia's Own Vietnam
In the long ago days of the anti-Vietnam movement, priest and poet Daniel Berrigan wrote of his apprehension over the possible result of his coming trial for protest activities. His main concern was that he and fellow protesters would receive a suspended sentence, when, said Berrigan, "in prison is where we should be".
He got his wish. The jailing of Berrigan and others was a turning point in the movement, because it forced the state to be what it denied it was - a state at war, claiming war powers for itself.
With the breaching over the Easter weekend of the Woomera fence, the escape of about a quarter of the detainees (the official word for prisoners) and the eventual re-arrest of most of them, together with a number of protesters, the Australian state has entered into a similar relationship to its own public.
The government could prosecute the detainees for escaping, but since conviction would put them in city-based prisons with visitation and legal privileges, work and entertainment facilities - none of which they have in the camps - it will probably return them to Woomera or deport them immediately.
The protesters will doubtless feel the full brunt of the law, with a substantial amount of public support behind the government's earnest prosecution of the case.
The government will be aware that they are making visible martyrs to the cause, and possible candidates for Amnesty prisoners of conscience, but they will believe they have little choice.
But no matter how hard they come down on the protesters, there will be repeated assaults on the perimeters of all the camps, with an inevitable escalation of security.
To continue the Vietnam analogy, the government inherited the all-but-invisible mandatory detention policy from its opponents, and they have extended it brutally and cynically.
Start a one-year war and your enemy has a problem; when it becomes a five-year war it's your problem.
With the Senate inquiry into the children-overboard affair and with the camps under assault, mandatory detention is consuming the government, and they have become purely reactive to initiatives by their opponents within the community - both inside and outside the camps.
..Let's face it, we all know what's coming if there is not an end to mandatory detention, and that is a mass suicide in one of the camps. You can feel it like a storm in the air.
It is the last resort of the powerless - to reclaim one's humanity by ending one's life. Any squeamishness in thinking about it can be dispelled by reading the testimonies of some of the escaped detainees posted on the Melbourne Indymedia website - most have been driven to self-harm by the boredom and hopelessness caused by mandatory detention.
..Woomera will prove to be the Vietnam of both major parties - they will come out of it 10 years on bowing and scraping and full of regret, like one-time Indochina US hawks Robert McNamara and Chalmers Johnson. Our major parties would do well to learn the most important lesson of that conflict now - that the invincible can never defeat the powerless.
- Guy Rundle, The Age (Apr 3)
Old-World Pledge A Sign Of A Party That Has Overstepped The Marx
It is time that the Labor Party's key platform - the socialist objective - is dumped.. This tired political statement is irrelevant to the modern Labor Party. It's time that the party seized the initiative provided through the Hawke/Wran review to unveil a new symbolic direction for the Labor movement.
Labor Party members pledge themselves to the socialist objective. This statement binds members to actively support "the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields".
This pledge has been amended, warped and twisted throughout the history of the ALP to keep the broad pillars of the party stable and unified.
The objective can be traced back to Karl Marx and the influence that his writings had on the party and the trade union movement at the end of the 19th century.
The first pledge was established in 1905 and emphasised, among other things, that the ALP should maintain the racial purity of the nation and the commitment to the White Australia Policy. This was changed in 1921 with the adoption of the socialist objective that forms the basis of today's pledge. Members pledged themselves to "the socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange".
It was slightly amended in subsequent years and again in 1957 when the word "democratic" was added to socialisation, pursuing this only "to the extent necessary".
Until 1981 this language stood as the sole definition of the principles of the ALP. At the 1981 national conference, 22 additional statements of principle were added to the pledge. But the socialist objective remained.
..Many Labor members have always insisted that this is the core of the party's existence and that the abolition of the socialist objective would mark the ALP as a completely different party to the one founded in 1891.
On the other hand, proponents of change have argued that the political world of today is different to the world of 1891 and that a successful party needs to update its core statement of belief to be relevant to the electorate.
Given the fundamental changes to Australian society, the profound changes in the nature of world politics and economics and the emergence of global forces which shape our every day lives, it is rather strange that in 20 years, Labor's central objective has never been seriously debated in any state ALP branch or at a national conference.
The campaign to change the pledge has met much hostile resistance within the party. Many see it as heresy. Many members of the ALP Left have in the past condemned any sort of debate, let alone change.
The pledge makes no mention of the foundations of the party in the union movement. It makes no mention of the ALP's commitment to full employment and improving the working conditions of ordinary workers and their families. It does not talk of the ALP's commitment to democracy and freedom. It is silent on the ALP's commitment to social justice, and a commitment to access and equity in health, education and community services. And it fails to mention the ALP's commitment to Aboriginal reconciliation, multiculturalism and cultural and ethnic diversity.
..Some may see the present debate as tragically undermining the very foundations of the party. It is far from that. A greater tragedy would be to let the pledge sink into an abyss of sentimental irrelevance and thus waste the opportunity to attract new and younger members to the party with a succinct, relevant statement of belief.
- Troy Bramston & Ben Heraghty (Young Labor), SMH (Apr 2)
PM Too Relaxed For Many Libs
A serious offensive is underway against the John Howard view of the Liberal Party, and one of the first victories was the elevation of John Brogden. Mr Brogden represents the moderate wing of Liberals in the Prime Minister's home state, maybe even the left wing to those still excited by a left-right divide.
His political philosophy, as much as he would allow it to be revealed in his successful challenge to Kerry Chikarovski, is along the lines of Nick Greiner's "warm and dry" recipe – tough economic policy backed by compassion.
In fact it was Mr Greiner, NSW premier from 1988-92, who on Sunday last week laid out the challenge to the Howard view of the Liberal world, in a speech to the party's state conference. Mr Greiner last Wednesday publicly endorsed Mr Brogden, and it is difficult to believe the two events have absolutely no connection.
The Prime Minister was there that Sunday and was mentioned with deference a number of times during the Greiner speech. Despite the suggestion later by his office that he was not aware a challenge to Mrs Chikarovski was underway, Mr Howard had known since the previous Thursday that the axe was on the upswing.
Mr Greiner was telling him why, in a speech on "What it means to me to be a Liberal".
Try this effort: " . . . relaxed and comfortable is a popular political mood and is clearly being followed by successful Australian political leaders, Liberal and Labor. That does not make it an appropriate dominating theme for a political philosophy which must balance doing what is right with doing what is popular."
Who could he have been talking about, apart from Peter Beattie?
At another point Mr Greiner said, "The nature of the new century's formal and informal education, changes in gender roles, the melting-pot reality of our society and many other similar changes all suggest that we must work at encouraging Liberals' involvement in such soft issues rather than simply decrying their very advocacy."
.."Being a Liberal to me means fostering ideas, creating an environment of organic initiative. My Liberal Party constantly, openly and courageously encourages people to express points of view and then to take issues forward to the broader community."
Mr Greiner said community apprehensions following September 11 had re-legitimised central institutions, particularly security institutions. "There is no doubt that we capitalised on this very effectively in the last federal election but the potential for long-term pitfalls is obvious," he said.
"Being a Liberal to me means tempering courage with compassion and victory with tolerance."
These viewpoints have been put more strongly by some.. however, they have considerable weight coming from someone of Mr Greiner's stature in his and the Prime Minister's state. They do not herald a challenge to Mr Howard's leadership. He will in effect be there as long as he wants.
However, they do signal a growing perception of a need for change, for a realignment, of a feeling that times have changed but the Liberal Party hasn't.
They certainly will influence who the party selects to replace Mr Howard should he retire mid-term, particularly should Mr Brogden win next March.
- Malcolm Farr, Daily Telegraph (Apr 1)