Australians are spoilt for choice this week in politics. On the far right is Scott John Morrison who is determined to improve on his last week’s Slow-Mo filibuster fiasco by pretending that religious freedom is the biggest issue facing the nation along with encryption-busting and stopping kids needing medical treatment off Nauru.
Not only that, he’s a Walter-Mitty-Henry Kissinger style negotiator who can kick-start the Arab-Israeli peace process by offending both parties and sundry nearby Muslim nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia, whom our governments are always on the verge of cracking amazing free trade deals, that somehow never eventuate.
ScoMo’s got both hands full in his pre-MYEFO clean-up as he checks the fudged figures and shoves a whole lot of other stuff off into a review, while, over on the left, in Adelaide, city of churches, Labor holds its annual conference, an event which somehow shrinks in ABC TV coverage to recurring images of Stop Adani protestors.
Bill’s got the fair-go theme happening; great shots of the most photogenic family in Australian politics and a beaut re-run of a plan to subsidise housing for developers who’ll charge rents low enough for underemployed workers to afford, despite their flat-lining wages, soaring utilities and jobs that are increasingly underpaid and insecure.
Yet developers and loans all take time. Sadly for those three million Australians, the OECD tells us we are living on the poverty line, there is no hope that Labor will lift Newstart. Guardian Australia reports the conference will wimp out with promises to review Newstart within 18 months if Labor wins in May or whenever. Insult the poor.
The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy who clearly knows her onions reports “senior figures are reluctant to sign up to a concrete commitment to increase Newstart because of the fiscal impact”. The fiscal impact? The triumph of Neoliberalism is complete when Labor apparatchiks talk of “fiscal impact” when they won’t pony up the money.
Where is the Labor Party that stood by the battler? The party that fought for a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay?
Stage right there’s a banner showing some poor sods being evicted for upstaging Mr Shorten with a message about getting kids out of detention. Labor’s lock-step with Liberal on “off-shore detention” doesn’t offer much hope but you can’t fault the demonstrators for gate-crashing the Labor love-fest with a heartfelt plea to help the suffering.
Over in Morrison’s sordid corner, the work experience PM is riffing with his powerful fellow religious cranks.
We have more than enough religious freedom in Australia but, like John Howard, ScoMo knows – or hopes – there’s votes in even the most fatuous, confected, totally futile crusade. Besides, he believes this stuff. You can tell.
When he declared religious freedom his number one priority back last August it was more than a broad hint. Back then, he spoke of “preventative regulation and legislation to ensure your religious freedom in this country”. In other words, it didn’t have to exist but if it did we’d have the laws on the books to stop it in its tracks.
“What you believe should always be a matter for you … Anti-discrimination is an important principle in a modern democracy and so it is important that that principle of anti-discrimination and the protection of people’s religious liberty are addressed in this country. And there is some unfinished business that we are seeking to address in the announcements that we’re making today.” Morrison stutters at his Thursday presser. Yet he moves fast.
Sleeves rolled-up, “getting on and doing – and listening”, ScoMo sets a cracking change of pace as he dashes into a series of pressers. Last week’s slow bicycle race is over.
Now he’s waving a Christmas check-list. Busy-dizzy. The futuristic white tubular podiums, which wouldn’t be out of place on the bridge of a spaceship get a fair workout from the daggy dad, the everyman PM who vows to be a man of the people. Fat chance. Morrison loves only to preach.
Call it his post-modern sermon on the dismount or his own “unfinished business”, ScoMo battles to clear the decks and appease Abbott and the lads, a scurvy crew who’ll mutiny at any hint of a Federal ICAC or any sell-out of the right over religious freedoms, a long-promised sop to homophobes for losing the marriage equality plebiscite.
Morrison has a lot to tick off. None of it is easy, but top of the list is taking his foot out of his mouth over his Wentworth by-election stunt. Foreign policy is not his forte. Who’d be so silly as to bid for “the Jewish vote” by moving the Australia embassy to East Jerusalem?
Why follow the United States’ and Guatemala’s lead and flout international consensus? It’s the thought-bubble debacle of his political career, against some strong contenders.
Who can forget or forgive ScoMo’s $55 million 2014 Cambodian solution which resettled but two refugees, a decision which Peter Dutton, ever the master of Orwellian double-speak, calls “a good outcome”?
Morrison formally recognises West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Saturday, in a talk in Gerry and Anne Henderson’s cosy right wing, corporate-sponsored think tank, The Sydney Institute, which in 1989, former Howard adviser, Gerry lovingly fashioned out of the Sydney branch of the IPA with financial assistance from Philip Morris.
Two staff members only are employed, Gerard is Executive Director and Anne is Deputy Director. You can see them both in homespun shot as they fiddle with microphones and fetch glasses of water for the useful idiot PM.
“Foreign policy must speak of our character and our values. What we stand for. What we believe in and, if need be, what we’ll defend,” oleaginous Trump toady Morrison bloviates in yet another pro-US foreign policy speech at the Henderson’s Sydney terrace home, otherwise, grandiosely known to the ATO, as The Sydney Institute.
It is not a good outcome for our international relations. Australia joins just three other nations; the Russian Federation, the Czech Republic and Panama. Since 2014, our international reputation’s copped a hammering.
We make the declaration, says Morrison from a desire to end a “rancid stalemate” in the peace process. It’s likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Could he be hoping that his mixed metaphor will achieve a breakthrough?
Neither side seems impressed. An Israeli official tells The Times of Israel “We’re disappointed with the Australian decision … Morrison only went half-way. It’s a step in the right direction, but we expected more.”
President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, Bishop George Browning, calls Morrison’s announcement “a tortuous attempt to salvage himself from a pre-emptive thought bubble prior to the Wentworth by-election”.
That there is no city named West Jerusalem, according to the Israeli government, doesn’t seem to worry Morrison’s government. Yet, in international law and diplomacy, the status of Jerusalem has been a vexed question since Israel was created in 1948.
Fools rush in.
International law considers East Jerusalem to be Palestinian territory under illegal Israeli occupation. Since 1967, when Israeli troops drove Jordanian settlers out of East Jerusalem, expanding its borders, Israeli actions have been the subject of many UN Security Council resolutions calling upon Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
Australia will hold off moving its embassy, Morrison says, until a peace settlement is reached. But it’ll check out a site. Palestine will be recognised after a settlement has been reached on a two-state solution.
While Israel sees Australia’s stance as “a step in the right direction”, Palestine is incensed. Secretary-General of the PLO Executive Committee, Saeb Erekat, blasts the “irresponsible policies” that led to the recognition.
“The policies of this Australian administration have done nothing to advance the two-state solution,” Erekat says in a statement. “The holy city remains a final-status issue in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which have run aground.”
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation attacks Australia’s new policy for being contradictory. It violates our obligations under international law (namely UNSC 478, something Australia denies). Luckily a culture war breaks out at home. Morrison must stand up for what he believes in. Bugger the rest of us.
Ruddock is dudded. Blessed are the meek in spirit but pity the poor souls who are made to wait seven months to hear a peep from the PM on their report on the power of religious outfits to discriminate. Ruddock recommends that such organisations have their exemptions from discrimination laws abolished or at least reduced.
[The panel] could see no justification for exceptions in existing law relating to race, disability, pregnancy or intersex status,” the report says of the current religious anti-discrimination exemptions at the federal, state and territory level that differ across jurisdictions. “The panel is of the view that those jurisdictions retaining exceptions should review them having regard to community expectations.”
But ScoMo says no. “Pushes back” as they insist in modern commentary. The PM orders a review of the review.
Ruddock’s review has taken a full year since Turnbull lit the torch and seven months since it reported. It’s now likely to become an election issue and voters may not take kindly to the Coalition’s need to placate the far right over the right of all children (and teachers) to be spared discrimination regardless of what school they attend.
But ScoMo knows best. He rejects Ruddock’s findings in favour of his own surprise Christmas gift to the nation, a “freedom of religion commissioner”, to bulk up The Australian Human Rights Commission with a bit more rightist bias, as part of a culture war no-one needs or wants. Or can afford, financially or socially.
Not everything gets top air-play. Dud ideas, such as the Clayton’s Federal ICAC or ones that may cause trouble such as the promise to hold a Royal Commission into aged care are dumped in a quiet time-slot; “putting out the trash”. It’s as much a Coalition strength, as its fetish for secrecy or its unparalleled capacity to stall, flip-flop, flounder or nose-dive while preaching practicality and strong leadership.
Despite the promise that the royal commission would start this year, its first directions hearing has been postponed from December 7 to January 18. As Laura Tingle points out, hearings proper begin in February.
It gives little time for public submissions, nor for the commissioners to adequately prepare themselves.
Not so our new Governor General, who will – gasp – be another old digger, David Hurley, a former defence chief and current NSW Governor. The Coalition has pointedly ignored Labor’s request to make the appointment after the proposed May 2019 election.
Cosgrove will stay on until the end of June when Hurley officially takes over. As Paul Karp notes this gives Morrison his pick of governor as well as keeping his election options open. Tellingly, Morrison announces the appointment with another homily.
“It was General Hurley who first spoke the words, ‘The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept’. That is a lesson to all of us. It is a phrase that embodies what Australian leadership is all about and it is a phrase that has embodied the service of General Hurley.”
Yet as Chris Bowen notes, the timing suggests a government blithely unconcerned about standards of fair play.
“Do we really believe that a governor general, who will be taking up his post in the middle of next year, had to be announced today while the leader of the opposition was making an important speech at the very same time? What a coincidence.”
Yet Hurley is the very model of a modern governor general, whose heart of faith helps him lead and whose wife Linda inspires by sharing details of her daily spiritual spin, a rare double act with Eternity News
“I hula-hoop every morning and I like to read the Bible or a devotional book while I’m doing that.”
Who doesn’t? Onward Christian soldiers.
Curiously, Morrison’s presser proclaiming his redundant religious freedom commission segues into his announcing his utterly unrelated Commonwealth Integrity Commission, (CIC) a Clayton’s federal ICAC, a totally toothless tiger which would have allowed even Eddie Obeid or Eric Roozendaal to evade justice, experts warn.
Geoffrey Watson SC, who had acted as counsel to ICAC in NSW opines it’s “worse than having no commission, in my opinion” while former NSW ICAC commissioner David Ipp tells ABC radio that it’s “the kind of integrity commission you’d want to have when you didn’t want to have one”.
For Crikey’s Bernard Keane, there is a wider significance in the paper tiger. “Scott Morrison’s joke of federal anti-corruption body simply confirms everything voters hate about politics in Australia.”
It’s crippled by having no public hearings; the public won’t even know who is under investigation, let alone why. Herein lies a key problem. Keane believes “that’s exactly one of the key problems voters perceive with our current political system: that so much is hidden from citizens. Donations. Meetings. Lobbying. And corrupt conduct. The exercise of power in Australia is hidden, confirming the sense that it is exercised by and for the powerful only.”
Nor will justice be seen to be done if the only recourse the CIC has is to refer a matter where a public servant has acted inappropriately to the DPP, who is chosen by the Attorney-General of the day.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in the Morrison proposal is that the public will not be able to dob in a delinquent official – or one they suspect may have broken the law.
“The CIC will not investigate direct complaints about ministers, members of Parliament or their staff received from the public at large,” the government says.
Typically, Pastor ScoMo doesn’t help his cause by calling NSW ICAC a “kangaroo court”, while, equally out of order, Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter accuses it of “show-trials”.
For Morrison’s government to cynically insult the integrity of a real commission against corruption diminishes any further confidence in their proposal.
Some see the CIC as a pre-emptive strike by a Morrison minority government to dodge a tougher ICAC forced on them by independent Cathy McGowan, Labor and an uppity crossbench. Yet it could filibuster or close up shop early. Parliament will sit only ten days in the first eight months of 2019 as it. Would a few less days matter?
Even if the election were to be brought forward, it should not distract us. Just how have we been gifted with a religious discrimination commissioner when Ruddock’s review panel specifically recommends against it – and what does it say about the Morrison government’s religious pre-occupation?
Freedom For Faith, a group which describes itself as a “Christian, legal, think tank” in its submission, has persuaded the Morrison government to create a religious freedom commissioner, a bargain at $1.25m-$1.5m. Beyond the fee, however, is the incalculable social cost of granting religious groups new authority to discriminate.
A Religious Freedoms Act, a cruel parody of a charter of rights, which Ruddock’s panel does recommend, would codify and expand exemptions to anti-discrimination laws. These currently grant church groups the right to hire or fire those sympathetic to its ethos. Or not.
The act would limit and override the anti-discrimination laws of Australia’s states and territories and “further protections for people who don’t want to associate with same-sex marriages”.
But be of good cheer. “Christians are not into freedom to discriminate, they’re really into freedom to select,” explains author Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law at Sydney Uni and a Freedom for Faith board member.
Father knows best. Yet, like his patronising, patriarchal predecessor, ScoMo’s paternalism will prove his undoing.
But, my, such unity. Not a bum note is heard – for a whole 24 hours. Coalition MPs are all on song, a ragged paean to the policy-free politics of survival as they plot Bill Shorten’s death and hope, somehow to avoid electoral annihilation in May as Monday’s Newspoll confirms the Morrison government’s unique and abiding unpopularity.
It trails Labor 45-55, a record low in the poll’s history for a government five months out from an election. It’s the government’s third, ten point defeat in a row. The last time this happened, notes Paul Karp in The Guardian, Julia Gillard was replaced by Kevin Rudd. Political scientist, Kevin Bonham says history is not on Morrison’s side.
“No government has recovered from this far behind with this little time to go,” Bonham says. Yet The Daily Telegraph says Labor’s “softened border policy” invites shady types into Australia. “Foreign crims’ free pass,” screams the headline. The Australian obligingly runs a very similar scare campaign. An influx of terrorists, paedophiles and crime gangs will flood the nation as a result of Labor softening its border policy.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, however. Can Bill still stuff up? Enter Rupert the red-nose reindeer. National Affairs Editor, Simon Benson in The Australian, Friday, hyperventilates over Labor’s hubris, and lese majesté in “preparing to run union-backed election campaigns in once unassailable Victorian Liberal heartland — including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s blue-ribbon Melbourne seat of Kooyong — with polling showing the Coalition risks losing the electorate once held by Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies.”
Back in the bosom of the Liberal Party’s broad church and even in the weatherboard and iron of the Nationals’ annexe, hearts swell as MPs rejoice in the hyper-partisan hypomania of the festive season; all noses are to the grindstone as the Coalition of the killing of Bill sharpen stilettos, rake muck and top up vast vats of vitriol.
The Coalition is obsessed by Shorten; they mention him by name in Question Time, this year, 1260 times.
Spoiler alert. Bill is to be killed during Labor’s annual conference 16-18 December. Labor will be attacked for being soft on borders, national security and refugee torture.
Frydenberg’s coup de grace, a MYEFO monstering, will follow on Monday. The cunning plan is to upstage day two of “A Fair Go for Australia” Labor’s gabfest.
A mid-year economic financial outlook in December? It’s a bit like July at Christmas. But it’s all amazingly good news. A temporary spike in the price of coal and iron ore and a boost from government spending on setting up its bastardised NDIS, helps to mask a stalling economy as wages remain frozen, profits soar. Morrison’s mob, however, will boast its superior economic management. It certainly won’t be telling the truth about infrastructure.
Public and private investment in engineering is dwindling, for the fourth time in five years, Alan Austin reports; all in the five years since the Abbott government was elected, according to ABS figures up to the end of September. It’s a decline not seen since ABS figures began in Whitlam’s era. The nation’s net worth is declining as a result. Morrison will predict a budget surplus. Yet as economist Stephen Koukoulos warns, it won’t be until September.
2019’s final budget outcome that we will know if the surplus occurs, or if it’s just like Wayne Swan’s, as Paul Bongiorno notes, another in a series of disappearing desert mirages. Much like the Coalition itself and the neoliberalism on which it is founded.
Disappearing. It won’t be for lack of appeasing the right. Morrison has taken no chances there. It’s fitting to reflect on the PM’s inclusiveness and largeness of heart in the season of giving.
Even drones such as Craig Kelly, who sacrificed a career selling furniture for the politics of climate change denial to chair the committee for promoting coal are thoughtfully rescued from; returned to the fold by Pope Scott’s pre-selection bulk plenary indulgence that fits brilliantly the special religious if not entirely ecumenical and certainly not gender-equal character of the mates’ rates 45th parliament.
David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.