Tuesday, 08 October 2013

The press gallery cheer squad

The Fourth Estate bears Tony Abbott aloft, carrying him god-like through the troubled waters of democracy, gently smoothing his way with their narratives of competence

Given the way Tony Abbott was lauded by the media while he was Opposition leader - he was the greatest one ever, I’m sure you’ll remember them saying - I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that they continue to treat him with kid gloves now that he and his party have won the election.

Abbott is, after all, an invention of the media. His consolidation of power inside and outside his party simply could not have happened without the acquiescence of large sections of the press who were constantly willing to give his gaffes and obvious problems the benefit of the doubt, while always holding Julia Gillard to a higher, different - some would say, impossible - standard.

So on one level there is nothing unexpected about them continuing to lionise him. On another, though, it is sort shocking to see leading journalists bend over frontwards to accommodate everything he does.

There have been exceptions (tip of the hat to Katharine Murphy) but in general, journalists have accepted Mr Abbott and his team’s plan to simply stop talking about stuff, not as an affront to democracy and an insult to their own profession, but as a shrewd, non-Gillard move that they have been happy to endorse as clever, if not brilliant. Here’s the doyen of the gallery, Laurie Oakes, positively slavering:

Gillard's attempts to slow the cycle failed. It was one of the things that brought her government - and Kevin Rudd's - undone.

But Tony Abbott slowed it over the last few weeks. Almost brought it to a stop, in fact, as far as news from the new Coalition Government is concerned.

Never before in Australian politics has there been such a quiet transition to a new administration. Not a single news conference from the prime minister-elect. Hardly a peep from MPs who will be sworn in as Ministers within days.

Abbott and his team ignored the hungry media beast's demands to be fed. Instead, they worked away quietly and methodically behind the scenes, preparing for an orderly and unhurried takeover of the levers of power.

Best transition evah!

And as is usual with this sort of “analysis”, no recognition at all of the media’s own agency in the success of Abbott’s (or the failure of Gillard’s) approach.

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of the media’s willingness to gently spot the new PM’s landing as he executes policy backflips comes in the eagerness of some to pronounce his trip to Indonesia a triumph.

Jonathan Green had the wit to note the obvious, saying, “Tony Abbott is applauded on his return [from Jakarta] for defusing bilateral tensions that he more than anybody had created.” But he was one of the few.

More common were those like Paul Kelly at The Australian who engaged in this delightful exercise in prime ministerial hagiography titled, “Abbott: From Scrapper to Statesman”. In his best stenographer-to-the-stars mode, the formerly gravitas-laden Mr Kelly recited:

THIS was a new Tony Abbott with a different tone and message. It was Abbott as Prime Minister, not opposition leader. The difference is dramatic and unfolding. Abbott the unilateralist is gone, replaced by Abbott as Indonesia's trusting partner.

In Jakarta, Abbott reached out to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in a personal, deferential and strategic sense. He apologised for past Australian mistakes. He seeks to deepen and re-prioritise bilateral relations with a stronger economic anchor. On the pivotal issue, Abbott has redefined his boats policy in both content and implementation.

On display now is Abbott as pragmatist. He says his policy is about results, not process. Abbott spelt out his new universal rule: what counts is working with Indonesia to stop the boats. By implication, he will modify policy and process to achieve that goal.

If you think Julia Gillard would’ve got the same brown-nosed treatment, I’ve got a bridge you might want to buy. She would’ve been accused of selling out, of backflipping, of grovelling to Indonesia and showing her foreign policy inexperience. Greg Sheridan would’ve given birth to a column of venom so grotesque it would’ve blocked out the sun.

And notice that Kelly knows what Abbott has done is a contradiction of everything he has said on the topic to this point, but that he just doesn’t care. In fact, he can’t wait to whip out the lipstick and apply it to the pig of Abbott’s inconsistency.

Kelly is joined at Tony Abbott fantasy camp by Barrie Cassidy. Cassidy’s article is headlined “Abbot rises to his first foreign policy challenge”, and he says, apparently with a straight face:

Abbott has either redefined or walked away from key aspects of his policy, whether it be turning back the boats, buying back the boats, or paying Indonesians to inform on one another.

And as frustrating as it may be for the previous government who took so much stick from the Coalition as they tried to find a way through the maze, for the time being the Coalition will have it both ways.

Again, notice the tacit but unmediated acceptance that Mr Abbott’s ability to “have it both ways” relies entirely on a press corp willing to extend the gift of complicity.

Where does it come from, this application by journalists of one standard for one politician and another for someone else?

I don’t think it is enough to simply talk in terms of bias. Or even sexism, though I’m sure both elements factor into the algorithm that allows journalists to interpret Tony Abbott one way and Julia Gillard another.

The thing is, this isn’t about Abbott versus Gillard any more. What’s extraordinary is that even though Gillard is gone, Abbott still has most of the press corps nuzzling up to him like kittens at the teats of a loving mother. Why does this happen?

I guess Mr Abbott fulfils a need for some in the press gallery, that he answers some longing in them that allows them to not only overlook his shortcomings but to reinterpret them as strengths. It’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where it seems the worse he treats them, the more they want to please him.

But really, I don’t intend to play Dr Melfi to the press gallery’s Tony Soprano.

I just wish they had more pride in their profession, were less willing to let Mr Abbott lead them by the nose. I wish they had more respect for the citizenry whom they purport to serve, and that they would actually cast a genuinely critical eye over what the government is doing rather than faffing around trying to explain to us why black is now white.

But you watch. Many of them will be more offended by this interpretation of their actions than they will be by the fact that the Prime Minister and his government are holding them and their profession in utter contempt and have been for three years.

Seriously, if some idiot on Twitter treated the media with this much disdain, journalists would likely hiss and mock in response, with some justification.

But meanwhile, the government has taken a vow of silence, while actively ignoring their own positions on any number of issues - from asylum seekers, to higher education, to the alleged budget crisis - and journalists stand around giving them a golf clap.

It’s weird.

Maybe the growing scandal around conservative MP’s penchant for claiming public money for attending weddings will break the spell. Maybe the lure of calling the whole thing “Weddinggate” will get the old juices flowing.

The matter is certainly looming as a test of the integrity, not just of the government, but of the media as well. It will be educational to see what happens.

Published in Weekly Email

Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership will be the topic of analysis and discussion for years to come, and it’s likely that her, and our, perspective on it will change with time and distance from the events. But the Anne Summers interviews captured a more immediate reaction that is interesting, not just for what it says about Gillard herself, but what it reveals about Australian politics more generally.

There were no particularly difficult questions or surprises in the interviews; it was not intended to be an adversarial affair. Summers described it as “a public space to be provided for people to come together to farewell Gillard”.

Perhaps it was this expectation that enabled Gillard to relax and display the warmth of response and expression that was often lacking in other interviews.

One thing that was immediately noticeable as soon as she started speaking was that her voice was fuller and more rounded than it ever sounded on even the most relaxed TV or radio interviews. Maybe there is something in broadcast technology that flattens out the timbre of her voice; maybe it was simply nerves tightening her throat slightly, but it might explain why so many people who have heard her speak in person report a different perception than those of us who’ve only heard her speak through the media.

The choice of Summers as the host for her first post-election interviews was interesting. Summers has made a considerable contribution to feminist thought in Australia and is an experienced and talented writer, but she is not, and has never claimed to be, an objective political journalist. She is a feminist and a campaigner, and in choosing her as the interview host, Gillard was choosing a theme for the interviews - choose your specialist, choose your disease.

It was odd because, while Gillard has become a lightning rod for many feminists in Australia, she rarely speaks from a solely feminist point of view. Indeed where Summers attributes misogyny as the cause of Gillard’s downfall, Gillard herself spoke of many other contributing factors. It was noticeable in most of the questions Summers asked, which had a feminist basis, Gillard answered in a broader perspective.

So why did she choose Summers? A cynic might suggest that Summers’ mantra of misogyny would easily play into hagiography and a soft interview, but while this may have played a small part in the choice, some of Gillard’s answers at the Melbourne event indicated a more complex rationale.

One of the most interesting questions from the audience was about Gillard’s relationship with the Canberra Press Gallery, not so much asking about what she thought of the (sometimes) “crap” that they wrote, but what her personal relationships with them were like and what she thought about the way they do their job. The answer was far more interesting in what she inadvertently revealed than what she actually said. She made a pointed dig about the fact that she had never courted any of the press gallery as others in her party had done, and that some of the most senior gallery members, who have built long careers on leaks and breaking news, were deeply resentful that they didn’t have the inside story on the Rudd spill and were forced to join the unwashed masses waiting for news as events unfolded on the night. She claimed she was always too busy with the business of politics to “waste time” courting the press.

She also said that one of the reasons she accepted the invitation from Anne Summers was because she “wanted to promote new media” as an alternative to the mainstream media. Again, an odd choice, Summers is many wonderful things, but “new media”? Hardly. An alternative form of political analysis? No.

This is typical of the combination of sharp political astuteness and naivety to the point of stupidity that characterised most of Gillard’s political career.

The relationship between press gallery journalists and individual politicians is fraught and complex, but the media’s position as the conduit of information between Canberra and the voters gives it enormous power – as Gillard discovered to her cost.

While we might wish that the gallery was a shining light of the fourth estate, providing full and unbiased analysis and reporting of political events, we know the truth, in most cases, to be far different.

Gillard herself said that one of her biggest mistakes was to allow the then Opposition (in collusion with the media) to rename the stepped implementation of an emissions trading system as a Carbon Tax. It became the basis of their claim that she was an untrustworthy liar and gave them the opportunity to use the “no carbon tax under a government I lead” soundbite as a constant reinforcement of this idea. Again, she claimed that she didn’t pay much attention to it until it was too late, because she was concentrating on the policy rather than the politics.

Her oft-cited talent in negotiating and bringing disparate parties to a compromise position was essential in her government’s ability to pass the Clean Energy Act through a complicated parliament. Her inability to understand or get in front of the politics of the legislation is equally essential in the new government’s determination to repeal it. She allowed them to turn it into the focal point of their campaign against her and, in doing so, ensured that they must carry through their stated intention to “axe the tax”.

Much of this looks like lack of experience rather than lack of ability.

Gillard had been a Member of Parliament for twelve years when she became Prime Minister, enough time, one would expect, to learn the realities of politics and media relations. But she was on the opposition benches for the first nine of those twelve years and was then carried in, almost unnoticed, as Deputy PM on the back of Kevin Rudd’s sweeping win in 2007. Two and a half years later she led the spill that put her in the Prime Minister’s seat.

John Howard, by comparison, was in parliament for 22 years before becoming Prime Minister. During that time he had two stints as Opposition Leader and six years as Federal Treasurer; all those years dealing with internal party machinations and media shenanigans thickened his hide and honed his political skill.

It is perhaps, a reflection of modern politics that the relatively inexperienced Gillard was fast-tracked into the Prime Ministership by internal ALP factional rivalries rather than the weight of experience and proven abilities to  manage all the requirements of such a senior position.

The forces aligned against her, from both sides of politics and the majority of the media, were overwhelming and it’s unlikely that anyone in her position would have been able to defeat them, but perhaps more time on the political treadmill might have helped her predict the gathering storms and avoid them, rather than have to try to battle her way through them.

Julia Gillard, as our first female Prime Minister, will always have significance to Australian women, but in choosing to focus on that significance so soon after her downfall she, and we, are losing sight of some of the other lessons from her tenure that could prove more valuable than how the fact that she has an arse and earlobes was used so iniquitously against her.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 02 October 2013

Dreaming of home

Housing - its tax status, regulation, availability and cost - is an inherently political issue. Yet it didn't feature in the recent election campaign and it isn’t on the new Federal Government's agenda. Once upon a time, however, an Australian government enquiry found that citizens had a right to a home.

Newspapers report on increasing prices and intergenerational bickering over housing costs. In the meantime, those who rent are finding this a more and more difficult proposition, in both the public and private systems.

Recent discussions about whether there is a housing bubble going on are only looking at one part of a much more complicated picture. For the 30% of us who rent, finding secure and affordable housing is getting harder. And for those on the lowest incomes, it is damn near impossible. The aged pension is structured around an assumption that people will own their own homes at retirement. However, for those without a home, the private rental market is increasingly precarious.

People with disabilities are often are pushed further and further from services and employment in a quest for affordable housing. Community services cite the cost of housing, particularly in private rental, as the key concern for people on low or moderate incomes. Rental vacancies are low, even in high-priced areas, with many on average wages unable to afford to rent anywhere near their jobs.

At the same time, public and social housing has contracted substantially, now only available for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Housing departments are increasingly using regional motels to fill the gap in crisis accommodation.

But has it always been like this? What have governments done in the past?

Government interest in housing was at its peak after the Second World War. An extensive enquiry led to direct investment in building large amounts of new homes, aimed at workers. The Commonwealth Housing Commission took on the edict that:

“We consider that a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen – whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit.”
[Source: The Brown Couch

By 1966, nearly 1 in 5 Australians were living in public housing. (For some more fascinating history of all this, have a read here, here and here.)

Nowadays the idea of government providing housing for low income workers seems farfetched. Gone are the days of the government owned prefabrication factory, which turned out up to four houses a day. Instead, the Commonwealth spends over $3 billion on a meagre rental voucher for those on the lowest incomes in private rental. State and territory governments are redeveloping old estates and selling off the more profitable bits, but not adding to the existing public housing stock.

So why does this matter? Surely the market is the best way to sort this out? High housing costs mean that more will be built, doesn't it? Well, no. Fewer new dwellings are being built than are needed, pushing up prices for everyone - or at least everyone who can afford to buy.

But just looking at building starts doesn't answer the housing question for those who will never be able to afford high costs. If an older woman, after raising her kids and being part of her neighbourhood for decades can no longer afford to stay, the market dictates that she should be forced to move far away, no matter the consequences or the cost to her. And what about people working in low wage jobs, like childcare or cleaning? Where do they live? Where are their rights as citizens to not be “exploited for excessive profit”?

One of the problems about the rhetoric of the free market in housing is that it isn't true. Housing is treated very differently to other asset classes, with tax breaks for the family home and ludicrous subsidies for landlords. The cost of negative gearing alone is over $13 billion, with no sign that it has done anything to reduce the cost of housing, indeed, it appears to do the opposite.

Now there is also a rush of self-managed superannuation funds into the housing domain. Again, favourable tax treatment distorts the market with incentives at the top of the income pile, rather than the bottom.

The previous Federal Government at least recognised this as a challenge. In 2008, the National Rental Affordability Scheme was set up to encourage investment in the other end of the market. Those building places to rent at 20% below the market rent receive a subsidy - last year's was just over $10,000.

The impact of that program is clear.


[Source: Hayward, AHURI presentation.]

But again, this is just tinkering on the edges. There are over 170,000 people waiting for a public housing place, and an estimated 493,000 more affordable rental places needed overall. Australians for Affordable Housing has some interesting ideas on the scale of the challenge.

Rental security is another factor off the policy radar. Australia doesn't offer long-term leases in the same way many European countries do, leading to tenants being forced to move regularly. Renting has, policy-wise, been seen as a temporary stop on the road to home ownership. But this is no longer the case, with many people now renting long-term. A study from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute in 2012 pointed out that:

“It was assumed that renters would quickly move into home ownership or, if not, would obtain these benefits from social housing. These assumptions have been undermined by two trends. First, housing affordability problems mean that households on low to moderate incomes find it difficult to purchase a home, and longer term renting is becoming more common. Second, the social rental sector has insufficient accommodation to house many of those on low incomes.”

In Germany, for example, up to 60% of people rent, with longer leases allowing for tenants to do minor renovations and establish themselves in neighbourhoods, without the constant uncertainty that Australian tenants have. Other countries have far greater investment in social housing, understanding that housing is not just about house prices.

Australian housing policy once acknowledged that housing was a fundamental right for its citizens. Not so they could make money, but so they could be safe and secure in their own home. Our current political and policy settings say that a home is now only for those who can afford it; for the rest, it is but a dream.

Published in Weekly Email

Can Labor afford another leadership stoush? Kevin Rudd has been the most destabilising force in Australia Politics we’ve seen for decades. Will his legacy continue to tear the Labor party apart?

Like so many of Kevin Rudd’s other hare-brained initiatives, this one must have been a good idea at the time.

The thinking may well have been that by changing the rules for electing the parliamentary leader to incorporate the popular vote from party members, Rudd could capitalise on his broader public support in the face of any future caucus antipathy.

The move was audacious at the time of announcement: in a single move the re-invented Prime Minister bolstered Fortress Rudd while giving disaffected Labor Party members and wavering supporters a reason to stay.

Much was made of Rudd’s democratisation of the party but – in perhaps the strongest sign that Kevin truly believed he would win the election and a leadership vote would be redundant – it seems little thought was given to how it would work in practice. The warm inner glow generated by the reform has dissipated in the dark days since the poll.

Now the party’s National Executive appears to be making up the rules as it goes along.

And very little thought seems to have been given to whether Labor can afford another leadership stoush. ALP disunity is one of the key factors that determined votes for the Coalition in this election, ranking third after ‘economic competency’ and ‘better representing the interests of all Australians’. Yet Labor has chosen (or perhaps acceded to a groundswell of party member demands) to voluntarily expose itself to another month of disharmony within its ranks by letting members exercise their newly-granted democratic right.

This is a classic case of Rudd creating expectations that, if not fulfilled, will incur considerable damage on the party. But having created this particular problem, Kevin now sits silently on the backbench deftly avoiding any associated opprobrium.

For let’s make no mistake, despite Albanese and Shorten’s commitment to play by Queensberry rules, this leadership stoush will create new, and build upon existing, dissent within the party. Both contenders may travel the countryside pumping the hands of loyal party members and singing each others’ praises, but at some point they must convince those members and their parliamentary colleagues that one of them will be a better leader than the other.

Successful differentiation rarely occurs by saying one’s opponent is “a great guy but I’m greater”. At some point, Albanese and Shorten will have to advocate why they should be the preferred candidate; the logical consequence is they will have to argue why their opponent is not the optimal choice.

Adding to the potential for ugliness, former Rudd cheerleader in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Peter Hartcher, foreshadows that this battle is as much about factional supremacy as it is an honourable duel between two men:

The new leader – whether Albanese or Shorten – will be the winner of a divisive factional contest. Albanese and Shorten are the leading exponents of factional warfare of their generation. Albanese is the leader of the national Left faction of the Labor Party; Shorten is the champion of the national Right. This is old Labor, old politics, in the old style. This is the sort of factional warfare that both men grew up with.

… The party is running on ancient reflex. Winning the leadership is critical to the factional power balance. The party’s leadership has never been held by a member of the Left. This is why it’s an irresistible prize for Albanese; it’s why the Right is determined to defeat him.

Party operatives may think they can keep much of this in-house, behind closed doors at party meetings and the like. But that delusion will not hold for long. Much of the contenders’ campaigns will be conducted online and therefore in the public eye. A posited public debate will draw even more attention to what may be a showcase of polite but pointed putdowns.

So what, you might say, surely it’s healthy for Labor to democratically choose its new leader in an open and transparent way? Don’t other parties in Australia and overseas do the same thing without being riven? Well yes they do, but Australian Labor is a party already fractured by the Rudd-Gillard wars and these cracks are likely to deepen during the Albanese-Shorten competition and therefore be harder to close once the party is ultimately called to unite under the new leader.

That is the crux of the matter. Labor remains a party divided: once involuntarily under Gillard and Rudd, and now voluntarily as two leadership contenders face off in a sanctioned battle of supremacy.

Even if by some miracle Albanese and Shorten do manage to keep the fight clean there are so many other ways for the process to go awry. Votes lodged by Caucus will be counted as 50 per cent, as will the votes of the 40-odd thousand eligible party members. This means that even a high party member vote for one candidate (eg. 70 per cent or 28,000) could still be beaten by a slightly higher Caucus vote (71 per cent or 57 out of 80) for the other guy.

To complicate matters even further, Caucus members will not be told the outcome of the party vote before they lodge their own ballot – they will vote not knowing the broader party’s preferred leader.

Keeping the results of the two ballots confidential would deflect such questions of legitimacy but that wouldn’t be very open and transparent, would it? Even now, at the very beginning of the leadership campaign, the media is being briefed that Shorten is more likely to have the majority Caucus vote while Albanese is the popular choice with party members.

In short, Rudd’s party reform monster has arisen post-election to wreak havoc amongst the Labor party villagers.

As Hartcher concludes:

The winner of this contest will inherit a defeated, divided and deflated party, just as Abbott did in December 2009.

Far from being a mechanism for party unification, this democratisation of the vote for parliamentary leader is more likely to achieve completely the opposite.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Professionals and Amateurs

Backroom deals and faceless men are not the sole province of the Labor party. The election of Senators seems to be far beyond the meagre understanding of most of the mainstream media.

The editor of this fine publication has resisted the urge to mock my most recent article proffering predictions for the Senate, and instead suggested gently that I investigate why those predictions – and others, armed with polling data – turned out to have been such rubbish. How did those micro-parties get elected? Who are the people behind them and what do they want? Should we do anything to make sure this doesn’t happen again – and if so, what (and whom do you mean by ‘we’, anyway)?

First of all, consider what the role of the Senate has traditionally been: to elevate political backroom fixers over showponies in the lower House.

Media and lobbying strategies include lots of tactics about how to deflect issues, and how to talk past your opponents rather than engage with them and their ideas. The House would get nothing done, particularly on issues that don’t attract a lot of media attention, if left to its own devices (consider successive governments of unicameral Queensland and dare to quibble). Sometimes a contentious issue has to disappear into one of those maroon-clad back rooms to be sorted out; you can’t talk past or deflect in back room negotiations, not if the negotiator is any good. Sometimes in horse-trading, issue X is linked to issue Y in ways that are not obvious in the real world where X and Y work.

Traditionally, the Senate is full of horse-traders and fixers who made it to the top of major parties by honing and applying those skills, including on lower-house members of their own parties. Senators tend to be selected by senior party members: people who appreciate what it is to be a fixer, and who know who’s good at it. By becoming a Senator, a backroom fixer gets paid to do work they had previously done unpaid, or on income drawn from party funds.

Unlike lower-house showponies, fixers tend to shun publicity as it gets in the way of cutting deals. Getting your mug on telly or the front pages is at best vulgar; at worst, publicity is a sign of professional failure for fixers, an indication that a done deal has since become unstuck.

The Senate is largely, and used to be entirely, comprised of major-party fixers. Labor and the Coalition still have the numbers to change election rules so that only their fixers make it into the Senate, and in proportions that reflect the popular vote (or even more: consider that the Coalition won 53% of the two-party-preferred vote in the House, yet have around 60% of seats).

Since World War II we have seen the rise of what we should now call medium parties: those with enough support to elect one Senator where six places are available, but not enough to win a majority or to break through in the House, let alone form a government. Those parties were/are so small that the backroom fixers and the most appealing showponies were the same people. Those people knew you had to hustle to get noticed, while major parties take it for granted.

Founders of those parties – like Vince Gair from the DLP, Don Chipp from the Democrats, or Bob Brown from the Greens – started as lower-house hustlers. In some cases they used publicity to undo done deals, which upset major-party fixers but won populist brownie-points with voters, ensuring they would continue upsetting major-party fixers.

Just when the majors got used to the medium-party fixers, this election saw the rise of the symbiotic party in federal politics. This phenomenon emerged in NSW and South Australia, where state upper houses are elected on a single statewide franchise, in much the same way that Senators are elected. In Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania, upper houses have multi-member electorates, and in Queensland there is no upper house.

The NSW Legislative Council was Australia’s first legislative body, consisting of appointees until 1978 when the Wran government subjected all members to public election on a single statewide franchise. Fred Nile’s Festival of Light and the Democrats showed how parties with a small vote could have a big impact on legislation and policy. In the SA Legislative Council, Democrat Ian Gilfillan regularly upset cosy cross-party deals with calls for greater scrutiny.

In the late 1980s a floundering NSW Labor government made it easier to establish minor parties and get them onto the Legislative Council ballot. At the 1991 NSW election the Legislative Council ballot was more than a metre long, crammed with micro-parties. A man from the Blue Mountains named Alan Corbett set up a party called A Better Future For Our Children, a pithy phrase that stood out on the vast ballot. Even the major parties preferenced him ahead of their opponents: who doesn’t support a better future for our children?

Corbett secured enough votes to avoid elimination early in the count, and was a magnet for preferences. Corbett was friends with Glenn Druery, who had read the electoral rules closely and had established parties appealing to a range of disaffected groups: marijuana and tobacco smokers upset at restrictions on their habits, shooters and fishers upset at regulation of their recreational activities. They were united against regulation arising from environmental and public health concerns, but not united enough to form a single party or become a catspaw of the majors.

While generally free enterprise in outlook, they maintained backdoor channels into the Coalition parties without repelling right-wing Labor voters with similar concerns. When David Leyonhjelm left the Liberal Party in the ‘90s over “nanny state” regulations, he slipped into a netherworld of microparties which have now borne him aloft: this is the political equivalent of the “overnight success” taking years of planning.

When Howard brought in gun control, Arthur Sinodinos was a senior staffer to the Prime Minister, while Leyonhjelm was one pissed-off gun owner. Today Sinodinos is a putative Cabinet Minister and NSW State President of the Liberal Party. From 1 July next year Sinodinos will be negotiating with Leyonhjelm to get Abbott Government legislation through. The power balance between big parties as gatekeepers and small parties as pawns might not have been completely inverted, but it is in flux.

Druery remains the go-to man for micro-party success in NSW, one of which became the Outdoor Recreation Party. In 2011 Barry O’Farrell led the Coalition in NSW to one of the biggest wins in Australian political history, but Legislative Council numbers require him to accommodate Outdoor Recreation (e.g. allowing hunters to fire live ammunition in national parks). O’Farrell may win a majority in both houses at the next election in 2015; if he doesn’t, Glenn Druery will have played a larger role in such a result than the wide boys from NSW Labor.

So how, in practicality, does this all work?

Basically, to get elected to the Senate the first trick is not to get eliminated too early. Then you have to attract enough preferences to secure a quota (one-seventh of the total vote cast in your state, plus one vote, equals a quota to become one of six Senators). That’s what happened to Len Harris from One Nation in 1998, to Family First’s Stephen Fielding in 2004, and the DLP’s John Madigan in 2010. It happened this year to Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party in Victoria and to Wayne Dropulich from the Australian Sports Party in WA. You’ve got to be in it to win it.

The names of their parties were all that most people knew about them. Before you get all upset about that, consider the right-wing control-freaks debasing the name Liberal, or the soft-handed sellouts doing likewise to Labor. Dropulich might be as sincere in his push for more community sporting resources as he is about amateur politics, and it’s not for some Canberra pro to sneer at that.

In NSW, David Leyonhjelm won the luck of the draw when his libertarian Liberal Democratic Party drew the first, far left column on the ballot. The name of his party was easily confused with the Liberal Party. They scored 8%, more than half a quota in their own right, attracting preferences putting them ahead of the Greens’ Cate Faehrmann, and Arthur Sinodinos.

In Queensland and Tasmania, Palmer United stayed in the draw long enough to attract preferences. As I’ll point out in another article, Palmer United is the original Democrats reborn, reaping a rich harvest of moderate Liberal votes (not mine, though). Those two Senate votes, along with Leyonhjelm’s from the far right, represent the limits of the modern Liberal Party. People wanted to vote Coalition, but Tony’s limitations and insistence on control over his party meant they just couldn’t go all the way there.

The reaction of press gallery journalists to the Senate has been fascinating.

No party manifesto in Australian political history has been so comprehensively fulfilled as the agreement between Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott with the Gillard-led ALP. Though they were more loyal to her than many rusted-on Labor members, journalists consistently treated Oakeshott and Windsor as undependable, fair-weather friends who might dump the government at any moment. They are making a similar mistake with the Senators-elect of 2013; News Ltd’s Samantha Maiden compared them to the bar scene from Star Wars while Peter Hartcher of Fairfax, slightly more generously, called them “untested”. It seems politicians are like reporters: either you’re a homogenised product of the majors, or you’re an unreliable freak.

The Senate is hard to poll. Few would stay on the phone long enough to hear dozens of party names read out and then choose one, and delineate preferences. Journalists are not strong enough to break the polling-driven quasi-presidential frame of reporting elections, which is why they are always surprised by a phenomenon that happens regularly and has significant impacts on politics.

If you’re going to reform the Senate, consider what you want the Senate to be, and to do.

Do you want it divided among the majors and crammed with hacks? Do you want any shit-flinging bogan to have a reasonable shot at the legislature (and before you answer, imagine if YouTube had been around in Tony Abbott’s younger days)? Should you not even be allowed to stand unless you have $50m or so behind you, as happens in the US? Bob Brown is proposing the country should be governed like Tasmania, where the governance outcomes make that model less attractive than Brown might hope.

If the current situation is a problem, what’s the answer?

There are 226 members of Federal Parliament. It is perfectly reasonable that any individual or party attracting (1/227 of the total vote cast, plus one vote) should be represented. Any quota would be arbitrary and, under unfortunate circumstances, surmountable by a noxious candidate. It’s true that parties with more support than Australian Motoring Enthusiasts have missed out, but that’s the result of compulsory preferencing (and parties allocating preferences for you, which the majors support). But this is just fiddling around the edges while ignoring the big issues – but isn’t that what Australian politics is all about?

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Cray-fever Season

Spring is here and the allergic reaction of the Australian body politic indicates there’s something more than pollen in the air.

Spring used to be a time when a young man's thoughts turned to not much more than donning an off-the-rack, shiny polyester suit and groping his orange-painted girlfriend on the Public Lawn at Flemington.

But no more.

Spring this year has, if it had any shit left to lose, finally lost all of it.

Tony Abbott is disappointed, really really he is, that there just can't be more women in his new Cabinet. Having draped himself in his own daughters for the past few weeks, it's easy to understand that he's just tired of all that oestregen fogging up the lenses and making everything silly, so I'm prepared to give him what will be the first (I'm sure) of many passes on that one.

I'm not prepared however, to give him a pass on the “sex appeal” comment about Fiona Scott. It's been said long and loud and over and over that this is an insult to women, it relegates them to being ornaments and it shows his true thoughts about 51% of the population.

It does all that, but what it also does is insult men: “hurr hurr she's sexy, I'll vote for her hurr hurr Tony's got good-looking daughters I'll vote for him hurr hurr derp.”

But if Clive Palmer wins a seat after the lunacy he's been spouting all over anyone nearby, then who am I to over-estimate the Australian voter?

Many of the same people who were offended by the personal attacks on Julia Gillard by people who loathed her are now making similar jabs at Sophie Mirabella because, apparently, some loathing is justified. Likewise, “FUCK ABBOTT” is an okay thing to have on a t-shirt whereas “Ditch the Witch” is a wildly wrong thing (you mouth-breathing hate-filled old shithead) to paint on a banner.

On election night, as if the “campaign” hadn't convinced you already, there was more than enough evidence that Spring has sprung a leak in the derp gland.

We've all seen Tanya Plibersek rolling her eyes and mouthing “fuck the fuck off, you fucking cock-sock” it's true. But the ABC, to my eternal disappointment, couldn’t run five hours of that, so did some live crosses and allowed some other people on the panel to speak while Tanya mouthed “fuck off” at them.

There was this strange woman caught puffing on an e-cigarette while Peter Beattie exercised his teeth, for instance. I don’t know if it was her staring at the camera when she was told of its presence, or the disembodied clouds of smoke next to Beattie’s head after she’d backed out of shot, but she gave me some idea of what it must be like to campaign in Queensland.

Back to The Tanya Hates Your Fucking Guts Show: on the subject of Well The ALP’s Pretty Fucked Hey, How Come That? she managed to suppress her rage and disgust at humanity long enough to say “I give us nine out of ten for governing the country, but zero out of ten for governing ourselves”. I was concerned and mildly terrified that the ALP had finally been granted self-government, despite advice from all the experts, but nevertheless it was an apt description of the snakepit that the federal ALP has been since the time of Charlemagne.

After punching Kerry O'Brien in the throat, Tanya went outside for a drink of water and was last seen in the car park kicking Annabel Crabbe’s dog.

We were then treated to Chris Bowen saying the words, without apparently realising that they were words and they were coming out the front of his head on national television, “we owe Kevin Rudd a debt for keeping us competitive, but disunity cost us the election”.

The disunity of an entire career of leaks against his own party? The disunity of turning the Gillard Prime Ministership into three years of “What's Kevin up to this week?” Or perhaps he meant the disunity evident in Julia Gillard's absenting herself from the whole shebang, thereby displaying a dignity that made Rudd look worse than even I could imagine him looking?

While we're on the subject of Kevin, can I just remind you all of his twenty-two-minute concession speech, in which the words “I have telephoned Mr Abbott” were the only ones that formed any part of a concession.

The rest, to the extent that it resembled a speech at all (rather than a roll-call of all the people who were still behind him don't you motherfuckers forget that for a second) was an object lesson in the evolution of the professional politician: spiteful, shallow, egomaniacal and drowning in a self-love that denies the existence of failure.

Abbott was little better, reminding us in about his third sentence that the ALP had done really shit Amiright suffer in your jocks.

In our electorate, Melbourne Ports, the Liberal candidate Kevin Ekendahl failed again to unseat the largely useless Michael Danby, again due to preferences. The Greens and other left-affiliated candidates preferenced against him because Liberal, while the right-wingers preferenced against him because Liberal.

The one shining light in the whole miserable affair was the seat of Indi, showing that good local campaigning (ie listening to the electorate) by a good local candidate can go some way toward fulfilling the promise of our system of government.

It's a small mercy though, because now Sophie Mirabella will have more time to appear on Q&A and The Drum will have someone to write “Geez Labor sucks, isn’t Tony great” when Peter Reith is on holidays.

By the time Gina Rinehart appeared at Bananaby's election party stumps had to be called, for the good of our TV.

After 2010 we’d all pretty much convinced ourselves that that was as bad as an election could get. And if “mandate” means anything (and going by current squawking, it means pretty much whatever you want it to mean), we could be facing a Double Dissolution well before next Spring.

Stock up on anti-histamines and earplugs, because there’s plenty worse to come.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The fundamentals of public debate

How will the left respond to being in opposition? Will the parties and their supporters follow the downward trend of personal attacks to express political disagreement?

There are echoes of the 2007 change of government in all the wailing, cheering and chest beating over the 2013 election results. The difference is that this time it's the right wing commentators gleefully reviewing their win and the left sobbing in outraged disbelief that the rest of the country could be so goddamned STUPID.

Politics, by its very nature, is divisive and polarising, that's immutable, but for the first time in six years the left is on the outside looking in. How is it going to respond to an opponent it perceives to be the antithesis of everything it holds dear, particularly in its care and concern for others?

Labor and Greens supporters were rightly angered by the personal attacks against Julia Gillard. The petty slurs about her appearance, her sexuality, her hobbies, her clothes and her dead father were in no way relevant to her abilities as Prime Minister or Labor party leader, but their source was the right's fury that Gillard and the ALP were in government, which they believe is their rightful place. The downward swirl of insidious viciousness in public debate as the right-wing fury found its focus in Julia Gillard and their hatred of her coloured their every response to the actions of her government.

This personal hatred was expressed in small personal interactions, in the social media swarm, in the mainstream media and in the Houses of Parliament. It was disheartening and frustrating for all involved.

But how will the left respond now that they are in opposition? Will the hatred of a conservative government take form in personal hatred of Tony Abbott? Will it express itself in sneers about his appearance? His sexuality? His clothing? His family? Will they use Photoshop to create offensive images of him? Will they be utterly unable to evaluate everything he does on its merits because their hatred of him means that everything he does, and everything anyone associated with him does, is unarguably wrong? Will they do all the things they would condemn with sincere loathing were it directed against one of their own?

Fundamentalists are always dangerous, whether the basis of their fundamentalism is religious, sexual, political or racial. The nature of fundamentalism is to judge the worth of a person by their adherence to a particular set of binary beliefs. No middle ground exists, no debate of the shades of grey is valid, and anyone who does not fully agree is discarded as a valueless person.

It's tribal behaviour and there's an evolutionary argument for its persistence in all of human history. In the search for scarce resources and community, two of the most basic atavistic drives, one needs to define an “us” with whom to share resources and a “them”, a hated other, from whom the “us” should deny those resources. Humanity has been doing this since we came down from the trees.

In Australia's secular society, political beliefs are more commonly the source of fundamentalism than religion or race (although we are not immune to these issues either). And it is not confined to one side of politics, regardless of how much both sides believe that it is solely the province of the “other”.

The sort of fundamentalism that the left hate so much in their right wing rivals is equally prevalent in their own ranks. And displays itself with equally dehumanising cruelty. Anyone they perceive to be outside their core beliefs is anathema, and the requirements of courtesy or consideration they value so highly in dealing with each other are not required in dealing with the “other”.

The problem with this fundamentalist view of the world is that it continually reinforces itself. Sins against the other are not perceived as wrong, because “we” are too good to be capable of truly evil acts, while the sins of the other are viewed through the prism of them being the embodiment of all that is evil and therefore deserving of any form of attack.

This is the nature of fundamentalism and it is present in every fundamentalist.

I'd like to believe that most of us on the left will not fall too far into this trap; that some recognition of our core values will remain to us. That our basic principle - skin colour, sexuality, gender, religion or political beliefs do not define a person's value - will hold true even when we are dealing with those we perceive as our enemies. But all I have to do is look at my own social media feed, the way I talk about Sophie Mirabella and Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott. The perceived wrongs they commit seem to justify any disparagement in the heat of the moment. It's difficult to think of Sophie Mirabella as a person, someone who deserves compassion, a point of view, a reasoned debate and an objective hearing when my perception of her is that she is so detestable.

But this is how Andrew Bolt, Piers Ackerman and Sophie Mirabella herself think about us. Is this what we aspire to? To be the same as the commentators we despise?

In the cut and thrust of daily debate it's too easy to forget the values we claim to hold and too easy to give in to partisan passions. It's way too easy to become the monster instead of fighting against it. This, more than anything else a conservative government can do to us, makes me sad.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The secret diary of Tony Abbott

Tribune Exclusive: extracts of Tony Abbott’s campaign diary, smuggled out of Abbott’s bedside table by our master under-cover journalist, Ben Pobjie.

Friday, September 6

Went for a run in the morning. Thirty kilometres. Felt a bit bad for slacking off so when I got home punched myself in the stomach for fifteen minutes. Felt better. All through breakfast had nagging feeling there was something I was supposed to do today. Asked Margie but she had no idea. Asked Frances but she had decided she would only be speaking in burps today. Finally Bridget let me know that the election was tomorrow. I’d almost forgotten! I’m such a dag!

Morning meeting with Julie, to go over some details about the portfolio she’ll have after tomorrow. “Don’t forget Julie: the election’s not over yet,” I warned her, and we had a good laugh. She loves my sense of humour. She showed me a model of India she’d made out of egg cartons. It was pretty good but she’d given it wheels, which I don’t think the real India has. I told her it was great. “I’m a real foreigner!” she beamed. I let her have the moment. She’s earned it. Loyal girl. Loyal, loyal girl.

Had lunch with Bridget. She was looking smokin’ in a tan pantsuit. So proud. She told me that after the election she was considering becoming governor-general. I told her I would help her any way I could, but couldn’t guarantee anything: it’s really up to the Reserve Bank.

After lunch had a last-ditch tour of the electorate. Visited local merchants and showed them how much I could bench-press: they seemed impressed. Met one old lady who said she wouldn’t vote for me: laughed it off, but later on cried a lot in bed. Margie comforted me with a rusk. She really is quite a woman.

Saturday, September 7

Election day! Started off with a light 50km run before eating a few eggs to keep my energy levels up. Michelle Bridges is right: they DO taste better with the shells on. Then I had to vote, which was a bit of a drag: bo-ring! Margie kept me entertained while we waited though, with her impressions of famous Liberal leaders. She is amazing: her Brendan Nelson is absolutely uncanny. Unfortunately Brendan was behind us in the line and things got a bit tense.

When it came time to vote, I got a bit daunted by the Senate paper. It was huge. It said I could vote above the line or below it, but I did both because I plan to govern for all Australians. For the House of Representatives I forgot for a minute which party I’m in, so I just wrote “ME” at the top and drew smiley faces in all the boxes. I think they’ll get the gist.

After voting I was at a bit of a loose end, so I went for a 50km swim. Got attacked by a few sharks, but managed to fight them off. Felt very prime ministerial. On the way back to the office, got a call from Joe. He told me he’d just realised it’s called a Treasury because it has treasure in it. I told him that was great and I’d give him a star on his Joe Chart. He was very happy.

Felt very tense all afternoon. The girls tried to relax me by performing a little play they’d written, called “Minxy Flickster Builds A Church”. It was absolutely brilliant. Made me feel a lot better. Read my “How To Be A Prime Minister” pamphlet. It helped a bit, but I wish I had one that I hadn’t written myself. I’m not sure if I’m ready to be prime minister. Rang George B and asked him if I was. He said yes so I guess that’s OK.

Spent the evening watching the tallies come in. A lot of people seemed to vote for me, which was quite nice really. I suggested ringing them to say thank you, but Margie said it would take too long. Why won’t she let me be me?

All through the night the people on TV kept talking about “seats”. I asked Mr Howard if I had a seat. He told me I had a very safe seat which was a relief. I asked if it was a nice one, but he didn’t seem to hear me.

After a few hours I got a phone call from Kevin. Sure I made a huge fool of myself – I always go into such a giggly mess when I talk to him! He congratulated me, I suppose on my seat being so safe. I congratulated him back. “Thanks, I really deserve it,” he said, and he does. I think he’ll do well in future. I asked him if I was prime minister yet. He hung up. I asked Margie and she said I would be soon. So happy I went for a run.

After that I had to make a speech, which I hate. But Margie wrote all the words out for me to read so it wasn’t too bad I suppose. Everyone cheered, which was nice – I bet it was because they noticed the definition in my laterals.

Got a call from Sophie Mirabella. Hard to make out what she was saying – sounded like she was underwater. Had to hang up on her anyway because Julie had come in and was asking who I wanted in my cabinet. I told her nobody, I wanted a bit of personal space.

Sunday, September 8

Woke up and went cycling. A lot of people high-fived me as I rode past, which was great to see – I love how into cycling people are. Cycled for a few hours, then went back to my office to work on repealing the carbon tax. I printed out “NO CARBON TAX PLEASE” on a piece of glossy paper, but Peta said it would take more than that. I said I would print out some more, but she said there’d have to be a “vote”. Can’t believe it – we just HAD a vote! Got a bit grumpy, so Peta sent me to my room. Joke’s on her, that’s where my Ninjagos are! Played with them all day. Scott Morrison dropped by but I was busy so I just told him he could have as many boats as he wanted.

Monday, September 9

Got up at 4am, ran fifty laps of the house, went back to bed. Very uncomfortable sleep – all the girls insisted on getting into bed with us, and I nearly fell out several times. When I got up again later, I had to do a bunch of interviews. Had a chat to Ray Hadley: I wanted to talk about my parental leave plan, but he seemed to just want to ask me about antiques. He wanted to know what the biggest antique I’d ever seen was. He said his was a piano. Got a bit freaked out when he started begging me to come home with him and look at his big piano, and then accused me of never having even seen a grandfather clock. Made my excuses and left after half an hour. Later on Peta told me we weren’t actually on the radio. A bit worried about Ray.

Did interview with Chris Kenny. He asked me what my sperm count was. Told him my sperm was committed to direct action. He seemed satisfied. Asked me at the end of the interview to autograph his daughter. Was happy to. A big part of a prime minister’s job is signing autographs, and I think it’s one of the thing I did best.

Was in the middle of my usual afternoon triathlon when I got a worrying call: Sophie had been arrested taking possession of consignment of smuggled machine guns. Bailed her out, but I was furious. Asked her why she did it: she told me it was just a hobby. But I have my suspicions: she has a tattoo of Cathy McGowan sitting on her own severed head taking up her entire back. Told Margie about my suspicions: she wanted to know how I knew what was on Sophie’s back. Explained that I always made regular physical examinations of all my MPs. Explanation backfired when Margie made me prove it by physically examining Eric Abetz. Very awkward, especially later on when I got a presentation boxed long-stemmed single red rose from Eric.

Dinner with Chris Pyne in the evening. He wouldn’t stop running around the table yelling “WHEEEEEEEE!” Told him he was embarrassing me and to sit down, but he refused. I think he might be off his medication. When our meals arrived he threw his fish at the waitress. Told him if he didn’t stop it he couldn’t be Education Minister: this made him sulk. From then on he would only speak in surly grunts and it was impossible to discuss school funding. Gave up and went home. As I left the restaurant Chris was dancing on the table.

Tuesday, September 10

Early-morning run with Bridget, who was looking positively edible. It’s great being a father. Asked her how she was going with the governor-general thing. She said she’d changed her mind and joined the army instead. She’s doing army by correspondence, so she’ll be able to stay at home, which is nice. Great to see her giving something back to the country.

Today was the day the new government gets down to business. Told Joe to start work on the budget emergency. Joe had lost his calculator. Told him to use the one on his phone. He said his phone was locked and he’d forgotten the password. Julie let him borrow her phone. Joe dropped it and cracked the screen. Julie punched him. Joe cried and ran away. It was a start, but we have a long way to go before the budget is in surplus again.

Asked Julie what her plans for foreign policy were. She got her guitar out and played me a song she’d written about Brazil. It was pretty good, I had to admit.

Next meeting was with Barnaby. Didn’t last long – he tried to shoot me as soon as I opened the door, so I made my excuses. On the way out bumped into Warren Truss. Apologised, but he said not to worry, people often mistook him for furniture. Asked him if he was glad about the election result. He said it was hard to take notice of events on such a brief timescale when one had lived through millennia.

Spent the afternoon walking the streets yelling “Open for business!” until Peta made me go inside. She really does not know how to have fun.

Dinner with Margie and the girls. Thanked them for all their efforts during the campaign and said they could eat at the big person’s table for once as a reward. While they were doing the dishes, called Sophie to see how she was holding up. She told me she was outside my house in a tree.

Too afraid to leave house. May have to abdicate.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 11 September 2013

More independent schools? Really?

The Coalition wants to encourage public schools to become independent. How much will that change our public school system?

It’s amazing what you can work out with primary school maths. I worked out, for instance, that the centrepiece of the Coalition's school policy is completely redundant.

Christopher Pyne’s biggest campaign pledge was “to encourage 25% of existing public schools to become Independent Public Schools by 2017.” This initiative is supported by a $70 million Independent Public Schools Fund to facilitate the transition of schools to this controversial alternative model, where schools largely get to run themselves.

But this has already been achieved!

Australia had 6,697 public schools in 2012. 25% of this figure is 1,674.

Western Australia will have 255 self-managing public schools by the end of 2013.

Victoria has 1,535 public schools, all of which have been self-managing (aka independent public schools) for almost twenty years. In fact, Victoria’s successful public schools served as the model for the recent Western Australian reforms. 1535 + 255 = 1790. Which is more than 1674.

Don't believe me? Look up these figures for yourself. They're from the Australian Bureau of Statistic's annual report on Australian schools, released a few months ago.

This alarming fact was brought to the direct attention of mainstream media in the week before the election. The story was not published or broadcast. It’s not like voters ever rate education high on their electoral agenda… Oh wait…

The question was also raised with the federal Coalition on Twitter. Did they know their policy was redundant? If so, why release it as their centrepiece and what will happen to the $70 million? If not, how on earth did they not know this basic information about Australia's school systems?

It is possible that the Coalition and Australia’s new education minister Christopher Pyne may argue that their policy excludes Victorian public schools, which are already the most autonomous public schools in the country. But this would be a complete misrepresentation of their policy document which explicitly states “25 per cent of existing public schools”. No caveats. Read the words for yourself on page eight of their school policy document.

Given the number of years the Coalition had to prepare their policy, these questions deserve an immediate response.

Alas, this is not the only schools policy fact they are fudging. Tony Abbott and Pyne also repeatedly declared they would were offering the same “funding envelope” as the Labor Party, with whom they were on a unity ticket. But, the devil is in the detail. Their pledge is to match Labor “dollar for dollar over the next four years” only (page 5). HALF of the Gonski funding increase was scheduled to flow to schools in five and six years’ time. Depending on how you slice and dice it, this is about $7 billion less. Schools with the greatest need, those educating the most disadvantaged young Australians, will continue to have their needs unmet.

(NB for a quick explainer on Independent Public Schools and their effectiveness, click here.)

Published in Weekly Email

I’ve been battling with this for a long time. But I’ve finally made a choice. It’s not one I’m entirely comfortable with, but I think it’s the best of all the available options.

I've spent the last few years pulling apart the major parties in thought, words and shouty late night arguments. In their current formations they are equally uninspiring, there is no need for me to wish a pox upon both their houses; both their houses are utterly poxy. The few policy differences are difficult to choose between because internal division and leadership failure on both sides, make it unlikely the policies on offer now will ever become reality.

So, in search of something to help me make a decision, I turned my attention to local politics. Who are the local candidates? What would they do with a seat at the table? Which of them would I want to represent me and the needs of my community in parliament?

I've lived in St Kilda most of my adult life. Michael Danby has been the invisible member for the safe Labor seat of Melbourne Ports almost as long as I've lived here.

Danby is only visible to the Jewish community. He's a hard right, Labor machine man, with a conservative religious agenda, and he’s far more interested in Israel's needs than the needs of the disparate Melbourne Ports community. He was noticeably absent from the vigil for Tracy Connelly; noticeably absent from any local efforts to improve the lot of the extremely disadvantaged sections of our area; noticeably absent from the ALP's efforts to steer the country through the GFC, price carbon or fix the health system. His presence was noticeable only in certain areas of foreign affairs and in the internal Labor leadership battles. He does not, in any way, represent me or the things I think are important. Nor is he interested in doing so.

Danby is either going to continue to be an absent, anti-Rudd member of the government or, far more likely, an invisible backbencher in a Labor opposition.

The liberal candidate, Kevin Ekendahl, is progressive, engaged, intelligent and very present in all aspects of the local community. The fact that he is Jewish, openly gay, male and a liberal party member does not in any way prevent him from listening to or working well with the local constituents who are none of these things. He is engaged in both the small (lights and trees) and large (economy and jobs) concerns of the electorate. He has demonstrated that he will stick to principles over political gain and he would be a much-needed voice of reason in the inevitable Abbott government, alleviating the worst excesses of the hard right liberals. Or, in the unlikely event of a Labor win, he would be another progressive voice in the Liiberal’s choice of a new leader and policy direct. Either way, I want him in parliament because it’s better for my electorate and for the entire country if he is.

And so, for the first time in my life, after long and difficult thought, I am going to vote Liberal. My feelings about Tony Abbott are fairly well documented, but I am not voting for Tony Abbott, I am not voting for a coalition government, I am voting for a man I believe would make a great MP and a valuable addition to parliament.

If you live in Melbourne Ports and you've not yet decided how to vote, come to the Honey Bar In South Melbourne tonight for Politics in the Pub. Listen to Ekendahl, ask him what he plans to do in parliament if he wins. If nothing else, you’ll have an entertainingly wonky night out and having a bit more information on which to base your vote can’t be a bad thing.


@safzoro wrote a very well thought out and intelligent response to this post, which you can read here. In response to her and to the many other’s horrified by my decision, here’s my reasoning: This is something I’ve been wrestling with for a very long time. In the end, I wrote down all the possible outcomes and added up the scores.

1. Coalition win, Ekendahl wins – he’d be a voice of reason from the back bench and another progressive vote in the party room, hopefully acting as a brake on the worst excesses of Mirabella et al

2. Coalition wins, Danby wins – he’d be a pointless and invisible member on the backbench of the opposition

3. Labor wins, Ekendahl wins – Abbott is gone if he loses this election, Ekendahl would be another vote for progressive leader (hopefully Turnbull) and may help push the nutbag right wingers back. And in the meantime, would be an effective local MP.

4. Labor wins, Danby wins – Danby is vocally anti-Rudd. He’ll continue to be a destabilizing force inside the labor party and continue to ignore the needs of his electorate. But for us, bad for Labor.

There’s no good outcome in Danby winning and no bad one if Ekendahl does.

However, Paddy is right, the swing required here for Ekendahl to win is too high, particularly when everyone is preferencing against him. The left leaning parties hate him because he’s the Liberal candidate, the right hate him because he’s progressive. Sadly, he’s not going to win. If he does, it means the overall swing against Labor was so high that they’ll almost be entirely wiped out and my vote won’t really matter.

But Danby needs to stop taking this seat for granted and the ALP need to think more carefully about him at the next preselection. So I can’t see any benefit in voting for Danby or any loss in voting for Ekendahl.


Published in The Shout