Abbott and the Goebbels Factor

As an example of emotion overwhelming reason, there is no more compelling one in Federal politics than the indifferent standing our PM enjoys in the eyes of the electorate, judged by the one metric that is regularly thrust in our faces as a legitimate measure – opinion polls. Leaving aside their validity and reliability, both of which are questionable, let’s look at other measures of her popularity and the respect in which she is held, together with her actual performance, and see how these tally with her poll ratings.

‘Softer’ measures include the reaction of individuals, groups of people, and those attending community events. From all accounts, PM Gillard is well received when she meets person to person with people whether in small numbers or in larger gatherings. She is personable, charming, and easy going. Even her detractors concede that. So the dislike of Julia Gillard that is evidenced in some sectors of the community seems not to be related to an abrasive manner, or social ineptitude, or snobbishness, or rudeness. She comes across as a pleasant person to meet, and with whom to converse. Think about the many TV clips we have seen of her with schoolchildren, parents, teachers and school administrators. Has anyone witnessed unbecoming behaviour? It seems that we have to give her a tick for interpersonal relationships at this level.

Reflect on her performance in larger forums such as community meetings. In all that I have witnessed she comes across as attentive to questions, respectful of questioners, intelligent, articulate, honest and non-evasive in her answers, and almost always convincing. While there has been the occasional heckler who has harangued her, for the most part audiences have been respectful and attentive, and the feedback largely positive. While some might give her the thumbs down, most do not. Another tick.

Think about her many appearances at workplaces, replete with hard-hat and fluoro vest, and reflect on how she has handled them. While the accoutrements irritate some, they seem to be required dress. Here again, she answers questions directly and clearly, and makes her points pithily, complying as all pollies need to do with the demand of TV viewers and radio audiences for brevity. Some may contest her statements or debate her reasoning, but few would assert that she fails to make her position clear.

Recall her more formal addresses to conferences, business gatherings, the National Press Club, and to political or social institutes. To me, she has presented herself well and stated her case soundly. Her speeches read well. Of course some disagree with her ideology, her policies, her plans, but that is the norm in political life for any politician. Some political commentators have lamented what they describe as her lack of a narrative, but rarely give a clue about how that narrative might read. Likewise, they bemoan a paucity of vision, but again never spell out what vision they expect. They long too for ‘leadership’, search for it, but never seem to see it, let alone tell us what they seek. In my opinion, the calls for a narrative, for a vision, for leadership, are no more than easy catchphrases that journalists use, knowing that their readers will be impressed with their erudition but will almost never probe them about what form a narrative, a vision and inspired leadership might take. Without this explanation, these words are just a journalistic cop-out; empty, albeit plausible, words.

I first wrote about this in September 2008 in In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative. Having spelt out the elements of a narrative, I detailed the Rudd ‘narrative’ that I had heard over and again, ending with: “So there it is. Although the words scarcely lend themselves to soaring oratory, they do have the potential to catch attention and engender assent. There’s nothing there that we haven’t heard before. It’s just an aggregation of announcements that have been made by the Rudd Government since its election. Is this the narrative columnists are so eagerly seeking, or something like it? Maybe we’ve all heard the narrative over and again without realizing it.”

Then in October 2010 I wrote, The enigma of the ‘overarching’ narrative a term used by Paul Keating in his book After Words. Again, somewhat exasperated, I concluded: “The Gillard Government does have a clearly articulated ‘overarching and compelling story’. Many of us can see its narrative, but according to Keating many can’t, and of course many won’t because they don’t want to.”

I wrote about vision in Julia Gillard’s Vision for the Asian Century in November 2011.

‘Leadership’ too has been the subject of several pieces. In August 2010 there was The enigma of leadership; in February 2011 Leadership - what do the people want; and in August 2011 What is political leadership – Do you know?

Before anyone comes here condemning Julia Gillard for a lack of a narrative, or vision, or leadership, please read these pieces first.

She has twice appeared solo on Q&A for hour-long questioning, sometimes from hostile questioners, and has done well. The amount of positive feedback that resulted suggested that there was approval by many.

She has often appeared on 7.30, and although sometimes subject to hostile questioning, has answered firmly, maintained her equanimity, and has got her message across. Last night’s appearance was superb.

Recently she entered the social media environment with an hour-long session on Google+ Hangout. I watched it all and found her performance polite and respectful and her responses plausible and in line with her stated positions. Some will disagree with some of these positions, but when two thirds gave her a ‘dislike’ rating, were they expressing dislike of her policies and positions, or their dislike of her personally?

So far I’m scratching to find anything of moment to hang around our PM’s neck. She seems to perform well in these community environments, yet the opinion polls, for what they are worth, tell us that for a long while now she has had a higher disapproval rating than approval. What is the basis for that disapproval?

How does she perform on the international stage? Despite her initial uncertainty about how she would handle relations with other heads of state, she has done well, is respected by them and gets along well with the greatest of them all, President Obama being a case in point. Although some criticized her initial apprehension, few have said anything derogatory since.

What about her parliamentary performance? Most commentators would give her credit for her ability in Question Time to answer questions, no matter how nasty or curly, often without notes, and when she uses them, she seems to have anticipated the question and has facts and figures at her fingertips. She has had the better of her questioners, much to the chagrin of the Leader of the Opposition and the Manager of Opposition business. Despite them heaping venomous abuse on her day after day, she has maintained her equanimity and countered them with verve. Even her opponents would give her a tick for her parliamentary style.

In parliamentary committees, and in COAG, an example of which we saw yesterday, she maintains control, will not tolerate intimidation, and does not buckle under duress. The Independents testify to her friendliness, her skill in negotiation, and her willingness to find solutions and sometimes accept compromises to ‘get things done’, to use her phrase.

Whenever she speaks, no matter on what subject, she seems to be across her brief thoroughly, a formidable task for any national leader in today’s complex world.

I’m still wondering why she is so unpopular with much of the electorate.

What about her appearance? It seems that she has been subject of much unwarranted criticism. But about what? Her jackets, her jewellery or lack of it, her earlobes and earrings, her pointy nose, and of course ‘her big backside’? Hardly objects worthy of censure! Then there is her voice, her ocker accent, her drawl. Again, is this aspect of our PM more off-putting than Bob Hawke’s gravelly diction, John Howard’s voice, both the butt of comic mimicking, or the whining voice of Billy McMahon? Is it because she is a woman that she cops so much?

Is her marital status a reason for voters’ disapproval, or her childlessness, or her atheism? Or her opposition to same-sex marriage? For some it may be, but any or all of them are hardly a substantial reason for the level of disapproval we see.

Let’s then look at her policies. There is no doubt that some have generated deep antagonism among some voters. The ‘carbon tax’, the minerals tax, and her asylum seeker strategy are policies that have all evoked virulent criticism from many. No doubt that explains some of her unpopularity. All politicians suffer unpopularity among those of a different ideological view, but while such differences evoke disagreement, even antagonism, it is unusual for them to evoke the strong feelings about PM Gillard that many voters have, in some instances amounting to profound dislike, even vitriolic hatred.

Some dislike her, not just because of her policies, but also because of what they deem to be her incompetence. How many times have you heard her described as hopeless, inept, without a clue, error prone, never able to get anything right, indecisive, a poor decision maker, a back-flipper, in fact the worst PM this country has ever had, leading ‘a bad government, getting worse’, one that is bungling and ‘chaotic’? But this assessment does not tally with her actual performance.

She has led a reforming Government, has successfully tackled some of the thorniest issues of our time – climate change, tax reform, education, health and disability reforms, social welfare and parental leave reforms, and a variety of critically vital infrastructure projects, the NBN being the largest. Even forming a minority Government required consummate negotiating skills, ones superior to those of the Opposition Leader, and keeping it going has required both skill and perseverance. The result is over 330 pieces of legislation passed already; the only ones pending are those for which Coalition or Greens’ support is needed but wanting.

An objective and fair appraisal of performance would have to rate PM Gillard’s and her Government’s efforts to date as first class, even if not agreeing with the substance of some of the legislation passed. She has got things done. Many, many things! And in the process, only two ministers, Joel Fitzgibbon and Kevin Rudd have been removed from their portfolios. The Gillard Government has been an efficient and active one, already having passed three times as much legislation as the Howard Government did in its first term. So she and her Government should get a big tick for achievement.

On top of that, all the parameters of Australia’s economy are excellent. The economy is booming, the best by far in the developed world. The Rudd and the Gillard governments have managed it brilliantly.

There must be much more to explain why this personable, intelligent, well-informed, hardworking, efficient and accomplished PM is so unpopular.

Let’s get down to what I believe is the nub of Julia Gillard’s unpopularity problem – the image that has been indelibly stamped on her persona by Tony Abbott, Coalition members, shock jocks and the media. She has been portrayed as a back-stabber, disloyal, treacherous, untrustworthy, deceitful, and, most of all, a liar.

First, the way in which she came to power has rebounded on her head almost from the day she replaced Kevin Rudd, certainly from when, during the election campaign, Laurie Oakes asked his question about that fateful night. Although right up until the last moment she stated repeatedly and genuinely that she did not want prime ministership and agreed to allow her name to go forward only under pressure from the powerbrokers, she has been tagged ever since as a backstabber, especially by Queenslanders, many of whom still hold Kevin Rudd in high regard, and feel he was poorly treated. She has unfairly copped most of the ignominy of that event, while the perpetrators have slinked away.

Tony Abbott and his Coalition colleagues have ensured that this event has been imprinted on her as a cattleman brands his beasts. In the eyes of those who despise her, she might as well have it seared into her forehead for all to see. Every time they look at her, no matter what she is doing or saying, they see this branding, and like any branding, it will never disappear. The true story behind her coming to prime ministership is irrelevant to them; all that they see is the metaphorical brand in the centre of her forehead. Sadly, no matter how many good things she does, some will never credit her, will never forgive her for her ‘back-stabbing’ of Kevin Rudd. Who are these people? I suspect that most are Coalition supporters, but some will be disenchanted Labor supporters, whom Labor needs to enfold again.

But the most damaging tag that has been indelibly applied to her is the ‘liar’ label. This has arisen from her change of tack over an emissions trading scheme, something she committed herself to during the 2010 election, but it turned out to be an undertaking she was unable to deliver once she was confronted with a hung parliament that required negotiation to bring about a workable minority government. She had to compromise to achieve government. She had to put aside her: ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead’, something she really meant when she said it. What she wanted was an emissions trading scheme from the outset, without a preliminary price on carbon. She could not achieve that, so she had the option of having nothing or having a compromise solution. She chose the latter and has been demonized for that decision ever since. Only the occasional journalist paints the true sequence of events, the true picture.

It is a LIE to say that she has broken a solemn promise; it is FALSE to call her a liar because she compromised with the Greens and the Independents to achieve a workable outcome rather than none at all. Yet that is what Tony Abbott, his Coalition members and his sycophants in the media, Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Co. have done with ferocity seldom seen even in the rough and tumble of Federal politics. They have called her ‘Ju-liar’, and have associated themselves with placards bearing ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’. Jones has said that she and Bob Brown and sundry others should be put in a hessian bag, taken out to sea and left to swim back, something he has repeated many times. Graeme Morris has said she ‘should be kicked to death’. Their venom is incredible.

Abbott, Jones and Hadley have repeatedly demonized our PM, treated her with disdain and have done this publically. They have repeated ‘Ju-liar’ endlessly. Is it any surprise that the polls, the one measure of popularity that journalists use, remain persistently poor for Julia Gillard and her Government? And every time the polls are in the field, particularly Newspoll, News Limited ensures that its pages are filled with stories condemnatory of her and her Government, thereby ensuring the continuation of poor polling for Labor and her personally. Each poll influences those that follow; each bout of relentless negativity feeds into the next, in a vicious spiral that defies recovery.

This is where the Goebbels Factor comes into play. As Hitler’s Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany, Goebbels built his strategy on this dictum: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” He went onto say: “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State (my bolding).”

Abbott, Jones, Hadley and their followers have used this strategy consistently and tellingly since the 2010 election, when Abbott believed he was robbed of his rightful place as Prime Minister of this nation.

Another of Goebbels’ dictums was: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over”. Again, Abbott has used that Goebbels strategy to great effect.

Another Goebbels aphorism: “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play”, illustrates exactly how Abbott has managed his anti-Gillard propaganda; the press, particularly News Limited, has been deeply complicit.

In summary, this piece argues that by any reasonably objective measure, Julia Gillard has been an outstanding, if not perfect Prime Minister. She and her Government have introduced a series of profound reforms designed to set this nation up for a low carbon economy and the Asian Century, and has achieved great success against the odds, in the face of the most venomous opposition and obstruction. The economy is prospering.

Our PM is a personable, devoted and intelligent leader, determined to bring Australia into the era ahead, well equipped to take advantage of what the new age offers. Yet she stands condemned by so many voters, persuaded by the Abbott/Jones/Hadley propaganda that she is an evil, back stabbing liar that must be thrown from office as soon as possible.

It is ironic that it is Canberra’s most habitual liar, Tony Abbott, who leads the ‘Ju-liar’ charge.

So far the Goebbels Factor is working for Abbott and his sycophants. Most of the media is doing everything it can to perpetuate the Goebbels strategy, with just a few Fairfax and independent journalists and the Fifth Estate fighting a rearguard against this formidable foe.

For some, even some in Labor circles, the struggle against these forces seems too hard. They look for an opportunity to throw in the towel, to let the polls, and the media that use them against Julia Gillard and her Government, have their way.

Such surrender is cowardly. What is Labor if its supporters surrender to the malevolent forces that seek to destroy it using Abbott’s evil Goebbels Factor? Julia Gillard remains defiant, refusing to submit to death by opinion poll, refusing to let Abbott’s Goebbels Factor triumph, refusing ‘to lie down and die’. Her supporters need to get resolutely behind her.

What do you think?

The pathology of leadership speculation

I use the word ‘pathology’ advisedly, meaning as it does ‘the study and diagnosis of disease’. For a ‘disease’ it is, a disease that afflicts politicians and commentators alike. While curiosity about leadership is understandable and ‘normal’, the contemporaneous obsessive preoccupation with leadership is pathological. In the same way as fear of spiders might be natural, morbid fear of them that governs and controls behaviour abnormally, is pathological.

Some will argue that leadership speculation is natural, that we saw it in the Hawke/Keating contest, and in the Howard/Costello one too, and that today’s speculation is no different. But can any reader document a more intense and persistent period of speculation than we have seen since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister? Some will argue that there are good reasons for that, a subject we shall explore.

Let’s leave aside past speculation, which led to the confrontation between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd in February that resulted in a 71/31 vote in her favour, and focus on the pathology of the speculation that has arisen in the last few weeks.

As with all natural phenomena, the factors that contribute to an outcome are complex. Simplistic explanations are almost always incomplete, and have unsatisfactory elucidatory value. So let’s try to tease out when and why this most recent outbreak of speculation occurred.

But let’s first acknowledge that it did not arise de novo. There has been a chronic history of speculation, speculation that was often just under the surface, but which erupted from time to time. Like a chronic abscess, it has festered, showing at times small amounts of ‘discharge’, and then settled, only to later erupt and discharge copious amounts of political pus. As every doctor knows, a deep seated abscess that has not been satisfactorily drained will continue accumulating purulent material, at times showing no external discharge, but from time to time erupting onto the surface as pressure builds to bursting point. This will go on indefinitely until the infected tissue and the infecting organisms are completely removed, sometimes surgically.

The leadership dissent pathogen has been present in the Labor body at least since dissatisfaction with Kevin Rudd began and markedly so from when he was removed and replaced by Julia Gillard. The extent of the pathology became starkly manifest at the time of the February confrontation, when many exasperated ministers made statements about Kevin Rudd for the first time, statements that underscored the extent of their dissatisfaction with his past and present performance, and the degree of the pathology that existed. The outcome was the lancing and evacuation of the abscess and the reaffirmation of Julia Gillard as the leader, the Prime Minister. That ought to have been the end of the matter. The abscess, having been drained, ought to have subsided and healed. But it didn’t. Some determined that they would continue to contaminate the Labor body, to keep infection dormant, but ready to flare up again.

These malcontents, intentionally or inadvertently, fed the rumour mill, into which the Canberra Press Gallery taps for its tidbits: the whispers, the scuttlebutt, the gossip. And always eager to seize upon any morsel that might make a story, they hover around the corridors ever hopeful of a scoop. They could of course ignore these tidbits, but the temptation is too great. They tick all the boxes: entertaining, sensational, loaded with conflict, involving people in high places, capable of inflicting damage, and for some columnists, if the damage is to Labor and the PM, so much the better.

When leadership speculation is categorized as ‘a media beat-up’, the faces of some journalists become suffused with anger and denial, insisting as they always do that their stories are based on actual happenings. How authentic these are is questionable; one gets the impression of a willingness by some journalists to make a highly speculative mountain out of a very tentative molehill.

Still there are some shadowy Labor figures that lurk in the corridors dropping hints and innuendo that journalists seize upon, and enlarge into ‘a federal case’. Who are they?

We don’t know because their identity is protected by their contacts. But on Q&A last week we saw one: Joel Fitzgibbon. This round of speculation seemed to flare up then. The chronic abscess began to discharge again.

We were astonished to see Joel so comprehensively ambushed by Tony Jones. Joel, you must have known that as Government minister and Whip, you were bound to be confronted by a question about leadership, and a Tony Jones attempt at a gotcha. He has an obsession with these and with ‘will you confirm’ or ‘will you deny’, and ‘will you guarantee’ questions. A brief work shopping of possible questions and your answers would soon have equipped you to give a non-controversial answer. Instead you were caught flat-footed and answered in a way that fed the media for the next week. Asked if you could guarantee that Julia Gillard would be in place at the next election, all you had to say was ‘Yes’ – no ifs or buts or qualifications or caveats. But as soon as you added those caveats, Jones jumped, and so did all the anti-Gillard columnists listening in. Michelle Grattan must have leapt for joy. Your equivocation, and your unnecessary reference to the Newcastle Knights, was manner from heaven for the anti-Gillard group. What we don’t know is whether your performance on Q&A, replete with your enigmatic smile, was intended to damage your leader, or was just an exhibition of your ineptitude. Nor do we know whether your appearance the next day on several TV and radio programs was an inept attempt to repair the damage, or to accentuate it. We do wish you would declare your hand, and if you are working behind the scenes to erode our PM’s stature, that you would come out and say so. We can’t work out where you do stand. And if you are against your leader, why do you continue as her numbers man. How do you think being anti-Gillard will advance Labor’s cause?

Let’s leave conjecture about Fitzgibbon aside and acknowledge that from the moment he uttered his words on Q&A the floodgates opened. The 11 pm news carried the item and it was a feature of the news for the next day, and beyond. It fuelled countless stories about Julia Gillard’s leadership, on radio, TV and in the press. Michelle Grattan was ecstatic; it gave her many column inches for several days. The whole leadership issue was tediously dissected and analysed. Every morsel of ‘confirmatory’ evidence of a threat to her leadership was blown up to spectacular proportions. New deadlines were set for her to reach a performance target.

And what was the target? That she pass this piece of legislation or that? That she reach an acceptable position on the asylum seeker issue; that she successfully rebut the spurious Abbott anti-carbon tax scaremongering; that she demonstrate the strength of the economy; that she protect jobs in manufacturing; that she perform well on the international stage? No, no, no, no, no, no – it was none of these ‘inconsequential’ tasks. What she was to be judged on was whether she could raise Labor’s primary vote to a specified level by a specified date!!! But the specifications varied! Can you believe it? Her detractors insisted that she raise the primary vote, not at the next election, or even in a by-election, but in the opinion polls!!! Opinion polls that this far from the next scheduled election have no predictive value. Can you believe it? Unfortunately we must.

Politicians and columnists have become pathologically obsessed with opinion polls of voting intention and focus groups. This is another pathogen that infects the chronic leadership speculation abscess.

And they are no ordinary politicians and columnists. Steve Bracks has joined the throng navel-gazing at the polls. So has the usually balanced Mike Carlton. Even the highly respected Laura Tingle seems inclined this way. All their dire prognostications are built on unreliable and non-predictive opinion polls of voting intention. How could they allow themselves to be so conned by the pollsters, who incidentally give much less credence to their polls than do the owners of the polls who use them as fodder for countless columns and predictive pieces. Imagine how much harder journalists would have to work without opinion polls. Leadership speculation would be muted without the data polls provide, and prediction of electoral outcomes would be sterile. Polls and focus groups are the lifeblood of political commentary. While it is understandable that this is so for political journalists, why is it so for the politicians themselves? How have they fallen for this grotesque confidence trick?

We can be thankful that we have Ross Gittins and Peter Martin still prepared to state things the way they are, untainted by poll gazing. We are grateful that sensible commentators like Andrew Catsaras remind us about the reality of polls and focus groups. In a piece in The Drum Opinion Take me to your follower: into the leadership void on 19 July, he says: “A major contributor to this problem [of leadership] is the gradual adoption of techniques by the profession of politics that were developed for the profession of marketing.

“Most responsible is the distorted application of two traditional marketing techniques: market research and public relations.

“From market research, politics has adopted one form of qualitative research, the much-vaunted focus group; from quantitative research, it has adopted opinion polls; while from public relations, it has adopted the most cynical component, spin.

“The political world has become addicted to these techniques without appearing to fully understand their uses, thereby contributing to this leadership demise.”

Later he says: “A poll-driven politician is hostage to public opinion, but unlike the marketer who becomes successful by following a market, a poll-driven politician lurches from fad to fad, crisis to crisis, media topic to media topic, talkback radio whim to talkback radio whim, without any clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve.”

And commentators do the same.

His article is worth a read from beginning to end.

Let’s recapitulate. We have both politicians and commentators building much of their edifice about politics and leadership on a pack of cards called opinion polls and focus groups, cards that could come tumbling down in the face of real data – actual election results.

And it’s even more sinister than that. Because of the publicity each opinion poll receives on radio, TV and in the press, each feeds into and contaminates the next. As we have at least one highly publicized poll every week, the cross contamination is gross. Can you imagine what might be the outcome if we suspended polls for six months to give respondents enough time to forget the last ones? Maybe the results would look quite different to what they do now. But we know that will never happen – the polls are too lucrative to the poll owners, too ready a source of column inches for journalists, and with them being poor for Labor at present, too good a resource for media owners, especially News Limited, to damage PM Gillard and her Government.

Returning to the chronic abscess analogy, journalists know that if they poke around a bit they can always get the leadership speculation abscess to discharge a bit more purulent material. Older folk will remember how long one could squeeze a bit more pus from a boil. This is what they do, especially when there is a slow news week, as there has been recently during the long Winter break and with Tony Abbott overseas. Leadership speculation can always help a news-starved journalist to meet a deadline. I have no doubt that even without the malcontents dropping cues for the journos to pick up, they can always extract a quote or two that enables them to fill a column. The process becomes self-perpetuating, chronic and, like most abscesses, toxic to the Labor organism. Yet, despite the cues they gather, journalists flounder trying to interpret leadership rumblings, as we saw this morning on the ABC’s Insiders, where desultory and inconclusive conversation filled much of the program. If you think I’m exaggerating, listen to the waffle we heard from our ‘insiders’ in this segment from Insiders.

Apart from these obvious reasons for poking the leadership abscess, in my view some journalists do so for other reasons. Some are working to a subtle editorial imperative to ‘get Julia Gillard and bring down her Government’, and can’t afford to miss an opportunity to do that. Patriciawa postulates there is also a fear factor, fear about losing their job in this uncertain media climate unless they toe the editorial line, fear that they will miss another leadership coup, as they did when Rudd was deposed, and fear that like the Carr appointment, they will miss something else of moment. After all, they are supposed to be the all-knowing insiders.

Leadership speculation is pathological. The journalist ‘doctors’ haven’t got a clue about the nature and extent of the pathology, or what can be done about it. All they know is how to exploit it to the advantage of their outlets, and for most, that is all they want.

It’s time we ignored all the talk we hear from the media about leadership, uninformed and puerile as it too often is. It is a waste of consumers’ time and energy.

For my part, I wish the chronic abscess of leadership speculation could be properly drained, dead tissue excised, contaminating organisms eliminated, and the cavity allowed to repair from the bottom, by second intention, as medical parlance would have it. Healing will almost always follow.

What do you think?

Lost: Tony’s Toxic Tax – Finder: Please Return to Owner

July 1, Tony’s Toxic Tax Day, came and went. Collective breaths were held – but Australia carried on as usual. The sun rose in the East. The sky did not fall in. Whyalla survived. Abbott rabbitted on – after all it was TTT Day. What else could he do?

That day, in Abbott’s poll drive in the Sydney Morning Herald Stephanie Peatling wrote:

“Tony Abbott has fired the starting gun on an election campaign, declaring a Coalition government would restore ''hope, reward and opportunity'' to ''a great country let down by a bad government''.

“The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, also faces the fight of her political life as she begins the task of selling the carbon price – which begins today – to an electorate already nervous about its impact on the cost of living, something she must pull off if she is to restore Labor's standing in the polls and quell the chatter about her leadership.

''The next election will be a referendum on the carbon tax and on prime ministers who tell lies,'' the Opposition Leader told the annual meeting of the federal council of the Liberal Party in Melbourne yesterday.

“From today Ms Gillard, Mr Abbott and their MPs will fan out across the country in what will feel like a forerunner to the election campaign - not due until next year - with each pinning their political fortunes on the carbon price.”

Stephanie watched Tony fire the starting gun and she broke the big story. Congratulations Steph!

The race was on. The question was ‘who will first run out of puff’: Tony, the media, or Julia?

Out of the blocks, there was soon chatter on the radio and TV about the start of the carbon tax, but not much in the press.

On July 2 there were a few carbon tax items in the print media. I used Wotnews, a news gathering service to survey print media coverage:
Abbott won't dump carbon tax: PM: Victoria
Abbott kicks into campaign drive: Sydney Morning Herald
Tough (Weet) Bikkies, I was right on carbon: Qld
Opposition launches anti-carbon tax ads: Victoria
Tax will remain under Abbott- Gillard: Sky News
Tony Abbott doorstop interview with Greg Hunt MP
on the Liberal Party website that launched Abbott’s anti-tax campaign.

There was an item in the Courier Mail that began: “Julia Gillard has been told to only to use her beer fridge on weekends - with radio caller Wazza warning the carbon tax will make it too expensive during the week.” She pointed out that she didn’t actually have a beer fridge.

Then there was Wayne Swan’s brave supermarket adventure. To prove his point, on the Friday evening before TTT Day, Swan visited the supermarket and bought 11 items at a cost of $35.30. On Sunday morning, TTT Day, he bought the same items for $35.10. “His shopping included Weet-Bix, which Opposition Leader Tony Abbott claimed would cost more under the tax. He also bought a $20 lamb roast, in addition to the 11 items, which Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce has claimed would cost more than $100 under the tax.

“Swan said Sunday 1 July was the day "that Tony Abbott is going to get mugged by the truth".

Next, let’s look at the Front Pages that Lyn provides daily. I have used them to collate banner headlines:

The Australian featured Tax worth fighting for on 2 July; Carbon tax ‘a threat to power jobs’ on 3 July; and on 7 July there was an article on carbon trading. That was it.

The Sydney Morning Herald began on 2 July with Sour reception for carbon tax. Then nothing.

The Daily Telegraph on 2 July had It’s Down to Business – Prices rise from day one as carbon tax begins. On 7 July its headline read Death Tax, a story about how the carbon tax was adding to cremation expenses, which turned out to be a fizzer. There was nothing more subsequently on its front pages.

The Age featured Voters desert carbon tax on 2 July. No more.

The Herald Sun had a line at the foot of its front page on 2 July that read Double Whammy Carbon Tax Pain Begins. That was it.

The Advertiser on 4 July featured Your Pain MPs Gain, which compared the recent rise in salaries of members of Federal Parliament with the ‘pain’ of the carbon tax.

I couldn’t find anything in the Mercury or NT News. I had no access to The West Australian.

Note that the above survey covers only the front pages back to 1 July. No doubt there were articles on other pages.

On July 7 there was Businesses reject Abbott's vow to repeal carbon tax in The Brisbane Times that began: “Fewer than a quarter of the biggest heavy greenhouse gas-emitting companies that will directly pay the carbon tax support Tony Abbott's ''pledge in blood'' to repeal the scheme, a survey by the Herald has found.”

Then there was the story by Simon Benson and Steve Lewis in The Daily Telegraph Businesses forced to dump carbon tax hike on customers on 16 July that began: “Small business owners, farmers and home renovators are among those already feeling the effect of the carbon tax as prices soar just two weeks after the scheme was introduced.

“In one of the biggest increases since July 1, the cost of hiring mini skip bins has risen by at least $100, or 25 per cent, due to the green levy and a new state government waste charge.

“The controversial federal tax, changes to the diesel fuel rebate and a big spike in refrigerant gas costs - all part of the government's clean energy reforms - have also driven up prices of vegetables, seafood and even pizza boxes.

“Skip bin operators have warned that some home owners have already opted to illegally dump their waste to escape the hefty price rises. Sydney Skip Bins owner Craig Wills said customers were furious when told of the increases and he had already had to lay off two workers.”

This non-story, from a couple of non-journalists, was debunked by a tweet from Craig Emerson: “Stupid Steve Lewis yarn on carbon pricing inflating skip costs, when O'Farrell hikes waste prices 640%”, and a comment on Poll Bludger by Bushfire Bill: “I note that the Daily Tele story on how disposal of waste material in skips will go up 40% due to the Carbon Tax (when it is in fact due to the O’Farrell government hiking tip charges by 640% – repeat: 640%) now has 8 comments. There is no mention of O’Farrell’s 640% price hike on tip fees, even though it completely negates the story, once understood.”

The story also included a section on how pizzas will go up because the cost of pizza boxes will escalate: “Kerry Demos, who runs the Hastings Pizza shop in Victoria with her husband, said the prices of pizza boxes will rise by 2.5 per cent. Despite this, they plan to absorb the increases rather than pass them on. "If we put up our prices, I would think we would lose customers," Ms Demos said.”

As BB pointed out, since pizza boxes on average cost 30c, a 2.5 percent rise would amount to 0.75 cents, three-quarters of a cent! And Ms Demos says she would lose customers if she added three-quarters of a cent to the price of a pizza that ranges from, say, $12 to $19. Does Ms Demos, or Simon Benson or Steve Lewis believe readers of The Tele are so unutterably stupid as to swallow the tosh they talk?

Then there was the Brumby’s bakery story where the MD suggested to his franchisees that they might now raise their prices, as the rise ‘would be blamed on the carbon tax’. He is now out of his job, the ACCC has given Brumby’s a dressing down, and Brumby’s have publicly eaten a very large piece of humble pie.

This week we had the carbon tax blamed indirectly for a rise in pokies use in Queensland because it coincided with the arrival of carbon tax compensation cheques in people’s bank accounts, a contention challenged by Stephen Koukoulas in Market Economics in Some Hokey Pokey on Pokies. As a minister pointed out, the Government does not control how people spend their money. Using the logic of the Opposition, which says that it warned of this outcome, Governments should never provide citizens with any monetary benefit, lest some of it be spent on pokies!

So to date, about three weeks into Tony’s Toxic Tax, there’s not much action. The media has largely lost interest, apart from the odd titillating story, such as the pokies one; Tony is overseas and other politicians are on their long winter break and have other things on their mind; people are getting on with their lives; fear of a lamb roast rising to $100 is retreating; citizens of Whyalla are still going to work as their town unexpectedly survives Tony’s Toxic Tax; coal is still being mined as new multi-billion dollar contracts are being signed; and the sky seems to be where it was on 30 June.

Now there will be the occasional heart-rending story of the dire effect of the carbon tax, and each will be collected by the Opposition to assail the Government when Question Time resumes; News Limited will feature any story, no matter how trivial, no matter how shonky, to press its ‘toxic tax’ story, and if it’s dubious enough, will use its attack dog Steve (Grech/Ashby) Lewis to write it; and Michelle Grattan will relish every chance to hammer Julia Gillard about her catastrophic tax.

But if experience with the GST is any guide, everyone – the media and its consumers – will soon tire of the doom and gloom of Tony’s Toxic Tax, and will go onto more interesting things – the London Olympics and the AFL Finals – by which time the end of the year and holidays will be looming. By 2013, TTT will be long forgotten.

Tony’s Toxic Tax will die. His inevitable attempts to resurrect it in QT will fall flat and become a subject of ridicule as he continues to ride his favourite hobby-horse, flailing it wildly until literally he is ‘flogging a dead horse’. The public, largely disinterested in politics, will turn his bleating off as it realizes that Tony’s Toxic Tax was a fraud all along.

Tony’s Toxic Tax has gone missing – lost in the tumult of real issues. If anyone finds it, please return it to its owner and deposit it where it hurts him most.

Is the job of the Opposition to oppose? NO.

How many times have you heard those who think they know, say this: ‘The job of the Opposition is to oppose’?

It might be the worker at the pub who says this as he raises his schooner of VB to his thirsty lips. It might be the young professional as she sips her Margaret River Chardonnay while she grabs a quick lunch with friends at the local café. It might be the well-heeled businessman as he relishes his Grange Hermitage over a long business lunch. But it might also be the political commentator who has assumed guru status, such as Richo, who utters these words, or the political columnists from the Canberra Press Gallery, the ‘insiders’ who know it all. No matter who insists that ‘The job of the Opposition is to oppose’, they do so with great confidence, as if it is holy writ, not to be challenged. There is no doubt at all in their minds that this is so.

This piece argues that it is NOT the job of Opposition to just oppose, but to engage in the process of governance so that the public can benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of all parliamentarians. They are all paid from the public purse. Why should all of them not contribute and be accountable?

Just to give you an idea of what Opposition leaders are now paid, Tony Abbott’s wage is $347,800. The PM gets $486,550. The average wage of parliamentarians is $190,550. Why should around half the parliament work to legislate for the nation while the other half attempts to frustrate their governance efforts? Why should we waste the talent of half the 226 elected parliamentarians that cost the taxpayer over $44 million annually for their salaries alone, apart from all the other costs of running a federal parliament? And this half IS wasted if all it does is oppose, frustrate, and obstruct the Government’s legislative efforts. It need not be like this, but the adversarial nature of our politics, exacerbated grossly since Abbott’s ascension to leadership, leaves parliament wallowing in this inefficient and wasteful state of affairs.

Take Question Time in the House as a shameful example of wasted time and talent. Most questions asked by the Opposition since Abbott has become leader have been directed NOT to seeking information from ministers about matters addressed by their portfolios, but have had the intention of seeking to embarrass the Government, or berate it, or demean our PM.

Repeatedly, questions have been related to the carbon tax, more by far than to any other subject. Because the Opposition has deemed this subject to be the most potent one for inflicting damage on the Government, the same old tired questions come up over and again, sometimes embellished with an anecdote from a business or a proprietor who feels hardly done by the carbon tax, with the byline – ‘a tax based on a lie’ – thrown in for good measure. But the question is always the same: ‘Why is the Prime Minister/Government imposing the world’s biggest carbon tax at the worse possible time’? And of course sending jobs offshore, destroying industries, decimating towns, making our industries uncompetitive, and so on the monotonous spiel goes. And to no environmental benefit at all, says Abbott! What a waste of time this talk is. Nothing ever eventuates, except of course the occasional grab for the evening TV news, which is why the questions are asked anyway. The questions never add a useful dimension to the debate, they don’t even probe relevant aspects of carbon pricing, and they never suggest a plausible alternative.

Reflect on how much time has been spent on ‘motions to suspend standing and sessional orders’ to rebuke or censure the Government or the PM, well over sixty so far in the first half of this Government’s term, an exercise that has had the effect of wasting vast amounts Question Time and preventing the asking of hundreds of questions. No doubt, this will be repeated in the second half. Think of the time wasted. Each motion takes around thirty minutes for the debate, plus the time for the inevitable and always unsuccessful division, about 40 minutes all told, a waste of around 100 man/woman hours every time, a waste of well over 6,000 woman/man hours in this parliamentary term alone, for which we pay. And nothing positive has ever eventuated. It’s all been pointless and unproductive opposition and obstruction of the proper working of the parliament.

Before any Coalition supporters become apoplectic at my assertion that the role of an opposition is not just to oppose, let me acknowledge that all oppositions do oppose, but have they opposed so unremittingly as has our current Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott? In his book Battlelines (doesn’t the title alone tell us a lot about this man), Abbott confirms his adherence to Randolph Churchill’s dictum: “Oppositions should oppose everything, suggest nothing, and turf the government out.” He has followed this to the letter. He would assert that he is doing only what all opposition leaders have done. That though would be another of his lies.

Remember the approach Kim Beasley took over the Tampa crisis. He supported the Howard Government. Recall the approach John Howard took over the major fiscal and regulatory reforms introduced during the Hawke/Keating era. He supported them, much to his credit, credit that still accrues to him. As these two examples show, and there are many others, oppositions don’t have to oppose everything. Why then does Abbott?

In my view it is because he knows nothing but pugilism, as I said in The pugilistic politician, written ten days after he became Opposition Leader. Among other things I said: “Abbott intends to criticize everything the Government does, to fight everything it attempts to do, to refuse to collaborate on anything…”, and later in the piece: “So to what can we look forward? If one can judge from Abbott’s demeanour and performance during the last week, from the look in his eyes, from his aggressive attitude, from his determination to fight in hand to hand combat, we are in for a ruthless, cruel, bare-knuckle fight with no holds barred. This week Abbott reminded me of the familiar scene before a prize fight when the combatants line up – hairy-chested, jaw-jutting, throwing punches in the air, loud-mouthed, asserting their prowess, and promising to knock their opponent out early in the bout.” It’s now eighteen months since those words were penned, and not one word I wrote then has proved to be an exaggeration.

But I hear some of you angrily protesting, surely oppositions MUST oppose, that’s what they’re there to do, to hold governments to account. Of course the latter is true, and of course oppositions need sometimes to oppose. But when they do, why do they do so?

In my view there is one cogent reason why oppositions oppose, and that is ideology.

Naturally, if a progressive party favours increasing regulation, a conservative one will likely oppose it. If a progressive party favours a Keynesian approach in times of recession, a conservative one will prefer a ‘markets know best’ approach, and oppose fiscal stimulus. If a progressive party favours fair play for workers in the workplace, a conservative party will favour the employers. We saw the latter ideological difference played out in WorkChoices and its replacement by Fair Work Australia. These are just a few ideological issues that have been in play since Labor came to office. They represent a fundamental difference in belief, in philosophy, over which parties will adopt different positions, and therefore oppose each other. But ideological differences are not the totality of politics. There are many, many areas where differences in ideology are not dominant. There are plenty of areas where agreement could and should take place, where collaboration in fashioning legislation should be the norm.

Take asylum seeker policy. Both Labor and the Coalition favour offshore processing. Let’s leave aside whether you believe that policy is right or wrong, and focus on why, when both parties believe in offshore processing, the Opposition opposes Labor’s version of it, the Malaysia arrangement, and insists that its own solution, the ‘Pacific Solution’, is the only way. Of course we’ve heard the disingenuous ‘it worked before and will work again’ mantra over and again despite all the expert advice that it will not, but this is not the point I’m making. Abbott won’t support the Government’s Malaysia arrangement purportedly because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, although he is threatening to turn boats back to Indonesia, a non-signatory, and return to the Howard Government ‘solution’ of Nauru, also a non-signatory all through the Pacific Solution. No, his denial of support for the Labor scheme, which would also enable his own scheme as well as Labor’s, is not ideological, or even humanitarian, it is just cussedness. It is simply a determination to oppose everything, to obstruct, to make governance difficult, and in this policy area, impossible. He won’t even join a parliamentary committee to sort out a solution. He doesn’t want one. He wants only to oppose, to obstruct, and benefit politically from the continuing arrival of boats on our shores.

Of course the Greens have not been immune from obstructive opposition. Take its opposition to Kevin Rudd’s ETS. Had not the Greens joined the Coalition to oppose it and give Labor nothing instead of something, we would have had an ETS already in operation for a couple of years, and none of the ‘toxic tax’ nonsense we have now, day after day. Had the Greens supported the Oakeshott bill a couple of weeks ago, both parties would have had the option of offshore processing of asylum seekers, whichever it chose. But no, the Greens preferred ideological purity although it produced an impasse. As a result we have more boats arriving, more getting into strife, more men, woman and children drowning. It is this style of trenchant ideological opposition that is detrimental to the proper governance of our nation, and both the Coalition and the Greens are culpable.

There is another, perhaps more important reason than ideological, that fuels Abbott’s opposition.

He opposes not just the legislation the Government proposes, but also the Government itself. He has never accepted the Gillard Government as legitimate. He has consistently maintained that it has no mandate for its legislation. So, much of his opposition has been to the very existence of a minority government led by Julia Gillard. He has attacked it, and PM Gillard herself, as much as he has attacked the Government’s legislation. He has set out to destroy the Government, not just its legislation. Most of his ‘motions to suspend standing and sessional orders’ are fashioned to achieve this.

What I’m saying is that he’s not just insisting: ‘Axe the Tax’, but just as loudly insisting: ‘Ditch the Witch’. This is why his approach is so vindictive, so vitriolic, so venomous, so vicious, so venal, so vituperative, so vandalistic, so vile – ‘the longest dummy-spit in Australian political history’ as Anthony Albanese likes to describe it.

Abbott thought that he could beat the Government in its first twelve months and take over The Lodge, and so he planned a quick knockout strategy, his preferred combative approach, to do that. But now that he finds that he is in a tiring fifteen round bout against a resilient opponent, who easily rides with his wild punches and counters with some well placed jabs of her own, all the time building up points as she successfully passes bill after bill, over three hundred to date. He is floundering and showing signs of fatigue as he continues to throw the same old punches – ‘toxic tax’, and ‘axe the tax’.

What this piece contends is that a collaborative approach by all parties is what a virile democracy needs, an approach where there is a coordinated approach to governance.

Let me give a medical analogy. There is a neurological condition where a significant part of the pathology results from the so-called agonist muscles being opposed by antagonist muscles. Normally, as the agonists contract, the antagonists relax. Muscle action and joint movement is thereby smooth and coordinated. But in this condition the antagonists fight the agonists, so that in extreme manifestations of it, no movement can occur as stiffness and rigidity prevent it. Medication can reverse this.

This is an analogy of what is happening in our federal parliament. Every movement by the Government, the agonists, is opposed by the Coalition and sometimes by the Greens, the antagonists. Movement is inhibited, at times stopped. Progress is limited. Too often nothing happens. We saw this with the asylum seeker impasse that has so disenchanted the electorate. ‘Medication’ was needed, but was unavailable.

It is to Julia Gillard’s eternal credit that she has managed to legislate so much since she became PM, to have so many reforms passed into law. But imagine how much better this nation could be governed were there even a modest amount of cooperation between the parties. Imagine if opposition was limited to major ideological differences. But it is not. Instead, we have opposition for opposition’s sake, not designed to improve or enhance the legislation, not designed to suggest amendments or acceptable alternatives, but simply to oppose, to obstruct, to block. What a waste, what a deplorable misuse of the talent of our parliamentarians, what a lost opportunity to extract the very best from the talent, knowledge and experience of all of our 226 parliamentarians.

Yet this is not possible while Tony Abbott leads the Coalition. He is hell bent on destruction, on demolition, on obliteration, on annihilation of Labor and all it stands for, of all it is attempting to do. He knows no other way.

In Tony Abbott we have the most vicious, damaging and destructive Opposition Leader in living memory, one who is interested only in knocking out our PM, one who is not remotely interested in contributing to good governance. While all opposition leaders have had their moments of obstruction or antagonistic rhetoric – Paul Keating had an acerbic turn of phrase - there has never been anyone to match Tony Abbott’s nastiness, his ferocity, his malevolence, his malice, his meanness and personal spite, his belligerence and pugilism, his dishonesty and deviousness, his disregard for the welfare of the nation, and his single-minded selfishness in pursuing his objective of seizing power at any price. With him at the Opposition helm there will be nothing but negativity, obstruction and opposition at every turn. It is a national disgrace and tragedy. Sadly he will NEVER understand that it is NOT the role of oppositions to oppose EVERYTHING.

It could be so different. Parliamentarians like to tell us that most of the time they do collaborate, that they do work together for the benefit of the nation. Yet we don’t believe the Coalition when they proclaim this, because all we see is obstruction and opposition, a determination to destroy the Gillard Government and all it is attempting to do, indeed all it stands for.

With most of our political journalists unwilling to call Abbott to account, indeed many applaud his obstructive opposition, he goes on his destructive way, untrammeled by a critical press.

It’s time you journalists woke up and exposed this man for his destructiveness, which is tearing apart the fabric of this nation. I know many of you are under instruction from Rupert Murdoch, but try showing some guts for a change and call this man for the destructive person he is.

It is NOT the job of the Opposition to oppose everything, but to oppose ONLY those measures that are ideologically anathema to it. For the rest, we ought to be able to expect collaboration between the parties in the national interest. What a calamity it is that this is not the case.

What do you think?

Applying facts and logic in the asylum seeker issue

The issue of asylum seekers arriving on our shores in boats has been highly politicized, so much so that the political players have locked themselves into positions from which they cannot or will not retreat.

The Pacific Solution
We all know the history. It began in 2001 with John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’ that included detention and processing of boat arrivals on Nauru and Manus Island, Temporary Protection Visas that precluded the bringing out of the families of those who had arrived, and ‘turning the boats around’, something that was done on a few occasions, in some instances, such as in the case of Siev X, with the tragic loss of 353 lives.

Seventy per cent of asylum seekers sent to Nauru and Manus Island were found to be genuine; 30 percent were sent home. Forty three per cent were resettled in Australia; the remainder was settled in other countries, mostly New Zealand. While the Pacific Solution was in place there were fewer arrivals by boat.

In response to the anguish of those who were kept in Nauru for long periods, many of whom suffered severe mental health problems, the number of families separated for long periods under the TPV system, and the fact that 70 percent ended up here or in NZ anyway, the Rudd Government was persuaded to close Nauru, abandon TPVs, and on advice from naval authorities, refrain from turning boats around, as this was considered unsafe as it put asylum seekers and service personnel at unnecessary risk. The number of boat arrivals increased, and is still high.

Alternative proposals
The Gillard Government sought a collaborative regional approach to curb boat arrivals that was to involve neighbouring countries, with regional processing of refugees, first proposing East Timor as a venue, and more recently Malaysia.

The Coalition has had just one policy: offshore processing via Howard’s Pacific Solution, a policy they insist worked then and will work now. Q.E.D.

The Greens oppose offshore processing and want everyone processed here in Australia.

How big a refugee problem do we have?
Let’s now examine briefly the extent of the problem. In his 18 June article in the SMH National Times: Abbott’s evil policy work, Malcolm Fraser gives this contemporary data: “In 2010-11, 4730 asylum seekers arrived by boat. During the same period, more than 13 million people crossed our borders and arrived in Australia; 4730 out of 13.9 million is not a ''system vulnerable to abuse''.

This is hardly an ‘invasion’, as some like to represent it. In fact, compared with many European nations who have many thousands arriving each month, our ‘problem’ is quite minor. But in the minds of the electorate, it constitutes a major assault on our borders, a view perpetuated by the Opposition, which makes political capital from every new boat arrival.

It was John Howard in 2001 who created this extraordinary fear of ‘irregular boat arrivals’ with his post-Tampa and ‘kid’s overboard’ vow: “We will decide who come to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, an utterance that had resulted in boat people being reviled. They were stigmatized with terms such as ‘illegals’, and ‘cashed up queue jumpers’, and of course, as many were of Middle Eastern origin and Muslim, the stigma was accentuated.

Given that background, let’s analyze the contemporary issues.

‘Stop the boats’
There seems to be no one who does not want to stop people getting on fishing boats in Indonesia to traverse the treacherous waters between there and Christmas Island. Everyone says they want the boat traffic to stop.

The Government and the Coalition believe a deterrent is needed to stop asylum seekers boarding boats bound for Christmas Island. They disagree on what constitutes an effective one. More of that later.

The Greens’ solution
The Greens seem to believe that if Australia increased its intake, say to 20,000 per annum, and was more welcoming to asylum seekers, they would not get on leaky boats. They have never explained how increasing the annual intake from the present 13,500 to 20,000 (and remember the Coalition offered to do this over three years) would stop those not within the intake from coming on boats anyway.

We know there are countless asylum seekers, indeed millions around the world, and in neighbouring countries, several hundred thousand. The Jakarta Post reports that: “The number of asylum seekers entering Indonesia has drastically increased by 800 per cent,” but is still comparatively small compared with Pakistan, which received 1 million refugees; Iran 800,000; Thailand 100,000; and Malaysia 98,000.

There is no way that Australia could possibly take all who seek asylum, either logistically or politically. There must be a quota, and that means that some are selected, while others are not. What do those not selected then do? Wait patiently for their turn? Some will because they have no resources to do otherwise. But will those who do have money wait? Unlikely. Why would they wait their turn if money could short circuit the wait and get them to Australia quickly? Many of those arriving in recent times have purchased a package deal from criminal gangs of people smugglers whereby they receive a cheap airfare to Malaysia or Indonesia, and a place on a boat for around $10,000. Will they wait their turn, which might take years? No, they will buy their way onto a people smuggler’s boat. The well off always have an advantage over those less well off.

Only this week Sarah Hanson-Young visited Indonesia to seek a ‘solution’, and on AM reported this as follows: “Eighteen months ago when Australia took more people from Indonesia, more people than they usually do, it made a dramatic difference to the numbers of people boarding boats. The numbers dropped.” This assertion was not accompanied by any data. How many is ‘more people’; how much is ‘dramatic’. She added little, other than a few platitudes.

Christine Milne has now upped the ante by advocating an increase in the annual intake to 25,000 to ‘solve’ the boat arrivals problem, but as that is a very tiny fraction of those seeking asylum from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and other countries, how does that help the hundreds of thousands left behind?

If Australia were to increase its intake ten or twenty or thirty fold, and guaranteed processing would be complete in a few weeks, there would be much less inclination for people to pay people smugglers large sums of money and take the inordinate risk of travelling on unsafe boats. Clearly though that intake would be politically unacceptable and a logistic nightmare.

Moreover, given that not all of those seeking asylum could come at once, how would their processing and acceptance be managed. Would the most deserving, those who had suffered most and waited longest, those escaping the most awful persecution, even if they had no resources or money, be given preference? That would seem to be the most just way. If that were so, what would the less deserving, and the most recent arrivals in Indonesia, but who have resources and cash, do? Get on boats, of course.

I invite any Greens supporter to tell us precisely how enlarging our intake to the extent suggested, and opening our arms in welcome, will stop people getting on boats when there are so many more who desperately want to come to our country than we are prepared to take. And while you are at it, tell us how those accepted in our quota for asylum will get here, if not on leaky boats. Will we fly them here at our expense, or provide safe sea transport?

The Greens never give us such practical detail; all we get is high sounding idealism, embellished with sad stories of how desperate many asylum seekers are and what awful conditions have forced them from their homes. It’s fine to have ideals and compassion; we all have them. But let’s hear the practicalities. Without them, it’s just idle talk.

Mike Carlton had this to say in 7 July piece in the SMH: “…the Greens's policy of an open door and onshore processing would have the people smugglers thinking all their Eid al-Fitrs had come at once. There would be many, many more boats, and many more of them lost, with many more men women and children drowned.

“And for those tens of thousands that do arrive safely by sea, how exactly would the Greens deal with them? You can't just dump them all in Cabramatta, as we did with the Vietnamese 40 years ago. The cost of housing, health and education would be humungous and, like it or not, the average taxpayer simply would not cop it.”

While leaving the Greens to tell us how they will achieve their aims, what of the offshore processing that both Government and Opposition espouse.

The Opposition’s solution
The Opposition insists that as the Pacific Solution ‘worked’ in 2001, it will ‘work’ now. This contention conveniently ignores the changed circumstances eleven years later, in 2012. Apart from ‘push factors’ being greater than they were in 2001, the salient difference now is that people smugglers know full well that seventy percent of those processed on Nauru or Manus Island ended up where they wanted to be – here or in NZ. They can easily market their boat trade by giving that seventy percent guarantee, and virtually a hundred per cent guarantee to anyone who ends up being classed as a ‘genuine refugee’. That’s a pretty marketable offer. But the Opposition persists with its ‘it worked then and will work now’ mantra, although it is as aware of these facts as are the people smugglers.

Andrew Metcalfe and Immigration Department officers insist that the Pacific Solution will NOT work now because the people smugglers know what happened last time. Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Coalition members know that, but it makes not the slightest impact on their sloganeering because they have no interest in the truth, only in what they can persuade the electorate to believe.

Moreover, they ignore the terrible mental trauma suffered by those incarcerated on Nauru and Manus Island, often for years. Despair, depression, and other mental illness afflicted many, the scars of which persist. Indeed, many believed that this ‘punishment’ was a deliberate Coalition ploy, a central part of the deterrent value of the Pacific Solution.

Let’s look now at another element of the Opposition’s asylum policy – Temporary Protection Visas. This was another ‘punishment’. Because those who held them were not permitted to bring out their family members, long and emotionally traumatic periods of separation occurred. So painful was this, that many family members attempted the boat journey in order to join their loved ones. Some perished on the way. Psychiatrists were so appalled at the mental suffering of those holding TPVs, and their families, that they advised against them. This persuaded the Rudd Government to abandon them.

The third element – turning the boats around was highly contentious and still is. Tony Abbott is vigorously echoing this element to this very day, on Insiders. He says: ‘…they did it safely before, we can do it safely again’. In doing so, Abbott ignores the advice of naval authorities, which insist it is dangerous to both asylum seekers and the service personnel who have to turn the boat around. The former chief of the defense force and head of Navy under the Howard government, Admiral Chris Barrie, told ABC radio this past week that it was not possible to ''mount an impermeable barrier at sea'', and that it was dangerous for all involved to tow or turn around boats. We all know that under these circumstances asylum seekers have damaged their boats and disabled their motors to force a rescue and achieve transport to Christmas Island.

In response to Admiral Barrie, hairy-chested Abbott upped the ante by insisting that commanders of naval vessels were subject to the will of the civilian government, an assertion challenged by Barrie: ''Policy can't override international law and cannot tell a commanding officer what decisions he must make at sea at the time''. Professor Don Rothwell, international law expert at ANU, agreed: “…there was no firm legal basis for turning asylum boats around.”

Not satisfied, Abbott then came out and said that naval personnel would remove fuel from vessels nearer to Indonesia to stop them continuing to Christmas Island. He did not explain how these officers would know how much fuel to remove so that the boat could return to Indonesia, perhaps in heavy sea conditions, yet prevent it from proceeding to Australia. But that matters nothing to Abbott who wishes only to show the electorate now tough and resolute he is, something the rednecks would applaud. On Insiders this morning David Marr did give an explanation. You can hear it here.

Abbott is hairy-chested not just with the Australian electorate, but also with the Indonesian Government.

Abbott says he would need to boost the navy and to travel to Indonesia to deliver ‘the tough message’. Scott Morrison said a Coalition government would ''…fix things up on our side of the fence'' and expect the Indonesian government to ''do more'' to stop vessels.” Asked whether Indonesia would accept the forced return of boats, Abbott aggressively insisted: ''The legal home of these vessels, Indonesian flagged, Indonesian crewed, Indonesian ported, is in Indonesia.''

But a senior Indonesian official said Indonesia would object strongly to the Coalition's policy of forcing asylum boats back into Indonesian waters. ''It's exactly like you going to someone else's house and throwing dirt there,'' the official said, on the condition of anonymity. ''Why would we take something that is not our property?''

“There are also practical problems with the turn-around policy, the official said. Unless the boats were to be abandoned on the high seas, or handed over to the Indonesian navy mid-ocean, they would need to be towed to land. But there is no safe port on Java's southern shore because the seas are too high and dangerous. This would mean the Australian navy towing an asylum boat to Tanjung Priok, Jakarta's commercial and military port, which is many hours' sail away on Java's northern shore. The source said the Australian navy would never be given permission for this kind of incursion into Indonesian waters. ''It's impossible for a military ship to get security clearance and border clearance,'' the source said."

That seems to put paid to Abbott’s ‘we’ll turn back the boats’ threat. It is simply hot air, but we can be sure he will persist with it, and many will believe him. On Insiders this morning, David Marr reiterated Indonesia’s determination to not receive returned boats. He described Abbott’s notion that he could send boats back to Indonesia as ‘fantasy’.

It is noteworthy that only two other countries are known to have turned boats back - Italy sent boats back to Libya in 2009 and Thailand pushed Rohingya Burmese out to sea. Both countries have now stopped the practice.

Referring to the Abbott’s ‘evil’ policy, Malcolm Fraser concludes his article with: “Instead of restoring ''integrity and public confidence'', the Coalition's policy is detrimental to people seeking asylum, breaches our obligations under the Refugee Convention and appears to work from the position of the assumption of guilt.”

The Gillard Government solution
So what of the Gillard Government’s policy? Apart from its willingness to reopen Nauru as a compromise to the Coalition despite professional advice that this would be ineffectual, and to reconsider TPVs, its main policy thrust is its arrangement with the Malaysian Government to return up to 800 boat people in exchange for five times that number resettled in Australia, an arrangement Abbott describes as ‘a people swap and a dud deal for Australia’.

It is strongly believed by the Government that placing boat arrivals on a flight to Malaysia within a day or two of their arrival on Christmas Island would be a powerful deterrent. Even the mention of this before the High Court struck down its implementation, was followed by a drop in arrivals. How could people smugglers sell passages to Christmas Island when all arrivals there were to be immediately sent to Malaysia to wait for processing there, perhaps for years – to go back, as it were ‘to the end of the queue’?

The Government of Malaysia has given guarantees of proper treatment and adherence to human rights for those returned. It has also guaranteed that those returned could work and their children attend school.

Abbott has attacked the Malaysia arrangement on the grounds that Malaysia is not a signatory to the UNHCR Convention on refugees and that human rights are therefore not guaranteed. This is a grossly hypocritical argument since his current policy includes sending boats back to Indonesia, a non-signatory, and all the time the Coalition used Nauru, it too was a non-signatory.

If the object is to deter people from taking the hazardous boat journey from Indonesia to Christmas Island, there seems to be no better deterrent than the Malaysia arrangement. As it now stands, boats are coming every few days, often calling for help, in a recent instance only fifty miles on the journey from Indonesia, and even when told to turn back, continued to proceed to Christmas Island. Asylum seekers were thereby thumbing their noses at Australia and its maritime services, which the boat people expected to ‘rescue’ them if they got into distress. Sadly, in recent weeks over a hundred people have drowned.

At the end of his article, Mike Carlton drew this conclusion: “Deeply flawed though it is, the government's so-called Malaysian solution is the least worse option we have.”

So where does this analysis of facts and the application of logic leave us?

Many who blog here would like our nation to make asylum seekers welcome, to erase the stigma that attaches to them, to increase very substantially the number admitted, to have them come here safely, to integrate them into our society, to have them contribute to our country and to live happy and productive lives free from the persecution they suffered back home.

But unless the numbers accepted increase massively, unless processing time is reduced to just a few weeks, unless safe transport to Australia is provided, asylum seekers will continue to pay people smugglers for a passage to Christmas Island on unsafe boats and make the perilous journey. Some will perish. This is what everyone with an ounce of compassion in his or her heart wants to avoid. They want the hazardous boat traffic stopped.

How does Australia stop asylum seekers risking their lives on unsafe boats? No ‘solution’ is ideal; none is perfect. We are left choosing the least imperfect.

The Greens’ solution seems to be impractical and almost certainly ineffective. The boats will keep coming.

The Coalition solution is highly unlikely to be an effective one as the people smugglers will guarantee their clients that if they are genuine refugees, it is almost certain they will be resettled in Australia or New Zealand, which is just what they want. The boats will keep coming.

The only solution that seems to have any chance of being effective is the Government’s Malaysia arrangement. Tony Abbott won’t support it, not because of the human rights issues that he says concern him, but because he fears it will work and he will lose a key political lever against the Government. He is prepared to see people continue to risk their lives on leaky boats for his own political advantage. He won’t even join a cross party committee to discuss alternatives. His ulterior motives are transparent.

In my view, with the current intake and the long wait so many have, the Malaysia arrangement is the ONLY practical way to deter arrivals on unsafe boats. If this could be a precursor to a broader regional agreement under the “Bali Process” – Building Regional Cooperation to Combat People Smuggling and Trafficking in Persons, a definitive solution that all in the region could endorse just might be possible.

What do you think?