Have a go at these questions about asylum seekers

Is there any more vexed political issue than that of refugees seeking asylum in this country? It remains so despite the recent advent of the Refugee Resettlement Agreement with Papua New Guinea.

The refugee issue was politicized by Pauline Hansen, and readily taken up by John Howard with the ‘Tampa episode’ and his 2001 election pledge: “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.” Because commentators insisted it was that stand which got him over the line in what was shaping as a probable defeat, politicians on both sides quickly saw the political advantage of being ‘tough on asylum seekers’. Later Howard followed up with his ‘Pacific Solution’. In more recent times Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison have sought to exploit Howard’s line by highlighting every new boat arrival as a Labor failure, now ‘a national emergency’, every drowning as ‘blood on Labor’s hands’, and the dismantling of the Howard three point deterrent plan as a foolish Rudd mistake. Many in the nation’s electorates, especially those in Western Sydney, agree. It is their votes that Labor seeks to retrieve.

So we are stuck with this situation, redolent as it is with racial prejudice, sometimes stark xenophobia, and simmering anger directed at asylum seekers and towards any party that allows them to keep coming. This is inflamed by politicians and fanned by a moribund Fourth Estate desperate to retain its relevancy.

Mr Denmore puts it so well in his piece: The Australian Asylum: “There are two dimensions to the refugees issue. One is managing the problem itself - a relatively marginal one for a rich economy that leads the developed world on most economic metrics. The second dimension - and the trickier one - is the theatrics around the issue, a charade kept alive by attention-seeking sections of the news media and the frightened politicians they goad into one piece of policy knee-jerkery after another. The facts of the refugee situation – however many times they are raised – don't seem to register. What matters for the dying institutions of our news media is that this issue is an emotive, eyeball-grabbing one, encompassing age-old fears of brown skinned hordes shattering our cosy, white bread suburban lives. As such, it's tailor-made for endless re-jigging on the front pages of the Tele and the Hun.”

He goes onto say: “That the tabloid anger pendulum swings so shamefacedly from fanning fear of refugees to pleading for their humanity to calling for security crackdowns to castigating the government for the cost of security is neither here nor there. What's important in media terms is that this story is easy fodder for fulmination and vein-popping outrage in dead trees media and on talkback radio. Meanwhile, the refugee issue is manna for political parties desperately seeking to differentiate themselves and cover up the fact that most of the major issues we face are beyond the control of nation states acting on their own (climate change, the structure of the financial system and the global movement of people).

“None of this is to claim that finding policy solutions to the seaborne drift of asylum seekers is easy or that there are not costs involved - strategically, financially or morally. But it would help us all if we were spared the self-serving screeching of the popular media and the grandstanding of populist politicians who jump to its orders in the vague hope of appearing relevant.”

Having read many expositions on asylum-seekers, and having listened to countless politicians and journalists express their opinions about the situation and what ought to be done about it, I am struck with the disjointed way in which this seemingly intractable issue is approached. Every commentator seems to select an angle that suits his or her position, particularly since the introduction of the Regional Resettlement Agreement with the government of PNG. The Greens mouth ‘cruelty’, the Coalition ‘border protection’, and Labor ‘people smugglers’. Seldom do we have the benefit of a commentator who has looked at the problem from every angle, has analyzed each, and has drawn logical conclusions from that analysis. We get a ‘bits and pieces’ approach that too often reflects partisan positions. Predictably, politicians do this habitually, but we ought to expect better from commentators who are able to sit back and view the situation rather more dispassionately. Sadly they too often reflect a partisan bias, born of the media organization’s particular preference. Balanced, fair, factual analysis is virtually dead in the Fourth Estate, as Mr Denmore asserts. It has its own idiosyncratic commercial and ideological agendas to pursue.

Rather than attempting to give my take on the asylum-seeker issue, I though it might be more instructive to step back and detail some of the questions that need to be asked in arriving at a position. Some answers are given – in bold; most of the answers are yours to supply.

Have a go at these:

What is an asylum-seeker? What is a refugee?

There is a great deal of confusion about the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee and often the terms are used interchangeably or incorrectly. An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. In contrast, a refugee is someone who has been recognized under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees to be a refugee. The Convention defines a ‘refugee’ as any person who: “... owing to well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it …” More.

Has Australia an obligation as a signatory to the UNHCR Refugee Convention to engage with people seeking asylum?


Under the Convention, does Australia continue to have responsibility for finding a country for resettlement if the one to which a genuine refugee is sent cannot accept him/her?


How many refugees are there in the world today?

At the end of 2012 the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that there were 15.4 million refugees worldwide. By contrast there were 28.8 million internally displaced persons (about twice as many people) at the end of 2012. More .

Is it illegal to seek asylum in Australia?

NO, no matter whether arriving by boat or air.

What proportion of people seeking asylum has arrived in Australia by boat?

Figures to 2011 give an idea: In 2008/09 16%; in 2009/10 47%; and in early 2010/11 44% of asylum seekers arrived by boats; the rest by air. Less than a half arrived by boat. More.

How does Australia rank in accepting refugees?

Australia accepts the third largest number of refugees (including refugees and other humanitarian entrants) for resettlement in the world after the USA and Canada. More.

What is Australia’s current intake under its Refugee and Humanitarian Program?

13,750 annually, to be increased to 20,000, and then possibly to 27,000. More.

Now for some questions for you to answer:

Should the intake be higher? If so, how much higher? Should there be a cap?

Is there an imperative to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by small boats?

Does the loss of life at sea (around 1,000 in recent times) make this imperative stronger?

Do you believe most people in this country want to stop these boat arrivals and the drownings?

Is this our problem to solve alone, or is it a regional and global problem?

Is it reasonable to seek a regional solution that involves all nations in our region?

As a measure to dissuade asylum seekers from coming via boats, a recent Government decision is to disallow entry to Australia to boat arrivals that have no visa, and instead send them to PNG for settlement. Do you regard this as ‘cruel’ policy, as do the Greens? If so, why?

Whether or not you believe this policy is cruel, if an asylum seeker, armed with this knowledge, still chooses to arrive by boat, is this resettlement action by the Government cruel?

Put another way, is it ‘cruel’ to send people escaping persecution to PNG, when they knew that would be the case before they embarked on the boat?

Is life in PNG so bad that it is an act of cruelty to send people there?

If you believe so, given that residents of PNG live there themselves, what makes it such a cruel action to ask asylum seekers to live there too?

Why is it that so many objections to the RRA are being advanced, which throw doubt on the viability of catering for thousands of refugees in PNG, when the object of the exercise is to dissuade people from getting on boats in the first place?

Is Australia obliged to take into its own population those who demand to come here by boat, even if those people have been warned not to arrive in that way?

Is it fair to give admission to those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage, while leaving the poor who cannot afford passage to languish for years in camps in transit countries? Is this consistent with Australia’s ‘fair go’ attitude? Is this consistent with the ‘no advantage’ rule now in place?

Are those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage more deserving to come than the others who cannot?

Are those who can afford to pay people smugglers for boat passage more under threat? Do they have a more urgent and impressive ‘well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’, than others who cannot so afford?

Is it understandable that some Australians resent having what they feel is ‘a gun held to their head’ by people smugglers and those who buy their services, who seem to be saying: ‘we are coming whether you like it or not’?

Is it understandable that some Australians dislike seemingly well-off asylum seekers (for example from Iran) flying to transit countries and immediately buying passage to Australia by boat, while others wait for years in awful camps, (for example those from Burma) unable to buy themselves out?

Do you believe that the persecution, or fear of persecution, of Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans and Sri Lankans, for example, is worse that the persecution of Burmese or similar folk from our region?

Is there a case to be made for equity in managing the large number of different groups seeking asylum, a tenet of the current ‘no advantage’ approach?

Do you approve people seeking asylum purely for economic reasons – for a better life in this country?

Recognizing that some people have had to leave their country hurriedly without identification documents, do you find it acceptable that people seeking asylum deliberately destroy their identification documents in order make it difficult for Australian authorities to refuse asylum?

What action should be taken against those who destroy the identification documents?

What should happen to those not found to be genuine refugees? Should they be returned to their home country?

Is it understandable that some Australians resent asylum seekers arriving by boat uninvited, and then using our country’s resources provided at the expense of taxpayers?

Notwithstanding such feelings, do you endorse the Coalition’s rhetoric that we are being ‘invaded’, that our borders are ‘threatened’, and that the current state of arrivals constitutes a ‘national emergency’? If so, what is the threat?

Do you approve the Coalition’s just-announced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, (now styled OpSoB) as a response to what the Coalition regards as ‘a national emergency’?

Is it also a ‘cruel’ policy?

Given that the Howard government turned around only four boats, do you believe that the Coalition’s policy of ‘turning the boats around, when it is safe to do so’ is operationally feasible and not a threat to the boats, their occupants, and Navy personnel? Does the ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ policy make this more feasible?

Do you believe that Howard government-style Temporary Protection Visas would diminish the flow of asylum seekers by boat?

While waiting for the processing of asylum claims offshore is understandably extremely frustrating, is it acceptable for asylum seekers in offshore processing centres to riot and destroy property?

What action should authorities take against the rioters?

Given that confinement on offshore venues for long periods waiting for processing is mentally taxing, what should be done to diminish the mental trauma? How is it possible to avoid mental disturbances when the ‘no advantage’ rule is being applied to those who came ahead of the many who still wait in camps in transit countries?

Is there any definitive way to avoid mental illness in detention? What more could/should be done to prevent it?

Would a degree of certainty about when asylum claims would finally be processed help, even if distant?

Would meaningful work and satisfying productivity postpone mental problems?

Should commercial endeavours be introduced into detention centres, as exists in prisons?

Should there be sporting, recreational and artistic activities introduced into detention centres?

Do you believe that children should not be sent for offshore processing?

Do you believe that unaccompanied children should not be sent for offshore processing?

What do you feel about asylum seekers deliberating sending unaccompanied children ahead of them on boats, so as to ‘get a foot in the door’ for the family?

If these children were exempted from removal to offshore processing, would that act as an incentive for people smugglers to operate in this way?

Do you approve of Australian citizens who have been granted asylum here, actively collaborating with people smugglers to bring fellow citizens here, as has been alleged recently?

Do you believe that immigration should be orderly, that although there is no hypothetical queue, there ought to be a mechanism for taking asylum seekers according to need and time of waiting?

Is there a case for substantially boosting processing facilities in transit countries and in countries of origin?

Could that reduce the numbers seeking to arrive by people-smugglers’ boats?

Given that the Greens seek a more ‘humanitarian’, less ‘cruel’ approach, and want an increased asylum and humanitarian intake, how do you believe they would like our immigration program to work?

Would the Greens impose any restrictions? If so what might they be?

How many who agree with the approach of the Greens have accommodated refugees in their own homes or in their communities? How has that turned out?

The above questions were designed to be neutral, rather than suggesting a particular answer.

If you were able to answer them comprehensively, would the answers assist you to devise a more satisfactory system for managing those seeking asylum in our country?

Do you believe that those who offer opinions about how to manage asylum-seekers ought to have answers to these questions, or have reflected on them?

Frankly, I am weary of reading or listening to pundits who take a myopic approach to the asylum-seeker problem, criticising this aspect or that, which is easy to do, yet who never make a comprehensive analysis of the multiplicity of factors, who never address its enormous complexity, and who thereby never come up with a wide-ranging assessment or a complete plan. The only group to have done this was the Houston Panel. Although they acknowledged the extraordinary complexity of the matter, they were able to develop a far-reaching plan, the so called ‘no advantage’ plan, one that proposed that those who came by boat and thereby short-circuited an orderly process, would not be advantaged over those who ‘waited their turn’. This operates at present.

Tony Abbott still relies on three word slogans as the Coalition’s solution, and now he has another: ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. Scott Morrison uses verbal emesis to bully his way through interviews, regurgitating the same old words of condemnation of everything Labor has done, and praise for what the Howard government did with its tripartite approach, which he endlessly reminds us can be done again, presumably now via OpSoB. Together, they have condemned and opposed every move Labor has made to ameliorate the problem.

The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders response to this complex matter is confined to a revised command structure that seems to be directed at better coordinating the ‘turn the boats around’ strategy. Where is its critical analysis of the multiple factors? Where is its detailed appraisal of this global problem that might lead to better understanding? All it continues to serve up is just more of the same simplistic approach, as if nothing has changed in the refugee situation in the last decade. ‘Turning the boats around when it is safe to do so’, which they insist can be done as it was done before, is offered irrespective of what maritime experts say and what the Indonesians think or say. The Coalition posits an ‘invasion’, a dire threat to our borders, a national emergency, and comes up with a military-style response.

The Greens represent the ‘bleeding heart’ elements in society. Sarah Hanson-Young and Christine Milne perpetually urge a more humanitarian approach; they eschew what they label as ‘cruelty’ toward the most vulnerable, those fleeing persecution. They urge a warm-hearted approach, a welcoming pair of arms, a line regarded by their supporters as laudable and praiseworthy, as indeed it is.

But there is never a moderating word, never a concession that not all seeking asylum can be accommodated, never a mention of whether there would need to be a limit, never a suggestion of how the practice of people smuggling might be countered, never a hint of how deaths at sea might realistically be avoided. It is all openhearted charity without apparent limit, without addressing the practical reality of hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking to come here, without tackling the problem of the people smugglers who are making a fortune out of the human misery in which they trade, men who would never willingly surrender their lucrative operations. It is all warmth without a hard-nosed element at all. There is never any comprehensive plan, such as they would be required to present were they in government. Never being in danger of being in power is their haven. Their legal confederates have joined with them by placing legal barriers in the way of moves that Labor has made, specifically the ‘Malaysia solution’, thrown out by the High Court.

For Labor’s part, it has struggled from one ‘solution’ to another. It has been forced by increasing arrivals to retreat from the ‘more humanitarian’ approach introduced by Kevin Rudd in 2008, required to explore regional approaches (East Timor and Malaysia) as the arrivals continued, forced to reintroduce most of the Howard’s strategies, eventually required to resort to an expert (Houston) panel to advise it, until finally Kevin Rudd was propelled to introduce the RRA with PNG. Even this option faces legal challenges and the difficulty of settling non-Melanesians in a Melanesian society.

At every turn Labor has met with resistance and criticism from the Greens, and trenchant opposition and obstruction from the Coalition, for whom it seemed the continuance of boat arrivals was a political plus.

I can offer no magic solution. I believe there is none without strong tripartisan support, the ongoing involvement of other nations in our region, and the development and implementation of a regional ‘solution’. Instead, as I did when I addressed this issue in Applying facts and logic in the asylum-seeker issue and again in What is the role of political blog sites?, I challenge those who oppose what Labor has done and is doing, what the Coalition proposes, and what the Greens seem to want, to come up with their own answers.

Any who insist on criticising what others are doing or proposing ought to tell us what THEY would do. I challenge any who attempt to do this, to do so only after answering the questions above, if they can.

If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’, it will be sent to the following politicians: Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Anthony Albanese, Julie Bishop, Chris Bowen, George Brandis, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Doug Cameron, Bob Carr, Jason Clare, Mark Dreyfus, Peter Dutton, Joel Fitzgibbon, Josh Frydenberg, Sarah Hanson-Young, Joe Hockey, Mike Kelly, Jenny Macklin, Richard Marles, Christine Milne, Scott Morrison, Judi Moylan, Robert Oakeshott, Brendan O'Connor, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Rudd, Philip Ruddock, Tony Smith, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, Penny Wong and Nick Xenophon.

Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott: two gentlemen politicians

It is not often that retiring politicians receive the lavish praise that has been heaped upon the Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, praise so richly deserved.

In the turmoil of partisan politics where self-interest so often dominates, it was refreshing to witness the way in which these two gentlemen of politics placed the common weal ahead of any self-interest they may have had.

We may have never witnessed such levelheaded politics had there not been a hung parliament after the 2010 election. It fell to the Independents to decide who should govern: Julia Gillard and Labor, or Tony Abbott and the Coalition. Bob Katter soon declared his support for Tony Abbott, probably because his friendship with Kevin Rudd made it difficult for him to support his successor, Julia Gillard. Andrew Crook of the WA Nationals sided with the Coalition, and Greens Adam Bandt with Labor. Andrew Wilkie declared his hand when he rejected Tony Abbott’s promise of a billion dollars for a new teaching hospital in Hobart, an offer he considered to be irresponsible, an offer he believed was designed to benefit Abbott in his quest for prime ministership, rather than the people of Dennison. That left the count at 74 for each side. So it fell to Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to make the decision about who should prevail. The way they went about making that decision will go down in our political history as an exemplar of sound and careful political judgement.

For seventeen agonizing days, the future governance of the nation swung in the balance. They were not going to be rushed – the final decision was too important. On 7 September 2010, they separately announced their decision to support Julia Gillard. Tony Windsor was brief. Rob Oakeshott took seventeen minutes to explain how he had reached his decision while edgy journalists waited impatiently to hear who he intended to support, characteristically more interested in who had won than the intellectual process of arriving at the decision. Finally, both said they would support Julia Gillard, giving her the 76 votes she needed to govern. He said it had been "an absolute line ball, points decision, judgement call."

The final thumbs-up decision and the explanation.

Oakeshott’s speech is worth replaying for its well thought-out approach to the decision he needed to make. Part1; Part 2. Here is Mark Davis’ account of that historic event. Here are some more images of that fateful day, ‘Independents’ Day’, courtesy of The Age.

Oakeshott emphasized that for them both stability in government was the main concern; they wanted one that would run its full term. The other requirement was that the government produced sound outcomes.

‘Stability’ and ‘outcomes’ were highlighted as essential requisites.

He stressed the need ‘to bring Australia together’, to unify. Divisive politics was anathema to them both. Therefore they looked for the party that presented the best chance to “work with us to keep parliament running as long as possible”. Both had previously been involved in minority parliaments in the NSW legislature. They had experienced how they could work. They had confidence that a prime minister with a sound legislative agenda, and a capacity to collaborate, would likely attract support sufficient to carry it out over the three-year term of the parliament. An Agreement to Form Government was drawn up with the Prime Minister.

Pressed later for more detail, both men said that they had more faith in Julia Gillard’s ability to manage a minority government than they had in Tony Abbott’s. They saw she had superior negotiating skills. They believed her when she said that she wanted the parliament to run its full term. In contrast, they felt strongly that Abbott wanted a quick return to the polls to install a ‘legitimate’ government, having already declared that a Gillard government would be ‘illegitimate’, a position from which he never retreated. They sensed he was not at all interested in a long-run parliament.

Yet they were aware that Abbott badly wanted to be prime minister, and would ‘do anything’ to get that prize in his hands, except, as Windsor later reported, ”to offer his arse, and he would consider even that”, so desperate was he! They reported that he was even prepared to introduce a carbon tax if that was one of their conditions, although he had ruled out any such notion early in the negotiations. They judged Abbott to be not ready for the high office he coveted. After three years of minority government, Windsor confirmed that view when he said that they had “probably done Tony a good turn by not handing it to him”, as clearly he was unready.

Oakeshott indicated that he and Windsor, both representing regional electorates, had been able to negotiate with Julia Gillard a good local package for their electorates, a good regional package that offered equity to regional areas, and a good national outcome. The NBN, climate change, mining and gas extraction, regional education and minimizing the chances of an early election, were crucial elements. They judged Julia Gillard as one who could successfully lead a minority government. Their judgement proved to be correct.

In reaching their initial decision, there were some parliamentary matters that were pivotal. They were interested in assuring ‘supply’ and ‘confidence’, and in lifting parliamentary standards and the quality of committee work.

Strongly supportive of the NBN, they recognized how essential it was for the development of regional business, and for its competitiveness. Armidale, at the centre of Windsor’s electorate of New England, was an early recipient of the NBN. Anecdotal stories soon emerged of how the NBN had benefitted businesses there, especially with the improved upload speeds it offered. Developing a plan for the management of water in the Murray-Darling system was a high priority to them both; they played a major role during committee work in achieving a ‘once in a century’ plan.

They were both convinced that man-made global warming was a reality and that urgent action was necessary to slow it down by reducing carbon emissions. They supported the notion of putting a price on carbon preparatory to moving to an emissions trading scheme. Oakeshott had the preservation of biodiversity at the top of his wish list. They could see that was Julia Gillard’s intent, which contrasted starkly with the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, one that was supported neither by economists nor environmentalists as an appropriate answer to global warming. Both were prepared to say so, while most of the Fourth Estate avoided doing so.

They were keen to play down the notion that either party had a ‘mandate’ to govern, that one party had dominance over the other, that one party had been ‘endorsed’. Oakeshott emphasized how unimpressed they both were with the state of federal politics, stressed the value of strong independents, and highlighted the importance of private members’ bills. They underscored the need to be committed to the electorates, and for the electorates and the country as a whole to be the drivers for debate. They also proposed a plan for changes in how the House of Representatives worked, a streamlined Question Time, and the prospect of conscience votes on private members’ bills on controversial subjects such as gay marriage. Later they drew up an Agreement for a Better Parliament that reflected these changes, referred to as a ‘new paradigm’ for the parliament, which was publicized as facilitating a ‘kinder, gentler’ parliament, one that responded to the public’s wish for “leaders who ... concentrate on making this country a better place to live”.

Oakeshott described the wide range of politicians, treasury officials, federal departments, and stakeholders they had consulted, as well as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, in what he described as an open and transparent process, one that enabled them to reach the decision “to guarantee confidence and supply to a Gillard Government, unless exceptional circumstances dictated otherwise”.

In line with their desire to improve parliamentary committee work, they have both played a central role.

Tony Windsor became a member of the following committees: Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Primary Industries and Resources; Regional Australia; Privileges and Members' Interests; and the Joint Select Committees on Australia's Clean Energy Future Legislation and Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. He contributed enormously to the Climate Change Committee. He was also a member of the Speaker’s Panel.

Rob Oakeshott was a member of these committees: House of Representatives Standing Committees on Education and Training; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs; Infrastructure and Communications, the Joint Statutory Committee on Public Accounts and Audit; the Joint Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs; Defence and Trade; Parliamentary Library; and National Broadband Network; Joint Select Committees on Cyber-Safety; Parliamentary Budget Office; Australia's Immigration Detention Network; Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples; and Broadcasting Legislation.

Together, through their committee work, they have had a particularly strong influence on deliberations about the NBN, climate change and carbon trading, the impact of coal seam gas exploration, regional Australia, the Murray Darling water plan, infrastructure, communications, broadcasting, indigenous affairs, and education.

Windsor took a special interest in coal seam gas and its impact on farming and the environment, and was heavily involved in the successful passage of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment that insisted on a proper independent scientific process for evaluating the impacts of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments, especially in prime farmland.

It has not been without its costs to them personally and professionally. They were subjected to biting criticism by Coalition members “for going against the wishes of their ‘conservative’ electorates in supporting a Labor minority government”. The fact that both New England and Lyne voters had convincingly chosen independents rather than conservatives, four times in the case of Tony Windsor and twice in the case of Rob Oakeshott, makes that criticism tenuous.

Abuse was directed to their electorate offices, presumably from angry Coalition supporters who felt they had been robbed of power that was rightfully theirs, but they reported that generally the people they met in the streets of their electorates were supportive of them. Early indications were that Tony Windsor was doing so well in the polls against Barnaby Joyce that Joyce was concerned he may have a battle on his hands. Later Windsor indicated he would not be contesting the seat because of health concerns: “I am experiencing some health issues which have yet to be resolved, and as much as I love this job I don’t want to die in it.” And anyway he felt he had other things that needed his attention – his family and his farming. Likewise, Rob Oakeshott felt his wife and young family of four deserved more of his time. For them, this oft-cited reason for retirement was not an excuse, but a genuine desire to leave the hothouse of intrigue, conflict, double-dealing and sabotage that is federal politics today, and attend to matters closer to home.

It is to their eternal credit that they stuck with Julia Gillard throughout, until her own party removed her. They said their loyalty was based on mutual respect earned as each adhered to the agreement they struck in 2010. They said she had not let them down - she had kept her side of the bargain. In turn, they did not let her down.

In a touching tribute to a wistful Julia Gillard, in his valedictory speech Rob Oakeshott told her he had tweeted her on the night of her replacement by Kevin Rudd: “Your father would have been proud of you”. In the same speech he wryly observed: ““I have been shocked, frankly, over the last three years, to meet ugly Australia and just to see the width and depth of ugly Australia.” Is it a surprise then that he would seek relief from the unremitting nastiness and ugliness that surrounded him for the life of the 43rd parliament?

What did they achieve? Virtually what they set out to achieve. The parliament ran full term, there was no motion of ‘no-confidence’ ever put, despite many threats by the Coalition, ‘supply’ was assured, and in the three years of the Gillard Government almost six hundred pieces of legislation were enacted with 87% bipartisan agreement. The crossbenchers directly altered 27 bills, and had the Government make changes to many others. It was the most productive parliament ever, the complete opposite of what was predicted by Tony Abbott, the Coalition, and much of the media, which preferred to characterize it as an incompetent, ineffectual, chaotic government.

Many major reforms were passed into law – a price on carbon leading to an ETS in 2015, the Murray-Darling water plan, the NBN, the NDIS, the Gonski education reforms being among the most significant. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott were instrumental in facilitating all of them. They enabled a minority government to be spectacularly successful, even in the face of the most trenchantly negative and obstructionist opposition in recent history. Their role in successful governance has been immense. Not all their wishes reached fruition; for example, the debate on major tax reform was sidestepped, and doubts exist as to the future of the recognition of local government in the Constitution.

When the history of these two gentlemen of federal politics is written, it will make clear just how much they contributed, just how much they enabled, just how much their support of the Gillard Government has meant to our nation. Together they have made a major contribution to good governance.

They were the epitome of commonsense, rational advocacy, balanced judgement and gentlemanly behaviour, always free of the nastiness and spitefulness so often associated with partisan politics.

The hurly-burly of politics too often distracts from the achievements of politicians. When the shouting and tumult of the 43rd parliament finally dissipates, the true value of these two outstanding politicians will on be record for all to see.

We who have followed them with admiration for the last three years acknowledge their enormous contribution. They enjoy our deep respect. We extend to them both our heartfelt thanks and every good wish for the future.

The Stalking of Julia Gillard: Kerry-Anne Walsh. A Review

This is an enthralling book. It carries the telling subtitle: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister. For political tragics, it is a ‘must read’. For others who wonder what on earth goes on in the hallowed halls of Parliament House and the Canberra Press Gallery, it is a revealing exposé. It is literally a ‘page-turner’, one of the most illuminating books on Canberra politics that I have read.

Its author, Kerry-Anne Walsh, is a highly respected political journalist who spent twenty-five years in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, leaving it in 2009 after becoming disenchanted with political spin. She has been a columnist for several local and overseas papers, a producer of TV programs, and a panelist on the ABC’s Insiders and on Sky Agenda.

Ms Walsh kept a diary of the extraordinary time in federal politics from June 2011 to April 2013 during which the Gillard Government was in power. At the end there is a postscript in which 18 June is the date last mentioned, just two days before the two year campaign of sabotage of Julia Gillard and her government by what Walsh describes as ‘Team Rudd’ brought about her replacement by the one she had replaced three years and three days earlier.

Those who have followed federal politics closely will be familiar with every step of the stalking process. What Walsh does is to fill in for the reader the behind-the-scenes machinations in the hothouse that is Canberra politics. She exposes the complicity of the Press Gallery in every move made by Team Rudd. She names those who see themselves as influential ‘players’ in the process: insiders, confidants, king makers and destroyers, and documents their involvement. We know all those she names; the extent of their involvement though is a revelation.

It will not surprise you that Peter Hartcher emerges as perhaps the most determined Rudd supporter, one who despite his senior position as Sydney Morning Herald political and international editor, time and again seemingly discarded the tenets of balanced journalism to become a strident advocate for Rudd and ‘Team Rudd’, a would-be kingmaker who fashioned stories to be powerfully pro-Rudd, and who served as a conduit for every scrap of Team Rudd propaganda he was fed. It is my view that in doing so he damaged the principles of objective journalism, Fairfax media, and most of all himself. Walsh had this to say about Hartcher: “What now of journalists such as the Sydney Morning’ Herald’s Peter Hartcher, who promoted Rudd’s cause month after month? I emailed him questions about the ethics of his reportage and his commentary on the leadership issues, given his robust advocacy for Rudd. He responded that he ‘utterly’ rejected my premise that he had advocated for Rudd, ‘and, therefore, the questions predicated on it’.

There were some political journalists though that Walsh did not name: “…two of Aunty’s most respected political journalists were said to be privy to the inside running on Rudd’s battle plan for his February 2 challenge weeks before the leadership ballot, yet they chose to keep this to themselves.” I wonder who they were: Chris Uhlmann, Barrie Cassidy, Tony Jones, or someone else?

Writing about the never-ending succession of deadlines set by Team Rudd or media pundits by which Julia Gillard would be gone, Walsh says: ”When one deadline fails to eventuate, it should be an embarrassment for a gullible media; when dozens fail to materialize over two years, it’s been a massive, humiliating con…We in the Fourth Estate have much to answer for.” She goes on to write: “As the ABC’s political editor at 7.30, Chris Uhlmann, remarked frankly after the day of high farce: [the day of the aborted 2013 Rudd challenge] ‘The media has played a role in this, and it’s for others I guess to parse how well or how badly the media has done. There’s not a shadow of doubt that the media has been used to help build momentum, to help build a sense of chaos, particularly this week. And anytime it looked like it was falling off, there was someone else [from Team Rudd] out and about…There is absolutely no doubt the Rudd forces have been using the media quite cleverly for some time now.”

These are revealing admissions from an insider of a reality that those of us in the Fifth Estate suspected for a long while. Yet the wider electorate is likely still largely oblivious of the media’s grossly manipulative behaviour.

Walsh confirms what we have been saying here for ages when she writes: “The press gallery can be a beast that feeds on itself. Apart from attending the occasional press conference, Question Time or ministerial interview, gallery journalists are shackled to their desks. Their company is each other; their sounding boards are each other; their judgements about the political angle of the day are formed out of exchanges with each other. But the competition is fierce for a headline story – to be the agenda-setting pundit, or to be the first online to repeat a whisper. The added dimension for journalists nowadays is the voracious appetite for novelty that the twenty-four-hour online story beast demands. Coupled with the sacking by newspapers of experienced sub-editors and fact-checkers, journalists find themselves in a dangerous new space of unvetted reporting. In this climate, the anonymous quote – once used only to protect legitimate deep throats or to give nuance to a story – became the most popular bedrock for Gillard-Rudd leadership stories that dominated headlines and threatened the PM and her government. Every rule in the handbook of good journalism was broken.”

Later Walsh writes: “Over the last few years there have been serious reporting mistakes, gross errors of judgements, biased commentary and empowering of Team Rudd’s agenda. When the house of cards collapsed – twice – those journalists remained at their desks. And they all pull handsome salaries; they are paid more than a backbencher in many cases, and among the upper echelons as much as ministers. But while ministers are forced into abject mea culpas and apologies for mistakes, we in the fourth estate simply waltz on to the next project without acknowledging our errors. The media holds politicians up to the highest possible standards of behaviour. Not even human error or a slight slip of the tongue escapes our harsh judgements; the echo of ridicule about Gillard’s mispronunciation in April 2011 of ‘hyperbole’, for instance, still reverberates. Something has to give.”

Indeed, something ought to give. But will it, given the dilapidated and steadily collapsing state of the Fourth Estate, its degraded state of journalism, its clearly partisan orientation, and the political and commercial intent of its owners? Sadly, the answer seems to be NO!

Let’s now see what Walsh has to say about the polls: “The fortnightly Newspoll published by The Australian, the monthly AC Nielsen poll published in Fairfax newspapers, and the ad hoc Galaxy polls published in News Limited tabloids are treated by journalists as more important when assessing the government’s performance than its achievements or policies. Yet these polls are at best arbitrary snapshots of the public’s mood, tiny random samples of a voter’s reflexive reaction to events of the day – reactions that are strongly influenced by the media’s portrayal of the way the government is faring. And the way the media interprets the polls influences the next poll – constant cries that the government is wretched and doomed, is led by a wretched and doomed leader, affect the perception the voting public has of the government and its prime minister. Journalists who habitually ply statistics to promote the case that a government or its leader is terminal when there are months, even years, before an election are engaging in fraudulent misrepresentation. They are conning the public.”

Continuing with her appraisal of polls, Walsh writes: “These days the regular published newspaper polls concentrate on voting intentions alone, and reporters simply look back at political events of the previous fortnight and draw conclusions about the issues that have affected the public mood – even if there is no proven connection. They then peer into their crystal balls and declare that, based on their deductions and the numbers in front of them, it spells doom or success at an election that can be the political equivalent of light years away. Yet the future is full of events, circumstances, people, twists and turns that will affect and maybe change voters’ opinions of their elected representatives. Because the headline results are circulated the night before, so as to maximize a particular newspaper’s bang for its bucks, the polls are absorbed and spat out by television and radio from dawn the next day. The conclusions of those journalists and commentators who interpret the polls frame the political discourse for the day, sometimes for forty-eight hours, and are echoed in the news analyses from other media outlets.

“Independent polling analyst Andrew Catsaras is appalled by how the polls are often interpreted, and that the interpretation is then mimicked elsewhere. Even polls that show no change, or changes within the 3 per cent margin of error are splashed around by the commissioning organization. The Australian, for example, is brilliant at prominently running reams of copy on polls that haven’t shifted, or only shifted slightly, setting an artificial news agenda for the day. ‘The papers that spend money on these polls need to make news stories out of them, even if there’s nothing to report’, Catsaras tells me. ‘The interpretation is often distorted – if they want to promote a leadership story, they can do it. What is a statistical variation can be interpreted or spun around something that has occurred in the political world in the previous fortnight, even if there is no connection at all.’

Her final words on polls are these: “Many senior politicians privately anguish over the influence Newspoll and The Australian have on power plays and the standing and conduct of governments and opposition, but they feel helpless to take on what is now treated as an omniscient part of the political infrastructure. They also need to keep News Limited onside; over the years The Australian’s editors, using polls as its principle weapon, have worked deftly to erode the standing of governments or leaders they don’t like or don’t deem fit to govern.”

There you have it, from an experienced insider. There you have what we have been saying here for years about political journalists, polls, the media owners, indeed about the whole Fourth Estate. A truly satisfying aspect of Kerry-Anne Walsh’s book is the confirmation of so much of what we have known or suspected and written about for so long.

It is to be hoped that in the next edition she adds an afterword that covers the final two days of the Gillard government, how Team Rudd finally succeeded, and how we lost an outstanding leader, Julia Gillard.

Seldom have I read a political exposition so revealing, so informative, so full of insights, so readable, so lucidly written. This review can but touch upon some of its highlights; the book itself needs to be read to unearth its treasure trove. Anyone interested in federal politics that buys a copy, or downloads the E-book version onto a reader, will not be disappointed.

The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister, Kerry-Anne Walsh, Allen & Unwin, 2013, RRP$29.99.

An accolade for Julia Gillard: a fine prime minister

Wondering what word I should use in the title to best capture my opinion of our first female prime minister, now sadly at the end of her period in federal politics, I have chosen ‘fine’. Of high quality, clear, pure, refined, delicate, subtle, exquisitely fashioned, elevated, capable of delicate perception or discrimination, excellent, of striking merit, good, dignified, are among the many synonyms of ‘fine’. Each on its own portrays how admirers of Julia Gillard see her.

There are other superlatives that apply to this extraordinary woman: courageous, resilient, persistent, tough, a fighter, focused, intelligent and hard working, an accomplished negotiator, a high achiever, one who gets things done. But there are other softer terms: gracious, dignified, poised, good-humoured, friendly, easy-going, relaxed, composed, fond of children, the aged, and the disabled. Another apt adjective is articulate.

How can I justify these laudable descriptors?

Let’s start with the last – ‘articulate’.

There are some who would dispute this, claiming that she could not get her message across, was unable to ‘cut through’, could not convey ‘what she stood for’, her ‘narrative’. This has always been a mystery to me.

How many times did she say that she stands for fairness and opportunity for all, opportunity for all to have a great education, a good job, a rewarding occupation built on a sound education? How many times did she say that she wanted a fairer workplace? How often did she talk about the need for pay equity, paid parental leave and better superannuation?

How many times did she speak about a National School Curriculum, the MySchool website, NAPLAN, and the Gonski reforms for fairer school funding?

How many times did she say she wanted a strong economy to support jobs and growth? Did you hear her say that she wanted to share the profits of mining across the community? How many times did she say that she wanted super fast broadband by way of the NBN to make Australia internationally competitive? How often did she emphasize the need to lift productivity? How often did she say that she wanted to improve road, rail and ports infrastructure? How many times did she say that she wanted an ETS to limit global warming? How often did she urge the development of alternative energy sources?

How many times did she say she wanted a solution for the Murray-Darling water system? How often did she say that she wanted a regional solution to the asylum-seeker problem?

How many times did she say she wanted a better health care system, one that catered for the increasing number of aged, mentally impaired, and the disabled? How many times did you hear her advocate an NDIS? Did you hear her talking about the dangers of alcopops and the need for plain packing on cigarettes?

Did you hear her advocating a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse?

You all heard her say these things over and again.

Where was the Canberra Press Gallery? Asleep, focussed on the trivial, blind to the central issues. Or were journalists simply so spellbound with groupthink that they ‘heard’ only what they wanted to hear, heard only what confirmed them and their editors in their collective view that she had no narrative, and stood for nothing. There were just a few who were not infected with the same groupthink, but the majority drowned their voices out. Sheer ineptitude or malevolent intent are the only plausible explanations for the Fourth Estate’s incompetence.

To me Julia Gillard was articulate; I heard clearly what she said, I understood what she stood for, and I was satisfied and pleased.

Was she able to achieve everything embodied in her narrative? No, there is still unfinished business, but she did achieve an enormous amount in just three years.

Her Government was the highest performing government in Australian political history with around six hundred pieces of legislation passed, many of them visionary reforms.

This is not the place for an exhaustive list, but here’s a glimpse of her achievements and that of her government:
Removal of WorkChoices, and legislating the Fair Work Act, PPL, and better superannuation and child care.
Pay equity for lower paid workers, mostly women.
Placing a price on carbon pollution, leading to an ETS in two years.
Implementing renewable energy initiatives to contribute to carbon reduction targets.
Introducing a minerals resource rent tax to share mining super profits across the community.
Sustaining a growing economy, the best in the developed world, during the most severe financial crisis for over seventy years, and the creation of a million jobs.
Adjusting pensions, carbon compensation, tax cuts and the school kids bonus.
Instituting infrastructure development: NBN, ports, roads, rail.
Introducing a package of health reforms: in hospitals, community health, aged, mental and cancer care, plain packaging of cigarettes, and healthcare administration.
Completing the first Murray-Darling water plan in a century.
Development of the ‘Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper.
Enhancement of relationships with the US, China and Indonesia.
Bringing about ground-breaking school education reforms culminating in the Gonski reforms for fairer school funding, and increased university places.
The introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (DisabilityCare Australia), a crowning achievement.

She has set in place monumental reforms to vital parts of our national edifice, the likes of which we have never seen before. She has bequeathed these to our nation. This will be her legacy, a mantle she can wear with pride.

All of these accomplishments have taken place in a minority parliament where every move had to be negotiated with several parties, where many were fiercely resisted by the Coalition and in several instances by the Greens, where negotiating skills were paramount, and where obstruction and delaying tactics were daily barriers to progress. Julia Gillard achieved all this because of her persistence, her toughness, her patience, her courage and her determination to get done those pivotal reforms and this essential legislation, all focussed on making Australia an even more prosperous nation, one that was “stronger, smarter and fairer” to use her own words.

It is not just what she achieved that is so praiseworthy, it is the circumstances in which she did so, the environment she had to endure.

Has there ever been a prime minister who has had to cope, day after day, with the toxic, poisonous environment that enveloped her? There is no need to elaborate at length. You know it all.

Day after day the Opposition Leader and his Coalition colleagues heaped upon her personal abuse, contempt, vitriol, and nastiness. She was attacked with demeaning words that revealed disdain, disrespect and derision, often with sexist innuendo, until one day she could take no more. The feisty Julia burst out and flayed Tony Abbott with that memorable rebuttal; one captured on YouTube to the delight of two million viewers and women the world over.

Unremittingly, she was debased in the media, by the vile Pickering, the contemptible shock jocks Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, and in her last interview, the despicable Howard Sattler. The mainstream media put out material every day that condemned her actions, ridiculed her ideas, criticized her every move, and found fault with her demeanour, her voice, her dress and her body shape, but seldom ever gave her any credit. The malicious Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman led the charge. The Murdoch media, joined latterly by Fairfax media, and sadly by elements of the ABC, clearly wanted her out of office and Tony Abbott’s Coalition in. Almost every news item portrayed that, sometimes subtly, but often stridently. The Press Gallery condemned what they characterized as her inability to get her message out, even her good messages, while steadfastly refusing to give them any oxygen.

Then there was the persistent sabotage of some in her own party from the moment she took office. Kevin Rudd and his supporters ran a relentless campaign of erosion of her authority, engaged the media disgracefully to pursue their agenda, and used poor polling to push its case for a change of leader. It is possible for strong people to endure for a long while despite life’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, but internal hatred and disloyalty eventually takes its corrosive toll, as it did on 26 June when her colleagues, some of them previously loyal compatriots, turned on her and ousted her.

To me this was an unforgivable act of infamy and treachery that will forever stain the history of Labor.

The Victorian Women's Trust agrees. Last Friday, it placed full-page advertisements in four Australian newspapers praising Julia Gillard's achievements and condemning both Labor and the Liberal parties for their actions over the past three years; Kevin Rudd for orchestrating a treacherous ‘seek-and-destroy’ mission against Julia Gillard, and Tony Abbott for his opportunistic appeals to people's prejudices.

Should you need more evidence about the poisonous environment in which PM Gillard had to work, do read The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the media and Team Rudd contrived to bring down the Prime Minister by Kerry-Anne Walsh (Allen & Unwin, 2013), a lucid account of all the forces pitted against her.

That Julia Gillard survived for three long years in the face of this tripartite hostility: from the Opposition, the Fourth Estate and her own colleagues, signals her strength of character, her resilience and her toughness. The way she departed showed for all to see, her poise, her grace and her gentleness.

There are many other attributes of Julia Gillard that I could explore, but I will end with her delightful personality. It would not have been surprising if she had become ‘bitter and twisted’ in the face of all the personal abuse and denigration that was heaped upon her every working day. But she retained her equanimity. Will we ever forget that marathon press conference where the Press Gallery finally exhausted itself asking her question after question about her days at Slater and Gordon twenty years ago until they had no more? Despite her despair of the Canberra Press Gallery, evidenced by her admonition: “Don’t write crap; it can’t be that hard”, she patiently took every question and ended smiling at them, as she had begun.

It was when she interacted with children, the disabled, the aged, and indigenous folk that gave us the most penetrating look into her soul, her inner being.

She was always smiling, often laughing with her infectious chuckle, always ready to embrace those around her, always concerned about the welfare of others, exhibited by her concern for the safety of Tony Abbott at the time of the Canberra restaurant ‘siege’ by aboriginal activists on Australia Day.

Despite all the visceral nastiness, the sexist taunts, the media vitriol, the Abbott attack dog snarling at her day after day, the disingenuousness and condemnation coming at her from every direction, the treachery in her own ranks, the ugly images painted by the cartoonists and the vile words of the shock jocks, she was able to smile, able to bounce back showing no desire for retribution, finally able to relinquish the most important political position in the nation with dignity, poise, and composure, and then sit on the back bench with a wistful smile on her face and with tears in her eyes as Rob Oakeshott told her in his valedictory speech that he had tweeted her on the night she was replaced: ‘Your father would have been proud of you’.

And so are we.

Thank you Julia.

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