Dear Mr Abbott,
You promised to take us back to the halcyon days of your Liberal Prime Ministerial predecessor John Howard and, like him, hoped to put sport rather than politics back on the front pages. I fear, however, your time machine has overshot the mark and we are heading rapidly towards the 1800s.
Do you not remember the Twentieth Century? First
: On 15 September 2013 you proudly announced your new Cabinet — with one woman!
Do you not recall Australia gave women the vote in federal elections in 1902 after campaigning by Australian suffragettes
such as Vida Goldstein, Mary Lee, Henrietta Dugdale and Rose Scott? If not those names, you must remember Edith Cowan who went on to become the first female elected to any Australian parliament.
Women, however, did not get the vote quite so easily in the United Kingdom. Do you not recall Mrs Pankhurst and the British suffragettes who, from 1908, had to resort to militant tactics to achieve the vote?
Do you not remember Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch
and the ‘women’s lib’ movement (or second wave of feminism) of the 1960s and 1970s; the creation of the Women’s Electoral Lobby early in 1972; or the equal pay case of 1969; or women being allowed to drink in public bars and breaking down other social barriers?
Do you not remember that women have already fought much of this battle? Perhaps not, for they still have to fight to get into your Cabinet. Second
: During the 2013 election campaign you treated Indonesia like a colony, saying what Australia would do to protect its sovereignty and its borders from the evils of people smuggling without first asking Indonesia about your approaches that encroached on its sovereignty.
When in Opposition you attacked human rights in Malaysia and after you were elected were forced to apologise.
Did you not remember that south-east Asia was decolonised after WWII, that Indonesia first declared independence on 17 August 1945
but the Dutch tried to return? Do you not recall how from March 1946 Australia supported Indonesia’s independence
and played a significant role in having the United Nations involved in negotiating an agreement leading to the Dutch withdrawal in 1949? Perhaps you would prefer not to, for that was a Labor government.
Did you not recall that Malaysia became completely independent from the UK in 1957 after a few years as a self-governing protectorate; that Australia sent military personnel to support Malaysia during ‘the emergency’ in the 1950s?
Why did you think that you could speak about our Asian neighbours in the way you did? Was it simply that you did not remember the Twentieth Century? Third
: You and your Ministers have demonised refugees arriving by boat, now making it official policy that they be referred to as ‘illegal arrivals’, despite Australia being a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Admittedly we did sign it during the Twentieth Century, which may make it somewhat difficult for you to recall.
Do you not remember that we are a nation of migrants and refugees? From what I can find out, you may have arrived as a ‘£10 Pom’. Was your family seeking a better life when they left England behind? What is it that the boat people say — oh, yes, they are looking for a better life? It does have an air of familiarity that you should recall. Or in overlooking the Twentieth Century have you also forgotten your own arrival?
Have you forgotten that people escaping war-torn Europe after World War II were welcomed — about 171,000 arrived between 1947 and 1954
under the migration program operating at the time. In fact, in those years the total net overseas migration was about 680,000
. So we not only sponsored migrants, we welcomed four times as many.
One of your Liberal predecessors, Malcolm Fraser, supported the Vietnamese boat people who came to Australia in the mid-1970s. He sent migration officials to the refugee camps to speed the processing of claims and, you may be surprised to learn, that
kept down the number arriving by boat — 2,059 boat arrivals between 1976 and 1981
compared to total net migration of 442,000
, including about 56,000 Vietnamese
who applied as refugees. Not a bad plan in my opinion.
Perhaps it is something you could consider. But then again, I imagine you don’t like to recall that part of the Twentieth Century because Fraser resigned from your Party when he saw how refugees were being treated. Fourth
: You have hidden from and, indeed, run away from interviews and gagged your Ministers.
Do you not remember that, after an initial decision in 1992, the High Court confirmed in 1997 an ‘implied right’ of constitutional freedom of political communication
… ss 7 and 24 and the related sections of the Constitution necessarily protect that freedom of communication between the people concerning political or government matters which enables the people to exercise a free and informed choice as electors …
The High Court created a nexus between political communication and federal voting choices. This right of political communication is not restricted to election periods but can include any political communication between elections that may influence voting.
As electors we need to be informed what each party stands for, to know what the Australian Government is doing. There are also political communications with
the Government to express our views, to try to change a policy or have new policies considered. How can we have political communication with you if you don’t even tell us what you are doing? We are not informed
by your Government’s silence!
I can take you back to something you should remember because it occurred before the Twentieth Century.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804
… man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear investigation of their actions.
A free press is considered a cornerstone of democracy (leaving aside for now discussion of the Murdoch press) by providing information to the people and creating an informed electorate. If you persist with keeping information from the people, we will be left to assume you ‘fear investigation of [your] actions’ or are hiding something from us — perhaps you already are! Fifth
: You have re-introduced ‘flexible workplace relations’ into the administrative orders for the Department of Employment, although in searching your pre-election policies I can find no reference to it. Is this double-speak for more of WorkChoices or at least individual bargaining between employer and employee? You are obviously aware, being a Rhodes scholar, that in that relationship the employer holds all the power — it can be a very one-sided negotiation.
Do you not recall what Justice Higgins said in the ‘Harvester case
’ in November 1907:
The provision of fair and reasonable remuneration is obviously designed for the benefit of the employees in the industry; and it must be meant to secure to them something which they cannot get by the ordinary system of individual bargaining.
That is my emphasis to Justice Higgins’ words but, yes, back in those times individual bargaining was the norm. Even then, however, it was seen not to work well for the employee. But I suppose that is another part of the Twentieth Century you have overlooked in your hurry to take us back in time.
Do you not recall the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911? One hundred and forty six workers — mostly women — died, leading to changes in factory conditions and safety in the US.
Here in Australia, do you not remember the Mt Kembla colliery disaster
in the Illawarra in NSW in July 1902 when 96 workers, men and boys, were killed, or the collapse of the Westgate Bridge
in Melbourne in 1970, killing 35 construction workers and seriously injuring 17?
Do you not recall that it was the workers represented by their unions who fought for workplace safety for decades, yet still over 100 workers die at their work every year
in Australia and over 100,000 serious worker’s compensation claims are made. In fact, 212 died in 2012 and 185 in 2013
How can an employee demand a safe workplace through individual bargaining? Would you allow, in the name of flexibility
and reducing regulation
, lesser health and safety standards for businesses? Would you take us back to those times when the bosses decided what was ‘safe’? How many more lives will be lost if you allow that? Sixth
: You have promised $70 million to encourage 1,500 existing public schools to become independent. And you launched your education policy at a fundamentalist Christian school in Sydney’s western suburbs. You said you did not agree with its views on homosexuality and respectfully disagreed with a number of other pronouncements in its Statement of Faith — but not all of them? Perhaps you do agree with some because, after all, they are (or at least appear to me) more akin to Christian views of the 1800s.
Do you not recall Australia’s long history of a free secular education at the primary and secondary levels? New South Wales has been doing it since late in the 1800s (so perhaps that should be within your ken) and in 1912 Queensland began creating high schools for all when it worked out it was cheaper than their previous model of ‘grammar schools’.
Do you want to take us back to the mid-1800s when the Catholic and Protestant churches provided the schooling and there was competition between them to gain pupils?
Just as an example of those times, a Dr Braim JP wrote to the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne in 1849 complaining about a Jesuit priest in his local area
(and I understand, you do know something about the Jesuits):
He is to be found in every house, where he has a chance of effecting an entrance, and is very active in trying to persuade parents to prefer his school to ours for the education of their children.*
*You can find this quote in the section ‘Orphan girls’ near the end of a very long letter on the Bishop’s travels through his Diocese.
Do you not remember that the Twentieth Century placed a high priority on education and that government schools made it accessible to all?
Your Minister for Education floated the idea of reintroducing ‘caps’ on university places. You did contradict him and said it would not happen but, given your approach to promises (only what is written; only what we do, not what we said we would do — ring any bells?) I’m not sure I can believe you. It smells to me of re-creating an elite and making sure the rest of us know our place. Last
, at least for now: You said in your book Battlelines
that conservatism prefers facts to theory; practical demonstration to metaphysical abstraction; what works to what’s in the mind’s eye.
Do you not recall George Bernard Shaw’s words, famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in 1968:
Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not?