Tony Abbott is not the messiah, he's a believer who stands by his sibling
BY: CHRISTOPHER PEARSON
DURING the 2010 election campaign, the ABC's Q&A devoted an entire program to Julia Gillard and then to Tony Abbott on succeeding Monday nights.
Tony Jones, the show's presenter, had orchestrated a "gotcha" question from a Vietnam veteran with a gay son who'd recently come out and wanted to marry his partner. "When will you overcome your fear and ignorance of gay people and give them the dignity and respect you'd happily give to all Australians?"
I'm sure that, like me, the former High Court judge Michael Kirby, the Institute of Public Affairs' Tim Wilson and a number of Abbott's less high-profile homosexual friends were rolling their eyes at the time.
As everyone now knows, thanks to an excellent piece by Kate Legge in The Weekend Australian Magazine, so were Abbott's sister Christine Forster and her lesbian partner, Virginia Edwards.
Abbott acknowledged the value of stable same-sex relationships, but reiterated his reservations about categorising them as marriages. Jones, no doubt sensing an opportunity for moral one-upmanship, asked him: "Do you think if you really got to know some gay men you might change your opinion?"
Abbott replied: "I do know some gay people - extremely well - I really do, mate, OK?" and proceeded to pat Jones's hand by way of playful demonstration that he's not phobic about physical contact, much to Jones's discomfiture.
It was one of the relatively rare moments on Q&A when something unpredictable happens and the audience starts laughing rather than responding in factional blocs.
What was funniest about the incident was the sudden role reversal. The most politically correct male presenter on ABC television was trying to convict a right-wing Catholic opposition leader of homophobia. But instead of it being an open-and-shut case, Abbott pleaded no case to answer and made it clear that if anyone was uncomfortable in his own skin, it was Jones.
As the Sydney Institute's Gerard Henderson noted at the time, it was also surprising that so experienced a journalist should have been unwilling to let the facts get in the way of his presuppositions, given that Abbott's friendships with Kirby and with me had been widely known and a matter of public record since 1994.
Then again, perhaps Jones and his back-up staff just didn't bother to do their homework.
Although Abbott and his family have kept his sister's confidences and have done what they can to protect her privacy, it was inevitable that Forster's sexuality began to be quite widely known about the political class three years ago. I was surprised that by the time the election campaign got under way none of the supposedly gay-friendly members of the press gallery had got wind of the story and sought to exploit it.
As Kerryn Phelps, a gay activist, wrote in an article in The Punch on Monday: "Most of us in the marriage equality movement have known about the relationship for a couple of years, so we have been viewing Tony Abbott's comments on the issue of equality through the prism of knowing he had a sister who left her marriage for another woman."
Phelps's take on Abbott is pretty silly, but because it exemplifies the worst traditions of unreconstructed 1980s feminism. I'll return to it presently.
First, it's worth quoting Legge, who is both a sophisticated feminist and a matter-of-fact reporter. "When Julia Gillard hosted gay couples to a dinner at the Lodge, the event made headlines around the country. Mr Abbott and his wife, Margie, have welcomed Ms Forster and Ms Edwards to their home on countless occasions without fanfare or fuss. They know more about gay relationships than people think."
The story of Abbott's gay sister and her partner, like the story of the lost son who turned out to have been fathered by someone else, won't do him any damage at all. On the contrary, I'm sure most people can empathise with him. If you have a fond relationship with a sibling, it's obvious you don't shut them out of your life at the time they most need emotional support just because they're same-sex attracted and have decided to do something about it.
Deciding not to behave in a judgmental way in such circumstances doesn't mean that you're obliged to abandon a considered position on sexual ethics or on marriage, either as an institution or as a sacrament. Nor does it prove you're a hypocrite. It just means that the Christian imperative to love one another trumps all other considerations.
One of the problems many in the commentariat have in coming to grips with Abbott is that he's not a Catholic conservative from central casting complete with a 1950s world view and prejudices to match. It's a comforting fiction, I suppose, but one that leads them and the ALP to underestimate him habitually.
He's actually a modern man, someone who's given to irony and occasional self-parody; not in the least bit one-dimensional. As well, as anyone who's seen him with Margie and his daughters should be able to tell, they're a close, happy family.
Labor's former pollster Rod Cameron used to say Abbott was virtually unelectable but that, too, was wishful thinking. In fact, he probably has more in common with the values and interests of the public at large than the average psephologist, let alone the denizens of the press gallery.
Phelps is another commentator who imagines she is channelling the zeitgeist. Her contribution to the debate is a reminder of what was wrong with triumphalist 80s feminism.
Rather than engage with Abbott's arguments on marriage, she asserts that he has none and dismisses his position as blokey malice. "I can just imagine those lively discussions at your family dinners. 'No Virginia, no Christine. I won't do what is in my power to do just so that you lot can get married. Why not? Because I said so.' You know you are winning an argument hands down when the only case the other side can make is 'because I said so'."
Hard as Phelps may find it to understand, most of us, rightly, expect political parties to honour their solemn pre-election undertakings.
A Leftist government that does surplus budgeting
Americans wouldn't believe it. Obama borrows 40% of what he spends
FINANCE Minister Penny Wong has rejected any suggestion that bringing the Budget back to surplus in 2012-13 could trigger a recession.
"It's the right thing to do to bring the Budget back to surplus," she told Network Ten yesterday.
Senator Wong said November's mid-year economic review forecast growth of 3.5 per cent and it "assumed the fiscal policy the Government's got in place".
She has rejected a suggestion by her Opposition counterpart Andrew Robb that a surplus would be achieved by fiddling the books.
Mr Robb said one example was the energy security fund to help coal-fired generators adjust to the carbon tax, scheduled to start on July 1.
Labor will spend $1 billion this financial year and in each of 2013-14 and 2014-15 on the fund, but only $1 million has been set aside for next financial year.
"You don't come back to surplus simply through accounting," Senator Wong said. "You come back to surplus because you make hard decisions."
But Mr Robb said he wasn't convinced. He said Senator Wong was caught out and unable to explain why the funding for generators wasn't anything other than a dodgy accounting trick.
"This is just one of many money shuffles that have been uncovered totalling billions of dollars," the Opposition finance spokesman said in a statement.
"What these desperate tricks confirm is that when Labor pencils in a wafer-thin Budget surplus for 2012-13 in May it simply cannot be believed. It will be illusory."
New Greens leader Christine Milne said Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was to blame for creating an environment where Labor felt locked into delivering a surplus in the May Budget even though economic circumstances have changed.
The Greens believe the Gillard Government shouldn't be rushing to bring the Budget back to surplus if it means tough spending cuts and delaying reforms such as the introduction of a universal dental care scheme.
"Everyone in Australia knows if the Prime Minister hadn't come out and made an emphatic statement in 2009 saying the Budget would return to surplus this year on the basis of Treasury modelling about the extent of the growth that was predicted, we wouldn't be in the position we are," Senator Milne told Network Ten.
"But it's actually Tony Abbott and the Ju-liar community who are responsible for this because it's a political imperative."
Senator Milne said Prime Minister Julia Gillard believed the Government couldn't change its position.
Private schools warn of fee rises
This is just a shot across the bows. Labor learned under Latham that attacks on private schools are a big loser. With 39% of Australian teenagers going to private High Schools you can see why
SOME schools could lose up to $3.9 million a year under a proposed national funding system, forcing them to increase school fees, the NSW Association of Independent Schools has warned. Some might be forced to close.
The association's executive director, Geoff Newcombe, said he was concerned preliminary data suggested "serious flaws" with the new funding model proposed under a review led by the businessman David Gonski.
"We are very happy to work with the government," Dr Newcombe said. "But we are very concerned about how much independent schools could lose under the new model. This would be likely to put pressure on schools to increase fees and in extreme circumstances could cause a small school to close."
Dr Newcombe said 2009 data provided by the federal Department of Education to demonstrate how the new funding system would work suggested significant reductions in funding to many independent schools.
The association's analysis of the data showed that 86 independent schools in NSW would lose funding under the proposed model - a quarter serving communities with low socio-economic status. According to the analysis, 50 of the 86 schools would lose more than $250,000 a year.
Dr Newcombe said a small, low-fee school in outer Sydney would lose more than $65,000 a year, requiring an extra $280 per student to be found, based on the 2009 figures. A school with a low to medium socio-economic status in metropolitan Sydney would lose more than $960,000 a year, leaving the school to raise an additional $1300 per student. Some schools stood to lose as much as $3.9 million
"At this stage the independent schools sector in NSW is not withdrawing its support for funding reform as it does not believe this result was the intent of the review or of the government," Dr Newcombe said.
"However, the sector … is calling on the Australian government to give certainty to parents and independent schools by stating that funding to schools will not be reduced in real terms."
Brian Croke, the executive director of the Catholic Eduction Commission, said it was too early to tell whether individual Catholic schools would be better or worse off.
He said there were technical issues that needed to be resolved, but the concept of having a base level of funding for each student, topped up with additional loadings for disadvantage, was a good one.
Stephen O'Doherty, the chief executive of Christian Schools Australia, said he was "very positive" about the directions of the Gonski report, particularly because it promised to provide additional funding to schools serving needy communities.
The federal secretary of the Independent Education Union of Australia, Chris Watt, warned against rushing to adopt the current Gonski model. "It won't just be high-fee schools that would lose out in this, it's potentially every school in every sort of community," he said.
The federal Education Minister, Peter Garrett, said the government has said repeatedly no school will lose a dollar per student as a result of the review.
"All the work now being undertaken is predicated on that commitment," he said. "Mr Gonski and the review panel have made clear, there is still a lot of work to do to test and refine the various elements."
Labor's fear is that Milne's Greens will lack Brown's pragmatism
The Gillard government's immediate reaction to the departure of the Greens leader Bob Brown and to his replacement by Christine Milne was one of concern.
Since the balance-of-power alliance with the Greens that was imposed on it by the hung parliament, Labor has haemorrhaged political support.
Firstly, the arrangement resulted in Labor putting a price on carbon, which exposed Julia Gillard to the extremely damaging claim she had broken her election promise regarding no carbon tax.
Secondly, Labor wins no support from the left for this policy or any other green measures. It just bleeds from both ends.
While the Coalition primary vote has become entrenched at or about the 44 per cent it received at the August 2010 election, Labor voters have deserted the government, with 10 per cent of those who voted Labor now opting for the Greens or parking their support in the "undecided" category.
Brown entered the Senate in 1996, the same year John Howard became prime minister. While poles apart politically, Howard and Brown were conviction politicians.
This underpinned Brown's success in building the Greens federally to the current peak of nine senators and one member of the lower house.
Brown's reward for conviction was best demonstrated at the 2001 election, which was dominated by the MV Tampa episode. Labor, under enormous pressure, acquiesced with Howard's hard line against the asylum seekers and went backwards. The Greens advanced.
Over the years, Brown also developed a degree of pragmatism. He talked a big game but, especially towards the end of his leadership, accepted that in politics, sometimes something was better than nothing. The greatest example was the watered-down mining tax, with which the Greens were unhappy.
"Our position is that ultimately we are going to have to pass the mining tax because Tony Abbott's Coalition is opposed to it," Brown said.
This position caused some frustration within the party given the Greens' ability in the Senate to toughen the mining tax. But Brown knew Gillard would not budge. The worry inside Labor now is that Milne will not share that pragmatism.
One senior figure said the common view is that an alliance with a Milne-led Greens could damage the government more than the Brown alliance because of Milne's reputation as a policy hardliner and her uncompromising rhetoric.
It was known that Gillard could reason with Brown, saying: "Bob, we've gone out of our way for the Greens on this issue, can you tone it down on that one?" And at times, Brown would reply: "No worries, leave it to me."
Milne deserves to be given a chance before being judged. She has rejected the hardline tag and has promised a more open party. She has pledged, somewhat pointedly, to be a more consultative leader and stated that Brown's departure means the rest of the Greens team will now have a chance to "shine".
But Gillard's warning that she expects Milne and her party to "conduct themselves responsibly and reasonably", including letting the government return the budget to surplus, was deliberately sharp.
The first test of how much, if anything, has changed under Milne's tenure will be the Greens' response to the budget.
The government wants a 1 percentage point cut to company tax to be funded by the mining tax. The Greens, including Brown, have so far refused to support this, saying they will allow the tax for small companies only - those with a turnover of less than $2 million.
They say bigger businesses should receive nothing and the money saved should be spent on worthy national projects such as a dental scheme.
Milne's opening statement as leader included attacking the mining industry as rapacious and the "old economy".
Milne believes the economy is approaching a tipping point between old and new, and wants to work with what she calls "progressive business". But to do one at the complete exclusion of the other, especially when the other is not yet ready to carry the economy, is obviously risky.
The last time the miners were written off as the "old economy" was at the start of last decade when all and sundry slammed Peter Costello for not pinning the economy to information technology by climbing aboard the dotcom boom.
As Costello noted in his memoirs, if Labor and others had had their way, "we would have got out of mining just when it was about to take off and invested in technology just when it was about to collapse".
Milne is on the record as demanding that the $2 billion diesel tax rebate the miners receive be cut back harder than the 6.2¢-per-litre reduction planned for the budget and she supports calls to pare back their other tax perks, such as accelerated depreciation.
It has been speculated that if the Greens were to support the company tax cuts in full, then they will demand in return the further reduction of the diesel rebate, which they believe should be phased out.
The government needs the Greens because the Coalition opposes the tax cut on account of the way it is funded.
The miners are angry and alarmed again. On Friday, before anyone knew Brown had quit, they published full-page ads warning the government not to accede to the demands of some "groups still demanding Australian mining should pay even more".
Ominously, they reignited the "keep mining strong" tagline - the same as in the $22 million anti-mining tax ad blitz that crippled Kevin Rudd's leadership and almost killed Labor.