Thursday, July 11, 2013

Storm in a teacup (1)

OPPOSITION leader Tony Abbott has come under fire after telling a female journalist to “calm down” when questioned on claims for travel expenses he was asked to repay following his Battlelines book tour.

Guardian Australia journalist Bridie Jabour was seeking a comment from Mr Abbott at a pie factory press conference this morning when the incident occurred.

Mr Abbott, who was accompanied by Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, was more than happy to don a cap and white coat in one of his trademark shopfloor photo ops but he was less willing to answer questions on the expenses he was forced to repay that were incurred while promoting his book Battlelines.

Ms Jabour's response on Twitter later was short and sweet. All i have to say is: Calmer than you are. #biglebowski #calmdownbridie

The hashtag created by Ms Jabour in response, #calmdownbridie, was Tweeted almost 2000 times over the course of the day.  The episode culminated in globally renowned ‘God’ account @TheTweetOfGod tweeting Abbott: “Attention @TonyAbbottMHR: this is God. Calm down, sweetie.”

The God user has 833,000 followers on Twitter while Abbott struggles along with 140,000 followers.  Kevin Rudd? He has more followers than God, with almost 1.3 million.


Storm in a teacup (2)

FOOTAGE of Kevin Rudd patting the head of a disabled woman has left a disability advocate "shaking with rage".

Comedian Stella Young, who is also a disability campaigner, said the PM's behaviour showed Australians had a long way to go to change patronising and disrespectful attitudes.

The clip, part of a story on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) on ABC's 7.30 Report on Tuesday night, showed Mr Rudd posing for a photo with a woman in a wheelchair before patting or ruffling her hair.

Ms Young says disabled and short-statured people are considered cute or a novelty and aren't treated with the dignity and respect afforded to others.  "When you face those attitudes on the bus or on the train or at the supermarket, it's pretty awful," Ms Young said.  "But when you're faced with these attitudes by the prime minister of the nation, it's absolutely gobsmacking."

She said Mr Rudd's actions were probably unintentional, but was surprised he hadn't been briefed on how to interact with disabled people.  "If you could show me video evidence of Kevin Rudd patting the head of an adult non-disabled woman, I'll eat my words," Ms Young said.

"(But) can you imagine him patting one of his female parliamentary colleagues on the head? Absolutely not. A woman in his local community? I don't think so."

Changing patronising and condescending attitudes is as important as improving physical access for disabled people, Ms Young says.


Plenty of words but still no plan to protect borders

OF all the policy failures, disappointments and mistakes under the federal Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the inability to adequately protect Australia's maritime borders from boats commanded by people smugglers has been the greatest source of disappointment and anger with the public.

After inheriting a policy from John Howard which was having maximum impact by deterring almost all people smugglers and adventurous asylum seekers, the first Rudd administration set about winding back both the harsher elements of the Coalition's approach and dismantling the core of the national response.

Mr Howard had already started taking the uncompromising elements out of his plan, scaling back some of the inhospitable detention centres and placing many children and families into community accommodation.

Mr Rudd, with strong public backing, went further and set about getting all young people out of detention and closed down off shore processing. He also took away the prohibitive temporary protection visas, giving those granted asylum full access to work and family reunion.

Mr Howard's tow-back policy, implemented after a spike in arrivals in 2002/03, was used sparingly but to great effect. By turning around a handful of vessels, the lottery was weighted against the people smugglers and their clients. The armed forces might not have liked it - and neither did the Indonesians - but as some retired officers have said in recent days, it can be done with a degree of difficulty.

Mr Rudd's new response is to dismiss Tony Abbott's plans to revive what Mr Howard did as unworkable in changed circumstances, to admit mistakes in not adjusting to what he says were evolving international conditions in 2009 and arrange a regional summit through the good offices of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The Australian public, alarmed and frustrated at the thousands of asylum seekers arriving on boats being intercepted at the rate of more than one a day, wants more than just talk. Mr Rudd must in the days and weeks left before the election spell out a comprehensive plan.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke has given the government's current position some clarity, including an admission of failure on the ill-thought out Malaysian plan. The next step has to clarity around the way ahead. The public knows where we've been on this.

At the same time Mr Abbott needs to give more detail and explanation of his approach to solving these problems. He might have found comfort in his three line mantra while he was facing Ms Gillard but the arrival of Mr Rudd back on the scene has changed the game.

Yesterday's Newspoll take the major parties back to where they were at the 2010 election and makes what was a very lops-sided contest a real and unpredictable competition. Mr Rudd is within striking distance, having won himself back into the hearts of many voters - some of whom seem foolishly ready to either forget or forgive what were grievous policy failures and mistakes between 2007 and 2010.

Mr Abbott cannot - and should not - get away with the wishful claim that because Mr Howard did it, he could do it again. If that was his guiding principle, he would be embracing genuine and urgently necessary workplace reform and not squibbing it for three more years. Mr Abbott and his immigrations spokesman Scott Morrison protest their position is well known but the backstop to any hard questions is that because it worked under the last Coalition Government, it will work again. We do need greater certainty about what Mr Abbott will do and how these plans meet the changes that have occurred in our region since 2007.

If Mr Abbott doesn't flesh out his plans and priorities across the board - not just in relation to asylum seekers - he could see the gap between his standing and that of Mr Rudd grow even greater and allow the Labor Party to sneak back into office with a cheap coat of paint and some tricked up rhetoric. Mr Abbott has often said this election is vital to the nation's future. He has to demonstrate he takes that sentiment seriously and bring the electorate into his confidence. The voters are ready for some plain speaking.


Rudd has got the unions on the run

Labor's Steve Georganas was part of Julia Gillard's thumping, 71-31 crushing of Kevin Rudd in the February 2012 leadership ballot.

But even then he felt the tug of self-interest, quietly explaining to colleagues: "She deserved 12 months to turn things around."

Towards the end of that period, the affable Georganas had seen enough and was instrumental in persuading Gillard's marquee supporters in South Australia, Penny Wong and Mark Butler, to switch back to Rudd.

Polling had identified Hindmarsh as a near-certain gain for the Coalition in a looming anti-Labor landslide.

The inner-Adelaide seat had been hard-won by Georganas in 2004 by just 108 votes, but consolidation since meant a swing of more than 6 per cent was required to see it change hands.

Around the country, however, Labor seats on that margin, even some with twice that buffer, particularly in NSW, had been considered genuinely vulnerable such was the walloping coming Labor's way.

Until now that is.  The return of Rudd has worked better even than was hoped, injecting new life into the contest and suggesting an unlikely win for Labor is at least possible.

Rudd's approach has been calculated, conscientious and cunning - the product of long months of contemplation on the backbench.

It has allowed him to hit the ground running - clocking up nearly 22,000 kilometres of travel, and allowing a series of important and symbolic policy announcements in his first fortnight back.

His prime target has been "old politics" but that can be divided into two hemispheres: Tony Abbott's negativity and Labor's sullied brand.

Where Gillard felt she was forced to combat Abbott's aggression with a fight of her own, Rudd has risen above the fray, positioning himself as the new, constructive way forward, and casting the bitter partisan divisions of the past as the country's real enemy. Like Bob Hawke in 1983, who campaigned on the slogan "bringing Australia together", Rudd wants to leverage the patriotism and feel-good factor of a yearning for national unity over social division.

It's a strategy that is already paying off in spades, propelling Rudd to a huge 22-point lead over Abbott as preferred PM, according to a Newspoll that also puts the two sides level-pegging on 50-50 after preferences.

Abbott looks unnerved, briefly resembling Goodfellas mobster Jimmy Two Times during a tense news conference on Tuesday:

"I always said it was going to be a contest. I always said it was going to be a contest and you know, it's the clearest possible choice. It's the clearest possible choice. It's the clearest possible contest."

The other leg to Rudd's approach has been the attack on union domination of Labor, its so-called faceless men. That started with the spectacular assault on the notoriously fetid culture of the NSW branch via a lightning 30-day federal intervention.

And it was followed this week by an extraordinary revamp of Labor's parliamentary machinery to make it impossible for leaders to be knifed as he was in 2010 (and as he just did to Gillard a fortnight ago).

This was Rudd the Labor movement outsider, taking on a century of vested interests that, his instincts tell him, voters loathe and, his memory tells him, cannot be trusted to stick with him.

Rudd's authority has never been higher than it is right now, yet it may go higher. The party has come back to him on bended knee, desperate for the salvation only he seems capable of.

He is delivering on his part of the bargain, instantly rocketing a dysfunctional, riven rabble back into competitor status. But his price for those who tore him down will be prohibitive.

The people's prime minister is not just lending his party access to the authority he enjoys in voter-land, he's entrenching that public involvement via a series of reforms that will fundamentally alter the balance of power within Labor.

They mean a leader once chosen cannot be removed until the next election and, even then, only in the event of a loss at the polls. In other words, it is not merely the ALP membership that is being empowered, it is the people too.

Yet for all the silo-shattering impact on the cosseted power of unions and their factional agents in the parliamentary Labor Party, the real work of addressing Labor's undemocratic core remains.

This is the next big task and those considering the rule change at a caucus on July 22 are already worrying about what an unremovable Rudd may do if he somehow wins in 2013, then comes after them.

These fears are well-founded. Unions buy their influence in the ALP through affiliation. This dubious process allows them to pay the ALP subscription for a set, but entirely fictional, number of their own members, then deploy those votes as a bloc.

This murky practice runs counter to the push for transparency and is particularly odious given the ALP receives millions of taxpayer dollars to run election campaigns.

Georganas' seat is looking a whole lot safer under Rudd but the price for the unions who backed him and his colleagues in preselections may be high indeed.


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