Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop delivered a thoroughly mind-numbing, vapid speech to the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday in which she reconfirmed that she prefers neither deep nor original thinking although she is certainly an assured and self- confident speaker who enjoys the limelight even when her memory for face and job recognition let her down badly at one spot. The consensus in today’s media, with its obsessive appetite for style over substance seems to be that it all went swimmingly. Some air heads and politics-wonks are even gushing that she appeared Prime Ministerial. They should all take a Bex and have a good lie down. Let’s not over-gild the lily, especially as we are a nation which has only recently demonstrated that any woman in the PM job, no matter how clever, capable or worthy will be crucified by the misogynists. Yet, to her credit, Bishop certainly proved she could remain blithely upbeat, upright and smiling while continuing undeterred despite some distinctly negative non-verbal feedback from her largely female audience; women she proceeded to patronise and diminish by the bouquet of platitudes, anecdotes and undisguised affection if not reverence for the patriarchal status quo that was the substance of her speech. Equality after all is something we can safely leave to up to powerful men to look after. I am absolutely confident at the right time the Prime Minister will promote other talented women we have in our party. It is held to be good manners to modestly acknowledge your privileged background. Bishop did this quite successfully without going into any real detail. She shared that she knew she had been very lucky. But she tried to pretend that even a life of privilege was in fact pretty ordinary. I acknowledge I have a very privileged upbringing as many women in Australia have. As a few of us have, Julie, you could almost hear her audience thinking. Acknowledging others present, however, proved not so easy. Nevertheless her efforts did add a bit of light and shade to her dull list of things to get through that were her notes. Some of this grated especially her faux sister-hood special hellos and twinkly grins of recognition to individual women she appeared to recognise even if she couldn’t get them on side. Intelligent women, educated women, distinguished women who battle inequality daily without feeling the need to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Women who were likely to be further alienated by her discourse’s end. Bishop’s performance was not unlike that of a plucky beginner unlikely to plunge into the deep end but a swimmer nevertheless and one who is not so risk-averse that she cannot enjoy herself even if her modest skills limit her to the shallow end of her 1950s tepid public swimming pool. If you tuned in hoping for a real contest of minds, however, you would be disappointed. It was not communication but more a sort of shallow interior monologue in which Bishop talked to herself in public, reassuring herself in a Panglossian delusion that we lived in the best of all possible worlds before an audience who knew better but were mostly too polite to tell her. Weary faces, set faces, disbelieving faces, bored faces looked up at Julie Bishop as she downloaded a tedious series of dreary clichés, commonplaces, unexamined assumptions, superficialities and tepid banalities in what you could tell she thought would be the sort of speech that all those women in the media were expecting of her. It was not. Instead she clearly bored most of her audience witless and inflicted upon them the curiously patronising complacency indulged in by privileged winners who conclude that because they have made it there must be nothing wrong with the system. Bishop also disclosed without intending to why she is part of the problem. Her attitudes, her perspective, her language all proceeds from a web of assumptions spun to help maintain the status quo. She appeared unrepentant and unaware of her role as an apologist for patriarchy and privilege. Some of her speech was saccharine. Some of it was sanctimonious. I pay tribute to all the women who have been cabinet ministers before me. It is not an inappropriate rhetorical gesture. But it is not something you do just by standing up in public and uttering thank you. It’s what you do. Many in the room were wondering how Julie Bishop’s deeds came anywhere near paying tribute to other ministers, especially given her reticence to lift a manicured pinky to protect Julia Gillard from the excoriating abuse and invective that characterised the best work of the opposition in its crusade to ditch the witch. Some, no doubt were muttering that it is politicians of her ilk that make the future even harder for the 1% of Australian women who even plan to enter politics. Questions frequently tested the deeper end of the pool. Surely, journalists assumed, lurking somewhere in the depths of a successful woman’s psyche is the motivation to work towards gender equality. Bishop’s words gave no hint of this. She settled instead for a type of girl guide’s promise. “The challenge I have set for myself is to do the best I can for those who will follow me. I feel that responsibility every day.” Doubtless Baroness Margaret Thatcher comforted herself nightly with similar platitudes. On the issue of gender barriers in politics, Bishop made very little sense at all other than appearing to be in deep denial. Or she pretended not to understand the question. Certainly she did not answer it. There were almost audible gasps from feminists attending her show as she neatly side-stepped structural gender inequality . I don’t think there is such a divide [between genders], in cabinet we deal with a whole range of issues and I have an opinion on every single one, likewise the males, of course they have opinions. But we do need to be more representative generally, we need diversity in our Parliament. Sharing her thoughts on the glass ceiling proved to be a continuation of Bishop’s blinkered run along the inside barrier. Here she makes a virtue of her habit of denial. Yet her description of her path to success does nothing to empower others, especially other women. I refuse to acknowledge it. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I’m not saying that at all. If I want to do something I will work hard and try to do it. If it doesn’t happen I’m not going to blame the fact that I’m a woman. I’m not going to see life through the prism of gender. Please don’t misunderstand my point, I’m not saying there is no glass ceiling but I’m not going to say my career has been stymied because of the glass ceiling. That would be inappropriate for someone in my position. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop would have ready access to United Nations documents. Perhaps we could direct her towards this UN summary: Women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes and gender stereotypes, low levels of education, lack of access to health care and the disproportionate effect of poverty on women. http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation#sthash.WSIliEXn.dpuf From her answers at the Press Club, it is clear that Bishop would tell these women that they must not blame the fact that they are women. The answer, it would seem, is simple. They must work harder. By the end of her speech it was clear that Julie Bishop would see to it personally. Part of this would be achieved by having a public dig at feminism which in the Bishop scheme of things appears to be some optional extra, a type of optional accessory one may get along perfectly well without. It’s just not a term I use. I self-describe in many other ways. It’s not because I have a pathological dislike of the term, I just don’t use it. It’s not part of my lexicon, I don’t think anybody should take offense. I’m a female politician, I’m a female foreign minister. Yeah well? Get over it. There are many of us who can’t get over it Julie Bishop. You are an influential person from a privileged background and you occupy a position of no small social and political responsibility. You have done well and you are proud of it. The cards you were dealt from birth as you admit were stacked in your favour. Yet there is little in your speech to give hope to other women from less privileged backgrounds, the majority of women in the real world in their daily struggle for justice; their struggle for equality. There is little in your words of reassurance for them to take comfort in. There is on the other hand a disturbing complacency, a self-satisfaction and an almost wilful ignorance that will make the road you have travelled so much harder for other women.
When then opposition leader, Tony Abbott announced his new ‘Border Protection’ asylum-seeker and refugee policy in July 2013, it seemed at first as if it were a bad joke: a grotesque parody of our nation’s rights and responsibilities as much as an absurd over-reach to a politically sensitive but minor issue: the arrival of sea-borne refugees on our shores. The name did not help. The term ‘border protection’ itself is grandiose and deceptive. It misleads by implying that our borders are threatened by asylum seekers and refugees. Typically from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan our asylum seekers and refugees flee by boat from the Taliban, from civil wars and dangers we can barely guess at. Many of these are women and children. Boat arrivals represent a tiny fraction of those who arrive via our very porous borders. On average 1000 per year come by sea. Contrast this with 150,000 arriving annually by air. Border protection, like ‘turn back the boats’ is a costly political stunt which exploits ignorance and xenophobia for narrow political advantage. Ultimately it injures Australia’s international reputation, betrays our common humanity and consumes billions of dollars which could and should be better spent in education and other real priorities.
In 2013 Australians were promised that a ‘three-star commander’ would be put in charge of a military-led border protection campaign. It was a perplexing term to most of us. The US Army ranks generals with stars; perhaps, we wondered, this might be a new, local variant. It wasn’t. Australian forces use stars differently. But it worked, to some degree, as an attention-seeking attempt to bestow legitimacy and status. It sounded impressive if somewhat forced. The times demanded no less: Abbott proceeded to talk everything else up. Most notably he declared the waves of asylum-seekers arriving by boat to be a ”national emergency”, a term he has subsequently stretched to fit the economy and the ISIS and other jihadists’ threat. A three star commander, it was implied, surely would have the rank and the nous to fix the problem. And the power. As time would tell, however, this pseudo-military footing permitted the government to avoid accountability in “Operation Sovereign Borders”. Key questions as to what was happening were met with stony silence. Answers could not be provided to ‘operational matters.’
Operation Sovereign borders would not only boast a three star commander, it was to be a hamburger with the lot. Touting a streamlined efficiency that Liberal leaders love to pretend characterises their ‘business-like’ approach to government, Abbott promised that his ”Operation Sovereign Borders” would combine 12 agencies involved in ‘border protection under one command’, a military supremo to be recommended by Chief of Defence, General David Hurley yet not answerable to him. Commander kangaroo would instead report directly to no less an exalted entity than the immigration minister. But no-one need be told the substance of that reporting. It was left to speculation as to how this secretive streamlined unity would be achieved or how well it would work. Also left unsaid was that Hurley did not endorse the proposal. Nor was he consulted.
The irregular power structure was commended to the electorate as ‘a unified chain of command’. Again, anyone would think we were at war so greatly was the package larded with pseudo-military terms and assumptions. Anyone might have wondered at the proposal’s implicit advocacy of a military solution to a complex issue. When all else fails, fall back on brute force. Was this, somehow, the best our little nation could come up with? Some of us wondered whether the next step would be the proclamation of martial law.
For many the first reaction was disbelief. Surely no-one would take this Gilbertian dictatorship seriously. Surely anyone could foresee a problem with the chain of authority and its opaque operational secrecy. Surely the three stars would quickly lose their shine as commander kangaroo was laughed out of the water, or lost at sea. Surely we would come to our senses and remember our legal and moral obligation to those forced to seek asylum. Sadly, this was not to be. Quite the contrary: instead appear increasing signs of a widespread belief that “Operation Sovereign Borders” is ‘working’, as a Labor politician put it this week, (before others in the party remonstrated). The same comment by a journalist from the Guardian newspaper on Q&A a few days ago drew a round of applause. it was a chilling illustration of the power of propaganda.
Sadly, ‘border protection’ appears now to be embedded in Australian government policy and practice. It has seeped into our collective unconscious, that part of the national psyche too fearful to think straight. It is found in that unreasoned acceptance of rebranded, re-packaged cruelty, hostility and indifference to others in danger and distress that finds expression in ‘turn back the boats’, Abbott’s endlessly repeated slogan. And immigration minister Scott Morrison acts as if he is accountable to no-one, including the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs as evidenced in his boorish, bullying behaviour whilst giving evidence to The National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. Certainly he has been able to spend billions, at a time of budget emergency.
Border protection dovetails neatly with the heightened paranoia recently invoked by the Abbott government in which it is held that we are at grave risk of attack from ‘those who hate our way of life’. Ostensibly to protect ourselves from terrorists, we accepted new liberties with language and have agreed to new laws which effectively permit the state to increase its surveillance and power over its citizens. The theatre of national security has also scored political popularity points for a poorly polling government into the bargain. A poll published in The Age today indicated a disturbing doubling of those Australians who felt their government could be trusted.
Border protection rears its ugly head in what is fondly misnamed our national conversation, a conversation which is so dominated by the agenda of vested interests and media that it is neither national nor a conversation. As Julian Burnside observes in his foreword to Marc Isaacs, The Undesirables, the phrase is misleading. For despite the newspeak, and despite the Abbott government’s militaristic procedures and posturing, the fact is that asylum seekers have a right to come to Australia. It is their human right. Australia is, of course, a signatory to the universal declaration of human rights, a declaration our nation helped to create.
Australia has an obligation under international law to admit asylum seekers. Instead, for narrow political gain, our leaders have persuaded us to pretend we are at war with them. It is time we completely threw out this case. it is untenable. it is mutually destructive. It does not become us. It does not meet our commitments to human rights. It denies our humanity. And it will break our budget. We do not have the resources to fight a war on asylum seekers on the water and a war on jihadists in the Iraqi desert. In the interests of humanity and our dwindling material resources, it is high time we stopped the Border Protection nonsense. Operation Sovereign Borders should be scrapped immediately. Scrap the language of illegals, border protection and all the associated newspeak which condones cruelty and promotes hatred. Send the three star Commander back into the navy. Billions of dollars could then be diverted into an investment in education. Australians could be helped to rediscover their true role in a world that is likely to have more rather than fewer asylum seekers and refugees. We could lead the world by demonstrating our enlightened understanding and natural compassion in taking in those who seek refuge here. And in the process, perhaps, we could rediscover what it means to be human in a world of growing hostility, division and indifference.
Australia is one of the best-placed countries in the world to take advantage of wind and solar energy. The country should lead the world in the use of renewable energy. Everyone could be winners: consumers, producers, our children, their children and of course the planet. And it is the people’s choice. The Australia Institute found 86 per cent of respondents want to see more renewable energy and 79 per cent think governments should support an expansion in renewable energy. There is also very strong support for more electricity generated from hydro (72 per cent), wind (80 per cent) and solar (90 per cent). By comparison, only 11 per cent wanted more electricity generated from coal. So not only are we are naturally blessed with abundant resources of sun and wind, surveys suggest that we have a population which is strongly in favour. You would think that any sane government would act in accordance with these facts.
Yet, instead, a dirty business is set to be the winner if our government gets its way. Solar will be stopped in its tracks in favour of dirty old king coal and later, nuclear. Power companies and industry associations will demonstrate once again that the Abbott government is their puppet. Some dirty work has been deployed to contravene the will of the people.
The coalition’s dirty work was brazen. When the Abbott government made a big effort to appoint climate change denier, businessman and former RBA member, Mr Richard Francis Egerton-Warburton, aka `Dick’, in charge of a ‘review’ of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, it sent a clear signal to all parties that its previous commitment to renewable energy targets was to end. And, as it did with the commission of audit and the national curriculum review, the coalition pulled a dirty trick. It hired a third party to do the dirty work.
The decision to mount its own inquiry was, in itself, cause for concern for those in the renewable energy sector. Why did Abbott not leave the review in the hands of the climate change authority? The authority was already scheduled to carry out a review. It seems, however, there are reviews and ‘reviews’. The Abbott government did not, in fact, want any independent evaluation or analysis, it simply wanted to justify turning back the clock to support its allies in the coal-fired electricity generation business. And as the cynical old adage has it: only commission an inquiry when you know the outcome beforehand. On this Tony Abbott and Vladimir Putin should have something in common should they meet in a fortnight in Brisbane during the G20 shindig.
In the case of Tony and Dick’s RET review, it was not a review which the government was after: it wanted a result. It wanted to stop the renewable energy industry in its tracks by watering down the RET, a closing of the scheme to newcomers and, if Abbott’s instructions were to be adhered to, abolished altogether. Old king coal stood to gain a new lease on life; his backers stood to pocket billions.
As things turned out, it was not an easy scheme to pull off. The appointment became a little controversial when Warburton, the favoured candidate, attracted the attention of the federal police. Hand-picked by Abbott, who faced down more than a whiff of scandal over allegations of bribery in a foreign venture, Warburton was engaged as Abbott’s hired gun. It was to be a double-barrelled gun. A self-professed climate sceptic, with connections to fossil fuels, Warburton was also the author of a Quadrant essay in 2008 in which he argued that Australia’s only alternative fuel option was nuclear. For many observers, the outcome of Warburton’s review appeared a foregone conclusion.
And so it has proved. Despite his disavowal that being a climate change sceptic would not in any way affect the outcome, Warburton’s panel report is clearly the product of those who cannot see the need for renewables; those who see all too clearly their duty to protect dirty coal powered generation. It recommended the RET either be closed to new entrants or increases in the RET be limited to half the increase in electricity demand — a “real 20 per cent’’ scenario. It must be noted that the RET is 41GWH. It has never been a percentage. Australia’s RET goal is for large-scale generators to deliver 41,000 gigawatt-hours or enough to power about 6.2 million households.
In proposing a ‘real 20%’, the government will cut the RET by 40% to 25-26 GWH. If adopted, the recommendations will decimate the local industry. The lights will go out in local wind and solar industries. Estimates are that 13 billion dollars of investment would be lost or one per cent of Australia’s GDP. Regional areas would bear the brunt of the lost investment in manufacturing wind turbine towers from Australian steel, and for other Australian products and services.
Obsolete coal burning plant will, however, be given a new lease on life. Existing power suppliers who are chiefly in the dirty business of burning coal to produce electricity stand to gain as much as $8 billion. Old, inefficient, obsolete plants previously decommissioned would be recommissioned. Power costs to consumers will rise. Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows wholesale electricity prices could increase by $5 a megawatt hour by 2020.
Abbott’s appointment of Dick Warburton reveals his own and his party’s connection to big business and obsolete, dirty technology. It also hints at a potential nuclear future. Warburton is a highly successful businessman who has enjoyed lucrative directorships on many business boards including Caltex Australia. Yet his career has not been free from controversy. A director of Note Printing Australia, his firm was investigated by Federal police for alleged bribery throughout Asia between 1998 and 2008. Consequently there was some discussion over his suitability to head the review, but Abbott was prepared to make his captain’s call and appoint Warburton personally.
Abbott was aware at the time of appointment of a secret internal investigation into Warburton’s role as a former director of a firm involved in Australia’s worst foreign bribery scandal. Abbott personally approved the appointment despite serious questions about the role of Mr Warburton and his fellow former NPA directors in overseeing a company that police allege engaged in repeated foreign bribery. Accordingly, it has come as no surprise that the recommendations of his review represent bad news for the renewable energy sector, the Australian people and the planet.
Ian McFarlane appeared on ABC Insiders today, Sunday 26 October to confirm that the Abbott government wants to wind back renewable energy targets. He also continued the Abbott ministry’s special blend of specious argument, deception and denial and its commitment to serving yesterday’s vested interests and industries. Interviews such as this increasingly reveal a government prepared to go to great lengths to misrepresent; delay, prevaricate; do almost anything rather than give any honest or open account of itself. Ministers increasingly seem to act as misrepresentatives of the people; ministers who misrepresent themselves and their actions with impunity as if that’s what all good politicians must do. The recent demise of Gough Whitlam should be sufficient example to dispel their cynical delusion were it not for their inherent wilful blindness.
Now, Ian ‘Chainsaw’ Mcfarlane is not a bad sort of a bloke for a native of Kingaroy. As Climate Change Spokesman for the Coalition in 2009, he worked on a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme with Minister for Climate Change Penny Wong, before a leadership spill deposed then party leader Malcolm Turnbull allowing Tony Abbott,to narrowly win leadership. Soon after, the policy was overturned. The member for Groom probably works well on bipartisan committees but it was painful to watch his attempts to defend his government’s reneging on an election promise. Painful also was the elephant in the room. Old king coal is alive and well and in control of LNP decision-making. Even worse was Chainsaw’s attempt to hide the decision behind statistics.
Questioned closely but good-naturedly by Barry Cassidy, McFarlane stonewalled. He resisted any construction Cassidy might offer on our behalf, especially that it was a broken promise and one which was calculated to cause hardship to those in the renewable industry. Instead of even the most modest concession all he could do was repeat his claim that everything was OK; the percentage as a real 20 percent. It was as if he believed viewers were stupid enough to be confused by the figures or taken in by the evasion. Or that if they weren’t it didn’t matter. His masters would look after the next election victory, too.
Other probing questions from Cassidy sought to provide valuable context into the decision making and the level of the government’s commitment. They were good questions which deserved straight answers. Straight answers might inform the people or fulfil the Minister’s duty to satisfy the people’s right to know. But once again, in what is becoming the Abbott’s government style, the people’s right to straight answers was brushed aside.
The minister kept his cards close to his chest, protesting that he was not going to negotiate on TV. Why weaken his position before beginning talks with other parties? Yet there were surely some details, he could concede, some insights he could safely communicate. A little less of the overweening contempt for being held to account would have been useful, too.
In the end, Chainsaw chose to be unhelpful. This tactic is becoming all too familiar. The style of his approach, his strategy of denial and withholding information resembles the would-be minister for Ebola, redoubtable Immigration Minister Scott Morrison who approaches interviews with all the hide, tact and tractability of a Mallee bull. Communicated is a smug superiority assisted by a condescending unwillingness bordering on contempt that he could ever get real, ever engage in real dialogue. The subtext is ugly. It is dismissive and vainglorious. Because you don’t count. We are in power. We will do whatever we can get away with. Run along Sonny, nothing to see here.
It was depressing TV. Here is an elected government in a western democracy once again flouting its responsibility to work towards a sustainable future, a democratically elected government that cannot muster the courage to make a straight statement about cutting its commitment to renewable energy. Mcfarlane explained the agreed target of 20% would now be revised downward to match the drop in energy sales. In other words, the energy policy on renewable targets is largely dictated by dinosaur mates in the coal-burning power generation industry.
In real terms it means a cut of about 40% and threatens many who have committed to the manufacture and installation of renewable power. It is another ignorant and retrograde step from a government that is prepared to back big capital and bugger the survival of the planet. A government that looks to its rich and powerful mates for its action plan rather than heed reality or look to the future. Or listen to its electorate. It’s always about short term political advantage. Climate change is absolute crap. Pollution doesn’t matter so long as the power company leaders continue to make obscenely fat profits.
The RET target back down is another broken promise in a series from our political leaders who promised whatever it took to get elected without any real conviction or commitment. One in power, it has practised a ruthless pragmatism in the service of vested interests who have everything to gain by winding back renewable energy targets, as if there were no tomorrow.
The $45 million the Australia government is wasting hosting a G20 meeting in Brisbane 15-16 November is disgraceful. It is a shameful waste of money for an exercise in flatulent fatuity; a meeting that will once again produce a communique that no-one can understand and which no member has to abide by. Take this most recent example produced in Paris after an all-night meeting:
“Today we agreed on a work program aimed at strengthening the functioning of the IMS, including through coherent approaches and measures to deal with potentially destabilizing capital flows, among which macro-prudential measures, mindful of possible drawbacks; and management of global liquidity to strengthen our capacity to prevent and deal with shocks, including issues such as Financial Safety Nets and the role of the SDR.”
Clearly the G20 is not a meeting that one attends to achieve anything. G20 began in 1999 to achieve co-operation in world financial system but quickly became a meeting about meeting. For a moment in 2008 when even its members recognised that a world financial crisis was upon them and that it posed some immediate threat to capitalism, it proposed a complete reform of the international monetary system but then, characteristically and reprehensibly did nothing.
G20 is that type of meeting. It is a meeting that one attends to be seen attending. It is an extravagant indulgence in showmanship, compulsive attention-seeing and mutual self-congratulation by a self-appointed club serving the interests of a powerful but threatened elite, an elite with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and a complete incapacity to agree on any single significant policy. Or even make sense to each other, let alone the rest of us. The meeting of G20 finance ministers in February has thus, accordingly cleverly set an agenda of achieving 2% growth for November’s meeting. No concrete plan, however, other than the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting action plan, which aims to prevent multinational corporations from taking advantage of low taxing countries. Yep. We all know how well that’s tracking.
Expect a lot of waffle about growth. Like motherhood, it is good for you but the photo opportunities are less pleasing. Expect gratuitous expressions of ersatz solidarity over the three days which will last as long as it takes for members to get home and perhaps annex another country or impose another tariff as Russia has done in the past.
Why bother? Another expensive self-deluding side show is not what any of us need. It comprises neither real nor effective symbolic leadership. Above all it sets a poor example at a time when the world needs leaders prepared to marshal every possible resource to ensure our continued survival. In an era of peak oil, rapid climate change, species extinction, water scarcity, widespread political conflict, and looming economic crises, not to mention an Ebola epidemic, what the world needs is real leadership. It deserves no less. Expect instead photographs of Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott making expansive hand gestures and generally hamming for the camera. Look at moi! Look at moi! ‘Two per cent growth agreed’ the picture may well be captioned by the spin doctors of whom there will be a record number attending the Brisbane spin-fest.
Humanity needs leadership by example, leadership that does not vaunt itself, indulge itself or flatter itself on its fame or friendship with famous names. It demands leaders who will think and act; not fritter away their energies in mutual back-slapping and schmoozing amidst the ritual exchange of vacuous slogans that characterise the typical G20 junket.
Above all the world needs leaders who are prepared to roll up their sleeves and quietly get on with the job of dealing with the many challenges confronting all of us; the many challenges to our continuing existence. There is no time to waste on bread and circuses. G20 leaders should wake up to the fact that they have more pressing priorities; more urgent tasks to attend to than shaking hands and listening politely once again while an antipodean treasurer stumbles to extol the virtues of venture capital, free markets and small government. G20 leaders should stay at home. Save the air fares. Save the planet. Get on with the job. Get on with the real business of governing. Scrap all future meetings. Use existing UN organisations before they atrophy from disuse.
Expect a lot of jargon about cost benefit analyses. But don’t expect anyone present to take it seriously or this to apply to the meeting itself. The cost even to host the circus vastly exceeds its usefulness. And its symbolic significance. The world would be a better place if G20 delegates had a change of heart, met by video-conference and saved conferences costs for something that makes a difference. Imagine if just $40 million were to be diverted into fighting Ebola in West Africa, donated to refugee organisations, or invested in education and health for the poor. What a difference that could make.
Instead, the G20 juggernaut trundles out of control through another shameless orgy of self-promotion and photographs as the self-important posture in the midst of widespread suffering and serious instability.
It promises to be a big show. There will be a lot of new faces in town: up to 4,000 delegates are expected to attend with around 2,500 media representatives. Expect a lavish do. Australia has spent up large as Bob Ellis observes:
Abbott was revealed to have spent 254,000 on a table and some chairs and their transport to the APEC summit, money that might have gone to our soldiers, or our dead soldiers’ children, plus 150,000 on some computer tablets, 120,000 on ‘advice’ on ‘leasing armoured vehicles’, 34 million for security guards and 10 million for hotels. The 44 million 524 thousand thus spent would have kept ten small theatre companies going for a thousand years on the interest alone. But it was ‘well worth the expense,’ Abbott said, ‘to keep the mass murderer Putin comfortable for three days, and well fed on Queensland rump steak, and anxious to buy more of it, which he has unaccountably, lately, refused to.’
It would be nice if the G20 leaders stayed at home without telling Putin. One of the major drawbacks of meetings about meetings such as G20 is that they are opportunities for the unprincipled to exploit to help manufacture acceptance and legitimacy. Leaders such as Putin can use the facts that they were invited and that they attended to continue to pretend to be real leaders, with something to contribute, instead of crazed psychopaths who murder their opponents at home while invading neighbouring countries, shoot down passenger aircraft, support the Syrian genocide and generally follow a policy of brutal, ruthless expediency and single-minded, blind self-interest.
So far, the G20 has failed to muster the resolve to disinvite the Russian leader. Perhaps there is poetic justice in the end, however, in the forcible detention of such leaders in a venue which is likely to be stuffed full of false friends, false plans and filled with hot air. If he cannot be held to account, he will doubtless be made to suffer, if only briefly. Perhaps in the intolerable, longwinded longeurs of an address by chairman Joe Hockey or any other comfortably self-satisfied representative of the privileged and irresponsible, there will be just a touch of terror at the prospect of death by Powerpoint.
And beyond that excruciating horror, a nightmare vision may emerge unbidden. The many-headed monster of mutual self-destruction appears, made visible through the abdication of world leadership. Nurtured by unreason, wanton self-deception and vested self-interest, it threatens everyone’s future as it vitiates the spirit and usurps the practice of common humanity. Feasting greedily on the remains of international cooperation is the G20 beast slouching roughly towards Bethlehem.
When the going gets tough, in Billy Ocean’s song, the tough get going. Yet when it comes to Ebola, Australian PM, self-styled tough guy Tony Abbott, wants to firmly stay put.
Abbott’s advisors need to work harder. They need to tell the PM frankly that putting his head in the sand is not a good look; opting for non-involvement is not an option. They could start with the message that his non-involvement sends. It is not flattering: it he doesn’t suit his macho man of action image and it certainly does not signal any deep concern or even a sound grasp of realities. Indeed, he is choosing to ignore local experts; ignore popular opinion.
Abbott’s stance is not representative of all Australians. Certainly, it fails to meet the expectations of Australian health care professionals. Australian medical experts understand that Ebola concerns us all. They want the government to see that the disease demands an effort from all nations. And they want their government to act immediately.
AMA President, A/Prof Brian Owler, sees an evolving international humanitarian crisis, in which Australia must provide urgent direct assistance. Australia should be providing more money to help contain the spread of the disease, and we should also be sending teams of medical and health professionals to help treat the thousands of people, across several countries, affected by Ebola.
“The AMA acknowledges the recent commitment of $18 million by the Australian Government, but it is clear now that much more needs to be provided. If the Government can get military arms airlifted to northern Iraq at short notice, surely we can airlift medical arms and legs to West Africa just as quickly to save lives. Australia and other developed nations must show leadership and act immediately to provide greater support to WHO and the people of West Africa affected by this human tragedy,” A/Prof Owler said.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is quick to remind us, Australia has virtuously contributed 18 million dollars but will not send medical personnel. Why? The Abbott government’s reasons sound like excuses. West Africa is too far away from Australia. We are already donating money. We need to have safety guarantees.
Many individual Australians see it differently; they have not hesitated to exercise their humanity. They have no trouble ‘getting it’. They have quickly shown greater insight and understanding than their government can muster. Australian volunteers understand that money is not enough. Personnel are urgently required. On the ground. Ebola is a big enough threat to world health to risk your life fighting.
Accordingly, thirty Australians are estimated to be working in West Africa for organisations such as the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières fighting Ebola. Their commitment is admirable, reassuring. These men and women understand what needs to be done and they get on with it. They appreciate that Ebola is everyone’s business, the collective responsibility of every one of us.
Disappointingly, Abbott appears determined to ignore Australia’s responsibility as an international citizen. What is he playing at? His cautiously timid response contrasts markedly with his other forays into international relations such as his recent hairy-chested response to ‘shirt-front’ Vladimir Putin. No shirt-fronting here. Just a quick side step or perhaps a duck and weave, keeping his head down.
Abbott’s response is also in dramatic contrast to his eagerly pledging Australian Military support to the United States call for a joint mission to fight ISIS in the Iraq and Syria. He made the pledge before being asked. Despite having no clear strategy, carrying high risks and with no Iraqi legal indemnity in place except for a loose agreement on a legal framework, Australia has agreed to commit half a billion dollars a year at least to the ‘humanitarian mission.’
Abbott has been quick to fend off critics. He counters suggestions Australia is not doing enough to fight Ebola, by working the responsibility angle: he claims it would be “irresponsible” to send personnel to West Africa without ‘an iron-clad guarantee’ that any health worker requiring treatment after becoming infected with the lethal virus would receive it from one of Australia’s political allies.
Health Minister Peter Dutton argues that an infected person would not survive the 30-hour flight to Australia if they were to contract the virus in West Africa. Government officials claim it could take up to a week to evacuate an infected person to Australia. It hasn’t stopped the volunteers. And it ignores potential medical care for infected personnel partnerships in other countries such as Cuba.
On the face of it, Australia’s response is damning. Australia’s donation of 18 million dollars, is ‘lethally inadequate’ according to Médecins Sans Frontières International, Dr Joanne Liu who contends that ‘The fight against Ebola is like a war and we need to send a clear chain of command.’
Some wars, it seems, are more popular than others to Australia’s leaders. The Australian government is perfectly willing to commit at least half a billion a year on air strikes and military advisers which are guaranteed to ensure the deaths of innocent men, women and children in Iraq. It is willing to give millions to Cambodia with no strings attached to induce that country to take asylum seekers. It is prepared to spend billions on off-shore camps for asylum seekers. Yet it baulks at rolling up its sleeves and fighting Ebola.
All of this begs the question of Australia’s priorities. Our present stance is both unrealistic, unsustainable and unworthy. We pride ourselves on our national mythos of capability and mateship. We are proud to take our part on world agencies. If we are genuinely deserving of our seat on the UN Security Council or our place in G20, however, we need to put up or shut up.
The Ebola outbreak is our worst on record. 9000 people have been infected. More than half those affected have died. On 8 August, the World Health Organisation (WHO) described the epidemic as “the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times”.
The UN has given the world a deadline of 60 days to get the disease under control or face “unprecedented situation for which we don’t have a plan”, warning Africa could see up to 10,000 new Ebola cases a week if the disease is not contained.
Australia needs to take its head out of the sand and act in a way that equates with its responsibilities as a world citizen.
In what can only be described as another clumsy fumble for attention, Australia’s FInance Minister Mathias Cormann has lumbered into the budget debate calling Bill Shorten ‘an economic girly man’.
Cormann did intend any compliment as Eva Cox brightly suggested on ABC Radio this afternoon. The Finance Minister was not enlightened or inspired by a view of economics that was not all about secret men’s business. Believe it or not, he meant it as a type of taunt.
Perhaps it’s a cultural thing. Perhaps Belgians fall about laughing when their government ministers use this stunt. If so, it fell very flat yesterday and only succeeded in taking down further Cormann’s reputation as someone who should not be let near a microphone or a job in politics. Further taking down any remote chance he could be taken seriously. And further trashing the government’s reputation with it.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by your behaviour, Mathias. It may well be a form of Tourette’s syndrome. Perhaps it is some form of medical complaint, a type of compulsive verbal tic. Your Prime Minister Tony Abbott certainly has a few. Perhaps it’s catching. Pointless, needless repetition certainly is. Certainly is. Trouble is it sends a message that you are a ‘couple can short of the six pack’. You may know the 1984 movie this comes from.
And it is something Mathias Cormann has said before. Groundhog day again. And again. This is far from the first time that the Finance Minister has performed the girly man stunt and it is unlikely to be the last. There’s not a lot of spare material in the minister’s grab bag of funny lines and other distraction tricks, apart that is from the dark glasses and the white stick. Internationally acclaimed treasurer, Wayne Swan and before him Kevin Rudd were also singled out for the recycled line, figures who tower so far above Cormann that he’d need a ladder to tie their boot laces.
Terminate the practice, Mathias. Go ahead make our day. We know you would like to be a funny man. We know it must get boring as Finance Minister to an incompetent Treasurer in a party falling almost every key performance indicator. We know you crave attention. It comes with the territory. Yes, we agree you do sound like the former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger but then so, too do millions of other misogynists. It must be like having somebody else’s shadow.
But you are not the Terminator. Give it away. Keep your day job, whatever that is. You couldn’t be any worse at treasurer stuff than Joe, ‘The Gaffer’ Hockey. You don’t have to do anything really challenging. Or even be original. You will find the public servants will generally do it all for you. There must be a few left on the payroll. And help is available. Tony will get Peta to give you simpler instructions. Bi-lingual instructions. You will get the hang of it in due course. Just promise to stop referring to her as Attila the Hen.
And, bonus! In a quick couple of years you won’t have to worry because you will be out of office, as no doubt you have shrewdly calculated along with your access to entitlements and after-politics Costello-type overpaid job sinecures. But not before you have done some serious damage. Damage mainly to your party but also to the image of Australia as a progressive, egalitarian society governed by the rule of law.
But for you and your comrades, termination looms. Fatal political damage as inevitable predicted in a well-known movie: “Listen and understand. That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”
What were you thinking, Mathias? Was the stunt to distract attention from your boss Joe Hockey who has once again made a complete arse of himself in public appearing to make another basic mistake on UK television? On BBC’s “ Hardtalk”, a program of vigorous political interviews, it was put to Hockey that Australia was “one of the dirtiest, most greenhouse gas-emitting countries in OECD group of developed countries.” The Treasurer, however, described his interviewer’s statement as “ridiculous”. The trouble for Hockey is that, per head of population, Australia is, indeed the worst. Many Australian school children could helped correct his answer here. If it was a cover for the boss, it was not necessary.
And it hasn’t worked. Most voters know what to expect with Joe Hockey and cringing embarrassment and a sense of wounded national pride are very much lesser evils when compared, for example, with the potential damage to be caused by not understanding the first thing about what you are supposed to be doing. Of course, Mathias, you have probably worked out the very reasonable odds on quietly inheriting Hockey’s job soon.
Or was it an attempt to cover for Prime Minister and Minister for Women, Abbott’s decent into gibbering madness fleeing as far as he could possibly get from ‘getting in touch with his feminine side’ with his shirt-front challenge to a leader who deigns to wear one. A leader with martial arts credentials and moves that are likely to be a little bit more terminating than the rusty shadow-boxing of a former Oxford Blue.
Was it a quote from Shaun MicAllef’s satirical Mad as Hell? “Shaun, you’re being an economic girly man,” a Cormann character told host Shaun Micallef in an April skit? We are pleased the ABC holds appeal for you, Mathias. Or were you looking with a view to wind up all avenues of criticism. We have read your Prime Minister’s comment that he doesn’t appreciate being criticised on government-funded ABC. Perhaps you can now offer more support. A broader mind, perhaps.
Bill Shorten counter-attacked on Saturday, proposing that rather than “borrowing lines from Republican Tea Party conventions to joke about hurting vulnerable Australians”, Mr Cormann should “face up to his unfair budget”. Bill is spot on but stopped short of adding that Matt could always seek professional help if his condition did not improve. There are many distinguished women in psychiatry, experts and world leaders in their field who would be pleased to prescribe appropriate treatment for the Finance Minister.