Six Prime Ministers and a potato class action

Prime-Ministers
Prime Ministers- ScoMo feeds the fire (meme by twitter.com@GeorgeBludger)

As the dry winter fades away, ushering in a hot and bushfire-prone spring and summer, here’s some sober reflections on ‘Single-use Prime Ministers’.

I borrowed the single-use mention from a clever meme doing the rounds on social media, where, I might say in defence of the humble Kipfler, Sebago and Desiree, potatoes continue to be openly defamed. It might not be long before we see headlines where Tryhard & Associates, no win-no fee, mount a class action on behalf of Mr and Mrs Sebago and 15 other tuber families.

As we now see from former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s attempted coup, while it worked in principle, the betrayal left Mr Dutton out on a limb, with a centre-right politician seizing the leadership.

At the outset, Australia’s new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, decided the people needed to know that “we’re on your side”.

“That’s what matters. We are on your side. And we are on your side because we share beliefs and values in common, as you go about everything you do each day.”

Keep playing that one, Scott. Stay away from the line that brings down Westminster democracies; when a leader (be it Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott or Turnbull), have all been caught referring to ‘my government’.

I had a couple of messages from FOMM stalwarts last week in aggregate saying “Get a grip, Bob. The nation’s imploding and you’re talking about stamp collecting?”

I defend last week’s meandering missive as making the case that Australian governments have been lurching hard-right for a very long time now, arguably since John Howard’s 1988 stance on multiculturalism and refusing to make a treaty with the Aborigines. Hence my writing about the stamp-collecting Philip Ruddock, a hard-line Immigration minister in control of our border policies from 1996-2003.

Now here’s the thing – party factions, backroom machinations and political knifings are not what does in a sitting PM – it is narcissism.

As economist and author George Megalogenis wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times: “The prime minister is not even mentioned in the Australian Constitution, yet the office has evolved into a paradoxical position of supreme authority and permanent vulnerability.”

Megalogenis also wrote: “They have borrowed the worst of United States presidential politics, with its obsessive focus on the leader, and grafted it onto a Westminster system of parliamentary government that was designed for collaboration and compromise.”

Australia has had six Prime Ministers since 2008, the number arguably including a bit of double counting when first Julia Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd, then Rudd came back and promptly lost the next election in a landslide. Then there was Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now Scott Morrison. This era was characterised by frantic passing of new legislation in the incumbent’s first year. Fairfax Media research tallied new acts of Parliament passed in the first year for Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd (133), Julia Gillard (132), Tony Abbott (116) and Malcolm Turnbull (104). These are mediocre numbers compared to Paul Keating (212) and Gough Whitlam (161). Surprisingly (well, I was surprised), John Howard’s first year numbers (86), are only marginally better than Ben Chifley (74).

What appears to have brought undone Prime Ministers of the past 10 years is the polarisation caused by climate change policy. It seems nigh on impossible to achieve political consensus on this most serious of issues, even if over 97% of climate scientists active in that field of research say it is a reality, aggravated and accelerated by human activities. (There are, of course, nay-sayers. Just Google ‘what percentage of scientists believe in global warming, if you have a few hours to spare.)

All six of our Prime Ministers thus far have failed or been thwarted in terms of seriously countering climate change. Some even challenging the notion that fossil fuels have had their day. I refer of course to (a) Tony Abbott’s infamous ‘coal is good for humanity’ quote, and incumbent PM Scott Morrison’s stunt, brandishing a lump of coal in Parliament.

But let’s go back 117 years, to an era when coal really did rule – when steam trains, for example, burned through eighty pounds of coal for every mile travelled (a useful factoid from Michael Portillo’s fascinating series, Great British Railway Journeys).

Australia’s leadership changed seven times in the first ten years of Federation (and 11 times between 1901 and 1922). Again, leadership changes involved ambitious men having a second (and even a third) attempt. Andrew Fisher (1909-1909, 1910-1913 and 1914-1915) proved the most persistent, governing during the early years of WWI. Fisher, I’d like to point out, introduced Australia’s first postage stamp. On January 2, 1913, the Fisher-led government issued the Commonwealth penny stamp.

It featured a controversial design – a kangaroo on a white map of Australia. Although later stamps reintroduced the King’s head, the kangaroo design remained in use for some forty years. An example of this rare stamp sold at auction in 2012 for $142,563.

But we were talking about men (and women- Ed.) and their egos and how the Prime Ministership has evolved as the Office of Omniscience. Towards the last days of Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership, there were reports of policy on the run, along with statements made with no consultation, and there have been similar reports about other short-term Prime Ministers. To be fair, in the first year of the Whitlam administration, the late Gough Whitlam rammed through a colossal amount of social reform legislation in a fortnight with the help of a two-man Cabinet (the duumvirate) – just Gough and his deputy, Lance Barnard.

Megalogenis observed that post-Rudd, the Labor party has made it harder to remove future Prime Ministers. Changes to internal rules now require the party leader be elected by a combined vote of the parliamentary party and grass-roots members. From this side of the fence, it is hard to see the Liberals coming up with a similar safeguard.

In no time at all, it seems, Australians will be thrust into another Federal election, with a new Prime Minister who will not have had enough time to show his mettle. On the other side, we have Labor leader Bill Shorten, and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek. Mr Shorten’s tactics thus far, apart from keeping his head down and letting the Liberal Party stew in its own juices, has been to divide and conquer, emphasising the class gulf between the left and right.

Tucked away behind the cannot-be-seen hedge, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, passed over for the Opposition leadership in 2013, declared his colours in June, in the Whitlam Oration.

Mr Albanese called upon his party to emulate the Hawke and Keating approach and “collaborate with unions, the business sector and civil society to achieve positive outcomes in the national interest”.

The Labor frontbencher also delivered a warning about the need to find common ground with voters outside the union movement.

“This is not 1950, when most Australians were members of trade unions,” Mr Albanese said. “Indeed many people from working class backgrounds are not members of unions because they were beneficiaries of Gough Whitlam’s education reforms. We cannot afford to ignore this demographic.”

Sigh, it makes my brain burn, like the feeling I got when I saw that clever meme (above) with Scott Morrison feeding a lump of coal into a (red and orange) map of Australia.

Good for humanity my arse.

Racism hurts everyone

racism-hurts-everyone
Photo Alisdare Hickson https://flic.kr/p/HDAcMK A lone Dover resident bravely leaves her home to confront a right wing anti-immigrant march

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly at one time waxed indignant about how political correctness was intruding into comedy.

“How dare they,” he fumed, on somebody’s talk-show. “Funny is funny.”

No Billy, not really. Not if you’re the butt of somebody’s bad taste joke, be it about religion, gays, people with disabilities, migrants from non-Christian countries or our indigenous people, who had the misfortune to be colonised in 1788 and not officially recognised in the Census until 1967.

What, you don’t think people make jokes about Aborigines? Try Kevin Bloody Wilson’s “Living next door to Alan”. I’m told this spoof song about a family of Aborigines moving in next door to Alan Bond, which in totality may be more about mocking big business than anything else, is a favourite amongst indigenous peoples in WA. But you can’t generalise like that, and herein lies the central problem with racism and xenophobia.

One cannot know the private thoughts of the racist who never verbalises or the indigenous person who feels persecuted but is too afraid/shy/humble to speak out.

In New Zealand, the Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, launched the nation’s first anti-racism campaign. Her open letter asked Kiwis to tell their stories about ‘casual racism’ – to go beyond the 400 written complaints received last year.

‘That’s Us’ is the first campaign that asks people to start sharing their own stories about racism, intolerance and hatred.

In her letter Dame Devoy says the overwhelming majority of people never complain or go public when a car drives past and the people in it scream a racist obscenity.

She cites other casual or ‘quiet’ racist encounters “that never feel casual or quiet when you and your family are the ones being humiliated.”

Dame Devoy told The Guardian that overt racism is not as widespread as it is in, say, Australia, but she felt that New Zealanders need to reassert their position as a world leader in race relations.

“We just need to look around the world right now to see what happens when racial intolerance and racism is normalised. We think New Zealanders are better than that and we hope you do too.”

But returning to Billy Connolly’s assertion that ‘funny is funny’.

When I was growing up in New Zealand the most popular entertainment group was a Māori group, the Howard Morrison Quartet, closely rivalled by a Māori/Pakeha comedy duo, Lou and Simon.

The latter were known for parodying popular songs, e.g. West Side Story “I like to be in a Maori car” using gentle, self-deprecating humour.

The Howard Morrison Quartet had a hit in 1960 with ‘My old man’s an All-Black’ based on the Lonnie Donegan tune about a dustman. The song was a protest about the decision to exclude Maori rugby players from the 1960 tour of South Africa.

It contained comic asides such as:

“Fi fi fo fum, there’s no Horis in that scrum.”

Crikey, you wouldn’t get away with that today. The urban dictionary and others define ‘Hori’ as a racial slur, but it was in common use in the 1960s. I recall Dad cuffing my ear (as that generation of Dads were prone to do), saying: “Don’t call Māoris Horis – it’s disrespectful.”

I may have asked, risking another ear-cuff ‘Why do some Māoris call themselves Horis, then?’ and he replied that if a negro (before they were known as African American) called himself a Nigger, that was OK, but it was not OK for us to use the N word, its origins steeped in racial hatred, slavery and oppression.

Wikipedia defines ‘Hori’ as a derogatory, racist slur, but the term (like Nigger in the US) has to some extent been “reclaimed” within the community it was originally intended to insult. Like those epithets used by rappers and hip-hoppers – ‘Wazzup, Nigger?’ Hori is used today as a term of endearment amongst Māori or as a signifier of ‘keeping it real’.

Whatever age I was in 1960, that discussion led me to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black like Me, Go tell it on the Mountain and at least five of the 15,000 books written by or about Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile in the UK, present day, five 15-year-old boys and one 16-year-old boy have been arrested on suspicion of murdering a Polish man in Harlow, Essex. A subsequent assault on a Polish man in Harlow is being investigated as a hate crime, as is the murder a week earlier.

There was a noticeable rise in hate crimes after the June 23 Brexit referendum, with more than 3,000 allegations of harassment and threats filed with UK police.

Nothing on this scale to report in Australia, but the seeds have been sown and Pauline Hanson’s anti-Muslim rhetoric just shovelled a whole lot of fertiliser on that particular garden.

Adding potash, if you will, is a new Essentials Media poll showing 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration. Economist George Megalogenis dug out some historical evidence that 58% of Australians were opposed to taking part in a worldwide plan in 1947 to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe. Just because a survey saying half the people apparently don’t want something to happen doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t.

The 1946 Census revealed that 35,000 Jews lived in Australia. Historian and author W.D Rubinstein said at least 17,600 Jewish survivors reached Australia between 1945 and 1954 – the largest single increase in Jewish numbers in the country’s history.  In 2011 there were 112,000 Jewish people in Australia, the vast majority residing in Melbourne or Sydney,

So then to the Australian Greens who this week urged me (via a ‘personal’ email from Richard De Natale), to support the party’s walk-out during Senator Hanson’s anti-Muslim speech.

I thought the Greens could have served us better if they had stayed. Despite the parliamentary tradition that it is forbidden to heckle or interject during a Senator’s maiden speech, the Greens could have done this (one by one), until all had been ejected.

What headlines would have ensued then? Nevertheless, they walked and this is what De Natale had to say:

“After we walked out on Senator Hanson’s racist speech, my office was flooded with hundreds of calls of thanks. Then in just a few short days over 11,000 of us signed a pledge to stand united against racism. This is an opportunity to bring our communities and voices together with a message of unity that cuts through the noise of parliament. It’s hugely ambitious but I think we could reach 50,000 by the end of this year.”

That seems a small target when the Race Relations Commissioner of a nearby neighbour has pointed out that overt racism is thriving in Australia, even if the NZ Commissioner admitted:

“We’ve always had a problem with racial intolerance in New Zealand – Māori New Zealanders know it is not new.”

Dame Devoy’s Australian counterpart, Tim Soutphommasane, waded into the debate this week.

The Race Discrimination Commissioner argued in a speech at the ANU that racism at its core is about an abuse of power. He appealed to Australians not to be complacent about racial intolerance being some kind of “initiation rite” for new arrivals.

“While we may never eradicate racism and bigotry, it isn’t good enough to say its targets must grin and bear it, or that there’s nothing we can do. Doing so amounts to normalising racism, to suggesting that it should be tolerated.”