Mark every box when you vote

Tomorrow the breakneck speed summer election campaign comes to an end.

We go the polls, enjoy a snag and elect the MPs that will form the next parliament of Queensland. Despite the increasingly presidential style of elections, we don’t actually vote for a leader but for a member to represent local interests in George Street, and long may that continue. Yet we do have a say in who forms government.

No one can say who will lead Queensland next week. The polls suggest Campbell Newman will lose his seat in Brisbane but the LNP government will hang on (if Mr Newman does not accept this possibility, I suggest he take some remedial maths classes).  What is certain that either the LNP or Labor will form government next week, so people should remember that fact when they go to the polls, and vote all the way down the line choosing one or other of those major parties.

Yesterday we published an article on the Gatton Star which had Pauline Hanson urging voters to understand the electoral system so they can make an informed choice. I agree with Ms Hanson however I disagree with One Nation’s and Katter Party’s how to vote card. They preferenced each other only but they should have been more honest with voters and ranked all candidates 1 to 6. That way we could have judged which of the major parties they want to see in government.

It’s a shame civics is no longer taught in schools as it gives people a useful primer on how our system of democracy works. Why does that matter? Well, because, voting is compulsory for one, and secondly politicians spend our taxpayer dollars and make important decisions that affect all our lives.

You’ll have noticed our Gatton Star website top heavy with political stories over the last few weeks and I don’t make any apologies for that.

We’ve also mainly covered local issues and local seats and I don’t apologise for that either. All politics is local and we’ve been fortunate here in the Lockyer and Brisbane Valleys to have candidates who have a real passion for local matters as well as keeping an eye on what is happening across Queensland.

If I have an apology, it is to the voters of Nanango, which I afraid we’ve not covered as well as I would have liked. I said at the start of the campaign the LNP’s Deb Frecklington would retain that seat and I believed she would be a senior minister if the LNP retains power, which will be great for the wider region. Nothing I have seen in the last three weeks make me change my mind.

The other two seats are less clear cut as shown in the candidate forums in Ipswich and Gatton this week. Ipswich West polling suggests Jim Madden is about to reclaim that seat from the LNP’s Sean Choat. Mr Choat played up to his reputation as a maverick at the forum and launched a spirited defence of his time as local member. Mr Choat is likeable, approachable and young and I hope he continues to stay in politics and demonstrate his independent streak. In contrast Mr Madden and his fellow Labor candidate for Ipswich Jennifer Howard played it safe in their forum speeches knowing the seat is now theirs to lose. I would welcome Mr Madden in the new parliament as a rare Labor politician who understands rural issues and I hope he becomes an advocate for the bush in the party room and on the floor of parliament.

Over in Lockyer, the seat has become second only to Ashgrove for intrigue. Most of this can be put down to the entry of Pauline Hanson on the ballot paper. Ms Hanson has come a long way from the fish and chip shop owner in Ipswich who bagged Asians and Indigenous people to win the seat of Oxley in 1996 as a disendorsed liberal. Ms Hanson’s views these days are more mature but I disagree with her views on halal certification and multiculturalism. In the election she has steadfastly stuck to state issues apart from her people’s forum in Gatton last week where I’m afraid I was unimpressed by her fellow panellists who used the occasion to sprout conspiracy theories about climate change and the UN taking over the world.

Ms Hanson herself however I could not fault. She was gracious, thoughtful and always willing to listen to others. She is inspirational to supporters and has a great connection with the audience who listened rapt to every word she said. If I have one criticism it is her tendency for a victim complex, but she is clearly a compelling figure. I believe that Ms Hanson is playing a long game and sees herself as Prime Ministerial material.

That is a laudable ambition but the problem is she does not belong to a major party. Only a Labor or Liberal MP will become Prime Minister any time in the near future. It’s the same with Premier. So my only advice when you voting in Lockyer is this. Mark all six boxes.

Mark Craig Gunnis of the Palmer Party last. Mr Gunnis is a fly-in candidate who works for Mr Palmers and he showed great disrespect by claiming a “prior engagement” to avoid scrutiny at the Gatton forum. Mark one of the minor parties 1, 2 and 3 depending on your personal preference for Hanson, Katter’s Neuendorf or the policies of the Greens.

But think hard about your choice for 4 or 5. Will it be Labor’s Steve Leese or the LNP’s Ian Rickuss? That’s your call. But only the LNP or Labor will form government and ultimately you need to decide who you prefer. Think about that as you put pencil to paper.  That, and support your P&C by buying a snag or a cupcake.

Springborg cleaning

springborgSaturday is supposedly the day Queenslanders go to the polls. However for many people, myself included, the election is already over. I pre-polled last week, realising I would be too busy working on Saturday covering the election to have time to vote. My feelings were similar to many campaign workers and even some candidates that I spoke to. Pre-polling means losing out on the sausages but also means avoiding long queues. In the continued bone-headed Luddite absence of internet voting, I’m suspecting it is an increasingly popular option to the time poor.

I live in Lutwyche, an unwanted suburb the Electoral Commission has shuffled between the electorates of Clayfield, Brisbane and Stafford in recent years. Currently we reside in the seat of Clayfield, held by the LNP’s Tim Nicholls. Nicholls took the seat from Labor in 2006 and despite an unfavourable re-distribution two years later (thanks to us plebs moving in from Stafford) he has increased his majority at every subsequent election. There will be a correction this time round, but Nicholls should escape the carnage expected of many other Brisbane seats. With Ashgrove likely to fall, Nicholls is tipped to be Premier if the LNP still fall over the line in victory. I don’t share that belief.

I met Nicholls when he addressed an LNP meeting in the Lockyer Valley last year and he impressed me as a master of his Treasury brief. He is a good operator but perhaps too suave and too urban for some tastes within the party. It should not be forgotten the LNP is still less than a decade old and remains a marriage of convenience between the old ruling class of the rural Nationals and the city bridesmaid of the Liberals. Nicholls is a Liberal true and blue, and was deputy leader of the party prior to the merger. That didn’t matter in the Newman landslide of 2012. Suddenly the parliament was awash with urban Liberals. The old Nationals were butchered in the cabinet allocation with only one minister from west of the great divide. That minister was Lawrence Springborg.

Springborg seems to have been around for ever as the youngest person ever to be elected to Queensland parliament in 1989. Indeed he will become Father of the House in the new parliament on the retirement of Howard Hobbs. Yet when he celebrates his birthday next month, he will be just 47. Springborg’s parliamentary career coincided with Labor hegemony and despite a long reign as opposition leader, his time at the top of the Nationals and then the LNP ended in three election defeats in 2004, 2006 and 2009.  Springborg was written off as a bumbler and yesterday’s man but he began his rehabilitation when he took on the difficult health portfolio in the Newman government of 2012.

Springborg was given the poisoned chalice of bringing enormous health expenditure under control. He deflected some of the criticism for sackings by appointing hospital and health boards who had to do the dirty work. Slowly but surely Springborg did get health back on track. He succeeded in getting health off the front page as he dealt with a litany of problems including payroll issues, dodgy doctors, and congested waiting rooms.

In the times I’ve met him, Springborg is far from charismatic. Yet he comes across like Nicholls as a master of his brief and has a dogged and determined air of an experienced operator who knows how to get things done. Significantly Labor has not denied Springborg has been successful in his portfolio but instead says his success was based on money he got from the Labor Federal Government. This is partially true, and if Springborg is health minister in the new term he will have a much tougher ride thanks to Abbott Government cutbacks.

But I don’t think he will be health minister, I think he will be Premier. The distribution of seats in the new parliament will be vastly different than is now. There will be less MPs from the south-east and more from country and regional areas. I believe these MPs, many of them ex-Nationals, will remember 2012 and vote for Springborg in the party room ahead of Nicholls (though Fiona Simpson is a possible compromise candidate). Whoever it is, will also likely face a new opposition leader. Annastacia Palaszczuk has done a fine job in making Labor electable again but has an image problem as a preferred leader. Cameron Dick or Stirling Hinchliffe will surely swoop if Labor fall short of government.

The last Monday in January: updated arguments for an Australian treaty

An Australian citizenship ceremony in Esk, Qld on Australia Day 2014 (photo Derek Barry)
An Australian citizenship ceremony in Esk, Qld on Australia Day 2014 (photo Derek Barry)

I’m pleased Australia Day is a Monday. It should always be the last Monday in January. Australia Day celebrates summer, it celebrates Australian achievement and diversity, it celebrates sport, it celebrates the long weekend, it celebrates the end of summer holidays and back to school, work and routine for the year. What it does not do is celebrate the uninvited arrival of the British in Australia two hundred years ago.

January 26 is the date in 1788 that Australia’s first jail was opened and given the name Sydney. Initially a convenient faraway dumping place for Britain’s riff raff, it took British authorities 50 years or so to realise sending people to Australia was no punishment. With its sunny weather, good prospects, easy land and finally its promise of gold, governments found they were just footing a travel bill for eager adventurers. A labour-poor Western Australia at its wits end and with no Hancock yet to rip the guts out of the ground, continued to import prisoners but eventually also admitted defeat. Over time convictism became a stain that family history sought to whitewash. With Federation on January 1, 1901, the new nation too needed to ignore Australia’s raison d’etre as it sought to define itself as a southern Britain. Blacks outside and inside were not welcome to share in its bounty. The six colonies set up by force of arms had gradually encroached on all Aboriginal land outcompeting indigenous people for resources. The fiction of British law as imposed by Arthur Phillip on a tiny sliver of land in 1788 was made real throughout Australia in small and often violent instalments, sometimes sanctioned, sometimes unsanctioned but ignored far from official scrutiny.

History is a handy heuristic for making sense of the world and white Australia needed a new history to go with their gleaming new possession.  They created a new history of a determined and resourceful people that tamed and conquered a tough but empty land. Borrowed from America, the myth was called pioneering. It was a useful and mostly inclusive mythology that men and women, and British and non-British could aspire to. The myth excluded the Aboriginal people. Land was something they had managed for 2000 generations in a radically different way using sophisticated fire farming and a preference for nomadism to follow food. But they had no writing, no money, no leaders, and no obvious way of treating with them. So the Europeans simply ignored them where they could and took the land. Europeans brought agriculture and technology but were unprepared for Australian weather, soils, and the needs of native plants and animals. Much of the accumulated Aboriginal wisdom died with the loss of habitat while Europeans didn’t help with pig-headed belief in their own superiority.

They reminded themselves of this all the time with the help of their history. A terra nullius of space and mind covered the difficult bits of violence and land appropriation. The new constitution of Australia was informed by white superiority and its few mentions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people considered them as akin to fauna that required the “protection” of the states.  While the local “blacks” were assumed to be dying off and therefore irrelevant to the constitution, the new Australians were creating other laws kept foreign “blacks” out of the country. All sides of politics were united in their desire to keep the white race pure, the right influenced by social Darwinism, the left by worries of cheap labour. Newly federated Australia didn’t want full independence but didn’t want interference from London either. Britain’s brown empire was not welcome.

The process of changing from colonists to nationalists was slow. Adventures such as the Boer war and Gallipoli were seized upon by recruits as escapism from a dull existence and a sense of patriotism to the mother country. But when the trickle of deaths in Turkey became a flood, there was a nationwide grief which was quickly weaved into a new thread of a determination to remember. Despite the inglorious retreat from the Dardanelles, the legend of Anzac Day was suitable material for history, unlike convictism and the war against the blacks. Remembering January 1 as Australia’s founding day never took hold, but Anzac day did and today is arguably more inclusive than the date of Phillip’s arrival in Sydney. January 26 and April 25 are both invasion days but while the Turks have forgiven the Australian state, Indigenous Australians have not. That is because while war with Turkey was acknowledged and ended, war in Australia was never admitted and therefore never ended.

If war is politics by other means, then treaties are the way to resume non-violent politics. Australia is in dire need of a treaty. I say that as someone born in Ireland where a treaty ended a war. It was an imperfect treaty and started another one but it was broadly supported because it was broadly useful. It was useful to Ireland as a way of forging its own path and it was useful to England as a way of ending a long and costly struggle with little tangible reward. England and other colonial powers have often used treaties but only where they were deemed useful. The Waitangi treaty was useful to Britain as a way of overcoming an inconvenient declaration of New Zealand independence. But a treaty were of no use to a 1788 prison colony under armed guards nor was it useful for a white Australia of 1901.

Yet its need did not go away. Indigenous Australians did not lie on the dying pillow as predicted and instead marched back into history forcing whites to examine the past. The pre-invasion population of 750,000 went down to 60,000 by 1921 but has been on the increase ever since, with close to half a million Australians now self-identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Aboriginal constitutional achievement peaked in 1967 with the removal of two clauses that enabled them to be counted in the census and be managed by commonwealth powers. The referendum passed because black Australia wanted it to pass and marshalled a range of arguments to convince the white community.

Around the same time anthropologist Bill Stanner started calling out the lies by omission in Australian history. Stanner called it the “great forgetting”, a structural telling of history that deliberately left out crucial bits. In response, a new historiography emerged which put Aboriginal people back into the centre of Australian history. The research they uncovered from colonial times was confronting and not flattering to settlers or government. There was an inevitable backlash from conservatives as their cosy relationship with the past was threatened and the new history was damned as too negative against the achievements of white Australia.

But the law did move on. White Australia was slowly dismantled in the 1960s and 1970s as the country welcomed settlers from all over the world. In the 1990s, landmark decisions like Mabo and Wik have removed the fiction that Aboriginal people did not own the land before white settlement. No court will dare touch Phillip’s 1788 statement of possession but there is at least some recognition this is a country of two peoples, one of whom is suffering significant structural disadvantage. The counting of Aborigines in the census revealed deep problems against the social indicators of health, education, and employment. These problems remain profound 50 years after the referendum, especially in the nation’s Aboriginal towns. “Closing the gap” on these indicators is a necessary part of any equality agenda but must appeal to the heart too.

Symbolism is important which is why it is detested by many conservatives who prefer to concentrate on “practical reconciliation”. But a body cannot be healed if the spirit remains sick. A constitutional preamble might have success in being a symbol but it would need to have some serious meat on its bones. It must acknowledge there was a war and it must also acknowledge it is now over. It must hurt otherwise there is no atonement. It must give away things. It must be owned by Indigenous people. Yet it can’t be too radical or would get the 80% support of non-Indigenous people it needs to pass a referendum. There should be things like a guaranteed two percent indigenous MPs, a return to some form of self-government, and a promise for the states to support land claims or at least not fight them.

A treaty must invoke the same triggers that got whites in large numbers to vote yes in 1967 despite the dryness of constitutional language. It must be real and something all Australians would be proud to support. The day of its signing should become Australia day – I suggest that day be always be celebrated as the last Monday in January.

The Charlie Hebdo challenge: to seduce not offend

A Charlie Hebdo cover from 2011 equates the Holocaust with Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
A Charlie Hebdo cover from 2011 equates the Holocaust with Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

An obscure French satirical magazine that no one heard of three days ago has become the worldwide poster boy for “western values” after the latest atrocity by extremist Muslim fighters. Islam may not be a country, as Foreign Policy magazine stated but the death of cartoonists and other editorial staff in Paris was the classic case of a front line action in the war of ideas between the West and Islam. Charlie Hebdo has become a metaphor for the western right to free speech trumpeted by European ideals, but finding itself trumped by the Islamic right to punish blasphemy against its religion. The debate has become heated as an inter and intra civilisation calling cry. Suis-je Charlie? Defending to the death someone’s right to say something you don’t like is a powerful Voltairean notion of tolerance (though the actual phrase belongs to his biographer Evelyn Hall) but sentencing to death someone who said something you didn’t like, belongs to an older tradition. It is become increasingly synonymous with the all-or-nothing approach many Islamists through the world are taking with their religion, a fact that some in the west prefer not to acknowledge.

Whether this points to inherent structural flaws within Islam or is merely the actions of a twisted few (though their numbers and their actions are growing) is a moot point that many are grappling with at the moment. It is not a simple equation of “us and them” as the death of a Muslim policeman at Hebdo’s office and the hero Muslim shop assistant who saved Jewish hostages in the Paris siege shows. The gulf between civil liberties and freedom to practice religion is particularly problematic for France’s six million Muslims, of which two thirds are believed to have abandoned their faith. In this sense they are true westerners, who just like ex-Christians leave behind the nonsensical certainties of religion behind for an uncertain secularism and a slow and rocky retreat to materialism.

Regardless of whether a world without religion is better than one with it, what is obvious is that Europe and Islam’s history is long and bloody. Charlie Hebdo is the latest in centuries of Christian-Islamic bloodshed despite, or perhaps because of, being people of the book with similar semitic cultures and languages. Muslims were slightly more tolerant, viewing Christianity the same way Christians viewed Judaism: with a grudging respect for followers of an older but incomplete truth. For Christians, Islam was a subsequent religion which meant it had to be false (a feeling Islam shares for its successor Ba’hai) and had Inquisitions at the ready for such apostasies.

In return, Islam had the obligation of jihad, a striving in the path of God, that later scholars would translate as “holy war”. Jihad is a Muslim duty to fight in a war against the unbelievers. In principle this war does not end until all of humanity embraces Islam or submits to the authority of the Muslim state. While the obligation was in force on all frontiers, jihad had a particular character in Europe where Islam met its fiercest resistance.

Europe may be a place and Islam may be a religion but as Bernard Levin said, comparing the pair is is not as asymmetrical as it sounds. The Arabic word for religion is “din” which Levin said was a cognate word for law in other Semitic languages like Hebrew and Jesus’s Aramaic. Islam promoted belief and worship like Christianity did but never became compartmentalised. Islam embraces all of life’s practices and laws and religion is life for practising Muslims.

Islam did not produce great institutions of religion. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was not martyred and achieved military success in his lifetime. Not content to render power unto Caesar, the rule he founded was a world of Islam ruled by one sovereign, the caliph. This belief hampered the growth of nation states in the Islamic realm while Europe gradually went regional, then dynastic and finally nationalistic.That unity of purpose remains a powerful motif in modern Islam and goes a long way to understanding the attraction of Islamic State who have revived the idea of the caliph.

The ideal of a single Islamic polity transcending nations remains appealing to many Muslims, many of whom find the western world’s libertarianism an excuse for weakness. It was Europe that invented the notion of “the western world” and it was Europe that invented the cartoon, which was originally a full life drawing, typically pasted together into a larger work. The name has Catholic and Protestant roots, coming from a combination of the Italian “cartone” and Dutch “karton”. Both words meant the strong heavy paper cartoons first were drawn on. The plaster of the early cartoons which would stay damp for days made it good for pasting together to make large frescoes. The transition from art materials to art itself began with the Italian caricatura of the 18th century, a drawing with some features exaggerated for comic effect.

The crossover into political satire progressed with the social commentary of Hogarth’s paintings. Around the time of the French Revolution, British satirists used the medium for lampooning and caricature of prominent people and events (including the Revolution itself). These prints were one-off creations that did not sit in any other body of work. It was not until 1843 that Punch magazine stole the concept to describe satirical drawings in its pages. It was Punch who first used the word ‘cartoon’ solidified from its earlier meaning. Punch knew their cartoons were dangerous especially if they attacked expensive reputations, but hoped that by making them a part of the glue of Punch, they would be seen as an essential part of the whole and might escape normal censure.

Cartoonists have been using this ‘escape valve’ of humour ever since to push the boundaries of acceptable criticism. The simple power of cartoons has also been used to push political agendas. Where the boundaries between freedom of expression and propaganda lie is constantly shifting as become apparent in the 21st century. In 2005 Danish cartoonists risked Muslim wrath when Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, mostly depicting the prophet Muhammad in what the newspaper called an attempt to debate the issue of Islam and self-censorship. The publication caused a firestorm of protest across the Islamic world and several deaths, mostly in Muslim countries. It did nothing to improve relations between Islam and the West. Charlie Hebdo has also republished the cartoons.

Speaking in the aftermath of the Danish controversy, Jerusalem Post cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen is convinced cartooning is on the faultline of civilisations. But he also knows to be successful, cartooning has to be funny. “My cartoons are designed to make someone laugh and through this laughter, which causes the person to drop his guard, I am able to change the individual’s mind and convince the reader to see things the way I do.” Perhaps that is the lesson for Hebdo and its supporters: to seduce rather than offend.

Three more years: the prognosis for Queensland’s election 2015

Premier Campbell Newman gets selfied at Wivenhoe Dam in 2013 (Photo: Derek Barry).
Premier Campbell Newman gets selfied at Wivenhoe Dam in 2013 (Photo: Derek Barry).

Queensland voters may not like it, but Premier Campbell Newman is defying conventional wisdom and taking the state to a mid-summer election. The election is on Saturday, January 31 and the barbecued sausages won’t be the only thing generating heat.

Whether voters will punish the LNP for their inconsiderateness remains to be seen, but it is a high risk strategy in an already tight election with the Premier himself struggling to hang on to his Ashgrove seat in the face of a renewed challenge from the popular former member Kate Jones. Possible reasons for the early poll include catching Labor on the hop, removing useless election date speculation, and a feeling that the downward poll trend is unlikely to be reversed and may as well be faced up early. It may even be some bad news down the track that would only have made matters worse.

Whatever the reason, it smacks of a government in trouble and represents a remarkable turnaround in three years. It is also a problem entirely of the LNP’s own making.

The LNP won a huge mandate for change in 2012 with voters tired of a government that had lost its way after two decades of almost continuous rule. Campbell Newman won an unprecedented victory from outside parliament providing what seemed a fresh apolitical perspective on government. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off.

The government practiced classic first year austerity measures, instituting large-scale redundancies in the public service. The slogan was that no front line services would be affected, but it was hard to pick off bits of the house of cards without serious impact.  After three years, the Government can claim some credit in reining in borrowing while finding some efficiencies, particularly in the troubled health department. But a sour taste has lasted, particularly from those directly affected by job losses.

A more surprising downside came with an unsavoury and botched manoeuvre in the field of law and order. A campaign against vicious criminal motorcycle gangs, who seemed immune from prosecution seemed to be tailor-made for a first term conservative government. The draconian and humiliating Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) laws seemed to have some success in cutting down on crime but are universally loathed. The government underestimated just how many middle-aged and middle-class motorcyclists there were, who felt outraged against what they saw as a personal sleight.

Newman also tried to be too clever when going against the Queensland distaste for privatisation of government assets. His government’s campaign that they were merely “leasing” the assets and they would be “returned” to the taxpayer in 99 years fell flat as a transparent ploy, and an annoying one at that with large-scale advertising at the taxpayers’ expense.

These and other issues are a windfall to a Labor party still bruising from the 2012 election bloodbath. The prospect of a close call in 2015 must have seemed unlikely when Anna Bligh’s government lost 44 seats leaving them barely able to field a netball team with their seven remaining seats. Bligh resigned and with senior talent such as Stirling Hinchliffe, Cameron Dick and Andrew Fraser all losing their seats, there seemed to be no next generation to pass on the baton.

The new leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has for the most part been a dogged campaigner for three years but has failed to cut through, particularly in preferred premier polls. However, the recent Victorian State election has shown that a leader with a low profile is not necessarily a fatal handicap. That election also showed the effect of national issues and the unpopularity of the Tony Abbott government is likely to be a factor in Queensland too.

Yet I cannot see how Labor can win this election. The polls are currently 50-50, which will favour incumbency and many new LNP members have become popular and created a good profile in their electorates. Labor have nine seats and need to get to 45 to form government, a task that just seems beyond them. A possible outcome is a hung parliament with a handful of independents having the balance of power, though Queensland’s exhaustible preferential voting mitigates against that outcome. The Palmer party might have done well had the election been called a year ago, but is now falling rapidly. The most likely outcome is for the LNP to retain government with a small but workable majority. The big question is: who will be the next premier?

Mr Turner: Mike Leigh’s homage to the artist

turnerWhen I was living in London in the 1980s, I loved going to the great galleries and museums,so I became familiar with the work of the great British artists. The galleries that housed their work were beautiful but I confess the artists were not to my taste. I found Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds and the rest worthy but dull compared to the European masters. I liked Blake’s weirdness but did not capture my imagination the way a dark Goya could. Hogarth was earthy but he didn’t made me laugh the way a Jan Steen tableau could. But something clicked when I finally got around to going to the Tate Gallery.  There was something about J.M.W. Turner I couldn’t put my finger on. All I knew was that I was in the company of great art and I liked it very much. Turner was as complex as any artist I’d seen in the Louvre, Prado or the Uffici.

I wondered whether Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall could tease out this mystery of great art for me when I saw Mr Turner last week. I knew very little of Turner’s life so the film was like one of his blank canvasses. Mike Leigh is one of Britain’s great directors and films like Bleak Moments, High Hopes, Secrets and Lies and Naked lay bare the psyche of agonised characters while drawing their lives with much humour and tenderness. Mr Turner is his second Victorian costume drama after his Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy Turvy. In interviews Leigh bristles at the suggestion that these films distract him from what he is good at: kitchen sink drama. “You are familiar with my work and you know I am fascinated by everybody,” he told the Independent.

Yet it wasn’t immediately clear what drew Leigh to the artist. Despite Turner’s unorthodox sexual practices and dark talk of slavery there seemed to be little in Leigh’s film to distinguish it from a high quality but apolitical BBC costume drama, with its attention to period detail and cast of colourful Georgian and Victorian characters. It wasn’t until near the end when Turner refuses to sell his paintings to a wealthy businessman that Leigh’s politics made a brief appearance. Turner wasn’t going to sell his paintings because he was going to give them to the nation and have them hung in one place. It was astonishing altruism and something that must have deeply appealed to Leigh. It certainly appealed to me and I and millions of others benefitted from it in the years that followed.

Turner remains something of a palimpsest after seeing the film despite Timothy Spall’s magnificence in the title role. Spall dominates the screen, filling the gaps of a great but mysterious man as best he could. Spall as Turner has an impressive bearing, a marvellous turn of phrase, and an harrumph to kill for. But there were other aspects of his personality that were more troubling. Mister Turner loved his father but wasn’t very nice to other members of the family or his long-suffering housekeeper. He denied the existence of his daughters and lived a secret identity with an older widow. Spall and Leigh made it clear: Turner’s art was his life and his life was art. Leigh said he was attracted to Turner as a “profound artist who is creating the profound”. Turner wanted public adulation but wasn’t prepared to compromise his vision to get it. It is an issue Mike Leigh has been dealing with all his artistic life. Mr Turner is slightly long and slow at two and a half hours, but for those with patience, it is a wonderful journey into the mysteries of great art and great artists.

Power Failure: the tragedy of Australian climate politics

power failureThe book Power Failure about Australia’s intransigence on climate change was a personal mission for journalist Philip Chubb. Chubb lived with his family at Cottles Bridge near Melbourne and watched year after year as the summers got hotter. On Saturday, 7 February 2009 he stood in record-breaking heat with fire plan in hand hoping the blaze would not come over the hill and kill his family. They were lucky but Chubb’s closest friends died as they hid under the kitchen table, and it seemed obvious to him changes in the climate had fuelled the intensity of the fire.

But the reaction to Black Saturday showed there was still divisions and fears, played up by the likes of News Corp columnist Miranda Devine who said it wasn’t climate change but habitat protection promoted by environmentalists that caused the fires. Devine said “Greenies” should be “hanging from lamp-posts” for their ideology which prevented “landowners from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.” Devine could have been dismissed as a lunatic outlier, but she carried a big megaphone which her employers News Corp were more than willing to lend to anyone who muddied the waters when it came to climate change science.

The Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had recognised climate change as a national emergency when he won what some regarded as the world’s first climate change election in 2007. Many surveys showed seven out of ten people saying climate change would impact their vote. Rudd spoke of great moral challenges and pledged to reorganise the national economy around new energy industries. He introduced an emission trading scheme and appointed Ross Garnaut to examine the economic impacts and recommend a framework. It seemed as though intelligent and non-partisan debate about climate change had become the norm.

It wasn’t an easy problem to solve. The Australian Public Service Commission defined climate change in economic terms as a “wicked problem” – a pressing and complex issue involving many causes and much disagreement about possible solutions.  Australia’s reliance on fossil fuel worsened the problem with four out of five power stations running on coal, making the nation the world’s biggest per-capita greenhouse gas emitter. Private companies making money from fossil fuel industries also had a vested interest in climate policy failure over 25 years.

In 1990 the Bob Hawke government developed Australia’s first climate change policy aiming to stabilise emissions but not at the expense of the economy. Then in 1996 John Howard rolled back even these modest goals refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and overriding advice to bring in emissions trading in 2003. Howard’s position was finally repudiated by the electorate in 20007. Post Black Saturday Rudd had the opportunity to go on the front foot. Chubb’s book forensically examines how that unravelled over the four years that followed leaving Australia further adrift than ever on effective climate action.

Many of the problems were of Rudd’s own making and his character flaws are discussed in detail in Wayne Swan’s autobiography. Rudd’s authoritarian leadership style led to deep dysfunction in many areas of government including climate change. Policy making was the preserve of the troika of Rudd, Swan and Penny Wong but with Swan absorbed in the financial crisis, Rudd and Wong were the only ones who fully understood Labor’s climate change policy. There was little or no inter-departmental or stakeholder consultation and most cabinet ministers were well out of the loop as power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Rudd and Wong also kept the voters out of the loop as the policy took shape. The early enthusiasm for change dissipated in an information vacuum, crucially robbing Labor of using the threat of an early election to resolve a political impasse.  As the passion for action dulled in the absence of an information campaign, the Opposition hammered away to create doubt and weaken resolve while affected companies warned of loss of jobs and an investment freeze. The year dragged on in arguments over compensation to polluters, eventually agreed at an astonishing $7.3 billion, that the companies still weren’t happy with.

As 2009 advanced, Rudd had a pressing need to use his phenomenal personal popularity to lock in public support for climate action, but he said nothing on the issue. Nor was he open about the impact of carbon pricing on the cost of living. Because the community had stopped hearing about the issue, they started questioning its importance and whether it was worth paying for. Rudd had squandered consensus. Between 2008 and 2010 Newspoll showed an 11% drop in belief in climate change and by 2011 the proportion of Australians opposing action with significant costs had doubled. The breaking of the drought in 2009 also contributed to change in public perception with many equating climate change with a lack of rain.

Having abandoned the public, Rudd put his trust in the parliamentary opposition and global action at the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. He would lose both battles. Rudd’s parliamentary failure was entirely his own fault. He wanted to pass his legislation in the Senate with the help of Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. But he also played wedge politics against Turnbull and Liberal moderates which eventually saw Opposition climate sceptics grab power in the party room. By then Rudd had alienated the Greens so there was no plan B.

The clumsily-named Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme first hit the Senate in mid-2009 when Turnbull was still in charge. Turnbull held the line the legislation was hasty and pushed for delay. The Opposition voted against it but Turnbull was worried about fighting a climate change election so he promised to negotiate later in the year. By then Barnaby Joyce was openly calling the CPRS a ‘great big new tax on everything’ and said the Sunday roast would cost up to $150.

This simple scare campaign was inaccurate but devastating as the government had never conceded there would be any cost of living increases. Turnbull’s party room was openly grumbling about giving the government any support on climate change. Among them was Tony Abbott who told a September 2009 meeting in Beaufort, Victoria that climate change was “absolute crap”. The speech went down well with his older rural audience. Abbott would later say this was not his “considered opinion” but also admitted this meeting convinced him to act against the policy.

In November Penny Wong and Ian Macfarlane finally began negotiations on the CPRS. The resulting deal was good for the big polluters. The LNG industry got a top-up allocation of permits, the coal industry’s handout was doubled, there were more handouts to electricity generators, steelmakers and other manufacturers and the global recession buffer was extended to 2020. Turnbull was delighted with the result, but his party room was not. There was a spill on December 1 and Turnbull lost to Tony Abbott by one vote. Abbott immediately reneged on the deal and the climate consensus was finished.

Initially Rudd’s office was delighted by the result thinking Abbott would shoot himself in the foot. But he pushed hard on the simple message of the ‘great big new tax’ saying emissions could be reduced by other less costly means. Meanwhile Rudd’s hope of getting the Greens onside were destroyed by what was given away in the Wong-Macfarlane compromise. The CPRS was defeated a second time in the Senate in December 2009 despite two Liberal senators crossing the floor.

Rudd went off to Copenhagen undaunted, convinced by his ability to knock together world heads. The conference was chaotic to the point of anarchy with many different alliances and divisions at work. Rudd told delegates a grand bargain was within their grasp but no one was listening, and the conference ended without agreement. An emotionally drained Rudd blamed “Chinese fuckers” for trying to “ratfuck us” but it would be Rudd himself that would end up “ratfucked” in 2010.

Abbott began his onslaught buoyed by the failure of the summit and the release of hacked emails of climate scientists that sceptics gleefully suggested the environmental threat was exaggerated. Unable to openly embrace the sceptics, Abbott developed “direct action” to reduce emissions. Rudd became paralysed by doubt at the prospect of calling a double dissolution election based on the Senate’s refusal to pass the CPRS. He gave the impression to his supporters he would call the election in January so many staffers cancelled holidays to work out a campaign. Rudd’s supporters later claimed Julia Gillard talked him out of that election though Gillard said it was Rudd’s idea.

By Australia Day Rudd had abandoned the election idea and was instead promoting his health reforms. In early 2010 UK climate sceptic Chris Monkton toured Australia, garnering public legitimacy through blanket media coverage. Abbott met Monckton and later parroted some of his views. Rudd was nowhere to be seen. Instead he looked at an abatement plan that was suspiciously similar to Abbott’s direct action and just as useless in meeting serious targets. But this “Abbott lite” plan did give him an excuse to indefinitely delay the CPRS. The decision was leaked to the media in April and Rudd publicly admitted it was pushed back to 2013 unless there was “credible action” in China, India and the US.

The impact was disastrous and immediate. The Coalition had their first lead in the polls in four years and Rudd’s personal approval rating dropped 15 points. The disaffection quickly spread to the party room tired of a command and control leadership style that had little substance. By 24 June, he had vacated the leadership without a fight. Julia Gillard took the reins without explaining to the public the darkness at the heart of government leaving Rudd to successfully play a martyr role for the next three years.

Gillard’s immediate poll numbers were encouraging but it was a short honeymoon. On climate change Gillard pushed to restore consensus with a citizens’ assembly. The idea was ridiculed as “a giant focus group” and an excuse for inaction. Climate change did not feature much in the 2010 election. Abbott reiterated his doubt of climate science while Gillard publicly ruled out a carbon tax. The campaign was a disaster for Labor as Rudd camp leaks constantly undermined any momentum. The election produced a hung parliament and a tug of war for the balance of power.

Labor signed a formal alliance with the Greens which was widely derided though Gillard felt it would provide momentum for negotiations with the other independents and have constitutional weight with the governor-general. The decision spawned outright war in the Murdoch media stable against the government, a war which would not cease until the next election. Andrew Wilkie signed up with Labor leaving the decision of government with independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. Despite being former Nationals the pair cared deeply about climate change and consulted with Garnaut and Nicholas Stern to work out their position. They agreed to go with Gillard demanding a re-examination of the carbon price, an updated Garnaut Review and a productivity commission study of international action on emissions reduction schemes.

Gillard appointed a Multi-Party Climate Change Commission (MPCCC) but the Opposition did not sign on. The MPCCC made good progress and within six month came up with the framework for the Clean Energy Future package. But a leak in February 2011 would change everything. The Australian revealed Gillard would introduce a carbon tax in 2012 and an ETS in 2015. Gillard and Bob Brown formally announced a fixed carbon price would begin on 1 July 2012. Gillard told parliament Australia had to put a price on carbon early to manage inevitable change. Abbott called the carbon price a tax and said he would campaign constantly against it. Later that night Gillard went on ABC’s 7.30 where she could have described the new fixed price as a charge on the country’s biggest polluters. Instead she admitted she was happy to call her “market-based mechanism to price carbon” a tax. The damage was done, Gillard had lost the next election there and then.

Immediately the Opposition went on the attack calling Gillard a liar and the reputational damage was irreparable. Gillard was stuck in a losing battle of semantics reflected in abysmal polls that lasted the full term of her government. The Opposition colluded in a very public campaign of intimidation that bordered on violence. It legitimised scepticism in a scare campaign with five parts: unimaginable price rises, huge power bill rises, the destruction of coal, steel, cement, aluminium and motor industries, thousands of job losses, and the death of regional towns.

The media went along for the ride constantly calling out the negative impacts of the carbon price. When Cate Blanchett advertised support of carbon pricing, she was lampooned in the press for a week as a “pampered star” and “Carbon Cate”. Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the government said nothing. Gillard was making the same mistake as Rudd: ignoring the voters while the details were being thrashed out. Gillard’s silence was deliberate, she didn’t want to antagonise support in the MPCCC but the effect was the same: public disdain. Her approval rating plunged to 17%, equal with the worst rating of Paul Keating.

The government was in dire straits but took heart in the electorate’s suspicions over Tony Abbott. What they could not deal with was the return of Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s backers asserted Labor could still win the next election with him at the helm. Despite the mayhem, the Government introduced the Clean Energy Fund in June 2011 and Gillard successfully marshalled it through parliament. The carbon tax would be introduced a year later at the European price of $23 a tonne giving the electorate 12 months of “lived experience” of carbon pricing before the election. Labor also gave $10b over five years to a new Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a green investment bank idea borrowed from the UK.

Finally the government gave thought to the communication strategy. Its research said to avoid explaining climate change or justifying carbon pricing. Instead they were going to immunise the public by paying them off. But when it came to the “lived experience” people could not easily determine if the effects were good or bad. Abbott’s claims that the world would fall in were entirely wrong but dissatisfaction remained at rising costs, with massive electricity price spikes due to rising network charges. And Gillard’s hope for “clear air” to explain the package ran into a renewed Rudd leadership challenge.

The leaks and briefings escalated in 2013 and by June the destabilisation had made Gillard’s leadership untenable. But the collateral damage was intense and Rudd and Labor were swept from office in September 2013. The summer of 2012-2013 was the hottest on record but that was of no interest to the new government. The opportunistic new Prime Minister Abbott moved quickly to axe the Climate Commission, abolish the Climate Change ministry and appoint a climate sceptic to review the Renewable Energy Target.  The victory of the sceptics, however temporary, has left the “wicked problem” of climate change as far from a solution as ever. Hopes for a consensus remain poor as long as the Abbott clique remains in power. As Chubb writes, Australia could long rue its power failures between 2008 and 2013.