The Other Side of the Frontier

frontierAnother Australia Day has passed with the clamour growing for a change of date because of its pejorative connections for Indigenous Australians. I’ve written about this in the past. My view is simple: always make Australia Day the fourth Monday of January. It keeps the holiday at the end of summer and it removes the stigma of the connection with the British landing in Sydney in 1788, though it means that Australia Day will still fall on January 26 once every seven years or so.

But the calls to remove the direct link are justified and those that cannot see that, are blind to Australia’s history. History may not be a popular subject in schools, but its resonance affects our lives in many ways and Australia’s continued failure to reach an accord with its Indigenous people remains the nation’s blackest stain.

I thought Australia Day was a good opportunity to revisit Henry Reynolds’ ground-breaking 1981 work The Other Side of the Frontier. The book was the first to systematically explore life on the other side of the frontier after the British arrived in Australia with the intention as Reynolds put it “to turn Australian history, not upside down, but inside out.” A lack of written evidence had always been used never to use this approach to Australian history but Reynolds pored through official documents, first-hand accounts and oral testimony to examine the evidence.

The book is “inescapably political” with profound conclusions still not fully accepted 35 years later. Reynolds destroyed the notion that the Aboriginal people of Australia were passive in the face of the newcomers. It begins with the first contact with white explorers, ghostly figures who came on to country, usually carefully watched as they moved. They were often provided with local guides – as a courtesy, and also to ensure they moved on quickly. Trade routes criss-crossed Australia bringing news as quickly as it brought goods and explorers often found that European artefacts and animals had preceded them into indigenous lands. Knowledge of the mysterious and dangerous power of firearms was particularly quick to cross the continent. The invaders were greeted with a mix of curiosity and fear.

The biggest problem was how to include these newcomers in Indigenous cosmology. Many thought they were the pale ghosts of reincarnated ancestors so they could be absorbed into kinship networks, but the younger ones could see their behaviour made them all too human. Many white communities had their “foundations cemented in blood” as one Victorian protector of Aborigines put it. Violence led to resistance, which began in the early years of Sydney and fanned out through the continent as settlers moved in.  The period of warfare depended on the number of settlers and whether the local geography allowed the native population to hide easily and conduct guerrilla tactics.

Aboriginal people had sophisticated concepts of land ownership with strict laws on trespass, particularly related to sacred sites. Land use was complex with intermingling on territory and temporary hospitality based on the principle the visitors would eventually leave. The settlers, however, had no such intention. They ruthlessly asserted exclusive occupation from day one, occupying the flat, open land and monopolising the water. Private property allowed for no reciprocity. They also desecrated sacred sites and there was further conflict over the lonely white men taking access to Aboriginal women. And when Aboriginal men took revenge, they were denounced and attacked as villainous murderers. Conflict was driven by tension and misunderstanding, European possessive over land, competition for women and contrary concepts of personal property. Group punishment was common as was an ominous settler desire to end conflict “once and for all”.

The end of Aboriginal civilisation was a death by a thousand cuts. Frontier conflict was “ragged, sporadic and uneven”. Indigenous people were courageous in the face of attack but there were only a handful of massed battles. Most large gatherings dispersed by use of armed police or arsenic poisoning such as at Kilcoy. When there was open confrontation such as in central Victoria in the 1840s, Aboriginal shields were useless against 16 armed and mounted whites. By the time the frontier reached Cooktown, the natives were more cautious using the knowledge of their scrubby hinterland to keep the invaders at arm’s length. Native Police (usually with clansmen from other parts of Australia under the direction of a white sergeant) used traditional bushcraft and knowledge of horses and guns to undermine resistance to great effect in Queensland.

With most of their land taken from them and on the verge of destitution, many Indigenous people came into the settlements. There they ended up as cheap or slave labour or beggars living in fringe camps subject to disease, malnutrition, alcoholism and social disintegration. While disease was a major killer, Reynolds calculated the Aboriginal death toll in conflict as 20,000 across the continent. Queensland had the highest death toll as its conquest coincided with developments in weaponry, use of the Native Police and a new colonial leadership that had a vested interest in the development of pastoral property on Aboriginal lands.

Reynolds said the evidence contradicted the widespread view in the early 20th century that Aboriginal society was “pathetically helpless” in the face of the European onslaught. Indigenous people were not passive objects of European charity or brutality. The white explorers depended on them, early settlers feared them and it was only the weight of superior firepower and disease that eventually overcame them across the continent.

Reynolds asks when their dead will be accorded the same respect as the white Australian dead in overseas wars. Australian frontier violence was political violence and cannot be ignored because of its time and distance. It is something – as the Australia Day debate testifies – the nation has yet to come to terms with. “If we are unable to incorporate the black experience into our national heritage,” says Reynolds, “we will stand exposed as a people still emotionally chained to our 19th century British origins, ever the transplanted Europeans.”

Media person of the year 2015: Clementine Ford

clem fordWoolly Day’s 2015 media person of the year is Australian writer Clementine Ford. Ford is an experienced columnist who has written about identity politics and feminist issues for many years at Fairfax, Murdoch and elsewhere. However this year she has gained wide attention for her uncompromising stance in publicly outing misogynist behaviour, bravery attracting praise and hatred in almost equal measure. The title of her forthcoming book Fight Like A Girl speaks to her battling qualities and an entry in her companion blog, describes why many men are so intimidated by Ford’s actions. “Women can’t go around pointing out sexism and RUINING SEXIST MEN’S LIVES with it,” she wrote.

Some makers of sexist remarks have lost their jobs after Ford called out their behaviour. Ford has also done a superb job calling out institutional sexism in the media, often to withering effect making many enemies. How she has dealt with them has made her an inspirational figure in the fight for women’s equality in public and private life.

Clementine Ford has long been a forthright media defender of women’s rights in Australia, never afraid to back it up with the honesty of her own experience. When almost 10 years ago, Tony Abbott pushed an anti-abortion pregnancy hotline as Health Minister in the Howard administration, Ford attracted condemnation and praise for her revelation that she had undergone two abortions without shame. Her only feeling was one of “intense relief”.

In 2013 Ford told her story to Mamamia as a “lifetime struggle to accept her body.” She said her body had endured 18 years of “punishing self-hatred.” Ford identified her struggle as dysmorphia. “Society drowns women in an ocean of narcissistic self-loathing, until eventually the only thing they can see is themselves and how incomplete they are, and they’re oblivious to the thousands of other bodies being sucked under the waves around them,” she said.

Ford’s solution was to articulate the problems her female body posed, in a way that was eloquent, honest, political, and fiercely critical of cant. As her media profile grew, so did the critics. In 2014, right-wing Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Blair included Ford alongside Marieke Hardy, Catherine Deveny, Vanessa Badham, Margo Kingston and others in his poll to find “Australia’s craziest left-wing frightbat”. “Frightbat” was Blair’s own invention and these were the women, he said, “whose psychosocial behavioural disorders are becoming ever more dramatic following Tony Abbott’s election.” Instead of being outraged Ford took the challenge head on, pleading with people to vote for her. In the end she attracted 5438 votes narrowly losing out the “frightbat” title to Badham by six votes.

Despite the humour, Ford, Badham and the others were all too aware of the institutional sexism that dominates Australia’s public life, especially in the media. Sydney shock jock Alan Jones spoke of how women were “destroying the joint” while Kerry-Anne Walsh’s book The Stalking of Julia Gillard was a forensic examination about the media’s merciless role in the downfall of Australia’s first female prime minister. Yet the “frightbat” and the “destroying the joint” campaigns also showed how feminists were using the language of their enemies to win their battles. Ford in particular fought hard against the practice of victim blaming, the archetype of the woman who invites rape by dressing too sexily.

In June 2015 Ford entered the limelight over a stand against a now deleted Channel Seven Facebook post. Seven were talking about an American revenge porn website which had posted illegally obtained naked photos of 400 South Australian women. However instead of attacking the website for its behaviour, Channel Seven blamed the women. “What’s it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?” they posted. A furious Ford saw this as making it the responsibility of women to stop others from exploiting them. She posted a nude photo of herself on her public Facebook profile. The photo showed text on her chest that read “Hey #Sunrise, get fucked”. Her reasons were twofold. “I wanted to oppose the message of victim blaming that forms so much of our social narratives about crimes against women’s bodies,” she said. “But secondly, I wanted to show solidarity to every woman who has been made to feel afraid or ashamed for engaging in a form of intimacy that should be bound by trust and respect but instead was marked by betrayal.”

The photo went viral. It was shared 45,000 times and liked by over 200,000 people. It also attracted thousands of comments, many supportive but many others rude and misogynistic. She shared screen grabs of some of the viler private messages she’d received which included requests for nude photos, explicit photographs of naked men, and many insults. Facebook banned Ford from accessing her account for 30 days because her messages violated their community standards. Ford launched a community protest and the ban was rescinded. “No one should be punished for speaking out against abuse, especially not the kind of cowardly abuse sent under the banner of ‘private correspondence’,” she said. “Private correspondence is a conversation mutually entered into by more than one party and defined by respect and sometimes discretion. It is not someone sending you unsolicited emails calling you a filthy whore.”

In August, Ford drew fire again from the Murdoch Empire. This time it was page one criticism in The Australian from Sherri Markson. Markson complained that a “foul” Ford freely used profanities in her Twitter stream but celebrated Mark Latham’s sacking as a Fairfax columnist over his misogynistic comments. Markson also noted Ford had attacked The Australian’s columnists Rita Panahi and Miranda Devine. Markson sought comment from Ford’s employers Fairfax, who declined to say if she had breached their social media policy. The coded message was News Ltd was watching what Ford was saying and if she does slip up she could lose her job. Mike Carlton (sacked by Fairfax after News called out offending comments he made on Twitter) said it was part of a News Corp campaign to shut down dissenting views and journalists should not have a responsibility to act with professional objectivity on Twitter.

If it was a warning to Ford, she ignored it. In November she launched a stinging attack on the hypocrisy of White Ribbon Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. While Ford applauded how the day brought better dialogue around the impacts of men’s violence, she said not enough people called out the links between violence and casual misogyny. Ford castigated the campaign as a way “of reassuring every man listening that this isn’t really about him and therefore he doesn’t really have to do anything about it.”

Once again her post attracted the ire and abuse of many men. As she did after the Sunrise affair, Ford shamed her sexual harassers by screenshotting messages of abuse, unsolicited dickpics and requests for nude photos, and then publishing them. When one abuser lost his job over it, the vitriol against Ford increased but so did her support. Fellow “frightbat” Badham said the man deserved it. “The belittling and bullying, threats and harassment, cyberstalking and outright hate speech directed to women on the internet every day is real-world behaviour with real-world consequence and it should oblige real-world punishments,” Badham said.

The chatter around Ford hit her US namesake, the actress Clementine Ford who had received some of the abuse intended for the Australian.  The American Ford reached across the Pacific in support. “I have the pleasure of sharing a name with a strong brave journalist who pissed of (sic) some mysognists,” she tweeted. When the Australian Ford apologised to her for being caught in the crossfire, the American told her not to be sorry. “Fuck them,” she responded, “I’m proud to be mistaken for you.”

By the end of the year Ford was a major figure in the world of feminism and not to be messed with easily. It was probably not the right time for independent left-wing publication New Matilda to get its hands dirty publishing a piece by a naive young man critical of Ford’s methods. Jack Kilbride defended Ford as “courageous” but said her strategy of outing sexist offenders may be doing more harm than good. When that post was attacked as risible, New Matilda editor Chris Graham (who has many runs on the board for attacking racism) openly admitted it was a test in the interest of seeing “how much abuse he (Kilbride) cops”.

Graham found out Ford’s supporters did not enjoy being trolled in the name of a subscriptions drive. Her support is massive because her readers respond to her unflinching honesty and bravery under massive provocation. For all of these reasons Ford is a deserving winner of my media person of the year. I have given this award since 2009 and Ford would not be impressed – though not surprised – to find she is my first female winner, which says more about my male-dominated media interests than the work of outstanding women in the field. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya would have won in 2006, the year of her assassination, had I done it then. Of those who have won it, three were fighting the Murdoch Empire (two with the Guardian, and one a judge), two (Assange and Snowden) were fighting for freedom of information (and are still in legal limbo) and last year’s winners the Al Jazeera journalists Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed – all jailed on trumped up charges when doing their job – were the good news story of 2015 when Egypt finally released them without charges.

My first award in 2009 went to ABC managing director Mark Scott for his defence of strong public broadcasting and it is fitting that as he stands down this year, Michelle Guthrie becomes the first woman to head the organisation. Depending on how she tackles her job, she will be one of main candidates for my award next year. In the meantime, happy new year and congratulations to Clementine Ford.

Woolly Days media person of the year

2009: Mark Scott

2010: Julian Assange

2011: Alan Rusbridger and Nick Davies

2012: Brian Leveson

2013: Edward Snowden

2014: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. 

2015: Clementine Ford

The next Turnbullence is only thirty bad Newspolls away

turnbull2It used to be that in order to you change the country, you had to change the government, but these days all you need to do is change prime minister. The incompetent, fear-mongering and doctrinaire Tony Abbott regime already seems like a bad dream the country is quickly awakening from. Just over a week into office Abbott’s replacement Malcolm Turnbull looks relaxed and assured as prime minister having ushered in his new front bench, promising a return to cabinet government with him as “first among equals”. Turnbull is a patrician and the first real born-to-rule prime minister since the previous Malcolm in the job, Fraser.

The overthrow has happened with the minimum of fuss, indeed Turnbull has set the benchmark for future plotters: “30 bad Newspolls” (poll owner Rupert Murdoch will be delighted with the implied compliment, if unhappy at the outcome). Meanwhile Turnbull has attacked the job with gusto, seamlessly riding through the choppy waters of negotiating with his enemies in parliament (mostly Liberals and Nationals) while a hapless Labor struggles to keep up with the new realities.

Bill Shorten’s minimising of difference with the ousted prime minister has now spectacularly backfired: Turnbull is so much better at not being Tony Abbott than he is. Labor’s policy vacuum has left them looking lacklustre and bereft of ideas now that a substantial leader has emerged on the other side. Unlike the Rudd-Gillard stoush which was primarily a battle of personalities, Turnbull represents clear change from the hard right-wing social conservative style beloved of Abbott and his acolytes.

Liberal backers in the media are torn between denouncing the coup and applauding the bounce in the polls. The voters are far less split. They like Malcolm Turnbull. He has made the Liberals electorally competitive again swooping on Australia’s large swinging vote. The party was always capable of getting half the vote, they did so in 2010 and would have won government were it not for Abbott’s obstinate leadership and unpopularity.

Abbott had still not cured that by 2013, so much so that a desperate Labour turned back to a poisoned Kevin Rudd thinking his relative popularity could turn around the election. Abbott annihilated Labor in 2013, though Labor thanked itself it wasn’t worse. In five years Rudd had gone from saving the world to just saving the furniture.

With Gillard gone from parliament too (what Labor could do with her as leader at the moment), the stage was free for Tony Abbott to turn opinion in his favour. He failed miserably. His high point was the immediate handling of the MH17 crash but as that developed in to a lengthy judicial case, there were few shirt-fronting opportunities. His bluster also flopped at home where the Tone needed to be more subtle. He ruled initially with the support of Clive Palmer whose senators celebrated wildly when the carbon tax was repealed. When Palmer’s group disintegrated and Abbott had to corral any six from eight, he was less successful. The end of entitlement budget was the beginning of the end of Abbott’s entitlement giving the party dismal numbers to match the leader.

Remarkably Malcolm Turnbull comes to the top job as a cleanskin, despite his long record as a minister in the Howard and Abbott governments. He managed to always keep his distance from Abbott’s pratfalls though NBN’s failures may yet burn him. His cabinet looks a lot more promising than the fossilised collection of old men that Abbott had around him. Arthur Sinodinos as cabinet secretary and Tony Nutt as “director of transition” will guide the government in a controlled yet consultative way that the obsessive PMOs of Abbott (and his Labor predecessors) could not manage.

Turnbull’s biggest attributes will be to articulately sell a positive message and work with the cross-benches, including the more middle-ground Greens under Richard Di Natale. He has paid off suspicious Nationals with the water portfolio and kept the new darling of the right (Scott Morrison) inside the tent. There will be some tricky tight-rope walking ahead, especially as he delicately disengages from some of Abbott’s more egregious policies without alienating the base. But he will have plenty of goodwill and an energised party, especially when those bad Newspolls disappear. A Liberal election win in 2016 was a prospect that seemed utterly unlikely two weeks ago. Now the Liberals will enter the next election against a muddled Labor Party with renewed vigour and optimism.

Malcolm Turnbull is Australia’s new prime minister

turnbullThe sixth Australian prime ministerial spill in five years is over, producing the third change of leadership following the coups of Julia Gillard in 2010 and Kevin Rudd in 2013. Outgoing prime minister Tony Abbott fought desperately tonight on the notion that the Liberals were different from Labor and that only the people should change the leader. He proved wrong on both counts. In the end it was 98 men and women who decided 54-44 that Malcolm Turnbull should lead the party, and therefore the country.

The vote brings full circle an even tighter ballot that brought Abbott to the leadership six years ago in 2009, when he prevailed over then leader Turnbull by one vote. But ambitious politicians play a long game and just as Rudd crucially didn’t quit politics and waited three years to gain revenge over Julia Gillard, Turnbull also cemented his position as a popular alternative in waiting, and sat tight until a combination of circumstances made Abbott’s continued rule untenable.

Turnbull put it down to 30 successive bad Newspolls, but in truth Tony Abbott was never a popular prime minister. There is unlikely to be the same public sense of grievance and denial of justice that greeted Labor’s panicky move in 2010. At that point in the electoral cycle, Labor still led. Rudd no longer had the stratospheric positive polls he had a year earlier but surely had the measure of Tony Abbott in an election that would have been called a few months later.

Instead Labor imploded and with the help of Rudd feeding the media, Julia Gillard’s government was undermined from day one. That they hung on to power for another three years was testament to her formidable powers of negotiation but also to the failures of Tony Abbott. The undermining never stopped however and although Rudd succeeded in winning back power, it proved a Pyrrhic victory and Labor was deservedly punished by the electorate in 2013 for putting itself first.

The only problem was that it brought Tony Abbott to power where all his failings were writ large. Abbott was the perennial battler who had no nuance to squeeze the most from power. Ruling as he did from the right of his party, he was out of step with the centre, despite the crude and continuous barracking of Murdoch’s News Ltd empire.

His and Joe Hockey’s first budget announced the end of the age of entitlement but its vindictive nature made it seem that only their enemies were having their incomes docked. They were not helped by fractious Senate cross-bench but their failure to sell their message of economic correction was a totally self-inflicted wound.

Liberal poll numbers never recovered as they never do, and Tony Abbott lost his leadership there and then. The last 12 months have been the prolonged agony of a slowly drowning man refusing to accept his fate and hiding behind a façade of flags and security announcements. An early positive reputation as a strong leader was replaced by a sloganeering, fear-mongering robot.

A Turnbull leadership will change all that and all the smirking tweets today from Labor MPs enjoying the discomfort of their rivals may come back to haunt them. Bill Shorten’s one appearance today was appalling and ill-timed, failing in the old adage of never interrupting your enemy while they are making errors. Shorten was a shoo-in to become next prime minister as long as Tony Abbott was the incumbent. Now Labor have to find a way of giving him substance. Turnbull has many faults, not least his towering ego and impatience, but zingers alone won’t beat him. His victory today may turn the spotlight on Labor’s own recurring leadership woes. Australia’s leadership merry-go-round goes on and on.

Why Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour

I was halfway through writing this post when I saw an article from Paul Daley in the Guardian which expresses my opinion more eloquently than I could hope for. To understand the Adam Goodes booing, you have to understand Australia’s history. The matter did not begin on a football field, but in our attitudes, Daley said and cultural sensitivity was never white Australia’s strong point. Many prefer not to know the problem.

That was brought home to me in a vox pop on ABC’s Brisbane local radio station yesterday. There was a wide mix of opinions but the one that stood out was the lady who said in an exasperated tone she was sick of the subject and wished it would go away. When pressed to say was the booing “racist” she said flatly no, it wasn’t. It is a common view that Australia does not a problem with race and we shouldn’t talk ourselves into it.

But others do want to talk about it. Some defend the booing forcefully. The “whiny, needy, bullshit” as Guy Rundle called it of the arguments of convicted racist Andrew Bolt and others is “usurper’s complex”: victim blaming. Those who take power unlawfully must justify their acts – to themselves and others. It was Cecil the Lion’s fault for ruining the life of the man who killed him and the helicopter’s fault for thrashing Bronwyn Bishop’s reputation. So it is Adam Goodes who must change not the people doing the booing.

Like every great player in every team sport, Goodes was always the subject of “special attention” from opposition fans, little to do with his indigenous background. But the sustained booing he gets now dates to last year when as Australian of the Year status he urged people to see John Pilger’s Utopia. Pilger enrages many on the right because he puts himself into the argument. In my view, Utopia is flawed and does not give enough credence to the problems of de-colonisation. But Pilger’s subject matter deserves a voice and Goodes was right to recommend the film for its confronting approach to Australian history. This action enraged the right which attacked Goodes for his recommendation more than Pilger for his film. John Howard’s wish of a people “relaxed and comfortable” about their history could only exist on the notion of not telling the truth about that history.

The truth is we would be more comfortable with the real history. While Britain’s intervention came at enormous cost to the indigenous people it is a history that pre-dates racism. The British who arrived in 1788 felt superior to the Australians (likely the same was true of the Eora’s feelings of the British). However the newcomers preferred to explain the difference on cultural and environmental grounds. The marine Watkin Tench believed British education and enlightened thinking was all that separated them from the “savages” they saw in Botany Bay. There was no innate difference. “Untaught, unaccommodated man is the same in Pall Mall, as in the wilderness of New South Wales,” Tench wrote.

The Creationist view of the 7000-year-old world underpinned the idea that Aboriginal people had only recently fallen from grace, and could and should be changed. Governor Lachlan Macquarie took this notion to its logical conclusion and formed Australia’s first mission in 1814 to civilise the native population and “render their Habits more domesticated and industrious”. Macquarie’s Native Institution failed but the idea of missionaries took hold from optimistic clergy who used “Gospel motives” to transform Aboriginal people. They all failed. Indigenous people remained disinterested and suspicious. They stayed only as long as they were fed.

The rise of science and European rage for classifying the world led to a new way of explaining human difference. In his 1775 book The Natural Varieties of Mankind, Johann Blumenbach came up with a system of five races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American and Malay. The existence of Australia Aboriginal people was an awkward fact that did not fit the classifications. But by the middle of the 19th century, the idea of Caucasian superiority had taken root. Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (1844) argued the other “races” were vestiges of past forms. Charles Lyell had proved the world was far older than 7000 years, rocking the biblical certainty of Adam and Eve. The pseudo-science of phrenology claimed Native Americans and Africans had no ability for civilisation while Darwin, following Lyell, assumed the Australian Aboriginal “variety of man” was becoming extinct when faced with “stronger” forms.

While books were slow to reach Australia’s frontier, the idea of racial inferiority began to supplement and eventually replace the original notion of Aboriginal “savagery”.  The publicity around the death of Pallawah woman Trugernanna led to inaccurate reports of the “last Tasmanian” and lent credence to the idea Australia’s native population was doomed. Inferiority and inevitable extinction were convenient crutches to explain what otherwise was the theft of an entire continent and wholesale ethnic cleansing.

Racial superiority was a core philosophy of the new nation of Australia in 1901 and dominated its first half-century. As historian Richard Broome said, it took the abominations of the Nazis for the world to formally reject notions of race as wrong and unscientific. Hair, eye and skin colour and the shape of facial features are a tiny component of our genetics and have no biological explanatory function. The 1978 UNESCO declaration on race and racial prejudice reminded the world humans are a “single species and are descended from common stock”.

By 1978, racism was on the wane in Australia. It remained strong in country areas, especially with large mixed populations, but government policy was empowering Aboriginal people. It got to the point that by the 1990s, reactionists like Pauline Hanson could campaign against Aboriginal “privilege”. The Nationals could also find outrage against native title while in the 2000s large populations could be still be painted as full of paedophiles, drug addicts and rapists. Race does not exist any more, but racism remains rife. It must tread carefully but still finds voice in Bolt critiques, Hansonism, “boong” jokes and other forms. Booing is a handy way of publicly being racist while retaining plausible deniability.

Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour by calling it out. Now, as Paul Daley says, Australia must confront the demons of its past and embrace Aboriginal culture. New Zealand’s Waitangi Treaty should be the template. Without a treaty it is hard to imagine the entire cohort of an Australian school doing as a New Zealand school did, and conduct an indigenous war cry to farewell a much-loved indigenous teacher. It will never happen here until we accept the consequences of our history.

Why Labor has to turn back the boats

The First Fleet in 1788 continue in a long tradition of "illegal immigration" by boat to Australia
The First Fleet in 1788 continue in a long tradition of “illegal immigration” by boat to Australia

A left-wing friend talking about Shorten’s boat turnback policy said Labor was making the same mistake when they rolled Kevin Rudd in 2010: not explaining to a bewildered electorate what they were doing and why they were doing it. What is it they feared and why, the person asked rhetorically, suspecting it would never be explained by those who voted with Shorten for the boat turnback policy. Shorten did explain yesterday why Labor was bringing in the policy though he didn’t explain his deepest fear. Were I a delegate it would have been a tough decision – but in the end I would have voted yes too, despite boat turnbacks being part of a vile and inhuman system.

What Shorten and Labor fear most in 2016 is defeat, despite leading the polls for most of the electoral cycle and despite Tony Abbott being our worst prime minister since the shambolic Gorton/MacMahon era. Abbott believes he can win again next year by talking up security and borders and playing to our worst fears. Most Australians believe the current draconian border policy is either fine or not strong enough. The media hysteria of the real or imagined threat of terrorism is giving Australians nightmares while the issue of being “swamped” by Asians is as old as settler Australia itself.

The fear is unconscious and atavistic, and not helped by Australia’s failure to be honest about its own violent history. The country was settled by boat people at least 40,000 years ago and they dominated the continent until more “illegal immigrants” arrived in 1788 to start a new wave of conquest. The unspoken fear is that a third wave of conquest is imminent and “white” Australia will be subsumed in an Asiatic and/or Islamic culture.

The government of the day has played up mightily to those fears as have the Murdoch media. “Turning back the boats” (seeing that even the Abbott government admitted they can’t be stopped) is an acceptable slogan to keep the desperate at bay. Indeed most Australian people see it as necessary regardless of the human consequences. The wars Australia fought in the Middle East have created much of the tide of refugees but as long as they are hidden away overseas and cannot be humanised, they will always be suspects not victims.

The Coalition has won the information war by ending the flow of information. The ludicrous cliché “operational matters” covers a multitude of sins and allows the government to get away with any behaviour to meet its ends. Labor and the Greens are left screeching to an empty gallery. But while the Greens can afford to retain its policy purity, Labor cannot if it hopes to win government.

They need to change the conversation entirely and this policy decision yesterday allows them to do that. The coalition will continue to run hard on borders and generate fear saying to the electorate that Labor can’t be trusted to protect the borders but they will now find it harder to argue on specifics. Abbott will be reduced to touting suspicions not facts. His best hope is that the Labor left sabotages Shorten’s policy.

But Abbott knows this weekend’s debate means it is Labor who can now argue on specifics when it comes to immigration policy. They are in the game, but with points of difference. Oversight of the detention centres, increasing the immigration intake, removing Temporary Protection Visas and releasing children from detention all play to Labor’s “human” side while still allowing them to join the Liberals on the demonisation of “people smugglers”.

They will still be no-go areas of discussion and many ways in which the policy obscures rather than illuminates. What will happen to the people currently rotting away in Nauru and Manus Island? Labor does not say, but crucially neither do the Liberals. So it is not in their interest to open that discussion.

So while the left will appalled by Labor’s decision, it is realpolitik. If you want a coherent and humanitarian policy on immigration then vote for the Greens, however they will not form government in 2016. Labor has potentially neutralised this most damaging of matters and crucially, they did it in an open forum. The issue was far more toxic to them than climate change, despite Abbott’s past victories in that space. Abbott destroyed Rudd and Gillard’s environmental policy by labelling it a tax, but the electorate is slowly aware of a bigger problem coming if carbon emissions are not addressed. It is a problem the government does not wish to acknowledge. Meanwhile, Abbott’s war against the obvious benefits of solar and wind power is looking mean and vindictive.

Labor is looking to fill the space left by Abbott, making another commitment yesterday to move to 50% renewable energy by 2050. Much more needs to be done, including a tangible plan on how to get to that target. Labor should win the next election with the current government looking out of touch, arrogant and untrustworthy. Abbott remains a deeply unpopular prime minister, though Shorten is not much better. The left will dislike him even more on the border backflip. Yet he showed in his carefully crafted borders speech yesterday he is more than just a straw man. He remains the best hope of dragging Australia back to the middle ground, so carelessly voided by his opponent.

The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07”. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing achievement but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese predicted, destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with differing conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as one deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. Only three notables from the Labor first rank did not have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner, are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake, he should have explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is a guide). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. “I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season, he launched into open warfare over the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly one-sided. The ABC is considered duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch is a bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Mallah is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season is classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screeching of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.