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.

Australia: a country in desperate need of a climate change policy

Before someone puts Tony Abbott out of our misery, the Liberal Party should take a long moment to think about climate change and what its next leader should do about it. It is a process it needs to complete by December because its government will be representing Australia at the Paris Climate Change conference. That conference has the goal of containing “climate disruption” within a two degree upper limit and the adoption of an international agreement to move the world towards a low-carbon economy by 2020. Australia hasn’t the slightest hope of meeting any such commitment based on its current policies.

The working document for this conference is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Synthesis Report (or whatever will supersede it this year).The climate change science in this report is telling us we are in bad shape. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than any decade since the 1850s. The last 30 years are likely to be the warmest 30 years of the last 1400 years. The upper ocean temperature is warming and ocean acidification has increased by a quarter in the industrial era. Arctic sea ice is decreasingly by 4% a decade and the sea level rose 0.2% in the 20th century. This has resulted in large increases in carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, particularly in the last 40 years.

The future the report is predicting is more rising sea levels, more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and more extreme weather events including cyclones, droughts and floods across the world. This is a dire scenario and if inter-generational theft means anything at all, then surely this is it. What then, is the government of Australia doing about it?

It’s actually hard to tell it is doing anything at all. While it is unsurprising to note Tony Abbott hasn’t mentioned climate change in a speech in over three months, it’s more surprising to note a search of the Liberal Party policies page has no official policy on climate change. That is, unless you think scrapping the carbon price, removing government oversight mechanisms, building highways and tunnels, and supporting the coal industry amount to addressing climate disruption.

The closest thing the Liberals have to an official environment policy is a $2 billion green army aimed at heritage and agriculture protection as much as the environment. The Green Army is a John Howard-style militia inspired by the motherhood vision for Australia where “individually and collectively, we can more often be our best selves” so they can “do the right things by those around them.” This army lacks the artillery to deal with bigger environmental problems especially in two industries Australia is vulnerable in: manufacturing and mining.

Then there’s “direct action”. Seen by almost everyone outside the government as a hopelessly ineffective solution, it does not even merit its own policy page on the Liberal website.  There is blurb on the Emissions Reduction Fund (the centrepiece of the policy) on the environment department website but is lacking in detail. Its reliance on big government intervention to meet targets is also stark contrast to the laissez-faire attitude the Coalition has in other areas of the economy. A market-based cap-and-trade approach seems a more logical approach but that would admit its opposition to Labor policy for the last four years was wrong.

This extraordinary inaction to the world’s biggest problem can only be explained one way. This government has been captured by those who do not believe the climate change science. When the government repealed the carbon price legislation last July, Liberal Senator Ian McDonald said what many in his party room would agree with. “If there is global warming, notwithstanding that in Brisbane on Saturday morning we had the coldest day in 113 years – but I have always indicated,” McDonald said, “I have an open mind on this.”  McDonald was incoherent but what he meant is he has a closed mind on this. Climate change is bunkum, he believes, or “crap” as his party leader once offered. Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, who was instrumental in wrecking bi-partisan agreement on carbon pricing, takes a similar view.

Joyce doesn’t have a vote on who should be the next party leader but he will be active behind the scenes. He is a fan of Tony Abbott because he knows Abbott will continue the ‘do nothing’ approach. But even Abbott’s one and only speech on climate change in the last three months admits that is no longer an option. On December 14, 2014, Abbott was dragged kicking and screaming into pledging $200m over four years to UN’s Green Climate Fund, despite it being what he called “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. Abbott did this not only because he was friendless on the issue but because he knows Paris is looming. Abbott admitted he needed a taskforce “to propose possible new post-2020 targets for Australia to take to the Paris Conference of the UNCCC in December 2015.”

That taskforce is yet to materialise leaving Australia no closer to effective action. “Direct Action” may or may not fluke its way to achieving Australia’s miserly 2020 target but is utterly useless beyond that. Abbott and his supporters can doubt the science all they like, but the world is moving on anyway. Australia needs a climate change policy before December. This is the problem Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and anyone else who would be prime minister needs to grapple with urgently.

Closing the gap to 2030

Closing_the_Gap_2015_coverIt was the anthropologist Bill Stanner who described Australia’s attitude to its Indigenous people as a “great history of indifference”. Stanner was speaking in 1963, just after Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders (hereafter ATSI) got the vote.

That brought Indigenous people into the Australian story, a process accelerated by the 1967 referendum that ensured “Aboriginal” people (ATSI people) were counted in the census and the Commonwealth had a role to play. One of the referendum’s instigators, Faith Bandler who died yesterday aged 96, wasn’t Indigenous but her polyglot Melanesian-Scottish-Indian background was emblematic of a new Australia gradually looking beyond the coattails of empire for inspiration, and prepared to dig deep for the descendants of its original inhabitants.

Australia’s story over the last 50 years has been one of an attractive, open, vast and vibrant country with great wealth and freedom, attracting people from around the world. The conditions of ATSI people has greatly improved in that time but because they started from a low ebb, they remain adrift of the general population in most statistical markers. Their place on the census allowed economists to easily measure the state of the gap while Commonwealth involvement gave the problem a much needed national focus.

In March 2008, Kevin Rudd used his popularity as prime minister to coax the new Australian Government and Opposition to sign the Close the Gap Statement of Intent. Rudd hosted the Indigenous Health Equality Summit which committed to closing the health equality gap between ATSI and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030.

The rationale was a dichotomy revealed by the UN Human Development Index which ranked Australia third in the world off the back of its mining boom. The score ranked Australia highly on such matters as life expectancy, employment, health and other indicators. Yet the life expectancy of an ATSI person was 17 years less than the Australian average.

The gap was a stark reminder of a great divide in Australia across education, incoming, housing, mental health, chronic disease, child and maternal health, and access to health services. The gap led to an immense burden of suffering and grief for ATSI people which was a “scar on an unhealed past” and a “stain on the reputation of the nation”.

The impact is felt by the states as well. Victoria and Queensland got on board the Statement of Intent in 2008, WA in 2009, the ACT, NSW and SA in 2010. WA and NT have not yet signed up but the committee recognises states have as big a role to play as Canberra. They spend the Commonwealth tax dollar on health and education.

But the Commonwealth takes the lead, producing the Closing the Gap report since 2008. In this issue as in many others Rudd overpromised and underdelivered yet there has been much progress in seven years. The improvement is hard to see because while Aboriginal health has improved, the health of the general community is also improving. We are failing to “close the gap” fast enough.

Women are bearing the brunt of the problem. In the last five years, Indigenous life expectancy has gone up by 1.6 years for men but just 0.6 for women. Both sexes still die 10 years earlier than non-Indigenous people, so the good thing is the gap has narrowed by seven years since 2008 and is a reminder that closing the gap takes a lot of continuous effort and time. In New Zealand it took 20 years to improve Maori life expectancy by four years.

Prime Minister Gillard never had the same focus as Rudd on Indigenous affairs. She guided a minority government through many controversial issues but ATSI legislation never floated to the top. In her final closing the gap report in 2013 she claimed victory on access to remote pre-schools but admitted there was still a “massive and unacceptable” standard of living gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Last year was the first Closing the Gap report of the post-Labor era. Like John Howard, Tony Abbott put great store in what he called “practical reconciliation” (ruling self-determination off the table.) Like in the Labor years, the report spoke of the “stark reality of health inequality” and called for measures to reduce smoking rates, improve maternal and children’s health and to make inroads into chronic disease.

This year is much the same. The committee wants greater focus on access to primary health care services to detect, treat and manage Indigenous health conditions. They have evidence to suggest Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services gives the best bang for contested government dollars, providing wide-scale, quality access to health services.

The committee supports the government’s priorities of education, employment and community safety. But they want the Closing the Gap strategy to have a “clearer connection” with the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. Education, employment and community safety lead to good health but good health is also important to driving education, employment and community safety. Health services is the bigger employer of Indigenous people so increased investment will lead to increased employment.

The year 2030 remains the target and by then we should see a further shrinking of difference. But “the gap” must remain a priority well beyond then. Indigenous injustices, shielded by settler indifference for 180 years, cannot be wiped away in the health service schemes of a single generation. There must be continued commitment to the removal of the gap for ATSI people as populations. But integration or assimilation is not the complete answer. There must also be a commitment to support ATSI people as distinct peoples with their own culture and languages, regardless of health and employment outcomes.