Shallow political times in which parties are brands, voters are consumers and the electorate is a market

One of the worst things to happen to Australian politics is the emergence of political parties as “brands”. Perhaps this trend should not come as a surprise. This is a time when management babble claims all before it, like a merciless flow of volcanic gibberish. And so it is that parties once known for their values now see themselves as “value propositions”.

Political parties have become products. The back-room wunderkinds will tell you that standing for something, being guided by values and philosophies, having purpose, are sure ways of alienating voters (consumers) and never tasting power – and isn’t that the only purpose that matters?

Because power is an end in itself, getting there, and staying there, occupies far more attention at modern party headquarters than any considerations about the higher purpose of power.

Gough Whitlam was a paragon of purpose and conviction, but he was also pragmatic. He understood the futility of principle at the expense of power, as he famously derided the implacably left-wing end electorally unsuccessful Victorian branch of the ALP in 1967. He recalled, 40 years later:

“I had to combat a growing attitude in some quarters that expressing the purity of our principles in permanent opposition was better than applying them in government. As I had to admonish the Victorians: ‘Certainly the impotent are pure’.”

But nobody could accuse Whitlam, or Labor under him, of standing for nothing. When Whitlam said in his 1969 election policy speech, “We of the Labor party have an enduring commitment to a view about society”, Australian politics could not be further removed from today’s small-target, policy-free election campaigns.

Tony Abbott’s supporters will argue that “stop the boats”, “abolish the carbon tax” and the “PPL” were policies.

But these were not part of a coherent nation-building plan or premised on set of fundamental principles; they were opportunistic, cynical and in the case of the paid parental leave scheme off-the-cuff, ill-conceived and economically irresponsible.

Political parties have always had to “sell” their election manifestos, but at least Australian elections used to feature competing platforms. Slogans once underpinned policy credos, now the slogans stand alone.

The election manifesto has become a barren parody of itself: the political version of a Harvey Norman sale catalogue – lots of big numbers and pizzazz.

For Abbott in the 2013 election it was the $5 billion PPL and the 15,000-strong Green Army; for Rudd it was big-ticket items such as shifting naval headquarters from Sydney to Brisbane and making the NT a low-tax special economic zone. Sale, sale,sale. Every semblance of policy integrity must go.

Political parties as washing powders

Political writers and headline writers have picked up the “brand” concept with the same practiced ease that a marketing reporter writes about the “unique value proposition” of a washing powder. Take these examples:

  • “POLL: ALP brand battered by spill,” Newcastle Herald, 21 March 2013. “Prime Minister Julia Gillard faces an uphill battle rebuilding her party’s shattered brand after Labor’s crippling leadership crisis…,” ran the story from Fairfax’s Canberra bureau.
  • “Federal woes trashing state Labor’s brand,” The Age, 2 May 2013. “The big question causing considerable angst within state Labor ranks is the extent to which the ALP’s federal woes have infected the state Labor ‘brand’,” wrote state political editor Josh Gordon, who at least applied killer quotation marks in mitigation. But not so Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews who in the same piece said of a disappointing byelection result: ”I think it would be naive and it would be less than straight to the Victorian community if we pretended there are not challenges for Labor in a brand sense.”
  • “Brand new: How to sell Campbell Newman,”, 26 July 2014. “What do you do with a brand like Campbell Newman?” posed political reporter Amy Remeikis. “The Can-do brand has been tarnished.  And with it, the government has seen its popularity…crash”. Next comes insight not from a political science don, but ANU marketing lecturer Andrew Hughes: “They need to rebuild that brand, because the family market has now seen someone who has turned on them… their perception is it has made their lives even harder than it already was – and remember, perception is the reality… If Campbell Newman becomes can’t-do, not can-do, then the brand is gone.”
  • “Dysfunctional brand at the core of Labor’s current crisis,” The Conversation, 14 April 2014. “If the disastrous results and campaign in the WA Senate re-election are anything to go by,” wrote University of Adelaide politics professor Carol Johnson, “the ALP seems to be losing the ability to brand itself and its policies as appealing to the public.”

Former WA premier, federal MP and national Labor president Carmen Lawrence understands what’s happening. “The major parties are failing our democracy and have been for some time; they are not parties any more, but, win-or-lose, hollow corporations run by a handful of paid officials,” she wrote in 2012. “The parties have been too clever for their own good, embracing simplistic, lowest common denominator policies designed with one eye on the polls and the other on the immediate public reaction, especially from the media.”

Politics shouldn’t be a business, but that’s what it has become. The most disturbing case in point is Clive Palmer’s so-called political party, the Palmer United Party.

PUP takes politics to new low

Palmer’s “party” is nothing of the sort. It’s a business, it’s run like a business, and Palmer is its sole proprietor. He runs PUP in exactly the same way he runs his myriad business interests – unpredictably, idiosyncratically, autocratically.

Palmer United Party, or Clive’s Discount Sofa Barn, same difference: their business is seats. At some point, PUP will be out of business, but in the meantime this non-party has degraded Australian politics to a new low.

PUP’s Senate members may well end up surviving the business and its proprietor. Perhaps that’s why Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie is so keen to promote her “personal brand” above the corporate brand – the calculated outspokenness, the swagger and her “trademark” scarves.

But PUP, Palmer and Lambie are symptoms of the diseased Australian polity. The long-term damage to the core of the nation’s parliamentary democracy is being done by the major political parties.

The professional political class considers the political party a marketing staple no different from great Australian brands like Vegemite, Bushells and Holden; all that’s missing is the foreign ownership. And we shouldn’t discount that possibility either.

Instead of Arnott’s biscuits, we have Abbott’s government. His year in office has left a sour taste in the mouths of consumers. Perhaps the war on terror will keep Abbott in the Lodge beyond 2016, or perhaps the war will prove the final nail.

Political strategists view poor opinion polls in the same way a product manager is concerned that 18-25 year-olds are buying fewer ice-creams. This might explain why we end up with so many plain-vanilla politicians, more concerned with the message that the colour of their tie sends to the electorate than explaining what the hell is going on in Canberra.

Voters that switch off political parties because of internal wranglings, policy failures, ineptitude, lack of direction and poor leadership are treated not like thinking voters who demand better but as dim-witted consumers that can be lulled into signing up for another three years by shiny new logos, catchy slogans and smart patter.

Some people are, and always have been, attracted by the bells and whistles. But judging by the 2010 and 2013 elections, possibly the most vacuous since Federation, voters are switching off in droves as political parties fail to convince people that they stand for something, have a plan for the nation and possess the talent to implement it.

Who will be the first to say ‘no more’?

When parties lose elections, back-room geniuses simply “recalibrate” their political “brands” rather than tackle the real reasons for the voter malaise. It’s not as if nobody can see what’s happening. Carmen Lawrence, John Faulkner, Steve Bracks, Bob Hawke, the late Neville Wran and many other Labor elders have over the years urged their party to reconnect with Labor values, but to no avail.

It’s inconceivable that the political players are blind to the long-term damage being done to Australian politics, but nobody wants to be the first to pull back and say “no more”, lest they lose the political advantage to their opponents.

There is a prevailing view that in the politics of perception-as-reality, nobody gets rewarded for doing the right thing. Labor strategists point to Simon Crean who as Labor leader sought to reform the party’s corrosive organisational structure and for his trouble was deemed colourless, inwardly focused and unelectable. The Liberals have seared into their psyche the dangers of being candid with the electorate and the failed experiment of John Hewson and his Fightback manifesto.

There is no single source of blame for the continual dumbing down of Australian politics into a battle of the brands: the rise of the political class, the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, the apathy of voters, the short attention span of social media consumers … take your pick.

But there can be only one source for the return to a political system which places a primacy on policy, vision, values and integrity. And that’s the political parties themselves, and the men and women who lead them. On the Coalition side, perhaps that challenge will one day fall to Malcolm Turnbull. For Labor, that challenge now rests with Bill Shorten. Whether Turnbull gets his chance, and whether Shorten makes the most of his – or whether the future rests with an entirely new guard – will tell whether Australian politics gets its brand new day.

Commuter trains from hell: another morning of backpack warriors, office turtles and hamburgers with the lot

Common courtesy is not so common anymore. Certainly not on public transport. And as for trains – troughs on wheels – you will only find manners, courtesy and consideration if you google them on your mobile device.
Commuter travel has become intolerable. Any day now I expect some passengers – or “customers” as they are now known – to come on board with a couple of chooks and a kero stove to make fresh eggs for breakfast, and perhaps a goat for a lovely glass of organic milk afterwards.
At their worst, modern train travellers are (in alphabetical order) boorish, illmannered, inconsiderate, loud, vulgar, selfish and may or may not have their own teeth.
While the authorities can justify placing considerable effort and resources into apprehending fare evaders, the operator of Melbourne’s train system, Metro, appears helpless to stop the vandals, graffiti gangs and takeaway food-ferals from turning train carriages into aftermath scenes from Glastonbury.
Trains are crowded and clearly illdesigned and illequipped for the throngs they must carry.
Granted, the crush of public transport travel is simply a reality of a busy, growing urban population. Unfortunately, most of our fellow travellers choose not to observe certain norms of behaviour that would make travel as comfortable – or at least tolerable – as possible for all concerned. That’s where the public transport experience falls down. Most commuters couldn’t give a stuff about anyone else.
What makes public transport travel to and from work such an ordeal is not so much the overcrowding but the astonishing rudeness and lack of consideration that one daily encounters within the heaving, graffiti-laden walls of public conveyances.
The rudeness starts when the train stops at the platform. Instead of waiting for people to get off before boarding, unthinking passengers desperate to secure a space charge into the bulging carriage. The ensuing contest of opposing forces resembles a cross between the Battle of Beersheba and World Championship Wrestling.
Occasionally one will hear a warrior-passenger cry: “Would you mind moving down the carriage please, there’s plenty of room!”. Those on the train hanging on for dear life will be wondering exactly where that room might be.
But it’s also true that there is the territorial passenger who manages to occupy a strategic standing position, as near the door as possible, who will not move to make way for oncoming passengers come what may.
If there does happen to be an unoccupied seat, usually a corner island of torn, tattered and food-encrusted upholstery located within a heaving mass of humanity and their possessions, there will always be someone who makes it their mission to claim it. Usually it’s someone of considerable mass, carrying enough hand-held and strapped-on baggage to resemble a one-person Burke and Wills expedition, with the force, determination and rudeness to burrow through any throng. It’s the commuter equivalent of Taz the Warner Bros cartoon Tasmanian Devil getting from A to B with maximum disruption.
I have observed more than once somebody cause considerable mayhem and upset to claim a seat, only to alight one or two stops later.
Meet the Office Turtles
Once on board, the carriage is mostly populated by office turtles. They are instantly recognisable: business attire incongruously offset by backpacks, giant white sports shoes and a flurry of wires.
The office turtles are not a generational oddity, nor is the phenomenon defined by gender. One of the regular turtles I used to encounter was a woman of approximately 60 years, prim and proper in outwardly appearance, neatly attired in grey, lips pursed, most likely a secretary – she was almost a caricature of the no-nonsense PA: except for the giant white runners and a backpack the size of Townsville. Anyone who stood between a seat and Miss Daisy was about to have their morning ruined.
Despite the cramped conditions, office turtles generally keep their backpacks on, much to the discomfort of whoever happens to be standing behind them. More than once I have been in danger of being smothered by a burly backpack. When I dare to push them aside, it’s I who get the look for being rude.
And who knew that Chanel makes backpacks? The tossers who wear them still look like office turtles, but very posh turtles. And they don’t look as if they’re moving house because Chanel backpacks are very dainty. It’s only a matter of time before Chanel produces commuter sports shoes.
Office turtles behave as if they are the only ones on the train. They are not only a visual blight, but a risk to life and limb.
Those few who are considerate enough to remove their backpacks on the train show no such courtesy when, with great exaggeration, they swing their backpacks back on as the train reaches their stop. Many a time have I received a full-force blow by an airborne backpack – and never a murmur of apology. There is no such thing as backpack etiquette on public transport: it’s every turtle for himself.
Basic passenger etiquette is a thing of the past. It is no longer the norm, for example, for people to cover their mouths when yawning. Scores of passengers doing their best imitations of somnolent hippos are not a pretty sight. A young person once looked at me with some curiosity as I yawned, and then I realised that she had probably never seen somebody cover their mouth when yawning before.
Cracking one’s knuckles is another popular sport on trains. Few sounds are more disgusting than somebody methodically cracking their knuckles one by one. Some do it with a bit of a flourish, like that swipe of the keyboard that some pianists favour when they complete their bouncy number. But it’s still noisy and disgusting.
Feeling peckish for a peak-hour snack
More than any other breach of consideration for others is eating on the train. No matter how crowded and uncomfortable, there is always someone, morning or late afternoon, who feels the urge to tuck into a hamburger with the lot, a bucket of KFC or very often, by the sounds of it, bags of gravel.
I have stood next to someone on a crowded train, eyeball to eyeball, who munched away merrily on carrot sticks. The unseemly experience was not only noisy, but pungent. Somehow he was able to negotiate a bag of carrot sticks and a tub of exotic dipping sauce while maintaining his balance.
Construction workers enjoying takeaway curry, office girls with bottomless bags of nuts, university students and office workers with steaming bags of McDonald’s, and there’s always someone with a juicy, crunchy apple.
A few days ago an office worker got on the train and proceeded to pour milk and cereal into a bowl and crunched away for the next several stops, right down to the tap-tap-tapping of the bottom of her plastic bowl to ensure every last morsel was devoured. Unspeakable.
It ‘s now fashionable to come on board with cups of takeaway coffee. These people really can’t wait until they get to their destination to have a cup of coffee? Or have it at home? Apparently not. So, on crowded morning trains people are nursing cups of coffee, avoiding swinging backpacks as they take furtive sips. I know that one day I’m going to end up wearing somebody’s morning brew – sooner or latte.
Worse than passengers rude enough to eat on crowded trains is passengers who insist on devouring each other. I refer to young newbie lovers intent on demonstrating their undying love for each other, oblivious to the delicate constitutions of others, most notably mine.
One of these days some idiot is going to get on his knees and propose marriage to his one true love. He best not be too close as there is every chance he will find himself at the receiving end of a technicolour yawn (apologies to Barry McKenzie).
On top of these outrages against good taste is the scourge of interminable mobile phone conversations and the audio pollution of invasive “personal” music devices, which emit the dubious musical tastes of their owners.
All of this is not just about trains. The crowded trains are a microcosm of wider society and its preoccupation with self. Perhaps the lack of consideration for others and the primacy of individual comfort is a coping mechanism for the pressures of life in the new century.
Such onslaughts against civility – the overcrowding, the selfishness, the boorish excesses – will only get worse as populations climb. There’s always something to look forward to on public transport. And watch out for goats.

Oh Captain, My Captain: RIP Robin Williams 1951-2014

The death of Robin Williams has struck many people, including myself, in a very personal way because he was that kind of performer: so giving, so immediate, so intense that he left no distance between himself and his audience. To witness a Williams performance was to be swept into its maelstrom.

There was no half-way with this gifted actor and comedian. Everything about Williams was full on, strictly all or nothing. And he was loved for it.

His manic turns on countless television interview shows were hilarious forces of nature: a tempestuous stream of consciousness that fused anecdotes, impersonations, observations, gags and routines that would leave audiences gasping for air.

But it’s also true that Williams was hiding behind these walls of comedic sound.

No doubt there were times when Williams revealed a little of himself during these interviews – be they on television, radio or print – but one could never be quite sure when the real Robin Williams was offering a glimpse of himself. He was in that regard like so many of the great comedians, always “on” and much preferring to be somebody else, at least when in the public eye. Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Jim Carrey come to mind.

Making a lot of noise, being the irrepressible wit, dominating discussion: these are ways for people with depression to hide – from themselves, and from those around them. But it’s also a way of pumping the air of life into a deflated soul. To stop long enough for life to overwhelm you is to curl up in a corner and wish you could disappear, while at the same time wishing you didn’t feel that way.

My guess is that while Robin Williams was making the world laugh – or, with equal intensity, cry – he was desperately trying to keep himself alive. It’s a battle he lost.

His death at the age of 63 has shocked the world, a world that felt so close to him, yet many of us will now realise, or will come to realise, that we barely knew this giving man. We were so busy laughing or crying that in idolising Robin Williams we didn’t notice that he was unraveling before us.

The demons that swirled within

In an era when living to 100 is barely remarked upon, 63 is so young, but the blessing of this loss is that it did not happen sooner.

Williams did not let us peer deep into his soul, but neither did he attempt to conceal the demons that swirled within. He was a recovered alcoholic, had suffered drug addiction and most recently severe depression and had recently checked himself into a rehabilitation centre.

These burdens were part of who he was – and some will argue that an artist without demons is no artist, or a lesser artist – but they did not define Robin Williams. The tragedy of this life cut so terribly short was that in giving so much to his friends and family, and to admirers around the world, Williams felt he had so little to give himself.

Depression is many things, but its characteristics include self-loathing, hopelessness and loneliness. Robin Williams’ art and comedy may well have been offsprings of these conditions, but they were also masks that enabled Williams to confront life every day. Which make his performances all the more remarkable, and tragic.

Williams’ talent was not simply a ball of nervous energy. He was a Juilliard-trained actor whose cinema performances were as varied as they were compelling, moving and hilarious. His best-known films include: Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991), Good Will Hunting (1997, for which he won an Oscar, having been nominated for the previous three films), Awakening (1990), Mrs Doubtfire (1993), The Birdcage (1996) and One Hour Photo (2002). He will also be known to a legion of fans as Mork in the landmark TV comedy Mork and Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982.

There is no ready answer

Beyond the shock, many will greet his suicide with the question “Why?” They will say that he was so successful, so wealthy, so loved, how could he possibly take his life?

These are questions, of course, to which there is no ready answer. But what answers there are have nothing to do with the gloss of Williams’ life. Everything we admired about Williams was the exterior he hid behind. We know that Williams was gifted, loved and loving. But he was also broken, bereft and afraid.

Is suicide a rational choice? I don’t know. But it is a lonely choice. And a desperate one.

Williams was married and had three children. His third wife, Susan Schneider, issued a statement in which she expressed her heartbreak: “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”

Williams’ death, ultimately, was not the death of a comic genius and actor, but of a man.

His death will shed momentary light on this darkest of scourges: depression.
Let me conclude by quoting Stephen Fry, who like this writer suffers from depression, but unlike this journeyman journalist has the gift of writing with an angel’s touch:

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

The MH17 tragedy has put Australian politics on hold and could prove Tony Abbott’s seminal moment

Democratic leaders don’t will wars, terrorist atrocities or natural disasters to strike. But they know that when they do, particularly when they pose a real or symbolic threat on the home front, political climates can change dramatically, and very often to their advantage. Domestic politics go into abeyance; political scandals, disputes and rivalries disappear from sight; and a sense of community unity springs from seemingly nowhere.

For some leaders, tragedy or threat can be the making of their time in office, the anvil on which their leadership is forged. It can be the seminal moment they rise to; the defining event that tests their mettle; the time in which they shine; the opportunity they seize with cold calculation.

It can give strong leaders the impetus from which there is no turning back, weak leaders their rescue from ignominy.

The global communist threat and Vietnam War helped cement the Menzies era, the Falklands War recast Margaret Thatcher as the Iron Lady, September 11 and the “war on terror” gave George W. Bush an unlikely second term, and Tampa and 9/11 marked the rebirth of John Howard’s prime ministership.

For Tony Abbott, his seminal moment has come in the form of the horrific, surreal tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shot down over Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists.

That disaster in a faraway land, unspeakable as it was, was initially the kind of incident that might have merited a single statement of sympathy from the Prime Minister of Australia. But when it emerged that Australians died in this wanton act of mass murder – at latest count 37 – the tragedy in the distant wheat fields of Ukraine became our tragedy too.

In that instant, as Abbott spoke for all Australians in condemning the crime and its perpetrators, the chaotic, unseemly, inelegant, furiously fought politics of the past few weeks shrank from view, as if it had never been. As the first memorials and community vigils were held for those who perished, Australia was a hotbed of politics no more.

The travails of a deeply unpopular first-term government, Joe Hockey’s ruinous first budget, the circus surrounding the repeal of the carbon tax, the dysfunctional new Senate, the unruly and almost unworkable lower house under Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, the unpredictability of Clive Palmer, the mystery of the missing asylum seeker boat, foreign policy missteps, the Japanese military of WWII being lauded by our PM, a slew of under-performing ministers – all gone. In an instant. All that was missing was the puff of smoke and the magician’s curvaceous assistant.

MH17: the making of Tony Abbott?

Now it remains to be seen whether the downing of MH17 is the making – and possibly the remaking – of Tony Abbott. Or will it just be a suspension of the political soap opera which has sapped the forbearance of most Australians for almost a year.

It is right and proper at this time of tragedy that Abbott is not simply the leader of a political party. He is the Prime Minister who must speak for the nation, at home and on the world stage, at this time of sorrow. When he embraces the families of the victims and offers words of comfort, he does so for all of us.

But Abbott’s political problems have not gone away; they have just been put on hold.

What we see from Abbott, over the months ahead as the aftermath of the MH17 disaster unfolds, and beyond, will shape the rest of his term.

It will be interesting to see whether the tragedy in Ukraine gives him a different perspective as Prime Minister, as a leader.

As he berates the rebels and Russian President Vladimir Putin for their lack of humanity – for the murderous action itself and for the obstruction of the investigation – will it make him reflect on the charges of those who accuse him and his government of inhumane treatment of asylum seekers – especially the children? Or will it stiffen his resolve to maintain a hard line?

Will the emotionally charged experience of dealing with the MH17 horror and its aftermath cause Abbott to re-evaluate those domestic policies that hurt the poorest and most disadvantaged in our community?

Will it change his head-kicker approach to politics, will it prompt him to conduct himself more openly and honestly with the people, will it be taken as a personal opportunity to take stock?

Abbott has never been known for his self-awareness, but if he does possess any, he will recognise this moment of tragedy as an opportunity to rebuild his beleaguered prime ministership and the fortunes of his government – and one hopes the trust of the people who could not possibly hold government and politicians in lower esteem.

At some point, domestic politics will reassert itself and Abbott will once more be seen in the context of those politics.

Whether people come to see him in a new and more positive light – and indeed whether he sees himself in a new light – in the wake of the MH17 disaster may well determine whether “one-term-Tony” lives to fight another term after 2016.



Canberra wants to stop the boats, Bendigo wants to stop the mosques: this is what happens when leaders stop leading

Comments on social media reflect the shame and heartbreak that many Australians feel over the Abbott government’s hard-line asylum seeker policies: the inhumanity of Manus Island and Nauru detention centres; the intransigence and belligerence of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison; and most recently Tony Abbott’s egregious inducement of $10,000 for detention centre detainees to return to their countries of origin.

It’s not just the Abbott government that has maintained its rigid stance on asylum seekers.

The federal Labor caucus recently squibbed its chance to set right Australia’s internationally decried refugee policy when it voted against WA MP Melissa Parke’s motion to abandon offshore processing.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd didn’t want to be seen as soft on asylum seekers either. He devised the “PNG solution” on the eve of the 2013 election, vowing to send all future asylum seekers to PNG for resettlement. “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” said Rudd who three years earlier lamented that Australia’s asylum seeker policy would shift to the right under his successor Julia Gillard.

Under Gillard’s ill-conceived and unrealised East Timor and Malaysian “solutions” Labor’s asylum seeker policy did lurch to the right, but by the time Rudd returned to office last year, he declined to assert his much trumpeted Labor values.

To understand why Australia’s asylum seeker policy is so fixedly skewed on such an inhumane course, it’s necessary to return to the operative word in the opening paragraph: “many” Australians feel uncomfortable with Canberra’s treatment of refugees. But not most.

Since John Howard hit a rich electoral vein with his unabashed demonisation of asylum seekers, successive governments have dared not tamper (or Tampa) with his formula for political success. The deeply unpopular Howard government seemed set for defeat at the 2001 election, when along came the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa and its cargo of 438 refugees rescued from international waters.

Tampa’s captain Arne Rinnan was refused permission by the Howard government to land the refugees on Australian soil. Within days the government introduced the Border Protection Bill to lend legislative confirmation to action which had been condemned internationally, and devised the “Pacific Solution”, whereby asylum seekers would be sent to Nauru for processing.

Howard’s “border protection” mantra

Right on cue followed the September 11 terrorist bombings in the US – which the Howard government used as vindication for its tough stance on Tampa; and in October came the “Children Overboard” affair, with senior ministers falsely claiming that asylum seekers intercepted by the Navy near Christmas Island had thrown children overboard from their stricken vessel in order to be rescued and taken to Australia.

Howard knew that his “border protection” mantra had struck a chord and that public opinion was on his side. “These are people we do not want, people who throw their children overboard,” said Howard at his most un-prime ministerial.

Howard stuck to the theme in the lead up to the November election. During his campaign launch speech on 28 October 2001, he delivered this infamous line, since parroted by the Abbott government: “[W]e will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

These events are a black stain on Australian politics, but they accorded with the views of most Australians.

The Howard government won in a landslide, John Howard the warrior PM was born, and the template was set for asylum seeker policy in Australia: “illegal immigrants” and “queue jumpers” were demonised as potential terrorists and any political party soft on asylum seekers was decried as a danger to national security.

Australia’s inhumane policy on asylum seekers has bipartisan foundations: the Liberal National Coalition, despite some internal disquiet, is at home with its warlike posturing; and Labor, in particular Bill Shorten, is too afraid to show leadership on the issue.

This immovable stalemate – a connivance of political will and political cowardice – has led to the unspeakable suffering, anguish, mental deterioration, suicide and unlawful death of asylum seekers in faraway detention centres. While many Australians feel disquiet, even disgust, most are prepared to look the other way.

Australia has the policy it does on asylum seekers because focus groups and polls tell the major parties that they are in sync with popular opinion. Or it may be just a collective wink of the eye – Tony Abbott would understand that signal – but it gives the government the confidence to proceed with its inhumane policy.

There remains a strong thread of xenophobia, if not racism, that runs through the community. Witness the current highly organised protest against the building of a mosque in the Victorian regional city of Bendigo.

Bendigo: Australia on show

What began as a grassroots campaign has attracted the organisational and financial muscle of various right-wing and anti-Islamic groups from around Australia. The CEO of Restore Australia, Mike Holt, is unapologetic about his support for the Bendigo stop-the-mosque campaign: “They use the mosques as a centre for jihad. These things are not like the tea and coffee churches,” he told Fairfax Media.

These groups, and the Bendigo residents who support them, are the public face of the secret focus groups that stiffen the resolve of governments on asylum seekers. Rather than show leadership on the issue – as perhaps Malcolm Fraser or Paul Keating might do – Abbott and his immediate predecessors govern with an eye on the opinion polls.

And yet something seems amiss here. Walk down the street of any capital city or major regional centre – including Bendigo – and it seems impossible that Australia’s official response to asylum seekers could be so brutal.

Every colour, culture, creed and ethnicity is represented on the streets of Australia, which is rightly held up around the world as a model of multiculturalism. To see the peaceful harmony and vibrant co-existence of people in all their diversity on our streets and in our workplaces is to see Australia at its best.

But Australia’s relationship with diversity has never been straightforward. From the unambiguous racism that underpinned the White Australia policy to the tolerance (if not always embrace) of immigration which has given modern Australia its multicultural hue, ours has been an ambivalent relationship with race.

The gold rush era of the 1850s was an early example of multiculturalism in Australia, in which many races and creeds lived in harmony on the goldfields. Yet there was unspeakable racism and violence against Chinese gold diggers; and while African-Americans were welcome on the goldfields, Aborigines were being dispossessed and exterminated.

Between 1901 and 1939 the first large movements of non-British Europeans to Australia began. However, these mostly Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs and Poles were only reluctantly permitted entry as “white aliens”.  

Australia opened its doors, if not its arms, to large-scale European migration after WWII, but always on the understanding that these “new Australians” would leave their histories and cultures behind and assimilate with the predominant “British Australian” population.

A question of leadership

It was not until the Whitlam government (1972-1975) that immigration was celebrated, as a matter of government emphasis, for its diversity and cultural enrichment and it was the Fraser government (1975-1983) that formalised and entrenched multiculturalism as a feature of Australian life, including the infusion of other “races”.

As well as increasing Australia’s immigration intake, with an emphasis on Asian migration, Fraser took a humanitarian approach to the Vietnamese refugee crisis and permitted nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, including over 2000 “boat people”, to settle in Australia.

Fraser’s point has always been that if he had relied on popular opinion or focus groups neither his refugee policy nor his admission of large numbers of Vietnamese and other Asians to Australia would have occurred.

Which returns us to 2014 and Australia’s mean-hearted asylum seeker policy.

While the current policy may be in accord with the popular mood and racist attitudes – and not just of the white Anglo population – it does not excuse the absence of leadership on the issue. In fact, such leadership is all the more urgent.

The onus falls on our political (and community) leaders to respond with humanity and compassion to the refugee crisis. The primary issue is not how many refugees Australia can or should take, but how we treat those who seek refuge. And the responsibility falls on our political leaders to engage with the wider population not just on the issue of asylum seekers, but on matters of race, tolerance and harmony.

It may or may not cost taxpayers more to treat asylum seekers with decency, respect and compassion, but it is costing the soul of the nation dearly to lock these people in faraway detention centres and throw away the key by way of “sending a message” to other would-be asylum seekers.

But that is not the only message this policy is sending, as retiring Liberal senator Sue Boyce notes: ”I think the whole asylum seeker issue is…fraught with dog whistling.”

It is plainly too late to expect leadership from Tony Abbott on asylum seekers; he is more mindful of hanging on to whatever electoral support he still has than any desire to take a principled stand. And it is too much to expect Abbott, or Shorten, to visit Bendigo and urge residents to pull their heads in and show some decency towards fellow citizens who wish to build a place of worship in their community: they lack both the moral authority and political courage for such action.

Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating would have made the trip to Bendigo as prime ministers. They would have done so for reasons of symbolism, but also because they believed in a certain Australia and were prepared to stand up for it. They would have appealed to people’s best natures; they would have occupied a platform with Islamic and other community leaders; they would have spoken with vision and clarity about Australia as a vibrant, welcoming, open democracy.

That’s how much politics – and political leadership – has changed in Australia in such a short time.



Trolley tossers, mobile phone poseurs, security scares and frequent flyer snobs: just another day at the airport

There is no more pretentious a place than airports, and no greater snob than the frequent flyer, and airlines are only too willing to appeal to their egos – and wallets – with business class travel, special privileges and “exclusive” clubs.

Even Virgin has shed its egalitarian inclinations in pursuit of the business traveller. In recent years it has successfully grabbed market share from the struggling Qantas which not so long ago had a near monopoly on the lucrative frequent flyer market.

I’m an infrequent flyer these days, but when I do take to the skies I prefer to fly Virgin – Qantas’s corporate arrogance long ago lost my custom – but it’s with some sadness that I note that Virgin has picked up some of the Limping Kangaroo’s habits.

I was shocked recently to see how many passengers were shoe-horned into a 6.00am flight from Melbourne to Sydney. No longer the leg room that once acknowledged passengers as human rather than pinstriped cattle.

It’s just as well I chose to read the Financial Review rather The Australian because there is no way I would have been able to negotiate a broadsheet. Even a tabloid was a challenge: by the time I finished reading the paper it was an unruly ball not even fit for fish-and-chip wrapping.

As is my preference, I was sitting in the aisle seat. At one stage I attempted to retrieve my satchel from under the seat in front of me – and when I say in front of me, I mean in front of me. This took some time, and some manoeuvring, almost knocking the glasses off the man next to me, and causing him to elbow the man by the window seat. It was the airline equivalent of the Mexican wave, only with bruises.

I was so tightly packed into my seat that if I sneezed I would have punched myself in the nose.

That was in mob class. Presumably things were less fraught in business class. Passengers are considerably more relaxed at the front of the plane, and no wonder.

Virgin business class passengers, like their Qantas counterparts, “enjoy priority check-in, priority boarding and access to the Virgin Australia lounge”.

“Onboard, stretch out and relax in your luxurious leather seat. Start your flight with a complimentary newspaper and pre-flight drink, and in-flight enjoy premium food and beverages from our exclusive onboard Business Class menu designed by renowned Australian chef Luke Mangan.”

Red carpet treatment

Priority check-in lanes make me see red, and I’m not just referring to the swish carpets.

Business class passengers in a hurry to get to their seats bypass the regular queue at the departure lounges and get to walk down exclusive red carpets. Frequent flyers are always in a hurry; somehow a purposeful, brisk stride denotes importance. This excludes those who get to swan in from the airline club at the last minute; in this instance, it’s important to take your time and be seen to be a cut above the rest. It’s like the parade of the nobles at the opening of the British Parliament.

Even if I qualified for priority check-in, I would feel foolish poncing down a red carpet. And what is the advantage of the red carpet treatment anyway? Getting to your seat a few seconds before the economy schlubs? If airlines really valued their passengers, why should a favoured half-dozen walk down royal row, while the poor people and Collingwood supporters gather in an unseemly throng on the drab grey carpet?

Is it really so much to ask business-class worthies to wait in the same line as everyone else?

Regular air travellers are a breed apart and the airport is their stomping ground. You can see it in their smug, self-important demeanour. This is their world: trolley bags in tow, mobile phone permanently affixed to the ear. And they love airport ritual.

This is most evident when lining up at the security station, particularly at peak time. They take a peculiar pride in whipping off their belts, shoes, watches and cufflinks and ostentatiously placing them in the security tray.

And any greenhorn foolish enough to set off the alarm will earn themselves searing glares of disdain.

My travelling companion was unfortunate enough to bring the security assembly line to a halt as the officer at the x-ray screen announced an object in his travelling bag that could not be identified. A burly, obviously senior officer took the bag, placed it before my bemused friend, pulled out a toilet bag, and with exaggerated care removed an aerosol can of deodorant.

With a sombre and reproachful countenance he lectured the transgressor – who might as well have been wearing a t-shirt declaring “9/11 Rocks!” – that this was a banned item. My friend remonstrated that the item had passed airport security before. “That’s not possible,” said the stern officer, who appeared something of an aerosol himself. The deodorant was duly binned and a potential terrorist breach was averted as men without belts tut-tutted.

Theatre of the absurd

I find the airport security ritual offensive, demeaning and, above all else, pointless. Nobody believes that the elaborate screening makes flying safer, but for regular business travellers this theatre of the absurd, and their world-weary compliance, marks their status as seasoned travellers.

As I walked through the gantry in my new “airport friendly” shoes – can you believe there is such a thing? – I surveyed the suits like pigs at a trough retrieving their possessions, while others were busily putting their shoes and belts back on. Are we really winning the war on terror?

Security ceremonies observed, the chosen ones seem to spontaneously disappear into thin air to magically reappear at their airline club. The lesser beings, meanwhile, commence their journey, earnest of countenance, phones at the ready, mobile trolleys in tow, to the departure lounge, like a herd of wildebeest.

Negotiating those wretched trolleys – which we all know contain, at most, a David Jones catalogue and a banana – in airport peak-hour is a major undertaking. About the only positive I can attribute to this mayhem is that it does wonders for my Gene Kelly dance routines.

Most annoying are the Trolley Tossers who insist on dragging their banana-crates-on-wheels into the boarding queues. On this particular morning, as we inched towards our plane, I found myself on several occasions having to brake suddenly to avoid crashing into the trolley before me.

Finally, I accidently on purpose sank my “airport friendly” boot into the offending conveyance. When its owner turned to complain I challenged him, pointing at the trolley: “Do you mind?” Pride dictated that he waited a couple of more steps before assuming the enormous sacrifice of picking up his bag. My companion remarked: “You’re not a morning person, are you?”

The return flight to Melbourne that afternoon was equally trying for anyone impatient with modern air travel.

The plane was packed, the space cramped and the economy-class throng had lost its morning reserve. It was like being on the 6.00pm train to Frankston.

To my immediate left, across the aisle, a 30-something businessman was eating what I took to be a chicken wrap. The smell was unspeakable. How could someone even think of bringing such a festering abomination onto a plane? Why not allow passengers – or “guests” as Virgin prefers – to bring kerosene cookers and livestock on board?

Next to me on my right, in the middle seat, was a little man who bore a remarkable resemblance to Hans Moleman from The Simpsons. I wanted to take a closer look, but if I turned my head I would have planted a kiss on his desiccated forehead.

On the afternoon flight they served a snack of biscuits and cheese, which came in plastic packaging that must have been difficult to open because for the next 20 minutes the crinkling of plastic packaging, one of my favourite sounds, filled the plane.

I opted for a vodka and tonic and it was $10 well spent. I was prepared to go to $100 for that drink.

Hans Moleman obviously enjoyed his snack. The sound of his enjoyment was the only thing that could be heard above the packaging concerto. He devoured his fare with gusto. Imagine an electric saw cutting through a piece of timber and a stream of sawdust filling the air – that was Hans.

Alas, time did not allow for a second drink, but it was good to hear those words, “Welcome to Melbourne”. By the time we arrived on terra firma, my back was sore with economitus cripplitis and I was covered in Hans’ sawdust, but I didn’t care. I knew my next column had all but written itself. Happy flying.

And Virgin; don’t become another Qantas – a little respect for your passengers please. You can start by getting rid of that bloody priority-boarding nonsense.



No more tinkering around the edges: time for a royal commission into violence against women

When Julia Gillard announced the royal commission into child sex abuse in November 2012, it was a decisive and historic moment in the life of her troubled government, and long-overdue formal acknowledgement of the horrific suffering endured by thousands of defenceless children. The royal commission will be remembered as one of Gillard’s greatest legacies.

Like most royal commissions, this one had a somewhat ungainly title: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. But it makes sense. The commission isn’t just collecting harrowing stories – albeit an essential function; it is also “investigating how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse”.

Crucially, “It is the job of the Royal Commission to uncover where systems have failed to protect children so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”

Taking the lead of this landmark commission, it is time for another long overdue royal commission: a royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women.

On 17 May 2014, Victoria’s Leader of the Opposition, Daniel Andrews, announced that a Victorian Labor Government would establish a Royal Commission into Family Violence. This was a welcome call and reflected deep community unease over a spate of heartbreaking examples of this scourge.

But we need more, and Australian women in particular need more. Women are victims of unspeakable violence in the family home, but violence against women is a society-wide blight that seems deeply ingrained in our culture. Any inquiry must delve more deeply into violence against women, not just in the family home, and any response must be a national response.

I can anticipate the reaction to such a call; I might have made it myself once: why a royal commission into violence against women only? If such an inquiry were necessary, why not into violence against men and women?

Because the violence I have in mind is not random violence in which the gender of the victim is incidental. It is violence – sexual, physical, mental – which specifically targets women, committed through a sense of entitlement, superiority or right by some men.

It is violence (very often family violence) which considers women a possession, a spoil or prey. It is violence predicated on a sense of superiority, power and conquest. It is a violence as old as time itself, and which despite every progress by humankind, remains an evil undiminished.

Simply and only because they are women

Yes, anyone can walk down a dark, isolated street at night, jog through the park in the early hours of the morning, wait alone at a bus stop at dusk, or pass a mob of drunks in a club district, and be robbed, bashed or harried.

But only women are targeted simply and only because they are women.

Only women are subjected to assault and physical violence by male partners who feel this is a legitimate – even natural – expression of power, entitlement and manly authority. Only women face sexual harassment in the workplace because some men consider them available fruit; only women must fend off the unwanted advances of men who believe that buying them a drink or dinner entitles them to just reward; only women walk a lonely street or secluded pathway and wonder if this will be the night that a stranger will consider it his right to claim her body and possibly her life.

Women are enjoying unprecedented and overdue freedoms, opportunities and recognition. This is a testament to those feminist activists who over generations have demanded their rights, and also to the ability of societies to adapt to changing times and attitudes.

But women know there is much more to be done and that progress is often illusory; women know that entrenched attitudes, norms and laws that disadvantage them and them alone remain; women know that being a woman, even in 2014, is enough to expose them to danger.

The very fact that the unspeakable crime of rape persists to the extent that it does is society’s shame. That women continue to be victims of violence in the family home demonstrates that age-old power relationships remain undiminished and too little challenged. That women feel unsafe and vulnerable in a whole range of settings and circumstances that would not trouble a man reveal fundamental flaws in a society that considers itself refined, enlightened and fair-minded.

This is not a sudden and dramatic awakening of my inner feminist. The sisterhood and I have many points of disagreement, and on the corporate front I’ve written against boardroom quotas for women, “panel pledges” and the existence of the glass ceiling. But such matters are on the edges of this discussion.

Indeed, when a male CEO stands up and declares his support for the Panel Pledge – promising not to participate in any conference panel that does not include a woman – there are congratulations all round about the wonderful advances women are making in society.

“This is not the kind of society I want to live in”

But in the real world, too many women are finding that too little has changed.

When I hear of the latest Jill Meagher (the Melbourne woman who was raped and murdered, her final moments before meeting her predator captured on CCTV) or Rosie Batty (whose 11 year old son Luke was killed by her estranged husband), my heart breaks and I think, “This is not the kind of society I want to live in, it’s not the kind of society women should be living in: why are we letting these women down like this?”

Whenever one of these tragedies occur there’s a spontaneous community call for action and a flurry of activity ensues: governments vow to toughen sentences, police promise to overhaul internal processes, government departments appoint task forces to improve communication between agencies, newspapers launch campaigns.

But this is just tweaking around the edges, and somehow, no matter how genuine or well intentioned these responses are, nothing seems to change.

A national royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women is the best hope of achieving meaningful systemic change across all jurisdictions and instrumentalities. To adapt the wording quoted above, the job of the royal commission would be to “uncover where systems have failed to protect women so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”

It would hopefully make state and federal governments obsessed with “efficiency dividends” think twice before cutting funding for women’s shelters, community programs, police forces, judicial systems and legal aid services.

A modern, liberal and wealthy society such as Australia should find it intolerable that violence against women continues so endemically and habitually. Something is desperately wrong. We need to understand why violence against women occurs, how we as a society respond to it, and how we can more effectively act to stamp out this blight on our community, and in the meantime better protect those women who are its victims. Only a royal commission can place us on this path.



Business leaders who take part in Vinnies CEO Sleepout are more concerned with good PR than the growing homeless crisis

The St Vincent de Paul Society will hold its annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout on June 19. In capital cities around the nation, chief executives from business, government and the community will “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter”. The aim is to raise awareness of homelessness and to raise money to help the charity’s work with the homeless.

I acknowledge the good intentions of this event – which since its inception in 2006 has raised $13 million – but it is an event that causes me much unease.

St Vincent de Paul is to be saluted for its vital work in the community but who is not aware of the national shame that is Australia’s homelessness?

On the train into the city I can see bedding along the Yarra; and anyone who walks through the city will almost certainly strike the detritus of makeshift sleeping quarters on benches, in alcoves and on the street – never mind the growing number of destitute beggars on the streets. The other day I was dismayed to find bedding on the outskirts of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

We have all the awareness we need, thank you. Yet once a year around 1000 chief executives and other community leaders, “with only a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”, will pretend to be homeless for one night.

Last year, these worthies raised $5.3 million. Big deal. That’s an average of $5300 each. Almost everyone donning a beanie for the night will earn that in week – and then some.

Try as I might to see the best in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout, I find it crass and condescending. For many companies it has become an annual PR staple.

Participants could easily sign a cheque for such trifling amounts without their much-publicised “sacrifice”. For many of the business leaders who take part in this patronising gesture, the money raised is mere pocket money.

And when they emerge from their doubtless uncomfortable night, many will hop into their chauffeur-driven cars, luxury automobiles or family four-wheel-drives to be taken to the comfort and warmth of their homes (or hotels, for those who have travelled first-class from interstate). Unlike the marginalised Australians in whose name this event takes place, these self-satisfied campers have a home to go to.

All for a good cause: say “Cheese”

An email from the PR manager of a major company whose CEO was taking part for the first time could barely contain itself. The CEO, the flack explained, “wants to experience what it’s like on the streets and to be homeless”. Is that so.

“Over the coming weeks we will be taking a number of photo’s [sic] of [the CEO] in his [company-name] hoodie and [other executives] in their specially designed hoodies to promote the event. Collections will be held through [sic] Australia,” the release gushed.

“We also hope to take some shots on the night… Any help to promote this worthy cause would be appreciated.”

Sic – or sick – is right.

Not only are these business figures making heroes of themselves for sleeping in the open for one pathetic night, they’re adding insult to their condescension by dressing up as homeless people – in case we don’t know what they look like.

What especially grates is that by any casual observation the homelessness problem is getting worse, despite this bogus event. And given the unsettled economy, and the erosion of government services for the worst off in our community, we can expect to see (and very often not see) more people sleeping on streets, park benches and in their cars if they’ve not yet been repossessed.

I get what St Vincents is trying to, and in previous years when I’ve written about this I have been contacted by small business people who feel genuinely hurt by my observations and who insist that they simply want to do their bit. In which case they would be better off manning soup kitchens, handing out blankets and distributing food parcels. (A good friend of mine, IT journalist the late Malcolm Hudson, used to work in a kitchen serving hot meals on Christmas day for Melbourne’s poor and homeless.)

I don’t doubt the motives of some of those who take part (but for most others I very much do), but I cannot accept that this event is what’s best for Australia’s homeless. I have no doubt they would find this event – if they even know about it – patronising, superficial and insulting.

“The aim of the Vinnies CEO Sleepout is not only to raise funds, but raise awareness of homelessness. Our goal is not just to service the homeless, but to bring about an end to homelessness,” St Vincent de Paul states on its CEO Sleepout website.

With awareness like this …

But if it is succeeding in making the warm and fed more aware of homelessness, it doesn’t appear to be making us any more thoughtful towards them.

During the January heat wave the media reported that homeless people were being chased away from air-conditioned shopping centres seeking refuge from the oppressive conditions – even though many people with somewhere to live but without air-conditioning were doing exactly the same thing. Many homeless people also found themselves being ushered out of take-away food outlets, cinemas and public toilets by security staff, often acting on complaints from the public.

One “rough sleeper” told The Age that during the hot weather it became harder to maintain his sense of pride.

“[I]t’s not like you can jump in the shower and change your undies,” he said. “If I’m really on the nose people want to keep away from me. It does very little for my self-respect … and that’s pretty much all I have on the streets.”

Suburban thugs who roam city streets at night seem to be very much aware of the homeless, hunting them down in their makeshift digs to rob them, bash them and sometimes even murder them. (RIP homeless man Wayne ”Mousey” Perry who was fatally stabbed under a city railway bridge on the banks of the Yarra River in January.)

So, no, the Vinnies CEO Sleepout does nothing for me, other than cause me great unease.

Rather than photos of self-satisfied CEOs posing next to their pieces of cardboard, it would be far more heartening to hear from our leading chief executives what they are doing to stamp out the scourge of homelessness. What programs do the companies represented have in place to rehabilitate, employ and skill the most marginalised in our community?

Tell us about that – and some enlightened companies do have such stories to tell – and spare us the hollow claims of “sleeping rough”. We need to hear how wealthy executives and entrepreneurs are sharing their smarts and good fortune to improve society. We don’t need to see them aping the worst off and expecting a pat on the back for it.

To our business leaders, this entreaty: forget the camping. Just tell us how you are building a better, fairer society and you might inspire others to follow your lead.

That’s the sort of awareness we’re looking for.



One-Term Tony simply isn’t up to the job of PM: the man who should have been Sports Minister

Tony Abbott: personable, amiable, decent and generous behind the scenes, a nice bloke to have a beer with, a family man. Everybody says so. Tony Abbott: not much of a Prime Minister. Everybody says so.

Unfortunately, nobody is really surprised. Few voters, if any, were convinced that Abbott was PM material – even as they voted the Coalition into government. If ever a Prime Minister was elected against the better judgment of voters , Abbott is it. In the post-Menzies era, it can be argued with some conviction that Abbott is the only PM to have led his party to electoral victory without first establishing his bona fides as a potential Prime Minister.

Gorton, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd – whatever judgments may have been passed after the event, each was elected against a backdrop of anticipation, an understanding that each man represented an era in the making. By whatever measure they were understood to be leaders. They were up to and worthy of the office. (In different political circumstances, minority Prime Minister Julia Gillard might have made that list too.)

During the 2013 federal election, Abbott was praised for his discipline, for keeping his party of ragtag lightweights and ticking time bombs under control, for staying on message, for keeping gaffes to a minimum, for making himself a small target.

But such endorsements were all about winning an election; they had nothing to do with what he was capable of once he won that election.

There were no plaudits for Abbott’s policy vision, his credentials as a nation builder, his gifts as a unifier, or his skills as a leader who would bring out the best in his team, and indeed in all of us.

It took only one opinion poll after the election to reveal the unprecedented voters’ remorse at having made Tony Abbott Prime Minister; it took only one budget for his Ministers to be briefing journalists about the dog’s breakfast of a budget, the broken promises and the political ineptitude of a Prime Minister and his leadership group so out of sync with the mood of the electorate, and so infuriatingly oblivious to why voters are angry.

Memories of “mean and tricky” times

This government bears every hallmark – and then some – of the “mean and tricky” phase of the Howard government, as infamously described by then party president Shane Stone in an internal memo in early 2001. But the Abbott government won’t be saved by the Tampa affair or September 11 as Howard’s shaky government was. And whatever might be said of Howard and his opportunistic politics during this time, it’s also true that Howard came into his own as a leader after this period.

As for Abbott, perhaps he was hoping that his tough stance on asylum seekers – complete with a very visible role for the Australian Army, including the appointment of a three-star general to head Operation Sovereign Borders – would have the Howard effect on his prime ministership.

Like his hero Howard, Abbott has besmirched the nation with his vilification and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, but whatever political lift he was hoping to achieve from his stance, it hasn’t worked. The shambles and shame of the Manus Island detention centre; the violence, suffering and confusion that has bedevilled the centre from day one; and its impact on Australia’s relations with the region, reveal a government out of control and out of its depth.

But the true measure of this government – and the man who leads it – was laid bare with the handing down of Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget this week. With the leaky lead up to the budget, including the ideological theatrics of the Commission of Audit report, and the budget itself, the government was revealed in all its duplicity.

Broken promises, barefaced lies, bad policy, breathtaking arrogance and bereft of any coherent long-term plan for the nation, the Abbott government bears not the slightest resemblance to the government that was promised to Australians.

This from The Australian’s Paul Kelly, dated 18 September 2013, now reads like a priceless piece of satire:

“Tony Abbott has signalled a new style of Coalition government based on collaborative ties with business, a clearer set of priorities, less frenetic, more predictable and geared to stability, not fashion.

“For Abbott, the Rudd-Gillard years are his anti-model. He aspires to deliver what he calls ‘adult government’. … He is not interested in running an exciting, dramatic, high-expectations government, lurching into dysfunction and promising to improve every second aspect of your life.

“Abbott sees this style as immature and ineffective. In the end, he wants government to do less and people to do more. He believes the public is tired of Labor’s egoism, boasting and endless self-obsessions. Announcing his ministry, Abbott said the people wanted a government that was ‘upfront, speaks plainly and does the essentials well’. Decoded, this means cutting the spin, delivering his promises and getting the economy ticking in the teeth of rising unemployment.”

Calling Malcolm Turnbull?

The Abbott government is very much dysfunctional. It looks, feels and sounds like a tired and disoriented government struggling through its third term of office. But this government is still several months from its first year in office, and as things stand, shows every sign of being a one-term government.

Not that you would guess this from the arrogance on ready display in the government’s leadership circle. The photo of Hockey and his ever-present offsider, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, smoking cigars in the cold Canberra autumn air, on the eve of bringing down the toughest, meanest federal budget in living memory, said it all. And if that didn’t speak volumes enough, Christopher Pyne dropping the c-bomb in federal Parliament certainly did the trick.

The pity of Tony Abbott being the Prime Minister is that he would have made an excellent Minister for Sport – he has the Lycra for the job – or perhaps Minister for Administrative Services, or Special Minister of State Without Portfolio. Nothing too taxing, unlike his government.

No doubt the thought of more suitable portfolios has occurred to many of his colleagues, and one in particular.

There is only one person who can keep the Coalition in power after 2016 – threats by Abbott to incoming crossbench senators that he will call an early election if they do not respect his mandate are laughable – and that is Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull is in the right place, now he is just waiting for the right time. 

Sooner or later, Coalition MPs will have to confront that inevitable decision. If Abbott doesn’t get his act together, that will be sooner rather than later.


Canberra’s leadership vacuum provides an opportunity for business leaders who want to make a difference

As the Abbott government lays the foundations for deep cuts to services, welfare, health and education, in the name of ending “the age of entitlement”; as public policy becomes an incoherent and inconsistent torrent of media leaks, kite-flying and short-term political opportunism; and as trust in political leadership falls to all-time lows, the responsibility – and the opportunity – will increasingly fall on business to show leadership not just at the enterprise level, but more importantly, at the wider community level.

Today’s corporate leader has many responsibilities not borne – or given lip service only – by their predecessors, requiring skills, attributes, sensitivities and an ethos that has the potential to recast the corporate sector, create more profitable businesses, achieve greater community standing and set a new benchmark for leadership.

One reason that this responsibility falls on business leaders is because our political leadership has shown itself to be so inept, so insensitive, so unwilling to grasp the challenges that face Australia as a nation, as an economy and as a global citizen. Not since Paul Keating – or, if you prefer, John Howard in his prime – has Australia had leadership at the national level that inspires trust, confidence and respect.

What we have seen this week with the Commission of Audit and the government’s hairy-chested response was typical of the Canberra theatrics we have come to expect.

Tony Shepherd was chosen to head the commission precisely because he was going to deliver this blueprint. Well may the PM and his Treasurer nod sagely that this “independent” report confirms their worst fears about the economic mess left by the previous government. Australia needs visionary, credible government; instead we have a government that is still behaving like an opposition – scoring cheap political points while ostensibly dealing with a “budget emergency” that most economists say does not exist.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any immediate prospects for improvement in the quality of political leadership at the national level for at least a decade. If Tony Abbott retains the leadership, I believe he will lead the Coalition to a loss at the 2016 election. And Bill Shorten has failed to inspire as the alternative PM and has a battle on his hands to reform the Labor party, let alone the Australian economy.

So, here we are: a political impasse born of mediocrity, mendacity and mindless posturing at a time when, at the very least, there is the need for sound, disciplined economic management, but more urgently, medium- and long-term structural economic reform.

A failure of leadership

This dilemma – if not crisis – takes us back six years to the onset of the Global Financial Crisis. The GFC still casts a menacing shadow over the Australian economy and the Australian political scene.

The root cause of the GFC was a failure of leadership: lax corporate governance, arrogant CEOs, bloody-minded corporations, analysts focused on the short term, self-interested investors, and regulators who failed to supervise.

But in the past six years remarkably little has changed in policy or systemic terms that would prevent the GFC from occurring again. Almost certainly, there will be another financial meltdown that will take the global economy to the brink; almost certainly there will be another stock market collapse. There is a simple reason for this: in the end, you can’t regulate greed.

Government also can’t regulate against bad decisions, poor governance, half-witted incompetence, half-measures, ill-discipline or hubris – most especially its own, quite apart from the corporate sector’s.

Although there is broad consensus that the first Rudd government’s economic stimulus packages in the aftermath of the GFC were a critical factor in ensuring that Australia did not fall into recession, there is compelling argument that pumping billions of dollars into the economy in such a short time only delayed the inevitable economic slump: business closures, massive job losses, and whole industries, most notably manufacturing, deemed no longer viable.

The aftermath of the GFC gave new meaning to the expression “false economy”. Downturns have a purpose: to weed out poorly run companies and unsustainable businesses, and to provide opportunities for those companies willing to take risks, prepared to be innovative and to engage their workforce.

The absence of a clear recovery since the GFC has dulled the risk appetite of many companies. The ever-present prospect of the global economy slipping into another recession has many company leaders driving with one foot tapping the accelerator while the other is firmly planted on the brake – a bit like Volvo drivers.

Given more uncertainty ahead, companies have a choice: they can wait for a break in the gloom, or they can get a jump on their competitors and seize the moment. The time for swashbuckling CEOs may be over, but this is no time for diffident CEOs. As the likelihood grows of prolonged economic and political instability, waiting and seeing is not a viable strategy.

Many risk-averse companies are in danger of institutionalising a culture of caution in their organisations. This is making skittish employees even more nervous about their job security and financial prospects. It’s also making them angry.

Australian workplaces have never been angrier, particularly those who feel they did the right thing by their employers by sacrificing pay and conditions following the GFC.

Employees are feeling short-changed

Employees feel short-changed by employers that are continually gutting companies of resources through relentless cost-reduction, mass layoffs, placing careers on hold and keeping a tight rein on remuneration – all without any evidence of a plan or vision for the future. Employees feel they are under-valued and their contribution barely acknowledged as fewer employees take on greater responsibilities, while being kept in the dark by uncommunicative or mealy-mouthed managements.

The mood of workplaces has been unchanged since the GFC; what has changed is that workplaces are becoming smaller, and many are disappearing: Ford, GM Holden, Toyota, Alcoa’s Port Henry Smelter … and this week, iconic Australian manufacturer of bakehouse products Big Sister Foods. This economy really does take the cake.

It’s in this very volatile environment that Australians are crying out for strong leadership – they are looking for leadership not just in their own workplaces, but in their communities and across the nation. It’s a new kind of leadership that they are seeking and they have stopped looking to Canberra for it.

After the election of the Abbott government last year there was a momentary spike in voter confidence and consumer sentiment, but it took just the first opinion poll after the September election to reveal an unprecedented case of voters’ remorse, with Labor leading the Coalition in the two-party preferred vote: 52% to 48%.

According to the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 38% of the general population trust government but 49% trust business – hardly resounding, but still reassuring. The annual survey by public relations company Edelman publishes levels of trust within the general population as well as the “informed public”, which comprises university-educated, high-income Australians.

The survey found that Australians expect business to play a much bigger role around the debate and design of regulation: 73% of the informed public believes government should not work alone when setting policy. Although Tony Shepherd is probably not what they had in mind.

As Edelman explains, it has traditionally fallen under the remit of government to create the context for change, but today, and here I quote: “[P]eople expect businesses to play a bigger role in shaping a positive future, trusting business to innovate, unite and deliver…CEOs must now go beyond their operational remit to become chief engagement officers, educating the public about the context in which their business operates.”   

This trust in business is not-open ended. The survey found that size and ownership type of the business has a bearing on trust levels: 76% of Australians favour family-owned businesses, 67% small-to-medium businesses and less than half, 42%, big business – suggesting that CEOs from the big end of town still have some bridges to mend and reputations to heal.

A different kind of business leadership

But the opportunity is there for all business leaders who want to make a difference – both to their businesses, and more broadly in the community.

The leaders who will excel in this environment will have the ability to inspire confidence and trust – not just in their employees, but among all stakeholders. They must demonstrate not only technical leadership, but personal leadership as well.

The leaders who stand out in this economy will no longer take their consumers for granted; they will rethink the role of customer service and make the customer a genuine partner in growth. Leaders with an eye to the future will invest in the training and development of their rising talent. Tomorrow’s leaders also care about the society they and their employees live in.

The characteristics of successful business leadership could not be further removed from the macho management style of yesterday’s hero-CEO typified by the legendary Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric in the United States, who in the 1980s and 1990s was the template for the corporate CEO.

Today’s business leaders have a very different environment in which they must operate. It is now understood that employee engagement is a key motivator of end-of-year results.

Employees’ expectations for recognition and inclusiveness have radically changed the way managers and employees interact in the workplace – at least in successful organisations. This has put managers and leaders under more pressure to develop a more communicative style of management.

Employee surveys find again and again that the biggest contributor to employee disengagement is disaffection with non-communicative, unresponsive line managers. Disengaged employees often feel they are not valued or understood, they don’t feel part of the decision-making processes and they resent not receiving regular feedback from their immediate manager. This disaffection is heightened when elaborate HR policies state that these things should be happening as a matter of course.

Whether it’s C-suite executives or line managers, technical skills are no longer enough. Employees respond to managers and leaders who are inspirational, empathetic, good communicators and even better listeners. Managers have to be able to communicate with their employees that the role they play in the company is important and that their contribution is valued.

Employees want to understand the vision and values of the organisation they work for and they want to be active participants on the journey towards those goals.

People want to work for a company that has heart, they expect that a company will treat its people fairly, they expect an organisation to have meaning and purpose for them as individuals but also for the community, the environment and even the world. They want leaders who stand for something; who live their values in the workplace and they way they conduct themselves externally.

The ‘Productivity Secret Weapon’

If employees do not have these things in their workplaces, they will leave first chance they get.

The World of Work report by recruitment firm Randstad found that 56% of employees began 2013 with the intention of changing employer. But even if employees are unable to realise that ambition, it’s obvious that they will not be giving their present employer their absolute best. Productivity is often seen in terms of labour laws, the cost of labour and overbearing unions – but successful organisations understand that a well managed workplace, and a happy workforce, is the Productivity Secret Weapon.       

In addition to all the usual functional and technical skills, today’s leader requires many personal – or “soft” – skills, as well as the attributes of agility, adaptability, innovation, experimentation, and they have to have the foresight and nerve to identify and act on opportunities in a rapidly changing marketplace.

These are skills most often associated with entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are instinctively closer to their customers and employees; closer to their markets; they are better communicators and recognise the benefits of being so; they’re innovative; they have passion but they’re also canny; and innovation is their lifeblood. Increasingly, corporate CEOs are recognising the benefits of possessing these entrepreneurial qualities.

There’s more to being a modern business leader than a balance sheet – but there will always be a balance sheet. For anyone in business, what’s important are the values, the vision, the purpose and the ethos that motivates, inspires and engages at a personal and organisational level.

Today’s business leader is a leader beyond the confines of the enterprise. Whether it’s through personal motivation, social responsibility or a sense of good business practice, business, more than ever, is about doing the right thing.

It is a pity that this message is not getting through to Canberra. 

This is an edited extract of my speech to the Woodpeckers Club business lunch in Melbourne on Friday 2 May.