Kings Cross rapist Luke Lazarus was sent to prison for just 3 years: when are we going to get serious about this most horrific of crimes against women?

Convicted rapist Luke Lazarus, the son of a Sydney nightclub owner, was recently sentenced to a maximum of five years’ gaol for raping a teenage girl in a Kings Cross alley. Lazarus will be eligible for release after just three years. When a convicted rapist is sentenced to three to five years’ gaol, something is very, very wrong.

This is not another “tough on crime” tub-thump. This is specifically about rape and how it is viewed by society. What the Lazarus case demonstrated with unmistakable clarity is society’s untroubled view of rape; a view which neither accords with the horror of the crime, nor with the shameful reality that women continue to be preyed upon by men as a matter of entitlement and power lust.

The refusal to confront the horror and prevalence of rape is in great part a gender issue, a manifestation of some men’s ingrained view of women. It is also a much wider social and cultural issue. Men who have a less than enlightened view of women are given sanction by social and cultural norms that remain tolerant of aggressive male behaviour towards women.

The continued endemic incidence of rape is a manifestation of a society that – irrespective of whatever progress has been made towards equality of the sexes – condones a level of risk that women must endure simply and precisely because they are women. That is, there is a price attached to being a woman, which can be an ostensibly benign wolf-whistle at one end of the spectrum, and rape (and murder) at the other extreme.

We know that society is sickened by rape-murder cases. Recent incidents, which need not be reprised here, galvanise communities in grief, sorrow and even guilt like few other crimes of savagery do. But when it comes to rape itself, somehow a completely different set of values applies.

There was upset expressed when a stand-up comedian recently made a joke about rape, but it came to no more than a social media brush fire, with arguments for and against the comedian’s right to tell the joke (such as it was).

In the 1960s comedians could tell jokes about rape without raising a murmur; casual references to rape would feature in TV and film dialogue with impunity. In these instances “rape” is used as another word for “sex”, albeit understood to be forceful or meeting with resistance, but ultimately framed in the self-serving mythology that “no really means yes”. Such sanguine references to rape carry the understanding that women deserve and/or come to enjoy it.

The use of the word “rape” in its sanitised form, and the stylised depiction of it, has hardly disappeared. It is still to be found in all forms of popular culture: in film, music and advertising, on television and social media, and comedians’ routines. Since the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s, however, it’s more likely to meet with condemnation when it is encountered. Hopefully by men and women. I still hear the word used in the most cavalier – and blokey – way and it shocks me.

A failure to confront the horror of rape

Feminist theory calls this “rape culture”, a social conditioning or normalisation of rape perpetuated by language, stereotyped gender roles and male attitudes towards women, and the popular portrayal of women. But it doesn’t require feminist dogma to understand that as a society we have yet to fully confront the horror and prevalence of rape, which brings us back to the Luke Lazarus case.

Lazarus, 23, was in his father’s King Cross night club, the Soho, in the early hours of the morning, when he approached the 18-year-old woman on the dance floor, told her he owned the club and invited her to the VIP area. He led her outside – she willingly accompanied Lazarus – and they kissed. At this point the woman said she wanted to return to her friend inside, whereupon Lazarus pulled her stockings and skirt down, ignored a second plea to be allowed to leave, and ordered the terrified woman to “Put your fucking hands on the wall.” (Try to imagine the overwhelming terror felt by the young woman at this point, alone and in a dark alley.) Lazarus then told her to get on her hands and knees and ordered her to “arch your back”. He then anally raped her, deaf to her plea that she was a virgin. The ordeal lasted around 10 minutes. The next day Lazarus would boast to a friend by text message that he “took a chick’s virginity”.

District Court Judge Sarah Huggett described the attack as “spontaneous and opportunistic”. Opportunistic I can begin to understand, but spontaneous? I find it difficult to fathom rape as a spontaneous act; it strikes me as a very deliberate, calculated and debased assault. It is an act that reeks of power, entitlement and callous indifference. Lazarus claimed the woman was a willing participant because she didn’t physically resist or scream. “I still 100% state that I believe everything that happened on that night was consensual.” The traditional defence: she wanted it.

Judge Huggett dealt forcefully with that canard: “She [the victim] had the right to go to Kings Cross, to be intoxicated, to kiss a man. She also had the right to say she wanted to return to her friend. The offender ignored that.”

The Lazarus case underlines that sentences imposed on convicted rapists – or available to judges – are too lenient and wholly at odds with the horror of this vicious crime. Can there be a more debased and destructive assault on someone that stops so short of taking that person’s life? As the victim said in this case: “A part of me died that day.”

It simply should not be possible for a convicted rapist to be sentenced to 3-5 years. Such a sentence says to society that rape, while serious, is just an inevitable part of life. “What are you gonna do? Boys will be boys.”

At the sentencing hearing references were heard in support of Lazarus’ “good character” and urging the judge not to impose a custodial sentence. These testimonials likewise reflected society’s ambivalent attitude towards rape.

Can a rapist be of good character?

These were leading citizens who spoke for Lazarus: Waverley Mayor Sally Betts, the secretary of the Consulate-General of Greece in Brisbane Tsambico Athanasas, Bank of Sydney chairman Nick Pappas and Greek Orthodox parish priest Fr Gerasimos Koutsouras.

But it is precisely because of the standing and good reputation of these community leaders that the impact of their testimonials gives cause for concern.

Their comments were doubtlessly made in good faith and with evident affection for Lazarus and his family. But in speaking for Lazarus in such high terms they, however inadvertently, undermined the suffering and torment of the victim, and the gravity of the crime itself.

Ms Betts urged Judge Huggett not to gaol Lazarus. “The conviction is inconsistent with the gentle, well mannered and respectful young man that I know.” Quite apart from the obvious that she plainly did not know him as well as she thought, one can only wonder what the mayor’s female constituency made of her plea that a convicted rapist be spared a prison sentence.

Fr Koutsouras declared: “The possibility of imprisonment is completely undeserved for this promising young man.” It is hard to fathom that a man of God would state a belief that imprisonment is “undeserved” in the case of a convicted rapist.

Dr Pappas, a lawyer and respected businessman, said of Lazarus: “I have always observed him to be a respectful, courteous and obliging young man who has, on my observation, never displayed even a hint of unlawfulness in his conduct.”

The conviction, of course, reflected not the pious Lazarus that his referees had occasion to know, but the swaggering rapist who on 12 May 2013 committed an act of utter depravity on an 18 year old girl whose life will never be the same again.

At issue is not the integrity or honour of these community leaders called on to speak for the reputation of Luke Lazarus. The issue is that in doing so they have sent out ambivalent signals about rape as a serious crime.

Why the justice system even permits this roll call of testimonials in the case of rape is beyond understanding. This is not the robbery of a 7-11 convenience store. This is about an angry, aggressive and arrogant young man who felt entitled to defile a young woman he had plucked from the dance floor with that very intention.

Given that a conviction has been made, having leading citizens speak glowingly of the convicted rapist is in effect, however unintentionally, saying to the victim: “Sorry about that little fracas at the Soho, but Luke is really a good kid.”

Those who spoke for Lazarus would have done well to consider that their words may have brought comfort to his family, but also hurt and insult to the family of the victim. They will have caused confusion and anger in the community, and in some cases given succour to those men of who might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Rape is not only a crime against one individual, it is a crime against all women, and it is a crime against society.

Sentences for rape should reflect the depravity and life-long impact of the crime; they should send a message loud and clear that there are no grey areas when it comes to rape.

The sentencing process, where such testimonials are permitted, should reflect on the hurt such glowing tributes bring to the victim, and the message they send out to the community. Those who would speak glowingly of convicted rapists may wish to reflect on the wider impact of their statements.

As for the self-pitying Lazarus: “My life, at least in Australia, has been completely destroyed and now I have to live the rest of my life knowing every single person in Australia, or at least Sydney, knows I have been convicted of a sex offence.”

Not just “a sex offence”, mate. Rape.

Was Miriam Margolyes right that people don’t like Jews? We need to talk about anti-Semitism

On the ABC’s Q&A program recently, actress Miriam Margolyes, not known for her reserve, made two incendiary remarks that instantly set social media alight and provided plenty of fuel for heated office-corridor discussion the next morning.

One pithy remark was in response to a question from the audience, near the end of the program, about her views of Tony Abbott. “I think he’s a tit,” she said with exquisite diction and lethal precision. The audience was in disbelieving but approving uproar.

But Margolyes’ comment of deeper significance and lasting reverberation was on the subject of anti-Semitism, a subject often considered too sensitive for robust debate or frank assessment.

As a questioner from the audience pointed out, racist attacks against Jews do not seem to elicit the same kind of spontaneous sympathy and support for Muslim Australians in the wake of the Martin Place siege in January, which gave rise to the #illridewithyou social media campaign.

For Margolyes – a British-born Jew, now an Australian citizen – there was only one response:

“People don’t like Jews. It’s not comfortable to say that and it’s not comfortable to hear it, but I believe it to be true.

“After the Holocaust it was not fashionable or possible to be anti-Semitic…but because of the actions of the state of Israel and the appalling treatment of the Israelis towards the Palestinians, and the settlements that have been built in contravention of the United Nation’s rulings, and the support that has been given by American Jews and Australian Jews to what is going on in Israel, anti-Semitism has again reared its horrific, ugly head and anti-Semitism is as unacceptable as anti-Muslim feeling.”

It was a controversial sentiment, but it’s one that many Australians would agree with. However, it’s not the kind of sentiment to be expressed in polite society. But is Margolyes right: are the actions of Israel the reason for the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world, including Australia? (So great in Europe that Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has urged European Jews to emigrate to Israel. “The State of Israel is your home,” he says.)

It is true that opposition to Israel’s stance in relation to Palestine has galvanised growing and increasingly strident support for Palestinian statehood and condemnation of Israel. But that’s more likely to be the subject of blogs, scholarly articles and newspaper opinion pieces.

At the risk of sounding elitist, the intricacies of the intractable Israel-Palestine standoff are unlikely to be the catalyst for the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, the outpourings of searing anti-Semitic invective directed at anyone going about their business simply because they are wearing a yamaka or a fedora hat, the bullying of school children, and the cowardly assaults.

A problem that Australians prefer not to talk about

At least Australia has been spared the menacing fascist street marches that are now almost commonplace across Europe.

But that is not to say that anti-Semitism is not a problem in Australia, albeit a problem that many Australians deny, or simply prefer not to talk about. There will be self-conscious remarks about the old-money Melbourne Club not permitting Jewish members – a claim the club vehemently denies by pointing out the names of prominent Jewish members – but it’s a touchy subject nonetheless.

A Melbourne businessman and prominent Liberal Party identity once told me that he deliberately chose not to join the Melbourne Club for that reason.

“Behind the closed doors, the old Melbourne Club view of the world is that you don’t promote Jews, you don’t socialise with Jews. The way I express my disapproval of this is by not joining the Melbourne Club and not being seen at the Melbourne Club, and a lot of people like me, who have Jewish friends, think in exactly the same way.”

Even so, this normally outspoken individual declined to put his name to the comment.

But sometimes a controversy will emerge that makes it impossible to look the other way in the face of blatant anti-Semitism.

In 1998, as a staff writer on The Bulletin magazine, I covered the explosive “Gutnick tapes”, the revelation of taped telephone conversations between employees and clients of the venerable stockbroking firm JB Were & Son which exposed a series of offensive remarks about Melbourne businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

The tapes came to light when they were played during a Melbourne insider trading trial. Gutnick refused to let the matter drop and secured a formal apology to himself and the Jewish community. Oddly enough, Gutnick was criticised for making a bigger issue of the tapes than it needed to be – including by fellow Jews – but as Gutnick told me, there was an important principle at stake:

“If you don’t fight language like that, it goes further. We live in a golden era with regard to tolerance, but in times of economic turmoil, anything can happen. The lesson to others, not only regarding anti-Semitic remarks, but any type of racial vilification, is that it won’t be tolerated in business.”

When I was writing that story, which included interviews with several Jewish community leaders and prominent Jewish businessmen and women, I was sympathetic but professionally dispassionate. I was, however, very moved, when I wrote a sidebar to the story which involved the reaction of a young Jewish manager to the tapes controversy.

‘Those boys didn’t speak to me again’

He told me that the incident reminded him of his schooldays and he recounted this story:

“In 1985 I was playing cricket at a Scotch College cricket camp. During the first few days I was mixing with a group of boys I’d met for the first time. On the third day of the camp, I mentioned that I played cricket for [the Jewish cricket club] Ajax. Those boys didn’t speak to me again for the next three days and I was taunted on the field whenever we played. It upset me that kids could have that attitude, and it still does when I think back.”

It was a conundrum for me then and it remains so today: what is it about being “a Jew” that stirs up such venom in non-Jews? Why would an Australian boy, who happens to be Jewish, find himself the victim of centuries-old hatreds, in a young country that couldn’t be more removed from the dark and blighted histories of pogroms, displacement, systematic discrimination and genocide?

This is where Margolyes’ proposition falls short: anti-Semitism is a constant through the ages that defies rational explanation and is connected to no one event.

In the 1980s I was a journalist at Peter Isaacson Publications, at the time the largest independent publisher of business titles. The urbane and modest Peter Isaacson was – and is – a war hero (he was a World War II fighter pilot, flew dangerous missions over Nazi Germany, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and on his return to Australia flew his Lancaster bomber, Q for Queenie, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge) and a media trailblazer. Last year he was inducted into the Media Hall of Fame.

Working for Peter remains a defining time in my career. I was only a few years into journalism when he appointed me editor, at age 26, of one of his national publications that set me on my way as a business journalist.

I really didn’t think about it then, but it would horrify me to think that anyone would see Peter first and foremost as being Jewish. Peter is a proud Jewish community leader, but he is so much more. And Peter himself, whether in his workplace, or anywhere else, could not abide any behaviour that smacked of intolerance, racism or discrimination.

In 2002, Isaacson had a very public stoush with then editor of the Crikey site, Stephen Mayne, over an article in Crikey which he felt had gratuitously referred to Larry Adler and Louis Moss as “Hungarian Jews”.

“I do not care whether you publish this letter or not. It is a protest about your unnecessary identification of the religion of Larry Adler and Moss as Jewish,” he wrote.

‘He’s a Jew you know’

“I do not recall, in the two years I have subscribed to Crikey, of reading the religious identification of any Anglicans or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics or Plymouth Brethren or any of the multitude of other religions. Why specifically identify those whose religion is Judaism or any other religion UNLESS the identification has a bearing on the report? What you have done is to disregard one of the prime ethics of journalism.”

A clearly very angry Isaacson demanded that Mayne instruct his editorial staff ”not to use a person’s race, colour, creed or sexuality as an identifier UNLESS such use is imperative to the meaning of the story”.

I get where Isaacson was coming from, because I know people who, when referring to someone who happens to be Jewish, feel they must identify him as such, irrespective of the context. A friend of mine has this habit: “I worked with Max a few years ago – he’s a Jew – and he was a bloody good salesman…” When I take issue with him his riposte is always: “Well, it seems you’re the one who has a problem with him being Jewish.”

Is my mate anti-Semitic? Probably not. Maybe. Who knows? But what is it about being Jewish that it cannot go unremarked? Is it a harmless cultural tic, or does it signify something deeper?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently reflected on the death of four Jews in the Paris kosher supermarket during the murderous “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist rampage in January and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“In the long and blood-soaked history of Europe’s Jews, the death of four more in a Parisian kosher market is, at best, a footnote. But they were not the accidental victims of the terrorists’ wrath, not just merely in the way or in the line of fire. They were singled out for who they were and not for what they had done,” he writes. “They were killed for being Jews.”

The terrifying aspect of anti-Semitism is that from this volatile well of ancient hatreds, which has irrationally and inexplicably transported itself to one of the youngest nations on Earth, Australia, some similar horror might easily emerge.

In these times of dread and uncertainty – unnecessarily fanned by opportunistic politicians and excitable commentators – who would blame those Jews who fear what the darkest minds among us may be capable of? Who would blame those Jews who toss those words around and around in their minds: “They were killed for being Jews.”

No wonder that for some Jews even the relatively innocuous – whether it’s the insults of a racist stockbroker or gratuitous references to someone being Jewish – casts such menacing shadows.

There are no answers here. Perhaps many more questions need to be asked. Certainly some frank discussions need to take place. Just because we’re too uncomfortable to talk about anti-Semitism doesn’t mean it hasn’t set deep roots in our society. And a little empathy and understanding wouldn’t go astray.

We can’t will anti-Semitism away. We know it’s not that simple. But perhaps we can make a promise to our better selves that no matter what trials and challenges lay ahead, no one will be singled out for who they are.

Whoever leads the government at the next election, it’s time for Bill Shorten to show he has what it takes to be PM

Bill Shorten has been wise to stay clear of the Abbott government’s leadership agonies. Tony Abbott, often derided for behaving as if he is still Opposition Leader, seems to be doing Shorten’s job as well. But Shorten cannot continue to rely on the imploding Abbott government.

Abbott survived this week’s leadership spill motion 61-39: that’s hardly a rousing victory. Ministerial solidarity saved the Prime Minister – which makes you wonder just what level of ineptitude it would take for Ministers to be guided by the national interest. Even so, Tony Abbott will not be able to rely on that solidarity a second time. He is now on notice that Malcolm Turnbull is waiting in the wings.

For Bill Shorten, it’s time to move from the sidelines and get back into the fray. It’s time – well time – for Shorten to demonstrate his credentials as Australia’s alternative Prime Minister.

He is almost certainly right to believe that facing Abbott at the 2016 election is the best chance he has of leading Labor back to power and securing for himself the prime ministership. But winning by default, as Tony Abbott did in 2013, is neither the key to good government nor to restoring Australians’ eroded trust in the institutions of power.

Bill Shorten owes Australians a blueprint for the nation in these critical times of post-GFC economic volatility. Many families are concerned about their financial wellbeing; many Australians are concerned about job security, and for too many unemployed, of ever working again; consumers are nervous and business is increasingly pessimistic about future prospects.

Shorten has made statements about what he will not do: he won’t place added pressures on the weakest and most disadvantaged in the community; he won’t deregulate the university sector; he won’t dismantle Australia’s universal healthcare system. These are welcome commitments, but now Australians need to hear what Shorten would do as Prime Minister.

Australia needs solutions to many fundamental problems, problems which are clearly beyond the wit of the current government.

There is a long list of serious challenges which require vision, a coherent strategy and public policy sophistication, none of which has been present in this government. Nor do the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, of which Shorten was a member, stand close scrutiny on many of these challenges.

A long list of serious challenges

Australia faces many problems; let’s go through some of them.

An ageing population for which little provision has been made, and for that matter a rising population for which there has been even less planning.

Our health system is rightly the envy of the world, but it requires resetting for the challenges ahead. So does our education system, from schools, to higher education to vocational education and training.

The Australian economy is vastly changed, and faces even more profound change in the years ahead as whole industries restructure and even disappear under the weight of global competitive pressures, rapid advances in technology and shifting consumer behaviour. Labor squibbed reform of Australia’s ramshackle taxation system when it was last in power; Australia cannot afford not to undertake such vital and long overdue reform.

The depletion of vital funding that will keep Australian scientific research and innovation at the forefront of the world’s best is at crisis point and a national disgrace.

Australia needs to regain its place as a valued and respected member of the international community. Turning the global refugee crisis into a zero sum game for domestic political gain has dehumanised us as much as it degrades those stateless men, women and children who are fleeing oppression, torture and in many cases certain death. We cannot take all who would seek a place in this country, but that is no excuse for Australia to turn its back on these people and to place unreasonable pressure on inadequately resourced regional neighbours to shoulder a burden that is ours to bear.

Climate change, “the great moral challenge of our generation”, has all but become a political no-go zone – can there be a greater abrogation of leadership than reducing this crisis unfolding before our eyes to a matter of seats won and lost?

The fabric of the nation also needs urgent attention; whether it’s cultural diversity, religious and racial cohesion, women’s rights and inclusion, government has a critical, and under this government mostly neglected, role to play.

Bill Shorten, and Labor under his leadership, must confront these and many other issues. It seems an inexhaustible list of issues awaiting attention in very great part because of political inaction by both major parties.

Some issues cannot wait: true and proper reconciliation with the First Australians. Others must at least be put on the political agenda, such as reform of Australia’s creaking federation and system of government, including further consideration of the Republic.

It is simply not acceptable for Shorten to give himself the added insurance of not upsetting the prospect of certain victory by withholding a detailed plan to voters well ahead of the next election.

A generation of mediocre government

The blight of “small target” election campaigns has condemned Australia to a generation of mediocre government and mealy-mouthed sloganeering that masquerades as political leadership.

Shorten must repudiate the debased and deeply flawed modern political wisdom that being honest with the voters is a sure route to political oblivion.

Australia needs a plan, and Australians sorely want their trust in political leaders restored. Tony Abbott promised he was going to do just that. Instead, Abbott is a politician clearly out of his depth, as is his government, the most flawed, inept and duplicitous in the post-Menzies era.

If the challenges facing Australia were not so serious, it might well be enough that Bill Shorten is not Tony Abbott. But that is not the case.

Shorten needs to convince Australians now that not only is he committed to good government, but he has a gameplan that will drive his government. It is essential that he produce such a manifesto even if he is to face Abbott at the next election, and doubly so if, as is more likely, Malcolm Turnbull, in which case a one-term Coalition government is not such a certainty.

When Tony Abbott won office in 2013 it was despite Australians not being convinced that he was PM material. Which is why from the first opinion poll after winning office, voters expressed their remorse with an unprecedented repudiation of their choice. Voter dissatisfaction with Abbott and his government has been the one constant of this most chaotic, dysfunctional and arrogant of governments – as writ large in Victorian and Queensland state elections.

At this stage, voters are no more convinced that Shorten is PM material. The task of convincing voters that he is deserving of the highest elected office in the land, whether he is assured of it or not, must start now.

Shorten’s parliamentary performance during the Opposition’s no confidence motion in the Prime Minister immediately following the aborted leadership spill was a masterful and too rare performance. It was a speech coherent, articulate and withering, highlighting with pinpoint accuracy the government’s flaws, setting clear points of difference between Labor and the Coalition, and for once, none of his trademark lead-weighted zingers. Instead, humorous and well phrased barbs found their mark and energised the Labor benches. Tellingly, Shorten also had Turnbull in his sights, letting it be known that he was ready to face him if that’s where the political cards should fall.

Parliament still matters – and should matter. It’s the forum that provides the best insight into the men and women who would govern the nation.

From Shorten we need to see more such performances. A strong Opposition holds governments to account, and provides voters with a viable alternative come election time.

But more than performances, we need from Shorten his plan, his party’s plan, for Australia. A plan not just for the next three years, but for the next 30 years.

Let’s hear about the Australia that a would-be Shorten government believes in and will work towards. Let’s hear how a Shorten government will restore Australia’s shaken faith in Canberra. Let’s see more of the men and women on Shorten’s frontbench that would form government in 2016.

It’s time for Shorten to start thinking and behaving like the alternative Prime Minister. No silly zingers (Shaun Micallef won’t like it, but he’ll move on), no dad jokes, no unconvincing theatrics.

The government will sooner or later sort out its leadership issues. That’s none of Shorten’s concern. Whether it’s Abbott, Turnbull or anyone else, Bill Shorten has one life-defining task before him: to convince the people of Australia that he deserves to be the next Prime Minister. To date, voters have been given very little reason for believing that is the case.

Whether he does become the next PM is, of course, up to voters. But what voters want, more than anything, is to go to the polls in 2016 with two worthy alternatives to choose from. That’s one immediate contribution that Shorten can make to public life.

Bill Shorten: your time starts now.

From the chants of the #JeSuisCharlie marchers to the cant of Abbott’s charlies the word is “freedom”

It is the stuff of history. On Sunday, 11 January, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Paris – 3.7 million marched nationally – in a show of solidarity and defiance following the three days of jihadist terror that traumatised the French capital and horrified the world.

Paris has a long history of mass rallies and on Sunday its denizens came out in force, in tribute to the 17 dead, unbowed in the face of terror, united in their embrace of the democratic and social values they hold sacred – and which the jihadists repudiate.

Along the procession could be heard the ardent cries of “Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood!”, the spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and tearful expressions of pride in “the Republic” – this was a nation celebrating its past and girding itself for whatever lies ahead.

The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 dead, shocked because of its cold-blooded depravity and the ease with which the executions were carried out. But for the French, there was also a principle at stake: freedom of expression, a value as old as the revolution itself.

Charlie Hebdo was struck because it had dared – pointedly dared – to run satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, raising the ire of radical Islamists who took their bloody revenge on Wednesday 7 January. (There are no taboos at Charlie Hebdo; it spares no religion, no public official, from its biting satire.)

The immediate international response of horror and solidarity on social media was to adopt the hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – with 5 million tweets carrying #JeSuisCharlie in three days. The Western world became as one in defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

On Wednesday 14 January, exactly one week after the Charlie Hebdo slayings, the surviving members of the magazine produced a defiant edition of the magazine featuring, of course, the Prophet Muhammed on the cover, weeping, holding a Je Suis Charlie sign under the banner heading “All is forgiven”.

In deference to the worldwide show of support for Charlie Hebdo and its ideals, 3 million copies of the post-massacre issue were printed, compared to the usual 60,000.

The sting in the tail of the Charlie Hebdo rally that wended its way through Paris – led by 40 world leaders – is that the spirited show of unity masked a hard truth that in the light of day must now be confronted: France is a nation torn. The Paris march, and others throughout the country, was an affirmation of France’s resolve to overcome its internal divisions to fight the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism. That now remains to be seen.

World leaders march for freedom of the press

It is a great shame that in this cathartic moment of national mourning – but also a rousing show of defiance – that the values underpinning the march were mocked by the presence of world leaders who were abusers or fell well short of the values and virtues that the marchers were defending.

For Australians, it was a point of particular affront that among the leaders defending freedom of the press was Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in whose gaols Australian journalist Peter Greste (along with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues) has languished for over a year.

Reporters Without Borders expressed outrage at the presence of “predators of press freedom”, singling out leaders from Egypt, Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, “countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted”.

American author and journalist Jeremy Scahill was scathing of the “circus of hypocrisy”:

“[E]very single one of those heads of state or representatives of governments there have waged their own wars against journalists.

“Blasphemy is considered a crime in Ireland. You had multiple African and Arab leaders whose own countries right now have scores of journalists in prison. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel has targeted for killing numerous journalists who have reported on the Palestinian side, have kidnapped, abducted, jailed journalists,” he told public broadcast news program Democracy Now!

Australia’s fervent expression of solidarity with France and its defence of the values of free speech – Australia was represented at the march by Senate President Stephen Parry – has had some unintended political consequences on the home front.

Liberal senators Cory Bernardi and Dean Smith (who is chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights) have taken advantage of the attack on Charlie Hebdo to renew calls to change Australia’s race-hate laws, specifically Section 18C which makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate a person or group on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin.

The 18C saga began almost a year ago. The Abbott government’s plans to repeal the section came unstuck after the political storm created by the unintentionally provocative statement by Attorney-General George Brandis: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

It could easily have been a statement made in defence of Charlie Hebdo, but it was in March 2014.

What should have been an important debate on the competing demands of free speech and community cohesion was cut short because the politics became too hot for the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott’s “leadership call”

Tony Abbott explained that he had made a “leadership call” to overrule his Attorney-General, which should not be confused with Tony Abbott demonstrating leadership on the issue. His was a political call, not a matter of principle.

Instead of an emphatic prime ministerial affirmation of values and principle, Abbott replaced Brandis’ contentious language with his own mealy-mouthed offering: “I want the communities of our country to be our friend not our critic. I want to work with the communities of our country as Team Australia.”

Politicians choosing to avoid difficult discussions make life momentarily easier for themselves, but sidelining an issue should not be mistaken for settling an issue.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was just what proponents of changes to 18C needed to prosecute their case for freedom of expression with unrestrained vigour.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who seems to think he is an elected politician, bought into the issue by gleefully pointing out that under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Charlie Hebdo could not be published in Australia – or would be subject to continual challenge and/or censorship.

Bernardi would have been aware of all those #JeSuisCharlie tweets and he pounced on this obvious contradiction:

“I find it extraordinary that people will support Charlie Hebdo in France being able to publish what they want, to lampoon and to mock and satirise who they want, and yet many of the same people are happy for us to restrict what we can publish…because we might cause offence in this country.”

It was not the federal government but Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane who sought to curb the enthusiasm for revisiting 18C, insisting that support for Charlie Hebdo and Section 18C are not incompatible:

“There is complete and unfettered freedom to discuss and debate matters of religion, religious identity, religious belief and religious practise. There is in any case wide protection for anything that is artistic work or fair comment on matters of public interest, provided that it is done reasonably and in good faith.”

The renewed push for the dumping of 18C is taking place in a vacuum of Tony Abbott’s making. With a private senator’s bill co-sponsored by Bernardi set to revive the 18C divisions, the onus will once more fall on Abbott to show leadership – on this issue specifically and more generally in assuaging the concerns of Australia’s Muslim population in the wake of both the Sydney Siege and the Paris terror attacks.

In the absence of the necessary leadership, Australia finds itself mired in a highly partisan “debate” about free expression at a time when members of the Muslim community feel their voice goes increasingly unheard.

Opportunistic tosh

Dean Smith has cynically co-opted events in Paris to seek Senate support for changes to 18C. “As a tribute and defiant rebuttal [to events in Paris] we should change our laws to allow for greater freedom of speech, expression and opinion,” he wrote in The Australian.

Such opportunistic tosh is offensive and if anything qualifies Smith for the Charlie Hebdo treatment.

At some basic level there is bipartisan support in Australia for the principals of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but that ends at the door of 18C: Labor is against watering down the section, and the government is choosing not to pursue its preferred option.

Rather than start this debate from scratch, let’s accept that the finer detail of Australia’s freedom of expression laws should be left not to politicians, but to a law reform commission. And if we are to revisit the issue of freedom of expression, why not a discussion on whether Australia should have a bill of rights?

As for France, the true test starts now. It must now confront the many realities of a nation with huge challenges ahead.

Although much of the focus in Paris has fallen on the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there was also the murder of four French Jews killed by a third jihadist at a kosher supermarket.

Anti-Semitism on the rise

This will have been a chilling development for France’s 550,000 Jews – especially as rising anti-Semitism was already a problem in France, without having the additional burden of being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered France’s Jews – and Europe’s Jews – safe haven in Israel:

“To all the Jews of France and all the Jews of Europe, I wish to say: the state of Israel is not only the place to which you pray, the state of Israel is also your home. Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will be received with open arms.”

Netanyahu’s offer may well resonate with some. In 2013, 7,000 French Jews migrated to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and the year before that 3,400. But the idea that Jews must flee their own country will surely not sit well with most. It seems extraordinary that Europe’s Jews are even today having to make such contemplations.

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to reassure Jewish citizens: “France without the Jews of France is not France.” In the Sunday marches, many held placards declaring “Je Suis Juif”,or “I am Jewish”, in solidarity. The government has also heightened military and police security at Jewish schools and synagogues – an act of support but which must also be unnerving.

In addition to its Jewish citizens feeling under siege, France has the challenge of reassuring the nation’s 5 to 6 million Muslims that they are embraced as citizens of the Republic: but France has a long way to go in convincing even second and third-generation French Muslims let alone recent arrivals of this.

Anti-Muslim racism, entrenched social disadvantage, long-term unemployment – including a 25% youth unemployment rate – and decrepit housing estates make for a colossal challenge. Already, since last week’s jihadist attacks, there have been several incidents of violence against Muslims and mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Rather than treating the events of Charlie Hebdo as a political opportunity to make it easier to express extreme views – and given a less than convincing case that the Act presently contains unreasonable curbs on freedom of expression – some of Australia’s more colourful politicians might want to concentrate on how to make Australia’s vibrant and cohesive multicultural society an even more prominent beacon of what is possible in an enlightened democracy.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité

What happens after you’ve been diagnosed with depression? Let me tell you about my year…

Eight months ago, in April, I wrote about my long-time battle with depression, which included the declaration that “the rest of my life starts now”. That column generated a very warm response from friends, colleagues and peers in the journalist community and beyond. It was gratifying and humbling.

My “coming out” was cathartic and the response comforting beyond measure. Writing about my experience, many readers told me, was of great benefit to them, which made it a doubly rewarding experience.

I have wondered whether it would be appropriate to end 2014 with an account of how the “rest of my life” is progressing. Would it be an extravagance? An imposition on your goodwill? I hope not.

I’ve decided to provide some insight into my year not because I derive some perverse pleasure from laying bare my life, but because I believe it’s important to shine a light on what’s involved in overcoming, or at least getting a grip on, depression.

My intention is not to provide a treatise on depression and its treatment; this is my experience alone. And it’s only the first leg of a long journey.

My depression began when I was a schoolboy, just 13 or 14. At that tender age I experienced the physical sensation of depression sitting on me like a thick, heavy “black fog”. (Churchill called it the “black dog” – the description doesn’t matter; its salient character is that it comes unbidden and stays for as long as it pleases.) These occasions were crippling, not linked to any particular cause or event. The sadness was overwhelming, and to my parents’ consternation I would burst into tears for no evident reason.

A maelstrom of emotions combined fear, guilt, introversion, self-loathing and desolation. Without realising it, at school I learnt to disguise it; I developed coping mechanisms. My time at university was much the same. Like many undergraduates my period of adjustment was difficult, but for me “difficult” meant periods of the blackest anguish.

Soon after graduating with my BA in history and political science I landed a job as a reporter for a country newspaper, a happy time and the first step in what would unfold to be a mostly satisfying career. Journalism was my solace.

The depression and its manifold symptoms continued, worsened, and were left untreated. I convinced myself that I was coping. The death of two brothers, my youngest, at 15, by his own hand, the other in a car crash at 22, within the space of four years, were largely suppressed as I buried myself in my work.

Learning to juggle career and depression seemed to be working, but I know now that I was simply delaying the inevitable crash.

Marriage and the birth of our three boys over 10 years provided me with a time of unconfined joy. But it was only a stay. As my beloved boys grew into their teens, the depression dug in, by now equally persistent at home and at work. That’s when my depression entered its most destructive phase: when work no longer provided a release for all that pent-up anguish.

And it all came crashing down

Despite doing what I regarded as my best work as a columnist for BRW and the Australian Financial Review, every word was a mountain. I found it hard to concentrate, my temper was getting shorter, and motivation was hard to find. At home, I had all but closed down. By the end of 2013, I couldn’t go on and took a voluntary redundancy from Fairfax. Just a few days into the new year, on the eve of our 25th anniversary, it was my wife who couldn’t go on. Our marriage collapsed and for the next six months I lived with my parents.

The grief and devastation was unbearable. In February, I asked my parents to drive me to my GP. I told them I had some test results to collect. In fact, I was there to seek help for my depression. In the waiting room I was unable to stem the silent flow of tears – not helped by the fact that there were young mothers with their toddlers in the room, bringing to mind sweet memories I could not handle. The receptionist noticed and kindly allowed me to wait in a private room.

The GP was visibly moved to see me in such a state. He referred me to a psychoanalyst, who I was able to see almost immediately.

The psychoanalyst was straight out of Central Casting: sandals, round-rim glasses, jeans, Viennese. He even had the archetypal couch in the corner of the room, although over the next half-dozen visits I never once used it. We talked, I cried, he asked questions that took me to faraway times and events, I cried some more.

Even in a daze I found myself admiring his forensic skill as an interviewer. It was like being in a dream. “Am I really seeing a psychiatrist?” At other times it was all too real, and raw, as he expertly but without fuss linked pieces of my seemingly scattered narrative into cohesive threads.

“I think I can make a diagnosis, but let’s talk again next week,” he said. (Let’s call him Max.) Max prescribed some sleeping pills – for the uninitiated, psychiatrists are medical doctors – and wrote out a referral for several pathology tests.

Those tests resulted in prescriptions for compound medicines, in addition to anti-depressants, as well as recommendations for various vitamins and supplements and the beginning, for the first time in my life, of an exercise regimen. I was so determined to get myself on top of things that I unconditionally accepted whatever was recommended.

By the end of the second visit, the diagnosis of clinical depression came as a great relief. Partly because it provided the basis for treatment, but also because it provided some validation or context for the way I had felt for so long. “You’ve never seen anyone about this?” Max asked more than once, shaking his head in disbelief. “I don’t know how you’ve gone this far without treatment.”

“This is very serious”

“Becoming unemployed can lead to depression, the breakdown of a marriage can lead to depression, but on top of that you have depression that goes back to your childhood which has gone untreated. This is very serious. You – must – have – treatment.”

This was not just a declaration. He wanted me to acknowledge the challenge ahead and to make a commitment to stay the course. I willingly made it.

“Getting stronger” – physically and mentally – was something Max spoke about often. I still longed for reconciliation with my wife. He’d seen enough marriage breakdowns to know what the odds were on that front, but he humoured me.

“There will be no reconciliation unless you are strong … You are no good to your wife or to your children unless you are a strong … They can’t be confident about the future if they see you like this.”

My challenge was to rebuild. An important part of my recovery was achieving a state of emotional equilibrium. Taking anti-depressants for the first time was a revelation. I had assumed that anti-depressants meant being in a perpetual torpor. Not so. I simply became me without the constant crying or sudden descent into melancholy. The medication kept a lid on all the cues that would normally set me off.

My diary entry for 21 February: “First day on anti-depressants. First day no tears.”

Max’s role was to see me in a fit state to progress to long-term clinical treatment. He recommended that I see both a psychotherapist (who can be a psychiatrist, but whose primary focus is helping patients gain an insight into their behaviour as the key to dealing with depression) and a psychiatrist, who would manage my long-term medication.

This was tricky, he explained, as psychotherapists often don’t like working in tandem with “psychopharmacologists” – psychiatrists who only provide prescriptions and manage medications. Max made his recommendations, undertook to write to them, urged me to make contact, and in the event that they agreed to work together, I would need to obtain referrals from my GP.

The psychotherapist (“Laurence”), a psychiatrist of some eminence, didn’t so much agree to collaborate with the workaday psychiatrist (“Harold”) as tolerate the fact that I was seeing him. In the eight months that I have seen Laurence he has never mentioned him or shown the slightest interest in what medication I am on.

Since April I have seen Laurence weekly. He has a couch, and it’s not a prop. Each week, I lie on the couch and he sits behind. In the early weeks he would simply say “Let’s begin” to start me off. I soon got the gist of proceedings, which was that once we were in position I would start talking. Sometimes Laurence would barely speak. Perhaps a “Mmm” here and an “interesting” there. Other times something would prick his curiosity and he would quiz me on something.

Bursting forth like a toxic torrent

There have been times when I think “What on earth am I going to talk about?”, but the moment I hit the leather the hurts, slights, torments and agonies from the past burst forth like a toxic torrent. All the while I hear heavy scribbling behind me. (I also soon discovered that while the Freudian Max loved picking my dreams apart, Laurence had no time for dreams.)

In addition to our weekly sessions, Laurence “recommends” that his patients also attend weekly group therapy sessions, which he oversees. These sessions can be like weekly soap operas and strangely compelling. The group comprises a core handful of Laurence’s patients. Occasionally a newcomer will show up, stay a few weeks and disappear. In the time that I have attended the group its membership has included lawyers, a university lecturer, an Anglican priest, a nurse … and a journalist. Some occupations go undiscovered. We only use first names, which provides sufficient anonymity for people to disclose the most horrific details of their lives.

Somehow, the stories in group therapy thread and intersect, with Laurence’s gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) guidance cajoling, stimulating and challenging; providing insight into our own lives even while we think we are discussing the choices, decisions and anxieties of others.

Harold, meanwhile, whom I see every month or so, is agnostic about therapy, and kindly dismissive of some of Max’s “holistic” approaches to care. Harold regulates my medication, trying to find that happy medium. It seems to be as much art as science.

But is it working? It’s early days yet. When I compare the mess I was at the beginning of the year with where I am today, the answer would have to be ‘yes’. But there’s nothing linear about this process. I have ups and downs, wins and losses, moods that still peak and trough.

Depression is not a tap that can be turned off and on. The flow of water is constant; it’s about managing (dare I say channelling) the stream.

A couple of months after I commenced my treatment I found myself feeling invincible. Marriage over? Fine, life goes on! Career to rebuild? No worries, the work’s pouring in and I might even write a couple of books while I’m at it. People kept telling me how good I looked. The first few times I took it as something that people say, but on one occasion I asked a former workmate, after she’d made the comment, what she meant. “The last couple of years at BRW you were walking around with a little black storm cloud above your head. We could all see it. The cloud’s not there anymore.”

This period of invincibility was perhaps a way of soaring above realities that still had to be dealt with. The high didn’t last. That would have been too neat and easy. There are more knocks to come; that’s just the way it is. But that light at the end of the tunnel is the best incentive I’ve got. My boys.

It’s all about my boys

I still miss my boys and try as I might I cannot come to terms with having to make times to see them. It’s not pleasant to have to make appointments to see your kids. And the one certainty is that no matter how enjoyable the time together may be, I always have to say goodbye to them as they return home – what until quite recently was “our home”.

My heart aches that I missed out on their school speech nights; that this year I wasn’t there to put up the Christmas tree as the boys gather to decorate it; that I won’t be part of the annual “family” holiday. I can’t help thinking of the milestones, parties, celebrations and gatherings that I will not be part of.

It’s fair to say that the boys – aged 19, 16 and 16 – seem to have made the adjustment to the new status quo much more easily than I. But the effort that goes into maintaining a relationship with my teen-aged sons today – as difficult as it may seem now – is about ensuring that we enjoy a more meaningful relationship for the long term. I get that.

In the meantime my grief and loss are still playing themselves out. Sometimes I’m above it, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I’m clear eyed. (It might be time for Harold to rejig the medication again.) But for all that, what I am is resilient.

At the beginning of 2014 I was reclusive and inconsolable with grief; now I enjoy meeting up with friends, contacts and former work mates. I’m living in my own apartment and I relish those moments when I walk through the front door and feel that I’m “home”. I’m grateful and humbled that there are so many people who care about me, worry for me and respect me.

And without a hint of embarrassment I will say that I don’t know where I’d be without Twitter. Whatever my mood and disposition I can engage with some of the brightest and most interesting people in Australia and the world. And while we’re handing out accolades, my home away from home, the Saint & Rogue, is up there as well.

Professionally, what pleases me is not that there is so much work flowing in, but that what I am producing is finding its mark with readers, editors and in many cases, me. I hope that 2015 will be even more fruitful. And, yes, that includes plans for at least one book.

Last year, having given my reasons for writing about my depression, I concluded: “But most of all there is a very personal reason for this column. I am drawing a line in the sand: I am going to beat this thing.” How’s that going? The battle’s not won, but I am winning.

And a final word: if you’re suffering from depression: get help. Now.

The original piece: My life-long battle with depression: the rest of my life starts now, 4 April 2014.

A ‘ragged’ year for Tony Abbott, but does the PM have what it takes to save his hapless government or will it be more of the same in 2015?

The end of the year can’t come soon enough for Tony Abbott. And it’s got nothing to do with the call of Christmas and lazy summer holidays. It’s hard to imagine an Australian Prime Minister who’s had a worse first full year in office. But Abbott is unlikely to be too fervent in wishing for the onset of the new year, because 2015 promises more of the same.

If Abbott is to have a happy new year – or at least a happier one – he will need to have heeded the lessons of this one first.

There’s precious little sign of that, despite his weekend announcement that the government will restructure the much criticised and until now sacrosanct paid parental leave scheme in favour of more money being spent on childcare. Given the absence of detail it smacks more of an 11th hour bid to calm his restless backbench over the Christmas break than deliberate policy crafting.

When a government has had such a bad year as this one it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when things started to turn toxic, but it’s hard to go past the Brisbane G20 leaders’ summit on November 15-16. What should have been a triumph for Abbott, an opportunity to recast his troubled government, was a humiliating fiasco.

Abbott’s empty boasts of “shirt-fronting” Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 set the scene for an embarrassing anti-climax. Far from confronting Putin for Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysian MH17 over Ukraine, the two leaders ended up having their photos taken cuddling koalas.

Nor did it help that Abbott’s opening address at the summit was a less than statesmanlike laundry list of domestic political difficulties faced by his government. For good measure, Abbott was outplayed and outmanoeuvred on his insistence that climate change play no part in the summit, most notably by Australia’s best buddy on the world stage, US President Barack Obama.

The barnacle-infested Abbott government has been in a state of perpetual crisis since the disastrous G20.

Victoria’s election on November 29 – in which new Labor Premier Daniel Andrews won comfortably against Denis Napthine’s Coalition government – intensified the political pressure on the Abbott government.

It was yet another black mark against the Abbott government, but there was something far more menacing about Labor’s win in Victoria: it was the first time since 1955 that a one-term government had been shown the door by voters.

Voter are angry and less forgiving

This was a serious psychological blow to the unpopular Abbott government which had taken heart from the conventional wisdom of modern Australian politics that even faltering first-term governments are given a second term to find their feet.

Labor’s win in Victoria after just one term in opposition represents more than a psychological setback for Abbott. It confirms what has been evident for some time: today’s voters are angry and less forgiving of governments they don’t like. Bear in mind that federal Labor only narrowly avoided being a one-term government in 2010, with Julia Gillard returned as a minority prime minister.

Whatever hope Abbott and his nervous backbench pinned to the mantra that one-term governments don’t lose elections ended with the Victorian election.

On that very day, Phillip Coorey in the Australian Financial Review, usually friendly turf for the conservatives, offered this barnacle-raising summation of the government’s woes:

“For the Abbott government the culprit is the May budget, a document so laden with broken promises, surprises and excuses and, crucially, perceived as unfair, it has sent the government reeling in the polls and crippled its credibility. The impact has been more marked because, in opposition, Abbott had campaigned on trust more than anything else. … He left his government no wriggle room.”

Abbott knows that he is unpopular and that his government is vulnerable. Well, he does and he doesn’t. Abbott’s December 1 “mea culpa” press conference in Canberra was more revealing of the PM’s tin ear than his humility.

This press conference was an attempt to “reboot” after a particularly damaging week bordering on high farce, dominated by yet another broken promise, the ABC funding cuts, and the government’s tortured sophistry variously aimed at explaining, depending on the day, that no such promise was made, that the substance of the promise was misunderstood, or that the cuts weren’t cuts at all. (Finance Minister Mathias Cormann stated outright that there no cuts; and Abbott initially insisted that they were not cuts but an “efficiency dividend”.)

Defending the $254 million cut, Abbott even had the hide to declare in Parliament: “This is a government which has fundamentally kept faith…with the Australian people.”

Even the Weekend Australian, on the eve of the December 1 press conference, could take no more. It editorialised: “Stop the silly slogans, start fixing a damaged budget”. The leading article went on to describe the government as “hesitant, tongue-tied and confused”.

A ‘ragged week’ is a long time in politics

The increasingly demoralised government backbench would have been hoping for the best from the December 1 press conference. Unfortunately, Abbott’s best was more of the same. The Prime Minister conceded it had been a “ragged week” – a new entrant to the Australian political lexicon. But he also stressed: “It’s been a year when this government has demonstrated guts, commitment and strength of character on a whole host of issues.” He might have added “chutzpah”.

Abbott appeared to concede that it had not been a great week, but then insisted this was largely a matter of “atmospherics”. Look beyond the atmospherics and, “I think we are getting the message across very clearly”. Tony Abbott at his most insouciant.

Some might say this was a lost opportunity for Abbott to re-connect with the Australian electorate, but there never was any such connection. And that is the key to the very real prospect that the Abbott government is a one-term wonder.

Abbott may not be aware of his feet of clay, but most of his ministers and backbenchers are only too aware. With Abbott, what you see is what you get. And that’s the problem. There is nothing to reset.

If Abbott was even an inch a leader, he would do away with his sycophant “political warrior” advisers and surround himself with intellectual rigour, diversity and candid counsel. Over a year into government the Prime Minister’s office remains consumed with putting out brush fires, many of them of their creation.

Abbott insists his private office delivered the Coalition government. Fine. Send them flowers, and on their way, because their job is done.

Even if Abbott lacks the self-awareness to be his own worst critic, has it occurred to him that given the dire straits of his government that perhaps his office is not as flash as he thinks it is?

Abbott and his office refuse to acknowledge how deeply unpopular the Prime Minister is. And it’s not because of atmospherics. It’s because Australians are on to him, and they always have been.

Australians were at no stage convinced that Abbott was PM material when they went to the polls in September last year, but Kevin Rudd was unable to provide them with enough reason to follow their instincts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Abbott couldn’t even crack it for the traditional first-term honeymoon period.

Honeymoon over before it started

On 25 November 2013, the first Fairfax Nielsen opinion poll published since the September 7 election showed that Federal Labor, under new leader Bill Shorten, led the Coalition in the two-party preferred vote 52% to 48%. It was a major boost for Shorten, and just the first of many indicators that this was a government in trouble.

At that time I wrote in BRW: “The Abbott government should be in no doubt about the import of this poll: it reveals an unprecedented case of voters’ remorse that should be taken as a warning that voters expect much more of this government.”

One year later, voters remain unimpressed with the Abbott government, and Abbott himself. On 18 November, The Australian published the results of the 14th consecutive Newspoll to show Labor ahead of the government, on this occasion 55% to 45%. Shorten, without having to lift a finger, was ahead of Abbott as preferred PM 43% to 37%.

The government is so unpopular that it was unable to use the acclaim for Abbott’s handling of the MH17 tragedy as a circuit breaker. Nor was Abbott able to translate being a “war time” Prime Minister – when he committed Australian military forces to Iraq to fight the Islamic State terrorist group – into a galvaniser of public support for his government.

The government could not have ended 2014 on a lower note: its relationship with the Senate is in tatters; its May budget strategy is gutted; beleaguered Treasurer Joe Hockey has every reason to fear what the new year will bring; criticism of the PM’s office, and Peta Credlin in particular, intensified; and the government’s policy agenda, including university deregulation, the GP co-payment and even Abbott’s “signature” paid parental leave scheme are in limbo.

Abbott’s abundant weaknesses as a leader might not have been so glaringly obvious if he had a ministry of talent, vision and resolve. Instead, we have one of the weakest government frontbenches in living memory. Any ministry contains its deadwood, shirkers and beneficiaries of political favours, but that comes nowhere near explaining the weakness of the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott is no John Howard

With an election not due until 2016, Tony Abbott has time to save his prime ministership and his government. As he is fond of pointing out, most recently at the December 1 press conference, there is recent precedent:

“Let’s not forget that the Howard government had a pretty rocky first term. The Howard government was in a diabolical position at different periods in the first term and yet it recovered to win its second election and then went on to be arguably the most successful post-war government Australia has had.”

Except that Abbott is no John Howard. If Abbott is to avoid Denis Napthine’s historic fate, he has some tough decisions to make.

First, Peta Credlin has to go, and his private office must be overhauled. Secondly, he has to decentralise decision making and devolve accountability in his government. Abbott has professed to be an admirer of Westminster-style cabinet government: it’s time he put his text-book theory of government into practice. Thirdly, he must have a ministerial reshuffle early in the new year, not just to give the impression of renewal, but to ensure that the best men and women are entrusted with the government of the nation.

That means Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton and David Johnstone, for starters, must be demoted to more appropriate junior portfolios, if not out of the ministry altogether. Fourth, Malcolm Turnbull should be appointed to the job he should have had in the first place – Treasurer – even if that is politically inconvenient for Abbott.

Were Abbott capable of doing these things, he would be well on the way to achieving the final plank of his rescue mission: Tony Abbott has to grow up. The government of the nation does not require a smirking, winking Opposition Leader with a grab bag of catchphrases, talking points and slippery slogans.

He won the position he fought for; now it’s time he started behaving like the Prime Minister. If he doesn’t, the voters will surely deliver their verdict in 2016 – if his own colleagues don’t beat them to it first.

Sex at home may be on the wane, but the office romance is alive and well

A recent “sexual health study” – the Australian Study of Health and Relationships – found that Australians are having less sex at home. University of NSW sexual health researcher (nice work if you can get it) Professor Juliet Richters believes she has the reason for that.

“We think it might be the intrusion into people’s home lives of work – checking your work emails last thing before you go to bed [and] taking your laptop to bed,” she explains.

Sounds plausible. The scene is easily imagined. “Sorry dear, it’s an email regarding the Henderson account; I’d best deal with it, my promotion is riding on this.” Sex versus the Henderson account? The Henderson account it is, especially if you’re a self-important tosser.

But perhaps there’s another reason why Australians are more interested in their laptops than their partners’ laps when at home – and at this point it should be stressed that the survey concerned itself with heterosexual couples. Which either means that homosexual couples are banging away like gates in a storm, or they’re going to be part of a separate study.

So, back to John and Betty. Perhaps it’s not so much about the intrusion of work as work is where the action is.

Whatever else may be happening at home, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, the office romance is alive and well.

The office romance is very much part of the office furniture. And very often between or on the furniture. Which might be the only thing going for clean desk policies. It saves a lot of packing and unpacking for those amorous colleagues who like to give true meaning to “hot desking”.

For as long as there have been workplaces, so too have there been office trysts. The modern workplace is arguably even more conducive to runaway passions. People are spending longer at work and working under intense pressure. It’s hardly surprising that colleagues working in close proximity to each other for such long periods will eventually find themselves moving from spreadsheets to bedsheets.

At it like public servants

The public service is a particular hotbed of industry. Of a sexual kind, that is. Real industry is a little less common. Our tax dollars still mostly go to funding meetings whose primary purpose is to decide on more meetings, reports that conclude further study is required, and workshops aimed at increasing productivity while keeping bureaucrats away from their desks for days at a time.

Public servants generally like to marry public servants, so government departments are like dating services with lunch breaks. And never let it be said that public servants don’t know the meaning of the word efficiency: bureaucrats find that the workplace is not only a useful place to find a life partner, but an illicit lover as well. It’s what is known as a “one stop shop” in the private sector.

The interstate or overseas conference is a boon to workplace romances. If the PITs – partners in tryst – are senior enough, there is the happy and regular coincidence of both needing to attend the same conference.

Even when there is no conference, it is an easy ruse to claim to one’s partner that there is, thus conveniently explaining one’s absence from the spousal home.

The risk inherent in any office romance is being caught out. Not that there is such a thing as a secret office romance; it’s simply understood that nobody is supposed to know and generally everyone plays along. Whoever coined “open secret” must have had the office romance in mind.

The following delicious yarn no doubt has many variants in workplaces across the land, but it will illustrate how easy it is for office romances to come unstuck.

A middle-ranking “team leader” who was having an affair with a female colleague, a member of his team, decided it was time to step up, and spice up, his office romance. That’s when he hit on the idea of the bogus conference.

Whenever he wished to spend the night with his office consort he informed his wife that he had to fly interstate for a meeting.

The subterfuge extended to him arriving at work with an overnight trolley bag, a matter of derision for all those who knew the score. The scheme unravelled when the philanderer’s wife rang one afternoon to enquire which hotel he was staying at. Unfortunately, one of the few people who did not know about the deception – or more likely she did – informed his wife: “Oh, I can see him at his desk now, I’ll put you through.”

Office romance bingo

People involved in office romances go to great lengths to keep their relationships secret. Everyone knows, but the charade plays on: the meaningful glances across the partitions, exaggerated attempts to keep a po face when passing in the corridor and, for public servants, the furtive brushing of cardigans in the tea room.

The elaborate secrecy can be tiresome but it can also be entertaining in its absurdity. The carefully staged separate arrivals and departures, the angry disagreements at meetings to demonstrate their professional objectivity, the cunning small talk: “Did you have a good weekend?”

Those in the know can amuse themselves with Office Romance Bingo at meetings. Furtive glance across the table: tick. Knowing smile when the other speaks: tick. Double entendres, “That’s a good idea, Malcolm… maybe we should suck it and see”: tick. Or yick.

There is something about furniture that office romantics find irresistible. The boss’s desk is a favoured after-hours pit stop, likewise desks of unpopular colleagues.

The growing popularity of open-plan offices means that those who prefer to be surrounded by four walls – rather than 40 partitions – when interfacing with a colleague don’t have as many options. The meeting room is always a favourite. Here the boardroom table becomes the office furniture equivalent of the king-size bed.

The executive and his PA who decided one fateful night to use the boardroom table as their place of congress thought they were safe from prying eyes but alas were caught in flagrante delicto by a colleague who happened to drop by. Mutterings about working late were exchanged and no more was said. Except for the giant love-heart that appeared on the meeting-room whiteboard the next day.

For three people at least, attending meetings around that table would never be the same again.

As long as there are offices, the office romance will continue to blossom. Unfortunately the office is an endangered species. As companies increasingly shrink their workspaces, preferring employees to work “off site”, the office romance may go the same way as the filing cabinet and the tea break.

Researchers may find that’s when “sexual health” in the home stages a remarkable recovery.

The same old political solutions won’t fix Tasmania’s economic woes: what Tassie needs is a Gail Kelly

Tasmanians must be sick of hearing about their state being an “economy in decline”, a “basket case economy”, the “nation’s worst” economy and other choice epithets that leave little to the imagination.

Professor Jonathan West, founding Director of the Australian Innovation Research Centre at the University of Tasmania wrote a searing analysis of the state for Griffith Review:

“Tasmania ranks at the bottom among Australian states on virtually every dimension of economic, social, and cultural performance: highest unemployment, lowest incomes, languishing investment, lowest home prices, least educated, lowest literacy, most chronic disease, poorest longevity, most likely to smoke, greatest obesity, highest teenage pregnancy, highest petty crime, worst domestic violence. It seems not to matter which measure is chosen, Tasmania will likely finish last.”

That article was published in January 2013. Optimists might argue that Tasmania has since elected a Liberal government – Will Hodgman became Premier in March this year, ending 16 years of Labor government – a “pro-business” government, and a majority government at that.

The business community seems much happier with the Hodgman government than the previous government of Labor Premier Lara Giddings, and they certainly won’t miss the Labor-Green minority government.

And the Hodgman government seems to be sympathetic to the long-time and oft-expressed view of respected economist Saul Eslake that Tasmania’s economic salvation does not lie in a single “mega-project” – such as the aborted pulp mill project.

“A cargo cult mentality is not an economic development policy. And if Tasmanians can come to terms with that, there will be far fewer shattered hopes and dreams than there have been as a result of the economic development failures of the past three decades,” Eslake wrote in the Tasmanian Times.

(Eslake, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Australia, has a particular interest in Tasmania. He was born in England in 1958 to Australian parents, originally from Sydney. The family settled in Tasmania when they returned to Australia in the 1960s. Eslake is an economics graduate from the University of Tasmania and was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by the university in 2012.)

But all this pre-supposes that Tasmania’s entrenched economic woes – which stem from its unique situation as an island state with a population of just 513,000 people – can be solved politically.

Barriers to change

The reality is that even a shiny new Liberal government with solid business credentials is going to find it hard going to solve Tasmania’s seemingly intractable problems.

Professor West argues that Tasmanians have grown so dependent on mainland financing that that the deep structural change that is required presents governments of any persuasion with barriers to change.

“Tasmania has developed a way of life, a mode of doing things, a demographic, a culture and associated economy, that reproduces underachievement generation after generation. …The reality is that Tasmania has bred a dominant social coalition that blocks most proposals to improve. Problems and challenges are debated endlessly, with no resolution. …Ultimately, Tasmania doesn’t change because its people don’t really want to.”

What is striking about this critique is that it could not be written about any other state. It is because Tasmania is so small – “both a region and a state”, writes West – that it is even possible to speak in such sweeping terms.

Political parties can promise to attract investment, create jobs and build a modern economy when in government – as the Liberals did in this year’s state election – but Tasmania’s issues don’t change, the challenges don’t change and the inadequacy of political solutions don’t change.

The mainland states have the critical mass, economic diversity and financial resources that provide governments with powerful levers to influence the course of economies.

The Hodgman government, like its predecessors, is limited in its options to revitalise the economy. Its “Change for a Brighter Future” economic blueprint was by and large more of the same.

In that document, the Liberals offered predictable platitudes – “growing our tourism industry”, “tackling Tasmania’s unemployment rate”, “backing small business”. Sometimes they were aspirational (if vague) – “building a stronger West Coast”, “looking to the future with energy”. But very often, with limited options, even the all-conquering Hodgman government has to make do with bland and piecemeal policy tidbits: “more tourists on TT-Line”, “unlocking the potential in our parks”, “growing jobs in the creative industries”.

Such a predictable laundry list of promises underlines the difficulties Tasmania has when it relies on political solutions: electorates to please, favours to curry, competing interests to balance.

Good public policy, democratic principles and pragmatic politics are as relevant in Tasmania as they are in any state, but given the depth of Tasmania’s economic malaise and the uniqueness of the region-state’s circumstances, an out-of-the-ordinary solution is essential.

This is a job for a CEO

On Twitter recently I made this suggestion: “An idea to toss around: Tasmania should appoint a bluechip CEO, responsible to the govt and the Plmt, with a 3/5yr brief to ‘grow Tasmania’.”

By “blue chip” I mean a CEO of, say, Gail Kelly’s ilk. Not a senior bureaucrat, not a businessman with an impressive LinkedIn profile, not an association executive or former politician, but the real deal. It wouldn’t be someone on $300,000 a year, it would more likely be someone on $3 million a year (which rules out Kelly, who is more than three times that, but you know what I mean).

This CEO would head an autonomous authority that operates within a democratic framework. The CEO would have a mandate that codifies powers and specifies objectives, budgets and community and environmental safeguards.

Within a defined mandate, the CEO would have the authority to pursue growth and development. (The CEO wouldn’t be the “CEO of Tasmania” – that remains the Premier; he or she would, for example, be the CEO of the Tasmanian Development Corporation.)

The Australian Innovation Research Centre recently identified six critical areas of economic opportunity for Tasmania: wine, dairy, aquaculture, horticulture, mining, and tourism. The CEO’s brief might specifically encompass some or all of these areas in fulfilment of the mandate for growth. Within a broad strategic framework set out by the government, the CEO would make the decisions required to make these profitable and sustainable sectors of the economy.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, with characteristic immodesty, has offered his economic-revival services to Tasmania, but Kennett, not famous for his deft touch, is not the solution.

The Hodgman government has gone some way towards the CEO concept when it announced the creation of the Office of the Coordinator-General. The office, according to the Department of State Growth, is “responsible for attracting and securing investment in major development projects in Tasmania that maximises their contribution to Tasmania’s economic growth”.

“The Coordinator-General will help streamline the Tasmanian business environment, promote competitiveness and assist with the assessment and approval of investment opportunities.”

However, in what is a perfect illustration of the inadequacy of government and political processes to solve Tasmania’s economic troubles, eight months after being elected, the Hodgeman government has yet to appoint a Coordinator-General.

In anycase, the CEO would have more substantial responsibilities and would not be a glorified public servant. The CEO’s role would not be to act a conduit or to streamline processes, but to make decisions – to build the infrastructure required, to forge commercial relationships, to hire the people needed for the job, to implement plans: to achieve agreed outcomes.

This remains an idea to “kick around”. But the salient point is that innovative thinking is required to solve Tasmania’s problems. More of the same – the same ideas, the same political foibles, the same bureaucracies – will not work. The longer Tasmania’s depression continues, the harder it will be to build a sustainable future.

Tasmania’s unique beauty and magnificent natural wonders deserve to be recognised as a great national (and international) asset. Dishing up tired clichés and discredited ideas, however well intentioned, again and again, will be to squander Tasmania’s – and Tasmanians’ – potential. Tasmania deserves and requires a solution that is as unique as the state itself.

Gough Whitlam, ‘an enhancer, an enlarger’, who made Australia a better place

It is testament to the profound impact Gough Whitlam made in just three years as Prime Minister so long ago – 1972-75 – that his death on October 21 was felt so keenly across generations. One suspects that even Gough’s most ardent admirers might be surprised, if gladdened, that his death at 98 was met with such sadness, affection and gratitude.

Prime ministers, premiers and ministers naturally dream of leaving a legacy – that’s why they are so quick to rush to print on losing office. Most, however, must make do with a few plaques, markers of long forgotten launches. And a few dozen copies of remaindered memoirs. Judging by the reaction to Gough Whitlam’s death, his name, and his seminal place in the story of modern Australia, will be spoken for generations to come.

Among those who have vivid memories of the Whitlam years, it is telling that many hold those memories not as voters for (or against) Whitlam’s ALP, but as secondary school students.

Such was thrill and tumult of a reformist government actually “doing” things, and such was the towering charisma of the man himself, that even generally apathetic school teens could not help but be captivated by events in Canberra.

In the years 1971-76 I went to Xavier College in the Melbourne suburb of Kew – as it happens the suburb in which Whitlam was born in 1916. During this time there were four Prime Ministers: John Gorton, William McMahon, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.

My memory is that most of the boys at school spoke dismissively of the “socialist” Whitlam government, no doubt parroting the dread and disgust of their well-to-do parents. But they certainly knew who Gough Whitlam was. I doubt they would have given Billy McMahon a second thought had he won the 1972 election. (Although it is interesting to speculate on the course of events had Gorton not relinquished the prime-ministership in March 1971.)

Gough Whitlam charged my interest in politics while I was at school. I took a keen interest in the 1974 election and the following year, by which time I was studying political science for the first time, was transfixed by the constitutional crisis and the dismissal.

November 11, 1975

I was in a history class when fellow student John Chipp, who had been sent to stand outside the classroom for unruly behaviour, rushed into the classroom to announce that the Whitlam government had been sacked. The teacher, Pat Clohessy – the legendary athletics coach who would later be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame – told Chipp not to be stupid and ordered him out of the room again. But Chipp persisted, Clohessy left the room to see what he could find out, and it was true: the Governor-General had sacked the Whitlam government. Class was suspended as a visibly shocked Clohessy took in the news.

As for my schoolmate Chipp, his sources were impeccable. He was the son of Don Chipp, a former federal Minister in the Holt, Gorton and McMahon governments and his father had been sworn into Fraser’s caretaker Ministry. (Don Chipp was dropped from the Ministry when Fraser won the 1975 election. A disgruntled Chipp went on to form the Australian Democrats. Again, it is interesting to speculate on the course of Australian politics had Chipp remained a Minister.)

I continued my interest in politics, went on to major in the subject when I went to university, giving my schoolboy interest in the Whitlam years more depth and nuance.

The Gough Factor

Gough Whitlam energised and engaged the Australian people – including non-voting Australians – like no other Prime Minister had before or since.

In mourning Whitlam, Australians also mourn the absence of Gough’s ilk. Whitlam represented a brand of political leader and parliamentarian we simply do not see anymore. The death of Whitlam reminds us of the many qualities he possessed that are manifestly absent from today’s Canberra: substance, conviction, passion, purpose, vision, eloquence, and charisma in spades.

Gough Whitlam possessed all these qualities, and they ultimately outshone his flaws, as is evident from the tributes that continue to flow.

Whitlam’s ascendancy to power carried with it a lesson for today’s political leaders. Power is not about birthright or naked ambition. Whitlam sought power, because he wished government to create a better Australia.

Whitlam stood for something. When he 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.

One imagines there are not many MPs in today’s colourless and insipid Federal Parliament who would attract Gough’s approval. There are some, and one of them is Malcolm Turnbull, who shares many of Whitlam’s qualities, and who delivered the most eloquent and one of the most moving tributes to the late Prime Minister.

I end my tribute to Gough with an excerpt from Turnbull’s:

“We recognise that all prime ministers capture the attention of the Australian people. Not all prime ministers capture their imagination, and even fewer capture their imagination and retain it for so long. Gough Whitlam was able to do that because of his presence and his eloquence but, above all, because of that generosity of vision I spoke about earlier. He was an enhancer, an enlarger. … Gough will never be forgotten. … By capturing our imagination with such optimism, he will always be a symbol of the greatness, the importance, the value of public life—an example to all of us.”

Vale Gough Whitlam. You leave Australia a better place.

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,” brisbanetimes.com.au, 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.