This Australia Day Malcolm Turnbull should stop playing cautious politics and show leadership on the republic

The latter day emergence of Australia Day as a saccharine and jingoistic orgy of patriotism perfectly illustrates Australia’s confused national identity. On the one hand there is the overwrought display of ostensibly proud Aussies in their Australian flag capes singing what little of the national anthem they can recall (or decipher). On the other is the Australia that incongruously remains a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is the Queen of the United Kingdom and sundry other nations.

It is true that one need not obviate the other. Except that it is almost certain that the aforementioned flag-draped patriots encircling barbecues around the country on January 26 are unlikely to be giving Australia’s constitutional status or “our Queen” much thought. It is also extremely unlikely that sausages and lamb chops will be dispensed to renditions of God Save the Queen – except at barbecues hosted by David Flint and Young Liberals.

Australia remains a monarchy by default. It’s not as if the argument for a republic is being waged by a minority of fervent radicals against a majority steadfastly loyal to the British crown. Indifference and apathy are the only explanations for the embarrassing and ludicrous fact that Britain’s sovereign remains our head of state. Which makes the contrived euphoria of Australia Day as hypocritical as it is hollow.

If not for the passion and leadership of Paul Keating, the very idea of a republic referendum in 1999 would have been unthinkable. No other Prime Minister has had the courage to confront Australia’s colonial-relic ties with the British crown. Gough Whitlam, ever the constitutionalist, struck a legalistic blow for Australian independence by making Elizabeth Queen of Australia, but not even the great reformer had the republic on his agenda. Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd were republicans but considered change secondary to Australia’s economic wellbeing. (Julia Gillard was a republican but as a minority PM had other things on her mind.)

Keating, the great economic reformer, did not consider the republic a second-order issue. He believed that the right for Australia to have an Australian head of state was absolutely pivotal to Australia’s future as a nation.

What momentum remains for a republic was set in motion by the 1999 referendum – an unexpected and precious opportunity that was Keating’s gift to the nation. What should have been a bold and historic declaration of independent nationhood was instead – thanks to John Howard’s unforgivable betrayal of trust – a humiliating whimper in favour of the status quo.

Malcolm Turnbull, the then head of the Australian Republican Movement and an implacable force for change, was right to condemn Howard as the prime minister who would be remembered for breaking Australia’s heart.

But now it is Turnbull who is prime minister, and it is within his grasp to be remembered as the prime minister who ushered in the republic. The irony, and sorrow, would be too much to bear if Turnbull’s prime ministership should pass without him seizing the opportunity for historic change.

Turnbull puts the republic on hold…for now

It has been a less than inspiring start to Turnbull’s place as a republican prime minister. Last year, on becoming prime minister, he stated in response to obvious questions about the republic that there were “much more immediate issues” to deal with, such as the economy. It is hard to imagine the Turnbull of old expressing such a weak-kneed view about something he believed in so strongly.

It was an equally asinine view when Turnbull said that “the next occasion for the republic referendum to come up is going to be after the end of the Queens reign”. This left open the possibility that, so long as the Queen remains on the throne, Turnbull’s first full term as prime minister after this year’s election might see little or no action on the republic.

But republicans should not lose heart. Turnbull’s guarded responses, fresh from dispatching the Queen’s most loyal subject Tony Abbott, were intended for the ears of his conservative colleagues who treat their new leader with suspicion (while accepting the political fruits of his popularity with considerable ease of conscience).

The hope for republicans is that upon winning the 2016 election – as he surely must – Turnbull will have a mandate to call his own and only then will he be more forthright in setting progress towards a republic.

Last year, in distancing himself from the republican issue, Turnbull also made what at first blush seemed another ridiculous statement: that the republic “cannot belong to a politician, it’s got to be a genuine popular movement”.

Turnbull is not just a politician, he is the Prime Minister of Australia, as Keating was before him when he placed the republic on the national agenda for the first time.

But Turnbull was not disqualifying himself from demonstrating leadership on the republican issue. Rather he was sending a clear signal to the republican movement: if Australians for change want the next republican push to be successful, then they must create the necessary momentum that will enable Turnbull as Prime Minister to bring home the republic.

That challenge has been accepted by indefatigable ARM chairman Peter FitzSimons who has headed the ARM since July last year, shortly before Turnbull became PM.

In that time, FitzSimons has kept the republican issue firmly in the spotlight.

On becoming ARM chairman FitzSimons stated with a combination of high emotion and irrefutable logic: “[M]ost Australians agree that there is a fundamental injustice at the heart of our system when a young boy or girl growing up in this great country can aspire to just about any job except the one that should be the most representative of all – head of state.”

In what is perhaps the most significant political development towards the republic since the referendum itself, seven of the eight state and territory have signed an ARM declaration supporting the end of the constitutional monarchy.

Unprecedented expression of political will

Dealing himself out of this historic declaration was Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett, who although in favour of Australia becoming a republic does not think the time is right – a politician’s tried and true excuse for doing nothing.

“While I believe and hope that Australia will choose to become a republic in my lifetime, I do not think that the time is right, or that sufficient time has passed since the referendum, to be again prosecuting the argument for constitutional change,” he said.

At the height of his authority as WA Premier it is unlikely that Barnett would have opted for such a circumspect position, but in less commanding times he is no mood to play statesman at the risk of alienating his wavering support base either within his party or the electorate.

In any event, the ARM has demonstrated to Turnbull that there is unanimous support for an Australian republic among the state and territory leaders, with all but one seeking immediate change. This is an unprecedented expression of political will and is a major achievement for the ARM which is showing itself to be very savvy in laying the groundwork for the next referendum on the republic.

By the time an emboldened Turnbull is ready to pursue the issue of the republic hopefully the ARM will have generated even more expressions of support for change, both among the wider public and from key stakeholder groups.

It would certainly do the cause much good for Australia’s corporate leaders to voice their support for a republic. There is every reason to encourage Australia’s most prominent CEOs to show community leadership on such a critical issue. If Turnbull wants a “genuine popular movement” before he can act with confidence, then the ARM is going to make sure that he has it, but this is a challenge that other community stakeholders must also embrace.

The ARM wants a plebiscite by 2020 asking if people want an Australian head of state. With bipartisan support, there is no reason why a plebiscite could not be held within the term of the next Turnbull government.

It is foolish, and insulting, as Turnbull has done, to pin the timing of a plebiscite on the longevity of the current monarch. The Queen’s reign poses no obstacle to Australia becoming a republic. Elizabeth has always made it plain that the issue of a republic is for Australians alone to decide, as has the heir to throne Prince Charles.

Indeed, it would seem so much more fitting for the long-time reigning monarch to preside over Australia’s transition as a truly free-standing nation.

Much of this is mere wishful thinking until Malcolm Turnbull sets Australia on the path to the republic. It is almost inconceivable that Turnbull, once in possession of his own mandate, will not take definitive steps towards the republic.

To not do so for reasons of political expedience would be to break Australia’s heart all over again.

Turnbull is glad to see the back of Brough and Briggs but they’re the least of his challenges in election year 2016

“Cabinet chaos” ran one of the racier headlines accompanying the story that Ministers Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs had resigned from the government frontbench. “The Turnbull government has been rocked after two senior ministers stood down within 30 minutes of each other,” the story opened.

Well, not quite. Neither the former Minister of State Brough nor the former Minister for Cities and the Built Environment were in Cabinet. Both sat in the outer Ministry. Nor is Briggs a “senior minister”. He was very much a junior Minister – whether he thought so or not – whose ambition and opinion of himself ran way ahead of his limited talents and immaturity.

Far from rocking the Turnbull government, the government will be the stronger for the absence of Brough and Briggs.

Labor has landed few punches in the wake of Tuesday’s resignations (strictly speaking Brough has stood aside pending Australian Federal Police investigations into his role in the seedy Peter Slipper diary scandal), but acting Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek was right to question what Brough was doing in Turnbull’s Ministry in the first place.

Plibersek called into question Turnbull’s judgment in appointing the former Howard Minister – given that Brough was under a cloud over his alleged role in prevailing upon former Slipper staffer James Ashby to procure copies of the then Speaker’s diary – but realpolitik had more to do with the appointment than judgment.

Brough supported Turnbull in his successful leadership challenge against former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and delivered a handful of key party-room votes. That came with a price tag. Turnbull would have been aware that Brough was a political time bomb waiting to go off. And so it proved when Brough, rattled by persistent Opposition questioning, denied in Parliament on December 1 that he had asked Ashby to obtain copies of the Slipper’s diary, despite telling Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes in September last year that “Yes, I did”.

The Opposition has questioned why the resignations were presented as a job lot, and why it was necessary to wait until the pointy end of the holiday season.

“This grotesque form of media management that would think it appropriate to drop this out in the week between Christmas and New Year in order to avoid questions is absolutely appalling,” Labor frontbencher Gary Gray told Fairfax Media.

The next opinion poll will reveal if voters share Labor’s concerns, but the likelihood is that, like the PM, voters will be glad to see the back of Brough and Briggs. Voters might also conclude, not unreasonably, that if the issue was not serious enough for Bill Shorten to break from his holidays then it can hardly be that important.

Abbott in short pants

Brough very likely avoided losing his job because the PM’s office was already aware of the November incident in which Briggs acted inappropriately towards a female public servant (a consular official) at a bar in Hong Kong during a Ministerial overseas trip. (She made a formal complaint and two independent investigations followed, which sealed Briggs’ fate as far as Turnbull was concerned.)

If there is serious question about Turnbull’s judgment it relates to Briggs’ appointment to the Ministry. It was apparently a reluctant appointment. Quite apart from Briggs’ modest attainments as a political apparatchik before winning the 2008 by-election to replace Alexander Downer for the South Australian rural seat of Mayo, two men could not be less alike.

The nuggety, somewhat menacing and abrasive Briggs was underwhelming as Tony Abbott’s Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development. His aggression at the dispatch box mirrored that of his mentor Abbott. Briggs was an Abbott acolyte; Abbott in short pants one might say.

In his letter of resignation, Briggs admitted that there were “aspects of my behaviour which I will address” and that “this behaviour has not met the particularly high standards required of Ministers”. Curiously, he described his behaviour – the precise details of which have not been revealed – as “an error of professional judgment”.

It’s unclear what this phrasing is meant to convey, but if it’s intended to suggest a technical rather than substantive breach of decorum, his boss is not having a bar of it:

“This is a serious matter,” Malcolm Turnbull said. “It was considered very carefully with due process [and] consultation with senior [Cabinet] colleagues; it was considered very, very carefully.”

Briggs had already shown himself illsuited for high office.

When Briggs appeared in a wheelchair in Parliament House the day after the defenestration of Tony Abbott he denied that the injury to his knee had anything to do with a wild party in Abbott’s office. This was the party at which a marble table was infamously reduced to rubble.

The denial was made in some detail, with both Briggs and his spokesman explaining that the injury was sustained while jogging.

Briggs told the ABC: “I was running and I changed direction quickly and in doing that I heard a very loud pop and [was in] quite a deal of pain.”

Two months later he admitted that he sustained the injury when he attempted to tackle Abbott at the farewell party.

“I went to tackle him, I ran at him and missed, and the rest is history,” Briggs finally confessed.

And now Briggs is history.

The disgraced Minister holds hopes of returning to the frontbench. That’s a hope that won’t be realised while Turnbull has any say in the matter, but perhaps Briggs is among the rump of Liberal conservatives still pining for the return of Abbott to the prime ministership. (Briggs voted for Abbott in the September leadership contest.)

The first of many important decisions in 2016

Turnbull still has enough political capital to shrug off the two ministerial resignations, but that’s not to say that he is entirely off the hook.

His choice of Briggs’ replacement will be the first of many important decisions awaiting the Prime Minister in the new year. Turnbull’s choice must reflect his promise of an executive based on merit, renewal and, to quote the PM, “whose composition and focus reflect our determination to ensure Australia seizes the opportunities at this the most exciting times in human history”.

Briggs has no place in such a government. Were his behaviour to have occurred in a corporate workplace, his resignation would be sought not just from whatever position he held, but from the organisation itself. It is a pity the national Parliament does not operate to similar standards – although it is quite possible we have not heard the last of this unseemly incident.

In the meantime, Turnbull is presented with an opportunity to strengthen the team he will take to the electorate some time in 2016. It is already a team far stronger and more capable than Abbott’s ramshackle ministry.

The stronger the composition of government, the easier the politics of government are to manage – as the Whitlam government found to its cost, and the Hawke-Keating government to its productive longevity.

And Turnbull has a lot of politics to manage in 2016.

The recent surprise announcement of cuts to Medicare payments for pathology, imaging services and MRI services by Treasurer Scott Morrison has shown that the Turnbull government still has some way to go in meeting its promise of explaining honestly and intelligently to the electorate about big-ticket policy changes.

The government has a lot of explaining to do in 2016: tax reform and the likely increase in the GST, penalty rates (it is not good enough to argue that the decision rests with the Fair Work Commission) and the future of Gonski education funding.

Turnbull also has some prickly times ahead steadying Coalition relations following the aborted defection to the Nationals of dumped Minister Ian Macfarlane and revelations of the behind the scenes manoeuvring by Deputy PM and Nationals leader Warren Truss and his deputy Barnaby Joyce.

With Truss’s retirement expected in the weeks ahead – which will also have some bearing on Turnbull’s reshuffle – and the likely elevation of Joyce to the Nationals leadership, and therefore the Deputy PM’s position, the chalk-and-cheese duo of Turnbull and Joyce will be something to behold.

The year ahead also promises growing pressure on Turnbull to provide greater clarity and progress on touchstone policy issues such as same-sex marriage, indigenous recognition in the constitution, climate change and the republic.

There is also the prospect of the continuing disruptive presence in Parliament and the public domain of a vengeful Tony Abbott – not the kind of “disruption” that Turnbull purports to find so invigorating.

Brough and Briggs? To put it mildly: good riddance. They’re the least of Malcolm Turnbull’s worries in election year 2016.

 

Elizabeth Proust’s warning should be heeded, but boardroom quota for women is not the answer

Elizabeth Proust, the new chairman of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, has expressed support for quotas for women on boards. This will come as a significant boost for quota activists. The AICD is as conservative as it is influential – its members include the most powerful board members in the country – so a nod from the institute on quotas carries some weight.

Carrying even more weight is the fact that the highly regarded Proust, a distinguished company director and chairman in her own right, is a long-time critic of quotas.

The AICD has actively campaigned for more women on boards – including the introduction of scholarship and mentoring programs – with some notable success, albeit at a rate that has fallen short of activists’ expectations.

Since 2009, the proportion of female directors on ASX200 company boards has grown from 8.3% to 21.5% at the end of November 2015. In 2009, women accounted for just 5% of new board appointments; this year it’s 34%. These are good figures, but it’s also true that 28 ASX200 companies have no women on their boards – so there is still work to be done.

With Proust joining the cause, it’s not just activists who are saying that progress is too slow.

“When I started my career in the 1970s I never imagined that we would still be having this conversation 40 years later and the fact there has been so little change over time leads me to think there needs to be some action,” she says.

“If three years from now we have still not managed to achieve at least 30% female directors on all ASX200 boards then quotas is something that has to be put on the table as an option.”

Proust’s advocacy of quotas as an option to be considered in 2018 is more a shot across the bow than a full embrace of quotas, but it’s a shift in rhetoric, if not yet policy, nonetheless.

As recently as April, AICD CEO John Brogden argued against quotas. Instead, the AICD set a target for ASX200 companies: 30% of board positions to be held by women by the end of 2018.

“We believe that the director community setting its own 30% target is a better approach than a mandated quota imposed by government,” Brogden says.

“We have always said that companies should set their own measurable targets for gender diversity and to facilitate their efforts we are now nominating a standard that we consider appropriate.”

This of course invites the question: “What happens if that target is not met?”

This is the question Elizabeth Proust has answered: if you don’t hit 30% by the end of 2018, expect the government to step in. Self-regulate, or be regulated.

Perhaps it’s a dose of realpolitik that needed to be injected into this debate. Proust has made her warning more in sorrow and frustration than in a fit of feminist fury.

But is government fiat the answer? Progress is slow, but it’s progress nonetheless. If the proportion of women on ASX200 boards was stuck on 10% the need for government intervention would be more clear-cut.

But seeking government intervention because progress is below ideal is no progress at all.

Quotas: a wall between the enlightened and unenlightened

The obstacles to equal representation for women on company boards is about attitudes and cultures.

What we have been observing in the past decade or two is a welcome change in corporate cultures and male attitudes. Women in positions of power may not be the norm, but nor are they uncommon.

Government-mandated boardroom quotas would build an immediate wall between the enlightened and the unenlightened, with the latter feeling little or no need to reconsider long-held views or behaviours when gender simply becomes a compliance issue.

It has been recognised in recent years that diversity is not an end goal in itself. Without real inclusion in an organisation, diversity is just a human palette. Having one, two or three women on a recalcitrant board will not necessarily make it any less masculine or myopic. In any case, there is nothing to stop a male-dominated board from choosing women in their own image – be it conscious or unconscious bias at work.

The overseas experience is that imposing more women on company boards does not translate into more management and executive opportunities for women in the company proper. Quotas offer no cultural dividend.

There is more to the equal representation of women on boards than numbers alone.

The cultural, attitudinal and behavioural impetus behind the growing proportion of women on ASX200 boards is as important as the numbers themselves.

There is a lot of tosh spoken when it comes to presenting the case for more women on boards, and the AICD’s John Brogden, well meaning as he may be, is just one of many to make the “undeniable case for gender diversity on boards”.

“It is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do, because it means better business performance,” Brogden says. “Numerous pieces of research demonstrate a positive link between the level of female representation on boards and improved corporate performance.”

These surveys do no such thing. They establish no causal link whatsoever between the number of women on boards and the performance of their companies. There may be a whole range of factors at play. It might very well be the case that successful companies are more open to diversity and present as more attractive for professional female directors.

Intuitively, it makes sense that an organisation which recruits and promotes the very best talent – and has the systems and practices in place to ensure that they do – will have a workforce and leadership that is genuinely diverse.

Arguing for the greater inclusion of women on boards because surveys say it’s better for business is statistical sophistry; it also implies that were these surveys to establish the opposite case that companies would be entitled to discriminate against women. It would be equally spurious to point to a wayward chairman who is female, or a slapdash board that includes two or three women, and deduce that female directors are poison.

Female directors are neither silver bullets nor innately illsuited for governance responsibilities.

We don’t need bogus surveys

There is no need to invent reasons for the inclusion of more women on company boards and senior management positions: women are entitled to the same career opportunities as men, women are entitled to be as ambitious as men, women are entitled to work in an environment that does not present barriers to progress and fulfilment on the basis of their gender, and it is self-evident that the best and brightest women are as capable as the best and brightest men.

We do not need bogus surveys to tell us that the more diverse and inclusive a workforce and its management, the richer the pool of talent to choose from.

Accepting the case for quotas is simply raising the white flag in defeat. There would be nothing to celebrate were government to mandate quotas tomorrow.

Plainly, there are companies not giving women a fair go.

As Proust argues: “With the exception of engineering, women have been coming out of universities in roughly equal numbers as men in most disciplines for more than 25 years now so the argument there are not enough qualified women just doesn’t wash.”

The fact that women account for 20.5% not 30% of ASX200 positions is not reason to hoist the white flag. It is every reason to redouble efforts to make the case for change in corporate Australia, and to build on the success that has been achieved to date.

There has been much good work in this area. The AICD has done much of it, so has the ASX which in 2010 recommended that ASX-listed companies disclose in their annual reports achievements against gender objectives set by the board.

Organisations such as the UK-based 30% Club, which set up a chapter in Australia this year, prefer persuasion to mandatory quotas. The nub of their advocacy is that when women occupy 30% of positions on a board – presumably suitably qualified women – they are no longer novelty or token directors and are thus able to demonstrate their value.

One of the founders of The 30% Club in Australia, company director Patricia Cross, told Women’s Agenda in May:

“I have sat on seven listed boards and other government boards and when you have at least three women then gender ceases to be an issue but you get the benefit of diversity in thought around the table.”

Persuasion will make for a richer, more sustainable, diverse and inclusive corporate sector – with diversity hopefully not stopping at gender,

Writing for ANZ BlueNotes on December 15, after the Turnbull government brought down its innovation policy statement, Narelle Hooper, co-author of the book New Women, New Men, New Economy (Federation Press, 2015), makes a direct link between diversity and innovation:

“The most disruptive thing you can do for innovation is to mix things up on the people front. That means different genders, racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, ages, ways of thinking and disciplines. Diversity matters because the more different lenses you can bring to complex decision making and developing new products and services the less likely you are to get blindsided.”

The reasons for more women on company boards and in leadership positions is clear, although emphasis, focus and rhetoric may vary.

What is also clear is that the tide has turned. Change is happening. And if change is not happening quickly enough in Australia’s biggest companies, the rising generation of nimble, paradigm-busting digital businesses is setting a much brisker pace of workplace transformation that puts their bigger rivals on notice.

I get what Elizabeth Proust is saying: change, or have change imposed on you. One imagines she is hoping to put the fear of Government into some of her more wayward members. But quotas are neither necessary nor desirable.

There is no reason to assume that the 30% target cannot be reached by 2018. But if that is the thinking, then everyone who believes this is a fair and worthy target must simply work harder to achieve it.

Shame on us if we believe the only solution is a government-mandated quota.

The unexpected connection between the Paris terrorist attacks and the Australian republic: it’s time

The barbarity of the terrorist strikes in Paris gave rise to a groundswell of grief, horror and sorrow throughout the world. That solitary Friday night of horror has brought to the fore the best in us. Street marches, gatherings, messages of condolence and symbolic displays of the tri-colour, both spontaneous and organised, have provided a tangible if helpless demonstration of fraternity.

But even more important is the reflection that only such a human tragedy can elicit.

The French Ambassador to Australia, Christophe Lecourtier, remarkably, appeared on ABC TV’s Q&A program on Monday night, looking exhausted and brokenhearted. His courageous appearance on the program was not without purpose. First and foremost it was no doubt an act of thanks for the outpouring of grief, amity and solidarity from Australians.

Lecourtier told the audience that France and Australia share common values, and it’s these values that are at stake, values that express “that we want to be able to go out with anybody, to dress as we want, to be in love with any people that we want”.

But the Ambassador’s courage extended much further than his decision to appear on Q&A. It was also reflected in his candid admission that France had failed Muslim immigrants and French-born Muslims by not doing more to include them in French society.

“Of course 96, 97, 98 per cent [of Muslim migrants] are good people and probably we’ve not done enough in the past 20 years to fully bring them into the nation,” Lecourtier said.

“When I look at Australia I do see that you have been working far better than us in the past 20 years to bring new immigrants into your communities and in that sense Australia is the true model.”

The Paris terrorist attacks – and their death toll so far of 132 –resonated locally because of the affinity of culture and values between the two countries, and because the issues of extremist Islamists, the refugee crisis and national security are global problems that we share.

But Paris’ Black Friday has also placed the spotlight on Australian multiculturalism – a fact brought home by the French Ambassador.

Modern Australia is entitled to feel proud of its standing as a harmonious and peaceful multicultural society, and yet one suspects that it’s not something most white-picket-fence Australians give much thought to. One is more likely to hear glowing plaudits about our society of many hues, cultures and religions from overseas visitors – or in this case the French Ambassador – than we are from our own citizens.

Malcolm Fraser is often described as the father of multiculturalism, perhaps because his government gave some policy and social coherence to the “ethnic” cornucopia of the Whitlam years. Suffice it to say that the dawn of multiculturalism as we understand it today can be traced back to the 1970s and early 1980s.

Multiculturalism is more tolerated than embraced

Before that, Australia had the post-WWII immigration influx which provided the bedrock on which multiculturalism was built. But those arrivals from war-torn Europe were expected to leave their cultures and histories behind as they forged new identities as “new Australians”.

The migrants’ influence seeped into Australia’s stubbornly white, parochial and “British” culture, but unobtrusively and without fanfare, until it was unlocked – not to say unleashed – by Whitlam and Fraser’s leadership.

Multiculturalism, although deeply embedded in Australian society, is more likely to be tolerate than embraced, an uncertain relationship best characterised as benign apathy rather than nuanced appreciation.

Ambassador Lecourtier’s reflections about France’s trouble relationship with its Muslim immigrant community should be taken as much to heart as his praise for Australian multiculturalism. While it is true that we have not marginalised Australia’s Muslim population as the French have done, we must be alert to the dangers of demonising members of the Muslim community at times like this.

For this reason Australia’s political (and community) leadership has profound responsibilities.

Many argue that political atmospherics don’t matter, but they certainly do, and they especially do in such critical tinder-dry environments.

Many will welcome that the considered Malcolm Turnbull and not the hawkish Tony Abbott is Prime Minister at this sensitive time, and one suspects that the Muslim community is especially relieved.

It is significant that on the same Q&A program senior federal government Minister Christopher Pyne demonstrated precisely such leadership when he stated firmly and unambiguously that Muslim leaders should not be repeatedly called upon to condemn terror attacks. Noting that in his experience Muslim leaders do speak out against terrorism, Pyne said:

“They shouldn’t be called on to do so because it suggests they don’t want to do it.

“By the very act of demanding that they come out [against terrorism] you suggest that they don’t want to. That is something we must stop happening in Australia; whoever is doing that must stop it because it is a pejorative demand.”

Would Pyne have made the same statement as a member of the Abbott government? We can’t know the answer to that question, but most Australians would have a pretty fair idea.

Pyne also emphasised that extremist and militant Islamists do not represent the Islamic faith:

“Moderate Muslims need to be embraced in Australia or elsewhere. Moderate Muslim governments need to be embraced, wherever they might be, because they have at much at stake as we do in defeating extremists.”

Pyne knows why such statements need to be made, and emphatically so.

The Paris terrorist attacks have been eagerly appropriated by opponents of the so-called “Islamisation” of Australia,

For “true Australians” the events in Paris confirm every odious prejudice, stereotype and piece of misinformation about Muslims. One can barely imagine the dread that Australian Muslims must feel when a tragic event of this kind occurs anywhere in the world, but especially in a country with which Australia has some cultural affinity, which will result in saturation media coverage.

This time it’s not just the usual suspects

They know that in the eyes of some Australians every Muslim is a potential terrorist or likely sympathiser with the perpetrators of terrorist activities overseas. They know that they will be blamed for the atrocities committed in Paris; and if not blamed, they must somehow answer for these barbarous events.

And it’s not just neo-Nazi thugs and the usual suspects such as Pauline Hanson (the less said about her the better) that have called for a tightening of immigration laws and refugee intakes.

NSW state Nationals MP Andrew Fraser – assistant Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly, no less – has called for a stop to refugees from the Middle East.

“Message to Malcolm Turnbull: Australia does not need Middle Eastern refugees or Islamic boat people! Close our borders we have enough anarchists already resident in Australia (our democracy) we do not need any more coming in disguised as refugees!” Fraser wrote on his Facebook page.

He later told Fairfax Media, in defence of his post:

“Isn’t it about time we said, hang on, our number one duty is to protect Australians, not to give a haven to people who want to kill people in the name of Islam? I have no problems with people coming in from the Middle East to Australia. But I don’t think the filter is good enough.”

How is it that such irresponsible comments can made – by one of the most senior parliamentarians in the land – in what is supposed to be a multicultural society that is the envy of the world? Fraser would no doubt claim that he is not a hate-monger, but his comments will certainly provide fodder for people who definitely are. (The Muslim community in Bendigo, Victoria, which is facing rabid opposition to plans to build a mosque in the regional city must be wondering if events in Paris have sealed the future of their mosque.)

Despite Australia’s many-hued corpus, there remains a fragility and ambiguity to Australian multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a cornerstone of Australian society, but that is not to say that it is uncontested.

There remain Australians “opposed” to multiculturalism, as if the clock can be turned back to 1955. They are more denialists than opponents. Walk down any city street, take a seat in any bus, train or tram, look around your workplace and the reality is clear: there is no turning back.

One hopes that for most Australians it is a desirable and indeed beautiful reality, and that only a relative handful want the clock to be wound back, but events in Paris have once again put Australian multiculturalism to the test.

Australia’s self-conscious patriotism

One of the moving spectacles to be observed in recent days is French citizens’ deep love of country. It is to be envied. It goes much deeper than Australian-flag capes on Australia Day. It is a deep reverence, a profound faith in the values that the ambassador spoke of and which have been referred to in hundreds of speeches since Black Friday. It eclipses the jingoism of Australia’s self-conscious patriotism or the saccharine (certainly to our ears) patriotism of the Americans.

Could we ever hope to emulate the French when it comes to national pride? Can we ever be as sure about the values that underpin our nation? Can we ever come to believe that our greatness is in who we are and who we can be, not in who we used to be?

There can be only one answer to these questions: Australia will not be a truly sovereign nation until we have our own head of state.

We remain a young nation uncertain of who we are. The White Australia policy and the close bonds with the “mother country” provided a fledgling nation with some certainty, but with it there remains a stiff vein of xenophobia that continues to course its way through Australian society.

It was such an apt illustrator of Australia’s bodgie status as a nation that the heir to the British and Australian thrones, Prince Charles, should find himself in Australia at the same time as the terrorists struck in Paris. Charles embodies Australia’s historical and constitutional connection with Britain, but his presence here also underscored Australia’s tenuous grip on who we are and who we wish to be as a nation.

The constitutional relationship between Australia and Britain has been reasonable and proper; but it ceased to be relevant, or even desirable, some time ago. Perhaps the spell was broken on 11 November 1975.

Before we can address with confidence and resolve Australia’s future as a vibrant, diverse and inclusive society we must cut our constitutional links with the British monarchy.

While we retain those links there will always be some Australians who seek comfort and license from our white, British past. The hard-right and neo-Nazi defenders of the “real” Australia – and their gullible supporters – have a false icon in Australia’s weak-kneed retention of the constitutional monarchy.

We are no longer a “white” outpost. Refugees and migrants from the Middle East are not aliens in our midst; they are not “foreigners” in a quasi-British Australia.

The Australian republic is not a second-order issue. It is fundamental to who we are; it is vital to Australia’s future.

In the aftermath to the tragic events in Paris, the people of France have once again taken succour from the inalienable values of their nation: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Remaining a constitutional monarchy because we can’t be bothered becoming a republic is a disgrace.

Whether a seventh-generation Australian with links to the First Fleet, as is the case with Malcolm Turnbull, or a fresh arrival from Syria, none can be truly Australian until we declare ourselves a republic with our own head of state.

Vive la République!

 

Malcolm Turnbull has already changed the political landscape but the new PM knows the Turnbull era doesn’t start until 2016

It’s been a good week for Malcolm Turnbull and his new government. And it might be said that a good week for Turnbull is a good week for Australia, one that portends good times ahead.

Prime Minister for just five weeks, Turnbull has already revitalised and redefined the political landscape and commands over it with the authority of someone who has been in power for considerably longer.

Labor hopes to convince the electorate that the Turnbull government is simply the Abbott government in another guise, but it’s doubtful that even Labor believes that. However it is true that two years of the Abbott government won’t disappear overnight.

Turnbull recently went further than was strictly necessary in praising Abbott’s “greatness” as PM, but having discharged his internal obligations Turnbull has now commenced in earnest the process of distancing his government from his predecessor’s hapless and combative administration.

In this regard it has been a defining week for the new Turnbull government: its embrace of the landmark Murray report into Australia’s financial system (all but ignored by Abbott), the reappraisal of Abbott’s family benefits purge, announcing reforms to parliamentary question time that will reduce the number of Dorothy Dix questions (a change foreshadowed by Christopher Pyne in opposition but shelved by Abbott in government), and securing Labor support for the Chinese Free Trade Agreement.

There was never any doubt that the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership was going to translate positively for the Coalition government and this was borne out at the beginning of the week with the October Fairfax-Ipsos poll. The poll revealed that Australians have resoundingly endorsed the new PM and his government.

One reason the switch from Abbott to Turnbull has gone so seamlessly is because voters already considered Turnbull the heir apparent.

Almost from day one of handing Tony Abbott government at the September 2013 election voter-remorse kicked in; voters knew that Abbott was not PM material, and Abbott provided plenty of confirmation of that over the next two years. Since that election, the conundrum for voters, including Labor voters, has been the nagging doubt that Labor leader Bill Shorten is not up to the job either.

While Abbott remained PM there was every chance that Shorten would ride into office on the coattails of Abbott’s unpopularity. The prospect of replacing one second-rate PM with another held little appeal for voters.

Fortunately, Abbott inevitably provided his party with sufficient grounds to topple him. And voters got the prime minister they wanted.

Australia’s political system is working

Australians adjusted to the new Turnbull government quickly and without fuss. Voters dismissed the protests of Abbott and his cabal that he was the “duly elected” PM and that only the voters could decide his fate. Australia’s political system is robust, resilient and reliable. Its machinations may not always be elegant, but Turnbull’s seamless elevation to the prime ministership speaks volumes for Australia’s democracy which is reliant not solely on the ballot box but also on the calculation of elected parliamentary peers to choose their best and most able of their number as leader. By and large the system works.

Liberal party strategists came to be believe their own sophistry when they reasoned that voters would not stomach the dumping of a PM mid-term; that the Liberal party should not succumb to the “Labor disease”. Voters’ distaste for the leadership instability of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years was that the change of leader was more a manifestation of a disintegrating government, factional powerplays, bitter internal feuds and personal ambition. Voters knew that the change of Labor leader was never about them; that’s what they resented.

Whatever attributes Abbott possessed as Opposition Leader, he was by any measure out of his depth as Prime Minister.

When Turnbull became Prime Minister in September, voters knew that the better man had the job. More importantly, there was a sense that Turnbull was a man of substance, vision and ideals who would “do something” with the prime ministership.

To use a word which has already become over-used since Turnbull became PM, the “atmospherics” in Australian politics changed from the moment he made his first speech as the nation’s leader.

Critically, Turnbull did not make the mistake of retaining Abbott’s ministry in the name of stability. Instead, with a minimum of political compromise, Turnbull revamped his Cabinet and outer Ministry. The new line-up included five women in Cabinet; far from being token appointments, they merely served to underscore Abbott’s thin reasoning for not having more women in his Cabinet.

This was a new government, and it was recognised as such, which added to the momentum of the Turnbull prime ministership.

Turnbull losing the Liberal leadership to Abbott in 2009 was probably the best thing that could have happened for Turnbull and ultimately Australia.

Turnbull says he has changed and heeded the lessons of losing the confidence of his peers six years ago, and it would appear that he has – unlike Abbott, who despite his claims to the contrary, was incapable of change. He remained tin-eared and bone-headed to the last.

Tin-eared and bone-headed to the last

The rhetoric and style of government shifted tangibly and immediately under Turnbull.

His “mini-summit” on the economy included not just the usual big names from business but also leaders from unions, community organisations and think tanks, setting the tone for the government’s promise of being consultative and “collaborative”.

Like any politician, Turnbull has his “key messages”, but gone are the three-word slogans and rote-like messaging for the day. The new PM, with greater command of the language than his more pedestrian predecessor, speaks with ease and eloquence on the issues that matter to voters.

His talk about the “agile economy” and the importance of innovation as the driver of growth have struck a chord. Business and consumer confidence have accordingly enjoyed a welcome fillip on the back of the Turnbull prime ministership.

Fortunately, it is more than talk. Abbott was never known for his interest in policy, either as a Minister or as Prime Minister, and as Opposition Leader Abbott’s slipshod policy thinking received far too little scrutiny.

Turnbull is a policy man; he understands that good policy is at the heart of good government. Even before the above examples we saw this in the areas of urban infrastructure, his openness to taxation reform and his emphasis on innovation. The creation of a department of Industry, Innovation and Science bodes well for Turnbull’s promise of being a 21st century government – which may or may not be a reference to the oft-made criticism that Tony Abbott’s idea of the future was 1955.

Parliamentary question time since the leadership change shows a government and prime minister at the height of political supremacy. Anyone who takes an interest in question time will notice an air of (relative) civility and good humour. Gone is the perpetually combative environment under Abbott’s prime ministership, the hectoring by government ministers and the constant uproar from the backbenches. And new Speaker Tony Smith – the successor to Bronwyn Bishop, who was permitted to cling to her tarnished office for far too long by a weak-kneed Abbott – has been a revelation.

Turnbull at the dispatch box is charming and affable – he even seems to have the Opposition under his spell.  Far from dominating question time, Turnbull is happy to defer questions to relevant Ministers, true to his word that his Ministers would have more autonomy – and accountability – in his administration.

Question times don’t win elections for governments or oppositions, but they do reflect the confidence of both. And it’s plain that the government’s is up, and the opposition’s is way down.

The opposition under Bill Shorten is as charmed by Turnbull as it is shell-shocked by his instant enormous popularity.

A serious blow to Shorten’s leadership

Abbott’s unpopularity and ineptitude ensured that Labor was spared any angst about its own leader. Once Turnbull became PM, however, the leadership spotlight shifted uncomfortably to Bill Shorten.

Shorten is a leader bedevilled by his crucial part in the making and unmaking of two Labor prime ministers as well as his union past – and whatever the political motivations behind the trade union royal commission, its findings are likely to prove a serious blow to Shorten’s leadership.

Shorten is also a victim of the persona he has created for himself as Labor leader; a persona seen as weak, inauthentic, wooden, stagey and, like poor old Charlie Brown, wishy-washy. And the less said about his zingers the better. There’s almost certainly more to Shorten than meets the eye. Occasionally there are glimpses of a more assertive, thoughtful and articulate leader. His recent performance on the ABC’s Q&A television program was well received and his speech at former Treasurer Joe Hockey’s farewell from Parliament this week was a leader’s speech.

Turnbull’s elevation to the prime ministership was just what many voters needed to turn away from Shorten and Labor in droves.

The October Fairfax-Ipsos opinion poll places Turnbull well ahead as preferred PM over Bill Shorten 67% to 21%.

The poll also found that the Coalition’s primary vote has surged to 45% versus Labor’s 30%. Based on the second preference allocated by voters in 2013, the two party preferred vote has the Coalition ahead 53% to 47%.

Turnbull’s success places enormous pressure on Shorten. He must now convince his party and the electorate that he is equal to the considerable task of taking Turnbull on head to head, but also in the realms of policy, vision and values.

The Turnbull effect will have one of two outcomes for Labor: either Shorten rises to the occasion, or the party places in motion its cumbersome new system for electing its leader (under which Shorten was the first to be elected post-Rudd II) to find a new alternative PM to go to the 2016 election. Either result will be good news for Australian democracy. The third possible outcome, that Labor goes to the election with Shorten as a lame-duck leader, could see Labor annihilated, which would not serve the best interests of a vibrant democracy.

For Turnbull, the challenge is to maintain his considerable momentum and lead the Coalition to victory in 2016. Should he achieve that – and he’s definitely the man to beat at the moment – he will have a mandate to pursue government on his terms and without reference to the hardline Liberals who still hold a torch for Abbott.

A returned Turnbull government will be a very different government again, reflecting more of the man than is possible in the current political circumstances. That’s when we can expect to see change in such touchstone areas as asylum seeker policy, same-sex marriage, climate change and the republic.

While this is admittedly the most optimistic (or naïve) take on a fully fledged Turnbull government, on the barest understanding of the man and his many accomplishments to date, it is hard to imagine Turnbull being interested in power for its own sake. In that and many other respects he has much in common with one of Australia’s most exciting and epoch-defining prime ministers, Paul Keating.

A Turnbull era beckons, and with it an exciting era for Australia. It’s hoping for the best, the very optimism Turnbull called for on becoming Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull is a formidable talent. He deserves to be viewed not through the prism of Liberal or Labor politics, left or right ideologies, but as a substantial figure whose time has come.

Malcolm Turnbull will restore trust in Canberra and put an end to revolving-door prime ministerships

The Liberal party’s leadership contest that delivered the prime ministership to Malcolm Turnbull is about much more than the Coalition government now having a real prospect of being returned at the next election.

That no doubt was the driving impetus behind Turnbull’s 54-44 victory over Tony Abbott, and it’s hard to imagine that awkward Bill Shorten can triumph over the self-assured Turnbull come election day.

But for the change of party leadership – and therefore the nation’s leadership – to mean something beyond high political drama and back-room number crunching, it’s important to recognise what Malcolm Turnbull means not just for the Liberal Party, but for Australia.

The last three prime ministers – Rudd, Gillard and Abbott – held office for between just shy of two years (Abbott) to just over three years (Gillard). Each of those leaders lost the prime ministership in their respective party rooms, although Rudd ultimately lost the prime ministership at the 2013 general election to Tony Abbott.

The rapid succession of party room “coups” has hardly been edifying, but that was no reason to shy away from dumping Tony Abbott. Abbott is entitled to the respect befitting a former Prime Minister, but the job was clearly too much for him and the nation could ill-afford the dysfunction and paralysis of his ramshackle government.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett lamented of the leadership change that “we must be the laughing stock of the world”.

Of all the people to demonstrate that the cultural cringe is alive and well in Australia, who could have imagined that it would be the hard-nosed Kennett.

To deny the right of parliamentary party rooms to choose their leaders under our system of government is just wilful ignorance; to suggest that the federal Coalition should have stuck to a deeply flawed leader because Americans might have a shaky grasp of the Westminster system is puerile tosh.

Treating voters like mugs

Abbott Ministers – and Abbott himself – who cynically repeated the self-serving, modern-day canard that the Australian prime ministership is the exclusive preserve of voters should know better. It’s time political leaders stopped treating voters like mugs.

The supreme benefit of our system is that we need not be saddled with flawed leadership and inept government in between elections.

There is no doubt that the system is open to abuse and mischief-making, and that it encourages backroom strategists to take a short-term view of the complex work of government. But that is more an argument about the integrity and calibre of the modern political class than it is about the deficiency of our system of government.

Critics lament that political leadership in Canberra has become a revolving door. And since the defeat of the Howard government that has been the case. But it is also true that competent leaders and competent governments can stave off leadership speculation and disruptive intrigue.

Perhaps it is harder for government leaders to have the space they need to govern effectively in the pressure-cooker environment of the 24-hour news cycle and its unforgiving scrutiny, the relentless barrage of opinion polls, and the restless ambition of career politicians. But it can be done. Strong leadership will always triumph.

Witness the commanding and highly effective premierships of Daniel Andrews in Victoria and Mike Baird in NSW. It will take much more than backbench malcontents or party powerbrokers to dislodge these men from their premierships. And it’s very likely that Jay Weatherill in South Australia and Colin Barnett in WA, premiers since 2011 and 2008 respectively, will get to choose the time of their retirement.

The same system of government, the same pressures, apply in the state spheres.

If something is broken, it is not Australia’s robust adaptation of the Westminster system. By and large the system has delivered stable, strong and reliable government. And party room intrigue notwithstanding, and allowing for inevitable exceptions, the system has delivered able leaders and talented administrators.

Fixing Canberra

If something is amiss, it is in Canberra. But the elevation of Malcolm Turnbull may at last be the long-awaited solution to the mediocrity and mendacity of Canberra which has so alienated voters in recent years.

In Turnbull, Australia has an urbane, charismatic, eloquent and intelligent Prime Minister. His failings as leader the first time around, as Opposition Leader, revealed imperfections – he was impetuous, impatient, arrogant and he was not politically astute. And, as has been noted ad nauseam, he was not one to suffer fools.

Frankly, the latter attribute is under-valued. The sooner the numerous ninnies in the former Abbott government are consigned to the backbench the better. As to the other foibles, Turnbull is no fool: he will have heeded, and is capable of heeding, the lessons of his first time as leader.

Turnbull does not strike one as the sort to make the same mistake twice.

It is because of the robustness and soundness of our political system that Turnbull gets to come back a second time as Liberal party leader, and on this occasion as Prime Minister of Australia.

If Malcolm Turnbull lives up to his considerable promise, Australia will have a more enlightened government, a government open to ideas and progress, a government that welcomes and encourages intelligent public discourse, a government that communicates, engages and consults, and a government of compassion. There is every reason to expect that a Turnbull government will be an intelligent government, and a genuinely reformist government.

Turnbull will return gravitas to the office of Prime Minister, and to the Australian Parliament.

As preferred Prime Minister throughout Abbott’s time in office, it is now for Malcolm Turnbull to repay that trust and confidence by giving Australians a renewed sense of optimism for the future and new-found respect for the institution of the federal Parliament and national government.

While the Abbott government was headed for certain defeat in 2016, with an undeserving and illprepared Bill Shorten to be reluctantly handed the prime ministership by a disillusioned electorate, the Turnbull government will now go to the next election as the clear favourite.

And if a Turnbull government delivers, there is every good chance that Malcolm Turnbull will lead a Coalition government to victory once again in 2019 – signalling a return to stable and good government in Canberra and an end to revolving-door prime ministerships.

If anyone can be the first Prime Minister since John Howard to win successive elections, it is Malcolm Turnbull. And if that gives Labor cause to elect a more effective leader, then so much the better for Australian democracy.

The corporate bully and the country town: Coles wants to force an ugly service station development on the charming Victorian town of Woodend

Giant companies and small towns. What is it about big companies that they cannot take ‘no’ for an answer? As with schoolyard bullies, there is no reasoning with a corporate thug intent on monstering its smaller, weaker victim. When a community, proud and protective of its environs and heritage, dares to resist a big corporate insistent on blighting a community in the pursuit of growth, they simply enrage the aggressor all the more.

And so it is with supermarket giant Coles, a company of the Perth-based Wesfarmers conglomerate, and the picturesque town of Woodend, 70km north of Melbourne with a population of 5000 and a history dating back to the 1850s.

Woodend, nestled in the centre of the scenic Macedon Ranges and within easy commuting distance to Melbourne, is a prosperous country town which has managed to maintain its village character while attracting a steady stream of tree-changers (including this writer). It boasts a bounty of cafes, bistros, gourmet delis and butchers, wine bars, a couple of pubs (including a microbrewery), two excellent bookshops and all the organic fruit and vegetables you can eat.

And because it is such a prosperous little hub, Coles is already present in Woodend, although it sits unobtrusively in a newer group of shops at the end of the town’s high street (called High Street) without upsetting the local character.

Unfortunately, and typically, big companies like Coles have little interest in “local character”. Their only interest is profit, superseded only by the desire for more profit. So despite their pious claims of being good corporate citizens, they are nothing of the sort. At least when it comes to their own interests.

Coles sees much potential in Woodend and it is relocating to a new site off High Street, adjoining Woodend railway station, where it will build a larger supermarket. (The site was sold in 2013 by a property developer with a planning permit to develop a 2800sqm supermarket.)

The Macedon Ranges Shire Council has no objection to the new supermarket; it granted planning approval to the property developer in 2010.

What the council, and Woodend residents, object to is Coles’ plan to build a service station on High Street, in a highly visible area that is to all practical purposes the gateway to the village strip. An uglier, more intrusive carbuncle could not be imagined. (As coincidence would have it, the site is currently occupied by the dilapidated long-abandoned ‘Woodend Automotive’ garage; hardly attractive, but at least it has antiquity in its favour.)

‘We have a responsibility to the community’

In May, the council denied Coles Property Group a permit for a Coles Express service station, which would include a convenience store. The council made it plain to Coles that the issue was not the service station, but the proposed location.

Council and community objections highlighted traffic management concerns, pedestrian safety risks and damage to the town’s character.

At this point, one would hope and indeed expect that a good corporate citizen would seek to work hand in hand with the council and the community to strike a balance that can satisfy all parties. One would hope, and again expect, that Coles would be respectful of environment, community amenity and heritage values.

A compelling reason for such an expectation – quite apart from the perhaps naïve belief that corporations should do the right thing by the communities in which they operate and seek to operate – is that Coles expressly commits itself to such values:

“As one of Australia’s leading food retailers, we have a huge responsibility to our customers, the community and the environment. Our focus is simple, to continue to work towards a sustainable future while supporting Aussie farmers, food producers and the local community.”

However, far from respecting the wishes of the local community, Coles has lodged an appeal with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to overturn the council’s decision.

The council took some risk in standing up to Coles and denying it a permit to build the service station. If the appeal is upheld, Coles will be free to ignore compromises previously negotiated with council planners and revert to its original, larger scale plans.

It’s clear that Coles has no interest in compromise. It has dismissed local concerns and has placed its corporate concerns ahead of all else.

The council considers the proposed site an eyesore and a safety hazard, but Coles believes building the service station complex on such a prominent site will be good for business, hang its impact on village aesthetics.

Unlike the intransigent corporate bully, the council is open to compromise.

One of the most vocal objectors to the proposal Cr John Connor stated: “I have no problem with a second fuel outlet [in Woodend], just not this location.”

Resident and local businessman Zoltan Bexley told The Midland Express: “That corner is an eyesore. That’s not a reason to create another eyesore. What kind of community do we want to live in? Do we want another [urban-sprawl suburb like] Taylors Lakes?”

Coles bulldozer at the ready

The people of Woodend are entitled to live in a community environment of their choosing. They are entitled to insist on striking a balance between the character of their community and the commercial interests of Coles. Who is Coles to be saying all or nothing?

Coles is not – or at least should not be – entitled to bulldoze its way through the carefully and lovingly fashioned community fabric because it suits its growth targets and profit outlooks.

A community-conscious, values-based company, if it was true to its published ideals, would say: “Okay, we get the message loud and clear. We can build a service station, but not here. Let’s look at some alternate sites and see if we can make this happen.”

Instead, Coles has airily dismissed the concerns of locals and announced: “Get out of the way we’re coming through whether you like it or not.”

We can be sure that at least some of the senior executives at Coles and Wesfarmers overseeing the supermarket’s battle with Woodend have charming homes in expensive rural idylls. And it’s a safe assumption that they would not look kindly upon a corporate intruder erecting a service station, or perhaps a set of golden arches, at the entrance to their village of choice.

It is no wonder that there is such widespread disdain for and mistrust of the corporate sector.

Coles’ arrogance is symptomatic of an attitude which has alienated employees, consumers and the public at large from big business. People are sick of companies that say one thing and do another. They feel that the gulf between their values and the values of the corporate sector has never been wider.

Macedon Ranges Council deserves to be congratulated for standing up to Coles, and Coles should have the decency to accept the will of the people of Woodend and show some respect.

And if Coles is too stubborn, proud or pig-headed to locate its service station elsewhere, perhaps Wesfarmers Managing Director Richard Goyder might like to issue a “please explain”. Better still, he should visit Woodend, inspect the site, and see for himself why locals are so upset about this proposal and Coles’ refusal to take no for an answer.

If you do come down, Richard, I can recommend some excellent coffee shops.

Embattled Tony Abbott stakes his crumbling leadership on saying “I won’t” to same-sex marriage

Consider our most statesmanlike leaders in the post-Menzian era. Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Keating? Perhaps Hawke and Howard at their very best? It’s a subjective assessment, of course, but pit Tony Abbott against these formidable leaders and there is only once conclusion to be reached. Our current Prime Minister is no statesman.

By any objective measure, Abbott is the most inept, gaffe-prone and crisis-riddled Prime Minister since William McMahon.Unlike McMahon, Abbott won an election in his own right to become Prime Minister. It remains to be seen whether, like McMahon, he faces defeat at his first election as Prime Minister. If he lasts that long.

Tony Abbott poses a political conundrum for the Liberal party. He is deeply unpopular and political poison – the electorate knows it and the Liberals know it. But he remains doggedly opposed to same-sex marriage, which accords with the majority view of his party. Which means that Australia is stuck with a dud Prime Minister while conservative MPs fend off moves for change to our marriage laws.

Abbott’s muddled stance on same-sex marriage – as most of his “policy” positions tend to be – has confirmed yet again this tin-eared Prime Minister’s inability to hear what the electorate is saying to him loud and clear. And that message would go something like this:

“Some of us believe in same-sex marriage as a matter of equality and human rights, some of us don’t care but if same-sex couples want it let them bloody well have it, and for those who are against gay marriage – get over it: now for fuck’s sake, legalise same-sex marriage and let’s get on with the 21st Century!”

Abbott’s solution to the same-sex marriage issue is of course no solution at all. For Abbott, this is a personal crusade. No matter that the push for marriage equality is a world-wide, deeply felt cause, Abbott is depicting it as a niche issue, a fad of little moment or momentum.

By making this an issue to determine by popular vote – senior Ministers are quarrelling among themselves as to what this precisely will involve – after the next election Abbott believes he can place same-sex marriage in a state of suspended animation. Both his naivety and arrogance are breathtaking. This is not an issue that is going to go away.

Abbott does not believe in same-sex marriage; that is understood, and on a personal level he is entitled to that view. But he is not entitled to impose that view on the rest of the community, and most especially on those same-sex couples who wish to express their love for each other through marriage.

It’s not about you Prime Minister

As a leader, he must recognise that same-sex marriage is a much bigger issue than his personal preference, nor is it a matter of religious dogma.

Abbott seems more concerned with maintaining a stance that will win the favour of Cardinal George Pell than he is with keeping faith with the people of Australia and showing leadership on a vital reform whose time has come.

Abbott’s absence of leadership on this issue has given licence to the likes of Senator Eric Abetz to argue that if Asian countries in the Asian Century don’t favour same-sex marriage, why should Australia?

Abetz, who is a Cabinet Minister if you don’t mind, has also observed that “Not all homosexuals want to marry”, and gave as his example Italian fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. (Abetz denied the published quote of his party-room comment as “simply false”, but not the substance of his point, such as it was.)

It is a spurious objection to argue that not all homosexuals want or would enter into same-sex marriage. If traditional marriage was reliant on all heterosexual couples marrying before living together the institution would have long ago disappeared from the statute books.

Such arguments trivialise same-sex marriage in a way that is offensive and demeaning. It also implies that same-sex marriage is a fad of interest to a loud minority alone, not to “good gays” who are respectful of the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

More than implies, the Prime Minister has in previous statements made it plain that he considers that issues such as the economy, asylum seekers and the war on terror are far more pressing than same-sex marriage.

And so it has come to pass that this government does not intend to act on same-sex marriage until after the 2016 election – and even then without any firm plans on precisely what action the government, in the unlikely event that it is returned, would take. With good reason proponents of same-sex marriage feel they have been unceremoniously fobbed off.

The Prime Minister and fellow conservatives in his government portray demands for same-sex marriage as an aberration, an extravagance, an issue not to be taken seriously. They could not be more offensive, or wrong.

Australia stands isolated as nations around the world legalise same-sex marriage – through popular vote, through political leadership and through the courts: Britain, the United States, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, France … and our neighbour and once mooted Federation partner New Zealand.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries with which we would feel a political and cultural affinity is not just illegal in Australia, but dismissed as a second-order issue.

In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

‘Not on my watch’

Is Tony Abbott really suggesting that he would be prepared for Australia to stand alone on what is now widely considered a fundamental right around the world?

Rather than demonstrate leadership on same-sex marriage Abbott has made this a “not on my watch” issue.

Indeed, it is the unlikely issue which has come to define his leadership. And there’s the rub for Australia: the worst Prime Minister since Billy McMahon may well go to the next election as leader because to opt for Australians’ preferred Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull would mean a surer path for same-sex marriage.

At this stage it seems that a majority of Liberals would rather have the bumbling Abbott if it means staving off same sex-marriage, than a commanding, competent and electorally appealing moderate leader who favours same-sex marriage. A dill rather than a statesman.

If Abbott thought he had put same-sex marriage to bed – as it were – he is sorely mistaken. Again.

As Turnbull was only too keen to point out, marriage equality will almost certainly dominate the political agenda until the 2016 election. And there will be consequences.

Abbott may relent and allow a conscience vote in this Parliament, which would place his rickety leadership at risk; he might tough it out and hang onto his leadership because he alone stands between traditional and same-sex marriage, only to face annihilation at the next election; or it all becomes too much for nervous Liberal MPs who buckle and opt for a new leader.

That’s not bad going for a second-order issue. And at the end of it all, however it ends, it will be Tony Abbott who will be standing alone and abandoned at the altar. Someone may even mutter as they leave the chapel: “I never liked him anyway.”

Tony Abbott and his hapless government would do well to heed the lessons of The Killing Season

If social media is anything to go by – and who am I to say it’s not? – Greg Combet’s potty mouth was the sensation of the ABC’s opening episode of the compelling political documentary series The Killing Season.

But I suspect it was much more than Combet’s robust language that made an impression. While former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard slogged it out for the moral high ground, that place was modestly occupied by the former ACTU leader and minister in the (first) Rudd and Gillard governments.

The subjects of Combet’s measured but rustically expressed wrath were the leadership changes in the Labor party. The first was in relation to the Rudd-Gillard coup against Kim Beazley, telling reporter Sarah Ferguson that the machinations against the leader caused him “the shits big time”. The second denunciation was saved for the elevation of Mark Latham, which proved politically disastrous for Labor at the 2004 election: “I thought, ‘fuck this’, to be frank about it, ‘I’m sick of it’.”

Many voters will share Combet’s outrage, and very likely his vocabulary, because they, too, are fed up with the machinations of Canberra politics. Already from the first episode of Ferguson’s masterful three-part series it is clear that Rudd and Gillard have a differing recollection of events. And if we thought the first episode was gripping, we best wear a seat belt for the remaining two episodes.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is wrong when he says “voterland” is not interested in what our political leaders are up to in Canberra’s corridors of power. He should not confuse disaffection with disinterest. The fact that the ABC hit the ratings jackpot with The Killing Season should disabuse Abbott of that patronising assertion. Rather, voters, like Combet, despair at what constitutes “leadership” in Canberra. Indeed, Combet might reasonably have prefaced his invective with: “Let me quote the people of Australia…”

The recent outpouring of grief over the death of Malcolm Fraser – with moving tributes from the most unexpected quarters, including Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – was as much a lament for what passes for leadership in Canberra today as it was recognition for a life of public service built on compassion, integrity and rectitude. Many who might have been expected to hold a political grudge, including the aforementioned former prime ministers, instead focused on Fraser’s abiding contribution to the nation built on a clear moral (as distinct from religious) framework.

Keating, like Fraser a leader of conviction and consequence, said in his official statement of condolence:

“The great pity for him of the budget crisis of 1975 was that it de-legitimised his government, at its inception, and with it, much of the value he otherwise brought to public life.

“Nevertheless, many will appreciate the gestures which came rather nobly from his political spirit – the passage of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, his compassion for refugees, the creation of SBS, along with many other clear-sighted reforms. He was particularly committed to the rights and freedom of individuals – un-suborned by the power of the state.

“His public life also enshrined other important principles: no truck with race or colour and no tolerance for whispered notions of exclusivity tinged by race. These principles applied throughout his political life.”

Leadership changes a feature of Australia’s robust democracy

The Killing Season should not be seen as a case against leadership challenges and the instability inevitably surrounding such challenges.

Party leadership manoeuvrings have always been a feature of Australia’s robust parliamentary democracy; leadership “coups” have occurred in opposition and in government.

After John Gorton (PM from 1968-71), every prime minister, with the exception of Gough Whitlam, became PM as a result of wresting the party leadership from the incumbent, either as opposition leader or prime minister.

There is no reason to be squeamish about prime ministers being toppled by their own. The Westminster system allows for it, and we should embrace it as a safety valve to be activated by government party members in the event of incompetent, corrupt or otherwise flawed leadership.

The process should have been applied in the final years of the Howard government when it became clear that John Howard was past his prime. Had Peter Costello taken his chance, and had not Cabinet squibbed it when Howard refused to blink, a much stronger Coalition would have gone to the 2007 election won by Kevin Rudd’s Labor.

Equally, had Malcolm Turnbull not been so circumspect in February, when a leadership spill motion failed in the Liberal party room, the better man might have been Prime Minister today.

One reason Turnbull did not declare himself – on the calculation that he would get his chance when Abbott inevitably returned to form – was the subject matter being played out in The Killing Season. Turnbull and his supporters did not want to be seen to be “doing a Julia” and deposing a sitting Prime Minister mid-first term.

It is to be regretted that Turnbull and his Cabinet colleagues lacked the courage to play by the Westminster rules. More importantly, they failed in their duty to the people of Australia by not acting to remove a flawed leader. Their missed opportunity means that they are now placed in the position of having to destabilise their leader internally, which places them precisely in the realm of The Killing Season, making a bad government even more dysfunctional.

Turnbull and his supporters missed one of the key lessons of Julia Gillard’s “political assassination” of Kevin Rudd.

If Gillard and her senior ministers had been more candid about why they felt compelled to move against Rudd – his chaotic and erratic management style, his insularity and refusal to consult with ministers, the growing dysfunction of his private office, the policy on the run, his contempt for anyone he did not consider his equal – her prime ministership might have had the legitimacy it lacked going into the 2010 election.

Had Gillard taken Australians into her confidence she may well have gone on to secure majority government which would have put an entirely different complexion on her government and subsequent events. Gillard failed many leadership tests in office, but it’s also true that we did not get to see the best of Julia Gillard.

Rudd not without triumphs

There are no “ifs” in history, true enough, but Gillard’s miscalculation was that in exercising her entitlement under our system of government to challenge Rudd for the prime ministership, she did not fulfill her obligation to unambiguously explain to voters why she did so.

As the first episode of The Killing Season made clear, a truncated Rudd prime ministership would not have been without its triumphs: the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the seminal apology to the Stolen Generation, and the historic counter-attack against the threat of deep recession following the Global Financial Crisis.

Clearly these achievements were not enough to dissuade Gillard and her supporters from the conviction that a continued Rudd prime ministership was not in Australia’s interests. This should have been fully explained to the people – with due homage paid to Rudd for those achievements.

If Turnbull, like Gillard, believed that a continued Abbott government was not in Australia’s best interests, he should have pressed his case for the leadership and challenged Abbott in February. If he lost, just as Keating resigned to the backbench having failed in his first attempt to topple Hawke, Turnbull could have taken his place on the backbench.

It’s bloody and Darwinian, but the system for the most part works and results in strong and vibrant leadership. When Fraser toppled the affable but ineffective Billy Snedden in 1975 it saved Australia from the near certainty of a haphazard Snedden government in 1977. When Keating took over from Hawke in 1991, who by this stage was past his best, it meant another five years of strong and defining government.

Peter Costello let down his supporters and the people of Australia by not staring down Howard and re-energising the faltering Coalition government. Malcolm Turnbull may well have squandered his opportunity to remove arguably the worst Liberal Prime Minister since the feckless William McMahon.

The Killing Season is not a case against leadership challenges. While it is a gripping piece of political drama presented in the finest traditions of the ABC and Australian political journalism, it is to sell it well short to see it simply through the prism of political ambition.

At its most fundamental, The Killing Season is a case for good government, which ultimately the first Rudd government was not. It makes clear what can go wrong in the absence of openness, probity and accountability. It is a call for a return to the best traditions of leadership, public service and parliamentary democracy. It should serve as a reminder of why voters feel let down by modern politics and the rise of the “political class”, and underlines how little has changed even with the defeat of Labor in 2013.

For Tony Abbott and his ramshackle government, The Killing Season serves due notice that the killing season is not over yet. Indeed, given recent missteps, there is every chance that it’s well and truly Abbott Season.

Bill Shorten shows leadership on marriage equality; the question now is will Tony Abbott join him at the altar?

Same-sex marriage may well prove the rebooting of Bill Shorten’s less than inspiring leadership of the Labor party, but in the meantime, and more importantly, it provides much needed political momentum in support of marriage equality in Australia.

Australia’s reluctance to face up to marriage equality as a fundamental issue of human rights ended with the announcement by Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek to co-sponsor a private member’s bill. Marriage equality is now only a matter of time; if there was ever any doubt about that, those doubts can now be cast aside.

It is mischievous to dismiss the Shorten-Plibersek initiative as a political stunt. While there is growing support for same-sex marriage among MPs and the community, there remain pockets of entrenched opposition to such a reform.

As Shorten admitted to Fairfax Media: “I know this private member’s bill will not have the universal support of my colleagues.”

Plibersek’s recent misjudged call for a binding Labor vote on same-sex marriage illustrated how passions can be very quickly inflamed on the issue.

The Shorten-Plibersek announcement should be welcomed as an act of policy leadership – leadership sorely lacking from the Abbott government which has preferred to stall on the matter in the hope that it goes away.

But the Irish referendum ‘yes’ vote in favour of same-sex marriage put paid to that misreading of a generational move for change. If Ireland can overcome its social conservatism and Catholic mores, what is Australia’s problem? More to the point, what is Tony Abbott’s problem?

Abbott has personal views against same-sex marriage, but those views, as deeply held as they may be, must be secondary to the objectives of national inclusiveness and respect for the rights of all Australians. As Prime Minister he has a responsibility to show leadership on the issue that transcends his own personal position.

When all is said and done, there are no fundamental reasons for opposing same-sex marriage. Certainly none so fundamental that Australia can continue to say to a section of its citizenry that they are not free to marry the person of their choice; that marriage as a profound expression of love is not available to them.

Australia’s Marriage Act has not been handed down from the heavens. It is an instrument of the state, an expression of community values. The state has an obligation to ensure that the laws governing the institution keep pace with changing social attitudes and the human rights of all its citizens.

One day Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief

Marriage is hardly a fixed entity. It was not so long ago that laws proscribing marriage between white and African Americans, and laws circumscribing marriage between white and Aboriginal Australians, were considered reasonable and consistent with preserving the “sanctity” of marriage. Such laws today would be considered unthinkable by all but the most extreme margins of society.

Generations from now, Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief that homosexual men and women had to fight for the right to marry the person they loved.
Tony Abbott has called for tolerance in the conduct of the same-sex marriage debate, but he has no tolerance for the profound desire of some Australians to marry someone of the same sex.

“[W]e need to see mutual respect of all the different views on this debate because as I said, decent people can differ on this subject,” Abbott says.

No doubt the PM is blind to the irony that while he is pleading for mutual respect, he is denying it to those gay Australians who wish to marry but in law cannot.
It is absurd that homosexual Australians should have equal standing before the law in every respect but marriage. By what perversion of logic does equality stop at the door of marriage?

It’s true, some Australians do have deeply held views of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Convictions deserve to be respected, but they are not always the best foundations for a just and inclusive society. Marriage can longer be preserved as an exclusive club.

There is no excuse for Australia’s inaction on marriage equality. Nineteen countries have so far legalised same-sex marriage, including the country of Abbott’s birth, Britain, and our neighbour New Zealand. Australia is in danger of standing as isolated on gay marriage as it does on climate change. For Abbott this may be a point of pride, but only at the cost of his credibility.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries, in nations as familiar as Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and France, is illegal in Australia. In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

There is no turning back

Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek are to be congratulated for bringing the issue of same-sex marriage to a head. There is no turning back following their decision to place the issue front and centre of the nation’s political agenda.

Curiously, and unconvincingly, sections of the government and its backbench have accused Labor of politicising the issue of same-sex marriage and of jeopardising a bipartisan approach to change.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch, a long-time supporter of marriage equality, rather than welcoming an imminent vote on the matter, says he is “profoundly disappointed” by Shorten’s announcement because it will turn the result into a partisan vote.

“This is about survival for Bill, this is not about marriage ¬equality. It was always our intention to bring something on this year. I’m determined to get something up and I don’t want it to be partisan. Let’s do it in a civil, orderly way,” he says.

Tony Abbott, avowedly opposed to marriage equality, has been stalling on the issue since assuming office. Even granting Coalition MPs a conscience vote has been a stumbling block for Abbott, let alone opening his mind to the substantive issue itself.

Whatever “something” Entsch had in mind, there was no definite prospect of the government bringing the issue to Parliament; nor, in the event that it did, that it would permit Coalition MPs a free vote. Similarly, the issue being brought to the Parliament by a minor party would have been fraught and far easier for the government to stymie.

The fact that the alternative government has announced its intention to put the issue to the Parliament is entirely another matter. In doing so it has raised debate and discussion on marriage equality to new heights. The genie is out of the bottle and proud.

“Political”? Yes. An out-of-step, tin-eared, ideologically hidebound government has been out-manoeuvred by Labor. But it is no less an action of leadership by Shorten and his deputy. Their next leadership challenge is to prosecute their case and take the rest of Australia with them to the altar of reform.

Warren Entsch and like-minded colleagues can ensure that marriage equality is not a partisan issue by backing the Labor initiative and urging their Prime Minister to adjust his hearing aid and, like his opposite number, show some courage on the issue.

Even if the Prime Minister finds gay marriage confronting, as he does so many things, he must declare that the time has come for marriage equality in Australia.

Bill Shorten’s position is compelling, unambiguous and ultimately straightforward:
“Our current [marriage] law excludes some individuals, and to me that is unacceptable. It says to them: your relationships are not equally valued by the state, your love is less equal under the law.”

We should have heard such a statement from the leader of the nation.

But better late than never. There is absolutely nothing to stop Tony Abbott from regaining the initiative and endorsing Shorten’s sentiment as a matter of fundamental principal.

It is not too late for Abbott to race down the aisle, join Shorten, and declare “I do too”.