Scott Morrison, the flim-flam man who rode the Peter Principle all the way to the Lodge

There is no surprise that Prime Minister Scott Morrison should be Donald Trump’s new bestie. Both are flim-flam men who will say whatever it takes to divert, obfuscate and deceive. Both are embodiments of the Peter Principle, obtaining high office way above their competency. And both are seemingly oblivious to the chaos, embarrassment and bewilderment that occasions their every decision and pronouncement.

Morrison will be familiar to anyone working in a large corporation. He is the bumbling middle manager, bereft of any obvious skills, who somehow keeps getting promoted.

His one notable skill, an entirely self-serving skill, is that he knows how to game the system.

Sometimes it’s the happy facility to be the last man standing – the Steven Bradbury Effect – although it’s not always clear if this is by design or circumstance. One might argue that either is not without a measure of wile.

At other times there is clear agency.

 For some beneficiaries of the Peter Principle it’s a one off, a career highlight on an otherwise desultory CV. But others, like Morrison, can make a handsome career of it.

One reason the Peter Principle can be the inadequacy that keeps on giving is that not everyone is aware at the same time that the bumbling fool in their midst is not who his CV says he is.

Beneficiaries of the principle are either smart enough to move on before their incompetence is discovered, or they are quietly moved on by a board too embarrassed to ever reveal that they were taken in by a flim-flam man. And so it is that a fool can flit from one high station to another with impunity, one step ahead of the mayhem left in his wake.

Scott Morrison made a reasonable career for himself as a tourism industry executive: Deputy CEO of the Australian Tourism Task Force (1995-96), General Manager of the Tourism Council (1996-98), Director of the NZ Office of Tourism and Sport (1998-2000) and Managing Director of Tourism Australia (2004-06), before taking a well-earned break as a self-employed consultant and then into federal Parliament in 2007.

If there were any achievements in the advancement of tourism, or even as an administrator, they must pass unremarked as the tourism industry has been struck dumb on the subject.

Morrison’s most obvious achievement as a tourism industry executive was his CV.

From 2007, when he became the member for the NSW seat of Cook, Morrison has shown his adeptness for constructing a formidable CV while snaking his way to the highest political office in the land.

A panoply of shadow ministries (2008-13) – housing and development, immigration and citizenship, productivity and population, but notably not tourism – suggests a parliamentary party that did not quite have a handle on Morrison.

Enter Morrison the “compassionate conservative”

Once in government there was a recognition of Morrison’s “compassionate conservatism”, first in his appointment as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (2013-14) and then as Minister for Social Services (2014-15). While Morrison was philosophically and/or temperamentally equal to the requirements of these portfolios, there was nothing to suggest that here was a future prime minister, despite his totally unmerited appointment as Treasurer in 2015 (an appointment Malcolm Turnbull has no doubt reflected upon).

Here was the Peter Principle at work once again. Morrison distinguished himself as the most illequipped and underwhelming Treasurer since…well, since his predecessor Joe Hockey. (The Peter Principle has scored a hat-trick with Josh Frydenberg as Treasurer.)

Although the Treasurer’s job is normally the office held by putative prime ministers Morrison’s tenure as Treasurer should have made clear that this was not a man of substance or even parliamentary verve. When he spoke at the despatch box he did not electrify the backbench in the way that Paul Keating or Peter Costello did. Shouty, incoherent, excitable, wayward diction, rapid-fire delivery and confounding non sequiturs: that was Morrison on a good day. His budgets had even less to recommend them.

When he became Prime Minister at the expense of Malcolm Turnbull – the man he was ostensibly ambitious for – in 2018 Morrison was dubbed the accidental prime minister. His goofy, dufus-dad persona was both cringeworthy and disarming. After all, Labor was going to romp it home at the next election. Morrison was surely destined to be a political footnote.

The 2019 election changed everything. Morrison proved to be an able campaigner. After all, if he was nothing else, he was a salesman. (Just like Trump.) Morrison convinced the electorate that his government was an able economic manager (false), that under the Coalition government the economy was strong and destined for even greater times (false), that the government had a plan (false), that pensioners were on Labor’s hit list (false), that the alternative to Morrison as PM was Bill Shorten (devastatingly true).

Graduates of the Peter Principle Academy are without peer when it comes to applying for jobs. Actual performance in those jobs is something else again.

As an elected Prime Minister, Morrison is no less avuncular when it suits him, but the mark of the man is now on full display: incompetent, erratic, disingenuous, wily, unprincipled, tin-eared and a mean streak a mile long.

Treating voters like mugs

His defence of the indefensible, whether it’s to defend suspect Ministers (Angus Taylor) and MPs (Gladys Liu), ideologically driven policies (climate-change inaction) and blatant double standards (the treatment accorded au pairs versus asylum-seeker families), comes naturally. It is based on a simple modus operandi: tough it out on the working assumption that Australians are mugs with short attention spans.

Morrison’s recalcitrance on climate change has made Australia an international pariah. His address before the United Nations in which he chided nations for not recognising Australia’s record as an environmental champion was a high point in chutzpah and one of the most excruciating and humiliating performances on the world stage by an Australian prime minister.

His fawning adoration of Donald Trump is even more deflating. His UN speech on climate change, along with his dismissal of Greta Thunberg, is at least in part intended to impress Trump. His ham-fisted, tactless and unsophisticated approach to the US-China trade war seems to be based on the binary US Good/China Bad, placing Australian relations with China at a 50-year low. Australia’s obeisance to the US on Iran, irrespective of assurances that Australia will not be drawn into a military conflict in Iran, is unlikely to end well. As for Australia’s preparedness to assist the Trump administration in its underhand campaign to discredit the Mueller inquiry goes well beyond the bounds of being a dependable ally. Morrison’s concurrence was at best naïve and at worst a blatant complicity with the tawdry politics of Trump’s bid for re-election.

Morrison’s failure as a regional leader, meanwhile, is another low point in Australian diplomacy. The contempt Morrison has displayed for Pacific nations on the question of climate change is nothing short of a disgrace and should mortify every Australian.

And yet, despite this being a manifestly appalling government and its head a bumbling, incompetent and disingenuous ideologue, the only response from the wider electorate is an unedifying imitation of crickets.

As to how this can be: either the electorate is not engaging, has taken a dramatic turn to the right, or is quietly biding its time until the next election in the guilty knowledge that they handed the keys to The Lodge to a flim-flam man.

Time will tell.

 Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

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Make way for the office turtles: they’re rude, thoughtless and dangerous

What is it about public transport that turns normally reasonable people into inconsiderate sloths? And what is it about crowded city footpaths that has made getting from A to B the pedestrian equivalent of roller derby?

I live in Macedon, on the regional fringes of Melbourne, surrounded by stately gums, an abundance of colourful birdlife and no pushing and shoving. With infrequent cause to visit the Big Smoke when I do chance to visit I rather resemble the country mouse in awe of the unfamiliar surrounds.

It being almost six years since I last worked in the city there is much that is new to take in. Melbourne’s cabs, for example, are no longer universally yellow, as they had been since the 1990s when then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett proclaimed that it must be so. That’s a change for the better; the mandatory yellow was a bit drab.

The former Media House, on the corner of Collins and Spencer streets, which was once my place of work, sits as handsomely as ever, ‘The Age’ masthead still emblazoned across its façade. Media House was originally intended as a monument to Fairfax’s grand plans for the 21st Century. It remains a monument, but to inept management and the demise of what was once one of the world’s great publishing houses.

Media House is situated across the road from Southern Cross Station which, like the rest of the city, is teeming with impatient throngs of humanity. Anyone who makes the mistake of pausing to gather one’s thoughts will find himself gathered up by an unforgiving – and unstopping – heaving organism dressed in track suits and backpacks (more about them later).

The march of the office turtles

I no longer have cause to wear my adored Zegna and Hugo Boss suits, but I weep at what has become of the suit. The new fashion is for jackets, much too tight for my taste, sitting just below the belt line. Millennial fundaments as far as the eye can see. Those who wear ties favour featureless hues but most prefer to go sans which would seem to obviate the necessity for a suit.

While ties are optional, backpacks seem to be de rigueur whatever one’s station. These are my old enemy the office turtles, ferrying goodness knows what on their backs, as they clog city thoroughfares. In the 1970s and 80s, the busy man about town was more likely to carry a “manbag”, in essence purses with wrist-straps. In most cases, these men sported unspeakable perms, thus the office poodle was the precursor of the office turtle. The point of raising this unedifying fashion trend, which died the unlamented death it deserved, is this: what is it that needs to be stored in backpacks the size of filing cabinets where once a man-purse sufficed?

The most annoying office turtles – male and female – are those who insist on wearing their backpacks on crowded trains, oblivious to the discomfort of bare-back passengers. As it is, trains are crowded and clearly not designed for the throngs they must carry, but when half of those passengers are wearing backpacks the trial of the peak-hour commute is magnified many times over.

Despite the cramped conditions, office turtles generally keep their backpacks on, much to the discomfort of whoever happens to be standing behind them. Office turtles behave as if they are the only ones on the train. They are not only a visual blight, but a risk to life and limb.

Inconsiderate office turtles blithely take up the space of two commuters and as they make their way to their desired spot on the train seated passengers will score a backpack-biff to the bonce while those who are standing will be rudely shunted aside by the reinforced office turtle.

The backpack wearers who affect a nod to civility are in the habit of removing their backpacks with furious abandon, in the process knocking hapless commuters off their already unsteady feet. It’s the public transport version of 10-pin bowling.

Unfortunately, the office turtles are not the only trial to be endured on public transport.

Takeaway food-ferals have turned trains into troughs on wheels. No matter how crowded and uncomfortable, there is always someone, any time of the day, filling carriages with the pungent odour of Kentucky Fried Chicken, curries, dips from hell and chips soaked in vinegar. It‘s also fashionable to come on board with cups of takeaway coffee. So if the smells don’t get you, a shower of latte might.

All these travails amount to one sorry fact: commuter travel has become intolerable.

What makes public transport travel to and from work such an ordeal is not so much the overcrowding but the astonishing rudeness and lack of consideration that one daily encounters.

On a city train recently a middle-aged married couple, apparently overseas tourists, lit up cigarettes. The indignant cries of “You can’t smoke on the train!” reverberated throughout the carriage. A group of students tucking into some of the Colonel’s finest watched impassively and without hindrance. The battle is lost.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He has been known to carry a backpack but has never worn one in public. He rants on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

The lesson of the Leigh Sales incident for men: stick to handshakes and you can’t go wrong

ABC presenter Leigh Sales has sparked a media firestorm following her very public expression of revulsion at being kissed on the lips by businessman Phil Newman when he introduced her at a charity ball she was hosting. Sales’ disquiet will be familiar to thousands of women who face unwanted kisses as part of their everyday working lives.

To recap briefly, Newman, having offered his cheek for Sales to peck then turned his head suddenly and planted an unwelcome kiss on her lips. Sales, clearly affronted, according to an account in Guardian Australia, had the presence of mind to make her objection known by declaring “hashtag me too” into her microphone before with admirable aplomb resuming her MC duties at the black tie dinner.

“The only reason I am commenting publicly is that given how many people witnessed the incident, I feel it would be gutless not to stand up and say that kind of behaviour is intolerable and the time for women being subject to it or having to tolerate it is long gone,” she later told Guardian Australia.

“I was offended and angered by the incident on Saturday night. I had strong words to the man involved, he apologised and I accepted that apology. That should be the end of it as far as I’m concerned.”

While it can be safely imagined that Newman is mortified by the experience, the incident is typical of that disturbing brand of male humour that considers the breach of a woman’s dignity to be a harmless jape, thus nullifying the sexual overtones that necessarily underpin the “joke”.

The deception behind Newman’s stolen kiss, and the violation itself, all in full view of 200 people, illustrate the unfair and unacceptable standards of behaviour that women must navigate daily. Choosing Sales for his gambit was just the first of Newman’s miscalculations, but imagine the same scenario with a younger, less confident, less powerful woman in Sales’ place.

Newman’s public humiliation ultimately occurred because it remains the fashion for men to greet women with a peck on the cheek. The lesson for men to be taken from Newman’s faux pas is not to stick to the cheek, but to do away with the peck altogether.

Hazards of the pecking order

Women in the workplace and other professional settings may not have to endure lip-on-lip contact but for most the peck on the cheek is equally something to be endured. They know that one of the hazards of success is being on the receiving end of the power kiss. The higher up the pecking order, the more likely the unwanted pecks.

Imagine being a businesswoman or woman of station about to enter a room in the knowledge that what awaits is a gaggle of men queuing to pucker up in greeting.

This is an issue I first canvassed in a column for the Australian Financial Review in 2011:

“To kiss or not to kiss? That is the question in these fraught times of gender do’s and don’ts. Business etiquette has, by and large, kept pace with shifting norms of behaviour that reflect greater equality between the sexes in workplaces and the corridors of power. But the issue of when, if at all, to greet a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek is unresolved.”

The response I received at the time was that most women don’t like being kissed at business or professional gatherings.

Who can blame them? Every time a woman walks into a crowded room, big boofy blokes will circle to plant a kiss on the cheek. The inevitable slobberthon can’t be pleasant for women.

As the Leigh Sales incident makes clear, many men are still programmed to pucker up the instant a member of the opposite sex enters their midst. For these men, the social distinction is clear: you shake hands with a man, you kiss a woman on the cheek.

Women who don’t like being kissed leave no room for doubt. At gatherings their hands shoot out before anyone has a chance to invade their face. But some women favour the kiss as an appropriate greeting, or at the very least are prepared, reluctantly, to let an outdated practice through to the keeper. And so the custom endures.

Business etiquette, which is generally attentive to changing norms of behaviour in the workplace, seems to have bypassed the power peck. The propriety of greeting a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek remains a grey area. (And don’t get me started on the hug – when did that start?)

Grey areas aren’t helpful when it comes to stomping out undesirable behaviour. Many men work on the assumption that a grey area is as good as a green light when it comes to zeroing in on a female colleague’s cheek.

Women are entitled to be free of manhandling. It would be better for all if clear rules of engagement were established once and for all. The rule can be expressed in one word: don’t.

The Queen has the right idea. When she’s on the job there’s no touching and no kissing. Flowers are optional.

The bottom line should be this: if it’s business, keep your lips to yourself.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Oh Captain, my captain: remembering Robin Williams 1951-2014

Beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams died by suicide on 11 August 2014 at the age of 63. As we approach the fifth anniversary of his death and to mark the National Suicide Prevention Conference 2019 I am republishing my tribute to Robin Williams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The demons that swirled within

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

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

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

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

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

There is no ready answer

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

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

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

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

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

His death will shed momentary light on this darkest of scourges: depression.

Let me conclude by quoting Stephen Fry, who like this writer suffers from depression, but unlike this journeyman journalist has the gift of writing with an angel’s touch:

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

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former columnist and senior writer with BRW, the Australian Financial Review and The Bulletin. He was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2014 and has written extensively on his experience with depression since.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

ADDENDUM: Ahead of the fifth anniversary of Robin Williams’ death his son Zak reflected on his father’s mental health anguish. He recently told Good Morning Britain“As a family member and a child, you want to do everything you can to help soothe and ease what seemed to be intense personal pain. It was sad to see someone who was suffering so.” Williams’ wife Susan Williams has attributed her husband’s suicide to the debilitating brain disease Lewy body dementia, stating emphatically: “It was not depression that killed Robin.” 

 

 

Bill Shorten believes he was robbed of the prime ministership and that should make Anthony Albanese very nervous

Bill Shorten is a political animal. Unelectable, but a political animal nonetheless. And while he may lack appeal, he does not lack wile.

He better than most understands the importance of optics in politics, and that is said despite his predilection for jogging for the cameras.

Instead of retiring to the backbench following his second successive election loss he very forcefully let it be known that he wanted to be a member of Anthony Albanese’s frontbench – despite having reportedly backed and campaigned for his deputy Tanya Plibersek to succeed him as Labor leader.

Albanese obliged his former boss by appointing him shadow minister for the NDIS and government services. “I thank Albo for giving me these responsibilities,” said Shorten, his chummy informality very possibly masking a range of truths, not the least being that he too struggles with the pronunciation of Albanese.

As for Plibersek, she had publicly declined the leadership, declaring that “now is not my time”.

“At this point, I cannot reconcile the important responsibilities I have to my family with the additional responsibilities of the Labor leadership,” she explained.

Plibersek has consistently taken this position over several years, placing family before political destiny. But while Plibersek can be taken at her word on matters of family, and likewise on her assessment that time is on her side, it is still telling to note what she has turned her back on.

Having lost two unlosable elections on the trot Labor will be understandably gun-shy about entering the 2022 election as favourites…but it will be, particularly if the Morrison government continues on its shambolic way.

There is every chance, given the “Rudd rule” which is designed to protect incumbents from challengers, that whoever is leader of federal Labor today will be prime minister in three years.

But do you get the feeling that nobody in the Labor caucus believes that?

Plibersek has plainly taken the view that accepting the leadership presented to her on a silver platter might not be the gift that it appears to be. Faction hostilities, after a hiatus of six years, show every sign of reigniting.

Shorten’s decision to remain on the frontbench is replete with portent. Albanese must know that but there is little he can do about it.

Albanese has decided to accommodate Shorten’s request, which is a little like “deciding” to say “yes” (on anything) to an 800Ilb gorilla. There is no way that Shorten’s Right faction would have permitted the Left’s Albanese to consign Shorten to the backbench against his will.

Although the NDIS is a matter close to Shorten’s heart, Albanese, in choosing it and the strictly junior portfolio of government services, will be hoping that Shorten’s narrow frontbench responsibilities will limit the subjects on which Shorten can speak publicly.

It will be interesting – and revealing – to see whether at some point Shorten claims the right, as a former Labor leader, to speak on any subject of his choosing.

Long-time leadership rivals

Shorten and Albanese are long-time leadership rivals. After the defeat of the second Rudd government in 2013 Shorten and Albanese became the first to contest the leadership under the Rudd Rule. The rank and file membership backed “Albo” but the caucus backed Shorten and triumphed.

It is almost certain that if not for the Rudd Rule Albanese would have challenged Shorten at some point in the latter’s leadership of Labor in opposition. Former leader of the House Christopher Pyne was not just creating mischief in Parliament when he repeatedly referred to Albanese’s leadership ambitions, much to his Labor mate’s discomfort.

One critical factor that protected Shorten’s leadership against anyone who would dare unleash the cumbersome and divisive process of launching a challenge under the new rules was the importance placed on a united Labor party.

Shorten, who played a key role in destabilising the prime ministerships of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, benefited from the self-evident – if self-interested – assertion that Australian voters would only trust a united Labor with government.

Except that they didn’t. Having lost the second successive unlosable election Labor’s factions immediately cast aside all semblance of unity and amity. Television footage of the first post-election Labor caucus meeting rendered palpable the unease and discord behind the wooden smiles.

Albanese becomes federal Labor’s twenty-first leader – elected unopposed; Richard Marles (shadow minister for defence) is his deputy. The redoubtable Penny Wong remains Labor leader in the Senate (and shadow foreign affairs minister), and former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally (shadow home affairs minister) – a loved or loathed figure in the Labor caucus – is her deputy. (Time will tell which senator will be the first to switch to the lower house.)

Keneally’s leadership berth comes at Albanese’s insistence. To make it happen, Labor’s byzantine factions, perhaps for one last time, chose to accommodate the new leader’s impertinence. In the name of gender equality the very talented Ed Husic stepped aside from the frontbench to create a spot for Keneally.

Albanese was quick to claim credit: “I’m making it very clear as leader of the Labor party [that] I want the best team, and the best team includes Kristina Keneally.”

Sacrifices made and not made

One might reasonably pose the question: if Albanese’s role is to come up with the strongest possible frontbench surely places could be found for both Husic and Keneally? That should be but isn’t Albanese’s role; his role is to balance the competing demands of the reawakened factions. Keneally is on the frontbench thanks to Husic’s sacrifice and she is deputy senate leader thanks to Right powerbroker Don ‘Who?’ Farrell giving up his claim on the deputy’s role.

Farrell, a key player in the defenestration of Rudd as prime minister, will no doubt keep a keen eye on the favour balance sheet, particularly as a boastful Albanese felt it prudent to claim credit for Farrell’s sacrifice.

“Even though he had the substantial support of caucus colleagues, [Farrell] was prepared to step aside as Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate on the basis that he understood that I had made it clear that my view was there needed to be gender balance in Labor’s leadership team,” Albanese said with firmness, if not elegance.

Farrell will be able to reflect on his sacrifice at his leisure: he has been appointed shadow minister for sport and tourism.

Shorten, however, did not feel the need to take a hit for the team. He would have known that his continued presence on the frontbench would spark speculation about his remaining leadership aspirations, as indeed it has. But his words have spoken far louder than his actions.

At the abovementioned Labor caucus meeting Shorten, while pledging his love for the Labor party and loyalty to Albanese – “I am ready to help you with uniting our party and carrying the case for Labor values” – made a point of blaming everyone but himself for the shock loss.

“[O]bviously we were up against corporate leviathans, a financial behemoth, spending an unprecedented hundreds of millions of dollars advertising, telling lies, spreading fear,” he said.

“Powerful vested interests campaigned against us, through sections of the media itself, and they got what they wanted.”

These words are telling and should make Albanese very nervous. In blaming dark forces in corporate Australia and the media (read Murdoch) Shorten is saying that voters were denied the opportunity to consider Labor under Shorten as ready for government. From this can be extrapolated the corollary: given clear air, given another chance, Shorten would be much more attractive to Australian voters as the alternative prime minister.

Bill Shorten believes he was robbed of the prime ministership and that spells danger for Anthony Albanese. Meanwhile, Peter Dutton still harbours leadership ambitions and will be watching Scott Morrison like a hawk. RIP the Canberra bubble? Don’t count on it.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Shorten’s tears for his mum rev up the campaign and put News Corp on the defensive…but who was right?

The federal election campaign is in the home stretch which might explain why a deadly-dull election has taken on a suddenly manic turn. That’s not to say that disengaged punters are necessarily paying more attention – or even any attention – but the pollies and the media are getting all fired up.

For party leaders girding their loins for the final week of campaigning the issues have never been more urgent: will campaign scouts be able to find enough babies, hospital patients and factory workers in high-vis vests to see out the campaign? Who’s being disendorsed this week? Can we make our scare campaigns scarier?

What really woke up the campaign was Bill Shorten tearing up as he recounted how much he loved his mum. As any tabloid-TV producer knows there’s nothing like tears to get the ratings soaring.

Bill was crying because the Daily Telegraph was mean to his late mum, Ann, and everyone seemed to agree with Bill that he was a victim of News Corp’s “gotcha shit”.

Social media, never an institution to overlook a good cry, was as one in condemning News Corp and embracing Bill with cuddle-bunny warmth and tenderness. Levels of engagement normally reserved for cat videos, reality TV walkouts and Eurovision upsets went Bill’s way, giving his lacklustre campaign a last-minute surge.

The Daily Telegraph brushed off the opprobrium, indeed wore it as a badge of honour, and insisted that it was simply filling in the blanks of Bill’s potted back-story heard on what was generally agreed to be Bill’s star turn on ABC TV’s QandA program.

The backlash against News Corp has been seismic. Tony Koch, a 30-year veteran who worked for The Australian and Brisbane’s Courier Mail and winner of five Walkley awards, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian in which he blasted the “shameful bias” of his former mastheads:

“No editor I worked for would have put up with the biased anti-Labor rubbish that, shamefully, the papers now produce on a daily basis.”

Koch’s j’accuse is not to be discounted, but is The Australian’s bias – let’s not shilly-shally, of course there’s bias, sometimes breathtaking in its brazenness – really such a new thing? Is Murdoch’s influence more pernicious today than it has been in the past?

Koch is not the only News Corp insider to answer the latter question with a resounding ‘Yes’.

The Guardian’s media correspondent Amanda Meade – who was the must-read media writer at The Australian for 18 years – followed up Koch’s spray with a report that The Australian’s social affairs writer, Rick Morton, had gone on the record to criticise his newspaper.

‘Something has changed in the last six months’

Morton, a thoughtful and penetrating writer, told journalism students at the University of Technology Sydney that senior writers know what the “editorial line” is this election and write their stories accordingly. But the virulence of bias at The Australian has journalists worried.

“There is a real mood that something has gone wrong,” Morton told the UTS students. “People will tell you going back a decade it used to be a very great paper, and in many ways it still is, but some of the craziness has been dialled up.”

Morton added that “something has changed in the last six months”.

“I don’t know what it is. Death rattles or loss of relevance? And journos pretty much spend all day talking about it.”

Journalists at The Australian shouldn’t be too hard on the broadsheet or themselves. It still has some of the best journalism and writing in the country (including Morton’s). As for the bias, well, to be blunt, the Sun King will be breathe his last any day now. It’s unlikely that he will be setting “editorial lines” from the grave, although if anyone can, Rupert’s the man.

Is the “craziness” a function of Rupert Murdoch and his band of Little Ruperts, in which case salvation is only one obituary away, or is the poison so deeply rooted in News Corp culture that so is News Corp? (Rooted, that is.)

Which takes us back to Shorten’s mum and the Daily Telegraph. The newspaper clearly crossed the line in what it says was an exercise in correcting the record. Its virulence went well beyond overzealous reporting; it was a hatchet job and as such was widely seen as the latest salvo in a co-ordinated News Corp assault on Bill Shorten.

The overwhelming condemnation of the Daily Telegraph’s story was telling, although it is not immediately clear telling of what. Has News Corp finally offended community standards of decency? Will the backlash cause the empire’s editors to, if not retreat, tone down their bias in this and future elections? Will News Corp journalists do what their Fairfax comrades did in 1988 and demand a charter of editorial independence?

The pity of the Daily Telegraph’s jack-booted job on Bill Shorten and his mum is that a reasonable point was obscured by the rivers of bile.

Shorten’s argument found much favour

The premise of the attack was that Shorten only told part of the story on QandA when he recounted, sotto voce and with sorrowful countenance, how his mother gave up her dream to study law to instead train as a teacher because it came with a scholarship which would be a boon for her straitened family.

The Daily Telegraph’s position was that Shorten deliberately neglected to mention that Bill’s mum did go on to become a barrister. That was the “gotcha shit” that Shorten was referring to. Shorten later argued that he had discussed his mother’s legal career on previous occasions and so was not hiding anything in the latest telling of his story.

Shorten’s argument found much favour but by my reckoning it is disingenuous sophistry. One does not seek to make a defining statement – in Shorten’s case, how his late mother’s struggle was the reason he pursued a political career – by assuming that some of the most important detail will be understood and therefore need not be repeated.

As any seasoned politician knows: always assume there is someone in the room who hasn’t heard your argument or position before.

I, for one, did not know that Ann went on to become a barrister, despite hearing Shorten’s tribute to his mother several times.

Shorten made an error of judgement in being selective, on this particular occasion, about his mother’s life struggle. You do not address a national television audience, in a bid for the prime ministership, and wittingly or unwittingly tell only half of a story intended to elicit sympathy and/or admiration, and not expect to be called on it. It’s immaterial that the story happened to be a moving account about his mother.

There are lessons to be taken from this unfortunate incident. There are lessons that may or may not be heeded by News Corp. And there are lessons that election campaign strategists should consider.

Political leaders seeking to profit from their backstory are only asking for trouble. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull sought to be defined (and reimagined) by their back-stories, only to have aspects of their narrative challenged. In any case, loving your mum is irrelevant to one’s qualifications for high office or as a measure of decency. Al Capone loved his mum too.

If Bill Shorten is the victor next week it will be entirely appropriate that Ann receives loving tribute from her son. Anything else Bill has to say about his mum will hopefully be saved for his memoir.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

We need to talk about Bill: Shorten’s unpopularity could still lose Labor the unlosable election

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg opened the federal election campaign proudly spruiking Frydenberg’s “back in the black” Budget. It was a disingenuous start to the campaign.

There is nothing in the black about Frydenberg’s first and very possibly last budget. More murky grey. The much vaunted surplus – intended to reinforce the mythology of the Liberals’ superiority over Labor as economic managers – is in fact a predicted surplus of $7 billion in 2019-20, which means it is not a fact at all.

The intention of the Government’s sophistry is to ensure that the binary of Liberal/surplus dominates the campaign.

The bogus nature of the Coalition’s budget was implicitly understood by the electorate. One powerful reason for this – something either not understood or simply ignored by the Government – is that despite giddy claims of a strong economy most Australians feel as if they are in the middle of a recession.

Negligible wages growth, job insecurity, underemployment, the rising cost of living at odds with official inflation data, crippling household debt, looming mortgage shock, a discernible gap between the richest and poorest and lacklustre consumer confidence combine to create a bleak reality far removed from the Government’s upbeat “back in the black” mantra.

In his Budget reply, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, delivering one of his best parliamentary performances, forcefully challenged the Government’s rosy view of the economy. He questioned the Budget’s optimistic assumptions, he identified some of Frydenberg’s conjuring tricks (most notably the sleight of hand involved in using the $3.4 billion underspend in the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the current financial year and a $3 billion reduction in NDIS spending for 2019-20 to pump up the projected surplus. This despite the fact that there is broad stakeholder agreement that the NDIS is dangerously underfunded.

Shorten was also effective in making his case that the Government’s regime of tax-cuts was in the face of a worsening global economic outlook.

“This isn’t a tax plan, it’s a ticking debt bomb,” Shorten said in one of his most devastating pronouncements. Another was: “What we need is a fighting fund for the country, a strong surplus to protect us from international shocks.”

The Budget was designed to put a spring in the Government’s step as it entered the election campaign. Instead, the Budget revealed its feet of clay. No wonder Morrison put off announcing the election for as long as possible.

Labor returns to its roots

Labor entered the campaign not only buoyed by the Budget’s manifest inadequacies but also Shorten’s Budget reply, which delivered an election manifesto unequalled since the Hawke-Keating years.

While the Liberal party can’t get past the nonsense of “if you have a go, you get a go”, Labor returned to its roots in setting out a vision for Australia that struck a chord with Australians no longer content with having their destinies decided by market.

The Liberal party promise of small government is ideological deadwood.

Australia has never had small government, nor has there ever been a genuine clamour for it. But it has been a clarion call that has historically served the Liberals well. Whatever “small government” has meant to Australians, it seems to have pressed the right buttons.

Labor goes into the election not with the promise of big government – no one would dare – but with a commitment to a big agenda: the revitalisation of TAFE, vocational education and training and apprenticeships; a voice for Indigenous Australians in policy-making (including the promise that the “Father of Reconciliation”, Senator Pat Dodson, will be Minister for Indigenous Affairs in a Shorten government); the ceasing of hostilities between Canberra and the ABC, including a commitment to boost regional broadcasting; and funding boosts for the NDIS, health (including the $2.3 billion expansion of bulk billing and the “biggest cancer-care package in Australian history”), education (including pre-school education) and infrastructure; and renewed commitments to addressing climate change, the introduction of a “living wage” and restoration of penalty rates.

Labor’s agenda is not just about economic management, but about values and a vision for Australia, long missing in Australian public discourse.

After six years of a Coalition government that has never been comfortable with the mantle of government (despite its belief that it is the natural party of government), which has found itself hostage to ideological warfare between the moderate and conservative wings of the party (resulting in three prime ministers in six years), and which has given every appearance – exhausted, frayed and erratic – of a government that has been in power not six years but 16. Add to that one of the weakest ministries since Federation, and a coalition partner comprising an assortment of village idiots, and the Morrison government’s “pro” column is looking pretty depleted.

Not surprisingly, the opinion polls could hardly spell better news for Labor and one does not have to be a one-eyed leftie to judge Scott Morrison a bumbling, inept and shallow prime minister of caricature proportions.

Voters wary of the Bill factor

And yet, with the election in full swing, there is noticeably little appetite for declaring Labor the sure winner. The reason for that reticence can be summed up in two words: Bill Shorten.

The same opinion polls that have consistently put Labor ahead of the Coalition also highlight Shorten’s unpopularity with voters. It’s true that disliking a leader generally does not dissuade Australians from voting for the leader’s party. And yet, Bill Shorten seems to be in a league of his own when it comes to unpopularity. One does not need the pollster’s statistics to know that most Australians have a visceral dislike of Shorten.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why that is, mainly because there are so many possibilities. Bill Shorten is the Charlie Brown of Australian politics: wishy-washy, indecisive, bland, with a penchant for saying the wrong thing. Yet most of us love Charlie Brown – as long as he doesn’t ask us to vote for him – so what is it over and above Shorten’s wishy-washiness that repels voters?

Most Australians cannot move beyond Shorten’s role in the unseating of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard as prime minister. Shorten has made some capital from the inability of Scott Morrison to explain why Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister. Yet Shorten has never explained why he was moved to orchestrate the demise of Rudd and Gillard, let alone why, having deemed Rudd unelectable and/or unworthy of high office mid-way through his first term as prime minister, engineered his triumphant return.

Not to be unkind, but there is a lot more to dislike about Shorten.

His ambivalence on contentious policy issues (Adani, asylum seekers, taxation, Christmas Island) is grating, particularly when taken against his commendable readiness to release contentious policies such as the abolition of negative gearing and franking credits.

His wooden unease in public despite a lifetime in the public eye (“What’s your favourite type of lettuce?”), his inability to think quickly on his feet (from “I don’t know what PM Julia Gillard said, but I agree with her” to this week’s yes/no gaffe on superannuation taxation), his peculiar speechcraft (in which he experiments with various speaking techniques and intonations in a single speech), his tendency to speak to the media in over-rehearsed soundbites (and stumbling when speaking off the cuff) and his ill-advised jogging in the (presumably pre-arranged) media glare, complete with goofy grin, arms in the air triumphantly on crossing the non-existent finish line, and his bouncy exuberance.

Who is Bill Shorten?

Not unreasonably, voters like to think they have a handle on their political leaders when it comes to voting time. After six years as Opposition leader voters think they have at least a partial fix on Shorten: untrustworthy, inauthentic, evasive, awkward and perhaps a little strange. More frustrating, one suspects, is the feeling that if there is more to Shorten it’s many layers below the surface.

After his impressive Budget-reply speech Shorten seems to have reverted to his unpopular self.

Defenders of Bill Shorten point out that Shorten came within one seat of winning government. Others, including this writer, would argue that the 2016 election was Labor’s to win.

Australia cannot afford the return of the Morrison government. It is tired, incompetent and spent, has no long-term vision for Australia, nor a short-term understanding of the economic and social changes facing Australia. It’s also very likely that Morrison will find his leadership challenged, despite claims that the Liberal party has introduced a system to ensure it is more difficult to unseat a prime minister.

But Labor should be under no false illusions; a disaffected electorate will return the Coalition – very possibly as a minority government – if “the Shorten factor” proves too big an obstacle to overcome.

Labor has the agenda and a powerful line-up of shadow ministers to implement it. Australians need to hear more about the former and see more of the latter. As for Bill Shorten: just settle down. This is your race to win. Or lose.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Christopher Pyne has announced his retirement from Parliament. Has ‘the fixer’ washed his hands of the broken Liberal party?

In a vapid parliament of mediocre cut-out MPs, Christopher Pyne is one of the few genuine characters in Australian politics. He is not to everyone’s taste. Pyne is “very Adelaide”, in the mould of fellow Liberal Alexander Downer, and is a polarising figure with it: people either love him or loathe him. Julia Gillard famously denounced him as a mincing poodle.

Canberra observer and columnist with The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Tony Wright is already feeling nostalgic: “It is all but impossible to imagine Australia’s Parliament without a Christopher Pyne: if he didn’t exist, you’d have to invent him, but you’d need an uncommon imagination.”

It has been observed that the departing Defence Minister and Leader of the House is sparkling good company, a bon vivant and raconteur par excellence.

And yet, apart from enlivening Canberra and Adelaide dinner parties, and despite having one of the most prominent profiles in Australian politics, Pyne doesn’t have much to show for his 26 years in federal parliament.

His retirement from parliament – which he entered in 1993 as the member for Sturt as a 25-year-old – is significant not because it brings a glittering career to a close, but because it signals the crushing rout that awaits the shambolic Morrison government, very possibly the worst government in modern Australian politics.

Pyne and Defence Industries Minister Steve Ciobo add to the tally of ministers that won’t be contesting the next election, including Minister for Women, Jobs and Industrial Relations Kelly O’Dwyer, Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Foreign Minister Marise Payne and former small business minister Craig Laundy are also tipped to quit parliament.

Liberal leadership? No thanks

Whatever the reasons given by the ministers for their imminent retirement from parliament – and despite their loyal if meaningless assurances that the Morrison government will win the next election – each departing minister will have concluded that the prospect of at least six years in opposition was too much to stomach. Not even the prospect of leading what’s left of the parliamentary Liberal party after the next election was enough to stem the flow of departures.

Whoever takes on the Liberal leadership in the first instance will have the important job of steadying and rebuilding what is likely to be a shattered rump. Peter Costello, the loyal deputy leader bitter at being denied the prime ministership by the faltering John Howard, opted not to take on that healing role after the 2007 Ruddslide, instead choosing to quit parliament. The spluttering cascade of leaders began with the hapless Brendan Nelson.

Twelve years later, Julie Bishop has been cast in the Peter Costello role. The time will come when Bishop, the ever-loyal deputy whose one shot at the Lodge was stymied to make way for the bumbling Scott Morrison, will be decried by some, as Costello was, for putting her own disappointment before the wellbeing of the Liberal party. Costello left a leadership vacuum in his wake, as will Bishop.

Christopher Pyne could have filled that vacuum but plainly he has no leadership ambitions. (He ran for the deputy leadership in 2007 in a ballot easily won by Julie Bishop.) But his decision to leave parliament at a time when the Liberal party is facing an existential crisis could deprive him of his most substantial contribution to his party. How the “broad church” responds to the challenge of opposition, particularly in that crucial first term, could well decide the future of the Liberal party.

Return to the centre

The party’s shift to the right has been disastrous. It resulted in six lost years of unstable, indecisive, incoherent and barren government.

Whoever leads the parliamentary Liberal party after May cannot do so on the basis of business-as-usual. He or she has to start the process of reinvigorating the Liberal party, bringing it back to the centre ground and preparing it for government.

The indefatigable Pyne would have been ideal for such a role. As opposition leader he would be relentless – more terrier than poodle – doggedly nipping at the heels of Prime Minister Bill Shorten (get used to it). No one in the Coalition thinks faster on their feet, no one speaks with greater confidence. If Pyne was born to fill one role in federal politics, surely it would be that of an opposition leader nursing a shattered party back to health and holding a government with a thumping majority to account.

Pyne considers himself a leading moderate in the Liberal party but as a self-described “fixer” and an acknowledged tactician of considerable acumen, he has spent the past six years enabling a government beholden to the party’s right wing.

In the course of a 26-year career Pyne meandered his way through a succession of shadow portfolios, parliamentary secretary roles, a stint as Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing in the dying days of the Howard government, and several ministerial portfolios including Minister for Ageing, Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Minister for Defence Industry and his current portfolio Minister for Defence.

For an MP who has so little to show for his 26 years in Parliament saving his beloved Liberal party – “I believe in the party and always will” – might have been the challenge of a lifetime.

In choosing to retire Pyne has deliberately absented himself from the question of who will lead the party after May. (For the record, Pyne has stated that he believes the Morrison government will be returned.) His departure, he says, marks a “time to renew” for the Liberal party. It says “not my problem” even more stridently.

The Liberals can look forward to six more years of leadership instability after the May election.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Scott Morrison’s Jerusalem fiasco lays bare the incompetence of our accidental PM

Scott Morrison may well go down in history as the accidental prime minister but extending the theme to characterise him as accident-prone lets him off the hook far too easily. The biggest revelation of the dysfunctional Morrison government is just how out of his depth its namesake is.

Although one is spoiled for choice when it comes to collating instances of the L-plate PM’s missteps we need look no further than the political and diplomatic mire he has created over the mooted relocation of Australia’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

An issue that began as a spectacularly ill-judged and ham-fisted political gambit during the Wentworth by-election – so transparently replete with ulterior motive as to invite guffaws were the matter not so serious – should have been allowed to recede into the mist of the 24-hour news cycle.

Instead, Morrison, more at ease playing daggy dad or unctuous uncle, decided to flick the switch to sombre statesman and make the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy his diplomatic line in the sand.

A more contentious foreign policy stance is hard to imagine. Nor, for Australia, a more irrelevant and unnecessary position.

And yet, suddenly, implausibly, the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy has become a matter of national interest from which the government will not resile.

Australia’s flirtation with a Jerusalem embassy was problematic enough when it was just a specious thought-bubble; now it has taken on the gravitas of a defining foreign policy milestone.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has raised the stakes considerably – and gratuitously – with an extraordinary attack on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whom he accused of being anti-Semitic. The prompt for the unseemly onslaught followed an approach by Mahathir to Scott Morrison during the ASEAN Summit in Singapore in which he expressed misgivings about Australia’s consideration of a Jerusalem embassy. (Mahathir’s concern was that such a move would heighten terrorist activity in the region.)

Frydenberg’s discourse seemed more like school-yard barbs than the considered reflections of a senior government minister.

“Dr Mahathir does have form, as you know, he’s made a number of derogatory comments in the past about Jews being hook-nosed, he has questioned the number of people that have been killed in the Holocaust and he also saw the banning of Schindler’s List, the movie about the saviour of millions of people by righteous gentiles through that horrible period in world history,” Frydenberg told the ABC.

Frydenberg weighs in with his size-12s

Further wedging the government into an unwinnable corner of its own making, Frydenberg thundered with patriotic indignation: “Australia will make its own decisions based on its national interest.”

As Treasurer Frydenberg would not normally aver on matters of high foreign policy, but as a prominent Jewish MP he clearly felt entitled to brandish his size-12s in such sensitive terrain. Rather than caution his senior minister for his potentially damaging lack of diplomatic finesse, Morrison explained that Frydenberg was simply “filling in the history of [Mahathir’s] record on various issues over time”.

Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr was closer to the mark in his assessment of Frydenberg’s dummy-spit when he tweeted: “I can’t believe Josh Frydenberg has taken it on himself to attack [the] Malaysian PM. Federal Treasurers don’t assail leaders of friendly countries. What got into him?”

Frydenberg petulantly responded to Carr’s criticism by posing what he no doubt thought a clever line of attack: “Does he [Carr] agree with Dr Mahathir that less than six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust? Does he agree with Dr Mahathir that Jews are hook-nosed people? Does he agree with Dr Mahathir that Schindler’s List shouldn’t have been shown in ­Malaysia?”

This is what stands for public discourse in the dying days of the Morrison government.

Former Prime Minister John Howard, who favours the Jerusalem move, has hardly added to the substance of the “debate”.

“I can’t accept that Australian foreign policy, particularly on something as basic as where we put an embassy, should be determined by other countries,” Howard told The Weekend ­Australian.

As if the decision is simply one of choosing a better neighbourhood.

The typically reckless decision by the Trump administration to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem – thus recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – was never going to attract Australia’s reproach, deserved though it would have been. On matters concerning Israel Australian foreign policy has always erred on the side of indulgence.

Australia’s idea of principle when it comes to Israel bears an uncanny resemblance to cowardice in the form of abstentions in key United Nations votes. In December last year Australia abstained from a UN vote condemning the US embassy move to Jerusalem (overwhelmingly carried) as it did in 2012 when the UN voted, again overwhelmingly, to grant the Palestinian Authority status as a non-member state.

Not surprisingly, nobody – neither the US or Israel, nor whatever might qualify as the Jewish lobby in Australia – expected, much less sought, Canberra to weigh in on the deeply contentious embassy issue.

Incompetent foreign policy neophyte

The US decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem – announced in December 2017 and implemented in May – is a major set-back to the already slim prospect of a two-state solution. Palestine considers East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. For Trump to describe the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “a long overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement” is bone-headed sophistry.

Enter newly minted Prime Minister Scott Morrison, facing defeat in the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth, who places the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy firmly on the political agenda, where it stubbornly remains thanks to a prime minister who seems incapable of killing off the issue.

To argue that the embassy issue is one of national interest is so comprehensively bogus that Australians are entitled to conclude that their prime minister is either an incompetent foreign policy neophyte or just another disingenuous politician. It’s both: too green to discern the dangers of his Jerusalem thought-bubble, too arrogant and politically vulnerable to admit a mistake.

Morrison demonstrated what national interest really looks like when within a week of becoming prime minister he made a point of visiting Indonesia to meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. High on his mind was the much anticipated $16 billion free-trade deal with Indonesia.

Not so high was Morrison’s plan to relocate Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, because there was no such plan. That was in August. Fast-forward to October and Indonesia, Australia’s closest neighbour with the world’s largest Muslim population is aghast to learn, pretty well at the same time as Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, defence and security chiefs and senior diplomats that Australia is considering following the Trump line on Jerusalem.

At first blush, the Government is right to assert that Australian foreign policy is for Australia to decide. Except that this is not and never was a serious – let alone credible  – foreign policy position.

The failed gambit was an insult to Jewish voters in Wentworth, who rejected it for the cynical sop that it was; it’s an insult to the people of Australia who have yet to be presented with a coherent reason for such a momentous shift in foreign policy; and it’s an insult to our Muslim-majority neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia rightly aggrieved at Australia’s insensitivity and amateurish diplomacy. It’s no wonder that Australia’s pretensions of being a bona fide member of the Asian community are scoffed at, not least by Malaysia’s Mahathir.

Scott Morrison insists that a decision on Jerusalem will not be made until Christmas. He should give himself an early Christmas present and bring this sorry saga to a close now.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

When a female colleague revealed her brush with a sex-crazed CEO my view of sexual harassment in the workplace was completely transformed

I once wrote a column for BRW in which I expressed ambivalence about a sexual harassment survey which showed an alarming incidence of aberrant behaviour in the workplace. My concern was the survey’s wide selection of behaviours that constituted sexual harassment. This, I argued, trivialised what was a demonstrated and serious issue in the workplace. The gist of my conclusion was: we know there is a problem, so instead of yet another survey of dubious robustness, let’s get on with fixing the problem.

Upon publication I was contacted by one of my female colleagues at Fairfax, someone I held in very high regard personally and as a journalist.

She explained that women were concerned by what might appear inconsequential behaviours – a remark passed off as humour, a light touch on the shoulder – because these women had very likely faced far more egregious behaviour during their working lives.

One might be more forgiving of workplace cut and thrust if that were the extent of behaviour to be tolerated by women. But “harmless” banter might take on a completely different hue if taken in the context of behaviour that is rooted in more sinister attitudes of male entitlement and the relative place of women in the workforce and indeed society.

Women who have been groped on public transport, propositioned by strangers while walking down the street or assumed to be “available” simply because they choose to be in a bar or café alone have every reason to be less patient with the axiom that “boys will be boys”.

It is a forlorn hope that the workplace provides women with sanctuary from the realities of the outside world. For no matter how collegiate and professionally fulfilling a workplace might be, the sad truth is that attitudes in the workplace are a mirror image of attitudes in the wider community.

An incident no male journalist would find himself in

My friend, who gently suggested that my column lacked empathy, confided in me an experience, not an isolated one, which took me aback.

She recounted an occasion when she, a prominent journalist, was interviewing a prominent CEO (whom she did not name) in his office who not only propositioned her but briefly mounted a chase around the boardroom table. Now, she is someone who can well take herself and she managed to defuse the situation, but the ordeal would have been no less objectionable not to say terrifying.

I was aghast. This was an incident that no male journalist would find himself in. Many thoughts raced through my mind. How many other female journalists have had such experiences? What if it had been a junior or less composed journalist in this case – how traumatic would such an experience be? How many other women had this CEO threatened and very possibly scarred? And what impact must this CEO have had on his company’s culture and attitudes to women in his workplace?

My column, taken in a vacuum, might have made perfect sense. But sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum.

It is behaviour founded on prejudice, bias, discrimination, misogyny and entrenched attitudes of male entitlement, power and privilege. “Just a joke” starts to sound pretty thin in such a charged – and manifestly inequitable – context.

Of course there are those women who can hold their own and give as good as they get. But although their lines of tolerance may be further down the track, they are no less subject to toxic work cultures for women – for example, when it comes to career advancement.

A decent, respectful workplace ensures that all employees, from the most junior to the most senior, are valued, empowered and heeded. A workplace founded on dignity and respect is no less disposed to being a place of amity, good humour and vibrancy – indeed is more likely to be such a workplace – which is to debunk those who charge that “do-gooders” would turn workplaces into mausoleums.

If the more ardent proponents of sexual harassment-free workplaces have set the bar very high for what constitutes such a workplace, it is because women have had to endure so much for so long simply and only because they are women.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter @DAngeloFisher