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

 

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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

 

Scott Morrison may be a dud PM but the job has done wonders for his CV

If Scott Morrison is the best the Liberal party can offer the people of Australia perhaps it has simply lost interest and run out of puff as it awaits its looming spell on the opposition benches. More bored church than broad church.

Morrison’s accidental prime-ministership is not entirely without merit. Among the positives for which he deserves kudos: he is no longer Treasurer, he doesn’t wear Speedos to work and, with abundant Christian charity, he brought his predecessor’s death by a thousand cuts to an early close.

While it is true that these highlights have been obscured by the daily spectacle of exploding thought bubbles it is important to see the nascent Morrison government in its proper context: if you think things are bad now…well, they are.

Morrison has approached his prime-ministership with missionary zeal, and history tells us that never ends well.

Still, there is something about Morrison’s unfailingly happy disposition that inspires us all to seek the spirit. Grappa, for example.

Morrison’s career before he entered parliament was not exactly top-shelf – an executive role with the Property Council and various executive positions in tourism-industry bodies culminating in the managing director’s role at Tourism Australia for a couple of years. And yet, here he is, Prime Minister of Australia.

Morrison is Old Testament to the lofty ideal that anyone can aspire to the nation’s leadership.

But did he aspire to the very top job? There have been no playground recollections of Morrison vowing to his schoolmates that one day he would be PM. More is the pity as that may explain why he is so clearly unprepared for the job now that he has it. Never has a new prime minister hit the ground with such a splatt. Even Tony Abbott, demonstrably a woeful prime minister, had things he wanted to do once he got the top job. Mainly breaking promises, but at least he had an agenda.

It’s very possible that Morrison’s first prayer on becoming prime minister was something along the lines of, “Jesus! Now what?”

While policy on the run may complement Morrison’s sporting mien it does not instil confidence in the policy directions being set for the country. There are many examples of Morrison government intemperance: from the half-baked decision to appoint Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott as special envoys (for drought and indigenous affairs respectively) to flagging the relocation of Australia’s Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem.

‘Bible bashers make the best bastards’

When Morrison decided to enter politics he no doubt did so with ambition to achieve high office…perhaps just not that high. One suspects that being Sports Minister would have been a more than adequate attainment for the Sharks super-fan. It certainly would have been more closely aligned with Morrison’s ministerial and intellectual comfort zones.

His stints as Immigration and Border Protection Minister and Social Services Minister gave rise to speculation that Morrison was a future leader. And so he was, but that doesn’t make the speculation well informed. When all is said and done these ministerial roles basically confirmed two well tested verities: that bible bashers make the best bastards, and that bastards make the best conservative leaders – at least in the eyes of fellow conservatives.

But Morrison is not proving a leader at all. His game plan, such as it is, offers no vision for Australia, nor does his lacklustre ministry (in which Turnbull plotters were, if not rewarded, left unpunished) evoke confidence in its ability to organise a chook raffle much less a vision were one to exist. Instead, his focus has been on perfecting his persona, and even then he can’t decide if he wants to be the nation’s daggy dad or avuncular everyman. More thought has gone into his headwear – baseball cap in, Akubra out – than what’s going on beneath it.

Not since Jim Hacker has someone become prime minister with so little idea of what comes next.

Australians have a right to expect that with high office comes high principle and high aspiration for the greater good. Instead, Australian governance has been reduced to high farce.

The coup against Malcolm Turnbull and the installation of Morrison as his successor has been about power: the exercise of naked power by vengeful forces within the Liberal party to topple a sitting leader with little regard for consequences let alone care for who might assume the mantle of the vanquished. If the best interests of Australia figured at all in these machinations they remain closely guarded.

Scott Morrison is unable to articulate why Turnbull was deposed as prime minister so perhaps it stands to reason that neither is he able to explain why he is prime minister, or even what we can expect from his government now that he is.

Perhaps the joke is on us. It is London to a brick that the Coalition is headed for certain defeat at next year’s federal election – Turnbull was at least a chance – and it may well be that Morrison considers it a sufficient achievement to top his CV with the office of prime minister.

Much more impressive than Managing Director of Tourism Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer 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

 

 

Marriage is a collection of things said and not said…and you can quote me on that

Marriage is, among other things, a collection of things said and not said; things that could have been better said, things that should not have been said at all; things whose meaning changed over time; things that were never said yet were; things that go without saying and things that do not; and things that cannot be unsaid.

The following six vignettes began as midnight ruminations, plucked from 25 years of marriage. Twenty-five years is a big slice of life. Perhaps it can be said that divorce is a life instalment retracted, or as our American friends might say, a life misspoken. For me, life is material. I hope I’ve chosen well:

01 My wife believed in the sanctity of the parent-teacher interview. I did not.

Parent-teacher interviews are a bit like performance reviews: there is nothing to say but everyone plays along to see if that nothing can be stretched out to a respectable five minutes. Well, mostly everyone. My view is: if there is nothing to be said what are we doing here?

When our kids were going to school my wife was a public servant (she is still the latter, but not the former) so naturally took the view that any meeting is a good meeting. That means lots of engagement, exposition and eye contact whereas I would prefer to leave, or better still, not be there in the first place.

Unfortunately, not believing in parent-teacher interviews and actually saying so is treated with the same gravity as advertising the children on Gumtree.

The advice here is not to think better of parent-teacher interviews but to look upon them as an opportunity to brush up on your social skills.

02 In marriage small talk is a big deal

I’ve never had the gift of small talk, which is not helpful in a marriage, or parent-teacher interviews.

At times when I have felt that I really needed to say something in a particular social or professional situation my brain is so shocked by instructions to pronounce on the weather or the football that it assumes it’s been hacked and the words that emerge from my mouth have been encrypted for my own protection – at least that’s what it must sound like to anyone listening.

I get that small talk has a purpose. I really do. I’ve written columns about small talk; I’ve even talked to my therapist about my inability to engage in small talk.

I used to watch my in-laws do small-talk with each other and it would always be the same script: pater-in-law would kick off with something about the weather, usually involving northerly winds. Back and forth, back and forth until something takes and a conversation would begin.

Pater-in-law would kick off with something about the weather, usually involving northerly winds.

My mother-in-law in particular placed great reliance on small talk (and presumably still does). She abhors silence between two or more people. Even the millifraction of silence between crisply enunciated words is a challenge. The result could be a panicked non sequitur on embalming techniques in ancient Egypt or a selection of her great aunt’s favourite soup recipes. Not infrequently she would muddle competing gambits and the result would be either transfixing or fathomless, and sometimes both.

My wife was of the “it’s only weather but it would be impolite not to discuss it” school. Which is to say, if two people, particularly two people married to each other, are sitting in silence, why not break the ice with a commentary on the prevailing humidity or the El Niño effect.

I was and remain of the “if you have nothing to say don’t say it” academy. This made for some very quiet moments in the marital bathroom, over breakfast and in any situation involving unavoidable proximity. Unfortunately, no small talk tended to mean no big talk, which in a marriage can be a problem if only one of you is into companionable silence.

 03 Did I say that? Actually, no, I didn’t

It was a parent-teacher interview that gave rise to a risible canard (by which I do not mean a corgi).

Sitting with my son before his English teacher, apropos of an essay that my boy had written to less than popular acclaim, I suddenly found myself being lectured on the secrets of successful writing. Hoping this was a passing reference I merely smiled at the advice that ranked somewhere between clueless and clichéd. But on she went, and on.

Was the teacher aware that I was a man of letters (which should have been evident from the freshly stamped mail I was holding) and that I was going to miss the 6 o’clock collection? But that’s an aside. I wondered if she knew that I was a journalist, in which case her twee lecture on the “power of words” was surely superfluous. Or did she not know? Don’t teachers make it their business to know what their students’ parents do? Or did she in fact know and was trying to make some barbed point about journalism today?

These are the kinds of rumination I reported back to my wife that evening, whereupon the legend was born that I had thundered to the harried teacher, “Don’t you know who I am!” I could think of few things that would embarrass me more than people believing I had said such a wanky thing.

I’m thinking of having a t-shirt made that says: “What do you mean you don’t know who I am?”

04 When yesterday’s banter becomes tomorrow’s fighting talk

As the delicate flower of marriage withers the grapes of grievance grow with unseemly vigour.

By the time separation occurs the prosecuting partner has such an exhaustive catalogue of faults that not only does one struggle with the specific cause of the breakdown but one has to justify to friends why the marriage ever took place at all.

Fortunately, friends understand and will generously confide that “we never did like him/her” by way of support. Let’s not be shy, “him”.

No wonder divorcees seldom reconcile. By the time a divorce has been granted the warring parties are frothing at the mouth and/or organising divorce parties.

“No wonder divorcees seldom reconcile.”

An indicator of a failing marriage is that observations once greeted as markers of wisdom, intellect or comedy genius suddenly become grating reminders of everything you hate about your once adored partner. One doesn’t see these transitions in real time and by the time one does one realises he has been hoist with his own petard; no matter that your petard had until recently been much admired.

I could cite many instances of finding myself in this situation, but I shall reflect on a particular favourite.

When I would return home from a speaking engagement my wife would ask how the engagement went. I would remark that it was “a triumph” and she would laugh at my immodesty and I was happy to be part of the gag. At some uncharted point my wife came to hate my declaration of triumph even though it was a self-deprecating boast. (Although, as the old saying goes, “many a true word is spoken in jest”.)

Initially I thought it was simply a change in the routine. And then another dynamic came into play. When I realised that she really did hate me saying my speaking gig had been a triumph, that it made her angry with me for being boastful and arrogant, rather than change the routine (say, by having a real conversation) I wilfully scratched the blackboard.

05 Silence is not golden, but some things should be left unsaid

Spouses have to exercise some discretion when it comes to unflattering observations or assessments about their mate. In a successful marriage, or even just a plain old fashioned enduring one, some things are best left unsaid.

If, for illustrative purposes only, telling your spouse that one ear is bigger than the other is unlikely to prove endearing, is it really worth it? If your deliberations include the words “I’m going to say it anyway” or “what’s the most he/she can say?” stop your mouth now.

There will be times of abandon when a spouse may think it’s worth the roll of the dice. One might be angry about something else, or just bored, or just not thinking straight, or just thinking about Declan and/or Daiquiri in Accounts, but bugger it, this has to be said: “You know, I’ve never liked your cooking.” Or, “I don’t like it when you put your hand on my knee when I’m driving.”

Alas, I received both of these not so glad tidings, in situ as it were. The former was said on a belated “need to know” basis and was taken without (prolonged) offence; the latter was intended to wound and did.

06 A brief tale about middle-aged men in Speedos

One of my long-time peeves is middle- and codger-aged men in speedos. It is an abiding distaste which I have tapped into on several occasions in my columns, from warnings to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott that a politician who lives by his little red speedos will surely die by them, to horrified recollections of the boss who decided to wear speedos (once seen, never unseen) at his staff pool party. For the cantankerous humorist speedos are the eyesore that keep on giving.

My family generally spent our annual summer holiday in Merimbula, on the coast of southern NSW, where as a Fairfax employee I had access to a wonderful beachside apartment at very agreeable rates. Most years my in-laws joined us, they taking a separate apartment in the same resort. (My marriage broke down in the first week of January, one week before our scheduled Merimbula holiday. My wife and kids and her parents went anyway: discuss.)

“My wife must have heard my lip curl”

One afternoon, me, my wife and my father-in-law (a sweet and gentle man) were sitting on a mostly deserted stretch of beach when in the distance a solitary figure, a man in his 50s or 60s wearing speedos, appeared. My wife must have heard my lip curl because she was moved to remark on my disdain for middle-aged men in speedos, which I dutifully took as my cue to expound on the subject, borrowing liberally and at length from my own columns.

My father-in-law, who did not read my work, must have thought me quite obsessed on the matter and made do with the terse rejoinder that it was fortunate he decided to wear his board shorts to the beach. Later that afternoon I was volunteered to collect our clothes from the communal clothes lines.

The few items of clothes belonging to my in-laws included a pair of speedos.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer 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

Alan Tudge talks tosh on ‘broken’ multiculturalism while shameless Malcolm Turnbull hops on the anti-African bandwagon

It may or may not be a coincidence that Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alan Tudge chose London – for conservatives, the cradle of Australian society – to mount his case for a more “muscular” multicultural model based on “Australian values”.

It is not the first time that Turnbull Government ministers – and indeed the Prime Minister himself – have called for new migrants to Australia to be assessed against Australian and “Western liberal” values before being granted permanent residency but the stridency has noticeably intensified.

Is it churlish to wonder which values in particular are proving such a stretch for new citizens? Is it a wilful misinterpretation of the full-throated values campaign waged by Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton, Alan Tudge and others to suggest that some migrant groups more than others are proving inimical to the Australian way of life?

Much of the calculated alarmism is shamelessly directed at one group in particular: members of the Sudanese community.

One can only wonder at the “values” that compelled the Prime Minister of Australia – no less – to single out “Sudanese gangs” (and more generally “African gangs”) for terrorising the gentle burghers of Melbourne. This was a needless, hurtful and damaging intervention made for one craven reason alone: to advance the electoral prospects of Victoria’s “law and order” Liberal opposition in this year’s state election.

Turnbull and state opposition leader Matthew Guy think nothing of seeking to shame Melbourne’s Sudanese community but ultimately only bring shame on themselves and their purported values.

There is no pride in the sorry fact that even in 2018 Australia has not moved beyond singling out a particular group of migrants as easy targets. It is one of this country’s most abiding traditions. White Australia is no longer on the statute books but our political leaders – leaders in the loosest sense – retain the habits of the White Australia era: when in doubt, demonise the weakest link in the migrant chain, usually the most recent wave of arrivals.

A ready audience for conservatives’ roiling xenophobia

Proud as we are entitled to be about our multicultural society Australia has an ambivalent record when it comes to migration.

On the one hand it is indisputable that a tradition of migration has created a vibrant and successful multicultural society. But it is equally true that intolerance, scapegoating and vilification lie just beneath the surface of Australia’s fabled “tolerance” of difference. Which is why alarmist hypocrites like Senator Cory Bernardi (savour the surname for a moment) and Pauline Hanson (the less said about her the better) know there is a ready audience for their roiling xenophobia.

Bernardi, who harbours fantasies of an Australian Conservatives prime ministership largely on the back of its “common sense” immigration policy, has branded multiculturalism as “nonsensical”, thinks nothing of hopping on the odious “white flight” bandwagon and, like Tudge et al believes in the primacy of “common values and common language” when deciding who gets to be an Australian citizen.

So what’s wrong with Bernardi’s “common sense” approach to immigration? One should instinctively be wary of conservatives preaching “common sense”, especially when it comes to race, immigration and multiculturalism.

The “common values, common language” mantra might sound perfectly reasonable at first blush but its coded meaning is far more insidious. It is the seemingly benign wish for “common values” that is being used as a blunt pretext to ostracise Sudanese-Australians, Muslim Australians and anyone else who dares to look, sound or behave differently. There is nothing benign about policies designed to exclude.

Tudge’s speech to the Australia-UK Leadership Forum in London is based on the self-serving mythology of a (superior) monolithic, inviolable and unique system of values. Most Australians will instinctively claim an understanding of what constitutes “Australian values”, but basic elements aside, deeper reflection will reveal that it is a much more complex, nuanced and contested proposition to claim the existence of a uniquely Australian set of values.

Which ‘Australian values’ exactly?

Tudge told his no doubt receptive audience that multiculturalism has come to legitimise “practices and behaviours which should be deemed intolerable” and which are the antithesis of Australian values. Not that one needs to look beyond Canberra for this sad state of affairs.

Senator David Leyonhjelm’s libertarian values informed his perceived right to direct what many would consider sexist and misogynistic slurs at senate colleague Sarah Hanson-Young. Some ocker blokes who employ similar language and attitudes to women may be surprised to learn that they are enlightened libertarians. Do these attitudes sit comfortably in the canon of Australian values so dear to Alan Tudge?

And what are we to make of the values of organised white-supremacist, flag-draped thugs who claim to be patriotic Australians when picketing mosques, hectoring women for observing religious or cultural dress codes and placing ‘Keep Australia White’ posters at high schools and universities?

While Turnbull government ministers would claim to condemn such groups, they are simply an extreme manifestation of the concerns that Tudge spoke about in London.

“We place an emphasis on Australian values as the glue that holds the nation together,” he said.

“We do this through requiring people to sign a values statement before coming into Australia, ­satisfy a citizenship test and pledge allegiance before becoming a citizen.

“The weakness of this, however, is that we presently have few mechanisms to assess people against their signed statement.”

Tudge is talking tosh

Tudge ­raised the possibility of a “values test” for those seeking permanent residency.

Such tests would challenge many Australians, especially those belonging to the growing throng of white-supremacist groups.

 

Tudge is talking tosh when he laments that multiculturalism has come to mean a reluctance “to even take a strong position against something as barbaric as female genital mutilation” and a reluctance to promote Australian values.

“We need muscular ongoing promotion of our values: of freedom of speech and worship, equality between sexes, democracy and the rule of law, a fair go for all, the taking of individual ­responsibility,’’ he said.

“We need to be confident enough in these values to call out practices which are contradictory to them, even if those practices are the ‘culture’ of a particular group,” he said.

“Diversity can be great, but not when it includes those who want sharia law and will use violence to achieve their ends.’’

“[T]olerance is generally a good principle, but we should not be tolerant of [female genital mutilation] or child marriage or women being prohibited from learning English, studying, or even driving.”

Still with the sharia law canard? It’s hard to believe these are the words of a senior government minister and not a muscle-bound white-supremacist oaf.

These abhorrent practices need not and should not be tolerated, but the key is not bogus “values assessments”. It is for state and federal law-makers to create and enforce appropriate laws; it is the responsibility of governments to fund information and education programs, support services, and to work closely with community groups to ensure that new arrivals and migrant groups have every assistance to become good and productive citizens.

The inference to be drawn from the “multiculturalism is broken” hysteria is that migrant groups in the past were less inclined to favour their own cultural norms, that they were less insistent on their sons and daughters following the dictates of their mother culture, or that they did not give preference to their own mother tongue. To claim as much is to be peddling fictions. But from these migrant families subsequent generations over time melded the old and the new, they contributed, they prospered and they added their own distinctive thread to the rich tapestry that is Australian multiculturalism.

No doubt the Sudanese community – which seems to be bearing the brunt of the “Australian values” mania – has its own distinct challenges. But the idea that they will not in time overcome those challenges and be seen to have made their own distinct and welcome mark on Australia’s ever-evolving multicultural society is just shameful, ignorant fear-mongering.

We can be certain that African-Australians will shine like every migrant group before them. Their contributions are already being made in the flurry of new restaurants and cafes, in the professions, the arts, community leadership and elite sport. And the best is surely yet to come.

The only question is why are our politicians are making it so hard for them to play their part in Australian society?

The Turnbull government would do well to examine its own values before it belittles the values of our newest Australians.

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. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

No time for silence: there is everything to fear in the Liberal proposal to sell the ABC

Some believe that the recent call by the Liberal Party’s Federal Council to privatise the ABC provides no cause for alarm because the policy directive is not binding on the Government.

That’s true; it’s not binding. But there is cause for concern if for no other reason than the privatisation of the ABC has now been placed on the political agenda.

Many of the conservative council delegates – many of them self-regarding Young Liberal blowhards whose conservative fervour has an evangelical absolutism that considers compromise a political weakness – aspire to careers as MPs and some of them will realise that ambition. Today’s soap-box pretenders are tomorrow’s lawmakers.

In the meantime it should not be taken for granted that the machinations of a policy forum such as the Federal Council are without consequence. Ordinarily that may well be the case, but the call to sell the ABC – and likewise the council’s adoption of a motion demanding the relocation of Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem – reflects the struggle within the Liberal party to reposition the party as a hard-C conservative party.

The so-called broad church is increasingly polarised between two congregations: the moderates and the conservatives, with very little room in between for those who might wish no label at all. Although it is comforting that the Turnbull Government has rejected the council’s call to privatise the ABC (as it has the Trumpian wet-dream of relocating Australia’s embassy to Jerusalem) it is dangerously optimistic to conclude that that is the end of the matter.

The conservative bloodlust for extreme policy outcomes will continue to cast a shadow over the Turnbull Government while it remains in power. While the conservative wing of the Liberal party finds no succour in compromise the “pragmatic” Turnbull Government is not so wedded to policy principle.

We have seen time and again the Government fall into line in the face of conservative recalcitrance on such policy issues as climate change, the Uluru Statement, asylum seeker and immigration policy and same-sex marriage (the battle for which was lost by the conservatives, but now comes the war for “religious freedom”).

Can Australians trust the Turnbull Govt to protect the ABC?

While unlikely to bend on the conservatives’ call to privatise the ABC we cannot dismiss the possibility of the Turnbull Government moving to assuage ABC-haters by instituting further funding cuts or indeed selling off parts of the ABC. A re-elected Turnbull government – no small possibility while the unpopular Bill Shorten remains the alternative PM – will likely have a small majority and therefore be just as beholden to the Liberal party’s conservatives both within the parliamentary party and organisationally.

In the event of a Labor victory it is likely that a Coalition opposition will lurch unblushingly to the right in order to more robustly distinguish itself from a “socialist” Labor government and in repudiation of the “Labor-lite” Turnbull Government.

All of which is to say that the Federal Council’s call to sell the ABC has not fallen on deaf ears and we can expect these calls to grow louder and more unrelenting.

It is reassuring, in the short-term at least, that the Turnbull Government was so swift in dismissing calls for the privatisation of the ABC. But the Government needs to go further. It must take a principled and unambiguous stand on defending the role of public broadcasting, including a statutory framework that places the ABC above the political whims of the government of the day.

With friends like Communications Minister Mitch Fifield the ABC might see little difference between enemies in the Young Liberal movement and the current government. Is it too much to expect that if there must be a minister responsible for the ABC that he or she be a defender of public broadcasting?

It has been disappointing that ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie has been so relatively silent in the face of the relentless attacks on the ABC – including more budget cuts and politically charged “efficiency reviews” – by the current government. Criticism of the ABC is not new, and it has come from both sides of the political aisle, but ABC leaders in the past have been more forthright in defending the values and function of the nation’s public broadcaster.

ABC’s ‘strategic silence’ isn’t working

Melbourne ABC broadcaster Jon Faine, who might reasonably be said to embody the values and independence of a model public broadcaster, has been typically outspoken in criticising Guthrie and ABC chairman Justin Milne for not defending the ABC.

Guthrie, he said on his morning program recently, has been “remarkably quiet and reluctant” to take on the government.

“She says, ‘No, the best way to protect the ABC is to work quietly behind the scenes’. And that’s obviously delivered a terrible outcome in the last budget round,” Faine said.

“We [the ABC] are hopeless at telling our own story as an organisation and we have a managing director who has been deliberately and, she says, strategically silent. Well, that’s not worked. We have a chairman of the board who…also thinks it’s strategic to be silent [and] that hasn’t worked.”

The risk of “strategic silence” runs to much more than making the ABC an easy target for budget cuts; it also feeds into the canard that Australia does not need a public broadcaster. In a political environment which has become extremely malleable and open to mistruths that if repeated often enough unchallenged take on the lustre of truth the ABC’s future becomes more than a little problematic.

If ABC-haters are not challenged Australians may simply shrug that maybe there is something to the view that the ABC is bloated and irrelevant. In such a vacuum the time may come when it is not such a stretch to successfully mount the case for selling the ABC or just closing it down.

The journalists’ union, the MEAA, is to be commended for mounting a public case for the ABC and the role of public broadcasting. But it cannot take on this battle alone.

The ABC’s silence is playing into the hands of its most bitter critics. It is time for the ABC, its managing director and its board to gird their loins and speak up for the future of the ABC before it’s too late.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist 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

Diary of a divorced man: the long, hard road to single-mindedness

When I used to tell people I was separated their response would be sympathetic and consoling; now, when I say that I am divorced I might as well be announcing that I like my toast buttered.

Someone who is separated is accorded a sense of loss and hurt, of a life disturbed with uncertainty ahead, an understanding that the upheaval is recent and emotions are still raw. But with divorce, it is assumed that time has done its work and it is a case of “join the club”.

My own broken marriage of 25 years has taken this familiar path. For a year or so I felt the deepest grief. With crystal clarity I could see the marriage from my wife’s perspective. After living with an undiagnosed depressive for so long, my wife simply had enough. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, a condition that had been present since my boyhood, she simply wished me well with the rigorous treatment that lay ahead. This was now my battle to be fought alone.

At first it was my wife that I missed dearly. My flowers and plaintive letters only strengthened her resolve. “This has to stop,” she demanded in one letter. “It’s over.”

But the overwhelming and lasting pain came with the loss of my family – our three boys – and the knowledge that I would not get a second chance to be the husband and father I had ceased to be in those last few years, a time when my depression plumbed to its deepest, darkest depths.

My remorse, growing self-awareness and greater control over my depression (with therapy and medication) would have no part to play in reprising my role as husband and father.

In those early days of treatment my psychoanalyst insisted that I had to be my first priority.

“You are no good to anyone, your wife, your children, least of all yourself until you regain your strength and confidence,” he stated bluntly.

“Now is not the time to concern yourself with reconciliation, and I can’t tell you if there ever will be a reconciliation, but I can tell you it will not happen until you are strong again.”

This was easier said than done, of course. I was overwhelmed by the knowledge of what I would be missing, the things I would no longer be able to celebrate as a family – the birthdays, the school events, the graduations. The milestones that one might normally take for granted. But I understood what he was saying.

There is nothing nuanced about a failed marriage

Occasionally one will hear of divorced couples that remarry after some years apart. It’s a happy outcome that speaks to an idealistic hope that wrongs can be set right, lessons hard won can be activated and corrosive behaviours of the past can be exorcised. It’s also a reassuring hope that time cannot erase the good in a relationship that is inevitably overshadowed by the heightened emotions and catalogue of hurts that invariably crashes a decaying marriage against the wall of no-return.

The worst of the trauma of divorce is felt by whomever is not the willing party when it is not a mutual decision, or when the mutuality gives way and at the eleventh hour only one of you is determined that the marriage must end.

There is nothing nuanced about a failed marriage. By the time the final act plays to its torrid and bloody conclusion, there is no room for forgiveness, doubt or sentiment. Every fault is magnified a thousand times, slights previously overlooked coalesce into a damning tsunami of recrimination and the patience of the angels gives way to an unbending determination to endure no more.

Marriages end for many reasons but the end usually comes when one of the partners finally decides ‘enough’. By the time that point is reached, the anger, bitterness and possibly even hatred is all-consuming. Tearful entreaties for another chance will fall on closed hearts. Perhaps the angry and unforgiving brick wall is necessary for protagonists to maintain their resolve.

As a married man, it always struck me as odd, not to say insane, when there was rare news of an estranged couple remarrying. How could a couple step back into the fire of a flawed union?

From my new vantage point of being single after 25 years of marriage my perspective on that is much mellowed. Not because it gives me hope in my own situation – my (ex-) wife seems positively energised by her liberation from me – but because I stand in awe of the power of forgiveness, the supremacy of love and the optimism of spirit that such a reconciliation denotes. (For those who come back together as a matter of convenience, without resolution of the original breaking points, they are very likely buying into a resumed hell on earth.)

Resilience after a long period of fragility

There are men capable of swapping one marriage for another, much as one would return a faulty toaster, but even after four years of separation from my wife this is an alien prospect.

On one occasion, some time ago and to my own surprise, I attempted to initiate a romantic relationship, a venture that was politely declined. And recently I did ask someone I met at a dinner party to lunch, with romantic intent, but that invitation was also declined. Fortunately, in neither case did I find this a crushing experience, which speaks well of my resilience after a long period of fragility.

For those who viscerally feel the pangs of divorce there are various strands of emotional hurt but the overwhelming feeling of rejection looms especially large; doubly so in the case of pleas for reconciliation (or for that matter forgiveness) that are flatly denied. So, I’m rather pleased with myself that having dipped my toe in the waters of romantic possibilities I did not lose a leg to a ravenous shark.

Life does go on; maybe not the life you had envisaged for yourself, and maybe with more ebbs and flows than you would like, but a life of new beginnings, fresh prospects and good friends nonetheless.

I live in the country (Macedon, Victoria), a one-hour train trip from Melbourne, surrounded by gum trees, a spectacular array of bird life and occasional visits by a family of kangaroos. I am occupied with writing a novel (admittedly taking longer than expected, but now five chapters in) and a memoir (which is not the act of vanity that might suggest). Meanwhile, I sustain myself materially with a portfolio of freelance work, some of which is professionally fulfilling, much of which is tosh.

In more ways than one I find myself single-minded. And it’s okay.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist 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 a columnist with The New Daily and 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. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Before you sign up for that leadership workshop or weekend retreat beware the flim-flammery of the ‘leadership industry’

When was the last time you heard a CEO say: “I’m so glad I attended that team-building-for-leaders weekend”? Or have you ever heard a senior executive marvel: “I’ve been so much more innovative since I attended the blue-sky-thinking-for-leaders workshop!” And how many times have you attended an “exclusive leaders breakfast” only to find yourself sitting at a table of pleasant but not exactly C-suite material listening to a second-rate speaker on the secrets of successful networking?

Spruikers of leadership “products” promise big but rarely deliver. They know that all they have to do is stick the word “leadership” to whatever they’re flogging and they will clean up.

No connection to leadership is too obscure or ridiculous, such as the “body language for leaders” course. The course’s promise: “Learn the six nonverbal signals you need to establish a leadership presence.”

Unlike most business fads, leadership as a buzzword has shown remarkable staying power. The problem with buzzwords is that the more pervasive they become the less clear their meaning.

Leadership genuinely fascinates, as it should; it’s why people that are determined to achieve business and career success are so hungry for the essential elements of leadership. What is it that sets a hero-CEO apart from an also-ran CEO? What are the attributes of a CEO who successfully turns a struggling business around? What is it about your boss that would make you follow her to the gates of hell and/or Ikea?

The answer does not lie in the flim-flammery of the leadership industry. And make no mistake, it is an industry, populated by product-wielding leadership consultants, trainers, facilitators, authors, academics, coaches and speakers.

Leadership spivs (they would much prefer “guru”) are easily identified. They typically share these attributes: a fondness for obscure postnominals, a mystical reverence for anything written on butchers’ paper, a tendency to attach great meaning to the bleeding obvious, the capacity to render normally resilient people insensible, and the belief that the more complex the diagram the deeper the insight.

They also tend to speak in mysterious tongues. Take this gibberish from a Melbourne “speaker, facilitator, coach, mentor, author” et alia: “Australian leadership teams are unsustainably over-committed on activities that will not achieve the phase shift you need.” Whatever.

Oddly enough, most of these self-proclaimed leadership gurus seem to have in common the distinction that none has ever been a chief executive.

The leadership industry’s little secret

The leadership industry has an inconvenient little secret: you can’t teach someone to be a leader. You either have the makings of a leader or you do not. Someone who is demonstrably not a leader cannot be taught to be one. And yet the leadership industry continues to prosper, based on the false but alluring premise that a leader’s halo is one workshop away.

If you do have innate leadership qualities, there are certainly skills and attributes that can be learned, honed and refined as your career progresses. But as to whether the leadership industry can transform a mild-mannered middle manager into an Alan Joyce, Richard Goyder or Gail Kelly: save your money.

There is no instant pathway to the C-suite. Successful leadership consists of multiple attributes. We may take a leader’s technical knowledge as a given, but then there are those singular attributes that distinguish one leader from another.

Even the most penetrating analysis of leadership in action will not unlock what makes a successful CEO tick. Such studies will guide and inspire, shed light on new ideas and techniques, they may even plant a seed that turns into a garden of plenty, but they won’t turn you into someone you’re not.

When corporate leaders reflect on the training and education that has shaped their careers it may not surprise that weekend retreats with former football stars, workshops facilitated by certified masters of the Six Thinking Hats or presentations by spruikers of leadership development “tools” tend not to figure.

Almost universally successful leaders will cite the impact of either a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, or increasingly, executive education courses at blue-chip business schools. What both have in common is the value placed on the exposure to high-level executives in their “cohorts”. The experience of those executives and how they handle particular problems and issues means much more to emerging leaders than off-the-shelf leadership courses.

MBA graduates often cite the benefits of building life-long networks, opening up career opportunities in new sectors and even new countries, and compressing years of valuable knowledge in a one- or two-year MBA program.

The MBA has been a staple of management and leadership education for more than a century.

Harvard University offered the first MBA in 1908, while the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business offered the first Executive MBA in 1943. The University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School pioneered the MBA in Australia, awarding its first degree in 1965.

It’s not always smooth sailing for the MBA. Times of economic upheaval, financial crisis and corporate collapses give rise to questions about the relevance or currency of MBAs. Business schools regularly review their programs, seeking to strike the right balance between theory and practical skills.

MBAs not out of the GFC woods yet

MBA programs around the world faced arguably their most serious existential crisis following the global financial crisis when business schools were held to account for the wayward behaviour of MBA-toting executives.

Business schools expressed their mea culpas, did their penance and brought their MBA programs into the 21st century.

But MBAs are not out of the GFC woods yet. The global economy has failed to regain its equilibrium and remains skittish. This partly reflects the seismic shock of the 2007-08 meltdown. It also coincides with the dawn of the digital economy spearheaded by rapid and profound developments in “disruptor” digital, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies which are transforming consumer behaviour, work practices, business models and whole industry structures.

The economy is in transition, arguably its most significant in a century, which inevitably casts a deep shadow over traditional avenues of learning.

Even the venerable MBA is feeling the pressure.

Much of that pressure is coming from short and intense executive education courses which once complemented the MBA. Now they rival the MBA as busy executives working in hothouse environments of change look for the benefits of the MBA in a fraction of the time.

In the United States, the spiritual home of the MBA, some business schools have called time on the once sacrosanct MBA. The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, Wake Forest University’s School of Business in North Carolina and Virginia’s Pamplin College of Business have ended their full-time MBA programs as a result of flagging student demand. The Wisconsin School of Business recently reversed a decision to suspend its full-time MBA program following an outcry from its alumni, but the school will continue a review of its business strategy.

University of Iowa provost Sue Curry explains that the decision to discontinue the traditional MBA anticipates “the business education that students and employers need to thrive in a changing economy”.

The impact of a changing economy will be no less felt in Australia’s overcrowded MBA marketplace.

With 40 universities, business schools and private providers offering MBAs a consolidation of the market is surely inevitable. This is no bad thing. A buoyant market is more accommodating of the varying standards that 40 MBA programs must entail.

It remains to be seen whether those “leadership” retreats, workshops, training modules and exclusive breakfasts/lunches are also thinned out. We can only hope so.

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. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Malcolm Turnbull the fair-weather republican: a lack of leadership stalls Australia’s coming of age

Malcolm Turnbull’s dithering on the Australian republic is almost as frustrating as the monarchists’ irrational ties to the British Crown.

Turnbull’s clumsy aside that a postal survey may be in order on the subject is another example of the procrastination which has marked his prime ministership.

Turnbull either believes in the republic or he does not. If he does, he must show leadership on the issue as Paul Keating did before him. Keating needed no postal survey to convince him of the case for a republic, nor did he hide behind the cowardly pretence of waiting for the “right time” before bringing the issue to the fore. If not for Keating’s leadership on the republic there would have been no referendum in 1999, an historic opportunity scuttled by the wrecking-ball politics of the prime minister of the day, John Howard, who cynically (but skilfully) used the issue of the model for choosing a president as a wedge to favour the status quo.

Most Australians will recall Turnbull’s damning epithet for Howard as the prime minister who “broke this nation’s heart”. History will also recall that Turnbull not only forgave Howard’s calumny but came to regard the former prime minister as his greatest mentor.

The argument that the timing of another referendum on the republic should be determined by a groundswell of public sentiment for change is bogus. In the absence of leadership once more placing the republic on the political agenda – at which point Australians will become engaged on the issue – the status quo will simply simmer under the flickering flame of indifference.

Waiting for the Queen to die (begging your pardon Ma’am)

To further assert, as Turnbull has done, that the matter of the republic should not be considered while the Queen remains on the throne is gutless procrastination.

The inference that the Queen would somehow be insulted were the issue to arise once more during her reign is the real insult. As a model constitutional monarch Elizabeth understands that this is an issue for Australians to decide on, irrespective of who the monarch may be. The other inference to be drawn from this weak-kneed proposition – more insulting than the first – is that Charles will be an unpopular monarch and therefore will be a boon to the republican cause.

The argument for a republic has nothing to do with what we may think of the reigning monarch. There is no reason to suppose that Charles won’t in time prove as popular as his mother, and even if that were not to be the case, the allure of William coming to the throne may prove too irresistible for a celebrity-addled populace, ensuring that the “right time” remains ever-elusive.

The principal arguments for a republic are so fundamental that it beggars belief that Australia remains a constitutional monarchy well into the 21st century. The historical, cultural and sentimental ties between the Crown and Australia are simply not what they were.

Australia’s maturity as an independent nation and our irrevocable and ever-deepening composition as a multicultural society demands a system of government that is uniquely and unambiguously Australian and which reflects who we are today and will likely be in the future, not who we used to be.

Much of remaining monarchical sentiment is based on a lazy attachment to the status quo, where change is viewed as something to be avoided, whether because it’s best stick to “the devil you know” or that to do otherwise is just too much bother.

Then there’s the celebrity fandom disguised as loyalty to the Crown. What if becoming a republic stems the tide of royal stories in the Australian media? And won’t Wills and Harry stop visiting if we become a republic? Monarchical sentiment based on royal celebrity reduces Australia to a nation governed not by the Constitution but by New Idea.

Mythology surrounding the role of the Crown

Most frustrating of all in support for constitutional monarchy is the mythology that surrounds the role and influence of the British Crown in Australia.

There is the argument that the current constitutional system with the Queen as titular head of state has “given Australia a very stable and workable system of government” and has “contributed to our country being one of only a handful of nations which has remained fully democratic throughout the 20th century”. (These quotes are from John Howard’s 1999 statement in which he outlined his reasons for voting ‘no’ in the republic referendum. His arguments remain the case against the republic.)

Despite such a seminal role that the monarchy ostensibly plays in bringing stability to Australian democracy, it has never been explained exactly how the monarchy has achieved this.

Further arguments against a republic (again taking from Howard’s statement) include the warning that “some of the checks and balances in our present system would be weakened under a republic” and that “the president could be less secure in his or her position than is the Governor-General”.

The tenure of the Governor-General is in fact absurdly fragile and the very antithesis of order and stability. He or she can be sacked on a prime ministerial whim, without reason or premise, and without recourse to the “Queen of Australia”, who is obliged to follow the advice of her Australian prime minister, regardless of how egregious his or her actions in dismissing the viceroy might be.

One of the more ridiculous arguments used by monarchists

Which brings us to one of the more ridiculous arguments used by Australian monarchists for preserving the status quo: the Queen is actually powerless and doesn’t have much to do with Australia. This from fervent monarchist Howard:

“The Queen is Queen of Australia. However, under our present constitution, the Governor-General is effectively Australia’s head of state. The only constitutional duty performed by the Queen relates to the appointment of the Governor-General which must be done on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day.”

Having explained that the monarch is little more than a token symbol one might wonder how the monarchy has proven so effective in safeguarding Australian democracy.

Australian monarchists also disclaim the idea that Australia needs to be a republic in order to ensure that the head of state is an Australian. Here the purportedly loyal subjects of the Queen bend over backwards to explain that Elizabeth isn’t really the head of state at all, that the Governor-General is the effective head of state, and that since 1965 he or she has been an Australian. Take it away Johnny:

“It is inconceivable that any future occupant of that office would be other than an Australian,” Howard explains.

“Executive political authority is vested in the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet who must always come from the majority party in the House of Representatives.

“The Governor-General…exercises the reserve powers of the crown, completely free of any interference from anyone. His powers flow from the Australian Constitution. They do not flow from the Queen. He acts in accordance with the Constitution of Australia. Although he is the Queen’s representative, he does not take instructions from her.”

So again the argument for remaining a monarchy is that the monarch has been so comprehensively sidelined that – wink, wink – we are already a republic in all but name.

One might think this would prompt monarchists to ask the obvious question: ‘Why remain a monarchy when the monarch has so little function or purpose in Australia?’ But apparently not.

Junior Minister Alex Hawke, in response to the latest Keating-inspired stab at igniting debate on the republic, predictably insisted that, “Constitutional monarchy continues to serve Australia well as does our Queen”.

Arguments for a republic, he continued, “always fail to outline any improvement to our structure of government that would benefit Australians”. Hawke may be right. The structure of government might not change at all – given that, as monarchists have argued so comprehensively, Australia is already a de facto republic, but for the incongruity of kinda-sorta having the Queen of England as our head of state.

As for the “improvement” that Hawke seeks: that would be Australia finally growing up.

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. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher