Malcolm Turnbull’s get-tough stance on English skills for migrants is just more dog-whistle politics

The Turnbull Government’s insistence on a tougher English-language test for migrants seeking Australian citizenship is at the very least perplexing and at worst alarming.

At first blush it might appear a reasonable requirement of new citizens, but what problem is the Government seeking to remedy? Why does the world’s most successful multicultural society, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull so often describes Australia, suddenly need to overhaul its citizenship test, headlined by the requirement of English-language skills that many born-and-bred Australians may find challenging?

The absence of a clear explanation for a tougher English-language test can only invite the worst interpretation of the Government’s motives.

When it comes to using (and abusing) English language requirements as a barrier to migration, Australia has form going back to the very beginning of nationhood and the White Australia policy.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 authorised immigration officials to dictate a passage of 50 words to a new arrival, who was required to write down and sign the given passage. The test was usually given in English, but if the migrant passed but was otherwise considered undesirable (that is, non-white), the immigration officer could repeat the test in another European language. This was the infamous Dictation Test.

The Turnbull Government is proposing nothing so blatant or draconian, but the intent would not be entirely unfamiliar to immigration officials enforcing the White Australia policy. Again, in the absence of a cogent explanation as to why Australia needs a tougher English-language test, the only available conclusion is that the Government wishes to filter out a certain group of people.

Those who support the Government’s tough stance on English-language skills say the same thing: “What’s wrong with expecting new citizens to read and write English?”

Of itself, nothing. But the tougher-test school makes various assumptions that simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

The first is that English deficiency has led to problems in the past. Of this there is no evidence; and even if it were to be demonstrated that this has been an issue, presumably it would be no greater than the problem caused by illiteracy levels in the wider Australian community. It would be unfair, not to say discriminatory, to requite new citizens to have higher English-language skills than born-and-bred Australian citizens.

The other assumption is that poor English is an unfailing indicator of character – of someone’s values, work ethic and good citizenship. New arrivals to Australia – or any country for that matter – do so with the intention of building a new and better life, with all the social and economic spin-offs that entails.

More about political optics

English or no English, some new citizens will immerse themselves in their new country, while others will leave it to their children and grandchildren to stake their claims as Australians. (And often there will be conflicts of cultural adjustment between generations, but that is a dynamic all of its own.)

The converse assumption that high English proficiency and a high score in the proposed values test would necessarily point to outstanding citizenship is simply naïve.

Criticism of the Government’s tougher approach to citizenship qualification is not to suggest that simply anyone can make Australia their home. But the Government’s get-tough approach is more about political optics than dealing with real deficiencies in our migration system. The continuation of John Howard’s infamous “we decide” mantra demonises rather than celebrates migrants to Australia; it places a question mark over the head of each person who does not sound or look like the rest of us.

If changes are needed, they should be considered at length, impartially and independently, based on public submissions and informed by Australia’s pre-eminent record as a multicultural society. Migration since the 1950s, a time of record migration to Australia, has not been without occasional social disruption, but on the whole it has delivered the society – and wealth – that most of us celebrate today.

We know what we have come to expect from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, but surely we should expect better of Malcolm Turnbull. Their gratuitous call for tougher English-language testing is no better than those hurtful cries heard most frequently in the 1950s and 60s, “Why don’t you learn to bloody speak English!”, or more lyrically, “Why you no learna t’speaka da English?” Turnbull and his attack-dog Minister have given renewed license for such calls to be heard again.

My maternal grandparents migrated to Australia from Sicily in the 1950s. My grandfather had a rudimentary education roughly the equivalent of grade 3; my grandmother was illiterate. Neither learned to speak English, other than some basic words essential in the days of pre-self serve: milk, bread, butter, eggs. According to family lore, when my grandmother sat for your citizenship exam the English-language component involved her having to recite five English words; her selection included “Rinso” and “rump steak”.

I never heard either of my grandparents speak a whole sentence of English; they didn’t even qualify for “broken English”. Yet their contribution to Australia is beyond question.

He was always ‘Joe’

My grandfather worked in factories as a labourer for 20 years before he retired. “Giuseppe” was too difficult for his Australian workmates, so he was always Joe. Giuseppe was of a dark hue; in 1920s Australia he would have been classed as a “white alien”. (As in fact was my paternal grandfather when he migrated to Australia in 1925, except he was fair-skinned, reflecting Sicily’s own multicultural/racial history over millennia.)

But Giuseppe knew nothing of Australia’s vexed history of grudging tolerance and outright intolerance; or if he did, he did not let it get in the way of becoming a passionate Australian. His most prized possession was his citizenship certificate and his most abiding loyalty was to the Queen.

My grandmother, Rosa, was fair and blue-eyed. When she worked in her beautiful front garden, passers-by would assume she could speak English and would stop for a chat about the garden. Perhaps gardening is a universal language, because Rosa’s lack of English didn’t stop her from having the most animated conversations with little old ladies who wouldn’t have known Italy from a gum boot.

Despite their English-language “deficiency”, Giuseppe and Rosa bought a house, their five children, most migrating with them as adults, all worked and bought their own homes. Their grandchildren went to public and private schools, some played footy for local clubs, several went to university, and all went on to work in a variety of occupations: journalist, accountant, teacher, public servant and various trades.

So what’s the problem, PM? Loaded calls for tough English-language tests are clearly designed to appeal to a section of the Australian population – and backbench – whose intolerance hardly needs further stoking. The calls are presumably aimed at Muslims – or seen to be aimed at Muslims – buy they are a slap in the face for all migrants who over the decades have come to Australia with only positive ambitions: to rebuild, prosper, enjoy freedoms and to give back as best they can.

For Malcolm Turnbull to say otherwise is to repudiate his own boast that Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world.

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

 

A failure of stewardship: a feckless, flailing Fairfax confounds with the latest round of savage cutbacks

True to its tin-eared modus operandi Fairfax management thought it fitting to choose World Press Freedom Day to announce the loss of 125 editorial positions from its already depleted metropolitan mastheads. After years of savage cutbacks, that’s a breathtaking 25% of its current newsroom numbers.

Announcing the cuts on World Press Freedom Day may not be as in-your-face as Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood splashing $140,000 on a new Maserati Ghibli in 2014 during tense wages negotiations and ongoing cost-cutting, but there is no question that relations between staff and Fairfax management are at an all-time low.

The decision by journalists from The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WA Today to go on strike for seven days reflects not just their anger but their lack of confidence in Fairfax’s feckless management and a genuine concern about the future of journalism in Australia.

As the journalists’ union, the MEAA, stated on behalf of its striking members: “These cuts are bad for journalism, bad for democracy and press freedom, and bad for the future of not only the Fairfax business, but for the entire industry in Australia.”

The strike period covers federal budget night, May 9, a plum event for any political, economics and finance reporter, which goes some way to revealing the extent of bitterness felt by Fairfax staff.

Fairfax journalists are red-hot angry, and they have a right to be. For the past five years of fevered “restructuring” and rolling redundancies they have worked under enormous stress, uncertainty and the vagaries of Fairfax management ineptitude. They feel strongly enough about not just their own job security but also the very future of journalism in this country to forego a week’s wages and expose themselves to penalties under illegal-strike laws. (And this goes to the heart of the point made by newly elected ACTU Secretary Sally McManus when she made what should have been the unremarkable observation recently that, “It shouldn’t be so hard for workers in our country to be able to take industrial action when they need to.”)

Hywood has made comments that suggest Fairfax will take a sanguine approach to the strike, insisting: “I absolutely respect the passion of our people. I wrote for the Financial Review for 17 years, I’ve edited the publi­cations, I’m a journalist.”

Good cop, bad cop

But another Fairfax executive who also might profess to still be a journalist, Editorial Director Sean Aylmer (whose distinguished career includes being editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and editor-in-chief of BRW), sent a very different signal on the subject of strike action.

A memo to staff in which Aylmer stressed that “we want to make the company’s position very clear” warned that the consequences of “unlawful industrial action” and “unauthorised absence” may include “disciplinary action” and “termination of employment”. Oh, Sean.

Hywood has assured staff that the latest cuts, aimed at saving $30 million annually, will be the last.

“After this year, we will be spending $100 million a year on journalism; that’s a lot of money,” Hywood told The Australian.

A lot of something, that’s for sure. It’s this kind of flim-flammery – saving $30 million to spend $100 million – that infuriates journalists at the manifestly flailing Fairfax. Rolling cutbacks since 2012 have seen some 600 editorial jobs slashed from newsrooms. The lack of a credible, cohesive or consistent strategy leaves little room for confidence in either the management or governance of Fairfax. A merry-go-round of strategies, reviews and restructures have ostensibly sought to prepare Fairfax for the age of digital media, but all that has been achieved is that a once-great media house has been depleted to a point where the viability of its flagship mastheads are now in serious doubt.

Since the late 1990s, Fairfax has been run as a management consultant’s plaything. A succession of thick and jargon-laden consultants’ reports always seem to come to the same conclusion: more cuts. While the reports piled up, nobody thought to understand how the internet would change the media industry. Early opportunities for Fairfax to buy into internet plays such as carsales.com, SEEK and realestate.com.au went begging. While Fairfax assumed that the legendary rivers of gold had dried up, in fact they were flowing into new online media channels. James Packer and the Murdochs were more attuned to this critical change in course.

A failure of stewardship

Fairfax was caught flat-footed by the rapid rise of the internet and ever since its only resort has been to cut costs. Fairfax has some of Australia’s best and brightest business and finance journalists; they will know better than most that a company that relies on cost-cutting for profitability eventually has nothing left to cut.

Fairfax management and the Fairfax board have failed miserably as stewards of one of Australia’s – one of the world’s – great publishing houses. Instead of looking to the long-term health of the company Fairfax’s management and board remain fixed on creating short-term wealth for shareholders.

“[W]hat we are doing is that we are making sure that our publications are profitable and by profitable that means sustainable. They are profitable now and they have to continue to be profitable,” Hywood told The Australian.

“You have to look into the future … If they are not profitable, they become vulnerable, seriously vulnerable.”

As if Fairfax today is not “seriously vulnerable”. It is certainly diminished.

The constant assault on the very assets that deliver value – Fairfax’s people – belies any suggestion that Fairfax is building a company for the future. The erosion of newsroom resources – reporters, photographers, sub-editors – across the Fairfax stable has left the company a shell of its former self.

Fairfax staff know better than most that there is a need for fundamental shifts in business models to transform traditional media companies into 21st century businesses. What they lament is not just that they are so little regarded, but that Fairfax has no clear direction for the future. Over the past five years of restructuring the company has been less than candid about its true intentions – if indeed it has any.

While Hywood insists that he has a plan, Fairfax’s vacillation over the future of the print editions of its flagship city mastheads, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, reveals a company in strategic disarray. Earlier this year, after years of uncertainty about the future of print, uncertainty created by Hywood himself, the Fairfax CEO announced that “[t]he model we have developed involves continuing to print our publications daily for some years yet”.

It is hard not to be cynical about this decision. A reasonable conclusion would be that retaining the print editions of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald provides Fairfax with valuable assets that can be sold. Has this been its intention all along? Does Fairfax’s future rest with its real estate site Domain and online fripperies such as the dating site RSVP? (The noise you hear in the distance may well be generations of Fairfaxes rolling in their graves.)

The fact that Fairfax now finds itself the subject of a takeover bid by private-equity investor TPG is hardly flattering. It’s the equities market equivalent of vultures circling for the kill. Neither staff nor readers would have cause to welcome a private-equity overlord. But a sale of some kind is probably in the wind.

Former Fairfax titan Robert Gottliebsen does not like what he sees. Gottliebsen was the founder of the iconic and now-defunct BRW at Fairfax, as well as a stable of magazines that included Personal Investment and Shares, also gone. Gottliebsen was also responsible for acquiring what was then Australia’s oldest business magazine, Rydges, and relaunching it as BRW’s sister magazine under the editorship of this writer. Rydges was later merged into BRW, cementing the latter’s market leadership.

Gottliebsen speculates that The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald might be sold to Melbourne and Sydney families with deep pockets.

But with no end in sight to the cost-cutting, Gottliebsen has this warning:

“[T]hat scenario may be impossible to even consider if the quality of journalism declines too far and the papers become a source of ridicule.”

 Leo D’Angelo Fisher was at Fairfax in 1986-89 and 2006-2013. He is a former editor of Rydges magazine when it was part of the BRW Group and associate editor of BRW. He has also been a columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He took a voluntary redundancy package at the end of 2013.

Malcolm Turnbull has hit a new low as he announces ‘Australian values’ crackdown on new migrants and foreign workers

Among the very few positive contributions that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made to public discourse in Australia has been on the subject of multiculturalism, so it is disheartening that he should sink to his most desperate low by demonising the very people he was lauding only weeks ago.

Turnbull has in recent days adopted the xenophobic language of Pauline Hanson and the far-right of his own party. The spurious “abolition” of the 457 skilled migration visa gave Turnbull the opportunity to repeat ad nauseam loaded phrases such as “putting Australian jobs first”, “Australians for Australian jobs” and “Australian values” as well as plenty of gratuitous references to “foreigners”. (When it comes to such Trumpisms, Bill “I make no apology, I’m going to stand up for Australian jobs first and Australians first” Shorten hasn’t got a spindly leg to stand on, so the less we hear from him on this the better.)

The abolition of the 457 visa – in fact no more than a tidying up of the scheme – is a political rather than a policy exercise. The more Turnbull stressed that this was “a careful exercise in policy development” the plainer it became that it was nothing of the kind. To the extent that it was “carefully considered by Cabinet” it was to provide the Government with the opportunity to indulge in some migrant-bashing.

Turnbull has been, to employ his terminology, “manifestly, rigorously, resolutely” shameless in the jingoism he has employed.

“It [457] will be replaced by a new system that will be manifestly, rigorously, resolutely conducted in the national interest to put Australians and Australian jobs first. That’s our commitment: Australian jobs, Australian values,” Turnbull said at his press conference, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton nodding approvingly by his side.

And in case there was any doubt about the atmospherics of the 457 announcement, Turnbull could not resist this tribute to his former foe, now mentor:

“[W]e should not underestimate either our success as a multicultural society or the fact that our success is built on a foundation of confidence by the Australian people that it is their government and their government alone that determines in the national interest who comes here and the terms on which they come and how long they stay.”

For those who might have been curious as to how low Turnbull was prepared to plumb in order to retain his job, they may need to be patient as it appears Malcolm is still digging.

Nobody realised a crackdown was required

Hot on the heels of the concocted 457 announcement the Prime Minister has announced a crackdown on migration rules and eligibility criteria for prospective citizens. This may come as a surprise to anyone not realising that a crackdown was required.

The shake-up of the migration program includes tougher English-language requirements, an “Australian values” test and proof that applicants have attempted to integrate into Australian society, providing evidence of a job, the enrolment of their children in school, and even membership of community organisations. Migrants who have permanent residence must now wait four years – currently it’s one year – before they can apply for citizenship.

In announcing these tougher measures, Turnbull has provided no evidence of inadequacies in the current migration system that needed to be rectified. He is claiming credit for fixing a system that nobody knew was broken.

The tougher migration regimen being proposed has only one purpose: to pander to the most reactionary elements in the Australian community.

“Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia. We must ensure that our citizenship program is conducted in our national interest,” Turnbull said, pressing all the red-neck buttons.

It’s just what supporters of One Nation and fringe ultra-right groups want to hear – or at least, that’s what Coalition strategists are hoping – but precisely how it can be proven that would-be migrants will be true to these motherhood verities is something else again. The fact of the matter is that many Anglo Australians – what Pauline Hanson and her flag-draped supporters might dub “real Australians” – would fail to meet these standards.

Migrants come to Australia to seek a better life for themselves and their children, which by definition means a preparedness to work, to contribute and give-back in myriad ways, to strive for the best possible education for their children, and generally to prosper.

The idea that migrants come to Australia with a view to recasting the nation in their image is a myth as old as the vestiges of White Australia that persist to this day and are now being fanned by Turnbull. One would have to be of a particularly forgiving mind not to conclude that Turnbull’s shameless dog-whistling is aimed at those who believe Muslim migrants are hell bent on turning Australia into a Sharia state.

Turnbull’s sudden conviction that Australia needs tougher migration laws is at odds with his own recent statements on multiculturalism.

‘An example to the world’

In March, the government released its statement on multiculturalism: Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful. What part of “united, strong, successful” is the government seeking to remedy?

In a soaring speech delivered to coincide with the release of the statement, Turnbull was at his most eloquent and statesmanlike. There was no hint that Australia’s multiculturalism was in need of urgent repair. Far from it. He declared with evident pride that Australia’s multicultural society is “the envy of the world” and “an example to the world”.

“We are the most successful multicultural society in the world and it’s a badge we wear with pride,” he said.

“We are proud of the role immigration has played in shaping the Australia we love so much.

“At a time of growing global tensions and rising uncertainty, we remain a steadfast example of a harmonious, egalitarian and enterprising nation, which embraces its diversity.

“We welcome newcomers with open arms and mutual respect because we are confident in our culture, our institutions and our laws. In return, our newest Australians pledge loyalty to Australia and its people, affirm our shared democratic beliefs and agree to respect and uphold our liberties, rights and laws.”

Well, apparently not if we are to believe Turnbull’s most recent statements calling for an Australian values-based migration system.

Even for a government notorious for flitting from one policy position to another, the differences between the sentiments expressed by Turnbull in that March speech and the subsequent narrow-minded, retrograde rhetoric of 1950s Australia weeks later could not be starker.

It is no wonder that voters have turned their backs on this Prime Minister who promised so much and has delivered so little. While many – including this writer – have dared to hope that we may yet get to see the “real Malcolm” it is hard to imagine that after this latest act of base populism and political cowardice that his prime ministership can ever be redeemed.

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 or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

 

 

Calling myself names: people are often curious about my surname – this is how it came to be

Like all journalists my work involves speaking to a lot of people from a wide spread of backgrounds. While I ask most of the questions, there is one question that I am asked more than any other: “Where does your surname come from?”

I don’t mind being asked; it is, I suppose, an unusual double-barrelled surname and I can understand that it arouses some curiosity. Personally, I’ve never been tempted to quiz anybody about their double-handled moniker. I assume it’s either a traditional (or “heritable”) family name or a latter-day creation arising from marriage which may or may not endure.

My attitude to names is strictly aesthetic and I have never been fond of my original name Leo D’Angelo. It was never to my liking, but it was as a byline that it caused me the most irritation. I could never quite put my finger on my distaste for it; possibly because both names ended in ‘o’, but I think the closest I can come to an explanation is the name’s lack of symmetry.

When my wife and I decided to marry I suggested that we adopt a joint surname and she was agreeable. She was the Fisher.

We planned to marry in January 1989, immediately after which we were to travel to Hong Kong, where I was to join Far East Business magazine as deputy editor (I was with BRW at the time). To ensure that out passports carried out new names we went to the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages to make the changes – a remarkably simple process.

Adding my wife’s name to mine was a statement of my adoration for her but also an opportunity to recalibrate my name. It was a decision made much easier by the fact that I liked the name Fisher.

I put quite some thought into my new name. I decided that I would carry the two names without a hyphen. I also weighed up whether I preferred Leo D’Angelo Fisher or Leo Fisher D’Angelo. Again, the only consideration at this point was aesthetics and I chose the former.

When we emerged from the office we compared documents and I discovered that, contrary to our original plan, my wife had opted to make D’Angelo one of her middle names. I thought it an odd thing to do, but I considered the matter of names to be strictly one for her. As far as I was concerned deciding to retain her surname was entirely reasonable.

“If she really loved you…”

Our respective parents were not so sanguine. My wife’s father, a gentle but straight-laced fellow, was of the view that, as dictated by tradition, my wife should have adopted my surname. My parents, meanwhile, were apoplectic with indignation. “If she really loved you she would take your name,” they both argued. The issue was the only occasion that both sets of parents caucused to register their joint disapproval. Despite some lobbying, my wife and I stood firm.

In time my parents grew to love my wife, but the furore over the name was enough for them to view my marriage in very frosty terms.

Six years later, when our first of three sons was born, the matter of the name resurfaced. While I had my own reasons for adopting the twin-surname I was unfussed as to whether our children should carry my name. We agreed that they would be Fishers, with each of the boys having D’Angelo as their middle name. My parents stewed in silence.

My decision to become Leo D’Angelo Fisher was not without incident, comical and otherwise.

One editor, who knew me by my original name, initially refused to run my new byline – a matter not without irony – arguing that I could either have Leo D’Angelo or Leo Fisher, but not both. I had to produce documentary evidence that this was my name and that’s the byline I insisted upon. He eventually relented.

On another occasion, while we were living in Brisbane, where I was deputy editor of Business Queensland newspaper, my in-laws came to visit. At the time the newspaper was having a staff conference at Noosa, so my in-laws stayed at the same hotel. During an evening function I introduced the Fishers to Business Queensland’s publisher, an urbane American of considerable charm, who immediately assumed they were my parents. “What a great pleasure to meet Leo’s parents,” he gushed with great fanfare. After lavishing praise on “their son” it was considered too awkward to set the publisher straight. For the duration of the conference, the Fishers were my parents.

When my wife and I divorced after 25 years of marriage, the matter of my surname did not arise. As far as I was concerned it was a given that I would retain it. It was my name; it was my byline. And so it remains. I have not enquired whether my wife still bears her unusual middle name.

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 or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

 

Donald Trump: fake hair, fake tan, fake president. The misadventures of a real estate salesman who conned his way into the White House

The Trump presidency is a high-wire aberration that must be endured until 2020 when Americans get to correct their act of lunacy. One can only hope that Trump does not cause too much damage in the meantime. Like blowing up the planet. And that’s not to be dismissed as extravagant rhetoric.

Donald Trump is so stupid, vain, thin-skinned and totally blind to the consequences of his actions that anything is possible. And there’s no point looking to his coterie of advisers as a band of protection against the unthinkable. They are even more malicious, venomous and unhinged than their boss.

Optimistic observers were willing to overlook Trump’s boorish behaviour, buffoonish ways and pig-ignorance on the campaign trail and suggested we might see a more presidential Trump once in office. Not a chance.

From Day 1, Trump has demeaned the office of US President like no other president before him. At every step he has lacked civility, courtesy and coherence. His attempt at government by executive order has been constitutionally and administratively shambolic. Virtually every meeting with a foreign leader has been an excruciating embarrassment. He has declared war on the free press and the independence of the judiciary with a venom that owes everything to his persona of schoolyard bully and nothing to intellectual persuasion.

Those willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt noted that he was after all a successful businessman. In fact, we know no such thing.

He claims to be a billionaire, but of this there is no evidence. And while there have been repeated claims of his intellectual superiority, all those claims have been made by Trump himself.

Until Trump, when was the last time anyone heard a grown man – drunk or sober – declare: “I know big words”?

Trump’s boasts are legion: “I’ve won many awards”, “I got very good marks”, “I’m a really smart guy”, “I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order”, and his show-stoppers: “Nobody has more respect for women than I do” and “I am the least racist person you’ve ever met”.

As a candidate Trump was a showman first and foremost. As he told one rally of adoring supporters: “I can be presidential, but if I was presidential…[only] about 20%  of you would be here because it would be boring as hell.” That’s the kind of boast Nelson Muntz would make: “I’m only pretending to be dumb; I can be smart if I want to.”

Fake hair, fake tan, fake Trump

The man who has introduced “fake news” to the lexicon of dissent is himself a fake. Quite apart from his fake hair and fake orange hue, Trump is a 300-pound sack of contradictions, inconsistencies and outright lies. The candidate who condemned the outsourcing of manufacturing overseas did so himself as a businessman; the candidate who condemned illegal migrants employed them as a businessman; the candidate who claimed to instinctively understand the needs of small-businesspeople routinely shafted business owners and contractors.

When Trump boasted: “I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them”, he did so without hint of discomfort that he defied convention in refusing to release his own tax returns.

Other than a selective leak of his 2005 return recently – possibly leaked by Trump himself – there is nothing to confirm his self-declared and almost certainly bogus status as a billionaire; there is nothing that sheds light on potentially comprising relationships with foreign financiers and business partners; and there is only more proof that he is a serial liar – having procrastinated on the release of his tax returns, Trump never did release the tax information. After his election, when quizzed by reporters about his still not released tax returns, Trump shrugged: “I won!” Which is another way of saying, “Fuck you!”

The chaotic Trump presidency to date – it seems like two years, but it’s only been two months – has seemed like a reality TV show that has exceeded a producer’s wildest expectations. Perhaps surreality TV would be more apt.

There is a theory that Trump is a “disruptor”, that he is the wake-up call that the political establishment so desperately needed to finally recognise the hurt and disillusion of millions of Americans disenfranchised by globalisation, free trade and economic liberalisation. A wake-up call for the “political elite” more interested in fulfilling their ideologically pristine agendas than considering the wellbeing or values of increasingly marginalised constituents. These are concerns in play around the world – in the UK, Europe and Australia.

The UK will survive Brexit, and Australia will outgrow its rekindled fascination with the kookery of One Nation, but what of Trump’s US? It is quite possible that Trump will, by whatever device, not last four years. But even so, would a President Pence have the skill or commitment to rectify whatever damage Trump manages to unleash? Or would Pence simply be Trump with a little more elan? A Trump Lite?

The 1950s ain’t coming back

And if Trump does last four years – or, heaven forbid, eight years – just what will be the extent of his disruption? It may be that the mayhem of the Trump presidency will result in chaos on the homefront and the beginning of a new world order in which the US is no longer leader and protector of the “free world”. This will partially reflect Trump’s isolationist tendencies, but also the US’s growing irrelevance under an erratic president clearly out of his depth and with the attention span of a gold fish.

Trump’s voters don’t care about foreign policy; not for the moment anyway. What they want is the return of US manufacturing, the return of US jobs and the return of White America. In a nutshell, the return of the 1950s. That’s also what Pauline Hanson’s supporters want. But the 1950s ain’t coming back.

Trump’s disillusioned masses were right to be disaffected; and they were right to feel they were being ignored – even ridiculed – by the political elites. Lessons hopefully learned. But they were wrong to think Trump was the man to put things right. Trump has always been and remains a bombastic conman; the Colonel Tom Parker of American politics.

Desperate voters can be forgiven for being duped by Trump’s razzle dazzle. But voters also knew that Trump was racist, a misogynist, a proven liar and dissembler, a hypocrite, an irresponsible braggart who openly mocked a disabled reporter, incited violence at his rallies and reduced public discourse to its lowest ebb.

For that, American voters cannot be forgiven.

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 or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

As PM announces expenses reforms, the Sussan Ley affair will prove either a new beginning for Malcolm Turnbull, or the beginning of the end

It has not been a propitious start to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s year. The inevitable resignation of Health Minister Sussan Ley over her tin-eared excesses on the public purse is another blow to the standing of the Turnbull Government, a government which has failed miserably to gain traction with Australian voters.

Ley’s egregious exploitation of ministerial entitlements – most notably the improbable “impulse” purchase of a $795,000 investment property on the Gold Coast while on a taxpayer-funded trip – has cut short the ministerial career of one of the few ministers to shine in Turnbull’s lacklustre frontbench. Ley’s fall from grace has been compounded by her insistence that she has done nothing wrong.

In her statement to the media, Ley avows that she has followed the rules, “not just regarding entitlements but most importantly the ministerial code of conduct”.

“Whilst I have attempted at all times to be meticulous with rules and standards, I accept community annoyance, even anger, with politicians’ entitlements demands a response,” she explained.

Amidst the delicately phrased words of borderline – not to say faux – contrition, Ley clearly considers her demise to be about politics rather than ethics: “The ongoing intense media speculation has made this… a difficult week for the Government.”

Voters will doubtless consider it fitting that, having been sprung with her hand in the public purse, Ley has paid the ultimate price. But Ley could not bring herself to make an unreserved apology, a fateful decision that will likely forestall a return to the frontbench any time soon as well as confirm voters’ deepening view that politicians are arrogant and out of touch.

This latest expenses scandal tells us as much about Malcolm Turnbull’s struggling leadership as it does Ley’s overblown sense of entitlement.

The fact that Ley and, as it has subsequently emerged, fellow ministers have not seen fit to curb their excesses in the wake of Bronwyn Bishop’s “choppergate” scandal and the resulting government expenses review can only suggest the Prime Minister commands scant authority over his government.

Despite making it clear that in his view Ley had breached his ministerial code of conduct, Turnbull chose not to dismiss his wayward minister. Instead, Ley stepped aside while the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, conducted a review – a course that presumably had more to do with buying time than establishing facts that were already known.

A question of judgement

Rather than buying time, the decision for Ley to stand aside prolonged the damaging political fallout for the government and again called into question Turnbull’s political judgement.

Turnbull’s choice of Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos – himself not without political baggage – to act as Minister for Health and Aged Care and Minister for Sport also suggests that the Prime Minister has few ministerial colleagues to turn to when it comes to ministers he truly trusts.

When Ley finally announced that she was falling on her sword – stressing that her resignation was a “personal decision” – Turnbull praised her “appropriate judgement”, which only raises the question of why Turnbull did not act himself to terminate Ley’s commission.

Ley’s departure opens the way for Turnbull to reshuffle his frontbench. His test will be to appoint a ministry that re-energises his government, a government languishing in the opinion polls and riven by factional discord.

After an initially sluggish response to the Ley affair, Turnbull’s bold announcement of reforms to parliamentarians’ work expenses, including the creation of a new compliance authority, may herald the emergence of a more assertive Prime Minister.

Or it may set up 2017 as another disappointing year in which a Prime Minister of whom so much was expected continues to disappoint as a diffident and unambitious leader. The difference this year is that neither the increasingly skittish Liberal party nor disillusioned voters will have any remaining stores of patience with Turnbull’s lack of authority and policy vigour.

Perhaps the Ley affair has finally prompted the “real Malcolm” to come out of hiding. If so, Sussan Ley has done Australia a great service. The question now is: can Turnbull maintain the momentum? He will need to, because 2017 will almost certainly be a make or break time for Malcolm Turnbull.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Trump’s victory sends a clear warning to Malcolm Turnbull, but does he have the courage to reboot his prime ministership in 2017?

As if proof were needed, the transition phase of Donald Trump’s imminent presidency shows all too clearly that Americans are in for a rough if not calamitous ride. And Australians have just as much to fear from a weak Prime Minister beholden to the barking right of his party emboldened by Trump’s victory.

The election of Trump as US President will define the world’s political agenda certainly throughout 2017 and very likely over the course of his four-year term – if in fact the mercurial Trump lasts a full term. Trump’s election gives license to far-right extremists largely kept in check by prevailing political orthodoxies, social norms and generally enlightened attitudes.

Trump’s shock victory has busted that paradigm wide open; deliberately and without disguise. More wrecking ball than thoughtful statesman, Trump’s reckless, deceitful and frankly monstrous campaign was a repudiation of those orthodoxies, norms and enlightened attitudes.

Trump tapped into a maelstrom of discontent that resonates just as loudly in Australia: a view that the “political elites” have been pursuing agendas – globalisation, economic restructuring, deregulation – without regard for how they affect the most disadvantaged in the community. When people’s jobs and livelihoods are at risk they will inevitably feel that their cultural values and ideals – their “way of life” – are also under siege.

It’s a heady cocktail of disaffection that manifests itself in a desperate embrace of any counter-political force that vows to eschew the political establishment and act for “the real people”.

Trump’s victory does serve as a salient reminder that the fast pace of economic change since the 1990s – which in the last half-dozen years has accelerated dramatically with the onset of the “digital economy” – has big losers as well as big winners. The conventional political messaging that change is good – a mantra repeated ad nauseam in shrinking workplaces – has tested the patience of people who far from sailing majestically in the sea of change are drowning in it. And they are angry that their cries for help have either been not heard, ignored, or worse, ridiculed.

The anger of Trump’s disaffected followers deserves respect, as it does a credible response from governments, legislators and policy makers.

It remains, however, difficult to forgive these disaffected Americans for entrusting Trump with their grievances.

Voters turned a blind eye to – or indeed welcomed – Trump’s bigotry, racism and sexism, if not outright misogyny. They overlooked his transparent ignorance on the economy, foreign policy and national security; they were unfazed by his instability, incoherence and infantilism; and perhaps most inexplicably they ignored the fact that Trump embodied everything he stood against: he (in the words of Hillary Clinton) “stiffed” contractors, employed illegal immigrants, used Chinese steel in his construction, rorted the tax system and outsourced manufacturing of his branded products overseas.

‘The biggest fuck-you in human history’

Basically, Trump’s supporters didn’t care, and the reasons are best summed up by documentary film-maker Michael Moore, who predicted Trump’s victory:

“Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history…Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting, and that’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump. He is the human Molotov cocktail that they’ve been waiting for, the human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.”

Australia is already familiar with the “fuck you” political phenomenon. It powered Pauline Hanson into federal parliament the first time around in 1996 and perhaps even more improbably Clive Palmer – Australia’s Trump – in 2013. In 1998, Queensland voters delivered their own giant fuck-you when they elected 11 One Nation MPs to state parliament – a short-lived primacy as it turned out. And, this year, voters returned Hanson to parliament with a Senate seat along with three of her, shall we say, eccentric One Nation cohorts.

Trump ascendency brings into focus the anger which has been building in the community – and left unattended – for a long time.

Many Australians, like their American counterparts, feel ignored, disenfranchised and disadvantaged by the new economic order. And their response is not only to look to the likes of One Nation, but to harden their intolerance of anyone or anything that they consider threatens their “way of life”.

The Trump victory has emboldened One Nation to be even more outrageous in their political quackery, and worse, xenophobia and bigotry. We are familiar with the news footage of One Nation senators ostentatiously toasting Trump’s success. At the time of writing, climate change denialist Senator Malcolm Roberts is on a cringeworthy visit to the US to fly the Trump-Downunder flag.

“Unlike many foreign leaders who have shied away from or tried to ignore Donald Trump, newly elected Australian Sen. Malcolm Roberts is proud of his early support for the maverick Republican candidate and now the president-elect,” the Washington Times reports, obviously none the wiser that Roberts is a political pipsqueak, albeit one who has successfully tapped into the same dissent that propelled Trump to the White House.

Roberts told the newspaper while in Washington for meetings with the Trump transition team (cue to roll eyes): “We’re the only party that actually came out and supported the Trump candidacy. We also celebrated his victory the moment it happened. We were very happy about that.” (Roll again; vomiting optional.)

The Washington Times report continues: “The appeal of Mr. Trump’s campaign, he said, was that ‘it seemed to be that the American people are at last waking up that there’s something wrong, and they’re saying to both main parties: You caused this. We don’t know what the problem is, but we know there’s a problem,’ he said.”

A Prime Minister who stands for nothing

At such a time, the need for strong political leadership is paramount, but Australia lacks anything remotely resembling leadership, so that nobodies like Roberts get to dance on the world stage in praise of Trump. But it’s not just the fringe players who are running loose. Mainstream conservatives are also lining up to declare their fealty to Trump and Trumpism.

Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, a Trump acolyte, right down to his red ‘Make Australia Great Again’ cap, warns that Australia must heed the lessons of the US presidential election. Bernardi says One Nation is a political force once more because Pauline Hanson and her colleagues are willing to talk about the things that “people are talking about in the pub”.

“If you have politicians who refuse to talk about immigration, for example, you’re going to get people like Pauline Hanson who will tap into that space,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

After lionising his hero, Bernardi added: “Hillary Clinton was the very worst candidate they could have put up. She’s working for the elites, she was crooked and the system was crooked and they [voters] wanted someone to fix it.”

Bernardi, of course, was addressing an audience of one: his leader and Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull, so lacking in authority within his own party, has made no attempt to slap down the outspoken Bernardi. Indeed, there is every chance that the South Australian senator will find himself promoted to the ministry, both as an offering to the right and in an attempt to keep him quiet.

There could not be a worse time for Australia to be saddled with a spineless PM who stands for nothing. When it became clear that Trump had won the election, Turnbull rushed to congratulate Trump and assured Australians that Trump the candidate and Trump the president would very likely be two very different things. Congratulating Trump is one thing, but Turnbull was remiss in not asserting Australia’s values and interests rather than being seen as all-in with the president-elect.

As the US swings to the right over the next four torrid years – and embarks on the Trump experiment of running a country like a business (headed by a CEO of dubious business acumen) – the onus is on Turnbull to provide the leadership that prevents Trump-style agendas from taking root in Australia.

Turnbull has made much of his government’s plan for the much-touted transitioning economy, but there is no such plan, save for Treasurer Scott Morrison’s budget, which is merely a short-term political document of dubious value. Australia needs root-and-branch economic reform – a bold blueprint that positions the nation for a new era of change and uncertainty, of stature akin to the reforms of the Hawke-Keating era. And both these Labor titans understood that with genuine reform must come the leadership that leaves no Australian feeling overlooked, unrepresented or disqualified.

Even with barely a skerrick of substantive reform under this government that’s how many Australians feel right now. At a time when many Australians feel like they’ve living through a recession, Turnbull, every bit as tin-eared as his predecessor, is still sloganeering about innovation, agility and exciting times.

Trump’s victory provides a valuable reminder about the importance of leadership. In its absence, the orange menace will beckon, whether it’s Trump or Hanson.

As 2016 draws to a close, there is no sign that Malcolm Turnbull has the courage or will to stamp his authority on the prime ministership. Instead, Australia seems destined for another year of diffident, ill-disciplined and pointless government. Surely this is not what Turnbull expected of his time as prime minister. It’s certainly not what the people of Australia expected.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

Malcolm Turnbull, the incredible shrinking prime minister: what’s the point of being a do-nothing PM, Malcolm?

Despite the Coalition’s narrowest of election wins Malcolm Turnbull insists that his government has a mandate. Curiously, Turnbull claims no such mandate for his prime ministership. He remains as beholden to the right wing of his party as he was the day he wrested the prime ministership from Tony Abbott last year. He remains the incredible shrinking prime minister.

For those who believed that the “real Malcolm” would only emerge when he was returned to office in his own right, the upshot of the July 2 election has been a bitter disappointment. While full-throated in his claim of a mandate for his government, Turnbull is not so bullish when it comes to asserting his authority as prime minister. It is difficult to bring to mind a previous prime minister who has been so afraid to exercise power, who has had so little reason for being prime minister. Which begs the question: What’s the point of being prime minister, Malcolm?

Prior to pursuing his destiny in politics, Malcolm Turnbull had been a high achiever in every endeavour he applied himself to. His approach to journalism, the law, investment banking, business and advocacy for the republic was marked by self-confidence, courage and conviction. These are hallmarks noticeably absent from Turnbull’s prime ministership.

Malcolm Turnbull was the last person one would imagine as being content with being prime minister for its own sake, but that is precisely how his time as prime minister must be characterised.

There is no doubt Turnbull was personally crushed by the electorate’s lukewarm endorsement at the polls. Pride aside, Turnbull had hoped for a result that would have enabled him to break free from the hold of his party’s right wing. Instead he scraped in by the barest majority, a pointed public rebuke of his insipid prime ministership. Little did the electorate realise it had simply bought itself three more years of the same.

The initiative rests with Turnbull

Not only is Australia saddled with an impotent Prime Minister, but the Turnbull ministry is one of the weakest, least meritorious, most soul-sapping in living memory. The few individual exceptions don’t come close to tipping the balance. And while having Parliament’s resident goose as Deputy PM is not of Turnbull’s making, the National Party’s retrograde influence under Turnbull’s prime ministership has been allowed to flourish.

It’s hard to understand why Turnbull, presented with a one-seat majority, has not thrown his new-found pragmatism to the wind and adopted Gough Whitlam’s credo of “crash through or crash”. After all, if he feels emasculated by his government’s perilous hold on power, that situation is not going to change for the next three years. The initiative rests with Turnbull himself. He can either continue to tread water, or he can resolve to pursue the issues and causes that are dear to him and let the political cards fall where they may.

Turnbull’s abandonment of marriage equality, his silence on the republic, his refusal to face up to the human rights abuses of Australia’s asylum seeker regime, his disinterest in indigenous affairs, his championing of coal, his insensitivity to growing institutionalised poverty, his weakness in response to ministerial incompetence – how does he sleep at night?

Turnbull has become adept at not rocking the boat. The entirety of his prime ministership is dedicated to keeping himself in the job. In the past he has resolutely refused to accept that Australians have been disappointed in his lacklustre prime ministership – having expected so much more – but if the election result didn’t convince him, then the latest Newspoll should: voter satisfaction with Turnbull’s performance as Prime Minister has sunk below 30% for the first time.

It’s hard to reconcile today’s paper-tiger PM with the MP, narrowly defeated in the leadership ballot following the defeat of the Howard government in 2007, who stormed into the office of the newly installed Liberal leader, the tearful Brendan Nelson, yelling at him to man up. (Turnbull went on to topple Nelson for his first stint as opposition leader. Nelson has gone on to make notable contributions to the nation, first as Australian Ambassador to the European Union and NATO – appointed by the first Rudd government – and since 2012 as the visionary and indefatigable Director of the Australian War Memorial.)

It’s Malcolm…or who?

The answer for the Coalition government does not lie in a change of leader. Even if serious leadership manoeuvrings were to materialise, obvious leadership candidates are few and far between. Abbott’s return is possible, but highly improbable.

Unlike the Labor party which has several strong alternatives to Bill Shorten – and that is a space to watch – the Liberal party is a succession-free zone. The fact of the matter is that Malcolm Turnbull is the most qualified, most able person in the Liberal party to be leader. But his party won’t let him lead, and unlike his former self he lacks the courage to do so. A leader not permitted to lead, without a credible successor.

The Liberal party can thank its hero John Howard for the party’s leadership vacuum. He should have transitioned the party leadership and prime ministership to Peter Costello after winning the 2004 election. And there’s a very good chance that a Costello government would have been returned in 2007. Instead, through spite and obstinacy, Howard clung to office, unchallenged by his weak-kneed ministers who knew that Howard’s time had come.

Costello’s unexpected and not without spite decision to decline the Liberal leadership after the Kevin 07 rout threw the party into the turmoil from which it has not recovered.

While some may cling to the belief that there remains in Malcolm Turnbull the potential to be a great prime minister, it is hard to see Turnbull shaking himself from his self-induced torpor.

Australians deserve better than three more years of Turnbull’s timorous prime ministership. If those closest to Turnbull cannot inject in him the will to prove himself equal to the public’s expectations of him, the Liberal party could do considerably worse than to place itself on bended knee before Peter Costello and beg him to return to parliament to claim his crown.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

 

It would be a great achievement, but we should drop the bumper-sticker promise to halve the number of suicides in 10 years

There’s something distasteful about politicians promising to halve the number of suicides in 10 years. That’s the commitment of the Victorian government. It’s also the policy that federal Labor leader Bill Shorten took to the electorate at this year’s election. But can it really be that simple? Can the tragic epidemic of suicide be solved as an equation? In just 10 years?

Despite the epic dimensions of the suicide crisis in Australia – each year 2000-plus Australians end their own lives – politicians have mostly looked the other way. But suicide has finally made it on to the political agenda, thanks to the tireless efforts of mental health activists.

It is just like politicians to reduce suicide to a mindless slogan, a mathematical fancy, oblivious to the agonising and very personal hell that each case of suicide represents. We cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life. Stephen Fry speaks of the “blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness” of depression, and so it must be with suicide. Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell.

Despite the unimaginable burdens that suicide victims carry, when they finally do take their own lives, even the closest family and friends report no clues or warning signs beforehand.

So, while halving the suicide rate in 10 years might sound a worthy and decisive goal, given the complex, personal, determined and often very secretive nature of suicide, how can politicians make this bold, not to say rash, commitment with such confidence? There is no doubt that carefully targeted strategies can prevent some suicides from occurring – particularly in communities with a high prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts – but it’s also true, if you will forgive the black turn of phrase, that suicide has a life of its own. No effort should be spared to reach every potential suicide victim, but bumper-sticker targets only trivialise the agony that somebody contemplating suicide must experience. Australia’s suicide epidemic is much more complex than such such neat targets allow for.

To some extent politicians can be let off the hook on this occasion because the ambitious and catchy promise to halve suicide in 10 years originated with the experts.

Three years ago this month an Expert Reference Group (ERG) on Mental Health Reform – headed by Allan Fels – presented a series of targets to then new Health Minister Peter Dutton which included the recommendation to reduce Australia’s suicide rate by 10% within four years and 50% within 10 years. (Another target was to “reduce stigma against those living with mental illness” by 25% within 10 years, which seems a somewhat nebulous goal.)

Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia and ERG member said at the time that the targets “have come from the mental health sector and the wider community”.

“Holding ourselves responsible to specific targets is essential to mental health reform,” Heath said. “They are ambitious targets but Australia can meet them – if we put our minds to it.”

The target strategy is well understood in business, as reflected in two well-worn management maxims: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; and if you don’t know where you’re heading, you’ll never get there.

‘Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years’

The National Coalition for Suicide Prevention (NCSP) believes targets, when supported by “evidence-based strategies”, are attainable.

Professor Helen Christensen, NCSP member and director of the Black Dog Institute, says such strategies have helped to reduce suicide by 30% in Europe.

“Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years in Australia and just doing what we have always done is not really going to make any difference to those rates,” Christensen told the ABC last year.

“It has been a scattergun approach and funding has been distributed in a non-organised way. Initiatives are very fragmented and some are run by the government and others by NGOs.”

Christensen rejects the view that suicide is “an individual thing” and therefore not preventable: “[T]he evidence is very clearly the case that we can prevent suicide.”

There can be no ignoring the tragic proportions of suicide in Australia – and therefore the need for action – but until recently that’s exactly what has happened.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data released in March, there were 2,864 deaths from “intentional self-harm” in 2014, making suicide the 13th leading cause of deaths in Australia. (Around 65,000 attempted suicide.) Three-quarters (75.4%) of people who died by suicide were male, elevating suicide to the 10th leading cause of death for males.

Suicide is endemically rooted in Australian society. Annual death tolls are remarkably consistent and suicide is the most common cause of death among Australians aged 15-44. At the beginning of this century (2001), 2,457 Australians took their own lives, similar to the toll in 2013 (2,522) and 2012 (2,574). The 2014 spike is the highest since 1997, when 2,720 died by suicide.

It seems remarkable given such colossal loss of life that it has taken this long for politicians to confront Australia’s suicide epidemic. That they have finally done so is only because mental health activists have been relentless in their calls for government action.

Activists took full advantage of this being an election year to make suicide a policy priority for the major parties.

During the election campaign, an alliance of leading mental health advocates led by former CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia and inaugural chairman of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, John Mendoza, released suicide data in 28 federal electorates to stir candidates and MPs into supporting a national suicide-prevention strategy.

Its analysis of the 28 electorates found that between 2009-12 suicide rates exceeded the road toll and all but five had suicide rates at “high to extreme in levels”.

Any other cause of death at such magnitudes would have resulted in “a very assertive, nationally co-ordinated response”, Mendoza said. “Suicide and self-harm are now major public health problems in Australia that require a [national] public health response.”

To the credit of Mendoza and other suicide-prevention activists, this year has seen promising if belated political recognition of the need for concerted action on suicide.

‘No parent should ever bury their child’

Bill Shorten adopted the experts’ target of halving suicide rates over the next decade when he announced that a Labor government would invest $72 million to establish 12 regional suicide-prevention pilot programs in communities with high suicide rates, including in at least three indigenous communities.

Describing suicide as a “hidden story in this country” – in fact, not hidden, just ignored – Shorten also pledged $9 million for a national suicide prevention fund to support research into reducing suicides and programs to break down social stigma.

“Teenagers are taking days off school to attend the funerals of classmates who have taken their own life,” he said.

“Parents are sitting at kitchen tables, numb with incomprehension, shattered by grief, trying to write a eulogy for their child. No parent should ever bury their child. Yet seven Australians die every day at their own hand, every single day.”

Shorten didn’t get the chance to implement his promises, but for the first time a party of government had placed suicide front and centre on the national political agenda.

Victoria’s Labor government led by Premier Daniel Andrews is, however, in the position to implement a suicide-prevention strategy in his state. In 2015, 646 Victorians took their own lives.

“We cannot sit back and do nothing, and somehow accept that it is just the way things are,” Andrews said.

In July, he announced a strategy to halve Victoria’s suicide rate over the next 10 years by targeting at-risk communities.

The government has committed $27 million towards community-based support trials that will be implemented through sporting clubs, schools and other local networks. The program will also provide intensive support for people who have previously attempted suicide at six suicide hot spots throughout state.

The Victorian program will be implemented in 2017.

In August, an “integrated suicide prevention program” was launched in NSW with backing from the NSW Government, Commonwealth Primary Health Networks (PHN) and a $15 million grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Based on successful European models, the “Lifespan” program was developed by the Black Dog Institute and the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention.

The “evidence-based systems approach” will be implemented in four regional locations in NSW and involves the implementation of nine suicide-prevention strategies, including improved access to mental health care, quality education programs for people at the front line (emergency staff, teachers, GPs) and encouraging safe conversations about suicide in schools, workplaces and communities.

It is estimated that this new evidence-based program will reduce the suicide rate by at least 20% in “a few years” and suicide attempts by 30%.

These are welcome initiatives and hopefully herald ongoing government efforts to reduce the incidence of suicide in Australia.

Perhaps the “halving suicide in 10 years” promise was a clever ruse by savvy mental health activists to reel in politicians who tend to see things in terms of slogans and catchphrases. Given that politicians have notoriously short attention spans, it might also have been an attempt to lock them in for  10 years.

With suicide now on the political agenda, it might be best if we never hear again about halving suicide in a decade. Such promises have a way of turning into political red herrings that overshadow and even derail original good intentions. We need only recall Bob Hawke’s sincere but doomed “by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”.

We don’t need the artificial inspiration of arbitrary targets when it comes to the scourge of suicide – or child poverty, for that matter – we must simply acknowledge the problem and ensure that governments take the best-informed actions to overcome it. At long last, we now appear to be on that path.

In the meantime, as a community we can play our part by bringing suicide out in the open and ensuring that it never again becomes a “hidden story”. We must talk about it, we must confront it and we must do everything we can to understand and overcome this corrosive epidemic which is killing so many of our young people, and many others, in communities around Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, help is available from Lifeline ­(13 11 14), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).

 

That cartoon: I was wrong, and so were you Bill

I was prepared to give Bill Leak the benefit of the doubt over his infamous cartoon in The Australian in which he portrayed an Aboriginal child being handed back by an Aboriginal policeman to an apparently drunk father, holding a can of VB, who cannot remember his son’s name.

Policeman: “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.”

Father: “Yeah, righto, what’s his name then?”

My instinctive reaction was to recoil at Leak being branded a racist. Not because I know Leak (I do not) or have any personal knowledge of whether he is a racist or not, but because it is such a big accusation to level at anyone. ‘Surely an editorial cartoonist should be able to make his statement without being labelled a racist’, was the gist of my initial response.

My first reaction was not to the cartoon itself. But it should have been, particularly coming as it did so soon after the ABC’s revelations about the unpardonable treatment of Aboriginal youths in Darwin’s Don Dale detention centre and the subsequent calling of the Royal Commission.

I should have looked at that cartoon. I should have thought not “freedom of speech” but at how others would see it, particularly members of the indigenous community, and especially loving Aboriginal dads and their kids.

The one good to come out of the Leak cartoon controversy was the spontaneous and emotionally charged #IndigenousDads campaign on Twitter. And it was a great good. The outpouring of love, tributes, defiance and anger at being so unfairly – and horribly – stereotyped by Leak’s cartoon was and continues to be social media at its best. Photos of dads and their kids, posted by proud and loving fathers and children alike, were just too beautiful for my inadequate words.

In defence of his cartoon Leak insisted that it spoke the “truth” about violence and abuse in indigenous communities. But whatever truth Leak may have felt compelled to highlight, the timing of the cartoon was always going to overshadow his message, such as it was.

Coming as it did in the wake of the Don Dale scandal, it is hard not to see – immediately or, as in my case, on reflection – that the cartoon might as well have been a submission to the Royal Commission that the indigenous communities have only themselves to blame.

Even if the cartoon was conceived with the best intentions, it is yet another example of European smugness, more of that “this is for your own good” crap which has worked so well in the past.

#IndigenousDads

It is not good enough to protest that the cartoon simply shined a light on the violence and abuse in indigenous communities. Indigenous leaders know about those problems; they do not need reminding by The Australian. And those failings certainly should not be portrayed as if they are the sum total of Aboriginal Australia, to be represented in culturally loaded images and attitudes as old as European Australian itself.

#IndigenousDads was a timely and powerful reminder that non-indigenous Australians should look beyond discredited stereotypes in how we continue to see Aborigines. The fact that cartoons like Leak’s still appear reinforces the sad reality that most Australians do not know, do not see, do not socialise with Aboriginal Australians. If more non-indigenous Australians had blackfellas as neighbours, we might think it less acceptable that they be portrayed as they were in Leak’s cartoon.

Leak’s response to the criticism was to present a second version of the cartoon in which a perplexed and defeated Leak is being handed over by the same Aboriginal policeman to an enraged trendoid wearing a Twitter t-shirt and carrying a club and a noose.

“This bloke’s been telling the truth and he thinks it’s funny,” the policeman says.

“Let me at ‘im,” the one-man lynch mob yells.

I can see that Leak’s supporters might have been sympathetic to this portrayal, but in many respects I thought it was even more offensive than the first. It shows that there was no reflection on Leak’s part, nor any appreciation of how others might have seen his original cartoon. Leak’s portrayal of himself as the misunderstood victim makes a mockery of the systemic disadvantage and oppression of so many indigenous Australians over generations. Frankly, if Leak felt compelled to keep digging with a follow-up cartoon, you’d think it would be to defiantly present his middle finger than to bleat “poor me”.

The fact that Leak obviously concludes that the lesson to be taken from this experience is that it’s all about him reveals, if nothing else, a breathtaking lack of empathy and, worryingly for an editorial cartoonist, under-appreciation of irony.

‘Confronting and insightful’, tin-eared or just plain racist?

I remain an admirer of Bill Leak as one of our finest cartoonists. But what are we to make of this latest upset? Did the controversial cartoon reveal Leak’s inner racist, or as his critics insist yet again confirm his overt racism? His cartoon certainly provided succour to racists.

Right or wrong, editorial cartoonists tend not to back down. By the time they sign that cartoon they are prepared to defend it come hell or high Twitter. Perhaps it is their strength of conviction that gives them the daring to continually challenge readers and those they satire. To start second-guessing themselves would make their job almost impossible.

If Leak was simply too tin-eared and too close to his cartoon to understand the true dimensions of his creation, his editor had no such excuse.

In its response to the furore, The Australian issued this statement: “Bill Leak’s confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do.”

Not untrue of itself, but in this instance we can dismiss it for the blah that it is.

What Leak’s editor should have said when the cartoon was presented was: “Bill, I get what you’re saying, but there are messages here I don’t think you intend or appreciate.”

And when Leak inevitably would have protested that The Australian could take it or leave it, the editor should have responded: “Well, Bill, we’ll leave it then.”

You were wrong on this one, Bill, and it’s not too late to admit it. I think your cartoon mentioned something about personal responsibility.

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