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

 

‘Q&A Malcolm’ is back and puts the Right on notice; meanwhile, Bill’s still telling whoppers

Malcolm Turnbull can still save his prime ministership, but to do so he must be bolder, more assertive and truer to himself than he has been in the 10 months since assuming the leadership from Tony Abbott in September last year.

Amid the uncertainty thrown up by voters on July 2, what is beyond doubt is that the key to restoring confidence in the Coalition government – and in government generally – is not Tony Abbott, nor is it the embrace of the Liberal party’s far right.

Seething sections of the Coalition – starting with Cory Bernadi and his band of merry men – are no doubt keen overthrow Turnbull, but in the Prime Minister’s favour is the fact that there is no ready successor. Turnbull should use this breathing space wisely and decisively.

Turnbull feigns bewilderment when told that voters have been disappointed that the “real Malcolm” disappeared from view soon after becoming Prime Minister. Constrained by leadership deals with conservative power blocs within the Coalition, Turnbull has been all elegance, no substance.

If Turnbull ever did sincerely doubt that voters were disenchanted with “Turnbull lite”, or even “Turnbull fake”, it would have been dispelled by the punishing election result. Punishing, not murderous.

If voters were truly finished with Turnbull, the result on July 2 would have been very different. Former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman can attest to the force of a hostile electorate. Even as a first-term government with a record majority the deeply unpopular Newman government was hurled out of office, and Newman himself lost his seat.

In the federal election year of 1996, the late Wayne Goss, the former reformist Premier of Queensland, said of then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s unpopularity in Queensland that voters were “sitting on their verandas with baseball bats, waiting for the writs to be issued”.

Flash-forward 20 years and nobody was talking of voters waiting for Turnbull with bats at the ready. Virtually no one seriously doubted that the Turnbull government would be returned, even within Labor ranks. Opinion polls that quizzed voters on who they thought would win the election – as opposed to who they were going to vote for – showed an overwhelming expectation that the government would be returned.

As stunning as the election result was, it can be surmised that voters were expressing their discontent with Turnbull in the expectation that he would still be PM on July 3. On the other hand, while the likes of Bernardi and Eric Abetz may still pine for their departed leader, it is a near certainty that had Tony Abbott gone to the polls as PM, the baseball bats would have been given a thorough workout. And Bill Shorten would be Prime Minister right now.

No prizes for almost winning

As it is, Shorten is revelling in his status as a giant slayer. But if the Turnbull government was so atrocious, and its policies so odious and Turnbull himself such a woeful Prime Minister – so inept that Shorten has demanded his resignation – then the logical question must be: why didn’t Labor win this election? A follow up question might be: why did Labor attract one of its lowest primary votes on record?

In politics there are no prizes for almost winning. This is bound to sink in at Labor headquarters sooner or later.

It is hard not to bring to mind the late Liberal leader Billy Snedden who, after losing to the Whitlam government in the 1974 federal election, insisted that he didn’t lose, “we [just] didn’t win enough seats to form a government”.

Shorten is for the moment enjoying his newly acquired adulation and especially Turnbull’s discomfort, but the Labor party has as many questions to ponder as the Liberal party. The fact is that the minor parties and independents scored their highest primary vote ever, which is to the discredit of both Labor and the Coalition.

Shorten’s at times graceless post-election skiting misses the point that voters are fed up with the political status quo.

The 2016 election result flatters neither Labor nor Shorten. Labor has mistaken a brush in the corridor as a moment of unbridled ardour. The ambivalent election result is democracy’s way of saying “A plague on both your houses!”

It took a rattled Turnbull longer than it should have to grasp the import of the July 2 result. On Monday he gave the leader’s speech that he should have given on election night, taking “full responsibility” for the government’s campaign and election result.

In conceding that there were “lessons to be learned” Turnbull went much further than simply making what has become a routine admission by penitent political leaders. He outlined what those lessons were and starkly confessed the failures that need to be corrected.

“There is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government and with the major parties – our own included. We note that. We respect it,” he said in the Sydney address to the media.

“Now, we need to listen very carefully to the concerns of the Australian people expressed through this election. We need to look at how we will address those concerns.”

‘The Coalition must do better on health’

While still angry at Labor’s deceitful “Mediscare” campaign, in which it was falsely claimed that the government intended to privatise Medicare, Turnbull admitted the fact that the campaign succeeded was a matter for the Coalition to address.

“They [voters] believed it or at least had anxieties raised with it. It is very, very clear that [Deputy Prime Minister] Barnaby [Joyce] and I, and our colleagues, have to work harder to rebuild or strengthen the trust of the Australian people in our side of politics when it comes to health. There is no question about that,” Turnbull said.

“This was a shocking lie. I’m not going to pretend it’s anything else. But the fact that significant numbers of people believed it, or at least believed it enough to change their vote, tells us that we have work to do and we are committed to that. That is a very clear lesson.”

This was a frank and significant statement that gives notice to his troublesome colleagues on the right. In acknowledging that the Coalition must be seen to unequivocally support Medicare – that the healthcare system can no longer be treated as political fair game – the message was loud and clear that the ruthless and combative politics of the Abbott era are over.

Turnbull’s speech was the closest thing to “Q&A Malcolm” that voters have seen since he became Prime Minister.

If Turnbull is to recover his reputation and regain the trust of voters he can no longer afford to appease the right wing of his party. He will be only too aware that doing so almost scuttled his prime ministership.

It defies logic that Liberal conservatives are blaming Turnbull for a weak and uninspiring campaign when it placed the very restrictions on him that prevented him from venturing beyond the dull “jobs and growth” mantra.

Turnbull has served notice that he will now be Prime Minister on his terms. If true to his vow to restore the trust and confidence of the electorate, Australians can be satisfied that they have achieved what they set out to on July 2.

As for Bill Shorten, he is so busy gloating (and jogging) that he has given no indication whatsoever that Australians are fed up with mealy-mouthed and dissembling political leaders – whether Liberal or Labor.

Far from considering himself lucky to get away with his brazen Medicare scare campaign – and a few other whoppers along the way – Shorten was at it again this week when in his most prime ministerial bellow he warned of an imminent early election:

“There is a very real chance that Malcolm Turnbull is considering a snap federal election in the mistaken belief that this will sort out his problems.”

A “very real chance” that Turnbull is “considering” another election. Not only a concoction, but not even a convincing one. Talk about the Opposition Leader who cried wolf.

Quite apart from having no evidence for such a plan, the Governor-General would be under no obligation to accede to such a request from a caretaker Prime Minister. His first priority would be to ensure that one or the other party of government could secure a vote of confidence on the floor of the house.

If Malcolm Turnbull heeds the admonishment of the electorate and gets his act together, Australia may at last get the leadership it craves and Bill Shorten may find that his own leadership is undone by one whopper too many.

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. He is the author of the book Rethink: the Story of Edward de Bono in Australia (Wiley). Follow him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

Voters seem set to give Malcolm Turnbull a second chance as Bill Shorten reveals his darker side

It’s not over till the plus-size lady sings, but at this stage it looks like a win for the Turnbull government. However Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull needs more than just a win. It must be a decisive win if he is to have the authority necessary to ensure three years of stable – and energetic – government.

Despite the disappointment in the first leg of Turnbull’s prime ministership most Australians seem set to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he comes good once in possession of his own mandate.

It remains to be seen whether Turnbull has been biding his time before unleashing the “real Malcolm” or if in fact “pragmatic Malcolm” is the true tenor of the remade man. It’s hard to imagine that Turnbull, having coveted the prime ministership for so long, has no intention of leaving his mark on Australia as a moderate and visionary leader, but politics does strange things to people.

Not so Paul Keating who was always his own man. Keating has cut the template for a PM determined to use his office to drive reform, right social and historical wrongs, shape public opinion and set a course for the future. Keating, as Treasurer and later Prime Minister, had no interest in power for power’s sake. Keating was an activist Prime Minister, precisely the leader Australia needs at this critical time of rapid and profound social and economic change.

Turnbull is irritated by suggestions that his leadership has been constrained by a Faustian pact with the conservative bloc of his party, but it is the only credible explanation for a leader who has appeared compromised and unusually coy on so many issues.

A Coalition that just manages to scrape back into power is unlikely to give Turnbull the confidence or the impetus to break free from the influence of the hard right.

The opinion polls are not especially revealing about the likely outcome of the election. The Fairfax-Ipsos poll concludes that at 50-50 the two party preferred split makes it too close to call, while the Galaxy poll in News Corp papers shows the Coalition ahead 51-49 and The Australian’s Newspoll forecasts a modest 2.6% swing to Labor which would see the Coalition returned with 82 seats, Labor 63 and crossbenchers 5.

A result along the latter lines would allow Turnbull the internal authority he currently lacks – although to raise the former Labor PM again, one suspects Keating would waste no time bowing to the “pissants” and “low-altitude flyers” in the first place.

A contest of ideas and values

Although the marathon campaign has been variously described as tedious, boring and lacklustre, the 2016 election has nonetheless provided the first genuine contest of ideas and values in over a decade. For that, Labor leader Bill Shorten deserves credit.

Shorten has delivered a much stronger performance than even his closest supporters could have hoped for. A preparedness to release policies in the run up to the election strengthened his credentials as alternative PM.

Shorten has also been working on the cosmetics of his leadership. The most casual observer will have noticed an improved wardrobe – although not quite matching Turnbull’s sartorial elegance – and a speaking style that has shed some of its irritating tics. The zingers are noticeably, and mercifully, few and far between. And for what it’s worth, Shorten’s media team ensured that there were lots of TV grabs of the Opposition Leader jogging. If Dad Jogging attracts votes, then he’s on a winner.

Neither Turnbull nor Shorten had ever led an election campaign before, so neither side could be sure that their man had the stamina, discipline and mental toughness to withstand a gruelling eight-week campaign.

Turnbull, once known for his impatience, short-fuse and imperious intolerance, has been true to his word that he has changed from when he was Liberal leader the first time around. This campaign has borne that out in what has been a remarkably even, good humoured and unflappable – if uninspiring – performance by Turnbull.

For much of the campaign the “new Bill Shorten” took the fight to Turnbull and more than held his own. Strong debate performances, a good showing on the ABC’s Q&A program and an air of confidence raised the real possibility of a Shorten government after July 2.

But the last fortnight or so has revealed a side of Bill Shorten that has been less than prime ministerial.

Shorten’s “Mediscare” campaign – in which he insists that the Coalition secretly plans to privatise Medicare and that Turnbull’s promises to the contrary are lies – was breathtaking in its duplicity.

Health is clearly a weak spot for the Coalition and there’s plenty of material with which to mount an attack against the government. Shorten’s Medicare gambit is lazy and deceitful, made all the more extraordinary by Labor’s claims that the media is showing bias in taking Shorten to task.

Shorten’s sophistry on penalty rates is another example of cheap political trickery: Labor says the Coalition plans to cut penalty rates, but the decision on the future of penalty rates rests with the Fair Work Commission not the government. What’s more, it’s a decision that a Labor government would abide by.

Pick your ‘defining moment’

Shorten also over-reached when he dramatically announced “the defining moment of this campaign”… “the gaffe that marked the end of the Prime Minister’s credibility”.

The supposed gaffe – instantly featured in TV ads – was a statement by Turnbull in which he said that “what political parties say they will support and oppose at one time is not necessarily ultimately what they will do”.

It’s true. Turnbull did say that. But he immediately went on to say:

“You have seen the Labor Party has opposed many measures of ours at which they have subsequently supported or subsequently changed their position on. The best-known of those is obviously the School Kids Bonus, which they made an iconic issue and launched petitions and campaigns and said they were going to fight all the way to election day to restore it and then did a very quick backflip on that.”

If there is a defining statement in the campaign, it deserves to be Turnbull’s: “Bill Shorten put this Medicare lie at the heart of his election campaign. And they boast of how many people they have deceived. That’s not an alternative government, that’s an Opposition unfit to govern.”

Exaggerated claims and economies with the truth are an unedifying but inevitable feature of election campaigns, but Shorten has pushed the envelope to an unacceptable degree. If he is capable of telling such whoppers in pursuit of power, how can Australians be sure that he will not do so again in the exercise of that power? It’s a point that is especially apposite given that the question of trust has been canvassed by both political leaders in  this campaign.

Shorten has done himself, his party and the Australian electorate a disservice in sullying the election in this way.

Labor commenced the election campaign with policies, values and ideals that provided a stark contrast to the Coalition’s “jobs and growth” mantra and promised a bright alternative to the policy torpor of the past three years. Then they threw it all away.

Perhaps Labor feared that Australians were more concerned about the economic management credentials of the next government and its strength to face whatever challenges lay ahead.

Labor’s panicky resort to the Mediscare strategy initially seemed to work, although it remains to be seen whether the unravelling of that ruse in recent days will rebound against Labor.

What a pity that instead of trying to scare voters away from the Coalition that Shorten did not do more to emphasise Labor’s successful response to the Global Financial Crisis; and what a mistake not to focus on the strength of Labor’s considerable talent on its frontbench when compared to the government’s lacklustre frontbench.

In the end it has come down to the two men leading the parties of government. Based on their performance of the past eight weeks, the electorate will likely judge Turnbull to be the more effective campaigner and, more importantly, the more credible alternative as Prime Minister.

If that is the case, Turnbull should consider this a second (and final) chance by voters disappointed by his demur debut as PM but prepared to believe that we have yet to see the best of Malcolm Turnbull. It may also signal that Australians have seen the worst of Bill Shorten, and didn’t like it.

 

Patronising and offensive: why it’s time to say goodnight to the annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout

Last night ABC TV’s Australian Story program ran a story about the 2014 murder of homeless Melbourne man Morgan Wayne Perry, known on the streets as Mouse. He was stabbed to death at the place where he slept with other homeless people under a bridge on the banks of the Yarra on the city’s edge.

At the time, the story shocked and saddened Melburnians: most people, to the extent that they give any thought to their city’s homeless, would think of them as harmless and defenceless. They may not give a second look to the growing number of homeless men and women in the “world’s most liveable city”, they may even resent being approached for money, but something about Mouse’s death clearly stirred Melburnians. Not least because his killer was a young man from a “privileged background”.

For those who watched Australian Story last night, their sadness would have been magnified by Mouse’s heartbreaking story: the unspeakable abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his stepfather, sexually abused by an uncle, survivor of a horrific motorcycle accident that broke both his legs, and as a father himself finding his three-week-old daughter dead in her cot. Battling his inner demons, addicted to drugs and estranging himself from his family, Mouse melted into the streets of Melbourne. Only after his death did his sister Michele learn something of his life as a homeless man.

Occasionally he would accept the kindness of the Salvos, but as Major Brendan Nottle recalled on Australian Story, Mouse declined the offer of accommodation:

“[We] offered some accommodation to Mouse on a number of occasions and he said no he didn’t want to go into accommodation because he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to uphold the rules around not using drugs in the accommodation and he wanted to be respectful of the program and so he said that he preferred to stay under the bridge at Enterprize Park.”

Perhaps it’s a journalist’s thing but when I pass a homeless person I wonder about his or her “back story”. These people aren’t born on the street. They had a life before this one. Mouse “used to be someone”. Of course he still was someone when he was killed, but as a homeless person he was seen but invisible, among us but not one of us, tolerated but never embraced.

The homeless understand what it is to be anonymous in a city of millions. Some no doubt wish the anonymity, to be left alone at night with their torments, regrets and sorrows. Others have it whether they crave it or not; a temporary situation turned permanent, a wrong turn in life that can’t be reversed, a scream that nobody hears.

As coincidence would have it – or perhaps a case of artful timing – while the fate of Mouse is fresh in our minds, this week St Vincent de Paul Society hosts its annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout.

Each year business leaders, community leaders and politicians all over Australia will “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter”. The aim is to raise awareness of homelessness and to raise money to help the charity’s work with the homeless.

CEO Sleepout a PR anachronism

I admire Vinnies, their good in the community is all but incalculable. But I am not a fan of the CEO Sleepout event. It is patronising, offensive and at the very least a PR anachronism.

CEOs who will be participating in this week’s event (on 23 June) who watched Australian Story on Monday night may well feel their well-meaning adventure is tasteless.

According to Vinnies, there are 105,000 people experiencing homelessness in Australia; 44% are women, many accompanied by children (and who not uncommonly call their car home). Around 60% are under the age of 35.

If the figure is in fact higher nobody would be surprised. In the CBD, suburban parks and shopping centres the homeless are plentiful, and when they are nowhere to be seen their bedding and possessions very often are.

This is not the first time I have expressed my distaste for the Vinnies CEO Sleepout. Some CEOs in the past have taken great offence. In one case, one of my regular contacts, the CEO of a mid-size Brisbane consulting firm who participated in the Sleepout, was so incensed by my criticism of the event that he excoriated his PR adviser for “letting” my column appear in BRW, even though she knew nothing about it (nor was the sensitive philanthropist mentioned or alluded to).

People’s “awareness” – whatever that means – does not need to be raised. The “profile” of homelessness needs no increasing. Who is not aware of the national shame that is Australia’s homelessness? The problem, not to say scandal, is not that Australians are unaware of this deepening social crisis; it’s that it continues to worsen in the face of that knowledge.

It’s difficult to believe that Mouse or his fellows would find any solace in the fact that each year 1500 CEOs and other community leaders will “experience” being homeless for one night “with only a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”.

In May, half a dozen businesswomen in their “brightest bed wear” gathered to promote this year’s CEO Sleepout. I wonder if the men and women who call the Yarra home were amused, nonplussed or angry as they witnessed the photo op from afar.

The Vinnies media release gushed that “their goal was to turn heads and change attitudes towards the 22,000+ Victorians that experience homelessness on any given night”. It added that the CEO Sleepout participants “stressed that wearing pyjamas in broad daylight was not only a move to inspire a laugh – it was a also a move to inspire action”.

What a pity the photo shoot was not far from where Mouse was killed two years ago.

That’s the problem with PR stunts; they become an end in themselves, a parody of the very issue they wish to promote.

The sincerity of the businesswomen involved is beyond reproach. It obviously did not occur to them, their own PR people or the Vinnies PR team that their “light-hearted” attempt to promote the issue of homelessness might be an offensive trivialisation of the issue.

Crass and condescending

Since its inception in Sydney 2005 (or 2006, depending on the account), the Vinnies CEO Sleepout has raised $24 million to assist Vinnies homeless services around Australia.

It says something about the extent to which Vinnies and other charities are starved of funding that the CEO Sleepout is even considered necessary given the relatively modest amount it raises.

But Vinnies is quite wedded to the annual fundraiser. Indeed last year it permitted “executive teams” to keep CEOs company on their cold, lonely vigil – and raise extra cash in the process.

It’s such innovation that saw St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria earlier this year win the Fundraising Institute of Australia’s 2016 National Award for Special Events.

Vinnies would be aghast at any suggestion that they have lost sight of the very people they seek to – and do – assist with the money raised. Of course the money is put to good use; but is the CEO Sleepout still relevant in 2016? Is it the most appropriate way to raise money for this important work?

The answer is clearly no. What might have been a harmless PR exercise a decade ago is now crass and condescending.

Can we think about this for a moment: businesswomen parading in their pyjamas – pyjamas most homeless people would not possess – to highlight the plight of the homeless. Really? CEOs in branded hoodies and beanies “sleep[ing] rough…to experience first-hand what over 105,000 Australians experience every night”. I doubt it very much.

CEO Sleepout is not just a cause, but an occasion. “Sleeping in numbers is a good strategy for keeping warm, and to socialise, so we’re encouraging business’ to invite their entire senior executive teams along for the night,” a Vinnies media release urges.

Participants could easily sign a cheque for a meaningful amount without the much-publicised play-acting. Not only are these business figures making heroes of themselves for sleeping in the open for one night, they’re adding insult to their condescension by dressing up as homeless people – in case we don’t know what they look like.

How is this event any more respectable than, say, donning blackface to promote indigenous reconciliation or wellbeing?

What especially grates is that by any casual observation the homelessness problem is getting worse, despite all the “awareness” that’s been raised.

I have no wish to offend businesspeople who feel they are making a genuine contribution to the plight of the homeless. There is much they can do to make a difference: make personal donations, raise money, organise teams to man soup kitchens, hand out blankets, distribute food parcels, offer jobs and training to the most marginalised in our community, and lobby MPs to do more for the homeless and organisations like Vinnies.

To Vinnies: you do a great job, but it’s time to say goodnight to the CEO Sleepout.

 

Why I’m supporting Stephen Mayne’s run for Parliament as an independent candidate in Kevin Andrews’ seat of Menzies

Journalist, business commentator, Crikey founder, shareholder activist and Melbourne city councillor Stephen Mayne is running as a “pro-Turnbull, liberal-minded independent” candidate in Kevin Andrews’ blue-ribbon seat of Menzies in the federal election. And I’m supporting him.

As a journalist, and one who regularly comments on federal politics, there will be some who consider it improper that I should align myself with a political candidate. There is good reason for that point of view, which is why I am “coming out” to explain my decision. It’s certainly true that if Mayne had opted to pursue political office as a party candidate I would not be inclined to offer my support.

But on this occasion, irrespective of his pro-Turnbull affiliation, I am comfortable lending Mayne my support and good wishes. In doing so I am acutely aware of Mayne’s less than popular status among sections of the media. He does have a way of rubbing some of his peers up the wrong way. This was perhaps best exemplified by the infamous incident at the 2006 Walkley awards when an aggrieved Glenn Milne attempted to bodily force Mayne, who was presenting an award, from the stage. (Milne subsequently apologised.)

I am supporting Mayne in part because he has earned his stripes as an early advocate for improved corporate governance at a time when corporate governance was the subject of much lip service but little action in the nation’s boardrooms.

The collapse of Enron in the US and HIH locally in 2001 brought issues of corporate governance, ethics and transparency to the fore. Much change in corporate behaviour was promised, but little followed. Corporate governance became just another box to tick, another milch cow to be exploited by carpetbagger consultants. Bad corporate citizens kept on being bad corporate citizens – as the world was reminded with the catastrophic global financial crisis of 2007-8.

Stephen Mayne called out many of these companies, firstly as a journalist and commentator and later as an activist. During the 1990s and 2000s he would use negligible shareholdings in public companies to target their negligent governance by asking pointed questions at AGMs and by running for positions on company boards. On the latter front, Mayne delighted in dubbing himself “Australia’s most unsuccessful candidate”.

It was this crossover into active participation that irked so many journalists. And I have to admit that I was among those to roll my eyes with each announcement that Mayne was running for yet another company board seat.

Making his presence felt

Mayne was not setting upon a career as a professional company director; his aim was to expose improper corporate behaviour which breached principles of good governance; the spirit if not the letter of the law. Mayne’s targets were shoddy remuneration practices, dubious transactions, conflicts of interest and poor market disclosure.

Mayne continues to make his presence felt at company AGMs, as recently noted by the Australian Financial Review’s Rear Window column:

“The Westfield chief and lover of the beautiful game [Frank Lowy was]…officiating at his company’s AGM…handing out unsolicited career advice to the nation’s favourite shareholder activist-turned-political aspirant, Stephen Mayne. Mayne peppered the octogenarian shopping mall magnate with questions about political donations…But cranky Franky gave voice to the frustrations of every shareholder meeting chair, letting fly with a few choice retorts, including: ‘Isn’t it about time you grew up and did something useful with your life?’”

The Rear Window columnist’s tongue was no doubt firmly located in his cheek when describing Mayne as “the nation’s favourite activist-turned-political aspirant”, but at least the description lacked the hint of scorn in The Australian’s recent epithet for Mayne of “self-appointed corporate conscience to the nation”.

Whatever affection, or lack thereof, the media may have for Mayne, his longstanding campaigns for better corporate (and political) transparency, accountability and standards of behaviour have proven well founded and more relevant than ever. The call by Labor and consumer groups for a royal commission into banks and a wide body of stakeholders for a federal independent commission against corruption may or may not have the support of Mayne, but they go the heart of his conviction that there exist systemic inadequacies in our institutions, whether corporate or political, which must be rooted out.

Mayne may well be a “ratbag” (and worse) to his critics, but he has been vindicated many times over for his determination to shine a light into the darkest recesses of corporate Australia.

Yes, that’s what journalists do, and do very well, but as Maxwell Smart might say, Mayne has used his ratbaggery for good instead of evil. He has opted to go beyond shining a light. He has been a doer, and with the passage of time not just a prescient doer, but a dogged one.

By his own count, Mayne has asked questions at more than 400 public company AGMs and stood for 48 public company boards. From 2011 until 2014 his advocacy was conducted through the Australian Shareholders’ Association as a director and then as Policy and Engagement Coordinator. He has played an instrumental role in turning the somewhat amateurish ASA into a respected voice for shareholder rights.

Practising what he preached

Mayne also served more than three years on Manningham City Council before his election to the City of Melbourne in 2012, where he chairs the finance and governance committee. In that role he has practised what he has preached about financial rectitude and transparency.

Mayne’s decision to contest the seat of Menzies may or may not bear political fruit. Ridding the federal Parliament of 1950s relic Kevin Andrews (he was actually elected in a 1991 by-election) is as much an aim as a seat in parliament.

Parliament would certainly be a better place without the peculiar Andrews, who still swings a torch for deposed Prime Minister Tony Abbott. His ultra-conservatism would not be missed, and an injection of fresh blood into the House of Representatives would make for a better place. Andrews’ political demise is a worthy aim in itself. But there’s more to Mayne’s candidacy than a negative-plus.

Mayne’s time as an elected councillor, particularly as a Melbourne city councillor, suggests that he would make a fine MP. There’s every likelihood that “Australia’s most unsuccessful candidate” will make it to Canberra if not in 2016 then at some future election.

I hope he makes it on July 2 as a “pro-Turnbull, liberal-minded independent”, or as he alternatively presents himself, as a “Hamer L/liberal” candidate, after the late reformist Liberal Premier of Victoria Rupert “Dick” Hamer.

It’s a pity Malcolm Turnbull feels politically constrained from presenting himself as a Hamer liberal. Many have been disappointed by his diffident performance since becoming Prime Minister, but his supporters believe that will change when (if) he earns a mandate in his own right on July 2.

In the meantime, Mayne is prepared to give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt and is running as a candidate in the belief that a liberal Turnbull era beckons. And such an era has no place for the likes of Andrews.

As Mayne told Fairfax Media: “[Andrews] is a 1950s capital C conservative. These dinosaurs can hide in the Senate in smaller states but Kevin Andrews shouldn’t be doing this in Hamer Liberal territory in progressive Melbourne.”

Although Mayne has nailed his colours to the mast of the good ship Turnbull, a progressive Member for Menzies would be a welcome outcome irrespective of who forms government.

Good on Stephen for taking the fight to Andrews, and in what is shaping up as a values election, for standing up for values that can only be for the betterment of a modern and progressive Australia.

That’s why I’ll be handing out how-to-vote cards for Stephen Mayne on July 2.

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. He is the author of the book Rethink: the Story of Edward de Bono in Australia (Wiley). Follow him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

 

 

Where’s Malcolm? The election is Turnbull’s last chance to be the PM everyone thought he was going to be

It’s the question on everyone’s lips: “Where’s Malcolm?” And it’s not a misplaced question. The Malcolm Turnbull who became Prime Minister on September 15 last year – to the palpable relief of a grateful nation – is not quite the man who occupies the office today.

There are occasional glimpses of the charming, eloquent and charismatic visionary whose elevation to the top job aroused much anticipation. Even the Labor opposition seemed quite giddy and star-struck in those first few heady days of Malcolm at the despatch box. At question time, even when he dared to helpfully suggest the question the Opposition should have asked, there was much fluttering delight on the Labor side.

“Early Malcolm” certainly set the scene for the post-Abbott era: soaring speeches, a mini-summit of diverse interests that heralded a new era of inclusion and consultation, a softer tone on terrorism, and of course the innovation statement.

But then, just as suddenly as he appeared, the urbane statesman who promised to usher in the glorious “Turnbull era” became just another politician – and not a very good one, with missteps galore, wasted opportunities, flights of policy fancy that came and went in the space of a news cycle, and a curious reluctance to give voice to those convictions he once proudly wore on his bespoke sleeve: the republic, same-sex marriage, climate change, [insert your own issue here].

Perhaps, opined those prepared to give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt, including this writer, he was silenced by whatever agreements he needed to strike with conservative elements within his party, not to mention his coalition partner, to secure the leadership. Once he has a mandate in his own right, the theory ran (runs), then the “real Malcolm” will re-emerge.

But Turnbull has given not so much as a hint that voters’ patience and understanding will be rewarded in due time. On the republic he has been especially disappointing, relegating it to a distant third-order issue, one to be revisited, maybe and perhaps, when the Queen dies (begging your pardon, Ma’am). On same-sex marriage, he has opted not to reverse the Coalition’s controversial commitment to a divisive and expensive plebiscite.

Who is this imposter claiming to be Malcolm Turnbull? Turnbull is Turnbull in much the same way that the waxen Shane Warne is who he says he is. Of the former spin king, once we get past the swallow’s nest on his bonce, we might agree that he sounds like Warnie and if you squint he even looks a bit like Warnie.

That goes for Turnbull too; if you squint, there is a passing resemblance to the old Malcolm.

Even if we can make allowances for Turnbull squibbing it on those cornerstone issues until after the election – and increasingly that now seems like a big if – it’s much harder to explain the past six months of stumbles, about-faces and inglorious defeats.

It’s even possible to pinpoint the very day when the Turnbull gloss turned to fluff.

That was October 9, less than a month after becoming PM, when Turnbull stupidly (no other word for it) told a Liberal Party state council in Sydney that their party was neither run by factions nor subject to “deals in back rooms”. For his trouble he was openly jeered and laughed at.

Who can say what possessed Turnbull on that day, but ever since Turnbull has been squandering the enormous political capital he initially enjoyed.

A PM who promised so much

The turning opinion polls tell the story of a public’s disappointment with a Prime Minister who explicitly and implicitly promised so much.

It had widely been assumed that Turnbull would be Keatingesque in his policy gravity and vision, but mostly he has just been Abbottesque.

Turnbull deliberately set high expectations on tax reform, promising an informed community debate on taxation, with all tax options to be considered, and a government tax reform blueprint to be presented to the nation in its aftermath. There was no blueprint and debate was pretty swiftly cut short when federal Labor successfully spooked Turnbull into taking any changes to the GST off the mostly bare table. Changes to negative gearing, also initially entertained by the government, had its sacred-cow status confirmed when it too was ruled out – all the better to hammer Labor at the election.

Turnbull, suddenly bereft of a tax reform centrepiece, much less a tax reform manifesto, came up with a proposal to return limited income tax powers to the states for the first time since World War II. It was, the PM boasted, the greatest reform to income tax and the federation in 70 years.

“What we are talking about is the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations, really since the income tax powers were ceded to the commonwealth in the Second World War. There is a failure at the heart of the federation and this is the failure: it is the failure of the states to have access to the revenue sources. This, we believe, is the only way that we can genuinely reform our federation.”

While the proposal – such as it was – was still alive, Turnbull actually did a good job explaining why giving states a share of the income tax base would be an important reform. But, on April 1, appropriately enough, the COAG meeting at which the proposal was formally raised, was informally buried.

Officially the communique stated: “COAG agreed…[to] work on broader opportunities for tax reform, including state tax reform…with a progress report to COAG at its next meeting.”

There’s been not a peep from Turnbull on his momentous state income tax reform since.

Given its significance, one would have thought the Turnbull government would fight harder for such a reform rather than meekly acquiesce to the predictable objections of the states and territories. Or indeed that such a seminal reform might even be an issue to take to the voters? Apparently not.

Wishy-washy brand of politics

Turnbull vowed in his first address to the nation as Prime Minister-elect that his government would be one of “engagement, of consultation, of collaboration”, respecting the intelligence of voters and explaining necessary policy changes.

There has been no such engagement, mainly because there has been no great policy shift which the government has had to explain. It certainly hasn’t been on tax reform, and most certainly not “the most fundamental reform to the federation in generations”. Turnbull has squandered much goodwill; in those first six months we can only speculate on how much he could have achieved in policy terms.

We know from the opinion polls that voters are not happy with Turnbull’s wishy-washy brand of politics – it’s the very opposite of what they expected from him and completely at odds with his take-no-prisoners approach in previous lives as a journalist, lawyer, businessman and investment banker.

Yet, every now and then Australians are treated to a glimpse of the Turnbull they thought they would see on a more regular basis: Turnbull’s prime ministerial Anzac Day address; or Malcolm in command as he announced the awarding of the $50 billion submarine contract to French company DCNS, which will build 12 submarines in Adelaide.

It may be that the Budget will make up for Turnbull’s disappointing start to his prime ministership. To do so it would have to be a budget for the ages, a cornucopia of vision, narrative and bold policy brilliance. It’s possible, but the hamfisted lead up to the Budget suggests nobody is expecting much at all. Except for cigarettes going up again.

And so to the election, which will be called just after the Budget formalities are over.

For jaded Australians who remain hopeful that a mandate will ensure the return of “real Malcolm”, it is no longer the certainty that it was seven months ago that Turnbull will be returned as Prime Minister.

Neither Turnbull nor Labor leader Bill Shorten have led an election campaign before. Neither man will ever face a more important contest.

Hopefully it will be a contest not just of endurance and theatrics, but a contest of ideas, a genuine choice between two plans for Australia. The fact that Shorten lives to tell the tale – not cut down by an all-conquering Turnbull as expected – is a plus for democracy.

Turnbull’s uneven start as PM has been cleverly exploited by Shorten who has for the first time cut through electoral indifference to point out chinks in the government’s armour. More than that, he has been more adventurous on the policy front. Even so, the polls suggest that, whatever gains Labor has made at the expense of the government, people still haven’t warmed to Shorten as the alternative PM and Turnbull comfortably remains the preferred PM.

Turnbull supporters will be hoping that on July 2 Malcolm Turnbull and his government will be returned, and the Turnbull era will at last begin in earnest.

However, Turnbull needs to be aware that thanks to his less than stellar debut as PM Bill Shorten is now very much in the race. Turnbull isn’t the only one hoping to kick off a new era in Australian politics.