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.

 

 

The Road to Ruin: Niki Savva is under fire for being sexist, but feminist critics should leave their agenda at home

Niki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin has proven a polarising chronicle of the destructive co-dependency between Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin and its role in the demise of Abbott’s prime ministership.

Some of the critics have aimed their wrath at Savva for daring to give currency to the long-circulating Canberra gossip that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. Savva makes no effort to settle the veracity of that virulent rumour, nor does she offer any indication of her own view on the matter. The alleged affair, per se, is not the point of her book.

Her point was to illustrate the undisguised intensity and peculiar, not to say bizarre, characteristics of the relationship. It’s possible at a generous stretch that Abbott and Credlin were not aware of the rumours circulating through Canberra, but at times it certainly seemed that they were daring observers to come to that conclusion.

Frankly, the idea of a senior politician having an affair with a staffer is hardly breaking new ground. Mercifully, in Australia, what happens in the anteroom traditionally stays in the anteroom. Occasionally journalists push the envelope, but if journalists were to make a practice of gratuitously revealing every extramarital indiscretion involving politicians and staffers – not to mention the odd journalist – our media would be filled with nothing else.

Matters of public (as opposed to prurient) interest aside, affairs should be none of our affair. What is different about politicians behaving badly through the decades is that they and their paramours have behaved with discretion and secretiveness.

Affair or not, Abbott and Credlin were so bizarrely in-your-face and completely lacking in public decorum that of course they were going to be a talking point.

One MP recounted to Savva being present at a Melbourne restaurant when Credlin used her fork to feed Abbott from her plate. And after the meal “she put her head on his shoulder to complain about being tired”. On another occasion Abbott was spotted patting his chief of staff on the fundament.

There was nothing gratuitous about Savva’s detailed and richly sourced account, but there certainly have been some gratuitous insults hurled at her.

One commentator opined that Savva included rumours of the affair to boost sales of her book. Such a specious claim is an insult to Savva who is a well-connected, seasoned and fearless political journalist (as anyone who reads her columns in The Australian will know).

The intensity of the corrosive relationship between Abbott and Credlin and its toxic impact on Abbott’s private office and the governance of the country – and within two short years his prime ministership – was hardly a matter of Savva’s invention. But her book does break new ground in revealing just how obsessive and caustic this relationship was.

As Savva herself explained: “This was not meant to imply an affair; it was meant to describe the depth of the dependence, the consuming obsession, and what Abbott was prepared to sacrifice for it.”

Too much for a troubled government to bear

Far from being simply a matter of Canberra intrigue, Abbott’s closest colleagues were deeply concerned about Credlin’s micro-management – which extended to over-ruling ministers’ staff appointments and travel arrangements – and the extent of her influence on the Prime Minister and the workings of government.

On top of these deeply and widely held concerns about Credlin’s power lust, rumours about the nature of Abbott and Credlin’s relationship, and their seemingly wilful fanning of it with their outlandish behaviour, was simply too much for a troubled government to bear.

It was of such concern that NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells confronted Abbott about the rumours. As has been publicised, Fierravanti-Wells made this blunt assessment to her Prime Minister: “Politics is about perceptions. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that you are sleeping with your chief of staff. That’s the perception, and you need to deal with it. I am here because I care about you, and I care about your family, and I feel I need to tell you the truth, the brutal truth. This is what your colleagues really think.”

It was a gutsy intervention, not one that would have been made lightly. Her counsel was of course ignored. Abbott did not sack Credlin; in fact nothing changed. Quite apart from the impact of this reckless relationship on his government, Abbott was also becoming a laughing stock in public over the relationship.

A widely circulated gif on social media in which Credlin could be seen making goo-goo eyes at her boss in the back seat of the prime ministerial car – and some none too subtle accompanying comments – would have confirmed Fierravanti-Wells’ worst fears.

Savva has been criticised for not putting these matters to Abbott and Credlin. But why would she? For the inevitable mealy-mouthed denials or explanations, or threats of legal action? Perhaps as a pro forma exercise she should have, but the book is no less revelatory or relevant for the lack of the protagonists’ input. In any case, it was well known for some time that Savva was writing the book; did they seek input? This was not an authorised account of the failed Abbott government. It was an exposé. And a well written, thoroughly researched one at that.

Of the many criticisms levelled at Savva, none has been about the accuracy of her account. It seems inconceivable that an account of the demise of the inept and dysfunctional Abbott government could have been written without delving into the principal architects of its disintegration; and when Savva delves, she delves.

The most fiery criticism of Savva has been over Credlin’s central role in the narrative. This was to be expected, although perhaps not its vehemence.

Previous media reports about Credlin’s divisive and destructive role as Abbott’s chief of staff also attracted the ire of feminists, so it’s not surprising that Savva’s book should come in for like condemnation. Throw in the matter of the alleged affair and Savva was guaranteed a hostile reaction from her sisters. Although she might not have anticipated the extent of the condemnation and accompanying accusations of betrayal of feminist ideals.

Fatuous feminism

But fiery feminism is not necessarily infallible feminism. In this case, fatuous comes closer to the mark (or marcia). One female critic, for example, sought to demonstrate that Savva was being sexist. She argued that despite the intense bond between former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, nobody accused them of having sex. Ergo, the only reason people were speculating about an affair in Canberra is because Credlin was a woman.

Well, yes.

Where does one begin with such absurd logic? I’m not aware of any sightings of Campbell feeding his boss forkfuls of cake that might have set some people wondering. But as it happens, the Blair-Campbell alliance was very much the subject of heated discussion, criticism and condemnation.

Criticisms of Campbell mirrored the concerns expressed about Credlin. He was criticised for having too much influence on Blair and government policy, more so than ministers in some cases. He was condemned for bastardising Westminster politics. Campbell’s influence was all the more egregious, critics argued, given that he was not an elected official. These are familiar criticisms in the context of Credlin’s time as Abbott’s chief of staff.

Critics have variously argued that the book’s focus on Credlin is another example of Australian society’s problem with powerful women, is “insulting to women everywhere” and will dissuade girls and young women from seeking positions of power or influence because they’re only going to be dragged down by an unreconstructed patriarchy.

Which is tosh. Savva, to state the bleeding obvious, is a woman, clearly a powerful one, and as tough as nails. She also knows the turf; not only as a veteran political journalist and commentator but as a former staffer to Peter Costello and John Howard. Far from being a negative influence she may even inspire a new generation of female political and investigative journalists.

Society is the better for the gains that have only come through feminist agitation and insistence. And there are more battles to be fought and won. But using the simplistic rationale that an attack on Credlin is an attack on all women is simply another way of saying that women should be beyond judgment or criticism.

Savva’s book does not posit that the problem with Credlin was her gender; the problem with Credlin was Credlin; and the problem with Abbott was very much Abbott. Savva’s book is about the  poisonous combination of Abbott and Credlin and their dysfunctional approach to government.

The critics presumably must know that the behaviour of Abbott and Credlin would not be tolerated in any Australian workplace. A male CEO patting his female associate’s arse (or vice versa) in view of others would almost certainly only end one way. A CEO who lets himself be fed at a restaurant table, have his hair brushed or tie straightened by said female associate would presumably be sending one and only one signal to all those watching agog at the table.

Quite apart from the power and influence wielded by Credlin and the inadequacies of Abbott as Prime Minister, there are norms of behaviour that must be observed, if not for the sake of decency, for the sake of professionalism.

The Abbott-Credlin relationship was unprofessional, wilful, self-indulgent, selfish, narcissistic, provocative and inevitably destructive. Savva has nothing to apologise for; but Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin most certainly owe their party, if not the people of Australia, a very big one.

 

 

Why Malcolm Turnbull must call an election now

It was refreshing to hear Malcolm Turnbull late last year, while still newly ascended to the prime ministership and enjoying towering prominence in the polls, to put early election speculation to rest by declaring that the Coalition government would go full term. Rather than take advantage of his popularity, Turnbull said he was “expecting” to call an election “around September, October” this year.

This undertaking seemed to confirm the measure of the man; here was a Prime Minister who was clearly determined to retire the naked politics of his predecessor. Malcolm Turnbull was living up to voters’ expectations of their new Prime Minister being more statesman than politician.

Turnbull’s immediate appeal to the electorate was the fact that he was the antithesis of Tony Abbott: urbane, charismatic, articulate, thoughtful – prime ministerial. And perhaps most importantly he was perceived as a moderate and a modernist whose eye was on 2050 rather than 1950. Among his many faults, Abbott was embarrassingly stuck in a past that was no longer relevant to most Australians. The Prince Phillip knighthood fiasco was not of itself the reason to draw a line under Abbott’s cringeworthy prime ministership, it was simply one reflection too many of a tin-eared Prime Minister who was irretrievably out of sync with the Australian people.

Turnbull’s demeanour, reputation and public utterances on a range of hot-button issues suggested a Prime Minister in whom Australians could place their trust to be a leader for the 21st century.

But many voters of late have wondered what became of that idealistic figure, a doubt which has been reflected in recent opinion polls. Turnbull and the Coalition remain well ahead of Bill Shorten and Labor respectively, but there’s been a noticeable wobble in the polls recently which suggests voters fear that Turnbull is after all just another politician, albeit a charming one.

Turnbull has changed; he’s more of a politician than he used to be, and perhaps he needs to be to keep in check the febrile Abbott-right conservatives who are suspicious of his progressive inclinations.

Malcolm Turnbull is well aware, perhaps too aware, that he lost leadership of the Liberal Party to Tony Abbott in 2009, albeit narrowly, because he stood on principle rather than political opportunism in his support for the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme.

The disappointing upshot of that experience is that Turnbull has gagged himself from speaking out on the issues that call for Keatingesque leadership and resolve: asylum seekers, same-sex marriage, the republic, climate change, et al.

Turnbull the heart-breaker

To hear a mealy-mouthed Turnbull casually dismiss the republic as a second-order issue is almost as heart-breaking as the republic referendum sabotaged by proto-monarchist John Howard. Turnbull’s insistence on a plebiscite, rather than a vote of Parliament, on same-sex marriage, is contrary to his earlier stated position and an abrogation of leadership on what is an essential reform. Turnbull turning a blind eye to the unspeakable suffering of asylum seekers in off-shore detention centres is another heart-breaker. On climate change – Greg Hunt’s Coco Pops award as Best Minister in the Known Universe notwithstanding – world leaders must be wondering if Australia has the same understanding of the threat posed by climate change as the rest of the world.

Even Turnbull’s broad-shouldered commitment that all tax matters would be up for debate as part of an open process to arrive at necessary tax reform has proven short-lived. Turnbull’s premature decision to rule out changes to the GST – despite his commitment to bring “rule in/rule out” politics to an end – revealed a Prime Minister who did not have the stomach for genuine consideration of the GST option.

Turnbull buckled under the pressure of Labor’s scare campaign against a “15% GST”, a rare win for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Yet there was every indication that the electorate was open to an increase in the GST from 10% to 12.5% as being in the national interest. Paul Keating, Australia’s most influential and unflinching economic reformer, while implacably opposed to a 15% GST as a general revenue raiser, did see merit in a GST increase of “one or two percent” if the extra revenue was earmarked for health spending.

But with Labor’s scare campaign starting to bite, Turnbull decided that discretion was the better part of valour and closed down the debate, leaving two State Premiers – Jay Weatherill in South Australia and Mike Baird in NSW – high and dry. They had taken Turnbull at his word and bought into the GST debate (supporting an increase) at considerable political risk to themselves. The backdown also caught short Treasurer Scott Morrison who was up for the fight and left him in a position not dissimilar to Paul Keating in 1985 when Bob Hawke reversed his support for then Treasurer Keating’s consumption tax – and we all know how that ended.

Seeking a mandate

So what’s going on? For those prepared to Turnbull the benefit of the doubt – including this writer – the forgiving interpretation is that he is unwilling to act on matters of policy principle until he can be sure of having a mandate that can only come with an election win in his own right. On this reading, Turnbull, his prime ministership “legitimised” through the ballot box, will have political license to unveil the “real Malcolm” without reference to his lunar-right colleagues.

On his recent performance, however, we are left to wonder whether even a mandate will embolden Turnbull. On the key policy areas outlined above, Turnbull has not even seen fit to drop any clues, subtle or otherwise, that change may come with a returned Turnbull government. But perhaps he is playing it extra careful.

If so, the time for an election is sooner rather than later. If Turnbull feels that he requires a win – and presumably a decisive win – before he can take on the conservative elements within his party, and indeed his Coalition partner, then he must attain that mandate at the nearest opportunity.

Labor is gaining traction when it accuses Turnbull of being Abbott in Italian suits; it is not a charge that Turnbull can allow to take root if we are to see the best of the Turnbull government.

Malcolm Turnbull will stand condemned if he squanders the opportunity that he has worked a lifetime towards.

Perhaps this is not lost on Turnbull. In recent weeks Turnbull has, despite his early assurance, hinted that an early election, and possibly a double dissolution, is on the cards.

According to some pundits, a double dissolution would give a returned Turnbull government rare control of both houses. That would be an even better outcome for Turnbull and indeed for Australia. Although there is some democratic merit in the government of the day not controlling the upper house, Australia is at risk of languishing as a middling back-water nation of no account. Or in the call-to-arms warning of Paul Keating, a banana republic.

Australia needs principled and decisive government. It is still within Malcolm Turnbull’s grasp to go down as one of our great Prime Ministers. There is no doubt that Turnbull has returned gravitas to the office of Prime Minister. But he must go much further if he and his government are to leave an indelible imprint on Australia in the way that the Hawke-Keating governments did.

There is no doubting the vision, intellect and stamina that Turnbull brings to government. But it is leadership that Australians call for; leadership that will herald Australia’s arrival as a 21st century nation.

This can be Australia’s century, and Turnbull is the man most likely to usher Australia well and truly into the new century. That includes decisive action not just on the economic front, but on touchstone issues such as the just and long overdue constitutional reconciliation with the First Australians, the republic, same-sex marriage, the environment, energy reform, asylum seekers, federation reform, population policy and no doubt much for.

It’s a tall agenda and it’s an agenda that the Turnbull government must address without impediment, compromise or political reservation. If an early election means that we get to see an untrammelled Turnbull government, then most Australians would welcome such an election. Bring it on, Malcolm.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turnbull puts the republic on hold…for now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unprecedented expression of political will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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