Monday, July 19, 2010

Scuttling social justice – Julia Gillard and the 2010 federal election

Australia is going to the polls in a month’s time. Julia Gillard, the Australian Labor Party prime minister, looks set to win. But, in playing so clearly to middle Australia, she is using her considerable political talent to further drag the ALP away from some of its primary responsibilities: the upholding of human rights and support for the disadvantaged.

For the benefit of overseas readers, Gillard, then the deputy prime minister, shocked Australia when, following weeks of Kevin Rudd suffering in the opinion polls, she deposed him in an unforeseen overnight 'coup' on June 23–24; knowing he no longer had the numbers, Rudd stepped down rather than face a leadership ballot.

It may be that the coup wasn’t quite as sinister as it must have appeared to international observers, despite the involvement of faceless union officials and the fact that Gillard got multinational mining companies onside by ending a terrible imbroglio over mining tax soon after taking power. Rudd appears to have been stuck in a compulsive, controlling, workaholic state that he was unable to shed – some have hinted at mental health issues, and it was impossible not to anticipate the advent of some sort of personal crisis.

The event was notable regardless, being the first time in Australian history that a first-term serving prime minister had been deposed. And, as most people know, Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister.

An election was due anyway, but Gillard was always going to call it early because she wanted to rule as chosen prime minister, rather than being seen as a pretender. Now a snap election has been called for the 21 August.

There are a few things I’ve been dying to write about Gillard ever since her surprise ascension.

Like some others, I hoped that she was more radical than she appeared, and that with Rudd out of the way she would take some simple progressive steps such as allowing gay marriage (Rudd’s a god-botherer and has always opposed this; Gillard is an unmarried atheist with no kids).

It was difficult not to assume, or at least hope, that Gillard would be a little more radical simply because she was a woman. Having slogged her way to the top in a male-dominated party, surely she would have empathy for the marginalised, and go into bat for them once she got into power? My hopes were ill-founded – Gillard soon stated unequivocally that she had no plans to legalise gay marriage.

This should have been no surprise – Gillard as education minister and minister for workplace relations was disturbingly reactionary. Despite her frequent eloquent pronouncements on her commitment to education, she seems to have done absolutely nothing to reduce the glaring inequities of Australia’s education system, a two-tier system that blatantly favours private schools and suffers from hopelessly complicated federal–state funding arrangements.

Gillard specialised in gimmicky, hugely expensive policies that caught the attention of the media as they were designed to do, before at least partly crashing and burning on their ineptitude and lack of groundwork; but she did absolutely zilch to reduce the system’s glaring inequities.

The building and computers-in-schools programs that characterised her tenure were open to the most obscenely wealthy private school, despite the fact that public education has been severely underfunded for years in Australia, resulting in rundown schools and inadequate teacher numbers and support services. The aim of the building program was partly to stimulate the economy, but, writing in The Age, Kenneth Davidson said that ‘Funding directed to maintenance upgrades according to the greatest needs would have had the same economic stimulus impact dollar for dollar and a far bigger pay-off in terms of equity and efficiency’.

Moreover, the public schools were disadvantaged in their access to the building program because they had much less choice compared with the private schools about exactly what was to be built, and no ability to negotiate the cost, resulting in ‘inflated costs and dubious projects’.

With regard to the computer program, private schools benefited while some government schools couldn’t afford to pay for the infrastructure that extra computers would entail.

Moreover, in her determination to impose a national test (NAPLAN) on skills such as literacy and numeracy and a website that would allow parents to compare the relative performance of schools, Gillard fought with the overworked teachers she should have been supporting – teachers who feared that the website would lead to the creation of divisive league tables, and that the expertise of teachers working with students with specific needs would be overlooked.

Also, Gillard had been part of the ‘gang of four’ that replaced Cabinet government under Rudd. The Cabinet still sat of course, but apart from Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, Treasurer Wayne Swan and Gillard, they were mainly asked to tick the boxes.

This anti-democratic tendency, a recipe for poor government, was part of the reason why MPs were willing to vote Rudd out; but I didn’t realise until after the ‘coup’ that it was Gillard, as part of the ‘gang of four’, who had urged that controversial emissions trading legislation be deferred until 2013 – a decision identified with Rudd at the time, and that had signficantly contributed to his poor showing in the opinion polls.

Perhaps the most shocking development since Gillard’s win has been her willingness to use the issue of asylum seekers as a political football. This was evident in the speech she gave on the issue on 6 July, when she signalled the possibility of a regional processing centre for refugees to be established in Timor L’este (using, incidentally, the inappropriate title ‘East Timor’).

But it’s become even more blatant now the election’s been called. In fact, ‘stronger borders’ is one of the key catchphrases on the ALP’s first television election advertisement featuring Gillard. Even before her asylum seekers speech, she was talking about ‘good migrants’ like her parents, with the strong suggestion that there was another sort of migrant that people were right to abhor.

This is simply astounding. I won’t go through the history of the issue, but since the Tampa incident in 2001, which saw the introduction of the notorious Pacific Solution whereby asylum seekers were removed to the island of Nauru for their claims to be processed, these vulnerable people have suffered to keep Australia’s politicians in power. And now the ALP, already accused of trying to please everybody on the issue, are indulging in shameless dog whistling, much more so than they did under Rudd.

Some progressives claimed that Gillard’s asylum seekers speech was nuanced and not as politically insidious as the selective media quoting would have it appear. It’s true that in some ways Gillard was trying to have it both ways – stating that those wanting greater border protection should not be labelled racist, any more than those concerned about children in detention should be labelled bleeding hearts. Responding to earlier criticism by refugee advocate and respected lawyer Julian Burnside, QC, she said:

… in the context of our migration program, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia is very, very minor.

It is less than 1.5 per cent of permanent migrants each year; and indeed it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with asylum seekers at present rates of arrival. This is a point well made.

On the second point [Burnside] is very, very wrong. It is wrong to label people who have concerns about unauthorised arrivals as ‘rednecks’.

Of course, there are racists in every country but expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy to deal with a very difficult problem does not make you a racist.

Elsewhere in the speech she affirms as an organising principle of asylum seeker policy ‘That people like my own parents who have worked hard all their lives can’t abide the idea that others might get an inside track to special privileges’.

This rhetoric is erroneous. It strongly suggests that the opinions of those fearful of the boats are every bit as well-informed and worthwhile as those who are steeped in the issue and have serious legal and moral concerns about government actions. And it completely ignores the fact that the role of a leader is to educate and lead rather than to pander to the whims of the least educated and politically aware; and to set an example and produce a vision that can make the nation more cohesive, not less.

Those criticising Gillard for aiming her narrow policies straight at the seats most under threat in Sydney’s west are fully justified. She should be explaining to the electorate the push factors that bring the boats here, and eliciting Australia’s collective compassion – the kind that erupted so forcefully after the January 2009 Victorian bushfires.

More generally, Gillard is encouraging voters to see this election as being all about themselves and their needs, rather than promising to look after Australia’s most disadvantaged, surely one of the major remits of any labour party worthy of the moniker? She has said that voters will choose the policies most useful to them and their families, encouraging the continuation of the solipsism that thrived under Howard.

Gillard has great charm and verve, and, it’s indisputable that since Labor’s coming to power in 2007 the conviction, authority and intelligence she has managed to project in speeches and interviews has only increased, despite the rubbish that so often spouts from her mouth.

But let’s be clear: there was nothing progressive about Rudd’s Labor party, and there’s nothing progressive about Gillard’s. Below are just a few examples of straightforward social justice actions Rudd and now Gillard have failed to take, apart from not allowing gay marriage. Not all of these would have involved the magic millions or billions that both these politicians love to announce; but they would have produced greater social justice for Australia’s most needy as well as improving environmental outcomes.

* No carbon tax

* No mandatory staff–resident ratios in aged care homes (such ratios exist in hospitals and child care centres), leading to a shocking lack of skilled nursing care and other staff for frail, ill aged people. This is despite a 2009 Four Corners report in which the Minister for Ageing, Justine Elliot, promised that the government would consider the issue as part of its review of aged care funding. In May this year the NSW Nursing Association had to call for such mandatory ratios – all the government had offered in the 2010 budget was ‘$500,000 to conduct a research study on staffing levels, skills mix and resident care needs in Australian residential aged care facilities’.

* No rescinding of the regressive changes to education funding made by Howard. These gave more money to wealthy private schools at the expense of government schools.

* No real increase to unemployment benefit (Newstart allowance), which has long given up even attempting to adequately cover the excessive costs of market rents. Because increases are measured against inflation and not male wages as the pension is, the dole will continue to decrease in value against the pension. The May 2010 budget refused a request by the Australian Council of Social Service for an increase of $42 a week for the Newstart allowance; this request was ignored. But in refusing the increase the government was also ignoring its own Henry report on taxation, which stated that ‘a single person relying on an unemployment allowance is well below the OECD benchmark for poverty’.

* No attempt to ditch the 30 per cent government rebate on private health care. Instead the government tried to make the 30 per cent rebate means tested (the rebate results in all taxpayers subsidising, for example, dental care for the wealthier while there is no national dental scheme for the poor, whether or not they pay tax. The bid to means test the rebate failed anyway because of a hostile Senate, partly the result of a preferences deal Labor had done with the conservative Family First).

* No change to the shocking lack of residential and respite places as well as educational services for children with severe disabilities.

* No change to outrageous tax breaks for property owners, with the result that tax-paying renters subsidise the wealthy. Negative gearing, which enables property investors to claim losses on their investments as a tax deduction, has encouraged property investment, thus helping to lift the cost of housing out of the reach of first home buyers. Home owners who live in their homes are exempt from capital gains tax.

* Not withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan. Despite the bravery and skill of our troops, Australia’s involvement in this war serves the sole purpose of maintaining the relationship with the US, which is supporting the very same corrupt, greedy warlords whose mass murdering, raping and pillaging contributed to the rise of the Taliban.

Despite this dereliction of duty, the government boasts about the tax cuts it has managed to budget for, while promising to bring the budget back into surplus within three years – on the backs of Australia’s most needy and marginalised, truly the forgotten ones in this election.

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