06 April 2010

In a big country, dreams stay with you

I still believe in a Big Australia and am sad that my country's government no longer does.

It would be a poor, poor thing indeed if this government cut back the country's infrastructure and growth because of the temporary ebb and flow of budgeting, or worse because of a desire to drape racism in some dull grey garb in the hope that nobody will notice. The environmental concerns of Flannery and Brown in this announcement just don't ring true.

Who better to pull the wet blanket over hopes and fears alike than the lisping monotone of Tony Burke, the new Phillip Ruddock that the Liberals could never produce. It was Burke who was set to carefully unwind all those "temporary" "assistance" measures bestowed on hapless, helpless and hopeless farmers. It was Burke who ground to a halt the push by Marshall Perron and Philip Nitschke for legal euthanasia (the only national political movement to originate in the Northern Territory).

All long-term governments want to instill in their people feelings of dull-witted satisfaction with the status quo as a substitute for incessant demand for action. When this government starts feeling its age and resorting to that, it is Tony Burke who will lead that initiative - not the wild-eyed and grating-voiced Albanese, not Gillard (who as putative leader will have to both inspire and calm as needs be), not bossy Roxon, not any other of those slightly grasping wrong-side-of-the-tracks-made-good Labor types. Listening to Tony Burke speak is the equivalent of a meal consisting entirely of mashed potato. His student debating skills of polarising his opponents as unhinged ratbags have grown sharper and more subtle, not duller, with age and ascent.

Like Combet, however, Burke has a portfolio that is not just broad but hopelessly schizoid in focus. If Rudd isn't trying to confuse his ministers he is doing a mighty good job anyway. One has the feeling that neither man will feature prominently in the election campaign, but that when portfolios are reallocated afterwards in more coherent lines none will be more relieved.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison dismissed Mr Rudd's announcement as a diversion to cover his failure to control boat arrivals. "Effectively what he has announced is a plan for a plan after the next election," he said.

All big announcements can be pooh-poohed by quotidian concerns. It is silly to quibble that a population of millions is hostage to a few hundred desperates and unfortunates, and the "plan for a plan" thing suggests an impatience for the hard work of long term thinking. If the Liberal Party won the next election it would implode under the responsibility of governing. Don't vote Liberal, it would be cruel. Keep the Libs in Opposition, it's only fair.

It will be interesting to see where the new ministerial talent will come from - despite such a large backbench, this rearrangement of existing portfolios suggests that everyone who is already a minister is pretty much everyone who should be one. Seeing as the NSW ALP put up such a fight to keep Chris Hayes, and as he holds a seat held by two former Cabinet Ministers and two party leaders ... what do you mean, no? Next you'll be dismissing the mighty Senator Steve Hutchins. What about the scarily bright Melissa Parke, just waiting to be compromised by the rough-and-tumble of political life; or a second-chance for poor old Kelvin Thomson, who gave up a ministry in the Victorian government (stop laughing) for, uh; or bright young talent like that pudding-shaped brunette from Adelaide who chews gum behind Rudd during Question Time? Putting her on the front bench as Minister for Obscure Potfolios would keep her out of shot, at least.

No one, least of all Rudd, seems to have noted Tony Abbott's stand in all this.

No sensible person gives a damn, Milney. The competence thing won't work because the Coalition haven't made the case that they'd be better than Labor; Howard's government was a ranshackle thing, ragged toward the end, and only those who already vote Liberal regard it as a shiny stainless steel machine disrupted from its work due to clerical errors on ballot papers.

The next step on from this critique is dramatic in its political impact. Abbott is approaching the point where for the first time in living memory bipartisan support for existing and projected immigration intakes will be abandoned by the Coalition in the run-up to an election and declared open season for community debate.

Yeah, just like Howard in '87. Only when the Liberals drop this crap will they be electable.

But the politics of this debate have the capacity to spin wildly out of control.

Out of whose control, Milney? Is there a single issue where the Coalition's media savvy and resources runs rings around Labor's?

Labor and its proxy refugee supporters -- who've been hypocritically quiet as Rudd has stumbled from one crisis to another on boatpeople -- will immediately accuse the Coalition of being racist by opposing the immigration programs necessary to meet the 36 million number.

What's racist is the focus on a couple of hundred non-Caucasian boat people rather than thousands of overstayers and illegal workers who fly here. If you want to point to problems in our migration system, never mind Christmas Island - go to the Coogee Bay Hotel late on Friday night, there's your piss-off-we're-full deportation quota, Morrison's indictment of the whole immigration system, right there.

Morrison's point is that Rudd didn't bother asking voters whether this was OK with them. "The Coalition," he says, "believes we should ask Australians about what they think about future population growth before signing on to any particular growth path."

Bullshit. They never did it in government, and Tony Abbott isn't going to start and neither is Scott Morrison. Milney, your job is not to be Abbott and Morrison's stenographer: yet on he goes.

Morrison points to the Pauline Hanson ascendancy, to which the Howard government responded by more than doubling the annual immigration intake during the next decade to a peak of 158,630. During the same period, according to independent polling, the number of those concerned about immigration fell to just over one-third of the population.

But critically, as Morrison points out, this was also a time during which Australians were confident the government had control over the nation's borders. Not a claim that could be made now, especially in the context of increasing the nation's population to 36 million.

"When the Coalition started calling for a population debate, the usual charges of racism followed. However, just like with border protection, this would be a dangerous assumption for Labor to make, let alone assert, as they have," Morrison says.

Hanson was responding to the Keating government's economic policies, which stripped well-paying jobs from the low-skilled and ageing rural workforce. Howard was attempting to blow the racism dog-whistle, one reason why he almost lost in 1998. Only when he dropped that crap for all time and put migration in the context of growing Australia - skill-wise and not just in numbers - did he regain credibility. Border protection is the last issue that hasn't crumbled in Abbott's hands, and it seems that no amount of polling will persuade him to drop this most sleazy of issues: that we're being overwhelmed by boat people.

I hate the fact that this big country is run by small-minded people, I hate it and my only choice is to rail against it until I can find some way of forcing them to leave the stage by confronting them with issues too big for them to handle.


  1. Come on - let's hear your final views on Turnbull. At the end of John Hyde Page's "The Education of a Young Liberal", I think someone calmly predicted that Turnbull would be in and out before you know it, leaving Wentworth up for grabs. That was just after he had rolled King for the seat. Pretty accurate.

    Looking forward to hearing your take.


  2. Yeah, that's like calmly predicting that a pregnant woman is going to have a girl: you've got a 50% chance of being right and if it does come off, people like JHP think you're a genius.

    Wait and see, Kymbos.