04 October 2014

Covering up

Weeks ago, Tony Abbott did significant damage to his political base by going back on a promise to alter section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He did this because he needed the co-operation of the Muslim community in identifying Australian Muslims who may plot to commit atrocities in Australia, or who might join organisations like Daesh, because this is a job that requires human co-operation. Non-human intel (e.g. monitoring phone calls and internet) cannot and will not do the job.

In other words, Abbott let down his base for the sake of wider, national obligations. Any fool can develop a base and pander to it, which is why we have a Parliament that includes (but is not full of) gimlet-eyed freaks like Cory Bernardi and Lee Rhiannon; the major parties' problems with sub-factional warlords like Laurie Ferguson and Bill Heffernan are widely canvassed elsewhere festering sores symptomatic of a wider disease, curable only by strong medicine and/or amputation. To address the big issues in the big jobs, using the power that comes with those jobs, you need a wider perspective. This is the toughest thing for any political leader to do, and only the masters really succeed at it.

Last week, the media reported Abbott declaring himself to be a born-again believer in multiculturalism. They didn't say what he meant by that, they simply did no more than they have done for the past five years: they took Abbott at his word.

On Wednesday this week, Abbott's chief of staff Peta Credlin was reported (by the press gallery's most Very Fine Journalists) as supporting the idea of banning Muslim women from Parliament if they cover their faces. Abbott said that he felt 'confronted' by such garments, despite (or because of?) their similarity to nuns' garb. Credlin and Abbott should be regarded as speaking with one voice on this matter.

When the Parliamentary Presiding Officers (Bronwyn Bishop and Stephen Parry) proposed shunting well-clad women to a glass enclosure, they were acting under Abbott's leadership. This is what it means to be a leader: to set the parameters, and have your followers fill in the details. It is rubbish to assert, as the Murdoch press does, that Bishop, Credlin and Parry were on some jag of their own with their monstrously silly proposal.

Those who reported these words did not relate his more recent words to his earlier ones. They should have, and in days gone by they would have, in an effort to show us how we are governed and what it means to be governed by these people now.

Targeting Muslim women is neither much of a problem nor a solution for government.

They are not well represented within the Nationals or the Liberal Party, in state or federal parliamentary ranks, nor atop its organisation, nor anywhere really. There are few Muslim women within political parties opposed (however nominally) to this government. There are no Muslim women in positions of power elsewhere in Australia, atop corporations or unions or other organisations with real clout. I can't think of any Muslim women with significant 'soft' or cultural power, but maybe that says more about me. They rarely feature in crime statistics, whether in violent or non-violent crimes.

Of the 60 (or is it 200?) Australians who have joined Daesh, I would be fascinated to know how many are well-clad women.

There are, as Waleed Aly points out, established procedures for screening well-clad people for weapons and facial recognition.

Muslim women wearing clothes that break up the lines of their bodies are, at worst, generally inoffensive; at best they may well be nice people and fine citizens of our nation. They would only be targeted by people insecure within themselves and unable to deal with their real problems.

This, of course, is the heart of the issue. The government spends a lot of time focused on a non-problem (no well-clad Muslim woman has apparently ever attended Parliament, let alone gotten rowdy there), while failing to deal effectively with real problems (health, education, the budget and all that it contains and means).

Anti-Muslim sentiment is a dog of a political tactic. Never mind that it's nasty, it just doesn't work.

Fred Nile has only turned to it because every plank in his political platform has crumbled beneath him: community support for abortion and homosexuality is strong not despite Nile, but because of him. Danny Nalliah disgraced himself by holding a World Congress of Families that omitted Muslims.

Whenever some local council considers a planning application for a mosque or Islamic school, the whole community is sullied by the ignorance and ugliness that results. Councils who vote them down embarrass themselves by citing traffic flow or whatever. They have to disguise the fact that they are voting against the worst elements of their own community as much as the application before them.

No community boasts, nor would any benefit from boasting, mosque-free status. This is true of places where the Muslim community is not big enough to want a mosque, or any service other than those provided by government to all residents. No politician in this country holds office because of anti-Muslim sentiment; even dills like George Christensen and Jacqui Lambie were elected for reasons other than that, and when they lose the Muslim vote will be the least of their problems.

The press gallery works in Parliament House, so what the Presiding Officers decide affects them directly (are there any Muslim women in the press gallery?) in a way that it doesn't affect those of us who don't. Because it works as a herd, and a lazy one, it decided The Story was whatever was closest to hand and easiest to understand.

The latter half of this week has apparently been all about a people who are not especially powerful but who, as Aly points out, suffer insults and shunning in ways that shame us all. Various deals to get the budget through, to go to war and to restrict our freedoms, have received less coverage than the non-issue of what Muslim women wear and where they wear it our Parliament comprising people who can't identify security risks to themselves; their ability to ascertain risks and benefits to the nation as a whole, and regulate accordingly, is in doubt. The press gallery cannot begin to admit this, let alone describe it, because its judgment is equally bad.

Even proposals to send journalists to prison, similar to those incarcerating Peter Greste and his colleagues, have passed with little commentary from the press gallery. Only investigative journalists run that risk. They can't believe that good ol' Tony and George would ever do that to them, despite all the evidence and the fact that the government has led the press gallery away from the stories they should have been covering.

Because the government-supplied content was readily available, the press gallery has an excuse for not covering the real and important issues. When you don't have a clue, an excuse will do.

Even though few Muslim women visit Canberra the sting of exclusion will still be felt. Years from now they will flinch at entering a building that is as much yours or mine - as though they were second-class citizens in some way. This is a failure of leadership on Tony Abbott's part, and on the part of everyone who put and keeps him there.

Bronwyn Bishop is a nasty person. She was partisan when she chaired NSW Liberal State Council in the 1980s. As Defence Personnel Minister she covered up sexual abuse allegations. As Aged Care Minister she covered up pensioners getting kerosene baths. None of the press gallery could foresee what an awful Speaker she'd be, apparently, and none dare admit that Chris Pyne leads her by the nose. Her proposal to relegate people to different sections of the public gallery is both appalling and typical.

Lacking any real record of achievement, or a reputation for loving kindness, Bishop stands on her dignity. Her dignity has been sorely bruised lately, what with all those pictures of Pyne in her ear like a boy scout guiding some rickety pensioner across the street. Abbott now has to placate Bishop; a task at once huge and petty. She is not just another one of his ministers, who can simply be told to suck it up. She has statutory powers independent of Abbott, unlike ministers who can be overridden at will.

Howard was careful to balance the seeming independence of the Speaker while filling the role with those who would basically toe the line. Fraser appointed the man he rolled as leader, Billy Snedden, who also stood on his dignity and did not hesitate to put the Prime Minister in his place. If Abbott mishandles Bishop, as he probably will, watch her become more rebarbative and even-handed; watch the government lose some battles on the floor of the House.

Bronwyn Bishop has known Tony Abbott for decades, longer than any journalist; she probably thought that good ol' Tony would never drop her in it like this.

One day a Muslim woman will be elected to Parliament by thousands of voters. The Presiding Officers of the day will have to accommodate her rather than play silly-buggers as they are now. MPs cannot cover their faces as they vote in Parliament. This dates from an 18th century practice, where British MPs sent their butlers or coachmen cloaked-up into the voting lobbies while they enjoyed London. The fact that those butlers or coachmen would have made better MPs than many of their masters led to expansion of the voting franchise, and gave political staffers ideas above their station.

What this whole episode shows is that Muslim women don't appear to have the rights that other Australians have. There's a basic social compact which says that if you obey the laws, the government will leave you alone no matter what race or religion or gender you are. With the Prime Minister 'confronted' by Muslim women one day and placating them the next, nobody can be sure that they won't have some or all of their rights stripped away whenever the Prime Minister feels like it. These people are playthings of Liberal strategists (the kinds of 'strategists' whose busywork is utterly disconnected from the movement of actual votes in real elections), a situation that cannot endure.

The intervention of Senator Fierravanti-Wells into this debate is designed to make the government look reasonable. All it shows is that the "punishers and straighteners" aspect of conservatism is not its only basis, and that you can't tell whether to expect control-freakery or live-and-let-live from this government. It emphasises the mean and tricky nature of the current Prime Minister rather than deflecting from it.

Credit is due to the Labor Opposition and their principled stand against both the Presiding Officers and the Abbott government. The press gallery failed to give them that credit, and in so doing have failed us all.

Muslim women deserve the benefit of the doubt. The Abbott government, the Presiding Officers, and the press gallery, do not.


  1. Why the stupid addition of Lee Rhiannon to the list of the very racist? Honest to god, why does every lazy former ALP or Liberal hack have to swipe at the Greens when the Greens have zero to do with the frigging article.

    1. I think you've missed the point. The discussion here was not about racism, it was about Abbott broadening his focus because his usual attention to the views of his core base of supporters was preventing him from speaking to a wider political objective. Cory and Lee were cited, not to assert that either of them was racist, but because they are narrowly focused idealogues. Their core supporters have particular narrow views and both of them consistently reflect those narrow views. They have wildly different core constituencies but both of them have ideologies that brook no pragmatism. They won't abandon their respective bases, they reject the good in search of the perfect. This was not stupid and not a lazy swipe at the Greens, it was an apposite example of a politician who doesn't know when they need to adjust their perspective to get something done. Nothing to do with racism.


    2. Demonstrating lack of bias4/10/14 6:34 pm

      Andrew is swiping at Rhiannon. Not the Greens. Read carefully.

    3. Thank you Mike and DLoB.

  2. Good analysis as usual Andrew.

    I am glad you mentioned Connie F-W's recent contribution. I was wondering if there was more to that than met the eye.

    I am no soothsayer but I would not be surprised if Bishop stood on her dignity.


    She would have felt special after all those years of being buttered up by Abbott and now she will be wounded after being dropped so publicly.

    What does she have to lose by making her displeasure felt? She is in her 70s after all. The speaker's chair has an eject button. Surely she would want to go with a bit of dignity instead of being bossed about like an old retainer with housemaid's knee?

    When will the journalists wake up. Tony is in it for Tony. They see it, fondly, as Simon Benson did in the past couple of days as 'Tony being Tony'.
    Stop Simon and examine what that means and you may come up with a man who plays to win at all costs.

    1. I am replying to myself on the matter of Bronwyn Bishop.
      Piping Shrike is wondering if the Abbott/Bishop burka 'dispute' is confected.
      Reading this lot is like staring into a pond. Some things, closer to the surface are easy to recognise as is all the limpet life held fast to rocky crags. The things which stare back at you from the murky bottom can disturb with a did-I-see-that moment but the real creepiness lurks in the shadows and crevices and needs to be investigated with a firm, winkling rod.

  3. Bravo! The press need to get stuck into Bishop. She is utterly unfit for the position of Speaker. Personally I wish she would turn on Tony. Nasty old crone.

  4. For Bronwyn Bishop to cover her face would be an improvement.
    Meanwhile, the AFP are looking for progress on that missing budget

  5. Yeah Fine analysis - It just goes to show what happens if crackpots aren't kept in check , who honestly would have thought that anyone would have the nerve or stupidity to display such a blatantly racist agenda.We have come a long way.
    In times past the media would have saved a government from its own stupidity just by pointing out the stupidity , I guess now its the media driving the agenda so for the moment we are absolutely screwed. Slightly reminiscent of the scene from Vanilla Sky -- where Cruise calls for Tech Support .

  6. For once (and I don't mean that rhetorically), I think your analysis is a bit simplistic, Andrew. Especially when you ramped up the rhetoric towards the end and seemed to be speaking on behalf of "Muslim women".

    Suddenly pining for mass media coverage of budget wranglings in precedence to reporting our politicians' bizarre fumbling of complex social and humanitarian issues? That also strikes me as odd. Our political journalists have handled this issue rather well.

    The 'burqa' is, as you say, all about denying women's bodylines. As someone who works with members of the mainstream Muslim community, let me assure you of this: it is not just a "symbol" of oppression, it IS oppression. Abbott is right (words I never thought I'd write) to be confronted, for when you see one, you know underneath it is a shrinking, intimidated and oppressed individual who almost certainly has had her clitoris forcibly and nonsurgically removed.

    Dealing with the implications of this in a western, liberal society has seen a spectacular failure on the behalf of a number of politicians. I for one don't bemoan the media for reporting and forensically analysing at least that much.

    - Joe Fitzpatrick

    1. Can't believe you work with Muslims Joe. That description doesn't fit any Muslim woman of my or my wife's aquaintance.

      Rais, Perth

    2. I am not sure whether FGM and wearing the burqa or niqab necessarily correlate either. But in any event, while I don't like the concept of the burqa or veiling in general either, it is not my place to tell other women not to wear it or where they can wear it. Ruby Hamad has written a couple of good pieces on this topic and made the point that in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, the burqa in fact allowed women activists like Malalai Joya and police officer Malalai Kakar (the same woman who opposed the Taliban and whose misappropriated image was used to create the meme that burqa clad women are a security risk) to move freely when their lives were at risk because of their opposition to the regime.

      Buy the main issue for me is that I don't buy Sensitive Tony's sudden concern for poor oppressed Muslim women when he espouses attitudes and implements policies that deliberately make life more difficult (to put it mildly) for - among others - Australian and asylum seeking Muslim women, as well as those in the country we're going to war in. Again. It's as preposterous as Abbott's claim to be all about freedom. And yes, since the burqa is so rare here (I live in a suburb with a high Middle Eastern and African population and at most I've seen the chador) it's hard to escape the conclusion that this recent carry on from Bernardi, Credlin et al is a convenient smokescreen. Thanks Andrew for another thought provoking analysis.

  7. Thanks Joe,

    I tried to avoid speaking on other people's behalf, even more so when it comes to speculation about the state of their clitorises.

    Tony Abbott has been leader of the Liberal Party for almost five years now. The press gallery should be used to his diversionary tactics by now, but clearly they aren't. Here is another instance where they've been dazzled by a pea-and-thimble trick while having their pockets picked.

    You give the media too much credit in dealing with this issue. They took the goodwill and sense of Parry and Bishop as given when it should have been questioned. There were rumours that a few people might turn up? Oh please, remember how busloads of Liberals stuffing the public galleries in the last parliament to help journos with their 'chaos' theory.

    There's more of the sort of analysis and respect you misaccrue to traditional media in this post, Joe, than you'll find in any traditional media outlet.

    1. Andrew I agree that journalists should turn out their pockets from time to time and see what is missing.

      I listened with astonishment to Barrie Cassidy's interview with the Defence Minister David Johnson who initially declared that he was optimistic ISIS could be dealt with in a few months which crept up to a few months and more and then to something much longer.

      At no stage did Cassidy ask him about reports from inside Baghdad that ISIS was a mile from the capital and that the bombing raids had not halted the advance.

      One of those reports was made in recent days by the English minister of St George's Anglican Church in Baghdad.

  8. Thanks again Andrew. Finding something sensible and stimulating to read online on the third day of a long weekend is not easy.

    Re "to be a leader: to set the parameters, and have your followers fill in the details", are you saying Bishop didn't fill in the details competently? Surely her being 'dropped in it' was not part of the plan?

  9. "Tony Abbott did significant damage to his political base by going back on a promise to alter section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. He did this because he needed the co-operation of the Muslim community..." It doesn't make sense to me Andrew because 18C doesn't protect Muslims. It's about racism and Islam isn't a race. When you add to that his continuing baiting of Muslims, for example about the niqab, it's hard to believe the reference to Muslims in the 18C backdown was anything but more dog whistling. Every ethnic group was against the repeal of 18c so why refer just to the Muslims, the one group not protected against discrimination?

    Rais, Perth

  10. VoterBentleigh7/10/14 10:25 am

    Well before a ruling regarding the security of the Parliamentary precinct was decided upon the basis of unsubstantiated rumour flying around the Press Gallery (reminds me of the Coodabeens' Clem from Clematis), both Mr Abbott and his propaganda machine within the media were promoting Islamophobia.

    It has nothing to do with the oppression of women as the apologists for Abbott and the MSM claim. The whole issue was ostensibly about security, but when this could no longer be validated in the public domain, the apologists for the Government resorted to claiming that anyone who opposed Muslim women being singled out and segregated because of their dress was supporting oppression and was somehow advocating for all the teachings of the Islamic religion, when all the critics of the Government were saying was that it was an unjustified, unegalitarian, divisive decision to single out a particular mode of dress as an indication of terrorism. (Notice how the media propaganda machine put the word segregation in inverted commas, as though it was not really segregation.)

    Mr Abbott attempted to justify Bernardi's proposal by deflecting from the original claimed purpose of the ban - security - by calling the dress confronting. Abbott was not defending women nor was this a blunder, but a deliberate deflection to move the media discussion to a general divisive discussion of Islamic practises and teachings. So much for a leader capable of promoting national unity - Mr Abbott chooses the opposite when it suits his political purpose.

    The apologists' defence of Mr Abbott's claim, that the dress of women of the Islamic faith is confronting, is contemptible and silly. Coming from a man who wears a blue tie obsessively, as a sign of defiance against a group of women who ridiculed his dress, it is bordering on, no, is, irrational for Mr Abbott and his apologists to be upset that he should be taken to task for telling a group of inoffensive women what they should wear.

    This Government's disorganised, tattle-based decisions and policies are cheap, deceitful and shoddy. Mr Abbott does not appear to spend most of his time on policy but upon tactics and disinformation. Payback by Bronywn pales into insignificance compared with the payback of Mr Abbott against opponents and critics (especially those who have won): The Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, the ABC, etc. Even the general public are being threatened with payback for criticising the budget. David Marr was wrong; Mr Abbott is purely a political brute. Talking values means nothing - even the worst leaders in history did that. Even where he appears to uphold a value, there are indications that Mr Abbott is motivated purely by self-interest.

  11. The problem with "banning the burkha" is that the only person you are really punishing is the person forced to wear it, who is now not allowed to leave the house at all. But it's so much easier to identify and pick on the women rather than address the patriarchal attitudes of the society that mandates and supports it. Western society has plenty of stupid ideas about what constitutes suitable female clothing too, but we are swimming in it and don't see it. If you don't believe me, try wearing a bra every day and see how much fun you have.

  12. Interesting to read Janet Albrechtsens analysis of the burkha ban as well.

    She demonized Bishop in her column and thought it was silly.

    Even conservatives think it's gone too far now.

    Please watch Lateline with the radical Islamic leader.

    The worst interview on the a.b.c I have seen thus far!

    Emma should be disgusted with her status as a journalist.

    Our fourth estate has miserably failed

  13. George Monbiot has a thing or two to say about the media in Britain. The same could be said of the media here.

    "But to those within the circle, politics still begins and ends in Westminster. The opinions of no one beyond the gilded thousand with whom they associate are worthy of notice. Throughout the years I’ve spent working with protest movements and trying to bring neglected issues to light, one consistent theme has emerged: with a few notable exceptions, journalists are always among the last to twig that things have changed. It’s no wonder that the Scottish opinion polls took them by surprise."

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