Political Footballs & Hollywood For Ugly People

12 / 07 / 2012

Writer Sarah Capper looks at the recent debate around asylum seekers (and other political footballs).

Following this, she finds some spooky similarities between high profile celebrity break-ups and the recent dust-up between Labor and the Greens. 

Come Sail Your Ships Around Me, And Burn Your Bridges Down

On 18 October 2001, a boat carrying 421 asylum seekers left Indonesia on an ill-fated journey.

A day later, 353 asylum seekers – men, women and children – drowned en-route to Christmas Island.

Although not in Australian waters, SIEV-X, as the boat became known (for ‘Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel’, the X for when a vessel is yet to be assigned an identification number), is significant in terms of being a great tragedy in Australia’s maritime history.

The incident occurred two months after the former Howard Government introduced the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ – a sharp tightening of asylum seeker policies and procedures that upped the ante on the previous Keating Government’s introduction of mandatory detention to harsh new levels.

Many people will recall the tragedy of SIEV-X, the magnitude of the loss of 353 lives juxtaposed on a backdrop of fear and loathing towards asylum seekers, which had reached fever-pitch levels, post Tampa, post 11 September, 2001.

You would think that a member of the Howard Government would recall the tragedy of hundreds of people drowning at sea, especially if that member was the Deputy Chair of the Parliamentary Committee which oversaw the subsequent investigation into the deaths (inquiring into ‘A Certain Maritime Incident’).

The very same Deputy Chair, who in 2006, in an interview with the ABC’s World Today, referred to the Senate Select Committee investigation as, “the most exhaustive examination of these events that has been undertaken in Australia.”

But it seems Senator George Brandis has a selective memory.

A fortnight ago, while appearing on ABC Television’s Q&A, Senator Brandis oh-so-conveniently forgot the deaths of the 353 people, deaths he had previously so “exhaustively” investigated:

GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, I think the greatest inhumanity we’ve seen is what we saw in the last couple of days with all those people drowning. You know, there have been more than 500 people drown at sea in the last four years. That’s inhumanity. I find this discussion very, very frustrating because although it’s always kind of pitched in a partisan way, I don’t see it as partisan as perhaps you do. This is my approach, right, and I think it reflects Tony Abbott’s approach and the Liberal Party’s approach: in 2001, Howard changed the laws. He made them tighter. You say they were inhumane but nobody drowned during those years. He effectively solved the problem through three measures.

TONY JONES: It’s not true no one drowned in those years.

GEORGE BRANDIS: There were hardly any significant incidents of the kind we saw the other day.

TONY JONES: Well, you remember SIEV X, one of the most famous drowning incidents of all time?

GEORGE BRANDIS: Yeah, but that was before those policy changes were announced, Tony. So I think my proposition is right that no one drowned in those years.

Agree or disagree with his views, there’s no denying current Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis is a bright man – a lawyer (who graduated with first class honours), a Senior Counsel, an editor of books and a writer, a Minister in the previous Howard Government.

Senator Brandis is also known for supposedly referring to former Prime Minister John Howard as a “lying rodent” – comments he denied making – which incidentally saw a spike in rat costumes during the 2004 federal election for protestors targeting and tailing (boom-tish) Howard.

Potential Pot. Kettle. Black. Either Senator Brandis experienced what in football terms coaches and commentators excuse as a memory “brain fade” during the 25 June Q&A program, or he was lying.

Over a decade since SIEV-X, people are still drowning out to sea during desperate attempts to seek asylum in Australia. Ninety asylum seekers perished at sea off Christmas Island on 21 June, with 110 people rescued.

The asylum seeker debate is a topic the two major “teams” seem to like to kick around as a political hot potato, a political football. The last week before parliamentary recess was no different, despite many pleas from all sides to do the opposite.

In response to recent drowning tragedies, and in part to broker a deal to cut through the policy impasse that has existed since the Gillard Government’s Malaysia “Solution” was blocked by the High Court of Australia, all teams were playing for the ‘Oakeshott Cup’, playing for the ‘Non-Specific’ Pacific Wheel of Fortune “Solution”.

The Oakeshott Bill was to provide an opportunity for both sides to take a half-time break and try and reach some sort of agreement. As if to emphasize the urgency of such a need, the debate occurred as another asylum seeker boat sank and a rescue operation commenced.

But instead of embracing a more healthy solutions-focused debate, a political football match resumed.

On both sides the chorus was similar – with many appealing to “put politics aside”, while others argued the game should be about “compromise”, despite any serious collective efforts to actually achieve this.

And the game plans from both major sides were similar. Both claimed a tough and hardline stance, both argued offshore processing to ‘stop the boats’, that ‘stopping the boats’ was the ‘humane’ response, and yet both major teams failed to get the result they wanted.

Emotions ran super high. Some stayed on message and continued to “play the game”, while others seemed sincere in trying to break the impasse by clearing the ball from the scrum.

The result was Nil All for the Major teams. But thanks to the Independents, the Oakeshott ball was passed to the keeper – and the ‘game’ moved to the Upper House playing field.

In the Upper House the next day, it was much of the same, apart from the team dynamics as the Greens team have some sharp shooter goal-kickers in the Senate.

For all the talk of ‘compromise’, the Greens were reluctant to play the major teams’ game, refusing to move on the question of offshore processing.

Left leaning members of Gillard’s team tried to appeal to their social justice banner waving Greens counterparts in last minute attempts to try and sway the goal posts.

Labor’s Doug Cameron reached his own compromise: “I’m troubled by the Nauru approach. I’m troubled by the Malaysian approach. When the circumstances change, you change your mind and the question is asked what would you do?”

Of the Greens, he quoted former ALP Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, arguing “Only the impotent are pure – you are pure, but you are flat-footed.”

He booted one at the Coalition as well: “The hypocrisy from the Coalition knows no bounds and the impotence from the Greens almost rivals that.”

In the end, the impasse remained, the game the same. And everyone blamed someone else for the failure of our “leaders” to reach some sort of agreement.

After the vote was knocked aside, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the formation of cross-party expert group to be headed by former Defence chief Angus Houston (perhaps in preparation for future headlines: ‘Houston, We have a Problem’), in an attempt to find a solution to the issue.

For all of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s posturing on ‘stopping the boats’, he wrote to the Prime Minister on Monday formally rejecting the offer for the Coalition to partake in the panel process. Abbott will meet with the panel, but that’s it – he’s said he won’t budge on Coalition policy.

He’s also continuing the rhetoric, not backing down on his claim that in Government, the Coalition will simply “turn the boats around”, despite comments from senior Defence personnel doubting the policy’s ability to be implemented, and labelling it dangerous.

Following the failure of both sides in reaching agreement, Refugee advocate and lawyer Julian Burnside told ABC radio, “I suspect that their real concern is to stop people getting here full stop.

“They say the problem is that people die at sea trying to get to safety in Australia.

“If that’s really the problem then I would’ve thought the obvious solution to it is to stop getting people on boats and the only way to do that … is for Australia to set up a fair dinkum, fair processing system in Indonesia with the co-operation of the Indonesian government.”

Houston has his job cut out for him. Hopefully the panel will look at all options, including – egad – onshore examples where asylum seekers are successfully living within the community. Hopefully it will look at other proposals outside of both the Government and the Opposition’s temporary bandaid solutions.

The panel will need to cut through a lot of empty words and tough talk. Some clear super coaching strategy is desperately needed in this debate. Comparative to other parts of the world, Australia does not have large numbers of asylum seekers. Of the small numbers, too many people have drowned trying to reach our shores.

We are a nation built on boatpeople. We need solutions that work in the long-term. We need to put politics aside, and stop using desperate people as political footballs.


All’s fair in Love & War

Two high profile relationship bust-ups have dominated the news of late, exhibiting some eerie parallels.

Leading up to his ‘is it really only his fiftieth?’ birthday, Hollywood heavyweight Tom Cruise is said to be ‘shocked’ with divorce proceedings filed by his wife and fellow thespian Katie Holmes.

With Katie finally “freed”, there’ll be no more hyperactive couch jumping from a lovesick Cruise, at least until the next actress under 33 years of age comes along -and we’re all thankful for that.

All Cruise’s three ex wives split up with the zany (for want of a better word) Scientologist at age 33 years and 7 months, and there were 11 years in between each split [insert X Files whistle here].

It’s also spookily been thirty-three plus one months since Greens leader Bob Brown signed, sealed and delivered a ‘marriage’ agreement with Australian Labor Party leader Julia Gillard (helping her reach numbers to form Government). Now, the relationship between the two parties is in the spotlight.

Former federal Labor leader Mark Latham once said that politics is “like Hollywood for ugly people”. He should know.

Rivalling the TomKat breakup for sound-bytes, column and computer screen inches is our very own (and closer to home) split of JuBob.

In truth, long-time party leader Bob Brown walked out on the marriage with the Government months ago, bearing the ring to new Greens leader Senator Christine Milne. Last weekend, representatives from both parties fired up the fractious feuding.

Looking at the Labor/Greens split, some spooky parallels with the TomKat break-up are worth noting:

– Many have speculated that both relationships are a farce or phoney – rather than being based on romantic love, they’ve been determined by a contractual arrangement.

– Both TomKat and JuBob unions have created children with expensive tastes. Suri Cruise has her penchant for baby Manolo Blahniks; And the Labor / Greens have their weeks-old baby – the carbon price. If you have the unfortunate experience of hearing Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s wolf cries (hard to avoid, really), the Greens / Labor baby is responsible for any price rise to any product ever known to humankind. Ever. Both costly. But never mind Planet Earth.

– In their own way, both babies were unexpected.

– For years, there’s been speculation regarding the sexuality of at least one member of one of the couples.  Bob Brown is well and truly out of the closet, which incidentally has made for an odd marriage with Gillard, particularly given the Greens’ platform of supporting same-sex marriage rights and Gillard’s opposition to it.

– One party in both camps is being touted as harbouring weird or extremist views. Of the Greens, one “faceless man” – whose face looks suspiciously like NSW Labor powerbroker Sam Dastyari – fired off: ”I think some of their individual policy agenda and some of the policies they promote are a bit loopy, are a bit to the extreme.” Another “faceless man” whose face looks exactly like Paul Howes went to his own extremity of highlighting a NSW Greens policy which promotes non-competitive sports. Howe’s translation? Goodbye every familiar football code and hello meditation – clearly loopy, loopy stuff J. On the TomKat angle, even Rupert Murdoch threw his hat in the ring, tweeting: “Watch Katie Holmes and Scientology story develop. Something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people.”

– Catholic-raised Katie Holmes (who joined Cruise’s beloved Scientology cause after wedding the pint-sized superstar) has become increasingly concerned in regards to Scientology’s influence on their daughter as she approaches school age. Indeed, several “unnamed sources” (both of whom the women’s mags and the Canberra Press Gallery delight in consulting) have speculated that the TomKat split has come about because of their increasingly different beliefs and values systems. Cue Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young: “There’s a difference between the Greens’ values and the Labor values … the Greens have values and the Labor Party doesn’t.” Oooh, ouchy.

– Divorce proceedings could prove very costly for both couples. There’s talk of Holmes and Cruise signing a pre-nup, but did Julia and Bob sign one? Holmes has applied for sole custody of daughter Suri which could possibly mean gazillions in child maintenance to support the six year old’s high heel habit. Who gets the carbon price baby if the Greens announce a divorce from Labor?  And what’s the real cost of a divorce if it were to happen? An early election … and a grinning Tony Abbott. All of which could prove ridiculously costly.

The Liberals and the Nationals have been long-term bedfellows (picture Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce cuddling up), and have seen their fair share of squabbles and differences along the way. Who knows what’s in their pre-nup. It can’t possibly be costed.

At times, political marriages can seem like a case of ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’.  But in the long-run, it may be in everyone’s best interests to stay together for a little longer. Cue Al Green.



Any feedback on Sheilas articles and content is always welcome. Please direct all feedback to Sheilas editor Sarah Capper at sarah@vwt.org.au.