Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

It's Just Not Done

There's certain things you just don't do in politics.

When former NSW Liberal leader John Brogden attempted suicide a few years ago, those on the Government side were just as dismayed by the tragedy as those in his own party (and in some cases, considerably more, given who it was who drove him out in the first place). The recent funeral of Sir Jim Killen, detailed in this beautifully written snapshot by David Marr, was one example of the way most politicians recognise there are certain occasions for which the weapons of politics simply need to be set to one side.

Not so one politician.

Peter Debnam's attempt to turn a welcoming address at a Sutherland Shire citizenship ceremony into an unpaid political advertisement for local Liberal candidates, an occasion to make policy announcements, and a broader platform for the dissemination of his own personal views on multiculturalism, immigration and integration - it's one of the least classy things I've heard in a while.

Kudos should go to Sutherland Shire Mayor David Redmond - a member of the Liberal Party - who himself put party loyalties aside, deploring Debnam's intention and demanding the excision of those parts of the speech which referred to local candidates. Debnam then endeavoured to spin the issue as a failed attempt to gag him on the topic of `co-operative multiculturalism', whatever that is. Should anyone have bought this, it's a terrible shame. If co-operative multiculturalism involves lecturing those who have chosen to make Australia their home on how they should feel, what they should think, and who they should vote for ... well, if it was me, I think I'd feel like handing back the certificate and going elsewhere.

The Sutherland Shire is a notorious battleground for the Liberal Party, with two key seats, those of Miranda and Menai, seen not only as essential to any chance of success but as `natural' Liberal seats that have accidentally fallen to Labor (one of which came complete with the scalp of then-Deputy Opposition Leader Ron Phillips). The hard work put in by local members Barry Collier and Alison Meggarity has been acknowledged as responsible for bringing these seats under reasonably comfortable margins. The Liberal Party have been lobbying fiercely for some time to change the state of affairs there - sometimes (as it appears in this case) with a subtle nod to the perpetrators of the Cronulla Riots.

The idea of hijacking a non-partisan ceremony to further a political aim is, quite frankly, revolting. It's the sort of thing people leave repressive countries and move to Australia to avoid. There are some things Debnam just doesn't seem to get. He crossed the line in his embarrassing and damaging pursuit of false allegations against the Attorney General, and he has crossed it again here.

I've been very critical of the attack-dog style negative campaign the NSW Government have been running against Debnam, but for one main reason - no one does it better than the man himself.

Friday, January 26, 2007

And So This Is Australia Day

When you think about it, Australia Day is a peculiar sort of national celebration, and its changing perception is a vivid reflection of the political changes of the last two decades. Nobody above a certain age will ever forget the fanfare of the Bicentennary in 1988, yet such an event seems inconceivable now. At the time, the bands of Aboriginal activists who opposed the event were dismissed as little more than spoilsports. Today, a bicentennary-style celebration would at most spark a national debate, or at least, be largely ignored as irrelevant and not particularly worthy of celebration (as was the centennary of Federation a few years back). It's a great thing that the spirit of Paul Keating's famous Redfern Speech has managed to survive despite the stifling climate of the current government, still determined to remain in the past on this issue. However, while Australia Day is now determinedly more inclusive, the fact remains that it commemorates the annexing of a country whose residents were seen as so insignificant as not to be considered real people. `Terra Nullius' does not mean `empty land' but `land belonging to no-one in particular'. It's also still astounding to contemplate that these same people were not recognised for over two hundred years.

Yes, a black arm-band view of history, but whoever could claim a country that was first invaded and then became a dumping ground for what were seen as the scum of the earth had a happy-dappy past? My ancestors - Irish Catholic recusants; political prisoners just like so many convicts - were hardly humming `Happy Days Are Here Again' either. The fact that the `lucky country' was built on such shaky foundations - that we are not riven by ethnic, tribal or religious tensions as are many other nations (and no, Piers Akerman, we're truly not - pop over to Iraq for an idea of what that really means) - seems a minor miracle. After all, Australia was, from the start of its European settlement, a `cultural melting pot', to coin a cliche. Irish, English, Chinese, Afghani - as I said earlier this week, the notion that multiculturalism has been a failure in this country is a joke. European Australia was built on fundamentally multicultural foundations, and has largely made a success of it.

Many might find it inconceivable that I make such an argument of a country that once had a White Australia policy, that rallied to rid the goldfields of the Chinese, that called Italian and German postwar immigrants `dagos', feared the Vietnamese refugees that arrived following the Vietnam War and today holds that Muslims are poised to declare sharia law in Australia. That racial tensions have arisen is undoubtable; but the fact they have usually ebbed away after the first flush of reflexive fear equally true. I've been to many Western countries that are technically as multicultural as Australia, yet I've marvelled at the way they tend to regard their different cultures as grudgingly coexisting with the `real' citizens rather than making a valuable contribution to a greater national character.

It is only lack of political will that prevents us from achieving the aims Keating outlined in his Redfern Speech:

Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless. Imagine if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in the defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight. Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books. Imagine if our feats on sporting fields had inspired admiration and patriotism and yet did nothing to diminish prejudice. Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed.

Imagine if we had suffed the injustice and then were blamed for it.

It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice then we can imagine its opposite. And we can have justice.

One day, it would be nice to think that seeking and finding this justice - not only for Indigenous Australians, but Australians from all countries and cultures - is what we will celebrate on Australia Day. Sadly, that day seems a long way off. As the current rash of flag-wielding patriotism demonstrates, a lot of Australians are proud of something. They're still not quite sure what.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Reshuffle We Had to Have

Can it be any coincidence that John Howard announced his long-awaited cabinet reshuffle on the day Kevin Rudd hoped to catch the headlines with his first big policy statement? In a word: hardly.

Amanda Vanstone and, more surprisingly, Gary Hardgrave are the big losers. As Phillip Coorey of the SMH and others note, Vanstone wasn't the world's greatest Immigration Minister, yet Philip Ruddock must count his lucky stars that so many of the disasters that germinated during his time in the portfolio bore fruit in hers. It's quite scandalous that Ruddock has still not been held account to some of the worst debacles of the Howard Government - Children Overboard, the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon scandals, and the David Hicks case to name a few. And, despite rumours to the contrary, he has remained in the cabinet (perhaps because there are so few obvious contenders for his job - bizarrely, the SMH's political correspondent Peter Hartcher suggested Helen Coonan). Nevertheless, Vanstone's recent flaky media performances hardly argue for her retention. Howard damned her with the ultimate of faint praises in describing her career as `colourful'. Vanstone has now refused to rule out a diplomatic posting, despite one not actually being mentioned, which suggests she'll be packing the bags and heading for a cushy overseas post before the year's out.

Kevin `Federline' Andrews has finally been shifted aside to Vanstone's former portfolio after a painfully mediocre period arguing the case for the big ticket issue of Industrial Relations, in favour of Joe Hockey. This is a canny choice. Not the attack dog Tony Abbott would have been but always muscular in his defence of government policy - he famously made a passionate defence of the sale of the Snowy River hydro system hours before the policy was dropped by the government - he is also Kevin Rudd's sparring partner on Channel 7's `Sunrise'. To bring the government's argument to the same sorts of viewers who are already seeing the pointy end of WorkChoices on Today Tonight and A Current Affair must have been too tempting to pass up.

Meanwhile, a bland figure like Andrews is well suited to the portfolio of Immigration as the Howard Government sees it. Let me note my dismay and disgust at the removal of `multiculturalism' from the title of this portfolio. I'm sick and tired of the same people who happily go to Chinese New Year fireworks, eat a kebab on the way home and cook a bowl of pasta for dinner describing multiculturalism as a `failed experiment'. Australia is one of the countries in which mutliculturalism has enjoyed its greatest success, all things considered, and that's something we should be very proud of. `The whole purpose of immigration is to recruit more people to the broader Australian family' says Howard, as if he is reading a company's thrice-revised mission statement. Stomach churning stuff.

Speaking of which,George Brandis has been appointed Minister for Arts and Sport following the retirement of Rod Kemp The ongoing lumping of these two completely different issues into one portfolio demonstrates the contempt in which art is held by the government. As Peter Garrett recently commented - politicians clamour to be labelled a `cricket tragic', but not too many proclaim themselves theatre or dance tragics. I don't imagine Brandis will be working too hard to tip the balance.

And of course, there is the issue of Malcolm Turnbull, taking the portfolios of Environment and Water from Ian Campbell, who made the fatal mistake of making his government look foolish when he worked out climate change was real before they did. Turnbull's elevation is also a milestone for Environment as a portfolio. Finally, it has risen to the top tier of government concerns. No longer is it merely a fringe issue or a matter of simply keeping the loggers and the greenies from actual physical warfare.

Turnbull's ascension instantly brought to mind two things - firstly, the warning given by Warren Denning in his classic book `Caucus Crisis' - that early elevation without proper experience has been the undoing of many a fine potential Minister - and also the notion, expounded by Carl Jung and many others, that a crucial step in the classic Hero's Journey is the usurping of the old king by his literal or symbolic son, who can only succeed him after slaying the father and gaining his powers.

If I were John Howard - or Peter Costello, Tony Abbott or Brendan Nelson for that matter - I'd be watching my back.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bagging the Flag

What a ridiculous, shrill, misinformed and ideological furore has broken out regarding the decision by organisers of the Big Day Out music festival to discourage the wearing of the Australian flag at their events. The only voice of reason amongst all others, scurrying for their safe positions and their Political-Correctness-Gone-Mads, has been the Democrats who, quite rightly, point out that those who really do care about the flag should be most upset about the fact that wearing it can now be interpreted as a potential act of racism or ultra-nationalism - `gang colours', as it was described by BDO organiser Ken West.

Firstly, let me point out that I spent the vast majority of my Australia Days at the Big Day Out during the 1990s, and never once did I see an Australian flag on obvious display. Not saying that's a good thing, not saying that's a bad thing. Just saying. I should add, however, that it was not until after the Cronulla riots that concert attendees found it so crucial to exhibit their patriotic fervour.

Flags have been misused and misappropriated many, many times. The ultra-nationalist skinhead movement adopted the Union Jack as their emblem, to the point that the wearing of clothing with the flag on it was banned in many British schools during the 1980s, at the height of the movement. Even the symbol of the swastika remains contentious. Before its use by the Nazis, it was primarily an Eastern symbol of good luck. Such was the power of the transformation of this symbol that debates continue today on what should be accepted as its `right' meaning; what it should or should not symbolise - even in the past few weeks.

One of the saddest misuses of a flag, as far as I'm concerned, is the appropriation of the Eureka Flag by Australian far-right white supremacists. Though some issues fought for in the Eureka stockade did involve race, they were small considerations amongsts a much nobler aim, and foregrounding the former at the expense of the latter is like suggesting the Bible is an anti-homosexual treatise with a few bits about social justice thrown in. It's also a little known fact that outrage following a case of racial and religious vilification - the wrongful arrest of two Armenian miners who worked with local members of the Catholic Church - was one of the incidents that helped spur the rebellion, whose importance in Australian democracy and the formation of the national principles of `mateship and a fair go' that are so often, and so somnambulently, mouthed by those who appear to know little about either trait, is almost without parallel. It is a flag, I should add, that was designed by a Canadian. Someone who `flew here, not grew here'.

Australian flags remain in the windows of many, many houses and apartments in Cronulla. These flags weren't there when I was growing up in the area. I don't think these people are simply exhibiting that they like being Australian. Do you?

Please don't mistake me for a flag nut - the sooner the whole thing's redesigned to reflect the fact that we're no longer an outpost of Old Blighty, the better. I am aware that people who fought in wars are passionate about the idea of `fighting under the Australian flag', and I respect that. What I can't stand is the hypocrisy. Those who do profess to taking flags extremely seriously - those who hold up flag burning as a genuine outrage - who, in America, send flags that are no longer in flying condition back to the White House where they are destroyed and buried in special military ceremonies - are also the ones quite happy to stick this symbol into the top of their hamburgers, fly them off their car's aerials, or wear them as capes to sporting matches.

Well, I'm Australian too, and I've never felt the need to advertise the fact to the world (sometimes, quite the opposite). I applaud the organisers of the Big Day Out for attempting to wrest back the flag from those who propose to misuse it. Maybe, if such people realised national character is not defined by who is or isn't let in the country and, once in, who is excluded from its life because of their race or religion, I wouldn't be so ashamed every time I saw one.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sparkle and Fade

This week has seen the end of two State political careers - one its ascendancy, one on the way down - Macquarie Fields MP Steven Chaytor and the Member for Smithfield, Carl Scully.

Nothing much was ever known about Steven Chaytor, except that he was Gough Whitlam's anointed successor. Given that Mark Latham previously held this role, perhaps Gough's choice of prodigy wasn't much better than his choice of Governor General. Seriously - Chaytor appeared to have genuinely earned his rising star status. The situation that Chaytor found himself in is one that appears morally murky, and very unhappy for all concerned, regardless of who did what. And, regardless of what happened, a very short career has now ended, little over a year after it started (following the resignation of Craig Knowles). It would be a disservice to the people of Macquarie Fields should the notoriously flaky Nola Fraser now win the seat from Labor, but it's a real possibility.

At the other end of the scale, Carl Scullly's career has been in the doldrums for some time, and his removal from the police ministry was undoubtedly its final blow. As one commentator put it very aptly, Scully didn't abandon public life, it abandoned him. I note this quote because Scully was acknowledged by all as a tireless worker and very passionate about the idea of public life. One school of leadership theory divides leadership into the aspirational - those who get ahead by encouraging good in those aroudn them - and the transactional - those who get ahead by dealmaking and shifting alliances. Perhaps Scully's greatest mistake, politically speaking, wasn't some of the bad decisions he made, but the fact that he got on board with the factional heavyweights, but not to the point where they didn't abandon him like a sinking ship when it suited them.

Which is the better person to have as a politician - the person who makes the right decisions for the wrong reasons, or the one who makes the wrong decisions, but for the right reasons? There's a philosophical question to ponder over the weekend.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Mother = Politician?

Arguably, the coverage of Julia Gillard's comments that it would be difficult for a mother to become Prime Minister is another case of `Labor Chaos' journalism. Then again, Gillard was a sitting duck for this sort of coverage - famously childless, with a famously empty fruit bowl ... there must be something a little strange about her, right? I mean - no kids, not married ... red hair, of course ... it's just creepy, isn't it?

It's a terrible shame that this sort of sentiment still exists today, nearly four decades after feminism became mainstream. Childless people - and childless women in particular - are viewed with an extraordinary amount of suspicion. More power to them, I say. Not because I don't like children - but because I know too many people who should never have become parents.

In any case, it's another case of distortion to make a more sensational story. Gillard's comment was not that it would be somehow wrong for a mother to be Prime Minister. Her point was that it is so hard nowadays to balance work and family that it would be extremely difficult (nevertheless, The Australian still insisted on calling its article `Gillard Defends Childlessness'). Female politicians still do face an uphill battle compared to men, there's no question about it. I know several and, without exception, they wouldn't be able to do their jobs without extraordinarily supportive partners - some of whom have had to abandon some of their own ambitions - equally supportive extended families, and a great deal of childcare. The amount of time female politicians need to spend away from their children would alone make the job of Prime Minister emotionally difficult. Do male politicians still feel this anxiety in separation from their children? Of course they do. Morris Iemma is one politician who proclaimed his commitment to his young family would always come ahead of his job (I'm not sure to what extent he's kept this pledge, but it's an honourable one). Yet the direct burden of care - of keeping house and keeping children - still unarguably falls by default to the woman, in most cases.

Would it be possible for a woman with a young family to attain high office? There are some positive examples, such as newly enstated Democrats Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. There is the extraordinary example of Enid Lyons, the wife of former Prime Minister Joe Lyons, who reportedly personally answered all mail sent to her husband whilst bringing up eleven (!) children, and later becoming not only the first woman elected to the Federal House of Representatives in 1943, but the first female Cabinet Minister. Nevertheless, many female leaders, such as former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence and Meg Lees, admit to putting their careers on hold for their children. I can think of few male politicians - or high executives in business, for that matter - who would say the same thing.

But beyond all of this is a thread of misogyny that is genuinely disturbing. Recent reports from the US suggest that more people would prefer a black president to a woman president. I'm very heartened indeed to hear that America might finally accept a black president - it would truly be a realisation of one of the greatest struggles for human rights of the 20th century, and a wonderful thing. But the fact remains that so many people are nervous of naming a woman the leader of the free world, nearly a century since the world's first unrestricted female suffrage (in New Zealand in 1893 - a generation before America, in 1920) women are still so frequently viewed not as a person, first and foremeost, but in terms of being a mother or not being a mother; and also as people somehow overstepping their natural boundaries in seeking positions of real power.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Beazley on the Political Future

Kim Beazley's first media comments since losing the ALP leadership have, at best, gone under the radar and at worst, have been fundamentally misinterpreted (most prominently by Christian Kerr at Crikey). First and foremost, an attempt's been made to slot it into what I call the Labor Chaos school of journalism - the school that waits for the slightest hint of insurrection (or whatever Mark Latham's said lately) and uses it as proof that the party is falling apart at the seams. Everyone loves a bit of biffo - it's much more interesting than examining policy.

It could be argued that the solidarity the ALP demands of its MPs leaves it particularly vulnerable to this sort of attack. After watching SBS's recent documentary about the extraordinary and corrupt former US House Majority Leader Tom Delay (I direct you especially to his comment that a contributing factor in the Columbine School massacre was "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized (sic) out of some primordial soup of mud."), I noted his political technique of `catch and release' - allowing some party dissenters to vote against a bill so long as it won't endanger its passage. John Howard has become very good at this technique, allowing backbenchers off the leash to oppose party policy on local issues, but it's something that rarely occurs within the ALP (Eden-Monaro MP Steve Whan's opposition of the sale of the Snowy Hydro system is one rare recent example). If it did, every note of concern wouldn't sound so much like insurrection.

But this is veering off the track. The SMH headline - `Poll loss the end for ALP, unions' - is a typical Labor Chaos headline, and is quite mischievous. The casual glancer is expected to read this as `Kim Beazley thinks the ALP will lose the next election'. What he said was quite different - and he picked up on a point that I've been arguing for a long time. Certainly, if the Howard Government were returned to power, the government would take this as an endorsement of WorkChoices and it would be bad news for the unions and, obviously, the ALP.

In fact, the larger point Beazley makes is that it would be perhaps even more devastating to the Liberal Party should they lose. The current strength of the Federal Liberal Party gives the illusion of the strength of the party overall, but the truth is quite different. Convincingly out of power in all states and territories, holding little more than a quarter of State seats throughout the country and with a dilapidaded rank and file, the Liberals would also lose a slew of its most experienced MPs who would rather chew glass than sit around in Opposition - people like Alexander Downer, Philip Ruddock and, most notably, John Howard. They would experience a diaspora equal to, if not worse than, the wilderness years of the 1990s - a time even Howard admits was far worse than any strife the ALP has experienced. Beazley put it well when he described them as `a party vulnerable to being out of power' - and also, a party ripe for infiltration by members of extremist fringe groups, as has already occurred within the NSW Liberal Party.

It was an odd little article - I kept waiting to see from which larger and more comprehensive piece it had been excerpted - but Beazley's opinions are not only clear-sighted, but voiced with an eye to assisting the Federal Labor Party win the next election. To ply the line that this is the only chance voters will ever have to trump WorkChoices or there's no going back would be a pretty canny election strategy.

Beazley mentions that he plans to return to academia and, as with former WA Premier Geoff Gallop, I think he'll do very well there.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Summer Series: Is Socialism Dead? What About Christianity?

Former WA Premier, academic and new NSW President of the Australian Fabian Society Geoff Gallop recently wrote an interesting article for The Australian about Kevin Rudd's particular brand of theology. Essentially, he argues that Rudd, while rejecting socialism, is embracing it under another name - the tradition of Christian social activism. It's a little known fact that this tradition helped spawn highly political and now totally agnostic movements such as the Fabians, so Gallop does have an intriguing point.

By sheer coincidence, the doorbell rang while I was composing this post. At the door were what are popularly referred to as `God Botherers' - two well-meaning gentlemen spruiking a religious magazine. It occurred to me that such people are not unlike the solitary souls who spruik the Green Left Weekly at train stations - doctrinal, insulated, unpragmatic but passionate believers, who are unlikely to win too many new people to either of their movements.

Socialism and mainstream Christianity are two things that began to decline in the early decades of the 20th Century, and perhaps for similar reasons. Priorities have changed, people became more questioning, less utopian, and more comfortable about the idea of profit for profit's sake during the post WWII boom years. As Pamela Bone suggests, also in the Oz, it's very wrong to suggest that religion is a precondition for functional society. However, I think she's put the cart before the horse. For all the depredations for which it was responsible, organised religion at least provided a `model' moral compass and a reason to work towards community and collectivism. Instead, individualism and social and economic liberalism became the key public mood and since then, popular psychology have always searched for replacements for whatever benefits religion provided. All, religious and irreligious, have recognised that the disintergration of community has left us a lot sadder and more confused as a society.

I often refer to the case of the poet, T.S. Elliott who, after the composition of bleak classics as The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, had a nervous breakdown and, to the surprise of all his acquaintances, embraced Christianity. It appears that Elliot embraced the church in the spirit that even if God didn't exist, it would be nicer to pretend he did, especially given the other benefits of belonging. It could be that one day - perhaps sooner, but probably later - people will embrace some of the tenets of socialism - benefiting, perhaps not believing, but at the very least, participating.

Much is made of the notion that a return to mainstream Christianity is already occurring. This is simply untrue. Evangelical movements have certainly made some ground - more so in America than Australia - yet such movements have objectives mainly contrary to the Christian socialist tradition: will God save me? If I pray, will God give me an easy ride and plenty of money? If I'm a Christian, it's only right that I prosper. Essentially, it's Christianity for the age of classical liberalism. It's notable that Kevin Rudd refers to `free market evangelism', because what killed socialism has a similar strain of fundamentalism. It's OK to do whatever I like because God said so. I have to fire workers, put the remainder under poorer conditions and move most of my production to a distant, impoverished country because the Market says so.

Thus, it's very difficult to convince such people that helping others is good just because it's good. If that's the case, it would be very difficult indeed to convince people to produce and share resources for the common good. As a friend recently pointed out, very few of the people who claim to espouse socialism today are fully aware of what it is. When asked, their position will usually prove a watered down, Social Democrat version of a doctrine which dictates that the state seize all personal assets in preparation for a society where the concept of state no longer exists. Pragmatically, this is something very few people would claim to be aiming for nowadays.

I've recently been reading up on the Great Depression. The economic conditions of today - as Ross Gittins outlined in a recent article - are alarmingly similar to those preceding the Depression. I'm certainly not saying that an economic downturn will see people rushing to church and then a CPA meeting, but it will be interesting to see when this downturn - and it will happen one day - will have on peoples' beliefs on collectivism. Will people withdraw; will it become dog-eat-dog? Or will the opposite occur?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Softening of Rhetoric

There has, to coin a cliche, been a `noticeable softening in the government's rhetoric' on David Hicks recently, with Mick Keelty the latest to express concerns. It's not much of a softening, but it's something, and it comes after concerted lobbying by the public, the legal fraternity, and the State Attorneys General. Even with a legal breakthrough, Hicks would face at least two more years imprisonment - unless the Australian government intervenes and brings him back to Australia. Increasingly, I'm beginning to wonder if the magic phone call might just coincide with an election campaign. This is quite a turn of events, little more than five years after the hysterical Tampa-driven election campaign of 2001.

There has been a subtle but noticeable softening of rhetoric from the Federal Government in a number of areas. This first occurred to me when reading Tony Abbott's astonishingly sensible - yes, you read correctly - article on integration a few weeks back. It reminded me a lot of papers and articles published by then-Opposition MPs in the mid 1990s, when Labor was still in power and the dominant rhetoric was moderate rather than extreme. As the Pauline Hanson era told us, peoples' views don't change so much; the acceptability of their views does. It could therefore be argued that governments have a limited ability to change peoples' views for the better, but I disagree. It's by stigmatising the beliefs that make for a poor society that a government can prevent such views from flourishing and becoming mainstream. The proof of this is that the Howard Government has been able to take advantage of the opposite trend, encouraging the propagation of views that keep people paranoid and averse to policies of the previous government, such as reconciliation and republicanism.

Perhaps this new softening represents a change in the political atmosphere (and no, I refuse to stoop to that other cliche, `seachange'). This is a good thing for society. I'm very happy that a Tampa incident would be unlikely to generate the same hysteria that it did in 2001. Politically, it may not be such great news for Labor. It's sometimes been said that Kevin Rudd is trying to out-Howard John Howard - to present a face of pragmatism, moderation and dependability that remains regardless of the radical nature of policies they may be advancing. Where Labor may fall into serious danger is if John Howard tries to out-Rudd Kevin Rudd. Labor is already used to the Government co-opting their policies, especially in social policy areas where Labor is traditionally stronger. Should the government also co-opt a political atmosphere that favours Labor, things could get very tricky.

The saddest thing would be if people fell for it. Without genuine belief, such a softening would be no more than a political gimmick. After all, there are still plenty of things occurring that remind us that consistent violations of human rights - such as the detention of David Hicks - tend have the opposite reaction to what they should. Rather than seek to mitigate, the tendency is to punish in kind. Likewise, those who condemn such punishment are themselves condemned by the same people who use the atrocities committed as a justification for their own behaviour. It becomes a sad cycle rather than a genuine effort to make amends. This week, the execution of Saddam Hussein has been shown as an appalling botched and unethical act - news programmes persist in broadcasting images not only before and after his death, but now, leaked footages of the death taking place. Had Hussein himself broadcast graphic images of torture and execution, he would - quite rightly - have been decried as a monster. Does that make those who do the same any less? We need a government that makes a genuine effort to make such things unacceptable once more.

The Invisible Man

Andrew Clennell's recent Sydney Morning Herald article set the tone for the election commentary with which we'll be bombarded for the next few months. Suddenly, an election that seemed quite a way off is almost upon us.

Which begs the question: Where the heck is Peter Debnam?

To my knowledge - and I could be wrong and have been in the past - he is not officially on leave. He has been doing media - just nothing very substantial. The last news story I recall that featued Debnam, some time before Christmas, was a piece of high-Silly Season puff about him donating 740ml of blood (perhaps mopped up from his Cabinet room). Nevertheless, Barry O'Farrell has made most major media statements that I've seen - not as Acting Leader, but as Deputy - and Shadow Ministers such as Chris Hartcher have picked up the slack. This is particularly odd, as it is consistently asserted that O'Farrell is not interested in challenging, and who can blame him - the same cadre that made sure he lost out to Debnam in the first place would make things extremely hard for him as leader.

This doesn't bode well for Debnam, three months away from the election. Recent polling would certainly not lend any comfort to him. Nor would anecdotal evidence suggests that some Liberal candidates are even shying away from mentioning his name in local campaigning. It's almost - almost - conceivable that he'd leave before the election. In any case, he's not likely to stick around for long afterwards.

Speaking of afterwards - a NSW Government reshuffle must surely be in the planning stages, given that the NSW Cabinet is now two Ministers less than it was this time last year and, with departure of Bob Debus, will be missing a third after the election. It's likely to be from amongst the Parliamentary Secretaries that new Ministers are drawn. Linda Burney, a former Director General of Aboriginal Affairs, is an obvious and excellent choice for that portfolio. As for the rest - well, I'll have to think about that, and so will Morris Iemma, I imagine ...