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Australian Notes

Australian notes

20 October 2012

9:00 AM

20 October 2012

9:00 AM

How moderate David Marr’s job on Tony Abbott (Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott) now seems when compared with Julia Gillard’s performance in the Parliament. Marr readily concedes that Abbott has a few redeeming features such as ‘charm’. (I’m not sure what that means. It probably means that people like him when they meet him.) His main criticism is that Abbott will too easily sacrifice principles to pragmatism. (Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, but never mind.) Nowhere in his essay does Marr argue that Abbott is a misogynist. Abbott has occasionally in the past made debatable remarks about the differences between the sexes, but the thrust of his policies for women — for example, on paid maternity leave — has been to support them. Do any of his critics deny this? But in opposing Abbott’s motion to sack the Speaker under section 35 of the Constitution, the Prime Minister told the Parliament: ‘Misogyny, sexism, every day from this Leader of the Opposition. Every day in every way … Doesn’t turn a hair about any of his past statements, doesn’t walk into the Parliament and apologise to the women of Australia. Doesn’t walk into this Parliament and apologise to me for the things that have come out of his mouth. But now seeks to use this as a battering ram against someone else. Well, this kind of hypocrisy should not be tolerated, which is why this motion from the Leader of the Opposition should not be taken seriously.’ Some commentators called it a great speech. It was indeed good theatre. But a great speech must be more than that. It must be grounded firmly in truth. That is what distinguishes oratory from demagoguery. The Prime Minister won her ’15 minutes of fame’ but she failed the truth test. If you’re looking for criticisms of Abbott, better go back to Marr. But for information, better read the pages on women in Abbott’s book Battlelines.

I watched the Joe Biden/Paul Ryan Vice-Presidential debate in a room full of students. Their noisiest reaction — loud, scoffing laughter — was at Ryan’s long pause before answering the question about abortion. Well known as strongly anti-abortion and pro-life, he suddenly seemed to them a comic sight, a squirming, awkward, wide-eyed politician desperately looking for a way out of a tight corner without losing votes. The moderator’s question was: ‘We have two Catholic candidates and I ask you both to tell me what role religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.’ Ryan answered that you can’t separate your public policies from your faith. He is not against abortion in cases of rape or incest or when abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. He also wants elected legislatures, not unelected courts, to make the law. He may have lost votes with this candour. Joe Biden was much more canny. He stopped grinning for a moment. ‘My religion defines who I am,’ he said with unwonted solemnity. ‘I accept my church’s position on abortion.’ But, he went on, he will not accept the church’s ‘position’ as public policy. ‘I do not allow we have a right to tell women they can’t control their bodies. It’s a decision between them and their doctors.’ In other words, Biden, like many Australian politicians, both follows his church and ignores it. If winning votes is what the election is about, Biden may have won the exchange. Abortion will not decide the US election. The overriding issue remains the economy, although in most polls social policies including abortion still rank high among voters’ priorities — not as high as healthcare or foreign policy, but higher than in Australia. If Mitt Romney becomes President and changes the composition of the Supreme Court, the right to abortion on demand may well be restricted. If this happens it is bound to have some influence on the now subdued debate about Australia’s 80,000-90,000 abortions a year.

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A sign of the times. Reporters and pundits have told us repeatedly over the past couple of years that the government will not even consider an early election as long as it can muster a majority of one. Now suddenly some of them, in both the Murdoch and Fairfax papers, are changing their minds. The Melbourne Herald Sun is typical. ‘Ms Gillard must,’ it declares, ‘put her trust in the people and go to the polls.’ The Australian Financial Review talks about how ‘fresh

elections’ would end ‘this failed experiment with minority government’. These editorial writers catch the mood of the electorate. The public does indeed want an early election to disinfect the Parliament. But it has Buckley’s chance of getting one. The government knows that it is doomed to a life-threatening defeat whenever it goes to the polls. It may play for time and hope that some dreadful scandal will overwhelm the Coalition. It can reinstate Kevin Rudd. It can pray that Julia Gillard will give more speeches like her rant against Tony Abbott, although that was better received in Manhattan than in Melbourne (see above). But it knows — and its marginal seat holders think about this all the time — that it will be annihilated at the next election. All it can do is put off the evil day and hang on to power as long as it has a majority of one. The rest of us have to grit our teeth and put up with another year of the worst government in memory. Perhaps this is a time to give thought to introducing the right of recall.

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