Friday, August 10, 2007

Australians All - 'A Desperate, Dangerous Prime Minister'

Greg Barnes has written the following article for the AA website:

"Whether it be throwing money to keep open a dysfunctional hospital in Tasmania, preventing Queenslanders obtaining better governance through reduction in the number of local councils, or stripping Indigenous Australians of their very human dignity with storm troopers running amok in the Northern Territory, all these actions have one thing in common – they are the actions of a Prime Minister and a government which for a decade has become used to undermining democratic conventions and traditions to stay in office and which, as it faces electoral oblivion, is now dangerously unhinged.

When John Howard came to office in 1996 he famously told Australians he wanted them to be ‘relaxed and comfortable’. But it was clear from early on in the reign of this Prime Minister that his obsession with retaining office at all costs would do nothing to reassure Australians that its democracy was in sure hands.

Can anyone remember a period in post-Federation history of this country where so much damage has been done to fundamental tenets such as the rule of law, due process and respect for rights over such a short period of time? It is hard to think of any such occasion.

It began early on with the refusal by Mr Howard’s government to acknowledge, through the payment of compensation, the clearly documented suffering of the Stolen Generation of Indigenous Australians. Not only did it play hard ball with thousands of people’s lives, but the Howard government went out of its way to undermine the credibility of the main author of the HREOC report, the late Sir Ronald Wilson, a former High Court judge. I can vividly recall attending a meeting in the office of Mr Howard’s then Attorney-General Daryl Williams, where a handful of senior government advisers discussed a strategy to raise questions about Sir Ronald Wilson’s involvement in a Church home in Western Australia years earlier, where some Aboriginal children had lived.

The pattern was set by the Stolen Generation report response. This was not a government particularly interested in ensuring due process when seeking a political advantage was at stake – in that case pandering to the rising popularity of Pauline Hanson and One Nation. But this incident pales into insignificance when placed alongside the infamous Tampa episode in the lead up to the 2001 election.

It is worth remembering these facts about the Tampa matter. The Howard government took the extraordinary peace-time step of legislating to suspend the rule of law to ensure that the Tampa and its occupants – desperate asylum seekers plucked from the raging Indian Ocean waters by a decent mariner – would not reach Australia. The Tampa laws introduced by Mr Howard and supported, in the main, by a supine ALP Opposition, made legal activities which were otherwise clearly illegal, such as taking whatever steps necessary, including the use of force, to ensure that Australia did not meet its international obligations to allow these asylum seekers to apply to Australia for visas.

Then Mr Howard, fuelled by the success of his Tampa strategy, in the dying days of the 2001 election campaign, deliberately misrepresented materials given to him and others ministers by the Australian Navy. The infamous grainy photos taken by the Navy personnel of asylum seekers lifting their children from a sinking boat to ensure they didn’t drown, was deliberately twisted by Mr Howard and his ministers to give the impression that these were monstrous actions of people who would drown their own children. Once again, there was no regard for the rights of the people photographed and their children, or for proper intelligence analysis and military briefings in a calm and considered atmosphere. The hunt for votes makes anything permissible it would seem.

Including, it would seem, undermining the judiciary, as has occurred recently in the case of Dr Mohammed Haneef, the former Gold Coast doctor and alleged terror suspect. Within hours of a Brisbane court deciding, after careful consideration of the State and defence cases, that Dr Haneef should be allowed bail, subject to strict conditions, after he was charged with a terrorism offence, Mr Howard’s Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews revoked Dr Haneef’s visa on the grounds that he was not of good character. As the President of the Australian Bar Association, Stephen Estcourt QC said of this action, “It has got to be seen as a threat to the rule of law if a ministerial discretion is used to effectively reverse, or to reverse for practical purposes a decision of the court.” And when Mr Andrews was asked by journalists if he had, by his actions, reversed the 1,000 year tradition of the presumption of innocence, he simply said his actions as Migration Minister were not related to that question.

Of course, driving the Howard government’s strategy on the Haneef was that by now hard-wired desire that it has to find issues with which it can successfully divide the ALP. It worked in Tampa, so let’s keep trying it, seems to be the attitude. But on Haneef it didn’t work. The Kevin Rudd led opposition lost its voice – it appeared unconcerned about the jettisoning of due process in relation to Dr Haneef. It has caught the Howard government disease. Why seek to uphold fundamental tenets of democracy if that will get in the way of winning over voters?

The failure to wedge the ALP over the Haneef matter has not chastened Mr Howard and his government, it has simply made it more desperate and irrational to the point where one can legitimately speculate about its collective sanity.

Just ask the people of Tasmania. For decades governments in that tiny state have refused to cut out the cancer of parochialism in the health system, and the result is a developing-world standard of healthcare. At long last, a government, this one led by the ALP’s Paul Lennon, properly spends thousands of hours and dollars on devising a healthcare system which will eliminate harmful duplication such as having two full service hospitals on the State’s north west coast only 60 kilometres apart, and creating instead one centre of excellence. But Mr Howard cannot help himself. Desperate to hold the marginal Liberal seat of Braddon, situated in Tasmania’s north-west, he cruelly promises to keep open a substandard hospital in Latrobe and in doing so scuttle carefully thought through reforms supported by the medical profession and other health workers.

Mr Howard’s promise of $45 million to perpetuate the problems of health care on Tasmania’s north west coast is viewed by the Prime Minister and his Health Minister Tony Abbott as some form of new policy template, where the federal government cherry picks its way around Australia, directly intervening in state health systems simply to buy votes, while refusing to work cooperatively with the states on ensuring that all Australians are better served by streamlined healthcare arrangements.

What is concerning about Mr Howard’s bizarre Tasmanian adventure last week is that it is not an isolated instance of political folly. This week, we find the Prime Minister, like a prize fighter battered and bruised, swinging an ill-aimed punch at another potential target. This time it’s Queensland Premier Peter Beattie. Mr Howard wants to rewrite constitutional and electoral arrangements on the run by proposing that he spend millions of dollars of Commonwealth taxpayers’ money on letting Queenslanders vote in a referendum on Mr Beattie’s plans to reduce the number of local councils.

One would have thought this Prime Minister, leading a Party which has rationalized local governments over the past decade in Victoria and Tasmania, and which believes in smaller government, would welcome Mr Beattie’s rational response to poor service delivery at the local government level in Queensland?

So Tasmania last week, Queensland this week – which ALP led State is on the Prime Minister’s hit list next week?

One wonders whether the cabinet government process has completely broken down in the Howard government. Does government in Australia today depend on the political whim of a Prime Minister desperately trying to stay in office for as long as he can? It appears that the answer to both questions is yes.

What we are witnessing today is Mr Howard’s long standing obsession with staying in office at the expense of human rights, due process, good government and respect for the constitutional framework of our nation reach a point where it now poses a genuine threat to Australian democratic traditions.

But what should frighten us more, is that the man and the Party that want to replace Mr Howard and his government in office at an election later this year, is too scared to protest."

Rudd's strategy to minimize Labor as a target for Howard's wedge madness is cynical politics, suggesting Labor strategists do not yet believe that the Coalition is mortally wounded. I suspect that some within Labor ranks will not believe it until final rites are administered and a postmortem is held.

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