Already in the week parliament resumed the talk of a “new paradigm” has come crashing down to Earth. The opening days of parliament were consumed by the usual bickering. And far from any shift to the left, Julia Gillard’s government has continued right where it left off.
Tony Abbott’s promise of a “kinder, gentler” politics disappeared as quickly as his chances of becoming PM.
This has been clearest over refugees. Another expansion of the system of desert detention was announced just three days after Gillard’s swearing in as Prime Minister. A further 600 asylum seekers will be detained at the infamous Curtin detention centre in remote WA and 300 more at Weipa in Queensland’s far north. A few days later Gillard was on the phone to East Timor, trying to stitch up agreement on her new offshore processing centre. Construction union member Ark Tribe could be sent to jail for organising on the job under the ABCC legislation (see here).
None of this even needs to be discussed in parliament—showing the limits of The Greens’ and the independents’ influence.
Tony Abbott’s offensive over the Wild Rivers legislation also shows that the Liberals have a renewed ability to set the political agenda (see Wild Rivers article).
After the litany of election pledges by Labor to hold down spending to get the budget back in surplus, advice released by the Treasury Department in its “red book” to the incoming Labor government has called for “further steps to strengthen the structural position of the budget”. Or, in other words, budget cuts. The agreement of the independents not to block the budget makes this hard for them to stop.
Many people still hope that the independents and Greens MP in the lower house will make a decisive difference. But Gillard has made it clear that Labor would prefer to woo the Liberals. She has called on Abbott to “put aside the empty rancour of partisanship” and look to the “national interest”. Labor’s focus in constructing its carbon price committee has been to plead with the Liberals to join it.
Some have taken heart from the Prime Minister’s shift in refusing to rule out a carbon tax, saying that the “new environment” of a hung parliament means the government has to reconsider. But the composition of the carbon price committee and the search for a “consensus” means serious action on climate will not result (see article here).
The criticism of Labor’s continued backing for the war in Afghanistan has been one of the few bright spots in parliament. Andrew Wilkie’s maiden speech savaged the government for refusing to get the troops out, saying, “there can be no hope of enduring peace until foreign troops are withdrawn”. As welcome as this is, the most the independents and Greens can deliver is a debate in parliament over the war. With the Liberals backing the war, there is no chance of a parliamentary vote forcing Australia out of Afghanistan.
Parliamentary tricks a diversion
Bob Brown deserves some of the blame for letting Labor set a right-wing agenda. Instead of challenging Labor on the key issues, he chose to pick out euthanasia as the first issue on which he would introduce a private members’ bill.
His strange priorities are explained by The Greens’ single-minded focus on parliamentary machinations. Brown wants to promote the idea of holding parliamentary conscience votes as a way of passing legislation. But his aim of pressuring Gillard into one on gay marriage has failed. Once again, The Greens’ focus on what happens in parliament as the only thing that matters, and lack of concern with mobilising grassroots pressure outside of parliament has drawn them in a conservative direction.
The protests that grabbed the headlines in recent weeks were those at Villawood detention centre. The tragic suicide of Fijian man Josefa Rauluni created chaos in the detention centre, with desperate asylum seekers threatening suicide if the government would not review their claims. Many took to the rooftop and more staged a long hunger strike. There could be no more disturbing a reminder of how far the Labor government has taken us back to the refugee policies of the Howard era.
Refugee activists gathered outside the detention centre for three nights running to let detainees know they had support amongst the Australian community. At a few days notice almost 200 people rallied in Sydney that week.
The government’s brutal detention regime is going to generate more protests inside detention—as well as outside. Under Howard, it was this kind of mobilisation that shifted public opinion and forced the government to start moving asylum seekers out of detention. With Gillard making it clear Labor won’t move one inch from its right-wing agenda we will need to do this again.