November 24, 2007
The Canberra Times

Nothing glorious about our nation’s vanishing political morals

“We are gloriously and instinctively Australian.” They were words meant to strike at our heart and impassion a patriotic stirring. Or at least make us shift in our seats. But they didn’t. Across the national television viewing audience, you could hear the metaphorical pin drop. Were they the wrong words? Or is no one moved by John Howard anymore? Today we will find out.

The Prime Minister’s appeal to our collective sense of Australian glory came during Thursday’s address to the National Press Club. This was his last big show for the election campaign and should have been uplifting and energising. It wasn’t. Even his efforts to kindle the patriotic fires in our souls fell flat. Those well- scripted words hung in the air for a moment, and then met with weak applause. There was a bit of shifting in seats, but not because anyone was feeling particularly ”glorious”. It was more to do with instinctive discomfort.

Local Liberal MP Jacqui Burke’s booing and hissing of the media’s questions that followed Howard’s speech only served to highlight that unease. When elected members want to stifle the process of journalists asking pressing questions, well, is it any wonder people are left feeling uneasy? Democracy is at stake.

The journalists wanted to know what John Howard knew about the involvement of his poster girl MP, Jackie Kelly, in a disgracefully racist plot in her seat of Lindsay. A cohort of Kelly supporters, including her husband and the husband of the Liberal candidate, had been discovered attempting to whip up anti-Islamic sentiment and link Labor to fundamental extremists by distributing fake pamphlets.

Kelly is a political veteran of five election campaigns and a by- election. She has served in the Howard Government for 11 years, three as a minister, and is a qualified lawyer. She is no dummy. Yet listening to the appalling hash she made of herself on ABC radio on Thursday morning, you couldn’t help but wonder how she manages to tie up her shoe laces, much less manage the business of government.

Kelly denied she was involved in the fake pamphlet fiasco, but said she’d read the thing. Her husband had helped dream up the plot and Kelly said that while she didn’t know ”enough about it”, just ”what my husband has told me”, she insisted that she thought it was funny. ”When I first read it I had to laugh.” Indeed, she insisted that the ”first instinct” of anyone who reads it ”is to laugh”.

But clearly being ”instinctively Australian” means vastly different things to different people. The instinctive response from the man who wants to remain Prime Minister wasn’t to laugh at all. Howard was embarrassed and outraged. He lashed out at the foolish dirty tricks campaign, labelling it unacceptable and offensive, but stopped short of calling it ”un-Australian”.

So there was no glory to be found in Kelly’s instincts to laugh. Nor her husband’s instincts to appeal to racist fears. But this week highlighted another reason for Australian voters to be unmoved by the bugle call of what it is to be ”gloriously and instinctively Australian”.

If we don’t feel ”instinctively” uncomfortable by what happened out on the Timor Sea this week, we should. Or are we really becoming immune to the plight of the desperate and the poor? Listening to Fisheries Minister Eric Abetz on Thursday, it would seem the answer to that is a shameful yes.

Three Indonesian families in a leaking, wooden boat ran into trouble some 650km west of Darwin. They were spotted by workers on an Australian-owned oil tanker. Among the 16 people on board were three women and 10 children, including a baby. The workers, members of the Maritime Union, have described distressing scenes of ”chaos” and ”frustration” and ”children crying” as they pleaded with their superiors to allow the stranded fishermen and their families to board the safety of the tanker. But the men were told there are rules – Acts of Parliament – that prevented taking ”boat people” aboard, unless they are drowning.

Eventually the dilapidated boat did sink, during a precarious navy rescue mission some nine hours later, in which some of the children were thrown into the water. All 16 have now been taken for ”processing”.

It is believed they are sea gypsies from Roti Island, south-west of Timor. The island’s traditional fishermen claim Australia’s tough policing of waters is ruining their livelihoods and sending fishing families into financial ruin. Minister Abetz’s response was little short of tough. They’ve been stopped from ”robbing their neighbour’s house”, he said, and accused the fishermen of wanting to ”rape and pillage that which belongs to Australia”.

The fact that these people are desperately poor, and that their only means of self-sufficiency, fishing, is becoming increasingly impossible without straying into our waters, cuts no ice with the minister. He said that if they were in a tough situation ”it is not of Australia’s making”.

While illegal fishing, just like illegal entry, is a problem to be tackled, it’s the instinct driving the tackle that is most worrying. Questions about moral right and moral obligation seem to have been expunged from the rule book. I hope this is not what is meant by being ”gloriously and instinctively Australian”.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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