This week


No amount of trying by advisers desperate to increase his national approval rating ever got Paul Keating out of a Zegna suit and into an Akubra to stride a barren landscape – or any kind of landscape. R.J. Hawke always looked a little weird out bush as if he’d missed the turnoff to the races, while the idea of Beazley squatting by a campfire in shirt sleeves is imaginable. But no other political leader in our time looks more at home in billowing dust and rural headgear than Prime Minister John Howard. This week there he was again gravely listening to tales of drought in western NSW and signalling he was prepared to instruct the Treasurer to develop schemes for deserving farmers for whom the times are not only hard but apparently emblematic.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

Already we’ve been told how the farmer is the centrepiece of our mythology, how our toehold in the global economy depends on them, how we left leaning city folk can never understand their sacrifices for family and for land.

But ABC TV is about to do its bit. A new series of Outback House will tell the story of courageous entrepreneurs, the men and women who built Australia, armed with dreams of making their fortune. ‘Called squatters, they dared to push beyond the official boundaries of the first colony of New South Wales in search of new grazing land,’ declares the breathless press release. ‘Not only did they succeed in conquering this stark and unforgiving land, they also created a thriving textile industry that supplied the world with wool.’ We can’t wait.

Perhaps we need reality TV to put on the government’s financial radar the creeping drought that threatens our universities. The absence in the recent big spending budget of the kind of major injection we need in tertiary education spending was telling – as was the absence of any serious outcry. As universities grow ever more dependent on full fee paying students from the region, their vulnerability increases. Not only is the sector facing real competition from China and SE Asia, but the quality of our tertiary courses is now being challenged. Reliance on this revenue stream is short-sighted. The Government’s failure to substantially invest in government funded places for Australian students plus recent threats to withhold core funding if the new workplace requirements aren’t met are sure signs that this country under this government views education as a commodity rather than an essential service and a fundamental resource.

Division in the government’s ranks over universal mandatory detention has at last come to a head led by backbenchers Petro Georgiou and Judy Moylan with the tabling of two Private Members Bills to be voted on next week. For a moment Moylan’s civilized language sounded quaint and old fashioned so used have we become to the government’s undiluted hard line and tough talk.

‘It is an immigration policy that fails the fundamental test of upholding human dignity. It causes trauma in people fleeing regimes that in some cases we’ve sent troops in to resolve,’ said Moylan. Parents and children and anyone in detention longer than twelve months, they propose, would be released into the community pending determination by an independent tribunal of their refugee status. And those granted refugee status would get permanent residency. Temporary Protection Visas which condemn people to limbo would be abandoned.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

The PM has already rejected a conscience vote on the issue and is staunchly defending his Immigration Minister for her ‘sensible and flexible balance between compassion and the administration of a strong immigration policy’. He is quoted as saying in the Party room that ‘We owe our success in the electorate to our strong border protection policies.’

Maybe they do, but it just could be that the media uproar here and internationally which has succeeded in giving people in detention faces and voices has already begun the softening of the electorate – the first faint signs perhaps of the dismantling of an immigration policy which is rotten to the core.

Meanwhile the Bush administration led by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is pushing for expanded powers under a renewed Patriot’s Act that was initially passed 45 days after 9/11. The FBI now wants a dramatic increase in secret search powers and the ability to issue administrative subpoenas bypassing a judge or grand jury thus cutting across the US Bill of Rights.

It is probably no coincidence that our outgoing head of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, on his way to Washington as Australian Ambassador, is also pressing for the temporary anti-terrorist powers granted here after 9/11 to be made permanent. Without Human Rights legislation in Australia and with both houses of Parliament shortly to be controlled by the government we have little chance of resisting an increase in the powers of ASIO and the Australian Federal Police.

New Matilda has formed a working party to begin the long process of drafting a Human Rights Act for this country. The draft document is being reviewed and will be available for comment and discussion on the website in July.

In the meantime the policy forum and portal will be rebuilt to allow for easier navigation and access. Please bear with us.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.