Tag Archives: John Howard

The dark side of political life: Sandwiches, name-calling and “assault”

pyne-tony-abbott-protest

Being a politician is not for the faint hearted. Whether we’re talking about student politics or an Australian federal election, those in public life are often subject to ridicule, insults and angry protests. This reality was made clear this month, when several current and former Liberal politicians were confronted and even allegedly assaulted by angry university students while visiting several uni campuses in Sydney and Melbourne.

Early last week, student protesters disrupted a lecture by former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella at the University of Melbourne. This was predated by students yelling at Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop when she visited two Sydney universities this month. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has also seen his fair share of student activism – first on a now famous episode of Q&A and then again last Thursday night, when he attended the Howard Debating Cup at the University of Sydney.

Pyne was quick to label students’ approach to Bishop as “assault”, though many dispute this. Disagreement and dissent are healthy to democracy, but as shown in the latest series of student protests against the Liberal government’s cuts to higher education, the level of acceptable dissent against politicians and other authority figures can polarise opinion across Australia.

Defending the Q&A protest

When you make promises to the public – when you are elected on those promises and when you wield enormous power over the nation’s future – your actions and your policies are justifiably scrutinised. “That politicians would become the focus of intense public scrutiny and intense emotions is to be anticipated to some extent”, said Dr Peter Chen, a politics lecturer at the University of Sydney, to Hijacked.

Dr Chen said we should recognise that politicians are people with human emotions, but that the power and responsibility they hold is exceptional. Dr Chen defended the chanting Q&A protesters and pointed to the power imbalance between students and politicians. “On the one hand, it would be good to engage in civil policy-oriented debate, and I think in general people do agree to that, but that position assumes we are in an environment where all people can participate in civil debate [equally] and I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case,” he said.

Throwing shoes and sandwiches

When your voice is ignored, when your letters are answered only with regurgitated statistics, and when forums like Q&A become more and more scripted, how far should you push to be heard? Some people draw the line further along the spectrum than others, and throughout the years, politicians have been subject to some pretty humiliating and threatening demonstrations.

During his reign as Prime Minister until 2007, John Howard had shoes – an old school form of spectator disrespect – thrown at him twice over “racist” policies and the Iraq War. Australia’s first female PM Julia Gillard also had sandwiches thrown at her during two separate school visits and she narrowly missed a flung egg in Perth. Even in New Zealand, MP John Banks was recently sprayed with a bucket of mud over charges for failing to declare high profile donations.

Dr Chen says that throwing things constitutes as violence. “Everyone should have the right to participate politically without the fear of violence, and it does no good when violence is used as a political strategy by any side of the political spectrum in a democracy,” he said.

Name-calling and ridiculing

If an average person experienced the amount of name-calling and ridiculing that politicians face in the media and on the street, people would not hesitate to call it extreme bullying.

During her time as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was called a bitch and a witch. “Take that, you dog,” is one line shouted before a group of Greens supporters threw shoes at somebody dressed up as former PM Kevin Rudd. Last October in Melbourne, students burnt an effigy of current leader Tony Abbott outside Victorian Parliament, and it’s not unusual to see young and old Australians wearing t-shirts or holding signs that say “Fuck Tony Abbott” or “Tony Abbott eats poo”.

When we don’t know a politician, it is easy to idealise them as an ultimate hero or villain – much like the way we sometimes forget that celebrities like Kanye West or Kim Kardashian are actually real people. Some people say that putting yourself up for criticism is a price to pay for public power. But should we still take into account a politician’s emotions, the impact on their loved ones or their basic human rights?

Some people realise that politicians aren’t just talking heads on a TV screen. Georgia Hitch, a student from the University of Sydney, went to school with Kevin Rudd’s son. Kevin Rudd was mostly just the dad who showed up to his son’s tech shows or held a charity event with the school. “He was first and foremost a dad, just like the rest of our [parents],” says Hitch to Hijacked. “At the end of the day, politicians really are people with emotions,” she says of the effect of Rudd’s ousting on his family.

Like the rest of us, politicians deserve the right to feel safe from harm, to be free from persecution based on sex, race and religion and – dare I say it – to be allowed freedom of political communication (to the extent that it does not incite hatred, violence or significant harm against others).

Ineffective protest strategies

Some people say that violence, profanities and abusive slogans like “Fuck Tony Abbott” are not only crass, but that they also undermine the effectiveness of the movement because they overshadow the issues and peaceful nature of protests.

“The ambush of Julie Bishop made the protesters seem erratic and abusive and potentially undermined the cause and their motives,” says Hitch. “Considering how critical the media are being towards protesters [we] all have to think very carefully about exactly how we choose to get our message across [and not] through profanities, shoes and sandwiches.”

In a protest of thousands, it is often the small and apparently violent group that will make front page news. It is the violence, the egg and the shoe – not the issue or peaceful protesters that we remember – that are often latched onto by tabloid newspapers or those with an agenda to push.

Dr Chen says the protesters face a difficult paradox when dealing with the media. Violent protests can distort the focus of an issue, but peaceful protests like March in March are often under-reported. “While a more rambunctious style of protest may be somewhat counterproductive, it may be less counterproductive than getting no coverage at all,” he said.

Politics is not an easy job and sometimes it becomes intensely personal. While protesters are disadvantaged when challenging powerful politicians, it is still within their power to determine their personal actions and decide what kind of social movement they want to create.

Published in Hijacked, 26 May 2014.

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Stronger Futures ‘fundamentally racist’

Published in the South Sydney Herald, front page, 4 March 2013.

Click here to see it online.

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Ada Lee

On March 21, Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS) plans to rally outside Tanya Plibersek’s office in protest against Labor’s Stronger Futures legislation and the expansion of income management.

On February 13, the House of Representatives passed the Act of Recognition, a symbolic move to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as Australia’s first peoples. Sydney Labor MP, Tanya Plibersek, expressed her support: “Aboriginal rights should be an election issue for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples is an essential next step in our journey towards reconciliation.”

On the ground, however, the detrimental effects of the controversial Northern Territory Intervention and now Stronger Futures legislation are felt by thousands of Aboriginal people.

In June 2012, the Gillard government passed the Stronger Futures legislation with a 10-year funding commitment of $3.4 billion, which Ms Plibersek said, “will help close the gap”.

According to Ms Plibersek, Stronger Futures “repeals in full” John Howard’s NT Emergency Response Act 2007. “Unlike the Howard government’s approach, the Stronger Futures legislation does not suspend the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act.”

However, President of the Amoonguna community near Alice Springs, Marie Ellis, has called Stronger Futures merely a “fancy new name”. “All the racist policies are still in place,” she said in a STICS press release.

Under Howard’s Intervention, government statistics show increased Aboriginal incarceration, increased suicide attempts and self harm, decreased school attendance and a loss of jobs. 

Ms Ellis has passionately testified to the damaging effects of the Intervention on her community. “Minister Jenny Macklin has us stuck in the welfare days, treats us like children being breast-fed by the government,” she said.

Under Stronger Futures, there are total alcohol and pornography bans on Aboriginal land. The phasing out of Community Development Employment Projects continues, blamed for the loss of thousands of jobs. Kids who miss school more than five times over two terms can cause their family’s welfare payments to be suspended under the expanded School Enrolment and Attendance Measure.

Founding member and organiser of STICS, Paddy Gibson, accused Stronger Futures of holding Aboriginal people in “apartheid conditions”. Mr Gibson says the mindset behind this legislation is “fundamentally racist”. “They’re essentially saying that Aboriginal people can’t take care of themselves,” he said.

In particular, the STICS rally will denounce the expansion of income management to five trial sites outside the NT including Bankstown, NSW.

Introduced under the Intervention, the government says income management is designed to help people manage their money to meet essential household needs and expenses. Welfare payments, stored on a BasicsCard, disallow purchase of certain goods such as alcohol, tobacco, pornography and gambling products. It can be compulsorily implemented on people deemed vulnerable by a social worker or child protection authorities.

Mr Gibson called on all people to join the protest against Stronger Futures outside Ms Plibersek’s Chippendale office on March 21. STICS condemns “punitive” methods and advocates for the self-determination and empowerment of community-run organisations through larger funding. “If things are going to change on the ground in those [Aboriginal] communities, it’s going to be the people themselves that actually lead those initiatives,” he said.

Ms Plibersek said, “The government is considerably increasing the number of local Aboriginal people we employ as Indigenous Engagement Officers.”

Click here for the follow-up story.

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