Monday, October 23, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Out of the spotlight
The biggest stories aren’t always the most important

Source Supplied by ABC News

In preparation for a radio spot this morning, I wanted to remind myself of the tidbits of knowledge that had surfaced at Senate estimates earlier this year. So: did you know that in just ten months 42 million calls to Centrelink went unanswered?

Forty-two million!

Federal politics often seems dominated by the same issues, darting forward and then withdrawing, with no governing principle other than endless, frustrating repetition. Climate. Cost of living. Marriage. Leadership. Rewind, replay; rinse, repeat; use your favourite cliché; a month later, use it again.

But revelations like those unanswered Centrelink calls – and, more importantly, the people making those calls and getting only an engaged signal – are good reminders that much of what government does, how government works, and the impact government has on individuals, occurs well away from the major headlines. Senate estimates – when senators do not sit in the Senate chamber, but instead break into committees and question bureaucrats – is one of the best conduits of such facts.

Today, for instance, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon asked a question about lobbyists. Did you know there are 1710 people with “sponsored passes”, the type of pass that lobbyists get? I have no problem with lobbying per se – advocating is no bad thing – but the way lobbying operates in this country, the way it interacts with political fundraising, and the token way in which it is regulated, is massively problematic. Lobbyists affect the laws that govern us all much more than most voters realise. One thousand, seven hundred and ten!

The Guardian has a story today, not from estimates, that a man on Nauru is pleading with authorities to be allowed to travel to Brisbane to be present at the birth of his child. It gets worse: “The Guardian understands there are at least four fathers on Nauru who have never seen their children and face the possibility of never being able to.”

That’s awful, but it probably doesn’t count as torture. Nevertheless, returning to estimates, it might be worth recalling that Amnesty said this a year ago: “The government of Australia’s ‘processing’ of refugees and asylum-seekers on Nauru is a deliberate and systematic regime of neglect and cruelty, and amounts to torture under international law.” Greens senator Nick McKim made a similar point this morning, to which the secretary of the immigration department, Mike Pezzullo, joked, “The only torture that I’m aware of is sometimes when we have to appear here.”

Revelations don’t always appear in the form of facts.

Still, often they do. Away from the Senate, new Census data was released today. The number of manufacturing workers has fallen 24% in five years. That is a massive change, or at least the tail-end of an even more massive change in the shape of the Australian economy, which also means a massive change in the types of jobs Australians do, the incomes families earn, and the gender make-up of the workforce. In Adelaide, last Friday, it meant an end to making cars in Australia, forever, and an end to a certain way of life.

Sometimes there are nuggets, too, in the full glare of the national spotlight, that are not major stories, but that nevertheless tell us a lot. Malcolm Turnbull was today asked about conversations with premiers on his new national energy guarantee, given those premiers haven’t seemed very well disposed towards said guarantee. “I’ve had conversations with several of them”, he said, and then: “… they’ve been very receptive. But there’s often, as you know, a mismatch between the private conversations and the public rhetoric.”

Stop and consider for a moment: the prime minister is openly saying that the premiers say one thing publicly and quite another, on the quiet, to the prime minister. Perhaps one might even read into this that he, too, is capable of just such contortions. Perhaps this is obvious to those cynics among us. Perhaps, to those less cynical, it is justifiable in various ways. Regardless, it’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s interesting because we don’t often get these public insights into the private interactions of our politicians, and it’s interesting because it seems some private interactions can be showcased, while others remain off-limits, and because that choice is interesting in itself.

Anyway, there is no grand narrative here, no neat conclusion, other than that politics is the result of people, with all their mess and confusions and contradictions, governing over other people, with all their mess and confusions and contradictions. It’s true that both groups would do well to remember that; but it is also true that one of those groups has an immense amount of power, and the other does not. It is politicians who make the headlines, but the really important stories are often just off to the side, catching the edge of the spotlight but no more. 


In other news


Lucky Luke

The Darwin poet whose muse is a dialysis machine

Oscar Schwartz

A man sitting in one of the chairs, wearing a Tiwi Islands football cap and matching polo shirt, looks me up and down. ‘You Oscar the Grouch?’ he asks, peering over the top of his glasses. ‘You Lucky Luke?’ I respond. ‘I sure am,’ he answers, and then launches into a series of questions. Where you from? What do you do for a crust? What’s the best team in the AFL?” read on


Euthanasia, like same-sex marriage, is a decision for the parliament

There is a stark difference in how the Victorian premier and the PM approached their respective hot-button issues

Malcolm MacCallum

“It might be said that Daniel Andrews, the Victorian premier, had an easier job than does Turnbull; he has a solid majority of supporters for his assisted dying bill in his party room. But there was a significant bloc of dissenters; indeed, the opposition was led by Andrews’ own deputy, James Merlino.

It would have been easy to duck the whole business, to stick it on the backburner for as long as possible in the hope that it would go away. You could, just for example, try a plebiscite, or a voluntary survey – anything to avoid making a decision.

But instead, Andrews faced his troops with frankness, conviction and authority – not qualities associated with Turnbull in recent months. Andrews may fail, but if he dies, he will die on his feet.” READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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