Thursday, August 31, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Words, words, words
A quiet day with occasional semantic interruptions


To give you some sense of how quiet politics is today, the only two things I can find to get even remotely excited about are two tiny changes in wording.

I should probably mention that a bit of fuss is being made about comments from Liberal senator Matt Canavan (he of ‘Mamma Mia!’ fame) and Australian Conservatives senator Cory Bernardi, both of whom have linked marriage changes to Safe Schools [$]. But, in doing so, I must also point out that they are only running out arguments made by others before them, including Tony Abbott. The fact that they’re getting attention is another indicator of how dead the day is. It’s news, but only in the context of the fact that there’s really not much news around.

The first wording change, then, comes from Malcolm Turnbull. Constitutional law expert George Williams has been out spruiking the idea that the postal vote challenge is likely to succeed in the High Court. Therefore, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the PM was asked what would happen if the High Court struck down the ballot, and therefore it was interesting, as the Guardian pointed out, that he responded, “Sorry, I won’t get into hypotheticals.”

It’s interesting because earlier this month he gave quite a different answer: “Our policy is very clear. We will not facilitate the introduction of a private member’s bill on this matter unless the Australian people have given their support through a yes vote through this national vote that we are now undertaking.”

Of course, there might be nothing in this at all. It’s completely possible that Turnbull was just giving a standard not-engaging-in-hypotheticals answer. Rather than saying this is interesting, I should probably content myself with the fact that it might, at some point down the track, become interesting. We’ll see.

The second change actually happened a couple of days ago. Bill Shorten, asked about the now-notorious Captain Cook statue with the now-notorious plaque attached, said [$], “This country works best when we work together so an additional plaque on Captain Cook’s statue is fine by me.”

But the next day, after the PM had slammed him for “rewarding vandalism”, Shorten had cooled:

“This prime minister is now engaging in statue wars with Labor, we condemn the vandalism full stop. And let’s go to the broader issue which we are debating here: in our history, with the benefit of hindsight, there are plenty of things that have happened which we wished hadn’t happened. But in my case I’m most focused on the future and that’s why I want to spend my time and energy.”

Admittedly, Shorten’s initial position wasn’t the most stirring affirmation of the importance of Indigenous history. “Fine by me” is not “fight them on the beaches”. But it did offer support for a symbolic change. Perhaps, like Turnbull’s shift, it seems more than it is. But it certainly does seem as though Shorten took fright, and decided it wasn’t a fight worth having.

This type of case is often put to me: there are more important changes than symbols. And of course there are. Forced to choose between improving somebody’s living conditions and granting their symbolic recognition, I’d choose the first every time. It’s just that I don’t think it has to be a choice. Why not do both?

There’s a predictable response to this, too, and it is that there’s only so much political capital to go around. Why anger the socially conservative with symbolic change and endanger the possibility of doing practical good? Why give away what little good will you have?

To that I would say: How’s that strategy going so far? Look at the conditions many Indigenous Australians endure. Look at the indifference shown by much of white Australia.

Symbolic change is not a necessary sacrifice at the altar of practical change. If we can’t bring ourselves to do what’s easy, how will we ever make the effort to do what’s hard?

In other news


True love in Nauru

Two gay refugees face an unwelcoming community and an uncertain future

Abdul Karim Hekmat

“Despite the oppressive conditions in the centre and the terrible uncertainty of the refugee determination process, they had found each other, and that made it all bearable. It gave them hope. A few days after declaring their love, they told centre managers Transfield, the immigration officers, their caseworkers and counsellors that they wanted to live together as a couple.”  READ ON


Risky business

‘American Made’ provides more subversive smarts than you’d expect from a Tom Cruise vehicle

Harry Windsor

“Cruise is Barry Seal, a real-life figure glimpsed briefly in Netflix’s Narcos who was a pilot for the CIA running guns to the Contras, and for the Colombian cartel running drugs back into the United States. Seal and his story have all the outlandish ingredients for the kind of true-crime caper, with extravagant hair and period-specific credits typography, that’s very much in vogue.”  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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