And when Manus fills up … ?

WANTED URGENTLY: uninhabited islands, disused prison hulks, surplus orbiting space stations … anything really.

Must be situated outside Australian territory. Managed by someone else. Human habitability preferred, but not essential. Razor wire supplied.

All expressions of interest to The Lodge, Canberra.

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Are faces too human?

I can’t say I’ve ever taken much notice of the relative content of The Age’s print and online editions. But I’m intrigued by the non-appearance in print of an online article by Daniel Street, dated 9th July. The assigned headline “Listening, caring Rudd has always been here to help” is de rigueur. But the content recounts firsthand the human face of the Prime Minister one rarely if ever sees.

As one who was closely associated with Mr Rudd at university, none of the qualities of humanity and compassion, as well as vision and discipline, come as even remotely surprising. However the comments to the online article underscore the disconnect between Street’s honest observations and the immutable judgement of the commentariat.

So I ask: What is it with the culture of today’s media, that any hint of humanness in the most senior politicians is so clinically filtered from the public gaze? Is it just the good ol’ tall poppy syndrome? Or is it some ideological determination to retain politics and politicians as objects of entertainment? If a nation cannot respect its leaders, the nation loses.

Go on, shock me. Publish this letter.

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Boats and votes

The new Rudd Government’s emerging asylum seeker policy will be a thing of horror to many Australians, but unfortunately not the ‘right’ ones. What we’re now seeing is the long term impact on our culture of the Howard government’s demonising of asylum seekers, using them as electoral fodder, thereby appealing to the basest instincts and prejudices of a sector of the population.

Fast forward a few years, and we have a Labor Prime Minister who on earlier indications may have developed a policy enshrining decency and compassion, now perpetuating a thoroughly entrenched fortress mentality to appease voters in western Sydney.

The well of Australian multiculturalism has plainly been poisoned. And on these indications the erstwhile Australian spirit of generosity to the stranger, mortally wounded in a matter of months by the 2001 ‘Tampa election’ campaign, will likely take a generation or more to resuscitate, if indeed it ever rises again. For living as we now do in an age of unprecedented political disillusionment and disengagement, with serial hung parliaments a likely consequence, expediency will trump principle in the name of electoral survival. In this cold civil war, swing seat xenophobia will win and the world’s most vulnerable will lose.

If this is so, then the only hope for justice will lie in the moral formation of the next generation.

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Dishonourable mentions

Your Editorial of 22nd June called on then Prime Minister Julia Gillard to stand aside from her office “so that vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate can flourish once again,” and to allow the party to “present a compelling, united and inspiring voice”. Prior to his re-election last night (26/6) as leader of the Federal parliamentary Labor party (and subsequent return to the Prime Ministership), Kevin Rudd pledged himself to invest his full energy in party unity, without recriminations or paybacks.

In light of all this can you explain to your readers how a front page headline such as “Rudd’s Revenge” (27/6) contributes to the restoration of intelligent democratic engagement in this country?

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Quality time

Your leading editorial of Saturday 8th June is right to call our political leaders back to matters of substance, but short on collective self-awareness. The standard and style of current day political commentary are at the very least complicit in the petty soap opera that now plays out on Capital Hill.

The personas of Gillard, Abbott, and their alleged internal rivals, that we the voting public see are in no small part constructed by those who beam them to us daily. The politicians themselves know this, as do the throngs of their media teams. Why then should we be surprised if policy takes a back seat to posturing? The science of politics has become the art of rap-dancing on a minefield. The story sells; characters are cheap and expendable.

In the antediluvian days when reporting of fact trumped opinion, the media’s role in the equation was on the whole constructive in the higher cause of informed democracy. Now we’re commonly left guessing where reality ends and speculation begins.

Yes, politicians please get on with debate. And journos, please get on with reporting.

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A Little thought

Cardinal Pell’s account to the present abuse enquiry has quite understandably attracted more anger than sympathy, casting much doubt on his humanity. However on one point, he may deserve some defence.

Pell has been roundly condemned for blame shifting to his revered late predecessor, Sir Frank Little. Some observations are in order. Most importantly, the description of Little’s actions as thoroughly ‘reprehensible’ was first proposed by Michael O’Brien in questioning. Pell repeated the phrase only by way of answering the question put to him. Yet Pell alone has been castigated for besmirching Sir Frank.

Secondly, there can be little doubt that had the Cardinal rejected O’Brien’s assertion, he’d have been widely accused of protecting his mates. A phrase like ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’ comes to mind.

Lastly saintly though he was, Abp Little was a mere human, and hence as capable of flawed judgement as the next man.

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Anyone for cordial?

Dave Greenslade’s vignette (Letters, 25/3) of the wartime cordiality between Menzies and Curtin might well be a piece of space fiction, beside the governmental processes that assault our senses in today’s Australia. Thinking of the past decade generally, and the past week most graphically, it’s hard to believe there ever was or ever could be a time when a Westminster parliamentary process could be vigorous without spite.

The dream of, in Tony Abbott’s own words, ‘a kinder and gentler polity’ died with the hung parliament still in nappies. What has followed has been a season of surely unprecedented and almost unrestrained vituperativeness and character assassination. It has played out between parliamentary opponents and within the government, gleefully fuelled by a more than merely complicit media. And therein lies perhaps the greatest challenge to the function of our democracy. As the media regulation debate has highlighted, we won’t readily trust our politicians to scrutinise the media. Yet conversely we’ve come to doubt the media’s capacity to report truth before peddling opinion or trashing images.

How it might happen is hard to conceive. But the rehabilitation of the democratic process in the eyes of the next generation urgently requires some form of multilateral compact between politicians, media and the public. We must commit mutually to ending the culture of dirt units, celebrity gossip, personal invective and character smears. Preferably before it’s too late.

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Doodling on the hill

Jaye Fletcher (Letters, 14/3) is a bit tough on the pollies with their smart phones. If we expect the poor blighters to sit through day-long meetings on our behalf, the least we can do is let them amuse themselves for sanity’s sake. It’s inconceivable that back-benchers since the year dot have not employed the technology of their time to escape the boredom of discourse. Parliamentary sittings have surely spawned volumes of shopping lists, completed crosswords, love letters and artistic doodlings. Let them tweet. At least they have to be awake to do it.

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Differently wired

Amidst the furious political commentary on the rise and fall of Ted Baillieu as Liberal leader, little has been observed about the role of temperament in the art of public leadership. It would be unfortunate not to consider what lessons might be learned, certainly for Mr Baillieu himself but also for other aspiring leaders and those who advise them.

Observations have been made of diminishing confidence in the Baillieu government on account of its seeming inertia, along with occasional inferences that the man seemed something of a recluse, even though a likeable character. To this writer, reflecting from personal experience and growing self-awareness, Baillieu has consistently evidenced what Jungian psychologists call a preference for introversion. More plainly, he is almost certainly an introvert. As such it seems frankly unsurprising that he has struggled to command public confidence in the party he has lead.

In the right context we introverts can make excellent leaders, and many great names from history could be offered as examples. However our styles of thinking and communicating seem ill-suited to some of the demands of modern parliamentary leadership. The 21st century phenomenon of the 24/7 news cycle with its high speed communications has made the challenge more acute, certainly. But more broadly it’s been a reality at least since radios became commonplace. In other words it’s about speaking when all the world is wants to know.

Introverts are people who function best when able to withdraw from public access for times of reflection. We innately prefer to think about what we’d like to say before saying it. This means we’re less likely than others to pay the price of speaking in haste. But it also means we don’t do so well on our feet. We therefore find almost all kinds of interviews difficult, disappointing ourselves more often than not. The same goes for unscripted debates and even chairing public meetings (unless questions are strictly with notice). Baillieu has frequently done an excellent impersonation of a rabbit caught in the headlights, when facing the media, rarely seeming to speak with any reason, authority or conviction. Other introverts would commiserate with him, but may also ask what he’s doing in such a role in the first place. I for one, though thoroughly articulate, would be a disaster on a panel like ABC’s Q&A.

Further, the need for reflective space means moving at a generally slower pace than some, and needing due time to make decisions. Taking due time however is easier said than done with a growing in-tray. Under-reflected decisions are too often bad ones. All in all, many of Baillieu’s observable failures have been not unforeseeable.

The moral of the story: I shouldn’t lead a parliamentary party, and neither should Ted.

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