I’m finally moved to write to you because of three decisions the Labor Party has made this week that seem to me to be totally at variance with what Labor says it stands for. I recently heard you speak about the need for renewal in the Labor Party, and this doesn’t seem to me to be the way to go about it.
Forgive me if I’ve got any of this wrong; I’ve only got the mainstream media to go on. But from what I can tell, the Labor caucus has this week voted in favour of continued off-shore processing of asylum seekers– continuing the shame of Manus Island and Naru, supported the continuation of the school chaplaincy program, and agreed to the creation of Abbott’s Green Army.
There are many reasons why people like me oppose off-shore processing. I would hope you understand what those reasons are, but just to remind you, it’s because the policy is cruel and inhuman and in breach of Australia’s international obligations. It also happens to be far more expensive than other reasonable alternatives. I hope you’ve read Julian Burnside’s thoughtful article about other possible policy responses. Here’s some of my suggestions. But perhaps even more important, it undermines Labor’s whole argument that it always puts the good of the community ahead of selfish and bigoted interests. Labor can’t show moral leadership on anything while it continues with this degraded and degrading policy.
I understand that the caucus is nervous about the electoral success of ‘stop the boats’. It is also reasonable to be concerned about the deaths at sea that are a result of people smuggling. I don’t expect you to come up with a new policy tomorrow. But I’d like to see you start the process. Admit that the New Guinea solution isn’t a solution at all. Talk to stake holders. Set up a consultation process. Get the best advice – consistent with Labor principles. Forget about the focus groups. For goodness sake, show that you care. You want to lead Australia? Start doing it by having a bit of moral courage on this issue.
Free, compulsory and secular. That’s the battle that’s been fought for public education in Australia in the past, and should still be one Labor is committed to. OK, so it’s not free – there are some costs met by parents – but Labor is rightly engaged in fighting for proper funding for public education through the Gonski reforms. Compulsory? No argument about that. And why not secular? It could be said that state aid to private schools – increased dramatically under the Howard government, and shielded from cuts in Hockey’s first budget – makes a mockery of the principle of separation of church and state. But why make things worse by supporting a program that aims specifically to support the ‘spiritual’ wellbeing of students as well as their social and emotional wellbeing? I know that the High Court’s decision finding the program illegal is about the funding model, not the principle of separation of church and state. But that’s no reason for not welcoming the decision and suggesting it’s time for rethinking the whole program. It’s not as if there was even any electoral damage to be done; it’s hardly a popular program. Again, get some advice. Listen to some experts. Look at where the resource could better be spent. And stand up for principle.
The third area I believe the party is supporting – and where I question their doing so – is the creation of Abbott’s 15,000 strong ‘Green Army’ of unemployed 17-24 year olds. Nine participants and one supervisor will work for 20-26 weeks on projects that will be proposed by the community. Even though touted by Greg Hunt as ‘an environmental and training program’, this is essentially a ‘work for the dole’ scheme, and Labor has supported these in the past; think Whitlam’s RED scheme. But surely these programs have been reviewed? Do they really work either as sustainable conservation projects or in upskilling the participants in ways that help them find real jobs? In this case it is reported by Bernard Keane in Crikey that ‘participants would be paid as little as half the minimum wage for working up to 30 hours a week. OH&S and other workplace protections would not be available because participants would be exempted from the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988, and, most importantly, the Fair Work Act.’ Is this really something you think Labor should be supporting? Participants will actually be employed by ‘Service Providers’ – private sector bodies selected through a request for tender process – no doubt a nice little earner for someone. What controls will there be to ensure that appropriate training – the only justification for the scheme – will actually take place? What about occupational health and safety? Pink batts, anyone? Then there’s the whole question of what sort of projects will be funded. Maybe there will be some good things done for heritage, weed control, public amenity and the like, but let’s not pretend a scattering of local projects can really contribute to a coherent plan for conservation and biodiversity, let alone act as a response to climate change.
But isn’t the Green Army supposed to be planting Tony Abbott’s 20 million trees? I’ve never read anything better on the tree planting scheme than the list of questions Ad Astra proposed in a post on The Political Sword in February 2013. As far as I know, none of them has been answered. Could you perhaps make it your aim to ask Tony Abbott these questions:
- From where will the trees be sourced? What sort of trees?
- How large an area will be needed to plant them?
- As you have stated that semi-arable land would be used, since all the existing arable land is needed for farming food and fibre, where will you find the large amount of land you will need?
- How will you transport the [Green Army] to semi-arable locations, house them, and provision them?
- How long will it take to plant 20 million trees?
- Once planted, how will the trees be watered and nurtured until growth is well established in their semi-arable locations? At what ongoing cost?
Bill, would you really want to be involved in this?
I’m not suggesting that the ALP make policy decisions by vote of its members. But it needs some process of consultation beyond a caucus vote. I understand that day to day decisions need to be taken quickly, and that there are policy documents in place to guide such decisions. But equally I’m tired of having to listen to the party getting it wrong, sometimes disastrously so. Why can’t Labor collect and act on the best possible advice? After all, we have a wonderful example before us of a government that despises expertise, and relies wholly on its favourite vested interests for policy guidance. Show how different you are. Mean something by renewal. It’s not enough to know that we have the worst government Australia has ever seen; we need a principled, vital and informed alternative. And that’s your challenge Bill. You can’t imagine how much I want you to succeed.
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