Grattan on Friday: Albanese is race-ready if byelection voters fire starting gun


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Voters in Braddon and Longman probably aren’t even aware they could be pivotal to the future of Bill Shorten’s leadership and Anthony Albanese’s ambition.

Only the crazy brave would firmly predict how these knife edge ALP seats, in Tasmania and Queensland respectively, will fall out. And only those closely following politics would fully appreciate how carefully Anthony Albanese, Shorten’s bete noire, has been positioning in the event Labor tanks in them on Saturday.

Albanese’s long-odds chance to lead Labor now rests with circumstances beyond his control – in the first instance, with the decisions of voters more concerned with local health services than a tug of war within the opposition.

Weeks ago, the aspirant strutted his stuff in his Whitlam oration, arguing Labor needed a better relationship with business and should give more attention to non-unionised workers.

Interestingly Albanese, though from the left, was coming at Shorten from the right. The speech was cleverly drafted; the aim was to send a message but to deliver it subtly enough to minimise accusations he was undermining Shorten.

Albanese has been on the byelection trail and in the media, reminding people of his presence, but equally careful with his words. He’s visited twice each of the four seats Labor holds (the other two are safe contests in Western Australia) in Saturday’s five byelections.

Behind the scenes, there have been quiet preparations and assessments of potential support by the Albanese forces, in the event opportunity comes. Albanese backers – who include members of a divided NSW right faction – are confident the “anti-coup” protections Kevin Rudd put in place can be swept aside if the numbers are there for change.

But only a limited amount could be done. Albanese has had to avoid overstepping a line marked “disloyalty”. On Thursday he flatly ruled out challenging Shorten (a pledge to be regarded with scepticism – for example, would a delegation be regarded as a “challenge”?).

Caucus members don’t want a return to those horror days, in government, when Julia Gillard knifed Rudd and he speared her. Albanese supporters, however, look to an earlier precedent: Rudd’s overthrow of Kim Beazley when Labor was in opposition.

That was the ALP taking out “insurance” for a win. On the polls, Labor is headed for victory at next year’s election. But the numbers have tightened, Malcolm Turnbull’s performance has improved, and Shorten’s deep unpopularity has become an increasing concern for the party. Some in caucus would see a move to Albanese as today’s “insurance”. But the questions are: is this judgement correct, and how costly would the premium be?

Hardline advocates of a change would say that even if Shorten retains Braddon and Longman, the size of his margin will be important. On this argument, byelections normally see a solid anti-government swing, so wins by a sliver wouldn’t cut it.

This, in my view, is raising the bar ridiculously high, especially since Labor grabbed Longman in 2016 on One Nation preferences, which it isn’t getting this time. Two wins, whatever the margin, and those flirting with the thought of a leadership switch should recognise reality and get behind Shorten.




Read more:
Politics Podcast: Dennis Atkins on the Longman byelection


There’s little doubt a double loss would take Shorten into a period of upheaval that could end in his downfall. The alternative would be an impasse that saw Shorten survive with gaping wounds – a gift to Turnbull.

One byelection loss, and there would much instability.

In either event, Labor “talking heads” would be everywhere, division on display, and the party atmosphere tense ahead of parliament resuming mid-August.

In any consideration of a leadership change, Labor would have to weigh the “transactional” costs. Moving from Beazley to Rudd was helped by Beazley behaving well after he was ousted, and by Rudd (in those days) being a popular breath of fresh air.

A deposed Shorten, to say nothing of some of his union allies, could behave badly. And while the personable Albanese, with his laid-back style, looks good by comparison with Shorten at the moment, he could become vulnerable as the Liberals dug into his political past, with some tough left positions. The thing about putsches is that a party can never be sure beforehand whether it will ultimately be better or worse off.

Having such a long byelection campaign (more than two months) was initially seen as a strike against Labor, which also had to postpone its national conference. If the ALP holds Braddon and Longman, however, the time will have worked in its favour.

As of Thursday Shorten had made (from early May) seven visits over nine days to Longman and eight visits over 11 days to Braddon.

If Shorten comes out of Super Saturday unscathed, or even enhanced, he should temper his elation and relief with self-appraisal, because complacency would be a risk.

After all, it was complacency – about Labor having proper citizenship checks in place – that led to the byelections in these two seats in the first place (as well as in its seat of Fremantle).

Meanwhile, post Saturday Shorten will have a big problem in another marginal seat that will need resolution. The scandal surrounding Emma Husar, Labor member for Lindsay (NSW), who is accused of misusing and bullying staff, is being investigated by the party. Claims of bad behaviour keep flowing into the media.




Read more:
Labor MP Emma Husar takes personal leave as party investigates conduct towards staff


Lindsay is ultra-vulnerable. The party needs to wrap up its inquiry ASAP; if its findings are against Husar her preselection should be withdrawn. But the last thing the ALP would want is another byelection, so she’d have to stay until the election – a messy scenario with a replacement candidate campaigning. If the party verdict is in Husar’s favour and it sticks with her, she’d still go into the election with immense baggage.

While all the attention is on Shorten, what are the consequences for Turnbull if he does badly on Super Saturday – failing in Braddon and Longman as well as in Mayo (South Australia) where crossbencher Rebekha Sharkie (also a citizenship casualty) is expected to hold off the challenge from the Liberals’ Georgina Downer?

The ConversationIt would be a setback for him, reinforcing the polls’ message that Labor remains favourite for the 2019 election. The government’s noisy conservative wing would become more assertive. But the outcome would be unlikely to trouble his grip on the leadership. The Liberals do not have an alternative who is hungry for Turnbull’s job right now, in the way Albanese is for Shorten’s.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Grattan on Friday: Disillusioned voters find it easy to embrace a crossbencher like Rebekha Sharkie


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

More than two decades ago Alexander Downer stood aside as opposition leader for John Howard, paving the way for the 1996 Coalition election win. This week Howard was in Mayo, his former foreign minister’s one-time South Australian seat, campaigning for Downer’s daughter Georgina.

When the Super Saturday byelections were called, the Liberals thought they had a good chance to pick up Mayo, lost in 2016 to Rebekha Sharkie, from the Nick Xenophon Team (now Centre Alliance).




Read more:
Leaders seek underdog status in byelection battle to be top dog


Sharkie resigned in the citizenship crisis. The Liberals initially believed Downer was an ideal candidate, despite her living in Melbourne. But soon polling suggested another story – Sharkie was leading Downer 62-38% in polls last month.

Some Liberals talk about a two-stage assault on the seat, arguing that if Downer doesn’t win this time, she’ll be well set up for next year’s election.

Well, not if you look at the history. If Sharkie can hold off the Liberals on July 28, she should be in a strong position for the general election.

It’s very hard for a crossbencher to get into the House of Representatives. But when they do, these small players can be difficult to blast out.

Andrew Wilkie won the Tasmanian seat of Denison from Labor in 2010, and retained it in 2013 and 2016. Cathy McGowan wrested Indi (Victoria) from Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella in 2013, to be easily re-elected in 2016.

The late Peter Andren held Calare (NSW) from 1996 until he stepped down before the 2007 election. He had taken the seat from Labor; subsequently it has been in Nationals’ hands.

Tony Windsor grabbed New England from the Nationals in 2001 and won three subsequent elections, retiring before the 2013 election. He almost certainly would have lost if he had contested then, but that was because of special circumstances – although from a conservative electorate, he’d sided with the Gillard government in the hung parliament. Windsor failed in a bid to oust Barnaby Joyce from the seat in 2016.

It was a similar story with Rob Oakeshott, who won the Nationals seat of Lyne (NSW) at a 2008 byelection, retained it in 2010, then backed the Labor government. He didn’t contest in 2013 (he too appeared headed for defeat), but he drastically reduced the Nationals’ margin in Cowper in 2016.

Bob Katter was elected as a National in 1993 but quit the party in 2001, comfortably winning several elections as an independent. In 2011 he launched the Katter’s Australian Party; his victory was tight in 2013 but easier in 2016.

The Greens Adam Bandt has a stranglehold on the seat of Melbourne.

Crossbenchers who are successful in House of Representative seats seem to forge a special bond with their communities. In this time of massive disillusionment with politics and distrust of politicians, they are often seen by their constituents as a different sort of beast, as “our” person, less tainted than those from the big parties.




Read more:
VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on the Mayo byelection and crossbenchers in the parliament


This came through in University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) research before the 2016 election in Indi, where voters were full of praise for McGowan, although with the caveat that her independent status meant she lacked power.

It’s only when a parliament is “hung” or nearly so, that lower house crossbenchers gain serious clout.

IGPA has conducted four focus groups in Mayo this week. The 39 participants, covering all age groups, were “soft” voters, currently unaligned or rethinking their position from the last election.

Sharp messages emerge in the report by IGPA director Mark Evans and Max Halupka.

Sharkie is seen as having performed well, as visible and approachable, engaging and caring. She’s viewed as part of Mayo (“she bleeds Mayo”; “she works, acts and lives in Mayo and has Mayo in her heart”). The dual citizenship issue isn’t held against her.

Downer, despite her family background, is regarded as an outsider; “entitled”, “privileged”, “snobby”, “stuck up” are adjectives used about her. Not one participant argued in support of her. In contrast, her father was seen as “Mayo through and through”.

Evans and Halupka conclude: “Sharkie and Downer are perceived to represent two very different Mayos. Downer represents old ‘blue ribbon’ Mayo (as did the disgraced [former Liberal member] Jamie Briggs), home to the Adelaide elite and Sharkie represents new Mayo which is reflected with changing community demographics which include households from a much broader range of income groups including young families who are looking for active community minded representation.”

These Mayo voters disdain the behaviour of federal politicians and “adversarial politics”; they are appalled by the Leyonhjelm affair; they want cross-party co-operation on key matters, especially energy, growth and the environment, which are issues they’re concerned about.

They trust Sharkie; they don’t trust ministers or Bill Shorten. They want conviction politicians and politics. “Turnbull is viewed to be performing better but is still perceived to be lacking conviction; Shorten is purely viewed as a ‘negative politician’ or ‘spoiler’,” Evans and Halupka say.

While there is no statistical significance in these focus group numbers, the trend is notable. “All of the Labor voters last time are moving to either [Sharkie] or the Greens candidate [Major Sumner]. And half the Liberal voters are moving to her.

“On the basis of this tiny sample Labor is collapsing and Shorten is performing very badly across all cohorts particularly amongst former Labor voters.

“Sharkie’s supporters believe that her independence from party is an absolute virtue.” (“I like her because she’s not associated with the big parties and she’s local and cares,” said one participant.)

It should be added that Labor, with no chance in this seat, is mainly interested in boosting Sharkie’s vote via preferences. It is giving Mayo perfunctory attention – its overwhelming focus is on defending its very marginal seats of Longman (Queensland) and Braddon (Tasmania).

In campaigning, Sharkie is getting support from other crossbenchers, with McGowan, Wilkie, and even Katter pitching in. She’s raised $65,000 in micro donations, and recruited more than 800 volunteers.

Given that communities bond with their crossbencher MPs, it becomes a challenge for the major parties to decide the best way to campaign against them.

In particular, will the heavily negative campaign the Liberals are now running against Sharkie eat into her support in these late days, or will people just see this as picking on someone they like?

The ConversationThe conventional wisdom is that negative campaigning works. But trying to knock out an opponent who’s seen as something of a local champion can be a tough ask, as the Liberals are finding.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

If politicians want more trust from voters, they need to start behaving with civility and respect


File 20180627 112628 hnavdn.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
If the politicians took a higher road, at least there would be pressure on the media to follow.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

This is an edited extract of The Knowledge Solution, out July 2 from mup.com.au.


It is a paradox of our modern democracy that we have the conditions and tools to enable our political system to work better than ever before, yet all that seems to be discussed today is its dysfunction.

In this country, people are, for the most part, relatively well educated and prosperous. In theory, that should encourage an interested and alert citizenry. The communications revolution empowers the electorate — or should. So much more information is available and instantly attainable than only a generation or two ago, including tools for monitoring events and debates and thus improving interaction and accountability. Today’s plethora of opinion polls ought to be positive for the process, providing constant feedback to decision-makers about what people think and want, and channels for voters to express their opinions.

Yet much of what should facilitate a smooth-running, engaged political system has helped corrode it. In politics, as in other aspects of life, abundance can be good but excess is often harmful. You can end up with too much of everything, and I think that’s what we’ve got in politics today.

We’re lumbered with what has been dubbed the continuous campaign, and that means, as Hugh Heclo, who was an academic expert on US democratic institutions, wrote in Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s The Permanent Campaign and its Future: “[e]very day is election day”.

The leaders never hang up their high-vis vests. This is debilitating for decision-making because, as Heclo notes, there is a difference between “campaigning” and “governing” — and it is exhausting for the public.

Leaders always have to strike a balance between the time they spend with their feet under the desk and the days their boots are on the road, but things seem out of kilter. The permanent campaign encourages short-termism and puts the focus on the immediate media grab and headlines. It fans the politics of negativity, accentuates the adversarial and makes for hyper-partisanship. And it stretches the patience and concentration of voters.

The modern 24-hour news cycle both enables and fosters the permanent campaign, providing platform and spur. Political leaders have given up previous aspirational talk about “not feeding the media beast”. Tony Abbott tried that (for a nano-second) and it did not work too well. Now they argue that if they leave a gap, their opponents will fill the vacuum. Seeing so much of their politicians close up (and often too personal for comfort) has alienated voters, rather than made them to want to involve themselves in the political process.

The ability always to command attention, when there is so much airtime available, also helps small players turn themselves into minor political celebrities. It’s a sign of the times that as voters have increasingly looked to minor parties, these often come with a personal branding. They have been based around individuals, whose names they have taken — Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team (subsequently the Centre Alliance), the (now collapsed) Palmer United Party, the Jacqui Lambie Network. “Name” parties fit this age of celebrity. If they had been born in today’s world, the Australian Democrats might have been “The Don Chipp Party”, after their early leading light (and conveniently shortened to “Don’s Party”).

Far from providing a sophisticated channel of community feedback, constant polling has come to be a whip hand over leaders, especially if they are going through a difficult period. This can restrict their room to breathe — that is, to lead — and it is made for the media’s “horse race” coverage of politics.

It means policy is often framed with an eye to how it will go down in the short term, a point that bureaucrats are forced to take account of in their advice to government. At the same time, polling is used as a tool of advocacy, with special interests commissioning polls that seldom fail to get the results they want and will almost always find a market in the media. With the rise of cheap robo-polls, there is a lot more “junk” polling around.

The professionalisation of politics has been building for decades. It has penetrated everything: ministerial offices, messaging, campaigns, the recruitment of candidates, the operation of interest groups and the explosion of a commercial lobbying industry. The more politics is professionalised, the more “insider” it becomes, in the preoccupation with daily “tactics” and in its gene pool of players.

An increased proportion of parliamentarians comes from the political class, having served as staffers to MPs before preselection. The grip of factions within the parties and the shrinking size of the major parties foster the closed shop, giving a leg-up to the insiders when it comes to preselections.

The well-documented decline in the public’s trust in the political system not only makes governing more difficult, but also puts off potential political recruits. When we turn from excess to deficit, what’s lacking — and has been falling for some time — is this elusive but vital quality of trust, the bedrock of a democracy that’s in top health. A recent paper published by the Grattan Institute, A Crisis of Trust, examines the surge in the minor party vote. It concludes:

Culture and economics are insufficient to explain the rise in the minor party vote. The best evidence is that the rising minor party vote is largely driven by declining trust in government: the growing belief that government is increasingly conducted for the interests of the rulers rather than the ruled.

The matter of “respect” is core. From there we can segue to trust. So if we think about what can be done to improve the situation — recognising that it’s only a limited amount and might be beyond the players anyway — let’s begin with the challenge of politicians winning respect, and go to a very basic level.

Politicians behave badly and — thanks especially to the all-pervasive media and that decision all those years ago to allow the televising of parliament — ordinary people see and hear this, and they hate it. In a March 2018 speech, Australia’s former chief scientist Ian Chubb put his finger on it:

I can see on television the people we employ to work in our interests behave in a way we would not tolerate in our own small children. Sadly at a time when trust is so low, contempt so high, it appears they don’t even try to get better. They seem not to understand that trust is what we give them when they earn it, not what they get because they are where they happen to be.

It was notable that when the March 2018 scandal broke around Australian cricketers cheating in South Africa, commentators and members of the public immediately drew parallels with politics, where there is plenty of “cheating” with the truth. Then there is the cricketers’ “sledging” culture and the politicians’ similar practice.
Malcolm Turnbull told a news conference:

I think there has to be the strongest action taken against this practice of sledging. It has got right out of control, it should have no place … on a cricket field.

But when a journalist interjected, “Doesn’t it happen in parliament?” Turnbull let that pass without responding.

It’s a source of perennial wonderment to me that MPs are aware they are disgusting and infuriating the public by often conducting themselves, especially in parliament, like out-of-control adolescents, but they fail to curb this conduct.

Maybe it is the adrenaline of the chamber. Perhaps it is the pursuit of the parliamentary point. And admittedly, we are all living in a world where “anything goes” a lot more than was once the case. Whatever drives MPs, behaving in a manner that would be unacceptable in almost any other workplace is costly to them and to the political process — and could be easily changed by a bit of collective restraint. Sure, parliament will always have its moments, but chaos and insult-throwing should not be the norm.

This awareness should be extended to entitlements. The rules for these have been tightened in recent years after various scandals, and there is now an oversight body. But there is still an inability to understand the sniff test. The companion who accompanies Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to functions around Australia has been sponsored by the taxpayer to the tune of $35,000 over three years, which is within the parliamentary rules. Yet his assets do not appear on the MPs’ register of interests, as would those of a spouse or partner, because she has not defined him as her “partner”.

Parliamentarians should be paid well and have reasonable entitlements. But they should not try to have things every which way, and the public would respect them more if sometimes they, or those attached to them, put their hands in their own pockets.

Politicians’ reputations would also be enhanced if there were a better balance between partisanship and bipartisanship. It’s hard, made more so by the continuous campaign. But MPs will point out that behind the scenes — in committees, parliamentary special interest friendship groups and the like — there’s quite a bit of constructive working together.

It’s usually a different picture in the public arena. Voters would like to see some acknowledgement from time to time that the other side has had a good idea, and more co-operation on worthy projects. This would not at all diminish robust partisanship on core differences, and would improve the chances of achieving desirable reforms.

Politicians could alter the tone, as I have argued above. And they could better organise their workloads, and those of their offices. I appreciate how ministers have to keep up with the fast news cycle, but do staffers routinely have to be up at 4.30am? Do ministers have to make as many media appearances as they do, especially when often they are repeating the same “lines” that have been issued to them, or answering questions on someone else’s portfolio about which they have no personal knowledge? Is it necessary in non-election times to run around the country quite so much?

Excepting the positions of prime minister and treasurer, the job of most ministers is not bigger than that of a CEO of one of the top Australian companies. I suspect they could pare back their workload and their travel by say, one-fifth, and nobody would be saying they were not working diligently. They might even be more efficient.

When we consider how political parties should change to improve our democratic system, the answers run into vested interests, as well as the nature of modern society. Few people want to join the major parties. It’s not just that they are discouraged by factionalism and the powerlessness of the membership. More fundamentally, they have many other calls on their time, and (except for the truest of believers) organisations such as political parties have gone right out of fashion. When they want to be politically engaged, people nowadays tend to be more interested in specific issues, and limited activism or gestures (such as donating to GetUp), than in committing to what is often the drudgery of party membership.

Nonetheless, the withering of the major parties has dangers. Two examples make the point. It contributes to narrowing the sources from which parliamentary candidates are drawn. And with the ALP rank-and-file now having a 50 per cent say in the choice of party leader, a reduced base which is down to the hard core of that party could tilt the vote towards a candidate who has limited appeal to the broad electorate.

These parties will never be what they once were. But their leaders should try harder than they have for some improvement. Neither Bill Shorten nor Malcolm Turnbull has distinguished himself in this regard. An obvious step is to reduce the factional grip on pre-selections. But this must be genuine: it’s no good having “democratic” pre-selections effectively undermined by branch stacking.

There are other obvious, related, areas for change to improve faith in the system, such as more accountable, transparent and timely disclosure for political funding. Some attention is being given to these and they shouldn’t be particularly difficult.

Much talked about is the decline in the share of votes that major parties get, and the rise of the minors, whether they are born out of an issue (the Greens), or they are fundamentally a vehicle for protest and often based on a “name”. At one level, this can be seen as part of the fragmentation of modern life, that is also reflected in areas as diverse as the media and the industrial relations system. The fall in the vote for the major parties also reflects the “detribalisation” of politics and social mobility. People don’t “inherit” their vote from their parents as so many once did.

While the big parties (including here the Nationals as part of the Coalition) are diminished, we should remember that they are not dead. Federal electors still strongly support them. In the three most recent state elections — Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia — the outcomes were majority governments. For some voters, their decision is a choice between a desire for stability (represented by a vote for a major party) versus the urge to express their disenchantment (through an “insurgent” party).

There is no miracle cure for the lack of political trust that is now such a problem. That reflects not just political behaviour, but the more general cynicism of the times and an absence of faith in government. We seem as a community to be in a more bleak frame of mind than in some other periods. Contrast the mood now with that of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when voters were turning to Labor, optimistic that an ALP government would effect important change. If the polls are to be believed, Labor is well-placed to win the next federal election, but people aren’t thinking of a new government in anything like transformational terms.

Leadership can be an antidote to cynicism, though in contemporary politics perhaps only a partial one. Take the example of Bob Hawke as prime minister. People liked him and related to him, and he to them. And remember the commitment to reconciliation in his “reconciliation, recovery and reconstruction” mantra for the 1983 election.

Voters want both an agreed framework within which the political arguments are conducted, and where possible consensus around some of the paths forward.

The reader might well ask why I am putting the weight for spearheading reform on politicians, rather than, for instance, advocating as the priority that the media get its house in better order. I accept some will see this as a cop out, coming from a journalist. The reason is that I think in practical terms it is a fairly hopeless cause to look to the media as the lead agent of change that will promote trust and put our democracy into healthier shape. The collapse of the old business model in the media industry, fragmentation of the market, the nature of news in the modern world, the celebrity culture — all work against that. But if the politicians took a higher road, at least there would be pressure on the media to follow.

The ConversationOur democratic system is resilient but under strain. As we view it, the critical thing is not to let cynicism get the better of us.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: A benign budget – but will the voters trust it?


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

When Scott Morrison did his pre-budget interview with the Nine Network – as treasurers have done for eons on the Sunday before the Tuesday – Chris Uhlmann asked: “Don’t you think one of the big problems this government has had from the outset is not a budget deficit, it’s a trust deficit?”

Morrison replied that since the 2016 election, every promise made had been kept.

When fighting the other side, governments invoke for weaponry things their opponents did in the past. When defending their own records, they ask people to forget the nasties they proposed or lines they ran at the time that have become inconvenient.

A public steeped in cynicism thinks about the present, but it has that past, even if it were under another prime minister and treasurer, still lurking in the back of its collective mind. It knows that, if the government is returned, a post-election budget can be very different from a pre-election one. So that’s where the vital element of trust comes in – will voters feel good about a benign budget, or just shrug it off with scepticism?

With the poll due in a year, people will view Tuesday’s budget as coming from a government desperate for approval, presenting a smiling face. Morrison is like the neighbour suddenly on your doorstep with a basket of home-grown vegetables, but you know it’s a preliminary to his asking for the use of your ride-on mower.

For now, everything is good. Fiscal circumstances and political needs have aligned for the Coalition. There is a bonanza of revenue, which will allow the government to provide tax cuts. There’ll be some spending initiatives, particularly in aged care.

As it targets specific sections of the community, Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer is flagging that later on she will deliver a women’s economic security statement, dealing with issues including female participation and retirement savings.

The income tax cuts are set to give priority to middle and lower income earners, at least in terms of timing, and will be spread out over a period, to make them more affordable. Morrison says they will be “real” but not “mammoth”, which could mean anything.

Important to how it is received will be the budget’s fiscal dimensions. There is speculation it may bring forward the return to surplus – set in last year’s budget for 2020-21 – which would be logical given the revenue improvement. Polling shows that many voters are anxious to see budget repair addressed, or say they are. More significantly, so are the ratings agencies – and they are fair dinkum.

Some critics argue that tax cuts should have been eschewed in favour of using the revenue surge, which can’t be guaranteed into the future, to fix the budget. Whatever the economic pros and cons, politically that was never an option.

Labor is singing the budget repair song. It too will have tax cuts for the election; as well, it will offer more spending in education and health than the government.

The ALP has available even more money over the longer term, because it says it would not go ahead with the tax cuts for bigger companies, or would repeal them if the government manages to legislate them (an increasingly difficult task after the revelations from the royal commission).

Labor is also getting funds from cracking down in various areas such as negative gearing, trusts and cash refunds from dividend imputation. It depicts these measures as promoting fairness, while the government calls them simply a tax grab.

In the budget’s lead up, we’ve seen the usual round of government “drops” and announcements (especially on infrastructure), the odd genuine leak, and plenty of picture opportunities. The most ludicrous moment surely came when Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann on Friday went to a small brewery to announce an excise change that helped craft brewers. One would think that days before the budget they’d be better served using the time to bone up on their numbers – but in this “image” age priorities are different. Anyway, being seen wrestling with a beer barrel is obviously preferable to being caught off guard smoking cigars, as Joe Hockey and Cormann were in what was for them a unfortunate snap before the 2014 budget.

If the budget bombed it would be disastrous for the Turnbull government. But it is hard to see that happening, given the revenue circumstances and the election-focused measures.

It is just possible, however, that it might be overshadowed. The High Court on Wednesday will bring down its decision on Katy Gallagher, the ACT Labor senator caught up in the citizenship crisis. If the finding on her were adverse, up to four byelections for House of Representatives members could follow, three in Labor seats and one in the seat of a crossbencher. That’s aside from the byelection that will be triggered by the planned resignation of Labor’s Tim Hammond, announced last week.

The ConversationThe government is concerned that a decision against Gallagher could blow away the budget. It would largely blow away Bill Shorten’s Thursday night reply. But that would be only the start of the fallout such a decision would bring for both sides of politics.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Voters see through Turnbull, but cool on Shorten: Queensland research


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull’s cancellation of next week’s House of Representatives sitting has been received sceptically by Queensland “soft” voters, but they still prefer the Prime Minister over Bill Shorten, according to focus group research ahead of Saturday’s state election.

Participants were dismissive of Turnbull’s claim he was rearranging the sitting times to concentrate on the same-sex marriage bill. Nor do they believe the marriage issue will boost his fortunes.

But when pressed, these voters don’t agree Turnbull is a dead duck for the next federal election. They think Australia is headed in the right direction, and there is still some hope for him.

The four groups of 10 people each were conducted on Monday and Tuesday, two in Brisbane and two in Townsville. There was a mix of gender, age and socio-economic characteristics. They were run by Landscape Research for the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.

In Brisbane participants were drawn mainly from the marginal seats of Ferny Grove (ALP, 0.82%) and Everton (LNP, 1.77%) in the LNP-held federal electorate of Dickson. In Townsville they came predominantly from Mundingburra (ALP, 2.76%) and Townsville (ALP, 5.69%) in the Labor-held federal seat of Herbert. These voters, most of whom took part in the research’s earlier round, were “undecideds” when the campaign started.

In the discussions, Turnbull’s cancelling of the House’s sitting was variously described as weird, ridiculous, a “bit naughty”; a Townsville electrician thought it was done for “non-altruistic reasons, probably more political. … to push everything else out of the way.”

A retired Townsville manager declared it “opportunistic”, bound up with the citizenship crisis and fear of losing a vote on the floor of parliament. “I read this morning there’s 53 Bills that they could be dealing with that they’re not now,” said a Townsville retailer.

As for any government hope of a boost from same-sex marriage, a Brisbane retiree opined that voters would “forget about it” come federal election time.

The latest Newspoll had Shorten breathing down Turnbull’s neck on the “better PM” measure. But for people in these groups Shorten still carries baggage, especially of the union kind. Voters struggle to produce positives about Turnbull, but they agree he is better than the alternatives, in his own party and in Labor.

While some see Turnbull as weak and having to toe the party line, Shorten remains an unknown quantity for them, and choosing a weak Turnbull is still preferable for many.

Contributions from the Brisbane group of working-age voters capture their views. “I don’t think Bill Shorten is a done deal to get in”. “Bill Shorten’s got some bad things behind him, I think, when the union movement did some underhand deals”. “If he had some decent competition, Malcolm Turnbull, then I think it would be all over for him”.

Working Townsville soft voters also, when pressed, prefer Turnbull over Shorten. As one put it, it’s “the devil you know versus the devil you don’t know – what he will do”.

This research is qualitative, so numbers have no statistical significance. Bearing this in mind, as the state campaign went into its final week the result of a “mock” ballot for Saturday’s vote across the four groups was ALP 23 and LNP 17. That result is counting which of the two major parties people put first, even if that party was not given their number 1.

Many of these soft voters are eschewing the traditional flow of preferences along broadly ideological lines. If this happened widely on Saturday, it could have unforeseen consequences in key marginals.

For example among voters from Mundingburra, held by Disability Services minister Coralee O’Rourke, a number gave Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) their first vote, preferencing Labor or Greens above the Liberal National Party. Similarly, one voter in the seat of Townsville gave the Greens her number one vote followed by KAP as number 2.

In this north Queensland city, KAP doesn’t have the same extreme right wing stigma that some attribute to One Nation, and Pauline Hanson isn’t as popular as in regions further south. The appeal of KAP is as a sort of reinvention of the old Country party, giving it some attraction for disgruntled LNP and Labor people alike.

Unable to decide who to put first, many participants started with who they might put last.

“It’s a bit of a toss up between Greens and One Nation,” said a Townsville retiree, adding “they’re divisive and would make parliament unworkable”. Another Townsville participant said he would put the LNP last because “I don’t trust them – I don’t know how they’re funded”.

An Everton personal trainer was “putting Labor last. There are lots of promises on expenditure but no explaining where the money is coming from, or why they’ve not done it already”.

Opposition leader Tim Nicholls continues to carry the burden of the Newman government, in which he was treasurer. “If they were a racehorse, their form is not good,” said a Brisbane retiree. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is criticised in the wake of her Adani flip flop, the perception of achieving little for Queensland, and gaffes by treasurer Curtis Pitt.

While some voters have firmed their views on who to vote for, many remain undecided, either waiting for something to cement their decision or so disengaged that they’ve almost shut down from the barrage of news and canvassing. “I’m getting three to five phone calls a night. I’ve had it”, said a Mundingburra voter.

Despite the widespread disappointment with the major parties, very local policy decisions help some people decide. One was choosing Labor because it would renovate local schools; another, the LNP because of a commitment to fix district traffic problems.

Participants cared little about the backroom preference manoeuvrings that were receiving publicity, seeing them as “political”. Whether they will take more notice when handed how-to-vote cards on election day – the system has moved to compulsory preferential – remains to be seen.

A desire for stability ran through both Brisbane and Townsville groups, which pushed some soft voters into putting Labor first. This also steered some away from One Nation, which for many seemed riddled with internal strife, not making for a responsible crossbench presence.

Instability flows on to the government not being able to govern, and therefore not doing its job. These voters are frustrated with the lack of action and achievement at both state and federal level.

A notable part of the discussions was about a subject that, politically, is more current in Victoria and NSW than in Queensland – euthanasia (which is a state government area). The same-sex marriage ballot opened the way for opinions on direct democracy and other matters that might be considered appropriate for a people’s vote.

Voluntary assisted dying was narrowly defeated in NSW last week, but is set to pass in Victoria, once the lower house considers the amended bill which cleared the upper house in a marathon sitting this week.

Almost to a person (38 out of 40 participants) there was support for euthanasia – it galvanised younger and older voters, regional and metropolitan participants. Some saw it as more complex and important than same-sex marriage. As a Townsville voter put it, “this affects everyone”.

Twenty eight of the 40 supported a public vote to indicate to MPs how people felt. But notwithstanding their support for euthanasia some opposed a plebiscite, seeing it as a waste of money.

While many agree with the idea of tapping into voter opinion on euthanasia, they are universally unhappy with what they see as the outrageous cost of the marriage vote. They believe cheaper methods should be used for future exercises in direct democracy, such as online voting, or plebiscites held with elections.

The ConversationThey want to be heard – but it shouldn’t cost so much.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/k3zus-7afe23?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Undecided Queensland voters disillusioned with Palaszczuk, suspicious of Nicholls


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Queensland “soft” voters are deeply disillusioned with both the Palaszczuk government and the Nicholls opposition, with many predicting a hung parliament from the November 25 state election, according to focus group research.

These voters are dismayed by the quality of Queensland’s political leadership, and struggling to find reasons to vote for the Labor government or the Liberal National Party alternative. Their votes are drifting somewhat toward minor parties and independents. If there’s a hung parliament, the majors will have themselves to blame.

Soft voters’ feelings about the controversial proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine – a high-profile issue in the campaign’s early stages – are complicated, with many believing the mine will be economically beneficial, but doubts about a publicly funded loan for its railway, and deep cynicism about Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s backflip on the issue.

Federally, many of these voters see Malcolm Turnbull’s ability to turn a “yes” result on same-sex marriage – if that’s the outcome of the postal ballot – into legislation quickly as a decisive test of the prime minister’s leadership.

The groups, two in each of Brisbane and Townsville, were conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. The participants hadn’t yet decided how they would vote. Ages ranged from 18 to 75, with a mix of gender and socioeconomic backgrounds. Landscape Research conducted the research for the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.

Brisbane participants were predominantly drawn from the Queensland marginal electorates of Ferny Grove (ALP 0.82%) and Everton (LNP 1.77%), in the marginal federal LNP electorate of Dickson. Townsville participants were predominantly drawn from the marginal electorates of Mundingburra (ALP 2.76%) and Townsville (ALP 5.69%) in the marginal federal Labor electorate of Herbert.

The participants’ criticism of the big parties and their interest in small players reflect trends shown in recent quantitative polling.

“Major parties concentrate too much on negatives and not new policies,” complained a retired Brisbane retail worker; a Townsville worker said: “everyone’s going to independents. They’re sick of lies.”

“No matter what happens here, the independents will have a louder voice,” said a Townsville police officer.

Despite their criticisms of the major parties and the state’s leadership, these voters are more optimistic than pessimistic about Queensland’s future, seeing at least small signs of economic improvement, more jobs, and hospitals and schools being built. “The economy is starting to turn around, we’ve been through the worst of things,” said one.

The main issues of concern shared by soft voters in both places are the cost of living, including power prices, roads and traffic congestion, and crime. In Townsville water security is a particular priority.

On Adani, there are some worries about possible environmental implications, including for the Great Barrier Reef. But many are attracted to the potential economic benefits – wealth and direct and indirect jobs.

Nevertheless, these voters hesitate about funds from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) helping an overseas company make a profit, when the money could be used for other things, such as Townsville’s water.

People were scathing about Palaszczuk’s about-turn, in announcing a re-elected Labor government would veto NAIF funding for the mine’s railway. They see her pandering to “greenies” at the expense of hard-working Queenslanders. Some regard the fallout as “disastrous” for her, who’s also criticised for calling the election immediately after she denied she’d do so.

“She’s a straight bare-faced liar,” was the acerbic assessment of one Townsville participant.

For many, Palaszczuk hasn’t done enough to get their vote again; some pointed to her rocky start in the campaign, and concerns lingered about union influence on Labor.

But despite her perceived drawbacks, many of these soft voters are still leaning toward voting Labor. Their reasons include that Palaszczuk is better than the alternative; they like their local MP; and they want this time to have majority government and believe the ALP has a better chance than the LNP of achieving that. “Better the devil you know,” a Brisbane female executive assistant felt.

For some, Tim Nicholls embodies the ghost of Campbell Newman, the former premier dispatched in the massive swing of 2015. Nicholls and his team carry the baggage of the past. “I don’t trust the LNP because those people are still there,” one participant said.

But others favour the LNP on economic grounds; they “potentially manage the economy better,” in the view of a Townsville small-business-owner.

Given their negativity toward the major parties, some soft voters are looking seriously at minor party and independent alternatives. In Townsville, One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) are appealing. One Nation and KAP have done a preference deal.

In Brisbane, some older voters are also considering One Nation; some younger Brisbane voters are looking at the Greens.

Senator Pauline Hanson, who was overseas when the election was called, had started to hit the Queensland election trail when the focus groups were meeting.

A Brisbane retired public servant was “leaning towards One Nation for a change. I’m sick of the childlike behaviour of the major parties.”

For a Townsville electrician, it’s about sending “a message to the major parties that we’re not happy with them. I’m leaning towards KAP for a change. They’ll be a strong voting block with One Nation.”

The soft voters differ dramatically about One Nation and Hanson. “I appreciate that she doesn’t think she’s King Shit,” said a Townsville property developer, “she seems more humble”. But a Townsville stay-at-home mum believed “someone like that would just set us back decades,” just when “as a society we’re just getting to the point where we’re being more inclusive”.

“I would be quite positive if Katter had the balance of power, but I’d be absolutely devastated if One Nation had the balance of power,” said a Townsville participant.

While many are predicting a hung parliament/minority government, people see pros and cons in that sort of outcome. The downside would be instability and chaos; “It sounds like a continuation of the political shit storm,” said a young Townsville occupational therapist.

On the other hand, having crossbenchers holding the untrustworthy majors to account is a positive. “It might make the major parties wake up a bit to what the realities are,” a retired Brisbane small-business-owner said.

For some, a hung parliament puts too much power in the hands of a few, elected by a minority of voters. The government can be held to ransom by the whims of an unrepresentative “looney” minority. “It takes the power off your vote again because you voted for someone and they could go and form a coalition with someone that you very strongly disagree with,” said a personal trainer from Brisbane.

At this stage of the campaign, younger undecided voters in particular admitted they were still disengaged and lacked enough information to make informed choices.

Mostly, these soft voters don’t see significant implications flowing federally from the Queensland result. But they do caution the LNP that the federal Liberals’ performance won’t help them; they also think the federal Liberals fortunes couldn’t be worsened by whatever happens here.

“I wouldn’t let Malcolm Turnbull anywhere near the place,” said a retired Brisbane solicitor; a Townsville participant described the federal government as “a lame duck”. Some believe the rise of independents in Queensland is a wake-up call for the federal Coalition.

Unprompted, these voters cite as top-of-mind federal issues dual citizenship -–which they see as politics at its worst, “farcical”, “ridiculous” – Manus Island, and same-sex marriage.

On the Manus crisis they are polarised (“we should be ashamed”; “they’re illegal immigrants”), at a loss to suggest a solution, and unsure what the federal government is or should be doing.

Despite the Manus crisis, which was escalating as the groups met, some Dickson voters remain enthusiastic about their local member, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (“I think he’s great”; “he’s doing an excellent job”).

But his popularity among some is being tested by their dislike of the Turnbull.

A retired printer said it was a question of who one was voting for. “If I’m looking at my federal electorate, I’m looking at Dutton, who just happens to be a Liberal guy, but I really don’t like the leader of the party and if there’s a choice to vote another way I’ll be voting against Liberal because of him, Turnbull, and not liking the consequences of dumping Dutton.”

On same-sex marriage, these voters are critical of the cost of the postal ballot (one chose not to vote in protest). But if a “yes” win is announced on Wednesday, they want Turnbull to deliver a parliamentary result – otherwise it will confirm their view that he is weak and beholden to the conservative part of his party.

As a Brisbane female small-business-owner bluntly put it: “This is the litmus test. I feel like this is going to be: how much do you actually listen to us? And if you don’t listen to us, you can go get stuffed.”

The ConversationThese groups will meet again in the last week of the campaign, when we will bring you their views. Meanwhile, watch for The Conversation’s FactChecks on the Queensland election.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/k3zus-7afe23?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Voters just want citizenship crisis fixed – but it isn’t that easy



File 20171109 27106 o0zete.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
There was much cynicism about Malcolm Turnbull resisting a full audit.
James Ross/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The citizenship crisis is politics at its worst, has been unresolved far too long, and is a distraction from much more important issues. That’s the view from the real world, reflected by voters in focus groups this week.

As Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten play politics over a disclosure motion to be put to parliament, these ordinary people are baffled and impatient with the whole affair.

While the four groups of “soft” voters (two each in Brisbane and Townsville) were part of a Queensland election study for the Institute for Governance’s research at the University of Canberra, the dual citizenship imbroglio was raised unprompted and the comments give an insight into ordinary Australians’ thinking about the fiasco engulfing the parliament in general and the Turnbull government in particular.

People are mystified by the fallout from the High Court decision, especially when citizenship of Britain, Canada or New Zealand is involved. As one participant put it: “It’s not like they’re aligned with some enemy”.

For many, the Constitution is out of date, failing to reflect modern Australia, and should be changed. “Australia is a young country so we’re going to have a mixed bag,” said a female flight attendant from Brisbane.

There’s also concern about money. “This business of saying you’re going to have to quit parliament – it’s going to cost a bomb,” a retired Brisbane woman complained.

People do differ, however, about the substance of the issue. Some think the consequences have been too severe, or invite ridicule. “It’s making Australia the laughing stock of the world,” said one.

A few were judgemental, taking the attitude the law is the law and candidates should have checked they met the rules. A retired Brisbane man was blunt: “We wouldn’t even be in this situation if they weren’t negligent”.

In terms of MPs rectifying their status, some voters thought the inadvertent dual citizens should be allowed to correct their situation without having to resign – “just renounce their citizenship and go on with it”, as one put it. If only it were so easy – unfortunately, that path is no answer constitutionally. The test is a person’s eligibility when nominating.

Some people favoured definitive action, such as a comprehensive audit or a fresh election. A Townsville retiree believed “they should have a full, complete audit of all federal politicians, of current and future ones, to make sure you comply with Section 44”.

There was much cynicism about Turnbull resisting a full audit. A young Brisbane voter opined that it was “probably because he’s hiding people”; another said the prime minister had not got a big enough parliamentary margin “to be sure that he’s going to keep the power”. More generally, a Townsville health worker condemned “a lame-duck federal government not achieving anything”.

The bottom line is that voters want the matter fixed quickly. “We don’t want this distraction to stretch for another two months. It’s just dumb,” declared a Brisbane engineer, while a young female occupational therapist from Townsville said: “I’d like them to get it finished and done with so they can look at other issues. … Let’s just finish it”.

Given the paralysing effect of the crisis, with multiple names now being tossed into a cauldron of uncertainty, tactical skirmishing can only become increasingly unacceptable to the public. Yet even if the games were put aside, this nightmare can’t be resolved fast, despite the voters’ frustration.

It demands both short-term and permanent solutions.

Most immediately, bipartisan agreement is required on the disclosure regime, with parliamentary decisions before Christmas on whatever High Court referrals are to be made. The leaders have been fighting and posturing over the detail but agree on pre-Christmas action.

Any MPs in obvious breach should resign at once – the recent cases have set benchmarks with brutal clarity. If that happened with lower house members, court referrals wouldn’t be needed. If senators quit, the court would formalise their disqualifications and order recounts to fill their seats.

But when cases are arguably more murky – MPs who have renounced their foreign citizenship but only received their confirmation after nomination, such as Labor’s Justine Keay and the Nick Xenophon Team’s Rebekha Sharkie – High Court clarification surely would be needed. In light of the potential extent of the debacle, it’s just possible the court might decide their efforts were sufficient.

Assuming there are some dual citizens in the lower house, the timing of byelections will depend on when resignations and/or court decisions come.

There is no way of knowing whether the process will be catastrophic for the government, or something less. It would all depend on the ownership and margins of the seats hit with byelections, and what attitude the voters took in them.

What about the long term?

Despite all the difficulties involved, it’s increasingly looking like the best course would be a referendum to attempt to change the Constitution’s Section 44 (i), which prohibits dual citizens sitting in parliament.

The objective should be to capture the broad intent of the provision, and facilitate candidates meeting that intent.

Turnbull is right when he says that, despite our multicultural makeup, people would not vote for a change that permitted dual citizens to sit.

But if there was bipartisan support, there surely would be a reasonable chance – perhaps no more than that – of passing new wording saying that a candidate must have only Australian citizenship and that a sworn declaration was sufficient to renounce any other citizenship.

The High Court judgement in effect makes federal MPs – and so the federal parliament – hostage to changes in other countries’ laws. This is unacceptable. New constitutional wording would stop that.

I must admit to altering my view on this matter. I’ve previously thought voters are so angry at politicians they wouldn’t want to make things easier for them. But in view of the chaos, it may be that people would be persuaded by the need to instil clarity.

Anyway, it would be worth a go, because while a defeat would be bad, it wouldn’t have the sort of negative consequences of, say, the loss of a referendum on Indigenous recognition.

If this course were taken, the commitment to a referendum could be made soon, but the vote could then be held with the election, to prevent an argument about cost.

There has been speculation that perhaps the situation could be sorted by a change to citizenship legislation. But constitutional expert Anne Twomey, from Sydney University, doubts this – given the court’s indication that determining issues of dual citizenship involves the laws of other countries over which Australia has no control.

Twomey – who doesn’t advocate constitutional change – also points out that if the citizenship part of Section 44 were to be tackled, it would only be prudent to also clarify the parts of the same section that disqualify from parliament anyone who holds an office of profit under the crown or has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the public service of the Commonwealth.

This makes sense, although admittedly it could complicate the task of selling a referendum.

The ConversationBut let’s stand back. If our politicians, and we as voters, can’t update a troublesome section of this more-than–century-old document, what does it say about all of us?

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/k3zus-7afe23?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian Politics: 23 October 2013 – Voters Treated With Contempt


Australian Politics: 24 July 2013


The latest asylum seeker ‘solution’ proposed in Australia continues to gather a lot of attention in Australian politics. The links below are to articles that look at the policy from varying prospectives. The first article is an in-depth look at the situation in Papua New Guinea.

For more visit:
http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/for-those-whove-come-across-the-seas-a-short-trip-to-png/662/
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/immigration/asylum-seeker-boat-sinks-off-indonesia/story-fn9hm1gu-1226684079708

As the Kevin Rudd experiment continues to be a winner for Labor, the Liberals are beginning to face the leadership change question themselves, with a possible shift from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull becoming popular among voters.

For more visit:
http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/city-east/voters-turning-to-turnbull-over-abbott-but-liberals-say-theres-no-chance-of-leadership-challenge/story-fngr8h22-1226683907946

Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election


Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.

 

Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News