Australia: a backwards country, going further backwards

Devolution_zps5c30acaaLast weekend, whilst driving in the Melbourne northern burbs, my wife’s phone rang.

It was friends of ours, recently back from a holiday in Europe and they had big news. They had gotten engaged in Paris.

They had been together for a number of years and we were delighted to hear they had tied the knot.

But then the realisation struck home that they cannot legally marry in this country, because Australia does not allow gay marriage –  they are a lesbian couple.

For a very brief period in December last year, it was legal for gay couples to wed in the ACT. Rather than embrace this bold move forward, the Commonwealth government successfully appealed the territory laws that had been in force for less than a week. No sooner were  gay couples saying “I do” then their marriage certificates were being gleefully stomped upon by conservative bureacrats.

This is the country we live in.

These are 17 countries where gay marriage is legal with Scotland the latest to the join the list of enlightened nations earlier this year.

First to allow gay marriage was Holland way back in 2000, the others are: England (2013), Wales (2013), France (2013), New Zealand (2013), Uruguay (2013), Denmark (2012), Argentina (2010), Portugal (2010), Iceland (2010), Sweden (2009), Norway (2009), South Africa (2006), Spain (2005), Canada (2005) and Belgium (2003).

Yes, even the country of my birth, South Africa, a developing country with many social issues, has recognised that people of the same-sex have the legal right to become husband and wife, but not in Australia. Prime minister Tony Abbott is vehemently opposed to gay marriage despite, his own sister Virginia being in a gay relationship.

Asylum seekers

This is not an isolated backwards step, Australia is moving backwards in many disturbing and insidious ways.

Our foreign minister, Scott Morrison recently drank champagne with his Cambodian colleagues after agreeing to send refugees that arrive by boat to Cambodia in a grubby “cash for people” deal that treats people like livestock.

Cambodia, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world will take Australia’s unwanted refugees who are already living in secret squalor on the impoverished island of Nauru.

What will Cambodia get out of this – $40 million and the promise of more money if they take more people. At the same time, Australia has washed its hands clean of its commitment to provide a safe haven for genuine refugees in what Amnesty International has labelled “a new low in Australia’s deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers”.

This is just the tip of the iceberg: The 2014-15 Federal Budget, the first under Joe Hockey, cut Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program from 20,000 to 13,750 places and reduced its aid spending by $7.6 billion over five years.

Free speech squashed

Rather than enshrine freedom of speech as he had promised in opposition, Tony Abbott has done the opposite.

Journalists and bloggers now face up to 10 years in jail for doing their jobs, providing information about the secret activities of government organisations, even if their stories are in the public’s interest.  This is not all, the new national security laws also make it easier for security agencies to access personal computers and spy on Australians overseas, the very violations of individual privacy, that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed were happening on an industrial scale in the US, UK and Australia.

And while the government eventually backed away from moves by attorney General George Brandis’s love-child – plans to water down protections under the Racial Discrimination Act that would have made Australia a protected haven for Holocaust deniers and racists (legal to offend, insult, humiliate someone based on their race or ethnicity), the fact that they were drafted in the first place, speaks volumes about our retreat from enlightenment.

Other backwards movements

These are but three examples, there are many more:

Savage reductions in funding for impoverished aboriginal communities, scrapping of the two-year carbon tax, which actually worked to reduce carbon emissions  in exchange for support for the coal industry, money pulled from the national broadcaster the ABC forcing the likely cancellation of important investigative journalism programs, a $7 GP co-payment that will hurt the poorest in society. The list goes on.

It’s a depressing state of affairs for those who cherish Australia as a forward-thinking, first-world nation, that values multi-culturalism, basic human decency and a “fair go”.

As for my gay friends who are now engaged,  there’s always New Zealand as a wedding option – a country that’s not just beating us at rugby.

For a far more erudite article on Tony Abbott and his government, read David Marr’s excellent article in The Monthly here.

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Welcome to Australia: please turn your watches back 30 years

ilove80sMy cousin Maureen loves telling the story of how she flew to New Zealand in the 1980s and upon landing in Auckland, the pilot announced over the intercom:

“Welcome to New Zealand, please turn your watches back 30 years.”

It was a great line and always made me laugh.

But now it’s no so funny as I suspect Qantas may be forced to play the same message to new arrivals to our shores given the changes that are afoot since the new Abbott government placed Australia “under new management”.

It’s a man’s world

Our new prime minister surrounded himself with his attractive daughters, his wife and other powerful women in an attempt to appeal to female voters during the election campaign, but now that he’s won office its men in grey suits who are running the country. The feisty Julie Bishop is the only woman in cabinet, the rest are all grumpy old men, intent on returning Australia to the conservative values of the king of grumpy old men, John Howard.

Of course the corridors of female power are not assisted by the like of dowdy old Bronwyn Bishop, the Liberal member for Mackellar and someone with the fashion sense of Margaret Thatcher, who said it wasn’t Mr Abbott’s fault he could choose only one women in his cabinet (and just six out of 42 in his ministry), because he had to choose on merit, meaning no other women were good enough to be placed in senior leadership roles.

Give the environment a good kicking

Another swift act the new government was to kick out former Chief Climate Commissioner, Professor Tim Flannery and disband the Climate Commission, an organisation set up as an “independent and reliable source of information about the science of climate change”. Click on any link on the Climate Commission home page and you get this short message:

The Climate Commission ceased operation in September 2013.

With this single act, the new government broadcast its message loud and clear:

We don’t believe in climate change. We’re not interested in the environment.

What it means is that a lot more of Australia’s natural vegetation and eco-systems will fall by the way side to assist the mining industry. Prime minister Abbott is taking his cues from the ultra-conservative Queensland government, demanding that more farmland be given over to coal seam gas exploration. This at a time when even the rapidly industrialising Chinese economy is looking to reduce its carbon footprint alongside that of the US.

The new age of secrecy

Perhaps, most shocking in an age when government’s are being urged to be more transparent and open, that the new government should seek the pull the wool over its own citizen’s eyes. This was most evident in new “go back to where you came from” immigration minister Scott Morrison’s pledge that “there will be no information about whether [asylum seeker] boats are turned around”

scott morrison

Scott Morrison, a “Pik Botha” of his era

“That goes to operational matters that, whether they affect current or future operational activity, you will not be getting commentary from this podium or that podium either way on those matters,” said Mr Morrison in garbled politco-speak that could have come straight out of the mouth of apartheid-era South African foreign minister Pik Botha.

But let’s not kid ourselves – Mr Morrison is no lovable rogue. Old Pik at least had some dour charisma and was happy to give something back under Nelson Mandela.

Mr Morrison has gone to war with asylum seekers and “lefties” who seek to give them a fair go.

These are but three examples in just a few weeks of government, and no doubt more will come (One more example: The Abbott government is attempting to block the ACT government from legalising gay marriage).

Yes, we have a government that’s united. But in what common cause?

To set us on a course for barren shores?

Are we, in the words of Withnail as a nation: “drifting into the arena of the unwell, making an enemy of our own future”?

Withnail, drifting into the arena of the unwell

Withnail, drifting into the arena of the unwell

“What we need is harmony, fresh air, stuff like that,” Withnail goes on to say.

But I fear the air will become clogged with the foulest of fumes.