Tim Blair


New Criterion



Sunday, December 08, 2002

I admit it, I usually find the prospect of listening to the Pre-schoolers of Background Briefing an insufficient incentive to get out of bed of a Sunday morning, even when Auntie's still there. And television in the morning is, to a properly-raised gentleman like Uncle, like drinking whisky before 4.00 pm or claret before noon.

Pushing all this aside, especially Auntie, I rose not long after dawn this morning to watch The Insiders on ABC television, a medium normally best left to those in training for Alzheimers Disease.

I hope you're not standing as you read this, for I confess that I found it lively, informative, engaging and well worth delaying the ingestion of weetbix for.

I was a little late as I am for most appointments (it saves a lot of time for more important things) so you may have to check the details on the ABC Website. And no, I'm not going to do it for you.

The host was the care-worn Barry Cassidy, a journalist whose face suggests he has been pissed on by more egomaniacal, paranoid politicians than one of Uncle's posts.

Done him the world of good.

His job was just to throw the ball to the other journalistic hounds drawn from the raw backstreets of commercial jouralism, in a kind of rotation that Auntie regards as improving the lower breeds. There was Andrew Bolt of the Herald-Sun/Sun Herald/ Herald whatever and that stroke-resistant veteran of the Gastropod's attentions Annabelle Crabb of the Age and someone from Perth who may have been called Matt Ridley. Apparently Piers Akerman is even brought in occasionally in a protective plastic bubble.

Memo to Radio National: good political discussion requires that the audience can not predict the talent's every response to every political event. And it helps if the host doesn't think that he's the real talent. Why not try it? Plenty of time available if you sack those utterly predictable droners Pastor Lane and the Gastropod who have not had a new thought since Gough hit them with his death ray thirty years ago last week.

Which brings me, but not logically, to our encounter with John Robertson of the NSW Trades and Labor Council and ALP heavyweight.

Following the leadership of the tainted lady of the Labor Left, Carmen Lawrence, Robertson is working his tongue to its stump to deliver John Howard victory at the next election.

You know the line: The big change is to abolish this concept of mandatory detention, it is not about opening the gates and allowing everybody in but it is about being compassionate....If we allow our party to be poll driven then we will never see reforms introduced, because reforms are always contentious, they are initially not always electorally popular but over time, if you go out and you campaign around these issues, you can change people's views. I think the great example of that was Whitlam throughout the 60s campaigning to bring our armed forces home from Vietnam, that wasn't popular initially but over time the party campaigned around that and that was one of the successes in '72 for Whitlam.

That's the fool speaking. John Robertson seriously entertains the belief that the Australian people are subject to the same kind of doubts about the merits of controlling the flow of people across our borders as they had about the Vietnam war.

And here's the passion that makes such fools so helpful to their political opponents.

Robertson wants to make mandatory detention the fuel for a campaign to get into the ALP Presidency, now to be elected by the Party membership, someone who is against the Parliamentary leader and the great majority of the Parliamentary Party. He wants the ALP to do to itself what the Australian Democrats did shortly before they imploded.

I think it's just one of the issues that will be a rallying point, or a focus, for the rank and file in the lead up to the first national conference ever that will allow the party to select the national President.

He doesn't think they've got a majority -yet.

If you think that's foolish, cop this. He's prepared to destroy any chance of an ALP government for an issue that may well be of no practical significance, apart from keeping John Howard/Peter Costello in power.

ANDREW BOLT: But that's it you are arguing about something that actually applies to almost nobody, it is purely symbolic.

JOHN ROBERTSON: Well, no, that is not right. We are arguing about a range of issues where there are still significant numbers of people who are being detained.

ANDREW BOLT: No mandatory detention applies under your policy, you came in now, it would apply to what, five people.

JOHN ROBERTSON: No, more than that if you talk about the current policy that exists now. It would apply to anybody who arrives.

ANDREW BOLT: But nobody is arriving.

JOHN ROBERTSON: Well at the moment no-one is arriving...

In the spirit of reconciliation Uncle offers this proposal that should please both John Robertson and John Howard.

Rather than wasting Peter Reith's talents on the ABC Board, which does nothing, give him a real job.

Send him to Indonesia with a crack squad of Australian wharfies, who know how to make things disappear, a small bag of hundred dollar bills and a few balaclavas.

Do a deal with JI, load the boat with suicide asylum-seekers and arrange for them to drop in to Sydney about a month before the next election.

I doubt the ALP will notice, but the electorate sure will.