Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Senate candidates public forum in Brisbane

Last night, the Brisbane suburb of Mansfield held a Senate candidates forum at the Broadwater Road Uniting Church. The session was entitled “Your Faith, Your Vote, Your Voice” and was a community election forum organised by the local Uniting, Anglican and Catholic churches. It was moderated by ABC religious programming executive producer David Busch and featured senate candidates from five political parties: Liberal (Sen. Sue Boyce), Labor (Sen. Claire Moore), Democrat (Sen. Andrew Bartlett), Greens (Larissa Waters) and Family First (Jeff Buchanan). The five candidates all gave introductory speeches and then answered a series of questions from three panellists Rev John Parkes (Assistant Anglican Bishop of Brisbane), Sr Kathleen Tynan (Co-ordinator, Catholic Social Action Office) and Andrew Johnson (Uniting Church Justice and International Mission Advocate).

Aboriginal elder Aunty Jean Philips began the evening with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land (interestingly, this was an acknowledgement reiterated by all candidates and panellists except for Liberal and Family First). After an opening prayer by the local Uniting church minister Bruce Johnson, Rick Sheehan (Chair of the Catholic Justice & Peace Commission) read a prepared paper about faith at the ballot box. The paper urged Christians to “take their democratic freedoms seriously and become involved in the political process”. It encouraged “people of faith” to include the test of the common good as well as their own interests when casting a vote and should ask who is the beneficiary of economic policies.

Larissa Waters of the Greens was the first candidate to speak. She began by saying she had noticed a “real shift” in the last election towards less compassion, more selfishness and less concern for the community – “not values I hold” she hastened to add. She spoke of the four key principles of Green policies to combat this tendency. They were: ecological sustainability, peace and non-violence, social justice and grassroots democracy. She said that if the Greens won the balance of power in the Senate, they would use tax cuts to finance clean, green, renewable energies – not “unproven clean coal or toxic nuclear waste". She also spoke in favour of public transport, dealing with poverty, free access to health and education, affordable housing and an end to our "pre-emptive strike" foreign policy.

Liberal Senator Sue Boyce spoke next. Boyce was elevated to the Senate in April to fill the casual vacancy left by Santo Santoro’s resignation after a share scandal. Because Santoro’s term expires in 2008, Boyce is up for re-election. She began by saying said one thing underpins everything else in this election: a strong economy. This allows the government to deliver universal medical care, education and equity. She said families have been better off under the 11 years of coalition government and only the coalition could effectively manage the prosperity to benefit Australia with new industries, road funding and indigenous programs. Boyce said the government have spent $660 million on climate change programs and said only they could deliver the innovation and choices needed to solve complex problems.

She was followed by Labor Senator Claire Moore, also up for re-election. She began by saying she was “one of those terrible union officials mentioned over the last few years”. She said the political system needed to be “valued and respected” and the need for a strong economy must be permeated by compassion and respect. Like Waters, Moore noticed a sense of division in the community and said politicians “must engage with people to ensure they are part of the future”. She noted this was anti-poverty week and we needed more compassion for those most disadvantaged in the community.

Jeff Buchanan from Family First spoke next. He said he was passionate about the family’s fundamental role in society and his values were informed by his faith and life experiences. He said he was the leader of Family First’s Queensland team and promised the party would be a voice in Canberra for families, farmers and small businesspeople. Buchanan said the party was objective and “no one’s lapdog”. He also said Family First doesn’t agree with WorkChoices and the loss of public holiday, overtime, penalty rates and redundancy entitlements.

Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett was the last candidate to speak. He began by saying democracy wasn’t working well at the moment. He said that diversity was not being taken into account in the political process. Bartlett highlighted the disadvantages of Australia’s first people and our inability to listen to their problems. He said there was a growing gap between the country’s haves and have-nots. Bartlett believed that the Democrats have demonstrated “sensible economic policies” over the years with a balanced approach to workplace issues. He said more needed to be done to recognise those people who bear extra burdens such as volunteers and carers for those with disabilities. Bartlett said that climate change was not just an environmental issue, it was a moral issue and we needed to focus more on what he called “the common good”.

The panel then got involved and began by asking the politicians what contribution they could make to achieve balanced democracy in the Senate. Bartlett said this was a crucial issue and the Senate was not getting enough focus in the campaign. This issue was “core business” for the Democrats. Senator Boyce rejected the charge that the government had stifled debate in the Senate. She said “standing committees and enquiries produce worthwhile results”. Senator Moore lamented the lack of knowledge in the public about how the Senate works. She said the Senate worked best in a committee system where it had “the opportunity to listen to the community and make recommendations”. Larissa Waters said that since the government won a Senate majority in 2004 it had cut committees and guillotined debates. “The house needs to become a house of review again,” she said. Buchanan agreed that it was remarkable how little most people knew about the role of the Senate.

The second question asked what the ends to the economy were. Senator Boyce saw a strong economy as an effective strategy to reduce poverty. She said that she believed in the power of work to overcome the gap of haves and have-nots. She said a million people had genuine reasons why they could not work and the system would support them, but, she added “work underpins it”. Waters decried the $32 billion tax cut election promise announced by the government this week. She said it was “not a proportional response” when hospital waiting lists and the costs of education were sky-rocketing. She added action on climate change was also crucial. Senator Moore said that policies “must include compassion”. People who have no choice but to seek welfare should not be labelled for it, she said. Sen Bartlett noted that many roles in society are not properly valued. He said community work “doesn’t measure up right” as productivity. This, he said, was not the government’s fault but society’s. He said the social fabric was not recognised.

The third topic was IR laws and whether there was a way beyond what panellist Andrew Johnson called “the dichotomy” between employers and employees. Buchanan said Family First’s dictum was “work to live not live to work”. He said work-life balance issues needed to be addressed in Workchoices and they would work with the government of the day to fix this up. Senator Moore spoke about the “demonising” of workers’ rights and said they should share in the prosperity and not just be valued as a “unit of labour”. She said unions don’t want conflict and the country needs to work together to achieve results. Senator Boyce denied there was a dichotomy and said “as an employer, I give a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”. But she said that without Workchoices, there was no flexibility to encourage those with better work ethics. The majority of employers were small businesspeople “not oligarchs of industry”, she said. Senator Bartlett said that the only reason Workchoices existed at all was because of the 2004 Senate result. He didn’t recall John Howard saying before that election the IR laws needed repairing. Bartlett said that the gap between reality and political rhetoric was “huge”. Waters said that most people were worse off under Workchoices and it didn’t take into account that “happy workers are productive workers”.

The candidates were then asked about their views on the environment. Waters said that Queensland was the Sunshine State but we were not doing enough with solar energy. She said coal was creating problems for the whole world. “Climate change is an ethical issue,” she said. “The impact is disproportionate on the worse off”. Senator Boyce said that since 1998 the government has spent $3.5 billion in climate change initiatives in clean coal, solar and wind energies. She hailed the Australian led Asia Pacific Partnership and the Sydney Declaration at APEC to set targets for 2020. Sen Moore said that Labor would announce its climate change policy “soon” and Labor would work closely with the state government to achieve results. She said Labor “would not walk away from coal”.

The next question was what qualities Australians needed to integrate refugees and asylum seekers. Buchanan said the asylum laws were tight enough but we needed to process them more quickly. Sen Bartlett disagreed about the laws and labelled them “a disgrace”. He said putting refugees and their children into prison is a deliberate strategy of “stress and harm”. “We have a responsibility not to demonise or play on prejudices,” he said. “For politicians this is particularly unacceptable”.

The final question was how each of the parties would deal with indigenous issues. Sen Bartlett said we needed to make it a priority and “listen more” to what they say. He said the Senate only had one day to examine the 500 pages of the Little Children are Sacred report and its authors were prevented from giving evidence to the Senate Committee. Senator Moore said the evidence that was presented was serious but she too was unhappy with the lack of consultation. She said “the idea that child abuse is [just] an indigenous issue is criminal”. Senator Boyce said that 350 people did give evidence to the tribunal and Minister Mal Brough consulted with many elders and tribal women. She said “Brough was desperate to help”. Waters said that sending the army into the Northern Territories doesn’t help. She said indigenous people needed representation and abolishing ATSIC was not the answer.

This was a useful forum to hear prospective Senate candidates air their views. Queensland currently elects 12 senators (5 Libs, 4 Lab, 2 Nats, 1 Dem). Six of these (2 Lib, 2 Lab, 1 Nat and 1 Dem) are up for re-election this time. While predicting the Senate result is difficult to the complexity of preference deals yet to be revealed. It is likely that Queensland will elect 2 Labor, 2 Liberal, 1 National and a sixth to be fought over by the Democrats, Greens, Family First and Pauline Hanson. In 2004, the Liberals won the 6th seat from the Democrats on the 175th count (pdf), giving them an overall majority in the Senate.

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