What underpins opposition to same sex marriage?

abetz

It has been some time since I have considered myself particularly passionate about same sex marriage. Although firmly in agreement with the principle that everyone should be equal before the law, I have struggled to convince myself that exclusion from the institution of marriage is any real impediment to a rich and fulfilling life. Notwithstanding all of this I find, and have always found, the sentiment that underscores opposition to same sex marriage to be detestable.

The pleas of Archbishop Jensen not to conflate his views with bigotry are laughable, the concession made by Fran Kelly on the ABC’s Insiders program that opposition to marriage equality is not indicia of homophobia was craven. The opposition to marriage equality stems from minority yet prevalent view that homosexual intercourse is a depraved act.

The union of marriage –heterosexual or otherwise –is a thoroughly conservative, at times prudish concept.  Those bellicose opponents of same sex marriage regard extra marital sex as a selfish indulgence in lust and gratification. In their puritanical world view intimacy outside of wedlock is animalistic, degenerate and weak, a capitulation to unsanitary urges. The lifelong commitment to keep only one partner, to devote their lives to the singular partner and to enshrine the commitment in law is supposed to sanction the otherwise immoral act.

Conservative views of sexual intercourse impart marriage with immense importance. In the correct circumstance sex can be the manifestation of true love, in the wrong circumstance it is the manifestation of something vile and loathsome. When Barnaby Joyce referred to same sex marriage as decadent he was in fact referring to homosexual intercourse.  In this way marriage is supposed to transfigure something vile into something holy and beautiful, which brings us back to the homophobic quest to stop marriage being extended to same sex relations.

No reasonably minded person could be left with much doubt that Eric Abetz and those of like minds regard homosexual intimacy as something vile and immoral. They lost the legal fight to prevent it many years ago, now they are digging in to try and restrict it to what they might term “immoral contexts.”

For decades bigots have stereotyped homosexuals as promiscuous debauchers.  The last thing they want now is for same sex couples to start entering enduring, monogamous marriages that would seem to satisfy conservative ideals. And therein lies the true driver of this furious push to keep marriage equality at bay: marriage equality looms likely to destroy the most mainstream critique of homosexual lifestyles, in doing pulling back the veil to reveal the naked and irrational disgust that homophobes reserve for homosexual intercourse. And should this proxy debate be shattered and the bigotry get flushed out into the open its practitioners will become the pariahs of conservative politics, shunned in mainstream political groups as Hansonists have been for the last decade.  This fight isn’t about etymology and it definitely isn’t about protecting any pre-existing marriage, it is about preserving the last remnants of plausible deniability against the all too accurate charges of bigotry.

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Greg For PM-An Update

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An unexpected by-product of Sarah Ferguson’s  The Killing Season has been to provide a little more insight into the sort of leader Greg Combet would have been had he accepted Julia Gillard’s offer as an anointed successor in 201, and gone on to defeat Kevin Rudd in the caucus ballot.

 

In July last year when Combet released his autobiography I latched onto a specific section of the book in which  the former secretary of the ACTU in which he discussed his ideological conflicts with his then leader Rudd and expressed dismay at Rudd’s attempts to de-unionise the government. In particular the quote  “After spending my life in the union movement, the idea that I needed to be cleansed of my union past was pretty offensive” was very illuminating as to where Combet stood in comparison to Rudd, and  why Gillard may have perceived him to be a suitable successor.

 

Whereas Kevin Rudd led a movement to rebrand the Labor party as a broad church housing a diverse range of centre left philosophies, Combet still believes the labour movement deserves ownership over Australia’s oldest political party. This was a perspective Julia Gillard seemed to share. In February 2013 Gillard addressed the Australian Workers Union  in a speech  that was going to be rebroadcast on all the major news bulletins that evening. In her address Gillard proudly declared

 I come here to this union’s gathering as a Labor leader.

I’m not the leader of a party called the progressive party.

I’m not the leader of a party called the moderate party.

I’m not the leader of a party even called the socialist democratic party.

I’m a leader of the party called the Labor Party deliberately because that is what we come from.

 

 

The speech electrified the faithful at the AWU and thousands of moderate Australian voters watching it on their televisions recoiled uneasily and started contemplating whether the Liberal Party might be a more accommodating house for them.  In the minds of Gillard and Combet if the election could be framed as a contest over industrial relations, and if the Labor party could articulate its position effectively than this was a winning formula but in the real world elections can’t be restricted to singular issues and Labor came off once again as obsessed with IR at the expense of other issues like debt and deficit and cost of living.

 

In 2012/13 we could have been forgiven for thinking that Gillard was the worst offender in terms of wrapping herself around labour issues and neglecting others but in The Killing Season Gillard comes across as positively Third Way compared to her grizzling anointed successor. Combet was one of two people interviewed who seemed convincingly bothered by Rudd’s challenge to Kim Beazley in 2006, the other was understandably Jenny Macklin who lost her place as deputy leader.

 

But in Combet’s mind Howard had just put industrial relations at the centre of the election through his Workchoices legislation and Beazley had responded with a 1950’s textbook response. It was gearing up as a good old fashioned election to be contextualized as a contest between the businesses and the workers and Howard had overstepped badly with Workchoices. Then Rudd intervened. Eschewing the crude narrative of bosses versus workers, Rudd sensed his moment, scaled back the ideological rhetoric and launched a scattergun attack on the Howard-Beazley axis that enabled him to transcend the old political divide. Upping the ante on a raft of secondary issues including climate change, education, broadband and reconciliation Rudd capitalised on the public’s lack of enthusiasm for the old paradigm. When it became apparent that public opinion was demanding the Labor caucus install Rudd, Combet was understandably shocked out of his comfort zone. For ten years he had yearned for another Labor government, now on the eve of a likely Labor victory the rules were changed and instead he got an anti-politics social democrat who hadn’t done his dues.

For 10 months the ACTU and the Rudd led Labor  Party ran a bizarrely two pronged campaign against Howard. For the first time in living memory the rhetoric of the labour movement was completely out of synch with the rhetoric of the Labor party. The ACTU ran a heavy handed negative campaign oriented around Workchoices, Rudd ran a highly positive campaign, presenting a broad and optimistic vision for the nation’s future.  As Barrie Cassidy, another creepy crawly of the Labor apparatus, noted in 2010, the party had been stolen, it’s apparatus used to get elected an outsider.

 

We can glean from these glimpses into Combet’s mindset that a Combet leadership in 2013 would have been electorally disastrous. An obsessive focus on industrial relations and attempts to recreate fears of a Workchoices strawman that nobody believed would have dominated the campaign and debt and deficit  would have lied neglected in the corner. The party faithful would have been engaged, the volunteers out en masse come election day but the swinging voters disillusioned and sent scuttling into the safe embrace of the opposition. It was for the best that Greg bowed out when he did. If he hung around, only more misery awaited him.

 

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Online Threats

I’m fortunate enough to have only received an online threats once, or rather received a couple of threats but within a very narrow space of time about the same subject.

The occasion was the death of author and professional atheist Christopher Hitchens in 2011. Being an impertinent kind of guy I wrote on my twitter account “My thoughts & prayers are with Christopher Hitchens and his family at this difficult time”, accompanied by the relevant hashtag. In an odd way I thought the departed Hitchens would probably enjoy the sneering wit, but maybe not. I actually knew very little about the man.

Regardless of what the Hitch may or may not have thought, his disciples were incensed by this quip. The comment was retweeted once, than twice, within an hour it had more than fifty retweets and as is now recorded in the classics, retweets do not necessarily translate to endorsemens.

The responses began to flow in, most of them to inform me that I was not funny (probably true) a small few to inform that I was in fact funny (probably false) and a dozen or so to inform me that I would soon to be joining the Hitch in that great kingdom in the sky.

Practically all the threats came from the United Kingdom or the United States, there were none that suggested that they would track me down or anything to that effect. They were mostly “If I ever see your fucking face you better watch out I will fuck you up.” Others would call me a piece of shit and warned me to watch my back etc.

And so it went. From the safety of Australia I found these emotional and aggressive threats from these self-anointed intellectual rationalists to be amusing and enjoyable. In fact the whole experience was tremendously fun. A perverse part of me looks forward to the day Dawkins dies to see if I can arouse the same kind of hostility. Somehow I doubt it. I think I got lucky in catching the retweet wave.

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Christine

milne

When Christine Milne assumed the leadership of The Greens from Bob Brown she did so amidst a wave of unwelcome speculation about her party’s short term future. From start to finish pundits wanted her head on a silver plate, not out of any detestation for her but out of a desire to write about another Greek tragedy like that which befell the Australian Democrats. They never got their Greek tragedy, they never got their head on a plate. Yesterday Christine left on her own terms, her party intact, the doomsayers flummoxed.

 

Much was made of the media’s role in damaging Julia Gillard politically but till the bitter end she enjoyed a loud and passionate cheer squad headed up by Anne Summers. Milne never had an Anne Summers. For three years every development concerning The Greens was distorted by the fifth estate to signify that a catastrophe was on the horizon for the hapless Milne. When it looked as though the Greens might lose their West Australian senate seat at the last election this was supposed to signify a disaster for Milne. When, a month later, Scott Ludlam romped home in the Senate re-election, this too was cited as evidence that Milne’s leadership was facing an imminent crisis.

 

But the crisis never came. The narrative of the inept, second leader falling dismally short of her predecessor’s impossibly high standards never got beyond the prologue. For three years the crisis was just a day away, three years on it still hasn’t arrived.

 

In part credit for Milne’s success rests with her parliamentary party. For all the innuendo about Sarah Hanson-Young’s ambition, the parliamentarians who served under Milne showed her a decency of which major party leaders could only dream. For The Greens did suffer setbacks under Milne, too many to count. But whereas the major parties would have turned on their leaders after such setbacks, The Greens, even Hanson-Young, set their teeth and placed their trust in Milne. A trust, in time, which she repaid.

 

Yet for all the decency of her parliamentary colleagues it was Milne who had to go out day after day to hear her own doom prophesized as loudly in the progressive media as it was in the conservative media. The natural ebb and flow of the electoral cycle was being proffered as proof of her ineptitude. She was simultaneously charged with losing touch with The Greens core values while sabotaging Julia Gillard’s leadership with her extreme demands. They probably thought the relentless barrage would break her. What fools they were. This was the same woman who was once dubbed “mother of teenage sodomy” by a former federal minister within Tasmanian parliament, sneering was never going to finish her off. The savagery of the hung parliament finished many towering figures of Australian politics, the vision of Tony Windsor choking back tears as he declared “I don’t want to be in three years time,” spoke succinctly to the mental and emotional toll the environment was taking on these political practitioners. Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith, Simon Crean, Bob Brown, Rob Oakshott, Nick Minchin and Windsor all called it quits during this vicious period in Australian politics but Milne fought on.

 

Throughout all the setbacks, despite unfriendly voices bellowing advice to change course, Milne remained true to her party’s core principles of grassroots democracy, ecological sustainability, social justice and nonviolence.  And eventually the setbacks became fewer, Gillard loyalists stopped blaming Milne for their hero’s shortcomings and the electoral tide began to move back in The Greens favour. A decent showing in the Victorian elections and a barnstorming performance in NSW coupled with federal polling hovering around the 12 percent mark seemed to suggest a rosy future for The Greens under Milne.

 

Had she stayed on until 2016 she would likely have matched Brown’s 2010 performance and joined him as equally the most successful minor party leader in Australian history. But those accolades were never what Milne was after. She’d guided a parliamentary party of young, promising Greens through a challenging time and didn’t need to be around to reap the rewards. She guided her anointed successor into the leadership so that he might build on her efforts in the longer term. And with that she was gone, on the eve of what could have been her tour de force she had stepped aside, not with tears or a stiff upper lip, but with a broad smile and a hug. A commentariat hoping for an unedifying leadership fracas resorted to soviet innuendo to try and inject scandal into this harmonious  transition but there simply wasn’t anything scandalous.

 

And that was the way of it. The party that was meant to disintegrate under Milne’s leadership marches on in a stronger position than when she first took over. They stand alone, the only party seemingly prepared for what the next federal election will bring. All the early signs suggest that for The Greens it will bring rewards, and Christine Milne won’t hang around to enjoy them. She doesn’t need to.

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The Policy Cracks In Abbott’s Fiscal Narrative

Since coming to power the Abbott government has broken a slate of election commitments in the name of fiscal restraint and economic sustainability. Having made specific promises to keep the funding for nearly all of Labor’s major spending projects, while simultaneously promising to reduce total government expenditure, the newly elected government found itself confronted with a Sophie’s choice of core promises and chose to sacrifice the former.

 

Oppositions making and then governments breaking contradictory and unkeepable promises is a ritualistic fixture of the Australian electoral cycle.  Since the demise of the Whitlam government, dying government have pumped the electorate with fiscally unsustainable goodies in desperate, last ditch attempts to cling on for another three years. Opposition leaders equally desperate to preserve their tenuous lead in the polls engage in the politics of “me-too” and we reach a bipartisan consensus to tax nothing and fund everything.

 

Then the new government arrives with huge reserves of political capital, no election in site and a budget groaning under the weight of election sweeteners and they sensibly begin to trim back the fat. Sectional interest groups who had pinned enormous hopes on the anticipated cash splash howl with rage; but most voters soon acclimatize to the policy change, and in the long term the government receives plaudits for its so called fiscal restraint.

 

But the integrity of such an approach is predicated on the expectation that the least purposeful spending is the first to go, and that the government will apply the so called efficiency dividends with some semblance of consistency. Since its inception, the Abbott government has been guilty of two highly questionable cash splashes which have grossly undermined its cuts to health, education and welfare benefits.

 

The first was the 16 million dollar bailout of the Cadbury Factory in Tasmania. The new government boasted that businesses would have to stand on their own two feet and refused to bailout flagging companies SPC and Holden. For a right of centre government, refusing to subsidise private businesses incapable of turning a net profit would seem to be altogether consistent with their philosophical agenda. Alas then why did they bail out a flagging chocolate factory in Tasmania while offering little explanation other than “Tasmanians are special,”? Paradoxically Cadbury have since refused to meet the conditions of the government grant and the 16 million has returned to the Treasury. Sadly for the government this latest development was scantly reported while the initial announcement received saturation coverage.

 

Secondly If the Abbott government is to credibly claim that it is governing with fiscal restraint, it needs to rescind its carbon tax compensation measures. It was pragmatic of  Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to promise to retain the carbon tax compensation, such was the level of political debate in 2013 that a promise to wind back any social services payment would have been hysterically seized upon and distorted into evidence of an attempt to dismantle Medicare or some such.

 

Once the Liberal Party won government and set in train procedures to remove the carbon tax however, the newly elected government should have correctly identified the compensation scheme as an instance of wasteful government expenditure and removed it from their policy platform.

 

In the case of such pointless expenditure there could be no outcry. If it were removed in a swift surgical slash the electorate would quickly acclimatise to the change, and if the opposition attempted to block the cut they would expose themselves to levels of ridicule comparable to those surrounding the knighthood of Prince Phillip.

 

It would also have a devastating impact on Labor’s economic credentials. Shorten’s consistent opposition to Abbott government cuts is relatively effective in the context of trying to shield the less fortunate from social and economic devastation but this could not be said of 15 billion dollar compensation package for a tax that no longer existed. To make this claim would fit snugly into the conservative narrative of Labor as profligate spenders with no notions of thrift of frugality.

 

And yet the government squibbed this freest of free kicks and instead looked to such sacred cows as health, education and the old age pension to find budget savings. In doing this they are perceived as defunding essential government services all the while leaving an altogether pointless one untouched.

 

Perhaps current health, education and pension levels of funding aren’t sustainable in the long term and a path back to surplus necessarily involves cuts to these services. There is some scope to make this argument but only if it is clearly represented as a last resort. The electorate will only countenance the defunding of these services if it believes that every non-essential source of government expenditure has been dealt with first. And so long as these fiscal elephant remains in the room the government will continue to be selling a mixed and confused message which voters will understandably greet with a great deal of scepticism.

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Plenty Of Potential Successors But Only One Potential Rival

turnbull abbott

With the latest Newspoll quarterly showing the government  consistently trailing the opposition 46-54  it’s beginning to look plausible, though not especially likely, that Tony Abbott will be replaced before the next election. The two favourites among the commentariat are Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison. The former because she has been so stately and dignified in the performance of her duties as Foreign Minister, the latter  because he has been relentless in courting the favour of the Liberals conservative power base.

In third place is the people’s choice Malcolm Turnbull. The former leader is adored by the public but isn’t well loved within the Liberal Party. Turnbull doesn’t fawn over Abbott and John Howard  enough, he’s too quick to distance himself from  the embarrassing culture wars and doesn’t stick to the briefing  notes. When his cabinet colleagues were studiously referring to the governments changes in funding to the ABC as “efficiency dividends” Turnbull happily conceded that they were cuts, but insisted that they were necessary cuts. It’s the kind of subtle disobedience at which Kevin Rudd excelled, Malcom  wont outwardly rat on his own party –that would be disloyal. Instead he argues the case for the Liberal Party but in a slightly less emphatic, more equivocal way. He comes out of it looking discerning and reasonable while his colleagues are left looking foolish and out of touch.

Turnbull’s willingness to promote himself in a manner which leaves his colleagues high and dry accounts for the difference in perceptions of Turnbull inside and outside of the political class. The political class see him as selfish and vainglorious but those outside of the beltway have no great love for our politicians. When Turnbull upstaged Attorney General George Brandis on the issue on metadata retention, many observers probably felt Brandis was getting his just deserts. But Brandis was humiliated and his parliamentary  allies incensed.

Joe Hockey normally comes in fourth place. The Treasurer was once the frontrunner but 2014 has been unkind to Joe.  He attempted to lockdown his status as heir apparent at the beginning of the year and it backfired horribly. Now Hockey is attempting to resurrect his political capital but he’s a long way behind the other three. At forty nine years of age he has time on his hand, but for now the Treasurer is not a contender.

In my opinion this analysis underestimates the requisite preconditions for a change of leadership before the next election. Morrison, Bishop and maybe even Hockey would all be strong contenders if Abbott won the next election healthily then decided to retire but none of them are remotely capable of pushing Abbott off the throne.

Morrison’s popularity is restricted to the partyroom and exists mostly among Abbott’s close supporters. Abbott’s polling would have to be dire for them to contemplate supporting a challenger and if the government was polling badly enough to drive Abbott’s supporters to disloyalty, Morrison would hardly be the one capable of saving them from the baseball bats.

Bishop is more viable than  Morrison. The Foreign Minister is fairly popular with a very large portion of the electorate. But her popularity in no small part comes from her  portfolio. Bishop seldom strays outside of Foreign Affairs and in choosing to do so she has escaped cross examination of her governments domestic policies.

Those of us who recall her brief stint as shadow treasurer are unconvinced that Bishop can effectively communicate large quantities of specialised policy detail across a large range of economic portfolios. And she will need to demonstrate this in order to be a leadership rival, rather than a potential successor .

One minister who does seem to have most of the facts at his finger tips and who isn’t afraid to bludgeon an interviewer with them is Education Minister Christopher Pyne, but Pyne has other problems.

There is only one figure in cabinet whose political abilities are such that it would be worth it for the government to go through the gruelling ordeal of tearing down a Prime Minister and that figure is Turnbull. Turnbull’s ability to wax lyrical on economics and finance would radically alter the equation. The Coalition could run a fierce scare campaign about Labor’s economic mismanagement that would actually hold water now that they had a leader who seemed well versed both in economic theory and contemporary economic reality. It would be with great reluctance that the party would reward Turnbull with the top job but it would be with even greater reluctance that they would countenance executing Tony, so their disdain for Turnbull hardly comes into it.

It may be that the Liberals will never topple Abbott, that they would sooner lose their own seats than turn on the man that brought them back from the wilderness.  But if a coup does occur before the next election, due in 2016, there is only one person who could plausibly lead it and that is Turnbull.

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In Defence of Robbo

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When John Robertson emerged from caucus in March 2011,  elected unopposed as the new leader of the NSW Labor Party, many of the party faithful let out a collective sigh of disappointment. Perceptions of Robertson were that he was emblematic of the nepotistic, factional culture of the NSW Labor Party that had consigned them to opposition just weeks earlier.

Robertson was a trade union official  who had used his extensive network of connections to push his way into the NSW upper house, then to parachute himself into one of the few remaining safe Labor seats in NSW. With his broad accent, bald crown and a swiftness to perspire; Robertson neatly fit the caricature of the unattractive faceless man , pulling the strings from behind the scene and his ascension to the party leadership was welcomed accordingly.

When news emerged that he had authored a letter on behalf of Martin Place gunman Man Haron Monis many felt that their antipathy towards Robertson had been vindicated. The letter was held out as a tangible example of Robertson’s lack of judgement, his  associating with undesirables and general untrustworthiness. But the letter was just a pretext, Robertson has been chopped down because he was performing poorly in the polls and some of his colleagues labour under the delusion that their own political abilities are such that if they were leader the NSW Labor Party would be on track for victory in four months.

Robertson, like Brendan Nelson before him, is a victim of coming to the leadership at the wrong point in the electoral cycle. They both were faced with the unenviable task  of trying to unseat figures who had just been elected off the back of flamboyant crusades against cronyism. When the new governments set about clamping down on corruption, profligacy and jobs for the boys the poor opposition leaders were boxed into a corner, faced with either supporting the government or defending the indefensible.

After failing to make in roads into the government’s lead, Nelson brought on a leadership spill after less than 12 months and was narrowly defeated by Malcolm Turnbull, but Robertson fought on. First for a year, then two, then three. While the press and the general public largely ignored him, the Member for Blacktown kept plugging away with greater energy and enthusiasm  than was ever demonstrated by Kristina Kenneally or Nathan Rees. To the very few people that were prepared to listen he would talk incessantly about his new plans and mechanisms for stamping corruption and nepotism out of  the NSW Labor, how as a lifelong union man he was angry on a personal level by the misappropriation of funds by the HSU. He was setting up third party committees, the membership of which would be determined by arms length adjudicators; everything was going to be transparent and above board. Slowly but surely Robertson was repairing the party to the point where it was a once again a plausible party of government in NSW.

In 2013 the O’Farrell government’s lustre began to peel away  and Robertson began to close the gap from the historical lows that Labor had attained under Keneally. A roaring victory in the Miranda by-election  suggested that Robertson  had –to a degree –cleansed Labor of the odious stench left behind by the Obeids, the MacDonalds and the Roozendaals. In 2014 the resignation of Premier O’Farrell and a string of other MPs over ICAC findings saw hope and optimism return to the party room for the first time since Morris Iemma was Premier. But with it came the burden of expectations and Robertson’s more ambitious colleagues began to envision glory in leading their party to the 2015 election.

A  Newspoll slump in late 2014 sealed it for Robertson. It might have been a honeymoon period for the incoming Premier Mike Baird, it might have just been a rogue poll but it left the Opposition Leader exposed and highly vulnerable. While his colleagues in Victoria were celebrating unseating a first term government(albeit with a swing of less than three percent), Robertson appeared to be losing ground from a losing position. For the scavengers in the NSW Right, they just needed a circuit breaker as a pretext to remove the flagging Opposition Leader.

Nobody seriously believes that Robertson would be a worse Premier because he wrote a letter on behalf of someone who committed a crime several years down the track,  but the scandal came at a time when he was wholly and utterly defenceless. Even an over the top, sensationalised nothing story like the Monis  letter was enough to bring on a confidence motion.

And that was the way of it for John Robertson. Having spent most of his life as a factional apparatchik, he spent the last three and a half years working relentless to restore his party to a position of competitiveness. For three and a half years he endured all manner of mockery and criticism with an easy going grin and continued about his business. Contrary to the reports that he was en route for an electoral shellacking,  the polling trajectory had him narrowly getting pipped by Baird after having taken over the leadership of a party on the brink of oblivion four years earlier.  Now, his career in parliamentary politics is all but over, disqualified from the race within sight of the finishing line.  It’s brutal, but then Robertson was equally brutal in the role he played in the assassinations of Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees.

But it’s unfair to portray his leadership as disastrous. It was bland and uninspiring. Perhaps someone like Carmel Tebbutt could have put a little more pressure on the government and narrowed the gap to 53-47 by now but Robertson was not a train wreck! To claim he was would be very unfair.

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