Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Goodbye, and good riddance, Julia Irwin

From The Australian, September 16, 2009, by Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union:

FEDERAL Labor backbencher Julia Irwin has announced she will not recontest the ultra-safe southwestern Sydney seat of Fowler at the next election. Let me provide the first political obituary: a negligible contribution to southwestern Sydney and a dangerous contribution to the foreign policy debate.

Irwin's most ungracious act came last year. The member for Fowler chose to boycott the Prime Minister's speech marking the anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel.

This was probably the most embarrassing intervention from a backbencher in the present parliament. She said at the time, "I cannot congratulate a country which carries out human rights abuses each day."

Yet a quick search of Hansard reveals Irwin's concerns for human rights are a little selective. It seems she believes there are two classes of human rights, for two classes of citizen.

Last year, for example, Irwin heaped praise on the Cuban government and its overseas medical assistance programs. But she made no mention of the plight of political prisoners in Cuba, or the daily repression faced by Cuban citizens struggling to live under the repressive communist regime.

Irwin's moral clarity on human rights seemed also to escape her when she travelled to China in 1999. Irwin was in Beijing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that renowned bastion of robust political debate, the National People's Congress.

On her return, the member for Fowler addressed parliament about her trip, thanking the Chinese ambassador in Canberra for his assistance, then turning to the issue of Tibet. "With regard to reconciliation with the Dalai Lama, the delegation was told that this would require the Dalai Lama to give up any claims for independence for Tibet and to stop separatist activities," Irwin declared.

"As for Tibetans living abroad, the delegation was told that they were free to enter and leave Tibet and that some 10,000 had done so in recent years, with 2000 resettling in Tibet."

Human rights campaigners rejoice. Irwin's been to China and discovered everything is peachy for the Tibetans. As for political prisoners, human rights abuses and the legacy of Tiananmen Square, the keen humanitarian conscience of the member for Fowler must have been missing in action.

During 11 years in parliament, Irwin has given many private member statements on her views of the conflict in Israel and Palestinian territories. In 2005 she gave a short speech where in the space of just a few minutes she accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing" and setting up "a walled ghetto" and "a concentration camp".

Comparing the actions of Israel with those of Nazi Germany is the sort of low-rent tactic preferred by those who seek to perpetuate rather than resolve the impasse in the Middle East. It is divisive and intellectually lazy.

Many decent and upstanding MPs on both sides of the house are passionate about the plight of the Palestinian people. Many have delivered valuable, thoughtful speeches on the failure of Israel to secure peace.

But Irwin is not one of them. In her short-sightedness, she has refused to acknowledge the important role of progressive Israelis and progressive Palestinians. In short, she is more interested in stoking the flames of division than bringing together those who want peace, irrespective of faith and nationality.

Her legacy to the parliament, her electorate and Labor is not a great one.

I suspect few of her constituents could nominate any local achievements. For the Labor Party that protected her preselection, she has shown no gratitude.

Her intervention in the House of Representatives this week announcing her retirement was full of vitriol and put the boot into a political party that has kept her and her family in well-paid employment for many years.

However, Irwin was right to point out many of the flaws that exist in the way the Labor Party operates. That Irwin could remain the holder of an ultra-safe seat such as Fowler for 11 years is evidence that maybe the party could do with some reform.

In our grand Labor family, we tolerate different views and vigorous debate. Her parting contribution only reinforces her utter lack of respect and grace. Hopefully in retirement she can enjoy the company of other exiles, such as Mark Latham.

So goodbye, Julia, I'm sure someone will miss you, but I doubt that your party or your electorate will.
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