28 January 2008

The thin edge

This article was published in 2008 but could have been written at any time over the past decade. It's almost Howard-Costello in its sheer lameness.
But the fact is, problems remain with the practicalities of an apology. Getting it right is more important than getting it done in the first week of Parliament. Labor’s indigenous affairs spokeswoman Jenny Macklin acknowledged this today when she refused to put a deadline on saying sorry.

A few weeks ago, Sam, she announced that the consultation process could take months, and that it was inextricable from practical measures such as the NT intervention.
And practical responses to Aboriginal disadvantage will ultimately deliver more lasting solutions than pretty words.

Any suggestions as to what these might be? Any examples you can point to?
On a grubbier note, the great Sorry debate should also provide a fascinating opportunity for the new Labor government to turn the tables and “wedge” the battered Liberal opposition, who used the issue of an apology for years to divide and conquer the ALP.

Now, it is the Liberals who remain divided over the issue, which flared during the recent leadership vote and ultimately played a role in denying Mr Turnbull the top job.

Can you imagine people who might be even more directly affected by this issue, such as actual Aborigines? What do they think? What do you mean, you didn't ask them?
“Well, this whole question of a formal apology, I think the proponents, no less than the opponents, are getting hung up on semantics,’’ Mr Abbott said last year.

“Because, let’s face it, back in 1999 the parliament unanimously carried a resolution of profound and sincere regret about the various mistakes that had been made in terms of indigenous policy over the years.

“So who is playing word games here? This apology ... I would like to see precisely what words the incoming Government is proposing, because finding a form of words that is acceptable to everyone is going to be an extraordinarily difficult business. One of the other issues is going to be trying to find a form of words that doesn’t look like it’s an admission of legal liability.”

Let's be clear: Abbott said all that last year. These remarks were reported at the time and inserted into the political context of that time. You'd expect today's pap(er) to reflect the (very different) political context of today - unless, of course, you were an Australian reader. There is no indication that Brendan Nelson or anyone else in the Liberal Party is in violent disagreement with any of that (apart from, perhaps, Bronwyn Bishop or her mini-me, Sophie Mirabella). So much for "Libs divided over ‘Sorry’", Sam.

All Liberals, and everyone else too, can agree that the "resolution of profound and sincere regret" in 1999 made bugger-all difference to anyone and anything.

This article relies on stale information and stale assumptions (i.e. that wedging the Liberals is somehow important). It also assumes that symbolism can be divorced from practical measures, at the very time when everyone who works in and with Aboriginal communities agrees that it absolutely can't. For all their differences, the unity of symbolism and practicality is the one thing they agree on: so why is it an issue, why worth investigating with the eagle eye of Samantha Maiden, why now?

The articles we need now are about how to unify the symbolism and the reality of Aborigines in Australian society. You'll need people to think about that and depart from tired old standpoints that haven't really worked for anyone (except, perhaps, John Howard). It seems that you won't get that from Samantha Maiden or her employer.

27 January 2008

"I have not changed my mind"

It isn't Peter Costello's fault that Jason Koutsoukis' life and career lack meaning in 2008, but of course Jase thinks otherwise.
Peter Costello ... might do well to reflect on what his true vocation is.

I think he's done that already, Jase:
... a note from the man himself on Friday afternoon was emphatic: "I have not changed my mind. Not at all. What I said on Nov 25 stands. Yours faithfully, Peter Costello."

That should have killed the story stone dead. Costello is a lawyer, as if he'd commit something like that to paper if there was any possibility it could be used against him. It's interesting that as soon as this rumour took off around Parliament, Costello - a man with experience of the Parliamentary rumour mill - went straight to Jase. You should have dropped this non-story and written something else, Jase.
It's difficult to imagine the people of Higgins would begrudge him a briefly less hectic schedule.

His job is to represent them in Parliament, Jase. The people of Bennelong have shown what happens to MPs who are too busy for MP duties.
Yet it turned out that he was faking it and pretty soon afterwards it was Nixon who was kicking around the press as president of the United States.

It was six years between Nixon's gubernatorial loss and his presidential victory, Jase, so this column is half a decade ahead of its time. The American system does allow for people to go in and out of politics, and Nixon did spend most of the '60s as a lawyer in New York. Besides, Nixon's is not the sort of career you'd wish on anyone.
Right at this moment, Costello is said to have suffered a rather unhappy few months. Having woken up every day since he was about 20 thinking he would one day be prime minister, he's said to have been feeling rather shattered at the thought that this will not come to pass.

So you'd argue that the guy needs to stop moping and get on with his life? What do you mean, no?
Over the course of his political career, Costello proved that he was very good at several things, including being funny in Parliament, sulking when he didn't get his own way, and being totally risk-averse. Hardly the things you need to run a business.

Hardly sufficient to leading the Opposition, or becoming Prime Minister.
The former Adelaide doctor Andrew Southcott traded a promising career as a surgeon for a seat in Parliament.

You could argue that the health system needs every surgeon it can get. Mind you, if you're holding up Southcott's political career as an indication of what he'd be like as a surgeon, perhaps it's for the best.
Nothing outside of politics will ever feel as good as standing at the dispatch box, ridiculing his opponents and dreaming about what he would do with the top job if he ever got the chance.

Yeah, he could become a national joke like Wilson Tuckey. The one thing the Liberals have is economic credibility: the stock market is tanking and inflation is starting to bite, so now is the time for Peter Costello to be very, very quiet. Labor in government are unlikely to be the sullen little mice they were under Beazley, and Costello may prove to be as ineffective in Opposition as Abbott or Nelson.

The landscape has changed, Jase, and you are no longer able to report on it (if you ever were). Costello has given it away and members of the "coterie", like you, should too.

25 January 2008

Gimme some journalism

A new government has taken office, and we still know little about what it's planning. We know little because there have been so few articles in the media. There have been so few articles because there have been so few announcements. The media only respond to announcements; the only investigative journalism taking place at the moment are those in the United States staking out the flat where an actor died or the house of a drug-addled former singer. There is plenty to be found out in a new government, where uncertainty is high and loyalty to the incumbents low. The older journalists in Canberra are too lazy to go looking for stories; the younger ones don't know how.

It's tempting to tie the demise of The Bulletin into this, but it was never big on investigative journalism. It was said that Kerry Packer maintained it for sentimental reasons, but it's also true that he wanted to keep it from asking questions he didn't want asked. It was this latter motivation, control and paranoia, that was most important in its latter years and the slow-acting poison that killed it.

Peter Coleman wrote:
The Bulletin may have been able to survive as a literary-political review of modest circulation. But as a weekly news magazine it was suffocated in cyberspace and the blogosphere.

The idea that there was no market for a news/current affairs magazine in Australia has been invalidated by the rise of The Monthly, New Matilda, Crikey, The Diplomat, Griffith Review, Eureka Street and others. At its best The Bulletin was large enough to contain these multitudes, and its own contradictions. ACP magazines could have kept it going if it had wanted to.

Just because Coleman could not have tamed the unruly technologies to which he refers doesn't mean that nobody could have. Australia is a bigger place than it was in Coleman's day, less able to be summed up within one magazine no matter how "bumper". He's right about Newsweek, though. Apart from the odd useful insight into US primaries or foreign policy, it was poor stuff.

Today it is one of those smaller magazines that are most likely to break the big exposes in coming years. The Fairfax broadsheets seem only big enough to take on their state governments, but only when they have gone as rancid as the Iemma government has. This piece by Mark Coultan is exactly the sort of thing that Bob Carr should have copped on a weekly, if not daily, basis during his lazy decade in office. It actually addresses real public policy issues and the nature of governance. This is the very sort of thing that political journalism should be all about.

20 January 2008

Well disconnected

The one thing a press gallery groupie journalist needs is political connections. Like many Victorians, Jason Koutsoukis spent a while lot of time snuggling up to Peter Costello in the hope that he might prove a useful source.

When it came time for real news, like his decision not to contest the vacated Liberal Party leadership, Costello wasn't much use to Our Jase, and all those tidbits proved a poor diet. Now he's been stitched up again.

This article is a great example of poor journalism: "... is set to be ... is likely to ... One cabinet minister who asked not to be named [even though you already had, Jase]". Hours later, it was clear that Jase had been set up.

Never mind that it's not even April Fool's Day: anything that appears from now on under the byline "Jason Koutsoukis" is not only likely to be poorly written but to be sheer and utter crap. He's been set up gutless, the Aunt Sally of the Canberra press gallery. Fairfax stood by him this time, but how long can they keep doing so?

19 January 2008

Backwards and forwards

The exchange between Bob White and Christopher Pearson demonstrates nothing so much as a failure of liberals and conservatives to capture the high intellectual ground, a failure that impoverishes us all.
Academics are asked to become marketers: to cultivate business relations with educational institutes overseas, to set up transient money-generating courses, to conduct expensive offshore recruitment campaigns, all of which have nothing to do with quality education and everything to do with short-term replacement of lost revenue from government investment.

This has always been true. Australian universities have a long tradition of importing foreign academics - Australian-born academics like Manning Clark or Howard Florey were in the minority in Australian universities. Those who were not educated at European universities were made to feel inferior. There has always been international co-operation on projects and in appointments.

This also implies that reduced government funding to universities is some temporary phase, and that it should and shall return to a situation where high public funding is the norm. Rather a sad set of assumptions, really.
Alongside the systematic and planned financial squeeze, the Howard government pursued an unprecedented onslaught on the time-honoured ideal of academic teaching and research that is independent of political and commercial interests. Successive ministers for education, Brendan Nelson in particular, intervened to micro-manage academics' activities.

Well, of course. The left had Marcuse and de Beauvoir encouraging young lefties to get into academe with their ears pinned back in order to achieve the aims of Bolshevism: to have a small minority hijack massed workers' movements. The left were the only organised force in higher education, and all industries of that political stripe (e.g. community services, the waterfront) just get relentlessly screwed by governments of all types.

Liberals and conservatives abandoned the field. Strangely, Pearson blames Menzies for not thinking this through and not taking all classes personally:
... it's time for a critical look at Menzies' contribution to higher education. Some readers may be surprised to learn that I think it was little short of catastrophic.

The Australian economy would not have the opportunities available to it today without the expansion of its education facilities a generation ago. The capacity constraints facing the economy today centre largely on too little education rather than too much: Pearson betrays his Maoist roots - a common affliction amongst flatulent reactionaries these days - by implying that your PhD student in womyn's deconstructionism might be more usefully employed on a factory line.
I could talk about the non-economic benefits of education, but the effete elite he would appeal to (and consider himself part) ought take that as given.
But it was obvious to anyone who'd ever managed a business, let alone chaired a faculty, that sudden, very rapid expansion and a funding bonanza was more likely than not to compromise the quality of teaching and academic standards along with ideals such as "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge".

It was the responsibility of liberal academics to ensure that didn't happen, to ensure that the deluge of money and students didn't sweep them off their feet. Anyone who's ever managed a business, let alone chaired a faculty, knows that you have to plan carefully and keep to your principles, and not just blame the remote figure of the Prime Minister for not getting down to this level of detail.
Kingsley Amis, the author of Lucky Jim, is credited with the aphorism that sums up the problem of a burgeoning tertiary education sector: "More almost always means worse." To some this will seem no more than typical Tory negativity and an anti-democratic defence of scholarly elites and their privileges. I think it's an argument for preserving educational standards

Nobody is in a position to posit that slow wet fart as an argument for anything. It's like having a skulling contest in defence of your football team, it's just a nonsense.
Even granting, for argument's sake, that universities in the mid-'50s excluded significant numbers of people who deserved the opportunity, only the most starry-eyed enthusiasts could have imagined that creating three times as many places in very short order wouldn't have significantly lowered the average IQ of undergraduates.

The idea was not to lower the IQ of undergaduates. The idea was to have more Australians - and people from neighbouring countries - equipped with a university education. The numbers of people who might benefit from such an education, and who might pass those benefits onto others, is not as fixed as Pearson still thinks it is. Living in Adelaide is no excuse: what does it take to shake this ignorant man out of the notion that Australian social, economic and political structures in 2008 are essentially the same as they were in 1958, or 1938?
Meanwhile, the government hooked public funding for higher education tightly to the sector's obedience to workplace "reforms" that consisted mainly of demands that academics comply with tedious and often ludicrously petty requirements of reporting, record-keeping, form-filling and data-entry, which have accomplished nothing more than a widespread exasperation in the higher education sector and have reduced the overall capacity for innovative research.

Quite so. A more politically diverse university sector could have resisted the control-freaks more successfully than they have. Take note and move forward.
The mid-'60s were the time when the Left really entrenched itself, especially in the humanities and social sciences faculties in Australian universities. By the end of the decade, conservatives and apolitical scholars were becoming notably thin on the ground.

Always be suspicious when a strident statement is made in the passive voice.

The Young Liberals was tens of thousands strong at this time: why no encouragement to a life of academia? Why no scholarships to reward the sort of scholarship that might lead a bright student toward liberal and conservative leanings? Where were the courses on Popper, for example? Why did only student politicians make use of the conservative redoubts of residential colleges?
Ideologues of any persuasion are inclined to exercise the powers of patronage to further the careers of their political allies, with academic ability a secondary consideration.

Clearly, not conservative or liberal ideologues.
It was surely no accident that in the mid-'60s the Left began to abandon the conventions of civil disagreement, especially on the newer campuses. Howling down ideological enemies and encouraging your students to do the same became the norm.

This was only possible because there were so few of them. Liberals and conservatives abandoned those who performed the most vital tasks of public employees in the 1960s: those who fought in Vietnam and those who taught at universities. This is a matter of not just systematic failure, but ongoing disgrace.

To be fair to White, many of the issues he complains about happened after Menzies' time. It is quaint to see him complain about the retro-fit of IT facilities in old buildings, but worse - it detracts from his arguments about aspects of teaching and research that remain timeless, which might support to some extent a back-to-Menzies agenda.

They both seem to agree that a basic rethink of what universities are for, and what role government can/should do, is in order. White is wrong in asserting that Menzies and Whitlam had the right idea but hey man, Pearson is like so lame in his assertion that the past is gone and nothing can be learned from it.

This exchange has served to show that "balance" is not what we need in media commentary: left and right can be equally lame and cancel each other out.

17 January 2008

What becomes of the broken-hearted?

First New Matilda article here.

16 January 2008

Suck it and see

Today in The Age, the first article created by automatically-generated cliche-output software, and it's under the byline of "Michelle Grattan": click here.
PRESSURE is mounting for the crucial position of Liberal federal president to go to a Victorian — if the right person can be found.

Pressure from whom, on whom, over what? What happens if the rest of the country tells the Division that has gone from best to worst to just piss off?
Victoria, which has previously always held either the leadership or deputyship since the party was forged in the mid-1940s

I'm old enough to remember when John Howard (NSW) was Federal Liberal leader and his deputy was Fred Chaney (WA). So are you, Michelle Grattan.
One Victorian name being canvassed is former minister Rod Kemp, who retires from the Senate in June ... Senator Kemp had no comment last night.

That qualifier about "the right person" is crucial, and should be used to unpack this silly suggestion. This man was a duffer before he got into Parliament, he was a duffer as a minister, he achieved nothing and when he resigned nobody missed him. The appointment of such a person would be a sign that the Liberal Party is looking to stifle any new ideas while it settles into a protracted period of opposition, rather than rebound quickly in 2010.
Senator Kemp, brother of David Kemp, the president of the Victorian division, is not seeking the job but probably could be persuaded if there was support.

See, nobody who has that attitude should ever be appointed to anything.
Two Victorians earlier suggested — party powerbroker Michael Kroger and former minister Richard Alston, now high commissioner in London — have indicated they are not interested, although people are still trying to persuade Mr Kroger. Former state treasurer Alan Stockdale has also been mentioned.

Victorian senator-elect Helen Kroger said it would be smart to have a Victorian in the job, not least because it would help in the crucial area of fund-raising.

Right, because the Victorian Liberals have frittered away whatever funds they've raised, and the money in this country is in Sydney, Perth or Queensland ... where else but Melbourne? It's interesting to note that the growth of the Australian economy has left behind all those Melbourne Club boys who just haven't got what it takes.
Senator Ronaldson also said it was "imperative" Victoria had some senior representation in the party's administrative wing.

Because otherwise nobody would pay any attention to that colossus Senator Ronaldson.

"Michelle Grattan" used to write with more insights than demonstrated in this article. I hope she gets back from holidays soon and switches off the cliche-generator, it makes for poor journalism.

The Liberals could do worse than freeze the Victorians out for the time being. They bet everything on the Costello Prime Ministership and are now reaping the same dividends one gets for betting on the fourth horse in the Melbourne Cup (actually, that's not fair as that horse at least has a go). The Vics can demonstrate their mettle by cleaning out dead wood like Kevin Andrews and Mitch Fifield, and replacing them with quality candidates. Hell, they could even show how federal-state relations - the party's structural flaw - can be addressed. Then, they can vote as a bloc for quality policies and leadership. Until then, they can give up that birthright crap and help the Liberal Party regain some idea of who they are and what they're about.

15 January 2008

Not getting it

The Liberal Party believes at its core that as long as you grow the economy, nothing else matters. The reason why the 2007 election is so devastating is that it's clearly possible to lose an election despite positive economic indicators.

The Coalition lost the 2007 election because they weren't using the economic bounty to good effect, in terms of infrastructure and education. People had jobs but WorkChoices made them feel insecure. People voted Labor because they were convinced that they could do so, for the first time in a decade, without either voting for that prick Keating or sending the economy down the toilet.

This piece by Malcolm Colless learns nothing from the last election. In this particular case, Colless is providing the very sort of advice the Liberals can't afford to follow, and is making the same mistakes they are making.
This follows the wholesale attack Labor made on the Coalition's economic management of the country during the federal election campaign.

Not being an insider, Malcolm, the Labor message I saw was that the Coalition wasn't managing the economy in a way that was sustainable, whether you talk about skills or the environment or in terms of people's feelings of general well-being. To set up the straw man (that the Liberals were crap economic managers) and knock it down is a complete waste of time.
With the banks starting to lift their lending rates to offset internal cost pressures ahead of a much anticipated further rate hike by the Reserve Bank next month, Treasurer Wayne Swan is giving a good impression of a novice skater slipping and sliding on the ice as he finds himself in the same delicate position as his predecessor.

Two things need to be said here: first, the newly-elected government will be given some latitude. Second, it's not clear that newly re-elected Treasurer Costello, with his eye on the takeover, would have surfed the subprime thing any better than any other government anywhere in the world is.

Two questions then need to be asked:

  • Do you remember what Costello was like as a novice Treasurer?

  • Do you think that Wayne Swan is a fast learner?

If your answer to both questions is positive, Colless' thesis starts looking sick.
Another major downside for the Government is the fallout from its promise to scrap the Coalition's Work Choices industrial laws, which it exploited successfully during the election campaign.

While it is undeniable there were serious flaws in the way the Howard government managed this policy, there is also no doubt that it contributed significantly to the record low unemployment that Rudd inherited from the Coalition.

What fallout? The Liberals said that WorkChoices was dead, and now they are seeking to preserve some elements of it. This kind of mixed messaging is politically fatal.
Rather than fine-tuning this, Rudd has effectively decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater by opening the door for militant unions to replace flexible individual working arrangements with broad-based, complex and anachronistic award conditions.

He has effectively done nothing of the sort. Militant unions played no role in helping Rudd get elected. He and Gillard have done well in hosing down both their expectations and the kind of fear campaign Colless still regards as viable.
But as recession bites and demand falls, business will come under increasing pressure to lower its costs, with the obvious impact on jobs.

Ironically, these economic issues throw a tactical lifeline to the conservatives as they battle to climb out of the pit of despair at their devastating loss in the election. This is because the issues can be seen as a vindication of the economic management policies adopted by the Coalition in government.

The tactical lifeline to the Liberals depends upon Brendan Nelson being seen as credible as John Howard in his prime. Good luck with that, Malcolm Colless. Your whole article rests on this pathetically weak premise.
At the same time, though, the issues also will heighten tensions within conservative ranks over the readiness by some to jettison key Coalition policies in the wake of the election defeat. In particular, Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson's public announcement that Work Choices is dead is seen as short-sighted, populist me-tooism that has not helped the fightback.

"Of course we need to be forward looking. But we also need to maintain our credibility," one senior Liberal close to the review into the party's future told The Australian. "We ought to be able to handle a changed situation - namely going into Opposition - without throwing out our past.

Whose fightback? Why the token concession to "forward looking" if your main focus is rearguard actions?

It was easier for the Coalition when they lost in the past. They were able to ditch the entanglements that dispatched them to opposition, develop a new narrative, and take advantage of Labor mistakes in order to return to government:

  • 1983: Fraserism died as the tears rolled down his cheeks. Nobody was fighting to maintain Fraserism in the early '80s, not even Fraser himself.

  • 1972: The Liberals rushed to distance themselves from Billy McMahon and the Vietnam War.

  • 1941: The UAP became so discredited that the whole party organisation was scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up.

In 2007, Brendan Nelson is not smart enough to realise that he's strapped into burning wreckage. Those who put him into the leadership, little-state troublemakers like Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz, are precisely those who are stopping him jettisoning those aspects of the Howard legacy that would give him tactical advantage in taking on Rudd.
"The Howard government's success in minimising the impact of the Asian financial crises in the 1990s on the Australian economy, for example, underscores our credibility and experience in economic management," he said.

Yeah, I bet that polled really well, right up there with the credit crunch of 1961. That'll work in 2010 for sure. Good on you Malcolm Colless for unpacking and examining that statement, too.
The immediate challenge for the Liberals is to come up with practical structural reform that will make the party attractive to membership from the broader community while stomping on those who use minority self-interest to marginalise change.

Using what force to do the stomping, Malcolm? Those who resist change and insist on maintaining failed policies - like the person you quoted - should be among the stompees, and not the stompers as your article would have them.
With troubled times seemingly closing in fast, its relevance in Opposition as it builds the long road back to government will greatly depend on whether the new leadership team can convince the electorate that it should be taken seriously.

Seriously unable to face up to past mistakes? Seriously deficient compared to Rudd?

The flaws in this article reflect those in the Liberal Party today. Despite this article's hopeful and resolute tone, it is therefore unable to help transcend them.

14 January 2008

Silly season

Annabel Crabb isn't The Chaser, and nor is she a press gallery journalist. She isn't even Matt Price. In this article she had the field to herself and could show us what we can expect from the new Rudd Government.
Mr Rudd's last day of holidays yesterday was spent not as an ordinary person might spend such a day (lying about morosely wondering if there is anything clean to wear to work)

See, it's Annabel that's normal, and everyone else that's abnormal.
Whales also have turned out to be a problem ... How has this happened?

Did they, pet? All that argy-bargy with the Japanese government over the past year hasn't registered at all, the very idea that something like that might have longterm consequences.

When you're a journalist, you follow through on those longterm issues, consult widely and see how the issue pans out, rather than being like a goldfish in a constant state of surprise that you'd hope your readers might share.
On Friday Mr Garrett was flown to Antarctica amid some pomp and ceremony aboard the first passenger flight to the frozen continent.

What pomp, what ceremony? What did he do there? Was the trip a waste of time? What will happen as a result of the flights to Antarctica? It's not as though this kind of stuff is beneath you.
But he found his way back.

In the coming weeks Mr Rudd must also make headway on the rationalisation of the national health system, and on the drafting of a cut-price apology to the Aboriginal stolen generation.

The government has been in office for two months now and quite a lot has gone on regarding these and other issues. I'm amazed and how little investigation there has been of this: it's not as though everyone in the new government has been out sunning themselves. Perhaps the fact that so few ministers have appointed press secs is a good thing, in cutting out hype and bumf. However, for journalists who are clearly over-reliant in being hand-fed stories, and most importantly for the wider public, we are largely at a loss to determine what sort of government we've landed ourselves with. Julia Gillard's slip-up is only funny if it's an aberration.

Any indications about what might come out of the health ministers' conference, who's got what agendas? No? What about follow-through from Bali, nothing?

Why would you bother getting insider access if this is all you can do with it? It's not a matter of using your powers for good instead of evil, use your powers for good instead of piffle.

10 January 2008

Campaigning and governing Right

Do you want to govern or not? Why? What would you do for us, rather than to us, if you were in government?

Conservatives have to come up with cogent answers to those questions. They don't have them. Focus groups are no better than the PR dollies who run them, as it is they who write the summaries. This article shows they can't find them elsewhere in the Anglosphere.
Back in 1995, as I was heading off to work as John Major's adviser,

The opinions of a man who helped put the British Conservatives - the most successful political party in the first world - has a lot more grounds for modesty than Finkelstein would appear to have. He essentially takes a negatiove approach - if you are going to lose is a poor way of operating, and doesn't really address the reality facing the Liberals. Nonetheless, here is the essence of Finkelstein's article:
... there is the waning appeal of small-government rhetoric. In the 1970s, speeches about government being the problem, not the solution, resonated. Now this language is much less potent politically. Government remains often inefficient and too large, but winning support to change it is harder. Conservatives need to show that they can run government, providing services, not merely talking about shrinking them.

This is what the Catallaxy crowd can't understand; people will pay taxes for government to provide services at a cheaper and more universal rate than is available from the market.

This debate wasn't always on the fringes. There was serious debate within the Liberal Party about what government should/shouldn't do, from 1983 until they got tired of it after the 1993 election and took the Howard approach of tinkering at the edges. The NSW Liberals have lost every election since (including?) 1991 because of this skittishness in the face of government services and the taxes that fund them.

The Liberals need to be clear about what they want government to do an not do, and how much this costs. When they get this sorted, they'll be a credible alternative government. They can avoid it, but only if the are determined to be a party of opposition.

After 11 years in office, the Coalition have plenty of experience in running government services. I won't mention AWB if you won't, but it is absolutely appropriate to look at those aspects of government neglected by Howard and ask how we are worse off for that neglect, and whether it is appropriate for the next Liberal government to be so neglectful.
And then there is cultural change. All across the world conservative parties have risked being left behind by the vast social changes of the past 40 years. Making peace with the '60s is the hardest task

It sure is, eh Gerard Henderson?

This is also essential reading for religious conservatives and small-government freaks alike:
Nobody wants to vote for a party that angrily disapproves of how they live. That's the mistake the Left made as working-class people became wealthier and more mobile.

Well done Finkelstein for pointing this out. What has to happen now is the realisation that attitudes to tax and government aren't just poses but thoroughgoing approaches to policy development. Nobody expects Nelson to deliver this, of course, but when the Liberals start wining again they will have absorbed some of the more important lessons from Failure Boy.

Ceaselessly into the past

Gerard Henderson's political outlook was forged during the 1960s, an unusual time in Australian history to say the least. He was a successful columnist when he could apply this outlook to the issues of the day. Now that he is applying the issues of the day to massage perceptions of the 1960s, he has lost value as a commentator.

This article drips with nostalgia and gives more credence to Tariq Ali than he deserves. Henderson would argue that Ali does appear in a lot of foreign newspapers, and is therefore highly significant as a shaper of perceptions. Newspapers pay less and less of a role in shaping perceptions over major issues; Ali is widely publicised but so does Britney Spears and their contribution to the culture is about as significant. It isn't just leftists who can be regarded as "old soldiers who seem to remain fossilised in 1968."

This article started with an idle and ironic statement from a rival newspaper, and used that flimsy pretext to flay fellow chattering-classers Julian Burnside, Robert Manne and Raimond Gaita (as if he needed an excuse!). In a previous column, Henderson demanded that Manne apologise for what he may or may not have done as a student over the space of a fortnight in 1965, which apparently didn't involve any violence or criminal activity.

Henderson then demanded the ALP then admit a slow creep who had never apparently wanted to join that organisation in his lifetime, and who is now dead.

The worst thing that could happen to such a person is not that he would get what he wants (insofar as he's clear on what that might be); but that his enemies, who give his life meaning, might disappear. First there was this setting up of a straw man of A World Without Lefties, followed by this smackdown.

Worst of all, however, was this, in which our hero goes around stomping out the last pockets of skepticism that have always existed about war and politicians' appropriation of the emotions that wars stir up. The respectful approach to the deaths of those soldiers were squarely in line with Australia's experience of death in war, and show the indifference and disrespect of the 1960s to be the freakshow that it was. Not that Henderson fully understands this: never mind the two troopers used as a hook for this column, what about my uncle dead for ninety years, hmm? What about Wilfred Burchett and Brian Toohey and the latter-day Manning Clark:
In his A Concise History of Australia (CUP, 1999), Stuart Macintyre makes no mention of the Hitler-Stalin pact or its domestic impact.

Henderson shows history at its worst, an arsenal of axes for this increasingly irrelevant man to grind. Henderson has failed to apply the lessons of history to the challenges of today.

His Nile-like excursions in linking Muslim Australia to fake militant Islam have discredited him, and showed him to have failed to grasp crucial new realities that might have given him new life as a commentator. Instead, he shuffles around the public debate lifeless but undead. Gerard Henderson may bully moderate or left-leaning media into accepting him as innoculation against Bias, but if his is a voice for conservatism then conservatism is as stale and irrelevant as its opponents would hope, and Henderson helps them prove their point.

08 January 2008

When all else fails

This article shows that the Liberals will do the right thing only when all other alternatives have failed. If Graham Jaeschke was the answer, then you're asking the wrong question.

Anna McPhee has always been regarded as a golden girl in the NSW Libs and has not let anyone down in her eleven years as a Liberal government staffer and appointee. It's telling that none of the self-appointed trustees of the trademark of feminism - Anne Summers, Eva Cox, or The Queen O'er The Water, Germaine Greer - have gone after her, or made any sort of useful critique of her work. One would have expected a Labor government to dump someone like McPhee as early as possible and replace her with someone with some femocrat who a) cut her teeth in the Whitlam Government, b) failed to win preselection due to some factional skullduggery and is offered this job as compensation, or c) both.

Paul Ritchie, Scott Briggs and David Elliott are three others who could make a positive contribution to the future of the Liberal Party, and indeed who should be judged harshly if they do not do so. Ritchie should replace Brad Hazzard as soon as possible, because the electorate of Wakehurst should be represented by someone other than a piece of furniture. Scott Briggs has worn all of the penalties of factional activity without enjoying the benefits, which is a shame as he does convincing impressions of a decent bloke. Elliott should keep gunning for Alex Hawke: he would make an effective contribution so long as he can hire staff of substance who can help him curb his tendency to think all problems can be fixed by getting people to shut up while indulging his own penchant for comments that make people cringe.

They also indicate that the party has written off the entire generation of baby boomers, none of whose more useful members could apparently be enticed to lead it effectively.
Mr Phelps, an ex-chief of staff of the former federal minister Gary Nairn, said he had 'no intention of running at this stage for the [state director's] job and it would take a lot of convincing for me to do otherwise'.

Anyone who attempted to convince Phelps otherwise would be so crazy that their opinion would not be worth heeding.

Phelps, like his contemporary and nemesis Jason Falinski, spends an inordinate amount of time planning and digging a hole into which he promptly falls. People wishing to avoid joining Peter in a hole of his own devising should avoid shackling themselves to him.
The director is likely to face strong opposition to the changes. Some long-term and senior figures in the party have held meetings to attempt to start a centre-right faction to counter the influence of the right-wing powerbroker David Clarke.

The trouble with that is that the 'centre-right' should not be so small that it needs an actual faction. The Liberal Party works best with a small far-right faction, a small moderate faction, and a large amorphous mass in the middle which occasionally chooses the better candidates from one or the other but generally shuns both. The Liberal Party's main problem is that this large amorphous mass is not so large (indeed it's too small to be amorphous) and is not representative of the community it would hope to represent, in age or any other demographic.

Previous attempts at a 'centre-right' faction have foundered because they become cults of personality to those who found them, and once those people get preselection they let the faction slide. It's always hard to pin down any actual beliefs of a "centre right" Liberal; they tend to define themselves by what they're not, don't have any philosophical base to speak of (not even dimly-remembered university texts) and slide away from benchmarks against which they might be measured.

06 January 2008

Too hard for Mirabella

In this piece, Sophie Mirabella has sought to define the Liberal Party's way forward by taking a cudgel (yes, the same cudgel she accuses Fraser of using) to Malcolm Fraser. The Opposition spokesperson on local government is showing that she really needs a life.

She takes Bush on face value and, worst of all, plays no part in helping define a post-Howard Liberal Party. The editor of The Age should refuse to publish anything by a Liberal MP that doesn't address their current situation or the post-Howard future.
Fraser lauded Mao for the policies that "secured the basic necessities of life to China's people". But there was no reference in the PM's eulogy to the 750,000 victims slaughtered during the Cultural Revolution. And never was heard a discouraging word about the 20 million Chinese who perished unnecessarily during the botched Great Leap Forward.

All Australian governments, Liberal or Labor, have to keep schtumm about China's appalling record on human rights. Fraser did it, Hawke and Keating did, Howard did, and Rudd will, too.

Try and get Brendan Nelson to bag Mao, Sophie. You could if you were that fired up. Go to those Amnesty meetings with people like Marise Payne or Brett Mason and agitate for a strenuous denunciation of Mao and his successors. After Kerry Nettle leaves Parliament in July, who else is going to do it? Leverage your position as local government spokesperson to block sister-city agreements with that blood-drenched land. To fail to do as much as you can would be hypocritical; but you knew that.

Somewhere in Indi is a small business that exports a small amount of stuff to China and employs a number of locals do so. An intemperate outburst from a bleeding-heart like you is all that's required to cancel that contract.

Tip for next time: it detracts from genuine outrage for the slaughtered millions to use a line from Home on the range:
... Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

I can only assume that she had this piece written for her; the Sophie Mirabella I knew would never have alluded to a song written by three American lefties about the environment, especially not on such a (mass-)grave issue. When the fifth columnists have captured Sophie Mirabella, you know it's all over.
But in his rage against the Bush machine, Fraser played so fast and loose with the truth he lent himself to caricature as just another frothing-at-the-mouth leftie.

No he didn't, he was calm and measured. He showed to everyone except you that you don't have to be a frothing-at-the-mouth leftie to be disappointed with the Bush Administration. If that's the only characterisation available to you, it speaks to the sheer poverty of your political outlook.
He sinned by omission through his cowardly failure to address the realities of communist evil.

The man was Army Minister and Defence Minister during wars against communist evil. He's earned his stripes. It would have been convenient for if if communism disappeared just after he got out of uni, as happened with you and me, but there you go.

Besides: it's God who decides who's a sinner and who isn't, not the member for Indi.
And Fraser's contention that "evidence achieved by torture was to be admitted" — presumably by US military commissions — reflects either intellectual sloppiness or deliberate dishonesty. It took me only moments to locate section 948r(b) of the Military Commissions Act (2006) that declares: "A statement obtained by the use of torture shall not be admissible in a military commission."

It shouldn't have taken you much longer to find out that what the US government defines as torture is not what reasonable people like Malcolm Fraser define it as - remember, this was the man who learned his lesson from Operation Phoenix.
Fraser throws veracity to the wind in his wild campaign to hurl mud

No Sophie, it's bug-eyed rhetoric like this that shows you're overreacting to a speech made months ago under different political circumstances to those we face now. We know you're upset that former Prime Ministers are allowed to speak. I notice you don't go Whitlam or Keating - that would be partisan. If you go overboard like that, people will think you're a nut.
Case in point: the evidentiary standards used by US military tribunals. Fraser considers the admission of "hearsay evidence that could not be checked or verified" to be an outrageous travesty of justice. At least when Americans do it.

But the UN's war crimes tribunals routinely accept hearsay because they recognise that the chaos of combat precludes adherence to conventional rules of criminal procedure. An active battlefield cannot be isolated with yellow tape and evidence can't be bagged, tagged and registered in the middle of a fire-fight.

And yet Fraser fails to criticise the UN's use of those self-same evidentiary rules ...

Well, when anyone does it really. Countries that respect the rule of law operate systems of military justice that don't rely on the same standards as civil jurisdictions, and it was silly to imply otherwise. Hearsay is a weak justification for a sentence, and those that rely on it are justifiably suspect. Please provide proof of UN military commissions and their rules of evidence, Sophie.
French statesman Charles Talleyrand

Talleyrand was not exactly big on the rule of law, was he? What do you mean, your checking didn't go beyond a book of quotations?
... now deployed to undermine the American-led war effort against jihadi Islam.

Black ops, including convictions by hearsay, do not work against fake militant Islam: it strengthens it by sinking to its level. It is not an implicit defence of fake militant Islam to say that the Americans could and should do better in attacking it.
In fact, America brings to mind the famous Churchillian quip that democracy was the worst system of government on Earth, except for all the other types that have been tried.

You can't string together a political philosophy with a few quips and cliches excerpts from a book of quotations. It isn't good enough when Greg Barns does it and it makes you look silly too. It certainly won't help you in developing policy on local government. The more you sulk over one speech three months ago, the less effective you'll be in your 'portfolio' - and if you keep it up it is you who will have ...
... forfeited any claim to be taken seriously in public debate.

Not that this will affect your ability to keep on winning Liberal preselection, though.

Update 13/1/08: Peter Vickery takes Mirabella apart on legal and human rights issues.

02 January 2008

Cease from mental fight?

With this, it's clear that John Roskam wants to write about religion and politics, and wants to be quite swinging and fearless, yet he can't do so without either looking absurdly equivocal or deliberately missing the point.
OVER these Christmas holidays it seems as though religious leaders have been happy to talk about anything other than religion. In Australia, climate change and refugees have featured prominently in church sermons.

Who's trying to drive a wedge between the sacred and the profane now, John? Roskam is implying here that religious leaders are using the pulpit to talk about non-religious, secular issues.

When talking about the family domiciled in a barn using a manger for a cradle, it is entirely germane to talk about refugees. Hospitality to the stranger is a central feature of the Christian message. It should demonstrate that religious belief is not confined to events of two millennia ago, but should be something that the avowedly faithful practice in their everyday lives.

Climate change can be linked to entirely Christian notions about greed and carelessness for the bounty which God has given us.
Tony Blair was right when a few weeks ago, on the eve of his conversion to Catholicism, he said that any British politician who talked about religion ran the risk of being regarded as a "nutter". He drew a comparison with the United States where politicians were not afraid to discuss their faith.

In the US, many avowedly religious politicians are nutters. Show me a wacky or dangerous idea in US politics and I'll show you some tendentious piece of theology used to deflect criticism.

Worse than often-harmless craziness is outright hypocrisy. When US Senator Larry Craig was caught sexually propositioning another man in an airport toilet, he defended himself with a flurry of religiosity. US politicians seem to do this often: it may well help them in troubled times, but it looks like a ruse, a con, and religion is devalued accordingly.

It isn't patriotism that is the last refuge of the scoundrel, it's religion. It isn't that a religious politician might be considered a nutter, but that comments about religion might be a diversionary tactic.
In Australia, there is certainly a chance that a politician who talks about God (or even a god) will be laughed at.

This is an extraordinarily weak construction to build an article on. Does it mean that anybody at all who mocks any expression of religious faith, however disingenuous, takes a dagger to the heart of all religion anywhere? Who does more damage to religious faith: the mocker outside or the fraud within? Is religion in Australia so weak that no criticism can be tolerated?
It's just as possible that anyone who admits that their religion influences the way they vote in parliament will be accused of being a dangerous theocrat intent on introducing the moral majority into Australia.

"there is certainly a chance ... It's just as possible" - oh, please. It's just as possible that a politician who supports official discrimination against gay couples and goes on about Christian families cruises for gay sex, like Larry Craig.

It is not just risible, it is profoundly anti-democratic to use religious faith as a means for a legislator to deny to the populace what the legislator enjoys. It is profoundly anti-democratic to imply that any profession of religious faith must always be free of any criticism at all.
The evidence that a politician who talks about religion faces such a threat is widespread. It is obvious in the treatment of Tony Abbott, tagged by the Canberra press gallery as the "mad monk"

Tony Abbott talks at election time about an "epidemic of abortions" in Australia, yet as Health Minister he has presided over hundreds of them. His criticism that Bernie Banton was not "pure of heart" was an inescapable religious criticism; which is all the more ridiculous when you consider Abbott's lack of purity, and lack of interest in purity, in much of his dealings as a politician. To mock Abbott is not to deride but to respect religious faith.
the ABC has labelled Catholic social groups, such as Opus Dei, as semi-secret organisations.

Opus Dei is a secretive organisation. If you are hypersensitive to an form of criticism I suppose you'll find it somewhere, somehow, particularly if you show the bellicosity that goes against the central message of Christianity and other religions. If your faith is weak then you'll need that opposition to keep you going, to justify a tendency for quick-fire spite rather than to inspire a capacity for the hard work of love.
Morality simply cannot be taken out of politics.

No it can't, and nor is wearing the brand of religious faith the kind of total defence against any criticism for which politicians yearn, and are not entitled.
Any discussion of religion immediately brought with it accusations of how Howard government ministers pandered to the conservatism of the Christian evangelical churches.

In recent years claims such as "God is working for the Liberal Party" and "an extreme form of conservative Christianity now has real influence on our politicians and their policies" became the stock-in-trade of the Liberals' opponents. The problem with these theories is that Howard's critics struggled to provide examples of this supposedly pernicious power.

If the Howard government thought it could get political advantage by adopting certain policies, it is legitimate to criticise them for seeking advantage in this way - and yes, to criticise the religious organisations for allowing themselves to be so used. Who exactly said that "God is working for the Liberal Party"?

Australians are not antipathetic to religion, they are antipathetic to cant. Religious cant is no better than any other form of cant - but not all religion is cant, and this is why it is possible for religion to take its rightful place in the debates of our country. Religion has always been criticised and it should not be surprising or appalling that this should continue. For a politician to invoke religion is not a lightning-rod, but nor is it a free pass.

Criticism: it's part of public debate in this country John, not some aberration to be stamped out with Kulturkrieg.

01 January 2008

Poor, poor Democrats

The Democrats have the same problem as the Liberals: can't pretend they don't have a problem, yet they can't face up to what it might be. This is meant to be a rallying cry: it's too strident to be a cry for help, but not honest or sensible enough to perform its stated function:
merely an emphatic declaration that the Australian Democrats are still needed and that we are determined to fight back.

Merely an emphatic declaration. And these people complain that nobody listens to them when they want to be heard. Don Chipp's daughter has no more perspective on the Democrats than Beazley's boy or Downer's lad had in leading their parties, and is too polite and reverential of losers to do the overhaul that party needs.
In fact, so dismal was support for minor parties on election day that, six months from now, the major parties will hold all 12 Senate seats in NSW and Queensland.

All 12 Senate seats in each of NSW and Queensland, Laura. Those two states have twenty-four Senators. It's best to be clear about what you mean - and to not have words under your name outsourced to some semi-literate PR dolly. Your party is facing annihilation and you can't even describe what's happening! Perhaps, though, there'll be some explanation or apology in what follows.
But we must recognise this was a government-changing election, where the focus was very much on ousting a prime minister who had overstayed his welcome. The minor parties were bound to miss out.

Bullshit. Government-changing elections are where the minor parties did best - particularly the Democrats. Two of that party's best election performances were 1996 and 1983. The bastards in government were discredited and the bastards in opposition were untested. The idea that the Democrats suffered duff luck is unadulterated rubbish.

The following two paragraphs are an indictment of Lyn Allison's hopeless failure. Any effort the Democrats made to make a clear stand was smothered and dithered away by this nobody.
Xenophon has been a loose cannon in the South Australian Parliament.

No, Sandra Kanck was a loose cannon. Nick Xenophon got legal and policy concessions from a smug and bloated ALP government that still thinks it can do what it likes. Xenophon showed both the Democrats and the Liberals how to be an effective Member of Parliament without having to join the ALP.
It's a recipe for a double dissolution and it's why we need, now more than ever, a moderate third player in the Senate.

The Democrats strike a balance between ideological extremes

Typical Democrats: right problem, wrong solution. The Coalition had nowhere to go further right, only toward the centre that Rudd had already occupied. At a time of policy convergence in so many areas, this balance-between-ideological-extremes crap simply will not do. Don Chipp and Lyn Allison are old enough to remember when Communists and Nazis were potent political forces in our world - but you're not Laura, and spouting this stuff unthinkingly makes you look silly. You even ended the article by claiming that parties of government aren't extreme, they just have different hues.

So does this:
unwilling - or perhaps unable? - to use the parliamentary system as a means to an end.

Right there is your one-line indictment of Allison and those who sailed with her.
These coming years will be tough for the Democrats, to say the least, but our supporters remain loyal and our members enthusiastic.

Loyal to what? Enthusiastic about what? This says: we're all right thanks, we're nowhere and we're loving it!
If we are ever to regain our pre-eminence as the third team in Australian politics, I suspect the changes we make now must be sweeping. All options should be on the table ...

No shit! What a shame you have to drill through half the article to get to this. Come on Laura, give us some of that olde-timey passionate Chipp vision:
including mergers with like-minded micro parties and rebranding.

Oh no, she's been captured by the same marketing clowns who've got Brendan Nelson: there's nothing wrong with our policies, they just need to be marketed properly. Keep following that line of thought and your depleted finances will be bled dry (including those of hard-working party members fored to cough up time and again for nothing), with no gain electorally. Those young Democrats itching to get on local council will be mown down like all those lions-led-by-donkeys in World War I.
We also need to work harder to sell our policies to the masses. Alas, it has been difficult over the years to sex up commonsense ideas.

It is evident to everybody except you that it is the policies themselves that need review. You can rub as hard as you like but you can't polish shit. It was John Faulkner and Penny Wong who did the work in Senate committees that had been a Democrat specialty: note that both Wong and Faulkner will be in the Senate after July.

What the Democrats have done is screwed up commonsense ideas - see what I mean about imporecise language - and the more you treat people like "masses" the harder it is to convince them.

There are large numbers of moderate Liberals who worked hard to get John Howard elected, who bided their time and avoided appearin disloyal, and who now have nothing to show for it. They're loyal to a fault and they'd be enthusiastic Democrats, Laura, if only you weren't too proud to reach out to them.

There are large numbers of Labor voters who just weren't sure about Rudd, and who were apprehensive of all those Melbourne maddies. These people explain the large number of seats in NSW and Queensland that Labor won narrowly, and those in SA and WA whic they lost narrowly. These people are also natural Democrats.

In politics, you convince first, sell later. Your Dad knew that, Laura. So did the Democrats' better leaders, Janine Haines and Cheryl Kernot (it was when Kernot flicked the switch to retail that she lost it). The Democrats' biggest losers, Coulter and Lees, couldn't even convince and were rubbish at selling.
we put the environment on the political agenda for the first time.

Johnny Gorton was doing that when your Dad was one of his Liberal drinking pals, Laura. Nice try.
In Australian politics, we still desperately need a third force that owes its allegiance to no one

And no one will vote for it, no one will fund it; and those who are loal and enthusiastic will find somewhere that rewards those precious attributes.