29 March 2008

Fly-by points

Australia should not seek to have a poor relationship with Japan, but the new Australian government is doing the right thing by changing tack a bit on this relationship.

The hysteria in this article is unwarranted. Australia is an observer at the G7 meeting in Japan and there are a number of other joint Australia-Japan initiatives on the diplomatic rounds to suggest the relationship is far from dead. Both countries have had conservative governments for over a decade, and Rudd's flying by Tokyo on his world tour should be a wake-up call rather than "alarm bells".
The Rudd Government has dramatically broken with previous Labor and Coalition policy on Japanese whaling ...

The Rudd Government's behaviour has aligned to the policy, rather than a policy being stated and matched only with hand-wringing. A departure in terms of behaviour rather than policy. Using hype like "dramatically broken" doesn't help make for calm and productive diplomacy, guys.
... amply demonstrated by its zealous anti-whaling protests, groundless international legal claims and implicit support for Sea Shepherd's illegal antics in the Southern Ocean.

Groundless? Illegal? Positions like that need to be legally tested, not taken for granted. The recent admission by the Japanese fisheries department that they took three times more fish than they should have in recent years means that their claims on whaling are questionable at the very least.
The Prime Minister seemingly can find the time to traverse the entire globe but not to visit Japan.

The Prime Minister is already under pressure for spending as long as he intends to away from the country. There are many countries important to Australia that are not being visited this time.

On one hand, Brendan Nelson should get himself to Japan: it might make him look Prime Ministerial and would put Rudd into a tailspin. On the other, you just know the Japanese would make him lay a wreath at Yasukuni, and Nelson would make some mealy-mouthed effort equating Australian war dead with those of Japan.
But Rudd seems far less keen on the evidence base when it comes to China ... Canberra sees whales as more important than Tibetans.

This is a silly comparison, John Roskam silly. Australian governments have tried behind-the-scenes protests with Japan about whaling to no effect: public humiliation was an entirely appropriate next step. By contrast, Australia's record on human rights generally has been low-profile to the point of non-existence, and on Tibet "non-existent" is probably a fair description of Australia's position. A bit of modesty is called for there, and it seems that is what we're getting.
While China has been ambivalent about and sometimes strongly opposed to Australia's role in regional trade and security arrangements,
Japan has steadfastly remained an advocate of Australian participation.

Fine, so it's time to concentrate a bit on the Chinese - no?
Japanese private sector financial flows are likely to become increasingly important in coming months to fund Australia's huge current account deficit; these flows will be a lot less contentious than investment by the Chinese state in Australia's resource assets.

Japanese companies buying Australian commodities have been high-handed and take-it-or-leave-it, and with the rise of China and India they have had to pull their horns in a bit. It should be possible to recast Australia's economic relationships and pursue opportunities without "dramatically" breaking or otherwise claiming that disaster lurks behind any change. A change in Australia-Japan relations might benefit both parties and others besides, who knows?

No mention of the longterm decline in Japanese tourist numbers to Australia, guys? No mention of the widespread failure of engagement between the two countries, especially the widespread failure of Japanese language classes in Australian schools? Cheer up, the Australia-Japan relationship could be better. It just might work. At this stage, Rudd deserves the benefit of the doubt.

28 March 2008

Membership of the Liberal Party

Bruce Baird made many of the same points that have been made about the Liberal Party for some time. He has also done what others have done: raised important issues and then skated around them.

It's true that people are building little fiefdoms, but the answer to that is simple: break down the fiefdoms. If you join the Liberal Party, then you join the Liberal Party; not some branch or other sub-unit thereof.

Branches should be gatherings of like-minded people who live or work in a given area and are prepared to contribute politically (standing for elected office and/or supporting those who do) in that area. Local/State/Federal Electorate Conferences should comprise individuals - not branches - interested in policy and campaigns at that level and prepared to help at election time.

Attending meetings of these party sub-units, which keep people motivated between elections and raise small amounts of money incidentally, is the busywork of the Liberal Party. A great deal of effort is consumed in this busywork but stripping it away diminishes momentum at election time; and the Liberal Party in particular can't afford any less momentum than it currently has.

When it comes to preselections (choosing candidates to stand for local, state or federal elections for a party), it should be a matter of registering an interest. Naturally, the relevant parliamentary leader and various nobs like the State President will demand a right for themselves, or a nominee, to sit on all Liberal preselections and it's hard to argue against that. A member who has been active in a given area for many years should have the right to sit on preselections in a particular electorate. Apart from that, it should be up for grabs; the remaining numbers of people necessary to make up a preselection should comprise anyone sufficiently motivated to turn up.

A person should be able to stand for the Liberal Party without having been a member for a certain period - but a person should not be able to vote in a preselection unless they have been a member for at least a year without having been suspended.

When it comes to party state executives, nobody gives a shit about regional representation so it should be abolished. The same applies to NSW Legislative Council preselections divided by geographically: sheer, utter bullshit. Smash the fiefdoms, save the Liberal Party (from itself). The moderates who caved in to accept that structure deserve shooting. All members should vote for state executive.

The flipside of all this democracy is that any elected office - any preselection or state executive post - won by a pinhead should be negated. The relevant parliamentary leader and the state director, if they both agree, should negate the election of any given pinhead with no right of appeal (the office-bearers might change their minds with or without persuasion, but definitely no right of appeal).

The Liberal Party sends regular mailouts to members, asking for money and notifying them of events - where any mail to an individual member is returned twice in a row, that person's membership should be suspended.

The reason why the Taliban have been so successful in the NSW Liberal Party is because of the system of local fiefdoms. They go to small-scale religious communities with little savvy in Australian society generally, let alone its political system. They persuade them that the government is out to introduce all sorts of abhorrent measures - unless they give money and/or lend their names to some Liberal fiefdom headed by a Talibani.

If you smash local fiefdoms and suspend the membership of inactive members, you are well on your way to a party where the genuinely motivated have maximum political impact and where petty-minded ditherers and wreckers have no power whatsoever. Assuming Liberals want an outcome like that, of course.

Baird confronts the issue of "rotten boroughs" but takes the branch structure as given, which means the problem he identifies can't and won't ever be solved.

27 March 2008

Liberals in government service

John Quiggin's article in today's Financial Review on the Liberal Party and government services is terrific stuff, timely while at the same time consistent with what he's been saying for years.

He's right about the insufficiency of alternatives to public provision of government services. John Howard won when he said that splashing public money around was poor policy and no good politically either. The result in 2007 confirmed this initial assessment; the result may have been different if he had stuck to his guns, or if Costello and Minchin had the guts to stand strong on the ground where sound policy and good politics meet.

The problem comes with the lack of respect for a solid service with an impeccable brand; Greg Barns looks back fondly on his days in the early '90s of coming to NSW and selling the State Bank for far less than it was worth to bankers who treated him and his then-boss like mugs. The same has applied to almost every government asset sale since that time. The catalytic empowering effects of privatisations under Thatcher and Reagan have created a momentum that continues only in the minds of Liberals. Once again, there are grounds for a rethink but Liberals lack the discipline and thoroughness to confront recent history and look for alternatives.

The Liberals should develop a determination to deliver effective services, rather than quibbling about the need for the services at all. Labor has spent 49 of the past 67 years governing NSW by demonstrating a commitment to public services, rendering the Liberals "the B-team" Quiggin talks about. They maintain the image still in their rhetoric, which explains why people have stopped listening to them. Victorian Labor won when it demonstrated a commitment to delivering public services, ending the tendency of that state to entrust Liberals with public services. The other states have similar histories; Labor has dropped the public services ball, and the Liberals should pick it up and start scoring the only points that matter - the points that actually help win the game.

Nothing else can or does work. Labor Ministers can go to prison for the most heinous crimes, there can be the most appalling corruption in Labor ranks - but provided Labor maintains an image of being able to deliver public services, it will be returned to government again and again. No amount of PR bullshit changes a single vote and successive Liberals promising same should just give up and piss off unless they want their party to stay in opposition.

The Liberals can only smash that image by establishing that they really do intend to have health, education, transport and other services delivered to a consistently high standard, and that they're not afraid to spend money to this end. Private providers should only be welcome to the extent that they would facilitate the aims of a Liberal government in providing those services over the long term.

I wish that Marise Payne and Chris Pyne had talked about this stuff rather than the flatulent nonsense they went on with.

26 March 2008

Mixed messages as usual

The only country that could cut itself off from others and survive is China. The United States would die if it walled itself off from influxes of people, goods and ideas, and so would Australia. China is a nuclear power and is enormously powerful militarily. When John Roskam talks about getting tough with China, what (if anything) does he mean?
IF THE priority the Rudd Government attaches to an issue can be determined by the number of media releases about it, then halting Japanese whaling is more important than stopping Chinese repression in Tibet.

Why on earth would press releases be any sort of indicator of importance? A press release is a device to attract the attention of the media. Kevin Rudd put together his entire government over the summer, and the only thing he put out a press release about was the accommodation of his family pets.

To his credit, Roskam concedes that the capacity of the Australian government to stop repression in Tibet is limited. To his discredit, he does not think about this in protesting that the government has done what it can, where it can, using press-release diplomacy.
When it comes to Tibet, so far there's been nothing more than a quiet plea for "calm and restraint by all parties". Relations between Australia and China are business as usual. When the Prime Minister was asked whether he would mention Tibet on his visit to Beijing, he refused to answer. He also refused to respond when asked whether he would urge China to allow international observers into Tibet.

That paragraph could have been written at any point over the past thirty years, about any Australian Prime Minister serving over that time. However, some things do change:
Discussion about a possible boycott of the Olympics has highlighted the changing moral certitude of our past and present politicians. Malcolm Fraser advocated sporting sanctions against South Africa and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, but now believes that the Beijing Olympics should proceed uninterrupted.

In 1980, when the world was very different, Fraser took a policy on the Moscow Olympics that he has since recanted; he admits that a full Australian boycott would not have made a damn bit of difference to the actions of the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. His attitude to the Beijing Olympics seems to show that he has learned his lessons from that time.

China aint South Africa. The success of sanctions against the apartheid regime has encouraged people to apply this as a universal cure for repressive regimes. In the case of China, it's a mistake.
It's interesting to speculate what would happen if a small proportion of the effort the Australian Government allocated to getting publicity for its opposition to whaling was instead devoted to encouraging China to strengthen the political rights of its citizens.

No it isn't. Bugger-all would happen, and there's nothing interesting about that.
Certainly the situation of Tibet is complicated because both the Coalition and Labor accept Chinese sovereignty over the province.

If the Dalai Lama can concede that a free and independent Tibet is a non-starter, so can John Roskam.
While he didn't quite commit to pursuing an "ethical" foreign policy, he loudly proclaimed that Australia would do more to uphold international standards of human rights

It shouldn't be too hard to eclipse John Howard's record on upholding internationalist conceptions of human rights, and I would be surprised if this isn't achieved at some point over the next few months. Rudd may pick some area other than Tibet to do this, and at this point it's still fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.
He's not even willing to do the most basic symbolic act, which is to raise the subject.

Refusing to answer the question of a journalist, refusing to flag his punches before he gets there and refusing to fritter away any good he may do in other areas, is not the same as actually refusing to do it (he hasn't even arrived there yet, John). Rudd may do all that without, as Roskam has admitted, achieving anything for the people of Tibet anyway. Roskam has held Rudd to standards to which neither Rudd nor Roskam adheres.
Given that the Prime Minister makes so much of his special relationship with the Chinese Government ...

Does he? I think that others, opponents and allies alike, make more of it than he does.
... it would have been thought that the Chinese would have at least listened to him, even if they ignored what he said.

And they may yet do so, John. It's too early to blame Rudd for something that hasn't happened yet. If you're going to set Rudd up to fail, or look like a hypocrite, you'll have to work harder than that.

Mixed messages are the norm in foreign relations. Diplomacy involves keeping it light and vague as a cover for more concrete action. Clear, unambiguous messages are rare in foreign policy: war, or the sort of contempt reserved for Robert Mugabe, are exceptions to the rule of positive-sounding ambiguities. This is true of the current Australian government, and previous ones: it is true of other countries' governments too, including that of China.

John Roskam can criticise Rudd for action or inaction in certain areas, but doing so pre-emptively on the basis (or absence) of press releases is silly. It helps to be clear about your own position, too: could I suggest that John Roskam's interest in Tibet is not of long standing, and that Kevin Rudd has forgotten more than Roskam has learned about the subject?

25 March 2008

What are you doing here?

What does it mean to be a member of a branch of a political party? This is the sort of thing that the Liberal Party needs to think through over the long term, but will instead settle for a short-term fix ... if only one were available.

Members of political parties used to:

  1. raise funds for political parties at election time

  2. hand out how-to-vote cards at polling booths

  3. have a substantial say in who the party would choose as candidates

  4. contribute Liberal candidates from their ranks.

This is the traditional role of the party member, but it is not the contemporary reality:

  1. Political parties raise much more money from donations and fundraisers than party members are capable of raising. A Millennium Forum function at a major hotel can raise sums in the tens or hundreds of thousands; a function run by a branch might get twenty people along to a dinner with $10-20 a head profit going to the administration of a branch, or making a small contribution in an electorate that might not prove decisive in a wider campaign.

  2. The average age of a Liberal Party member in NSW is well into their sixties. They are not physically capable of standing around a polling booth from 8am to 6pm in all weathers, then scrutineering afterwards, then going to the after-party to watch the result and congratulate/commiserate with the candidate for whom they have worked. The Liberal Party increasingly pays people to hand out how-to-votes, which doesn't make for much commitment at the very point of engagement with the wider public.

  3. Partly as a reaction against branch-stacking, and partly to facilitate the imposition of head office candidates, the input of local branch members is diminished when it comes to preselections. Branch members find candidates foisted upon them who have no idea what they do, and who are not grateful to them because they didn't help them get preselection. A Liberal MP experienced in the ways of the party relies on his or her local branch members to smooth over problems or bring them to the MP's attention; the Liberal MP inexperienced in party affairs has no idea and assumes that stuff gets taken care of with the same assiduousness as their own preselection.

  4. As above: Brendan Nelson, Jackie Kelly and other Liberal MPs had been party members for less than a year before they were first elected. Part of the difficulty of duchessing people into becoming Liberal candidates is that the experience prepares them poorly for the hard graft of political life. They do not relate to their local branch members, which demotivates them.

All of the above applies to the ALP as well. Anthony Albanese might be enjoying his boot-on-the-other-foot moment but it doesn't contribute much to the wider debate. When it comes time to get rid of duds like Morris Iemma or Julia Irwin, we'll see who's sick.

The recent kerfuffle over Scott Morrison's foray into political homelessness illustrates how the changing nature of political parties encourages cluelessness. Morrison was a former State Director, he should have made it his business to get to know Liberal branch members in the Cook electorate and find out which were good branches, which weren't. His performance in that job shows he has a talent for sucking up to those with status and ignoring those without. Simply plumping for a branch "near his home" was an act of such pissant carelessness that he deserves being shown up by someone like John White. I hope White has moderated his views on white Australia from when I knew him, and that he no longer holds branch meetings at Audley Weir on Christmas Day to test people's loyalty.

The latest contribution from Malcolm Colless is not well-informed or well thought through. The speculation surrounding Greiner is nothing but hype and is used as a hook to re-state the bleedin' obvious.
It is widely believed that the road back to the Treasury benches in Canberra must begin in NSW if for no other reason than it has traditionally been the breadbasket state for Liberal Party funding.

That, and the fact that 49 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives are in NSW, and it's hard to form a majority therein without lifting your vote in NSW. On the state level - well, a win anywhere would be nice for the Liberals. It's possible for a party to have heaps of money and still pull up short electorally: the goal is to achieve the latter, Malcolm. A bit of digging on your part would have revealed that the Liberal Party's treasurer is not a well-connected Sydney person but some Melbourne grandee who probably can't operate a push-button telephone.
As the Liberal Party continues with the grim task of reviewing its future in the wake of last November's federal election defeat, it is abundantly clear that internal structural reform to break the stranglehold of any self-interested faction is what is needed ahead of any moves towards mergers or takeovers within the Coalition.

No shit. When that faction takes over state executive, however, it creases to be self-interested and its interests become inseparable from those of the party organisation. That's the whole idea of why they're doing what they're doing. Those who stand against them simply haven't stood up.
O'Farrell needs to send a signal that he is in charge and is taking the party forward because, while having a field day attacking the chronic mismanagement by the Labor Government of Premier Morris Iemma, the Opposition cannot seem to capture the imagination of the electorate.

Maybe this is because the electorate doesn't know what the conservatives have in mind to make this better, if anything? And the electorate is quite justified in asking what is their plan to remedy the crises in the public hospitals and transport systems, to curb the frightening surge in urban violence and to restore respect for a police force undermined by years of Labor-imposed political correctness, just for a start.

As things stand, Liberal strategists are grimly pessimistic about the Opposition's chances in the next State election, due in 2011.

While people are working on policy, the Taliban are addressing weird religious cults and getting their 500 members to stack out hardworking Liberal branch members. Having Peter Phelps in any role, even handing out how-to-votes, would be politically suicidal. Colless is a little hysterical about Laura Norder but his analysis of the problem is commonplace. Readers don't need a newspaper to reinforce what they already know, they need to be told what is happening but not widely obvious. One phone call and he could have had an interview with O'Farrell to answer some of these questions, and have a better article as a result.

I was an active Liberal for 14 years and tried to avoid the kind of stupidity that has come to pass. The best way to avoid such stupidity is to get out. Let's hope that those who would rush toward the flames are actually doing good work for party, state and nation.

23 March 2008

Banning silly op-eds not an attack on free speech

Whenever people propose bans on junkfood advertising on kids' TV, they make it really clear they are not seeking to ban the product advertised altogether. They make it really clear that they are not against letting consumers know that a product exist, and that their real problem is the emotional manipulation of children too young to know they're being manipulated for commercial gain.

Chris Berg has no excuse for ignoring this painstaking work.
But are we that easily manipulated by brand managers and advertising firms? Does the Government have to step in to protect us, and our children, from harmful ads?

Depends who you mean by "we", really. It should be possible for children to be given appropriate entertainment without the parent having to resist demands for junk food. Anyone who doesn't realise that if kids aren't regularly reminded about something they don't need, they might forget about it, has forgotten a lot about their childhood.

They might have also forgotten that the Eye Pee Yay, which hires Chris to edit their journal, is funded by tobacco companies whose sales have declined since the ban on advertising their products. It's dishonest of Chris Berg to wade into this debate without even acknowledging that key event in the advertising/ public health issue. And let us have no protest from Chris Berg that he was writing an article, not a book: there is so much padding in his article that the issue could at least have been addressed, earning him and his views more respect than either is due.
Advertising is, at its core, just the simple delivery of information.

Why not strip it back to its core? Why allow the emotional manipulation element targeting children, who are not making mature decisions over their own money?
The anti-capitalist Naomi Klein famously took this argument one step further when she decried the psychological power of corporate brands — we are all, apparently, oppressed by tyrannical graphic designers.

This is several steps further, actually. If you haven't done the hard work with the painstakingly balanced reports coming out of government and NGOs, you have no business representing Klein's simplistic pap as representative.

Klein sees what she wants to see, and so does Chris Berg: they deserve one another. The rest of us deserve better.
This view does not just reduce us to the level of dumb automatons, passively waiting for advertising executives to beam their instructions directly into our brains, it also creates a profound dilemma for democratic politics. If we don't have free will in the shopping centre, we certainly don't have free will in the voting booth.

There is nothing profound in a Chris Berg article, and this is another example of overreaching. Berg conflates children with adults. If he believes that consumption is performed by well-informed individual - adults - with free will, why would he not extend the same view to consumers as voters (or other facets of their citizenship)?
Minors are depicted by policy-makers as unable to defend themselves against a well-planned onslaught of marketing. However, as the new book Prohibitions published by Britain's Institute of Economic Affairs shows, children as young as five form preferences about their favourite TV programs. And by the age of 11, children demonstrate a pronounced scepticism about claims made in ads.

Children as young as five form preferences but are unable to distinguish between emotional manipulation in a story and emotional manipulation in demanding their parents buy them a given product. Some but not all eleven-year-olds make the judgments Berg would ascribe to them; ramping up the quantity and targeting of ads makes formation of this judgment harder, not easier.
During the federal election campaign, anti-advertising rhetoric took a decidedly surreal turn.

Assuming it actually was against all advertising per se, Chris. At least you've tried.
... the Howard government promised to fund a new ABC channel for children completely free of junk food ads. It was a bizarre train of thought that led Liberal policy-makers to think that the best way to combat childhood obesity was to make sitting on the couch and watching TV more appealing.

Once again, Chris Berg has a firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick. The poor lamb expects you to be impressed by the firmness of his grasp. Kids will watch TV anyway, why not better quality than crap? What of the Rudd government's decision to can this channel, anything? No?
The belief that an individual's free will is crushed under the jackboot of catchy advertising jingles is, of course, nonsense. We have just as much autonomy over our personal decisions as we did before an ad break.

Bit of a straw man, then, wasn't it.
So what, then, is advertising for? It informs us that new products are available in the marketplace.

Like a dog returning to its vomit, really. The Eye Pee Yay, like the French monarchy, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
An ad that informs us that McDonald's now sells salad only interests those people who would probably like to buy a salad from McDonald's.

Those ads are not run during kids' TV programming. They run different ads during those times. Nice try at shirking the hard work of research, though.

If McDonald's have commissioned you to write this article Chris, you should have said so. It's a form of dishonesty to pretend you're motivated by "public affairs" generally if you're acting on behalf and behest of an interested party.
What child is going to abandon chocolates and lollies when their ads disappear off television? Kids will always like junk food. Any parents who think that a government ban will make walking up the chocolate aisle less stressful are deceiving themselves.

The frequency and severity of the demands will lessen in most cases. It's certainly worth a try.
And anybody who thinks that teenagers will refuse the next "alcopop" just because they are no longer being specifically marketed to under-25s has forgotten a lot about their youth.

The media environment of our youth and that of today's youth are different, Chris, and loosening the linkages between teenagers' lives and alcohol use is no bad thing for anyone without shares in a small number of companies.
... people are smarter than advertisements.

Well, some people. A child can be clever and yet unable to form a mature, considered judgment. Both are smarter than Chris Berg op-eds.

21 March 2008

Whatever, dude

The sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, along with the US election campaign, has focused attention on the merits of going to war in Iraq.

Phillip Coorey makes the point that those who were too enthusiastic for war in 2002 look a little silly now. I have no idea why there wasn't a kind of PunditWatch in force to embarrass Bolt et al much, much earlier.

Then there were Alexander Downer and Christopher Hitchens seeking to quell the sniggers at their cheerleading with a toujours l'audace defence of their respective positions. However well this may or may not work as an exercise in arse-covering, neither Downer nor Hitchens offer much practical help to the citizen in deciding whether more blood and treasure into Iraq.

If Australian troops withdraw from Iraq, Saddam Hussein is not going to spring back to life, and nor will he give back the A$300m that smart Alec gave him.
The most common criticism is that they pursued the de-Baathification policy too zealously. Initially, the Americans wanted a modest de-Baathification process, knowing that many of the people who made Iraq work at all were Baath Party members because it was impossible to hold any position of authority without being in the party.

The Americans only planned to remove from office the top two levels of the bureaucracy — that is, ministers and deputy ministers or their equivalents. Once the Iraqi Interim Government took over, that is a government made up of Iraqis, it addressed the de-Baathification process with much more zeal. Arguably, the Americans should have done more to restrain them from assuming they could.

Why did Americans understand Iraq better than Iraqis? If the people running Iraq are clowns, why should Australians help prop up such a government?
The more serious criticism of the Americans is that they should have sent more troops to Iraq in the first place.

Fine, this criticism may be made of the Americans - but why did Australia send so few troops, and why make such a fuss when it is drawn down?
... decisions have to be made about the future of Iraq. We should all contemplate what we wish for. Personally, I wish for a united Iraq in which the distinctive traditions and beliefs of its diverse peoples are respected through democratic and pluralistic institutions, a country that can develop successfully its natural resources and play a constructive role in dealing with the many difficult, painful and bloody issues of the Middle East.

This is possible, but it will take time. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told me last June that outsiders had to remember that Iraqi society had been brutalised for decades and it couldn't be stitched back together in a short period. To achieve a decent outcome for Iraq would require the presence of foreign (largely American) forces for quite some time.

The argument here is: decisions have to be made, but by whom? However well-intentioned Downer's professed sentiments for "a decent outcome", he ignores the idea that what is happening in Iraq is what happened throughout the decolonising third world a generation ago: diverse groups will unite to drive out the occupying power, and fracture thereafter.

Always beware people using the passive voice. Hitchens should know better than this:
A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial.

The Kurdish and Shi'ite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide.

A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled.

The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated.

Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil-free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qa'ida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society.

Who decides, who benefits?

Americans should thank both God and Allah that the clowns of Abu Ghraib didn't get to Saddam. Imagine the Chomsky-Pilger axis whipping up sympathy for yet another third-world dictator.
There is, however, one position that nobody can honestly hold but that many people try their best to hold. And that is what I call the Bishop Berkeley theory of Iraq, whereby if a country collapses and succumbs to trauma, and it's not our immediate fault or direct responsibility, then it doesn't count, and we are not involved.

It is inescapable that at some point, Iraqis must govern their country by themselves. The impediment to that has been removed, and at some point the US-led Coalition of non-Iraqi forces must leave. The question is not whether they should leave, but when. When the death rate in al-Anbar province diminishes to that of, say, south-central LA? At what point do you trust Iraqis to manage their own affairs?
A time will come when the Iraqi army and police can handle domestic security alone. At that point there will barely be any need for foreign troops in Iraq.

Surely barely should be replaced with not in Downer's sentence above. The foreign intervention should be judged by the countries that contributed troops against the degree to which they facilitated not just security forces, but a political system in Iraq capable of resolving and minimising conflict. The policies pursued by Downer and others were and are not conducive to this end, and stand condemned.

Hitchens and Downer have implicitly accepted Powell's so-called Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it. They stand there with shards in their hands with no clear idea how to impose a fix upon this broken country, nor how to rally the locals to do so themselves. Proponents of the Iraq war should spend less time covering their own backsides and more time helping those in whose name they acted (or cheered) to resolve the conflict that will ensure six millennia of Iraqi history does not vanish in an orgy of violence, but also that the reputations of two plummy-voiced men are not tarnished to the point where they are ignored.

06 March 2008

Screwing Wollongong

If only Beth Morgan had hooked up with Joe Scimone, they could have had a good time and saved the people of Wollongong and NSW a great deal of embarrassment, money and time.

Much has been made of Wollongong Council, and the fact that an organisation only gets like that when there is no way of overturning the elite that runs it - in this case, the NSW ALP. Sorry Morry has done enough to get this matter off the front pages of media that marginal seat voters are going to read (i.e. not the Illawarra Mercury), but not enough to lose face for his faction of his party in the one Labor-voting part of Australia that yielded the least numbers of "Howard battlers".

Worse than having the mask of local democracy ripped away by Sorry Morry and Miss Hot Pants in the planning department is being dumped on by Chris Berg, the democracy-hater from the Eye Pee Yay.
Compared with other levels of government, there is little accountability and scrutiny of local government. It is no wonder it often makes expensive mistakes and is susceptible to corruption.

Local government is scrutinised heavily by state government. Much of its administrative effort is spent in filling out forms and otherwise being accountable. In many local government authorities this would have gotten worse after Wollongong - one of the country's biggest local government authorities - was sacked, as fearful administrators engaged in arse-covering at the expense of locally governing. Local government decisions on planning and other issues are subject to judicial appeal to an extent unknown at state and federal levels. It is much easier to get information from a council than it is from any state or federal jurisdiction. More people will have scrutinised local government decision-making processes more closely than any other level of government.

Once again, take the opposite of a Chris Berg assertion and it is likely to be true.
Part of the fault lies in the sorts of people who are drawn to council office. Local government politics tends to attract those excited by the machinations and manipulations of political life but disinterested in public policy.

Yairs, because Federal Parliament is some sort of Elysium where folk talk about philosophical principles, and state politics is full of policy wonks. Well spotted there. If anyone had weak grounds for snobbery, it's Chris Berg.
There is one good thing to be said for politicians motivated by ideological fervour: at least they want the best for their constituents.

That lovely Mr Stalin, beavering away in Moscow with the sole aim of getting schools and hospitals and sealed roads for rural Georgia. And of course, all those Coalition MPs with eleven years of ideological whiplash to work through. Nice line Chris, shame you hadn't thought about it.
A main cause of the corruption in local government is the often cited problem of lack of transparency and accountability.

There he goes again. Trot out a line once, and it's rubbish: trot it out again and again and it becomes a given. Or, so Chris Berg hopes.
Few media organisations are interested in the day to day goings-on of individual councils, at least until a corruption watchdog puts a councillor in front of a judge.

Yeah, because the media do such a fantastic job of scrutinising government. Kevin Rudd assembled an entire government behind closed doors and what dd the media report on? The living conditions of his dog and cat, because that's what Rudd's people gave them by way of press release. It's taken the NSW state parliamentary press gallery a decade to realise Labor are full of shit and couldn't run anything.
It is perhaps indicative that some of the earliest casualties of the sub-prime crisis have been local government investment portfolios.

It is perhaps indicative, Chris, of the accountability and transparency of local government that this has come to light so early. Less accountable and transparent organisations will have similar exposures, but we will have to wait for the media to uncover those.
Limiting political donations creates its own problems, not least that doing so tends to favour incumbent politicians who are able to harness the full resources of their government.

The Howard government's $200m ad campaign in 2007 worked so well in getting itself re-elected. Another Chris Berg pearler!
Most of the time, local governments are doing little more than imposing petty, nanny state, regulations: putting up noise restrictions for street parties; forcing us to use smaller rubbish bins; ensuring that nobody paints their front door red; and other similar important things.

Is this really what it does "most of the time", or are these just the things that make it to the attention of the watchdogs in the media?
Local government tends to resist urban infill, putting extra pressure on our already critical land shortage.

Local councils don't have power over transport and utilities and other infrastructure that might provide some ammunition in favour of such projects. Rather than focusing on power, what about focusing on the nature of the poke rather than the pig therein?
When councillors and their staff have the power to determine town planning restrictions according to their subjective judgment ...

And what else are they supposed to use, clear guidelines set down by enlightened state government? Planning law is so vague that virtually anything can b judged right or wrong, or simply overridden by a minister at any given time. There is no guarantee that a state minister is immune to offerings from alternately hopeful and grateful supplicants, either.

Chris Berg has, once again, identified a headline-grabbing problem, diagnosed it wrongly and suggested the wrong solution. Poor research, fella.

05 March 2008

That untravell'd world of moderate liberalism

After so many years in the darkness, Liberal moderates can be forgiven for stumbling blinking into the harsh light of media attention, and relishing the novelty that a wider public might want to hear from them. You'd have hoped that Chris Pyne and Marise Payne spent their long years in exile thinking, but no.
As Mark Twain might have said, rumours of our death are greatly exaggerated.

Not greatly exaggerated, Marise. The dying pillow was smoothed, and thankfully it lay under your heads rather than over your faces. This is only the first term of Opposition, and you remember what 1995-99 was like in NSW.

Such a defiant image contrasts with this:
"edge of the waterfall"

Well, which is it? She'll be right or panic stations? As long as you're part of the Main Stream, who cares about a waterfall? Makes a change from being up the creek without a paddle, eh?
There is tremendous scope for fresh ideas, for new thinking, for being prepared to use 2008 as a year of modernisation of our organisation. The party needs to embrace a change that will replenish our membership.

Just one year, mind you. By Christmas, the Liberal Party will have all the members and all the ideas it needs, thank you very much, and my haven't they got the inspiring leadership to make it happen. Fuck the membership, I can hear party hardheads blockheads say, give us some votes.
A strong membership base is a strong resource - for developing policy, in campaigning, in fundraising, in spreading the word, in providing the candidates, staff and personnel that every political party needs.

Yairs - it's a resource, certainly not the resource it was in the 1940s, which is why the Liberal Party membership will continue to be passed over when it comes to ideas and money, and yes even candidates. The ideal Liberal Party candidate is someone who wouldn't dream of sitting in a draughty room on a cold wet weeknight in May, listening to policy ideas regurgitated straight from talkback radio and helping plan desultory fundraisers that wouldn't cover the cost of mailing meeting notices to branch members.
We need to acknowledge the growing inevitability of the political cycle.

This is bullshit. Governments that are disciplined enough to purge lazy ministers and lazy thinking can be much more durable than wankers who just shrug and blame their own venality upon "the cycle".
What we should take from our recent federal experience is the challenge of creating our future, and avoiding wallowing in the past.

The Liberal Party's troubles is that it could not distinguish between what was currently viable and what was past, and one can have no confidence this recognition is much further advanced.
The Liberal Party of Australia has been custodian of two strands of political thought: liberalism and conservatism.

The Howard government neglected liberalism to the point where it is right to question whether the Liberal Party can seriously claim it at all. Last seen during the Fraser years, it is as musty and decayed as a catechism in the later years of Henry VIII. This is partly the fault of Howard and his orcs like Minchin and Abbott - but only partly.

Moderate liberalism should have manifested itself more strongly, in the debates over refugees but also in other areas of policy. It was up to moderates to make the case that education funding need not mean more resources for Trotskyite womyn's collectives. It was up to moderates to make the case that there is nothing at all "trendy" about Aboriginal policy, to grab them by the lapels and make them see that all the rhetoric about 'fair go' and 'family values' is so much bullshit because it is so palpably denied to Aborigines - and others, but don't start.

One of the key challenges of moderate liberalism lies in the meaning of civil liberties in an age of terror. Do checks-and-balances, parliamentary dramaturgy and rules-of-admissable-evidence really contain some precious kernel of freedom, and if so what is it? Are those things, handed down (yes, down, unto thee) from an ancient and distant land and which can apparently only ever be preserved or diminished, helpful in preventing us from terror and other evils? I am equally certain that these are central questions for moderate liberals, and that Pyne and Payne have squibbed them. They are much more important than monarchy/republic. I doubt they've thought about these issues much, and I think less of them for not having used their time in philosophical exile more productively.

Did they even try to adapt moderate liberalism to Australia in the early twentyfirst century? Did they bollocks. All we got was a slow wet fart like this:
We should embrace a practice that has been initiated by right-of-centre political parties around the world to their benefit: allowing all party members to select the parliamentary leader. In one sweep, we would give Australians a reason to join and become active in the party.

There is, of course, no connection between an idea like that and a rejuvenation of a political party. In 1986 - where the idea belongs, and obviously the last time Pyne did any actual thinking - it would have yielded Joh Bjelke-Petersen or John Elliott as leader, or even Wilson Tuckey. Imagine something like that happening today, with David Clarke or some sun-baked pinhead from Western Australia, and Pyne having the guts to admit that such an outcome wasn't what he had in mind.

Part of the reason why someone like Jeff Kennett increasingly lost touch was because he was convinced that he was carrying his parliamentary colleagues, and that they were a hapless lot. A leader not elected by the parliamentary party would be confirmed in that view. People with greater political sophistication but less appeal would run rings around them, which is why David Cameron is not UK PM yet (nor, indeed, has Barack Obama yet convinced Democrats that he is their future).

Chris Pyne spent many years holding a flame for Peter Costello to become Liberal leader. Costello would never have won a ballot of party members. Tony Abbott, Mal Brough perhaps; but not Costello. Not Nelson either, and definitely not Pyne.

But that is to treat the idea seriously, which is more than it deserves. This idea is born out of panic. It follows the same three-step of political skittishness identified in Yes Minister:

  1. We must do something.

  2. This is something.

  3. Let's do this.

It's a silly idea and not at all attractive - like the Democrats' idea of lowering the voting age to 16 (and look where that got them).
There can be little argument that in the US, where the Republicans have involved their membership in this way since the middle of the 19th century, the Republican Party is a healthier specimen because of it.

Healthier than what, Chris? Is it healthier because it purged itself of moderates? Is it healthier because money and lobbying have invalidated the contribution of branch members? Is it healthier because it will never remove the taint of one poor leader who snuffed out debate and left the party bereft after he'd had his go?
So, in building broader representation and diversity, we must attract more members from multicultural Australia ...

The more multicultural an electorate is, the less likely it is to vote Liberal and the more likely branches there are to be rightwing "rotten borough" branches. Marise Payne has no excuse for not acknowledging that, let alone taking steps in her newfound freedom to act.
... more women and more young Australians who see membership of a centre-right party as a way to express their ideals in a stimulating environment of open minds and open debate.

Not that such debate would change anything, mind you. Chris Pyne said that wouldn't be healthy.
We need an agenda where the modern priorities include: climate change and water issues; addressing why women are still paid less than men in exactly the same jobs; dealing with the reality of modern family life in its many versions - particularly the notorious work-life balance. We cannot afford a head-in-the-sand approach to these and other pressing life challenges of the 21st century.

Work-life balance does not include spending one five nights a month week at branch meetings discussing stormwater recycling when someone like Peter Debnam will airily dismiss as impractical, after being patronising of course, whereupon any attempt to pursue debate will be viewed as divisive or undisciplined. The environment Payne talks about requires a critical mass which isn't there, and Payne and Pyne both know it.
We must encourage open discussion and robust debate. If we feel constrained about open expression, if there is any culture of intimidation, we are venturing into illiberal territory and I have had enough of any suggestion that a political party is the last place to discuss policy.

Hear that? She's had enough. I can almost hear the foot being stamped. How it stops the philosophical noodlings of the 1980s which only served as a foil to a can-do government is not clear.
Also, a similar view from families, who believed that the life of their family member was perceived by our government as insufficiently "mainstream" to merit the respect and basic human rights that the rest of the community takes for granted, just because they were gay. We can talk about the importance of family all we like, but once we are perceived as telling Australians that we disapprove of the lives of members of their family, I believe we are crossing a line, and we also pay a philosophical price for that.

Indeed. But gay rights have hit the mainstream with such force that any action by the Liberal Party would just be backfilling rather than actual progress. The legislation defined by a recent HREOC report as discriminatory to same-sex couples will be repealed within the next five years, and probably not by a Liberal government. The Liberal Party will always have conservative dogs in the manger of minority rights, always.

Interesting that equality for gays is closer at hand than equality for women - if I were a moderate Liberal, I'd have thought about that and it would show.
Australians are more actively interested in politics than at any time in our nation's history.

This is garbage. The decade or so after World War II, the systematic failure of capitalism in the Great Depression, the conscription debates in World War I or Federation saw much more political activism from a greater proportion of the population than we have now.
They have more ways to be involved.

Or, not involved. Nice assertion, it's just the reverse of what's true.
The internet has transformed politics.

The impact on Australian politics has been pretty minor. There have been no mass fundraising efforts like those in the US, and it's just another delivery channel. TV was introduced in Australia in 1956 but it took more than a decade to have an impact on the country's politics.
There are 1.8 million members of the "Australia" network on Facebook. That equates to 14 per cent of the people who voted on November 24 last year. That number will only grow.

Equates, not includes. The political parties in Australia will not succeed in using this effectively unless a foreign politician of the future finds some way to crack it, and even then the Liberal (or liberal) approach will be a feeble imitation. No plan, no sign of any consideration from Pyne - and yes, signs of intellectual life are possible in a wide-ranging, heavily edited speech.

Like Odysseus, like Robert the Bruce or Nelson Mandela or Jose Ramos Horta, moderate Liberals have done time on the outer and seen their life's work traduced. Unlike these others that exile was not sufficiently terrible to prompt far-reaching questions about their motivations and applicability of their beliefs; they basically dusted off stale and irrelevant ideas and are now going around stirring up apathy, like street hawkers offering chipped crockery and stained and dented cookware to passers-by.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate ...

Yep, sounds like the moderate liberals I knew.
... but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Nah, sorry - you must be thinking of somebody else. Who exactly I'm not sure, but not Marise Payne or Chris Pyne. Even their opponents within the Liberal Party have encouraged them to take long hard looks at themselves: Pyne has clearly taken this to justify his preening. If they haven't spent the past fifteen or so tumultuous years thinking, what have they been doing?

03 March 2008

The broad church

At the Liberal Party preselections for the NSW Legislative Council ticket in the lead-up to the 1999 election, David Clarke said that he'd get the preferences from the Christian lobby groups while the moderates could get preferences from the Democrats and Greens. The moderates didn't come through with their side of the bargain (let alone shift the debate from the diktat of Clarke), and neither did the religious right.

This article from Laura Tingle (you'll need to be an AFR subscriber) shows what is possibly the biggest failure of Howard's leadership of the Liberal Party. All that money spent of frippery at private schools - fat lot of good it did them. All that book-festival scaremongering about the religious right in Australia - how hollow it rings. Jensen and Pell kept their distance, and became the dogs that did not bark in 2007. Hillsong meant it when they said they were apolitical but all those pinheads in the Liberal Party followed the Karl Rove playbook until it crumbled in their pudgy hands.

The rightwing went in to the 2007 NSW state election holding the commanding heights of the Liberal Party, with a rash of churchy candidates with no real idea about governing the state and a spectacularly gutless then-leader. They came out of the experience with ranks of candidates, if not moderate then certainly centrist, who were better than the NSW Liberals deserved. Greg Smith has found actual policy development to be a bit more tricky than just pimping out Laura Norder, and will hopefully give it away.

This blog has rejoiced at the collapse of Fielding First and the uselessness of Fred Nile, all bastards and no honesty. The Taliban would have been vindicated had they actually won something other than Alex Hawke's seat, and now their little buddy in the Hobart branch office who sounds like Reverend Lovejoy is copping a taste of his own sjambok.

Abetz will soon collapse because he can only dish it out, not take it. Greg Barns attempt to look like a big-hearted soul will also fail for two reasons: he cannot pick a worthy example of someone wrongly persecuted, and nor can he see the inadequacy of the rules of evidence in the Tasmanian bar as the only standard of proof worth having.

The end (of political success) no longer justifies the means (branchstacking and sanctimonious hypocrisy) for the religious right. There is no coincidence between the teachings of Jesus Christ and what these insidious people do. Stripped of public resources and the cloak of anonymity they are revealed not just as grubs - worse, they are losers. They have nowhere to go and nothing to offer, and yet the Taliban will not have the good grace to go quietly - it's time for Goetterdammerung in the bunker, yet nobody wants to attack this malicious force now that they're weak.

I always hated the "broad church" image of politics - singing from the same songsheet, worshipping a single deity etc. - but it is time to turn the Taliban out, and to take away their seats on the church committee. How easily Kevin Rudd was able to prise the religious vote from the Liberal grasp is a testament to the feeble grip these people, so formidable in the Liberal Party, had on reality. The fact that they maintain their grip on that institution should be a matter of far greater shame than it is.