22 July 2015

Debates and outcomes

And we'll paint by numbers 'til something sticks
And I don't mind doing it for the kids
(So come on) jump on board
Take a ride (yeah)
(You'll be doin' it all right)
Jump on board feel the high
'Cause the kids are alright

- Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams Kids
Not far from where I live is a bend on the Parramatta River called Kissing Point. You might think it's called that because the outlook shimmers prettily in the moonlight, because it's secluded without being remote, and is therefore a perfect place for young lovers to go for a pash without being interrupted. It is, but that isn't why Kissing Point is so called.

The kissing-point is a nautical term for the furthest point up a river that an ocean-going ship can go. Ships that are big enough to withstand the big waves of the open ocean can go varying distances from the open sea up a particular river. On mighty rivers like the Yangzi or the Amazon, ships can travel hundreds of kilometres before hitting the kissing-point. On the Parramatta River, the kissing-point is less than thirty kilometres from the river's mouth at the Heads of Sydney Harbour.

Debates over Australia's head of state and our flag are a bit like nautical processions up the river. They start off with great pomp and splendour, cheered on by the city's great and good from their glass-fronted balconies; then they start having to weave and dodge around smaller craft as the Harbour narrows into a river, before foundering at - or turning back ahead of - the kissing-point.

What is the kissing-point in our national debates about symbolism? The nation grudgingly accepts the political class and places public resources at their mercy, but baulks at handing over its symbols to them.

This is what Peter FitzSimons and Tim Mayfield miss in their attempts to revive old debates and anticipate old objections.

First step: the way that article is set out, you could be forgiven for thinking Mayfield is just another Guardian Australia journalist. He isn't: he's the Director of the Australian Republican Movement, which isn't disclosed in that article as I write this.

Second: FitzSimons was appointed to his role, not elected from a wide range of candidates in a vigorous campaign among the people. A supposedly democratic movement that calls for popular input but seeks to manage the outcome? Sounds like one of the major political parties, whose social base is small and getting smaller.
Peter FitzSimons is arguably Australia’s king of Twitter ...
So is anyone, really, given that medium's democratic nature.

You'll note, as I have, that FitzSimons uses social media to shout out to political-class mates like Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne. How is he going to break it to them that he is out to rock their world? Easy: he isn't. Neither the head of state nor the flag will undergo any change of which they do not approve. Indeed, any such change would be in their gift, their plaything if you will:
FitzSimons said he favoured keeping the current system where the prime minister chose the governor general, but that the choice should not require the assent of Buckingham Palace.
There are good arguments for and against that position, but they aren't being made here.

Days after the Speaker of the House of Representatives has presented herself as proof, yet again, that the Age of Entitlement is not over, it is the wrong time to assert that a new high office should be created and handed over to the political class. This is not to say that political-class appointees are absent from the Governor-Generalcy - they aren't, but appointees are required to distance themselves from the political class in a way that isn't obvious with a presidency.

In 1999 people saw Malcolm Turnbull, with his blithe exterior barely concealing a control-freak modus operandi learned at the feet of Kerry Packer and Neville Wran, making it easy for his opponents to make a case against a politicians' republic. Turnbull said that very little would change under the model he proposed, while at the same time a great deal would change.

What Turnbull saw as a selling point was in fact the fatal flaw of his proposal, all the trivia and administrative adjustment of a symbolic change without any substantive effect. Government departments merge, demerge, and change their names and logos regularly, but these changes are not put to a public vote: if they were, they might suffer the same fate as the 1999 republic.

Turnbull got the message that if he wanted to go into politics, he couldn't just glide into the top job but had to join a party, win a seat, etc.

FitzSimons appears to be offering something similar to Turnbull: happy to court popular support but not happy to let outcomes elude his grasp. Perhaps this is why Mayfield's piece goes heavy on FitzSimons' yarn-spinning and up-the-guts rugby abilities (journalists hailed Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, and Senator Glenn Lazarus for similar biff-and-barge qualities, which haven't necessarily translated well to public debate).

The idea that we might build a social movement big enough to change the environment in which the political class operates without them noticing or participating is rubbish, and most people realise this. Let's look to other public debates to see how a republic might fare.

Four months ago, the Treasurer promised us a genuine, sensible and mature debate on tax reform. He and the Prime Minister then set about ruling out taxes that weren't up for discussion, jumping all over the very spectre of a carbon tax for good measure. We have now arrived at a point where:
  • the only tax open for discussion is the regressive GST, and
  • against all evidence, ACOSS and the BCA still believe that broader tax reform is possible; and
  • nope, that's it.
Hockey launched his debate at ACOSS in March, but four months later the same organisation has pretty much written him off. The BCA accepted Liberal assurances that they would implement their agenda so long as they kept quiet about it before the election, and had BCA President Tony Shepherd usher it in with his Commission of Audit - but this didn't work either. The BCA lacks even the remnants of a community-based organisation that the Liberal Party has, and can't convincingly run candidates for office like the union movement does through the ALP.

The press gallery dares not report that the BCA has lost confidence in the Liberal Party, a politically seismic event that would lead to more independent politicians and place public debate further beyond the BCA's capacity for influence.

Mayfield claims around 50% of voters support a republic in general terms. At least that amount support same-sex marriage, an issue stymied by the political class to the point where it brings on learned helplessness.

The idea that debates about national symbolism distract from bread-and-butter issues is palpably false where it is so clear that a focus on those issues yields such poor results.

FitzSimons still appears to be a director of Ausflag, which expands the scope of the change he seeks to effect to our national symbols. Conventional media management practice suggests that the scope of an issue for public debate should be narrowed rather than expanded; Turnbull was careful to separate the republic from the flag but FitzSimons has not.

Nothing will kill public affection for the current Blue Ensign flag faster than Tony Abbott's use of multiple flags as backdrops for security announcements, or galoots wearing them as capes.

FitzSimons does not appear to be a director of the other great symbolic issue of our time, recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders within the Constitution and removal of racially discriminatory passages within it. This issue - and the practicalities of what such recognition might mean - is part of Australia's national identity as much as the flag or the head of state. Again, broadening the scope of debate will appal message-control freaks; either the issue must be embraced by republicans and flag-changers, or abandoned as it was in 1999.

The one thing we need to hear from proponents of a republic - and by "we", I mean both supporters of a republic (in whatever form) as well as opponents of any form - is what they have learned from 1999. To reference one of FitzSimon's books: we need the Knight Commander Monash of Le Hamel, not the duffer in the gully at Gallipoli. FitzSimons appears to have learned nothing from 1999 while opening more fronts for debate than he can possibly handle. 1999 made second-rate operators like Sophie Mirabella and Tony Abbott look like tactical geniuses.

We have a press gallery, and a wider system of news/current affairs reporting in our broadcast media, that can only report on decisions that have been taken (and not even do that well). They are easily fobbed off when questioning politicians. Over the past ten years they have assured us of the suitability of politicians for high office who are manifestly not suited for responsible office at all. They have no ability to involve people in those decisions that are yet to be taken. The broadcast media is limited and exclusive. FitzSimons - an employee of a broadcast-media organisation - is starting from the wrong place to launch a far-reaching and inclusive movement.

Schoolchildren are taught to debate issues without any expectation that those debates will change the issues under debate. Political debates are like those school debates, taking time and resources but resolving nothing, giving the impression that real decisions are made elsewhere. When John Howard said that he was "happy to have the debate" on an issue, it meant his mind was made up and that he could engage in pointless banter until his opponents gave up.

Quite why FitzSimons is, as Mayfield insists, the man to inspire the Youth Of Today toward a republic is unclear. He may well wish to inspire his own children, but apart from that his youth appeal is not as obvious as he might insist (here is the segue to the quote at the top of this post, incase you missed it). After 1999 republicans seemed to agree that their cause should wait, like a watchful vulture on a dead tree, until Queen Elizabeth II has died; that commitment appears to have been abandoned, but again it is not clear why.

A far-reaching public debate - one that might change the way media and the political class operate - is both what the country needs, and the outcome least likely. Far easier for them to burn FitzSimons, to portray him as some unfocused nutter, and reduce him to an irrelevant caricature of his rugby and his yarns ("Did you hear the one about the winger in the lineout? ... I gotta million of 'em!").

The very idea that we might have a sensible and wide-ranging discussion on national symbolism is beyond wrong, it's absurd. Our public debate is so inadequate, and the proponents of change appear to have learned so little from earlier debacles. They arrogantly underestimate the amount of thought necessary to build a wide-ranging, inclusive movement of people with both goodwill and focus. Peter FitzSimons is not the person to lead his organisation, nor the nation, toward a new system of government that might be better than the one we have.

The clearest and best example of how to conduct a wide-ranging, complex, and mature debate that involves everyone - politicians and journalists, policy wonks and frontline workers and even victims - is the debate around domestic/family violence. Leaders of the debate, like Rosie Batty, are prominent without being grandstanding. They can handle themselves in media interviews without over-egging the "importance" of either broadcast or social media in themselves. They bring politicians with them while making it clear they may not take credit or use the issue to score points.

The broadcast media's traditional tools of hype, cliche, and bullshit have been applied sparingly to coverage of this debate. Mercifully, nobody asks whether Rosie Batty has "won the night" or "had a good week", is she "feuding" with other stakeholders, or who she is wearing. This debate, the media, and the nation - from the highest offices of state to the poorest individuals who've just been abused by members of their household - are better for this absence of media business-as-usual. They can so take serious issues seriously. They should do it more often.


  1. India ended its status as a Dominion and became a republic with limited changes to its Constitution. The President is elected by members of the Central Parliament and State and Territory Assemblies. It isn't inspiring but it works.
    Rais, W.A.

  2. Fyi both Pyne and Hockey are pro-republic... In fact, apart from Abbott, most of the senior members of the Liberal frontbench are republican including Julie Bishop, Turnbull, Robb... Rupert Murdoch is also pro-Australian republic...
    Yes when it comes to the republic the 'normal' rules don't apply...

  3. So what has to happen before anything can change?

    1. I think the far-reaching debate idea has merit, and people with knowledge and goodwill have to talk past hype merchants in the broadcast media and traditional politics. It won't be something driven by a handful of people with media savvy.

  4. I must say that I have a general liking for Fitzsimons because he is a bit of a dag and a nice all round guy, but Aaarrgh, he be a poirate, he be , shiver me timbers.
    All we need next is Captain Dan and Billy Bones and the Tomahawk Kid.
    And me , of course.

  5. 'The press gallery dares not report that the BCA has lost confidence in the Liberal Party, a politically seismic event that would lead to more independent politicians and place public debate further beyond the BCA's capacity for influence.'

    I am going off the Fitz/Republic topic here, but bear with me, as relates to broader debates and lack thereof in our media. Has anyone else noticed a total absence of reporting of the latest BRICS summit in Brazil? You'd be hard pressed to find any reports in our metro dailies.
    Yet BRICS states consist of 40% of world population and 20% of world GDP and the large emerging economies. They have looked where the US, as a unilateral power, has gone in last decade, and is heading, and these states want out of the following mechanisms: US dollar (artificially high due to default currency demand)/ US Treasury Bills ( western debt creation) and the IMF (US dominated neoliberalism tool).
    They have declared their intent to formally go their own way with a mutual development bank for infrastructure projects, that would skip all those powerful US economic tools.
    Now this may take a long time to happen or even ultimately fail, but doesn't anyone in our media - indeed the west - think this is a significant piece of news? Or is it just as quote above argues, best not report it, as it indicates a large loss of faith in yet another bunch ruling elites, these ones over in Washington?
    Either way it is a screaming absence. Apologies, if off topic in strict sense, but decent media critique here is only place to bring this up.

    1. Thanks for the heads up. Interesting.


  6. Fitzsimons not a suitable person to inspire the Youth of Today? Why, he wears a red bandanna, Andrew!!

  7. Let's face it, we're not going to get any shift towards a republic until the entire "Australian Republic Movement" shuts up and stops treating "their" model as the only valid alternative. This is what caused their failure in 1999 (ok, it was ONE of the things), and as you point out until they learn from their mistakes the whole process is essentially jammed. If the debate was serious we'd have a referendum on keeping the monarchy, and if that suceeds, then we keep the current system and acknowledge that republicianism is not on. Otherwise you'd have another referendum on how the head of state is chosen and go from there. The problem is that this could well create a model which does not fit with either the ARM's or politicians ideals. So instead it's the same pointless and sterile wordfest full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    1. Actually, I kinda felt it was the other way around, with everyone BUT the ARM running around shouting "they got a model... they got a model" I didn't see much by way of an alternative that was any more sensible. Thankfully Mr Howard and Mr Reith intervened to put an end to the sillyness.

  8. Fyi, post-1999 referendum the ARM has been model independent...

    1. "FitzSimons said he favoured keeping the current system where the prime minister chose the governor general, but that the choice should not require the assent of Buckingham Palace."

      Sounds like the ARM standard minimal model to me.

  9. speaking of the youth of today.. saw Tim Freedom Wilson attend a Q and A at Byron Bay music festival.

    A picture tells a thousand words...what is wrong with gay young liberals when they're not up with hip and cool bands ..

    really weird guy...the tokenistic gay in the village

    I'm more disgusted than inspired ...