18 December 2006

Defence tactics

Labor has attracted a lot of criticism about Joel Fitzgibbon becoming Shadow Defence Minister, a trier up against one of Howard's most effective ministers. Beazley has forgotten more than Fitzgibbon has ever learned about Defence, and this may well be true whatever happens over the coming year. However, why would Labor fight an election on Defence? How could it win? Insofar as it's not a contradiction in terms, the genius of Fitzgibbon is becoming apparent.

Steve Lewis from The Australian said Fitzgibbon would appeal to ordinary defence personnel, and he may be right. Those personnel sick of being treated as background for Howard's photo ops may find a sympathetic ear, provided Fitzgibbon doesn't get a big head about his Important New Role.

For the Opposition though, Defence is a management issue. During World War II Missouri Senator Harry Truman initiated investigations into defence maladministration, a campaign that catapulted Truman to prominence and ultimately the Presidency. In the 1980s Congress uncovered similar waste, such as $1000 toilet seats and other examples of overcharging that dented the Reagan Administration's image of strong defence and financial prudence. So too, by careful graft the Labor Opposition can undermine one of the Coalition's real policy and electoral strengths, to get the traction that the wider issue of Iraq hasn't achieved.

Fitzgibbon may be the man to do it, provided he doesn't try and tackle the big stuff. Stories like this are absolute gold for Labor. The Brendan Nelson of old would be all over this, but maybe it doesn't seem to matter when you're off to Washington for chats with Condi. I hope his driver took him past the Watergate - those second-rate burglaries can get messy.

Apart from updating the electronics it isn't clear why the FA-18 needs to be replaced with the F-35. Even if Australia has not been sold a dog of a product this time, the only real argument that can be made is in favour of maintaining the status quo of military hardware among powers in our region. A lot of money to be spent for no apparent gain, apart from the possibility of keeping in sweet with the Americans. Watch hardware costs drop with the advent of pilotless drones capable of speed and payload, then smack your forehead at those who couldn't, wouldn't wait for the sales.

There probably is an argument for increasing defence spending, but it is also true that organisations with unlimited budgets get complacent and wasteful. There are few things more useless than a complacent defence.

Politically, a promise to provide better equipment and crack down on the time-serving lunkheads who constipate any effective fighting force would do wonders for Labor, putting them at least even in an area where they are traditionally weak (even with the overhyped competence of Beazley as leader). Someone so frightened of women cannot claim to be effective at facing the enemy (and it's surprising Labor hasn't made more of this). Members of the Defence Forces are strong Coalition voters - a focus on the basics while neutering any strategic concerns would do wonders for morale and recruitment, giving the ADF the sense of an organisation that's going somewhere. Politically, making defence personnel disposed to Labor would put several Coalition seats in peril.

Howard will move where he has to on Iraq, changing course as far as possible without imperilling a consistent image of pro-Americanism. He might investigate lax security at bases if he had to, but by then it might be too late. He'd lack both the wider context and the small-scale managerialism on an issue built up as a core Howard value. For Labor to take the high ground on Defence would be a grave danger for the dominant political tactician of the past dozen years. It might even lead to a realignment about what the Australian Defence Force is for, and should do - but it's way too early to tell, and too much to expect Fitzgibbon to do it by himself.

13 December 2006

Koutsoukis strikes again

Kevin Rudd and the Federal Labor team can take great comfort in the coming election: Australia's worst political journalist says he can't win. Jeanette Howard may as well start packing for the shift back to Wollstonecraft.

Poor Jase began with some bitchy and shallow impressions and ended by showing that he'd be better off following Lillian Frank around and gushing about her new hat. The politics thing is beyond him.

So Rudd's family looked tidy and happy, as you'd expect from any middle-class family suddenly thrust into the public eye. Given that Rudd is up against Howard, when you see Howard with his wife and kids do they not also look well-turned-out and Pollyanna-happy? Given that Rudd has posited family values as a field on which he is taking the fight to Labor, isn't his own family a metaphor for a wider issue, and a comparison with the incumbent? Dollink, vaht do you mean, a vider issue? Have some more champagne, Jason!

The most detailed description in this piece was of a person who is not a public figure:
The nation was also introduced to Julia Gillard's other half, Tim, a rugged chap who came dressed in a gray vinyl jacket, dark pants, fawn leather shoes, his shirt hanging out and the general demeanour of a man who had just managed to crawl out of Chasers Nightclub in time to make the early flight to Canberra.

- someone who could quite easily be, on JK's description, mistaken for a journalist.

Joe de Bruyn ... One of those self-styled feudal lords

Does de Bruyn really style himself as a "feudal lord"? Is this not something hung on him by lazy journalists? Why do Labor leaders put up with this guy, Jason? More to the point, what was he wearing? The nation has a right to know! (see what comes of lowering your expectations so far that you have to limbo under a Jason Koutsoukis article?).

Jason's main criticism of the new Labor frontbench is that it's, like, so yesterday. Great analysis that. Real insight into the alternative government for the nation.

No commentary linking the fact that Hurley left and that another de Bruyn person, Mark Bishop, isn't contesting the next election. How does that play with your aside about de Bruyn, Jason? What about his close working relationship with Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott?

What about the fact that journalists bemoan message discipline but when they uncover any departure from it, they punish it harder than any backroom operator ever could? Ever thought to reflect on that, and what it could mean about the way a future government (and your job, Jason) might work?

Nor has he scored many — any? — hits on the Government in his portfolio area of consumer affairs and health regulation in the past two years.

Where might those hits be, Jason? Why don't you conduct an investigation into this area and watch a minister reel before the sheer might of your journalistic skill. That way, you can help your nice mate Laurie while creating some of that political theatre you love so much.

there are still too many of the same old faces sitting at the front.

Well, the government doesn't do all-out-all-change when it reshuffles, and any combination of members of the Federal Labor caucus will include some who've been there a while. Let's leave aside Jason's impression that Labor MPs sit with their faces.

Is Queenslander Arch Bevis, after 16 years in Parliament, getting a bit long in the tooth?

Probably, but this is a man who's weathered more than his fair share of storms over that time. He might have something to say if you listen to him. What was he wearing, Jason? How old is Bevis, anyway? As old as the PM? As old as the average Howard government minister? As old as the average baby-boomer swinging voter?

New MPs such as South Australia's Kate Ellis or the former recording industry executive Julie Owens might lack experience, but they don't lack energy and at least they are something new.

Any qualities other than energy and novelty that a government minister would require, Jason?

Can Rudd win the next election? Anything can happen between now and then, but with 16 seats to win — some of them with margins as high as 5 per cent — you would have to say it's highly unlikely.

Let's look at the last time there was a change of government: fair swing there. The last time there was a change of government, ten years ago, is probably more instructive than the massively different political landscape of 1972. Poor Jase was so caught up in his lunge back to 1969 that he failed to explain why 1972 - not 1996 or even 1983 - is the model Rudd should be following. Part of the criticism of Whitlam's government was that it was full of ideas that had spent too long in the bottom drawer, that spending less time in Opposition (a la Hawke and, in his second chance, Howard) might be a good thing.

His first achievement was to take on the party organisation, a battle from which he emerged as the indisputably dominant figure in the ALP.

More recently, Simon Crean did the same thing and ended up nowhere. Analysis, Jason! Analysis! The last leader to fawn over Gough didn't make it and is hardly a role model going forward for anyone in today's ALP.

Besides, if Rudd waits another five years to become PM all those pissed-off Liberal backbenchers will just get more frustrated, won't they? Better to put them out of their misery a.s.a.p., eh?

The next commentator who complains that journalists have a level of observational and writing skill that mere bloggers lack can just piss off. The journalistic experience of Jason Koutsoukis, and of everyone who regards him as a respected colleague, counts for nothing. Anyone after that who bleats about media ownership laws restricting voices and limiting the ability to hold government to account, will need to explain away this pointless individual.

06 December 2006

Iraq, Fiji and Australia

Never thought the first two countries had much in common, eh? Me neither.

Australia has 500 personnel in Iraq who are guarding a detachment of other foreign troops (foreign to both Australia and to Iraq). This is not a significant strategic deployment in itself. It is a non-UN peacekeeping mission, currying favour to an ideal more important to the current government than involvement with the UN. The Diggers are there because Australia needed to maintain good relations with the Bush Administration, and are still there because this need has not entirely disappeared.

At this point I'll just take time out to express my irritation at the Prime Minister of Australia referring to the President of the United States as "the President". One can understand why Americans refer to Bush as the President, and one can understand that if you are briefed relentlessly by Administration officials then in time you might also, as they do, refer to "the President". Bush is not the President, he is not our President; indeed thanks to Howard we do not have a President of our own, assuming we need one. There are other Presidents. The argument by his supporters that Howard is not in lockstep behind Bush fails until Howard has the discipline to stop this verbal tic, which may however become another indication of the twilight of Bush.

Iraq has an elected government which cannot govern that country without help from US and UK forces (other forces, such as Australia's, make little difference and need not be missed by Iraqis if they weren't there. Withdrawals might embarrass the US and British governments but the difference to the balance of power in Iraq would be scant). The Iraqi government faces threats from four sources:

  • well-organised and funded Sunni and Shia forces;

  • Saddam loyalists who can't imagine Iraq without him, funded by AWB money and other scumbags; and

  • a criminal rabble, not entirely separate or separable from the Saddam loyalists.

The rabble is the weakest link because one or both of the two major forces will demonstrate their power by wiping them out or co-opting them. The Shia have 60% of the population of Iraq and 85% of that of Iran, apparently, so they have to be the favourites. Getting the rabble off the streets is one of the central features of any government, so the first cleric who does this is a long way toward supplanting the government.

According to the Prime Minister, the elected Iraqi government asked for our help, just like the "invitation" from the government of South Vietnam in 1965.

Australia has military personnel near, but not in, Fiji. They are offshore despite the fact that the elected government asked for Australian help. The elected government proposed to grant amnesty to the fools behind the 2000 coup and this would have caused more trouble than it's worth in terms of the stability of that country, let alone its future. The overly large Fijian army has already got the rabble off the streets, and hopefully the Australian force of the coast is large enough to pose a threat and keep the Fijian army from doing anything too rash. The personnel are there to react to any possible damage to "Australian interests", though it is more likely that attacks on property will be overlooked in favour of any damage to Australian people, represented in greater numbers in Fiji than in Iraq.

Australian property interests in Fijian tourism, real estate and manufacturing are significant, in a way that Australia's presence in Iraq is not. It has become a destination for outsourcing production that Australians will buy but for which we won't pay top dollar, like clothing. Drugs and illegal fishing moves past or through Fiji and other countries. They receive aid and the Australian government has a responsibility both to minimise wastage, and to overlook any wastage occurring as part of the longterm good.

In both countries, with its different tactics, Australia is trying to ensure longterm stability, with a view that instability there could ultimately threaten us here. However, in Iraq Australian troops are a figleaf for someone else's embarrassment, while in Fiji Australian troops play a vital support for Australian interests and a check on excesses by belligerents.

In the late nineteenth century a German military officer, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote that war is a continuation of politics by other means. His successors practiced, and had practiced against them, war on such an overwhelming scale that we may now regard the insertion of military forces as an expression of political failure and limited imagination. One can support the job the military have to do, and accept the necessity of them having to do it, while at the same time condemn the ineptitude of the policies - and yes, the policymakers - who led them there and us here.

The insertion of troops into Iraq represents a failure for Australian policymakers to imagine an alliance with the United States as a whole rather than just the Current Occupant. The waiting game off the coast of Fiji represents a failure for policymakers to recognise our true national interests and engage effectively with leaders of that community, and other communities across the Pacific, over time. The imbalance in our foreign policy is clear: too little focus on important foreign policy matters, to much focus on marginally relevant but big-picture stuff.

The fault of this failure is political, and generational.

While Australian politics and policy has undergone profound and far-reaching change since 1983, foreign affairs has been run by only three ministers - a political stability unmatched in any other area of policy, including the economy. Each of them liked to grandstand on the world stage more than do the nitty-gritty on the security of our region.

It's fair to give the benefit of the doubt to Australian diplomats in both Iraq and Fiji, they did what they could: but what they could do was limited in the absence of political support, all the more if their stern warnings and alarums were ignored. It is, however, an indictment on their work when one of Australia's genuine experts on the region is not a diplomat, not an academic, but a long-serving correspondent from the hated ABC.

There is also a generational issue. Australian diplomats have experienced a minister who doesn't want to be told anything controversial, and a chain of authority that also practices a blind-eye, deaf-ear, passive-aggressive approach to accountability. Even those who are working their way up DFAT on the eminently diplomatic get-along-to-go-along principle know that consistently ignoring bad news leads ultimately to disaster (they'd know it all the more immediately if Terence Cole's guns had been trained on DFAT). The future of Australian foreign policy will involve a greater focus on the region. Those who would be part of Australia's foreign policy going forward need to change the way they work. But what they might need most of all is a new minister, maybe a series of new ministers.

13 November 2006

On display

I'm tired of silly articles like this that regard testosterone as a toxin.

You may have seen small children go into shops and grab things that appeal to them. Sometimes they do this in private homes. The lesson that responsible adults should be trying to teach them is: just because something is on display doesn't mean it's on offer.

We live in a society drenched with consumerism and sex. We are constantly told: if you want something, you can go out and get it. Sex can be a commodity in our society to some extent, but that doesn't mean it has to be - and religious organisations should be more helpful in helping people get over this than they have been.

None of the prophets of the great religions just shrug whenever a man caves to his desires, sexual or otherwise. After Hilaly's comments there were a lot of women being offended at being compared to meat, but what about men being compared to animals? The whole idea of religion, any religion, is to help you rise above your basic desires. Whether people lust after cleavage and long legs, cars or bling or drugs or whatever, the lesson should be the same: just because you can see it, and it's enticing, doesn't mean that you can just go and have it. Being a slave to your desires is a poor life, and in realising this, the laws of Australia should be the least of your worries.

So it is with "provocative dressing". It's one thing to see a woman walking down the street and to be titillated. It's another to think: even though she shows no interest in me, she really does want me to go after her, and that you can have a woman in the same way you can steal property. The man who gives into his desires in this way has failed as a man.

The religious leaders who failed to address this have failed their people. Part of the problem with a commitment to medievalism among the major religions - where nobody has any knowledge not sanctioned by clerical authorities, and where consumerism, sex and other temptations are simply wished away by ritual imprecations - is that they can't help reinforce the strength of character needed to resist the very real temptations we face in various ways. They can't reinforce that strength because that same strength might be used by followers to identify and stand against any clerical measures that go against their faith. They'd rather abandon a few desire-plagued sinners than inspire a bit of self-discipline: the best kind, it beats any other discipline imposed from without.

Nobody dressed "provocatively" in the Middle Ages, so railing against this is part of the retreat of religious leaders from helping people where they're at. It also shows what happens when you exclude women from developing clerical thought, but that's another matter.

12 November 2006

A preference for bloody-mindedness

There are many parties in the Australian political system. There are only two parties of government - the ALP and the Liberal-Nationals coalition - hereafter referred to as POGs.

A POG loses office when it loses sufficient seats to the other POG. The losing POG tries all sorts of tactics to win voters back, but occasionally they only succeed in winning one or two seats here or there while remaining in opposition.

The old saying goes that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them - but when an opposition loses the government can't claim all the credit. Not only is the loser POG abandoned by the middle ground, they are undercut by their own people. A winning POG has to appeal to the centre without losing the fringe, and this is the stuff of the best political leadership. Not every party has it, and those that do don't have it all the time.

In 1988, Nick Greiner led the Coalition to power. Labor not only lost the marginals to the Coalition - and even relatively safe seats like Cessnock - they lost heartland seats like Balmain, Newcastle, Wollongong and Swansea to independents. In private, Liberal wide-boys would claim credit for preference deals that added that extra bit of spice to the 1988 victory - the same victory they frittered away over two elections - but in truth these were symptoms of ALP failure. If ever there was an example where an opposition that won the election, Greiner is it.

Today the tables have turned. Dubbo, Port Macquarie, all those independent seats in State Parliament are seats that would normally be held by the Coalition. Safe seats that aren't demoralise oppositions and take their focus away from the government. The NSW Coalition missed the Orkopoulos scandal, and the latest Tripodi outrage, because they were busy playing silly-buggers with independents and Christian fundamentalists.

In South Australia a similar phenomenon is in place - Mike Rann is duchessing disaffected Liberals in seats he can't win to keep the opposition pinned to the floor, a more effective strategy than massaging hard-to-please voters in the marginals. Federally, the three independent MPs all hold conservative regional seats one would expect the Coalition to hold; they are polyps in the Coalition's body-politic whose growth is another sign of Nationals impotence.

In Victoria, there will eventually be a Liberal government. Not only will Labor lose the marginals out around Narre Warren or Glen Waverley, but they'll lose those inner-Melbourne seats where the fractious left take their politics seriously. Kirner shored up those seats as her popularity decreased to ensure they didn't go independent. The loss of Bob Hawke's federal seat in that area in 1992 was one of the few wake-up calls they actually heeded, and accounts for Labor's resilience after they were belted by Kennett later that year. Kennett ignored those Labor heartland seats - it was a mistake, he had ample opportunity for mischief, but they stayed united and eventually pushed back.

The Victorian Liberals should preference the Greens in inner-city seats they can't win. Labor can afford to lose a few marginals, but it fears the loss of inner-city seats and the Liberals were wrong to indulge their opponents. Labor would struggle to define itself and would lose the composure that makes it so reassuringly dull, which would have Federal implications in Labor's best state.

The Liberals would have some explaining to do to their donors in preferencing Greens over Labor. The explanation is this: bloody-mindedness. The property industry provides numerous examples where companies stop rival developments by funding a fake environmentalist front: the principle of Liberals working to secure the election of a Green is no different. For Greens, this raises the question of Faustian bargains, but that's their problem. The POG least able to escape a pincer movement isn't nimble enough for government anyway.

Another problem is that a badly-managed pincer strategy makes a POG look like it doesn't know what it's about. Labor funds going toward an arch-conservative, Liberals funding the Greens, this is intellectually incoherent and double-dealing. Yeah? So? Been in politics long, have ya?

Preference deals like this, some say, might give leg-ups to minor parties whose obscurity is well deserved. This would be fine if current arrangements worked better than they do in freezing out fringe players like the Greens and Fielding First. When it comes to preference deals, minor parties and independents are so many stick sthat one POG uses to beat the other.

Such deals are arranged by the sort of person who is utterly repellent to voters, but who can make it to positions of power within POGs. These people occupy the upper houses of our parliaments, and are prone to chummy deals with their fellow professionals that can work against the interests of the parties which gave them their position: all care, no responsibility.

With you consider the piss-poor governments in this country, it simply is not fair to give them the credit due to political genius. The credit belongs to Oppositions with a knack for failing to win the marginals while also disaffecting the heartland. Oppositions in this country have worked hard to cop it from all sides, and they deserve more credit for that than they've received.

08 November 2006

Vice President Lieberman?

It's early days, just after the US elections, but this could work. I wasn't trolling, honest!

Sweeping proposals to restructure government

Inspired by this, the following will illustrate the sheer folly of me going anywhere near the levers of government at any level. I would:

  • Raise the taxfree threshhold for income tax to average weekly earnings for women and use that as a basis for sweeping reassessments of work and welfare. Include imputed income like fare discounts into low-income earners' wages and factor this in to welfare decisions, to remove disincentives to work.

  • Remove all Jeanette Howard subsidies rorts - middle-class women capable of working should wear the financial penalty of not doing so. In fact, remove Jeanette Howard from the public purse - unlike every other Prime Minister's wife back to those two nervy little mice who were married to Curtin and Chifley, this woman doesn't earn her keep with Good Causes and should pay her way when she makes herself available for the Lurk Of The Week. There'd be 30 or 40 abused kids, or countless literacy programs in the pillbox-hat budget of that useless appendage. You just know that in ten years some palace/Yarralumla hack will leak that nobody at the head-of-government level could stand her.

  • Increase but cap the Defence budget - currently Defence has no disincentive to tackle the featherbedding that protracted all-out war works out of Defence, so a cap will turn the minds of leadership to this end. All those uniformed timeserver nuf-nufs who are protected from the consequences of selling weapons to bikie gangs/sexual harrassment/acquisition rorts should be punted straight onto welfare rolls. There should be a closer interface between defence and police in recognition of the fact that the nature of threats facing the country has changed. Private airports should be responsible for security, with any breaches actionable against the airport owner.

  • Tax breaks for research & investment and IP protection, as well as infrastructure (including telco). Health and education go to the states, but not to the point where they have no incentive to work on interoperability. Give the CSIRO a role in facilitating information exchange among universities.

  • All tax breaks to farmers not open to other small businesses to end immediately. All those alpaca/guava/olive oil/[insert this year's rorts here] farms in the NSW Southern Highlands and Daylesford areas become available to actual farmers who can give up their hardscrabble properties to the desert, and/or the descendents of the Aborigines who grand-granddaddy first forced off the selection. Charge water at the rate of return for inputs and watch the cotton and rice farmers give it up. Stop all subsidies to low-margin exports.

  • Any airline regulation that can be found to advantage Qantas over its competitors should be axed immediately.

  • Any tax whose collection is outweighed by the costs of its collection should be scrapped. I'm with the libertarians on this one, just go without.

  • If a public-service process can be automated it should be. It's the best hope Australia has at becoming an IT power - not radical innovation but using existing systems well, without putting people into draining, pointless jobs.

  • End all government schemes telling Aborigines how to live their lives, e.g. the geniuses who go out to red clay soil and try to train local people in turning it into cattle country. We've done that shit for a hundred years, quit while you're behind I say. In the same vein, all schemes involving sports stars lecturing school kids about obesity should end immediately.

  • Abolish all metropolitan local government, with one LGA per city and all regional areas centred on a major centre. Devolve all planning and public transport to these organisations - but not schools or hospitals as the ACT shows regional governments are too small to be cost-effective. The ACT should cede its big-ticket items to NSW and take to its true role as Canberra-Queanbeyan City Council. Do whatever has to be done to enable South Australia, WA & NT to merge, and Tasmania to merge with Victoria.

  • Common currency, commercial and financial regulation, job market, defence/policing arrangements and airline regulation across Australia, New Zealand, East Timor and other South Pacific Forum member-countries. Sink illegal fishing and whaling vessels.

  • Restructure ASIC so that it can get success fees out of companies that try to box clever with Trade Practices law. Any smart, hardworking lawyer/accountant who goes to work there should have the chance to be as rich as Graeme Samuel.

  • All smokers to indemnify Medicare against smoking-related illness.

  • Prison terms for any public servant, including legislators, who give public money to religious organisations. They've got plenty of dough and they only use it to play legalistic silly-buggers with various victims of institutionalisation.

  • I have no opinions on flat taxes, school vouchers or public housing. Yet.

01 November 2006

Comforting the fearful

This anonymous post hit my inbox. I delete anonymous posts as a matter of course but I think I may have some fun with this one. It referred to my earlier posts about NSW State politics:

Typical Leftie crap. John Watkins only skill in politics is to cuddle people in a portfolio after an activist reformer with a pulse beat (Costa, Scully) has departed.

What major transport initiaves has John Watkins managed? What new projects has he championed to ease congestion. When ever has he been prepared to take on the militant left public transport unions whose indstrial rorts and old world intransigence should be a complete embarrassment to those of us who defend the legitimate union movement?

I struggle to defend many members of the NSW Govt as they have decided as a job-lot that preservation is more important than reform or progress. One obvious standout is Frank Sartor in Planning who actually believes the Premier's slogan of "Open for Business" and other minor contributors include Cherie Burton in Housing (a public housing kid who rose through the ranks to be the best local MP in Australia taking Kogarah from 0.9% margin to 18% in two elections) and Eric Roozendaal who has turned around the anger on Cross City Tunnel with a commercial approach. None of these have ever been to a Steering Committee meeting.

As to the 'lack of ideology' complaint, this is State Politics, it's not the UN. Balance the books, grow the State economy, deliver jobs, get people to work on tme, keep them safe and gaurantee a decent education and the job is 90% done. Then we can move on social policy reform.

On the great lefties, what has "B'debus" done about promotion of national parks, what has Tebbutt done (a good performer mostly) to take on the Communist Teachers Collective about performance stats for parents, how has Sandra Nori helped NSW women, what has the magnificent Kerry Hickey done to reform local govt, what has Meredith Burgman done to destroy the Leg Council??

Let's get serious about the whole place and tune Mark Arbib into a more productive use of his time. Get all of the talent that NSW has to offer, which is currently inhabitting the ranks of company public affairs divisions, lobby groups and consulting firms and find them a seat. Throw out the bench warmers from both factions and renew the team that seeks to represent Labor. What we need is more people who understand communities, understand the value of a dollar, know how business works and have some experience outside the union office, the ministerial office and the party office.

cheers (anonomys for fear of retribution from all factions)

Our anonymous friend suffers from three major delusions:

1. Anyone who comes into government swinging the axe, ejaculating press releases and jabbering madly is a great activist reformer. The minister who manages a difficult portfolio is somehow less worthy than the thrower of bombs (and tantrums) has been carried out on a stretcher. This is a standard mental flaw among the NSW Labor Right, once you understand this you can understand why the same political machine produced Mark Latham, Paul Keating and H V Evatt. You could splice that bit about "this is State Politics, it's not the UN" to defeat his own first two paragraphs.

2. Not only does he assume that Mark Arbib is capable of being useful, he assumes that "people who understand communities, understand the value of a dollar, know how business works and have some experience outside the union office, the ministerial office and the party office" are the same people who can currently be found in "the ranks of company public affairs divisions, lobby groups and consulting firms". He identifies three of his favourite ministers, none of whom fit this (hard to fit) bill.

3. I bet if you look at the choice of words in the italicised words above, and compared them to the mad rants you see on Labor blog sites like Landeryou, it would be possible to identify this bloke. Somewhere there's a union hack with nothing better to do than this very task. Report back with your findings please.

Labor left only become valuable members of society once they abandon their statist dreams. what has "B'debus" done about promotion of national parks? Um, I know there are National Parks, you know there are National Parks, isn't that enough? By ALP terms this man has more than earned a spot in Canberra. If there was a "lack of ideology complaint" I must have missed it, and am sure I didn't make it. See if you can find it, while I struggle to think who I'd put in the pantheon of Great Reforming Local Government Ministers.

When you're as flaky and self-contradictory as this poster, it saves me the trouble of pulling the wings off your delicate arguments.

31 October 2006

Why Carl Scully failed

The sacking of NSW Police Minister Carl Scully is an illustration of the sort of person who is fooling political parties, journalists and 'political professionals' about what makes a useful minister.

Scully was a micromanager whose interference warped the management of the public sector organisations. How many times did he "announce" the Parramatta to Chatswood rail line - 40? 50? How may halfwitted press gallery journos traipsed out to some point on that shrinking line to hear him talk more and more about less and less? As Police Minister he stuffed reform of the Police Service because Alan Jones asked him to, and overlooked the more-than-competent Clive Small for the quiet man who'd shine the light that shone from his ministerial arse straight back at him.

Scully didn't just fail last week. His whole ministerial career has been a study in failure. Once all those infrastructure projects initiated by the Liberals had been completed he was pretty much stuck for ideas. All that remained was all he had - the repellent personality, blame-everyone-for-the-bad-stuff-hog-the-credit: Keating with learning disabilities.

Scully's aim in public life was to tweak public institutions so that credit for public services reflected not on the providers but on himself. His end came when he was handed a report written by a grown-up about serious, institutional, dry-but-important policy issues, and all Scully could do was fudge and spin. That's all politicians (and I include union apparatchiks here) of his generation have been taught to do. Federal Liberals of this generation don't need the tweaking skills because PM's office will supply you with those, thanks very much (except Brendan Nelson, who developed his tweaking skills independently, and Tony Abbott, a man in breach of the law unto himself). The issues in that report Scully lied about are still important, they still have to be dealt with, but nobody is going to be dealing with them between now and after the next State Budget.

In 11 years in Opposition, this is only the Liberals' second scalp (the first, trivia fans, was Ron Dyer. The Shadow Minister responsible for that has lost preselection). When they first lost office they kept bleating that all would be well again if only they could tweak the PR a bit more effectively. This was the wrong approach, of course, but being in PR means that whenever you're wrong it's never your fault. That's why all the smart people are in PR and, increasingly, all the dills are in politics.

You can't tweak the PR so that credit reflects on pollies rather than service providers. All societies need teachers, nurses, police and firies, and every society that has to choose between them and elected politicians never chooses the latter. If you're not interested in service provision then state politics isn't for you.

Labor wins state elections because they seem to like the dull work of service provision, and aren't too fussy about the remuneration package. Nobody votes for John Watkins or Eric Ripper because they're dynamic or smooth, they vote for them because they seem to plough ahead and get kids taught, sick people tended to and buses to run on time. The Liberals can't get past the impression that they'd rather be somewhere else, strutting around a local council or falling into line in Canberra.

Peter Debnam couldn't run a bath, and NSW voters can see that - but if the NSW Government had any sense they'd get Jillian Skinner and Gladys Berejiklian to run the health system. The current minister, if he were any more of a corpse, would be waiting to be misplaced by an incompetent hospital administrator and covered up in a coffin made from a papier-mache of his worthless press releases. Skinner and Berejiklian's quiet, policy-focussed competence is a stark contrast from Scully's noisy failure. However, it is Scully rather than the other two who provides the model for aspiring pollies to follow. Kim Beazley's aw-poor-Carl was the worst thing he could have done - Beazley associated himself with a popular joke and polling poison, without having the guts to ask his mate to come on down to Canberra and become the next Laurie Brereton.

If you kick people when they're down you drive the message home. Besides, I kicked him while he was up and he didn't seem to mind.

30 October 2006

School chaplains

It's true that the separation of faith and state benefits both. It's also true that policy formulated in reaction to "political correctness" is poor policy. "Political correctness" is irrelevant, it's a bogey used to keep all those old Marxists in line on the right wing; they may have changed their plumage but they still need a bit of dialectic to let them know what colours they're fighting under these days. The chaplaincy program is designed for them, not anyone else.

When a teenager goes to their school chaplain and says that he/she is pregnant/gay, and receives not support and advice but a blast of hellfire-and-brimstone, this whole program will dissolve in a storm of recriminations. Hopefully it will collapse well before then. It's not clear why I should have to pay the Anglican church to appoint an Anglican chaplain to an Anglican school. Any school that had appointed Sheik El-Hilaly would be in a tricky position right now. Invoking the recent deaths of those teenagers from Lismore is really plumbing new depths, and shows just how shallow and badly-thought-out this policy is.

Given that public policy isn't this government's strong point, I'll have the tax break thanks Peter.

27 October 2006

What happened to the NSW Labor Right?

In my day, the Sussex Street Right in NSW was Australia's most effective and fearsome political machine. It decided who was going to be PM and Premier and shut the Left out of every decision-making role, leaving them with the crumbs from the feast if they were lucky.

These days, they are a shadow of their former selves. If you dig a bit deeper into NSW Labor politics you'll see how much trouble the Right are in.

The Carr Government's best Minister was John Watkins, and he should have become Premier. Watkins is detail-focused with a sense of perspective; he's businesslike without being cold, personable but not oily. Watkins was not even considered because, oops, he's in the wrong faction. For the moment.

Shakespeare wrote that sweet are the uses of adversity, and the NSW Labor Left are in a sweet position. They haven't all pissed off and joined the Communists or the Greens and the fight has made them stronger. They've put forward quality people which can only stand them in good stead going forward. NSW may have a Labor Left Premier before it gets a Liberal one.

On the Federal level, the only reason why Labor is led by Kim Beazley is because John Faulkner won't make himself available. The NSW Labor right had no candidate in the recent battle for Labor's Federal Presidency. They were lukewarm on Rann who in turn saw no reason to suck up to Sussex Street. They were embarrassed that Crean was running at all. This ballot killed the idea that Mark Arbib has anything like the clout of Graham Richardson in his pomp. The aborted career of Mark Latham, a Sussex Street scion, and the coming defeat of Kim Beazley next year will cement the decline of the faction generally and Arbib in particular. Get out now Mark and ask for some career tips from Gary Gray, or CrosbyTextor.

The fact that Michael Egan tapped Iemma on the shoulder should have ruled him out. Iemma has all of the impact of Barrie Unsworth but no sense of policy. Like Steve Bracks, he'd rather do nothing than do anything controversial. Like a political hack he's bored answering questions: Iemma's been raised to believe that answering questions as a democratically-elected leader is somehow a departure from his real job. If Brogden was still Liberal leader he'd be running rings around Iemma: public servants seeking to survive a change of government would be leaking like mad, and the Birnam Wood that is the NSW Police would be in open revolt.

Of Scully, more in a future post. In the longer term, compare the Right's most recent state parliamentary leadership contest (Dull vs Sparkles) and the Left's (Watkins vs Tebbutt) and the difference between the two factions is clear.

The big areas of state government are Health, Education, Transport and Laura Norder. The Education Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, is from the Left. The Attorney General and Environment Minister, Bob Debus, is from the Left. The Minister for both Transport and Police is John Watkins, is from the Left. Do you see a pattern here? A whole bunch of ALP Right candidates and ALP head office wide boys are depending upon a bunch of Lefties.

Watkins has a "deputy minister" in the Right's Eric Roozendaal, but so what? This is a face-saving exercise on the Right's part, he might be keeping an eye on the Left but the policy is going over his head. He might be a big man in the back rooms but in person he oozes voter-repellent, and like Scully he's a crap minister because he has no sense of policy beyond the headlines. The Health Minister, John Hatzistergos, is a Right winger who spends all his time apologising for this week's balls-up: he has that Phillip Ruddock winner's pallour. How weak is Hats? So weak that even the Opposition have him on the ropes, and have opened the government's only substantial vulnerability. Neville Wran would have wrung his neck by now.

Iemma will probably replace both Roozendaal and Hatszistergos with members of the Left (yes, I am assuming Labor will be re-elected in March). Clearly, he could do worse. The future of the Labor Party in NSW is facing a fundamental longterm shift.

23 October 2006

The Democrats have a future

Stop that laughter at once! The Australian Democrats do have a future, just not at this election.

The Dems tend to do best when a government changes, and people hedged their bets with them rather than giving a new government carte blanche. Thanks to Kim Beazley there won't be a change of government at the next election, and their leader Lyn Allison has hardly established much of a profile for them.
The next election will see the last four Democrats go to election. There are six places in each state at every half-Senate election, and the major parties take two places each. The other two will be contested by the majors, as well as Family First and the Greens, which will push the Dems to the sidelines if not offstage altogether:

  • Natasha Stott Despoja (SA) and Andrew Murray (WA) are retiring. Murray was a conscientious reviewer of the workings of government, and example of how a house of review should work. Stott Despoja was their showiest show-pony with no achievements beyond the personal after eleven years. Neither will be replaced by a candidate with a remote chance of winning.

  • Lyn Allison (Victoria): Family First will take the anti-pokies message away from Stephen Mayne. The Liberals do a better job of making the moderates feel involved than in any other state. The strength of the Labor left in Victoria will mean they won't try and shut out the Greens. Bye-bye Lyn.

  • Andrew Bartlett (Queensland): I wish him well but his chances are dim. Labor are on the nose at state level. The Liberals and Nationals are unlikely to repeat the four-card trick they pulled last time, especially if the Nats go with Boswell, and as changes to rural media and telecommunications become apparent over the coming year. This is the worst state for the Greens, and the state where anti-Green reactionaries are strongest; as Christian Kerr pointed out in Crikey today, Bartlett can persuade the majors that they could do worse than preference him. He has nothing to offer them in return but better-the-devil-you-know. Call the ambulance but keep the hearse warmed up.

The only chance the Democrats have for the future is if moderate liberals grow tired of waiting for scraps off Howard's plate and overwhelm the Democrats' small and unappealing membership. This will render the Howard Government stale and flat-footed in the face of a more vigorous ALP led by Gillard or Rudd. This environment of change will see moderates step forward in their own right as Democrats - provided they don't choose stupid candidates like Greg Barns or Sandra Kanck they should come back into Parliament to work with, but not for, the next Labor government. It will be a sign of success if they can go on to rack up sufficient achievements that Stott Despoja couldn't come back even if she wanted to.

22 October 2006

The unexamined story is not worth publishing

This is not a vision for Australia. This is a Beazley press release with a journalist's name at the top (and wouldn't you know it, that journalist is Jason Koutsoukis).

In the attached "Kim Beazley's Top 10":

  • points 1, 4 and 7 are utter wank. Ten years in Opposition and that's the best they can come up with?

  • point 2 is likely to be bullshit, and point 8 definitely is. There is no way any politician would honour those promises.So the SBS board will still be sacked with failed preselection candidates and jaded staffers looking for a change of scene? Where are the experts in new mobile multimedia technologies?

  • point 3: OK, so it's too early for details. How about some pilot programs in the Labor states you can point to as an indication of what you mean?

  • point 6: with a privatised Telstra, how are you going to do that? By asking Trujillo if he'll dig into his bonus? By asking the owneers of the next two biggest telcos, the governments of Singapore and New Zealand?

  • point 9: so, Howard's going to halve the number of national media networks, and Labor are going to give back an extra one (which they'll give to someone who'll say nice things about Labor)? What about an actual departure from Howard's frame of thinking? No exploration of new technologies? "We're going to look at the diversity issue, put all those issues into the pot, look at how all this operates … and then arrive at a conclusion." Oh, please. How long has this man been in politics? A serious journalist would have shredded that mealy-mouthed nonsense. Not good enough!

  • point 10: Sounds good but how does it fit with an overall vision of making Australia and Australians safe?

If ever a politician ought not to be taken on trust it's Kim Beazley. When you interview a politician Jason, think about what politicians generally and Beazley in particular have done, and ask some questions.

The fact that a politician has put out a press release is not a story. It's not even a reason for a story. If Jason Koutsoukis wants a job as a Beazley government press sec, he should not be using Opinion pieces in The Age as mortar for his castles in the air.

20 October 2006

Slow news

There's no such thing as a slow news day, just journalists looking in the wrong place. Imagine how different history would have been if the evil plans of Mohammed Atta had hit the papers on 10 September 2001.

You can tell it's a slow news day when you pay good money for a newspaper which features any of the following:

  • The Beaumont children

  • Brett & Wendy Whiteley

  • The Oz trials, and the otherwise irrelevant Richard Neville

  • Lady Sonia McMahon and that dress she wore to the White House that time

  • George Lazenby, who played James Bond once (this film is never on TV and is hard to get at video stores)

  • The Voyager disaster

  • John Lewthwaite

  • The murder of a gay academic in Adelaide which seems to have been witnessed by half that town - had he been dispatched during the halftime entertainment at a Crows match or in a lull at an Adelaide Oval Pura Cup match it could not be any less of a mystery

  • Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, who used to live here once apparently

You have to worry about a people who regard gruesome death as a form of nostalgia.

There is new information to be uncovered in each of these I'm sure, but SND articles don't bother or falsely promise new information or even fresh thinking. The new angles suggested by the recent ABC program on Bogle/Chandler may justify warming over this old chestnut. Trashy tabloids will bring in a 'psychic' to revivify such stories: at least they're trying.

Why not run one of those long think pieces editors are too scared to run during more tumultuous times? Why not have a look at some issue that's been bugging you for ages? Why not tunnel behind some content provider who airily dismissed a seemingly sound line of enquiry with a simple "I reject that"? (Any journalist who drops a line of enquiry in response to this fatuous statement should be sacked and barred for ten years from writing anything more substantial than a coffee order). Only when the slow-boes running titanic media organisations realise there's no such thing as a slow news day will you see any sort of resurgence or value creeping (back) into the Australian media.

19 October 2006

Cutting and running

Cutting and running: sound political and military strategy in the right circumstances.

Imagine how different the Gallipoli legend would been had Churchill left the Anzacs there to have been completely wiped out by about mid-1916 or so.

Picture the British Expeditionary Force in Europe, 1940, forced back to Dunkirk by overwhelming German force. Now imagine Chamberlain wittering about staying the course, not cutting and running, the British public witnessing a massacre of their army within sight of their homeland with their powerful Navy standing by. This would have delayed the defeat of Nazism indefinitely.

Had Gordon Bennett had arranged for all Australian troops to have been withdrawn from Singapore before the Japanese invaded in 1942, the man would be a national hero.

There was no "cut and run" crap at Kapyong, and rightly so.

The war on fake militant Islam is real, and has to be fought - but I am not trying to claim this conflict is like conflicts in the past. The point here is the correct application of military force. Not every front is worth engaging, particularly if it is favourable to the enemy. The allied occupation of Iraq is doing little to build a sustainably peaceful country there, and the militants grow stronger every day.

The idea that supporting withdrawal from Iraq means you underestimate the threat we face from fake miilitant Islam is rubbish. It's a false dichotomy. The political and military leaders who faced up to the reality of Dunkirk and did what had to be done could not be accused of 'giving in to the Nazis'. Those who oversaw Dunkirk were there at D-Day, and were still there when the mighty machine that blew them away from Europe in 1940 lay crushed and broken five years later.

At last the serious reviews of the effectiveness of this battle front are taking place. Let's hope we can be more effective in fighting fake militant Islam than we have been by providing target practice in Iraq, whether by applying military force elsewhere or by the sort of longterm jamming methods that the Brits used to wreck the IRA.

09 October 2006

Secondary importance

Both Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop and Labor pie-eater Craig Emerson have demonstrated a firm grasp on the wrong end of the stick in the debate on secondary education.

This issue flares on different fronts from time to time, and though it's a big issue it's all the same. Kids today, they:

  • Can't spell/don't understand grammar;

  • Are menaces on the road;

  • Don't know the first thing about Australian history;

  • Are mathematical/ scientific ignoramuses;

  • Must be afraid of the hard work needed to make it in a trade;

  • Provide dreadful service in shops;

  • Listen to crappy music and have no appreciation of Fine Arts;

  • Are too fat;

  • Are surly and disrespectful of older people;

  • Have no idea how to look presentable;

  • etc.

These are features of the same debate: what is secondary education for?

The purpose of primary education was never in doubt. Basic literacy and numeracy is the essential foundation for both the acquisition of skills and the enrichment of young minds, depending on your view of kids as future employees or citizens. This area has received close attention and funding from government in recent years.

Tertiary education, for all its ups and downs, also has a clear role. It must train people for workplace-related skills which change constantly, and to absorb the timeless learning from millenia of civilisation. It must train people to be skeptical while still being capable of action - including the ability to do that which one has not explicitly been asked to do. It is a massive export industry in itself and its contribution to other parts of the economy is enormous. This is likely to be the case into the future so far as we can tell from this angle.

Secondary education involves taking students from primary to tertiary education. That's it, really. It can't be as universal as primary education, for in secondary education we see divergent individuals emerging. It can't be as flexible as tertiary education, because kids need standards and they haven't entered the workforce that would reward such flexibility. It offers sufficient training for some jobs - low-value, low-income jobs, jobs that may serve to get kids through tertiary education or may be a poverty trap for those who take them instead of tertiary education. It's everything, and nothing, and anyone in such a position is acutely vulnerable to anyone who wants to take a shot at them.

The problem of secondary education is basically the problem of its target market, adolescents. Adolescents are not to be entrusted with the full rights and responsibilities of adults. Adolescents are not to be merely kept in line and instilled with facts and motor skills like children. Individual learning styles become more apparent during this time, and mishandling can limit people's potential as it expands that of others.

Take the teaching of Australian history:

  • In a primary sense, it is important that people know basic facts about (deep breath): traditional Aboriginal society; both the economic/political expansion and deplorable social conditions of eighteenth-century British society; the settlement of Sydney, and from there the settlement and exploitation of land (and yes, the alienation of Aborigines from it); gold rushes; political developments leading to Federation; Gallipoli in particular and Australia's participation in war generally; the rise and decline of White Australia; and the postwar developments leading to modern Australia which help explain why Granny's constantly astonished about things kids take for granted.

  • In tertiary terms it is perfectly valid to be entrusted with original sources and to understand various perspectives on what they might mean, including brand-name tools from Deleuze, Marx or whomever.

The primary knowledge is good for little more than answering quizzes, or for instilling predictable reactions when certain facts are invoked from time to time. The tertiary tools are inadequate because no tool is ever adequate: an adjustable spanner is a tool that can be used in car repairs, but it cannot fix all car-related problems, nor all other problems, and not is it a substitute for the vehicle on which it operates as the theorists would claim.

It is a bugger of a job, then, to build an understanding of Australian history strong enough to survive the dousing and filtering of history, to nurture an effection for the subject that will carry the student across the arid terrain of theory. It is entirely appropriate to teach kids that different people have different ways of looking at things, and that it is possible to anticipate and even participate in debates across society.

It is not helpful to those faced with this job to be wittering on about Maoism as though it were a real and present force in modern society, nor to insist that hammering square pegs into round holes is simply a matter of the right hammer and the right amount of force. At about the time that leftists were being encouraged to do a long march through the instutions, Tiny Tim was having people tiptoe through the tulips, and the effects on the education system of both journeys are about the same. The sort of beef-witted individual who is good for nothing but state politics regards secondary education as a service for keeping adolescents off the streets is unable to address questions about what secondary education is for. This crap about Maoists is an attempt to give them a relevance they just don't have. It is terribly important that such individuals not be entrusted with government.

Leaving school before one's secondary education is complete need be no tragedy in an era of lifelong learning. Keeping students in secondary education while its fundamental purpose is unclear is too much to expect. The key question is to build a bridge between primary understandings and tertiary applications, and no sensible person believes that Bishop, Emerson or anyone else prominent in state or federal politics can be of any help whatsoever.

Update: Kevin Donnelly says;
The impact of the cultural Left on education has been profound. Competition and failure are banned. Feminists attack traditional texts such as Romeo and Juliet as enforcing gender stereotypes. In history teaching, instead of focusing on significant historical events and figures and celebrating past milestones, the focus is on victim groups, such as women, migrants and Aborigines.

Rubbish! The impact of the cultural left is non-existant. Competition and failure are real presences in the lives of young people, more so in a less bucolic environment than the one in which Kevin grew up. Teachers that go over the facts and explain how different people view things differently are ultimately doing kids a favour.

How ironic that Kevin chose, of all texts, Romeo & Juliet. Two dysfunctional young people at the heart of that story can only demonstrate the irrelevance of the adult storm going on around them by their own extinction. If people like Kevin could get over themselves and their feuds of old for long enough they could realise that it's stupid to claim that such a complex, wide-ranging and widely popular work can only be taught one way to everyone. If Kevin wants to use the pages of the Oz for this purpose, fine; but he must stop misleading people about the nature of education. This idea of a big lie to spur people to the barricades is so 1968.

04 October 2006

Bored stupid with poor opinion pieces

Every 18 months to two years you find a story like this. The journalist had nothing else to write about, and his well-cultivated sources had nothing to feed him but how they were as bored as he was. Thankfully, he left it to the end of the article to make the feeble ejaculation: "it's sure to be interesting watching all the Coalition hopefuls trying to get the PM's attention as they jockey for position", a claim that would be false advertising had it been up front.

A real journalist would have interrogated his sources a bit more carefully. Look at all those identified as promising talent: too many Victorians (no bad thing for Age readers perhaps), but think about it people: there is no good reason why the country would consent to be governed by Victorians, and anyone on that list with genuine political talent would see that. If they're so hot, maybe some of them should go into state politics, eh? Surely that great sucking vacuum on Spring Street should draw a few of them in.

What would be better for your political career: cruise around Canberra whinging for the next ten years, or do the hard yards in bringing down a Labor Government, become an actual Minister in a realm not dependent on Howard, and switch to Canberra with a bit of substance behind you? Worked for John Fahey. John Brumby was quite a promising backbencher in the Hawke government; he never had a chance of becoming Federal Treasurer, now he's Premier of Victoria in all but name. An ambitious politician could do worse, and it seems many are.

"What we don't lack is talent," one ambitious backbencher told The Sunday Age last week. "To be fair to Howard, though, the best line-up does not necessarily include the brightest people, and over the years he has managed to balance state interests effectively, and justly reward the hard workers who have held on to difficult seats and basically delivered us government.

"But that doesn't mean I am not sitting here getting mightily frustrated thinking about what could have been, and I am not the only who is thinking like that."

So, the consequences of promoting others have led to a decade in government, while the consequences for leaving you where you are ... see? This peanut is crying out for a bit of career advice and poor Jason treats him/her like a martyr. Piss off and do something else. You too, Koutsoukis. What about one o those million-dollar CEO jobs you benchmark yourselves against?

So Jim Lloyd's boring, eh? It's folk like him who are holding the ramparts of exurbia for the Coalition, which is more than can be said for Michael Ronaldson in Ballarat (and who would win a dull-off between Ronaldson and Lloyd? Would you want to be there? Let's send Jason Koutsoukis in there to tell us all about it, he obviously has nothing better to do). Lloyd is Minister for Local Government and Roads, for goodness sake. It's not like he's in charge of T3 or WorkChoices or the Budget.

As for the other 'talent' named, Mitch Fifield could smug for Australia but other evidence of his ministerial talent is not overwhelming (if it is, Jason, show us where we might find it). Sophie Mirabella is prone to mad outbursts, a political accident waiting to happen. So is Guy Barnett and he's a Bible-basher - wait for Minister Barnett to put the boot into publicly-funded abortion or institutions that protect pedophiles and we'll see how much 'talent' he has. Michael Keenan and Marise Payne have about as much future beyond this election as Bob Sercombe (unless they switch to state politics, q. v.). Chris Pyne and David Fawcett come from a small state with too many ministers as it is (Federal ministers, that is), and Pyne is not a personality you put in front of swinging voters. Malcolm Turnbull has raised the media profile of national water issues, but you'd expect he'd have some other, actual achievements by now (apart from spiking the Toowoomba recycling initiative)?

It's not good enough to say the natives are restless. In fact, it's not even adequate. If you're going to do an opinion piece, don't just be a cypher. Would Australia really be governed differently with these guys up front? Would it be governed better? Why are they being paid more, to shut them up?

"[Environment Minister Ian Campbell has] gone native," said one Liberal Party insider last week. "Almost barmy. I'm expecting we'll soon have to send in the rescue team to bring him back to civilisation."

And what would the 'rescue team' find once that happens? Real problems that Liberals prefer to gloss over, can't be arsed about, or fear having to defend in front of mining lobbyists? If this can happen to Campbell - a long-frustrated backbencher himself a few years ago - maybe it could happen to anyone in that job, except perhaps that goose from Darwin.

Health Minister Tony Abbott is clearly out of sorts and would surely benefit from a portfolio where his own personal moral beliefs did not interfere to such a degree with his day-to-day decision-making duties.

Um, like what?
  • He's not a detail man, so Attorney General, Treasury or Defence would expose his weaknesses too cruelly.

  • He's no diplomat, so no job involving foreigners: Foreign Affairs, Trade, Immigration, Defence.

His whole political position has been about social policy and its place in the culture wars, so now we see a social policy job is too much for him? If only Liberal preselectors had seen that sooner.

  • Family and Community Services? Nah, kicking Aborigines and single mothers.

  • Education? He'd get sidetracked by student politics and serious issues like trades training and scientific innovation would be too hard for the boy (then there's all that stuff about bioscience and the Vatican again!).

The Nats have got Transport to themselves. Bugger! There's only one thing to do: stick a fork in him, he's done. David Clarke won't have him in State politics and he'd consider it beneath him anyway.

18 September 2006

A question of values

I can understand why people would want to reinforce Australian values among migrants. I can understand why people would expect that we respect Iraqi values when occupying Iraq.

What I don't understand is this odd doh-si-doh that Australians do when considering these matters. People who think it's shocking and outrageous that people should come here not knowing about Bradman, Phar Lap or Weary Dunlop are quite sanguine about rubbishing the culture of a country in which Australian troops have gone to reconstruct and rehabilitate. People who think Middle Eastern culture should be handled with kid gloves decry any notion that Australian culture (I am not talking about arts funding here) is worth asserting or defending.

What do Australians value? Is helping your mates when they're in trouble exclusively Australian? Are people who come here in rickety boats, or die trying, our mates? What is cultural sensitivity?

13 September 2006

What is fake militant Islam?

I don't believe westerners are at war with Islam. I believe that Islam has co-existed with other faiths in a range of cultures for centuries, and there is no reason why this ought not continue. It is not a millenarian movement where followers are in engaged in frantic activity, building temples or killing themselves or whatever, in anticipation of a Second Coming or some other apocalyptic event.

Fake militant Islam (FMI) involves the de-socialisation of young men. It involves cutting them off from their families, the moderate do-as-you-would-be-done-by version of their faith, the allure of a sex-and-commercialism popular culture, and other aspects of life other than those which organisers of FMI would put them to. The military-style boot camps are indicative of this state. Military recruitment breaks down the personalities of inductees and rebuilds them to undertake the counter-intuitive task of putting themselves in mortal danger when commanded to do so. The difference is that military recruits who are abused have a political redress not open to those claiming divine motivation.

Their recruits are people who are easily alienated, through family dissatisfaction and/or lack of success in the job market. It is they who are sent to die, and who go willingly. They yearn for the bonding that comes from military-style training, where one fires deadly weapons with others at the same targets they are firing at. They go to collect their eternal reward and they don't care who are what gets in their way. They will lie, cheat, steal, kill or maim in order to secure that which was promised when they have been disappointed so much. They have so little connection to this world that they will take their chances in the next. Any community, be it tightly interrelated and Muslim or one so sprawling and atomised as New York City, is vulnerable to violent men who care nothing for anyone else. Hezbollah's launch of missiles from settled areas, in order to provoke an Israeli response to those communities and stir outrage they did not themselves feel, is one example of this. The failure of the Hamas government of Palestine, in eschewing the grown-up business of government and providing social welfare for the adolescent business of gang violence, is another.

The only thing you can do against these anti-social monsters is to reinforce the notion that other people matter, and that one can stray from a set of beliefs without being an outcast and an enemy for all time. It takes good people and good leaders to carry this off. It's no good snarling at rich people ripping off the poor or Bush bombing Palestinians for the sake of oil or whatever if you're going to give a free pass to those luckless souls who can't pull a root but would destroy anyone and anything to get their bevy of houris. Yet, this is what FMI is built upon, not the Koran.

Osama bin Laden has six sons; none of them participated in September 11, none of them have splattered themselves across the walls of a Tel Aviv cafe, a Bali pub or a London rail station. This is no coincidence, and it is not because the children of the FMI elite haven't quite gotten around to self-obliteration as yet. It is because they are socialised to talk the talk but not to walk the walk, as are those nostalgic Trotskyites like Chomsky or Pilger who never met an anti-western putsch they didn't like.

Muslims claim that suicide bombers aren't part of their faith, and quote chapter and verse of the Koran showing it is built on love rather than hatred. I accept that the Islamic faith is generally not militant, despite the early history of Mohammed and his commune. However, the link between Islam and violence is much the same as that between that of a rock band and the deranged fan who finds grounds for suicide in its lyrics: the link might not be strong but it is real, and those responsible for the message should take a long hard look at themselves and question their role in perpetrating such negative outcomes. Muslim community leaders may make carefully-worded denunciations of FMI; but only when it becomes outright blasphemy, only when it inspires the kind of curse-your-mother outrage among Muslims will it stop. You or I can decide that this is unacceptable or hateful or abhorrent but only Muslim leaders can actually declare it blasphemy: bring on the inspiration that would make it so.

31 August 2006

Hope for the future of newspapers

The media can be incredibly self-involved, attaching an importance to its output that just doesn't exist in the lives of most people. In today's Crikey, Margaret Simons said that the media occupy a "privileged position" - really? No more so than any up-themselves spruiker pushing something I don't want. The Economist recently published a number of stories claiming that newspapers are on the road to oblivion, echoed amongst others by Mark Day. There is a good deal of wistfulness about Ye Goode Olde Days, and a bit of grumpy-old-man fist-shaking at new-fangled technology. What is missing is an appreciation of how media can add value into the future.

Day sees the value of newspapers in providing fresh, breaking news only. There are, it seems, two types of FBN: long-term investigative reporting and daily blah (i.e. recycling of press releases). The traditional economic model for newspapers is that advertising funds the content, and that the cost of the paper itself barely covers printing and distribution; the death-of-newspapers crowd complain that the internet breaks the link between content and advertising, hence newspapers are apparently doomed.

Some people fret about negative coverage in a newspaper article because they think that it will permanently colour people's perceptions of them. Old newspaper hands like Day will self-effacingly dismiss their output as "fish-wrappers", often as a way of limiting libel litigation against them. This self-effacement is quickly dispelled when you see the self-importance media attaches to itself; a change to the regulatory environment of, say, universities or uranium mining is covered much less than what happens when there is a change to media regulations. Imagine a combination of the children's games musical chairs and pass-the-parcel, throw in a flurry of accountants and lawyers, and it's much like a shakeout in any other industry.

Never mind the internet, I would have thought newspapers were used to other forms of electronic media by now. I get my raw information from the radio, supplemented by TV in the evening. If I get time at work I hit the internet. It would be hard for any advertiser to reach me during this process. I make a point of avoiding internet advertising, and will often surf sites from outside Australia. I mostly listen to/watch the ABC.

ABC local radio is basically The Sydney Morning Herald read out, featuring interviews with those quoted in the paper (who, if they are briefed in the techniques of media management, will say nothing more than that which was quoted in the paper: it is the dull and lazy radio interviewer who will be content with nothing more than that). The evening news often carries reactions to the day's newspapers and radio: this is known as "the news cycle" and it starts again the following day. It is the very definition of a short-sighted imbecile who thinks the news cycle is the be-all-and-end-all, and it is an indictment of the political and media systems of this country that these myopic people occupy senior and vital roles in those organisations.

But I need more than raw news: and I'm above-average in terms of education and income, and I'm under 40 - so advertisers listen up. People like Day are worried that Google are bringing out a facility that will aggregate information on whatever you're interested in and spoon-feed it to you. This needn't bother newspapers as much as it apparently does. I read newspapers for the analysis.

Newspapers are almost irrelevant in terms of FBN. There's the occasional long-term investigation which leads to FBN, but you get those from Four Corners and you used to get them from Sunday. They're expensive, claims Day: media organisations have plenty of money so that isn't a problem for most newspapers. What he means is they detract from the bottom-line focus, particularly if said investigations upset advertisers.

Newspapers should concentrate on is longer-term analysis of trends that affect the world; they're good at it and it is helpful in forming opinions to make decisions. I read newspapers and news magazines to get some measured analysis of events in the world. The major difference between Australian media and quality media elsewhere is the lack of this longer term analysis by well-informed people who aren't obviously pushing a barrow.

If newspapers wanted commentary on politics, they shouldn't bother asking Tony Abbott or Tanya Plibersek for a piece: they put out press releases and should be busy doing things that are worthy of reporting. If someone wanted an insight to their thought processes, one would go to their websites or read an interview. The piece in today's Australian Financial Review on opportunities for Australia with India's growing nuclear industry might have made a useful speech in Hansard, but as newspaper content it was a waste of space. Politicians like them may complain about the media but as each of them belong to parties which worked to restrict media diversity, forcing discerning readers onto the web, they can just shut up.

The nearest Australian newspapers get to this is the publication of a diverse range of considered views on fake militant Islam. Some are long-serving and distinguished Arabists, some are Washington think-tankers, some are Russell Hill defence nerds; there is a good range available to find entertaining and informative pieces within Australia and overseas. I am not convinced that a similar range of people can't be found on other subject areas. When you need broad and long-term analysis of a subject of which you have known little, you should have a newspaper to go to.

If the quality of the writing is there, I am prepared to dip into articles about other subjects: wine, opera, particle physics, areas where I can't imagine doing a Google search but where a good piece will get me involved. It would be dreary to read articles which reflected a certain line all the time; I need a provocative article to sharpen my views against, or to reconsider them. I'd subscribe to a newspaper if it did this reliably: I always buy the Fin on Friday for the Review section. I used to buy The Bulletin but it's too hit-and-miss. ACP aren't serious about producing it and neither am I about reading/buying it.

You can't train young journalists to do this analysis, but you can persuade them that it's important. Easier to start off doing that earnest noddy stuff on TV outside a court house, and start doing some reading.

What has been imported into Australian papers from the States is the intellectually lazy ideological shill: Bolt, Albrechtsen and Devine on the right, Horin, Davidson and others on the left, largely ignored by readers and generating heat rather than light only among myopic autistics referred to earlier. These people do not change votes or increase readership and they don't sell advertising. Why are they in the paper at all? Dumbing down hits newspapers hardest - they start competing with junk mail catalogues, which are free. Now, as Margaret Simons pointed out in Crikey today, the same is happening to TV (can't wait for the book).

Newspapers will survive if they're worth reading, and they'll be worth reading if they take a more considered view than is possible in media where time is of the essence. This may mean that old-school dumb-down chuckleheads like Mark Day, David Pemberthy, Peter Blunden or Eddie McGuire may have to go, but we all must make sacrifices. If McDonalds can lift the nutritional quality of their menu, News Ltd can too.

I don't pretend that what I like reading is what everyone likes reading. I think it's risible that people like David Flint or Glenn Milne criticise someone who has won and held elected office for being "out of touch with public opinion", as if they'd know! However, I think the media in Australia and elsewhere is in a state of flux, and hopefully something appealling will come out of that.

19 August 2006

Australia and the twilight of the Bush Administration

When George W Bush became US President in January 2001, John Howard was Prime Minister of Australia. Bush said recently that Howard would probably still hold his office once Bush's term expires in January 2009.

Australia's friendship with the United States is strong and long-standing, and has taken different forms over the turbulent past century. Within the next three years it will change again as we adapt to a post-Bush USA. What form will this relationship take, and how will events of the Howard-Bush era affect the future?

It takes two to tango, but Australia's interests will remain relatively constant. We will maintain a close political relationship. We will seek but not get greater access for our exports to the US. We will participate in US-led military expeditions with enthusiasm, but with limits imposed by the size of our military and by commitments in our region such as East Timor, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere which the US will largely leave to us. Even if Labor won government, the general tenor of the relationship from Australia's point of view wouldn't change much apart from political rhetoric, and even that would be a matter of degree rather than any shift in direction.

Any changes on trade will be incremental and we will continue to try to work both sides of the street in our relationships with China and the US. The spectre of American cultural imperialism is not what it was as the appeal of Chinese and Japanese films and games have diminished the power of Hollywood. American fast food companies used to loom large here but their brand powers have also waned despite Australia's obesity epidemic. For all the Howard Government's determination to be part of the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq and Afghanistan, our presence there is not large nor crucial nor hard to replace. These changes may signal shifts in Australia's attitudes toward the US over time, but it isn't clear yet what effects these changes might have.

The impetus for change over the next few years will come from the larger partner in this relationship, the US. It is possible that the next President will, as Bush urges, "stay the course" and elect someone like Condoleezza Rice or Virginia Senator George Allen who will perpetuate Bush's neo-regal policies and style of government. However, Bush has been consistently unpopular throughout this year, which will see elections for the US Congress in November.

Victories for the Democrats, vague and hesitant, cowed by Bush's weakness-is-strength electoral tactics, will encourage a change in political direction. The lack of connection between the war in Iraq and the effective control of fake militant Islam. It is likely that the Democrats will win control of the House of Representatives, and possible that they will win the Senate as well. This will certainly open Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to greater scrutiny than they have experienced to date, which will set the stage for a Democrat response to America's political situation that will resonate with voters.

The failure of Bush's outlook on the world is not only confirmed by isolated incidents like this or the inadequacies of the Iraqi government, but by the failure of the Bush-Cheney end of an acquiescent world accepting of American leadership. Iran, North Korea and others flout pax Americana with impunity, and will increasingly do so as Bush enters his endgame. More time has now elapsed since 11 September 2001 than had elapsed between 7 December 1941 (when Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbour) and 9 August 1945 (when the Japanese surrendered and Hitler was dead). Bush was wrong to present the war against terror as a war that could be won under his leadership.

Democrats may be more likely to expand the lopsided Australia-US Free Trade Agreement in our favour, unless the Howard Government repulse them in their affection for Bush or if sucker Mark Vaile remains as Trade Minister. They are less likely to pander to rural states with their overprotected agriculture sectors, though they may pander to them in states like Florida, Montana or Idaho. Republicans tend to give ever-loyal Australia little more than patronising lip-service.

The future of the US-Australia relationship is really up to the Americans over the next few years - how far are they going to go with neoconservatism, and if they retreat from it will there be such a backlash that we are tainted by it? Once the Americans work out what their priorities really are and what lessons they have learned from the Bush years, this close relationship will adjust accordingly and go forward.

18 August 2006

Lest we forget

Forty years ago today, 108 Australian soldiers were ambushed by about 2500 VietCong near the village of Long Tan, Vietnam.

John Howard was happy to apologise for the way Vietnam veterans had been treated (no cost to him; no political consequences as Liberals broadly agree, including those gutless ones who played down the war and its participants in the face of the Whitlam juggernaut). Howard did not, however, address the issue that Long Tan veterans were not rewarded adequately by officialdom. He did so in a particularly weaselly way and it robbed his "apology" of any moral force.

The shabby way Vietnam veterans were treated is also an indictment on Whitlam's legacy. A man with classic education should know that those who return from the battlefield should be honoured and put on a sound economic footing for the sake of the state. After all this time he should be able to transcend the long-haired activists of old who burnish his legend and recognise that Vietnam veterans did important and often exemplary work under impossible circumstances.

Any culture where moral greatness is not rewarded and moral failure unpunished is doomed to mediocrity, and the Australian military is no exception. Yes, it's hard work, with a bureaucratic storm ahead and probably a lot of long-buried private pain which will get wrenched into the public domain. With Imperial honours, the Australian Government will have to go cap-in-hand to the Poms in a way that it no longer has to do in any other area of policy. However, it is worth doing. It will give substantive justice to a section of the community long wronged (including other veterans, not just from Long Tan, similarly overlooked and fobbed off).

To re-examine aspects of our military history would spur the very sort of study of key events on Australian history that the recent history summit would have young people do. No amount of windy rhetoric would have this motivating force. It also adds another dimension to Australian history: whatever you might think of Australia getting drawn into Anglo-American wars, there are significant achievements by Australians worthy of recognition and respect.

Appropriate recognition of our brave and clever service personnel will make it easier to reform the appalling failure of military justice for serving personnel. If you can go back through the records of those whose careers are over, it will make it easier to embellish or eviscerate those currently in uniform. This failed system, which ensnares good and bad equally, makes the profession of arms profoundly unappealling in a time of low unemployment. The fantasy of those supporting the status quo is that effective warriors are potentially denied to the military, when a properly-functioning justice system bids good riddance to bad rubbish. It ultimately hinders our military capabilities and adds to cost.

Accountability is a joke while layers of crusty cover-ups clog this vital organ of state. We can neither criticise the Japanese over Yasukuni or "comfort women", not the US military over Hicks - even if we wanted to.

It is very important to revisit the honours given to Australian servicemen, and Howard's inaction hurts us on so many levels.

14 August 2006

Lessons from the ACT

If your financial performance has been this bad, don't you start developing a social conscience or whingeing about the Constitution. It didn't work for Whitlam and it won't work for Stanhope either.

I think gay/lesbian civil unions are absolutely equal to heterosexual de facto relationships. Marriage is different, but nobody is talking about gay marriage in this debate - asking why gays/lesbians can't get married is like asking why Muslims don't take Holy Communion. Opponents of this measure are few but active - still irrelevant in a democracy with compulsory voting. Just because something isn't forbidden, it doesn't mean it's now compulsory - the very essence of liberalism which, despite five hundred years of Enlightenment, churchy people just cant grasp. There are bigger issues to focus on, but you can't blame those for whom gay issues are deeply personal issues, nor those of us who regard homosexuality as part of the human condition whose recognition costs non-homosexuals nothing.

The ACT is basically a jumped-up council. It would be fair to call it a one-off were it not for the example of Brisbane, a proper city council that executes its functions in a responsible manner. The sheer degree to which these Brindabella hillbillies are out of their depth is a clear example of why the fringe movement to break down the states and introduce regional councils like this is a non-starter. There is a critical mass for the kind of services that State governments deliver, and the ACT is attempting to limbo under that.

The transition costs would never be recouped, and regional areas would go backwards even faster than they are now. Take this guy: his solution for New England is to devote their hard-earned to buying some sheep runs and building a New Canberra between Tamworth and Armidale (and not just local money - you know he'd be panhandling from growth centres in Sydney and Brisbane to make his absurd dream work). The best thing this joker can do for New England is to stay in Hornsby. Earle Page is dead, so is the idea that country people are better and more special than other Australians, as well as the idea that they create all the wealth for this country. OK, it's not dead as long as there are characters like the New England dreamer and the ACT incompetents, but hopefully they'll find reality bracing if not discouraging. If regional areas think they're being neglected now, they should try cutting themselves off politically from the cities.

Except for the ACT, the States are configured such that they all contain a major city, a number of regional centres, and some remote and sparsely populated areas. When COAG comes together on the big national issues like native title, mental health or terrorism, everyone's sitting up and taking notice. If that were extended to a multitude of regional councils it would be a dialogue of the deaf, amid an orgy of waste. Political ineptitude exists despite the Constitution, and not because of it.

31 July 2006

The love song of J. Hyde Page

I had been a Young Liberal for over a decade when John Hyde Page joined a neighbouring branch. He was even more dull than the prose in his tome, Servicing Me, Servicing You: The Edification of a Piss Boy. I had no idea why he joined the Liberal Party, and after reading him spit out all the butt-ends of his days and ways I still don't. He uses some real names and applies pseudonyms to others; he claims to have witnessed events that he didn't and couldn't; and he leaves out examples of his own behaviour that would leave a reader feeling robbed of any time spent with him in his book. As with this song, what's puzzling me, then as now, is the nature of his game.

Hyde Page's is basically a love story. Here was a young man who was not that bright, nor distinguished in any other way. The branch he joined was run by a character not dissimilar to Fagin from Dickens' Oliver Twist (mind you, this could be pretty much the factional warrior's anthem). Fagin convinced Hyde Page that talent, ability to contribute to the common weal and hard work counted for nothing in politics; that self-abasement was the way to success, that you could suck your way upwards by some sort of capillary action. Hyde Page was in love with the idea that someone so unremarkable as himself could get anywhere at anything; and he fell in love with Fagin. He became an easy tool for Fagin: deferential, glad to be of use, and on that basis prepared a face to meet the faces that he met. He clearly bamboozled his publisher as well, but spivs sell and Australian publishers who understand the Liberal Party would be few enough for someone like him to try it on.

The book, like its author, has none of the ideology that is claimed on the wrapper: it was all about him and Fagin. As an activist Hyde Page targetted mostly well-functioning moderate branches and promising moderate liberals than yer standard wood-duck Howard-lovin' conservatives, and almost never did he take on the true enemies of moderate liberals (and humanity generally) the mad, bad Dave Clarke Taliban. You're not a moderate liberal because you say so, or because Fagin considers you part of his furniture. You're a moderate if you believe that the far right and the far left should just go at each other while moderates get on with the business of good and sensible government. You're a moderate if you stand up for refugees and other aspects of human rights without buggering the economy through red tape and bullying like the far left do - Phillip Ruddock and Amanda Vanstone used to be moderates before they got ambitious and impatient, believe it or not.

Hyde Page believed nothing more than that he would make an effective and eminent Liberal, that attaining a title might substitute for an achievement. He believed that doing Fagin's bidding was the way to that attainment. There, then as now, endeth his beliefs.

There is no "moderate liberal" justification, for example, for his attack upon my old branch of Paddington Young Liberals. You can read this at pp. 125-128 of the book: no need to buy it, just skim it in the bookshop before one of the staff asks you to buy. Hyde Page tries to demonise his victims, but his description of the people in that branch reveal a fundamental failure to understand human nature: an understanding essential for all leaders and manipulators, and give insight into his political and personal failure:

  • The person he calls 'Lachlan' is actually named Paul - the mistake is understandable once you appreciate how dull-witted Hyde Page is. He has a genuine sense of humour while Hyde Page's lack of sense in this area reveals him as far more "gruesome" than the person he so labels - especially once you realise he made up the incident that apparently galvanised him to act. If you ever wonder why politicians are so same-same, look at 'Lachlan' and realise that he was the second-highest ranking moderate in the Young Liberals. Hyde Page invested all the works and days of hands in forcing out a branch President who was standing down: this proves him to be not only capricious but stupid. It is this combination that helps make both his book and the Liberal Party what they are today: not worth your while.

  • His description of two female members of that branch, Sarah and Nicole, shows that Hyde Page is baffled by women and not in some harmless, gentlemanly way. He accuses one of them of not wearing a miniskirt - now Sarah could sure wear a miniskirt(!), but I suppose that Hyde Page learnt miniskirt deployment at Cranbrook. He says that Chris McDiven's vapid offspring were part of his moderate-anti-moderate stack. Hyde Page's descriptions go beyond misogyny - this is someone who doesn't even like women in general and couldn't be bothered understanding them, another failure in interpersonal relations generally let alone Liberal politics in particular.

If the book was more important, I'd give further examples: chapters that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent to lead you to an overwhelming question … why? well, that question would overwhelm him. Factional hacks like Hyde Page (or, for that matter, Morris Iemma or Steve Bracks) are not used to answering questions and as such they make appalling politicians, furtive and exclusionary and frightened of scrutiny. It is tiresome watching such people pay hide-and-seek with journalists who are both gullible and lazy. Hyde Page's book lays out the landscape of his mind like a patient etherised upon a table, but offers no reason why you should care about him or his little world.

Read the section on John Howard's contempt for him; a position he developed after the first few minutes and one position of his well worth your emulation. He is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. As an author he is not a truth-teller, nor is he imaginative or clear in his writing, full of high sentence and a lot obtuse, certainly not worthy of emulation however briefly.

You have now spent all the time on this book that is necessary, and more than is wise.