31 July 2007

Off target

It's amateur hour in Queensland politics again, with Family First talking about one target but aiming at another in this article, and the journalist not bright enough too read her own copy and think about it.
Jeff Buchanan, lead candidate and campaign manager for Family First

One of the basic rules of politics is that the campaign manager must not be the same person as the candidate. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, this leads to a situation where time is devoted to, and money spent on, issues that don't translate into votes. Where you have a choice for one of these to be sensible, go for the campaign manager to act as Jeeves to the candidate's Wooster. This is an affront to democracy in that the elected representatives tend to be less capable than those who lobby them, but what sort of country do you think we're living in here? The only cases where the candidate=manager thing works is for members of one party running in the other's safe seats (insufficient resources and no harm done either way), or for singular independents like Peter Andren or Tony Windsor.
Mr Buchanan said Family First was already drawing support from disillusioned former Nationals members.

He said business - including the construction and mining sectors - was also "more interested in Family First than ever before".

If that's true, and given the probable collapse in the joint Coalition Senate ticket in Queensland, this means the target for Family First in the coming election is Nationals Senator Ron Boswell, or else the second Liberal on the Queensland ticket. No?
there's no polling or analysis around that says the Democrats are a chance of hanging on to their seats," he told The Australian ... "Clearly we're chasing Senator Bartlett's seat ... I don't think we're star-gazing; we're being quite realistic," he said.

You can't be realistic if you're targetting the wrong guy. By badmouthing environmental policies, or drug treatment (on the rare occasions I go to Brisbane, I don't want to be stepping over dead junkies or discarded syringes - those programs are to protect the community, not to encourage drug use you fool), you're not actually winning any votes from Bartlett. What you're doing is muscling in on Boswell's conservative constituency and splitting the conservative vote away from the Coalition, stopping it going all the way to Labor.

The Democrat vote has collapsed, but what Bartlett needs is preferences from the Greens and third-Labor (asuming they don't pull ahead of him) as well as disaffected Libs. Yes, the Chipp-era moderates who formed the core of the Democrats from Chipp to Kernot have to come through for Bartlett.

It may be that Buchanan is genuinely not clever enough to make this connection, that his competitors are those for whom his would-be constituents have voted in the past. Those within FF who have political brains have made this connection I'm sure, and as such it is the responsibility of the journalist to show readers who are FF's real targets, not just Bartlett as whipping boy. Either Buchanan is thick, or he's foxing, and either way the journalist has let us down by leaving it to the reader to do her job.

Talking up

Kevin Rudd is not pursuing a small target strategy in winning government, as Kim Beazley did. Small targets are essentially passive, and the prerogative of a government rather than an opposition: Kim Beazley was the first leader in the ALP's history who spent most of his career in government rather than opposition (and at the point where this was no longer true, he was dumped).

Rudd has attacked Howard and put him on the back foot, and has actively courted constituencies who have felt excluded from the benefits that Howard claims as his. He has demonstrated that he is willing to look at governing Australia in a new way; but not to the point where he's off with the pixies or that he is unmindful of the economy, as Whitlam was.

Phillip Adams claimed that Kevin Rudd is running a small target strategy. Gerard Henderson should know better - he's had Rudd over to his place - but rather than listening to and observing Rudd, Henderson has decided to go Adams regardless of the reality. Adams writes for Murdoch and Henderson for Fairfax. There comes a point where pundits who cancel each other out politically add no value in helping us assess those who would govern us, and this latest Adams-Henderson exchange is one example.

But am I not alone in feeling a little anxious about the strategy? What seems like unseemly haste to neutralise Howard rather than challenge him?

Adams may feel anxious that the game is not yet won, that Macbeth is still king of the castle and that the challenger is untried. It is idle to imply, as Henderson does, that those who bet on the election result are doing so "with real money", as though people's no-less-real money in the economy that is not lodged with bookmakers is somehow less affected by the decisions of different government, or that those of us not having a flutter are somehow less than serious about the election result. What would Santamaria have said about that Gerard?

Rudd is under no obligation to tackle every issue that comes up in an agenda that he doesn't control. This is what it is to be wedged: to take a position separate from your support base over which neither you nor they can negotiate a solution.

Did Whitlam launch a frontal assault on McMahon's economic stewardship? Did he bollocks. He didn't launch a frontal assault on Vietnam either, cultivating an impression that he was nudging along the same process that McMahon had instituted. He didn't challenge White Australia either, because Holt had done that and Freddie Daly was soon restored after his wistful gaffe on this issue. Whitlam didn't call McMahon a liar, he didn't vanquish McMahon in any melodramatic way. But neutralise him he did, and let the record show that Whitlam not only defeated McMahon but erased any contribution he may have made to public life.

All successful opposition leaders neutralised their opponents rather than obliterated them - Hawke with Fraser, Howard with Keating, etc. Let's have none of this idea that boldness and drama is all, or that Whitlam set the standard.

If you're a Labor supporter, what would you rather: someone who talks a good game from opposition, and after the election a) doesn't win, or b) wins government and disavows what was promised before the election? Perhaps Phillip Adams has seen the pantomime of politics for too long to imagine any other possibility.

If you're keen to see the back of Howard, neutralised and then buried will do the trick, right? "Crash through or crash" has been done, and those who are most fond of this Whitlamite tactic were those least prepared for, and most scarred by, the crash that was always inevitable.

That said, Henderson is being snide in pointing out that because he made a mistake in 1968, his opinions are invalid. Henderson has also missed the point here:
The leftist critique of Rudd Labor overlooks the fact the ALP may be ahead in the polls because of its stance on such issues as national security, indigenous matters, water, forest policy and the like. It also assumes that, fearful of being wedged, Rudd is embracing policies in which he does not believe. But there is no evidence he is being intellectually dishonest with respect to any of these policies.

Henderson assumes that Labor has a firm stance on these issues upon which policy could be built. What is possibly more true is that Rudd has revealed his intellect and character to be such that he can be trusted to develop new solutions that are not yet manifest - whereas Howard is pretty much stuck with the transitory, and ultimately unsatisfactory and unsustainable, position we have now. "What you see is what you get" is an attractive idea until what you see is stale, shabby and fragile, then it becomes difficult that you're offering more than meets the eye.

In leaving alone issues about which the opposition leader can do little constructive, such as Hicks or Haneef, Rudd is doing in the political game what cricketers call letting the ball go through to the keeper. The ball that goes through to the keeper couldabeen hit for six, but it also couldabeen the ball that got the batsman out.

It may be intellectually honest to say that many of these issues are best addressed in government, with full access to the best information and control of the political initiative. Civil liberties in an age of insecurity need to be rethought, and there will be many stakeholders to consult and much careful thought to be done and working with others in an integrated way. Going into too much detail on areas where he is not expert make Rudd look foolish, and may close off options he would prefer were open on assuming office.

Howard maintains a large lead over Rudd when voters are asked who is best equipped to handle the economy and national security.

Really? After the Haneef bungle Howard's national security credentials are pretty ropey, and Rudd's focus on rising prices for houses and consumer goods are wearing away the hold over economic policy (see Friday's post on the political importance of the economy).
In any event, the left has nowhere to go politically while leftists, virtually to man and a woman, remain committed members of the Howard-haters club.

There is no club (so it's down from a brigade, then?). To assert that there is assumes that Howard sets the agenda, and that one cannot propose different policies to his without being visceral and emotional rather than intellectual. If you believe the leftists have nowhere to go, just say so. Stop implying that leftists (and other opponents of Howard) should just give up any opposition to the Howard government, like the broken Winston Smith at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It is noteworthy the left's criticism of Rudd is much the same as that of the Government. Both maintain he does not believe what he says he believes.

All politicians say one thing in opposition then do another in government. Those of us whom Henderson patronisingly calls "punters" know this. The difference is that there are several big issues that Howard can no longer be trusted to overhaul (see the first sentence quoted from Henderson above - "The leftist ... and the like" - for a list of these), whereas Rudd can be trusted to tackle them in a way that is unlikely to make matters significantly worse - hell, he may even do a good job. Howard has lost the benefit of the doubt, and with a known quantity comes a pessimism about his capacity to change and grow.

There are challenges facing Australia in securing a safe and prosperous future. Our leaders, and their perspectives, priorities and characters have a large bearing on our capacities to realise our ambitions for our nation and the societies in which we live. We need commentators who at least help us understand the questions, let alone the answers. Whether it's Henderson and Adams stuck in 1968, or Koutsoukis, Milne or Price playing personality politics, the media just isn't helping us build our understanding of the challenges and our leaders' performances in meeting them.

30 July 2007

An unhealthy relationship

Now it seems that Dr Haneef is guilty of nothing more than being careless with his SIM card.

I don't believe Kevin Andrews when he intimates at grounds for his cancellation of Haneef's visa, and the Kafkaesque-McCarthyite nature of the case are starting to make the intellectual staleness of civil libertarianism sound sensible.

The mainstream media can't complain about bloggers when it prints stuff like this, easily the silliest article written about the whole business. The link between terrorism and NSW OH&S is tendentious, worthy of Des Moore at his most loopy, and no sensible editor should have published it.

What is clear that Phillip Ruddock, frustrated at his inability to nail Haneef, remembered his old job at Immigration and asked his mate Kevin to help him out. Now that Andrews is under the gun (from the Murdoch press, of all people!), Ruddock is maintaining a cadaverous silence.

Rather than go into the details of that case, I'm more concerned about what it means going forward.

The Indian community in Australia is 200,000+ strong apparently, disproportionately represented among aspirational and professional Australians. It publishes Indian Link and The Indian, which carry input from locals as well as from Indian media. Darshak Mehta feels the injustice that adds to the adjustment difficulties Indians must face in coming here.

If this - and the Jayanth Patel case (where an underqualified doctor caused patients to die in a regional hospital in Queensland) - is the representations of Indians in Australian media, then no wonder they are upset. Indian doctors, emigrants or isa-holders, play an increasing role in Australian medicine. While there have been calls for training to help foreign doctors adjust to Australia, it runs both ways - devaluing and demonising doctors from one of the few areas of growth in this profession is unutterably poor policy.

Queensland in particular has had long-standing doctor shortages, particularly in non-sexy areas far from Brisbane or Cairns, and Beattie is right when he says the Haneef case will make the shortage worse rather than better. To focus on Haneef as a short-term problem for Howard, as Pawan Luthra does, is to miss this point. It's already hard to get qualified doctors to want to come here, and the well-publicised Haneef case will discourage those who are considering coming here.

The Health Minister should know better than to come out with this, but he doesn't. What we need is a new Health Minister, and a new PM.

Though scenes like this can be overstated, it shows how much attention the case has received in India.

I wish we had a better system for training and attracting doctors. I wish Indian migrants felt more comfortable here. I hope we get better at targetting fake militant Islamic terror. We definitely need a new government.

Getting the treatment

Congratulations to Jase on getting out of the press gallery for this piece, and for once leaving the Howard-Costello non-story alone. It just shows that the sloppy research and silly assumptions go beyond what happens inside Parliament and surrounding restaurants:

  • The Heckler-style tone of the article generally

  • The silly sweeping statement in the third paragraph

  • The idea that a doctor might refer a patient to a specialist - they don't know everything, that's because they're not press gallery journalists!

  • "The rebate process actually takes a few seconds, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?" - any proof for that Jason? A five-minute visit to a harried GP makes you more of an expert than an experienced doctor heading her professional association? The challenge is on Jase to come up with "a good story", and this isn't it

  • The idea that a pharmacist concluding a retail transaction takes less time than a doctor conducting a physical examination - duh! It takes a press gallery journalist to point this out.

After all that comes this telling piece - and as with all Koutsoukis articles, you have to hunt to get the good oil -
The most telling moment, though, came midway through the question and answer session when Capolingua was asked to name the three things she wanted to see most from both major political parties in the run-up to the election.

Three months out from polling day, Capolingua — the head of the peak medical organisation in the country — actually started stammering.

She finally managed to mumble a few platitudes, but the damage was done. The truth is that, apart from more money in doctors' pockets, the AMA doesn't actually know what it wants.

The Australian Medical Association seems to be pretty clear about what it wants, if you do a bit of research. However:

  • Perhaps, in the theatre of a press conference, practiced professionals wrongfooted an unpracticed speaker. This just means you do a bit of research to put this in context, which might excuse any snarks about the head of a major lobby group not being media-savvy.

  • Maybe Capolingua has a stammering problem - what proportion of the population does it affect, how is it treatable, etc.

  • She may have been fearful of offending Abbott, with whom she shares Catholic ideological issues on healthcare.

  • This isn't three months out from polling day - it's three months from when you guess polling day might be. You have no intellugence in this and you should admit it to a readership who wrongly trusts you

  • Governments are sensitive to criticism at the best of times but at a time when the government can't take a trick, Capolingua understandably didn't want to be seen piling on.

That said, Capolingua should have rattled off a list of objectives from her recent election to the head of the AMA.

A press gallery journalist would have wondered why this is the first AMA President in a long time who hasn't put the boot into the government, and what they'd hope to gain by a tactic they haven't tried before: snuggling down into the minister's pocket. How will that tactic impress the Abbott's successor as Health Minister, and what implications will that have for Capolingua, the AMA and health policy generally?

There's also the issue of Australia having too few doctors generally (let alone those who don't instantly recognise the Koutsoukis name - "you any relation to that try-hard who takes up space in The Age?"), and of deporting those fitted up by a silly government - but more on that later.

Once again, I have to do Jase's "work" for him - in this, my 101st post on this blog.

27 July 2007

The political go bag

I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

- Shakespeare Macbeth Act III, Sc. IV

It used to be that government ministers would resign if they felt compelled to act against what they felt to be sound policy. No more: government ministers add "never resign" to Disraeli's old saw about not complaining or explaining.

People who occupy these offices are subject to a variety of intense pressures to act one way or another, and what they refuse to do can be as important as what they do achieve. Events occur that not even the experts predict - these can reveal the character of those who make the decisions. If they go well, opportunist politicians will not hesistate to take credit for them, while if they go badly there will be complaints of ill-fortune and -treatment.

Recently, Treasurer Peter Costello has been quoted complaining that he had done things he hadn't wanted to do. He had also commented on Howard's position as Fraser's Treasurer; it took Howard years to convince economic reformers that he was one of them, not always convincingly it seems. Andrew Norton examines discussion of Costello's legacy and how it coulda/woulda/shoulda been, but considering Costello, Howard and other ministers it leads to a wider question: why do people seek public office?

At some point, Peter Costello will have to differentiate himself from John Howard. How on earth will he do that? Where is the point where he stared Howard down? Where are the long and dearly held policy initiatives that Costello persuaded others to adopt? What will be in Costello's, and the Liberal Party's, political go bag?

In this interview, we saw Tony Abbott doing his impression of a man with his testicles in a vice. He's run out of ideas and cannot defend either of the protagonists who compete for credit in achieving whatever the government has achieved - yet by not defending either, or both, he is acutely aware that he has no case to make as to why he and his should remain in government.

It would seem that the robustness of the economy will merely minimise the losses that the Coalition will suffer at the coming election, rather than be the all-conquering factor they are perceived to have been - or was it?

  • In 1996, the economy was recovering under Keating, albeit too slowly, and like Rudd today all Howard offered was forward momentum and the excision of everything you hate about the incumbent.

  • In 1998 the main economic achievements were offshore, the proposed GST was lied about, and Labor got 51% of the vote.

  • In 2001 and 2004, the issue was national security: first bin Laden and the Tampa, then Mark Latham

This is a government running out of steam; and in a dynamic society such as ours, out of steam is out of time. The question as to what the Liberals take out of this experience and what they leave behind is of vital importance to those of us who are not Howard Liberals, and to the Party's ability to form government at anything above the municipal level into the future.

26 July 2007

Demonstrating what?

After two hundred years, those who run things have pretty much contained the power of the demonstration. Democratic franchises have been extended and the gaps between rich and poor have narrowed with the emergence of a middle class.

The last time I know of that a demo made any difference whatsoever was when 50,000 Sydneysiders took to the streets against then-Education Minister Terry Metherell in the early 1990s. The windows of State Parliament literally rattled at the sheer force of massed voices shouting "Kick! Metherell! Out!", and when Metherell subsequently resigned from the Liberal Party (because it was too mean, ha ha ha!), Liberal staffers implied that the demo had caused him to lose his marbles. I marched against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, an utter waste of time. The biggest demonstrations in history were protests against the Iraq war, and hasn't that gone well?

The demo is usually an exercise in nostalgia by some old soixante-huitards and has become the ultimate exercise in confusing activity with achievement. They think they're "keeping up the pressure" when they're really just engaging in a pantomime.

Articles like this are part of the pantomime. Individually or collectively, demonstrators who attend rallies or don't will be achieving the same. No decision by the assembled APEC leaders in September will be affected in the slightest whether or not there are protests, how big they are, or whether anyone does or doesn't get hurt. Anyone who does get hurt - regardless of their politics, their role or what they hoped to achieve - will have the added pain that they are suffering for no good reason whatsoever.

Here is the kernel of piffle in this article:
"In a few weeks you will see news pictures of activists being carted off by robocops guarding delegates to the APEC summit," said Professor Lynch. "But remember they are the guardians of democracy and the hope of a safer world that we could now create".

You could read "they" as referring to the police, if you were being a smart-arse and taking this out of context. Seriously though, "robocops" is dehumanising and denies the fact that these are working people just doing a job. Demonstrators who lose sight of that have no hesitation in injuring police, which in Australia detracts from public appeal for whatever it is you're hoping to change. It happens so often that you'd think that organising a demonstration is more trouble than it's worth.

Those who consider government policy in a carefully considered way do more for democracy that hundreds of boofheads throwing themselves at the barricades. "Activists" are not, as Lynch would claim, limited to those who wander down a newly dead-end street chanting. Indeed, crackdowns following this exuberance diminish democracy rather than enhancing it.

What is the objection to APEC anyway? Howard? Bush? Iraq? Freer trade lifting people out of poverty and removing Australians from low-value manufacturing? Against what is the "dissent", capitalism? Is this some cultural cringe where Sydney has to prove that it can do your stale old whaddawewant whendawewannit as well as Seattle or Brixton?
He said these same activists recently protested "valiantly" against the "idiocy" of Operation Talisman Sabre, the biggest military exercise on Australian soil, which has just taken place in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Professor Lynch said: "Australia's interests are better served by playing to our traditional strengths of UN peacekeeping and diplomacy."

The impact on the exercise of that demo was identical to the effect as though it had not happened. It may have generated warm feelings of self-satisfaction on the part of organisers but its wider impact was absolute zero. When the Kittyhawk battle carrier group came to Sydney, people were glad to see it and those who weren't had no impact. To participate in demonstrations was a waste of time (assuming there was any participation - I'm more switched-on politically than most, and I was completely unaware of it).

Lynch has failed to acknowledge, let alone address, the long-ignored flaws in the UN model which have made not only Bosnia and Sudan but the Bush-Halliburton adventure in Iraq possible.
Keeping an open mind and a healthy cynicism for the official line is crucial, he said. A real war on terror would address the root causes: hopelessness, injustice and oppression.

The first sentence is a truism, but the knee-jerk reaction of demos and the stuff in the second sentence reveals the intellectual poverty of that "dissent". Those who are perpetrators of those three elements cannot claim sympathy for being victims of them:

While people in this position may well be in a vicious cycle, it is for them to work out, and to leave behind these three social ills if they are to have a claim to public attention, sympathy and support. Nelson Mandela and Gerry Adams were absolutely underserving of public support until they renouned the activities that they claimed the Powers That Be were practicing upon them. No claims on their behalf (or on the "activists" who decide to excuse their recklessness by using their cause) ought be entertained, and no "demonstration" is appropriate until you're clear about what it is you're demonstrating. Being anti-US is no less lame or blanketing of injustice etc. than being unabashedly pro-US.

The whole idea of studying "dissent" is thinking about that which you're dissenting against, thinking about the change you'd like to see, then making - or being - those changes. CPACS doesn't appear to be doing that, instead proffering itself as a staging area for another lame panto. Whaddawewant? Whendawewannit? Fuck off and leave us alone, and do your wanking in private. Those of us who are actively participating in democracy are insulted that those providing a pantomime cover for thuggery would appoint themselves our guardians.

Update: Don't Tase me, Bro!

25 July 2007

Birnam Wood starts moving

John Howard has been the most centralist Prime Minister since Whitlam. While Whitlam's centralism reinforced federalism within the Liberal Party, Howard's centralism has wrecked it.

The practice of moving apparatchiks around the country and the decline of the Melbourne Raj at the top of that party have made the Liberal Party more responsive to federal needs and less responsive to those of a particular state.

Fundraising goes to federal campaigns, not state ones. At state elections, a bunch of long-serving apparatchiks who are not valued enough to be kept in Canberra are sent around to discourage any boisterousness on the part of State Liberal upstarts who actually want to win government - these guys floated to the top of Liberal campaigns in time to see the Fraser government into oblivion, and John Howard only became Prime Minister once he stopped listening to them. Their suggestions are always lame and they speak through clenched teeth at out-of-their-depth State Directors and putative Premiers, who immediately buckle and offer insipid, half-baked performances that repel voters. Dopey shadow ministers who do what they're told receive nods and winks (but bugger-all else) of support, while thinkers and doers are discouraged.

Howard puts in token appearances with Liberal leaders but doesn't include them in, or give them advance warning of, big-ticket policy announcements. These are reserved for the Labor Premiers, who look statesmanlike on telly and who then go into Parliament and monster their ill-advised, ill-funded and demoralised opponents.

This follows the model of John Carrick, General Secretary of the Liberal Party in NSW 1948-71, who was intensely focused on keeping the Menzies Government in office federally and didn't give a rat's about winning state government. The Coalition almost won State Government in 1959 against a succession of Labor Premiers who look as though they were carved out of mashed potato. Only when Robin Askin became State leader of the Liberal Party did he realise that Carrick was not going to capitalise on this, and effectively set up a parallel campaign team that eventually got him over the line six years later. This carelessness has built a born-to-rule mentality among NSW Labor, manifest in Keating's projection of this onto the Libs as well as the political inbreed currently occupying the NSW Premier's office. Carrick was John Howard's mentor.

None of this should be read as claiming that John Howard is to blame for the Liberals' lack of success at State level over the past dozen years or so. He isn't even largely to blame, as state Libs should have stood up for themselves. Standing up to a proven winner without a similar record of electoral achievement is, admittedly, fraught. However, the assumption that John Howard supports Liberals at the state level - which even seeps its way into first-year political science courses at our universities - is flatly wrong.

Now, all the state Labor leaders are starting to close ranks against Howard - about water, Dr Haneef and who knows what else in coming weeks. It creates the impression that Howard's lost the ability to govern the country. State Premiers don't normally need to reinforce their own political positions by shirt-fronting a Prime Minister of the opposing party (Greiner got on well with Hawke, as did Keating with Kennett, etc.), but there's more political capital to be had from the prospect of a Rudd Labor government than the stumbling, bleeding reality Howard presents us with.

Howard could really use some help from a state Premier who stands with him on the issues that Liberals care about. Wonder where he'll get one of those? The state Libs with the best chance of victory, Barry O'Farrell and Ted Baillieu, will be up against it in trying to crack the Labor bloc - but their chances will be better, not worse, once they are no longer encumbered by "help" from team Howard.

22 July 2007

The broken record

Jason Koutsoukis has nothing to say, and he's said it again. The same column he always runs in The Age on Sunday, the same non-story based on false assumptions, and once again trying to blame the object of his fantasies for their not coming true.

Had Costello [challenged for the leadership], he would have faced the charge of disloyalty and of putting his own ambition before the Liberal Party. But, as subsequent events have shown, the judgement would have been right and have put them in a better position to win this election, because the electorate has stopped listening to Howard.

This doesn't consider the possibility that Costello isn't strong enough to face those accusations, especially as he has no convictions other than that he'd like to be PM (if that). Think about Andrew Peacock, widely regarded as Malcolm Fraser's heir apparent, after he went to the backbench in 1981. No sleeping at the Lodge, no eating there, nothing. You had to leapfrog Peacock to talk about Fraser, yet it is the Sunlamp Kid who was the Costello of years past.

Kim Beazley got the leadership of his party without having to challenge for it, and he and his wife probably dined with the Hawkes, Keatings or both in the Prime Ministerial residences. In wanting to have the leadership dropped into his lap, Costello is the Liberals' Kim Beazley. Never mind Fraser and Gorton: here is a parallel in recent times you've just ignored.

Stop recounting some anonymous briefing and actually think about what you're being told, where it comes from, does it hold together under scrutiny. Start doing that and you'll become a journalist.

As for these "subsequent events", Jason: your whole job is helping us anticipate those, not trying hundreds of variations of the same story.

Costello's second reason for not challenging Howard is that he didn't want to be seen as disloyal or be blamed for splitting the party. Then why did he choose politics as a profession? He should have stuck to the law. Leadership is not about being a nice guy, it's about backing your own judgements and convictions.

What convictions?

Costello has never grasped what showing a bit of steel could do and the only reason he is not prime minister now is because he hasn't had the stomach to do what he has believed in his heart was the right thing to do.

Mixed metaphors reveal confused thinking. You can't show steel, stomach, cojones or whatever if you just don't have them. This story has been right in front of you for years and you've missed it, Jason.

And instead of history remembering him as one of the country's most successful treasurers, it may well recall him as a craven wimp who let his party down right when it needed him most.

Not "instead of", both. History, like good journalism, can be pretty bloody nuanced when it's of a mind to be so.

There is a story to be told on Peter Costello - like Beazley and Peacock, tomorrow's man who became yesterday's man without him ever being the man for today. Jason Koutsoukis can't tell it because he's too close; and because even though deploying words is central to his profession, you don't get much sense from a man who thinks people get grilled or shot while on a marathon.

18 July 2007

Nine scenarios for polling day

This site disdains endless nonsense about polls in the media, and blogs are the worst offenders in many ways. Endless wittering about hypothetical scenarios which never come off is a distraction from the actual decisions that governments take which affect people. How many real stories go untold because someone wants to go on about an imaginary "swing" among 1000 people in wherever with nothing better to do than talk to a pollster on the phone?

The last time I gave into this crap I gave the benefit of the doubt to Peter Debnam's NSW Liberals (scroll down, second-last post), and look where that got me! Read on if you do not value accuracy and credibility.

Swings can be ethereal and nebulous in practical, on-the-ground terms of which party will win which seat. It is, after all, early in the election campaign. Far more indicative of electoral success than general swings or popularity contests framed around the constructed image of a distant leader is work on the ground. Members who have worked hard on local issues and have a lot to show for it, including tangible achievements and a level of respect among those who hate their party, are formidable opponents to challengers. Candidates who are well organised and campaigning effectively have a strong chance of victory.

Conversely, it shouldn't be hard to beat members and candidates who have no community connections to speak of, who resent having to deal with the masses and their quotidian concerns, and who assume that they will be carried to victory by the party - unless the other major party has a candidate who is equally lazy or inept. Sitting MPs build up a loyal following of voters who'd never otherwise support that MP's party, and when they go that loyal following goes back to the party it came from.

Going by this list in one of the better politics blogs, let's see which candidates have a strong and effective presence in the community they'd seek to represent, and which are hacks who are up against it.

Scenario 1: Liberal MP hasn't built up any community loyalty, drifting in on the Howard government's tide of popularity and drifting out just as easily. Labor is bringing its machine to bear on these seats, it has good, hard-working candidates, and because it wants to win so badly and has a swing behind it, Labor should win these seats from the Coalition:

  • Bonner Q

  • Bowman Q

  • Eden-Monaro NSW

  • Boothby SA

  • Moreton Q

  • Corangamite V

  • Deakin V

Scenario 2: Sitting Coalition MP is a hard-working quiet achiever, Labor candidate is a hack. Labor can't believe they've lost these seats at all and can't believe they have to work to get them back (these seats will be in Scenario 7 below at the next election). People want to vote Labor but just can't vote for the particular candidate Labor has, for one short-sighted dumb-arse factional reason, preselected for these seats. With the right candidate next time these seats should go Labor as part of the inevitable second-term landslide:

  • Robertson NSW

  • Greenway NSW

  • Paterson NSW

  • Dickson Q

  • Hinkler Q

Scenario 3: No sitting Coalition MP running, Lib and ALP candidates (if preselected) are evenly matched, anyone's game but at this stage Labor must have the benefit of the doubt because any residual goodwill toward the Libs disappears with the incumbent:

  • Lindsay NSW

  • Makin SA

  • Grey SA

  • Fadden Q

  • Flynn Q

Scenario 4: Coalition set to win seat:

  • Calare NSW - but only because the seat has been radically redrawn and the popular MP has run away

  • If they win a seat in Perth it will be by accident, because both major party political machines in WA are hopeless

Scenario 5: Coalition chosen hack candidate who won't lose seat this time, but who will depress Liberal vote over time, antagonise colleagues in Opposition and make committed Coalition voters/party members despair:

  • Mitchell NSW

  • Cook NSW

  • Ryan Q

  • Whichever seat Josh Frydenberg wins after the inevitable byelections

Scenario 6: Coalition have held this seat forever but demographics have shifted. Won't vote Labor this time, but they may do so next time if Rudd does a half-decent job and the Labor candidate in 2009/10 is all right, as part of the inevitable second-term landslide:

  • Cowper NSW

  • Lyne NSW

  • Page NSW

  • Berowra NSW

  • Gilmore NSW

  • Dawson Q

  • Gippsland V

  • Dunkley V

  • Fisher Q

  • Wide Bay Q

Scenario 7: The Coalition MP does all the right things as far as representing the electorate and keeping in touch with community groups, but it doesn't matter because Labor have chosen a reasonable candidate and Da Swing Is On, Baby:

  • Wakefield SA

  • Dobell NSW

  • Hughes NSW

  • McEwen V

  • Bass T

  • Braddon T

  • Wentworth NSW

Scenario 8: Bennelong.

Bennelong will go along with everyone else. Howard has the benefit of the doubt, but nobody wants a scenario where Howard is returned but the Libs go into Opposition, whereupon Howard resigns straight away and there's a byelection. If the rest of the country really wants a Labor government the people of Bennelong will probably go along with that, but otherwise Howard is back.

If there is a byelection, and the Libs win, Bennelong will probably go into Scenario 6 above. If Labor wins, it will go into Scenario 9 below.

Scenario 9: Every other seat not named above. Your local member (or someone of the same party) gets returned to do the same old same old, not very exciting for politics junkies but terribly important for the Functioning Of Our Democracy.

Which scenario are you facing?

16 July 2007

Silver bullet

This week, Jase has hid his candle for Costello deep under a bushel - click here.

You have to scroll down to the third-last paragraph to see what all his wittering about age is really about. He neglects to point out that non-developed nations (I assume he means countries outside the OECD) tend to have average ages below the age of 68, as do all but a handful of Aborigines, such that someone in their forties is very senior indeed. That, however, is the sort of criticism you'd make of a proper journalist.

So Jase:

  • What's Peter Costello's Chief of Staff like? Do a better job than Nutt, eh? How, exactly? Give your answer using examples, and cut out any crap about Equatorial Guinea.

  • What pearls of wisdom have been stomped into the mud by Nutt's trotters? How would the fortunes of the government, and the future of the country be different if only those ideas had a better reception?

  • Given that it was only a few days ago that you said it wasn't too late for a switch to Costello, what (not who, what) changed your mind?

  • Do you think Costello's smart-arse performances this week about groceries had any impact in the marginals, Jase? Any at all?

  • Would Vanessa Goodwin (or any other Liberal in a marginal seat) really want Costello campaigning with her, rather than Howard?

  • Where are the voters who'd vote Liberal if Howard were gone and your man Costello held the top job? Are they outweighed by the numbers who voted for Howard previously and will vote for the seemingly (and actually!) younger, fresher version of Howard known as "Kevin Rudd"?

  • A year ago, Kim Beazley was leader of the ALP. The conventional wisdom from places like this suggest that Howard well and truly had the measure of both Beazley and Costello.

there remains the question of how much younger and fresher he would appear to the voters, given that he has held the nation's purse strings for 11 years.

Insofar as a piece like this has a point at all, it is to examine what a Costello Prime Ministership might be like, and how (if?) it might be more appealling than a Rudd one. This is the piece you should have written, Jase.

By the way: Costello has been the Treasurer of the government, not the nation.

I am starting to get tired of doing Jase's job for him. His love letters to Peter Costello get more embarrassing the less he has to say. Anyone from the MSM who still whinges about bloggers is weighed down by having to defend the waste of space that is the JoK.

13 July 2007

You can lead them to the right, but you can't make them think

When we were in the NSW Young Liberals together, John Ruddick told me what a nice guy he was. Now he has tried to convince readers of The Australian that someone who used to pay him was a nice guy and was important to the intellectual and political life of the country.

Stan Zemanek was a stirrer, and got noticed by being rude about things that people cared about. He tapped into the same market as Rodney Rude and Kevin Bloody Wilson, whose lasting political impacts are non-existent.

What follows here is not an attack on either Ruddick or Zemanek. Ruddick regards any criticism of him and anything he might say or do as "vicious", and Zemanek is dead. What follows here is despair that when you get to where the right want to lead you, there's nothing there.

Take John Ruddick's ideal man, Rush Limbaugh. He has a drug problem, has three failed marriages and made his name by bagging the then-13 year old daughter of a Democrat President. It ought to go without saying that real conservatives don't beat up on young girls, and those who do are nobody's hero. Like other "conservatives" of his generation, Limbaugh dodged the draft to Vietnam without having the guts to stand for principle. I make no comment about Zemanek or Ruddick, except to say that a conservative who cannot act as a moral exemplar is no conservative at all.

Limbaugh is not "unbridled", he's just rude. He doesn't care about accuracy when he can just revel in the attention, as though drawing attention to himself were more important than issues which affect millions other than himself. Thankfully no Australian broadcaster comes close to Limbaugh's reach and influence, although it is Alan Jones - and not Zemanek - who comes closest.
But when they heard someone spell out loudly and clearly why Keating was wrong on Mabo, or an apology to rampant welfarism, or his Asia-first foreign policy, they loved it. And so they went to the ballot box in 1996 and voted Liberal for the first time.

Loudly? Sure. Clearly? Only in some technical acoustic sense - Zemanek would only say that Keating was wrong, not why. He had a predominantly male radio audience, whereas the key to Howard's electoral success was the vote of women. Those easily-flattered old slappers from Beauty and the Beast would never have tolerated the crudity of his radio program, and if it follows that Zemanek wasn't really a beast then were his defenders truly beauties?

He worked for a right wing radio station, of course he'd proudly claim to be pro-Liberal. And as with Limbaugh, Zemanek picked the wrong targets: Zemanek's real competitors were those who played music to help people forget about their working conditions, love lives or whatever. Phillip Adams' Late Night Live was broadcast at the same time but tailored to a niche audience - it was silly for Ruddick and Zemanek to regard Adams as a competitor of the latter, in the same way that it is silly to compare a bonsai to a box gum. It is patronising for Ruddick to talk about the people of western Sydney and Queensland as though they'd never heard radio before.
Keating’s final years were Zemanek’s heyday.

Indeed they were. He failed absolutely to capitalise on the ascendancy of his views into public policy, and if Howard owed him anything he did little to repay compared with, say, John Laws. Zemanek had a role to play in keeping Howard honest, but others took up that mantle without descending to Limbaugh-style tactics. You'd have thought that standing up for a government that did everything you claimed to want would help in the battle against the asterisk, but apparently not.

It cannot be claimed that Zemanek realigned the intellectual and cultural climate of the nation because he was determinedly anti-intellectual and uncultured. In Melbourne, Australia's most self-consciously intellectual and multicultured city, Zemanek was a flop. I wonder why? Ruddick offers no answer ecause this, like so many others, is an inconvenient truth.

In 1996 people voted on the economic and social direction of the country as well as the economic and social circumstances in which they found themselves. The same is true today. Nobody gave a damn about a bridge in South Australia, it was a issue for a small number of commentators on both left and right and shifted no votes elsewhere in SA, let alone the rest of the country. Even John Ruddick does not care enough about said "battlers" - including local Aborigines - to work out how that bridge is going, and whether it was all worth it.

It falls to me to point out that Ian McLachlan submitted his resignation to John Howard - the same John Howard who sought and demanded Pauline Hanson's resignation from the Liberal Party. Howard later appointed McLachlan a minister, an appointment hardly rewarded with competent administration or innovative policy. Did Zemanek ever force Howard to change tack, as Jones or the ABC regularly have?

Ruddick implies that Stan Zemanek helped Pauline Hanson get elected in 1996. This is dishonest as others deserve more credit (insofar as credit can be claimed for this), and it is telling that Hanson never thanked him or acknowledged the contribution Ruddick ascribes to him. Hanson was turfed out by the same idealised blue-collar voters after one term, restoring Labor's dominance in Oxley, a fact that discredits Ruddick's piece for its being omitted. If Zemanek had the effect that Ruddick implies he did, why did it evaporate so quickly? I doubt that the good people of Oxley all suddenly became turtleneck-wearing intellectuals and determinedly returned Labor to represent them in the face of a Liberal ascendancy.

Can any sensible person look at Howard's foreign policy and deny the centrality of Asia, from Iraq to East Timor and Japan? At APEC later this year, do you think he's going to spend the whole time with Bush and the Prime Minister of Canada? You don't have to be an inner-city intellectual to see what rubbish it is to disparage Australia's practical and bilateral foreign policy focus on Asia.

I will now make an accusation against John Ruddick what will cut him to the quick, from which his reputation and feelings will never recover and which will lose him friends and allies. Here it is: John Ruddick is an intellectual. Oh yes! A university graduate with more than one degree, and good marks too if memory serves. That will trash his reputation on the right as surely as his own embellishments, wishful thinking and straw-man punching has done for the rest of us.

I left the Liberal Party because the less liberal it became, the less interesting it was. The right stopped thinking out their position and what they could offer a dynamic country, and instead lapsed into asserting that all their opponents had to go and join the Labor Party (notwithstanding that the overwhelming majority of Australians to the left of Ruddick and Dave Clark form a massive, permanent majority - which is only an issue so long as you respect democracy). But never mind all that - this post was inspired by John Ruddick, what could be more important than that?

11 July 2007

Not really Christian

The Roman Catholic Church has declared that Christian Churches that do not pay homage to it are not really Christian Churches.

Jesus said: "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20).

Therefore, it's entirely possible to pay homage to Jesus without paying homage to Ben16. When you've got Jesus among you, what else do you need (in Christian terms)? Being a Christian can be fraught with differing interpretations of what should or shouldn't be done, but basically anyone who takes an opinion against that of Jesus is on shaky theological ground. The logic that non-Catholic Christian Churches don't feature elements considered indispensible to Catholics makes them non-Catholic, not non-Christian.

Being seemingly afflicted - if not paralysed - by Vatican groupthink is no excuse for such an error. Bombast ought not be confused with certainty, and rising to such an altitude within the Roman Catholic Church ought not lead to frostbite of the spirit. When you read The Cotters' Saturday night you know that Christ is present, but it takes a real spiritual numbness to note, let alone miss, the absence of the Hitler Youth from Traunstein.

The churches of the Middle East and Africa, those apples that fell closer to the tree than that arrogant outfit in Rome, put the lie to the notion that the Roman Catholic Church has any monopoly on the life of Christ in the world. To their credit, the Catholic Church have admitted as much, but in their latest effort they are trying to edge away from their earlier clarity and generosity of spirit. It's to their discredit that they attempt to do so.

If you are baptised in a nonCatholic Christian church, and you subsequently convert to Catholicism, you don't have to get re-baptised.

The eastern churches, however, are not the target here. The target is the disintegrating Church of England, and the unsustainability of those who object to the leadership of the Queen in that church while not accepting that of the Pope. This conflict is for others to fight, but rendering sincere and devout Christians as collateral damage is not on.

It is hard to believe that such prideful and clumsy people as the gang who came up with this silly effort of nonCatholic = nonChristian are divinely inspired, or walking in the way of Christ.

10 July 2007

Film and culture

Peter Craven is one of the most incisive critics around, and always worth reading to light your way through debates that can often be complex and fraught. This post does not use the words Kultur or Kulcha because I don't know what they mean in the context of art policy commentary, where they are used almost compulsorily.

With this, though, I think he's mistaken. He hasn't thought through what he's saying, a rare lapse.

It is no more necessary to turn a book into a film than it is to turn a tree into a table. Craven cites some fine examples of where good Australian books became good Australian films - but it does not follow that all Great Australian Books (where are they who define such? Never miond who guards the guardians, who selects the selectors?).

He does not, however, allow for the possibility that some good Australian books might be turned into poor films. This upsets those who loved the book in question, dismays audiences who stay away from an unappealling film, and cheeses off taxpayers forced to pay for some frolic whose defence only discredits Australian film and arts per se.

Some good Australian books might be adequately captured on TV. Craven himself makes an excellent point about BBC literary dramatisations. In the US, quality dramatic writing is not found in Hollywood or Broadway, but on TV. Any of The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or The West Wing has better plotting, dialogue and other qualities of drama than The Corrections or Wit. The ABC-TV version of Come in Spinner was very good, as good as that book deserved. The same goes for Bryce Courtenay books - it does not do to be too snobby about the people who read these books and watch the mini-series as an audience, especially when they are paying the bills for publicly-funded art and when their lives often constitute the Australian life about which artists fancy themselves as capturing.

The Australia Council should work with commercial channels in complying with local content regulations. The state education departments that mandate texts for students should also have a role in choosing which texts should be brought to the (small or large) screen. All of these considerations are more important than a make-work scheme for Beresford and his pals, or a symbiotic relationship with government as occurs with defence industries.

The film version of The Man from Snowy River only actually addressed the story of the poem in the last 20-30 minutes: the Colt from Old Regret was safely secured to the point of bering ignored until then. Treating the text as incidental to the film was only permissible, I suspect, because the poem was not highly regarded from an artistic point of view and that a mass audience was prepared to indulge the padding around it in the film.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Craven's piece was the assumption that all the great Australian stories have already been written and sit away on dusty bookshelves, waiting to have new life breathed into them by actors and scriptwriters and cinematographers. Does it really take a million dollars to tell an authentic story well? If you accept resources as finite (and post-Whitlam, we must), consider worthy but dying arts that could be funded at a fraction of that cost: how many poets could you fund for $1m? Then there's the whole private/public thing which needs to be thought out better. Earlier I said that disparaging a film for being privately funded was silly, not so much beside the point as irrelevant to any cogent point about art in this country.

I thought Craven's point about Australian literature being not much older than film was important, and the never-occured-to-me-before aspect of White as contemporary of Hitchcock, Ford and Visconti (but also Bellow, Garcia Marquez and Boell) was also valuable.

02 July 2007

Who hesitates is lost

The whole idea of the shock-and-awe approach to the plight of NT Aborigines is to take maximum advantage of positive impressions of the plan while minimising the time for people to consider nuanced approaches to the issue, teething problems and other real-world issues that make spin doctors despair of crafting sunny and positive headlines.

The same applies to any big-ticket political initiative, really. To quote from the best play ever written about politics:
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly

The wisdom of this can be seen with a number of major Howard government policies, the sort of things that legacies are made of and obituaries written about:

  • Iraq: the fact that country has not lived up to the extravagant claims made for it by proponents of the invasion means that the Coalition of the Willing has been defeated.

  • The Murray/Darling basin water management plan: a big deal at the start of the year, now so feeble that even Steve Bracks can pick it apart.

  • The Budget: lots of bread and circuses back in May, now all but forgotten and thanks for the $20 or whatever.

The illegality of compulsory medical checks on Aboriginal children underlies the practical difficulties of realising the aims of a badly thought-through plan announcement. Rather than have a trusted and well-informed public service develop a comprehensive set of answers to eminently foreseeable questions, Tony Abbott is trying to rally the very sort of people needed to make the policy announcement work:
... we do need more doctors and nurses to go to these places for the long-term and that in the end is the big challenge, and, I guess, that's — we'll be hoping to engage what I still think is the commitment to the idealism and the sense of vocation of the medical and nursing professions.

That's right: the very man who has built his entire career sledging do-gooders is rallying them to the flag (while at the same time, apparently trying to reinvent himself not as a statesman but a sk8r boi). With all due respect to Abbott, fuck off!

It's not just that Howard is doing too little, too late. It's that he's not capitalising on what little he is doing: the heavy artillery are pounding away but the infantry are not advancing to take enemy territory. He can't capitalise on what seem like big and impressive proposals because the detail required to sustain them hasn't been done. There are going to be a lot of newly-unemployed Coalition MPs on election night wondering what went wrong. Despite a decade in government they will lack the understanding of government necessary to articulate what went wrong and how to avoid the mistake next time. Any attempt to remedy this will be undermined by a fundamental lack of faith in government - but that's the Liberal Party for you.

You can see why folk are prepared, as Jase can't, to take a "magic carpet ride" with Rudd despite the lack of detail:
Any place it goes is right
Goes far, flies near, to the stars away from here

Well, you don't know what we can find from detail-poor policy pronouncements - but all that means is you stop relying on the pronouncements. People who occupy the positions that people like Jase hold should be more awake to the following than they are:

  • It's silly to expect an opposition to have the equivalent resources to government. Nobody who knows anything about politics expects otherwise.

  • Successful oppositions don't need to be policy-specific as Jase himself unwittingly observed with Howard over 1995-96 (or for that matter, Hawke in 1983, Fraser in 1975, any of the current State Labor governments, etc.).

  • Creating the impression of Aladdin's lamp from the reality of a "lousy candle" is part of the politician's art. The whole idea of a press gallery is to deconstruct these sorts of tricks.

It would be a mistake - the sort of mistake Jase and the Press Gang make all the time - to confuse Rudd's near-disappearance from the media as a sign that he's doing nothing in policy terms. Quite the opposite, as I'm sure we'll soon see (and the whole idea of a proper press gallery is to find out, in the absence of concrete proposals, who they're talking to and what their thinking is. Get to it, you lazy buggers!). The serious policy work has to be done now and Rudd is almost certainly rising to that. Labor's woolly thinking on preventative health will maintain their lead in this area far better than the detail-rich Medicare Gold last time around.

It would seem from polling that Aboriginal issues are making their customary non-impact on Australian politics. The number of people impressed by Howard and Brough is equalled by those who aren't, and both are overwhelmed by those who don't give a rat's. Never mind the thesaurus: Middle Australia and Central Australia are not the same thing at all.

One thing that has changed in Australian politics over the last fortnight or so is that Mal Brough is now a real contender to assume the leadership of the Liberal Party once Howard goes. Costello won't stick around, and will be so ground down by (and inextricably liked to) Howard. Abbott pisses too many people off. Turnbull and Nelson are so shallow they make Andrew Peacock or Kim Beazley look like Pericles. It may take a Queenslander to beat/neutralise a Queenslander, and in their post-Howard vulnerability the Liberals will turn to Brough as Action Man.