31 August 2009

Clean up NSW

It's a media cliché, boring to readers but beloved of the journosphere, to complain about money being spent ministerial offices.

First, we had Matt Brown cavorting around in his undies. Now there's Della Bosca doing it in the ministerial suite with someone other than Belinda Neal. God knows what else remains to come out, but on those alone the first order of business for the next NSW government must be to steam-clean the ministerial offices, if not knock them down and start again. One stray curly hair would be far too great a distraction from the task of wrenching the state out of the state to which it has descended, as noxious as an asbestos fibre from an OHS perspective.

30 August 2009

Forget about it

This is the most disgusting piece of political cynicism yet from the Rudd Government, from its worst minister.

The Northern Territory Intervention was supported by both sides of politics. It represented bold action to address dark and deep problems, the sort that can only be addressed by bold action. None of the issues that brought on the Intervention have been addressed, let alone resolved, and the suspension of anti-discrimination laws have entrenched helplessness rather than alleviated it. Macklin can't even build a single dwelling despite having not only billions of dollars at her disposal, but an ocean of goodwill following the Apology.

The Apology was a call to arms not seen since Menzies' explanation on 3 September 1939 of why Australia was at war with Germany. The Prime Minister, his government and the Opposition put all their credibility on the line and set aside significant parts of their parties' history to right considerable, innumerable and long-standing wrongs. It takes a policy moron, a political retard to take all that and generate from it absolutely fuck-all, as Macklin has.

Now we have another disadvantaged people, abused and neglected wards of the state: Macklin says we are to apologise to them as well, but this time she admits there will be absolutely nothying for these people once the fine words have died in the air. Rudd should have announced this himself, rather than No-Cred Jen. There won't be a cent for those who are wards of the state today (not for dissuading them from costly incarceration, anyway), and like Aborigines and Vietnam veterans there will be no help for those from this group of people who need it. There will be no leadership as to what real forms such assistance might take, nothing to light the way.

Jenny Macklin was parachuted into Parliament on the proviso that she do something on social policy, and became Deputy Leader on the basis that she was a formidable policy brain. Leftwing Labor people supported a Labor government for all its rightward leanings on the basis that people like Jenny Macklin might get in there and fight for what's right. Having achieved bugger-all as Minister, it's time to call Macklin a failure.

The time will come when she's punted off the political stage as a has-been who never was, and something tells me she won't go with good grace but will bleat about the very people she so drastically let down. It will be easy to pile on Macklin then, but let us now acknowledge that she has failed her constituency rather than wait for the press gallery to wake up to the political "reality" that she is taking up a spot that could be more usefully occupied by almost anyone (well, except Tony Abbott, who doesn't care about his party's policies and record, and the people they affected far from Canberra; and who will jabber on about any policy other than the one he is shadowing. A decent shadow minister should have Macklin on the ropes by now). The fact that Rudd won't sack her is a weakness for which his government is yet to pay, but which will let him down badly when he'll need to draw from the well of compassion and good deeds.

I dread a time when a national apology brings hollow, bitter laughter from those who deserve such a measure. Such a time is hard upon us.

27 August 2009

Hardly working

This is not news, though the journosphere thinks it is.

Rees to stay as Premier? He doesn't decide that. He didn't decide when to become Premier, and when he is replaced that decision too will be made for him. Tell us who makes that decision (and why it's them who makes that decision, all things considered), and ask them. Rees has proven so often that he doesn't know what he's talking about that it simply is not worth sticking a microphone under his nose.

Kenneally for Premier? She's been parachuted into every role she's ever had, pampered and protected before being lifted into the next job, and the next. So her husband's uncle wrote Flying Hero Class: so what? Who cares where she was born? Princess Kristina can't fight, won't fight and Labor have nothing if not a fight on their hands. She hasn't stood up for any good cause as Planning Minister, and couldn't if she tried. She'd make Kerry Chikarovski look like Boadicea.

Della Bosca for Premier? He had a chance but it's gone now. He should have entered the Legislative Assemble in about 1999 and spent the early part of this decade pressuring Carr to hand over. As Health Minister he is frankly pathetic, looking all shocked and hurt when the this week's scandal from years of stuff-ups and neglect becomes so obvious that not even the journosphere can ignore it. His moment has gone - he could have been the anti-Carr, but smarter than Unsworth and with more room to move in winning in '07.

His pantomime insistences on inquiries are wearing thin to the point where he's ignored: it worked for Carr, but not now. The idea that he might be Premier is the nearest thing he's had to credibility since the Night of the Iguana. Labor's answer to Peter Costello except - this.

Sartor? Pat Hills on angry pills. No idea what to do about anything, other than make sexcuses for Labor donors on-camera and savage journos when he thinks the camera's off. You know the grind of campaigning would get to him and he'd snap at the worst possible moment. Long before that, having to apologise/cover up for everything that goes wrong would do his head in. No appeal west of Sussex Street.

Daley? Less time in politics than Rees and Kenneally, just looks sad all the time as well he might: the road system's stuffed and the RTA has that toxic mix of arrogance and incompetence it inherited from Max Moore-Wilton. Tebbutt? Does. Not. Want It. Even Liberals (should) know that you never hold a candle for people who don't want the job. Besides, the minute she took the job Rudd would have to sack her husband as he doesn't want any of that shit infecting his government.

No, the hospitals are falling apart and the schools are net to go, the trains are slower and dirtier than in the age of steam, the road network is hopeless and support for new and existing communities is simply non-existent. All we need now are prison breaks, police corruption and brownouts and everyone who urged NSW not to vote Labor will be vindicated.

Then, of course, the real work will begin. There is one thing worse than NSW Labor not getting back to work - and that is it being fully engaged with the State's problems, and making them much, much worse.

24 August 2009

Darling Downs Quixote

The Nationals have taken what they think is a historic change of course by rededicating itself to its grass roots. What it has actually done is voted for its own irrelevance - instead of shuffling toward oblivion, it is hurtling toward it Bolt-like (I meant Usain, but you can throw in Andrew too), clicking its heels and whooping. Barnaby Joyce is doing what Bob Katter did, except Katter left the Nationals to their own devices while Joyce doesn't want the structure to survive him.

The Australian can't believe it's really over, still taking them seriously despite everything. This article shows the weakness of "even-handed" reporting. Joyce has seized on an idea that isn't original or well thought out. The reasons he chose nuclear power are:

  • it will make him look like a visionary nation-builder to yokels (visionary nation-builders of old used to go on and on about nuclear power, and the reasons why it didn't come through for us isn't clear to them); and

  • No nuclear facilities will be built in National electorates. You'd only build a nuclear reactor near a major city, because that's where baseload power is required and it's where nuclear technicians would live.

The quotes from Minchin on why nuclear power is a non-starter are surprisingly lucid. Subsequent quotes by Isobel Redmond and Malcolm Turnbull make them look like Minchin's sock-puppets. Minchin also leaves aside the fact that there is no skilled nuclear workforce big enough to build an industry upon. And yet ...

... the fact is that Australia's existing coal-fired power stations are wearing out. South Australia needs a new way of generating power: could a nuclear power station somewhere between Woomera and Adelaide be an answer? To ask this is to play down (through sheer ignorance on my part) the possibilities of LNG, CSG and other gases, as well as the very quest for that nineteenth-century notion of remotely-located piped-in bulk baseload power rather than smaller-scale power that is generated and consumed locally. Solar power does not need to generate industrial quantities of power - if it can take lots of individual households off the grid (except, perhaps, during usage spikes), this will be a contribution equal to several new power stations - coal, nuclear or whatever.

Akerman and Franklin also ignore the possibility of Labor being divided over nuclear power. Minchin says that there's no bipartisan consensus on nuclear power but Martin Ferguson seems pretty clear, and nobody's put out a press release to the contrary so everything's tickety-boo with them.

All this is to give Joyce and the Nationals more credit than they warrant.
Noting the ALP had campaigned in 2007 by saying a returned Howard government would build nuclear reactors in people's backyards, Senator Joyce said people deserved more information about the potential benefits and the chance to vote in a referendum on the issue.

Consumers might accept nuclear reactors in their neighbourhoods if they were told it would cut their power bills in half, he said.

The Queensland senator also said that while it might sound noble to say that the world's energy problems could be solved by more windmills and solar panels, this was simply unrealistic.

"I'm putting the (nuclear) agenda out there," he said.

Little care, no responsibility. Would it really cut power bills in half? Why are windmills and solar power inherently unrealistic, and doomed ever to be so? A bit of journalism here would have been nice, either making Joyce earn his free publicity or cross-checking with someone who'd actually know about electricity generation and distribution.

But for true silliness piled on the silliness of Joyce's own, we need to go stark raving Milney:
QUEENSLAND, as they once used to say somewhat disparagingly, is different. Well here's some mail: politically at least, that remains the case. And in ways that may well shape the final outcome of the electoral contest between Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. If Malcolm manages to last that long.

He's hoisted himself up onto two crutches of cliché (Queensland is different, here's some mail) and is hobbling through his article. If you're going to invoke Queensland you should at least examine the idea that Joyce and Rudd have clearly chosen not to shirtfront one another: each understands the other only too well, and both fancy their chances with the Sydney silvertail. Every time I read a Milney piece I see the half-dozen or so stories he should have written.
... at the historic Hyatt Hotel, the Nationals yesterday wound up their peak federal council meeting.

And very successful it was too.

Successful at what, Milney? Successful for whom?
In the words of the party's federal director Brad Henderson, in his report to conference: "A new treatment of our logo, new website, in our annual report and with a new visual identity our contemporary new look tells Australians that we are changing."

What that "changing" meant became clear as the weekend progressed. In danger of dying a demographic death the Nationals have decided to rededicate themselves to their base.

Again in Henderson's words: "The nub of the changes that we are making is about more assertively advocating the interests of regional Australia."

Words fail me. They're going the way of the Democrats and they're focused on their fucking logo. It's questionable that the base will be as enamoured of the visual identity as our man Brad.
Asked by Laurie Oakes whether the Nationals at the conference had decided they wouldn't vote for an emissions trading system under any circumstances, Joyce replied: "That is correct."

Translated, that is a one-finger salute to Turnbull. In other words, no matter what amendments or concessions he manages to negotiate with the Rudd government before the ETS comes back before the Senate in November, the Nationals won't be having a bar of it.

Hardly a surprise, but look at the numbers. There are 76 seats in the Senate; less the President, 38 votes are needed to pass a vote there. Labor has 32 Senators and the Liberals another 32: let the five Nats/CLP fall where they may, who needs 'em? If the Nationals don't want to be taken for granted by the city slickers, that's up to them - but small parties depend on either:

  • being part of a larger entity (e.g. a Coalition with a major party); or

  • playing a spoiler role, the deft use of the balance of power (e.g. like the Democrats used to do, and like the Greens are trying to do, in the Senate).

Which role is Joyce playing? Neither, and that's why he's stupid. Stupid as the Joh Nationals, who thought they were a major party and ended up going from nowhere to oblivion with nothing to show for it south of Coolangatta. Stupid as Hanson, who got a million votes but no seat. Milney should be calling Joyce on his stupidity and is failing his readers and his employer by not doing so.

It's all very well to compare yourself to Cortés, but burning your boats is the easy bit. Conquest and dispossession is the hard bit. A small number of Spaniards with steel, gunpowder and immunities to certain diseases prevailing over an ancient civilisation without the means for its own survival is a different matter to taking on those multitudes Joyce appears to regard as his opponents. He doesn't have Spanish gold or the Papacy behind him, it isn't apparent that he leads much of a popular movement beyond Brad and his website. The Nationals might be inconvenient or disrespectful to Turnbull but they don't seem inclined to imprison him in his Point Piper home; the comparison is so silly and grandiose it calls Joyce's mental balance into question.
All of which must lead students of history to wonder if it will be Turnbull who ends up playing Montezuma to Joyce's Cortes.

Not just Joyce's.
With the Nats now cast as regional conquistadors how will the Barnaby Party's policy differences be reconciled with the Liberals under a common banner, let alone under a loose Coalition agreement? Will the Liberals in Brisbane run a different campaign on climate change in the city to the Nationals in the bush? Whose position will prevail in government?

Answer: the Liberals, all the more so if they distance themselves from ratbags like Joyce. Where are the regional seats to be won by climate change denialism? Are there more of them than seats to be lost by this retreat from the world (similar to that of the Aztecs - another reason why the analogy doesn't work, Milney).
"Nationals voters will want to vote National, particularly those who identify with Barnaby. The advantage of a coalition is that it allows you to target different messages to different constituencies.

"The case for product differentiation is stronger in Queensland than anywhere else in the country. All that would be lost. We would be asking people to vote for the Coalition, yet running in the name of a party which isn't even a member of the Coalition, which doesn't even exist in Canberra. It would be a total fiasco."

If the Nationals want a fiasco, they can have a fiasco - but if they want power they'll have to stick with the Coalition. Joyce won't do what it takes to secure power for the Nationals, so the idea that they would make him their leader in all but name is a death-wish on their part. Why didn't Laurie Oakes use his memory and ask what was different between Joyce now and the Nats of the '80s who set the party on the road to oblivion.

Milney has been looking to play Sancho Panza to Don Quixote ever since Peter Costello squibbed the Liberal leadership (and did so without tipping off Milney, all that suckholing wasted). It looks like Joyce is that figure, colourful but doomed.
Look up the tale. For Montezuma the ending is not pretty.

Nor for Cortés, according to Wikipedia:
Having spent a great deal of his own money to finance expeditions, he was now heavily in debt. In February 1544 he made a claim on the royal treasury, but was given a royal runaround for the next three years. Disgusted, he decided to return to Mexico in 1547. When he reached Seville, he was stricken with dysentery. He died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Seville province, on December 2, 1547, from a case of pleurisy at age 62.

After Cortés died his children were disinherited and his bones were regularly shifted about. Something to look forward to, eh Barnaby - but that's what you get for getting ahead of yourself and mixing with the likes of silly Glenn Milne. Joyce calls to mind another conquístador, with a very different role for the wannabe Sancho Panza:
Conquistador your stallion stands
In need of company
And like some angel's hallowed brow
You reek of purity
I see your armour-plated breast
Has long since lost its sheen
And in your death mask face
There are no signs which can be seen

And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind

Conquistador a vulture sits
Upon your silver shield
And in your rusty scabbard now
The sand has taken seed
And though your jewel-encrusted blade
Has not been plundered still
The sea has washed across your face
And taken of its fill

And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind

Conquistador there is no time
I must pay my respect
And though I came to jeer at you
I leave now with regret
And as the gloom begins to fall
I see there is no, only all
And though you came with sword held high
You did not conquer, only die

And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind

And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind

(repeat, fade)

- Procul Harum Conquistador (Brooker/ Reid)

No wonder Brad is busying himself with logos and websites: what else can you do?

23 August 2009

Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader

I had high hopes for Malcolm Turnbull as a circuit-breaker for the Liberal Party, the only leader capable of getting the party over and past John Howard. I still think his spinelessness over Grech shows that he's no leader. That's been confirmed by a number of recent articles that illustrate the gap between his political capabilities and the hopes that others have for him.

First, there's the issue of policy. It's true that an issue like foreign policy rarely resonates with voters, much less swings votes; yet credibility in foreign policy is key to being regarded as a serious alternative government by the broadsheet media. The idea that a party can have a contradictory or badly thoughout out foreign policy, while pretending to business that they have a sensible and serious trade policy is a trap for all Federal Oppositions. Howard learned this when his dog-whistling on Asian immigration saw corporate Australia distance themselves from him to protect their trading capacity. Labor learned this when dithering by Beazley and Crean, and outright stupidity by Latham, shot their credibility with the US (and hence trade, etc.).

Sean Carney said as much in The Age about foreign policy, and Julie Bishop's poor prosecution of it in particular. The problem here is that Turnbull's office has not taken charge of policy, set the broad outlines and let the team get on with it (not only the shadow, but any Opposition frontbencher who has a microphone stuck under their nose, so that they are putting out a message that is not only consistent but coherent). Turnbull's chief of staff spent a decade in Downer's office: doing what? The Liberals have no excuse for making such a dog's breakfast of this area. Chris Kenny, you're a numbskull.

Second, there's teamwork. Here's Christian Kerr going after Julie Bishop, and fair enough; but where were the supposed master tacticians of the Opposition? Where was Pyne as leader of Opposition Business? Where was the pretender, Abbott (Andrew Peacock with a broken nose)? Where were Hockey and Tony Costello Smith? Even Sophie Mirabella or Bronwyn Bishop in their pomp would have fastened their teeth around Tanner's ankles.

Tanner is an old-school leftie who has had the old-school leftie economics beaten out of him. The whole secrecy thing of government planning must go against all his instincts, covering up for the coppers I ask you! His slip as described by Kerr was clearly an accident, one that a coherent Opposition should have turned into an ashes-and-sackcloth moment for the boy from Brunswick. It would have given the Opposition fresh encouragement, and enabled them to rally against Tuckey and his wasters, the only Liberal in Parliament who has spent more time in Opposition than government.

Third, there's people. Turnbull's roots in the Liberal Party are fairly thin and predicated on his ability to shake down donations into Liberal coffers. He has no ability, and probably no willingness, to engage in internecine warfare to get rid of people who stand between him and the Prime Ministership: this is a mistake made by all political newbies, Hewson thought he was above it all too.

I've commented previously on the appalling duds in the Liberal Parliamentary party, and Turnbull should have enough momentum to attract the sort of person who could not only replace them but make more of a contribution to community and country than said duds. Turnbull would just look mean if he replaced one numpty with another. That's why this article is misplaced.

True, Turnbull needs to cultivate pro-environment Liberals like Whitlam did post-communist Labor people. True, Turnbull is clever and arrogant like Whitlam was. True, our friend Dyrenfurth set up a thicket of Nazi metaphors and took two paragraphs to get over it (two pointless paragraphs - that article could have started "Some Liberals are ..." without any loss). The fact is that anti-ETS Liberals have placed themselves on the wrong side of history, and that the carbon lobby won't be nearly as generous with the funding and support as they might wish. Turnbull can win any number of debates with them on that issue - what he can't do is put real political pressure on them. He can't make the case that it's his way or the highway out of Canberra.

You can't make a statement like this ...
It is increasingly clear that Turnbull will never become prime minister.

... and then suggest ways that he might become Prime Minister.

There are too many Liberal MPs with no future at all who'd fancy their chances of sticking around long after Turnbull has gone, too many who are quite capable of holding their own and bloodying Turnbull's nose if he moved onto their turf. They might be policy idiots, but they're not politically dumb: Turnbull would need Hausmann-style firepower to reshape the Liberal Party in his own image, and he just doesn't have it.
Turnbull is, in fact, capable of setting the Liberals on the path to recovery by driving a root and branch reform of the party, perhaps neutering the hardline right-wing elements who are increasingly making the party electorally unattractive.

No, Nick, it's not a fact and he doesn't. It was the far right who got him up at his preselection in 2003. If Turnbull wanted to stamp his authority on the NSW Liberal Party he'd have David Clark's severed head on a pikestaff outside his office in Bondi Junction by now. He'd be helping Barry O'Farrell shop for ministers (taking the better ones for himself and leaving Barry with the discards, of course), and would be doing something similar in other states. In Victoria, all those Costello nuf-nufs like Mitch Fifield and Tony Costello Smith should be under the gun from pro-Turnbull challengers. The WA MPs who walked out should have been lynched by Turnbull fanatics. Eric Abetz should have been sent back to Hobart in a box on the back of a ute and replaced by someone who's Mad For Mal. Just not happening I'm afraid.

John Howard did this: he had cultivated people like Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott for decades, and when Howard called they stepped up for him. That's why the Liberal Party is still, despite everything, the John Howard Party; you show me a non-Howard Liberal and I'll show you someone who's kidding themselves. There is simply not a critical mass of Turnbull Liberals, and I doubt there will ever be. The hand that mocked them is there, the heart that fed is not.

As a political scientist, Peter van Onselen is focused on process and it is touching how readily he believes those who background him, especially where such views provide some support for his own.
Preselections are what usher talent into the parliament, and that talent decides on each and every policy position the conservative side will take in the decades ahead.

No, Peter, it doesn't. Decisions are often not put to the party room (what you call "talent") until after it has been decided. On the rare occasions that the Liberal Party debates, let alone overturns, policy positions by the leadership - this is done retroactively, and usually outside the party room (e.g. mandatory detention).
After all, history tells us the Coalition is at its most fractious while in opposition.

After all, opposition parties are always fractious. Labor was pretty damn fractious in opposition, and when it goes into opposition again it will be fractious again. Some of us are looking forward to the NSW ALP going into opposition and the multitude of told-ya-so raining down like rocks in an avalanche.
This week the NSW Liberal Party state executive voted to give itself the power to overturn local preselections and install an alternative candidate instead, but only in exceptional circumstances. Who or what determines what meets the test of "exceptional circumstances"? Why, the state executive of course. Not too many checks and balances there.

This move has come about because the Right of the Liberal Party in NSW has split ... the newly aligned soft Right and moderate Centre of the Liberal Party, known as the New Group, are concerned about the preselection havoc the hard Right could exercise in some electorates ahead of the next state election.

Not "could exercise" Peter, has exercised and will continue to exercise unless those particular boils are lanced for the overall health of the body politic. There were checks and there were balances, but all that happened was that Labor checkmated the Liberals.

You may think I've done van Onselen a disservice with that ellipsis in the quote above:
I wrote about this months ago and in the subsequent weeks was informed by some of the main players that I was wrong. Now the media is widely reporting the split and even the main players aren't denying it when questioned by journalists.

Look out Glenn Milne, Pete da playa is after you!
But NSW is just one state with one set of examples.

No, NSW is the nation's largest state, with more seats in the House of Representatives than other states, more marginals to win, and the state with the best prospect of a majority state government.
In Western Australia the recently deposed federal member for Tangney, Dennis Jensen, lost his preselection to a relative unknown, Glen Piggott ... Each time a local electoral conference throws up a candidate with limited credentials, senior Liberals wonder what they can do to address the talent slide.

Jensen is best known for being a climate change moron - could Piggott really be any worse? If I was a political scientist (particularly if I was championing local grassroots membership) I'd question the assumption that state/federal head office represent quality candidates while local branches are self-interested fiefdoms. Not saying he's wrong - just questioning the assumption.
Yet it is in the Victorian division that the party is becoming more grassroots oriented in its preselection approach, giving all party members an equal input at the preselection level. The hope is that this will encourage membership and ensure the small fiefdoms that traditionally develop in the Liberal Party will no longer be able to control preselection contests.

How realistic is that hope, Peter? Discuss, using examples. What you'll end up with is situations like this (you'll need to be a Crikey subscriber), where everyone's against duds in principle but nobody can bear to confront them in particular, like our man Murray T. At least factions could be relied upon to shake him up to the point where a "third man" comes through.
Another irony about Victoria reforming its approach to give members a greater say in preselections is that the state director is former Howard right-hand man and chief of staff Tony Nutt. As Howard's enforcer he was focused on ensuring the central wing of the party got what it wanted to maximise electoral prospects; that was his job.

But now that he is state director in Victoria he is overseeing a revival of the party's grassroots membership. He wants the party's decline in membership to be arrested and even reversed. It shows that Nutt knows what needs to be done and when.

Rubbish. What it shows is that Nutt is the cat and that Victorian Liberals are so many mice, who will preselect a slew of duds for state parliament and be utterly bereft federally without Costello. By the start of 2011 Nutt will then centralise power and nominate candidates who'll do what he tells them. That's how it works, Peter, and more importantly that's how people like Nutt work. He's playing the long game. The very idea that Tony Nutt is a born-again new-age democrat is laughable.
Which brings us back to the Nationals. They have been in decline for many years as their membership has faded away and their parliamentary representation has been eroded. Something had to be done and in NSW state leader Andrew Stoner took the bold step of endorsing a primaries system for one key seat at the next election.

Ah yes, the old syllogism:

  1. We must do something.

  2. This is something.

  3. Let's do this.

Who'll vote in these primaries? Will a primary-vote winner owe anything to the party organisation whose primary he/she has won? If I were a political scientist I'd investigate questions like these, but if I was a playa I'd just recite the press release and leave it there.

Malcolm Turnbull has no ability to remake the Liberal Party in his image, he has no ability to set an agenda for it and no ability to make people fulfil his agenda or get out of politics. He won't be Prime Minister. Yes, I'm sorry too, but there you go.

22 August 2009

The compassionate, the merciful

The Scottish legal system has disgraced itself with the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.

The Scottish justice minister explained his reasons. The notion that a convict should be allowed to go home to die implies that there is only one agenda at work here: that of the justice system that wants to appear merciful, to leaven any reputation for brutality in that system, and which yields to the power of death as greater than any it can impose. Traditionally, a dying convict has no power to initiate further violence against the society that has incarcerated him, no power to do anything but provide comfort to a family burdened not only with shame but with grief.

Unlike other dying convicts, al-Megrahi does have power to initiate further violence against the society (and that type of society, using Scotland as an exemplar of Western society) that has incarcerated him. He is a symbol that a man can kill hundreds of people and still enjoy the perceived benefits of a Muslim burial in a Muslim country. This symbolism can and probably will inspire others to do what he did, do something monstrous in (and, I dare to venture, counterproductive to) the name of Islam.

The feeble protests by President Obama and the families of Lockerbie victims cast light on the fallacy that al-Megrahi has been disempowered, or that keeping him incarcerated was the greater indictment than to let him slip away, even in such a physically enfeebled state. The expressions of "sincere sympathy" from him were totally obliterated by the cheering goons at Tripoli airport.
“He’s getting away with it, that’s exactly what I thought,” said Rosemary Wolfe, whose step-daughter Miriam was killed in the bombing and who watched Mr. Megrahi’s departure unfold on television Thursday.

“It was a helpless, hopeless feeling. He’s going back to his family but Miriam will never be able to come back to us,” she said. “The fact is he’s going home to his family and our loved ones didn’t have an opportunity to do that.”

No justice system can withstand this kind of perception, in big high-profile cases nor in smaller cases repeatedly over time. It loses legitimacy from within as well as without. The quality of mercy is very definitely strain'd, it droppeth as debris from an exploded plane upon the place beneath. It is twice curst: it diminisheth him that gives and him that takes.
But a common strand among British and Americans seemed to be a sense that the Lockerbie atrocity had not been fully explained. “I would like this fellow, before he breathes his last breath to tell us the story,” said Helen Engelhardt, whose husband Tony Hawkins was killed on the plane. “We need the truth. We need to know what really happened.”

This is a key feature of modern society for which traditional notions of jurisprudence don't really cater. The traditional assumption is that there is cool, professional judgment by learned judges and counsel, and that the only other alternative is mob rule. In societies with a critical mass of educated people we know that there are ambiguities and conflicting facts; in cases like this there are secret intelligence and political factors.

Clearly the facts so far exposed about Pan Am flight 103 has been inadequate in serving anyone's interests. True, there is abundant proof that some people can't handle the truth - witness the extraordinary Birthers movement that no proof can ever dispel - but there are also examples like Australia's Victorian bushfire inquiry, which is too important to be left exclusively to the professionals.

Perhaps the very notion of a deathbed confession is a fantasy - but if not it would be wasted on the al-Megrahi family and the Libyan government.

Perhaps al-Megrahi was wrongly convicted - this is a separate issue, and if this prospect has influenced the decision to release him then it is contemptible, neither a vindication of the judicial process nor a repudiation of a misjudgment.

Justice would have been served by having al-Megrahi die in Scottish custody. His family and those concerned with Islam would not have known whether or not he spent his days munching bacon or doing other things repugnant to their faith: so be it, if you get caught offending against Western societies then that's the risk you take. Incarceration is inherently disrespectful of many aspects of the dignity of an individual, and that includes certain facets of religious expression (particularly those that appear to inspire criminal activity in the first place). To have him returned home was a vindication for criminality cloaked in Islam, and an inspiration for pinheads for whom the compassion and good works aspects of Islam is simply too difficult, or too boring.

This is a system that doesn't trust itself, one that is operating on notions that have been superseded by other, more pressing concerns. Scotland and similar societies are, because of this decision, more vulnerable to further attack - from within and without.

20 August 2009

Submission to the Henry tax review

Dear Dr Henry,

Re: Tax Reform

I write with suggestions for tax reform that has positive effects on Australia and away from policies which, while convenient or attractive in some ways, may be ultimately counterproductive. The particular issues I would like to raise are:

  • Levels of income tax and welfare

  • Income tax assessments

  • Deductions and incentives for farm income and equipment

  • Centralisation of tax collection at the Federal level

Levels of income tax and welfare

It is self-defeating to take earned income away from people and give it back as welfare transfers.

Where people face disincentives in moving from unemployment to paid employment, in terms of losing benefits (such as public transport concessions) and/or facing additional costs (such as childcare), this represents a lack of consistency in government policy toward encouraging people to support themselves and for welfare to support those unable to meet their most basic needs through paid and productive employment.

Those who rely largely or wholly upon welfare payments for their income (or who earn income at a similar level) should not have income tax deducted from their payments. The money moving from Treasury to Centrelink (and other welfare agencies) and then back, and forth, and back again year after year calls to mind the dirty water that collects in the bottom of a boat: it serves no productive purpose, and ultimately impedes the function of the craft and its journey.

Money taken from low-income earners only to be given straight back is never put to any productive purpose, neither helping people in the short term nor the community as a whole over the long term. Surely, chasing down income at the level of around $200 per week is demeaning and inefficient for ATO workers.

There has to be a level of income at which a person ceases to rely on government benefits and starts to earn enough to make a contribution to the wider community: this is the level above which income tax should be levied. People who move from welfare dependence to paid employment should keep as much of their earnings as possible until they get to a point where they can and should help others, at the very least by paying tax.

Income tax assessments

I understand that an overwhelming number of Australians earn their income through eminently traceable means such as employment and dividends. It should not be necessary for an individual to submit an income tax return unless he/she is claiming a deduction.

Deductions and incentives for farm income and equipment

I would urge you to investigate whether tax deductions ought to be available for commercial losses. The pursuit of tax-deductible losses distorts both the economy and the body politic.

The deductions that make four-wheel drive vehicles cheaper than other vehicles of equivalent size (under the assumption that they are primarily used by rural people in a rural environment) requires close scrutiny. The prevalence of four-wheel drives in our cities and the lack of social amenities to cater for them (such as parking that allows for such large vehicles) makes a mockery of the rural assumption. It also foregoes revenue that might enable social infrastructure to be upgraded – or which might adjust consumer pricing to the point where these vehicles may not be so prevalent in environments other than the rural ones for which they were intended.

No tax deductions should be available for farming on land which is environmentally destructive. For example:

  • Water-intensive farming in areas where water is naturally scarce should negate tax concessions of any kind;

  • Fertiliser based on fossil oils should not incur concessions either.
    This is not to say that all farmers should be prevented from getting any concessions; rather, those who incur more costs to the community than benefits should not be subsidised.

Rather than ban counterproductive farming practices in a heavy-handed way, the tax system should be used to demonstrate sanctions against such activity and put the onus on the perpetrators of such activities as to whether they are truly viable. Government policies seeking positive environmental outcomes along our waterways and rural communities are stymied and countermanded by perverse incentives that lead to poor environmental and economic management, and these should cease.

I understand that political activity by farmers over many years has led to farming receiving incentives that pervert the market, blight the landscape, misapply water and other resources and cost Australia dearly in all sorts of ways. I understand that political problems can often only be solved by political solutions.

Nonetheless, it is a core function of a review like yours that these issues be examined for their wider impact and that the wishes of sectional interests – some less significant in our national life – can be cast in a different light. It would be worth testing whether the status quo would be fully restored.

Centralisation of tax collection at the Federal level

I disagree that tax collection for all governments should occur at the national level.

Part of the irresponsible and inefficient nature of federal-state relations in this country comes from the fact that governments spend money they don’t raise. It is a basic feature of responsible government that those responsible for spending money should also be accountable for raising it; the fact that this does not happen in Australia makes for poor government overall, and this will get worse rather than better with centralised tax collection.

A reassessment of which governments collect which taxes requires a re-examination as to which functions of government are performed at the federal, state or local level. This may require Constitutional change. To some extent tax reform should follow a review of which functions are performed at which level of government, rather than second-guess or obviate such an urgent and, admittedly, far-reaching task.

Thank you for your consideration,
Andrew Elder.

18 August 2009

What's wrong with newspapers, Part II

Bill Wyman has written a widely-praised article on the failure of newspapers in the US.

His main argument, on newspapers as monopoly conduits for ads into people's homes, is important. When I lived in Sydney's eastern suburbs, we got a free local paper fuelled by real estate ads. The glossy presentation of the paper was so much nicer than the Herald or the Tele: it looked nice and it was nice. Readers hated controversial stuff like politics, or scandals affecting local schools. You couldn't threaten to cancel your subscription because it was all free anyway.

Then, there's the killer idea that all that tailoring of "news" content to advertising was really an exercise in spending media company money on content that advertisers should have been paying for - there's your exercise in hubris right there. What was venal now just looks pathetic.

His point about consolidation also applies: the strange aggregation of once-different papers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Morning Herald is almost designed to render both irrelevant to their markets. This, however, was for me the most impressive thing about the piece:
The commentators most caught up in the romanticized notion of newspaper cite the potential loss of the newspapers’ “watchdog” function. Let’s be honest. Most newspapers in the U.S. aren’t watchdogs, and most of the rest don’t spend an inordinate amount of time being watchdogs. Most papers are instead lapdogs, and the metaphorical lap they sit in isn’t even that of powerful interests like their advertisers. (Though they definitely have their moments.)

Then, however, came old-fashioned journosphere blame projection:
The real tyrant the papers served was the tender sensibilities of their readers.

Oh, piss off. This is old-fashioned gutlessness, you can't handle the truth, combined with patronising nonsense about "the punters". It's true that too little journalism worth the name has been produced in this country (I'm still waiting for our Watergate, surely all those Canberra newshounds will be able to come up with something), but where it is produced, it is read and read avidly. What doesn't sell is spiels with nothing behind them - that's just business as usual.

The news sites such as smh.com.au or the News Ltd equivalents (ninemsn gets its clout in terms of hits from the fact that Australians who log out of Hotmail are funnelled straight to that site) are the jumping-off points to the wider web for most Australians. There was no AOL to suck the traffic away from these sites - but in the same way that the city of Split grew out of Diocletian's palace, so too the traditional media sites can claim no credit for the fact that Australians use their sites simply as conduits to other, more interesting and detailed sites - and that their significance will only decrease over time as the blandness of their fare makes them less compelling.

More projectionism came, however, with his attack on IT staff:
Journalists like to affect a garrulous Ludditism — “Just give me an old Royal.” It was charming and romantic and directly led to the less charming and romantic concussion of waves after waves of buyouts and layoffs we’ve seen over the last few years. The attitude ate journalism away from the inside in two ways: It put journalists physically and psychologically out of touch with society and hampered its coverage; and it devolved into a head-in-the-sand response to the challenges facing the industry.

Now, when it comes to the antiquated, hobbled equipment Old Media news organizations invariably use, an IT person will tell you there are cost considerations and important security issues at stake. Of course there are. But these same IT specialists rarely (in my experience, never) take affirmative steps to educate newsroom staffs with a view to putting new and important tools into their hands safely. And management, inexperienced themselves with technology, rarely made such initiatives a priority.

Picture this: you're working in IT for Fairfax, News, or [insert Australian MSM organisation of your choice]. You spend your life teaching people how to use email - no, not the washing-machine company - and nobody ever comes to you and asks about Blackberries, let alone Web 2.0 ("I was still getting used to version 1! When did this happen? Oh really, I never read emails ..."). Every time there's a new buyout you get replaced, only to be hurried back when contractor costs blow out and nothing works anymore. You never get any funding for infrastructure, despite making the business case in clear English because the new directors want rosewood rather than mahogany panelling in their offices and the printers have gone on strike. The website is an absolute sh-sh-showcase of what not to do in online design. After all that, you're expected to convene a meeting of these luddites and teach them how they could use new tools to do their jobs better.

Yeah, right. Watch the charm evaporate.
All they needed is some media-savvy employees to show them the way through the mess.

What makes you think they'd listen? This is a question about what's cheaper and better over the long term, for people who talk about the long term but are scrambling to deal with the short term (and are incentivised for the short term only). It's ultimately easier just to eat their lunch and sell it back to them - more lucrative, too.

As to Wyman's nine points at the end of his article, I'll give him 4), 6) and 9). I'd give him 2) but as a business analyst it would be a bugger to spec out. This leaves us with a number of issues worth chewing over:
1) Go hyper local; devote all resources, from reporting to front-page space, to local news. No one cares what the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch has to say about Iraq.

Maybe not, but what The New York Times says about this is not necessarily useful to what The Sydney Morning Herald should be printing. There is a call for Australian perspectives on foreign affairs to appear in the Australian media. It would be cultural cringe at its most absurd to rely exclusively on American or British reporters to tell us about, say, Papua New Guinea or Indonesia. Wyman may be content to leave the big issues to the big players but I'm not so sure.

Wyman may have a point though. I can't believe that Australia's significant Iraqi expat community has not been tapped at all in terms of telling us:

  • what life under Saddam was like;

  • to what extent the casus belli in 2003 was or wasn't a crock;

  • what life is like now for those who stayed behind; and

  • why you'd pay people-smugglers to come here.

You may need to hire someone other than BA (Syd) MMediaSt (UTS), i.e. break the culture of Fairfax/ABC recruitment to do this, but we all must make sacrifices.
3) Tell the union you won’t be touching salaries, but that all work rules are being suspended, including seniority rights. Tell all reporters that they’re expected to post news if word of it reaches them in what used to be thought of as “after hours.”

As if. We still live in a country where an important news story can be "buried" by having a press release issued at 4.30pm on a Friday before a long weekend. I wish, just once, an Australian news outlet would have all hands on deck on such an occasion and dare to run a "bumper edition" with all that bad news in it, analysed and put in people's faces. Just once. Those old newshounds may actually earn their bragging rights if they did that, just the one time.

We have a generation of journalists who can't begin a news story without a press release - their idea of investigative journalism is to hit the Send/Receive button on their email (no, not the washing-machine - oh, never mind).
5) Create chain-wide coverage of all areas where it can be done. It’s sad, but it means laying off a lot more film critics and dozens of other duplicated positions. For such positions, do this. Hire two people to cover the beat for the chain. Make them into sparring partners, arguing about each new TV show, movie, CD, traveling Broadway show, concert tour etc. Get out of the business of being promotional. Give your readers sharply argued opinions, something fun to read they can’t get anywhere else.

Bernard Zuel is becoming a slightly literate Richard Wilkins, but he does make an honest effort to keep up and earn his keep. As film critics, Sandra Hall and Paul Byrnes are hardly Stratts & Pom and there is a place for reviews of an individual event to be contrasted with longer-form essays on What This All Means, as happens with political coverage where reportage nestles up against Comment: Comment gets warmth while reportage gets a context. There should also be an effort to capture up-and-coming artists in their various teeth-cutting exercises, and colour pieces on suburban triers might be cross-fertilising in all sorts of ways.
7) Devote as much manpower as possible to creating must-read local news blogs. Tell the bloggers to work the phones and IMs, finding out about every personnel change, every office move, any tidbit. Support and cite local bloggers in the same areas. Yell at staff members if they are consistently being scooped by (unpaid) competitors.

Or just take credit for others' feeds and roll on, whatever works really.

Seriously though, this works for towtruck companies - miss the local events and you're gone. Fairfax are way to snobby to do this, but there should be more of a career path from the suburban papers to the broadsheets. Betcha that those who set up their own blogs get there ahead of the suburban toilers: sometimes reform from within is a waste of time.
8) Create and maintain a wiki designed ultimately to function as an encyclopedia for the town, from neighborhoods and politicians to every retail establishment. Let it become the ultimate guide to the area. Like Wikipedia, it will inevitably contain information that is controversial. Cover the controversies with alacrity.

With Good News Week of old and America's Jon Stewart, this would only work if it were funny. Some old journo with access to the Fairfax archive could have a field day with this.

Never happen though.

To this, I'd rearrange rounds so that press releases and video feeds of press conferences came straight into head office. In Australia, media have Canberra bureaus and they all stay in the Parliamentary press gallery; in the US, there are separate correspondents for the Pentagon, the Congress, the White House and the State Department, and something similar has to happen with Canberra. Follow a piece of legislation through the interest groups and lobbyists, rather than having Annabel Crabb titter about it and put it out of mind.

I have no idea why the prospect of healthcare reform is not at least as big a story as the ETS, but I'm pretty sure it is laziness.

If you're going to cover rugby league, do the NRL thing from the press box and run to get some breathless inanity in at full time - but also stand on the hill at Henson Park or Raby and tell us about the game at the community level. Unlike Wyman I don't mind corporate promotion but if you can't tie it to a genuine community activity, forget it. If you're going to quote the AFL's big ups on a Western Sydney AFL team, go and find out how it might affect the Emu Lions/Glenmore Park JAFC, if at all.

See, I'm being constructive about the meeja. Watch me leverage this into more consumer outrage. If they would give themselves away they can give me some.

What's wrong with newspapers, Part I

The good news is that there are only two things really wrong with newspapers today, and with Fairfax in particular. The bad news is that these two things take up most of the content of any edition of a Fairfax paper.

The Wire Service in the internet age

In the olden days, Australian newspapers did employ real life journalists. They'd be rolling around on the company sixpence, drinking with Chow Hayes or Bob Askin, getting all the inside goss and printing none of it, because youse can all get stuffed.

For news that readers wanted, but for which neither Sir Vincent nor Sir Frank were prepared to trust to one of their beer-sodden hacks to gather, they'd call in what's known as a Wire Service. Look at the very name, a Wire Service: the very name rings of bakelite and brown paper. Wire Services carried news of fighting at El Alamein and Bradman's cover drives down to the river end, pictures of the elegant Princess Elizabeth and dapper President Kennedy, all printed in Australian newspapers with a grudging acknowledgment at the end of the Wire Service.

Today, the internet is one big wire service, and you can bypass Fairfax to get it directly. There's just no point taking content from somewhere else and stuffing it into your paper, hoping it will attract the ad revenue that might justify (in news terms or sheer damn revenue) the rest of the paper. It might have impressed readers in 1960 to have a reprint from The Times or The Chicago Tribune, but in 2009 you can and do go straight to the source if that's what you're after.

The poor dears at Fairfax think they're being terribly clever by publishing celebrity news on their web-site. The young persons are interested in celebrity news, the reasoning goes, and so we'll get some in from the Wire Service. The trouble with this is, both the ubiquity and the better information available elsewhere. If you truly were interested in Brad & Angelina, why would you go to The Sydney Morning Herald? It just doesn't make sense.

It doesn't make sense, and people don't do this. The media are kidding themselves about consumer behaviour vital to their operations. At best, Australian media sites that carry celebrity news are jumping-off points to other sites were more and better information can be found. Who reads the ads at the jumping-off point? Who remembers them toward the end of the internet session, when you have to go out and buy something? Avoiding those questions is not only a failure of those responsible for declining newspaper revenue, it is a question that those controlling marketing budgets should consider before they even go to the same people they always deal with at Fairfax to get their message out.

The warmed-over press release

Most news content is initiated with a press release, or some other device like a choreographed announcement or a press conference. Usually the journalist will reword the press release. Maybe the journalist will include a quote, or get a quote from some real or perceived "opposing view", and that will be an article worth publishing. Again it presupposes that the press release is unavailable to readers, or that "opposing views" haven't already had their share of the media, too.

The warmed-over press release makes up most of the front of a paper and almost all the "lifestyle sections", travel etc.

Even more strange is the "going to announce" story: nothing has happened, but the story is that an announcement is to be made, and that we readers a) are meant to be impressed by the journalist's "insider access" necessary to get such a story, and b) should be impressed by the very fact of the announcement, rather than what the announcement is about (if anything) or any impact it might have on the way we live our lives.

The "going to announce" story is not impressive on either count, it's rubbish journalism. It should be seen as a sign that the journalist concerned is tiring of their beat and wants a change, preferably a radical one involving personal danger and a reconsideration of what it means to be a journalist.

Tomorrow: Je Suis Un Journalist

10 August 2009

Governing the environment

Who gives a damn about the CPRS bill (subtitle: it's everything you want it to be, and anything we feel like)? Who gives a damn about the Turnbull-Xenophon thing, which is neither the anti-CPRS nor (despite what Turnbull might wish) one-up on the CPRS? Why do we even have a Canberra press gallery when they are so easily led, en masse, into the valley of the shadow of tosh and happy to bunk there until led by the nose to some equally pointless place?

Frontier Economics are the employers of this peanut, who clogs up Andrew Norton's site and Catallaxy with the same post regardless of the issue: that the number one pressing issue in education is the absence of vouchers, that everything would be fine if only for vouchers. It is hard to tell whether Australia's electricity network is in its current state because of, or despite, Rajat's advice; it is to be hoped that he has not Greched his way into the Turnbull-Xenophon proposal, but I fear that he might have.

This document, like the Garnaut report, is at its most strident when making its weakest assertions. Others have gone through it with a fine toothed comb - having been one of about a dozen Australians who has read The Things That Matter and Future Directions from front to back, I'm not making the mistake of seriously critiquing a document that nobody intended to be taken seriously. It is too weak a document in itself to form the basis of any sensible policy, and it draws on no wider research or active support.

The action of tying itself to the government's silly assumptions and then making a show of vigorously wriggling free of these constraints is risible. Turnbull is emulating Kim Beazley in over-egging minor differences of emphasis, and when you do that too much people stop listening to you.

The policy with which the CPRS is most often compared, the various proposals for a GST throughout the 1980s and '90s, worked on building coalitions of shared assumptions and understandings before pushing off in the various directions they went in. The Frontier report fails to give Turnbull and Xenophon the support they need in terms of making important distinctions from the government (oh, a bit of cost saving - great) while at the same time demonstrating a clear commitment to reducing various forms of pollution.

Still, give Turnbull and Xenophon some credit - at least they didn't use Access Economics.

It is not necessarily Frontier's fault that Turnbull lacked a clear narrative on the CPRS. Turnbull cannot pull together a coherent policy on carbon pollution reduction, and thus he cannot be taken seriously in Canberra as a force to be reckoned with. He can't be taken seriously in Canberra and isn't taken seriously beyond, either. No unilateral strutting is going to change that, or nor will any uncharacteristic wheedling to clowns like Dennis Jensen or Wilson Tuckey. Whatever Turnbull might say or do now, Minchin and Abetz will scuttle any Liberal Turnbull initiative in the Senate like they did with the National Broadband Network.

Labor supporters, such as those here, might fret that Labor isn't serious about this issue. When Rudd and Wong insist that the CPRS must be dome their way or not at all, they create the impresson that no action on pollution really is an option - which reinforces the perception that this issue is another excuse for politicking, rather than an issue of genuine urgency and vital importance.

Let's look at how the ducks are lining up and it's clear they're doing plenty:

  • August '09: The CPRS bill is scuttled in the Senate.

  • November '09: The CPRS bill is scuttled again. There's your double dissolution trigger.

  • December '09: Copenhagen. Eyes of the world, etc.

  • January/February '10: Extreme weather events reinforce the seriousness of climate change - Victoria burns again, northern Queensland floods again, and goodness knows what else tears up lives and communities throughout the continent. It does not do to stand in the blackened ruins of someone's home and quibble about climate change science, but watch as some fool does just that.

  • March '10: Rudd comes over all angry that the Liberals and the Greens are blocking his legislation, calls the election on who is best able to deliver a climate-change solution. Turnbull spruiks about his own sincerity, but nobody believes he can deliver on his small-target quibbly changes and so the Liberals lose (but the Nationals lose more).

And that is why the idea of Rudd as a oncer is dead - Turnbull's "small-target" strategy on CPRS, and the fact that debt takes time to be politically crippling, as we saw in the early '90s.

The climate-change deniers in the Liberal Party will survive a rout. The Liberals' safest seats in both houses are held by denialists, and however disappointed party members from the "grass roots" (the Liberal version of "rank and file") may be, they won't rise up and turf these clowns. Tony Abbott will distract them with a culture war, but that won't work either in the doldrums of a second term. There won't be any moderates left who can create a strong narrative or build a nationwide presence sufficient to rout the intellectually-exhausted right (after Bush, conservatives are so exhausted intellectually that they don't think that exhaustion matters. Note how easily the tome by Tony Abbott is swatted away by Andrew Norton, despite the big ups from the Canberra press gallery for its "intellectualism").

After all that, the fact remains: the CPRS really is crap. The wrong people get free passes and those who should get a break get slugged. Worst of all, it does nothing for a low-emission economy - just as protectionism stifled the economy in the '50s (despite being done in the name of a competitive Australian economy): in this piece Bernard Keane says nothing with which I disagree. You'd hope that the sheer shamefulness of this approach would be quietly scuttled, but having been a DD-trigger it is likely that it will be endorsed by a Labor victory - unless that election also sees a surge in Green votes.

Maybe the Liberals will have something to work with after all - but then again, maybe they'll botch that too.

Someone who won't survive beyond the next election, though, is someone who had been one of Australia's most prominent environmentalists. His response to the supposedly competing carbon trading models was to subsidise numerous polluting long-haul flights for this. This should be Garrett's moment, a campaign focused on the future of our environment - but he's sitting this out, too.

04 August 2009

Are you crazy?

When I was in the NSW Young Liberals, a series of clueless individuals sought to prove their visionary qualities and policy gravitas by professing a concern over this country's decrepit mental health facilities, and its antediluvian attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally-ill (lock-'em-up-and-keep-'em-away mixed with a quixotic civil rights approach). No firm answers, mind you, no consideration of how much mental healthcare might cost or on what such monies might best be spent, nor even much direct contact with those whose lives take them into these areas, but hey it's serious policy mixed with compassion.

Today, we see the urgency of some action in this area.

One step up from blaming someone who has died, we see a politician blaming a mentally ill person for his predicament. This was done on the basis of a journalist wheedling a story out of a mental patient.

This is so disgusting it is hard to know where to begin.

First of all, if you're appalled by radio shock-jocks don't listen to them, and don't be surprised when they overreach themselves. Higher standards should be expected of leaders of major political parties, and so-called journalists from so-called national newspapers. Maley and Turnbull are morally retarded in seeking to exploit a mentally ill man for their own purposes, and both organisations which they represent should expect to decline, not appreciate, in credibility and the esteem in which they're held.

It was Steve Lewis from The Australian who first hawked this email, and now Maley has brought up the latest development. The Walkley Awards should bar any entry from that paper into its awards. Not even commercial current affairs television would stoop so low (did you ask Grech "how does it feel?", Maley? I bet you did). The Rudd Government might be tearing off in numerous directions and achieving little, but it is never going to lose a single vote from this silly campaign.

Then there's Turnbull. No public servant will ever leak to the Liberals, not even if Rudd's popularity goes the way of Turnbull's. He simply does not have the standing to throw anyone under the bus, and more importantly nor is he able to screw someone so pitiful as Grech without his victim attracting overwhelming sympathy. He can't even go after the dead wood on his backbench because the Liberal Party would go "awww! Poor Wilson! Poor Bronwyn! Poor Alby!" and return them to that bush capital far from their branches.

I backed Turnbull because he is the only prospect of a post-Howard future for the Liberal Party currently in Parliament, and now he's gone. His shafting of Packer over the latter's deception about his intentions with Fairfax was probably the gutsiest move by a future conservative leader since Captain S. M. Bruce's Military Cross-winning effort at Gallipoli (those who claim Turnbull serves only himself overlook this). He's wrong to flog the debt too much now but it will become an issue, at the election after next or the one after. Though I no longer wear the club colours I hate to see them trounced by a nuf-nuf opposition - like Hewson, Turnbull can see the weakness in Labor but also like Hewson, he can't swing the blow that shatters the glass jaw.

Now Turnbull, and all the hopes that one could have for him, are gone the way of the Republic and Packer and Trevor Kennedy, dead and gone. There'll be Abbott and Lord knows who else (Hockey will be blocked initially by dopey Dutton), faffing about while chained to the course of Howard, waiting for the tide of conservative thought from overseas to turn (and when it does, this dimly perceptible day in the future is when Hockey will be able to get up, elected by a Parliamentary Liberal Party whose would-be members are not yet eligible to vote). I just can't believe that Rudd and Swan are squeaky-clean in all of this, I just can't. The Liberals are not only facing the end of the one-term solution, they are facing both the sheer task of reinvention and their own inadequacy to perform that task.

02 August 2009

Punch lines

Tony Abbott is doing to the Liberal Party what Noordin Muhammad Topp did to the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. I don't care if he has a book to sell, Abbott should keep his trap shut about important areas of policy in which he is not qualified to speak.

This article shows the sort of self-indulgence which one expects of Opposition figures who quite like being freed from the responsibilities of office, and who are happy to drag their colleagues, their party and all of its supporters into utter hopelessness when it comes to the next election, and as many after that until they tire of treating their party as a personal plaything.
A coalition government would devolve the running of the nation's public hospitals to the private sector, community groups and charities, opposition frontbencher Tony Abbott says.

"We wouldn't run them with public servants," he told the Ten Network.

Firstly, the Opposition spokesperson on health is a placeholder from Queensland named Peter Dutton, and if he had guts or brains in any quantity he would realise that his position is now untenable.

Secondly, Tony Abbott doesn't make unilateral decisions like this. As Health Minister his main achievement was to play silly-buggers with state health bureaucracies, and any pronouncement like this must be judged in the same light as an arsonist joining a rural fire brigade.

This is a huge issue, so let's judge it on its merits. If it has merit then Abbott is right to speak out about it.
Mr Abbott, a health minister in the previous Howard coalition government, said it was time to give the public hospital system back to the people.

His vision includes the establishment of local hospital boards with the power to appoint their own chief executive and the ability to retain revenue from privately-insured patients.

His vision, in other words, is a return to an era where big-ticket technologies and insurance were unheard of, and where cronyism and petty politics made health policy harder, not easier, to implement. His vision involves government abrogating a core responsibility and abandoning its one real option for keeping costs low and maintaining accountability. That's the quality of his vision, it will tank at the polls if the Liberal Party dare to put it to voters.

Several good Liberal MPs will be pole-axed by their constituencies and no new Coalition voters will be attracted to such a badly thought-out policy. It will kill the Liberals' hopes of winning state government.

Rather than direct funding by government, non-government providers will demand - and get - a premium for "adjustments" in taking on a whole lot of health bureaucrats at higher levels of pay, and then a premium on the running costs because, well, there are profits to be made and drugs and equipment and machines-that-go-ping aren't getting any cheaper. This will still have to be managed by a whole bunch of bureaucrats. If this had been a good idea, Abbott would have done it long before now.
"It is a dog's breakfast of divided responsibility," Mr Abbott said of the present system where the states blamed the commonwealth for lack of funding.

You had your chance to be part of the solution, Tony, but you were only ever part of the problem. I think you enjoyed the problem, and in true public service style you would have enjoyed the perpetual status of health.
The Commonwealth, under a coalition government, would devolve management of public hospitals in the same the way it did for the employment services network and nursing homes.

Employment services aren't as capital-intensive as health services are, and there were never any federal government nursing homes: AAP has disgraced itself by implying that there were, and sloppy in not finding this out.
"That's why, generally, Commonwealth services are delivered much better that state services."

Compared to what? The Feds don't run schools, the states don't run defence (look at that masterwork of federal administration, and despair). There were Federal repatriation hospitals but they were handed over to the states.
Mr Abbott said the states were presently running the hospital system with giant top-down bureaucracies.

"The trouble with our public hospital system is that no-one is in charge."

That's the very problem with employment services, and defence, and pretty much every exclusively federal area of policy (not a Rudd thing or a Howard thing - it seems endemic to Canberra really). Abbott has no excuse for blithely ignoring it and it is an indictment on journalism as a profession that he was allowed to get away with it. Next time you hear the journosphere screaming about blogs, consider the free pass that so-called professional journalists gave Tony Abbott on these silly pronouncements.
Local administrators were frightened to make decisions without referring to them first to senior health department bureaucrats or the minister's office, Mr Abbott said.

As Health Minister, Tony Abbott projected the ethos of the Howard government whereby any decision could and would be micromanaged regardless of policy, process or any consideration at all, really. He's complaining about an environment that he set up and, if re-elected, would make worse not better. Why did nobody call him on this?
Local hospital boards should be able to keep any revenue they receive from treating privately-insured patients and donations.

Local hospitals face almost no risk of being overwhelmed with donations or in stretching to accommodate private services. This reveals just how weak his vision is, a non-solution to a non-issue.

Abbott's triumph over the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania shows he must be kept well away from any sort of health system anywhere. Healthcare was a weak point for the Liberals throughout the 1980s and '90s, and now it will become one again thanks both to this fool, and the persistent failure to keep his comments to the portfolio to which he's been allocated.

Abbott is mouthing loyalty to Turnbull but actually undermining him, in a similar way that John Howard did to anyone leading the Liberal Party other than himself. He wouldn't know what Liberal health policy is and has no right to pre-empt it. Turnbull might be bemused but he must put Abbott in his box. If he fails to do so the Liberals will find themselves with a leader determined to turn a party of government into a small band of jihadis, who will keep Labor in government federally and in NSW by providing such an obnoxious rallying point such that swinging voters will be repelled from voting Liberal.

Abbott's key flaw, as I've said earlier in this blog, is his fragile sense of manhood - the overweening nature of his participation in boxing and rugby, his abrogation of responsibility over his teenage pregnancy (and his failure to weave that experience into a sensible and nuanced wider policy), his portrayal of the monarchy as a source of maturity which Australia cannot find within itself, his admission that he leaves his wife to raise his daughters single-handedly, and his persistence with a series of silly policies in office for no reason other than "backing down" might make him look and feel weak. Howard had this too, but in Abbott it is much more brittle.

The idea that Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader would help Labor define what it stands for assumes that Labor needs external help in defining itself.

Turnbull must take on Abbott's book and trash it, and with it nailing the politically toxic idea that Abbott might have a greater future than a past. Battlelines has to be presented as an innumerate Fightback, or The Things That Matter without the wit and hidden depths - it is not a manifesto for government of anything but some obscure European principality in the thirteenth century. The book, and the idea that it is more important than the business of opposition, is a series of punchlines waiting for reality to set up the jokes; Turnbull should set them up and knock 'im down. A chastened Tony Abbott might be motivated to take on Jenny Macklin's stumblebum performance in FAHCSIA; a rampant Tony Abbott is no good to anyone, inside the Liberal Party or out.