26 January 2012

Why the Queensland election matters

The Queensland election is to be held on 24 March, and it should be of no interest to anyone who doesn't live there. It matters because it is a better indication of the 2013 Federal election than any other election to be held in this country before then:
  • Though NSW sets the country's political norms in may respects, last year's election was a freaky, freaky set of circumstances;
  • Victoria was and remains a close-run thing, thanks to Baillieu's failure to entrench himself and devastate his opposition;
  • Tasmania is freaky too, with its huge Greens presence, and its almost total absence of scope for economic growth in the twenty-first century (which is why they haven't made much of the NBN or those Harradine-era telco reforms that preceded it), not to mention its wacky voting system;
  • Western Australia's government has, in contrast to Victoria, both entrenched itself and devastated its opposition;
  • The South Australian election will be held after, not before, 2013; and;
  • NT, ACT and other local government elections: too small, too freaky, who cares?
In 2007 Queensland voters took nine seats away from the Coalition to make one of their own Prime Minister, and when his party dumped him in 2010 they gave the Coalition nine seats back. What will they do next time?

The conventional wisdom is that:
  • Labor will get hosed;
  • the LNP will win with a thumping majority; and
  • the LNP will govern Queensland for a long long time.
We'll see. 89 seats, one House; first to make it to 45 wins. Currently it's 51 Labor, 4 independents, 34 LNP.

Labor has been in a long time, 20 of the past 22 years. Labor people make much of the "new faces" in the Bligh cabinet, but hacks are always overrated because they assume that popular appeal is just some mysterious part of public office. Dumping the rural fuel subsidy and privatising state assets are long-overdue injections of the sort of things the rest of Australia went through in the 1980s, which only emphasises the indictment of Labor's supposed political smarts in getting them to the position they are in now. They won't be thrashed because they are not the rabble that NSW Labor was (and is).

Every new initiative by Labor is an implicit criticism of their own experience ("Why didn't you do this 20 years ago?"). An example of this is the response to the flood that devastated Bundaberg in 1991: a report was commissioned into that flood and it recommended that a levee be built. The mayor, Robert Schwarten, entered state politics on the Labor side and even became Minister for Public Works. Schwarten retires at this election and the levee still hasn't been built. At some point over the next two months someone is going to promise to build that levee, and the voters of Bundaberg will be entitled to believe it when they see it.

The polls have favoured the LNP but in an election campaign like this, so what? Voters are still baulking at Newman, Seeney, Nicholls, Langbroek et al actually running the government. The parallel here is with the first week of the 2010 federal campaign, where Australia realised that a vote for the Coalition means Tony Abbott becomes PM!, leading to Labor getting a second chance. If Newman starts getting rattled or snappy on the campaign trail, or if the boofheads from the bush or the LNP machine override him, Queensland state politics could turn very quickly.

I've had my say on the LNP. Graham Young said this morning on Radio National that the directionless and unelectable nature of the LNP was "cure[d]" by the appointment of Campbell Newman as leader, but in an election contest like this it is wishful thinking. If you put a glacée cherry on top of a cowpat it does not become an ice-cream sundae, and it doesn't matter if you have polls that say otherwise. If Newman promises something to Brisbane voters that rural MPs such as Jeff Seeney do not like, they will simply contradict him. If the reverse happens, Newman will be expected to suck it up in the name of "loyalty". Newman hasn't solved all this simply by turning up. Newman will not fare well over a marathon eight weeks. He's used to being obeyed and not used to being challenged.

This is not to say that Labor are being smart in wearing Newman down over the long run; they too will get tired and prone to mistakes. Newman has take a leaf out of the Tony Abbott playbook by bagging Bligh's unpopular fuel subsidy, but he hasn't promised to reinstate it himself. If Bligh does a Beattie-style mea-culpa and reinstates it, the LNP will have a real fight on its hands.

Ashgrove will not vote for Newman if the rural LNP or the party machine get ahead of themselves. If Newman doesn't win Ashgrove the LNP won't win government, and vice versa. Swinging voters in regional Queensland or even other parts of Brisbane won't vote LNP if Newman is too worried about his on seat, which will mean the people of Ashgrove won't vote for him, which will reinforce etc etc and this is how you get a downward LNP spiral - now, does somebody still want to preach to me about polling and how important it is to react to it?

In NSW and Victoria the Greens pose an existential threat to Labor's inner-city heartland. They pose no such threat in Queensland's unicameral state parliament (though next year, the third-placed Labor Senate candidate will have a run for their money against a Green). The LNP face a direct threat from Katter candidates, particularly those rural areas threatened by CSG or other mining. The idea that the LNP won't enter into a coalition with Katteroids is stupid if the alternative is 24 years out of power.

Federal parliament will sit for much of the Queensland campaign. Of course the MSM are filtering it through their Rudd-Gillard prism frame obsession: what they haven't focused on is that Abbott will do about as much campaigning as Gillard (but without the protection of her bodyguards). Where is the LNP state candidate whose vote will go up as a result of The Situation waddling down their street? Sure, there'll be a swing to LNP and Abbott will claim credit for it. The Canberra press gallery will give him that credit, because they're stupid. The arrogant machine running the LNP will pay even less heed to Abbott in the run-up to the next Federal election than they have. Labor will gain ground in Queensland at the Federal election because the LNP will be deaf to opportunities to grow or hold votes from 2010, wounded from blowing a huge poll lead.

Prediction for next Qld Parliament: Labor 40, independents/other 7, LNP 42. Newman will demand the bigger party gets independent support, especially as most non-Labor seats will be "normally" LNP seats anyway. In a close fight you'd have to back Bligh because a close fight would mean the LNP had squandered it.

If the LNP win such a fight they will chafe against a minority government and go down at the next poll, like the NSW Coalition did 1991-95 (and, indeed, like the Borbidge government did; consider that Borbidge was a more stable leader than Newman has proven so far).

Whoever loses the Premiership, Bligh or Newman, will probably run against and beat "Stinky" Gambaro for the federal seat of Brisbane. The LNP will give it to Newman as compensation for their stupidity, because he can't go back to City Hall with his tail between his legs. They will ignore Abbott's pleas for his frontbencher. Gillard would want Bligh in Cabinet and, after she licks her wounds, she'd leave state politics to others to take on such a challenge.

For more measured, sensible and informed contributions, I recommend Antony Green as well as Mark Bahnisch and the LP crew. Suggestions for other sites are not only welcome but actively sought.

24 January 2012

The relics of Manne

Robert Manne is a professor of politics. His analysis can be very good, but it's been quite some time since I've read a piece of his that showed a genuinely impressive breadth and depth of learning, and which illuminated a commonplace issue in such a way that makes you look at it differently. This recent piece, purportedly written by Manne, is a textbook example of slovenly analysis. Maybe blogs just aren't his thing.
For better or for worse, unlike most commentators, my judgments about Australian politics are generally formed not by conversations with Canberra insiders ...
Neither are mine. Depends who you mean by "most commentators", I suppose.
... but almost solely by reading history books, listening to radio, watching current affairs television and following the newspapers. As it happens, opinion polls are among my most valuable sources of information.
Oh dear.

Only after reading this do you realise this is a warning: Manne really does forsake any pretense to scholarly analysis and gives us a half-arsed summary from the tailings of the mainstream media. What he should be doing is showing us how inadequately the media covers politics, how poorly it acts as a conduit between the people and the representatives - he hinted at such a case with his work last year on The Australian, but here was a chance to make a wider case and he squibbed it.

Imagine Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson both listening attentively to Radio National. Talk about diversity.
Kevin Rudd governed Australia for two and a half years. Here, according to Newspoll, is the remarkable story of how his government fared, as measured in “two-party preferred” terms: 63% to 37% (once); 62% to 38% (once); 61% to 39% (once); 60% to 40% (once); 59% to 41% (five times); 58% to 42% (seven times); 57% to 43% (nine times); 56% to 44% (nine times); 55% to 45% (twelve times); 54% to 46% (four times); 53% to 47% (twice); 52% to 48% (five times); 51% to 49% (once); 50% to 50% (once); 49% to 51% (once).
This should be more embarrassing than it obviously is. A professor of automotive engineering who enthused about a particular car's paint job, ignoring its inadequate engine and bumpy ride, would be laughed out of the profession. A professor of medicine who looked a patient up and down and diagnosed, "Well, you look fine to me", would face disciplinary charges for negligence. Robert Manne has made the sort of assessment of a political situation that would embarrass Malcolm Colless and Dennis Shanahan after a long boozy lunch.

The Rudd government failed because its administrative structures failed. Announcements were made that were not followed up. There was little sense of the cohesive moral core to that government that appeared in Rudd's two articles for The Monthly while he was Opposition Leader; I had rather hoped Manne would have done something like that, compared the promise to the delivery. If Manne was going to do polls, I thought he'd be a bit forensic and go into particular demographics, issues, and points of time; sadly, no.
While it is logically possible that this year the Gillard government will see a revival of its fortunes, at present this seems rather unlikely unless some disaster befalls the Coalition or its leader.
You have got to be kidding.

Manne regards Tony Abbott as the constant, while Gillard is some sort of stumblebum who can't do anything right. Manne lacks not only the good grace but the sense to acknowledge what Gillard's legacy would be if it all ended tomorrow: that she did what Rudd said he was gonna do, with the carbon price and soon the national disability scheme. Just as Ginger Rogers was said to have been every bit the dancer Fred Astaire was, but moving backwards and in high heels, so too Gillard deserves more credit rather than less for manifesting the high ideals of Rudd under the circumstances of the current parliament.
Indeed if the poll results achieved since April 2011 continue for several months into 2012 ...
Never mind what follows that quote, look closely at the assumption: how likely is it? Polls are what the economists call a leading lagging indicator, they react to events. The sillier members of the politico-media complex react to polls as new initiatives, ignoring the events to which they react. It would be a mistake to assume that the Gillard government will achieve bugger-all between now and the end of the financial year. Whether or not they get any credit from those who filter information through to Robert Manne is an open question.
Or it will return to the leader it destroyed. If this indeed turns out to be the way the choice presents itself, my recommendation would be for a return to Rudd.
The first sentence in the above quote is scarcely a sentence at all. It also shows the limits of political hyperbole: if Rudd had indeed been "destroyed", he can't become leader again. Mark Latham, Bill Hayden, James Scullin: there are three ex-leaders of the ALP whose capacity to return to that office can be said to be finished. The modifying clause in the second sentence is a pointless piece of backside-covering. If Manne wants a return to Rudd, why didn't he just say so?
In general, Kevin Rudd led a very successful government, at least until its final months. It is true, as Rudd has admitted, that he then erred very badly in postponing the introduction of the emissions trading scheme.
To return to a medical analogy, you could equally say that my grandmother was in good health until she died from cancer. Rudd's government was weakened by its administrative failure, and by the binary nature by which the once-proud ALP went from swallowing whatever he put up to having none of him. Manne should have sourced the shortcomings of the Rudd Government more widely than Rudd's own account.
Rudd lost office in part because he made some errors; in part because he made some serious mining and media enemies; but perhaps most importantly of all because he had spectacularly failed to win even the minimal loyalty of his Cabinet and caucus colleagues.
Prime Minister is the ultimate job in Australian politics. The failure to be hail-fellow-well-met and keep people on side is a basic requirement of politics. The 25 Prime Ministers before Rudd had all been experienced politicians, who had won and lost their share of fights, and who worked with colleagues who liked or disliked them to varying degrees (and who often faced more committed opponents from their own side than from across the floor of parliament). The idea that Rudd has been treated extraordinarily unfairly is an ahistorical nonsense that ought no be tolerated from a junior reporter, let alone a Professor of Politics.
The enduring popularity of the Rudd government was of course no accident. The single most important reason can be stated simply. Rudd led virtually the only government in the Western world to survive the global financial crisis without falling into recession.
That was the period in which the popularity of the Rudd government began to decline. Australians do not give credit to governments that deliver them from economic peril, nor punish them for leading them into it. Paul Keating became Prime Minister after, not before, "the recession we had to have" and won the election that followed. Following the 1961 "credit crunch" the Coalition spent another decade in office. Rudd promised to open opportunities that were not open under Howard; he had little to show for all his talk.
The overthrow of Rudd must seem to casual foreign observers of Australian politics almost entirely crazy.
Australian politics is not conducted for the benefit of "casual foreign observers".
In my observation, Australians expect their Prime Ministers to have a vision for the future of their country and to move confidently on the international stage. Unlike his successor, Julia Gillard – the least impressive Australian Prime Minister since Billy McMahon – Kevin Rudd had a vision and an international presence.
Ah yes, the old "Prime Ministerial" thing.

Whitlam didn't fail because he lacked vision; he failed because his execution was so poor. Rudd failed for the same reason. Rudd spoke Chinese but the Chinese came to despise him, and bilateral relations are no further advanced today than they were when Alexander Downer was Australia's Foreign Minister. Gillard has matched Rudd's international presence in half the time of his government.

Manne's barb about McMahon is telling. Since Gorton, all Prime Ministers bar two have actively duchessed the press gallery (including Radio National, The Age, and such other media as Manne consumes) in order to get into that office. The two exceptions are McMahon and Gillard. The press gallery, wounded at being shut out of big announcements and perfectly happy with petty ones like Abbott's Daily Stunt, are gunning for Gillard and happy to frame her announcements against how The Situation reacts to them. From this framing comes the apparently uncritical perspective of Professor Manne.
Thus far at least, in addition, partly through a lack of information, the nation’s journalists have failed to provide an even remotely adequate account of what actually took place between the conspirators in the weeks, days and hours before the coup. (By contrast, within months of Howard’s near-removal in September 2007, at the time of APEC, excellent, detailed accounts of the episode were written by Pamela Williams in the Australian Financial Review and Paul Kelly in the Australian.)
Partly, this shows the failure of press gallery journalists, who cannot gather information that isn't spoon-fed to them (the contrast is silly, because "within months" of September 2007 the Howard government was out of office. Gillard, Rudd, Shorten et al are all still in government. When the current government loses you watch them sing like canaries). Again, Manne should be awake up to this.
As Rudd seems to many Australians, especially those who do not belong to the political class, to have been dealt with unfairly, his restoration to the Prime Ministership of Australia will seem to them to be the righting of a wrong.
Many people felt the same way about Whitlam after 11 November 1975. Didn't happen though, did it?
If things go on under Gillard as they are, or if in a few months a new leader from the improbable list of successors is chosen, Labor will almost certainly suffer a defeat only a little less humiliating than the one that brought down New South Wales Labor last year. If however an election were to be held shortly after the restoration of Rudd, there is a reasonable chance that Labor might put in a respectable performance and even an outside chance that a Rudd government might be returned.

Of course if Rudd were to return to the Prime Ministership of Australia things would need to be very different this time. In his last political essays, George Orwell often wrote about how individuals were sometimes required to make what he called a “moral effort” in order to be able to acknowledge uncomfortable or unpleasant facts about themselves. If Rudd regained the Prime Ministership, he and his supporters would have to make the moral effort to understand why his rhetoric so often overreached his performance and why he so comprehensively failed to win the loyalty, trust and affection of his Cabinet and caucus colleagues and also of the senior members of the public service. Searching self-criticism, and in particular with regard to questions touching on character, is tough. Without it, however, if there is a second Rudd Prime Ministership, it will be doomed to failure.
Maybe Manne is writing for the benefit of his "casual foreign observers", because these two paragraphs in particular are so banal they are not worth reading; why he imagined them worth writing is a mystery. There is no evidence that Rudd or any of his acolytes have done the “moral effort”. This is probably the most significant reason why it is so idle for people like Manne to hope for a restoration of a government he clearly did not understand.
Another matter for reflection, if Rudd is restored as Labor leader, is the Party’s relationship to the Greens. Under Rudd relations were very poor. Under Gillard, mainly through force of necessity, they have improved. It seems clear that in the short and the middle term, if the Left in Australia is to have a future and if the populist conservative tide is to be turned, some form of Labor-Greens alliance is vital.
See? An admission of that kind is not so hard. Instead of hurrying on as though it never happened, a bit of reflection may have yielded a different and better piece by Manne.
... the Gillard government, following the High Court’s ruling on the Malaysian solution, implicitly looked to the Coalition for asylum seeker policy support. This was always entirely foolish ...
Indeed it was. A Labor-Green alliance would have worked toward a regional solution, which would require a Foreign Minister who can tear himself away from the beige corridors of Brussels and work regional capitals. That's the type of Foreign Minister this country needs: now compare that ideal against the incumbent and the problem, which undermines Manne's whole thesis, becomes clear.

The current situation, as described earlier, does not have to be described or even understood against the frame of reference set down by the Howard government. The fact that the government attempted a bipartisan solution on a matter of national importance makes their position stronger, while making the Libs look like a nostalgia act deliberately reaching for an extreme position.

The third-last and second-last paragraph of Manne's piece are fair enough as far as high-level summaries go, but he is wrong to attribute such measures as disability insurance and mental health to Rudd. The difference between the guy who talks a big game and the woman who gets things done is a commonplace piece of black humour at the workplace, but Manne is flatly wrong to assume that he policies he describes are not part of Gillard's program. This sets up his final, concluding paragraph to be a false dichotomy, a non-sequitur to what wasn't much of an argument anyway, and then a bit of idle speculation worthy of - well, a "casual foreign observer", rather than a well-regarded professor of political science.

Robert Manne has the depth of knowledge about the political system and how it works to make a far better commentator than he is. He chooses instead to engage in such stale, warmed-over, fifth-hand punditry that you may as well take his media reports directly and forget about his poor perspective. Manne is scarcely better than or even different to Malcolm Farnsworth, who for all his inadequacies is trying his best. If I want Robert Manne's opinion I'll get it direct from Michelle Grattan. There is an adjustment process to be undertaken here where a once-important commentator should be turned down in the mix to join the background noise rather than the eminence due to Manne's clear writing and strong analysis, which is apparently a thing of the past.

22 January 2012

Drifting helplessly

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?

- Gordon Lightfoot The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Laurie Oakes has finally tumbled to the idea that Abbott is unsuitable as Prime Minister, but not because of his sense of humour. Abbott is only propped up as a credible leader by the press gallery because it intensifies pressure on Gillard; his strengths are magnified and lauded and his shortcomings are glossed over. The archives of this blog show intense frustration at the prevalence of this senseless position, but I had underestimated just how much the gallery need a strong opponent for a Prime Minister who doesn't need them. Once you realise there's no real pressure being exerted on Gillard, Abbott isn't much of a stalking horse. Oakes is one of the first to call time on him.
TONY Abbott's quip in his Adelaide FM radio interview on Thursday had the hosts hooting with mirth.

The Opposition Leader, greatly amused by his own wit, joined in the laughter.

But Liberal minders worthy of their salt would have recoiled in horror, recognising it as one of those moments that raise the question: "Is Abbott fit to be prime minister?"
Well Laurie, use your extensive contacts on both sides of politics: were there any? Never mind "would have", how about what these people actually did? Anyone on deep, deep background who wanted to express their revulsion at the very idea any Liberal leader would make such a comment? For a third of a century until 2007, if any leader of the Liberal Party other than John Howard had said such a thing, you can be sure it would have been rebuked by John Howard in the name of Decency, Fair Play and Propriety.
He treated the tragedy [of the Costa Concordia] as a joke. It is hard to think of anything grubbier.

The incident brought to mind previous Abbott lapses of judgment, particularly in the 2007 election campaign.
Oh, there have been plenty since then Laurie, plenty. Every time he's replied to a foreign dignitary addressing Parliament on Australia's place in the world, Abbott sniggers about pink batts and carbon tax - as if he'd do any better. One slip by "Stinky" Gambaro looks like an accident, but two reeks of some sort of sneaky having-it-both-ways tactic by her 'leader', and the Laurie Oakeses of this world should call him on it.
Many of us thought Abbott had grown up since then.
Based on what? Seriously, are those who observe Abbott at close quarters and report on his doings to the rest of us as stupid as this?
Earlier in the week, though, Abbott had given a stunning demonstration of what has made him so successful since taking over the Liberal leadership.

Returning from holidays, he weighed into the debate over Julia Gillard's apparent backing away from her agreement with independent Andrew Wilkie on poker machine reform.

And he went unerringly to the Prime Minister's greatest weakness - her credibility.

"It looks like the Prime Minister is about to doublecross Andrew Wilkie on this, just like she's doublecrossed the Australian people over the carbon tax," he said.

Whack! When it comes to delivering a clear, brutal and effective message, Abbott has no rivals in Australian politics today.
That's also Abbott's central weakness, credibility.

There is no evidence that Abbott gives a damn about pokie addicts: not in the above quote or anywhere else. The clubs play both the ALP and the Liberals off an even break, and with Liberal governments in the two most pokie-infested states there is no way an Abbott government would have done even the little that Gillard is doing. Abbott promised $1 billion for a new hospital in Hobart, and that would have disappeared into a Labor Black Hole too. I'm totally ready to hear Abbott talk about what a double-crosser Gillard or whoever else may be, provided we keep in mind this is Tony Abbott we're talking about here. Whack indeed, Laurie Oakes: that's the sound of one of Abbott's boomerangs returning to his own silly bonce.
Despite the obvious dislike of Gillard that emerges in poll after poll, Australians have serious doubts about handing Abbott the keys to The Lodge ... This matters because, while many issues will drive federal politics this year, the leadership question will be crucial.

At this stage, Gillard's problems in that area are certainly more obvious and more serious than Abbott's.
No, they're about the same. Both positives an negatives for Gillard and Abbott are about the same. Abbott can whack Gillard all he likes but it only reinforces the fact that he has no more idea than she does. He's going to back the pokie palaces over the pokie addicts, and he's going to keep up donations to the car industry.

The voters baulked as one in the first week of the 2010 election campaign at the prospect of Tony Abbott PM, and there has been no movement at all in favour of himself or his party. Opposition Leaders who become PM - Laurie Oakes has seen four come and go in his time - all have popularity ratings ahead of their parties, so that they drag candidates over the line based on their personal appeal. Opposition Leaders who lose elections - Oakes has seen a fair few of them too - have popularity ratings behind their party, so that their party drains its goodwill by propping up a dud.

Gillard's the incumbent, and incumbent PMs have the advantage of being able to say, for a while at least: I don't care if you like me or not, I make the tough decisions and get things done. Tony Abbott makes no tough decisions and his adolescent stunts show that he should not be entrusted with any. The Opposition Leader who hasn't got what it takes to become PM is wasting everybody's time, including his own. Not to mention Laurie Oakes'.
She is not trusted, largely as a result of the broken "no carbon tax" election promise.
She is not trusted by the press gallery because she's the first Prime Minister since McMahon who got the job without duchessing the press gallery first. 24 hours before she became Prime Minister, none of the scoophounds in the press gallery had any inkling such a move as on the cards. All this "Rudd poised to strike" crap since has been an exercise in the press gallery fighting the last war rather than reporting what's going on now (the elevation of Peter Slipper to Speaker showed that 'insider journalism' has its limits - which is bad news for Laurie Oakes, a doyen of 'insider journalism' if ever there was one.
And she is seen as weak, primarily because of the compromises made necessary by a hung parliament.
All politicians make compromises, whether they have the sort of majority Malcolm Fraser had in his first two terms or the sort of majority that Barry O'Farrell has now. The News Ltd line on Gillard is that she is weak, so that's what Laurie Oakes in the Herald-Sun focuses on.
Her new communications director, John McTernan, former adviser to the Blair government in Britain, penned an interesting column for a London newspaper before joining Gillard's office late last year.

"Ease and authority. That is what counts in modern leadership," he wrote.

"Do you look and act like a leader?"

Well, his new charge does not look and act like a leader. She has never appeared at ease as PM, and still exudes little authority after 18 months in the job.

So McTernan has his work cut out.
Toward the ends of their terms, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had 'ease and authority' to burn. At that stage it just looked like they didn't get it. Few people affect a more easy manner than Abbott; and as you can see it takes only a couple of chuckleheads from Adelaide to drain away what little authority he has. Gillard shows all the ease of someone who can't avoid dealing with people whom she knows can never and will never give her a fair hearing, or will filter it through an unworthy opponent.
But some pundits suggest the PM has started the new year looking stronger because of the way she has taken charge of the poker machine issue and moved to get out from under the Wilkie deal.

Certainly this has gone down well in the Labor caucus, where concern had been growing over the electoral damage being caused by the pokies controversy.

And if the caucus is happier, the prospects of a leadership change - in particular, of a Kevin Rudd comeback - will recede.
No, "some pundits" are trying to cover for a leader who has not only gone back on a promise made to one MP, but who has raised and dashed the hopes of vulnerable people. Helping pokie addicts was of a piece with the payrise granted to underpaid casual jobs which tend to attract women in disproportionate numbers, namely the sort of thing you'd expect from a Labor government. Now she's kicked that can down the road, and hopefully she can make a better case for action that helps people once the data from the ACT is in.
Gillard knows she has to lift her game, and if she forgets it McTernan will be there to remind her.

But it is not so clear that Abbott sees the need for improvement.
More to the point Laurie, which is more likely to lift their game? Which is more capable of lifting their game? Abbott is running at full clip whereas Gillard is idling. Gillard's supporters are frustrated while Abbott's are quite satisfied that their guy is doing the best that could be expected of him - even exceeding expectations for many. Why should he lift his game? How could he lift his game? You see the problem here - anyone who ever thought Tony Abbott was more than just another boofhead and serious PM material is, and always has been, kidding themselves.


On a similar theme, and as with most articles for The Australian, this article is like a badly poured beer, you have to go down past the froth-and-bubble until you find the real substance:
... Mr Abbott said he would expect the Navy to turn boats heading for Australia back to Indonesia if that was their point of departure.

"These are Indonesian flagged boats with Indonesian crews from Indonesian ports with people who have been residents in Indonesia," Mr Abbott said.

"There is no place for them in Australia, but there is a place for them in Indonesia."
Abbott kyboshed the Malaysia deal because it isn't a signatory to UN conventions on refugees. Indonesia isn't a signatory either. Ean should have asked him about that instead of just making sure that he transcribed the press release accurately.

Abbott is seriously proposing that the Royal Australian Navy abandon people at sea to die. Nobody joins the Navy in order to do that. Dealing with refugee boats for the sake of chucklehead politicians is the least favourite part of naval personnel jobs; it may explain why the RAN is finding it hard to recruit and keep its people. There are no votes whatsoever in this proposal; nobody who voted Labor in 2010 will vote Liberal on the back of this.

Defence personnel vote Coalition more than any other occupational group. When I saw this (filter out the responses and look to what the Minister actually said; this is how the ABC does news now), I thought that Smith was being crazy-brave in taking on the ADF culture of cover-up, where every incidence of inappropriate behaviour is "rotten-apple" rather than "rotten-barrel" stuff. He could well be onto something. If Labor's Smith wants to take on the dead weights, dead-beats and deadshits atop the ADF, while Abbott wants to use them as a backdrop for partisan politics and abandon people at sea against maritime traditions older than modern Australia, a key Coalition demographic may shift in ways that the pundits may not anticipate.

This is where future Coalition MPs will find it hard to crawl from the impending wreckage that Abbott will bring upon his party. Nobody has condemned or even laughed off this pathetic strutting at the expense of people's lives - not least those of RAN personnel. By then Abbott will "fall overboard" in plenty of time and come up OK, just like the captain of the Costa Concordia.

Tony Abbott is not a strong opponent for Gillard; she has shown how to wear him down, slowly and methodically, as she has throughout her term. Abbott is not a strong opponent because he's not a serious alternative; almost nothing would get better for our country were he Prime Minister instead of Gillard. People want proof to the contrary, and if there were any Gillard would be finished. The story the press gallery should be telling us on Abbott versus Gillard is the one they can't bear to face: the incumbent who disdains the press gallery has it all over the Stunt Man who makes the press gallery feel worthwhile. Whack, Laurie Oakes! Whack, Ean Higgins! Whack, marginal-seat holder "Stinky" Gambaro! Whack, indeed.

20 January 2012

On having one's arse handed to one by the internet

Earlier this week I posted about the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists. Responses to that post on the blog and on Twitter have been instructive to say the least.

It showed that, unlike most bloggers, I can no longer just squeeze out any old brain-fart and expect what has become an established readership to just deal with it. That sort of mentality is clearly good enough for the Leader of the Federal Opposition (and his Giggle Squad in the press gallery) but, having flailed professional journalists for not doing the background work necessary on such an issue I am defenceless to the usual barbs of "don't know what you're talking about".

My parents were great admirers of Plucky Little Israel and I absorbed that. When I first became interested in politics I just assumed that the political problem of Israel and its neighbours was an intractable one, but then I thought the same about communism. When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and after the Oslo Accords when Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat almost all of what he wanted for a Palestinian state only to have it rejected, I gave up on following Israel's troubles with Palestine and other countries in the region. It represented another failure for moderate, transactional politics, which I regarded then (and now) as the harbinger of dark times politically. I hadn't really paid much attention to the politics of the region since - unless you count the so-called "Arab Spring", which doesn't really relate to Israel anyway.

This doesn't mean I'm now knee-jerk anti-Israel, far from it. Over at the other post in the comments section I've attempted to give some nuance to my views and how they've changed. I'm not sure that the debacle in Iraq means that all cries of "Wolf!" (or, to use the old libertarian scenario, the cry of "Fire!" in a theatre) are to be derided and dismissed. I'm still biased against the Iranian regime, but I still don't have a cogent response to the bush-lawyers of "international law". You can see I have a way to go.

Say what you will about my appalling ignorance of Middle Eastern politics, and the degree to which I've been sucked into facile propaganda, etc, etc. When you're done with piling on, dare to gainsay the following statement: my knowledge of Middle Eastern politics today is well above that of the average member of the Australian Parliament, including some who've copped a junket there.

Now I'm doing a lot of reading about Israel and its place in the Middle East. As with any other issue I can say that there's a lot of good stuff and a great deal of crap out there. I'm not out to reinforce any biases because that hasn't done me much good. Doubt that I'll be flying too many more kites as I have with this issue, and I will stick to the core business of Politically Homeless: the inadequacy of the conservative response to a time of great change, and the apparent death-wish of the Australian media in refusing to address the changes to its own environment and the stuff which they presume report to us.

Update: Yes, I have seen this.

16 January 2012

That car won't start

In this article, Misha Schubert takes Brian Loughnane on face value. She dutifully reports what he says and concludes that he's defining the Gillard Government. Brian Loughnane doesn't control the Gillard Government. Brian Loughnane is Director of the Liberal Party of Australia. That's the organisation over which he has some degree of control, and he's exerting that control to tell its members to shut up.

Consider Loughnane's audience: Young Liberals, full of energy and ideas amongst other things. Bri-Bri thinks he's helping them by showing them how modern politics works, and it works in the way that people like Bri-Bri like it to work. He and Peta Credlin*, Abbott's chief of staff, started out as junior staffers who weren't responsible for making policy decisions, but who took decisions that had been made and foisted them onto journalists and minor-party Senators. Along the way they picked up no experience whatsoever in analysing the strengths and weaknesses of policy options from the point of view of those affected by the policy (as opposed to "how it plays" in the media, or with particular interest groups), or projected into the future beyond the following election. Now they are in positions where they can and do stymie the process by which policy is developed, insisting that any and all such activity be suborned to a) media and interest groups and b) their predilections above all. They must be seen to "win", and if a good idea must die for the sake of that then it's a sacrifice the Liberal Party must - and does - make.

Over the past week we have seen a much-needed debate on donations to the vehicle industry (and because there is no link to performance by the industry, and no penalties for sixty years of underperformance, let us call them for what they are: donations). Joe Hockey is against further donations; Sophie Mirabella, Eric Abetz and Barnaby Joyce are for more donations, as is the Gillard government.

This is a bizarre situation: usually Abetz and Mirabella bristle at any attempt at bipartisanship. These are people who have spent their political careers emphasising that the Liberals should be a choice and not an echo of Labor. Whenever there is bipartisanship they shake their heads and claim they don't know what the Liberal Party stands for. If you think that pink batts or school halls are salient examples of government waste, wait until you see the sheer epic scale of nation-building opportunities this country has pissed away after years and years of donations to the shareholders of Detroit and Tokyo.

As I've said earlier there might be two seats up for grabs if you don't think about it too much, and I can understand Mirabella et al focusing on that; but everybody in either Corangamite or Wakefield who is really concerned for Australian vehicle manufacturing is going to vote Labor, because they believe in vehicle industry donations wholeheartedly. The right pride themselves on being hard-hearted realists when it comes to winning votes, but on this issue they are kidding themselves.

Peta and Bri-Bri don't care what the policy is, as long as there is one - not several, one - and that all the Coalition gets 100% behind it, whatever it might be. They don't understand the process of policy development and they certainly don't want any of your broad-based input that theoretically comes with democracy, thank you very much. Bri-Bri thinks he's tough and clever by screwing down the lid on a simmering pot.

Geoff Kitney in The Australian Financial Review gave important historical context to the debate over public support for the Australian car industry in this article (you'll need to be a subscriber). He points out how the Fraser government in 1981 proposed a round of donations and the lone voice in Cabinet against them was the then Treasurer, John Howard. The then-nascent economic rationalist MPs in the Liberal Party hailed Howard and would form the core of his support during the 1980s, until they all gave up in about 1990 and were not replaced.

Kitney says that Abbott might follow in Howard's footsteps, but he has the analogy wrong. Abbott is leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, a position held in 1981 not by Howard but Malcolm Fraser. Howard was Treasurer then; today the Liberal equivalent is Shadow Treasurer is Joe Hockey. Hockey is arguing against car industry donations in 2012, just as Howard did in 1981 (and as he never did when Prime Minister).

Economists like to mock Hockey for his apparent lack of knowledge of their profession, but he's no worse than any other Shadow Treasurer (Swan included, and yes Keating for the month or so he held that job) in that regard. Where Hockey is good value is in the old-fashioned political skill of building a consensus, and sticking it to old-timers who think they can fudge away reforms whose time has come. In the late 1990s Hockey's work on corporate law reform got up the nose of the then Chairman of AMP, Ian Burgess, who went over Hockey's head direct to Howard. When Howard stood by his minister Burgess got the shock of his life and shuffled into retirement, leaving AMP far better off for his absence.

Hockey is right on vehicle industry donations, and chances are when it comes to Liberal decision-making forums he'll have done his homework and be armed with a strong case against an industry that's only holding this country back. He'd be an iconoclastic economic reformer if he got the chance; he has already achieved more in politics than Mirabella and Abetz have or will. I would have expected the IPA to come out as strongly for Hockey as they did for race-baiter Andrew Bolt; nothing so far, nor has the CIS (whose offices are in Hockey's electorate) rallied to his side.

There is absolutely no chance at all that the Coalition will come out against donations to the car industry. Abbott always dances with those who brung him, and the right want vehicle industry donations to continue. If you read Battlelines, and if you see Abbott's performance before he became leader, you'll see him sighing and eye-rolling at every instance of bipartisanship that supposedly played into Rudd's hands. He brought down Turnbull over the bipartisanship over the ETS; the passage on the carbon price in the very teeth of his most determined opposition shows the limits of his "choice not echo" position.

Now that he has to appear less confrontational to round out his image, it will be hilarious watching him try to justify falling into line behind Labor while at the same time burning his Shadow Treasurer's attempts to "cut the waste". You can expect those half-hearted statements by Judith Sloan, Hugh Morgan et al in favour of increasing unemployment benefits to vanish overnight if the right keep on insisting Hockey cut the budget while going into bat for their pet programs.

Kitney further disgraced himself in his second article in the weekend's AFR with this idle and defenceless throwaway:
... [in 2012] Abbott can be expected to prosper.
He'll get away with murder if the more obtuse members of the press gallery continue to give him a free pass, and that's most of them. Kitney runs the risk of becoming a nostalgia act like Tony Wright if he doesn't improve in relating the landscape before him to the way things were.

After the latter part of last year's parliamentary sittings, with vast amounts of legislation passed and Abbott reduced to a frothing mess (negating Bri-Bri's insistence that the Gillard Government doesn't have a record to run on). It could go either way: either they will take Abbott seriously and call him to account for inconsistencies and evasions, or they will indulge him as he hangs his elbow out of a Holden ute and rhapsodises about how he loved to watch Brocko beat Dick Moffatt on The Mountain.

If the MSM do the latter Peta and Bri-Bri will consider their job done, and take no more interest in all that palaver about budget expenditure than most of us do - just so long as it doesn't blow up, so long as there is no public controversy over the expenditure of billions of dollars of public money. You hear that, Young Liberals? As long as everyone just shuts up, everything will be fine.

* The fact that Credlin and Loughnane are married is neither here nor there. A lot of people obsess over it but I'm not going there. The fact that they act as a team to stamp out what they don't understand and can't control, regardless of its merits, is what gets me. It can't last and within two years I expect both to be deposed.

14 January 2012

On the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists

Recently I let out a stray tweet on the targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, and I was challenged on Twitter as to why I took the approach that I did:

I'm not sure it's my job to develop or propound any sort of "doctrine", but here's what I think about the targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.

First, the assumptions I operate under, in no particular order:
  1. I think that the Israeli government, or organisations affiliated closely to it, is responsible for those killings. This is not based on any sort of inside knowledge but a crude application of the notion of cui bono? - who stands to benefit? 
  2. I doubt the Iranian government is doing this to keep other nuclear scientists on their toes, or to deal with any dissent by these particular scientists in a more swift and brutal manner than the misgivings of J. Robert Oppenheimer were dealt with by the US Congress in the 1950s.
  3. Further to 1 above: I don't believe that Iranian dissident groups or your bog-standard criminals have the organisational skill to pull off events like these. Nor do the US have sufficient intelligence on the ground in Iran to play much of a role - even after having tens of thousands of their troops stationed to the west and northeast of Iran, in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively.
  4. I assume that those scientists identified as having been killed really are dead, and these reports aren't some sort of sympathy-seeking scam on the part of the Iranian government like the supposed death of baby Hana Gaddafi.
  5. The Iranian government is developing nuclear weapons and its protestations to the contrary are bullshit.
  6. The Iranian government has a firm and oft-stated policy of wiping the State of Israel off the face of the earth.
  7. The State of Israel has a right to exist, which means that it has the right to head off threats like the Iranian nuclear program, which is a real and major threat to the existence of Israel.
There are international measures for regulating the development of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, including through the IAEA. I'm sure that Israel is working within those structures to monitor Iran's nuclear program:
  • I'm equally sure that Israel's ability to do this is limited by the lack of good faith it has shown in dealing with Palestine, which I regard as a real but separate issue.
  • Israel may fairly be accused of subverting multilateral measures by these targeted killings, but so are the Iranians for lying about their program; and for developing nuclear weapons with aggressive intent rather than just to participate in "the nuclear club". Faults on both sides, no point hammering one and giving the other a free pass.
  • Israel does not have to wait until a nuclear weapon detonates on its territory, or passes into it, or even is completed, given the fact that these are expressly and explicitly to be used against Israel.
By targeting Iranian nuclear scientists, Israel is forestalling the development of a real and major threat to its existence.

Imagine that the Los Alamos Atomic Laboratory had been destroyed, or that individuals associated with it (e.g. Oppenheimer or Edward Teller) had been targeted for killing by the Axis powers or forces allied to them before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Such action would have been legitimate acts of war.

Would I be upset if Australian scientists got picked off by bombs? Yes, I would (and not just because Sydney traffic is bad enough as it is). For all the criticisms that may be made of Australian foreign policy, I don't believe that the Australian government is engaged in wiping another country off the face of the earth.

Iranian nuclear scientists are 'combatants'. Yes, they are. Given the regular official harangues against Israel - not dissimilar to those against Iraq before and during the conflict of the 1980s - Iranians who participate in their nuclear program know full well that they are threatening Israel and participating in a malevolent foreign policy. The development of a nuclear program by an explicitly and demonstrably aggressive Iran is the same sort of belligerent act as as the amassing of troops, beating ploughshares back into swords, and other acts indicating that a state is initiating war. Again, Israel is not obliged to place its exclusive trust in international agreements or to be bereft of options should those agreements fail to protect it from destruction.

Iran has been practicing terrorism against Israel, with its rhetorical threats backed up with their support for militant Palestinian elements. Targeting Iranian nuclear scientists has the same terrorist effect. Iran can still exist without its nuclear program, but Iran's threats against Israel are threats to the whole nation, its whole people. I think the targeted killings have been clever and resourceful against heavily protected nuclear scientists who are working to obliterate an entire people.

By contrast, the Iranian government has been boorish and inept in hoping that wiping Israel off the map is some sort of rallying cry for a failed regime. Its treatment of Iranian dissidents does not give the Iranian government, nor anyone else, any grounds to complain about the targeted killings of nuclear scientists.

If the Iranian government caught any agent in the act of preparing or placing those bombs, it would be hard to call for or expect proper due process in dealing with such a person.

Israel's behaviour is far from perfect but in seeking to forestall Iranian nuclear weapons my sympathies are with them, and I believe that sympathies for Iran on this matter (beyond a simple and true human empathy for the grieving families of the individuals killed) are misplaced.

13 January 2012

Decisions from the Coalition

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don’t much care where -" said Alice.

"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.

"- so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh, you’re sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

- Lewis Carroll Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
The Federal Coalition starts 2012 on the horns of a number of policy dilemmas. In each of these there are good reasons for going one way or another, but in each of these decisions will have to be made and defended in such a way that makes them look like a credible alternative government. The Coalition is ill-equipped to make those decisions, and to stand by them, which will mean this year won't be one on which they'll look back with unalloyed fondness. There might be vicarious triumphs in the states, but federally this is a year where decisions get tougher the more they are delayed.

These decisions will mean that those hoping the Coalition would go another way will be disappointed. With a consistent framework to operate by and a tough hide, you can get past this disappointment and, if the disappointed are supporters, mumble vague promises of compensation at some later stage. Howard did this all the time and so does every successful political leader. Abbott, however, will put his seemingly random and lightweight decisions out there in the hope that people are impressed with:
  • The sheer damn firmness to which he holds to his decisions, and the boldness with which he ascribes his decisions;
  • The sneering with which he puts down alternatives not chosen - not so cutting that the opposition withers and dies, nor witty enough to leaven the disappointment;
  • The sheer athleticism with which he backflips and pikes out of decisions which turn out later to hurt him; and
  • The sincerity-veneer that he applies to foreseeable questions that, well, just because he changed his mind on [this] doesn't mean he'll do so on [that].
First, there's this dog's breakfast written up as a meaty offering. Australia needs both farms and coal seam gas. Australia needs foreign investment, in agriculture as well as other parts of the economy. But for me the real tragedy was this:
In an exclusive interview with the Herald, Mr Hockey identified the government's $36 billion national broadband network as the Coalition's big political target this year.

Mr Hockey also unveiled the Coalition's three-point economic plan for the year and a "strong, positive agenda", following a year in which the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, was criticised for being too negative.
Only an experienced press gallery journo could write those two paragraphs and fail to realise that the hopes for the latter were pretty much cancelled out by the reality of the former.
"I mean, it's multiples of anything that's ever been off-budget … it detracts from productivity," he said.
Much of World War II and the Snowy Mountains Scheme, to name two, were off-budget. The rollout of the national copper-wire telephone network in the 1950s failed to account for data transfer or for rental income from a Singaporean-owned competitor. Lift your eyes above the budget and speak for the nation!

In terms of 'detracting from productivity', the business case for NBN can be made simply by getting the club foot of Telstra off the nation's throat. All those retailers who bellyache about the internet (while, like Harvey Norman, selling people the means to get onto the internet and avoid lazy and bloated retailers like Harvey Norman) will be kicked into touch by the NBN. Fewer rentseekers - just imagine that, you can feel the surge in productivity already.
Mr Hockey vowed to increase accountability of the government's off-budget initiatives, including the broadband network, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the planned National Dental Scheme.
That's the way to go positive: skimp on the halt, the lame, the snaggle-toothed, and create FUD about policies to rob them even of hope.
Workplace relations was the subject of an internal Liberal Party brawl in September when the former workplace relations minister Peter Reith urged Mr Abbott to make it a front-and-centre issue.

Mr Abbott ignored the call and ruled out a return to statutory individual contracts.
Well, that's that. Obviously the issue of how millions of Australians work and what they get in return is now settled for all time. Joe Hockey is a  former workplace relations minister; why does nobody ask him about WorkChoices and future options for regulating workplaces to ensure growing productivity?

There is a case to be made for a light touch IR system, like that of the Fraser Government. The Conciliation & Arbitration Commission and all that it represented reached its peak under Fraser. Having smashed the ALP at the ballot box and in Parliament, the softly-softly approach to what used to be known as industrial relations gave the President of the ACTU, Bob Hawke, a rails run as the Fraser Government's most potent political threat.

On the other hand, there's also a case to regulate the workplace relations system in a different way to the way it's regulated now. The clearer they are about that different way, the less vulnerable the Coalition will be to spectres of WorkChoices, or the one-two punch from the broader labour movement (such as it is).

Of course, fearless journalist Jacqueline Maley went in hard, didn't she? No, she changed the topic:
Mr Hockey revealed a review of foreign investment guidelines would be part of the Coalition's economic policy agenda.
Look over there! If there isn't a Walkley in that, I don't know what is (seriously, I don't).
A Senate inquiry chaired by the Liberal senator Bill Heffernan is also looking into the issue.
And isn't that the hallmark of political effectiveness. The Father of Agriculture in Northern Australia himself. The man who erased Michael Kirby from history. All piss and wind. Yes indeedy, if you're concerned about foreign investment in Australian agriculture, you can wait for the Heffernan Report into the issue or you can help yourself to a nice deep draught of fuck-all ahead of time and avoid the wait.

The real worry for the Coalition, though, is this:
Mr Hockey said "some" of the Coalition's policies would be submitted to the Parliamentary Budget Office for costing.

During the 2010 election campaign, the opposition refused to have its policies costed by Treasury, opting instead to have them assessed by a West Australian accountancy firm, WHK Horwath.

The accountants who completed the costings have since been found to have breached professional standards and were fined for misrepresenting the costings as an audit.
That's right, accounting/consulting firms: if the Federal Opposition approach you, run for the sake of your professional reputations. They will screw you and leave you in the dirt: don't work for these people. George Megalogenis was right when he said:
For those on the Coalition side with longer memories, the antagonism echoes the Whitlam era hostility towards Treasury in the 70s.

The Coalition should get over itself and learn to respect the economists.

The lesson of the Whitlam government is that whenever one side sees the bureaucracy as the enemy, it knows less about governing that it realises.
Quite so: you aren't ready for Treasury, you aren't ready for government. When Treasury does fall short (as it did over the mining tax) it made the mistake of getting ahead of the politicians rather than supporting them in making decisions; this doesn't mean that the best Treasury is one that's willing to play Horwath-style patsy to The Situation. The Coalition aren't ready for government until they can strike that balance between leading Treasury and working with it.

Then there's another longterm dilemma of governing this country, the car industry. There are lots of good arguments for an Australian vehicle manufacturing industry, but if you make them you're missing a big opportunity to cut expenditure. You can't really complain that Australia isn't embracing an innovative future while you're siphoning public funds to donate to US shareholders.

Yes, people are buying fewer Commodores and Falcons, but apparently there is this wonderful export industry for such vehicles which, though apparently luicrative, still requires handouts. I quite like this elegant proposal from Nicholas Gruen seeking to create a niche where there is currently only a rut. Not only would the Coalition would reject it out of hand, there is no evidence that it even entered their minds:
But the Coalition’s acting industry spokesman, Eric Abetz, said Australians “don’t mind some support from government”.
Great! Let's remember that the next time Eric whinges about Centrelink recipients, or Fair Work Australia cracking down on free market champions like Qantas.
And the man helping review the federal Coalition’s industry policy in the environment of a resources-driven high dollar, frontbencher Ian Macfarlane, also said Australia needed to retain a sophisticated manufacturing capability. But he would not be drawn on the issue of subsidies.
Let's leave aside the fact that this is a poor article. The only evidence of a "Lib split" on the issue are Liberals with the bulk (if not the whole) of their political careers behind them. Macfarlane and Abetz might think they're clever by holding an inquiry with the end result predetermined, but what's clever for them is not necessarily clever for the country, or indeed for the Liberal Party.

The Australian car industry is mostly locked up in the sort of electorates where Labor wins overwhelmingly and the Greens come second. The exceptions are two Federal electorates, Corangamite (Vic, on the fringes of Geelong) and Wakefield (SA, including Gawler and Elizabeth): both marginal Labor-held seats at the last two elections, eminently winnable by a resurgent Liberal Party.

There has been a great deal made of the "Howard battlers", blue-collar workers who vote Liberal rather than Labor. These tend to be people who are self-employed or who recognise that their employment is contingent on the business cycle generally and their bosses' ability to reel in business in particular. Those who cling to cradle-to-grave jobs from big corporates or government still vote Labor. There is no advantage for the Coalition in maintaining thousands of Labor voters in marginal electorates.

Then, there's the fact that the most powerful advocates for the Australian car industry are two unions who, as Crikey recently observed, so lack confidence in their own members that they don't rate them as an investment. Two of Labor's greatest mainstays: why are they even a consideration for the Coalition? This is the press release I'm waiting to see:
The Leader of the Opposition today announced that the Australian car industry no longer requires subsidies from public funds and will rely upon income from customers from hereon in, just like every other business does.

"And if Paul Howes and Dave Oliver don't like it, they can go and fuck themselves", he added.
There will be difficult decisions required for all of these issues, and it's part of getting ready for government that you can manage interest groups. There is a line between steadfastness of purpose and obstinacy, and Abbott is on the wrong side of this because he has no discernible principles on economics:
  • He's trying to play an unconvincing double game on workplace relations. 
  • He seems to think a farmers-vs-miners stoush can simply be settled in favour of farmers (well, until the next time Gina rattles her jewelry). 
  • He really thinks that the rolling program of cash for cars is just something Australian politicians have to keep doing and put up with, like similar flare-ups over their own pay from time to time. 
There are difficult decisions to be made over the coming year, the quality of which put in doubt to related questions that some might like to think are already settled: do the Coalition understand the issues facing this country, and can they govern Australia?

03 January 2012

Oh say, can you see?

On the first Saturday Tuesday in November this year, the voters of the United States will elect a President and a Congress. Many non-Americans, such as myself, will be following the race avidly. In times of old we would turn to the Australian media for their summaries of the US race: no more, but still the mainstream media insist on running this absurd nostalgia act.

I've been following US campaigns online since 1996. I loved Michael Lewis' coverage of the minor Republican candidates for The New Republic (later published in the book Losers, highly recommended), and found it was best to be fairly omnivorous politically in terms of the US spectrum. It was best to read a well-written article with which you disagreed, challenging your position and increasing your knowledge, than a bland reinforcement of your prejudices.

By the following election I could read Australian coverage of the US elections with a jaundiced eye. The inevitable rise of Bush and Gore to the candidacies of their respective parties as reported by the Australian media was pretty much a distillation of coverage from The New York Times or The Washington Post, with a bit of CNN thrown in. At that time, there was very little that a fully-equipped Washington correspondent from an Australian media outlet could contribute to the understanding of Australians that couldn't have been done at a fraction of the cost by someone not very different to myself.

By 2008 the model of an Aussie reporter digesting a vast and unruly set of understandings of American politics in a Presidential election year, and summarising it for Australians, was pretty much dead. The Washington correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald was Anne Davies. Before that she had disgraced herself as the last NSW press gallery journalist who actually believed a single damn thing that the NSW ALP government actually said, and whose idea of investigative journalism was to ask a minister's office if everything they said in their press releases was in fact true.

As Washington correspondent, Davies did a quick summary of East Coast US newspapers and concluded that Hillary Clinton was on track to inevitably becoming Democrat candidate and President. Any sort of wider reading from this distance showed that Barack Obama was a serious rival early in that year, and it was fascinating to watch US commentators change their minds and at least take Obama seriously, Davies held the line; the fix was in, the Democrat establishment would have Clinton and that was that, no further correspondence would be entered into. When Obama put out a well-considered position on US foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific, Davies ignored it and did not start any sort of conversation about what it might mean (meaning that President Obama's speech in Canberra late last year came as more of a surprise than it should have). In other words, Davies failed at her central role at explaining how US politics affects Australia. She wasn't the only failed Australian Washington correspondent by any means, but she's a prime example.

In a dysfunctional organisation, failures are not expelled or learned from but promoted: Davies is now head of investigations at Fairfax.

Australian media organisations do not need correspondents in Washington (or London for that matter). Foreign correspondents should be limited to places with little coverage from other media: Port Moresby and Kabul come to mind as places where Australia's interest is strong but media content would be scant were it not for Australian media outlets sending correspondents there. Washington correspondents are an impediment to Australians' understanding of what is going on in US politics. Australian mainstream media organisations should resist the urge to offer beef-witted summaries of information freely available online: to not do so would be a waste.

The MSM got off to a bad start with this poor offering from Tom Switzer, which is always more about himself than conveying any understanding of large and complex issues. Yes, Obama is doing it tough: but he only has to defeat the opposition in front of him. How does Switzer summarise a range of personalities and positions in the Republican Party, from Gingrich to Bachman to Paul to Santorum? He was a former intern at the conservative Heritage Foundation, you'd think he'd be the guy to tell us about the anti-Obama field, right?
They're uncharismatic, uninspiring, gaffe-prone, scandal-plagued, serial flip-floppers: all these barbs have been hurled at a plethora of unorthodox candidates that reminds one Washington Post columnist of "that famous bar scene in Star Wars".
See how Switzer defines them: victims of hurled barbs.

It is not strange or even unfortunate that politicians are criticised. Conservatives believe that if only any and all criticism of conservatives evaporated, we would instantly attain some sort of conservative nirvana. I have been critical of this attitude in the past and I remain so: there is no place for conservatives to be stunned and appalled that their candidates might attract criticism, and that any and all such criticism is unfair, and that conservatives deserve sympathy for such cruel and unusual treatment.

To look at each of those candidates, to read and hear their words in context, is to see a real constituency being represented. Switzer could do that, but he's patronising us instead by being blithe. As you'd expect from an ivory-tower academic, he's missed an important practicality of politics: in an election you only have to beat the candidate in front of you.

Switzer is right that Obama is facing the worst unemployment and other indicators than any President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now look at the turkeys that the Republicans put up against FDR: I mean, "the barefoot boy from Wall Street"? Any one of those guys would be a titan in the 2012 race.
([Mitt Romney] once rebutted accusations of supporting polygamy by pointing out that he's the only GOP candidate to have had just one wife.)
There's more to it than that. American Conservatives bang on about how they support traditional families, and scorn family configurations other than the nuclear family - then they are exposed in their private lives as acting against what they espouse as traditional family values, which makes you wonder whether there is any link between what they say and what they do.
Romney's problem is that the Tea Party conservatives won't stomach him.
It's the Tea Party's problem too. The Republican Right has held out for a generation for candidates who'll do whatever they want. The Tea Party are too far to the right and Romney should tell them to go boil their heads: he'd be a mighty leader if he did that. Tom should stop fretting about what non-Massachusetts people think about their healthcare and start asking Massachusetts people what they think; and considering whether non-Massachusetts people might be better off with that, with whatever Obama has set up, or with the status quo. That would be proper analysis: blithe whimpering about hurled barbs - in politics! - isn't good enough.
... although the twice-divorced Gingrich could redeem himself in primaries later this month in South Carolina and Florida where he remains popular.
Hardly. Virginia is where Gingrich lives, and it has more 50 crucial delegates than South Carolina and Florida put together. If I worked for at the United States Studies Centre, I'd know that.
His low-tax and civil libertarian views, combined with his anti-war activism, may resonate with a solid group of young limited-government advocates in Iowa. But it will spook the GOP faithful with the prospect of turning the party over to fringe elements.

Paul can be safely ruled out of winning the nomination, though there is always a risk he may run as a third-party candidate in the election. Any independent candidacy, of course, will likely help Obama by sucking away votes from Republicans.
Like Ralph Nader did to Gore in 2000: you say this like it's a bad thing, Tom. Are "the GOP faithful" who resile from Paul the same people as "the GOP establishment" who are apparently backing Romney?
That could change, as it so often does, during a long election year. Trial by fire, as Obama himself remembers from his 2008 duel with Hillary Clinton, can make a candidate stronger.
Here Switzer is, as George Orwell said, attempting to give an air of certainty to pure wind. Long campaigns more often weed out weak and unsuitable candidates more than they burnish champions (read Michael Lewis' Losers, go on). The last man standing is often unappealing to the voters, however much they may be embraced by their own parties, as Johns Kerry and McCain found out in recent contests.

C'mon Tom, do some analysis.
We've all heard the 1992 campaign mantra, "It's the economy, stupid." That is especially true in 2012. The economy is very weak and, given Europe's fiscal crisis, it's unlikely to experience a robust recovery by November.
Yes, and it's even less likely that any Republican will credibly establish that they can do a better job that Obama is doing. It puts the lie to what Switzer would have liked to have been his piece's final line:
... it appears that the President's prospects are perilous.
You wish. The final paragraph is so weak it doesn't bear examination. Obama has to be defeated by a better candidate and there isn't one. If there was, you'd have made a better case than you did.

You can expect that the mainstream media in Australia will do more of this, trot out so-called experts who do stale summaries of events that are too big and complex for them to understand or convey. I can understand why Australian media feel the need to cover the twists and turns of the US election, but hopefully they can do a much better job than they have. Early signs are that the MSM will determinedly churn out must-ignore content and therefore cement their own irrelevance. It shouldn't be too late for them, but it probably is.

02 January 2012

The information you need

The mainstream media isn't giving us the information we need. It is giving us what they think is good enough for people like us, gathered by people that mainstream media organisations regard as competent; but this is not the same thing at all.

One of the best analysts of public affairs in the Australian media is George Megalogenis. We all have our blind spots, and Megalogenis' is the role that the media plays in public life, as seen in his Quarterly Essay and also in this more recent article:
ONLY one organisation in Australia is viewed, statistically speaking, as totally untrustworthy: the media. The scoop in the 2010 Australian Election Survey, published this week, wasn't so much that the messenger finished last but that the gap between us and the political institutions we are supposed to hold to account was so wide.
There are two major errors in that paragraph, and they bode ill for the rest of the article:
  • No idea why it's a "scoop", George; this is a commonplace that has been known for some time, and much commented upon in this blog and other outlets. When the weather report announces that it's a lovely day here in Sydney, or that Australia won the Boxing Day cricket Test against India, this is not a "scoop"; and
  • The gap between the mainstream media (assuming that's who Megalogenis means by "us") and the political institutions isn't wide at all. It's so close as to be symbiotic. The gap is the one between those who are supposed to be explaining what's going on and those who are to be explained to: media consumers, taxpayers, voters, citizens generally. People who in their different roles are affected by decisions of government but who are too busy to keep close tabs on what's going on (and who, in bygone days, had no means of doing so) relied on the media to find out what was going on. What is reported is irrelevant (monkey-house antics at Question Time, Abbott playing at jobs other than the one he's paid to do, gaffes) and what is relevant isn't reported (don't get me started).

After such a poor start, surely Megalogenis picks it up a bit? No, he quibbles with definitions:
The term "the press", like its twin in generalisation "the media", can mean anything. Obviously, the fence-sitting professionals at The Australian, the ABC, Fairfax and elsewhere should not have to answer for the celebrity hecklers on commercial television and radio. But we all should, nonetheless, take the public rebuke on the chin. (And, perhaps, be grateful that the question wasn't asked after Hackgate in Britain, because the proportion of voters who had confidence in the press here might have fallen to single digits.)
fence-sitting professionals at The Australian ???

Would you regard Laurie Oakes (News & Current Affairs, Channel 9) as part of the press/media? If so, why not Tracy Grimshaw (News & Current Affairs, Channel 9)? Regardless of what he may say, whenever Derryn Hinch (a celebrity heckler on commercial television and radio if ever there was one, and at the same time a journalist) is penalised for breaching a court order, where is the journalist who does not rally to his cause? Is Andrew Bolt, who is paid by the same employer to do a job not very different to what Megalogenis does, part of his press/media? In the following three paragraphs Megalogenis is surprisingly concise as to what constitutes the press/media/whatever; criticism can be quibbled away but job losses focus the mind.

His point about "the banality of the doorstop" is well made:
The doorstop is the fax machine of political communication. We know it is out of date, but no one has the guts to throw it out.
It's part of a wider problem, one that Megalogenis can't bear to confront:
The media's error at the last election campaign is easy to acknowledge. Australia almost had a change of government without serious scrutiny of the coalition's uncosted policies.
The error is perpetuated every time the opposition gets "equal time" to accuse the government of financial irresponsibility, without being called on it (but more on that later). It's a structural problem with the way that the Australian media covers politics: the idea that if you have a quote you have a story, regardless of whether the speaker has any credibility or even how a statement may fit with other factors in the subject-matter of their statement. You can bet that the next election will be covered in the same banal and facile way as the last one.
... the government we wound up with had very few policies of its own to begin with ...
It had very many policies that were mishandled by the immediate past Prime Minister, and these policies should not have been regarded as "yesterday's news" but as issues that affect the same Australians that consume media offerings and are subject to laws etc.
So the bullet dodged of an unready coalition was followed by the let-down of a minority Labor government that had lost its beliefs.
No, this was a government that had to compromise to stay in office. It is possible to compromise without losing core beliefs; the Coalition was unwilling to compromise, and as a result remains out of office.
In any fair analysis, the press contributed to the systems failure of 2010.
Note that this admission appears two-thirds of the way down the article. It is immediately followed by an equivocation:
Nevertheless, the media can't fix the problem of its subject matter.
Depends what you regard as the subject matter of reporting on the activities of government, really. The "political institutions we are supposed to hold to account" ought not be limited to the announcements and antics of parliamentarians. The "fence-sitting professionals at The Australian, the ABC, Fairfax and elsewhere" find it convenient to limit their coverage of government and governance to what's accessible to the press gallery, and they present this to us as the be-all-and-end-all of what politics is.
It is too much to ask of the media to ignore the mutually reinforcing character flaws of the two leaders.
It is not too much to ask to shift it from front and centre to minor features of much, much wider issues.
Gillard and Abbott are a mix of stubborn and flaky.
So are all politicians; you could apply that to Howard and Latham, Keating and Hewson, Hawke and Peacock, Menzies and Evatt, Cameron and Miliband, take your pick really. The same could even been said for journalists. Banality clearly isn't limited to doorstops.

Banality appears to be house policy at Fairfax, according to associate editor Shaun Carney:
And the media also have a role ... Because the economics of the industry have changed, the media have had to go out chasing audiences, knowing that the audiences are distracted and seeking quick gratification. Complexity and considered assessment of difficult issues sometimes have to make way for instant judgments, simplification and plenty of conflict.
Not sometimes: pretty much always. Consider what it is that 'distracts' people from avid consumption of the mainstream media, then set yourself the challenge of describing the day's news in ways that relates to those 'distractions'. If there is no way of describing fatuities in ways that relate to policy outcomes, leave them out of media content. Conflict is a media construct rather than a public demand; people will appear to conflict when there is substantial underlying agreement, or pretend to be in accord when there are significant differences (and this applies to situations other than the Gillard-Rudd relationship).
As the parties have found ways to tailor and target their messages with the intention of seeking a short-term advantage, the community has grown more cynical. What is lost is the sense of connection between voters and the citizens they elect.
And the media we consume, Shaun. You need us more than we need you.

When you're talking about banality and missing the point, though, you have to talk Jacqueline Maley:
During a wide-ranging interview presaging the new year, Mr Swan talked up the government's economic credentials - a perceived Labor weak point according to the polls - arguing that Australia has "a set of fundamentals that just about any other developed economy would wish to have".
Imagine you could have a wide-ranging interview with the Treasurer. Would you do your research on Swan and the economy and get some information that no other outlet had before, or would you just do the sort of standard bullshit that you could do if you'd never met Swan? If you were Jacqueline Maley, you'd trot out the same lazy bullshit: Rudd challenge, the surplus.
But the Treasurer stopped short of using the word "guarantee" in relation to the slim budget surplus the government has promised for 2012-13, which was downgraded from the $3.5 billion forecast in its May budget ...
Never mind the economics, feel the semantics. Swan isn't going to guarantee anything until the 2012-13 budget is actually released. The fact that he won't tie himself to a guarantee is standard practice for politicians, really. Even though it's tiresome bullshit, Scoop Maley is going to plug away at the same dry waterhole. After four paragraphs on the same non-topic I'm starting to wonder how "wide-ranging" this interview actually was.

You know that if there is a surplus in next year's budget, Jacqueline Maley will dismiss it as a political fetish rather than an economic imperative, and claim that there are accounting stunts involvd (as though no Treasurer has ever done this).
China's usually muscular manufacturing sector, which is heavily dependent on exports to Europe, this month contracted for the second consecutive month.
That's just clumsy writing. You don't have to interview Swan to get that. If you're going to quote that, however, consider how it relates to what Swan said (in that interview or elsewhere) and factors in the Australian economy dependent upon China's manufacturing sector in particular.

If you're going to interview the Treasurer, or do the Fourth Estate thing of holding pollies to account, you really need a basic understanding of economics. It's an old journosphere claim that people aren't interested in policy, but what they mean is that they can't write about it in an engaging way. Maley got an interview with the Treasurer but couldn't convey what he said except through banalities.
Mr Swan said there was no update on the asylum seeker impasse the government has been seeking to resolve through talks with the opposition ...
There is a whole story to be written on that, why aren't you writing it?
... but [Swan] refused to concede [the government] had made blunders on the issue.
Well he would, wouldn't he, especially in contrast to the unalloyed success of the Howard government's policies.

Maley didn't add much with a second story from the same interview:
But the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, said the reforms were "stupid policy"
He would say that, wouldn't he.

Why are they stupid, Jacqueline? Are there any aspects to banking reform other than mortgage exit fees? These are questions that a real journalist, rather than a space-filler, would have asked.
But Mr Hockey said Mr Swan was "clutching at straws" drawing a link between the changes and the banks passing on interest rate cuts. "You would think the acting Prime Minister would have more integrity than to lay claim to things which are unprovable," he said.
Maley lets this go unchallenged.

It would be easy to bag Hockey personally, but I won't; the Joe Hockey I knew was a person of integrity and I doubt that being Shadow Treasurer has corrupted him in any meaningful sense. It is perfectly appropriate, however, to say that Hockey's shenanigans with costing his economic policies last year does not give him any sort of 'right of reply' to Swan. Maley is being lazy in getting a quote from Swan and a countervailing quote from Hockey, and thinking that she's done her job; yet she has layer upon layer of Fairfax management (including Carney) who reinforces her in that position.

If I was Swan I'd wonder why I bothered with clowns like Maley at all. She could sit at home and write that stuff. No insight, no correlation of what pollies say with any objective reality, and cliche after cliche. She'll probably get a Walkley for that series of articles but it is the very sort of stuff that makes the mainstream media such inessential reading.

The mainstream media isn't giving us the information we need because it can't be bothered. Any slapped-together crap from Jacqueline Maley is good enough for the likes of you, and certainly doesn't cost much. In the new media environment you'll have to spend money to make money and take some time to find the information that people really need, rather than what you feel like dishing up in line with journosphere heritage and standards. The future of the media belongs to those who don't flinch at the inadequacies of the current system. Just as Qantas didn't grow out of Cobb & Co., so you'd have to bet against the journosphere getting over itself in time.

01 January 2012

Disappeared and lost

While enjoying Christmas and the Melbourne Test as much as anyone, it is more than a little strange that an issue that was absolutely burning last week is non-existent today. It'll flare up again: but I'd hoped for better from the journosphere that a story that was red hot last week, and a perennial issue in he country's politics, has pretty much vanished from public debate. The so-called newshounds of the Fourth Estate just let it slip away.

Just last week the journosphere was full of one issue: asylum seekers. There was this piece by Robert Manne (which was topped, literally and figuratively, by John Spooner's cartoon here). The ALP conference passed a policy motion by and for the Immigration Minister which bound him to do what he planned to do anyway, demonstrating the power of membership and democracy in the ALP today.

The Leader of the Opposition pledged to work all through Christmas to resolve the issue once and for all, which in his mind involved restoring all elements of the Howard Government's immigration policy from five years ago; thereby demonstrating that the Rudd-Gillard government was some sort of clerical error on the part of the voters, and the Coalition will take it from here, thanks. He put out a cheesy picture of his family over Christmas, proving to everyone but goldfish-brained journalists that he was not actually involved with asylum-seeker policy at all. There was this palpable difference between what Abbott said and what he did, and that kind of dissonance has the potential to wreck the way that the journosphere covers politics.

Abbott had insisted on conducting negotiations himself, and not allowing Scott Morrison to bind the Coalition in any way in negotiating with the government. At any other point in the history of the Liberal Party the shadow minister would have said to the leader: what are you afraid of? Do you want me to do this job or not? If you don't want me to negotiate the details of my portfolio with my soon-to-be-predecessor, why am I even in this job? Get your fucking chief of staff to do it herself if she's so toey about me doing this.

People are still risking life and treasure to come here by boat. They are not on holidays like Australian politicians and journos are, and nor are they necessarily distracted by:
  • DRS.
  • Retailers trying to establish themselves as the new farmers: Dollar's up so give us a handout. Dollar's down so give us a handout. Weather's fine so nobody's shopping, give us a handout. Weather's terrible so nobody's shopping, give us a handout. No matter what the conditions are these titans of Australian business can't make a go of it, and won't change to suit the market. The only possible answer is to dip into the revenue stream that the government uses: government can send you to prison for not giving them money, a power unavailable even to the most ferocious retail marketing campaigns.
  • The fact that Launceston has exported its typical summer to the entire country, causing climate change deniers to declare victory once and for all.
Asylum seeker policy has been a perennial issue of Australian politics, certainly in the last dozen years or so. Absent any personal financial or sexual issues on his part, immigration and racism was the dirtiest and darkest aspect of Howard's legacy. The fact that the issue went from being uppermost in the public debate to having utterly disappeared is astonishing. The media will be diminished the next time they decide to crank it up, and try and reverse-engineer what is happening with that policy behind the scenes now.
For its part, the Left has generally been unwilling to concede that as a means for deterring asylum seeker boats the Pacific Solution actually “worked”. The evidence here is straightforward. Between 1999 and the introduction of the Pacific Solution in late 2001, 12,176 asylum seekers arrived by boat. In the years of the Pacific Solution – 2002 to 2008 – 449 arrived. Since the abandonment of the Pacific Solution toward the end of 2008, 14,008 asylum seekers have reached Australian shores. Yet on the Left the meaning of these facts, for some reason, continues to be resisted. The Left’s unwillingness to acknowledge what ought to have been self-evident has been of even greater political significance in recent years than the moral callousness of the Right.
For his part, Manne assumes that asylum-seeker policy must be judged against the Right's frame of reference. It doesn't matter how many people do or don't come here. Manne ignores the push factor that propels people from their homes, communities and nations: in 2005 every country in the world (except Zimbabwe) recorded economic growth, a factor that lessens emigration.

Like most commentators Manne also ignores the economic arguments. In domestic law-and-order debates it is frequently noted that the cost of incarcerating someone for a year exceeds the cost of putting them up and a five-star hotel and sending them to university. During the Howard Government, it was frequently noted that Stalag Nauru cost over a billion dollars a year and 90% of claims were found to be legitimate. Both a government seeking a surplus net year and an opposition seeking $70b of savings from the current budget, reinstating Nauru is untenable. Why an Abbott Government would seek to reintroduce such an absurd situation is unclear, unless you accept that they lack imagination and sense and are seeking a return to 2005 above all else. Why Robert Manne gives Abbott a free pass on this is so unclear as to be bewildering; a light dusting of pox-on-both-your-houses is simply inadequate.
So far as I know no one on the Left with an interest in asylum seeker policy – and I include myself – was farsighted or independent or courageous enough to offer the incoming Rudd government advice along these lines.
Manne is a Professor of Political Science. I know for a fact that there are numerous members of the Liberal Party who have, over the years, become active in inter-party debates on this topic from that perspective. I have no doubt that the ALP and the Greens have many members who have done the equivalent in their party. The fact that Manne ignores even the possibility of such people is an astounding oversight.

Guy Rundle insists that Robert Manne is not a member of the Left at all. I was originally going to ignore this internecine squabbling but it raises a larger question: why should Manne be or feel excluded from "the Left"? Cliff Richard still insists on his membership of "the rock-n-roll fraternity" and nobody from Rammstein calls him on it. I thought "the Left" was like any other kind of faith, where espoused belief alone was sufficient for membership: in the words of Curtis Mayfield, "You don't need no baggage, you just get on board".

Rundle's piece is the better one, arguing from first principles about our obligations moral and legal. He doesn't make much of a case, however, for building a broad movement. Centrist Liberals like Judi Moylan or Russell Broadbent are part of this debate, despite he fact that either have more to show for their advocacy in terms of both achievement and personal struggle than Rundle has for his, on this or any other subject. You don't build a broad movement by just arguing your own corner and that ultimately is the limitation of this piece by Rundle and pretty much every other by him.

This excellent piece from The Politics Project makes an important point on any hope for 'a regional solution':
... asylum seekers know that the trip is dangerous. But they do it anyway. Doesn’t that tell us something about their plight? Doesn’t that tell us that these people would rather risk their lives, and the lives of their children, rather than remain indefinitely in the squalid and dangerous conditions of Malaysia or Indonesia, countries that are already poverty-stricken and cannot afford to look after their own people?

The debate is currently focused on “stemming the tide of boats”, on making the issue go away so that we, Australians, don’t have to worry about it, or feel guilty about it. Offshore processing is a way of making the issue disappear, for us. It will have absolutely no benefit for those seeking asylum; it will not help those developing countries which serve as transit zones for refugees; it will not in any way solve the issue. But it will make us feel better, and it will help our politicians to be re-elected.

We hear a lot of talk about finding “regional solutions” … to stop the boats. Not regional solutions to deal with the causes of displacement, not regional solutions to ensure that refugees have access not only to human rights protections, but also to adequate food, clean water, shelter, education and healthcare.
(I say the above is "excellent" and "important" not because it agrees with my position: it doesn't. It makes the flimsy basis for my belief in the Malaysia Solution as a first step very damn difficult.

It isn't news that the same-old-same-old has come out for another airing. It is news why the country's leading politicians can't even talk about it in a sensible way, and why those who can and do are shunted to the margins and ignored; and whether "public opinion" really does want this issue to fester like a suppurating sore on the face of the body politic. It is news that such an issue should go from red-hot to non-existent without either a solution or a circumstance that fundamentally changes the debate. If you really think that the journosphere focus on its own industry, news-as-news, is actually valid then chew on this:
  • Why has the political system failed those of us who elect it to represent us and settle political debates in policy and legislation?
  • Why has the so-called Fourth Estate devoted far more to the challenge to the Investec Loyal than to a debate that was supposedly going to go all through Christmas until it was settled?
  • Given that the politico-media complex has failed us, why is anyone surprised that interest in either party is waning, and why do so few wonder what the consequences of that disinterest will be (other than job losses)?
  • Who dares try to reframe the debate on asylum-seekers while maintaining a viable political career?
  • Who dares pursue an issue of enduring importance, and stand up to those who would reassign them to less important issues?