Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Political Philosophy

The Right and the Bill of Rights

In (yet another) back down, the Rudd Government recently abandoned its call for a bill of rights. Instead it is introducing a ‘Human Rights test’ for all legislation, leading to much rejoicing by many liberal and conservative Australians (which I’m labeling here right wing, with left wing liberals tending to support Rudd’s -original- push for a Bill of Rights as I do). Yet their joy is somewhat surprising given that the Australian Right wing tend to define themselves (rhetorically at least) by their desire to restrict the reach & power of government and encourage individual freedom. Which is exactly what a bill of rights is designed to do, hence its position at the heart of the US constitution, the most liberal document in history.

Andrew Norton helpfully tries to explain this apparent contradiction in a good post over at his blog:

In a democratic system, classical liberals will tend to be more sceptical than social democrats and the median voter of actual and proposed regulation by the state. But I don’t think this is inconsistent with believing that classical liberal freedoms should be achieved within the persuasion-based, evolutionary and open democratic system. Even within a pro-freedom perspective individual rights and freedoms can conflict – let alone all the conflicts with other values that people hold – and there is little reason to believe (as many opponents of bills of rights have argued) that courts will do a better job of deciding on the trade-offs than democratic politics.

a distinction can be drawn between an in-principle opposition to constitutionalising some rights and a tactical judgment that the bill of rights we would end up with would not support the classical liberal conception of individual freedom. I think this does help explain the lack of enthusiasm for bills of rights among classical liberals, even where they might support constitutionalising a limited list of rights or freedoms. Aided by the various UN treaties, the concept of ‘human rights’ has expanded way beyond what classical liberals have ever supported, to make them the basis for big rather than small government.

While the arguments about risking giving too much power to the courts are valid, and one should always be skeptical if modern politicians can reach the wisdom of political philosophers such as Jefferson & Adam’s, Norton’s comments still seem to me somewhat partisan. His main concern seems the content of a Rudd/Gillard(or Abbott?) introduced Bill of Rights, rather than the concept as such. That it is, had a classical liberal Prime Minister introduced a bill of rights, I expect he would be significantly more inclined to support it. Which leaves me wondering why none on the right are proposing to write their own Bill of Rights?

There’s two good reasons they should: First, if there was a right wing version on offer, the debate would shift from the rhetoric of angry partisans (like this) towards debating which principles and the specifics. A debate about how to code a protection of free speech, or whether the government can compulsory acquire private land would be a useful debate.
Second, if those on the right support the concept (as opposed to their concerns over Rudd’s specific version) then now is the time to propose an alternative. The campaign for a Coalition government to implement economic liberalism didn’t just spring from nowhere in 1996, but was pushed & argued over throughout the 1980′s and maintained until the time was right (whilst critically giving support to the ALP Government when it agreed with this approach). With Joe Hockey the likely candidate to take over the Liberal Party once they lose the upcoming election, liberals have a good chance to gain a leader who will at least listen to their views. Assuming the ALP stay in office for another two terms, by 2016 a Coalition Government could win office and pledge to implement a Bill of Rights which has been around for 5-6 years in public debate (removing the fear factor) whilst adhering to a strict ‘negative’ set of limits on government/society, rather than the more left wing desirer for positive rights to food/shelter/support etc.

I believe a Bill of Rights has a fundamental worth, that will unite people of all political philosophies across the left and right. Guaranteeing free speech, restrictions on discrimination, and basic rights of people who fall under the watch of the security apparatus of the state would help ensure that the ‘democracy of manners’ which rules Australia does so within confines that do not trample over the individual. For those of a liberal persuasion, both the Howard and Rudd governments have infringed individual freedom and shown little concern about doing so, in economic, social and security area’s. There are legitimate concerns about increasing court influence to deal with, however the High Court has already involved itself in these issues (such as ABC v Lange 1997 on free speech). A carefully constructed negative set of rights could infact help clarify what the public want, rather than allowing the much freer interpretation available today where lawyers and judges can draw on all constitutional and legislative documents.

Having an alternate proposal (while a lot of work) would increase the quality of the debate, let those on the right set the terms of what a bill of right should be (helping dispatch poor/unworkable ideas such as a right to an income) and far more than any comparison with UN treaties, let Australians debate and define the basic freedoms we as a people insist on for a good society. Given the move to presidential prime ministers, increasingly invasive technology options for the government and centralising federalism, sitting back and hoping all will be ok is not a sensible option.

The physicality of leadership

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. If Roosevelt is known for anything these days, and it’s inescapable in his book, it was his enthusiasm for the active life. He was a solider, hunter, naturalist and mountaineer, constantly pushing himself to keep going throughout life. In 1913, 5 years after leaving the White House, and aged 53 he went on a 1000km exploration charting rivers through the jungles of South America. He died some years later in part due to ill health caused by the trip, but no better marker of his identity in the publics mind can be found than the comment by the US vice president at the time that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” Roosevelt’s political and philosophical legacy isn’t that relevant anymore (though an early conservationist and he supported Health Care reform in his ‘Bull Moose’ run for the White House), but he still excites the imagination of many because, he offers a link to that original tribal idea of the leader as owed to the toughest, biggest man in the village. Yet how relevant is this idea of leadership today?
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The Big Man game: Obama, Healthcare and his Foreign Policy

One of the most long running debates in International Relations is known as the Agent/Structure Problem. It is perhaps best summed up by a famous Marx quote that “People make History, but not in conditions of their own choosing“. Which of these was more important inquiring minds wanted to know. Could great individuals through sheer strength of will and character change the globe, or do conditions need to be right not only to birth & shape the history makers, but to give them space in which to act. In short, what is more important, the agents or the structure in which they operate? This isn’t just a debate about theory, how you answer this question and your assumptions, will drive both both what, and how you study history and International Relations. In the wake of Obama’s health care victory we have to very good examples of authors disagreeing over this fundamental point:

First up Andrew Sullivan, batting for the Agent side (if that sounds a little Matrix-like to you, fear not, individuals or groups are known as ‘Agents’ in International Relations jargon)

“In Barack Obama’s agonising, year-long effort to pass universal health insurance, the latest bump in the road may seem trivial, and the president must surely hope the Indonesians don’t take it personally. At the last minute, he cancelled his trip to the place he grew up in. The visit was actually of great personal importance to him and a critical part of his message that America and a moderate Islam can and will get along.

But he also knows that his clout abroad depends on his success at home. The linkage matters. There is a connection between healthcare reform and the war on terror, and between relations with China and the entire Obama narrative…… A presidency failing at home only undermines Obama abroad. Dmitry Medvedev knows this as he negotiates with Washington over Iran; Binyamin Netanyahu knows this as he stays on the phone with Washington’s neoconservatives, who are promising that if he holds on they can destroy Obama for him; Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad know this as they assess whether they can outlast this frustrating leader of the Great Satan; the Saudis know this; China knows this”

Batting for the Structuralists is the IR specialist Stephen M. Walt

“Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no….
There isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011. Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons.”

Though Walt is correct that passing health care wont in itself solve any of these factors, I side with Sullivan. As a constructivist afterall I really should. Constructivism is an approach to International Relations which identifies how agents socially construct much of the structures they find themselves in(and in turn their own identity as agents). To take the most well known of examples (and papers) the ‘anarchy’ of the world between nation-states today is as Alexander Wendt claims what states make of it (pdf). That is, how the world is seen determines what is seen. How Obama is seen, especially by the other Big Men of the world is important to what influence and credibility he is likely to have with them. The more Obama is seen as a successful domestic leader, the better he will be as a foreign policy leader.

To cite from a local example, here is Michael Wesley in one of my favourite books ‘The Howard Paradox’:

“Over time, [John]Howard has come to enjoy the international aspect of his job. Domestically, those with whom he regularly comes in contact either owe him, resent him or want his job; internationally, he is able to mix with equals who are familiar with the challenges of national leadership, and who can offer observations and advice untainted by designs on his job. In recent years, according to one journalist, Howard has enjoyed the status of being the respected elder statesman in a region that respects seniority’
Michael Wesley, (2009) The Howard Paradox, ABC books

Wesley makes many arguments for why Howard was able to do much better than his critics alleged he would, but that last sentence is perhaps the wisest. By 2002, when his record started to shift in his favour, Howard had been in power 6 years with three highly successful election victories under his belt. To those in the region he was clearly a very capable political operator and not going anywhere soon. As other regional elders like Malaysia’s Mahathir retired, Howard came to assume one of the roles as regional elder statesman.

Obama doesn’t have the same luxury of time that Howard did. The US probably does a disservice by its Presidents by forcing an 8 year maximum, but they do start from a significantly higher platform than anyone else does. Obama, especially as a younger (and lets be honest black) president needs to stamp his international authority and quickly. Being dominant at home doesn’t change the structures that confront him internationally, but a clear legislative victory (and especially one of this magnitude) is likely to send a signal that he is a statesman to be respected and not just a lucky winner of the White House. His party will lose seats in November, but you’d have to be firming on betting that Obama will win in 2012. The message of all this to the Big Men and Women in governments around the world? This man is not weak, impatient or going anywhere. Deal with this man now, as he is only going to get better at this.

Politics is built on many things, ideas, history, geography, economics, and demographics, but it often ends with two big men in a room negotiating how all these factors go together. As Marx said, people make history.

The return of the DLP

In 1954, the ALP split for the third time in its history, with communism, or rather anti-communism being the issue. Herbert ‘doc’ Evatt was not capable of leading the Labor members at that time and he had lost the support of ALP voters after their third straight election loss. Post-war re-configurations of Australian society and a range of distorted personalities (Evatt & B.A Santamaria) combined to split the ALP and keep the party out of power for another 18 years. The Democratic Labor Party while publicly influential never amounted to much electorally or in policy terms, but in a way they represented a strong strain of Australian political thought, one that in some (less divisive) ways is making its comeback today. No chance of a split exists, but it is not hard to see similar philosophical strains within both major political parties, between their conservative wings (for the ALP the workers/union base, for the Liberals a religious upper middle class) and their liberal wings (the ALP’s inner city aspirations and the Liberals business class). Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are firmly members of their own party’s conservative classes, and indeed a longer running sub-stream of Australian Conservatism which found its clearest form in the DLP. They represent in many ways the return of the DLP.
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A Servant of Two Masters

It’s always interesting watching politicians advocate for those who they don’t agree with or in some cases even like. It’s a necessary evil in politics, but still revealing. As a budding student journalist I twice interviewed Bob McMullan, once as Shadow Treasurer under Crean, where he pushed that Crean was a good centrist leader, and once when he was a backbencher with Mark Latham his boss, where again I was told that Latham was a good centrist leader. The Latham Diaries later revealed that by this point Latham had fallen out with most of his colleagues, especially McMullan.

It’s interesting therefore to read George Brandis’ excellent piece on Tony Abbott in todays Oz. Brandis was one of the last supporters of Turnbull, and advocated last year for the Liberal Party to go in a very different direction to Abbott’s ideal, but he puts up a good defence of his new boss (Much like in 2003 when Brandis was about the only Liberal I heard mount a decent argument in parliament in defence of the soon to be ex-Governor General Peter Hollingsworth).
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The Trouble with Libertarians pt.II

Via Andrew Sullivan Have Tea Parties and Stimulus broken the bond between liberals and libertarians?

Reason.Com’s Matt Welch: Speaking only for myself, I don’t see libertarianism moving rightward, I see rightward moving libertarian. Which is to be expected, what with the whole not-having-power thing (as Kilgore points out, the Democrats’ wilderness years included such incongruities as Markos Moulitsas penning “libertarian Democrat” manifestos)….What I do care about, regardless of who’s president, is human freedom and prosperity. And I strongly and consistently suspect that when the government accumulates more power, I and everyone else (except those wielding it) have less of which I seek. Republicans diss libertarians when they’re in power, and Democrats diss libertarians when they’re in power. Their changing attitudes toward our little (albeit growing) tribe is mildly interesting, but it’s about as newsworthy (and painful) as a dog biting a chew toy.

Of course it doesn’t seem as if Liberals and Libertarians ever had a real world political alliance (as economic liberals and social conservatives had), but it is unfortunate if major participants seem to be giving up on an idea of closer and more empathetic discussions between those of these two philosophies, given the significant mutual benefit that is possible and the over-riding consensus on the end outcome: Expanding Freedom.
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Balance and Progress: The Philosophy of Avatar


I’d previously ignored all the hype and pre-story about Avatar, however one piece I had seen was Miranda Devine’s claim that the ingenious blue humanoid Na’vis philosophy of balance (as against the company’s push for change & development) makes it a lefty film. Watching the movie this weekend I came away finding myself both often rooting for the Company against the Na’vi and of the view that if any political philosophy is to be found within it, Avatar is a deeply conservative movie. To illustrate this, I want to replace the usual left/right divide and propose a slightly more pejorative version: Up, Balance, Down. See the chart on the right (Apologies I only have MS Paint to hand)

The Up Agenda:
Taking Darwin’s Origin of Species as a guiding light, Upward political philosophies see nature as inherently amoral and hostile, with relief only possible through development, change and progress. This means a certain willingness to deliberately shape both human and natural environments as an aid to larger goals. Economic theories which have political currency take this path given their focus on increased prosperity, either in an opportunity sense (capitalism) or an outcome sense (communism). Liberalism, with its strong views of what an ideal society ought to look like, regularly strives for progressive change, as does a nationalistic platform which sees future prestige/power for the nation (like building up a big army & using it).
Reaching its height in the Enlightenment and the triumph of reason, these political philosophies argue that deliberate action can shape naturally found environments for the better. Of course not all paths are equal, liberals reject communist reasoning and aims and vice versa. None of these philosophies would justify the abuse suffered either here on earth by the environment/native populations or the deliberate destruction of the Na’vi’s homeland, but finding themselves in an environment which is far far less welcoming that found on Pandora (more on that later) the only true means of survival of the species is development. Comparing current living standards to previous ages seems to emphatically support the case, such as our increased ability to withstand natural disasters, disease, and have enough resources to ensure re-population and growth. Of course there are always unintended consequences, of which global warming is as good an example as possible. And this, the Balance agenda would charge is the problem with Up philosophies.

The Balance Agenda
At the heart of the Na’vis world view in Avatar is a belief of all things in balance. Cameron cheats here, by making the spiritual link with nature of indigenous earth bound human populations a biological reality, via the tendrils at the end of their hair, and shown most directly in the attempt to switch humans into the bodies of the Navi at the Spirit Tree. Man and nature are one. At heart of a balance philosophy the view that nature (both environmental and human) automatically produces a stable and sustainable environment, so long as we don’t interfere too greatly. A belief in god is often important here as a deliberate balancing agent(either as creator or tweaker), however it is not necessary.
Devine and co-charge this represents a green left agenda, seeking to maintain the environment, but it is also a deeply conservative agenda too. Both environmentally (as UK Tory leader David Cameron and blogger Andrew Sullivan endorse, and Tony Abbott seemed to claim in his recent speech) and socially as a defence of the status quo. Of course sometimes positive action needs to be taken to maintain the strength of pre-existing institutions and social structures. Social Democrats often take this line, arguing that only with a decent welfare system and adding legislation to protect and stabilise during difficult periods (ie minimum wage/maternity leave), we can achieve a better equilibrium. Having effectively achieved that mix by the mid-20th century, their focus has been balance ever since. Conservatism is at times embued with a spirit of progress, such as its embrace if not recent subservience to capitalism, just as the green left are often socially liberal in a way social democrats are not. But overall, none of these political theories seek radical social-restructure, rather action to protect the critical elements of the status quo in both nature and the environment. Even facing a threat like Global Warming, the Green Left still largely seeks to maintain society as is, just made side changes (like switching depleting fuel sources for sustainable ones). Even their railing against capitalism and growth (see as Clive Hamiltons work) is to seek a better stability across society.

The Down Agenda
Rarely seen, some political philosophies do in fact advocate a regressive turn. The best recent example is the Taliban in Afghanistan who steadily returned women into the home, reduced the role of education, science and tools of entertainment (even so far as banning kites), all in the name of seeking an idealised former past (whose historical existence is often doubtful). As Karen Armgstrong shows in ‘The Battle for God’, this is a common move of rebels within all three of the major monotheistic religions, but it need not necessarily be religiously driven. It combines both a belief in an earlier balanced time period, with a reason/religious drive to re-shape the environment to the ideal.

Fascism, such as the Nazis of Germany is also driven by views of a mytholigised past of Aryan domination. Hence they sought to re-take the ‘homeland’ of old, change social mores, and remove those parts of the population which challenged that stability (intellectuals, gypsies, gays, jews etc). It was this idea of a regressive return to ancient village life which seems to have most enticed the philosopher martin Heidegger, though ironically, the Nazi’s combined this with the most modern technology of warfare and industrialization as the tools for implementation.

(This is obviously a rough and quibbable dissection. Capitalism after all is represented as a natural phenomena by its supporters, and hence best left to its own devices to seek equlibrium. However, that’s really only the case theoretically rather than practically, and even Adam Smith saw the need for a human hand at work to keep the mechanism functioning properly (such as the removal of monopolies and establishment of law and order). It is also subverted as countries endorse capitalism largely for its prosperity benefits rather than it’s potential for equilibrium or justice. I’m happy to hear any arguments about placings/other political philosophies I’ve left out in the comments)


When thinking about this during the movie, I found myself often quite sympathetic to the Company. Cameron has to venture into the realms of science fiction to make the Na’vi’s philosophy of balance/connection to nature a physical reality, careful never to show disease or suffering which they must in fact suffer far greater than any modern western citizen (notice that the oldest Na’vi is no more than about 50). Here on earth, I see no evidence that such balance is to be found. We may well be the only tiny rock in an unimaginably big universe which sustains life. Everywhere else, like Mars where it may once have survived, it’s now long dead.The planet earth as we know it was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. First life did not emerge in the broiling seas until at least a billion years later, with what we know as life, ie multi-cellular organisms over 3 billion years later. Human existence can be credibly stretched back to 200’000 years. Even today with all our development and knowledge, nature still daily tries to kill us. Haiti, China, Pakistan have all suffered recent earthquakes, The Pacific and South East Asia Tsunami’s, most of the world see’s floods regularly, with many area’s copping tornado’s & hurricanes too. Not to mention diseases, accidents, wild animals, droughts, storms, etc. As little as we know, asteroids the size of cities could be streaming directly towards this earth, certain to snuff out all life with them, they’ve hit before, and we wouldn’t know until too late, and with no sensible options for saving ourselves. What comforts we have gained (steady access to shelter & food) are because humans have changed the world to suit our needs. For every flourishing of nature in one area, another is too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet to sustain humanity. Hell over 70% of the planet is covered by seas which are largely lethal to us, and certainly cant be lived in (without significant developments such as building submarines, underwater structures).

As a progressive, I think the idea of balance is a myth. That doesn’t mean that life or the environment in all it’s myriad ways is worthless. In fact it makes it far far more worthy, because it is so rare and unique that any life has managed to survive. There is no way that the Company should be allowed to destroy such a resource as they do in the moview. But unlike the Na’vi, the green left, conservatives, I don’t believe that only careful management can ensure the survival of our species. It is either up or out. The Na’vi’s life is not a viable model of existence. Unlike the regressives, I don’t believe that humanities best days have already come and gone. I believe that with careful, humble reason, based on as careful a study and knowledge of nature in all its glories and threats, we can improve society, both human and natural and eek out a survival. Devine ought to take a second look at the movie, it’s got a very conservative philosophy at heart. Even Cameron has to cheat to achieve it.

Abbott boxed in by climate change rhetoric

Pollution_Factory There is a tendency when it comes to political rhetoric to always go nuclear. To deploy the most strident, attacking, and damaging language you can to label an opponents position or policy. And no word has more power today than ‘Tax’.

Case-in-point: In the US 2008 election, the Republicans attacked Obama for ‘palling around with terrorists’ and saw no electoral traction. Yet when they caught him saying he wanted to ‘spread the wealth’ to Joe the Plumber, their spirits soared. It didn’t help their cause that Obama had a tax cut for about 95% of the country, yet McCain still devoted almost the entire second Presidential debate to claiming Obama wanted to raise people’s taxes, causing a few wobbles from Obama’s campaign.

While there was certainly a strong case for Tax Cuts in the 80′s & 90s, today when there isn’t much fat left on the revenue side of the budget, the social stigma applied to the word is impeding our political debate. Of course this criticism has been mounted before by social democrats who want to spend more on infrastructure or key social services, but it’s also damaging the way Liberals and Conservatives develop their policies too.

A few months ago when The Nationals were the only party against the ETS in principle, Barnaby Joyce took the obvious rhetorical step of calling it an ‘Emissions Tax Scheme’ (clever guy huh). As the vote got closer, he increased the volume calling it a ‘massive tax on everything’. A theme picked up by a number of other opponents of the scheme, and instantly adopted by Tony Abbott when he took over as Coalition leader and defeated the Governments’ policy. This was not the only rhetorical attack on offer against the governments CPRS (it could also be called complex, confusing, ineffective, counter-productive, special-interest laden, bureaucratic etc etc) however “Tax” was the leading punch. To Abbott’s reckoning he had given the Government a black eye (a defeated policy), a cruel new nickname (big taxer) and was now the hero who had saved the people from a major tax. Only, and annoying for him, the people still want something to be done. However, nothing that looks or sounds like a tax can possibly be advocated by the Coalition, leaving very few options available.

If Abbott had avoided dropping the Tax bomb on the governments scheme (and he did not need to do so to have it voted down the bill) he could have offered a much simpler and attractive scheme: A Carbon Tax.

By Jeremy Hansen in the NYT (Who Paul Krugman calls “a great climate scientist. …the first to warn about the climate crisis”)

‘Under this approach, a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas). The fee would be uniform, a certain number of dollars per ton of carbon dioxide in the fuel. The public would not directly pay any fee, but the price of goods would rise in proportion to how much carbon-emitting fuel is used in their production.

All of the collected fees would then be distributed to the public. Prudent people would use their dividend wisely, adjusting their lifestyle, choice of vehicle and so on. Those who do better than average in choosing less-polluting goods would receive more in the dividend than they pay in added costs.

For example, when the fee reached $115 per ton of carbon dioxide it would add $1 per gallon to the price of gasoline and 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour to the price of electricity. Given the amount of oil, gas and coal used in the United States in 2007, that carbon fee would yield about $600 billion per year. The resulting dividend for each adult American would be as much as $3,000 per year. As the fee rose, tipping points would be reached at which various carbon-free energies and carbon-saving technologies would become cheaper than fossil fuels plus their fees. As time goes on, fossil fuel use would collapse’….

Emissions Trading Schemes were preferred because they let governments set a limit on emissions which can be reduced over time, giving assured levels of pollution reduction. Carbon Taxes are more elusive in this area, but the same logic of a rising price = less use of carbon emitting fuels/products/technology applies. This offers a wiggle room would perfectly suit a coalition party which both wants to look serious on the issue, but doesn’t want to be too tied into international deals and wants to be able to regulate Australia’s actions in line with economic circumstances.

Carbon Taxes have the advantages of being more economically efficient, and ‘just’ in a Liberal sense of being applied equally across the population. While small refunds could be applied to some industries (such as agriculture), it likely wouldn’t be the hodgepodge of deals and allowances & exceptions that the Government has set up with its ETS (which for the Greens make it now useless). And given that a carbon tax would reward individuals who act positively to reduce their own carbon footprints, it would also be in line with the parties preference for individual responsibility and reward. Not only that, but the Coalition could even piggyback some of the potency of the tax argument, by offering to sharply reduce all income taxes in line with the CO2 taxes. Just like the GST, not all taxes are equal, and given the public demand for action, this would be strongly in line with their past actions.

Finally, if they chose to keep back just a small part of that revenue, it could be invested in what is perhaps the real and only solution to climate change: better technology. This was an argument John Howard made consistently during his final years in office, and one the Coalition could pick up and run with. Australia has the minds, the education system, and the incentives to be the ones who create the next big breakthrough that fundamentally changes how we create and use energy. We’re doing it already, but with a big injection of funds imagine what we could create, what industries would come to call Australia home, what economic returns await us.

Of course Carbon Taxes are not a new idea, and I think Paul Krugman is somewhat right that having spent so long building up a Cap&Trade system, to throw it away and start down a different path just means too many delays to accept. But it’s worth noting again, how the rhetoric we use in one area, deamonising all taxation as bad harmful policy, if not outright ‘theft’ has left Conservatives (and many liberals) unable to offer sensible alternative policies in other areas. A Carbon Tax might not be considered as effective environmentally as an ETS, but it’s just as effective (if not more-so) politically for the Coalition. But it’s now off limits.

Instead, because Abbott accepted the rhetorical framework of calling a market based system a tax (thereby ruling out both) he is left with prescious little other than Command-and-Control type regulations. Not only does this also run up against 30 years of liberal and conservative economic thinking in Australia, it may well be at least twice as expensive(p152) if not even more so. But Abbott has no real options left if he wants to propose a policy that at least looks serious.

As Al Gore has said, what is ideally needed is to ensure we “tax what we burn, not what we earn”. Gore is another who has long supported a carbon tax. If the Copenhagen Summit succeeds, then to cap and trades we must committ. But if it fails, if it is all smiling handshakes with no commitment behind them, then a Carbon tax is an alternative we need to have a serious debate about.
If only we could get over the rhetorical stigma of the word ‘Tax’.

(Incidentally, this is why I like the Constructivist approach in International Relations. Everyone wants to be a ‘realist’ about the world and how to respond to it, but when you mentally close off avenues through certain rhetoric, then your options can be utterly distorted, even harming your own interests.)

For a more details explanation of Carbon Tax (and fully sourced), I recommend having a look at this testimony to the US Senate by Ted Gaynor of the Brookings Institute

Veto players

Over the last few weeks I’ve surprised a few australian readers by saying that Obama will get his healthcare bills through. Right now that still looks the case, but it’s taken a big wobbly in the last 48 hours with Independent senator (and former Democratic VP nominee) Joe Lieberman saying he will filibuster any bill with a public option included (that is prevent it being voted on). It’s pretty unlikely that Lieberman will be coaxed back from this threat (he isn’t a democrat anymore, and even after supprting McCain over Obama, was allowed to keep his chairmanships of key committees), so now seems likely the Public Option will be sacrificed to the gods of the double demons of Debt and Taxes (despite the fact a public option won’t need tax increases and will decrease the debt)

King George III (1760-1820) still causing americans grief after all these years

King George III (1760-1820) still causing Americans grief after all these years

Either way, healthcare once again proves a very good example of Fareed Zakaria’s argument that the biggest challenge facing the US isn’t economic or cultural, but political. It desperately needs to reform its political system if it is to compete in the 21st century. The US founding fathers were geniuses for their time, but they were fleeing the power of a single individual who ruled the state. So in response they created a system with as many blocks and hold ups to passing legislation as possible. Those who occupy such positions are known as veto players. Of course the President is one, as are the Supreme Court, but given the quirks of the US legislators, majority and house leaders, and the committees, there are many many such players in the American system, any one of which can damage or subvert important legislation. This is unlike Westminster systems in the UK/Aus where there are usually only 2 (PM & GG/Queen/rare actual balance of power holding indpendents)

Today the Democrats hold the White House, Congress and the Senate, with strong public support for their legislation. Yet they can’t enact a bill that will lower the debt, free US businesses of crushing health premiums and give coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans, because of a handful of individuals. Because of changes in practice, every bill now needs a super-majority of 60/100 to pass the US senate. These suddenly powerful individuals have all (unlike the President/without the legal guide of the Courts) been elected by a tiny segment of the population, and know the power of name recognition, regional contacts and money can guarantee their re-election however they vote.

The US system is suffering under the weight of its own history. I certainly don’t think Obama has all the right ideas, or that opponents should just shut up and get out of the way. There are many other good alternative models to seek, or even a return to historic uses of veto’s (such as keeping filibusters rare) would be a strong development. But in a globalised world, where challenges like the GFC can strike with frightening speed, governments need to be nimble enough to respond quickly. The US system, because of the historical era it was built in response to is proving unworkable in the modern era. During the last 100 years parliamentary systems have generally proven vastly superior in raining in the scope of the President to dominate the legislature, now they are proving better in responding quickly to the challenges of the day. Quick policy* is not necessarily bad policy, and we need legislative systems capable of making timely, informed decisions in order to respond.

* Progressive in the US have been trying to push through universal health care since FDR in the 1930′s and utterly failed to get anywhere under Clinton. The US under Obama has been debating health care almost exclusively since March. Nothing about this is quick. Which is kind of my point.

Liberalism in 21st Century Australia

Brandis_speech Thanks to the Australian, we have full access to Senator George Brandis’s excellent speech “We Believe: The Liberal Party and the liberal cause”, delivered at the 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture in Melbourne on the 22nd October.

Though I urge you to go read the full speech, Brandis is perhaps at his best when he takes aim at the way liberalism was mishandled under John Howard:

John Howard did not see the Liberal Party as simply the custodian of the liberal cause. For Howard, it was as much a conservative party as a liberal party – indeed, with the passage of time, rather more the former than the latter….Now Deakin would never have said that, and Menzies never did. The “two traditions” theory was a specific contribution of John Howard’s. In diminishing the centrality of liberalism to the Liberal Party’s belief system, and balancing it against conservatism; in qualifying the Liberal Party’s commitment to the freedom of the individual as its core value, and weighing it against what he often called social cohesion, Howard made a profound departure from the tradition of Deakin and Menzies.

Brandis goes to great lengths to show the critical importance of liberalism to Deakin and Menzies. However, while philosophically he is right, these two men both made the same practical choice of binding their liberal instinct into a general anti-labor party that created Howard’s broad church approach. In many ways, both Brandis and Howard are right. By 1909 Deakin, wearied and bloodied after a decade leading the continent realised that his middle liberal way was being trampled by the adolescent labor party, and the aristocratic conservatives. His personal philosophy was much closer to Labor, but he could not abide their caucus control, and so chose to make peace with the conservatives and form a party ‘Fusion’ between the two anti-labor forces. This was a practical choice to ensure the survival of his MP’s, but sacrificing the dominant position of liberalism on the Anti-labor side to a more generic mix. Menzies likewise made a similar choice, knowing that a coalition was the only way to ensure they could keep Labor from power. It is this practical history that Howard claims informs the modern liberal party. Yet the Liberal party would be nothing if it was stripped of its liberal elements. Even Tony Abbott in his conservative manifesto ‘Battlelines’ can’t help himself from repeating many liberal ideas without seeming to notice the contradictions to his professed conservatism. Liberalism is the parties soul, it is as Brandis argues, the cause of its proud history

In every age, whenever liberalism and conservatism have come into contention, the victory of liberalism has enlarged the freedom of the individual, which later generations of conservatives have then joined with them in striving to defend. But every time, it was the liberals who were the animating spirit.

No fair analyst of the Liberal party could disagree with this claim. Menzies may have held onto power a long time in part due to conservative scaremongering, but winning power is not the same as using it, and Menzies books (Afternoon Light, Speech is of Time, Measure of the Years) all play up and look back favorably on his liberal actions, guiltily ignoring his more conservative indulgences* in the name of electoral success. Menzies is also an interesting liberal due to his rather Millian take on why freedom is important. Modern Liberals seem to see freedom as an end in itself, and while it is, Liberalism has a second reason for wanting as much individual freedom as possible. From the grandfather of Liberalism, J.S. Mill (again via Brandis’s speech)

“It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation

That is, freedom’s greatest reward is that it enables individuals to improve and develop themselves, to build their talents and skills, to flesh out and give style to their character. To become who they are, rather than who society might like them to be. It’s also a very powerful political message to the newest voting block: Gen-Y. As Possum Pollytics has detailed, Gen-Y is a quickly rising block that the Liberal party absolutely fails at marketing its message to. But if it was to recast its commitment to freedom as one based on allowing ambitious individuals, or creative individuals the space and opportunity to make of their own lives what they want (rather than being seen as just a stuffy desire to make life easier for businesses), then it could have great appeal to this group. Many of my friends, all solid labor voters looked anew at the party of Malcolm Turnbull when he took the leadership. They saw great appeal in his personal story of achievement, and waited to be given a reason to vote for him. Thus far, they havn’t seen anything like it, and are growing disillusioned. This is an argument Howard could never make, but Turnbull can. Freedom has always been re-defined by every era. In the 80′s it was to liberate societies from protectionism and welfare traps. Today it must be for individualism and towards human flourishing in our newly minted modern societies. This is not some new age spiritualism, it is an honest, humane and civillised approach to mankind, to quote Menzies who whilst Prime Minister wrote that:

“Without minds that are informed, toughened by exercise, broadened by enquiry and fearless in pursuing the truth wherever it may lead, we may never hope to have spirits untrammeled by blinding ignorance or distorting prejudice. And without free minds and free spirits our boasted civic freedoms becomes an empty shell” (Menzies 1958 page 218)

I want to end by quoting Hayek’s ‘why I am not a conservative’ which Brandis also quotes extensively. However while this line is used by Brandis and Hayek to attack conservatism, I think it is actually much more relevant for liberalism today:

…Let me … state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

I’ve often come to see Liberalism as akin to a shark, if it stops moving it suffocates. Liberalism today has been forced to become the defender of the status quo (or been taken in directions it is uncomfortable with as a tool of the wealthy and powerful), and in this backward looking, reactive stance it is an easy target. Until it can pivot onto a forward looking position, its calls for freedom will float past listeners ears unheard. While there is important work to be done reviving the history of liberalism, such as its importance to Deakin and Menzies and Australian history (i’ve always seen this country as a Republican-Liberal hybrid far more than the Libertarian-Liberalism that dominates the US, or the incremental Liberal-Traditionalism of the UK), its return to power is dependent upon a coherent, bold policy agenda. Such an agenda would need only 5-6 key policy changes. To be argued at every meeting, before every microphone, in every publication and household. It might look something like this

1. Reform welfare state – End churn of middle class welfare, significant cuts to tax cut, especially for poor.
2. Allow Euthanasia and full marriage equality.
3. End the war on drugs beginning with legalising marijuana and decriminalising use of others.
4. Make competition policy a priority. Break the clasp of the big end on town on the direction of economic liberalism.
5. Commit to transparent modern governance. Publish as much as possible online, have ombudsman to ensure population can see who gets what and when in every bill, every department, every budget handout.
6. Make ensuring privacy for individuals a key concern.

The exact nature or order of these policies is not important. What is important is having a clear, future driven platform to identify with modern liberalism in Australia. Liberals need to return to defining themselves, rather than as currently letting others define them (such as Prime Minister Rudd’s essay on Neoliberalism). Many elements will be contentious, some are 20+ years away from implementation, but the argument needs to be taken up and begun today. The clearer and shorter the case, the easier it will be to sell and settle into the minds of the voting public as an identifying feature. Only with such a clear image can it regain its rightful place as the “animating spirit” of modern societies, and lay claim to ownership of the 21st century as it has the 20th. The only way to prevent Liberalism sinking into status-quo stance inimical to conservatism is to give it a forward objective. Just as individuals are either on the up or the out, such a humanistic philosophy as liberalism must seek ever greater mountains to climb if it is to remain relevant. There are so many challenges still to be addressed.

* I don’t believe Menzies fits either a liberal or conservative approach, but unfortunately I can’t say why until i finish an academic paper I’m writing on the topic. Look for an announcement here in coming months about it. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I have to be until it’s published.

Market State ? How about My State?

Over at The Interpreter Sam Roggeveen and Hugh White have been discussing their views on the work of Phillip Bobbitt, author of ‘The Shield of Achilles‘ (on the 1914-1990 war between Parliamentary Democracy and Fascism/Communism) and ‘Terror and Consent‘ (on fighting in an era of globalised Terrorism).
world_marble
Both are important books, and worth reading, though as Sam notes difficult to finish without perseverance. There are moments of brilliance in each. Bobbitt is very good at noting the importance of structure to the actions of agents, both of the state (from city states to Market states) and its challenges (from pirates to terrorists). But as Hugh White notes, it’s sometimes too easy to grant a predictability to established structures. Yet if anything I don’t think that White goes far enough, in that he still talks of states reacting to circumstances, rather than the other challenge that Bobbitt’s Market State idea seems to introduce (though he leaves it aside), that states functions may be outsourced to economic institutions and so reduced from geographic structures to metaphysical identities. If we are entering a period where the states role is less protection, but more about providing opportunities, then why should the place I seek identity from and within, be the same place that gives me economic opportunities?

With economics destined to be handled at the continental (witness the EU/NAFTA) or perhaps even global level, individuals are freed to move, shape and argue for much clearer and more delineated cultural, ethnic and social re-organisation. Rather than the era of enlightened cosmopolitanism capitalists hope for, but rather one where as economic trans-national groupings grow in size and compete, with citizens seeking to join those with the best opportunities, the identity groups we attach ourselves can safely shrink without sacrificing wealth.

Until now, the greatest peril any group seeking homogeneity faced was how to provide for itself. Most groups have dealt with this via the practice of slavery, explicitly in Ancient Athens, implicitly under the Third Reich. But with this outsourced (and assuming hostility between identities remains low) groups can successfully exclude and restrict as pleases them.Why stay in a conservative area when the same jobs are on offer in a liberal one? Why stay in a area where you are a minority than in an area where you are part of the group. Indeed why even share a group with anyone at all unlike you. We will increasingly see people say they are economically citizens of the EU, but identity wise from a very very specific location, or ethnic basis, or even political background, that admits no diversity within.

One interesting term that has been thrown around in International Relations theory papers is that of Neo-Medievalism. Popularised by the great Australian academic Hedley Bull, the changing nature of states suggests a revival of competing lines of authority compared to the clear supreme state sovereignty we have been used to since the mid 17th century. In the Medieval period before this time, the states (as they existed) were content to regularly invade each other on questions of identity (either to convert, or to reclaim isolated fellow believers), and there were multiple sources of authority claiming ownership of the peasants, with Fiefdoms, Monarchies, Churches and Tribal/Ethnic leaders all demanding allegiance. This began to be reduced to just one overarching source with the rise of the modern nation state, which reached its logical conclusion in Fascism with the state being responsible for every single element of social organisation in peoples lives, and even the choice of which of those they would join or be excluded from. Modern democracies par the state back somewhat, but with the rise of international organisations and economic regional groupings, there is a re-emerging overlapping of authority facing individuals. And with that comes reduced group loyalty, or multiple group loyalty. Except where early history relied only on humans natural inclination to differentiate ourselves into groups, the rise of democracy and the idea of self-determination has transformed that desire into a god given right.

The idea of self-determination was by far the most powerful idea of the 20th century. It is one of humanity’s greatest, and also one of our most dangerous. It was necessary to help throw off the colonizers, and integral to the spread of democracy, but it also gives every identifiable group in the world a moral check to be cashed in whenever they want. We are now up to 192 nations and growing. But these are somewhat limited as each of these new states needs economic stability or control of important resources in order to be viable. But as the economic blocks to which we belong grow, there emerges the possibility that identity groups can and will shrink. They will be able to exclude because far less mutual dependence is needed. And so if anything whilst we are breaking down the restrictive walls of the geographic state we are likely to become far more closely tied to the metaphysical binds of identity (however constructed, based on physical or mental differences).

Bobbitt doesn’t walk down this path, in ‘Terror and Consent’ his focus is on the more immediate concern to help preserve states during this transition period from the inevitable backlash each era produces. But if the Market State is the future, or at least we will come to see state membership as akin to a commercial deal, then the pressures to make identity groups much more exclusive will similarly grow. The implications and risk of this are vast and confronting, but we must face them head on. It is pretty hard to argue against the idea that the Kurds or Uighur don’t deserve an independent say over their own affairs, but what about when it is a group of evangelicals, or homosexuals, or conservatives who then want their own area, whilst still remaining fully participating members of the greater regional economic groupings.

Photo used under a Creative Commons licence by user j / f / photos

Why is Libertarianism so unpopular ?

If you take a regular gander at libertarian voices in this country, you often find they arn’t a very happy bunch. Despite thirty years of economic reform running almost entirely in their direction, they always have a nervous skittishness about any sign of backtracking, with frequent prophetic warnings about imminent economic doom. A large part of this is based on the widespread recognition that libertarian and indeed free market ideas arn’t actually that popular in most countries in the world. What better demonstration could there be than the 2007 dumping of the Howard Government for its support for WorkChoices, or the public embrace of Rudd and his heavy spending on health and education (the two area’s which always lead public opinion polls in terms of focus area’s over tax, security or immigration). The Liberal Democratic Party, the closest to a Libertarian party in this country, receives well under 1% of the vote

Yet Libertarian views have four significant advantages:

1) They advocate more freedom: Whatever minor philosophical differences there are, Libertarians can generally be identified as favouring social and economic freedom. Of course in individual circumstances there are debates about the consequences and the like (ie drugs, abortion, fireworks), but in general being identified as being in favour of such a key western value is of tremendous value. Conservatives have spent 30 years grasping for that mantle, and only sometimes succeed in getting anywhere near it.

2) They play to people’s self interest. Despite the obvious flaw in this reasoning, most people think they are above average, and would like a little more of their own tax dollars. Now while this can certainly be over-sold, (and the strongest vote against workchoices came from those not affected by it) this is a pretty good platform from which to appeal to people. Instead of having to make a moral or ethical case about caring for the ‘other’ as social democrats do (witness Obama’s struggle for health care in the US), Libertarians can appeal to your personal sense of competence, capability and resilience. You should choose who your doctor is, where your kids go to school, how to spend your money, etc etc. Most people seem to recognise that the common wealth benefits us all, but still see themselves as seperate from and more capable than most they run into. Libertarians get to play to this, with a clear set of policy proposals that have a logic of their own (you make it, you keep it) rather than the re-distributionism of the big government advocates (we’ll give you more in handouts).

3) It seems to work: After thirty years of general movement towards free market policies we have western societies that sit on the right side of ‘History’, have seen significant growth in GDP, disposable income, attainable products and services, quality of life, brought over a billion people out of poverty, and had few of the claimed major consequences of opponents rhetoric. Sure, the welfare state and very slow changes have been there to buffet the winds of change, and markets clearly don’t work in some areas (defence, health, education) in the way they work in others (ie need some public input to achieve outcomes), but we have reduced taxes, sold off assets, and deregulated our markets for great public benefit. Yet the favoritism for free trade and libertarianism doesn’t seem to have significantly budged despite these successes.

4) And most importantly: They are the natural party of wealth in our society. Money has always had and always will have a significant influence in democratic societies. Indeed most of the big fights that lead to democracy in the west have been centered around the wealthy trying to exert their influence (the original kings councils that ushered in the parliamentary system in Britain) and to protect that wealth from undue government control (the US ‘no taxation without representation revolution). Elections are very expensive businesses and while money usually follows power (meaning the major parties abilities to enact current changes will drive corporate interest), most businesses, entrepreneurs or wealthy agents in society would also be very sympathetic to those proposing less regulation, less taxation and an outsourced, reduced government.
The Australian Labor party is one of the most successful left wing parties in the west precisely because their union beginning and links gave them a financial base to compete with the big money interests who supported the conservatives. But given the Conservatives in Australia have only a half-hearted endorsement of free market and libertarian ideals (at the same time as introducing WorkChoices, Howard was presiding over the highest level of Government welfare spending in this country’s history), it is a wonder that business elements, especially those trying to challenge the status quo of a particular market, or those so sure of their capability in a particular arena dont try and pull the Conservatives towards the Libertarian side of the dial with strategic donations.

Despite these three great advantages, appealing to individual desire for freedom, individual self-interest and the natural alliance with the moneyed interests in a country, it is a wonder why Libertarian voices havn’t done that well. Perhaps the main reason I can see is that Libertarians have usually been unable to even agree to enter the political debate, and as such have little to no public face. Without a professional effort at public advocacy, what arguments are made for Libertarian views are usually either pitched as high economics or simplistic scare stories. Indeed whilst I am often very sympathetic with their overall ideals, and spend a fair bit of time reading libertarian literature and chatting with them, I so often feel somewhat talked down to. The answer is usually so obvious to them that your greed or ignorance seems the only reason you don’t fall to your knees and accept their wisdom.
Likewise, when presented to much of the general public, Libertarian views are seen to be representative of greed and avarice, while they see the economics and logic of their positions both more just and more likely to benefit the disadvantaged. (On that there is some scope for debate, but it’s defendable, and certainly shouldn’t be as dismissed as it currently is). Finally, both for reasons of ideology, and because of the reception that the ideology has recieved, there is a quite clear distrust if not contempt for democracy amongst a clear minority of Libertarians that then slows or even damages efforts to promote their ideas to the public.

So why then is Libertarianism such a disregarded and discredited ideology in Australia, indeed in the world?

Cloudy Day Thoughts

A rainy, dark Sunday afternoon seems a perfect time to make a post and point I’ve been meaning to address for a while: Euthanasia should be legal.

Actually i’ll go further, the very fact that it is not, is the ultimate constraint on freedom in the modern world. More than the restriction of drugs, the prohibition of homosexuals from marriage, or the tax paid by each of us. By making Euthanasia illegal, we are day after day agreeing to the proposition that Government has the right to control our bodies even as we exit this world. It is morally no different to giving government the right to choose when and how each of us are born, and must be removed from our laws and protected in our constitution.

The damage which this law does daily can be no better seen than through a recent court case:

In a landmark decision, Western Australia’s chief judge Wayne Martin said the Brightwater Care Group would not be criminally responsible if it stopped feeding and hydrating severely paralysed Christian Rossiter, 49. Martin said Rossiter had the right to direct his own treatment, and that food and water “should not be administered against his wishes”.The ruling sets a legal precedent in Australia, where assisting someone to take their own life is a crime punishable by life in prison in some states

The judge found Rossiter was not terminally ill or dying and had the mental capacity to make an informed decision about stopping his treatment. Martin ordered that medical staff fully explain to Rossiter the consequences of ceasing nutrition and hydration through a tube into his stomach. In a statement read to the court Friday, the former stockbroker and outdoor adventurer said he was unable to undertake the most basic of human functions. “I am unable to blow my nose,” he said. “I am unable to wipe the tears from my eyes.”He made a public plea last week to be allowed to end his suffering, which he described as a “living hell”.

“I’m Christian Rossiter and I’d like to die. I am a prisoner in my own body. I can’t move,” he told reporters.

So long as Euthanasia is illegal we are as a society accepting the jail of the human body, as appropriate for the enslavement of the human spirit. We punish and decry those who act to imprison a fellow member of society, be it their family members or a random stranger. But when an individuals own body becomes that coffin, far more effective and painfully than anything man could think up, we witness governments and ‘moral’ societies lining up around the world to demand that individual endures and suffers as long as is physically possible. When nature makes the body a prison, we have somehow come to see it as moral to become its prison guards.

Rossiter’s case captures the horns of the dilemma for a society which grants the individual only partial authority over their body. We already accept that individuals can reject medical treatment. Your doctor can’t force you to take your flu tablets, your dentist can’t fill that cavity without your consent, no one can stop teenager boys breaking their arms by riding skateboards, and for those with religious objections (such as Jehovah Witnesses with Blood Transfusions) we will let people choose their type of treatment. Rossiter won on similar grounds, he is able to choose to reject a certain treatment (forced feeding) but is not allowed to choose an alternative treatment (assisted suicide).

And so he will starve to death. Slowly, painfully and with the tools for his desired release within meters of him but untouchable due to the law.

Death is of course a scary thing, and addressing the fear that Euthanasia will be used in a utilitarian or bureaucratic means to simply end the life of the disabled or elderly is central to changing the law. In the USA at the moment, critical health care reform is being dragged down with the suggestion (courtesy of the now unemployed Sarah Palin) that unproductive, disabled, poor or elderly members of society would face ‘death panels’ a claim which even the cowardly lion of the NYT has called ‘false’. That such an idea could gain leverage whilst plainly unrelated to the actual legislation on the table demonstrates the widespread social concerns and challenges that overcoming this great bondage on individuals would require in the real fight. The great unspoken fear is of course the return of society and government having control over life in the practice eugenics, as was seen in western society as recently as the 1920′s, and practiced under the Nazis regime (China and India’s overwhelmingly male next generation also suggests similar practices at work). And yet if we really were incapable of avoiding the past’s crimes, then no society at all would be possible. All democracy would become tyranny, all authority abused, all prejudices encouraged, all freedom revoked. And yet whilst relapse is always possible, that is plainly not the experience of human kind. Over the last 400 years much of humanity has come to fall within the bounds of the rule of law, directed at the protection of the individual, with the rest eager to catch up. In such tight confines and with oversight, what is proposed is as far from the social control of totalitarian regimes as is possible. For euthanasia is worthy only, i repeat only as a means of freeing the individual within that most private of private spheres: their own body. Indeed it is more correctly our current tortured half-way house that seems to accept the idea of society choosing how and when individuals die. Legal Euthanasia is not the beginnings of eugenics, but rather the final refutation of it and its barbarous principle of granting society and government authority for that which it does not and can never have: the individuals own body.

Others run the other way, suggest this is a question of nature’s authority and not to be interfered with. These same people however likely see nothing but god’s will and love at work in the great acts of nurses, doctors and medicine to fight back against death, to extend our lives, and enhance the quality of our time on this planet. These people are not hypocrits, but rather in their fear of the unknown they have tried to invest in an amoral environment virtues of good or ill. God may be loving, but bacteria is not moral, nor is the lightening strike or flash flood. Nature has no care for our life or death. Only human beings who have consciousness of others, and a sense of morality can recognize the issues. From the importance of life to the morality of a dignified death. Instead of championing this moral demand, those of this view seek to outsource their responsibility.

In light of this fear, Politicians, the so called leaders of our communities have also hastily retreated from addressing the issue. In 1997 the Northern Territory government passed legislation allowing for Euthanasia, but it was soon repealed by the Federal Government under a Private Members bill of Kevin Andrews. Half-hearted moves were made also here in the ACT, and in 2008 with new leadership of both major parties in place, Bob Brown announced the Greens would again be pushing to over-turn Commonwealth legislation in this area. However much as on the issues of drug prohibition and marriage equality, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shown no willingness to move or even listen to argument on changes in these areas. Yet the polls seem to indicate that the vast majority of Australia’s support the individual having their control, with only some minorities such as Catholics or Aborigines rejecting the law on religious grounds. Indeed we are held by our politicians to be so frightened and incapable of discussing this that they lined up in 2005 to make it illegal to even discuss methods of suicide online.

Whilst Rossiter’s death (like that of Terry Schiavo in the USA several years back) is public, the elderly and infirm have been taking their own lives in indignity and humiliation for many many years. Once proud members of the ‘greatest generation’ have been found with plastic bags on their head, stomach’s full of pills, or at the bottom of staircases. Having sacrificed so much, having seen so much, having given all the strength they ever had, the government today stands between them and final control over the manner and timing of their final exit. And so, hiding from family members and the law they take their own life, becoming in their final act criminals of the state. Their crime is to want to have some control, some independence and dignity.

There are challenges to be overcome and safeguards to be put in place. Full legislation would require at least a few years open public discussion before it is comfortably accepted. But if we are to be a free society we must remove these abhorrent laws. We must accord all adult, mentally firm members of society both the freedom and the dignity to have final say over the way in which they pass into death. Anything less is to condemn our fellow citizens to pain and humiliation for an issue which we have no right as a society to interfere with. Just as human society today recognizes it wrong for one individual to take the life of another, we will one day come to recognize it wrong to give society control over the life of each one of us as to the time and manner of our passing.

The Art and Science of Politics

One of the long heralded benefits of computers has been the suggestion that by its medium it will make us all writers. Most of the material we take in online is written, and most of the material we send out (such as email, IM’s and blogs) is also written. For reasons of slower than anticipated technology and workplace norms, videos are still rare and left for amusement by and large rather than as a means of communication. This trend it seems has also infused into our political leaders, who are punching the keys like never before to ensure their voice is heard. I’ve already blogged at length about Rudd’s first essay. But clearly so pleased was he with the act that he’s decided on a repeat performance. His shadow number Malcolm Turnbull clearly decided opinion pages were the place to be and has penned his own effort. Meanwhile the members of the former Howard Government who have slightly more time on their hand are pushing out their own book length efforts. Costello was first out of the gate, and is spruiking a new update (his second) to his book (did anyone tell him he’s not a blogger. As a buyer of a past edition surely i should get those chapters for free). Meanwhile Tony Abbott has just released his manifesto ‘Battlelines’ (review here) and we’re told John Howard is “writing like crazy” to get an autobiography out by November next year.

The academic Greg Melleuish however isn’t happy:

putting forward ideas about political matters is something that individuals who are not in power usually do. Ideas are a weapon of opposition, not government. They are meant to show what is wrong and how things can be improved.
To formulate ideas properly requires an amount of leisure that is denied to those who are involved in running something.

one must ask if writing essays on the state of the world is the appropriate thing for a leader of a country to be doing. There are times when politicians should be reflective and develop ideas that can be used to improve and reform the world.

The first is when one is out of office and reflecting on the reasons for being in that situation. The second is when one has left behind the world of politics and is able to ruminate on the significance of one’s time in office.

When a leader is in office, they should be doing things, trying to solve the problems the country is encountering. It is worrying when a leader seems to be more interested in writing essays than taking action.

This seems a slightly odd attack from a man who has just published a book ‘The Power of Ideas: Essays on Australian Politics & History’, but likely many, especially on the conservative side of politics would agree with him. Indeed even Tony Abbott writes in his own book ‘Governments have decisions to make; Oppositions have opinions to put forward’. Yet outside the fear that these “essays represent the ultimate triumph of words over things in politics” what we are seeing is perhaps a natural and important step in the political arms race between politicians in the media. When politicians such as Robert Menzies and John Curtin operated, politicians could command a packed hall of adults willing to come and hear them speak. After all, there was usually no TV, and radio could get tiring, so people went out and along with theatre and music would attend political meetings in their thousands. Newspapers reflected much of this interest devoting large sections of their pages to reporting (verbatim!) what had been said in Parliament the previous day.

With the rise of TV the crowds melted back to their warm homes & comfy couches, and the time available for political debate shortened. First 10 minutes, then 2 then 45 seconds and now somewhere between 5-7 seconds for a Prime Minister or Opposition Leader each night. Politicians naturally got better at providing short grabs and ‘spin’ for the journalists, and journalists got better at asking ‘gotch ya’ questions that tried to visibly trip up politicians, rather than draw out explanations from their for their policy or actions. This is the game played each and every day, and if you want to be a top journalist or politician you have to be very, very good at it. Many have interpreted it as showing our politicians and journalists don’t have the intellectual strength of previous generations, mistakenly blaming the messenger for a problem of medium. With TV’s style, nothing else was possible, and the short grabs the logical conclusion. Beyond having 4 screens going at once (along with tickers and the like scrolling by) it’s unlikely TV news will change that much, or grabs get any shorter (human speech & hearing speeds essentially prevent it).

But this is the age of computers, and right now you are engaging in a very different, and very ancient form of communication: writing & reading. Whilst l337 speak and Lolz proliferate in text messages and some teenagers communication more of us are writing and reading vastly more than we ever did before. We are becoming addicted to writing. The centuries old tradition of private diaries has exploded into Live Journals, Status Updates, and yes Blogs. Some like this explicitly designed for public viewing, revealing only snippets about the author, and blurring that line between private opinion and public communication. Our politicians too have had to respond, with more and more requests for interviews by email, with their speeches and comments in ready made form (ie sitting on their computer) for instant publication to the entire world, instead of having to be laboriously turned from hand written notes into something for public consumption. Indeed some of our more verbose politicians have even joined the blogging revolution (or at least Turnbull’s Dog has). That our politicians are now writing more and more for the public is a natural response to the opportunities the internet allows, and as a way to overcome the shrinking space that journalists give to politicians to communicate their views. In fact we should look for far far more of it, that is unless the media agree amongst themselves to no longer print politicians efforts. But politicians have counters there too, President Obama for instance does weekly Youtube addresses, reminiscent of FDR’s fireside chats. And once the media learn to counter those, the politicians will respond in kind. And so it goes…

But what about the claim that this is a distraction from the business of getting on with the job of politics? That Rudd should be ‘the decision maker’ rather than the prose prime minister. Is Rudd really abandoning the duty of leader for merely the image of leadership? Is all rhetoric a distraction from the actual hard work of running a country?
Certainly in a practical country such as Australia, government is about doing and achieving. In his collection of essays Melleuish writes that ‘In a modern democratic regime the desire of the mass is not so much to pursue the good as to escape the bad’. This he defines in contrast to the idealistic and heroic ideals of those who favour communist or fascist regimes with their utopian ideals of the perfect society. Yet is politics then just a science, a bread and butter effort to provide in as utilitarian a way possible the greatest happiness to the greatest number, with no other factors matter. Is the strength of a governing party simply a reflection of the economic well being of the people? Recent evidence would indicate it’s not. The Howard government fell in good economic times, the Rudd government continues to prosper as things turn sour. One man who keenly noticed the divide between this idea of politics as a science (with it’s implied precise present focused activity) and politics as an art (with it’s notions of leadership and future orientated direction) once wrote:

‘Politics is both a fine art and an inexact science. We have concentrated upon its scientific aspects – the measurement and estimation of economic trends, the organisation of finance, the devising of plans for social security, the discovery of what to do. We have neglected it as an art, the delineating and practice of how and when to do these things and above all, how to persuade a self-governing people to accept and loyally observe them. This neglect is of crucial importance, for I am prepared to assert that it is only if the art of politics succeeds that the science of politics will be efficiently studied and mastered. In short, the art is no less important than the science’

That man, was Sir Robert Menzies, who governed Australia for 16 years(1949-1966). Menzies too might be accused of having put off the big decisions during his time, of letting the country drift when it should have been active, active, active. But history and fading memories still recall it as golden era of Australian history when despite the challenges of communism, post-war recovery, migration and the break from the old white and British outpost into a modern Australian country became apparent, that the country held together, and through the writings and speeches of the leaders of that time we can see and come to understand how they held the continent and its people together as one nation and on one path.

Far from ridiculing political penmanship as a abandonment of their job, we should be demanding of our leaders ever more pieces of writing(dont worry you don’t have to read them all!). Getting them to set out their views, to make the case and refine their arguments so as to most effectively practice the art as well as the science of politics. In all times, but especially those of difficulty and struggle what most binds a community is the rhetoric of its leaders. Stressing the common values, defining and thereby giving us a handhold on the defining challenges. The depression was not an unbeatable monster, but a struggle with the fear inside all of us that the system would collapse. The defence of the UK from Nazism was not an impossible last stand, but a call to resistance and inner fortitude that made victory inevitable. The civil rights movement was not a change to American identity, but the very re-enforcement of it’s highest principles. In all these great contests it was the art of rhetoric that made the impossible possible, that brought the mountain top into reach, and gave us the strength as a community to soldier on, confident that the battle was small and our strength great.

No one would accuse Rudd or Turnbull of such eloquence, but contra-Melleuish they are participating in perhaps the greatest act of leadership possible: the communication between the elites and the public of their values and shared unity. With that, any challenge can be overcome.

The American Right and Human Government

Palin’s suddent resignation has understandably left most pundits, pollsters and political junkies utterly confused. How can you credibly argue you have the experience and capability to govern the country when you are prepared to resign from governing a tiny state just 2 ½ years into your 4 year term?
Yet to Palin, this seems exactly what she should be doing to serve her community. Take these lines from her (hastily put together) resignation press conference

“I thought about, well, how much fun some governors have as lame ducks,” she said. “They maybe travel around their state, travel to other states, maybe take their overseas international trade missions. So many politicians do that. And then I thought, that’s what is wrong. . . . They hit the road, they draw a paycheck, they kind of milk it, and I’m not going to put Alaskans through that.”

Every leader in a country with fixed term limits eventually becomes a ‘lame duck’ (well save those in South America), but there is still usually a solid years worth of governing to be done that is of great advantage to their constituents, legacy and without the heat or requirements of politics as usual, even the chance for lesser but still significant reforms. Not only in policy, but especially as Hillzoy points out, in improving various departments in ways that only the executive is tasked to do. There’s still a hell of a lot of governing available to anyone president, governor or mayor as long as they hold that office. But Palin’s not only uninterested, but utterly dismissive of the idea, such lame duckers are just wasting space.

For Palin it seems, like many on the American Right, (they are certainly not ‘conservative’ by any sense of the term) what is important are elections, not governing. Elections are the chances to present an image, to crusade, to beat their opponents. Elections are about values, and character. But government is none of these things. It is slow, it is bureaucratic, it is compromised in every step of the process. Government is about choosing between less than satisfactory options and then spending your time arguing over the details. Or simply filling out the masses of paperwork required to do so. How in Palin’s world would such actions prove the values she represents, identify the character she adheres to, disprove the liberal-elites lies and half-truths or defend the American family and individual ethos. Like Bush before her, Palin to me seems utterly disinterested in government. In interest and principle, the American Right has moved from being interested in human government (which is why anyone cares about politics in the first place), to being interested almost entirely on the mere process of choosing government. This is absurd to say the least, but such seems the only explanation for their behavior. One of the most common criticism’s I had of the Bush Administration (and vindications I feel it having been shown a failure) was that of the folly of electing to office men and women utterly dismissive of and disinterested in government. When the detail got complex, or their seemed the lack of a clear value or principle to upheld their interest wandered elsewhere. And where government ran badly, even under their own watch, it was not a call to roll up the sleeves and get to work, but simply evidence that they were right in their dismissal of government as a whole. The worse it ran, the righter they were. So why bother fixing the problems?

You don’t hire a electrician who dislikes machinery, a librarian who only watches TV, or a journalist who isn’t at all curious about the world. Yet somehow a general view that government should be small, combined with a growing sense that they were a culturally and religiously embattled minority has turned the American Right utterly hostile of government as a concept and practice. And yet they love elections. Far from pulling out of politics altogether like many paranoid minority groups before them, this one has instead embraced the process of choosing government wholeheartedly, all the whilst completely losing interest in the actual process and business of government and its day to day operations. This can only be described as a fundamental flaw in the nature of the American Right today. Until they regain an interest in actual governing, rather than just arguing about values in the hothouse of the electoral process, then none of their anointed son’s and daughters should be considered for executive office (though even in the legislature such disinterest carries great costs too). There are many fine conservative Americans out there who believe in a small, efficient, well run government and should be given the chance to demonstrate their case both in elections and in office. But right now they are all but ignored by the booming voice of the far american right who don’t hate government but worship elections. Until that imbalance is reverse they will keep putting up people like Bush and Palin who are simply incapable of the job’s to which they aspire. Palin’s actions have mystified most of the political watchers who assume that government is the reward for winning elections. In Palin’s world, the reward from winning elections is to beat your opponents and drown out their values with your own. Being in government is simply the burden you have to bear for the next few years until the fun can come again in election season. No wonder she want’s to get out early, and spend the next few years giving speeches and pretending she is the next Ronald Reagan and president-in-waiting.