Chasing the Norm

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

Category: Culture

Looking North with Open Eyes

While everyone knows that Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin, those watching the speeches accompanying the visit of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the last week would have noticed something else: Rudd also knows a little Indonesian too. While welcoming phrases in a guests own language are a standard part of pre-meeting briefings, the impetus was more likely from Rudd himself, for one of his major early career focuses was on making Australian’s more Asia-literate.

In 1994 Rudd delivered a report to the Federal Government on ways to make Australia a more Asia-Literate country. Though part of the wider Engagement project it was played down by the government because of populist fears that “engagement” was some sort of code word for selling the countries soul to the foreigners up north. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the concern was there. Rudd’s report, Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, (Of which Deborah Henderson’s paper(pdf) provides a good overview & analysis) sought to create an export culture in australia via significant investment in the teaching of asian languages and building long term links to the region in education, media and business.
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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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The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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Blessed are the weaponmakers

By now I’m sure everyone has heard the row over biblical passages being enscribed on gun sights for US Troops. Why or how anyone whose read the New Testament could see warrant for putting them on military hardware is beyond me. Anyway, turns out the same manafacturer has been selling them to the Australian Defence Department. Locally, this is an easy mistake to fix, but the excuse given by the Defence Department is truely odd:

Defence Minister John Faulkner has ordered the Defence Department to remove references to biblical passages marked on gunsights being used by Australian troops in Afghanistan. References to New Testament verses were etched onto the gunsights by the American manufacturer, Trijicon, and the department says it was unaware of their meaning at the time of purchase.

Among the coded inscriptions on Trijicon gunsights are JN8:12, an apparent reference to John 8:12: “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Another made reference to Psalms 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”.

They didn’t know what “The Lord is my light and salvation” meant? Or twig to why coded references were on their equipment and have someone with some cultural literacy? Obviously we want to keep religious education well away from our soldiers manuals, but surely at school the future generals and officers learnt from the bible. I may not be a christian, but I’ve certainly read the bible and have been meaning to pick up a copy again soon as a refresher. So much of our culture from great literature to daily conversation is peppered with metaphors, similies and analogies from the bible. You almost can’t be considered a literate or educated if you’ve never learnt anything of it.
Yet the Defence Department is really going with a lack of understanding as their justification?

Being a Bad Loser

In Obama’s inauguration speech there was a line that stood out:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

If one of the defining characteristics of adult hood is the ability to accept defeat and setback and carry on (such as in If by Kipling) then it seems clear that neither US political party has taken that step. Both the Republicans over the past year, and the Democrats over the past 24 hours are showing what bad losers they are.

I’ve never been one to decry hardball politics, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find in the post war period a group as mendacious and arrogant as the Republican party has been since the election loss in 2008. Abusing a rare senate rule, they have declared that Obama has no mandate for any legislation whatsoever, and not even entitled to most of his administration team. While still yet to account for any of the errors of their own period in power, they make demand after demand without the slightest idea of policy proposals to achieve these ends (& vetoing opponents policy that would help).

But just as you can be a bad loser by denying the loss ever happened, you can also be a bad loser by breaking down, and jumping into self-pity as the Democratic party seem to be doing. Democrats lost by just 100’000 votes in a special election, with a god awful candidate in a country of 300 million, and Obama & the democrats still poll above republicans nationally. The option to pass the health care bill is still there (but only by passing the senates bill), along with many measures to make life better for Americans (and show that Republicans are unwilling to aid doing so)
Yet they seem to be giving up, crawling into a ball and telling the people they “heard the message” that they should never do anything ever again, or stand for anything ever again.

Its remarkable really, even in the depths of the ALP’s crisis under Howard or the Liberals under Rudd we saw nothing like that level of arrogant or cowardly behaviour. Only Fraser’s scheming to dismiss Whitlam in 1975 somewhat fits for bad sportsmanship.

Since the 19th century, US political parties have depicted themselves as Elephants and Donkeys. Right now, the brainless Scarcrow and a cowardly Lion seem a better fit. Let’s hope these two listen to Obama’s message and grow up. (Speaking of which, the President himself strikes me as somewhat similar to The Wicked Witch as seen in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (novel behind the hit musical) I.e. possessed of a noticeably different skin colour & slightly grating demand for public morality, who eventually moves from a lack of understanding into being hated by the public without either side quite knowing why.

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.

Bring out your dead

Politician: 'But i'm not dead yet'

Media: 'You will be soon, get on'

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of reading Doris Kearne Godwin’s book Team of Rivals on the rise to power and administration of Abraham Lincoln. Not only a great read, it illustrates a point I’d been wanting to make for a while: Our current ‘one strike and you’re out’ culture in politics is historically unique and damaging to the quality of our governance and polity.

In 1860 when Lincoln ran for the Republican party nomination, he had spent a few years in both the Illinois legislature, and House of Reprsentatives, but lost his last two US Senate runs A very able though provincial lawyer, his political career was one of regular failure alongside a constant effort of putting himself forward for office. Likewise his primary challengers and later cabinet members, Seward, Chase and Bates were all career politicians who had failed regularly yet chose to continue running (some like Chase even following Lincolns election!).

Closer to home the same pattern emerges. The most successful leaders seem to have all suffered significant setbacks before rising to power. John Curtin lost his seat in 1931 in the disastrous Scullin Government, before returning to become PM by 41. His rise to power came with the humiliation of Robert Menzies who was deemed unsafe even by his own party to lead the war effort, yet Menzies would go on to become our longest serving Prime Minister. And of course his biggest fan, John Howard was written off by most after his disastrous 1987 campaign, yet he was undoubtedly a better leader for it by the time he became PM in 1996.

Politics has never been a game that offers mulligans, but today we have a media and political culture that offers no second chances either. Tony Abbott is now the 11th Leader of the opposition since 1990. Only one of those got a second shot (Beazley), with 2 going on to become Prime Minister. This compares to only 5 between 1960-80. (Though the case can well be made that Evatt, Fadden & Whitlam held on far too long!).

This is a trend which seems to be driven largely by the media, with the politicians nervously following behind. Witness the outright mockery of Tony Abbott for giving shadow cabinet positions to Kevin Andrews, Browyn Bishop and Phillip Ruddock positions (The last of whom had only an explicit advisory role as cabinet secretary). There seems an unwritten rule that politicians are only on the make or on the demise.

Those who have faltered such as Downer, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Brogden, Nelson, Turnbull, have been quickly cast aside by the press. Downer took years to re-gain credibility as Foreign Minister, while Beazley’s short term role as shadow defence minister under Latham was quickly dismissed despite his outstanding qualifications for the job. His later ascension to the leadership after Latham faltered, was undermined from day one by the media; not because of bias, but because they have seemingly decided that second acts are impossible in Australian politics.

For this we lose significant talent. Malcolm Turnbull has much to offer, as does John Brogden from NSW yet neither are likely to be taken seriously again as future leaders or even significant political figures.. When he loses next year, Tony Abbott too will face this relentless and ruthless principle. Likely he will take the Crean, Downer path of trying to hold on regardless but with significantly reduced credibility. If the person who succeed’s him tries to keep Abbott in their shadow cabinet, they will likely be punished by the media for not following the rule of incessant ‘generational change’.

Of course not all want a second chance (Latham being a prime example), but politics is a profession which takes as much if not more time to learn than any other. Not only do individuals have to be across great swathes of policy detail, they need high level skills in administration, management, media, and understandings of human nature. And yet our media treats them like fireworks, praising their burning lights as they fly up, but quickly looking away once they first seem to level off.

And we joe public are the poorer for this attitude. It reduces focus on the rest of the parliament, reduces the emphasis on experience and puts undue pressure on young career politicians to put themselves forward early, perhaps too early if they want media support. It also makes politicians far too reticent to risk any undue policy or political defeats, when sometimes it is advantageous in the long run (in the publics view) for a politician to fight and lose on an important issue to prove their real commitment.

Gillard’s need for an Indian summer

The recent whohar with India over the stabbing murder of Nitin Garg is a class A example of how foreign policy crises shape leaders rather than are shaped by them. Neither government initiated it, and whilst the Indian government is playing domestic populist and airing some grumbles over uranium, it would probably prefer the issue goes away quickly.

Though some like Gerard Henderson seem certain Australia has an anti-Indian race problem (he’d never have said that under Howard), for myself, like most of the community, the idea seems absurd. Indians are long standing residents of this country, who don’t cause trouble, seem closely integrated and love their cricket. There are racist elements in Australia who may target all non-whites, but that’s a far cry from the absolute rubbish being served up in the Indian media scaring many potential students and migrants away from the country.

This crisis however offers a potentially career defining opportunity for our Deputy PM Julia Gillard. While clearly highly competent, there is a perception that she is a little too thinly stretched across her responsibilities. Not only as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations; Minister for Education; Minister for Social Inclusion, she is part of the governments gang-of-four who decide most policy issues, along with being a very politically important Deputy Prime Minister, and a regular Acting Prime Minister. Errors such as the spending of stimulus money on schools that had one student or were due to close were not errors of judgement so much as of editing. Gillard also needs to get some policy runs on the board given her past golden duck efforts such as Medicare Gold. Fixing the issue now would bring short term political benefit to the Rudd Government, whilst offering a point to be remembered in by colleagues in 5 or so years she begins to think seriously about becoming PM in her own right.

Having introduced the ALP’s new IR legislation on Jan 1, it might be a very good idea for Gillard to drop her role as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations (and Social Inclusion) and focus on education, starting with international students. The Rudd Government came to office promising an education revolution. Even including stimulus spending, it has barely touched the issue, and this challenge is a perfect opportunity to make some big changes with public support.

As our fourth biggest export industry, worth $16.6 billion, the market for international students strangely came about without much government attention. Indeed it was the neglect (if not deliberate damage) by the Howard government of the tertiary sector which lead universities to seek substantial numbers of full fee paying international students as a way to cover their budget shortfalls. This turned into a boom industry, but it is one that has been badly managed and regulated, with the collapse of four private international student focused schools in late 2009 a too common story.Though already a huge industry, the potential for turning Australia into a SE Asia education hub is enticing.

Not only is this an industry that plays on Australia’s strengths in education, culture and brain power, and not only is it highly lucrative irrespective of global financial conditions, it also delivers key diplomatic and security advantages to Australia. By educating the youth of the regions elite (and up & coming leaders) we gain crucial leverage and understanding throughout the region. In 20-30 years time, these same people will be the business, cultural and political leaders, and their views of Australia will be closely shaped by their time here. A positive view could well be the difference between a key trade contract being awarded or even back channels to avoid war and conflict. That’s not hyperbole, in the case of E.Timor a large reason why there was no firefights between Australian and Indonesian troops was because of the personal links between the two armies, averting conflict.

Immediate action is clearly needed to calm the views of the Indian population in Australia, and the Indian government and media overseas. But long term, serious action needs to be taken to help improve the international student sector, as a starting plank for delivering an education revolution. This would deliver on the Rudd governments promise of an education revolution, improve and reform a key economic industry, and let Gillard and Rudd address an area that is clearly very important to both of them, both personally and politically.

For more on the India-Australia challenges faced, and potential responses, I’d recommend two publications by the Lowy Institute: After the perfect storm: Indian students in Australia by Janaki Bahadur and Troubled waters in need of oil by Rory Medcalf.

The Invention of Lying

No, don’t worry this isn’t another post about the Liberal Party’s trouble (though more on that later). Instead a quick plug for Ricky Gervais’ new move ‘The Invention of Lying’. A fun rom-com, it has some how snuck under the radar but deserves the award for most Atheistic movie of the year. Given the Church’s outrage to Harry Potter or The Golden Compass, it’s rather amazing that this movie has attracted so little attention. In Gervais’ world, people are incapable of telling lies, or saying what isn’t. Meaning a world of no fictional stories, or actors to portray them, and the people seem a mixture of gullible, over-revealing (more a comedic device) and flat out rude (Hi Mr fatty being a common greeting). Gervais makes a rather persuasive case that lying is one of the things that best enables this species to get along, letting us escape the domination of natural selection urges that seek to dominate, destroy and disseminate our genetic material without a care for other outcomes. Though more so it made me wonder how any of the other couples in the movie ever got together if they couldn’t lie just a little.

These day’s lying has become so commonly expected that Joe Hockey is defined as having a “George Washington moment” when he said he had been approached by others to lead the party. It hurt the party momentarily, but in the face of this weeks efforts is forgotten and was interesting to the press more for letting them revive their favorite topic of leadership speculation, and fill their time on air/print than it being anything unusual. Everyone knew he had been approached, to admit it, that was the real sin in todays politics, or at least as our media see it (whilst now also rewarding him with such an over the top moniker for it) Like Flash Forward The Invention of Lying has an absolutely fascinating premise that is then only tangentially relevant to the main plot, but good fun on a rainy day’s escape to the cinema or when it hits DVD. 3/5.

Respect goes both ways: Rudd’s error on White Ribbon

The other day whilst responding to a Dorothy Dixer on White Ribbon Day, the Anti-domestic violence iniative, the Prime Minister began to get rather worked up: (Hansard in PDF. Page 53)
whiteribbonday

The survey reveals that the two strongest predictors for holding violence-supportive attitudes are being male and having low levels of support for gender equity and equality. This demonstrates very abundantly the significance of White Ribbon Day and the role of White Ribbon Day ambassadors. It is our gender, the Australian male gender, that is responsible; no-one else. It is men who are responsible and we must show leadership in stamping this out in the future.

Any man who hits a woman is scum in my opinion, I’ve never hit a woman, and I hope my girlfriend would dump my sorry ass in a second if I did such a thing. Equally I don’t think anyone could disagree with the intention of the PM’s statement.

But not all domestic violence is just male on female, it also goes the other way

New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics figures show that over the past eight years, the number of women charged with domestic abuse has rocketed by 159 per cent.
In 2007, 2,336 women fronted court on domestic violence charges, compared to around 800 in 1999.
Preconceived ideas of gender roles have led a lot of people to believe it would be virtually impossible for a women to physically abuse a man.
But co-director of Men’s Rights Agency Sue Price says it is exactly this stereotype that leads to battered men hiding in shame, fearful of being ridiculed, or even prosecuted.Despite the many domestic violence support services available to women victims, Ms Price says there is almost no practical and legal outreach for men.

(I can’t find nation wide figures as most states havn’t released detailed breakdowns)

Equally, while 3/4 of domestic violence and especially disgusting sexual violence is against women, men are actually far more likely to experience physical violence than women in our society at all ages. According to the ABS’s 2005 Personal Survey Saftey:

Since the age of 15, there were an estimated 3,065,800 (39.9%) women who experienced
violence compared with 3,744,900 (50.1%) men.

In the 12 months prior to the survey, younger women and men experienced violence at
higher rates than older women and men.
! 12% (117,000) of women aged 18–24 years experienced at least one incident of
violence, compared to 6.5% (97,900) of women aged 35–44 years and 1.7% (42,100)
of women aged 55 years and over
! 31% (304,300) of men aged 18–24 years experienced at least one incident of
violence, compared to 9.4% (138,700) of men aged 35–44 years and 2.8% (62,500) of
men aged 55 years and over

Obviously this trends as well into straight crime (ie aggravated robbery), but it also includes significant cases of physical assault in bullying and social troubles (from cases where people are well known to each other, to violence against random strangers). A related issue is that of suicides where of the 1800 people who took their own life in Australia in 2006, 1400 were male. This number has also dropped over the last decade (however over 20 times that number tried to).

This is not an argument about equivalence, obviously there is none. Rather the problem I have is that the way in which we are dealing with the problem isn’t effective and ignores if not exacerbates other social problems.

In overall statistics violence as a social problem is dropping. We are getting better at dealing with these issues, more people are reporting them to the police. But these social changes come about in response to how each gender is viewed and respected within society. Those who lack any social status, or find it difficult to establish a basis for their own self-respect are going to lash out. Against others, random and well known. Many may present a false display of confidence, or seek to bully and harm those weaker than themselves (such as their partners) as a way of regaining that status. Equally, some also turn inwards and harm themselves.

I shouldn’t even need to say it, but none of this is to excuse or justify those who harm others around them because of insecurities or weaknesses inside themselves. But as a society if we are going to deal with the issue of domestic violence along with other forms of violence, then we also need to recognize that simply insisting on better behavior isn’t going to fix it. Worse, the demand “All Aussie Men Must Swear” seems more akin to having men swear their innocence lest they be judged guilty, with all the likelyhood of binding of an abstinence ring. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of the White Ribbon campaign, and yet I find myself personally insulted by the PM’s tone (which the Hansard doesn’t quite reproduce) and the quest to have all men swear:

“never to commit violence against women,
never to excuse violence against women, and
never to remain silent about violence against women.
This is my oath.”

I’m all for symbolic actions, but this isn’t like having someone finally take responsibility for past wrongs as Rudd has done. Instead it blames all equally, ignores the causes or reasons, and will be only enacted by those who already reject the problem outright. Equal and tolerant treatment begins and ends with respect. If we want to end violence by men on women, and by women on men, then we need to build up the respect we have for all. Both for women, and for men. The White Ribbon campaign, however well intention seems to betray that.

The financial benefits of a R18+ rating for games

This is our culture and our economy:

CALL of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has racked up more record sales of $US550 million ($593 million) in its first five days, but the publisher Activision Blizzard is still concerned about weak consumer spending.
The game, a first-person-shooter that lets gamers play as elite soldiers hunting down targets from South America to Afghanistan, beat the record set by last year’s blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV in its first week.
Last week it said it sold 4.7 million copies for a total of $US310 million ($333.3 million) on its first day in the US and UK alone.
Activision said five-day sales for Modern Warfare 2 topped the $US394 million ($423.6 million) earned at the box office by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in its first five days.
The video game bested Batman film The Dark Knight, which had held the record for the top opening weekend ever by taking in $US158.4 million ($170.3 million) in July 2008.

There is always a lag between capitalism and culture, though inevitably the dollar wins through. However it takes some time for societies to integrate in and accept certain cultural artifacts, regardless of sales. The rise of evangelical literature/music/films (such as the Left Behind series) is one example, another that suffers is video games. While you will see the occasional article in the papers about them, their coverage pales into comparison compared to films, despite computer games being a bigger industry for films, both in Australia and world wide. Indeed according to the Canberra Times (p6 Monday Nov 23 2009) this morning (no online copy) most Australian’s are gamers:

Computer games are set to be an bigger part of Christmas entertainment than ever this year, with strong growth for an industry now worth $2 billion in Australia….“The average age of the gamer in Australia is 30 and another key figure is that almost half (46%) the gamers in Australia are actually female”… Dr Jeffery Brand, the head of Bond University’s communications and media studies school, said most Australian homes had a game device.
“We have roughly seven out of 10 Australian’s playing computer games at some point in the year” he said. “Most of those, the vast majority of that 70 per cent, are playing daily or every other day”.

All this makes it even stranger then that in Australia, we do not have an R18+ rating for computer games. The Federal Classifications ACT was set in 1995, a lifetime ago in the industries view, with only limited consultation since. The biggest hold up it seems is the gentleman’s agreement that Australia has uniform laws on censorship via COAG. Despite the fact that this isn’t the case in videos (The ACT sells X rated videos, whilst other states have banned them), the convention has given South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson an effective veto power over such a large industry. In the last year some of the biggest computer games released including Fallout 3, GTA IV and Left 4 Dead 2 have all been refused classification (ie banned) or major changes forced on the overseas producers. That means lost sales, as people either dont buy, buy overseas, or simply pirate the game. When such contempt for the laws is commonplace, it is the laws that must change.

Yet these loses pale in comparison to the loss and harm the restrictions place on the development of a local Australian computer games industry, one in which Australia has some key niche advantages. The industry requires highly trained professionals which we produce in droves, it is an industry that depends on quality not quantity (meaning it can’t be outsourced to asian factory workers) and it is green and high paying business, returning nice tax benefits to the country. Yet both the Howard and now Rudd governments have ignored the industry, much as they have almost all high-tech industries. Australian governments it seems consider it a core business of theirs to spend billions of tax payer dollars to protect already dead industries (parts of our manafacturing and agricultural fields for instance) whilst not only ignoring but hampering the rise of new industries that seem well suited to our demographics and skills. The loss could already be measured in the billions (I know of 2 ACT games manufacturers that have closed and gone offshore in the last few years) and with video games set to grow, will be worth tens of billions in years to come.

From my reading of the Classification ACT’s it seems it would only require a change in the Federal law, and the compliance of one state or territory for video games to be classified at a R18+ rating by the OFLC and sold only in those states or territories that changed their law to accommodate it. (If there’s something I’m overlooking in my reading of the act, please email me or post a correction below.) For the loss of uniform laws on the issue, each state and territory could choose to encourage or restrict the industry in their territory. South Australian voters could continue to ban the sale of R18+ games, whilst those in the ACT or Victoria allow it. This would be competitive federalism at its best, something the constitution writers were very keen to encourage.

The potential sales revenue for any state which was the first to move would be immense. They would become the only port of call for the sale of these games, dramatically reducing overseas sales of games, and likely enticing video game production companies to consider moving their business to those cities in order to be able to freely develop their products. That reassurance would be a big boost for an industry that thanks to increasing photo-realistic graphics is having to continually re-account for why its material is classifiable as only MA 15+. What was assured of passing 5 years ago, might not today, without any significantly different levels of gore, just a more natural depiction of it thanks to better technology. Equally potential games producers (which need be only a professional working from a home office developing a game for phones as much as the multi-million dollar blockbusters like Bioshock 2 (produced in Australia) could be enticed to start their own businesses once the laws are expanded and clarified.

Despite massive tax payer funded handouts, Australia has lost much of its manufacturing industry and some of its agricultural as well But in high tech and value adding areas, such as the original idea’s, design and marketing, Australian workers and companies are almost impossible to beat. I don’t know who coined the phrase (I suspect Paul Keating), but the claim Australia needs to become the brain to Asia’s brawn has always struck me as very good economic sense. By not having a R18+ rating we are not only continuing with laws that do not reflect community sentiment, but are actively denying Australia billions in lost revenue in both production and sales in what is is fast becoming the largest entertainment industry in the world. We simply can’t afford not to make the necessary changes and get Australia’s computer games industry into action.

Twitter’s growing pains

I’ve blogged about twitter before, yet I still find it a valuable service to keep updated of the news, and give me a peak at what journalists & politicians are saying. Only it may not actually be them at the keyboard:

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

It took Barack Obama only 25 characters to shock most of his 2,677, 720 followers to the core. “I have never used Twitter” confessed the leader of the Free World, when pressed on new technology by Chinese students in Shanghai. But, hang on a minute. Wasn’t this the first Social Media Presidency? One of the very first Twitter accounts to be verified? And if Barack says he really is all thumbs, just who is it who is doing all his tweeting?

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull appeared at ease during the Sydney Media 140 conference in discussion with broadcaster Fran Kelly, leaning comfortably back in his chair. But little did he know that only a few days later, he would looking for a new social media advisor, after his chief on-line strategist, Thomas Tudehope, was revealed to be linked to a version of the popular spoof Hitler “Downfall” video lampooning besieged Liberal politician, Alex Hawke.

The admission that “Tommy Tudehope helps with a lot of it” [Turnbull’s tweeting] during the Media140 interview may well have contributed to the startling resignation. But I believe that what these events may reveal is a key danger of the burgeoning use of social media: politicians leaping on the bandwagon and the consequent use of new media tools for more complex political tricks.

To the twitterati, these revalations are a real outrage, and a slightly heartbreaking one at that. Social media has been seen as a way for direct, personal, unhindered contact between the elites and the masses. To find out it’s instead a staff member who is writing up the information seems to them to break the fundamental trust that they invest in the system. Yet whilst it’s unfortunate, it certainly isn’t surprising, at least no more than the use of speech writers or even media spokespeople. Politicians are immensely busy, their job is to both understand, decide and communicate on the issues of the day, and if they outsource the communication part occasionally, that’s not the worst sin in the world.

As a wanna-be speech writer, this has always been an issue that has interested me. Whilst the best remembered and usually most sucessful politicians are the best communicators (such as Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, Obama), all used some assistance to cover the sheer workload and variety and forms of communications which they are expected to produce. This isn’t too different from sending out supporters or influential figures to help advocate for your case as happened in the ancient greek agora. Everyone would rather be personally visited by the politician and asked for their support, or hear their arguments and have a chance to respond in person, but it was impossible in a city of 30’000 active citizens, and simply laughable in a country of 21 million or 300 million or 1.6 billion.

We are thankfully emerging from the era of one to mass communication, with the decline of TV & Radio as the main communication sources. But we should not expect that the requirements of politicians are any less, even if we want no more than 140 characters out of them from time to time. To the good politician, such resources are simply another media outlet to be used in so far as they advance their cause. I know some federal politicians read this blog, along with their staffers, and taking a quick pulse check on what’s happening online may give them a heads up on issues the media may be looking at, or the way it is generally trending. But all this means more work, and more time spent hearing talk about themselves, and from competitors for the audiences attention.

The Twitterati are a smart bunch and will soon recover from this (in their hearts they probably knew it from the start). They may have lost the dream of reforming politics through their particular technology, but this happens every time a new technology is created. With its acceptance as a mundane addition the discussion can move to the truly important debates such as the social norms of it’s use, and the right and wrong ways to utilise it. Finaly it allows us to begin to measure its actual impact in real data, rather than against idealistic dreams of a new public sphere, dreams that have been floating around under the label of of E-Politics since at least the mid 1990’s if not in similar form for 2500 years.

‘You cant put tears on paper’

I have to be honest: I thought this apology was a bad idea from the start. It seemed to cruely mimic the one last year to the aborigines, and I could not see what it would achieve.

I was wrong.

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to SMH.com.au

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to SMH.com.au

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an emotional apology today to half-a-million “Forgotten Australians”, including British child migrants, who faced abuse and neglect in care homes over decades.

Mr Rudd, echoing his historic 2008 statement to Australia’s Aborigines, addressed about 1000 victims of abuse in orphanages and institutions between 1930 and 1970 who packed Parliament House.

“We come together today to offer our nation’s apology. To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent, that we are sorry,” he said.

I had the good fortune to be in the parliament gallery when Prime Minister Rudd gave his apology to Indigenous Australians. I could see some who were very moved by it, but on the whole it was a solemn, dry affair, more relief at its achievement, than anything else. Today was very different, and very moving.

The press gallery may have been wondering just who Rudd is, but his unvarnished nature was clearly on display today. Rudd clearly is very passionate about the basic issues of lodging and protection. This may spring from his own background in a family too soon without a father and with uncertain finances. He made homelessness the very first issue of his new government, and he clearly had been working on addressing this issue for some time. Rudd’s speech was low key, but finely tuned. Apparently written on the plane home, it was appropriate for the man, and the moment. As easy and tempting as grand rhetorical sweeps must have been, Rudd wisely kept his usual speaking style and allowed the crowd to deliver the emotion of the moment. When they cried, cheered, clapped or occasionally heckled, the focus was always on them, and their stories. I had at first wondered why the apology was not delivered in the parliament, but instead in the Great Hall, yet the choice to invite as many involved people as possible to participate in the event was an excellent one.

Of note were two important, yet unexpected applause lines. First was when Rudd apologised on behalf of the federal government for “denying you basic life opportunities; including so often a decent education.” This drew a spontaneous and strongly sustained line of applause from the audience. Their sentiments were not revenge or financial reparations, but this struck a core sentiment. The main desire was to move on, to say the greatest sin was simply the denial of the childhood that they deserved, needed and so desperately wanted after such a horrific start to life. For this was not just the institutionalization of abuse, it was the deliberate exploitation of that suffering in order to create a “better” generation.

One of the other most pleasing moments, was to see the recognition by both Prime Minister and Opposition Leader of former Senator Andrew Murray. Murray received generous praise, and a standing ovation. I do not know the particulars of Murray’s involvement, -beyond his membership of the forgotten Australian’s committee- but on a day when the national leaders spoke and espoused to nation, it was gratifying to see them both turn to a mere member of the legislature, and doff their hats to his moral leadership. Many members of the senate over its 100 years have worked without public praise or recognition, seeking a better country. In long and tired committee meetings they have toiled. Murray has toiled with them, and ought today to be seen as a representative of them. To see him praised in such manner, was very moving. This showed it was not just the leaders acting, but the entire elected representatives of the nation who participated in the moment.

All that said, the highlight was the speech by Malcolm Turnbull. Where Nelson was sanctimonious and missed the tone and meaning of the moment in 2008, Turnbull hit every note. He started ambitiously, going for the big rhetorical approach, and at first the audience was hesitant to travel with him. Turnbull is certainly capable of giving a great speech; where Rudd was homely, he was sweeping. The crowd was understandably not on his side as much as they were for Rudd, but he steadily won them over. His tearing up, twice, including at a moment describing a small boy, alone with his suitcase and neither mother or father around seemed utterly personal and real. His embrace of a man who was a victim of such abuse – mid-speech – was a truly moving moment. It may have been staged, and yet absolutely real. By the end many, if not most rose in standing ovation to Turnbull’s speech. If his path is as pre-destined to electoral failure as everyone else has written, then let it be said, this was his finest hour.

The apology also brings into stark light the Howard years. John Howard not only didn’t give such an apology (the Senate Report came out in 2004), he couldn’t have given it.
John Howard has many talents, but on the big cultural issues he never could find the words. Many have remarked on his focus on Gallipolli and mateship, seeing in it either good old fashioned conservatism, or a backward looking 1950’s mentality. It was more the former than the latter, but it really owed itself to Howard’s inability to move beyond what had been said and what he already knew on such issues. Howard introduced massive new immigration levels, and yet had neither the words nor sentiments to bring them into our community. As James Curran has documented in his book About Speech, every Prime Minister since Harold Holt struggled trying to give Australia a new rhetorical basis, after the old British-Australian one had slipped away. Howard however abandoned that quest, not because he thought it wrong, but because he had nothing to say.

He had no ways to include migrants, no sentiments to heal divided communities, no empathy to address societies failings, no vision or foresight to see where this country could saftly dock its identity from the storms of globalisation. Instead we were told to forget about it, put the problems aside and focus on our own stories. So we as a people did, and it has its merits. Yet for the new migrant who struggled to fit it, for the children of migrants born here and yet unsure of where home was, for the indigenous Australians, for those struggling to come to terms with their own identities, whether their sexuality, religion, or just what it means to be a man or woman in the modern world, for the young who had to move overseas to be listened to and taken seriously, and of course for those 500’000 who were left to suffer in institutions as children, they all suffered quietly in a nation unwilling to confront its past, or talk about its future. The Prime Minister is our communicator-in-chief. When their words fall silent, or worse, when they speak but can only find deaf ears, our society can not move forward, nor even get into gear.

Rudd will likely not solve that problem (perhaps it never will be solved), but he is at least trying. Instead of the neglect and awkward silence of his predecessor, he is bringing these issues out into the open. They can and must be discussed if we are to account for and understand ourselves and our history. Many cynics will say ‘But this apology saves no child’, yet the policy solutions they seek can only be found when we have as a nation discussed and accounted for this past. The Senate Committee’s did that, the many who have fought to raise public awareness have done that, and now, in two excellent speeches by our Prime Minister and the Leader of The Opposition our nation has done that.

This apology has seen our nation at some of its best. That said, I have to wonder, like Bernard Keane if Fielding’s timing on his revelation he was sexually abused is more about getting attention when our minds are on such matters, rather than empathetically reaching out to those who the apology was directed towards. At the very least he should have waited until the day after (and probably it would have gathered him more press)

For more, here are

Kevin Rudd’s Speech
and
Malcolm Turnbull’s Speech

Congratulations to them both.

Why we need to forget WW2

This is a rather unique use of the far-too-commonly invoked analogy of Hitler’s Nazi Germany to modern times:

The [proposed WA] legislation would allow police to search people for weapons and drugs in areas such as Northbridge without having to prove grounds of suspicion.
Last night Liberal backbencher Peter Abetz spoke in support of the legislation and used the example of Hitler.
He said the dictator gained support because he provided people security in a time of anarchy.
“When it comes to the crunch, people prefer to be safe than to have freedom,” he said

I didn’t want to post this on the 11th, as it is important that every society set aside at least one day (Australia also has ANZAC day) where they pause to remember and honour those who served their country. Whether they spent only a few months on the home front, or years if not the last moments of their life in the horrors of battle, we owe it to them and to those in uniform today to do so. If anything this was made even more poignant by the senseless murder of 13 US servicemen by a man whose day job was to heal their wounds. This November 11th marks 64 years since WW2, a fight which is the most wrongly but commonly invoked analogy in western political dialogue and political thinking, and one we urgently need to move on from.

Comparing current events to The Nazification of Germany, the appeasement of Hitler, and of course the horror of the Holocaust is the nuclear option of public discourse in the west (especially the Anglo-sphere). But more than just odiously affecting our dialog, and dividing us internally, it affects our strategic thinking, putting us at risk externally. Since the turn of the century, there have been four major comparisons of current events with Hitler’s Germany, all factually inaccurate, and all to the greater harm of the society.

1) Bush is like Hitler in pushing the Patriot Act in response to 9/11

Unlike the Reichstag fire, 9/11 most certainly wasn’t an inside job. Terrorism was a very real and still present threat to the USA. Similar legislation to the Patriot Act was introduced in many other Western states around the world, though even that didn’t prevent terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. Bush’s acts were certainly invasive and the argument can be strongly made that it was an over-reaction, but it was a legitimate response to help protect his society. Something that has evidently worked in that there have not been any terrorist attacks inside the USA since 9/11. The left instantly delegitimised itself by making the analogy and destroyed it’s capacity to sensibly contribute to and moderate the legislation.

Net effect = Less political influence, stronger public support for measures they rejected. Legislation is still in place.

2) Iraq/Iran is akain to Nazi Germany and ought not to be appeased.

While Bush was the victim of a false the Nazi analogy in early 2002, he was quick to invoke it against his enemies by late 2002/2003 as he lead the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq. Any and all who opposed, in the US, UK, Australia, and especially France and Germany were seen as akin to appeasing Hitler in their rejection of removing Saddam Hussein. Saddam was just as odious personally as Adolf, and terrorised Iraqi society, but Hitler in 1939 was a threat because of the strength of the German army. WMD or no WMD, Hussein was a contained threat. Strategically invading Iraq was a massive blunder, wasting blood and treasure for almost no comparative security benefit to the major coalition partners.
In this case, the desire to positively emulate WW2 (in playing Churchill and correctly foreseeing looming threats) was as, if not more damaging than the negative comparison, of our enemies to Hitler. This is the ultimate problem with the analogy to WW2. It can not be made positively, or negatively with good sense these days.
The more recent, though far more low key comparisons of Iran to Germany in 1939 have largely been dismissed because of the failure of the Iraqi comparison, but they refuse to go away. (Or perhaps it’s due to the fact Iran has 1/68th of the army of the US). The rhetoric used against opponents of the war (or proposed action on Iran) is ugly, however the way the comparison has damaged and perverted the way the premier military nation in the world, and defender of the west conducts itself is inexcusable.

Net Effect = 4300 dead US soldiers in Iraq (with another 300 of allies, and 50-100’000 Iraqis), and about $1 Trillion spent, with more to come. The US has wasted its perceived unipolar moment, and is very restricted in the future conduct of its troops against threats such as Iran/North Korea, and the larger strategic game of China/Russia et all.

3) Climate Change Deniers are akain to Holocaust Deniers

This comparison has popped up in recent months, including by authors I previously respected. Even if the worst-case scenarios for Climate Change are true, they do not in any way mirror the insidious nature of the Holocaust. One deliberate, the other unexpected (with those responsible now attempting to solve it). One was industrialized and clinical, the other natural and unpredictable. One has happened, the other yet to, with a possibility of preventing the harm without actually stopping the problem.

Worse, given that there already are perceptions that the horror and trouble of Climate Change has been overplayed, the decision to deploy the most strident possible denunciation possible at this time has simply re-enforced the perception advocates were not driven by the science but other unrelated factors. The effect of such a claim has not persuaded anyone to change their view, and divided the two camps, re-enforcing the energy of denialists who see this as one-more-battle.This analogy unfortunately is going to be rolled out more and more in the future. It’s bad rhetoric, bad history, and divides our society right at the time it needs to pull together to address this serious issue.

Net Effect = Nothing yet, but if (and perhaps when) Copenhagen fails to reach agreement, and cap & trade systems falter in the legislature in the UK, USA and Australia, it will be in part because supporters hyperbole managed to destroy the good will of many cautious supporters who would have given bipartisan support to this policy.

4) Obama introducing Healthcare is akain to the Nazification of Germany.

This is perhaps the most laughable of them all. The Nazi party despised the idea of social welfare, taking a strictly Social Darwinists approach to society. Hitler’s Mein Kampf demonises charity and philanthropy as evils to be eliminated for a stronger Germany. Political fixes to maintain their domestic control were of course introduced, largely along the lines of what the Weimar Republic had pursued. The party may have been named the National Socialists, but actual Socialists and communists were amongst the chief enemies of the Nazis (which is why many conservatives in the west liked Hitler). These comparisons between Obamacare and Hitler have been made by media figures, congressmen, culminating in this odious picture at a recent event, which has fortunately been rejected by at least some in the Republican caucus.

Net Effect = As I noted a few weeks ago, the debate on Healthcare turned in Democrats favour in August when Conservatives were actually at their loudest in demonising the proposal at town halls. The legislation should hopefully pass (though will be a weak compromise), but the effect has not been limited to health care. The willingness to deploy the analogy in relation to healthcare has spread to other issues as well, damaging the political fabric of the US’s democratic system. Good will has been utterly destroyed between the parties, the dialog debased, and the people cynically turned into service by people whose motives are more personal gain than anything else.

Nazi_toy_Soldiers

I was going to quote Churchill’s great line that the people of the Balkan’s had “more history than they could consume”. But such is the effect of Churchill on our western psyche that its even easy to bring to mind quotes of him to say we shouldn’t listen to him anymore! That we shouldn’t memoralise and hero-worship the west’s victory, or demonise modern enemies as like those he faced. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future

It’s time to honour, and for the good of those involved, and those yet to come, return WW2 to the history books.

Picture by peterme used under a Creative Commons Licence

Wither States Rights?

australia_flagIn a pleasing sign, the ACT assembly, with the support of the ACT Labor Party and the Greens has passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to have a legally binding ceremony. Gay couples can already bind themselves into a legal union, a change reluctantly accepted by the federal government, but last year Rudd decided that allowing that union to be publicly celebrated would be too much like marriage. The word petty doesn’t even begin to describe such a complaint. The Labor Party chose not to to support such unions at its national conference, and it’s probable that Rudd will again veto the legislation.

This raises a challenge for progressive however. Despite spending the 20th century fighting states rights, recognising it for the conservative impediment it was, in many areas such as social or environmental law, progressive ideals are best served by giving local communities far more of a say. Hopes in the federal labor party have faltered, as it has looked to ensure nation-wide support (rather than just majority support), and shown great hesitancy to risk taking. Interestingly, this shift is also occuring at the same time as the Liberal Party has just finished fundamentally walking away from promoting a states rights agenda. So should Progressives deliver the killing blow to states rights, or are recent developments signs that this is more prosperous ground than previously thought?

For future historians, one of the most important facets of the Prime Ministership of John Howard, was the virtual death of the States Right’s viewpoint within the conservative parties. Howard invoked the idea himself comonly when in Fraser’s government and during the 1980’s wilderness in opposition; by the time he returned for a second showdown, the heat was largely gone. Against Keating Howard positioned himself as one who would govern “for all Australia” against the sectional and geographic interest groups, a stance he would keep throughout his time in government. He wouldn’t even support his home state NSW in the State of Origin games, such was his desire not to be seen as supporting one state over others (or even supporting the states at all!)

There’s ample evidence (such as from Costello’s memoirs and Howard’s own musings on the subject) that this was a practical solution, rather than a philosophical shift, and came in response to a current political threat. Namely that the people would blame the federal government regardless of who was responsible, and that the State Governments were largely hostile to going along with Howard on most issues, most of the time. That said, the shift also re-enforced Howard’s growing sense of control and dominance, as he increasingly sought to leave his mark on the country, and deliver on the public trust invested in him through 4 separate elections. Howard not only changed the country, he also changed his party. Time in government converted many to similar views, and Howard’s views became gospel as older members retired, and younger, more impressionable ones came in. Practice eventually becomes principle, and the Liberal Party today under Turnbull, Abbott & Minchin has barely touched this criticism of states rights, despite its favored son status for conservatives in opposition for the last 108 years in this country.

This change in conservative thinking should have progressives cheering. After all, states have been (and were designed in the 1890’s Constitutional Conventions to be) strong impediments to any social change that may have upset the status quo or reduced the influence of men of property (Hence the Senate starting life as a States House, to review what the mobs in the House of Representatives proposed). Equally, there is good evidence that there was a big influence from current American trends on Australia’s constitution writers (especially Griffith and Barton) which lead to pushing a very minor, restricted federal government. Most people who follow politics will have heard of section 51. of the constitution. The reason it is well known however is that it is the only section which distinctly lays out the powers of the federal government. Anything not mentioned is assumed to be entirely under State control. Our constitution is not there to guarantee the rights and liberties of the citizens, it is there almost exclusively to give chains to the States to tether down the inevitable King Kong of National Government that they were reluctantly accepting.

So, given this history, the end of conservative support for states rights ought to be a good thing. The example of the ACT however suggests that there is an alternative: that progressives should now look to focus on the states where they can pass such legislation, or better marshal power such as to stop at the source developments such as the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill or the Mary River Dam. While Federal Labor supported the former and has just rejected the later, both were pushed by their state governments, which have fallen under the sway of and indeed often become corrupted by development companies as progressives look federally. Those with talent and a desire for being in parliament on the progressive side are almost universally looking towards Federal Seats, leaving many also-rans and backroom hacks in charge of the station (See Rees Government). Likewise on issues such as drugs, euthanasia, public transport, land use, and household trends (such as towards environmental efficiency) these issues either are still state issues, or have a greater chance of change at a state level.

So progressives are in a bind. They have an unparalleled opportunity to sign the death knell to the states rights argument from preventing progressive change, perhaps even to reform/do away with the entire states system (as the decidedly non-progressive Banaby Joyce advocates). Such changes would this be good policy in removing inefficiencies, ensuring uniform standards and laws, and overcome vested interests on national issues (everything from fixing the Murray-Darling to introducing a R18+ rating for computer games).

Yet the barriers to passing progressive legislation are significantly lower at a state level these days, with a cumulative effect in practice, meaning good progressive policy in one state tends to end up in the others (eventually). Equally many potential problems (such as corrupt/badly designed development) can be addressed before they become major issues. Add in the ‘common wisdom’ that progressives are more trusted on day to day domestic issues, whilst conservatives for outward looking concerns (the so-called daddy/mommy divide), which if not quite true at least benefits progressives electorally at a local level. Then again, they must also consider the thought experiment that if the situation reversed and a Federal Government introduced same-sex marriages and a single state dissented, would they keep supporting states rights.

For ACT residents it has been rumored that the Minister for Territories Brendan O’Connor would like to see a change to let the ACT govern itself, relieving the Federal Government from having to decide on such issues, as same-sex marriage. Nothing has occurred yet, and won’t before this bill is due to be addressed, but it would be a very positive sign considering the significant discrimination faced electorally by ACT residents.

No change has been bigger in Australia’s political landscape than the isolation of state government concerns from the dialogue of federal politics. Yet whilst this has come about because Conservatives under Howard walked away from their historical position, progressives ought to take their finger off the trigger for a moment or two to consider the real benefit of such a change. We are yet to see if Rudd will go ahead with his election ‘promise’ to takeover the health system, but if so similar moves in education wouldn’t be too far behind.

Certainly something to keep an eye on, the historic forces are shifting, but it may be a while till we see where the pieces finally come to lie.

Photo by jemasmith used under a Creative Commons Licence