Chasing the Norm

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

Category: Media

Double-D Madness

At quieter times in the parliamentary cycle, we often see our political correspondents leading out a few rumors and stories as a way of generating some attention, controversy and generally getting something to fill the page for their bosses. This spring, its the idea of a Double Dissolution election over the Carbon Trading Scheme. While Rudd has already put up a bill that was voted down, he is already destroying the narrative by pledging “good faith” negotiations with the Coalition. If the resulting bill and amendments are substantially different to the first rejected one, and the Coalition does indeed again reject the bill (likely over the cries of Turnbull), then Rudd couldn’t use it as a trigger.

But even say he did go ahead, would the political strategists be supportive? Hell no, as Possum helpfully demonstrates:
cprs-DD election

There is strong support for an ETS, but it’s not strong enough to make people want an early poll. It may be accounting for some of the difference between the parties, but people clearly want to vote on other issues like the economy as well, and don’t in general like going to the polls early. After all for ALP voters an election would just be a lot of hassle to see their party remain in essentially the same place, perhaps slightly stronger in the senate. For Liberal voters, they know they wont be getting back into government so why bother with fiddling around in a few marginal seats. Win some, lose some, the only real difference would be the demise of Turnbull. Rudd might even look weaker or more intrusive by being seen to ‘rush’ to a DD election, despite the fact it would be held only be 6-10 months before he is likely to call one on the normal schedule. And having already raised the issue, have no doubt the media would make its narrative one of ‘racing to the polls early’. Never a good look for a PM.

Perhaps even more importantly however than all the optics is the straight maths, as Anthony Green notes:

Simply put, the mathematics of double dissolutions mean that Labor would be less well placed in the Senate after a double dissolution than it would be if it waited to have a normal House and half-Senate election at the end of 2010.
The reason for this is the complex proportional reprepresentation system used in the Senate and how this interacts with the lower quota for election that would apply at a double dissolution election.

(Full reasoning for the political junkies at his site)

Still all of that is slightly more sensible than the suggestion that Rudd would hold a DD election over a desire to means test private health insurance. If the PM is looking unlikely to use or even benefit from such an election on a issue of fundamental long term importance like Climate Change, there is no way, -unless he is literally out of his mind- that he would do so over making many Australians pay more for their health care. It’s beyond a joke, its simply misleading to the public to even speculate.

And finally, when even Australia’s weakest political mind Peter Costello can figure out that a DD election is neither a good idea, nor going to be adopted by Rudd, it is time for our political journalists and editors to take a deep breath and drop the whole story once and for all.

Headline writers everywhere will surely be disappointed at the loss of so many potential DD puns (Rudd exposes his DD’s, Turnbull crushed under DD’s, the public grapples with DD’s etc etc) its a small loss to ensure a basic commitment to honestly informing the public. Its fine to speculate and see how politicians respond, but given all the evidence to continue treating the idea of a Double Dissolution as a serious story is simply to mislead the public.

Bringing down the Big (un)Friendly Giant

Breaking News:
Telstra
Telstra to be split up

Senator Conroy told the media in Canberra this morning that he did not believe Telstra or its shareholders would need to be compensated under the plan. In early trade, Telstra shares were down seven cents at $3.17.

Under the legislation to be introduced to Parliament today, Telstra will be able to voluntarily submit to an “enforceable undertaking” with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to structurally separate.

If it chooses not to separate, the legislation allows the government to impose functional separation requiring Telstra to:

– conduct its network operations and wholesale functions at arm’s length from the rest of the company;
– provide the same price for its retail business and it does for other carriers in accessing its wholesale network;
– implement governance structures to make the separation transparent.

About time, though expect a clear backlash from Shareholders for the changes. But the Government should prevail. Howard ought to have made this change almost a decade ago, but squibbed in order to get a higher price in the sale. Money that was used largely for political purposes, buying out groups (such as environmentalists) to help justify the privatisation agenda. Privatisation has been an immensely profitable and sensible step, but allowing private monopoly control of core infrastructure cripples any resulting benefit. By returning this to public control it will enable significantly greater retail competition and lower prices and more data quotas for ISP consumers. Many of us believed the chance was lost when the final parts of Telstra were sold, but if the Rudd Government holds its nerve on this, it will be an important and useful step, enabling significantly greater competition in the telecommunication and ISP market. While the Liberals love deregulation, they have never supported competition policy (Paul Kelly’s book quotes Howard’s Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodinos saying Howard ‘hates the word’ competition.) Labor however since Keating has been able to claim this as a economic principle both in line with modern economics and long held party principles of social justice.

Good move Conroy.

Update: At the end of the trading day it was announced Telstra shares are down 14 cents to $3.11 a 4% drop (though the rest of the market dropped slightly too). Given the scope of this decision, isn’t the big news how little the market seems to mind? Its pretty good evidence Howard was wrong to baulk at splitting the company before selling.

Fair and Balanced?

That the Australian is clearly a conservative outlet is not a issue. It’s biases are clear and consistent, and understood by most of its readers, especially when moving through the opinion pages that are almost relentlessly anti-Rudd. Indeed I make sure to read it most days, and usually agree with a fair amount of it. But it may be a problem when that’s starting to change their sense of what’s news. Here is the lead article from this morning, about the retirement of Dr Brendan Nelson:

PM Kevin Rudd to duck Malcolm Turnbull showdown as Brendan Nelson quits
MALCOLM Turnbull faces an electoral battle with the Greens and a raft of independents at the height of a divisive debate over the emissions trading scheme, in a by-election forced by the early resignation of his predecessor, Brendan Nelson.
Kevin Rudd is expected to exploit Coalition divisions on climate change by not running a Labor candidate in the NSW blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Bradfield and by timing the poll to coincide with the second parliamentary vote on the ETS.

And then if you read to the very end of the piece you find out:

ALP federal secretary Karl Bitar said no decision had been taken on whether Labor would stand a candidate but the party is expected to cede the field to Greens and independents to lower the Liberal primary vote from the 59 per cent Dr Nelson won in 2007.

Here’s the front cover of the paper this morning:
Australian_Nelson_retires

So not only are they reporting as fact what has not yet actually occured (that Labor wont stand a candidate), but it is presented as the most important news of the day (rather than the sudden and dramatic resignation of a senior member of Parliament), and Rudd’s future presumed actions are presented as an act of cowardice “duck… showdown”.

Bias in opinion pieces and editorials is a healthy and good thing, there is a lot of soft left bias in the Fairfax papers and the Australian makes for a good counter. But when that is clearly seeping through to its news sense, and efforts to lay out the basic facts to the public, alarm bells ought to run. In the US Fox news has seen its profits soar as conservatives get angrier and angrier about being out of power. And fox has responded by ramping up the alarm, with ever more sensationalist presenters, including Glenn Beck, who considers the president a racist marching on the road to fascism. But there is a catch, businesses are starting to get concerned and puling their advertising from his show and the network. And the US has a significantly higher acceptance of political anger and conspiracy theories than do Australians in general. (Every country has it’s nutters on both sides, but politicians who show any anger such as Hewson in ’93 or Latham in ’04 are quickly tossed aside). Murdoch needs to be careful and not confuse the US and Australia. Both have conservatives miles from power, and strong progressive leaders. That they will want a newspaper to justify their sentiments and agree on the failings of the government is fine enough, that is what opinion pages and editorials are for. But it needs to be carefully isolated from the news desks, otherwise it will destroy the entire credibility of the paper and its profits, the very platform for those views.

The changing of the guard

Warning: The contents of this post may include blogging about blogging

I’ve always been wary of following that old blogger trope of making regular posts about the state of the blogosphere. For a start I don’t feel much like a blogger, in fact when blogs first came about I actively hated the idea. I always considered myself a writer, sure, but blogs seemed hierarchical societies of the type that destroy politics everywhere. One person posts and a dozen or so laud and cat call out about how wrong their enemies are and how righteous their own efforts may be. Instead i liked getting down amongst the weeds and mud and arguing politics with anyone who would take up the keyboard, on politics forums. Indeed I even ran a forum named ‘political animal’ for a number of years, until its small size and time constraints saw me sadly bid it goodbye. The other reason I don’t consider myself a blogger is that the big difference between blogs and journalism is that bloggers spend a lot of time talking about each other, linking pieces they approve of, and piling on those they despise. As a blogger who’s contributions are yet to be regularly picked up for either purpose, I feel I am still largely outside the blogosphere as a community, and rather just a user of this medium. But it is the way this platform is used that continually interests me.

As regular readers of the (US) blogosphere will know by now, one of the most original bloggers Hilzoy has pulled up stumps. Hilzoy (an academic by profession who posted under a pseudonym) was a blogger i only started reading consistently when she took up posting on The Washington Monthly’s site. Yet her posts appeared regularly and consistently both on Australian and American websites. She mastered the art of long posts, but with enough of a concise summary style to be able to provide something others could quote, whilst not just being a link and snark machine as so many bloggers sadly are. As one who’s posts typically run to four figured word counts, I appreciated Hilzoy as one who could keep her audiences attention on this notoriously fickle medium. One of my great regrets about the blogosphere has been it’s inability (at least within the politically focused blogs) to sustain a number of literary quality writers of significant length. There is of course a good reason for that, such writers are rare, often trained, and such pieces take enough time that you’d struggle to do it whilst holding down a fulltime job and social commitments. Yet across the millions who blog on politics few writers seem to even consider going across that great barrier: the end of the paragraph. Indeed few seem to think a second sentence is a exhaustive effort, and turn their blogs into link-farms. A great service no doubt, and one that only works if you can combine insight and wit into 45 characters, and yet so often it would leave me wondering : just what does this person actually think about the issue. Are they truely supportive, do they recognise the obvious flaws of their own side’s contributions, and do they just see this an issue of sides? We’re smart,they’re dumb/we’re informed, they’re sloganers/ we’re honourable, they’re corrupt/ yadda/yadda/yadda. This type flourishes on group blogs, which to me are even more of a bane in their enforcement of group think.

Some bloggers offer a different service however, take Kevin Drum or Ezra Klein. These guys can run posts into long chunks, but I hesitate to call either writers. They are instead policy geeks, often running on different tracks to the rest of the sphere, and only occasionally talking about the daily outrage. Instead they provide detail, great detail and lots of it. This is I think one of the best and likely longest lasting forms of the blogosphere. Long after all the cool kids have moved on, policy wonks, academics and the serious and committed who would have sent letters to the editor, or published unread journal articles in previous era’s can now have a publicly accessible place for their work. In this area of the blogosphere, merit matters. These guys (and whilst the blogosphere is largely male, Hilzoy again being a cherished exception, such straight science policy wonkery is even more male dominated), are only so good as their data and comprehensiveness. If nothing else, this type of blogging promises a great potential for future politicians to drawn in new ideas or research quickly and accessibly, and I’d like to predict such efforts will continue so long as there is an internet.

bloggingIn between these two extremes, the one liners and the number counters, lie’s perhaps the bulk of the blogosphere. Of hugely varying quality, most of these people probably consider themselves writers of some extent, but unless they can move beyond the paragraph probably arn’t. Some can write journalistic pieces of decent length and insight but feel compelled by the medium to stick to a short style such as Yglesias. Others vary like Andrew Sullivan, who unfortunately whilst doing great work link-farming the Iranian uprising has seen the increased number of posts come at the expense of the longer, more personal pieces which made his blog a daily ritual for me. Perhaps for that reason, I have this time happily sat through his two-week hiatus to work on a longer article for his employer The Atlantic, when normally his absent voice would sour my morning read-up of the blogosphere.

Most however, seem to simply not risk going beyond the short style they see emulated elsewhere. With it’s hyper links and instant updates the blogosphere is a ferocious enforcer of social norms (at least so long as you want some traffic). This not only prevents a potential talent for real writing to come out, it probably goes a long way to explaining why those declining few of literary non-fiction talent have largely stayed away from the blogosphere. It doesn’t pay, and if you don’t adapt, you probably wont be read, so why bother. Yet it is a curious absence. Every invention of better forms of printing and distribution have resulted in significant outpourings of essay type length material. Such a form seems tailor made to the internet with its limitless space. Yet instead the opposite has occurred and we have seem the wits take their work in the direction of twitter and lolcats. Such services have great potential for good (such as seen in the recent Iranian uprising, or around the developed world) but also work to actively destroy language. Such shrift communication changes language from sentences into words. It removes the role of rhythm, cadence and flow. Adjectives are a luxury rarely purchased, and word play reduced to puns that punish more often than reward readers.

Hilzoy’s contributions to the blogosphere will likely not be saved or analysed by some future researcher. In fact the trouble of most of this digital medium is that it will one day be wiped, either from decaying materials or the simple commercial decision to wipe the hardrives and turn them towards something more profitable. But even if her work was not of literary quality, it was amongst some of the best, most moving and educated to be found on the blogosphere and that is to its great loss. No doubt there are thousands if not tens of thousands of wanna be writers and journalists who are ending their education and wondering which way best to turn their time, talents and attention. Whilst the blogosphere may seem a circle-jerk (if you don’t know, dont ask), it still has significant potential as a place to publish and craft ones thoughts. In advice as has been handed down since the beginning of parchment: Writers write. And even if commercial and group blogs may slowly be sucking up the vast bulk of the readership, and veterans such as Hilzoy now moving on (joining the likes of Tim Dunlop and others in the stands), there is a lot of space for new writers to come in and perhaps begin to reshape the blogosphere towards a new style. Early enthusiasm has given way, early limits found, but as Obama said in his inauguration ‘the time has come to set aside childish things’ (taking a line from Corinthians), and perhaps now we can usher in a new adult blogosphere. One that doesn’t spend endless time bashing the mainstream media like a wayward son, and instead works to improve its strengths of real writing, real thought and real communication. Technology has provided the potential, humanity just has to live up to it.

Charting the Iranian Revolt

Other sources have far better insights into what is going on on Iran, but I just want to make a couple of key points.
Where_is_their_vote
1. The issue is not the election but the break in the legitimacy that has occurred between the Iranian Government and the people. Iran has been ruled by fear for most of the 30 years since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but that military and material power was only significant so long as it seemed to re-enforce the already accepted legitimacy of the government. Poor economic and social policy in Iran has slowly weakened that link (the first role of any government is always to provide bread and circuses), such obvious and exaggerated efforts to control what was claimed to be a real election process have severely damaged that legitimacy bond. Even if, as expected the government violently cracks down and the protests fail to overturn the establishment, this makes a permanent new relationship between the people and the government of Iran. From now on, no public statement will be accepted at face value (ie “The US/Jews want your destruction”) and spending on programs that seem more about the wellbeing of the government (such as the nuclear program) will fall into significantly greater question.

2.The MSM is still critical, but despite our obsession with video and cable and the money put into TV news, most of the really big events in the world happen outside of a camera lens. Video is of course important, (Youtube videos are doing great job), but to properly understand what is going on in much of the world we need to rely on the flow of words and here at home in the west need trained professionals to wade through it to help provide the facts and filter out the falsities. As if we are all witnesses to a crime scene, everyone is talking and it needs wise heads to filter, edit, collate, and check. The best sources in following this story seem those using new media technology, but run by professional print journalists such as The New York Times Lede blog and Andrew Sullivan. The next generation of journalists for whom such social networking and publishing tools are as easy to adapt to as breathing will be a great sight to behold when going after a story. There are many very smart and switched on members of my generation using these technologies but I think this is more a transition generation with only some likely to get the best use of this technology. The media companies will also need to significantly update their online and published platforms to take advantage of this potential, right now they act to limit and punish those who attempt alternate methods or who take time away from standard reporting to engage such technology.

3. Technology obviously cant make revolutions, only people do. However the twitter network has really come into its own with the Iranian revolution*. Reports suggest that about an hour or so before the polls closed, the Iranian government acted to block SMS’s and severely limit the internet. Twitter, which can be accessed through a number of devices and mediums however has been able to escape some of this. If you are new to twitter go to http://monitter.com/ which displays all the messages “tweets” sent under a particular topic heading. Try these for size #IranElection #Iran #Tehran.
Other digitial technology such as video’s on youtube and photo’s on flickr are also providing great on the ground details. If you are interested follow this handy guide on accessing the media flowing out of Iran & responses from the rest of the world. Of course with all these technologies rumors and false claims abound, so much of it is useless from a perspective of knowing what is definitely occurring, but it certainly gives you a sense of the sentiments, energy and fear that is happening in Iran right now. Either way, this is another instance of the way new technology is changing politics in ways which no one has fully figured out yet.
(*Though this is not the first twitter revolution, Moldova back in April has that claim)

4. This is not a fight the west should get into, particularly the United States. The Obama administration seems to have handled this well in a very low key fashion, emphasizing that this is an Iranian issue. Obama has to walk a fine line between supporting and giving encouragement to the protesters (which helps protect them indirectly from a violent government crack down), and staying out of the debate so as to prevent Ahmadinejad from claiming the protesters are tools of foreign governments. Some will doubtless attempt to make this a partisan issue, but really it’s a debate between idealists and realists. The idealists (the fringes on both the left and right) will say we should be as loud and aggressive in supporting the protests as possible , the realists (the vast vast majority) will recognise the very limited impact western commentary can have and the serious consequences if we make the wrong decision.
Secondly, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Mousavi is not quite the reformist character he seems in contrast to Ahmadinejad. Daniel Larison makes the point well. Interferring simply to replace one mob of self-interested politicians with another is not worth our time or the inevitable blow back should it fail (and even in success it hardly changes the likely facts of Iran’s move towards nuclear power/weapons and generic hostility to the west).
Despite this caution, I think Middle Power governments like Australia could do their bit to champion international action and recognition of the protesters. Nothing we do will be enacted, so therefore we have much more freedom to call for change.
Kevin Rudd has spoken often of his desire for Australia to engage in “creative middle power diplomacy”, here is his chance. That said, Australia has a lot to deal with at the moment, and engaging in largely symbolic efforts isn’t that great a use of our Prime Ministers time or spending down our national piggybank. But the Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith could really use this to try and increase his influence and stature worldwide in the way that Gareth Evans did to great effect during his 8 years as foreign affairs minister.

Right now my instinct is that there will be a crackdown (violently) over the next few days and the protests will fade away. But I’m much less sure of that today than I was yesterday, and same for the day before. Something is clearly happening, and as I alluded to at the start of this post, the critical issue of legitimacy is forever cracked. It will take a massive act, either true reform or outright fascism in order to overcome the fissures this election and it’s ham fisted theft have opened up.

Fact Checking

The Australian runs -without checking- an article by the UK Times Online
sotomayo

“US President Barack Obama has named Sonia Sotomayor, the federal appeals judge, as the US’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, a woman with a remarkable personal story that began on a housing project in the south Bronx.If confirmed by the Senate, Justice Sotomayor, 54, whose parents came from Puerto Rico, will also become only the third woman to serve on the US’s highest court.
Barring an unexpected scandal she is expected to be confirmed by the Senate without a bruising fight, mainly because, faced with a Democratic majority of 59 seats, Republicans will be unable to muster the 60 votes needed to mount a blocking filibuster”

I know US senate rules are byzantine to busy journalists, but even wikipedia could help out the sub-editors here: “in the United States Senate, where Senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless a supermajority of the Senate (60 Senators, if all 100 seats are filled; or possibly 60 seats, regardless of how many are filled. This point is open to debate.) brings debate to a close by invoking cloture”

The original article has it exactly backwards. Because Democrats have 59 seats they should (in theory) be able to get 60 votes and overcome a filibuster. Which requires just 1 senator to implement. This is a problem with running content straight from foreign sources, particularly when it is a third-party source such as a UK outlet discussing American politics. And it is only going to get more common as Newspapers close expensive foreign bureaus and simply print wire stories. But they could at least read it first.

*Update* A reader has emailed to ask for my view of the actual pick, so here goes: I originally supported Obama back in early 2007, not because he was the most progressive of democrats, but because he seemed the most politically capable. Like FDR, both are rather conventional if not conservative democrats. Yet they did (and will) achieve far more than their predecessors because of their mastery of the political environment. I would always rather an uninspiring leader who achieves significant changes, than a barn stormer who lights a fuse but achieves little. (Obama’s speeches are inspiring, his policy preferences are however decidedly not). It was Obama’s political talent, not political passion which first interested me.

Which is a long way of saying I agree with Johnathan Martin’s take that Obama’s choice is at once “breathtaking and boring”. Sotomayor seems a very conventional pick to replace an aging liberal justice. Yet in her meritocratic rise, Hispanic background and the likely over-reaction of conservatives Obama has picked a candidate who very usefully serves his agenda. Obama is obviously keen to show that anyone from poor backgrounds with the right skills and hard work can rise up. This helps legitimise his own success, so look for more minority candidates for high office in the future from him (Rather than any racist preference for non-whites). Secondly, there is a reason that the last three presidents have all been able to speak spanish (Yes including Bush Jnr!), and Obama’s capturing of this demographic away from the republicans was one of the key reasons behind his domination of McCain in 2008. If he makes it permanent, then the republicans wont get back in office for a few decades, if ever. Finally (and playing on the race factor just mentioned), Obama wanted to choose someone who pushed the boundaries just enough to ensure the rump of the conservative party went nuts, and hence re-enforced his own image of moderation and sensible governance. Obama knows he is lucky to have the opponents he does, and he regularly seeks to milk that for what it is worth, by pushing them (ever so slightly) into over reactions. Whilst almost any choice Obama made for the court would have provoked conservative reaction, Obama has gone for one who will hopefully provoke a big, but easy to win fight. And the larger the fight, the more conservative activists will end up alienating Hispanic voters. Obama is not the messiah for the progressive nature of his policies, but he is one hell of a fine politician. And in that he offers the left real opportunity for advancing and legislating some of its key and longest held ideals.

Inside the Cocoon

Shorter Janet Albrechtsenn: Al Qaeda are among Obama’s supporters, and the release of terrorists under Bush is evidence Obama is weak on security, and the US only “allegedly” tortured people. albrechtsen

Fire this petty woman now. Hire someone with the intellectual honesty to actually advocate for conservative principles rather than this disingenuous and cheap point scoring effort which has become her stock in trade. She offers nothing new, nothing interesting, nothing of value. I’d say a big reason people are reading less and less papers and instead turning online is because the quality of mainstream columnists is so low.

Still her a column does make one (unintentional) point very clear: Whilst conservatives were tribal in their united defense of Bush and Howard (with only a few defections in the dying days), the Left has both elected, then sought to held accountable its own side. Witness the similar levels of criticism against Rudd from election supporters in Australia. Of course there are blind followers everywhere on the spectrum, but the stark shift between the subservience offered by the right to their own leaders, against the accountability demanded by the left when they are in charge is stark.

Devines Delusional

Miranda Devine writing on the Matthew Johns Sex Scandal

It would be a rare woman who would willingly consent to such an experience, without being damaged in some way, with low self-esteem or imperfect understanding of what was happening.

Yet to state this fact is to be condemned as moralising and prudish and out of touch with modern mores. As outrage about continuing rugby league sex scandals grows, it is not just the behaviour of a few predatory players being condemned, but the uber-masculinity such contact sports represent.

You have to be impressed by a commentator who contradicts herself with her very next sentence. If “modern mores” condone such behaviour why would “outrage” be growing ?

That said, the only way Devine could write such a sentence about the supposed community acceptance of Johns behaviour would be if she failed to notice this story, this story, this story, this story, plus this one, and more and more and more.

When leading a moral crusade against legal and consenting behavior (as the police determined at the time) it’s probably best not to straight out lie to your readers. Why Devine wants to pretend she’s in the minority I have no idea. I guess given the woman involved hasn’t gone public Devine probably thought she could play victim on societies behalf.Trying to hold back the dam against the lake of sin that threatens to flood forth…

Then again maybe she’s just confused. Devine begins her piece calling for Johns head:

It serves Matthew Johns right that he was dumped yesterday from The Footy Show over a group sex session with former Cronulla Sharks teammates in New Zealand seven years ago.

And ends by sympathising with Johns and blaming the woman at the center of all this:

It also reflects the postmodern expectation of men that they exercise the tortured superhuman restraint of an Edward, or be branded a barbarian.
There is no understanding that female sexual attitudes have always been the most successful regulator of male sexuality

Cognitive dissonance much ? Again the case needs to be made: How bad can the SMH regular commentators get? Fire the lot of them if you want people to start reading the paper again.

My own view for what its worth – Going on all information that the act was legal and consenting (from police investigations at the time) I see no reason why this should be a public issue. It’s not just John’s minor role in Australian society as a former NRL player and now football commentator, but even if it was The PM and the Health minister engaged in such practices, it would still be none of the public’s business. If the public wants such acts made illegal, thats fine. But 3 day witch hunts over legal acts that occured 7 years ago are more about mob behaviour and voyeurism than any claim to moral concern. Especially when their leading voices like Devine feel the need to lie to enhance their case.

Quote of the day

Few would expect the Coalition to win the next election. But its chances would be maximised by some straight-forward what-to-do and what-not-to-do missives – along the following lines.Don’t be outflanked by Rudd on social and security issues. The Liberal and National parties have always had a large share of voters who are moral conservatives and/or true believers in national security

– From Gerard Henderson

Apparently having a secure nation is now a contentious issue. Not the methods or resources devoted to it, but turns out only conservatives believe in security. The rest of us are just begging to be invaded I guess. Or perhaps lazily ambivalent, Kevin Rudd & Labor ‘agnostic on security’. Well it’s not a great election slogan…

This in a column which spends a page arguing Turnbull & co should simply abstain from ever voting in the chamber (because people hate knowing what their representatives think or having them actually representing their views in the chamber…), has a very lazy crack at the ABC for liberal bias (ie not even presenting evidence, just suggesting people go and read two interviews) and wisdom such as above gem.

Fairfax has many issues that are curtailing its sales, but I’d wager one key would be the quality of its opinion pages which are in serious need of reform. Of their political writers (a shrinking population given the outsourcing of many columns to wanna-be-but-never-will-be-wits) only their journalists of Hartcher and Crabb provide any interesting commentary. The three conservative ideologues of Henderson, Devine and Sheenan are utterly predictable and avoidable. I enjoy reading good conservative pieces, but in the SMH the quality is pitiful. Fire the lot and hire some young conservative turks to write for the SMH. Find a blogger or someone wanting to break into the industry and they will do it for peanuts.

Promoting Criminals

Since when were potential War Criminals given space in the Sydney Morning Heralds opinion pages to justify their crimes?

Former and current Politicians and Bureaucrats have a lot to offer the public debate via media commentary. But surely at some point, when their motive switches from public debate, to private defense the benefit to the public of such pieces is sufficiently reduced to fall below the threshold of being worth publishing. Particularly when, the piece offers such reasonable analysis as:

“The suggestion that we are safer now because information about interrogation techniques is in the public domain conjures up images of unicorns and fairy dust”.

Which is a complete fabrication of the administrations claims, and a childish inversion designed to ignore the claim that the US using torture made it less safe. Stopping your car from going in reverse does not mean you are actually going forward, but it might help you stay away from the cliff.

Or

“Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the Marquessof Queensberry. “Name, rank and serial number” does not apply to non-state actors but is, regrettably, the only question this Administration wants us to ask”

This from a man who wont call it torture, but instead “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Apparently in Porter Goss’s world, you can only have “enhanced interrogation” or none at all.

But the greatest crime in this article is the constant invoking of Al Qaeda to imply the torture was conducted so as to prevent terrorist attacks. Indeed Goss twice drops the name of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who planned and originated the idea of the 9/11 attacks. Yet as we learnt recently, KSM was waterboarded and was waterboarded 183 within a single month. Was this immediately after capture you may ask? Or perhaps was this in connection with a ‘ticking time bomb’ that this evil terrorist knew the where abouts of?

Nope: It was in August 2002 and March 2003, when the Administration was looking for information to justify its public claim that Al Qaeda was working with Saddam Hussein, and therefore justify its forthcoming invasion of Iraq:

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 — according to a newly released Justice Department document.
“There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder,” he continued.
“Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people were told repeatedly, by CIA . . . and by others, that there wasn’t any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies.”
Senior administration officials, however, “blew that off and kept insisting that we’d overlooked something, that the interrogators weren’t pushing hard enough, that there had to be something more we could do to get that information,” he said.

The US didn’t torture to keep itself safe. It tortured because it could, because it wanted to. As Andrew Sullivan puts it (and his blog has been invaluable in documenting and describing what has happened to America)

“The problem with torture is the enormous damage it does to the possibility of finding the truth. Torture forces a victim to tell his interrogator anything to stop the pain. There may be some truth in the confession but there is also untruth – and no way to tell the two apart. Every experienced interrogator knows this, which is why governments that are concerned with getting at the truth do not use it … The reason totalitarian states use the torture techniques that Bush did is to produce false confessions to create a reality that buttresses their ideology.”

Goss is not contributing to the public debate with todays piece in the SMH. He is trying to protect himself from war crime prosecution. He no more deserves the space in our national newspaper than Ivan Milat or Martyn Bryant ought have it.

Defend your principles not your actions

One clear rhetorical difference between Right-Wing and Left-Wing politicians, is that so often the right when attacked, tends to step back and defend its principles (which are almost impossible to overturn) whilst the Left tends more to want to discuss the context and defend it’s immediate actions. In fact, despite the importance of principles to motivate anyone into politics, especially those seeking social change, you much much more rarely hear them defend their policies on the basis of such principles. If pushed I’d trace this back to the late 1970’s, when the Liberal project began to falter, and the focus turned more to defending what had been won (cultural, racial and gender liberalisation, welfare, workplace rights etc). Not only does this end up re-framing Liberalism as boring defender of the status-quo and coldly technocratic in orientation, it often leads to an opportunity to attack liberals as supporting -in principle- action that is in truth only endorsed because their is no other viable alternative (such as the massive corporate bailouts of Banks and institutions in the USA).

A clear example of this popped up this afternoon, as the Australian Rudd Government sought to defend its self after there had been a small increase in asylum seekers this year, and several were killed just a few days ago when one of the boats carrying people over blew up.

Evans denies seeing report

The Federal Government has denied receiving a report by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) warning the nation’s border protection policies were soft and would increase the number of illegal asylum seekers.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans said his Government had the full support of the AFP.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says people smugglers can ‘rot in hell’ as the Opposition accuses his Government of a ‘soft’ asylum policy.
News Ltd has reported the AFP had delivered secret briefings to senior ministers weeks ago, warning that softer border protection laws would attract more unlawful arrivals.

But Senator Evans said he had not received it.

“I haven’t seen such a report and clearly as the minister responsible I wouldn’t report on such advice,” he told reporters in Perth on Saturday.

“I was at a conference in Bali earlier this week that focused on people smuggling and I was briefed by AFP officers and they say we are making good headway in breaking up people smuggling gangs.”

First note the overblown and childish language from the PM that people smugglers can “rot in hell” so as to defend himself from charges of being weak. PM’s shouldn’t talk like that, and certainly not to defend themselves politically on what is very much a 5-minute issue.

But more important is Evan’s reaction. Even assuming he is telling the truth and had not seen the report, it’s not hard for the opposition to make the case that they had argued this already, that the government had already been told by other sources that these changes were potentially going to increase the number of those who seek to come to these shores. In short, it’s a no win situation for the government, and denying now only delays, and potentially compounds later accusations.

It would have been far better for Evans to simply come out and state the principles which led the Labor party to shut down the abject and inhumane failure that was the Pacific Solution. Evans should have simply re-iterated to the public that ‘There are some lines in the treatment of people who come to these shores, that Australia will not breech’, that ‘Australians expect that their government will treat asylum seekers in a humane and decent manner, and this is far more important than quibbling over how more guns & barbed-wire could have kept a handful more asylum seekers away.’ etc.

By defending the principle that Australian refugee policy ought to be humane in its treatment of applicants, Evans would have returned within the walls of an unbreechable rhetorical castle. Not even Hanson advanced the argument they should be brutalised, and the Liberals under Turnbull wont go anywhere near it. In which case the Opposition would be left trying to meekly argue that tiny minor policy details (like shifting from the navy to customs) are instead the most important issues. Points which will fly over the head of most of the public and be easily open to attack from the Rudd Government. Instead Liberal staffers are this very minute combing every piece of public advice given to the government on this issue, and every opposition statement before the fact suggesting similar results. And heaven help Evans if it turns out that AFP report somehow ended up on a staffers desk in his office and never quite fell before the ministers eyes.

This is a lesson Conservatives like Reagan knew intuitively, and Liberals ought to learn quickly. It makes for better ‘grabs’, it is much harder to argue against, and keeps reminding the public of the link between the politician and the principles they advocate. So defend the principle, not your actions.

Rudd and the Australian Character

The commentariat at large (both the media and blogosphere) seem to be taking a faint air of unreality towards Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s stratospheric poll numbers.Nielson polls put him almost equal to Hawke’s record popularity, whilst Newspoll has Rudd at 67% in the beauty contest of preferred PM. Responding to this Andrew Norton wondered if this was just a Political Bubble:

I don’t think it is just my own political biases that prevent me from seeing what so many voters are seeing. He has none of Hawke’s charisma, none of Keating’s style and wit, none (OK, little) of Howard’s Australian everyman persona. He is our first nerd Prime Minister. I’ve got nothing against nerds. I am one. But I’m amazed that 74% of the Australian public approve of a man who must remind them of the annoying kid in grade 4 who answered all the teacher’s questions.

By some accounts, these numbers are amazing, Australia is in a recession, unemployment is up, and a number of big Rudd policies have stumbled (WorkChoices, National Broadband Network) or fallen over (Net Filter). So why is this nerd-in-chief well liked ? To answer that I want to use a quote from Alan Watt (one of our greatest, though now forgotten diplomats) who penned this sketch in 1967 that seems to age well:

‘The personality of the Australian could scarcely be confused with that of an Englishman by anyone who knew both well; nor was there any lack of pride amongst Australians in their own country and people – indeed, they could more justly be charged with aggressive self-confidence. But Australians, overwhelmingly British in origin, isolated in their island continent from significant contacts with non-british peoples, did not feel the urge to underline in the constitutional field the nationalism they were more than ready to assert on the field of sport. They were pragmatic by tradition, unaccustomed to and thus suspicious of theorising, preoccupied with taming a reluctant continent and with wringing from it the necessary basis for a high average standard of living for the average man, and hesitant to move speedily into new fields of independent thinking and acting.’
– Alan Watt 1967: page 30-31 ‘The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1938-1965. London: Cambridge University Press.

In this way, Australia is quite often ill-served by its commentariate and academy, precisely because the type of people who are inclined towards such issues and theory, are in this and this alone distinct from the community they seek to analyse and understand. The further they remove politics from its current context, the less able they are to clearly define what is happening. This is a burden that falls much more on the progressive movement, as the spirit for change is often easiest motivated in those who want to substantially move beyond mere improvement in the average standard of living. Take H. V ‘Doc’ Evatt. Foreign minister during WW2, a man who set up the entire Labor tradition in Foreign Policy, he was also first president of UN General Assembly, critical in drafting the UN charter and universal declaration of Human Rights, a man who did more than anyone to preserve free speech & the freedom of association in this country in his courageous efforts to stop Menzies ban of the Communist Party in 1951. And twice failed opposition leader and largely forgotten by history. Evatt was a middle class intellectual, it was his embrace of the theoretical that enabled him to see further than perhaps any man of his generation (certainly much further than his great, and much more politically successful opponent Robert Menzies), and yet he was largely unliked by the public and never trusted with the keys to the lodge.

In our Prime Minister, the public want someone who appears to be focusing on the here and now, and who is seeking to deal with the problems in a pragmatic and sensible way. I’ve already critiqued some of the dangers of operating on pragmatism alone, but as a political strategy it is one much closer to the Australian character. Take the man Rudd now nearly equals in popularity: Robert J. Hawke. Hawkey may be remembered today as bobhawkethe man who could scull a yard glass, or told boss’s they were ‘bums’ if they sacked anyone for turning up to work hungover after Australia won the America’s Cup. But, despite this iconic Australiana image, his political character and strategy was of a compromiser and negotiator who would bring people together to solve issues. That was his appeal, that was his claim. It was also the basis of his great successes (such as the Accord), and the means by which he could justify his more radical economic and social reforms (from economic liberalisation, to medicare to HECS). In terms of stereotypes: It was not as a bushman, but as a diplomat that Hawke won over the Australian public.

Rudd is following a similar approach and style to the confusion and anger of his critics. Take the National Broadband Network. Those on the right attacked it as re-nationalisation, those on the left as privatisation, whilst the general public just asked “will it work?”. Rudd may get credit as an intellectual PM, but his real success (like Howard before him, who was just as much a nerd) is that he’s made most people overlook it, and judge him on his policy and approach. Indeed, I think his critics have him backwards, seeing him as an intellectual pretending to be an everyman, when really he is a smart everyman, pretending to be a intellectual. His essay’s are well written (surprisingly moreso than his wooden, boring speeches and doorstop rhetoric), but there is a certain emptyness and lack of driving conviction and argument development that would identify a real first-rate mind at work. Rudd appropriates labels and terms “Christian socialist” “economic conservative” “social democrat” and figures, both Heroes like Andrew Fisher or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or villans such as Friedrich von Hayek, represents a certain undergraduate style of intellectual engagement. At once both passionate, certain and yet single-sided and temporary. Rudd changes and shapes his ideas and idols as they pass through his readings or as suits his political needs, rather than being long term significant life identifying features of his mental landscape.

Rudd’s popularity will slowly fall, the next election will have a few close moments for Labor supporters to bite their fingers during, but if Rudd can remember to stick to the pragmatic tradition of Australian policy making he will do just fine. All to the confusion and frustration of the ideologues and men of ideas who make up the the commentariate. From both the media, but especially the blogosphere and from opponents who warn darkly of his radical moves, to supporters who wish him to get on with actual progressive change.

That moment

Reading the newspaper (the entire newspaper) is a task few of us still endure. Subscription rates are dropping, advertisers fleeing to the internet, and upstart online tabloids like Politico stealing their readers. Still, I try to get through it, but sometimes, seeing sentences like this just makes the task impossible:

Today’s human rights cause du jour – where the rubber hits the road, so to speak – is the human right of bikies to freedom of association. Many of us may question whether the individual right of bikies to gather in drug dens and armed fortresses trumps our human right to avoid getting caught in their crossfire, but more on that later.

All who support a bill of rights and accept such thoughts have ever crossed your mind, please raise your hand. No one?
And this from a piece headlined “Crusaders rely on lies. The author, none other than Janet Albrechtscen, responding to the criticism of Human Rights Lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

This truly is the state of serious journalism in this country…

Pun-ishing the Media

It’s a favourite past-time of bloggers to attack the media. Like a rich kid on daddy’s trust fund, the origin of our wealth and entertainment is also the first target when our bottles run dry. But I wonder how many are bloggers because like me, they couldn’t or wouldn’t make it as a Journalist. So, in a slight change of pace, three cheers for all the journalists out there. From the local city press to the major metropolitan papers and gargantuan TV news programs. Journalists are regularly rated on surveys as being as trustworthy as politicians or used car salesmen. Yet, few of us pause before we take as gospel their reporting when it suits our political and social indulgences and prejudices.

Although this temporary good cheer may just be a cunning excuse to justify posting this punishingly awesome effort from todays The Australian:
couldnt_handel_drink

COMPOSER George Frideric Handel was a binge eater and problem drinker whose gargantuan appetites resulted in lead poisoning that eventually killed him, according to a study.

By the time of his death 250 years ago this month, aged 74, the composer of Messiah had for 20 years been fighting severe health problems, including blindness, gout, bouts of paralysis and confused speech.

According to David Hunter, music librarian at the University of Texas and author of more than 60 articles on Handel, these ailments were all linked to lead poisoning brought on by his notoriously heavy consumption of rich foods and alcohol.

Of Blogging and Wordcounts

This (slightly tongue in cheek) comment by Matthew Yglesias has been getting a bit of notice around the blogs (and bloggers love nothing more than talking about themselves)
matthewyglesiasportrait

Personally, I would love a legal cap on the number of words a blogger is allowed to produce per day. I’m privileged to have a job that I really enjoy. But at the same time, I would prefer to write somewhat less—this pace is stressful and doesn’t leave me as much time to pursue other projects and interests. But though I would prefer to write somewhat less, I have a stronger second-order preference to produce a blog that’s competitive with other major offerings on the internet. And over the years competition between bloggers has led to escalating word-counts. The resulting situation isn’t terrible, there are lots of people you should cry for before you get to me, but basically we bloggers are engaged in a red queen’s race where we all need to keep trying harder and harder just to maintain our positions

It’s a fair point. We like blogs because they can pull together a lot of information quickly on a subject of our interest (such as the hardest working blogger : Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly), and for people such as Yglesias or Andrew Sullivan, that same heavy flow of links is expected to come with regular words of wisdom. Both made their reputation through their insights, and the pressure to always be the one with the sharpest & freshest analysis (if not most controversial so as to be linked everywhere) must be intense. This pace is clearly telling, and not always justified as programs like Google News get better and better at sorting links according to preferences.

In some ways though, Yglesias is living within the “new media” bubble that drove most bloggers into the sphere in the first place. They were not journalists, they were not writers, they were bloggers. They challenged and surfed over the much loathed mainstream media, and provided a new service: Intelligent compilation of links, with sharp insight and analysis. But whilst the technology has been fruitful to such a service, increasingly it is a disappointing approach. Too few links within the last hour, and people will skip your site as they go to talk about the latest piece of hot news. Too many, and the quality of analysis clearly suffers. Whilst I still read Steve Benen and admire his work, I see it as less a blog than a compilation of news, and find his analysis rarely gives insight or triggers new thoughts about a topic. Even my favourite blogger Andrew Sullivan has seemed to recently preference lots of links in favour of his often emotionally compelling pieces on Homosexuality, Religion, Conservatism and the public sphere. Whilst his pace is surely less than it was during the 08 election, I almost cheered upon noticing the other day that he had not posted anything that afternoon. Only to find out a few hours later it was just a tech glitch holding up his flying fingers.
There’s a second problem here, and that is that for every hard working talent like Benen who is paid to do such work, there are tens of thousands of blogs out there that just post a dozen links they like each day, in a search for visitors, and yet remain unread. In this, their role is little better than what a program could do. A friend who blogs has a nice term for such sites: Newsbotting.

Searching through the blogs shows that probably half of them are just dedicated to reporting news (why is it a blog then?) and the other half add no more then about a paragraph onto the actual story itself, most of them just quoting it from another news site verbatim. It would seem that many of them are content to rehash news that anyone in the field would know about already, and hope that they will go to their site rather than someone else’s.

It’s this kind of low value reporting that adds to the noise of the Internet.

The idea that blogs were a new fusion of opinion and reporting is fundamentally wrong. People it seems can do either analysis or report/compile well, but not both. In this, I’d like to see us go back somewhat to the old media’s divide. On one side are writers. People whose production is valued by its quality. Its insight, learning, and understanding of the human condition. On the other side are journalists. People whose production is valued by its quantity (of course requiring a basic level of competence). We value the timeliness, the contact, instant compilation of important data, -filtered or unfiltered- so we are aware of what is going on in the world.

Yglesias doesn’t need a production cap, he just needs to remember that he is valued as a blogger for the insight and analysis he offers. Indeed in this he is one of the sharpest out there, and as a wanna-be competitor I often find myself amazed by the breadth of his knowledge and unique but compelling analysis he has. This is why I read his blog daily. We are probably all too tied to the concept of ‘bloggers’ for it to go. The medium has madeth the man I guess. But a re-branding as a ‘writer’ would give Yglesias a better view of the service he is actually offering, and the irrelevance of word counts to justify such a reputation. Less in this case truly would be more.