Chasing the Norm

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

Category: Australian Politics

The Right and the Bill of Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallipoli, Eureka and Australia’s foundational myths

Last night on the ABC’s Q and A program, the usefulness of Gallipoli as a foundational story of Australia came up repeatedly. Many correctly noted that it is a story which is difficult for migrant Australians or even those born since 1970 to identify with. Everyone knows the strikes against the ANZAC story, they were all male, white, invading a country we had no significant animosity towards, it was a losing effort, and we were forced to undertake it by generals who cared little for our soldiers’ safety. Yet the panel members seemed to both acknowledge this, and see nothing in our history that could replace it. Peter FitzSimons even flat out asked a lady which peacetime heros she would like to replace the ANZACs/soldiers, suggesting only that another fight such as Kokoda could replace it. What surprised me is that no one brought up the story of Eureka, whose appeal is clear in the way Australian organisations from the extreme left through to the far, far right have claimed the flag as their own.

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross By Charles Doudiet


Most should know the basic story. Individual miners during the Gold Rush in Victoria became slowly more outraged and eventually rebelled at the increasing taxation (without representation) on their basic mining rights, along with their inability to vote & restrictions on private property in the face of government and police control. In early November 1854 the miners formed the Ballarat Reform League demanding among other things: full manhood suffrage (though excluding Aborigines), abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament, payment of members of parliament, voting by secret ballot; short term parliaments; equal electoral districts; abolition of diggers’ and storekeepers’ licenses and reform of administration of the gold fields. All are core Australian values, and some that (such as paying parliamentarians and having secret ballots) ideas that Australia can claim as its own contributions to democratic practice and theory worldwide.

After a number of acts of provocation on both sides, the miners gathered on Bakery hill to protest & concerned about attack formed a stockade. At dawn on 3 December 1854, the military attacked, killing 22 and ending the stockade within minutes. But the colonial government finally recognised the miners concerns and changes began to filter down, protecting their rights and restricting the power of local authorities to infringe on individual rights of the miners.

Compared to Gallipoli, Eureka has something for every Australian. Those involved were fighting for a individual rights to conduct free enterprise (in effect they were self-employed small businesspeople), they banded together in solidarity to demand fair working conditions, they were democratic and seeking fair representation & capable administration, they were a very multicultural and multiracial audience (though the Chinese were absent race relations were decent at Eureka) and many women were strongly involved. It was also an episode thoroughly invested in republicanism, a strain of political thought that stretches back to the Greeks and the Romans and insists on diffused power, encouragement of civic virtues and civic education and which informs much of the practice and values of Australian democracy.

Many have previously advocated for Eureka to take a higher place in our history and national story. H.V Evatt (a hero of our current Prime Minister) said Australian democracy was born at Eureka and Prime Ministers such as diverse as Menzies, Chifley and Whitlam all used it heavily in their speeches. Mark Twain even called it the ‘finest thing in Australian History’. And, even the latest ALP candidate for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, contributed to a 2004 book called Imagining Australia which also calls for its revival as the basic story of Australian identity.

Much work would be required to remind Australians of the story, and to extricate it from its claimed position by militant unionists and racist nationalists. But it represents a story all modern Australians can find much to appreciate and find unity with. It deserves to be remembered and re-enter the national debate.

The return of the rank and file

Two significant developments in Australian politics this week may point to a hopeful re-emergence of the rank and file within the ALP, and potentially the Coalition as well. Last night in the ACT, the rank and file voters (572 voted) over-ruled a deal between the factions and chose their own excellent candidates:

Economics professor Andrew Leigh and businesswoman Gai Brodtmann have taken the spoils in two hotly contested Labor preselection battles in the ACT. Labor holds the seats of Canberra and Fraser by comfortable margins, ensuring a hard fought battle for preselection on Saturday.
Canberra was the closest call, with Ms Brodtmann securing just four more primary votes than government adviser Mary Wood before the final distribution gave her a 123 to 109 advantage. In Fraser, Mr Leigh, a professor at Canberra’s Australian National University, had barely more than half the primary votes Nick Martin had accrued….But in an eight-horse race, the independents gave Mr Leigh a winning boost by sending their preferences his way, securing the 37-year-old’s win by 144 votes to 96. Mr Leigh said he felt extraordinarily lucky and humbled by the support.
He paid tribute to his fellow candidates, saying it was terrific battle, fought on “a discussion of big ideas about the future of Australia and what we want to achieve for the country”. His research lies in poverty and disadvantage.
Ms Brodtmann, who runs a communications consultancy business in Canberra with her husband, ABC political journalist Chris Uhlmann, was equally humbled by the victory

Personally I couldn’t be happier about the victory of Andrew Leigh. He is a very hard working, but original thinker and from my limited interactions with him, a great down to earth guy, but I’ll write more on that in a future post. What has national significance is that there had been a factional deal, with the left getting Canberra (and their candidate of Mary Wood) and the Right getting Fraser (Nick Martin). To add further pressure, pre-selectors were expected to vote two at a time and show their vote to the other, a rather outrageous breech of the Australian-pioneered secret ballot. While most party members will object to such factional control, it was particularly the case in the ACT which (remains!) the only area in the country where the rank and file control 100% of the selection. Hence the possibility of an upset like this. Let us hope this will encourage other rank and files around the country to also try and buck the factional heavies. Given that Rudd is not a factional man, and has decided to appoint his cabinet without reference to them, the last few years have seen a few setbacks for the factions and the slight (very slight) chance of a shift in their power.

The other significant news, and one that has significance for both parties is the successful running of the Kilsyth primary in Victoria. Encouraged by Premier John Brumby and for a seat where a 1% swing would cause it to change hands, this could represent a major shift in the way Australian politics operates. Because of the role of the Prime Minister we will never see US style primaries for the leaders of our parties, but a move to primaries to select the local candidates within seats offers both parties a way to re-energise their memberships (which have fallen from involving nearly half the population in the 40′s to just hundreds per seat today). I’ve blogged about this before, but from all accounts the primary seems to have been a success both in encouraging people to vote & energising ALP supporters. If the ALP wins the seat in November’s victorian election, then we may see both major parties starting to move to adopt such an approach. It will be resisted by many especially the factions and groupings which dominate both parties, but it, like the election of Leigh and Brodtmann in the ACT represent a good step forward in ensuring an open and competitive political system in Australia’s major parties.

Update: Some figures from Kilsyth: The branch has boomed from 50 to 300 members, and 170 voted on the day.

Tony Abbot’s Foreign Policy Speech

Tony Abbott is a smart man, but he has something of the the optimists essential flaw of believing there is no trade off between outcomes for different policy options. In his book Battlelines he advocates free market economics and big spending social conservatism without ever noting that they could contradict. Likewise in his speech today for the Lowy Institute, he takes inspiration from the Howard government to argue that Australia should actively promote its values overseas, (and that this is intimately linked to our national security) however he then uses a standard realist framework to reject almost every action of the Keating & Rudd governments as a waste of resources in favour of utopian ideals.

Take this key quote early on in the speech:

There was the massive aid and relief effort to Indonesia in the wake of the East Asian tsunami. All of these were evidence of Australia‟s determination to be a force for good in the wider world and resolve not to leave to others the high task of working for the betterment of mankind wherever we could lend a helping hand….The Howard Government appreciated that Australia‟s national interest could not be pursued oblivious to the big issues of the wider world. It understood, as I‟m sure the Rudd Government does too, that Australia has a clear interest in advancing freedom and decency and in eradicating poverty. One country can hardly transform the planet but, especially in our immediate region, we have a particular obligation to conduct our national security policies consistently with our values. Australia‟s recent work in East Timor not only exemplifies this approach but also illustrates how perceptions of our international role have changed. This would have been a mission inconceivable in the period from Whitlam to Keating, when we were much more equivocal about standing up for our values on the global stage.

While there was a rhetorical shift from the late 1990′s where the Howard Government talked of selling Australian values, while the Keating Government talked about supporting universal values (that were not coincidently also Australian values), at a more fundamental level Abbott’s statement is hard to justify. Leaving East Timor aside for the moment, the previous Hawke-Keating government was consistently attacked by the Coalition for spending too much time promoting “values” overseas, rather than focusing on core national security. The Hawk-Keating Government made the promotion of Australian values central to its foreign policy. It secured restrictions on chemical weapons, launched a major anti-nuclear proliferation campaign, played a fundamental role in the resolution of a peaceful, and eventually democratic government in Cambodia, developed Cairns and APEC to promote free trade, lead & achieved a ban on mining in Antarctica, and Hawke played a big role in getting the Commonwealth to act to overturn apartheid in South Africa. Phew! No wonder Howard came to office promising a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ style of government in response.

So then is Abbott suggesting these acts were not supporting Australian values? While he is clearly trying to be bipartisan in including Fraser in his attack, his comments seem less about partisanship than simply not knowing/ommitting the history. As an aside all the examples he praises seem to involve military troops at work, are they the only tool Australia can use to promote it’s values?. Though quickly after the above quote there is also the equivocation by Abbott that (when speaking about Iraq & Afghanistan) “In neither intervention was Australia seeking to “export democracy” although the removal of abhorrent regimes necessitated the establishment of freer and fairer societies. So was Howard creating a new tradition of activism to support Australian values or was he following a traditional Australian realist path ?(As for East Timor, Howard did the right thing when the opportunity came to promote an independent East Timor arose after Suharto left power in 1998. Before then he followed the same path as his predecessors, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke & Keating. Australia reacted to help secure East Timor’s independence, it is flat out wrong to suggest we initiated their independence.)

Yet despite this priority in favour of values, Abbott takes a standard realist line when it comes to Rudd’s activism:

it‟s hard to see much taxpayer value in the Rudd Government‟s anti-nuclear and Security Council membership campaigns. Over this year and next, the Government is spending $9.2 million to promote nuclear disarmament, much of which will be spent on the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) which Mr Rudd set up in 2008. Of course, anything Gareth Evans and his fellow Commission members could do to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea would be welcome. That prospect, though, seems unlikely and, meanwhile, the Commission uses taxpayer dollars to promote the improbable notion of a world free of nuclear weapons. It‟s largely a replay of the Keating Government‟s futile Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. A Coalition government would re-consider whether this body makes any useful contribution to Australia‟s non-proliferation objectives.

Abbott’s last sentence “Australia’s non-proliferation objectives” seem an endorsement of the goal, but he regards the Canberra Commission as futile and the new ICNND little better. Yet Australia really doesn’t have many other good options if it is to actually pursue such an objective. Abbott shouldn’t be expected to have read the ICNND (I havn’t fully!), but his Foreign Minister & advisors ought to know that the idea of a nuclear free world is a very minor part of a report whose main focus is on action in 2010 and through till 2020. Likewise Abbott correctly notes that the Howard Government, like Rudd today, made a bid for a UN seat (he deserves brownie points for leaving this in) however he derides it as “all for an uncertain purpose other than a nebulous sense of temporarily enhanced international status”. Surely if Australia is to ensure we are not “oblivious to the big issues of the wider world” and going to link our national security interests with our values a UN seat is a valuable opportunity to do so.

While the opposition is unlikely to try and use foreign policy as part of their election campaign, there are two differences between Rudd & Abbott where I think Abbott has the better position: First Abbott should be applauded for calling for the Rudd government to increase its troops in Afghanistan if only to take responsibility for our own security in the Oruzgan province. Secondly, Abbott rightly chides the Rudd government for its refusal to sell uranium to India. Though this is offput by the claim that: ‘The Obama Government in America has accepted that India could not sign the NPT (because it possesses nuclear weapons)’. In fact all five security council nuclear states, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, have signed the NPT. Possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t prevent you signing, but rather not accepting the verification & audit process. Still Abbott should be applauded as India is a careful, non-proliferating country and selling uranium to India is not only good business, but will help patch over an important but troubled relationship between our two countries.

As The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen notes, this was a ‘safe’ speech which seemed largely dedicated to defending the Howard government. Very rarely did Abbott venture to say how a Coalition government would do things differently to Rudd, and where he did, it was entirely in line with Howard’s previous choices. Pleasantly this seems to have lent the speech a positive tone (at least in the reading), with Abbott almost unwilling to criticize Rudd. Certainly the harsher lines of his foreign affairs ministers were absent. And to his great credit, he actually tackled foreign policy issues, instead of just using the speech to talk about boat people (as happened while Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was present in the House of Representatives).

It’s great to see Abbott finally talking about foreign policy and security issues, and I recommend everyone interested takes the few minutes to read it in full. But you can sense his discomfort with some of the material, and the inherent contradiction between wanting an Australia that involves itself in global issues and promotes its values, while denigrating anything that goes beyond a cautious realist framework is never addressed. Like Howard in 1995 or George Bush in 2000, you can win office without a strong background in foreign policy, but both men quickly appointed expert advisors to help them through it. That act of delegation, rather than knowing the unner details of the NPT treaty will be the real test of Abbott’s leadership in foreign policy in the lead up to the 2010 election.

Update: Peter Hartcher stresses that now both parties are committed to promoting values ie norm entrepreneurship, while Danniel Flitton argues Abbott’s talk of an anglosphere is outdated and presents a false choice between bilateral and multilateral ties.

The rise of the seniors party

All political parties like to try and appeal to specific demographic groups, the Greens especially target the young, ALP its younger, outer suburbs ‘working families’. The Coalition is however making a pitch for the biggest of them all: Seniors

No more dole, Tony Abbott warns the under-30s
EXCLUSIVE: Andrew Burrell From: The Australian April 21, 2010 12:00AM
TONY Abbott has proposed banning the dole for people under 30 in a bid to entice the unemployed to head west and fill massive skill shortages in the booming resources sector.
The Opposition Leader made the controversial remarks during a two-hour meeting with about 15 senior resources industry leaders in Perth on Monday night.
Mr Abbott told the roundtable briefing he believed stopping dole payments to able-bodied young people would take pressure off the welfare system and reduce the need to bring in large numbers of skilled migrants to staff mining projects.
Six of the attendees confirmed yesterday that Mr Abbott had raised the idea of banning welfare payments for young people to encourage them to fill the thousands of jobs emerging in states such as Western Australia and Queensland.
“He said he was thinking more and more about it, with a view to formulating something on it,” said one of the participants, who asked not to be named. Another recalled: “He definitely said it was something he was considering as a policy.”
A third executive said: “It certainly wasn’t a throwaway line. He brought up the issue twice during the meeting.”

This is partially overbearing paternalism of the sort Abbott first championed with his work for the dole scheme back in 1999/2000, and partly a desperate (and unworkable) attempt to find a local solution to the skills shortage given his party’s desire to cut back on migration, but it should also be seen as a bold pitch to position the Liberal Party as The Seniors Party. And why wouldn’t you:

From the Treasury Dept:
In 1970-71, 31 per cent of the population was aged 15 years or younger, while by 2001-02 this proportion had dropped to 22 per cent. The proportion of Australia’s population aged over 65 years has grown from 8 per cent in 1970-71 to 13 per cent in 2001-02. The IGR projects that over the next 40 years, the proportion of the population over 65 years will almost double to around 25 per cent. At the same time, growth in the population of traditional workforce age is expected to slow to almost zero. This is a permanent change. Barring an unprecedented change in fertility rates, the age structure of the population is likely to stabilise with a far higher proportion of older Australians.

Via Pollytic’s Demographics bar we can see the Coalition already captures 53% of the vote of those 55+, but with that group doubling in size (and there being no tests for mental competency before voting for the elderly) locking them in now ensures long term political gain.

One of the virtues of having two major parties (and part of the reason I still strongly defend the system) is that it forces both parties to govern ‘for all of us’ to use the Coalitions 1996 slogan. But as one age group bulges in relative size, there comes the temptation to focus on that group first and foremost. It probably won’t change its name, but this policy to me signals a sign the Liberal Party is aiming to become The Seniors Party. Done clumsily this could rebound (as I think Abbott’s paternalism here will), but in the hands of a skillful operator it could prove a significant shift in the image and appeals of our parties, even if both have already been lavashing seniors for a fair while (trying to rise house prices, increased pensions, one off election time handouts etc). This may be the future of the Conservative side of politics. Having flirted with economic rationalism from 1977 to 2007 (no-coincidence the period John Howard was a major influence in the party), it seems now to be retreating to protectionist, primary industry focused insular economics and social policy. They will be the party of the closed Australia. In attitude, economics & border.

Then again the leaders in this may well have been The Nationals, just check out their latest advertisement (Below the Fold). Their is a token minority in the add, but their pitch is aimed almost entirely to the elderly & white.

Read the full article »

First, but least in the nation

Overnight, US President Obama stepped in to support the rights of citizens of Washington D.C

The White House released this statement by President Obama urging Congress to grant voting representation to residents of Washington, D.C.:

“On this occasion, we remember the day in 1862 when President Lincoln freed the enslaved people of Washington, DC – nine months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. I am proud that an original copy of that document now hangs in the Oval Office, and we remain forever grateful as a nation for the struggles and sacrifices of those Americans who made that emancipation possible.

“Americans from all walks of life are gathering in Washington today to remind members of Congress that although DC residents pay federal taxes and serve honorably in our armed services, they do not have a vote in Congress or full autonomy over local issues. And so I urge Congress to finally pass legislation that provides DC residents with voting representation and to take steps to improve the Home Rule Charter.”

Given the presidents courage, it would be nice to see a similar statement from his close friend Kevin Rudd to support the rights of Canberran citizens. Canberran residents are the least represented citizens in the country. In the House of Representatives,the Seats of Canberra and Fraser are some of the largest in the country in population size (With 122′000 and 116′000 respectively) when the AEC tries to maintain all electorates at a much lower level. (Indeed the NT with 200′000 citizens gets 2 seats, the ACT with 325′000 also gets 2 seats, and Tasmania with 480′000 gets 5 seats.
A similar pattern (though even more disadvantageous!) occurs in the Federal Senate with the ACT gaining only 2 senators for our population, with Tasmania and all other States enjoying 712 senators. Finally, when it comes to Federal Referendums, residents of the ACT are given only a half vote. A referendum needs to pass a majority of states, and a majority of australian citizens to be made law. Yet votes from the ACT are not counted as representing an area in their own right, and only contribute to the overall majority.

Not only is the principle strong, but it makes good politics as well. A further seat for Washington will surely become a safe democratic seat, as would a third one for Canberra, and fixing the gerrymandering of the states ought to be a long term ALP goal (or goal for any who care about popular representation given that the major parties split the ACT’s senate seats).

Racists have rights too

This apparently is the political story of the day:

A member of the Queensland Young Liberal National Party faces expulsion after he called Barack Obama a monkey on a social networking site.
Scores of party members this morning called on the party senior executive to immediately dismiss Nick Sowden, president Rod Schneider told brisbanetimes.com.au.
Sowden last night posted messages on Twitter while the United States president was being interviewed on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.
“I’m not sure why they paid kerry to fly to america, if they wanted an interview with a monkey surely a Ferry to Taronga would have sufficed,” one tweet said.
“If I wanted to see a monkey on TV id watch Wildlife Rescue,” said a second.

Snowden’s deleted his twitter account and seemingly his facebook too, and set up a lame defence (via the excellent 2UE reporter @latikambourke) “He says it was just a joke for friends which we’ve ‘unfortunately,’ taken out of context.”

But Snowden did say one sensible thing: “it’s a sad day for free speech if the Twitterverse is going to be policed Stazi-style. Says best to have a fake Twitter name.”

What’s really problematic about this is that we have our press jumping up and down over a dumb racist comment by a nobody. Why should we care if he’s a racist? Why should we care if he’s an idiot. It’s not that we have better things to do (from taxes to nukes to healthcare), but rather that he’s allowed to be a fool if he wants, and this mass peer pressure via our media onslaught is just an example of tyranny of the majority at work. Even if its for a good cause – rooting out racist in our major parties, it’s still unacceptable and base mob behaviour.

Over at Catallaxy recently was the argument coherently put (this time about emails encouraging Earth Hour) that classical liberals don’t worry about non-governmental pressure. And generally thats true (such that if your boss is announces he is going to pay you you 3c an hour, that should be nobody elses problem), but there is also in the John Stuart Mill tradition of liberalism a worry just as much that public opinion can be just as coercive as a government regulator. Indeed Mill devotes the majority of his brilliant ‘On Liberty’ to the question of public pressure, rather than legal coercion.

This of course is not to endorse either snowdens comments, nor the inferiority complex that seems to lead conservatives everywhere to claim they are a minority under attack, and whose conspiracy theories on everything from global warming to Obama’s citizenship ought to be given equal place in our debates. It’s not. But it is a reminded that as our technology to disseminate opinions grows larger & quicker, the role of peer pressure does too. Often this will be for the good, encouraging nation states and societies to stop human rights abuse & give up their inhumane weapons of mass destruction, and to support a pluralist, tolerant society. But if we find ourselves jumping up and down over every little idiot we are simply going to encourage the belief that there’s a virtue in holding minority views no matter how illogical and immoral they are, and giving significantly more attention and hence support to such views as well. In a free society, this kid has the freedom to be an idiot. We should celebrate that by freely ignoring it, and knowing that in this case, even his friends quickly called him on his “joke”. Job done.

What is the Coalition’s foreign policy?

There is a good piece in this mornings Canberra Times (no online copy) by the up & coming Australian academic Carl Ungerer arguing that the debate about foreign policy has effectively been forgotten, with even the arguments about boat people reduced to simply questions of Australian control, without international or regional reference.

Ungerer lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the Liberal Party, and it’s a fair cop. A look at the National Security page on the Liberal party homepage is almost exclusively focused on immigration and border protection (against migrants). Likewise when the President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke before the Australian Parliament, the only topic the leader of the Opposition raised was that of asylum seekers. Obviously Indonesia is critical to that question, but issues such as when Indonesia will pass laws criminalising people smuggling (as the Howard government convinced much of the region to do in 2002-2006) were entirely absent.

The media must also wear some blame, given the way they let economics crowd out all other issues. Economics is critical, but every Australian government since time immemorial has said national security is the primary role of government.

While a February Newspoll showed that the Rudd government was slightly behind on national security, the latest Essential Report (PDF) presents a very different story) when people are asked specifically about foreign policy (H/T Crikey):

The Prime Minister scores strongly in terms of approval of his handling of foreign relations, with 50% approving and 32% disapproving, although the result tends to follow party lines. Labor also holds a strong lead (41-27%) over the Coalition in terms of who is trusted more on handling foreign affairs, with 22% saying no difference — suggesting the Howard Government’s strong record on foreign relations and national security has faded from memory…. Voters’ responses on individual countries also suggests why the Government has developed a strong reputation on foreign affairs. Asked how important relations with a number of countries were, 59% said close relations with the United States were very important, 56% said New Zealand and 51% said China. While the Rudd Government has had difficulties in its relationship with Beijing, it has also been associated with increased Chinese investment and the Prime Minister’s personal connections with the country. Rudd also quickly established a good relationship with President Obama, especially through the GFC and the establishment of the G20 as the primary international economic grouping.Moreover, 33% of voters actually want Australia to have a closer relationship with China

One explanation for this shift may be the loss of Malcolm Turnbull who had a much more worldly image than the more parochial Abbott, but primarily it seems the mere fact Rudd brings both experience and gets to daily implement foreign policy (even if commentators are only giving him about a B+), along with the noted gap in interest let alone policy by the opposition which have lead to this clear result. Labor will also be hoping that with Fitzgibbon’s resignation from Defence fading, and recent changes to slow the influx of boat people will further cement their dominance.

The only really odd part is that with such dominance and the coalition showing no ability to fight back, why isn’t Rudd doing even more to attack the coalition on such issues. Obviously he ought not go as far as Keating did to Howard in 1996 by claiming Asia wont work with Abbott, but he can suggest that only he would be able to extract the most benefit for Australia from our regional links due to his stronger knowledge of the region.

Meanwhile, Rudd is far from bulletproof on this. He hasn’t -yet-dedicated the resources to the role he has endorsed for Australia as a ‘creative middle power’, and his goals sometimes clash, His desire to stop whaling has hurt the relationship with the Japanese, which is crucial to help his vision of a new Asia Pacific Community; meanwhile his relationship with China is even harder due to his attempt to earn a UN seat. These are worthy goals, but his overall competence could be challenged. Let’s hope Abbott & Bishops policy boffins are paying attention and writing a policy displaying at least some level of overall strategic thought to deliver prior to the election (And with the highly capable former International Relations academic Senator Russel Trood in their ranks its a crime the Coalition has been so woeful and quiet on foreign policy issues). But they’ll need to hurry as time is surely running out and public perceptions solidifying.

The mis-steps of a young romeo named Tony

In many ways John Howard governed like a man with a wife (business) and a mistress (populist conservatives). This charming little solicitor from sydney was surprisingly adept at keeping his two partners happy, ensuring they were kept well apart, and each receiving equal, though carefully chosen presents. Of course his wife and mistress knew of each other (how could they not), but they forgave him, so long as he got the anniversaries right.

In 1998 Howard gave the big present to the wife via a GST, while his temperamental mistress flirted with a firery red-head from Queensland. Some begging on his part, and the smooth flow of cheaper petrol however saw the mistress returning to his embrace. In 2001, he shifted gears and the mistress got the big present: a gift wrapped Pacific Solution. The wife was consoled with an item that cost more but didn’t sparkle so bright: a healthy stock-portfolio and significant overall rises in migration levels. All was right in his happy little world, with three being perfect company. 2004 was perhaps the easiest anniversary of them all, as an arrogant young knight beat on the doors and stomped around outside, sending both partners running into his protecting arms. Of course, such happiness was not to last, and the once spritely charmer with lush eye-brows begun to tire. Before he left for that eternity in the members stand at the cricket, he decided to pass on the phone numbers of his two lovers & some tips to a young apprentice he had been grooming named Tony. While others desperately bid for his place, he was sure that if any man could look after his beloveds it would be Tony.

Only our young would-be Romeo, now finally able to take his place, has forgotten the old mans wise words and gotten himself utterly entranced by the mistress. Despite the old mans concern, Tony has seemingly forgotten the former wife and set off to shower the mistress with gifts. First offering her paid time off to manage any kids, and now a quieter environment with far less noisy neighbors. Meanwhile he has redoubled his efforts to keep himself fit and healthy, to ensure the mistress see’s his virility. She has, and is impressed.

But watching from the up-story apartment window, the ex-wife has noticed. She’s not quite the bombshell she once was, and the legacy of a near-stroke in 2008 still stings. But she was here first, and still to her mind is the prettiest of them all. More importantly she also has the old mans fortune and can give it to whoever she chooses.

Not that she thinks much of Tony’s rival, a nerdy suitor by the name of Kevin. She had largely ignored his early claims of fidelity, (wisely) as that too was broken in 2008, though he still claims it was for her own good. Yet as she watches a Lycra-clad Tony stretch and limber himself up, still trying to impress the younger mistress, she turns over the paper with Kevin’s number on it. Maybe she should give him a call, he after all has keys to a Bentley, and all Tony can offer her is his rotten bike. Yes, she will call him, but maybe after one more Gin & Tonic, after all, the sun is still up in the land of the lucky country.

Why Rudd needs to attend Obama’s Nuke Summit

Via The Lowy’s Rory Medcalf, comes this possibility that Kevin Rudd may miss Obama’s mid April Nuclear Summit:
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Turnbull leaves

It was expected but the departure today of Malcolm Turnbull from Australian politics is still sad. Whether you agreed with him, or if you think he would have been a good PM or not, he was a highly talented Australian trying to enter our turgid political world and make a difference. Unfortunately the legacy of this brilliant, optimistic, have-a-go characters time in office will be to entrench further cynicism. Politics in this country is being left to the political class. As one of them, I stand to benefit, but as a watcher of politics, and as an Australian, I’m far the worse off. So rather than turn over his chances of becoming NSW premier (as I’d once hoped) or debate who the winners and losers of this are in the eternal horse race, I want to post a highlight from Malcolm Turnbull’s time in politics:

In that speech you see all of the potential for a true leader. Rudd may rationally know the right thing to do, but Turnbull was able to feel and demonstrate it too. He was far too impatient, his judgement at times was horrible, but had he entered politics earlier, or taken more time to learn the industry, he could have been a great Prime Minister. Now he leaves to be simply an interesting, talented Australian. That’s not a bad legacy.

Is there a doctor in the country?

Fewer Aussies are undertaking PhD’s, leaving the spots to international students

AUSTRALIA has become heavily dependent on overseas students to tackle PhDs in the hard sciences as locals choose well-paid industry jobs over insecure careers in research, according to a new analysis.
Working with customised official data for 2002-08, Dr Birrell showed 142 per cent growth in PhD starts by onshore international students in the natural and physical sciences (357 more students in 2008 than in 2002), compared with 7 per cent for locals (80 more students).

In engineering and related technologies, locals were down by 19 per cent (116 fewer students) and overseas students up by 161 per cent (350 more). The strongest growth for locals was in creative arts, up 39 per cent, although the absolute numbers remain small (91 more). Dr Birrell said the weakness of local PhD starts during the past few years represented a sharp reversal after healthy growth from the late 1980s through to late 90s, when economic growth and job opportunities were patchy.
But in recent times, at least until the global financial crisis, students emerging with a bachelor’s degree in some sciences and engineering could choose between decent starting salaries in industry or poorly paid entry to an insecure career as a researcher.

The report focuses on the ‘hard’ sciences, but in my own department of Business & Government, again there seems a 70/30 split of International Post-grad students over Domestic. That’s a problem when their knowledge, skills and training will leave the country upon completion, with Australia receiving only a very indirect benefit (since they pay their way and hopefully will retain & encourage good will in the region towards Australia)

It’s no surprise really, given that even if you are lucky enough to win an Australian Post-Graduate Award Scholarship, your income is effectively on the poverty line .

This is not a woe is me post, you undertake a PhD because you love the field, the lifestyle, and after graduation significantly better salaries are on offer, and I couldn’t ask for a better occupation right now. To its credit, the Rudd Government has raised the award slightly for 2010, with promised rises beyond that. But as much as money, the lack of interest by domestic students is also significantly cultural too. We no longer have a government which prefers people do hairdressing instead of PhD’s, but the current prime minister doesn’t seem too keen on them either (Rudd denied the accusations when asked some weeks back on the ABC’s insiders program, though made no effort to argue for PhD’s either). Australia likes to think of itself as the clever country, and vigorously supports university education for all and sundry. Yet when it comes to the highest level of education, there seems a sense people are bludging from life and wasting tax payer money.

Options such as giving residency to successful international postgrad students may help temporarily. However, the number one problem across Australian education is the lack of respect it has in the community. We see less people wanting to be teachers, vast cultural groups simply ignoring education as anything more than a mandatory duty till aged 18, and many talented and bright future researchers and university lecturers leaving for the quick money and respect of industry/overseas jobs. For once, the Australian government can make a big social and future economic prosperity change without spending a cent. It just needs the courage to return the role of education to its rightful place in society’s respect. That’s a goal fundamental to both conservative and liberal ideologies, it just needs a spokesman. That truly would be an education revolution.

The roof (price) is on fire

A ripper of an article by Tim Colebatch on the distortions in our housing sector:

In one swoop, it [Government] should remove the two big tax distortions of the market. End the exemption of the family home from capital gains tax. End the tax break for negative gearing – or limit it to new homes built by the investor. And, at the very least, require temporary residents to report their property purchases, so we can know whether we have a problem or not.

Over time, those changes will bring down housing prices relative to income. Tax breaks for housing have inflated house prices. Phase them out, and prices will fall back into a range that ordinary people can afford.Last week, the Tax Office reported that at least 1.2 million Australians – one in every 10 taxpayers – are now negatively geared landlords…since negative gearing was restored in 1987, this tax break and the decision to halve the tax rate on capital gains have seen investors’ share of finance to buy existing homes jump from 8 per cent to 40 per cent. Those squeezed out were first home buyers.

Importantly, Colebatch also dispatches three common arguments you hear from investors to justify their attachment to the government teat – That changes would reduce the number of rental properties available (it’ll also reduce the number of renters), that it was a bad idea in 1985 (everything was with 17% rates) and that it would just push investors into other sectors (good). But read the piece for the details.

Having rising house prices is a very good way for governments to ensure that (most) people feel financially better off than three years ago. Yet this has lead to a fundamental distortion of the market. Even after one of the worst financial crises in history, of which this country barely escaped, house prices still rose an average of 13.6% across our capital cities.

As a result of this policy, whilst an aging population are sitting on slowly growing wealth (which is largely locked up and hence wasted capital) we are paying higher taxes, higher rent, see significantly tougher conditions for students/the poor/migrants, and experience a lack of investment in other sectors of the economy which is needed for future prosperity (in part to help pay the pensions/nursing home subsidies of this same aging population).

If you can invest now instead of renting, you’d be a fool not to, but the housing market needs a fundamental re-alignment. While most libertarians saw the potential price crash as the silver lining of the GFC, most governments couldn’t face the idea (or accept the hardships) of such a drop. But some reduction in altitude is needed, Rudd won’t this election year, but maybe in 2011 with 3 years to explain it. It’s a hard choice, but thats what governing is all about.

The physicality of leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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