Chasing the Norm

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

Month: May, 2009

Government not Guns

What We Could Learn from the Taliban on Governance

It is not news that swaths of Afghanistan — particularly rural Pashtun areas in the south — now fall under the influence of the Taliban’s “shadow government.” What has been overlooked is why. Force certainly plays a part as the Taliban conquers new territory. But it’s the insurgents’ management structure — one that supplements rather than supplants existing tribal structures — that explains the Taliban’s staying power. NATO and Kabul aren’t being outfought in Helmand; they’re being outgoverned.

If NATO and the Afghan government want to cement any future military gains in the south, they will have to offer an alternative to justice à la Taliban. The official answer is to build up the nascent Afghan court system — a near impossible long-term task unlikely to win hearts and minds anytime soon. Realistically, another option would work far better: accept informal local and tribal courts as reality and explore new avenues of interaction and, possibly, support. …Relying on traditional mediation under tribal or religious elders is hardly a radical idea; the U.S. military in Iraq has been doing it for years. In areas with strong tribal authority and sparse government representation, U.S. military units have been walking a tightrope — implicitly allowing tribal law while halting any excesses. In Afghanistan, the existence of local courts is a fait accompli — the only question is who will influence them, NATO or the Taliban?
– Patrick Devenny is an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are his own.

The line in Italics rather overplays the comfort of the US with such behaviour. Outside isolated Special Forces working on their own initiative, for most of the past 6 years tribal groups have been seen as hostile and contrary forces to be overcome in the development of a modern, democratic, capitalist Iraq. It was only in mid 2006 that the US began to include tribal groups as serious partners, and recognise the role these groups played in Iraqi society. The error for this process was not just the army, but came from the top down, where so strong was the desire to present the occupation as an easy task that Iraq was painted as a modern society, just caught under a brutal leaders control. Well it was, but even in cosmopolitan Baghdad many still identified with tribal groups, and out in the sticks the tribe was far far more important than any supposed border line on the map or identification on the passport.

But that aside, Devenny’s point is a good one and gratifying to see expressed publicly. Not only is this a battle of that boring old cliche ‘hearts and minds’ but this is in fact the main battlefield for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contrary to the views of many Iraq (and Afghanistan) were always winnable fights (and still should be). There was nothing automatic about the stumbles, violence and failings exhibited by the US in these countries. And whilst some on the left might urge adoption of such a view so as to help prevent further foolish Neo-Con adventures, it would be wise to remember such a view would do more to prevent and stop humanitarian interventions from occurring, than it would to stop wars which the right will always seek to sell as existential threats (and words dont even begin to explain the strangeness of seeing the proliferation of the term ‘existential’ amongst arch conservatives. But such are the small laughs of life).
The US will win in Iraq and Afghanistan when the average citizen decides that their best interests in food, shelter, security, services and economic opportunity lie with supporting the west. Until then, they will happily (and wisely) give their support to whoever can best provide (or intimidate away from an alternate choice). That is why so many in Iraq went from supporting the invasion in the early days of 2003 to taking up arms in 2004. They felt betrayed and abandoned by a occupying power which cared naught for governance or service provision (instead it assumed a combination of exiled leaders and a ultra-free market could resurrect a broken society). They were not pre-formed terrorists but often ‘accidental guerrillas’

This isn’t an easy choice morally or ideologically. Tribal groups will use measures we can’t endorse, and will at times lead their people and countries away from the ideals of democracy and capitalism which we seek. But whilst these are our ideals, they can only be achieved once the country has stability and security. We have to have faith in the power of ideas that we can allow countries to wander from the path in search of the essentials until the inevitable rise of the middle class will demand public involvement in the political process and a higher standard of prosperity. Until then, we just have to do what we can to aid and supplement the systems the locals want, rather than imagining that we can replace then and leave. The alternative, never expressed but oft thought of just shooting until the system works can never work. For all the power of violence, no country has ever or at any time been ruled through it. This is the mirage of material power. Whilst the dominant view of power in International Relations, read carefully any of the major realist thinkers like Carr, Morgenthau or Waltz and you will find whispered agreement. Even tyrants like Stalin and Saddam can not bring a fist against every single individual who might object to their rule. Instead they use violence in a complex network of power that acts to legitimise their rule, provide clear lines of authority, and most importantly justify and persuade people that this rule was in their interest. In the end these forces work to convince the people themselves that this is the right way to run a country. Countries are socialised to tyranny, not brutalized. It is through governance, not guns that you bring a country under control, and good to see the US recognising that.

The virtue of hard work

From a rather standard anti-welfare piece:

The apparently simple act of tending a public park in Moree or repairing an aged pensioner’s roof in Gunnedah provides someone with a sense of purpose and belonging. In “remote” and “non-remote” towns, the programs have given many Aboriginal people a reason to get up in the morning.

Mark Coulton MP is the author and makes a fair case that Rudd is mistaken in closing down some of the community development employment programs in indigenous communities. Yet can we finally call an end to that old tired, and patronising cliche that the mere act of forced labour will give people purpose and meaning in their lives. It is a line you only ever see come from those who have never faced such demands themselves, and when accompanied by a Government Ideology and Rhetoric of ‘Responsibility’ (as it was under Howards Work for the Dole scheme) serves only to deliver a message of punishment melted out to those who need assistance.

People acquire purpose and meaning in their lives when they are able to make choices in their lives, and pursue an opportunity they recognise could be fulfilling. All of us have likely found that some job or act pushed upon us was much more enjoyable than previously thought, perhaps even enough to make us think this could be a career opportunity (for instance I fell into Academia, I never sought it out). However that is not comparable to being forced to jump through hoops just so you can keep surviving on a menial income.

These programs work most when there is the possibility that in fixing roofs or gardening in parks that real jobs and opportunities will be awaiting at the end either through contacts made or skills earnt. That is, as if it were one of the very same training programs poo-pooed by the government as a crimp on the tax payers. Only this time, instead of the people running the program trying proactively to pass on skills and contacts, you have to await those involved to pick up the incentive and motivation to seek these things out. In short, whatever is good about this program is found in an environment often actively working to counter those impulses.

Coulton makes a good argument about some of these specific programs and individual circumstances, and the problem of welfare dependence is one way way too many on the left ignore or place in the too-hard basket. We need to do better, and need to address these issues. To make welfare systems a trampoline that bounces people back up into society as quickly as possible. That should be the aim and intention of all these programs. But it’s not enough. Along side it has to be provision to provide opportunities and choices for all members of society in the way that the middle and upper class largely take for granted. Want to know why so few of their members end up on welfare ? It’s less hard work, talent or different virtues, but instead a world view that is pregnant with possibilities. Hence the loss of one job is simply the chance to pursue another path, or perhaps just comes buffeted with the assurance that another source of employment will come along shortly. With such a world view, people are willing to risk, to change, and to dream. They are able to try their hand at new chances and in that occasionally find their true purpose and meaning, with not only financial but social support around them. But for some in society, where not only are accounts empty, but families divided, then such risks are foolish, such dreams distracting, and every inch gained has to be held onto for dear life, lest the slide back start to pick up pace. It is world view as much as anything that determines the winners and losers in this life, and in that whilst the Government can not help everybody, it has to realise the multifaceted ways in which it needs to approach and deal with this issue. Simply putting the unemployed up on ladders in the bleeting sun, or forcing them to pick up rubbish in parks simply will not do it.

And that dear readers is post 100 on the new home for the blog. This blog has been hard work at times, but I’m really enjoying it. It certainly has helped give my time more meaning and opportunity, but it’d be a hell of a punishment if forced on someone. If you have any suggestions, comments or feedback, please feel free to drop me an email at the address up on the top right of your screen. Thank you for reading, and now on with the penning of the next post.

A foreign saftey net

Alexander Downer is onto something here:

I was in Lebanon the other day and went down to the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre. They’re fascinating places – old Crusader castles, bustling souks, colourful little food stalls with generous owners offering you a taste of their wares.

But I couldn’t help remembering the awful events in those same places three years ago when Israel went to war with Hezbollah.

There were said to be 20,000 Australians in Lebanon at that time and a hefty percentage of them were demanding the Australian Government save them and fast.

Lebanese support groups hit the airwaves screaming that the Government was too slow getting those Australians who wanted to be evacuated to safety. But hang on, Australia’s about 15,000km from Lebanon and we don’t dock ships in the eastern Mediterranean ready to ferry Australians to safety.

And there was something else. We’d issued a travel advisory months earlier warning Australians of the dangers of southern Lebanon and the risks of going there.

It didn’t matter – apparently we had to get them out.

The mother of a friend of mine was in DFAT and ended up being one of the many officials involved in helping this evacuation. Called away in the middle of the night, it was her task to help hire boats and get people from Lebanon to Australia. Telling them to be responsible for their situation apparently wasn’t permissible. And in the press little thanks went her way for the rescue efforets.

Going overseas following the end of education is one of Australia’s great traditions and a credit to this nation. I went on a similar journey in 2007, and everywhere people remarked and loved the idea that Australians would finish school then jet overseas for a few months to find themselves and try to get to grips with the wider world. Yet this independence was always slightly buffeted by the knowledge that we had a professional diplomatic service who would invest significant resources in ensuring our safety and passage home. It was a security blanket we didn’t praise but still needed.

Yet Downer is right that this is an increasing draw on the resources of DFAT, not only because of the changing numbers and attitudes of Australians overseas, but also the media frenzy that follows any Australian in strife overseas (though the younger, female and blonder the better it seems). Yet it is also note worthy that Downer whilst in Opposition encouraged a public reliance on Government, and attacked his opposing number Gareth Evans for caring too little about ‘ordinary australians’.

Once again this presses the case for a critical new investment in DFAT. Over the period 2001-2008 DFAT saw it’s total budget decline 1.2%, it’s spending on traditional and public diplomacy drop 28% and, it’s spending on consular efforts (like keeping aussies out of foreign jails) jump 32%. Clearly without a significant increase in revenue, such changes are unsustainable and going to come at the cost of other diplomatic efforts. Hugh Whites paper on this issue is perhaps the best recent discussion of the issue, but reveals the difficulty of setting any clear boundaries. The government both needs to encourage self-reliance yet can never say “No” to a stranded Australian, nor especially those in groups stuck in conflicts not of their own making such as the Lebanon conflict. And finally, however guilty and pathetic, there is also the capacity of the media to whip up a storm which the government will be simply be powerless but to respond to.

Obviously a message of self-resilience and paying for their own travel insurance will be needed. But this is also something that will just have to be accepted by governments, and require significant additional spending. The real cost however is less the time & effort of diplomats, than the potential risk to trade and social links between Australia and regional countries. That is the real risk governments face going to the mat to defend and speedily return home Australians who have acted up overseas. And not one easily overcome or solved. Every case will still require case by case circumstances to overcome, allowing for emotional families or sensationalist media figures to revile in.

The worst good news

Poor Malcolm Turnbull:

Opposition leader and Liberal top-dog Malcolm Turnbull re-entered the BRW Rich 200 list this year after a four-year absence, ranking number 182 with wealth of $178 million based on his property and funds investments.

The Federal Opposition Leader, who is the MP for Wentworth based in Sydney’s richest eastern suburbs, wouldn’t comment on his net worth when he spoke to reporters today.

Businessman Richard Pratt died just four weeks short of being named the richest person in Australia. His son Anthony now tops BRW’s Rich 200 list.
”They have no idea. It is a speculative figure,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Not exactly news any politician would want. But then again part of Malcolm’s charm is that he can tell a honest tale of someone who grew up in pretty average surrounds, yet managed to make it to the top of legal and financial circles through his energy, talent, hard work and charisma. That is a powerful story, and he should be looking to Obama’s use of personal narrative as party slogan as much as possible. It certainly is an appealing story to the younger Gen-X/Y generations who might nominally support Rudd, but could be swayed.

I was reading the other night in Megalogenis’s ‘The Longest Decade’ that the Liberal Party in 1996 was considering running add’s against Keating showing his two properties, along with the fine houses of other major labor figures. Focus groups apparently went ‘wild’ in their annoyance at the add. They didn’t mind keating’s wealth (even from a Labor party leader), they just wanted to make sure they too could share in the spoils. Given this, and that no one is surprised by a rich Liberal, let us hope Labor doesn’t indulge in populist attacks on Turnbull for his wealth come election time. It would seem foolish given Rudd’s own personal wealth, but still, let us hope wiser heads will prevail.

Conroy backs down

Good news in the freedom stakes:

THE Rudd Government has indicated that it may back away from its mandatory internet filtering plan.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy today told a Senate estimates committee that the filtering scheme could be implemented by a voluntary industry code.

Senator Conroy’s statement is a departure from the internet filtering policy Labor took into the October 2007 election to make it mandatory for ISPs to block offensive and illegal content.

Responding to questions from shadow communications minister Nick Minchin on how the government may go about imposing the internet filtering scheme, Senator Conroy said that legislation may not be required and ISPs may adopt an industry consensus to block restricted content on a voluntary basis.

Not yet time for celebrations, but as someone who has been involved in organising national protests against the internet filtering scheme, this is a very very welcome sign. The usual suspects are of course annoyed that they might not get to control what the rest of the population is doing. Such policies are at best foolish substitutions for real acknowledgement of the way our society is being changed by the introduction of the internet. I liken it to the effect of women in the workplace post WW2. Whilst it significantly changed the society, the leaders of the time did not seek to mandate or force society back into the comfortable form it had previously had, but instead sought to work with and support those changes, recognizing the many flow on benefits. The internet likewise is disrupting and changing society, and rather than impose past world solutions on it to control, we should seek to educate and unleash societies options.

Cautious, but welcome news.

Fact Checking

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

“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.

If they are down, who is up?

As everyone knows US republicans are in serious trouble electorally. Richard Posner attributes this to an intellectual decline amongst US conservatives. Evidence that they arn’t lead by the brightest of sparks is pretty clear. Yet more than individuals this is a question of intellectual clout, energy and influence within the sphere of ideas. The great new-right revolution marrying religious social conservatism and economic liberalisation is clearly over. Following on from this Andrew Norton engages in the interesting question if this decline is found in Australia too.

While Australian conservatism hasn’t failed on its own terms, on the other hand it is not obvious how Australian conservatives will be seen as having solutions to widely-accepted problems in the medium term. Possibly there will be scope for reworking family and social cohesion themes, but just how this will be done I don’t know. Perhaps the most interesting conservative issue at the moment is the charter/bill of rights, because of the significant challenge to our democratic system. But this is largely a negative agenda, and it is not clear whether conservative arguments will resonate with the broader public.

The Australian right is in a down period, with the natural shift in the political cycle. But to me it does not look like a broader crisis, as it does in the US.

I think Norton is broadly right, however I wonder if not this is a problem actually found across the entire spectrum. Progressives in the US have a lot of work to do to help their country catch up to the rest of the first world (such as universal healthcare), but these are not in any way ‘new’ goals. Only on Climate Change, and perhaps gay marriage is there a building ascendancy that new approaches are needed along lines suggested by progressives.
Take the issue of economics. Whilst the New-Right movement has clearly run out of steam and is now trying to defend the status quo, does anyone think the New-Left is offering a real alternative vision ? Rudd may have talked a lot about social democrats needing to ‘save capitalism from itself’, but each area of policy is approached piecemeal and in a pragmatic fashion. There is no clear intellectual ascendancy occurring on the left on economics, just a sudden vacuum prompted by time (It’s 30 years since Thatcher won power), arrogance (WorkChoices/US Deficit) and a psychological bodyblow (the GFC).

The 2007 election was notable for the lack of policy energy either party had. Workchoices was already law and a piece Howard had wanted to implement for two decades, meanwhile Rudd’s ‘education revolution’ proved illusory and largely a question of funding. 2007 was an election about individuals, pragmatism and renewal, rather than broad debates about the future direction of the country (1949) or reflections of an already existing social change (1972). While Labor is now enjoying the fruits of victory, and has made some welcome changes, it is hardly building an image as a progressive government, nor seriously trying to change the public mindset on key issues (outside an electorally motivated attack on free market fundamentalists lead by the largely free market supporting Rudd).

The Liberals are bouncing between moderate and more conservative ideals (indeed this struggle has become the hallmark of the Turnbull leadership unfortunately), but it is issue based and quite well contained within the same field of debate the Howard Government had (with moderates just a bit more vocal, and conservatives more angry). When was the last time Turnbull promoted a new idea? He had plenty in government(ie the pink bats rebate in Rudd’s stimulus package was originally Malcolm’s idea), but has been contained now that he is the leader.

In short there simply isn’t an ideological ascendency on either side of politics at the moment. Neither the Left nor the Right are bubbling away with new ideas. There is some activity amongst environmentalists, but it’s a minor area, and yet to be translated into a unifying political creed in the way the pro-markets economic research came to be associated with ‘freedom’. Neither side is doing a particularly good job of promoting bright new thinkers or intruding into the public sphere with new ideas and debates. I’m trying to do my own bit to think out a new approach for the left, but these are just introductory thoughts of someone more focused on foreign policy than domestic or economic issues (though this blogs posts may seem to indicate otherwise). Then again, I think we only realise these trends once they are already solidly in place and with leaders like Whitlam or Reagan to articulate them for us. Trying to find trends across a range of social science literature is a very tough ask, and the proliferation of avenues for new voices outside the mainstream (and hence easy notice) has made the task that much harder.

Neither the left or right in Australia are in intellectual decline right now, but it’s hard to say either is in ascendancy either.

Picture by Flickr user Mo Morgan used under a creative commons licence

A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation

I missed it over the weekend (sorry was forced offline, the joys of unpredictable internet service in the heart of the nations capital), but this opinion piece by Banaby Joyce on the role of the states is seriously good reading:

I had a naive belief when I entered the Senate that it was a house protecting states’ rights and to this cause I would fervently attend the barricade and fight on behalf of Queensland. I have come to the conclusion that this is a unique and nostalgic view in the Senate…
From my discussions the public seem to be over the states and can’t see the relevance of them any more. Their region is more relevant than their state and this is what the upper house should now represent. Six regions in what was a state, with two senators per region elected at each election, would give geographic relevance back to the Senate, its actual purpose, while maintaining a bicameral system with the current numbers in a better representative spread.

What are the states? They are lines on the map that were drawn at an arbitrary point in time when a boat turned up on the coast and its occupants created a settlement that grew to a colony that became a state. And in 2009 that is about as relevant as they are. With the borrowings of the Federal Government on a morbid journey towards $300 billion and the borrowings of the states in excess of $150 billion we have to cut recurring expenditure and three tiers of government would be a good place to start, especially when two of them do basically the same job. Given their cost of about $30 billion a year, as pointed out by Dr Mark Drummond in his thesis, Costing Constitutional Change: Estimates of the Financial Benefits of New States, Regional Governments, Unification and Related Reforms, the removal of state governments should be considered.

To see Joyce of all people advocating the end of the states, and using academic research to promote it is quite a shock. That said Joyce does have two glaring issues: First when discussing redrawing the Senate: The ACT and Northern Territory are AGAIN completely ignored. This is most noticeable in Joyce’s proposed solution which is to get rid of the states, but seemingly draws all the new regions within existing state boundaries, so as to keep overall representation levels the same. The Senate is an odd beast in it’s proportional representation method, yet enforced levels of senators regardless of population. If we are to move to a regional order, then whilst some geographic borders should be taken into account (such separating capital cities from their surrounding rural areas, or clear geographic districts), then there must also be some shift towards making the senate represent the population spread of the country. Not as divided as the HOR, but it’s unacceptable to have a house of review which gives Tasmania one senator for every 41’000 people, and the ACT one senator for every 170’000 people.

Secondly, when advocating the fiscal advantage of dismantling the states: The only way Joyce’s changes could represent a real savings was if almost all taxes and income was pushed over to the Federal Government. That way, people keep paying similar levels, but the government can use it to fund one tier of service, rather than two. This would be a difficult process, to be worked out carefully with each state government, all effectively working hard to put themselves out of a job. The resistance to this amongst the political elite and bureaucracy would be immense and require real national leadership.

Personally I’m strongly in favor of the move. As Joyce notes, the public simply don’t care about the state identities anymore, and so long as they have someone local they can complain to about roads, rates and rubbish, they seem quite content with the Federal Governments increasing centralisation. Indeed MP’s staffers seem to spend increasing amounts of their time helping directing locals to which state office is appropriate. Most of the public just figure their national MP is the one to talk to on most issues. Not only would changing to a regional system end the gerrymander of our Senate and Referendums, it would let us address a number of key constitutional issues in the open (such as debate control of Industrial Relations, rather than through a Supreme court ruling), and standardise a number of common problems across the states (such as the paperwork required to open a business or sending your child to a new school). The states simply have no relation left to either where the people live or where the national issues lie. Changing to a 12-15 regional state grouping would solve much of that. It’s a big change, but after 108 years Australia can afford to tinker with the system. Especially when for the last 40 the change has been going on privately, now it’s time to make it public and transparent. (We could even revisit the issue of New Zealand as a Australian state. They were more involved than WA was for much of the Federation process)

Still, it is interesting to see Australia’s Conservatives, having spent the entire 20th century claiming to be the party of ‘states rights’ now turn against the institutions. Whilst i’m not to sure how deep such feelings go (Joyce is of course an outsider) it is the logical extension of Howards centralizing tendencies and continued domination of the way the conservative movement thinks. It’s no surprise therefore that his greatest idoliser Tony Abbott is now preparing a book pushing a similar line to Joyce on the end of states:

The book will be conservative in its thrust and there will be policy ideas, including advocating a more aggressive approach to fix our dysfunctional system of federation than John Howard or Rudd was willing to embrace. Essentially, the Commonwealth should call the shots and individual states should no longer be able to veto policy.

Abbott pushed for similar changes whilst in government, and though he will likely just want to centralise not dismantle it is an interesting argument by one of the most conservative politicians in Australia. (Though Abbott also shifts with the wind somewhat, in the early 90’s he was aghast at the opening up of the economy under Keating, yet under Howard one of the great promoters of economic liberalisation. But more on that when his book comes out.) This willingness to push for new approaches however is one of the reasons I like Abbott. He is much more driven by ideas than most of his colleagues on both sides of the chamber. And whilst never a great touch politically, and someone I almost inevitably disagree with, I like his openness and forthright efforts towards what he sees as in the national interest.

Labor if it is wise will jump at this shift in conservative opinion whole heartedly. As a movement it has seen the states as great resistors to social and industrial change from even before Federation. If someone like Gough or Keating was leading the party, this would be all we would be hearing about for the next 2 years. Both took the long term view and understood the movements history. Rudd however is a different beast. He has neither the care for history, the temperament, or the desire to take up such a risky task. He is a manager who lives in the moment, and despite talking up the idea of a new federalism whilst in opposition quickly came to embrace the status-quo (that is of a slow, largely publicly unseen accumulation of power within the federal government (if not the PM’s office) at the expense of the states). Maybe Gillard can make this her claim to the top job : To bring Education and Health under Federal government control, and via referendums dismantle the states. It would be a tough job that an economic crisis or nearby war could easily throw off course, but it is a key development for Australia’s long term prosperity and success. It would also give us a chance to renew our contact with the Constitution. Australia today operates in a very successful way, but one that is miles away from that prescribed in the constitution. That is a perhaps unsettling, though little remarked fact, and one a wise leader would seek not only to amend, but to do so in ways that ensure their enduring values come to take a part of that document.

(* Title quote by Edmund Burke “A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation” – Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790)

Around the Traps

Too many pieces deserving attention, but with a chapter due in soon I should be doing other writing:

Hal G. P. Colebatch in The Australian argues the contradictory evidence that some countries went communist in 1975 (Cambodia, Laos) and some countries didn’t go communist (Everywhere else in SE Asia) proves the domino theory. From here he proceeds to resurrect the theory for fighting Islamic extremism, and claim that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan will somehow lead to great chaos in Indonesia. I guess we should call this the zombie domino theory, considering the Taliban has already ruled Afghanistan (well as much as anyone can) from 1996 to 2001 whilst Indonesia was slowly moving towards secular democracy….

Speaking of ignorance: The Australian now seems to think random grabs from punters who don’t actually follow politics counts as serious commentary. I love democracy as much as Churchill, but 3 voters ignorantly whining is not news or even an ‘insight’ into the Australian political psyche. There is a reason pollsters cost money and regularly argue over methodology, this kind of analysis should not be done in such an amateurish fashion.

Then again, maybe they come from Barnaby Joyce Tech where Joyce teaches that “universities were not just learning factories but had a role to “develop the person as a whole”. Sport was sufficient to achieve this, he said.”. And so Joyce is supporting a mandatory $250 student fee, but the money can only go to Uni sporting groups. Anyone needing anything else on campus (like communal services, advocacy, child care, health services, or non-sport social groups (movies, debates, or degree based) can pay for their own needs and subsidies the sports. I see students free’s as a very localised form of taxes, where everyone pay a little bit to ensure the health of the community. Labor shouldn’t accept Joyce’s demand which would be a worst of both worlds for all but a small few (And speaking of which, Labor should take some of the heat out of the issue by allowing the fees be charged to students HECS debt (ideally along with essentials like text books), rather than forcing already cash poor students to cover it today)

And finally Chris Bowen is making seriously smart use of his regular SMH column. He is definitely one to watch. Is it too early to doom him with the anchor of ‘future PM’ ?

Tales of the Freaky

I had been happy with company including Bertrand Russell, Pope John Paul II and Tina Fey as fellow May 18th Birthdayers. But now it turns out way-to-sucessful-for-his-age- uber-Blogger Matthew Yglesias also shares this birthday. Hmm guess that gives me 2 years to go to Harvard, write & publish a book and get a job with a major magazine so as to catch up (And add about 50’000 readers to this blog!) (Although he published a book at 26, meaning I now have 364 days to get one written).

Growing up is hard…

The skills of politics

Blogosphere Outrage of the Day: GQ obtains briefing papers from Donald Rumsfeld to President Bush adorned with Old Testament Quotes

By pretty much universal agreement, Donald Rumsfeld was an awful US Defence Secretary. He raised chaos in the Pentagon without really changing its structure as hoped. His belief in a light & quick military was a genius move in invading Iraq, but cost thousands of his own soldiers their lives in its utter incapacity to then control and stabilize Iraq. He dragged down his own president and parties standings, and oversaw the US turn from the shining city on the hill, to an outcast which tortures. He was an unconscious poet with the language, providing some of the Bush administrations most memorable phrases such as ‘old Europe’ or my favourite for showing the utter inability of the administration to understand what their actions had wrought:

Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” Rumsfeld said. “They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”Looting, he added, was not uncommon for countries that experience significant social upheaval. “Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld said

Stuff indeed does happen.

Yet when he came to office in 2000, he along with Dick Cheney were one of the two big names who were to provide advice and guidance to the youthful new president. Both had served administrations before and at the highest levels, with Rumsfeld even having previously sat in the Defence Secretary’s chair during Ford’s term. These two public images of the man seem contradictory. Did Rumsfeld suddenly lose it in 2000 perhaps ? Senility setting in early? Perhaps not.

Instead Rumsfeld highlights an interesting feature of the US Cabinet system, and one highlighted by the documents GQ has obtained. Rumselfd, like Cheney were masters of the bureaucratic fight, and in providing the President with quotes that suited his ego and mood, Rumsfeld was acting as the perfect loyal underling, helping his president, even at the cost of his country. Therefore the outrage should not be that this is evidence of America on a Christian Crusade (it’s not), but that such small acts were likely positive in swaying a man elected President of his country. How petty and small must Rumsfeld have judged Bush to be if a few scraps like this were seen as aiding his own power position. Whilst Dick & Dons attentions and skills lay in winning bureaucratic fights, both men lacked good political and strategic antenna. For example part of the reason the US went back into Afghanistan in 2002 was because Rumsfeld had by then finally wrested control from the CIA and George Tenent and now was determined to fight the war his way. The fact it was disastrous militarily and nearly as bad politically (only the even more suicidal Invasion of Iraq distracted the public from really noticing this blunder) were not on the radar of a man like Donald Rumsfeld. Instead he was doing what he did best, fight and win bureaucratic fights. As the head of a department he did all the department could have wanted, and seemed a capable, if strongly controlling manager. Yet in the US system, the heads of departments are also supposed to be not only managers, but political figures advocating for the administration, perhaps even ambassadors for it. It was in this that Rumsfeld and Cheney, despite both fancying themselves in such roles failed their president and ultimately their country. And yet every US president upon appointing cabinet ministers will need to choose between people who can manage their department, and those who can publicly advocate for the Administration both to the media, and the rest of the world. Very few are highly capable at both.

Westminister systems on the other hand have established departmental secretaries who ideally serve any party or minister and therefore can focus their entire attention and talents on the good of the department, freeing the Minister, with his political background to be the public face. Of course Ministers are still responsible for their ministries ill-administration, and bad Ministers can screw things up horribly, but largely the skill set lets the politicians worry about the politics and the bureaucrats worry about the bureaucracy. There is also a further advantage, in that Ministers loyalties lie almost entirely with the governing party, and not the departments. As such it’s rare for ministers to end up mere advocates for their department. They tend to balance both the departments wishes with the aims of the government, and so resolve some of the difficulties and inter-departmental tensions that could otherwise accrue, particularly when it comes to the budget process. As such the Australian system enjoys much more harmony between agencies, especially within Foreign Affairs and Defense (see Gyngell & Wesley 2007 ‘Making Australian Foreign Policy’) than the tension which is often seen between the Pentagon and State over in the USA. In Westminster systems, where the Minister’s loyalty is closer to the country Leader than their staff around them, the government tends to move as the Leader wants. In the US system, that is usually the case, but when Cabinet Secretaries are too powerful or alternately too captured by their Department they can sometimes come to act against the intentions of the Leader (as highlighted again in Drapers piece when discussing Rumsfeld dragging his feet on Katrina)

Interestingly Obama has decided on a similar model by choosing a Defence Secretary who is more of a manager than a politician. Gates political service to the Administration largely ends with the (R) at the end of his name on media grabs. Time will tell if it was a wise choice, afterall, until 2003 Rumsfeld was a hero of the administration. By 2006 he was a clear winner of biggest loser debates everywhere.

Laying the contradictions bare

I’ve remarked before on this blog that I think we are seeing the end of the Reagan Coalition. That is the alliance between social conservatives and economic liberals. Theoretically it’s a mess, but usually the practitioners have been able to keep those divides from being public. Well most of them at least:

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) – Republicans can reach a broader base by recasting gay marriage as an issue that could dent pocketbooks as small businesses spend more on health care and other benefits, GOP Chairman Michael Steele said Saturday.
Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues like gay marriage.

“Now all of a sudden I’ve got someone who wasn’t a spouse before, that I had no responsibility for, who is now getting claimed as a spouse that I now have financial responsibility for,” Steele told Republicans at the state convention in traditionally conservative Georgia. “So how do I pay for that? Who pays for that? You just cost me money.”

Steele is claiming here that by showing that gay marriages cost business extra money*, they might be able to turn the young against gay marriages. But anyone with a seconds thought realises the argument actually shows that ALL marriages cost money and under Steele’s reasoning this is enough to oppose them. In short the party of business just became anti gay marriage.

Now the RNC is in a pretty awful place right now, with their few rising hopes such as John Huntsmen suddenly off to work for Obama as Ambassador to China, leaving also ran talent like Michael Steele to lead the party. I’ve poked fun at him before, but this piece was worth highlighting if only to show the contradictory elements at the heart of modern conservatism laid bare by the man who is tasked more than any other in the US with helping its revival. Only he doesn’t actually notice that. Nor does he seemed to have gaged just how politically unsellable such an idea. Even the most money hungry of Gen-Y’er will not turn against gay marriage (or even all marriage as his argument more logically extends) simply because they know it costs them more money*

* I assume Steele is referring to the cost of health insurance which is often born by businesses, and extends to cover spouses and families in some cases. This could of course be solved by Steele supporting universal healthcare which would free business from acting as a social provider too, but the Republicans are dead against lifting that burden from business… Or maybe Steele really does think married people are more expensive anyway, you know, demanding to actually be allowed to go home and not do endless overtime or caring about their OH&S in the workplace because they have someone who wants them to come home alive un-maimed. Who knows….

Soft Power

Over at The Interpreter, a debate has arisen about the concept of ‘Soft Power’ in International Relations, as pushed by self-proclaimed sceptic Raoul Heinrichs. Raoul is a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute, and former foreign affairs advisor to one Kevin Rudd.

He writes:

Soft power refers to a state’s ability to achieve desired objectives through attraction rather than coercion or inducement – to get others to ‘want what you want’. According to Nye, soft power arises not from the accumulation of capabilities that can affect the behaviour of other states, but from the magnetism of a country’s culture, values, ideals, and the style — as well as the substance — of its domestic and foreign policies.

Two problems come to mind. First, even if a state is full of admiration for those elements of another society that supposedly give rise to its soft power, it is not clear to me why, when divergent interests are concerned, that admiration might lead the first state to subordinate its own objectives to the other’s.

And second, the concept seems to imply that a state can be powerful, and capable of attaining its preferences in international affairs, by virtue of its goodness, and not just its strength. This is a nice thought, though one that does not square with reality, as demonstrated by the need to create ‘smart power’, which seeks to integrate all elements of national power.

Yet this is a misunderstanding of the basic nature of how soft power. As Joseph Nye notes early on in his famous article that kicked off the subject ‘Proof of power lies not in resources but in the ability to change the behavior of states.’, yet soft power approaches this task differently to normal power. Material power takes interests as constant and uses coercive means (or the mere threat of) to force actors to subvert or overcome their interests to the good of the superior power. This is a once off action, each time the behavior is needed, material power has to revisit the threat to overcome the others actors interests, occurring a second and third time and so on.

Soft power on the other hand works to subvert the very interests of the other actors to have them believe their interests accord with the interests of the superior power. Instead of each time vaulting over the high wall of another’s interests to achieve your aim as material power does, soft power breaks down and rebuilds the wall in another location to benefit the influencing power and hopefully the receptive power too. That is, once successful, soft power does not need to be revisited, but should allow such behavior time after time without significant effort (indeed if truly successful the other actors may even return to encourage you or a third party to also engage in such behavior)

So contra Heinrichs, states under the influence of soft power don’t believe they are subordinating their interests to the others, they believe their interests correspond. This links his second complaint, the unfortunate normative link between soft power and “goodness”. That is, soft power is often seen as being simply a way for virtuous but weak ideas (like peace, co-operation and tolerance) to claim influence through association with the tag ‘power’. Yet, this is only because of the limited ways in which soft power has been studied and promoted in the last few decades, than a problem with the idea itself. Actually, that’s not quite true, significant scholarship has gone into the deliberate proliferation of idea’s which don’t meet such heavenly virtues. We just call those ideas ‘Propaganda’.

Ever since humans became able to have abstract thought, we have engaged in efforts to try and convince each other of these ideas and perceptions. Yet because Idea’s can not be counted, measured, or any other of our usual quantifiable approaches to scholarship, the field has been largely seen as ‘too hard’. Therefore it is not much surprise that the people who finally turned their efforts towards such a task did so because of some wish to promote or understand how highly held ideals could be promoted or work. There had to be some benefit beyond mere understanding, and indeed there is self-selection at work prior to scholarship, in that the people most interested in these higher ideas, will be the ones to most justify the time and effort it takes. Only when it comes to the effect of the worst of the worst ideas (such as totalitarian propaganda) do bad idea’s have enough of a power to attract scholars and thinkers attention.

There’s a second problem within the academic literature of a related nature, the ‘dog that didn’t bark’ problem. That is, having been studied for the best part of 20 years, the scholarship still hasn’t quite extended beyond looking at ideas which successfully transferred from one actor to another (ie the acceptance of democracy, or anti-landmines, or anti-chemical weapons), but that is starting to change. We don’t yet have a good criteria for why some idea’s do succeed and most don’t. But we are working on it.

For my own part, my research is on how the Australian Government over the Keating and Howard Government’s tried to use soft power to exercise leadership in the Asia-Pacific and achieve our national interests. That is, in converting the regions countries to share our interests (such as supporting multilateralism, democracy, counter-terrorism measures etc). Yet I take a slightly different spin, in that I am more interested in how countries can spread ideas, using both ideational and material power, rather than simply ideational power to promote ideas. For example: when Howard sent troops into East Timor to help stabilise the country, he was using material power in support of an ideational goal (self-determination and democracy) which are deeply held Australian values.

East Timor is currently a surviving democracy, something in the national interest of Australia. But one that only works so long as the East Timorese believe democracy is in their interest too. The aim of soft power in short is not to have the other actor feel they have been coerced to accept your interests over their’s, it’s that they think your interests correspond, and therefore can positively join you on the effort. It’s still a new field, but it’s also the oldest and most important element of power within human societies. Weapons and violence is incidental and rare, but the flow of soft power is constant and dominating. We’re just only beginning to find ways to understand and chart it.

Questioning Rudd’s political calculus

Stupidly the Sydney Morning Herald buried this piece in their business section, but it’s just about the best piece on the budget so far. Michael Pascoe writes:

There’s not a lot to knock about the big numbers in the budget, as demonstrated by the poor job the Opposition is doing in trying to attack them. It looks as silly as if it claimed all that stimulus money didn’t save a single job – oh, that’s right, they said that too.
Yet there is a big fault in the budget (and a host of smaller ones), but that big fault is the legacy of budgets past, in the Goose’s first effort and the last several by Costello/Howard. We’re left with the boom’s windfall revenue dispensed in structurally dubious tax cuts and blatant vote-buying through middle and upper income welfare. A private conversation with a Labor elder this week highlighted the lost opportunity.

This is an increasingly curious Federal Government; a Government not quite game to be really brave, only to pretend to be; a Government so easily captured by admirals and air marshals with little credibility; a Government big on the big statement, but happy to be stupidly venal, doing things like raiding the education fund for non-education purposes. It looks most like a Government scared of losing any popularity, of seeing any member lose his or her job.

Right now, Rudd has a 64/24% satisfaction split in his job performance, enjoys a 45% lead over Turnbull as Preferred PM, and Labor is ahead by at least 10% in the 2PP stakes (and if anything thats a little low). Yet judging by the politics of this budget, you’d have thought this is a government which is paranoid about an upcoming election, and so decided to put it all on the credit card and go get it’s hair done.
Yet whilst many have whacked the Rudd Government for it’s cowardice, (in Bob Ellis’s perfect phrase its ‘muscular timidity’), I want to instead look at the assumptions which have lead to the Governments calculations and suggest it may in fact be a misreading of Australian political history.

Rudd came to power in 2007 on the back of voters rejecting the Howard Government going too far in it’s Industrial Relations legislation Work Choices. Just as Howard came in after voters thought Keating was getting too far out in front of the country on issues like the republic, national identity, asian engagement etc. So the anti-change message is clear right ? Not quite. Both were long term governments who were punished for actions that were not necessarily worse than anything they had done earlier in their terms.

In 1996 Howard and Costello (to their credit though I hated it at the time) launched a very tough budget massively slashing spending (some sectors like Education didnt recover for a decade) and changing the way welfare in this country worked. Then, a year later they went ahead and announced that despite saying they would ‘never ever’ consider a GST, they did precisely that and campaigned on it. They went to war with the Warfies, including hiring mercenaries, and changed the industrial relations system. At a roughly comparable time to Rudd today, in June 1998 Howard had only a 29% satisfaction rating, with 59% unsatisfied. And despite all this, they won.

Now Howard won the narrowest of victories (Labor actually got 51.5% of the vote), but the Howard government was not one who had traveled well, losing ministers to corruption, Howard personally looked unsure of himself in the job, and the opposition leader Beazley was very well liked. Despite all this, Howard still won through. With that, there was a new lease of life on the Government to push and implement change (including further Industrial Relations changes).

Rudd is not quite the same ideological creature that Howard is, but his government is travelling very well, he looks impressive and confident in the job, and at the election Turnbull has more chance than a prostitute in a brothel of getting screwed. Rudd therefore could introduce any major piece of progressive legislation, either now to be implemented immediately, or go to the election and seek a mandate on, or make significant changes in the way the country works, and have a better than 80% chance of being re-elected. If anything, this was the real failure of the Budget, not the economics and debt (which is a major issue), but the fact that with all this money being moved about, only the paid maternity scheme seems a genuine progressive change, and that was one of the cheapest on the books. It was a vastly missed opportunity, not least with Middle Class Welfare (something I will revisit in a following post). So Rudd’s cowardice costs the Left as close to a guaranteed victory on some major change as could be hoped for. Politics is about power, and utilising that power for the ends you see best fitting the country. Rudd has that power and is almost sure to keep that power however he uses it, and yet stays his hand for fear of an electoral backlash that will not come or not in a big enough way to harm him. I’m not saying stand on your principles and damn the consequences, rather Rudd is in that fortuitous position of being able to advance his principles and still be assured the consequences will be pleasant.

But there’s a second problem with Rudd’s assumption that ‘steady as she goes’ politics is the politically wise option here. As Howard would regularly announce, but used most effectively in 2004 against the fresh and energetic Mark Latham ‘Voters know what I stand for’. Paul Keating made similar remarks during the 1993 election, one that no one thought he could win, and he was up against John Hewson, the last business class liberal to put up his hand to run the country as Turnbull is doing today.
(And with similarly befuddled political skills). In both 1993 and 2004, the Prime Ministers carved out a victory by reminding the public that however flash their opponent, they had clear visions of the country, they were willing to and had tried to implement them, and they could be trusted and understood in that context. They not only talked (as all politicians do endlessly) they had implemented and could be judged on those records. If the public wanted change, who better than the politicians who had already implemented change over the last term (and without any of those fears that dog oppositions about maladministration or not knowing how to use the levers of Government). So by avoiding taking a risk today to implement change (or begin to campaign for it for post election implementation) Rudd is also denying his image workers and wordsmiths a chance to build up a narrative of a government that has implemented change, and can be trusted to be good managers in the day to day affairs of the country.

Rudd like every single politician is fundamentally concerned with keeping his position, and winning the next election. Yet he is approaching this on the strategy of a flawed assumption that keeping things ticking over at a modest pace is the best way to guarantee that result. It is certainly the easiest way, but it mis-reads Australian history. The public arn’t adverse to change, and they like Governments to use their time in government for some purpose beyond themselves (indeed this as much as anything could be the noose which captured the Howard Government in 2007. Far more than the thought they were too bold in Work Choices, was the concern that the Government had no purpose running beyond it’s own sense of entitlement to the treasury benches).

So Rudd: Be Bold. It’s not just good policy, but good politics too. (And looks even better in the history books which I’m sure our Nerd-In-Chief is already beginning to wonder how he too will be cast within their ink prisons)