Chasing the Norm

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

Month: July, 2009


The ‘daily outrage’ in the US last week was been the arrest of a black harvard professor for breaking into his own home. Gates understandably got angry at the officer who arrested him. What exactly happened at the time no one other than those two know, and in my view no one else should care. But this is America, home of the busybodies and so that has been the big news, rather than say the fact 48 million americans have no health care insurance. What was more surprising however was that Obama, normally one to avoid the ‘daily outrage’ waded into the debate: calling the police officers actions ‘stupid’. Of course this just made things worse and Obama has had to walk it back, and wasted a few days. The real highlight of this story however is the perfect acronym that this story now is labeled under: Gatesgate.

Now here in Australian in the aftermarth of Utegate, every 2nd conversation over the bbq (well pumpkin soup, it’s far too cold for the snags atm!) was the ridiculousness of the label ‘gate’ and wondering what next. A farming scandal named ‘farmgate’, a tetanus outbreak named ‘rustygate’, but leave it to the US to beat us to the punch and reduce it to it’s only logically stupid conclusion: Gatesgate.

This all comes at the same time as the original cause of the Gate meme the Watergate Hotel is up for auction and failing to attract any bidders. Whilst the actual break-in to record the Democratic National Committee in 1972 was rather minor in the overall scope of the Watergate scandal, the hotel’s place was enough to become shorthand for the entire investigation, the eventual downfall of a president, and the lasting infernal affix on every political scandal ‘-gate’.

I therefore propose the US, on behalf of political pundits and commentators everywhere purchases the Watergate Hotel and blows it up. Every single piece of that building needs to be destroyed if we are ever to escape the ‘gate’ clause. It seems only fair. Political watchers are the only real interest group which has never got direct government funding. Sports lovers get billions each year, as do seniors, farmers, apprentices, with soldiers, doctors and teachers all taking their pay check direct from the government. But what do political junkies get ? We’re the one’s who have to sit through the politicians boring speeches, endure their spin and lies, send our friends running as we try to explain (for their own good) healthcare policy in micro-detail and the historical origins of the filibuster. And what do we get for it ? Nothing.

So, as a gesture of good faith: Mr Obama tear down that building!

Ending the Slave Trade

A large part of my scholarly work is examining the role of norms in International Relations. Norms are the social rules which tell you (or your country) how to behave and view the world. Some of these are unwritten, like saying please, thank you, or shaking hands. Others are written down, such as recognizing others private property. At an international level, Norms drive countries to respect each others sovereignty, to be concerned about environmental destruction or to not have slaves. Well, that is the case in most places, but not all

A year after she ran away from her master, Barakatu Mint Sayed prays that the election on July 18 will mark the beginning of the end of slavery in Mauritania. Her nation is one of the last places on Earth where large numbers of humans are still kept as property.

And like thousands of other slaves and freed slaves across the Saharan country, her hopes are fixed on an inspirational candidate, a man born to slave parents who has sworn to put an end to the practice of “owning” humans if he is elected president.

That candidate is Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a 66-year-old former civil servant with a strong resemblance to the film actor Morgan Freeman. Mr Boulkheir has vowed that in power he would punish slave owners and do everything he can to free their human property.

Officially, slavery has long been abolished in Mauritania, but the law has never been enforced and there are an estimated 600,000 slaves, almost one in five of the country’s 3.2 million people, almost 150 years since the American civil war.

Sadly for the hopes of people everywhere, the election has declared the Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the ex-military and 2008 coup leader as the victor with 52% of the vote. His challengers including Messaoud Boulkheir have called the result an ‘electoral masquerade’, though western diplomats at the scene seem content with the process.
Mauritania is a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, but which has remained mired in poverty, military challenges for power (most recently in 2008), and large area’s of the country where life has remained almost unchanged in centuries (outside better guns, clothes and phones). Yet it presents a stark reminder to the world that whilst the British pushed to end the slave trade in 1815, and the US came into line with the Civil War in 1865, almost 150 years later, some places in the world still have not come to accept these ideas. Whilst I, and most of humanity see this as an obvious stark moral issue, norms like slavery are better understood in practice as a contest of persuasion, influence and coercion. What is most significant is not that in “this modern world” that slavery exists, but that having had a dominant idea in place around the world for so long, it has not quite managed to drive out competing norms. Take this taxi driver from the capital Nouakchott:

A Berber driver, who would only give his first name, Mohammed, defended slavery. “It is our religion and custom,” he said.
“Why does the international community try to stop it? The slaves are better off with their masters. This is their fate. When they leave, they starve.”

Moral outrage in such cases is a necessary motivator, but it also blinds us to seeing what is needed to stop the practice. Better ideas, like the economically productive potential of free human beings, and free societies are stronger weapons for the non-slave trading countries than condemning ‘backward’ sins. This also needs to be coupled with financial and national incentives to lead the elites to recognize their own potential to benefit.

The Information Revolution has clearly not prevented war or genocide or even given the public that much more of a say in the way their countries conduct international affairs. But it does offer the potential for norms to flow significantly faster and more deeply into countries around the world. This is often poo-poo’ed when it means everyone starts drinking coke and talking with an American accent, but it also means that the battle of ideas is radically shaken up in ways that have never before been possible. If the world is to make good on any of the high language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it is 61 years since it was signed), then we need to make causes such as eradicating slavery a true objective. Whilst some issues such as conflict, and violence in conflict are difficult to learn about when occurring, much less deal with, long term human rights violations such as slavery are one’s we can track, monitor and deal with much more strongly due to the new information at our finger-tips. If the Information Revolution is to mean anything to human rights (and it’s not clear that it does) then I’d like to predict that Slavery will be its first great victory. That day is still some time off with an estimated 20 million bonded labour slaves around the world. Of a similar note (though more talked about in SE Asia) is human trafficking which may entrap from 2.5 to 5 million people around the world.

This issue is obviously one that touches the US President Barack Obama closely, given his own status as first African-American President, and his wife’s history with a great, great grandfather who was a bonded slave in southern America. Obama raised the issue on his recent trip to Africa, and his wife and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also held events this year to help address the issue. Yet this is as I said at the beginning a battle of ideas and influence, not one that can be condemned nor bombed out of sight. Obama has too many challenges, and his skin-colour does not automatically give him a gilded tongue for every important cause. But where other challenges of stopping war or genocide or exploitation may well be beyond us, stopping slavery is something that is surely possible within the next 100 years. We can finally peer down and track where and how many are in chains, it is then up to us to convince and coerce those in charge to finally let them be free. Morality may energize us, but it is winning the battle of ideas about the best types of behaviour and action, by both individuals and countries that will achieve it for us. We must not relent.

The virtue of forgetting history

This morning brings with it news that Israel’s Government is invoking Hitler in its cause to build in East Jerusalem

Israeli officials said on Wednesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli ambassadors to circulate the 1941 shot in Berlin of the Nazi leader seated next to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the late mufti or top Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem.
One official said Lieberman, an ultranationalist, hoped the photo would “embarrass” Western countries into ceasing to demand that Israel halt the project on land owned by the mufti’s family in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Some diplomats opposed Lieberman’s move, arguing it could earn Israel stiffer world criticism for seeming to sidestep the wider conflict it faces with the Palestinians who want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state, another official said.
Asked why Lieberman issued the order, a spokesman said: “because it’s important for the world to know the facts” and would not elaborate.

Winston Churchill, (a historian of great merit in his own right), once commented that the peoples of the Balkans ‘produce more history than they can consume’. The same so easily applies to the Israel/Palestine conflict. To most people it would seem that putting up such a photo is a meaningless distraction, but to Israeli’s, especially those aged 50 or so, born to parents who survived/witnessed the Holocaust then the history and historical importance of such a photo must resonate strongly. History we are often told by learned men must be learnt so as to prevent us repeating the mistakes of the past.

What they don’t mention is that reading it often incites people to try and emulate the successes too, only in very different circumstances and with very different outcomes. No better example of this can be found than the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Led by a generation of men who also had parents in WW2 (only their memories are of great victory and liberation instead of brutal slaughter), George W Bush, a man with a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk, Tony Blair, living in Churchill’s house and 500m from his war time bunker & memorial, and John Winston Howard set their countries in motion to liberate Iraq from Tyranny. Whilst Iraq had made zero antagonistic moves against the west in recent years (and even half-truthfully accepted UN weapons inspectors), those who disagreed with the war were instantly labeled appeasers, ala Chamberlain’s 1938 blunder, with Saddam Hussein helpfully playing along in the role of mustachioed dictator. Here was the chance for these three to emulate their hero’s and live up to the merits of the ‘greatest generation’ who had defeated the Nazi’s and made great inroads against Communism. The weight of this history must have been heavy on these men from their positions of power to help the Iraqi people from what was one of the most brutal regimes in the 20th century.

Iraq of course had very little actual military might and was thoroughly defeated in less than a month. And far from the ease and praise of post-war Europe and Japan, Iraqi’s quickly soured on the invasion and began to attack their supposed liberators. That the analogy of 1939 had failed in every single way possible in helping understand the circumstances western governments found themselves in at the start of 2003, has not stopped similar conservative forces today declaring that Iran is the new Nazi Germany and cannot be appeased. As Fareed Zakaria points out, (again bringing pesky current facts into the debate), far from being Germany 1939, Iran who has 1/68th of the US military, is more like Romania. Indeed some US Senators have even taken to calling their own country “about where Germany was before World War II”. So long as the Baby Boomer Generation, born to fathers of the Second World War -with all its myriad and contradictory lessons- have power, analogies from that distant moment will continue to have an impact on our current political discussions. As Andrew Sullivan wisely noted in his 2007 essay for the Atlantic Magazine ‘Goodbye to all that’ the true radicalness of Obama for the USA is not in his policy (he is largely a cautious moderate) but rather that he is beyond the debates of the baby-boomers that have ripped America in-twain over the last 40 years. On race, gender, abortion and war Obama offered the US a chance to let go of its history and begin to build something new.

History it seems far from granting us wisdom seems time and again to be preventing us from seeing the world as it actually is, rather than in patterns of the past. One cause of this perhaps may be the staggering rise in popular histories amongst the reading public. Recently released, though yet to appear here in Australia, is Margaret MacMillan’s Dangerous Games:
The Uses and Abuses of History
which charts the many ways in which history is mishandled, distorted, politicized and mis-used by historians. After this great catalog of sins, the author, (a professional historian herself) poses this question:

MacMillan ends by asking whether we would be worse off not knowing any history at all…. “I think the answer would probably be yes,” she writes, a sentence that is unlikely to serve as the historians’ manifesto.

MacMillan argues that history’s greatest tool is to provide us with humility. To learn how often wrong and misguided past generations were in their efforts, and perhaps how we can use it to begin to doubt the basis of our own certainty. But in a hyper-connected and digitalized world, if anything history will be more and more with us. Where pub disputes about a past war or politician were forgotten with the purchasing of the next round, now someone invariably whips out a internet connected phone and checks that holy source Wikipedia for an answer. As more and more key moments are captured on film (witness the outpouring at the 40 year anniversary of the Moon Landing), the more history will be brought into current media streams to supplement and fill in time. Former Prime Minister John Howard may for this reason soon get his wish that young students are better exposed to history, but whether this is equal to an education in history is a completely different matter. Whilst memories imparted from books and film are never quite as strong as those gathered whilst sitting at the knee of a parent, this upcoming generation will likely not be able to escape the onslaught of history in their everyday life. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future. Looking these days to places such as Israel/Palestine you can’t help but feel the people there also desperately need an act of wide scale amnesia, if they are ever to find peace.

The End of the War on Terrorism?

Soon after the recent bombing in Jakarta killed 9 including an 3 Australians, Kevin Rudd along with his Foreign Affairs minister Stephen Smith sought to draw a link between the attack and continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Responses were swift rejecting the PM’s claim. Hugh White from ANU told journalist Michelle Grattan that

“in practical policy there’s no link. It’s an illusion to think that if you fix Afghanistan, we’ll be safe from terrorism.” Ideologically and practically, the activities of Noordin Top, the alleged mastermind behind the Jakarta bombings, have nothing to do with Afghanistan, White says.

Meanwhile over at the Interpreter Allan Behm makes the case that there is a connection:

the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.
At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important.

So who is right amongst these two highly knowledgeable and respected experts? Well I side more with White’s approach, but he doesn’t explain this to its full significance. Behm’s point is well taken and worth noting. Whilst Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on a US embassy in 1999, the USS Cole in 2000 and of course the 9/11 attacks, it has not had a recognised attack since that day. Despite it’s name being taken as a synonym for terrorism around the world, it has been reduced to little more than a communications company sending out videos, sometimes training orientated (and funds) but largely just well made propaganda. It is this which Behm means when he talks of providing solace and inspiration. Denied the opportunity to attack the west directly through international counter-terrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has had to outsource its efforts with varying results. How you interpret this effort is the clearest diviner of how experts regard the success or failure of the war on terrorism.

The worst case scenario tends to note details such as the 9/11 attackers had connections to Hambali the Indonesian terrorist who was key in the Bali 2002 attacks, or the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leading Al Qaeda in Iraq . It sees the general values that motivate these groups in their Islamic faith, rejection of western modernity, and desire for independent Islamic states as primary compared to local values such as between various sects, personality and ethnic differences and on the ground conditions. It emphasises the flow of money, intelligence and training, especially through the internet between these various groups. Under this reading, the USA and west is facing an enemy who can change face and location with ease. Like trying to stop water flooding through a grill, each blockage in one place simply increases the pressure coming through in another. Our very size and strength makes us vunerable to a thousand cuts leaving us to bleed out, in finances, troops and resolve. This is also an approach that places great store in the concept of confidence. It interprets most events primarily in psychological terms, rising or reducing the motivation of both the west and the terrorists according to the ebb and flow of events. Every attack is seen as significant in re-enforcing this pattern. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is critically central to how events in Indonesia play out. (Afghanistan perhaps even more than Iraq or other locations due to its historic role in bringing down the soviet empire). This is a somewhat zero-sum approach, we are winning so they must be losing, or vice versa, with confidence a limited commodity effectively traded between the groups through their various successful or failed missions. At its worse this results in mush like Andrew Bolt’s effort, which conflates all threats as one, and indeed all Muslims as somehow suspicious. This however is very far from the considered approach of scholars such as Behm who highlights the significance of local links and issues. Still, for all their certainty, those who take this approach can as Behm does write sentences like “Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that[withdrawal from Afghanistan], even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda ” without ever qualifying what this ‘considerable encouragement’ means in practical policy terms. It could be meaningless heart warming or a game changing recruitment & financial driver. We don’t know and they don’t say.

The more optimistic scenario again notes these early links, but also their paucity and the local nature of the connections and the difficulty of maintaining these once key individuals are taken out (Hambali currently sits in Guantanamo Bay, the 9/11 attackers are dead, as is al-Zarqawi). They also note that when Al Qaeda has attempted to significantly involve itself in the local fight, the results have usually been poor. Whilst Al Qaeda in Iraq had a significant number of successes in the early years after the war, they have come to be combated by the US effectively. More importantly when they tried to integrate into the Iraqi system they ran into two fundamental problems. The sunni/shia divide, and the suspicions of the tribes. Where they had been largely non-sectarian in the early years, Al Qaeda found that the best way to bring in new recruits was to emphasize it’s Sunni origins, and help the fight against the true enemy: the Shia. This immediately cleaved the groups influence across vast sections of the islamic world, not only the Shia, but Sunni and other moderates who rejected the internal conflict and wanted attention focused on the West. Secondly, where Al Qaeda tried to integrate itself with the tribes it often did so in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive manner (much like the US soldiers similar errors) It’s measures were often too extreme and lacked local knowledge and so came to be rejected by 2006 in the now infamous Al-anbar awakening where Tribal groups once supportive of the insurgents switched to help the US and gave the US it’s first big break of the war. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world. Rather than Al Qaeda creating terrorist franchises as the pessimists had feared, we have seen that invariably local issues, personalities and conflicts have dominated and distracted the effort. Some groups have simply taken Al Qaeda’s money and men and used them for their own local pre-jihad efforts, whilst occasionally mouthing similar rhetoric to keep the cash flowing. Instead of a global war on terror we are seeing the emasculation of the worst of the groups (Al Qaeda), and a significant reduction in capabilities for their supported groups (Jemaah Islamiyah is still a shadow of its former self despite the recent attacks). And importantly the more the global group shrinks, the more the local groups will return to their own local concerns and local efforts, and fail to be drawn by the global values that once threatened to envelop the west. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is of minor concern. It may give an individual or group solace for a day or week, but very soon local realities like a lack of skills, funds or the omniprescence of the police will do more to change their actions than any psychological acts. Especially when the overall trend of the war has been quite strongly against the Jihadist’s. Psychology is important, but both groups can be gaining confidence whilst one side is technically ‘winning’ (ie a withdrawal from Afghanistan may not provide extra terrorists, whilst freeing up western resource – though I do not advocate such an act)

Whilst the recent attacks surprised some adherents of the common wisdom that JI was broken (Though perfect timing by Carl Ungerer to warn of the groups risks the day before the attacks), what it most significantly shows is that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is almost over. What we are facing instead are local threats from nihilistic, barbaric misfits of a form that states have been dealing with successfully for over two thousand years. Though these days we don’t use the gruesome techniques these groups were usually suppressed by (ie killing anyone and everyone related to the group), we have far superior tools through the information revolution to track, isolate and bring down such groups. We can shut off their funds, listen in on their communication and highlight their barbarism to win the PR war (there have been sharp declines in the support for suicide bombing across the muslim world from 2002-2007).

What is perhaps most significant about the recent attacks in Jakarta is how low key the public and press responded to them. The media brought information quickly to the public, but soon moved on from the story. The general public took it largely in their stride, with it barely meriting a mention in most people’s gossip over the weekend. This was terorrism without terror. Of course it may make many re-think that Indonesian holiday, but Australians have condemned, mourned, and gone on with life. This is a pattern of terrorism that we can live with, and take precautions against, in the same way we avoid dark city ally’s and ask for more cops to patrol our streets to keep away the drunks and street thugs. (If the government’s new anti-terror laws move in this direction of on the streets social changes, great, if not, it is an authoritarian over-reaction).This is not to downplay the threat that these groups could still do to many of us, but it is to suggest we have entered a new phase. One where this violence is seen for what it is, petty and unpredictable, but not threatening everyday life or the nation-state as it stands. And if the public here recognise this, then soon the local population in islamic countries who may otherwise fall under the sway of terrorist groups will recognise it too. And who want’s to die for a tiny group of losers who are never going to achieve their aims? We still have terrorism, but maybe we have almost ended the war.

The Birth of Australian Foreign Policy

Aus_Navy_NYToday brings with it the news that two Australian Navy ships have berthed in New York to help celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Great White Fleet voyage around the world. It might not be widely known, but in many ways, embracing Theodore Roosevelt’s aquatic demonstration of carrying a big stick, was also the birth of an independent Australian Foreign Policy.

In 1908 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin invited the American Navy on its global tour to drop in at Sydney and Melbourne. This move angered the English who were already concerned about losing their naval strength to the rising American forces, annoying amongst others one Winston Churchill, then serving as under-secretary for the Colonies. Reports suggest huge majorities of Sydney’s population turned up to welcome and cheer the incoming American Navy, no doubt glad if only for a moment of a guaranteed bulwark against the foreign forces to their north. Emboldened by this (and now returned to office after a short term by the supportive Labor’s Andrew Fisher) in 1909 Deakin pushed for the creation of a pacific pact involving the United States, France, China and the British Empire. The move failed, but is notable for such a small and at the time foreign policy shy country. Along with Fisher, Deakin also helped establish Australia’s Royal Navy. Yet the concern of the country was still inward and foreign policy involved persuading London rather than independent action. Even the volunteering of 300’000 men for WW1, and heavy casualty rates did little to stir Australians international attention. Whilst other colonies like Canada and South Africa made moves in the mid 1920’s to set up foreign diplomatic efforts, Australia was only forced by the ‘rude pressures’ of WW2 to begin similar measures. Foreign policy was largely outsourced to London. Yet as a country Australia retained great capacity for creative and skilled foreign policy when it so desired during these early years. This was no better demonstrated than in 1945 when Labor’s external affairs minister Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt was the single most prominent delegate at the UN founding conference in San Franscisco. Evatt pushed nearly 40 amendments, scored a number of significant victories in changing the charter and minds of the great powers, and was recognised for his efforts by becoming President of the U.N General Assembly.

By then of course Australia’s foreign policy had irrevocably changed. Britain had lost its empire, Curtin had turned Australia towards America ‘free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship’, and the nation set about establishing links with every country it could, including finally beginning to pay some attention to its own backyard in the shape of new relations with the major countries and initiatives such as the Colombo plan. But it all began in 1908 with Alfred Deakin’s decision to encourage the American ‘Great White Fleet’ to sail into ports in Sydney and Melbourne. It is therefore fitting that, having used US help to stand on our own two feet, we can now sail proudly into American harbours 100 years later to celebrate the milestone. Australian foreign policy is often presented by both conservative and progressive forces as a boring, subservient story hiding under the bosom of racially similar great powers. Yet the real story is one of independent and creative efforts. Where once we were shy and inward looking, today Australia is regularly accused of irrepressible activism (with its public ever leading the charge for more and more action). Despite the negative tone often attached to narratives of Australian Foreign Policy, it is a record it’s creators can be proud of. The country has at times had a significant role in promoting human rights and liberal democratic ideals, it has managed the tensions between the great powers and sucessfuly shifted without conflict from one sliding power (no less than it’s mother country) to a rising superpower. Today it walks a careful line between China and the USA earning respect and more importantly trade income from both. And most critically of all, the continent is safe and has remained so. All this began when in 1908, just 7 years into the new nation, Deakin was willing to cross the English to recognize the growing power of the US and begin to tie them to the land down under.

Below is an image Wikipedia turned up from the Fleets first visit. They don’t make government advertising like this anymore:


Speaking ’bout my Generation

On Friday night I had the pleasure of attending the Big Bang Ballers launch here in Canberra. They’re a new type of NGO, one trying to allow kids in developing countries to be kids for a while. That is to live as we all take for granted, without having to also be income providing responsible adults as well. They aim to, (and already have in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines), bring together different social classes, religions and ethnicities, all through the great game of Basketball. And set in play by a local Canberran I have the honour to call a mate:

Take a look at their website for more details if you are interested:

The changing of the guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Culture of Life

Over in the City Journal (h/t Andrew Sullivan) Kay Hymowitz makes the case there is a generation of man-child’s emerging,

It’s 1965 and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult! Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face—and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?
In 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively.” This demographic shift has now pushed the median age of marriage for white males to nearly 28 — if they get married at all — further delaying fatherhood and motherhood.

Conor Friedersdorf argues this is due to birth control, a gender equal workplace, and an unwillingness to repeat the mistakes of their (now divorced) parents. As opposed to Ben Domenech, who thinks this generation has devalued family and culture in favor of distraction via technology.

It’s a weird thing being a member of Gen-Y (or iGen if you prefer), as we seem to be highly focused on by people who essentially arn’t in our generation. Every generation is surely analysed and dismissed by its seniors, but what was once reserved for the dining room is now spread around the world and of keen academic and journalistic focus due to the proliferation of media outlets.

So as a 26 yr old un-married male let me reply with an insiders view: Whilst the sexual freedom is nice, and we don’t have to find things for our stay home girlfriends to do to keep them occupied (like say raise a kid), the real reasons are twofold : We expect to live a long time, and it costs too damn much.

Where life expectancy expect to live to 65 today it’s now 76. So having gained 10 years life, you’d think we might be forgiven for wanting to use 3 of those to explore the world before settling in. Afterall, on such figures (assuming similar divorce rates) this generation will spend up to 7 years more married than their parents, but we are the one’s devaluing marriage? Yet these figures also are a poor reflection of reality. Blokes aged 26 in 1979 would have been thinking they were almost half way to the box at that age, despite the figures. The current generation however secretly assumes it will make it to 90 if not beyond. With all those extra years to live in quiet marital bliss, spending them without kids if not without a partner is significantly more compelling. But returning to those figures, those extra years are seen as viable ones. We expect to have replacement hips, and be curing most minor cancers, replacing worn out or clogged hearts, and with the potentials of stem cells and others even re-energizing tired muscles. As such, the period before 30 is seen as being around 1/3 of what we might live, and therefore should be utilised to its full natural extent (even the most advanced medical science wont let us dunk a basketball or backpack around Europe when 60) rather than being our key productive years in which to provide for ourselves, family and old age. Because we can earn (and reproduce + provide for that progeny) for much longer, we have far less need to cram it all into our early adult years. Equally with this new medical technology we have no doubt that our kids will survive into adulthood and so where 5 may have been sought, only 1-2 are thought wise. Given this major change, that the median marriage age has only slipped a few years is the really stark fact.

Whilst I don’t subscribe to the view that financial history is the author of all history (as say Niall Ferguson seems to), it does play a much much larger role in the way day to day society operates than cultural conservatives would like to admit. With house prices around 6:1 or 7:1 the average wage (whilst they were almost 1:1 for our parents generation), it is simply impossible for most young males to consider owning property. Those that do (and some of my similarly aged male friends do) do so for purely commercial reasons waging that it is a suitable investment, rather than seeing it as their domestic residence for the next 40 years. Because of these cost factors, including the Baby Boomers great housing bubble over the last 20 years excluding their kids from the retail market (and here Australia is as bad as anywhere in the world), and those same Baby Boomers holding onto their jobs longer (benefiting from the same advances to aid living longer) excluding their kids from the higher/stable jobs market, this generation has sensibly turned its attention to other areas. It is a generation which is educated at far far higher rates than its parents, valuing long term investment in its career than the short term income of its parents (though to be fair, this generation has had that choice, many baby boomers were simply taken out of school to work). This is even more striking given that the same Baby Boomers who got a free education have turned around and made education a major debt burden for young adults who might otherwise use the money to pay a house deposit. All the while they continually tell us that due to their own desire for cut taxes, the pension schemes they take for granted today will have to be shaved down in the future.

Marriage is still a goal for most, although that is only so far as it represents a couple pledging to make a lifelong commitment to each other. Whether in a church or not is of no concern, whether straight or gay is equally of no concern. I doubt this generation will be anymore faithful than its parents (perhaps even less so), but it is more aware and willing to try before they buy to ensure that their eventual partnership is indeed until death do them part. Bad old idea’s being rescussitated in the name of ‘traditional values’ such as fault based divorce will however only further drive this generation from the institution of marriage. Having had a few partners already, and not seeing any divine cord drawing soul mates together, this is a generation that understands relationships sometimes don’t work despite the best efforts of both partners. Such changes would only delay marriage further, if not entirely. Far from enhancing marriage, it would relegate it to a cultural act by the religious and ignored by all else. The choices of the iGen are therefore best seen as largely reactive to greater forces, rather than representing any selfish inward turn.

Finally, I can’t help but get the sense that what really drives these concerned folk as they shake their head at the younger generation’s behaviour is simple jealousy. Those baby boomers who similarly delayed getting tied down seem largely supportive of the new generations behaviour. They had their fun until 30 and then settled, and expect their kids to do likewise. Those who instead got tied down early seem the most offended that everyone else is having fun at that age. We have (thanks to medical breakthroughs) enough years to stress and be miserable, why not enjoy the ones we can now. That truly would represent a ‘culture of life’ which cultural and religious conservatives so desire.

The Free Trade Left

I’ve already raised the issue of ending the ban on parallel imports of books. The Productivity Commission has now released it’s final report and its findings are clear:

the Commission has
• concluded that the PIRs place upward pressure on book prices and that, at times,
the price effect is likely to be substantial. The magnitude of the effect will vary over
time and across book genres.
• Most of the benefits of PIR protection accrue to publishers and authors, with demand
for local printing also increased.
• Most of the costs are met by consumers, who fund these benefits in a nontransparent
manner through higher book prices.
• PIRs are a poor means of promoting culturally significant Australian works.
– They do not differentiate between books of high and low cultural value.
– The bulk of the assistance leaks offshore, and some flows to the printing industry.

Alan Fells, former head of ACCC and now at the Australian New Zealand School of Government has suggested that means a cost of up to $200m for consumers.

But what is most interesting (though if you know your history not surprising) is that most of the push for this end to protectionism has come from the left. It was Chris Bowen, in the Rudd government who initiated the Productivity Commission’s survey. It has been most publicly championed by Bob Carr, former ALP premier of NSW. And has received support from a variety of quite left wing types such as the ACT’s own rising star Andrew Barr (as I noticed this morning via his facebook – who says blogs don’t break news:P). Whilst the libertarians at Catallaxy have of course been forthright in wanting a change, I could only find this lukewarm press release from the Liberals Competition policy shadow minister Luke Hartsuyker, with not a single mention by Malcolm Turnbull.

This may seem counter-intuitive if you think the right is pro-free trade and the left against it. Yet whilst the two party structure of Labor and anti-labor sometimes creates that mould, the history is quite different. The single largest reduction in tariff’s in this country occurred in 1973 under the Whitlam Government. After some drift under the conservative Fraser, Hawke and Keating picked up the mantle and effectively ended the way Australians had run their economy by reducing almost all tariff’s. This was encouraged by Howard (having supped from the classical liberal economics of Reagan and Thatcher), but his own government whilst rhetorically adamant, ended up doing very little on the free trade front. It liberalised small areas such as CD’s (in the way now proposed for books) and seeing the flaws of multilateral deals pushed into bilateral deals with mild success. The two big areas still under the umbrella in agriculture and cars remained protected, or got effective protection through constant handouts. In fact if you examine Australian political history, it has been the moderates and liberals within both the ALP and Liberal Party who have lead the move towards free trade in this country (Howard being the obvious exception). The more conservative forces, much like the union-left have largely been against such moves. Take for instance this piece by Tony Abbott writing in 1995:

‘His [Keating’s] Asian crusade is simply the second phase of a long battle – hitherto fought around Australia’s economic structures – to extripate the legacy of Menzies. The first phase meant changing Australia’s economic structures and breaking down the old business establishment. The second centres on smashing the Crown which he thinks is the ultimate icon of conservative Australia. Asia played little part in his drive to ‘reform’ economic institutions – after all, most Asian governments pursue pragmatic interventionist economic policies similar to those of pre-Keating Australia’ (p220)
Abbott, Tony in Sheridan, Greg (1995) Living with Dragons: Australia confronts its Asian destiny Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Abbott went along with, even championed Howard’s economic ideals, but never was at the forefront of the debate, and with his mentor out of the game, it will be interesting to see which way he turns in his forthcoming book. Whilst the forces of free trade have largely won out (both due to argument and circumstance), don’t be surprised if there is a slight shifting back amongst the right should the conservative forces lead by Abbott take charge. As i’ve predicted many times before, I see the two party system shifting to a more liberals vs conservative basis instead of the weird cross-overs we saw under the Reagan/Howard coalitions, but either party could take either role, depending on their internal struggles. Long story short the “common sense” idea in the media and the general public that the right is pro-free trade and the left against it is not sustainable in current policy nor historically accurate. As the new left begins to develop it’s form, I have little doubt that a strong stand for free trade will be at the heart and soul of its economic system. Only such a system can encourage universal rather than national sentiments, international organisation, healthy free competition and the free flow of ideas and people.

On Academia

For most of my adulthood I’ve entertained myself reading biographies of politicians. English, American and especially Australian. Biographies let me chart and compare my own practices and see the way some of the best have approached the career’s I envisage myself as holding. But as I spend more and more time in Academia and enjoy it’s practices more (Teaching is the greatest job I have ever had), I’ve also come to read some of the (rare) biographies of academics, most recently Brian Matthews ‘A Life’ book on Manning Clark. And yet, whilst I can read on the 19th century english political giants Disraeli and Gladstone and find instructive lessons despite the different environments even country, reading on academics from just 30 years earlier era’s seems a different, alien world..
Inside is of course the anguish, worry, guilt, pride and vanity that lie behind all who want to have something to say and commit it to paper. Since Clark was writing his great works Australia’s population has become far less homogenized with great competition for jobs, housing, education and a growing rich/poor gap. Today however, as Gregory Melleuish writes in his 2009 anthology ‘The Power of Ideas: Essays on Australian Politics & History’ “Certain groups such as Academics have lost both in terms of status and wealth”. Clark was appointed Professor of History at the Canberra University College (what was to become ANU) at the age of 34, without any significant publications under his belt or doctorate. Today you need a PhD just to be appointed to the lowest of academic positions, and even then the competition is fierce. I see this as a good thing overall, but whilst there was great controversy over Clark’s writings, few doubted that academics had a role to play and deserved respect and recognition for their study, work and contribution. It is the sudden abandonment of this which is the most confronting for a new academic. Again Melleuish is worth quoting, only this time he is less reflective than leading the charge:

‘Howard has been regularlly vilified by many in the media and academia as a substitute for intelligent analysis…it turns politics into a punch and judy show in which the supposidly intelligent and sophisticated spectators are called on to boo and cheer accordingly …this is largely because of what David Martin has called the ‘special licence’ of academic and media commentators and their capacity to ask questions ‘without needing to answer them’ and ‘demand apologies without ever having to give them’. Put simply they have power without responsibility and are unable to understand the sometimes awful responsibility that comes with authority’ – Melleuish, G 2009 ‘The Power of Ideas’ Melbourne: Australian Scholarly publishing Ltd.

Later on he goes on to attribute this anger due to the end of the ‘bureaucratic state that had plenty of employment opportunities for the commentariat and their friends and came to mean wealth creation, even if the people who performed that task did not possess a university education’ (p22). This is a world which a fragile and self-doubting character like Clark could perhaps not long survive. Or at least so you would believe if you read and listened to the media daily. I do not mind Melleuish’s comments, he is a quality academic and I intend to return to his very interesting book in a future post, and as an academic he has well earned his right to give his colleagues a whack over the ears when and where they have failed. (Likewise for John Hirst, another Australian historian begins his recent essay collection ‘sense and nonsense in Australian History’ with similar sentiments on battling left wing views amongst academia). Yet these voices are rare and the authors usually open to debate. However have you ever noticed that those who talk most about academia, who go on the most about the power, influence and corruption of academia are those who hate it the most and largely have had the least to do with it?

Sarah Palin, like the radio-hosts she most clearly emulates (to call her a politician is a misuse of the word) has made a career on damning the entire education process. When she failed, it was instantly attributed to the role of education elites condemning her, (despite the facts being otherwise). Back at home, John Howard made it a part of his public persona that he disavowed the worth of academics. Howard’s government so significantly reduced the funding for higher education that in 2004 this exchange occured in his party room:

unreported at the time, (Liberal Senator George) Brandis rose in the Coalition’s joint party room to ask plaintively whether it was true, as claimed by the then employment minister Gary Hardgrave, that the Howard government now viewed a hairdresser’s qualification as equal to a PhD. Brandis was howled down, and Howard laughed in response that at least a hairdresser’s qualification held the chance of making some money.

Yet whilst the media and political elites seem to have largely turned on academics (or cowardly abandoned rather than defend should they hold different views on the role of education and the academy), this picture is not one I find as I meet people in this country. From taxi drivers to waitresses to strippers (yes really), whenever I say I am looking at becoming an academic and doing a PhD I get only impressed nods and wonderings of how hard and how much work that must be. Of course they may be smirking behind their back, and certainly I think my friends all under thirty and yet working on incomes up to double the national average must wonder about the wisdom of my choices. Yet whilst this is not a country which turns our academics into rock stars, I do think it is one which recognises and respects the role of academics and higher education. When conservative commentators and politicians adopt anti-academic (sometimes anti-intellectual or anti-education) approaches and lines as a populist weapon, I think they are misreading much of this countries outlook. People may not be publicly supportive of academics, but they still are privately.

Times have certainly changed for academics. The profession is in need of a revamp and overhaul in many senses. It has lost a lot of respect and some of it very rightly so. But the anger and regular venting against academics and educated elites that conservatives adopt does not reflect the general public or appear to have influenced their decisions. Australians are still wary of theory and intellectuals, but they respect the achievement if not the results. This is the challenge for the young academic, to re-connect the work of the profession to its role as aiding and educating the entire country. It will take time, but I am confident that the new generation of academics, escaping from the Vietnam era debates that still divide baby boomers (witness the vitriol in the obits against Robert McNamara –another elite by education-) can regain the public respect for their profession and work. Look for them in blogs, seminars, and publishing great and (easy to read!) work, and keen to earn public respect rather than take it for granted or bemoan its loss. After all that, it’s time I get back to my own study.

Photo by Tim Ellis used under a Creative Commons Licence


I’ll be away in Melbourne for a few days so no blogging till mid-next week.

To pass the long cold hours I recommend:

Andrew Norton on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty at 150. Everyone talked of Darwin’s anniversary, but Mill has had perhaps just as significant an impact and continues to do so.

Christopher Hitchens is surprisingly shy about his own case for once, but he advances a serious question: Did the Toppling of Saddam Hussein lead to recent events in Iran?
Seems to have some merit to me…

And finally, hopefully by now you have seen Utegate as told by lolcats. Well now there’s a blog featuring the goings on of Australian politics all in lolcats. It may just be the future of blogging.

Have a good weekend.

Smart Action

Very welcome local news:

Chief Minister and Minister for Territory and Municipal Services, Jon Stanhope, today announced Downer EDI Engineering Power Pty Ltd would install ACTION’s new $8 million smartcard ticketing system.
The new ticketing system, due to commence in the second half of 2010, is modelled on Perth’s successful SmartRider system, which was also implemented by Downer EDI.
“Canberrans can look forward to a new ticketing system that is fast, easy and flexible,” Mr Stanhope said. “It will offer bus users a reusable and rechargeable card for travel on all ACTION buses.
“Bus users will be able to recharge their smartcard over the internet, phone or at other card facilities across the ACT. A one-use ticket will also be available for casual users and tourists.
“Bus users will be required to tag-on and tag-off buses, which will significantly improve ACTION’s capacity to monitor passenger trends and make adjustments to meet changes in demand.

The idea of tagging off (ie swiping as you leave) could be a bit of a burden esp if there is just one on each bus, but in general this is a great idea and very welcome. I used the Oyster card’s when in London last year and found them an absolute breeze. They moved through large numbers of people quickly, and were easy to use and keep track of remaining credit. I don’t quite have that same confidence for the local system, but it’s an important step.

The ACT's ACTION Bus service

The ACT's ACTION Bus service

Despite it’s highly planned design, public transport in Canberra is still a farce. New options such as light rail appear buried for the foreseeable future, so existing Bus routes will have to do. Whilst there have been some welcome changes such as more bus lanes, and increased express routes (into and out of the city in peak times & between hubs) the service is still hardly used as you’d have hoped. Canberran’s as a whole are a very good market for public transport, being made up of significant numbers of students, a large CBD, and a general population who is well aware of the issue of climate change and generally wealthy enough to consider alternatives to driving. Yet because public transport is so bad, people often feel they have no other choice. My parents, both accutely concerned about such issues, recently faced this dilemma when their 2nd car spluttered it’s last petrol breath and had to be replaced.

Despite the fact my father no longer works full time, they felt Canberra’s public transport system was simply too much trouble to bother relying on. So a second car was bought, likely to be driven by one person alone for 90% + of it’s trips. Part of the difficulty it seemed was the concern over having the right change, knowing the fare and the general slow speed of bus trips within this laid out city. If a smart card can help encourage this city’s professionals to leave the car at home, or even re-consider a second car it will do significant benefit not just for the regular users but in helping this city do its part in addressing climate change.

Stunt Fail

Give ’em the old Razzle Dazzle
Razzle dazzle ’em
Show ’em the first rate sorceror you are
Long as you keep ’em way off balance
How can they spot you’ve got no talent
Razzle Dazzle ’em

And they’ll make you a star!

Good politics is like good theater, with the best politicians having an actor’s timing and presence about them. Barack Obama for instance went on a fortnight trip to Europe during the 2008 presidential campaign to give the impression he had foreign policy contacts and experience. A stunt to be sure, but it made him already look Presidential, 3 months before the voting opened. Sometimes however, the magic just isn’t there:

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull is relying on a ute to help turn around his political fortunes following the disaster of the Utegate affair.
Mr Turnbull unveiled what he called the “debt truck” on Tuesday during a visit to Western Australia – an idea the coalition first used when last in opposition in 1996 to highlight the level of foreign debt the then Keating government had racked up.
The “debt truck” is a massive billboard towed by a ute, which Mr Turnbull says was “acquired on commercial terms”.
It will be flanked by billboards that spell out the level of domestic debt the country is currently carrying – more than $300 billion by the coalition’s sums.

Every time journalists write about this foolish idea, they will raise these two facts, and while ute-gate will slowly fade from the public memory, the very people Turnbull needs to impress in the press gallery will see this as nothing more than the wholesale borrowing of an idea they once cheered on over a decade ago. Ordinarily Turnbull’s image of a dynamic and brilliant man may excuse an indulgence such as this, but given that questions are already being asked about his lack of new policy ideas now leader (as compared to his first few years in Government), it just re-enforces a new meme: Being Leader is crimping his natural style and reducing his appeal. This is a common situation within the sporting world, where the hot young star is given too many responsibilities as a ‘future captain’ and suddenly begins to buckle. They play defensively to protect what advantages they have gained, instead of the aggressive, free flowing style which earn’t them so many credits in the first place. Consequently they soon lose the lauding’s and title and people wonder what happened.
Worse, such antics bring to mind the antics of Mark Latham and his preference for giant cheques. Such stunts are utterly transparent to the public and not even that interesting or fresh. Meanwhile you’ve bored the press gallery who have to cover you each and every day. Everyone in politics these days talks about the bias of the press, as if they are ideological microphones who do no more than record and then helpfully re-edit the text to fit their prejudices. Yet in John Curtin’s famous phrase to describe a media conference ‘feeding the chooks’, he captures an essential truth. Journalists like to be kept informed, to know before the rest of the public, to be entertained and interested in their work, and the best politicians play to that. When Keating stopped inspiring and exciting the Australian press gallery in 1994, they savagely turned on him, despite most probably still voting for him in 1996. And many of them remain slightly mystified by Rudd’s popular appeal, in spite of the boring and very repetitive nerd they encounter in person. Turnbull’s debt truck will simply bore them all once more, and wont change any public votes. In short, a net neutral, if not negative in asking where the inventive, interesting Turnbull has gone, and why this party hack seems to have replaced him. Where is the man who championed climate change, but who now cowardly defers all discussion for a few months. Where is the man who challenged a successful treasurer of his own party on tax, yet hasn’t said a thing about the topic since taking over as leader. Where is the animating spirit of a man who embodies youthful ambition, but is yet to articulate any vision of Australia in a similar form. Turnbull has only one shot at the Prime Ministership and it’s a long shot at that. But worse than falling short, would be if he did so whilst campaigning in a way utterly foreign to himself and his true nature. Most politicians never make it to Prime Minister, but those who tried on their own merits, rather than some hacks’s handed strategy at least will have such solace in their retirement. Turnbull risks losing without ever showing the public who he is, or why he wants the top job.

Free the books!

I missed it initially, but over at Catallaxy, Sinclair Davidson has put up a well researched post on the move to allow parallel imports:

From The Australian: When the Howard government removed import restrictions on compact discs in 1998, it was accused of gutting the music industry and jeopardising the income of musicians. But industry data shows royalties increased from $81.8million in 2003 to $108m in 2007, and the number of performers receiving royalties also increased. Meanwhile, the average price of a CD album has fallen by 32per cent.

The Australian voices telling Australian stories argument is simply rent-seeking and doesn’t stand up to empirical analysis. We’ve heard these arguments before

As a keen book buyer (I sometimes fear I like buying books more than I do reading them), seeing an end to the ban on parallel imports would be a great step forward for this country. There is no reason why I need to wait longer and pay more for an Australian version of the book I desire. When your stock reading is the latest non-fiction quasi-journalism, the delay on new books as they wait to see if an Australian publisher will pick it are infuriating and tend to actually reduce my willingness to buy these books. Those who suffer from it most are poor students (especially post-grad!), forced to pay heavily to import foreign books, or simply denied access to the tools of their trade. In education, and encouraging a reading public, the book ban has been an ongoing disaster. And as we enter the era of digital books, a direct link can be drawn between our book ban and the lack of digital readers emerging in Australia. If the ban on parallel imports was removed, could add a .au and begin selling Kindles at a viable cost. In fact as we begin to see the outlines of a digital era in books both distribution and display, the idea of country based barriers becomes simply laughable.

Meanwhile, as much as current authors may fear losing even their meager returns from the status quo, those with talent have nothing to fear from the contest. Their fear of losing local voices telling local stories seems based on the absurd assumption that book buyers who pick up Australian content, do so only because there is nothing else on offer. That their allegiance is so weak that when stories of life on the Mississippi or Thames flood in, everyone will abandon the Peter Carey’s, Bryce Courntey’s and Matthew Reilly. If this is not the case, and book buyers are choosing based on an actual interest in the material, then they have nothing to fear from the competition and perhaps a chance for wider exposure, distribution and breaking away from the horribly monopolistic and talent squandering process that is the publishing industry.

The sooner the Rudd government moves on this the better.

The American Right and Human Government

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

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

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

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

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