Chasing the Norm

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

Month: August, 2009

A new Force (for) 2030

Several months ago I attended a 2 day course on National Security taught by Professor Peter Leahy (former Chief of the Australian Army). Among the attendees were current and ex-military officials, various interested public servants, scholars, and a high ranking AFP officer. Coming at the time of the Defence White Paper Force 2030, a repeated topic of discussion was how Australia would deal with the various challenges to order within its immediate pacific region. Whilst the demands for such action are likely to grow (due to rising regional instability, and domestic demands for intervention), neither of our forces are well designed for the type of operation required. As such we have quite mixed forces, with around 930 ADF and 285 AFP officials spread over 9 separate missions. Yet neither force is specifically or really appropriately designed for this task.
Untac police officers
The Military offers great strength and organisation in entering, securing and organizing such missions. (Whilst they have all been at the invite of local governments, that may not be the case in the future, and in some such as E.Timor it came pretty close), but that comes at a cost of under-developed political and cultural skills. The AFP on the other hand are often excellent at bringing order via political and institutional co-option, but not armed or trained to handle worsening conflicts. And neither group is especially equipped for long term development, in institution building, long term resource and urban planning, and economic organisation. Nor are they designed for pre-ventative action, keeping nations from falling into disorder or distress. So we have brave and hard working men and women in both organisations try to accomplish jobs which they weren’t originally trained for, and which are managed over several branches and organisations.

So whilst the Defence White Paper gives this task to the ADF (7.10 page 54), it is burdening to an institution who, like most other countries military’s is still largely planned along the lines of 19th century European forces. While there has been a proliferation of special and elite forces within militaries (particularly after 9/11) most are undesigned and indeed highly resistant to the idea that peacekeeping and development should be a primary focus for them. So the police are co-opted, and various cross-agency organisations are established such as the Australian Defence Force Peacekeeping Center (1993) and the Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence (2008).

Instead, as came out of our discussions in the National Security course, what really needs to be considered by policy makers is the establishment of an entirely new force. Likely as a fourth branch of the military, it’s focus would be political over martial, development over destruction, and preventative and preemptive in tackling threats, rather than waiting for the hostile threat to appear. A new force, given military style training to ensure their protection and professional organisation, whilst focusing on political and cultural understanding of the region, co-opting the best in development, and state design would be ideally designed to tackle what is sure to be a on-going and increasing demand placed upon Australia. Not only would this give us a specific tool for a specific job, it would be a highly desired force (so wouldn’t have the recruiting trouble of the ADF) in offering university educated students who are interested in international relations, regional studies or sociology and development, the chance to put into practice their learning. Right now these kids (and there are tens of thousands of them) are placing their bets on NGO’s or a prized DFAT place, but most will miss out and abandon these dreams for a different, domestically focused career, their study and learning being reduced to a passing interest. This is a great waste of talent, enthusiasm and education.

Australia does not have a mandate for control, or even a desire to be the only authority figure in the South Pacific. But as a nation we have increasingly come to believe we ought to be involved in helping our neighbors secure their own countries, and rebuild (In the case of E.Timor in 1999 it was the Australian population who forced their politicians into action). But having an almost 60 year history of such peacekeeping, we still don’t have a force designed specifically for the task. It’s about time we started moving towards building one.

Do the Liberals have a China Problem?

In 1983, soon after the election, the Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang visited Australia. Like all good officials, he attended a number of dinners in his honour. Protocol dictates that the Speaker of the House sits to the right of the main guest during parliamentary functions, and as no new speaker had yet been elected, the outgoing speaker, & former leader of the Liberal Party, Billy Snedden, took that place. As Bob Hawke recounts in his memoirs, some time well into the meal, Hawke invited Snedden to continue the conversation with the Premier. Bill did so for a while “and then leant over Zhao and to my horror said to me “Prime Minister, I think we should congratulate the Premier on his use of the knife and fork”‘. (page 343) An interpreter apparently saved the day in that instance, but what then is Julie Bishops excuse for this similar moment of boneheadedness: -> “the Rudd Government failed to work constructively with China regarding the visit to Australia of Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.”
Ms Bishop said the Rudd Government has failed to establish a relationship based on mutual respect, which has led to the breakdown in relations between the Governments of China and Australia.

Bishop didn’t misspeak, she repeated the same concerns the following day.This demand we back down in the face of Chinese urging, comes after some months of claiming (if not since Rudd became leader of the Labor Party) that he is too close to and submissive to the Chinese, as Bejing’s ‘Roving Ambassador‘.

Worse, the Opposition cant seem to make up its mind how to describe china, verging from great unknown bogeyman style rhetoric, through to Turnbull’s (quickly retracted) claim that China was an ally early on in his time as Leader of the Opposition. Even little things about china seem to unsettle the Opposition, with one of the more interesting spectacles of the recent parliamentary fortnight being a walkout during Question Time by some WA MP’s in response to the Governments boasting about the Gorgon deal.

Clearly some Liberals, such as John Howard knew how to handle the regime, (though Howard took a few years to find his feet), and when I ask if the Liberals have China problem, I am not alleging underlying racism, but rather an inability to think clearly about the country and its place in the world, in the way the Labor Party sometimes has an America problem.

Whilst not a vote winner, if the Coalition want to ensure they have the confidence of those who watch foreign policy, and those who know the importance of China to our markets, then they need to sort out a coherent message on the issue. Where they should have been gaining points off the current governments troubles in recent weeks, they have managed only to send themselves backwards.

Clearly there is some division between the governments of China and Australia. My guess is that its a short term and inevitable issue, as China works out how far it can ‘persuade’ Rudd to fall into line, and once rebuffed will make only symbolic protests long term (expect another bout in December when the Dali Lama visits). China wont risk the long term relationship and its economy for these issues, but it will clearly try and exploit any disunity or weakness it can, meaning the Oppositions attacks (which Labor indulged in sometimes under Howard) end up making the governments job harder.

Working out how to think and speak about China is where Bishop should be primarily focused. Her boss clearly doesn’t have the time, or the background (though to be fair neither does she), but when the leader of the party is domestically focused, it falls to the Foreign Minister to set the tone for the parties view of international affairs and how each country fits into that overall pattern. Right now it seems the Coalition can’t decide if an emerging China is a good thing (for the wealth it brings), an unsettling challenge (that it is a authoritarian if not totalitarian regime), or an existential threat to the West and Australia’s cozy 200 year history within that hegemony. In truth, China is all these things and more, but Australia requires a governing party that is capable of handling this relationship. Even though Rudd is a china expert who has lived and worked in the country both as a diplomat and businessman his government is still finding it hard going. Until the Liberals, especially Julie Bishop on down work out how to ride the dragon without being eaten they can not be considered fit for government.

Liberals and Foreign Policy

I intend to write more on the passing of Ted Kennedy, but whilst most of the forthcoming commentary will focus on his efforts towards domestic policy (particularly that on health care given the current debates), its worth noting how this unwavering liberal came out on foreign policy:

From the NYT Obituary

Mr. Kennedy had less impact on foreign policy than on domestic concerns, but when he spoke his voice was influential. He led the Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, pushed for peace in Northern Ireland, won a ban on arms sales to the dictatorship in Chile and denounced the Vietnam War. In 2002, he voted against authorizing the Iraq war; later, he called that opposition “the best vote I’ve made in my 44 years in the United States Senate.”

In any frank assessment, History is going to regard every one of those moves as the right actions. Of course his career is much longer and more complex than this tiny snapshot, but it’s worth remembering when you see conservative claims that they and they alone know how to divine history’s path and know it’s lessons.

We’ve lost a great one tonight.

Post Script – Kennedy died just before midnight on Tuesday. Within an hour his family had already released a press release. Soon after 2am President Obama was woken and told the news, and within 20 minutes of the announcement of his death, Fox News was focusing on Mary Jo Kopechne and William Kennedy Smith. Stay Classy Fox News.

Tab Dump

* While the US grapples to accept it was a torturing nation under the Bush Administration, Michael Johnson says (then retracts) what too many in this country think:

Queensland Liberal MP Michael Johnson said there was a place for torture. “I think that there is a very limited place for torture and, certainly where that torture takes place, it must be done in an appropriate way, and in an appropriate context,” the former barrister told Sky News last night. He added that it all depended on how torture was defined.
That prompted an immediate response from fellow panelist Labor MP Mark Dreyfus, another former lawyer.
“I think we need to resolutely say that there is no place for torture,” he said. Mr Johnson later issued a “clarifying statement” condemning torture. “Torture is unacceptable in any place at any time,” the statement said.

Johnson holds one of the liberals best seats since 2001, yet went no where under Howard, Nelson and likely now Turnbull. If smart the party will use this chance to dump him and demonstrate their morality in rejecting outright torture as a practice by modern societies. Conservatives worry regularly about the moral decay of our civillisation, but teenage promiscuity or drug use doesn’t remotely compare to the use and abuse of torture as the pre-eminent moral question of our time.

* From the Funny, Sad, Pathetic column: Yale is printing a book on the 2005 Danish cartoons that set of the riots, but refusing to publish the actual cartoons. Around 200 people died from this inability to accept free speech (almost exclusively Muslims). Hitchen’s skewers them as only he could.

* In news to warm the hearts of all Canberrans, the ACT is more important to the Australian Economy than China is. But it’s changing. H/T @Pollytics.

* With the US economy beginning to rebound can we say the bailout worked? Or more interestingly is the Administrations plan, with all its inherent debt a better outcome than the sharp market deflation that mass bank failure would have set off? Are we better off, (in terms of liberty and wealth) than had we let the markets run where they want ? Whilst others counter that we have over-reacted.

* The Daily Telegraph should stay away from photoshop, or hire someone competent. Ugh.

* And finally, since in my last post I critercised The Australian for ignoring Nelsons retirement, and then did so myself, its worth noting that whilst Nelson is a good bloke, it is not befitting the honour and importance of Parliament to leave mid term for a rumored defence sector job. Nor to do so at a cost of half a million to the tax payers. He has perhaps only a year to go until the election if that, so ought to stick around. Much could still be done locally, and with nothing to lose or fear from his party leader could use his platform as former Education and Defence Minister to tell the country some hard truths that had been squibbed during the Howard years and are doing so today (like the ham-fisted way we run international student education, our need to develop high tech sectors as the manafacturing sector closes, or rethinking how we go about assisting the pacific region, including long term planning, rather than over-relying on the Military and police to race in and save the situation ala the Solomon Islands, or sit idly by as democracy buckles in Fiji. The great danger of our modern political environment is that it scorns old wisdom, always seeking the new. Political leaders are seen as either on their way up, or on their way out. We should encourage those who have served the leadership to try and stick around. But as it stands only 1 out of 10 past major party leaders since 1990 in the form of Simon Crean has stuck around after losing the leadership, now capably serving as the Trade Minister.

Fair and Balanced?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tortured route to healthcare

Rhetorically, the single best thing the Obama Administration has done to advance healthcare in recent weeks has been its release of the CIA report into torture during interrogations and announcement of a special prosecutor. Torture may indeed end up providing healthcare reform for the US.

When fighting a losing war of words in politics there are only two real choices, fight or flight. In the past I have been strongly of the view that fighting for it is the only way. Whilst your party may still be behind in public sympathy, the mere fact of your talking about a subject helps re-enforce your seriousness and knowledge. The public may favour the other guys, but you’ll come out the stronger for having fought and kept in the battle. Those who attempt to keep changing the topic back to safer ground, look like they cant handle the conversation, and therefore unsure or incapable to make good policy in that area. In Australia in 2004, the Labor party did this to disastrous effect, changing each discussion of economics or national security to one on healthcare and education. While the public prefer Labor on health and education, their end judgement was that the leader, Mark Latham couldn’t be trusted on economics and national security. Flight from area’s of opposition strength had simply made the Labor party look rhetorically weak.

But what to do when you are fighting an issue you are normally dominant in. Again fight is usually the better offer. John Howard and Bob Hawke both backed themselves time and again to take on and change the public mind, and through a lot of effort, media interviews and a few liberal uses of government funded ‘education’ campaigns came through victorious. But in the US Obama doesn’t have the guarantee of party discipline or treasury funds to help his campaign. In fact it’s largely not up to him to sell the ideas to the public, what he needs instead is to buy time to cover the politicians passing the bill without feeling at the mercy of the nutbaggers who see this as the creeping hand of Nazism.

Instead, by changing the topic to one of torture, Obama allows the sensationalist media to focus on another topic, one where he is enhancing transparency, and trying to reduce the size of government, whilst expanding it in the health care debates. In 1994 the Clinton’s cooked up a healthcare plan and then presented it to the public for acceptance. The republicans rebelled, brought down the plan, and re-vitalised themselves with their ‘contract with America’. Obama has taken the alternate course in his own health care plans, with a very public debate and working directly through congress, but now is coming the time to give the bill some cover and to demand its resolution (with a vote for late october/november). The Republicans this time around, whilst much louder are also much more isolated from the mainstream public views, and lack the leadership and organisation to make any significant attack on the democrats at the 2010 congressional elections. The fundamentals of Obama’s position and the democrats is still very very strong, despite the noise.

Torture is a difficult issue for Obama, and I’ll return to the subject later, but rhetorically this is a very useful piece of distraction for an Administration which is starting to be buffeted not just by the right, but by the left which is loosing confidence in him. This isn’t surprising, the left does tend to over-panic at times, (such as during the election), but needs to trust Obama’s judgement, and political skills. So long as he is able to keep using issues like Torture or the Economy to give the lawmakers some time, and distract the media he should be able to secure his bill.

During the election this image went around the net. Via Richard Wolfe’s book on the campaign Renegade we find that Obama saw it and laughed saying ‘that’s exactly what I feel’. I suspect he may be thinking the same thing today.

Embrace the Waste!

Last night I gave a quick plug for Bob Hawke’s memoirs, citing his charm and larrikinism. Yet what is also refreshing in it is the strong sense of conviction and willingness to advocate for it that Hawke has presented his entire life. Starkly different from the managers style PM (Fraser, Howard, Rudd) and with a better sense of the public than Keating or Whitlam, Hawke brought a strong attachment to new ideas, tempered (and protected) by his desire for consensus and negotiation. It seems even at 80 little has changed:

FORMER prime minister Bob Hawke has called for Australia to assess a nuclear waste industry as a moral, financial and environmental response to climate change. Mr Hawke, speaking after the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue he attended as a participant, said: “This issue, frankly, seems to me to be straightforward in its obligations and benefits.”I have spoken to Aboriginal leaders and to people from the environmental movement and they are prepared to consider the proposition.”

With the nuclear power industry expanding rapidly around the world due to climate change and Australia supplying that industry with uranium exports for decades ahead, Mr Hawke said the issue arose from Australia’s global obligations. “There is a responsibility to deal with global warming and consider what role Australia should play,” Mr Hawke told The Australian. “Australia can make a significant difference to the safety of nuclear generation by agreeing to take waste from nuclear power stations. This would be an important contribution to safety and energy security. It would also become a strong source of national income for Australia that could be dedicated to our own environmental and water requirements. “The fact is that Australia has some of the geologically safest places in the world to act as a repository for nuclear waste.”

While there are still big debates to be had about Australia generating power via nuclear plants (I’m supportive though don’t think the economics work), what shouldn’t be contentious is Australia’s role as a provider of uranium. Australia has some of the strictest standards in the world when it comes to the supply of uranium (just look at the debate over selling it to India a democratic ally) and stands to benefit significantly from its mining. Whilst most don’t think you have to support nuclear power to prove your good faith on climate change (as Howard and Abbott charge), clearly the spread of nuclear power world wide benefit efforts against climate change. And yet this can’t or won’t fully happen until a solution for dealing with its waste is created. No other country can deal with it as safely and securely as we can. Those against are pretending that somehow the entire industry will be shut down, both here and overseas if waste can’t be safely stored. But even a flickering knowledge of history and the human condition would tell you that when people cant do something safely but want it, they will simply keep doing it unsafely. Likewise, those protesting about waste being in Australia are practicing a selfish and immoral NIMBY attitude that ensures the waste will be dumped on someone else, probably much less securely, and likely in a poorer country without our advantages or careful handling procedures. That or they use amusing but false scare tactics like in the image on the right. Unfortunately this policy has the support of the Greens and to a significant degree Labor as well (though incumbency & economics are seemingly softening their rejection of nuclear waste)

Australia has both the geological and political stability necessary to handle the task, the space to do so, and as a provider as Hawke notes, a degree of moral responsibility to take it. But this will not be done simply out of the good of our heart, but offers a very financially beneficial option for this country. We will be making money both selling it to other countries, and then having them pay to return the used leftovers to our shores, buried deep underground almost exactly where it came from. Many will complain of course, and the ideal for nuclear waste would of course be to simply put it in a rocket headed towards the sun. But whilst that is too expensive to contemplate, then burying it in Australia is by far the best option the globe has, and a very good deal for Australia. It is one of those rare area’s where our moral and fiscal interests coincide, and we should grab it with both hands.

Photo by flickr user Karen Eliot used under a creative commons licence


Like most who encounter these things regularly, I tend to skim over and discount media releases by politicians. But this one by Senator Gary Humphries gave me pause for thought:

“It is quite apparent to me that the Federal Government has an agenda to hit young people with all the might of the Government,” Liberal Senator Gary Humphries said today.

“Over the last few months, we have seen the Government introduce legislation, including:

* Compulsory student taxes without students having a say on how it will be spent;
* A 70% increase in the tax on Alcopops;
* Changes to Youth Allowance which hit students working to get to university hard; and
* The cutting of funding to assist students get housing on and near campus.
“Not to mention that it is the youth of today that tomorrow will have to pay back the enormous debt left by this government.

“It is abundantly clear that the Government is taking a multitude of decisions, all of which will disadvantage the young in our society.

I wish it were not so, but on the facts it is hard to argue with the conclusion. Whilst young voters were chased by the Labor party in 2007 and in return strongly endorsed them, this is not a government that has made their concerns a primary focus. Few governments do. Young Australians are assessed as either unable to vote, unable to escape parental allegiance or willing patsys for the left, and therefore able to be lied to and manipulated without cost.

This is indeed a government which has created a Minister of Youth, in the form of Kate Ellis, but for its symbolic roles, it has yet to deliver its pre-election promises. This is not surprising, but still disheartening. Humphries in his press release is at best opportunistic, given the actions of the Howard Government, and yet his claims can not be denied. On issues which are important to the youth of Australia such as republicanism, gay marriage and budget surpluses, the Rudd government has either ignored, scorned or deliberately rejected. This is not a criticism of its handling of current circumstances, but rather its inability to utilize the current positive political circumstances to enhance the benefit of the long term, and not just the immediate parliamentary and partisan calculations.

Rudd of course will go to the next election fully confident of once again capturing the youth vote, and rightly so. The opposition has barely even worked out their position on the great issues of the day, tax, federation and climate change. But still as a member of this generation, and witness to its support and claims of endearment towards the elderly, and those of family raising age, the governments ignorance if not hostility towards is stark. The education revolution is yet to occur, Australia’s international position much the same, and social and educational issues still retarded. And yet the youth will keep on voting for the ALP, supporting their campaigns and door knocking to support their advocacy. But let it be clear, this bond can only stretch so far, and whilst assured this time, if Rudd and Labor want the youth vote again beyond the current electoral circumstances then the pattern of neglect highlighted in the oppositions opportunitist press release has to change.

Distractions of the eyes

John Adams – HBO series, still as yet unreleased in Australia. Keeping a reasonably consistent link to history, this powerful costume drama is not only great TV but provides a history that would do wonders if well known both around the world, and particularly in Australia. Worldwide such a history lesson may help temper anti-american prejudices, recognising the utopian ideals which have guided the american spirit ever since. Here in Australia, a country I love more and more for its sense and pragmatism towards common welfare and wealth, the story of America’s birth is still inspiring for its radicalism, idealism and principled stand. Characters such as John Adam’s were undoubtedly flawed, and just 125 years later, Australia’s great statesmen would achieve similar independence without bloodshed or civil strife. And yet I can’t help but be moved by the sheer bravado and principle of the American struggle for liberty. It may be headstrong and foolish, but it’s authentic idealism can not be questioned, then or now

The Hawke Memoirs – Part of my quest to read biographies of every Prime Minister (by my count 11 of 26) this is a surprisingly readable account of the rise to power and Prime Ministership of Robert Lee James Hawke. Though only 20 years past, it represents a starkly different world, and yet it still contains most of the seeds and debates that shape the modern Australian political landscape. Hakwe isn’t reticent about crediting himself with the changes and progress of the era, and yet their is an undeniable charm and larikanism that flows through his writing. I had picked up the book having just finished Abbott’s book, and looking for another well written insiders account of local politics. And whilst Abbott seems the closest to Hawke in representing an authentic Australian character, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Turnbull. But for political timing and personality differences Hawke and Turnbull seem similar men, vaulting through Australian society, bounding towards Parliament, and yet for these slight differences history is likely to regard the one as one of our greatest prime ministers, and the other as a never was, or what could have been. Aside the self-agrandisement and snide attacks on Keating (it was written only 3 years after he lost power to the man), it is still a very enjoyable account.

Kangaroo: D.H Lawrence

Written in 1923 by an Englishman, it is still regarded as one of the best engravings of the Australian character and identity. I’m still yet to pass judgement on that line, but it’s a good read, well written though slightly slow, and interesting for its picture of early post federation Australian society.

Seven Ancient Wonders: Matthew Reilly
I have read most of Reilly’s work before, and returned to this one to fill a gap in my reading, but it reminds me of the pure joy of this local australian authors work. A master in recognizing the content and style demanded by his audience, Reilly has made a name and living writing the type of fiction which people want to read, rather than that as favoured by far too many intellectuals the type they would like to have others read. A good bloke from my own limited interactions with him (at a book signing many years back) he is as worthy an australian voice as the Winton’s and Carey’s. Of course history will never regard him in such terms, but that’s its flaw, not his.

Today’s real lefties: Cops and Soldiers

Conservative politicians and commentators regularly complain about the left wing bias of government run institutions such as public television and radio. But what they don’t notice is the institutions which are really promoting a liberal/left wing agenda: The Police and the Army.

From an Op-ed in the Washington Post by two policemen:

Nationwide, a police officer dies on duty nearly every other day. Too often a flag-draped casket is followed by miles of flashing red and blue lights. Even more officers are shot and wounded, too many fighting the war on drugs. The prohibition on drugs leads to unregulated, and often violent, public drug dealing. Perhaps counterintuitively, better police training and bigger guns are not the answer.

Drug manufacturing and distribution is too dangerous to remain in the hands of unregulated criminals. Drug distribution needs to be the combined responsibility of doctors, the government, and a legal and regulated free market. This simple step would quickly eliminate the greatest threat of violence: street-corner drug dealing.

Having fought the war on drugs, we know that ending the drug war is the right thing to do — for all of us, especially taxpayers. While the financial benefits of drug legalization are not our main concern, they are substantial. In a July referendum, Oakland, Calif., voted to tax drug sales by a 4-to-1 margin. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that ending the drug war would save $44 billion annually, with taxes bringing in an additional $33 billion.

Without the drug war, America’s most decimated neighborhoods would have a chance to recover. Working people could sit on stoops, misguided youths wouldn’t look up to criminals as role models, our overflowing prisons could hold real criminals, and — most important to us — more police officers wouldn’t have to die

Whilst most left wing politicians are still a full decade away from even beginning a debate about legalisation, here is an authentic voice of the police pushing for it immediately. To them it is not an abstract question of the morality of condoning drug use or being ‘soft on crime’ but clearly evident that only with legalisation and regulation will we be able to tax and protect users, whilst financially destroying criminals from misguided youths through to bikie gangs and mob types.

A similar point can be made about the army, which is equally taken for granted by conservatives to be an institution on their side in foreign policy debates. Whilst many soldiers do relish the fight, just as many and their more experienced commanders prefer to be sent in only when and where they can make a significant difference or are undertaking their core responsibility: defending their country. Instead of being the first option as a way to respond to a problem, most in the armed forces would prefer that as a country we focus heavily on aid and development so as to prevent other countries from sliding into failed state/civil war conditions. Rather than being sent to be shot at whilst trying to stabilize and re-build in places from the Solomons to Afghanistan, it would be better to have focused on stability and long term development before these countries became problem children in the worlds eyes requiring a police or military solution.
Likewise idea’s such as ‘Human Security‘ which change the way we think about security from a national focus to a question of the individual, (including their right to food, shelter and basic liberties, along with their physical safety) have been picked up quite strongly by thinkers within the defence forces. These liberal/left wing ideas are often ignored by a lot of civilian International Relations/Security scholars, who are keen to prove their bona fides and toughness. Yet it is the very people who have to put their lives on the line for these concepts are coming to see their correctness and worth.

Conservatives often take for granted that police favor harsher measures against criminals, and that the defence force wants to cruise the globe in search of foreign monsters to destroy. Though obviously some join these institutions seeking such a struggle, many more have come to see that their chance of coming home alive, and making a real contribution to the world (the reason for which the vast majority undertake these risky careers) require that we move to different strategies and policies. They know first hand the costs of our current failed policies, even if todays political leaders are too weak (or afraid of being labeled weak) to advocate for real change. Liberals and the New Left need to begin to work to give voice to these institutions, to encourage their contribution to the debate. We need to show that policies such as preventative development, and drug legalisation are not abstract feel good ideas, but instead practical, hard headed responses that are coming to be endorsed by those on the ground with the strongest knowledge of our current failed approach. It is time we started listening to them. It is time we on the left dropped these cowardly half-way measures for fear of being called weak, and instead recognise the real strength that comes from open and honest advocacy of policies that offer genuine change and improvement for our fellow citizens both at home and in the wider world.

Photo used under a creative commons licence by user

The Joy of Uncertainty

Interesting fact of the day (h/t Secular Right)

When we distinguished strong varieties of nonbelief, such as atheism, from weaker nonbelief, a curvilinear relationship emerged (see Shaver, Lenauer, and Sadd). Those nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, relative to the “fence sitters” who reported more negative emotions. Similarly, life satisfaction was lower among the spirituals relative to the other three belief labels. Therefore, having uncertainty regarding one’s religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability.

Taken from here.
There is an old and prevalent idea that religion makes people happy, the opiate of the masses if you will and therefore ought to be encouraged by government as a social good. If nothing else, this research helps disprove that justification, allowing for a clearer debate about the real social benefit of religion (as opposed to individual benefit, a topic outside the realm of politics).

But I also regard this fact with some sadness, for it suggests that uncertainty is tied to unhappiness. Of course when one does not know what is happening to their job, family, or social identity of course worries seep in and discolour the other moments of joy in life. But why should the question of gods existence induce similar anxiety?

I have long wavered between atheism and agnosticism, eventually coming down as an agnostic. But I do so precisely because I enjoy the debate and uncertainty and arguments that are viable for both sides. I know I am a moral, but (like all others) flawed individual and so I have little doubt that should there indeed be a god I would be judged my merits not adherence to scripture. That is, my day to day ethics. As such contrary to Pascal’s wager, the ‘cost’ for me of agnosticism is very low. Of course I may be wrong and god is a vengeful and spiteful entity (an impression one could certainly get from the Bible) but in that case I see morality demanding I do not worship or endorse such a force within this world, and I defy any to justify otherwise.

Thus for me, the debate about god’s existence brings happiness precisely because it is uncertain. Precisely because it involves, indeed demands engagement with the greatest minds of human existence (almost all of whom have turned their attention to this question in some form) and so therefore standing either in their shadow or on their shoulders (depending on how you value your own contribution) you have a topic of boundless entertainment and importance. I must admit to always being slightly surprised at those agnostics (and many atheists) who assert that the question of if there is a god or not is not important to them. My own belief is that nothing could be more important. Its existence would shape the entire purpose and order of this world towards its orientation. Its non-existence would demand the fundamental reshaping of human values and institutions away from the church and believers and a re-invigorated quest to find principles and ideals upon which we can guide and educate future generations.

A man of course has to eat, and religious scholarship, particularly from the point of view of non-believers is not a high paying job. And so I have turned my attention and study to matters of domestic and international politics, seeking improvements in the wider human condition and living standards of my fellow citizens and international brothers. But on the occasional quiet evening, or when I feel I am ahead in my own work, I often turn to those books in my library on religion and like to delve into these great subjects. Some of the most interesting moments of personal development and reflection for me have precisely involved wresteling over these great questions of the existence of god, and my resulting agnosticism is not a disavowal of the importance of the question, but rather the encouragement of it. A starting point from which I may freely seek evidence, reasoning and insight into the question. The joy is in the uncertainty of it all.

But perhaps I am different in that way. The uncertainty of the abstract for me is of great appeal. I admit to having no idea of how one would build a bridge, or identify a cancer cell and indeed little actual desire to. Far more practical and useful than debates over god, but sciences desire for certainty, often restricting its endeavors to the mundane cataloging of life are largely uninteresting for me. It is the questions of the most uncertainty I desire, and as we witness humanity begin to slowly escape religions fundamentalist grasp, to see people equally flinging themselves into certain non-belief is a poor and disheartening replacement.

So here’s an interesting one to encourage the questioning: What does the existence of tarantula wasps say about god? Responses Here, and on the wider question of ‘natural evil’ see CS Lewis and Stephen J Gould.

Image used under a Creative Commons Licence by user Radiant Guy

Cloudy Day Thoughts

A rainy, dark Sunday afternoon seems a perfect time to make a post and point I’ve been meaning to address for a while: Euthanasia should be legal.

Actually i’ll go further, the very fact that it is not, is the ultimate constraint on freedom in the modern world. More than the restriction of drugs, the prohibition of homosexuals from marriage, or the tax paid by each of us. By making Euthanasia illegal, we are day after day agreeing to the proposition that Government has the right to control our bodies even as we exit this world. It is morally no different to giving government the right to choose when and how each of us are born, and must be removed from our laws and protected in our constitution.

The damage which this law does daily can be no better seen than through a recent court case:

In a landmark decision, Western Australia’s chief judge Wayne Martin said the Brightwater Care Group would not be criminally responsible if it stopped feeding and hydrating severely paralysed Christian Rossiter, 49. Martin said Rossiter had the right to direct his own treatment, and that food and water “should not be administered against his wishes”.The ruling sets a legal precedent in Australia, where assisting someone to take their own life is a crime punishable by life in prison in some states

The judge found Rossiter was not terminally ill or dying and had the mental capacity to make an informed decision about stopping his treatment. Martin ordered that medical staff fully explain to Rossiter the consequences of ceasing nutrition and hydration through a tube into his stomach. In a statement read to the court Friday, the former stockbroker and outdoor adventurer said he was unable to undertake the most basic of human functions. “I am unable to blow my nose,” he said. “I am unable to wipe the tears from my eyes.”He made a public plea last week to be allowed to end his suffering, which he described as a “living hell”.

“I’m Christian Rossiter and I’d like to die. I am a prisoner in my own body. I can’t move,” he told reporters.

So long as Euthanasia is illegal we are as a society accepting the jail of the human body, as appropriate for the enslavement of the human spirit. We punish and decry those who act to imprison a fellow member of society, be it their family members or a random stranger. But when an individuals own body becomes that coffin, far more effective and painfully than anything man could think up, we witness governments and ‘moral’ societies lining up around the world to demand that individual endures and suffers as long as is physically possible. When nature makes the body a prison, we have somehow come to see it as moral to become its prison guards.

Rossiter’s case captures the horns of the dilemma for a society which grants the individual only partial authority over their body. We already accept that individuals can reject medical treatment. Your doctor can’t force you to take your flu tablets, your dentist can’t fill that cavity without your consent, no one can stop teenager boys breaking their arms by riding skateboards, and for those with religious objections (such as Jehovah Witnesses with Blood Transfusions) we will let people choose their type of treatment. Rossiter won on similar grounds, he is able to choose to reject a certain treatment (forced feeding) but is not allowed to choose an alternative treatment (assisted suicide).

And so he will starve to death. Slowly, painfully and with the tools for his desired release within meters of him but untouchable due to the law.

Death is of course a scary thing, and addressing the fear that Euthanasia will be used in a utilitarian or bureaucratic means to simply end the life of the disabled or elderly is central to changing the law. In the USA at the moment, critical health care reform is being dragged down with the suggestion (courtesy of the now unemployed Sarah Palin) that unproductive, disabled, poor or elderly members of society would face ‘death panels’ a claim which even the cowardly lion of the NYT has called ‘false’. That such an idea could gain leverage whilst plainly unrelated to the actual legislation on the table demonstrates the widespread social concerns and challenges that overcoming this great bondage on individuals would require in the real fight. The great unspoken fear is of course the return of society and government having control over life in the practice eugenics, as was seen in western society as recently as the 1920’s, and practiced under the Nazis regime (China and India’s overwhelmingly male next generation also suggests similar practices at work). And yet if we really were incapable of avoiding the past’s crimes, then no society at all would be possible. All democracy would become tyranny, all authority abused, all prejudices encouraged, all freedom revoked. And yet whilst relapse is always possible, that is plainly not the experience of human kind. Over the last 400 years much of humanity has come to fall within the bounds of the rule of law, directed at the protection of the individual, with the rest eager to catch up. In such tight confines and with oversight, what is proposed is as far from the social control of totalitarian regimes as is possible. For euthanasia is worthy only, i repeat only as a means of freeing the individual within that most private of private spheres: their own body. Indeed it is more correctly our current tortured half-way house that seems to accept the idea of society choosing how and when individuals die. Legal Euthanasia is not the beginnings of eugenics, but rather the final refutation of it and its barbarous principle of granting society and government authority for that which it does not and can never have: the individuals own body.

Others run the other way, suggest this is a question of nature’s authority and not to be interfered with. These same people however likely see nothing but god’s will and love at work in the great acts of nurses, doctors and medicine to fight back against death, to extend our lives, and enhance the quality of our time on this planet. These people are not hypocrits, but rather in their fear of the unknown they have tried to invest in an amoral environment virtues of good or ill. God may be loving, but bacteria is not moral, nor is the lightening strike or flash flood. Nature has no care for our life or death. Only human beings who have consciousness of others, and a sense of morality can recognize the issues. From the importance of life to the morality of a dignified death. Instead of championing this moral demand, those of this view seek to outsource their responsibility.

In light of this fear, Politicians, the so called leaders of our communities have also hastily retreated from addressing the issue. In 1997 the Northern Territory government passed legislation allowing for Euthanasia, but it was soon repealed by the Federal Government under a Private Members bill of Kevin Andrews. Half-hearted moves were made also here in the ACT, and in 2008 with new leadership of both major parties in place, Bob Brown announced the Greens would again be pushing to over-turn Commonwealth legislation in this area. However much as on the issues of drug prohibition and marriage equality, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shown no willingness to move or even listen to argument on changes in these areas. Yet the polls seem to indicate that the vast majority of Australia’s support the individual having their control, with only some minorities such as Catholics or Aborigines rejecting the law on religious grounds. Indeed we are held by our politicians to be so frightened and incapable of discussing this that they lined up in 2005 to make it illegal to even discuss methods of suicide online.

Whilst Rossiter’s death (like that of Terry Schiavo in the USA several years back) is public, the elderly and infirm have been taking their own lives in indignity and humiliation for many many years. Once proud members of the ‘greatest generation’ have been found with plastic bags on their head, stomach’s full of pills, or at the bottom of staircases. Having sacrificed so much, having seen so much, having given all the strength they ever had, the government today stands between them and final control over the manner and timing of their final exit. And so, hiding from family members and the law they take their own life, becoming in their final act criminals of the state. Their crime is to want to have some control, some independence and dignity.

There are challenges to be overcome and safeguards to be put in place. Full legislation would require at least a few years open public discussion before it is comfortably accepted. But if we are to be a free society we must remove these abhorrent laws. We must accord all adult, mentally firm members of society both the freedom and the dignity to have final say over the way in which they pass into death. Anything less is to condemn our fellow citizens to pain and humiliation for an issue which we have no right as a society to interfere with. Just as human society today recognizes it wrong for one individual to take the life of another, we will one day come to recognize it wrong to give society control over the life of each one of us as to the time and manner of our passing.

The Real OzCar Scandal

A $2 billion dollar scheme being run by only one man. When he was sick it simply stopped (h/t Peter Martin):

The whole OzCar scheme was managed by one person – Godwin Grech – who, according to the auditor-general, “operated largely on his own”. According to Grech’s own evidence, which on this matter hasn’t been contradicted, when he was on sick leave for three weeks in February “nothing happened on OzCar – the project came to a complete stop”. Presumably no one in Treasury noticed that the person in charge of a $2 billion program hadn’t been in the office lately.

The auditor-general documented numerous other management failures. Treasury hired financial advisers to the scheme before the department had obtained a quote of what their services would cost. As the auditor-general says, such an “approach seriously weakens the commonwealth’s negotiating position and provides little comfort that the commonwealth is receiving value for money in agreeing to the contractual arrangements”.

Read the whole thing. Rudd has experience in the bureacracy, and clearly works at a furious pace to deliver his public commitments, but the management errors of this government in Education, Broadband and Consumables (fuelwatch, grocerychoice etc) are beginning to mount. A little more focus on quality over quantity between now and the election wouldn’t hurt.

Take your medicine early

A slight follow on from yesterday’s post, but an instructive comparison in how to deal with bad news:

The Right Way:

Defence Minister Senator John Faulkner has made a personal vow to achieve greater transparency and accountability, much improved planning and better cost effectiveness within his portfolio, with the Government to shortly decide the future of a troubled $1.2 billion Defence accommodation project. Senator Faulkner…
also highlighted major challenges with ”projects of concern”. These included ongoing maintenance and crewing problems that have left only three of six submarines routinely crewed and all submarines spending part of the year awaiting scheduled and unscheduled repairs.

Every Single Defence Minister over the last 20 years has been weakened, often soon into their term, due to the constant leak of information about projects that are behind times, flawed or vastly over budget. Even those who thrived in the role such as Kim Beazley ended up looking the worse for wear, perhaps even incompetent due to the drip, drip, drip of bad news into the pres. By getting out the difficulties out now Faulkner pre-empts the media (who inevitably take much less notice of information publicly announced, over that they obtain privately) and even wins praise for his commitment to transparency.

The Wrong Way:

By deciding to vote down Rudd’s scheme in the Senate yesterday, Turnbull avoided crystallising this split on the floor of the Senate. If Turnbull had directed the Coalition to vote for the Government scheme, his weakness would have been fully exposed. The Nationals, and perhaps even some Liberals, would have defied him by crossing the floor in the Senate. But the Opposition Leader has only delayed the day of reckoning.

The Government will present the same legislation to the Senate again in three months. If it is rejected a second time it will give Rudd the option of calling an early, double-dissolution election. And that is when Turnbull’s position grows yet more difficult. An election would be, on current indications, disastrous for the Coalition. So in three months Turnbull will have to accept electoral Armageddon, or he will have to capitulate. Faced with this choice, he will yield to Rudd.

As Hartcher makes clear Turnbull will have almost no choice but to instruct his forces to vote for the bill in December/Early Next year. He has no hope of convincing such reasonable men like Joyce to vote for it, and will see some cross the floor. However enough will vote for it and the Government’s bill will become law. The only question is managing the damage.
If the Coalition had voted for the bill yesterday they would have received some praise, mixed with media mirth about those renegade senators who had crossed the floor. But whilst party unity is an obsession for party leaders and pundits, it really doesn’t matter to the wider public. The public already know about Turnbull’s problems, letting senators vote as they wanted however would have let Turnbull include both supporters and skeptics see something to like in the Liberals ‘Broad Church’ approach. By next week everyone would have forgotten who or how many senators had voted against it (Quick name the last senator to cross the floor and what the bill was? *) and the Coalition could have spent from now until the election badgering the Government both from the left (why are your targets so low, don’t you care about the environment?) and from the right (what are you doing to help Businesses and consumers who are being made poverty stricken by your scheme?). It wouldn’t have done much, but would ensure that the next election would be on issues such as Economics (where the Coalition was making ground post-budget) and not on Climate Change. Instead our media will talk about nothing else, slowly eating away at Turnbulls leadership or ability to change the topic.

So here’s today’s Politiking lesson: Take your medicine early. Admit your flaws on your own terms, take your hits as soon as possible before elections. The longer you wait the more the pressure builds, the more likely the media keep running the story.

*Update*:It may just be co-incidence, but Tony Abbott has an op-ed this morning arguing (along the lines of his book) that conservatives should note the broader historical winds and try and manage change rather than resist it. Not only does the ETS fall into this category, but the headline echo’s a theme of his book that Oppositions shouldn’t prevent Governments passing their major pieces of legislation. Abbott’s long been decried as having awful political skills, but the book shows he’s getting cannier, something Turnbull isn’t showing that much sign of.

(* Eggleston(L), Ferguson(L) & Nash(N) on the Communications Foundation December 2008)

The Politics of Climate Change #2

At the start of the week I talked a little about the Greens political strategy over the Emissions Trading Scheme, so with the Senate having this afternoon voted down the Government’s scheme, it serves to look at how this may all play out. (I also offer this because I don’t have the scientific knowledge to contribute anything beyond what has already proliferated online and in report after report, and because my own preference is for a Carbon Tax, so all the groups plans seem off kilter for my liking).

First, I think contra-common wisdom that this vote should be regarded as a defeat for the government. All governments like to see their legislation passed, and whilst this one faces a hostile senate it didn’t manage to convince any of the non-Labor senators to support the bill. Most of the public havn’t been watching the horsetrading, but they know Labor is absolutely dominating the opposition, is highly popular and yet must now square that up with an inability of the Government to get through what it promised. It also suggests the Governments legislative efforts such as combining the Renewable Energy Target Legislation with the CPRS hasn’t helped, nor their many many concessions to polluting industries such as coal and agriculture. Whilst these groups and the business lobby have accepted the need for such legislation and therefore been reasonably quiet in their complaints, expect some to demand a much better deal second time around.

For that reason, I think the Greens have probably helped their own cause at the expense of the environment, although that all depends on if they are able to fully capture the balance of power at the next election (DD or otherwise). They seem to have made the best the enemy of the good, and likely this vote will keep Australia at least a year if not 2 from getting through its legislation. Sure thats not a lot of carbon, but I’d wager even with the balance of power in the Senate the Greens could achieve more pushing through small (quiet) changes that steadily removed concessions and increased targets (and therefore carbon prices) would be an easier and more successful way to get the balance they desire than trying to get Labor to agree to it all at once. Already a number of environmental groups have voiced their dismay at the failure of the bill, and in part blamed the greens. It shouldn’t hurt the party, but it does show how varied the entire movement is and the difficult politics of leading it. Brown has gambled, first on the adds, now on the No vote, it may work but it depends on their success at the next election and if Labor feels a) more urgency b) more concilliatory towards Brown’s Greens.

For the Liberal Party this is also a bad result. Had the vote passed with independent and Greens support, most of the heat taken out and let them spend the next few years blaming the Government for rising prices and hurt industries. For now however as the old saying goes, sometimes the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it. The Government will do all it can to pin the blame of this squarely on the Opposition, and if its dominance inside parliament this week is anything to go by, it will absolutely savage the Coalition come election time. Until the Liberals get a policy they haven’t a hope. Their release of Frontier Economics Research was like a Ventriliquist rudely insulting passers by and saying the Doll said it. Either way it deserved and got a solid punch in the jaw from Labor this week and likely from the public come election. Turnbull especially for the image he brings to the role, and his former history as Environment Minister is well aware of this and yet clearly incapable of pulling his troops into line, only exacerbating the visible tensions in the party. If the Coalition passes something by the end of the year they may be OK come election, but the longer this goes on, and the closer it gets to an election (which must be next year) the fresher it will be in the public mind. The only alternative would be a radical new approach (such as a Carbon Tax) that could be simply understood by the public and supported by business and industry. Doubtful, but when your that far down a hail mary might just save a few people’s seats.

For the independents it’s a difficult business to work out. Fielding has proven himself way out of his depth here, and whilst never having a chance of retaining his seat anyway, has further cemented his loss. Who takes the Victorian senate place is tough, probably Labor in the climate (they should have had it by all merits in 2004) but it’s not certain.
Nick Xenophon wont be up for election (unless there is a DD) but I think the public (and indeed the press) are yet to make up their mind about what he’s up to. He’s beginning to be tarred with the Coalition, but can easily cut himself free as they sink. Maybe he is just playing hard to get and will place heavy demands before the government, but if fielding and the coalition remain opposed come December, he may not actually have much bargaining power.

So long story short: Everybody is going to look bad from this. Internationally it makes us look regressive, domestically Labor looks weak, the Opposition disunited, Fielding incompetent, Xenophon cagy and the Greens utopian. Not a good day for anyone (well except those few who think it’s all a big hoax, I guess they are celebrating.)