Chasing the Norm

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

Month: September, 2009

Rhetoric and Morality

If you watch much US politics, although some similar elements can be found here in Australia, you’ll notice that the major political players arn’t really talking to each other anymore. Though socratic dialogue on the great issues of the day has never really occurred (or been needed) within modern western democracies, the extent of the gap between the meaning and intent of the language used by the competing groups is stark. There are many reasons for this gap, but perhaps the most critical of them comes down to the issue of morality. Or rather where you seek to measure morality, and the implications that flow on from that. Those in power tend to take morality as a result of outcomes. Those in opposition tend to take morality as a question of intention. The difference between these two is often at the heart of the controversies of modern society, though as shall be noted later, the groups are increasingly hardening around particular takes, the Religious Right around Intention, the Liberal Left around Outcome.

During the time of John Howard or Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Left wing critics of both governments used to point to the cuts in welfare spending, tightening of requirements, stronger support for private services (like health and education) and harsher penalties for those who are seen to be breaking the rules, from ordinary criminals to ‘queue jumping’ refugees. In each of these cases, the government could usually turn around and argue that whilst this looked harsh, that harshness was both needed (like a disciplined parent) and more importantly in the moral stakes, that the outcome of these policies was improved social conditions. Less people dependent on welfare, more money available for social spending, or parents choosing educations in line with their own personal beliefs, and a stronger sense of personal responsibility within the community. Howard and Thatcher both saw themselves as highly moral individuals, but it was demonstrated by their outcomes, not their intentions. Their critics however would rage most strongly at the announcement of individual policies that seemed to offer a harsh intention, within the sometimes counter-intuitive logic of economic liberalism that a lack of control of the market affords greater support for the needy and the wayward. While there are numerous cases of the market and indeed these individual policies causing great immoral harm, their critics were eventually silenced by the clear and successful outcomes. Neither is well liked, but their moral victory rests in the adoption of similar policies by almost all of the mainstream Center-Left (The GFC has given some of the last holdouts a hope of resistance, but its a fleeting one)

Today a similar pattern is evident in the US (and increasingly in Australia) as the Right wing critics attack the government more and more for what they perceive as wrongful intentions, rather than any great concern with outcomes. So Obama’s healthcare policy is dismissed out of hand because it represents a move to big government or away from individual choice, (as was his stimulus package). Torture is seen as perfectly acceptable, because the intention is to protect the homeland, the way this protection occurs of almost no interest. When Obama removes missile defence policies, closes Guantanamo or seeks to negotiate with Iran over Nuclear weapons, the potential outcomes are not a part of the debate, rather they are seen as simply pointers for the troubling moral intentions which are applied to his character. Though 100% of those against him would also be against him where he a white democrat named Bob Jones, or Joe Charles, the difference of his skin colour and background make it easier to apply such devious intentions to his moral character.

Likewise, this view of morality as a question of intention over outcome reflects significantly on the movement that takes on this view. Articulated principles become the guiding lights to the faithful. Not only is it far easier to communicate via principles than complex circumstantial outcomes, intentions as a moral basis allows for greater enforceability as tests can be applied almost any time, to any communication past or present to check for consistency. Morality at this point becomes a question solely of identity. Sarah Palin’s many outright lies have absolutely no impact on the high moral status awarded to her by the Religious Right. She could have an affair and see no damage, but should she endorse anything Obama does, the glass would shatter and she would be seen as immoral and unacceptable. As such you see a far greater willingness to exclude those who come anywhere near agreeing with the chosen enemy, for such an act, even if utterly consistent with one of the principles desired, is taken to be an acceptance of a wayway intention. So while Noel Pearson was of the left and believed in the same social justice ideals as the left, he was instantly discredited for working with Howard (Likewise Frank Brennan for his helping Brian Harradine on Wik). In the US any conservative who gives even mild support for Obama’s healthcare (which will reduce overall costs, and increase the healthcare for all, regardless of income) is ostracized and discredited. If Obama has bad intentions, the thinking goes, only someone with similarly bad intentions could justify supporting anything they do (or at least has lapsed on this cause).

This is a common pattern, Oppositions center around intentions, Governments around outcomes. However, I think we are seeing an increasing hardening of current patterns. That is a big call given Obama has only been in power 8 months, but this is a 30 year change. I had deliberately excluded Ronald Reagan from my first set of examples, because he was a for runner to the Intention driven politics you see in the US. Big government was the enemy, but even as supply side tax cuts sent the budget into deficit, his intentions were seen as still being more moral than his opponents. On the left, the grudging acceptance of capitalism ‘because it works’ has been occurring almost since the early 1940’s when communism lost its sheen, but especially over the last 20 years, as massive economic liberalisation and privatisation has not resulted in a Randian struggle for survival, but increased prosperity, increased support for the disadvantaged, and a more free and tolerant society. The outcomes have forced their change, many may not like capitalism, but there are few arguments from intention (the contest of the market place) replaced mainly by ones of outcome (how to get the poor and disadvantaged the same opportunities the rich are afforded). There is also the increasing social liberalism of those who champion economic liberalism (such as in Libertarians), which is dividing the Religious Right from the vast mainstream of Western Political thought.

In a world where the political divide is seen as a moral one. And a moral divide based not on issues but on how and where you draw your morality, actual civic communication becomes increasingly difficult. One of the primary tasks of all leaders is to communicate how the elites are dealing with the problems faced, and why this is the right course of action for the times. When John Howard was talking economics he was excellent at this type of explanation, and many a left-winger (myself included) would admit to the guilty secret of being swayed by his explanations on economic issues. But when it came to cultural or social issues, he was hopeless, retreating to boilerplate lines about the guiding principles, whilst effectively ignoring them in policy. Obama is much better at this, for he seems to have a clearer vision of the future country he seeks, but he also faces an opposition significantly less inclined to listen than even Howard faced during the Wik or Tampa controversys.

So next time you encounter someone you just can’t reason with politically, or a figure who confuses you in how they could possibly advocate such an immoral position, ask yourself from where they may be seeking to draw their morality. And when communicating with others seek to offer as an explanation the origins of your own morality as an important point of common ground. You probably wont even agree, but recognizing each other as equally worthy moral beings, just utilizing different calculus’s is a vital first step to true public dialog and political engagement.

The Making of Julia Gillard Book Review

The Making of Julia Gillard by Jacqueline Kent Melbourne: Penguin Group $36.99 rrp

Near the end of the book, the author Jacqueline Kent notes that amongst Canberra’s press gallery, there’s the view that the ALP currently offers a ‘boringly united front’ (she’s nice enough to pretend only one Journo holds it). Despite the promise of nearly 300 pages of analysis and insight into the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, Gillard remains the same sharp, cker but reserved figure she appears on the news.
The most interesting part of the book -by far- is the detail of Gillard’s early student activism, though the authors unfailing support lets her get away with glib answers about it, such as her time in the Socialist Forum. Seemingly just a quasi-think tank that Gillard used as a useful network whilst fighting in amongst the Victorian ALP left wings, it is about as close to a juicy story as the book offers up (real live commies!). Other potential juicy stories such as her 2002 relationship with Small Business Minister Craig Emerson (who was married with kids when it began) are dealt with in just over a page, likewise for the pre-leaked story about Lindsay Tanner trying to block Gillard’s rise. (He saw her as a rival, anything further is never really discussed, and no one speaks out against each other).

When I first saw the cover of the book(up on the right), I hated it. I even had to hide the book in my bag before going to lunch with a few of my mates. It is the Vogue magazine, Vaseline blurred photo cover that adorns chick lit and screams ‘I’m only skin deep’. The choice may have been by some unconnected editor, but it fits. This is in many ways not Jacqueline Kent’s fault. She writes very well, includes enough detail for the interested reader to understand the context without getting bogged down, but she has precious little to work with. Kent not only doesn’t manage to get into Gillard’s dirty linen, she doesn’t even seem to want to. Either way, Gillard hides herself well, and clearly no one wanted to go on (or off) the record to trash the most powerful woman in the country and likely next Prime Minister.

Kent’s book is well placed to meet the fascination slowly bubbling up within the political class and the wider public about Gillard, however readers are likely to come away disappointed as there seems to be very little more to Julia than what impressions you may have already formed. Her work is clearly her life, she is a stubborn fighter for the issues she believes in (Education, Immigration, and recently “productivity”) and she has made a successful fusion of being a laid back aussie with razor sharp nerdish smarts, an act her boss constantly manages to fumble (Only giving you a fair shake of the sauce bottle there kev!). But though the highest ranked member of the Left in over 20 years, she comes across as quite conservative and perhaps too pragmatic. After 300 pages I still have no idea how a Gillard Administration would differ from Rudd’s.

Gillard’s rise into parliament and then to deputy, is one more of doggardness than calculated Machiavellianism. She seems to have served her time, shown such intellect, capability and enough few core principles, that it seems almost inevitable that she would move ahead. Right now the argument seems the same for her sliding into the PM’s seat. Though you get a feeling that for all her dedication, if it never happened Gillard would have “had a glass of red wine, a cry and moved on”, which seems her answer to just about all life’s setbacks. A great attitude, but one that doesn’t lend itself to the subject of good biographies. With such source material Kent never really had a chance, but unfortunately also doesn’t seem to have had the willingness to open any wounds to try and find out. The photo cover well represents the word picture inside. Almost all biographers need to prove their loyalty in order to get access and support, but they also need enough gossip and insider stories in order to give their readers something more than they can get in the daily news. Kent has clearly gone the Bob Woodward route of trading less opinion for more access, but she doesn’t get far enough inside to justify the bargain.

If you follow politics closely, it probably wouldn’t hurt to add this book to your library, but it’s probably a better choice as a Christmas gift to a bright young niece or cousin who you’d like to encourage. Gillard’s story is a very Australian, and inspiring one. She clearly works twice as hard as anyone around her, she’s sharp, pragmatic and takes a stoic view of life, assuming Labor doesn’t monumentally f**k thing’s up, she will be our first female Prime Minister. She has already made history, already gone so far, but in life and literature, her story is yet to be fully written.

Double-D Madness

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

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

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

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

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

(Full reasoning for the political junkies at his site)

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

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

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

Happy News

Given I gave them a whack a little while ago for the rumor of cowardice, its pleasing to note that the ACT Labor party has found its spine and endorsed a new bill supporting ceremonies for civil unions in the ACT. While same-sex civil unions are currently allowed in the ACT, the Rudd government has threatened to veto any bill which allows legally binding public ceremonies. So you can tie your life to another, but not celebrate it in front of friends or family. Petty and illogical, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from social conservatives on such issues. Anyway, good on the ACT Labor party. I’m pretty confident that within 10 years we will have homosexual marriage in this country, but it will require more boldness like this if its to be achieved.

Meanwhile Simon Berger, a pre-selection candidate for Nelsons safe Liberal seat of Bradfield has again gone public with his homosexuality. The politics of this are tough to read. Berger certainly gains name recognition and status for his boldness (joining only Penny Wong in being openly gay). However this is the same seat where a young Nelson was questioned by 5 very stern older ladies if the earring in his ear meant he was gay. Even in the ACT where homosexuality is rather boringly normal, the openly gay Andrew Barr does not run on his sexuality, so its hard to imagine that this move will gain Berger any votes to compensate for the ones inevitably lost in the closed atmosphere of a Liberal Party branch. That said, it would be foolish to imagine that the hostility of the US republicans to gay marriage is replicated here at home. My own view has been that as soon as the Liberals have a leader who publicly endorses gay marriage that the rank and file will come to shift their support to the idea. After all, the Liberals were the first to have a female candidate, a migrant candidate and an aboriginal candidate. They may be a conservative party, but stand well apart from the Hanson-esq bigotry found on the far right.

The Labor party could help speed up this process should it so wish. Now whilst this wont happen, there is an interesting thought experiment to consider. Right now the Labor party leads 55/45 in 2pp, with the Liberals slipping back to 38% primary vote, Latham territory. Given such a lead, and the sure-fire dominance at the next election of the issues of the stimulus (a moderate plus) and the ETS (a strong plus), Labor is in an impregnable position. Thus, it could adopt almost any piece of progressive legislation to propose and be guaranteed a mandate for it, following the election. Going to the election on the issue would take some of the heat out of it (as a qusi-referendum), and yet because there are more fundamental issues in play, it would only play a small role in the outcome. Though gay marriage was voted down at the Labor party conference, Rudd should recognise the rare position history now affords him. Lest he wants to be tagged another Malcolm Fraser, too weak or hesitant to maximize the use of their position, Rudd ought to consider just how he will use this golden opportunity. Its clear that wont be homosexual marriage, but many other issues are on the table such as changes in Drug policy, Federal control of Health or Education, or Tax Reform are all viable. Sure its a lot for voters to deal with, but this is a once in a generation opportunity. Time to stand strong Mr Rudd.

Photo used under a Creative Commons licence by user Hammer51012

Market State ? How about My State?

Over at The Interpreter Sam Roggeveen and Hugh White have been discussing their views on the work of Phillip Bobbitt, author of ‘The Shield of Achilles‘ (on the 1914-1990 war between Parliamentary Democracy and Fascism/Communism) and ‘Terror and Consent‘ (on fighting in an era of globalised Terrorism).
Both are important books, and worth reading, though as Sam notes difficult to finish without perseverance. There are moments of brilliance in each. Bobbitt is very good at noting the importance of structure to the actions of agents, both of the state (from city states to Market states) and its challenges (from pirates to terrorists). But as Hugh White notes, it’s sometimes too easy to grant a predictability to established structures. Yet if anything I don’t think that White goes far enough, in that he still talks of states reacting to circumstances, rather than the other challenge that Bobbitt’s Market State idea seems to introduce (though he leaves it aside), that states functions may be outsourced to economic institutions and so reduced from geographic structures to metaphysical identities. If we are entering a period where the states role is less protection, but more about providing opportunities, then why should the place I seek identity from and within, be the same place that gives me economic opportunities?

With economics destined to be handled at the continental (witness the EU/NAFTA) or perhaps even global level, individuals are freed to move, shape and argue for much clearer and more delineated cultural, ethnic and social re-organisation. Rather than the era of enlightened cosmopolitanism capitalists hope for, but rather one where as economic trans-national groupings grow in size and compete, with citizens seeking to join those with the best opportunities, the identity groups we attach ourselves can safely shrink without sacrificing wealth.

Until now, the greatest peril any group seeking homogeneity faced was how to provide for itself. Most groups have dealt with this via the practice of slavery, explicitly in Ancient Athens, implicitly under the Third Reich. But with this outsourced (and assuming hostility between identities remains low) groups can successfully exclude and restrict as pleases them.Why stay in a conservative area when the same jobs are on offer in a liberal one? Why stay in a area where you are a minority than in an area where you are part of the group. Indeed why even share a group with anyone at all unlike you. We will increasingly see people say they are economically citizens of the EU, but identity wise from a very very specific location, or ethnic basis, or even political background, that admits no diversity within.

One interesting term that has been thrown around in International Relations theory papers is that of Neo-Medievalism. Popularised by the great Australian academic Hedley Bull, the changing nature of states suggests a revival of competing lines of authority compared to the clear supreme state sovereignty we have been used to since the mid 17th century. In the Medieval period before this time, the states (as they existed) were content to regularly invade each other on questions of identity (either to convert, or to reclaim isolated fellow believers), and there were multiple sources of authority claiming ownership of the peasants, with Fiefdoms, Monarchies, Churches and Tribal/Ethnic leaders all demanding allegiance. This began to be reduced to just one overarching source with the rise of the modern nation state, which reached its logical conclusion in Fascism with the state being responsible for every single element of social organisation in peoples lives, and even the choice of which of those they would join or be excluded from. Modern democracies par the state back somewhat, but with the rise of international organisations and economic regional groupings, there is a re-emerging overlapping of authority facing individuals. And with that comes reduced group loyalty, or multiple group loyalty. Except where early history relied only on humans natural inclination to differentiate ourselves into groups, the rise of democracy and the idea of self-determination has transformed that desire into a god given right.

The idea of self-determination was by far the most powerful idea of the 20th century. It is one of humanity’s greatest, and also one of our most dangerous. It was necessary to help throw off the colonizers, and integral to the spread of democracy, but it also gives every identifiable group in the world a moral check to be cashed in whenever they want. We are now up to 192 nations and growing. But these are somewhat limited as each of these new states needs economic stability or control of important resources in order to be viable. But as the economic blocks to which we belong grow, there emerges the possibility that identity groups can and will shrink. They will be able to exclude because far less mutual dependence is needed. And so if anything whilst we are breaking down the restrictive walls of the geographic state we are likely to become far more closely tied to the metaphysical binds of identity (however constructed, based on physical or mental differences).

Bobbitt doesn’t walk down this path, in ‘Terror and Consent’ his focus is on the more immediate concern to help preserve states during this transition period from the inevitable backlash each era produces. But if the Market State is the future, or at least we will come to see state membership as akin to a commercial deal, then the pressures to make identity groups much more exclusive will similarly grow. The implications and risk of this are vast and confronting, but we must face them head on. It is pretty hard to argue against the idea that the Kurds or Uighur don’t deserve an independent say over their own affairs, but what about when it is a group of evangelicals, or homosexuals, or conservatives who then want their own area, whilst still remaining fully participating members of the greater regional economic groupings.

Photo used under a Creative Commons licence by user j / f / photos

Words both old and new

Apologies for the low post count in recent days, but I’m under the hammer to deliver a few new chapters to work. But around the media have been two fascinating pieces: An inside peak into the PM’s inner sanctum at Parliament House, and a Liberal Senators efforts to seek a party resurrection through a return to its history.

As a sign of its confidence, it seems the government is finally willing to allow journalists to have a peak into the way the government operates when in Parliament house. In a long, interesting and yet strangely detail free piece Katharine Murphy spends the day with the PM’s Media Unit. Charting the young ‘alpha males’ (her term) who run the office it’s more west wing than the office, but still leaves them unilluminated.

A few times, walking through, watched furtively by onlookers, flanked by Harris and Kelly, I fancy I’ve fallen into an episode of Entourage. The running joke in the office and among the senior ministers drifting in and out for tactics is I am there to do a profile of Harris. When I mention the Entourage sensation to one person, he immediately casts Harris as ”Turtle” – the wannabe driver to the A-List Hollywood star in the HBO series.

A reception area divides the apparatchiks from the departmental liaison officers, who scurry about in the pre-question time period, and the speechwriters, Tim Dixon and former journalist Maria Hawthorne. The speech-writing pod has a think-tank vibe: there is a designer chair, and Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama look down from walls that are otherwise packed with books. Across from them is a private dining hall, a monstrosity of the 1980s, complete with mirrored panelling. Back a bit is the sitting room, where a television crew from A Current Affair is camped out patiently, waiting for three minutes with Rudd.

Meanwhile, Mark Davis offers up the plan for the Ground Floor ministerial wing as a sure fire guide to who is in and out in the Rudd Government:

Front and centre, naturally, is the PMO – the Prime Minister’s office, an L-shaped suite of offices housing Kevin Rudd and his advisers. Next door is his deputy, Julia Gillard; behind her and also immediately next to the PMO is the Treasurer, Wayne Swan. Across a corridor is the Transport Minister and left-wing factional chief, Anthony Albanese.

But most interesting of all is the location of Mark Arbib, the NSW Right factional chief who became Employment Participation Minister in Rudd’s frontbench reshuffle in June. Arbib is the only junior minister domiciled on the ministerial wing’s ground floor…

Both a worth read for political junkies. Of more substance however is some more media attention for Liberal Senator George Brandis’s efforts to re-cast the history of Australian politics. There is an old saying that winners write the history, which is often interpreted in a military sense: once the fight is done only those left standing will be able to say what happened. But politically it is better seen as ‘those who write the history will be the winners’. Those parties or individuals who ignore or sideline their history are constantly at the mercy of the opposition who will define them in ways they do not seek or enjoy (As John Howard did to Labor for the better part of a decade), Brandis, easily one of the top 2-3 smartest men in parliament is instead turning his gaze on his own party with a rather odd formulation:

In May this year, Brandis lamented that nothing was organised to celebrate the centenary of the fusion – the event on May 27, 1909, when the two non-Labor parties – Alfred Deakin’s Protectionist Party and George Reid’s Free Traders – merged. To Brandis, this was the origin of today’s Liberal Party which, although formally established by Menzies in 1944, has drawn from ”a long Australian tradition of liberal and anti-socialist politics”.

In an subsequent essay for the Spectator magazine, The Party that Forgot its Past, Brandis said the Liberal Party ”did not spring from the mind of Menzies like Athena from the brow of Zeus”. The Liberals risked being a ”one-hero party”, its history the ”veneration of an icon frozen in time”. ”Great though Menzies’ achievement was in reconstructing the non-Labor side of politics, what he created was a new party structure, not a new set of political values.

Brandis raises a good point, though I’m not quite sure its the one he is seeking to make. Brandis is seeking to use this history to re-claim the strong strand of liberalism for the Liberal Party, by reminding them theirs is a history beyond the conservatives Menzies, Fraser and Howard. But instead the story of Fusion best demonstrates that Australian politics is governed not by ideological debates, but by the forces of Labor and Anti-Labor. What unites the non-labor parties has always been what they oppose rather than what they hold in common. Today it is the same story, with the only reason the Nationals have to sit with the Liberals is their united hatred of Labor.

Unfortunately the Spectator piece seems to be down at the moment, but Brandis at least deserves credit for seeking party renewal in the pages of history. Indeed while there are many conservative accounts of Australian history (Kelly’s “The March of Patriots” being the most recent), there is prescious little about the Liberal party and especially Liberalism in Australia. It is a great story un-told (one i’d once planned as a PhD project, and would like to return to one day). If the Liberal party was actually liberal (and smart) it would have men such as Brandis front and center, but it doesn’t leaving him with the free time to speculate on the absent history. A good effort, but likely to be one soon forgotten.

Not a good day for Bishop

Politics done Sesame Street style:

From the Liberal Party’s Question Time Brief 15th September 2009.

What Bishop doesn’t mention is that just an hour or two before recording this, she asked to put a quote from Paul Keatings 1969 maiden speech into Hansard. Where did she find this quote ? Hansard.

While the press always focused on Beazley, Crean and Latham, a common factor dragging them down was the poor performance of their deputy, Jenny Macklin, who clearly wasn’t up to the job. Conversely Costello* and Gillard helped their respective leaders appear stronger and more capable. Turnbull is clearly being hampered by having a weak deputy and should demote her early in the new year. It’s time for you to go now Julie. You’re scaring the children.

* Yes, Fisher, Anderson and Vaile were technically Deputy to Howard, but in action and image it was Costello from 1996-2007.

Refugees in Context

The Lowy Think Tank blog The Interpreter has a fascinating post up about China’s lack of planning and policy for dealing with refugees.

The recent influx of tens of thousands of Burmese refugees caught Chinese border guards by surprise. Local government in China’s Yunnan province had to temporarily shelter more than 13,000 Burmese — a difficult mission, especially when China lacks both the experience and regulations to deal with large groups of international refugees.

China borders 16 countries, most of which are economically under-developed, politically unstable and ethnically complicated. Some of these countries’ governments face increasing criticisms over their legitimacy, as in the case of Burma and North Korea; some are in a de facto state of war, as in the case of Pakistan; and some are unstable democracies, as in the case of central Asian countries and Thailand.

But China is not prepared. China is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the supplemental 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. But China has so far not passed laws dealing with refugees. As a result, in the face of large numbers of refugees, local authorities can only handle each situation on a case-by-case basis, first seeking instructions from Beijing and then coordinating its policy with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other departments and UNHCR.

While conservatives like Paul Kelly proclaim (in his new book March of Patriots) that there is a uniquely Australian bargain between the government and the people that allows migration but forces the use of mandatory detention, it’s worth remembering that every other country in the world faces challenges often much much harder than ours. Australia has no land borders with any other country, a sparsely populated immediate region (save Indonesia) and a strong political order that is accustomed to dealing with such issues in a nation wide and orderly fashion. Refugee numbers are overwhelmingly tied to international events (Tiananmen Square brought 16’000, Afghanistan and Iraq saw 8400 in 2001) and in 2008 of the 3’200 Protection Visa applications, those who came by boat made up only 4% of the total number of applications for protection visas.

Australia has one of the best records in the world with migration and peaceful assimilation of migrants. But we also have a geographic advantage that no one else can beat. In light of these advantages, our harsh immigration policies are less the necessary undergirding to a multicultural society, but repressive measures that appease xenophobic elements without necessarily doing anything to change refugee behaviour, and an over-reaction to the scope of the problem faced. Thankfully some of these measures are beginning to change and well done to Liberal Senator Judith Troeth for crossing the floor to support the legislation stopping the charging of asylum seekers for their detention.

Bringing down the Big (un)Friendly Giant

Breaking News:
Telstra to be split up

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

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

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

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

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

Good move Conroy.

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

We succeed because of failure, not in spite of it


“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed” – Michael Jordan

I recently had to give a speech to a number of international students on my research. Most of what I said probably flew over their heads, but mentioning Michael Jordan admitting he succeeded only because he was willing to fail: that they recognised & responded to. We seem to be a culture where people are only ever allowed one shot at success. When Turnbull loses he will be forced from politics. Whatever contribution, whatever lessons he’s learnt will be burnt as an offering to the gods to bring forth the new inspired hope to lead the Conservatives back from the wilderness. But experience counts, and we discount it at our peril. No worthy historical leader has appeared on the scene already great. All have their failures from which lesser men would falter. But it is precisely because they returned to fight that they achieved what they did. Likewise the great strength of the US entrepreneurial culture now is less their lax regulations than the low penalties for failing (bankruptcy) and starting over.

Along with the Bradman’s and Di maggio’s, will Jordan’s name always sit. I never saw him in person, but I was lucky enough to follow basketball whilst he was still playing. Last night Jordan was finally inducted into the Hall of fame.

Light posting today

An Israeli psy-trance band I have been following for several years: Infected Mushroom have a new album out. So consequently I’m off to lock myself off from the world for a few days and give my ears an oral orgasm. Available in all good music stores.

In 100 years people are going to be regarding the early creators of electronic music the same way we do classical composers. I’m not sure yet who is its Motzart, but IM are their Beethoven.

Culture and Political language

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech to congress on Healthcare. The issue has been very contentious over the last few months, and Obama was hoping to push congress over the line with a vote before the year is out (My bet is that he will get his bill). However the show was almost disrupted when one Congressman, Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You Lie”. This prompted shock, condemnation and Wilson quickly apologised.
Yet this display in decorum is set against a political environment that has been filled with people bringing guns to political rallies, frequent comparisons of Obama’s introduction of Healthcare and the Nazi’s in pre-war Germany, and utterly false lies such as “Death Panels” which are breathtaking in their dissent from reality.

Watching this debate from Australia, I’ve been amazed that a somewhat healthy democracy like the US can have such a vile and angry debate about an issue like healthcare. To then have this sudden snap back to overtly respectful decorum is rather funny, if it weren’t also quite sad. Everyone who has visited the US seems to remark on the essential politeness of the people (esp in the south), and yet put them in a Town Hall to discuss giving healthcare to the poor and suddenly everyone who disagrees is the devil incarnate. It’s a weird mix. For while Obama should get through his bill, the inability of the US to have a reasonable conversation about technical policy issues is a worrying sign for the long term health of it’s polity and civil society. It has a media that increasingly is set to profit from increasing the divide within the society. The more they get angry, the more isolated the GOP becomes and the more angry those still within the bubble get. As Fox’s profits rise, their own side not to mention the overall level of political debate slumps – See the Graph

The other emotion I’ve felt watching the US debate has been one of growing pride that Australia manages itself in such a different manner. Whilst this morning brings a uncharacteristic whinge from the former PM (A man who rightly neither gave nor asked for any quarter and loved his partisan fights), Australians manage to be both foul-mouthed, (some would say creative) and strident in their attacks, and yet only a loony and utterly ignored few come anywhere near outright lies or claims of treason against their political opponents. Our debate is forthright and partisan, but even challenging issues like race and national identity get discussed in largely reasonable terms by our political elite and media. Had Joe Wilson been in Australia’s parliament he would have been asked to withdraw the comment as un-parliamentary, but the nation would have essentially ignored it. Though the essential difference is that what would have isolated a figure like Joe in Australia is his extreme policy, not his language.

While only a small minority in the world reject the idea of democracy as the best form of government, the greatest inhibitor is often not those currently in power who are resisting efforts, but the culture of societies that is coming to grapple with just what democracy means. Anyone can have elections, but democracy is far far more than that. In Cambodia, Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iran (to name just a few), sections of the population are happy to see a politics of division and sectarianism destroy any chance of real popular participation with government. Elites can rarely stand in control unless there is a part of the population who culturally accept the need to preface one ethnic group over the other, one religion above all else, one skin colour as superior to those around it. And in settled democracies it is culture again that goes to the heart and strength of the democratic practice. In Australia it is strong, though has at times (late 60’s, mid 90’s) been weak. In the US we are seeing it at a dangerous low ebb, paranoid and afraid and so facing a far greater political challenge in dealing with the 21st century, than the economic one people have long been predicting.

Below the fold. One of the greatest political takedowns in Australian Political History.
Read the full article »

The Liberal Party’s Economic Confusion

In my last post I remarked on the Oppositions claim to support big budget cuts, but unwillingness to back a relatively easy example of it. It goes to a much larger problem for the Liberal Party: They don’t know where to stand on economics nor how to describe their position.

The essentials arn’t in doubt, they are for the free market, with a reasonable support for government welfare services chucked in to moderate the harsher aspects of capitalism. But over the last 3 years they have seen massive shifts within this range, and varying and contradictory explanations for these positions.

When the Howard Government left office in 2007, it was championed as a great Pro-Free Market government. It had restored economic liberalism after the savage blow of losing the 1993 Fightback election, and implemented a GST, deregulated many industries, privatised and outsourced significant elements (the famous yellow pages test), and spent 11 years advocating strongly and consistently for free markets. This was seen as one of the great strengths and records of the government. Where articulate critics pointed out they had substituted a lot of populism into this mix (such as Andrew Norton’s essay The Rise of Big Government Conservatism) it was generally ignored. If they hadn’t gone as far down the path as they had liked, this weakness was only a minor issue, one that had helped keep them in power and probably Labors fault in blocking reform in the senate or scaring the people. This wasn’t an extreme or libertarian government in any sense. But it was rhetorically and philosophically clear about the direction it wanted to go, and every step further down that path was seen as a good thing.

Then in the Spring of 2008 the Financial Crisis hit and suddenly economic liberalism was seen to take a body blow. This wasn’t entirely fair, as a particular form of US capitalism, bad oversight and regulations and some distorted government policy caused the crisis which then hit around the world. Now, the former members and defenders of the Howard Government couldn’t get away from the term Neo-Liberalism fast enough. Where they had mocked Rudds 2007 accusations of their free marketer ideals, wondering if he proposed poverty and socialism instead, they now sought to claim he was completely over-exaggerating their support for the ideals. They hadn’t been a free market government, just a pragmatic, cautious one that had only been continuing what Labor had started. What was a small weakness in the Governments economic policy in 2007 was now being held up as its greatest strength in 2009. But loyalty to the old ideas isn’t going away (which is a good thing), but it does mean some serious re-writing of history and rhetorical confusion is going on right now as they attempt to find a new place from which to detail their economic position.

I wrote a while back that the big flaw of Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines (which seems to have sunk without trace) was that this confusion was visible on every page and yet never directly addressed. But theres just as clear an example in Paul Kelly’s new book ‘The March of Patriots’ (2009). Kelly is a conservative if sympathetic writer for both sides, but also one clearly in support of economic liberalisation (As I am too). But this leaves his narrative into contrary directions because of the Liberals recent re-writing (which began to occur whilst interviewing for the book)

‘The 1993 election extinguished more than John Hewson’s dreams – it terminated the neo-liberal political experiment…Hewson’s Fightback! program was the only package resembling neo-liberalism ever presented to the Australian people. Its defeat was a turning point. No Future leader – not Keating, not Howard, not Treasurer Costello – would contemplate the model or its specifics as a package. This was the conclusions from the 1993 election despite occasional polemical claims that Howard as a Prime Minister was actually a neo-liberal – Page 75

Yet just 11 pages later as he details the fall of Hewson he recognises that whilst the man was gone, very little had changed in the party:

It was a view shared across much of the coalition frontbench and it took more shape as the 1993-1996 term evolved. It was the position of Howard, Costello and Dower. Their sentiment was to avoid any over reaction filled with recrimination, to recognise the policy integrity and energy within Fightback, to review policies applying a sharper test of what the people would accept, to return to the political centre but stand by the pro-market economic reform agenda and to avoid any early detailed policy release’ – Page 86-87

Where the Coalition seethed during office that they couldn’t implement all their reforms, out of office they have come to claim this was a deliberate design. Apparently they wanted some of their bills to fail, wanted to lose on workchoices, wanted to be rebuffed by the public on selling Aus Post and others, wanted to have the democrats force them to take food out of a GST, etc etc. In office they would nod and acknowledge yes it was bad economic policy to hand tens of billions over to families on comfortable wages, but that was the price to keep Labor out of office. Now they seem willing to make welfare for the wealthy a core principle of the party.

Labor has responded to the Economic crisis by indulging their desires for government spending. In many ways it seems this has worked very well (we have stayed out of recession, unemployments stayed in reasonable shape), but a reckoning will come and only some seem (Lindsay Tanner) seem interested in talking about it, and then more as an electoral weapon than a shift in policy.

The Liberals on the other hand have got themselves completely tied up in knots. Their baser instinct and education is to return to the proud support for free markets that they enjoyed under the Howard years. To promise to cut spending and demagogue debt. But like a dog beaten too often, when anyone gets close they flinch. When media questions get too hot they jump back. No specifics, no details, and NO NO NO to means tests for government handouts. The only time the Liberal Party has looked at all comfortable in opposition was a few weeks in July 2009 when they had the issue of debt to rally them, and remind them of the good old days. (In fact it reminded them too much of them, repeating old ideas such as a debt truck) , but soon Godwin Grench reared up, Rudd & Swan managed to hold us up out of recession and the Liberals lost their nerve again.

As for Kelly, his book is thus far enjoyable (I’ll do a review when finished early next week) but it feels rather over-written, and with a deliberate eye for the future. He’s trying to make this the essential history of the period (as his End of Certainty became for Hawkies govt). But if he’s willing to uncritically accept this clear re-writing of Liberal views, then it is unlikely to gain as much traction. Nor does it have a cleaver summing up in the way the previous book had with its formulation of an ‘Australian Settlement’

Update: Michelle Grattan is clearly a reader of this blog :p

Trust Me – Tomorrow I’ll start the diet

A nice juxtoposition in this mornings paper:

What they Say:

Hockey Vows to slash $14b in spending

MALCOLM Turnbull will base his push for the prime ministership in next year’s federal election on a promise to axe government spending by billions of dollars a year.

And the Opposition Leader will blame Kevin Rudd’s economic mismanagement for the need to take a razor to spending, proposing cuts that on current levels would be worth at least $14billion a year – the equivalent of 70 per cent of the nation’s annual defence budget.

Mr Hockey refused to nominate which services would face the axe, but said there was a strong argument that government spending as a proportion of GDP should be no more than 24 per cent.

This financial year, spending is worth 28.6 per cent of GDP, with the government’s budget forecasts reducing the level to 28 per cent in 2010-11, 27.1 per cent in 2011-12 and 26.4 per cent in 2012-13.

What they do:

Coalition Votes down Health Means Testing

THE Senate has dealt a $1.9billion blow to Kevin Rudd’s health budget by rejecting plans to means-test taxpayer rebates for private health cover and increase levies on the non-insured.

The Coalition, the Greens, independent Senator Nick Xenophon and Family First senator Steve Fielding combined to defeat the three budget bills, which would have raised health fund premiums for more than two million middle- to higher-income Australians.

Manager of Government Business in the Senate Joe Ludwig appealed to balance-of-power crossbenchers ahead of the vote to pass the savings measure, which the Coalition had long vowed to oppose.

“This is a hard decision and one that was not taken lightly, but it is the right decision for Australia’s long-term economic future,” Senator Ludwig said. But the government offered no compromises, which sealed the package’s fate.

It’s easy to say you will cut immense amounts, but significantly harder to actually do so. In this case the Coalition had a case of spending that could be reduced with the cover of the Labor Government championing the bill, and in line with their major principles of individual responsibility (Private health insurance is a benefit above and beyond the norm, so those who want it should pay for it) and reducing government dependence and spending.

But they have chickened out for short term and almost pointless political benefit. No MP will keep his seat next year because of this vote, but Labor will be able to cut holes in their claims to financial competence by putting up similar bills and watching the Coalition act to keep high spending levels in place.

There’s also an intriguing claim by Hockey that Government spending as a GDP ration should be at 24% (which seems both his comfortable norm and his “emergency maximum level”). Theres no real reason why 24% should be the magic figure. There is the obvious argument that lower is better, but why 24%. It was the most common figure during the last 32 years, but hardly tracks to economic well being. (1)

Personally I think big cuts do need to be made to our welfare levels, but that should be a question of total spending vs need, rather than based around trying to hit supposed magic numbers. As the chart shows, some very successful economy’s have significantly greater Govt spending as a % of GDP, and some have quite a bit less. What’s more important is where and how that is spent, and the capacity of the country to pay for that spending.

When the coalition starts supporting the simple introduction of means-testing welfare and benefits for the middle class we will know they are beginning to be serious about cutting spending (I’m not sure the ALP is either, so we shouldn’t yet take their support for the bill as evidence of it). Until then Hockey is just using bluster and bullshit. But lets leave the final word to his predecessor as Treasurer in the Liberal Party: Peter Costello

don’t think that reducing expenditure to GDP ratios is easy. Every pressure in a democratic system is to increase spending. Resisting calls for increased spending on worthy causes (and all causes are worthy in the eyes of those who want it) is a daily struggle – week in week out, month in month out, year in year out.

(1) Whilst trying to find a good graph illustrating the difference I ran across this 2006 speech by Peter Costello claiming that “In the OECD Australia has the second lowest level of government spending as a share of GDP at 35.7%, lower even than the United States.”. Whilst the 2009-10 budget records a level of Government Payments as % of GDP at 24.2 for that year (Which also matches the figures Hockey cites for current spending at 28%.)

Update: The wise and civil Sinclair Davidson from Catallaxyfiles suggests this may include state spending, or counting the GST as Federal rather than State spending.

Rudd the Global Architect

In coming to office, Kevin Rudd is perhaps the most foreign policy focused PM since Gough Whitlam (Fraser had some good pet issues but wasn’t otherwise interested). Circumstances however have dictated that he has spent most of his Prime Ministership focusing on Economic issues, and he has published two essays on the issue. Thanks to The Age newspaper we now however have his essay on Foreign Policy, having been rejected in March by the journal Foreign Affairs. Given the timing it is of course heavily focused on the economic challenges of the international arena, but it also gives us some key insights into the Prime Ministers world view.
While the popular press has tended to focus on Rudd’s views on China and the USA, foreign policy scholars have been more interested in his support for regional and international institutions. Writing of the ‘inadequate’ response of global institutions Rudd warns in the essay that this may turn into a ‘crisis of government itself if political constituencies conclude their national political institutions are impotent’. To address this he calls for the urgent renovation of the global architecture. The full piece is worth a read (though the writing is easily mocked, and has a halting style, it is quite readable).

Rudd strongly supports international institutions, but he also clearly knows the risk posed in proposing more of them. We already seem to suffer an over abundance of them, and he contrasts the realist support for pure national sovereignty, to an idealist one advocating “unelected multilateral institutions staffed with wise men and women who, by some mystic process detected from real politics, will divine and deliver some form of the Platonic ‘good’ for us all”. It’s a cheap straw man for someone who does actually believe in expanding international institutions, but also shows his fear of being labelled an idealist/world government advocate. But he makes good on his scepticism and proposes only the encouragement of a ‘driving center’ mission for the G-20. This hasn’t quite been taken up, but having helped escape the worst of the GFC, we will likely see an enhanced role and prestige for it.

Australia has a pretty good record as an advocate of regional and international architecture, being a dynamic small power in the early days of the UN, fathering APEC, regular participation in other regional bodies, and even developing more informal groups like the Cairns group for trade negotiations. Rudd clearly wants to build on this, and his Asia-Pacific Community is his big contribution. Right now it seems the early preparation was rushed (Woolcott apparently had just 5 hours advance notice of his role as regional salesman), and the promotion effort hasn’t caught too many buyers eyes. But these structures take years even in the best of circumstances, and Rudd still needs to earn his stripes in the region as a long term leader if he is to have influence (it was this reason, along with his growing comfort that explains much of Howard’s improved regional foreign policy in the second half of his government).

Rudd’s essay, like all he does, fits Bob Ellis’s unbeatable phrase of ‘muscular timidity’. It demands significant change whilst decrying those who want to go even a single step beyond. It is sensible and pragmatic, but hardly as radical as it thinks it is or would like to be seen. Like Obama in the US, Rudd is a very centrist leader, if not a clearly conservative one in their joint desire to work within existing structures to achieve change.

We are already in a very different environment from that of Feb-March 2009 when the essay was written. Economics is back to being the most important issue, instead of the only one, and domestic pressures with an election next year are beginning to distract the Rudd government. Still we are seeing a bit more focus on Foreign Policy again, and should expect that to significantly increase in their (presumed) 2nd term. Where Howard wanted to be remembered for economics and industrial relations, it is in Foreign Policy that Rudd fancies his chances of having history honour him. Understanding how he views this and what he wants to see as an ideal outcome may give us some idea of just how he is going to go about seeking an actual outcome when the opportunity presents itself. It wont be for a while, but as they say in the serials, watch this space…