Chasing the Norm

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

Month: October, 2009

Shock: Competition works!

Rudd’s NBN/Telstra split seems to be already starting to have benefits

Telstra has flagged price reductions for its broadband products and services as it fights to maintain market share in the highly competitive sector.
Chief executive David Thodey said today price cuts were “imminent” as the telco giant wanted to compete aggressively on broadband offerings.
“In some parts of the market we’ve gone too far out of line and we need to come back,” he told an investor briefing.
Telstra’s most recent annual results showed a drop in fixed broadband take-up, but its wireless broadband revenue grew by 69.2 per cent to $587 million.
A strong focus of Mr Thodey’s presentation to investors today was improving customer service.
“We must focus on our core business and our customers, this is where we create value for shareholders,” he said.
“At its simplest, the next stage in Telstra’s long-term strategy is to focus on satisfying customers, invest in new capabilities, and drive growth in new businesses.”

Who’d have thought. Threaten to take a monopoly away from a company and they suddenly begin seeing the benefit of shaping down into a competitive form. Telstra knows its likely to lose its wholesale control, so now it has to make its retail arm competitive. It’s as if you guaranteed the host nation the gold in each race at the olympics, would their athletes have any incentive to stay in shape? More slimming down please! (Thats you Mr.Fielding, no delays, time to deliver).

In other short news, Kelly O’Dwyer the Liberal replacement for Higgins is putting an impressive foot forward. O’Dwyer has the establishment backing, a safe seat, and a joke of a Green candidate, and yet is still apparently pounding the pavement, meeting voters and personally securing their vote. Compare to say, Dutton. Who knows what her politics will be like, but clearly a capable operator.

Finally, a delay is better than a No, but prospects for overturning the ban on parallel imports for books don’t look good. Having seen how competition has helped immediately with telstra, lets hope Rudd’s team rediscover their support for markets and get rid of this tariff. (They’d even get to announce plenty of give aways to artists as compensation whats not to love). Still, e-book readers and a high aussie dollar may help reduce some of the pain to book buyers. It just means Amazon instead of Collins and Borders get my money.

A disaster waiting to happen

Federalism sometimes doesn’t work:
plane_wire

THE [NSW] Minister for Planning, Kristina Keneally, has been accused of making the wrong call on a development near Canberra Airport after she made a site visit during a mid-afternoon lull in air traffic when planes were flying in from another direction.In December Ms Keneally endorsed a change to the Queanbeyan residential and economic strategy allowing a proposed development of 4800 homes at Tralee.

In a letter to the broadcaster Alan Jones obtained by the Herald, Ms Keneally apologised for not getting back to him sooner before defending the Tralee development.
She wrote: ”And when I visited Tralee a few months ago, standing on the site of the proposed school, I must say that the aircraft noise was hardly significant.”
But the managing director of the airport, Stephen Byron, said Ms Keneally did not make a proper assessment of the site because she visited it on the wrong day, at the wrong time…. ”had she visited Tralee on any of the following eight days [February 11-18 inclusive] she would have been able to experience the level of aircraft noise created by aircraft operating directly above the Tralee site.”

It has since been revealed that the Minister for Emergency Services, Steve Whan, lobbied for Village Building Company, which is involved in the project, before being elected to Parliament, and he and the NSW Labor branch have received more than $90,000 in donations from the company.

There’s no question Queanbeyan is growing and needs new space. However the proposed Tralee development, right under the flight path for the Canberra airport is an absolute joke. Canberra is the capital city of the 14th biggest economy in the world, a G-20 country, a regional leader, a major resource hub and one with a proud record of international involvement from serving in war to peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. And you still need a domestic connecting flight to get into the city. They are only finally getting around to improving some of the roadway to and from the airport (woe betide anyone foolish enough to try and get from the airport to the city quickly on a sitting week for parliament). The airport is looking to expand, but with Tralee about to be built under their major flight plans not only will that be a hazardous and difficult achievement, it spells 50+ years of heartache for the airport owners and the residents of Canberra.

If you click through to this PDF you can see the impact of Tralee. The airport is the X in the middle of the red path, with Tralee at the bottom, smack bang along the high noise flight corridor. There’s no reason Tralee has to be there, Canberra and Queanbeyan are still ringed by sheep paddocks as much as they were 100 years ago.

Right now in canberra it’s still rare to hear airport noise. But despite the forewarning, the new owners of properties in Tralee will soon (and rightly) complain about the noise and a noise sharing agreement will be reached. The airport will be able to service less traffic (perhaps shutting down from 10pm) and will be forced to equally share the punishment of aircraft noise across canberra’s leafy suburbs. No one will be happy, no one will feel any solution adequately solves the problem, but that is the inevitable future of building in Tralee. The developers will get their funds, the politicians their re-election funding and every citizen from Tralee to Canberra will be annoyed and unhappy at their environment.

Federalism was the deal that guaranteed nationhood, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. States constantly screw other states when it comes to issues that flow across the border. The giant Murry River is being strangled upstream because the effects hurt residents of other states, and so can be safely advocated and enforced by state politicians. Given the critical importance of Canberra getting an international airport, and having room for its expansion and consistent operation, Rudd needs to step in an stop the Tralee development any way possible. Not only will NSW and ACT voters love him for giving the finger to the failed Rees Government, it would be a big sign he takes fixing the problems of federalism seriously, as he promised in his 2007 election campaign.

The Importance of Atmosphere

Under the Bush Administration Fox News had a charmed position, under Obama, not only is it in opposition, the White House has gone after its credibility as a news organisation. Conventional wisdom is that it is a mistake to beat up on the media, but here’s perhaps why Obama is really going after them:

I think some people are under the impression that the White House wants Fox News to disappear. Nothing, I suspect, could be further from the truth. The White House is in fact delighted that Fox News and its merry cast of commentators exists. Nor is the White House vexed that its every pronouncement concerning Fox News solidifies Fox’s core audience; that’s actually the plan. The point is not to moderate Fox News by accusing it of being biased/not a real news organization/running or being the propoganda arm of the GOP; if anything, the point is to make it more extreme in the views it airs….
At the end of the day, Fox News’ nightly audience in the third quarter of this year was 2.25 million viewers in primetime (source). For perspective this means that it has roughly the same audience as your average Dollhouse episode, which was just yanked by Fox (the broadcast network, not the cable news network), so that its ratings wouldn’t stink up November Sweeps. Even with Fox News’ ratings going through the roof because of its little war with Obama, the actual number of viewers is minuscule. Or to put it otherwise, 2.5 million Americans watch Fox News, which means that 297.5 million Americans don’t.
Which makes it a low-risk ideological foil for the White House.

joe_wilson_lie
All politicians would love to have unchallenged power, whatever their motive or ideology. But given that is thankfully impossible (well most of the time), sometimes the next best option is not to have a meek opposition, but a crazy one. The more Obama seems to stoke Fox News’s extremism, the better he looks by comparison to lukewarm supporters, and the more he seems the only option for true independents. If Obama is facing a consistent backlash of 30% of the country whatever he does, then there is no way for his opponents to use that as evidence Obama is on the wrong track. If any single policy gets the same angry response as any other, then who can say if his healthcare is radical or just opposed on spite. Who can say if the 30% have a better understanding of warfare in opposing his afghanistan policy, or they just want him to fail.

You see this regularlly around the world, where canny politicians seem to benefit from the over the top reactions they inspire, despite their outwardly moderate nature. One who isn’t a moderate but still benefits is Hugo Chavez. Chavez may be slowly draining Venezlela of its democracy, but he is also making significant moves to combat poverty and illiteracy. Yet his opponents, from his first election win in 1998 have seen him as an entirely illegitimate leader, and so sponsored coup after coup against him. The extreme nature of their media opposition (Fox looks mild in comparison!) makes him seem a much more centrist and nationally focused leader. After a while people tend to see such consistent opposition to any one politician as due to the desires for power of those who attack them, and reflection on their character, than a actual response to the leaders actions. So Chavez can monumentally screw up (and has) but since the opposition already wen’t nuclear there is no way to tell from the reactions what is bad policy and what is just run of the mill.

Likewise during the Howard era in Australia there was a core group of opposition to John Howard. I think this opposition gets somewhat overplayed, as there was a strong effort by Howard and conservatives to try and delegitimise any criticism as proof you were a ‘howard hater’, but with Howard’s removal, the times and his policies also look a fair bit more moderate from this vantage point. Yet this is something which I think no author has yet truly managed to capture. One of the big let down’s of Paul Kelly’s book ‘March of Patriots’ was its absence of discussion on the atmosphere that pervaded during the time. Capturing that is a opportunity only immediate first and second drafters of history can, and to properly understand it, it is extremely necessary. On the left there was a palpable sense of anger about what was happening to our country. Events such as Tampa, Cronulla, Iraq and the debasing of institutions such as Parliament and the ABC left many feeling adrift and deeply distrustful of the core motives of this government. And yet Kelly (who set out to write a more policy focused book) not only ignores this, but calls it ‘March of Patriots’ as if Howard was warmly embraced by the community, or even upheld as a hero. Howard was popular at some times, at other times deeply unpopular late 1997 to early 2001 and early 2006 to his final loss in late 2007. He was also very popular during other times, or with certain segments of the population (he was excellent during a catastrophe ala Port Arthur, Bali). To miss or worse dismiss the opposition to Howard as simply crazy means you present an incomplete image of the period. And yet like Obama and Chavez, Howard also immensely benefited from the nature of his opponents and their consistent rejection of all his actions.

Obama is somewhat playing with fire by being seen to go after his opponents, and after a specific media outlet. But come the 2010 elections, Glenn Beck et all are likely to drive far more votes to the democrats (or away from Republicans) than they are likely to harm him. So its a net win, all for being hated. I first endorsed Obama because in 2006 I was sick of the Center-left losing elections and he was clearly the best political strategist I had ever seen. He makes some mistakes, I think he’s still slightly too cautious in acting (such as repealing Dont Ask, Dont Tell and not prosecuting on torture) but he is clearly still leagues ahead of anyone else in the country in reading the politics. It’s why health care will pass, why the democrats will keep the House and Senate in 2010 (they will lose some seats though not enough) and why he should coast to re-election in 2012).

Liberalism in 21st Century Australia

Brandis_speech Thanks to the Australian, we have full access to Senator George Brandis’s excellent speech “We Believe: The Liberal Party and the liberal cause”, delivered at the 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture in Melbourne on the 22nd October.

Though I urge you to go read the full speech, Brandis is perhaps at his best when he takes aim at the way liberalism was mishandled under John Howard:

John Howard did not see the Liberal Party as simply the custodian of the liberal cause. For Howard, it was as much a conservative party as a liberal party – indeed, with the passage of time, rather more the former than the latter….Now Deakin would never have said that, and Menzies never did. The “two traditions” theory was a specific contribution of John Howard’s. In diminishing the centrality of liberalism to the Liberal Party’s belief system, and balancing it against conservatism; in qualifying the Liberal Party’s commitment to the freedom of the individual as its core value, and weighing it against what he often called social cohesion, Howard made a profound departure from the tradition of Deakin and Menzies.

Brandis goes to great lengths to show the critical importance of liberalism to Deakin and Menzies. However, while philosophically he is right, these two men both made the same practical choice of binding their liberal instinct into a general anti-labor party that created Howard’s broad church approach. In many ways, both Brandis and Howard are right. By 1909 Deakin, wearied and bloodied after a decade leading the continent realised that his middle liberal way was being trampled by the adolescent labor party, and the aristocratic conservatives. His personal philosophy was much closer to Labor, but he could not abide their caucus control, and so chose to make peace with the conservatives and form a party ‘Fusion’ between the two anti-labor forces. This was a practical choice to ensure the survival of his MP’s, but sacrificing the dominant position of liberalism on the Anti-labor side to a more generic mix. Menzies likewise made a similar choice, knowing that a coalition was the only way to ensure they could keep Labor from power. It is this practical history that Howard claims informs the modern liberal party. Yet the Liberal party would be nothing if it was stripped of its liberal elements. Even Tony Abbott in his conservative manifesto ‘Battlelines’ can’t help himself from repeating many liberal ideas without seeming to notice the contradictions to his professed conservatism. Liberalism is the parties soul, it is as Brandis argues, the cause of its proud history

In every age, whenever liberalism and conservatism have come into contention, the victory of liberalism has enlarged the freedom of the individual, which later generations of conservatives have then joined with them in striving to defend. But every time, it was the liberals who were the animating spirit.

No fair analyst of the Liberal party could disagree with this claim. Menzies may have held onto power a long time in part due to conservative scaremongering, but winning power is not the same as using it, and Menzies books (Afternoon Light, Speech is of Time, Measure of the Years) all play up and look back favorably on his liberal actions, guiltily ignoring his more conservative indulgences* in the name of electoral success. Menzies is also an interesting liberal due to his rather Millian take on why freedom is important. Modern Liberals seem to see freedom as an end in itself, and while it is, Liberalism has a second reason for wanting as much individual freedom as possible. From the grandfather of Liberalism, J.S. Mill (again via Brandis’s speech)

“It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation

That is, freedom’s greatest reward is that it enables individuals to improve and develop themselves, to build their talents and skills, to flesh out and give style to their character. To become who they are, rather than who society might like them to be. It’s also a very powerful political message to the newest voting block: Gen-Y. As Possum Pollytics has detailed, Gen-Y is a quickly rising block that the Liberal party absolutely fails at marketing its message to. But if it was to recast its commitment to freedom as one based on allowing ambitious individuals, or creative individuals the space and opportunity to make of their own lives what they want (rather than being seen as just a stuffy desire to make life easier for businesses), then it could have great appeal to this group. Many of my friends, all solid labor voters looked anew at the party of Malcolm Turnbull when he took the leadership. They saw great appeal in his personal story of achievement, and waited to be given a reason to vote for him. Thus far, they havn’t seen anything like it, and are growing disillusioned. This is an argument Howard could never make, but Turnbull can. Freedom has always been re-defined by every era. In the 80’s it was to liberate societies from protectionism and welfare traps. Today it must be for individualism and towards human flourishing in our newly minted modern societies. This is not some new age spiritualism, it is an honest, humane and civillised approach to mankind, to quote Menzies who whilst Prime Minister wrote that:

“Without minds that are informed, toughened by exercise, broadened by enquiry and fearless in pursuing the truth wherever it may lead, we may never hope to have spirits untrammeled by blinding ignorance or distorting prejudice. And without free minds and free spirits our boasted civic freedoms becomes an empty shell” (Menzies 1958 page 218)

I want to end by quoting Hayek’s ‘why I am not a conservative’ which Brandis also quotes extensively. However while this line is used by Brandis and Hayek to attack conservatism, I think it is actually much more relevant for liberalism today:

…Let me … state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

I’ve often come to see Liberalism as akin to a shark, if it stops moving it suffocates. Liberalism today has been forced to become the defender of the status quo (or been taken in directions it is uncomfortable with as a tool of the wealthy and powerful), and in this backward looking, reactive stance it is an easy target. Until it can pivot onto a forward looking position, its calls for freedom will float past listeners ears unheard. While there is important work to be done reviving the history of liberalism, such as its importance to Deakin and Menzies and Australian history (i’ve always seen this country as a Republican-Liberal hybrid far more than the Libertarian-Liberalism that dominates the US, or the incremental Liberal-Traditionalism of the UK), its return to power is dependent upon a coherent, bold policy agenda. Such an agenda would need only 5-6 key policy changes. To be argued at every meeting, before every microphone, in every publication and household. It might look something like this

1. Reform welfare state – End churn of middle class welfare, significant cuts to tax cut, especially for poor.
2. Allow Euthanasia and full marriage equality.
3. End the war on drugs beginning with legalising marijuana and decriminalising use of others.
4. Make competition policy a priority. Break the clasp of the big end on town on the direction of economic liberalism.
5. Commit to transparent modern governance. Publish as much as possible online, have ombudsman to ensure population can see who gets what and when in every bill, every department, every budget handout.
6. Make ensuring privacy for individuals a key concern.

The exact nature or order of these policies is not important. What is important is having a clear, future driven platform to identify with modern liberalism in Australia. Liberals need to return to defining themselves, rather than as currently letting others define them (such as Prime Minister Rudd’s essay on Neoliberalism). Many elements will be contentious, some are 20+ years away from implementation, but the argument needs to be taken up and begun today. The clearer and shorter the case, the easier it will be to sell and settle into the minds of the voting public as an identifying feature. Only with such a clear image can it regain its rightful place as the “animating spirit” of modern societies, and lay claim to ownership of the 21st century as it has the 20th. The only way to prevent Liberalism sinking into status-quo stance inimical to conservatism is to give it a forward objective. Just as individuals are either on the up or the out, such a humanistic philosophy as liberalism must seek ever greater mountains to climb if it is to remain relevant. There are so many challenges still to be addressed.

* I don’t believe Menzies fits either a liberal or conservative approach, but unfortunately I can’t say why until i finish an academic paper I’m writing on the topic. Look for an announcement here in coming months about it. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I have to be until it’s published.

Kevin Rudd the Legislator

Peter Hartcher made an interesting observation in the weekend papers:

Rudd is emerging as a prime minister who defines himself by the fights he avoids. He is uncomfortable advocating an opinion that might be electorally risky. He would prefer to shut down an Opposition attack with narrow political tactics than to overwhelm the Opposition by mobilising broad public opinion.
Rudd is an immensely well regarded leader. The emerging evidence is that he will hoard every decimal point of his popularity by avoiding an argument, rather than deploy it to ask the country to follow.

When it comes to making a forceful case for his plan, he has, in effect, vacated the field. The question is – why? It is not an oversight. Labor strategists readily concede that Rudd has deliberately created a vacuum. Because if he is silent on the issue, the TV cameras will automatically swing around and zoom in on the way the other half of the political system, the Opposition, is dealing with the issue. In effect, Rudd has handed a megaphone to the case against action on climate change. This, in turn, has gradually whittled away public support for action on global warming.

Leaders in democracies have two sources of power. One is legislative, the other populist. Over the last 60 years, the populist side has been increasingly winning out. Politicians have concluded that massive popular agreement with their policies (whether authentic or focus group created) is the secret to controlling the legislature and hence entrenching their changes via legislation. George Bush and Tony Blair went on significant stumping tours of their country to try and persuade audiences, convinced that the legislators would tune in as well and decide to run ahead of the ground swell, rather than try and stop it. Their reasoning was clear, if polls showed 80% want policy X, no legislator in their right mind would do otherwise than vote for it. Howard as Hartcher points out, also seemed to believe in his powers of persuasiveness:

John Howard was a prime minister who defined himself by the fights he picked. He would often champion an unpopular policy, then go into a mighty campaign of public advocacy. He usually managed to turn opinion and win the day, or at least get away with it. This was true of the GST, waterfront reform, the Iraq war.
Rudd is emerging as a prime minister who defines himself by the fights he avoids.

This however is an unfair claim by Hartcher, because it is not a fair comparison (2 years vs 11) and second because Rudd realises something more relevant: Public support for an issue is largely irrelevant if they support the Government. Rudd’s reckoning is that rather than having his fellow legislators (worries on his side, or the opposition writ large) take comfort that popular support for a CPRS has dropped, he is betting that his supreme domination in the approval polls will carry the day regardless. He doesn’t need to convince the public or even the opposing party members to support climate change legislation, he has only to make them scared of the consequences of opposing him.

And it’s working.

Just look at Malcolm Turnbull, and the smarter Liberals who are quietly asking if their skeptical colleagues are mad and trying to lose their seats. They may believe in doing something to fix climate change, they may not hugely like Rudd’s policy, but they are also absolutely petrified of him going before the public and holding them up as the men who stood there and yelled ‘Stop’ before the onslaught of histories judgement.

Who's your daddy?

Guess who is in charge here...

Strangely for a man who has only spent 11 years in parliament, and tends to disrespect the institution, he seems to be much more canny in using it. He knows the CPRS will most likely pass because the opposition don’t want it to give him any more arguments against them at the election. In that, it doesn’t actually matter if 40% or 90% support the legislation or even more than 20% understand what it actually does. That’s not important. Rudd is marshaling his public popularity overall to give him power within the legislature on not just specific but all issues. What’s to stop him hitting up Turnbull over workplace relations or the NBN come the election should a climate change bill pass. Instead of seeking public support for each specific issue, Rudd wants public support for him as a leader. With that, he can jump between issues as suits, retain policy flexibility as suits, and intimidate the hell out of the opposition.

Rudd’s strategy is a risky one, a drop in overall popularity would leave him without a saftey net. And it’s not one history may look on too kindly. PM’s are remembered for what the left behind in popular views as much as individual legislative bills. But it is also a much smarter approach given Rudd’s only marginal persuasive powers of rhetoric. Whilst Howard had a lawyers eye for reasoned arguments, and Keating could make you look towards the stars as he gave the opposition a blow to the stomach, Rudd knows his rhetorical command is limited. Better then to not even pretend to be a great orator, and simply to market himself as he is. A very smart, hard working, pragmatic leader, who has the best interest of the country at heart. And woe begot anyone foolish enough to think they can prevent him doing his job. Turnbull is facing a raging inferno of popularity that makes individual spot fires (wasted stimulus, asylum seekers, CPRS compensation) all utterly meaningless in the overall scheme of things.

Rudd in this sense, is actually acting as a true legislator. He will be measuring his success of his first term in the seats won off the opposition (right now looking at 5-11), and potential control of the senate (or an easing of the challenge). The discipline of his government members is his barometer of day to day success. Oddly enough in this hyper televised world, Rudd seems to count his real power entirely within the legislature. No wonder he seems to be enjoying Question Time these days.

Aussies invade the NBA

As a long time follower of basketball, this is very pleasing news:

PORTLAND, Ore. – The Portland Trail Blazers signed guard Patrick Mills to a contract, it was announced today by General Manager Kevin Pritchard. Per team policy, terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Portland selected Mills (6-0, 185) with the 55th overall pick in the second round of the 2009 NBA Draft after playing two seasons at St. Mary’s (CA) College.
Mills, who fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot during an NBA Summer League practice session on July 9, underwent successful surgery on July 13 and is continuing his rehabilitation on schedule.
The Australian national was an early entry candidate for the NBA Draft out of St. Mary’s, where he posted averages of 16.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.97 steals in two seasons. Mills, 21, was a First Team All-WCC selection as a freshman and sophomore.

patrick_mills
Mills is now the fourth Australian currently playing in the NBA, along side Andrew Bogut, Daniel Andersen, and Nathan Jawai. (If any politicians out there are paying attention, its worth noting that Jawai and Mill’s are both of indigenous background. Sport can always bring people together, and these guys could be perfect icons for Australia if we were smart. That said, outside Bogut these guys are still small fry in the NBA. Mill’s (a canberran too!) is celebrating getting a contract worth $1 million over 2 years, while his teammate LaMarcus Aldridge has been re-signed for $65m over 5 years. That may sound insane amounts to play sport, but as Charles Barkley noted recently, Australian sports stars get a pittance:

“I don’t want to insult the Australians (but) I am like, ‘These guys are some damn idiots’,” Barkley told the Dallas affiliate of ESPN Radio.
“Nobody plays football without pads every week for three, four or five months and don’t make any money.
“At least in the NFL, you are going to kill yourself and … you get to be a millionaire after it’s over.”

The media may mock (just about every version of this story from Australian newspapers mentions his bad golf swing and career controversies), but while NBA players take home a combined 55% of club earnings, Australian AFL players get 25% total (not sure other codes, but would be comparable if not even less). The players may bring the fans, but they only get a tiny amount of the profits from Rugby and AFL in Australia. US figures will always be bigger due to markets, but add in the ultra-restrictive salary cap and it is no surprise that we see Australian sports stars constantly changing codes or going overseas. (I’d exempt Basketball players in this, as while the NBL is a decent league, there is only one true world class league in the world for basketball and thats the NBA. There’s simply no comparison, and no other place a great player should be.)

A decade ago Australian Basketball was a joy to watch with Andrew Gaze, Luc Longley and Chris Antsey embarrassing the Europeans regularlly and making the Boomers if not a medal winning team (unlike their ultra successful female counterparts) at least a top 5 and feared team. Those greats have all moved on, but with the experience Mills, Bogut, Jawai and others are getting in the NBA at the moment, we should be very very competitive come the 2012 Olympics. Until then, Australian fans can settle in to watch the NBA online for around $20 a month, or i’m told One-HD (Ten’s new free to air channel) should be showing 2-3 NBA games a week. Pre-season games are already under way, with the full season beginning Oct. 27. Game on!

Obama’s hidden healthcare weapon

While we’re all still waiting for the definitive campaign strategy books on the Obama 2008 campaign to be written (I’m looking at you David Plouffe), one thing is patently clear: Obama won because he mobilised people to assist his campaign in a way never before seen in America. Instead of just asking volunteers to grab a phone call and begin calling, he had a motto of ‘Respect, Empower, Include’. Volunteers were instead asked to go find 5 more people who would also join. Those who managed this were made team leaders, with similar opportunities for advancement for those new members in a similar fashion. People were given increasingly harder tasks to see if they could deliver, and then were rewarded with being team leaders. Neighbourhood teams were set up across the country, each invited to build their own networks. This process continued for months and months, before any phone calls were made, emails sent or doors knocked. That could come later, and did, delivering perfectly on election day.
OFA_Call_Congress
Why am I recounting this history? Because, a lot of the self-obsessed media have forgotten about Obama’s Organizing For America organisation. The media like to imagine that their shows as the only forum for real political discussion(far more real in their eyes than even the legislative chambers), with polls simply rating how the people react to various lines or positions. But Obama’s still organising, even with the power of the Presidency in his hands.

On the 20th of October, Organising for America set out to make 100’000 calls to members of congress to encourage them to support health care reform. That was passed easily. So they set it for 200’000. Again too easy. From Obamas facebook this morning:

obama_facebook_small Barack Obama Yesterday’s numbers are in. The final tally was not just 200,000 calls placed or pledged — it was 315,023. You’ve taken America one giant, irreversible step closer to passing health reform. Thank you.

Just imagine trying to field all that as a staffer in some Republican Senators office! (or wavering Democrat) While many Republican’s took comfort in the anger expressed at the town halls in August, it’s clear those events, (including members of the public bringing guns to public meetings, and numerous comparisons of Obama to Hitler), along with the Presidents speech to Congress, began to turn people towards supporting healthcare.

healthcare_polls_us

While Republicans raged, Obama’s network kept organising, holding functions, parties, door knocking, and continually organizing and seeking to expand. To Respect, Empower and Include their neighbors, friends and colleagues in the wider movement. Obama has already gotten closer than FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter & Clinton to delivering Universal healthcare reform in the US. The Democrats policy has many flaws that would make it almost unacceptable to many in other western first world countries, but for America it’s still a big and important step. His big speech was important, as was his deliberate outreach to Congress, and decision to let it choose its path (rather than draw up the policy in private inside the White House as Hillary did in 1994). But when Health Care reform passes, a large part of the credit will have to go to the 2 million active volunteers (& 13 million supporters) who signed up to help elect Obama’s, and now are invested in his success.

It’s not just about having a flashy website, its about getting people involved any way possible. The internet just helps break the hold talking heads have on politics. As I discussed a few weeks ago, if people feel invested in your success, they will work harder and longer, than any bribe or pork barrel could possibly compel. And if Republicans think this network will have dissipated by 2012, or let them waltz into the White House on the back of public anger over SOCIALISM! they have a great big surprise coming. It’s going to be fun to watch, and a very important lesson for all future political strategists, not just in the USA and countries with voluntary voting, but also Australia.

To thine own self be true

Our PM really is in a bind over asylum seekers isn’t he:

TIM Costello has challenged Kevin Rudd over calling the influx of asylum seekers ”illegal” immigration and reminded him that some people smugglers in the past have been viewed as heroes.

As debate flared over the Prime Minister’s language, Mr Costello, chief executive of World Vision, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian Mr Rudd much admires, spoke up for Jewish refugees and helped smuggle some of them out of Nazi Germany into Switzerland. ”This is why he was charged and sent to prison”

Rudd is being praised and blamed simultaneously, a function of his efforts to be all things to all people on this difficult issue. But whilst the ghost of 2001 still haunts labor, Rudd needs to remember the biggest problem with Labors then approach was not it’s perceived weakness, but its recognized fakeness. Though the media’s common wisdom is that asylum seekers are bad news for Labor, it is clear that the public are generally unmoved by the issue. Instead the real risk is to Rudd’s place in this history books should he say something really over the top and backwards in an effort to appear tough.

Times have changed from the panic of late 2001 which saw the tale end of Hansonism, globalisation frets and reconciliation flare ups, all dramatically compounded by 9/11. But while public knew that Beazley was a former Defence Minister(and one who commanded great respect in such matters, with even Howard saying he would serve under him in a war cabinet), Beazley’s mixed response to boat people was seen as fake and unreal. Labor had brought in mandatory detention, but in its confusion and moral outrage at Howard tried to both disown its history, whilst also appearing just as tough as Howard. A stance that ended up losing it many left wing voters who couldn’t respect the party anymore. There’s a big difference between downplaying troublesome issues (ie taking a small target strategy as Howard in 96 and Rudd in 07 did), and in appearing to be unsure, or fake in your endorsement of a policy you obviously don’t believe in.

Rudd is far less exposed than Beazley was. He just has to muddle through this and he will be ok politically. But he runs the risk of saying some really dumb things in coming weeks as he seeks out a solution/waits for the tide to slow. Already he has described asylum seekers as ‘illegal immigrants’ which is not true (at least until their cases determined).
Howard is remembered (and demonised) for his election speech claim “We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come”. It was a resounding line at the time, (and expresses a fair enough sentiment) but you have to suspect Howard probably regrets that history will always leave that quote on his record. Rudd needs to be careful not to try and bluster his way through this with strong language to hide his weak policy. (Weak in the sense of lacking form and direction, I don’t think there’s anything weak about the way we are arresting innocent people and denying our responsibilities). When Rudd got in trouble during the election campaign (such as over the Scores Strip Club visit) he took almost a full day off to work out a response and then stuck to it with absolute stubbornness. Just because he is PM, doesn’t mean he should abandon that formula. His media team need to find a good set of responses to the basic questions and have the man stick to them. Time to bring the Ruddbot back out of his packaging.

Book Review: The March of Patriots by Paul Kelly

The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia by Paul Kelly Melbourne:Melbourne University Press $69.95 rrp
MOP_signed
I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Paul Kelly tonight on his book and Australian politics, so I figured this was a good incentive to polish off my review of his book which I promised over a month ago. His speech was largely a re-emphasis of the books main argument, or defence of some of its views, but where relevant I’ll add in his updated thoughts, indicated with a *.

One of the hardest tasks for writers of politics is to see how close you can get to normal events, whilst producing something substantial. Journalists are used to having most of their work quickly forgotten and in that temporariness, can find a freedom to formulate and re-formulate how they see the world. But for those producing something longer, a book, a thesis, there is an expectation that you can both obtain enough distance to properly observe an event and its characters, and still getting it out before the public demand for insight fades. In his earlier book ‘The End of Certainty’ Kelly charted the economic reforms of the Hawke/Keating Government, and yet his best formulation was not what they did, but defining what they removed via the concept of an ‘Australian Settlement’. Kelly’s latest idea is that Keating and Howard are best seen as Australian patriots, whose similarities are greater than their differences. Unfortunately its not quite so catchy, and his colleague George Megalogenis got there first with ‘The Longest Decade’ (and arguably proved the similarity thesis better).

Given Kelly’s conservatism, it is remarkable that this is actually his first book on the conservative side of politics. Despite the joint images on the title, Kelly devotes around 1/3 or 225 pages to Keating’s 5 years, and 2/3’s or 400 pages to Howard’s first 5 years, promising a second volume to come covering 2001-2007. The numbers give a fair ratio of his biases. Where Howard and Keating overlap on economics he is broadly supportive, even downright impressed by Keating’s bravery and genius, likewise on Asian Engagement as a Foreign Policy objective. Where they differ, on nationalism, culture, war, Kelly comes down firmly on Howard’s side. While there are already a number of books on Howard, the March of Patriots is going to become a cornerstone for interpreting the administration.

In Howard, Kelly sees four key impulses at work (1) Economic Liberalism, (2) Social Conservatism (3) Cultural Traditionalism (4) National Security vigilance. The first two are common wisdom, and the latter easily discernible though usefully brought together here. I’m less convinced by his claim that Howard isn’t a neo-liberal. There is of course a difference between rhetoric and policy, but given that Kelly awards the term of Cultural traditionalist to Howard whilst admitting his policy achievements in this area are ‘threadbare’*, it seems odd that he ignores so much of the rhetorical trend towards free-marketeerism under Howard. Indeed Kelly has said he deliberately ignored a lot of the politics so as to focus on the policy/governance issues, but both are significant to understand a governments thoughts. The Howard government relentlessly sold the idea that the unhindered market was the best way to run economic policy, and its occasional reticence (such as with banking or communications regulation) or their popularism (middle class welfare) doesn’t necessarily prove otherwise. In private Kelly argues Howard and Costello rejected the self-correcting market theory, which is largely true of the legislation that passed (via an a largely hostile senate) but had Howard enjoyed Senate control at the beginning of his government, not its tired final term, history’s judgement may have been very different.

In terms of foreign policy, Kelly makes a far bolder claim in both book and person that Howard “pioneered the idea of Australia as a regional leader”*. This is an interesting claim, in that Australians have always been reticent about claiming that Australia could lead this region. We have a profoundly different culture, history, background and way of life. Kelly points to the case of E.Timor as the first time Australia took the lead in a military role. However this downplays Australia’s role in creating APEC, encouraging the Cambodian peacekeeping, and advocacy on preventing WMD non-proliferation in the region. The Australian Government may have titled the policy as ‘Engagement’ but to my mind, it was an unabashed effort at positioning for and achieving regional leadership, under a much more PR friendly label. To grant Howard the credit seems to miss the critical set-up work that he inherited (though Kelly quotes Downer and others stressing the critical importance of Hawke/Keating’s creation of APEC to achieving success in E.Timor) The Foreign policy story is also incomplete, with the book ending at the unfortunate pivot point of 2001, which marks the end of the major economic policies, but fits half way between the big changes in Foreign Policy. For that I guess we will just have to wait…

Kelly’s book is in some ways hard to criticize. He lives up to his pledge* to focus on policy issues over the politics. His central thesis that Keating and Howard were both focused on restoring Australian patriotism, and had more in common than divided them/suited their parties to acknowledge is eminently defendable. But this insiders tale, with immaculate access to the powerful, also feels somewhat hollow. Kelly doesn’t manage to capture or even attempt to define the anger or resentment many in the public felt towards Howard. But you can’t understand Howard and Keating’s story without understanding the often ambivalent, sometimes hostile public reaction to them. Both men were loved within their tribes, hated by the other, and often polarised most of the public at various times of their leadership. Kelly perhaps rightly knows his argument that what unites them is more important is controversial, however it is notable how little popular sentiment seems to be considered, and his almost outright dismissal for their being any legitimate base of anger at Howard from the left. This is a sin by omission rather than fault, and one not unique to his book, but I think significant to understand the environment Keating and Howard were operating in. In fact even if limited to Howard, this would have been a big improvement (and given Kelly’s previous work on Keating and the proliferation of books on his government, this may have been better served as a book solely on Howard over his entire administration.)

Kelly is for better or worse Australia’s Bob Woodward (who traded in his watergate credentials for a white house all-access-pass). This insider status grants amazing access to the powerful, with often revealing interviews. These interviews let the major players speak for themselves, sometimes even hang themselves with their own claims, but it’s traded for a very conventional level of analysis. Indeed Kelly’s book screams conventional in its analysis, a thought only tempered by the knowledge that it was probably Kelly who set the common wisdom which everyone else has come to endorse. Where he speaks or acts, the press typically follows. For political junkies and close followers, Kelly’s book is a must read. There is not much that is brand new, but the book is very well researched, organised and its focus on policy over politics a welcome change, whilst in an very readable format.

Lies, Damned lies and Statistics

Three recent cases of tricky and deceptive uses of figures have passed by my computer screen recently.

Newspoll, Morgan and Nielson both ran polls on the issue of the Liberal party leadership, and found somewhat contradictory results. Newspoll showed Turnbull gaining the support of previous Costello backers, whilst the other two showed Hockey gaining ground. Only this poll is completely useless. The public has zero say in the leadership, so it doesn’t actually matter what the people think. Of course Liberal MP’s may be spooked by such data and decide to switch their (meaningful) support, but their actual concern is votes in their seat and factional lines within caucus. The only people for whom this “poll” is relevant is the newspapers as an opportunity to engage in more speculation. Newspapers are seen as simply reporting the news, in this case they made it, only they claim some objectivity because it involves stats. Even when they disagree so badly.

Likewise take this mornings outrage over taxation under Howard

HIGH income earners received the lion’s share of tax cuts in the past 10 years, putting pressure on the Rudd Government to reduce taxes for the poor.
Australia’s peak union body has slammed plans to cut corporate taxes and called for a crackdown on family trusts and other tax avoidance measures…
Unions have released research showing that high-income earners on $180,000 received a “real” tax cut of $250 a week under John Howard’s government.
Workers on average salaries of $48,000 a year were dudded, receiving just $43 extra in their pay packets – less than a sixth of the tax cuts paid to the rich.

One slight problem, workers on $48’000 a year don’t pay $250 in tax, so how on earth are they able to get back that amount in a tax cut ? Such figures also ignore the significant middle class welfare that Howard favoured, where the bottom 42.2% of Australian families pay no net tax. Now, if you take the figures as % then yes, the Howard government did favour higher income earners. Taxes are cheaper to cut for the top brackets, and they wanted to reward/entice many of that pay scale to their policies (not least the professional media). Voters with half-decent memories will surely remember Amanda Vandstone’s infamous ‘hamburger and a milkshake’ dismissal of the 2003 tax cuts for most Australians. But that can only be shown through % cuts, rather than dollar amounts which are absolutely misleading.

Finally take this corker from Janet Albrechtsen in a piece amusingly about misleading rhetoric :

There is no evidence that Australians support an HRA in overwhelming numbers. Even the numbers that Brennan and his cheer squad rely on are deceptive. The figures are set out in the final appendix to the Brennan report: of 35,014 submissions, 27,112 were what Brennan calls “campaign submissions” (more than 25,000 came from GetUp! and Amnesty International supporting an HRA). That leaves 7900 other individual submissions and 4200 submissions opposed to an HRA.

In other words, put aside the orchestrated campaign activists and more than half of submissions were opposed to an HRA. If there were overwhelming support from Australians for an HRA, supporters would happily put their proposal to the Australian people. Yet they are opposed to hearing from that democratic voice.

Get that ? If you remove all the supportive ones, then yes, “more than half” were opposed. Fancy that. Thankfully the Australian is fair and balanced enough to run a piece by a Getup! official pointing out the truth that:

In fact, GetUp! made only one submission, which did support a human rights act. We were also proud to facilitate more than 10,000 Australians, from all walks of life and with a wide range of opinions, in expressing their views to the committee through our website.

Most people wouldn’t have heard of the opportunity to put in submissions to the HRA commission. So it’s no surprise that those organisation which facilitated popular involvement would be responsible for a majority of them. This is something the commission and the government ought to have done, but in this case local organisations have stepped in to help out. What the quality of those submissions may have been I can’t say. But each one represents an individual who took the time and effort to advocate a position. That ought to be highly regarded (if only all our Parliamentary/ Quasi-Govt Committee’s could get such a level of popular interest when they seek popular involvement) not dismissed by someone who claims to speak for the people by virtue of being a favoured elite on the right.

Some days reading the news is just a painful process…

Why Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Pretty much everyone in the world has had a rant on Obama, and outside the choosing committee it has been a resounding NO. But though my immediate reaction was like almost all others ‘really? Why so soon?’, I’ve come to think the pick of Obama is an inspired choice. I’d been meaning to post about it, but thought a few days reflection worthy (if nothing else to avoid the Obama-worship claim) and then this comment seemed to pick up an important point:
obama_hope

[Max] Weber states [in “Science as a Vocation”] that in an increasingly rationalized society there is a “disenchantment of the world,” as “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.”

It would appear that the Nobel committee at least partially picked Obama for his renewed faith in public discourse to bring about peace and change in the world. Tim Rutten argues in the Los Angeles Times that the award was rightly given to the President for “words” rather than “deeds.” I would further argue the prize most appropriately went to Obama for finding a midway through Weber’s predicament in the above passage. Obama’s rhetoric has sought to enchant the political realm through sublime values that no human being can live without—for example, through the trope of “hope”…. In one of his speeches, Obama espouses a faith in public discourse: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words? … At a minimum, Obama’s prior speech-actions have performed a role to which all those who love peace can aspire—enchanting the world with sublime but accountable words

Obama has not achieved as much as many other worthy candidates (though the timing works against them, the numerous quasi-leaders of the Iranian resistance, or more appropriately Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai), but it is impossible to argue that any one person has had as much impact in changing the international atmosphere in recent decades. America’s standing in the world has radically rebounded, beginning even before his inaguration, and well into his term. Even closely allied (and militarily dependent) Australia has seen a 23% increase in trust of the US from 2006 to today. Which reveals a guilty secret of modern International Relations. The world wants to like America (though it prefers the cultural/political to the military side, however much it sleeps easy under its protection).

The biggest problem Obama faces is simply the cynicism of the modern world. He is the inheritor of not just an administration which launched two deeply unpopular wars, but did so under the blanket of freedom. The National Security Strategy of 2002 declared that:

“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise..These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages..”

Despite the obvious set backs of the first term, Bush’s second inaugural speech is a case study in utopian rhetoric:

“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now” – they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty”.

Given how far apart Bush’s rhetoric and record have been, is it any wonder that when an ambitious, idealistic, young US president speaks grand words to the world they immediately turn and demand action first, words later.

Obama is seen by most of the world (though not his domestic opponents or international partisans) as trying hard, moving in the right direction, honest in his dealings and speech, and potentially a source for future break through’s that had once seemed impossible. In North Korea, Kashmir, Palestine, Pakistan, Obama is seen as a new hope for change. In China, South America, and Eastern Europe people are looking to a reinvigorated America that can slip under the defences of their elites and spread if not democracy at least prosperity. In the west, the people of the british isles, the commonwealths such as Australia, and even in the heart of ‘Old Europe’ France and Germany, people are looking for the West to once more be proud and on the advance, rather than defensive and embarrassed about its own record.

The world has had too much of fine words from unworthy mouths. Obama may have thus far just offered words, but the world has judged him worthy to speak it. And these are words we so desperately want to hear. Peace is not a condition of material resources. Not when the there are potentially 23’000 nuclear weapons in the world. Instead, it is a state of mind. A state of acceptance, tolerance and good will. And that is begun, and ended, with words. Obama may be judged by history as unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, but right now, he’s the best shot the world has for peace. Cynics aside, that ought to mean something.

No place like home

A welcome announcement from the Government:

The Federal Government has allocated $12 million to boost emergency financial assistance for vulnerable groups affected by the global financial crisis.
The new funding will target charities that help the homeless, single parent families and Indigenous groups.

The funding coincides with the release of research by the Federal Government showing 34 per cent of Australians believe their financial situation has deteriorated because of the economic downturn.
About 21 per cent of them said they had been unable to pay bills, while 15 per cent had been forced to ask for help from friends and family.
Ms Macklin says charities and support agencies have seen a changing demographic this year.
“This research we’ve released today shows that people in more traditionally middle income families have also been doing it hard, particularly as they’ve lost their jobs as a result of the global financial crisis,” she said.

Homelessness_fly_away

While the ‘green shoots’ of economic recovery have been much lauded (and spooked our RBA), it’s worth remembering that many people in this country are yet to see a return to fortune. Having survived the GFC, many will be looking grimly ahead at the ‘season of joy’ that threatens to leave them feeling very financially exposed. The end of the year period brings with it both reduced work, and expectations of parties, presents & dinners, all at great cost. While our liberated economy has had the flexibility to reduce hours instead of firing staff, this also means that those we consider employed today may not be earning a great deal, especially those with young kids. Most will make it through, but we can expect an increase in those who will need a little bit of help, and some for whom homelessness is a real risk. Each day in Australia about 100’000 are homeless, though only 1/10th of those are on the street, with many many more forced into temporary accommodation, such as friends couches, or motel/caravan short stays. Some of course can be given all the enticements in the world, but will still choose to sleep rough and ‘free’, but that is a very small % of the homelessness problem.

Thankfully however we seem to have a Federal Government that is taking the issue seriously (unlike its predecessor). In a move that surprised, but pleased many one of the first acts of the Rudd government in Jan 2008, was to announce a renewed effort to tackle homelessness in Australia. In December of that year, the White Paper The Road Home, was released. The government pledged itself to two highly ambitious goals. (1)Halve homelessness by 2020, and (2) Provide shelter for those rough sleepers who want it by 2020. In August 2009, the Minister for Housing Tanya Plibersek released an update offering figures, which whilst not impressive are at least encouraging. Each state has it’s own details, though the $20m for the ACT, is very welcome. Canberra’s prosperity both enhances the wealth of those in secure employment/housing, whilst making it significantly harder for those at the fringes to get by. Where the GFC saw prices drop for renters across the country, in Canberra rent prices reportedly went up.

This is a government still a little too bound up in process over progress for my liking, creating a new independent council on homelessness, and $11.4m for Homelessness Research. However, they seem to act in good faith, with the PM’s conscious Therese Rein apparently quite serious about the issue. Assuming this is a minimum three term govt, and the funding/attention continues, such structures and (initially) slow work could build into a significant apparatus for dealing with homelessness in Australia. The problem is still there and very significant, and to some extent with the likely slow recovery, and costs of the season of good tidings, it may in fact get worse. But it’s nice to see a government that is at least talking about the issue and committed to change. It’s so easy to spend all your time on a blog like this criticizing those in power, but sometimes the best way to encourage good behaviour is through praise rather than blame. So well done Rudd & Plibersek. Now get back to work :).

That said, this is also an issue the general public not only can get behind, but must if we are to tackle it. It is Anti-Poverty week, with lots of activities being organised around the country, and there are many good charities to donate to such as Anglicare and St Vincent de Paul who both do a lot of work to help the homeless.

Image by Flicker User D.C.Atty used under a Creative Commons Licence

Its enough to make you drink…

whisky-gentry-styleWhenever the debate turns to the war on drugs, one of the most common retorts (by both sides oddly enough) is that we already allow legal consumption of Alcohol. Which is true enough, except there are a number of odd little restrictions and punishments on drinkers for reasons that generally defy explanation.

First up is the so called ‘sin’ taxes, making every drink you buy, or cigarette you smoke significantly more expensive. This is allowed and accepted in part because these drugs both cause significant social and health care costs, but there’s a larger element of simply being an easy target. Drinkers and smokers can be freely pegged by government for funds, for almost none will stand up for them as a group (not even the many politicians who enjoy a tipple) and amongst some their own abstinence flows into a desire to publicly show their dissaproval and encourage force others to also stop. How else to explain ridiculous ideas such as graphic warnings on alcohol similar to those found on cigarette packets. What are they going to show ? people having a good time? People passed out? The PM’s extensive wine cellar? Most however accept the penalty and continue their behaviour as before (anyone who thinks the cost be it for alco-pops or cigarettes is changing behaviour doesn’t under stand their species. Instead people simply substitute. Straight spirits mixed at home instead of pre-mixed ones. And for the addict smoker it is simply a minor consideration compared to the urge in their body and mind to continue their habit.)

Far less understandable however are the odd laws that pop up around the service of alcohol. The Responsible Service of Alcohol in the ACT for instance punishes drinkers of good whisky. Though I’ve been in some pubs that don’t do so, most places under the RSA will force you to put at least something in the glass along with your whisky, either a soda like coke, or at a minimum a single piece of ice. Likewise you can only buy a single shot’s worth, not a double. Why however I don’t know. That single piece of ice will not stop you getting drunk, will not keep you more upright or do anything other than to water down and dilute a nice (and expensive) drink. Some may like their whisky that way, fine, but why must I conform? The bar on double shots is intended to stop large consumption of spirits, but you can of course buy two, or go up to the bar again. Ideally the pubs will stop serving you alcohol if you are too intoxicated (say after a few trips) but the only ones ever refused are the almost paralytic, who are far more likely to be drinking whatever cheap beer they can get their hands on, not an expensive, aged single malt.

Of similar befuddlement is the recent proposal in the ACT to ban drink containers over 560ml in size. This is proposed under the ‘logic’ that “excessively large containers would promote excessive alcohol consumption”, a sure sign that the legislators have never actually been out on the town or into the RSL’s and pubs they are attempting to control. I say this if for no other reason than that a Pint glass is 568ml. So either they are attempting to ban all but 375ml schooner glasses, or more likely don’t even know what size drinks are served today. But that is a simple error likely to be fixed. Far more ridiculously is the attempt to ban stein’s, 1 liter glasses. Now these are big drinks, but as far as I know only one place in town, a gourmet beer brewer Zeirholtz’s in Fyshwick uses steins. Hardly a location of problematic alcohol consumption, or alcohol induced problems. But even when they were (for a limited time) served at the biggest pub in the city, they were hardly a menace. 1 liter is a lot of beer, but it’s also damn heavy, forcing you to sit down, and to take care for your drink. At such a price and size, no one is going to smash their glass into someones head, nor throw it, nor leave it alone. A $3.20 schooner can be easily thrown or smashed with no great cost to the purchaser (at least till the bouncers/cops come). But an $18.00 stein is a whole different matter. The proposed rule therefore is likely to only affect a single outlet with no reputation for trouble, and have zero effect on curbing violence or alcohol abuse in public.

That said, the ACT at least is better positioned than NSW & Victoria who lock patrons out of clubs at 2am. You can continue to drink if you are inside the establishment, but you can not change to a new place, or even go outside to meet a friend/partner and return. The idea is that it stops people drinking earlier, but instead people simply respond by drinking more sooner (so they get far more drunk) and getting angry/annoyed when full of grog and unable to join their friends. Despite clear anecdotal evidence that neither proposal has curbed the excesses of most young people’s friday/saturday night shuffle, we can probably expect it to be introduced here in time.

There are many serious problems with alcohol abuse in this country. Teen drinking is a real concern (stunting growing brains), and no one likes running into a near paralytic drunk who wants to yell at or pick a fight with you. We do need laws to control and regulate its service, but it is amazing how few of these laws (lock outs, watered whisky, no steins) have anything to do with the actual problem or likelyhood of stopping problem drinking. The most common drink, the schooner of cheap beer is the source of 90% of the problems. But its ubiquitousness also means it can’t be targeted, so instead gourmet beer and whisky drinkers get punished. Any time government acts to change or introduce new laws regarding social behaviour, it needs to make sure it does so with the greatest possible evidence and understanding of the practical effects of its actions. Recent legislation at both a state (well territory) and federal level however proves that requirement is not being met. And about time I must say for a post on whisky, given its role in the masthead.

Hitchens less than dangerous idea

In case you missed it, here is the speech by Christopher Hitchens at the recent Sydney ‘Dangerous Idea’s Festival. He speaks for about 40 minutes, with an hour or so of questions from a (slightly disappointing) Tony Jones. Jones claims to play devil’s advocate, but ends up with a lame ‘but the faithful do good works’ line of questioning. If he wanted to really be contrarian in Hitchens style, he’d ask if the idea ‘religion poison’s everything’ is even a dangerous idea as the festival name implies. Hitchen’s extended ovation was guaranteed before he spoke a word. Though in other parts of the world he would still be shot or run out of town for it. Likewise the most interesting stuff in the interview is right at the end when discussing the difference between agnostics and atheists (where I think Hitchen’s claims far more wiggle room than he is entitled to). Either way, what he has to say is still well worth saying, and none do it better. Enjoy:

The real deficit is the one between their ears…

As mentioned below, the Liberals had a press conference this morning on debt reduction, and released a shiny new policy document. Naturally the media ignored the policy for the horse race issue, so your dutiful blogger went through and read the proposal. One problem: It doesn’t actually say anything. Here is the sum total of the Liberals policy for debt reduction 6-12 months before an election:

This morning's conference, from Turnbull's twitter feed

This morning's conference, from Turnbull's twitter feed

1)The Coalition will do more with less by reducing waste and duplication throughout the Australian Government, and between the federal and state governments.
2)The Coalition will immediately upon coming into government establish a Commission for Sustainable Finances to report within three months on waste and duplication in every agency and program of the government.
3) The Coalition will not repeat Labor’s cash splashes. Handing out $23 billion in cash may be popular, but it recklessly adds to debt.
4) The Coalition will pursue a vigorous reform, infrastructure and innovation agenda to lift productivity and increase economic growth.
5) The Coalition will support small businesses, the engine room of the economy, through our Small Business Action Plan.
6) The Coalition commits to a responsible long term objective of returning government’s share of the economy to the level achieved by the previous Coalition Government…. The last five Coalition Budgets had spending of less than 25% of GDP. Only the Coalition can be trusted to return the government’s share of the economy to this level.
7)The Coalition is committed to addressing all of these problems (Complexity, time-cost,reduced incentives etc) in a comprehensive and principled program of tax reform.
8)The Coalition will establish a Parliamentary Budget Office, which will be independent of both the government and the opposition, to ensure the public and Parliament receive honest and timely analysis of the budget, financial results and specific programs.
9) Further, the public will be able to track government debt at a real-time website detailing the size and composition of borrowings, interest paid and projections into the future.

Putting it into a list makes it look far more substantial, but have a look again at that list. Only #8 & 9 deal with specifics (both are good ideas, though the website is more about advertising, as such figures are already on budget.gov.au) Numbers 1,4,7 have been promised by every single opposition since the beginning of time but dont matter at all without specifics. (Here is just one of dozens of press releases labor put out on the issue prior to the 2007 election). Number 5 is just a statement of support, and 3 is utterly redundant (of course they won’t repeat the stimulus given its already in place and the crisis is passed!). Only 6 seems new, though as I’ve mentioned before there is no logical reason why 25% is the ideal figure (indeed in early September Hockey was saying it must be “no more than 24%, but I guess round numbers rule).

Given the bad position the Liberals are in today, only a comprehensive, detailed policy will get them any attention. If Rule #1 of Federal oppositions is don’t repeat the Fightback mistake of 93 (with Turnbull eerily imitating Hewson), Rule #2 is don’t do invisibly small target’s (ala Beazley 98) either. There is a happy balance in the middle. Howard and Rudd both won by proposing a number of key, detailed area’s of policy in ground they wanted to fight on, and then obscuring the differences on everything else. Turnbull can’t win, but he can at least fight a respectable campaign for principles he believes in by being bold. Far better to be remembered for going out fighting for your ideas (that may one day become accepted wisdom as Hewson’s GST now is), than as a front man without the courage of his convictions. (Jason Soon on Crikey makes a similar point about Turnbull’s failure to live up to his hoped-for-liberal creed)

If the brain’s trust in Liberal HQ want some ideas, how about reducing the churn of taxes/welfare as John Humphreys advocates:

The Australian welfare system—including health, education and handouts—costs more than $250 billion per year. Some of this is redistribution from the relatively rich to the relatively poor. However, about half of the welfare is pointless ‘churn,’ where the same person both pays taxes and receives welfare benefits.
Some of this churn is ‘cash churn’ where people both pay tax and receive cash from the government. But the bigger problem is ‘services churn’ where middle- and high-income earners pay tax and receive government-subsidised health and schooling services.

By removing middle-class welfare in exchange for income tax cuts, the government could reduce tax and welfare by about $80 billion without leaving anybody worse off.

Such reform would be bold, enticing (everyone, esp the press would focus on the massive tax cuts this would mean), rally the base (cutting welfare/bureaucracy) and give a radical plan to pay down the debt in their first term, not to mention long term benefits to pay for healthcare (as Humphreys’ advocates). Hell I’d vote for it…

The idea’s are out there, the Government has massive targets that can and should be hit, but so long as the Liberal Party is serving up this shallow pap, the equivalent of a warm towel to fix a gunshot, they will be rightly ignored.