Chasing the Norm

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

Month: January, 2010

A new (publicly owned) Bank?

Crikey has the scoop today that the Rudd government is considering allowing/pushing Australia post to expand its financial services into a full blown bank as a way of breaking up the stranglehold of the big four banks.

Crikey can reveal that the Rudd Government commissioned a scoping study into the establishment of a publicly-owned banking capability by Australia Post, with positive results. As Crikey detailed in August last year, Oz Post has been trying to address the long-term decline in postal volumes by encouraging mail marketing and exploiting its branch network to offer a wider range of the sort of services that still require interaction.

This already includes financial services under licence from several banks and up to 70 financial institutions in all, including business banking services from NAB and the Commonwealth. Last year, Australia Post itself began offering insurance services. About 3,300 Australia Post outlets offer external banking services now, just under three times the number of branches of the largest bank network, Westpac/St George.

While the economics have pros & cons, politically this strikes me as a very risky if not downright awful decision if followed through. Rudd already has a reputation as anti-market in the media (being a Labor MP, Stimulus spending, End of Neo-liberalism essay, keeping book tariffs etc). For a party trying to present itself as representing the future over its regressive opponents, going against the 30 year trend to privatization makes little sense. Endorsing the creation of a publicly owned bank would just about drive the economic liberals who dominate the editors/opinion leaders of the press insane and with them a chance to enshrine Labor as the default governing party for the next 20-30 years.

As I’ve argued before, many economic liberals have lost their suction to the Coalition after Howard’s departure. Rudd’s description of himself as an “economic conservative” and talk of efficiency and productivity through his investment in education lured many away. And now with Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce ruling the roost, the coalition isn’t the safe haven of support & re-enforcement it once was, indeed it’s looking decidedly shaky and populist.

Yet Rudd seems to have only made a half-hearted effort at recruiting them. He may talk of productivity as part of his Australia day (week) speeches, but his actions speak loudly to this skeptical and (somewhat paranoid) group. Rudds decision to not support a change in parallel imports of books despite the Productivity Commissions report is a perfect example of a policy with a relatively light cost (from a social democrat/arts supporter viewpoint) and much to gain. Indeed you could almost see the press gallery shift away from Rudd at the end of last year soon after this decision was announced (and even worse is that Rudd ‘excused’ himself in a split cabinet because one of his kids is writing a book). As an aside Bob Carr today makes the obvious point that the impending arrival of Apples badly named but oh so cool ipad makes the ALP’s decision laughable.

Establishing an aussie bank under Australia Post may appeal to many in the public superficially, but its positive political impact is likely to be small and slowly occurring, whilst re-enforcing a big government, big spending, big bureaucracy image that Abbott and the editors of the Australian are trying to pin on Rudd. This is not about the forthcoming election which is already in the bag, but a generational re-alignment of those of a liberal ideology both socially and economically who are giving Labor a fresh look they wouldn’t have considered during the 90s and most of the 2000’s. Creating a government owned Australia bank would probably scare them off, and with it a chance for Labor to establish political dominance for the next 20+ years. (Along with hopefully leading Labor to become more liberal in attitude which is why i want to see this occur along with its political benefits).

Abbott succumbs to the stereotype

When Abbott took over, I argued that he would surprise many for the moderateness of his views. The public, I thought would get a chance to re-examine him, but it seems a combination of clumsy language on Abbott’s behalf, and a bored media are going to ensure he will be back to the caricatured mad monk before the month is out. Take this piece from The Australian:

Tony Abbott warns women against sex before marriage
TONY Abbott urges women to save their virginity for marriage and reveals mixed feelings about contraception in a new interview.

After conducting a charm offensive over the summer break and rejecting suggestions his conservative social views were a turnoff to women, the Liberal leader has been subjected to a grilling in the next edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly about his views on sex, marriage and his own daughters’ virginity.

The new Liberal leader is understood to have suggested men and women should try and adhere to “the rules” when it comes to sex before marriage and when they can’t he has conceded they should use contraception.

Which isn’t that far from what he said in 2005 “they[his daughters] should be very careful about doing things that they might regret and doing things that might in the long run cause them to have less self respect and less respect for others than might be the case”, which is also in line with what he says in his book.

It’s also not far from what every father has said to their kids since time immortal (and a lot more accepting than most would have been).Yet the instant reaction from the ALP, Greens, womens groups and even the conservative press is to tag anyone who even addresses the issue of contraception, or abortion as an invasive reactionary.
I’m in two minds about this, given my own liberal views on the importance of individual freedom, and arbitrariness of what conservatives claim are the “rules”, on the other hand, Abbott like all public figures ought to speak on important issues, and we ought to be able to have an open discussion about it. (Some might call this the burden of political correctness at work, but its a feather weight if that). Radically, he answered a question when asked, and advocated views that few would disagree with, and yet he has suffered two days plus of grief for it. The fault is partly his for clumsy language, but also because people are seeing the stereotype at work instead of what was actually said.

On Immigration, a similar story was visible over the weekend. A poor choice of words and political strategy by Abbott and the nature of the news beast:

Obey the law at least, Abbott tells migrants

Speaking at a dinner hosted by the Australia Day Council in Melbourne, Mr Abbott said Australians were worried about the rise in the number of boat people, the ability of migrants to obey the law and the strain new arrivals put on the nation’s resources….Migrants would be more popular if minority leaders encouraged them to adopt more mainstream values and abide by the law, he said. ”The inescapable minimum that we insist upon is obedience to the law,” Mr Abbott said. ”It would help to bolster public support for immigration and acceptance of social diversity if more minority leaders were as ready to show to mainstream Australian values the respect they demand of their own.”

Abbott’s claims here are no more than any Prime Minister from Post-WW2 has said. Indeed was anyone at any doubt that following the law was a requirement of citizenship? Perhaps the migrants of whom 96% passed the citizenship test were unaware of this basic fact. Abbott’s point is therefore both true but also banal. From the mouth of Rudd such words would have gone entirely un-noticed, but when Abbott stumbles in with such pointless claims, he makes himself out to being a intolerant fool. This is not some devils curl of the tongue to entice the former one-nation voters, Abbott is simply being in artful & bland, whilst re-enforcing a stereotype that is certainly wrong on immigration (none in the Coalition did more to bring down One-Nation than he) and damaging. Amazingly in the same speech Abbott even claims “The last thing that any Australian should want is to make recent immigrants feel unwelcome in their new country,”, yet his speeches and more importantly the media reports of these will if anything add to that impression. It’s an own goal rhetorically.

Abbott is rather progressive for a conservative Christian on issues of contraception, abortion and immigration. Yet though his first month in the job has been solid, he has done little to counter the image once built up on him, which is allowing a bored press and an only half-observant public to see his new actions through the old cut out image they held for him. The picture might not yet fully fit within the lines (esp his speeches on Aboriginal affairs and the Environment), but it still seems close enough. Like “headkicker” Latham who surprised many with his talk of reading to preschool kids, or “nerdbot” Rudd with his emotive talk about growing up poor & in the country, Abbott needs a way to break the stereotype that was in place as a minister, briefly lifted when he took over but is now slowly dropping back down into place over him.

While I take a more liberal line than him on such issues (I’m not sure that ones virginity is that important, and a focus on it not only slightly creepy but a hold over from negotiations for arranged marriages), Tony Abbott should be applauded for his willingness to speak up on such important social issues and being willing to directly answer the question. Yet it’s not just spur of the moment choices that are getting him in trouble, the same lack of political strategy is evident in his prepared speeches such as on immigration. Abbott & coalition strategists need to work quickly on shaking up how the press and public see him, otherwise this election will be an embarrassing rout, with the liberal leader unheard and ignored for the rest of the year (The same fate his mentor Howard suffered during 2007).

This is the change I’ve been waiting for

I supported Obama during 2007, 2008 for the skills he represented, far more than the position he held. I was always prepared to be disappointed, he is not my national leader, he was the most conservative of candidates, and yet his strategy of clinging close to the congressional leadership had led him closer to Health Care Reform than any man before him, Republican & Democrat. While believing every man deserves his due support, over the last few months, my enthusiasm has wained, along with his seeming political skill. Yet here, post-Massachusetts, in the depths of despair I find this, the very statement I have been wishing for him to make for the last few months:

Obama in Ohio 22 January 2010

“So here’s the good news: We’ve gotten pretty far down the road. But I’ve got to admit, we had a little bit of a buzz saw this week. (Laughter.)
Now, I also know that part of the reason is, is that this process was so long and so drawn out — this is just what happens in Congress. I mean, it’s just an ugly process. You’re running headlong into special interests, and armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics that’s aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And then you’ve got ads that are scaring the bejesus out of everybody. (Laughter.) And the longer it take, the uglier it looks.

So I understand why people would say, boy, this is — I’m not so sure about this — even though they know that what they got isn’t working. And I understand why, after the Massachusetts election, people in Washington were all in a tizzy, trying to figure out what this means for health reform, Republicans and Democrats; what does it mean for Obama? Is he weakened? Is he — oh, how’s he going to survive this? (Laughter.) That’s what they do. (Laughter.)

But I want you — I want you to understand, this is not about me. (Applause.) This is not about me. This is about you. This is not about me; this is about you. I didn’t take this up to boost my poll numbers. You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything. (Laughter.) That’s how you do it. You don’t offend anybody. I’d have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, “What a genius!” (Laughter.)

I didn’t take this on to score political points. I know there are some folks who think if Obama loses, we win. But you know what? I think that I win when you win. (Applause.) That’s how I think about it.

So if I was trying to take the path of least resistance, I would have done something a lot easier. But I’m trying to solve the problems that folks here in Ohio and across this country face every day. And I’m not going to walk away just because it’s hard. We are going to keep on working to get this done — with Democrats, I hope with Republicans — anybody who’s willing to step up. Because I’m not going to watch more people get crushed by costs or denied care they need by insurance company bureaucrats. I’m not going to have insurance companies click their heels and watch their stocks skyrocket because once again there’s no control on what they do.
So long as I have some breath in me, so long as I have the privilege of serving as your President, I will not stop fighting for you.”

On Friday last week I couldn’t even pick up David Plouffe’s book ‘The Audacity to Win’, such was my disappointment at Obama. If he can however make this speech his widely known creed over the next few weeks & months, then he may indeed be the one we have been waiting for.

Now Pass.The.Damn.Bill

Blessed are the weaponmakers

By now I’m sure everyone has heard the row over biblical passages being enscribed on gun sights for US Troops. Why or how anyone whose read the New Testament could see warrant for putting them on military hardware is beyond me. Anyway, turns out the same manafacturer has been selling them to the Australian Defence Department. Locally, this is an easy mistake to fix, but the excuse given by the Defence Department is truely odd:

Defence Minister John Faulkner has ordered the Defence Department to remove references to biblical passages marked on gunsights being used by Australian troops in Afghanistan. References to New Testament verses were etched onto the gunsights by the American manufacturer, Trijicon, and the department says it was unaware of their meaning at the time of purchase.

Among the coded inscriptions on Trijicon gunsights are JN8:12, an apparent reference to John 8:12: “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Another made reference to Psalms 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”.

They didn’t know what “The Lord is my light and salvation” meant? Or twig to why coded references were on their equipment and have someone with some cultural literacy? Obviously we want to keep religious education well away from our soldiers manuals, but surely at school the future generals and officers learnt from the bible. I may not be a christian, but I’ve certainly read the bible and have been meaning to pick up a copy again soon as a refresher. So much of our culture from great literature to daily conversation is peppered with metaphors, similies and analogies from the bible. You almost can’t be considered a literate or educated if you’ve never learnt anything of it.
Yet the Defence Department is really going with a lack of understanding as their justification?

A changing of the guard in the ACT

Bob McMullan chatting to students 2006. Authors photo

Ever since I can remember, Canberra has been represented by two labor members in the House of Representatives, Annette Ellis for Canberra (south of the lake) and Bob McMullan for Fraser(City Centre & Northside). On Tuesday McMullan announced his retirement at the coming election (he was going to quit in 2013), and by the time you are reading this, Annette Ellis will have announced she too is leaving (/being pushed out).

While I’ve only once bumped into Ellis, I’ve met McMullan a number of times. He was very generous with his time as Shadow Treasurer to me for 2 different TAFE journalism assignments, and when I was running a political society at Uni he twice came and gave off the cuff speeches, glass of wine in hand. His big glasses and quiet manners make him look a shy type, but he works a room very ably. While I’d lived within Ellis’s electorate most of my life, I had been looking forward to casting a vote for McMullan in Fraser this year, but not to be.

Though one of the few members of the ALP with ministerial experience, (as former minister for Trade, Admin & Arts, and ALP National Secretary), he unfortunately was sidelined by both Latham and Rudd. Latham’s diary contains some particularly harsh claims, and Rudd, despite claiming to have picked his own cabinet, could find no room for this hard working ‘Centrist’ faction member. Not quite a faction to speak of, McMullan along with the now deceased Peter Cook and a few others somehow managed to buck the power of the unions, though neither was quite given the influence their talents deserved. Though McMullan seemed quite dissapointed not to have recieved a ministery under Rudd, he has taken to his role as Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance with aplomb and is now set to take an NGO job in the field and carry on the work. One of the rare cases where a quick cross over from Government to Industry is to be endorsed.

Unsurprisingly for two of the safest seats in the country (With a 23% buffer for Canberra and 30% for Fraser), the fight for the seats is fierce. Early names being thrown around include Nick Martin the Federal Labor assistant party secretary, Constitutional Lawyer/Public Intellectual George Williams, Peter Conway a former ALP senate Candidate, Michael Cooney (local Minister Andrew Barr’s Chief of Staff), Rudd’s wunderkid & chief of staff Alistar Jordan, and ANU’s wunderkid economics Professor Andrew Leigh. Surprisingly, local MP’s such as Jon Stanhope & Andrew Barr have not got in the running, esp as Barr seems to have a bright future ahead of him, but he seems to be may be angling for ACT Chief Minister). Martin seems to be firming, but its pretty fluid. If you’re interested, Twitter has been the best place to find out the breaking nature of the story (admittedly by local journalists on the medium).

Given I know none of the candidates closely, and all have strong backgrounds, the ALP would be best served by choosing as young and up coming a star as possible. Ellis whilst a fine enough local candidate, had little to offer the federal party, putting the seat somewhat to waste. The party needs to find someone who can make a home in the seat for two decades or more and contribute consistently both to the community and to the federal policy/media profile. While Rudd is an exception, almost every Prime Minister has spent about 20 years in parliament before ascending to the top job. The public needs time to get to know them, as do their colleagues, and as I’ve been arguing for a while, politics is a profession that takes a long time to learn, something the Malcolm Turnbull’s of the world forget to their own misfortune.

The ACT is rare in having a the cleanest Rank & File pre-selection options in the country, but with Rudd at the helm, two members going & the ACT labor party a bit of a shambles administratively, the temptation for federal intervention will be strong. Hopefully the rank and file will reject that and choose someone who they want to see around canberra for the next 20 years. The ACT offers enticingly safe seats for ALP members, but Canberran’s can be pretty parochial. We get abused by the rest of the country for “our” politicians despite being the least represented place in the country; so when we do get a choice, we demand a local background and commitment to the city. I’d really like to see Andrew Leigh get up (his blog is here), but Williams or Martin sound good choices.

Vale McMullan, & Ellis and let the games commence.

Being a Bad Loser

In Obama’s inauguration speech there was a line that stood out:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

If one of the defining characteristics of adult hood is the ability to accept defeat and setback and carry on (such as in If by Kipling) then it seems clear that neither US political party has taken that step. Both the Republicans over the past year, and the Democrats over the past 24 hours are showing what bad losers they are.

I’ve never been one to decry hardball politics, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find in the post war period a group as mendacious and arrogant as the Republican party has been since the election loss in 2008. Abusing a rare senate rule, they have declared that Obama has no mandate for any legislation whatsoever, and not even entitled to most of his administration team. While still yet to account for any of the errors of their own period in power, they make demand after demand without the slightest idea of policy proposals to achieve these ends (& vetoing opponents policy that would help).

But just as you can be a bad loser by denying the loss ever happened, you can also be a bad loser by breaking down, and jumping into self-pity as the Democratic party seem to be doing. Democrats lost by just 100’000 votes in a special election, with a god awful candidate in a country of 300 million, and Obama & the democrats still poll above republicans nationally. The option to pass the health care bill is still there (but only by passing the senates bill), along with many measures to make life better for Americans (and show that Republicans are unwilling to aid doing so)
Yet they seem to be giving up, crawling into a ball and telling the people they “heard the message” that they should never do anything ever again, or stand for anything ever again.

Its remarkable really, even in the depths of the ALP’s crisis under Howard or the Liberals under Rudd we saw nothing like that level of arrogant or cowardly behaviour. Only Fraser’s scheming to dismiss Whitlam in 1975 somewhat fits for bad sportsmanship.

Since the 19th century, US political parties have depicted themselves as Elephants and Donkeys. Right now, the brainless Scarcrow and a cowardly Lion seem a better fit. Let’s hope these two listen to Obama’s message and grow up. (Speaking of which, the President himself strikes me as somewhat similar to The Wicked Witch as seen in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (novel behind the hit musical) I.e. possessed of a noticeably different skin colour & slightly grating demand for public morality, who eventually moves from a lack of understanding into being hated by the public without either side quite knowing why.

Turnbull For NSW – Update

Seems there may be something afoot:

Samantha Maiden, Online Political Editor The Australian January 21, 2010
MALCOLM TURNBULL is being urged by supporters and business leaders to make a run for New South Wales premier in 2011.

“Everyone is telling Malcolm to quit federal politics and he think that’s the right thing to do. Everyone is telling him to have a go in state politics,” a Liberal supporter told The Australian Online..

“People are disenchanted with (New South Wales Opposition Leader) Barry (O’Farrell), they have reservations about whether he’s got the ticker. But there’s also a lot of rank and file anger about Turnbull’s behaviour. He would have to do a big mea culpa and apologise for his behaviour.”

Probably just summer speculations at this point, no figures openly promoting Turnbull, and Abbott & the federal leadership may figure Turnbull is too openly dangerous as a premier, even though they will still be in opposition come 2011. Still I liked the idea back when I proposed it on December 7th, and still like it now. If you want to see the arguments for & against, the post is here.

Would be a waste to see a capable guy like Turnbull leave public life so quickly.

The dismanteling of a union

When the history of the Rudd government is written, one of the most noteworthy facts will be the shift in the ALP away from the Union movement. This is perhaps the least union-friendly ALP Government in history. It’s not anthetical to the unions as say Howard was, it just doesn’t have the personal ties to it that Kim Beazley or Bob Hawke did, and when in a fight it is wiling to ditch them to win public support.

Take yesterdays news about the Teachers Union’s planned boycott over nation wide testing & potential league tables:

PUBLIC school teachers face sanctions and penalties, including docked pay, with a planned boycott of national literacy and numeracy tests likely to be deemed illegal under federal workplace laws.
Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has refused to rule out supporting action against teachers if they go through with their threat to boycott the tests, saying industrial action taken outside the enterprise bargaining period is not lawful.

Teachers covered by federal laws in Victoria, the ACT and the Northern Territory could have their pay docked by a minimum of four hours if Fair Work Australia deemed the boycott unlawful. Teachers in other state jurisdictions also face penalties, although these would probably apply to the union rather than individuals.

“Action that’s taken not within the context of bargaining is unprotected and there are sanctions and penalties under the workplace relations law to deal with unprotected industrial action,” Ms Gillard, who is also Education and Workplace Relations Minister, told ABC radio.

The teachers unions have never been that significant in ALP history, (despite their members making up a higher than average % of parliamentary members), but similar examples of indifference to unions can be found in the work place relations laws that came into effect on January 1:

Fair Work retains Work Choices’ provisions for third parties to intervene to end strikes that are highly disruptive to the economy. Work Choices gave the minister for workplace relations (as opposed to the independent Industrial Relations Commission) unprecedented power to intervene in the affairs of unions and employers – so much for supposed deregulation – and this has been retained.

The Howard government’s first reshaping of industrial relations, the Workplace Relations Act of 1996, included many measures to reduce union power, some of which were strengthened in Work Choices. It outlawed compulsory unionism and the “closed shop” (workers can’t be hired unless they are members of the union) and reduced and regulated unions’ right of entry to the workplace.

Most of these provisions have been retained in Fair Work, although much publicity has been given to the decision to permit union representatives to enter work sites where they have no members but there are workers eligible to be members.

Finally, though union memberships are in steady decline (Surprisingly in 2009 they grew ), there has been no attempt by the Rudd Government to change community perceptions about unions. Around 1.75 million australians are members of a union, (with only 14% of private sector workers joining), a decline caused by both the changing nature of the australian workforce, along with the success of the ALP in legislating traditional union protections, almost doing unions out of a job. Despite the fact unions are so critical to funding the ALP, and that the ALP began life in Queensland in the 1890’s when union members decided parliamentary representation was the best way to gain workplace rights, the Rudd ALP Government almost never seeks to publicly defend the rights and role of unions.

At the 2007 election, Howard ran add’s that could have been run in the 1950’s, showing fat tough union bullies smashing up a small business who refused to pay. It wasn’t that clever an add, it was pretty unfamiliar to public experience (except to the fevered imaginations of right wing hysterics), and probably changed no more than a handful of votes in the election. If Abbott is serious about modernising the Liberal Party, it will be interesting to see if he too trots out similar advertisements, because as the public is learning, (despite media claims to the reverse) this is not a union-friendly government. That’s not in itself a bad thing, but it is a big change from the past, and perhaps signals the coming end of the ALP as a union based party.

Balance and Progress: The Philosophy of Avatar

I’d previously ignored all the hype and pre-story about Avatar, however one piece I had seen was Miranda Devine’s claim that the ingenious blue humanoid Na’vis philosophy of balance (as against the company’s push for change & development) makes it a lefty film. Watching the movie this weekend I came away finding myself both often rooting for the Company against the Na’vi and of the view that if any political philosophy is to be found within it, Avatar is a deeply conservative movie. To illustrate this, I want to replace the usual left/right divide and propose a slightly more pejorative version: Up, Balance, Down. See the chart on the right (Apologies I only have MS Paint to hand)

The Up Agenda:
Taking Darwin’s Origin of Species as a guiding light, Upward political philosophies see nature as inherently amoral and hostile, with relief only possible through development, change and progress. This means a certain willingness to deliberately shape both human and natural environments as an aid to larger goals. Economic theories which have political currency take this path given their focus on increased prosperity, either in an opportunity sense (capitalism) or an outcome sense (communism). Liberalism, with its strong views of what an ideal society ought to look like, regularly strives for progressive change, as does a nationalistic platform which sees future prestige/power for the nation (like building up a big army & using it).
Reaching its height in the Enlightenment and the triumph of reason, these political philosophies argue that deliberate action can shape naturally found environments for the better. Of course not all paths are equal, liberals reject communist reasoning and aims and vice versa. None of these philosophies would justify the abuse suffered either here on earth by the environment/native populations or the deliberate destruction of the Na’vi’s homeland, but finding themselves in an environment which is far far less welcoming that found on Pandora (more on that later) the only true means of survival of the species is development. Comparing current living standards to previous ages seems to emphatically support the case, such as our increased ability to withstand natural disasters, disease, and have enough resources to ensure re-population and growth. Of course there are always unintended consequences, of which global warming is as good an example as possible. And this, the Balance agenda would charge is the problem with Up philosophies.

The Balance Agenda
At the heart of the Na’vis world view in Avatar is a belief of all things in balance. Cameron cheats here, by making the spiritual link with nature of indigenous earth bound human populations a biological reality, via the tendrils at the end of their hair, and shown most directly in the attempt to switch humans into the bodies of the Navi at the Spirit Tree. Man and nature are one. At heart of a balance philosophy the view that nature (both environmental and human) automatically produces a stable and sustainable environment, so long as we don’t interfere too greatly. A belief in god is often important here as a deliberate balancing agent(either as creator or tweaker), however it is not necessary.
Devine and co-charge this represents a green left agenda, seeking to maintain the environment, but it is also a deeply conservative agenda too. Both environmentally (as UK Tory leader David Cameron and blogger Andrew Sullivan endorse, and Tony Abbott seemed to claim in his recent speech) and socially as a defence of the status quo. Of course sometimes positive action needs to be taken to maintain the strength of pre-existing institutions and social structures. Social Democrats often take this line, arguing that only with a decent welfare system and adding legislation to protect and stabilise during difficult periods (ie minimum wage/maternity leave), we can achieve a better equilibrium. Having effectively achieved that mix by the mid-20th century, their focus has been balance ever since. Conservatism is at times embued with a spirit of progress, such as its embrace if not recent subservience to capitalism, just as the green left are often socially liberal in a way social democrats are not. But overall, none of these political theories seek radical social-restructure, rather action to protect the critical elements of the status quo in both nature and the environment. Even facing a threat like Global Warming, the Green Left still largely seeks to maintain society as is, just made side changes (like switching depleting fuel sources for sustainable ones). Even their railing against capitalism and growth (see as Clive Hamiltons work) is to seek a better stability across society.

The Down Agenda
Rarely seen, some political philosophies do in fact advocate a regressive turn. The best recent example is the Taliban in Afghanistan who steadily returned women into the home, reduced the role of education, science and tools of entertainment (even so far as banning kites), all in the name of seeking an idealised former past (whose historical existence is often doubtful). As Karen Armgstrong shows in ‘The Battle for God’, this is a common move of rebels within all three of the major monotheistic religions, but it need not necessarily be religiously driven. It combines both a belief in an earlier balanced time period, with a reason/religious drive to re-shape the environment to the ideal.

Fascism, such as the Nazis of Germany is also driven by views of a mytholigised past of Aryan domination. Hence they sought to re-take the ‘homeland’ of old, change social mores, and remove those parts of the population which challenged that stability (intellectuals, gypsies, gays, jews etc). It was this idea of a regressive return to ancient village life which seems to have most enticed the philosopher martin Heidegger, though ironically, the Nazi’s combined this with the most modern technology of warfare and industrialization as the tools for implementation.

(This is obviously a rough and quibbable dissection. Capitalism after all is represented as a natural phenomena by its supporters, and hence best left to its own devices to seek equlibrium. However, that’s really only the case theoretically rather than practically, and even Adam Smith saw the need for a human hand at work to keep the mechanism functioning properly (such as the removal of monopolies and establishment of law and order). It is also subverted as countries endorse capitalism largely for its prosperity benefits rather than it’s potential for equilibrium or justice. I’m happy to hear any arguments about placings/other political philosophies I’ve left out in the comments)

When thinking about this during the movie, I found myself often quite sympathetic to the Company. Cameron has to venture into the realms of science fiction to make the Na’vi’s philosophy of balance/connection to nature a physical reality, careful never to show disease or suffering which they must in fact suffer far greater than any modern western citizen (notice that the oldest Na’vi is no more than about 50). Here on earth, I see no evidence that such balance is to be found. We may well be the only tiny rock in an unimaginably big universe which sustains life. Everywhere else, like Mars where it may once have survived, it’s now long dead.The planet earth as we know it was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. First life did not emerge in the broiling seas until at least a billion years later, with what we know as life, ie multi-cellular organisms over 3 billion years later. Human existence can be credibly stretched back to 200’000 years. Even today with all our development and knowledge, nature still daily tries to kill us. Haiti, China, Pakistan have all suffered recent earthquakes, The Pacific and South East Asia Tsunami’s, most of the world see’s floods regularly, with many area’s copping tornado’s & hurricanes too. Not to mention diseases, accidents, wild animals, droughts, storms, etc. As little as we know, asteroids the size of cities could be streaming directly towards this earth, certain to snuff out all life with them, they’ve hit before, and we wouldn’t know until too late, and with no sensible options for saving ourselves. What comforts we have gained (steady access to shelter & food) are because humans have changed the world to suit our needs. For every flourishing of nature in one area, another is too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet to sustain humanity. Hell over 70% of the planet is covered by seas which are largely lethal to us, and certainly cant be lived in (without significant developments such as building submarines, underwater structures).

As a progressive, I think the idea of balance is a myth. That doesn’t mean that life or the environment in all it’s myriad ways is worthless. In fact it makes it far far more worthy, because it is so rare and unique that any life has managed to survive. There is no way that the Company should be allowed to destroy such a resource as they do in the moview. But unlike the Na’vi, the green left, conservatives, I don’t believe that only careful management can ensure the survival of our species. It is either up or out. The Na’vi’s life is not a viable model of existence. Unlike the regressives, I don’t believe that humanities best days have already come and gone. I believe that with careful, humble reason, based on as careful a study and knowledge of nature in all its glories and threats, we can improve society, both human and natural and eek out a survival. Devine ought to take a second look at the movie, it’s got a very conservative philosophy at heart. Even Cameron has to cheat to achieve it.

Analogising Obama

In three days time, Obama will mark his first full year in office. Cue a deluge of historical lookbacks, comparisons and other efforts to get a handle on just what Obama’s presidency means and where it’s going. Today’s effort by Professor Geoffrey Garrett “Shadow of Past Looms for Obama” is a pretty fair minded (if negative) effort by the chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney except for his choice of analogies:

Outsiders looking for reasons to trust a system they don’t feel part of and insiders looking for innovative solutions to complex issues, don’t often invest their emotional energies in the same politician. But they did in Obama, just as they did in John F. Kennedy half a century earlier – once-in-a-generation leaders capable of capturing the hearts and minds of not only America but the world.

A year later, Obama seems more like Jimmy Carter than JFK. Jimmy Carter may or may not have had the right stuff to be the next JFK but the one-two punch of stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis doomed him. Obama still may inherit the JFK mantle but a lot is riding not only on managing down the fallout from Islamic extremism but also on the speed and strength of economic recovery.

In the annuals of great figures of history, JFK is right up there, and I’m sure Obama wants to join that team one day. But right now that future rests on first being a great president, and Kennedy wasn’t one of those.

In foreign policy, Kennedy’s strongest area, alongside his support for containment and staring down the Russians over Cuba was his stumble into Vietnam. Domestically Kennedy however was almost invisible. The great progressive social changes, in the Civil Rights act, and the Great Society Agenda were both the work of his former VP & successor Lyndon Johnson. It was Johnson’s knowledge of the senate and ability to wheel and deal to get things done that make the 60’s a progressive highlight, and this is something Obama, with his choice of men like Rahm Emanuel is making a priority.

Missing from Garrett’s picture is the other post-WW2 Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Who got whooped in the first midterm elections, got nowhere on healthcare, and yet for his economic legacy will go down as a pretty capable president. Obama on the other hand is likely to get his healthcare (though absurdly much might depend on Tuesdays race for Ted Kennedy’s old seat), retain control* of both houses in the mid-terms, has already saved the US (if not the world) from a depression via the stimulus package and is showing far better foreign policy vision and determination. All he needs is some luck with economic recovery.

As I’ve said before, FDR is perhaps a better analogy for Obama, (though Peter’s Teddy Roosevelt analogy works too). If Obama is to enter the arena of great presidents he will need to learn from both men, and show the public that he fundamentally understands their anger. FDR regularly railed against the faceless business barons who were destroying capitalism and was willing to fight and lose against these groups to show the people whose side he was on. Obama’s new tax on wall street is a good start, but much more needs to be done.

* Because of the filibuster rule, 41 beats 59 in the US Senate. Therefore a loss in Massachusetts would remove the Democrats teneous filibuster proof 60 seat majority.

Bring out your dead

Politician: 'But i'm not dead yet'

Media: 'You will be soon, get on'

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of reading Doris Kearne Godwin’s book Team of Rivals on the rise to power and administration of Abraham Lincoln. Not only a great read, it illustrates a point I’d been wanting to make for a while: Our current ‘one strike and you’re out’ culture in politics is historically unique and damaging to the quality of our governance and polity.

In 1860 when Lincoln ran for the Republican party nomination, he had spent a few years in both the Illinois legislature, and House of Reprsentatives, but lost his last two US Senate runs A very able though provincial lawyer, his political career was one of regular failure alongside a constant effort of putting himself forward for office. Likewise his primary challengers and later cabinet members, Seward, Chase and Bates were all career politicians who had failed regularly yet chose to continue running (some like Chase even following Lincolns election!).

Closer to home the same pattern emerges. The most successful leaders seem to have all suffered significant setbacks before rising to power. John Curtin lost his seat in 1931 in the disastrous Scullin Government, before returning to become PM by 41. His rise to power came with the humiliation of Robert Menzies who was deemed unsafe even by his own party to lead the war effort, yet Menzies would go on to become our longest serving Prime Minister. And of course his biggest fan, John Howard was written off by most after his disastrous 1987 campaign, yet he was undoubtedly a better leader for it by the time he became PM in 1996.

Politics has never been a game that offers mulligans, but today we have a media and political culture that offers no second chances either. Tony Abbott is now the 11th Leader of the opposition since 1990. Only one of those got a second shot (Beazley), with 2 going on to become Prime Minister. This compares to only 5 between 1960-80. (Though the case can well be made that Evatt, Fadden & Whitlam held on far too long!).

This is a trend which seems to be driven largely by the media, with the politicians nervously following behind. Witness the outright mockery of Tony Abbott for giving shadow cabinet positions to Kevin Andrews, Browyn Bishop and Phillip Ruddock positions (The last of whom had only an explicit advisory role as cabinet secretary). There seems an unwritten rule that politicians are only on the make or on the demise.

Those who have faltered such as Downer, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Brogden, Nelson, Turnbull, have been quickly cast aside by the press. Downer took years to re-gain credibility as Foreign Minister, while Beazley’s short term role as shadow defence minister under Latham was quickly dismissed despite his outstanding qualifications for the job. His later ascension to the leadership after Latham faltered, was undermined from day one by the media; not because of bias, but because they have seemingly decided that second acts are impossible in Australian politics.

For this we lose significant talent. Malcolm Turnbull has much to offer, as does John Brogden from NSW yet neither are likely to be taken seriously again as future leaders or even significant political figures.. When he loses next year, Tony Abbott too will face this relentless and ruthless principle. Likely he will take the Crean, Downer path of trying to hold on regardless but with significantly reduced credibility. If the person who succeed’s him tries to keep Abbott in their shadow cabinet, they will likely be punished by the media for not following the rule of incessant ‘generational change’.

Of course not all want a second chance (Latham being a prime example), but politics is a profession which takes as much if not more time to learn than any other. Not only do individuals have to be across great swathes of policy detail, they need high level skills in administration, management, media, and understandings of human nature. And yet our media treats them like fireworks, praising their burning lights as they fly up, but quickly looking away once they first seem to level off.

And we joe public are the poorer for this attitude. It reduces focus on the rest of the parliament, reduces the emphasis on experience and puts undue pressure on young career politicians to put themselves forward early, perhaps too early if they want media support. It also makes politicians far too reticent to risk any undue policy or political defeats, when sometimes it is advantageous in the long run (in the publics view) for a politician to fight and lose on an important issue to prove their real commitment.

Doubting the citizens intelligence

I really like living in the ACT. It’s generally hassle free, safe, and cosmopolitan. Likewise the local government is smart, left wing and generally competent. But sometimes, (spurred on by the Greens) they pass legislation that seems to question the intelligence of local citizens, and cause hassles for retailers, for no good reason. If there’s a problem, governments all too often sees extra regulation as the solution. Two recent examples stand out.

As of January 1, free-range and cage eggs must be physically separated in stores, with clear markings, a change no supermarkets have yet to get around to making. As if like cigarettes many people were still unaware of the harm caused. Personally I always buy free range. It’s an easy moral choice, and the packs are generally easily labeled. Even if a particular brand isn’t too clear, I can easily choose another. Where free range eggs were pretty rare a decade ago, today it seems most egg brands are free range. If the government has a problem with battery hens, then it need to outlaw their sale. If not, adding burdens onto supermarkets to make the abundantly clear even more so helps no one.

[Turns out this next example is by the Federal Labor Government, my mistake] A second example (no online copy available) is the insistence that all cafes/resturant’s have a second menu for sundays/public holidays displaying the full price, rather than simply saying “10% surcharge on public holidays”.
This is part of legislation that tackles the often grossly misleading prices on cars and airline tickets, however it seems Cafes/Resturants are being caught up as well.
Again, few retailers have bothered following the legislation, with those doing so using ugly photocopies of their menus, and finding their staff are getting confused along with customers. While there’s a definite principle that everything you buy should be the labled price, a 10% charge notice for cafes at the bottom is not exactly duplicitous, or hard to figure out. Legislation of this type while honourable, also seems to be built on the presumption that consumers are unable to read the notice, calculate additional taxes or charges from the small print into their costs, or factor this in when they make purchases.

I don’t get Libertarians consuming worry about these issues. The link to ‘freedom’ is, despite their claims, so tangential as to be invisible. Most of the time this is pretty minor stuff, and if you only focus on the negatives you can lose sight of the critical importance of sensible regulations to an efficient, prosperous capital economy. But sometimes governments introduce regulations which seem to have no discernible benefit, hassle business and treat citizens like children unable to make decisions for themselves.

Of new media and new politics

In an otherwise interesting article on the role of new media and the Rudd Government, George Megalogenis (is there a better journalist working today?) writes:

To paraphrase Keating, when the media changes, so does the government. The wireless age marked the transition from Ben Chifley to Robert Menzies at the end of the 1940s. The colour TV age covered the shift to Gough Whitlam in the early 70s and, more tellingly, from Malcolm Fraser to Hawke in the 80s. The talkback radio age saw Howard eclipse Keating in the 90s. Now we are in the digital age, which began in 2007 when the young nerd, Rudd, trumped the old nerd, Howard.

That’s right, but precisely backwards. It is the leaders ability to utilise media that shapes its importance and their own dominance. Menzies was an undisputed king of TV when it first came in, just as FDR was able to make radio broadcasts his personal domain. Talk Radio wasn’t a new technology for the 1990’s, Howard simply returned to it as a medium in which his natural skills worked best, and that drove attention to it. Contra Megalogenis I don’t think that Rudd has made great use of twitter/blogs/websites, however he has at least done a damn sight better than the conservatives, and that matters (Obama’s advisors on the other hand made his website a key element of their electoral strategy).

There has always been a very strong link between journalists and politicians. Not in a biased way, but as a shared interest in the media and medium. Our second PM Alfred Deakin was a journalist & correspondent his whole life, as was Henry Parkes, Chris Watson, John Curtin, Malcolm Turnbull and his successor Tony Abbott. Our current PM wasn’t a journalist, but he spent his years in opposition being available for (if not inviting) media interviews at any time day or night. Just as you can’t be a good carpenter if you can’t handle a saw, or a good surgeon if you can’t weild a knife, a strength in using emerging media forms is critical to political success. I don’t see anyone in the current parliament who has a great handle on the new technology (here I think blogs have more potential than twitter), but Turnbull and Rudd both show at least a keen awareness. (As does Kate Lundy & Joe Hockey) Whoever does, is likely to become the dominant figure of the next 20 years. Let’s hope Abbott has some good new media advisors, but given his twitter account has only 7 (utterly boring) entries since becoming leader, it doesn’t seem likely.

Can Nerds deliver wedgies?

Our Prime Minister is by nature a conservative man. Nothing wrong with that, in fact it by and large contributed to his victory over John Howard where others before him such as Latham had tried and failed. Yet Rudd now faces an opponent who is seen as not just a common sense conservatie, ie a pragmatic cautious man (as Howard managed to claim for himself), but as a capital C Conservative, nay regressive who wants social change towards a long past (if ever existing) ideal.

Labor spent much of the 1990’s seeing Howard as a reactionary, while the public didn’t, but it might work with Tony Abbott. To be fair to Abbott, he isn’t anything like the theocons in the USA, and he is resigned to being in a minority and seeks mainly to argue for, rather than legislate his views on social morality and conservatism. However his election to the liberal party leadership represents a substantial opportunity for progressives.

The Labor party has already set about calling Abbott and crew ‘extremists’ (esp on climate change) but this is a ham-fisted way of making their point given the low level of public and media attention. It’s not that these groups arn’t paying attention, its just that this kind of language has been done to death and generally passes the ears unheard.

The future for Tony Abbott ?

Instead Rudd needs a policy challenge, to force Abbott to show his real views. An issue where he either says what he believes, alienating a public majority, or he goes along with Rudd’s policy, disenfranchising some of his core base. In short, it’s now the perfect time for Rudd to return the favour of 2001 and deliver a rather liberal wedgie to the Coalition, of the sort that wasn’t too viable against Howard, Nelson or Turnbull.

Issues that might play well include: Abortion funding and access (bringing it into federal control as a pre-cursor to full takeovers), relaxation of some drug laws, such as decriminalizing marijuana (as occurring in the US, and somewhat in the ACT), increased flexibility for euthanasia, granting civil unions nation wide (having already agreed to accept it in the ACT), or further opening up the country for foreign investment. The latter would alienate labor from some rural electorates, but could help divest a lot of economic liberal voters/few remaining city voters from the Coalition to Labors waiting hands. (I’d be keen to hear any readers suggestions of other issues that fit)

None of these are critical pressing issues, but each represents good policy and good politics. Too much was made of Howard’s wedge efforts against Labor, and they came to be seen as a dirty tactic (or at least a smelly one). But if Labor is implementing good policy that simply forces the opposition to choose between it’s core ideology and being in line with the mainstream, then there is nothing wrong with the approach.

More than that, it also offers progressives a way to shape an influential role within the Rudd government. This is a very cautious, poll driven government. So any policy proposed to it for implementation needs to be able to deliver strong electoral benefits. If progressives can offer policy that delivers votes for the government now, then it will create goodwill and credibility for advocating more significant and controversial reform in the future.

Choosing the specific issue and nature of the legislation will need careful polling and focus grouping, but it’s worth a trial now, early in the year before the defenses are re-erected for the years political combat. With luck, Labor might well get Abbott to simply respond at a door stop to a spreading rumor of new labor policy, without carefully organising his response. At worst, the effort will let Labor see how Abbott responds to new issues (does he wait, or will he just go ahead with his own response, and how will his independence play to his divided party room). At best, it gives Labor the chance to directly define Abbott as well outside the mainstream, and implement some good progressive policy.

Transparent Panic

I wrote last year that foreign policy disputes occur through events typically out of the hands of leaders, (ie that Rudd can’t make the 2010 election be about foreign policy in the way he can force a poll on Climate Change), but that rule really only applies to democracies:

Iran’s hardline president has ordered the formation of a team to study the damages the country suffered from the 1941 Allied invasion in order to demand compensation.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran suffered immensely after it was invaded by Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II despite its declared neutrality and was never compensated.”A team has been assigned to calculate all the damages (inflicted on Iran) in the Second World War. This will be an invoice they (Allies powers) must pay to the Iranian nation,” he said in remarks broadcast live on state television on Saturday.
“You inflicted lots of damages to the Iranian nation, put your weight on the shoulders (of the Iranian people) and became victors in the World War II. You didn’t even share the war profits with Iran,” Ahmadinejad said. “If I say today that we will take full compensation … know that we will stand to the end and will take it.”
Ahmadinejad also warned that Iran may also demand compensation for the damages it suffered during World War I, the Western support for the former Pahlavi Dynasty and its hostility towards Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

It’s not often you see leaders of nation states come up with such transparent diversionary policy efforts. No money will be paid, no attention (beyond the media hoping like Iran for a conflict) will be given, and this event will be utterly forgotten in two weeks let alone when it comes time to sum up 2010 in late december. But it is indicative of the panic within the Iranian leadership. To be sure the opposition green movement is leaderless, and divided on whether it wants to simply reform the theocracy or really revolt Iran into a new democratic era. However the legitimacy of the leadership is utterly gone.

For all that International Relations is dictated by calculations of material power, (how many nukes does that country have, who controls the military etc), intangibles such as legitimacy are often far more critical over the long term. In the last 20 years democracy rose, communism fell, a wall came down, and the US appeared to be weaken by a bunch of islamic fundamentalists all because of issues of legitimacy rather than any mathematical material calculation of power. The Iranian government has the guns, but it is clearly panicking and will end up selling out its young (as likely as revolution is the dismissal of Ahmadinejad) to keep in power. Long term, it is hard to see how the 1979 Islamic Revolution lasts beyond the next 5-10 years, and that is even assuming they get the bomb.

Bush’s wish to ‘drain the swamp’ with falling dominoes of democracy may yet come about. He may have got much of the implementation wrong, but I think he saw the end game better than many of his critics.