Chasing the Norm

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

Month: February, 2010

Site Re-Design

After 13 months of posting, involving 273 posts, and at least 200’000 words written, the site has been looking a little run down. Let me know what you think of the new format (such as drop down expansions of most posts) and general ease of use. It’s still a bit of a work in progress but should be all in place soon.



Memo to Business: Hire better political advisors

From an article on the new NBN draft legislation:

“The talk in Canberra is that Telstra senses the government is on the ropes, and with an election coming it thinks now is the perfect time to play hardball.The closer we get to the election date the more desperate the government is likely to get and the better compensation handout it will consider.

The Rudd Government is on the ropes ? In what reality? Going by the Polls, Labor is at ahead a comfortable, 53-47% spread, while the markets have Labor at around $1.20 to the Libs $3.80 (ie around 75% odds on favourites), add in the honeymoons due to end for Abbott, that the public always give govts a 2nd term (at least since ww2) and that the government hasn’t yet switched to an election footing, you’re kidding yourself you think this government is “on the ropes”. And even if those numbers suggest to you Labor could lose, why would anyone in the government believe that giving in to Telstra would be good politics? Their original plan for an NBN and split Telstra was popular with both the public and the press, and the government’s already taken heat over being too close to business (utegate, Free-to-air tv handout, wasteful stimulus spending).
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Conservatives get their thinking caps on

Tony Abbott in this morning’s Australian:

TONY Abbott has told his Coalition colleagues not to shy away from intellectual debate ahead of a policy roundtable in Canberra this Friday hosted by the Liberal Party’s think tank, the Menzies Research Centre.
A string of thinkers and public figures, including Noel Pearson, Peter Cosgrove, Alan Dupont and Ian Harper, as well as the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, will take part in the meeting, convened at the Liberal leader’s request. He told the meeting “some of the smartest and deepest thinkers in Australia” would attend the meeting, while making a gibe at Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, convened in April 2008. “This is going to be our own mini-summit, but there’s not going to be a thousand people who have come along to agree with each other,” he said.

One slight problem 4 of the 5 “smartest and deepest thinkers” mentioned, attended Rudd’s 2020 Summit. Oops.

Counter-Terrorism White Paper

Tuesday saw the release of the Rudd Governments first Counter-Terrorism White Paper (Get it here). It seems we are now duty bound to receive regular white papers on topics governments see as important (Defence, Aging, National Security principles & now on Terrorism – though no word on Foreign Policy) which is in the large a positive step, however this one feels somewhat like the homework done the night before, being slightly too glossy and superficial in parts. However this is an important document for the rhetorical shift it makes in how the government understands terrorism; first the causes and secondly who & how we fight it. It’s not entirely confident in its new positions (like the Defence Force 2030 White Paper), but the Rudd government is clearly shifting away from the Howard Government to attribute social & economic factors as drivers of terrorism, and is envisioning a role for Australia to fight the message war as well as the material one.

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People reject Rudd’s competence on National Security

The press may be focused intently on the story of economics & climate change polling, but todays Newspoll has an even bigger surprise hidden:

The lead Howard developed over Labor shouldn’t be too surprising in 2006, only 5 years from the 9/11 attacks, 4 from Bali, 3 from the War in Iraq. National Security competence can’t be delivered in bite sized policy announcements, it comes through being competent when faced with issues major and minor.

However leaders can have an impact, when Kevin Rudd the Mandarin speaking diplomat and shadow foreign affairs minister became Opposition leader Howard’s numbers dropped 8 points and Labors rose 10*. Since then Labor has steadily gained, with only a wobble just before the election (with the Coalition doing their best to make security an issue given that economics wasn’t working so well). But take a look at the latest results, where Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop(Shadow Foreign Affairs), & David Johnston(Shadow Defence) have gained a 6 point lead over Labor. Amazing. It’s Labors highest showing (just), but clearly many have switched back to the coalition from uncommitted, meaning it’s a positive switch towards the coalition.

I’m not sure the reasons why. Fitzgibbon is long enough gone from Defence (save the odd newspaper scandal) to be replaced by the stately Faulkner. Smith is a competent foreign minister and Rudd has had a mixed but certainly highly competent record. Labor has pulled troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan/The War on Terror is at least no worse than last year, perhaps even better & the Defence White paper pretty run of the mill. While Johnson has a long standing interest in this area he is unknown to the public, and Bishop only took this job because she was dumped from shadow treasurer. The comparison is most stark at the leadership level where you’d assume attention is focused. Rudd’s main focus after the GFC was international/regional issues, while Abbott seems yet to have addressed the issues as Opposition leader and devotes only 5 pages out of his 200 page book on the issue.

So why the drop? And what is giving the coalition such a strong showing?

* That the public saw Kevin Rudd as more capable on National Security issues over Kim ‘the bomber’ Beazley does make you ponder slightly about the public’s judgement.

A Servant of Two Masters

It’s always interesting watching politicians advocate for those who they don’t agree with or in some cases even like. It’s a necessary evil in politics, but still revealing. As a budding student journalist I twice interviewed Bob McMullan, once as Shadow Treasurer under Crean, where he pushed that Crean was a good centrist leader, and once when he was a backbencher with Mark Latham his boss, where again I was told that Latham was a good centrist leader. The Latham Diaries later revealed that by this point Latham had fallen out with most of his colleagues, especially McMullan.

It’s interesting therefore to read George Brandis’ excellent piece on Tony Abbott in todays Oz. Brandis was one of the last supporters of Turnbull, and advocated last year for the Liberal Party to go in a very different direction to Abbott’s ideal, but he puts up a good defence of his new boss (Much like in 2003 when Brandis was about the only Liberal I heard mount a decent argument in parliament in defence of the soon to be ex-Governor General Peter Hollingsworth).
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The Trouble with Libertarians pt.II

Via Andrew Sullivan Have Tea Parties and Stimulus broken the bond between liberals and libertarians?

Reason.Com’s Matt Welch: Speaking only for myself, I don’t see libertarianism moving rightward, I see rightward moving libertarian. Which is to be expected, what with the whole not-having-power thing (as Kilgore points out, the Democrats’ wilderness years included such incongruities as Markos Moulitsas penning “libertarian Democrat” manifestos)….What I do care about, regardless of who’s president, is human freedom and prosperity. And I strongly and consistently suspect that when the government accumulates more power, I and everyone else (except those wielding it) have less of which I seek. Republicans diss libertarians when they’re in power, and Democrats diss libertarians when they’re in power. Their changing attitudes toward our little (albeit growing) tribe is mildly interesting, but it’s about as newsworthy (and painful) as a dog biting a chew toy.

Of course it doesn’t seem as if Liberals and Libertarians ever had a real world political alliance (as economic liberals and social conservatives had), but it is unfortunate if major participants seem to be giving up on an idea of closer and more empathetic discussions between those of these two philosophies, given the significant mutual benefit that is possible and the over-riding consensus on the end outcome: Expanding Freedom.
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Warning: Turbulence ahead

I’ve deliberately not been blogginig as much on domestic politics lately because it seems to me to have entered a swirling phase where clear outlines of either camps positions, strengths, weaknesses and direction are largely obscured. The reasons for these are many, the ‘inevitable’ ETS has collapsed, the GFC has finally passed having distracted the Rudd government from its agenda for its first 18 months, and most of all, Tony Abbott has taken over the leadership, giving the press gallery the long awaited contest they have been seeking.

Much like the early months of Mark Latham in 04 or Sarah Palin as VP candidate in the USA, Abbott’s election has given his base a 12 can injection of Red Bull, while the general public are still trying to work out what they think of the bloke. What passes for conventional wisdom in the press about Abbott is still largely based on snap reactions to him, rather than cultivated analysis of him as a leader. Take this missive from Laurie Oakes:
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It’s not just porn: Net filter will limit culture and public debate

I had such high hopes for Stephen Conroy as Communications Minister. After the corruption of Richard-what free tv-Alston and luddite Coonan (not to mention the decidedly not tech-savy Howard), Conroy seemed a breath of fresh air. Having watched him operate in several years of Estimates hearings, he clearly knew his way around a PC Whilst asking questions to officials (when in opposition) he often was able to quickly call up relevant data to challenge claims made by wayward or mis-informed ministers or their public servants. His boss may have been a bit socially conservative, but he could tweet & sms easily. That Conroy under Rudd’s direction has taken Australia into such a embarassing and frankly authoritarian direction online is therefore a great shame.
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Primaries in Australia: The ALP takes a shot

Some very encouraging news out of the Victorian ALP:

In what is believed to be a first for a major Australian political party, the Australian Labor Party will trial a new primary system to select their candidate to take on sitting Liberal MP and former Yarra Ranges mayor David Hodgett in the knife-edge seat. The candidates are ALP electorate officer Victoria Setches, Casey councillor Daniel Mulino and State Government political adviser Jamie Byron.
A primary will allow anyone who identifies as an ALP supporter in the Kilsyth electorate to register to vote for a candidate to represent the ALP at November’s state election.ALP state secretary Nick Reece, who grew up in Ringwood, said the seat of Kilsyth had been chosen for the trial because it would be “a key seat for Labor in the November State election”.
“It’s an area which is important to Labor because if it’s a good campaign that is run, Labor could win. “The ALP would need a 0.35 per cent swing to win the seat.

For those in the area, there’s a website up with details on participating, and they’ve set up a twitter account for the rest of us to follow. Not only is it great to see the ALP trying such an approach, but also doing so in a contestable seat, showing that it isn’t just a gimmick or indulgence.

It’s no surprise the ALP is the one to try this, for the membership has always had a significantly greater influence on leadership and policy than for the conservatives. Labors first government was formed by the “Federal Parliamentary Labor Party”, indicating from the get go, that they were the parliamentary arm. Real power lay not with the elected legislators, but the branches, and party itself. The ALP’s much derided caucus unity, whilst partly introduced to ensure the then minority party had influence, was also significantly due to the demand by members of the party that their representatives voted in parliament as they wished, and could not be bought off in the “upholstered gas works” of parliament (in the words of a young John Curtin)

Fast forward to 1963 and the fading Robert Menzies still scored a huge hit on Labor describing the “36 faceless men” of the National Conference who set policy, while the parliamentary leaders, Calwell and Whitlam stood outside waiting. Parliamentary members didn’t get a voice or vote, as it was up to the members to decide what the party stood for. Yes unions were significant (and still are), but the entire system was designed to have the votes of ordinary australians percolate up to and control their representatives. A very significant difference to the Leaders almost unchallenged authority within the Liberal Party (which is also why Liberal leadership spats are so much more vicious, for not just is the office on offer but total authority over the party & policy)

None of this is to claim the ALP has a perfect or even at times a good record of internal democracy. It’s branches are rife with stacks, and elected officials all too easily set themselves up as warlords, not representatives at the middle & upper levels. Likewise, the national conference whilst having some say has been relegated to be a side show, highlighting the leader rather than a true democratic forum. Change is needed to return the party to its roots.

So good on the Victorian ALP for trying out such a measure, lets hope that many Victorians do decide to get involved (signing a pledge to “vote for the party” sounds a bit onerous, surely a simple registration as a supporter would suffice), and that the ALP across the country pays attention. The ACT ALP is the last bastion of entirely branch voted nomination of representatives, something put at risk with the turmoil of the local party, why not use a primary system here federally? Surely there is time to run & it would bring thousands if not tens of thousands of ALP supporters into contact with the nominees and the party several times before the election is due.

This person votes – on your behalf

“The Prime Minister has obviously not been following the crisis in climate science: the junk science, the corruption, the collusion and the endemic lack of peer review. The member for Page talks about consensus. Think about consensus on religion here for a second. The consensus of trained experts is that a Christian god, in consensus terms, particularly in Australia, exists. So why do you reject that consensus?”

Dr Dennis Jensen: (Via Andrew Bolt)

Trained expert?

Wait … what ? First the Prime Minister is a rather devout Christian, and while the member for page, Janelle Saffin may be an atheist, she voted in the NSW parliament to keep the Lords Prayer a part of the standing orders.

But more importantly, Who are these “trained experts” ? Priests? As in a profession for whom a professed “faith” in god is the very requirement to become a member? That’s like claiming you’ll get a fair view of if politicians are honest by asking only politicians. And how on gods green earth might these “trained experts” have devined “particularly in Australia” that a christian god in fact exists? Is there some local evidence that particularly sways those down under? or perhaps some opposed evidence accepted abroad but rejected here?

Attempts to “prove” god exists generally died out in the 18th & 19th centuries, when enlightened figures (almost exclusively believers themselves) showed that it couldn’t be done, and ought not to be attempted, for reason’s grubby hands would simply sully the beauty of faith (questions like “could God microwave a burrito so hot he couldn’t eat it rather demean us all). Many like John Paul II still argued that faith and reason are not entirely incompatible, and of this there may be merit (if God exists he created reason ex post facto) but thats a long way from claiming mans reason can prove god.

“The fact is there is no such thing as consensus science. If there is a consensus, it is not science and if it is science it is not consensus—period. I will quote the late, great Michael Crichton on some of the history of consensus science and the damage that it can do:
In past centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth. One woman in six died of this fever.
In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested that the fevers were infectious processes, and he was able to cure them. The consensus said no.
In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no.”

Now this quote follows directly on from the one above. That’s important because Jensen is using it to show that science doesn’t hold all the answers and often important scientific claims face overwhelming objections. That’s very true. Only Jensen is citing cases from the rise of the scientific revolution, when the consensus was informed not by competing scientific data (at least as we would understand it), but was directly informed by over 1000 years of superstitiously informed witchery, derived from…. a consensus view of gods existence. And if science’s consensus should be inherently doubted as Jensen is implying, what approach will he take should his wife be taken by fever? Would he accept modern sciences consensus view or demand an alternate approach?

At least Jensen is doing one good public service, by spouting such nonsense despite having a PhD (in materials engineering on ceramics) he is proving you don’t need to be that bright to get a doctorate. That’s a useful service. That he was also an air traffic controller with this grasp of logic is much more worrying.
The Chaser’s CNNN ran a sketch in 2004 showing people of the street mis-interpreting and simply not-understanding the issues debated in modern politics, before bringing down a stamp “This person votes”. In light of Jensen’s comments, I think we need the resurrect the sketch with a new stamp “This person votes on your behalf”.

Kevin and the kids

Watching the Q & A special last night featuring 200 school kids and the Prime Minister, many twitter’s (both journos and political junkies) wondered aloud how many Young Liberals were in the audience, such was their willingness to attack and push the Prime Minister on issue. The press this morning are declaring the kids victory

However, while the polls show reasonable support, it’s no surprise why Rudd is not popular with young voters (Those under 30). Here’s 4 major reasons why:
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The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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Don’t be afraid of the public

Discussing the pro’s & con’s of Democrats passing the health care bill in the US,’s Peter Suderman writes

the choice for Democrats may actually be whether they want they want to be portrayed as so single-minded in their determination to push their unpopular agenda on the public that they are willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery they can come up with to get it passed, or whether they want to be able to make the argument that they responded to the public’s clear concerns and backed off an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation when they had the chance.

Suderman of course doesn’t want the bill to pass, but his reasoning is an all too clear example of the fear the political class have of a voter backlash for their actions. Indeed the political class and Center-Left wing politicians, especially in the USA are almost paranoid in its worry about appeasing the voters, to the extent it ends up doing a much poorer job & therefore looking much less competent than it should otherwise. To fix this, left wing leaders need to take a leaf out of conservatives like Reagan, Bush and Howard and have the courage of their convictions. The media and political class will always be jumpy, but our leaders ought to know better. Obama seemed to promise this at the start, but the fear seems to have crept in of late.
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Facts are sometimes the easiest thing to burn: The Indian attacks and the media

I somewhat understand why the Indian media is so keen to play up the idea that Indians are victimised in Australia. The government is pissed at Rudd over Uranium/NPT, and its always popular to play the nationalist card. What I don’t understand is why the Australian media seems to be aiding them:

INDIA’S high commissioner, Sujatha Singh, will return to Delhi for talks next week amid rising diplomatic tension over attacks on Indian students in Australia. Mrs Singh made a stinging complaint to the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, over the attacks in Melbourne, labelling Victoria a state ”in denial” over the severity of the problem.
Word of the envoy’s return came after India’s External Affairs Minister, S. M. Krishna, issued a strong statement on the attacks, demanding they be “stopped forthwith”. Mrs Singh will travel to Delhi to explain her perspective on the violence, which threatens to seriously damage relations between the nations.

This sounds like a major diplomatic incident. Especially in an era of easy phone, electronic and video communication, recalling a diplomat to discuss a problem is a gesture heavy with meaning. Indeed my first thought on reading the story was ‘what has set off this new row’ that such a step would be made.

Only it turns out, Singh isn’t heading back because of the attacks, and this is all just routine: (From the same article a few paragraphs down)
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