Chasing the Norm

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

Month: April, 2010

The Right and the Bill of Rights

In (yet another) back down, the Rudd Government recently abandoned its call for a bill of rights. Instead it is introducing a ‘Human Rights test’ for all legislation, leading to much rejoicing by many liberal and conservative Australians (which I’m labeling here right wing, with left wing liberals tending to support Rudd’s -original- push for a Bill of Rights as I do). Yet their joy is somewhat surprising given that the Australian Right wing tend to define themselves (rhetorically at least) by their desire to restrict the reach & power of government and encourage individual freedom. Which is exactly what a bill of rights is designed to do, hence its position at the heart of the US constitution, the most liberal document in history.

Andrew Norton helpfully tries to explain this apparent contradiction in a good post over at his blog:

In a democratic system, classical liberals will tend to be more sceptical than social democrats and the median voter of actual and proposed regulation by the state. But I don’t think this is inconsistent with believing that classical liberal freedoms should be achieved within the persuasion-based, evolutionary and open democratic system. Even within a pro-freedom perspective individual rights and freedoms can conflict – let alone all the conflicts with other values that people hold – and there is little reason to believe (as many opponents of bills of rights have argued) that courts will do a better job of deciding on the trade-offs than democratic politics.

a distinction can be drawn between an in-principle opposition to constitutionalising some rights and a tactical judgment that the bill of rights we would end up with would not support the classical liberal conception of individual freedom. I think this does help explain the lack of enthusiasm for bills of rights among classical liberals, even where they might support constitutionalising a limited list of rights or freedoms. Aided by the various UN treaties, the concept of ‘human rights’ has expanded way beyond what classical liberals have ever supported, to make them the basis for big rather than small government.

While the arguments about risking giving too much power to the courts are valid, and one should always be skeptical if modern politicians can reach the wisdom of political philosophers such as Jefferson & Adam’s, Norton’s comments still seem to me somewhat partisan. His main concern seems the content of a Rudd/Gillard(or Abbott?) introduced Bill of Rights, rather than the concept as such. That it is, had a classical liberal Prime Minister introduced a bill of rights, I expect he would be significantly more inclined to support it. Which leaves me wondering why none on the right are proposing to write their own Bill of Rights?

There’s two good reasons they should: First, if there was a right wing version on offer, the debate would shift from the rhetoric of angry partisans (like this) towards debating which principles and the specifics. A debate about how to code a protection of free speech, or whether the government can compulsory acquire private land would be a useful debate.
Second, if those on the right support the concept (as opposed to their concerns over Rudd’s specific version) then now is the time to propose an alternative. The campaign for a Coalition government to implement economic liberalism didn’t just spring from nowhere in 1996, but was pushed & argued over throughout the 1980′s and maintained until the time was right (whilst critically giving support to the ALP Government when it agreed with this approach). With Joe Hockey the likely candidate to take over the Liberal Party once they lose the upcoming election, liberals have a good chance to gain a leader who will at least listen to their views. Assuming the ALP stay in office for another two terms, by 2016 a Coalition Government could win office and pledge to implement a Bill of Rights which has been around for 5-6 years in public debate (removing the fear factor) whilst adhering to a strict ‘negative’ set of limits on government/society, rather than the more left wing desirer for positive rights to food/shelter/support etc.

I believe a Bill of Rights has a fundamental worth, that will unite people of all political philosophies across the left and right. Guaranteeing free speech, restrictions on discrimination, and basic rights of people who fall under the watch of the security apparatus of the state would help ensure that the ‘democracy of manners’ which rules Australia does so within confines that do not trample over the individual. For those of a liberal persuasion, both the Howard and Rudd governments have infringed individual freedom and shown little concern about doing so, in economic, social and security area’s. There are legitimate concerns about increasing court influence to deal with, however the High Court has already involved itself in these issues (such as ABC v Lange 1997 on free speech). A carefully constructed negative set of rights could infact help clarify what the public want, rather than allowing the much freer interpretation available today where lawyers and judges can draw on all constitutional and legislative documents.

Having an alternate proposal (while a lot of work) would increase the quality of the debate, let those on the right set the terms of what a bill of right should be (helping dispatch poor/unworkable ideas such as a right to an income) and far more than any comparison with UN treaties, let Australians debate and define the basic freedoms we as a people insist on for a good society. Given the move to presidential prime ministers, increasingly invasive technology options for the government and centralising federalism, sitting back and hoping all will be ok is not a sensible option.

Gallipoli, Eureka and Australia’s foundational myths

Last night on the ABC’s Q and A program, the usefulness of Gallipoli as a foundational story of Australia came up repeatedly. Many correctly noted that it is a story which is difficult for migrant Australians or even those born since 1970 to identify with. Everyone knows the strikes against the ANZAC story, they were all male, white, invading a country we had no significant animosity towards, it was a losing effort, and we were forced to undertake it by generals who cared little for our soldiers’ safety. Yet the panel members seemed to both acknowledge this, and see nothing in our history that could replace it. Peter FitzSimons even flat out asked a lady which peacetime heros she would like to replace the ANZACs/soldiers, suggesting only that another fight such as Kokoda could replace it. What surprised me is that no one brought up the story of Eureka, whose appeal is clear in the way Australian organisations from the extreme left through to the far, far right have claimed the flag as their own.

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross By Charles Doudiet


Most should know the basic story. Individual miners during the Gold Rush in Victoria became slowly more outraged and eventually rebelled at the increasing taxation (without representation) on their basic mining rights, along with their inability to vote & restrictions on private property in the face of government and police control. In early November 1854 the miners formed the Ballarat Reform League demanding among other things: full manhood suffrage (though excluding Aborigines), abolition of the property qualifications for members of parliament, payment of members of parliament, voting by secret ballot; short term parliaments; equal electoral districts; abolition of diggers’ and storekeepers’ licenses and reform of administration of the gold fields. All are core Australian values, and some that (such as paying parliamentarians and having secret ballots) ideas that Australia can claim as its own contributions to democratic practice and theory worldwide.

After a number of acts of provocation on both sides, the miners gathered on Bakery hill to protest & concerned about attack formed a stockade. At dawn on 3 December 1854, the military attacked, killing 22 and ending the stockade within minutes. But the colonial government finally recognised the miners concerns and changes began to filter down, protecting their rights and restricting the power of local authorities to infringe on individual rights of the miners.

Compared to Gallipoli, Eureka has something for every Australian. Those involved were fighting for a individual rights to conduct free enterprise (in effect they were self-employed small businesspeople), they banded together in solidarity to demand fair working conditions, they were democratic and seeking fair representation & capable administration, they were a very multicultural and multiracial audience (though the Chinese were absent race relations were decent at Eureka) and many women were strongly involved. It was also an episode thoroughly invested in republicanism, a strain of political thought that stretches back to the Greeks and the Romans and insists on diffused power, encouragement of civic virtues and civic education and which informs much of the practice and values of Australian democracy.

Many have previously advocated for Eureka to take a higher place in our history and national story. H.V Evatt (a hero of our current Prime Minister) said Australian democracy was born at Eureka and Prime Ministers such as diverse as Menzies, Chifley and Whitlam all used it heavily in their speeches. Mark Twain even called it the ‘finest thing in Australian History’. And, even the latest ALP candidate for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, contributed to a 2004 book called Imagining Australia which also calls for its revival as the basic story of Australian identity.

Much work would be required to remind Australians of the story, and to extricate it from its claimed position by militant unionists and racist nationalists. But it represents a story all modern Australians can find much to appreciate and find unity with. It deserves to be remembered and re-enter the national debate.

The return of the rank and file

Two significant developments in Australian politics this week may point to a hopeful re-emergence of the rank and file within the ALP, and potentially the Coalition as well. Last night in the ACT, the rank and file voters (572 voted) over-ruled a deal between the factions and chose their own excellent candidates:

Economics professor Andrew Leigh and businesswoman Gai Brodtmann have taken the spoils in two hotly contested Labor preselection battles in the ACT. Labor holds the seats of Canberra and Fraser by comfortable margins, ensuring a hard fought battle for preselection on Saturday.
Canberra was the closest call, with Ms Brodtmann securing just four more primary votes than government adviser Mary Wood before the final distribution gave her a 123 to 109 advantage. In Fraser, Mr Leigh, a professor at Canberra’s Australian National University, had barely more than half the primary votes Nick Martin had accrued….But in an eight-horse race, the independents gave Mr Leigh a winning boost by sending their preferences his way, securing the 37-year-old’s win by 144 votes to 96. Mr Leigh said he felt extraordinarily lucky and humbled by the support.
He paid tribute to his fellow candidates, saying it was terrific battle, fought on “a discussion of big ideas about the future of Australia and what we want to achieve for the country”. His research lies in poverty and disadvantage.
Ms Brodtmann, who runs a communications consultancy business in Canberra with her husband, ABC political journalist Chris Uhlmann, was equally humbled by the victory

Personally I couldn’t be happier about the victory of Andrew Leigh. He is a very hard working, but original thinker and from my limited interactions with him, a great down to earth guy, but I’ll write more on that in a future post. What has national significance is that there had been a factional deal, with the left getting Canberra (and their candidate of Mary Wood) and the Right getting Fraser (Nick Martin). To add further pressure, pre-selectors were expected to vote two at a time and show their vote to the other, a rather outrageous breech of the Australian-pioneered secret ballot. While most party members will object to such factional control, it was particularly the case in the ACT which (remains!) the only area in the country where the rank and file control 100% of the selection. Hence the possibility of an upset like this. Let us hope this will encourage other rank and files around the country to also try and buck the factional heavies. Given that Rudd is not a factional man, and has decided to appoint his cabinet without reference to them, the last few years have seen a few setbacks for the factions and the slight (very slight) chance of a shift in their power.

The other significant news, and one that has significance for both parties is the successful running of the Kilsyth primary in Victoria. Encouraged by Premier John Brumby and for a seat where a 1% swing would cause it to change hands, this could represent a major shift in the way Australian politics operates. Because of the role of the Prime Minister we will never see US style primaries for the leaders of our parties, but a move to primaries to select the local candidates within seats offers both parties a way to re-energise their memberships (which have fallen from involving nearly half the population in the 40′s to just hundreds per seat today). I’ve blogged about this before, but from all accounts the primary seems to have been a success both in encouraging people to vote & energising ALP supporters. If the ALP wins the seat in November’s victorian election, then we may see both major parties starting to move to adopt such an approach. It will be resisted by many especially the factions and groupings which dominate both parties, but it, like the election of Leigh and Brodtmann in the ACT represent a good step forward in ensuring an open and competitive political system in Australia’s major parties.

Update: Some figures from Kilsyth: The branch has boomed from 50 to 300 members, and 170 voted on the day.

Remembering the ANZAC’s

From my favorite WW1 poet Wilfred Owen

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

This country did wrong by far too many who served it. We gaily sent them to war for causes not our own, we ignored their needs upon their return. If the current revival in ANZAC day spirit is worth a damn, it is in the honour and honesty we owe those who fight for this country. To the men and women who have served and continue to serve this country in uniform, in the police and in other capacities, Thank you.

Tony Abbot’s Foreign Policy Speech

Tony Abbott is a smart man, but he has something of the the optimists essential flaw of believing there is no trade off between outcomes for different policy options. In his book Battlelines he advocates free market economics and big spending social conservatism without ever noting that they could contradict. Likewise in his speech today for the Lowy Institute, he takes inspiration from the Howard government to argue that Australia should actively promote its values overseas, (and that this is intimately linked to our national security) however he then uses a standard realist framework to reject almost every action of the Keating & Rudd governments as a waste of resources in favour of utopian ideals.

Take this key quote early on in the speech:

There was the massive aid and relief effort to Indonesia in the wake of the East Asian tsunami. All of these were evidence of Australia‟s determination to be a force for good in the wider world and resolve not to leave to others the high task of working for the betterment of mankind wherever we could lend a helping hand….The Howard Government appreciated that Australia‟s national interest could not be pursued oblivious to the big issues of the wider world. It understood, as I‟m sure the Rudd Government does too, that Australia has a clear interest in advancing freedom and decency and in eradicating poverty. One country can hardly transform the planet but, especially in our immediate region, we have a particular obligation to conduct our national security policies consistently with our values. Australia‟s recent work in East Timor not only exemplifies this approach but also illustrates how perceptions of our international role have changed. This would have been a mission inconceivable in the period from Whitlam to Keating, when we were much more equivocal about standing up for our values on the global stage.

While there was a rhetorical shift from the late 1990′s where the Howard Government talked of selling Australian values, while the Keating Government talked about supporting universal values (that were not coincidently also Australian values), at a more fundamental level Abbott’s statement is hard to justify. Leaving East Timor aside for the moment, the previous Hawke-Keating government was consistently attacked by the Coalition for spending too much time promoting “values” overseas, rather than focusing on core national security. The Hawk-Keating Government made the promotion of Australian values central to its foreign policy. It secured restrictions on chemical weapons, launched a major anti-nuclear proliferation campaign, played a fundamental role in the resolution of a peaceful, and eventually democratic government in Cambodia, developed Cairns and APEC to promote free trade, lead & achieved a ban on mining in Antarctica, and Hawke played a big role in getting the Commonwealth to act to overturn apartheid in South Africa. Phew! No wonder Howard came to office promising a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ style of government in response.

So then is Abbott suggesting these acts were not supporting Australian values? While he is clearly trying to be bipartisan in including Fraser in his attack, his comments seem less about partisanship than simply not knowing/ommitting the history. As an aside all the examples he praises seem to involve military troops at work, are they the only tool Australia can use to promote it’s values?. Though quickly after the above quote there is also the equivocation by Abbott that (when speaking about Iraq & Afghanistan) “In neither intervention was Australia seeking to “export democracy” although the removal of abhorrent regimes necessitated the establishment of freer and fairer societies. So was Howard creating a new tradition of activism to support Australian values or was he following a traditional Australian realist path ?(As for East Timor, Howard did the right thing when the opportunity came to promote an independent East Timor arose after Suharto left power in 1998. Before then he followed the same path as his predecessors, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke & Keating. Australia reacted to help secure East Timor’s independence, it is flat out wrong to suggest we initiated their independence.)

Yet despite this priority in favour of values, Abbott takes a standard realist line when it comes to Rudd’s activism:

it‟s hard to see much taxpayer value in the Rudd Government‟s anti-nuclear and Security Council membership campaigns. Over this year and next, the Government is spending $9.2 million to promote nuclear disarmament, much of which will be spent on the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) which Mr Rudd set up in 2008. Of course, anything Gareth Evans and his fellow Commission members could do to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea would be welcome. That prospect, though, seems unlikely and, meanwhile, the Commission uses taxpayer dollars to promote the improbable notion of a world free of nuclear weapons. It‟s largely a replay of the Keating Government‟s futile Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. A Coalition government would re-consider whether this body makes any useful contribution to Australia‟s non-proliferation objectives.

Abbott’s last sentence “Australia’s non-proliferation objectives” seem an endorsement of the goal, but he regards the Canberra Commission as futile and the new ICNND little better. Yet Australia really doesn’t have many other good options if it is to actually pursue such an objective. Abbott shouldn’t be expected to have read the ICNND (I havn’t fully!), but his Foreign Minister & advisors ought to know that the idea of a nuclear free world is a very minor part of a report whose main focus is on action in 2010 and through till 2020. Likewise Abbott correctly notes that the Howard Government, like Rudd today, made a bid for a UN seat (he deserves brownie points for leaving this in) however he derides it as “all for an uncertain purpose other than a nebulous sense of temporarily enhanced international status”. Surely if Australia is to ensure we are not “oblivious to the big issues of the wider world” and going to link our national security interests with our values a UN seat is a valuable opportunity to do so.

While the opposition is unlikely to try and use foreign policy as part of their election campaign, there are two differences between Rudd & Abbott where I think Abbott has the better position: First Abbott should be applauded for calling for the Rudd government to increase its troops in Afghanistan if only to take responsibility for our own security in the Oruzgan province. Secondly, Abbott rightly chides the Rudd government for its refusal to sell uranium to India. Though this is offput by the claim that: ‘The Obama Government in America has accepted that India could not sign the NPT (because it possesses nuclear weapons)’. In fact all five security council nuclear states, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, have signed the NPT. Possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t prevent you signing, but rather not accepting the verification & audit process. Still Abbott should be applauded as India is a careful, non-proliferating country and selling uranium to India is not only good business, but will help patch over an important but troubled relationship between our two countries.

As The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen notes, this was a ‘safe’ speech which seemed largely dedicated to defending the Howard government. Very rarely did Abbott venture to say how a Coalition government would do things differently to Rudd, and where he did, it was entirely in line with Howard’s previous choices. Pleasantly this seems to have lent the speech a positive tone (at least in the reading), with Abbott almost unwilling to criticize Rudd. Certainly the harsher lines of his foreign affairs ministers were absent. And to his great credit, he actually tackled foreign policy issues, instead of just using the speech to talk about boat people (as happened while Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was present in the House of Representatives).

It’s great to see Abbott finally talking about foreign policy and security issues, and I recommend everyone interested takes the few minutes to read it in full. But you can sense his discomfort with some of the material, and the inherent contradiction between wanting an Australia that involves itself in global issues and promotes its values, while denigrating anything that goes beyond a cautious realist framework is never addressed. Like Howard in 1995 or George Bush in 2000, you can win office without a strong background in foreign policy, but both men quickly appointed expert advisors to help them through it. That act of delegation, rather than knowing the unner details of the NPT treaty will be the real test of Abbott’s leadership in foreign policy in the lead up to the 2010 election.

Update: Peter Hartcher stresses that now both parties are committed to promoting values ie norm entrepreneurship, while Danniel Flitton argues Abbott’s talk of an anglosphere is outdated and presents a false choice between bilateral and multilateral ties.

The rise of the seniors party

All political parties like to try and appeal to specific demographic groups, the Greens especially target the young, ALP its younger, outer suburbs ‘working families’. The Coalition is however making a pitch for the biggest of them all: Seniors

No more dole, Tony Abbott warns the under-30s
EXCLUSIVE: Andrew Burrell From: The Australian April 21, 2010 12:00AM
TONY Abbott has proposed banning the dole for people under 30 in a bid to entice the unemployed to head west and fill massive skill shortages in the booming resources sector.
The Opposition Leader made the controversial remarks during a two-hour meeting with about 15 senior resources industry leaders in Perth on Monday night.
Mr Abbott told the roundtable briefing he believed stopping dole payments to able-bodied young people would take pressure off the welfare system and reduce the need to bring in large numbers of skilled migrants to staff mining projects.
Six of the attendees confirmed yesterday that Mr Abbott had raised the idea of banning welfare payments for young people to encourage them to fill the thousands of jobs emerging in states such as Western Australia and Queensland.
“He said he was thinking more and more about it, with a view to formulating something on it,” said one of the participants, who asked not to be named. Another recalled: “He definitely said it was something he was considering as a policy.”
A third executive said: “It certainly wasn’t a throwaway line. He brought up the issue twice during the meeting.”

This is partially overbearing paternalism of the sort Abbott first championed with his work for the dole scheme back in 1999/2000, and partly a desperate (and unworkable) attempt to find a local solution to the skills shortage given his party’s desire to cut back on migration, but it should also be seen as a bold pitch to position the Liberal Party as The Seniors Party. And why wouldn’t you:

From the Treasury Dept:
In 1970-71, 31 per cent of the population was aged 15 years or younger, while by 2001-02 this proportion had dropped to 22 per cent. The proportion of Australia’s population aged over 65 years has grown from 8 per cent in 1970-71 to 13 per cent in 2001-02. The IGR projects that over the next 40 years, the proportion of the population over 65 years will almost double to around 25 per cent. At the same time, growth in the population of traditional workforce age is expected to slow to almost zero. This is a permanent change. Barring an unprecedented change in fertility rates, the age structure of the population is likely to stabilise with a far higher proportion of older Australians.

Via Pollytic’s Demographics bar we can see the Coalition already captures 53% of the vote of those 55+, but with that group doubling in size (and there being no tests for mental competency before voting for the elderly) locking them in now ensures long term political gain.

One of the virtues of having two major parties (and part of the reason I still strongly defend the system) is that it forces both parties to govern ‘for all of us’ to use the Coalitions 1996 slogan. But as one age group bulges in relative size, there comes the temptation to focus on that group first and foremost. It probably won’t change its name, but this policy to me signals a sign the Liberal Party is aiming to become The Seniors Party. Done clumsily this could rebound (as I think Abbott’s paternalism here will), but in the hands of a skillful operator it could prove a significant shift in the image and appeals of our parties, even if both have already been lavashing seniors for a fair while (trying to rise house prices, increased pensions, one off election time handouts etc). This may be the future of the Conservative side of politics. Having flirted with economic rationalism from 1977 to 2007 (no-coincidence the period John Howard was a major influence in the party), it seems now to be retreating to protectionist, primary industry focused insular economics and social policy. They will be the party of the closed Australia. In attitude, economics & border.

Then again the leaders in this may well have been The Nationals, just check out their latest advertisement (Below the Fold). Their is a token minority in the add, but their pitch is aimed almost entirely to the elderly & white.

Read the full article »

First, but least in the nation

Overnight, US President Obama stepped in to support the rights of citizens of Washington D.C

The White House released this statement by President Obama urging Congress to grant voting representation to residents of Washington, D.C.:

“On this occasion, we remember the day in 1862 when President Lincoln freed the enslaved people of Washington, DC – nine months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. I am proud that an original copy of that document now hangs in the Oval Office, and we remain forever grateful as a nation for the struggles and sacrifices of those Americans who made that emancipation possible.

“Americans from all walks of life are gathering in Washington today to remind members of Congress that although DC residents pay federal taxes and serve honorably in our armed services, they do not have a vote in Congress or full autonomy over local issues. And so I urge Congress to finally pass legislation that provides DC residents with voting representation and to take steps to improve the Home Rule Charter.”

Given the presidents courage, it would be nice to see a similar statement from his close friend Kevin Rudd to support the rights of Canberran citizens. Canberran residents are the least represented citizens in the country. In the House of Representatives,the Seats of Canberra and Fraser are some of the largest in the country in population size (With 122′000 and 116′000 respectively) when the AEC tries to maintain all electorates at a much lower level. (Indeed the NT with 200′000 citizens gets 2 seats, the ACT with 325′000 also gets 2 seats, and Tasmania with 480′000 gets 5 seats.
A similar pattern (though even more disadvantageous!) occurs in the Federal Senate with the ACT gaining only 2 senators for our population, with Tasmania and all other States enjoying 712 senators. Finally, when it comes to Federal Referendums, residents of the ACT are given only a half vote. A referendum needs to pass a majority of states, and a majority of australian citizens to be made law. Yet votes from the ACT are not counted as representing an area in their own right, and only contribute to the overall majority.

Not only is the principle strong, but it makes good politics as well. A further seat for Washington will surely become a safe democratic seat, as would a third one for Canberra, and fixing the gerrymandering of the states ought to be a long term ALP goal (or goal for any who care about popular representation given that the major parties split the ACT’s senate seats).

Racists have rights too

This apparently is the political story of the day:

A member of the Queensland Young Liberal National Party faces expulsion after he called Barack Obama a monkey on a social networking site.
Scores of party members this morning called on the party senior executive to immediately dismiss Nick Sowden, president Rod Schneider told brisbanetimes.com.au.
Sowden last night posted messages on Twitter while the United States president was being interviewed on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.
“I’m not sure why they paid kerry to fly to america, if they wanted an interview with a monkey surely a Ferry to Taronga would have sufficed,” one tweet said.
“If I wanted to see a monkey on TV id watch Wildlife Rescue,” said a second.

Snowden’s deleted his twitter account and seemingly his facebook too, and set up a lame defence (via the excellent 2UE reporter @latikambourke) “He says it was just a joke for friends which we’ve ‘unfortunately,’ taken out of context.”

But Snowden did say one sensible thing: “it’s a sad day for free speech if the Twitterverse is going to be policed Stazi-style. Says best to have a fake Twitter name.”

What’s really problematic about this is that we have our press jumping up and down over a dumb racist comment by a nobody. Why should we care if he’s a racist? Why should we care if he’s an idiot. It’s not that we have better things to do (from taxes to nukes to healthcare), but rather that he’s allowed to be a fool if he wants, and this mass peer pressure via our media onslaught is just an example of tyranny of the majority at work. Even if its for a good cause – rooting out racist in our major parties, it’s still unacceptable and base mob behaviour.

Over at Catallaxy recently was the argument coherently put (this time about emails encouraging Earth Hour) that classical liberals don’t worry about non-governmental pressure. And generally thats true (such that if your boss is announces he is going to pay you you 3c an hour, that should be nobody elses problem), but there is also in the John Stuart Mill tradition of liberalism a worry just as much that public opinion can be just as coercive as a government regulator. Indeed Mill devotes the majority of his brilliant ‘On Liberty’ to the question of public pressure, rather than legal coercion.

This of course is not to endorse either snowdens comments, nor the inferiority complex that seems to lead conservatives everywhere to claim they are a minority under attack, and whose conspiracy theories on everything from global warming to Obama’s citizenship ought to be given equal place in our debates. It’s not. But it is a reminded that as our technology to disseminate opinions grows larger & quicker, the role of peer pressure does too. Often this will be for the good, encouraging nation states and societies to stop human rights abuse & give up their inhumane weapons of mass destruction, and to support a pluralist, tolerant society. But if we find ourselves jumping up and down over every little idiot we are simply going to encourage the belief that there’s a virtue in holding minority views no matter how illogical and immoral they are, and giving significantly more attention and hence support to such views as well. In a free society, this kid has the freedom to be an idiot. We should celebrate that by freely ignoring it, and knowing that in this case, even his friends quickly called him on his “joke”. Job done.

iPads and the changing nature of reading

Over at Margaret Simon’s excellent blog The Content Makers, she has an interesting post up about technology and the changing way we are reading:

I suspect that the e-readers will merely speed up existing trends, rather than changing rules of the game. And the existing trends? More niche media targetting smaller interest groups, and more interaction between content providers and audience members. All this implies a more intense connection between audiences and media outlets, which may mean a greater preparedness to pay for some kinds of content – if it is good enough, and if it can’t be easily obtained elsewhere.

But I very much doubt that large numbers of people will pay for newspapers on the iPad if all they offer is commodotised news that is also freely available elsewhere.I agree that this will be the year in which e-readers become mainstream, and soon much of our reading will be done on such devices. Books will become “special” objects, rather than utilitarian.

I think the biggest shift is likely to be what we consider the activity of ‘reading’ to be. Sure we all say we ‘read’ the ingredients on the back of a cereal box, but when we use the word most of us would still conjure up images of sitting, alone, on a couch or on your bed for a substantial period of time with a book in hand.

Yet, while I still love that idea, and try to do so when I have a book good enough to compel it, I no longer think of reading in such terms. Instead I’m finding that the distinction between mediums is breaking down. When reading online it makes no difference if was written as a newspaper article, magazine article, blog post or book extract as we formerly knew them. If I am consuming written media, I am reading, and I do so seamlessly moving between short, medium and long pieces as my attention fancies. An evening reading might involve 10+ short articles, one long piece of journalism and 200 pages of whatever half-read book I need to finish soon and have closest to hand. With paper mediums, that’s a difficult task to consume so much, with digital mediums, its very very easily (especially when I have twitter and rss feeds sending it straight to me). However even that last connection to moving your eyes over written words is evaporating too. I caught myself the other day saying to a friend that I had ‘just read’ Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’. Only I hadn’t. Gladwell had read it to me via an audio book as I walked to work. I know the same amount of info, I finished the book in the usual time, and I got a similar pleasure & distraction from the real world from it. I read it, I just didn’t read.

Reading to me is becoming more like breathing oxygen than sitting down for a meal. Rather than heavy doses when I have the time, I find myself simply reading whenever I am not being forced to do something else with my entire focus (talking to others or in the shower seem about it). Books may be seen as losing their special status in such a view, but most books (esp non-fiction) are far too long anyway, and no article can ever approach the understanding gained, emotional attachment or carefully crafted prose of a top quality book. Homo litterarius has arrived.

What is the Coalition’s foreign policy?

There is a good piece in this mornings Canberra Times (no online copy) by the up & coming Australian academic Carl Ungerer arguing that the debate about foreign policy has effectively been forgotten, with even the arguments about boat people reduced to simply questions of Australian control, without international or regional reference.

Ungerer lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the Liberal Party, and it’s a fair cop. A look at the National Security page on the Liberal party homepage is almost exclusively focused on immigration and border protection (against migrants). Likewise when the President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke before the Australian Parliament, the only topic the leader of the Opposition raised was that of asylum seekers. Obviously Indonesia is critical to that question, but issues such as when Indonesia will pass laws criminalising people smuggling (as the Howard government convinced much of the region to do in 2002-2006) were entirely absent.

The media must also wear some blame, given the way they let economics crowd out all other issues. Economics is critical, but every Australian government since time immemorial has said national security is the primary role of government.

While a February Newspoll showed that the Rudd government was slightly behind on national security, the latest Essential Report (PDF) presents a very different story) when people are asked specifically about foreign policy (H/T Crikey):

The Prime Minister scores strongly in terms of approval of his handling of foreign relations, with 50% approving and 32% disapproving, although the result tends to follow party lines. Labor also holds a strong lead (41-27%) over the Coalition in terms of who is trusted more on handling foreign affairs, with 22% saying no difference — suggesting the Howard Government’s strong record on foreign relations and national security has faded from memory…. Voters’ responses on individual countries also suggests why the Government has developed a strong reputation on foreign affairs. Asked how important relations with a number of countries were, 59% said close relations with the United States were very important, 56% said New Zealand and 51% said China. While the Rudd Government has had difficulties in its relationship with Beijing, it has also been associated with increased Chinese investment and the Prime Minister’s personal connections with the country. Rudd also quickly established a good relationship with President Obama, especially through the GFC and the establishment of the G20 as the primary international economic grouping.Moreover, 33% of voters actually want Australia to have a closer relationship with China

One explanation for this shift may be the loss of Malcolm Turnbull who had a much more worldly image than the more parochial Abbott, but primarily it seems the mere fact Rudd brings both experience and gets to daily implement foreign policy (even if commentators are only giving him about a B+), along with the noted gap in interest let alone policy by the opposition which have lead to this clear result. Labor will also be hoping that with Fitzgibbon’s resignation from Defence fading, and recent changes to slow the influx of boat people will further cement their dominance.

The only really odd part is that with such dominance and the coalition showing no ability to fight back, why isn’t Rudd doing even more to attack the coalition on such issues. Obviously he ought not go as far as Keating did to Howard in 1996 by claiming Asia wont work with Abbott, but he can suggest that only he would be able to extract the most benefit for Australia from our regional links due to his stronger knowledge of the region.

Meanwhile, Rudd is far from bulletproof on this. He hasn’t -yet-dedicated the resources to the role he has endorsed for Australia as a ‘creative middle power’, and his goals sometimes clash, His desire to stop whaling has hurt the relationship with the Japanese, which is crucial to help his vision of a new Asia Pacific Community; meanwhile his relationship with China is even harder due to his attempt to earn a UN seat. These are worthy goals, but his overall competence could be challenged. Let’s hope Abbott & Bishops policy boffins are paying attention and writing a policy displaying at least some level of overall strategic thought to deliver prior to the election (And with the highly capable former International Relations academic Senator Russel Trood in their ranks its a crime the Coalition has been so woeful and quiet on foreign policy issues). But they’ll need to hurry as time is surely running out and public perceptions solidifying.

The mis-steps of a young romeo named Tony

In many ways John Howard governed like a man with a wife (business) and a mistress (populist conservatives). This charming little solicitor from sydney was surprisingly adept at keeping his two partners happy, ensuring they were kept well apart, and each receiving equal, though carefully chosen presents. Of course his wife and mistress knew of each other (how could they not), but they forgave him, so long as he got the anniversaries right.

In 1998 Howard gave the big present to the wife via a GST, while his temperamental mistress flirted with a firery red-head from Queensland. Some begging on his part, and the smooth flow of cheaper petrol however saw the mistress returning to his embrace. In 2001, he shifted gears and the mistress got the big present: a gift wrapped Pacific Solution. The wife was consoled with an item that cost more but didn’t sparkle so bright: a healthy stock-portfolio and significant overall rises in migration levels. All was right in his happy little world, with three being perfect company. 2004 was perhaps the easiest anniversary of them all, as an arrogant young knight beat on the doors and stomped around outside, sending both partners running into his protecting arms. Of course, such happiness was not to last, and the once spritely charmer with lush eye-brows begun to tire. Before he left for that eternity in the members stand at the cricket, he decided to pass on the phone numbers of his two lovers & some tips to a young apprentice he had been grooming named Tony. While others desperately bid for his place, he was sure that if any man could look after his beloveds it would be Tony.

Only our young would-be Romeo, now finally able to take his place, has forgotten the old mans wise words and gotten himself utterly entranced by the mistress. Despite the old mans concern, Tony has seemingly forgotten the former wife and set off to shower the mistress with gifts. First offering her paid time off to manage any kids, and now a quieter environment with far less noisy neighbors. Meanwhile he has redoubled his efforts to keep himself fit and healthy, to ensure the mistress see’s his virility. She has, and is impressed.

But watching from the up-story apartment window, the ex-wife has noticed. She’s not quite the bombshell she once was, and the legacy of a near-stroke in 2008 still stings. But she was here first, and still to her mind is the prettiest of them all. More importantly she also has the old mans fortune and can give it to whoever she chooses.

Not that she thinks much of Tony’s rival, a nerdy suitor by the name of Kevin. She had largely ignored his early claims of fidelity, (wisely) as that too was broken in 2008, though he still claims it was for her own good. Yet as she watches a Lycra-clad Tony stretch and limber himself up, still trying to impress the younger mistress, she turns over the paper with Kevin’s number on it. Maybe she should give him a call, he after all has keys to a Bentley, and all Tony can offer her is his rotten bike. Yes, she will call him, but maybe after one more Gin & Tonic, after all, the sun is still up in the land of the lucky country.

Corrupting one’s own figures

Via the Washington Monthy comes the news that the Heritage Foundation has substantially shifted the position of the USA in its Index of Economic Freedom. The USA is now only “mostly free”.

The Heritage Foundation’s latest world ranking of economic freedoms shows the U.S. falling farther than any other large economy in the world. The foundation says the TARP Program, the auto industry bailout and the stimulus package, among other factors, have caused in the country’s economy to go from “free” to “mostly free.” [...]
Factors like business regulation, the labor market, monetary stability, property rights and corruption are used to determine the rankings.

Terry Miller, director of the Center of International Trade And Economics at the Heritage Foundation, says the U.S. ranking may continue to fall.”Certainly looking at the government policies that have been followed over the last year, since our last data cut off, I’m very concerned,” Miller told TPM, adding that health care reform was likely to further hurt our economic freedom.


Heres the top ten on the right for your quick viewing. But it’s an odd list. New Zealand, Canada and Australia all have significantly greater regulations in economic sectors (and weren’t we glad of that in 2008). Likewise all offer true universal healthcare delivery as well as insurance (as opposed to the USA’s just passed universal insurance) and it is hard to argue that property rights and the labor market are in general more regulated in the USA than in Australia.

While Government Spending must be seen as part of the mix, its weighting here seems to utterly distort the figures. You’d therefore have therefore to suspect some ideological politics is at work. The (Conservative) Heritage Foundation gets a 1-2 day headline downgrading the USA as ‘mostly free’ instead of ‘free’, but the long term effect of this is going to damage the credibility of the list. This type of index gets a lot of work in academic circles as a handy reference point, but that’s going to drop off once people start suspecting more than just world view, but domestic politics is interfering with the results. Hardly a worth while pay off.

Why Rudd needs to attend Obama’s Nuke Summit

Via The Lowy’s Rory Medcalf, comes this possibility that Kevin Rudd may miss Obama’s mid April Nuclear Summit:
Read the full article »

Turnbull leaves

It was expected but the departure today of Malcolm Turnbull from Australian politics is still sad. Whether you agreed with him, or if you think he would have been a good PM or not, he was a highly talented Australian trying to enter our turgid political world and make a difference. Unfortunately the legacy of this brilliant, optimistic, have-a-go characters time in office will be to entrench further cynicism. Politics in this country is being left to the political class. As one of them, I stand to benefit, but as a watcher of politics, and as an Australian, I’m far the worse off. So rather than turn over his chances of becoming NSW premier (as I’d once hoped) or debate who the winners and losers of this are in the eternal horse race, I want to post a highlight from Malcolm Turnbull’s time in politics:

In that speech you see all of the potential for a true leader. Rudd may rationally know the right thing to do, but Turnbull was able to feel and demonstrate it too. He was far too impatient, his judgement at times was horrible, but had he entered politics earlier, or taken more time to learn the industry, he could have been a great Prime Minister. Now he leaves to be simply an interesting, talented Australian. That’s not a bad legacy.