Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: History

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 physicality of leadership

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. If Roosevelt is known for anything these days, and it’s inescapable in his book, it was his enthusiasm for the active life. He was a solider, hunter, naturalist and mountaineer, constantly pushing himself to keep going throughout life. In 1913, 5 years after leaving the White House, and aged 53 he went on a 1000km exploration charting rivers through the jungles of South America. He died some years later in part due to ill health caused by the trip, but no better marker of his identity in the publics mind can be found than the comment by the US vice president at the time that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” Roosevelt’s political and philosophical legacy isn’t that relevant anymore (though an early conservationist and he supported Health Care reform in his ‘Bull Moose’ run for the White House), but he still excites the imagination of many because, he offers a link to that original tribal idea of the leader as owed to the toughest, biggest man in the village. Yet how relevant is this idea of leadership today?
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Looking North with Open Eyes

While everyone knows that Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin, those watching the speeches accompanying the visit of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the last week would have noticed something else: Rudd also knows a little Indonesian too. While welcoming phrases in a guests own language are a standard part of pre-meeting briefings, the impetus was more likely from Rudd himself, for one of his major early career focuses was on making Australian’s more Asia-literate.

In 1994 Rudd delivered a report to the Federal Government on ways to make Australia a more Asia-Literate country. Though part of the wider Engagement project it was played down by the government because of populist fears that “engagement” was some sort of code word for selling the countries soul to the foreigners up north. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the concern was there. Rudd’s report, Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, (Of which Deborah Henderson’s paper(pdf) provides a good overview & analysis) sought to create an export culture in australia via significant investment in the teaching of asian languages and building long term links to the region in education, media and business.
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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.

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.

Monarchist Misanthropes

Last week was 10 years since the failure of the Republican Referendum, an issue I’ve already blogged about. Of course supporters of a Republic arn’t the only ones using this anniversary to discuss the issue, so are the monarchists and misanthropes who are taking a chance to pile on. Here is Gregory Melleuish in The Australian:

If there is a key to what democracy is really about then it is the belief that the ordinary people possess a great deal of common sense and that generally they get things right. Howard expressed this idea with regard to the 1999 republican referendum.
Of course there are other views of democracy.
One is that the people are really not too bright, that they are amenable to manipulation and therefore cannot be trusted to make good decisions.
That is one republican interpretation of why that cause failed so badly in 1999.

This is one reason many republicans fear the idea that the people elect the president in an Australian republic; they are so stupid that they will make a bad choice.

Yet every time a matter that was once considered to be an issue for democracy or politics is handed over to a group of experts it would be true to say that an elite has triumphed over the people. There may be many among those elites who prefer something like Plato’s expert-dominated republic to the messiness of democracy.It is up to the rest of us to ensure that matters of public importance are not appropriated by expert elites and their politics.

This would be one thing if the argument was coming from a Direct Electionist republican. It would indeed be an increase in democracy if we moved to a directly elected presidency. But it is a fundamentally dishonest and ugly slur to come from a supporter of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. (As an aide if anybody “fear’s” the idea of a direct election it is the supporters of hereditary monarchy. But I don’t quite think that is who he means to attack.)

The current system of choosing our Head of State is the definition of elite control. The GG is chosen entirely at the discretion of one man, the Prime Minister, and has been effectively since federation. The Republican model in 1999 was for a two-thirds majority of the parliament to choose the GG/president. That is, even the limited model applied would have substantially increased public control over the process. Note as well how Melleuish uses verbs like ‘handed over’ as if the current system was not already the most undemocratic of the three possible options, (1-Status Quo with PM choice, 2-Republic with 2/3 Parliament choice, 3-Direct election choice).

But this aside, the far worse slur is Melleuish’s charge that Republicans who favour a minimalist change think that “the people are really not too bright…so stupid …cannot be trusted to make good decisions….[and want] something like Plato’s expert-dominated republic“. That is, despite posing a more democratic model Melleuish manages to charge Republicans (and he never mentions or differentiates minimalist with direct electionists) with a desire for an authoritarian society. Melleuish also clearly expects most people havn’t read their Plato and so don’t recognise the true totalitarian slur in invoking him, rather just a vague ‘philosopher kings’ idea. Still you have to admire the balls of someone who plays on public ignorance of a 2300 year dead philosopher as a way of calling his opponents elitist.

Melleuish’s representation of why the Australian Republican Movement and most well known republicans favour a minimalist model is a flat out lie and he knows it (as do the editors of The Australian who approved this ugly piece). Rather than thinking the people stupid or preferring elite control, minimalist republicans rather are making the most conservative argument possible: to retain a political system that works, whilst making formal what occurs in practice and sentiment.

A directly elected President will inevitably come to challenge the Prime Minister for control, and though having no constitutional decided power (and limits) will seek to change the fundamental way Australia’s democracy works. Even if the first few presidents are Steve Waugh and Cathy Freeman, they will eventually come to choose issues to disagree with the PM on, such as Immigration or Climate Change. Soon however, our political parties will begin choosing preferred celebrities, or community and business figures for the position who will follow the party line. Quickly it will become simply another two-party election, only for a constitutionally undefined role, in a way completely rejected by our Federating fathers, and inserted in spite of the historic success and stability of Australia as a democracy in the modern world.

How do I know we shouldn’t tinker with the system too much? Well because Melleuish tells us so:

“We should seek to preserve as many of those checks and balances as possible in our system of government. Democracy and efficiency are fine words but too often in practice they mean riding roughshod over the concerns of those who do not share the majority strikes me that ‘muddling through’ are good words for a Constitutional Monarchist to use. We have inherited a system of government that has evolved out of the British Constitution and that like the British Constitution seeks to combine liberty and power. We need strong government and we need to be free. We need responsible government combined with federalism and a system of checks and balances. That means avoiding extremes, it means keeping to the ‘golden mean’. It may mean at times muddling through rather than adopting radical means that appear to be superficially attractive but in the end have as their major consequence the destruction of the balance of our Constitution.”
– Taken from the home of Australian’s for a Constitutional Monarchy posted in 2003

In 2003 Melleuish rightly argued that the direct electionists were wrong to advocate such a big change. In 2009 however he is mis-using their arguments to push a vague ‘democracy vs the elites’ thesis as a way of smearing the minimalist model republicans. He clearly doesn’t believe what he is saying, (and nor likely do his readers), but they are all willing to put that aside to convince themselves of the fiction that they are standing with the people against the elites. Even whilst backing a hereditary, one person controlled system that is the least democratic of all three options available.

I own and have read Melleuish’s collected writings. In it, he is a good academic, very well read, and sensible with some good insights. The man who appears in these kind of opinion articles for The Australian is however unrecognizable to that author.

Why we need to forget WW2

This is a rather unique use of the far-too-commonly invoked analogy of Hitler’s Nazi Germany to modern times:

The [proposed WA] legislation would allow police to search people for weapons and drugs in areas such as Northbridge without having to prove grounds of suspicion.
Last night Liberal backbencher Peter Abetz spoke in support of the legislation and used the example of Hitler.
He said the dictator gained support because he provided people security in a time of anarchy.
“When it comes to the crunch, people prefer to be safe than to have freedom,” he said

I didn’t want to post this on the 11th, as it is important that every society set aside at least one day (Australia also has ANZAC day) where they pause to remember and honour those who served their country. Whether they spent only a few months on the home front, or years if not the last moments of their life in the horrors of battle, we owe it to them and to those in uniform today to do so. If anything this was made even more poignant by the senseless murder of 13 US servicemen by a man whose day job was to heal their wounds. This November 11th marks 64 years since WW2, a fight which is the most wrongly but commonly invoked analogy in western political dialogue and political thinking, and one we urgently need to move on from.

Comparing current events to The Nazification of Germany, the appeasement of Hitler, and of course the horror of the Holocaust is the nuclear option of public discourse in the west (especially the Anglo-sphere). But more than just odiously affecting our dialog, and dividing us internally, it affects our strategic thinking, putting us at risk externally. Since the turn of the century, there have been four major comparisons of current events with Hitler’s Germany, all factually inaccurate, and all to the greater harm of the society.

1) Bush is like Hitler in pushing the Patriot Act in response to 9/11

Unlike the Reichstag fire, 9/11 most certainly wasn’t an inside job. Terrorism was a very real and still present threat to the USA. Similar legislation to the Patriot Act was introduced in many other Western states around the world, though even that didn’t prevent terrorist attacks in Madrid and London. Bush’s acts were certainly invasive and the argument can be strongly made that it was an over-reaction, but it was a legitimate response to help protect his society. Something that has evidently worked in that there have not been any terrorist attacks inside the USA since 9/11. The left instantly delegitimised itself by making the analogy and destroyed it’s capacity to sensibly contribute to and moderate the legislation.

Net effect = Less political influence, stronger public support for measures they rejected. Legislation is still in place.

2) Iraq/Iran is akain to Nazi Germany and ought not to be appeased.

While Bush was the victim of a false the Nazi analogy in early 2002, he was quick to invoke it against his enemies by late 2002/2003 as he lead the Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq. Any and all who opposed, in the US, UK, Australia, and especially France and Germany were seen as akin to appeasing Hitler in their rejection of removing Saddam Hussein. Saddam was just as odious personally as Adolf, and terrorised Iraqi society, but Hitler in 1939 was a threat because of the strength of the German army. WMD or no WMD, Hussein was a contained threat. Strategically invading Iraq was a massive blunder, wasting blood and treasure for almost no comparative security benefit to the major coalition partners.
In this case, the desire to positively emulate WW2 (in playing Churchill and correctly foreseeing looming threats) was as, if not more damaging than the negative comparison, of our enemies to Hitler. This is the ultimate problem with the analogy to WW2. It can not be made positively, or negatively with good sense these days.
The more recent, though far more low key comparisons of Iran to Germany in 1939 have largely been dismissed because of the failure of the Iraqi comparison, but they refuse to go away. (Or perhaps it’s due to the fact Iran has 1/68th of the army of the US). The rhetoric used against opponents of the war (or proposed action on Iran) is ugly, however the way the comparison has damaged and perverted the way the premier military nation in the world, and defender of the west conducts itself is inexcusable.

Net Effect = 4300 dead US soldiers in Iraq (with another 300 of allies, and 50-100’000 Iraqis), and about $1 Trillion spent, with more to come. The US has wasted its perceived unipolar moment, and is very restricted in the future conduct of its troops against threats such as Iran/North Korea, and the larger strategic game of China/Russia et all.

3) Climate Change Deniers are akain to Holocaust Deniers

This comparison has popped up in recent months, including by authors I previously respected. Even if the worst-case scenarios for Climate Change are true, they do not in any way mirror the insidious nature of the Holocaust. One deliberate, the other unexpected (with those responsible now attempting to solve it). One was industrialized and clinical, the other natural and unpredictable. One has happened, the other yet to, with a possibility of preventing the harm without actually stopping the problem.

Worse, given that there already are perceptions that the horror and trouble of Climate Change has been overplayed, the decision to deploy the most strident possible denunciation possible at this time has simply re-enforced the perception advocates were not driven by the science but other unrelated factors. The effect of such a claim has not persuaded anyone to change their view, and divided the two camps, re-enforcing the energy of denialists who see this as one-more-battle.This analogy unfortunately is going to be rolled out more and more in the future. It’s bad rhetoric, bad history, and divides our society right at the time it needs to pull together to address this serious issue.

Net Effect = Nothing yet, but if (and perhaps when) Copenhagen fails to reach agreement, and cap & trade systems falter in the legislature in the UK, USA and Australia, it will be in part because supporters hyperbole managed to destroy the good will of many cautious supporters who would have given bipartisan support to this policy.

4) Obama introducing Healthcare is akain to the Nazification of Germany.

This is perhaps the most laughable of them all. The Nazi party despised the idea of social welfare, taking a strictly Social Darwinists approach to society. Hitler’s Mein Kampf demonises charity and philanthropy as evils to be eliminated for a stronger Germany. Political fixes to maintain their domestic control were of course introduced, largely along the lines of what the Weimar Republic had pursued. The party may have been named the National Socialists, but actual Socialists and communists were amongst the chief enemies of the Nazis (which is why many conservatives in the west liked Hitler). These comparisons between Obamacare and Hitler have been made by media figures, congressmen, culminating in this odious picture at a recent event, which has fortunately been rejected by at least some in the Republican caucus.

Net Effect = As I noted a few weeks ago, the debate on Healthcare turned in Democrats favour in August when Conservatives were actually at their loudest in demonising the proposal at town halls. The legislation should hopefully pass (though will be a weak compromise), but the effect has not been limited to health care. The willingness to deploy the analogy in relation to healthcare has spread to other issues as well, damaging the political fabric of the US’s democratic system. Good will has been utterly destroyed between the parties, the dialog debased, and the people cynically turned into service by people whose motives are more personal gain than anything else.


I was going to quote Churchill’s great line that the people of the Balkan’s had “more history than they could consume”. But such is the effect of Churchill on our western psyche that its even easy to bring to mind quotes of him to say we shouldn’t listen to him anymore! That we shouldn’t memoralise and hero-worship the west’s victory, or demonise modern enemies as like those he faced. As an avid reader of history I know no better source of personal development than reading history books, and yet every generation also deserves the chance to forget what has come before so it may remake and explore new potentials. If history’s lessons were never breakable we would never had had the rise of the church, nor that of the nation-state, nor international organisations. Each of these changes occurred through the acts of a generation that was willing to deliberately ignore the lessons of the past and push for a new future

It’s time to honour, and for the good of those involved, and those yet to come, return WW2 to the history books.

Picture by peterme used under a Creative Commons Licence

Wither States Rights?

australia_flagIn a pleasing sign, the ACT assembly, with the support of the ACT Labor Party and the Greens has passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to have a legally binding ceremony. Gay couples can already bind themselves into a legal union, a change reluctantly accepted by the federal government, but last year Rudd decided that allowing that union to be publicly celebrated would be too much like marriage. The word petty doesn’t even begin to describe such a complaint. The Labor Party chose not to to support such unions at its national conference, and it’s probable that Rudd will again veto the legislation.

This raises a challenge for progressive however. Despite spending the 20th century fighting states rights, recognising it for the conservative impediment it was, in many areas such as social or environmental law, progressive ideals are best served by giving local communities far more of a say. Hopes in the federal labor party have faltered, as it has looked to ensure nation-wide support (rather than just majority support), and shown great hesitancy to risk taking. Interestingly, this shift is also occuring at the same time as the Liberal Party has just finished fundamentally walking away from promoting a states rights agenda. So should Progressives deliver the killing blow to states rights, or are recent developments signs that this is more prosperous ground than previously thought?

For future historians, one of the most important facets of the Prime Ministership of John Howard, was the virtual death of the States Right’s viewpoint within the conservative parties. Howard invoked the idea himself comonly when in Fraser’s government and during the 1980’s wilderness in opposition; by the time he returned for a second showdown, the heat was largely gone. Against Keating Howard positioned himself as one who would govern “for all Australia” against the sectional and geographic interest groups, a stance he would keep throughout his time in government. He wouldn’t even support his home state NSW in the State of Origin games, such was his desire not to be seen as supporting one state over others (or even supporting the states at all!)

There’s ample evidence (such as from Costello’s memoirs and Howard’s own musings on the subject) that this was a practical solution, rather than a philosophical shift, and came in response to a current political threat. Namely that the people would blame the federal government regardless of who was responsible, and that the State Governments were largely hostile to going along with Howard on most issues, most of the time. That said, the shift also re-enforced Howard’s growing sense of control and dominance, as he increasingly sought to leave his mark on the country, and deliver on the public trust invested in him through 4 separate elections. Howard not only changed the country, he also changed his party. Time in government converted many to similar views, and Howard’s views became gospel as older members retired, and younger, more impressionable ones came in. Practice eventually becomes principle, and the Liberal Party today under Turnbull, Abbott & Minchin has barely touched this criticism of states rights, despite its favored son status for conservatives in opposition for the last 108 years in this country.

This change in conservative thinking should have progressives cheering. After all, states have been (and were designed in the 1890’s Constitutional Conventions to be) strong impediments to any social change that may have upset the status quo or reduced the influence of men of property (Hence the Senate starting life as a States House, to review what the mobs in the House of Representatives proposed). Equally, there is good evidence that there was a big influence from current American trends on Australia’s constitution writers (especially Griffith and Barton) which lead to pushing a very minor, restricted federal government. Most people who follow politics will have heard of section 51. of the constitution. The reason it is well known however is that it is the only section which distinctly lays out the powers of the federal government. Anything not mentioned is assumed to be entirely under State control. Our constitution is not there to guarantee the rights and liberties of the citizens, it is there almost exclusively to give chains to the States to tether down the inevitable King Kong of National Government that they were reluctantly accepting.

So, given this history, the end of conservative support for states rights ought to be a good thing. The example of the ACT however suggests that there is an alternative: that progressives should now look to focus on the states where they can pass such legislation, or better marshal power such as to stop at the source developments such as the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill or the Mary River Dam. While Federal Labor supported the former and has just rejected the later, both were pushed by their state governments, which have fallen under the sway of and indeed often become corrupted by development companies as progressives look federally. Those with talent and a desire for being in parliament on the progressive side are almost universally looking towards Federal Seats, leaving many also-rans and backroom hacks in charge of the station (See Rees Government). Likewise on issues such as drugs, euthanasia, public transport, land use, and household trends (such as towards environmental efficiency) these issues either are still state issues, or have a greater chance of change at a state level.

So progressives are in a bind. They have an unparalleled opportunity to sign the death knell to the states rights argument from preventing progressive change, perhaps even to reform/do away with the entire states system (as the decidedly non-progressive Banaby Joyce advocates). Such changes would this be good policy in removing inefficiencies, ensuring uniform standards and laws, and overcome vested interests on national issues (everything from fixing the Murray-Darling to introducing a R18+ rating for computer games).

Yet the barriers to passing progressive legislation are significantly lower at a state level these days, with a cumulative effect in practice, meaning good progressive policy in one state tends to end up in the others (eventually). Equally many potential problems (such as corrupt/badly designed development) can be addressed before they become major issues. Add in the ‘common wisdom’ that progressives are more trusted on day to day domestic issues, whilst conservatives for outward looking concerns (the so-called daddy/mommy divide), which if not quite true at least benefits progressives electorally at a local level. Then again, they must also consider the thought experiment that if the situation reversed and a Federal Government introduced same-sex marriages and a single state dissented, would they keep supporting states rights.

For ACT residents it has been rumored that the Minister for Territories Brendan O’Connor would like to see a change to let the ACT govern itself, relieving the Federal Government from having to decide on such issues, as same-sex marriage. Nothing has occurred yet, and won’t before this bill is due to be addressed, but it would be a very positive sign considering the significant discrimination faced electorally by ACT residents.

No change has been bigger in Australia’s political landscape than the isolation of state government concerns from the dialogue of federal politics. Yet whilst this has come about because Conservatives under Howard walked away from their historical position, progressives ought to take their finger off the trigger for a moment or two to consider the real benefit of such a change. We are yet to see if Rudd will go ahead with his election ‘promise’ to takeover the health system, but if so similar moves in education wouldn’t be too far behind.

Certainly something to keep an eye on, the historic forces are shifting, but it may be a while till we see where the pieces finally come to lie.

Photo by jemasmith used under a Creative Commons Licence

The Ease and Evil of Oil

Over at The Interpreter Sam Roggeveen muses on a recent interview by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

“Medvedev: Trading in natural resources is easy, it leads to the illusion of economic stability. Money flows in — considerable sums of money. Acute problems can be effectively resolved with it. You don’t need any economic reforms; you don’t need to deal with diversifying production. We could rid ourselves of this lethargy if we would only learn the right lessons from the crisis.

You hear this in relation to Australia as well. It’s the idea that you can disguise a lack of economic reform if you just have enough natural resources to pull out of the ground. But how true is this, really?

Australia and Russia are both blessed with a great many valuable natural resources, but these resources don’t extract themselves. There’s an array of technological, regulatory, economic and infrastructure factors involved in extracting, processing and transporting these resources at a competitive price.

None of that is ‘easy’, as Medvedev would have it, and Russia’s under-performance as a resource supplier seems to prove that point. Russia would be doing a lot better out of its natural resource sector if it improved its infrastructure and reduced corruption.

Roggeveen’s perhaps right that an efficient industry needs development and hard work, but that simply re-enforces the unique ease of oil, as you can have a very inefficient industry and still be wealthy and powerful. The initial scouting, expertise and establishment can all be hired or outsourced from private companies (Or European colonizers may have already helpfully set it up for you). Once the process is established, countries can either start to take-over some of the industry (as Argentina and Venezuela have to varying degrees) or simply regulate & tax a fair slice and leave the rest in industry hands. There are very few nations today that have large reserves that they arn’t using, and that is usually more due to modern environmental concerns (such as drilling in Alaska in the USA) than practical difficulty. Indeed some of the most unstable and undeveloped nations in the world have been able to produce a sizable oil industry.

Which leads neatly to Medvedev’s second and more important point, the flow of money from natural resources like oil allows governments to paper over difficult challenges in many areas. As Larry Diamond has noted, of the 23 nations which derive a majority of their income from oil and gas, not a single one is a democracy. Why bother giving the people what they want (a say) when you can simply buy them off. Why bother educating them, or raising the role of women when welfare keeps all content.
Likewise Michael Ross had an interesting paper in 2001. (1)

… uses pooled time-series cross-national data from 113 states between 1971 and 1997 to show that oil exports are strongly associated with authoritarian rule; that this effect is not limited to the Middle East; and that other types of mineral exports have a similar antidemocratic effect, while other types of commodity exports do not.
The author also tests three explanations for this pattern: a “rentier effect,” which suggests that resource-rich governments use low tax rates and patronage to dampen democratic pressures; a “repression effect,” which holds that resource wealth enables governments to strengthen their internal security forces and hence repress popular movements; and a “modernization effect,” which implies that growth that is based on the export of oil and minerals will fail to bring about the social and cultural changes that tend to produce democratic government. He finds at least limited support for all three effects.

Ross’s conclusion is clear: “A states reliance on either oil or mineral exports tends to make it less democratic”.

500x_Dictator_Car Indeed this is a very good week to be talking about the effect of oil on dictators, for while the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the real final blow to the USSR’s scope came not from Reagan’s labeling of it as evil, but the fourfold rise and then sudden collapse of oil prices. Beginning in 1985, changing oil prices wiped over $20b a year from their economy. Oil went up to $70, then crashed to $10 in the late 1980’s. See the Graph. No economy could survive such a rapid change for an industry worth 40% of their total exports (2). Naturally foreign aid to satellite states like East Germany had to be dramatically reduced, undercutting those countries economies, and the rest as they say, is history. While Russia was always going to re-insert itself into the world’s affairs, the amazing speed with which it has done so in the 21st century is again a reflection of growing oil prices. In a similar vein the internal resilience and regional influence of the Iranian regime is a function more of oil than the US’s removal of their former competitor Saddam Hussein in Iraq. You can even predict the chance Hugo Chavez will appear on your TV screens by watching the oil price. High prices let him thumb his nose at the ‘great donkey’ of the USA and shower the poor in funds. Dropping prices means he has to turn his attention back to actually governing the country, and put on hold his dreams of regional organisation and change.

Talking about Australia in such context does seem relatively absurd, but John Howard certainly was able to take advantage of the extra wealth from our resource boom to seek to buy back popularity and smooth over issues rather than having to confront it. After all why talk about race relations or have to think up an future agenda when you can just hand out a tax cut every single year. Just as Keating turned to cultural issues in part to avoid mentioning a bad economy, Howard focused on economic issues to avoid harder cultural questions. Smart politics, but the issues are still there and unresolved.

Finding oil is perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to most countries. & certainly to their populations Its great wealth could be used well, but likely it will just be used to pay off various interest groups in order to maintain the status quo. So modernization, development, education, reform, and forward planning are all abandoned as unnecessary struggles. Just lie back and sip another oil martini and keep signing the checks. Wealth and stability is only a phone call to Shell away.

(1)Ross’s paper can be obtained on the Project Muse database if your university institution has subscription. Or if you can’t get it that way email me if you want a copy & I can send it through.
(2) Friedman, T (2008) Hot, Flat & Crowded p.105 Victoria:Allen Lane

How we can buy ourselves a better democracy

As I noted a few months ago, the sudden but praiseworthy switch of John Faulkner to the Defence Ministry has come at the cost of having his experienced hand overseeing changes to the way parliament and MP’s operate. It’s already proving to the detriment of the institution:
H/T Andrew Norton on the new regulations on use of parliamentary expenses by MP’s

As the Senate estimates hearing revealed, these rules have the following implications:
* MPs cannot send out Hansard extracts as Hansard is likely to contain ‘electioneering’ material
* bureaucrats are vetting MPs’ communications prior to sending, and so at least in theory the minister could receive reports frrom the Department on what non-government MPs are saying to their constituents
* ministers are free to keep using their departmental resources for what would be ‘electioneering’ under the parliamentary entitlements rules, further skewing the resource imbalance between government and opposition

The public concern’s are usually in good faith, but this is another instance where the financial crimps we try and apply to our politicians end up actually damaging the democracy we enjoy. The effective freeze on MP’s salaries (save CPI style increases) rob’s us of the best possible parliamentarians. The desire to not be seen as wasting money means the PM’s rightful home, The Lodge in Canberra, remains a cramped, small house, robbing the PM of a good entertaining/power play opportunity in Canberra (just think of the intimidation power of the White House) and meaning our PM’s will increasingly live in Sydney’s Kirribilli instead. And in this highlighted case, proposed changes to satisfy public concern about wasted money (following major rorts in the UK) will deny the opposition and minor parties a significant opportunity to present an alternative message to the Government. All for a pittance compared to the amount we are spending on welfare, defense, and on the economic stimulus. By spending more for better oversight on the government, we will save on wasteful government spending.

It is not celebrated as widely as we do changes like female suffrage, but the decision to pay MP’s is one of the most democratic and important decisions in Australia’s political history. For a tiny cost, we were able to ensure that our MP’s would be drawn from all sections, segments, classes and regions of the country. This fixed structural faults in our democracy of MP’s being limited to those living in the city (for it was too costly to leave the farm regularly), or to those with enough to live without doing paid work (ie the aristocratic or capital owners). The second change not only allowed the poor & middle classes to participate, but in removing the need of MP’s to do paid work whilst also trying to serve the public, significantly reduced a major cause of conflicts of interest.

You get the democracy you are willing to pay for. That’s true of the education we pay to educate our citizens, the amount you put into having elections freely and fairly run, the opportunities you provide to enable all candidates for election to put their message to the public (such as public funding), and in the amount you pay MP’s and the resources you give them to do their job. Ludwig’s proposed changes are sure to be monstered by the Opposition, independents and minor parties (cases like this are exactly why governments shouldn’t have senate control), but inevitably something will go through. Let’s hope the government keep in mind the miserable experience they had in opposition and remember they could be quickly returned there too, when drafting fair laws for conducting parliamentary business.

Veto players

Over the last few weeks I’ve surprised a few australian readers by saying that Obama will get his healthcare bills through. Right now that still looks the case, but it’s taken a big wobbly in the last 48 hours with Independent senator (and former Democratic VP nominee) Joe Lieberman saying he will filibuster any bill with a public option included (that is prevent it being voted on). It’s pretty unlikely that Lieberman will be coaxed back from this threat (he isn’t a democrat anymore, and even after supprting McCain over Obama, was allowed to keep his chairmanships of key committees), so now seems likely the Public Option will be sacrificed to the gods of the double demons of Debt and Taxes (despite the fact a public option won’t need tax increases and will decrease the debt)

King George III (1760-1820) still causing americans grief after all these years

King George III (1760-1820) still causing Americans grief after all these years

Either way, healthcare once again proves a very good example of Fareed Zakaria’s argument that the biggest challenge facing the US isn’t economic or cultural, but political. It desperately needs to reform its political system if it is to compete in the 21st century. The US founding fathers were geniuses for their time, but they were fleeing the power of a single individual who ruled the state. So in response they created a system with as many blocks and hold ups to passing legislation as possible. Those who occupy such positions are known as veto players. Of course the President is one, as are the Supreme Court, but given the quirks of the US legislators, majority and house leaders, and the committees, there are many many such players in the American system, any one of which can damage or subvert important legislation. This is unlike Westminster systems in the UK/Aus where there are usually only 2 (PM & GG/Queen/rare actual balance of power holding indpendents)

Today the Democrats hold the White House, Congress and the Senate, with strong public support for their legislation. Yet they can’t enact a bill that will lower the debt, free US businesses of crushing health premiums and give coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans, because of a handful of individuals. Because of changes in practice, every bill now needs a super-majority of 60/100 to pass the US senate. These suddenly powerful individuals have all (unlike the President/without the legal guide of the Courts) been elected by a tiny segment of the population, and know the power of name recognition, regional contacts and money can guarantee their re-election however they vote.

The US system is suffering under the weight of its own history. I certainly don’t think Obama has all the right ideas, or that opponents should just shut up and get out of the way. There are many other good alternative models to seek, or even a return to historic uses of veto’s (such as keeping filibusters rare) would be a strong development. But in a globalised world, where challenges like the GFC can strike with frightening speed, governments need to be nimble enough to respond quickly. The US system, because of the historical era it was built in response to is proving unworkable in the modern era. During the last 100 years parliamentary systems have generally proven vastly superior in raining in the scope of the President to dominate the legislature, now they are proving better in responding quickly to the challenges of the day. Quick policy* is not necessarily bad policy, and we need legislative systems capable of making timely, informed decisions in order to respond.

* Progressive in the US have been trying to push through universal health care since FDR in the 1930’s and utterly failed to get anywhere under Clinton. The US under Obama has been debating health care almost exclusively since March. Nothing about this is quick. Which is kind of my point.

Liberalism in 21st Century Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distractions of the eyes

John Adams – HBO series, still as yet unreleased in Australia. Keeping a reasonably consistent link to history, this powerful costume drama is not only great TV but provides a history that would do wonders if well known both around the world, and particularly in Australia. Worldwide such a history lesson may help temper anti-american prejudices, recognising the utopian ideals which have guided the american spirit ever since. Here in Australia, a country I love more and more for its sense and pragmatism towards common welfare and wealth, the story of America’s birth is still inspiring for its radicalism, idealism and principled stand. Characters such as John Adam’s were undoubtedly flawed, and just 125 years later, Australia’s great statesmen would achieve similar independence without bloodshed or civil strife. And yet I can’t help but be moved by the sheer bravado and principle of the American struggle for liberty. It may be headstrong and foolish, but it’s authentic idealism can not be questioned, then or now

The Hawke Memoirs – Part of my quest to read biographies of every Prime Minister (by my count 11 of 26) this is a surprisingly readable account of the rise to power and Prime Ministership of Robert Lee James Hawke. Though only 20 years past, it represents a starkly different world, and yet it still contains most of the seeds and debates that shape the modern Australian political landscape. Hakwe isn’t reticent about crediting himself with the changes and progress of the era, and yet their is an undeniable charm and larikanism that flows through his writing. I had picked up the book having just finished Abbott’s book, and looking for another well written insiders account of local politics. And whilst Abbott seems the closest to Hawke in representing an authentic Australian character, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Turnbull. But for political timing and personality differences Hawke and Turnbull seem similar men, vaulting through Australian society, bounding towards Parliament, and yet for these slight differences history is likely to regard the one as one of our greatest prime ministers, and the other as a never was, or what could have been. Aside the self-agrandisement and snide attacks on Keating (it was written only 3 years after he lost power to the man), it is still a very enjoyable account.

Kangaroo: D.H Lawrence

Written in 1923 by an Englishman, it is still regarded as one of the best engravings of the Australian character and identity. I’m still yet to pass judgement on that line, but it’s a good read, well written though slightly slow, and interesting for its picture of early post federation Australian society.

Seven Ancient Wonders: Matthew Reilly
I have read most of Reilly’s work before, and returned to this one to fill a gap in my reading, but it reminds me of the pure joy of this local australian authors work. A master in recognizing the content and style demanded by his audience, Reilly has made a name and living writing the type of fiction which people want to read, rather than that as favoured by far too many intellectuals the type they would like to have others read. A good bloke from my own limited interactions with him (at a book signing many years back) he is as worthy an australian voice as the Winton’s and Carey’s. Of course history will never regard him in such terms, but that’s its flaw, not his.

The Art and Science of Politics

One of the long heralded benefits of computers has been the suggestion that by its medium it will make us all writers. Most of the material we take in online is written, and most of the material we send out (such as email, IM’s and blogs) is also written. For reasons of slower than anticipated technology and workplace norms, videos are still rare and left for amusement by and large rather than as a means of communication. This trend it seems has also infused into our political leaders, who are punching the keys like never before to ensure their voice is heard. I’ve already blogged at length about Rudd’s first essay. But clearly so pleased was he with the act that he’s decided on a repeat performance. His shadow number Malcolm Turnbull clearly decided opinion pages were the place to be and has penned his own effort. Meanwhile the members of the former Howard Government who have slightly more time on their hand are pushing out their own book length efforts. Costello was first out of the gate, and is spruiking a new update (his second) to his book (did anyone tell him he’s not a blogger. As a buyer of a past edition surely i should get those chapters for free). Meanwhile Tony Abbott has just released his manifesto ‘Battlelines’ (review here) and we’re told John Howard is “writing like crazy” to get an autobiography out by November next year.

The academic Greg Melleuish however isn’t happy:

putting forward ideas about political matters is something that individuals who are not in power usually do. Ideas are a weapon of opposition, not government. They are meant to show what is wrong and how things can be improved.
To formulate ideas properly requires an amount of leisure that is denied to those who are involved in running something.

one must ask if writing essays on the state of the world is the appropriate thing for a leader of a country to be doing. There are times when politicians should be reflective and develop ideas that can be used to improve and reform the world.

The first is when one is out of office and reflecting on the reasons for being in that situation. The second is when one has left behind the world of politics and is able to ruminate on the significance of one’s time in office.

When a leader is in office, they should be doing things, trying to solve the problems the country is encountering. It is worrying when a leader seems to be more interested in writing essays than taking action.

This seems a slightly odd attack from a man who has just published a book ‘The Power of Ideas: Essays on Australian Politics & History’, but likely many, especially on the conservative side of politics would agree with him. Indeed even Tony Abbott writes in his own book ‘Governments have decisions to make; Oppositions have opinions to put forward’. Yet outside the fear that these “essays represent the ultimate triumph of words over things in politics” what we are seeing is perhaps a natural and important step in the political arms race between politicians in the media. When politicians such as Robert Menzies and John Curtin operated, politicians could command a packed hall of adults willing to come and hear them speak. After all, there was usually no TV, and radio could get tiring, so people went out and along with theatre and music would attend political meetings in their thousands. Newspapers reflected much of this interest devoting large sections of their pages to reporting (verbatim!) what had been said in Parliament the previous day.

With the rise of TV the crowds melted back to their warm homes & comfy couches, and the time available for political debate shortened. First 10 minutes, then 2 then 45 seconds and now somewhere between 5-7 seconds for a Prime Minister or Opposition Leader each night. Politicians naturally got better at providing short grabs and ‘spin’ for the journalists, and journalists got better at asking ‘gotch ya’ questions that tried to visibly trip up politicians, rather than draw out explanations from their for their policy or actions. This is the game played each and every day, and if you want to be a top journalist or politician you have to be very, very good at it. Many have interpreted it as showing our politicians and journalists don’t have the intellectual strength of previous generations, mistakenly blaming the messenger for a problem of medium. With TV’s style, nothing else was possible, and the short grabs the logical conclusion. Beyond having 4 screens going at once (along with tickers and the like scrolling by) it’s unlikely TV news will change that much, or grabs get any shorter (human speech & hearing speeds essentially prevent it).

But this is the age of computers, and right now you are engaging in a very different, and very ancient form of communication: writing & reading. Whilst l337 speak and Lolz proliferate in text messages and some teenagers communication more of us are writing and reading vastly more than we ever did before. We are becoming addicted to writing. The centuries old tradition of private diaries has exploded into Live Journals, Status Updates, and yes Blogs. Some like this explicitly designed for public viewing, revealing only snippets about the author, and blurring that line between private opinion and public communication. Our politicians too have had to respond, with more and more requests for interviews by email, with their speeches and comments in ready made form (ie sitting on their computer) for instant publication to the entire world, instead of having to be laboriously turned from hand written notes into something for public consumption. Indeed some of our more verbose politicians have even joined the blogging revolution (or at least Turnbull’s Dog has). That our politicians are now writing more and more for the public is a natural response to the opportunities the internet allows, and as a way to overcome the shrinking space that journalists give to politicians to communicate their views. In fact we should look for far far more of it, that is unless the media agree amongst themselves to no longer print politicians efforts. But politicians have counters there too, President Obama for instance does weekly Youtube addresses, reminiscent of FDR’s fireside chats. And once the media learn to counter those, the politicians will respond in kind. And so it goes…

But what about the claim that this is a distraction from the business of getting on with the job of politics? That Rudd should be ‘the decision maker’ rather than the prose prime minister. Is Rudd really abandoning the duty of leader for merely the image of leadership? Is all rhetoric a distraction from the actual hard work of running a country?
Certainly in a practical country such as Australia, government is about doing and achieving. In his collection of essays Melleuish writes that ‘In a modern democratic regime the desire of the mass is not so much to pursue the good as to escape the bad’. This he defines in contrast to the idealistic and heroic ideals of those who favour communist or fascist regimes with their utopian ideals of the perfect society. Yet is politics then just a science, a bread and butter effort to provide in as utilitarian a way possible the greatest happiness to the greatest number, with no other factors matter. Is the strength of a governing party simply a reflection of the economic well being of the people? Recent evidence would indicate it’s not. The Howard government fell in good economic times, the Rudd government continues to prosper as things turn sour. One man who keenly noticed the divide between this idea of politics as a science (with it’s implied precise present focused activity) and politics as an art (with it’s notions of leadership and future orientated direction) once wrote:

‘Politics is both a fine art and an inexact science. We have concentrated upon its scientific aspects – the measurement and estimation of economic trends, the organisation of finance, the devising of plans for social security, the discovery of what to do. We have neglected it as an art, the delineating and practice of how and when to do these things and above all, how to persuade a self-governing people to accept and loyally observe them. This neglect is of crucial importance, for I am prepared to assert that it is only if the art of politics succeeds that the science of politics will be efficiently studied and mastered. In short, the art is no less important than the science’

That man, was Sir Robert Menzies, who governed Australia for 16 years(1949-1966). Menzies too might be accused of having put off the big decisions during his time, of letting the country drift when it should have been active, active, active. But history and fading memories still recall it as golden era of Australian history when despite the challenges of communism, post-war recovery, migration and the break from the old white and British outpost into a modern Australian country became apparent, that the country held together, and through the writings and speeches of the leaders of that time we can see and come to understand how they held the continent and its people together as one nation and on one path.

Far from ridiculing political penmanship as a abandonment of their job, we should be demanding of our leaders ever more pieces of writing(dont worry you don’t have to read them all!). Getting them to set out their views, to make the case and refine their arguments so as to most effectively practice the art as well as the science of politics. In all times, but especially those of difficulty and struggle what most binds a community is the rhetoric of its leaders. Stressing the common values, defining and thereby giving us a handhold on the defining challenges. The depression was not an unbeatable monster, but a struggle with the fear inside all of us that the system would collapse. The defence of the UK from Nazism was not an impossible last stand, but a call to resistance and inner fortitude that made victory inevitable. The civil rights movement was not a change to American identity, but the very re-enforcement of it’s highest principles. In all these great contests it was the art of rhetoric that made the impossible possible, that brought the mountain top into reach, and gave us the strength as a community to soldier on, confident that the battle was small and our strength great.

No one would accuse Rudd or Turnbull of such eloquence, but contra-Melleuish they are participating in perhaps the greatest act of leadership possible: the communication between the elites and the public of their values and shared unity. With that, any challenge can be overcome.

Affable Alfred

Today marks the 153rd birthday of Alfred Deakin. ‘Affable Alfred’ as he was known departed us 90 years ago, (though mentally was going quiet some years before that), but for any who value Australia, the Australian political system and way of life, he can not be forgotten.

Back in early 2000-2001 the taskforce set up to celebrate the centenary of Australian Federation, ran add’s asking ‘what sort of a nation would forget its first PM’, but whilst Barton is a notable figure, a more important question would be how could we have forgotten the man who established Australia as we know it today. Whilst he doesn’t always appear on lists of Australia’s founding fathers (Parkes, Barton and Wentworth usually dominate), no man can make a better claim for having laid the foundation of modern Australia than Alfred Deakin.

Deakin was a barrister, journalist and scholar before entering Parliament at age 23. He was instrumental in the development of advanced irrigation techniques in Australia, having traveled to India and the United States to learn their techniques both ancient and modern. Whilst having every opportunity of staying on to become Victorian Premier, in the 1890’s Deakin turned his attention to Federation and was one of the leading advocates. Whilst parochial Victorians contend he ought to have been our first PM, Barton was probably the better choice. A former cricket umpire, he brought an order and stability to the chamber for the first 2 years that was sorely desired in later times. Meanwhile, his first choice as colleague and deputy Alfred Deakin undertook the real work of the government, introducing most of its major pieces of legislation such as the White Australia Policy. In September 1903, Barton resigned as PM for a spot on the high court, and Deakin became PM. He was to be PM three times, covering the entire first decade of Parliament. He introduced protectionism for Australian industries, copyright law, quarantine protection, established the census and meterology bureau and as I mentioned recently was instrumental in kick starting Australian foreign policy and development of its own defence force.

The Prime Minister and Deputy in 1901. Deakin on Right

The Prime Minister and Deputy in 1901. Deakin on Right

It took Australia over 80 years to move beyond some of his key policies such as protectionism and White Australia, yet in political organisation his influence is still keenly at work. Today we see debates about whether the Liberals should move in a moderate or conservative direction, with Deakin brought up as the archetypal Small-L liberal character they should emulate. In 1904 he voluntarily resigned as PM (no election was called) and allowed the Labor government under Chris Watson to take office. This hugely significant and generous move both forced Labor to become more professional by giving them a taste of the demands of office, also brought them instant credibility paving the way for their wholehearted involvement within the political process of Australia. Had this move not taken place, the Labour movement may have decided peaceful political engagement was useless and turned to more radical means, by keeping them inside the process, within sight of government, Deakin (who was somewhat sympathetic) guaranteed their peaceful, pragmatic form.

Deakin however lead the Protectionist Party (the opposition were the Free Trade party, with labor the minority ‘3rd cricket team’ of the chamber in Deakin’s unbeatable phrase) who were slowly dwindling in strength. In 1908 however he decided that a merger had to happen, both for the stability of the Australian government, and the political pressures of the day. Deakin was closer in ideology to the Labor party, however rejecting their caucus driven system (and they in turn rejecting his liberalism) he turned to the free trade party to form the ‘Fusion’ Party. The first major non-labor party setting up the essential two party system in Australia as it remains today. The possibility that Deakin could have sided with Labor remains one of the great ‘what if’s’ of Australian history, tantalizing in its prospects for all those who’s sympathies lie in between the two parties, supporting neither the union wing of labor, nor the conservative wing of non-labor. If you have ever cursed or praised the two party system in Australia, or marveled at it’s century long stability as a democracy (a rare rare feat in this world) then it is Deakin to whom you owe recognition.

He visited London twice in a representative role, in 1900 helping persuade the British Imperial parliament to support the passage of the Australian Constitution Bill, and later as Prime Minister. He wow’ed English audiences both times with his rhetoric and oratory, being regarded, as one of the best ever heard by a generation of English aristocrats and politicians who had only recently witnessed the passing of the likes of Disraeli and Gladstone. Deakin however was much more than just a politician, an intellectuals mind with a spiritual bent, he was a great reader and scholar, and remained a keen commentator for much of his time in parliament. Indeed whilst PM (and completely unknown to his colleagues) he often filed anonymous commentary for the London Times, even giving his own actions a whack when he had made mistakes or failed to anticipate his colleagues intentions. His penmanship was only discovered long after he had retired from federal parliament. His other works such as his recollection of the story of federation, remain some of the key documents in Australian political history, and keen visitors can even still read his extensive diaries at the National Library of Australia in Canberra (though be warned, his writing is rather hard to read at first!).

This anecdote to me reveals another crucial and charming feature of Deakin’s life and mind. Despite all his achievements and successes, perhaps unrivaled in Australian political history, politics was always a distraction for Deakin. Had the pressures of the colony and his compatriots not invaded, he would have been much happier to have simply lived as a poet, scholar and writer, quiet and alone in his study. In 1908 whilst PM, whilst deciding the future of Australian politics he wrote:

‘Measuring happiness by quantityt its fullest source for me has come from books. A life of activity and of considerable public adventure and reward with all its delights and ambitions, has so far as I can judge yielded less than reading…more and more the height, depth and breadth of life I have led in and through letters expands as I recall it, until I wonder whether I have not lived more, and more intensely in and through books’

Whilst Howard and Rudd are both big readers, (and the latter clearly likes to put pen to paper) can you imagine either political animal making such a claim. Both men live lives entirely obsessed with politics, with anything else seemingly reduced to its ability to help or hinder their political interests. Deakin however, whose achievements dominate both of them combined however was always slightly torn between the demands of the public and his own wish for a private meditative life, as a writer and scholar if not mystic. The last PM to have even seemingly wished for a private non-political life, Paul Keating was pilloried for his love of classical music and French architecture; just imagine what today’s press would make of a man who claimed to see spirits and communicate with the other side, or who wrote poetry.

Deakin may not offer many great policy lessons to current politicians, but in the art of politics, and of the good life there is few finer figures to view and emulate. He was, always, true to his own views and values, willing to play the game, but also happy to walk away from it all should it have required a compromise too far. he voluntarily gave up or refused power on several occasions in both the victorian and national parliaments*, awaiting the right opportunity, keenly aware of the streaming passage of time, taking him away from his study, his home life, his books and his thoughts. Yet when brought into the public he rarely failed to charm, delight and impress, not just a statesman who held his country together in its rocky first decade, but by all including his enemies long recognised and respected as a kind and gentle man. That too is his legacy, and part of the great Australian tradition, which decries the intolerant, shallow attitudes which seem to proliferate in this mcmansion new Australia. It is for these reasons that today, August 3 2009, 153 years after Deakin was born, we ought to remember his legacy for each of us individually, and for this country at large.

* In 1879 when first elected, Deakin resigned on his very first day in the Parliament due to complaints of a shortage of ballot papers in some areas of his electorate. He told the parliament ‘If I am the representative of the majority of electors… I will be returned again. If I am not their representative I have no right here’. He was soon returned. This his very first office for a very ambitious young man. But power without honour was no power at all for him.