Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Rhetoric

Kevin and the kids

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

However, while the polls show reasonable support, it’s no surprise why Rudd is not popular with young voters (Those under 30). Here’s 4 major reasons why:
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The Ignorance of Certainty: Science’s failure to sell Global Warming

Today marks 360 years since the death of Rene Descartes. Descartes is the first of the modern philosophers in that he represents the emergence of the scientific and thus modern mindset. Indeed that the man on the street largely sees himself in terms of mind and body is due to this philosopher. Descartes sought to bring certainty to knowledge, and sitting in an oven one day (he tells us it was cold) he realised the only thing he could be certain of was that he was a thinking thing. This is the origin of the famous cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”. Which has entranced & dismayed philosophers and undergraduates everywhere for hundreds of years. Yet while the quest for certainty is admirable, it is also deeply misleading and ultimately damaging. Both in what little benefit results from certainty and more practically in misleading us about the worth of knowledge we already have. Descartes project philosophically ended soon after his death, but in misunderstanding the value of knowledge, much of the scientific community is risking our very lives.

The love of certainty over the shifting and transitory is as old as philosophy itself. Plato’s entire project involved the repudiation of the empirical and political in favour of establishing certainty. Many philosophers have invoked God as a crutch to guarantee that the phenomena of life (colours, sounds, movement etc) is more than just sensory data within our own minds, but represents exactly something which is “out there”. It is the holy grail of all knowledge, that something is absolutely certain, and yet no 2nd step has ever been added to Descartes cogito (indeed many even doubt that). Even if Descartes is entirely correct, his knowledge gives us absolutely nothing of value (beyond entertainment). We may be thinking things but in vats manipulated by chemicals, we may even be thinking things in human form in a world identical to our perception of it, and yet we still hunger, thirst, lust, and sweat identically even with this knowledge. This is not to renounce the project of knowledge itself, but whether Descartes cogito ergo sum is certain knowledge or just knowledge makes no practical difference.

The far more malicious side of the quest for certainty is the way it shapes the worth we apply to knowledge we already have. Science in modern times has been deeply affected by this, for both its practitioners and in its image in the public mind. While science is not like religion, it shares a faith like belief in its own ability to deliver certainty, not through revealed truth, but through a method. The results may change, but the method is what proves the wisdom of the course. When attacked in our modern and increasingly partisan public sphere, science and its boosters have tended to retreat towards this comfort of certainty, allowing public knowledge to be subverted by those opposed. Nothing illustrates this better than the question of Global Warming. In many ways the evidence is simply overwhelming that the planet is heating, that its causes can be reasonably identified, and that man has had some significant effect on this situation. Yet in the last decade the scientific community has been left almost dumbstruck that so many politicians and people resisted accepting their viewpoint in the first place, and once it was largely accepted that a rising chorus of voices has been able to reverse the tide and in some cases (like Australia) reverse government legislation addressing it.

Like Plato, or religious fundamentalists, Scientists when attacked or hurt by society tended to retreat to their more pure and certain quest for knowledge as a way of insulating and protecting themselves. When critics of Global warming attack, the response inevitably is that the attackers themselves have no credibility because they don’t have peer-reviewed papers, they haven’t degrees in the field, they don’t know and havn’t used the scientific method in determining their views of global warming, and so therefore are automatically invalid. But the truth of the claims of global warming skeptics has no relation whatso ever to how often or little they have been published, what their degree is, or their motives. Science only has a way of assessing the likely truth of each claim through its method, not ownership of the entire field of what is true. This is an important distinction oftern forgotten by scientists and especially their boosters. This may be career threatening when involving a dispute within the field (ie the shift in various paradigms in physics or astronomy), however it is threatening to the authority of the entire discipline and perhaps even the well being of the species, an area it has formerly dominated (Capitalism may make us wealthier, but it is scientific advancement which has allowed us to live longer/better).

This treatment of scientific knowledge as quantitatively different from other forms of knowledge has also severely impeded the ability of the scientific community to communicate with the general public. It sets them up for nit-picking where it is assumed by the public that they ought to be infallible (such as the back down over the melting Himalayan glaciers, and perhaps some claims about ice levels), and discourages many scientists from seeking out either professional communicators to push their views, or entering the arena directly themselves. Like Plato 2400 years before them, to publicly advocate what is the latest scientific knowledge is all too often seen as a dirty, compromising, and pointless endeavour. And to do so arguing against people without even scientific degrees or who have never been published in the field… well!

Yet for the good of the scientific community, many many more scientists need to get over this absurd concern for purity and decend into the political arena. Politics and communication are not a dirty words, and it is only through an understanding if not mastery of the political sphere (and here i mean social, cultural relations as well as partisan debates) that the scientific community will be able to ensure the best reception and understanding of their work. People like Richard Dawkins and Tim Flannery are doing good work, but both suffer from an absolute arrogance of tone and only reasonable communication skills. Dawkins in particular could learn a lot from his friend Christopher Hitchens. Who is usually polite, and yet strident, willing to debate almost anyone at any time or location. It’s a rather thankless job, but it is needed. It is a job that takes knowledge as an abstract thing (number of particles in an atom, colours of a mexican flying beetle, function of white cells in the body) and makes it practical by educating, and inserting that knowledge into the culture and social environment.

We are firmly ensconsed in a hyper-partisan world. It may have always been thus, but many still have not caught up. Science can’t expect to be able to dictate claims about truth to the world without shedding its claimed authority as the nearest thing to certainty (which makes it more vunerable, not less publicly), and unless it is willing to engage the public sphere on its own terms and according to its own rules. Descartes for all his glory, is not the model the scientist currently operating needs to look up to. Instead, scientists should see themselves as more like explorers, venturing forth to obtain and then bring back pieces to the public. The dissemination and education of reality needs to be seen as just as important as the discovery, yet this is an aspect that has been scorned for far too long, due to pretensions to certainty and disdain for the impurity of public life and political participation. But that needs to change, not only for the well-being of the scientific discipline itself, but perhaps humanity as well. Global warming might make things uncomfortable, doubting whether a asteroid really is headed for earth might just kill us.

A new (publicly owned) Bank?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott boxed in by climate change rhetoric

Pollution_Factory There is a tendency when it comes to political rhetoric to always go nuclear. To deploy the most strident, attacking, and damaging language you can to label an opponents position or policy. And no word has more power today than ‘Tax’.

Case-in-point: In the US 2008 election, the Republicans attacked Obama for ‘palling around with terrorists’ and saw no electoral traction. Yet when they caught him saying he wanted to ‘spread the wealth’ to Joe the Plumber, their spirits soared. It didn’t help their cause that Obama had a tax cut for about 95% of the country, yet McCain still devoted almost the entire second Presidential debate to claiming Obama wanted to raise people’s taxes, causing a few wobbles from Obama’s campaign.

While there was certainly a strong case for Tax Cuts in the 80’s & 90s, today when there isn’t much fat left on the revenue side of the budget, the social stigma applied to the word is impeding our political debate. Of course this criticism has been mounted before by social democrats who want to spend more on infrastructure or key social services, but it’s also damaging the way Liberals and Conservatives develop their policies too.

A few months ago when The Nationals were the only party against the ETS in principle, Barnaby Joyce took the obvious rhetorical step of calling it an ‘Emissions Tax Scheme’ (clever guy huh). As the vote got closer, he increased the volume calling it a ‘massive tax on everything’. A theme picked up by a number of other opponents of the scheme, and instantly adopted by Tony Abbott when he took over as Coalition leader and defeated the Governments’ policy. This was not the only rhetorical attack on offer against the governments CPRS (it could also be called complex, confusing, ineffective, counter-productive, special-interest laden, bureaucratic etc etc) however “Tax” was the leading punch. To Abbott’s reckoning he had given the Government a black eye (a defeated policy), a cruel new nickname (big taxer) and was now the hero who had saved the people from a major tax. Only, and annoying for him, the people still want something to be done. However, nothing that looks or sounds like a tax can possibly be advocated by the Coalition, leaving very few options available.

If Abbott had avoided dropping the Tax bomb on the governments scheme (and he did not need to do so to have it voted down the bill) he could have offered a much simpler and attractive scheme: A Carbon Tax.

By Jeremy Hansen in the NYT (Who Paul Krugman calls “a great climate scientist. …the first to warn about the climate crisis”)

‘Under this approach, a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas). The fee would be uniform, a certain number of dollars per ton of carbon dioxide in the fuel. The public would not directly pay any fee, but the price of goods would rise in proportion to how much carbon-emitting fuel is used in their production.

All of the collected fees would then be distributed to the public. Prudent people would use their dividend wisely, adjusting their lifestyle, choice of vehicle and so on. Those who do better than average in choosing less-polluting goods would receive more in the dividend than they pay in added costs.

For example, when the fee reached $115 per ton of carbon dioxide it would add $1 per gallon to the price of gasoline and 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour to the price of electricity. Given the amount of oil, gas and coal used in the United States in 2007, that carbon fee would yield about $600 billion per year. The resulting dividend for each adult American would be as much as $3,000 per year. As the fee rose, tipping points would be reached at which various carbon-free energies and carbon-saving technologies would become cheaper than fossil fuels plus their fees. As time goes on, fossil fuel use would collapse’….

Emissions Trading Schemes were preferred because they let governments set a limit on emissions which can be reduced over time, giving assured levels of pollution reduction. Carbon Taxes are more elusive in this area, but the same logic of a rising price = less use of carbon emitting fuels/products/technology applies. This offers a wiggle room would perfectly suit a coalition party which both wants to look serious on the issue, but doesn’t want to be too tied into international deals and wants to be able to regulate Australia’s actions in line with economic circumstances.

Carbon Taxes have the advantages of being more economically efficient, and ‘just’ in a Liberal sense of being applied equally across the population. While small refunds could be applied to some industries (such as agriculture), it likely wouldn’t be the hodgepodge of deals and allowances & exceptions that the Government has set up with its ETS (which for the Greens make it now useless). And given that a carbon tax would reward individuals who act positively to reduce their own carbon footprints, it would also be in line with the parties preference for individual responsibility and reward. Not only that, but the Coalition could even piggyback some of the potency of the tax argument, by offering to sharply reduce all income taxes in line with the CO2 taxes. Just like the GST, not all taxes are equal, and given the public demand for action, this would be strongly in line with their past actions.

Finally, if they chose to keep back just a small part of that revenue, it could be invested in what is perhaps the real and only solution to climate change: better technology. This was an argument John Howard made consistently during his final years in office, and one the Coalition could pick up and run with. Australia has the minds, the education system, and the incentives to be the ones who create the next big breakthrough that fundamentally changes how we create and use energy. We’re doing it already, but with a big injection of funds imagine what we could create, what industries would come to call Australia home, what economic returns await us.

Of course Carbon Taxes are not a new idea, and I think Paul Krugman is somewhat right that having spent so long building up a Cap&Trade system, to throw it away and start down a different path just means too many delays to accept. But it’s worth noting again, how the rhetoric we use in one area, deamonising all taxation as bad harmful policy, if not outright ‘theft’ has left Conservatives (and many liberals) unable to offer sensible alternative policies in other areas. A Carbon Tax might not be considered as effective environmentally as an ETS, but it’s just as effective (if not more-so) politically for the Coalition. But it’s now off limits.

Instead, because Abbott accepted the rhetorical framework of calling a market based system a tax (thereby ruling out both) he is left with prescious little other than Command-and-Control type regulations. Not only does this also run up against 30 years of liberal and conservative economic thinking in Australia, it may well be at least twice as expensive(p152) if not even more so. But Abbott has no real options left if he wants to propose a policy that at least looks serious.

As Al Gore has said, what is ideally needed is to ensure we “tax what we burn, not what we earn”. Gore is another who has long supported a carbon tax. If the Copenhagen Summit succeeds, then to cap and trades we must committ. But if it fails, if it is all smiling handshakes with no commitment behind them, then a Carbon tax is an alternative we need to have a serious debate about.
If only we could get over the rhetorical stigma of the word ‘Tax’.

(Incidentally, this is why I like the Constructivist approach in International Relations. Everyone wants to be a ‘realist’ about the world and how to respond to it, but when you mentally close off avenues through certain rhetoric, then your options can be utterly distorted, even harming your own interests.)

For a more details explanation of Carbon Tax (and fully sourced), I recommend having a look at this testimony to the US Senate by Ted Gaynor of the Brookings Institute

The courage of their convictions.

A big congratulations to Senators Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce for crossing the floor to vote for the CPRS scheme.

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Sue Boyce

Senator Sue Boyce

For the last month the central debate amongst political insiders was how many conservative climate sceptics were going to cross the floor to vote against the CPRS. No one doubted the threat was serious, and on some of the early amendments they even carried out their threat to vote no. This wasn’t enough for the cons, and following one failed spill motion they resigned on mass, forced a second leadership challenge and though expecting to lose, pulled out a surprise victory in the leadership stakes. Of the 10-15 Liberal senators who still supported of the CPRS in line with a strong majority of the public only 2 voted yes, and the bill failed.

As for Turnbull, he surged amongst Labor voters in his final days for his defiant support of the CPRS, and provided himself an exit narrative far more historically praiseworthy than the already pencilled in outline of having badly lost an election arguing for policies he didn’t support. His biographers have their story, and while not the PM outcome he thought himself destined for, it’s one he can be proud of. (And out of bitterness or convictions he’s still arguing for an ETS. Watch this space.)

So what is the moral of this story: In Australian (&US) politics, it seems only conservatives have the courage of their convictions. In government the conservatives ruthlessly pursued their policies, and now in opposition are fundamentalist in their rejection of the lefts agenda (Such as Tony Abbotts sudden disapproval of mandates). True, this stridency isn’t always the best electoral politics, Bush & Howard went down humiliatingly and Abbott is miles below Rudd on the polling. But in policy and momentum terms it matters. Bush got through much of his agenda (save reforming social security), as did Howard, and in office Obama and Rudd have struggled to get their signature issues through (Health & ETS respectively) and only barely scrapped through a stimulus package (whose debt they now wear like a bad smell). All of which makes their re-election campaigns so much harder as they have little to point to as achievements. This isn’t a startling new observation obviously, but it is worth recognising when it occurs. There’s all sorts of explanations floating around, assigning rational reasonableness to the left & irrational ignorant passion to the right, but it doesn’t really hold weight. Likewise theories that this is just a post-election backlash (as the US teaparties have been seen) don’t work either because the same determination was evident in government.

Instead, it seems to reflect the pattern of the last 30 years. The right emerged circa 1970 with a clear vision of society and agenda, easily won the rhetorical war against the dying remnants of Post-WW2 liberalism, and has stayed in the ascendant ever since. Though the left had some electoral victories (Hawke, Clinton) and has made good advances in some areas (homosexual rights, environmental, retaining welfare net), it hasn’t ever really gotten up from its crouched, defensive position. It hasn’t been willing to be blooded and potentially risk any kind of electoral backlash in order to carry out its policies. It was so anxious to gain government it weakened or deferred most of its real beliefs, and having gained it is even more anxious to keep it. This isn’t always the worst thing, sometimes good government means just pragmatically minding the store, something that is in the best of the conservative tradition. But when it comes to big critical issues, it also can translate overwhelming strength into policy defeat. Rudd’s suffered it here, and we are just waiting to see if Obama can escape it in the US (the public option is dead, but surely something will get through). So good on Troeth and Boyce for having the courage of their convictions that seemingly few other liberals and moderates do. To vote as they see their conscious and beliefs dictate, not based on calculations of self-interest.

If liberals/the left is to escape this, the option is not more strident politicians, but a much clearer and more thought through agenda. One that can carry liberal/left/progressives of all tempraments through, and mutually re-enforce various elements. It’s not enough to support health care & climate change as individual policies, we need to show how these build towards an clear vision of a better country. I’ve started to begin such work here, I hope you’ll join with me on this.

Twitter’s growing pains

I’ve blogged about twitter before, yet I still find it a valuable service to keep updated of the news, and give me a peak at what journalists & politicians are saying. Only it may not actually be them at the keyboard:

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

It took Barack Obama only 25 characters to shock most of his 2,677, 720 followers to the core. “I have never used Twitter” confessed the leader of the Free World, when pressed on new technology by Chinese students in Shanghai. But, hang on a minute. Wasn’t this the first Social Media Presidency? One of the very first Twitter accounts to be verified? And if Barack says he really is all thumbs, just who is it who is doing all his tweeting?

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull appeared at ease during the Sydney Media 140 conference in discussion with broadcaster Fran Kelly, leaning comfortably back in his chair. But little did he know that only a few days later, he would looking for a new social media advisor, after his chief on-line strategist, Thomas Tudehope, was revealed to be linked to a version of the popular spoof Hitler “Downfall” video lampooning besieged Liberal politician, Alex Hawke.

The admission that “Tommy Tudehope helps with a lot of it” [Turnbull’s tweeting] during the Media140 interview may well have contributed to the startling resignation. But I believe that what these events may reveal is a key danger of the burgeoning use of social media: politicians leaping on the bandwagon and the consequent use of new media tools for more complex political tricks.

To the twitterati, these revalations are a real outrage, and a slightly heartbreaking one at that. Social media has been seen as a way for direct, personal, unhindered contact between the elites and the masses. To find out it’s instead a staff member who is writing up the information seems to them to break the fundamental trust that they invest in the system. Yet whilst it’s unfortunate, it certainly isn’t surprising, at least no more than the use of speech writers or even media spokespeople. Politicians are immensely busy, their job is to both understand, decide and communicate on the issues of the day, and if they outsource the communication part occasionally, that’s not the worst sin in the world.

As a wanna-be speech writer, this has always been an issue that has interested me. Whilst the best remembered and usually most sucessful politicians are the best communicators (such as Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, Obama), all used some assistance to cover the sheer workload and variety and forms of communications which they are expected to produce. This isn’t too different from sending out supporters or influential figures to help advocate for your case as happened in the ancient greek agora. Everyone would rather be personally visited by the politician and asked for their support, or hear their arguments and have a chance to respond in person, but it was impossible in a city of 30’000 active citizens, and simply laughable in a country of 21 million or 300 million or 1.6 billion.

We are thankfully emerging from the era of one to mass communication, with the decline of TV & Radio as the main communication sources. But we should not expect that the requirements of politicians are any less, even if we want no more than 140 characters out of them from time to time. To the good politician, such resources are simply another media outlet to be used in so far as they advance their cause. I know some federal politicians read this blog, along with their staffers, and taking a quick pulse check on what’s happening online may give them a heads up on issues the media may be looking at, or the way it is generally trending. But all this means more work, and more time spent hearing talk about themselves, and from competitors for the audiences attention.

The Twitterati are a smart bunch and will soon recover from this (in their hearts they probably knew it from the start). They may have lost the dream of reforming politics through their particular technology, but this happens every time a new technology is created. With its acceptance as a mundane addition the discussion can move to the truly important debates such as the social norms of it’s use, and the right and wrong ways to utilise it. Finaly it allows us to begin to measure its actual impact in real data, rather than against idealistic dreams of a new public sphere, dreams that have been floating around under the label of of E-Politics since at least the mid 1990’s if not in similar form for 2500 years.

‘You cant put tears on paper’

I have to be honest: I thought this apology was a bad idea from the start. It seemed to cruely mimic the one last year to the aborigines, and I could not see what it would achieve.

I was wrong.

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to SMH.com.au

Senator Andrew Murray at the apology. Photo credit to SMH.com.au

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made an emotional apology today to half-a-million “Forgotten Australians”, including British child migrants, who faced abuse and neglect in care homes over decades.

Mr Rudd, echoing his historic 2008 statement to Australia’s Aborigines, addressed about 1000 victims of abuse in orphanages and institutions between 1930 and 1970 who packed Parliament House.

“We come together today to offer our nation’s apology. To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent, that we are sorry,” he said.

I had the good fortune to be in the parliament gallery when Prime Minister Rudd gave his apology to Indigenous Australians. I could see some who were very moved by it, but on the whole it was a solemn, dry affair, more relief at its achievement, than anything else. Today was very different, and very moving.

The press gallery may have been wondering just who Rudd is, but his unvarnished nature was clearly on display today. Rudd clearly is very passionate about the basic issues of lodging and protection. This may spring from his own background in a family too soon without a father and with uncertain finances. He made homelessness the very first issue of his new government, and he clearly had been working on addressing this issue for some time. Rudd’s speech was low key, but finely tuned. Apparently written on the plane home, it was appropriate for the man, and the moment. As easy and tempting as grand rhetorical sweeps must have been, Rudd wisely kept his usual speaking style and allowed the crowd to deliver the emotion of the moment. When they cried, cheered, clapped or occasionally heckled, the focus was always on them, and their stories. I had at first wondered why the apology was not delivered in the parliament, but instead in the Great Hall, yet the choice to invite as many involved people as possible to participate in the event was an excellent one.

Of note were two important, yet unexpected applause lines. First was when Rudd apologised on behalf of the federal government for “denying you basic life opportunities; including so often a decent education.” This drew a spontaneous and strongly sustained line of applause from the audience. Their sentiments were not revenge or financial reparations, but this struck a core sentiment. The main desire was to move on, to say the greatest sin was simply the denial of the childhood that they deserved, needed and so desperately wanted after such a horrific start to life. For this was not just the institutionalization of abuse, it was the deliberate exploitation of that suffering in order to create a “better” generation.

One of the other most pleasing moments, was to see the recognition by both Prime Minister and Opposition Leader of former Senator Andrew Murray. Murray received generous praise, and a standing ovation. I do not know the particulars of Murray’s involvement, -beyond his membership of the forgotten Australian’s committee- but on a day when the national leaders spoke and espoused to nation, it was gratifying to see them both turn to a mere member of the legislature, and doff their hats to his moral leadership. Many members of the senate over its 100 years have worked without public praise or recognition, seeking a better country. In long and tired committee meetings they have toiled. Murray has toiled with them, and ought today to be seen as a representative of them. To see him praised in such manner, was very moving. This showed it was not just the leaders acting, but the entire elected representatives of the nation who participated in the moment.

All that said, the highlight was the speech by Malcolm Turnbull. Where Nelson was sanctimonious and missed the tone and meaning of the moment in 2008, Turnbull hit every note. He started ambitiously, going for the big rhetorical approach, and at first the audience was hesitant to travel with him. Turnbull is certainly capable of giving a great speech; where Rudd was homely, he was sweeping. The crowd was understandably not on his side as much as they were for Rudd, but he steadily won them over. His tearing up, twice, including at a moment describing a small boy, alone with his suitcase and neither mother or father around seemed utterly personal and real. His embrace of a man who was a victim of such abuse – mid-speech – was a truly moving moment. It may have been staged, and yet absolutely real. By the end many, if not most rose in standing ovation to Turnbull’s speech. If his path is as pre-destined to electoral failure as everyone else has written, then let it be said, this was his finest hour.

The apology also brings into stark light the Howard years. John Howard not only didn’t give such an apology (the Senate Report came out in 2004), he couldn’t have given it.
John Howard has many talents, but on the big cultural issues he never could find the words. Many have remarked on his focus on Gallipolli and mateship, seeing in it either good old fashioned conservatism, or a backward looking 1950’s mentality. It was more the former than the latter, but it really owed itself to Howard’s inability to move beyond what had been said and what he already knew on such issues. Howard introduced massive new immigration levels, and yet had neither the words nor sentiments to bring them into our community. As James Curran has documented in his book About Speech, every Prime Minister since Harold Holt struggled trying to give Australia a new rhetorical basis, after the old British-Australian one had slipped away. Howard however abandoned that quest, not because he thought it wrong, but because he had nothing to say.

He had no ways to include migrants, no sentiments to heal divided communities, no empathy to address societies failings, no vision or foresight to see where this country could saftly dock its identity from the storms of globalisation. Instead we were told to forget about it, put the problems aside and focus on our own stories. So we as a people did, and it has its merits. Yet for the new migrant who struggled to fit it, for the children of migrants born here and yet unsure of where home was, for the indigenous Australians, for those struggling to come to terms with their own identities, whether their sexuality, religion, or just what it means to be a man or woman in the modern world, for the young who had to move overseas to be listened to and taken seriously, and of course for those 500’000 who were left to suffer in institutions as children, they all suffered quietly in a nation unwilling to confront its past, or talk about its future. The Prime Minister is our communicator-in-chief. When their words fall silent, or worse, when they speak but can only find deaf ears, our society can not move forward, nor even get into gear.

Rudd will likely not solve that problem (perhaps it never will be solved), but he is at least trying. Instead of the neglect and awkward silence of his predecessor, he is bringing these issues out into the open. They can and must be discussed if we are to account for and understand ourselves and our history. Many cynics will say ‘But this apology saves no child’, yet the policy solutions they seek can only be found when we have as a nation discussed and accounted for this past. The Senate Committee’s did that, the many who have fought to raise public awareness have done that, and now, in two excellent speeches by our Prime Minister and the Leader of The Opposition our nation has done that.

This apology has seen our nation at some of its best. That said, I have to wonder, like Bernard Keane if Fielding’s timing on his revelation he was sexually abused is more about getting attention when our minds are on such matters, rather than empathetically reaching out to those who the apology was directed towards. At the very least he should have waited until the day after (and probably it would have gathered him more press)

For more, here are

Kevin Rudd’s Speech
and
Malcolm Turnbull’s Speech

Congratulations to them both.

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.

Nazi_toy_Soldiers

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

To thine own self be true

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lies, Damned lies and Statistics

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

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

Likewise take this mornings outrage over taxation under Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some days reading the news is just a painful process…

Rhetoric and Morality

If you watch much US politics, although some similar elements can be found here in Australia, you’ll notice that the major political players arn’t really talking to each other anymore. Though socratic dialogue on the great issues of the day has never really occurred (or been needed) within modern western democracies, the extent of the gap between the meaning and intent of the language used by the competing groups is stark. There are many reasons for this gap, but perhaps the most critical of them comes down to the issue of morality. Or rather where you seek to measure morality, and the implications that flow on from that. Those in power tend to take morality as a result of outcomes. Those in opposition tend to take morality as a question of intention. The difference between these two is often at the heart of the controversies of modern society, though as shall be noted later, the groups are increasingly hardening around particular takes, the Religious Right around Intention, the Liberal Left around Outcome.

During the time of John Howard or Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Left wing critics of both governments used to point to the cuts in welfare spending, tightening of requirements, stronger support for private services (like health and education) and harsher penalties for those who are seen to be breaking the rules, from ordinary criminals to ‘queue jumping’ refugees. In each of these cases, the government could usually turn around and argue that whilst this looked harsh, that harshness was both needed (like a disciplined parent) and more importantly in the moral stakes, that the outcome of these policies was improved social conditions. Less people dependent on welfare, more money available for social spending, or parents choosing educations in line with their own personal beliefs, and a stronger sense of personal responsibility within the community. Howard and Thatcher both saw themselves as highly moral individuals, but it was demonstrated by their outcomes, not their intentions. Their critics however would rage most strongly at the announcement of individual policies that seemed to offer a harsh intention, within the sometimes counter-intuitive logic of economic liberalism that a lack of control of the market affords greater support for the needy and the wayward. While there are numerous cases of the market and indeed these individual policies causing great immoral harm, their critics were eventually silenced by the clear and successful outcomes. Neither is well liked, but their moral victory rests in the adoption of similar policies by almost all of the mainstream Center-Left (The GFC has given some of the last holdouts a hope of resistance, but its a fleeting one)

Today a similar pattern is evident in the US (and increasingly in Australia) as the Right wing critics attack the government more and more for what they perceive as wrongful intentions, rather than any great concern with outcomes. So Obama’s healthcare policy is dismissed out of hand because it represents a move to big government or away from individual choice, (as was his stimulus package). Torture is seen as perfectly acceptable, because the intention is to protect the homeland, the way this protection occurs of almost no interest. When Obama removes missile defence policies, closes Guantanamo or seeks to negotiate with Iran over Nuclear weapons, the potential outcomes are not a part of the debate, rather they are seen as simply pointers for the troubling moral intentions which are applied to his character. Though 100% of those against him would also be against him where he a white democrat named Bob Jones, or Joe Charles, the difference of his skin colour and background make it easier to apply such devious intentions to his moral character.

Likewise, this view of morality as a question of intention over outcome reflects significantly on the movement that takes on this view. Articulated principles become the guiding lights to the faithful. Not only is it far easier to communicate via principles than complex circumstantial outcomes, intentions as a moral basis allows for greater enforceability as tests can be applied almost any time, to any communication past or present to check for consistency. Morality at this point becomes a question solely of identity. Sarah Palin’s many outright lies have absolutely no impact on the high moral status awarded to her by the Religious Right. She could have an affair and see no damage, but should she endorse anything Obama does, the glass would shatter and she would be seen as immoral and unacceptable. As such you see a far greater willingness to exclude those who come anywhere near agreeing with the chosen enemy, for such an act, even if utterly consistent with one of the principles desired, is taken to be an acceptance of a wayway intention. So while Noel Pearson was of the left and believed in the same social justice ideals as the left, he was instantly discredited for working with Howard (Likewise Frank Brennan for his helping Brian Harradine on Wik). In the US any conservative who gives even mild support for Obama’s healthcare (which will reduce overall costs, and increase the healthcare for all, regardless of income) is ostracized and discredited. If Obama has bad intentions, the thinking goes, only someone with similarly bad intentions could justify supporting anything they do (or at least has lapsed on this cause).

This is a common pattern, Oppositions center around intentions, Governments around outcomes. However, I think we are seeing an increasing hardening of current patterns. That is a big call given Obama has only been in power 8 months, but this is a 30 year change. I had deliberately excluded Ronald Reagan from my first set of examples, because he was a for runner to the Intention driven politics you see in the US. Big government was the enemy, but even as supply side tax cuts sent the budget into deficit, his intentions were seen as still being more moral than his opponents. On the left, the grudging acceptance of capitalism ‘because it works’ has been occurring almost since the early 1940’s when communism lost its sheen, but especially over the last 20 years, as massive economic liberalisation and privatisation has not resulted in a Randian struggle for survival, but increased prosperity, increased support for the disadvantaged, and a more free and tolerant society. The outcomes have forced their change, many may not like capitalism, but there are few arguments from intention (the contest of the market place) replaced mainly by ones of outcome (how to get the poor and disadvantaged the same opportunities the rich are afforded). There is also the increasing social liberalism of those who champion economic liberalism (such as in Libertarians), which is dividing the Religious Right from the vast mainstream of Western Political thought.

In a world where the political divide is seen as a moral one. And a moral divide based not on issues but on how and where you draw your morality, actual civic communication becomes increasingly difficult. One of the primary tasks of all leaders is to communicate how the elites are dealing with the problems faced, and why this is the right course of action for the times. When John Howard was talking economics he was excellent at this type of explanation, and many a left-winger (myself included) would admit to the guilty secret of being swayed by his explanations on economic issues. But when it came to cultural or social issues, he was hopeless, retreating to boilerplate lines about the guiding principles, whilst effectively ignoring them in policy. Obama is much better at this, for he seems to have a clearer vision of the future country he seeks, but he also faces an opposition significantly less inclined to listen than even Howard faced during the Wik or Tampa controversys.

So next time you encounter someone you just can’t reason with politically, or a figure who confuses you in how they could possibly advocate such an immoral position, ask yourself from where they may be seeking to draw their morality. And when communicating with others seek to offer as an explanation the origins of your own morality as an important point of common ground. You probably wont even agree, but recognizing each other as equally worthy moral beings, just utilizing different calculus’s is a vital first step to true public dialog and political engagement.

Culture and Political language

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech to congress on Healthcare. The issue has been very contentious over the last few months, and Obama was hoping to push congress over the line with a vote before the year is out (My bet is that he will get his bill). However the show was almost disrupted when one Congressman, Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You Lie”. This prompted shock, condemnation and Wilson quickly apologised.
joe_wilson_lie
Yet this display in decorum is set against a political environment that has been filled with people bringing guns to political rallies, frequent comparisons of Obama’s introduction of Healthcare and the Nazi’s in pre-war Germany, and utterly false lies such as “Death Panels” which are breathtaking in their dissent from reality.

Watching this debate from Australia, I’ve been amazed that a somewhat healthy democracy like the US can have such a vile and angry debate about an issue like healthcare. To then have this sudden snap back to overtly respectful decorum is rather funny, if it weren’t also quite sad. Everyone who has visited the US seems to remark on the essential politeness of the people (esp in the south), and yet put them in a Town Hall to discuss giving healthcare to the poor and suddenly everyone who disagrees is the devil incarnate. It’s a weird mix. For while Obama should get through his bill, the inability of the US to have a reasonable conversation about technical policy issues is a worrying sign for the long term health of it’s polity and civil society. It has a media that increasingly is set to profit from increasing the divide within the society. The more they get angry, the more isolated the GOP becomes and the more angry those still within the bubble get. As Fox’s profits rise, their own side not to mention the overall level of political debate slumps – See the Graph

The other emotion I’ve felt watching the US debate has been one of growing pride that Australia manages itself in such a different manner. Whilst this morning brings a uncharacteristic whinge from the former PM (A man who rightly neither gave nor asked for any quarter and loved his partisan fights), Australians manage to be both foul-mouthed, (some would say creative) and strident in their attacks, and yet only a loony and utterly ignored few come anywhere near outright lies or claims of treason against their political opponents. Our debate is forthright and partisan, but even challenging issues like race and national identity get discussed in largely reasonable terms by our political elite and media. Had Joe Wilson been in Australia’s parliament he would have been asked to withdraw the comment as un-parliamentary, but the nation would have essentially ignored it. Though the essential difference is that what would have isolated a figure like Joe in Australia is his extreme policy, not his language.

While only a small minority in the world reject the idea of democracy as the best form of government, the greatest inhibitor is often not those currently in power who are resisting efforts, but the culture of societies that is coming to grapple with just what democracy means. Anyone can have elections, but democracy is far far more than that. In Cambodia, Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iran (to name just a few), sections of the population are happy to see a politics of division and sectarianism destroy any chance of real popular participation with government. Elites can rarely stand in control unless there is a part of the population who culturally accept the need to preface one ethnic group over the other, one religion above all else, one skin colour as superior to those around it. And in settled democracies it is culture again that goes to the heart and strength of the democratic practice. In Australia it is strong, though has at times (late 60’s, mid 90’s) been weak. In the US we are seeing it at a dangerous low ebb, paranoid and afraid and so facing a far greater political challenge in dealing with the 21st century, than the economic one people have long been predicting.

Below the fold. One of the greatest political takedowns in Australian Political History.
Read the full article »

Why is Libertarianism so unpopular ?

If you take a regular gander at libertarian voices in this country, you often find they arn’t a very happy bunch. Despite thirty years of economic reform running almost entirely in their direction, they always have a nervous skittishness about any sign of backtracking, with frequent prophetic warnings about imminent economic doom. A large part of this is based on the widespread recognition that libertarian and indeed free market ideas arn’t actually that popular in most countries in the world. What better demonstration could there be than the 2007 dumping of the Howard Government for its support for WorkChoices, or the public embrace of Rudd and his heavy spending on health and education (the two area’s which always lead public opinion polls in terms of focus area’s over tax, security or immigration). The Liberal Democratic Party, the closest to a Libertarian party in this country, receives well under 1% of the vote

Yet Libertarian views have four significant advantages:

1) They advocate more freedom: Whatever minor philosophical differences there are, Libertarians can generally be identified as favouring social and economic freedom. Of course in individual circumstances there are debates about the consequences and the like (ie drugs, abortion, fireworks), but in general being identified as being in favour of such a key western value is of tremendous value. Conservatives have spent 30 years grasping for that mantle, and only sometimes succeed in getting anywhere near it.

2) They play to people’s self interest. Despite the obvious flaw in this reasoning, most people think they are above average, and would like a little more of their own tax dollars. Now while this can certainly be over-sold, (and the strongest vote against workchoices came from those not affected by it) this is a pretty good platform from which to appeal to people. Instead of having to make a moral or ethical case about caring for the ‘other’ as social democrats do (witness Obama’s struggle for health care in the US), Libertarians can appeal to your personal sense of competence, capability and resilience. You should choose who your doctor is, where your kids go to school, how to spend your money, etc etc. Most people seem to recognise that the common wealth benefits us all, but still see themselves as seperate from and more capable than most they run into. Libertarians get to play to this, with a clear set of policy proposals that have a logic of their own (you make it, you keep it) rather than the re-distributionism of the big government advocates (we’ll give you more in handouts).

3) It seems to work: After thirty years of general movement towards free market policies we have western societies that sit on the right side of ‘History’, have seen significant growth in GDP, disposable income, attainable products and services, quality of life, brought over a billion people out of poverty, and had few of the claimed major consequences of opponents rhetoric. Sure, the welfare state and very slow changes have been there to buffet the winds of change, and markets clearly don’t work in some areas (defence, health, education) in the way they work in others (ie need some public input to achieve outcomes), but we have reduced taxes, sold off assets, and deregulated our markets for great public benefit. Yet the favoritism for free trade and libertarianism doesn’t seem to have significantly budged despite these successes.

4) And most importantly: They are the natural party of wealth in our society. Money has always had and always will have a significant influence in democratic societies. Indeed most of the big fights that lead to democracy in the west have been centered around the wealthy trying to exert their influence (the original kings councils that ushered in the parliamentary system in Britain) and to protect that wealth from undue government control (the US ‘no taxation without representation revolution). Elections are very expensive businesses and while money usually follows power (meaning the major parties abilities to enact current changes will drive corporate interest), most businesses, entrepreneurs or wealthy agents in society would also be very sympathetic to those proposing less regulation, less taxation and an outsourced, reduced government.
The Australian Labor party is one of the most successful left wing parties in the west precisely because their union beginning and links gave them a financial base to compete with the big money interests who supported the conservatives. But given the Conservatives in Australia have only a half-hearted endorsement of free market and libertarian ideals (at the same time as introducing WorkChoices, Howard was presiding over the highest level of Government welfare spending in this country’s history), it is a wonder that business elements, especially those trying to challenge the status quo of a particular market, or those so sure of their capability in a particular arena dont try and pull the Conservatives towards the Libertarian side of the dial with strategic donations.

Despite these three great advantages, appealing to individual desire for freedom, individual self-interest and the natural alliance with the moneyed interests in a country, it is a wonder why Libertarian voices havn’t done that well. Perhaps the main reason I can see is that Libertarians have usually been unable to even agree to enter the political debate, and as such have little to no public face. Without a professional effort at public advocacy, what arguments are made for Libertarian views are usually either pitched as high economics or simplistic scare stories. Indeed whilst I am often very sympathetic with their overall ideals, and spend a fair bit of time reading libertarian literature and chatting with them, I so often feel somewhat talked down to. The answer is usually so obvious to them that your greed or ignorance seems the only reason you don’t fall to your knees and accept their wisdom.
Likewise, when presented to much of the general public, Libertarian views are seen to be representative of greed and avarice, while they see the economics and logic of their positions both more just and more likely to benefit the disadvantaged. (On that there is some scope for debate, but it’s defendable, and certainly shouldn’t be as dismissed as it currently is). Finally, both for reasons of ideology, and because of the reception that the ideology has recieved, there is a quite clear distrust if not contempt for democracy amongst a clear minority of Libertarians that then slows or even damages efforts to promote their ideas to the public.

So why then is Libertarianism such a disregarded and discredited ideology in Australia, indeed in the world?

A tortured route to healthcare

Rhetorically, the single best thing the Obama Administration has done to advance healthcare in recent weeks has been its release of the CIA report into torture during interrogations and announcement of a special prosecutor. Torture may indeed end up providing healthcare reform for the US.

When fighting a losing war of words in politics there are only two real choices, fight or flight. In the past I have been strongly of the view that fighting for it is the only way. Whilst your party may still be behind in public sympathy, the mere fact of your talking about a subject helps re-enforce your seriousness and knowledge. The public may favour the other guys, but you’ll come out the stronger for having fought and kept in the battle. Those who attempt to keep changing the topic back to safer ground, look like they cant handle the conversation, and therefore unsure or incapable to make good policy in that area. In Australia in 2004, the Labor party did this to disastrous effect, changing each discussion of economics or national security to one on healthcare and education. While the public prefer Labor on health and education, their end judgement was that the leader, Mark Latham couldn’t be trusted on economics and national security. Flight from area’s of opposition strength had simply made the Labor party look rhetorically weak.

But what to do when you are fighting an issue you are normally dominant in. Again fight is usually the better offer. John Howard and Bob Hawke both backed themselves time and again to take on and change the public mind, and through a lot of effort, media interviews and a few liberal uses of government funded ‘education’ campaigns came through victorious. But in the US Obama doesn’t have the guarantee of party discipline or treasury funds to help his campaign. In fact it’s largely not up to him to sell the ideas to the public, what he needs instead is to buy time to cover the politicians passing the bill without feeling at the mercy of the nutbaggers who see this as the creeping hand of Nazism.

Instead, by changing the topic to one of torture, Obama allows the sensationalist media to focus on another topic, one where he is enhancing transparency, and trying to reduce the size of government, whilst expanding it in the health care debates. In 1994 the Clinton’s cooked up a healthcare plan and then presented it to the public for acceptance. The republicans rebelled, brought down the plan, and re-vitalised themselves with their ‘contract with America’. Obama has taken the alternate course in his own health care plans, with a very public debate and working directly through congress, but now is coming the time to give the bill some cover and to demand its resolution (with a vote for late october/november). The Republicans this time around, whilst much louder are also much more isolated from the mainstream public views, and lack the leadership and organisation to make any significant attack on the democrats at the 2010 congressional elections. The fundamentals of Obama’s position and the democrats is still very very strong, despite the noise.

Torture is a difficult issue for Obama, and I’ll return to the subject later, but rhetorically this is a very useful piece of distraction for an Administration which is starting to be buffeted not just by the right, but by the left which is loosing confidence in him. This isn’t surprising, the left does tend to over-panic at times, (such as during the election), but needs to trust Obama’s judgement, and political skills. So long as he is able to keep using issues like Torture or the Economy to give the lawmakers some time, and distract the media he should be able to secure his bill.

During the election this image went around the net. Via Richard Wolfe’s book on the campaign Renegade we find that Obama saw it and laughed saying ‘that’s exactly what I feel’. I suspect he may be thinking the same thing today.
obama-chill-i-got-this

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.