Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: States

Turnbull for NSW Premier?

Around the traps a new idea has begun to take root: How about Malcolm Turnbull runs for leadership of the NSW liberal party and come March 2011, become Premier of NSW.

Surveying his new domain?

Surveying his new domain?

Turnbull is a Sydney local of birth and career. His own electorate of Wentworth roughly covers the electorate of Vaucluse which is lead by outgoing former leader Peter Debnam.

While Barry O’Farrell is now owner of the closest thing to a Golden Willy Wonka ticket in politics (a guaranteed rise to the top job at the next election) his job has come under intense speculation. Whether for goals fair or foul, senior liberals were (off the record) touting the idea of Joe Hockey heading for NSW politics and O’Farrell’s job. However with his position now safely locked in as the default leader if Abbott falters at the election (or rather when) he is staying put. Turnbull however has nothing to lose, (he will never, ever be PM), enjoys excellent name recognition and an image that would appeal across the board if rightly managed. Voters may not have been willing to hand him the nuclear launch codes, but might enjoy watching him bring his iconoclastic style to the usually drab state level. Moreso it would appeal to Sydney’s ego to have such a Premier.

However this is more than just a question of jobs for the boys, it may be the only way to save the state. As John Birmingham demonstrates so eloquently in the latest edition of The Monthly (no online copy) the single biggest problem in NSW is not labor but a culture of corruption which has steadily overtaken labor. As much as a vote for the liberals (which I urged in 2007) would get rid of the worst problems, there is still a significant problem across the states industries, institutions and departments of governance and regulation that will remain. O’Farrell has taken the position of inevitable only because of the weakness of Labor. He has not been able to strongly force his will on his own party, or in the parliament, so his likelihood of taking on the developers, councils and moneyed interest is extremely doubtful. Birmingham argues that O’Farrell has probably also learnt the lessons of Nick Greiner who snared himself in his own anti-corruption efforts and so would be quite hesitant to try and do too much, lest it suddenly see his downfall after so long waiting for the prize.

Turnbull on the other hand would have no such concern. He has the independent wealth to be incorruptible, great knowledge and experience of the sydney business community, and having failed to be PM, being the man who resurrected the premier state of the country would be an impressive enough replacement (and sure to be climate martyr as his new blog post seems to position him). Like Obama his own story and image would instantly restore credibility and energy to the government, and he would be willing to fight till bloody end to win policy fights. Turnbull doesn’t need to be premier of NSW, if anything it’s a step-down, which is why he would be perfect to go in, shake things up, take on the corrupt and stogid elements and make the changes where weaker career politicians fear to tread.

Federal Labor would love it & assist it, for while Turnbull would be hard to bargin with, he is likely to be less parochial and more willing to find common ground with Rudd at COAG on issues such as Health and Water. The Conservative rump which now rules the Liberal Party might figure it would be a way to distract his prodigious energy, and keep him happy and away from federal issues. O’Farrell and his people would obviously fight like wild jungle cats to keep their golden ticket, but Turnbull has shown he’s not afraid of a fight and if he was willing to work with the rest of the NSW liberal party, could likely prise their support away.

So how about it? Turnbull for Premier? Sounds pretty good to me.

This can’t be right?

A wire service report from earlier today

Protesters blockade Parliament House
From: AAP November 23, 2009 12:34PM
CLIMATE change protesters have blockaded Parliament House in Canberra.

Security guards have shut the front entrance of the parliament and about a dozen police are at the scene.

Police are blocking the media from speaking with the 200 protesters who are a mix of the elderly, teenagers and mums and dads.

The demonstrators, in a statement, said they came from across Australia and are calling on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to secure a strong, legally binding treaty at the upcoming UN Copenhagen negotiations.

The Sydney Morning Herald is running the same story. I’ll update the post if the story changes, early reports can be wrong or simply mis-communications.

Obviously the right to protest doesn’t extend to blockades of the parliament, but surely the police can’t stop the media talking to the people. While its not too hard to have a protest at Parliament House (I’ve helped with one against the Net Filter), I’ve heard of several groups having issues with the police around parliament house, from the home birth mums to the crestfallen Republicans. Nothing major, but given the importance and specific design of the lawn across the road from Parliament, it would be a great loss if in the name of security or simply overzealousness we lost our freedom to protest outside our parliaments, as seems to have already happened in Tasmania with the arrest of Peter Cundall.

Update: If anything the media has re-enforced the story:

The Australian: “Police have formed a human barricade and are taking protesters out of the sight of the media. The Australian Federal Police have at least one video cameraman filming the protest. In Britain, police have used similar methods to gather intelligence on many left wing organisations.” “Police dragged remaining protesters to an area under parliament, out of sight of reporters and photographers. An Australian Federal Police cameraman filmed the demonstrators. Some police officers involved were not wearing either name tags or identification numbers. One officer, when asked, said his was on his jacket which he had taken off.”

Obviously the decision to race the doors is unacceptable, and I think the police right to break up such a protest as soon as possible. What’s less forgivable is the effort to censor the protesters from the media, and prevent legitimate coverage of the event. No security risk was presented through the media interviewing such people, it was just damage control in the name of their bosses. That’s not a good enough excuse for curtailing freedom of speech and of the press in this country.

The financial benefits of a R18+ rating for games

This is our culture and our economy:

CALL of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 has racked up more record sales of $US550 million ($593 million) in its first five days, but the publisher Activision Blizzard is still concerned about weak consumer spending.
The game, a first-person-shooter that lets gamers play as elite soldiers hunting down targets from South America to Afghanistan, beat the record set by last year’s blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV in its first week.
Last week it said it sold 4.7 million copies for a total of $US310 million ($333.3 million) on its first day in the US and UK alone.
Activision said five-day sales for Modern Warfare 2 topped the $US394 million ($423.6 million) earned at the box office by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in its first five days.
The video game bested Batman film The Dark Knight, which had held the record for the top opening weekend ever by taking in $US158.4 million ($170.3 million) in July 2008.

There is always a lag between capitalism and culture, though inevitably the dollar wins through. However it takes some time for societies to integrate in and accept certain cultural artifacts, regardless of sales. The rise of evangelical literature/music/films (such as the Left Behind series) is one example, another that suffers is video games. While you will see the occasional article in the papers about them, their coverage pales into comparison compared to films, despite computer games being a bigger industry for films, both in Australia and world wide. Indeed according to the Canberra Times (p6 Monday Nov 23 2009) this morning (no online copy) most Australian’s are gamers:

Computer games are set to be an bigger part of Christmas entertainment than ever this year, with strong growth for an industry now worth $2 billion in Australia….“The average age of the gamer in Australia is 30 and another key figure is that almost half (46%) the gamers in Australia are actually female”… Dr Jeffery Brand, the head of Bond University’s communications and media studies school, said most Australian homes had a game device.
“We have roughly seven out of 10 Australian’s playing computer games at some point in the year” he said. “Most of those, the vast majority of that 70 per cent, are playing daily or every other day”.

All this makes it even stranger then that in Australia, we do not have an R18+ rating for computer games. The Federal Classifications ACT was set in 1995, a lifetime ago in the industries view, with only limited consultation since. The biggest hold up it seems is the gentleman’s agreement that Australia has uniform laws on censorship via COAG. Despite the fact that this isn’t the case in videos (The ACT sells X rated videos, whilst other states have banned them), the convention has given South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson an effective veto power over such a large industry. In the last year some of the biggest computer games released including Fallout 3, GTA IV and Left 4 Dead 2 have all been refused classification (ie banned) or major changes forced on the overseas producers. That means lost sales, as people either dont buy, buy overseas, or simply pirate the game. When such contempt for the laws is commonplace, it is the laws that must change.

Yet these loses pale in comparison to the loss and harm the restrictions place on the development of a local Australian computer games industry, one in which Australia has some key niche advantages. The industry requires highly trained professionals which we produce in droves, it is an industry that depends on quality not quantity (meaning it can’t be outsourced to asian factory workers) and it is green and high paying business, returning nice tax benefits to the country. Yet both the Howard and now Rudd governments have ignored the industry, much as they have almost all high-tech industries. Australian governments it seems consider it a core business of theirs to spend billions of tax payer dollars to protect already dead industries (parts of our manafacturing and agricultural fields for instance) whilst not only ignoring but hampering the rise of new industries that seem well suited to our demographics and skills. The loss could already be measured in the billions (I know of 2 ACT games manufacturers that have closed and gone offshore in the last few years) and with video games set to grow, will be worth tens of billions in years to come.

From my reading of the Classification ACT’s it seems it would only require a change in the Federal law, and the compliance of one state or territory for video games to be classified at a R18+ rating by the OFLC and sold only in those states or territories that changed their law to accommodate it. (If there’s something I’m overlooking in my reading of the act, please email me or post a correction below.) For the loss of uniform laws on the issue, each state and territory could choose to encourage or restrict the industry in their territory. South Australian voters could continue to ban the sale of R18+ games, whilst those in the ACT or Victoria allow it. This would be competitive federalism at its best, something the constitution writers were very keen to encourage.

The potential sales revenue for any state which was the first to move would be immense. They would become the only port of call for the sale of these games, dramatically reducing overseas sales of games, and likely enticing video game production companies to consider moving their business to those cities in order to be able to freely develop their products. That reassurance would be a big boost for an industry that thanks to increasing photo-realistic graphics is having to continually re-account for why its material is classifiable as only MA 15+. What was assured of passing 5 years ago, might not today, without any significantly different levels of gore, just a more natural depiction of it thanks to better technology. Equally potential games producers (which need be only a professional working from a home office developing a game for phones as much as the multi-million dollar blockbusters like Bioshock 2 (produced in Australia) could be enticed to start their own businesses once the laws are expanded and clarified.

Despite massive tax payer funded handouts, Australia has lost much of its manufacturing industry and some of its agricultural as well But in high tech and value adding areas, such as the original idea’s, design and marketing, Australian workers and companies are almost impossible to beat. I don’t know who coined the phrase (I suspect Paul Keating), but the claim Australia needs to become the brain to Asia’s brawn has always struck me as very good economic sense. By not having a R18+ rating we are not only continuing with laws that do not reflect community sentiment, but are actively denying Australia billions in lost revenue in both production and sales in what is is fast becoming the largest entertainment industry in the world. We simply can’t afford not to make the necessary changes and get Australia’s computer games industry into action.

States Rights Pt 2

This morning brings with it the encouraging news that the Feds are looking to prevent the under-the-flight-route-development at Tralee: (For a primer see here)

From The Canberra Times – 16th November 2009

‘Transport Minister Anthony Albanese and Canberra Airport are stepping up attempts to stop the massive Tralee residential development south of Queanbeyan from reaching a final determination.
Mr Albanese wants a national apporach to protect flight path corridors. He wrote to NSW premier Nathan Reese earlier this year saying Canberra Airport’s long-term operations should not be compromised by “inappropriate off-airport land development”.
But NSW Planning went ahead last week, issuing a certificate which allows Quenbeyan Council to begin to consult the public on a draft plan for the final stage of the development. …
Mr Albanese, who is finalising the national aviation white paper, wants the states’ input on a policy to address noise beyond airport boundaries….
Mr Albanese said previously he did not want aiports without curfews, including canbera’s to have one imposed on them in the future.’

(No online version- For more, as they say, pick up a copy of the Canberra Times)

This isn’t an issue that is ideological, but it is a useful counter-point to my musings on states rights recently. The national interest, and interest of those just across the border in Canberra, are very much served by the Federal Government over-riding the states. The development would add extra needed housing for Queanbeyan, but this is sure to be the center of controversy over flight noise, forcing re-directions across the skies of canberra’s suburbs, and probably a curfew, limiting the use of the national capitals airport. 1500 houses and 300 jobs in comparison doesn’t really cut it. (Unsaid is the threat to Canberra becoming an international airport, a vital necessity)

My ideal for dealing with the States would be a change to 12-15 regions, some the size of a city, some especially out west, semi-state size. These could be in charge of roads and rubbish, with some constitutionally guaranteed take of national rates and income taxes, to cover local issues. Issues that required national uniformity (such as health or education) would be given to the national government along with a purview for the national interests, so stopping developments such as this. Such a change would also ensure real constitutional responsibility to the feds for area’s they effectively oversee today but sometimes avoid responsibility on (such as major environmental projects like pulp mills and dams).

Such a change would mean hopefully a more locally elected regional or council representative for local issues, with seats for the house of representatives staying the same, and able to shift boundaries (The Senate would have to shift slightly -though retain it’s size-, but that has been criminally necessary for a while). What it would stress is the importance of MP’s and Senators focusing their attention on local issues. It is not enough to just do the paperwork for those who come into your office, politicians need to speak up about local issues, and be willing to challenge their own party over the issues. I’m convinced the only reason Liberal Senator Gary Humphries held onto his ACT Senate seat in 2007 was because he was willing to back canberra’s laws when they conflicted with federal ones (on issues of gay marriage and euthanasia) even when passed by previous opponents of his in the local legislature (Humphries is a former chief minister). The idea of a states house was a known farce even before it was written into the constitution (for figures such as Deakin and Parkes), but there is no reason why MP’s & Senators can’t make it an accepted norm to argue publicly, against their government on local issues, without fear of head office control. It won’t look undisciplined if widely accepted practice, it would be a boon to our democracy and be great politics to boot. If states really are to wither, then the federal MP’s and senators need to step up and ensure the public is still represented.

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

Market State ? How about My State?

Over at The Interpreter Sam Roggeveen and Hugh White have been discussing their views on the work of Phillip Bobbitt, author of ‘The Shield of Achilles‘ (on the 1914-1990 war between Parliamentary Democracy and Fascism/Communism) and ‘Terror and Consent‘ (on fighting in an era of globalised Terrorism).
Both are important books, and worth reading, though as Sam notes difficult to finish without perseverance. There are moments of brilliance in each. Bobbitt is very good at noting the importance of structure to the actions of agents, both of the state (from city states to Market states) and its challenges (from pirates to terrorists). But as Hugh White notes, it’s sometimes too easy to grant a predictability to established structures. Yet if anything I don’t think that White goes far enough, in that he still talks of states reacting to circumstances, rather than the other challenge that Bobbitt’s Market State idea seems to introduce (though he leaves it aside), that states functions may be outsourced to economic institutions and so reduced from geographic structures to metaphysical identities. If we are entering a period where the states role is less protection, but more about providing opportunities, then why should the place I seek identity from and within, be the same place that gives me economic opportunities?

With economics destined to be handled at the continental (witness the EU/NAFTA) or perhaps even global level, individuals are freed to move, shape and argue for much clearer and more delineated cultural, ethnic and social re-organisation. Rather than the era of enlightened cosmopolitanism capitalists hope for, but rather one where as economic trans-national groupings grow in size and compete, with citizens seeking to join those with the best opportunities, the identity groups we attach ourselves can safely shrink without sacrificing wealth.

Until now, the greatest peril any group seeking homogeneity faced was how to provide for itself. Most groups have dealt with this via the practice of slavery, explicitly in Ancient Athens, implicitly under the Third Reich. But with this outsourced (and assuming hostility between identities remains low) groups can successfully exclude and restrict as pleases them.Why stay in a conservative area when the same jobs are on offer in a liberal one? Why stay in a area where you are a minority than in an area where you are part of the group. Indeed why even share a group with anyone at all unlike you. We will increasingly see people say they are economically citizens of the EU, but identity wise from a very very specific location, or ethnic basis, or even political background, that admits no diversity within.

One interesting term that has been thrown around in International Relations theory papers is that of Neo-Medievalism. Popularised by the great Australian academic Hedley Bull, the changing nature of states suggests a revival of competing lines of authority compared to the clear supreme state sovereignty we have been used to since the mid 17th century. In the Medieval period before this time, the states (as they existed) were content to regularly invade each other on questions of identity (either to convert, or to reclaim isolated fellow believers), and there were multiple sources of authority claiming ownership of the peasants, with Fiefdoms, Monarchies, Churches and Tribal/Ethnic leaders all demanding allegiance. This began to be reduced to just one overarching source with the rise of the modern nation state, which reached its logical conclusion in Fascism with the state being responsible for every single element of social organisation in peoples lives, and even the choice of which of those they would join or be excluded from. Modern democracies par the state back somewhat, but with the rise of international organisations and economic regional groupings, there is a re-emerging overlapping of authority facing individuals. And with that comes reduced group loyalty, or multiple group loyalty. Except where early history relied only on humans natural inclination to differentiate ourselves into groups, the rise of democracy and the idea of self-determination has transformed that desire into a god given right.

The idea of self-determination was by far the most powerful idea of the 20th century. It is one of humanity’s greatest, and also one of our most dangerous. It was necessary to help throw off the colonizers, and integral to the spread of democracy, but it also gives every identifiable group in the world a moral check to be cashed in whenever they want. We are now up to 192 nations and growing. But these are somewhat limited as each of these new states needs economic stability or control of important resources in order to be viable. But as the economic blocks to which we belong grow, there emerges the possibility that identity groups can and will shrink. They will be able to exclude because far less mutual dependence is needed. And so if anything whilst we are breaking down the restrictive walls of the geographic state we are likely to become far more closely tied to the metaphysical binds of identity (however constructed, based on physical or mental differences).

Bobbitt doesn’t walk down this path, in ‘Terror and Consent’ his focus is on the more immediate concern to help preserve states during this transition period from the inevitable backlash each era produces. But if the Market State is the future, or at least we will come to see state membership as akin to a commercial deal, then the pressures to make identity groups much more exclusive will similarly grow. The implications and risk of this are vast and confronting, but we must face them head on. It is pretty hard to argue against the idea that the Kurds or Uighur don’t deserve an independent say over their own affairs, but what about when it is a group of evangelicals, or homosexuals, or conservatives who then want their own area, whilst still remaining fully participating members of the greater regional economic groupings.

Photo used under a Creative Commons licence by user j / f / photos

A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation

I missed it over the weekend (sorry was forced offline, the joys of unpredictable internet service in the heart of the nations capital), but this opinion piece by Banaby Joyce on the role of the states is seriously good reading:

I had a naive belief when I entered the Senate that it was a house protecting states’ rights and to this cause I would fervently attend the barricade and fight on behalf of Queensland. I have come to the conclusion that this is a unique and nostalgic view in the Senate…
From my discussions the public seem to be over the states and can’t see the relevance of them any more. Their region is more relevant than their state and this is what the upper house should now represent. Six regions in what was a state, with two senators per region elected at each election, would give geographic relevance back to the Senate, its actual purpose, while maintaining a bicameral system with the current numbers in a better representative spread.

What are the states? They are lines on the map that were drawn at an arbitrary point in time when a boat turned up on the coast and its occupants created a settlement that grew to a colony that became a state. And in 2009 that is about as relevant as they are. With the borrowings of the Federal Government on a morbid journey towards $300 billion and the borrowings of the states in excess of $150 billion we have to cut recurring expenditure and three tiers of government would be a good place to start, especially when two of them do basically the same job. Given their cost of about $30 billion a year, as pointed out by Dr Mark Drummond in his thesis, Costing Constitutional Change: Estimates of the Financial Benefits of New States, Regional Governments, Unification and Related Reforms, the removal of state governments should be considered.

To see Joyce of all people advocating the end of the states, and using academic research to promote it is quite a shock. That said Joyce does have two glaring issues: First when discussing redrawing the Senate: The ACT and Northern Territory are AGAIN completely ignored. This is most noticeable in Joyce’s proposed solution which is to get rid of the states, but seemingly draws all the new regions within existing state boundaries, so as to keep overall representation levels the same. The Senate is an odd beast in it’s proportional representation method, yet enforced levels of senators regardless of population. If we are to move to a regional order, then whilst some geographic borders should be taken into account (such separating capital cities from their surrounding rural areas, or clear geographic districts), then there must also be some shift towards making the senate represent the population spread of the country. Not as divided as the HOR, but it’s unacceptable to have a house of review which gives Tasmania one senator for every 41’000 people, and the ACT one senator for every 170’000 people.

Secondly, when advocating the fiscal advantage of dismantling the states: The only way Joyce’s changes could represent a real savings was if almost all taxes and income was pushed over to the Federal Government. That way, people keep paying similar levels, but the government can use it to fund one tier of service, rather than two. This would be a difficult process, to be worked out carefully with each state government, all effectively working hard to put themselves out of a job. The resistance to this amongst the political elite and bureaucracy would be immense and require real national leadership.

Personally I’m strongly in favor of the move. As Joyce notes, the public simply don’t care about the state identities anymore, and so long as they have someone local they can complain to about roads, rates and rubbish, they seem quite content with the Federal Governments increasing centralisation. Indeed MP’s staffers seem to spend increasing amounts of their time helping directing locals to which state office is appropriate. Most of the public just figure their national MP is the one to talk to on most issues. Not only would changing to a regional system end the gerrymander of our Senate and Referendums, it would let us address a number of key constitutional issues in the open (such as debate control of Industrial Relations, rather than through a Supreme court ruling), and standardise a number of common problems across the states (such as the paperwork required to open a business or sending your child to a new school). The states simply have no relation left to either where the people live or where the national issues lie. Changing to a 12-15 regional state grouping would solve much of that. It’s a big change, but after 108 years Australia can afford to tinker with the system. Especially when for the last 40 the change has been going on privately, now it’s time to make it public and transparent. (We could even revisit the issue of New Zealand as a Australian state. They were more involved than WA was for much of the Federation process)

Still, it is interesting to see Australia’s Conservatives, having spent the entire 20th century claiming to be the party of ‘states rights’ now turn against the institutions. Whilst i’m not to sure how deep such feelings go (Joyce is of course an outsider) it is the logical extension of Howards centralizing tendencies and continued domination of the way the conservative movement thinks. It’s no surprise therefore that his greatest idoliser Tony Abbott is now preparing a book pushing a similar line to Joyce on the end of states:

The book will be conservative in its thrust and there will be policy ideas, including advocating a more aggressive approach to fix our dysfunctional system of federation than John Howard or Rudd was willing to embrace. Essentially, the Commonwealth should call the shots and individual states should no longer be able to veto policy.

Abbott pushed for similar changes whilst in government, and though he will likely just want to centralise not dismantle it is an interesting argument by one of the most conservative politicians in Australia. (Though Abbott also shifts with the wind somewhat, in the early 90’s he was aghast at the opening up of the economy under Keating, yet under Howard one of the great promoters of economic liberalisation. But more on that when his book comes out.) This willingness to push for new approaches however is one of the reasons I like Abbott. He is much more driven by ideas than most of his colleagues on both sides of the chamber. And whilst never a great touch politically, and someone I almost inevitably disagree with, I like his openness and forthright efforts towards what he sees as in the national interest.

Labor if it is wise will jump at this shift in conservative opinion whole heartedly. As a movement it has seen the states as great resistors to social and industrial change from even before Federation. If someone like Gough or Keating was leading the party, this would be all we would be hearing about for the next 2 years. Both took the long term view and understood the movements history. Rudd however is a different beast. He has neither the care for history, the temperament, or the desire to take up such a risky task. He is a manager who lives in the moment, and despite talking up the idea of a new federalism whilst in opposition quickly came to embrace the status-quo (that is of a slow, largely publicly unseen accumulation of power within the federal government (if not the PM’s office) at the expense of the states). Maybe Gillard can make this her claim to the top job : To bring Education and Health under Federal government control, and via referendums dismantle the states. It would be a tough job that an economic crisis or nearby war could easily throw off course, but it is a key development for Australia’s long term prosperity and success. It would also give us a chance to renew our contact with the Constitution. Australia today operates in a very successful way, but one that is miles away from that prescribed in the constitution. That is a perhaps unsettling, though little remarked fact, and one a wise leader would seek not only to amend, but to do so in ways that ensure their enduring values come to take a part of that document.

(* Title quote by Edmund Burke “A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation” – Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790)

Meet the Drovers dog

With NSW Labor in such a pitiful state, broken transport promises, poor economic management, and the popularity on par with swine flu, many ambitious minds within Sydney must surely be wondering if they could be parachuted into the coalitions leadership, and secure the easiest election victory since Saddam Hussein last held an election. With that in mind, Peter Holmes a Court’s piece in this morning SMH makes for interested reading:

I spent 16 years living overseas, but in 1999 my wife and I chose to move from New York to Sydney. We didn’t do it on a whim. We thought long and hard, and chose Sydney for its beauty, relative convenience, low pollution, business opportunities, weather, and, of course, its football. I am here because I want to be, because I believe in NSW….
I have some small experience of what it is like to undertake a process like this, with a rugby league club known to arouse the strongest of passions in the most unlikely of people. Like NSW, the South Sydney Rabbitohs had been No. 1, but their premierships were a distant memory. Like NSW, we had fallen behind the competition and needed to make changes across the board. We can recognise the progress: from effectively bankrupt wooden-spooners three years ago, to having a competitive team roster, the proper infrastructure and a growing membership. The team is by no means first, but it is clearly heading in the right direction.

Like the work done by the team at the Rabbitohs, reclaiming first for NSW will require us to do the boring stuff. It will take many years to complete the transformation and let our state match its performance with its great history and natural advantages, and give the people of NSW what they deserve.

Now is the time to do it. We can reclaim our natural position as the premier state, and as someone who has chosen to live here, I am ready to contribute and encourage you to as well. But I am just one of 7 million members who has a stake. If we are going to return to being the best, we have to do it together.

Demonstrate allegiance to group & proclaiming of loyalty: Check
Write about group issues whilst entirely using the personal pronoun ‘I’: Check
Show involvement with popular local cause: Check
Claim of demonstrated success & competence: Check
Call for unity around a joint cause: Check
Final line humility & re-demonstration of allegiance to group: Check

NSW Coalition leader Barry O’Farrell will fight like a wounded mother to protect his spot, but don’t be surprised if we get a stream of such pieces through the daily rags; all professing their loyalty to the state and the cause: Themselves.

P.s For any who didn’t get the title reference: On the morning of Feb 3rd 1983, Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden as leader of the Labor Party. At Lunchtime Malcolm Fraser called a snap-election (which he was to lose). That same afternoon, Hayden made the famous statement that ‘a drover’s dog could lead the Labor Party to victory at the present time’.

Image by Broken Simulacra, used under a Creative Commons licence.

Media Myths

I posted about this a few weeks ago, but as it seems the lead media story again it is still worth pointing out: Anna Bligh’s victory is not a milestone in Gender politics in this country.

The Labor leader claimed a fifth consecutive term for the party in Saturday’s state poll, becoming the first woman in Australian history to be elected premier in her own right.

Anna Bligh has become the first female to be voted in as a state premier by the people in Australian history after Labor was returned to government after polling suggesting a swing towards the Liberal National Party. Ms Bligh said her victory had yet to sink in.

“I think there are many people who would never have thought that Queensland would be the state that delivered our first elected woman premier and I’m thrilled and proud of them that they proved everyone wrong,” she said on ABC radio on Sunday.

To repeat: Women have been elected before as Chief minister. In fact all three Rosemary Follett & Kate Carnell of the ACT and in the Norther Territory Clare Martin not only won their first election, but each was also re-elected for a second term.

All politicians and media like to play up the significance of the mundane as a way of giving impact to the moment. But unless you think there is something freakishly different about politics in the territories compared to the states, then it’s just misleading to make this the story.

Either way: Congratulations to Anna Bligh. Whilst I think most of the state governments in this country have run their turn and ought to be switched over to inject fresh blood, (NSW is proving a very good example against 4 year terms!) the LNP and Springborg were anything but new talent. As such it’s pleasing to see Bligh immediately pledge to bring in new talent.

Also it denies the media much of the inevitable (and predictably wrong) pieces about “what this means for Kevin Rudd”. Unless a party is really on the nose, then voters typically differentiate their state and federal preferences. Yet another media myth that ought to be booted. Real analysts can get useful data from the polling results. Just saying who won and therefore it hurts the opposing party, isn’t worth the name analysis.

p.s Happy Days – As I (and everyone else) predicted Pauline Hanson lost, finishing a dismal third. Out of 23’000 (at 75% counted) she garned just 5’000. Not too surprisingly her support came equally at the expense of the ALP and Coalition. Her voters are more likely to be drawn from conservative ranks, but Labor can usually draw heavily on them when led by the right people (such as Hawke, Rudd* or Beattie). In fact there seems much more a cult of personality in the way the annoyed working class vote, promoting & then punishing parties, than you see in the more stable and hence ideological middle class. It is the personality & authenticity of it that seems to work, and in this Bligh has proven her deserved status as Premier.

The soft bigotry of Australian politics

This sentence caught my attention over the morning coffee:

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh will be become the first female elected to the position of state premier in Australia if she retains office in an election to be held on March 21.

This is apparently thought significant by our unnamed correspondent, despite the fact that Rosemary Follett (ACT), Kate Carnell (ACT) and Clare Martin (NT) have all won elections from opposition over the last 18 years.

This reflects two of the soft bigotries that exist in Australian politics: That Territories dont count, and Women are something new in politics.

First the states: Newspapers and politicians seem the only ones who actually think in terms of their own state, or the states as apart from the territories. Everyone feels the need to belong somewhere, but Australia’s states occupy a no-mans land these days between our townships (witness the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry) and our united allegiance as Australians. I can understand a NSW premier trying to talk up the advantages of their own state over others; but that is a show for the media, and doesn’t reflect the country and way australians view the country. Its bad enough territories get less senate representation, weird HOR seat allocations and are irrelevant at referendums, lets drop the pretense that leading a state is somehow a greater honour or tougher gig than leading a territory.

Now to my main point: The election of Bligh (looking a certainty, abet with a reduced majority), will not be a milestone in Australian politics or gender relations in this country. It will tell us nothing about the publics willingness to elect women, nor give renewed hope to those like Gillard or Bishop who long to be the first female PM.
Australian’s already elect women aplenty, it is now a question of timing, luck and talent for who rises and falls. To suggest otherwise, seems to me more evidence of a private worry about the weakness of women as politicians, than a concern about male misogyny. Women undoubtedly do it tougher in politics, but they already win and take on leadership positions, and reducing every individuals setback to wider causes is its own form of soft bigotry. The main problems seem to lie more in the media’s superficial approach to female politicians (can they be mothers & politicians -or why didn’t they have kids- is their make up on right every single second of the day, what kind of clothes are they wearing) than the actual political parties which have women throughout and don’t change their behavior in attacking/defending other politicians on the basis of gender.

Thus, while the Academic research shows that the ALP’s quota for female candidates in winnable seats has been relatively successful and encouraged other parties to select more women for seats, I would argue that it is nearing the end of its usefulness. (On principle I think all affirmative action should have sunset clauses, but it is to be judged on a case by case basis)

As adopted in 1981, and last updated in 2007 the ALP’s National Constitution requires that:

Public Office Preselection
(c) Preselections for public office positions at a State and federal level shall comply with the
affirmative action model in this rule 10(c). PRINCIPLES
(i) The intention of this rule is to produce an outcome where not less than 40% of
seats held by Labor will be filled by women
, and not less than 40% by men (“the
minimum target”).
(iii)The remaining 20% of the seats held by Labor may be filled by candidates of
either gender.

The problem I have with this approach is that Legislatures are supposed to represent the people, not be representative of them. This is why we don’t simply hand over seats on the basis of gender, age, race, religion levels within the community. Instead we seek to elect the best and most capable, who can understand the full range of issues faced within the community. Whilst a situation of no female representatives (or the currently appalling situation of no Indigenous MP’s/Senators) is unacceptable, Affirmative action should only be used to ensure that the path is open, not that it is well trod. Women currently hold in Government the positions of Deputy PM, Health minister, Climate Change minister, Age Care, Youth & Sport, and in opposition those of Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Immigration (Plus Parliamentary Secretaries on both sides). No young girl who is serious about a political career could fail to notice the many women now in top positions in parliament and the possibility of they too ascending to the very top. They don’t need quota’s to get there, and such systems having done their job need to be retired.