Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Simple difficult things

2014: Still a chance to realise what we've got before it's gone

As 2013 turns into 2014 it feels like the basic building blocks of a democratic society are being undermined by an empowered and ruthless minority who simply do not accept the arguments of equality. To even use the word is to invite knowing scoffs. The US leads the way, of course, in this journey back to a life that is nasty, brutish and short, but the Abbott government and the forces in Australia who support it are, in significant ways, treading a similar path. This is no time to go quietly into that good night.

As the old year ends and a new one begins, it is time to remind ourselves of simple, difficult things.

The idea that seven-odd billion people - or seven-billion odd people - could live together on the one planet without putting cooperation at the centre of any philosophy of government is one that kind of beggars belief.

The idea that personal liberty, personal freedom, could somehow be divorced from collective liberty, that it could be articulated in isolation from collective wellbeing, is so obviously nuts that you have to make a very special effort at obtuseness to even begin to think that it is a good idea.

The idea that managing the risks that we all inevitably face on our planet, whether they are naturally occurring or the side-effect of human actions - whether they are earthquakes, carbon pollution or a car accident - is somehow an affront to personal freedom, and that such risk management is by definition undesirable and therefore to be avoided, is the sort of conclusion that only vast sums of money could make convincing.

The very notion that the way we divide up the rewards of a life on earth, from the material goods we create to the natural endowments that we use and exploit, should be based upon our ability to assert power in the entirely constructed environment of a “market”, and that those who set the rules of the market get to benefit disproportionately from the system they have created is, well, nice work if you can get it.

And yet this is the world we are creating and for which the last forty years of economic development, so-called, and rightwing politicking has laid the groundwork.

What is most striking is the way we have simply lost the language to speak of alternatives. As Tim Kreider noted in a recent essay

Sometime in the past couple of generations, capitalism’s victory over our hearts and minds seems to have become complete, in that hardly anyone even notices it anymore. It’s a monoculture, taken for granted, like monogamy, or monotheism, or having one sun.

One tiny example of just how desperate we have become for something better, something more, something else, is the manner in which the person of Pope Francis has been embraced as some sort of, well, saviour. This is most apparent in his selection as Time magazine's “person of the year”.

Now, I'm not knocking the Pope's intentions, or trying to undermine him in any way. But the fact that his relative minor and largely symbolic acts of not being an arsehole are being hailed in establishment organs like Time magazine as some sort of seismic shift in our understanding of the way the world is run speaks more to our desperation to find leaders who aren't arseholes than it does to any actual achievements.

In fact, the very notion of a “person of the year” plays to the individual-prioritising logic of the system Francis is allegedly challenging. It plays to the fantasy that some hero will come along and save us from what ails us; that it, is the charismatic individual we need rather than collective action.

Hugging the disfigured or making ambiguous comments about gay marriage, as the Pope has done, may be useful and generous gestures, but to do them while doing precisely nothing to change official doctrine or the structures that perpetuate certain sorts of power of which he is a significant representative is a very flaccid sort of heroism.

Sometime in the past we as species, in significant parts of the world, managed to instigate systems of law and government that spoke back to the power of the strong against the weak, and we built muscular, secular institutions dedicated to propositions of equality and fairness. In so doing, there was blood and death and fighting and failure, but by and large these institutions worked.

They worked imperfectly, of course, because we are not gods, but they were built on a logic of equality that was broadly accepted, and it is that logic that we give up at our peril. It is that logic that the reactionary forces of the Tea Party and their ilk throughout the world seek first and foremost to undermine.

They do that because once we get cynical about the idea of government as a force for good, or start to accept that the very concept of equality is not only some sort of hippy-dippy utopia but that the means of redistribution we enact to try and create it are themselves dangerous, then those reactionary forces are more than halfway to destroying what ordinary people took centuries to build.

So maybe the first thing we need to do is to simply remember what we have achieved to this point; to remember so that we realise that change is always possible; that the powerful do not always get their way; and that the mindless philosophy of fat-pigs-get fed that animates rightwing politics is not a philosophy that most people accept.

Recently, McDonald's in the US set up a helpline that their staff could ring in order to get advice on how to survive on the miserable wages the McDonald's corporation pays them. I am not making this up. What's more, the advice offered was in in the form of suggestions such as to “cut your food into smaller pieces” so that it goes further, or to “get government foodstamps”.

I mean seriously, how low have we come that is considered even remotely acceptable behaviour?

The idea that anywhere in the world a fucking hamburger chain could offer a helpline for their staff who are struggling to survive because their wages are so low is the sort of thing that would be almost unbelievable in a comic dystopian novel.

And yet there it is.

If you don't want to live in that world, first you need to remember that you don't have to. Then you have to fight to change things.

Easier said than done? Absolutely.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 18 December 2013

An incomplete list of 2013's Stupid

One thing I’ve hated about 2013: The Listicle. You know the thing, “Twenty Reasons Your Parents Shouldn’t Be On Facebook”, “Twelve GIFs That Explain The Unutterably Bleak Existence Of A Cupcake Eaten By Kanye” and so on.

Household pets being adorable/dumb/destructive are OK, though.

Completely aware and giving exactly zero rat’s arses that I’ve just become what I beheld, herewith a selection of things from 2013 that have hurt my brain. It will not be a List per se, because I can barely count at this time of year.

We all had a jolly good laugh and penned many amusing blogs when this appeared, like the old fart in the public bar who nurses a pot and a scribbled-on form guide all day and calls you a poof for wearing jeans that fit. “Comment should not be cheap”?? What, like the cowardly dog-whistling of Bolt and Blair (whose popularity helps prop up the cash-burning National Broadsheet) or a stable-mate tabloid photo-shopping government Ministers into Nazi uniforms on the front page? Or, closer to home, this fucking guy?

Yeah, we get it, The Oz is eighty or ninety percent shit, and boo hoo it still sets the agenda. At least it will as long as (now the ALP is in Opposition and News refuses to go looking up the Abbott government’s skirts) the country is interested enough in Jonathan Green’s salary and Latika Bourke’s twitter account for the rest of the MSM to follow.

We all knew this would happen, so why are we complaining, or even bothering to draw enough breath to sputter into our muesli? Did we really think News would suddenly hold this new government to account, frankly and fearlessly, fairly and balanced-ly, having (in its own collective mind at least) done so much to rid us of the Gillard/Rudd object lesson in How To Fuck It Up?

Of course not - their idea of a free press is… oh, never mind, you’ve shouted it at the screen enough times.

The Abbott government reminds me in many ways of a dog chasing a car - all full of piss and wind, the slavering beast has finally snapped the chain of Opposition and is FREE! Now that it’s caught the car (have I tortured this analogy enough yet? Discuss), it doesn’t know whether to fight it, fuck it, eat it, or lick it so is trying to do all at the same time, and then there’s Cory Bernardi.

Again, we didn’t know this was going to happen? Howler Monkey has been the LNP’s default setting for three years now. I was at a Liberal Party campaign event when one of their election policy groups announced unbeknownst (probably) to the leader and (most definitely) to Malcolm Turnbull an internet filter policy. (Funnily enough there was no Stalin/Turnbull mash-up on the Tele the next day, but my local candidate’s campaign manager shit bullets when he saw the pamphlet on my phone).

We watched with respect and even a bit of emotion as Joe Hockey cried in parliament (his “over my dead body” speech) about the Malaysia solution and we’ve watched with a kind of resignation as not one journalist has asked him, in light of Generalissimo Morrison’s campaign of inhumanity, why he isn’t dead.

Cory Bernardi, in a Freudian slip worthy of Melinda Tankard-Reist, confessed a while back that the first thing that came to mind when he thought of same-sex marriage was bestiality, and so was banished from the coveted spot of Abbott’s ParlSec. Not for being an offensive, hateful baboon, but for proving it.

He’s gone on to further prove that a tenuous grip on sanity is no reason for the Party to try and control him. Today he called on Turnbull to resign for suggesting that same/other/whatever-sex-attracted couples should have just as much right to horribly uncomfortable last-minute anniversary dinners as the rest of us.

When Holden started its seasonal grab for more handouts, we had Ministers and others leaking against the Industry Minister, a Productivity Commission report due next March (remember calm, sensible, methodical government, now that the grown-ups are back in charge?) ignored, and Hockey screaming at Holden in parliament to meet him in the car park with its four toughest mates.

I could go on about Christopher Pyne, but I think in pictures and my show-reels are getting far too weird.

There's another twelve pages in Abbott himself, but I'll just repeat part of his interview on Radio National the other morning.

It was put to him that, in light of the budget black hole oh God won't someone think of the children emergency we are facing thanks to Labor's insane profligate spending (etc etc), perhaps the very generous PPL scheme could be reconsidered. His response was that someone who works at the ABC has a generous Parental Leave scheme, so why shouldn't everyone?

Why shouldn't everyone indeed, Mr Abbott? Aside from the fact that your argument sounds a lot like Socialism, may I take a moment to make a similar proposition?

MPs and Senators are paid reasonably generous salaries, on top of which they seem able to claim just about any purchase or travel as “;parliamentary business”; because they happen to walk past a couple of voters on their way to a wedding. And when they leave they are beneficiaries of the only non-age-restricted superannuation scheme in the country.

Why shouldn't everyone be entitled to that?

Jesus, I dunno, have you seen Greece?

Don’t think the Left are getting off without a kick in the trousers by the way (although I use the “L‚” word with increasing trepidation whenever I consider the ALP).

The cries of “nationalise Holden” spring from an understanding of economics that gave the world British Leyland and seem based in some bohemian/Norman Rockwell image of factory workers as people who actually want to work in a fucking factory and sing The Internationale at lunch breaks while being patronised/appropriated by Socialist Alternative, or worse, the unions that run the ALP.

Propping up unprofitable, unnecessary, foreign-owned manufacturing is a touchstone of people like Paul Howes, who see the ideal Australian worker as renting a job from the AWU which is paid for by the rest of us while said AWU takes all those funds to run a once-great political machine into irrelevance.

Speaking of wrecking a party, repeat after me, Ms Gillard: YOU LIED.

You told us (and didn’t seem to give a fuck whether we believed you), as an atheist, co-habiting, supposedly independent woman, that marriage was for a man and a woman because you respected the Marriage Act. You never mentioned Joe De Bruyn and the rest of the ALP Right then and you refuse to now.

Now, ‘In conversation with Anne Summers” (just imagine the cries of “mutual blowjob” if Greg Sheridan had been “In Conversation” with Abbott - go on, dear Progressive reader, face that yummy hypocrisy and munch it down with a big spoonful of ice cream and bullshit sprinkles), you come up with another explanation. As a student radical, you’d just been against the idea of marriage at all.

BULLSHIT. You were beholden, like every other ALP leader, to the factions - factions owned and run by bullies like De Bruyn.

Speaking of bullies, no right-thinking bitch-whine about the year just ending would be complete without a yell at Kevin Rudd; the only difficulty in pinning this little rodent down is knowing where to start.

He presided (and presided is the right word) the first time round over a government that achieved almost nothing other than to debase the Executive and belittle the office of Prime Minister. From the giddy heights of The Apology he signed off on Kyoto and Copenhagen then came back to Australia to render them both irrelevant.

Too gutless to go to a Double Dissolution over the ETS, too fragile to face down an advertising campaign over the MRRT, too needy to stay off the fucking TV for 24 hours, even when it meant attaching his office to opinions on Big Brother or art that he hadn’t even seen.

Too much of a vicious, vindictive, selfish, grandiose traitor to let Gillard run an election campaign, let alone govern. If it hadn't been for his leaks and his conniving during the 2010 election there would not have been a hung parliament and if he’d kept his fucking pie-hole shut for ten minutes as Gillard tried to manage said hung parliament, there’s a very strong possibility that the ALP would still be in power today. (Whether that would be a good thing is moot - either way we would not now have Prime Minister Abbott).

When the party finally succumbed to its morbid fantasy that Rudd's ability to campaign would at least save the furniture, we got to see what a non-entity he really is. Had he taken any of his time on the back bench away from plotting and feeling hard-done by and rat-fucking the party to formulate a policy, even a broad plan?

Nope.

His desperate need for attention had to be sated, that was all. He was back in the Big Chair and that was all that ever mattered. So he thought-ballooned policies worthy of Bananaby Joyce on a bad day, took selfies, said nothing, and then insulted us with an election-night concession speech that betrayed a self-delusion worthy of a French aristocrat, neck on the guillotine block, weeping in gratitude at the love the common people were showing him with their cheers and hoots.

He will not and should not be missed and nor, if you’re being realistic, should 2013 itself.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 04 December 2013

Notes from Chris

The following are copies of correspondence retrieved from the office of the Honourable Christopher Pyne, MP, Minister for Education and Apprentice Baloo, sent by the Hon. Mr Pyne to various colleagues in recent days.

Dear Tony,

This is probably nothing, but some of the girls in the office were saying something about an “education policy”. I remember a few months ago you mentioned this? Did we end up getting one, or am I just being paranoid?

xxxx Chris

 

Dear Tony,

OK, thanks for the clarification. So when you told me I was the “Education Minister”, that meant I was literally the minister for education. Isn’t English a funny language? OK so I guess I’ll have our education policy ready for the morning.

Lots of love, Chris

 

Dear Tracy,

Could you be a darling and look up what Labor’s education policy is? I have to make one of my own and I’d better make sure it’s not the same as theirs! Wouldn’t that be an oops!

Chris

 

Dear Mum,

I just wrote a policy! By myself! In running writing! Hard to believe isn’t it?

xoxoxoxoxox

Chris

 

Dear Tony,

Pretty good, eh?

Chris

 

Dear Peta,

Is Tony angry at me? He won’t answer my notes. I was just wondering how he likes my education policy. I think it’s pretty good – it’s totally not like Labor’s so that’s got to be good doesn’t it?

Chris

 

Dear Peta,

OK now I’m confused.

Chris

 

Dear Lenore,

No, look, I’ve explained this to Laura and Peter and Laurie and Annabel and all you people – the policy is exactly the same as Labor’s except better. Why is that so hard to understand?

Chris

 

Dear Peter,

Look, the envelope is the same. How many times do I have to say envelope before you’ll leave me ALONE?

Chris

 

Dear Tony,

OK I think I’ve fixed it. So now the envelope is the same, only bigger, and better, because Labor’s envelope wasn’t even an envelope, it was, like, a bag or something. That sounds right – I’m sure everything will be OK.

Hugs,

Chris

PS: a lot of people have been asking me about “schools” lately. Is this related to Education? Should I be studying?

 

Tracy,

Could you run down the chemist and get me some St John’s Wort?

C

 

Dear Peta,

No, it is not my fault! How can I help it if state politicians are tacky? If they had any class they’d be federal, now wouldn’t they? Can’t we just give them some cash to make them go away? It works with homeless people, and they’re a bit like state MPs.

Chris

 

Dear Peta,

I don’t know where we get the cash from! Isn’t that Joe’s job? There’s a place in Canberra that makes money, we went there on a school excursion once. Maybe ring them up.

Chris

 

Dear Tony,

OK I think we’ve got our stories straight now. We didn’t like Gonski, so we opposed it, but because we needed to provide certainty to the Australian people who weren’t sure whether we opposed it, we were forced by Labor’s trickery to support it, but then afterwards we came up with something better than Gonski with a bigger envelope so we’re going to do that, but also because we are keeping our promises and we are adults we are going to honour Gonski as well but actually it’s better than Gonski because we’re adults. Point of order Madame Speaker oh sorry that just slipped out.

Smooches,

Chris

 

Dear Tony,

No, I don’t think anyone noticed. I’m sure everyone loves you as much as they ever did. And please don’t say that about yourself, you have a lovely face, yes, even on television. It’s like my mum always said, “people are just pooey sometimes”. Don’t let them get to you. They’re just jealous.

Tickles,

Chris

 

Dear Michelle,

Please stop harassing me with your demands for “answers”. I am very busy at the moment reading an interesting book called How Schools Work. I will grant you an interview covering all essential facets of my home life and fashion sense when I am finished.

Chris

 

Dear Tony,

Yes actually I DO think I am still the best man for this job. Who else would be? I am MISTER Education, Tony, I have had a bigger education than you’ve had hot dinners. I went to a school and everything. More than once. So don’t doubt my credentials. Just remember, before I came along, you didn’t even HAVE an education policy, let alone four in three days. If anything, my productivity is TOO high. Maybe I should have a nice holiday.

Spoons,

Chris

 

Dear Julie,

I know who sent me the dead rat. Stop it.

Chris

 

Dear Tony,

Some people are talking about a thing called “Gonski”. Do you know what that is? Have an awful feeling I should’ve picked up on this earlier. Is it some kind of drink? I think I had a Gonski at the midwinter ball once. Or maybe it’s a person? Sounds ethnic though – Labor? Anyway it’s probably not important, just that somebody said something about Gonski education and I got worried, but I looked it up and Gonski is not a school so I don’t think it matters. Just let me know if it matters.

Lick,

Chris

PS: I just thought of another one – “Platypus Bill”! Classic! Don’t really know what it means but I think it’ll make people laugh a lot.

 

Dear Mr Addington,

I would be delighted to speak at your school awards ceremony on the subject, “What Schools Mean To A Liberal Fellow”. I will require a large jug of water, a detailed map showing me how to find the hall, and a thesaurus.

Yours in Gonski,

The Honourable Christopher Pyne

 

Dear Tony,

Sorry about the awards ceremony thing. I think I can fix this though.

Cheeks,

Chris

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 04 December 2013

MYEFO Looms

The Abbott government is poised on the edge of yet another misstep, casting more doubt on their ability to translate the political force they had in Opposition into a stable and competent government.

Sometime between now and the end of the year, the Abbott Government is expected to release the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, also fondly referred to as MYEFO. December might seem rather late for a ‘mid year’ report, but it in fact refers to the midpoint of the Australian financial year and is an update on the Budget delivered in the previous May.

MYEFO provides an update on the state of the government’s books – whether enough money is being collected through taxation and whether expenditure is under control. It provides governments with the flexibility to respond to a revenue problem by raising taxes or cutting expenditure without having to wait for the next Budget.

It’s all eminently sensible and should be straightforward. But then, nothing in politics is ever straightforward. Then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made a fuss over the 2011 MYEFO, calling it a ‘crisis mini-budget’ and pushing for parliament to sit an extra week in December to consider it. In 2012 the Gillard Government brought the report forward to October to avoid including data that showed the huge reduction in tax collected from the mining industry. The MYEFO also has the power to affect financial markets and consumer confidence by virtue of it being an official Budget statement.

A recent media report floated the idea of delaying this year’s MYEFO (and the expected bad news contained therein) until January to avoid spooking Christmas shoppers. This was howled down by Labor with reminders of Abbott’s election launch commitment to reveal “the true state of Labor's books” within 100 days of being elected (by 16 December) and warnings that the delay was hiding huge cuts planned for next year’s budget.

The unfortunate truth is that the best time to release this year’s MYEFO is a nuanced political choice that may be beyond the currently observed limitations of the Abbott Government. Decisions and counter-decisions on matters ranging from Indonesia and Gonski, to the debt ceiling and asylum seekers, suggest a serious shortfall in its political smarts department.

This year’s MYEFO also marks the point at which a change in government normally sees the incoming Treasurer making a face like the kid from Home Alone, wailing about the previous government and the secret interstellar chasm found swirling where the government’s stores of revenue are usually kept. Cue press conferences where the now glum-looking Treasurer regretfully advises the nation that certain election promises cannot be kept: particularly Those Involving Money.

Any half decent government would get away with this, as others have done before, exposing difficult and necessarily unpopular decisions mere hours before the entire nation decamps for the Christmas break. But whether the Abbott Government is ‘half decent enough’ is fast becoming a point of conjecture.

The reversal of the Gonski reversal suggests the Government is starting to feel self-doubt. Faced with opprobrium from even the Murdoch press, Abbott’s retreat was distinguished by the shameless audacity that has characterised all of his Government’s changes of heart since the election. Yet it was swift, and left his key lieutenant, Education Minister Pyne, politically exposed as incompetent.

Despite a wave of sentiment washing through both traditional and social media that the initial breaking of the Gonski commitments was Abbott’s ‘carbon tax moment’ (with some notable exceptions), what should really be occupying the minds of Coalition parliamentarians and strategists is the risk of a growing public perception that the whole government is incompetent.

Chaos and ineptitude were at the heart of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government’s election loss, not a broken promise. If the perception takes root and grows that similar flaws are compounding within the Abbott Government, it could also lead to their eventual demise.

Granted, this will depend ultimately upon the proficiency of Labor, who has not yet worked out how to Opposition. While there are clear improvements in individual opposition MPs’ knowledge of parliamentary procedure, the party’s Question Time tactics remain woeful. And the sooner they sack the wannabe advertising guru who dreams up the corny “Abbott Axe” and “panicked school deal” questions the better.

In the perceived competency stakes, the Coalition has everything to lose: they were elected on the promise of being a team of experienced former ministers with strong track records who would deliver what they promised with ‘no surprises’. Labor on the other hand is starting off a very low base and can only gain in stature.

The MYEFO is the next big test of that potential – for either side. Handled skilfully, the government can settle growing concerns about their capacity to be strong economic and sound policy managers. But if they handle it badly, by continuing to show all the political nous of a potato, they may face the ignominious fate of being a one-term Coalition government.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Politics, it’s all just arse

Remember when Tony Abbott took the liberal party leadership from Malcolm Turnbull and we laughed and laughed?

Good times.

That was back in the days that I could watch Question Time and still care enough to throw things at the telly. Now, watching Tony Abbott clutching onto the dispatch box against which Paul Keating lounged so sardonically, my spirits sink down to my socks and make low growling sounds.

Try as I might, the only thoughts I can come up with on politics now is “it’s all just arse”.

It’s not a partisan problem; an intelligent, driven collation pursuing a right wing vision of the world would almost be a welcome thing at this point. It’s the lack of intelligence and vision that makes reading and writing about politics so dispiriting. Tim Dunlop’s “lightweight, puffball cypher…who demonstrably lacks popular appeal, and who has singularly failed to articulate a viable, positive justification for his claim to the prime ministership” is now our Prime Minister.

I can’t even summon a smug I-told-you-so piece about Abbott square-gaiting around the international stage, plopping malapropisms down in place of diplomacy. The reality of an inarticulate, visionless Prime Minister, so terrified of his own position that he hides the frozen inactivity of his government behind media blackouts and denied FOI requests is more depressing than enraging.

There’s no arguments to counter, there’s no debate to have against meaningless slogans and dogmatic simplifications. The unbelievably complex moral, social, economic and diplomatic issues in the asylum seeker debate devolve to Stop the Boats. The equally complex scientific, economic, moral and social issues of climate change; Axe the Tax. Macroeconomic management, global financial crisis, rapidly changing labour market, aging population and welfare reform; Reduce the Debt.

How do you have an argument with someone who refuses to articulate a position?

It’s all just arse.

Would arse, in fact, prove to be a more interesting article?

While almost all animals have an anus, humans are the only animal to have developed a fully padded arse.

Our spongy layer of fat and muscle developed when we stood up on our hind legs and walked around. It helps us keep our centre of gravity in the right place and means we can sit on our arses without using arms to support our weight, thus leaving hands free for developing tools, typing, driving and throwing remote controls at the telly.

The buttocks are composed of several muscles. The gluteus maximus is the largest and one of the strongest muscles in the body. The gluteus medius is a broad muscle on the outer surface of the pelvis. It’s partly covered by the gluteus maximus. The gluteus minimus is the smallest of the three gluteal muscles. It is shaped like a fan and located under the gluteus maximus. Together, the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles help extend the thigh, turn the upper leg inward and support the body when standing on one leg.

Words matter, not just to writers, but to readers. The language we use frames the thoughts we have. Asylum seekers are officially illegal, despite the legality of their arrival. If that change of language passes into the public arena it changes the debate. But that's only relevant if there is, in fact, a debate between the public and the government on this issue. 

The word “callipygian” is sometimes used to describe someone with notably attractive buttocks. The term, naturally, comes from the Greek kallipygos, which literally means “beautiful buttocks”; the prefix is also a root of “calligraphy” (beautiful writing) and “calliope” (beautiful voice); callimammapygian means having both beautiful breasts and buttocks. Dasypygal is a word for someone who has particularly hairy buttocks.

Pygophilia is sexual arousal or excitement caused by seeing, playing with or touching the woman’s buttocks; people who have strong attraction to buttocks are called pygophilists.

Pygoscopia means observing someone’s rear; pygoscopophobia is a pathological fear of being its unwilling object.

There is an argument to be made that Abbott’s strategy of obfuscation and silence is actually working when political writers give up on writing about politics, and, that in doing so we are becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The notion that the ideal of masculine vitality involved hefty buttocks was widespread. Scottish anatomist Robert Knox’s 1850 book The Races of Man describes the English as if they were race horses, as “broad-fronted, broad-bottomed, best for depth, range and equability.”

The science of climate change and the involvement of human activity in the rate of climate change is virtually undisputed by scientists. Abbott, by virtue of not having discussions has changed the discussion of science to a discussion of politically partisan feelings.

Ulf Buck, a blind German psychic, says he can tell people’s future by feeling their naked bottoms. This is proven scientific fact and not at all a scam by some mad kraut with a bottom fetish and hidden webcam.

Nuance and complexity are an essential part of any useful debate about nuanced and complex issues. When the government refuses to even recognise that the issues on which they are legislating are nuanced or complex, the only result can be legislation that does not address the issues.

In 2008 the US Federal Communications Commission proposed fining the American ABC $1.4 million for airing in 2003, between 6 am and 10 pm, an NYPD Blue episode showing a woman’s buttocks. According to the FCC, the episode violated its decency regulations because it depicts “sexual or excretory organs or activities”. In response to ABC’s argument that the buttocks are not a sexual organ, the ruling states: “Although ABC argues, without citing any authority, that the buttocks are not a sexual organ, we reject this argument, which runs counter to both case law and common sense”.

A man who attempted to position himself as a conviction politician and a committed Christian is flying in the face of the most basic principles of conviction and Christianity. Despite this, his conviction of his own morality remains unchanged. The wilful blindness, lack of self-awareness and utter inability to question or understand his own actions is breathtaking.

The word buttocks occurs only three times in the King James Bible: once each in the Second Book of Samuel, the First Book of Chronicles, and the Book of Isaiah. There are no buttocks in the New Testament.

Politics. It’s all just arse.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Hard cases and bad law

Every day, courts around the country balance a myriad factors in sentencing offenders, and every day they are criticised for being too lenient. There are avenues of appeal, and legislation can be changed to reflect community standards. But governments should not yield to the temptation to enact bad law for the sake of community outrage.

There is a long list of clichés that lawyers like to throw around. I think it is something to do with wanting to appear wise and superior to all non-lawyers who couldn’t possible understand the world we live in. One particularly well-worn expression is “Hard cases make for bad law”.

Kieran Loveridge and the new One Punch Laws are as good an example of a Hard Case and a Bad Law as you are likely to see. This is, however, the NSW government response to the community outrage at the penalty Loveridge received for the manslaughter of Thomas Kelly.

Thomas Kelly’s senseless and tragic death in July 2012 was widely reported in the media, as were justifiably enraged demands that his killer be found and brought to justice.

It wasn’t until Loveridge’s sentence proceedings two weeks ago, however, that the full details of the events of that night were revealed in the media.

Eighteen year old Kieran Loveridge went to Kings Cross with some friends. Even before he arrived there he was drunk. He was a man who had been in trouble with the law before, for offences including stealing a car and assaulting a police officer. Just one month earlier he had been sentenced for an assault, having gatecrashed a party, then punched the host and thrown empty bottles at him. He was probation for that offence at the time of Kelly’s death.

Such a history is perhaps not surprising, given his upbringing. Loveridge’s father was a violent alcoholic and drug addict who had himself spent time in gaol. His parents were separated and Loveridge, after a difficult childhood, grew up to become an angry young man.

Loveridge committed several other violent and unprovoked attacks the night Thomas died: four other people suffered various injuries at his hands, albeit minor ones – one had cut on his eyebrow, another had some bruising.

Thomas Kelly was less fortunate.

After Loveridge struck him, Kelly fell to the ground and his head struck the pavement. He was taken to hospital but doctors were unable to save him and his life support was turned off a few days later. It was a horrifying series of events.

In a decision that incited an avalanche of outrage, Justice Campbell in the NSW Supreme Court sentenced Loveridge to 4 years in custody and a further 2 years on parole for the Manslaughter of Thomas Kelly. He was sentenced to a further 14 months in gaol for the 4 other assaults.

Was that sentence insufficient? Thomas Kelly’s parents certainly thought so, although, as they said themselves, no sentence was ever going to be long enough for them. And no one could fault them for feeling this way. Losing a beloved son in such a way would be a source of grief and rage so unbearable that you might never recover. It would be an impossible and utterly unreasonable proposition to ask Thomas’ parents to see a wider picture in the sentencing of the perpetrator.

The mainstream media, however, does need to take a wider view. Many of the articles published on this issue quoted selectively from Campbell’s judgement and complained about the positive comments he made about Loveridge.

It’s true that Campbell summarised the positive and the negative about Kelly. He had no other choice, if he was to sentence him appropriately. Judges are required to look at all aspects of a case, not just the ones that resonate with our emotions.

What the media overwhelmingly failed to report was that Campbell also provided a detailed summary of recent decisions in similar cases. The summary is worth considering fully, and includes only cases where a person died after a single blow knocked them over and they hit their head on the ground.

Name

Year

Non-parole

Parole

Castle

2012

5 years 8 months

7 years 6 months

Donaczy

2010

3 years 6 months

6 years

Bashford

2007

3 years 6 months

5 years 3 months

Smith

2008

2 years 6 months

3 years 9 months

O'Hare

2003

3 years 6 months

6 years

Greenhaigh

2001

4 years 6 months

6 years 9 months

Risteski

1999

3 years 6 months

5 years

KT

2008

4 years

6 years

 

Obviously each of those cases are different, and it would be ridiculous to expect a judge to simply take an average. They do however, provide a guideline for judges in future cases of a similar nature. And Campbell was operating well within his prevue in taking them into consideration.

The Crown, however, is certainly entitled to appeal against the alleged leniency of the sentence - as they have done.

The Crown is also asking the Court to impose a Guideline Judgement, setting down a specific set of guidelines designed to assist justices in sentencing one-punch Manslaughters. This may be the most sensible means of obtaining considered judicial alteration to the sentences imposed for such crimes.

It is worth noting that the purposes of sentencing do not include “dampening down community anger”. Rather, our judges take into account: adequate punishment, specific deterrence (deterring the offender) and general deterrence (deterring potential future offenders). The court should also consider incapacitation (keeping dangerous people away) as well as rehabilitation of offenders, protection of the community and the denunciation of criminal offences.

Having said, that the media outrage was to be expected. There was wide community anger at the death of such a young man in such a senseless manner, and no one ever bought a newspaper with the headline “Convicted Killer Receives Adequate Sentence Given All The Circumstances”.

The anger is understandable. Manslaughter (the offence to which Loveridge pled guilty) is somewhat of a “catch-all” for homicides where Murder cannot be proved. That is not in and of itself a problem, but it does, rightly, lead to wildly varying sentences depending on the precise nature of the offence for which the offender is being sentenced.

A quick look at the statistics for Manslaughter show that some offenders receive nothing more than good behaviour bonds or suspended gaol sentences. At the other extreme, some offenders have received non-parole periods of 15 years. The median is 4 years non-parole, which, coincidentally, is exactly the sentence Loveridge received. The reasons for this are complex and are to do with the individual circumstances of each case. Judges, who hear all the details that are usually not reported in the media, direct the jury on law and take many aspects of the case into consideration when it comes to sentencing.

The NSW government’s response to the Loveridge matter is troubling in that it seems to owe far more to the media outrage than to any understanding of the judicial guidelines of sentencing or the outcomes of long incarceration on criminals.

The maximum penalty for the new One Punch Laws will be less than that for Manslaughter. There is a technical argument that the laws may marginally increase the penalties for offenders like Loveridge, but, if at all, it won’t be by much.

And it is very difficult to imagine that such a law could have any effect on the actual rates of violence like this, which is the stated reason for introducing such a law. Angry young men don’t pay attention to new developments in criminal law, and they certainly don’t stop to consider such developments in the midst of alcohol-fuelled rages.

Loveridge didn’t think that his actions would kill anyone. If there had been One Punch Laws in place at the time, he probably wouldn’t have heard of them – and even if he had, is it likely that such a thing would have been a deterrent?

New criminal laws need to actually prevent crime or address crimes that are not covered by existing legislation. Neither of those things are the case here.

Excessive alcohol use, violent expression of unmanageable pain and disconnection from society are not addressed by simple measures. They are complex issues and require complex solutions. Ignoring the complexity in favour of knee-jerk simplicity will not prevent senseless violence and adding a few more years to Loveridge’s sentence won’t stop the next tragic death.

Thomas Kelly did not deserve what happened to him. His family’s grief is unimaginable. But these new laws won’t bring him back. They won’t stop this happening again. And they won’t result in a higher penalty for the next person to kill someone in the same way.

They are a transparently political attempt to be seen to be Doing Something. And the grandstanding on this topic by the usual suspects is nothing more than an attempt to profit from the grief of the Kelly family.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 06 November 2013

Actually, we’re not over politics

Everyone is over politics. They’re enjoying the break

This may well be one of the most manipulative and selective comments on Australian politics I’ve heard in a long time. Yet it’s being repeated uncritically around the country, including by those who should know better. Voters’ supposed delight in the absence of politics has become the multi-purpose excuse for hiding any and all manner of political activities that might otherwise be troubling our pretty little heads.

The tactic has been deployed since the very beginning of the Abbott Government. As Laurie Oakes recounts in his book on the ‘rise’ of Tony Abbott, there was a lot going on behind the scenes during the 11 days between Abbott winning the election and being sworn in by the Governor General:

… But as far as the public and the media were concerned, it was 11 days of unaccustomed quiet after the Labor years of crisis, chaos and constant politicking. No-one complained. The nation was over politics and welcomed a respite.

Now it’s been 60 days since Abbott was elected and the extension of Operation Mushroom to the government’s day-to-day operations has been a resounding success. Tony Abbott’s promised ‘no surprises’ government has become one of ‘no information’. With a justification similar to “we’ll keep telling you nothing because you’re enjoying the break”, more and more information is being kept from public scrutiny. And many of us are nodding compliantly, seemingly accepting the explanation with little or no questioning.

Some elements of the political media seem equally mesmerised. In not just noting, but also accepting, the tactic, they’re falling well short of exploring its negative implications for open and transparent government. Thankfully not all sections of the media are content to act as benign observers at a fungi farm. Last weekend Bianca Hall catalogued and exposed the silence of the Coalition: Prime Ministerial press conferences reduced to little more than cameo appearances, closed room speeches presented by ministers to public conferences, and limited opportunities for media scrutiny during rare ministerial appearances.

Each limitation on information seems logical in isolation. There appears to be strategic value in not reporting the arrival of every asylum seeker boat in order to deprive people-traffickers of promotional material. The refusal to release incoming government briefs under a Freedom of Information request makes sense on the basis that a department’s assessment can hardly be frank and fearless if it is going to be released into the public domain and used to undermine either that advice or the government for which it was written.

But taken together these actions describe a government that is an opaque and silent edifice, throwing crumbs of information in the name of transparency, and showing a naïve terror of public communication that is the antithesis of the grown-up approach that was promised.

The blanket ‘no information is good information’ approach should be considerably disconcerting for all of us. Not only is the lack of information democratically unhealthy, so is the justification for keeping it from us.

The flippant explanation that we’re ‘over politics’ does voters a disservice. We’re not over politics; we’re just over the type to which we’ve been subjected for the past four years. We’re over the negative soundbites that Tony Abbott subjected us to in his quest to destroy the Rudd and Gillard governments. We’re over the leaks and white-anting that Labor subjected us to by indulging Kevin Rudd’s dark revenge fantasy. And we’re over the Greens preaching at us from their parliamentary pulpit with impossibly high moral standards that broke more hearts than delivered tangible outcomes.

But we’re not over politics completely.

Labor’s leadership ballot gave us a glimpse during the 30-day campaign of the type of politics we would never tire of. The tens of thousands of ALP members who participated in the leadership campaign, as well as the hundreds of thousands who watched them doing so, showed an abundance of energy and enthusiasm for the generally civil and constructive politics that was on show during that period.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the Labor leadership ballot. Even Bruce Hawker admits the party reforms were cooked up by Rudd as a way to assuage voter concerns about him being rolled again, rather than to democratise the party. Yet the ALP now has 4000 more members than it did before the ballot and direct evidence that party members and the broader voting community want to be engaged and contribute when matters of importance to them – such as values, policies and party reform – are being discussed.

As Labor is learning, they will now have to live up to the expectation they’ve created for an Australian Labor Party distinguished by democracy. Meantime, the new Coalition Government is playing a different expectations game: one that is based on us expecting not very much at all because apparently we welcome the respite. Or something. And if we are not careful we may become normalised to this post-information regime.

Right now we have limited public appearances by the Prime Minister and even less by his ministers. Community Cabinet meetings have been scrapped and media opportunities mostly declined. Scrutiny at the weekly press conference on asylum seeker arrivals has diminished due to the lack of Canberra political media being able to attend the Sydney-based events and Morrison’s deferral of questions to the defence force personnel who are responsible for Operation Sovereign Borders.

So what’s next on Abbott’s list of redundant transparency mechanisms? Will he emulate Paul Keating and limit his appearances at Question Time or reduce the time and number of questions asked? Perhaps he’ll roster ministers for Question Time appearances (as Keating also did) to shield those who are poor performers or have contentious issues. Or maybe he’ll cancel the televising of parliament altogether (which Keating wanted to do).

Who knows? As Bianca Hall concludes in her piece, the Coalition’s pre-election commitment to restore accountability and improve transparency “will be tempered by Abbott's judgment about what the public needs to hear.”

Abbott supporters claim his aim to take politics off the front page is similar to John Howard wanting the Australian community to be relaxed and comfortable. Howard wanted our contentment to be based on the knowledge that he was making responsible decisions for the whole nation and he told us enough to let us come to that conclusion. Abbott wants us to take him on trust, to be content in our ignorance and focus instead on the beach, barbeque and cricket, despite there being little evidence that he is delivering what he promised. The two approaches are worlds apart and speak volumes about the respect each man has (or doesn’t have) for the Australian community.

Lack of information and an attendant lack of transparency help those who are limiting the information to avoid scrutiny and accountability. Acquiescing to their post-information approach allows them to think they’re above scrutiny and may even encourage some to feel entitled enough to rort and abuse the system. Good government does not lie along this path.

Tony Abbott can’t run a responsible, accountable and democratic government from behind a curtain like the Great Oz. However it appears he is going to try. It’s up to voters and the media to stop accepting the excuse that no political news is good news. It’s time we challenged those who diminish and dismiss our interest in politics. And it’s time we labelled the attempts to normalise Abbott’s new information vacuum as nothing more than a cheap parlour trick and a patronising way of encouraging us to be less vigilant about holding him and all other politicians to account.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 06 November 2013

Managing energy price expectations

If, and it’s a large and hairy “if”, the Abbott government manages to repeal the carbon price, electricity prices will not decrease. They will increase.

Tony Abbott nailed his anti-carbon colours to the mast three years ago, when he leapt Julia Gillard’s “no carbon tax under a government I lead” comment on a Sunrise interview during the 2010 election campaign. That one sentence became the rock on which he build his entire anti-Gillard anti-carbon tax campaign.

Relentless repetition overcame science, industry advice, logic and his own willingness to do exactly as Gillard did if it would secure him the Prime Ministership. It was a successful strategy in that it eventually got him to the lodge, but it’s now a burden. Having made such an investment in the carbon tax being the Big Bad of the Australian economy and made his promise signed in blood, he has no option but to press forward with an issue that is no longer particularly pressing.

Worse than that, he’s facing a long and bloody battle to repeal the tax, with Labor now refusing to back the repeal unless it’s replaced with an ETS; a hostile senate before 1 July 2014; and a chaotic one after that.

Even if he does manage to negotiate a repeal however, the result is not going to stand up to his oft repeated assertion that removing the carbon price will reduce energy costs for Australia consumers.

Where residential and small business prices are regulated, (eg QLD) the gazetted tariffs for 2014-15 won’t be published until May 2014. Unregulated markets ( eg Victoria) are even more difficult to predict, but conservative estimates suggest prices will increase by 5% in 2014/15.

The figure most often trotted out was that “the carbon tax has added 10 per cent to household power bills”. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable for most people to assume that the repeal of the carbon price will immediately reduce their electricity bills by 10%.

There’s a number of complex factors at work, however, that will mean any price reduction immediately following a putative repeal is not possible.

Firstly, it assumes that the electricity retailers will immediately stop paying a carbon price to the generators and will thus be able to remove that component from the prices they pass on to their customers. This might be the case if retailers are operating their own generators or buying directly from the wholesale electricity pool, where the carbon component can be stripped out as soon as it is removed.

However, many retailers will have hedged future supply commitments with carbon-inclusive contracts negotiated directly with the generators (where the price is fixed for the duration of the contract, regardless of legislative change) or bought from the futures market (where they’ve paid in advance and cannot ask for or receive a refund for the carbon price).

So, yes, this means that if the carbon price is repealed, some electricity generators will still receive payment for a cost of carbon that they no longer incur and this extra payment will be passed on to consumers.

The electricity retailers are well aware of this problem:

AGL

…due to the level of uncertainty about whether a carbon price will apply in 2014-15 it is likely that some retailers will have incurred costs to hedge their potential exposure to carbon prior to 2014-15. In the event that a carbon price does not apply in 2014-15 these costs faced by retailers should be recognised in setting the WEC and any estimate of the impact of carbon on a customer’s bill.

 

Origin

…the proposed methodology will lead to customer confusion if the Clean Energy Act is repealed. Origin understands that under the proposed approach on repeal there would be no adjustment to the energy cost allowance as a discounted cost has already been applied. This is clearly at odds with customer and Government expectations; indeed customers bills currently note that “Qld Competition Authority estimates the Federal carbon price and renewable energy target add about $259 a year to a typical 6.3MWh household bill-www.qca.org.au.”

Additionally, network prices (the poles and wires costs incorporated into your electricity bill) will increase on 1 July 2014. This happens every year in every state except Victoria, where the network prices are increased at the beginning of the calendar year. Again, we don’t know yet how much the network costs will increase in 2014, but industry estimates are around 10% across the board.

There’s various other complicating factors, but just the two outlined above are enough to cast significant doubt on any suggestion that electricity prices will go down. They won’t. They’ll go up. Even the suggestion that they would not go up by as much as they would if the carbon price was still in place is not true. It will take a couple of years after the repeal for the effect of the carbon price to disappear from the wholesale prices.

Also, the long and difficult changes to business systems built to incorporate the carbon price (adding or removing an extra line item to an electricity bill is a far more complicated and expensive process than you would think) will have to be dismantled, the cost of this will also need to be passed on.

Ignoring all the implications for carbon emission reduction, repealing the carbon price will be politically difficult. Voters who believed the coalition’s assertions that pricing carbon was responsible for their increased electricity bills may punish Abbott for his failure to make any meaningful reduction to their energy costs. Meanwhile, as the Abbott government expends far too much of its resources and political capital on a meaningless gesture, the real push behind electricity price increases will be ignored.

It will be interesting to see how Abbott manages the politics of this fight. His proven strength is in running a negative campaign, but with a far more focussed opposition from Labor, no longer distracted by leadership battles, there is no Great Enemy on which to focus his negativity. And, as Dragonista points out, the coalition government is working hard to stem the flow of information from government to the media. This could end up working against them as the media, deprived of easy column inches, will have to go looking for new chew toys.

Interesting times ahead.

 

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Wiki-Sneaks

There’s a shadowy presence behind the new government and it’s not the IPA, nor is it News Corp. Our intrepid investigative reporter Ben Pobjie goes searching for the malevolent, secretive organisation that may be not just pulling the strings, but defining them [citation needed].

We like to believe that democracy truly does equate to rule by the people, that the hands on the levers of power ultimately answer to us. But any democracy is vulnerable to malign forces, to special interests who seek to seize control of those levers for their own levering needs. Ominously, our current government, elected in a frenzy of hope for a better, less wacko future, seems to have already fallen prey to one of these interests. At least we found out about it early – knowledge is power, and it seemed to be to our advantage that Greg Hunt’s slip of the tongue has alerted us to the sinister influence over the government being exerted by the shadowy organisation known as “Wikipedia”.

What is “Wikipedia”? Who is behind it? And just how far have its tentacles extended into the corridors of Australian power? Is its control limited to Hunt’s Department of Environment, or does it also exercise power over areas like Defence, Immigration, Health, or even Treasury? Does Wikipedia’s grasp reach all the way to the prime minister? The King’s Tribune set out to find the answers. What we discovered was more horrifying than anyone could have guessed.

We began by placing a call to Minister Hunt’s office, to ask just what Mr Hunt’s relationship with the Wikipedia organisation, or cartel, was. There were few answers here: his staff seemed determined to stonewall. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says a receptionist, the sound of terror obvious in her voice. Staff are clearly under strict instructions not to reveal details of how Wikipedia has infiltrated the department. Further enquiries by email, fax and Facebook post about whether Mr Hunt has met with Wikipedia in the last month receive no reply. A 24-hour watch is put on Mr Hunt’s office to see whether any Wikipedia representatives visit, but nobody goes in or out except for Mr Hunt’s staff, parliamentary colleagues and bespoke tailor. It’s apparent other avenues must be explored.

Some deep digging reveals that Wikipedia is a more brazen organisation than could possibly have been imagined – it actually has its own website! Rarely does a group which is secretly working behind the scenes to direct government policy to its own ends place itself so openly in the public eye, but like Auguste Dupin’s purloined letter, clearly this dubious collective feels that it can best hide itself in plain sight. And any information about the operations of Wikipedia and its intentions for Australian democracy are indeed well-hidden – the website contains a cornucopia of information, but little of interest to an investigative reporter. A few basic facts are established:

The figurehead of Wikipedia is a certain “Jimmy Wales”. This Wales seems to have never held public office in any Australian parliament, nor has he worked in the public service. It seems likely that he is simply the public face of Wikipedia – the real power is almost certainly behind the curtain.

Wikipedia claims to be “operated by volunteers”: like many totalitarian organisations, it relies on the zeal of devoted fanatics rather than potentially disengaged salaried workers.

The word “Wikipedia” is similar to the word “encyclopaedia”, which means a big book with facts in it. Could this be some kind of clue?

George Herriman (1880–1944) was an American cartoonist best known for the comic strip Krazy Kat (1913–44). He started as a newspaper cartoonist in 1897 and introduced Krazy Kat in the strip The Dingbat Family in 1910 (citation needed).

Where to from here? Could this “George Herriman”, who died in what some might call mysterious circumstances in 1944 – by “coincidence” the same year that Robert Menzies outlined his vision for what would become the Liberal Party, the current party of government in Australia – provide any answers? Inquiries to the Department of Finance regarding Herriman’s whereabouts prove fruitless – have they been captured by Wikipedia’s agenda?

Another lead suggests itself – what of the “pedia” suffix? Could this hint at the dark purpose behind Wikipedia? Encyclopaedia salesmen, once upon a time, roamed the land bothering people in their homes – does Wikipedia hope to enter our very houses, using the might of the Federal government to do so? But what of that “Wiki”? What could that mean? A trip to Hawaii gives me no new information. I’m almost ready to give up, until by purest chance I happen to read the letters in the word “Wiki” and see it bears a startling resemblance to the word “Wiki”, as in “Wikileaks”. I quickly board a flight to London and head to the Ecuadorean embassy to ask Julian Assange what he knows about Wikipedia.

Once in London, I find that Assange is refusing to speak to me. Good God, have they even gotten to him? What kind of enormous tendrils have these people coiled around the globe? I ask the operator at the embassy what Assange’s reasons are. “He thinks you’re an idiot,” she replies, the quaver in her voice betraying the truth: Assange has been threatened by Wikipedian henchmen. Obviously Wikileaks and Wikipedia are linked – perhaps Wikileaks is an attempt by Wikipedia insiders to bring the truth about Jimmy Wales’s dark empire to light. I feel that I am on the trail, my suspicions that this is a big story only confirmed when a London taxi passes close by and splashes my ankles. This was no accident – it was a warning.

Back in Australia I call the prime minister and demand answers. “To what?” he asks and I realise I’ve forgotten to ask any questions. In embarrassment I hang up, and call back two minutes later, changing my voice so he doesn’t realise I’m the same person because that would be awkward. “What do you know about Wikipedia, Mr Abbott?” I bark.

“I think it’s on computers,” he says, and I rejoice inwardly. Finally, a confession! He’s admitted he’s aware of its existence. This will be dynamite.

I press him further. “What has Wikipedia got on you, PM? What are they asking you to do?”

He pauses a moment. “They’re asking me for a donation.”

I understand. Clearly Wikipedia’s goons are in the PM’s office and he is not free to talk. I quickly hiss instructions for him to meet me behind the Tiger Moth at the War Memorial at 3pm, and hang up. Finally we will get to the bottom of what Wikipedia wants from us. Is it lucrative arms contracts? Relaxation of corporate pollution regulations? Legalisation of heroin? My reporter’s nose tells me that all of these are almost definitely true.

At 4.30pm I begin to worry: the PM has not shown up and I’ve had no word. I can’t deny the truth: obviously Wikipedia has had him eliminated. I fall to the War Memorial floor and begin to weep: our democracy is in tatters, our government fully under the spell of this evil conglomerate, hellbent on putting the Australian people to work for its own repellent corporate interests. What’s more, there’s no stopping them – the death of Abbott shows just how flexy their muscles can get. Any who stand in their way will be ruthlessly swept aside, and that, no doubt, includes nosy reporters. I think of that splash in London and my blood runs cold. I rush to the airport and book a one-way flight to Haiti. Hopefully there I’ll be free from Wikipedia’s avaricious claws. But I leave this for the brave folk at the King’s Tribune to publish at their discretion, so that one day, the people can know The Truth, and god willing, they will rise up in revolt against this all-consuming demon. This “Wikipedia”.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A vote for instability

Tony Abbott won the election promising two things - stability, and a double dissolution if his government didn't get its way. It seems that the second promise will undercut the first, and the promise of stability cannot prevail against the desire to play political silly-buggers.

The last parliament was widely regarded as unstable because neither major party held a majority of seats in the House of Representatives (and if conventional wisdom on that works for you, this waft of stale analysis will do it for you).

However challenging it might have been, even for experienced journalists, the last parliament was both more stable and more productive than any parliament this century. The agreement signed between Julia Gillard, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor was less waffly and fulfilled to a greater extent than most party manifestos.

Out with the bathwater of pink-batts-school-halls and Rudd-Gillard goes climate change, telecommunications and reforms to schools and disability care. The case for reform has to be made over and over again. Only the true masters of politics can cultivate an air of calm minimalism while implementing far-reaching change: Menzies did it, and so did Hawke and Howard. The high drama of reform, accompanied by dire consequences if it is not achieved, gets wearisome; Whitlam and Keating both learned this the hard way.

Tony Abbott argued that if voters gave the Coalition a majority in the House, that instability would stop. Gillard argued that the parliament had not only proven to have been stable, but highly productive. The ALP switched to Rudd in the hope that he would be able to represent the incumbent government as stable, and he proved unconvincing.

Abbott has that majority, so he has no excuses for delivering on, uh, whatever he promised. Nothing is possible without stability, apparently.

Abbott should be able to negotiate his agenda, or part of it, through the Senate. Howard, his role-model, did; sure, he didn't get everything he wanted, but who does? Abbott, however, has insisted that it's all or nothing.

Abbott's model for being in opposition was to deny the government everything, no matter how great or petty; a lesson learned by even the most obtuse of Labor MPs. The Senate leader, Eric Abetz, does not have the diplomatic skills that Abbott lacks - far from it. Abetz did not get where he is through charm and negotiation, but by bloody-mindedness and shouting.

Before the last election Abbott insisted that if the Senate refused to pass key legislation (such as repealing the carbon tax price thing), he would send the country to a double-dissolution election. This looks like a big threat to those parties opposed to the Coalition and the slow media treated it as such, without thinking about it or re-examining it in light of actual events.

At most elections (including the one on 7 September) there is a half-Senate election. This means that half the Senators from each of the states, plus all Senators from the territories, go to election. There are 12 Senators from each state, so there are 6 spots up for grabs at each half-Senate election. To become a Senator you need to win, or cobble together, one-seventh of the total vote, plus one vote.

At a double-dissolution election, you only need to win one-thirteenth of the total vote plus one vote. In the current political context, this will mean:

  • The Coalition will have disappointed many of those who voted for it so resoundingly without having necessarily won over anyone who was reluctant to vote for it in 2013;
  • Labor will probably not lose any more seats than it has, but might not have made the case for winning any more, either;
  • The Greens will almost certainly win two seats in each state; and
  • Other medium parties (the Victorian DLP, Xenophon, Palmer) will hold their own; and
  • More micro-parties swapping preferences, not fewer, with little chance of significant electoral reform;

In other words, Abbott forcing a double-dissolution will probably work against his interests rather than with them.

Under normal circumstances, it would be in Abbott's best interests to simply kybosh the idea of a double dissolution. This, however, he cannot do, it would make him look weak, the corollary of Gillard's pledge never to have a carbon tax.

It's possible that he would simply ignore that and glide by, like he does with everything else. It's more likely, however, that people would look at the incumbents and ask: why are we voting for these guys again?

Some might think that media scrutiny might be decisive, but here's no evidence that media scrutiny of Abbott makes much of a difference either way. News Ltd threw the kitchen sink at Labor and the Greens, and the Coalition still ended up with less of a victory than it hoped. A man who can’t distinguish an office sink from a urinal clearly cannot be trusted in other matters of judgment either. Whether the dim light of media scrutiny flatters or obscures the government remains to be seen - early indicators are they will leap to Abbott's defence, but this may not necessarily help him.

The idea that a double dissolution hangs over this parliament like the Sword of Damocles gives rise to the very sort of instability that Abbott promised to avoid. The hysterical media commentary that beset the last parliament is set to continue, after a bit of a lull for the dummies to wake up to the possibility that there's a difference between what Tony Abbott says and what actually happens! And then convey that to the public! As though they haven't worked it out!

Abbott, according to conservative commentators, deserves credit for 'lowering the political temperature'. They forget how non-sporting news is sucked out of the media landscape in September and early October every year. In the same way that only Richard Nixon could go to China without being red-baited by Richard Nixon, only Tony Abbott can stumble and bumble around the region without being savaged by Tony Abbott. Government is all about facing situations you don't control, and whenever Abbott fails to get what he wants, he can only create heat instead of light.

No matter how people actually vote, a political system cannot be stable and productive if the representatives elected to it are themselves unstable and unproductive. Politicians who will not act until the environment is completely favourable to them, and who will not attempt to work within the limitations set by the public, are not to be trusted. Even those who fancy their skills at campaigning, and who have access to resources lacking in smaller parties, will never be satisfied by what a distrustful electorate hands them. Chances are the sentiment will be reciprocated, even in the face of a controlled media environment, and when that happens it is the politician - never the media or the public - who is always finished.

Published in Weekly Email