Thursday, 25 October 2012

Book review: Term Limits, Vince Flynn (2000)

The plot device that kicks off the story in this dystopian thriller is the assassination of three congressional members by a group who lay down a list of demands to the government of President Stevens that includes one that says the budget must be balanced. If their demands are not met, more elected members will be killed. But Stevens is a mere puppet in the hands of his chief of staff, Stu Garrett, and his national security adviser, Mike Nance, and his response, that the United States will not negotiate with terrorists, only serves to spark another killing. When this measure by the group of ex-commandos again fails to achieve their aim, they directly threaten the president's own life. Eager to consolidate their own power, Garrett and Nance then organise the killing of two additional congressmen using the resources of an ex-CIA operative named Arthur Higgins. Things spiral out of control and martial law is imposed in Washington DC.

As the book cover says, "The nation needs a hero ...", but it's not clear who that is, exactly. Is it FBI special agent Skip McMahon, tasked with investigating the murders? Is it ex-Marine and congressman Michael O'Rourke, whose own animus against the ineffectual Stevens is clearly evident from the moment he appears in the novel? Or is it ex-Navy SEAL Scott Coleman, the leader of the killers? What's for certain is that noone who is compromised by their links with the system - apart from the law enforcement officers - is able to act justly. But look at the book's date. It was published in 2000, a year before 9/11, at a time when confidence in government was at a generational low. Just how low government had fallen in public opinion can easily be felt from the excessive venality of those in power in this book; the relationships between Stevens, Garrett and Nance guarantee a violent response from those - like O'Rourke and Coleman - who have lived by a strict code of honour rather than by the demands of popular accommodation.

The idea that subverting the processes of democracy can be justified is not new. What is striking in this book is the depth of the underlying cynicism expressed in the plot and in the main characters. Not only Stevens, Garrett and Nance but also the four congressmen who are initially killed are shown up as fundamentally corrupt, so far have they fallen in thrall to the process of compromise implicit in a democracy. In effect, the book asks us to contemplate at what point a military coup is justified in a country such as America.

There is a lot of action in this book, and while these passages are very good those passages that refer to intimate relationships are schematic and flat. Essentially, the book efficiently draws the outline of a conflict in which every character is a proxy for one of two sides: justice or order. Living on the margins between these two imperatives is Michael O'Rourke, the Minnesota congressman whose girlfriend, Liz Scarlatti, is a reporter. Interestingly, the media does not come out of the book looking too bad. The main actors use the media on occasion as a form of threat in order to acieve their goals, but essentially the media is not judged as harshly as government is. And while the use of spin to maintain secrecy in government is condemned by the author, the existence of secret government agencies like the CIA, is not.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Clark Kent hands in press pass, heads for mother's basement

Clark Kent (left) in the latest Superman issue.
It's just too funny. In the latest issue of the Superman comic, the writers have written a plot where Clark Kent quits journalism in disgust at the low tone his editors are encouraging him to adopt. Apparently "the Daily Planet's editor-in-chief has soured on Kent because he is not getting enough front page scoops on his beat", according to the Fox News story on the DC Comics move.
“This is really what happens when a 27-year-old guy is behind a desk and he has to take instruction from a larger conglomerate with concerns that aren’t really his own,” Superman writer Scott Lobdell said to USA Today.
“Superman is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, but how long can he sit at his desk with someone breathing down his neck and treating him like the least important person in the world?” Lobdell said.
In a written statement to the website, DC Comics pointed to  a number of contemporary issues that sparked the crisis for Kent: "the balance of journalism vs. entertainment, the role of new media, the rise of the citizen journalist, etc." So Kent quits because his cash-strapped editors and the newspaper's proprietor are dumbing down the news? Lobdell goes on to suggest a career as a blogger on the model of Ariana Huffington or Matt Drudge but I wonder if Huffington's business model might offend the scrupulous Kent (Huffington Post contributors are not paid) and if Drudge's conservative politics might put him off. Perhaps a better model would be for Kent to set up as a publisher of long-form journalism sold via ebooks, as Charlotte Harper has done with her new business, Editia. After all, long-form journalism offers the depth that Kent seems to think is missing from his work on the Daily Planet. It also allows writers to be properly paid for their work, and avoids a party-political cast along the way.

We'll have to wait and see. The plot switch by DC Comics is both clever and interesting, and illustrates a deep feeling of unease in developed countries where the news business is struggling to fulfil its remit. Part of the romance of journalism is the public-interest function it has, which is presumably one of the reasons Kent took to the keyboard in the first place. The idea that proprietors are resorting to the production of lightweight stories aimed at securing audience attention, to the detriment of the public-interest function, is not something to be ignored. Of course, this is just one take on the current impasse for the print media. Others see a polarisation occurring, where different platforms adopt different political allegiences in order to grab audience attention. The record shows that consumers like to have their political biases affirmed by the media outlet they use. In short, the plot switch from DC Comics is part of a larger narrative designed to render Kent and his alter ego relevant for today's readers, but while it may not embody a deeply analytical appreciation of the state of the media it's certainly of interest to those who blog and those who earn a living writing journalism. A source of humour, if nothing else.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Armstrong a symptom of an out-of-control sports industry

News that the seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has been stripped of all his titles might seem to appear like something of a betrayal to some in the community. The global community, no less. After all, Armstrong is a household name pretty much everywhere. But while this failure must have hit a lot of people hard I find it difficult to see how it can be construed as much of a surprise. The sheer number of French wins should have alerted many to a trick. Apart from that, the use of every available means to extract the maximum quantity of stamina and power from their bodies can only make every rider a suspect, and the entire sport appear to be a vast con perpetrated on a trusting public by a large, wealthy sports industry.

You can see the dynamic at play everywhere in sport. I went to the Gold Coast V8 Supercars race on Saturday because I had never been to a motor race before and because I happened to be in town. The friend I went with was also very curious about the race. So we bought tickets and followed the crowd inside the enclosure. In the general admittance area you stand in the sun or under any tree you can find and eat overpriced junk food or drink cans of beer sold on-site. We waited an hour as two crashes that marred the race's start were cleared up. Once the race began the noise levels soared, with each of the 450kW Holdens and Fords completing the circuit in about 1min 15seconds. I looked around at the spectators, noting that among the men there seemed to be two types: tattooed and fit - with shirts off - or a nerdy type wearing a heavily-branded motorsports shirt. The crowd milled about within the enclosure or sat in grandstands placed at strategic points around the track. Each time the pack of competing vehicles emerged from the heat haze down the track they screamed past, the normal low burble of a classic Aussie V8 tuned to a pitch of intensity that only thousands of hours of dedicated engineering can achieve.

The idea that any of the V8s on the track much resemble a standard production Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon is laughable. But the fans don't care. Many of those tattooed youths own souped-up early-model Japanese sedans or hatchbacks that they use to make doughnut marks on local intersections. And those branded-shirt-wearing nerds own their own Commodores and Falcons but dream of owning a Beamer or a Merc, preferably one with eight cylinders and the kind of low mileage only a millionaire dreams about.

For a lot of men the idea of being able to achieve high performance in some aspect of their lives is important in terms of who they are. It's an identity thing. Some men certainly venture down the track adopted by Lance Armstrong. Go into a pharmacy anywhere in Australia and somewhere on the shelves you'll find huge plastic containers on sale for a couple of hundred dollars that are filled with dietary supplements that promise to help the fitness drone get the most out of his body. There are millions of vitamin pills in those pharmacies, too, and god-knows-what other legal chemicals, including steroids, that people consume so that they can feel good about themsleves. Such industries are probably worth billions of dollars to the national economy because they hold out a prize that is attainable only by separating oneself from a portion of the ready. Healthy men who want an impressive body shape can have their physiques airbrushed to perfection just by spending a bit of money.

In this atmosphere of desire and subterfuge it's difficult to see how athletes who compete for rich financial rewards can be blamed for overstepping boundaries that can only make sense to the most informed spectator. For most of us, it is all just part of a cycle of investment and exchange that has long been normalised by common use. Armstrong is merely a visible symptom of a culture of performance-enhancement that resembles nothing so much as the international cosmetics industry that offers to women the promise of feeling good.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Politicians will protest against online voting

It was amusing to see both the foul Scott Morrison and the dim-witted Peter Garrett on the ABC's Q and A program tonight praising social media. It's a great thing, they said, before they both made reference to "shopping malls" as another great place where the opinions of voters could be gleaned for use in policy making, as colourful asides in parliamentary speechifying, or for making compost (take your pick). Shopping malls are those large, privately-operated agglomerations of stores where people in the community buy things. Sort of like Amazon but with annoying small stall operators in the hallways who try to sell you marine-based facial treatments made out of Dead Sea mud, or sign you up for a new credit card. Where you can also buy bad cappuccinos and fresh doughnuts. Places that are not yet going bankrupt, unlike free-to-air TV stations and newspapers, due to the effect of competition from the internet. Of course, the retailers know their days are numbered and have pushed for the government to introduce a sales tax on most online purchases. But they're hanging in there, like Fairfax did for about 15 years before its share price fell below 10 percent of what it was once worth. Fairfax will bring in a paywall, it's just a matter of (yawn) when. We have heard from Gerry Harvey but not yet from Frank Lowy.

Getting back to the besuited pair on the TV tonight, I say it with an overtone of irony that it was amusing to hear Morrison and Garrett extol the virtues of social media, because their tone will change sharply once the push comes for individuals to use the internet to vote on specific pieces of legislation, as will happen at some point down the track. Once this proposal is given air, and people start to try to drag away from politicians powers of influence they have wielded for centuries, their song will change dramatically. The internet will no longer be about people finding community and exerting influence in a way that the media has traditionally done. It will become an untrustworthy, emotional, and ragged locus where no useful result can be achieved. Kicking and screaming, party representatives will be drawn away from the public teat, where they have attached themselves for so long pushing their often idiotic views down the throats of a trusting electorate. The problem is not with democracy, and the problem is not with the media. The problem is that we rely on these clumsy, unwieldy things - political parties - that believe that they have a moral right to swan into office and set down decrees on a broad range of issues that affect the lives of millions of people, and only become accountable every three years.

The regular hurley-burley of parliament stops in the lead-up to the elections and, suddenly, the politicians are on their best behaviour as they front the TV cameras and the ranged mics of the assembled press gallery. They try to stay on-message. They throttle the flow of information (which happens all the time anyway, we just never hear about it because the press constantly puts up with the intransigence of government as it strives to put together stories that possess that seamless cast we associate with quality, but which is a mere gloss pasted over the facts using the quantity of often deathless information the public service allows its media managers to release). They are shaped, styled and brushed up so that we get a good impression of them, despite years of ugly, savage, and often plainly illegal actions.

The use of internet applications for voting is emerging, often taking the form of community consultation, which is sort of like those polls tacked on news stories by media companies, only less susceptible to misuse. There are companies that make this software. Some jurisdications are even allowing people to vote online in substantive elections. The next and logical step, of course, is to wave aside the traditional process of debate within the chambers of Parliament and throw open the vote on individual pieces of legislation to people living in the community, who could use a variety of internet-connected devices to cast a vote. Terrifying as this thought might be to some, the advantages are enormous. One of them might be the eventual demise of the political party, or else a proliferation of parties that are aimed at specific areas of concern, or specific demographics. We are not talking about these things right now because nothing has happened to push the issue into the public sphere. It could also be because most journalists lack the imagination required to envision such an eventuality. In any case, the talk will start soon enough. When it does, expect Morrison and Garrett and their ilk to protest long and loudly against the idea.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

ASIO powers: We can't judge what we cannot see

ASIO wants more power to scrutinise
Australians' online communications.
Last week I had a bit of a jaundiced spray against ASIO, Australia's domestic spy agency, in which I said that the organisation is unconstitutional because its activities are invisible to the public. If effective government requires freedom of political speech - as the High Court has decreed - then ASIO can have no part in government since its activities are never talked about, or if talked about then not in sufficient detail. Therefore it is unconstitutional. Apart from that, it appears, ASIO's powers represent an "assault on civil liberties", according to UNSW law professor George Williams. Williams "was speaking at the NSW Council for Civil Liberties dinner in Sydney where a national campaign to roll back the nation's anti-terrorism laws was unveiled".
The anti-terrorism laws have sunset clauses which come into effect in 2016. At that time they can be repealed, amended or made permanent.
The national campaign aims to force decisions of intelligence agencies, which negatively affect human rights, to be subject to a merit review and to ensure any future laws are scrutinised by the community before they are enacted to stop further erosions of civil liberties.
(Emphasis added.) Well, that would be nice wouldn't it? But it falls short in the practicality stakes because, once more, there will never be any publicly-available information about decisions taken by intelligence agencies due to their restrictive secrecy policies. Forcing decisions of intelligence agencies to be "subject to a merit review" could, of course, entail some form of secret cabinet of appointees tasked with reviewing the decisions that have been taken by an intelligence agency. It doesn't necessarily follow that such a review would be a public one. And scrutiny of proposed laws "by the community" may indeed involve public access to information about any such laws, but it will be impossible for the community to have an informed opinion about their merits or otherwise because the public would not have access to specific information about how similar laws had been used - or abused - in the past. Due to the same secrecy policies of intelligence agencies. Checkmate.

So what do we have? We have a bland headline pointing to a talk given at a dinner held by a group of well-intentioned individuals by a university professor who says that ASIO has too much power. (Stifles yawn.) Goodness me, knock me down with a feather. How compelling is that? How likely is such a story to engage the community in such a way as to spark the kind of broad-ranging debate that is required for people living in Australia to understand how ASIO is using all the powers given to it - largely by John Howard, the man who took the nation to war on the strength of a bald lie? I'm sure that ASIO head David Irvine and his senior officers are simply trembling in their shoes at the thought of what could happen as a result of this story being published by Fairfax.

I respect Williams' views, of course, and I wish that when those sunset clauses in those laws kick in the laws will be repealed. But I don't see this kind of story making any difference. There are too many other things to occupy peoples' attention, such as doping scandals in the cycling fraternity and kiddy fiddling perpetrated by Catholic priests. So this story just brings me back to my original point: that ASIO cannot be legal because it is secret. It is not enough to ask Australians to tolerate this agency simply on account of the vagaries of any kind of trust. If ASIO is asking for more powers to avoid "intelligence failures" in addition to the unwarranted powers that it has been granted by governments, then it must come clean and demonstrate exactly why it should be given such powers. In order for that to happen, it is necessary for ASIO to disclose to the public the ways in which it is currently using the powers is already has. Failures must be aired, discussed publicly, and freely. Only in this way can people living in the community be confident that the organisation is not abusing the powers it has, and will not abuse any powers that a government might see fit to grant it in future.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Conservatives' narrow agenda shows lack of imagination

Sydney Opera House under construction, 1965.
Not content with slamming prime minister Julia Gillard for "swanning around in New York talking to Africans" during the lead-up to the vote on a UN Security Council seat that Australia won last night, Tony Abbott continued his campaign yesterday with jibes against the other category candidates. "If Australia can't come first or second in a three-horse race involving Finland and Luxembourg, there's something wrong with us," Mr Abbott said. A dream of ex-PM Kevin Rudd that Gillard took up when she secured her party's leadership in 2010, the Security Council seat allows Australia to extend the reach of its influence further across the global stage. The conservatives' downer on the bid is annoying but people should not be unduly surprised, as it is the wont of conservatives everywhere, with their purely economic agenda, to kill any ambition that does not fit into its narrow scope.

Take the classic example: the Sydney Opera House. Construction of the building started in 1959 but the Labor government that initiated the experiment lost the state election in 1965 before it could be completed (it was opened in 1973). With the Liberal Party in power, differences between the government and the architect who designed the building proliferated, with the result that Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect, resigned and left Australia. He never returned to the country. "For [the new Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes], as for Utzon, it was all about control; about the triumph of homegrown mediocrity over foreign genius," writes architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly. Hughes' unwillingness to pay Utzon's fees and a lack of collaboration on the project after the change of government led directly to Utzon's quitting Australia. The Sydney Opera House was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Tony Abbott's reflexive negativity vis-a-vis the Security Council seat shows that the conservatives never learn. It's in their interests to cultivate the dim and the unimaginative. They are the electoral base the Liberal Party relies on to help it push through legislation designed to improve the quality of life of the wealthy minority it actually represents. Without cultivating this stolid middle voter, the conservatives would never get the support they need to win power. It's the tall-poppy syndrome as part of the democratic process: if you don't understand it, it is a personal insult, and must be stopped. Were we to rely on the Liberal Party to define who we are, Australian cities would just be giant shopping centres with highways and parking lots wall-to-wall from the mountains to the sea. No parks, no cultural centres, no libraries (who needs books?), no quirky backwaters where the exhausted office worker can seek spiritual sustenance on a Saturday afternoon. It would be concrete and asphalt, functional office towers, sports stadiums, and efficient agglomerations of mall space with terrazzo flooring and chrome finishing from one side of our cities to the other.

Lack of imagination is the consistent leitmotiv of the lumpenprole. It's what spurs him to drink, gamble, and yearn for pure motive power in the cars he prefers. It's the cause of his restless wanderings through capitalism's enervating shooting gallery, the place where his unrequited mind seeks the constant stimulation it craves in the absence of any solid anchor to his personhood. Sport thrives on it. Lack of imagination is the cause of violence, in the streets and in the home. It is the bane of the exceptional child who would look for support from what culture can deliver if he was only encouraged to do so. And it gives sustenance to the bully and the scold who police the byways of personality looking for anything outstanding or unusual, which is immediately deemed a prime target for ridicule and persecution.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Mo Yan's Nobel Prize more macchiato than flat white

Mo Yan.
It's been a week since Guan Moye, who writes novels under the pen name "Mo Yan", won the Nobel Prize for Literature and globally, in the public sphere, the matter has been heavily contested. It's no surprise that this is the case. On the one hand, Western journals have been publishing articles by people who have a strong interest in seeing democracy establish itself in China, like this one, while on the other hand the Chinese Communist Party is falling over itself with excitement at finally seeing a kosher candidate for world fame carry the torch for the homeland team. As an excellent article from the Japan Times explains:
"The Chinese people have a long history and a glorious culture," said Hong Lei, [a Chinese Foreign Ministry] spokesman. "This is a treasure shared by all humanity. We hope our friends in every country around the world can better understand Chinese culture and get a better feeling for the charm of Chinese literature."
Sustained general applause. Then, what? Diminishing silence? It's hard to say, but we're all watching. Western journals have made much of Mo Yan's Party credentials. He was involved in censuring dissident Chinese writers during a book fair a year ago by walking out when they were invited to talk publicly. He is a state functionary in the pay of the Party, too. And high-profile maverick artist Ai Weiwei has lashed out at the Nobel Committee's decision in typically ascerbic style, lambasting them roundly. For his part, Mo Yan can expect as an immediate consequence of the award a boost to his royalty payments; in China alone the printers have been busy bringing out more copies of his books. But as Frank Ching, the JT correspondent, notes, Mo "will have to tread a fine line, not offending the party too egregiously while maintaining the intellectual integrity of a Nobel laureate".

Mo looks like a circumspect fellow. You can imagine him being reasonable and measured in his pronouncements. His plain face has an inscrutable tone that says, "Of course, I agree with you entirely, but just let me say ..." It's the kind of face that could belong to an honest paterfamilias, father of children and husband to a fair wife, a man used to navigating carefully between the competing demands of multiple actors, a man who seeks the optimal result that can satisfy the requirements of all parties. You don't rock the boat but, at the same time, a few things need to be taken into consideration ... . So when he said he hoped that 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Lui Xiaobo would be released as soon as possible, he was clearly stepping out of his comfort zone. As Ching notes, we'll have to wait until December, and Mo's acceptance speech delivered in Stockholm, to gauge the full measure of this gentleman.

For its part, the Communist Party must tread carefully to avoid looking completely out of touch with global opinion. Foreigners will not be reading Mo's novels in order to appraise themselves of the eternal beauties of Chinese culture, but rather they will be looking for signs of the ways that a card-carrying Communist was able to satisfy the requirements of the demanding Nobel academic panel. People in other countries who buy any of Mo's books at this point in time won't be swatting up on Chinese culture so much as looking for the traces of democratic aspiration in Mo's stories.

The Party's pronouncements to date demonstrate that it is likely to adopt the delineations of that popular comic character from Hollywood, the over-eager parent whose single-minded zeal in pursuit of greatness for her patient child threatens to alienate the entire cast of the film. There are pitfalls available for this kind of cinematic type and they can include universal ridicule, keen embarrassment, physical harm, financial ruin, and even a devastating brush with the law. By this logic, Mo's award should be treated with respect by the Party. I have faith that Mo himself will behave with reasonable care to avoid a public pratfall, but whether the Party can restrain its overreaching passion in pursuit of global acclaim is another thing entirely.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The ABC remains sustainable in the long term

Performing: ABC MD Mark Scott at a
Senate estimates hearing in 2011.
The savaging that Alan Jones has taken since the end of last month demonstrates how important it is when you operate in the media to operate sustainably. Jones' problem is that he plays to a small, conservative demographic in Sydney. So when he went too far he was attacked mercilessly by the community's progressive element and this animus quickly spread to people who sit in the centre of things. The explosive episode shows us that Jones' radio show can be unsustainable when he steps outside the boundaries of what is acceptable speech. It's clearly not a good tactic to alienate women, who comprise half of the community. While it looks like he will survive this current impasse, he'll be careful of what he says for a while.

The ABC is very aware of how it appears in the public sphere. In addition to the public, the ABC has to be mindful at all times of the power that the serving government has, to affect its operations. The ABC's current managing director, Mark Scott, came into his role at the end of the previous, Liberal government's, tenure, in 2006. He would always have been mindful of how, in 2003, that government's communications minister, Richard Alston, complained about bias in ABC radio coverage of its ridiculous and illegal Iraq War. The war founded on a lie. But the Howard government had already, in 1996, cut funding to the ABC. Then, in 2006, that government effected a restructure that abolished the role of staff elected director. The Left complained. However, instead of keeping his head down, under a Labor government Scott has expanded ABC services, most notably by setting up the ABC News 24 channel to deliver round-the-clock programming focused on news and current affairs.

Nevertheless, on his appointment to the managing director role, Scott took steps to address the issue of perceived bias that had long dogged the broadcaster. New editorial guidelines established in early 2007, before the federal election that removed the conservatives from power, note that the ABC must express "a full range of views in opinion-based programs" and that opinion should always be marked as such. This explains why, when The Drum op-ed website was set up the word "opinion" is nowhere shown; instead, designers opted for the less loaded term "views". This sensitivity also explains why programs such as the TV version of The Drum, a weeknight panel discussion show, err on the side of excess when selecting guests to appear on air. An Independent Australia survey demonstrates that over the period of a year (June 2011 – June 2012) The Drum gave more time to conservatives on the show. Yet accusations of Left bias continue to appear from time to time, especially from died-in-the-wool conservative media culture warriors, the growly penmen. People in the community also air similar views on occasion, but those views can appear unlikely. (I once came across an older gentleman online who told me the News Ltd tabloid, the Courier-Mail, belonged to the "ALP media". Given the trenchant conservative bias of the News Ltd proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, that person must stand accused of drawing a particularly long bow.)

The ABC's audience tends to be older and better-educated. So it's no wonder that the measured, in-depth stories the ABC prefers are sometimes taken amiss by people who like their information short and ugly. If your thought processes tend to sound bites ("Turn back the boats," "This bad tax," "Go back where you came from") then listening to a radio segment on the ABC's AM program, a program that has been airing since the 1960s, that includes the views of a wide range of people, will probably be hard to do. Especially if you're, say, driving a car at the same time. Some people will always prefer the enervated slapstick of commercial radio, and it's these people who listen to hosts such as Alan Jones. The fact is that people who prefer depth and complexity - indeed, are even able to tolerate these things in the first place - tend to also be people who sit on the Left side of the political spectrum. Scott's problem is that such people are in the minority. To his advantage is the fact that such people are influential, intelligent, and can string two sentences together without suffering a cerebral aneurism.

Mark Scott has an important job and he's performed his role with imagination and dedication. The additional programming on TV and the new websites are all popular with his core demographic. He is serving his constituents. But Scott will always be looking behind his back. In 2013 there is a federal election and by current indicators it promises to be a close-run thing. Scott is not a political appointee. He is in the way of a public trustee, and must manage a wide range of stakeholder relationships in order to be successful. The verdict from this commentator is that Scott has acquitted himself with aplomb, and has worked to ensure that the ABC remains sustainable in the long term.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

At Bali bombing ceremony, Gillard lets Australia down

Julia Gillard at Bali bombing memorial ceremony.
It's all rather sad and tired. While the mainstream media saturates the public space with stories and images covering the Bali bombing's 10th anniversary memorial ceremony, life goes on for ordinary Australians. The situation yesterday was especially comic. On the ABC the News 24 channel ran the telecast showing the memorial ceremony, so I switched over to ABC1 to watch another program, but after that one finished the ABC1 channel immediately rolled the intro sequence for the same Bali bombing memorial ceremony telecast that the News 24 channel had earlier run. This program had screened earlier in the day as well. In addition, all of the broadcaster's news programs featured sequences showing scenes from the memorial ceremony. Then there were the stories on the newspaper websites, and those stories are still running today. Total saturation coverage, where Julia Gillard is shown extracting maximum political advantage out of a really quite depressing and also totally misunderstood event that took place ten years since in a couple of nightclubs on a small island in Indonesia.

From listening to Julia Gillard's words presented at the memorial ceremony it is clear that she has learned nothing about the reasons for the bombings in those ten years. And John Howard, who was also at the ceremony, evinced as little comprehension. So you just wonder what Gillard and Howard think Indonesian people think about either the bombings or Australia's reaction to them. My feeling is that Indonesians think that Australians are totally out of touch with the realities that exist on the ground in Indonesia, since there was nothing in what Gillard or Howard said that demonstrated the slightest appreciation for the cultural, political or religious realities that obtain in Indonesia. Instead of reaching out to Indonesians, these two Australian politicians merely played to a domestic audience, and in the most crude fashion. I guess it's hard to blame them. After all, Indonesians don't vote in Australian federal elections. But if Australia wants to begin to more fully integrate with Asia our politicians must start thinking in a less parochial, and in a more inclusive, fashion.

After all, people like Gillard have a responsibility to ordinary Australians to reflect their international aspirations. Given this reality, I have to say that Gillard utterly failed me as an ordinary Australian who cares about how my country is viewed in Asia. Gillard has elsewhere shown that the way Australia is seen in Asia is important to her, as the upcoming Henry white paper on Australia's role in Asia this century demonstrates. But Australia has to use more imagination in its interactions with Asian neighbours so that we are able to faithfully represent the values that make Australia truly unique. There are some things about Australia that Asian countries can profitably study, and even emulate, but narrow-minded, parochial vote-seeking is not one of these things.

International students can help Australia to prosper in the 'Asian Century'

Overseas students at an Australian university.
Asia is looming large economically and it seems that there's a certain level of fear in government and business circles that Australia might miss out on the opportunities the region can offer. A story that appeared this morning in the Business section of Fairfax websites points to a new study being prepared for the federal government by a team led by Ken Henry. Apparently “[Julia] Gillard announced the decision to commission [an] Asian century white paper on September 28 last year” and the study is due to be published “as early as this month”.

The Fairfax story has a lot of Asia experts here in Australia saying that we don't have enough people with knowledge about doing business in Asia, and this situation is hurting Australian companies financially because they are not able to do deals in the region. Looking more broadly, outside of this story, there have been some big news stories lately focusing on Asian investment in Australia that are certainly getting the attention of politicians and businesses. Just recently, a Chinese-controlled consortium purchased an enormous cotton growing property in southern Queensland called Cubbie Station. The property’s owners had been looking for a buyer for 3 years and couldn’t find an Australian company that wanted to buy it. Then this Chinese company stepped in and said, “We’ll take it.” A similar thing happened in 2010 when Singapore’s Wilmar International bought Australia’s biggest sugar producer, Sucrogen. No local buyer wanted it.

The question must be, “Why can these Asian companies make a profit out of assets that Australians show no interest in?” How is it that Wilmar can say, “We can make money out of Sucrogen even if Australian business people cannot”? Cubbie Station is the same. What is the reason that Asian business people are able to invest in big assets here, in Australia, while local business people just show no interest at all because they do not see the financial rewards that can derive from these assets? Is it because they have the expertise for doing business in Asia that many Australian companies do not have, or do not have enough of?

The answer, according to the Fairfax story, is "Yes".
In a national strategy paper released last month, Asialink listed language proficiency as just one of 11 ''critical capabilities'' linked to business success in and with Asia.
Others included the ability to adapt behaviour to Asian contexts, work with governments, gain work experience and form relationships.

It might sound basic, but Australian companies are yet to cotton on. Large groups, including ANZ, Rio Tinto and Leighton Holdings, describe attracting and retaining ''Asia-capable talent" as their ''single most pressing challenge''.

And while the lack of true Asia-focused talent has long been lamented, less attention has been afforded to the scarcity of depth in Asia-capability within the Australian public service, which is at the forefront of this country's Asian engagement and policy implementation.

''Australia's public service needs to lift its game in this respect,'' [Ken] Henry said.

It is a view echoed by Andrew MacIntyre, an Asia-Pacific expert at the Australian National University, who said more people were interested in Asia but a smaller proportion had deep knowledge.

''We are fortunate to have a number of people high up in the public service who have got really good Asia expertise,'' he said. ''The trouble is, there are not many of them, and it is not clear what is coming through the ranks behind them.''
Now the answer to this conundrum - it takes time to build capacity in terms of human resources - might be close at hand. According to the ABS, in 2010–11 there were 282,000 student visa applications lodged in Australia and while this is 23% less than the peak of 2008–09, it's still a lot of potential recruits coming through our education system. The problem that is perceived by the business community, however, is language proficiency. I wrote a story about international students back in 2010 and had the chance to talk with Dr Bob Birrell of Monash University about what employers expect from recruits. “At the university level it is not lack of familiarity with the labour market (especially for accountants) but rather lack of English language communication skills that is the problem,” he told me.
In a 2008 study, Dr Birrell and co-author Ernest Healy show that students from mainland China and Hong Kong have a particularly low level of English.

The study looks at how shortages of qualified jobseekers in the workforce cannot be filled by tertiary-educated international students who are vigorously recruited by universities.

It finds that some firms ask for proof of English-language proficiency on the basis of a far higher test result than is required for university admission.

For example, to apply for a job at Ernst & Young, a leading accounting firm, graduates must have minimum International English Language Testing System (IELTS) scores of 8 for listening, 8 for speaking, 7.5 for writing and 7.5 for reading.

The popular IELTS scores people in four bands, where a score of 9 indicates native competency.
Not only do universities require lower IELTS scores than this (the score required depends on the course you are applying for), but the federal government asks for a score of "four 7s" for people who want to use language proficiency as a credential when they are looking to acquire permanent residency in Australia. So business has the problem that they can't find enough people with the skills necessary to do business in Asia, and overseas students graduating from Australian universities - many of whom are Asian - have the problem that their English language skills might not be high enough to get them in the door of a local firm. Securing employment locally is important for many overseas graduates, because work experience - like language proficiency - counts towards getting PR.

But a lot of those young people from Asia who come to Australia are highly motivated. They also innately possess many of the Asia-centric business skills that Australian businesses need to grow as Asian countries develop their economies this century, the 'Asian Century'. As well as adopting measures that can instil knowledge of Asian customs, values, and interpersonal relationships in young Australian people, perhaps the government can work with the business community to find ways to leverage the already existing skills of the many overseas graduates coming out of Australian universities every year. In my mind that's a huge untapped resource. Helping those young people to improve their English language skills might be a better option for businesses, and some strategic investment now might allow them to prosper more energetically in future.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Sloppy thinking on Bali impedes mutual understanding

Bali bombing "mastermind", Imam Samudra,
executed by firing squad in 2008 in Indonesia.
Dumb, soppy copy from the Sydney Morning Herald today to mark the ten-year anniversary of the Bali terrorist bombings where 88 Australians tragically died. The broadsheet's headline is bad enough: 'Ten years on it is clear the human spirit vanquished darkness.' But there's more misguided thinking within the story, which is unworthy of a quality newspaper that otherwise claims to be objective and balanced. It's hard to know where the editorial writer acquired the cognates he uses in the piece, but maybe we can blame the government's concerted effort to turn the Bali bombings into a kind of new Anzac Day, an unthinking, xenophobic, wilfully blind "celebration" that aims to flatter lumpenproles throughout the nation. If the SMH is doing this kind of thing, I can only imagine what the tabloids are spewing out onto the screens of their dull-witted readers. It's hardly surprising that people who live in Asia - our region of the world, we're told time and time again - think Australia is, well, pretty much out of touch, inward looking, ignorant and not to be trusted.

The SMH has basically sucked up and regurgitated the stale propaganda that is still produced by hawkish entities like the US government. Other governments employ the same propaganda for their own ends. In Australia, ASIO's annual report gives prominence to the idea of what it calls "violent jihad ideology" to justify its continued existence. And encouraging popular sentiment serves the ends of such organisations because it shows that Australians unthinkingly, reflexively accept the official line produced by Western hawks. These are the same hawks who have kept international troops in Afghanistan - doing what exactly? - while the Islamists have regrouped and moved on to other places. And the same hawks actively promoted the invasion of Iraq, a country that had precisely nothing to do with 9/11, and kept international forces there for years while they worked out a way to exit with dignity. The "exit with dignity" strategy is also at work in Afghanistan. That more people are dying in this conflict is of no importance to Australia's leaders. Their primary aim is to bolster the historic US alliance because this serves Australia's national interests, as understood currently by both the Coalition and the Labor Party.

The SMH's editorial also serves out praise to the Indonesian government for having worked to locate, prosecute and punish the people who planned and executed the terrible attacks in the two nightclubs in Bali. But questions must be asked about why the terrorists felt the need to act as they did, and how Indonesia's government could have operated differently in order to cut them off beforehand. Imam Samudra and his co-conspirators are products of Indonesia's Islamic education system and cannot legitimately be merely demonised either by the Australian government or the Indonesian government without giving observers time to understand the context within which these men built developed the cognitive apparatus necessary to enable them to spend such a long time devising a way to carry out a crime against humanity. The people involved did not just pop out of the head of some strange deity like magical figures out of classic myth, but grew up within a society that included certain narratives and specific markers of identity that encouraged them to take the path that led them to the streets of Bali, ten years ago today. These narratives and markers belong to the process of identity politics, which in Indonesia is clearly aligned closely with the religion of the majority of its people, Islam. Indonesia's government is ostensibly secular in nature, as are its powerful armed forces, but Islamic values are present not just within the Islamic schools such as the one Imam Samudra attended, but also within the texture of its laws and of its administrative apparatus.

With 200 million people Indonesia must have many different social forces operating on government and the law. It is certain that many Indonesians admire people like Imam Samudra. But what is the relationship between such people and the Indonesian government? It is worth asking why the terrorists took the path they did when other avenues might have existed by which they might have achieved the agency they so obviously desired, within the existing structures of governance, and within the broad framework of democracy. It is crystal clear that Islamic identity politics, which operates across the Muslim world, frequently involves the notion of the Caliphate, a "just" state where Muslims can live in peace and equality with their brothers and sisters. But how does this kind of thinking play out in the media in Indonesia, for example, and is it perceived by the Indonesian government as a threat?

When editorials like the one the SMH produced today merely demonise the Indonesian terrorists, creating that comforting "other" that national governments so eagerly strive to produce when faced with the task of coopting the support of their electorates, they close the door to the kinds of thinking that I outline in this blog post. This is not productive. It merely serves to emphasise the gap that separates Australians from the people living in its largest neighbour, and more problematically it operates to widen that gap. Tears for the fallen shed here at home and at the Bali bombing commemoration site fall on the wasteland of misunderstanding and suspicion that has always existed between our two nations. Shedding them might make us feel better, it might bestow support on the Australian government in its more hawkish moments, and it might justify who-knows-what oppressive measures by the Indonesian government as it works to promote its blueprint for society in that country. But you wonder how such an outpouring of sentiment actually, positively contributes to a deeper understanding between the people of Indonesia and those of Australia.

Clever consumers don't blame the supplier, they just take their coin elsewhere

Coalition MP Joe Hockey has a chuckle
in the House chamber.
You hear it all the time from ordinary Australians, even from people you know had a decent education and should know better. By God you hear it from the legions of syntactically-challenged trolls who flounce around the internet dropping their opinions with all the aplomb of rabbits in springtime who manure the verdant pasture with their stinking scat. Here's an example of the kind of unenlightened chagrin people sometimes bring up: why are politicians so pathetic? And it's not just politicians we denigrate. Yes, we make fun of them because we can, after all we're the boss of them. But people also tend to make fun of journalists, and denigrate them, because, well, because it's so damn easy to do. We've heard them a million times, the popularity rankings across common professions which place journalists and politicians right down there with used-car salesmen and lawyers. Dregs. Offal. Ordure.

But did you notice something? Yes, I said "we're the boss of them", and it's true. It's frankly stupid to denigrate a whole class of people who are elected to office by ordinary Australians. Politicians, as we know, study opinion polls assiduously, and take their cues from them. When to come on strong. When to retreat. And they read the stories that journalists write, and take other cues from there as well. They talk with constituents and listen carefully to what those people tell them. They watch TV and movies and read books, and pay attention to the popularity rankings and the profits and the reviews. Because it's the signals that we send them that determine how they conduct themselves. And it's the same with journalists, who are, like politicians, pretty smart people. It's a little unfair to criticise a journalist for something they write, especially in these days of instant feedback and accurate digital metrics, when the journalist is assiduously watching what stories are most copiously consumed by their readers. Again, they take their lead from the people who read their stuff.

If you want politicians to conduct themselves with more dignity, then applaud good behaviour and punish bad, give your vote to the dignified man rather than the hypocrite. Make that call to the radio shock jock and say your piece, telling him what you really want. Write that letter or make that comment on the online news story, and make it clear what kind of person you want to sit in the legislative chambers of Australia. And if you want journalists to write better stories that more objectively focus on the real issues rather than the day-to-day biffo and the personality competitions, then ignore those stories and pay attention to the stories that deliver what you say you want. Because I do really believe that we are the boss of the politicians, and I do really believe that we are the discerning customers that observant journalists try to please. If any of these people fail to do so, the fault lies with us. We're the ones who reward poor performance because we want it cheap and we want it quick and we want it now, and yes, please flatter me because, you can hardly blame me, it makes me feel so good (I've had a bad week).

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Is ASIO unconstitutional?

The answer to this question can only be based on an assessment drawn from my own acquaintance with the constitution which is, I admit, pretty meagre. My knowledge of the agency is even slimmer, naturally. What I do know, though, is that the constitution requires representative government. The High Court has created a doctrine of "implied freedom" of speech, where in order for representative government to exist the electorate must be adequately informed. From Wikipedia: "freedom of public discussion of political and economic matters is essential to allow the people to make their political judgments so as to exercise their right to vote effectively".

In the ASIO annual report for 2011-12, we find the report's authors relying on the threat of war to justify the agency's existence, as in: "Well developed national capabilities take considerable effort to build and are difficult to re-establish in an emergency." It's a warning that prudence requires the existence of a secret arm of government in case Australia enters into a war against a foreign nation. After all, the CIA was established after WWII, as was MI5. The FBI dates from WWI. Secretive law enforcement agencies tend to rely on international conflict and the shenanigans that opposing sides get up to in order to achieve total domination, to justify their existence. But clearly ASIO is an arm of the civil authority.

To reassure the electorate of ASIO's legitimacy the annual report is full of comforting language. There's a fair bit of stick, of course, such as the bit about "violent jihadist ideology" that comes up early in the section on terrorism. This section headlines Part 1 of the annual report, 'The security environment 2011-12 and outlook'. That's a pretty loaded phrase, right there. After all, "jihad" means "struggle", so it's hard to see how a jihad can be an ideology. A method, certainly. Yes, sometimes Islamic extremists are violent, there's no question about that. But a jihadist can equally be viewed merely as a voluntary participant within the activist element of pan-Islamic identity politics. ASIO's report is generally full of bland managerial material aimed at putting a positive, professional spin on its activities, and at deftly demonising social elements that it is focused on disrupting. It should be the kind of report that a journalist reads with one eye half closed out of a sense of caution.

Anyone can read this thing, it's public and available. Of course, most people won't bother, or won't bother finishing it (like me) because it's chockers with the kind of bureaucratic, self-referential language that has excessive significance for the initiated but means zip to a member of the general public. Most of the acronyms are ones the average citizen will never have heard of. There are no points of reference apart from those that are carefully inserted in the text in order to generate the enemy the agency requires to justify its existence. Your eyes glaze over helplessly as you ineffectually scan through line after line of impenetrable prose that is designed to reassure and terrify at the same time.

Getting back to the implied freedom thing, if we don't know about ASIO's activities how are we able to gauge its effectiveness, its rasion d'etre, or its legality? Even whether it is legally carrying out its activities, or ethically following either the law or professional codes of conduct? ASIO's status as a statutory authority MUST be a matter of parliamentary - and public - scrutiny, if it is to be constitutional. Simply put, we can't know about it so we can't talk about it. Oh, sure, from time to time there is a story in the media about ASIO and persons it deems to be of interest. There was one a couple of weeks ago about ASIO's activities with regard to an Islamic bookshop in suburban Melbourne. But apart from that we are forced to rely on something called the 'Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security' who it seems oversees ASIO's activities. Maybe (how would we know?). Then there's Nicola Roxon who is reponsible for ASIO as part of her portfolio. But the one person is never talks about ASIO in the media and the other person never talks about ASIO in Parliament. And if the media is not talking about ASIO, in my book, it's not constitutional.

The agency is to publish a book about its past, in 2013. How revealing will that be? We know from reading Wikipedia that there was a Russian infiltration of ASIO some 40 years ago and we can therefore assume that this will be discussed in the book. But it's likely to be a whitewash. You can imagine a lackey in some sweaty foreign secret service bureau going to Amazon to order the book and, with his fingers trembling feverishly on the computer mouse, clicking through to his checkout basket, intent as he is on securing access to vital information about Australia's security apparatus. Or not.

For Australians it comes down to trust. The burden lies with Australians to trust the agency, since the agency does nothing to substantiate its role or justify its existence in the public eye. But all sorts of things can happen that we can never know about. The risk of extortion, for example, is extremely high. An ASIO employee can access information, transport it out of the office, and use it to persuade a person to fork out money under threat of the release of information that might be incriminating in an ethical or reputational sense, but that cannot reasonably be used to prosecute that individual for a crime. There is also the risk of employees selling information to foreign agencies.  There is also the risk of excessive zeal. I worked for a NSW crime commission for a year as a sub analyst and I know how much "rubbish" data is carefully collected, collated, and entered into a searchable database on a daily basis. You have police officers taking things from the premises of suspects and handing it over to junior clerks, who go about processing the material - pieces of paper, notebooks, airline ticket stubs, receipts - and using that information to populate a database that can be accessed remotely from multiple, isolated locations. Even Stella Rimington, the ex-MI5 chief-turned novelist, in her memoir talks about how junior clerical staff in MI5 were tasked with creating files on suspects and populating them with "relevant" information.

It's not hard to find examples from the past of excessive zeal. Oh, sure, the McCarthy era is SUCH a long time ago now (and things are different, I hear voices say, today), but in those days people were investigated by ASIO simply because they expressed an interest in socialism or belonged to a book club. And even when you get to see the files created in those days, which have been declassified in recent times, there are parts blacked out, including names of informants and other details, that keep you wondering about what really happened. Read the history of the CIA written by Tim Weiner a few years ago, and the document trail ends some 40 years ago. Anything more recent than Nixon remains classified, and not available for public scrutiny.

And these guys ask us to trust them. Really, they do. ASIO is essentially an un-democratic agency of government where there is no guarantee that the government even knows what is going on in the street in our name. There is zero scrutiny by government or by Parliament or by the media. As a result, the electorate cannot know what the agency does or assess dispassionately whether the people it is targeting deserve to be targeted, or whether the methods used to target them are legal or ethical. This complete absence of transparency commits me to declaring that I think that ASIO is unconstitutional, and should be scrapped immediately.

Facebook wants too much information for comfort

Facebook's Zuckerberg really likes
your information.
The way I see it, this question should never have cropped up, that Facebook is becoming less and less easy to work with. I was a fairly early adopter of Facebook, starting use in 2007, and from the start it delivered to me an unalloyed mixture of benefits. I have made new friends on Facebook and I have reconnected with people from the distant past I never would have been able to contact otherwise. It has provided amusement and intellectual stimulation in equal measure. My support for it was, until recently, comprehensive. In 2009, when I started out as a freelance journalist, one of my early published stories was in the way of a defense of Facebook, which was at the time under some amount of critical scrutiny from a still sceptical mainstream media.

Facebook is truly a revolutionary device. Not only was it the first social media platform to actually work, but it spawned others that have also gone on to independent success. Twitter grew out of the success of Facebook, as it took one element of Facebook - the status update - and turned it into the core of its method of information exchange. Then came Google Plus, which is apparently the preferred platform for the more technically inclined among the globe's internet citizens. But Facebook was the one to storm the citadel of public communication in such an astonishingly broad variety of ways that it changed forever the way people stay in touch. Before Facebook, social networking was a very exclusive passtime, restricted to a small number of IT savvy people. With Facebook, connecting with others across vast physical boundaries became suddenly possible for everyone.

But Facebook has changed in nature as it has become subject to commercial imperatives. The IPO that disappointed so many took place within a context where Facebook was already starting to annoy people due to its incorporation into the news feed of commercial advertisements.

The first time I really objected to Facebook's appropriation of my personal data was when I tried to remove my date of birth from my account record. When I first started using Facebook I had included this information although I had blocked other people from seeing it. Then one day I decided that I wanted to remove it entirely from the Facebook database and was disappointed to discover that this would be impossible. I sent a message to the site's administrators but received no reply. Today another similar occurrence has deeply soured my view of Facebook. I find that Facebook is now making disclosure of location information mandatory. Again, I messaged the site's administrators. I am not optimistic that this message will be any more successful than the first.

Of course I can understand why Facebook wants this information. Your age determines what advertisements you see. Your location information, also, can easily be converted into any number of commercial opportunities for Facebook. I understand their reasoning, but I am afraid that Facebook must likewise respect my need for privacy. Date of birth information is extremely sensitive. For me, location information is equally sensitive and I do not want anyone using Facebook to be able to see either of these things as they relate to me. So it is with a heavy heart that I declare that Facebook is on notice. Officially. From me. Within a few days it is likely that I will cease using Facebook, and disable my account.

Metro progressives are farmers' most important customers

The Chaser's Andrew Hansen in series 2,
episode 3 of The Hamster Wheel, ABC TV.
This post is a bit risky and it may even be a subject that doesn't need retailing, and in any case only three or four people will care enough to get to the end of it. But they're people I want to talk with. The post is about distortions in perceptions that occur across the rural-metro divide. Stereotypes, to a large degree, but which can sometimes be confirmed in reality, as happened last night when a farmer tweeted, "Penny ding dong what a useless Dyke blames all of us for the fact that she's confused with her own Gender don't back down Tony." (Labor senator Penny Wong, who is openly gay, appeared last night on the ABC's 7.30 program being interviewed by Leigh Sales.) Another rural resident was, however, quick to remonstrate: "That's just lovely. And you wonder why so many people deem all rural people backward rednecks?" Touche mate. There followed in the morning a bit of a discussion among people, mainly rural people, and my decision to address the issue here. So I thought for a bit and decided that a picture clipped from the iView version of The Chaser's The Hamster Wheel, which also screened live last night, was eminently appropriate to accompany the post. The segment this image was taken from is about the Alan Jones affair. I'll include some of the dialog for context.

The Chaser's Chas Licciardello: "Social media can be effective. Within hours of the campaign commencing, Jones was being deserted by some of his most dedicated supporters. The Greens!" (Shot of news headline: 'Greens call for boycott of Jones.') Cut to scene: Man sitting outside a cafe possibly in Newtown, Sydney: "I am never listening to that Andy Jones again ..." (The man consults a sheet of paper) "... Alan Jones again." (Exasperated sigh indicating extreme feelings of outrage.) It's hilarious. Look at him: the mass of swept-forward hair, the nose ring, the denim jacket, the glass of caffe latte (indispensable prop for a Greens supporter) held in his hand, and not placed on the table, just so that you DON'T MISS IT. A total cack.

OK, it's a bald stereotype but it harbours an underlay of truth: this guy and his trendy mates might actually cause Alan Jones to lose his job. The issue for farmers is that it's the young, urban elites who can so severely damage their financial fortunes. They may not be rich but they sit on the vanguard of opinion, so what they agitate for today will probably be official policy in 20 years' time. When the ABC's 4 Corners program about Indonesia's abattoirs screened on 30 May last year of course it wasn't just Greens supporters who made a public uproar. If it had been, Joe Ludwig wouldn't have shut down the live cattle trade to that country. But Greens supporters own these issues. Live cattle trade eventually resumed with Indonesia, but came back into the public's zone of perception a month ago when there was a problem with the trade with Pakistan. Immediately, Greenpeace and people like the man with the caffe latte in the picture (I'll call him Alexander) resumed protesting in the media and on the streets. As long as this element in the metro regions continues to perceive a problem with the live trade, cattle graziers cannot rest easy. And if Alexander's concerns are not addressed he and his mates will probably manage to shut it down in the longer term. So the way this demographic perceives farmers is important and views such as the one I opened this post with, when voiced publicly, are very problematic from a farmer's point of view. Marriage equality is as important to Alexander as is the wellbeing of sheep on a ship.

Likewise, it's people like Alexander who can boost the fortunes of farmers. One problem that many farmers have is with the retail duopoly. Coles and Woolworths account for about 80 percent of the consumables retail sector in Australia. They are publicly-traded companies (Coles is actually owned by the publicly-traded Wesfarmers, a Western Australian diversified corporation) and so profitability is important to them. And they compete with each other for the same customers, so offering consumers low prices is critical to their success in the metro markets where they operate. These forces work on these companies in ways that can go against the interests of farmers. Loss leaders like milk are used to entice customers into stores, for example, at the expense of dairy farmers, who are suffering financially and struggling to operate on the narrow margins forced on them by wholesalers and the Big Two. But if you want to make the Big Two change how they do business with you you need to get consumers to demand fair terms of trade. To do that you need to get Alexander on side. In fact, his distrust of Big Business can only work in the favour of farmers; he's primed and ready to go. So xenophobic, bigoted comments that denigrate minorites Alexander makes it a point of personal pride to support are not going to help your cause. Voicing narrow-minded attitudes on social issues is just about as useful as shooting yourself in the foot.

In a sense, Alexander is a farmer's most important customer. Other demographics in metro areas spend more money on food, to be sure, but Alexander tells them what to think. It sounds ridiculous to say it in this way, but social progressivism is a well-documented agent of official policy change. To give an example, conservatives complained loudly when Gough Whitlam introduced multiculturalism as government policy in 1973. But I don't think any person living in a metro region - or even in a rural area - thinks, now, that it is a bad thing. Conservatives even complained loudly when some parts of colonial Australia pushed for women to get the vote and to be able to stand for elected public office. But surely even the most rusted-on National Party supporter believes that women are equal to men in all respects that touch on the matter of self-determination. I could go on, the list is endless. But I think you get my drift. And of course it goes without saying that there are a lot of metro residents who don't like Penny Wong's sexuality and who believe that marriage should remain "between a man and a woman", as specified currently in Australian law. It's just that there is a perception within the metro communities of Australia where Alexander spends his time that farmers are overwhelmingly conservative in respect of social issues. This perception bleeds into other areas of concern, such as the live cattle trade. Alexander can justifiably be criticised for conflating two, distinct, issues in his mind. But it is of course what will happen because Alexander is human, and not a philosophy professor.

And yes the reality cuts both ways. Not all farmers are conservative on social issues, and not all metro residents are progressive. But in truth it doesn't matter because Alexander is living in a metro area and his views deeply influence not just those of the broader population of consumers but also official government policy. What Alexander believes now will be commonsense for the sons and daughters of John and Joan Normal of Bexley. I remember when the ABC's Q and A program hosted a studio audience in Albury in May 2011 there was one outraged local who loudly said something like, "When will city folk stop pushing their values onto us (through government policy)?" The simple fact is that metro residents are farmers' biggest customers, and it's good business to look after your customers. They also constitute the majority of the Australian population, so it's no use complaining that metro residents get more attention in Canberra - that's just the nature of a democracy, where the majority decides who governs the entire community.

The ghosts of Abbott's past come back to haunt him

Cause for concern: Tony Abbott in Parliament.
The first seven minutes of Julia Gillard's peroration in Parliament on Tuesday against the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, are fiery and inspiring material and are what made it catch the eye of many internationally, including editors at US magazine the New Yorker and those at the Guardian in the UK. But Australians should not be unduly surprised by this turn of events since it was here that women were first given the right to run for political office. That outcome, which took effect in 1901, it appears, is finally bearing the kind of fruit that those who pushed so passionately for women's equal opportunity in the final decades of the 19th century would have wished for. (Australia was not the first country to allow women to vote - that honour belongs to New Zealand, at the time, in 1893, still a British colony - but we were the first soverign nation to do so. The US did not allow women to vote until 1920.) So it's interesting to note that Gillard's assault on her opponent on the grounds of misogyny and sexism took place within the context of the daily business of Parliament. It wasn't a prepared speech at a rally or at a conference, but a bit of pressing, routine House business. It was more successful because the prime minister has kept her powder dry for the past two weeks. She waited for the opportune moment to speak out on the matter of women's rights as the Alan Jones affair played itself out and as the speaker, Peter Slipper, finally imploded, resigning a few hours later.

The address has happened in a very rambunctious Parliament. Last night Labor senator Penny Wong mentioned on the ABC's 7.30 program that this hung Parliament has been more fiery and intense than any Parliament she remembers. Gillard finally showed us that she is up for it if matters require it. (Her passion is what attracted the regard of the US and UK editors.) For his part, Abbott loves a scrap. The day after Gillard's "misogyny" speech, Abbott was already fronting the cameras to demand that the "gender card" be abandoned as a tactic by Labor. Abbott must be rueful that the matter of his attitude toward women appears unwilling to go away despite the apparent success of the News Ltd-backed campaign on the weekend by his wife, Margie.

Abbott's real problem is that he's very much still seen as John Howard's protege. Many of the remarks Gillard pointed to during her peroration in Parliament on Tuesday date back to the years of Liberal supremacy during which the anti-PC brigade of Australia's Right poo-poohed such notions as equal opportunity for women. This was not the only issue they attacked in their efforts to appeal to Australia's conservative voter base, but in the current context it is the one that matters. Women are taking notice (both of the overseas editorial pieces I point to above were written by women) and through vehicles such as social media they are pressing the new advantage, to credible effect. It will be hard for Abbott to outrun the shibboleths that populate his past in the form of documented public utterances. And his policy decisions, particularly when he was health minister under Howard, must count against him. It is interesting to note the tone of editorials written by the Right's culture warriors in the past few days; clearly they are very worried. So I expect the highly-wrought tone of this Parliament to continue as both sides push back against each others' concerted sallies. Since the Alan Jones brouhaha broke Australian politics has been very entertaining, and the issues being discussed have finally aligned themselves neatly around the fact that we have a female prime minister. For political junkies the stars are well and truly aligned. Even Julie Bishop is starting to look interesting.

It's not just in Australia that the Right finds itself in the position of the underdog, from where it can aggressively attack its opponents. In the US, Mitt Romney surprised many during the first presidential debate in Denver by displaying a kind of spirit that Barack Obama seems to have lost somewhere between his healthcare push and the assassination of Osama bin Laden. I think many Americans were disappointed by Obama's performance in Denver, and the polls show that Romney gained a lift from the event. The fervour that a dramatic stoush can give a campaign will no doubt add meaning to Romney's promise to "reclaim America". For his part, Abbott more sedately rang off the media appearance he made yesterday to address the "gender card" issue by promising Australians "prosperity and a better life". The difference between these messages mostly tells you something about the fundamental divergence between the sets of cognates used here and in the US. (They want the believe in themselves, we just want a new 4WD.) But it's interesting to note the messianic tone in both cases, particularly within the context of lingering global financial malaise. The GFC still matters to a lot of voters everywhere. Messianism is a narrative flavour the Right has often applied, notably in Germany in the 30s as the Nazis sought traction in an electorate oppressed by a decade of economic hardship and spiritual fatige following their catastrophic defeat in war.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Asking the impossible? Online civility and identity politics

Could this man really be a troll?
How would you know?
I have a friend. Actually we went to the same school and there were times when we visited each other's houses at the weekend or at the end of a day in classes. I really don't remember too clearly. It was a long time ago, too long ago for complete recall. But because of social media we have become connected again after a period of several decades, so I know something about his life nowadays. He has a family, a wife, a job, a mortgage, a community affiliated with his religion. He loves sport. He used to post images of his kids but these days it's more usually something to do with his football team. We exchange acknowledgements on the web, we might make a comment or something similar. Mostly we just do these simple things, acknowledging each other from time to time. It's all very civilised and congenial except for one thing: the carbon tax.

Occasionally when something happens in my friend's life to make him aware of the Labor government's carbon price, which is to change into a carbon market in the not-too-distant future - given that the Coalition does not gain office and abort the legislation in turn - my friend undergoes an odd personality shift and then out pop those crude words, 'Ju-liar'. We saw them on one memorable occasion during a protest outside Parliament, and it's been hard for people to forget them. Another painted sign that the protesters held up for the media on the day carried the words, 'Ditch the witch'. Opposition leader Tony Abbott attended the rally, mingling with the crowd and sharing his views on the government's intentions (this was before the legislation had passed through Parliament).

I tried to discuss the reasons for Julia Gillard's about-face on the carbon tax in a comment I left for my friend. It didn't turn out well. His other friends on social media chimed in with their views and the scene rapidly took on an unpleasant tone. It's pretty easy to understand, of course, the rancour. I mean, there was a popular ballot in 2010 and the result of the plebiscite was a hung Parliament. Because of the way Australians voted the balance of power is held by the Greens along with a number of independent MPs. Abbott has criticised the resulting Parliament and he has been joined by certain elements of the nation's media, notably News Ltd vehicles such as The Australian. But the ballot was quite legitimate, and reflected the wishes of the electorate on the appointed day. Noone can therefore blame Gillard for acceding to a priority of the Greens. Gillard has managed to keep the Parliament functioning effectively by working with her partners, even if she did not choose them, with the result that there have been a large number of new laws passed despite the objections of the Opposition. But it was of little use my explaining the new reality that took hold in 2010 following the popular ballot. My friend gave it as his opinion that, as leader of the Labor Party, Gillard was obliged to hold firm to her earlier public pronouncement, from before the election, that she would not introduce a carbon tax. In his view, that single public utterance is more important, in the balance of things, than the political reality that confronted Gillard following the election. No compromise. Which is a lot like the position taken by Abbott in his role as Opposition leader.

And what might cause my friend to bellyache about Gillard? An electricity bill showing a higher total than usual. Forget about the handouts Gillard orchestrated to offset cost increases such as this. I suggested to my friend that the price of electricity would go down once power providers switch to renewable generation but this was dismissed as irrelevant. There is no way to address this kind of obstinacy, at least not in a civil manner. Civil discourse of this nature requires a certain number of words to be expended. You have to point out that renewable electricity providers are ready and waiting for a favourable regulatory climate. There are difficulties associated with starting up the operation of large, complex energy production facilities. You also have to negotiate sales agreements with the downstream operators who control the distribution network. And the government is really, in actual fact, doing very little to help renewable energy companies. It's not like in Denmark or Germany where it appears there has been particular success in the renewables sphere because of the cooperation between government and the private sector. There is never any time to say all these things before the conversation deteriorates.

For progressives such exchanges serve only to underscore how pessimistic the Opposition is, how determined it is to prevent the achievement of any improvement in Australia's environmental performance, and how undesirable a win for the Opposition would be in 2013. People like my friend are ready to hold an Abbott government to account, to ensure that any progress toward a more sustainable future is immediately reversed, returning Australia to the status quo ante. My friend is wedded to his conservative, brown vision of Australia, a place where dirty energy producers can happily and profitably continue their businesses. And I hope for something better, knowing that a progressive, green vision can not only help to address environmental issues but also provide jobs for people who have the qualifications and the desire for work in the renewables sector. Me. Him. Opposites by personal identification with different dominant social discourses. Irreconcileable. Enemies, even. No wonder public discourse sometimes descends to incivility, to insults and deprecations, to flame wars and anger.

A similar mechanism obtains with respect of marriage equality. Not with my friend, it's true, but there are plenty of people online who stick to the conservative view where marriage can only be "between a man and a woman". And here, again, I find myself, without giving it a second thought, on the side opposed to the Opposition. Opposed, even, to the governing Labor Party, which has yet to manage passage through Parliament of legislation to enable same-sex marriage. Once again, it's a matter of personal identification. I simply do not want to live in a society where two people are so visibly discriminated against on account of their sexual orientation. It offends me deeply. It's even a human rights issue. The Opposition says that it rejects discrimination and supports measures to remove regulations that place it in the way of homosexuals' enjoyment of the full privileges of life in Australia. But in my mind if you are not moving forward you are going backward. It's not enough to maintain that the rights of homosexuals can be upheld by doing things other than allowing them to marry. You cannot remain the way you were yesterday, because if you do you are telling the community that homosexuality is wrong. The result is individual suffering, especially among the most vulnerable. Children who discover that they are gay are immensely conflicted. It's not just their own perception of difference. Other children perceive difference as well and feel justified in attacking it because of institutionalised discrimination that actively disadvantages a minority within the community.

So how to force change? How has change been achieved in the past? One major element has been mobilisation, or the concentration of the efforts of a large number of individuals toward a single goal. We saw this at work in the new world of online activism with 2GB, where the Alan Jones program's advertisers were attacked en masse by individuals using online tools and the telephone. The result of the onslaught was that 2GB cancelled all advertising for the show, taking a huge financial hit. Jones' future looks very shaky. But a lot of what happened might appall even people who disagree with Jones' behaviour. When a lot of people get involved in such a campaign it's hard to predict the results. How can you know who will behave civilly, and who will resort to threatening, insulting, or hateful words? It happens so fast. There is no way to vet the participants, or coach them, or lay down any rules of engagement. The wave of feeling thunders on and obliterates all obstacles that lie in its path. People react viscerally to what they hate, as they must when it is not just a matter of addressing an issue, but of affirming who they are. The cry goes out, 'It's our turn!' This is the realm of identity politics and as we know people can act in unpredictable ways when their very self is offended by something, and when they finally see a way to removing the offending object. Wiping the slate clean. Righting a longstanding wrong. Achieving a material improvement in your world.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Alan Jones on a stick: Australia's culture wars and the flight of civility

Lock, stock and shock jock.
There was something circular about Jenna Price being intereviewed by 2GB's Chris Smith on the radio yesterday. Price is one of the people behind the Destroy the Joint Facebook page, and also teaches journalism, writes op-ed pieces for the Canberra Times, and has children. Smith, of course, is a colleague of Alan Jones in the 2GB stable. It was an encounter fraught with the potential for conflict - two articulate players, one on either side of the fence in the context of the Alan Jones debacle, meeting in the same arena where Jones has made so many people angry: the sound studio.

From the outset Smith went on the attack. The dynamics of the sound studio took over from the start of the encounter, which was ironic given that the topic for discussion was Alan Jones' poor reputation for civility among a large group of people living in Sydney. Hence the circularity. It's hard to critique a type of discourse when you are doing so in the same context within which that discourse normally takes place. A shock jock interviewing someone on the topic of how another shock jock offended that person. And with both shock jocks working for the same employer. Given Smith's withering onslaught, Price did well to maintain her composure. Smith attempted to render Price personally accountable for every ill emanating from the online campaign against Jones, talked over her, and attempted to provoke her to an angry response. But his efforts were hobbled by a fundamental ignorance of the dynamics of social media participation.

I mentioned yesterday that Macquarie Radio Network executive chairman Russell Tate had lambasted the social media campaign on account of unspecified "threats" received by 2GB advertisers. Smith echoed his boss' anger and thankfully went further, repeating on-air for the first time some of the messages that advertisers had received. ("Small businesses", as if that makes any difference; perhaps in radioland 2GB the epithet "small" increases a company's eligibility for outraged victimhood.) The onslaught of messages against Jones had prevented some businesses from doing their jobs, that being answering customers' online requests for products, he said. Some of the messages were deeply offensive. Customer relations staff were seen going home in tears at the end of the day. Well, finally we get some idea of what was actually happening. Tate should have been as explicit yesterday morning.

Price stressed that the Destroy the Joint Facebook page had a policy against offensive speech, and noted that similar messages were always taken down from the page when they were noticed by administrators. But a group of people administering a Facebook page is not a monolithic organisation as a radio station is. A Facebook page administrator does not have any influence over how a person on Twitter disports him- or herself in relation to a 2GB advertiser with a website that allows commenting, or with an email address that is public. The speech of people who participated in the social media campaign targeting Alan Jones' advertisers cannot be slated home to the account of people such as Price. In fact, Price emphasised her personal committment to civility in online communications, all the while asking for - and getting - free air in the studio as Smith attempted to drown out her words with his own, stronger, voice. The irony meter slid hopelessly off the scale.

It's a long interview and worth listening to. A number of topics were covered, including Alan Jones' propensity to inciting violence, and his track record in this vein during the lead-up to the December 2005 Cronulla riots. Smith tried valiantly to play down Jones' role in that affair but this sort of nimble footwork by a 2GB shock jock would merely have further angered those who participated in the social media campaign against Alan Jones. Like the 45-minute "apology" Jones gave after being caught out saying John Gillard "died of shame", Smith's performance yesterday with regard to the Cronulla riots merely indicates that 2GB radio announcers do not believe that Jones did anything wrong all those years ago. It is difficult to see how progress can be made on the count of public civility if 2GB still harbours resentment over something that was officially sanctioned, and for which Jones received a public rebute from the media authority. How can the two sides agree on the nature of appropriate conduct in the media if there is disagreement on such basic things?

It's hard to see how they can. But such debates are part of the culture wars in Australia, as we saw later the same day when Piers Akerman appeared on the ABC's Q and A. The same kind of issues popped up, and the same fundamental lack of understanding about how social media works. We had Akerman sagely pointing a trembling finger at "The Twitter", and comparing a Facebook page (which he knows nothing about) to a blog (he once moderated one in a professional capacity). And there was the same propensity for the blokes - Akerman, the Liberals' Christopher Pyne, and ex-Labor MP Lindsay Tanner - to talk over the top of the women. Host Tony Jones was forced to step in on a number of occasions in order to ensure Labor MP Kate Ellis had enough air to reasonably present her opinion on the panel.

At the end of the day the main issue being discussed in these forums was civility in public discourse. Smith came down hard on Price because he thought - or pretended to think - that Price condoned hate speech, when she has no control over how individuals using social media comport themselves, other than by removing comments from a Facebook page to which she holds administrative rights. Smith was angry because unwitting 2GB advertisers had become caught up in someone else's battle, and their staff had been exposed to hate speech. Price was angry because Alan Jones has a documented track record of denigrating women, including the prime minister. Akerman was angry because ...

Oh well. But the problem of civility remains unresolved. Civility is important online, and it's especially important in all social contexts for women. I have been guilty of incivility myself, to a degree, and the encounters talked about in this blog post make me feel ashamed because the public sphere should be as inclusive as possible. Everyone should feel comfortable participating in public debate, and partisan approaches to any concievable topic erode the claims of respect that all people are entitled to when they meet in a public place. And a politically polarised issue is one that is more likely to foster a deterioration to ad hominem attacks because, freighted as it must be with buried animus, the terms of old scores will rise and ask to be settled.

But that kind of score-settling talk appears to be more popular in the public sphere than ever before. I've pointed on a previous occasion to the fact that biased media is more profitable than so-called "objective" media, as this Economist story shows.  Does it matter? After all, what is the alternative to ideology as a means of organising personal identity and finding a comfortable place with respect to others in the community? I've talked before about the consequences of the influence of forces other than political ideology on the dynamic of social interactions and on the nature of public institutions. Are the two camps we find in Australian society merely tribal in nature? Possibly only the tone of discourse suffers when tribes are characterised by ideological allegiance, but can we do better?