Monday 30 September 2013

Dami Im will win the X-Factor

If anyone thinks Australians are racist they should watch the X-Factor, Channel Seven's reality TV program, and see the overwhelming manner with which locals have embraced the amazing Dami Im, the 24-year-old who migrated to Brisbane from Korea as a child and grew up living with her mother who encouraged her interest in classical music. Im's stage presence has developed over the course of the program from hesitant and apologetic to the point where she confidently occupies the stage, delivering week-on-week stand-out performances to a large studio crowd as well as millions of Australians sitting in their lounge rooms. Those people at home have delivered Im telephone approval rates that have seen her emerge as the strongest contender in the competition.

Each week one contender is knocked out of the running in a sing-off judged by the panel of experts. One singer will go through at the end of the competition to secure a recording contract and sponsorship.

Im's strongly Asian features and slight build belie the legitimacy of her diction and the strength of her voice. From the early stages of the competition I was telling my daughter, who is half Japanese and who was staying with me at the time, that Im was the strongest contender and I think most people who have been exposed to the show had the same idea. Across a range of genres - from rock to soul - Im has delivered clarity, long notes, controlled vibrato, sheer volume, and complete mastery of the material that her mentor, Danii Minogue, has given her. I look forward to adding Im's recordings to those by Australia's current leading singer, Delta Goodrem, in my CD collection.

Im is just awesome.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Homophobic Barilla boss part of Italy's conservative culture

Guido Barilla, head of the eponymous Italian pasta company sparked a fierce row that spread globally along with calls to boycott his company's products after he voiced what were taken by many as highly offensive remarks about homosexuals, saying he would not consider using a gay family to advertise Barilla pasta.
"For us the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company," he told Italian radio on Wednesday evening. "I would not do it but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others … [but] I don't see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family."
The interview where this dog-whistling occurred took such a turn because the interviewer asked Barilla about his views on how women were portrayed in the media in Italy, as the Guardian reported.
The interview started by asking Barilla what he thought of an appeal made on Tuesday by the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Laura Boldrini, to change the often stereotypical image of women in Italian advertisements.
Italy, where the Catholic Church insinuates its influence in cultural and political arenas, is also the country that is home to Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset, a broadcaster (see pic) that definitively exploits women in its programming as providers of sex. Barilla's insistence that women function primarily in the home as providers of food plays out in the imagination along precisely the same lines. A conservative bias like this is extremely unhealthy for both women and girls, serving to bolster a culture of stereotypisation and discrimination and exploitation. The man's comments fit into the opinion among many that Italy is a country mired in outdated ideas where given the continual development of cultural products women and girls are more and more expected to conform to limiting role models for the gratification of men. Part of that paradigm is a tendency to relegate to second-class status anyone who dies not fit the dominant lifestyle pattern, such as homosexual men. (Interestingly, there is no acknowledgement at all of homosexual women, or lesbians.) In Australia, we see politicians doing a similar kind of dog-whistling when they talk of "values".

A man like Barilla's comments furthermore foreground the importance of global companies employing spokespeople who are able to project a positive image of the company, rather than merely relying on tired and outdated tropes that gratify personal feelings.

Barilla is a global company and the remarks played out within a day to a global audience, including many people who regularly consume spaghetti and other pasta products. Among my friends the immediate reaction - for those who are gay as well as those who are not - was to make a decision never to buy Barilla products again in future. This was even without seeing the hashtag that emerged in Italian Twitter circles asking people to boycott the company's products. A local player like Berlusconi who only has to think of what people at home think about his views is at least tolerable in political circles - even if he routinely figures in satire overseas. But a company that relies on the goodwill of consumers throughout the world cannot afford to continue fielding narrow-minded executives prone to on-screen gaffes like Guido Barilla.

Friday 27 September 2013

Indonesia won't cooperate with Abbott on asylum seekers

Translating the language of domestic politics into something that foreign governments can understand is turning out to be a problem for Tony Abbott and his foreign minister. Julie Bishop met with her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa in New York recently in a frosty one-on-one that Bishop tried to spin domestically as "positive". Clearly it was anything but, with Natalegawa now releasing publicly a transcript of the meeting's discussions. Given the high degree of secrecy sought by the Abbott government, in its attempt to subvert the 24-hour media cycle at home, the publication is a severe embarrassment and the Indonesians know it, having picked up on the "calm, measured" tone the Australian government is looking to generate in the domestic media. "Look," Natalegawa seems to be saying, "if you guys can't come up with an approach that suits Indonesia we won't cooperate and we'll even go out of our way to make you look bad at home." Indonesia wants to handle the asylum seeker issue through the existing Bali Process and resents the Abbott government's implementing radical measures that largely ignore Indonesia's feelings. A three-star general in charge of the operation? Really? Frankly I agree with Natalegawa. If I hear Julie Bishop use the word "operational" once more I think I'll scream. And "Operation Sovereign Borders"? I wonder how Indonesia feels about Australia's respect for sovereignty given East Timor. Of course Natalegawa could just be playing Bishop so that Yudhoyono can look like a champ when Abbott visits Jakarta - as he is soon due to do - and claim the credit domestically himself.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Boycott ban thought bubble another Tory ploy to silence dissent

In a surprising piece of media theatre a few days ago, senator Richard Colbeck of the Liberal Party and the parliamentary secretary for agriculture, voiced an idea to ban consumer boycotts by activists. As the Guardian reported:
Unlawful secondary boycotts occur if third parties deliberately hinder the supply of goods or services – but there is an explicit exemption for activists involved in campaigns intended to protect the environment or consumers. 
Farmers are often vocal about the power of activist groups - I watch them grumble on social media, as they do from time to time - so it's not too surprising to hear Colbeck (pictured) get behind what he might consider his constituency. But farmers are also very vocal about their own interests and I have often heard for bans of the retail duopoly - Coles and Woolworths - when things go against farmers' economic interests and they see an opportunity to use activism to promote them.

The Libs seems to be following a pattern of muting debate. First it was the non-announcement of the arrival of asylum-seeker boats out of concern such announcements serve the interests of "people smugglers" (a point of view that was roundly trashed in the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of days ago in a story which included an interview with a man in custody in Indonesia, where he had been charged with illegally helping people to go to Australia by boat). Then there was the information yesterday that Liberal and Nationals MPs must clear media appearances with the PM's office before going ahead. This is what Tony Abbott's "calm, methodical" approach to government really means: don't talk and stay away from the 24-hour media cycle.

(I even heard Abbott's sister, a Liberal Sydney City councillor, on TV voicing approval of "staying out of the 24-hour media cycle" yesterday. What do politicians hate about the media so much? Don't politicians understand they have a responsibility to account for their actions to the electorate?)

Then there's Colbeck upset that elements in the electorate are telling people to eat only free-range pork and make sure they check the credentials of retailers pushing "free-range" eggs. Again, it's "don't talk, just let us get on with exercising our mandate". Colbeck's hugely ideological ("values", Tony?) point of view comes under the same banner of silencing unwanted and adverse debate in the public sphere.

Of course it cannot work. Australians have a constitutional right to political speech. All it would take is a question in Parliament on a specific issue and then anyone would be free to use their social networks to call for whatever action they felt was suitable in the case. You cannot realistically muzzle speech by millions of concerned Australians. As we saw in the case of Alan Jones about a year ago, people will react when aroused by clear abuses and the new media environment facilitates their efforts. To ban consumer boycott's you'd need to overturn the 1992 High Court decision of the "implied freedom" of political speech, and there's just no way on God's earth that that's going to happen. So my advice to Colbeck is to suck it up and make sure that corporations and other businesses get in line with consumer expectations about good citizenship. You can't turn back the clock.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Snowden makes me think about dropbears

This is an image from a news story dated in the first week of August but it's all that we've got as to the location of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, now hiding in Russia. Is this guy standing next to a car really Snowden? What we do know is that Snowden has animated Americans, including such people as President Obama and Republican Senator John McCain, to talk publicly about the scale of the problem of massive state surveillance of private communications. All of your emails, your social media posts, your Skype calls - well, basically everything you say online - is being collected and screened for evil intent by faceless men and women sitting at computer screens in Utah.

Overseas, Simon Jenkins in the UK has compared his country's response to the Snowden revelations unfavourably compared to the US.
Britons are not only subject to massive unwarranted surveillance, surveillance that is insecure and unaccountable. They are also at the mercy of intrusive institutions which, for the time being, their politicians will not and cannot control. When push comes to shove, Americans do this better.
They have the Fourth Amendment in the US, while there is no similar legal instrument in the UK. The UK security apparatus - comprising MI5, MI6 and GCHQ - is deeply involved in the global surveillance program Snowden uncovered earlier this year. The UK is part of the "Five Eyes" group of nations - the others being Canada, New Zealand and Australia - and in response to Jenkins' spray their own security oversight committee head, Malcolm Rifkind, has admitted that "the whistleblower Edward Snowden has raised 'real issues' about safeguarding privacy in the 21st century". Jenkins says Rifkind is a "patsy".

Now dropbears are mythic creatures inhabiting the Australian bush that are routinely trotted out in the palaver around the nightly campfire to scare 12-year-olds. But given the reality of the cooperation between the Five Eyes nations in terms of security activities you have to wonder at the silence that has cloaked whatever participation there has been - and undoubtedly there is cooperation between ASIO and ASIS, Australia's security bodies, and the NSA - around the globe in countries other than the UK. Given its location, Australia is well-placed to provide unique access, for example, to undersea communications infrastructure such as cables used for internet traffic. Situated in Asia, furthermore, Australia has a long history of providing the US with assistance with its signals operations; Pine Gap for instance.

So far we have not seen any dropbears emerge here to betray Australia's intelligence services but the question lingers like the smell of smoke and char on your clothes after a night spent around the campfire. One would hope that it's only a matter of time, but then again given Australia's supine spy agencies and even more toadyish politicians, I don't think I'll be putting anything on hold in anticipation of revelations. ASIO and ASIS might reliably believe that they are too-small targets for Snowdenish uncoverings, and are likely unconcerned for the moment that their own forms of blanket surveillance of citizens' communications will be brought to light.

Friday 20 September 2013

Is the rainbow pope on a collision course with doctrinal conservatives?

This picture just cracks me up: the "Rainbow Jesus". What in the flying fuck was the person who made this fabulous image thinking? In any case it predates the publication of a long interview with Pope Francis that came out in a number of Jesuit magazines globally in which the pontifex says that the Catholic Church is on the wrong track when it expends too much energy proscribing gays, abortion and contraception. The New York Times headlines its story 'Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion', so of course the obvious thing to do is to look for a picture that suggests the pope is embracing homosexuals. Right?
“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the pope told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal whose content is routinely approved by the Vatican. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. 
“We have to find a new balance,” the pope continued, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
The elderly Argentinian may look like a greengrocer but he's a lot smarter than your average buttoned-down apostolic purist because he understands that a structure that is too rigid risks cracking and toppling over into ruin. For those who value the Catholic Church and give a fuck whether it topples into ruin or not, the story contains a bunch of heartstoppingly-radical ideas, such as this:
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he told Father Spadaro. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”
Cathoholics with mental tools equipped to unleash the full flavour of papal utterances might also find guidance - if that is what popes are designed to provide - in Francis' hipster retro-60s bent, which privileges the kind of artefacial modernisation people in Australia might most readily identify with troops of young Christians sitting on the ground at night around a campfire singing Kumbaya:
“The church is the totality of God’s people,” he added, a notion popularized after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which Francis praised for making the Gospel relevant to modern life, an approach he called “absolutely irreversible.”
Given the rise and rise of megachurches the aesthetic repercussions of this tendency might seem quaint but, after all, the daggy Christian protester of the 70s today is probably sitting in a huge amphitheater on her Sunday afternoons listening to hot gospel sounds blasting from towers of brain-altering speakers and waving her hands above her head like a sea anemone. Given this scenario, Francis starts to look refreshingly like some kind of albino clownfish, the only one of its tribe able to survive the touch of the anemone's stinging tentacles.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Missed opportunity: Australian painting seen through British eyes

The Royal Academy show held now, titled Australia, presents an opportunity to see our country's art through foreign eyes. I've read three reviews of the show, including one in the Sydney Morning Herald that focuses most on the curatorial side of things. There are two others: one in the Telegraph and one in the Guardian. These two last reviews try to make some decisions about Australian art as permitted by the exhibition although unfortunately the latter is so relentlessly negative about the exhibition itself that opportunities are lost to say much of interest.

For such an exhibition - the last similar one was held 90 years ago - can only be a matter of intense interest to people in both countries; for Australians, hearing the reactions of British critics must be fascinating.

In the two British reviews there are some commonalities, notably the rejection by the reviewers of early, Romantic, attempts to convey in paint the reality of the Australian bush. Those early landscape artists are pretty thoroughly belittled and you can almost hear a sigh of relief when the likes of Streeton and McCubbin appear. The reviewers note how Australian Impressionist artists were derivative but also remark on the novelty of their accurate depictions of the bush. Australians, of course, have long been aware of these things and themselves wonder at the naivety of von Guerard's funny trees when compared to the dessicated landscapes captured more accurately by such later painters as Roberts.

Most Australians will feel a queer sense of pride in being familiar with a landscape that evaded the talents of so many for so long but nevertheless those early landscapes also tell the story of the Europeans' sense of alienation and anxiety in such a forbidding place. No wonder Modernism took so long to reach Australians' hearts, you might surmise, when the familiar forms of the Old Country and Europe gave the settlers the sense of identity that they did not find while walking down scrubby Aussie tracks scattered with eucalyptus bark where the chirring of a thousand cicadas throbbed in their heads like a headache. No wonder the Art Gallery of New South Wales, started in 1892, was so "colonial" with its stone columns and Old Masters friezes (incomplete through lack of funds ... !), and Hyde Park just down the way was planted with imports and bedecked with the classical-mythological horror of the Archibald Fountain. Taken out of this context, those early landscape painters seem totally out-of-it, but to really understand Australian art in the 19th and early-20th centuries you have to walk from the old Mark Foys building on Liverpool Street in Sydney through Hyde Park and down the tree-lined parade to the Gallery.

The dessicated, alienating landscape returns, of course, with Nolan, Smart and Drysdale in the 40s but captured with the new visual tools of Modernism. Brits are usually aware of Nolan at least and he offers something familiar to reviewers over there who otherwise struggle with the constraints and limitations of pre-WWII Australian art. Modernism was tentatively embraced in the 30s and 40s by local artists but it's a Modernism-lite, one that like Australian Impressionism makes an obedient nod to the underlying conservatism of the Australian art context, and where you are still largely relieved by realism from having to make too many judgments. As I've discussed before on this blog, the ability to share and participate as a community through art is one of the defining characteristics of the Australian aesthetic experience. You might go further and say that the etrangement that European artists sought through Modernism was otherwise supplied by the still-alienating landscape here. Artists who dealt with that landscape - and the thousands of kilometres separating Australia from home in Europe - in a meaningful way were rewarded by the community. Even Smart and Boyd ended up living out their dotage in Europe.

As for Aboriginal art, this current of local product began to emerge in the 70s, a time when Australian artists were still travelling to Europe to find their feet - like Conder or Bunny three generations before - and hone their craft. It's this odd relationship between Australia and Europe that has been missed by the reviewers of the current show. This is unfortunate as it's a fecund place from which to start discussing Australian art.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Tony Abbott forgets to put women in binders, leaves them in the hallway

In the first major act of his prime ministership, Tony Abbott yesterday announced his new cabinet which, with a few exceptions, recycles the Howard-era ministry and almost without exception excludes women. (I had trouble finding a picture for this post and settled on one that shows Abbott and the sole female cabinet member, Julie Bishop, engaged in what looks like a rugby manoeuvre; are they rucking? It might be some kind of weird one-a-side recreation of an international match with Abbott playing the Wallabies and Bishop as the All Blacks, but then of course it might not.) The list shows there are two women newly in the outer ministry with two women now leaving the outer ministry. Given this count it's hard to give credence to Abbott's assurance that "there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry" because clearly even if they wanted to knock they have effectively been sidelined by Abbott's choices as to who to favour and who to exclude.

In a cynical PR stunt, Abbott has also dropped a number of ministries and shortened the names of others, presumably to give the impression to punters that he will work at the head of a slimmed-down government. Many public servants in Canberra will now be spending more time on A lot of people were shocked to learn that Abbott's government would not include a minister for science, for example. Climate change has been subsumed within the environment portfolio and science has gone into the industry portfolio. "Look," Abbott is telling the good citizens of Australia, in a way redolent of the approach taken by Queensland premier Campbell Newman, who so deeply cut the public service in his state that the unemployment rate shot up by over a percentage point, "I'm a no-nonsense, practical guy and I want to take the government back to the way it was in the 1970s. Women? Innovation? Baloney!"

Rumour has it that Abbott has asked the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to issue a vintage 1936 Schwinn Excelsior Model B3 bicycle for Julie Bishop to use for those trips to the supermarket to buy jelly crystals and oven cleaner. A similar model of conveyance has been ordered for Bronwyn Bishop, the new speaker of the lower house, who reportedly refused appointment to the Ministry of Domestic Science at the last minute. The ministry was subsequently scrapped because Bishop is the only woman in the party who knows how to put her hair up properly. Abbott will however want to remember Cash and Nash when the time comes - presumably in about two years' time - to rearrange the furniture in his party room.

Overall you'd have to say that Abbott's "calm, methodical" approach really means "the way it was under Johnny" as part of his white-picket-fencing of government. Border protection is just another aspect of this push to please the mouth-breathing majority in the outer suburbs of the big cities. The fence will be constructed out of steel and supported on submerged floatation devices just the way it's done on an oil rig. It's not sure whether a similar fence will be constructed across the Tasman, but there is reason to believe that the good woman - Margie is a Kiwi - will use her feminine wiles to dissuade Tones from doing anything too drastic. One has to remember appearances, after all.

Monday 16 September 2013

Muslim identity politics on show on ABC TV

After last night's 1-hour blackout I managed to fix dinner and while eating it kept vociferating at the TV where the ABC's Compass program Why I'm Still Muslim was airing arguments based in the identity politics of that faith. Over the coming weeks Geraldine Doogue will host people from other faiths, including the Jewish and Catholic faiths. However, for me the case of Islam feels different to the others because currently globally we are seeing major transformations within countries where Islam predominates in terms of wealth, governance and identity such as the West has not seen since the 1960s and 70s, when identity politics exploded in the aftermath of WWII to  to establish viable minority consciousnesses and so refashion national priorities in a more inclusive way for so many people. So many people "came out" - and not just gays, by any means - that our world is now vastly different from the world my mother was born into.

Doogue's shows stand on the premise that religion is a beleaguered institution in the West - and this is true for some religions, such as Christianity and Judaism - but the same cannot be said for Islam which is, as one participant last night admitted, a "guidebook for conduct". One reason for this is that most Muslims in Australia are recent migrants, or the generation born to them - the second generation - and so their sense of self is still solidly rooted in the faith of the country of origin. But as time goes by these things will change and Muslim youths will have to find ways to both respect their parents' codes of conduct as well as locate themselves within the broader social matrix in Australia.

Here, Muslim identity politics is only occasionally a problem, and may cause public nuisance and civil disorder along lines familiar to people who watch the evening news. We are genuinely surprised when the type of street violence we see happening in Cairo appears in Sydney's CBD, and the reaction from some is to strongly censure what they see as an unwarranted intrusion of foreign ways of being into the national body politic. But violence has always been part of identity politics because it is seen as one of the only viable ways to register protest at a level equal to the perceived insult to the subject minority. Street violence was a common feature of identity politics especially in the United States 40 years ago. But of course there is also violence of a more troubling kind, and that we see in the occasional revelation of plots uncovered by our secret services and by the police.

The ABC provides a public service when it offers a way of handling the differences of viewpoint that characterise the interstice between the secular liberal world view and the Muslim one. The program I watched last night gave the participants an opportunity to voice in a very public context opinions that they are very jealous of. It also gave me an opportunity to privately voice my own opinions of those viewpoints, and this blog goes even further, allowing me to work through the attendant issues in a public manner. What I saw as hypocrisy - for example in relation to the treatment of women in Islam, which one of the participants, a convert from Christianity, also expressed strong reservations about - those on the show found no cause to disparage. The show thus provided depth to events we normally only see within the narrow confines of the newscast as identity politics refashions large swathes of this globalised world in the post-colonial era.

Sunday 15 September 2013

'What's the point of the Labor Party?' Gillard asks

A few days after the election a week ago Craig Emerson, a staunch backer of Julia Gillard during her time in government, started talking to journalists about Kevin Rudd, telling them that Rudd had to go. Not just give up the Labor leadership as he had already said he would - during his election-night concession speech - but resign from Parliament and kick off a by-election. Quit the field. This was more of the poisonous stuff that had for so long - since June 2010 - destabilised the Gillard government and ensured that important messages about its track record - the Gonski reforms, the NDIS, the NBN - were drowned out in the national conversation by petty squabbles about who should lead. Gillard obviously saw this stuff and has now done something to rule a line under the discord because she submitted a long article to the Guardian "for the record" to talk about what she thinks Labor stands for and how it can ensure that such things dominate the public discussion in future.

Using her fine mind, Gillard tries to explain that a party without purpose, especially a progressive party, is doomed. It's an imaginative attempt to address important issues and it stems from comments made on the tally night by Labor pollies sitting in the TV studios. Labor should not "talk about itself" anymore. But of course then along came Emerson doing just that. So Gillard uses one word in her article above all others: purpose. What, she asks, is the point of the Labor Party? Surely, she answers, the point is not just to win elections.

And it's not, except in the minds of the Labor Right machine who propelled Gillard herself into power and then turned on her when the polls pointed to a crushing defeat. So Gillard, ever serious and as always thoughtful, goes back to basics.
Ultimately organisations tell you what they are all about and what they value, by what they reward. A great sales company rewards sales with performance bonuses. A great manufacturing business rewards those who generate fault-free products for it. A company with an overriding concern for safety constantly renews it protocols and issues rewards when no one gets hurt at work. This is all commonplace and common sense.
She also suggests some internal behaviour changes that could help the community to understand not only the benefit of policy decisions, but also which individuals in the party have most claim to lead. To reward the contributions of MPs what would you need?
Imagine candidates’ policy papers, not leaks. Candidates’ debates, not poisonous backgrounding. The identification of the top new ideas – not just who is top of the opinion polls.
As for the contest now between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, it is not only one between two worthy candidates. It is an opportunity to start this demonstration of purpose.  
Caucus and party members should use this contest to show that Labor has moved on from its leadership being determined on the basis of opinion polls, or the number of positive media profiles, or the amount of time spent schmoozing media owners and editors, or the frippery of selfies and content-less social media. Rather, choosing a leader will now be done on the basis of the clearly articulated manifestos of the candidates, the quality of their engagement with caucus and party processes and their contributions to the collective efforts of the parliamentary party. 
Exciting stuff, and surely welcome by everyone who calls him- or herself a progressive. Gillard's sharp mind is in evidence here, in its ability to focus on a problem and translate it into substance that can be applied to the corpus of individuals and the existing organisational structure. It's why Gillard was such a great manager, why she could pass so much important legislation through Parliament despite holding the slimmest of margins. And above this her soul-searching - there really is no other adequate word - makes her look at what was not visible in the public sphere, but that should have been. She is thinking of all the people she worked with and their individual contributions.
In a world where the views of your colleagues about your merits matter so much to your chance of promotion, it is not at all surprising a great deal of effort goes into media work no one but political insiders ever see. 
At the same time, countless hours of work can go on behind closed doors on policy development. These efforts are generally never seen by the public and can even be close to invisible to colleagues. 
Real efforts need to be made to change this method of functioning, to show purpose to the public and to ensure the best contributors to the collective work of the opposition are clearly identified to their colleagues. 
Perhaps policy contests could be held in the open rather than behind closed doors. Rather than having the shadow ministry debate difficult policy questions, parliamentary party policy seminars should discuss them, open to the media and live on 24-hour television. Policy contests could then be taken out of the back rooms into the light. To the extent policy contests have leaked out from back rooms, they are inevitably reported through the prism of division. By being open from the start, the debate can be put in the prism of purpose. A norm would be set that ideas matter and those with the best ideas are the most valued. 
Currently, working hard in your office on a new policy, being a key contributor to shadow ministry discussions, coming up with an innovative way of attracting new people to join the ALP – none of these valuable contributions is as visible to your Labor colleagues as performances on Sky television.
I apologise for including so much of what has already been published, here, but I think that Gillard is entitled to one shot given the potential for even more destabilising conduct such as Emerson's. A lot of people will read Gillard's critique and themselves criticise her for participating in conduct that might be viewed as damaging to the party. But compared to what she could have done, this article is refreshing and positive, showing how serious Gillard is and how much she values the Labor Party.

In a real sense what Gillard is asking us, the public, to do is to look behind the screen of media activity and because we can't do so unaided she's proposed a few changes the party could implement to help us. The focus should be both on policy and on who has made the biggest contribution to developing it; teamwork stands alongside individual insight and individual ideas as something to value. While others can simply take a quick, 140-character stab at Gillard for talking at length about the Labor Party I choose, instead, to view her contribution as something special, something that could positively animate public discussion of politics - after all, we all have a constitutional right to talk publicly about our representatives and our leaders - and twist the balance in favour of the community, and not just for the benefit of media barons and their lieutenants.

An astonishing performance from one of the great political players in Australia's history.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Gillard's Asian foresight already bearing fruit

A little under a year ago it was reported that Julia Gillard's Asian Century white paper would come out, and it did. Australian businesses took a while to acknowledge the release but they have since responded to the challenge in multiple ways. In the real estate sector, for example, it is clear that local businesses are adapting to the new climate by offering the types of services - including those available through Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking employees - that Chinese people want. One of these businesspeople is Monika Tu (pictured, right), who offers a range of services to cashed-up Chinese property buyers so that they can start to integrate into Australian society.

Real estate is particularly potent as a lure for Chinese investors because in Chinese cities freehold property is not available: you only get a long lease on Beijing apartments, for example, which means that the likelihood of passing the investment on to your children is limited by law. And if anything is important to Chinese people it is their family. See how many Chinese parents are buying properties in Sydney so that their children have somewhere to live while they study at one of our excellent universities; one such parent recently shelled out $17 million for a penthouse located on Hyde Park in Sydney.

Marquee properties valued in the tens of millions are selling to Chinese buyers, but there's also plenty of action in other specific locations in Australia's cities - Eastwood, Campsie, Chatswood, Mascot - where Chinese people like to live. Companies in Australia who want to tap into the new capital flows have such options as employing Chinese graduates locally to help them acclimatise to the new ways of doing business. But the real-estate business has been changing for years in actual fact. Just visit the streets in Sydney's southern CBD and see how many Chinese real estate agents are doing business there; the reality is striking.

The amount of prescience inherent in Gillard's Asian push is undeniable, although business was loathe to publicly get behind the initiative due to differences of opinion elsewhere in the domain of policies and ideas. But whether or not they acknowledge Gillard's contribution to the new paradigm there are lots of good businesses, like McGrath Estate Agents, who are setting up a China desk to effectively manage the transition. If there are unique opportunities in real estate there must also be similar openings in other sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, banking, insurance, financial advice, food production ... Whichever business you work in you can expand your sales strategy to profit from Australia's special place in Asia.

Friday 13 September 2013

Liberal Party needs Socialist shibboleths to justify itself

News that some minor Liberal pollie in the NSW Parliament praised Augusto Pinochet, the savage dictator of Chile's dark days, comes as no real surprise. Peter Phelps told Parliament that Pinochet's regime, during whose tenure tens of thousands of innocent people were tortured and killed, was "legitimate" because the man he overthrew in 1973, Salvador Allende, would have done "terrible things". Sometimes it's necessary to trot out the hard men in jackboots to restore the rightful order of things, right Peter?

There are about 33,000 Chilean Australians who now enjoy peaceful transitions of power in the absence of the hard men in jackboots. It would be interesting to know what these people think of Phelps' kooky ideas about the legitimacy of authority, respecting ballots, and the role of the US in the Cold War.

Founded in 1945, the Liberal Party emerged from the ashes of an upper- and middle-class business-friendly party, the United Australia Party, which had been born during the Depression. At the end of WWII the world had specific political contours that functioned to determine how politics played out in democracies globally, but the most important international determinant of local conduct was the relationship between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. By 1950 this relationship had broken down and the Korean War had begun, launching the two sides into 40 years of proxy wars - including the Pinochet coup - until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed in exhaustion.

Within this context the name "Liberal Party" made some sense because it underscored an ideological claim that hinged on the gap between democratic freedom and authoritarian tyranny; we can have no doubt of the Soviet Union's criminal conduct with respect of its own citizens. But after 1989 conservative political parties like the Liberal Party of Australia were forced to work hard to justify their retrograde policies.

For the Liberals the job is even harder than in other Western democracies because of the logical burden embedded in the name "Liberal", an historical artefact that puzzles foreigners unused to Australian politics and its posturings, and one which can easily elicit humour. How can an obviously conservative political party call itself "liberal"? A word born in the crucible of the Napoleonic Wars among progressive Spaniards who dreamed of a better life for all, not just the few.

Hence the ridiculous speech by Phelps. Liberals occasionally "come out" publicly in this manner although usually such discussions are relegated to the invisibility of essays in the magazine Quadrant, which has been published on cheap paper for over 50 years. When Liberals actually reveal the kinds of twisted logic they internalise on a daily basis in their attempts to legitimise their actions, the result is the kind of looney-toons verbalising Peter Phelps performed yesterday in the NSW Parliament.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Fairfax Media claims underdog status

Back in March I blogged about the use of the sobriquet "independent" by Australia's media outlets but since then there's been a major shift in our understanding of this word since in the last couple of weeks one of the big names of Australian news, Fairfax Media, has seen fit to add the word to the mastheads of its two major dailies, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Only these two. The other vehicles the company runs, in Brisbane, Perth and Canberra, don't get it.

It's a rather startling move. I think it's fair to say that most people know that Fairfax, a publicly-traded company, is doing it tough. The share price is still way down below $1 per share. The company has introduced paywalls but so far no figures have yet been published to tell us how that move is panning out. Mining heiress Gina Reinhart is still a major shareholder though as far as I know she's not been able to secure any more board seats since her mate Jack Cowin was given one. Given these facts it's quite reasonable for Fairfax to claim that is in the process of reinventing itself with a view to remaining economically viable into the future - "Always", as the masthead boasts; the word also points back to 1831 when the company was established.

Signs Fairfax mastheads really are independent are not, of course, hard to find. In the run-up to Saturday's federal election, for example, The Age came out for the ALP and Rudd while the SMH came out for the Liberal-National coalition and Abbott. I wasn't watching any of the website-only vehicles closely enough to notice how they oriented themselves in relation to the political contest but it seems reasonable to assume that editors there also had a free hand. This independence is in stark contrast to the way all of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers lined up behind Abbott in the months and weeks before the poll. Clearly, in this case, there is a distinct lack of independence for individual editors and, by extension, the journalists themselves. (I have written about the lack of editorial independence at Murdoch vehicles on numerous occasions in the past, for example here and here and here.)

Given the journalistic landscape in Australia and the companies that feature in it I find it a tad surprising that Fairfax would add the word "independent" to those two mastheads, but not unduly so. Having written about this issue here myself it makes sense in a real and important way. It makes sense because of the dominance of Murdoch and it makes sense from an intellectual point of view. It also makes sense from an economic perspective: Fairfax is indeed struggling to remake itself in the new, post-internet media environment, as are newspapers all over the world. Their crisis of identity, spawned by poverty, is resulting in new ways of earning money and new ways of making news. If Fairfax wants to claim underdog status while it goes back to fundamentals as it works to resolve the crisis then I, for one, have no objection. Australians should pay attention to words such as "independent" because it is through them, and through what they represent, that their interests are best served especially, now, as public broadcaster the ABC is well underway on its slow shift to the Right.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Obama flatters Americans while sending messages

Barack Obama's public speech today on Syria was a PR exercise aimed at a multitude of international players including Syria, Iran, Russia, China, the UK and other countries. The fact that it contained little of substance tells us how much a part of the theatre of international diplomacy it was. In the end, Obama notified the world that a military solution of a limited type - a "targeted strike" - was an option should further diplomatic endeavours involving Russia fail. Syria has admitted that it possesses chemical weapons.

But Obama's theatrical piece was also full of contradictions, and these especially appeared toward the end of the speech when the president's logic convinced him to address the issue of America's sense of manifest destiny, which is core to its identity. "For nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy but the world's a better place because we have borne them."

I find it staggering that an American president can be so wilfully blind as to the truth of history especially when he dares to call history to his aid while working to gain support for military action. The fact is that "nearly seven decades" takes you right back to the end of WWII. Does Obama sincerely think that people do not remember the unwarranted aggression that led to the disastrous Vietnam War? Incredible to think so, but it appears he's conscripting that crime against humanity to give himself support now. And what about the outrageous destabilisation of the Mossadegh government in Iran in the 1950s? Does America sincerely feel that the animus that continues, to this day, to motivate Iranians against it, has no valid basis in reality?

Under Obama America continues to see itself as the world's policeman, a sobriquet the president was eager to distance himself from (much like John Howard in Australia hated being called George W. Bush's "deputy" despite his fawning eagerness to get involved in the twin stupidity of Iraq and Afghanistan). But for Obama as well as for most Americans the truth of a belief in manifest destiny continues - despite all the military failures and the illegal wars the country has embroiled itself in - to buttress their sense of identity. If we go on to listen to Obama right to the end of his speech we find more evidence of this belief, and of this sense of identity.

"Our ideals and principles as well as our national security are at stake in Syria as well as our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe and it is beyond our means to right every wrong but when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gasses to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility as well as resolve let us never lose sight of that essential truth."

As usual in official pronouncements, the sentiment gets thicker the closer you get to the end; it's sort of like a rhetorical money shot. In Obama's case the sentiment is so thick you can carve chunks off it and use them as fuel for a barbecue. America is "different" and "exceptional" and so it can never make mistakes. As in the case of Nixon, time dilutes the stain of ruthless self interest and washes away the lies and the deceptions. An experienced orator, and a good one, Obama has leveraged Americans' sense of self - their very identity - in order to sway international opinion and gather support from himself in the broadest possible public sphere.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Add childcare to parental leave on family wishlist

A mini baby boom in Australia added to a continued high level of migration is putting pressure on families in the big cities. Since 2001 the birth rate has been increasing steadily, from 246,000 in 2001 to 302,000 in 2011 and while the net migration rate has dropped from its high in 2008-09, we still welcomed 170,300 people in 2010-11. In that year Sydney alone added over 50,000 migrants to its suburbs.

Low interest rates and an increase in the use of self-managed super funds to buy investment property has furthermore led to a seven percent rise in Sydney property prices this year, and the boom looks set to continue through spring and into summer. Demand continues to strongly outstrip supply. "Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson said the projections showed Sydney would need 100,000 more homes than planned in the next two decades," writes Leesha McKenny for the Sydney Morning Herald.

The image accompanying this blogpost shows Sydney council areas and their expected population growth to 2031. Note that some inner-urban and inner-suburban areas are dark-coloured, showing areas where the biggest population increases are expected over the period. Places like Canterbury and Ashfield, as well as places like Blacktown and Liverpool, are expected to grow in terms of resident households. For a young couple to afford a home in the former - in a suburb close to the CBD in Sydney - usually two incomes are needed but childcare costs often mean mothers are returning to the workforce after giving birth only to see their salaries sucked up by this single budget item alone. "The number of children using approved childcare has increased 20 per cent since 2008, yet the sector has failed to keep pace with demand," writes Cosima Mariner for the SMH. "The cost of childcare has risen at three times the rate of inflation, according to the Work and Family Policy Round Table, despite ballooning government subsidies which will top $22 billion over the next three years."

Kevin Rudd promised to do something about the acute shortage of childcare places but failed to deliver on his 2007 promise. As for housing affordability, local councils appear to be delivering the goods by approving infill construction of apartments in Sydney's inner suburban areas, but the fact remains that two incomes are needed for the most part for young couples wanting to buy a property there. A commitment to childcare would help not only to support the housing sector, it would also allow more women to work, hence lifting national productivity by a significant margin.

Given these realities, it seems that better childcare is a no-brainer for Tony Abbott if he's looking to do something useful for Australia's struggling young families. Sure, maternity leave and paternity leave are important but even more important is the longer-term security that childcare can provide to working families. Quality childcare would also be nice but I suspect that for many mothers any childcare is probably considered enough to aspire to.

Monday 9 September 2013

The audacity of the feminine

I've been thinking a lot about the Opposition leadership, as have a lot of people, and a conversation I struck up on Twitter with Sarah Joseph (@profsarahj) keeps coming to mind. Sarah is an engaged and intelligent participant in my social graph. We talked about what had made Abbott successful. "I think [Right] is more audacious and it pays off," she said. "Thatcher. Reagan. Roosevelt. Even many Whitlam values hung around til Howard."

"I also think people crying out fir audacity. Majors on the nose. I mean, why vote for Palmer?" Sarah went on. And it made me think about, for example, Campbell Newman running in the Queensland state campaign in 2011 and early 2012 without even holding a parliamentary seat. Newman went on the crush Anna Bligh's government so badly Labor were reduced to seven seats statewide. A devastating and surprising result.

Tony Abbott has been working away at the ALP since 2009 when he took the Coalition leadership, and reduced their lead in the 2010 election to nothing - literally. In fact the Coalition had more lower house seats then Labor. By sticking to his message and by not making any glaring mistakes Abbott converted that slight lead into a convincing lead in 2013, attaining a 3.5% swing nationally.

Now that the usual suspects from Labor have been canvassed - Albo, Shorten, Bowen, Swan - and have all passed on the offer of the poisoned chalice, it's time for the ALP to do something to really capture the imagination of the electorate. Give a big "fuck-you" to the Coalition as it starts to settle in and find its stride. To really upset the apple cart Labor needs to do something big and I suggest bringing Tanya Plibersek into the leadership role, reignite the "misogyny" debate and really get right up the nose of the now-complacent Coalition. Never mind going for the safe option - the stabbing of Rudd in 2010 and the execution of Gillard in 2013 belong in this category - and really go all-out to make a splash that the electorate won't expect.

Plibersek for ALP leadership will completely set the cat among the pigeons, unbalance the still-uncommissioned Coalition, and get the electorate talking. Let's make another Clover Moore. Sydney, you've come of age!

Democracy sausage trended for good reason

Parliament has often been called a sausage factory for legislation but the community groups who set up barbecues outside polling booths on Saturday probably never thought of such an analogy. For them, selling sausages wrapped in a slice of wholesome white bread was merely a way to raise funds: you have a steady stream of mid-morning voters, a beautiful spring day, an irresistibly low price. Bingo!

When I went to vote down the street at the community centre I saw a man intently occupied with the terribly important job of looking after the onions. I only had a $50-dollar note so I had to cadge a gold coin from my mother to buy a sausage. It turned out to be delicious, just the thing to dissipate the hunger pangs of 9.30am; a magpie eyed me crossly as I walked back to the car. But when I got home and got online I was startled to see the number of posts in socmed from people who had snapped photos of the offerings they had found at their own polling booths. Not just democracy sausage (like the example shown here from erstwhile blogger and Guardian journalist @grogsgamut) but biscuits shaped like the then-PM and the then-leader of the Opposition complete with budgie smugglers and nerdy glasses, second-hand book stalls, and chocolate peanut clusters like the one @julieposetti snapped.

From @saraheburnside we learned: "North Perth Primary has a sausage sizzle, cake stall and mini-fete including second-hand books. Recommended voting location."

The culinary component of the Australian election booth was quickly an opportunity for humour, as @gavindfernando also found: "Not a huge sausage sandwich fan, but bought one figuring it's the most funding those public schools will receive if Abbott wins." For her part, @beth_blanchard came up with her own cheeky take on the phenomenon: "Well I *would* post a pic of the sausage sizzle I enjoyed too but it looks rude so I'm not. You can all just imagine." Crikey journalist @bernardkeane saw fit to remark: "and the bellwether sausage sizzle is?" Even from the far north, @theNTnews tweeted: "EXIT POLLS SHOW SAUSAGE ON BREAD LEADS MOST NT BOOTHS, STEAK SANGA HANGING IN THERE, SALAD ROLL SUPPORT TOTALLY COLLAPSED."

Good weather, a bunch of people always ready to add a touch of pleasure to whatever they are doing - that vaunted Australian hedonism - and a tokenistic monetary outlay - $2 is small change, after all - meant that the term 'sausage' was soon trending on Twitter for Australia and the trend even had its own hashtag in #sausagesizzle. Later #snagvotes would emerge to exemplify our desire for alternatives when it comes to democracy regardless of how similar they turn out to be. Socmed is all about sharing - and the number of posts showed how engaged we were that day - but the sausage sizzle is also a demotic nod to the role food plays in bringing people together in a spirit of fellowship; think of the loaves and the fishes or the last supper.

Brit @kathviner editor of Guardian Australia tweeted: "Love the celebratory vibe of an Australian election.. sizzles, cake stalls, face-painting, amazing." I think it's suitable to leave the final word to an outsider. Sometimes we are too close to the things that surround us to know they are special. It can take the fresh eyes of the foreigner to see what is bleedingly obvious: give Australians a sunny day and the outdoors and they'll soon be eating something.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Abbott's victory not unalloyed with impurities

Well, I was wrong but not by much. I'd predicted a five percent swing to the Coalition in yesterday's poll but it turned out to be about three-and-a-half percent nationally. In the end, the Coalition looks set to hold a strong majority in the lower house but I hope Tony Abbott isn't expecting that mandate to convert itself into supine capitulation by Labor and the Greens on the matter of a carbon price. He'll be disappointed. From comments made by various Labor figures during the post-vote programming last night Labor looks set to sit on its heels over this key piece of legislation inherited from the Gillard government. The Greens, of course, are hardly likely to back down on a central plank of their policy platform.

With the lower house wrapped up - bar a few details still to be worked out in a few seats around the country where counting of pre-poll and postal votes continues now - Australians will be turning their eyes to the make-up of the Senate. Here, the final make-up of the chamber will be no precise guide as to how efficiently Abbott can push through his legislative agenda. In any case only half the Senate was chosen this time around, and those members will not be sworn in until the beginning of July next year. Given the Greens' dominance in the Senate at the moment, it looks unlikely that Abbott will be able to reverse the carbon price law this year or early next year unless he follows through with his promise to call for a double dissolution - in which case both houses of Parliament will once again be contested in a federal election. To do that would be to go the Newman route - in the 2012 Queensland state election LNP leader Campbell Newman ran without even holding a seat; his convincing win in March justified his hubris.

As for the rest of Abbott's policy platform, it looks likely that the national unemployment rate will rise as the Coalition cuts public sector jobs; Canberra will likely suffer a lot. On the economic front, we'll see how the markets react to yesterday's result, on Monday, and that is likely to be positive although Abbott has given us few details as to how Australia is now "open for business". The mining tax cannot be easily removed, for a start, but that cannot, surely, represent the full extent of what Abbott has planned to ensure that Australia transitions from an economy that has looked so consistently to the mining sector to provide jobs. I guess that the best we can do is to watch this space and wait.

In Queensland, the Palmer United Party did very well on the Sunshine Coast. There are two seats here: Fairfax to the north and Fisher to the south. The area has suffered economically since the GFC due to its having a very thin economy that is based on the three pillars of retail, construction and tourism. In his pre-election pitch, Clive Palmer promised locals an international airport and better roads, which are things that would translate into more employment for local tradespeople. Beyond that it's hard to look past good-old Queensland parochialism and the ever-present sense of frustration at the dominance of the southern cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Locals will have judged that Palmer would finally give the Sunshine Coast back some of the confidence that the European financial crisis, especially, had sucked out of the region.

What is certain is that yesterday's Liberal-National victory is not unalloyed with impurities. There will be plenty of opportunities for progressives to celebrate over the coming years and months as Tony Abbott struggles to get his way in Parliament. Reputations will be made and possibly lost. And there is also the ongoing drama of Labor as it works to remake itself after this defeat. I think that everybody will be kept busy watching how things unfold. It's early days yet.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Massive day in Oz as the big top stages its marquee performance

With just zero days to go folks there's a new opinion poll out showing the centre-right Coalition on 50.8 and the centre-left ALP on 49.2 on a two-party-preferred basis. Roll up! Roll up! Unlike the other polls it's a mobile-phone-only poll - which is likely to be more accurate than polls relying on landlines, which mostly older Australians use - so get ready for a nail-biter. Will it be a 5% swing or another hung Parliament? WHO KNOWS!

The biggest show in town - bigger even than the Olympics - is about to stage its marquee performance and Barack Obama, for one, must be relieved. To this point the US president has been deprived of one of his country's most stalwart supporters. Those pesky Brits! If Australia hadn't been staging a federal election right now would the darn limeys have been more willing to go to war in Syria? A curse on their lower House!

For environmentally-conscious people globally this election is also important. The ALP government introduced a carbon price last year but the Liberal-National coalition has promised to repeal the law. Outside Europe, Australia is one of a few countries that officially prices carbon releases, so this election is a big one for people who want to see concrete action on greenhouse gases - not just here but everywhere.

Public servants in Australia will be hoping for an ALP win: the Coalition has promised to cut government employment drastically. But in these economically fragile times does the national economy need a whole slew of new unemployed? Shouldn't the government be taking up the slack in bad times to ensure continued growth? Australia enjoys GDP growth of about 2.6% right now - high by international standards but low historically - but a national survey by the public broadcaster says that it's young men in trades jobs who are saying they support the Coalition. Australia has had 22 uninterrupted years of growth to date. Will a Coalition win put that record in jeopardy?

If broadband is all you care about the choice is easy. The ALP is currently funding a country-wide high-speed fibre broadband network but the Coalition says it'll do it cheaper. The downside in that case would be slower speeds. An international overview run by the ALP showed that the Coalition's solution is far less than impressive: most people would not pay for the speeds they are promising by 2019. But do people really see the benefits of fast broadband? Has the ALP done enough to describe the kinds of future uses of such a network?

The left Greens party looks set to increase its performance on the last election in 2010, and the elephant in the room as always is the Senate, where the Greens have traditionally done very well. If the Coalition wants to repeal that carbon price legislation they'll need the support of both houses. If the Greens dominate in the Senate as they have done in the past few years then their job will be that much harder.

From America's perspective it doesn't really matter which party wins because both the ALP and the Coalition have a strong record of working closely with the US in matters of international importance; Australia is the only country in the world that has gone to all of America's wars since WWII. What is important for Obama is a settled mandate for either of the two majors. But that mobile-only poll makes the landscape a bit more uncertain; to date we've been told the Coalition would get a swing of between three and five percent. That's up in the air now. Up in the space above the big top, and we also have 15 million Australians who will today make their choices among a larger range of political parties than we've ever seen before. Roll up, folks, it promises to be a big day out.

Friday 6 September 2013

Faceless editorial backs Abbott in tomorrow's poll

People this morning will be surprised to see a faceless editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald backing Tony Abbott in tomorrow's poll and while this might seem sneaky it's got to be preferred to the recent habit of Murdoch papers dressing editorial up as news as the billionaire's henchmen work to ensure a Coalition win. In fact, editorials published without a byline and dinkus are a long-standing staple of the media economy.

The Herald efficiently outlines its reasons for backing the favourite, which boils down to the matter of trust, especially the twin-engined toxicity of Labor scandals that have plagued the party for months and months; it's useful to remember that the Herald has spent a lot of reputational capital covering the NSW Labor scandals that culminated in an ICAC ruling, and that continue to play out as different individuals pursue their options through the courts and the media.

Then there's the matter of the hung Parliament and the deal with the Greens that caused Gillard to renege on her promise not to introduce a carbon tax. Many Australians still find it hard to move beyond this barrier as they think about who to vote for federally.

Putting this single issue aside it's clear to a lot of people that Labor has behaved badly and that it's just too difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; no doubt some in Labor will point to legislative excellence and white hands for others in the party's ranks. The Herald editorial asks Labor to think on its sins and to make sure that - next time - it respects the "privilege of power" bestowed by an electorate that usually votes politicians out of office, rather than voting them in.

Another thing that strikes me is the residual animus against Labor's tendency to stage leadership coups. Republicans should take heart from this dislike, as it points to an attitude among many in Australia that leans toward a more presidential type of role for the prime ministership. The (possibly) ugly truth is that the party chooses its leader; it can do so at any time in the electoral cycle. But there seems to be a view that the voters should be the ones to be ultimately consulted in the matter of federal leadership. Time for a new referendum?

Thursday 5 September 2013

Crabb draws a more human Abbott out of the closet

Things looked unpromising, at first, on the ABC's Kitchen Cabinet last night when it appeared that the tightly-scripted Tony Abbott would prevail in the face of Annabel Crabb's relentless domesticising. In the early parts of the program Abbott's daughters somehow got mixed up in the melange - shunted into action, no doubt, by wary spinners intent on softening Abbott's image for the benefit of female voters - and were suitably cast, taking responsibility for the salad. And helping dad put butter on fish (really, Tony? That's it?). In this part of the show the conversation remained similar to any other stage on the hustings, now, three days out from the poll. The conversation was stilted, unremarkable, and wooden.

The way things panned out once the kids were shunted off-stage demonstrated how inappropriate the set-piece political mentality is for a program such as this, where a congenial, sociable tone tends to edge out the more ghastly forms of verbal utterance, those which we are delivered day-in and day-out through the media on doorstops and in shopping malls and in press conferences.

Abbott clearly hates this kind of unscripted performance, but he soldiered on regardless and delivered something more human than we're used to. There were bits and pieces about his early years, about life in the Liberal Party following the Ruddslide of 2007, and plenty of other topics of discussion that enabled Abbott to show how uncomfortable it is possible for a politician to be once you get him or her away from the backroom minders. Abbott looked distinctly uncomfortable throughout the show but at least it was a genuine sort of uncomfortableness. He hates scrutiny, it's clear. (He really hates it.) But Crabb managed to let us see aspects of the aspiring leader that we rarely ever see.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

The season of Snowden continues to bite

A New York Times story from a few days ago illustrates how unconvincing intelligence authorities have become in their war against whistleblowers, describing an open court decision in the UK where the government and the Guardian made their cases regarding data taken from hardware that had been carried by David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist most responsible for stories relying on information received from Edward Snowden. The decision allowed authorities to further analyse the contents of the hardware.
The [senior national security adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron], Oliver Robbins, said in a written statement that the information could put the officers and their families at risk, or even make them vulnerable to recruitment by foreign intelligence services. 
In all, he said, the files contained about 58,000 highly classified documents, which were “highly likely to describe techniques which have been crucial in lifesaving counterterrorist operations, and other intelligence activities vital to U.K. national security.” Allowing the material to become public, he said, “would do serious damage to U.K. national security and ultimately risk lives.”
How? asked the Guardian: "the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger ... [accused] the government of making unsubstantiated claims." If the information was so dangerous, he asked, why had the government done nothing about it before detaining Miranda? And what about copies of the information that had been given to the NY Times and ProPublica, both US-based news companies? Where was the urgency evident in those cases?

As I wrote two weeks ago, targeting Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras shows the US is in looneyville and the UK authorities have also drunk the Cool-Aid. Their current gyrations in the face of the inconvenience of open court and the rule of law - two bulwarks of Western legal practice that have been bequeathed to us by generations and partly constitute, precisely, the institutions the intelligence services are tasked with protecting - do nothing more than reveal the logical and moral abyss in the depths of which spies daily operate. So certain of the crucial nature of the data in question yet unable to reveal publicly just why that information is so crucial. It's a kind of nightmare scenario for organisations who have operated behind a pall of secrecy for over 100 years, since their establishment in the years leading up to WWI.

But the situation also highlights how badly WikiLeaks handled the media. UK and US media organisations like the Guardian and the NY Times are operating all stops in their effort to support Snowden by ensuring that the data he released becomes public in news stories, and by working to protect people associated with the release. Julian Assange, meanwhile, has largely dropped out of the public arena following well-publicised run-ins with editors at those publications. In fact, WikiLeaks makes it a point of pride in social media and press releases to distance itself from such organisations, including by claiming that it, itself, is a publishing venture. Instead of working closely with these companies, WikiLeaks has set itself up as a rival venture. The result has been disastrous for WikiLeaks.

The relationship is well-illustrated by the falsehoods that entered the movie Underground: The Julian Assange Story, which was screened in Australia on TV in April. As I wrote at the time:
Julian's meeting with the journalist - a sloppy, careworn specimen well played by Simon Maiden - that is so important in the movie, and of course in real life, does not appear in the book [Underground by Suelette Dreyfus]. The idea that Assange at this early stage, in 1989, sought to publicise the material that he found online is correct by the logic of 2013, or even 2009, but its appearance in the movie is a piece of teleological wishful thinking. 
But of course in the court of public opinion just as in a UK open court the protagonists must appeal to the public for its support. Having neglected - and even insulted - the gatekeepers, WikiLeaks must fall back on its own devices: what vehicles can we control in order to get our message across? Undoubtedly history will decide in favour of Assange in the longer term; in the short term his hubris has made his life harder.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Baddies schmaddies

Unlike the last time we had a federal election and unlike the last US federal election I've been fairly detached from the debate this time, mainly for family reasons but also out of a sense of curiosity as I try to place local discussions in a broader context. When I get up in the middle of the night to watch socmed activity from overseas it's hardly surprising to see no mention of Australia's Saturday election - yes, it's just that close folks. Which is why Tony Abbott's "baddies versus baddies" comment - which attracted so much opprobrium from certain sectors in Australia - was so interesting for me.

The comment was of course taken out of context by the commentariat. In truth, Abbott basically supports Western intervention in Syria. And Abbott was also right in bringing attention to the fact that there are very few actors you can unequivocally support in the Syrian conflict, as the rebel groups have clearly been comprehensively influenced by Islamofascists intent on establishing sharia wherever they succeed in throwing out Assad's forces. It's clear they intend to do the same should they win the larger battle in the longer term. Unfortunately, Christopher Pyne was quite correct in saying that Abbott's interpretation of the conflict was "sophisticated". But there are certain sectors of the commentariat in Australia for whom anything Pyne says will be ludicrous regardless of the individual merits of the case.

The SMH headline - 'Tony Abbott urges caution over Syria intervention' - is actually more accurate than the Guardian's. In fact, Abbott's response was very clever. This close to an election would be a bad time for a small-target campaigner in the prevailing atmosphere of non-stop attention-grabbing headlines where getting out a complex message is almost impossible, to say much else. As Abbott remarks, he supported Iraq and he supported Afghanistan. He's basically a US man, like his hero Howard. In this sense there's precious little to distinguish between Abbott and Rudd, both of whom would unquestionably urge Australian participation in a Syrian intervention that had congressional backing (the vote in Congress is apparently due on 9 September, two days after the election).

Given the timing and given the low awareness in Australia of what's actually happening on the ground in Syria - there is little media involvement, and the Assad regime is pushing a heavy line of propaganda - Abbott can hardly have said much else. The "wait and see" attitude is inevitable in the circumstances; Abbott hardly wants to upset the apple cart over such a minor issue as the vaguely-articulated human rights abuses that may of may not have happened in a largely invisible foreign country.

A more interesting question is whether the timing of our election has turned out to be a major problem for Obama and Cameron. If Australia had not been in caretaker mode would the three tradition allies have more readily decided in favour of armed intervention? There has been no comment in the press in either the UK or the US about the lack of executive leadership here. Which is hardly surprising. It's common for Australia to appear to be invisible when the larger picture of world affairs is addressed.

For Australian voters who care about their financial situation the Syrian crisis must be important inasmuch as it has started to impact on the price of equities. For their part, Australian investors are used to keeping watch on overseas developments - particularly those in Europe, the US and China - because of the relative size of our stock market. At just three percent of the global total, it tends to be heavily influenced by things that happen in other places. Because so many Australians participate in the equities market through their superannuation you would think they would act in their own self interest when it comes to choosing a political party to support.

Both major parties in Australia are centrist and both are more tolerant of the other side than the more ideologically-inclined politicians you find in the US for example. Oddly, it has been ideological considerations that brought both New Zealand and the UK - where conservative governments are in power - to support marriage equality.

Such considerations are foreign to the broader public debate in Australia, particularly in relation to the Liberal-National coalition. The real question that should be occupying the minds of Australian voters is whether a Coalition government would be better for the economy than the alternative, or worse. Going by the lift in Queensland's unemployment rate following the election of the Newman government there in March last year you'd have to think that in the aggregate the Coalition presents a real danger to the economy.

Australia's economy is relatively strong in global terms - and this is one thing that people overseas pay attention to when they talk about Australia - but something as seemingly minor as a 1-percentage-point rise in the unemployment rate could have a major impact on the material wellbeing of millions of Australians.