Abbott

Tony Abbott is like Gaius Baltar – the anti-hero from Battlestar Galactica. Both are men motivated almost entirely by political expediency in pursuit of power, and seek to escape from the things they’ve said and done in the past.

Abbott, I think, must operate with the presumption that – if he eventually wins the Prime Ministership – history will not judge him on how he won. He must assume that the media narrative will extol his courage and determination, which would certainly be true, but to the exclusion of his almost pathological dishonesty and lack of vision. I imagine that there are elements of the media that would be eagerly complicit in this. Abbott may well be right in this assumption.

I don’t wish this to be seen as a plug for the Labor Party. Julia Gillard and her supporters in the Labor Party, in ousting Rudd and gutting some of their party’s core policies, have behaved in much the same way. However, I feel that Abbott has taken political deception to new depths. At least the Labor leadership and policy meltdown was plain for all to see. Consider Abbott’s own recent history.

In February, Abbott told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that “we will fund our promises without new taxes and without increased taxes”. Just over a month passed before he announced a “temporary” yet open-ended “levy” on business to pay for the Coalition’s paid maternity leave scheme. Now, that scheme may or may not be justifiable on its own merits (I don’t wish to argue that here), but then why say “no new taxes”? Either Abbott was grossly incompetent for not realising that he’d need extra tax revenue to fund his election promises, or grossly dishonest for trying to have his cake and eat it too.

In justifying his backflip to Kerry O’Brien (on May 17), Abbott made the following truly extraordinary admission:

I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say. But sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm considered prepared scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is [sic] those carefully prepared scripted remarks.

Abbott quite openly admitted to being loose with the truth, and not just on one occasion but in general. He admitted that he lacks self-control. The fact that he made this admission so flippantly further suggests that he really didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with this way of doing things. The Opposition then tried to pass off this casual admission of a pattern of dishonesty as Abbott being “fair dinkum”. Apparently, the act of admitting guilt is such a high virtue that it completely overshadows the offence itself. (Then again, it’s hard to imagine what else they could have said, while saving face.)

Of course, politicians in general are not beacons of honesty (for complex reasons), but we’re not talking just about evading questions, putting words in your opponents’ mouths or using logical fallacies to attack their policies. I would be surprised if any high-profile politician is not guilty of all these things, and this certainly reflects very poorly on our adversarial politics. Abbott’s admission went beyond this, and raised fundamental questions about his motives and what he stood for.

There was also something more subtle that a lot of people didn’t seem to pick up on. Abbott was often paraphrased as admitting that he didn’t always tell the gospel truth, but that isn’t quite the whole story. He actually said that his scripted remarks were gospel truth; “absolute” gospel truth no less. There’s just a little bit of arrogance in that, considering Abbott’s strong Catholicism. Are we really to believe the Coalition’s scripted messages carry the same weight as the inspired word of God? I don’t believe in God and you mightn’t either, but Abbott certainly does – he takes it very seriously indeed. It’s the only thing we know he believes in with any conviction.

All of that helps to frame Abbott’s later antics.

What, for example, are we to make of the Coalition’s election costings? Where was gospel truth when it emerged that the Coalition was claiming $11 billion in “savings” that didn’t really exist, after running an election campaign largely centred around fiscal and budgetary responsibility? Their refusal during the campaign to have their figures scrutinised by Treasury (as per their own Charter of Budget Honesty), and even afterwards for a time until they finally gave in to the independents, was not a good look. Once Treasury reported back, it looked like the Coalition had engaged in a political fraud of unprecedented magnitude; one that would have remained concealed except for the unique series of events precipitated by the hung parliament. How do you begin to explain that away? High profile journalists, including George Megalogenis and Laura Tingle (whose papers – The Australian and the Australian Financial Review – are hardly friends of the Labor Party), quickly and bluntly stated that Abbott and the Coalition were simply not fit to govern.

Finally, what are we to make of Abbott’s refusal to honour an agreement on pairing arrangements with the speaker that would effectively give the speaker a vote (included as a part of a package of parliamentary reforms proposed by the independents)? Abbott claimed, after the fact:

The Coalition cannot accept the proposed arrangement for the pairing of the Speaker, because after careful consideration of the matter, we believe that it is constitutionally unsound.

The pairing arrangement was intended to ensure government stability (i.e. one more vote for the government), which is precisely what Abbott is now fighting against. His point is arguable, but the problem is that the Coalition did accept the proposed arrangement at the time. If it’s unconstitutional now (and this is disputed), it surely must have been unconstitutional when Abbott agreed to it in the first place. If Abbott is exercising careful consideration now, why didn’t he do so before he signed off on it?

Citizen Wilson Tuckey’s excuse for this is that the agreement was negotiated “under duress”. The absurdity of the Coalition being under duress is delicious. Not getting your way (e.g. forming government) is not called “duress”, except by the most petulant of protagonists. Was Abbott tied up and prodded with a hot poker until he signed a confession? Not exactly. The only “duress” he suffered was the stark, horrific thought of not seizing the highest office in the land. However, follow this logic to its conclusion. If Abbott doesn’t need to honour this part of the agreement, then he doesn’t need to honour any part of the agreement, or indeed any agreement at all that helps him attain power. To claim duress, you would have to suppose that it was Abbott’s natural, inalienable right to be Prime Minister, as opposed to a privilege granted by the people, or at least their elected representatives.

What makes it particularly cynical is that either side would have relied on this agreement to help ensure a stable, working government. Abbott would have needed it just as much as Gillard does now. After Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie sided with Labor, Abbott needed all three remaining independents. Having a Coalition speaker would have reduced the Coalition’s margin in the House of Reps to just one vote – 75 to 74. Included in that fragile 75 would have been both Bob Katter and Tony Crook, neither of whom would want to be taken for granted, as well as  Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor who both favour some of Labor’s policies (hence why they eventually did choose Labor). I can’t see the Coalition bemoaning the unconstitutionality of the agreement under those circumstances.

What do we make of Abbott after all this? What does he have to offer, as the alternative Prime Minister? His deceptions are manifold to the point that his word is essentially meaningless. He actively seeks to hide everything he truly believes in, and what remains of him in public view is pure noise. For a Coalition leader to hold to a socially conservative or free-market ideology is one thing. Tony Abbott, however, would probably tell us that he breeds unicorns if he thought he could squeeze a single extra vote out of it.

The danger with this strategy is that, left too long, enough people will see him for what he is, and his claim to be a man of action will start to ring a bit hollow.

Tony Abbott is like Gaius Baltar – the anti-hero from Battlestar Galactica. Both are men motivated almost entirely by political expediency in  pursuit of power, and seek to escape from the things they’ve said and done in the past.

Abbott, I think, must operate with the presumption that – if he eventually wins the Prime Ministership – history will not judge him on how he won. He must assume that the media narrative will extol his courage and determination, which would certainly be true, but to the exclusion of his almost pathological dishonesty and lack of vision. I imagine that there are elements of the media that would be eagerly complicit in this. Abbott may well be right in this presumption.

I don’t wish this to be seen as a plug for the Labor Party, because Gillard and her supporters have behaved in much the same way, but I feel that Abbott has taken political deception to new depths. Consider his recent history.

In February Abbott told Neil Mitchell that “we will fund our promises without new taxes and without increased taxes”. Just over a month passed before he announced a “temporary” yet open-ended “levee” on business to pay for the Coalition’s paid maternity leave scheme. Now, that scheme may or may not be justifiable on its own merits (I don’t wish to argue that here), but then why say “no new taxes”? Either Abbott was grossly incompetent for not realising that he’d need extra tax revenue to fund his election promises, or grossly dishonest for trying to have his cake and eat it too.

In justifying his backflip to Kerry O’Brien (on May 17), Abbott made the following truly extraordinary admission:

I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say. But sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm considered prepared scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is [sic] those carefully prepared scripted remarks.

In this one interview, Abbott quite openly admits to being loose with the truth, and not just on one occasion but in general. He admits that he lacks self-control. The fact that he made this admission so flippantly further suggests that he really didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with this way of doing things. The Opposition then tried to pass off this casual admission of a pattern of dishonesty as Abbott being “fair dinkum”, as though the act of admitting guilt is such a high virtue that it completely overshadows the offence itself. (Then again, it’s hard to imagine what else they could have said, while saving face.)

It’s not especially controversial to say that politicians are not beacons of honesty, but we’re not talking just about evading questions, putting words in your opponents’ mouths or using logical fallacies to attack their policies. I would be surprised if any high-profile politician is not guilty of these things, and reflects very poorly on our adversarial politics. Abbott’s admission went beyond this, and raised fundamental questions about his motives and what he stood for.

There was also something more subtle that a lot of people didn’t seem to pick up on. Abbott was often paraphrased as admitting that he didn’t always tell the gospel truth. No, he actually said that his scripted remarks were gospel truth; “absolute” gospel truth no less. There’s just a little bit of arrogance in that, considering Abbott’s strong Catholicism. Are we really to believe the Coalition’s scripted messages carry the same weight as the inspired word of God? I don’t believe in God and you mightn’t either, but Abbott certainly does. It’s the only thing we know he believes in with any conviction.

All of that helps to frame Abbott’s later antics.

What, for example, are we to make of the Coalition’s election costings? Where was gospel truth when it emerged that the Coalition was claiming $11 billion in “savings” that didn’t really exist, after running an election campaign largely centred around fiscal and budgetary responsibility? Their refusal during the campaign to have their figures scrutinised by Treasury (as per their own Charter of Budget Honesty), and even afterwards until they finally gave in to the independents, was not a good look. It looked like a deliberately engineered political fraud of unprecedented magnitude; one that would have remained concealed except for the unique series of events precipitated by the hung parliament. How do you begin to explain that away? High profile journalists, including George Megalogenis and Laura Tingle (whose papers – The Australian and the Australian Financial Review – are hardly friends of the Labor Party), quickly and bluntly stated that Abbott and the Coalition were simply not fit to govern.

Finally, what are we to make of Abbott’s refusal to honour an agreement on pairing arrangements with the speaker that would effectively give the speaker a vote (included as a part of a package of parliamentary reforms proposed by the independents)? Abbott claimed, after the fact:

The Coalition cannot accept the proposed arrangement for the pairing of the Speaker, because after careful consideration of the matter, we believe that it is constitutionally unsound.

The pairing arrangement was intended to ensure government stability (i.e. one more vote for the government), which is precisely what Abbott is now fighting against. His point is arguable, but the problem is that the Coalition did accept the proposed arrangement at the time. If it’s unconstitutional now (and this is disputed), it surely must have been unconstitutional when Abbott agreed to it in the first place. If Abbott is exercising careful consideration now, why didn’t he do so before he signed off on it?

The Coalition’s excuse for this is that the agreement was negotiated “under duress”. The absurdity of the Coalition being under duress is delicious. Not getting your way (e.g. forming government) is not called “duress”, except by the most petulant of protagonists. Was Abbott tied up and prodded with a hot poker until he signed a confession? Not exactly. The only “duress” he suffered was the stark, horrific thought of not seizing the highest office in the land. However, follow this logic to its conclusion. If Abbott doesn’t need to honour this part of the agreement, then he doesn’t need to honour any part of the agreement, or indeed any agreement at all that helps him attain power. To claim duress, you would have to suppose that it was Abbott’s natural, inalienable right to be Prime Minister, as opposed to a privilege granted by the people, or at least their elected representatives.

What makes it particularly cynical is that either side would have relied on this agreement to help ensure a stable, working government. Abbott would have needed it just as much as Gillard does now. After Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie sided with Labor, Abbott needed all three remaining independents. Having a Coalition speaker would have reduced the Coalition’s margin in the House of Reps to just one vote – 75 to 74. Included in that fragile 75 would have been both Bob Katter and Tony Crook, neither of whom would want to be taken for granted, as well as  Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor who both favour some of Labor’s policies (hence why they eventually did choose Labor). I can’t see the Coalition bemoaning the unconstitutionality of the agreement under those circumstances.

What do we make of Abbott after all this? What does he have to offer, as the alternative Prime Minister? His deceptions are manifold to the point that his word is essentially worthless. He actively seeks to hide everything he truly believes in, and what remains of him in public view is pure noise. He would probably tell us that he breeds unicorns if he thought he could squeeze a single extra vote out of it.

The danger with this strategy is that, sooner or later, the people whose support he needs will see him for what he is. It’s possible that they already have. Rob Oakshott:

there’s quite obviously not the goodwill on that particular item in the reform document that I thought there was

Tony Windsor:

I think Tony Abbott has just reinforced our decision that he couldn’t be trusted.

We bought you fair and square

Hot custard pie is still dribbling off the faces of Tony Abbott, Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey. They offered Andrew Wilkie $1 billion (a sum he himself apparently asked for) and they were rejected. Rejected! Oh the injustice. Clearly bribery isn’t having quite the anticipated effect.

Regardless of what you think of Andrew Wilkie’s honey pot style of negotiation, it did at least tell us a bit about the Liberals’ style of negotiation. Quite simply, the Liberals were more desperate; more willing to give in to arbitrary demands. I have no idea how much money was actually appropriate. The Liberals’ offer may well have been better for Wilkie’s local constituents, but it probably wasn’t better for the country.

Hockey and Robb are outraged, but they only have themselves to blame. The $1 billion was their offer, irrespective of who first suggested it. Wilkie himself pointed out the obvious recklessness, especially when combined with the Liberals’ newly-revealed $7-$11 billion worth of “assumptions” that Treasury inexplicably doesn’t quite have a handle on.

If Andrew Robb honestly believes now that $1 billion to fix Hobart Hospital is a “wise investment”, as he told AM, why wasn’t it proposed during the campaign? Why wasn’t it proposed before the Liberals’ suddenly needed the support of one Tasmanian independent? I’m sure that Wilkie could easily have made a convincing argument for fixing the hospital, but if there really is $1 billion to spend, perhaps we should consider all the potential projects it could fund.

The Liberals’ ran their entire campaign (except, of course, for the incoherent ravings about “the boats”) on fiscal/budgetary responsibility. I didn’t buy into it at the time, and now – more than ever – it looks like a complete charade. It looks like they were prepared to promise anything to anyone, merely to get into power.

In the end, Wilkie’s negotiating style may also pay off simply by breaking precedent (or even setting a new one). If negotiation with independents is needed again in future, the major parties may be a little more hesitant about how much money they throw to special interests.

Oops, we forgot to be racist

Give Ken Wyatt a break you idiots.

What does it say about our country that the election of the first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives is instantly condemned by both by his own voters and people of the same ethnic background?

There is little one can say directly to anyone so blatantly racist as to send hate mail. Racism is fundamentally irrational; those who subscribe to it are not motivated by careful reasoning or consideration of the facts. Nevertheless, I think it rather fitting that such people, who clearly pay so little attention to reality, find themselves accidentally voting against their own archaic, tribal view of the world. Not that the Labor Party necessarily represents any such thing (it has its own special brand of archaic tribalism that transcends any festering racial issues), but there were certainly other choices on offer.

I can only imagine, given all the rubbish about boat people, that they must have equated the Labor Party with tolerance of other cultures, and decided they wanted none of that. Only Chris Back could have convinced racists to vote for an Aborigine. I’ll give him that one.

To those asking why Wyatt signed up to a “racist” party, I think this criticism shows a lack of vision. The Liberal Party certainly hasn’t been looked upon as the party of reconciliation (however much it likes to trumpet the merits of the NT intervention). The newly-ex Liberal member for O’Connor, Wilson “Iron Bar” Tuckey, stands as a stark testament to that.

One answer is to elect the Labor Party, which is all fine and good from a voter’s perspective, but it would be a cop out from Wyatt’s point of view. If those entering politics treat the Liberal Party as the “racist party”, then that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Surely, if Wyatt is liberal-leaning, it would be best for him to work within the Liberal Party to help reform its culture than just throw up his arms and accept that one side of politics is inherently racist. We need both major parties to be open to reconciliation, not just one of them. Racism must be starved of oxygen, not allowed free reign in one half of the political sphere.

Of course, there is a risk that Wyatt might be used as a cover for continued intolerant attitudes in the Liberal Party and its base. I don’t expect miracles overnight.

Back’s boats

Senator Back is doing the rounds with a strong anti-boat-arrival theme. I fired back a letter in frustration, which I’ll get to in a moment.

First, I’ll mention something else I discovered. Back sent out two letters, about a month apart, each accompanied with a pamphlet on how Labor is failing to “stop the boats”. The content in general is no great surprise (i.e. thoroughly depressing), except when it comes to comparing the numbers. Here are the graphs shown in the pamphlets:

1st pamphlet (arrived June 2010)

2nd pamphlet (arrived July 2010)

Now, of course, the first uses financial years while the second uses calendar years, but look closely. The numbers do not add up. Specifically:

  • the first graph shows three arrivals in ’03-’04, while the second shows only one in ’03 and none in ’04; and
  • the first shows eight arrivals in ’05-’06, while the second shows only one in ’05 and three in ’06.

The first pamphlet is (roughly) consistent with official figures. (The figures for Labor are roughly consistent with the pamphlets having been printed a few months apart; they look different, but I can’t spot any definite inconsistencies).

Here’s my more general response to Senator Back:

Dear Senator Back,

I read with great annoyance your second letter and pamphlet regarding boat arrivals and the mining tax.

Labor has capitulated on asylum seekers (and climate change). Your party might claim some credit for this, but now that the moral highground is there for the taking, why do you persist in this spurious and degrading line of argument?

I am not worried in the least about the number of boat arrivals, and your graphs and numbers mean nothing to me. Frankly, I find the whole issue bizarre and offensive. How does the Liberal Party propose to assist those people fleeing persecution who are clearly unable to come via the official channels? If you do “stop the boats”, surely you will only increase the suffering felt by such people, who are apparently not wanted anywhere. You don’t seem to offer an alternative, other than suggesting that Australia wash its hands of the problem.

I would vote for the absence of policy sooner than I would vote for yours.

It’s almost as though the two major parties are actively vying to be the more perverse and incompetent. Labor has done everything it can to break our trust, and yet the Liberal Party runs scared of offering anything better. I find it incredible that you’re not able to put together a policy framework to put Labor to shame, because Labor has handed you this opportunity on a silver platter.

On the mining tax, very few disinterested experts seem to agree with your point of view. As you know, the mining tax was proposed by Ken Henry in a comprehensive review of the tax system; the Labor Party merely adopted it. Moreover, I’m unsure of the relevance of the figure you quote – the proportion of revenue coming from Western Australia. I’m an Australian before I’m a West Australian, as I hope you are. WA is not a nation in its own right. Australia and all its people own the resources on which the mining tax is to be levied; that much of that mineral wealth happens to be found in WA is neither here nor there.

There are many genuine reasons for changing the government. It’s time that the Liberal Party stood up and took notice of them, because as it stands now you do not offer an alternative.

“The worm doesn’t like me”

Pity poor Mr Abbott – it’s so unfair. Apparently he’s expecting the “worm” to turn on him again in the coming debate:

Certainly I know the worm dislikes Liberals, the worm’s always hated Liberals, and I suspect that the worm’s not going to change its character.

So I’m expecting to see a pretty unenthusiastic worm tomorrow night, but I know that I have good arguments on my side.

The worm, as you might know, is merely the aggregated reactions of a set of randomly-chosen people. Thus, though a little crude, it’s not really unfair to substitute the word “people” for “worm”. That’s essentially the point of the worm, after all. So let’s give it a try:

Certainly I know people dislike Liberals, the people have always hated Liberals, and I suspect that the people are not going to change their character.

So I’m expecting to see a pretty unenthusiastic people tomorrow night, but I know that I have good arguments on my side.

Just as well he has those arguments, because apparently we all hate him.

Abbott is, of course, merely trying to inoculate himself against the effects of his own oratory skills, or lack thereof, which I think is somewhat in vain. Personally, I’m not expecting much insight from the worm, or indeed the entire debate. Indeed, political debating is really nothing more than a democratic sheen on crass and adversarial political propaganda. At the end, proponents for both sides claim victory on behalf of the candidates and everybody watching is just a little bit dumber.

Was it right? (part 2)

This is a counterargument to a previous post, in which I argued the case for switching from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Prime Minister Julia Gillard (or rather, why certain objections were unfounded).

Gillard’s rise to power may have restored Labor’s popularity for the time being (and certainly at a very opportune moment), but the party has done very little to actually deserve this electoral reward. I also spoke about Gillard and climate change in my last post, but here I’m going to bring Rudd back into the picture.

Gillard’s position on climate change is essentially the one that Rudd had announced in April – that nothing would happen prior to 2013. This new policy decision is largely thought to have instigated Rudd’s (and Labor’s) precipitous fall in popularity in the first place. To rule out both an ETS and a carbon tax for another three years is an act of utter recklessness, as Rudd himself had passionately argued, and is inexplicable both pragmatically and idealistically. Further, it’s an insult to our intelligence for Labor to change the unpopular leader but not the unpopular policy.

But it’s more than that. The ETS delay was not truly Rudd’s policy in the first place. It was the NSW Right faction that pushed Rudd to delay emissions trading, one of the groups that lent its support to Gillard’s subsequent coup. Rudd was hamstrung by his own party and then scapegoated for the consequences of that very mistake. An anonymous Labor factional leader gave this assessment:

This crypto-fascist made no effort to build a base in the party. Now that his only faction, Newspoll, has deserted him he is gone.

This gives some strong hints as to the extent of Rudd’s unpopularity within his own party, but it’s hard to argue that this in itself justifies the demise of a sitting Prime Minister. Labor’s internal party politics are certainly no substitute for the will of the people, and Rudd’s poor showing in opinion polls is hardly unusual for a first-term PM, nor was it even necessarily of his own making. In his press conference on June 23 (on the eve of his dispatch) he gave a glimpse of his views, and foreshadowed Gillard’s policy positions:

If I am returned as the leader of the party and the government and as Prime Minister, then I will be very clear about one thing. This party and government will not be lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers, as some have counselled us to do. Also, on the question of climate change, we’ll be moving to a timetable on emissions trading, which is of the government’s decision, contrary to the views of some, in terms of when that best occurs.

Contrast the last sentence against Gillard’s “citizens’ assembly” idea. Rudd seems to be preemptively attacking Gillard’s appeal to populism, and so this meme must have been floating around in the party for a while. (I don’t even see what political advantage a “citizens’ assembly” could really convey. It won’t legitimise anything. It may involve “ordinary Australians”, but most ordinary Australians will be quite distant from it. The Opposition, not being constrained by reason or evidence, can paint it and its outcomes however they like.)

Gillard’s other major policy initiative that clearly distinguishes her from Rudd – offshore refugee processing (also alluded to in the above quote) – was very poorly handled. It was clearly designed to neutralise the Liberals’ xenophobic ramblings over boat people, but it sounds awfully like giving in to them. The other problem is that the policy relies entirely on international co-operation that had scarcely even been sought. It’s not clear that this co-operation will ever be forthcoming (except from Nauru, which would probably be too humiliating to consider, since it would nail John Howard’s colours to Labor’s mast), leaving this policy in limbo and playing right into the “failed-policy” mantra of the Liberals. Rudd, the diplomat, clearly wouldn’t have made such a fool of himself.

From one point of view, Gillard is an important symbol. Hopefully she can inspire future generations of women to fight their way to the top. Her rise to power may also have helped legitimise non-belief. (By contrast, it seems almost inconceivable that a US politician could openly admit to being a non-believer. Look what happens when one shows signs of doubting the complete literal truth of the Bible.) Neither Rudd nor Abbott, through no fault of their own, can be such a symbol.

Like most senior politicians, I’m sure Gillard does ultimately have what it takes to run the country. Even Abbott does, I’ll concede – it’s not as though we’re dealing with an Aussie version of Sarah Palin, after all. However, unlike Rudd, neither seem to have much vision – much sense of how the country could be made better. Gillard and Abbott play politics like chess, where the only objective is victory over the other; victory for its own sake.

Neither do they seem to have quite the expertise that Rudd possesses. Australia needs a delicate approach to foreign affairs; balancing our interests – and humanitarian interests – with the pragmatic realities of international relations. We probably owe much of our prosperity and security to good relations and carefully-negotiated agreements with other countries. I still trust Labor to handle this better than the Liberal party (mostly because a large part of the Coalition’s support these days comes from that section of the community that doesn’t understand why other countries even need to exist). However, Rudd was surely the better choice.

Whoever does win the election will have to work hard to prove retrospectively that they deserved it.

I vote for a hung parliament

How did it come to this? The Greens, supposedly a party of the “far left” (whatever that means), are now the flag bearers for a market-based policy – carbon emissions trading.

Rudd along with three successive opponents – Howard, Nelson and Turnbull — all pledged to introduce or support an ETS. Now the Labor Party has well and truly capitulated. What crumbs Gillard has to offer in lieu of a price on carbon look as bizarre and pitiful as those sprinkled before us by Abbott. Crikey has a good summary of the situation.

The most positive thing you can say about Gillard’s position is that it’s sufficiently ambiguous to allow some sort of action in the future. That’s what we’re left with, just six months after both major parties successfully concluded negotiations to pass ETS legislation. I can only gape in astonishment at the magnitude of the bipartisan failure of leadership having occurred in the intervening time. Gillard has just propelled this failure to new hitherto unknown depths of farce by abdicating responsibility to, quite literally, a random assortment of laypeople.

On the merits of its policies (climate change, asylum seekers and Internet filtering), the Labor Party frankly deserves to lose this election, and lose it badly. So, of course, do the Liberals, for many of the same reasons. I’m still of the mind that the Liberals deserve to lose slightly more, mainly because I’d prefer Labor’s incompetence over the Liberals’ incompetence and poorly-disguised ideological mindset, but it’s a close call.

The most positive election result I can imagine now is a hung parliament, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the House of Representatives (presumably as well as in the Senate). I don’t care to guess how likely this is, considering the Greens have never won a single seat in the House of Reps before. However, I expect they’ll be the beneficiaries of an electoral backlash. They deserve to do very well indeed, in my opinion, simply by holding to a broad policy that used to enjoy bipartisan support — the only climate change policy that even really deserves to be labeled as such. The prospect of a forced coalition with the Greens would surely help drag at least one of the major parties back to the negotiation table.

Gods, where’s Malcolm Turnbull when you need him? This is turning out to be a stinker of an election.

Was it right?

Tony Abbott wasted no time in conjuring up the “midnight execution” imagery to describe Julia Gillard’s usurpation of power, and a little later trying to explain why this wasn’t precisely the same thing that he himself had done to Malcolm Turnbull six months earlier. (He probably had to go all out, because Gillard out-polls him by quite a distance.)

Abbott can argue that his coup was motivated by policy, unlike Gillard’s, but the policy in question – Abbott’s apparent political raison d’être – hardly serves to exonerate him. That policy was climate change denialism (contrasted against Turnbull’s compromise deal with Labor on emissions trading), which is the product of blatant, willful ignorance and hollow ideology, and is precisely the reason Abbott isn’t fit to govern. I rather like the idea of our government heeding the advice of experts (in any field); indeed, this would be the principal factor upon which my vote would rest, if only I could see into the heads of politicians. Gillard’s coup was at worst motivated by cynical populism, which is still frankly the far lesser of two evils.

Abbott’s gloating over having been the instigator of Rudd’s downfall is juxtaposed against his apparent outrage over how it happened. But if it was going to happen at all, how could it have happened any better way? Leadership tensions often play out over months and even years, as Peter Costello will attest. Such continuing leadership instability in the Labor Party would have been good for Abbott, but not particularly good for the country. Though the position of Opposition Leader doesn’t naturally lend itself to nuanced pontification, it still seems a little silly for Abbott to spend his entire waking life denouncing the Prime Minister only to then bemoan his rapid removal from office. Was a slow political death the only acceptable option, in his professional opinion?

(This seems to be standard practice in politics, though. A deposed leader is no threat, so the other side can suddenly afford to heap on retrospective praise to make it seem as if the change is a step backwards.)

Of course, there is the democratic argument. One side argues that we didn’t elect Gillard (at least, not as PM), so what right has she to assume the Prime Ministership? The other side points out that we don’t actually elect the Prime Minister but the government as a whole; there is certainly no suggestion that anything unconstitutional has occurred. The first side might retort that, although this is the case in theory, it was the “Rudd” label that won the election for Labor in 2007.

Even the last point is a bit academic though. What happened in 2007 was nearly three years ago, and the polls strongly indicate that people have changed their minds in the mean time. Democracy doesn’t just happen every three years – it should be a continuous process. While statistically-sampled polls don’t have the same aura of legitimacy as an election, they are based on legitimate scientific methods and do, after a fashion, reflect the will of the people.

Surely democracy is best served by putting forth the best possible candidates for election, as indicated by the electorate itself. There may have been some sort of academic expectation that Rudd would serve out his full term, but nowhere is it written that this is necessary in a healthy democracy. Replacing a leader with a more popular one is how representative democracy works. (That’s not to say that replacing the leader ought to be done lightly, because government stability is also an important consideration.)

Some might argue that they wouldn’t have voted for Labor if they knew that Gillard would take over, but I wonder. If it was known that Gillard would take over, she would have been more a part of Labor’s 2007 election campaign, and she would have been much more in the public eye. She would have had more of an opportunity to cultivate her image – which is what this is really about after all, Abbott himself having argued that Labor’s policy approach remains the same. This is little different in principle to any other change in government direction . You can’t expect the government to map out precisely what it will do at election time, because events are guaranteed to overtake it (as in the case of the global financial crisis).

In previous elections, the Labor Party itself made much of the idea that John Howard wouldn’t serve out his full term, but would hand over the reins to Peter Costello. I’ve always found this to be a bizarre and unconvincing argument. As politicians are fond of saying, we ought to focus on the policies and not on the people. Unfortunately, this is surprisingly difficult.

False security, false feminism and false secularism

There seems to be a growing school of thought in Western countries that the burqa (or other forms of Islamic headdress) should be banned, with several European countries (including Belgium, France and Spain) debating or already having passed laws against it. There are murmurings here too, by the Liberals’ Cory Bernardi and the Christian Democrats’ Fred Nile.

The most ludicrous claim is that such religious clothing is a security risk. If that were so, we ought to ban all manner of clothing, including just about anything you might want to wear if the temperature drops below about 20 degrees C (as it has been known to do, on occasion), or even if it doesn’t. Bernardi and others claim that the veil obscures the wearer’s identity. This may be so, but implication is that none of us are entitled to anonymity – we must be readily identifiable in any public place to which we might venture. Why? We are not (yet) a police state, and I rather like the idea of being anonymous when out in public. I suspect most other people would as well, if they thought about it. Identifying specific circumstances in which the veil may cause problems does not justify a blanket ban. The security argument is simply designed to press the buttons of islamophobes looking for the most flimsy of excuses.

A marginally less ridiculous argument concerns women’s rights. It is argued that we ought to ban such clothing because it represents the submission of women to a male-controlled religious establishment. This is a little more plausible, but there are still two enormous holes in the argument:

  1. What about Muslim women who want to wear religious clothing, due to a genuine, freely-held belief that it’s the right thing to do? Any claim to be defending their rights through a ban on such clothing is completely nonsensical. If you’re not actually being oppressed, then the fact that some people see your clothing as a symbol of oppression is utterly irrelevant.
  2. Even in cases where religious clothing does indicate female subjugation and/or religious oppression, it’s only a symptom of the problem. A likely outcome of any ban might be to effectively prevent women in such an unfortunate position from going out in public at all. After all, it’s they who will be targeted under any ban, not their oppressors. They will face a three-way choice – violate the law, violate religious commandments, or stay at home. The law might be written to ban men from forcing women to wear religious clothing, but how do you enforce that? You can’t legislate to force people behave as if they aren’t at the wrong end of a power relationship, or as if their beliefs don’t matter. It’s the women in question who will miss out on attending university, getting a job, etc., and this lack of exposure to society would only entrench the problem. If there really is a problem, what on Earth could possess you to think that punishing the victims will solve it?

I worry that this argument has ensnared a number of feminists, which is disheartening because it’s largely anti-feminist. It appeals to one’s sense that one group ought not to impose standards on another, but the proposed solution is to hypocritically impose just such a standard while ignoring whatever religious/gender power relationship might be at the root of the problem – if indeed there is a problem. The argument probably arises out of the ancient reactionary instinct that “bad things” can simply be banned. It’s not always that simple. Whatever you think of the idea of covering yourself up in public, or even of forcing others to do so, surely it’s better that devout Muslim women feel they can at least be in public places.

The final fall-back argument is high-minded secularism. France, for instance, bans all “conspicuous” religious symbols from state schools. This thinking also annoys me. (The protagonists talk about values, which is never a good sign in political debates.)

I’m a great fan of secularism. I think it is, almost by definition, the only way that different religious groups can coexist peacefully. When I’m wearing my atheist hat, of course, I argue that religion and religious beliefs are unnecessary, that morality derives from human nature (far from being in conflict with it), the universe is inherently naturalistic, etc. I see those arguments as being largely of intellectual value, while the political arena presents an entirely different set of problems.

Secularism is essentially the separation of church and state. It is not anti-religious; it permits any type of belief system that does not infringe the rights of others. The state is supposed to be, as much as possible, agnostic.

So what, then, is the state doing making judgments of what constitutes religious clothing or symbolism? In theory, the state shouldn’t even be aware of the concept of religious clothing or symbolism, because such awareness in itself breaches state-church separation. The state should merely ensure that the rights of its citizens are being upheld.

To impose a ban on religious clothing or symbolism (except perhaps for those people who symbolise the state itself – but that’s a side issue) is not a secular idea, but an anti-religious one. I have no love of religion, but government intervention isn’t how atheism wins. It is far more important that everyone in society be able to get along. Militant secularism is not secularism at all.

The Mad Monk’s modelling mockery

Tony Abbott has tried his hand at modelling the economic costs of carbon emissions reduction. The results are a little disturbing. Unless Abbott was being deliberately, deceptively simplistic in order to appeal to the burn-the-elitists demographic of Australian society, he truly doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about:

He says given a 5 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will cost Australian taxpayers $120 billion, the cost of the emissions trading scheme’s 10-year aim of a 25 per cent reduction will be much greater.

“The Federal Government has never released the modelling,” Mr Abbott said.

“Now if there is modelling that shows the costs of a 15 per cent and a 25 per cent emissions reduction, let’s see the modelling, let’s release the figures.

“I think it’s reasonable to assume in the absence of other plausible evidence that five times that reduction, a 25 per cent reduction in emissions, might cost five times the price – half a trillion dollars, 50 per cent of Australia’s annual GDP.”

I’m no economist, but I suspect the experts might shy away from confidently predicting that 5 times the reduction implies 5 times the cost. We’re talking about billions of dollars flowing through all the intricate structures that make up the economy. There are feedback mechanisms, economies of scale, and the little fact that a “5%” reduction in CO2 is relative to 2000 levels but the projected cost is based on 2020 levels (because that’s when it’s happening). Even a “0%” change from 2000 levels represents a substantial cut in what our 2020 CO2 emissions would have been, but according to Abbott’s model this scenario would cost nothing.

Why even have economists if a constant factor is all it takes to convert a percentage CO2 reduction into a dollar amount? If Tony, our alternative Prime Minister, thinks it’s “reasonable to assume” such things, perhaps we can get him to try out this approach to economic modelling in a controlled environment where he can’t hurt anyone else. Say, in a padded cell with Monopoly money.