Pre-emptive fact busting

I have a theory (or, really, two theories) about what goes through Tony Abbott’s mind in situations like this. The context, so as not to get too far ahead of myself, is that Indonesian doctors appear to be treating burns of asylum seekers who claim mistreatment at the hands of the Australian Navy, as they were turned around mid-voyage.

Scott Morrison quickly pronounced this to be “sledging” with “unsubstantiated claims”. This is the political, amoral intellect of Morrison at work: conflating “unsubstantiated” with “incorrect”. Morrison’s own say-nothing policy must contribute greatly to the difficulty of determining the truth, one way or another, of such a claim. It can hardly have been “sledging” if, hypothetically, it turns out to have been accurate.

However, Tony Abbott has since backed up Morrison by also pointing to the lack of evidence. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

We might ask what sort of evidence Morrison and Abbott would expect. These events took place at sea, where (I presume) the only witnesses were the asylum seekers themselves and navy personnel. Clearly the asylum seekers’ claims don’t count as evidence in the eyes of Morrison and Abbott, and we don’t have access to any information from the navy’s perspective. Morrison and Abbott expect the media to carry the entire burden of proof for something only the government (for now, anyway) has any real information about.

Abbott poses this question:

Who do you believe? Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who were attempting to break Australian law?

Who do I believe? For a start, I’m disinclined to believe a man, Prime Minister or not, who frames the vulnerable and dispossessed as criminals1. What kind of moral compass can such a man possibly have? I’m also disinclined to believe a man who asks us to simply ignore serious allegations in lieu of spending a modicum of time and effort investigating them. We don’t have to just “believe” one side or the other. A little transparency is not too much to ask in a democracy, surely.

Of course, it’s problematic to accuse unspecified defence force personnel of abusing asylum seekers, because these are people to whom we feel collectively indebted for the personal risks they take on our behalf. But they are not superhuman, and it is not actually that hard to believe that abuses might have occurred. These are human beings in relatively isolated, probably very stressful situations, acting in the context of a brutal government policy. And there are unfortunate precedents for abuse within Defence and within our police forces. People in authority are not always flawless.

One pressing political question is this: how would Morrison and Abbott react if the media now does uncover more substantive evidence of abuse?

Whether or not Morrison and Abbott intend it, turning on the outrage early in a debate seems to cement the debate in place. If you tried this, you might worry about looking like a fool, especially if evidence is later uncovered that undermines your position. But in politics, perhaps, the early-outrage strategy actually creates a certain imperviousness to future revelations. If you’re a high-profile person, and you can articulate a hard-line position, you can make a lot of other people very angry in sympathy with you, and angry people have a habit of not quite thinking things through. Angry people treat new information not as information, but as ammunition, either fired at them by the enemy2, or available for them to fire back. In this view of the world, you never make mistakes, never need to issue an apology and never need to readjust your thinking. Even in the face of hard evidence of abuse (again, hypothetically), a political leader with sufficient willpower, and a sufficiently faulty moral compass, can plough straight through, with the ironclad support of people who worship strong leaders and who care more about political victories than about good policy outcomes.

Of course, the other theory is that Morrison and Abbott are just flying by the seat of their pants, just saying whatever seems most expedient right now, with undiluted confidence in their ability to later dig themselves out of a great steaming pile of whatever they may now be getting themselves, their party and their country into. If this theory is correct, then there is at least hope that Morrison and Abbott may be inclined, after a bit of kicking and screaming, to do something about the excesses of the implementation of their policies.

Morrison’s training for the immigration portfolio, I can’t help but noticing, has consisted of years in opposition of saying whatever seemed expedient (in the course of raising awareness of the horrifying menace of dispossessed people coming to our shores and asking for asylum). Abbott similarly veers so far from doing anything constructive (say, in the areas of fiscal management, environmentalism, public transport and education, to name a few), that it’s hard to tell if he’s actively trying to be an arseclown, or if he’s just never worked out how (or even why) not to be one3. At some point, he’s probably been told to just keep doing what he’s doing and call it a strategy.

There will certainly be a lot more arseclowning to be done before this issue is settled.

Addendum (24 Jan 2014)

A couple of extra links:

  1. Wasn’t it all about saving lives at sea, at one point? []
  2. “The enemy”, of course, consists of a core of people who are behaving in exactly the same way as you are, but with the opposite objective, intermixed with a group of people who really wish you would just listen to what they have to say for a moment and stop acting like a twat. []
  3. Abbott’s rise to power demands a considered explanation, but it seems principally the result of an almost unparalleled ability to tear down other people and rally opposition against them. []

Hopes for 2012

Here’s a bit of everything for the new year — some hopes for what we could and should be doing as a nation, in no particular order.

We must address the asylum seeker debate with decency, maturity and humility. We should accept many more refugees, and at the same time encourage other countries to do so too. There’s really very little downside to this, save for the political ramifications of xenophobia. The world collectively might not be interested in finding a safe home for all its refugees, and so if we let refugees come to us, they will certainly continue to do so. We might prefer that their lives were not further jeopardised by the journey, but, having arrived, it’s an utter perversion of human decency for us to turn them away, no matter how much we’d like to discourage further risky voyages. We must not create disincentives that rely on penalising innocent people; we have no right to play chess with human beings.

We must get some perspective on the economy; it is not a blanket reason for putting aside all other problems. Yes, it’s important. No, we are not teetering on the edge of starvation. Panic is precisely the thing that causes economic problems in the first place. Basically, let the disinterested economic experts make rational, progressive decisions based on careful, objective modelling, and ensure there is a safety net for the poor. Everyone else, suck it up.

We must continue to insist that our politicians get off their conservative arses and legalise same-sex marriage. This is truly a no-brainer. The arguments against it are utterly, unequivocally spurious, and will dissipate like so much hot air once the requisite legislation is passed. Nobody opposes same-sex marrige for any substantive reason, but basically just “because”. Once legalised, the whole “debate” will be relegated to the inane murmurings of ineffectual dinosaurs. (Do politicians fear a backlash from voters angry that their marriages are suddenly devoid of meaning following the gender requirements being dropped?)

For the love of humanity can we please redouble efforts to improve the health and living standards of those living in remote Aboriginal communities? Of course it won’t be done in a year. It’s not just about grand rhetorical gestures — though these have their place — and it’s certainly not about sending in the army. We have a lot of smart, dedicated people who have been on the case for some time, and surely by now we’ve learnt a thing or two about what can usefully be done, given sufficient government funding.

The climate change debate is not over, and won’t be for decades. We must not lose sight of the fact that the goal, in the end, is zero (or even negative) carbon emissions. The purpose of a carbon price is not simply to reduce emissions, but ultimately to price them out of existence. To make this work, alternatives must exist. Australia should, by all rights, be a world-leader in solar energy. We could be a world-leader in all kinds of renewable energy. Surely there is much more scope for public and private funding of renewable energy research. We might only contribute 1.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but renewable energy research could help reduce everyone’s emissions, not just our own.

Recycled drinking water — get used to the idea, people. Water efficiency is vastly more important than your squeamishness; there’s really no rational objection. Even now, the water you drink has already passed through the digestive tracts of a trillion different organisms, without any technological assistance. Water recycling is the lowest-hanging fruit for securing our water supplies (especially in places like Perth that are drying out). Why would we ignore it in favour of energy-intensive desalination  or enormous engineering works to transport water from thousands of kilometres away? Yes, we can build wind farms, tidal generators, etc. to power desalination plants, but we could be using that power to replace coal, not just to replace water.

The location of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — the world’s largest telescope, and one of the world’s largest scientific projects — will be decided in 2012: either Australia or South Africa. Let’s step back from the parochial contest. Australia might not get it, but would this be such a terrible outcome, all things considered? Maybe Africa would benefit more from this project than Australia. Besides the raw economics, the presence of such visible, cutting edge science must have some inspirational effect. Scientists can travel, but for young Africans trying to discern their opportunities in life, a local SKA would surely leave an impression.1

Finally, in an Olympic year, let’s not lose sight of our non-sporting heroes. A nation defined by sport is a nation not defined by its doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers and other professionals. Sport is exciting, and important in its own way, but not really on the same scale as curing illness, defending human rights, exploring the universe and creating things that have never existed before.

Now, you lot, get started on that while I take a holiday.

  1. The same would be true of young Australians, but we are relatively spoiled for choice. []

Manoeuvring the boats

In a previous post, I described Labor as the “architects of unconscionable incompetence”, specifically with respect to the Malaysian Solution, at least temporarily defeated by the High Court. This post is motivated by the latest political manoeuvring on the issue.

I was about to declare myself wrong over the “incompetence” tag (but certainly not the “unconscionable” tag). It occurred to me that perhaps Labor was playing a Machiavellian political game to ensure that the “boat people” moral dilemma went away for good. They would put up with whatever short-term political damage they might incur, on the basis that eventually the policy really would actually stop the boats. If anyone arriving by boat really was transported to a place as hostile to refugees as Malaysia, it can’t have been long before Bowen’s logic – “breaking the people smugglers’ business model” – was borne out. The original crimes – abandoning the most vulnerable to stop anyone else even trying to ask for help – would eventually be forgiven by an amnesic electorate too wrapped up in future political issues. If the boats stopped, then it would no longer be necessary to invoke the policy, and so it would become invisible.

But no, not content to abandon human rights, Labor really does seem to have a political death wish. Once the High Court had made its ruling, it could have been foreseen that Abbott would block any attempt to change the law. He ostensibly wants to “stop the boats” too, and in that capacity the Government’s argument makes sense. Except that’s really not what he wants to do at all; at least, not until he becomes Prime Minister himself. As long as refugees continue to make the voyage from Indonesia to Australian waters, a disconcertingly large proportion of voters will continue to be outraged at the Government’s apparent inability to “protect our borders”, and will (by a trivial process of elimination) look to Abbott instead. Thus, for the moment, Abbott has a crucial political interest, perversely, in ensuring the boats do not stop.

Abbott did not have any power to actually act in this interest until the High Court ruling (along with the Greens’ opposition to off-shore processing). Now that his support is needed, he can casually mull over the effectiveness of any Government proposal, and then vote perversely. The likelihood of Abbott supporting any change is inversely proportional to its likely effectiveness (and legal robustness), because that’s what maximises his political advantage. Bowen has attempted to call him out on this, but Abbott plays the rhetorical game much more skillfully. The Government was extraordinarily foolish to even attempt negotiations under these circumstances.

Now, the Government has an untenable policy – both morally bankrupt and politically dead. If Labor had bitten the bullet and gone with the Left faction’s push for on-shore processing of asylum seekers, their policy would instead have been both (relatively) humane and politically viable. The issue would not have magically disappeared, of course – many “patriots” would continue be outraged at the thought of the hordes of persecuted foreigners being given safety and comfort. But what can be done about this? The issue will not disappear now no matter what the Government does.

Meanwhile, Abbott is seizing the moral high ground (rhetorically, at least) on asylum seekers – something many Liberals have long given up on. His excuse for not supporting the Malaysian Solution is that there are insufficient protections for those sent there. This excuse has the advantage of actually being a perfectly valid reason. I continue to say “excuse” though, because I’ve seen too much political expediency from Abbott to have any faith in his adherence to actual principles. The Malaysian Solution would have been a masterstroke of Coalition genius if Abbott had thought of it. But that’s hypothetical, and not many people are likely to care.

Abbott may yet “slip up” in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, but I’m not counting on it. Indeed, I can only applaud his rejection of this particular policy, regardless of his actual reasons. I suspect the only way out for the Government is still to abandon off-shore processing, and live with the consequences. Of course, it may prefer its own approach of bludgeoning itself to death.

Inconvenient sanity

The judicial arm of government has taken the executive’s asylum seeker policy out the back and had it shot, such was the extent of its mutilation and suffering.

The Labor Party is busy saving whatever face it can, but this is really very hard to spin. I fervently hope its strategists are even now exchanging self-conscious glances, recognition dawning of the sheer arrogance and stupidity of what they tried to accomplish.

One of the ABC’s opening articles on the great event generated comments that fell neatly and predictably into two camps. This time neither group wanted to take a stand alongside the architects of unconscionable incompetence. Nevertheless, the two popular messages made an interesting contrast. Half the commenters applauded the High Court’s decision – a very honest and straightforward show of respect for the rights of refugees.

The other half are tied up in a complicated psycho-political game, in which the decision itself is not opposed, but its consequences are nonetheless an object of outrage. “The government can’t do anything right,” they opine, citing the High Court’s decision as evidence. This is fair comment, as far as it goes (though in my view Labor’s actual level of incompetence doesn’t begin to compare to the stratospheric reaches of Abbott’s self-contradictory, populist whinging, and in general this government is not significantly more or less incompetent than any other government). You have to ask, though, what principles this group of commenters has in mind when they voice such opinions. It certainly isn’t a defence of the rights of refugees.

For someone arguing on the basis of actual principles, the High Court’s decision is either justified or not and fortunate or unfortunate (or perhaps some shade of grey in between). I don’t think this group especially cares whether the High Court was justified or not. What they care about is the gotcha moment, when everything falls (neatly or otherwise) into their Outraged Voters(tm) narrative structure beloved of the Opposition.

This is precisely the kind of thing that political parties in opposition do, as part of the “small target” strategy. They snipe at the government (which they preciously call “holding the government to account”) without ever nailing down any of their own principles, or indeed being remotely constructive. It’s more depressing to see this behaviour reproduced in (relatively) ordinary people, many of whom are presumably not party members1. It’s something deeper than the mere chanting of slogans. Ordinary people themselves script narratives and find political gotchas, almost synchonised, along the same lines as high-profile ideologues. Their rhetorical scheming seems intended to change minds, but is fairly ineffectual because they’re the bottom level of a giant rhetorical mind-control pyramid scheme.

For the Opposition and its hangers-on, all our hopes and dreams seem to rest on a tiny, dysfunctional island. It’s always on the tips of their tongues, and slips out at the merest hint of trouble with “boat people”.

To its comparative credit, which is not saying much, the Opposition’s Nauru option is only the second worst asylum seeker processing “solution” to have ever been proposed. It does at least provide a pathway to asylum, and in doing so it does still protect at least some rights. However, in the end, it’s precisely this protection of rights that will completely erode any deterrent effect – which of course is the whole reason for the policy in the first place. Any deterrent effect – i.e. a reduction in the “pull” factor – can only result from the perception that refugees will not ultimately be granted asylum. In our care, they must eventually be granted asylum, and perception must eventually catch up to this reality. We cannot, legally or morally, simply leave asylum seekers to their own devices in the middle of nowhere, as the High Court seems to have reaffirmed. Once prospective asylum seekers are tuned in to this fact, any off-shore processing “solution” simply becomes a circuitous bureaucratic construct, whose dubious rationale vanishes altogether.

The Coalition may point proudly to the immediate impact of its Pacific Solution as evidence that putting asylum seekers in the middle of nowhere “works”, but the limited data available is badly over-interpreted. The policy coincided with a dramatic decline in global asylum seeker numbers – the “push” factors – which masked its true impact. What impact it did have could not possibly have been permanent.

Nevertheless, I’m sure there are boundless prospects for further inventive stupidity on this.

  1. Some of them might be, but party membership in Australia isn’t terribly high overall. []

The economics of insanity

I learnt a new phrase today – “lexicographic preference” – courtesy of economics professor J. Bradford DeLong. Before I tell you what it means, let me show you what kind of thinking it produces (not on DeLong’s part, but on those he ridicules).

Here are two quotes (don’t look at the links just yet). First:

I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective.

Second:

We believe that the decisions of how to deal with the massive asteroid are best left to the individual.

You’d be right to smell satire. However, only one of the above quotes is satirical. The other is quite serious. (This is a manifestation of Poe’s Law.)

The second quote comes from The Onion; the first comes from Sasha Volokh, who apparently didn’t get the joke. I shall defer to some other great commentary on this by J. Bradford DeLong:

So not only does Sasha Volokh claim that it is immoral to tax people to blow up an asteroid (or install lightning rods, or mandate lightning rods, or pay for a tree-trimming crew on the public roads), but it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid so they can scramble to safety because it will cause violations of rights through looting.

And then John Quiggin:

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

DeLong attributes Volokh’s thinking to “lexicographic preference”, which is economics jargon. Imagine you are selecting between alternatives, and you have several criteria to base your decision on. If I understand correctly, choosing lexicographically means applying each criterion in turn (as if you were comparing the letters in two words to place them in dictionary order; hence the name). You stop at the first criterion that distinguishes the alternatives.

For such absolutist libertarians as Sasha Volokh, the first criterion is upholding individual rights. If the available courses of action both uphold rights, or both fail to uphold rights, then we can move onto the second criterion (e.g. preservation of human civilisation). However, (a) libertarians in general tend to argue that taxation is theft, and (b) Volokh in particular argues that we do not, strictly speaking, have the right to survive a natural disaster. Thus, the first criterion does distinguish between the alternatives, and so we never need consider any other factors. Thus, government is morally obliged to do nothing to save humanity.

DeLong also highlights another phenomenon – the tendency in the face of extremism to declare a legitimate debate (specifically, in this case, by one Ilya Somin):

Somin’s insanity is… a second-order insanity — the insanity of taking first-order insane claims to be questions about which reasonable people can disagree.

In other words, Volokh’s position is demonstrably insane, and those who think that it can form part of a legitimate debate, as opposed to an object of ridicule, are themselves at least mildly insane.

Now, having understood the preceding arguments, most thinking people probably have pet topics to which they envisage an application.

In my case, lexicographic preference reminds me a lot of the political quagmire associated with unathorised boat arrivals. Politicians and commentators (especially of the Liberal persuasion), cast this as a crisis in which the only acceptable outcome is the total absence of any further “boat people”. There is no consideration for either (a) the humanitarian situation, (b) the diplomatic situation, or (c) the costs involved (or indeed anything else). In evaluating a given policy, the last three factors are irrelevant as long as there is some effect – no matter how small – on the number of boats. A policy that results in x boat arrivals is incontestably superior to one that results in x + 1 arrivals, no matter the cost, diplomatic or humanitarian implications.

Unfortunately, this is such a widely-held variety of insanity that any second-order insanity (i.e. that there is a legitimate argument that we should favour fewer boat arrivals no matter the consequences) is redundant.

A better demonstration of second-order insanity lies in the never-ending racism/multiculturalism debate. Here, Kevin Andrews was one the latest purveyors of this particular type of nonsense (after the British PM David Cameron had taken the lead of Angela Merkel in announcing the supposed failure of multiculturalism):

Mr Andrews described the British prime minister’s comments as “fairly sensible” and relevant to Australia.

“I think there is a risk [of ethnic enclaves] in Australia,” Mr Andrews said.

“What actually concerns me the most is that we can’t have a discussion about it,” he said, as he pushed for a public debate on the issue.

Of course, we can have a discussion about the merits of multiculturalism, in much the same way that we can have a discussion about the merits of using tax dollars to stop asteroids from annihilating civilisation. It really just depends on your preferred level of insanity.

Nothing so humble

The ABC reports that Scott Morrison “climbs down in funeral row”:

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has admitted he was “insensitive” to question the cost of funerals as families mourned for those lost in the Christmas Island shipwreck tragedy yesterday.

News Ltd reported that  Morrison was sorry for his “insensitive and inappropriate” comments:

A CHASTENED Scott Morrison today apologised for “insensitive and inappropriate” comments on the funerals of asylum seekers killed in December’s boat tragedy.

This is actually quite a distorted interpretation of Morrison’s remarks. If you read what he actually said, as reported in both articles, it’s hard to come to the conclusion that he’s “climbing down” in any meaningful sense. According to the News Ltd article:

He told 2GB “the timing of my comments over the last 24 hours was insensitive and was inappropriate”.

“I know probably more than anyone how strongly people feel about this issue, how angry they get about the costs that are involved and I share that anger and I want to see that changed,” he said.

“But there is a time and a place.”

Morrison is not sorry for what he said at all, but merely when he said it. That’s not an apology, but simply political manoeuvring. It appears he’s trying to conflate the funeral costs with overall asylum seeker processing costs.

If Morrison were genuinely sorry, he’d do the following in a long statement to the mass media:

  • explicitly disown his remarks;
  • show some leadership and not kowtow to or stoke populist fears;
  • make an argument in favour of the funeral arrangements and the consequent government expenditure;
  • make an effort to separate the issue of funeral costs from the broader “unauthorised boat arrivals”  issue; and
  • not immediately go back on the offensive (which would simply dilute the apology).

In reality, Morrison is just trying to have us ignore what he said. The problem is that there are a large number of people who probably agreed with him the first time, and who themselves will just see this “apology” for the meaningless non-concession that it is. Each time a high-ranking politician utters remarks like Morrison’s, it further emboldens the nutters who want to see, for instance, an end to “Muslim immigration”.

If Morrison were genuinely sorry, he wouldn’t try to gain political ground from both the moderates who might think he apologised and the nutters who know that he didn’t. If Morrison were genuinely sorry, he would be trying to undo the damage he caused by passionately refuting his own remarks. He isn’t sorry – he’s gaming the electorate.

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.

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.

Wilson Tuckey, supergenius

Kevin Rudd must secretly love Wilson Tuckey, in the way that one might value a psychopath who happens to inhabit the enemy bunker and can’t actually fire a weapon. In other words, Tuckey plays right into Rudd’s political message.

Perhaps feeling a little defensive over all the condemnation of his boat terrorist hypothesis, Tuckey latched onto a breadcrumb left by one Dr Victor Rajakulendran:

That is a probability, that is what I have been told, so out of 200 Tamil asylum seekers, there could be a Tiger. They are also fleeing the country like any other Tamils because their life is also in danger and I would say their life is in more danger than a common Tamil civilian. The common Tamil civilians are leaving the country because of fear of their lives – these people also will definitely flee the country so they could be in the boat.

There you go. Terrorists on boats – case closed. I won’t make too much of Tuckey himself supposedly using this as evidence to support his position. It doesn’t, of course, for reasons that I think are obvious given the above quote. Tuckey previously referred specifically to people coming to Australia with hostile intent, and I doubt that blowing things up in Australia is a terribly appealing strategy for someone fighting for a homeland in the north of Sri Lanka.

In this instance, all he had to say was: “Well, I think it authenticates it. It is quite interesting of course.” As silly as this is, it sounds like a throw-away response to a journalist’s question, which raises two points:

  1. It’s not clear what the question actually was (cue Douglas Adams); and
  2. Tuckey may not have heard the actual quote before he responded, but merely an interpretation of it.

If I had more time to dig up useless factoids, I might be able to figure that out. However, I don’t, and so I’m going with my own theory that someone was simply pushing Tuckey’s buttons, which I imagine isn’t a terribly hard thing to do.

Not to leave us too disappointed, however, Tuckey offers us this additional morsel of insight:

What is [the asylum seekers’] health status and what threat, unfortunately, might they represent to children and others within Australia.

To children, Wilson? Terrorism isn’t enough for you, eh? Now you’re sagely warning us that they might be terrorist paedophiles?

It’s teh boat terrorists!

The existence of Wilson Tuckey is truly an unnecessary contribution to the heat death of the universe. Quite predictably, he suggests that terrorists are lurking among asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Sayeth the Great Purveyor of Entropy, himself a convicted criminal:

If you wanted to get into Australia and you have bad intentions what do you do?

Board a plane, perhaps? No no, our illustrious former minister of the Howard Government has a much more efficient and sophisticated proposition:

You insert yourself in a crowd of 100 for which there is great sympathy for the other 99 and you go on a system where nobody brings their papers, you have no identity you have no address.

That’s right! No papers! I mean, how will we know who the terrorists are without the enormous, bright red “TERRORIST” stamp that magically appears in the passport of anyone intending to commit such an act in the future? And these evildoers could gain entry in a matter of months, while being subjected to nothing more than a thorough background check by the immigration authorities, a few headlines in major newspapers and a stint in the Christmas Island detention centre. Not like those terrible long-haul plane trips, where the meals are awful, the seating is cramped and the security is so tight that they x-ray your baggage.

This from a man who still inhabits the corridors of power.