WA election rerun

It’s not decided yet, but the odds look good for a new WA senate election, to clear things up after the AEC’s recount discovered 1375 missing votes. (I gather from Antony Green that the AEC actually knows what these votes were, or at least how they were originally counted, but they can’t be used in the recount unless they are actually recounted.)

There’s a delightful arcane complexity to the logic behind the counts themselves. It’s a question of the Shooters and Fishers vs the Australian Christians. Neither of them have a hope of being elected on their numbers, but (essentially by pure luck) that two-way contest happens to decide between four other parties. The original count had the Shooters winning against the Christians by 14 votes, setting up Labor and Palmer United for a win against the Greens and the Sports Party. The recount (with 1375 votes missing) turned this around into a 12 vote relative victory for the Christians, leading to a actual Greens/Sports victory.

It all seems a bit like a series of football matches in which, due to complex points calculations, the fate of your team actually depends on a game they’re not even playing. However, in general, organisers of sporting competitions don’t suddenly decide to reverse the result of a match played eight weeks ago between two of the bottom teams, leading to the current set of finals contenders suddenly being rounded up mid-game and replaced by a bunch written off three weeks ago.

Possibly the most counter-intuitive thing is this: if just a few Labor supporters magically had foreknowledge of this complex turn of events, they might have realised that a vote for the Shooters would do more to help Labor than a vote for Labor itself. The same would be true of Palmer United and the Greens, though Greens supporters would have had to vote for the Christians, of all people.

A new election will wipe the slate clean, in a way, but Labor and the Coalition have begun to play an interesting game there. According to the Coalition’s Warren Truss — our new Deputy Prime Minister:

I think if there is a new election … it needs to happen as quickly as possible so there is as little distance between the atmosphere and the issues that decided the election in September and what will be on the table at the time that a new WA poll is held …

Meanwhile, Labor’s Tanya Plibersek (Acting Opposition Leader) says this:

It is important that the investigation [into the missing 1375 votes] is given an opportunity to run its course.

Once that investigation’s given an opportunity to run its course, we’ll have to make a decision about the way we can best be confident that the voice of every Western Australian has been heard.

Spot the difference. The Coalition wants to get it done ASAP, but Labor wants to make sure all the details are known, which of course may delay things a bit. According to Antony Green, the election rerun must occur “by the latest in early May”. The Coalition would probably be concerned — and Labor might be somewhat enthusiastic — about a shift in public opinion between now and then.

In the disputed recount, the Liberals won 3 seats, while Labor, the Greens and the Sports parties won one each. One seat out of six is a pretty poor showing for Labor, and it looks like it was only 0.14 quotas away from a second in its own right. In an election rerun, depending on the evolution of public opinion, Labor and the Greens could do quite a lot better.

If Labor/Greens come away with three seats together, they would have 36 senate seats in total. This could come at the expense of either the Sports Party or the Liberals. Either way, the bargaining power of the other Senate cross-benchers would be significantly increased, and Abbott’s options for getting things through the Senate would be diminished.

If things go particularly disastrously for the Coalition, and Labor/Greens come away with four seats in WA, and so 37 senators overall, they could combine with Nick Xenophon to block legislation such as the carbon tax repeal. (Senate votes require a majority of more than half. There are 76 senators, so the government needs 39 of them to pass legislation, and the opposition needs 38 to block it.)

The Coalition presumably knows this, and will probably spend the election campaign1 whinging about Labor’s carbon tax and the threat to civilisation and indeed to the very fabric of reality that it poses. But Labor can itself spend the campaign pointing out that Abbott isn’t big on public transport funding, GST revenue, or whatever other issues float into view at the time. And everyone else can talk about the election in a changed context — we’re not deciding which party actually governs, but rather how best to hold the government to account, which of course presupposes a particular answer.

And so the game is this: the longer that it takes to hold a new WA senate election, the more likely it is that Abbott’s “honeymoon” period will wind down in the mean time, and voters will start to assign responsibility to him and the Coalition for any failings of government. This is presumably what Truss is hinting at when he talks about the “atmosphere and the issues”. He wants to avoid an election rerun being used by voters to pass judgment on the Coalition, because, conceptually, this would still be part of the election that brought them to power in the first place.

I wonder if the WA public will see it like that. In any case, WA politics may soon — if just briefly — become very important to the rest of Australia.

  1. There has to be a campaign even for an election rerun. []

Climate Policy and Democracy in 2013-14

Tim Dunlop argues that Labor, having lost the election, should yield to Tony Abbott’s right “to govern as he sees fit”, and help him repeal the carbon tax. According to Dunlop, the “norms of democratic governance” are at stake. I find his reasoning a bit simplistic, but I’ll get back to this.

A range of new Senators will take their seats in July 2014. Beyond that point, Abbott will need to negotiate for the support of the Palmer United Party plus any three out of Democratic Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Family First, Nick Xenophon and the Motoring Enthusiasts. (The Coalition will have 33 Senators of its own, and needs 39 out of 76.)

It’s still possible (given Scott Ludlam’s appeal) that a Senate recount in WA may eventually go ahead, despite the AEC’s initial rejection, and deliver an alternate outcome: Palmer United losing one senate seat to the Sports Party1. Then Abbott’s options are slightly more complicated: he would need any six out of the DLP, LDP, FF, Xenophon, Motoring, Sports, and two PUP senators.

On the carbon tax, the various positions are as follows:

The odds seem to be in favour of Abbott getting the numbers, but there are scenarios in which he doesn’t. Any two of Muir, Dropulich and Lambie2 could combine with Xenophon, the Greens and Labor to block Abbott’s plans, and the likelihood of that depends on a lot of things we just don’t know at the moment.

You might think that single-issue parties like the Motoring Enthusiasts and the Sports Party are unlikely to put up a fight when it comes to non-core issues (things other than Motoring and Sports), particularly when the issue in question is the Prime Minister’s single most emphatic election promise. But then Xenophon himself previously ran on a “No Pokies” ticket, and isn’t shying away from the climate change policy debate. And Family First can’t reasonably claim that their policy is motivated by anything to do with families. The outcome probably depends more on the character of the new senators themselves than their respective party platforms.

But the outcome also depends on Abbott’s ability to negotiate with all these people simultaneously, including Clive Palmer. Even with enough Senators who want to repeal the carbon tax, how many of them will want to secure special deals beforehand? How much will they try to milk Abbott, before letting him have his victory? Clive Palmer in particular could…well, do anything. The carbon tax might remain in place by virtue of endless bickering over the precise terms of its repeal. Maybe. Who knows?

Well, the Labor Party itself could put an end to this speculation, if it wanted. And it could happen now, rather than in mid-2014. Where the ALP votes with the Coalition, all other parties and independents are irrelevant. This is what Tim Dunlop wants.

I’m sure some will disagree and say that the environment trumps everything, that addressing climate change is the most compelling issue we face, and that you can’t practice politics on a dead planet. Fair enough.

But I would say in response that politics is the only way we have of implementing planet-saving policies in the first-place. Every move we make that undermines the legitimacy of the process itself damages the main tool we have to bring about the change we want.

Dunlop’s argument would have some legitimacy if the fate of democracy really was in the balance, but he hasn’t made that case.

After all, why is it that the Labor Party has the power to keep the carbon tax in place in the first place (at least temporarily)? This power, even in opposition, is a product of Australia’s representative democracy, not an anathema to it. Our democratic system was designed this way for a reason. What is the point of the upper house if not to be a check on the lower house? The Senate is elected too, remember, and Abbott has not won the Senate. Not yet, anyway.

Dunlop appears to fear the idea of political deadlock, as exemplified in the US:

There, a rump of the Republican Party, in the form of its so-called Tea Party members, is currently destroying not just Congress itself but the nation’s faith in its ability to effectively govern itself.

The ramifications of that are huge, and we shouldn’t let it happen here.

But it can’t happen here. Australia has constitutional mechanisms to resolve such deadlocks if and when they occur. If the Senate repeatedly rejects government legislation, the government can call a double dissolution election. Abbott has been talking up this possibility for a long time. Also, should it ever be needed again, the Governor General has the power to sack the government, triggering an election. One way or another, these mechanisms will shift the balance of power by re-consulting the voters.

The US has an additional challenge in the form of low voter turnout, if voters become disillusioned. Compulsory voting in Australia largely solves this.

Dunlop also makes this point:

The system asks that both winners and losers of the democratic competition accept some level of humility. Compromise is built into the fabric of democratic governance and no-one gets all of what they want.

The problem with abstract discussions on compromise is that, while compromise is almost universally agreed to be essential, there simply aren’t any rules about when and how it happens, and who must compromise more. There can’t be any rules, because compromise is an inherently rule-breaking idea. The appropriate degree of compromise depends entirely on the situation at hand, not on any general principles. It’s circular reasoning to employ “compromise” as a reason for why one side should give in.

But say, even, that we are aiming for some arbitrary level of humility and compromise from both sides. If Labor voted to repeal the carbon tax, what “humility” and “compromise” has the Coalition had to endure?

Dunlop tries to eke out a somewhat nuanced position. He does acknowledge up-front that:

A party that claims “we won the election therefore we get to do whatever we want” is not citing any sort of constitutional truism: it is strategically deploying a rhetorical trope in order to get its own way.

But I have difficulty separating this “rhetorical trope” from Dunlop’s own argument. He has not immunised himself from it merely by explaining it. His only real premise is indeed that the Coalition won, and he does speak of the “rights”3 of said winner to do essentially whatever they like. This is a simplistic interpretation of representative democracy, and it is effectively repudiated by the constitution.

Although its power may not last, Labor has every reason to block the repeal of the carbon tax. Its ability to do this is not some murky result of arbitrary, incomprehensible parliamentary rules, but of basic democratic process. Tony Abbott will have the authority to repeal the carbon tax when he has the numbers to do it, not before.

  1. And also Labor (Louise Pratt) losing one seat to the Greens (Scott Ludlam), but that won’t change things as far as the carbon tax is concerned. []
  2. And/or others, of course, but those three seem the most likely. []
  3. I would have thought words obligations and privileges might be a better choice than rights. By being elected, you gain obligations, and certain privileges needed to carry them out. []

Compulsory voting

I have a few things to say about compulsory voting, since scrapping it has been put on the table by Queensland state government. (Oh Queensland, what would we do without you?)

I happen to be a fan of compulsory voting, not because it’s the status quo, nor simply because it’s “our duty” (although that is a convenient way of looking at it). First, I’ll tear down some of the arguments against compulsory voting.

“Voting is a right, not a duty”. Voting-as-a-right — an individual right — makes no sense, because individuals do not benefit from their own individual votes. The benefit only occurs collectively. We benefit — in the sense of having a functioning democracy — from each other’s vote, not our own. This, at the very least, makes voting a service that we perform for the benefit of others.

“It’s not democratic unless I have a right to not vote”. There are two parts to this. First, you do in practice have the right not to vote — simply insert your blank or defaced ballot paper in the box. Opponents to compulsory voting will then re-phrase their argument as follows: “It’s not democratic unless I have the right to not attend a polling station”. But this is a non-sequitur, and confuses democracy with libertarianism. Democracy does not imply a “right not to attend a polling station” any more than it implies a “right to not do jury duty” or a “right to not pay tax” or a “right to not go to school” or a “right to not stop at red lights”. We all have legal obligations of various kinds, many of which are much more onerous than the requirement to vote, or at least attend a polling station. And what do you gain by not voting (bearing in mind that emergencies and other reasonable exceptions are already allowed)?

“Idiots are forced to vote”. No question. Under compulsory voting, every apathetic idiot trudges down to the polling booth and unleashes their special brand of wisdom on the rest of us. But we’re falling for a highly simplistic psychological theory here. Can you demonstrate empirically that stupid people would actually be less motivated to vote? What if that’s not true? There are a lot of very silly minor political parties representing the tip of the iceberg of politically-engaged insanity. There is a party — and associated supporters — who think the British royal family is behind the world’s “fascist” environmentalist movement. They vote (and not just because it’s compulsory). And conversely, although apathy may be stupid in some sense, it does not necessarily imply ignorance or an inability to conduct sound reasoning. Indeed, the requirement to vote is probably enough in many cases to overcome apathy and engage people’s brains. Thus, voluntary voting — self-selection — does not necessarily make for sensible decision making. It could just as easily be the other way around.

“Apathy leads to informal and donkey votes”. This is certainly true, though informal (invalid) votes are not particularly a problem. The tally of such votes — particularly those with messages written on — is a useful measure of disaffection with the current political situation.

Donkey votes are somewhat trickier. If a voter numbers candidates in the order in which they appear on the ballot paper, this may or may not be a donkey vote. It’s a donkey vote if the voter doesn’t care, but of course there’s no way to know that after the fact, and so donkey votes are counted like any other formal (valid) votes. For the same reason, it’s difficult to estimate the overall number of donkey votes, though a recent paper (King and Leigh, 2009) puts the advantage gained by being the first candidate at 1%. This is actually a real problem, but one that is fixable without abandoning compulsory voting. If there were many different versions of the ballot paper, each listing the candidates in a different order, donkey votes would largely cancel each other out. (This is already done in the ACT and Tasmania, for instance.)

Having failed to be convinced by the arguments against compulsory voting, here are some arguments for it.

Compulsory voting more accurately determines the sentiment of the people. Obviously, voter turnout will be higher, which lends the result increased credibility. But it’s not just the magnitude of the turnout that matters; it’s the relative certainty in the breakdown of that turnout. With compulsory voting, the breakdown of voter turnout (by demographic) should neatly reflect the breakdown of the overall population. If 34% of the whole population (excluding children, non-citizens, etc.) belongs to a particular group, then 34% of the voters will too. Random chance plays very little role.

Under voluntary voting, external (non-political) factors can influence the turnout of different demographics. In the United States (and presumably elsewhere), the weather is known to influence the ratio of Democrats to Republicans who show up to vote. This paper (Gomez et al., 2007), for instance, makes the following finding:

For every one-inch increase in rain above its election day normal, the Republican presidential candidate received approximately an extra 2.5% of the vote. For every one-inch increase in snow above normal, the Republican candidate’s vote share increases by approximately .6%.

You may notice that the estimated 2.5% advantage per extra inch of rain, for voluntary voting, is substantially larger than the estimated (and fixable) 1% advantage for being listed first on the ballot paper under compulsory voting.

Alternatively, suppose that there’s an outbreak of influenza or another illness; there are specific demographics more likely to be affected, and so more likely to stay home. All of this is just random chance, and while there are worse forms of government than flipping a coin, that’s not democracy and not what we’re aiming for.

Compulsory voting is logistically simpler and more robust. This is related to the previous point. Since turnout can be predicted with a small margin of error, electoral officials will have a good idea in advance of how many workers, polling booths and ballot papers are needed. Accordingly, we are less likely to suffer long queues, ballot paper shortages, vote counting delays, etc. Thus, there is less scope for frustration, confusion and controversy.

Further, since virtually every adult votes, there ought to be greater overall awareness and understanding of the voting process. It is more likely, for instance, that a first-time voter will be able to consult their friends and family if in any doubt as to how things work.

Compulsory voting encourages political discourse. Compulsory voting necessitates at least some level of political awareness on the part of those who would otherwise not take an interest. Political debate benefits greatly from the involvement of people who are not locked into a particular way of thinking. They themselves benefit from greater understanding of issues that may affect them. This segues into the next point.

Compulsory voting mitigates against political polarisation. With voluntary voting, a political party must expend a great deal of effort motivating its “base” to turn up, not just winning over undecided voters. This occurs by means of “no-compromise” policies and rhetoric that appeal to ideologically-committed hard-liners. This has an inherently polarising effect on politics. Each party shuts itself off from the other, except to hurl abuse calculated to make its own supporters cheer more loudly.

With compulsory voting, the only way to increase your share of the vote is to win over those who previously voted for someone else. Elections can only really be won or lost in the centre (and preferential voting helps here too, by ensuring that “vote splitting” cannot happen). The centre isn’t always sensible, because it’s merely arbitrarily half-way between ideological extremes, but it keeps the ideologues at bay and the major political parties in touch with each other. It gives us a better chance at good government.

Compulsory voting is more inclusive. There are a number of people for whom presenting identification is problematic, and who would therefore be dissuaded or prevented from voting if ID checks were needed. Under compulsory voting, they are not. You must merely state your name and address, and be on the electoral roll. At first glance, this seems wildly open to abuse. Strictly speaking, there is nothing stopping someone else from falsely claiming to be you at the polling station, and even voting multiple times under your name. But if you think about it carefully, nothing can be achieved by this. Electoral officials can — and do — deduce the overall number of duplicate votes and compare this to the winning margin. In the extreme case that the former exceeds the latter, where there is the theoretical possibility of voter fraud changing the outcome, the result is annulled and thus another election held — expensive, but unlikely to be required because nobody would benefit. Thus, voter fraud can be neutralised without needing to verify each voter’s ID.

This isn’t so easy in a voluntary system, where potential vote fraudsters may be able to predict who is less likely to vote, based on demographic information gleaned from the electoral roll. In the absence of ID verification, you could vote under someone else’s name — someone who you suspect will not vote. For electoral officials, there’s no way to count the number of false votes cast like this where the actual registered voter hasn’t shown up.1

Reforming electoral laws is something that must be taken especially seriously, because they underpin our democracy. Electoral laws have a great deal to say, indirectly, about who gets to run things, and so on the face of it all political parties have a conflict of interest. We must tread carefully, and keep those conflicts of interest in mind when we hear our politicians speak on the subject.

  1. However, even in a voluntary system, the risk of voter fraud tends to be overblown. In an established democracy, it would be a very complex, risky and labour-intensive exercise, and is probably impractical in all but the narrowest elections. []

Gun Freedom Flowchart

One of the major rationales for gun ownership in the US — I’m led to believe, against all reason and common sense — is that the government needs to be kept in check by a bunch of armed militias. Militias, you understand, are the epitome of democratic process.

Here are my own thoughts on this in diagrammatic form (click image for a larger version):

Multi-party politics

I’m reminded by the ACT election how much more interesting politics can be when there are more than two choices. If I lived in the US, I think I would despair at the monotony of the eternal struggle between the Democrats and Republicans.

However, Australia still hasn’t truly come to terms with multi-party politics. We certainly have more than two parties, but there are (broadly speaking) still only two likely outcomes: a Labor or Labor-Green coalition, or a Liberal or Liberal-National coalition. Admittedly, there are subtle differences between coalition and one-party rule, but the potential for cross-ideological alliances seems fairly remote.

So what precisely was the ACT Liberal leader Zed Seselja contemplating when he gave his victory-like speech, bashing the other two parties, after his own party failed to secure a majority? It’s an odd way to open negotiations. Seselja is trying to make it look as though the Liberals deserve to form government, without actually furthering that goal. In effect, despite appearances, he’s really just reapplying for his own job as Opposition Leader. He has presumably calculated that the barriers to a Liberal-Greens or Liberal-Labor coalition are insurmountable, and that it’s better to simply fire up his supporters for another term in Opposition (or perhaps “Government-In-Exile”) than to even try negotiating for Government.

This has some parallels to the picture that emerged in Tasmania after the 2010 election, with the Liberals and Labor on 10 seats each and the Greens with 5. Both major parties washed their hands of the Greens, descending into a fantasy in which, presumably, one or the other would be able to hold minority government in their own right (not strictly impossible, but highly implausible). Nobody spoke of a Labor-Liberal coalition, but there were really no other options once the Greens were excluded. The Governor eventually reinstated mathematical reality, giving us the bizarre spectacle of an incumbent Labor government being re-elected apparently against its will. However distasteful the Labor-Greens alliance, once again, nobody was prepared to entertain the alternatives.

Then there’s the Liberal-National alliance in WA. The Liberals and Nationals are separate parties in the west, with no formal standing agreement, so when the Nationals claimed the balance of power in the 2008 election, negotiations were on. Or, at least, that’s what the National Party wanted the Liberal Party to think, in no uncertain terms. But nobody expected the Nationals to side with Labor, no matter what was offered, and they didn’t.

Post-election negotiation is regarded as almost unnatural in Australia. We expect decisive victories — even if only by one or two seats. The problem with such negotiation, as Julia Gillard found to her chagrin, is that you’re negotiating with people who promised the electorate different things to you. Any compromise is most likely going to result in “broken promises”, which, as we’ve all seen, are easily spun as “lies”. This problem will inevitably beset any leader seeking a negotiated victory, which itself is the inevitable result of an evenly-divided electorate in a multi-party system.

The whole notion of an election promise only makes sense to the extent that a decisive outcome is likely. Your election promises are made on the understanding that your party (or standing coalition) alone will govern.

Perhaps political leaders should spell out what they would be prepared to trade away in hypothetical negotiations. Ah, but “I won’t speculate on hypotheticals” is the inevitable verbatim refrain from any party leader you would care to ask, unless they go for the outright lie that they won’t compromise. They won’t countenance negotiation, until they have to. They won’t, because the public would perceive it as weakness, and the other major party would further perjure itself in pursuit of the “moral highground” of total obstinance — that perverse ideal that a party’s most strident supporters seem to value above all else.

Here’s a thought experiment. What if a third “swing” party arose; one holding approximately centrist views, and one that could achieve the balance of power in most elections? How would conventional political strategies adapt to it? Would the public realise the essential meaninglessness of unilateral election promises? Would party leaders be brave enough to posit compromise policies before the election? Would they take a more sophisticated view of the centrist party than merely “friend or foe”? Would there be quite the same level of anger when “promises” are negotiated away in the forming of government?

Here’s another thought experiment. What if the “balance of power” (as we conventionally understand it) was held by a minor party of outright evil intent — say, the Hitler Party — a party whose motives and policies were so monumentally counter-productive to any mainstream ideology that no negotiated outcome was possible with anyone else at all. And what if this party retained the balance of power after each successive election. How long would it take — how much flailing rhetoric, how much campaigning, how many angry protests, how many election re-runs — before the leaders of the two major parties confronted the only possible solution: an alliance with each other?

Political imagination

For the public benefit, I shall elucidate some actual and hypothesized political systems in terms of (a) our ability to imagine them, and (b) their actual likelihood of existence.

First, the status quo — a sleazy and mildly corrupt but largely representative democracy. Nobody really believes that this is actually how things are, because we’re all too busy exaggerating very select parts of that picture, inventing convenient symmetries and ignoring inconvenient ones.

On a day-to-day basis, this is the extent of our political imagination:

  • The status quo with slightly higher or lower unemployment and interest rates.
  • The status quo with additional cake, alcohol and public holidays.

Asked to speculate about trends and prospects, we come up with the following:

  • Exact Replica of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, etc. Bad governments are always precisely modelled on these distinct, arbitrary examples. There’s statistical evidence you know — just look at nine out of every ten Nazi Germanies STOP LAUGHING YOU NAZI.
  • A theocracy enforcing whatever the most despised religion happens to be. You see, we’re all just going to suddenly agree to that, and — in a fit of flailing horror — only later realise our mistake.
  • Ayn Rand Libertarian Utopia. You see, through (a) rational persuasion or (b) subversive indoctrination (choose one), we will be suddenly, miraculously divorced from the instinct of egalitarianism that has accompanied the human species for hundreds of millennia.
  • Actual Communism. You see, through (a) rational persuasion or (b) subversive indoctrination (choose one), we will be suddenly, miraculously divorced from any sort of selfish ambition that has accompanied the human species for hundreds of millennia.
  • The United Federation of Planets. Economics? Pfft. Why didn’t we just dispense with that before?
  • Any other system of government premised on subtracting an in-built part of human nature (*cough* “Equilibrium” *cough*). Could the dystopian future be one devoid of human emotion? You know — the mechanism that underlies all decision making. Right, let’s decide to get rid of our decision-making ability.
  • Galactic Empire. Isn’t it obvious? Sure it’ll hang together in the 100 millennia it takes for a signal to travel from one side of the galaxy to the other…
  • The United States. I’m sorry, but there’s just no way that’s a real country.

The price of opinion

Gina Rinehart, for all that she inspires consternation, does not strike me as a particularly deep thinker.

The poetry is a giveaway. We laugh, but it does tell us something serious about the person who wrote it. For instance, consider this extract:

Is our future threatened with massive debts run up by political hacks
Who dig themselves out by unleashing rampant tax
The end result is sending Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore

It’s bad because it’s so shallow. The first line above is directly countered by the second, and the third is starkly at odds with another near the beginning that reads “And billions now are pleading to enjoy a better life”. (If concern for billions of poor people is paramount, maybe we should send Australian investment, growth and jobs offshore! Presumably, if one is poor, one needs investment, growth and jobs a lot more than one needs expensive minerals.) There’s more further on, but I dare not labour the point.

Being a poem, I feel it’s likely a genuine expression of Rinehart’s beliefs, and yet there’s clearly no real intellect behind it. It’s an inconsistent jumble of angriness, trying inanely to graft corporate libertarianism onto both nationalistic pride and compassion for the world’s poor. (It’s hard enough to put any two of those together in a sensible fashion, let alone all three.)

These are not the arguments of someone who cares about understanding the world; they are undisguised talking points generated by, well, political hacks — dumbed-down for public consumption and condensed so as to be interjected at every opportunity into political discourse. They are the sort of thing you expect to be regurgitated by the trolls that inhabit the comments sections of news websites (labouring under the illusion that they are the messengers rather merely the dupes).

So, let that set the stage for Rinehart’s seemingly imminent assimilation of Fairfax. Many are concerned that this will dramatically skew the ideological slant of news reporting in Australia. I rather suspect it will destroy Fairfax before it has the desired effect.

That you can buy media companies and hence editorial positions is a simple piece of logic, but perhaps too simplistic.

If you want to do it properly, you cannot simply issue edicts to staff that certain ideological arguments must be made and certain positions attacked or defended. Freedom of speech is the catch cry of journalists everywhere. You have to cultivate a team of people who, broadly speaking, believe as you do and will make your arguments for you without being asked.

Consider Rupert Murdoch and his News empire. Murdoch does not command his papers as a general commands an army. “Nothing so crude”, points out Jonathan Holmes. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff continues: “Murdoch has succeeded in this game as well as he has, and for as long as he has, because there is magic to it. Wielding power is his art.”

A large contingent of the current Fairfax staff probably wouldn’t want to be part of any Rinehart experiment in the art of power. So, she needs to find replacements from somewhere else. But where? You might get a few guest editorials from Andrew Bolt and like-minded people, but the successful Andrew Bolts already have jobs. News Ltd might have a broad ideological alliance with the like of Rinehart, but they’re still a commercial competitor, and they need to keep their own people.

Hence the cultivation. Unless you want to cannibalise the competition, you can only replace experienced journalists with less experienced ones, but that segues into the next problem.

While you’re implementing your ideological slant and training up your new staff, you also need to somehow maintain your current readership. You can’t abandon it, and you can’t just eat into News Ltd’s market share, because these would both defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. This is especially a problem because: (a) the reduction in experience is bound to impact the quality of your publications, at least initially, (b) at least some of your readership will rebel against changes in editorial policy, and (c) your readership is already on the point of reconsidering their news options in light of the Internet. In other words, a lot of your readers will be turned off and will instead go to the ABC, SBS, Crikey or international news outlets.

The changes already announced by Fairfax — the tabloidisation of the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and the implementation of an online pay-wall — may only compound the problem for Rinehart. A format change is going to make readers notice that Something is Going On, and so they may be just a little more sceptical of their news even before any change in editorial policy.

The basic problem with (what we assume to be) Rinehart’s plan is that her opinions already have a voice in News Ltd papers. That market has already been taken, and expanding it is easier said than done. Andrew Bolt and Christopher Monckton, among others, see Fox News as the template to be emulated, in order to promote their brand of libertarianism, but if that was going to work in Australia it would probably have worked already. Melbourne Talk Radio (MTR), starring Mr Bolt, ran up $9 million in losses and closed just short of 2 years after starting. The Australian public evidentially has its own ideas about the sort of editorial positions it’s prepared to put up with. On issues that Rinehart cares about — the mining and carbon taxes, for instance — the public’s opinion has already hardened. What, then, is the business case for a Rinehart-ified Fairfax? What “value” would it offer, and why should it deserve to survive in the marketplace?

It would be nice to think that another independent news organisation might rise up from the ashes of Fairfax — one with a more sustainable business model.

It would be nice, while we’re on hypotheticals, to think that powerful interests might occasionally reflect on the factual basis of their own beliefs before buying news outlets to propagate them. I wonder, though, to what extent Rinehart’s own opinions have been shaped by what she reads and hears in the media. If we accept that opinions can be manipulated, why not the opinions of those ostensibly doing to manipulating?

Edit: I’ve just noticed that Nick Bryant, being an actual journalist, has written a much more comprehensive and enlightening article on Gina Rinehart than I ever could.

Glossary of politics

I thought I’d iron out some common appropriations of English words and phrases as used by politicians and journalists. Let me know if you have any more suggestions.

accountability. 1. (n.) The state of being duly sniped at while virtuously refraining from voicing any counterargument that would draw attention to the ridiculousness of the snipes. 2. hold to account (v.) To uphold democracy by sniping at one’s opponents.

ban (v.) To voice an opinion that something is perhaps not entirely constructive. Examples include: (a) to suggest that Lord Monckton is not conducive to an informed debate on climate change, and (b) to suggest that junk food advertising during children’s TV programming is not conducive to public health. Also, fascism.

balance (n.) A journalistic ideal whereby truth and rationality are kept in check by things that aren’t true or rational.

come clean (v.) In response to an innocuous misunderstanding, to suddenly, unreservedly and inexplicably admit the most outlandishly horrible interpretation of events. This is entirely hypothetical but nonetheless widely anticipated, as shown by its most common usage, “When will _____ come clean on …?”. For instance, in response to the question, “When will the minister come clean on budget figures?”, said minister may choose to either truthfully describe the dry nuances of the budget, or “come clean” by spontaneously blurting out that tax revenue is being siphoned off for secret genetic experiments on pregnant mothers.

debate. 1. (n.) A choreographed joint press conference held by exactly two people who hate each other. 2. (in parliament) (v.) To toe the line by reiterating talking points, after all decision making has concluded.

democracy (n.) A system of government in which the protagonist wins.

free speech (n.) The right of the media to report in an unrestricted fashion anything that is misleading, voyeuristic, harmful to powerless individuals, or demonstrably false.

hypocrisy (n.) An assumed failure to adhere to someone else’s distorted interpretation of one’s own principles. Hence, a hypocrite is a person who has principles that are possible to misinterpret.

mandate (n.) An obligation of government to behave according to whoever is talking.

message1. (n.) A narrative invented by politicians to alleviate journalists from their own jobs. 2send a message (v.) To commit an act of extraordinary and disproportionate stupidity in the blind hope that others will back off.

not rich (adj.) Having a second percentile income (excluding those who can’t work or can’t find work).

political correctness (n.) A diffuse, pathological quality of all progressive social movements that utterly devastates the lives of the well-off.

public interest (n.) The set of things that people will pay money for despite their better judgement. Hence, the sexual activities of famous people are in the public interest, whereas information on their public responsibilities is not.

tax (n.) Anything complicated done by the government that involves money. Hence, poker machines involve money, so any government policy concerning poker machines is a tax.

values (n.) A set of unspecified attributes we possess that makes us better than everyone else. Hence, a “values”-based electoral campaign is one in which voters are simply reminded of how wonderfully amazing they are.

win (in a debate) (v.) To voice arguments with which the speaker broadly agrees.

Unhinging the Bolt

I’m going to contradict myself on Andrew Bolt. In a previous post, I defended Bolt’s right to free speech, as have so many others, in the face of his court case. At the time, my esteemed nemesis, the Slightly Disgruntled Scientist, came to a different view. Since the judgement, I find myself changing my mind, and I feel I ought to say something.

David Marr eloquently describes just how low Bolt actually sank, and also gives this important context:

The nine [who took Bolt to court] chose not to sue. They did not want damages but a public correction and a promise not to print such stuff again. So they brought an action under the Racial Discrimination Act, which has embedded in it a strong freedom-of-speech defence: insulting or humiliating people because of their race or colour is not unlawful when it is done “reasonably and in good faith” in pursuit of a matter of public interest.

Jonathan Holmes maintains that this is nonetheless about free speech, and discusses the relevant sections from the Act: 18C and 18D. Section 18C describes the kinds of behaviours considered racially intolerant and thus unlawful. Section 18D overrides it, making allowances for (basically) anything done, as Marr quotes, “reasonably and in good faith”.

Holmes is concerned that Justice Bromberg has set the bar too high, making 18D essentially useless:

[Justice Bromberg] specifically mentions, not just the wrong facts, but “the derisive tone, the provocative and inflammatory language and the inclusion of gratuitous asides.”

In other words, if you want the protection of section 18D of the act when writing about race in a way that’s likely to offend, you need to be polite, not derisive, calm and moderate rather than provocative and inflammatory, and you must eschew ‘gratuitous asides’.

If you did all that, of course, you’d be unlikely to offend anyone in the first place. So there doesn’t seem much point in section 18D. And you’d also struggle to express your view in a way that would attract readers in a popular newspaper.

But consider Justice Bromberg’s whole sentence (in paragraph 425):

The lack of care and diligence is demonstrated by the inclusion in the Newspaper Articles of the untruthful facts and the distortion of the truth which I have identified, together with the derisive tone, the provocative and inflammatory language and the inclusion of gratuitous asides. For those reasons I am positively satisfied that Mr Bolt’s conduct lacked objective good faith.

I have underlined the parts quoted directly by Holmes, and made bold certain parts not quoted. To my untrained, unqualified eye, Holmes is misreading the judgement. From my reading, Justice Bromberg is not suggesting that offensive language in itself renders 18D inapplicable; he is talking about offensive language in the context of untruths and distortions. The combination of those two is damning in a way that neither can be by itself. To me, it seems entirely possible that the protections of 18D could apply to anyone who (a) is wrong but avoids derision, provocation, etc. or conversely (b) is right but in a derisive, provocative, etc. manner.

Thus, I have no problem imagining, hypothetically, that Sections 18C and 18D might both apply. That is, someone may be insulted, offended, humiliated or intimidated (18C) by material that is (a) wrong but politely worded, or (b) right but derisively worded (18D). (In fact, people can often be insulted and offended by things that are both correct and polite.)

I do have a great deal of respect for Holmes. Maybe I’m misreading the judgement and Holmes is correct. Even so — even if the Racial Discrimination Act is too broad and infringes genuine free speech — consider the consequences for those violating the act. As Malcolm Farnsworth points out, in an article delightfully named “Help, help, I’m being repressed“:

There is no penalty for Bolt.  Removal of two blog posts and an apology will satisfy Justice Bromberg. It’s slap on the wrist time, but the confected outrage has poured forth.

So what are we getting worked up over? Why should we fear this judgement, when the most onerous consequence of engaging in racially offensive speech is the requirement for an apology?

I think we’ve been programmed by contemporary political narratives to treat free speech as one of those places where, perversely, we stop thinking. We exhibit such conditioned deference to the term “free speech” that we consider it an absolute right. As a result, we have a tendency to focus on the most minute of infringements. It’s all-or-nothing, we assume. The pedants in all of us seek out the most trivial, technical, legalistic injustices. We then swing wildly into conspiracy theorist mode, and extrapolate this to the whole of human experience, imagining that tyrannical oppression is upon us.

Of course, free speech has never been an absolute right; not in the freest societies on Earth. We are constrained by myriad factors in what we can say, which makes worrying about technical infringements all the more ridiculous. Defamation law is the closest approximation to the Racial Discrimination Act, and we don’t blink when people are sanctioned for spreading malicious untruths to damage the reputations of others. As the Slightly Disgruntled Scientist puts it:

The difference is that defamation affects one person. Humiliation based specifically on sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or any other class of institutional marginalisation affects (a) the person targeted, and (b) any other member of such a group. Gay people still have to choose between publicly disclosing incredibly private information up front, or not running for any kind of publicly scrutinised office. Indigenous Australians now have to consider just whether their skin is dark enough to go for, say, an Aboriginal liason position, or risk being targeted by the likes of Bolt (who implicitly undermines the legitimacy of such positions, with the consequence of further marginalisation of a whole group of people).

Now, I do think that free speech is essentially about protecting our right to say things that others would prefer remained unsaid. Powerful political parties and interest groups do tend to find certain facts and opinions inconvenient, and have certain means of persuasion that need to be countered by legal protections. But it’s hard to find a justification for speech that is racially offensive and factually bogus and not in good faith. This sort of thing does not serve democracy at any level, and in fact causes real damage.

If Mr Bolt’s right to speak freely has been infringed, it is the most minor infringement imaginable. He has maliciously spread damaging untruths in publications read by millions of people, and been given a slap on the wrist.

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. []