You sound a bit defensive, Glenn

I’ve never quite seen what all the fuss was about regarding Glenn Milne (well, except for his drunken buffoonery at the 2006 Walkley Awards). Pure Poison has a go at him every now and then, but he never seems to be on quite so distant an astronomical body as Andrew Bolt or Piers Ackerman, for whom communication with planet Earth is a constant struggle.

However, Milne’s take on Andrew Wilkie just seems a little unhinged. Milne is clearly armed with a lot of facts (or things than look like facts) regarding Wilkie’s history and about who said what, but he strings all this information into a tale that isn’t really all that informative and certainly not objective. Throughout the piece, Milne comes across as not much more than an angry Liberal cheerleader, not the journalist he presumably purports to be.

Milne’s main point,  insofar as I can discern it, is that Wilkie is an idiot for having relied on Liberal preferences to get elected and then supporting Labor. Milne makes a pretense of thinking this through, but doesn’t really get quite far enough.

Of course Wilkie relied on Liberal preferences – the vote was divided four ways (the fourth-placed Greens were on 19%, which is a lot more than fourth-place usually gets). Whatever happened, the Liberals were hardly going to preference Labor. This isn’t Liberal beneficence – it’s their absolute last resort to thwart their principal enemy.

Milne does tell us that, according to “senior Tasmanian Liberals”, the Liberal Party will break from this strategy next time and direct preferences to Labor instead. Milne bandies this about with both undue credulity and refusal to see its implications. No Liberal in his/her right mind is going to give an extra seat to the Labor Party just to get revenge on an independent. If that’s truly what is about to happen, then surely this says far more about the state of the Liberals than about Wilkie.

What also strikes me is that Milne, in his barely-concealed righteous anger, seems to consider that the worst outcome for Wilkie would be to lose at the next election. Really, Milne? The man is a newly-elected independent, not a career politician and certainly not a rusted-on party lackey. Maybe he has beliefs and motives that reach beyond his own parliamentary career. In the current hung parliament, he’s been presented with a golden opportunity to implement all the things he might want to. Perhaps he’s decided that this is the best chance he’ll ever have. Why would he waste his time trying to appease this tenuous, notional ally when his own goals are within reach?

Milne also engages in a rant vaguely directed against the voters. He explains:

If the voters of Denison want an independent member with a strong belief system, Wilkie is not their man. He has been on both the Left and Right of Australian politics.

If I was a voter of Denison, I might not take kindly to being lectured to like this. It’s all very simple on Planet Milne, apparently, where there are just two possible belief systems: left and right. If you don’t have either, then you don’t really have an opinion at all. I regard myself as something of a centrist, and I find the left-right dichotomy rather artificial and repulsive. Two sides, each largely defined by its hatred of the other, are so wrapped up in their little war that they truly cannot comprehend anything outside of it. Milne clearly suffers from this tunnel vision; his remarks are a complete non-sequitur. There are many, perfectly valid, principled positions that you might arrive at by taking different views on different issues.

Milne also sees fit to point out Wilkie’s past electoral defeats, calling him a “serial candidate”. Any other journalist might have looked upon this as a story of persistence and determination culminating in a fortunate and extraordinary victory. To Milne, this is the story of a loser who only won because the voters were too soft; a convenient rhetorical ploy that simultaneously dismisses the winner as illegitimate and the voters as idiots.

The “senior Tasmanian Liberals”, having established themselves above as a model of calm, thoughtful rationality, suggest that Wilkie’s win was down to his “at times moving profile” on Australian Story, and the electorate’s propensity for watching ABC. This is surely the most embarrassingly petulant and irrational excuse I’ve heard for electoral defeat. (I can’t even seem to find this mysterious Australian Story profile. Searching the Australian Story archives for “Andrew Wilkie” draws a blank, as does IMDB. I’m reluctant to say this; part of my brain is telling me that there was an Australian Story profile of Andrew Wilkie – it’s certainly plausible – but I wonder now if I was just imagining it.)

Finally, Milne makes a stab at Gillard for (partially) agreeing to one of Wilkie’s demands:

She gave him $340 million for a new Hobart hospital. That’s a hefty price tag for one vote.

Perhaps so, but this isn’t too shabby for “just another losing Greens candidate”, which was Milne’s running theme up until now. Let’s not forget that Milne’s associates were offering three times that amount for the same one vote, a comparison he studiously avoided. The very non-anonymous senior Liberal Andrew Robb was telling us that this was a “wise investment” irrespective of Wilkie’s opinions.

Milne wraps up by declaring ridiculously that Wilkie’s career is already over:

As a result, says one Tasmanian state Liberal, “He”ll be popular for a while. “But it’s a long way from 20 per cent to 50 per cent.”

That’s a reference to the next election in Denison where Wilkie will have to get 50 plus one per cent of the vote not to have to rely on Liberal preferences. Otherwise he’s gone. And in politics the numbers never lie.

“The numbers never lie” is a rather unfortunate choice of words given the Liberals’ costings fraud (because it’s really nothing less). Besides, it’s nonsense that Wilkie’s future electoral prospects rely on getting 50% plus one. He’ll certainly get Green preferences and Labor preferences. We’ll see if the Liberals’ thirst for such self-destructive retribution lasts through to the next election.

We bought you fair and square

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops, we forgot to be racist

Give Ken Wyatt a break you idiots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for my next wish…

Just as I hoped, we have a hung parliament.

A few days after the event, all I can say is this: Rob Oakeshott, you legend. Oakeshott, one of the three independent kingmakers, has proposed a unity cabient, wherein the two major parties would share power.

Doubtless there is much scepticism to be had over whether this could actually work, but in principle it has great appeal. This was the way the system was always supposed to work. Oakeshott and his colleagues Bob Katter and Tony Windsor are espousing the high-minded ideals of parliamentary democracy, wherein parliament becomes a mechanism of government, not just a rubber stamp for the ruling party.

On the other hand, there is another tempting argument: neither party truly deserves to be in power. As punishment for their vicious, purile and jaw-droppingly narrow-minded political strategising, we should now force them kiss and make up, and more importantly to swallow their poorly-chosen rhetoric. As punishment for their lack of competence and vision, we should force them to pool whatever little talent they do possess and share both the power and the responsibility. No more blaming it on the previous government, or snide armchair governing from the comfort and financial wonderland of opposition.

Of course, there can only be one Prime Minister, but it probably doesn’t matter whether it’s Julia or Tony so long as both are involved, along with their ministers. Stick Adam Bandt in there somewhere for good measure.

But they hate each other, I hear you cry with horrified incredulity. Why yes – that’s largely the point. If they can’t get along, they’ll make each other miserable. I call it a win-win.

Back’s boats

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

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

1st pamphlet (arrived June 2010)

2nd pamphlet (arrived July 2010)

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

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

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

Here’s my more general response to Senator Back:

Dear Senator Back,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The worm doesn’t like me”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it right? (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I vote for a hung parliament

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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