To be a male feminist

I haven’t ranted in a rather long time, so here goes.

A (male) friend of mine voiced an opinion recently that, surely, everyone ought to be a feminist. At least, I shall rephrase slightly in deference to those with the greatest experience on the subject, everyone ought to aspire to feminism. It is a perspective, after all, not a club. (By “feminism”, I mean the struggle for equality, of course, and not the absurd man-hating caricature, mislabelled as “feminism”, that functions as a piñata in certain male-dominated political circles.)

Except — and this is where it gets tricky — feminism is actually a collection of perspectives, some of which are mutually contradictory, and not all of which acknowledge the existence of the others.

And then there’s another, stranger term — “feminist ally”. Say we define feminism to be a movement seeking fairness and equality between genders1. A feminist, then, is simply someone who believes in and supports this cause. So what is a “feminist ally”, if not an actual feminist? In what sense can someone outside the movement, who then by definition doesn’t believe in and/or support the cause, be an ally of it?

They can’t, so the term presupposes a different, stricter definition, one that excludes people on grounds other than their beliefs and actions. The most obvious of such exclusions is gender-based — you can’t be a male feminist.

Opinions seem divided on this. On one hand, some (whatever their gender) subscribe to the reasoning above and say that men can, and in fact should, be feminists. On the other hand, some (who are, again, not necessarily of one gender) reserve the classification for those with a more direct, personal stake in the struggle — i.e. women — and that a man claiming to be a feminist is portraying himself as a part of the oppressed group. Men supporting feminism are thus to be described as “feminist allies”. This contradiction neatly removes any possibility of a “safe” answer with respect to whether I, as a man, am a feminist (other than just keeping my head down and pretending it’s someone else’s problem, which it isn’t — I’ll come back to that).

So, I must make a choice, to the best of my cognitive abilities. While women (maybe some more than others) are clearly invested in feminism in ways that men never can be, feminism is still a cause that one joins by choice, not an underprivileged demographic in itself. For those within the feminist movement who suffer oppression, violence and discrimination, this is unlikely to be due to their being a feminist, but rather simply being a woman2. We shouldn’t conflate the words “feminist” and “woman”, and we should be able to deal with the notion of a “male feminist” without imagining that the man is necessarily equating his personal situation to those of women. (If he is, then that’s poor form, but labelling himself a “feminist” is a bizarre way to do it.)

This is all very theoretical so far, so let’s turn to the more concrete. I’m a software engineering lecturer, and in spite of all efforts thus far, female participation in the discipline is absurdly low. The first-year classes I teach tend to have around 100 to 150 students, only 5 to 8 of whom are women. I am the first to admit that this is a shameful situation, given my (perhaps biased) view that software engineering increasingly underpins the infrastructure on which the whole of Western (and even non-Western) society depends.

Some might retort that, well, so what? Universities in Australia admit whoever they can. There are no particular university policies that act to filter out women. When it comes to a choice between (a) sexism or (b) more money, university management displays pragmatic enlightenment. Female participation in many university courses is actually very high. (I know this just from observing the disparity between my classes and other, non-computing-related classes during the exam period.) So, if women chose not to enrol in software engineering, that’s their choice.

But it’s an uncomfortable reality, because without knowing why it happens, we could be ignoring a festering problem.

It seems implausible to me that the gap could be the result of “different brain types”. We’re the same species, and it just doesn’t make sense for the same DNA (of homo sapiens), fighting for its survival (in evolutionary terms), to rob one gender almost entirely of the ability to conduct creative, abstract reasoning, which is what software engineering entails. Even allowing for gender roles in prehistoric societies, how could such deprivation possibly increase our overall odds of survival? (I realise that there is a wealth of research on the subject, but I haven’t ploughed into it myself.)

Of course, the existence of women authors, artists, scientists, etc., and the feminism movement itself, seems to roundly contradict that notion. If women can take on those jobs, they can be software engineers too. The women who do study software engineering perform no worse, as students, than their male counterparts, and some routinely rank among the best.

The issue, then, is almost certainly societal in origin, and that should be concerning. Even if we say that the gender ratio in software engineering is not a problem in itself, it still provides strong evidence of some underlying imbalance in society at large.

The best explanation I have (and I’m hampered by a complete lack of first-hand experience) is that girls in high school, and perhaps even primary school, are dissuaded from studying technical subjects like maths, science and computing due to a persistent, self-reinforcing myth that these subjects are simply “for boys”. The myth of different brain types may be a sort-of self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, getting back to the original point, am I a feminist? I certainly aspire to feminism. Perhaps the litmus test, depending on who you ask, is whether I am actually making a difference. Unfortunately, I can’t point to any particular evidence of this yet. We shall see.

  1. I think a majority of people would broadly agree with this definition. Some might wish to clarify or extend it, but I don’t need a particularly finely-tuned definition here to make my point. []
  2. I’m sure there are cases of discrimination on the basis of feminist beliefs and actions, separate from any gender consideration, but I would be surprised if this was comparable in scope to discrimination against women generally. []

Denial in carbon politics

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Greg Hunt’s paradoxical lack of enthusiasm for discussing climate change policy. He’s very quiet on the Coalition’s “Direct Action” policy, and very loud on the Coalition’s promise to remove Labor’s carbon tax. (Highly suspicious, given that one is theoretically necessitated by the other.)

But will the Coalition even get the opportunity to fulfil that promise? If it wins the next federal election, the Greens are widely expected to hold onto the balance of power in the Senate. Labor and the Greens could, therefore, team up to block any Coalition attempt to scrap the carbon tax, and then a double dissolution election would be on the cards. Hunt magically extricates himself from this conundrum with the following rather optimistic reasoning:

We do not expect the Greens will ever honour a mandate given to the Coalition. However, if the ALP loses the election it is almost inconceivable that they would ignore such a clear mandate, especially given that they had no mandate to introduce the tax in the first place.

Hunt’s talk of mandates is pure fiction. The concept of one side having or not having a policy-specific mandate (e.g. to enact or repeal a carbon tax) is sustained by a narrative, usually self-serving and factually debatable, in which voters elect their representatives based on that one policy area only. It just doesn’t work like that, either in theory or in practice. Voters are never formally asked to approve specific policies, except during referendums, and there has never been a referendum on climate change policy. Elections by themselves are not referendums, and political promises are fundamentally unenforceable. (This latter fact will almost inevitably be the saving grace of Mr Hunt himself, as he must realise).

Constitutionally, the Senate is never under any obligation to toe the line of the Government. Even if the logic of mandates did apply, it must apply equally to both houses. Senators are no less democratically elected than MPs, so why on Earth should Labor or Greens Senators be obligated to do anything but adhere to their own policies and best judgment? The Coalition won’t own Labor’s eternal soul merely by beating it at the ballot box. Labor’s only moral obligation (as with everyone else in politics) is to exercise good judgment.

Despite this, Hunt expects (or claims to expect) the ALP to side with the Coalition. To slightly mangle Charles Babbage, I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such an expectation. Why, in the name of all that is good, would the ALP possibly want to (a) trash one of its own signature accomplishments, (b) replicate the very same policy back-flip that saw Kevin Rudd’s poll numbers crash, and (c) resist the opportunity, from the safety of opposition, to make a liar out of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in neat, vengeful symmetry with his side’s relentless labelling of Julia Gillard a liar over the same issue?

Hunt is virtually promising that his own political opponents will do his bidding. How much further divorced from reality can a politician be?

On symmetry, the repeal of the carbon tax is sometimes compared to Labor’s repeal of the Coalition’s Work Choices legislation. The Liberals, having lost the 2007 election, voted to repeal their own legislation, so — it is sometimes argued (though not specifically by Hunt this time) — Labor ought to do the same. This is a rather spectacular logical fallacy, because of course the two policies are totally unconnected. The Coalition backtracked on its own policy in earnest recognition of having gone too far, not because its election defeat lost it the right to have a policy. The only people arguing that Labor has gone too far are climate sceptics and political hacks.

The symmetry also breaks when you consider that the Coalition’s change of heart was motivated by strong public opposition to Work Choices — 59% opposed to 24% in favour, whereas there is now net support for the carbon tax — 46% in favour to 44% opposed. If both an election and a real referendum on the carbon tax were held simultaneously, right now, it is likely that both the Coalition and the carbon tax would win. Consider that when Hunt talks about Labor “acting in defiance of the express will of the Australian people”. It’s now more likely, on the balance of probabilities, that the Coalition would be defying the will of the Australian people, not Labor.

There is the threat of a double dissolution, of course, but Hunt must be making some rather extraordinary assumptions about the dynamics of popular opinion if he thinks he has that one sewn up. The Coalition-in-Government has potentially more to lose in an early election than the ALP-in-Opposition — the entire remainder of its policy agenda, for instance. The ALP would fight to get back into government, or at least recover some support. Even if the ALP gained no ground, there’s still no guarantee afterwards that the Coalition would have enough support in the Senate, or in a joint sitting, to scrap the carbon tax. And then what? Another double dissolution?

David Forman (in the article to which Greg Hunt is responding) goes on to suggest that the Coalition could technically scrap the carbon tax simply by bringing forward the full emissions trading scheme. After all, the carbon tax was only ever a temporary measure anyway, and Labor and the Greens would be far less likely to block their own ETS. This would be a compromise by the Coalition that really just serves to obfuscate a complete political surrender on the issue. Kevin Rudd’s proposed ETS was the menace that motivated the Coalition’s current policy — and Tony Abbott’s rise to leadership — in the first place.

The Coalition has been boxed-in by its anti-carbon pricing campaign. Given what Tony Abbott has said and promised, it’s difficult to envisage Greg Hunt having much flexibility in what he says and promises either. But there must be a price for politicians saying and promising the impossible. We may understand why they do it, and what political consequences await them if they don’t play the game, but even then we do not have to excuse it.

If not the carbon tax, then what?

Greg Hunt, the Opposition’s spokesperson on Climate Action, is trying very hard to convince anyone who will listen that the Coalition can and will repeal Labor’s carbon tax if it wins government. He responds to a well-considered piece by David Forman on the political difficulties of doing so.

I want to make two points about Hunt’s — and the Coalition’s — position. First, despite the Coalition’s furious pronouncements within the climate change policy area, it doesn’t appear to take that policy area very seriously. Second, Hunt displays brazenly wishful thinking in his estimation of his party’s ability to scrap the carbon tax if elected. I’ll address the latter in another post.

In his article, Hunt mainly just rehashes the cost effectiveness argument against the carbon tax; i.e. that it costs an awful lot and doesn’t substantially reduce carbon emissions. I don’t have the patience to sift through Hunt’s references to confirm his numbers, but his only purpose in citing them is to call the tax a “mammoth expenditure”. This is futile without some point of comparison (e.g. between Labor’s policy and the Coalition’s policy), which Hunt doesn’t provide.

The other part of the argument seeks to demonstrate that the carbon tax has very little effect. I don’t necessarily dispute this, as far as our specific implementation of the tax is concerned. Perhaps a lot more could be done much sooner. However, Hunt cites a think tank, rather misleadingly called the “Copenhagen Consensus”, which seems to argue against any sort of carbon tax or emissions trading scheme as a response to climate change. The think tank was led by Bjørn Lomborg and is now defunct.

Importantly, Hunt’s argument can’t really be understood without quietly adopting the notion that carbon pricing is purely an aspirational (or add-on) policy — something it would be nice to have, but only if it fits in with our principal goals of maximising year-to-year employment and GDP statistics. And that notion shapes our response to the policy’s success or failure. If it’s judged to be “not working”, then by implication it’s “not worth the expense” and so we can simply get rid of it and forget the whole issue. We tried it, and it didn’t work out. Oh well, let’s move on.

But not so fast. Any sensible debate over the carbon tax must maintain a connection with the consequences — economic, environmental and humanitarian — of the alternative. The Stern Review, for instance, is the most comprehensive assessment so far (as far as I know) of the economic effects of climate change. The summary of the conclusions says this:

Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.

In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.

In other words, however hideously expensive climate change mitigation policies (like carbon taxes) might be, they must be compared to the horrific economic ruin likely to arise from unmitigated climate change.

The summary later adds this:

Three elements of policy are required for an effective global response. The first is the pricing of carbon, implemented through tax, trading or regulation. The second is policy to support innovation and the deployment of low-carbon technologies. And the third is action to remove barriers to
energy efficiency, and to inform, educate and persuade individuals about what they can do to respond to climate change.

This rather underpins the government’s policy, at least in principle if not magnitude.

Of course, in the politics of climate change, we have a difficult time connecting policy to reality, because it is an unfathomably complex subject. Moreover, there is an army of ideological warriors ready to wage war upon any and all supporting evidence and analysis with an ever-growing arsenal of well-rehearsed factoids. But either you buy into the global conspiracy theory, or you don’t. There’s no half-way point that makes any sense. (Even if you were to discredit three quarters of the world’s climate research as fraudulent, what remains is still more than enough to support climate action.) So, let’s say your understanding of human nature is such that you don’t think countless thousands of nerdy, egotistical, hyper-competitive, human researchers are all working together to choreograph a super-villainous, comic-book-esque deception on a scale never before imagined. And let’s say you don’t quite grasp the logic of free-market libertarians who appear to believe that, since the free market cannot apparently solve the problem of climate change without government intervention, the problem therefore cannot possibly exist in the first place. (That last link actually deals with libertarian reactions to a hypothetical asteroid impact, but the principle is the same.)

There is real data and real analysis that paints an increasingly dark picture of the consequences of climate change. We have begun to contemplate a 4-6 degree temperature rise, far beyond the 2 degrees that international negotiations have targeted. Why? In part, future climate projections have relied on very optimistic assumptions about political action, which we have resoundingly failed to meet. These kinds of temperature increases are easily catastrophic, according to even the World Bank (of all institutions).

Even more importantly, this is not a case of “Oh well, our carbon tax didn’t work. Let’s forget about it and go home”. There is no “it’s already as bad as it can get, so let’s not worry”. The problem will simply keep getting worse and worse and worse until we fix it. Warming and sea-level rises will not stop in the year 2100, for instance (the oft-used time frame for climate projections). For temperature rises exceeding 7 degrees, parts of the world are likely to become uninhabitable — too hot and humid for humans to maintain our necessary body temperature, even with wind and water1. Given what is at stake, we can’t walk away from the table; we can’t get out of the game. Perhaps we’ve already failed on climate change, but there are many degrees of failure, so to speak, and even now we can make things so much worse than they already are. This is not an academic curiosity that would be a good idea to address if only it was a little more convenient to do so. Climate change will eventually, inevitably reshape our whole global civilisation.

So, it is important to debate whether (and to what extent) the carbon tax will succeed or fail. Perhaps it is failing. Perhaps there ought to be a subtly or radically different policy. It is entirely appropriate for Greg Hunt (and others) to point out the relative lack of effect the carbon tax will have on our domestic carbon emissions. These concerns and criticisms go to the heart of an immensely important issue.

However, Greg Hunt is more than a commentator. He represents the alternative government, and as such his talk of the carbon tax being an “environmental failure” must be matched by an alternative policy that is objectively, demonstrably more likely to succeed. Given his title, you would presume it is his job to co-ordinate and articulate such a policy. The Opposition does have a climate policy, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Hunt’s response. He doesn’t see fit to even mention it. Think about that. Even when going out of his way to respond to an article about his party’s position on climate action, the Shadow Minister for Climate Action declines to discuss his actual policy.

That policy, even taken at face value, is highly dubious. It is intended to match the government’s commitment to a 5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (below levels in 2000). Yet, sequestering carbon in soil — a major part of the Coalition’s plan — is still essentially theoretical. Another policy component involves paying polluters to stop polluting, but according to various institutions including Treasury, this is hideously expensive, inefficient and ultimately unrealistic. In short, Greg Hunt’s policy suffers from much worse versions of the same problems he ascribes to the carbon tax. He even brazenly argues that other countries have said “no” to a carbon tax, but major parts of his own alternative approach are not even on the table internationally.

And there are reasons to doubt the Coalition’s commitment to even its own policy, even if it were feasible. Tony Abbott’s rise to leadership is the product of underlying climate scepticism within the Coalition, manifested for instance in Nick Minchin and Barnaby Joyce, and Abbott’s occasional “gaffes” make it hard to believe he understands the magnitude of the problem. Greg Hunt does not enhance the Coalition’s credibility through his lack of enthusiasm for his own policy. Malcolm Turnbull observes that the Coalition’s policy — presumably since it’s just a list of government expenditures (unlike a tax or trading scheme) — is designed to be easy to scrap even after implementation.

Whatever level of deceit you attribute to Gillard for making and breaking a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, and however ineffective you think that carbon tax might be, her opponents do not present us with any choice. From Greg Hunt, we need someone who can at least pretend to be interested in the subject matter — a matter of grave global importance — beyond merely promising to trash someone else’s attempt to solve the problem.

  1. In such extremes, air conditioning would be a matter of life and death for even the healthiest people. Power cuts would create major humanitarian disasters. []

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):

Palestinian statehood

Some people have lost sight of the notion of a win-win situation in the Middle East. We do have a lofty overarching notion that there are peace negotiations to get back to when everyone is sufficiently chummy again, but, at some level, we don’t truly believe this. The political paradigm there sees everything as (a) bad for Israel, (b) bad for the Palestinians (but necessary for Israel), or, quite simply, (c) bad for everyone.

There is near universal agreement that a Palestinian state, consisting of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, is part of the solution. Why is it, then, that there is any debate at all over recognition of it?

Recognition seems to have been slotted into the prevailing paradigm of punishments and rewards. Those who oppose it (for now) do so ostensibly because “it’s the wrong time”, which really translates to “the Palestinians haven’t earned it yet”. This is absurd — recognition of a state is merely an acknowledgement of its right to exist. The international community recognises the statehood of Somalia and the DR Congo, which have essentially been anarchies at various points. It recognises North Korea, whose democratic credentials are as convincing as its continual promises to annihilate the South. The Palestinian Authority itself may not be the world’s best example of stable, competent leadership, but is it really worse than the others listed here? Really? Does it have some way to go before it becomes as good as North Korea, Somalia and the DR Congo? It seems to me that the bar for statehood is normally pretty low.

The normal standards aren’t being applied, of course. Palestinian statehood is treated as an issue that must form part of negotiations with Israel. The 1993 Oslo accords say that a Palestinian state is the final outcome after successful negotiations. But why? Israel does not hold either the moral or practical authority to determine whether Palestine is recognised as a state. Recognition of Palestine, prior to successful negotiations, does not actually hurt Israel in any way, except insofar as its negotiators assumed they could use it as a bargaining chip. If we, as outsiders, defend Israel’s bargaining position — as distinct from Israel’s right to exist in peace and security — then we are not being even-handed, and so we cannot be taken seriously as facilitators of any agreement between the two sides.

It’s worth also briefly pointing out — in the spirit of even-handedness — that Israel itself is not recognised by a slew of countries across northern Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. This is also, of course, quite absurd. No other UN member nation has to put up with this (though there are other functioning states, including democracies, that have almost no recognition at all).

However, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) does recognise Israel, and the governing Palestinian Authority was established in the wake of this recognition. Hamas’s control of Gaza throws a small spanner in the works here. Hamas does not recognise Israel (though it does not any more call for Israel’s destruction as it and the PLO once did). This is rather counter-productive, but then Gaza is only part of Palestine.

Israeli government spokespeople also often complain that the Palestinians don’t yet recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The Israeli ambassador to the UN Ron Prosser echoed this:

The world waits for President Abbas to speak the truth that peace can only be achieved through negotiations by recognizing Israel as a Jewish State.

Prosser repeated this suggestion several times in his speech. It’s a rather unique demand. Surely no country has the right to be recognised as belonging exclusively to a particular religious group. This is especially the case for Israel, given the number of different religious groups for whom Jerusalem holds particular significance (and given Israel’s insistence that Jerusalem belongs exclusively to it).

Prosser’s next thought was this:

For as long as President Abbas prefers symbolism over reality… any hope of peace will be out of reach.

Right. So, there’s a limited supply of symbolism, and Israel needs it (see above) more than the Palestinians. Moreover, “peace” demands that Israel be recognised as a Jewish state, and simultaneously demands that Palestine not be recognised as a state at all. Ahem. Are we really having this conversation? Are we quite sure about the intellectual capabilities of the people carrying it out?

Clearly symbolism can be important, or else Israeli spokespeople wouldn’t be so concerned about international recognition of their nation’s religious character. For the Palestinians, recognition might help to mitigate the feeling of dispossession that fuels the desire for retaliation against Israel. It might take support away from Hamas — which would doubtless be a good thing — since their political foe Fatah is the party of President Abbas, who has driven the campaign for recognition and who will be credited with achieving UN “Observer” status. That is, this sort of initial symbolic gesture has political and psychological ripple effects, and may well lead to practical outcomes, even if the connection is extremely difficult to measure. It won’t stop the cycle of violence per se, but may help starve it of oxygen, circumstances permitting. Given that it costs nothing, why would we not do it?


So I read that Ernst & Young has released a report on the future of universities, saying bluntly that “Over the next 10-15 years, the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases”.

With all due respect, bollocks.

E&Y’s document (embedded at the bottom of the ABC article) is not a report. It’s a 32-page pamphlet with meaningless “inspiring” background graphics — one appears to show a guy in a kayak — and an advertisement for E&Y’s own higher education advisory services:

Our higher education team — with deep strategic and operational experience in the sector — is ideally placed to advise university leaders on the transition to new models for the future.

Uh huh. There’s nothing like a bit of disinterested, objective analysis, is there? Certainly nothing like it here, anyway. In that context, let’s look at E&Y’s “drivers of change”.

Number one: “Democratisation of knowledge and access”. The Internet has given us all ready access to all human knowledge and wisdom (more or less). An inspiring fact, but one that was surely fairly obvious. But do not mistake access for learning. Mere access to all human knowledge and wisdom has not — and will not — transform us into a society of philosophers. This is well understood and appreciated in today’s universities as it is. We already know that the process of education ultimately requires face-to-face interaction and personalised feedback.

Number two: “Contestability of markets and funding”. E&Y assert that competition is high. Perhaps so, but there’s a distinct lack of quantitative reasoning. What level of competition implies disruptive change, and why? E&Y also assert that government funding is harder to find. This seems to be blamed implicitly on the global financial crisis and the Australian government’s insistence on a budget surplus. This is a rather short-term outlook that jars with E&Y’s overall discussion of next 10-15 years.

Number three: “Digital technologies”. This is little more than a repeat of number one. E&Y cite “Massive Open Online Courses” (or “MOOC”s, apparently), but we knew this was happening. It takes a certain willpower to believe that this will supplant traditional university course structures. Online courses are obviously a lot cheaper — far fewer resources aimed at much larger numbers of students. But stop for a moment and consider what those resources are traditionally spent on: face-to-face contact and personalised feedback. These facets of traditional education aren’t just important in themselves, but underpin the whole process. Setting complex assessment tasks is futile without the resources to properly mark and give feedback on assignment submissions. Face-to-face contact allows in-class testing with much less fear of cheating. Online courses try to achieve economies of scale largely by ignoring those parts of the education process that are inherently unscalable.

Number four: “Global mobility”. This is an extension to number two and three. If students around the world could choose any university to study at, they’ll all choose one of the top 15-20 university “brands”. Among online courses, this seems fairly logical. But for the wider university education, the inevitable resourcing problem will get in the way. It’s not enough just to have an internet connection. For most people, if you want a real education, you have to physically travel to the institute at which you will receive it, and the real world has certain physical limitations that do not exist online.

Number five: “Integration with industry”. In its last point, E&Y merely babbles on about university partnerships with industry. Yes, for many kinds of degrees, some sort of structured, supervised work experience is definitely a good thing. Yes, industry should most certainly be in the loop on the design and implementation of university courses. E&Y doesn’t even bother to get this specific, and there is nothing new here. I don’t see how this is a “driver” of change.

E&Y’s “methodology” covers 1 of 32 pages, hidden at the end of the document. It’s entirely opaque, except for this bit, which is only somewhat translucent:

We interviewed more than 40 senior executives from public universities, private universities, policy makers and sector representative groups across Australia, to understand their views on:
  • Drivers of change in the higher education sector
  • The long-term future of universities
  • Potential evolutions of the university model
  • Implications for their institution

Our interviewees included leaders of more than 20 universities, including 15 Vice-Chancellors.

E&Y’s document was sprinkled with choice quotes from their interviewees, but I suspect this process was more of a fishing expedition than an attempt at objective analysis. Even taken at face value, this methodology is extremely subjective — prone to the natural cynicism of those who have already seen disruptive changes.

The whole exercise seems just a bit cynical: E&Y’s information comes principally from those working in universities already, and yet the “report” seems intended as a “wake-up call” for those same universities. In other words, they’re using our own cynicism to make us afraid for our future, to further their own business. Universities are not blind to the challenges discussed by E&Y. Discussion of those challenges comes from universities in the first place.

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?

Carbon tax lies

The word “lie” attracts a disproportionately emotive response compared to other forms of deception. Nevertheless, I will briefly point out that Tony Abbott has told a very succinct lie in the following statement, quoted by the ABC, in relation to electricity transmission costs:

The whole purpose of the carbon tax is to raise the price of power. If the price doesn’t go up, the carbon tax isn’t working.

The point of the carbon tax is not to raise the price of power. That’s a lie, and a much more clear-cut lie than anything I’m aware of Julia Gillard saying on the subject.

The point is to create a price differential between competing power generation technologies. The point (insofar as electricity is concerned) is to make non-polluting technologies cheaper than coal, oil and gas. All else being equal, we expect the overall price of electricity to rise — because to start with there will be very little renewable power generation — but that’s not the “purpose” of the tax. As the ABC article discusses, the overall price might actually go down for other reasons (network transmission efficiencies, in this case). If this happens, it would have no bearing on the functioning of the carbon tax at all, because the differential between fossil fuels and renewables would remain. All else being equal, when fossil fuel generation eventually ceases altogether, the price of electricity should return to its former level in real terms (edit: Okay, not really — this is technology-dependent).

This kind of statement from Abbott is not merely an opinion, not merely misdirection, not merely an unsustainable or misguided promise (as in the case of Gillard). It is blatantly, unambiguously, factually incorrect, and Abbott himself cannot plausibly claim ignorance of his errors1. By now, everyone in federal politics must have a reasonable working understanding of carbon pricing, given how long and hard we’ve been talking about it.

I don’t see, therefore, how Abbott’s remarks can escape even the narrowest definition of a lie.

  1. If Abbott — whose entire political raison d’être has been the prevention of carbon pricing — truly does not know how it works, this would be a revelation of staggering idiocy and denialism. []

Where it begins

The Curtin University Student Guild elections have been under way for the last three days, and campaigning for many days before that. Two factions hold sway: Left Action, with its uncompromisingly red posters supporting a range of social justice and funding issues, and Unity, with its simple orange posters endorsing better WiFi and upgraded cafe facilities.

I never found evidence of broader political ideology behind Unity, but Left Action is a political machine. As visible as Unity’s posters were, the red outnumbered the orange maybe tenfold. If that were not enough, chalk graffiti supporting Left Action began appearing on walls, pillars and pavements everywhere.

Some frustration with the omnipresent Left Action began showing. Enter the Curtin Capitalist Society, whose membership ostensibly attend “sexy parties containing canes, monocles, top hats and penguin suits”, and have “a love for scotch”. They fought back, partly in jest, with their own posters brandishing the immortal words “Better Dead Than Red”.

One vigilante further tore down and deposited a large number of red posters outside the Guild offices, with the note: “You left these on my campus”, signed “The Batman”. (The “faceless men” of the Labor Party missed a trick there, perhaps.)

However, it was “Better Dead Than Red” that made ripples. A Google search for “Curtin Capitalist Society” reveals some attempts at creating political rhetoric to counter the CCS, even though it had no part in the elections. There was a suggestion that the CCS was related to the Young Liberals, based on overeager speculation.

More immediately, there was suspicion among highly-strung observers that the poster was a call for violence, and that the WA police ought to get involved (but wouldn’t, because apparently we live in a society where the police only target Muslims and Aborigines). This played out at the blog of John Passant, who humourlessly characterises the CCS as “violent extremists” issuing a death threat. Passant tried to equate, at some level, the CCS poster with the infamous “Behead all those who insult the Prophet” poster that attracted national condemnation.

Not to necessarily diminish the causes Passant champions, he’s making the classic human mistake of overestimating the prevalence and savagery of one’s enemies. This mistake is the same one made by countless devotees of political faiths, and is the cause of much unnecessary trauma. In professional politics, this mistake is actively encouraged as a means of firing up voters’ sense of urgency. In all politics, the mistake is made honestly by people who forget that others have a different political lens through which they bring the world into focus.

I find it interesting to reflect on these low-level political manoeuvrings, because, as illustrated in David Marr’s account of Tony Abbott’s University days, University politics can mould the federal politicians of tomorrow. Indeed, there’s a bit of Tony Abbott in Left Action’s red posters. See if you can spot it: