No satire or ridicule please – this is parliament

I had not previously been aware that the rules of parliamentary broadcasting preclude “satire and ridicule”. Annabel Crabb raises the issue at the ABC, and reports that many politicians themselves are unaware of this.

First, prohibiting ridicule does seem a little redundant. One may well decree that there shalt be no ridicule, but it’s meaningless when the regular vacuum of sanity and cool-headedness in the chamber simply pulls in ridicule from all angles, irrespective of intent. An analogy might involve trying to bail water out of a ship that is not merely full of holes, but simply lacks a hull altogether. The attempt to prohibit ridicule is itself just a little ridiculous.

Satire, meanwhile, might actually make Question Time watchable at some level, without immediate risk of brain malfunction (see my previous Venn diagram). The provision against satire reminded me, of course, of the royal wedding, in which ABC2 and The Chaser were prevented from making the whole viewing experience worthwhile. More seriously, satire is essential for a healthy democracy. It is one of the most important forms of free speech, because, unlike political slogans, rhetoric and the like, it works with and gives force to nuance. It tears down idiocy mercilessly and reveals inconsistencies in public discourse that might otherwise be blunted by conventional narratives and sensibilities.

A satirical take on Question Time would not just be more entertaining than our current straight broadcasts, but ultimately even more important. It is important that we laugh at our leaders’ attempts at manipulating public opinion, because that’s our best shield against it.

However, there are conceivable technological workarounds for this sort of thing. A satirical broadcast could, in principle, be split into the original footage and some set of superimposed or overlaid video, audio and programmatic instructions for automatically combining them. These elements, when combined, could produce a seamless work of satire. However, imagine further that the actual combining is done by a piece of software on the viewer’s television, computer, etc., and that up until that point they are separate data streams, provided even by separate organisations.

Organisation A provides the original, unadulterated footage, while organisation B provides the satirical overlay. Organisation A cannot be held responsible because it has nothing to do with the satire. Organisation B cannot be held responsible because it isn’t broadcasting the footage. (None of this is especially novel, I suspect, though I haven’t really investigated.)

Maybe I’m missing some legal subtlety here. Maybe there’s still some arcane legal case against organisation B – I don’t know – but if the technological means fell into place (and it’s really just a matter of writing the software), I don’t immediately see how any legal avenue could plausibly stop it.

Poor persecuted Monckton

His Great and Wondrous Beneficence the Lord Christopher Monckton did, after all, give a lecture at Notre Dame University. Attempts (initiated by Natalie Latter) to dissuade Notre Dame from lending Monckton its credibility did not come to fruition, though drawing attention to his Lordship’s rank lunacy is always a small victory in itself.

As the letter puts it:

We all support academic freedom and the freedom to express our ideas and beliefs. However, Notre Dame University has a responsibility to avoid promoting discredited views on an issue of public risk. Notre Dame’s invitation to Lord Monckton makes a mockery of academic standards and the pursuit of evidence-based knowledge.

This has been laughably characterised as an attempt to “gag” Monckton (who has a minor obsession with characterising people as fascists and war criminals, suggesting for instance that climate scientists ought to stand trial for genocide). Does anyone honestly think that Monckton actually could have been gagged?

This call to preserve academic standards morphed (perhaps predictably) into a spurious fight for free speech. Tell me, dear reader: when was the last time you exercised your apparently fundamental democratic right to give a public lecture at a university?1 Do you believe that you have that right; that a university has a duty to invite you to give a lecture if you see fit to give one? Why should Monckton be afforded this privilege, when clearly “ordinary” members of the public are not?

Some, such as Professor Chris Doepel at Notre Dame, argue that all points of view must be heard. This is the refrain we hear from creationists asking that “Intelligent Design” be taught in schools. It’s a convenient rhetorical tool for engineering doubt. The consensus of virtually all the relevant experts, arrived at by considering the entire gamut of objective data collection and analysis conducted over decades, is made to look like only one set of opinions, rivaled by another set of opinions formed simply by making things up. Doepel makes the following self-refuting remark:

The university does not take a view one way or the other on the positions advocated by Christopher Monckton.

But that is a position on Monckton. An individual person might legitimately claim not to know enough to form an opinion2, but it beggars belief that a university – a place wherein truth is uncovered and disseminated – would have formed no position on one of the most outspoken and controversial figures of our time. A refusal to condemn Monckton’s views, for an institution that cannot possibly claim ignorance of what he stands for, is effectively an endorsement of those views. We certainly know where Notre Dame stands on legitimate climate research and climate action, then.

Others (such as the Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt) believe we should just let Monckton speak, and take the time to refute his claims. But this is to accept the false dichotomy that either he be allowed to speak wherever he likes, at any institution, or we tie him up in the basement. Monckton was clearly never in any danger of actually being silenced, not even if Notre Dame had heeded the call to preserve its academic integrity. Universities have credibility in the first place precisely because they discriminate between views supported by evidence and views not so supported (the same as scientific journals, and the scientific process in general). One can delude oneself into thinking that this is somehow undemocratic, but then reality isn’t democratic. At some point, for the sake of advancing the human cause, we must stand up and pass judgement; not on each other, but on our ideas. Science, technology, economics, etc. are not served simply by sitting and listening politely and “fairly” to endless regurgitations of refuted arguments. We have the media and the Internet for that; universities should know better.

Some believe we should just ignore Monckton. However, the man is steering the public debate in ways that are fundamentally detrimental to the prospects for sensible policy making. We cannot just ignore him. Academic institutional credibility aside, he already has all the media coverage anyone could dream of. This isn’t the result of some PR folly by his critics, but rather his oratory skills and the cozy hardline ideological relationship he has with some very loud and obnoxious media personalities.

It is incumbent upon academics to preserve the integrity of their institutions, and to confront misinformation that threatens to derail rational decision making. Free speech is a right, no doubt, but credibility must be earned.

  1. It is entirely possible, I suppose, that you have indeed given a public lecture at a university, but I think you’ll agree that it’s not exactly a right. []
  2. I sometimes admire those willing to admit ignorance rather than pick whichever view “feels” better. []

Abbott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Windsor:

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

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.

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.

The American hypothesis

I have a hypothesis on politics – a somewhat unfortunate hypothesis given its implications. Roughly speaking, it’s this: the workability of democracy diminishes with large populations. I’m not talking about the logistics of holding elections, but about the ability of society to engage in meaningful debate.

My reasoning goes like this. Insofar as I can tell, in any given (relatively democratic) country, the media tends to focus predominantly on the national politics of that country. At the same time, there are of course a variety of political parties and interest groups seeking to alter public perception for their own ends. We can think of this in two parts:

  1. the effort expended on politically-charged adverts, campaigns, editorials, etc.; and
  2. the resulting effects on the public mindset.

Due to mass media (TV, radio and the Internet), a fixed amount of “effort” will probably yield the same result, independent of the population size. That is, the effectiveness of a single TV ad will not diminish simply because more people are viewing it.

However, countries with larger populations will naturally have a higher talent pool from which to draw people to promote particular causes. Thus, more effort will be expended on political advertising, campaigns, editorials, etc., and so the effect on the public mindset will be greater. (I also assume that the proportion of people employed to promote particular causes is independent of population size.)

Now, we might naïvely assume that all this political advertising “balances out”, since there’s always an array of competing interests. I say this is naïve, because all efforts to promote political causes have one thing in common – one thing that can’t easily be balanced out: deception. I’m not only talking about outright lies (though it does come to that with tedious regularity), but also errors of omission, logical fallacies, appeals to emotion and any other psychological tricks used to blunt your critical thinking. They’re not even necessarily deliberate.

Without wanting to generalise, there are certainly a subset of PR people, political strategists and so on who do seem to hold an “ends justifies the means” view. These are the people who really feed the political machine, who take things out of context, invent strawmen, engage in character assassination, and generally pollute the political debate with outrageous propaganda. The larger the population, the more of these people there will be, and so the louder, better organised, more pervasive and more inventive the disinformation.

The effect of disinformation is to disconnect public perception from reality. At at sufficient level this would cripple democracy, because democracy relies on the people having at least some understanding of government policy and its consequences.

I can’t comment too much on India – the world’s largest democracy – because I honestly know very little about it.

I don’t claim much expertise on American politics either, but I suspect the US is suffering this affliction. To me, American politics now seems to languish in a state of heated anachronism. The political machine instantly suffocates any sign of meaningful debate with ignorant fear and rage. You’re still perfectly able to exercise your rights to free speech and free expression, but it’s not going to achieve anything. Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to climb above the fray, the media sometimes treats political debate more like a sporting match than a tool of democracy. I’m sure there is an element of this in every democratic country, but in the US it seems to be boiling over.

It might pay to consider this if we intend to move towards a World Federation, as science fiction often proposes, and which appeals to me intuitively. Of course, a “One World Government” is the nightmare-fantasy shared by so many conspiracy theorists. However, the danger is not that the government will have too much control, but that even with our rights fully protected, democracy will nevertheless be pummelled to oblivion by global armies of political strategists and PR hacks.

Just a thought.

How the sausage is made

People like me should never, ever be told about parliamentary RSS feeds. Unfortunately, I found out anyway, and soon after discovered a report from last week entitled Plebiscite for an Australian Republic Bill 2008 (tabled by the enchantingly-named Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee).

Briefly, the proposal is to hold a plebiscite on whether Australia should become a republic – a simple yes/no question not connected with any specific republic model. Should the response be affirmative, a second plebiscite would then determine a particular model, and a subsequent referendum would finalise the deal.

I’ve posted previously on the subject of such plebiscites. Professor David Flint  returned to bestow his special brand of wisdom on the committee:

4.9        Professor David Flint, National Convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy,  held the view that a plebiscite would create ‘constitutional instability’:

Not only unwise; it is irresponsible, because it invites a vote of no confidence in the existing system. It creates periods of constitutional instability where we do not know where we are and then leads to nothing.

I quote Flint (or at least the committee’s interpretation of Flint’s comments) only for my own amusement, because his arguments are so comically and transparently vacuous. My real purpose here is to look at the committee’s recommendations. Most of the report deals with the arguments for and against holding a plebiscite on whether Australia should become a republic. So what did they conclude?

Recommendation 1

6.5       The committee recommends the establishment of an ongoing public awareness campaign on Australia’s constitutional system which engages as wide a range of the public as possible.

Recommendation 2

6.7       The committee recommends that if any further process advocating constitutional change is undertaken, including that of a republic, it seek to encourage Australians to engage meaningfully in the debate.

Observe the most skillfully-crafted of non-answers – a compromise position that involves no actual compromise. An information campaign and public debate is something we can all agree on, right? Well yes, but if that’s all we can agree on then we’re not making an awful lot of progress.

Senator Bob Brown goes on the offensive in the Additional Comments section of the report:

The Labor government supports an Australian republic, but not yet.

So, to avoid embarrassment, the committee has declined to make any recommendations and declined to acknowledge that I was the senator who introduced the Bill.

And that’s how the sausage is made.

Yes and no

I came home from a dinner with the rellies to find that the daylight savings referendum had been defeated, which was mildly disappointing but hardly surprising. There’ll be another referendum in a while. At least I remembered to vote this time.

However, I am surprised and intrigued that the Greens candidate Adele Carles managed to pull off a convincing victory in the Fremantle by-election – 54% to Labor’s 46% two-candidate-preferred vote (with 79% of votes counted). The Libs seem not to have bothered to field a candidate, but I suspect they’d be satisfied with a Labor defeat. Even though the Greens are even more ideologically opposed to the Libs than Labor, they might create complications for the formation of a future Labor government.

The wrath of the plebiscites

A friend once told me that he opposed a referendum on Australia becoming a republic. If it were held he would vote “yes”, but he opposed holding it. I look back fondly to that nuanced political position, which many without thinking would probably dismiss as a contradiction.

Today I’m not a staunch republican – I am not personally bothered by the monarchy, anachronistic as it is. Had I been pondering the monarchist argument in depth, I suppose I might have imagined a studied discourse on the perils of populism. However, flicking through the articles on the website of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), the points made border on incoherent and the tone is very much that of populist politics.

Take the current poll question on the right of each page: “Should republicans be required to agree on precisely what changes to the Constitution they want before Mr Rudd calls another referendum?”

Potential for bias aside, the question is rather fatuous. Republicans are already required to spell out constitutional changes before they’re put to a referendum, because under the Constitution (which the ACM claims to vigorously defend) a referendum is binding. The whole referendum process, and by extension the Constitution itself, would be a sham if this were not the case.

As for the articles themselves, it’s equally difficult to follow their logic. Take this one, by one Professor David Flint (apparently the author of most of the site’s content): “A plebiscite with the next election? Sen.Brown’s irresponsible, wasteful bill“.

The premise, as best I can tell, is that Senator Bob Brown is committing an unforgivable sin by proposing a plebiscite (a non-binding pseudo-referendum) on the republic issue. Why would he do such a thing? Well, the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) has proposed holding three plebiscites: one to ask whether we should become a republic, one to ask what model we’d prefer, and one to ask what the head of state should be called (I’d go for “Wizard of Oz” personally, but that’s just me). Then, once all the details are sorted out, an actual referendum would be called. ACM wants Senator Brown to have all these details with him before the first plebiscite, and by the way it should be a referendum.

“The only reason Senator Brown and the republicans are not proposing a referendum is that they fear they would lose a referendum,” the article jeers cynically.

The logic here gets very tenuous indeed. In the end, no matter how many plebiscites are held, there still has to be an actual referendum before anything changes. If the republicans truly do not intend to hold one, then the monarchists win by default, and Professor Flint should be toasting to the Eternal Glory of Royalty by Birthright. But strangely, no. The point of having multiple plebiscites is to consult with the community on different parts of the issue before any irreversible decisions are made. A referendum based on community consultation is a lot more likely to succeed than one based solely on the whims of a politician. In essence, the people would be asked to confirm what they’ve already indicated support for.

ACM apparently can’t understand why the republicans need to be all democratic about the issue, and it’s angry (or, at least, Professor Flint is angry). The article points out, beneath a huge picture of Napolean, that there were “six plebiscites to entrench his dictatorial control over France and occupied Europe”. We are led to believe by the advocates of the status quo that plebiscites, which can’t change anything in Australia, are evil, but referendums are good. Got that? Thank goodness Napolean was removed and France became a republic. Oh wait, what was the point again?

The monarchist’s real problem is that there isn’t a terribly cohesive and convincing monarchist argument. All they can do is wait for the republicans to come up with a model and then knock it down with whatever convenient rhetorical devices they can find laying around. There’s not much they can do to thwart the general concept of Australia becoming a republic. Moreover, if ARM’s second plebiscite is held, I doubt there’s any single convincing argument that will hold against all five of ARM’s alternative republican models (with the possible exception of “How dare you change the Constitution!”). Professor Flint is agitated at the lack of detail in Senator Brown’s proposal not because it’s an issue per se, but because his opponent hasn’t given him any ammunition.

It’s worth noting that the first two plebiscites could be rolled into one. A single plebiscite – with one option for the status quo and five more for the various republican models – would be slightly fairer than two separate plebiscites, assuming that preferential voting is used. Like me, you might prefer only some republican models over the status quo, and you cannot convey this sentiment with two separate votes. But maybe that’s just too nuanced.