Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Nats and Libs: The Tom and Nicole of Aussie Politics?

The situation between the Nats and Libs gets stickier as each day passes. Could the marriage be on shaky ground? The question was answered earlier this week in at least one state, when the WA branch of the Nationals announced their decision to split from the Coalition and sit on the cross benches in order to better represent their constituents. For all the Federal party's crisis meetings and discussion about re-branding, it's interesting - but fairly logical - that one wing of the party should take the concept of delineation literally. Meanwhile, at least one member of the Liberal Party, the outspoken Peter Slipper, is suggesting the party go in exactly the opposite direction - lay down the Akubras and officially merge with the Liberal Party. This is clearly not going to happen, but the fact that it's even being suggested is quite extraordinary.

Party president David Russell was talking tough on tonight's 7.30 Report after today's so-called crisis meeting, calling for the Federal Liberal Party to prove that it had no involvement in Julian McGuaran's defection to the party by rejecting his application to join. Again, this is something that won't happen, but by rights, it probably should, for two reasons; firstly, that the seat is, by rights, a National Party seat. Because of the system of voting in the Senate, voters elected to be represented by a National Party senator, not Julian McGuaran and whatever party he decided to join today. Secondly, Julian McGuaran is such a staggeringly mediocre senator that it's a wonder any political party has put up with him for the decade or so for which his dreary political career has ambled.

The party has repeatedly refused to rule out axing their long running policy of not running three cornered senate contests. It doesn't take an expert to see that this is clearly electoral suicide, but as far as suicides go, it's one that's painfully symbolic. Part of me wonders whether the Federal Nationals would be thinking differently if the Senate majority were not an issue. A lot more of me suggests it would be very different were the Coalition in Opposition, and the sort of disarray in which it languished throughout much of the 1990s.

I'm already risking turning this blog into a What Are Those Crazy Nats Up To Today blog, but to see a party in such clear turmoil over its identity and future, and to see this play out within the normally unflappable Coalition government ... quite entertaining indeed.

AWB: Where Will It End?

As the tabling of letters written by the Prime Minister at the Oil for Food enquiry yesterday shows - and as I wrote earlier - it appears the AWB scandal touches on the highest echelons of government. And though, as always, the chair of the enquiry is hand picked by the government, it appears that Michael Cole QC is no government patsy. To play the devil's advocate for a moment - and not to allow Howard to do his usual I Was Not Informed, Don't Blame Me routine, or to circumvent the fact that the buck stops at the top - it would perhaps be wrong to focus too much on the culpability of the Prime Minister without examining the role of Mark Vaile and Alexander Downer, given that it was their respective departments who approved of the AWB deal. (Kevin Rudd would certainly disagree that the Prime Minister has nothing to answer to - in fact, in one of those exciting radio moments, he rang ABC's AM programme live on air yesterday to tell them exactly what he thought of Howard's comments on the letters (which can be read here

Even removing the component of paying kickbacks to the same bloodthirsty regime that it was supposed to be ousting, the enquiry is uncovering some pretty startling stuff. For example, since when is the fact that a monopoly exporter was `only' inflating its prices to recover a multimillion dollar debt for a massive corporation (BHP) `the good news'?

But where will this all end up? Naturally, were I writing pre-July 2005, the preparations would already be being made for a Senate enquiry, and what a humdinger it would be too (the Opposition have already pledged to launch a parliamentary enquiry after the next election - presuming they win it, of course).

There is talk of criminal charges against AWB executives, but this is cold comfort when we know that the ministers who allowed this corporation to misbehave on the massive scale that they did will, as usual, get off scot free.

Mind you, with all the thrills and spills going on in the National Party at the moment, Mark Vaile might be pleased to walk the plank ...

Channel 9's Exciting New Rebranding

Last night, Channel 9 debuted its much rumoured rebranding, dispensing with the famous - some would say iconic - station ID which has remained unchanged while the other networks have chopped and changed numerous times over the years.

Well folks, the difference is startling, it's earthshattering, it's genre-busting, it's revolutionary, it's ... well ... it's exactly the same as before. But without the nine dots.

I've seen some pretty pointless corporate rebrandings (the press releases which accompany them are often even better - Southern Cross took two pages to explain exactly why changing their logo would change the face of Australian media, and why they had employed a company whose sole job it is to come up with new brands to do so), but this one would have to take the cake. Kerry Packer - you now have your first mandate to spin in your grave.

`A Current Affair's new decor (and host, Tracy `No, I'm not Naomi Robson' Grimshaw, was equally uninspiring (as was its content, which included that old current affairs show standby, `If we leave a hundred bucks in the pocket of our dry cleaning, will it be returned to us or will we get a chance to chase a couple of screaming dry cleaners down the street?' Working Dog really needs to leave behind slop like The Panel and get together a few more series of Frontline ...)

Even for the purposes of research, I can't bear to give Channel 10's new show, `9am' (which replaces the Bert Newton show) a go. It's all ... just ... too ... horrible ...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Graham Edwards to Quit

Western Australian Labor MP Graham Edwards has announced his decision to quit politics prior to the next election, following a 20 year career. A Vietnam veteran (in fact, the only veteran of any war currently serving in parliament - quite amazing when you think of it) who lost both legs in a landmine blast, Edwards has pledged to continue advocating for veterans issues. He has been well respected figure on both sides of politics since winning the seat of Cowan in 1998.

That is, by most members. Edwards is also famous as the man Tony Abbott had to physically restrain himself from rushing across the parliamentary chamber and thumping during one heated debate. Nice one, Tone.

Nats `In Open Revolt'

Elements within the National Party are reportedly not only openly protesting John Howard's cabinet reshuffle - in particular, his decision to dump underperforming Veterans Affairs Minister De-Anne Kelly and thus deprive the party of one cabinet position, a move Howard has put down to `arithmetic' - but casting doubt over the very future of the Coalition, following Julian McGuaran's ill-timed (or perfectly-timed, depending on how you look at it) defection to the Liberal Party. And, according to ABC political reporter Jim Middleton on yesterday's ABC News, at least three other Nationals MPs have considered - and may still be considering - following McGuaran's lead. Meanwhile, the reshuffle has also sparked disquiet in the Liberal Party, with the Member for Herbert, Peter Lindsay, complaining that the new cabinet tips the balance away from Queensland and towards Sydney and Melbourne.

Lindsay has pinned the blame for the discord in the Nats on - wouldn't you know it - Barnaby Joyce, for being a `destabilizing influence'. This is at worst, silliness and superficial fingerpointing; at best, only part of the story. There is no doubt that for some Nationals, Joyce represents a major problem. However, for many - and who knows, perhaps many more (particularly in Queensland, as evidenced by the fact that long serving conservative Nationals senator Ron Boswell's preselection is again under serious threat) - he clearly represents the way of the future for the National Party. As the ABC's election analyst Antony Green pointed out on last night's 7:30 Report (as part of their in depth story on the controversy - well worth reading), electoral support for the Nats has steadily been declining since the Joh for Canberra campaign and today is at an all-time low. Were the party not part of a ruling Coalition, perhaps there would be a formal split like that seen in the ALP in the days of B A Santamaria. It's unlikely that such extreme measures will be taken today, especially with the future of the Senate majority hanging in the balance, but should there be further defections to the Liberal Party, this would not only endanger the future of the Nationals by sapping the already declining party of credibility, but would potentially function as a de facto split.

Howard was, naturally enough, keen to hose down the speculation in his interview with the 7:30 Report , yet it was also clear he was more keen to move on from the story altogether. He's unlikely to be pleased about such ill-discipline in a team over which his control is necessarily limited, much less descriptions, such as that on today's Channel 10 News, that he now faces the greatest level of discord within his government in its ten years of existence.

Kim Beazley put it perfectly today when he said (and I paraphrase, but not by much) `Oh, the Libs hate the Nats and the Nats hate the Libs - wouldn't you just love to be rid of the lot of them?'

Well put, Kim.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Cabinet Reshuffle in Depth

The Prime Minister's cabinet reshuffle this afternoon is a perfect study in the art of the political balancing act.

It comes at a time when Howard has to keep a number of plates spinning. Leave any one to lose momentum, and down it crashes. One, the Nationals. Two, Peter Costello. Three, Malcolm Turnbull. Four, the balance between Nationals and Liberals in cabinet. Five, the balance between states. Six, the balance between men and women. The list goes on ...

In one sense, what we have been given is a Clayton's reshuffle. The inner ministry - positions such as Attorney General, Health, Communications, Trade and Immigration remain largely unchanged, other than Defence, which has been given to Brendan Nelson, whom Howard today described as `a details man' (his nickname - not always outside his own party - is `Rain Man'). Did Howard eschew the chance to demote ministers such as Amanda Vanstone, who have presided over scandals in their portfolio, for fear of a week or so of Opposition hoots of `I told you so!', instead risking a term's worth of further problems as these ministers continue to blunder their way through their jobs? The moral rigidity of Tony Abbott in a porfolio that must clearly be held by someone who can put aside their personal beliefs? Even the spellbindingly lacklustre performance of Kevin Andrews in the porfolio which may ultimately make or break the Howard government? The answer, apparently, is yes.

Amanda Vanstone has, at the very least, had Andrew Robb given to her as a parliamentary secretary (YAAY, thinks Robbo ...) and Aboriginal Affairs taken away from her, to be combined into an odd new super-portfolio along with Community and Family, to be held by Mal Brough, of all people. It's all very well to suggest that the cluster is designed to represent the mainstreaming of provisions to indigenous communities, but it appears the brief flirtation with the crazy idea of appointing a woman to discuss matters of family and childcare (after the previous Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Larry Anthony, lost his seat in the 2004 election) has proven to be just that - brief, and a flirtation.

Meanwhile, Julie Bishop, who was widely tipped to take this portfolio, has instead been rocketed straight into the inner ministry, replacing Brendan Nelson as education minister (Nick Minchin having dodged Defence after successfully arguing that he should stay in Finance, a move that is being interpreted as his first obvious jostle to remain first in line whenever Treasury next comes up for grabs) - too bad she's not a National, or Howard may have been able to make up for the double whammy loss of De-Anne Kelly, who has been dumped after an unspectacular stint as Veterans Affairs Minister (though following in the footsteps of Danna Vale makes anyone look like a star performer).

In fact, we could be in with a snowball's chance of seeing our first competent Vets Affairs Minister in a decade with the elevation of Bruce Billson. The former Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs has long been one of the quiet achievers on the back bench, working hard on the nasty bits of Alexander Downer's job which, in the past year, has involved visiting quite a number of trouble spots at which Lord Downer of Baghdad would find nary a state dinner, official reception or crowned head to bow to.

A joke was circulating for days before the reshuffle - sure, Malcolm Turnbull would be become a parliamentary secretary, but to who? Whom could he possibly bear playing second fiddle to? Howard answered the question in deft form by making him parliamentary secretary to himself, the Prime Minister. The complex set of messages this elevation sends can hardly be underestimated. Yes, it's an elevation. No, it's not speeding him past other MPs. Well yes, it sort of is. No, it's not a particularly important job. Well, yes, though, he's the PM's spokesman. No, he's not usurping Peter Costello. Yes, he'd be very glad if that was the perception, though ...

Speaking of which, what of these rumours that one Mr P. Costello was the one who helped `poach' Senator Julian McGuaran from the Nationals to the Liberal Party? Would Mr Costello do something so deeply destabilizing on the eve of a reshuffle that was intended to bring glory on Mr J. Howard and shore up his majority for the forseeable future? Would Howard do the honourable thing and tell McGuaran to rack off, thus leaving a gaping hole in the Senate majority?

Well I never - a pig, flying!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Nats Receive Their Own Surprise `Reshuffle'

Nationals Senator Julian McGuaran (brother of the higher profile Peter McGuaran, the Minister for Agriculture, who is nonetheless famous enough for ringing in the new Howard-controlled Senate with a kindly middle finger in the face of the Federal Opposition ... charming man), has announced he plans to quit the National Party to join the Liberal Party, saying there is `no policy differentiation' between the two parties. Nationals Leader Mark Vaile is furious, and has demanded McGuaran resign from parliament altogether.

While not the earthshattering news it might have been had McGuaran decided to quit the Coalition altogether and go independent (now, wouldn't that have been fascinating), McGuaran's stance is indicative of a wider malaise facing the National Party. A Coalition is a tricky thing in a parliamentary system such as Australia's, which isn't really built for them, unlike more complex (and some would argue, more representative) democracies such as Denmark in which outright majority party leadership is rare. This is doubly so in the case of a Coalition such as the Liberal-National, where one partner is clearly dominant, and one clearly on the decline. Yet like it or not, the Liberals without the Nationals would be unelectable - even with preference sharing. They just don't get enough votes (the situation in Queensland, where the parties are not in Coalition, is ample illustration of this).

As for the Nationals, it appears they have two directions to take - one, to drift further into the realms of Liberals in Moleskins and thus, irrelevance, lack of policy differentiation, and votes lost to energetic Independents of the likes of Tony Windsor, Peter Andren and Dawn Fardell; or embrace the equally energetic, motivated, though sometimes misguided likes of Barnaby Joyce.

Either way, the Coalition will continue; a sad little marriage of convenience that will endure no matter how unhappy Lady Lib and Mr Nat are behind the scenes.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Ian Macdonald Sacked From Cabinet

Federal Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald has been named as the first minister to be sacked under John Howard's cabinet reshuffle. There is no word on who will replace him. The move indicates the reshuffle will be far more substantial than a mere tweaking at the edges, as some had initially suggested. This, according to some readings of the situation, also represents a rebuff to Peter Costello on Howard's part, locking in a solid team for the future rather than leaving some positions for Costello to make his mark on cabinet when he attains the leadership.

Thus ends one of the most interesting jurisdictional confusions in recent political history in that, by an extraordinary coincidence, the NSW Natural Resources Minister - who is also responsible for Fisheries - is also named Ian Macdonald. And there the similarities end ...

Movement at the Stations

Well, most of the shock jocks are trudging back to work, and some changes to the Sydney radio landscape should be noted. 2UE have taken the interesting step of uniting breakfast host Mike Carlton with his summertime replacement, Peter Fitzsimons. It will be interesting to see how this experiment works - both are gutsy, outspoken, intelligent and very funny blokes, so there's bound to be sparks, but is the radio big enough for the two of them? Both have such dominant personalities that it's hard to see either playing the sidekick. Carlton's show has always been the smart alternative to the occasionally soft-centred ABC 702 Breakfast - it remains to be seen whether this will give it the ratings boost 2UE is clearly after.

Speaking of ABC 702, it looks like Adam Spencer's long awaited debut in the breakfast slot will be some time off yet, but the new programming format begins on Monday. The breakfast show now ends before AM at 8am, and Virginia Trioli begins at 8:30am, ending at 11am. There's now a new show, hosted by Richard Fidler (I really should stop saying formerly of the Doug Anthony Allstars ...), called The Conversation Hour, and described as ... well ... conversations. For an hour. It's the biggest change in ABC 702's line-up in living memory, and its listeners tend to be creatures of habit (the caller who told Angela Catterns `We'll miss you' has been endlessly quoted as a case in point - not the least by observers of her new employers, Vega FM, who recently sacked Saatchi & Saatchi in favour of new talent to relaunch the disappointingly received station), so it will be interesting to see their reaction to the myriad changes.

Meanwhile, the Sunday political shows return in a few weeks, with the new souped up Insiders making its debut on the ABC on February 12th, Channel 9's Sunday also returning, with reinstated executive producer John Lyons.

Patterson Pre-Empts the Axe

Family and Community Services Minister Kay Patterson has announced she is moving to the back bench before retiring from politics altogether prior to the next Federal Election. She was widely tipped (no, not only by me) to lose her position in cabinet in the upcoming reshuffle, having been an unspectacular performer in her portfolio, which she was given after making a similarly small splash as Minister for Health and Aging.

Patterson's portfolio is becoming increasingly important given that, as I have discussed, the family is emerging as one of the pre-eminent battlegrounds of Australian politics. Backbencher Jackie Kelly's outbursts earlier this week are a more extreme reflection of the diversity of opinions that exist within the Liberal party on this very contentious portfolio, and the fact that Kelly has now been supported not only by the Liberal NSW Women's Council but the Shadow Minister for Children, Youth and Family, Tanya Plibersek, could only have fatally undermined Patterson at such a difficult time.

It will be interesting to see whether the job is given to a junior minister or an experienced long-timer. Current Minister for Aging Julie Bishop is a possibility, though parliamentary secretary Dr Sharman Stone has also, like Jackie Kelly, spoken out strongly on childcare issues in the past.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Update: Hill Quits

Defence Minister Robert Hill is at this moment holding a press conference confirming his decision to quit Federal politics. However, he has denied widespread reports that the move is in order to take up a position as Australia's ambassador to the UN.

AWB: `A Whole New Class of Evil'

There was a certain je ne sais quoi about Kevin Rudd as he made his major media debut for this year on last night's 7.30 Report. Somehow, he gave the impression that nobody would be calling him Pixie in 2006.

Of course, he was assisted in this by the issue he was on the show to discuss - the increasingly, incredibly grubby Australian Wheat Board scandal.

When the scandal first broke, I expressed some doubt that it would be able to take root in the imagination of the wider public. I still hold those doubts. Whereas something like the Schapelle Corby case captured the (forgive me) hearts and minds of many ordinary Australians as they could presumably picture themselves in her position, there's very little for Average Joe to latch onto in the AWB case. Were Australia suffering the same sorts of casualties as Britain (or indeed, America) in Iraq, the situation may be different. Were it also still travelling on the sheep's back, it may also be different - the grain farmers who grew the wheat, the sale of which ended up being spent on Saddam Hussein's palaces, are already extremely angry about the whole affair, as they well and truly have a right to be. As AWB is a monopoly, they have no choice but to deal with the company or go out of business. There can be no question of ethical boycotts.

One such farmer summed up the situation on the 7:30 Report last night very well:
What the AWB has done is to defrauded a humanitarian program, which was designed to assist the Iraqi people, who were suffering under Saddam Hussein, and they've actually given the money to Saddam Hussein. So, this is simply not in the same category as a whole new class of evil, I suppose.

There's really no getting around it - the whole thing not only stinks to high heaven, but it is also becoming clear that the rot goes right to the top. While Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile may be directly or indirectly culpable, the enquiry that has been set up has been set up (as all good enquiries are) in such a way as to deliberately shield those who need to be shielded. But the fact remains that a government body handed money to the Hussein regime with one hand, while ordering Australian troops to depose this regime with the other. That no ministerial heads will roll over this is a deep indictment of the state of ministerial responsibility under the Howard Government.

As Rudd said, it has a way to go. Exactly how far remains to be seen.

ABC Boss Quits

ABC Managing Director Russell Balding has quit to become CEO of the Sydney Airports Corporation. Max Moore Wilton (former Howard Government hatchet man and brains, if that is the word, behind the Pacific Solution), is leaving for the Macquarie Bank. This comes one year ahead of the end of his 5 year contract, and after 10 years with the ABC. The news comes shortly after the appointment of a new Head of TV to the broadcaster, Kim Dalton, who has pledged to recommit to local content, of which the ABC produced a mere 3 hours in 2005.

Balding was credited with bringing stability to the ABC after the disastrous Jonathon Shier years, but the timing of his resignation has been harshly criticised by Stateline host and ABC staff delegate Quentin Dempster, coinciding as it does with the Federal Government's Funding Adequacy and Efficiency Review. Dempster has suggested that Balding's resignation at such a crucial time in the ABC's history could even endanger the broadcaster's future, and particularly its transition to new media forms.

But then, Balding's been made an `attractive' offer by Sydney Airports Corporation - itself at a crucial period as it faces a tough battle against the City of Sydney Council to build a massive (and massively unnecessary) shopping centre development - and that is, of course, all that matters.

Hill to Alight

Rumours are intensifying that Robert Hill will announce his decision to quit parliament today after accepting the position of Australian Ambassador to the UN that was offered to him. Expect a few gleeful faces on the front bench, plus a few agonised ones on the front bench.

The Oz tips either Nick Minchin or Tony Abbott to replace him as Defence Minister. If these are the two on offer, I'd tip Minchin every time, though I wouldn't be at all surprised if Abbott's reshuffled out of Health (The Oz predicts that Brendan Nelson will receive Health in his place, which would seem logical, given that he is a former doctor) and into ... what, Immigration? There's a frightening thought ... though anything's less frightening than Amanda Bereckonedwith. After making such a hash of Immigration, can Mandy be trusted to return to her old portfolio of Education in Nelson's place, or will a newcomer be promoted to the portfolio?

In any case, Vanstone and Patterson are predicted to lose out in the reshuffle, and possibly De-Anne Kelly and John Cobb. Meanwhile, the likes of Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb, Christopher Pyne and Christopher Pearce are expected to be rewarded. No doubt Malcolm Turnbull will get some token position for his million dollar troubles, but I can't see him in the inner ministry. The full details of the reshuffle are expected to be announced within a week.

Monday, January 16, 2006

WA Premier Geoff Gallop Quits

WA Premier Geoff Gallop has resigned less than a year after a convincing win in the WA State Election. He has cited depression as the reason for this dramatic step. He is expected to be replaced by the state's treasurer, Eric Ripper.

The Sydney Morning Herald carries a full text of Mr Gallop's resignation statement. Kim Beazley (himself, of course, a WA native, this afternoon paid tribute to Gallop, concluding that he `leaves our State a far better place than he found it'.

We get used to hearing a lot of complaints about politicians - about how lazy they are, about how many perks they get, how many holidays they take or dinners they attend. But the truth is, I don't think I've met a single one - of any political stripe - who didn't work their rear end off and, more importantly, didn't take their work home with them every night. Representative democracy of the flavour handed down to us by James Madison and his ilk begs a lot of politicians - it asks them to put themselves in the heads of 80,000-odd people and speak for them, argue for them, and above all, not to let them down. It's an enormous burden to have to carry; much more for those in the highest positions of power, who represent not only hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people, but represent them to the nation.

Ironically, there has recently been a discussion on Crikey (in reaction to this article and its subsequent responses) about the toll politics and activism can take on the mental health of its participants. The strain that has shown on people such as Andrew Bartlett, Nick Sherry, John Brogden, Greg Wilton, and arguably, Mark Latham, is well documented, as is the fact that while some are able to seek help at the right time and overcome their illness, others - tragically - are not.

Geoff Gallop should be congratulated for knowing when to seek help, and knowing where his true priorities lie. In doing so, he may have averted a potential tragedy, or at the very least, a great deal of misery.

Reshuffle a-Go Go?

Despite his categorical denials late last year (not that that amounts to a hill of beans - if not the literal truth, perhaps it was, as Oprah Winfrey described James Frey's book, `the emotional truth', rumours are once more rising of a Federal cabinet reshuffle, pending Defence Minister Robert Hill's possible decision to take up a diplomatic post. Andrew Robb (spearhead of the industrial relations campaign) and Malcolm Turnbull are the two names most frequently mentioned for possible elevation; though to my mind, it would be risky to elevate Turnbull. Robb has, at the very least, paid his dues. Elevating Turnbull ahead of longer serving MPs would risk alienating a large segment of the unremarkable but faithful backbenchers on which Howard has built his bedrock.

However, perhaps former golden girl Jackie Kelly is also making a determined tilt at the ministry, with her calls this week to radically overhaul the childcare system. Peter Costello, apparently completely forgetting that he made statements barely a fortnight ago promising to fork money hand over fist to Australian families, has, of course, pooh-poohed the idea and told her to hop on the line.

Kelly, whose seat of Lindsay is in prime mortgage belt territory in Western Sydney, has lurched from `next big thing' to `whatever happened to' over the years since her election in 1996, dropping out of the cabinet in 2004 (to, it must be noted, spend more time with her children). Should a cabinet reshuffle be on the cards, now would be the ideal time for the sharks to circle noted underperformer, Community Services Minister Kay Patterson (who only managed her first major statement about child care late last year), would it not?

Also being muttered about darkly are Veterans Affairs Minister De-Anne Kelly (though anyone has to look like a genius beside her predecessor, legendary blunderer Danna Vale) and Amanda Vanstone (pity the poor fool who inherits her cursed portfolio. But pity us, the other 50% of Australia, even more ...)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Federal Redistribution

With nearly no fanfare whatsoever, the Australian Electoral Commission recently announced something that had long been pending - a Federal redistribution in both Queensland and NSW, which will require the creation of a new Federal seat in Queensland and the removal of one in NSW. The new enrollment quota will be 85,220 voters per electorate in Queensland and 87,931in NSW. At this early stage, there's no word on who the unlucky NSW pollie might be.

Currently, NSW's largest electorates are Mitchell (96276, safely held since voters wore bell bottoms by Liberal MP Alan Cadman), Sydney (96189, safely held by Labor MP Tanya Plibersek), Eden-Monaro (92397, the famous `bellwether seat', marginally held by Liberal MP Gary Nairn), and Greenway (90988, famously lost to Liberal and Hillsonger Louise Markus in the 2004 election).

The example of Sydney serves to illustrate what an extraordinary political juggling act a redistribution can be. To the south, the seat is surrounded by safe Labor seats - Grayndler (Anthony Albanese), Kingsford Smith (Peter Garrett). Moving north, things get a little stickier - Lowe (marginal Labor, held by John Murphy), North Sydney (Liberal minister Joe Hockey), and of course, as we move to the east, Warringah (Tony Abbott) and Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull). It's quite amazing to think that people living cheek by jowl would vote so differently ...

Of these seats, Wentworth, Warringah, Grayndler and Kingsford Smith are under quota. Lowe is about right. North Sydney is over. Between them, they would roughly be able to take in the excess voters that would be able to bring Sydney's quota back down to what it needs to be. However, in these, as in many other seats, parties will have to lobby hard to ensure the voters they get come from area most likely to vote for their candidate - or, on the other hand, to argue that the voters leaving their electorate are too likely to give their new electorate an unfair advantage. Like I said - a nasty little juggling act it is in a game where every vote counts.

Which brings me to another rumour doing the rounds. Not so far from Sydney - in fact, almost sharing a border with it - is a seat a few thousand under the margin which could do with a bit of propping up from a neighbouring seat on a safer margin (North Sydney, for example, on 10%, or the aforementioned Mitchell), given that its margin was nearly halved from 7.7% to a worrisome and officially marginal 4.3% in the last Federal Election. Rumour has it that this just might be what could happen to ensure said seat sits on a more respectable margin. The seat? Bennelong - and the sitting member - one John Howard.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Skullduggery in the Book Trade

A good deal of media attention over the past few days has been dedicated to new enquiries into the safety of the best-selling CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet. It's certainly not the first time the diet has been questioned. You have to feel sorry for the CSIRO. Like Australia's universities, its charter of innovation and research has increasingly been pushed into the background in pursuit of the almighty dollar, and it must be humbling indeed not only to have to churn out tosh like populist diet books to survive but to go begging to the food industry to fund it, thus compromising the independence of research as is commonly seen in the US.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying `So take the CSIRO Diet with a grain of low-sodium salt'. However, particularly prominent in the new chorus of criticisms has been one Dr John Tickell, who was rather non-ticklish on yesterday's talkback radio and TV news, even going so far as to demand that John Howard and Health Minister Tony Abbott kick off the boat shoes, come back from holidays, and sort out the whole fracas before devotees of the CSIRO diet collectively choke on their T-bones.

All very well - but precisely nowhere was it reported that - by massive coincidence, of which the world is apparently filled with many - Dr Tickell is also the author of the newly released Great Australian Diet Recipe Book (incorporating The Asian Food 7 Day Detox). You'll find this on the shelves of most major bookstores - frequently, right next to ... erm ... The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet ...

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the latest best-seller - thanks to a hearty endorsement from Oprah Winfrey - is A Million Little Pieces, a harrowing true story by former Drug Addict, Alcoholic, Criminal, and Chronic Over-User of Un-necessary Capitalisation, James Frey. In the USA, Frey's happy little tome sold second only to the latest Harry Potter book in the Christmas period. There's only one teensy problem, according to dirt-digging website The Smoking Gun: it's all a big pack of Demidenko sized whoppers. In the course of finding a picture of Frey's kisser to add to their gallery of celebrity mugshots, the website uncovered the real shocking truth - that Frey's `extensive' criminal record contained nothing more than a few drink-driving convictions, and that his book's sequel, My Friend Leonard (detailing his heartwarming relationship with an illiterate prison inmate to whom he read `War and Peace) was clearly almost entirely fictional.

It remains to be seen whether this subterfuge will start a Helen Demidenko-scale scandal - or even a Jayson Blair scale one - but one way or the other, Frey's story - his real story - makes intriguing holiday reading.

Dear God

Dear God,
Given that Cut Price Commentariat doesn't get in touch with you all that much any more, can I humbly request that something unpleasant but non-fatal happen to Miranda Devine (lightning strike, perhaps? That way, there would be a good chance of unscrambling her brain and/or keeping her away from her keyboard for sometime - whichever suits) so that Annabel Crabbe can permanently take over her column in the Sun-Herald to the relief of all right (by which I mean `correct') minded people?

Oh, and thanks for the brilliant news that Insiders will be extended to an hour-long show this year. Absolutely tops, can't wait!


Costello's Barbecue Stopper

While I've repeatedly asserted that the only way John Howard's going to come out of Kirribilli House is in a box, it's interesting to see that Peter Costello now apparently judges that appealling to middle income families is his next best bet.

But what is Costello actually promising? Yesterday's media contained a lot of heartwarming shots of Cossie & family having a cosy lunch together, huddling around personably and doing whatever they think people on fifty grand a year and under generally do. Yet when it came to the crunch - announcing any detail beyond `I'd like to give middle to low income families a better break' - Costello refused to give any details beyond `Get your thieving poor-person hands off my lovely surplus!'

Which leads one to wonder exactly what the point of such an announcement at such a time is. Certainly, he has the clear blue sky of the silly season to his advantage; unfortunately, family issues are frequently seen as soft policy by commentators and are more likely to be jostled aside in the regular news cycle. Also, the person most likely to comment against Costello's announcement, the Shadow Minister for Work and Family, Tanya Plibersek, is currently on leave (as an aside ... paging Community Services Minister Kay Patterson ... do you still exist?). Yet on the whole, the announcement strikes me - like so many of Costello's announcements - as a damp squib. Costello is likely to keep making such announcements and not paying off on them if not until the next Budget; until the next Election. Families deserve better than rhetoric and a smirk. In the meantime, it appears that they will be the new political battleground (the current edition of The Griffith Review agrees).

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Young Labor's `National Service'

Boy, you can really pick a slow news day. Yesterday must have been one of them, if the hysterical misinterpretation of Young Labor's suggestion that all HSC students complete a compulsory period of community service is any indication - or the fact that a suggestion by Young Labor should become national front page news at all, actually.
For the record (Sydney Morning Herald, are you listening), the idea is NOT to reintroduce national youth military service of the sort that once existed in Australia, or that still exists in many European countries. It's simply to introduce a programme - much the same as already exists in many companies to help meet their Corporate Social Responsibility charter, and also in many Catholic schools - in which students can work for volunteer organisations within school time. Young Labor's idea does include participating in cadets as a volunteer option. This is hardly `national service' - or at least, not in the old understanding of the term.
Not only do I think the idea has merit, but I think it shows a great deal of political acumen. What a way to wedge the government! Those on the Right aren't going to oppose a plan which would potentially see more students joining cadets, while those on the Left are hardly going to stop something that assists volunteer organisations and places more youth into the community. The only caveat I'd place on the plan is the one the Federal ALP has in endorsing the plan today - making the plan voluntary rather than compulsory. As I said, similar programmes already exist in a compulsory form in some Catholic schools. I've seen this in action, and there's nothing less pretty than an unwilling student being dragged off to serve at an old folk's home or what have you ... though the idea was to expose people to volunteering who otherwise wouldn't have gone, in practise, it just didn't work. On the other hand, to those who are willing, a plan like this could be very beneficial.
But let's get this clear. To compare the plan to Vietnam era national service is not only ludicrous, it takes away from an idea worth considering. But maybe that's the point ....

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Narnian Trade Talks Collapse; Silly Season Still Going Strong

Indulge me if you will - it is, after all, still silly season, when most bloggers skive off and spend a lot of time at the movies and playing X-Box (though some resolutely remain at the wheel, and I salute them). After being rather disappointed by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book much better, movie drained of moral complexity) and rather more pleased by The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (adaptation excellent, Christian allegory basically inscrutable without close contemplation), I was thrilled to come across the following in The Age:
The fantasy land of Narnia, the subject of C. S. Lewis' stories and a just-released film, impinged on last week's World Trade Organisation talks.

A story issued by financial news agency AFX on Sunday, picked up by several other outlets, has left a series of red faces by faithfully reporting a press release from "the independent state of Narnia". The story claimed Narnia had walked out of the World Trade Organisation talks in Hong Kong because it was fed up with being bullied by the US and Europe. It claimed the major powers were attempting to enforce liberalisation of its clothing sector.

It quoted Narnia spokeswoman Susan Aslan (Aslan is the name of the Christ-like lion featured in the film, and book, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). Narnia's delegates "were tired of bullying by EU and US delegations and would be returning immediately to their state capital at Cair Parvel," Ms Aslan was reported as saying. "If this brings the Hong Kong talks to the knees we will be delighted," it went on. The story was picked up by top business websites, including

The agencies involved have since removed the reports.

No doubt Mark Vaile is rushing to the Wardrobe as we speak, in order to ink the first Australia-Narnia FTA ...

The US FTA - Free for Who?

One year on, and - surprise, surprise - the US Free Trade Agreement is looking like a distinctly dodgy deal for Australia (extensive arguments as to exactly why are available at The Evatt Institute's website). Remember the claptrap we heard about what a marvellous boon it would be for Australian trade? Can anyone name a single major tangible benefit that has flowed from the deal in the past year? Anybody? Anybody? Even the government concedes that it's been a fizzer, but blame the stronger currency and increased competition from Asia. Which is dreadfully ironic, folks, given that since Australia hopped off the sheep's back, the only ride it can catch is the bullet train known as the Chinese resources boom ... ever heard the one about having the cake and eating it too?

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre has gone so far as to call for the FTA to be entirely revised or even scrapped altogether, via the 6 month escape clause written in to the deal. Well, the good news is that the government is apparently considering at least the former idea, with Trade Minister Mark Vaile agreeing to discuss changes to the FTA in a meeting in Washington in March. Naturally, those who missed out the first time round - sugar growers in particular - have welcomed the news.

The bad news - the really incredibly stupid idiotic news - is that it looks like all they want to do is take out the only bits that benefited Australia - the Labor backed amendments to protect the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme by penalising `evergreening' - a practice in which drug companies stall the release of cheaper generic versions of popular drugs. Whereas whatever advantages Australia can derive from the US FTA have not become obvious in the past year, it only took a matter of months for the PBS to be undermined, with the prices of four drugs increased beyond the PBS subsidised price. This will make it difficult for US drug companies to prove their claim that the amendment is costing them money.

Seeing this amendment lost would be devastating for three reasons. Firstly, though I didn't agree with Labor's acceptance of the FTA, Mark Latham's deft handling of the whole issue was a wonder to behold and a demonstration of what an amazingly skilled politician he once was. Secondly, as someone who relies on one of those four higher-than-PBS-priced medications to live a normal life, let me tell you that it is no fun at all to hand over a large proportion of your hard-earned on medicine every month. Should the PBS disintegrate, I have absolutely no doubt that some Australians would find themselves in the appalling situation of having to decide between buying food and buying essential medications - not only life saving drugs, but such things as anti-psychotics. That's not the Australia I want to live in.

And thirdly ... is there anything a Howard Government with a Senate can't do ...