Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Sercombe Blows the Whistle; Abbott Blows the Dog Whistle

In an eventful day, Labor frontbencher and Member for Marbibyrnong Bob Sercombe has thrown up his hands and surrendered to the Bill Shorten juggernaut, amidst claims of `sleazy deals'. Sleazy deals? That's most unlike the Victorian Right. Sercombe was one of a number of Victorian frontbenchers whose pre-selection is under threat, but is the first to fall. One reading of the situation sees this as a laudable campaign to bring fresh blood into the party. Another sees it as clearing the decks of anyone who ever supported Mark Latham. To quote Fox News ... you decide.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott, could not resist commenting on the pre-selection battle during Parliament today, and, apparently afraid his shrill voice could not be heard over the shrieks of hijab-inspired alarm from his esteemed colleagues, got out his loudest dog whistle and blew it with all his North Shore, overprivileged might. Nice one, Tone. Any humans left in the Liberal Party?

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Celebrations Continue ...

Our good friends at Unions NSW are hoping to celebrate 10 years of John Howard by showing up en masse this Thursday the 2nd of March (yes, ten years to the day - almost to the hour) at Martin Place (between Pitt and Castlereagh St) at 6pm. The Great Man himself will be present, en route to a posh Lib do in the vicinity

Come along and, er ... `celebrate' ... alternatively, give him hell, if not for past ten years, for this comment alone

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A More Serious Reflection on the Reign of John Howard

When I contemplate - seriously contemplate - the idea that John Howard has now steered Australia for ten years, it is not the achievements that he has made that I think about. It is the achievements that the previous government (and governments) were working towards but have fallen by the wayside that really provide food for thought. We have a certain sort of Australia. But we could have had a much better one.

The impression I got when Howard attained power (and the below really was based on a true story) was of a great unspooling - like dropping a roll of reel-to-reel film and watching the delicate, tightly rolled film come undone on the ground. So many initiatives that had been carefully built up by successive governments, going back to the days of Whitlam (and including the days of Fraser) were on a heap on the ground, and it would take decades - Bob Ellis once suggested a century - to roll them back onto their spools.

Aboriginal reconciliation is once such initiative. It took nearly 200 years just to see Indigenous Australians recognised as citizens, yet the reconciliation process, built up over decades, today lies in tatters, with a puppet organisation filling the void left by ATSIC. ATSIC, and its predecessors such as the Whitlam era NAAC, were troubled bodies, but this is the same argument used by opponents of the UN. If the baby is dirty, throw the baby out with the bathwater instead of looking at better ways of cleaning the baby. Not long ago, I marvelled at the fact that Paul Keating's Redfern Speech was spoken only fourteen years ago. A Redfern Speech in the Howard era is unimaginable. It is notable that a Redfern Riot would have been equally unimaginable in the Keating era.

The republic is another issue which, of course, was stalled in its tracks when Howard took over, yet there are encouraging signs that the machine may be groaning back into life. Though being a republic is a symbolic issue, just imagine how much more pleasant it would have been to enter the 21st century as a republic - how much more meaningful celebrating the 100th anniversary of Federation might have been had it been a celebration of Australia finally tearing free of England's apron strings rather than an expensive and almost completely ignored junket, not even held in Australia but in the `Mother Country'? Australia is a young nation, and its national narrative is a paradoxical one. Ever determined to prove itself and to argue its independence, it nevertheless refuses to stand on its own two feet again and again. The republic provided the perfect chance to finally do so; yet again, that chance was thrown away, and yet again, Australia proved itself the eternal adolescent of the world stage.

The environment is one of the areas on which the Australian government has backtracked the most in the ten years of the Howard Government. By the early 90s, Australia was a world leader in terms of its commitments and actual action on environmentally friendly initiatives; ten years later, the distance that it has slid is an international embarrassment. Alone of almost all the OECD countries - save our good pals America - it has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, suggesting that it can do better, but refusing to say how. Given that Australia is one of the developed countries that stands to be hardest hit by global warming - not even counting the secondary impact posed by higher temperatures and rising water levels in poorer Pacific countries, something already being observed - ignoring the environment is something that will be viewed as positively foolhardy by future generations.

Divisiveness has been a feature of the Howard Government - just one tool in the toolkit of the Politics of Fear, something David Marr touched on during today's Insiders. Howard has consistently used a technique much favoured by marketers, who convince us to buy their products by playing on our insecurities about our attractiveness to others, the hygiene of our houses, and our ability as a parent. Setting one demographic, group or ethnicity against another is a simple way to make people in the stronger of the two groups feel good about themselves and foster a feeling of togetherness and solidarity (Adolf Hitler also knew this when he put together the Hitler Youth. The psychology isn't that complex). He has taught us to be scared of illegal immigrants, of Labor's ability to handle the economy, of Muslims, of welfare cheats. He has taught us to be relaxed and comfortable; to regard conservatism (for that is what being relaxed and comfortable is) as an Australian birthright, and to regard anyone who may disturb good Australian relaxation and comfort - thus, not only genuinely dangerous people, but people simply with progressive political ideas - with deep suspicion and, yes, fear.

Almost all of the major scandals of Howard's Prime Ministerial career spring from this politics of fear - the Children Overboard scandal; the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon affairs. The AWB does not, though it shares in common with the other scandals the fact that in no case was anyone found accountable. No ministerial head has ever been lopped over any Howard Government scandal, and as far as scandals go, they have not been small ones. Ministerial accountability, something Howard promised would be formidable in the early days of his leadership, has instead proven to be an absolute joke.

Who or what will be the circuit breaker? Primarily, the economy. In discussing his legacy, Howard returns to the economy like a dog returning a soggy old tennis ball. Nobody can dispute Australia's unprecedented economic growth, and regardless of whether you believe that it is due to the Howard-Costello approach to handling the economy, the perception that it is has been so firmly entrenched that the minute it goes southward, the fingers will be firmly pointed at ... Howard and Costello. Not by those who know that interest rates are set by the RBA and that world markets impact upon our own in ways we cannot influence, but by Mr and Mrs Mortgage Belt, the same voters who quaked in their boots at the idea of voting for Labor, who would `put interest rates up to 16%, just like they did in the mid 90s' if they got in. Likewise, the same voters might have a hard time convincing that WorkChoices did not contribute to any downturn that does occur.

When I think of the Australia we have now - a more cynical Australia; one in which the Treasurer can openly vilify Muslims and get away with it; one in which a Pauline Hanson was allowed to occur; one which is in so many ways meaner spirited, more narrow minded, and less able to see the big picture - I think of what was, and what could have been, and what is. And I try and have some hope about what will be. But boy, it can be difficult.

More commentary on ten years of Howardism on Insiders, and in The Australian (which also publishes an excerpt from the upcoming bio The Howard Factor, which from the looks of things looks like it'll be ultra critical of the PM, not), the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Herald Sun and The Age

Johnny Howard and the Cauldron of Power

A Literary Pastiche In Dubious Honour of the Dark Lord's 10th Year in Power
Based on a True Story

Can it really be ten years since Lord Voldemort attained power? Yes, sadly it can - as of March 2nd, this Thursday. Ten years under the Dark Lord and his gang of mangy Death Eaters, and only yesterday, the Daily Prophet reported that his policy mandates could `well carry him in to a second decade' ... truly frightening stuff.

I remember the day well. Having had a rollicking good time at the - er - Mardi Gras (indulge me; the Harry Potter metaphor will only go so far), myself and a few fellow Gryffindors returned from Hogsmeade in the glow of good health and good spirits. We had not even bothered to look at the election updates; so confident were we that Dumbledore would romp it in as he had in '93. We were naive in those days; for the simple reason that we had agreed with everyone who had been in government since we understood what the concept meant, we assumed this would always be the case.

How wrong we were.

We had recently graduated from Hogwarts, and foolishly, we had agreed to meet up with a few of our old classmates at the Three Broomsticks. "How's the election results?" I commented casually to the wizard who was giving us a lift on his, er, broomstick (indulge me, indulge me).

"It's a landslide," he said, stony faced. "Voldemort's romped it in."

We sat in stunned silence until we reached the Three Broomsticks. We stumbled inside, instantly wishing we hadn't come. The place was brimming full of triumphant Slytherins, raising their glasses of mulled mead in celebration of the new Howard - sorry, Voldemort government. We even spotted our old P.E. teacher - sorry, Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher (you have to admit, those two are easy to confuse) living it up in celebration of the news. We questioned everyone we knew - we barely found a single person who had voted for Dumbledore. Perhaps it is the complacency of being on the `right' side. How had I so misread my classmates? I simply assumed ... but how could I be so wrong. Not only were they not angry ... they were actually pleased. Optimistic, even.

Then, outside, I found something that gave me the tiniest bit of hope. I found a single boy, a Ravenclaw whom I hadn't much liked, and whom hadn't much liked me. Maybe he'd had a few Butterbeers, I'm not sure, but boy, was he mad. "Bloody Voldemort," he was yelling. "Country's going to go to the dogs. Look at all those idiots in there. They don't know what they've just done. They've got no bloody idea. This night's going to go down in history."

I heartily agreed with him, and we commisserated over a few more Butterbeers. My Gryffindor friend and I left soon afterwards in a cab (OK, broomstick), still contemplating the enormity of what we had lost.

The march of the Death Eaters continues unabated. Sadly, there's no sign of a Harry Potter on the horizon.

(In conclusion of this silliness, Lord Voldemort's deputy, Peter Pettigrew, had some rather defeated and unconvincing words on his master during this morning's Insiders. I'll bet he'd have been pretty depressed if he'd have known he'd still be sitting around twiddling his thumbs, ten years later ...)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Call This Sustainability?

The news of the dismissal of the NSW Government's Metropolitan Strategy Reference Panel, and in particular, the loss of NSW Sustainability Commissioner Peter Newman is a deeply disappointing development. Newman was the architect of what is universally recognised as the best public transport system in Australia, that of Perth (which was briefly touched on during this week's Four Corners). Obviously, Sydney is a much larger city than Perth, but the principles Newman used could still be applied, no matter the size of the city. Notably, Perth's system was wholly publically funded. It was not a public-private partnership.

Anyone who attended his speech to the Fabian Society last year on Sydney's public transport would likely have been as impressed as I was by his commonsense - and most importantly, achievable - solutions to Sydney's traffic problems. However, even then, I was concerned by the way that his ideas ran counter to initiatives by previous and current transport ministers, which, despite rhetoric about getting more people onto public transport, seemed focused on getting more people than ever into cars. The Cross City Tunnel is a case in point. As someone who does not own a car, and thus relies wholly on public transport, a whole lot of good this does me.

The dissolution of the panel is a troubling example of short termism in a policy sense, as the Metropolitan Strategy on which he was working was designed to show the way forward for Sydney's public transport for up to the next fifty years. It was an example of the sort of long term planning which is so rare yet so necessary nowadays. We take such things as our underground rail network for granted today, yet under the profit model proposed by PPPs, and the mentality that deems no project is worth considering for more than the three or four year election cycle, such a thing would never be built.

The fact that the panel could not work with Planning Minister Frank Sartor also does not bode well. The fact that Sartor has, in his capacity as Minister for Redfern-Waterloo, dismissed the widely-hailed Pemuluwuy Project vision of The Block by proposing the zoning of the area be changed from Residential to Residential/Commercial (a decision revealed as part of the recently released Redfern Waterloo Authority Draft Build Environment Plan) is more apparent evidence of the Minister's unwillingness to countenance any opinion on an issue other than his own.

Without honest, independent and diverse advice, even the best ideas become distinctly lousy, and damaging phenomena such as Groupthink begins to occur. The loss of such an advisory group, and such an expert as Mr Newman, is a sad step backwards for the quality of the decisions that will be made on the future of Sydney's transport and built environment.

Latest on the Redistribution

Today's Sydney Morning Herald quotes `unofficial Labor analysis' in suggesting that the seat of Riverina will be abolished in the upcoming Federal redistribution. Frankly, I'd consider this highly unlikely, for two main reasons: it's held by a National and a woman - Kay Hull. While the odds are definitely firming that a regional seat will be the one to get the chop, don't think for a second that the Liberal Party aren't going to come out guns a-blazing in favour of Ms Hull - and whatever other National-held rural seats are threatened in the redistribution. Such an approach would have both a practical and symbolic value, given the tricky relations between the two Coalition partners. It's important for the big city cousins to look like they're giving the country cousins a leg up. But there's also the more pressing issue of the ongoing exodus of country voters from the Nationals to Independents such as Tony Windsor, Peter Andren, and, in State politics, Dawn Fardell. In the final wash-up, I'd still be inclined to agree with Andrew Bartlett's assessment - that said country independents would be best to watch their backs ...

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Musical Chairs II

It seems the word `preselection' had only just slipped out of my mouth, and yet the phones of the powerbrokers have clearly already been running hotter than a Sussex St Chinese meal for weeks, given today's news that a number of long-serving NSW MPs could be sacrificed to the great god of Party Renewal before the next election.

Despite this week's cabinet promotions overwhelmingly going to figures on the Right, a gentleman's agreement has apparently been reached between the Left and Right, wherein for each member of the Left to be bounced, a member of the Right will also agree to go. Bryce Gaudry is amongst those who has reportedly already agreed to step down, while Marie Andrews is considering her future. Ian Macdonald - a relatively low profile minister but a senior Left powerbroker - is amongst those on the other side whose pre-selection is reportedly threatened, as is that of longtime activist and Upper House MP Meredith Burgmann. Such a move may prompt Burgmann - already the Duty Senator for Bligh (or Sydney, as it will be renamed by the time of the election) - to announce her intentions to challenge Clover Moore for her Lower House seat, as has long been rumoured.

As Simon Crean is currently learning in Victoria, `party renewal' can be about more than just clearing the decks for new talent. To paraphrase The Byrds (not to mention a contentious little tome called `The Bible'), there is a time for moving on, a time for assessing one's legacy, but also a time for passing on that legacy and experience to younger MPs whilst still in office. I have said before that legacy is one of the Labor Party's richest assets and most important weapons. Relied on too heavily, it is also one of its weaknesses. But to discard its legacy - and the people who created it - can be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let's hope the one-for-one policy will ensure that the process is fair, that the people who go are ready to, and most importantly, that the new candidates that are pre-selected as a result justify what can be an extremely painful process. In short - let's hope this truly is about party renewal, rather than personal ambition.

Boeing Strike Ends

After 262 days, Australia's longest running strike has ended at last, with workers at Boeing's Williamstown RAAF base voting to return to work on Monday. The decision was made on the recommendation of the AWU after the Industrial Relations Commission of NSW was deemed to have the jurisdiction to hear the case, which regards Federal awards. The Federal IRC has been unable to resolve the case.

This is no doubt a huge relief to the families of the 25 workers who have been lobbying for the right to bargain collectively - a right, let's not forget, which is enshrined as a universal human right by the United Nations - but which shall be severely restricted whenever the Federal Government gets around to introducing WorkChoices. Don't forget that even the Liberal Party admits that in Victoria, where the State IR system has already been handed over to the Federal Government, the rate of days lost to industrial action is by far the highest in the nation. So much for `higher productivity'.

Musical Chairs I

A new year, and not only is there a new look on Insiders (while the chairs have shrunk, the show's been expanded - bit of a disappointment that, they just stuck in a distracting ten minute slab of news, in imitation of its weekend political rivals like Sunday - and they STILL haven't restored their entertaining `Adjournment Debate' segment, which often provided a good opportunity to laugh at Sophie Panopoulos), but close scrutiny (I could be wrong) reveals what looks like a bit of chopping and changing on the benches at Canberra.

The placement of pollies in the chamber is a fine art, with seats behind the leader - and in full view of the parliamentary camera used to film the very same `Order in the House' that about three of us watch late on a Sunday night - are as eagerly sought after, especially the coveted `over the shoulder' (OTS) seat just behind the microphone. Labor's Kate Ellis, the attractive young Member for Adelaide, won this spot after the last election, but has apparently been joined on her left by the rising Member for Parramatta, Julie Owens, who appears to be doing all she jolly can to get into frame.

On the government side, shock horror! Louise Markus, the Hillsong-affiliated Member for Greenway, who won her seat from Labor in the 2004 election, has lost her OTS! What shocking misdemeanour led to such a punishment I cannot say (accidentally deporting an Australian citizen? Bribing Saddam Hussein to the tune of $300m?), but the OTS is now in the possession of Tony Abbott's erstwhile pool partner Christopher Pyne, and Ms Markus moved up a tier, subject to the worst whims of poor camera framing and the like.

It may seem trivial, but we're going to have to stare at these people trying desperately to look very interested in what their leaders are saying aaaall year ...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The NSW Government Reshuffle: The Right Resurgent

Looking over today's reshuffle in the NSW government, it's not hard to see who is in the ascendancy. All of those who have received promotions are members of the hard-nosed Right. To mix metaphors, it looks like the gorillas have taken over the asylum.

As widely tipped, Michael Costa has taken full control of Treasury from Morris Iemma, and hands Finance to John Della Bosca, who had, for many, been the preferred candidate for Treasurer. Though the media have been portraying Joe Tripodi's loss of Roads to the voracious Eric Roozendaal as a dumping in disgrace for the Cross City Tunnel debacle, it's hardly chopped liver. Tripodi has picked up Deputy Treasurer, Roozendaal's old portfolio of Ports and Waterways, and the Energy half of the former Utilities portfolio, which has now been split into two. David Campbell has been given the other half, Water.

Which, of course, means that Carl Scully has lost Utilities. If this is to suggest he be some sort of scapegoat or fall-guy to take the blame for desalination, I think this is dreadfully unfair. Firstly, as I've said before, I don't think desalination was the bogey many perceived it to be. And secondly, it was never Scully's brainchild anyway. It's lousy times when someone gets punished for keeping their head down and getting on with the job.

As pre-selections take place in March it could be interesting to see whether there are any further changes. It's not out of the realms of possibility. Don't forget - less than a year ago, Bob Carr and Craig Knowles were still around ...

Tasmanian Election to be Called Tomorrow Morning

Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon is expected to call a State Election tomorrow morning, to be held on March 18th. While things aren't entirely peachy in the Apple Isle - Lennon has been beleagured by a number of issues since the death of the popular Jim Bacon - the ALP are expected to hold on to the state for a historic third term, as are Mike Rann's government in the approaching SA election.

RU-486 Bill Passes Parliament

Today's conscience bill on RU-486 was easily passed in the House of Representatives today, as it was in the Senate. A great deal of worthy debate has been had elsewhere on the extent to which this debate should or should not be considered a quote-unquote `womens issue' - Peter Costello's dramatic speech about having to decide whether to discontinue his comatose wife's pregnancy serves to highlight this.

Nevertheless, the historic nature of the passage of this bill for Australia's female parliamentarians should not be underestimated. It is difficult to think of another issue that has so united parliamentarians fromm the four different parties with such passion on a single issue. While Health Minister Tony Abbott will insist this is a personal rebuff against himself, this is in fact a rebuff against the notion that a single person - any person - rather than an expert body appointed for the purpose - should have the ultimate say on the use of a drug which (like it or not Tony) has therapeutic value.

This has been quite a fascinating debate, which has seen abortion brought into the open and many politicians bare their souls on an issue which is - and will always be - endlessly contentious.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Ohhh, Danna ...

What to say about Danna Vale? Every time she opens her mouth she manages to force her enormous Gucci-clad hoof inside just a little further. As a former constituent of dear Danna's, I thought her combination of pathological stupidity and flag-waving, lamington-munching, raise-a-glass-of-Vegemite-to-the-PM naivete had finally ceased to amaze me. I was wrong.

I also thought Barnaby Joyce's defence of his position on RU-486 was a tad on the wacky side (whiz down to page 80), but I hadn't reckoned with the brain that brought us Knock Down Gallipoli, Rebuild Gallipoli in Victoria and, erm ... Don't Abort Gallipoli.

Naturally, abortion, is just a backdoor way of creating a Muslim nation. (Well, she `read it in the Daily Telegraph'. So it must be true.) It's all painfully clear.

No, actually - it's just painful.

As has been pointed out, Ms Vale's comments were unfortunate enough, the fact that a little place called Cronulla is in the electorate immediately next to her own, Cook, might have provided added impetus for her to keep her crazy conspiracy theories to herself. Even fellow Liberal backbenchers who are opposing the RU-486 Private Members' Bill have steered clear of this one and let Vale know she's on her own.

Interestingly, Vale once described John Howard as the `captain of her heart', but is known to have since transferred her support to Peter Costello. I wonder how poor old Cossie feels about this? And, as Cossie's leadership ebbs into the distant rather than near future (as the exit, stage left, of Michael Kroger strongly indicates), will we see an exodus of Cossie supporters whose patience has begun to run out? Especially those who must make extremely silly comments in the media just to get their name in the news anymore?

Please, for the good of us all - let Danna be the first ...

WorkFarces Rattles On

Though it has received nearly no publicity (which, I'm sure, is just how the Federal Government prefers it), the NSW Government last week received official confirmation that the High Court would hear its challenge against the WorkChoices legislation. The case challenges the constitutional legitimacy of WorkChoices on the basis that it utilises the section of the Australian Constitution relating to Corporations, not Industrial Relations, and thus represents a perversion and misuse of the Constitution. The hearing begins on the 8th of May.

In the meantime, there is some evidence that employers are not rubbing their hands in fond anticipation of WorkChoices, with a large proportion of prefering to renegotiate EBAs now rather than wait until WorkChoices comes into force. This is despite the recommendations of our good pals, Australian Business Ltd, who have suggested good employers sit it out until they are allowed by law to really sink the boot into their employees.

But when exactly will that be? Astoundingly, the government are still refusing to give an exact date, beyond `roughly mid March'. For those unfortunate workplaces whose employers ARE refusing to renegotiate EBAs until WorkChoices is introduced (for the details on one, see the MEAA's blog), workers are stuck in limbo. Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews has recently cancelled yet another of what was supposed to be a series of regular briefing meetings with state and territory Industrial Relations Ministers. Few of these meetings have actually occurred, and the latest was supposed to be the last before the legislation was to go into force. It's a farcical situation when even the Ministers themselves are being kept in the dark.

We're hearing far too little about this in the mainstream media ... perhaps it's the calm before the storm.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Temporary Calm in Victoria

The Herald Sun has reported that Liberal Powerbroker (tm) Michael Kroger has finally abandoned his long-rumoured attempts to oust moderate Liberal Petro Georgiou from the seat of Kooyong. Does this also mean that Kroger - a long time Peter Costello crony - has abandoned hope of a Costello led government in the near or even distant future? It's almost passe to speculate nowadays. It must suck to be Peter Costello ...

Meanwhile, former Labor leader Simon Crean is on slightly safer ground today as far as his own preselection goes. On Sunday's Insiders, Kim Beazley made the rather glib (to say the least) excuse that all MPs, including himself, face the same pre-selection pressures and that this was a perfectly fair and democratic process - ironically, one that Crean himself helped to improve as part of his drive to foster greater internal party democracy. As to Barrie Cassidy's question of whether Crean was now being punished for exactly this process - well, Kim wouldn't bite at that one.

I'm not saying that Kim Beazley should intervene in factional brawls such as this. It's the factions themselves that should take a good hard look at themselves, stop using the figleaf of `party renewal' to fulfil their own ambitions, and pay some respect. One of the things the Liberal Party has always been most jealous of is the rich history of the Labor Party, and the regard it pays to its veterans (today's poll naming Gough Whitlam one of the three most admired Australians, for example, is likely to stick in the craw of the PM). I'm not saying Simon Crean is on a par with Gough Whitlam, but there are certain things you don't do, and throwing a former leader and faithful servant of the party on the garbage heap is one of them.

Morris Iemma's Best F***king Move?

For most politicians, the idea of a candid chinwag with a fellow pollie being caught on a live mic being caught on a live mic would be nothing short of disastrous - especially when that chingwag contained a smattering of expletives.

The chinwag in question - between NSW Premier Morris Iemma and his Victorian counterpart, Steve Bracks - has now been played ad infinitum, but if you haven't caught it, it features some rather unflattering comments about the new CEO of the Cross City Tunnel Corporation, Graham Mulligan and his inglorious debut in what was, as I reported, a rather brusque media conference.

But has describing Mulligan as a `f***wit' proven the icing on the cake in a week of harsh media coverage for Iemma? Quite the opposite. In fact, it could even be the thing that breaks the ice between Morris Iemma and the public, which has been largely wary of the still-new Premier after a figure with such a forceful personality as Bob Carr. Perhaps Iemma implicitly knew this when he issued an apology for the comments but stood firm on his criticisms of Mulligan's flippant approach. Ahh, think The People, he's one of us - he hates pompous f***wits! And the Cross City Tunnel, too! Never mind that the government signed the deal in the first place - we like people who hate pompous f***wits!.

(Of course, the comments will make it no easier for the NSW Government to deal with the company with whom they signed the original Faustian pact ... but the government hardly needs the votes of a couple of corporate bureaucrats)

It could be Iemma's first show of real political flair. Plenty of Sydneysiders are likely to agree with the assessment of 2UE's George Moore, who suggested that Iemma need not have even made the apology, because most of Sydney is behind him on this one.

(If any more proof were needed of the efficacy of swearing like a trooper to win votes, Peter `Man of the People' Beattie has now been caught doing the same thing. Coincidence, no?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

RU Ready for RU-486

Today's RU-486 conscience vote in the Senate has been comfortably won by those in favour of taking approval for the drug out of the hands of the presiding minister (I need not remind you that this is currently one Tony Abbott) and placing it into the hands of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Despite suggestions of a close result, the vote was ultimately won on a large margin of 45 for and 28 against. Only three of the latter were reportedly female. Amongst those who spoke out against the bill today included Liberal Bill Heffernan, National Barnaby Joyce, and Labor's Stephen Conroy, who expressed fears that giving the TGA such `extra' powers (despite that they already approve thousands of drugs each year), approval for euthanasia drugs and cloning would obviously be next.

Tony Abbott employed similarly twisted logic in justifying his own opposition to the bill, suggesting firstly that the TGA is not appropriate to examine RU-486 because the drug has `no therapeutic value', and secondly, that those who supported it were undermining the ability of governments to deliver decisions which ensure they remain democratically accountable to their constituents. What rubbish. If the past decade or two has taught us anything, it's that governments are more eager than ever to place their traditional duties - providing essential services - into the hands of secondary (usually private) entities (or privatising previously public entities), weakly arguing that `they can do a much better job', then running a mile from the hint of accountability when anything goes wrong. Do the phrases `AWB' or `Cross City Tunnel' ring any bells? Is Abbott concerned that Telstra will no longer be accountable to the government once T3 goes ahead? Unlike these corporations, the TGA is certainly not a corporation looking to make a buck out of the government; it's an expert government body which functions to decide whether drugs are safe for the public to use. Simple as that.

The bill is expected to have a more difficult battle in the House of Representatives, though given the wide margin in the Senate, it will probably pass. Which will only leave Australia about ten years behind most civilised countries.

Defining Cultural Policy

It's good to see some media coverage of Cate Blanchett's speech last night at the Sydney Theatre Company in support of Professor David Throsby's paper `Does Australia Need A Cultural Policy?' Cultural policy is something we've not seen seriously discussed since the years of Paul Keating. Discussion of anything resembling `culture' quickly dissolved in the Hanson years, which were in many ways a specific backlash against the intellectualism and seemingly intangible nature of many Keating's public policy goals. Reading his famous Redfern Speech, it's stunning and disheartening to think it was given less than fifteen years ago.

What exactly is cultural policy? This page has a rather lengthy definition. In summary, the concept, when applied to a nation state, could be described as policies which preserve, promote and define the values and image of a nation, especially through creative industries. In many ways, Australia's national character has been defined by its neverending search for an authentic national character - not quite England, not quite America, fiercely patriotic but paradoxically beset by a `cultural cringe'. Cultural policy is about more than draping yourself with the Australian flag every Australia Day. It's about questioning the nature of our national identity, and actively participating in the formation of the answer. Or, as Ms Blanchett so beautifully put it, it's about `safeguard[ing] us and our children against living unexamined lives'

Culture has long been a dirty word in Australia. Not only because so too has anything to do with Paul Keating, but because so too has anything that cannot be obviously quantified. A tunnel can be built, and figures delivered of how many cars use it per day. Increases or decreases in crime can be measured and appraised. The tangible value of a property can be calculated. But what of the value of a local park to a community? The demolition of a beloved local building? The closure of a community hall? How can one quantify the importance and impact of the closure of say, a cinema such as Glebe's Valhalla Cinema, even excluding the obvious impact on local-filmmakers? Because such things are so difficult to quantify - because it's so hard to say, for example `This art exhibition enriched X amount of people by Y amount and gave Z amount of pleasure to the local community' - and most importantly, because there is no evident economic indicator - the benefit is calculated at nothing, or as good as. Thus, projects such as the excellent StickybrickS (recently seen as part of the Sydney Festival) - an example of what could be achieved under a really good cultural policy - are few and far between. Yet a country without a rich cultural identity; whose stories remain untold - there's nothing intangible about that.

I heartily endorse Cate Blanchett's words and look forward to David Throsby's essay (available to buy here - there's also an interview with Throsby here). This is one policy debate I'm eager to see reignited.

The Australian Fabian Society: John Howard - 10 Years On

The revival of the Australian Fabian Society continues apace, and the first Sydney forum of the year promises to give us all plenty to chew over, given its topic - John Howard - 10 Year On. Details are as follows:

John Howard - 10 Years On
Speakers: Julia Gillard MP, Shadow Health Minister; Gerard Henderson, columnist, Sydney Morning Herald; Judith Brett, author & political scientist.

Date: Wednesday 22 March
Time: 6pm
Venue: Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe
Chair: Senator John Faulkner, President of NSW Fabian Society

Cross City Tunnel CEO `Effectively Sacked'

Cross City Tunnel CEO Peter Sansom has been `effectively sacked', it was announced in a press conference today that was described by attending journalists as `tense'. Cross City Tunnel executives' attitudes were described as `defensive', and they refused to discuss or even acknowledge the public ire and controversy that has accompanied the opening of the tunnel. Though the company is adamant that Sansom was only engaged for the initial construction and early stages of the tunnel, his contract was renewed in December. His successor, Graham Mulligan, begins on Monday. Mulligan has ruled out both dropping the tunnel tolls and opening the roads in central Sydney that were closed prior to the tunnel's opening.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

But Is It Democracy?

I'm going to make myself very unpopular by putting on record that I was probably one of the few Sydneysiders who was actually somewhat disappointed by today's announcement that the NSW Government is putting its planned desalination plant on ice, after discovering a two larger than expected aquifers, one in the Nepean and another near Kangaloon.

Let me say right off the bat that I'm no champion of desalination - but, on the other hand, I was no vociferous opponent of it either, but unlike many people, I did a bit of research, and concluded that as a method of water re-use, the proposed method - not evaporation as commonly believed, but reverse osmosis - is not much more energy hungry than most forms of water recycling. On balance, I thought the idea was OK but not brilliant, and certainly not the disastrous, poisonous evil that many made it out to be. The idea that a swathe would be cut through virgin bushland and the rock that Captain Cook stood on to declare Australia a European colony smashed in two was just laughable - anyone who has been to Kurnell recently will know that as far as desolate industrial wastelands go, a large desalination plant would be positively picturesque. As I blogged many moons ago, the Sutherland Shire Council's opposition to the whole plan is also a bit rich, as their notoriously itchy development finger has been waiting to trigger in that area for ages.

What annoyed me is the majority of people who opposed desalination, when pressed, would admit that had not bothered to weigh up the evidence, to enquire, or to do anything other than say `I've heard it's no good so I don't like it' and leave it at that. Some had done their homework and come to different conclusions than me. Obviously, they're perfectly entitled to do so. However, the level of pure ignorance simply frustrated and annoyed me. The fact that the idea was sold so poorly from the start did not help, but on the other hand, I challenge anyone who attended the notorious desalination workshop at Marrickville to admit that they went with an open mind, rather than to stonewall.

Don't get me wrong. Our duty as a public (not to mention as bloggers) is to enquire into our governments and ensure the service and governance they deliver us is of the best quality possible, and to kick up a good old stink when it isn't. But uninformed debate is worthless. I am, of course, speaking as an activist who has participated in campaigning on various issues - I spent a good proportion, as did a lot of my readers, I imagine, trying to persuade the Howard Government that WorkChoices was a lousy idea. There can be no better example of an informed debate - we had reams of evidence of the economic and social impact of the WorkChoices legislation (which, as we all know, has still not been rebutted by the Federal Government with anything resembling a proper economic case for the legislation). The reasoning against the legislation was sound and diverse. And, as we all know, it was ignored. Australian political scientist Murray Goot has an interesting essay on the extent to which John Howard follows (or is perceived to follow) public opinion, and opinion polling, and suggests in it that although Howard is seen to listen to the people, he often flies in the face of public opinion. But he also makes the important point that `public opinion' is a slippery concept. Basing policy decisions solely on polling, or on what Alan Jones and his listeners are complaining about today, is not democracy.

The whole desalination affair - from start to finish - asks a number of questions about the nature of modern democracy. To my mind - and to the mind of many political scientists - the great dilemma of the modern age is the democratic deficit: the disparity in our heads between our idealised perception of Ancient Greek democracy versus the paradoxically hands-off nature of James Madisonian representative democracy, in which one person - whom we may not have personally voted for and may even be ideologically opposed to - makes representations on our behalf.

So, we have our representatives. How do they best serve our interests - by making good decisions on our behalf or shifting ground whenever a decision they make seems unpopular? As a pure hypothetical - twenty years down the track, if Sydney really did run out of water, would the same people who are today celebrating the shelving of the desalination plant be braying for the blood of the then-NSW Government for `not building the desalination plant when it should have been built'?

As I can't find the magnificent quote I hoped to use as a case in point from Paul Keating's oft-quoted Placido Domingo speech, I shall instead quote from Scott Stephens' very worthwhile article on Mark Latham from Crikey this week - the only serious article to address the first anniversary of the former Labor leader's departure from the top job:
And here we have democracy at its worst. Democratic politics is authentic only during a genuine moment of indecision, a well-nigh paralysis over what choice is the right one, that moment when the full weight of the importance of the decision, on the one hand, and our incapacity to make it, on the other, achieves awareness in us. Conversely, democracy is never more loathsome than when we take our stupidity and fickleness for virtues, believing that the democratic process will always ‘land on its feet' and that the collective substance of ‘the people' is greater than our diminished capacity as individuals.

In other words, we must trust our politicians to stand up to us when we are whinging and give in to us when we have a valid point. I hope the NSW Government have made the right decision, because they seem to have been doing too much giving in lately. True, it has an election to win, but good governance is not always about popularity. Again, this is something Keating knew - some would argue it was his downfall - but to again quote Mr Stephens:
Keating knew that the task of any great politician is to wage war against his own people, to drive them to achieve something other than themselves. What if we don't need different politicians, but different Australians? As Bertolt Brecht put it in 1953, the most difficult, but necessary task of all is "to dissolve a people and elect another."

AWB Hushed Up to Protect US FTA?

It's impossible to throw a stone without hitting a newspaper with a new article about the AWB scandal at the moment. The Opposition's attacks on the government have been relentless, each day of the Oil for Food enquiry unearths a detail less savoury than the last. All serious current affairs shows have had nightly interviews and dissections. This makes it a pretty difficult topic to blog. What more can you say than `Boy, this whole thing stinks' and then, a few days later `More proof today that this whole thing stinks'?

An interesting exercise is to do what all good historians - and journalists - do: return to primary sources. The 7.30 Report has spent a good portion of its distinctive and distinguished AWB coverage doing just that, proving, for one thing, that what the government says now and what it said around the time of the initial invasion of Iraq are two different things. Consider such examples as this press release from US Wheat Associates in which US farmers - speaking in November 2003 - express concerns that Australian farmers appeared to be receiving a much larger slice of the Iraqi wheat market than they did.

Now, this touches on a very sore point. Does the aggressive targeting of the Australian Government's alleged role in kickbacks to the Hussein regime threaten the livelihoods of Australian farmers? By rights, it should not - many farmers have expressed dismay and outrage that their hard work has ultimately been for the benefit of Saddam Hussein. They had no choice but to act through AWB, given its monopoly status (no doubt, one of the recommendations of Commissioner Cole will be to introduce competition into the wheat export industry). In their representations, US senators have emphasised Australia's close trade and diplomatic ties with America and is unlikely to wish to alienate such a close ally. On the other hand, the US agricultural lobby is notoriously strident and powerful. But this in itself begs the question - how did this same powerful lobby group miss out on a slice of the lucrative postwar Iraqi wheat market to Australia, a comparative minnow, which was charging far higher prices? The possible - and, as the inquiry continues, perhaps the probable - answer is deeply troubling.

Also in this press release is something touched upon during tonight's 7.30 Report interview with one Jerry Hagstrom of CongressReport, who investigated the AWB deal in 2003. The then-Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle, is amongst several senators from both parties to have written to George W. Bush demanding that the irregularities in prices being charged for Australian wheat in Iraq be examined prior to the US Free Trade Agreement being finalised.' Hagstrom suggested that Daschle - a highly respected senior Democrat (a sort of stateside John Faulkner, perhaps?) who is known to have been concerned about AWB for some years - was pushing for the FTA to be delayed or even scuttled altogether if the AWB issue was not cleared up. Clearly, this advice was not followed. The US FTA went through much as planned and expected, and AWB continued on its merry way.

Ah, things might have been so very different had an election not have been looming on the horizon, might they not?

Washington Senator Patty Murray went one step further and, in a letter of 31 October 2003, asked "U.S. taxpayers have a right to ask if Australia acted improperly in close cooperation with the former government of Saddam Hussein to manipulate wheat sales."

Now, mind - this document has been in the public domain for just over two years. Not only did George W. Bush ignore - or choose to ignore - these calls, but so did the Australian government. It will become extremely difficult for John Howard et al to continue running the old `I was not informed' line.

TV Finally Emerges From The Silly Season

It has been a welcome return from the agenda-setting Lateline (though, like all serious current affairs shows, it has been absorbed by the AWB scandal since its return this Monday - not without reason, of course). This Sunday sees the return of what could be fairly described as the pollie watcher's cult favourite, Insiders. Apparently, Barrie Cassidy's been a busy boy - not only is Insiders being expanded to one hour (at the expense of Alan Kohler's Inside Business - a shame, though the show sometimes struggled to fill its 45 minute timeslot) - but it is being joined, to my great surprise, by a new show, Offsiders, which sounds for all the world like an Insiders for sports nuts, and is hosted by none other than - Barrie Cassidy! To quote the Crocodile Hunter - by crikey! Shall we see Bazza and Piers dressing up as sheilas and demanding that the biffo be brought back into the foota? Methinks not. The likes of Peter Fitzsimons and Roy Masters (who will also be on the show) have taught us that sports commentary can be done intelligently and with a bit of humour. If anyone can manage it, this sounds like the crew to pull it off, so it should be an intriguing experiment (and if you snickered at the phrase `pull it off' - straight back to The Footy Show for you).

Also returning next Monday is the latest incarnation of Media Watch, featuring the debut for former host of ABC 702's Sunday Profiles series, Monica Attard. It will be interesting to see how Attard approaches the sometimes rocky post of Ombudsman-in-Chief of Australian Media (I've said it many times - listen to a talkback host put their foot in it and they won't say `Bugger - hope nobody reports me to the ACMA', they say `Bugger - hope this doesn't end up on Media Watch'). Sunday Profiles netted some gems of the shark-disguised-as-angelfish genre of interviewing - Barnaby Joyce's revelation (hastily rescinded) that he did not condone abortion in any circumstances, including when the mother's life was threatened, is a good recent example that springs to mind.

Looking forward to it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Is Another Reshuffle in the Air?

As the ladies and gentlemen of Canberra prepare to restart their engines this Tuesday - our beloved Sophie Panopoulos predicts it will be `a historic day, which either means that she has a much higher estimation of Julian McGuaran's abilities than does nearly everyone else, or that she knows something about AWB that we don't, or that she's actually a brilliant impostor who is slowly but surely scheming to bring down the Howard Government from the inside. (A tantalising proposition, but unfortunately, it seems Soph is for real), what lies in the immediate future for the NSW Government?

The latest Morgan Poll still has Labor comfortably ahead in NSW, six months after the departure of Bob Carr, and despite various controversies such as the Cross City Tunnel. Meanwhile, rumours are growing that NSW Premier Morris Iemma is planning an early reshuffle. As has been tipped for months on end, Michael Costa is expected to take over as full time Treasurer, but there's suggestions that some other senior ministers may also have their workloads tweaked. Which ones and what porfolios? The little bird was quiet on that ... we'll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Victoria's Worst Kept Secret

Surprising absolutely nobody, right wing AWU secretary and Victorian ALP president Bill Shorten has announced his intention to challenge the preselection of Bob Sercombe, who holds the safe seat of Maribyrnong. Shorten has been heard attempting not to blow his own trumpet high and low for the past several years so finally emitting the triumphal blasts must be an enormous relief for the ambitious union head. Expect a Malcolm Turnbull-like lunge for the leadership to soon follow ...

UPDATE: Michelle Grattan suggests that Shorten should go straight to the front bench (expect a lot of factional noses to be knocked out of joint should this occur) and suggests that the upcoming Victorian pre-selections will be `messy'. Understatement of the year, what with the gentlemen's agreement to keep even the stickiest factional battles out of the courts being broken last year, the long running feud between senators Kim Carr and Stephen Conroy showing no signs of abating, and Simon Crean reportedly battling to hold on to his pre-selection. Let's not forget that whatever deficiencies Crean had as leader, his loyalty to the party and many of its members is hard to fault. Inglorioiusly turfing a former leader is lousy work, but I'm sure the Victorian Right is more than up to it.