Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Friday, September 29, 2006

Sheiking the Multiculturalism Debate

Yesterday, while flicking through a copy of the Daily Terror, I saw something that made me feel rather sad (yes, sadder than reading Piers Akerman's column).

Amid the record of Grand Finals Fever was a picture of the Muslim cleric Sheik al-Hilaly, perhaps best known for helping to rescue Australian hostage in Iraq, Douglas Wood. The sheik was depicted in full robes, with a Sydney Swans scarf, catching a football. The headline?


(I'll just leave a moment for that to sink in. It's almost up there with the New York Post's headline on the day America started bombing Iraq: KABULSEYE. Or, indeed, the title of this post).

This picture struck me as representative of everything I dislike about the current debate over `integration'. I don't doubt that the Sheik is a mad Swans fan, as he has every right to be. It's just that the picture was grossly emblematic of everything a Daily Telegraph reader wants to see in a Muslim. I find it sad that a leader of a major religion has to do this sort of thing to be regarded as credible and `Australian'.

It strikes me that many of my happiest memories of being Australian involve multicultural experiences. I remember attending a festival of South American culture not long ago, and being delighted at seeing a woman in a sari dancing alongside another in a hijab. Australia has, since European occupation, been a multicultural society by default. This is something I celebrate. I don't want such people to subvert their history and culture into some vague, Anglo-centric notion of `Australianism'. To me, multiculturalism is Australianism.

It's amazing how many people are quite pleased to partake of the fruits of multiculturalism - to grab a kebab or a Thai meal - while demanding an end to the very system of society that has delivered such fruits. I was quite astounded to hear multiculturalism described as a `failed experiment' upon the death of Whitlam minister Al Grasby.

There is no better way of fostering peace between cultures than celebration, or at the very least, acceptance. The current argument for integration is based on the notion that such peacemaking has failed (and the even more dubious notion that forcing young second or third generation immigrants to `choose' between one culture or another won't make them confused about their identity, angry, and resentful). Multiculuralism only fails when not everyone agrees to participate. When we blame one culture or another for not participating, we neglect the fact that the same rule should stand for Anglo-Australians as much as it does any other race or culture.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

First Lady vs First Lady

Yesterday, Margaret Whitlam, wife of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, said what I've been wanting to say for about ten years now.

What's up with Janette Howard ???

Now, we don't have a formalised role for the wives of leaders, as they do in America (a tradition I've always found pretty strange). However, comparing Janette to the previous holder of the `office', Annita Keating, leaves her coming up very short. Mrs Keating visibly used her public profile to advance causes. Controversially, I think everyone in the spotlight has an obligation to use it for the good of everyone, not just themselves. Yes, news stories rattled off half a dozen charities for which the PM's wife is a patron (not to push the point, but there are some organisations for whom the current Prime Minister's wife becomes the patron as a matter of default. Thus, we have the interesting situation in NSW where the husband of NSW Governor Marie Bashir is the patron of the Country Womens' Association). But has Mrs Howard used her time in `power' to advance causes which - potentially - the most visible and respected woman in Australia could truly make a difference in? Personally, I think not.

In the early 90s I was actually misled enough to think the lessons of feminism had finally been learned. In 2006, there seems more pressure on young women to act and look a certain way - and certainly not speak their minds - than there has been in forty years - in fact, Gough Whitlam's victory was crucial in breaking this miasma, and I was very pleased when he named increasing the number of women who could attend university as the achievement in office of which he was most proud. We don't need high profile women suggesting that the right thing is to walk five steps behind the man. If only there were more feisty ladies like Margaret Whitlam - especially ones who refuse to back down for saying something they firmly believed. I think Margaret herself puts it best in a 1972 diary entry, quoted in yesterday's media: “What am I to do? Stay in a cage — wide open to view, of course — and say nothing? That’s not on, but if I can do some good I’ll certainly try.”

(Of course, if you believe the rumours, Janette's too busy to go outside because she's too busy pulling the strings of the puppet ... but that's just a rumour, of course. However, upon entering Parliament House in Canberra, the only official portrait of the Prime Minister in which the wife not only features, but plays a featured (even dominant) role, is - you guessed it ... )

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Independent Party

Bob Katter's announcement of plans to establish a formal connection between Independent Federal MPs to offer an alternative to the Nationals perhaps did not come as such as a surprise, in some ways. The idea of the rural independent has become somewhat of a brand, based on the idea that the Nationals no longer truly represent country values and rural constituents need someone to `fight for the little guy'. The only barrier is access to the pool of money afforded to major parties. Thus, the idea of a formal link, for the purpose not only of policymaking but fundraising, becomes a fairly logical one. There have been inklings of a similar deal in NSW, where independents as diverse as Dawn Fardell and Clover Moore met in rural NSW earlier this year, in a show of unit that may have prompted the government's subsequent attempt to woo them into the party.

The idea is not without risk, of course. The whole point of an independence is, er, independence. The outbursts which saw Peter Breen leave the ALP after his very brief membership demonstrates exactly why he's an independent. Once you're in any sort of alliance, your words reflect not only on yourself, but all members. However, the area in which Katter's proposed group has especially interesting potential is in contesting a Senate ticket. Given the frustration over the current Liberal-controlled Senate, the idea of an allegiance of independent minded MPs may well prove very attractive.

This isn't to say that there will be potential in the Lower House as well. The member for Calare, Peter Andren, has not yet said whether he will contest Calare or move to the nearby Macquarie, in which most of his electorate now lies, thanks to the redistribution. Should he successfully depose sitting member Kerry Bartlett, and perhaps another Independent also win Calare, an entire corridor through rural NSW may well be claimed. That's hardly something that will warm the cockles of the hearts of the Nationals ...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The True Story of Robert Ray and the Fabian Society - `Are Factions Killing Labor?'

Much as I like to see a humble meeting of the Fabian Society not only on the front page of Sydney's major newspaper but leading ABC TV's primetime news, I really have to say something about the appalling - in some cases plain inaccurate - reportage of this event. Looks like it's up to us bloggers to set the records straight.

Firstly, I do not recall the name `Beazley' mentioned or even implied in any meaningful way during the meeting (and certainly not during Robert Ray's speech). There was certainly no direct criticism of him from any of the three speakers (and yes, there were three, not just Ray, as the media would have you believe). Ray's references to leadership were made in regards to the notion of leadership in general - factional, managerial, or organisational, and non-specific. A few names were mentioned, but as illustrative cases, not as individuals to be singled out for a focused spray. It was not a `rant' as some are reporting. In general, Ray was fairly balanced about the impact of factions - even supportive, as a factional heavy himself. His pronouncement was not, as the media suggests, a bolt from the blue, but - as you would expect in a forum entitled `Are Factions Killing Labor' - a rational discussion.

Perhaps worse than the misinterpretation was the plain misreporting As the Sydney Morning Herald's article even concedes (a sentence after making the erroneous claim), Ray did not say he believed Labor were poorer economic managers, only that there was a perception that the Liberal Party are better at it - not necessarily accurate or inaccurate, but extant nonetheless. Don't take my word for it - read the transcript, which is already up on the Fabian Society website.

Such cynical and sloppy reportage makes one wonder if they were scrambling around for material now that Naomi Robson's gotten out of Papua and the Crocodile Hunter has been officially farewelled. Fad diets, cures for back pain, furry animal stories, and faux stoushes within the ALP.

So, what actually did happen?

The first speaker was Victorian ALP candidate Evan Thornley. Actually, Ray and Thornley made an interesting contrast, the one the archetypal hard-bitten humourist, the other the rather too misty eyed idealist, both to a certain extent (Thornley more than Ray) shirking the real issue by focusing on the second part of the question, and assuring us that reports of the ALP's death are greatly exaggerated. This is a diagnosis with which I agree, but the question is not `is the ALP dying?' - it's `how do we best work to ensure it remains alive and thriving?'. This is the essence of the debate over factions. Do they contribute or detract from the vitality of the party? Neither Ray nor Thornley offered any real answers.

Thornley's theory was basically that if you don't like what Head Office does or factional leaders do, do what you like and they'll finally come around to your way of thinking. This is a nice idea, and does occur to a certain extent in some of the more proactive branches, but when it comes down to it, jingoistic optimism is not a way to revive a party. It also ignores the fact that many party organisational types quite openly proclaim their belief that the rank and file should be abolished (or at least silenced) altogether as they stand in the way of a decent political party. Who knows - perhaps the corporatisation of politics will mean Annual Conferences become Annual General Meetings, and other policy meetings restrained by the 100 members rule that currently applies to shareholder organisations (and a principle which is itself under attack). But, like Thornley, I'm getting off the track.

I wish I could concur with Thornley's rather simplistic notions, but I just can't find it in my heart to do so. Party members are not, as he seemed to suggest, customers or consumers. A party is not a client organisation whose product is social change. Attracting X number of people to join a party will not automatically elevate organised politics to the top of the agenda (as second speaker Carmen Lawrence pointed out, nothing will. Australia has never been a country of mass political participation, and nor will it ever be). While I admire the spirit that inspired the inception of GetUp - Thornley's own creation - I do not accept that popping your name at the bottom of a mass mailout constitutes political participation. It may even discourage organised participation by presenting nothing more than a vicarious experience of authenticity - a faux-participation. `I've sent my email to Amanda Vanstone about how lousy immigration detention is, and thus absolved myself of actually going out there and doing something to change the policy'.

Carmen Lawrence, the inaugural Labor president, gave an entirely sensible and insightful speech about the history and function of factions, exploring notions of where their existence does facilitate more inclusive policy participation, and where it disintegrates into mere tribal warfare, fiercer, more divisive and more consuming than any battle with the official enemy. She made the very valuable point - again, completely disregarded by the media - that factionalism is not a function only of the Labor party, but all of its opponents (as the sticky Epping by-election and wider nastiness in the NSW Opposition proved) and, in fact, any group activity. The main point she made - and it gradually became the consensus over the course of the meeting - was that any behaviour that encourages a focus inward on internal party issues, rather than outward on the issues of producing good policies and winning elections - is clearly unsustainable. She defined what may be the essence of the average rank-and-filer's deeper concern, not only about factionalism but party politics in general. In a poll-driven political world, ideological positions have become redundant. Factions no longer stand for ideological stances like `left' or `right', and nor do parties, to the point where the stance a party or leader will take on a certain issue is almost entirely unpredictable, and fueled not by ideology but political expediency.

Lawrence deplored the advent of the corporatisation of political parties - perhaps an inadvertant (but then again, perhaps a deliberate) riposte to Thornley's notions that running a successful political party is no more arduous than running a successful business. In a just world, it would have been Lawrence's speech that made the front pages, and as soon as it is published on the Fabian Society's website (which I very much hope it will be), I'll link it here.

Unlike the mainstream media, I will let the final speaker, Ray, speak for himself, and leave you with one thought. As far as the media is concerned, when the ALP does some soul searching, they're ripping into one another. When the Liberals do ... well, that's the thing, isn't it? They don't. And they're going to be mighty sorry about it once John Howard's gone.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Beating The Rank and File Drum

I know I do go on about this, but it's interesting to see both sides of politics speaking out on the topic of rank and file preselection.

Firstly the Liberals of Goulburn aren't happy about the notion of Pru Goward being parachuted in. For all his complaints about the ALP dictating who goes where, Peter Debnam has gone through an awful lot to place his preferred candidate but not had a lot of luck until now. Despite a local outcry, it appears the only local challenger, Martin Laverty, has been heavied out of mounting a challenge and spending the rest of the day denying suggestions that the commands came from John Howard himself.

Things aren't much better in Newcastle, where local ALP members are outraged at the dumping of local MP Bryce Gaudry, as I have already discussed (and Alan Ramsay has essayed at greater depth).

Both cases illustrate the same essential principle: head offices of both parties have got things around the wrong way. Talented potential MPs need to be attracted to parties at the grass roots level, rather than scouted out in some sort of political equivalent to Australian Idol. Achieving this requires complete renovation of party processes. Unfortunately, that's something that doesn't seem to be particularly high on anyone's agenda at the moment.

Vaile to Shift Portfolios?

Rumours are circulating that Mark Vaile is again being pressured to drop his Trade portfolio, presumably to spend more time placing band-aids on his bruised and battered party. It would be a good time to exit such a porfolio, with the Doha Round of trade talks dragging on for yet another year without resolution (it's a little known fact that only one round, the Uruguay Round, has ever been completed since the formation of the WTO, and even that took eight years to finalise).

Should he move, Vaile is expected to take up the Transport portfolio, currently held by Warren Truss.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Now It's Goward for Goulburn

Peter Debnam's - and, we would assume, the Prime Minister's - preferred candidate for the seat of Epping, Pru Goward, has lost this weekend's preselection to the Right's preferred candidate, Deputy DPP Greg Smith. However, it does look like Goward will get a seat after all, having been offered the new seat of Goulburn (formerly Southern Highlands) with the retirement of Peta Seaton.

I might add that it's a bit rich for Peter Debnam to be claiming that the Liberal Party, unlike the Labor Party, don't `plonk their mates into seats', when this is the second (or, if rumours are to be believed, the third) attempt to shoehorn Goward into the parliamentary party.

So too is State Political Antagonist Alex Mitchell's column in the Sun-Herald this morning, which suggests that giving Goward the Goulburn option was some sort of political masterstroke. It was nothing of the sort. The idea of denying the power of the far Right in the State Opposition - even against their party's own leader - is not only ludicrous, and not only pretty pathetic coming from someone who claims to be an expert, but it's actually dangerous, as it lets the grubs think they've gotten away with it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Oh, Naomi ...

Permit me to suggest that this is one of the most hilarious news stories of all time. This is why Channel 10's new current affairs pastiche show is a failure. You don't need to send up Australian current affairs. It does too good a job itself. Oddly, the only comedians who have realised this is the boys from The Chaser and Working Dog Productions, whose seriesFrontline remains the reference point for all dodgy Australian miracle-diet-solution-to-back-pain-nasty-neighbours-welfare-cheats current affairs programmes.

The saddest thing is that a true journalist who actually did make it to West Papua might actually have an important story to tell, as SBS journalist John Martinkus has already demonstrated. It may only be me, but there's something at best annoying, and at worst, sinister, at news programmes that actually have no news, especially when they profess - and in some cases, do - set the agenda.

Redistribution Finalised

The AEC has released the final determination on the Federal Redistribution. Malcolm Turnbull appears to be one of the big winners, with the proposed boundary change adjusted slightly to take in some of the swankier areas that make up his support base rather than taking in some of the more left-leaning beach areas that he must not have been looking forward to representing. The unpopular decision to remove the Parramatta CBD from the electorate of Parramatta has been reversed. The super-electorate of Parkes has been shrunk significantly at the expense of neighbouring Farrer and Calare, though they do not provide much comfort to independent Peter Andren, who still finds himself with an electorate of a significantly different character. Some, such as the Member for Sydney Tanya Plibersek, have suddenly found themselves living outside their own electorate. Plibersek, whose electorate is one of the state's most populous, has also failed in her attempt to retain Lord Howe Island. And, of course, the seat of Gwydir, currently held by the soon-to-retire John Anderson, has been abolished.

There's now speculation that there could be a rash of challenges by MPs who have seen their support base shifted to another electorate, some of which would come against sitting MPs of the same party, and even Ministers (such as John Cobb). No doubt the government needs another Liberal/National/rural Independent stoush like a hole in the head ...

Comings and Goings

Liberal MP Patricia Forsythe has announced her retirement from State politics in order to take up a new position as CEO of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce.

The moment Forsythe blew the lid on the truth behind the ousting of John Brogden from the leadership of the NSW Liberal Party, her political career was effectively over. It is a great shame that those who tell the truth apparently do so at their own peril. Forsythe accurately predicted the attempted takeover of the party by the far Right, bringing media attention to this deeply concerning issue. I'm glad to say I have anecdotal evidence that the Right is starting to come up against obstacles to its domination. This is refreshing news for Australian democracy, but not for the Liberal Party, which faces increasing division as this whole nasty business plays itself out. It may sound like hyperbole to suggest that the party may someday see a split as acrimonious and damaging as the ALP's in the 1950s - especially with a powerful leader in the Federal sphere - but this is to neglect how deeply riven the Coalition is on a state level.

Speaking of which, Lawrence Springborg has announced he plans to resign as leader of the Queensland National Party. To be fair (or perhaps I'm just in a mood to play devil's advocate), I doubt even the strongest leader could have withstood the onslaught of the Beattie juggernaut, and Springborg certainly did a better job on the campaign trail than the hapless Bruce Flegg.

Also today, the ALP Head Office has confirmed its plans to oust the Member for Newcastle, Bryce Gaudry as endorsed candidate for the next election, in favour of local newsreader Jodi Mackay. I feel pretty privileged to have voted in a rank and file pre-selection this week, especially when plenty of other people weren't so lucky. The move against Gaudry is particularly nasty, given that he has retained a safe seat for over a decade. I'm not sure how he must feel about the several other sitting members who have been protected from undergoing preselection by N40s.

I also know that working on an election campaign is a pretty thankless task. Fortunately, all the campaigns I have worked on have been for people I passionately hoped would win their elections. I'm not sure how I would have felt had I not believed in them - or even firmly believed they were the wrong person for the job. There are reports that Newcastle rank-and-filers are planning to boycott the election campaign. This is a pretty good way of demonstrating exactlly what political life would be like without the hardy souls who get up at the crack of dawn to stand outside train stations and give up their weekends and spare time. A party is, ultimately, only as strong as its members, so it's not a great idea to alienate them.

There is an argument - not without some merit - that rank and file preselection is no longer the most democratic method of selection, given preselectors in any given electorate usually number no more than about 150 people. I can certainly attest that better methods need to be found to select a properly representative cross section of preselectors - and also that it can be without endangering safeguards against branch stacking. The answer is not to place the decision in the hands of two or three people in Head Office, either. Local members maintain the support of local branches by being good and attentive local members. There are few good arguments for retaining people who aren't both of these things. It's a shame but a reality that genuine rank and file preselection by active, genuine party members - in fact anything other than token internal democracy, is something that needs to be constantly fought for.

This is true of both sides of the political fence, something I'm sure Pru Goward is all too keenly aware of as she faces this weekend's preselection vote against Deputy DPP and Right-endorsed candidate Greg Smith.

What's UnAustralian?

Kim Beazley's notion of requiring a pledge to `Australian values' to be signed as part of obtaining an Australian visa has got to be one of the weirdest thought bubbles to emerge in quite a long time. Stranger still is the suggestion that it is Tony Burke, the Shadow Immigration Minister who had been so effective in his relatively new role, is reportedly the source of the policy. At least nine shadow backbenchers have expressed their concerns not only about the content of the policy but the fact that it was announced unilaterally.

This idea represents the worst of all that is nasty about Australian vs UnAustralian jingoism. Firstly, a terrorist is hardly going to care about signing a piece of paper that pledges him or her to use the word `mate' at the end of every sentence. Secondly, does the signing of such a pledge by people entering Australia suggest that Australians have an equal obligation to subscribe to whatever values are held by any country they enter? Singapore, perhaps? North Korea? (yes, a hypothetical, but you get my drift).

Thirdly, and most importantly - whose job is it to decide what Australian values are? Everyone seems to think they have the monopoly on Australianness, yet ask someone exactly what it is, and they'll be tonguetied. Today's newspapers were littered with cartoons depicting people being forced to sink a six pack at Customs and the like. If the best we can say for our nation is that we like to drink, like to play sport, like to eat foreign food (but not from foreign people), like to go to the beach and hate intellectuals, I don't think I should be in this country myself.

The announcement of this policy makes it all the more difficult for the party to properly frame the very touchy subject of guest workers. Labor's policy on guest workers is not racist. it's a recognition of the fact that the so-called skills shortage is a much deeper problem whose roots lie in the globalisation of industries such as manufacturing, which must be solved not by importing and exploiting low-paid foreign workers, but in seeking the reasons that skilled Australian workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs, and getting them back again or ensuring they are properly reskilled.

However, it is very easy to portray the policy as racially based, to the point that we were today treated to the spectacle of a straight-faced Amanda Vanstone accusing Labor of stirring the bee's nest of racism for political gain, which might be laughable if the Tampa incident weren't such a resoundingly low note in Australian politics. As soon as serious issues turn into simple, unshaded matters of us and them, right and wrong, Australian and unAustralian, it's not surprising that the complexities of such contentious policies are lost.

When I look back on the history of Australia, the White Australia policy is the thing I'm probably most ashamed of. It could be argued that our treatment of Indigenous Australians is worse, but to me, it's part of the same problem: I'm white and you're not, therefore I'm in charge. The notion of placing a criteria on what it is to be Australian, must less new suggestions that fluent English become the main criteria for migration to Australia, play to the worst sides of human - and, I hope, not Australian - nature.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Great Aussie Dream

Recent reports that loan defaults and home repossessions have doubled since last year - and are also double the rate seen during the high interest rates of the mid 1990s - are a disturbing indicator of the way the redefinition of economic normalcy has put many ordinary people in deep trouble.

I recently wrote a report on the NSW Government's property vendor tax, and the more I read, the more angry I became about the way such a worthwhile policy was blown apart by self-interested lobby groups. By redefining the `battler' as the small-time property investor rather than the young, financially insecure first homebuyer was a masterstroke of self-preservation on the part of the property and real estate industry.

The housing boom was based on a totally unrealistic expectation: that the main profit from property investment is derived not from rental returns but capital gains. In other countries, rental returns are relatively high (up to 10%) compared to Australia's average rate of 2.5%. Once capital growth stalls, rental returns in Australia do not begin to recover mortgage repayments.

This unrealistic expectation fed unprecedented investment by people who never should have entered the investment market, and are now forcibly exiting it. Increasing lassitude in lending by banks as well as government support for such investment - primarily, that unassailable political sacred cow, negative gearing - has seen the property market placed almost wholly in the hands of one generation at the expense of another, either forced into an inflated property market or pushed out of it altogether.

I am one of the many people who has seen their chances of owning a house almost totally pushed out of their reach. A house should never have become what it is now - endless equity-yielding cash cow, tradeable asset, retirement next egg. It should be an asset open to all hard-working Australians, who should not have to dedicate a larger portion of their pay packet than ever before to achieving this aim.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Queenslandslide

Queensland's Peter Beattie has been returned to government with a result that not only maintains the status quo but may still lead to an increased majority. Seats won so far include three previously lost to the Government in by-elections which at the time were heralded by some as the beginning of the end for the Beattie Government. However, Minister for Information Technology Chris Cummins has lost her seat. Meanwhile in the seat of Nanango, the political career of John Bjelke-Petersen - yes, son of you-know-who- looks to have been nipped in the bud with a narrow loss to Independent Doroty Pratt.

This landslide comes as a surprise to many, who expected a protest vote over the government's handling of health and infrastructure matters - but not to me. Though my understanding of issues affecting particular seats isn't very fine-grained, I simply couldn't see any reason that Beattie wouldn't be returned to power, especially against an Opposition in such disarray. The NSW Government, who has been watching the election north of the border closely as an indicator of their own chances next March, can expect to see a similar result. The people of Queensland may have been disenchanted, but evidently, they didn't trust the Opposition to do a better job, and it's very unlikely that they'll feel differently in NSW.

We now find ourselves in a period of extraordinary political stability in Australia - not a single government has changed hands since September 11th. A lot has been said recently about the growing power of incumbency. What exactly feeds this power? Periods of international instability - wars, for example - traditionally lead to voter timidity. Yet are we in such a period? I've long argued that the war on terror is a good way of convincing citizens that times are precarious, but I think it goes beyond this. As a society, we are currently taught that everything is dangerous. How can we entrust government to anyone who might not be as clever at holding back the torrent of trouble that awaits us just beyond the straining walls of the dam? But what issue could be big enough to cause such a change? Governments at all levels have successfully seen off issues which, in past days, would have been the death of the incumbent. Perhaps what we are witnessing, in an age when people are less politically engaged than ever, is the idea of personality politics taking hold in Australia - voting for people rather than issues. This week's meeting between John Howard and state and territory Liberal leaders would indicate as much. It's difficult to think of anything that could unseat any of the incumbent governments in Australia today, though I have a feeling that if one falls, it will be more likely that others follow.

As always, the ABC's Antony Green provides the ultimate guide, with further analysis at the Sydney Morning Herald. ABC Radio's AM will also broadcast a special Sunday edition tomorrow to analyse the implications of the results.

Candidate for Balmain: Verity Firth

It is with rather little objectivity that I celebrate the result of the Balmain by-election held today, which has been won by City of Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor Verity Firth, with 77 votes, to former-and-soon-to-be Leichhardt Mayor Alice Murphy's 55. It was anticipated that the vote would be fairly close, with both candidates campaigning on similar policies.

It's quite a refreshing feeling, voting in a rank-and-file pre-selection. It's one of the only remnants of direct democracy still extant in the political system and as such, is extremely important to preserve. We voters here in the seat of Balmain are a lot luckier than constituents of seats in which candidates have been imposed. We also saw a traditional grass-roots campaign which allowed candidates to compete on a level playing field: no big money campaigns, no gimmicks; instead, a simple battle of policy, presentation and drive.

The good thing is that rank-and-file members were trusted with the task of endorsing a candidate they believed in. The sad thing is such a thing should be considered a novelty.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Morally Wrong

You're probably all tired of hearing myself and other bloggers drone on about how bloody awful WorkChoices is, but here's the thing: WorkChoices is bloody awful. There's not much else you can say, really, and the latest industrial dispute to hit the headlines is a great illustration.

Workers at Melbourne's Heinemann Electric have gone on strike after they were docked a week's pay for refusing to work overtime.

Now, naysayers are pointing out that this in fact is legal and was before WorkChoices. This is correct, but it doesn't make it any more pleasant. When I was working as a workplace delegate, I handled a case in which workers were told, with little notice, that they were to be paid in arrears rather than in advance. Therefore, to even everything up, you'll just go without pay for a week, said the company. The workers were aghast. It really provided an insight into how tightly some people live - how some people literally stand at the ATM once a week, waiting for their pay to come through, and deduct the lot of it as soon as it does.

What has changed under WorkChoices is the notion of liking it or lumping it. The sense of moral obligation to workers has not only been completely obliterated, it's been replaced by a mentality that not exercising your full power as an employer - that letting the heart dominate the head - is gravely remiss on your part.

We live in an age where the notion of values has, in a sense, replaced morals. The idea of morality implies an absolutism - some things are `right' and some things are `wrong', and that's it. The concept of `values' is more subjective: under my perception of the world, this is wrong and this is right. Therefore, what was `wrong' once is OK now. Moral obligation is seen as retrograde. Should I invest in property even though it deprives my own children of affordable housing? Absolutely, because making as much money as possible is `right'. Should I bother visiting an elderly relative? No, because putting other priorities ahead of such a moral obligation, such as my own leisure time, is no longer `wrong'. I may appear to be extrapolating this rather father, but in the end, it is the mentality - the values - that lie at the root of a great deal of social inequality.

Do the workers also have a moral obligation to their employer? Of course. But in the WorkChoices world, the playing field is more uneven than it ever was. When the ACTU's Greg Combet describes the action Heinneman are taking against their workers as `morally wrong', he's talking about something that goes beyond laws, and touches on the reason why a lot of people are concerned about WorkChoices - not only the hardcore unionists and usual suspects, but representatives of major churches and social services. WorkChoices is not only an unfair law, it's one which enshrines certain values in the running of a country. Some of the values would once have been considered unfair, even - yes - `wrong'. If refusing to pay people who have done an honest day's work isn't wrong, in any construction of the concept, I don't know what is.

When Howard Blinked

One of Mark Latham's major achievements during his short time as leader of the ALP was to finally put an end to the era of ridiculous parliamentary superannuation. Putting aside whatever you think of Latham, he was undoubtedly a clever politician, and never more so at the time this occurred. In a sense, the ALP was leading from Opposition - instead of taking the traditional route of condemning the government's policies, it offered its own policies and urged the Government to endorse them. MP superannuation is the prime example of the success of such a technique. Well, no more.

Change within political processes is always difficult, because those who hold positions of power generally gained them within a system that has benefited them. This is why such things as factional domination are so hard to defeat. But when it does occur, it's particularly courageous. That's why the change back in 2004 was so surprising. Not only did Howard blink, but it was his own future MPs who stood to bear the brunt. It's said to have caused Howard a fair amount of backbench pain at the time (but this was in the days before backbencher tension within his government didn't exist, as far as the media were concerned).

In any case, it's all over now, thanks to a bipartisan push and, in part, the quite idiotic argument that lower super `may encourage corruption'. This is nonsense. I'd like to go to my employer and argue that I'm going to start skimming a bit off the top if he doesn't give me a payrise.

The other argument - and it's an old one - is that a lower paypacket will dissuade `talented people' from entering politics. Firstly, a salary of over $100,000 per year, plus benefits such as ComCars and travel, aren't exactly teenager-in-a-Spotlight-store conditions. And secondly, I agree entirely with Shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan's assertion that few people enter politics with an eye on the cash. This is illustrated in an ironic sense by someone like Malcolm Turnbull, who would clearly do better financially in the private sector but is more interested in fighting for his beliefs (some of which are pretty revolting, of course, but I generally have more respect for those who stand up and fight rather than sit down and whinge). Despite the usual palaver about lazy politicians interrupting their busy four day week to take a quick three week junket, I have never known a politician who didn't work harder than nearly anyone else I know. A sixteen hour day is not uncommon for a Minister; nor is a seven day week. In fact, it could be argued that if a person did want to become a politician simply because of the benefits, they're not the sort of person we want fighting for our rights anyway.

Yes, job stability for politicians is relatively nerve wracking, in the sense that the potential is there to lose your job every three or four years. However, such a turnover is hardly unusual for today's market, when staying in a private sector position for more than five years is considered extraordinary. It should also be noted that the same applies for ministerial staff, who work under some of the most extraordinarily restrictive industrial conditions in the world. I do not exaggerate - the right to sack a political staffer is absolute, and the right to recourse almost nil. When employed, such staffers acknowledge that they are out of a job should the member retire, change portfolios, or pass away. There's no gold at the end of the rainbow for them.

As the 2004 decision acknowledged, the current system of super is a relic of a time when there were no immediate prospects for former politicians, most of whom were expected to serve into old age rather than retiring after a decade or so. Today, as numerous examples illustrate (Roger Wilkins, formerly of the NSW Cabinet Office and now of Citibank being the latest), politicians and senior public servants can look forward to a long and lucrative career outside politics. I am not remotely convinced that anyone who is passionate about politics would set that passion aside for a glittering life as a chartered accountant. We shouldn't have to pay for the illusion that financial incentives are all that's required to improve the standard of Australian democracy.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Long, Slow Death of Weekend Current Affairs

Today's revelation that Jana Wendt has resigned from Channel 9's `Sunday', which will be relaunched this week in a `faster moving, chattier format' is the death knell for weekend current affairs.

As you probably know, I'm a rusted-on Insiders viewer myself, but that's not to say I don't often tape one while watching the other to ensure I'm fully up to date. As I've said before, Sunday, along with Channel 10's Meet the Press are extremely valuable programmes. In many cases, it is on these shows - and only on them - that we are able to see politicians and public figures discussing the big issues of the day. The political agenda for the following week is sometimes even dictated by what is said on these shows (indeed, now that Meet the Press has moved to an earlier 8am timeslot, it even dictates the agenda on its fellow current affairs shows only an hour later).

The transformation of Weekend Sunrise into a clone of the abhorrence to human intelligence that is its weekday show deprived us of one more avenue of communication. Given that this show is being named as the model for the revamped Sunday, the future looks dim. Sunday certainly isn't the crucial viewing it once was - the hard edges have long since been knocked off - it's still often an agenda-setting programme.

Nine's new CEO, He Who Is Everywhere, just doesn't seem to get it. It's not always about ratings. Kerry Packer ensured that shows like Sunday and magazines like The Bulletin remained, not because they rated or sold well, but because they allowed him to keep a hand in the setting of the agenda. Sunday will never rate its socks off - its importance lies in the information it provides, which, as I said, often forms the agenda of the day or week.

Without Sunday - or at least, without a rigorously intellectual Sunday - the credible sources of access to our elected representatives is cut to just two, Insiders and Meet the Press, and our ability to form opinions and make decisions about our politicians - democracy, when it comes down to it - is reduced yet again.

Friday, September 01, 2006

New Blood

NSW Premier Morris Iemma has publically demanded that all pre-selections be finalised as soon as possible as the next State election rapidly approaches. A number of pre-selections are currently taking place, with the high-profile seat of Balmain to be decided in two weeks' time. Meanwhile, sitting member Marianne Saliba has announced she will not challenge for pre-selection of her seat of Illawarra.

While the emphasis in the Daily Telegraph's article on this today is the notion of sitting members being challenged - which in any case should be decided democratically, by local rank-and-file preselectors - in my opinion the emphasis should really be on finding quality candidates for seats that the party does not hold but could. The apparent lack of interest in doing this is really quite bizzare. Of these, the most curious seat to be neglected is that of Sydney (formerly Bligh), currently held by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. It's no secret that there's disquiet amongst some of Moore's constituents who had previously known her as an accessible local member but now find it increasingly difficult to catch her in her electorate office. Bafflingly, the pre-selection not only remains to be held, but remains even to be scheduled. Surely, it would be the best chance for the ALP to achieve its long cherished dream of toppling the once insurmountable Independent? Not without a candidate ...