Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Happy 2007

It's rather surreal to be seeing in the new year with the execution of Saddam Hussein. This is one of those things that was bound to happen one day, which doesn't make it any less strange now that it finally has. It's a moment George W. Bush has been waiting for for many years, as have countless Iraqis.

A common criticism of those who have opposed the war in Iraq is that this constitutes some sort of support for Hussein. Speaking as one such person, I can tell you it does not. Very few people would argue that the world is worse off without a brutal tyrant. Yet those living under equally brutal regimes and poltiical conditions such as Zimbabwe and Darfur might justly wonder why one was singled out but their situation left to fester.

Capital punishment is always an abomination, no matter whether the criminal is a naive young person or a notorious dictator. The notion of broadcasting such punishment is abhorrent, and I have been shocked by the decision to release footage of Hussein's execution to the media. There is no case in which our government can justify the execution of any prisoner. There are not `right' and `wrong' people to execute. Reading about Tony Burke's principled opposition to capital punishment brought to mind John Donne's magnificent Meditation XVII
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
The reflection that those who seek justice can be as brutal as those against whom it is sort is a sad way to end the year. Unfortunately, it often feels like all my reflections are about long-held, long-cherished principles that don't seem to matter anymore. To return to Donne's meditation, everyone who calls themselves a part of humanity and is concerned about the world has, in my opinion, a duty to themselves and to us all to work for the sort of world they want to live in.

On that note, I hope all of you have a safe and happy 2007. It's going to be an interesting one.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Unnatural Justice

Another thing that doesn't seem just is the treatment of Steven Chaytor. Chaytor, the Member for Macquarie Fields, who won his seat little more than a year ago after Craig Knowles retired, is accused of bashing his partner. Chaytor claims that he was attempting to prevent her from self-harm after their relationship came to an end. Regardless of whether this is true or untrue, it's obviously a very sad and unfortunate situation for all concerned.

Yet, whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? It was widely suggested that no lenience was shown towards Milton Orkopoulos because evidence suggesting his guilt was so convincing. In Chaytor's case, their appears a reasonable doubt that his actions were genuinely malicious. In either case, guilt or lack of guilt isn't the point - natural justice is.

`Natural justice' is a term I generally avoid using. It's been co-opted by the sort of people who assert that any decision that goes against them is obviously a case of corruption or incompetence, because it certainly couldn't be their fault (Chaytor's opponent in the Macquarie Fields by-election, discredited whistleblower Nola Fraser, is someone who springs to mind). But I think it's an appropriate one in this case. Both Orkopoulos and Chaytor have been denied not only the standard assumption of innocence due to us all, but, given their status as public figures, have been branded guilty by default in a way that will stick to them forever, no matter the actual state of affairs. I cannot see how Orkopoulos in particular could ever receive a fair trial. Even if they do, steps have been taken against them by the state ALP that refuse to entertain any suggestion that they are innocent. Orkopoulos, officially an innocent man, lost his ministry, his place in Parliament, and even his superannuation. Chaytor has likewise lost his endorsement for the next election, regardless of whether he is proven innocent in the meantime. Ordinarily, Chaytor would be dealing with the black mark in his career which remains regardless of guilt or innocence - a pretty nasty situation. Even worse, the candidate famously endorsed by Gough Whitlam as one of the next big talents to enter politics will not even have a career to have a black mark upon.

There's a time and a place for political expendiency, but frankly, this just looks gutless.

Don't Care ... Don't Care ... Don't Care ...

Using what tiny portion of the mediasphere I have reserved, I need to have a little rant.

Today, Shane Warne announced his retirement from test cricket.


I'm sorry, but I just do not care. I couldn't give a damn. I really couldn't. I really, really don't see how this changes the world. Warne, for those who haven't seen the loving hagiographies taking up the first ten minutes of each major news bulletin, is a cricketer. Big deal. He is apparently a good one. Fair enough. But big deal.

What annoys me most is that Warne, by all appearances an arrogant and egotistical person, is, unlike the rest of the world, allowed to have behaviour that is at best very stupid and at worst, very hurtful, is dismissed - even lauded - as that of a `larrikin' and a `colourful figure'. Such `larrikin' behaviour in virtually any other member of society - a politician, say - would not be tolerated at all. I don't know too many women who would shrug after finding out their partner was running around remorselessly bedding other women and say `Don't worry, love. You're a colourful figure!'

Yes, I was one of those kids whose intellectual achievements were always dismissed at school because they didn't involve hitting a ball, throwing a ball, catching a ball, or kicking a ball. But it hardly seems just, does it? Which is better - running around a circuit very fast, or finding a cure for cancer? Clearly, it's the former ...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Summer Series: Fabian Society Entry

A funny thing occurs at around this time each year: we enter the silly season. Pollies take their leave, nothing happens and thus, political bloggers have not a lot to say.

This being the case, it's about time to release a few pieces of general policy opinion. This week, the first annual Australian Fabian Society Race Matthews Award was announced. I'm very pleased to say that a friend and neighbour was the deserving winner of the award. The fact that I didn't win (gah) means it's about time to make some sort of use of my own entry, so here it is.


Recently, I attended a political forum. The room, aside from my own group, was a sea of grey hair. This made the topic of discussion all the more ironic: why are young people no longer interested in politics?

It is easy for both political parties and the wider public to adopt the uncomplicated view that Australia’s youth are disinterested, ignorant, and unwilling to participate. Instead, there is much evidence that young people are passionate, concerned about their world, and enthuisastic about changing it. Less evident, however, is the notion that they see formal politics as the true agent of change.

Why is this? Firstly, we live in an age in which brands and lifestyles are the common currency. Politicians are rarely depicted in television or film as inspirational figures, but as corrupt, lazy and bombastic (the character of `Diamond Joe' Quimby, the local mayor of The Simpsons, springs to mind). Activists are regularly shown as courageous battlers who fight for what they believe in - for example, the film Erin Brockovich. While mainstream political participation falls, young people are joining charities and activist groups in record numbers.

Mainstream political coverage is often gimmicky, negative, and shallow. Though this reflects the behaviour of some politicians, the full palette of political experience, much less the mechanics of policymaking, remain a mystery to most people. In political reality, there are no ideal solutions. If funding is increased in one area, it is necessarily taken from another. If we pay less tax, we receive fewer services. The inability to impress such issues upon the public makes it ever more difficult for governments to sell their policies.

Meanwhile, politically based shows such as the ABC’s Insiders and Channel 9’s Sunday are unapologetically aimed at a middle-aged choir of the converted. I'm not suggesting that the solution is that Neighbours include a subplot about a rank and file pre-selection, but a news programme that simply and attactively depicts recent political developments may have potential to ensure young adults are better informed. It seems odd that similar shows exist, but only for younger viewers, such as the ABC’s Behind the News. As a result, many teenagers derive their only understanding of politics through the attractive but distorted lense of satire.

Let’s return to that forum. Amongst my group were a number of people involved in party politics - myself included. Others could be described as `lapsed’ - former members of parties who had been willing to participate and contribute but soon became disillusioned by a party structure that had not changed for decades. This is a common complaint amongst young people who do join political parties. Many enter with high hopes, but leave feeling that their ability to affect policy is minimal. Such complaints are not limited to younger party members.

Everyone in my group had one in common: political blogging..The advent of blogging, or keeping an internet diary, is emblematic of the dilemma facing modern politics. Australian youth are better acquainted with the notion of direct democracy than any generation before them. At the click of a button, they may vote in an online poll, elect their favourite `Australian Idol' contestant, or start a blog.. Non-government activist organisations such as the ACTU, GetUp! and Project SafeCom have already learned to harness new technologies to channel the enthusiasm of young people. The internet is immediate. The voice of a blogger will, in some cases, resonate around the world, though the same voice may be inaudible in say, a party branch meeting. This demonstrates not a disinterest in politics, but an inability to find relevant methods of participation within the current framework. Unless this is recognised, parties and governments face an ever-increasing crisis of relevance.

Anyone who has visited a well-written blog will find a crucible of intelligent, meaty debate, and a great sense of community between authors and readers. Thus, the notion of incorporating such things as blogs and wikis (collectively composed databases of information) into the usual practice of party political activity seems well overdue. The worst thing about being young is being misunderstood and disregarded. A truly innovative government or party might provide internet forums in which to discuss pending issues, the results of which could be forwarded directly to the relevant Minister or Shadow Minister - who may themselves even be online to `attend' such meetings.

Currently, only a tiny of proportion of Australian politicians have realised the enormous potential of the internet to humanise politics - to give those whom they represent a voice, and to explicate the political process. In some cases, it is political parties themselves who have discouraged greater online participation; an absurd and counterproductive state of affairs. The NSW Government's decision to solicit online public comment on its State Plan represents a step in the right direction; while NSW MLC Penny Sharpe recently became the first politician in Australian history to formally submit public comment on a policy to Parliament in the form of a blog. However, there is still plenty more that can be done.

How can we complain that Australia’s youth are refusing to participate in politics when they are offered a system that almost actively excludes them? Change is difficult, especially as those who wield power usually obtain it under a system that clearly benefits them. Nevertheless, those participating in the current system cannot simply wait until everyone else changes. For the future health of Australian democracy, it is imperative that many outdated systems be rejuvenated, and the tools technology has placed at our disposal are better used. Until the need for a new approach to participation at all levels is accepted and acted upon, we run the serious risk of seeing Australian politics run by a small and unrepresentative political elite, rather than a new, talented and enthusiastic generation.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Beazley to Quit

Confirmation came yesterday of the inevitable news that Kim Beazley will not contest the next election. Though there is no word yet on whether he will retire immediately or stand down at the election, I suspect he will do the latter, even though I'm sure he'd prefer the former, to prevent a by-election. British Prime Minister Tony Blair are amongst those who have paid tribute. (it's a little known fact that Beazley and Blair have been close friends since their university days). It's a sad end to a long, committed career.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Water, Water Everywhere ...

I had wondered whether I should set time aside to discuss the return of desalination to the agenda - but coming across this page by sheer coincidence convinced me that I should have at least a small word.

A little less than a year ago, I felt that I was going out on a limb in defending desalination. How much difference a-little-less-than-a-year makes. Now, the government is not only openly proclaiming that desalination must be part of NSW's response to the drought, but the Opposition is also conceding this (though they currently appear to be scrambling for the new weasel-word name to distance themselves from the earlier controversies - will it be Freshwater Factory, Water Clarification Service, Water Demineralisation Centre ... )

Desalination is a policy that should have gone ahead when it was first proposed - as, let's not forget, a last resort should dams hit record lows, as they have now, at approximately the time it was predicted they would when the idea first came up. Scaremongering and misinterpretation led the policy to be ditched, or at least backgrounded. Now, with no apparent irony, the same sectors who wouldn't touch desalination with a barge pole are now demanding why the government didn't begin addressing the problem eighteen months ago ...

What are the lessons here? In my original post, which I linked above, I made much of the fact that misinformed or badly informed people can sometimes push governments into making silly decisions as a kneejerk reaction. But is this a fault of the people, or of the government? If the government had stuck to its guns and waited for the cries to die down, it wouldn't now be facing louder cries and more demanding problems.

I once heard the success of former NSW premier Neville Wran defined as his ability to know what the public could handle, and then push them just a little bit further. This is also a good working definition for progressive politics. Democracy is not always listening to the voices of the people, and making decisions based on how many Yays and how many Nays; what the latest News Poll says. Certainly, public sentiment should be a guiding principle, but a strong government succeeds by knowing not only what the public wants, but how best to deliver it to them. Making plans that are unpopular in the long term is sometimes - provided, of course, that they are sound plans - the only way to keep people happy in the long run.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Frontbench: Hits, Memories and Shock Inclusions

Well, here's proof that Kevin Rudd doesn't read blogs. I can barely find a single member of the new Shadow frontbench whose position I or anyone else anticipated. There's been a lot more chopping and changing than I expected, and those who have been promoted are, in general, not the sorts of people I would have described as having a lot of momentum behind them. Perhaps that's a good thing, I'm not sure.

Case in point is Joel Fitzgibbon, who (again, completely in contrary to my predictions) will make the largest leap forward to the key Defence portfolio, replaciing Robert McClelland, who moves to Foreign Affairs.

A shame, as the idea of Stephen Smith taking this role had really grown on me. Instead, he takes Education and Training, a portfolio I had assigned with some confidence to Craig Emerson, who instead moves to a new portfolio for the Service Industry, Small Business and Independent Contractors. Now, the idea of creating new portfolios is something I did anticipate, and this one is a particularly canny. The phenomenon of the independent contractor is one of the great elephant-in-the-corner issues to emerge in past years, and one with serious implications in many areas - particularly industrial relations.

To grasp back a modicum of respectability as a political commentator, I note that Peter Garrett has indeed been given Arts, as well as a newly named Climate Change, Environment and Heritage portfolio (at the expense of Anthony Albanese, who retains his Water portfolio and picks up Infrastructure). My off-the-cuff suggestion of Jenny Macklin for Indigenous Affairs also proved correct.

A number of portfolios have received a slightly new spin - for example, Sport and Recreation (retained by Kate Lundy) is now Sport, Recreation and Health Promotion; Immigration (retained by Tony Burke) has the slightly dog-whistleish and dodgy title of Immigration, Integration and Citizenship. One I'd like to single out is Bob McMullan's who, in addition to the Federal/State Relations role previously announced, takes control of International Development Assistance, which appears to be the former Overseas Aid portfolio. It's no surprise that such a portfolio should be redefined by someone with Rudd's background, and I hope it will demonstrate that international development assistance helps not only those to whom it goes to, but Australia, in terms of regional stability and goodwill.

Some portfolios have also been consolidated or at least assigned to the same person. Chris Evans' new National Development, Resources and Energy role is one example. However, the lack of consolidation on some issues is puzzling. Why is there a separate Shadow Minister for Local Government (Kate Lundy) and another for Territories (Arch Bevis)? I've never understood the point of having two different people responsible for family and community services - Human Services, Youth and Women (Tanya Plibersek) and Families & Community Services (Jenny Macklin). Though the portfolios precede Rudd, it would have been great to see the situation rectified.

The same is roughly true of people who are given a range of disparate portfolio responsibilities. Do Transport and Roads have much to do with Tourism (Martin Ferguson, who will now have to make controversial statements about uranium on his own time)? I'm sure Tanya Plibersek will do well with Housing, but is saddling her with an additional and quite different portfolio to her others do her a disservice? I'm also concerned that not only has her Childcare portfolio disappeared entirely, but so too has any portfolio with specific responsibility for Children. I've long considered child care another of the great sleeper issues. In this case, it appears Rudd doesn't agree.

There is little unexpected news in regards the key economic team of Wayne Swan (Treasury), Lindsay Tanner (Finance), Simon Crean (Trade) and Chris Bowen (replacing Joel Fitzgibbon as Assistant Treasurer) - with the stark exception of Kim Carr. As Shadow Minister for Housing, Carr oversaw a well-regarded discussion paper on affordable housing. Does he have the economic credibility to take on the all-important Industry portfolio (split, as I predicted, from IR, which has been given, as nearly everyone predicted, to Julia Gillard, who has also been given a new role called Social Inclusion, which absolutely nobody predicted)? Carr's appointment, as many of the others, strikes me as a reward not for the loud voices, but for the ones who quietly and diligently chipped away in the background - much like Rudd himself.

Should some of these voices have been louder nonetheless? Nicola Roxon could have pushed the issue of David Hicks as relentlessly as Rudd pushed AWB, yet I literally don't recall a single statement from her. Instead, it was left up to the State Attorneys General to make a strong statement via the Fremantle Declaration, and to co-ordinate the campaign against his imprisonment to Philip Ruddock. In short, she's been a solid, unspectacular, could-do-better Shadow Attorney General, which makes her elevation to Health Minister all the more puzzling. This, like Education, is a role in which policies must be enunciated clearly and with passion. As always, I stand to be proven wrong, but I'm just not that optimistic that Roxon or Smith will be able to take the fight on what I consider to be two of the most crucial issues up to the government. I hope Roxon's replacement, Kelvin Thompson, is better able to call the government to task over its indifference to issues such as human rights, the death penalty, and privacy.

I'm sure you've detected my lack of enthusiasm by now. I'm not sure why I'm so unenthused, and it's unfair - most of the above have yet to prove themselves in their new roles, and they will probably do well in them. I hope so - next year, we have an election to win.

The full list of positions is available in PDF format here.

Ending the Blame Game

I am yet to read a scholarly discussion of Kevin Rudd's pledge for co-operative Federalism that has really got the point of what he's on about. Many have dismissed as nothing more than an intellectual exercise. It's certainly an intellectual exercise, but it's also a pretty shrewd recognition of an issue of great populist concern, too.

The fact that the only person that has appreciated this so far is one John Howard only serves to consolidate this view. You don't have to like Howard to concede his ability to read the collective public mind.

Without prompting, Howard began his interview on this morning's Insiders with a pointed defence of current State-Federal relations. Journo Matt Price later argued that recent COAG meetings have been a `lovefest'. This is fundamentally missing the point. It's only a handful of years since a series of rancorous COAGs, culminating in a walkout by State Premiers. Let's not forget how enormously unpopular such behaviour was. I clearly remember the talkback radio that followed: why, at a time when we most need co-operation on the health system, water sharing, transport, infrastructure and national security, are leaders acting like brawling teenagers? The message is clear: people want solutions, not arguments. Recent COAGs have reflected this - the equanimmity even coming, some may argue, at the expense of better outcomes for the states.

Picking up on this issue is a good demonstration of the way Rudd has managed to cultivate two broad-brush constituencies both of whom feel a sense of ownership and allegiance to him, but whom are almost entirely unaware of one anothers' existence. As I said previously, there are those who recognise Rudd as a member of the `Sunrise family' - a mainstream media personality. At the diametric end of the spectrum, there are the readers of the highbrow intellectual The Monthly, where Rudd has been carefully cultivating his credibility on a broader range of political and philosophical areas over the past few months.

The Federal-State issue appeals to both constituencies for different reasons. The latter constituency are concerned about such things as the increasing encroachment of the Federal government into State affairs, the abuse of the Constitution represented by WorkChoices, and the deficiencies in the Constitution that allow such things to occur - a sentiment that goes back to the Dismissal.

The former constituency see a number of practical problems as arising from blame-shifting and poor delineation of State-Federal duties, from water sharing on the Murray-Darling to the effectiveness of hospitals. The `blame game' is genuinely detested; genuinely complained about to and by the likes of Alan Jones. I have even been surprised about how the depth of anger that still exists about the G.S.T. - a tax that was supposed to `solve' the constant debate over the Commonwealth Grants programme.

How Rudd takes this issue forward will be interesting to observe. Firstly - and I hate myself for saying this - it needs a catchphrase or a cover-all term that does not alienate those who are worried about workplace rights but would draw a blank if you started referring to Section 51 of the Constitution. The `blame game' has been used by many (including me), but it doesn't tell the full story.

Rudd also faces a juggling act on issues such as the always contentious distribution of Commonwealth Grants. NSW has made much of the inequity of current arrangements - but also that it is Queensland and WA who are benefiting at their expenses. Given how much has been made of the importance of winning seats in Queensland and retaining the support of Kim Beazley's supporters in WA, I can't see him pushing those states to hand back the dough and do without luxuries such as petrol subsidies. However, formalising State-Federal relations - something Kim Beazley alluded to late in his leadership, but provided few details on - could not only be a popular move, but one which could fix a system which, as the Prime Minister conceded this morning, has been fundamentally dysfunctional since its creation.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Late Frontbench Betting

Kevin Rudd delayed the announcement of his new frontbench out of respect to Kim Beazley, who was attending the funeral of his brother. Though there's since been no official announcement, various outlets (such as The Oz and Sky News) have assigned some roles with what sounds like relative certainty.

Here, to redeem myself from the various poor calls (I willingly admit that my readers have done a better job than me), are the latest tips:

Wayne Swan: Expected to hold onto Treasury, though Lindsay Tanner is not being discounted.
Anthony Albanese: Given the prestigious role of Opposition Leader of Business - that is, the co-ordination of approach, strategy and questioning in Parliament, a job previously held by Julia Gillard. Still no word on whether he will retain Environment, though nobody seems to be ruling it out altogether.
Peter Garrett: Speculation continues that he will be given Environment, though Arts and Indigenous Affairs are also being mentioned (well picked, Armagnac!)
Bob McMullan: Confirmed as the Shadow Minister for Federation, a newly created portfolio to spearhead Rudd's pledge to fix the Federal/State relationship. An ambitious idea indeed, given the issue's been paining Australia since Federation itself. But, as I said before, a good and potentially popular one. I imagine it won't be McMullan's only role, though.
Simon Crean: Expected to take his old role of Trade, and (yay!) an industry/regional role.
Julia Gillard: No other name besides hers is being mentioned in relation to IR.
Stephen Smith: There are whisperings that he's headed for Foreign Affairs (chalk one up to Milltown Pete)
Lindsay Tanner: Likely to retain Finance should Swan be given Treasury.
Robert McClelland and Tony Burke: Have expressed interest in keeping their current roles, and given they're doing well at them, I should imagine they'll keep them.

This leaves a number of key roles, such as Health and Education, unfilled. I'll make another bold pronouncement and tip a long-time campaigner on education issues, Craig Emerson for Education. As to Health? That one's still puzzling me. It would be a bold move to give it to one of the new frontbenchers, though not out of the question, I suppose. Again, I welcome your suggestions.

The next pool? The Howard reshuffle. If you're looking for a long-shot, I'd advise Amanda Vanstone being retained in anything other than a junior portfolio.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bothering Debnam

Those who have read this blog for a while (or those who have seen my overladen bag, which always has at least three books in it) will know that I'm a hopeless and pathetic Harry Potter fan. As such, it was this video that came to mind when I heard of the NSW Government's planned smear campaign aimed at Peter Debnam. Just like bothering Snape, bothering Debnam just isn't worth the trouble.

Firstly, I don't think the Australian public is ever very impressed by negative advertising. I'm not sure how effective it is, but I know that I consider them pretty unpleasant, no matter the side of politics. Playing the man and not the policies is pretty infantile (but then again, what policies are there to play?)

Secondly, didn't research recently reveal that the public's recognition of Debnam's name and face were slim to nil? It seems ridiculous that the ALP will be spending good money on a campaign which, if it does nothing else, will essentially rectify that fact! It wasn't long ago that government MPs were reportedly requested to refer to him only as `The Member for Vaucluse' to belittle his profile and status as much as possible.

Thirdly, the idea of launching a smear campaign against Debnam seems very dubious, given their attacks on his own attempts to do the same thing. Obviously, Debnam was remiss to the point of idiocy to use an accusation so absurd from a source so patently unreliable to launch his big attack, but what he was attempting to do was the same as what the government now seems to want to do - delve into the past and dig up some dirt.

Fourthly, attack ads by a government is perceived not to be doing brilliantly will possibly annoy more people than win votes. The NSW Government can certainly not appear to be arrogant in the way that some other State governments can. I don't share the belief that it will lose the next election, but the margin by which it wins is crucial, especially if it wants to retain enough of a buffer to win the election after that.

And fifthly (if that's a word) - and I know I'm repeatedly accused of being an apologist - I think there's many areas in which the NSW Government isn't doing too badly at all - mental health, industrial relations, the environment (I recently discovered that NSW was only the third place in the world to introduce carbon emissions trading), and other areas. Surely it would be a better idea to remind the public what the government's doing right, rather than concentrate on what the other side - which, let's forget, isn't in power - are doing wrong? Debnam does a good enough job of showing us that himself.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Human Rights, Human Wrongs

I've just finished listening to an extremely interesting and moving interview with Lex Lasry QC, who defended Van Nguyen, executed by the government of Singapore just over a year ago. It's issues such as Nguyen's death that remind us that the fight for social justice and human rights is never be a mere lifestyle decision, as some detractors might suggest. The transcript is not up yet, but when it arrives, it's very much worth reading.

By sheer coincidence, this subject was very much on my mind when I switched on the radio. I was remembering the last Federal election campaign, during which I met one Kevin Rudd during a forum on the war in Iraq. I was impressed by Rudd's ability to combine an intellectual approach with genuine concern for social justice. The forum, including its other speakers, Tanya Plibersek and former human shield Donna Mulhearne, were visibly moved by shocking footage, taken through night goggles, of unarmed Iraqis being shot without provocation. Again, we can talk all we like about what's right and what's wrong, but we must always stay engaged - we must do more than just drop a donation to Amnesty International every now and then.

Nguyen's story is the subject of a documentary to be broadcast tonight, for which I'll make a pre-emptive plug.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Great Shadow Frontbench Sweep

Tomorrow, Kevin Rudd will unveil his new Shadow Front Bench and, not surprisingly, speculation is rife on the winners and losers. Here's my hastily assembled field guide:

On the Way Up
Lindsay Tanner
Here's my bold prediction: Lindsay Tanner is Labor's next treasury spokesperson. Despite their factional and, I would imagine, occasional philosophical distances, Tanner and Rudd have formed a strong alliance, and, what's more, Tanner is exactly the man for the job. He's got economic credibility and well-earned respect, and it's time he was given the sort of senior ministry that reflects this.

Simon Crean
There's murmurings that Crean will be given Rudd's old portfolio of Foreign Affairs, but I'm not sure that's the right fit. Reportedly, he is interested in an industry portfolio, which would seem to be a better choice. There's no doubt that Crean was not a born leader - however, as Beazley before him, I think he could be a great and reform-minded senior Minister. Gavan O'Connor's Agriculture and Fisheries portfolio will now be searching for a Shadow Minister - it would make a certain amount of sense to combine this into a wider industry-based portfolio, much as occurred with the creation of the Primary Industries and Natural Resources portfolios in NSW.

Tony Burke
Burke has been on the ascendancy for some time - more or less, since he joined Federal Parliament - and this, combined with his part in delivering the leadership to Rudd is likely see him elevated. He's done very well in Immigration, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him given a more senior role. Health, perhaps? Or is that a bridge too far?

Julia Gillard
The fact that Gillard has indicated she will not choose her portfolio can be seen as a veto of the traditional assignment of the Treasury portfolio to the deputy. One intriguing idea I've heard mentioned is that she will take on Industrial Relations. Having the deputy in charge of such a crucial issue would give a strong message, but would she be the right choice?

My tip is that, as a former president of the Australian Union of Students and once an aspiring teacher, she might take the portfolio of her predecessor: Education.

Staying Put

Joel Fitzgibbon
Though the consensus initially suggested that Fitzgibbon will be richly rewarded for his pivotal role in winning the leadership for Rudd, I just can't see him being given a senior role. At most, he may inherit Finance if Tanner moves on, but if Tanner does get Treasury, I think Bob McMullan would be ore likely for that portfolio. Perhaps Resources? As you can tell, I'm not expecting the big leap forward some were predicting.

Tanya Plibersek
There's been some talk of the Beazley-supporting NSW Left being `punished' for their support of the opponent. Personally, I don't think this will be the case, and Rudd won't want to risk the criticism for moving people who are performing well in their roles. I'd count Plibersek amongst the ones who are doing too well for anyone to want to shift them.

On the Way Down

Anthony Albanese
This is unfortunate, as Albanese has been a passionate advocate for environmental issues, but I think the momentum behind Peter Garrett is too large. What may well happen is that a new side portfolio may be split off from the main one - Shadow Minister for Climate Change, for example - and given to either Albanese or Garrett.

Jenny Macklin
As I said before, I've never been particularly impressed by Macklin's performance in Education and, given the various circumstances that surround her, I can't see her taking on a major portfolio. I'm at a loss to say what she might be given instead. I'll pick Indigenous Affairs out of the ether.

Stephen Smith
Smith is another Shadow Minister in a crucial portfolio whose performance has left me cold. Given Rudd's strong early statements on industry, I think it's certain that Smith's industry and IR portfolios will be split. He may retain one, but he may well be shifted downwards, especially given his Rooster status.

Wayne Swan
Will Swan be retained in the Treasury role? I just can't see it. Though Swan has done terrific groundwork in rebuilding Labor's economic credibility, someone with a bit more fire in their belly is likely to take his portfolio. He would be a bad choice to take Rudd's old portfolio, but given an animosity that goes back to their school days, I can't see it happening.

On The Way In
Three vacancies now exist on the front bench, left by the departures of Bob Sercombe, Gavan O'Connor, and Kim Beazley. I would put money on these three filling their place, despite speculation that Chris Bowen may be elevated:

Peter Garrett
Garrett is the only MP Rudd has confirmed as joining the frontbench (which is odd, given there was supposed to vote on it. A move towards the Liberal tradition of the leader hand-choosing the front bench could put some noses out of joint, but that's an issue for another time). As I said earlier, it's reasonably likely that Garrett will be given the job of spearheading climate change and winning the argument over from the Greens. However, I'd also say an Arts ministry is more than likely too.

Bob McMullan
Reports have confirmed my suspicion that McMullan, now the most senior Minister on the front bench, would be interested in making a comeback, having fallen out of favour during the Latham era. I expect he would be given a senior portfolio - again, Treasury, if it's not given to Tanner - or perhaps Foreign Affairs.

Craig Emerson
Emerson's a funny bloke - full of ideas, some of them interesting and some a bit weird. Nevertheless, he's a former frontbencher who, again, fell out with Latham and retreated to the back bench. I can see him as an enthusiastic but controversial Shadow Minister in any one of a range of portfolios. I think he's too erratic to be given anything too hands on ... I'd love to see him oust Stephen Conroy as Shadow Communications Minister, but I can't see King Dalek shifting.

Feel free to make your bets, this is a very cursory list.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Fork In The Road

So, the ALP now has a new leader. Well, you all know the margin, and the particulars; and if not, you can read about it elsewhere. Hasn't it all happened quickly? This time last week, there were only murmurings. Today, and the coup is done and dusted.

Rudd's immediate pitch - that Australia is currently at a `fork in the road' - is an evocative one. It implies urgency; an imperative to think hard about change and to question the status quo. His concentration on a comprehensive revision of Federalism is intriguing - it may also demonstrate the same sort of ability to identify under-the-radar populist issues that his recognition of the importance of appearing on `Sunrise' does. His exchange with Kerry O'Brien is illustrative of this. O'Brien dismissed Federalism as a largely academic issue; however, as Rudd pointed out, concern about Federalism is the key to a multitude of wider populist concerns. As someone who still listens to more talkback radio than is healthy, I can certainly attest to this - it's an issue that bleeds into nearly every area of policymaking, from water to health and beyond (though whether the implicit criticisms such an opinion could be interpreted to imply will put him out of step with the Labor-led states, is another matter). I can also see these concerns being consolidated with public nervousness about the way the current Government are abusing Federalism. In fact, though it's too early to say for sure, it could be that consolidating various smaller issues into broader symbolic attacks will be Rudd's leadership strategy. For example, I heartily agreed with Rudd's assertion that the term `family values' is the most abused of our time. Knitting together the various policy deficiencies of the Howard Government, from IR to childcare and so on, into a generalised `attack on the family', could be a powerful pitch for the next election.

I was quite taken aback by today's poll in the Sydney Morning Herald suggesting that the ALP is emphatically in a winning position, no matter the leader. Perhaps it's ten years of dashed dreams, but I tend to take such polls with a grain of salt, as indeed they should be. It's likey that Rudd and Gillard will now enjoy a honeymoon period in the polls as most new leaders do, while the government have already started the ritual flagellation, the accusations of L-plate leadership and so forth. The question now is whether Howard will call an early election to exploit the latter, or wait out the former.

Well, that's that then, isn't it?

That being the case, attention will now turn to the make-up of the Shadow frontbench. Beyond confirming that Peter Garrett will definitely hold a ministry, Rudd is holding his cards close to his chest, confirming only that Bob Sercombe and Gavan O'Connor will step down, and that some `new faces' would appear in their places. There is speculation that some of Beazley's backers on the frontbench will be punished with demotions - somehow, I doubt this will be the case. Rudd is likely to recognise that the last thing the party needs now is dark murmurings and vendettas. This is too a good chance to put together a quality frontbench ahead of the election than to be too worried about petty paybacks.

And, once that's done ... well, it's practically the election again!

I'm feeling a little shellshocked by all this, aren't you?

The Landing Of The Bomber

Nobody of any political stripe would deny that today was a dreadful one for Kim Beazley. Finally told by his own party that they did not have enough faith in him to lead the party to the next election, and then broadsided by a personal tragedy, those who were waiting for a concession speech as dignified and statesmanlike as the one he gave upon losing the 2001 election instead heard a man, so famous for her verbosity, made nearly speechless by the convergence of events.

I was often troubled when people who were frustrated by Labor's lack of progress or Beazley's inability to land blows on certain issues took it out on Beazley himself, sometimes in quite a nasty and personal manner. Beazley, by all accounts, is not a nasty man. On the contrary, some suggest he is too nice for to lead an Opposition, in the sense that his mindset is not inherently confrontational. It may have been this mindset that led to the policy paralysis in the face of the Tampa crisis - the single issue for which many have never forgiven him - and the mindset itself may be a product of his academic rather than instinctual approach to politics. I've heard many remark that Beazley would make a terrific Minister - as indeed he had in the past - as a team player, shaping policy rather than representing it. Deep down, this is something with which Beazley might secretly agree.

I've searched my literature on leadership, and all my favourite quotes, and yet I still cannot say exactly why Beazley never quite gelled. I don't agree with the oft-quoted suggestion that he `didn't have the ticker'. Particularly in the past year, he has campaigned tirelessly for the party, looking healthier, more vigorous, and more committed, than he has in years, right up to his final Question Time. However, in coining the term, John Howard correctly identified the nagging feeling that always existed - that Beazley was somehow a stand-in, a well-meaning administrator who might keep things ticking along until the true visionary came along, but would do little more. Hence, the neverending search for the Labor Saviour, first in the person of Mark Latham, now Kevin Rudd, with various personalities from Julia Gillard to Peter Garrett and Lindsay Tanner in between.

There is no firm word on whether Beazley will now retire, though he has implied as much, and has already announced that he will not contest a front bench position. I don't think anyone would blame him for bowing out now. He has served long and hard, and with distinction. Apart from leading the ALP for seven years in total, and filling a number of senior Ministerial positions over his twenty five year career, he is the longest serving Labor member in Parliament, and one of the last of the `old guard' of the Hawke-Keating era: those who have served as Ministers; who remember a time when it was the Liberal Party who seemed they would never find the path back through the wilderness.

Changes in leadership are usually thrilling affairs, and so they should be. But they are also days of reflection - a bit of sadness; a bit of looking backwards before we turn our eyes to the future.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Who's Got The Numbers?

Virtually all media outlets are calling Monday's leadership ballot in favour of Kevin Rudd. Based on my infallible politico-scientific methods, combining those who have declared their position, study of the way votes fell in the last leadership vote, and other factors such as who might have been promised what cabinet position should they make the front bench, I've arrived at the figure of 47 for Rudd, 34 for Beazley and 7 impossible to call, having refused to make any public statement and/or being too difficult to predict. This is roughly in line with the numbers being quoted in the media. If I'm even roughly correct, that means a pretty easy win for Rudd. Neither man - but Beazley in particular - can afford a result as close as that in the last leadership ballot.

The Rudd-Gillard team has certainly been hitting the hustings (yes, you'll find no mention of the term `Dream Team' here), looking rather like the mortal enemies who've just become School Captains. Rudd has been criticised for not clearly enunciating the different policy directions that they might take. I think this is a wise move on Rudd's part - anything clearer and further away from current policy, and he'd be forced to backtrack and accused of insurrection should he lose the ballot.

The most interesting aspect of this leadership battle is that it appears to be a slap in the face to the factions and unions, who are themselves unnaturally divided over the vote (on the other hand, much is being made of the fact that the Ferguson brothers are each plumping for a different candidate, yet they did exactly the same for the Latham vote). Also notable is the changing patterns of support amongst the states. Unlike his predecessor, who registered his support not for Beazley or Latham but for Rudd (who, let's not forget, was a formal candidate in the last leadership ballot), Morris Iemma is backing Beazley, while Peter Beattie, always a vocal supporter of Beazley, has switched his allegiance to Rudd. Unsurprisingly, WA's Alan Carpenter is backing Beazley, while both Victoria's Steve Bracks and Tasmania's Paul Lennon, both Beazley supporters previously, are now refusing to comment. No word on Jon Stanhope, Clare Martin or Mike Rann, though I have a feeling Rann would be supporting Beazley. Unions NSW have also withdrawn their long-standing support for Beazley, and a major factor in the battle could be the way members with strong union background or backing may vote. Satisfaction with Beazley's performance in the area of IR isn't enormous, given that it's supposed to be the key issue for the next election - but Rudd has not exactly been an outspoken commentator on the issue, and his comments at yesterday's various press conferences were ambiguous, particularly on the crucial issue of abolishing AWAs.

All four players in the drama have made their cases in this morning's political TV, Gillard and Rudd on Rudd's regular stomping ground, Sunrise. Rudd's weekly appearances on this show should not be under-estimated (there's even suggestions that the fact that the same audience who know him from Sunrise are the same who would have been appalled by Beazley's Rove McManus/Karl Rove gaffe was a decisive factor in the leadership issue coming to a head). As did Mark Latham, Rudd has always known the value of reaching over the heads of a disinterested or hostile caucus and making direct representations to the public to increase his support.

Meanwhile, Beazley appeared on Channel 10's Meet the Press, and Jenny Macklin on Insiders, the latter attempting to push home the view that Gillard - no big fan of Rudd's - is only agreeing to the challenge in order to best position herself for a leadership coup later on. Now, Macklin has produced a lot of policy behind closed doors, some of it good, some of it - such as changes to voluntary student unionism policy - lousy. But one thing is for certain - she's just not a very good public performer. It would be in everyone's best interests (excepting her own, obviously), if she moved to another role. Though, as Mr Minotaur pointed out this morning, he had no idea who Macklin was but also only knew who Mark Vaile was because he's always in trouble for something. One school of thought says the best way to avoid being a target is to be invisible.

I imagine that, in the back rooms, a fair bit of anxiety is being stirred up by raising the specture of the `failed Mark Latham experiment' as it is invariably termed, particularly given Gillard's strong support for Latham. This has always been one of my worst fears after Latham resigned - that the party would never make an audacious decision again. This is a party that should make audacious decisions - in fact, will not go forward without them.

If I were considering my vote this weekend, who would I vote for? Still a very difficult question, but I think I'd tend towards Rudd. Still, I'd be lying if I confessed to the sort of excitement and catharsis I felt before the last leadership ballot.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Beazley Brings It On

News has just come through that Kim Beazley has called a leadership ballot for next Monday, following increasing threats of a formal leadership challenge by supporters of Kevin Rudd. A ballot has also been called for the entire front bench, satisfying rumblings that some frontbenchers, particularly those who won't be contesting the next election, should step down in order to lock in the best team.

Though most sources are describing Rudd as being `uncharacteristically quiet', he has always known when to keep his head down. However, not making his regular slot on Sunrise is not only significant, but it may be deliberately significant. It's one thing to send out `No Comment' to the Oz, but another to absent himself from his main source of communication with the ordinary public.

It has been reported that Rudd's supporters, who have been growing in number - some out of genuine zeal, others out of reluctant resignation - were pushing for a formal spill before Christmas. Beazley's move is evidently designed not only to hose down the situation but resolve it on his own terms. You could interpret it as an affirmation that he has the numbers, but this is by no means certain - and let's not forget that his predecessor was elected on a single vote.

I don't know if this is the right move or not. As I said, some of Rudd's new supporters are openly admitting their support is based on a position of default. Is that the sort of sentiment which a leader who is supposed to win the next election should inspire?

Monday's ballot could mark a new affirmation for Beazley's leadership, but it could also repressent a new phase for the ALP.

Biffo at the Walkleys

Well, who would have thought it? Political commentator Glenn Milne has been escorted from the premises after storming the stage during tonight's Walkley Awards to decry Crikey's Stephen Mayne as `a disgrace'. Now, having Glenn Milne barrelling towards you at full pelt must be a frightening experience, as countless politicians have doubtless discovered, but I admit - at the possible cost of being blackballed by Crikey's Blogwatch section forevermore - that if it was between Crikey personalities, I'd not only chuck the Toxic Dwarf at the increasingly obnoxious Christian Kerr but I'd probably bowl Piers Akerman down the lane at him for good measure.

Anyway, on to the awards. It certainly wasn't a year when any one story or presentation cried out for the Gold Walkley as did Lateline's expose of the Vivian Solon scandal a few years back, but the rewarding of the Four Corners team was well deserved. The cartoon section was always going to be a shoo-in for Alan Moir's work on the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy (as the judges noted, it passed the only meaningful criteria for excellence in political cartooning: the Fridge Test). It's great to see The Monthly score its first Walkley, especially courtesy of Chloe Hooper, whose seminal portrait of Young Liberals behaving badly I've linked to this site so many times that there's no need to do so yet again (well, all right).

Congratulations also to Triple J's Steve Cannane, who has been doing quality work for some years now, but whom often seems to be brushed aside, given that he reports for a `mere' youth station. I'd also like to highlight the ongoing success of Olivia Rousset who, let's not forget, got her start on the defunct ABC programme Race Around The World. I note that the ABC has (deservedly) taken the top Walkley for at least the past three years running. Just imagine how many more talents the ABC may have unearthed had they retained this show or a similar one. Given the unprecedented political attacks on the ABC from Concetta Fiervanti-Wells and her nasty brethern (I could chuck the whole editorial staff of the Telegraph at her), those of us who have worked in or had contact with the media should never forget the folly of the attempt to axe the ABC highly regarded cadet programme a few years ago (which, like the axing Behind The News, was later revised). One look at a few of the ABC's commercial rivals - the appalling deterioration of the flagship Sunday show being a case in point - reminds us that at least one broadcaster needs to keep their end up for the sake of the future of quality Australian media coverage.