Modia Minotaur

Trawling the airwaves to spare you the agony!

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Early reports are coming in that Maxine McKew is planning not only to stand for election in this year's Federal Election, but as the Labor candidate for Bennelong, a seat currently held by one John Howard. I stress that these reports are unconfirmed, but I should also add that they do come after suggestions on this morning's Insiders that a `serious' candidate was being prepared for the seat.

Wow, let's take a moment to digest this.

Rumours have, of course, been circulating for some time that McKew would enter politics - no doubt much fevered Googling is going on as I type (and perhaps a few are stumbling upon this post as their first point of reference) - but this - well, this just blows it all out of the water, doesn't it? If true, it's audacious, ambitious, inspired - and a little bit scary.

It's little known that Bennelong is not only a marginal seat but has been made still more marginal after last year's redistribution, to the point that it was even suggested that long-time seatwarmer Alan Cadman would be asked to cede his adjoining, far safer seat of Mitchell to the Prime Minister (and who knows - this may still occur. Should it do, it would be pretty powerfully symbolic in itself - the Prime Minister quite literally on the run).

Nor was it easily won in the 2004 election, given the candidacy of Andrew Wilkie (the ONA officer who blew the whistle on the planning of the Iraq War). Today, the seat is held on around 4% - not only a very surmountable precentage, but easily within the threshhold of the uniform swing required to bring Labor to power.

Can this seat be lost?

All Opposition parties will need to be very smart, and very mature about this. My greatest fear is that, as in the 2004 election, a number of candidates may run, splitting the vote. You would have to hope that, at this of all times, everyone would put aside their individual differences and work their hardest towards the best chance of the seat changing hands. The preference deals alone should be fascinating.

And, should it start to look that Howard is truly threatened - would he finally find that 'his party no longer needs him'?

What a fascinating year we have ahead of us, kids. What a fascinating year!

I'll leave you with the following snippet from an episode of Lateline just before the last Federal election (surely, it will be oft-quoted by this time tomorrow), between McKew and spin doctors Geoff Walsh and Lynton Crosby - former directors of the ALP and the Liberal Party respectively:
MAXINE McKEW: Just a quick final point, Lynton, I gather the PM hasn't given any commitment to the voters of Bennelong in his own seat.

He hasn't given any commitment that he will stay as their member whether the Government wins or loses, shouldn't he?

LYNTON CROSBY: Well, he will do what's right for the people of Bennelong.

He's done what's right for the people of Australia for the last eight years by keeping the economy strong and the pressure off interest rates.

MAXINE McKEW: Shouldn't they know on October 9 if they're electing a member for the full term?

LYNTON CROSBY: They'll know that if they elect John Howard they will get a member who will continue to effectively represent them.

MAXINE McKEW: For how long?

LYNTON CROSBY: For as long a he's able and willing to do the job and as long as they elect him to do the job.

MAXINE McKEW: Geoff Walsh?

GEOFF WALSH: Well look, Max, in this uncertain election which is going to be so tight, perhaps there is one thing that is certain and that is regardless of the result, we'll probably see a by-election in Bennelong.

If Mark Latham wins the election, you can bet that John Howard will want to get out of the parliament quick smart, and if the Liberal Government is returned, he'll be out as soon as Peter Costello can arrange it.

In all of the uncertainty there's one thing we can probably bank on.

MAXINE McKEW: Well we'll see about that.
We will indeed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Insight: Terry Hicks vs Philip Ruddock

I know I've left it a bit late (I just arrived home after a surreal day of watching army helicopter whiz past my window), but tonight's episode of SBS's Insight, which will put Philip Ruddock against the father of Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, Terry Hicks, should be some great viewing. This issue is moving at a mile a minute - hopefully towards justice, not towards further delays.

Watch it, read the transcript, and join the chat!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Fabian Society Forum & Cafe Talk

The series of montly Fabian Society events is upon us again, which obliges me to give these always thought provoking, sometimes controversial events a bit of a free plug.

First up for this year should be a cracker, with NSW Secretary of the Australian Labor Party Mark Arbib making a rare public appearance - something that is even more extraordinary given the event's proximity to the NSW Election.
Who will the NSW State Election and does it really matter?

LHMU Auditorium, 187 Thomas St, Haymarket

The NSW State election on 24 March 2007 is almost here. The issues that dominate include the water crisis facing NSW all the way through to Work Choices. Is Iemma or Debnam the best bet for NSW? Do voters see a difference? Does it really matter: does control of an Australian State in the modern Federation matter that much?


Mark Arbib (NSW ALP General Secretary)
Elizabeth Farrelly (Sydney Morning Herald Journalist)
Antony Green (ABC Election Analyst).

Chair: Geoff Gallop, President, AFS (NSW Branch).

Members of the Fabian Society: Free. Non-Fabians $9/$6. Further details from AFS (NSW Branch) Secretary Simon O'Hara.
Hot on the heels of the main forum is the next Fabian Society Cafe talk, a more informal discussion with one speaker.
Fabian Society Cafe Talk Series
The Massive Escalation Required to Win the Climate War

Berkelouw's Bookshop Cafe, 70 Norton Street, Leichhardt

Speaker: Murray Hogarth.

Just last week the IPCC released its latest, sobering, report on climate change. In the light of that report, Murray will talk about how politics, business, the media, the environment movement and the consumer will shape our future now that the science of climate change has advanced to a high level of certainty.

Murray Hogarth has been helping major companies to understand and respond to their social and environmental challenges since 1999, when he joined Ecos Corp after a 21-year career in print and TV journalism. His media experience includes reporting with 4 Corners and the 7.30 Report, and with the National Times, the Australian and, as Environment Editor, the Herald. Murray's new book on climate change, "The 3rd Degree", will be published later this year.

$5.00 to get in. Coffee and cake included in the price. All money goes to the venue. Please RSVP to Sean Kidney
See y'all there!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Iemma vs Debnam, Blogged Live

Well, he we are at the greatest of all great debates (I'm buying the hype, yes) - the first ever televised debate between a Premier and Opposition Leader.

A flurry of initial thoughts as Debnam speaks first. First thought: Peter Debnam looks slightly stoned. Second thought: Peter Debnam is a grandfather? He's kept that quiet. On purpose, or just because it wasn't relevant? Third: Debnam has been around since the Greiner days. What a long, depressing slog it must have been. And fourth: Lord, a flag lapel badge.

Both Debnam and Iemma look nervous, though Iemma quickly warms to the camera. He was a very uneasy media player early on in his leadership. He's doing much better nowadays, though he would hardly set the world on fire with his inspiring words.

Iemma's leading line? It certainly made me choke on my cup of tea! `Who can you trust!' Where have we heard that one before? It's undoubtedly an effective line for incumbent leaders, and I think this is the reason behind the government's negative campaign against Debnam. Considering a protest vote? You better not - you just can't risk it.

Water looms as a deciding issue now that both sides have settled on definitive points of difference - the Opposition, to plump for recycled drinking water; the government to reserve it only for industry and, in carefully chosen words, not to `force' the public to drink. Debnam argues that the government has `pushed the panic button' in commissioning the desalination plant. I would argue that, had it stuck to its guns, it would be built by now and we may not be having this debate (well, this part of this debate). Neither man will offer an answer on why Sydney has not moved to Level 4 water restrictions. Foolishly, the notion that there is a stark political motivation behind opposing desalination - two crucial seats within Coo-ee of Kurnell - has never occurred to me before.

The debate warms up. Iemma leans towards his opponent. This is not the bland, kindly talking headfest I feared it could be.

Fifth thought: Nobody should bring props to debates. Ever.

One interesting point - does Debnam's water plan recognise climate change? Does Debnam recognise climate change? He refuses to mention the concept. Iemma notices and begins to pick at the scab. His rhetoric turns to emphasising the urgency of the climate change fight. This, he implies is the real crisis - not the crises of such things as housing affordability that Debnam listed at the beginning of the debate.

As an aside, I note that climate change is a unique sort of policy issue, in that neither side can legitimately blame the other for causing it. Thus, the response comes from a particularly rarefied political atmosphere - that of theory, speculation, and ideology.

Debnam continues not to mention climate change - something quite notable. Discussion moves to the Opposition policy to scrap the Native Vegetation Act - a little known policy in wider circles, but, depending on how you look at it, one that prevents farmers from clearing land for farming at the expense of the environment, or `makes land management illegal'. Doctors' wives, take note.

Debnam's environmental policy continues on its shaky course. He opposes co-operation between states on carbon trading, yet supports the idea of such trading being advanced in the Federal sphere. Odd.

The conversation moves to the economy, and gets stuck. Iemma blames national interest rates for the stalled NSW economy. This is disingenous. Debnam knows it, but he can offer no riposte. Throughout the debate, whenever money is mentioned, the rhetoric descends into mud slinging.

Debnam makes one last attempt to tie Iemma to the Carr Government, an angle that never stuck, and doesn't again. With development, he makes a clearer hit. The unpopular Frank Sartor is a sore point, with his policy of increasingly centralised policymaking (it's interesting that people are so aggravated by this, given the unprecedented centralisation in Canberra). Isn't it interesting, though, to see the party of Bob Askin painting themselves as passionately anti-development?

Iemma is particularly strong in emphasising the effect of public service cuts on the health system - it's easy to forget that he was once a well regarded but low key Health Minister, who helped bring NSW out of the times when - rightly or wrongly - people feared setting foot in a public hospital. The issue of dental service is one that is destined to loom once more in the Federal election.

Sixth thought: If Debnam hopes to be Premier, he MUST learn to speak of `Directors General', not `Director Generals'.

I'm pleased that law and order is one thing this election will not hinge on. Think of the Carr era advertisements that implied we should all be cowering inside our homes waiting for the government to get out their big stick. There's nothing like that this year, even despite the riots at Redfern, Cronulla and Macquarie Fields. Debnam's determined opposition to the so called `softly softly' approach sounds outdated to my ears, and Iemma's emphasis on early intervention would sound encouraging if I didn't know that the government won't throw the book at whatever boneheaded teenager is delivered a `lenient' sentence by one of those know-nothing judges. Though given the opportunity, Debnam does not rescind his promise to `arrest 200 Lebanese'.

Dempster's focus on alcohol abuse is odd initially - I don't know that there's a great anxiety about this in the community - but his linking of the issue to the government's closeness to the hotels industry elucidates it. Neither Debnam nor Dempster (nor certainly Iemma himself) hold onto this potentially lucrative thread.

Finally, the debate moves to education. If there is any section in which Debnam scores a victory it's this one. A support for public schooling that is rare in a Liberal leader, countered mostly by motherhood statements from Iemma in response. The government must have been glad that it was so short.

A curve ball whizzes past in the form of a brief discussion on Federal/State relations. Neither want to touch this one with a ten foot pole, and neither do.

The debate ends abruptly, and it's been a surprisingly quick one hour.

Iemma sums up his position. First thought here - Iemma has been Premier for only eighteen months. Once one leader's gone, the other one seems like they've been there forever (and very little Iemma speaks of extends back more than eighteen months either). I like Iemma's message about looking the community in the eye and facing up to the state's problems. I don't know how much of it I really believe, having seen many courageous decisions - from Egan's land tax to the poker machine tax - either diluted or rescinded altogether.

Debnam pushes the `twelve long years' argument, and reminds the public that they'll be stuck with the government's least popular ministers for the next four years. This is persuasive, though the situation's not much better in an Opposition which has seen a large proportion of its front bench dumped in favour of the likes of Greg Smith. I wonder how the pledge to cut 20,000 public service jobs is playing in the public? In this industrial relations climate, I'd imagine many people hear `20,000' and `jobs lost' and need to hear nothing else.

Seventh and final thought: The first time a politician has namechecked his website in a televised debate.

Some interesting stuff to chew over, and keep an eye out for the transcript available on Monday.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Uncle Joe vs Aunt Julia

What with the 7.30 Report's ongoing series of specials and tomorrow's first-ever televised debate between State leaders Morris Iemma Peter Debnam on Stateline, the ABC is fast becoming the venue for Great Debates (though not, by common consensus, on `A Difference of Opinion').

Yesterday's head-to-head between Julia Gillard and Joe Hockey was a must-watch for anyone who's been following the evolution of the industrial relations debate. Finally, in The Avuncular Joe, it appears the Government have found someone who is able to locate the bruises in the ALP's policy and how to exert subtle pressure on them. Meanwhile, the ALP have finally found someone who can convincingly describe the real world impact of the WorkChoices legislation. It's only taken both sides two odd years to find the right people to prosecute what may be the deciding policy in the next Federal election, but there you go.

(Before we go any further, according to my dictionary, `Avuncular' means ` Regarded as characteristic of an uncle, especially in benevolence or tolerance.' Some would argue that this is excessively kind to uncles, but others would say it's excessively kind to Joe. I imagine his nieces and nephews are the only ones who could end this debate).

The style of Kevin Andrews was along the lines of `We're right. They're wrong. You'll realise this eventually. We won't tell you how or why. You just will. Now - stop bothering us about it'. While conceding that the policy would take years to have its full effect, Labor at least has kept matters in the present, pointing to real victims of the legislation as just the start of a longer, more malevolent trend. It's easy to scare people about things that haven't happened yet. It's harder to convince them to stick around for the modest benefit afforded by the current pain, especially when this benefit is so subjective.

Hockey has the sense not only to acknowledge - if not concede - the weak points in the government's policy, but also to pick out the equivalent points in Labor's. Unfair dismissal laws are something many advocates of the broader cause have been muttering about with some worry. The previous regime did, in some cases, lead to small business people sending themselves broke defending against incompetent or malicious employees. It did need fixing, but not removing altogether. We can expect the government to hammer this point at the exclusion of the less popular aspects of WorkChoices.

Hockey remains unable to convince us of any connection between productivity and WorkChoices. In a sense, I wonder if the Howard Government's repuation for good economic management does not hinder its argument. A generation of people now knows nothing more than good economic times. Why should rights be surrendered to make them slightly better? Or, if the argument is that changes are necessary to maintain this prosperity - why now? It's all ticked along quite nicely so far. The Opposition's version of the future is still a more convincing one than the Howard Government's. Perhaps this explains the government's constant insistence that Labor's policy `belongs in the past'.

The terminology has also been subtly massaged. The description of WorkChoices as `deregulated' industrial relations system has, interestingly and oddly, been pushed back into play. The Howard Government may argue that deregulation was their aim in WorkChoices, but anyone who has attempted to lift a bound copy of the complete revised Workplace Relations Act would disagree. This is really the crux of the WorkChoices debate - not what each side can deregulate, but how and what each side will regulate. It's much the same as what I've said before about big government. Even those government that claim to be small are really just selective about which parts to make big.

Uncle Joe was still a bit slippery on some things - his decision to counter Gillard's apt analogy on the negotiating power of Australian netballers with the suggestion that Ricky Ponting has exactly the same job ahead of him in thrashing out a contract as a teenager working for KFC was, in the world of salary cap scandals and corporate sponsorship, about the worst he could have picked. But what was best about this debate was a willingness to engage and chew over the issues. In fact, this is the first time that I can think of that this has actually occurred since the IR debate began. The issue, which felt somewhat stale and stalled towards the end of last year, is finally a going issue once more, and it's on for young and old.

It's slightly troubling to me that, less than a year out from the election, Labor's industrial relations policy is acknowledged by both sides as a work-in-progress. Such things as the continuing pledge to abolish AWAs still leaves open the question of their replacement, and no consistent answer has availed itself. It will be interesting to see what the ALP's upcoming Federal Conference comes up with.

Isn't it intriguing that televised debates are regarded as such special events, whereas the number of people who watch Question Time could be counted on the number of fingers on one finger? Never mind - the more the merrier, I say. At a time when every political communication with the public is painfully stage-managed - bring back the biff and show us what these policies are really made of!

Modia Prodeo

I'm very pleased to announce that I've been asked to be a guest blogger on Larvartus Prodeo during the NSW Election. Few people who read my site would need any introduction to LP, and I expect their coverage of the NSW Election will, like their recent coverage of the Victorian election, be comprehensive, multi-angled and very much worth reading.

I'll still be posting over here (including on the election), but please do pop over to the Purple Blog!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Reading the Entrails on Howard vs Obama

Who would have thought that international news services would consider anything said by the small, grey little man who calls himself our Prime Minister worthy of comprehensive coverage? It's already inspired satire; now all it needs to do is appear in either Jay Leno or David Letterman's daily monologue to be confirmed as an authentic watercooler warmer.

John Howard's comments - essentially, that a win for Presidential hopeful Barak Obama or indeed, the Democrats as a party, would lend solace to Iraqi insurgents - were not only bizarre, and not only extremely intrusive (there is an enormous difference between criticising broader policies and criticising specific people and their parties) but highly out of character. His usual method of gently massaging public opinion is to press a few pre-designated attack dogs into action, sit back, watch the fallout, and either back whoever is the clear winner or refuse to endorse either position but say that it's `important that the debate take place'. Just as it was when, in 2003, the US Ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, was highly critical of the Labor Party's policy of opposing the war in Iraq, implying that it was placing a strain on the US-Australian alliance and endangering the US-Australian free trade deal (and wouldn't it have been a tragedy if that had fallen over). Schieffer's intervention was widely decried not only as an unprecedented and unwelcome attack on Australian sovereignty, but an equally malevolent distortion of Australian democracy, coming as it did during an election campaign.

Instead of opening a `debate', nearly everyone - even those broadly supportive of Howard's position on Iraq (including some US Republicans) - are scurrying to distance themselves the idea (all except some wacky young Liberal backbencher whose name I failed to catch, but who, if my ears did not deceive me, described Obama's comments as `genuinely evil'. I'm going to have to keep an eye out for this chappie, he sounds like he could give Senator Concerted Feverent-Whinge a run for her money).

Howard has also constantly insisted that it is not Australia's job to poke its nose into America's domestic policy any more than it is America's to poke its nose into ours. Apparently, this rule is a flexible one, even despite the fact that this is the man who argued that Mark Latham's notorious description of George W. Bush as the `most dangerous president in living memory'? could destroy the ANZUS treaty? Are Howard's comments any less extreme or intrusive? I happened to agree with Latham on this one, but he soon realised they probably weren't the best sort of comments to commit to Hansard once he became leader of the ALP and eventually contested a job in which co-operation with the US would have to be a given.

Herein lies the most intriguing aspect of this affair. As Obama himself put it, the idea of a Presidential candidate attracting the recognition of a world leader only a day after declaring his entry into the presidential race is something extraordinary in itself. This asks two quite different questions.

Firstly, is Howard so concerned about the possibility of Obama becoming president that he feels he must prevent it at all costs? Does he really believe there would be such a clear connection between a Democrat win and all-out chaos in Iraq? Does he perhaps believe that his own domestic support would collapse without the support of a sympathetic White House? (If it's the last point, he truly is drifting out of touch).

Alternatively, is Howard so unconcerned about the possibility of Obama or the Democrats winning the next election that he's happy to throw caution to the wind - to s**t where he eats; to risk starting 2009 with a White House he has already alienated? The Democrats have no right to be any happier with Howard than the Republicans would have been with Latham. Surely Howard must acknowledge that the chance of a win by the Democrats is not impossible - or, even if unlikely, not unlikely enough for him not to maintain civility towards them as a contingency? As our old mate Tom Schieffer pointed out, the strengthening of the US-Australian alliance can be directly attributed to the close friendship of Howard and the current President, George W. Bush.

There can only be one conclusion. Either Howard expects that Obama won't be there in 2007 - or Howard doesn't expect to be there himself. I wonder which it is?

On Your Marks ...

Antony Green's ABC guide to the NSW Election is now online, as is The Poll Bludger's guide. Both are worth a read for the politically nerdy.

And thus, I officially announce the election season OPEN!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Politics and Internal Politics at the ABC

Speaking of televised debates, the return of the ABC's regular political coverage culminates this Sunday with my favourite must-see, Barrie Cassidy's Insiders. Another year of hissing at Piers and cheering as David Marr tears strips off him ... this is my bread and butter.

Also starting soon (I couldn't get a precise date off the ABC"s website) is the ABC's new panel discussion show, `A Difference of Opinion', hosted by veteran reporter Jeff McMullen. The show - which, from early advertising, appears slightly like a cross between a Fabian Society forum and the SBS's Insight is billed as the embodiment of the ABC's new, `unbiased' editorial policy. The fact that the ABC was ever thought to need such a policy is sad; the fact that viewers are thought so stupid that a show emphasising the need for this policy is equally sad.

This isn't to say that I don't like the idea of the show - I'll certainly be tuning in to the first episode, and indeed, the clearly labelled left/centre/right format of the aforementioned Insiders has often been identified as an ideal by those critical of the ABC. What gets me down is the apparent fact that some members of the current ABC Board are too stupid to work it out for themselves.

Garrett vs Turnbull: The Real Climate Change

Oh, I tried not to blog the Garrett vs Turnbull faceoff on tonight's 7.30 Report. I thought it could be a damp squib; a polite gentlemans' tete-a-tete. Instead, it proved fascinating viewing, not only for its own sake but to demonstrate the way in which the ground on which the Government and Opposition are stand is shifting beneath them.

I entered the debate determined to be impartial (believe it or not, this is how I, a dedicated Fabian, enter all debates), but I started to wonder if we'd hear from Turnbull instantly launched into a long, uninterruptable soliloquy - indeed, his technique of debate appeared not only to be to out-talk Garrett, but to out-talk Kerry O'Brien. I was quite surprised at some of the slips in Turnbull's research. Early on, he seemed to suggest that China and India were not signatories to the Kyoto Protocol they are). Nevertheless, the debate remained mainly civil, if rather one-sided.

Then Turnbull really stepped out and accused Garrett of `favouring low economic growth' in his pointing out that greenhouse pollution increases in proportion to the affluence of a society. Garrett's observation - made, as Turnbull said, in 1987 - is an unquestioned fact. The reason that China and India pose such a threat is that their growing middle class will inevitably consume more - more power, more resources, more food, more of everything they were previously unable to buy or import. The difference between these countries and Australia is that they are recognising and anticipating this threat. Both Garrett and Turnbull identified China as a flashpoint; Garrett to point out that China's reduction targets are far superior to Australia's, Turnbull to argue that China's interest in wind power is mainly due to the fact that it has no national power grid and - yes, again - ultimately a matter of economics.

Let's pause for a second and think about how quickly the climate change debate has moved, not only in the last year but the last six months - a period that started with Ian Macfarlane dismissing Al Gore's `An Inconvenient Truth' as Hollywood entertainment, and ended with the Prime Minister making a complete U-turn on carbon trading and appointing one of the government's best known new recruits to prosecute the government's case.

This is what made it so interesting that the arguments Turnbull made sounded so retrograde. Certainly, he is working against his party's history of complete contempt for the idea of climate change - but arguing both that there is no need to panic, and that we should hold off addressing the problem if it proves too expensive seem out of touch when, this time last year, they wouldn't have rated a raised eyebrow.

What a turn of events.

Is this - tantalising thought - is this the beginning of the end for the idea that the economic case is where the buck always stops? I remember a time where you could hear three Howard Government Ministers interviewed in a row about their respective portfolios, and each would arrive at the same conclusion: `The only way to ensure a strong X is by maintaining a strong economy'. This was the argument on which Turnbull ultimately relied during tonight's debate. That the more convincing case was the one advocating for doing something because it's right - even crucial - rather than because it's cheap is a real breakthrough; a real change of sentiment from the early part of this decade.

Turnbull appeared threatened and over-prepared. Garrett appeared - well, relaxed and comfortable, familiar with his topic and confident of his position on it.

Don't take my word for it - wait a few hours and read the transcript!

As a postscript, it will be interesting to see how Garrett and Turnbull continue to prosecute their cases in the media. The way in which various commentators, Ministers and Shadow Ministers become the `go-to' person on various issues is highly influential on how the public views these issues (Kevin Rudd's focus on the AWB scandal is a good example of this). This week, 2UE's John Laws gave Garrett a lengthy and comprehensive interview (fifteen minutes is nearly unheard of on today's radio, even for interviews with the Prime Minister or Premier), concluding with an open invitation to come back and discuss climate change `whenever he liked'. However, I can't imagine that 2GB rival Alan Jones will give anyone other than Turnbull the position of 2GB's unofficial environment spokesperson. As for Ray Hadley, I literally can't manage to picture him raising the topic at all).

Monday, February 05, 2007

Polls and Punts

Tonight's Lateline, returning from the holidays, has reported that a poll in tomorrow's issue of The Australian, will confirm that the Federal Labor Party has made a dramatic jump on a two party preferred basis, to 56% compared to the government's 44%, with Kevin Rudd now trailing Howard as preferred Prime Minister by only one point.

I'm no poll watcher, and I had initially decided not to make mention of it - just as I passed over this weekend's poll that had the NSW Government in a comfortable winning position just less than two months out of the State Election. Even though the fact that more people agreed it was time for a change than planned to vote for the government is significant, its significance is obvious enough not to have to explain it to my readers (other than to add that the conditions currently existing in the government are so eerily like those that preceded the fall of the Unsworth Government that I'm no longer trusting myself to rely on the government's large margin).

That was until I saw John Howard interviewed on the aforementioned Lateline by Tony Jones.

Wow. He looks genuinely rattled. No relaxed and comfortable here. Political junkies closely monitor Howard's body language. He gets flushed. He gets tetchy. The vocal chords constrict. And then there is The Shoulder. Howard has an odd habit of making a little shrug when he's really feeling up against the wall. I didn't notice a shrug tonight, but all the other symptoms were there - none more when, in a masterstroke of the sort of uncomfortable journalism that is Jones' stock in trade (just ask Tony Abbott), Jones decided to exclusively reveal The Australian poll results to Howard live during the interview. The tension was almost cruel.

I look forward to seeing whether The Australian poll also contains estimates of the ALP's primary support. This is the real meat and veg, with the party saying for some time that it needs to break through the crucial 44% level to have any chance of competition with the government.

T'will be an interesting year, methinks.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Summer Series: Defence or Degrees?

Watching an old episode of `The West Wing' recently, one phrase captured my imagination: `Education should be as expensive to the government as the military'. Given Kevin Rudd's decision to name education as his first key policy battleground, it's a timely thing to discuss.

The philosophy of military spending is contrary to that of pretty much every other policy area. Firstly, it's extremely expensive, and it's about the biggest of `big government' policies there is. Governments no longer like big government. It costs too much, and people don't like to pay taxes. They're particularly unhappy about having to pay for things that may or may not occur. Climate change is a good example. The argument used by its now dwindling band of opponents is that we should get `proof' that climate change is man-made before we start addressing it. The thorny issue of what happens if it is but it's too late to address doesn't seem to cross their minds. Should a military threat with as clear a potential danger as climate change have presented itself, governments would have fallen over themselves pulling money out of just about every other policy area preparing themselves.

It could be argued that military policy is fundamentally different to any other area; that there's no priority greater than defending a country. Obviously, countries should be prepared for such things, but it's quite puzzling that money is pulled away from the solving of present problems and spent on problems that haven't occurred yet and may or may not occur. The likelihood of Australia needing to defend its own soil is remote to say the least. After all, in a history of human habitation that spans some 60,000 years, this has only happened twice - once by England in 1770, once by Japan during World War II. On only one occasion was the invasion a success, and it was a pretty lopsided battle to say the least.

Imagine if military policy were conducted along the same lines as education - or healthcare, for that matter. We would have a government funded military, but we'd also have a privately funded one, for which people could choose to pay a monthly fee in case of military emergency. Efforts would be made to encourage wealthier people to spend a little more on the private military to take the burden off the public purse. Soon, poorer people would decide they couldn't possibly take the risk of relying on the government army in case of an emergency, and would start digging deep into their too-shallow pockets. After all - if you didn't provide the finest military protection for your children, you'd be a bad parent, wouldn't you?

This would hasten the decline of the increasingly underfunded public military, which the government would refuse to prop up, arguing that citizens had demonstrated their clear preference for the private military - and anyway, why should it be solely the government's job to defend the country? People have to have a choice. To facilitate this `choice', private military would receive ample government funding.

Perhaps, eventually, it would be decided that the best thing for all concerned would be to privatise the public military altogether. Private enterprise would be so much better at running an army, and it could spend a lot more on maintaining expensive infrastructure. Why should it be the government's job to pay for the defence of its people anyway? Plus, some of the money earned could go into the Super Fund - and the rest could be returned as tax cuts! Everyone likes tax cuts! And of course, privatisation means never having to say you're sorry. It's the company's fault, not yours.

But I shouldn't go giving people ideas.

In the 2006-07 Budget, $16.6bn was allocated for education. Of this, approximately $9.5bn is to go towards school education - though two thirds to private schools. Not so long ago, Mark Latham was pilloried for a policy in which - gasp! - Federal funding only went to schools that needed it, rather than subsidising what are, in the end, commercial enterprises with paying customers. The situation is even worse regarding higher education, with the migration of full fee paying students into places for which people with higher marks have unsuccessfully competed well documented.

Meanwhile, $19.6bn was allocated for defence, with a guaranteed 3% annual increase each year until 2010. A good deal of this of course paid to private companies for the construction of infrastructure and resources (though not, following the Jake Kovko debacle, towards the repatriation of the bodies of Australian soldiers). Just imagine the furore if it also went towards paying companies for the privilege of charging others to use their armies.

I sometimes think education is the key to all other policy areas. Ensure a good education is available to all, and Australia becomes a more attractive country in which to invest, a source of the world's best innovations, and a place with a highly-skilled workforce. Such was the philosophy behind the `Clever Country' - and lets not forget this phrase was meant as a riposte to the `Lucky Country', which, despite being reclaimed as a statement of patriotism originally referred to the fact that , as author Donald Horne put it in the book that coined the phrase, `Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck' - a country that has relied on its natural resources rather than enterprise and innovation. It is a cliche, but education really is an investment. The importance of education as a policy area, and the amount of public money spent on it, should reflect this.

Best Blogs of 2006

Online Opinion's January feature on the best blog posts of 2006 has made for a month of great reading. It reflects well on the Australian blog community, especially in light of a mainstream media that seems ever more timid to delve beyond the cosmetic and into Australia's deeper darknesses, that it consistently produces material that is challenging, wonderfully written, and covers such a diversity of issues. There is a certain sort of economic rationalism applied to the media nowadays - don't report a dull, complex issue of great national importance where you could win better ratings reporting some sensationalised storm in a teacup - that doesn't apply in the blogging world, and journalism in the main is all the better for it.

And I'm not just saying this because I was included. :)