Weekend update

I’ve been listening to the reunion single from New York’s most ostentatious rap crew, the Diplomats. It’s called “Salute,” and it’s straight fire. I’ve also been watching the BET Awards tonight; here’s what I thought of Chris Brown’s performance.

The view from here

Wondering how America’s taking the news of Australia’s first woman Prime Minister? Here’s page A8 of last Thursday’s New York Times. The Times published a single paragraph follow up in the “World Briefing” section on Saturday.


The online version of the paper published more extensive reports, however, as did a few American blogs, both of which related Rudd’s downfall to the troubles Democrats are having with Republican obstructionism.

Weekend update

It’s Father’s Day in the U.S., and I haven’t been able to work out why they celebrate it in June while we leave Dad’s day until September. Anyone have any ideas?

Here’s what’s been happening in America:

I’ve been watching, listening and marvelling at Snoop Dogg’s new video, “Oh Sookie.” It’s from the True Blood website, and is about vampires. (h/t Last But Not Least)

“Bill ain’t for real, he ain’t Tru Blood/Snoop is a G, I smoke true bud/Wanna be a vampire, you better listen up.”

Getting mad, saying sorry

oil on the beach at the Bon Secour wildlife refuge

(Photo via U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service)

Barack Obama’s speech on the disaster in the Gulf last week didn’t really please anyone, and it certainly wasn’t the bold call for the Senate to pass a cap and trade Climate bill I was hoping for. But it did one thing right, and with some help from a few members of the Republican party, the President ended up finishing the week looking better than you might have expected.

Talk that the oil spill is Obama’s Katrina is indeed foolish, and calls for Obama to personally stop a deep-sea geyser that no one knows how to wrangle under control are, at best, an expression of America’s lofty expectations of its president. But beneath the overcooked calls for Obama to appear angry, lies some real sense of why Americans have been so frustrated by their President’s reaction to the disaster.

Let’s not forget, Obama announced that he would approve new offshore oil drilling mere weeks before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, inopportunely declaring that, “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” The announcement was intended as a compromise to attract Republican support for a climate change bill, but it instead made the President look overly friendly to the interests of big oil companies. His calm, controlled response to the spill, coupled with reports that the government was working with BP officials to prevent the media from covering the clean-up confirmed in the public’s mind that Obama had a bit too much sympathy for BP.

It probably helped the administration when various British political figures began complaining how mean Obama was in criticizing the UK company. (London mayor Boris Johnson sniffed that “It starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on the airwaves,” because, apparently, the the true victims of this disaster are Britons.) But if the Poms started reminding Americans that their president wasn’t exactly full of praise for BP, the Republicans really reinforced the message.

The Ranking Member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Republican Joe Barton, apologised to BP executives this past Thursday for the “tragedy” of the company being subject to “a shakedown” — that is, paying into a $20 billion compensation fund negotiated by Obama. The President had announced in his Tuesday speech that he would make BP “pay for the damage the company has caused,”  and Barton made sure that everyone knew Obama deserved the credit. Republican leaders made sure Barton apologised for his apology, but the damage had been done. In the public’s mind, the Republicans had become the real allies of BP. The GOP wasn’t helped by the fact that more than a few conservatives agreed with Barton.

The other thing Obama will be hoping Americans remember from this week is that the leak won’t be plugged any time soon. But even if he finds that the nation’s patience is in as short supply as it ever was, Joe Barton has proved for the president that, with a bit of luck, even a bad speech can ease the pressure.

In which I try to create some distance from tyranny.

It takes a lot for an Australian political story to get reported overseas. We’re mostly pretty inoffensive. We’re a modern, first world democracy that fights in the right wars, and, most of the time, avoids political upheaval. So for the U.S.’s Time magazine to start comparing us to “nations where human rights and freedom of speech are routinely curtailed … the ranks of Iran, China and a handful of other nations” we must be doing something pretty retonto.

And oh, Lord, how we are. Our Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy wants to introduce a mandatory censorship mechanism — euphemistically known as a “filter” — for Australian Internet access, one requiring service providers to block access to a government mandated list of websites. This list is non-public, and the government has tried to prosecute people who have attempted to reveal what’s on it. Google and Yahoo have protested it and the Obama administration has expressed its concern.

We’re now hearing talk, unconfirmed, that the bill to implement this censorship scheme has been shelved until after the next election. Despite poor polling numbers, the government is expected to retain its majority after that election, due at the end of this year or the beginning of 2011. Opposition leader Tony Abbott is unpopular and distrusted, and it is extraordinarily rare for an Australian government to lose power after one term. Nonetheless, this presents the progressive voter with a quandary.

The Australian polling system is one of mandatory preferential voting. This means that a voter must, to cast a valid vote, enter the booth and number the candidates competing for his or her local seat in order of preference from first desired to least desired. Preferences are apportioned until one candidate receives 50 per cent plus one of the vote. (If you’re a non-Australian and you want a better explanation of this, ask me, or research “instant run-off voting.”) That means that, in most electorates, absent, for instance, a Liberal vs National Party face-off, the presence of a highly popular independent, or an unusually successful Greens challenge, the vote will ultimately come down to a two-party preferred count. That’s why 2PP is so valued by pollsters; it’s what decides elections 99 per cent of the time.

That means a voter such as myself, voting in the safe-Labor seat of Grayndler, will have to ultimately indicate a preference for the Labor Party or the Coalition if I want to cast a legal vote. Given that I am highly concerned about the Labor government’s policy of mandatory Internet censorship, one might consider it sensible for me to indicate this by voting for the Liberal opposition. And, believe me, I have considered this.

But the Liberal party is not; it is a decidedly conservative party. Though some of its members have expressed dismay at the policy of Internet censorship, its current leadership has no formulated policy on the “filter.” And even under previous leaderships, which did express a more solid opposition to online censorship, the Liberal opposition holds many other political views so repugnant to me that I could not vote for them. To make them even more distasteful, their current leader, that is, the man charged with decisively deciding their policy directions should they gain majority, is a disturbingly unhinged, deeply misogynistic man whom no one should trust with the reigns of the country no matter what they think of his ideology. An offside that could be the foundation of an entire post: Sydney Morning Herald journalist Michael Duffy gets little right, but when he wrote a book comparing Tony Abbott and Mark Latham, he got something very right.

Now I hear folks outside of Australia (if they’re still reading, and if so: bless you) thinking, “I hear you brother. Two party systems suck.” But in all likelihood, the experience of foreign voters is not comparable to that which I am critiquing here. For not only do we have an essentially two party system here in Australia, we have a political infrastructure that ruthlessly enforces political rigidity on those who participate in it. I have frequently heard Americans complain that their system represents a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Even if these Americans believe there is no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats (if so, they are wrong), they should at least be able to perceive a distinction between Dennis Kucinich and Bart Stupak; between Joe Cao and Ron Paul.

In Australia, this intra-party distinction is largely meaningless. Sure, politicians will hold their fights in the party room, and particularly within cabinet. Peter Garrett and Penny Wong will joust it out with Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan, and apart from general comments made in public, we will know nothing of these politicians’ actual actions. They will evaporate into the party ether. And because politicians almost always vote according to their party’s dictate, there is no way a voter can lobby his or her representative to oppose a policy the party leadership is enthusiastic about.

That means that if I want to vote on the basis of the proposed censorship scheme, I must hand my vote to either the Labor government or the Liberal opposition. Worse, because this is a policy deferred beyond the next election, I must allow one of those parties to claim a mandate for their policy.

Which results in an awful dilemma for folks like me.

Part of being an adult, and hence a voter, is learning to accept that the politicians you approve will not always please you. But part of living in a democracy is insisting that there are certain actions which you will not lend your support to. I voted Labor in 2007. It was a touch and go decision and it was the first time I’d voted Labor in my life. (If they had needed them, however, they would have always received my preferences.) That creates a unique decision for me next election: not, “Should I give them my vote,” but, “Should I lend them my support again?”

And on such a fundamental issue as free speech, I cannot pretend this is a question of first preferences. I must decide whether to endorse the Labor government or the Liberal opposition, even if I do actually vote for some doomed third party as my first preference.

I’ve told you my reservations about voting Liberal. Here are my reservations over not voting Labor: They are, like it or not, the progressive party in this country. Kevin Rudd gained power after 11 years of conservative rule, a period in which the Labor opposition became so cowed and so cautious that they believed they might never gain power again. They had no idea as to how they should retool themselves for government. They were fortunate in that, in 2006 and 2007 they finally found themselves with a leader the electorate loved, a tired opposition the electorate loathed, and the opportunity to claim issues the government had no interest in and to oppose a bad policy the government had a great interest in. It Was Time, as the saying goes, but the stars were also aligned right.

If Labor loses government after one term, it will be read as an endorsement of the politics of John Howard and his conservative ideology. It will not be seen as a judgment on a particular piece of Internet policy. It will be read as an electorate experimenting with left wing government and confirming that, in Australia, the party of government must be the conservatives. Since 1949, the left wing of Australian politics has held power for three periods: from 1972-1975, 1983-1996, and 2007-2010. That is 19 of the past 61 years. If the government were to lose power after just one term, it would be the first government to do so after just one term in power since James Scullin in 1929. Scullin, you might note, was a Labor PM who took office two days before the Great Depression hit.

In short, a loss by the Labor government in the next election would destroy progressive politics in Australia. Ours is already a government that tries to cleanse any signs of left-wing thought from the party, even if they are electorally popular, as the climate change reforms were. I do not like restrictions on freedom of speech. But I am not sure I am willing to gamble the end of all my political goals for Australia on stopping this issue, particularly considering, even with the mandate of re-election, it may fall foul to changing party priorities or a hostile Senate. But that said, I am not sure I want to risk placing my preferred vision of the country in the hands of people who are willing to compromise such a fundamental ideal as freedom of speech.

There is a simple way to solve my dilemma, but because it would solve my dilemma, I doubt either of the major parties would be interested in it. But it is very simple and its worth is proven.

In my state of New South Wales, elections are conducted using a non-mandatory preferential system. To cast a valid vote, all I must do is indicate a preference for one party. I can go on to indicate further preferences if I like, but I do not have to. In fact, this is what I have done in every single state election held since I have become a voter. I have marked a number one next to my preferred candidate, and figuratively told the rest of them all to get out of here.

The beauty of this system is that it allows voters to reject the major parties if they wish to do so, but it does not require them to cast a futile vote to do so (think Ralph Nader in 2000). In Australia, because of mandatory voting and mandatory preferential voting, politicians are almost entirely incentivised to target their policies at the slim portion of voters who change their vote between the major parties each election. Non-mandatory preferential voting enables voters some mechanism to signal exactly how they are dissatisfied with their representatives without reducing the choice down to the binary decision enforced by the parliamentary system of government. Further, such a voting system is simpler and hence less likely to omit voters who intended to cast a valid vote but could not understand how to do so. As a very rough indication of the force of this, consider that despite voters being highly invested in the Federal election in 2007 and highly disinterested in the NSW state election that same year, and despite the habit of voters using informal (non-valid) votes as a protest mechanism, the Federal election had 3.95% votes not counted because the were not properly cast, while the state election had 2.77%. The NSW system is harder to screw up, and it more properly counts a voter’s intention.

I do not know how I will vote at the next Federal election. It’s a very troubling decision. But whatever happens, I would urge the government to do the following:

1. Not implement a mechanism to censor the Internet.

2. Permit federal elections to be conducted as NSW elections are, on a voluntarily preferential basis.

The Earth v the filibuster

You’d think having the president, the House and the Senate all on the side of a piece of a legislation would be good enough, but in America today the most important branch of government is the Republican minority. If you review your Tea Party history book, I believe this was a vital check the founders built into the American system; I believe James Madison wanted to include in the Bill of Rights an amendment reading “If Mitch McConnell don’t like it, it ain’t happening. That’ll keep the liberals in line!”

Or, as TPM’s Brian Beutler reported today:

[T]he Senate’s lead climate change negotiator acknowledged today that he’s shy of the 60 votes he’d need to overcome a filibuster if it includes provisions meant to mitigate global warming.

“Are we there? No,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in response to a question from TPMDC this afternoon. “We don’t have the 60 votes yet. I know that. But we’re close, enough to be able to fight for it, and we’ll see where we wind up.

Kerry has never claimed otherwise, and has always suggested that building a 60-plus vote coalition for climate legislation would be a tough climb. But his acknowledgment comes as other key Democratic members and chairmen are trying to prevent any plan to cap and price global warming pollution from coming to the floor without 60 votes in the bag.

We don’t have an exact count of how many Yeas Kerry has for his plan to implement a cap and trade system in the United States, but the fact he’s still fighting for it with only a few days to spare before Harry Reid reveals his energy legislation suggests Kerry’s sitting on a bit more than 30-40 senators. It sounds like there is a good chance he’s got at least fifty of the one hundred Senators on his side.

Which, I must admit, is a pretty heroic effort. Climate change is a tough sell all over the world, as we in Australia saw when Kevin Rudd’s reforms foundered in our Senate. For Kerry to have a possible majority on his side — something Rudd has been unable to achieve and unwilling to fight for — is a laudable achievement. Too bad the contemporary Senate requires sixty votes to do almost anything. Continue reading

Tuesday update

I didn’t get in my link round-up this weekend, so here it is a couple days late. Apologies to any Australians who lacked reading material over the long weekend.

I’ve been listening to the Gaslight Anthem’s great new album American Slang. It’s in stores now and it sounds like Bruce Springsteen reincarnated in the body of a bunch of working class punks. Here’s lead singer Brian Fallon performing the title track live in Brunswick, NJ. No reading recommendation this week, but my must-see viewing for this week is Toy Story 3. It’ll be in theatres here on Friday, June 24 in Australia. Doesn’t the trailer alone get you excited?