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.


In which Sydney seeks more friends, more allies!

Matthew Moore in the SMH:

A 10-YEAR fall in the percentage of migrants settling in NSW and the lowest rate of economic growth of all mainland states has Melbourne on track to overtake Sydney as Australia’s biggest city, a report predicts.

The Going Nowhere report, produced by the economic forecasters BIS Shrapnel for a property developer lobby group, says lower developer levies on new housing land in Melbourne have allowed construction of homes at twice the rate of Sydney. This is fuelling a population and economic growth in the Victorian capital that means it will become the country’s biggest city by 2037.

This is some ridiculous reporting. A bunch of lobbyists cajole some economists into releasing a report saying their crystal ball has figured out Melbourne will be bigger than Sydney in 27 years time, and the Herald reports this as news? And regurgitates the assertion that the only way to avoid a fate Sydneysiders would understandably be horrified by is to implement the tax policies the lobbyists want? Thumbs fucking up, Matthew Moore; you’re all over this one.

I particularly like the way Moore inserts this at the end of the piece:

While the NSW Department of Planning has recently upgraded its population forecasts, predicting Sydney will reach 6 million by 2036, [Lobbyist] Mr Gadiel dismissed those projections and said they ”won’t happen” without radical changes to the planning system to make it easier and cheaper for developers to build more homes.

Thank god we’ve got experts like Aaron Gadiel there to offer incisive critiques of Department of Planning projections like “won’t happen.” And thank god we’ve got Matthew Moore, who’s willing to regurgitate facts like this —

The report, commissioned by the Urban Taskforce, says NSW’s share of national migration has fallen from about 42 per cent 10 years ago to about 30 per cent due to the ”extremely challenging conditions” in the residential property market when prices leapt after the Olympics.

— without considering that Sydney’s share of migration has reduced not because of Melbourne or the local housing market, but because of the booming resource economies in Western Australia and Queensland. In this case, growth is dependent on demand, not supply.

In which, oh no, some Liberals know a dirty word


”We have to move forward,” said Hockey. ”Clearly this issue has done us incredible damage and I hope the Australian people forgive us for having this very public display. But I say to the Australian people: we are a progressive party.

With all the turmoil and intrigue of the Coalition’s civil war, it’s been easy to miss some of the little details. Far more interesting than theorizing over a Liberal Party disintegration that isn’t going to happen is this important piece of rhetoric from the man who might be their leader as soon as next week.

Australian politics, though not to the extent of its American counterpart, has shied away from overt expressions of left wing ideology in recent decade. Even Keating, with his heartfelt embrace of reconciliation, the republic, an improved relationship with Asia, and other such small-l liberal causes, he was still an economic rationalist who had little time for old Labor socialism. John Howard proudly proclaimed his conservatism, as did his fellow party-members. Such was the benefit of being associated with the right wing that Kevin Rudd, as a new Opposition Leader, invented a reputation for himself as “an economic conservative.” The last thing any self respecting member of mainstream Australian politics wished to claim was an affiliation with the greenie, latte-sipping, chardonnay-swilling, inner-city left. In fact, the only time in recent years that being seen to be a conservative was a problem was for the NSW Liberals in 2007, and that’s because no one in the state could quite believe anyone could be to the right of NSW Labor. (Barry O’Farrell won’t make the mistake Peter Debnam did; that’s why he’s clamping down on the hardline conservatives in his party causing troubles with Hitler parodies.)

But all of a sudden, thanks to the 2007 election, the unpleasant aftertaste of 11 years of John Howard, and issues that resonate within the electorate like climate change, being a leftie ain’t that bad anymore. Look at Uncle Joe up there!

Excuse his blatant falsehood; whatever stance the Liberals should form on climate change, they are not a progressive party. Not even Petro Georgiou is anything more than a moderate conservative who knows how to act like a human being around refugees. The Liberals have long liked to call themselves a, well, liberal party, but after a half-century of conservative policies, it’s hard to believe them.

This, though, is different[1]. Hockey is adopting a tag usually associated with students, Greens voters and other assorted ratbags: progressive. Liberals are never progressive. They can be “wet,” or “moderate” or “centrist,” but never “progressive”; unlike the Labor party with its right wing, their centrists aren’t described as lefties. But here Hockey sees a political benefit for his party in the public perceiving them as more left-wing than they actually are. It’s the same mechanism Rudd used with his social-conservative schtick; the public didn’t trust his party to be economically responsible, so he claimed the opposing ideology for it.

And you can see why Hockey’s doing it, even though a big chunk of his party is determined to convince the country they’re anything but progressive. The Australian political center is definitely to the left of the Coalition on this issue. They don’t support an ETS as strongly as they used to, but they still greatly approve of doing something about climate change. The Coalition is simply not progressive enough on this issue, and in the words of Ian Macfarlane, “Malcolm Turnbull is modernising the parliamentary Liberal Party … He is bringing the party into the 21st century and there are some people who want to keep the party in the ’60s.”

On this issue, being progressive is, for once, not a dirty word. In fact doing what the Liberal Party is doing, as Turnbull says, is ”irresponsible from an environmental point of view and it is completely and utterly self-destructive from a political point of view.”

[1] I think adopting “progressive” and “liberal” are different things, because liberal is not only the name of their party, it has suggestions of classical liberalism about it. Progressive is just calling yourself a pot-smoking vegetarian friend-of-the-ABC.

In which Joe Hockey loves it when you call him Big Poppa

At the HeraldPeter Hartcher looks at Joe Hockey’s probable rise to the Liberal leadership next week:

If Joe Hockey wants to be the next leader of the Liberal Party the job is his – for a price. It’s very expensive. He will spend this weekend agonising over whether he wants to pay it.

It has three instalments. First, he has to be prepared to sacrifice his family life. This is standard for any political leader, but Hockey’s circumstances are particularly delicate.

He has three children under the age of five, one of them a newborn. Xavier is 4, Adelaide 2, and the new arrival, Ignatius, is just five weeks old.

And Hockey’s wife, Melissa Babbage, is committed to a demanding job of her own. As the head of foreign exchange trading at Deutsche Bank in Sydney, she is responsible for an $800-million-a-year business.

It’s not an ideal moment to move to an all-consuming, travel-heavy, sleep-destroying job with towering expectations and minimal resources.

That this is a consideration at all for a male politician is a small but fairly significant step. In the old days, it would have been a no-brainer for Hockey to place his career over his family and take the top job. (Disregarding the other factors Hartcher mentions: that it would require sacrificing his support for an ETS, and place him in the leadership at a time he’s unlikely to succeed.) A man in Hockey’s position would once have assumed he could leave the child-raising to his wife, while he got on with the serious man-business of politics.

It’s to Hockey’s credit that he considers the business of raising his family to be, at least in part, his responsibility, and that he’s willing to share the burden of doing so with his partner, Melissa Babbage. The challenge women face of balancing a career and a family can’t be easy for Babbage, particularly considering the size of her career and the size and youth of her family. That challenge is eased if it’s a challenge that belongs to her husband as well. That Australia appears to accept this is a reasonable consideration for a prospective leader to make is an undoubted good thing.

Of course, I suspect Hockey would have an easier time deciding to go for the leadership than if the roles were reversed and Babbage was weighing whether to sacrifice her family life for her career, she would have a slightly tougher time convincing the public that this was OK. Though we should be, I’m not sure we would be as comfortable with a mother of young children tilting at the leadership as we are with a father in the same position.

Then again, perhaps not. In the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, Sarah Palin ran for Vice-President with five children, including a new-born. Despite all manner of other criticism directed at her, there was a little in the way of discussion as to whether it was appropriate for her to take on a position of such responsibility while acting as mother to a large family. And nor should there have been; as with Hockey, that was a decision for her and her partner.

In which we understand why words mean so much to you; they’ll never be about you

There was an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald Thursday. It wasn’t by a Herald writer; it was sourced from the L.A. Times. Whatever — I sure would have preferred to have seen an Australian writer get the space, but I’m not a protectionist when it comes to other things, so I sure shouldn’t be when it comes to my own industry. Evidently the editor thought the Herald’s readers would enjoy this piece.

It wasn’t that great a piece; just some woman called Amy Alkon making the perfectly fine argument that kicking an excessively disruptive child off a plane is a good idea, then using it as a battering ram to say all kinds of preposterous things. You know, opinion journalism. But I’ll show you the quotes that interested me.

Unbelievably, Root demanded the apology she eventually got from the airline (shame, shame) and hit it up for the cost of nappies and the portable cot she says she had to buy for the overnight stay.

Except Alkon didn’t say “nappies.” She’s American! It says as much right at the bottom of the op-ed! And sure enough, the original article used the word “diapers.” It also described a “portable crib,” not a “cot,” an edit I find astonishing, because I had no idea “crib” was an Americanism us Australians must be prevented from seeing for the sake of our national dignity*.

Likewise, in the Herald, Alkon is printed referring to the “Mummy Mafia,” when, of course, she wrote “Mommy Mafia.” This is an even more egregious edit; a “mummy” is quite different to a “mommy.” The images conjured up are entirely different and the notion that a mafia of one kind is identical to a mafia of the other kind makes me want to give these copy-editors nap-time with the fishes. Let me make it clear: Australians have mums. Americans have moms. American moms should be “moms,” even if an Australian is referring to them, and vice-versa. Would we really call Carmela Soprano or Marge Simpson or Peggy Bundy a “mum”? Should an American really think of Maggie Beare or Kath Day-Knight or Sal Kerrigan as “moms”? It’s preposterous!

It is time we all learned to accept that those of us around the Anglosphere speak different kinds of English. Unless that kind of English causes problems with comprehension (and sometimes even then; American publishers should not change “jumper” to “sweater”) we should retain the writer’s original voice. If the Herald thinks a woman in Los Angeles is worth publishing, it shouldn’t patronise its readers by assuming their precious cultural sensitivities will be shocked if they read that woman communicating in her natural voice.

*Come to think of it, “cot” sounds like a Britishism we should have jettisoned along with the Monarchy when we became an independent nation.

Cross-posted at my Tumblr

In which I name names, all shots.

Jason Wilson at The New Matilda:

on the internet, no one knows you’re a broadsheet.

Well, true: a quick look at the garbage ass Web site of the actually respectable Sydney Morning Herald confirms that. The article itself is about the cutely named “trollumnists”; opinion writers who are more concerned with attracting attention than adding to public debate.

The article seems to be written from a viewpoint I basically hold; that it pays to produce quality material. Yet I’m convinced by its argument. Even broadsheet journalism is a business, and if the Herald or another such paper gets people reading by publishing people like Miranda Devine or Janet Albrechtsen, then they should publish them. It’s only a problem when these “trollumnists” become the norm. Fortunately, Australia still has people like Peter Hartcher, Paul Kelly, Annabel Crabb, David Marr — even Greg Sheridan — who are concerned with advancing debate and do so constructively. My beef is with writers like Paul Sheehan, who claim to be intelligent commentators, but in reality add nothing to public discourse. Sheehan, unlike Devine et. al., cannot even write well. He can’t construct an argument and he can’t construct a sentence. It is people like him we should be defending Australian media against, not the populist shit stirrers.

Cross-posted at my Tumblr

In which we remember we’re still a Federation

Adele Horin in today’s Herald:

Since Tasmania adopted the senior college system in the 1990s, its year 12 retention rate has grown at well above the national rate. The college system has been successful in the ACT. NSW is typically moving at a snail’s pace with only 16 senior colleges.

We don’t tend to like our states in Australia, not unless we’re, I dunno, from Queensland or Western Australia or something, and it results in getting a massively disproportionate share of government funding. But Horin reminds us of one of the benefits of our system: the potential for innovation in having six — eight if you include the territories — different governments all looking for a solution for a problem. Whether that is worth the duplication and waste of our Federal system is a debate worth having, but in Australia, we tend not to have that debate at all, sticking to petty buck-passing between the different levels of government accompanied by poorly thought-through declamations about dismantling Federalism, without giving due consideration to its benefits.