Friday, December 13, 2013

Abbott: Weak-Tea or just weaksauce?

Barrie Cassidy posits, after rambling for half an article, something which I am somewhat qualified to comment upon:
There is no equivalent in Australia of the Tea Party that has wreaked havoc upon the Republicans in the United States. Not yet anyway. 
But there is at the margins signs of a "weak-tea party", made up essentially of far right commentators and a small minority in the parliamentary party who want to use high office to settle scores.
We are lucky in this country not to suffer a lot of the insanities built into the American system of democracy. One of the main flaws in the US system at the moment is the primacy of money being funnelled by old rich white men to unelected political organisations which then hold elected officials to ransom, dragging them away from the platform they were elected on and towards positions that suit the interests of old rich white men. This long story, which has developed over the course of decades, is now coming to a head with the congressional wing of the Republican Party declaring civil war against conservative groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth. These "super PACs" are, like the Tea Party, funded mostly by billionaires and share most of their values, so that the Tea Party itself is mostly an entity of the grass roots but the super PACs act as their avatars in Washington.

Thankfully, we don't have that sort of perversion of democracy at work in Australia, or at least nowhere near those levels. When Murray Newman bangs on about lowering the minimum wage, no one treats it seriously and it means nothing. David Leyjonhelm of the LDP banged on about the exact same subject the other day in the Fin Review as republished on Catallaxy Files, and that also had no effect whatsoever. If this was America, there would be danger of supply being blocked in the Senate until all Hungry Jack's burger flippers were paid $5 an hour. Erick Erickson of wields significant power; when he makes threats like this, you can be pretty sure it's going to come true:
Then a comical and strategically miscalculated thing happened. John Boehner decided to let everyone know publicly what many have known privately for a while — he won’t be coming back in 2015 as Speaker.
Erickson's closest counterpart in Australia might be Sinclair Davidson, who sometimes uses Catallaxy to attack others on the right, but whose rants largely fall on deaf ears.

There are, however, some significant parallels between the Tea Party and the Liberal Party of Australia. The Tea Party's ultimate goal in life is to gain political power, but then dismantle government from the inside. Their libertarian ideal is for government to consist of police plus defence, and very little else. The Liberal Party seems to be doing a swell job of implosion itself in its first three months, which have been the worst in recorded history. Like the Tea Party-inspired Republicans, Abbott gained a reputation as leading a "party of no" while in opposition, and he has continued that negativity into government with most of his actions concerned with tearing down previous Labor reforms.

Of course, the old saw about never assuming conspiracy when incompetency is more believable applies here. Is Abbott leading an extremist fifth column with an agenda of self sabotage to undermine the legitimacy of government... or is he just not any good at governing?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Shit keeps happening to Tony Abbott

There is no greater illustration of the Abbott government than the building in Shanghai that fell over in 2009. Non-existent foundations, shoddy workmanship, embarrassingly cheap construction, shortcuts taken everywhere leading to complete disaster. This is the Abbott administration in miniature.

Pundits ruminated that last week was terrible for the Libs - Gonski, Graincorp, Holden, Philippines, China and four more boats - and that November should have been taken out the back and shot. Sounds like Gillard-era apologists calling for "clear air". Gillard never got it, and Abbott doesn't seem like he will either because shit continues to happen. But what would he do with it, even if he got it?

This lack of vision and direction should not be at all surprising to anyone who has been paying attention. Abbott's reign never had any blueprint of policy. There were no intellectual foundations for this government. Like Howard before him, Abbott is relying on being able to react to things once in office, because he has no agenda of his own. Howard was a past master at latching onto issues floating through the media and taking the most populist stance to maximise political point scoring. Abbott has a tin ear for this sort of thing, on evidence to date.

Is he going to last long enough to find his SIEV-X, his GST and his republic referendum? Laura Tingle set a modern record for earliest leadership speculation over a new Prime Minister with this piece spruiking for Turnbull a few weeks ago. No one treated it seriously, and there has been no follow up. Nevertheless, the situation is not helped by his chief of staff Peta Cruddlin Credlin channelling Rudd with obsessive micromanagement of the caucus. That's just the sort of thing that starts genuine leadership destabilisation down the track.

Meanwhile, if Abbott is no Howard, the audition of Cory "Two Dogs" Bernardi to fill the attack mutt role previously filled by Abbott when in opposition is also going poorly. His barking at the ABC and his growls on euthanasia and abortion have fallen on deaf ears. As Andrew Elder rightly points out, the likes of Mike Carlton lifting the cudgel and re-enacting old battles from the 1990s culture wars only highlights how out of touch those old grizzled journos are. One should not treat what the Australian newspaper has to say on this issue with any seriousness whatsoever. Out in the actual electorate, the ABC is wildly popular, and the one-man-Tea-Party flailings of Bernardi are ignored as they should be.

The contrast with the boldness of the Keating era could not be more stark.

Friday, November 29, 2013

No alarms and no surprises, please

Tony Abbott before the election:
We will be a no surprises, no excuses government, because you are sick of nasty surprises and lame excuses from people that you have trusted with your future.
So far, we have had:

  • A "stop the boats" policy based on misusing the rules of the sea to trick Indonesia into accepting asylum seekers, which lasted exactly two boatloads before surprising the Liberals by collapsing in spectacular fashion, leading to excuses that is was all the ABC's fault;
  • A "Jakarta-focused" foreign policy which surprisingly led to a downgrade of relations with Jakarta, which will now only be solved through an abrogation of Australia's security interests in fighting terrorism, leading to excuses that it was all Labor's fault;
  • A supposed "unity ticket" on Gonski education reforms that has surprisingly been ripped up in favour of... um... no one knows exactly, but it won't be a return to Howard era funding arrangements because they didn't work either, leading to excuses that it's all the fault of Liberal state premiers;
  • The "budget emergency" which has been completely disregarded by Joe Hockey in blowing the budget out further by over $10 billion, leading to excuses that it was all Wayne Swan's fault;
  • A declaration that Australia is "open for business", followed by today's announcement that Hockey would block the sale of Graincorp to ADM, leading to excuses that it was the fault of the Foreign Investment Review Board for not making the decision quickly enough;
  • A promise to deliver the NBN quicker and cheaper, followed by today's leak from the "blue book" giving information to the incoming government that its NBN policy was inadequate, includes unnecessary expense in its design and would be unlikely to meet its targets, leading to excuses... well, Malcolm Turnbull hasn't thought one up yet, but it will come I'm sure.

At least Abbott has been consistent on climate change. His only problem there is that he has shown no sign at all of having an idea of how to get his repeal bill through the Senate. It's Clive's world now, we're all just living in it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ashes and #auspol, outliers and damned statistics

Over the past week, we have seen two different examples of statistical anomalies in Australia. The first was the First Ashes Test in Brisbane, which the only people who thought Australia was going to win were the bookies. Did they win? They shat it in, by a massive 381 runs, on the back of a first innings collapse of 6 for 9 that came out of nowhere and from which the English never recovered. After the Aussies had lost the three previous series including a 3-0 drubbing in England only two months ago - which, admittedly, was closer than the scoreline suggested - the Poms are now reeling to the extent that they are whinging that Mitchell "Studsy" Johnson is the new Harold Larwood, raising the spectre of Bodyline without apparent irony.

Those bookies must have known something. The fact that Australia hadn't lost in Brisbane for decades would have been one clue. With rain forecast - though it played little to no role - and Shield pitches this year being far more batsman-friendly, the smart money was on the draw, in my opinion. Nevertheless, the Gabba pitch turned from day two and Nathan "Timmay" Lyon used the extra bounce to good effect to snare two of those six wickets in the collapse.

The other big unexpected factor was that Darren "Boof" Lehmann and Craig "Billy" McDermott in the Australian coaching staff had somehow figured out a way to use Studsy's execrably poor action and lack of proper technique in his favour. For a good six or so years now, Studsy has refused to hold the ball in the correct position with seam upright, as his colleagues Ryan "Spearmint" Harris and Peter "Vicious" Siddle do in order to get the seam to hit the pitch and produce swing. Studsy's scrambled seam technique has meant he gets zero seam or swing movement, which had led to his figures collapsing and his exit from the Test team as his confidence crumbled. Notwithstanding that he had been taken under the wing of no less a man that D.K. Lillee in the offseason, he was only picked for this test because a host of more preferred options were injured.

Boof and Billy hatched a plan, which must have been borne out of desperation more than anything else. Studsy was going to bowl crap that didn't swing or seam, so what did he have left? Pace, that's all. Well, unless you count piss and wind. Studsy also doesn't have much control - the reason he holds the ball with a scrambled seam must be because he couldn't control it at all holding it properly, so he could only hope to keep it on the pitch by grasping the seam in the tips of all of his four fingers instead of the usual two-fingers-down-the-seam method.

The result of this set of weaknesses was that the only thing Boof and Billy could think of to ensure that Studsy wasn't carted about the park like Brett "Slotty" Lee was to tell him to attack the body. This tactic is usually referred to in knowledgeable cricket circles as "legside filth". Proper Test batsmen, wearing padding and helmets and with the safety of the Bodyline-induced restriction of only two fielders allowed behind square leg, should be able to spank that sort of rubbish for enough runs to convince the opposing captain that it's a bad idea best left in the 1930s.

Curiously, it worked. The Poms, most of whom earned OBEs in multiple previous series beating up on hapless Aussies, were duly intimidated. New chum Michael "Dingle" Carberry put up some resistance but eventually fell to Studsy falling for the three card trick flashing outside off. Kevin Pietersen thoughtlessly hooked a harmless Studsy sucker ball straight to fine leg. Jonathan "Joost" Trott looked like he didn't want to be out there, and Studsy claimed him twice. Of course it has come out later that Joost didn't actually want to be out there, but that is not Studsy's fault.

The other statistical outlier of the week was the Nielsen poll that had Labor ahead 52:48 in 2PP. No other poll has the opposition ahead, though the trend is definitely towards them: Newspoll went a point in their favour to 48:52, and ReachTEL also shifted a point to Labor to 49:51, while the normally glacially-moving Essential was static as usual.

Can Labor be praised for an excellent performance? Can Studsy be lauded for finally figuring out this bowling caper? No and no. These outliers may be signifiers of a more permanent shift in both cases, but the cause of any such movement would be the weakness of the incumbent, not the strength of the challenger. Australia is still a very flawed team, it's just that the English were never that good to begin with, age is catching up to them and we're only just realising now how very beatable they always have been. We have always had the "cattle" to beat England, even when we were getting thrashed. It was a matter of picking the right bulls and putting a stop to the childish antics that have been allowed in the dressing room by tantrum-prone New South Welshmen.

Similarly, Bill Shorten would be foolish to congratulate himself on a job well done, because the best thing he can do at the moment is let the internal inconsistencies of the Tony Abbott regime work against each other to their ultimate conclusion, whatever that might be. Abbott is methodically working through each major element of his election platform and reneging on every promise: his "stop the boats" solution is in ruins, his "budget emergency" never existed, his "Jakarta-focused foreign policy" is an international joke, his "unity ticket" on Gonski has now been ripped up.

There are definite signs in both cases of the outlier being a leading indicator, rather than an anomaly. It would not be surprising, though, to see England recover in their off-week Alice Springs jaunt and go on to retain the Ashes for a fourth time in succession. It would also be normal to see Abbott start to learn on the job and improve his poll numbers. More about that last one in future posts, no doubt!

UPDATE: as Homer (nottrampis) points out in the comments, there is conjecture about current polls being a bit misleading due to different treatments of preference flows. Homer blogged about this, as did William Bowe at Poll Bludger:
A more technical observation to be made about the [Nielsen] result is that the two-party preferred figures are based on respondent-allocated preferences, whereas Nielsen’s topline numbers are usually based on preference flows from the previous election. This no doubt is because the Australian Electoral Commission still hasn’t published Coalition-versus-Labor two-party results from the 11 seats where other candidates made the final count (I’m told they are likely to do so later this week). However, I have one model for allocating preferences based on the information available from the election, which gets Labor’s two-party vote to 51.7%, and Kevin Bonham has two, which get it to 51.2% and 51.4%.
The upshot of this wonkishness is that while Nielsen might be a point too high for Labor due to this discrepancy, Newspoll might be a point too low, so it's pretty much a wash. This all leads to today's BludgerTrack figure of 50.8:49.2 to the Coalition, which is a poor result for a two-month-old government in anyone's language.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

SBY invoices Abbott: one bum, tastefully wrapped

So, the Oz reports Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono accepts Tony Abbott's explanation over spying scandal

Yep, he accepts it alright. SBY's response is in the form of an invoice, to be paid to the sum of one prime ministerial arse on a platter plus GST.

 This "code of conduct" will be worse than Obama's promise to Merkel. It will cover the same ground, but it will be binding. Abbott will have to sign a promise not to spy on any Indonesian targets at all, viz:
Dr Yudhoyono said the Prime Minister had undertaken that Australia would not in future engage in conduct "that will be harmful to the relationship or disturb Indonesia". This appeared to confirm the reported commitment earlier this month by Australian intelligence chiefs to their Indonesian counterpart, Marciano Norman, that Australia was not now and would not engage in electronic surveillance against domestic targets in Indonesia.
So it's not just SBY and his wife, Australia won't be able to carry out unilateral surveillance against Jemaah Islamiah or any other terrorist organisations operating on Indonesian soil. Any such work would have to include a tip off to and a nod from Indon authorities, which is unacceptable from a security point of view given how leaky the place is.

This is a national security disaster. Abbott could have headed this off by doing what Obama did, promising not to bug political leaders, and retaining the power to fully defend Australia from terrorists. This outcome is far more damaging than what that minor loss of face would have been.

 Abbott has been a bull in a china shop through this whole show. The final result will be an embarrassing abrogation of Australia's national interest. And it was all so easily preventable.

Note: this post is a minor fixup of one I made first over at Catallaxy Files in an open thread discussion.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Conservatism and asylum seekers

I keep getting asked over at Catallaxy Files what I would have Tony Abbott do on the issue of asylum seekers. To make it clear, I have a lot of sympathy with the conservative approach to asylum seekers, and wish it could succeed in the real world. No really, I do. Unfortunately it is just not possible, and pretending otherwise - as the Abbott government is currently doing - is folly.

The conservative approach to asylum seekers as I understand it is this: the primary concern in all of this is to protect life. This is a commendable and admirable goal. Towards this goal the Libs’ plan, cooked up with their tinpot general, was evidently to have RAN boats patrolling Indonesia’s search-and-rescue zone for asylum seeker boats, and return their inhabitants to Indonesia before they officially became Australia’s problem in their own zones. They would do this by exploiting international conventions on rescue of boats in distress. On paper, this strategy went some way towards solving the inevitable problem of asylum seeker deaths at sea, or at least made it look more like Indonesia's problem if the deaths happened a few clicks off the coast of Java rather than on the rocks surrounding Christmas Island. 

This policy is an embodiment of strong conservative values, and on that score I respect it. Its fundamental origin is not in partisan point scoring, but in the preservation of the lives of the poor bastards hanging for dear life to the rickety scows and fishing dinghies that the smugglers furnish them with. Conservatives are well within their rights to throw their hands up and wonder what to do, because this is their best shot if they are remain pure and true to their beliefs.

Nevertheless, that policy was never going to work long term without an agreement with the Indonesians, and a more realpolitik approach is necessary. Since before the election, Julie Bishop has been engaged in a public spat with Indonesian diplomats whereby Bishop has bunged on the death stare over the Timor Sea, willing the Indons to abrogate their own sovereignty in favour of Australia defending its own. The hoo-hah about a new Konfrontasi, while overblown as was much of Rudd's rhetoric, underlined the division between Abbott's earnest position and the reality of bilateral relations. The Indonesians are not nearly as subservient as the politicians in Papua New Guinea, though, as Bishop and the team are no doubt finding out now in their private talks. The Indons are a formidable international presence, and deserve to be treated with more respect than the current government have accorded them. 

I have also been accused of delighting in the prospect of deaths at sea. Admittedly, I am enjoying the exposure of the incompetence of the right to deal with problems when in government, problems that they took every opportunity to score points on when in opposition – turns out government is a lot harder than they pretended. This is not the same as cheering on the problems themselves. 

Abbott’s whole schtick on this issue was to turn back the boats. Now it comes out that he has unloaded the last three boats (according to the report in the Jakarta Post, though the exact numbers are under question) and dropped them off on Australian-controlled soil. It was his central election promise, his version of “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”. He is currently putting a lie to that promise, as of the last handful of boats. If he doesn’t turn them back, he won’t have changed the policy that was operating (briefly) under Rudd.

Many of the right's talking points under Rudd/Gillard have been exposed as nonsense, or have also befallen Abbott leading to the inescapable conclusion that some aspects of the asylum seeker issue are so difficult as to be beyond partisanship. In particular, if Abbott continues to run a valet service for boats as Rudd and Gillard did, the right can not keep banging on about superior policy with regards to pull factors. For years, Abbott railed against sugar being on the table under Labor like a Pernicious Knid, yet he's now Willy Wonka. Indonesia's vice presidential spokesperson Dewi Fortuna Anwar continues to insist that a people swap deal is on the table, similar to the Malaysian deal which the right condemned as akin to child sex slavery. 

Given Scott Morrison's continued silence on every matter including the time of day, the Indons are winning the PR war by leaking out details from the talks that favour their side. They have Abbott over a barrel on this one, and they will not let him escape. Abbott is learning a quick lesson in how hard international relations are with equals. Other people can say “no” to you if you treat them poorly, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Yudhoyono and Natalegawa have treated the new chums like they do on the HMAS Ballarat: by hazing them right up the khyber.

So, what would I have Abbott do? Is there a policy that can satisfy his base, prevent deaths at sea, avoid sending children to refugee camps or barely civilised jungle towns, keep Australia 'fugee-free and give the media something else to talk about? No. Asylum seekers are a part of the international landscape as it has developed over centuries, you can't actually stop those boats unilaterally any more than you can declare an end to wars or abolish child poverty. You might as well ask him to change the weather. Oh, oops!

Note: this post is a fix-up from comments I made on a Catallaxy open thread earlier in the week.

Update on Operation Valet Service:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Revenant Rudd, Zombie Hawker

I have been ambivalent in the past about Katherine Murphy's work, both at the Age and her new gig at the Guardian. Her role as liveblogger of the day's federal political cycle has led her to report on a lot of faffery, and her long form work has consequently been drawn to the short term and superficial. Arguably this is merely a reflection of the limited (and limiting) work she has been given to do to suit the interests of the publications she writes for, not her own skills as an analyst.

Nevertheless, her piece on Zombie Bruce Hawker's election diary was a big head nodder for me, and well written it was too.
The great resonant emptiness in this Rudd rebellion recount is the apparent absence of an agenda. Rudd spent years campaigning to regain the Labor leadership but apparently had no cut-through idea of what to do when he had it. This, of course, by implication, is the fault of others. There was simply not enough time for him to map out an alternative agenda. (Really? That busy on the backbench?)
Net result: no coherent campaign. No consequential pitch for a third term in office. Just “diamond-studded toolboxes”, “bloke-ing up”, policy cooked up in the campaign plane, cycles of war and attrition with News Corp – confidences that would be laughable if they weren’t in fact lethal; lethal for political journalism.
Rudd devotees saw what they wanted to see in him. This is not a new insight, of course, but as more comes out about Rudd II, the more these acolytes are exposed as not understanding what motivated Rudd, not adding up his deficit in substance. Professor John Quiggin saw a centrist, someone to the right of the Left's Julia Gillard and thus more electable. The Piping Shrike saw an anti-politician, navigating his way between the factions strange-attractor style, pathfinding a New Way in a Blairite repudiation of the factional system.

In retrospect: this was all bullshit. Rudd II was not only just another politician, but he wasn't even a competent one. In Quiggin's own formulation, he practised zombie politics. He was not a messiah whose 40 days in the wilderness transformed him into a generous leader of men. He was a brainless revenant, who had no reason to go on after accomplishing his main goal of revenge on Gillard. He shambled from presser to presser, powerless to escape the media cycle. The public picked up on this, and his poll numbers retreated from parity back towards much what Gillard would have achieved if Rudd had withered away instead of finally sinking those claws in.

The one thing we will never know is how Gillard would have gone if Rudd had not destabilised her for her entire reign. Could she have been the next Hawke if Rudd had withdrawn gracefully like Hayden did? One for the historians.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Hockeyball Super-Baillieu

The Toecutters Gang, played by actual Australian bikie gang members, chases a Chevy in the original Mad Max movie.
As part of the statification of Australian federal politics I have been banging on about, the preponderance of Liberal premiers in Australian states are now giving us a taste of what we have to look forward from Canberra under Tony Abbott.

- WA premier Colin Barnett is presiding over a budget blowout which has necessitated a credit rating downgrade caused by an obsession with spending on boondoggles and a lack of political will to implement revenue measures to balance the books. But hey, more Eagles members can watch their team go around at the new White Elephant Stadium!

- Queensland premier Campbell Newman has not only declared war on bikie gangs, announcing plans for a bikie Gitmo where the rule of law is thrown out the barred window, but has chosen to simultaneously announce three new casinos. The justification for the bikie crackdown is apparently the effect it has on the education export trade. Just another day in glorious Queensland.

- Victorian premier Denis Napthine is coming down on the side of police in their role as glorified tax collectors, by further strengthening speed camera regulations.

- NSW premier Barry O'Farrell has racked up up the ton in reviews, after giving in to a new casino in Sydney controlled by James Packer.

The overall picture is of small-minded actuaries whose main concern is with bookkeeping. Vision is anathema to this style of governance. Smoky backrooms where deals are done with cronies don't generally include feature windows. This style of politician looks at their best when they are staying schtum and keeping themselves out of the paper, as Napthine and O'Farrell are mostly doing, and as Abbott himself has largely done since the election. Niki Savva summed up the federal implications, supporting the statification theory:
While Abbott's decision to tone down is so far working well publicly, it has not won universal applause. Four times in the past few days, four keen observers and participants I spoke to in preparation for this column, one Labor and three Liberal, referred to the rigid staff selection orchestrated by the chief of staff, media restrictions imposed by central command, the seemingly languid responses, and then all mentioned one former leader: Ted Baillieu in Victoria. 
None of them meant it as a compliment. Even though no one seriously believes Abbott is another Baillieu, these early markers have sent ripples through the executive corridors and those who watch them closely.
Baillieu is indeed the template. While Abbott had a lot more warning that he would win than Ted did, he made the same mistakes as Baillieu in that he is now similarly hamstrung by budget commitments made during the election that delivered him victory. Baillieu had a choice after he went into the 2010 election promising a huge increase in spending for security guards at train stations: renege on his promise or blow out the budget. He chose the latter, and the lack of wriggle room this gave him came to define his premiership, as he looked like he was doing nothing at all - not to mention the security guard policy turned out to be a massive flop.

Abbott's fiscal straitjacket is more ideological in nature, self imposed but no less tight. This is why the hapless Joe Hockey is floating up the idea of the private sector funding infrastructure stimulus. Joe wants his Keynesian cake and wants to eat it too, without the bucks bulging his budget's belly. This is very much a state government idea, the public-private partnership (PPP) where industry is supposed to take the risk and reap the rewards if the public use the new tolled infrastructure. The only problem is that toll operators have been burned too many times by state governments on that one - Brisbane's Airport Link and CLEM7, plus Sydney's Lane Cove and Cross City tunnels all failed - and are going to refuse to play Hockeyball unless they get a guaranteed return.

Meanwhile, if the right get their way in America and engineer a debt default which immediately knocks four percentage points or more off US GDP, Hockey is going to be even less able to handle the globalised damage without relying on the RBA to bail him out from the monetary side. The RBA has a lot more slack before it hits the zero lower bound than most other OECD countries, but even so, that wouldn't last long if Ted Cruz presses the big red button.

No doubt the next move will be to flog off assets, with the successful float of the Royal Mail leading to covetous eyes being directed towards Australia Post. I suppose if Abbott wants to rerun the Howard era in full, there has to be an equivalent to the Telstra float.

The ultimate consequence of Abbott following Baillieu's basic plan in the larger federal arena is a Super-Baillieu: an even more broad disappointment to a wider constituency. The current trend of unbelievably fawning treatment of Abbott by the press will inevitably change. Once he starts actually doing things that can be judged first hand, it will be difficult to pretend he is Prime Minister material.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


A comment of mine on Crooked Timber has been endorsed in an OP by none other than Brad Delong, one of the most prominent economists in the world. This wasn't even on my bucket list, it would be like Leigh Matthews name checking me on Friday Night Football. 

The route to get to this point is more circuitous than the debating tactics used by Catallaxians to defend Tony Abbott's incompetence. In the beginning, there was the Internet. Thank you, Tim Berners-Lee.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Abbott and Hockey's hyper bowls of shit

A week into the Tony Abbott era, and we still haven't got a government yet. So far so good, both sides say.

The Wire-style bowls of shit are already piling up on the desks of Carcetti Abbott and treasurer Joe Hockey.

- The Indonesians have delivered a big one, already knocking back Abbott's Jakarta-focused policy at first glance, leaving him with nowhere to go;
- Treasury has a steaming pile of doo-doo ready for him in the form of sharply written down economic forecasts, leading Hockey to scramble for his volumes on Keynesian economic orthodoxy;
- The RBA and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority are now warning of another debt-fueled housing bubble, meaning that the Libs can not claim ignorance if someone sets alight the tinderbox near the thunderbox that is the overpriced Australian housing market - and if they don't want monetary policy to be so loose, they had better loosen the purse strings of the federal budget;
- A related excretory problem is speculation by self-managed super fund operators, who are traditional Liberal voters but are ripe for the wiping by Hockey in his search for waste products in the tax code, mollycoddled as they have been by upper-class welfare with Howard's FBT concessions;
- And finally, if the Chinese slowdown wasn't enough, the US taper is about to hit, which will shower the world in the same sort of austerian shite that the Europeans have been sprinkling for years now - this may have the short term benefit of lowering the Australian dollar, but will have other bad direct and indirect effects on us and our trading partners.

When he sits down to consume these gourmet political delights, will Tony have the wherewithal to say "yummy"?

The statification of Australian federal politics

Yes Mr Abbott, it's a little black hole.

I have been trying to think of a way to describe what Australian federal politics has turned into across the last two election cycles. The consensus on the 2010 election was that it was the worst in memory, and while that hasn't been said much about the one just gone, that's probably because it was no better and people have accepted this low quality debate as the new norm.

There were a number of signifiers during the election of what I think of as the statification of Australian federal politics - which I would define as the federal level devolving in influence to the level of states, with federal-level power being ceded to global markets and the RBA.

The first, and most emblematic, was when Tony Abbott stood in front of a pothole on the Great Ocean Road as he was announcing a rather small investment in road maintenance. This is normally the province of state or local government... but that is what federal government is becoming. The Liberals are nominally the party of small government - albeit that their history from Menzies through Fraser and Howard has been to increase public spending. Now we are faced with the prospect of a government so small that it doesn't function at all, as the Abbott government still hasn't been sworn in more than a week later. You can't get much smaller than no government!

A couple of articles also crystallised this view. The Piping Shrike has been pushing the line that the economic debate has changed in that prospective Prime Ministers can't get away any more with claiming that they can control the economy to the extent that they used to in the Good Old Days, pre-Keating, when we were hid behind a wall of tariffs from the coming globalisation.
The government enters this election with what appears a confused economic message. On the one hand it seems to be saying that it was its stewardship that meant Australia avoided a recession through the GFC. On the other hand it is warning that a Chinese slowdown will mean unemployment will rise whatever it does. 
This seems contradictory if the economic debate is still seen in the old way. However, the common theme running through the message is a new way economic policy is being viewed, namely that government is not responsible for the state of the economy, rather just for protecting the electorate from the worst of it.
The Shrike's original post on the election assumed it would be fought on the economy, as has been the default assumption on any Western election post-Clinton, but this turned out not to be the case at all. The Shrike has been, to the extent that it is possible to assign labels, a Rudd backer. His underlying narrative was that Rudd was going to usher in a new era of technocracy, with Labor being reborn from the ashes of unionism into a Zegna-suited, wonkish future. They would succeed where British Labour has failed, supposedly, in reinventing themselves as a party of Confucian smarty pantses, free of the vestiges of class struggle. In this scenario, the antediluvian Libs flailed about still speaking the superseded language of Howard, playing the role of "stupid" in "it's the economy, stupid".

His next article expanded on Labor's attempt at technocracy in the same vein, but showed indirectly why it wasn't going to work.
Having gone to such lengths to confirm the independence of the RBA and Treasury, we are now seeing on Labor’s side an increasing political synergy with them. But not as before. Not as institutions that are ultimately subservient to the government, but what could be described at best as an equal partnership or even subservience in the other direction.
If Rudd was to be our new emperor, was his manifesto to be to follow whatever Glenn Stevens wanted? Who runs the show? There is a conflict between acknowledging that we are a small fish in a globalised pond full of external sharks we can't control, and pretending that we can solve our problems through wonkish nudgery. It particularly doesn't work if you swallow the austerian rhetoric of the other mob, and leave the task of expansionary policy to the monetary side. Stevens is more flexible in his policy than Rudd was or Abbott is, given the bipartisan obsession with debt. The Prime Minister is like a state Premier now, with Stevens in the role of the PM doling out favours in the form of interest rate cuts.

There are major flaws with the theory of Labor becoming a technocratic ruler class. The main one highlighted in the election campaign was that Rudd's slogan was "A New Way", but he never attempted to define what that was in any way at all, as I highlighted in a recent post. It's all very well to harken back to Blair's Third Way, but if there's no substance behind it then it's not going to work. There was not actually a new way at all, just old ways trotted out one more time, like Bruce Hawker's cheap suits. It's easy to make fun of the Libs for having the ineffectual Arthur Sinodinos and the black cloud that is Andrew Robb as their brains trust, but where was the vision from Rudd? Perhaps more importantly in the long term, if the caucus is renewed by apparatchiks, former staffers and celebrities, where is the fresh thinking going to come from?

Speaking of Hawker, the defining article of the campaign was this one by Peter Hartcher, detailing his descent into the murky depths of a focus group, probably set up by Hawker. Abandon hope for a compassionate society, all ye who enter here. 22 years without a recession breeds complacency, no better illustrated in this series of #firstworldproblems complaints. This is how Rudd played the game, and he lost badly to Abbott. He failed the vision test. Keating would have listened to such whinging and whining, and changed the game to make all of it irrelevant.

Now, at this point you might be thinking that I'm looking with rose coloured glasses at Keating and all he stood for. We don't necessarily need another PJK. Part of the problem is that so much work in making the Australian economy globally competitive has already been done, so what is there left for a putative Prime Wonk to do? Stand in front of potholes like a pissant councilman, make an effort to balance the books, and leave the heavy lifting of Keynesianism to the RBA? To accept that is to accept the framing of government by the right.

It is difficult to see the next Labor leader as being able to drag Labor into the 21st century. The party is still riven by left and right factions, by unions versus technocrats, by the NSW Right versus the rest. Talk of the party dying is silly, yet the barriers against someone leading it into a future of government in the short term are numerous and high. The best they seem to hope for is for the Libs to implode, since the internal inconsistencies and weaknesses of the Abbott platform are legion.

For the record, I think Albanese would be the better candidate. Shorten has looked like a beaten man since making the fateful shift to Rudd. Albo would take the fight up to Abbott, and energise the caucus if not the base for the likely long stint in opposition ahead. His similarity with Daniel Andrews, however, can't be denied. Just as Andrews has proven to have a lack of cut through in Victorian politics in the face of the broadly disappointing Baillieu/Napthine snorefest, as merely another state politician who is about as exciting as an accountant, Albo may not be able to get enough media coverage to get the public to see the punches he lands on Abbott.

When even the Prime Minister doesn't think the business of government important enough to sign up for it in the first week after winning an election, the public can be forgiven for turning off. They turned off state politics long ago, and now they are turning off federal politics in droves. This is a failure of the political process in Australia, and represents the ultimate victory of the right if it continues. It will probably take a recession to jolt us out of our complacency... and if the Coalition follows its own austerian bulldust, it will allow one to happen, probably during its first term if various forecasts are correct. That may be the only catalyst possible for all sides of politics to sit back and reassess where the whole Bruce Petty style contraption is going.

Friday, August 30, 2013

And down the stretch they come

I don't know if Nate Silver is paying much attention to the Australian federal election, occupied as he would be by putting more zeroes into his spreadsheets post his ESPN acquisition, but if he gave us more than a cursory glance he would recognise some fundamental errors that pollsters made last year in the second Obama victory that local firms seem to be making all over again.

Silver's signature analysis for the NYT of the error rates of US poll companies in 2012 is not itself flawless, since there did appear to be a very late swing towards the incumbent of a point or so from the Hurricane Sandy aftermath which threw everybody out of whack even more than they already were, which is why all but four of the pollsters he listed showed a Republican lean. It showed that the methodology of a poll does carry its own problems - robopolls conducted via automated systems and/or those which exclude mobile phones both oversample conservative voters - but that in-house errors due to sampling techniques can be even more pronounced, up to a 7.2% gap between reality and the results of usually respectable Gallup.

We don't have a local version of Silver, a credible interpreter of the polls for a mass audience who has the statistical chops to back up his analysis. Antony Green is our closest, but he stays out of the daily hustle and bustle to concentrate on electoral process. William Bowe does his best at Poll Bludger over at Crikey with his BludgerTracker index updating for every new poll and hosting massive comment streams where partisans bludgeon each other with the latest figures, while Kevin Bonham goes more in depth in a weekly round up.

Kevin's article on the first week of the 2013 election campaign sums up the high point for Labor polling thus far, as it has been all pain all the time since then. Back then, even though they trailed slightly on the two-party-preferred, it was possible to posit a Labor victory given that they were going to gain more marginals in Queensland and WA than they would lose in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. In the weeks after, every part of that theory has been progressively attacked by national, state and individual seat polls.

If Andrew Elder's theory that Tony Abbott is never going to be the Prime Minister is any chance of coming true, not only does the 2PP need to swing back to somewhere near the first week's levels, there has to be something wrong with the seat-level polling which in marginal Labor seats has shown as much as a nine per cent swing against the ALP. These are all robopolls and/or have very small samples, so they are weak evidence. One wonders if their marginals are indeed hosting such a swing, why the national 2PP is so strong for Labor. Where are their extra votes coming from, safe seats? It's a mystery, not really helped by a strong base of diverse, comprehensive and credible poll sources.

Then there are the betting markets, which started off as highly favouring a Coalition victory even in the first week when the 2PP was 50:50, and have blown out to unbackable odds with one outlet already announcing payouts to those gambling on the Libs. Not that that is a sure fire sign, either: bettors on wins by Tiger Woods and Chris Judd in various recent markets have enjoyed early payouts for competitions in which their ticket didn't end up winning. Politics is a novelty market for bookies, conducted for promotional purposes only.

If I was Nate Silver looking at all of this, I daresay I would be going against the prevailing trend as he did last year and declaring the race as still too close to call. He would probably not have as much faith in the quality and breadth of Australian pollsters to make as confident a call as he made last year, that Obama had a 90%+ chance of winning. That is not to say that Rudd has much of a chance, mind you. The margin of error for Labor is their only hope at this point, but as the days count down and the polls don't narrow by enough, they are running out of doubt from which to take the benefit.

So many dumb ways to lie

I am not a fan of the advent of fact-checking sites we have seen in this election campaign. This is not because fact checking is not needed: in the modern age of slowly dying mass media, retreating to its partisan past, an independent source of fact checking is a necessary part of the post-MSM journalism landscape. My objection to the likes of Politifact, ABC Fact Check, and The Conversation FactCheck is the granularity of the rating systems.

Bronwen Clune's article on this subject for the Guardian was illustrated by a big image of a green tick and a red cross, and that sums up my problem with fact checking sites: that there is not enough nuance in the ratings allowable. Politifact has five possible ratings: false, mostly false, half true, mostly true and true. This leads it to conclude that the ALP line that the Coalition will cut 20,000 public sector jobs is false. The reality is more complex than that, however. If you just concentrate on what the Coalition has said, then you can't find much evidence of the 20,000 number. Labor's argument, however, is that the confirmation of the higher figure is implied by the sums in the Coalition's budget plan, based in part on Treasury analysis which has been running in the media for the last day or two.

For Politifact to look narrowly at whether the Coalition said it would cut 20,000 jobs misses the point, and allows the Coalition to sail by unscrutinised on the implications of its announced policies. Where is the analysis by Politifact on whether the Coalition can actually save the amount of money it claims will be saved by cutting only 12,000 jobs? That is a job for an economist, and Saul Eslake did that job, which earned him the opprobrium of the Coalition.

Politifact's concentration on the words, not the numbers, means that they are now setting themselves up in opposition to what Eslake said. We have duelling fact checkers, one checking the words which describe the numbers, and one checking the numbers which underpin the words. Who is right? They could both be right within the confines of the tasks they set themselves, but they both miss the broader picture.

In the new world of journalism after the giants fall, some will fall victim to the tendency not to tell the whole story. Journalism will become fragmented, an ecology of disparate parts instead of the omnibus juggernauts of yore. If you are setting yourself up as a beacon of truth, however, you should tell the whole truth, not just a part of it. The sin of omission will allow your words to be used by partisans in ways you do not intend. Be effusive in your ratings, please.

I am not talking about the ever-so-slightly better descriptors used by the ABC, like "outdated", or "checks out". These are just synonyms for wrong and right. Loosen it up a bit. Inject some entertainment. I was a fan of Australian writer Paul-Michael Agapow's Postviews back in the day when newsgroups were still a meaningful thing, which used in its movie reviews a Sid and Nancy scale to bring a non-linear element into end-of-review scoring. Thus, the 1996 movie Jude was scored as:
 [*/misfire] and a ski holiday without snow on the Sid and Nancy scale.
And the 1987 movie Mr India was:
[***/interesting] and Sauerkraut westerns on the Sid and Nancy scale
Not so difficult, is it? One other weakness of fact check sites is that they can be painfully earnest. Entertain while you educate! The funny bit may be the takeaway that is most memorable. Get that stick out of where it's lodged, stop pretending that you are cyborg high priests of truth, and add some personality back into these things.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Statement of Charges against Essendon supporters


To: Essendon Football Club supporters

1. You are charged with the following offence against Australian rules football:

Contrary to logic and common sense, in the period from about February 2013 to now, you engaged in conduct unbecoming or likely to prejudice the interests or reputation of the Australian Football League or to bring the game of football into disrepute.

2. A statement of the grounds for the laying of the charge is attached.

3. There will be no hearing. Penalties have already been determined, and will be applied without delay.


1. The conduct described below constituted conduct unbecoming or likely to prejudice the interests or reputation of the AFL or to bring the game of football into disrepute on the part of Essendon Football Club ("the Club") because, having determined to support a club which evidence suggests has implemented a scientifically pioneering program relating to the administration of supplements to its players, it engaged in the following logical fallacies:

(a) Argument from ignorance: "You can't convict the players because we will never know if they really took the drugs." 
(b) Argument from incredulity: "I can't believe James would do this. It's just not possible." 
(c) Argument from repetition: "Aren't we all sick of this? Let's just let James get on with it." 
(d) Argument from silence: "The players will never admit to taking drugs, so you can't suspend them for taking drugs." 
(e) Begging the question: "The players have done nothing wrong, so they deserve no penalties." 
(f) Burden of proof shifting: "Demetriou has to answer for tipping off Evans in the first place."
(g) Circular reasoning: "James is a great man and top bloke, so he wouldn't do such a thing."
(h) Circular cause and consequence: "James won so many Anzac, Brownlow and Crichton medals that he couldn't have done such things."
(i) Continuum fallacy: "You can't say there was a pharmacologically experimental environment at Essendon unless you can quantify how many injections there were."
(j) Suppressed correlative: "AOD-9604 doesn't even enhance performance, none of these drugs do really. We don't know enough about them yet."
(k) Equivocation: "What's wrong with players taking drugs anyway? Headache drugs are fine. They take tablets all the time, not to mention cortisone and other injections."
(l) Ecological fallacy: "Jobe shouldn't have his Brownlow taken away, he was always big and strong so it wouldn't have affected him anyway even if it was performance enhancing."
(m) Etymological fallacy: "What does it mean anyway, performance enhancing drug? Sportspeople take drugs to enhance performance all the time. That's what food is. Sugar is a PED."
(n) Fallacy of composition: "Dr Bruce Reid is the most respected and moral doctor in the business. He wouldn't have let anything that bad happen."
(o) Fallacy of division: "Essendon is a strong club with strong people working for it, they wouldn't have let a bad egg in to screw things up."
(p) False dilemma: "Look, either Hird is innocent, or there has been a massive conspiracy by certain external elements of which he is only a mostly unknowing victim."
(q) If-by-whiskey: "Okay, if it comes out that James has signed a contract with the devil himself and sacrifices babies in the dungeons at Windy Hill, then of course I'll change my mind. Until then, he has done no wrong in my eyes and deserves my full support as an upstanding member of the football community."
(r) Fallacy of many questions: "Sure, Demetriou can put out this list of charges against James, but when is he going to stop putting the Bowie knife into him by leaking to Caro? When is Andy D going to stop the personal campaign against James? When will the AFL get off his back?"
(s) Ludic fallacy: "That story of the Mexican drugs is just too ludicrous. What are the odds of that happening?"
(t) Fallacy of the single cause: "The simplest explanation of this whole thing is that it's a witch hunt by Demetriou for a perfectly legitimate supplements regime. There are just too many elements in that charge sheet."
(u) False attribution: "Look at Andrew Garnham's testimony, he was an AFL employee! Well, he was working for Essendon at the time he was supposed to have got this info from ASADA, I know..."
(v) Fallacy of quoting out of context: "Dr Reid said, and I quote, 'I am sure Steve Danks believes that what we are doing is totally ethical and legal.' Come on, that's Bruce Reid talking!"
(w) False authority: "Gerard Whateley changed his mind the other day on AFL360, and that's good enough for me."
(x) Argument to moderation: "Demetriou should come at least half way between his sanctions and what Hird is prepared to accept. That's true compromise."
(y) Gambler's fallacy: "Every day it's another bad news story about Essendon. One of these days it has to turn around, so keep fighting."
(z) Hedging: "Dank was giving them Thymosin, and yes its injection schedule was consistent with the banned beta 4 type of Thymosin, but I think he actually was referring to the non-banned kind, and you can't prove otherwise."
(aa) Historian's fallacy: "James would not have gotten Essendon into this, knowing that this was the situation he would be putting himself and the club into, if he really did do all those things."

(bb) Homunculus fallacy: "There was an evil little man inside James' head telling him to do all those things, it wasn't really him in his right mind." 
(cc) Inflation Of Conflict: "Gerard and Robbo disagree with Caro and Patrick, who knows what to believe."
(dd) Incomplete comparison: "James is just a better coach with more morals and sounder judgement."
(ee) Inconsistent comparison: "James played in more finals than Bobby Skilton, won more grand finals than Kevin Murray and coached more finals than Andrew Demetriou. How can you not think he's worth fighting for?"
(ff) Ignoratio elenchi: "James was a great player and is a great coach, he deserves our moral support."
(gg) Kettle logic: "James is not the sort of person who would get mixed up with convicted criminals. And Shane Charters didn't supply him with PEDs in his playing days, anyway."
(hh) Mind projection fallacy: "Everyone's taking drugs anyway, what Essendon has done is no different to what Collingwood or Hawthorn are doing."
(ii) Moral high ground fallacy: "James will fight for the Club and its supporters until his dying breath, in the name of honesty and all that is good about the Club, against the unprincipled horde of haters."
(jj) Moralistic fallacy: "Drug taking is horribly dangerous and threatens the health of the players, so it is not in James' nature to do such a thing.
(kk) Moving the goalposts: "A more important issue is the AFL bringing the game into disrepute with its attack on the character of the game in the media."
(ll) Naturalistic fallacy: "Footballers and coaches have always sought an edge, it's part of the game, they shouldn't be punished hard if they stray over the edge a little bit."
(mm) Nirvana fallacy: "At this point we are going to lose people from the game no matter what happens, shouldn't we be figuring out how to win them back instead of bringing down the harshest of sanctions?"
(nn) Onus probandi: "Demetriou has to prove that he is fit to stand in judgement over a champion like James before anything else happens."
(oo) Post hoc ergo propter hoc: "I can't help but think that we didn't have much of a drug problem before Demetriou was made CEO."
(pp) Proof by verbosity: Gerard Whateley.
(qq) Prosecutor's fallacy: "You could go into any other big club and find a similar lack of governance, that doesn't mean James is guilty of all these things."
(rr) Psychologist's fallacy: "I watch the players all the time and I didn't see anything particularly different about the Bombers in 2011, they hadn't bulked up noticeably from what I saw."
(ss) Red herring: "What's this I see with Caro making these references to Essendon people being linked to the Liberal Party, is this a witch hunt or what?"
(tt) Regression fallacy: "The Bombers sucked in the second half of 2012, clearly the drugs didn't work anyway."
(uu) Reification: "The footy gods are on James' side on this one, he will pull through."
(vv) Retrospective determinism: "This was always going to bring the playing group together so we can win flags once again."
(ww) Shotgun argumentation: see above.
(xx) Special pleading: "James Hird is an ornament to the game and will become a Legend, he should be paid the respect that goes with his record."
(yy) Wrong direction: "James is right to be angry at Demetriou because the League has hounded him for months."
(zz) Personal Attacks: "Who cares about what the Fat Greek says anyway."


1. You are herewith sentenced to support the Essendon Football Club for the rest of your life.

2. You are concurrently sentenced to watch your club fall from its lofty height of constant premiership contender to the disgrace of deserved mediocrity, as happened to the Carlton Football Club a decade ago, through a series of savage sanctions that could have been largely avoided if the Club hadn't been so bloody minded about defending individuals.

3. Due to these Club sanctions, you are also sentenced to watch successive boards try and fail to subvert them to restore former glories, hiring has-been senior coaches and trading away draft picks for mercenaries and journeymen to top up an over-rated list.

4. You are additionally sentenced to witnessing years of endless speculation over the return of former stars to save the Club, destabilising the current hierarchy and undermining faith in incumbent personnel, not the least speculation about James Hird himself (that's if he hasn't been rubbed out for life).

5. There is no number five. Not any more.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

If I were Kevin Rudd right now

I am here today to define the course of this election campaign. I said at the outset of the campaign that the Labor Party was going to bring a New Way of politics, which has been interpreted in various quarters as being in opposition to negativity or realpolitik. The New Way is not about these things. I will now define what it is, starting with a bit of history.

The Labor Party has always been a broad church, with many points of view represented within it. In the last twenty or thirty years, you can see the various leaders we have had have been different characters with different views of what government should do. My predecessor, Julia Gillard, led a government that was seated firmly in the union tradition of the party, focused on building the future of this country through education and the social safety net. Paul Keating led a government that was focused on economic results, and how we produced those results was a secondary concern, which did not always benefit our union friends. Bob Hawke started as a union man, but the influence of Mr Keating as Treasurer and the development of the Accord cast him in a transitional role. Economic transition, caused by the opening up of Australia to the world by the lowering of tariffs and liberation of markets, was all started by Gough Whitlam. Transition is what the Labor Party is in right now.

I am here to honour, not repudiate, the legacy of all of these Labor Prime Ministers. The story running through the Prime Ministerships of all of these fine leaders is preparing and educating Australia to compete on the world stage, free of Menzies era protectionism and strong with the knowledge and skill that good education provides. Four decades after Gough set the country on a new course, our economy is the envy of the world. If you are 21 years of age or younger, you have never known this country to be in recession. We are in the late stages of the transformation of Australia into the most robust economy in the world.

The work of strengthening Australia to punch above its economic weight is not done, though. There is still much to dislike about the Australian economy, and what signals government sends out through its policies. There are big changes that can still be made to improve our lot as a nation.

The New Way is this: finish the job that Labor started four decades ago by doing the hard things, the things we have been putting off as in the too hard basket. Take that too hard basket, empty it and see what needs to be done to finish the job.

The Australian people understand how important this is, because they see all around them the benefits of economic transformation to date. We are all in this together. We all benefit from the improvements to the competitiveness of the economy. We all benefit from the removal of protections, including protections of some within the tax system. Traditionally, leaders have been reluctant to talk about removing undeserved tax loopholes for fear of getting people who exploit those loopholes offside. The New Way is about rising above that weakness, and trusting in the Australian people to understand why we are acting on behalf of all of them, not just a privileged few.

The New Way is about rising above special interests. To be a special interest is to seek to undermine the free market by securing special privileges for you and yours. Unions are a special interest, as are businesses, as are retirees, as are students, as are environmentalists, as are the unemployed. The way politics has been run is to give everyone special privileges, so that the economy ends up being blanketed in a patchwork quilt of protectionism. The New Way is to abandon this irrational practice and instead strengthen the economy by removing burdens from its back.

There are smart people around the place who have already thought long and hard about the details of things in the too hard basket, of course. Saul Eslake is one of a host of commentators who have figured most of it out already. The Henry Tax review contains many excellent ideas, some of which we have already implemented. More needs to be done.

Specifically - and I know you all want to hear more about programmatic specificity! - more needs to be done about housing affordability. Sometimes governments get things wrong, and negative gearing has ended up having the reverse effect than what was intended. Instead of making housing investment more affordable, it has led to speculation that has driven up the price of houses to an extent where an entire younger generation is largely excluded from the dream of home ownership. This must end. However, I do not wish to upset the long-term retirement plans of those with existing loans reliant on negative gearing, so any changes we make to negative gearing would only be to new loans made from today onwards. This is a prudent way to end what has been a drag on the Australian economy.

Also, while much has been said about the GST in this campaign already, the New Way allows for some rational discussion of raising taxes to fund the things that taxpayers expect to pay for, like education and the social safety net. The GST is currently exempt on food, and the explanation has usually been to protect lower paid workers and the unemployed, but when you look at the way this actually works in the real world, it works out as being regressive and in favour of upper income earners, since they more for food. Extending the GST to food is a sensible response to balancing the budget.

Finally, the Howard government made many mistakes in managing the economy while it was in office, and perhaps the greatest one was creating a loophole for retirees by completely lifting income tax on superannuation withdrawals for those over 60 years of age. This is not rational. No other country does this. Restoring what was a perfectly reasonable measure is a normal response to what was an unsupportable change by the Liberals.

You might be asking already, but what about Labor's support for the car industry that I announced only days ago? It is true that the car industry is a special interest, and our assistance package is a form of protectionism. However, the automotive industry is vital to Australia's interests in the region, as we need a healthy base of skilled workers to support our armed forces in the maintenance of existing equipment and the development of new technology. We would not want our troops to lack for support in logistics in a time of war due to the tens of thousands of workers in the car industry having lost their skills. Additionally, it is wise to invest in manufacturing R&D to build the exports of the future. If we are to look beyond the mining sector for growth in the coming years, manufacturing is one area we can not afford to ignore.

The New Way will come under criticism from special interests, each of whom have their own ways of communicating to the public, some even through their own media outlets. It will come under criticism from the Liberal Party, who are still stuck in the old way of representing some special interests and knocking others. I say to the Australian people directly: we may be a country full of special interests, but we are all in this together. We are not a nation of seagulls fighting over a chip. We are all part of the best country in the world. We have solved many problems and avoided many pitfalls that have befallen others, but there is still much to be done. We are all in this together. Thank you.

Note: this post is a fixup from my response to this Larvatus Prodeo piece. And yes, this is the second in a series of "If I" pieces, for which I have created a label.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Telstra: master at the art of telco suckage

Every now and then it seems prudent to remind ourselves why the National Broadband Network is necessary, by reacquainting ourselves with how screwed up the current Australian telecommunications industry is. Old mate Ben Barren provides in spades today, detailing yet another sorry story of monopoly and market failure.

BB's work is spectacularly difficult to parse in detail; in my experience, it is best to assume he knows what he is talking about and let his stream of consciousness wash over you to get the general effect, rather than get bogged down in his unique phrasings. (He's the reason Cliffs Notes were invented.) The story is one of Telstra owning the dominant mobile phone and data network hardware, at a scale so large that none has dared seriously challenge them for decades, and playing them like fiddles to control resellers within the ecosystem.
Unfortunately Australian telecommunications market always tends towards these types of monopoly or at best oligopoly. But as Telstra has the only quality mobile network at the volume end of the market with an adequate level of performance (the NextG 3.5G network urban and regional reliable coverage in dense city and remote country areas) - mobile telephony is tending towards a monopoly.
Just when you have a breakout such as Kogan’s $29 unlimited calls and text with 6gb mobile data, market forces are brought to eventually favour the monopolist not the consumer.
The NBN is not going to solve competition in the mobile network - at least, not in the short term - but this case is not materially dissimilar to the Internet service provider industry, which it will transform by turning Telstra into just another reseller. Gen Xers like me and Ben haven't known the broader telco industry to be any different in our adult lifetimes.

The NBN is Ethan Hawke, wearing that stupid daggy shirt but promising a much more interesting life than boring corporate dweeb Ben Stiller. Ethan is currently in Chicago attending his Dad's funeral, but hopefully he'll see the light and return home to start a beautiful relationship.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

AFL: league of extraordinary gentlemen no more?

As the Essendon doping saga drags on towards its inexorable conclusion, with many parties under pressure for all sort of reasons, the most pressure is not on any single person, but the sport itself.

The AFL is defined by a series of gentlemen's agreements, starting with but not limited to the Laws of the Game - which are capitalised in general usage in footy circles like an Act of Parliament, but not encoded in actual statute. This model of the league writing its own rules, which are knowingly orthogonal in many respects to the law of the land, continues from the basics of the game all the way up to the high level concepts of socialist equalisation on which the league is precariously balanced. It is not necessarily a crime to trip a man in the street, but it is a punishable offence under the rules of Australian football. The courts look with jaundiced eye upon restraint of trade in most situations, yet the AFL imposes its will on young men to send them across the country to play for much less money than they could command in a truly free market.

When sporting regulations are tested in the courts they can be found wanting, as in the Terry Hill case in 1991 which proved that the NRL draft was a restraint of trade and left that league looking like a laughing stock. Similarly, Essendon and Stephen Dank have strong defensive arguments on many fronts in the current drugs scandal, as I am sure their highly-paid lawyers are telling them. For one, the new powers ASADA has to compel Dank to testify at pains of a $5,100 daily fine can be seen as an abuse of several human rights, such as the right not to be compelled to incriminate oneself. Essendon and Hird have a point when they highlight the conflict of interest the AFL Commission has in determining sanctions against EFC officials for bringing the game into disrepute at the same time as they are leading the investigation with ASADA into the drug allegations.

The pressure is on Essendon to give in and Do The Right Thing by sacking Hird, agreeing to cop levels of sanctions even worse that the Carlton salary cap breaches a decade ago, and accepting that they will share Carlton's fate of turning into a mediocre also-ran. However, at the top of the Essendon hierarchy now is not the president Paul Little, but James Hird himself, since all those at Windy Hill who might have stood up to him in the past are now gone.

We used to call him Gentleman James. Is he still a gentleman, able to see the bigger picture of the sport and act on its behalf instead of his own interests? It must be so difficult for him, knowing how duplicitous the league has been in its dealings. The carpetstrollers at AFL House do not deserve the paternal post-siren handshake-and-bum-pat of a victor.

Stephen Dank is no gentleman. He is going to fight to the bitter end. He has nothing else to play for, no team around him or future to build. James Hird has a family, a club and his own conscience in his mind right now. He holds the integrity of the sport, the game he loves and that has given him so much to live for, in the palm of his hands. He is not bigger than the game. He is not even bigger than his club. The AFL officials are not bigger than the game either, just fallible humans like he is, but Hird is being asked to look beyond their petty concerns as well. To be the bigger man.

No one wins out of this process, it's a negative sum. Even if Essendon goes to court and wins, thus destroying ASADA and the drug testing process in Australia, the sport it is a part of would lose and the Bombers would become the pariah of the competition. At some point, someone inside Essendon has to say enough, this has gone on too long and it's not worth fighting any more. At this point, the only person capable of making that decision is James Hird.

UPDATE: Sinclair Davidson responds at Catallaxy Files, asking why this is so messy.
I don’t actually disagree with much of what m0nty says. But I do wonder: how dumb are the AFL? If you’re in change of an organisation that is legally fragile, why would you mess with people who have standing to sue in court? Why would you mess with people who have money to sue in court?
As Leigh Matthews suggested the other night – the AFL should have whacked the club with some or other nonsense charge and moved on – but when it decided to go after specific individuals it chose to have a fight.
The answer is that the AFL can't give in like that, because the integrity of the sport is at stake. If it allows Essendon to flaunt the gentlemen's agreement not to use drugs, then it opens the competition up to all manner of other abuses of the trust that holds the game together. The league may have annoyed Hird and some fans with the tactics they have used, but the principle is more important than the minutiae of who leaked to whom. After all, no one wants Australian football to become as disgraceful as rugby league!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Elysium: Obamacare 2154 (spoilers!)

Neill Blomkamp may deny that his movie Elysium has modern political parallels, but he is not kidding anyone. There are so many allegories with the modern fight over Obamacare that the audience can't help but make them on their own. The year is 2154, the Earth is exhausted yadda yadda, and the rich have retreated to a spaceship in a low earth orbit called Elysium, which has universal healthcare that is even better than that bulldust they have in Star Trek. Matt Damon plays Obama Max, not so much Mad Max as Rad Max. He gets irradiated working in a robot factory, the doc gives him five days to live, and is forced to agree to break into Elysium by going all Johnny Mnemonic on his boss by downloading his brain, but not before getting all Universal Soldiered up with a spiffy new exoskeleton. Serendipitously, his boss is about to start a coup on Elysium and has the virus in his brainstem that will shut it down, like in ID4 but looking more DOS than iMac. Jodie Foster is Delacourt, the Francophone Rumsfeldian head of security on Elysium, who is engineering the coup while wearing some killer business skirts. Sharlto Copley is Kruger, Delacourt's Afrikaaner muscle who steals most scenes he is in and causes considerable mayhem.

So, I was trying to work out which characters were which, if we're drawing the extended analogy here. Max is Obama, obviously, with Delacourt as the Beltway faction of the Republican Party trying to not only maintain their privilege, but secure rule for decades to come through subversion of democratic process. I'm not sure we can pin the Delacourt role on any single politician - John Boehner is more like the hapless President Patel. Perhaps she is a portent for Marco Rubio? Unfortunately for Delacourt and the GOP, however, Kruger is the Tea Party. It doesn't end well for Delacourt, and if life imitates art things aren't going to turn out the white way for the Republicans. Then again Max doesn't get a sweet ending either, though I guess Obama's presidency has an end point regardless.

Wagner Moura as ghetto gangster Spider also enlivens the spectacle, in a performance that I grew to like over time, and he and the other non-whites in the cast playing ghetto characters (with a fair few redshirts who buy the farm) represent the rainbow coalition of demographics behind the Obama presidency. This is not just about healthcare but also immigration, the echoes are too loud to ignore.

As for its general merit, I don't think you can say Elysium is technically or artistically groundbreaking. It doesn't stray very far from Blomkamp's last effort, with many action scenes in dustbowl townships that could have been the Soweto-analogues of District 9. As with many recent sf films, though, it is slick and competently executed from start to finish as a production, and most importantly it is grand entertainment in the spirit of Aliens and Terminator 2. We are getting movies that look as good as those last two several times a year now, which is a great thing and is a major reason the cinema in general, and sf in particular, is so strong at the moment. Finally: Afrikaaners make the best villains!

If I became leader of the Australian Greens

Thank you for attending this press conference. Lauz, Tingles, Kez, Uhlo, Bongo, Knackers, welcome all.

I realise my rise to become leader of the Greens has been sudden and precipitous. None of you predicted my rapid rise from recent membership to climbing the ranks, a parachuting mission into the Senate under what has become known as Operation Varsity II, and completing that particular analogy by invading Germany, I mean the Green caucus room. The inevitable Downfall mashup video chronicling the events surrounding my accession to the leadership over Ms Waters was rather amusing - I particularly liked the gag about how Greens really are watermelons, since we found out just how red Larissa was underneath her green exterior when she got backstabbed. Heh.

Anyway, all that is behind us now, and I would like to set out my policy vision for the Greens into the future. I would first like to pay respect to the founding father of the Greens, Bob Brown. However, what I am about to say may not jive with his recollection of what he set up the Greens to do. The Party has nonetheless moved on, and we have new challenges to face.

I see the Greens as the ultimate economic rationalists. You may protest and say that this is anathema to the history of the party, as we have traditionally opposed many aspects of globalisation and neoliberalism. While that is true, my view is that the Greens can and should be seen as superior economic managers of all parts of the economy. The crucial difference is that we, the Greens, include the environment in our economic models in a way that most economists do not. Most economic models classify natural resources, energy sources and biodiversity as assets to be mined, exploited and exhausted. In short, the environment is seen as an "externality".

This word, externality - which has become part of the language of the political class without much examination as to its meaning - means an economic effect, either bad or good, which affects an uninvolved third party. That is what the Earth is treated as in traditional economics: something external to the economy, something Other. Economics is, almost by definition, in opposition to environmentalism. It is, in the wrong hands, the science of exploiting the environment by pretending that it is a limitless resource.

The consequence of this in traditional economics is that their sums work while the environment provides, but once the resources dwindle and become more expensive to extract and exploit, markets fail and recessions happen. I am here to say: no more. The environment is not an externality. It is internal to our definition of ourselves. We are part of it, and it is a part of us.

I realise that this language sounds like that of many of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and I acknowledge that the Greens have a debt that can never be repaid to them for teaching us how to value our land and to immerse ourselves in its many wonders with respect and appreciation. We must be careful never to get too mystical, but there is a time and place for a little bit of dreaming in what the Greens say and do.

Ah, you might say, but these are just words. How do you propose to combine economics and environmentalism if they are so opposed? The answer is that they do not have to be opposed. A synthesis is possible. In fact, I am a firm believer in the power of economics within capitalism to empower the powerless and grow a country better than any other system. Including the environment as an integral part of economic modelling does not break the models, it merely means economics removes a lie and becomes more grounded in reality.

This does not mean we leave all the coal in the valleys, all the oil under the deserts and all the trees in the forests. This means prudent planning for harvesting and renewing resources, and transitioning away from exhaustible resources and towards renewables where possible in a gradual fashion. Economics can also be seen as the management of energy, and cheap energy is a social good that the Greens should not reject, and will not under my leadership. The shale oil boom, in particular, is already starting to have positive impact on many smaller economies, which we can not forget in our zeal for ideological purity within our own country. To deny the world cheap energy would be to slow down the wholly positive process of globalisation inexorably lifting up the economies of those in developing countries. Shale oil can be extracted under the control of environmental safeguards even at levels we are comfortable with in Australia, and I will not stand in the way of another energy boom that could underpin the next decade of Australian growth.

You might be thinking that I am not saying anything new. It is true that we have already gone some way towards internalising the externalities, with the carbon price being the most prominent example. The Greens have been at the forefront of developing and implementing the carbon price in Australia and around the world, and I acknowledge the work my predecessors have done in this area. Far from repudiating this proud history of the Party, I seek to build on it to underline the economic credentials of the Greens. We are often portrayed as being at the far left end of the political spectrum, but I do not see it this way. We are a party of the centre, it is just that we define the centre as being centred and at one with the environment, with all of our economically rational policies flowing from that river source.

This is not sophistry, or wispy wishfulness. I believe that the Greens can successfully meld what is called economic rationalism with environmental concerns. How this impacts on individual policies is for a later day, but today I am here to say this: the Greens are the greatest economists the world has ever seen... we just take a longer view than most.