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: