Saturday, 25 July 2015

Let’s Party or: How to Avoid Herding Cats

In part, a response to Jane Gilmore's "Australia’s Two-Party System Has Failed Us; Here’s How We Can Fix It" and the general gnashing of teeth surrounding boat tow-backs, the 2015 Labor Conference and the general state of political turmoil.
It seems we can hardly go a day without hitting an “all-new low” in Australian politics. The conventional wisdom is that this terrible state of affairs is so terrible that now is indeed the worst period in political history. Ever. Nobody stands for anything anymore (except for flags, more flags and the freedom to eat raw onions), all the political parties are the same (except when they’re opposing all the time) and Buzzfeed has a better seat than Leigh Sales (#TURCshorten). The horror(s).

While some of this gnashing of teeth is rightly warranted, let’s cool our tits and look at the situation calmly. Yes, much of the current political debate is pretty ordinary; some of it’s downright shitty. Nobody trusts politicians anymore, but did they ever?

I’m going to put forward an entirely unpopular idea: the frightfully unsexy two party system has provided Australia with largely dependable (if sometimes uninspiring) governance. The way to fix our current malaise is not to destroy the two party system, but to join it.

Despite protestations to the contrary, the vast majority of the electorate still votes for one of the two major parties. It’s called Duverger’s Law, the tendency for single member plurality electoral systems to favour a two party system.

Come next election day, you can bet around 80% of voters will send their first preferences to either the Labor or Liberal-National parties. This figure might jump as high as 90% if you include the Greens. Given our alleged distaste and distrust for political parties, you’d expect this figure to have plummeted over the past decade. It hasn’t.

The number of voters marking “1” in the Liberal or Labor box (or alternately writing “fuck you you fucking wankers” around the outside of the ballot paper, strictly speaking a formal vote so long as the numbers are legible) has been pretty consistent. Hardly a system on shaky ground.

But only an ignorant fool would say political parties are in good shape. There is a fundamental disconnect between the political class who claim to represent us and our desires for the country. Sometimes this is a good thing: public opinion was vehemently against Malcolm Fraser’s Vietnamese refugee migration policy, but Fraser thankfully stuck to his guns and ignored the electorate. At other times, this dismissal of public opinion is a bad thing: gay marriage, the Iraq War...take your pick.

Given the behaviour of Abbott and his band of moral delinquents, it’s completely understandable that many want do away with the two party system. For some, Labor is not much better, but are the parties themselves to blame? And is a parliament untouched by political parties a better solution?

Two Parties Preferred
Two-party politics is the natural state of affairs in Australia. At federation in 1901, the major political division was between those who supported protectionism and those who advocated free trade. Politicians had a bully time forming parties with like-minded MPs in support of one proposition or the other. And they had plenty of facial hair to go around. Just look at Alfred Deakin’s beard. Wow. Anyone for a spot of tea?

After the the trade question was sorted, the main political division in the Australian parliament was between the Labor and non-Labor parties. It’s at this point in political history, we begin to understand exactly why organised political parties are best vehicle for politics.

Between the 1903 and 1906 elections, the lack of a single organised non-Labor opposition ensured three different prime ministers from three different parties, including the world’s first national labour party government. The disciplined and unified Australian Labor Party was able to steadily increase its vote, forming the first majority government in Australian history at the 1910 election.

As we saw from 43rd parliament, minority government isn’t necessarily unworkable, but it was clear to non-Labor MPs at the turn of the last century that a formal party structure is necessary to win elections and achieve their policy goals. After all, isn’t that the point of politics? To win elections? It may sound cynical, but without power, the best policies are doomed to remain little more than an idea in search of an outlet.

Which brings us back to the 43rd parliament. As has been noted, this parliament, despite the perpetual droning of the Abbott opposition, was a particularly productive one. Complex and important legislation was debated and negotiated through the House and Senate with remarkable deftness.

In particular, independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakshott and Andrew Wilkie represented their electorates and the national interest with great integrity. But let’s remember, the great nation-building policies of this parliament didn’t come from the minds of the independent MPs, they largely originated from the Labor government who could count of the power of executive office to implement them.

And herein lies the problem with independent MPs. For every thoughtful and erudite Windsor or Oakshott, there are hardline conservatives like Pauline Hanson or Brian Harradine who find their way into parliament. Now you’re probably opening a new tab and typing “Brian Haradiene” into the search bar because mobile keyboards. Thankfully Google knows what you’re on about and will send you to the bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia.

You will read Harradine was a Catholic conservative senator who opposed abortion, stem-cell research and pretty much anything that constituted modernity. In a case of the independent MP tail wagging the governmental dog, Harradine ensured the abortion pill RU486 was not imported into the country and that Australian foreign aid never funded family planning involving abortion advice. I don’t know about you, but I reckon one MP from the backwoods of Tasmania imposing his values on the entire country profoundly undemocratic. Oh, and need we mention Bob Katter?

For a moment, let’s think about what a parliament of many, many more independents might look like. It would likely be a melting pot of conservatives and progressives, just as today’s parliament is. We can assume they would have campaigned on issues near and dear to them, promising better services, a new road and a school or something, even with no plan to implement them. If elected, the independents might then offer to support a party to form government in exchange for projects in their electorates, getting dangerously close to pork barrelling.

In order to maximise power, like-minded MPs would then be wise to band together to form a voting bloc. Perhaps one MP would offer support for another’s bill in exchange for support on their own. Then they might lunch together, informally talking about events of the day. Then they might even meet in the same room, agreeing on how they’ll vote and what policies they’ll amazing! They’ve made a political party!

Our august parliamentary system is designed around a majority to get shit done. It’s not a requirement, but as the 43rd parliament demonstrated, the electorate may lose its collective shit if we returned to federation-era shenanigans. This isn’t Abbottesque fear mongering, it’s a constitutional fact. Political parties, as terrible as they can sometimes be, remain the best basis for transformation of our political debate.

I share much of Jane Gilmore’s frustration with politics, but it is not the system I am frustrated with: it’s the parties themselves. There is a fundamental disconnect between the political class who claim to represent us and our desires for the country. We need to bridge that gap.

So here’s my take home message: instead of finding many cats to herd across the wilds of this brown land, I plead that you do something seemingly non-radical: go and join a major political party. Go and bolster their terminal membership with ordinary people like yourselves and ensure that they don’t fall prey to undue sectional and special interests. 

You won’t likely agree with all of their policies, but you can’t help change their direction if you’re not inside the tent. Through strength in numbers, you can ensure the parties represent you and not the already influential and powerful. 

Heck, you might want to stand for preselection so that political parties have a broader talent pool from which to draw, not just careerist politicians of the party machine. Can you imagine, for example, how invigorating it would be for the Labor Party if a large portion of the membership of a group like Getup signed up? Or if thoughtful, non-reactionary conservatives (if that’s not an oxymoron) joined the Liberal Party? It would be a breath of fresh air for the major parties and for democracy in Australia.

Our political system does not require new politicians, it needs a diversity of membership that is more representative of the community. The major parties already have the infrastructure in place to run, fight and win elections. Wouldn’t it be easier to co-opt their own resources, than to start from scratch?

It’s just an idea.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Baird's Bare Balls

You've got to hand it to Mike Baird. He's the only politician in this country who could propose a tax increase and probably get away with it. And if you were in his position, why wouldn't you? A 60% approval rating and well-regarded even by your political opponents, Baird has attributes the federal government and opposition could only dream of possessing.

Baird has found the holy grail every politician yearns for: not being perceived as a politician. He claims to have entered politics for the same reason many career politicians do so - to make a difference - except his difference is that the electorate seems to believes him. 

Like a certain other perennially popular politician from New South Wales, Baird was an investment banker and according to some, desires to return to the private sector at the conclusion of his premiership.

Emboldened by his electoral success with the sale "long-term lease" of NSW's electricity network, Baird has turned his sights on a policy area with potentially greater ramifications: the goods and services tax.

So why has Baird called for an increase in the GST? Simple, because he sees an increase as the best way to cover for the increasing cost of state-run services (particularly healthcare). As the Abbott government has cut billions in federal funding for healthcare and education, states have been left scrambling for funds. Bereft of their own sources of revenue (commonwealth grants make up around 40% of total revenue in the 2015-16 NSW budget), Abbott is hoping the states will call for an increase in the GST, effectively outsourcing the hard sell of a tax increase to the states. 

But the GST is regressive, it hits the poorer first and hits them harder. As David Hetherington points out, there are many other areas of foregone revenue that could be addressed with less regressive pain and still achieve the desired federal budgetary outcome.

While fixing multinational tax avoision and super tax concessions would be great, Baird knows this would not guarantee any more funding for state governments. Changes to these two tax areas would result in more revenue for the commonwealth, not the states. The GST is the only tax that is exclusively distributed (after horizontal fiscal equalisation) to the states.

So where to from here? As "courageous" as Baird's stance is, it will almost certainly end in failure for now. The Labor states are unlikely to countenance an increase in the rate of GST and it will be supremely unpopular with voters. Federal Labor will no doubt run a campaign against an increase at the next election and if it's anything like the 2013 campaign, it will be successful.

Given Abbott's stated refusal to alter the GST without parliamentary consensus (a challenge for a PM with no political capital) and federal and state opposition to any change, we are unlikely to have any sound tax reform package before the next election.

The nation's political leaders from learn a lot from Baird. They can learn that the best way to champion change is to come out openly for it, not hide behind broken promises and vague rhetoric. Then they can learn to clearly explain and articulate the reasons for the change. Then they can earn the respect of both supporters and opponents.

Simple, eh?

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

"It's sabRE, you idiots"

The biennial Exercise Talisman Sabre is on again. For twenty days, forces from Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Japan will storm, shoot and manoeuvre their way across our northern shores and eastern islands.

Although ostensibly for "training" purposes, joint exercises such as Talisman Sabre are as much about communicating intentions to the region as for testing operational readiness. The fairly pointed, if token, inclusion of 40 personnel from Japan means this year's exercises will be even more closely monitored by our regional neighbours, particularly China.

The ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea is a test for both the US and China, both wary of the other and of the potential for a catastrophic misstep. With Asia now key to the US's strategic future, I personally doubt we will see any less of a commitment to Vietnam and the Philippines (and Japan) in this dispute than the US showed to Taiwan in 1996.

Time will tell.

In the meantime, the Khaki PM is in his RM soaking up the NT sun and avoiding saying anything about Japanese troops invading the Australian mainland.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Mid-Year Stock[exchange]take

Shanghai Stock Exchange
The news that China's stock markets are tanking brought to mind German photographer Andreas Gursky. Huh? Let me explain. Usually these news stories are accompanied by the most awful stock footage known to humankind. I believe every news network in the world has the same 45 sec loop of concerned people standing before the electronic ticker boards. I gather they have two versions: one for a good day of trading (a whole lot of green and happy people) and one for terrible days of trading (a sea of red; balding middle-aged men who by the end of the package have no hair). 

The very existence of such stock footage begs the question: who the hell visits a stock market foyer for updates these days anyway!?? You know your iPhone? That stocks app you never use? Well, that can do the same thing.

But I digress.

This particular story about the Chinese market debacle on ABC News 24 utilised actual footage from the actual floor of the actual Shanghai Stock Exchange...and what a revelation! Used to seeing the (probably anachronistic) chaos of Wall Street, the Shanghai exchange looks like a never-used sporting arena for sharebrokers. Its size and order fits the image China constantly projects to the world, at once recalling the precision of military parades and the immensity of Communist Party proceedings.

As someone with keen interest in photography (and owner of a couple of cameras myself), I couldn't help but make comparisons to Andreas Gursky's megaphotographs™ of various Bureax d'Change le Stocks around the world.

Gursky, famous for his use of digital manipulation to create his vision, produces photographs possessing hyperrealistic qualities. Such methods are particularly suited to the largely computerised and data-driven world of share trading. Trillions of dollars changed hands daily, with neither physical money or hands involved. His images of global stock exchanges are striking, not only for their detail and physical presence, but as a marker of changing technology and cultural values around the world. But of course such differences are superficial. Regardless of the religio-cultural differences between the states these images were captured, stock exchanges are modern temples built to honour the modern god of capitalism.

Andreas Gursky, Singapore Stock Exchange, 1997, Chromogenic print, face-mounted to acrylic, 1321 x 2356 mm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Andreas Gursky, Tokyo Stock Exchange, 1990, Photograph, colour, Chromogenic colour print, 1880 x 2300 mm
Andreas Gursky, Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Diptychon (Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Diptych), 1994; chromogenic prints, 73 in. x 176 in. (185.42 cm x 447.04 cm); Collection SFMOMA
Andreas Gursky, Hong Kong Börse II (Hong Kong Stock Exchange II), 1994, chromogenic colour-print face-mounted to Plexiglas in artist's frame, 2064 x 3195 mm
Andreas Gursky, Kuwait Stock Exchange II, 2008, C-Print mounted on Plexiglas in artist's frame, 2315 x 3070 mm
Andreas Gursky, Chicago, Board of Trade, 1997, colour coupler print face-mounted on Plexiglas, 1854 x 2416 mm

Monday, 6 July 2015

Insert pun about Greek tragedy here

Hergestellt in Deutschland, this kit is selling like global stock traders. It's both exciting and terrifying to see the original democracy practicing it better than most.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Atheist Genocide Fallacy

The "Atheist Genocide Fallacy" can work for both political friends and foes
The Daily Telegraph, Australia's least trusted major newspaper, has often indulged in colourful bias-ridden front pages. One cover from March 2013 compared the then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to genocidal dictators such as Stalin and Mao owing to Conroy's support for modest reforms to media standards.

If there's one thing News Corpse papers love to do, it is to bang on about threats to "freedom" when their own interests are at risk. The silence of the Murdoch papers has been deafening as the Abbott government has eroded freedoms and the norms of our liberal democracy.

It must be frustrating for News Corpse's assorted right-wing demagogues (clattering away furiously on 1000 typewriters to fill the opinion pages) that the ABC remains the most trusted media outlet in Australia.

However, I note on the same poll that Internet Blogs are the least-trusted media...still, not that far behind talk-back radio. The only way is up!