Friday, 18 November 2011

LAUGHING UNDERWATER (Spectator leader Nov 18)

Perhaps they should include the video for Sexy and I Know it, by LMFAO, in GetUp’s 2050 “carbon tax” time capsule. This current chart-topping hit features a bunch of young men in their undies wiggling their tackle around, and will tell future generations all they need to know about the value of the contemporary popular music scene.

Also waggling their tackle around, metaphorically speaking, are Wayne Swan, John Hewson, Bob Brown and, er, Penny Wong, who have all agreed to “be a part of history” by contributing their very own “letter to future generations” to be sealed in GetUp’s time capsule to prove they “cared enough to speak up in an era when fear and cowardice almost won the day.” You don’t have to hang around to 2050 to imagine the earnest and unctuous words they, and others, will have penned. The air of self-righteous smugness will no doubt be as fresh as a daisy when the capsule is finally popped opened in the Museum of Australian Democracy thirty nine years hence.

Time capsules cut both ways. Although there is a faint possibility the Museum will be under water by then, there is a far greater likelihood that the prophesiers of doom will by 2050 have been shown to have exaggerated the scientific hypothesis of human-induced climate change in order to justify a reckless tax, and that without drastic and economically-suicidal actions by China, the US, India and others, the Gillard government’s carbon tax will be acknowledged as having been deceptive, unnecessarily expensive and utterly futile.

“Well at least we did something,” or “we thought we were doing the right thing” will be the awkward justifications when, and if, anybody ever bothers to open GetUp’s latest gimmick. Hopefully they include the aforementioned hit single. It might, in the end, be less embarrassing than everything else in the capsule.


"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it,” said Julia Gillard this week, as she invited her Labor colleagues to make next month’s conference a “noisy” one. Actually, it was John Cage, the American avant-garde composer who used those precise words, but in may as well have been our Prime Minister.

John Cage’s most noteworthy contribution to contemporary culture was a piece entitled 4’33”. Composed in three parts, it always features numerous diverse instruments, but it is famous because not a note is actually played during the performance. Instead, the audience get to listen to whatever noises (rustling of papers, someone coughing, a mobile phone going off etc) that haphazardly occur over that period of time. One would struggle to think of a more apt metaphor for the “robust debates… full of energy and ideas” that Julia imagines the Labor conference will usher forth.

To put it bluntly, this government and this Prime Minister are not only devoid of original ideas to put to the country, but are only dimly aware of what the real issues confronting us are. When a political party’s one big achievement is to introduce a policy that they had no mandate for, and which by their own admission can be nothing more than a hopelessly tokenistic gesture aimed at getting other nation’s to “join in” combatting a “belief”, then the avant-garde claim that we live in a world of surrealist absurdism starts to come uncomfortably close to being proven true.

Confusing “loving an argument” and “making a noise” with what she doesn’t mention – coming up with fresh and unconventional ideas – the PM poses a series of questions that come with their own in-built set-piece answers. “As Australia becomes one of the richest countries in the world, how can we ensure a fair share for all?” she asks. And “how can we ensure no one is left behind by accident of birth or circumstance? How can we combine prosperity with stewardship of the environment?”

Clearly missing from these carefully scripted, meticulously “spun” questions are the far more fundamental ones. Such as “how do we actually generate the wealth to pay for all the things we want?” And “how do we avoid the debt crises faced by the rest of the West when we keep going further and further into debt ourselves?”

Already, the Gillard/Swan/Rudd team have destroyed the surplus that protected us first time around, have bloated the bureaucracy, have imposed crippling restraints upon productivity, and have committed the country to massively expensive and wasteful projects such as the NBN. Will any brave soul in the conference actually put up their hand and say “how do we increase the size of our nation’s purse?” No, of course not. It is a given in Labor circles that wealth generates itself. It’s the magic Chinese pudding - Norman Lindsey’s Dim Sum - and everybody can gorge themselves on as much of it as they want.

Actually, I’m being extremely unfair. Julia does have an economic plan. It’s called flogging uranium to the Indians. “One of our nearest neighbours is India, long a close partner. The world's biggest democracy. Growing at 8 per cent a year. Yet despite the links of language, heritage and democratic values, in one important regard we treat India differently,” she informed the true believers, neatly popping India into the “good guys” basket, with a bit of “white man’s guilt” thrown in, in order to justify this obviously pragmatic decision. Forget sound economic arguments, such as “we need the dosh.” The reason for selling uranium to the Indians is now, apparently, to prove we’re not racist bastards. Oh, OK. That’s fine, then.

And the other big issue designed to generate heated and passionate debate? Why, (yawn) gay marriage of course! “My position flows from my strong conviction that the institution of marriage has come to have a particular meaning and standing in our culture and nation,” says the unmarried, living “in sin” Julia Gillard. Really? Or might it just be a contrived stance that allows her to look tough on an issue the polls are very clear on as others “make some noise” on the conference floor?

“Labor’s National Conference is our highest decision-making forum and Australia’s largest political gathering. National Conference has always played an important role in defining the future direction of our Party and our nation,” boasts the conference website. 

“A party able to hold robust debates is a party that's full of energy and ideas,” claims Gillard, but the evidence is not there to support such a worthy claim. There will be no debate on the success or failure of Fair Work Australia, the mob who haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory over the Craig Thomson shenanigans and have yet to prove themselves in the Qantas showdown. There will be no debate on the affordability of the ever-expanding health services, or education. Small business won’t get a guernsey. The size of government and the need to reduce it won’t get a look in, either. And then there’s the taboo areas of immigration, reforming aboriginal welfare, building new dams, deterring asylum seekers, energy resourcing and pricing and so on.

None of these issues – all of which require serious, considered debate and analysis - are on Julia’s mind at the moment. But there is one issue that keeps her awake at night. Presumably, this will be the subject of the longed-for noisy, robust and passionate debate.

“The second issue is party reform. I want a Labor Party that is growing - with an extra 8000 members as a first step,” Julia tells us.

Or, as John Cage saw it: “The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.”

Monday, 7 November 2011


Attempting to jot down Mark Colvin’s interview with Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and Geoff Gallop last week as they launched their newDemocracy Foundation, an ABC transcriber described one of their ideas to improve democracy as “inaudible.”

Just as well. Not only is “demarchy” an ugly sounding word, it’s an ugly sounding principle, best muttered under your breath.

Transfield Joint Managing Director Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and former West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop are two of the newDemocracy Foundation’s guiding lights. Despite a lengthy interview, it requires a trip to their website to wade through the waffle and get a genuine understanding of what they have to offer.

Luca’s mumbled “demarchy” is an untried system of government where a “pool of individuals” chosen randomly from “those who nominate they are interested in a topic” get to run our lives.

This laughable proposal is one of numerous bright ideas put forward as an alternative to the “adversarial” democracy that appears to have got up the collective noses of newDemocracy’s lollybag of ex-politicians, for whom, clearly, the failure of the current political system can best be illustrated by the fact none of them are still in it.

Supporters of newDemocracy (no, it’s not a typo) include Cheryl Kernot, who has flirted with more political positions than she has… no, I won’t go there. Suffice to say the former Leader of the Australian Democrats managed to treat both her constituents and her party with a fairly cavalier attitude, which probably explains why they and she no longer wield any power. Fred Chaney, John Della Bosca, Nick Greiner and the late John Button all lend their names to the foundation, along with a collection of election-wary academics, philosophers and businessmen.

Excitedly, they offer us all sorts of “new” democratic models to choose from, such as Confucian Democracy, where “positions of leadership (are) distributed to the most virtuous and qualified members of the community.” That’s me out, then! Candidates sit an exam where “knowledge of the world, literature, language, arts, ethics and culture” determine who gets the top political jobs. Handy if you happen to be a travel agent or a curator - not so good if you’re a bogan dyslexic.

Then there’s “The Popular Branch” and the “Electronic Town Hall.” Or you might opt for “Deliberative Democracy”, which according to newDemocracy director Lyn Carson is where “150 people… randomly selected” are guided by “a range of experts to ensure that all perspectives on an issue are available” before telling the government what to do.
What all these ideas have in common, apart from their disdain for the adversarial Westminster system, is the desire to see committees – normally chosen by some kind of lottery – reach a “considered, collective judgment.” A consensus that relies on the knowledge and opinion of academics and “interested parties.” 
“Election contests should not be the only way in which representatives, or… issues are determined,” Luca tells us. Whether he got a taste for politics sitting on his famous father’s knee is something Colvin should have, but didn’t, pursue. Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, a blacksmith’s son, born in a poor Italian village, served in Mussolini’s army before being captured by the British, migrating to Oz, and making his fortune as an Industrialist and his name as a passionate patron of the arts. The Biennale, and the corporate giant Transfield, builders of the Sydney Harbor Tunnel, are his laudable legacy. After a bitter family feud, his sons now carry on his good work. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the newDemocracy musings, including Luca’s own, have a slight “corporatist” whiff about them. Before you leap out of your chair in high dudgeon, I don’t mean fascist. Corporatism is basically consensus government between powerful elites; unions, big business, culture and politics. Elections and robust debate don’t really figure.
Gallop seems to approve. Hesitantly, he informed Colvin that he favours “political parties that take up the cause of a different style of democracy which doesn't just rely upon elections.”
Geoff fantasises about a mythical era of bipartisanship, where “both sides of politics were basically onside… there was a cooperative arrangement.” He sees echoes of this glorious consensus style in today’s Independents, praising them for ‘sitting down with the Labor Government and saying 'Look, let's try and work these things through as a group, not just take the one party point of view'.” With Newspoll putting both Windsor and Oakeshott on the nose within their own electorates, this little insight of Geoff’s tells us more than he probably intended.

In essence, newDemocracy seems to be all about the big issues of the day being resolved by vested interests in cahoots with academic consensus, over-riding voter concerns and doing away with political argy bargy. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it basically describes today’s EU; a gigantic, undemocratic conglomerate ruled by elitist consensus, with scant regard for the views of the electorate. (And hasn’t it worked out well?)

Meanwhile, Gallop believes Australian politicians “have become frightened of big decisions, particularly those that relate to the future. I see the whole new democracy, deliberation, engagement movement as a means to better, stronger and more long-term policy making.” What on earth’s he talking about, I wonder?

Aha! Suddenly the smelly elephant sitting quietly in the corner of the room rears up on his hind legs. “For a brief moment in time with Turnbull leading the Liberals it looked as though there might be Labor/Liberal agreement on a long-term strategy to tackle climate change. However… adversarialism has again prevailed,” Gallop complained bitterly last July, proudly donning the Ruddbullist mantle. Sentiments he repeats to Mark Colvin as his goal for newDemocracy: “We got very close to bipartisanship on climate change of course, very close.”

So that’s Geoff’s drum. Fair enough. This is an oldDemocracy, and he’s entitled to bang it. Luca, too. Out of interest, I check up what Transfield, who made a few quid out of the BER, boast as top of the list of their current investments. Turns out it’s solar energy.

New Democracy. Who needs elections?