26 February 2006

Fit for office

On ABC's The Insiders this morning was a fitness instructor who said that she admired John Howard for going for a walk each morning, and that his "Energiser bunny" persona was important to her in demonstrating his ongoing fitness for office.

She acknowledged that it was shallow, but this observation may well be the tip of a deeper truth. Except for Whitlam, all Prime Ministers of the television age have looked as though the burdens of office were too much for them when they were defeated. Regardless of what Keating said in the 1996 election, and the "sources" who said that he was keen to beat Howard, his body language said, to quote Bob Dylan: come take this badge offa me, I can't use it any more. Hawke was exhausted in 1991, and Fraser looked much more worn out and haggard in 1983 than he does now. Bob Carr, Richard Alston, other senior politicians who have made the decision to go but haven't announced it go through the motions with their tidying-up announcements while their hearts and minds are not really in it. Mark Latham tried to convince people that he was more energetic than "old man" Howard and it didn't work; even before the pancreatitis, even before subsequent gaffes that showed cabbie-tackling energies could not be directed to good instead of evil.

Fat jokes aside, nobody believes that Beazley will take a more energetic approach to government than the incumbent. You can trust Beazley to explain why something can't be done rather than why some reform can and should (and damn it, will) go forward.

While it's true that a great deal of bollocks is talked about body language, it's true that a great deal of bollocks is spoken by politicians so sometimes people regard body language as pretty reliable or, at least, all you have to go on. It's one of those phenomena that is very telling in terms of outcomes, and which no amount of spin has any effect at all.

24 February 2006

Jeg er Dansk

Christopher Hitchens is right on this topic, people of western values should stand up for Denmark and the rights of newspapers to publish what they will. The stupid, violent mobs who try to worm their way into the afterlife by getting into a state and confusing one cartoonist and one newspaper with official policy of Denmark, the EU and western civilisation generally have made their point. There is no reason why westerners should amend their behaviour in response to this vandalism (except to buy more Danish products) and carrying on like that advances nothing worth anything.

21 February 2006

The bully bullied

Senator Santo Santoro, Minister for Ageing appeared on the 7.30 Report and Red Kerry had him. Santoro was visibly nervous and mouthed platitudes fed to him in what was obviously a rush job by the department. After all the curry he's given the ABC you can bet the staff there would be pleased to see the boot on the other foot, though if there is any area of public policy less smirksome than frail elderly sexual assault victims I can't think of it. At the end of the interview Santoro actually whimpered.

"I think they're doing a great job". Based on what? When will professional interviewers learn to dodge fatuous personal assertions like this? If all a minister has is high dudgeon, chances are you're at the last ditch and the objective information is just a bayonet-thrust away. Never should a statement like that go unchallenged.

He's out of his league. Parliament House scuttlebutt has it that nobody wants to work for this drama queen. it would take extraordinary political sensitivity to work out a policy for protecting the frail elderly from abuse, and Santoro lacks the finesse, mental stamina and sharp focus on detail that someone like Julie Bishop had. Let's have a new minister by Easter (after ten years of Howard I'm not that fussy anymore) and pack this boofhead off to pick on lesbian-art-grant-recipients or whatever.

Bounceback and denial

So a government loses office by only a few seats, and as they approach the next election they are convinced that a few carefully-targetted marginal seat campaigns and a forest of junkmail will enable them to return to office with a "now, where were we?".

People don't change governments lightly, and will give even a fair-to-middling government a second term. Any Premier/PM who sticks around beyond a year after losing office is kidding themselves (unless you have an extreme situation like the Nordmeyer budget) and their party should have the sense and the fortitude to struggle out from under their erstwhile leader's dead weight. Sometimes so-called sophisticated campaigning techniques just don't bloody work.

They won't work for Rob Kerin in South Australia and while Kerin's self-deception is understandable, that of his party isn't. Various anonymous sources in the SA Libs will come over all hissy, which will only show that they lacked the political sense necessary for government anyway.

If your party loses an election, change the leader, behave like an Opposition and hammer away at the weak spots of the Government before it gets the chance to settle down. Then, think about how you might plug those weaknesses, and then share those thoughts with voters at election time. Don't present yourself as an aggrieved party to the very people who tossed you out, or you'll just give a comfortable majority to a Government that won't necessarily do much with it (see NSW since 1999, Victoria since 2002).

20 February 2006

Ten years of Howard

The tenth anniversary of the Howard government is upon us, and it's time to, ah, sort the wheat from the chaff.

The two unimpeachably good policy initiatives of the Howard government are the guns buyback scheme and the liberation of East Timor. These issues have nothing to do with Liberal (or even liberal) philosophy. There is no way that Malcolm Fraser would have done either of these things, not when he was PM or now. Howard never spoke out on these issues, not before getting into Parliament or since, not in Opposition or in Government, until he had to. Generally, Howard is the sort of politician who firmly believes that there is such a thing as "Labor issues" and that it is barely worth worrying about them: both the availability of (indeed, the freedom to own and use) firearms and the putting down of the left-wing Fretilin regime in 1975 are causes that only the most dedicated/deluded members of the far left have only been dimly aware.

It has to be galling to such people that it is despite, and not because of, their decades of activism that anything has happened at all on these issues. When the policies were in place and the people rejoiced and saw that it was good, those who had organised petitions and screenprinted T-shirts and shouted "whaddawewant whendawewantit" were not invited to the feast and learned how cold the inner glow could be.

I wish Howard had stolen the left's clothing more often and more substantially. You wouldn't hear any maoning about the ABC if that had happened in a few more areas.

Aboriginal communities are reinventing themselves in all sorts of interesting ways but Howard can't claim credit for that. Some work of noble note may yet be done by Mal Brough in this area; if so it'll be the making of him (Brough that is).

The GST, so what? Only accountants care about that. The whole nexus of fiscal imbalance remains, whereby those who spend taxes are not responsible for raising it and all the hair-shirt bullshit at COAG and other ministerial confabs is much, much more inefficient than the public servant who, say, spends $20 on a toilet roll or whatever. Much more inefficient and not nearly as much fun as politics junkies might think.

The AWB scandal won't bite with people until (God forbid, but who'll say it can't happen?) the kickbacks kill Aussie diggers, including farm boys. Then Howard is gone and nothing will save him - not sticking by him, not breaking ranks and cutting loose, nothing. Labor may benefit for a short time but they'd be fools to bank on it. Like the 1970s US Democrats with the great gift of Watergate, only to squander it after one term because they underestimated how quickly the other side could regroup, Labor don't have what it takes to chart a course for government.

Of course Australia has become a mean place under Howard - because the economy is doing well, not despite it. All those times we look back on fondly are because we had no money, we had to get our happiness from things other than those we bought. Think back to your childhood, or the economic downturn/war of your choice; not much money to splash about, so you had to get your jollies in other ways and, hopefully, succeeded.

With his comments about Muslims failing to assimilate, he's back where he was in about 1988 promising to cut Asian immigration. Can't help himself, can he?

We've had a great chance to foster mighty industries and great educational/research campaigns and mind-boggling artistic movements that could have changed Australia for the better, and that we've blown that chance in favour of the reasonable economic performance we've enjoyed in recent times. Ah well.

16 February 2006

Wheat and war

The Cole inquiry into Australian wheat sales to Saddam Hussein's Iraq gives rise to the age-old questions of political scandals: what did they (our beloved leaders) know and when did they know it?

Documents are requested/subpoenaed, assurances are given that this is all the documents there are, etc. Legalistic jousting as to which documents are in play and which aren't is all part of the game. There is no document that proves the Foreign Minister, the Trade Minister or the Prime Minister have done anything wrong, nor does any document comprehensively clear them.

Critics of the current Australian government complain about the lack of documentary evidence to support major policy decisions. Some claim there is a deliberate policy within the Federal bureaucracy of not recording information that might embarrass the government, and definitely not submitting any such document - were any to exist - to a Minister's office. Whether or not this is true, it points to the end of a trend that has been a feature of government policymaking in western democracies for a generation: Freedom of Information.

In Australia, most Freedom of Information legislation was introduced by Liberal-National governments. Some were introduced by doomed Labor governments hoping to fend off landslide defeats and make the incoming Liberal-National government a bit more vulnerable than it may otherwise have been. They tend to have been watered down by Labor governments by successive amendments almost to the point of irrelevance. Why seek documentation that doesn't exist? If there is a no-documentation policy (unwritten of course!) FoI is completely and utterly irrelevant, offering citizens and media all the coverage and utility of an ashtray on a motorbike.