31 May 2006

Too little thought

The Higher Education supplement in The Australian could do with a bit of thought about the articles it publishes, and the wider issues that might arise from them.

Firstly, it has discovered that baby boomer academics, particularly in the humanities, will be retiring en masse in not one, but two almost identical articles by the same writer. There is much head-scratching about where our next generation of academics will come from - as though there is some magic (unnamed) realm beyond the horizon full of people who'd love to teach fluid dynamics or Deleuzeional theory in a damp room in Melbourne for $60k a year. Then there's a piece on Australian academics working overseas (no "Aussie takes on the world" angle like you'd get in the sporting pages).

There are plenty of humanities and other students doing postgrad courses - not enough perhaps, but plenty, in the face of apathy and lack of enticements, and sheer lack of understanding like the ignorant comments about "harbour views" in the articles above. This American article shows that Australian academia is not alone in this boom-and-bust cycle, a ridiculous situation where supply outstrips demand. Yes, those accepting $30 or so per hour to tutor classes and mark papers are being ripped off. There was even an article in the same section (though at the bottom, like it doesn't matter) about a post-boomer academic lamenting the absence of career paths available. The contrast with the near-inert incumbents quoted earlier could not be more stark.

If this section had an editor who thinks, it would have worked out that universities need to provide mentoring programs, gradual retirement schemes and other flexible measures to ease out the incumbents and blood the next generation of academics. The university that does this will be a well-run organisation, and nothing is more attractive than an organisation run by people who are beyond merely qualified: who know what they're doing. If the Oz can call for a jihad against indigent and (self-) abusive Aborigines, surely it can do likewise for the orderly transfer of the country's higher education sector. The academics' union gets in for its chop in these articles but what are they doing to provide career paths for future academics (and help build a constituency for their future? Bugger all, it would seem.

Finally, isn't it hilarious that people who would train you to always criticise, always question, probe the soft white underbelly of power can't cope when the boot is on the other foot? McGuinness has gone back to his Push roots in condemning any bourgeois activity not of directly utilitarian benefit to the proletariat, but boomers who had it too good too long are as stuffy, jowly and reactionary as anyone of their parents' generation who'd tried to pack them off to Vietnam.

Ten years from now I look forward to an Australian academy populated by people who've had to work long and hard to get there and stay there.

30 May 2006

Spare Aboriginal communities from quick fixes

We'll take it as given that paternalism, Aboriginality ipso-facto as a law-and-order problem and assumed eventual extinction have failed. We could be seeing the last gasp of paternalism in the current govrnment - and if Howard can be persuaded that paternalism/benign neglect toward Aborigines is a non-starter, it might really be all over. But for the moment: what is the vision for Aboriginal communities: no schools but plenty of soldiers eh?

Gary Johns has made out that he's cottoned on to this right wing caper since leaving the ALP but hasn't got the whole conserving traditional values thing. And the national president of the party he left behind is a fool: I'm not a doctor Warren, so tell me how a fly-in-fly-out operation will alleviate glue ear or alcoholism, hmm?

Hysterical campaigns like we've seen over recent months reinforces perceptions (including self-perceptions) of Aboriginal communities as leaderless and hopeless. The surival of Aboriginal societies, and the people within them, depend upon their being well-led and hopeful. This will take a long time and a great deal of goodwill - governments and NGOs need to identify both rather than pouring oil on both troubled waters or squeaky wheels if they would actually make the difference their posturing would suggest.

Bad policy comes when policy reacts too sharply to events, when its lack of philosophical underpinnings and negotiated agreement allows it to be buffered by the winds of the media. And Aboriginal policy is the worst policy-making Australia does.

29 May 2006

Easy journalism

It would have been easy for the SMH's Anne Davies to run a piece against privatising the Snowy. The hills are alive with the sound of outrage, which has well and truly drowned out the feeble Chifley Dreaming bleats from inside the ALP. But there's one thing easier than following the herd - and that's getting covered in Iemma's pocket lint, as has happened to poor Annie in her piece today.

Let's go through Davies' article and see what survives, eh?
Privatising Snowy Hydro is one of those slow-burn issues.

A "slow-burn issue" is an issue that affects real people in real communities directly, but which is not picked up by press gallery journos until someone sends them a press release. For someone like Davies, "investigative journalism" means checking the fax machine to see if a minister's office has sent through her story for her.
Whatever you think of him, when [Alan] Jones gets in on the act, the state politicians start worrying.

In other words, our politicians are gutless in the face of this blowhard. He doesn't have the power to change votes but those whose jobs depend on votes won't cross him.
The sale will give him a $1 billion-plus war chest before the state election for spending on infrastructure that the state desperately needs.

NSW has experienced one of the great property booms in recent times, and would be awash with money were it not for mismanagement by the current government. Of course there is a backlog on school maintenance, there always is under a Labor government, and there are many other pressing calls on the public coffers besides. However, there is no link between pressing needs of the community and policy initiatives by the current state government of NSW. Davies lets the cat out of the bag in her final paragraph:
Morris Iemma needs to crank up the rhetoric about school maintenance

See, it's only rhetoric. Nothing to be alarmed about, and no likelihood of a shiny new toilet coming to a school near you.
... similar arguments were advanced about Qantas, Australian Airlines, the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra. Yet, with each privatisation, the world has not collapsed.

Fair enough. But to only reconsider this policy if there was a clear and present danger to the planet is the kind of hysterical line used by a peevish staffer who is too busy to examine all the facts and hopes that bluster will dissuade any deeper examination on the part of others. In briefing Davies their luck has held.
There might also be arguments in the future about whether 21 per cent of the flow to the Snowy is enough. A privatised company is likely to be less amenable to pressure to revisit this.

A change of ownership might make future negotiations more robust but it doesn't mean that the water sharing can't be achieved.

Those arguments are being had now, if only Davies would listen, if only the protesters of Adaminaby would take time out to buy Davies a drink at the Nippon Club. A privatised company is bound to act in the interests of its shareholders above all other considerations, and politicians will meekly shrug their shoulders at this. Alan Jones has no sympathy for governments that bully champions of free enterprise.

Next time journalists sneer at bloggers, think of Anne Davies and Alan Jones waiting by the fax machines for government to tell them what their next stories are. The sky won't fall in if you get your news from other sources and use it to parse what these fax jockeys are really saying.

24 May 2006

Questions about power

And if the world's biggest uranium mine is underway at Roxby Downs/Olympic Dam, could we not have nuclear isotope development and even a nuclear power station (at the very least capable of meeting the power needs of the mine and supporting community, if not feeding into Adelaide and the east coast as a 21st century Snowy) there as well?

What's wrong the idea of swapping new isotopes for old as a means of avoiding nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands, and a bit of value-adding as well?

Wouldn't the proposals/guesses/scare campaign by Clive Hamilton require unsustainable transport/infrastructure costs, or doesn't that matter any more?

Given the mystery over the ownership of Synroc, could Australia not renationalise it and apply it to the waste from Roxby/Olympic?

Would Ports Augusta/Pirie/Adelaide consent to being the nuclear laundries of the world?

What do the local Aboriginal communities think of all this, given their experience with Maralinga?

Would a nuclear industry of such a scale be as careless about safety and as difficult about compensation as the asbestos or tobacco industries?

Can be still criticise Iran's developing nuclear capacity while building our own?

Will Labour split over uranium like it almost did in the '70s, like it did over communism in the '50s?

Is solar really so far from being a viable power technology given the right tax treatment and research focus? Is wind power really likely to be viable at all, a giant boondoggle like monorails?

23 May 2006

Yesterday's man

Louis Nowra's piece against 1950s-man Howard rehashed some familiar themes, none of which are helpful in defeating Howard or charting a course for Australia's future once he has gone.

If Howard had been Prime Minister for a week, or even for as brief a time as Whitlam, it might be fair to call him an aberration. The whole reason why Keating lost is because he claimed that many old-fashioned ideas were defunct, and could play no role in our future. Howard disputed this and the voters backed him in 1996. Beazley has not dared buck Howard on any substantive issue since (except perhaps workplace relations) and so it is left to others to try and frame the debate over what falls away, what do we take with us? The Labor Government in Victoria chose to do no searching examination of the Eureka Stockade and its contribution to Australian democracy beyond a sound-and-light show. I'm willing to write off the ALP as a serious political force if you are.

As we gear up for Laura Norder, the mangiest old slut of Australian politics, to lift her fetid skirt to the voters of NSW and Victoria over the next twelve months, you'd have to agree that the "bushranger" of Nowra's piece is well and truly dead. Kelly, E.: stole some livestock, killed some police, was gaoled and hanged. End of story. What legend? The legend depends on there being some notion that this was somehow unfair, with solid doses of social justice and Fenianism and other laughably passé notions. Boy they're ‘gonna hang you high? Nah, leave you to rot more likely to the cheers from splenetic AM radio.

Howard's cultural passivity has given us space to see what we take with us into the future. You tend to see a cultural renaissance toward the end of Liberal governments/ start of Labor, so bring it on I say. Such a shame that Louis Nowra insists on fighting the early 1970s cultural war with a few names changed, tying himself in knots in failing to portray Howard as both a cardigan-wearing inanity and a red-in-tooth-and-claw radical, with all the success one would expect of a First World War detachment marching across open ground with rifles at the slope toward a machine gun nest. Give us cultural criticism, but can't we have a cultural criticism that works today?

It's time, Louis. Time to shut up and open your eyes and ears. If we had to pick John Howard or Louis Nowra for the title of "Yesterday's man", I'd pick Nowra. I'm keen to see the back of Howard but I want a clearer idea of what will fill the void than this cranky sub-Freudenberg wistfulness.

12 May 2006

I see your budget and raise you

Costello's eleventh budget was a placeholder effort. It was always going to be given two elements: the lack of an election this year and the absence of a long lead-in to a major new announcement. Any big important announcement would have been smirkingly hinted at and selectively leaked - there was none of that because there was nothing to speak of, really. Lots of credit taken for surfing the boom and for belatedly adjusting the income tax scales.

Superannuation gets taxed three times currently: when it goes into the fund, whilst it's in there and when it comes out. If you were going to take one of these off, the one to go should be the inputs: this would have the incentive effects Costello was talking about, without imposing any disincentives on older workers thinking of abandoning the workforce. I think that super should not be taxed on top of other taes levied on pots of money managed by funds, but maybe that's too utopian given the sums we're talking about here. By cutting the tax on super payouts Costello has, despite all his rhetoric about older workers, nudged the boomers toward the exits. Give that man some slow-clapping applause.

It was short on big talk about infrastructure, apart from National Party sops like a new road from Kickatinalong to Wheelabarrowback to cart the pork-barrels along. Still no rail overhaul for heavy freight. Still no dual carriageway on the Pacific Highway.

Carn the Opposition!! Giiiiiiiit iiiiiiiiin there ... oh, I forgot, you're led by Beazley aren't you (*sigh*). Beazley benefits from low expectations when I say that his budget reply was his best speech ever. Finally, this is what you have to drive the man to in order to get some performance!

The opening gambit about the kitchen table and the fridge covered in bills had all the artificiality of the focus group, not any warmth or lived experience coming from Beazley. As the economy starts to buckle people may be in the dire straits Beazley described but they're on their way. It may have resonated better next year, but today all that's happening is Beazley tipping his hand to a shrewd opponent. The image about the poker machine was inspired, but better yet were the body blows on apprenticeships and training that have the potential to make voters sit up and take notice. He trod exactly the right line about training foreign apprentices without spilling over into xenophobia, something Howard can never do. The stuff about infrastructure was vague but better than the government's offering.

The government looked worried but fear not, Beazley will botch it. The applause from the galleries (if you or I tried that we'd be chucked out, but Labor stacked their people in) was a bit overdone, a bit shrill, and Beazley looked a little too pathetically grateful for it. Wayne Swan did not lay a glove on Costello.

Gillard and Rudd have been impressively disciplined in not undermining Beazley. The Labor leadership team after the election should be Gillard as leader, Rudd as deputy and Treasurer. Hopefully Beazley will recognise that he's had his go - if not he must, as Churchill said, be poleaxed. Gillard has the public pulling power and the prospect of growing into the role - the reason why the Howard government is not on the ropes over AWB shows the limits of Rudd's effectiveness at the top. Rudd would, however, make a diligent and thorough Treasurer. True, all Gillard has to show for herself policywise is Medicare Gold, but that's more than Hawke or Keating achieved in their parliamentary careers before 1983.

Beazley has shown his hand too early and the government will pinch what it can, draining Labor of momentum in the lead-up to next year's election. Beazley was never less convincing than when he talked about "a Beazley Labor government". He did his best, but Beazley's best will not get Labor into government.

03 May 2006

Beazley's a cat

It is in the nature of a weak man to pick on someone weaker than he and present this as evidence that he was not a weakling, whereupon someone viewed as harmless becomes contemptible. Kim Beazley is a cat. he reaction by the government is your standard empty cant, but Beazley and his last redoubt have been snivelling in defending the indefensible.

This is what has happened to Kim Beazley in his attempts to link the Beaconsfield mine disaster to his industrial relations campaign, the one shred of policy he has to show for himself after a decade in Opposition. This really is contemptible opportunism. Maybe the miners and their families are rusted on Labor people and would agree with Beazley - but the fact that he hasn't staged a photo op with them would suggest otherwise.

This is where Malcolm Farr's article gets it wrong. True, Beazley's comments were brief, but anyone involved in media and politics as long as Beazley or Farr would know that the media only ever siezes upon grabs of a speech - and sometimes not the grabs that the speechmaker would prefer. Let's try the same thing on Farr's article:

Beazley unveils his true colours

Rubbish! His true colours are dithering, steady-as-she-goes inertia and cover-up/panic when presented with insoluble proof that the ground has shifted under his feet (note: this last metaphor is not a Beaconsfield reference).

Beazley brought in his closest advisers and told them he wanted a tougher approach in his second crack as Opposition Leader.

This worked so well for Andrew Peacock in 1989, and as I've said before Beazley is Labor's Peacock. Peacock could do the scowl and mock-outrage too. You're old enough to remember Peacock too Malcolm, shame on you for not telling the readers you saw this movie the first time around. And let's not have any nonsense from a politician who doesn't want to be popular: oh, yes he does.

John Howard would never take a Beazley-led Labor for granted, and now has to size up a familiar opponent more prepared to take risks.

Howard might not be as complacent as Costello can seem to be, but he has roped this dope before and will do so again. The latter part of this sentence could read: if you thought Beazley was weak when he stood where he was most comfortable, wait till he moves into unfamiliar territory. Next time Beazley says something that makes people gasp, that shows he has gone too far and been tasteless in his quest for political traction, maybe Malcolm Farr will apologise for him then too.

If you saw Warren Brown's cartoon a few pages after Farr's article, you'd be forgiven for thinking heartlessness toward the miners was Tele policy. A tragedy isn't a tragedy unless it can be tied back to Sydney, it seems.

Or, perhaps not. Writing the occasional story in favour of an oft-attacked politician might stop the flow of information from drying up completely, because you never know how many of Beazley's supporters might stay around until the next Labor government. It might give a senior, hidebound reporter that he's really the young iconoclast the considers himself. However, it does nothing for readers trying to work out what alternative they have to the current government (if any). Mend your fences in your own time Malcolm and tell it like it is: Kim Beazley's days are numbered and their road to government begins only after he no longer leads them. Pronouncing that a carcass has pulse disgraces not the corpse but the one making the diagnosis.