Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Election 2015 - Policy Platforms

The other day I was listening to ABC Radio and a talk-back caller told us about his daughter.  She is, according to her biased Dad, an intelligent young woman and wanted to think seriously about who she was voting for.  Like any young digital native, she went online and looked at the policies of the major parties.  According to her Dad, what she found is that one party (the LNP) had a set of constructive policies which outlined what it would do in government while the other (the Labor Party) just seemed intent on criticising their opponents.


Now it's possible this man was an LNP plant (all the parties do this at elections) but it's also possible he was genuine.  If so, our young digital native has let herself down badly.  Perhaps the message is that what our young adults gain in comfort with the online world, they lose by having short attention spans.  Nothing to do with the rise of social media, and everything to do with being 18.  All that grey hair has got to be useful for something.

The fact is that both major parties fighting this election have published a lot of policies, of varying quality and specificity.  Even the minor parties have, to a greater or lesser extent.

The Palmer United Party is the lightest on policy, especially in a Queensland context.  Despite running a large team of candidates (there is one in most electorates) they have almost nothing in the way of specific Queensland policies.  Even their national policies, over a year into their surprise success in the last election, mostly consist of media releases.  Palmer, it appears, is able to fund large campaigns but is not very interested in explaining what his party actually stands for.

The Family First Party is only slightly better.  Its web page is branded "Family First Queensland" and it has a set of policies which purport to be Queensland policies, but they are very generic (generically neo-conservative, in the main) and if you dig a little deeper you find that identical policies are posted on websites branded with each State name.

Neither of these parties of the right are likely to have much success in the coming election, but despite having only 11 candidates it is quite likely Katter's Australian Party will at least win seats in the far north.  Like Family First, they only have one set of policies but at least they don't try to pretend otherwise.  Their policies are not super-detailed but given Bob Katter's tendency the contradict himself in public they are surprisingly coherent.  They reveal an awareness of the looming economic, energy and environmental problems Australia is facing, and advocate a thoroughly nationalist solution - reducing immigration and being tough on asylum seekers, protecting Australian industries, preserving fossil fuels for future domestic use instead of exporting them, and a surprisingly enlightened take on Australia's first people no doubt in response to the large and assertive Aboriginal communities in Katter country.

Of all the minor parties, the Greens are the ones who have taken policy issues most seriously.  The Greens grew out of the conservation movement and are still often perceived as an environmental party.  However, over the years they have evolved into a more rounded progressive party.  Despite never having had a member elected to the Queensland parliament - and this is not likely to change on Saturday - they have a specific Queensland policy platform that runs to over one hundred pages.  This is not developed specifically with this election in mind, but has been put together over a number of years to clarify what the Greens stand for.

It covers a wide range of issues under five headings - Natural Environment, covering biodiversity, water quality, food and agriculture, animal welfare and fishing; Social and Democracy, which includes policies about political accountability, criminal justice, ageing and disability, gambling and gender identity; Economics and Energy, which includes climate change, policies about various industries and policies on government finance; Built Environment with policies about transport and planning; and Human Services which includes education, health, social housing and reproductive rights.  You probably won't be surprised to learn that their policies are fairly consistently progressive or "left" - on environmental issues in favour of conservation, on economic issues in favour of better regulation and more equity and sustainability, on social issues in favour of better services and more public provision, and on "moral" issues in favour of gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia.

WORKING QLDAnd so to the big 2, one of whom will be forming a government in early February.  The Labor Party actually has two types of policies.  The first is a set of policies released in the context of this election campaign on Annastacia Palaszczuk's Opposition Leader website.  These cover a range of issues under the headings of Jobs and Economy (the largest group), Health, Education, Law and Order, Community, Industrial Relations, Environment, Integrity and Accountability and Animal Welfare.  The policies are a mixed bag - some are reasonably comprehensive strategies like their "jobs plan" but most, even some that sound like they should be more comprehensive, are about quite specific issues.  For instance, their "sustainable resource communities" strategy is mostly about reducing the number of "fly-in/fly-out" workers.  Many are promises to reverse unpopular LNP decisions.  This is, in a way, a more sophisticated version of Clive Palmer's policy by press release - it is a number of specific promises which, if you string them together, don't really add up to a comprehensive program.

Img_puppyfarmsThis is probably what the ABC caller's daughter found, and it does provide some justification for her comments.  They are not that detailed, and a good many of them are about undoing things done by the LNP.  Although they do mention puppies.  However, the Labor Party also has a more comprehensive Policy Platform, similar to that of the Greens.  This platform was signed off at the party conference in August 2014.  Over almost 90 pages of small type it outlines a fairly comprehensive set of policies on the range of State responsibilities - the economy, health, education and training, human services, industrial relations, the environment, These are based in a set of clearly articulated but slightly motherhood-ish values.  There's not much whacking of the LNP in this document and plenty of good policy.

The problem with this dual set of policies is it's not clear which set we should believe.  The policy platform is more carefully put together and more comprehensive, but it also contains many things which the Labor Party is unlikely to be able to implement if it gets elected.  For instance, they propose to have public housing account for 10% of all Queensland's housing by 2020.  This would require the construction of over a million dwellings in the next five years.  Even the most ambitious public housing advocates are not game to ask for that much.  The election promises, on the other hand, are all modest and achievable.

Finally, the Liberal National Party.  Unlike the Greens and the Labor Party they don't have any kind of comprehensive policy platform, but like the Labor Party they have released a series of policies during this campaign.  They are presented under a set of headings - Creating Jobs and Infrastructure (the largest heading), Growing a Four Pillar Economy, Tackling the Cost of Living, Building Australia's Best Education System, Revitalising Frontline Health Services and Protecting Our Community.  Despite what our young digital native says, these are not very detailed - often less so that the Labor Party's - and there is a good deal of whacking of the previous Labor government.  They are presented in a uniform format, each one a two-page flyer with lots of pictures and a few words in bold type.  There are also some notable omissions - no environmental policies, for instance, nothing on human services or housing, and nothing on industrial relations.

If you were to compare the two major parties solely on the basis of their election promises, you would probably end up feeling depressed at the quality of the alternatives.  Most of the policies on both sides are very specific, playing to a particular region or interest group.  There is a lot of "rollback" in the Labor policies, a lot of items funded by assets sales (sorry, "leases") in the LNP's.

Beyond the question of quality and vision, you have a choice between a moderate, centrist party interested in a notion of balance between economy, equity and environment, and a party that sees government as about economic development, delivering specific items of infrastrucute and a narrow range of mainstream services.  Neither really has any kind of focus beyond the next three-year electoral cycle.

Finally, there is the question of costings.  Political leaders often claim to be able to release a fully costed set of policies, including details of how these costs will be paid for in the budget.  They rarely achieve this, and neither of our parties has.  So far the Labor Party has not attempted it, although they may release more financial details in the next couple of days.

The LNP appears to be a little ahead on this.  I can find a press release which tells us that on January 27 they released "the detailed budget finances behind its strong plan to fund Queensland’s future and deliver the services and infrastructure our growing state needs".  I can find media stories about the launch of this document, including pictures of Campbell Newman and Tim Nicholls holding it, and these stories tell me it is 22 pages long and give me a few numbers.  However, I can't find the document itself which suggest it only exists in hard copy.

As far as I can tell from the reports it is pretty much a rehash of the Strong Choices document released back in October - the sale of assets will fund a mix of debt reduction and infrastructure projects.  This means that while the costings look precise and add up, they are pretty much meaningless because we won't know what the assets will fetch until the tender process is complete.  Nor should the spending figures be taken as gospel since they depend on detailed feasibility studies which have not yet been done in most cases, and once again will be subject to tender processes.

So this is it.  If you want to know more, follow the links.  Read what they say, note what they don't say.  Make your choice.  The hour is drawing near.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

After the Crash

After reading Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century late last year, I found myself wanting to read more economics.

I'm not an economist, but as a social policy professional I need to know enough about economics to recognise when economists are having me on.  If the economics gets too technical or includes too many equations it's right over my head, but if it's written in plain English I can usually understand it.

In the last couple of months I've read two books written in the aftermath of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis - one about Australia and one about the USA.

The first, published in 2011, is The Sweet Spot: How Australia made its own luck - and could now throw it all away by Peter Hartcher.  Hartcher is not really an economist, he is a political journalist working for the Sydney Morning Herald.  If you've read his columns you'll know that he is on the "dry" end of the Fairfax spectrum, but at least he doesn't work for Murdoch.

Hartcher's question is, why did Australia come out of the GFC better than the rest of the world's advanced economies?  Was it just luck, or was it good judgement and good policy?

The proponents of luck suggest that the main reason we didn't suffer too badly is because we have coal and can sell it to China.  As long as this continued we could sail through the stormiest waters.  Hartcher disagrees.  Chinese exports, he says, are a tiny fraction of our economy.  The answer lies in good policy.

To explain he takes his readers on a rollicking journey through Australian history.  The true heroes of his story, however, are Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.  The Hawke government, with Keating as Treasurer, was elected in 1983, a time of entrenched inflation and unemployment.  The Fraser Coalition government which they replaced had failed to solve these problems and been punished as a result.

Hawke and Keating had two potential models to respond to this situation.  One was the ideological free market reforms of Thatcher and Reagan, involving more business-friendly labour laws (along with a bit of union-busting), deregulated financial markets, cuts to welfare programs and privatisation of State-owned enterprises.  Thatcher and Reagan, says Hartcher, achieved economic recovery at the expense of equity.

Alternatively, they could have followed the democratic socialist model of various European countries, exemplified by Sweden.  These countries had highly interventionist governments, high taxes, generous social benefits and high levels of government regulation.  They managed to sustain equitable societies but at the cost of inefficient economies and high levels of public debt.

The genius of Hawke and Keating, according to Hartcher, was their ability to chart a middle course between these two extremes.  On the one hand, they implemented a Thatcherite program of deregulation.  They wound back industry protections, opened up the banking system, introduced a more flexible approach to industrial relations and kept the lid on government spending.  At the same time, rather than busting unions they worked closely with them, striking a formal Accord with the union movement to promote reform.  Under the terms of this agreement, unions agreed to link wage increases to gains in productivity.  In return, the government agreed to sustain what they called the "social wage" - employer superannuation contributions, a welfare safety net, Medicare, public health and education.

The result was what Hartcher sees as a more or less ideal balance between efficiency and equity.  Productivity grew on the back of their economic reforms, as it did in the US and the UK, but unlike those nations a share of it flowed back to ordinary workers through wage increases and better public services.  This was all achieved without the stifling tax rates and government debt of Northern Europe, and without the social conflict and increasing poverty of the US and UK.  As a result, Australia was in a stable situation when 2007 rolled around.

The danger, he says, it that we seem to have gone away from this approach.  The Howard government lived off the back of the Hawke and Keating reforms, using the benefits to cut taxes and retire government debt but making relatively few meaningful reforms of their own.  The Rudd government began to tip the equation towards equity, failing in the task of economic reform and placing the Hawke-Keating legacy at risk.

The good thing about books by journalists is that they know how to write.  Hartcher tells a good story, mixing analysis with anecdote, avoiding jargon and over-analysis, keeping the tale moving towards its conclusion.  He makes a persuasive case.  However, when it comes down to it his analysis is dubious.  In focusing on Australia he largely ignores the fact that we are at the mercy of larger economies and the winds of global change.  He also thinks within a very narrow band.  What, after all, is the different in policy terms between Keating and Rudd that one could be reforming hero and the other too focused on equity for his own good?  In pursuit of the big story Hartcher ends up in generalities.  The world has moved on since the days of his heroes, but he has failed to move with it.

Which brings me to my second book, Jeffrey Sachs' The Price of Civilisation: Reawakening virtue and prosperity after the economic fall, also first published in 2011.  Sachs also has a history of economic journalism and has written a number of popular books on economic subjects.  However, he is also a serious economist - a Professor at Columbia University and special advisor to the UN Secretary-General.  He describes himself as a a "clinical economist" - his career is built on diagnosing national economic problems in various parts of the world and prescribing remedies.  To do this, he says, he needs to have a holistic understanding, seeing economics as integrally connected to politics, culture and ecology.

This book applies that skill to the US after the GFC.  Unlike Australia, the US did not come out of the crisis well.  To this day unemployment remains high, growth has slowed, poverty and inequality continue to rise, and government debt continues to grow.  What is wrong in the US, and how can it be fixed?  He outlines what he sees as six elements that contribute to America's entrenched economic problems.

The first is the ideological attachment to free markets as the source of all things good.  This belief means that regulation and intervention in markets is a "no-go" area in US politics.  This belief, he says, is a fallacy.  Well functioning economies should achieve efficiency, fairness and sustainability and all these aims require good government policy to guide the actions of private sector players.

The second problem is what Sachs refers to as the "retreat from public purpose".  From the Great Depression onwards, the USA has a history of public welfare programs - the "New Deal", the "War on Poverty".  However, in the 1980s the US began to retreat from this, seeing government programs and government generally as a problem not a solution and drawing back from a commitment to social equity and from a belief that government action can contribute to this.  The result is increasing poverty and inequality.

This is one contributing factor to a wider problem - America is a divided nation.  As well as a divide between rich and poor, there are divisions on geographic, ethnic and political lines.  These often break out into actual violence, at other times they simmer below the surface.  Either way, they undermine the sense of shared social purpose which, says Sachs, can still be detected beneath the divisions.

The fourth problem is the impact of globalisation on the US economy.  This has led to the loss of key industries as manufacturing shifts offshore.  Wealthy companies don't mind - they just shift their money elsewhere - but ordinary Americans find their jobs disappearing and nothing replacing them.

The fifth problem is that American politics has been captured by corporate interests.  American politicians rely on the corporate world to finance their campaigns.  Corporate lobbyists infest the halls of power, and Presidents of both parties draw their senior advisors from the corporate world - the Republicans from the oil industry, the Democrats from Wall Street.  Government has effectively been captured.

Finally, ordinary Americans are distracted and disengaged.  Civil society and local community organisation are in decline and Americans are stuck in their loungerooms, focused on reality TV and the trivialities of cable news, addicted to fads and the latest consumer goods.

Can it be fixed?  Well, obviously Sachs thinks it can, otherwise why write this book?  Not that he thinks there will be another "American Century" - he doesn't expect the US to ever be the dominant world economic power it once was.  However, he does believe it can regain a measure of prosperity.  For this to happen, three things need to change.

First, he sees a need for a general move towards mindfulness.  Ordinary Americans need to learn to move beyond their distractions and obsessions and become mindful of what is important to them in the longer run.  He encourages his fellow citizens to seek the "middle path" advocated by great sages such a Buddha and Aristotle, to focus on having enough rather than excess, to seek meaningful work, to build community and work towards ecological sustainability.

At the government level, he proposes an eight point reform program to put American government back on track.  This includes the goals of raising employment and quality of work life, improving quality of and access to education, reducing poverty, avoiding environmental catastrophe, balancing the budget, improving governance by breaking the link between government and corporations, an appropriate focus on national security and a goal of raising happiness and life satisfaction (rather than focusing exclusively on economic growth).

To pay for this, taxes need to increase.  He points out that through the 2000s successive governments cut taxes to the rich to the point where government finances are in serious trouble.  The Tea Party's solution - more spending cuts - he regards as simply not feasible.  The vast majority of the budget is spent on entitlement programs such as social security and Medicaid (the US's backstop health program for the poorest members of society).  These can only be cut from their present level if politicians are willing to have people starve or die from untreated medical conditions.  There is just not much fat in the federal budget, and the favourite targets of the Tea Party activists - foreign aid and allocations for "pet projects" - are a miniscule proportion of the budget.

Meanwhile, tax cuts for the rich have deprived the government of the revenue it needs to meet the basic needs of the poor.  These cuts need to be reversed, but this will only happen when politicians are no longer in the pockets of big corporations.  To do that he advocates public campaign funding, a complete ban on corporate donations and banishing corporate lobbysists from the White House and Congress.

Political reform, in turn, can only be brought about by an engaged, active populace.  Will the next generation - the Millennials, as some call them - be able to bring about this change?  Only time will tell.

Sachs does what Hartcher fails to do.  He looks beyond the superficialities of political rhetoric and "big picture" economics to what is actually going on in his society, from top to bottom.  He grasps the complexity of economic systems and their connections with society, ecology and the political process.  It's not simple to fix the problems he finds.  A lot of people are quite happy for them to remain unfixed, just as they are here in Australia.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Cashed Up

It's taken until the second last week of the election campaign, but I finally have a piece of literature from my local LNP candidate, Leila Abukar.

I like that the LNP has pre-selected a woman of Somali origin for my local seat, but it's depressingly familiar (no matter which party you talk about) that she's been nominated for a seat they are unlikely to win.  The LNP won Yeerongpilly in 2012 by a very slim margin, and within a year their succesful candidate, Carl Judge, resigned from the party in disgust.  He is running this year as an independent but it seems almost certain the seat will return to Labor.

Still you can't accuse them of skimping on her campaign.  We've been reading about how much the LNP has out-fund-raised Labor and this is evidence right here.

All Labor could afford on behalf of Mark Bailey was an ordinary, old-fashioned letter.  Enclosed in Abukar's letter, on the other hand, is a glossy, carefully crafted four-page A4 brochure and a fake "how to vote" card which encourages me to just vote 1 for Abukar and leave the rest blank.

Leila AbukarThe whole package is testament to the advantages of being able to pay serious money to a PR firm, as well as the benefits of incumbency.  Bailey's letter makes a rather silly claim about the primacy of his commitment to the local community, without actually promising anything concrete.  Abukar's brochure, on the other hand, is a carefully crafted message balancing her party's state-wide agenda with a leaven of local content.  The words "strong" and "stronger" appear 23 times, including 11 times on the front cover.

The inside includes a central spread which sets out the LNP's five key messages: "growing a four pillar economy", "reducing crime on our streets", "tackling the cost of living", "fixing up our local schools" and "revitalising frontline health services".  Embedded in these messages, half-hidden as it were, is a criticism of the previous Labor government.  If schools need to be fixed they must previously have been broken; if health services need revitalising they must have been ailing; if crime needs to be reduced it must have been allowed to grow.  Three years on, the LNP has not yet milked every possible vote out of the perception of Labor misgovernance.

A sidebar presents us with a matching set of five "local" initiatives branded as "my action plan for Yeerongpilly".  Like Bailey's critique of the LNP's impact on the electorate, this list shows just how thin the veneer of localism is.  The first and last initiatives are essentially the same - installing flashing lights at two local schools as a road safety initiative.  The middle one also involves lights, this time on a local sports field.  The second and fourth initiatives are not local at all,  One is a State-wide program giving kids vouchers to pay for sports cub membership. The other is a State-wide fund to lower electricity prices by taking on the cost of solar energy subsidies, making power utilities more profitable for their intended private sector buyers.  This subsidy for big business is cleverly disguised as a cost of living measure.  Overall the list is slightly more substantial than Simon Finn's wheelie bin stickers but hardly exciting or groundbreaking.

The back of the brochure contains four endorsements of Abukar by people I've never heard of, but who I am intended to assume are local residents.  They tell me that she is an "amazing person", "an outstanding, hardworking and compassionate member of our community", "an inspiration" and yes, "a passionate local champion".

I've never met Abukar personally.  Even though I'm slightly doubtful as to the locality of her referees I have no reason to doubt that she would be a hard-working local member should she unexpectedly get elected.  I would love to see a Somali woman elected to our parliament to dilute the dominance of middle-aged Anglo men.  But I won't be voting for her.

Like Mark Bailey, her local loyalty will always come second to her party.  Her party, in turn, is firmly loyal to the big end of town.  In the name of "economic growth" they have dismantled the State's climate change response, authorised reef dredging, extended the leases of their sand-mining donors on Stradbroke Island, promised expensive infrastructure items to support a marginal coal mine in the Galilee Basin and weakened our industrial relations system.  At the same time they have cut human services, ridden roughshod over the judiciary, neutered the Crime and Misconduct Commission and waxed hysterical about bikie gangs.  If we re-elect them, they will transfer public assets to their business mates in the name of "budget repair", leaving a structural budget problem for their successors.

I'd love to see better safety lighting at our local schools, but not at that price.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Manus Island

You don't need any special insight to understand what is going on in the Manus Island detention centre.  You don't need inside information or intelligence reports.  You just need a basic level of intelligence.


The detention centre on Manus Island is a hell-hole.  It is made up of hot and poorly ventilated tin sheds on a tropical island.  Drinking water is rationed.  It is overcrowded and inmates have little or no privacy.  Residents have to queue for hours at mealtimes in the stifling heat.  There are inadequate health services, not enough toilets and showers, and no soap and water in the smelly latrines.  Don't take my word for it - read Amnesty International's report from their visit in November 2013.  They are still awaiting a response from the Immigration Minister.

The inmates in this substandard human-rights free zone are not hardened criminals.  They are ordinary men who have fled persecution and danger in their homelands and tried to reach safety in Australia.  Nor are they serving a sentence, at the end of which they will be freed and allowed to rebuild their lives.  They are detained indefinitely, without trial, without a clear end-point, and without any hope of clemency.  Their alternatives are to return to where they came from or to agree to settle in Papua New Guinea.

As all Australians know, Papua New Guinea has problems.  It is one of the poorest nations in the Asia-Pacific, with massive unemployment, high rates of violent crime, chronic government instability and corruption, and significant levels of community tension and conflict.  Their government has agreed to host Australia's unwanted asylum seekers in exchange for large sums of much-needed cash from the Australian Government, but the locals on Manus resent their presence and are often openly hostile.  Not surprisingly, the asylum seekers detained there do not see it as a "place of safety".  Not only do they refuse to accept resettlement there, they are too scared of the locals even to accept transfer to a less secure detention facility nearby.

So of course the inmates are protesting.  You would protest too.  Almost a year ago, protests turned violent and ended in the death of Reza Berati and injury to a number of others. This time around it seems to have been less violent.  Reports about what actually happened are hazy.  Media are not allowed in or around the compound, staff won't talk, there are no independent observers, inmates can only report in snatched conversations on contraband mobile phones.  However, it is clear that some were refusing food and water, while others were occupying buildings.  How strident were they?  Was there violence or threat of violence?  Who can tell?

It now seems that the protests are over.  Not because the inmates gave up or called them off, but because the security guards employed by Transfield, backed by the PNG police, forcibly broke them up.  How forcibly?  No-one is saying.  However, 40 "ringleaders" have been "isolated", which I take it to mean they are now in even more secure imprisonment somewhere else.  Just when you thought it was impossible, the cycle of deterrence has ratcheted up another notch.  All those unemployed guards from Guantanamo Bay know where to apply for their next job.

When the ABC's 7.30 reported on the story on January 19, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton refused their invitation to comment.  Instead we heard from detainees who claimed they were being denied water and food, that they wanted freedom, that they had been misled by the Australian Government and that they were frustrated and felt hopeless.  We heard from the Refugee Action Collective urging Dutton and his government to "stop the madness".  We heard a former staff member at the detention centre saying he didn't see how the arrangement could possibly work.


Obviously Dutton decided he needed to put his side of the story and appeared last night.  It is possibly the best interview I have ever heard from Leigh Sales.  She is polite, pointed and pithy, asking direct questions and not letting Dutton get away with waffle.

Dutton, on the other hand, is appalling.  The only time he is clear, the message is cruel and uncompromising - none of the Manus inmates will ever settle in Australia.  For the rest, he is evasive, insinuating, snide and sneaky.  I was appalled at Scott Morrison's performance as Immigration Minister, but Dutton is even worse.

He suggests that the end of the protest was achieved by the use of physical force. Sales asks "what degree of force?" Dutton starts to waffle about the presence of the PNG police and the great job Transfield did. Sales repeats the question. He says it varies depending on how cooperative the people were, the whole thing was over in 15 minutes. He tries to divert the focus from force by the security staff and police to force by the detainees, suggesting some of them have fashioned weapons.

"What sort of weapons?" asks Sales. More waffle. She repeats the question. He says, "we're not talking about firearms, for example; we're talking about homemade or home-fashioned weapons." She asks again, adding "just be clear please." He says "well I'm not going into that detail" and waffles some more. She tries a different tack: "And were any injuries sustained?" Dutton says, "Well, not that I'm advised of, of a serious nature".

So that would be "yes".

Sales moves on, pointing out that Robert Cornwell's official inquiry into Berati's death identified frustrations over processing and resettlement as the root cause of the unrest. Since the same problems exist, isn't there a risk of further riots?

Dutton tries to divert into discussing the Labor Party. Sales steers him firmly back on course, but he veers off again. Finally Sales loses patience and puts it in plain English.

LEIGH SALES: ...has anybody who has been detained under Operation Sovereign Borders yet been resettled?

PETER DUTTON: Well people have in Papua New Guinea, for argument's sake, and this is an issue for the PNG government to comment on, not us.

LEIGH SALES: So yes or no: have they been resettled?

PETER DUTTON: Well, I'm not going to comment on the immigration policy within PNG but let me put it this way: there are people...

LEIGH SALES: But this is part of your policy. It is a very simple question.

PETER DUTTON: Sure.

LEIGH SALES: Have any people who have been detained under Operation Sovereign Borders yet been resettled?

PETER DUTTON: There are people within the Manus Island processing centre at the moment who are eligible and who are transitioning, but that is an issue for the PNG government to comment on. That's not something that I will comment on.


So that would be "no".

This is the way we are governed now.  Innocent and distressed people are shuffled off to a ramshackle prison camp on a distant tropical island, with no independent oversight and no media access.  The locals in this impoverished community resent their presence and make no secret of the fact.  They are then offered, as an alternative to spending the rest of their lives in detention, the option of settling in this community where everyone hates them.  When they protest this inhumane treatment they are subjected to even worse treatment, including physical violence.

Our government regards them with so much contempt that they consider this a successful policy.  They regard us with such contempt that when their actions are questioned they avoid answering reasonable and simple questions.  They use children as bargaining chips to blackmail independent senators into legalising their inhumanity.  The opposition, whose policy is pretty much the same, make hardly a squeak of protest.  It is only people like Leigh Sales and her fellow ABC journalists, and the intrepid activists of organisations like the Refugee Action Collective, who remind us that we are talking about human beings here.

We continue to elect these people.  What does that say about us?

Monday, 19 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Local

Talking of local campaigning, last week I got a letter from Mark Bailey, the Labor candidate for Yeerongpilly.

The opening sentence reads as follows.

The upcoming election is an opportunity to make sure Yeerongpilly is represented by someone who will stand up for us and fight hard for our local area.

Then he lists some negative local impacts of LNP government decisions over the past three years - loss of hospital beds and nurses in two of our major hospitals, the level of youth unemployment, increased electricity bills, the closure of a local high school.  Then he goes on.

As a local resident and former local Councillor, I'll fight for more local jobs and to restore much needed funding for our frontline health and education services after Campbell Newman's savage cuts.

I will always put the interests of our local community first just as I did as the Moorooka Ward Councillor.  That's my commitment to you.

When Mark Bailey was the Councillor for Moorooka  I was working in Council and had a fair bit of contact with him.  He's intelligent, hard working, treats people with respect and has good values.  Nevertheless I think he needs to be careful what he says because he will find it very hard to keep this commitment.

Campbell Newman, of course, has the clout to commandeer significant resources for his Ashgrove electorate.  It's called "pork-barreling".  However, if you're an ordinary back-bencher like Bailey you have to get in line like everyone else.

One of our illusions about politics is that a local member's job is to try and get goodies for their constituents.  Yet so much of what governments do is for the State as a whole, rather than for any particular community.

Even Bailey's own list makes this clear.  Youth unemployment is high all over the state and in an urban area like ours, it doesn't particularly depend on anything that happens in our electorate.  Electricity prices are State-wide, provided on a grid that goes across State borders.  Even the hospitals he mentions, while certainly located here, serve a much wider catchment.  Almost every day, helicopters fly over my house to land patients from all over the State on the roof of the PA Hospital.  Of all the things he lists, only the closure of Nyanda State High School is a truly local issue.

In 2012 Simon Finn, Bailey's predecessor as Labor's man in Yeerongpilly, was running for his third term.  As it became obvious how badly Labor were doing, he tried to focus his campaign on his personal standing as a hard-working local member, "listening, acting and getting results".

Unfortunately the actual list of results was quite meagre, even when padded out by initiatives that belonged to other levels of government.  His big claim to fame, about which we received a number of pieces of correspondence, was a campaign in which he got residents to put huge stickers on their wheelie bins telling drivers to slow down.  It's a good idea, but hardly a dramatic result for six years of hard work.

So what was he doing for all that six years?  Well, in addition to spending time with his constituents, listening to their concerns and perhaps advocating for them and their needs, he was sitting in parliament and on parliamentary committees, helping to draft and review various pieces of legislation and providing input into policy and resource allocation across the State.

Perhaps at times he was using these processes to get some resources into his own community but you would hope that wasn't all he was doing.  You would hope that faced with a choice of, say, putting more resources into health services in middle class Yeerongpilly or sending them to remote Aboriginal communities where life expectancy is 20 years less, he was able to look beyond his re-election to wider issues of justice and fairness.  If Mark Bailey gets elected, I hope he will do likewise.

And then, of course, we all know that Mark Bailey is a member of a party.  Within the party he may indeed "always put the interests of our local community first", but once the party has decided he will vote with his colleagues even if this is to remove resources from his electorate.  If he doesn't, the party will expel him and that will be the end of his political career.  He can only honestly make this claim so emphatically if he believes, as a matter of faith, that whatever his party decides is what's best for us.  I don't think he's that stupid.

I wish Mark well.  He seems likely to be our local member come February and I think he'll do a good job.  But I don't expect he will always fight for his own local community and I'd be disappointed if he did.  So, I think, would be many of his other constituents.  I'd be happiest if he made a constructive contribution to good governance of our State, to fairness, justice and ecological responsibility.  Why, I wonder, are these not mentioned in his letter?

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Gillian Triggs

Just for something a little different, and a little more pissed off, here's something slightly removed from the Queensland Election.  You may have noticed some headlines recently about Human Rights Commission chairperson Gillian Triggs.

gillian triggs

If you read the Murdoch press, especially the Australian, they will be hysterical.

Gillian Triggs backs Indonesian Wife Killer Detainee

Tony Abbott blasts Gillian Triggs over wife killer John Basikbasik

Gillian Triggs' advice a 'betrayal' of women

The Guardian is more, well, guarded.

Abbott attacks Gillian Triggs over call to free convicted refugee John Basikbasik

You may notice that even though Triggs is far from a household name the headlines - even in the Guardian - use her name not her title.  I wonder why that would be?

A quick summary of the story.  John Basikbasik is a West Papuan refugee who arrived in Australia by boat (actually, by canoe) in 1985.  He was granted a protection visa on the basis of his connections with the West Papuan independence movement and has been living in Australia ever since.

Since settling in Australia, Basikbasik has committed a number of crimes.  The most serious was in 2000, when he assaulted his then partner so violently that she died from her injuries.  He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.

Basikbasik completed his sentence in 2007 and was released from prison.  However, his protection visa had been cancelled following his conviction and so instead of being released into the community he was transferred to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, where he remains to this day.


In late 2007 the Immigration Department concluded that it would breach Australia's international obligations to return him to Indonesia because his connections with the West Papua independence movement would place him in danger.  However, no Immigration Minister has been prepared to release him, and his various applications to ministers and tribunals for a visa, community detention or some other way to get out of secure detention have all been rejected.  As a last resort, he turned to the Human Rights Commission.

The Commission's job is to examine whether Basikbasik's continued detention breaches Australia's obligations under international human rights law, in particular the prohibition on arbitrary detention.  As the Commission's report says. "to avoid being arbitrary, detention must be necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim of the Commonwealth".  If it finds a breach, it can recommend what the Commonwealth should do to rectify the problem but can't make binding orders.

After examining the case, the Commmission found that this detention did indeed constitute arbitrary detention, and recommended he be paid $350,000 compensation.  Implicit in the recommendation is that he should be released into some form of community detention, with conditions to reduce the risk of further violent offences.  Commissioner Triggs communicated these recommendations to the Department of Immigration in March 2014, and they wrote back in May rejecting them.  She submitted her final report on the matter to the Attorney-General in June 2014, and it was publicly released on November 24 accompanied by a press release.  You can read the report here.

End of story?  Well, yes as far as Ms Triggs is concerned.  She has done her job, made her recommendation and communicated it to the government.  She moves on to the next case.

Not, however, as far as News Ltd is concerned.  Last week they "broke" the story in a fever of outrage.  Tony Abbott and his various Ministers were quick to comment.  Abbott said the Commission's ruling was "pretty bizarre" and likely to "shake people's confidence in institutions like the Human Rights Commission".

Scott Morrison, the Immigration Minister who rejected the original recommendation, was more vitriolic.  He suggested that Triggs was “always arguing for a fair go for those who have forfeited that right by their own behaviour” and added, “There seems to be no consequences for one’s actions in the system she seems to believe in.”  His replacement, Peter Dutton, added that her recommendation was "so far from the public view, it is just offensive".

Of course I wonder why we are hearing about this story now when the report was released in November, and when the government has had the recommendations since March.  But more importantly, why the fake outrage?

Triggs is not a naive do-gooder.  She is a distinguished senior lawyer with a detailed understanding of human rights law.  She also, incidentally, knows enough about criminal law to see what has happened here.  Unfortunately Abbot, Morrison and Dutton don't seem to get this - or else they just don't care.

Nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that Triggs is advocating a system where there are "no consequences for one's actions".  Basikbasik was sentenced to seven years jail for his crime in 2000.  His sentence expired in 2007, so by 2014 he had served double the consequence prescribed for his crime by Australian law.  He is now detained not for his crime, but because successive Immigration Ministers (Labor and Liberal) have considered him a risk to the Australian public.

Nor does Triggs disagree with their assessment.  She reports on his history of disciplinary issues in detention including some for violent incidents.  She covers the findings of various psychiatric assessments which to varying degrees suggest that he is prone to violence, has problems with addiction and impulsiveness, and so forth.  No-one is pretending John Basikbasik is a nice guy.  The decision to keep him in detention is certainly defensible.

What she does disagree with is the notion that indefinite detention is the only way to manage this risk.  She says the Immigration Department have failed to explore the alternatives including community detention, a proper management and rehabilitation plan and the placing of various conditions on his release.

To my mind, it would have been surprising if she had not found his detention to be arbitrary.  What other conclusion could she possibly come to?  He has served the sentence for his crime twice over and has no prospect of a release in the forseeable future.  His punishment is clearly already disproportionate under Australian law and becomes more so as the years pass.

If he was an Australian citizen this treatment would be outrageous and illegal.  He is being detained not on the basis of a crime he has committed, but on the basis of one he may commit in the future.  Because he has no legal standing in Australia he is at the mercy of the Immigration Minister, and successive holders of that office have not known the meaning of the word.

But I don't think that's really what this story is about.  Why is a formerly low-profile immigration case, long done and dusted, suddenly headline news and cause for so much government outrage and chest-beating?  Why is Gillian Triggs being named and shamed with such vitriol?

During 2014 Triggs and her staff conducted a detailed, substantial inquiry into children in immigration detention.  According to the published timetable, this inquiry will now be complete and its report will have been presented to the Government towards the end of 2014.  It has yet to be released publicly, but no doubt it was some senior adviser's holiday reading.  Like to guess what's in it?  Like to picture Abbott, Morrison and Dutton trying to convince the Australian public that keeping children in indefinite detention is not a breach of human rights?  Like to imagine Scott Morrison suggesting that these children have "forfeited their right" to a fair go "by their own behaviour"?  Like to imagine Peter Dutton commenting that the recommendation for their release is "just offensive"?

Obviously a little preemption was in order.  Much better to be attacking the Commissioner over a 51-year-old wife killer than over hundreds of innocent children.  A little subtle prompting would have been all it took for their mates at News to run with the story and give them the excuse to express a little shock and horror.  A good way to ensure that most people's first impression of Triggs is of someone who has sympathy for a wife killing savage who travels by canoe.

What would you like to bet that when the report into children in detention is released the stories in the Murdoch press (no doubt the first to appear courtesy of a strategic leak or two) will refer back to this case as an illustration that Triggs is "so far from the public view as to be offensive" and that previous decisions have "shaken people's confidence in the Commission"?  Perhaps such a shaking of confidence is the whole point?

Triggs herself has defended her recommendation.  Among other things, she says:

Those who commit a criminal offence, and serve the sentence provided by law, do not forfeit all their human rights for the future. Indeed, it is a vital element of our modern criminal justice system that those who commit offences should have the opportunity to reintegrate into the community once their sentences have been served.

Over the next month or two this story will fade away and she will get to talk about children in detention.  I doubt that she will be phased by all these shenanigans.  Misconduct aside, they can't sack her until her term expires in 2017.

Meanwhile, she has a job to do.  I trust she will keep doing it, and not let the bastards grind her down.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Independent

Given current polling, one of the possible outcomes of the coming State election is a hung parliament, meaning that government will need to be formed with the support of independents and minor parties.

Our major parties both hate this idea, and try to persuade voters against it.  Both parties are currently saying they won't form a minority government with the support of the cross-benches.  I don't think that promise is worth the air it was spoken into.  If we have a hung parliament, at least one of them will do a deal, even though they don't like it.

They say they don't like minority government because it creates instability, but actually it's just because they are so bad at negotiation.  Plenty of countries have multi-party governments as a matter of routine, and they include some of the most stable democracies on the planet.

The Queensland electoral system makes things difficult for minor parties.  We have no upper house, and a lower house made up exclusively of single-member electorates.  To increase the degree of difficulty, we have optional preferential voting.  This means urban-based minor parties like the Greens and, before them, the Democrats, have never made a serious impact on a Queensland election.  Even though they can command a significant amount of the vote, their supporters are spread through urban communities and there are not enough votes in any one electorate to propel anyone into parliament.

The real action here is in rural areas.  We have some accidental urban independents who bailed out of the LNP in disgust, but all those actually elected as independent or minor party members come from regional communities.

The Queensland Parliament has had two long-standing independents - Liz Cunningham has represented Gladstone since 1996, and Peter Wellington the Sunshine Coast hinterland seat of Nicklin since 1998.  Wellington is running again but Cunningham is retiring.

In this Parliament we also have three Katter's Australian Party members. Robbie Katter in Mt Isa and Shane Knuth in Dalrymple were both elected as KAP members in 2012, and Ray Hopper from Condamine defected from the LNP soon after.  The KAP is long term federal independent Bob Katter's attempt to convert his success as a rural independent into a wider political movement.  So far success has been limited.  Despite running 76 candidates in the 2012 election, the only two who were elected were in electorates that straddle Katter's own federal seat.  One of them is Bob's son and heir.


We are likely to have a couple of others after January 31.  Chris Foley, who served three terms as Member for Maryborough before narrowly losing the seat in 2012, is running again.  Former Mackay Mayor Julie Boyd's chances of winning in Mackay have been boosted by long-standing Labor member Tim Mulherin's sudden resignation last week.

Being a regional independent requires a different kind of politics from that practiced by the major parties.  The parties have big advertising budgets, a team of policy people to put together more or less credible policy positions, and an organisational infrastructure to raise large amounts of money and direct it to coordinated campaigning across the State.  Local candidates have a network of local branches whose members volunteer for grass-roots campaigning duties.  They will try and present each electorate with a credible local candidate, but their main objective is to sell their brand and win government.


Minor parties try to copy this strategy but don't have the resources or profile to make it work.  Independents can't even begin to dream of campaigning that way.  In practice, both rely on their local networks and on people in their local community trusting them and placing confidence in them.

This rarely works in urban areas because the communities there are too fragmented.  Electoral boundaries are more or less random, people only identify loosely with the community they live in, and their social and business networks are likely to extend across the city.  However, rural communities are different.  Their sense of local identity is a lot stronger, people tend to do a lot of their business and socialising within the one small area, and they see themselves as having a strong collective identity.

Party campaigning can often backfire in these communities.  The local candidate, even if they are well known and liked, can be seen to be controlled from Brisbane and therefore not able to properly represent their community.  The parties are often seen to betray rural communities at the behest of wealthy and powerful urban interests.  Often this perception is absolutely correct.

A good local independent can tap into this feeling.  They can claim that, in contrast to the party candidates who have to do the bidding of their Brisbane masters, they will stand up first and foremost for their community.  To be successful, the person needs to be well known and widely trusted in the community.  Cunningham had a profile as Mayor of Calliope. Wellington had served on Maroochy Shire Council.  Foley was a high profile local business person, church leader and musician.

They are largely reflective of their rural constituents - socially conservative, more practically than ideologically driven, committed to strengthening regional economies and services, firmly embedded in localism.  They can't be polarising in their local communities even if, like Bob Katter, they are controversial on a national scale.  People in their electorate, whatever their personal politics, need to see their independent representatives as standing for the whole community.

The gig doesn't get any easier once you get into parliament.  In times like now, when one or other party has a big majority, no-one outside your community cares what you think.  You will be in the mushroom club when any major decisions are being made, even ones that directly affect your electorate.  You will have to work hard for every little gain you make and the gains will be on seemingly trivial things - sorting out a constituent's problem with a State agency, getting a pothole fixed, getting a grant to fix the roof of the Senior Citizens Centre.  If you work hard, they will add up, word will spread, and you will be re-elected.

Then once in a blue moon, if you are lucky enough for it to happen on your watch, you will get your moment in the sun.  The major parties will need your support to form a government, and they will need to negotiate with you to get it.  Chances are you will be a better negotiator than they are because while they have been busy using their majority to ride roughshod over everybody, or whining and banging on about broken promises in opposition, you will have spent years negotiating hard for every little scrap you can get.  You will be able to deliver something serious for your local community - a new hospital, a proper highway upgrade, a community centre, 50 more nurses, a new sports club.  Whatever you want, they will give you in exchange for your vote.

I hope our independents are making their lists and checking them carefully, because there's a good chance they could be using them come February.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Anxious

I mentioned in my previous post that the LNP has been working hard for the past three years to create a climate of anxiety.  One person who doesn't seem to need much help to become anxious is Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk.

Every time I have seen her in the media over the last three years her face has worn an anxious, harried expression.  She even wears it in the election advertising that has appeared on our TVs this week.  The only time it left her face was in the press conference she gave following the announcement of the election date.  Presumably she was told by her media advisers that she should smile more, so she tried one at the end of the conference.  It wasn't convincing.


Of course she has a lot to be anxious about.  She was a low-profile cabinet minister in the Bligh Government - her most senior post was as Minister for Transport and Multicultural Affairs in the final year of the government.  Then following the electoral rout of March 2012 she found herself thrust into the public spotlight as leader of the most depleted opposition in Queensland history.  Overnight she went from virtual anonymity to daily press conferences at which she was asked to comment on the hell-for-leather policy changes of the Newman government.

She had to do it pretty much alone, too.  She was leader of a caucus of seven people.  None of them were political heavyweights.  All the senior figures were gone - Bligh herself, Paul Lucas, Andrew Fraser, Karen Struthers, Rob Schwarten, Rachel Nolan, Stirling Hinchliffe, Judy Spence - all retired or voted out of office.  Along with the loss of so many members was the loss of support staff.  With only seven MPs you don't have a big office, and your capacity to research policy issues and come up with alternative ideas, or even keep up with what the government is doing, is cut to the bone.

That wasn't all.  One of the reasons the election loss was so heavy was that the Bligh Government's hasty privatisation decisions in 2009 alienated the union movement - both its leadership and its grassroots membership.  In 2014 the party was still struggling to find people to set up stalls and hand out leaflets for the federal election, so much so that Kevin Rudd made a humiliating public appeal for help.  For much of the past three years, the union movement has effectively been its own opposition, running its own campaigns against the LNP's funding cuts and industrial relations changes rather than getting in behind the parliamentary party.  Even in this election, union advertising is not so much encouraging us to vote Labor as to not vote LNP.

Given all these disadvantages it's not surprising that Palaszczuk has often looked and sounded like she is struggling.  She can't point to the great job her party did in government after the people of Queensland showed how violently they didn't think so.  Yet her party has no capacity to develop an alternative vision.  Her only option is the one she has taken, the one which is rapidly becoming the default mode of oppositions around the country - to focus on the government and point out its inadequacies.

Her good fortune is that she has had a lot to work with.  The LNP cabinet is mostly made up of rookies, including the Premier himself, and they have stumbled over their feet as often as they have trodden surely.  Their policies are inherently unpopular - sacking people, reducing services, subverting the legal process, undermining systems of public accountability, proposing to sell the family farm.  Palaszczuk and her colleagues have seen their stocks rise steadily through the year.  They have added two new MPs through by-elections, both of them seasoned politicians.  The polls suggest they are a chance to win this years' election, and pretty much certain to reduce the LNP's majority to less than a dozen seats.

But of course, as politicians are fond of saying, there's only one poll that matters.  Although it's also said that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them, the opposition needs to at least present a credible alternative.  Can the Queensland Labor Party do this?  I sense that if they are to pull off the miracle two things need to happen.

The first is that people must be able to imagine Annastacia Palaszczuk as premier.  Much as I hate presidential election campaigns, they are definitely with us at least for the present.  It will be Palaszczuk's face that is on the media every night and fronting the TV ads that will be flooding our TV screens.  Will she be able to shed her worried look for long enough to convince voters she is not terrified of winning?

The second is that people will need to believe that a Labor government will know what they are doing.  The bar is not really high here, given the three years we have just had, but there is a lot of convincing to be done.  Labor has only nine sitting members and one of those, the current deputy leader, is retiring.  Half an incoming Labor ministry will have to come from outside the current parliament.

This presents the Labor Party with a serious problem.  When it was nominating candidates for various seats over the last few months, it had a choice between running a set of candidates with political experience or a set of novices.  If it did the former, it would be asking us to re-elect the people we rejected so soundly three years ago.  If it did the latter it would be asking us to elect of government of people who had no idea, far more so than the LNP three years ago.

In the event, it has gone for a compromise.  Some of the old faces are attempting a return - Kate Jones in Ashgrove, Grace Grace in Brisbane Central, a few others - but none of the senior ministers.  There are a few people who know how the system works, but none who have to carry a huge burden of blame for the mistakes of the Bligh Government. They have also pulled out some people with relevant experience.  My local Labor candidate is a former Councillor.  Over on the Northside Yvette D'Ath, a two term Federal MP, won the Stafford by-election last year.  There should be enough people for the party to cobble together some sort of cabinet, but "cobble" will be the word.

And the related, multi-billion dollar question is - what will they do if they get the reins of power?  They have assured us that over the course of the election campaign they will release their policies "in full".  I'm waiting to see what they are.  The LNP is banking on the assumption that they won't be very good.  So far, the only policy we have heard about is a re-run of the previous government's approach to employment and training.  This is not actually a bad policy but at some stage they will need to convince us all that we will not be simply re-electing a pale imitation of the Bligh Government.

I'm waiting - in fact eager - to be convinced, but I'm not confident that I will be.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Election 2015 - Being Strong

So, Campbell Newman has finally decided to put us all out of our misery by calling the 2015 election for January 31 this year.  His stated reason - that he wanted to provide certainty for business - tells you a lot about our present Liberal-National Party government.  This is the most business-friendly government - and people unfriendly one - we have had in a long time.

I'm not going to pretend to give you an unbiased view of this election.  Let me tell you right up front, I won't be voting LNP.  Not that I'm much of a fan of the Labor Party either.  They have largely sold out to the same business interests as the LNP, but at least they are able to soften it with a slender padding of social responsibility.  I would like to be able to vote for a genuinely socially progressive alternative, but in the current environment I have to accept that my preferences will eventually flow back Labor's way.

Anyway, having got that out of the way up front, I want to talk to you about the LNP.  I'll talk about Labor in another post.

The LNP's soundbites and ads use the word "strong" a lot.  This is the end point of their three-year strategy aimed at creating anxiety.  The LNP has created a number of emergencies - a budget emergency, a law and order emergency.  After attempting to awe Queenslanders with the seriousness of the emergency, they do two things - they blame Labor, and they use the emergency to justify "strong" action.  The "budget emergency" is used to justify firstly the sacking of 15,000 public servants, the withdrawal of funding from a range of community groups that the LNP doesn't like, and more recently asset sales.  The "law and order crisis" is used to justify a set of laws which throw the normal principles of criminal justice and proportionality out of the window.  All this deflects our attention from a range of lower-profile changes which benefit LNP supporters with a brazenness that takes the breath away.

It is of course much easier to create a problem for which you have a ready-made solution than solve an actual problem, like climate change or homelessness, for which the solution is complex and requires you to act against the interests of your key financial backers.  Creating a climate of fear and anxiety also works for right-wing governments because it makes their preferred policy positions easier to defend and puts their more moderate opponents on the back foot.  It allows them to set the agenda and challenge their opponents to match them.  It is a powerful agenda-setting tactic, pushing the debate into areas where they are most comfortable and their opponents most conflicted.

The question is, are Queenslanders buying it?  It's been clear throughout the past three years that many are not.  Voters wiped the floor with the LNP in two by-elections and polls indicate a big state-wide swing back to Labor.  Even many of their own members are unhappy - four LNP MPs have quit the party since the last election, not counting crooks.  Will it be enough for a change of government?  Only time will tell.

The other interesting thing that goes with this is that "strong policies" tend to require a "strong leader".  In 2011 the LNP solved its chronic leadership problems by drafting Campbell Newman to lead their campaign.  It worked for them - Newman is a brilliant campaigner.  A drover's dog, as the saying goes, could have led the LNP to victory in 2012 but not everyone would have gained such a huge one.  This might make you think Newman is the requisite strong leader.  However, I'm not so sure.

There are times over the past three years when Newman has seemed strangely uninvolved in his government.  When Jarrod Bleijie was antagonising the entire legal profession, Newman was nowhere to be seen.  When deputy Jeff Seeney used his position as state development minister to do favours for mates, Newman stayed silent.  He also left Seeney to handle the fallout of the proposed pay rise for MPs.  When he eventually weighed into these issues, and many other similar ones, his response was often anaemic.

The other interesting factor is that Newman is the Member for Ashgrove.  In 2012 he had to work hard to win the seat over popular local Labor member Kate Jones.  The win only became a sure thing in the week before the election when the scale of the Labor wipeout started to become obvious.  In 2015 Jones is back and only needs a 5% swing to regain the seat.  The outgoing member for neighbouring Moggill, Bruce Flegg, spilled the beans after the LNP shafted him.  Internally, he said, no-one in the LNP believes Newman will win the seat.


Newman has, of course, put on a brave face and it is just possible that by force of personality he could defy the pundits.  However I wonder how much control he really has over any of this.  He became Liberal Lord Mayor of Brisbane more despite than because of the efforts of what was then the Queensland Liberal Party.  As an outsider in 2011-12 he had not had the opportunity to build a support base in the party room and had little or no say in the candidates who ran for positions on his team, many of whom turned out to be seriously inappropriate.

The LNP is a complex beast.  It was formed through an amalgamation between the rural-based National Party and the urban conservatives of the Liberal Party.  While the Nationals were a reasonably stable organisation, the Liberals were notorious for internal strife and faction-fighting.  The result is an amalgamated organisation with a rural ex-National faction added to the irreconcilable Liberal divisions.

All this tension simmers just below the surface.  Newman has been able to paper it over, first of all in the lead-up to the 2012 election and more recently when he succeeded in reining in his madder cabinet members and taking control of the messaging in the months preceding this one.  It seems the LNP is more than happy to have him leading their campaign once more, but don't particularly care if he is there afterwards to lead their government.  Indeed, many wold prefer he was not.  If Flegg is to be believed, his axing and various other pre-selection controversies in the past few months are all about shoring up support for one or another potential successor.  Seeney?  Nicholls? Springborg?  No doubt all of these would love to sit behind the desk Newman will surely be cleaning out come February 1.

In the meantime, can Newman maintain the facade of strong leadership up until January 31?  And will enough people believe him for it to work?  Well, that depends on a few other things which I'll talk about one day soon.  In the meantime, enjoy the show!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Subversion of Christianity

Reading Leo Tolstoy's religious writings earlier this year made me want to have another go at reading Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity.  I began to read this book some years ago, only to find that the copy in my hands was a misprint and half the text was missing.  Life intervened, and it took Tolstoy to remind me of it.

In some ways, Ellul was a French equivalent to the Englishman CS Lewis.  Like Lewis he was a prominent Christian intellectual of more or less orthodox Protestant views.  Like Lewis, he had a depth of theological knowledge but was mostly self-taught (although Ellul did complete most of a theology degree before the Second World War intervened) while pursuing an academic career in a different discipline (Ellul in sociology, Lewis in literature).

Of course there are also differences.  Lewis wrote for a popular audience and much of his writing is highly accessible.  Ellul was far more "intellectual" and his writing can be dense and difficult.  However, for both their place outside the theological establishment allowed them to present perspectives and raise issues which would be difficult for someone operating fully within the institution.

The Subversion of Christianity was one of Ellul's later works, first published in French in 1984 and English in 1986 when the author was in his 70s.  In many places he refers the reader to the more detailed analysis of some of the issues in his earlier works.  His basic thesis is that Christianity, by which he means the gospel of Jesus and the apostles, has been subverted and robbed of its power by ideas and approaches imported from elsewhere.

For Ellul, Christianity is not an ideology, an "ism", but the denial of ideology.  It represents a rejection of earthly power and wealth in favour of the crucified Christ.  Nor is it a religion in the usual sense - it is not a way of defining things that are sacred against things that are not but a way of making the whole of life subject to God.  It is not a cultural artefact or even the basis for a culture but God breaking into culture to transform us in his image.  So how is it subverted?

Ellul discusses five sources of subversion.  These are not sequential, but run as themes through the relationship between Christianity and the multiple cultures within which it has been situated.

The first is what he refers to as the process of "sacralisation".  He sees Christianity as the ultimate piece of descralisation in that the boundary between the sacred and the profane is broken down.  In Christianity there are no sacred places or objects because everything is sacred, everything belongs to God.  Christianity did away with the temple in Jerusalem and the shrines in the sacred groves because anywhere and everywhere was the right place to worship God.  It did away with sacred objects or talismans because everything belonged to God.  It did away with priests because anyone could access God directly in humble prayer.  Yet it didn't take long for Christians to recreate their own sacred places, objects and persons - consecrated churches, sacred sites, holy relics and a consecrated priesthood.  The result was that God, who should be understood to permeate all of life and all of creation, was put back into a box, confined to certain places and people while everyone else got on with their lives untouched by his presence.

The second process is the growth of moralism.  Christianity is meant to be a religion of grace, its emphasis on God drawing us to himself through Christ.  Certainly there was a sense that certain behaviours were more appropriate for Christians, but these were consequences of this fundamental act of God's grace, not a moral system in themselves.  Yet from early in its history its leaders began to develop it as a moral system, and to spend their energy on enforcing a set of rules on their followers.  Morality became divorced from grace and the church was turned into an instrument of social control.

The third, perhaps surprisingly, is the adoption during the middle ages of various theological and political ideas borrowed from Islam.  In Ellul's telling, Islam was by far the most advanced and intellectually developed culture of the medieval period and Christian thinkers learned a lot from them, even though this debt was rarely acknowledged.  He points out two particular influences.  One is the emphasis on God as wholly "other" to us and sitting above us in judgement, as opposed to the incarnate God of Christianity.  The second is the idea of the unity of divine law with human law - that God's will can and should express itself in the laws of nations.

This leads on to his fourth process, the process of political perversion or capture.  Of course the paradigm for this is not so much Constantine himself but his lionisation by the church.  Constantine is said to have experienced a charismatic conversion, after which he went into battle with the cross on his banners.  How, asks Ellul, can the cross be turned into a symbol of political power and military conquest?  Yet "Christian" kings and governments have been blessed by the church ever since.  For Ellul this is directly contradictory to Christianity, which sees power itself as a form of idolatry.  He sees Christianity as neither politically neutral, nor as blessing any particular political structure or ideology, but as resolutely anti-political, opposed to political power in any shape or form.

The final process is, in a way, the other side of the coin of the four that have gone before.  Through the 20th century, the certainties of this perverted form of Christianity were stripped away in the face of the rise of nihilistic world views such as Nazi-ism and Leninism, and by the brutalities of the two world wars.  We no longer accepted the sanctity of places, our morality was revealed as hypocrisy, our laws and governments were shown to be completely secular and far from worthy of praise.  Yet at the same time we no longer had a clear sense of what the gospel meant, so Christianity itself became nihilistic, firmly aware of our irredeemable corruption but not of the grace that has come in Christ.

How is it that Christianity was so easily and comprehensively subverted?  There are two elements which, according to Ellul, worked together to ensure this subversion.  The first is that the revelation itself is so difficult.  What is difficult for us is not its "religious" or "miraculous" elements, the sense of God's power and the comfort of his presence.  All of these have been welcome and easily accepted for most of history.  What is difficult is its thoroughly anarchic nature - not in the sense that it is chaotic but that it is so thoroughly opposed to human power and system.  We find this difficult to live by, and try to substitute structure, predictability and secure authority for the unpredictable movement of the Spirit.

The second, which abets the first, is that the things which have corrupted the church are, in biblical terms, "powers" in their own right.  Political power, wealth, the ability to control others, the self-will of moralism, are not simply neutral.  They are active spiritual forces, demanding our attention and allegiance.  The gospel of the New Testament, of Jesus and Paul, asks us to follow a difficult, uncertain path.  The powers of this world tempt us from this path, drawing us aside with their claims of holiness and security.  The devil, as it were, appears as an angel of light.

It turns out that I was right to allow Tolstoy's writing to drive me on to Ellul.  Although the two were superficially very different, the heart of their message is remarkably similar.  Ellul was a careful and thorough scholar, Tolstoy an idiosyncratic amateur.  Ellul was an active lay member of the Reformed Church of France, Tolstoy a perpetual outsider and habitual individualist.  Yet Tolstoy, in his own way, put his finger on the very same ills - the capture of the church by the political powers, its focus on a false and hypocritical moralism at the expense of following Christ, its diversion from the teachings of Jesus to the worship of relics and the mystification of the sacraments.

Yet Tolstoy's answer is, perhaps, too simplistic compared to Ellul's.  For Tolstoy, the only thing worth valuing in Christianity was Jesus' moral teaching, summed up in the Golden Rule - "do to others what you would have them do to you", or alternately "love your neighbour as yourself".  Ellul, with a more thorough theological grounding and the resources of a non-state reformed church around him, has a more holistic view of the gospel as an expression of God's grace.  Ellul presents a very similar challenge to Tolstoy, but he also shows a path to God's grace and acceptance, a path to the peace which the tortured Tolstoy never found.

Despite his damning review of the history of Christianity, Ellul remains profoundly positive about the gospel.  In his final chapter he adopts Galileo's phrase: at his trial Galileo recanted of his "heretical" view that the earth orbited the sun, but as he stepped down from the dock he is reported to have said "eppur si muove"- "and yet it moves!".  Likewise with the gospel.  For all that the power of the church and the tangles of theology and law have obscured it, the gospel still lives and still moves among us.  It cannot be stopped, no matter what - as Jesus says, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).  In every age it is born anew despite whatever we may do to it.  Thankfully, we are not powerful enough to kill it off.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Little Drummer Boy

It seems that this Christmas I can't get away from renditions of The Little Drummer Boy.  Here is the one I enjoyed most, from Walk Off the Earth.

 

If that's still too straight for you, they also have a version featuring dogs.  If you prefer something more traditional here's an a capella version by Pentatonix.


In case you haven't had it drummed into you by years of repetition over shopping centre sound systems and in Christmas concerts and pageants, the lyric goes like this:

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum, 
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honour Him, pa rum pum pum pum, 
When we come.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That's fit to give a king, pa rum pum pum
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

In our culture, Christmas has become the season for sentimentality.  We cover our houses and offices with shiny decorations.  We send each other cards with hopeful messages inside.  We feel extra compassion for the poor, putting on special meals for poor families and giving their kids presents.  When tragedies happen, as they have this December, they take on an extra poignancy for us for their potential to ruin the peace and goodwill we expect at this time of year.

Children's songs fit right into the mix.  We hear Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Twinkle Twinkle and even, if we are lucky, Away in a Manger.  Christmas has, for many of us, become something for children, and as adults a way for us to recover our lost childhood, our lost innocence.  It is the only time of the year adults are allowed to wear funny hats.

The Little Drummer Boy is perfect for a 21st century Christmas.  It features a child, it's very sentimental and it certainly appears innocent.  But I couldn't shake the question - who was this drummer, and what was he doing there?

The song was written in 1941 by US composer and music teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis, under the title "Carol of the Drum".  She suggested it was based on a Czech carol, but no-one seems to have been able to identify a source so we have to think that its creation was largely her own work.  Davis composed for children's choirs and ensembles so she wrote a simple, catchy tune and a lyric that children could relate to.  It began to reach a wider audience in 1955 when it was recorded by the Trapp Family Singers and since then it's been re-recorded by every man and his dog. Even David Bowie apparently had a go at it.

Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941, so if Davis's pupils gave this song its first outing in Christmas of that year its insistent onomatopoeia would have accompanied the marching of soldiers' feet and the quickened beat of American hearts as they prepared for a long and bloody war.  This is more than appropriate - it was almost certainly deliberate - because its central character was a child soldier.

Boy drummers were common in all the armies of the early- and mid-19th century, after which they were replaced by boy buglers.  They didn't generally carry firearms because the rifles of the time were too heavy and had too much recoil for a child to handle.  Nor was their job simply to accompany the soldiers as they marched on the parade ground.

Drums were used for signalling in battle. The noise of a full scale conflict was too great for the officers to shout, and in poor visibility flags and signals wouldn't do the job, so armies used a rhythmic code.  Each rhythm meant a different thing - attack, retreat, regroup, parley, etc.  The drummers would be stationed at intervals just behind the battle lines, where they could pick up and pass on the signal from the commanding officer.

They were favourite subjects of sentimental art in the 19th century, the combination of innocence and heroism appealing to Victorian sentimentality.  They also had a special place in the folklore of the American Civil War, active on both sides of the conflict.  Officially there were age limits but these were routinely ignored.

One of the most famous of these Civil War drummers was John Clem, According to his own story, he ran away from home at the age of 9 and applied to join a number of Union Army regiments before being finally accepted by the 22nd Michigan despite his age.  By the age of 12 he had already been promoted to sergeant and he finally retired as a Brigadier General in 1915, the last serving Civil War veteran.  He is said to have been wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and have shot a Confederate colonel in the Battle of Chickamunga with a cut-down musket made especially for him.

Of course many of the tales about Clem and other Civil War drummer boys are more folklore than history.  Clem seems to have been the kind of man who never let the truth interfere with a good story.  However, they do have an historical core.  There were indeed boy drummers around the world, many of them were very young, and many were wounded or killed.  Even though most did not handle arms they were definitely in danger, and if they were not physically wounded they would still have witnessed unspeakable horrors and been traumatised for life.

So here he is in 1941, on the brink of the war that would bring about the murder of 6 million Jews and end with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: a child soldier, traumatised and perhaps bleeding from war, standing desperately before Jesus and Mary and offering the one thing he can do, play a signal on his drum.  I wonder, what did he signal?  Did he sound the charge to summon the Messiah to battle?  Was it the retreat, or the signal to regroup?  Or did he beat the request for parley, hoping to hear the same signal acknowledged from the other side of the lines as the guns fell silent? 

How would Jesus have responded?  The song tells us only that he smiled, accepting the child's gift but perhaps also acknowledging that his signal would be honoured, that his prayers and desires would be fulfilled in due time.

Of course the infant Jesus could not yet speak, but what would the adult Jesus have said?  I like to think that, lover of the prophecies of Isaiah as Jesus was, he may have replied with the words from Isaiah 2:3-4.

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

May we all have peace this Christmas, and in Christmases to come.