Possums Pollytics

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Archive for the ‘general politics’ Category

Foolwatch – The Power of Information

Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 4, 2008

The Rudd government has made a mistake.

Not just a mistake on data analysis, nor just a mistake on managing information flows, nor even “just” a mistake of implementing a policy that has no evidential foundation.

They’ve made a mistake that will undermine their entire policy agenda for the next three years unless they rectify the process responsible for creating it.

We all remember the FuelWatch saga – where the ACCC assured us that their modelling was correct (even though they refused to release the relevant data), where they assured us that FuelWatch in WA reduced the price differential between Perth and the Eastern Capitals even though there were those of us that thought the data, at least the data we could independently scrounge up regarding petrol prices at the time, didn’t really show any such thing.

“Evidence based policy” was how FuelWatch was spun. A noble cause in and of itself – I’d imagine we’d all prefer policy to be based on evidence, it sure beats the alternatives .But what if the evidence the policy was based on was so questionable that the line between “evidence based policy” and “policy based evidence” – that style of political management where data is interpreted according to the needs of the policy rather than policy being designed to meet the needs of the evidence – became indistinguishable?

Professor Don Harding, economist at the Department of Economics and Finance at La Trobe University , was kind enough to give us a peek at an as yet unpublished draft paper he’s currently working on called “Foolwatch- A Case study of econometric analysis and evidenced-based-policy making in the Australian Government

He has kindly allowed his draft version of the paper to be downloadable here and Don encourages anyone with any views on its content, particularly the econometrics, to contact him with feedback via his details which can be found on his page linked to his name.

Professor Harding went through the painstaking task of pulling the actual data out of this ACCC supplied chart that we’ve talked about here previously, in order to model it. There’s quite an irony here – the ACCC refused to release the data for a whole lot of basically spurious reasons, but made the mistake of releasing a graph of the data which determined folk like Don could actually use to extract the very data the ACCC were trying to hide.

What he found was disturbing.

Far from the ACCC econometric modelling that was used by the Rudd government to justify their longstanding Fuelwatch proposal being robust, it was misspecified and incorrectly tested. Their use of the nominal retail margin as a variable rather than the real retail margin is inconsistent with standard econometric approaches to this kind of modelling and their explanations of what their data actually represented were seriously lacking in specificity – to the point where it was difficult to derive just what it was they were actually measuring, how they were measuring it, how they tested it -and this uncertainty has lead to all conclusions drawn from the ACCC research to be seriously questioned.

Don Harding found that on the evidence available to the ACCC, the conclusions drawn by the Commission – that FuelWatch did not increase petrol price margins in WA – is in fact false and that no such conclusion can actually be derived from the data once it is modelled correctly. At most, the average reduction in the real price margin due to Fuelwatch is less than one third of one cent per litre, but could statistically be between a 1.01 cent per litre reduction, through to a 0.43 cent per litre increase using an orthodox 95% confidence interval.

Don also goes to great lengths to point out that it isn’t the fault of the ACCC econometricians here, and this is something that I wholeheartedly agree with. The data monkeys aren’t responsible for the problems here – far far from it.

It is the process that is at fault, and those whom manage that process.

The conclusions that Graeme Samuel was feeding to the media when the FuelWatch shitfight was happening were incorrect, because the modelling he was basing them on was incorrect. It cannot be proven that FuelWatch in WA did not increase petrol price margins.

Labor’s “evidence based policy” spiel over FuelWatch was nothing but political spin – but it was probably not deliberate spin. Wayne Swan no doubt believed that the modelling he received was accurate. Yet the problem was that the modelling in question that became the basis of the Labor political justification was created in an environment of zero-transparency.

And this gets us back to how the Rudd government has made a mistake that will undermine their entire policy agenda for the next three years unless they rectify the process responsible for creating it.

At the moment, the Rudd government is following a very astute and responsible technocratic process for the high volumes of future policy delivery they will engage in over the next three years.

“You cannot manage what you do not know” is the basic currency of good policy development.

So Rudd, correctly, instituted large numbers of reviews and government inquiries to ostensibly gather information and make recommendations so that the government will be in a position later this year to formulate policies armed with information on observable reality.

Despite the bleatings over these reviews from the shallow end of the media pool in this country with their profound ignorance over the pointy end of politics, the army of inquiries and reviews initiated by the government is, in and of itself, a necessary requisite for the type of “evidence based policy” program Rudd has been stating he will pursue.

But the big problem here, and one that will (and I say “will” pretty confidently) derail this policy program is the way in which the Federal government, their departments and their agencies treat third party access to the very data whose analysis often becomes the basis of policy recommendations.

We’ve got this enormous communications technology infrastructure that enables the efficient and near instantaneous aggregation of knowledge and expertise being effectively sidelined and ignored by political and management practices that are 15 years out of date – but done at their own peril.

The gatekeeping of information by departments and agencies used to be possible, having the public treat unseen internal analysis of that data as gospel from which policy was recommended was also generally accepted – but those days are gone.

What has just happened here with FuelWatch, a fairly comprehensive debunking of the analysis that was used to justify a relatively irrelevant piece of policy, will increasingly happen to other areas that are far, far from irrelevant.

The reason it will increasingly happen is simple – there is a greater number of interested policy specialists, analysts and general expertise that is external to government than there is within government. While this has pretty much been the case over the last 15 years or so, what differentiates then from now is that the external expertise can easily be aggregated and organised at virtually zero cost by the online world and the results of their independent analysis can be distributed widely to a very large, highly influential and still rapidly growing audience.

If the Rudd government is actually interested in “evidence based policy” rather than descending into the world of orchestrating ‘policy based evidence’– they need to adopt a data accessibility regime where as much of the data that is the basis for policy recommendations is made available to the wider public at the earliest possible time in the policy development cycle. Likewise, departmental and agency analysis must be released publically for scrutiny.

The FuelWatch saga is the perfect example of the need for such a data treatment regime.

Under an “evidence based policy” approach, the government wouldn’t have stated that FuelWatch was going to be implemented; they would have said that here is one possible proposal – will it work?

Then they would not only have commissioned the ACCC to do research, but made the relevant data publically accessible at the same time. This way, the external expertise would have had their say, it would have been in the public domain getting refined, praised or smashed under the burden of scrutiny, and the best pieces of research would have been propelled to the top of the pile under the power of their own merit -all before the ACCC research was completed.

If the full ACCC research was then released for public scrutiny once it was finished, the larger external expertise would have not only highlighted the inaccuracies and poor methodology of the ACCC analysis, but highlighted independent competing analysis that would have killed off a poor policy initiative before it was ever implemented.

Yet now the government is facing the ultimate embarrassment of not only getting slugged because the ACCC analysis on which they relied was wrong, but also from having to wear analysts, and consequently the media, pouring big buckets on the policy in the near future when the results of the policy will be measured and most likely demonstrated to be a failure.

The two benefits of this approach to third party data access are simple. Firstly, it’s a far superior political risk-management approach. The worst thing a government can do is implement a policy that becomes a failure – making the data whose analysis becomes the basis of policy recommendations publically accessible not only increases the likelihood that poor data analysis and modelling will be fingered before it gets a chance to pollute government policy (as well as being widely publicised as doing just that), but also provides the government with a zero cost alternative resource from which they can pinch and co-opt the better bits at their leisure.

Secondly, the competitive effects between internal and external analysis will reduce lazy analysis or analysis tweaked to favour certain agendas unrelated to actual policy outcomes, particularly from government departments and agencies which, as a result of basic human nature, often get influenced by random bouts of empire building and inter-agency and inter-departmental pissing contests.

The big excuse that always gets dragged out about now on why such a thing cant happen, that the government doesn’t have the resources nor time to review the external analysis, is usually said by people that have close to zero understanding of the way the crowdsourcing of information in today’s technology and communications rich environment actually works in practice.

The agencies and departments won’t have to follow the external debate – the external debate will make itself known quite comprehensively when departments get it wrong, and when better ideas are available. At the end of the day, while there may be large volumes of expertise available external to the government – in reality only a small amount will be deployed on any given piece of data or policy, with larger amounts being deployed critiquing that external analysis which is where the value of distributed and aggregated knowledge comes in. The government simply won’t be flooded with hundreds, let alone thousands, of competing pieces of data analysis – they’ll just be made aware of the best few, which is really all it takes.

If the government believes that evidence based policy is truly desirable, then they need to open up the relevant data to third party access. Policy development in this country will be far better for it, the quality of public debate will be far better for it and over the longer term, the political fortunes of the government will be far better for it.

I encourage everyone to have a squiz at Professor Don Harding’s draft paper (and it is only a draft paper at this stage) – even though some of it is econometrics heavy, most of it isn’t, and it makes for a damn fine read about the key issues that surround “evidence based policy” and it’s possible pitfalls when not undertaken properly.

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Posted in General Economics, general politics, Political Risk | 30 Comments »

Snookered

Posted by Possum Comitatus on May 14, 2008

It’s the only way to describe what the ALP has done to the Coalition with the politics of the budget.

This became fairly obvious when Turnbull turned up repeatedly on the telly last night saying “it’s a bad budget because if you add up the cuts to the Howard programs, and subtract the increases in spending for the Labor programs, then you take into account the growth in tax receipts, then you look at etc etc” – by which time I was yawning and I’m a political junky and an economist – Joe Public has no chance regardless of how true any of it might be.

They’ll simply see a $21 billion figure that’s abstractly large enough to be impressive on the one hand, and pointy headed market types on the TV saying how good the budget was and that inflation won’t be stoked on the other.

The target here was the mortgage belt middle income demographics, and when the headline figures are combined with the $55 billion dollar support package for “working families” (another number so arbitrarily large as to be impressive) – complete with the tables in the papers and the graphics on tonight’s news showing how much better off these folks, particularly those using childcare will be per week, well it’s a political slam dunk.

The ALP has taken a large step towards changing it’s perception of being a competent economic manager with the public in the only real demographic that matters on this question, and the Coalition isn’t doing themselves any favours with their response. Turnbull’s waffle and Nelsons “we agree with means testing except for the things that have been means tested” spiel is a rhetorical road to nowhere, whether all babies are equal or not.

The other big electoral play in the budget was Labor’s attempt to reframe the long term nature of Pork. Howard’s random, blatant and often incoherent acts of electoral bribery that were starting to get up the nose of the electorate have been replaced with the Three Little Piggies.

Infrastructure, health and education funds.

Come election time there will still be pork – undoubtedly mountains of it, but it will be pork with a nicer story, Babe rather than Razorback if you will.

With the next two and a half years filled with a narrative on the importance of the future; future productivity, the need for infrastructure, the need for better education facilities and the need for more hospitals and healthcare services – when the pork starts getting doled out it will still be pork, but an explainable, planned and (we can only cross our fingers here) a more productive kind of electoral pork.

The Three Little Piggies are just about three election campaigns right there.

The electoral dangers for Labor on the other hand are still many – unable to crunch through infrastructure, health and education reform over a reasonable time period probably being the largest, yet that’s more a longer term drama for the next term rather than this one. But there will be people peeved at the Baby Bonus no longer being a lump sum, high income earners might give the ALP a bit of stick and the day to day political blow ups will always be circling.

But this budget doesn’t give the Coalition any obvious routes to make inroads into a popular new government. Promises were fulfilled, surpluses produced, tax cuts delivered and a coherent narrative produced that will allow nearly everything the government does in the near future to sound like it’s part of a plan that Australia voted for in 2007.

No wonder Rudd and Swan are smiling.

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Posted in general politics, Political Risk | Tagged: | 22 Comments »

Roosting Chickens and Murray Plans.

Posted by Possum Comitatus on March 27, 2008

This exciting new broad agenda replaces words with actions” says the COAG communiqué. Yes, well – they all say that. What gives it a bit more giggle power here is that it’s specifically referring to the red tape reduction strategies associated with the business deregulation program.

If you listen carefully, you can here the Big Kev chants of “I’m excited!” emanating from living rooms and workplaces around the country.

Yet the red tape reduction strategy is far from being a broad new agenda. It’s simply a continuation of a previous ongoing COAG program – in this case going all the way back to the Banks Report, where the only thing new about it is the dozen extra pieces of regulation that have been added to the 27 already in the program. Oh – and the packaging, that’s new! It now says the ALP leading the way in Commonwealth/State relations rather than the Coalition.

When you read across the entire COAG document, most of the heralded achievements are either like the regulation reform program in that they are simply a continuation of existing programs – especially the Murray plan, or they are really low hanging political fruit that makes a loud media bang, and which merely kicks the real detail work down the track for later.

It’s a clever piece of politics that must be making the Coalition choke – the Murray Plan particularly.

This $10 billion back of the envelope Murray plan, which many of us might remember passed the “common sense pub test” – apparently the benchmark standard of good governance in those dying days of the last regime – was not only Howard and Turnbull’s creation, but it warped into a political weapon that has now ironically exploded in the face of its creators.

The Murray plan was mostly politically driven to begin with – it gave the Coalition something to present to the electorate as an example of how they were still a government capable of solving problems and taking on new challenges. The expedience of its creation spoke volumes about its true purpose.

But after the plan kind of flopped in terms of winning back public support, it conveniently segued into the new political strategy that the Liberals developed of attacking the Labor States. This new strategy that popped up mid 2007 was essentially an exercise in trying to diminish the Labor brand and get to Rudd via the backdoor, since brand Rudd was proving to be impenetrable to piffle like Brian Burke, stripper gate and the other fluff the Coalition and their stooges threw at him.

We knew this strategy was in place because we saw it in the notorious Oztrack33 Crosby Textor document and at the time you couldn’t find a Coalition politician that wasn’t dragging the theme of failing Labor State governments into their media appearances.

By June 2006 the Murray plan looked like it was a done deal among all the players, with even Victoria reaching in-principle agreement after dialogue between Turnbull and Bracks. The Coalition could have sown up the agreement then and there if they really wanted to – all it would have taken is for Howard to cave in on some of the States fringe demands with a bit of money. But that would hardly fit with the Libs new political strategy at the time. It would be hard for Howard to demonise the incompetence of the State Labor governments on the one hand, while basking in the inevitable media praise of reaching an agreement with those same incompetent States over the Murray on the other hand. Likewise it would have been a silly mixed political message for Howard to be warning the public that Rudd couldn’t stand up to the State governments, while simultaneously caving in to those same State governments himself to get the Murray plan finalised. It all looks a bit silly to bag the States and attack the Labor brand if the States start delivering the goods.

Strangely, as the Coalition political campaign against Labor State governments ramped up through July, the negotiations over the Murray started breaking down – but not for anything the States had necessarily done, but because the Howard government started reneging on parts of the original in-principle agreement. NSW got hammered by Howard changing the responsibility of residual liability issues, Victoria became more convinced that what was agreed to in-principle was no longer going to be delivered. It was also in July that Howard started getting bellicose in the media with threats to use the Commonwealths constitutional powers to seize control over the basin (although just how the mechanics of that was supposed to work was conveniently left out).

What initially started out as a $10 billion Coalition policy designed with helping the government look relevant with fresh ideas, quickly descended into a $10 billion Howard bluff that became a political weapon in the fight against Labor. Howard hoped that essentially giving the finger to the Murray would help him get the electorate to give the finger to Rudd.

Looking back, it was really quite disgraceful what happened and was typical of the way Howard has always played his politics.

Fast forward to yesterday – and now we have this Coalition conceived plan of fixing the Murray again becoming a political weapon, yet this time it’s Labor’s to wield. The Murray plan is being described as a Labor achievement, that Howard stood in the way of making it happen, that Rudds leadership delivered the goods and that it is the perfect example of the new cooperative Federalism that Rudd stands for and which Howard despised and could not deliver.

Not only are the Labor governments claiming credit for many things at COAG that were already well in the pipeline and mostly of the Coalitions doing like regulation reform, not only are Labor claiming success on issues like health and education which are really little more than low hanging fruit that was easy to achieve and took virtually nothing to do so, but they are now claiming success for delivering the policy of the Murray plan – a plan which was originally conceived for political purposes by the Coalition but which later changed into a weapon of political strategy for the re-election of the Liberal party.

The Coalition, but Turnbull in particular must be choking over this since the Murray plan could have been delivered by Howard and Turnbull last year if Howard had not decided to play silly buggers with it instead. Now the Labor party get to bask in all the credit and glory for the plan, they’ll get to write the history of the policy and will no doubt thoroughly enjoy belting the Coalition around the head with it.

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Posted in general politics, spin, strategy | Tagged: , , | 34 Comments »

Regular programming will now resume.

Posted by Possum Comitatus on March 2, 2008

For the last week and a bit I’ve been gallivanting around the countryside catching up with family and friends, and it seems I missed Dennis getting frisky (which will be rectified shortly). I also missed most of the news, the political analysis and the general toing and froing of the news cycle simply as a result of the events of ordinary life taking over my time.

In a very real sense, the level of news and politics I was exposed to for most of the last week or so is pretty much spot on to that which a majority of the electorate experience as a day to day staple – a few minutes of the nightly news, a couple of scraps of the daily tabloid and maybe a radio headline or two if the timing was right.

There really is a profound gap between the level of information that we avid followers and participants in the political system here take on board as part of our basic news diet, and that of the wider public. It’s often easy to forget that the large majority of the electorate isn’t as emersed in the detail of politics that we are here – which is entirely understandable as there is certainly more to life than politics, but it’s also disconcerting in many ways.

If most of the electorate doesn’t know through circumstance, including those which do not care by choice – then those of us that do know and care about the nature and detail of power, government and political behaviour probably carry a larger burden of responsibility than we would ordinarily credit ourselves with having, and certainly more than most of us would ever care to admit.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is thank you. Thank you to those that do watch closely, that do follow the details, that do have (or have made) the time to be able to care enough to be involved. Whether that be through community activity, through online participation, through political participation, through the nature of your employment or simply through having enough of an interest in the world around us to follow the detail closely – it’s the collective consequences of the minority of us that do these things which allow us all, as a country, to at least try to speak truth to power.

And because it is only a minority of us, we are all a little more important than we realise.

Having been gone for a tad, there’s also a little housekeeping to do.

First up, New Matilda has a great political section called PollieGraph that’s worth keeping an eye on, producing a constant stream of political commentary and analysis by some old faces you know and some new ones you may not.

From the folks that gave us YouDecide2007 at the last election comes a new site for those of us north of the Rio Tweed that might be interested in the impending local government elections coming up. Qld Decides is a joint project run by The Local Government Association of Queensland, OnLine Opinion and QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty that brings a citizen journalist approach to local election coverage.

A big thanks for all the suggestions on what we can call Brendan Nelson, there’s some absolute crackers in there.

I’ll be chewing through my mailbox over the next day or so for those that have dropped me a line recently, and over the next week there’ll be posts on educating Dennis, an environmental disaster happening in the Manning Valley, a squiz at the possible by-elections coming up in the federal parliament and the first in a series of policy articles called “Now listen up Kev”.

So, let the regular programming resume.

Posted in general politics | 13 Comments »

Yesterday an Extraordinary Thing Happened

Posted by Possum Comitatus on February 14, 2008

crikeylogo.jpg This was me earlier today in Crikey.

Yesterday an extraordinary thing happened, in public, in Parliament, live on national television – but it wasn’t the apology to the Stolen Generation (although, that too was quite the moment). Nor was it the deranged escapades of Chris Pearce, the Member for Aston, who found the need to demonstrate his displeasure at the profound proceedings unfolding before him, by ignoring events and spending his time flicking through some magazine that we can only surmise wasn’t the latest edition of The Art of Healing.

No – yesterday, Kevin Rudd rescued Brendan Nelson the Person, from being suffocated under the polarising burden of being Brendan Nelson the Leader of the Coalition.

And a Coalition it truly is, a Coalition of the irreconcilable.

In highly charged, highly emotional moments of national importance like yesterday, moments that become headlines rather than footnotes in our national history – unity, political unity, or at the very least a well constructed façade of national unity is the necessary ingredient that makes the difference between an event being one of momentous celebration, or becoming one which leaves a potentially bitter aftertaste.

With the Coalition descending back into its natural state of internal ideological conflict now that the artificial glue of government power has been removed, the chances of Brendan Nelson ever producing a response to Rudds speech that not only reconciled the views of those like Sophie Mirabella with the views of people like Petro Georgio, but also didn’t sound like a “yes, an apology BUT” moment that cuddled up to a Howard legacy that half of the Liberal Party would prefer to forget, well that was remote – especially since Nelson owes his leadership to the apology naysayer’s.

Nelson was left delivering a camel of a speech in Parliament, forced by petty internal party politics to say things which he knew would spoil the moment, things he did not believe, things that would likely leave a bitter political legacy for the future. He knew well that it would be ‘these things’ for which Brendan Nelson would always be remembered when those of tomorrow look back to yesterday’s moment in history.

When the time came to deliver his camel, Brendan Nelson had the look of a man that, as one wit put it, “suddenly realised that he had chosen the wrong party”, and would now be forever burdened as the name behind a speech whose contents were not reflective of Brendan Nelson the person, but simply reflective of the cancerous political dynamics of the Coalition itself.

The public reaction to his speech was probably not that different to how Nelson himself would have reacted were he not a Member of Parliament and found himself listening to those very words on the lawns of Canberra with thousands of others.

Just when Nelson probably thought it couldn’t get any worse, when he’d accepted his inevitable fate of historical villain – Rudd delivered him a lifeline. Not only a lifeline that would forever have the effect of boosting those parts of Nelsons speech that apologised and downplayed the list of caveats that accompanied it, not only a lifeline that created a media friendly image of national political unity as the two leaders stood together on the same side of the chamber presenting a gift to the House from the representatives of the Stolen Generation, but a lifeline that saved Brendan Nelson personally from shouldering the historical burden of being the spoiler, a spoiling role that more reflected the Coalitions political dysfunction than any views that Brendan Nelson himself might have had, but could not say.

It’s hardly any wonder that of all the political players involved in yesterday’s proceedings, it was Nelson that looked the most emotional, particularly when he greeted the Stolen Generation members.

The three great images to come from yesterday were Rudd saying sorry, the standing ovation and the presentation of a coolamon to the Speaker. Rudd threw Nelson a lifeline by deliberately bringing his political opponent centre stage into the symbolism of that last moment, guaranteeing that the historical narrative over yesterdays event will be far kinder to Nelson than even he thinks he probably deserved.

We can only hope Nelson learned a lesson in political leadership yesterday – partisan politics has limits. But even if he didn’t, he certainly owes Rudd a beer.

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Posted in Crikey, general politics | Tagged: , , , , | 44 Comments »

What a Coalition Apology Would Look Like.

Posted by Possum Comitatus on February 8, 2008

crikey1.jpg This was me in Crikey earlier today.

We apologise to the Stolen Generation” – pretty simple stuff and not really rocket science, unless you try to make it complicated.

The new Opposition, under the leadership of Nick Minch … sorry, Brendan Nelson, have demonstrated that over the last few months they are not a group to take simplicity lightly. So what would such an ordinarily simple apology look like if the Coalition had to write it?

Well for starters, the word “stolen” doesn’t technically describe the reality of the situation according to Tony Abbott:

Some kids were stolen, but some were rescued and some kids were helped, so you have to be true to the real history of our country, not to a fanciful history of our country.

Brendan Nelson believes that “forcibly removed generations” is more accurate, while professional contrarian Dennis Jensen tells us that “I think separated is probably a better word than stolen, personally“.

Ian Macfarlane, in his contribution to reconciliation reckons that: “Some of these children were not stolen from their parents, they were taken by church groups and welfare groups in the belief that these children needed to be looked after“.

These aren’t merely simple definitional quibbles – they are the pursuit of accuracy over the meaning of the word “stolen” and would surely need to be taken into consideration for the wording of any apology. Sadly missing from the field, however, is amateur semanticist Senator John Herron now that he has so unfortunately retired. His contribution to specificity with his ground breaking work on whether 10% of people constitutes a “generation” should continue to be recognised in the Liberal intellectual pantheon.

The other part of that very simple statement is, of course, “We apologise“.

Here too, the Coalition believes that we ought not to let the allure of simplicity stand in the way of definitiveness. Brendan Nelson thinks that “In my view we have no responsibility to apologise or take ownership for what was done by earlier generations“, and that, “I have great difficulty with the idea of intergenerational responsibility for the good or not-so-good things done in the past“.

Senator Stephen Parry appreciates that “we should acknowledge what has happened, feel sympathy for what has happened, but we can’t take full responsibility for something that has happened well before we were born.”

While not to be outdone, Senator John Watson professes that “There is a possibility that some of the genuine people could feel a little bit hurt when they did it with the best of motives. Many are still alive in northern Tasmania, some of them are friends of mine“.

So how would the two versions of the apology stack up? On the one hand we would have the Coalition version:

We acknowledge and sympathise with, whilst not being able to take full intergenerational responsibility for, those Aboriginal people of the forcibly removed group of individuals that may or may not be accurately described as a generation, whilst simultaneously recognising that many members of this group of separated Aboriginal people were actually helped, rescued or otherwise looked after by the well meaning church and welfare bodies at the time, including the genuine people that participated in these organisations with the absolute best of motives.

Or the alternative:

We apologise to the Stolen Generation.

It’s quite obvious which one would do the job.

So despair not dear reader, WA Liberal Judith Adams reassures us that should the proposed government apology not meet the Opposition’s high expectations for accuracy, the Coalition will head back into the bunker once more and “…have another party room meeting and discuss it again because I’m sure it has to be right for us to go along with it“.

Oh the anticipation.

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Posted in Crikey, general politics | Tagged: , , | 55 Comments »

Tomorrows Antiques Today.

Posted by Possum Comitatus on January 21, 2008

Why do they bother? It’s the only question we can ask.

The Qld Nationals have re-elected Lawrence Springborg, an otherwise entirely likeable individual, to replace that boofhead Jeff Seeney. His prize? – to occupy one of the two positions of Opposition Leader in Queensland politics.

We need two up here because the whole is apparently less than the sum of the parts, which leaves the broad Opposition just a third of a leader short of competency – maybe if they had three conservative parties with an Opposition Leader each they’d get somewhere.

Why Springborg pounced is fairly obvious – Seeney was out of his depth, annoyed the bejeesus out of people and basically hasn’t said a thing worth listening to for years. He’s not a particularly charismatic guy either so the Nats were really sitting in a small canoe somewhere in the upper reaches of Shit Creek under a Seeney leadership.

But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the Nats do; the next non-Labor Premier of Qld will be a Liberal- which gets us onto this whole United Conservative Party comedy act.

Jeff Seeney’s great idea was pretty much like Lawrence Springborgs last great idea – some type of merger between the Liberals and Nationals in Qld politics. The logic behind this idea is pretty simple, which speaks volumes about the political nous of its supporters; a single party won’t be screwed over by optional preferential voting.

The big problem as far as many LibNat Coalitionists see it, is that optional preferential voting doesn’t guarantee preference flows from conservative minor parties, nor for that matter from each other, it splits the conservative vote in 3 cornered contests allowing Labor to romp home using Greens preferences when they need it (which do tend to flow where it counts), and the whole cranky pants outlook towards optional preferential generally acts as a convenient excuse for why the conservatives keep getting hammered in elections.

It seems to have escaped most of them that the reason they don’t win elections actually has more to do with the fact that their political platforms, or what passes for them, are irrelevant to a majority of the electorate. Qld has dramatically changed over the last 20 years, even the last decade – these guys haven’t adapted to that change and until they do they all better get used to being treated as a joke.

The reason why a United Conservative Party will not work in Qld is simply because of the nature of conservative political support in the State.

A growing number of conservatives in both South East Qld and the major regional population centres are Liberal voters that think the Nats are a bunch of unsophisticated political Neanderthals that aren’t to be trusted. You will never, for instance, see a National Party member hold a Brisbane seat ever again. It’s not necessarily the Nationals brand that they don’t like, it’s the political positions that have created that brand. It’s why we’ve seen ordinarily conservative voters on the Gold Coast vote Labor rather than National when there wasn’t a proper Liberal candidate standing.

Yet any united conservative party in Qld would have the Nationals as the dominant force simply because they have a larger party base and a larger parliamentary representation at the moment. From the outset the merged party would start to represent everything that turns off the largest and fastest growing section of conservative support in Qld – the moderately conservative Liberal voter.

The tensions between the old Libs and the old Nats in any merged party would become unmanageable; their political differences would be untenable. They would become perpetually caught in the same problem that John Howard found himself in last year – if you pander to the Nats voters and their brand of political interests, you turn off your inner city voting block and start endangering seats. If you pander to the inner city voting block and focus on their brand of political interests, you turn off the Nats voters and start endangering seats. When that happens, you spend so much time shoring up your two ideologically opposed support bases that the outer suburban voters become easy pickings for Labor, as well as which ever support base you failed to maintain.

It’s the consequence of having conservative parties in Australia being addicted to moralising and using nanny state social politics as a political weapon – the things that divide these groups on social policy and their general views on the way that society ought to work are simply greater than the things that unite them. The conservatives should probably just STFU about these types of issues like Labor does and they might not have as big a problem. But they just can’t seem to help themselves.

There is no easy way forward for the conservative side of politics in Qld, but a merger would make the job even harder over the short and medium term considering the initial dominance of the National party in any merged entity in Qld – especially in terms of its likely effect on the moderate Liberal voting block. The long term solution, and one that John Howard was particularly successful at, is where the Liberals simply destroy and replace the National Party over time, slowly but deliberately and with a vicious intent.

Yet even then, the problem of the ideologically opposed twin support bases remains and will probably never be fully reconcilable.

Posted in general politics, leadership, Political Risk | 34 Comments »

First Do No Harm – The Unattainable Luxury Part II

Posted by Possum Comitatus on December 20, 2007

The last thread was simply amazing for the quality and the depth of the contributions given by all (for that I thank you) , and it highlighted one of the biggest impediments that we face in trying to get to grips with what’s needed to finally address the national shame; there are so many problems, so many intertwined problems that a failure to deal with one area of a given problem can often result in failure migrating across into multiple areas of not only that given problem, but exacerbating other problems as well.

I mentioned the need for community security, and the parallel need for comprehensive prison reform to enable the provision of community security to be tenable in the longer term – but similarly without implementing better childhood education programs and massively reducing truancy rates, without facilitating some broader economic development, without implementing better preventative healthcare programs particularly relating to alcohol and drug abuse, there can be no long term sustainable levels of security for any remote or not so remote community. Yet policy failures in any one of these areas have impeded in the past, and will probably continue to impede in the future, progress in all of those other areas.

And this comes back to what seems to be the biggest problem of all – the complete absence of any consensus on what we all might regard as the “end game”.

The end game is the answer to a very simple question; “In 2025 – what does Australia envisage as being the ‘State of Play‘ of indigenous communities around the country?”

If we have no idea of our destination, we cant really say how we are going to get there.

I would really like to hear what your answers are to that basic question, especially since the contributions on this have been of such an incredible quality.

What might also be interesting is how some of the answers to that question will often collide with what we are doing now.

For instance, if we wish to see indigenous communities in 2025 exhibiting higher levels of living standards – that generally requires higher levels of home and business ownership and higher levels of disposable income. Yet that cannot be achieved by government payments alone. For that to come to fruition would require economically sustainable communities deriving most of their income from some tangible set of real economic activities. That means that initiatives like CDEP must be seen and treated as nothing more than transition programs between the high unemployment/high poverty rate experience of today and the real income generating jobs and businesses that will sustain these communities tomorrow.

But so often we’ve seemed to treat programs like CDEP as an ends unto itself, rather than the means to an ends it actually needs to become if we are to get anywhere close to lifting income levels. We can see it being treated today as an ends unto itself if we simply look at the large absence of initiatives aimed at making the need for programs like CDEP redundant.

Wouldn’t it be nice to achieve a point in the future where there is no CDEP scheme operating in Australia simply because it is no longer needed?

But this opens the door on the awful question of what happens if some remote communities aren’t economically sustainable? It’s all good and well to say that the economy isn’t everything – and it’s not everything, it’s half of everything. Without economic sustainability, nearly all of the communities involved would remain in poverty – bringing with it all of the baggage that poverty carries like poor health outcomes, depressed education outcomes, lower living standards and lower levels of community resources that are used to provide community services.

It’s not simply a matter of moving businesses into some community, adding a few government subsidies, watering gently and watching some economic development magically grow from the mix. Existing businesses might not want to move out there to begin with, regardless of the amount of incentives that are provided. If a community cannot generate a substantial proportion of its income by exporting community made products and services into the wider Australian marketplace – the people that live in that community will be subjected to long term poverty. But if industry won’t move there, it has to be created from within the community itself.

But sometimes that will simply not be possible. Sometimes, despite the best people doing the best things, creating something substantial out of very little resources will not always be attainable.

Yet does that mean economically unsustainable communities will need to be somehow let die – creating further dispossession in the process? Or does it simply mean that maybe we need to start looking at alternative ways to deal with communities of differing economic circumstance? Would such communities need to have a permanent population base? Is it possible to utilise the highly mobile nature of some indigenous populations as a partial solution in itself, encouraging some communities that cannot economically sustain themselves on a geographical basis, to utilise their population mobility by encouraging employment elsewhere for periods and returning ‘home’ for periods – bringing disposable income back to their communities in the process?

A mix of on and offsite community income generation will probably need to become a fairly common development model for many remote and not so remote indigenous communities – but such a thing will cause some degree of local resistance. Any change in any area of human activity brings some degree of resistance; resisting change is one thing us humans have become universally adept at.

Which leads us into another big issue – what happens when an incompatible viewpoint between local communities and government programs arise?

Sometimes a negotiated win/win result isn’t always possible. Sometimes the government will be wrong – let’s face it, governments are pretty used to being wrong, even if they fight tooth and nail to deny it most of the time.

But what happens when the local community is wrong? What happens when a circumstance arises where the tenets of self-determination that we all like to cite would knowingly lead to inferior outcomes for the community itself?

This problem might not seem that big – but when implementing far reaching, almost wholesale change of the multi-billion dollar variety, it will become a very big problem, very, very quickly, on many levels.

In the community economic development field, when people are deployed on the ground to assist a community (and this is pretty much a global phenomenon) the problem arises of where the knowledge gap opens between the people that have been brought in by the community to use their knowledge and talents to assist the community, and the community itself that lacks that knowledge – which is why they engaged the economic development people in the first place.

If Australia were to pull its finger out and start solving our national shame, every time a knowledge gap like this opens, there would be an indigenous leader fronting the press howling with outrage about how the government is telling blackfellas what to do again. A lot of this would be more about local black politics than anything else; there would be many political leaders in the indigenous community that would have the rug of their power pulled from under them as a result of any serious national initiative to provide better outcomes to indigenous people. Other times it would just be as a genuine disagreement between the government and the community over any given initiative on the ground.

If we, as a nation, are to make a serious attempt at this – we MUST have in place from the very outset, some framework, some group of respected indigenous and community leaders that would be willing to come forth and aggressively back the government when the consequences of the knowledge gap arise over those issues where it’s actually the local community that needs to adjust rather than the government program.

But this is important at a far deeper political level – it goes to the very heart of being able to take the Australian people on the journey of dealing with indigenous disadvantage and maintaining their support.

If most of what the public sees about any serious national indigenous project is one local indigenous political leader after another complaining about what the government is doing (and as far as the political sustainability of any program goes, whether the local leader is right or not would sadly be completely irrelevant) – the public support for what would be a multi, multi billion dollar program would quickly start to evaporate.

The moment that any large indigenous project became partisan political fodder that could be positioned as a race issue rather than a development issue, the whole thing would be in danger of collapsing; especially in the first decade of its operation before the fruits of its success alone could drive continued public support.

The management of dissent within the indigenous communities, especially over local black politics and the consequences of the knowledge gap opening up on occasion would need to be one of the most well managed parts of the entire program and one of the first, if not the very first thing to be done. If the issue management failed, any big attempt to finally solve indigenous disadvantage would be put in jeopardy from the very outset.

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Posted in general politics, policy | 91 Comments »

First Do No Harm – The Unattainable Luxury

Posted by Possum Comitatus on December 14, 2007

Can anyone say with any honesty that there is a social and economic policy issue that is more important to finally deal with than the plight of aboriginal communities, particularly remote aboriginal communities?

This is surely our national disgrace. We might not do some things as well as we ought to, we probably should pay a little more attention to other things than we tend to – but there is no other single issue that detracts from the health of our nation, than the state of too many of our remote indigenous communities.

But it’s been this way for so long that we’ve all seemed to become sick of it, or we’ve all learned to ignore it, or we’ve just simply come to terms with the embarrassment it causes.

We all too often and all too easily find ourselves treating the issue as if it were simply a piece of unfortunate national human furniture; a part of the national lounge room that we’ve accepted is awful, but our solution is to simply throw a rug over it when the neighbours come round for a cup of tea lest we have to deal with it in front of others.

Every so often an outrage finds its way from the remote indigenous communities into the national media and captures the nation’s very short attention span. So we all get outraged, we all ask the same old questions over and over again, we all start squabbling about who caused what, when and why – sometimes we find a quick scapegoat, sometimes we don’t, but the one thing we always do is nothing.

Three fifths, of five eights of sweet fuck alls worth of nothing to be precise.

We’ve all become addicted to our policy failure because we don’t like the answers to the questions.

A particular answer we don’t like is the need for the reinstatement of basic community security in aboriginal communities. When this is called Law and Order, it’s an invitation for well meaning people to go ballistic – and often understandably so. “Law and Order” is the first rhetorical weapon of choice used by simplistic polemicists, usually of the radio broadcast variety that reckon the problem is just blackfellas not getting their shit together like white fellas, and if only they did then all would be right in the world.

But lets ignore those buffoons – this is a sophisticated audience, everyone reading this knows full well that in all of these dysfunctional communities, both the perpetrators of crime and the victims of crime are themselves the heart breaking casualties of 200 years of criminal negligence, a negligence that was at times more malicious than benign, and recently more benign than malicious.

But this cannot be an excuse for inaction. Suggesting that aboriginal people should be denied the level of security within their own communities, a level of security that is an intrinsic right expected by the rest of the country, is to perpetuate the criminal negligence of the last 200 years into the next.

Aboriginal children deserve to be protected from sexual abuse even if the perpetrators are themselves victims. Aboriginal women deserve to be protected from domestic violence in their communities as much as any well educated, middle class white women in a nice house, in a nice suburb that happens to have a prick as a husband.

We have achieved a widespread consensus that if a bloke beats the seven shades of shit out of his wife in suburbia, then he should go to prison; no ifs, no buts – even if only to protect the victim and the community from his totally unacceptable behaviour. Yet we refuse to provide the same guarantee of security to aboriginal people in remote communities, simply on the basis of various interpretations of the perpetrators being victims too.

To deny innocent victims safety from their abusers makes us all complicit in the further destruction of aboriginal society, and the continuation of the benign neglect that has proven so cancerous in the past.

For those that say “It’s not fair that victims should be punished”, is the wrong answer to the wrong question. We don’t have the luxury of there being a neat little world where there are victims and perpetrators. We have the dirty reality of there being victims of circumstance and victims of violence.

We cannot continue to sacrifice the protection of the latter, simply because the origins and consequences of the former stain out hearts and our history.

“It’s not fair” – no it’s not, it is not fair at all. None of our options are fair, and unfortunately we face the deplorable situation of none of our options being completely just, only some being more just than others. That’s what taking national responsibility for an extremely difficult problem involves, it’s what it means, and it’s why we are continuing to avoid it.

We just don’t like the answers.

If it was easy, if we had that ideal world and a set of ideal circumstances – we wouldn’t be having this conversation, as the problem would have been solved long ago.

But that’s not to say that enforcing community security is the be all and end all – far from it, it’s just where we need to draw the starting line. The flip side of the provision of a basic security guarantee requires dealing with the consequences of those that are removed as part of the guarantee itself, dealing with the consequences of incarceration.

We effectively have a revolving door between large sections of the male aboriginal population and the prison system, and as a result the aboriginal community continues to become infected by the brutalisation and deviant behaviour born in the prison system and transferred to become way too normalised on the outside.

Ideally we’d like to stop that revolving door – but we need to stop kidding ourselves that it’s going to be achieved by simply refusing to send aboriginal people to prison for committing crimes. Again, we just don’t like the answers.

It would be far better over the longer term to solve the revolving door problem by actually having fewer people committing crimes in the first place. On this everyone agrees, even if we just don’t know how to get there.

But reducing incarceration rates by simply not sending people to prison is effectively using an accounting trick to make ourselves feel better about the state of affairs, while aboriginal communities get to pick up the tab for the damage as violent offenders get released back into the community to continue to offend again.

We need to seriously reform the prison system to eradicate the brutal culture that ends up infecting the wider community, particularly the wider aboriginal community through inmates when they are released. That would definitely involve greater surveillance of prisoners, more isolation between some prisoners, and separation between violent and sex offenders and those found guilty of non-violent crimes. It would also involve the curtailing of prisoners rights as well as greater funding pumped in to effective rehabilitation programs. But here, we don’t like the answers because there are no votes to be gained in prison reform regardless of how beneficial it would be to everyone involved. Any politician that attempted prison reform would be hounded by the shallow end of the “tough on crime” crowd, a crowd that can thank its lucky stars that stupidity has never been criminalised.

But this is jumping the gun to some extent – one of the first things that must be looked at is whether many remote aboriginal communities are actually sustainable, or whether their lack of sustainability is a root cause of their dysfunction.

This a very touchy subject by any yardstick and undoubtedly accusations of further dispossession will arise, but what if some of these communities are unsustainable? What if their lack of sustainability actually is a root cause of community dysfunction to a significant degree?

It’s a taboo question that no one dares think about, because its answers may be so awful.

The most awful answer of all would be if some of these remote aboriginal communities had to make a choice between the dispossession of their land and the continued dispossession of their humanity. Unfortunately it’s probably a choice that at least some of the communities will need to deal with, sometime, maybe… in the future, if we ever can be bothered to address the questions that have answers we don’t like.

So how long will the country continue to go through the process of having these small bouts of temporary outrage?

This time will we do what we usually do and have a bit of a national hissyfit, find a quick scapegoat like some Qld government Minister, before reverting to our usual inertia because some of the answers are a little awkward? Or will we actually get the balls to stop treating some of our indigenous communities like shit and realise that our practicable choices unfortunately don’t include the one marked “First Do No Harm”, simply as the complexity and enormity of the problem makes the thing we wish for most an unattainable luxury.

More importantly, will we ever realise that our inaction in choosing from the unpalatable, imperfect choices available is actually causing the most harm of all?

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Posted in general politics, policy | 96 Comments »

Words fail me

Posted by Possum Comitatus on December 5, 2007

For those among you not living in Qld, it is really hard to describe just how absolutely useless the Queensland Liberal Party is. The problem is such that no amount of words can adequately convey the enormity of their dysfunction, nor the magnitude of their really unique brand of defectiveness.

They are inutile in every respect.

Nowhere else in Australia has a political party experiencing anything like what is happening to the Queensland Libs (I’d be surprised if anywhere in Australia ever has) – unless you actually live here or follow it closely from afar, it’s just hard to fully grasp.

Normally when a party starts approaching the hopeless state the Qld Libs are in, they implode and become permanently erased from the electoral map – think One Nation and the Democrats. But the Libs are in the situation where they have a certain critical mass of popular support (albeit rather small these days) that will simply continue to vote for them regardless of what they do.

This absolute rusted on level of political support allows the Qld Liberal Party to descend way beyond the level of dysfunction that would normally result in political death. As a result of never really having to face complete political oblivion, they have become paralysed in a state of permanent political palliative care. They are essentially confined to nursing the end days before their political death, but a political death that will never arrive.

It really is a unique situation.

We have the 8 members consisting of two rough groupings and representing anything up to about 14 different micro-factions all being locked in a room over the last few days trying to figure out who gets to lead this fiasco.

Dysfunction turned to theatre, theatre turned to farce, farce quickly turned to comedy and now it would seem that comedy has descended into slapstick.

News Ltd today reports that:

Gold Coast MP Ray Stevens said today MPs last night agreed to elect a new leader by “lucky dip” if there was no decision by noon (AEST) tomorrow.”

WTF? Lucky dip?

The winner gets the Qld Liberal Party leadership. What’s second place get – two Qld Liberal Party leaderships?

Someone please put these idiots to the sword.

UPDATE:

And the winner loser is Mark McArdle with Toss-Up Tim Nicholls as deputy.

That wasn’t so hard now, was it kids.

Posted in general politics | 136 Comments »

Oh Yes, we’re all sorry now

Posted by Possum Comitatus on November 28, 2007

One of the inevitable consequences of an electoral drubbing is the miraculous discovery of a special type of remorse that only the prism of hindsight can apparently deliver.

Turnbull is sorry the Coalition didn’t say sorry, Hockey is sorry that Workchoices went too deep, Nelson is sorry that his government didn’t use the phrase “human and social objectives” as often as he believes they ought to have, half the front bench are sorry that Costello was a political eunuch for the past 12 months and the entire Liberal Party is sorry that Jackie Kelly ever got married.

Not to be outdone, Russel Broadbent seems to be sorry that he didn’t join the Greens, Nick Minchin is just sorry they lost and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is particularly sorry that they now have to say that they didn’t really agree with Howard over Workchoices after all – lest they be completely sidelined in a Rudd government as their Queensland counterpart has been under Beattie for years.

Meanwhile Heather Ridout is not sorry at all to say a big “I told you so” to the leaders of other business lobbies over their campaigning for Workchoices.

On the other side of the fence, the Labor Party looks a bit sorry that Tony Abbott probably won’t win tomorrow’s Liberal leadership ballot.

And I’m sorry that I didn’t get back to all the comments on the last post ;-)

You may have noticed that there’s a new button up toward the top left of the site marked “comments help” which is a handy little tutorial put together by the ever helpful Aspirational Aspirationalist on how to embed links, bold words and do a great many other things in the comments section for those interested.

Also, a very big thank you to all the readers, the commenters, those that sent me email and fellow bloggers for their kind words – and a bigger thank you for all your participation over the last days, weeks and months.

When the election result is finalised we’ll be able to announce the winner of the election tipping competition and start to do some spiffy things with the results themselves.

In the meantime, the ever insightful Alister Drysdale has an interesting analysis of the final days of polling in the campaign over at Business Spectator – it’s a very very interesting read.

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Posted in general politics | 146 Comments »

 
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