Thursday, April 28, 2011

I'm interested in apathy

This tweet turned up on Thursday morning from Possum (@Pollytics), sparking a small rumble in the twittersphere. Not a huge one, considering it was a day where people were still commenting on the Chaser being refused access to the BBC Royal Wedding broadcast, (or were banned, or acquiesced, depending on you interpretation), and Obama releasing his birth certificate after several years of nonsensical whining from birthers and, lately, Donald Trump; one wonders how Glenn Beck feels about the fact that Trump appears to have been the one who finally pushed Obama to feed the trolls and release the full birth certificate).

But big splash or not, it got me thinking. This is the report (published today by the ANU here), and the key statistics that informed Possum's comments are below:

52.6% of people frequently or regularly feel that politics seems so complicated that they "can't really understand what it going on". If we include people who occasionally feel that way, that's 79.9%. But let's just concentrate on that 52.6%. That's just 0.1% less than the proportion of votes that won Rudd the 2007 Federal Election. In a country like America, where voter turnout is often around 60%, this would be worrying enough, but in a country where voting is compulsory, this is dire.

So, what's the problem? Well, as Possum implied with his #mediaFAIL hashtag - the media has a lot to answer for in this. When the extent of coverage for politics most days these past weeks consisted of coverage of what a celebrity horse owner thinks of the PM's common attire, an interpretation of Bowen's new temporary visa policy by both Fairfax and News Ltd that can only really be described as binary (Howard or non-Howard), the release of the HIP data from the CSIRO getting a cursory enough glance just to pull out the "oh shit, the government's burning down houses" line to continue the narrative (the data itself actually doesn't, but anyway - covered well here by Possum himself), ongoing Behrendt horse-tweet coverage (critiqued best by Tony Martin at Scrivener's Fancy), etc. etc. And so on, and so it goes, to quote my good friend Bob Ellis.

This "dumbing down" of political coverage and politics itself, or more to the point, only covering the simple politics, rather than the policy, would appear to be what Lindsay Tanner addresses in his book "Sideshow". Now, I haven't read it yet, so I'm not going to pull a Samantha Maiden (or 7:30) and verbal Tanner based on excerpts, or the words of others who have already read it (for the record, Grog's Gamut covers both of these very well), but it appears it's already ruffling feathers. Despite the fact that it would appear Tanner admits the complicity of politicians, and that he himself was guilty of following the headlines, Insiders (probably on iview about now) spent a lot of this morning suggesting Tanner would be best to point the finger back at himself, with the barest of acknowledgements of any flaws in press gallery coverage (oh, I'm pretty sure Gerard Henderson blamed a reasonable amount of it on left bias, but.. you know...).

I do look forward to reading Tanner's book in the next week or so.

But, I suppose, in the spirit of pointing the finger back on oneself, I have to ask, "are we the problem?" I don't mean the general public, I mean those of us who are actually incredibly interested in politics, policy and all. I love Annabel Crabb's pieces, for example, but there's no denying that she writes for us, the people who are knee deep in the political issues of the day like pigs in the proverbial shit - with a wry wink, a touch of humour and a polite distance; there's little attempt to clarify the policy (and we wouldn't expect there to be). On the polar opposite we have people like Steve Price, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt et al who cover the superficial aspects of the politics of the day for the the emotions - and they capture the readers who most likely would fit into that 52.6% of people who frequently or regularly do not understand politics.

But for those of us who would slot into the "seldom" or even "never" column (I myself would never claim to be in the "never" spectrum - I'll research those things that aren't clear to me, but I'd never claim to completely understand every aspect of policy... if you do, I think either of the major parties would probably like to hear from you), does simply lamenting the lack of policy coverage while we enjoy the political argy-bargy (even enjoy whining about it) actually have any effect? I don't know. I don't want to go down the route of blaming twitter as a whole, it's a medium, and I have a deep-seated hatred of the juvenile attempts by organisations like News Ltd trying to tar and feather it (while simultaneously using it)... but it's hard not to wonder what the real contribution is as we makes jokes every monday night on #qanda, and lament the lack of debate as we simultaneously hyperbolise the responses of panelists.

I also won't agree with the "echo chamber" characterisation of twitter completely, as I've had some fantastic debates on it, and I think most of us often wait for an impassioned response to things we hay have tweeted, but there is an element of tweeting just to the political tragics. And, to borrow a tired cliche, if you're not part of the solution... well, you get my point. Where's the solution for that middle ground of people who don't understand policy, or aren't immediately interested in it?

From a media perspective, where's the middle ground between your Annabel Crabb, George Megalogenesis and Laurie Oakeses, and your Alan Jones, Steve Price and Andrew Bolts?

It's clear we need education, not just opinion, in political coverage if these figures are correct. This has to come from both the government (who manipulates the media) and the media (who should not cry manipulation whilst not doing their job).


It's sad that in a week when we were again debating asylum seeker detention and visas, and Bolt was suggesting that African migrants could not integrate, a piece covering figures from a largely unprecedented Department of Immigration report showing African refugees were the most likely to obtain a job, and that most refugees reduce their level of dependance on welfare over a period of five years, are settled in approximately two and can speak reasonable English in four, was published in the "Victoria" subsection of the Age's website, with no feature focus. Comparatively, the Melbourne Sudanese beauty pageant violence appeared in the top section headlines multiple times throughout the week - bouncing back to the top each time a small amount of additional information came forward.

Coverage like this is why long term newspaper subscribers (and tragics) like Malcolm Farnsworth (@mfarnsworth) are fleeing.



I was going to wax lyrical on the fact people are actually, believe it or not, crying foul at the anticipated cuts to middle class welfare in the upcoming budget, but then I realised I'd actually said everything I needed to say in my last post.


Anyway, this is something light hearted to take you through the rest of the weekend - Grand Spectacular's "Being a Dickhead's Cool":

It is pretty cool, I have to admit.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bob Ellis and the Hot Lips Houlihan affair

I think there are few times I've been so happy with the name of this blog.

Today the twitters were in a frenzy after Bob Ellis wrote a piece of unintentional satire for ABC's the Drum on the current ADF scandal, which could best be described as the work of a dickhead.

In a typically rambling piece, Ellis explained how the scandal had been blown out of proportion, that the ADF should have nothing to worry about, really, because TV shows such as M*A*S*H, Frasier, Seinfeld, Sex and the City and plays throughout history (oh, and the Bible, can't forget the Bible) had hinged on the concept on women being the victims of peeping Toms or gossips - whether in the shower like Hot Lips Houlihan, or over coffee like Carrie and the girls. This was counterbalanced against the concurrent debate running at the moment around women being allowed in high risk combat positions in the military, with Ellis conflating the two to suggest that the young woman's response to her violation at the hands of a fellow cadet as evidence that women are not really not ever going to be capable of handling the rigours of the battlefield. Oh, and the victim should just pull her socks up, and get on with life, because she'll get over it in "3 years, or maybe 10" or "as in a Tracy and Hepburn movie" (movies have so much to tell us about our lives, don't they Bob!) she may have "married the boy".

Sound like some batshit insanity I'm just making up? If you haven't read it yet, please do. You can't capture it second hand without losing that certain "ellisosity" (to quote Jonathan Green).

A lot of the debate on Twitter was around why Jonathan Green (editor of the Drum online), chose to publish the Bob Ellis piece. It's a legitimate question - as many people pointed out, the Drum, which often does republish blogposts that have particularly resonated with readers or captured an issue (just this afternoon a piece from Greg Jericho [@GrogsGamut] on pokies was featured), would most likely not have published this piece if it had come from another source. It's not particularly inspired, and to suggest it shines a light on the issue does a compliment to Ellis he has not earned. Green's response:

Now, you could argue that the almost universal response on Twitter questioning Ellis' piece being posted were calls for censorship, but as many have responded, isn't one of the main jobs of an editor to choose which pieces to publish? The pieces that you do publish reflect on the nature and quality of your publication, whether it be a newspaper, a journal or a generally respected opinion website, so to a certain extent you practice some caution on what you publish.

It wasn't so long ago that Green pulled Marieke Hardy's piece hoping for Christopher Pyne to be savaged by "a libidinous dog", and issued an apology on the site. And a much shorter period of time since the hoax perpetrated by someone using the name "Alene Composta" to claim that Barry O'Farrell was cruelly referring to Kristina Keneally as "the moose" in backroom campaign conversations (the foolishness of falling for this hoax was critiqued well by Media Watch's Jonathan Holmes on the Drum itself).

In that piece, Holmes refers to an e-mail from Green where he states, "Unleashed... is intended as a 'town square' public forum... If a piece is readable, meets legal and Edpol criteria then it can be considered". And maybe that's true, but as above, you have to wonder whether anyone but Bob Ellis would have been published for this piece. To his credit, Green did post this response from Michael Brull later in the day, which does add an opposing voice to the "town square forum".

And maybe, as Green argued in a conversation on Twitter with John Bergin (@theburgerman, director of Digital News for Sky News Australia), it's not his place to save Ellis "from himself", and to censor him from the site. Which would be all fine and well if Ellis wasn't being paid for his contributions, and the Drum wasn't continually providing Ellis with a paying outlet no matter what he feels like coughing up each week.

As someone who identifies as left (and generally finds the call of left bias at the ABC to be largely an indication of the bias of the accuser), I find it hard to believe that The Drum would continued to publish a right-wing commentator as they descended into insanity as Ellis did throughout the course of the NSW election, suggesting first that Keneally couldn't lose because she was beautiful and O'Farrell fat, then that she levy a banking super tax and give free dental checkups to the elderly, before finally praying for another national disaster or international civil war to eclipse the election itself to save the object of his affections. Oh yes, and after all this did not occur, and Keneally lost the election, he came out to say he knew all along it was going to work out this way, because Kristina did not follow his clear instructions for victory.

Perhaps I'm wrong, maybe we have the Gerard Henderson files to look forward to. But the fact that the ABC published these pieces allows people like Bolt (more on him later) to ask how long Ellis would last if he was a Liberal supporter, rather than dyed in the wool Labor, which is something Green shouldn't really be opening the Drum, and the ABC by extension, to.

Of course, as I said, Twitter did go a bit crazy in response to the piece. Dan Nolan (@dannolan) sparked a fire with #bobellislogic:

which continued throughout the day, with all manner of hilarious leaps of logic - I particularly liked this one from Nick Seymour (@nickseemore), continuing the TV show theme of Ellis' piece:

"Bob Ellis" is still trending in Australia at the moment, so whether or not you agree with Green's decision to publish Ellis' piece, there's no doubt it's probably driving the kind of traffic to the Drum that it never usually gets. And not just in volume - Andrew Bolt, the king of traffic generating bile himself, congratulated Ellis on the logic of his Drum piece today on his blog.

The last word, I guess, should go to the person who is perhaps Ellis' most adoring fan, with a tattoo of "and so on, and so it goes" and a dog named after the man, Marieke Hardy. I asked her at some stage in the morning what she thought of his piece, via twitter, as I couldn't see her point of view gelling particularly well with the one Ellis was championing today. Surprisingly (we don't actually know each other) she replied to me pretty much immediately, saying that she hadn't yet, but was going to right away. There was a rather long pause. And then this:

Monday, April 11, 2011

A call to remain armless.

It's well established (or well reported, in any case) that Melbourne has a violent crime problem on the streets, or, at the very least, there is a greater awareness of that violence - particularly stabbings and alcohol related violence. Crime stats were at a 10 year high in the 2009/10 period.

The targeting of Indian students on public transport resulted in protests calling for greater police presence, and particularly a multicultural police unit. The greater awareness of stabbing crime has resulted in designated search areas in the city, and major advertising campaigns have been run to tackle both people carrying knives (one of these "Knives Scar Lives" posters is very cleverly up in the toilets at the boxing gym I go to) and to encourage people to avoid drunken confrontation.

So, it's understandable that a new government would respond to these calls, even where it's a case of stacking solution upon solution upon solution (before reviewing the 2010/11 crime stats), by siezing the chance to cement itself as tough on crime and increasing security on one of the key places identified by the public as "dangerous" after hours.

My question is - why move protective services officers (PSOs) onto the trains (something they have never previously been equipped to do)? Why would you not take the money you're using to fund the 940 new PSOs and funnel it into Victoria Police?

Given that it's only very recently been the case that Victorian Police Officers have been approved to carry semi-automatic weapons (they are still not fully deployed, and are not expected to be so until 2012), after much gnashing of teeth, and understandable resistance from Christine Nixon as the Police Association drove the change, it's understandable that the Police Association is none too happy about this announcement. After all, when you've had to fight tooth and nail to be eligible to carry the weapons yourself, as fully qualified police officers, it would be rather insulting to hear the the new transport police will be carrying them from the get go. And you'd also be right to be pissed about the suggestion of a second-tier police force taking funding that by all rights should be yours.

While there is a clear difference between Authorised Officers and PSOs, you can't deny that people's experience of Authorised Officers will inform their response to the PSOs on trains - both anecdotally and according to complaints statistics, many people have found Authorise Officers to be intentionally intimidating and to use undue force to detain fair evaders.

Will PSOs just be stationed to keep trains safe from violent crimes? Or will they also be transport police, expected to stop fare evaders? And given that people already see Authorised Officers as using undue force, one has to question what reaction people will have to the Baillieu government equipping PSOs with semi-automatic weapons. And that's not even addressing the actual (legitimate) safety concerns of these weapons being deployed, just the perception.

PSOs are state-government rent-a-cops. They are trained for eight weeks. They are not police. They are being given arrest capability and automatic weapons and will be patrolling amongst the public.

So, Mr Baillieu, I'm not suggesting you send your best qualified police officers onto trains, but if you want to "get serious on crime", you hire police.

Put the money into the police force, increase presence on the streets of Melbourne and rotate a roster of your newest police onto the trains at night (those police you can now afford because you're not paying for 940 people who couldn't make the cut as actual officers). This will cut crime. Putting loaded semi-automatic weapons into the hands of lightly trained mock-police and throwing them on the trains at night is likely to only create it.

And a crisis for a new government.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A ride on a wingless bird

I know Rudd's utter incapability to deal with not being the life of the party is the big story this week, but I think it's been well covered. I think Grog's Gamut covered it best, seriously it's worth the read.

Late last year I read Slavoj Žižek's "First as Tragedy, Then As Farce" (actually, you could use that Marx quote on history to describe any vision of Rudd as PM again, but I digress). The premise of the book is that the early 21st century saw two events that signalled the failings and sputtering death (his implication, not mine) of western capitalism (and it's ideological trappings) - the tragedy being 9/11 (or September 11 for those pedants who don't want to use the US-centric term for their tragedy), the farce the financial crisis.

It's a good (and easy) read, regardless of your views. Žižek is a polemicist - I mean, in theory he's a philosopher, and critical theorist, but in presentation he's a Nietzschean madman; while he writes long, intoxicating flights of fancy with vivid analogies (that may or may not actually stack up), he rips into "the right" (read, anything right of his self described "radically left" position) without much actual thought for a solution to the problems he presents with the capitalism.

One of his central points is that the free market is a failure because no single "free market" has ever truly been "free". He points to agricultural subsidies in the American economic system championed by the same Republican party that argued for "trickle down" economics, among other examples in a similar vein. Ie. the thing that makes capitalism actually work in the biggest economies in the world is socialism. And he makes a compelling argument in this respect.

The problem is that while he's declaring the free market a failure on this basis - a bird that never truly got off the ground - he makes the argument that communism is the answer, and that far from ever failing, the problem is we've never implemented proper communism. Sure, I think Marx would agree with you on that one buddy, but the problem is, couldn't you make the same argument for capitalism, by your own reasoning?

Everyone knows that in real life, you don't get the model. You have to make compromises, and that's why you get things like Telstra involvement in the NBN (something that was meant to kill the current wholesale/retail monopoly), or to use an older example from the other side of the fence, basic food items (among other things) being exempt from the GST. It's the nature of politics, the nature of relationships, the nature of all human interaction.

But, maybe something worthwhile to take from those who lean hard to either side is that you have to know what you're aiming for to begin with.

There's been a lot written in the past few weeks about the imminent death of the "win at all costs" mentality of the NSW ALP right (see Keating's attack on the "shameless populism" of NSW ALP) , and factionalism as a whole within the ALP (including a very interesting post on open, monitored ballots in party decisions at the Drum), but it extends to the Liberal party as well (if anyone can tell me what Abbott's Coalition actually stands for apart from "win at all costs", there's a prize).

It's a mess. What do our parties actually stand for (beyond the next election? Is there a left or right party (even centre-left or centre-right)? Where is an ideology at all?

While the Greens do suffer and benefit from being able to write policies that will never be implemented (despite the claims of The Australian and Alan Jones), the amount of vitriol levelled at them for daring to have some convictions in a country where many champion the idea of "conviction politics" is sobering. (It should be noted that the Greens are more economically orthodox than either major party).

I'm not saying our major parties have to follow Žižek's lead (at all). But maybe a little vision of what, exactly, their version of an ideal Australia would look like would actually be nice.

Idealism need not be a dirty word, especially if you use it as a base for pragmatic discussion.