Sunday, July 8, 2018

Pot, Kettle, Black: David and Sarah Deserve Each Other.

Pot, Kettle, Black: David and Sarah Deserve Each Other.

I’m sorry, I can’t go on. I have to say something. This past week we have been subjected to one of the sorriest examples of a confected beat up argument we have ever seen. I refer of course to the escalating stoush between Senators David Leyonhjelm and Sarah Hanson Young. While some may have been entertained by the melodrama of it all, far too many people have taken the bait and treated the imbroglio as if it is actually important. I regret to inform you that we have all been taken for a ride, as we were unwittingly caught up in this scenario, and made to feel as if we had to choose a side.

Clearly, the popular, fashionable, and not to mention politically correct side to choose was that of Sarah Hanson Young. However, a quick perusal of social media will show any observer that David Leyonhjelm also has a band of supporters, smaller in number perhaps, but strident in their defence of his right to stand up to what the Senator has described as a double standard. So, before proceeding any further, in the interests of fairness and clear minded analysis of the dialogue at the heart of this matter, let’s ask one simple question: Before he shot himself in both feet by using coarse and offensive language, did David Leyonhjelm actually have a point?

As you no doubt recall, the saga began during the debate in the Senate, more than a week ago now, when a motion was put before the Senate by Senator Fraser Anning, once a member of One Nation but now aligned with Bob Katter’s Australia Party. Senator Anning proposed that the Government should relax the importation restrictions on such items as Tasers and pepper spray so that women might arm themselves against attacks in public places. Greens Senator Janet Rice was speaking against the motion, arguing that it should not be incumbent upon women to arm themselves just to walk home at night, when Sarah Hanson Young apparently interjected.

 It’s at this point that the waters become muddied because whatever her remark was, it was not recorded by Hansard. Senator Leyonhjelm has consistently claimed that Senator Hanson Young’s words implied something to the effect that “all men are rapists.” On this basis, he seems to have taking it upon himself to defend the honour of “all men” by becoming a loathsome troll and calling out to his opponent that, if that’s the case, she should “stop shagging men.” However, while we have a reasonably clear idea of what David Leyonhjelm said, very few media outlets have been prepared to publish a direct quote of whatever it was that Sarah Hanson Young originally said to inspire such a rabid response.

The only exception I have found anywhere was a report in The Guardian which claimed that Senator Hanson Young said, in support of the argument put forward by Senator Rice, “Men should stop raping women.” It is impossible to verify if these were the exact words or not, but in subsequent media interviews, Senator Hanson Young did not dispute the suggestion; rather she argued that it is not the same as saying that “all men are rapists.” Indeed, she insisted that it was vastly different. Whatever the exact words, Senator Leyonhjelm chose to interpret them as a slur upon men generally, rather than a comment on the small proportion of men who are perpetrators of crime.

Semantically, he may have a point.

If Senator Hanson Young did indeed say “men should stop raping women,” the sentence structure is general in nature. It implies men generally and collectively, not a specific subset of men. Imagine for a moment if the exact same sentence structure was used in a different context. For example, if it was said that “women should stop being manipulative,” it would rightly be construed as a slight upon all women. Now let’s take the example to extremes: if somebody should say “black people should stop stealing cars,” you can imagine the outrage. It would rightly be condemned as a racist statement. Again, if somebody said “Muslims should stop blowing things up,” the condemnation would be both swift and righteous. And yet, it is exactly the same syntax as saying “men should stop raping women.”

This is an unfortunate example of how modern gender politics has become divisive and in many cases downright abusive. There is no doubt that feminism has come a long way, and I sincerely believe that women in our society today are vastly better treated than at any time before. Within my lifetime, women were being refused the right to borrow money if they were unmarried and did not have a man to support them. That is an example of real prejudice, and real disadvantage. Today, women are in a much stronger position that ever before, although it is sadly true that there is still more that needs to be achieved. There is still a genuine pay gap between genders, there are still some members of society who cling to old attitudes about the role of women, and there are still challenges faced by women on a daily basis of which many men are blissfully unaware.

However, I feel that there has also been a change in the rhetoric of some of those who consider themselves feminists, with a cavalier willingness to use generalised language against men. A perfect example would be the phrase that Sarah Hanson Young is alleged to have uttered: men should stop raping women. Even if those are not her exact words, they echo the words of many other feminists in print and in the electronic media. Somehow, the argument has been put forward that the problem of violence against women is the responsibility, if not the fault, of all men. It is suggested that men need to be better educated to respect women, and this education should begin as early as possible while those men are still boys. On the face of it, this is an argument that is hard to resist.

It is, after all, true that men are, generally speaking, bigger and stronger than women. It would seem obvious that men can often be more aggressive than women, and more prone to asserting their will by force of one kind or another. It might even be argued, although the scientific evidence is scant, that men and women think differently. But these are generalisations, and they certainly don’t tell the whole story. Even accepting the idea that there are differences between men and women, in the end we are all people. The fact is both men and women are likely to attempt to assert themselves, and to act in their own interests, using whatever tools they have at their disposal. It’s just the human thing to do. For men who have physical strength, it seems obvious they will rely on that strength to advance their interests. For women who have the ability to play upon the emotions it is equally obvious that they will do so.

Now, in reading those last two sentences, you probably just started screaming about stereotypes and gender-normative prejudices. You would be absolutely right, and that’s the point. If you look carefully enough, you will see that the more militant feminists among us, who are demanding that “men stop raping women,” have fallen into this precise trap of relying upon stereotypes and prejudice. The fact is that there are many women who are physically strong, there are many men who are emotionally weak, and very few of us actually fit any stereotype. The flaw of the argument put forward by the well-intentioned feminists is that in seeking to enlist the support of men, they have instead insulted and confused them.

These are the same feminists who have expressed their indignation when well-meaning police officers have urged them to take care about ensuring their personal safety. Over and over again, police officers and other officials have been caught out in this well-concealed trap when they have suggested that women should take reasonable steps to stay safe, such as try to avoid walking alone at night, avoid certain areas, try to avoid drawing attention, and so on. There is no doubt that the police officers who have offered this advice have done so with the best of intentions, and some would say that it really only amounts to common sense. However, some feminists have instead chosen to be offended.

It is insulting, they argue, to tell women what they already know. Women already travel at night exercising as much caution as they can. They are already acutely aware of the danger that could confront them at any time without warning. Women already take every precaution they can, but rather than give up their right to actually live a life, sometimes all the precautions in the world will still leave them vulnerable when the lift they were expecting suddenly isn’t available, or the friend who was going to walk with them is called away. It is easy to see why women might consider the advice to take precautions as an insult to their intelligence. However, the feminists who start lecturing men about “not raping women” are guilty of delivering a similar insult.

Men, generally speaking, already know not to rape women. They already know not to abuse women, or to belittle them, or to take advantage of them or to hurt them in any way. All men have, or had, a mother. Most men learn from this to respect women, and sometimes even to revere them. Many men have sisters, many have daughters. To instruct those men, from a lofty perch of some self-appointed position of moral superiority, that they should stop hurting women is gravely insulting. To women I say, the vast bulk of men want to be on your side, and would willingly defend you against harm. However, instead of enlisting men to the cause, the more strident feminists are pushing them away.

This is the danger of generalisation. The fact is that most men and women get along just fine, without being instructed by the moral arbiters of the world. What we all need to remember is that we are not just women and men, and let’s not forget people who are transgender, the bottom line is we are all people. We all deserve respect, and we all deserve to be safe. It’s not just women who get attacked in the street late at night. In fact, statistics show that men are far more likely to be assaulted by a stranger, while women are far more likely to be assaulted by somebody that they know and trust. But either way, we should all have the right to be safe, whether we are in a public space or we are at home. If we can’t be safe among our own species, it is a sad indictment on the state of civilisation.

All human beings have primitive urges, related to survival, sex and self-gratification. Whether we are men or women, it is a mark of civilised behaviour that we contain those urges and manage them in a way that is not harmful to others. The argument that men must change their behaviour is not only insulting to decent men, it is counter-productive and misleading. It distracts us from the real problems that are confronting us in the modern world. We forget that we are all in this together, and if we don’t get it right we will all suffer. That’s why David Leyonhjelm and Sarah Hanson Young are both wrong.

It’s easy to climb on the bandwagon of popular outrage against David Leyonhjelm. After all, he didn’t just let the matter rest in the Senate. After his interjection, Sarah Hanson Young approached him to register her discontent. Senator Leyonhjelm told her to “F*** off.” This is hardly an erudite argument in support of his case, and is really a clear case of offensive behaviour. To compound his foolishness, David Leyonhjelm then embarked upon a series of media interviews in which he expanded considerably upon his original suggestion that Sarah Hanson Young should “stop shagging men.” He went on to refer to rumours and scuttlebutt about the alleged sex life of Senator Hanson Young, prompting her to respond with the accusation that he was “slut-shaming” her. And yes, that was the expression she used. Obviously, given the lurid nature of Senator Leyonhjelm’s ongoing statements in the media, Senator Hanson Young has every right to complain.

However, it raises the phenomenon of “slut-shaming,” which is an intriguing concept in itself. Senator Hanson Young claims to be offended by the suggestion that she might actually have sex, possibly with an unspecified number of different partners. Now, to be clear, I have no interest in the Senator’s sex life whatsoever, however I am happy to defend her right to have one without it being the subject of public comment and scrutiny. The same should apply for everyone, male, female, and transgender. However, if I were to speculate, I would suspect that most adults have some kind of sex life, presumably some more satisfactory than others. That being the case, my question is a simple one: What is the shame in being a slut?

Yes, of course I know it is a pejorative and denigrating term. But why? To be insulted by somebody saying that you should “stop shagging men” implies that there is something inherently wrong with shagging. It has long been observed that there is a double standard that allows men to be promiscuous, and even be admired for it, while women are not granted that luxury by society. To be blunt, it is purely a social construct, which is a remnant from the outmoded idea that women are the property of men. In such a paradigm, a woman who sleeps with another man is reduced in value. This disgusting kind of objectification has been the cultural norm for so long that many people simply accept it as the natural order. However, in the modern and enlightened world, where men and women are supposed to be equal, this concept should no longer apply.

Women, it should not need to be said, not only have the right to sleep with whomever they please, whenever they please, but they have been doing so since time immemorial. In the past of course, it was rather important not to get caught because the consequences in a patriarchal society could be dangerous in the extreme. But are we kidding ourselves when we claim that we live in more enlightened times? The liberated woman should enjoy the same freedom as any man... remember, we are all just people... and so there should be no shame in enjoying a healthy sex life. The word slut has been used as verbal weapon to put women in their so-called place, but what does it really mean? If we were truly liberated, it would mean nothing, because there is no shame in men and women enjoying each other’s company.

In the case of David Leyonhjelm and Sarah Hanson Young, as far as I know, he never used the word “slut.” She did. It was clearly an attempt by her to further escalate the furore. Both she and Senator Leyonhjelm are not just conducting a personal battle, but a political one. Do not be under any illusions. Both are politicians, both are prosecuting their ideological agendas, and both are looking for votes. They are both right, they are both wrong, and they are both as bad as each other. They are both self-centred, self-serving ideologues caught up in grandstanding over an issue that is distracting us all from mush more important matters. They deserve each other, and with any luck neither of them will survive the next election.

The plain cold hard fact is that this whole argument is a wagonload of bulldust that is distracting the nation from far more important matters. While we have been consumed by this debacle for more than week now, the nation continues to struggle with such trivial issues as wage stagnation that has seen almost zero real wage growth for the last four years. The nation continues to spend more than it earns. Health services continue to struggle to meet demand. Education is at a crossroads, with universities resisting the urge to change their curricula to suit the whims of private donors. Low income earners in hospitality have just lost even more of their penalty rates, while politicians and CEOs keep collecting pay rises.

And that’s without even beginning to look at the bigger picture. While we have been arguing about gender politics, Palestinian children have continued to die. It doesn’t matter whether you blame Hamas or the Israelis, they’re still dead. Syrian civilians have continued to die. Asylum seekers are still imprisoned on Nauru, despite the fact that it is not illegal to seek asylum. Yes, I know plenty of Australians don’t want them here, but that does not justify the blatant disregard of fundamental human rights. The Russians have demonstrated that they have no compunction about interfering with the politics of other nations, and the communist government of China is doing much the same. In fact, the totalitarian dictatorship in China has an appalling record of imprisoning and torturing political and religious dissidents, but we do nothing. The dictatorship in China has annexed the South China Sea and turned it into a military zone, and we are doing nothing. The dictatorship in China is building the foundations for a political hegemony in the Pacific, complete with potential future military bases, and yet we are doing nothing.

Why? For two simple reasons: one, they are much bigger and more powerful than we are, while our good buddy the United States has introduced something called the “America first policy;” and two, Australia makes a truck load of money from trade with China, and nobody is prepared to upset that applecart. There are some very big and serious things going on in the world, but here in Australia, all we can do is argue about Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Sarah Hanson Young and their silly disagreement.

Oh, and plastic bags in supermarkets.

Don’t get me started.

Monday, January 23, 2017

One Nation Is Now Part of the Mainstream

(The following editorial was originally written on the 16th of November 2016 for 2SM, however it was never used. I have posted it now because I think it is becoming increasingly clear that I was right.)
The legitimisation of One Nation as a serious political force has just reached a completely new level, with a former State Premier predicting that the Party will become part of a coalition government in Queensland.

Once regarded as political pariahs, a party that was at best part of the extreme fringe, and at worst a complete joke, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party has now become part of the political mainstream.

It began with the Party winning four Senate seats in the July Federal Election, forcing the established parties to take them seriously.

Now, world events have added to the political momentum of One Nation and its controversial leader, with the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the United States seen as indicative of a seismic shift in the political landscape around the world.

There is absolutely no doubt that Australia is experiencing that shift, and as the evidence mounts that voters are looking for a new solution to their problems, the major parties are finally sitting up and taking notice.

The impact has been dramatic, with Labor Leader Bill Shorten suddenly springing to the defence of Australian jobs and demanding curbs on foreign workers…

And Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ramped up his rhetoric on asylum seekers and border security.

But it’s probably all too little, and too late, because support for One Nation is undeniably growing stronger.

It is by far strongest in Queensland, the home state of the party, where Pauline Hanson’s personal popularity is higher than ever.

And it’s in Queensland where One Nation expects to do very well at the State Election, due in about a year from now.

In fact, the party is expected to do so well that former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has made a bold prediction that the One Nation Party will win enough seats to demand to be part of a coalition government.

Now, just stop and think about that for a moment… after years of being in the wilderness, One Nation could actually be part of a coalition to form a state government.

It’s a staggering reversal of fortunes.

Speaking on Sky News earlier this week, Mr Newman said “Things could change of course, but I think the next government in Queensland will have to be a coalition government with One Nation.”

He said, “You can talk preferences all you like, but they’re going to win enough seats.”

Mr Newman referred to the recent run of polls that have failed to accurately predict outcomes, underestimating the support for candidates like Donald Trump in the US, and Pauline Hanson here in Australia.

He said, “There was a poll in Queensland on the weekend that says she was at 16 per cent. I think it’s over 20.”

Mr Newman also said that Pauline Hanson is now “an older and wiser politician” than she was 20 years ago.

Of course, Campbell Newman himself fell victim to a shock election defeat when he was bundled out of office almost two years ago, so he should know something about placing too much faith in polling figures.

While the Labor Party has already vowed to place One Nation at the bottom of its preferences at the Queensland election, the Liberal National Party has made no such commitment.

Mr Newman said that the current leader of the LNP in Queensland, Tim Nichols, might be the next Queensland Premier, but “he’s going to have to confront that issue and he’s going to have to answer in the media.”

The clear implication is that if Mr Nichols wants to be Premier of Queensland, he may well have to form a coalition with One Nation to do so.

That would have once been considered to be a deal with the devil… now it’s the cold hard reality of the new political paradigm.

In one simple statement, former Premier Campbell Newman has awarded One Nation an entirely new status as part of the political mainstream.

One Nation has finally arrived as a serious political force, and it would be an enormous mistake for anyone to treat them as a joke now.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Why Senate Voting Reform Actually Reduces Democracy

It is all but certain that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to reform the voting process for the Senate will sail through that very same Senate thanks to a deal negotiated with the Greens. While Mr Turnbull insists the plan is aimed solely at improving transparency, and allowing voters to choose where their preferences flow, there is little doubt that the change will benefit the major parties, at the expense of micro parties and independents. And it is likely to benefit the Coalition more than it will help Labor, because micro parties and independents have historically eroded votes from the right more often than from the left.

It remains to be seen what the outcome will be for the Greens; presumably they would not agree to the changes if they feared that their own existence would be imperilled. However some analysts believe that a double dissolution election under the new rules will see the number of Green Senators reduced from 10 to 8. I suspect that over time, the Greens would see their numbers further eroded, until perhaps they go the same way as the Australian Democrats. Remember them?

The Democrats also reached a deal with an incumbent Coalition government to pass contentious legislation, in that case the introduction of the GST. It was a turning point for the Democrats, and although they loitered on the scene of the crime for a number of years, voter discontent saw their ranks slowly dwindle until eventually they disappeared altogether. Obviously there were other factors involved, but the decision to support the GST was received by many voters as a sign that the Democrats had abandoned their self appointed task to “keep the bastards honest.”

In the same way, the Greens have grown well beyond their original brief as a party of environmental conservation, and have come to relish their role as major political players; so much so that it now appears they no longer believe the phrase “minor party” applies to them. How else to explain their apparent belief that they will be immune to the effects of the voting change they are about to rubber-stamp for the Turnbull Government. Nevertheless, if they are so willing to risk shooting themselves in the foot, there will be little cause to mourn their ultimate demise.

On the other hand, critics of the major political parties will have substantial cause to mourn the loss of representation in the Senate. While the importance and influence of the Greens will most likely wither away gradually, the influence of micro parties and independents will be destroyed at the stroke of a pen, and their seats in the Senate stolen from under them by the changed voting arrangements at the subsequent election.

Now, it is easy to see why some people think that would be a good thing. As Malcolm Turnbull has so pointedly reminded us, Senator Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party was elected to the Senate on the strength of a primary vote amounting to 0.5 per cent, with the help of a complex string of preference deals. On the face of it, such a phenomenon seems to be far from democratic and not at all transparent. Indeed, that is exactly the argument put forward by the Prime Minister when he claims that people have been “gaming the system.”

However, to say that Ricky Muir represents only 0.5 per cent of the electorate is a boldly misleading assertion. Certainly he received the benefit of preferences from people who did not put the number one against his name on the ballot paper. But remember, those preferences all came from people who did NOT vote for the major parties. In that sense, Ricky Muir is the duly elected representative of ALL those people whose first choices did not make the cut, but whose preferences eventually found their way to him. Senator Muir represents the nearly 25 per cent of people who did not vote for either of the two major parties.

On the latest figures from this week’s Newspoll, 43 per cent of voters support the Coalition, 35 per cent support Labor. That leaves 22 per cent who support neither. Of those, 12 per cent support the Greens, and 10 per cent are divided up among the micro parties and independents. On that basis alone, the Senate can only be truly representative of all Australians if those numbers are reflected by the election results. And oddly enough, under the current system, they actually are.

Currently the Coalition has 33 out of the 76 seats in the Senate; that’s about 43 per cent.

Labor has 25 seats, or around 33 per cent; the Greens have 10 seats, or 13 per cent; and the eight cross benchers equate to just over 10 per cent of the Senate.

A consistent 10 per cent of voters support micro parties and independents, and by the magic of our preferential voting system, 10 per cent of the Senate seats are held by (surprise surprise) micro parties and independents.

What could be more representative than that?

And yet, Prime Minister Turnbull is trying to sell us the snake-oil that eradicating the preference deals will somehow make the Senate more representative. Clearly that cannot be the case, when the representation already so accurately reflects the wishes of the people.

On the contrary, Mr Turnbull’s proposals can only make the Senate less representative, by stemming the flow of preferences from minor candidates to other minor candidates. It should be blatantly obvious that this is nothing short of hypocrisy when the major parties carefully negotiate preference deals all the time, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, to maximise their own advantage. To seek to deny this opportunity to smaller parties on the basis that they are somehow less worthy is distinctly unfair, elitist, and just plain bullying.

Of course, given the standard of the discourse on this matter, it would be easy to presume that the minor parties and the independents are in fact less worthy. Once again, poor old Ricky Muir can be held up as an example of an individual considered to be ill prepared for office. But let us not pick on poor Ricky quite so much; how about the colourful Jacqui Lambie with her propensity to speak bluntly even if she is not in full possession of any degree of expertise on any given topic? Or Glenn Lazarus, also given to an exuberant turn of phrase in the right circumstances?

What many people fail to appreciate, and in my opinion it is a pity that they do, is that the present system of voting means that genuine ordinary everyday Australians can actually get elected to the Senate. That is a marvellous thing, and a precious thing not to be discarded lightly. Of course there is always the risk that a ratbag will be elected. But can anyone honestly claim that no ratbags have ever been elected while members of the major parties? Both Labor and the Liberals have had plenty of ratbags, and as for the Greens, well conventional opinion has already written them off as being all ratbags.

The reality is that there are 76 Senators. Most legislation can be passed through sensible negotiations, and when it can’t be passed, perhaps we should consider the possibility that this lack of consensus might indicate a lack of quality in both the proposed legislation and the arguments supporting it. It would be highly unusual for one rogue Senator to ransom the nation, and even less likely that such an individual would continue to have a political career in the aftermath.

And let us not forget that some of the Senators elected under the current system have been considered to be pretty good. Nick Xenophon is widely respected, even by those who don’t agree with his policies. It is something of a paradox that Senator Xenophon supports the proposed changes to the Senate voting procedure. There is no doubt that Senator Xenophon is sufficiently popular that he would not only survive the reform, but he would most likely succeed at having some of his chosen colleagues join him in the Senate.

However, the paradox arises from the reality that Senator Xenophon has only been able to build that popularity and respect because he was elected in the first place. When Nick Xenophon was first elected to the Legislative Council of his home state South Australia in 1997, he won his seat on the strength of a primary vote of 2.86 per cent. It was the flow of preferences that got him over the line. From there he built his reputation and was able to make the leap to federal politics in 2007 on the strength of his track record.

Under the proposed new system, an unknown independent candidate would have little hope of success. In that case, where would the nation’s next Nick Xenophon come from? Are we condemning ourselves to a future where only candidates with the backing of a major party machine can aspire to the Senate?

The beauty of the current system is that it not only allows, it encourages, minority groups to engage in politics and to participate in the process. It fosters a diversity that is more likely to reflect the concerns of the community than would otherwise be the case. But if the reform proceeds, with the imprimatur of the Greens, it will result only in the political elite controlling the flow of their own preferences, while rendering impotent the preferences of their smaller opponents, denying their supporters any kind of voice.

Now, that really is the very definition of “gaming the system.”


Friday, November 14, 2014

Shirt Fronts and Coat Tails

Not being terribly familiar with Australian Rules Football, when I first heard Mr Abbott say that he intended to “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin, I had a slightly different image come to mind.

The picture that I saw was of an aggressor taking hold of his target’s “shirtfront”, possibly with both hands, drawing him in close and delivering a stern talking to. It’s a common enough standover tactic, and works to intimidate an individual with the implied threat of violence, without having to actually be violent.

As I soon discovered however, the phrase has long been used in the AFL to describe a physical clash which can be both reckless and dangerous. Given the fallout from Mr Abbott’s utterance, perhaps this is the more accurate definition after all.

Nevertheless, even the most ardent critic of Mr Abbott must surely realise that he was not speaking literally, but metaphorically. In effect, Mr Abbott was saying that he intended to demand Mr Putin’s attention, whether Putin wanted to give it or not, for long enough to express his extreme displeasure with the state of affairs.

It should not have been a surprise to anyone that Mr Abbott would use a sporting metaphor, given his athletic proclivities. In any case, he is far from being alone in employing such figures of speech. Indeed, sporting metaphors are to be found throughout not only politics, but also the corporate world.

There is constant talk of “crash tackling” an opponent, “destroying” a competitor, “blowing out of the water” rival companies, and so on, and so on, and so on. It’s a manner of speaking so commonplace that it usually passes without comment.

But not in Tony Abbott’s case.

Of course, the almost universal condemnation of Mr Abbott’s choice of metaphor portrayed a picture of a man who opens his mouth only to jam both his feet into it. The more extreme critics suggested that he is not fit to be in politics, let alone run the country.

The worst of them carried on as if the metaphor was intended literally, and gave the appearance of salivating over the prospect of the volunteer life saver going 12 rounds with the KGB hard-man.

Then, when Abbott and Putin finally had fifteen minutes together on the sidelines at APEC this week, it was widely reported that the “shirtfront” had failed to materialise.

But it’s time for the armchair critics and the professional commentariat to get a grip. There was never going to be a bout of jelly wrestling for the photographers; the metaphorical shirtfront was always going to be a personally delivered verbal message.

And that’s exactly what took place.

I’m quite certain that Vladamir Putin doesn’t often have the leaders of smaller countries coming up to him to personally demand an apology, request compensation and offer advice on how to run Russia. That’s just not something that would happen everyday... or even, let’s see, ever.

I’m sure that Putin is much more accustomed to people snapping to attention and carrying out his every order as if their lives depend on it. Because, most likely, they do.

But instead of being able to carelessly bat Mr Abbott’s concerns aside, Mr Putin had to listen to an Antipodean upstart lecturing him about not seeking to reinstate the past glories of the Soviet Union, or for that matter the Tsars of the old Russian Empire.

I hope it pissed him off.

I am equally certain that Tony Abbott knows full well that Vladimir Putin is highly unlikely to take his advice, or to give the requested apology. I suspect that Mr Abbott believed that he had an obligation to speak for the dead of MH17, as well as for the living breathing Australians who want to see Putin held to account for his actions.

Obviously, Mr Putin did not pull the trigger himself, and the MH17 disaster was an unintended consequence of his regional politics. But he is clearly in a position to provide much greater assistance to the investigators of this terrible crime. His only problem is that any transparency might reveal too much about his role in propelling the rebellion in the Eastern Ukraine.

So far, it looks like Tony Abbott is the only one prepared to grab Putin by the lapels, metaphorically of course, and give him a few choice words. At least the only one prepared to do it in public.

And then there has been the wild hysteria about the Russian “fleet” steaming “towards Australia.” Television reports in particular were lurid in their assessment of what it all meant, speaking of “elevated tensions.”

So what if a handful of Russian Navy vessels are steaming along our east coast? So long as they stay in international waters there is no problem. They are only there, coinciding with the G20 meeting in Brisbane, in an attempt to remind the world that Russia is a powerful nation. It’s a bit like the village hoon doing blockies in his Monaro, showing off to the locals.

So long as he keeps to the speed limit, nobody will get hurt...

Anybody suggesting that the Russian navy flotilla represents some kind of threat is hyperventilating. And to claim that it is a direct response to the “shirtfront” remark is myopic and moronic.

Sure, Putin and his navy want to remind us that they are tough guys. But the message is not for us alone; it is a message for the whole world. And it is also a message for Putin’s constituents in Russia, where his “strongman” image has made him remarkably popular.

It’s nothing more than the schoolyard bully parading around to remind everybody not to mess with him.

While others might lower their eyes, Tony Abbott has instead gone up to the bully, tugged on his coat tails, and said, “You’re not fooling us.”

There’s a lot about Tony Abbott’s government that I find disappointing, and many of his policies with which I disagree. I even agree that the “shirtfront” comment was ill-considered, and the way it was delivered was awkward and embarrassing.

But I’m glad he told Putin what he thought of him. It was the Australian thing to do.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Interstellar Review

***No Spoilers***

It is not unusual for a masterpiece to have its flaws. In fact, some would say it comes with the territory. So it’s not a surprise that the science depicted in the new Chris Nolan film “Interstellar” has been subjected to a little criticism from those who know about such things, despite having the benefit of the advice of one of the most respected physicists on the planet.

Apparently, according to some experts, it would not be possible for any planet to orbit a black hole as closely as the film suggests without being ripped to pieces by the gravity. A spacecraft could not approach the superheated accretion disc without being vaporised. And so on.

But does any of that really matter? After all, most of the science in Interstellar is actually pretty good; dare I say it: light years ahead of most science fiction movies. And I’m not a scientist anyway, and I suspect, neither are you or most of the rest of the audience. I just want to see a good story that gives great entertainment, and maybe something to think about as well.

On that score, there’s plenty to chew on in Interstellar.

If you’re expecting a space opera, or an action flick, this is not the film for you. It takes all of the first act (about 45 minutes, because it’s a LONG movie) before the action even gets off the ground. Instead, the opening act establishes Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) as a former NASA test pilot who is now a farmer in a post disaster world where food is in short supply and farmers are sorely needed.

Director Nolan lingers on this opening act to ram home the message of environmental destruction, but more importantly for this story, the bond Cooper has with the two children he is raising as a single father. The younger child, his daughter Murphy, is especially close to her father and it is this relationship which ultimately becomes the central theme of the film, as well as a pivotal part of the plot structure.

Given the importance of this relationship, it is understandable that Nolan has put so much effort into portraying the emotions involved, especially when Cooper must choose between staying with his family, or leaving them behind to pilot NASA’s last spaceship on a mission that could save all humanity.

When Cooper is reunited with a former colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), he learns that a wormhole was discovered decades previously near the orbit of Saturn. (A wormhole, which is a genuine feature of physics as we understand it, links otherwise distant points in space and time.) In this case, it apparently leads to another galaxy where there may be a planet suitable for mankind to colonise, abandoning the ravaged Earth. Brand insists that Cooper should lead the mission to find a new home for all mankind.

The catch, of course, is that Cooper has no idea of when or if he can ever return.

This emotional tug of war between Cooper’s desire to fly the mission he was born to lead, and his love for his children, is not just a plot point; it is actually integral to the whole story, and leads to the events of the final act, which I will not reveal here.

Even so, the film suffers from what appears at first to be an unnecessarily heavy hand pushing the emotional point home over and over again. To some extent, the payoff at the end helps to explain this aspect of the narrative, but it takes a long time to get there.

Along the way, the film also bogs down in presenting some fairly clumsy philosophical ideas, to the point of becoming a little ponderous and self important.  That sensation is not helped by the imposing music score, which for much of the film is magnificent, but far too often intrusive to the point that you cannot hear the dialog. Maybe that was deliberate, so that the audience doesn’t receive all the exposition too quickly, but it becomes distracting and annoying at times.

It also doesn’t help that McConaughey spends the entire film mumbling throughout what is otherwise a great performance.

The bizarre robot which accompanies Cooper and his crew into space also takes a little getting used to. It is like nothing seen on film before, as far as I know, and doesn’t seem to me to be entirely consistent with the rest of the technology in the film. The machine moves around with a strange walking motion, and appears to do so even in the weightlessness of space, which didn’t look right to me. Nevertheless, the cheerful demeanour of the Artificial Intelligences (yes there’s more than one of them) in this film make an interesting contrast to the meltdown of the HAL 9000 computer in the Stanley Kubrick classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The music and the visual effects are deliberately evocative of “2001,” which in many ways is a nice touch. It’s no secret that Nolan was tremendously influenced by Kubrick’s film, and if you are looking for inspiration, you might as well look to the best. Inevitably, comparisons have been made, and for the most part it’s a fair call to suggest that Interstellar may be the best space movie since “2001.”

But Kubrick remains on his pedestal.

Interstellar keeps the story moving forward with some clever plot turns, and an un-advertised appearance by another major star, but is hampered by some sequences which slow the pace too much, prompting the viewer to question whether 169 minutes are really necessary to tell the tale.

The final act has caused some controversy, with some critics appearing to dislike the ending. Without disclosing details, I actually didn’t mind the ending. I feel that the most important loose ends were tied up, and while it might be all just a little bit too neat, let’s remember we are talking about a Hollywood movie, and the vast bulk of audiences like to leave the cinema with a sense of completion.

Besides, as I suggested before, the events of the final act help to explain the mysteries of the first, such as how and why the wormhole appeared in the first place.

Interstellar is a flawed masterpiece, great at moments, frustrating at others, but ultimately it’s worth the trip. Perhaps it doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but given the expectations which preceded its release, that would have been a very tall order.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Last Drinks At The Empty Arms

So it’s the end of the age of entitlement... unless you’re a politician. While the Federal Government has revealed the details of its enhanced “work for the dole” arrangements, politicians are still claiming tens of thousands of dollars for study tours, book collections, and travel to sporting events.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for Peter Slipper, who has today been found guilty of acting dishonestly over those cab charge vouchers he used to visit the wineries around Canberra in 2010. Mr Slipper will be sentenced in September, but in the meantime, there will be no action taken against all those senior Liberals who pinged the tax-payer for the cost of attending a wedding... Oh, but they paid it back so it’s all good.

It seems you can be forgiven your mistakes if you haven’t abandoned your own party.

It’s a little more difficult to work out just what unemployed people have done to upset the government. But it must have been sensational given the arrangements that have been wheeled out in the name of welfare “reform.”

We already know that unemployed people under the age of 30 will be expected to survive for six months from the time they apply for assistance before they receive any money at all. There will be reductions on that waiting period based on the length of time someone has been employed prior to the application.

So someone who has had a job for 5 years, and is then made redundant, will receive a 5 month remission, and be entitled to receive assistance after just one month.

But people generally don’t choose when they will become unemployed. If only I can last until the end of the year, I’ll get my dole money a month earlier....

However, the strangest element of the new arrangements, set to commence from the 1st of July next year, is the new improved version of mutual obligation.

Now, in principle, I can understand the argument in favour of mutual obligation. It only stands to reason that if the taxpayer is providing support to the unemployed, the unemployed might be obliged to do something in return. It seems not only sensible, it seems fair.

But the scheme outlined by the Government today is counterproductive, short-sighted, and driven by blind ideology. The people who designed it are safely ensconced within their own cocoon of entitlement, and have little understanding of the experience of the unemployed.

Astoundingly, the strictures of “mutual obligation” will apply to those people who have committed the crime of being under 30 and have been punished by having any payment withheld for six months.

Yes, that’s correct. As incredible as it seems, mutual obligation means that people receiving NO MONEY AT ALL for up to six months will be expected to jump through all the hoops anyway. There’s absolutely nothing “mutual” about that at all.

And even when your six months of fiscal imprisonment have been served, during which time you might well have turned to crime just to make ends meet, the rigors of mutual obligation are still designed to do you more harm than good.

Under the new regime of mutual obligation, unemployed people under 30 will be required to perform 25 hours per week community work and to prove that they have applied for a minimum of 40 jobs per month.

For sake of argument, let’s say there are four weeks in a month; that’s ten job applications per week, or two every working day. Now, if you live in a major city, you might be able to find 40 jobs a month  for which your qualifications are appropriate. But in regional towns? That’s a sick joke.

It was a long time ago, but I was unemployed in a country town in 1981. For 16 months, I filled out forms and attended job interviews. In that time, I spent a few weeks loading trucks and trains, and another week digging a trench. Thankfully, I was able to do some casual work on my uncle’s farm, which was a big help at the time.

Quite literally, I wasn’t qualified for anything else, except broadcasting... and getting back into the radio industry was not exactly easy.

After 26 rejection letters, I was finally offered a position doing the job I was actually trained for, and life was good again. But the point is that during those 16 months, there was no way I could have applied for 640 jobs. They simply didn’t exist.

Or perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps the Government expects people to apply for every advertised position, regardless of their qualifications, wasting the time of all those recruitment officers who will have to wade through pointless CVs from desperate but inappropriate applicants.

I know that sounds crazy, but it’s not as crazy as the other problem.

As I said, I get it that mutual obligation is supposed to provide the job-seeker with a sense of doing something in return for the money. Ideally, it should also provide them with useful experience, possibly some rudimentary training, and even just the opportunity  to interact with other people in a professional manner.

All of that is a worthwhile exercise.

However, requiring young people to report for duty for 25 hours a week is not only impractical, it’s downright exploitative. For starters, 25 hours is two thirds of the working week. It adds up to three-and-a-bit days. Surely the obvious question has to be: just when do you find the time to actually apply for those 40 jobs?

It’s not just a matter of sending out CVs. There’s all the time you need to spend combing through the classified ads. Writing the letters. Going to interviews. This business of looking for a job can be time consuming. That is, if you are serious about it. 25 hours a week is an enormous commitment, and leaves very little time for other responsibilities.

And on the subject of hours, consider this:

The current minimum wage is $640.90 per week, or $16.87 per hour. But if a young unemployed person is required to do community work for 25 hours that adds up to barely more than $10.00 per hour.

Even 18 year old junior employees are supposed to be entitled to a minimum wage of $11.52 per hour. It would appear that the Federal Government wants to force people to work at rates that would be illegal in business. If there is to be any kind of work demanded in return for the support of the taxpayer, it should at least be at a fair rate of pay.

The phrase “mutual obligation” is becoming increasingly Orwellian, with all the obligation weighing heavily on the shoulders of the un-empowered, and very little of it is in any way “mutual.”

It is, however, highly ideological.

The current Liberal Party Government has shown distinct signs of being driven more by the ideology of the hard core right, than by the principles of fairness and opportunity that most politicians claim. Certainly, all the guff about a “budget crisis” and an “economic emergency” is straight out of spin-doctor school.

It’s a time honoured tactic of declaring a crisis, or manufacturing one if a suitable crisis isn’t immediately handy, and then offering to provide the solution. All sides of politics have been guilty of something similar at one time or another. But that’s all OK if the tactic is used to push a policy that ultimately serves a greater good.

In this case, the supposed “greater good” is based on the notion that people who can’t find a job just aren’t trying hard enough, without any consideration of any other potential factors. Of course, that’s understandable given the massive problem Australia faces with unemployment...

Oh wait.

Unemployment is pretty stable at about 6 per cent, and has been for quite some time. Now, if you happen to be one of those people in the six per cent, you would indeed be confronting a crisis. But is the nation suffering an unemployment crisis?

No, it is not.

Obviously, lower unemployment is better. And equally obviously, Australia actually has a much more complex challenge with severe under-employment in many areas. The casualisation of the workforce has left too many people working in jobs with insufficient hours to make ends meet, and without the job security enjoyed by previous generations of full time workers.

But those challenges are not going to be addressed by a system that punishes people when they have been failed by that system. That’s because the fundamental flaw of “mutual obligation” is similar to the fundamental flaw of “user pays.”

It always sounds good in practice, but all too often is not necessarily the most efficient way to manage human affairs. All too often it is those who are least able to afford it who are left to pick up the tab. Whenever a politician tells you that a new proposal will be “better,’ your first question should always be “better for whom?”

Nine times out of ten, it’s not you. And even on the tenth time you would be wise to double check.

We are being told that the proposals put forward by the Government, not just for the unemployed, but for pensioners, for people who visit the doctor, for university students... the list goes on... are all “necessary” for the future prosperity of the nation.

But it’s not true. There are other options. The notion that it’s “my way or the highway” is nothing more than a bully boy tactic, employed to advance an ideological agenda. There are other ways to bring prosperity to the nation, that don’t involve punishing the weak for being weak.

What they have forgotten is the fact that the “nation” is us, including the poor, the weak, the aged, the unwell, the incompetent, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed. We are all in it together whether the Government likes it or not.

There are two reasons that this Government is unpopular. Firstly, it’s because some of their policies are hurting some of the people. But the second reason is the one doing the real damage.  It’s because they flat out said one thing, and then proceeded to do another, blatantly and deliberately.

They have opened their arms wide, and now that we have all had a good look, we can see that those arms are empty.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Seems Like Only Yesterday...

It has been 45 years since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in 1969. The official date was the 20th of July, but with the time difference, it was actually the 21st here in Australia.
With so much going on in the world today, it would be easy to forget the anniversary, but at the time it was a monumental event.
An estimated 600 million people watched the television coverage of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon, setting a record that would not be broken until the televised wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana 12 years later.
Australia played an important role in the moon mission with the Deep Space Tracking Stations at Honeysuckle Creek and Tidbinbilla helping to maintain communications.
The famous Parkes Radio Telescope was also a key facility, as portrayed in the Australian feature film “The Dish.”
Of course, we all remember Neil Armstrong’s famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The line was supposed to be “one small step for A man…” and there was controversy for years about whether Armstrong made a mistake, or if the radio link just dropped out momentarily.
Either way, history was made that day, 45 years ago.
Neil Armstrong passed away in 2012 at the age of 82, but his Apollo Eleven colleagues Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are alive and well... Which is more than you can say for the US space program at the moment.
Since the retirement of the space shuttle, American astronauts are currently forced to hitch a ride on Russian space capsules to get the International Space Station….
I’m not sure how much longer that can go on, considering the current friction between Russia and pretty much the rest of the world.
Private companies like Space-X are expected to fill that void in the future, but for the time being, the once mighty NASA has no manned flight capability of its own.
I suspect Neil Armstrong would be disappointed about that.