Personal Reflections

Monday, October 20, 2014

Monday Forum – cooperatives and the disruptive power of crowd funding and its like

Today’s Monday Forum wanders.

Cooperatives and Management Style

I didn’t get any response to my post Friday management note - Coles, Fonterra and the behavioural impact of cooperative structures, There were several elements in that post. Here I want to focus on one, cooperatives. I like cooperatives, but in Australia at least they are a much diminished breed. The lure of bigger immediate dollars from privatisation were just too great.

Is there  role for cooperatives? If so, how do we make them work? What problems have to be overcome?

How people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public

This one came from a Thomas retweet (@thomasee). It’s a Pew Research Report  on attitudes towards women’s headgear in certain predominantly Muslim countries. Meantime, the new rules re women visitors wearing burkas in the Australian Parliament have been relaxed. It’s actuallyLunch Astrolabe Road 24 June 2012 a rather strange story.

Crowd funding and other disruptive devices.

Back on Sunday 24 June  2012 I reported on a lunch at Astrolabe Road.   From left to right Noric Dilanchian, Clare Belshaw, Neil Whitfield and Dennis Sligar.

One of the things that we talked about at that lunch was the emergence of crowd funding. In simplest terms, these are platforms that put people who have projects in touch with people who might want to fund them. Kickstart is an example.

Since then, this type of platform has proliferated entering a range of arenas. Peer to peer lending is another example, bypassing the banks as middlemen. Trybooking is a third, a platfom that allows community organisations and others to sell and deliver tickets on-line without having their own system.

I have been watching all this for a while. I wondered if any readers had their own experiences and comments that they might like to share. This stuff is quite powerful.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On being awesome

Amazing today

This poster came via Facebook. Going from the reaction at the office where a number of people asked for copies that are now pinned up, it has considerable appeal. 

I am not sure that I was so freaking awesome on Saturday, although I did go to the movies to see Still Life with a friend.

The movie slowly drew me in through its use of silence, its detective and human elements. The ending left me cold. Of course it had an audience impact, but it was totally unsatisfying. It took a movie that was shaping as a must see multiple times, and turned it into a must see once. Ah well

Whether I was freaking awesome on Saturday, I certainly wasn’t on Sunday. For that reason, I leave you with this poster.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday management note - Coles, Fonterra and the behavioural impact of cooperative structures

There was extensive coverage in this morning's Australian media of the action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission against Coles alleging that the retail giant engaged in unconscionable conduct against five suppliers, including cleaning products company Oates, Benny’s Confectionery and Bayview Seafoods.

The alleged events surrounding a "perfect profit day" took place several years ago, but fit within a pattern of complaints asserting that Coles and Woolworths have used their overwhelming buyer power to squeeze suppliers in a situation of two primary buyers, multiple suppliers. 

Fonterra  (and here) is New Zealand's largest company.responsible for around 30% of the global trade in dairy products, It is also a cooperative owned by over 10,000 New Zealand dairy farmers. There are other shareholders now, but they have no voting rights, only an economic interest.

 The relationship between Fonterra and its dairy farmer shareholders is a complex one. Like Coles and Woolworths, Fonterra is effectively a single purchaser for a large number of smaller suppliers. It has to make a profit and has an incentive to lower farm gate prices to maximise returns on sales. It also operates in a global marketplace where milk prices fluctuate. Milk prices have dropped quite sharply and Fonterra needs to adjust. However, it also needs to maintain stable supply, recognising too that it is the main income source for its growers who are also its primary owners. 

  This complex relationship leads to quite different behavioural characteristics as compared to Coles and Woolworths. Here my attention was caught, among other things, by the new Farm Source program.The company describes it in this way:
Fonterra has signalled a significant step-up in its relationship with farmers, rolling out Farm Source which will support farmers and their farming businesses and bolster the Co-operative’s connection with rural communities in New Zealand. 
Farm Source combines service, support, rewards, digital technology and financial options for farmers together with local Farm Source hubs to support the major dairying regions throughout the country.
 Speaking at today’s launch in Methven, Fonterra Chairman John Wilson said Farm Source’s seed was discussions with farmers and the “together as one” principle behind co-operatives.
If this were a Government policy announcement, my reaction would be ho-hum, here we go again. I have lost count of the number of Government hub announcements I have seen. However, Fonterra is a highly commercial operation.

In the discussion that surrounded Farm Source, I caught an interesting side reference to the financial options discussion. Family farmers in New Zealand and in Australia have long experienced some difficulty in attracting capital, as well as servicing that capital during down turns. If I interpret the discussion correctly, Fonterra appears to be considering the creation of some form of vehicle that will attract longer term funds for farm investment for its members. 

This is just a note at this point  Fonterra has attracted my curiosity given its size, commercial success and different ownership structure.     


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Australia: are there positive economic threads in the current global gloom?

I was going to write something on the Australian Government’s new industry and innovation statement, setting in an historical context. However, to do that I need to access some of my previous writing, so that will have to go onto hold at least until the weekend.

This time last year I was preparing my annual economic outlook. I am not a super forecaster. I got some things more or less right, right some things more or less wrong. The best think that can be said is that I was broadly right. Australia’s economic performance was better than many forecast at the time, not quite as good as I had expected.

This year, I’m finding the same process far harder. The global strategic situation is far more complex. Ukraine, the Islamic State and Ebola really complicate things. The potential economic costs of Ebola should not be underestimated. It’s not just the West African countries most directly affected. The ripples are spreading far and wide.

The late Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders featured a terrorist attack on the United States using an aerosol version of Ebola, thus combining two current fears. I am not being alarmist. Unlike plague ridden Europe when  perhaps half the population was wiped out, we have the infrastructure and skills to ultimately control the spread of the disease. But you can see from the ripple effects as the disease reaches the US and Europe just how it may affect and slow the patterns of life.

Then, too, we have issues associated with the wind back of quantitative easing. In an earlier post, I wondered because I couldn’t see a clear path here. As QE comes to an end in the US, the value of the US dollar relative to other currencies has risen, placing pressure on the US economy. That was always going to happen. That was part of the reason why I saw the Ozzie falling. But I’m not sure that people realised that QE in Europe and Japan would, inevitably, depress the value of the euro and yen. At the same time, inflation in those areas has remained stubbornly low, economic activity has not picked up.

Here in Australia, Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Guy Debelle is warning that markets may be heading for a "violent sell-off".  The Australian financial press has flicked, as it so often does, to fundamentally negative reporting. We all risk ruin. So lets look at some basics.

House and share prices arguably got out of control in the soft money era. They are likely to come back and affect individual Australian wealth. With global slowdown, there will be (are) softer prices for Australia’s main commodities. Economic activity is likely to slow.  The Feds and states will experience revenue short falls, rising payments. So what?

As I said, I haven't worked through the issues. but I don’t share the gloom. Australia is remarkably well positioned to ride through another economic downturn so long as we can get rid of the presently negative present. I will pursue the reasons for that view in another post.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Defining shirtfronting

I must admit that I did not know what shirtfronting meant when Mr Abbott used it in the context of Mr Putin. I am obliged to the ABC for this definition:

For the Shirtfront (Australian Rules) noun, "A fierce tackle, usually delivered by the shoulder to the chest of an opponent." verb, "The act of delivering such a tackle." - Oxford Australian Dictionary.

The ABC story linked above has some video clips of the now banned shirtfronting in practice. The Russian local diplomatic response can be found here. Mr Abbott has not repeated the term, referring instead to possible robust discussions. PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie takes a dim view of the whole thing, praising Mr Putin’s “great values”.

There is an air of unreality about the Australian discussion. This includes Opposition leader Shorten who wishes that the Government could have done more to prevent Mr Putin attending the Brisbane G20 summit. Yes, Australia’s political leaders need to reflect local concerns, but that also needs to be tempered with a degree of reality.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Pyne curriculum review - results

Back in January in The Pyne curriculum review - Dr Donnelly's challenge I wrote of the establishment of the Australian national curriculum review. It attracted quite a strong comment stream.

The results of the review have now been released. These are two reactions: National curriculum review: experts respond; Education review reveals what we already knew

I suppose that my reaction is a little along the lines of the second story. I admit my biases. I thought the the curriculum had become too crowded; I disliked the way the unifying themes were used; I did feel that there was a tendency to cut us off from our past.

All that said, the review actually struck me as a moderately useful discussion to future directions in Australian education. I wondered what people think of it now?  

Monday, October 13, 2014

Monday Forum – the creeping cancer of social regulation

In an exchange on Carmen, cant and the State Opera of Western Australia, John Stitch wrote:

“So now its art according to what Ms Chard sees as appropriate? Let's hope she doesn't get to wield the censor's scissors on a national scale. The "I know what's best for you" mentality seems to be thriving in the arts as we lurch further to the right in this country. Just ask Paul Yore or Bill Henson.

In response, DG observed:

"...lurch further to the right". Hardly. The public health hierarchy is a creature of the left. The government knows what's best for you.

On the same day DG was writing, Kirsty Needham had this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Child protection checks evict grandfathers, foster fathers pointing to the difficulties being created in NSW by the tough new child protection laws introduced by the Liberal-National Coalition Government. The article begins:

Foster fathers and grandfathers are being barred from living with children for whom they are the primary carers after undergoing tough new child protection checks.

The Administrative Tribunal has been flooded with appeals against bans issued by the Office of the Children's Guardian under strict laws introduced last year.

Six out of 10 cases decided by the tribunal in the past six weeks were found in favour of men who had been forced out of the family home or prevented from working after failing a check.

On the surface, this would seem to be another example of the mess created in NSW under Governments of both political persuasions through over-zealous child protection laws. Consider the earlier example where the introduction of mandatory reporting brought an over-stretched NSW child protection system to its knees.

It seems to me that in every aspect of life we have created a social cancer that in the name of protection, standards, risk minimisation or harm reduction controls and limits what people can do to the point that no-one can actually properly understand all the applicable rules and regulations. Just as bad, there seems to be little evidence that the approach delivers real benefits relative to the direct and indirect costs involved.

There is a broad consensus that economic regulation should be reduced, although here too we introduce new controls as fast as we reduce existing controls. However, there is no consensus so far as social regulation is concerned. 

So, for this Monday Forum, a few questions. Am I right in my interpretation of all this as a social cancer? If so, how did it arise and what do we do about it? 


This ACT example, Canberra cat containment could be extended city-wide, is another example of the process that I have been taking about. We have a problem, the damage done by feral cats, and a response, more costs and controls on cat owners.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings – more on cant & Carmen, Wassim Doureihi and a belated recognition of the death of Harry Evans

Today’s Saturday Morning Musings is a bit of a round-up of things that have caught my eye, as well as updates on some of my posts.

Wassim Doureihi, Emma Alberichi and the need for Mr Abbott to actually lead

Neil Whitfield commented:

Since I am sure I am the only one in your circle of blog friends who has actually met Wassim Doureihi -- who certainly stuffed up this interview -- I am a bit surprised you didn't reference my recent post, which our friend Ramana "liked" twice on Facebook. Whatever he may be, Wassim is not the devil incarnate.

That was a fair cop. I had seen Neil’s post (How I wish we had wise leadership!) but failed to reference it. In fact, blush, I totally forgot it! So I have added Neil’s comment plus the link to the story on his blog to my post.

Al Jazeera had an interesting if depressing story linked to the theme of this post and the comments: Austrian youth flocking to ISIL.

To begin with, the heading doesn’t properly reflect the story. The actual story was about the increase in Islamophobia in Austria and the problems that creates. Linked to that was the use of anti Musim rhetoric. However, even though the estimated number of Austrian ISIL recruits (some 140 plus) is by European standards apparently high in proportion to population, it’s hardly a flood. There is a disconnect between the headline and the story, with the headline actually displaying just that rhetorical tendency that the story is attacking.

We have to be careful not to create our own devils. In Australia, the recent “terror” raids received massive news coverage and provided a part justification for amended terror laws. So far, and we await further information, there seems to be very little in it.

My post  If a equals b – testing the proposed Australian terrorism legislation and indeed any public policy dealt in part with the application of logic. In his post, Neil referred to that logical proposition known as ‘Fallacies of False Cause’. The most famous of these, Neil noted, is post hoc ergo propter hoc: after it, therefore because of it: A occurred before B, therefore A.

Well, another variant is the need to do A to avoid B. If B then occurs, it supports the decision, look at what happened, we were right to be worried. Too often, in fact, A actually becomes the cause of B. 

Carmen, cant and the State Opera of Western Australia

I have added some more links to this post to give you access to fuller media reporting. As always, the actual story is a little more nuanced than a single report, but this doesn’t affect the main thrust of the post. It was a nanny state set of actions.

Death of Harry Evans

Former Senate clerk Harry Evans died on 7 September 2014. The present Clerk of the Senate, Rosemary Laing, spoke of his work in this way:

Harry was known – notorious even in some circles – as a defender of the Senate and the rights of individual senators as he worked tirelessly to assist them to perform their constitutional duties. He was fearless in emphasising the necessary distinction between the parliament and the executive, even though that made him unpopular with various governments over the years.

Parliament is a place where words matter and Harry will long be remembered as a master wordsmith. In his numerous published and unpublished writings, he explained complex constitutional and procedural matters with clarity, logic and style. A selection of these vintage pieces (as well as retirement tributes) were collected and published in Papers on Parliament number 52 – Selected Writings of Harry Evans in 2009.

Harry began his career in the Parliamentary Library in 1967 and was first employed by the Senate Department in 1969. Since then, he has been particularly remembered for his contribution to Odgers' Australian Senate Practice. This has also become Harry's legacy as he edited the 7th to 12th editions of this important work. The 13th edition continues this tradition as the detailed authority on all aspects of Senate practice and procedure. It is consulted and cited every day as the Senate and its committees go about their work.

I never met Mr Evans, but I had a huge respect for him. He was a doughty defender of the Senate and played a major role in its evolution as a house of review, not just a party house. He had a clear view of the Senate set within a long framework of history and precedent.

In a way, Australia and Australians have lost their view of the conceptual, constitutional and historical underpinnings of the Australian system of Government. Those underpinnings became engraved in Mr Evans’ mind. He was quite passionate about them. I honour him for that.

I fear that I have run out of time today and must finish here.    

Friday, October 10, 2014

Wassim Doureihi, Emma Alberichi and the need for Mr Abbott to actually lead

Just back from a funeral in Tahmoor, the mother of a work colleague, There is actually something re-affirming of the value of life in the funerals I have been to in recent years. Learning of people and their contributions reminds me at least of the reason why it’s important to continue to strive.

In a strange way it was also a nostalgia trip.  I was back on roads that I used to know well before the expressways, knowledge gained on those long, grinding, trips between Sydney and Canberra on the old Hume Highway. Of course the towns and villages have changed. There are more people, newer buildings, old buildings tarted up. And yet, every so often, there would be a surviving vista or landmark that marked a connection between present and past.

On 8 October, Emma Alberichi interviewed Wassim Doureihi, presented as the spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is the transcript of that interview. Do watch the piece, but read the transcript first. Words are much easier to analyse. Despite Mr Abbott’s  later praise for Ms Alberichi, this is a very bad interview. Mr Doureihi arguably handled it very badly, but it was still a bad interview. Reading the transcript, I actually have no idea what Mr Doureihi  believes beyond a desire to set a context. 

On a Sydney train Thursday, a Muslim man was quietly reading his prayers. People began to move away from him, physically shifting seats. Australians are uncomfortable with religion. Some time ago, a friend was doing Religious Studies. Getting into a lift carrying a basic text, the bible, she found people shifting away from her! But in the case I am talking about. the shift wasn’t just due to Australian's dislike of overt religious expression; there was a fear element as well.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald carried an editorial on the matter.  While it is to some degree a conflicted and confused it argues fro speech. It also quotes the organisation Mr Doureihi represents. I quote:

But on August 13 this year Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia issued a statement that included key information missing from Lateline.

"Children holding severed heads, oppression of Christians, random killings and the like are wrong," the August 13 statement said.

On July 2 this year, the director of Hizb ut-Tahrir's central media office in Lebanon, Osman Bakhach, said: "Resurrecting the caliphate [an Islamic state operating under Sharia law] should not be accomplished through blood, charges of apostasy and explosions … We (call) for a state that opens its arms to all people, Muslims and others, including Christians and Jews … Establishing the Islamic state is not accomplished by considering every dissenter an apostate whose killing is deemed lawful. In this way, (Islamic State) proclaims itself both adversary and arbiter."

That’s pretty clear-cut.

Mr Abbot , as our Prime Minister we expect  you to be, well, Prime Ministerial.  On sensitive issues that affect the nation’s future, we expect you to set out the facts and value so that we, the people,can form our our own views. We actually expect you to lead even if we dislike you.

So please, please, Mr Abbott , can you improve. Specifically, if you actually believe in Team Australia as an aspiration  as opposed to a useful slogan, then don’t use language that divides. You didn't need to comment on  Ms Alberichi’s piece in the way you did. You didn’t need to comment at all. Still, you did.


Neil Whitfield wrote in a comment:

Since I am sure I am the only one in you circle of blog friends who has actually met Wassim Doureihi -- who certainly stuffed up this interview -- I am a bit surprised you didn't reference my recent post, which our friend Ramana "liked" twice on Facebook. Whatever he may be. Wassim is not the devil incarnate. I despair of the "leadership" of Tony Abbott. God we really do need to do a hell of a lot better. We need something better than Daily Telegraph and shock-jock leadership. And we need an Opposition with rather more intellect and integrity. These are bad days, Jim.

I had seen Neil’s post, but forgot to reference it in my post. This is the piece Neil refers to  -  How I wish we had wise leadership!. My apologies, Neil.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Carmen, cant and the State Opera of Western Australia

A short post tonight. I found this a quite remarkable story. I quote:

A planned production of Bizet’s Carmen at the State Opera of West Australia has been pulled by the management because it conflicts with a two-year $400,000 partnership withCarmen the State Government health promotion agency, Healthway. Carmen is set around a cigarette factory.

Carolyn Chard, West Australian Opera general manager said the decision was “not difficult”.

She added: ‘“We care about the health and wellbeing of our staff, stage performers and all the opera lovers throughout WA, which means promoting health messages and not portraying any activities that could be seen to promote unhealthy behaviour.”

Well, dear me. Assuming the reporting is correct, where do we go from here? The word bowdlerise named  after Thomas Bowdler was coined to describe this attitude. To stay within recent themes, it’s really very public service speak. Ms Chard must fit in well in that modern Government environment where cant substitutes for thought.


This is some of the other media coverage on this matter:

The story has gone global. As one example, this is from Bloomberg -  Australian opera company bans 'Carmen' for smoking

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Threads in Australian life and history

While this doesn’t always happen, I think of Wednesday as my Australiana day. It’s sort of a chance to stand back, to unwind.

In a comment on Sunday Essay – the niqab, Cory Benardi and questions of feminism, Evan commented in part: ”I think part of the story of recent history is the increasing role of money in our private lives and the outsourcing of the private (eating in cafes, buying fast food, domestic gardening and cleaning) - the 'woman's world'.”

In my own short history of the genesis of the women’s revolution compressed into two columns each of 500 words (History revisited – bobbed hair & the start of a revolution, History revisited – the women’s revolution) I concluded:

I doubt that the women’s revolution could have happened without these two things, labour saving devices plus improvements in health care. Labour saving devices gave women extra time while still maintaining family responsibilities. Improvements in health care meant that women had to spend less time in child rearing. The combination led to a social revolution.

In a way, Evan’s comment captures another element of Australian life. Now with two careers plus family responsibilities, we have to outsource what we can. We are all just so very, very busy.

If you look at Under the Tuscan Sun or, more recently, The Hundred Foot Journey, they feature food and family dining, if in different ways. Watching the audience reaction to both movies, there is a sort of nostalgic hunger for more leisurely days when people could take the time to eat together. In Australia, it is the migrant groups including the Italians and Chinese who have maintained this tradition. Most of us are just too damn busy to eat together.

My most recent Armidale Express History Revisited column was given the headline by the sub-editor Belshaw’s brief history of measuring the time.  That’s pretty accurate, for I was tracing the emergence of the modern tyranny of time. This is very recent indeed, for you couldn’t have the tyranny of time without time measuring devices at personal and work level, without the segmentation of the day into discrete time blocks. Once you have this, then you can focus on getting maximum results from any block or blocks of time. Then you can make yourself an expert in (victim of) time management.

In his history of Australian food, One Continuous Picnic, Michael Symons argues that Australian food owes less to "Englishness" and even to immigration than to the early industrialisation of our food supply. Symons appears to have fallen in love with Tuscany in the 1970s, the Tuscany of the rustic idyll and long lunch, the Tuscany that so many Australians are in love with today. That colours his view.

Unlike Tuscany, Symons states, Australia has been bereft of a peasant culture. We have almost exclusively nourished ourselves with a "mechanised, chemicalised and rationalised" version of factory food, far removed from the point of its origin. To Symons’ mind, the creation of a unique Australian national cuisine is an opportunity missed. Between the late 1800s and early 20th century, before the processing and industrialisation of food took full hold, Australia had city farms and markets and a host of keen, cosmopolitan gourmets.

There is at least some truth in that view. In Black Kettle and Full Moon, an examination of daily life in a now vanished Australia, Geoffrey Blainey heads one chapter “Feed the man meat”. Unlike Europe, meat was cheap and plentiful in the Australian colonies. In a day when meat was plentiful but spoiled easily, butchers and butcher shops were everywhere. By contrast, vegetables were harder to find unless you grew them yourself. Flour, meat and tea formed the heart of diet. Yet, and this comes through in Blainey’s book, Australians then ate a greater variety of foods across the colonies than would be the case later.

I don’t fully understand the changing pattern of Australian food. Like other aspects of Australian domestic life, our documentation of the past is actually quite recent. There are many stories to be discovered and told. But then, that’s part of the fun of history.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Paul Kelly, political stability, special interest groups and the need for change

It is a while since I have written a companion post addressed to one of my fellow bloggers. In this case, the inspiration is Winton Bates’ Is Australia's political system broken?. But first some other matters.

Sunday night was the grand final of the Australian National Rugby League competition. I rarely watch league now. I stopped watching a few years back when the rules were changed in a way I didn’t like. Still, and like my friend and fellow blogger Neil Whitfield, I followed on Sunday night to see if South Sydney could complete its fairy tale journey by winning. They did, and it bought tears to my eyes. The story is well known in Australia. Perhaps I should write a short post at some point for the benefit of my non-Australian readers. It really is a good news story.

On a less positive note, it appears that the changes that have been made to the Australian VET (Vocational Education and Training) system may be emerging as the latest administrative mess associated with current Australian approaches to public policy and administration. My attention was drawn rather forcibly to these changes when a VET college recruiter (they have recently proliferated in Westfield Parramatta) tried to enrol me in a VET course in return for a free lap top! I don’t understand the detail of the changes; as always with our modern “simplified” systems they are complex, but they do appear to be having perverse results.

Turning now to my main theme,Winton’s post begins with a quote from Paul Kelly’s new book, Triumph and Demise, The broken promise of a Labor Generation:       

“The process of debate, competition and elections leading to national progress has broken down. The business of politics is too de-coupled from the interests of Australia and its citizens. This de-coupling constitutes the Australian crisis”.

I am not going report or comment on Winton’s arguments in full. You should read the post for that. Rather, I want to comment on just three things that interest me.

Political Stability

According to Winton, Paul Kelly writes of “volatility and fragmentation” as being “the new driving forces” of Australian politics. Mmm. How does that fit with the historical record?

Take the Liberal Party. In 1909 we had the Commonwealth Liberal Party formed by a merger of the Protectionist and Anti-Socialist Parties. In 1917, this morphed into the Nationalist Party of Australia. This lasted until 1931 when it became the United Australia Party. In turn, this lasted until 1945 when it became the Liberal Party. These weren’t just brand changes, but political changes. 

One of constant features of Australian politics is the way that the changes in the major political parties create disenfranchised groups on the edge of the party that combine with others to form new political groupings that merge and coalesce over time in the kaleidoscope of Australian politics.

Leave aside the Country now National Party, since the Liberal Party was formed in 1945, the political spin-offs that drew from the Liberal Party support base include the Australia Party,  the Liberal Movement,, the Australian Democrats and, most recently, the Liberal Democrats and Palmer United Party.

Volatility and fragmentation are hardly new.

The Power of Special Interest Groups

Paul Kelly apparently argues that the political system has evolved in ways that have given sectional interests more power than ever before. He mentions technology and campaign techniques in this context, and brings fragmentation of the traditional media and the rise of social media into the discussion. He also makes the point that it has become more difficult for leaders to talk honestly to the community as they have become subjected to greater media pressure to rule out any action that might disadvantage any powerful interest group.

Have special interest groups become more powerful, distorting political activity? Well, yes, but not (I think)in quite the same way that Mr Kelly argues.

Special interest groups have always been important. The biggest change, and its happened over the last forty years, is the proliferation to the point that there is a special interest group or groups covering every aspect of human life or experience. A second related change is that they have become far more professional.

Government itself has played a major role in their emergence because of its varying policy approaches and need to consult the “stakeholders”.

To illustrate, take technical, further and higher education. So long as this sector was Government owned, there was no role for special interest groups beyond the then conventional bodies such as the institutions themselves, unions who expressed the interests of their members or local bodies arguing particular causes. Now there are dozens of bodies that need to be consulted and who argue a special case.

The rise of the NGO sector in general is another example and one that deserves a post in its own right. Promoted and supported by Government, the NGOs argue for a variety of controls and measures that will advance their particular causes and then, success achieved, oppose anything that affects their particular interests.

Winton focuses on economic issues. But how do you reduce Government controls, free parts of the system up, reduce spend, when you have created an entire system whose very existence depends upon the maintenance and extension of Government controls and programs that meet their particular needs across the spectrum of human activity?  

Convergence and the emergence of Lib-Lab

The idea of party convergence, the disappearance of real difference between the main political parties, actually first emerged back in the seventies. Then, and this is just from my perspective, it became an issue in finding the best way for the Country Party to re-establish and maintain its separate identity based on its traditional roots.

When parties converge, the challenge is to find a point of differentiation that will achieve success in a competitive environment. If there is no real difference in basic product, then you have to try to sell the sizzle in combination with price and features that appeal to particular voting groups. I have called this the supermarket approach to politics.

In reality, life is not as simple as this. Politics is about values and ideas as well as staying in power. When the contest becomes one between well oiled machines fighting over what is in fact a standardised product, people drop off. This, I think, is where Mr Kelly misses the point.

The New England independents or, for that matter, PUP are not weaknesses in the political system, but recurring symbols of change and the need for change. Parliament and especially the Senate temper the desire of those in control to do what they will, they articulate new needs, reinstate old needs and views. To my mind, that’s not bad, although the results in particular cases may be. It’s part of the process of reinvention that is critical to the health of our democratic system.