Personal Reflections

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - can the centre hold?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats, 1865 - 1939

I have always loved this particular verse by W B Yeats. It captures a certain fear, one that seems particularly appropriate today.

In the United States, President Trump's proposed boarder wall has brought the US Government to a standstill. It will be no secret that I am not a Trump supporter. However, President Trump made the wall a centre piece of his campaign and has consistently argued for it. The wall may not make sense, but in Australian terms he has a mandate to seek to build it.

If you now look at the Democrat side, you find a win at all costs mentality. I have now listened to Democrat Nancy Pelosi  She strikes me as rigid and dogmatic as the President, if on the other side, also determined to win at all costs. The wall has become a symbolic issue. The economic costs of the shutdown already exceed the costs of the wall. Logic would dictate a concession that allows some construction, that allows political focus on other more important issues. But, no, symbolism dominates, the desire to win dominates.

Something similar is happening in Australia at the moment if on a much smaller scale over fish kills on the Lower Darling River. The similarity lies in the way that symbolism and sharp political divides have polarised the debate, It is hard to adopt a central position, to find out the facts, although information does emerge in the midst of the shouting and political posturing.

I do recognise that the concept of "the centre" in society or politics is actually a slippery one, especially in dealing with a single issue.

The standard English definition of centre - the point that is equally distant from every point on the circumference of a circle or sphere or, alternatively, the point from which an activity or process is directed, or on which it is focused - doesn't quite capture the social or political definition.

In conventional terms. the idea of the political or social centre is presented as a straight line from left to right, with the centre just the bit in the middles. This does not capture the way in which ideas and beliefs overlap and can vary from person to person, from value to value, from issue to issue, although it can be useful when you have diametrically opposed views, when the spot in the statistical middle is largely vacated as people crowd to the left and right.

I think the idea of using a circle, or a series of circles moving out from a central point, to plot attitudes and beliefs is better because it allows easier tracking and analysis across multiple issues. I recognise that definitional issues remain. For example, do you place the centre at the point where the dots are greatest or do you use another conventional measure and then plot views against that or a combination of the two?  However, I think that it is a useful technique.

As an aside, back in 2010 I reported (Mapping the Australian blogosphere) on attempt to measure linkages and clustering between political blogs. I haven't seen it done since and indeed the blogging world has changed enormously since, but the clustering remains interesting.

Returning to my main theme,  I think that if you mapped the United States I think that you would find two things. If we define the centre in terms of majority views, we would find a move to the left. If we define the centre in terms of the area of overlap of views, we would find that it has sharply narrowed with two quite distinct segments coming from that point, both of whom talk past each other.

I think something similar has happened in the UK where Brexit has highlighted divisions to the point that the very survival of the UK as a political entity is under some question. Brexit is an example of a wicked problem made more acute by the earlier failure to address what might be done if the there was a yes vote and then weaknesses in the consultation process. As in the US, divisions reflect geography and history as well as the usual economic and class divides. In both countries, ideology has become more important, hardening left/right divides.

The problem with the apparent collapse of the centre lies in the way that it reduces scope for common working, adds to the zero sum must win mentality even where such victories can only be short term pyrrhic gains. Despite the divides, there are political leaders in both the US and UK who still instinctively move to the centre in seeking common ground even at political cost to themselves.

I think that the Australian position is better, although some of the same trends are apparent here. I say this for several reasons.

I think the major parties still look, or are at least forced to look, for centre ground. Here I think that the cross-bench has played an interesting and quite productive role. I have also found, and this is just a personal comment, that even with the ideological warriors it is still possible to have a conversation on facts and issues despite their normal entrenched positions. I am not sure that this would be possible in the US.

Still, I do worry whether the Australian centre can hold in the face of the forces of disunion.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Christmas reading and the Viking Age

And so we come to 2019. I haven't made any new year's resolutions. It seems to me that they mainly provide a record of failure! However, I am going to try to do a few things a little better.

Over on her blog, The Resident Judge of Port Phillip is very good at recording books she has read, films, she has seen. I read a lot, too much perhaps because I don't always record much before slamming onto my next book. I will try to do a little better here.

Eldest visited Australia over Christmas with her Danish partner.  Helen has been indoctrinating Christian into things Australian. This is Hyams Beach on the shores of Jervis Bay. Christian has been carried off to a number of beaches, been paddle boarding at Rose Bay, saw a women's T20 cricket match and is slowly and somewhat reluctantly learning about rugby.

It seems a very strange game to him. He has watched one match with Helen in a Copenhagen pub where the sight of large men lifting another even larger and taller man in the line-out to catch a ball struck him as somewhat bizarre, a view shared even by some Australians!

The influence goes two ways, of course. The Danes are outdoor people, so under Christian's influence Helen has acquired a like of camping. I find that a very good thing!

Since Helen moved to Copenhagen my knowledge of things Danish has advanced by leaps and bounds. To continue this process, Christian gave me two books for Christmas, the Xenophobes guide to the Danes and Else Roesdahl's The Vikings. This is a very good book

Over at her place, Art and Architecture, mainly, Hels had an interesting story (Did the Bayeux Tapestry prove the existence of a lost Aryan master race?) about the desire of the Nazis to find the original Aryan race and to establish a connection with the Vikings. It is a nice piece, but set a little too much within a particular framework of English v French. It's not quite like that, I think.

I have commented before on the way in which particular frames, particular stereotypes, affect historical thinking. I grew up thinking that the Roman Empire finally fell in 476 AD with the abdication of the last Western Emperor. It did not. It continued in the eastern Empire for centuries yet.

I grew up thinking that the end of the Empire marked the start of the Dark Ages. It did not. The progressive collapse of the Roman Empire in the west did greatly affect the previously settled patterns of life that had existed for so many millenia in one area, but it wasn't all ruin. Trade, contact and indeed some technological advance continued in ways that fell outside my then mind-set.

This type of historical stereotyping continues today in in the uneasy and often virulent discourse between left and right where perceptions of history become a  weapon to be used to establish points, ascendancy, in battles based in part on intellectual constructs, more on shifting concepts of nationality and tribal identity and the idea of right and wrong.

These differing perceptions cannot easily be challenged by point to point rebuttal, Such rebuttals will be angrily rejected in an argument that is fundamentally a-historical, where history has become a device to support or challenge deeply held views, a weapon in current battles, a weapon used by groups including states to provide legitimacy. They can only be challenged through research, through the steady accretion of evidence, through conscious effort to stand outside particular perceptual frames. With time, this does shift perceptions, but it is a slow process.

The strength of Roesdahl's book is that it is written from a different perspective, from the viewpoint of a particular area, Scandinavia. It draws from multiple sources of evidence, combining historical records, archaeology and linguistic analysis.

The Vikings were traders, raiders and settlers depending on circumstances. Their long ships became a symbol of fear, although these were not the only Viking ships.

Roesdahl looks at the Vikings and the history of Scandinavia from all geographic sides, east, west, north and south. This was a time in which the current Scandinavian countries as we know them today were emerging. Viking raiders and traders established trading posts, colonies, bringing tribute and traded goods from all parts of the world, from China, from Byzantium and the Caliphate, from what is now France, from England and Ireland. They were players, forcing others to respond. The name Russia comes from the Scandinavian word rus. The imperial guard of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, the Varangians, were of Viking origin.

In tracing history and trading patterns from a Scandinavian viewpoint, Roesdahl provides a picture of economic as well as political activity over a wide space in the early Medieval period that breaks out of the national centricity of so much history. Yes, her history with its Scandinavian focus has its own centricity, but it is a different centricity that therefore informs and challenges.

1066 is often taken as the end of the Viking Age. All the main players had some Viking connection. English King Harold  had some Viking blood. He came to power in confused circumstances not long after England and Denmark had been one kingdom, creating a succession challenge involving many players. .

The king of Norway, King Harald Hardrada, believed he had a claim. He invaded England with a large force supported by  the English king's brother Tostig Godwinson. Newly crowned Harold took his army on a forced march north, catching the invading force by surprise. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 the invaders were routed. Both Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson were killed. Meantime, William of Normandy was invading to claim the thrown.

Normandy had been a Viking settlement. While the Scandinavians had been partly absorbed into the general population, William had Scandinavian blood. William's forces landed on 26 September 1066, the day after the battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold now force marched his army south. On 14 October, the two armies clashed at the battle of Hastings. William won the day. Harold was killed.

I have often felt that Harold should have taken more time to regather forces, to regroup, but that is being wise in retrospect. The Viking age had ended.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A happy Christmas to you all

This will be my last post for 2018. I am shutting down fully until the new year to recharge my batteries.

While my output has been down here, at 88 now 89 the smallest number of annual posts since I started, I have valued my readers and especially my regular commenters. I may sometimes be slow in responding, but I do read and value.

I know 2018 has been a sometimes difficult year for many of us. I think for my part it has reminded me of the importance of love and friendship.

For those who celebrate this festive season, may I wish you a very happy Christmas? For those who are alone, and that can be just so hard, tomorrow is a time to remember our blessings no matter how few they seem.

We will continue our discussions and sharing in the new year.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Two issues in the Andrew Broad affair

Australian politics has become so messy that it is hard to keep track, harder still to explain it to those outside the country.

In the midst of all the froth and bubble, it is worth remembering that Australian Governments still work. Pensions get paid, things get done, the machinery continues. Our elections are free and fair, with a highly professional electoral commission. Our judicial system remains independent, free and politically impartial. The Australian media remains free. Our economy is okay, at least for the moment. Our health system works, education is generally good, We remain a tolerant country, at least by global standards. Our volunteer system still works, with Australians prepared to muck in to help others.  .

These are not small things.I have to remind myself of this from time to time in the current deluge of publicity about personal improprieties, especially by politicians.

I suppose that I first came across the Sugar Baby website about twelve months ago through newspaper reports Crudely, it appears to be a site that puts older men in contact with younger women in return for sex for favours. Now that site has destroyed the career of an Australian politician.

Andrew Broad is the National Party for the Federal seat of Mallee and a political comer in the party, a future leader. Then he got caught up in Sugar Baby and found himself the subject of a story in the New Idea women's magazine. While it was a personal matter and something of a set-up, the political implications and repercussions were such that Mr Broad will not contest the election.

 We are living in a very charged atmosphere in Australia at the present time. I don't want to comment on these issues. Instead I want to make two very simple points.

Mr Board traded on a conservative family values approach. He was one of the first to put the boot in over Barnaby Joyce's affair and subsequent fall-out. If you are going to espouse those values, god help you if you then fall out.

The second is more important. The boasts he made, his big noting, displayed a monumental lack of discretion and judgement. The idea that you can use a site like Sugar Baby in an indiscreet way and not expect it to come out suggests a remarkable degree of naivety.

We live in a media-hyped world where the constant chatter and reporting has diminished the private space. I don't like it, but that is reality. Those who want to enter public life have to adjust. I thought, and this may be wrong, that it exposed a potential senior minister to possible blackmail from all sorts of possible sources.  .


Sunday, December 16, 2018

My new friend

I have recently acquired a new friend. He and his mate suddenly appeared in the backyard after I mowed.

Avenger, my now old cat, decided that he wanted to be fed outside. This created new opportunities for my magpie.

Now he has become quite bold, coming up to the back door to check. Food is not always there. Sad bird.

Researchers at the University of New England established that if you are a known magpie friend you are safe from attack. I don't know about that, but certainly I have never been dive bombed in the area in which I am presently living.

The discussion now is what name he should be given. The feeling is that magpie is no longer sufficient.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Saturday Morning Musings: the Australian decision on Jerusalem

I have now added some contract policy writing to my other writing. I need the money, but it has further slowed me down. Oh well. I have continued to follow events, however. It remains a strange old world.

 In my post that dealt in part with the Wentworth by-election I referenced in part the Australian Prime Minister's statement on the possible move of the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. There I said:
 Prime Minister Morrison then threw another curled ball, announcing that at the suggestion of Dave Sharma the Government was considering shifting the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. This was in fact part of a broader statement including apparent continuing recognition of East Jerusalem as capital of an independent Palestinian state and needs to be seen in that context, but the timing and the reference suggested an attempt to woo the Jewish vote. If so, that was a serious error of judgement at several levels. Wentworth includes many Liberal Jews who do not necessarily support the current Israeli Government position as well as many centre or centre left voters sympathetic to the Palestinian position. 
The reactions since have been quite polarised. Those on the right have been angry because other countries might react negatively. "They shouldn't tell us what to do." Those on the left have been angry because they see it as affirming Israel's claims over Jerusalem as capital to the detriment of the Palestinian cause. And never the twain shall meet.

As I write, ABC news reports that the Australian Prime Minister is about to announce that the Australian Government will recognise West Jerusalem (my bold) as the capital of Israel but will not immediately move its embassy from Tel Aviv. He is also expected to acknowledge the aspirations of Palestinians for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem (my bold). 

I'm not sure that I see why Australia should have become involved in this matter in such an overt way. I also note the irony that it is the right that should be so pro-Israel. After all, antisemitism was and indeed still is a thread in right wing political thought. That said, the decision may well meet the diplomacy test of leaving everyone dissatisfied.

Israel, or at least the current Government with its claims over all Jerusalem, can hardly welcome the idea that Australia has recognised its claims only over the west of the city. The Palestinians and their supporters many of whom deny Israeli claims even to West Jerusalem may well react angrily.

Leaving aside the wisdom of becoming involved in the first place and subject to the exact wording of the PM's statement, it's an apparent decision that I find hard to argue against. It limits Israeli claims, affirms to some degree the Palestinian position and provides a base for future even policy. Which is not something that those on the right appear to have wanted.      

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Pacific Belshaws - Death of Cyril Belshaw

From time to time, I have written about the Pacific Belshaws, my own little family. Now I report the death of my cousin Cyril Belshaw on 20 November 2018. The Canadian family released this short statement that was carried in the Globe and Mail on 1 December 2018.
"Born Waddington, New Zealand, December 3, 1921; died Vancouver, Canada, November 20, 2018.
Auckland, New Zealand. From left to right grandfather James Belshaw, Cyril's father Professor Horace Belshaw, Cyril.  
We are saddened to share the news of Cyril's death just before his 97th birthday. He was a kind and generous man who taught his family to celebrate diversity and adventure, kindness and shared joy. He delighted in good food, travel, politics, gardening, music and his great passion, tennis. He will be mourned by daughter Diana, partner Thomas; granddaughter Eleanor, Liam and their son Arthur Cyril; son Adrian, partner Loreen; granddaughter Juniper, partner Jess; by his extended family Claudia and Kevin and friends around the world. 
Cyril was a colonial administrator and economist in the South Pacific before completing his PhD in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. During extensive field work in New Guinea, Fiji and Northern BC, he was supported, as in life, by his wife, Betty. His appointment to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at UBC began a long career as an international academic, observer, and writer. 
Cyril in his study, University of British Columbia 
He continued a family tradition of service as a founding member of CUSO, as Director of a Regional Training Centre for UN Fellows in Vancouver, and with UNESCO, the UN Bureau of Social Affairs, and the International Social Science Council. He served as President of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, as editor of Current Anthropology, was an Honorary Life Member of the Royal Anthropological Institute and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. 
Cyril was an unrepentant thinker and writer. His publications ranged from academic studies (The Indians of British Columbia, Under the Ivi Tree, Changing Melanesia) to philosophical and political analyses of the world around him (Anatomy of a University, Towers Besieged: The Dilemma of the Creative University, The Sorcerer's Apprentice: An Anthropology of Public Policy) . 
Towards the end of his life, Cyril imagined a better world for his granddaughters and their children in Creating Our Destiny, based on the essay with which he won the Utopian World Championship in 2005.
There will be no memorial service as Cyril asked to be remembered around a dinner table with good friends, excellent food and a glass of wine. Donations in his memory may be made to Doctors Without Borders, the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) or organisations that support the homeless."
The Wenner-Gren Foundation which, (among other things) publishes Current Anthropology, provided this tribute on its web site:
"In Memoriam: Dr. Cyril S. Belshaw
On November 20, 2018, Dr. Cyril S. Belshaw, the second editor of Current Anthropology, the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s flagship journal, passed away in Vancouver, Canada.   He guided Current Anthropology through a formative phase in its growth, taking over from the founder, Sol Tax, in 1974.  Known for his extensive research in New Guinea, Fiji, and British Columbia, Dr. Belshaw wrote for broad audiences on topics ranging from urbanism in Papua to the future of the Canadian university.   An avid promotor of global dialogue in anthropology, he served as President of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences and was an honorary lifetime member of Royal Anthropological Institute, the Pacific Science Association and the Association for the Social Anthropology of Oceania.  The Foundation is grateful for his service to the discipline. We extend our condolences to his friends and family on their loss."
I was only five or so when I first met Cyril. I must confirm exact dates when he, Betty and then baby Diana came to stay with us in Armidale. Despite the big age gap, Cyril and I are first cousins. Then came a long gap until we met again in Canberra when he was on an official visit

Despite that lack of direct contact, the information flows within the small extended Belshaw family, a small family in total and spread across countries, kept people in touch. When I came to do my history honours thesis in 1966, I chose to do it on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life in Northern NSW. I also chose to apply models and concepts from economics, consciously siding with Cyril in an earlier dispute he had had with Karl Polanyi over the relevance of economics to non-money using societies.

After that lunch in Canberra came another long gap. In 2009, Denise had to attend an international insolvency  conference in Vancouver,  I went with her as handbag and was able to spend a fair bit of the week with Cyril.

Cyril and I had been in contact a fair bit by email. Now we talked in more detail as I guided him around. Cyril was almost totally blind, he used a big screen, magnified text and a magnifying glass to see the screen. Yet despite that, he was still writing.

I promised Cyril that I would write the story of the Pacific Belshaws. Like him, I thought that it would make a good yarn, how a family from the pits and mills of  Lancashire came over two generations to to be something of an intellectual and academic dynasty spanning four Pacific countries. I was cautious about some aspects of our family story, I thought that it might open wounds, but Cyril was determined that it should be all told.

I have made some progress on the task, although it's not my top writing priority. As I researched, I realised how much interests and values has passed down the small number of generations. We don't always see it, but it's there in a very pronounced fashion.

I will finish that book. In the meantime, this post is a small memorial for my cousin.          

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Why I don't vote for a Prime Minister - and never have

The Australian Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party has changed its rules so that an elected Liberal Party prime minister in their first term cannot be removed unless there is a two-thirds majority of the party room voting for a change. These rules cannot be changed unless a two-thirds majority of the party room agree.

This followed a successful move by former labor Prime Minister Rudd’s to introduce a complicated, two-stage system that meant if the ALP caucus wanted to remove a leader, it would require a minimum of 60 per cent of the caucus vote if the party was in opposition, and 75 per cent if it were in government. Further, if there was more than one candidate for the leadership, either after a spill or an election loss, a temporary leader would be installed while there would be a month-long ballot process with the caucus and the rank-and-file each having a 50 per cent say in the outcome.

Both moves make me very uncomfortable for personal, constitutional and ideological reasons.

Under the Australian Westminster system, we vote for members of Parliament. The party that can command a majority in the lower house. the House of Representatives selects the PM. Perhaps more precisely, the person who can command a majority becomes PM and holds that position only so long as he or she, so far they have all been he, continues to command a majority.

While the question of who might become PM is an important factor in guiding many people's votes, people do vote for leaders, the constitutional position remains.

In my case, I can honestly say that I have never voted to make a particular person PM, nor do I normally regard my personal vote as important in this context. There are a number of reasons for this.

To begin with, I am voting for a person to represent my electorate in the lower house as well as people in the Senate. Slightly different personal rules apply in these two cases.

Like most Australians, I do have political affiliations. I describe my ideological position as New England populist, my traditional party affiliation as Country Party. My use of the term Country Party is revealing because that party no longer exists. While I supported the moves to broaden the Country Party base, while I am sympathetic to the National Party as successor party, I feel that the National Party as presently constituted no longer represents the things I believe in in quite the same way.

If you look at the simple description in the last paragraph you will get a feel for my discomfort. I am neither Labor nor Liberal. I do not regard the Country or now National Party as simply an agrarian or rural rump of the conservative side of politics. While the coalition agreement is long standing, I see the role of the Country/National Party as to deliver for certain sections of the Australian community independent of who is in power.

The commentary around the leadership in either Labor or Liberal Parties, or the media for that matter, almost implies that those parties have some god-given rights, that the Australian people vote to determine which of their respective leaders become PM and that the party in question must respect that choice.

Leaving aside the increasing proportion of Australians who do not vote for either of the biggest parties, both Labor and Liberal got just over a third of the vote at the last Federal election, we live in a parliamentary not presidential system. Labor and Liberal may choose to bind themselves in leadership terms for political and internal reasons, but that is a party decision driven by the ways in which their own internal instability had adverse consequences. Both seek to bind parliamentarians to prevent them acting in ways which for political or policy reasons might damage executive control or the perceived chances of electoral success.

Looking back over Australian political history, party instability is not uncommon. I think that's probably the nature of the beast in circumstances where power and prestige become dominant. Looking back over Australian political history, the electorate exercises its own corrective power.

Looking back over Australian political history, the most successful governments have generally been parliamentary rather than presidential, governments in which the prime minister or premier managed to control egos while giving ministers real power within the cabinet framework.  

Concluding, I am not very fond of Mr Shorten. Part of the reasons are personal, emotional, part policy. My views may well be wrong, However, I draw comfort from the strength of some of the Labor front-benchers around the leader, people I have developed a great deal of respect for.

I would be much happier with the prospect of a Labor government if Mr Shorten could be removed should he stuff up. This is now harder to do. That does not make me a happy chappie.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The importance of community of interest in government 1

Back in September 2017 in the context of the NSW local government elections I mused on the strange case of Bayside Council. Bayside was formed by the merger of the old Botany Bay and Rockdale Councils as part of the NSW Government's push to merge councils with the aim of reducing the cost of service delivery. Bigger is cheaper.

The move cause outrage because it forcibly merged two areas separated by Sydney airport that had nothing in common beyond a location around Botany Bay. There was, I suggested, no community of interest in the new Bayside Council. The areas had nothing in common. That remains the view of many of those north of Botany Bay in the old Botany Bay Council area to the point that the current NSW Labor opposition has promised a vote on demerger if elected.

I'm sorry I can't give you a link here because the story is behind a firewall. I note that I want to come back to this question, the firewalls, in a later post because I now have an absolute bee in my bonnet about it after some recent changes.

Botany Bay was not the only firestorm triggered by the NSW Government's council merger plans, nor indeed the biggest. So bad was the reaction that the Government was forced to stop the process midway, stating that mergers that had occurred would stand, others would not be forced. This created a new set of dissatisfactions among those who had lost their council and still wanted it back.

Earlier I used the phrase community of interest. As a matter of curiosity and as I normally do, I checked the term on Wikipedia. There I see that a:
community of interest, or interest-based community, is a community of people who share a common interest or passion. These people exchange ideas and thoughts about the given passion, but may know (or care) little about each other outside this area ......a community of interest is a gathering of people assembled around a topic of common interest. Its members take part in the community to exchange information, to obtain answers to personal questions or problems, to improve their understanding of a subject, to share common passions or to play.  In contrast to a spatial community, "a 'community of interest' is defined not by space, but by some common bond (e.g. feeling of attachment) or entity (e.g. farming, church group).
In turn, a spatial community is defined as:
A community of place or place-based community is a community of people who are bound together because of where they reside, work, visit or otherwise spend a continuous portion of their time.  Such a community can be a neighborhood, town, coffeehouse, workplace, gathering place, public space or any other geographically specific place that a number of people share, have in common or visit frequently. A community offers many appealing features of a broader social relationship: Safety, familiarity, support and loyalties as well as appreciation. Appreciation that is founded on efforts and contribution to the community, rather than the efforts, rank or status of an individual.
These definitions have only tangential connection to the way I use the term, a usage drawn from the New England populist tradition. There community of interest is seen as the essential geographic or spatial basis of governance and of governance structures. Like many principles, it has been commonly used but not not fully defined beyond the idea that governance and governance structures have to be based on shared interests and concerns. Where that principle is breached, government is likely to fail.

Consider the Bayside Council example. To the Government in Macquarie Street concerned with politics, governance and service delivery across an increasingly disparate state that owes its existence and boundaries to accidents of history, local government is seen as a subordinate creature, a vehicle for the delivery of certain services including administrative delivery of decisions made centrally.

Locals see things differently. To them, local government is the form of government that most closely reflects (or should most closely reflect) their local identity and concerns. When Botany Bay Council was submerged in Rockdale, those north of Botany Bay felt a real sense of loss. That may change. In the fight over Astrolabe Park, Bayside did play a positive role. However, the difficulty remains that there really is no community of interest between north and south.

When I get the regular Council newsletter in the mailbox, it refers to places I rarely go or, in some cases, places that I had never heard of prior to the merger.

This need not matter if there were separate plans and processes focused on the northern end, but the existence of Bayside as an entity together with State Government requirements effectively requires the Council to develop common policies and approaches as though Bayside LGA was in fact a geographic as opposed to administrative entity.

While government is likely to fail or at least be less effective if it ignores or does not properly take community of interest into account in structures and approach, defining community of interest can be difficult, accommodating it still more so where political and administrative structures are rigid. Problems here are compounded where, as is the case today, there is a belief that a single standard or approach is desirable. We can see this clearly at national level in Australia where Commonwealth Governments of all ilks seek to impose common policies and uniform standards even where evidence suggests that this is not sensible.

As a broad generalisation, community of interest diminishes as governing or institutional structures become geographically and demographically larger and more diverse. Even where there are shared needs, the expression of those needs varies between areas.

Consider the Commonwealth electoral division of Parkes, the largest in NSW. This covers 393,413 square kilometres, 49% of NSW. This compares to the smallest electorate, the inner Sydney electorate of Grayndler at just 32 square kilometres. While electors in both have some common interests very broadly defined such as health or education, those interests vary greatly between the two electorates. There is in fact no community of interest between the two electorates except at the most macro level.

Further, within Parkes distance means that there are a variety of geographically defined communities of interest. The electorate itself is so big that it lacks community of interest in its own right. Broken Hill is far removed from Narrabri.

One of the deeply held myths in Australia lies in the importance of the majority. Because the New England populist tradition grew up outside the metros, another theme was the way that majorities would always oppress the minority in the absence of some countervailing force. In practice, the way that the absence of community interest is handled, the way that oppression of the majority is managed to some degree in the Australian system, lies in the way that all the main Australian parties are interest based with their base support geographically concentrated appealing to particular communities of interest. I am not saying that there are not ideological differences. There are, but these interconnect with the parties' history and support areas.

Consider the Greens as a case in point. They began as a cause based party, but succeeded because the views they developed appealed to people concentrated in particular areas. An interaction developed between those communities and the Party. Outside core areas, Green support is very patchy.

In competing against each other, the various parties need to reach out to other voters while also looking after traditional interests, then in power they have to compromise. The National Party is important in this mix because it is the only party that explicitly defines its role in geographic terms, forcing more targeted competition for a regional vote that might otherwise be seen as secondary.

The effect of all this is to temper the potential oppression of the majority, to better link political processes to varying communities of interest.

Tomorrow I will look at the way community of interest is handled at policy and institutional terms and the reasons these approaches so often fail to deliver the desired results.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Monday Forum: What, exactly, is the hard right in Australia, what does it believe?

I have been reading and writing, but just not on line, as I try to finish stuff. Hopefully this will ease as stuff starts coming out. It will need to since I have just started a three month part time writing gig.

While I have been reading and writing I have not been totally oblivious to the world. Here I want to pose two questions: what, exactly, is the hard right in Australia? What does it believe?

These are real questions for I am genuinely puzzled. I have either been involved in or at least followed Australian politics for a long time. I do understand both our history and political structures. However, as I read the current feeds and the commentary I am left with a sense of confusion. It seems to me that we is called the hard right is no more than an amalgam of inconsistent bedfellows that, in the end, are marked more by what divides them.

In April, the Conversation ran a series of articles on the battle for conservative hearts and minds in Australian politics, You will find the last article here. It includes links to the three earlier articles including one written by Chris Berg. I suppose that one could describe the approach adopted as structural with some focus on relationships between groups.

I actually had a problem with the title. It is not clear to me that those organisations or people included in the hard right are actually battling for conservative hearts and minds but rather, at least in part, for the hearts and minds of those who can be swung to more radical positions. I have another problem in that I struggle to see any real connection between apparently Libertarian Senator David  Leyonhjelm and  the Australian Conservatives such as Lyle Shelton beyond a marriage of convenience over religious freedom.

Later, I will try to do a proper structural and values analysis, for the moment i simply pose the questions.      


Monday, November 05, 2018

Threads - Khashoggi murder, Wentworth by-election

It's been an interesting if chaotic few weeks in news terms, one that has quite out-run my ability to say anything useful. I don't like just reporting or joining in the often breathless commentary that passes for analysis in Australia and elsewhere for that matter. I write to clarify my own views and, hopefully, add some value to the public discussion. Because I have been writing for such a long time, I also like checking back to see what I have said before, to measure what I said then against later events. All this takes time, something that is in short supply given my focus on the need to draw some form of line under some of my historical research.

Against this background, this morning's short muse simply points to a few things that I think are important within the political swirl. Here the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi provides a useful entry point.

Khashoggi Murder

I watched this story break on the news feeds with bemusement. It was like something out of a bad spy thriller. I took the initial leaks from the Turkish side with a high degree of caution, although it now seems clear that they were actually a fairly accurate description of what happened. The murder came at a somewhat chaotic time in Middle Eastern politics. 

Under the influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia had adopted an activist foreign policy. This included the intervention in Yemen and the attempt to isolate Qatar. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had taken actions following the coup attempt to assert his authority in ways that were widely seen as undemocratic. Turkey was also actively engaged in Syria, working in a sometimes uneasy relationship with Russia. 

Beyond the Middle East, President Trump had decided to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and had withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran. So complexities piled on complexities. 

The murder of Mr Khashoggi appears to have been carried out for domestic reasons, but threw a major curve ball into the broader equation. In media terms, it has "rehabilitated" President Erdogan in ways that I had not expected. It has undermined Saudi involvement in Yemen, as well as the campaign against Qatar. It has also affected President Trump's approach to to the Middle East since the President is dependent in some ways upon the Saudis, among other things,  to make the Iranian sanctions, including those just announced, effective. 

I am moderately familiar with Middle Eastern history and politics, but have no idea how all this will work out. I have no basis for making a sensible judgement. However, from a narrow Australian perspective, I think two things are important. 

The first is the extent to which events are undermining US authority, an authority which has been central to Australian foreign policy. By authority I do not mean moral authority, although that's not insignificant. Rather, I am thinking of the capacity of the US to enforce its authority through global structures that are being weakened by its own actions.

Consider sanctions as an example. US Authority here depends upon its central position in global payments, a position that allows it to punish non-compliance. This position remains powerful as evidenced by the problems created for the EU which does not agree with the US position on Iran. However, US policy has created powerful incentives to develop new structures and processes that by-pass the US dominated payments system.

This type of process takes time. Looking back over some of my writing, I have sometimes over-estimated the pace of change, underestimated the stickiness in existing systems, underestimated the way extend to which other shocks can affect the change process. I had not expected, for example, that China would adopt such an aggressive foreign policy. To my mind, this has reduced China's ability to position itself at the centre of the global economic order, Belt and Road notwithstanding. However, if we take a ten year time horizon, it's not hard to see how new payment structures might emerge.              

These changes are important to Australia at two levels. As a relatively small rich country, we depend upon an open global trade and economic order. As a US ally, we are affected by changes that affect US power and authority. This brings me to my second point.

The Middle East is important to Australia, but it is not a core strategic concern. It is also not an area where we have or can have much strategic influence. For both reasons, it pays Australia to keep a lower profile. This segues neatly into the Wentworth by-election.

The Wentworth By-election

The Wentworth by-election was held on Saturday 20 October 2018 to select a replacement MP for Malcolm Turnbull who had resigned from Parliament for his loss of the PM role. It was seen as important because a loss would reduce the Government to a minority position in the House of Representatives, although this did not mean loss of Government given the number of cross-benchers, members not belonging to either Government or Opposition. The election was important, too, as a first test for new Prime Minister Morrison after the turmoil associated with Mr Turnbull's removal from power.

For the benefit of those outside Sydney, Wentworth covers the Sydney eastern suburbs that lie along the south shores of Sydney Harbour. All of Australia's electoral divisions have their own special features. In Wentworth's case it covers an area that is traditionally wealthy and conservative. It also has a relatively high proportion of Jewish voters, from memory around 13%.

The seat has been presented as blue ribbon Liberal. That's not quite true, although it is true that Labor has never won it.

Wentworth has been undergoing basic change along two dimensions, size and composition.

The number of Federal electorates is relatively fixed. Each seat must have a an equivalent number of electors within a defined bound, with boundaries adjusted at regular intervals in light of population change. In rural areas facing slow or declining population growth the outcome has been a massive expansion in the geographic size of electorates. These changes are less acute in urban areas, but even there boundaries have tended to expand while there have been constant boundary variations  Wentworth remains a geographically small electorate, the second smallest in the Federal Parliament, but it has added and sometimes subtracted areas with history and composition different from the original core.

The composition of the electorate has also been greatly affected by social, economic and demographic change. Its location close to the city, its proximity to beaches and parks, has attracted young professionals, many of whom rent the growing number of apartments; some 48% of the electorate now rents. For at least the last three decades, the seat has been seen as socially progressive while still conservative on economic issues. However, there has been something of a divide between the inner core of exclusive older suburbs and the surrounding areas that have moved in and out of the electorate. As we shall see in a moment, this division was reflected in the latest vote.

For those who are interested, Antony Green's overview of the seat provides more information on boundaries and composition of the electorate, while Wikipedia provides an overview of the vote in the seat since federation.

Malcolm Turnbull won the seat in 2004 after a bitter pre-selection battle with the sitting Liberal Member Peter King. There were concerns at the time about expansion in the Green vote. Mr King was seen as too conservative, while Mr Turnbull was a high profile candidate who combined wealth and corporate success with more progressive attitudes seen as better attuned to the majority view in Wentworth. Mr Turnbull won the seat with a 55.48% two party preferred vote, down from the 57.86% recorded by Mr King at the previous election.

Again for the benefit of international readers, many Australian jurisdictions operate a preferential vote system in which you vote 1 for your first preference and then number the other candidates in order of preference. Should no candidate receive a majority on the primary vote, the second preferences of the other candidates are distributed starting with the candidate with the lowest number of votes who is then eliminated. The process continues until a candidate achieves a a majority.

The term two part preferred, 2pp or TPP, is used to describe the vote between the top two candidates after distribution of preferences. While preferences are not formally distributed where a candidate achieves a majority on the primary vote, it has become practice to calculate the 2PP figure even in these cases.

In his first election with former member Peter King running as an independent, Mr Turnbull achieved 41.79% of the primary vote, 55.48% in 2PP terms. By the 2016 election, Mr Turnbull had increased his primary vote to 62.26%, his 2PP vote to 67.5%, making this a very safe Liberal seat. The question then became whether or not the dumping of Mr Turnbull as PM and his sudden resignation might change the equation.

A large field of candidates nominated, of which the four main ones were Dave Sharma (Liberal), Kerryn Phelps (Independent), Tim Murray (Labor) and Dominic Wy Kanak (Greens).

The Liberal party preselection campaign had been a little messy. It coincided with allegations of bullying and sexist discrimination in Federal Parliament. There were arguments that the Liberal party should endorse a woman, with the lead candidate for Liberal preselection withdrawing on the grounds that the Party should do just that. This opened the way for Mr Sharma, a former diplomat and ambassador to Israel, to win the nomination with Mr Turnbull's apparent endorsement.

Labor's Tim Murray, already preselected, began campaigning early and seemed to be attracting support if the enthusiasm of his campaign workers, including youngest. is any guide. The decision of Kerryn Phelps to run as an independent changed the equation. Dr Phelps is a former AMA president, a well known local doctor and a councilor of the City of Sydney. Phelps is also married to Jackie Stricker, a former primary school teacher, converted to Judaism after her marriage and is a well known campaigner for gay rights. With her nomination, the real contest became Sharma v Phelps. To a degree Labor and especially the Greens ran dead to maximize the chances of a Phelps victory. Both lost votes as a consequence.

The Liberals had a difficult and sometimes chaotic campaign in which the popular fault lines in Australian politics were clearly on display.

The environment is an important issue in Wentworth. Having just rejected Mr Turnbull's National Energy Guarantee, the Government went into the by-election without a really coherent environmental narrative. Difficulties here were compounded later in the campaign when Mr Turnbull's son entered the campaign to argue that the Liberal Party candidate must be defeated to deliver an environmental message to the Government. With Mr Turnbull refusing to be involved in the election on the grounds that he had left Parliament, this gathered a lot of media attention.

The campaign began against a backdrop of allegations about bullying and discrimination against women in the Federal Parliament. Then someone leaked the recommendations of the Ruddock inquiry into  the adequacy of legislative protection for religious freedom. This ignited a debate about existing provisions that might allow discrimination against gay students and teachers. The Government tried to hose this down, but this is another Wentworth hot button issue.

Then came the fiasco of the Government's apparent support subsequently withdrawn for Senator Hanson's it's ok to be white motion. At the very least, this suggested continued disorganisation within the Government at a time when it was trying to present a degree of coherence. To compound the problem further, the papers started carrying stories of a possible leadership challenge within the National Party apparently triggered by an interview with New England MP Barnaby Joyce in which he said that he wasn't seeking to regain the leadership but would accept it if he was drafted. While there is some dissatisfaction with Michael McCormack's leadership, I couldn't see a challenge as a real possibility and indeed the Party lined up behind the leader. However, the coverage certainly wasn't helpful to the Liberal campaign in Wentworth.  

Prime Minister Morrison then threw another curled ball, announcing that at the suggestion of Dave Sharma the Government was considering shifting the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. This was in fact part of a broader statement including apparent continuing recognition of East Jerusalem as capital of an independent Palestinian state and needs to be seen in that context, but the timing and the reference suggested an attempt to woo the Jewish vote. If so, that was a serious error of judgement at several levels. Wentworth includes many Liberal Jews who do not necessarily support the current Israeli Government position as well as many centre or centre left voters sympathetic to the Palestinian position.

With apparent defeat looming, the Liberals including former PM John Howard made last minute appeals to voters to vote for Mr Sharma to preserve stability in Government. You can imagine how that went down given the circumstances that had triggered the by-election in the first place!  It also exposed the Government to subsequent attack that since it had lost the by-election it could not, on its own words, guarantee stable government and should therefore call a general election.

By-election Results and Aftermath

Counting on election night quickly showed a strong swing against the Liberal Party with its vote down 24% at one stage to below 40%. This led ABC election analyst Antony Green to call the seat for Dr Phelps around 7.14pm. I went to bed reasonably early The results seemed quite clear-cut and I had become tired of talking heads pontificating about the scale of the loss, what a disaster it was for the Government and the reasons for the defeat.

I woke to similar commentary in the morning. Blame shifting had also begun, with some coalition MPs blaming the loss on Mr Turnbull's failure to campaign. I thought that was a bit rich in the circumstances. However, in the count itself, things were not quite what they seemed. Towards the end of the count on Saturday, counting of postal votes strongly favoured Mr Sharma. By Sunday night, there was an outside chance that Mr Sharma might still win. In the end, Dr Phelps won with 51.22% of the vote after preferences compared to 48.79% for Mr Sharma, a margin of 1.849 votes. In the primary vote, Mr Sharma received 43.08%  of the vote, down 19.10%, compared to Dr Phelp's 29.19%.

Looking at the full numbers, a few things stand out.

The first is the relative narrowness of Dr Phelp's final victory. If only 925 additional voters had voted Liberal 1 or Liberal 2 Mr Sharma would have won. I bolded the or because in this by-election with its likely protest vote against the dumping of Mr Turnbull, the Liberals needed disaffected protesting Liberals to make the part number 2, thus registering a protest vote while ensuring that at least some of those votes still flowed to Mr Sharma once preferences were distributed. The decision of Labor and Greens to run dead was, I think, designed in part to prevent this.

The second thing to stand out is the divided nature of the electorate, with a relative divide between the Northern harbour suburbs (Sharma) and the booths in the western and southern portions of the electorate (Phelps) reflecting their different demographics.

The third thing to stand out is the way the postal votes favoured Mr Sharma. These were generally cast earlier. There seems to have been a shift to Dr Phelps in the last week or ten days of the campaign.

I am left with the strong impression that the Liberals could have won Wentworth despite external factors, including Mr Turnbull's sacking. They failed because they ran a bad campaign, especially in the last week or ten days. Instead of keeping their campaign focused on positive issues, economic management and local needs, they became distracted. The appeal to voters to vote for Mr Sharma, the Jerusalem announcement, smacked of a certain level of desperation. I think that this failure is the real lesson from Wentworth.


On his blog Happy Antipodean, Matthew da Silva had a rather nice piece What motivates Malcolm Turnbull?  I have included it here because of, among other things, its description of Sydney's Eastern Suburbs.    

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

When the alt-left helps create the alt-right

There was more than one thing farcical about the vote in the Australian Senate on One Nation leader Pauline Hanson's motion in the Australian Senate that  "it is OK to be white".

The motion itself was farcical if actually a very successful example in wedge politics. . Of course it's okay to be white. That's just a loosely defined skin colouring. The decision by the opposition and cross-bench to vote against and defeat the motion on the grounds that the motion was racist code was silly because in doing so the Australian Senate has actually affirmed that it's not OK to be white.

Then we have the absolutely farcical position where the Government voted in favour of the motion and then revoked its vote. It is clear that the Government had not properly worked out a position, clearer still that Coalition Senators were trying to follow voting instructions that they were uncomfortable with and made a mockery of Senate independence.

Let me be quite clear. There was only one way to effectively handle Ms Hanson's motion. The Senate should have passed it unanimously  as self-evidently correct, while hammering the underlying assumptions behind the motion. Instead, we now have the position that it's apparently not ok to be white, whatever that might mean, feeding into a narrative that threatens Australia's social cohesion.

I am old enough to remember the Second World War if not personally but as a living memory around me. I am old enough to remember the revulsion created by the holocaust, the discrediting of the race based eugenic views  

I am old enough, too, to remember the White Australia policy and its progressive dismantling. This was a rejection of something that had been deeply embedded in the Australian consciousness, a most profound social revolution. It is something I take pride in.

I also remember the American civil rights movement, something that energised my generation, and its belated application to the Australian Aborigines. There is some distance to go, disadvantage and prejudice still exists, but progress had been made.

In the period after the war racist, perhaps more accurately ethnicist, views still existed in Australia but the more extreme views were pushed to the fringe where small groups played with Nazi symbols and preserved the illusion of a global Jewish conspiracy, of the supremacy of the "white race."  Now those views are back, somewhat ironically given the way that DNA and associated scientific advances have discredited the very basis on which racism existed. We are all mongrels, so to speak.

The left has been a major factor here with their simple guilt/identity focus. Consider the oft-used phrase white patriarchal male. As used, this is deeply sexist and racist. Sexist because it implies that all males are patriarchal, racist because it attaches implicit attributes to white males. I see little difference between this and Ms Hanson's "it's ok to be white". Both are code phrases into which can be read a range of attributes.

The difficulty is that when you create a them/us construct, when you demonise a group, you can create the very thing that you wish to attack. We saw this in the so-called "war on terror' where the rhetoric used and associated policies arguably turned a fiction into a reality. Now the left is helping create the very thing they wish to challenge. This is fine if your are Antifa, for there your very validity depends upon having something to fight. It doesn't make a lot of sense for the sensible left
who actually want to achieve social advancement.
I don't have a solution. I just wish some people on both sides would shut-up!