Ill wind


This month, once again, air pollution in Beijing has been in the news again. The only new part was that some enterprising fellow was selling bottled air to the public! Let’s leave that for a moment to sink in.

Yes, bottled air. I mean, once upon a time bottled water seemed the ultimate in environmental madness, but we as a species have now really excelled ourselves.

Still, an ill wind and all that, the right-wing think tanks of the US and Australia will be pleased. You see their major task, and this of course has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with the big corporations that fund them, is to get rid of all regulations in their respective countries. “The Market”, they profess to believe, and I am sure, almost sure, this is a genuine belief they would hold even without funding, will take care of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, once freed of the terrible burdens of red, black, green, purple tape.

And here in China (just a touch ironically, but never mind) is the perfect example of their belief in action. Allow business to pour fumes into the air unchecked and, cometh the hour, cometh the libertarian, someone will be ready to sell bottles of less polluted air to twenty million people.

Not saying their beliefs haven’t been proved correct over and over. Here the collapse of a building erected without the burden of building codes provides work for bulldozer drivers in the clean-up; there people burnt in a factory with no fire escapes or sprinklers will provide work for undertakers. Polluted drinking water provides work for medical personnel, as do train and plane crashes, and cigarettes.

In fact scarcely a day goes by but somewhere in the world someone, as well as the owner, is making money as a result of regulations unwritten or unenforced. And, thanks to the think tanks succesful fight against any action on climate change, the whole world is still the oyster for energy companies as well as forestry industries, fisheries, agribusiness.

What’s the old Yorkshire saying – ah yes, “Where there’s muck there’s brass”.

The Colour Purple


Media Matters has analysed media coverage in the US media of climate change in recent years and found, in spite of record temperatures and droughts etc, that coverage was actually declining. Furthermore, even when climate change was mentioned, the vast majority of those interviewed were Republican climate change deniers, with actual climate scientists rarely if ever interviewed. I don’t know if a similar study has been done recently in Australia, although there are studies of the abysmal News Ltd newspapers coverage, but it is absolutely clear that similar, if not worse, statistics would apply. I’m looking here a one particular Australian case which probably has relevance everywhere.

The record high temperatures in Australia this week, followed by devastating bushfires, were an obvious “teachable moment” for the media to join the dots for the public. This is what climate scientists have been predicting, this is what happened, this is what the future holds. Instead there was again a studious silence. It was as if there was no such thing as climate change, as if (like the America drought last year) these things were happening by chance in some world in which nothing else had changed.

Here is a recent example from Australia’s national broadcaster the ABC. Some background. The “7.30 Report” is a relatively serious current affair program, immediately following the main evening news bulletin, and often expanding on the main stories from the news. On the 8 January, as temperatures soared and fires raged, a great deal of the News Bulletin was devoted to those events, and then the 7.30 Report devoted the whole program to them.

None of the news items mentioned climate change, nor did the 7.30 Report in its first half, to my increasing frustration and yelling at the tv set. Then came an interview with “Alasdair Hainsworth from the Bureau of Meteorology”. The presenter, Ben Knight, introduced the segment by noting temperature records, and then noting that the Bureau had been forced to add more colours, black and purple, to its temperature maps to cope with the new high records. Extraordinary, right, and the obvious time to have a discussion about climate change, and indeed Mr Knight began the interview with the question “why are we in this situation where Australia is breaking these temperature records?”

Yes, I thought, here comes a decent climate change discussion at last. But I was wrong. Whether by design, or because that was the way the meteorologist interpreted the question, we immediately moved into a routine that has become very familiar. The ABC (and other networks) when it asks about the cause of events, means only the proximate cause, not the ultimate one. By this means, turning climate discussions into discussions about weather, every time, it avoids every opportunity to talk climate change. And so it was yet again, Mr Hainsworh talking about the trapping of heat on the continent, lack of cloud and moisture, delay in monsoon season and so on. Now, fair enough, this seems to be Mr Hainsworth’s area of expertise (a manager, Assistant Director Services, a meteorologist involved in IT systems and so on, his team recently won an award for “Our Next Generation Forecast and Warning System was highly commended at the Comcover Awards for Excellence in Risk Management in March 2012. These awards recognise exceptional and inspiring leadership in the management of risks faced by Commonwealth Government agencies. The judging panel recognised that the system improved our ability to manage and inform the community about severe weather events, including severe thunderstorms and flash flooding. These events present a significant risk to the safety of the Australian community”). But that being the case, why was he asked to appear? Well, apparently because he is responsible for the area that had to put new colours on the map. OK, now we have an another opportunity to talk climate change.

And here we go, the conversation proceeding as follows:

“BEN KNIGHT: It’s always a difficult question but how much of an aberration is this or does this actually fit into this pattern we’ve seen over the past decades where it’s been progressively getting hotter and hotter?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Certainly I can comment that this has broken the record as the hottest period. We’ve had six days in a row where the national average maximum temperature has been in excess of 39 degrees. The previous record was four days and we’ve also seen the hottest average day in Australia which was Monday and perhaps it could have been broken again today, although it’s somewhat cooler in Tasmania today. So, that may not be the case. Certainly it’s almost unprecedented as far as records are concerned.
BEN KNIGHT: And you now have this really quite interesting situation where Australian temperature maps have actually had to change because previously they only went up to 50 degrees, we’re now seeing that you’ve got an extra couple of gradings in purple and black to show temperatures which go beyond 50 degrees and indeed on Sunday and Monday in parts of Australia are forecast to do just that?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Yes, that’s right. The charts previously did go above 50 degrees, our models certainly were picking temperatures above 50 degrees but they were, it was showing up as white and so we decided that we would alter the temperature scale to ensure it showed it properly and we’ve added the extra two gradations which take the temperatures up to between 52 and 54 degrees Celsius.
At this stage we’ve only seen the first gradation, which is between 50 and 52 populated but yeah, it’s certainly extraordinarily hot over South Australia and central Australia and unfortunately it does appear as though it’s going to, it’s set to continue.
BEN KNIGHT: Do you think we are seeing a new reality, a new paradigm?
ALASDAIR HAINSWORTH: Well, as far as the models are concerned then yes. We haven’t seen these temperatures before but by the same token our computer modelling is getting better, it’s getting more accurate, it’s getting higher resolution. So it could be a combination of these factors which in actual fact just means that it’s actually modelling these things better, that it may not necessarily mean that they haven’t happened before but it’s simply that we haven’t been able to model it before.”

Now I had to not only listen to this extraordinary exchange, but read it several times, to try to make sense of it. I think we have here not really a conspiracy of silence, as it were, but more a combination of circumstances resulting in the same outcome. Mr Hainsworth, I’m guessing, is there because the ABC researcher rang the BOM and said we want to do an interview about this heatwave and about the altering of the weather map parameters could you put us on to one of your people to interview please? And the BOM public relations person has said, oh, you want Mr Hainsworth, his area is responsible for the map. So there we are. Mr Hainsworth is there to talk about the map (and is in any case not a climatologist), Mr Knight is there to talk about record-breaking hot weather (although I am guessing he is also under some kind of ABC protocol that doesn’t let him use the phrase “climate change”).

So, potential cross-purposes established, we start this part of the interview. Mr Knight tries to ask whether this hot weather is the result of the changing climate (without using the term, instead going for the euphemism “past decades where it’s been progressively getting hotter and hotter”) or is some kind of “freak event” as it were. Mr Hainsworth is there to talk about hot weather events, and about his map which reports them, so he does. The map and nothing but the map.

Mr Knight, perhaps hoping that although he can’t mention climate change, perhaps he can get his interviewee to do so (again, I am guessing that an ABC protocol may specify this) tries again with a different euphemism. Are we, he asks “seeing a new reality, a new paradigm?” Knight (again I’m guessing) hears his own question as “come on Buddy, talk about climate change FFS, ‘new paradigm’, get it?”. Hainsworth, having been invited on to talk about his map, hears “how did you construct your wonderful new map on your computer, what were the computer paradigms?” and answers accordingly, yes indeed, our computers are bigger and better so the maps are getting better. Or perhaps I am being too kind.

Whatever, the outcome is that extraordinary weather, a clear prediction of climate science, and obvious further evidence that the planet is warming, are both apparently “discussed” in serious tv programs on the national public broadcaster without climate change ever being mentioned. Furthermore the guest manages (I think unintentionally) to suggest that all of this could be just some kind of computer modelling glitch and we aren’t really getting hotter at all. In any case, it’s all because of some odd combination of weather circumstances. (It’s worth noting that the Bureau of Meteorology has apparently issued a statement I can’t find that “Clearly the climate system is responding to the background warming trend”. Which is fine but too mild, and as far as I know was little reported if at all).

Now, if I were to complain to the ABC about this, I would be met with incredulity. “What are you talking about? We talked about the map and got the senior person from the BOM responsible for it to talk about it. What more do you want?” And, at one level, fair enough. But at another level, why not get a climate scientist on? Why not mention climate change by name even once in half an hour of news and current affairs tv?

The next day, by contrast, the media was full of the statements by Warren Truss, leader of the Right Wing National Party and future Deputy Prime Minister in a conservative government. No problems with euphemisms, or being cautious for Mr Truss. He announced that linking heatwaves and record temperatures and bushfires with climate change was “utterly simplistic”. He went on to say that “carbon dioxide emissions from bushfires over the past week would eclipse those from coal-fired power stations for decades. Indeed I guess there’ll be more CO2 emissions from these fires than there will be from coal-fired power stations for decades”. It hardly needs saying that Mr Truss has done no research in climate science, has done no postgraduate degree in the subject, and in fact has no undergraduate qualification of any kind. He began work as a farmer, then went into politics.

It also hardly needs saying that his CO2 from bushfires comment is mind-numbingly wrong. “bushfires this year have emitted an amount of CO2 equivalent to 2% of Australia’s annual emissions from coal-fired power. The current bushfires must burn an area of forest greater than Tasmania to generate CO2 emissions equivalent to a year of burning coal for electricity. And the current bushfires must burn an area of forest the size of New South Wales to generate CO2 emissions equivalent to a decade of burning coal for electricity.” In addition of course, the CO2 from bushfires will be reabsorbed as burnt trees regrow, so, unlike coal power stations, there is no net gain of CO2 from bushfires at all. Again, to my knowledge, there was no fact checking of Mr Truss on tv when he was interviewed, or subsequently. Certainly there was none, nor any contrary view in the News Ltd paper report I saw.

So Climate Change denialists, Right Wing politicians, are able to make any outrageous nonsense claim (Mr Truss also said “‘I’m told it’s minus one in Mt Wellington at the present time in Tasmania. Hobart’s expecting a maximum of 16. Australia’s climate, it’s changing, it’s changeable. We have hot times, we have cold times… “!) they like and it will be hyped up by the media (big headline in the Herald-Sun “Climate change link to heatwave, bushfires ‘utterly simplistic’, says Warren Truss”). Conversely, it seems, any situation in which the reality of climate change might by chance become obvious to the public is played down, or structured in such a way as to avoid the possibility of information transfer to public ears.

It has so far proved impossible to get past the media who are guarding the gate against any possibility of action on climate change. The time has come for more direct action, more big claims, like those of Truss but based on reality not fantasy. Aim to generate headlines in spite of the media. And every time you get a chance at an appearance on tv or anywhere else in the media, keep saying “climate change” over and over. The time for being shy, unobtrusive, in the climate change closet, is over, the time has come for purple prose to go with the new purple patches on the map.

Bad Sports


The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” (Duke of Wellington)

After the recent horror in Newtown, Connecticut, all the usual suspects started trotting out their usual gun apologia, in America and here.

Even the good guys though, really don’t get it. Michael Bloomberg, for example “Nobody questions the Second Amendment right to bear arms”. But why not Michael, why not? Everything else in American society can be questioned but not rampant gun ownership? And here, Joe Hockey, also meaning well said he “couldn’t see why any member of the public, apart from farmers and sporting shooters, needed guns”. Quite right, but why should there be “sporting shooters” Joe (farmers are a different question, but I think also shouldn’t be an exception)?

People, like other animals, have always played games. The simpler kinds of athletics like running and jumping, and games involving some kind of ball or similar object, have been played in all human societies. As have frivolous ones like kite-flying, or spinning tops.

But there are other, more complex games, that develop to reflect, and reinforce, particular cultural or social factors in societies, and these come and go throughout history.

Some, many, are used (like the play of lion cubs or foxes) to train the youth of the society in martial pursuits. In Ancient Greece games like Javelin and Discus throwing, and wrestling; in Rome chariot racing, and gladiatorial contests; in Mediaeval England it was jousting and archery (Henry Eighth making this explicit in his law that the young had to practice archery); later, in many societies, it was guns used for target practice, horses doing dressage. Other games relate to people turning their working day occupation into a game or sport – for example wood-chopping, sailing and rowing, hunting, horse riding, motor racing.

Over the last few thousand years societies have grown out of some sports, left others behind as archaic, no longer relevant to warfare, have changed their ethical and moral attitudes to brutality toward other human beings, towards animals.

No longer do we see, nor expect to see, people leaping over bulls, chariot racing, gladiatorial mortal combat, jousting or bear-baiting. Then there are games that do continue, often underground, but that should have (for obvious reasons) gone totally by now – cock fighting, dog fighting, bullfights, hunting (all kinds), fishing and horse racing.

And then there are some new “sports” that should never have started but, having done so, should be stopped – wood chopping, motor racing, boxing, cage fighting, rodeos, and shooting.

Why? Well because sports don’t merely reflect the values and ethics of their time and place, they help to define them, reinforce them. In the Colosseum, watching thousands of rare animals slaughtered, or deciding on the life or death of a defeated gladiator by the whim of the crowd, were not merely reflections of a brutal attitude to life in Rome, but helped to maintain that attitude. No longer seeing defenceless bears torn to death by dogs on the streets of Elizabethan London must have helped to begin the movement towards a gentler society.

And so it is with our modern bad sports. One or two of them certainly seemed like a good idea at the time – other times, other mores – but that time is no longer with us. Take wood-chopping for example. Began as a way for the 7 foot tall, well-muscled, bronzed axemen of the bush, to see who was the fastest at chopping down 500 year-old-trees. Crowds cheered at agricultural shows, as these representatives of all that was magnificent about the Australia of the past chopped away to see who could cut through their log the fastest. Heroes, home-grown heroes. But these heroes had helped to destroy forests all over Australia, had removed magnificent old growth trees, had driven once abundant species like red cedar effectively to near extinction. In 2013, with forests everywhere lost or degraded, and with climate change coming at us like a timber lorry on a narrow road, the time for seeing wood chopping as a celebration of Australia should be long behind us.

Same with motor racing. One hundred years ago, there was a brave new world of fast cars, and brave drivers pushing boundaries, advancing technology. Hurtling around the track without a care in the world except the next chequered flag. The fastest drivers of our youth (such as Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss in my case) heroes in the sense that top footballers and cricketers and tennis players (ah, those were the days) were. But now? Kidding, right? How many cars in the world, a billion? Two billion? All burning petrol, spewing out CO2. We could do without high performance cars driving mindlessly round and round race tracks symbolically and actually wasting fuel for no good reason.

Similarly, with seven billion people on the planet, with wars and rumours of wars, terrorism, ethnic hatreds, violence on the streets of big cities, do we really want to keep glorifying the idea that two men (and even women these days) brutally bashing each other to the cheers and jeers of a crowd until one is so badly injured (even dead sometimes) they cannot go on, is a sport and an entertainment? And, on a planet where species are going extinct at a faster and faster rate, and where climate change and habitat loss are rapidly worsening, why the hell are we hunting and fishing the species that are left? And why are we still encouraging an ethos that animals are there for the mere purpose of entertainment, to be tortured and killed on a whim, in sports such as horse racing, rodeos, and bull fighting? It certainly reduces the level of empathy for the natural world so necessary to get us through the rest of this dangerous century, but, considering only self human interest, leads to less empathy for other humans.

Which brings me to shooting. Put all of the above together and tell me that in the world of 2013 we should be treating and glamourising guns as sporting equipment and not deadly weapons whose use should be reduced to a minimum. There is nothing sporting about shooting. We shouldn’t be treating as normal the idea of possessing and using guns which kill tens of thousands of people every year and millions of animals.

So we need some new games? How about some based on firefighting, tree planting, rescuing sea turtles and seabirds, collecting litter, replanting sand dunes, conservation farming, solar-powered vehicles, public health activities?

Good sports, eh?

Gunna go now


An update. After two cycles of this new round of chemotherapy I have lost all my hair (which didn’t happen last year) and am getting nasty side effects on bone and muscle. I feel like my status has subtly changed, from being an ordinary person who just happened to be having cancer treatment, to being a fully unfledged cancer patient. Apparently though I still “look well” so that’s ok then.

Anyway, while the sainthood (aka oncology doctors and nurses) were working away, saving lives, making people more comfortable, CARING (in both senses); elsewhere in the world, arseholes with guns were slaughtering health workers in Pakistan and schoolchildren in America. And uber-arsehole, Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Arseholes, was proposing ever more guns to stop the gun carnage. Tell you what Wayne, there are no guns in oncology wards.

As always the rest of the world watches the behaviour of the American and Pakistan branches of the Taliban in stunned incomprehension. I am currently, briefly, reading the latest Janet Evanovich [look, I know, I know right. It's the literary equivalent of fairy floss- sugary, sickly and all the same. I can't imagine anyone, anywhere, having a complete set of Evanovich. But, in my defence, it is something my brain can currently cope with, and, more importantly, it was only $3 in a book remainder shop]. Something that struck me once more, especially in the week of Newtown, is that in this fairy floss book of “fun”, guns are on almost every page. Lovingly described, carried as if it was most natural thing in world, a part of every household, every outfit. Nowhere else in the world could such a treatment of guns in such a context be written. And nowhere else except in Pakistan could people not only slaughter women health workers, working hard to inject children to save them from the scourge of Polio, but proudly boast about having done so.

Anyway. Those are my thoughts on a Saturday morning. Since it is Saturnalia time, my next post may be seasons greetings, or I may finish my substantive post on guns first. Who can foretell the future (as the Mayans might say)? Gunna go now. See you later.

Political Gene-ius


I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive 
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!
(WS Gilbert “Iolanthe”)

When I, aged 30, first met my Father we didn’t discuss cricket, and I have no idea whether he was a fan or not. But then I had no idea he was a Shakespeare fan until I learned he had somehow carried a volume of the Collected Works in his army kitbag all through the Middle East and New Guinea in World War 2, so perhaps he did love cricket.

My grandfather (yes, the one in the photo top right) certainly did play, and love, cricket, and was, apparently, a very handy fast bowler, even up to being in his Forties. I once proudly owned, and wore, his cricket cap from when he played in the County Durham competition, 100 years ago, but lost it in circumstances which remain painful.

He died not long after I turned seven. Before I was old enough to seriously appreciate cricket, and long before television, let alone direct tv broadcasts of Test Matches, came to Perth. Cricket could be followed, from England, on the radio in the early 1950s, and that was that. One of my many regrets about his early death was never being able to watch cricket with him. Both of us would have relished the experience.

But with no direct transmission from either father or grandfather, how did I get my love of cricket?

What used to be called the “lower vertebrates”, fish, amphibians, reptiles, generally speaking, fertilise eggs, lay them somewhere appropriate, and then piss off. Consequently the young, when born, are equipped to completely fend for themselves. All of their behaviour patterns are encoded in their DNA, and on hatching they simply seek shelter, food, and eventually mates in ways that were innate, not learned. [It's worth noting though that some species in all these groups have separately evolved live births, and others, after laying eggs, guard them until hatching, and then guard the young for a while. In such species it is possible the young do learn some behaviour associated with, say, feeding, from the male or female parent].

The “higher vertebrates”, birds and mammals, show considerable variation. All the birds (and three of the mammals) lay eggs of course. But there are some, the cuckoo species, that dump their eggs into the nests of other species to raise. There are some, all ground living types (emus, chickens, ducks etc), who have “precocial” young, with down cover, born ready to move off with their mother. Most others have young born naked and totally helpless, needing total care in nest from parents until their feathers develop and they can fly (and even then care continues). They therefore have a mixture of innate behaviours and learned (or at least modified) behaviours

Mammals also vary. Some, notably the herd/flock species, are up and moving within a few hours of birth and following the mother in the rest of the mob. Others are born completely helpless, and remain so for long periods, weeks, months, even years. The ones who develop quickly have less chance (and need) to learn from parents (though they will learn a great deal), those (notably the apes, including us, learn a great deal from the parents and have fewer purely innate components (though far more than we realise).

Well, in brief, we are into the nitty gritty of the “nature-nurture” debate – what part of a species, say Homo sapiens sapiens, behaviours are genetic, inherited, what part are learnt? Not simple, as the evolutionary history above shows. Certainly there are fundamental things – eating, drinking, danger, comfort, athleticism – that are strongly genetically based. Then there are superficial things – religion, taste in music and art, social unit structures, political beliefs, and, yes, sport preferences – that are strongly based on the context in which you are raised.

But, on the one hand the genetic ones are modified by upbringing (eg particular food preferences, response to dangers, how fit you are), and on the other, even some of the superficial socio-culturally-based ones have some genetic basis it has been found. Studies of twins raised separately for example show some tendency for them to be similar in their strength of religious belief (though the form strictly related to household raised in). Musical abilities are well-known to often “run in families”. And more recently (for example) studies show tendency towards respectively right and left-wing political beliefs have some genetic component (though again, the particular form this might take being related to up-bringing). Wonder if the otherwise inexplicable gun love in the US is part of this inheritance?

Interestingly, though not surprisingly perhaps, both the religious and political tendencies are related to serotonin production and the brain’s response, and since music also causes serotonin reactions, it may well be that is also related to the abilities of, say, the sons of JS Bach.

Anyway, all of that may help to explain (though of course there would be many other factors), why a religious believer might suddenly appear from an atheist household, or a fervent Young Republican from a Democratic one, or a genius musician from a non-musical family. May also explain why musical ability is rare, why the irrational belief in religion persists to damage societies, and why roughly half of the voters in most countries keep voting for conservative parties that will damage their interests.

Oh, and it might just explain why I am watching a cricket match on tv while I write this! There being more things in heaven an earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, or made a fault in our stars.

A Lota Spam


Every morning when I check my blog the first job is to delete the masses of spam “comments”, empty, meaningless phrases, that have accumulated in just a few hours and vastly outnumber genuine comments. The spammers are trying to sell me viagra, ugg boots, fake watches, handbags, and some are just full of inexplicable computer garbage aimed at damaging your computer. Hard to imagine anyone clicking on any of them even if they did get past the spam filter, but they are sent out in their millions by people unconcerned about the damage they could do to the lives of people fooled into clicking.

Same when checking my email inbox. Full of Nigerian bank accounts, United Nations’ lottery wins, unclaimed parcels, all promising untold riches if only I send my bank account details. Scattered in between are demands that I sort out problems with my bank, tax, web site, just click here and all your problems will disappear. Along with your money.

Different kind of spam spewing out of radios these days. Trash talk pretending to be entertainment. Same with newspapers hacking into the phones of people suffering some tragedy. No concern again for the damage done to the people treated badly. One a few days ago a couple of Australian radio presenters rang the London hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated.  The purpose, it has been forgotten in what followed, was to try to obtain confidential information about the patient, her treatment, and condition. To hell with her privacy.

They succeeded in getting through, fooling two nurses, being given the information. What a hoot eh? Except that one of the poor nurses concerned appears to have been so affected she committed she committed suicide. Uproar. Much defence of the radio presenters, who it was said, mainly by other media people, “couldn’t have predicted such a terrible outcome”. True enough, but the original intent was bad. And unintended consequences often flow from using people’s lives for entertainment.

Finally, as if influenced by the flood of spam all around them, political discourse has been turned into spam. Meaningless three word slogans, empty speeches, abusive descriptions of opponents, lies about policy, empty publicity stunts. Discourse full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (did Shakespeare anticipate the coming of an age of spam?). Discourse which must have Eisenhower and Kennedy, Churchill and Wilson, Menzies and Curtin, all spinning away in their graves.

And mindless as it is, this political spam also has consequences. Makes good policy development impossible. Forces good people out of politics. Gets rid of any thought about politics being about intellect and ideas. Intended consequences, for some, it seems.

We seem to be living in, drowning in, an age of spam. And unfortunately some of it can’t be just deleted with the click of a mouse button.

On the way to the forum


A funny thing happened after an election last Saturday in a little town called Canberra not a million miles from Watermelon Headquarters. It’s only a little local political curiosity, perhaps, but it may, if I stretch a point, have some resonance elsewhere.

The leader of the local conservatives, out of power for some years, made an astonishing speech on election night claiming “victory”. He hadn’t actually won, you understand, no one had. Trends were clear, general features of the final result reasonably obvious, but he hadn’t “won” (and nor had anyone else!). But what he was saying was that there had been a “swing” towards his party, and that, therefore (the logic was a little fuzzy) he had won the election because a swing meant that the public were unhappy with the previous government (a coalition of Labor and Greens) and so wanted him.

Now this concept, that you don’t have to win a majority of seats (the Westminster system for several hundred years) to become a government, merely get more votes and seats than you got last time was stunning in its audacity, and if applied retrospectively would considerably alter the course of history in most countries. But it was so silly that I kept expecting the room in which he was speaking to erupt into laughter “yes, good one Zed, what a joker you are”.

But the very next day the federal leader of the conservatives (The “Liberal” Party, for historical reasons irrelevant for decades) joined in. Yes indeed, he suggested, good old Zed had a “moral claim” to be the next government. It was all a bit like losing a game of tennis, and later claiming that the rules were now changed and the person who hit the net the most was the winner; or a game of cricket where you claimed that padding the ball away was really worth six runs.

What both of them were intent on doing was bullying The Greens, obviously about to hold the balance of power again, into backing the conservatives, diametrically opposed politically to Greens, instead of Labor again, much more closely allied politically. The point of these statements was also, more importantly, to massage the media narrative, and through that the public expectations.

I was reminded of the 2000 US Presidential election where the Republican-friendly media prematurely declared Bush the winner in Ohio, another narrative massage, but then turned the Florida post-election legal battle into one where the people stealing the election were the good guys, and those appealing for justice and democracy were the bad guys ( representing “Sore-Loserman”). Australian conservatives have learnt a lot from Republicans, and this election night grab for power in Canberra was another example of Rovian tactics in action.

It is inconceivable that it will work of course, but even if it doesn’t it leaves behind a sense of injustice, even perhaps unlawfulness, if the media really come to the party. Helps to delegitimise the government in the same way Mr Abbott did after the 2010 election faced with a similar scenario. In fact another motive for him may well be to add support to his view he was “robbed” in 2010 by “that woman”.

Once upon a time it seemed that both sides of politics played by the rules. Fought an election hard, but then accepted the verdict of the people even in close contexts. Anything else would not be cricket. The outcome would affect the country economically, philosophically, culturally, but the ebb and flow of election results would balance all that out eventually over the years.

These days big money is involved. If you can get a conservative party into power then the government will be open to business. All kinds of restrictions will be scrapped, deals done, wars, quite possibly, started, mines opened, forests cleared, workplace wages and conditions substantially reduced. Big money for the corporations. And big money for the conservative politicians after they leave politics – seats on Boards, consultancies, media roles, and so on.

So now anything goes. War by other means. War to install conservative governments and reap the spoils of office.

Got a feeling we ain’t seen nothing yet.

The background. The Australian Capital Territory (ie the land on which Canberra, Australia’s capital, sits, and surrounding areas) with a population of around 370,000, gained self-government in 1988. It had previously been administered by a federal minister and department. Its parliament (the Assembly) currently has 17 elected members. There is a fixed term of office, with elections every four years, and a “Hare-Clark” electoral system, giving it, with Tasmania, the fairest election results in the country. Fairest in the sense of parties being represented in parliament proportional, as closely as possible, to their percentage of votes.

I won’t go into the considerable detail here. Just note that instead of 17 electorates, one per member, there are just three, two of which have five members and a larger one seven. Within each electorate, to simplify, each party gets a number of members proportional to its total vote (bearing in mind the limitation that members can’t be part people). The system is about as fair as it could be, breaking the stranglehold the two major parties normally have. As a result the ACT Assembly very rarely sees one party with a majority of seats, and negotiations and agreements have to be made with third parties (these days usually The Greens) or Independents.

Just fauxing


Interesting article (“Martha Raddatz and the Faux Objectivity of Journalists“) by Glenn Greenwald following the Biden-Ryan VP Debate. “The highly questionable assumptions tacitly embedded in the questions Raddatz asked illustrate how this works, as does the questions she pointedly and predictably did not ask.” “That is what this faux journalistic neutrality, whether by design or otherwise, always achieves. It glorifies highly ideological claims that benefit a narrow elite class (the one that happens to own the largest media outlets which employ these journalists) by allowing that ideology to masquerade as journalistic fact.” Greenwald gives examples of the “Medicare going broke” and “Iran is the greatest national security threat to America” questions to illustrate his point.

I just saw a discussion on one of our tv networks about the effects of the “carbon tax” in Australia after “100 days” that is a slightly different example of the same thing. As these things go it wasn’t so bad. They had actually got an expert to talk about it instead of a politician or shock jock as they normally would. The questions were based on the “sky is falling in” scare campaign of the Liberals, and his answers were calm and measured. So what am I complaining about (never satisfied am I, even when they do the right thing, whinge whinge whinge?)?

Three things. The segment was advertised for an hour preceding with the words “Carbon Tax”, the term used throughout the segment except occasionally by the guest. Now “Carbon Tax” is the term the conservative politicians and shock jocks have been using for two years (alternating with “Great Big New Tax”) for two reasons. First to continue the lie that the Prime Minister had lied in saying she would not introduce a “Carbon Tax”, and second so they can scare the living bejeebus out of all the punters out there by pretending that they were going to be paying so much tax that the Apocalypse would be a walk in the park.

In fact the PM had gone on to say words to the effect “but I intend to put a price on carbon” and that’s exactly what she did. A carbon price isn’t a “carbon tax”. No one is paying extra tax. In fact because of the package of compensation measures almost everyone is better off. Instead of introducing a punitive tax to stop people using so much carbon-generated power, the government used the carrot of compensation so that if you began producing less CO2 you would do even better. To keep on using the term “carbon tax” is to keep selling the conservative meme.

Second, all of the questions, as I said above, were based on the dire warnings the conservatives have been running for two years – businesses ruined, towns wiped off map, pensioners dying in unheated rooms, lamb roasts costing $100 and so on. But still presenting them as questions on 14 October 2012 implies that they were indeed valid points to raise. Proved by the last 100 days to be wrong (although one of the hosts, whose politics are always worn on her sleeve, muttered that meat prices might have gone down but that was because of good seasons – still fighting the battle to the last), but who could have known that?

Well, you could have. You were told plenty of times. There was endless modelling to show the effects, but even without that a moment’s thought about the way the scheme was set up would have told you that all the conservative publicity stunts and deceptive parliamentary questions were as fake as the ones involving an antique shop and a pensioner’s electricity bill. That is “100 days” tells us nothing we couldn’t have known in advance if you hadn’t constantly legitimised the conservative campaign by merely reporting it as fact for the last two years.

And finally the Polar Bear in the room was never mentioned. The Arctic is melting at a frighteningly rapid rate, America has been frying, Barrier Reef in big trouble, and yet reducing greenhouse gases, the whole reason for putting a price on carbon was never mentioned. Nor has it been very often during the last couple of years in this context. So for the public the government has inexplicably introduced a “great big new tax”, apparently for no other reason than to ruin antique shops, wipe towns off map, and kill pensioners, because they are such nasty people. And still, today, the carbon price was discussed without this frightening context.

Australian journalism, like American journalism has a history in recent years of this kind of acceptance of what Lakoff calls conservative “framing”. Perhaps, to give them the benefit of the doubt, unknowingly, but I suspect often in full awareness of what they are doing.

Watch out for it.

Abridging too far?


Well, way to get myself into trouble, but hey, that rarely stops me, so here goes.

America lumbered itself with two amendments to the Constitution which have had a crippling effect on it ever since. Don’t want to talk about the Second Amendment here, since, with every individual citizen becoming his or her own unregulated militia, with 300 million guns and thousands of gun deaths every year, it was self-evidently foolish. Could Thomas Jefferson be brought into the future to have a look at how it was interpreted he would rush back and considerably change the wording.

So, Second Amendment obviously bad, but First Amendment seems to be universally accepted in the Western world generally, unquestionably good. Here it is:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Let’s break it down into components. The first part is excellent, and, for its time, brave and radical. Religion still had enormous influence on governments in Europe (and even more so elsewhere), and it was a remarkable step for this remarkable bunch of people to say “We want none of that here”. They would of course also be horrified at the religious influence on government in 2012, and may have want to rethink the “free exercise of” clause, but that’s another story. “Petition the government”? Yes indeed, again far-sighted and radical in the context of the autocratic and oligarchic governments of the Old World. In today’s world, in practice governments have found ways to ignore petitions, and conversely petitions can be corrupted (especially in the internet age) by astroturf groups and media. Essentially the idea of a petition by the citizens has been corrupted to the extent that it is no longer the safeguard envisaged in the eighteenth century, when individual citizens signed their John Hancock’s with quill pens on pieces of paper.

Not doing too well are we. I know, let’s try “peaceably assemble”. Another bold statement in the context of thousands of years of rulers suppressing “peaceful assemblies” of citizens by sending in the soldiers to cut them down or shoot them, and capture the ring leaders then have them hung drawn and quartered, hung in chains, or, if the ruler was feeling benign, beheaded. None of that for America, the citizens had a problem with the government they could assemble, perhaps carrying a petition, and let them know. Such a far-sighted move, but again, Jefferson would be horrified if he could see the response to “peaceful assembly” today in America and elsewhere. Protests banned, people with tee shirts with messages refused entry to events, protesters shut into pens far away from the place where the president will be, police (and indeed, in Europe once again, troops) dressed in full riot gear and with horses, water cannon, tear gas, pepper spray, breaking up demonstrations. We have ways of making you not talk.

Well, that just leaves one (or two I suppose), and it is the one which has become engraved in stone as the rock solid core of what America is about, what most western democracies are about, and what protesters in many other less democratic countries aspire to. Nobody, it seems, questions its utter goodness. Except me.

Let me draw your attention to: “Buckley v. Valeo (1976) upheld limits on campaign contributions, but held that spending money to influence elections is protected speech by the First Amendment.” and “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) the Supreme Court of the United States held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment.” And now a billion dollars to elect a president? “Super Pacs” running unlimited attack ads full of lies? Koch brothers setting up astro turf groups? What say you, President Jefferson, this how you thought it would work out?

I used to be all in favour of a Bill of Rights, or a more prescriptive Constitution, for Australia, but watching the American Supreme Court tie itself, and the country, in knots because of a particular word written 230 years ago, I no longer am. The Law, when faced with indelible words on a sacred document, is quite often a Ass.

But it’s even worse than that. When the words were written the “press” was a small number of newspapers produced on printing presses. this “free press” clause meant that individuals could write and publish freely even strong denunciations of the government’s behaviour collectively or individually. Not true in Britain for example, right through the nineteenth century (poor old innocent , naive Leigh Hunt, for example, in 1813, wrote an attack on the Prince Regent in a newspaper he and his brother published, based on substantial truth, and was subject to prosecution and a sentence of two years’ imprisonment. His brother the same). So, yes, freedom of the press, right on, well done Founding Fathers.

Except, except, just as a well thought out law about militias armed with muskets in case the British ever came back was turned into a nightmare of mass killings by school kids with the availability of automatic pistols, AK 47s, and rocket launchers available in drug stores, so did the “freedom of the press” become overtaken by events. No way Jefferson, cosily reading his local newspaper at breakfast could possibly have guessed at the development of radio, tv, and the internet. Nor could he have guessed at the way a few giant corporations, each led by men who had no interest in the democratic traditions of America, would come to dominate every source of information available to citizens in 2012.

Nor could President TJ have pictured the way these owners of the media would employ hate filled individuals, give them bully pulpits to spout their bile to millions, in order to move the whole political landscape over to where they wanted it, and bugger the destruction of the political conversation of the citizens. Same pattern in every western country. In Australia the ubiquitous Mr Murdoch owns 70% of the newspapers, including almost every leading newspaper in all the major cities. A small number of companies own the three commercial tv networks. Radio is similarly restricted in its ownership.

The phrase “Freedom of Speech” was almost certainly written with “political speech” in mind. No one was going to abridge the people talking about , say, farming, or trade, or technology. But in the Old World, saying the wrong thing about a king or his ministers or their actions or policies, and you would find yourself abridged into prison or onto the gallows. Jefferson and his friends were determined that this wouldn’t happen in America. More positively they believed that in the free expression of ideas, in the contest for ideas, in wide-ranging political discourse in which everyone had the right to express an opinion without fear or favour, speaking truth to power, would come the people expressing their will. This is still the idealised view expressed in all western democracies (most recently in the Australian context, in the decision to allow the abhorrent Geert Wilders a visa to visit Australia. The immigration minister, Chris Bowen, said, in a statement which Jefferson would have applauded “‘I think our society’s robust enough, our multiculturalism is strong enough, and our love of freedom of speech entrenched enough that we can withstand a visit from this fringe commentator from the other side of the world. We should defeat his ideas with the force of our ideas and the force of our experience, not by the blunt instrument of keeping him out of Australia.’”

But as with the rest of the First Amendment, the problem is the unforeseen way that it would be used 230 years later in a different world. The problem is in America, to be more specific, the deadly duo political operatives of Atwater and Rove. They realised that if you could say anything you like, then, with the blessing of the Constitution you could tell lies, heap shit on your political opponents, destroy them by any means you could find. Think “Swift Boating” think Max Cleland, think Obama’s birth certificate, and on and on. Politics as total war. Policies? Ability of candidates? So old fashioned, who do you think you are, Thomas Jefferson? In Australia the Liberal Party operatives watched and learned. Politeness? Civility? Mutual respect? Policy discussion? All out the window, America, a new light on a new hill lit by Karl Rove, had shown the way for conservatives to win elections even when the majority of the public disapproved of conservative policies had they known about them.

Meanwhile, in parallel, the likes of Rupert Murdoch and similar media moguls had also realised that if you could say anything you liked they would hire people who were prepared, for a good fee, to say anything at all. That there was an audience for nastiness. That these shock troopers (sorry, jocks) of the Right could work hand in glove with a Karl Rove war on the Left, both amplifying the lies he was telling, and creating a public discourse which was moving ever closer to that of a seedy bar where drunks argued late at night. It was a slippery slope (and was made worse when the conservatives managed to get the “Fairness Doctrine” scrapped as a restriction on free speech). To compete for a Tea Party audience which clung to guns and god, the shock jocks (Coulter, Hannity Malkin, Beck, Limbaugh, O’Reilly) had to be ever more outrageous, ever more vicious, ever more malignant. Same with the politicians. What once seemed (and was) outrageous (like the attacks on Cleland and Kerry) began to seem like Lincolnesque politics as the Tea Party (not coincidentally) grew and prospered, and politicians like Palin, Bachmann, Brewer, Brown, Akin worked for re-election while standing in the gutter.

Same in Australia. The parliament has had the conservative Opposition screaming abuse across the chamber in a way that could never have been imagined before 2010. Then going out to press conferences, or publicity stunts, where they simply told lies dutifully noted down verbatim by reporters, because, you know, free speech. And all the while the Australian shock jocks, modelling themselves, like the politicians, on their American counterparts, also became ever more abusive.

Australia of course doesn’t have a “freedom of speech” written in black letters on parchment. In practice though there have been really only two limitations on “free speech” – the laws of defamation and libel, and the Racial Discrimination Act (a recent notorious case discussed here), and they make little impact on what we are talking about.

This all, in a sense, came to a head in Australia in the last few days (which stimulated me to write about the general issue). One of the shock jocks, broadcasting for many years, who has made a habit of attacking our female prime minister in vicious terms, accusing her of constantly lying (and encouraging the use, generated I think by one of his viewers, of the name JuLiar, instead of, you know, Prime Minister or even Julia Gillard), saying she should be put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea, organising and taking part in protests where there were signs referring to “Bitch” and “Witch”, has recently stepped over an invisible line.

At a fund-raising dinner for “Young Liberals” (plus some federal and state Liberal politicians) he gave a speech in which he again said the prime minister constantly lied, that all her cabinet knew she constantly lied, and that her father (who died a few weeks ago, aged, I think, 82, and who of course was enormously proud of his daughter the PM) who she loved dearly, and for whom she was still grieving had “died of shame because his daughter was such a liar”. The audience laughed their heads off (except, presumably, the senior politicians, who had, it would turn out later, heard not a word). After the speeches a number of “amusing” political items were auctioned including a coat made out of chaff bags (geddit?).

Now all this only came to light because a reporter from News Ltd had the initiative to sign up to go to the dinner, pay his fee, unquestioned, and record the speech. As soon as his paper published the transcript, and the recording was made available, social media erupted in a storm of protest. It was a case, it seems, where the old adage “your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”. Oh other shock jocks and conservative politicians quickly rushed to his defence, muttering about freedom of speech and so on until, by the end, it seemed the whole thing had been the Prime Minster’s fault, and the shock jock himself was the real victim. Such has our political discourse been coarsened, that such offensive nonsense passes for normal, almost unremarked. But for the rest of Australia wasn’t buying it. At some point it seemed, the “normal” offensive shock jock speech, bellowed out every day on our airwaves, filling our newspaper columns, increasingly appearing on tv, which we had grown resignedly used to, had crossed a previously invisible line. The public may not have known much about shock-jockery, but they knew what they didn’t like.

I can understand conservative politicians and opinionators screaming about “freedom of speech”, a toxic political atmosphere suits their agenda, but what about the ordinary citizens who did the same this time? It is often said that poor people vote for rich people, vote for tax cuts for them, because they believe one day they will be rich and then the tax cuts will apply to them. The rich exploit this. Same with “freedom of speech”, people imagine themselves in the Gulag, or facing the Inquisition, and think that they might need a “freedom of speech” get out of jail free card themselves, although never having had any problem speaking their mind. Shock jocks and conservative politicians exploit this.

But this time a lot of “ordinary people”, those with fathers, those who have recently lost a loved one, those who wouldn’t want to be called a liar by a shock jock, those who are sick of misogyny, dug their heels in and protested. Flooded social media with their anger, contacted advertisers, voted in opinion polls. And what they were saying was this – “free speech” has limits, we know them when they have been breached. “Free Speech” in the American sense was written into the Constitution in a gentler time. It can’t cope with the cynical use to which it has been put. It relies on a social contract in which shock jocks and politicians agree that there is a line you don’t cross, that “Free Speech” is enhanced by the individual decision not to push it to the limits. Rather in the way that a champion boxer would stop himself getting into a fight in a bar. That you have the freedom to speak but the character not to say any nasty thing that comes into your head.

And that limit? Well over recent years the shock jocks have been like those “drone” technicians who, sitting in Colorado, blow up people in Afghanistan, never seeing the consequences of pushing the button (just as, in earlier times, a bomber unleashing a load of bombs on, say, Coventry or Dresden, did not see the consequences of their action. Nor did the Enola Gay crew, far above the screams and the burnt flesh. Being involved, on the ground, looking into children’s eyes, hearing people scream, makes it harder to commit atrocities. No, not impossible, as we know, but harder).

So too with shock jocks. Easy to sit in a studio, earphones on, speaking into a microphone, miles away from where the victim of your nastiness is listening. Or speaking at a function involving a hundred of your political friends, or taking part in a “protest” involving your listeners. The real test is, would you say those things to the face of your victim? Would you scream abuse, face to face, at someone at the funeral of their father? Would you tell someone, face to face, they should be drowned, killed, that they were a bitch, a witch?

If there are things that you wouldn’t say to someone, face to face, that marks the boundary of “free speech”. But let’s not define it legally and write it down in a Constitution or “Bill of Rights”. OK?

PS the opposite view on Mr Jones, written more-or-less at same time as this, is here.

Note for American, UK, and probably other visitors. The “Liberal” Party of Australia is certainly not “liberal”. It is equivalent in ideology, policies, and behaviour to the Republicans and the Conservatives (and indeed it has strong links, exchanging ideas and tactics, with both).

Vote early, vote often


I missed voting in our recent Local Council elections. First time in nearly 50 years I haven’t voted in whatever local, state, federal elections (even voted in British election of 1974 when I was living there briefly) were on. My first election where I could vote (after years of waiting impatiently) was the federal election of 1963 where Menzies clawed back much of the ground he had lost in 1961 (where he had scraped in by one seat). And away I went, election after election, triumphs and disappointments, near run things and landslides.

Even went in 1969, through a contact, to the old Tally Room with its huge mechanical boards fed by people counting paper voting slips. Sat there early on, savouring the obvious Whitlam victory, then, in my own miniature “Don’s Party” (David Williamson, who must have watched with the same thoughts I had), watched the signs subtly change and the Whitlam years postponed for another three. Incidentally I think a great pity the old Board is now abandoned, it was concrete democracy in action. Computers not the same at all.

I missed voting this time with a good excuse, I was just being released from hospital, still very sick, after a serious illness, but still felt guilty. I see voting as not just a privilege but a responsibility. So yes, I am totally in favour of what conservatives angrily call “compulsory voting” but in fact is merely “turn up and get your name crossed off on election day” (or, as in my case, phone or write in with a good excuse). Not too onerous eh? No worse than turning up to get your car registered.

In countries that don’t have “compulsory voting”, like the US and the UK, the result of the election is decided by, has a random element added, who can be “got out to vote”. Alternatively, as in the latest Republican strategy in the US, “how many people unlikely to vote for us can we prevent voting by a range of tricks?”. Compulsory voting takes away that random element, and the dirty tricks, and gives everyone a chance to express their preference for the years ahead. With everyone voting – rich and poor, young and old, all ethnic groups – politicians at least have to pay lip service to governing for “all the people” rather than just for the ones who come out to vote.

Anyway, my apologies to all my fellow citizens in this Valley. There was a candidate I wanted to succeed, and at least one I wanted not to, but I can’t, until the next election, complain about the results, not having contributed to them.

I will certainly make sure I am fit by the next federal election in a year’s time. A desperately important one, that everyone has a duty to help decide.

See you at the voting booth!