On the way to the forum

4

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.

Miracle Play

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News the other day, though not really news I suppose, of the teams of American and Australian (and presumably other) special forces troops operating a “kill or capture” program in Afghanistan. One such American team for example was responsible for killing bin Laden (capture apparently never considered as serious option).

But the teams wander around consulting a list. Bit like the Wild West wanted posters in a compact form I guess. Then they either arrive by helicopter in middle of night and kick doors down, or they call in air strikes, or missiles from drones. Kaboom, cross another off the list.

Except, “oh, sorry, same name different fellow eh, who knew?” Or, “what do you mean the one who gave us the name was a business rival?” Or “family members in the house at midnight. All dead? Shouldn’t have been there. Gotta expect collateral damage. Do our best to avoid civilian casualties. Yada yada.” Or “Wedding party? They have weddings? Who knew?” “Why do they hate us? Buggered if I know, think they hate our freedoms and way of life. Yes, that must be it.”

Reading and hearing this stuff gives you the feeling you get from first reading Slaughterhouse Five or Catch 22 – an overwhelming sense of sadness and despair.

These same “mistakes”, same conversations, could easily have been discussed among the Roman troops occupying Britain or Germany. Among any of the European troops occupying Africa, Asia, South America in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. German troops occupying France in WW2. Japanese occupying SE Asia. French and Americans occupying Vietnam. Russians occupying Afghanistan. And so it goes. On and on, over and over.

No imperial country ever learns from history. All believe that occupying soldiers will eventually be loved by the people of the occupied country if only you can kill enough of them. And destroy their houses and farms and cities. Great minds, the best and the brightest, put a lot of thought into coming up with plans like this. Not one of these great minds (obviously no Einsteins among them), in the last two millenia, ever seems to have had enough nous to carry out a thought experiment. Not even complicated, goes like this:

“Let me imagine that I live in country A, minding my own business, raising my family, tending a farm, creating art, working in a factory. suddenly country B invades my country. The incoming soldiers are from a different ethnic group, religion, culture, society. They proceed to throw out the government, justice system, all social structures, and administer the country themselves, in the process beginning to appropriate raw materials and factories for their own purposes. You don’t take too much notice, never having been much interested in politics.

But then my brother and all his family are wiped out when his house is blown up by a bomb dropped by a plane. Missed the local resistance leader’s house by just “that much”. Then two of your cousins are killed by a missile from a drone as they try to repair their broken down car on a country road. Then while you are at market one night in the city, soldiers break into your house at midnight, rape your wife, then shoot her, your children, and aged father who lives with you as they lie on the floor tied up, then set fire to the house and shoot all your farm animals. They have done this because a neighbour who has always wanted to take over your farm told them you were a resistance leader.

So you take your gun into the hills and join the resistance, vowing revenge. You kill some soldiers in an ambush. In their revenge the other troops call in a bombing raid on your village and then charge in killing every single person, men, women and children. More men from the surrounding area, relatives of the dead villagers, join the resistance group. And so it goes. Even when the occupiers manage to kill a real resistance leader he is replaced by an eager volunteer the same day – the plans for resistance are not even delayed.

There you are – a general story but substitute the name of any country and any occupying country and the script is the same. Yet not one of the planners ever seems capable of conducting that thought experiment to see how they would react in the same situation. Not one seems capable of running the script through to its inevitable end – the occupiers leave (the occupied have nowhere else to go) sooner or later. And so here we are again, running the same Miracle Play through its stylised script, the actors all knowing their roles, the ending certain, in Afghanistan.

What’s that saying about people who don’t know history?

Books do furnish

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Always bemused by the photos of conservative politicians, fresh from gutting environmental protection, or public education, or health care, or smashing unions (the one below, from HuffPo, is of the abominable Scott Walker of Wisconsin, determined, as his first order of business on election, to smash unions completely), sitting in front of a wall of books in a book-case. Would be nice if a journalist was to ask them how many they had actually read!

George Bush famously never read a book, I doubt that Reagan ever did, hard to see Tony Abbott dipping into something serious between media stunts or athletic events. Maggie Thatcher? Can’t see it. John Howard – well, biographies of Don Bradman, greatest Australian who ever lived, possibly, but beyond that?

I was going to say that they probably all read at least one book, their bible. No, not the other bible, I doubt many of them read that (the other day in America one of these people was handed a bible by some religious group in which they had highlighted the passages dealing with caring for the poor and needy, he refused to accept it), I am referring to Ayn Rand and “The Fountainhead”, arguably, with Mein Kampf, one of the two books with the greatest malign influence of the twentieth century. But when I thought about it I couldn’t imagine any of these people actually plowing through the hundreds of turgid pages.

No, I think even when it comes to the handbook of the neoconservative regression, these leaders of the right have relied on their advisers, and their think tanks, to provide them with potted snippets, one line desk calendar quotes – “greed is good” “the poor are scum” “private enterprise good, public evil” “pay taxes, me?”

These people go through life it seems (nature or nurture, who knows) with the single-minded belief, the fixed stare, the unshakeable certainty of their worldview, otherwise found only in the most lunatic of the evangelicals (Savoranola say, or Knox, or Calvin, or Luther).

Books would potentially shake that certainty. I don’t just mean non-fiction, although it would be so nice to see one of these people with some knowledge of history, of cultural diversity, science, economics, a familiarity with the life stories of people from all over the world, ecology, and so on, but also novels of some quality – “It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (you know who). Novels that also broadened their understanding of the human comedy.

Oh it is possible they occasionally read an airport novel, one of those books by actual or virtual former military people, in which they have their views that vigilante action, by individuals or countries, is vastly preferable to all that namby-pamby wishy-washy innocent (as if!) until proven guilty malarkey. Possible, but I suspect they mostly just stare down at the Earth thinking how much better it would be if they totally controlled it.

No, our conservative leaders and wannabe leaders (like the sad crop of barely functional humans that are apparently the leading contenders for the Republican nomination in the US; or indeed the shadow front bench in Australia, soon to be turning this country into a neocon wasteland) have deliberately placed themselves in the position of the Arab world after the burning of the great library at Alexandria – wiping out all the thought and learning and knowledge that preceded them. They seem to believe, like the French revolutionaries, and the madmen of Pol Pot, that they have started history from scratch, that nothing of any worth came before. Not the end of history but the beginning of the brand new neoconservative dawn. No need for books in the brave new world either, since books imply differences of views, opinions, ideas, analysis, and what possible differences could there be come the dawning of the millennium?

I think it is great that George Bush had begun reading, working his way gently into the idea through “My Pet Goat” admittedly, but it’s a start. What a pity he didn’t go on. Could we start Tony Abbott on The Muddle-headed Wombat do you think?

The morning after

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Paul Keating famously warned that “if you change government you change the country” suggesting that because John Howard had presented a low profile target in the 1996 election people shouldn’t think that changing from Labor to Liberal was going to involve merely a change of personnel at the top. Not right as a general principle, either in Australia or America or Britain. Sometimes a change in government involves a massive shift in economy, culture, society, sometimes it is indeed merely a change in the face giving the speeches. But there are two recent cases where Keating was right, the election of George W Bush in America, and, yes indeed, the election of John W Howard in Australia (and Britain, lagging behind, is about to experience the same radical right shift led by the Cameron government).

The after-effects of the Supreme Court electing Bush are clear. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; war on terror, loss of civil liberties; cutting taxes for rich leading to loss of money for public services; huge and growing wealth gap between rich and poor; stacking of Supreme Court with conservatives; the Tea Party; Sarah Palin; inaction on climate change; encouragement of climate denial; rise of fundamentalist religious influence; attacks on social services; reduction in women’s rights; rise of far right broadcast activity; smashing unions; job losses; housing crisis; politics turned into a war. And so on and on. The post-Bush America is a repudiation of most of its own first 200 years of life, and a repudiation of what much of the world had seen previously seen as a desirable model of what a modern liberal democracy could aspire to.

In Australia the effects of the Howard rule are perhaps less obvious than in America (though there is overlap), and in any case, as usual, we lag a few years behind. But looking back on what kind of country we were in 1996, and what we have become in 2011, the changes thrust upon us by Howard’s successful attempt to mold the country of his dreams have been dramatic indeed. I have listed, quickly, off the top of my head (or actually from the front of my fevered brow), just 25 significant changes, and turned them into a massive Watermelon Poll. Which do you think have been the most important, the most devastating? We list, you decide (choose as many as you like from my list, or also decide that I have missed some and add them at the end).

What was the question again?

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Recently Britain set up an enquiry to examine the reasons that they became involved in George Bush's invasion of Iraq. And this week come calls in America to look at what the CIA has been up to in torturing people. It is time to follow those countries in looking at how we became involved in the "war on terror" and how it was conducted. In fact I would take the examination back to the "First Gulf War" and the subsequent sanctions. And you could, easily, argue that the examination should extend back to our involvement in the Vietnam War. Why do we keep following America, blindly, into wars which even at the time, let alone with the advantage of hindsight, seemed like bad ideas?

Look I'm not naive enough to believe that anything will really come out of the British and US enquiries. The British one is being held in secret, so there's a clue that not much will be revealed (never hold an enquiry if you don't know the answer, but if forced into one, hold it in secret). The US one will probably come to nothing because of the understanding that US presidents have not to investigate their predecessors so that they won't in turn be investigated for the horrors that lie hidden behind every US administration, Republican or Democrat – sort of a "inquire not into others as you would not wish others to inquire into you" approach.

And the recent media coverage of the supposed withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, reported straight from the US press release, cheering Iraqis and all, is both an answer as to why we get into these messes, and a reason for expecting nothing to come from an inquiry. You'd think after being hood-winked by weapons of mass destruction, and rescued female soldiers, and US troops pulling down statues, and purple fingers bringing in democracy, and all the other publicity stunts that have created a perception of the recent history of Iraq as accurate as a recent history of Brigadoon would be, that the media would be a bit more cautious when American publicity officers appeared carrying large bags of wool, but not a bit of it. The most cursory knowledge of American politics would tell you that the troops were not withdrawing but moving to the dozens of large permanent American army bases (managed from the largest embassy on the world) there to keep (along with tens of thousands of "contractors") control over Iraq long into the future.

But even asking the questions of Howard and Downer and Reith might alert the public to the fact that there are questions to be asked. Is it really possible that our diplomatic and security and defence personnel didn't know, as the British did in 2002, that "Intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy [to invade Iraq]"? Did they not know that there were no WMD; that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; that Hussein and bin Laden were sworn enemies; that there were major divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurd in Iraq? If they didn't know those things, why not? And if they did, why didn't Australia, like France, say "no thanks" when the call came in from the president? Was John Howard promised something? Was he asking for something? Was there a deal about wheat, about oil? Or was he just under the spell, as Tony Blair seems to have been, of the swaggering cowboy president who called him a "man of steel"?

I can't be the only one who would like some answers. And I can't be the only one who thinks that if similar questions had been asked about the Vietnam War, or the First Gulf War, we might not have finished up in Iraq yet again, helping to kill a million or more Iraqis, displace over 2 million refugees, wreck many towns, exacerbate divisions, damage women's interests, cause ethnic cleansing, destroy infrastructure and the economy and, not least, help to improve the position of both Al Quaeda and Iran.

Hands up if you'd like some answers.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.