People like us


It is often remarked that people in different political parties can seem more alike and be more comfortable with each other, than with members of their own parties. The reason is simple. Political parties are composed of no more than three kinds of people (what follows is based on Australia, but with minor variations could also be used for US and UK) – idealists, ideologues, careerists.

The careerists of both sides have little interest in policy or ideology. Such people join the Liberal Party in a natural progression, just as they might join the Melbourne Club. A brief stint as a lawyer, into politics, on to diplomacy, into lucrative seats on the boards of big companies. It’s just what people like us do, dear chap, what our families and friends do, have always done. One expects, naturally, to be a minister, but the purpose of being so, except for providing mates’ rates on government projects for friends, is of less interest than the tailor who has made one’s suit. Just give them the party platform, whatever it is, and they’ll go along with it and be sure to stick their hands up at the right times. In return the lucrative business opportunities to make serious money will emerge naturally from the contacts made.

Much the same on the Labor side. Some university training, perhaps in Law, activity in a suitable Union involving administration in some way, into politics, into diplomacy perhaps, on to Boards of medium-sized companies and statutory authorities. Friends and family will have often followed similar career trajectories. If you are smart you’ll become a minister, but apart from making decisions that will benefit causes you and your friends hold dear, just give them the party platform, tell them which faction they are in, and the hand will be raised at the right time. In return, after, or even during political life, business opportunities will arise that make poor boys from the wrong side of the tracks or the wrong side of the ocean, rich almost beyond the dreams of avarice.

The ideologues who join the Liberals do so because this is the Party that will, for purely pragmatic reasons, support them. A gaggle of true believers in one or more of Libertarianism, neoconservatism, union-bashing, fundamentalist religions, racism, climate change denial, anti vaccination, guns, anti-environmentalism, war, the rich, anti fluoridation, misogyny, anti-abortion, xenophobia, creationism, gay bashing, the 1950s, find a warm and welcoming roof over their heads in the Liberal Party. They come from small community groups and even smaller astro-turf groups. Once they would have found themselves on the very back seat of the very back row of the Back Bench, these days they find themselves as Shadow Ministers and Ministers. And where once ministers might be selected for their expertise in, say, education or health, these days the ideologues will find themselves in charge of that which they hate most – climate change deniers as environment minister for example, xenophobes in immigration, religious fundamentalists in science, union bashers in workplace relations, anti vaccers in health, creationists in education, and so on. In later life they will go back to doing what they were doing before political life, listening to shock jocks and taking part in virulent demonstrations outside abortion clinics or refugee bureaus.

The ideologues who join Labor often do so from Union backgrounds. They do so because of the chance to sing “solidarity forever” out of tune at union meetings, and to be totally supported by fellow colleagues, while having a platform to rant about their particular obsession, which may be total support for union activity regardless of any other consideration, fundamentalist religions, racism, climate change denial, anti vaccination, guns, anti-environmentalism, war, the rich, anti fluoridation, misogyny, anti-abortion, xenophobia, creationism, gay bashing, the 1950s. They rarely seek ministerial glory (and would be seen as too loopy to get it), but are much happier in the back rooms deciding who does get the ministries and what policies are followed. They can it seems block environmental action, same-sex marriage, serious climate change moves, compassionate attitudes to refugees, while supporting chaplains in schools. Later life will be the same.

The idealists in the Liberal Party hark back to the golden age of small-l liberalism, back to the time of Menzies, and believe it still forms the core of the Liberal Party. They imagine the Party as a “Broad Church”, one where many voices and points of view are welcomed, indeed encouraged, where one is free to be an individual (unlike of course the regimented group-think of Labor), where merit is recognised. There may be small-l libertarian, small-b business, and small-r religious beliefs involved. They believe, or believe they believe, in science, rationalism, humanism, and that they are the children of the Enlightenment. In spite, or rather because, of these beliefs, in government they find themselves shunted into low status soft ministries (like arts or environment or social services) or left on the back bench, where they may occasionally consider crossing the floor in relation to issues such as refugees. In later life they find themselves heading community service organisations, or becoming professors of public medicine, or practising pro bono legal work, or working for causes such as refugees or Aboriginal people.

The idealists in the Labor Party are drawn to it, moths to a flame, by the Light on the Hill, believing that the Party is still that of Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam. They come into it not via the unions but via universities and community organisations. They imagine Labor is a Broad Church where a diversity of ideas and opinions are encouraged, individuality welcomed, unlike the Liberal Party with its iron party discipline. They believe in small-s socialism, small-e environmentalism, small-a atheism. They believe, or believe they believe, in science, rationalism, humanism, and that they are the children of the Enlightenment. In spite, or rather because, of these beliefs, in government they find themselves shunted into low status soft ministries (like arts or environment or social services) or left on the back bench, where they may occasionally consider crossing the floor in relation to issues such as refugees. In later life they find themselves heading community service organisations, or becoming professors of public medicine, or practising pro bono legal work, or working for causes such as refugees or Aboriginal people.

Clearly, those within each category, irrespective of party, will have a lot in common. Labor and Liberal careerists may combine on a more or less shady business deal; Labor and Liberal ideologues opposing abortion will find themselves at the same rally or prayer meeting; Labor and Liberal idealists will find themselves signing the same petitions, joining the same university departments. Each pair may well find themselves complaining about how bad their careerist and ideologue colleagues, say, are.

What is needed, clearly, is a mechanism for converting the two parties into three.

Open for business


NSW govt approving uranium exploration; Qld opposition to dump Wild Rivers legislation; Victoria trying to get cattle into high country; South Australia downgrades renewable energy; Tasmania demanding to continue forest destruction; NT wanting crocodile “hunting”; WA prescribed burning big areas of forest. CSG, seal culling, duck shooting, flying fox culling, wood chipping, land clearing, estuary dredging, salmon “farming”, blocking wind farms.

What do all these things have in common? Activities by state governments, Labor and Liberal, that have, or will, cause enormous damage to their respective states. Nothing much in common, these state premiers, not much similarity between the different states, but time after time, often within days of winning an election, away they go with an announcement welcoming some destructive program. Usually with the identical words “We are open for business”, as if they have just set up a used car yard.

Something else one of the premiers and a soon-to-be-premier have in common is the bright idea of adding the “cost of the carbon tax” to electricity bills. See, this is clever because this will make people hate Labor when they see this extra cost go on the bills. But, hey, guys, you gonna do that, we need a bit of balance. You must also add to the bills the increasing CO2 levels, the rising temperature levels, the cost of lost production as a result of droughts and floods and storms. What’s that, those costs would greatly exceed the few dollars from a carbon price? Good heavens, really, hadn’t thought of that. You know, I understood that the costs of years of infrastructure neglect and privatisation of power companies had added far more to the bills than carbon price, but hadn’t thought about the costs of climate change. Don’t suppose you guys had either, eh?

Same with “open for business”. It’s always billions to be made here, and thousands of jobs over there, and export markets and infrastructure, oh, and did I mention billions of dollars? All put on the plus side of the public ledger, trumpeted by the media. But what they don’t add, to balance the ledger, is the ultimate costs to the state of cleared land, polluted ocean, dried up rivers, lost biodiversity, extinction of species, air pollution. Nor even of more direct costs in poor human health, imbalance of the economy, infrastructure costs, depletion of resources. Pretty nasty business all of it.

So, state premiers, you want to play businessman “running a state like a business”? Good, go for it. But remember real businessmen, and businesswomen, prepare real balance sheets for the balance as a whole. And when costs outweigh profits it’s time to reconsider.

Quite a lot of cost being imposed on states these days. And largely illusory profits.

Where the pine-clad ridges raise


This morning (15 January 2012) I experienced an unpleasant sense of deja vu as Australia’s tv channel 7 ran a propaganda piece for the so-called “mountain cattlemen” who are battling the federal government to once again allow their cattle to smash up the national parks of the high country. The new conservative Vic state government saw it as a high priority to give approval, and now only the Australian govt stood in the way.

The program was almost identical to one made in similar (though with the opposite politics in state and federal levels) political circumstances, and by the same reporter, then working for the main rival commercial tv network. The only differences were that on this occasion most filming was done at a country show, and was done before the political protest rather than during.

I was so outraged by the latest version that I put in a formal protest:

“Reporter Nic MacCallum presented a report on cattle  in high country. The report purely presented, in the most emotive and political terms, the views of “mountain cattlemen” with the obligatory film clip from “Man from Snowy River”. Ecological claims, political statements, were made absolutely unexamined, no contrary view of any kind presented. MacCallum ended with the cattlemen making threats of political action against “Canberra”. They then came back to the studio where presenters made statements about the ecology and how harmless cattle were, and how bad it was Canberra didn’t understand the real world, how it was “red tape” stopping this perfectly rational action of putting cattle back into national parks.

Not a single dissenting view was presented during this propaganda piece. Not a single ecologist was interviewed , the federal minister was uninterviewed, no historical background was presented, the issue was completely unexamined other than as pushing the cattlemen’s position.

This is the worst piece of unbalanced tv I think I have ever seen.”

The question, or a question, is why did both tv networks present this story in the same way? Are they idiots? Exercising power – doing it because they could? Did they think the bulk of their audience, primed by years of such reporting would approve the message. Were they ingratiating themselves with conservative politicians and bushies? Were they looking forward to the excellent televisuals of a protest? Were they showing a left wing minister who really has the power? Were they flattered to be seen as onside with these rugged sons of the earth? Are they idiots? I report, you decide.

To show how  little had changed from 2005-2012, here is the email I sent following the coverage of the ‘cattle in the high country’ political battle between Victorian and Federal governments in 2005 by Channel 9’s Today Show. It is as relevant now as it was then. Over and over again the commercial media, and now also the ABC, choose the first narrative model when it comes to environmental stories, and they are helping kill the planet. I received no reply from Channel Nine. 

From: David Horton
Subject: to Jebby Phillips
Date: 9 June 2005 10:52:52 AM

To follow up on my earlier email complaining about the Man from Snowy River segment. I am currently working on my new book. Here is the part I have written about the Today story this morning. You will see why I am angry. I am a little puzzled as to why you never allow, or require, Nic McCallum to do the second story. I have my own guess as to why you don’t (and I can’t believe it is because you think you don’t have an audience for the second story) but I would be interested in your explanation. You are not alone of course, all the media outlets follow the first script. 

“It is a story that has been repeated often over recent years, and the narrative is clear. The ‘Man from Snowy River’ is an icon. He is an icon because he was the subject of a poem which every schoolchild learns and then of a film and a television series based on the poem. So he is a fictional construct, unlike say Ned Kelly, Phar Lap, Don Bradman or Simpson and his donkey. Even though he is a fictional character though, the existence of a movie with a star means that the actor can become the icon made flesh, and indeed in the recent protests the star of the film was the star of the protest, and in turn of the breakfast television segment. 

The segment, as always, was pure propaganda of a Leni Riefenstahl kind. This is an Australian icon here, so there are images of campfires roaring in the mountain, riders on horses, magnificent cattle, whip cracking displays. Interspersed are images from the film with notes that some of the real cattlemen took part in the film, and music from the film soundtrack. Images and the media and reality blur. No need to say anything really, powerful images conspire to stimulate powerful emotions, and here we are aiming to stir the emotions both of the commuter and office worker with dreams of open spaces, and of ‘trail bike riders. hunters, four wheel drive owners, farmers’ all of whom were also taking part in the protest. We have our desired audience of red blooded men and wannabe redblooded men onside with barely a need for any script. 

But a final touch is needed and the narrative allows for it. ‘What was your reaction when you heard the news that cattle were to be excluded from the National Park’ asks the reporter of the protest organiser, as rugged a redblooded cattleman as you could ask for in the casting department. ‘I cried’ says this tough man and the propaganda is complete. 

Nothing can defeat the rugged Australian cattleman icon of course. Bushfires, drought, steep terrain, wild horses, fierce cattle. Only one thing can do it, the unfeeling bureaucrats in the city. The effeminate city men and their co-conspirators the whacky greenies. This brutal combination may bring our icon down, and he knows that at last the odds are stacked against him and he cries. For him to cry means that the cause must be just, the odds immense, and his tears, not wasted, appeal to the camera for help and through the camera to the real men of Australia who will come to the rescue, shoulder to shoulder. 

We see the enemy briefly, very briefly, in this segment. In a brief nod to ‘balance’ we see the minister concerned, typical city man in his grey suit hiding his grey soul. He is seen at a press conference explaining the reason for the decision, but the narrative doesn’t allow for more than a fragment of that, the minister commenting that cattle cause damage, and the reporter sneering that ‘they say it will mean more wildflowers’. Wildflowers! Namby pamby stuff when there is an Australian icon at stake here and a tough man has been reduced to tears by these flower loving whackos. 

Back to the icon, asked to comment on the damage ‘claim’, ‘no, no, we have been managing this country for 170 years’ says the icon. In an earlier interview the film star pseudo icon is asked the same question about damage and is allowed to say that ‘opinion is evenly divided’ on that. There is no follow up question as to what he means, but it is clear from the context. Cattlemen don’t think, or don’t care, that the cattle cause damage, or don’t think that it is damage (wildflowers indeed). On the other hand all scientists in Australia know that there has been extensive damage which is continuing and is now exacerbated by the after effects of fire and drought. Whether or not ‘opinion’ is divided between cattlemen and scientists, there is no division between scientists on the facts. 

The story could have been presented from the totally opposite point of view. The reporter could have found an iconic and photogenic ecologist who has worked in the high country. The ecologist could have introduced the reporter to the masses of scientific study showing the conservation problems in the high country, how little wilderness is left and the implications of that, and specific studies on the effects of cattle on this fragile ecosystem. The animals and plants under threat or near extinction could be listed and their importance in maintaining ecological balance in this country, particularly as global warming gathers pace. 

Then the ecologist, together with a number of other ecologists expert in different aspects of the high country – vegetation, marsupials, birds, frogs, insects say – could have taken the reporter for a trip. The camera could have lovingly lingered over areas where cattle have been excluded, with soothing music and the occasional sunset, while rugged and down to earth ecologists in moleskins and jumpers, ruddy faced from years or decades of being out in the bush studying ecology, could have explained what the camera was seeing, how complex it was, how long it had taken to evolve, why it was important, and why they are so passionate about trying to save it at the eleventh hour. This high country is unique to Australia, they could explain to the camera, an Australian icon that has taken millions of years to evolve, and it is close to being lost forever. 

Then they could take the cameras to see the damage that cattle have caused to grasslands, trees, shrubs, the impact of their hooves on ponds and swamps and riverbanks. There will be tears shed here by these tough ecologists, but the reporter may want to keep those for later. Tears are rarely shed by tough pragmatic ecologists, trying to do a hard job for Australia’s future. Difficult to defeat them because of their hard work and dedication. The only thing that can beat them is the powerful media coming in on the side of the cattlemen and forcing a government backdown. The final scene could be a roaring campfire in the mountains, the reporter sitting around it with these dedicated people. ‘What did you think when you heard that the federal government might intervene to keep cattle in the National Park?’ he could ask. ‘I cried’ would say the leading ecologist. Fade away to a sunset with perhaps the Pastoral Symphony in the background.

Government for Dummies


It is not just the media which aims at the lowest common denominator these days, and not just politicians (notably Abbott), but government itself.

The stupidity and ignorance of the limits placed on wind farms by the new Victorian and NSW governments is only exceeded by the stupidity and ignorance of the people whose “opinions” they are responding to. Both in turn exceeded by the cynicism and viciousness of the people manipulating the useful idiots.

Whether it’s water in the Murray, prescribed forest burning, smart meters, speed cameras, cattle in high country, phone towers, sharks, and now wind farms, whatever the complex issue requiring research, analysis, specialist scientific knowledge, and a modicum of common sense, governments instead rely on the yobbo in the street informed only by shock jocks, think tanks, religious nutters, and astroturfers, working on behalf of vested interests.

The planet is in great peril, we need great wisdom to stave off disaster. At a time like this why would political leaders seek the advice of the most stupid in society?

Government of the dummies, by the dummies, for the dummies.

Cry me a river


When all the sound and fury erupted over efforts to save the Murray-Darling River system and Craig Knowles was appointed to settle things down there were comments from the government that there needed to be a political solution to find a compromise between the “demands” of the scientists and the demands of the irrigators. This political response was not surprising. The irrigators had simply behaved in the way that a number of other groups have been behaving – miners, alcohol industry, clubs, tobacco industry – when there is any attempt to change their activities for the benefit of society. The formula is simple. Gather together a small number of people in a public place, give them signs to hold up, tell them to make a lot of noise when the tv cameras are rolling, arrange for a “stunt” to happen (burning books for example), accompany it with a well funded tv advertising campaign in which small children, little old ladies and honest small businessmen will be ruined. Ruined. In short, make a lot of noise.

Governments, like people with babies, don’t like a lot of noise. Will do anything to make it stop, get a bit of peace. Will sack one minister, appoint a new one, sack a public servant or two, announce to the media that you have directed that compromise will be found. Win-win solution found. Small children rescued from starvation. Everyone happy. Government re-elected.

Now while that approach may work in situations (site of a new school for example) where political compromise is appropriate, the case of the river (and other ecological issues) is different. The “compromise” for the river is somewhere between taking no water from the river, and therefore letting it at least partially return to its original good health, and taking as much water as the irrigators are already taking and therefore destroying the river as an ecosystem. Fine. Except that in this case the scientists had already worked out that compromise. So what was being said was that a new compromise was going to be reached between the figure that was needed to maintain a minimally functioning river and a totally damaged one, with the emphasis, it was said, on the needs of the irrigators. That is, this compromise was pushed even further down towards the business as usual situation that has so badly damaged the ecology of the river in the last 50 years or so.

Political compromises don’t work in the environment, you can’t make bargains with mother nature. If you want to maintain at least some ecological functions (and believe me, you do) while continuing to exploit some aspect of the environment then ask the scientists for a figure. Don’t ask the politicians. Or the irrigators.

To tax and to please

Another NSW state budget, they seem to roll around quicker than ever these days. All follow the same pattern – all budgets that is, not just NSW. The Leader/Treasurer, after massive pressure from International Monetary Fund, big business, some economists, radio shock jocks, choose a permitted figure for total budget expenditure in a year. Divide it up between your ministers. pass it down. Each minister has a lump sum. Divides it up between portfolio areas depending on who argues best and which electorates are marginal, pass it down. In each portfolio area departmental heads decide which institutions and programs have the most forceful public servants, pass it down. Heads of institutions and programs decide which underlings they like best, pass money down to their activities. Sort of a trickle down effect from top to bottom. By the time it gets to the bottom, the actual people who do the work, the operations that provide services, have a sum of money to work with that bears no necessary relation to the work they need to do.

Country towns in particular find themselves the victims of this age-old process, and so schools are shut down, hospitals have few services, bridges decay, railway lines are closed, as public servants try to pull up blankets to cover the chin while leaving the feet to freeze, or vice versa. Services move from country town to cities, people follow them out, jobs are lost. It’s a process 100 years old or more.

Could we try it back to front, upside down please – not trickle down but grass-roots up. The citizens of a town say what services they need to make the town livable and viable. They tell the local service providers, who work out what money will be needed to provide those services in health, education, transport. They pass the results up through the department, the ministry, and on to the Treasurer who adds them all up and passes to the Leader of the government. “So” he says, “this is the amount we need to run this state/country in a decent way for its citizens. Right, let’s see where we can find the money.” The two of them set about the task of making the sums add up (helped greatly by the fact that more people will remain in employment), working to the principle that those who can most afford it contribute the most. Also to the principle that big business, taking advantage of all the public services provided, and using up non-renewable resources (especially in the case of mining), will contribute the most.

At the end of the day the two columns reach the same total. The leader, knowing that the next year the process will be even easier as all regions of the state, all parts of the economy, begin to thrive equally, gives a little cheer and asks the Treasurer – “Do you want to tell the shock jocks or will I?” The Treasurer, remembering that they have increased the Shock Jock tax by introducing a cost per word, says “No, you do it”, and both of them have a beer to celebrate a job well done.

Oiling the wheels


Did you see the results of a study the other day from a Victorian Road Safety group that found that speed cameras had made a significant reduction in road toll? The TV interviewer I saw had to struggle with the story because her channel (and all the others) had been constantly running the line that speed cameras were just “revenue raisers” and here was someone giving all the wrong answers, based on actual research instead of crass populism. Furthermore the result of the campaign by a small number of people, outraged “victims” of speed cameras, amplified by the media who just love “outraged victims” who put ministers on the spot, has been that among the very first, most urgent actions of the O’Farrell government in NSW (beaten only by reducing protection for the marine environment, and hammering unions) was to get rid of a whole lot of speed cameras in Sydney.

Once upon a time politicians would try to deal with the interests of the community as a whole. There was praise from the likes of conservative John Howard for the “silent majority”, contempt for the “noisy minority” who were seen as long haired greenie radicals. Now the position has totally reversed and conservative oppositions make all kinds of promises to noisy minorities of the far right, conservative governments fulfil those promises. The squeaky wheel gets oiled. The recent “convoy” to Canberra was a visible reminder of who these small noisy groups are, as was the noisy and shameful protest, led apparently by Ms Mirabella, where Anthony Albanese was screamed at and jostled because he had dared to say that a noisy demonstration by a few hundred people was “inconsequential”. He should have referred to the silent majority and the wheel would have turned full circle.

Of course people have a right to protest, have their say, try to influence the political process. But governments have to weigh up what those people represent on a particular issue, and where the interests of the whole community rest. Getting rid of speed cameras, putting chaplains in schools, blocking wind farm development, supporting poker machines, reducing marine parks, dropping the mining tax, bringing back live animal trade, mandatory sentencing, cattle in high country, offshore processing of refugees, native vegetation clearing, late closing hours for pubs and clubs, changes to family law, are all the result of governments not looking at evidence and not considering the general interests of the community. They are also the results of small groups with a bee in the bonnet, or a financial interest to protect, generating sufficient noise, amplified by the media, to scare a government into racing to do their bidding. The long term effects of these knee jerk reactions are of no concern – before they become too evident the politician concerned will be long gone (as is the case with John Howard and the Pacific mess he created).

Could we please have a premier, some ministers, who when faced with a small group of people holding posters, or a barrage of form letters, or a radio shock jock holding forth, has the courage to say – “thank you for your opinion, I will take it into account alongside all the opposing opinions, and the relevant scientific evidence, you will see my decision in due course”. And then to make a considered decision and stick by it. Call Mr Squeaky Wheel in and say “No, it is clear speed cameras save lives when the evidence is considered. May save your life or the lives of your family members. I won’t be getting rid of speed cameras, in fact I have asked for suggestions as to where new ones could be added. Good day to you.”

Having a laugh


Barry O’Farrell (Premier of New South Wales) is now under pressure it seems from both the far right (Fred Nile and the Shooters) and the right (federal minister Martin Ferguson). The Shooters and Fishers have already put a stop to protecting marine life (a ten year moratorium not just 5 years as I thought when I wrote about this before) and have begun putting on pressure to see every child in the state armed to the teeth and shooting guns at school. Fred Nile is said to have had a chat with Barry demanding that all teachers in public schools be replaced with chaplains approved by him (Fred), and that there be none of this teaching of “ethics” which apparently is incompatible with religion. Now Martin is demanding that NSW end all resistance and have every part of the state explored for uranium deposits, so Barry is faced with three demands all of which would have toxic legacies for generations to come for the citizens of this proud state.

I am reminded of a comedy sketch I saw years ago, the comedian now forgotten (see comments), in which Walter Raleigh comes back from America having discovered tobacco and is trying to sell its benefits to the British government whose response is incredulous – “And then they do what Walter? They stick this tube of paper full of leaves of a nasty weed into their mouths and then they set fire to it? Right, we’ll give that a miss Walt, thanks for asking.”

Just as well I ‘m not Premier, because I wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face as these similar propositions were paraded through my office by apparently serious people. “Really, armed schoolchildren learning fundamentalist religion with no ethics whose job prospects are in uranium mining, in a state whose environment is being wrecked? Sorry, that’s a bit of a cough I have developed, my secretary will show you out, don’t call us we’ll call you.” But I am sure Barry, a much nicer and more polite man than me, will have listened to all this nonsense attentively, taken notes without laughing, and politely seen them to the door. Ushered in the next lot of ideologues demanding cattle in high country, the sale of all public assets, an increase in tree clearing, private operators in National Parks, and the destruction of the union movement in the state.

There seems to be a view from some political commentators, far less astute than yours truly, that you have to do deals with all these mad-brained people in order to get through your own agenda, which I had understood to mean catching up on years of neglect by the Labor Party (hampered by its own right wing nutters) of areas such as infrastructure, transport, hospitals, schools. Are these people beating a path to your door really going to block you on these electorally popular moves if you don’t go along with their hare-brained agendas? What if you were to discuss stuff with Labor and the Greens and isolate Mr Nile and friends in their own little world? I reckon you are a smart enough politician to rack up achievements in the next four years without giving the state a terrible case of addiction to crazy ideology with endless harmful effects. Good start with standing firm on ethics.

But do try to keep a straight face.

Ready? Steady


The other day the Mayor of a rather nice town not a million miles from the main street of Yass, fronted the media to announce with great pride that his town was now the fastest growing in the state or the country or something. Beaming happily he spoke of the great expansion of the town, and how a satellite town might be needed soon. So far so good I guess – I can see, in the unlikely event (full forward for Carlton obviously more likely) that I was ever mayor of anything bigger than my own farm, that you would rather be the mayor of a growing town than a shrinking and dying one.

But then he lost me. I can’t remember the exact words, but the reporter asked him for a reason as to why Yass was growing so fast, and our Mayor said something like “Because it’s such a lovely town and people enjoy living here”. Now this proposition was also true – I go along with him 100%. Is a nice town, has been even nicer since the bypass. A pleasure to visit, and I imagine a great pleasure to live in. The trouble is that the two halves of the interview were completely contradictory.

If people like living in the town because it is the way it is, why would you want to see it, say, double in size, with suburban sprawl out along the highways and farmland being chewed up for housing developments and massive commercial developments in the CBD? Bit like saying I really love my small car, suits me perfectly, good fuel efficiency, safe, comfortable, but oh I wish it was a Hummer so I am going to trade it in.

It’s usually said, when this question is raised, that more people means more money for Council means better public facilities, and more people means more commercial development of shops and so on and more job opportunities. Fine, I get that, or at least some of it, but it doesn’t alter the proposition that people are being attracted to a town on the basis of qualities which might be swallowed up. I’m reminded of those new suburb advertisements where prospective buyers are shown a picture of rolling hills, wide open spaces, small birds playing happily in the sun. When you know that the complete suburb is going to be wall to wall houses with little space and certainly no natural environment. And as far as more money? Well, yes, but you need to supply more facilities just to keep up, and wear and tear on roads and bridges and demand for water supplies and sewerage is also going to grow, so where is the gain?

I think country towns instead of seeking endless growth might aim for stability. That new people coming in match others leaving. That every effort be made to keep the town in a sustainable state which retains all the good things people love about it but gradually improves the quality of infrastructure.

But I am just an old stick in the mud.

Pulling the levers


While that whole “Don’t vote for Labor or Green we would rather have NSW run by the religious right and gun owners” thing is still fresh in your minds, let me just float an idea past you. In recent years Australians have got far too cutesy clever-by-half do-whatever-makes-you-feel-good let-it-all-hang-out with our voting system. If you don’t agree with me I have just two words for you – “Pauline Hanson” (see here). Not enough her getting so close? How about “Steve Fielding” then? Got your attention?

Look, usually given a choice between stuff-up and conspiracy you won’t make many mistakes if you think conspiracy, but I think we have found ourselves where we are (with Fielding about to leave the Australian Senate after 6 long years, and Hanson just missing eight year’s residence in the NSW upper house) more or less by accident, stuff-up if you like, unintended consequences, Murphy’s Law.

We used to have a system of voting that everyone understood – “number every square on your ballot papers”. No misunderstanding possible there. But there’s always someone who wants to spoil it for others, and we began getting the whingers. How awful it was to have to make far fewer marks on a voting paper once every four years as you would to send a tweet on Twitter, or a text message on your phone. How terrible to have to think about who some of these people were who were going to be numbered 20 or 30 in the upper house (or indeed 5 and 6 in the lower house). These whingers apparently were quite happy to let someone else make the onerous decision about who they wanted to have running the state for them. And so we gradually moved over to the apparently simpler, voting for dummies, procedure of “optional preferences” and “voting above the line”. The effects of this Heath Robinson (for my older readers) or Bruce Petty (for my slightly younger ones) ramshackle botched-together voting contraption are now almost totally unpredictable in each election. The backroom boys and girls in smoke-filled dark dusty rooms work out what the outcomes they want are, and design preferences accordingly, but have no more hope of doing so than a quantum physicist picking the final destination of an electron. Preferences bounce all over, here a vote, there a vote, everywhere a vote vote vote, and pretty soon a completely unexpected person, who no more than a small fraction of a percent of voters actually positively want, finishes up warming a comfortable chair for many years and deciding what an elected government will and will not be permitted to do.

Please, can we have our old ball game back? Numbers in every square, so that you decide who you actually prefer on the one hand and who you really really don’t on the other.

And let the boys and girls high stakes roller preference allocators go and play the pokies in the back rooms of casinos. Maybe they can pick winners there.

Note to US and UK readers (and those elsewhere) – Australia has avoided the distortions of your “first past the post” voting systems by always using a “transferable vote” or what Britain is about to vote on in the “alternative vote” (see here) and what the US refers to as “instant run off”. In lower house votes we use “preferential voting”, in upper houses various kinds of proportional representation – different mathematically but both have the effect of allowing voters who choose minor parties/losing candidates to also have an influence on which of the leading candidates wins (indeed to have minor parties/independent candidates even win on occasion). Major parties hate this, and, as this post suggests, there has been a gradual shift towards what is effectively becoming a first past the post system in some elections.