Tag Archives | politics

Shaking it up

Guy Rundle has a good article over at The Monthly on the new Wikileaks party set to contest this year’s senate election:

What position will WikiLeaks take on industrial relations, macroeconomics, social policy? Asked about this, Samantha Castro, the party’s Melbourne campaign manager and co-founder, has said that the party will develop a full slate of policies over time, rather than simply bud them off pro forma. That is wise, but it may also lead to complexity in the future: although Assange is seen by many as a standard-issue anti-American under false cover, he is no knee-jerk leftist. His distrust of the state is so great as to ill dispose him to the large corporate–state entities that make left-ish social programs possible. After all, WikiLeaks sprang out of the “cypherpunks” group – the mailing list and network of ’90s hackers, alarmed by an increasingly surveilled global state – and more than a few of those have seen their cyber-anarchism lead them towards the right. The WikiLeaks Party’s campaign director is Greg Barns, a one-time John Howard staffer, who in 2002 was disendorsed by the Liberals in Tasmania over his views on asylum-seeker policy. Barns’s position on social issues has always been left-liberal, but he remains oriented to laissez-faire policies in matters economic. Yet the majority of those who have flocked to join the WikiLeaks Party come from groups like the Occupy movement, whose leftism is undoubted. Should the party fall short at the election, all of this will be a dead letter. Success will bring with it some interesting conversations.

The Wikileaks perspective doesn’t really have any representation in our current political makeup, which is what makes it worth paying attention to. In the end it may end up posing the largest threat to the Greens. And we could certainly do with some more interesting conversations. Like this one, as Rundle points out:

In June 2012, foreign minister Bob Carr went out of his way to deny that Assange was under any threat of prosecution by the US, despite journalist Philip Dorling having revealed statements by the Australian embassy in Washington that indicated media reports of a secret grand jury charged with considering indictments against Assange were “likely true”. Should the returns on the night of [the election] produce a Senator-elect Assange, then such blithe evasions will no longer suffice. Any threats made will be against an elected representative of the Australian people: the insult will not be to one individual, but to our sovereignty.

I guess we’ll wait and see.

Then it’s agreed: she won’t be allowed near the phone again

Jonathan Green, assessing the new election contest, is on the money as usual:

Some strange sense of normalcy has been restored; it is has a lot to do, as Katharine Murphy observed yesterday in The Guardian, with an almost subconscious sense that an office left neglected through the Gillard years has been refilled.

The incumbency factor is what psephologist Peter Brent is always going on about — he has always said the 2010 election was fought between two Opposition leaders, without the authority of an incumbent government. I’m inclined to agree with that.

With irony turned up to eleven, Green observes the change in the political climate since Rudd came back:

Somehow it lifts the tone; it takes personal denigration and demeaning abuse out of the equation. It is days now since anyone called our prime minister a bitch or a witch; criticised the prime ministerial dress sense, or body shape; drew obscene caricatures; wished anyone drowned in a chaff bag; sniggered at her “big red box”; or pondered her dead father’s lingering sense of shame.

Much has changed: misogyny has done its worst and the big-arsed bitch is silenced; pure vengeful politics has had its day too and the numbers have tumbled toward Rudd, in self-preserving rush for electoral survival and hope.

Meanwhile, everything is back to normal:

There were “Kochie’s angels” on the Channel Seven morning show, the lissom sidekicks of our fish-eyed host presenting a segment featuring Laura Bush and Michelle Obama titled “Women on top”, because, hey, how could you talk about women of dignity and accomplishment without wrapping the whole thing in entendre?

Onya Straya, we bloody love ya.

The tyranny of difference

This journal is part of a series on living and working in Singapore.

Race in Singapore is complicated. I am in no position to provide either a full or an authoritative account, but allow me to share some interesting things I have learned and noticed.

Singapore is multi-racial and multi-religious. Given its location and history as a trading hub, this should not be at all surprising. Around half the population at any given time are foreigners – the local residents are a mix of ethnic Chinese (around 74%), Malay (13%), Indian (9%) and Eurasians and others (4%). Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are all well represented, as are Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews.

On the one hand, there is a zero-tolerance attitude towards anything that offends Singapore’s multi-racial, multi-religious status. Recently, for example, a union chief made an insensitive comment about Malays on her Facebook page and was fired within 24 hours as a result of the public backlash. Comments that promote ‘ill will and hostility’ between races are prohibited under the Sedition Act, which has resulted in occasional fines and imprisonments.

This tough stance is partly due to the 1964 race riots which loom large in the national consciousness as an event no-one wishes to see repeated. Singapore at that time had recently become independent of British rule and had merged to become a state of Malaysia. Tensions were caused between Malaysia’s policies of pro-Malay affirmative action and Singapore’s advocacy of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ backed by its largely Chinese population. These Malay/Chinese tensions ultimately spilled onto the streets during celebrations of the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. In the ensuing riots, 23 were killed, several hundred injured and 3,000 people were arrested.

Explicit racial ‘segregation’ goes back further to the early days of British settlement, when Singapore was becoming unruly and unsafe as a result of rapid and uncontrolled growth. The city was divided into four ethnic enclaves as part of the 1822 Raffles Plan – a European Town, a Chinese kampong (village), an area for Malays, Arabs and Muslims called Kampong Glam, and Chulia Kampong for ethnic Indians. Present-day Kampong Glam, Chinatown and the city’s downtown core still echo these planning decisions, while most of the ethnic Indian population gradually relocated to what is now Little India.

So, different races and religions by and large co-exist distinctly but peaceably in Singapore, which is no small accomplishment. That most Singaporeans are bilingual and speak a common language (English) no doubt helps. However, that is only half the story. Continue Reading →

Judge it on its merits

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy
by Christopher Hayes
Crown, 314 pages.

Twilight of the ElitesOur understanding of the world has some catching up to do. The big political themes, ideas and experiments of the 20th century — socialism, the welfare state, nationalism, communism, free marketeering, deregulation, big government, small government, civil rights, human rights, globalisation and free trade — these are all ways of making sense of a world that is quite different to the one we live in today.

Clearly we need new ideas, but first we need to understand why the old ones no longer work.

Two signature characteristics of our times are the emptying of public discourse of questions of the good, and the pervasive lack of faith in basic social institutions. The two are obviously related, but we are still awaiting a scholar who can tell that story persuasively.

Chris Hayes’ book Twilight of the Elites focusses on the latter problem — what he calls the ‘crisis of authority’ in which trust in the ‘pillar’ institutions of society has eroded to dangerous historical lows. Hayes is writing about America, but much is transferrable to the other advanced Western democracies. Continue Reading →

✱ Politics as sport

When politics is a sport, people love nothing more than to dress up in their team’s colours and hurl abuse at the other side. While it’s all very tiresome for those for whom politics is something serious and dignified, political sport is deeply satisfying and team psychology is no small part of democracy as it’s practiced. Besides, who really wants to trust something as serious and dignified as politics to people who don’t know how to have a little fun.

So political sport is ok, but people keep getting the teams mixed up! For starters, ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t refer to anything useful and haven’t for a long time, as far as I can see. I’ll spare you the stuff about the French Revolution and the arbitrariness of the names — that’s besides the point. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ don’t much refer to anything useful either.

For just one example, let’s consider one of the great conservative insights (yes, there are some! Goal kick.) For traditional conservatives, the world isn’t full of individual human beings, but rather people who practise particular cultures. That is to say, people aren’t detached or generic entities but come preloaded with certain inheritances of history, language, geography and other shared particularities that they did not choose to have but which nonetheless form a significant part of their identity. How not? For instance, I can’t help but experience the world through the eyes of my upbringing in suburban Australia to middle-class parents of British working-class origins. And though I hesitate to identify with ‘gay’ culture, I nevertheless share with many other gay people a certain experience of being somehow different and outside, and a gradual discovery of what this means. My curiosity about the world has led me to discover and reflect upon the meaning of all this so that it is now possible for me to write the paragraph you are now reading, and who’s to say that my upbringing and other unchosen particularities of my existence have not greatly contributed to this curiosity. This is simply to say I am who I am for many reasons, and not entirely by choice.

In any case, if a great conservative insight is that people are part of common cultures and communities, and thus a large part of the conservative political project is precisely to conserve these communities, what are we to think when Margaret Thatcher, as leader of the British Conservative party, says there is no such thing as society?

Well, it turns out Thatcher is speaking as a liberal! For her, and for lots of others from the late 1970s onwards, people are detached, generic individuals who make rational decisions in their own self-interest, and somehow the combined total of everyone doing this makes the whole of ‘society’ better off. This ghastly melange of classical Enlightenment liberalism, welfare economics and cherry-picked bits of Adam Smith, often goes (unhelpfully) by the name neoliberalism. The political project of neoliberalism therefore consists mostly in removing the barriers between the way things are and a universal state of affairs in which people (or to use the fashionable metonym — consumers) are able to exercise the power of their choice in free markets. Hence all the deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing (and flat wages, job insecurity and lack of corporate responsibility) you might have noticed in the last couple of decades.

So… is it the Right or the Left responsible for this? What does such a question even mean? If we want to, we can start splintering into ‘social’ and ‘economic’ liberals (as if these can be easily or sensibly separated), but such semantic contortions simply mask a flaw in the starting categories. Visual posters like this one that attempt to map out the entirety of the left-right political spectrum are admittedly a broadly helpful aid to understanding, but only serve to make the point that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are too diffuse to be of any use in the first place, even if people’s actual views fall neatly into the little boxes as illustrated.

Besides, as far as I can tell, neoliberalism is still the tacit default of both the ALP and the Liberal party in Australia, the Democrats and Republicans in the US and the British Labour and Conservative parties. Whether we’re going Forward with Fairness into a Big Society, with Change We Can Believe In or with Country First, everyone is starting from roughly the same place, with various vestigial bits of ideology tacked on or tucked away. In fact it is the bland sameness of these starting places and the utter incompatibility of the neoliberal idea with the world that real people actually live in that produces such confused and increasingly deranged policies as we have been seeing lately throughout the West.

We need a new political vocabulary. The Enlightenment has been and gone and changed things forever, just as the Renaissance and the Reformation did before it. But we’re still stuck talking about left and right and markets and socialism and liberals and conservatives even though the times have since moved on. Pitiful but sincere attempts to acknowledge this can be seen in stillborn slogans like compassionate conservatism, triple bottom line economics and the Third Way, but upon close examination these are simply the old ideas half-formed and passed off as fashionably new, like a political open sandwich.

The crisis of politics in the West runs deep. While we swear at the players limping, confused, around the pitch as we shout for the rules to be changed, somewhere there is taking shape a game that is altogether new.

✱ Another election: what’s it all for?

Shortly before the last Australian federal election, I wrote an article for the ABC about how disgusting the state of politics in Australia had become. This time I can’t even muster the enthusiasm to be disgusted. I’m far from alone in this of course, which is heartening – since last time we’ve had Lindsay Tanner’s ‘Sideshow‘, Laura Tingle’s ‘Great Expectations‘ and a wealth of books, articles and speeches about how pitiful all of it is and why.

Before we embark trepidatiously upon another election year voyage of insipid campaigning, recriminations and broken promises, point scoring and the usual media sideshow, and before they start perpetrating Q&A again every week, I’d just like to get my thoughts on the matter on the record and out of the way.

If, as the polls suggest, voters have already made up their minds long ago, no-one will be listening during the campaign anyway. But we’ll all go through the motions in some sort of ghastly national ritual nonetheless, because what else is there?

No-one will be talking about what any of it is for. That we’re all stuck here together for a while so we’d better talk about how to get along.

Richard Livingstone once said (and it is still true) that if you want a characterisation of our age, it is that of the civilisation of means without ends. Australia is materially one of the richest countries in the world, but we don’t appear to have any idea what to do with it or how to make it last. It’s not that we disagree over questions of freedom, fairness and flourishing, it’s that no-one is asking these questions in the first place.

To take just one example that will occupy much of the campaign but which will have almost no effect on how people eventually vote, consider asylum seekers. We will talk endlessly about the process of what should be done with them and to them, but no-one will ask the question ‘what, if anything, is our obligation to strangers?’ That’s the conversation we should be having.

No-one will ask what education is for. We’ll talk instead about HELP fees and job placements and MySchool rankings and private school funding, if we talk about it at all. No-one will ask what people are actually able to do and to be in their lives. We’ll talk instead about housing prices, interest rates, the level of Newstart, hospital waiting times and parental leave entitlements.

In short, Australian politics is a perpetual proxy for a larger conversation that never happens and that we have forgotten how to have.

But we’ll still be fed up and noisy and looking for someone to blame. And our ‘leaders’ will indulge us, because they never fail to do so. No matter who emerges as the winner of this election, Australia itself will lose.

That is, unless we remember that the purpose of government is to act to secure the opportunity for the flourishing lives of its citizens. Maybe that resonates with you, or maybe you disagree entirely. Either way, let’s have that conversation.

Unhobbling Democracy

Politics is failing. The public square in Australia, like so many other Western countries, is a broken and desolate place. Danu sifts through the wreckage looking for clues, and wonders how committed we really are to democratic citizenship.

It is now de rigueur to make the observation in Australia (and numerous other countries) that faith and trust in politics and especially our political leaders has deteriorated to what must surely be an all-time low. That the only box voters are prepared to tick is the one marked ‘None of the Above’.

This will either resonate with you or it won’t. In any case, plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject elsewhere, especially in diagnosing (and misdiagnosing) its causes and effects and I feel no urge to expend much effort arguing the proposition further here. I actually want to talk about democracy, but it will help to keep this disillusionment in mind.

It is interesting that Australia’s current government in particular should be especially pilloried — the object of a pitch and tenor of grumbling and derision not seen in some time. Whether this is because of the unfamiliar minority governing arrangements, the indelible sense of illegitimacy surrounding how the government came to power, its lack of clear vision, purpose and moral courage, the unpopularity of its policies, the scantily-clad sexism towards its leader or simply its sheer ineffectiveness, is hard to say. There are interesting things to be said about all these claims and in my view they all have some merit, but that is not our subject today.

Rather, I’d like to consider just what it is we want from our political institutions and what exactly we expect them to do. Continue Reading →