Election diary 2010 — Week Four

Electorate letters

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Today was my day – one of the two or three days in the electoral cycle on which I make my feelings known to my candidates. I wrote letters to the Greens, Labor and Liberal candidates. Without going into details I suggested that, all partisan rhetoric aside, general economic and national security policies were so similar between the parties there was no need to discuss these, and that I was looking for individual views on general principles and specific stances on social policy issues. I wonder whether I will get responses that aren’t form letters cut and pasted from policy bumph.

The very nature and form of response itself might indicate who is the most hungry for my vote, if not also who is the most deserving. Wouldn’t it be a sad indictment of them all if I got what I fully expect: the brush-off by overworked and disinterested staffers.

Labor’s three-ring circus?

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning suggested that the spectacle of having three Labor figureheads (a former leader, a former PM, and the incumbent PM) intersecting each others’ orbits in Queensland today was tantamount to the Labor campaign becoming a circus.

The Gillard Rudd problem for the ALP has inspired international satire about a deadly serious election issue.

I would think this an unkind characterisation except for the fact that if I were in charge of Labor’s election campaign I’d rather have had my right arm amputated than see my candidate (Gillard) appear with Rudd and be exposed to a face-to-face with Latham. Insofar as the professional management of the campaign is concerned this was indeed a blunder worthy of the refrain: ‘bring on the clowns’.

Nor can Gillard distance herself entirely from responsibility for any unfortunate interpretations prompted by these events. She’s the one who challenged Rudd and obviously didn’t read the part in Machiavelli that talks about not letting vanquished enemies live to become a nuisance —

… one must either pamper or do away with men, because they will avenge themselves for minor offenseswhile for more serious ones they cannot; so that any harm done to a man must be the kind that removes any fear of revenge. (The Prince, chapter 3: on mixed principalities.)

If Gillard has been pampering Rudd, she’s done so at considerable expense to the public regard for her own ability and stability as leader. If Rudd is amelioarated, he has not shown this by fulsome support for his political assassin.

I have not said so before, but plenty of others have: Rudd is either on the bus or off the bus. Without daily ringing endorsements of his usurper he’s a political millstone around Gillard’s neck she cannot afford in the face of continuing bad news in the polls.

Reading the entrails

If opinion polls are the modern equivalent to reading the entrails of slaughtered beats as omens of the will of the gods, all augurs well for Abbott. But while polls are nice to have when they’re on your side, they are not always as accurate at predicting events on the only day that counts, which is still two weeks away.

I have been tempted to joke with friends that our next PM shouldn’t wear Speedos any more, but I am not yet confident enough to call the game for his side. Nevertheless, for the first time since Gillard ascended to the top job, I no longer think she needs a rubber stamp to make it official. I now think she needs to fight a damned clever and sustained campaign for the next fortnight, and even then she’ll be lucky.

I’m also not nearly as dismissive about a hung Parliament as I was when those suggestions were made a couple of weeks ago by all the usual pundits.

There’s still precious little action on the campaign trail, but there’s a kind of steamy, tropical afternoon heat coming on in this election, like a lazy Spring afternoon in Queensland. Who knows whether that heat will fizzle out into an unremarkable evening or a late thunderstorm of the kind we’re used to here in Brisbane.

The margin call: Abbott by a nose.

Animus is back

Sunday, 8 August 2010

In the stop-start cycle of this election, like a clapped out old train running out of puff on a gentle incline, today seemed to have been a ‘stop’ moment in the shuddering motion.

It gave me time to reflect on two issues apparently far from the main game: the re-emergence of voices in the election debate that can’t quite bring themselves to face the notion that a Liberal might actually be the better candidate than the Labor champion; and the High Court ruling that invalidated sections of the Howard Government’s Electoral and Referendum Amendment Act 2006.

The anti-Howard fetish

During the 1996 election I thought I would witness the ascendancy of my one and only political idol, Paul Keating, into the stuff of legend. Completely unexpected to me, he lost and, instead, a man I thought least likely to wrest this ascendancy from Keating did just that.

Don’t let me be misunderstood. I am no partisan, and had no attachment to the ALP, its doctrines or its heroes. Just Paul Keating. My reasons are too complex to be explained here and will have to wait for a another forum.

My perception of John Howard was of a mediocre, narrow-minded bourgeois. It turns out I underestimated the man, if not his intellectual orientation, which never strayed far from the prissy prejudices of the petite-bourgeoisie. But I guess that was part of his inexplicable charm to the electorate.

However, I did not spend a decade whining about the man or the government. Nor did it escape me that Howard’s economic management credentials were built on Paul Keating’s vision.

That didn’t deter such a throng of others from demonising the man and the Coalition that I was sometimes left wondering who the hell was actually voting him back into office again and again. This became a matter of much public speculation during the second half of Howard’s seemingly unbreakable grip on the prime ministership.

As astonishing as Howard’s 11-year reign was, the ferocity and ignominy of his fall was even more so. And still the Howard-haters kept up their barrage of simple-minded indictments of the man and his legacy, which, of course, they had been and still were the beneficiaries of.

Along came Kevin Rudd, the great white hope, and normally sane people were making inconceivably silly statements about this rather ordinarye little man’s powers as a master of the universe to change the destiny of Australia.

I mostly bit my tongue about all the anecdotes I could have told of Rudd the petty public service tyrant in Queensland’s Goss era. It seems, though, that Rudd hadn’t really changed his tactics at all, running rough-shod over anyone in his way with that savant arrogance that seems characteristic of tinpot despots throughout history.

Paul Keating, my only political idol..

The simple fact alone that the ALP could have chosen to elevate such a man to its leadership made me very uneasy. That uneasiness was not ameliorated by the cringingly embarrassing, simple minded, and barely grammatical essays he wrote and had published amid great fanfare. On any reading, these invectives wouldn’t have attracted a pass mark in a high school politics class, and didn’t cut it as convincing visionary rhetoric either. But who was I to reproach a man so obviously the saviour of the nation?

Several months later his own party assassinated him for want of better polling numbers. A fickle business, this politics.

I had long supposed that Gillard, who was very publicly doing the actual job of prime ministering at home while Rudd was off trying to impress world leaders with his stunning intellect and insights, would eventually want the job title as well as the work load. (One can only hope that the snickering of world leaders at Rudd’s half-smart, would-be try-hard performance on the international stage hasn’t done the country any lasting damage.)

What I hadn’t realised at that time was that Gillard herself wasn’t exactly an intellectual heavyweight. That wouldn’t have been such a problem had she been an effective factional bully. But it seems she’s not that either. Watching her on the election trail (via TV and internet) I came to the conclusion that she’s a stage performer who can read her lines well, but runs into trouble when it’s time to ad lib, and hasn’t the gumption or the judgement to kick her campaign manager’s arse for failing to cover her weaknesses.

So, with this subjectivity, I am at the pass where not only I, but others are beginning to realise that Abbott might be more than a challenger and could actually end up in the Lodge.

To me this holds no particular terror or joy; I think he is a somewhat more solid man than some give him credit for, but lacking the kind of mature or cunning judgement I would expect from a leader. He just doesn’t come across as self-assured, charismatic, or in possession of the kind of gravitas that could lift a leader like Whitlam from the deserved judgement of failure to the status of living legend.

Yet what I’m hearing all around me right now is eerily reminiscent of the years of Howard-hater invective. A whole bunch of people who will swear black and blue they ain’t closet lefties or Labor die-hards, but nevertheless spew all sorts of unreasoned and, dare I say it, silly venom about Abbott as if it was just a fact that the Coalition’s pony couldn’t possibly be a better bet than Labor’s.

It is a peculiar kind of one-eyed, blinkered spite that allows normally reasonable people to become childish, condemning Abbott as a ‘fuckwit’ without specifying any grounds at all, and without the self-awareness to recognise their own unreasoning prejudices at work.

Conversely, Gillard’s troubles are al sheeted home to the party, to Rudd, and to the bad treatment Rudd received at its hands, as if Gillard had no blood on hers. Saint Gillard. Poor woman. No hint of an acknowledgement that Gillard’s playing in the big leagues and deserves no more pity than any other politician. No hint of self-reflection about the hypocrisy of whole-heartedly condemning others of the very things for which Gillard is in fact personally responsible.

Normally I would shrug such unreasoned behaviour off as inconsequential and to be expected in any group of people representative of the generally apathetic, hip-pocket Australian electorate.

But not this time. Because it could actually change the outcome of the election. Gillard could make it over the line by playing up to the pity factor, the way Hanson tugged the heart-strings of voters at previous elections, playing the poor, defenseless woman in need of some support and TLC from the electorate.
Thank goodness not too many voters fell for that ploy then. But will they this time? And will Gillard’s strategists milk it for all it’s worth?

If I was her campaign manager I would play it to the hilt. I don’t think Abbott has any comeback for the damsel in distress play.

High Court ruling impacts well beyond election

In 2006 the Howard Coalition Government ram-rodded its Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act through Federal Parliament. Among its provisions were changes that —

  • Required electors to provide proof of identity when enrolling or updating enrolment details.
  • Closed of the electoral rolls three days rather than seven days after a writ of election was issued. In those three days people already enrolled could update their details, and people who would turn 18 or become a citizen prior to the election day could enrol to vote. Everyone else was given until 20:00 of the day the writ was issued to ensure their electoral roll details were in order.
  • In addition, anyone wanting to cast a provisional vote was required to provide proof of identity at the polling station, and prisoners serving sentences of less than three years were denied the franchise, but could remain on the electoral roll.

On 26 July 2010, nine days after the election was announced, a challenge was mounted in the High Court of Australia, seeking to overturn sections of the 2006 Act relating to the timing of the closing of electoral rolls, and ancillary matters.

On 29 July, High Court Justice Hayne referred the matter to the Full Court, indicating a willingness to expedite the matter because of the time-sensitivity of the challenge.

It has been reported that the case was mounted as a test case and contributed to on a pro-bono basis by a team of 20 jurists who worked long hours to prepare a case which led to an extended scope for the orders being sought at the hearing of the matter before the Full Court of the High Court of Australia.

The High Court ruled on 6 August that the disputed sections of the 2006 Act were invalid. No written reasoning for the decision was issued (and has been reserved for a later date), but it has been reported that the grounds were based on interpretation of the Constitution.

A lay reading of the Constitution clearly grants the Commonwealth the right to make such laws as are deemed necessary for the conduct of an election, but also states in section 41 that:

No adult person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of a State shall, while the right continues, be prevented by any law of the Commonwealth from voting at elections for either House of the Parliament of the Commonwealth.

If this is indeed the section of the Constitution that was used to invalidate the specified sections of the 2006 Act, I am left wondering whether the ruling will make it impossible to close electoral rolls at all, and therefore make available at least a provisional vote on demand at any election.

I can’t begin to fathom the consequences of the ruling on other Commonwealth laws and regulations if my suspicions are even close to the facts of the matter.
This might just be the most significant piece of High Court activism in recent Australian history.

Peculiar message from Howard

Monday, 9 August 2010

Something about the language used by John Howard yesterday to sing Tony Abbott’s praises left me feeling like I had missed a sub-text somewhere along the way. He didn’t use the earthy language one might expect, for example, of a father talking about his son, nor did he use phrasing one would associate with respectful comments about a peer.

John Howard: no champion of Abbott.

“If Tony makes it he will be a good prime minister, a great prime minister, somebody who will love this country and give it his all,” Howard told the party faithful and assembled media.

These are the words of a man not entirely convinced of his own meaning. Howard thinks Abbott is still the underdog, and doesn’t expect him to win at all, no matter what he says.

Howard’s biggest strength was always his ability to control the LPA. For him to doubt Abbott means he doubts his party’s leader’s ability to be able to exercise the same kind of control he was able to, and that Abbott will be prone to factional infighting and instability.

And, finally, for Howard, who knows that intelligent people are watching him for clues, to say all this in his less than glowing choice of words means that he has another man in mind for the top job.

All of this leads me to wonder whether Howard is in fact already involved in party factional politicking that might undermine Abbott and see him replaced even if he wins the election. I just wonder whether all the people who said Joe Hockey should’ve got the top job may yet see that outcome realised.

All at sea about the prospects

Thursday, 12 August 2010

For these past couple of days I’ve had the feeling that the election campaign has entered an eerie no-man’s land of inscrutability and unpredictability.
I have absolutely no idea where the parties are at or how the electorate feels in a way quite different to the first three weeks, in which I always thought I had some sort of feel for what was going on and whether it mattered.

The reportage of Abbott being caught out on funding assumptions left me cold in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated. I just didn’t think it was germane.

National broadband plans leave me cold

Worse, the ‘revelation’ of a paper-thin IT policy from the Coalition should have had me in a lather, but didn’t. I felt relieved that the obviously technophobic Coalition was willing not to enter the fray by attempting to interfere, even if that means they won’t be helping either. I guess I regard it as a more positive outcome for the Coalition not to regulate or skew the market more than it already has been. With plans offering 500Gb at anywhere between 1 and 100Mbps for $60 a month, much of the oligopoly disgrace I was so angry about for years, during which I paid that much for 6Gb at considerably lower speeds, has passed. There is also the rider that 500Gb really doesn’t mean that, most of it being available only in off peak times, and 1 or 100Mbps meaning ‘up to’, meaning rarely, if ever.

Today’s announcement that speeds could be 1Gbps under Labor’s national link-up plan doesn’t get me at all excited because that speed is readily available now to anyone prepared to pay premium prices. Without some indication of the likelihood of getting this top speed consistently at an affordable price for ordinary users, the announcement doesn’t mean much at all.

Truth be told, I think universal internet access is a worthy goal that I’d support as a national infrastructure project, but I have nightmares about the inevitability of a bureaucratic quagmire, and one still subject to Labor’s interventionist approach. A single broadband connection point would be much easier to subject to arbitrary controls than myriad smaller providers connecting to multiple backbones. In terms of redundancy, too, the more centralised the whole thing is, the more prone to massive, catastrophic failures it becomes. Such an approach is contrary to everything the original concept of an internet was designed to circumvent: communications failure in the event of nuclear war by routing communications through multiple redundant channels.

The Coalition’s patchwork approach does indeed sound flimsy, but it has the virtue of being more closely aligned to an organic development of broadband coverage and overlapping layers of redundancy that are necessary to avoid single points of failure.

The broadband policy aside, though, I’m all at sea about what’s happening in election territory.

The margin call: my gut feel, without particular reason, is that the election is swinging back Gillard’s way. Gillard by a whisker.

Reconsidering the NBN

Friday, 13 August 2010

Today my own selfish professional subjectivity was distracted to focus exclusively on re-examining the national Broadband network proposal.

I had initial gut instincts welcoming the notion of seeing the whole nation wired up for lightning fast internet access, but grew uneasy when I started to contemplate the range of things that could and would go wrong as part of any government intervention into the market.

The subject of my critique is a separate comment here.

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