Tuesday, August 24, 2010


For the first time since 1940, Australians woke the day after polling day to find that they had no government.

Which was probably a relief to lots of them. A goodly number wouldn't vote unless they were forced to by our constitution, and an even larger number try and have as little to do with politics and politicians as possible. Three quarters of a million of the electorate voted informally, and about the same number lodged a 'donkey vote,' numbering the boxes in sequential order from the top of the page to the bottom, without and consideration of who they were actually voting for. So a day after polling day newspaper headline that read:

Would disappoint surprisingly few.

But, of course, this is not the case. We still have a government and it's the same government that we had before Saturday's inconclusive poll.

As neither major party was able to win 76 seats in the House of Representatives, to garner a majority in their own right, Australian politics has entered a kind of limbo state. The Labor Party will remain in office, with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, at least for the next week or so while things sort themselves out. And by 'sort themselves out' I mean while the two major parties offer the tie breaking Parliamentary independents their own ministries, choice of parliamentary jobs, dump trucks full of cash for their electorates, flat screen TV's, iPhone 4's and anything else that might tickle their fancy in order to get their vote.

A minority government, which is what the eventual winner of this combined lottery/raffle will be, is a tough gig, but in comparison to not getting a gig at all, it's the only gig worth gigging.

In the mean time, while this barter between Labor, Liberal and the Independents continues, the two leaders both have to try and keep their party's well behaved and united. Which will be no mean feat and will require different skills from both Gillard and Abbott.

The Labor Party has emerged from the election blinking and disorientated, like someone who's just been in a plane crash and is amazed to find that they've somehow survived... And who then grabs a microphone off one of the TV news crews reporting the crash and starts slagging off the entire country on National TV. Really, the National ALP leadership doesn't seem to know whether to be happy, sad, puzzled, disappointed, angry, patient or philosophical. It's been a dizzying two months for them, in which they've dumped a first term Prime Minister, installed the country's first female PM in his stead, soared in the polls, crashed in the polls and then fought a thoroughly inept election campaign that ended in a deadlock. You have to pity Julia Gillard having to try and present this lot as a united team, 'ready to govern.'

The Liberal Party, on the other hand, have come out of the election like someone who's just seen their numbers come up on Powerball... and then realised that they forgot to put their ticket in. Somehow, they've managed to simultaneously win and lose the election, which is undoubtedly bothering them all very badly. They comfortably beat the Labor Party on primary vote figures - 44% to 38% - and won a host of seats and really, if you'd told them that that would be the outcome 12 months ago they would have laughed in your face and then probably installed you as leader. Nevertheless, despite these successes, their relentlessly negative, policy free election campaign was not enough to win the count outright. The biggest challenge for them then, is going to be trying not to sound like they did win the campaign outright and that they deserve to be installed in government without any debate. A tough ask for someone like Tony Abbott, who has 'Born to Rule' tattooed on his shoulder.

And so, for different reasons and from different starting points, both major parties find themselves in a similar position, one that neither one would want to be in. They're both of them stuck trying to woo a handful of independents from the cross-benches that they've both aggressively ignored these past ten years or so. I imagine both leaders are practicing their pitch right now:

'You know how I've never returned your phone calls or agreed to any meetings or allowed you to introduce any legislation into Parliament... well, let me just say, it was all a big misunderstanding! Are you comfortable? Would you like some water? You can have it with a twist of lime if you like. Very refreshing! Well let me know. We can always get you a lime.'

The independents themselves are a mixed bunch. Three of them - Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor - represent former safe National seats (Katter and Windsor are former members of the National Party) and so are considered more likely to side with the coalition. Although, The Man in the Hat, Bob 'The Mad' Katter:

Had this to say about the Howard Goverment:

If they were good for the bush, then I'm a Martian astronaut.'

Which paints an interesting mental picture, as well as indicating no particular love for the conservative side of politics. The other two independents are newly elected Greens member for Melbourne Adam Bandt and former Greens Candidate and army intelligence whistle blower Andrew Wilkie, who are both on or thought to be on the left side of politics.

A diverse group, all of them playing their cards fairly close to their chest, as smart people on the make are wont to do.

And so the limbo period looks set to continue for some time longer. There'll be a lot of meetings and talks and discussions and canvassing of opinion, and probably no definite results for at least a week, and maybe three or four. There will be much debate and speculation and almost nothing will be certain until the very end.

One thing we can be sure of, though, is that the two major party leaders would much rather be watching John Sayles' 'Limbo':

Then living through their current limbo experience.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Time Warp

Editors Note: The following was written on the Friday before the election, the day before polling day. It was meant to be posted that day... or at least the next day, before the polls closed... or at least that evening, just shortly after the polls closed but - crucially - before I went to an election night party to get blind stinking drunk. Of course none of these things happened which is why I'm posting it now. Your correspondent saved it on a different computer on the Friday before polling day and couldn't access the fucking thing across the weekend. This is why your correspondent should be never be charged with doing anything important. Nor anything unimportant for that matter. In fact, your correspondent should probably spend more time in bed reading and leave the doing of things to others. My final thoughts then, from a sort of time warp, before the votes were cast...

Australian elections aren’t generally super close. They’re not generally landslides either, in either direction. When they are landlsides, there’s normally an overwhelming reason for it: Labor’s Paul Keating got buried in the ‘waiting with baseball bats’ election in 1996 when everyone in the country was sick to death of him and the Libs Malcolm Faser got wiped out in 1983 because he was stupid enough to put the economy in the hands of a young up and comer named John Howard, who did such a bad job that Fraser’s career came to an end.

But we’re a conservative bunch in this country.

The majority of people will vote the same way all their lives, never changing from whatever major party they support regardless of changes in leadership or policy. A handful, about a quarter of the electorate, of swinging voters who do actually change the way they vote from time to time decide elections in Australia. And this group - mostly immigrants, students, intellectuals and nutters - take some convincing.

Hence the fact that we’ve only changed Government three times in the last thirty years; 1983 (Hawke over Fraser), 1996 (Howard over Keating) and 2007 (that bloke from Queensland with the glasses whose name escapes me over Howard). That two of these elections are mentioned in the first paragraph about landslides tells you two things:

1) The limited amount of research I do for these entries leads me to reuse a lot of my material,


2) When we do decide to change Government there’s normally widespread community sentiment that the incumbant mob are not up to the task and need to be turfed out on their ear.

Which brings us to our current election, Julia v Tony.

Having read and watched and listened to a simply ridiculous amount of election coverage, and absorbed so many polls in the last few weeks that I’m inclined to talk about any topic at the moment in terms of numbers (‘What movie would I like to see tonight? 41% of me says ‘Incepetion,’ 39% says ‘Scott Pilgrim,’ 14% says ‘Me and Orson Welles’ with 6% Undecided’), I get the feeling that the Australian public at large is not angry enough with Julia and that Queenlsand bloke with glasses to aggressively turf them out. Nor are they sufficiently enamoured with Tony to get right behind him and sweep him into The Lodge so that he can yell ‘Stop the Boats!’ at them for three years.

The Labor Party has not been bad enough, nor the Liberals good enough, for this election to move into the decisive result category. Which leaves us where, exactly?

As Faye Dunaway put it in the movie ‘Network':

‘That puts us in the shithouse. That's where that puts us.’

In terms of where we are as a country.

The most likley result tomorrow is that Julia Gillard and Labor will be returned with a reduced majority, losing roughly a dozen seats in Queensland and NSW, and offsetting those by nabbing one or two in Victoria and South Australia, with the staus quo in place in Tasmania and West Australia. Not a very good result for a first term Government, but not disastrous enough for them to lose office.

A net gain of 17 seats, which is what the Liberal Party requires to win office outright, appears unlikely. The best that Tony Abbott can seem to hope for would be a hung Parliament, with Labor fairing worse than expected in Queensland or New South Wales and the Libs squeaking an unexpected seat or two somewhere else. There are likely to be four independants in the next Parliament, three of them former members of the conservative National party and it’s a possibility that Abbott may gain the Prime Ministership through the back door, leading a minority government with the support of these three.

Which leaves us where, eaxactly? No wait, I did that already. Ok! This time I’ll try and answer that question.

Where either result - narrow Labor victory or Liberal minority government - will leave us is with a hanstrung government without a sufficient mandate to do anything much. Small margin in the legislative lower house, blocked by the balance of power greens in the Senate. Which might not make much of a difference, since neither party has really appeared to propose to do anything much, policy wise.

The simple truth is that this has been a dispiriting election, with little on offer from either side other than some sloganeering and some, pretty modest, pork barrelling for punters who live in marginal seats. If you do live in such a marginal seat, you may find yourself with a new railway line if you vote Labor, or a new hosptial if you vote Liberal, or vice versa depending on where you live.

But the important questions that Governments need to deal with; how we’re employed, how our economy functions, how we deal with the rest of the world, how much tax we pay and what it gets spent on, how we look after our environment, how we attend to our poor and underprivelaged, will be little changed regardless of who wins the election. There will be some fiddling at the margins in terms of policy, and some lofty rhetoric from whichever side gets to do the fiddling, and a small number of punters who are slightly better or worse off because of it. And that’s about it. No wonder former Labor leader Mark Latham went on telly to tell everyone to vote informally (as about 6% of the electorate, or as many people as vote for the National Party, do anyway).

And the price tag for this never ending 5 week circus that will deliver this negligible result? This relentless bombardment of ads and slogans and photo ops and op eds pieces that will encourage approximately three quarters of a million people to write ‘Fuck’ on their ballot papers or just leave them blank? According to the ‘SMH,’ somewhere in the nighbourhood of $200 million dollars. And that’s just the tax payers share.

Something to think about during the next Parliament, when whoever is then Prime Minister starts describing how there's no money left to do anything substantial.

Monday, August 9, 2010

In Focus

'Stop the boats.'

'Moving forward.'

'Dismantle the debt.'

'Jobs, education and the economy.'

'An action plan for Australia.'

As has been noted here and everywhere, Federal Election 2010 has been overrun by sloganeering. So much so that the casual political observer would think that there has been little else other than slogans on offer... and a more engaged political observer would also think this, and be angry about having wasted more time finding it out.

And there's a reason for all of this empty, banal word play: The major political party's in this country think you're stupid.

And disengaged, disinterested, disenfranchised and disabled (mentally that is. See previous point). They assume that you, the voter, have no real interest in how the country is or will be run, and you wouldn't be able to understand the way it is or will be run even if you did. You like football and porno and books about war. Little else interests you, certainly not how billions and billions of dollars of your money, harvested straight out of your pay packets, is going to be spent. Hell, you can hardly even count to ten! Best leave the politickin' to the politicians while you get on with... whatever it is you do, out there in the suburbs.

But every few years, our nations elected and wannabe elected have to come to us looking for our vote. What then do they do, to try and get us interested in a subject - politics - that we have no interest in and don't understand? They turn to the advertising industry.

Because everyone knows that the advertising industry can sell any idea, any concept, anything to anyone.

Take the 'Advanced Medical Institute' as one example, among, well, all of the corporate world. Started by a Russian immigrant to Australia with no medical background, the AMI sells nasal spray with no beneficial properties - and possibly some harmful ones - to the public under the vaguely worded promise that it'll 'Make Sex Last Longer.' The modern day equivalent of the old travelling medicine show that contemporary westerns make fun of... right? Right?

Did I mention that the AMI has billboards, lots of them, dotted around every capital city in Australia that say things like:

and that they also have some really crappy TV ads? And did I mention that they sold $36 million worth of their benign-if-you're-lucky product in Australia last year?

The power of advertising.

And so it's only natural that our major political party's will turn to the same dark... scratch that, evil forces of marketing and advertising to try and get us to vote for one of them over the other. So you're familiar with the ads on radio and television and in the press. And by familiar I mean bombarded. What about the slogans then. How do they come about?

And this is where we get to talking about a particular aspect of the dark... sorry, evil, art of advertising: Focus Groups. It works like this.

The major political party's know that the election will be decided in a handful of marginal seats out of the 150 in the lower house of parliament. And an analysis of the electoral results will show that most of these marginal seats are on the suburban fringe of our major cities. And some quantitative research from among the population on the fringe of our major cities will show that most of the people living in these areas are 25 - 44, have 1 - 2 kids and a mortgage that they can barely afford (Now do you understand all the education refunds and increased baby bonuses and child care super premium rebate thingos that get handed out to middle class parents during every election campaigns?).

So what happens next?

Firstly, a large and obscenely expensive marketing company, paid for by YOU most of the time, goes onto the Labor or Liberal payroll. This company will go out to a marginal electorate and look for people willing to participate in 'discussion groups.' These people will be 25 - 44, have 1 - 2 kids and a mortgage they can barely afford. The marketing company might advertise in the local paper or just contact people directly off lists the major party's keep of constituents who have identified themselves as swinging voters at some point (during a doorknocking campaign or at the local Church fete or in an overheard conversation in the Woolies check out queue) and ask them if they'd like to participate. Sometimes the marketing company will offer small cash inducements, but mostly they have no trouble finding people willing to contribute to what's pitched as something to do with policy formulation.

So the marketing company gets these people together and asks them what they think about a hot button contemporary topic:

The answers that are given are recorded:

And they try and get as many views as possible:

While encouraging people to be as honest, as off-the-cuff, as non PC as possible:

The marketing company then draw up a report which highlights the key statements of the group:

Which they present to Labor/Liberal HQ, so that the campaign team and the speech writers can convert it into a short slogan or two that they can bludgeon us over the head with.

QUESTION: Mr Abbott, you've committed to substantially reducing Australia's Greenhouse Gas emissions but have also pledged not to put a tax on carbon. How will you achieve one without the other?

ANSWER: Well that's an important question that needs to be addressed, but an even more important question and one that the the Labor Party have failed to address entirely is what they're going to do about the fish problem plaguing this country and that's why I'm ready to stand here committed to a policy of STOP THE FISH!

Essentially feeding the people in the marginal seats their own views back to them, in slightly rephrased form. Which bizarrely, somehow, makes the Labor or Liberal leader look like they understand them and how they feel. At least in theory. What it actually makes the Labor or Liberal leader look like is a mindless little drone with a few push button, pre-programmed responses to anything they get asked

And the other purpose of all of this activity, time and money? So that when we think of Tony Abbott, we'll immediately know that he wants to 'STOP THE FISH!' I mean, BOATS! Without thinking about it too much ourselves.

Which leaves the idea of political leadership or courage in this country exactly... where? I don't need my own expensive focus group and quantitative research to know the answer to that. I'll let Bill Hicks sum it up for me:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

The Australian Greens leader, Bob Brown, can probably relate.

After all, leading a minor party in a Western country that has a two party system (i.e. all of them) can be a tough gig. The major party's suck up all the media time, energy and oxygen, leaving precious few column inches or airtime minutes for you and your party to try and get your pitch to the electorate out. What media attention you do get is often unwanted, as it's along the 'These nutty freaks want to give ecstasy to our school children' type of slanderish media beat up.

Which is a shame. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott having both decided to campaign with empty slogans and trivial promises, a la Kang and Kodos in the 'Treehouse of Horror VII' ep of the Simpsons:

there ought to be plenty of space available for other ideas.

So into this policy free zone come the Greens, who had their campaign launch last weekend. A brief smaple of their announced policies to date:

DENTICARE: Modelled on Medicare, the idea is to provide a cheap, universal dental care system across the whole country. Most people with any experience of trying to get dental work done know that it is either ridiculously expensive (private care) or subject to ridiculously long waiting lists (public). The effect of which is that a fair proportion of Australians just learn to put up with wonky teeth or toothache.

EAST COAST RAIL LINK: The proposal is to build a super fast, hi tech railway link between the major East Coast capital cities; Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Most people with any experience of driving along Deathn Route 1 (AKA the Pacific Highway) or Death Route 2 (AKA the Hume Highway) thant currently link these three cities would agree there’s some merit to this plan. Better for the environment than air travel and thats before we even consider how many people would be employed to build it.

CARBON PRICE: The Greens want a 40% reductionm in Australia’s carbon output below 1990 levels by 2020. Recognising that they have no chance whatsoever in getting this done, they have proposed a more modest alternative, to be negotiated with the enext government; a simple tax on carbon of approximately $20 per tonne, to be kept in place until a more comprehensive cap and trade system can be put in place.

This last one to pay for the first two, among a host of other progressive initiatives (which, if you think the above is a bit too radical for your taste, you’re probably better off not finding out about. Euthenasia anyone?).

Now regardless of whether you agree with these proposals or not, it has to be admitted that they are bold, constrcutive ideas with a bit of vision attached to them. Compare these ideas to what the major parties have come up with, policy wise, so far in this election. Summarised here:

COALITION: A solemn, weighty, heartfelt promise to ease the tax burden on Australia’s business sector by reducing the corporate tax rate by 1.5%. And a solemn, weighty, heartfelt promise to produce a paid parental leave scheme by inccreasing the corporate tax rate by 1.5%. And, oh yes, turning around the few hundred hapless refugees who wash up here each year and leaving them to drown at sea.

LABOR: An absolute rock solid committment to prevaricate and obfuscate and procrastinate and do as little as possible in any sector, other than copy the policies of the Rudd government. A Government so bad that Rudd himself was replaced before he could even afce the electorate. And, oh yes, copying the Liberals on refugees, population, environment and any other major issue that frightens people in outer metropolitan areas.

Even giving a short paragraph each is probably overstating the amount of content in the major party's policy positions. What they've announced to date has been little more than fiddling at the margins, subtle tweakings to to a society that they've obviously both decided is already A-Ok.

But despite being almost devoid of content, these Labor and Liberal policies will be subject to thousands of words of analysis in the printed media and thousands of hours of discussion on radio and television, as earnest talking heads sift through the details and try and work out if there are any actual differences between them. In the meantime, better, more foward thinking, more interesting policies from the minor parties, the Greens being just one among many, will whither and die on the floor of the rainforest, starved of sunlight and rain by the tall trees around them.

To quote 'Citizen Kang' again:

Kang: It's a two party system! You have to vote for one of us!
Man: He's right, this is a two-party system.
Man 2: Well, I believe I'll vote for a third-party candidate.
Kang: Go ahead, throw your vote away.

Which us back to the beginning; whether you’re a small plant in the Amazon, or a muppet frog in the swamp or a geeky looking guy in the Asustralian Senate, it ain’t easy being green.