Sunday, September 12, 2010

Creatures of the Deep

When I was younger, I really wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson.

And this had an enormous influence on how I lived my life; I drank a lot, I smoked a lot, a took a shit load of drugs and I always ALWAYS wore my Chuck Taylor Converse All Stars. I even found a tobacconist in Sydney that was stuck in some sort of 70's time warp and used to stock those yellow filter things HST used to suck his ciggies down through.

In short, I gave it my all.

And yet there was something missing.

At first I wasn't sure what it was. The crippling daily hangovers were in place. And the collection of oddball, fringe of society friends, well I had those too. And I left a string of trashed hotel rooms in my wake... Well, I left a few trashed hotel rooms... Well, I left one trashed hotel room in my wake. But I will say this, that thing was SOOOO trashed that it was, like, TRAAAAAAAAS-HEDDDD! I mean, when the cops came and I answered the door in my bathrobe...

Well, a story for another time perhaps.

So yes, something was missing, something keeping me from emultating my hero Hunter Thompson. And then I worked it out what it was. The writing.

I didn't really write much. And when I did write, I didn't write about politics or current events or even American Football. I mostly wrote rambling 'short' stories of the kind where three characters are having lunch and one of them realises that they want to commit suicide or a 10 year old boy addicted to 'Nintendo' has his 'Nintendo' console taken away by his mother and so he burns their house down while she's asleep, killing her (this last my entry for a high school short sotry competition, suffice to say I didn't win that one).

Not very HST like. And so I gave up on my dreams and sold (or, more likely, smashed) my old fashioned manual typewriter and moved on to something else...

... which is to say, I never really gave up on my dreams and never moved on and am even now tapping away on my girlfriend's housemates laptop imagining that I'm in a seedy motel somewhere and the editors at Rolling Stone are after me for my latest piece and I'm ignoring the four ringing phones and the constantly beeping mojo wire and I'm writing something like:

August 4, 1972: Butte Montana. I have just been rudely shaken out of a campaign trail induced comoa by a bizarre late night show entitled 'Creatures of the Deep,' where things with no eyes or spine eat each other 10 000 metres below sea level. To say it reminded me of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew pushing around the delegates at the Republic Party convention in Miama last week would be to state the obvious. How long, Oh Lord, how long? But enough about giant creatures with no spine and a ravenous appetite, Nixon or otherwise. The sun is coming up here and it's time to get serious. In two hours I have to flee this room and hit the road, somehow slipping past the front desk without paying my $5 000 bill.

Which if course I'm not.

But I do have the flu right now and so feel borderline delerious and I did just finish watching a show called 'Creatures of the Deep' on ABC1. And I am writing about politics. Or, I will, in a moment, when I've finished indulging this fantasy to anyone who made it this far.

In any case, tonights message is only short, and has to do with perceptions. Which is probably a strange topic for a blog entry that is called 'Creatures of the Deep' and is actually about the election results, but there it is.

Our newly minted minority Labor Government is getting on for a week old and, after the dramatic moments of the last few weeks, a strange hush has fallen over the political battlefield. Both sides have essentially retreated to their entrenched postions and are now waiting for Parliament to start - September 23 - before any further advances are planned.

What political discourse there has been over the last few days has mostly been about the announcement by the two leaders of their Ministry and Shadow Ministry teams: Labor's last weekend and the Coalition's sometime this week and both about as boring a topic as there is, what with the same old faces announcing that they're looking forward to a 'brave new challenge' in whatever portfolio the leadership has bullied them into. As well as this, as a kind of sidelight, we've also had a string of Liberal Party heavyweights lining up to disparage the government and declare it illegitimate.

The shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, was at it. And the leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, was at it too. And so were a host of rather less well known members of both parties.

They largely based their claims on the fact that the Coalition had won the popluar vote in the recently completed election, in both two party and primary vote terms. You can expect to hear a lot more about this as Parliament returns and battle is rejoined. Leading figures within the Coalition ranks will be on any media that will have them complaining that they 'clearly won the vote' and that the government had more or less 'stolen office without a mandate' and that 'the will of the people has been denied.'

And when they say this you know that whoever is saying it is a pillock.

Very, very briefly then, here is a chart showing the primary votes from the last election, in order of Political Party:

So you can see that the Labor Party - maligned, on the nose in Queensland in NSW and run by incompetant apparatchiks - polled nearly a million votes more than anyone else. Just like they do in every single election. The Liberal Party relies on a Coalition of - now - three distinct, seperate parties to overtake Labor's primary vote; themselves, the Nationals and the new Liberal National party of Queensland.

So what about the two party preferred? Will that perhaps give us a clearer indication of who beat who and by how much? Well, as of tonight Labor was leading that one too, by about 20 000 votes, 50.08% - 49.92%.

Now I didn't vote for the Labor Party, so the point of the figures above is not to add another voice to what will become an endless debate about who, actually, won the last election. But I do feel that the voting figures are worth bearing in mind when the talk turns to topics like 'legitimacy' and 'electoral theft.' The simple fact is that who won depends on how you look at the figures and, ultimately, it was so close that statistics become almost meaningless as a tool of analysis.

Senior members of the Coaltion have already made it clear that they agree with this point. Despite their failure to win a majority of seats outright AND their failure to convince the Independent members of parliament that they would make the better minority government AND their failure to win the two party preferred vote, they have decided to just go out in public and say they won anyway. You can kind of see the logic in this:

'Fuck it. None of the punters really knows who won the damn thing and they've all lost interest anyway. Hell, Junior Master Chef is what the pricks are interested in now! Just say we won it and the other mob stole it off us. Ha-Ha-Ha!'

And so where does that leave us?

That leaves us with a minority government that will have to put up with a lot of bullshit from the Opposition and their right wing cheerleaders in the press as it tries to govern. And it leaves me trying to call up the right HST quote to round this thing off:

Jesus Christ. What are we doing going to work on a day like this? We must be goddamn crazy. This is the kind of day when you want to be belly-to-belly with a good woman, in a warm bed under a tin roof with the rain beating down and a bottle of good whiskey right next to the bed.

- The Great Shark Hunt.

Sound advice, at any time. No wonder I wanted to be him.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's Good to be the King!

Tony Abbott is a man of his word.

During negotiations with minor party and independent parliamentarians over the last two weeks on who would form a minority government, the Opposition leader pledged a 'kinder, gentler polity,' if they supported him as Prime Minister.

Then, in the aftermath of yesterdays decision by the final pair of uncommitted country independents - Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor - to back Julia Gillard instead, handing her the top job, Abbott promised to hold the new government 'ferociously' to account and to 'vigorously' scrutinise all Government policy and to 'smash the fuck out of any Government members who step out of line or look at me funny.'

Well, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.

Abbott, more than a little disappointed he's not going to be PM, has cancelled all bets now that the election has finally limped to an exhaustive conclusion. You'll note that he didn't say he'd be nice if he didn't get to sit in the Prime Minister's office.

Which probably suits the man and his temperament. Nice was never his strong suit and holding his breath these last few months and not trying to yell and bash things has probably worn him out a bit. Now that the election is over and he doesn't have to try and convince any swinging voters in marginal seats to vote for him - at least for a little while - he can exhale and let the mongrel back out again.

And he's not alone. Members of the Liberal Party were flailing around today, desperately trying to get onto some sort of media conveyance - print, radio, television, online, whatever - so they could let fly at our new Government and it's independent backers.

Liberal Senator George 'The Hitman' Brandis: 'This government has as much legitimacy as the Pakistani cricket team.'

Nationals Senator Ron 'Begbie' Boswell: 'This is payback from Tony Windsor on the National Party.'

And Manager of Opposition Business Christopher 'The Hammer' Pyne: 'This government is like putting a mongoose and a cobra together.'

And while I'm not sure exactly what The Hammer is getting at with his comment, you can bet that he doesn't approve of the way things played out.

So what does this mean for our incoming Government? The one that will be mostly made up of shell shocked Labor MPs and backed, sort of, by an excitable Green (Adam Brandt), a taciturn former Army officer (Andrew Wilkie) and the aforementioned country independents? Well, it probably means that it's unlikely that it'll be a Government that'll 'let the sunshine in' (as Gillard said it would be yesterday, trying her best to sound optimistic at a difficult time). Robb Oakeshott's desire for 'consensus politics' is also about as likely as Bob 'The Mad' Katter agreeing to appear on a Mardi Gras parade float.

Far more likely is that this will be a government on the run, trying to appease it's disparate supporters in the House of Representatives - who span the whole political spectrum, from left to right - while trying to come up with something the the balance of power Greens in the Senate will also find acceptable. And all this while the Coalition will fight tooth and nail on all fronts to oppose every bit of legislation the new Government puts forward, knowing that they only need to shake one vote free to stop any policy in its tracks. And also knowing that if this were to happen a few times, the Government would grind to a halt and Coalition calls for a fresh election - which they are confident they would win - may well be overwhelming.

There is a precedent for this type of thing.

In 1975, the Whitlam Labor government held control of the Senate by a single vote. The death of one Labor Senator, and his subsequent replacement by a National Party representative (quite a story in itself), cost Labor control of the Senate and set off a chain reaction of events that lead to the Liberals Malcolm Fraser being installed as Prime Minister. Fresh elections were subsequently called to resolve the situation. Much has been written about this incident, the great 'Constitutional Crisis' of 1975, and much of what has been written about it focuses on the injustices heaped onto Gough Whitlam and Labor. What is usually less focused on is that when fresh, deadlock breaking elections were held, the Liberal Party gave Labor such a trouncing it took them nearly a decade to recover.

The problems for Labor then, are many.

They have to try and look confident and in control at a time when their confidence has been knocked by a poor election result and they have, literally, lost control of Parliament. They have to try and put forward bold, definitive policies on climate change, taxation and asylum seekers at a time when their new, independent, supporters do not agree what, if anything, needs to be done about any of these things. They have to try and prevent all their factional heavyweights and apparatchiks from tearing into each other and blaming one another for their appalling electoral outcome at a time when they show no interest in doing anything else. And, and perhaps most importantly, they have to find a way to get Robb Oakeshott into the ministry that they've promised him while keeping him away from any microphones or press, lest he launch into another endless speech like he did when he announced his vote yesterday.

Really, that last one is important. This bloke'll be assassinated and we'll be back to the polls again if he thinks he can drone away endlessly about the nobility of country children and the wonders of the democratic process whenever he feels like it (I wanted to jam corks in my ears and smash my radio after about five minutes).

Which is to say, he can do exactly that, drone on endlessly or whatever else take his fancy. All the independents can. Whatever may happen in the life of this government, for now Oakeshott et al are king makers, and as Mel Brooks will tell you:

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Christmas Decorations

Like an excitable parent who doesn't take the Christmas decorations down until Australia Day, one of my neighbours just cannot seem to let the election go:

I mean, I know the final result is still unclear, but the campaigning part of the whole thing is over and done with, right? The signs and stuff can't help anymore, right? None of the candidates are still actually trying to get our vote... right?

Well right.

But only in the sense that our primary political leaders are no longer trying to get our vote. As in the humble punters that make up the bulk of the electorate in this country. Nope, we've had our go and the major parties are well and truly done with us. And since these same major parties went out of their way to ensure there were no real differences between them during the election campaign, and so no meaningful choice, we didn't end up choosing either of them outright.

Final power, then, now rests in the hands of a disparate group of independents and minor party parliamentarians, and the wooing of their vote is very much still in full swing. A second election campaign, of sorts.

And both major party's seem much more comfortable with this. This is politickin' as both Labor and Liberal prefer it, in private suites of offices away from the prying eyes of the public and the media. Where deals can be cut and votes bartered over coffee and sandwiches and where the talk is pragmatic and no one has to pretend to be in favour of reducing public debt while simultaneously announcing $42 billion worth of spending, as the Liberal Party did, or to pretend to be strongly in favour of reducing carbon emissions while simultaneously announcing a ludicrously complicated citizens assembly that would have made it impossible to reduce anything except the application of common sense, as Labor had done.

Those kind of nonsensical, doublethink ideas have gone out the window now we're into 'Election Campaign 2: Meet The Independents.' Both Gillard and Abbott are doing their best to stick to facts and reality and keep the bullshit to a minimum at the moment. And both are looking pained doing it, like people who learned how to play the piano when they were kids but haven't played for years and are now trying to recall a phrase or two. But this - hard facts and no hyperbole - is what the independents want and so this is what our leaders are trying to give them, at least in public.

And so this current dance between Labor, Liberal and the Independents is simultaneously like an election campaign as we know them... and yet not like one.

For example, Julia Gillard gave a speech to the 'National Press Club' last week, as she did during the real election campaign, in which she outlined her vision for Australia... a vision which suddenly included things like reform of Parliament and more money for neglected regions of Australia and more money for mental health treatment and disability insurance. Things, policies, with a bit of vision about them and so entirely missing from her actual election campaign, the one that was supposedly run for our benefit. And Tony Abbott this week submitted all of his election policies to Treasury for costing, exactly as the 'Charter of Budgetary Honesty' requires him to do during an election campaign... except he didn't do this during the actual election campaign, the one supposedly run for our benefit, claiming at the time that Treasury was full of liars and communists and should be the subject of a Federal Police investigation.

That Federal Police investigation is now forgotten about, and anyone that asks Mr Abbott about it in public will get a sickly grin before he changes the subject (in private they'd probably get a punch in the face, at least). Likewise anyone that asks Ms Gillard about her sudden conversion to Parliamentary reform, a broken Labor election promise from 2007, will get a short reply about the wonders of democracy and her personal commitment to reform. And then both of them would probably dash, sprint, to the nearest phone to call Rob Oakeshott or Bob Katter and ask them if they'd seen the press conference and what did they think and how was everything going anyway? Bigger office? Maybe you could use a bigger office. We could arrange a bigger office if you feel you need one. Now might be the time. Anything you like, you've got my number.

There can be no doubt that these are unusual times in Australian politics (Don Bradman and Adolf Hitler were both still captaining their respective countries last time we had a hung parliament) and this is causing some unusual side effects. Quite apart from the major party leaders behaving like rational adults with the best interests of the public at heart, some good ideas are being batted around about what to do with this country of ours. Some bad ideas are being batted around too, but the key word in both of those sentences is 'ideas' (and the 'batted around' part is important too):

Bob Katter wants a return to protectionism and the tariff wall, Rob Oakeshott a national unity government, Tony Windsor super fast broadband, Adam Bandt and the Greens a conscience vote on gay marriage, Tony Crook a sackfull of money for his mob in the bush and Andrew Wilkie a new hospital for Hobart (I guess not everyone's caught up in the big picturedness of the moment).

Now you could fairly quickly make a list of pros and cons for all of those proposals and stir up a pretty lively debate about any of them. And if you did that, you'd have the undying gratitude of anyone in Australia with an interest in politics who's just suffered through 5 weeks of 'Moving Forward' and 'Stop the Boats!' (A debate! With ideas and and differing points of view and everything!).

The other thing you can fairly quickly deduce from looking at that grab bag of wish list items is that it's no surprise we don't have a government yet. The fate deciding independents have little in common other than the phrase 'Independant Member for' in front of their parliamentary title. Little wonder then, that Tony and Julia look not only like people who have forgotten how to play the piano, but like medieval princes who have forgotten how to play the piano and who are also watching their castle being sacked by Visigoths. Business as usual has been suspended and change is in the air. Which has got to be good for the rest of us.

The Labor Party, which has already signed agreements with the Greens and Andrew Wilkie for limited support, appear best placed at this time to stagger over the line. The Coalition's mathematical problems with how they've funded their policies, exposed at long last by Treasury scrutiny, has undoubtedly hurt them. Treasury reporting a short fall of $7 - 11 billion dollars in the funding of a candidate that had sloganised constantly about 'ending debt' and 'stopping the waste' in Government spending could only ever be bad. Although Abbott did his best to heroically wave these sums aside as unimportant, and nothing more than 'a difference of opinion.'

Oakeshott, Katter and Windsor have indicated they should make up their mind this week, and maybe as early as tomorrow (Tuesday). The established thinking is that they will find enough common ground with each other and one of the major parties to install a minority government of some sort and end this current limbo period.

If they cannot, and it's probably unlikely but not impossible, we could all be back to the polls to have another go. Perhaps my neighbour, the one with the election signs still in the front yard, knows something the rest of us don't.