Over the past 15 years, Australia’s immigration debate has focused on whether “illegal” boat arrivals can be prevented by policies in the home country, or whether they are determined primarily by refugee flows in the countries of origin. This is broadly referred to as the debate about “push” versus “pull” factors in immigration. On the one hand, commentators (generally “conservative”) suggest that Australia’s “lax” immigration policies, and generous policies towards refugees, encourage people to try to come here. These “lax” policies seem to be primarily represented by the visa system, and so the Howard (“conservative”) government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which offer no guarantee of a long-term home – theoretically the holder of a TPV will be required to return home when their national situation stabilizes. This seems hardly likely to be a deterrent given that the national situation in nations like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka doesn’t stabilize over periods of less than a decade, but a deterrent it is believed to be. Other policies are often seen as part of this process of reducing “pull” factors – offshore processing, reduction of benefits (a big issue in the UK, where asylum seekers cannot get any benefits or access the NHS), restrictions on family reunions, etc. Of course, all of these policies are predicated on the idea that in amongst this flood of refugees is a certain non-trivial proportion of people who are not “genuine” refugees, and that for some reason these people need to be weeded out and prevented from “taking advantage” of our “generous” systems.

On the other hand, some commentators (generally “left wing”) suggest that immigration flows are primarily driven by the situation in the countries where people come from, and desperate people are largely unconcerned about the policies of the countries they are fleeing to. Under this “push” philosophy, people flood out of their home country when everything goes to shit, and the policies of the countries they’re heading to don’t amount to more than a temporary impediment. Basically under this model a bunch of people from Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar have been heading away, and some of them have got trapped in Malaysia and Indonesia. From there they dribble out on boats to Australia, and Australia’s specific processing and visa policies aren’t relevant because people will do remarkable things when the alternative is either dying in their homeland or rotting in a transit camp in intermediary countries.

Unfortunately, the truth of this battle – which to Australians is important, because we’re the 8th richest country in the world, so it would be a disaster to us if a couple of thousand people took advantage of our hospitality – is difficult to resolve in the Australian context. National visa and asylum seeker management policy has changed frequently, but drivers of refugee flow have changed separately in a complex way: the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq has ebbed and flowed, wars have sprung up in Syria and Libya, the war in Sri Lanka flared up and came to an end, and the situation in Myanmar and Pakistan is complex and unknowable. Furthermore, at various times the Australian government’s policies of direct intervention against boats – turning them back, or leaving them to drift against international maritime law, or sending the SAS to raid boats that rescued refugees – has changed. Currently the government refuses to report numbers of arrivals or boats turned back, so it’s impossible to assess the success of the current policy. So the debate in Australia – and let’s face it, knowing whether these people are trying to take advantage is far more important than helping them – has been difficult to resolve.

This week the Guardian had an article describing how refugee flows have changed in Europe, and this article – if true – gives some further information about the relative importance of push vs. pull factors. The situation in Europe is dire, and dwarfs Australia’s refugee “problem”, and the level of human catastrophe also dwarfs the situation that the Australian Prime Minister was crying crocodile tears about while in opposition – hundreds of people drown at a time on a regular basis in the Mediterranean. From the clinical standpoint of trying to answer the oh-so-important question of whether they’re all grafters, Europe is a much more useful experimental setting, because it involves multiple countries with multiple different policies on asylum and refugee management. The refugees are targeting France, Italy and Greece, and they have been coming overland and by sea. Since Greece built a wall more have been coming by sea, and the numbers have exploded since the war in Syria – 350 in 2012 compared to 7000 in 2013 – and these refugees are targeting several countries that, as far as I can tell, haven’t changed their migration and asylum-seeker handling policies at all. It’s also worth noting that the mediterranean doesn’t have any interim processing centres – people flee straight to the reception countries – whereas Australia is the target of people spilling over from processing centres in Indonesia and Malaysia. So presumably Europe’s experience measures actual changes in flow, rather than changes in interim processing centres. The UN is proposing processing centres to handle the huge numbers and reduce the appalling fatalities at sea, but no one appears to be proposing changes in European policy that would “discourage” asylum seekers – neither is anyone proposing resettling them all on a malaria-ridden remote island where they can riot at their leisure without being filmed. Uncivilized brutes, those Europeans. But this lack of “deterrent” measures is not new, yet the flow has changed – at just the time that the west is also receiving reports of new brutalities in Syria, and the collapse of the rebel efforts there.

I take the events in Europe as strong evidence for the “push” theory of refugee flows. That isn’t to say that changing “pull” factors wouldn’t affect these flows, but given there is literally nowhere else for these people to go (except Australia?) it seems unlikely they’d make a difference. The European experience confirms my suspicion that refugee flows are primarily determined by what is happening in the origin country, not by the policies of the destination countries. Which, unless we can find a way to stop the chaos happening in the middle east[1], is going to mean accepting that we need to start accepting more refugees, and preparing for bigger flows in the future. An unlikely political outcome, at best …


fn1: I wonder if not supporting insurgencies might be a good start?

This is a tale of how I successfully broke all the rules in the travel advisory, and lived to tell the tale of a tear-gassing and a close encounter with a riot policeman. It’s also the high point of the long series of disasters that was my Turkish trip – starting with booking the ticket for the wrong month, and finishing with my shoes falling apart late on Monday evening – with 4 weeks of my round-the-world trip still to go …

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

Check for riot police and water cannon tanks in your hotel BEFORE travelling!

I am on a round-the-world trip in which I am making three stops for work-related training: a week in Konstanz, 2 days in Switzerland, 10 days in London and a week in Seattle. Each training trip is a week apart, but to return to Japan between each trip would be both ludicrously exhausting and ludicrously expensive, and since I haven’t had any time off in a year it seemed like a good idea to fill the in-between weeks with holidays. The first of these is three days in Istanbul. My trip here is so stupidly unplanned that I a) booked my ticket from Zurich for the wrong month (and had to rebook when I got to the airport!) and b) didn’t check the political situation in Turkey. When I booked my hotel I found myself thinking “Taksim square – sounds really familiar” but I didn’t bother to check, and so didn’t discover that protesters have been targeting Taksim square since May last year.

It's just not cricket!

It’s just not cricket!

So I arrived at Taksim square after an enlightening taxi ride, dumped my stuff and went out for dinner. Returning from dinner, I was near my hotel door (like, literally) when my throat started burning and my eyes watering. Now, in Tokyo we sometimes have these things that I call “Shibuya moments” – you can be standing at a very sophisticated part of town, surrounded by classically sophisticated Japanese people, and suddenly be overwhelmed by this huge stench as if the universe had farted on you. So my first thought was “is this the Istanbul version of a Shibuya moment? Because if so they really need some environmental planning laws!” But then my rudimentary knowledge of chemistry kicked in and I thought “no, that’s impossible!” Then my rudimentary knowledge of Europe kicked in, and I thought – “tear gas! … football riot!” The last football riot I saw (in London) was very entertaining – watching arseholes having their arsehole bitten off by dogs is hugely entertaining. So, naturally, I headed towards what I thought was a football riot.

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

You have one second to reach Minimum Safe Distance!

My investigation led me into a long shopping street called Istiklal, and I soon realized that this was not a football riot, and it was serious. For starters, there were a royal crapton of riot police. Every side street entering Istiklal was blocked by a single phalanx, and there were probably 100 at the top of the street (near my hotel!) where I first smelt the tear gas. In addition, they had turned up with more equipment than you would usually need outside of the South Korean riots of the 1980s (or Ukraine of the week before) – Armoured Personnel Carriers and a handful of water tanks, plus every policeman had a gas mask and every five or so had a rubber bullet gun. Furthermore, their buses were guarded by men armed with uzis or some kind of even bigger automatic rifle (being Australian, I’m not really familiar with this stuff).

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

Mostly everything was calm, and remarkably everyone was just wandering around doing their shopping, ignoring the whole thing. But every now and then you could hear this loud banging, and get a whiff of the tear gas (with immediate coughing and eye pain, just from the merest tendrils of the stuff!) And down the far end of the street there was a definite growing tension, and the sound of chanting. I found myself next to two young women who explained that this was a rally against some kind of nasty new internet censorship law (in which the government would get access to your browser history!), and part of a long-running campaign against authoritarianism that had begun last May and so far had seen six protesters die. I didn’t find out more though because as they were telling me this, a beer bottle came sailing sedately through the air and shattered on a nearby riot policeman’s helmet. At this point everyone started running, including the two girls I had been talking to (who had been at previous demos), and I opted for discretion over valour and ducked around a corner. At this point nothing bad had happened to me or anyone else I had seen.

These men endorse Bjork's approach to papparazzi

These men endorse Bjork’s approach to papparazzi

From here I did a bit of exploring and emerged in a new alleyway facing onto Istiklal. There was a wall of riot police between me and the main street and they didn’t seem interested in letting anyone through, so I stayed in the alley and took a photo. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a lone riot policeman behind me, and turned around to hear him yelling at me and advancing rapidly towards me, baton in one hand and attitude in the other. By now everyone was strung out on the tension, and this guy had probably just been in a fight, he wasn’t impressed by my little 7000 yen camera. I backed up with my arms spread and said clearly and slowly “I’m sorry, I don’t speak any Turkish,” and that immediately calmed him down but he was still fuming – he started yelling at me in the international language of “fuck off” (fortunately now obviously not intending to cave my head in) and I decided to take his sage advice. I probably should have taken, earlier, the advice of my embassy and not hung around large and aggressive gatherings, but hey … so far so good, right?

Not a romantic mist

Not a romantic mist

So now I found myself in another alley, and slightly lost. I wandered around briefly and found a group of people standing at the end of  a street, watching some guy firing a flare gun at the riot police. I guessed this wasn’t going to end well for anyone involved and moved on. I soon found another street that seemed more peaceful, and I was trying to find out how to move back towards my hotel when a group came around the corner, in hot debate with a couple of riot cops. As I watched, these cops grabbed a guy in the group and started wrestling with him, and everyone in the street screamed and started running at the same time. When in Rome, and all that – I headed off with them. I didn’t have much time to see what was going on, but the afflicted guy seemed like one of the gypsy-type characters who hang around the square, one of his assailants was unslinging a plastic bullet gun, and as I headed around the corner I heard a loud bang. My guess is that chap – who seemed entirely innocent – is currently nursing a deep and unpleasant bruise.

An essential truce

An essential truce

From here I ran around a corner to discover another street filled with tear gas, fortunately far enough away that again I only got its outlying tendrils – and again developed stinging eyes and a rapid cough. That stuff is nasty, and the excitement was rapidly becoming warying. Things also seemed to be heating up, and I had the impression that the cops were going to start getting indiscriminate, so I ducked into a nearby pub. Here I found football and beer, and whiled away a pleasant 45 minutes watching Galatasaray win their game. Because Turkish soccer is quite violent the second half had 10 minutes of injury time, so I ducked out after five. On the street I found the above scene, of riot police gathered at the nearby cafe to watch the last five minutes of the game. Only in Europe …

So, I’ve confirmed that you can safely ignore all your government’s travel advisories. Or, more likely, I was very lucky. That first encounter with the riot policeman could have been a holiday-spoiling (not to mention life-spoiling) moment, and I really shouldn’t have gone sniffing out trouble. I get the impression that this campaign against corruption is a pretty reasonable thing, and the goals of the demonstrators generally laudable. But regardless of who is right on whatever issues beset Turkey (and I think there may be many) I hope that it gets resolved soon, without further loss of life (or interruptions of football viewing). My impression is that Turkey has a rocky but ultimately peaceful and successful future waiting for it. I hope these riots turn out to be a positive influence on that future…

There is a fascinating passage in Antony Beevor’s Berlin where he describes the bemusement experienced by Soviet soldiers when they entered Germany proper, and discovered how rich the Germans were. Beevor describes this bemusement turning rapidly to anger, as the Soviets began to ask themselves why a nation that was so much richer than them would want to invade them at all. Why didn’t they just stay home and enjoy their riches? Beevor even ascribes some of the Soviet soldiers’ furious treatment of German civilians (especially women) to their response to this discovery.

I am travelling at the moment, and my travels start with Swiss and Germany. Obviously the Swiss are fantastically wealthy, but when I enter Germany I am always struck by how staggeringly rich Germans are. I don’t mean in the sense that there are a lot of obviously fantastically wealthy people with a million ferraris; rather, the average German is just stupidly wealthy. Furthermore, their infrastructure is stupidly modern: trains are gleaming and new, cars are silent modern things, hotels are well-appointed and modern, farms are always well built and have the latest stuff. Everyone has solar panels. This is a nation not only of private wealth but of public investment. This is particularly interesting because Germany is cheaper than Switzerland or the UK – the price of living is really low – but it’s really obvious that the country is not doing badly despite this.

My next stage in my travels will be London. London is so remarkably different from either Berlin or rural southern Germany, where I am currently staying. It is filthy, rundown and seething with discontent. Nothing works properly, the infrastructure is crumbling, and very few people take any pride in either the service they provide or in the way their nation treats strangers. The contrast from Germany is remarkable – even though the price of living in the UK is much, much higher. How can it be that a nation of such historical greatness can be so decrepit in comparison to Germany?

Many leftists wish to blame all of this on Margaret Thatcher, but this isn’t really a tenable argument. For starters, the UK had serious economic problems before Thatcher (see e.g. the three-day week), and it had a long period of Labour rule after Thatcher, during which it could have fixed some of Thatcher’s worst excesses. Not to mention that Germany has had its share of economic troubles, backward-looking leaders, and of course the need to absorb all of East Germany. Furthermore, Britain has highly valuable resources – oil and gas – that Germany lacks. It’s also unusual for a country’s entire economic troubles to be linked to just one leader – they tend to be more systemic than that – and other nations like Japan and Australia have also had serious economic problems, but still seem wealthier than the UK. So what is it?

Looking around Europe, I note that among the five big ex-colonial powers, only two are still doing well. The five big powers are the UK, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. If we add in Italy for its African possessions, we have a pretty low rate of economic success for the ex-colonialists. Meanwhile the nations of northern Europe that weren’t colonists are doing very well, as is Japan. (Note that here, by “the colonial powers” I don’t include those nations such as Japan and Germany that tried it for a few years and failed – I mean only those nations who held colonies long enough to benefit from them). I guess some would argue that France is doing okay, but I’m not convinced. But the UK, Spain and Italy are obviously in huge economic trouble. I don’t think that this can be sleeted home to the welfare state – Germany, Japan and the Scandinavians all have excellent welfare states, but they’re much better off than the UK. It also isn’t due to that old British canard, “diversity” – Australia and Germany are actually just as diverse as (or more diverse than) the UK.

I think it might be that colonialism creates a kind of resource curse – nations with large colonies they can exploit don’t bother building up the cultural, economic and political attitudes necessary to be economically successful in the modern world. They stagnate under the influence of colonialism’s apparently beneficial balm. I remember in reading A.N. Lee’s the Victorians that he tries to understand how it is that the UK never experienced the revolutions and civil wars of Europe, and he mentioned one possible reason was the ability to loot Ireland and India. In this version of history, the Irish famine was partly brought about by the need of the British ruling class to subsidize British food supplies, to ensure the poor didn’t revolt. I think Beevor points out that India suffered huge famines in world war 2 as the British exported as much food as possible to the UK. George Orwell notes this phenomenon as well, and in Burmese Days his lead character gives an anti-colonial diatribe in which he points out that the UK basically set India up as a captive market, preventing any industrial competition on the sub-continent in order to ensure that British industrialists had somewhere to sell their products[1].

By way of comparison, Germany and Japan have had a couple of revolutions and, in the absence of either colonies or resources, have had to develop a strong industrial base and a society built around competing with the rest of the world. They have the advantage of having populations large enough to support internal markets and a solid industrial policy – but so does the UK. The difference is that they have never been in a position to decide it’s all too hard and resort to stealing from foreign territories. The economic model the UK worked on until the 1950s was a pretty successful one – you have a small group of people willing to do dirty work, who ensure a regular supply of money to the government by ripping off people who have no power to resist. Such a system is a very tempting way of avoiding facing deep structural problems in your economy, and an excellent way of buying off your poorest class but when the system collapses you find yourself in very difficult economic circumstances[2]. And I think that might partly explain the problems that the UK, Portugal, Spain and France are facing – for too long they were able to belay their economic challenges onto others, and loot weaker nations to plug economic gaps of their own. Since the 1950s the UK’s colonial empire has rapidly unwound, with the jewel in the crown (India) lost in the 1940s. The result is that all those structural problems that were previously being prevented by colonial money have come to the fore, and increasingly desperate attempts to solve them have all come to naught. My favourite example of this zeitgeist is the museum of the crown jewels in the Tower of London: it houses a fantabulous display of colonial bling, showcasing the rapacious powers of the British Empire, but when you get to the end you are confronted with a request to donate to maintain the thing – because the British government no longer has the cash to properly fund its public sector.

Japan and Germany learnt through hard and bitter experience that the colonial powers weren’t going to welcome any new colonial projects in the 20th century, but Japan’s horrible acts and horrible end led directly to the unraveling of the colonies. And when those colonies unwound, I think that Germany, Japan and the other rich non-colonial nations (like Australia and Canada) were in a much better position to face the new world order that resulted. The UK will continue to be unable to adapt to the new world while its politicians, public intellectuals and even its general public are unable to face the true history and legacy of colonialism. Of course, facing this legacy isn’t going to be enough in and of itself – the UK needs to find a way to dig itself out of its economic troubles. I don’t think they will, and instead they’ll be left reflecting on past colonial glories as they slowly slide into the ranks of the low-income countries. Eventually their old colonial possessions will surpass them, and the cycle of colonial history will be complete.

fn1: the lead character of that book is a racist, sexist puppy murderer, so make your own judgments about whether you think they have much worthwhile to say about politics.

fn2: any similarity to Tony Blair’s plan to finance welfare through the finance industry is purely coincidental, I’m sure

I have got involved in a Saturday-morning stoush about genetically modified (GM) crops at Professor Quiggin’s blog[1]. For those who don’t know him, John Quiggin is a left-wing economist and blogger who wrote the book Zombie Economics, and I think is generally well-respected for his sensible policy views, though he can be spectacularly wrong. I like to think that John and I share a kind of “scientific” leftism, that is a generally left-wing outlook that is informed by evidence and reason. For example I support the criminalization of heroin use, think that nuclear power has a potential role in mitigating anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and is safer than many believe, and of course I accept the science of AGW. One thing I have noticed about scientific leftists though is that they tend to have a tense relationship with the environmental movement, and especially with the more ratbaggy, dreadlocked and “deep eco” arm of it. This friction is most obvious in the disagreements many scientific leftists have with the environmental movement over GM crops, and I think this friction is both generally misguided and misguided in the specific instance of GM crops. In this post I’m going to explore why I think anti-GM leftists have a valid point based in science, and I’m also going to explore why these scientific leftists are so often uncomfortable with their patchouli-scented fellow travellers.

First though I’d like to review the successes and history of the modern environmental movement, because it seems to me that just going on the balance of probabilities, disagreeing with the environmental movement is a good sign that you are probably wrong. I mean this purely in a probabilistic sense, not in a logical sense (I really shouldn’t have to clarify this, but it is the internet). Let’s look at some of the major successes of the environmental movement:

  • They predicted DDT was very bad, and excessive use of DDT for general crop spraying led to the development of resistance in mosquitos, with sad consequences for malaria-endemic countries until pyrethrims were put into controlled use (and note that modern use of anti-malarial sprays follows exactly the guidelines that should have been followed with DDT)
  • They were right about acid rain
  • They were right about GFCs and the ozone layer
  • They were spectacularly right about AGW
  • The clean air act
  • Meat and cancer
  • Meat and malnutrition in the developing world
  • They predicted the collapse of the Grand Banks cod population and after they lost the battle to preserve the fisheries, the entire community that depended on those fisheries died
  • In Australia the Greens and others predicted the collapse of the old growth woodchip industry due to competition from overseas plantations and tried to develop an industry assistance plan based on plantation forests, but the CFMEU fought it because jobs! and now – surprise! – the big woodchipping companies are going under due to overseas plantation competition

The environmental movement has, of course, been spectacularly wrong about nuclear power. Note also that in some cases – like DDT and AGW – we can now say that the movement was more right than it realized at the time. We now know that the consequences of AGW are going to be way way more serious than originally suggested, and since the advent of the global burden of disease studies we have strong evidence that coal is really really bad for human health – vindicating the intentions of the original clean air act in the USA and various campaigns in other countries. So, just on the balance of probabilities, taking a side against the environmental movement on their big ticket issues is likely to make you wrong more often than right. And of course scientific leftists like John Quiggin will look at all the entries on that list and be firmly in favour of the environmental movement’s position on them – except meat. So why are they so suspicious of the anti-GM movement?  And why do they accuse anti-GM campaigners of being “anti-science” so easily, when the history of the environmental movement is that it has had science on its side?

Before I address that, let’s look at the anti-GM movement. John Quiggin suggests in his post that they are only concerned about human consumption of GM foods, and constructs a classic straw environmentalist with this attack:

It would be more effective and more honest for GM opponents to come out and say “we don’t like the idea of tinkering with DNA. We don’t care what the evidence is, or whether there is any observable difference from ‘natural’ foods, we just don’t want to eat this stuff”.

By doing this he ignores substantive issues that environmental campaigners have raised about the potential threats to the environment from GM crops, and the risk to human health through environmental contamination (rather than simply consumption). He wants us to believe that anti-GM campaigners are scared of eating modified DNA because reasons, and doesn’t want us to think that there might be any other reasons for opposing GM crops. But there are other reasons – much more significant than the food safety reasons – and the environmental movement is clear about these reasons. For example Greenpeace Australia has a long FAQ about GM crops and most of the points are not about food safety. The two other big issues with GM crops – environmental contamination and international food inequality – are very important in that FAQ.

The science connected with environmental contamination is fairly solid and self-evident. For example, Farm Industry News reports on the rapid spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in the USA, based on a study funded by Monsanto (who make round-up resistant crops), and the clear recommendation of this scientific research is that farmers need to rotate their roundup-resistant crops in order to reduce the development of resistance. The article states that

the rate at which glyphosate-resistant weeds are spreading is gaining momentum, increasing 25% in 2011 and 51% in 2012

and pins the blame on overuse of roundup on roundup-resistant crops. This is a classic case of the need for community action: no matter how sensible you might be on your farm, if your neighbours are over-spraying then eventually you will get infected with their roundup-resistant weeds, with serious consequences (some of these weeds can destroy an entire crop). This kind of over-spraying is also going to contaminate river-water (through runoff) and groundwater, and scientists are developing standards for river-water based on the risks to animal and human health. For example, these South African scientists are developing standards for river water based on the harm to river fish; a search of pubmed will reveal studies showing the potential for glyphosate to interfere with human reproduction, which suggests that consumption through contaminated water is a risk to human health. None of this research is anti-science and all of it supports the need to be very careful about the use of these crops.

It’s not as if we don’t have a precedent for this either. In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, leading to a movement to ban widespread spraying with DDT. She identified the risk of DDT-resistance, and despite widespread opposition by industry to her findings that is exactly what happened. Why people like John Quiggin think it is anti-science to see the same risk in roundup resistant crops is a mystery to me – I don’t think he can be ignorant of the history of DDT or the toxic debate that has surrounded this chemical in the last 10 years. So why repeat these errors and object to a similar approach to GM crops? And instead of lambasting the anti-GM movement for criminal vandalism and anti-science ideology, why not engage with it to try and produce a constructive, scientific-based approach to the regulation and management of GM crops? I doubt, for example, that John is particularly supportive of overturning the generally-agreed upon ban on geo-engineering. But we could probably develop some kind of horrible plankton or algae that would eat CO2 and stabilize it – surely it’s not anti-science to try? Yet the scientific consensus is that this could be very very dangerous, and no one supports such an effort. What’s the difference?

I think the difference is the activists connected with the movement, and a kind of innate discomfort that a lot of scientific leftists have with their more radical allies who actually do the dirty work on the ground. The anti-GM movement’s foot-soldiers are drawn from the same ranks of dreadlocked hippies as the radical animal rights movement and the anti-forestry movement, and I think scientific leftists – being primarily academics or middle-class professionals – are inherently uncomfortable with the behavior of these scary-looking weirdos. But the reality is that those ratbag activists have achieved a great deal for the environmental movement, which won a great many of its victories through criminal behavior and property damage. This is nowhere more true than in the animal rights movement, which though much-maligned by mainstream leftists has been the most successful international political movement since feminism and has achieved almost all of its gains from a starting point of criminal property damage and theft. In the 1980s animal liberation front (ALF) invasions of vivisection labs produced shocking examples of cruelty that led to the complete revision of ethical guidelines towards animal experiments. Their continued actions against vivisection labs in the 1980s and 1990s forced the practice of animal experimentation into the public mind, and radically changed the way it was done. Similar achievements were gained in slaughterhouses, the live animal trade, factory farming, the fur industry, the pet industry, and especially the cosmetics industry. Laws were rewritten, food production practices changed, and attitudes towards animals revolutionized. Every single one of these campaigns started from direct action and vandalism, often perpetrated by dreadlocked society drop-outs. Many of them involved campaigns against academics – something that obviously won’t appeal to scientific leftists like John Quiggin who are firmly within the establishment academy. But let’s not make any bones about this: those academics needed to be challenged, and this was not happening within the law. The video Hidden Crimes, released in 1986, contains extensive footage of the kind of cowboy behavior and blatant cruelty of these early vivisectionists, and it certainly does not make for pleasant viewing. The great achievement of the animal rights movement has been to force these cruelties into the open, and to completely reshape the institutional landscape within which these crimes are committed. The same is true of the campaign against whaling: while reasonable people talk pointlessly in meetings of the IWC, the sea shepherds are preventing the Japanese from actually catching actual whales. In his biography, Paul Watson makes clear that this action is conducted precisely because no one is willing to act, and before Japan he targeted the USSR and US allies in south America. The whaling issue would be completely under the radar if it weren’t for the behavior of people like Paul Watson, and it is as a direct result of the public pressure arising from Watson’s behavior that Australia raised the whaling issue in the international criminal court.

Of course, this fringe-dwelling hippy radical movement has its fair share of anti-vaccinationists, fluoride conspiracy theorists and new world order nutcases. The anti-vivisection movement was soon hijacked by Hans Ruesch and his anti-medicine cohorts, just as the Union of Concerned Scientists is heavily influenced by anti-nuclear doctors. Every movement that runs up against powerful institutions attracts these people (and I would suggest the anti-AGW movement has been most vulnerable to these types of people – witness Monckton the birther and Agenda21 conspiracist as one of their central figures). But these people acting as the uncontrolled foot-soldiers of a social movement doesn’t make the ideas behind the movement itself wrong, and it’s dangerous to throw out the lessons of the broader movement just because you don’t like the look and feel of a few of its members. Had this approach been taken by Peter Singer towards animal rights, for example, he would have been essentially arguing that any amount of cruelty is legitimate in the pursuit of science. Instead he wrote Animal Liberation and developed a theory of ethics that is easy to apply, practical and enormously influential inside and outside the academy. Peter Singer chose to engage with the movement that his ideas describe, and indeed now many of the ideas the ALF espouse that were once considered extreme and dangerous are now well within the mainstream – as are many of the ideas espoused by earlier generations of environmental activists about hunting and food production. But always these groups are lampooned as anti-science extremists when they first get involved in an issue.

I guess moderate rightist academics do the same thing in respect of their fringe-dwelling nazis and street thugs, though I don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the cultural sphere where centrist approaches to immigration theory are developed – I get the impression that moderate right-wing academia is strongly opposed to the views of its street-level thugs on immigration, but I don’t really know much about it. I don’t know if the same situation applies there. But in debates about science and the management of scientific processes, I think it’s far far better for scientific leftists to engage with and try to understand the environmental movement than just to reject it out of hand as anti-science, as John Quiggin does in this case. The Peter Singer model of offering academic structure and guidance to the theoretical background of a movement is, in my opinion, far better than what John Quiggin and many other scientific leftists do with GM crops, which is to construct an anti-science straw movement and then knock it down. This isn’t going to move debate forward and it certainly isn’t going to stop the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.

fn1: My last comment appears to have gone into moderation and disappeared.

Many people have pondered the real reasons for the Iraq war, the stated reasons being so blatantly false. Most critics have claimed it was a war for oil; some have suggested it was a stupid mistake by a clique of idiots; others have proposed the darker conspiracy theory that it was intended to unleash chaos specifically to keep the oil in the ground. Well, today Tony Blair revealed the truth: it was a crusade by Protestant extremists. In a piece for the observer, Tony “the Vampire” Blair gives his considered opinion of wars in the 21st century, and decides that they will be primarily driven by religious extremism.

Well, the Iraq war was the second war of the 21st century, its longest-running new war, and certainly a fairly serious business. Before it was invaded, Iraq was a secular dictatorship. It was invaded by a ragtag coalition of Christians, and the leaders of the coalition of the willing were two Protestant nations. Surely we should apply the Vampire’s logic to the big war that he started? Western religious extremism is surely the greatest threat to world peace …

We can do better than that though, can’t we? Now we can look to the religious roots of the Senkaku Islands conflict, driven by the irreconcilable differences between Confucian fascists on the one hand and Shinto Extremists on the other. The increasingly tense dispute between Indonesia and Australia is not really over boat people, but over interpretations of whether Jesus was the son of God. And what is this shit about the conflict in the Central African Republic being ethnically based? It’s clearly a threeway fight to the death between born-again christian fanatics, shamanic exterminationists, and moderate Islam. Right?

History tells me that people in the UK voted in quite large numbers for Tony Blair, several times. I find this hard to believe. Was there ever a time when if he opened his mouth, lies or garbage didn’t come out? Because I don’t remember it, but surely millions of British voters (adults, apparently!) couldn’t have been so easily fooled? Once again there can only be one explanation: Tony Blair is an extremely powerful vampire, with incredible powers of mass hypnosis. Put a stake through that beast! Or at least, keep its hideous rantings off the pages of national newspapers …

I have a friend in Sydney, Australia who has things a little tough. She has a decent professional job – though its a job in a woman’s career, so it doesn’t pay as well as professional jobs should – and she’s a good worker. She has been working ever since I met her without a break, and keeps the same job for years at a time, so no problems with her work life. Unfortunately she’s a single mother, not because she’s one of those dirty sluts who pop out sprogs by the month to get on welfare, but because after the birth of her child her husband turned into a weirdo Men’s Rights Activist and became insufferable, so they divorced. They have a custody arrangement (one week each) so she doesn’t fall afoul of any of the Men’s Right’s Movement demands for Good Women, but that’s not enough for him: when her child is at her ex’s house he denigrates her verbally, and he refuses to pay for any kind of extra-curricula or developmental activity, so if her child wants piano or ballet or rugby lessons, she has to fork it out herself. Nonetheless, her child is well-adjusted and she’s a good parent.

Unfortunately she has a minor mental disability which, although it doesn’t stop her working and raising children, means that she isn’t so good with money and she’s had a long history of financial troubles. It also means that she has a “pre-existing condition,” and anyone who has lived in Sydney knows that rents are punishing and being dodgy with money is not an easy trait to live with. She’s lucky because she has a good job, but for every person like my friend you can bet there’s another similar person whose job is not so great, who has serious financial troubles and is, as they say, a single pay-cheque away from disaster.

I think I know what this situation is like, though I can’t imagine the additional stress that gets piled on when you have a child, and I can imagine that my friend comes home from work sometimes, sits down and lets out one of those slow breaths, the one’s where you’re mentally thinking “Fuuuuuuck” as you wonder at what you can do and worry about what will happen to you if you don’t do it.

Fortunately, however, my friend lives in Australia, so she is guaranteed health care. She knows that no matter how badly things go, even if she isn’t working (which she is), neither she nor her child are going to lose their health. Which means that if it becomes her goal to shift down from her professional job to a manual labourer, cleaner or bar worker – she will still have guaranteed healthcare. Those weekly worries where she sits down and thinks about what she has to juggle don’t extend to her or her child’s health.

Not so in the USA. The same woman in the USA – changed jobs as an adult, pre-existing condition, child with same pre-existing condition – is likely unable to get health insurance even if she can afford it. The same woman in the USA will come home and she won’t just think “can I afford anything nice for my child this weekend or next,” but will also think “I hope I don’t get seriously sick before my child becomes an adult,” because if she does she will be facing ruin, and her child’s future will take a massive nose dive. Even though she can afford health insurance in any other country in the world, in the USA she will be denied it, or her entire income will be blown on it. And she’s not alone, nor is her case limited to single mothers who had the importunacy to refuse to tolerate Men’s Rights Movement husbands – there are between 10 and 40 million Americans who can’t get health insurance, and for a sizable proportion of them the problem is either that they have a pre-existing condition, or that as sole business operators or independent contractors they don’t have group purchasing power, and simply can’t afford individual insurance.

But not anymore. On Monday Obamacare started, and those millions of people have access to the health insurance exchanges. Insurance companies can no longer refuse them insurance, but have to offer them a basic plan, and the government will subsidize some plans. Medicaid has been expanded to cover the working poor. The primary beneficiaries of Obamacare will be the working poor, the lower middle class, and those with pre-existing conditions. The estimate for the first year is that 7 million people will gain access to health insurance, and the total number of people expected to gain access over the long term is 28 million. This isn’t a flight of fancy either – the Health Insurance Exchanges have been overwhelmed by the unexpected number of customers, just as happened to the NHS when it first opened.

This scares the Republicans. The next presidential election is in two years and they desperately need to win it, but they have a problem: they are implacably opposed to Obamacare. The election is in two years, and the prediction is that in one year 7 million people will take it up. This means that by the time of the election 7 million people will be benefiting from a Democratic policy that the Republicans will be campaigning to abolish. Judging by the scramble to the exchanges, many of those people will have been receiving their insurance for more than a year. For those people, that Friday night collapse onto the couch and “oh, what am I gonna do!?” will no longer include worries about healthcare. If they have two years to experience this level of relaxation and then, at the next election, the GOP and its Tea Party mates rock up claiming a virtue of abolishing the law, what are those 7 million people going to think? Will some of them perhaps think one option is voting?

Furthermore, the biggest beneficiaries of Obamacare are going to be working and lower-middle class white males with families. These are the stalwarts of the Tea Party’s campaign, and in the long term they are going to be looking at convincing up to 40 million people that gaining access to health insurance – including subsidies for the working poor – is a bad idea. What are their chances?

This is why they have to throw down now. This is why their specific condition was that Obamacare be delayed a year. They need those 7 million people to be naive, fresh to Obamacare, not yet settled in their new comfort zone, so that they can go to the election with a slogan that appeals to their base and doesn’t simultaneously alienate – or worse still, activate – 7 million early adopters. With a one year delay they have a chance; if Obamacare is enacted now they lose. And if they lose, they lose the following election too, because whoever wins the White House (Hilary Clinton?) is going to be able to say to more than 7 million new Democrat voters “do you trust these people? Last election they said they would remove your health insurance. Do you trust them this election?”

That’s why the GOP is willing to shut down the government, because in two years time they risk irrelevance. They have to destroy the tea party and accept universal health coverage, or they have to fight. And if they choose to fight there is going to be no room for compromise. Will they go so far as to force a default? Do they have any political reason not to, if they are facing a sea change at the next election? I guess not …

Never won an election, but won every battle he fought

Never won an election, but won every battle he fought

A little-remarked upon aspect of this most recent Australian federal election has been the performance of the Greens. It’s not surprising that the media don’t report on the Greens’ results, since they hate the Greens and they can’t take them seriously as a party, but it is a little disappointing that they haven’t commented on the Greens’ performance in this particular election, since in many ways the last three years have seen their coming of age as a party, and this election presents strong evidence that they are a mature and robust member of the electoral mainstream.

By way of comparison, let’s consider the Australian Democrats, who in 1999 passed the legislation for the Goods and Services Tax (GST) through the Senate, in support of the Liberal government of the time. This decision was made under the leadership of Meg Lees, who had taken the position in 1997 just before the 1998 election, and was determined to stamp out the Democrats as a responsible party of the mainstream. The GST was extremely unpopular, and in the 2001 election the party lost 12% of its vote and one senator. At the following election the Australian electorate took them out the back and quietly shot them, as the saying goes, and now they no longer exist as a party. Basically, the party had shackled itself to an unpopular government and specifically an unpopular piece of legislation, it was struggling to define itself after the loss of a charismatic leader (Kernot, 1997) and in its flounderings it slowly destroyed itself.

The Greens took found themselves in a similar position in 2010, but in spades: having won a seat in the lower house they explicitly joined a minority government with Labor and passed a very unpopular piece of legislation, the carbon price, and they also experienced the loss of an inspirational and visionary leader – their founder, Bob Brown – just after forming government. So they went to the 2013 electorate shackled to an extremely unpopular government, identified directly with an extremely unpopular policy, and with a leader the electorate didn’t recognize. They suffered a swing against them of about 3.2% (about 25% of their total vote) but they retained their lower house seat with a swing against them of only 0.7%, and gained a Senate seat (they had 9 in 2010 and now have 10). Furthermore, the swing to them in 2010 was 4.0%, so despite their position in the minority government and the unpopular carbon price, they haven’t lost all the gains of the 2010 election. So although the swing against them is not pretty, they are still in a better position than when they went into the previous election (unlike the Democrats in 2001), they have shown themselves able to hold a lower house seat, and they have improved their representation in the Senate. This result arose despite them having been continuously painted as reckless by the major parties and the media, a very strong campaign against them in their lower house seat, the arrival of a new and seriously cashed-up independent party campaigning strongly federally (the PUP), and the Liberals preferencing them last in every state. The Democrats have never faced an electoral landscape as hostile as the Greens, and yet the Greens have survived and gained relative to 2010.

One interpretation of the swing against the Greens is that a proportion of their vote is simply anti-mainstream-parties protest voting, and that once PUP arrived on the scene some of those protesters switched. I think this is only partially true – a large portion of that vote loss is protest against the carbon price and the Greens’ role in minority government. But in this lies the key difference between the Greens and the Democrats. The Democrat rank-and-file largely opposed the GST, and Lees voted for it against the interests of her base. The Greens performed largely in the interests of their base during their period of minority government, and somehow where they voted pragmatically or compromised they have been able to communicate effectively with their voters about this. And most specifically, in exchange for all the compromises of government they won the thing they and most of their supporters most wanted, an effective carbon price. There were other policies they failed to deliver – they wanted the resources tax to be stronger – but by securing a few key gains they managed to convince their voters that they were working for their vision.

In a very well written and thoughtful essay in the Guardian recently Julia Gillard, ex-PM, stated that the most important thing for a political party is to show purpose and to stick with its purpose. For all her and her government’s faults this was a strong and clear principle of her time in office – on the whole she sailed a steady course and didn’t allow policy to be dictated to by polls or fancies. In comparison her predecessor and successor Rudd made policy like a weather vane, pointing whichever way the wind blows. I think the Greens have confirmed the truth of Gillard’s simple principle, and it can be seen in comparison with the Democrats: by sticking with their principles in minority government, explaining clearly to their voters why they do what they do, and not allowing themselves to be governed by flights of fancy or concerns of popularity or media trifles, they have retained their core vote and advanced their agenda. I am confident that the Greens would have been willing to accept electoral destruction in exchange for a sustainable and effective carbon reduction scheme, but they have shown that by sticking to what you believe and acting responsibly and rationally you can make progress in politics. I think this has marked them out as a mature and responsible party in a way that Labor under Rudd definitely was not.

A corollary of this is the possibility that Labor could have done better at the election under Gillard. I still think this could have happened – she might not have won, but I think she would have done no worse. Then at least the ALP could sit in opposition with their heads held high. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Perhaps it’s time they took some lessons on responsible government from the Greens.

Abbott and Whitlam's only common ground?

Abbott and Whitlam’s only common ground?

It’s been a long time since Australia had a double-dissolution election, but I have a suspicion we will get this singular pleasure soon, and that it will be fought out between the major parties as a referendum on climate change. I refuse to elevate my suspicion to the level of a prediction, but I’m going to lay out my reasoning here. [obviously this post is on Australian politics so if you're from overseas you may find it a little mind-bending].

Perusing the senate election results today I noticed that the Australian Sex Party are likely to get into the Senate through Tasmania. From July 2014 the make up of the upper house will be:

  • 33 Liberal/National
  • 35 Labor/Greens
  • 1 Xenophon
  • 1 Palmer United
  • 1 Australian Motor Enthusiasts (!)
  • 1 Australian Sports Party (!)
  • 1 Liberal Democrats (!!)
  • 1 Australian Sex Party (!)
  • 1 Family First Party
  • 1 Democratic Labor Party (DLP)

So, assuming that on most crucial topics (except abortion) the DLP vote with Labor/Greens, it will be 36 vs. 33 in favour of the left, with 7 independents. To get legislation through the house the new prime minister (PM) Tony Abbott – who holds a vast majority in the lower house – will need the support of at least 6 of the independents. If we assume that the DLP and sex party vote with ALP/Greens on the carbon price, then it will be 37 vs. 39. So if one other independent – e.g. the Aussie sports party or Xenophon – refuse to unravel the carbon price legislation then Tony Abbott’s core election promise is toast. Of course it’s possible that the Aussie sports party will agree with him that “climate change is crap” but it’s also possible Xenophon will refuse to unwind legislation passed by the last government (he seems that type). From the perspective of September 2013, having promised to revoke the carbon price immediately, waiting until July 2014 and then being rejected in the senate probably won’t sit well with Abbott’s reputation.

This isn’t his only problem either. If he wants to get socially conservative legislation – on RU486, gay marriage or whatever – through the parliament he will almost certainly face opposition from the Liberal Democrats (insane libertarians) and Sex Party. For weakening tobacco legislation he will face opposition from Xenophon and the Sports Party. Basically, the range of possible permutations amongst 7 senators hailing from a range of political perspectives – from the socially extremely liberal to the batshit insane – mean that negotiating with the new senate is going to be a big challenge for Abbott even if he can be confident it will deliver him his big ticket options. It’s even possible his paid parenting leave scheme could fail, since the ALP might be able to muster enough independents to squish it even if the Greens go with Abbott.

On top of that, most of the independents will surely be aware that they are only going to be in the Senate for one sitting. The Liberal Democrats know they are simply a fluke of the ballot paper; the motorists, sexers and sporties will also be thinking that they were flukes (some of these parties got less than 1% of the vote). If they ponder on this a little, one or more of these guys are surely going to realize that this is their only chance to “make Australia better,” and that they can’t lose anything by tough negotiating. Palmer United have already suggested that support for repeal of the carbon tax may be contingent on repayment of all money already raised, and I think it’s possible that the Liberal Democrats might make their support conditional on abolishing Abbott’s Direct Action plan. The Liberal Democrats are opposed to gun control, speed limits and medicare, and at some point Abbott is going to be faced with a deal that puts those things on the table. Gun control being a matter of faith in Australian politics, he’s going to find himself over a barrel at some point if he doesn’t deal with these people.

These considerations, plus the fact that he promised to unwind the carbon price as soon as he was elected, make me think that it is in both his short term and long-term interests to run a double dissolution election before the new senate sits. He has promised a government free of surprises and chaos, “the adults are back in charge,” but he’s going to get more chaos than he can handle trying to negotiate with 7 radically different political independents, especially if they decide to use their six year term to make tough calls. He knows that he can get the trigger for a double dissolution in place before July next year, and so I suspect he will choose to pull it rather than face such an uncertain terrain.

If he does this though – or if he is forced to by intransigence on carbon pricing in the new senate after July – then he is going to face the prospect of an election fought over one topic: carbon pricing. This is going to be extremely hard for him to pull off, especially if the opposition get organized. He will need to pull off a big win too, since a double dissolution raises the risk of more Greens getting into parliament, not less. If he has introduced some nasty public service cuts this could be a very challenging election for him. It might appear that this is too risky, but I think it is going to be very hard for Abbott to maintain his popularity long term if he has to do extreme horse-trading every time he wants to get any legislation through parliament. Just as an example, today there is talk about overriding ACT legislation on same sex marriage. To do this requires approval from the federal house and senate. It is basically a guarantee that he would fail to pull this off from July next year, because the Liberal Democrats, Sex Party, and probably also Xenophon would oppose it. He will also face the continual problem of putting contentious legislation (or for that matter routine legislation) into the parliament, and having it rejected in the senate. This is going to be a goldmine for any remotely crafty opposition, and the media love this ready-made story of “legislative incompetence.” Looking at this, and with a conservative agenda to follow as well as some big corporate mates to satisfy, I think he is going to have to do something about the senate. So my suspicion is he will try to push through a double dissolution – if not on carbon then on the mining tax or paid parental leave – to try and grab a clear majority in the senate.

If he does, it will be the first democracy to go to the vote directly over global warming. Interesting times …

Tell 'em they're dreamin'!

Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’!

We have an election on in Australia, the cradle of democracy, and as always in federal elections an enormous number of fringe political parties have crawled out from under their rocks. We have the Rotating Leadership Party, which is running on a platform of giving every person in Australia the chance to be prime minister for a day; the anti-Maritime party, which believes that floating on water is a satanic act and is opposed to all forms of shipping; and the Sex Party, which actually has pretty good policies. Who could be opposed to more sex? But in amongst these fringe parties we also have some single-issue groups, and in my opinion the most single issue of the lot is the Bullet Train for Australia Party. Their policies are reviewed here, and can be summarized very simply as: bullet train. This is pure science fiction at its best. Their slogan might confuse non-Australians, since it appears to advocate voter fraud:

Vote Bullet Train! Then vote as you normally would …

This is not because of special Australian laws giving nerdy train-spotters two votes each, but because of our complicated preference system, which is itself a work of science fiction and impossible for ordinary mortals to understand. But I think the Bullet Train for Australia Party has summarized their preference policy very nicely in that slogan. I also like the way their website has Australianized the bullet train by getting some pictures of Japanese bullet trains and sticking a kangaroo on them. Who could possibly hate kangaroos? And how can any technological or industrial advance be alien to Australia if it has a kangaroo on it?

The reason I think that this is basically science fiction is that there is no way a bullet train will ever be a profitable enterprise in Australia. We have 22 million people spread out over an area the size of the Magellan Cloud, living in little clusters of “civilization” separated by vast expanses of nothing. By way of comparison, Japan has 120 million people living in an area the size of Japan, with cities not too far apart that have populations the same size as Australia. That’s why they can run a train between those cities at light speed every 15 minutes, at something resembling a profit. But even then, catching a bullet train in Japan is no cheaper than flying – just enormously more convenient and comfortable. If you cut out all the in between stops (because no decent towns exist), doubled the distance between cities and then reduced the eligible population by a factor of 6 or 10, would it still be cheaper than flying? Especially given the electricity demands? And would it still be 8x more efficient than flying? And would you use a bullet train to get from Sydney to Adelaide? That’s a 21 hour bus trip at 120 km an hour, so probably a 7 hour bullet train trip. Or a 1 hour flight. Hmm, which would you choose? The only way that a bullet train would become an efficient program in Australia is if the Rotating Leadership Party were to seriously act on its on-again off-again “Big Australia” ideas, and double Australia’s population. Then, if the extra people settled in the right places, maybe it would work out.

Good luck with that.

As an aside, I am intrigued by the modern opposition to high speed rail in the UK, where it might actually be a viable investment. Apparently the HSR will cost 80 billion pounds to build, and this is a ludicrous amount of money that no modern government can afford. I haven’t done the numbers but I have a strong suspicion that the Japanese shinkansen would have cost a significantly larger portion of GDP when it started in 1958 than HSR would cost in the UK now. Had the Japanese adopted modern craven attitudes towards government spending, they would never have got the bullet train. Yet they have the bullet train, and somehow their society seems to have survived the massive fiscal impost. Could it be that sometimes massive government investment is a good idea? Which isn’t to say that the HSR is the best use of 80 billion pounds of British money, but “it’s a lot of money” doesn’t seem to me to be the best argument against it either …

Anyway, the Bullet Train for Australia Party are definitely pursuing a crazy science fiction policy, though it would be a pretty cool sight to see a bullet train heading through the desert – on the run from Darwin to Adelaide I imagine it would be able to get up to some pretty phenomenal speeds in the open spaces around Uluru. You could even build a tunnel through Uluru so it doesn’t have to deviate – then instead of climbing the rock, people can say they sped through it in a microsecond. Or you could lay the train nearby, and take iconic pictures of the bullet train shooting past the rock – contrast of old and new, etc. Japanese railways love the picture of a train running through rice paddies with hills in the background, this could be the Australian equivalent. Except that there would be only one person in the train, and enough energy to power the entire city of Darwin being used to propel it.

I think there’ll be a maglev on Mars before there is a bullet train from Adelaide to Darwin. But at least the Bullet Train for Australia Party have cornered the train-spotting vote!

A few weeks ago Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was replaced in a leadership challenge by her arch nemesis, Kevin Rudd. She had previously overthrown him in 2010. Gillard and Rudd are leaders of Australia’s “left wing” party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), and since her replacement there has been a bit of a frisson of excitement amongst lefty Australians because a) Kevin Rudd is much more likely to win the upcoming election and keep the ALP in power and b) many leftists saw Gillard as a right wing stooge and can’t forgive her for the “knife in the back” when she overthrew Rudd in 2010. This lack of forgiveness and view of her as a right-wing stooge has been particularly evident in the left-wing criticism of her mining tax policy and their uncritical acceptance of the superiority of Rudd’s. I am planning a bigger post on the mining tax for the near future, to try and work through my opinion of the two policy options the ALP has presented on the issue, but first I thought I would write some words in praise of Gillard, whose legacy I think is going to be big, and who will be seen in the long-term as a great Labor leader; I also want to say a few things about the mistakes that the Australian left repeatedly makes in its complex relationship with the ALP.

For my non-Australian reader(s), a few explanatory notes: 1) Australia’s “conservative” party is called the Liberal party; 2) roughly speaking in Australian politics the prime minister (PM) is the leader of the party in the house of representatives that has the majority and is the leader of the country but not the head of state; 3) in Australia you don’t vote for the PM and the party can change your PM at any time by changing its leader; 4) this is a particularly common event in the ALP and is done with savagery and extreme prejudice when it happens. The ALP may be the mainstream party of the left in Australia and its individual members may be great people but one must never ever make the mistake of thinking that the ALP as an institution has anything resembling a soul or a shred of decency. The leadership shenanigans over the last 3 years have been a sordid and sorry tale that I don’t intend to rehash here but for this post I do need to make some judgments about why Gillard replaced Rudd in 2010, and I am going to assume that the current official story is true: that Rudd was a terrible party leader who couldn’t consult, made policy on the run, was a bully and didn’t know how to run a cabinet. I may write something about this below.

With that said, on to my praise for Julia Gillard. Upfront I should state that I am not a Labor voter but extremely supportive of the Labor project and of trade unionism, and I think that the ALP – as Australia’s longest extant party – has had a huge role in shaping Australia as a nation and making it the great place to live and work that it is today.

To me, Julia Gillard epitomizes the personal history of a good Labor leader: coming from humble beginnings, she achieved a good education and career prospects through hard work, perseverance and good luck, and then put her qualifications to work in the service of working people. For Gillard this meant going to work in Australia’s most famous pro-worker industrial relations firm, Slater and Gordon, where she worked to represent unions and ordinary working people in their legal battles. If anyone doubts the sincerity of Gillard’s commitment to working people I would urge them to watch any footage of her talking about her work there. Particularly, in her hour-long press conference answering questions about the “AWU affair,” she regularly talks about her work at Slater and Gordon and it is clear that she is proud of bother their history of representing workers, and her personal efforts there. I think personally she shares much in common with Bob Hawke, another famous ALP leader, and it’s no coincidence that he has been very supportive of her career. This puts her in stark contrast to other recent Labor leaders like Kevin Rudd (a career diplomat) and Mark Latham (career politician). Australian politics generally is narrowing the scope of candidates as more and more are drawn from political careers and less and less from ordinary life, and I think this is a bad situation for Australia. Julia Gillard was not part of this trend, and I think her real experience of representing workers shows in her political outlook.

Like Bob Hawke, Gillard showed an ability to achieve compromise and consensus in politics which enabled her to make policy – and good policy, at that – while managing a hung parliament and facing a completely obstructive opposition. Under her three year leadership the ALP introduced a resource tax that actually works (though not very well); a carbon trading policy that appears to have already had some success in lowering CO2 emissions; a major reform to disability insurance that will be of significant benefit to carers and the disabled; and was on the cusp of completing a major education reform that it appears the Liberals will largely support if the government changes. She also negotiated a major environmental policy to restore the health of the Murray-Darling river system, something which won her widespread praise and has been long overdue, and I think she also made major gains in trade and political arrangements with China and India. Some of these achievements – like the mining tax and the disability insurance scheme – required negotiation with hostile partners such as the mining industry and Liberal state governments, and some (such as earlier  education reforms) required confrontation with unions. In my view this is the mark of a good Labor leader: the ability to negotiate genuine political reforms in the interests of the country, even where they may be against the interest of your primary supporters or may require compromise with political opponents. Bob Hawke was the master of this, and Gillard is obviously also very capable. In contrast, Rudd failed to introduce a carbon trading system and despite calling it “the moral challenge of our times” he first tried to stitch up a weak policy with the Liberals (about 50% of whom are probably denialists) and then, when that was torpedoed walked away from the challenge rather than negotiate with the Greens, who at that time held the balance of power in the Senate and could have passed it. Rudd also fluffed the mining tax, introducing a tax that would never satisfy the mining industry without any consultation with them or his colleagues, and inviting a huge mining industry campaign against him at the coming election. Of course, one could argue (and leftists have, I think, in connection with Rudd’s mining tax) that Australia’s PM shouldn’t have to negotiate with any sectional interest group to pass policy in the national interest; it’s also obviously reprehensible that the mining companies were planning to wage a major campaign against the sitting government, especially given some of those mining companies are foreign-owned. But the reality of Australian political life is that policy is not made without consultation, and a good leader would never have put their party in the position where they were staring down the barrel of a $100 million advertising campaign against a policy. And particularly, despite Liberal fantasies of the ALP as a party of radical union wreckers, the ALP actually has a long history of consensus government, and of shaping Australia through agreement and bringing everyone forward, not through confrontation.

It is this ALP history of consensus building that also, I think, informs some of the other policy areas in which Gillard disappointed the Australian left. She is opposed to gay marriage, possibly out of personal conviction but possibly also because she understands that the broad community needs to be drawn forward together, not have radical policy foisted on them. Her attitude to welfare is drawn from a long conservative working class tradition of refusing to countenance handouts, which means that she is not well disposed to the unemployed and her welfare policies can be punitive compared to what some on the left like. And she is willing to compromise on secondary environmental goals, in order to keep sectional interest groups satisfied as she draws them forward slowly, together, on the path towards a broader environmental consensus. This is how the ALP has always worked, and in this regard Gillard is disappointing precisely because she understands and respects ALP tradition, not because she is running counter to it. Rudd, on the other hand, was wont to grandstand on social and environmental issues but unwilling to do the hard work required to bring the community into agreement with them: this made him a poster-boy of the non-industrial left but didn’t win him any friends within the ALP.

Finally, Gillard also seems to have won the respect of everyone she works with. She had to negotiate extensively with the independent politicians in parliament and they all seem to have a great deal of personal respect for her and for her integrity. They obviously enjoyed making policy with her and appreciated the policy that came out of it. It seems that she was well-regarded by those who had to deal with her, and she certainly seems to have been much loved of her cabinet. In contrast, after Rudd won back the leadership a slew of senior cabinet figures resigned from cabinet and from parliament rather than work with him again. Rudd was also the man who refused to meet with Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens, for the entire time Rudd was PM, even though Brown held the balance of power in the Senate. That is the mark of a man who doesn’t play well with others, and a worrying sign for the future of the ALP and the government. In my view, Gillard has acted with integrity in her period as PM, she has achieved a lot for Australia, and as leader she did what ALP leaders are expected to do: faced up to big challenges and dealt with them sensibly and in collaboration with all the sectional interest groups that were affected by them. I guess that’s not wonderful praise to go on someone’s political epitaph – “she made good policy well in difficult circumstances” – but in my opinion it’s the best praise a PM can expect to get in peacetime, and it’s certainly better than “didn’t play well with others and flubbed the great moral challenge of our times.” So, mark my words: Gillard’s legacy will be assessed much more positively than the media or the Australian electorate assessed her at the time.

She will certainly be assessed better by historians than she is currently viewed by a large portion of the Australian left, and I think this is because the Australian (non-industrial) left has a very weak understanding of what the ALP is and how it works. The ALP is the political representative of the industrial left, expressed exclusively in Australia through the trade unions. This means that the ALP has two goals: to advance Australia’s interests and to protect the rights and living conditions of Australian workers. It is not the best vehicle for achieving radical left-wing or social liberal goals, though since the war it has been the primary means by which the radical left and social liberals have achieved their goals. In the breach, the ALP will always first and foremost stand up for the interest of its working class constituency, and for the industries that employ its union members. This is why successive state and federal ALP governments have failed to pass a comprehensive policy protecting Australian old growth forest: because they have to protect the forestry industry that employs members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). As an example of just how beholden the ALP is to these two sectoral interests, when Mark Latham in opposition announced a forestry policy (without consultation) that would genuinely have protected old growth forests he was heckled by his own union at public meetings in Tasmania. Similarly, Australia has a three mines policy for Uranium mining because the nuclear disarmament movement and the anti-nuclear movement, while they have some sway in the ALP, have less influence than the CFMEU and the mining industry, whose mutual interests the ALP has to support. It’s natural – because of the interweaved nature of leftist politics – that the ALP will always be sympathetic to environmental, social liberal, feminist and Aboriginal rights movements, and to social liberals and the radical left generally. But those movements are not the ALP’s primary constituency and to get change through the ALP they will always be struggling against the social conservatism and economic interests of the industrial left. This means, for example, that Julia Gillard will talk proudly of the work she has done to represent a migrant piece-worker in the garment industry, and will pass laws to protect that woman; but will simultaneously pass draconian policy against migrant workers coming to this country. People on the radical left who expect her to pass laws protecting migrant piece-workers and encouraging the movement of migrant workers are misunderstanding the nature of ALP political goals. They might be able to make a case for both, but they shouldn’t expect it. When the left fails to recognize the limits of industrial unionism and organized labour as a vehicle for radical political change, it will always be disappointed by politicians from the ALP who genuinely understand the political history and culture of the ALP. Instead they will be attracted to and supportive of policy light-weights like Rudd, who are happy to grandstand for social liberal ideals but unwilling to put in the hard work to bring their core constituents along with them.

I have a great deal of respect for anyone who can balance the competing corporate, union and social liberal interests making demands of the ALP and who can produce good policy from that complex mess. Bob Hawke could do it and Julia Gillard did it, and for this she deserves praise and respect. I am disappointed but not surprised that she was deposed when it looked like she would lose the election, but I am especially disappointed that Rudd got back. I think he will probably win the election and worse still, unless the Liberals make a rapid decision to ditch their current leader, Tony Abbott, Rudd will destroy them again at the polls. This will lead to a new ascendancy of a man who, fundamentally, doesn’t understand ALP culture, doesn’t know how to make good policy, and is only interested in social liberal goals as pin up slogans to attract popularity. In the short term it will be good for the ALP but I worry that in the long-term it will be bad for the country and, by extension, very bad for the ALP. People will look back on Gillard’s era as a lost opportunity for another golden age of Labourism and ALP-led reforms, and I think the non-industrial left is going to regret the harshness with which it judged this supposedly right-wing PM. She was a good PM in difficult times, and she left a legacy that will be well respected in the future.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 54 other followers