Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Gay Motion

Symbols are funny things.

Sometimes they have enormous impact because, despite being small acts, their ramifications are enormous. Think Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, or Officer Sanguinetti, the genius that imspired SlutWalk.
Rosa Parks. Picture from Wikipedia
Symbols are powerful because, as humans, we are emotional people. That is why just about every news story has a "human angle". A cut in funding for some community service may not seem like a big deal to most people - that is until the story is put next to a photo of some family who will be hurt by the changes.

In the same way, many people will often find their opinion on a topic about changing once they know someone who has first hand experience. Nothing will enliven an interest in the state of our public hospital system more than having a loved one spend the best part of a week in one, as I experienced not long ago.

In politics, however, symbols are a whole different thing.  A strong symbol at the right time can shift an entire debate in the blink of an eye. Symbols often change people's opinions or even the conversation entirely.

The rolling drama over Craig Thomson is a good example. The Coalition has been trying to use the Thomson drama to force him out of Parliament, or at the very least to tar Gillard and the Labor party as a whole as being connected to thieving, rotten, and above all dishonest unions. The electorate has already formed an opinion about Gillard's honesty that is, most likely, terminal to her prospects of leading Labor to victory in November 2013.

If the populace can be convinced to see the whole of the Labor party in that night, then no matter who is the leader next year the perception will endure.

Thomson is, in the Coalition's mind, a symbol of what Labor are really like.

One thing drastically and almost inexplicably changed the story earlier this week.  I don't know whether it was Thomson's tears during his address to the Parliament, or whether it was his courtyard interview, but the conversation shifted to his mental state. Suddenly we were talking about his mental health and looking back at a Labor MP Greg Wilton who committed suicide in 2000.
Photo from everywhere on the Internet
The damage is a long way from undone, but journos are doing less writing and talking about Craig Thomson and turning their attention to Abbott's behaviour - is he recklessly driving someone towards to severe mental harm, or even worse?

There are two enduring symbols - the idea of Thomson being a liar (best encapsulated by the Herald Sun's tacky front page) and Thomson tearing up during his speech.  Sadly for him and Labor, the former is probably the stronger symbol, which is why the Thomson issue is going to remain a millstone around Labor's neck.
Awful photoshop from the Hun
Another extremely powerful symbol that we saw come from the United States was this pronouncement from Barack Obama on gay marriage:

In the United States, unlike in Australia, the Federal government has no power whatsoever over marriage. It is entirely a matter for the States - and Obama cannot make any law on this issue.

But his words were a symbol - along with his abolition of "Don't Ask Don't Tell", it sends a signal of acceptance to the homosexual community.

Directly speaking, it won't change a thing. but a president willing to go on the record as being in favour of gay marriage is something that can fundamentally shift the debate.

This is all a very long way round to the Green's motion in the NSW Upper House on marriage equality.

Now, I'm thoroughly in favour of marriage equality. To me, if gay people want to marry... well, I like the thus picture:

I'm a Christian, and my views on gay marriage put me at odds with some people who share my religious beliefs - but that's really a discussion for a different blog.

What Cate Faehrmann (NSW Upper House member) has done is bring a motion in the Upper House on the issue.  The motion reads as follows
It is important to note at this point that NSW has no jurisdiction over this issue. None whatsoever. The Federal Constitution vests exclusive power in the Federal government to make laws with regard to marriage.  Any law that NSW passed in relation to marriage would have no validity.

This is why Feahrmann has decided to move a motion that simply "supports" marriage equality, rather than any law actually taking action - NSW has no power to do anything more than that.
Feahrmann. Image from Wikipedia
What she no doubt hopes is that this motion will spur the Federal government to take action on marriage equality.

The problem is that at the Labor National conference earlier this year the Labor party decided that their Federal policy would be that individual MP's would be able to vote "with their conscience". Whilst there is no doubt that a number of Labor members will vote in favour of marriage equality, the fact that the Coalition has not allowed a conscience vote and has dictated that all members must vote against any such bill means that it is doomed to failure.

In the event, Faehrmann's motion was passed, 22 votes to 16.  The consequence?  Nothing.
The Upper House has spent the best part of 2 days debating the issue. Both major parties allowed their members a conscience vote on the issue. The Hansard has not been published yet, so I can't share with you the breakdown as to who voted which way.

My gripe with the motion is this, however: it is a symbol. Nothing more, nothing less. No law has been changed. and no action has been taken. The NSW Upper House house simply passed a motion.

Even if the Lower House passes the bill (and the lower house members may or may not be allowed a conscience vote) all that will be accomplished is a few fairly minor articles in the media.

Nothing will have changed - but the Upper House will have spent 2 days on the issue.

Moreover, whilst being a symbol, it is not even a powerful symbol.  Do you think Tony Abbott (the man who, realistically, holds the future of the marriage equality debate in his hands as long as the present parliament persists) could care less what the NSW Upper House thinks? Of course he doesn't.

Upper House members are allowed to propose any motion that they like, and I would not be in favour of limiting motions to things that will actually have a material effect. 

But I am uneasy about the Upper House's time being wasted on a motion that is at best a symbol - and nothing more.

If Cate Faermann wants to change the law on gay marriage, then she has done the right thing by seeking pre-selection on the Green's Federal ticket.

These motions, whilst they may be a powerful symbol, accomplish precisely nothing. It is not quite, but close to the same category as the Marrickville Council's BDS campaign - also, not coincidentally, initiated by a Greens member.

Hopefully the Upper House will resume debating motions that actually matter in the near future.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Deal with it

Sometimes deals just have to be made.

O'Farrell would say that we need the $3 billion that the power generator sale will generate, and that we cannot afford the $6 billion in investment and upgrades that will be necessary in the future.

He's right, at least in part.  As I have explained before, O'Farrell has a big agenda, and that agenda requires cash.  Pennies (or, at least, billions) will have to be pinched.  Whether this is the way to do it (and, let's be fair, I could suggest a couple of alternatives) is another question.

The real story, however, is what O'Farrell gave away to make the deal.  The Shooters have been pushing for the right to hunt feral animals in national parks for a long time, and they knew full well that O'Farrell needs to get the generators sold.  So what better issue to demand a concession on?
Stock photo of O'Farrell looking annoyed, from here
After all, whilst the Shooters do sit on the same side of the political spectrum as O'Farrell, that doesn't mean that they need to give up opportunities for a bit of a sweetener for their pet issues.

Whether you agree with O'Farrells' decision or not (and I think we can assume that, all things being equal, he would rather not have had to make the deal he did) the sale of the power generators would be cheap at twice the price.

There are simply not enough people who care about this issue enough, in my opinion, to do him much political hurt. On the other side, this is something that the Shooters will LOVE - they will be trumpeting this success at the next election.

The online articles I have read today have almost universally broadcast the deal O'Farrell made with the Shooters, but it's a one-day story. Labor have bigger fish to fry, and it's unlikely that the complaints from the Greens will have much traction outside of Greens voters.
The view of one Greens staffer
This is politics.  Fortunately (in my opinion) we have checks and balances like the Upper House to, at least in theory, keep the power of the Premier in check.  Of course, whether you believe that those checks and balances have worked for the greater good in this case will depend on your political persuasion - but I'm pleased to see O'Farrell having to give up something to get what he wants.

That's the way our government is SUPPOSED to work - and, frankly, I'd like to see the minor parties (including the Greens) being a little more pushy about these things. With a bit of luck, we might get some good policy out of it.

But maybe not so much this time.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Pushing the boundary

I don't want to reinvent the wheel here, so I enthusiastically recommend Anthony Green's two pieces on the NSW redistribution, avaiable here and here.

Redistributions are always a sensitive topic.  Political careers can be all but wiped out in an instant when a seat is abolished, and the scramble for pre-selection in a new seat can be, to say the least, unedifying.

Anthony Green goes through what he believes the changes before the next election might be, and I'm not going to disagree with him.

What I did want to do was look at three implications that flow from this situation

The first is Gerrymandering. In short, Gerrymandering is the process of redistributing districts to your electoral advantage.

The NSW constitution demands the following:
However, the Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act 1912 imposes an even sharper burden of 3%:
For obvious reasons, that 3% has over the years proved challenging for the redistributors. In electorates numbering approximately 50 000 voters, 3% equates to just 1 500 voters - a slim margin, to say the least.

NSW, unlike Queensland, has been spared the spectacle of electoral boundaries being constantly redrawn to the political advantage of the ruling party.  In NSW, the electoral boundaries are redrawn by the Electoral Commissioners:
This body is non-political, which means that the redistribution is (at least in theory) done with the interests of the voters at heart.

The legislation nominates the following considerations:
This should, hopefully, spare NSW the indignity of blatantly political decisions illegitimately influencing the result of elections.

The second issue is the redistribution process.  The Commissioners invite contributions from interested parties, and unsurprisingly the parties tend to have a view about how the distribution should be undertaken. You will also be shocked to hear that, contrary to all expectations, those suggestions tend to result in a political advantage for the party making the submission.

In any event, it is difficult to imagine that the commissioners are truly influenced by the submissions. The task of creating electoral boundaries that are not only within 3% of the correct proportion as well as taking account of sensible boundaries must be challenging enough without paying any regard to partisan submissions from the parties.

The only issue that the government has real control over (and the third issue I want to touch on) is the number of seats. This is a decision that continues to be made on political grounds, although the extent to which it can actually influence the actual result of an election is a little less certain.

As Anthony Green notes, the size of the legislative assembly has been reduced twice in recent years - from 109 to 99 in 1988, and from 99 to 93 in 1991.

It may be that the O'Farrell government, rather than chosing to take seats away from members, simply choses to increase the number of seats. This would create enormous headaches for the commissioners, but no doubt that is of little concern to the Coalition.

No doubt there are squadrons of Coalition staffers busy gaming out this issue, and then trying desperately to find a legitimate reason to justify the changes. Most likely there are a great number of MLA's in marginal seats sweating the result and campaigning internally for changes that would suit them.

Nothing like a behind-the-scene internal drama to convince politicians to take their eyes off actually governing. But I suppose that MLA's (who, let's be honest, just vote the way they are told) have to have something to keep themselves busy between elections.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Fading Star

It's always amusing when the media's narrative is thrown into disarray by facts.

The conclusion of the investigation into The Star appears to be just that.
Photo from here
The Star Inquiry has received blanket coverage in Sydney's biggest two dailies - the SMH and the Terror. It had sex, intrigue, gambling, shadowy "high flyers" as well as the hint of corruption - one of the protagonists was employed in O'Farrell's office.

The media must have thought all their Christmasses had come at once - the Labor government provided a constant stream of scandal, and whilst the O'Farrell government has hardly been lily white, there hasn't been the same level of rolling chaos.  This inquiry promised to change that.

The story got significant coverage on television too - Channel 7 news and the ABC's 730 report broadcast stories about The Star that purported to shed light on what was going on.

The Star had to bear some responsibility for the level of the coverage after it leaked some sms's and emails to the media. This was done, presumably, to shift the media's narrative after a number of stories had been published that were not only critical of the casina but also made a number of damaging insinuations.

The level of build-up suggested that the report, once it was released, would be second only to the FWA report into Craig Thomson.

Except, of course, it wasn't. In fact, the report even took time to criticise the media - the executive summary goes so far as to quote the Media Alliance Code of Ethics and insinuated that certain parts of the media had been less than strictly observant of the obligations it imposes.

That was always going to be provocative, given that past form suggests that certain parts of the media cannot be relied upon to read much of any report other than what appears in the executive summary.

Suffice to say, the Terror was less than impressed.
Whilst I'm not aware of any similar piece published by the SMH, their State Political Editor Sean Nicholls linked to the editorial on twitter and said this:
The editorial unloads on Gail Furness SC, the barrister who was given responsibility for producing the report.
The paragraph below puzzled me:
The first sentence has nothing to do with the second - the report explained that whilst the media had breathlessly broadcast allegations about The Star and insinuated a deeply entrenched culture of sexual harassment and drug use, those allegations were contradicted by the evidence presented to the inquiry.

In many cases, the evidence to the inquiry contracted the stories published in the media.  For example:
The below paragraph in the editorial puzzled me:
It's clearly incorrect.  The report was presented with evidence that directly contradicted the allegations made in the media reports. It's possible that the people speaking to the media were lying or misleading the media, and for that there is perhaps some excuse, but either way at least some responsibility must be sheeted back the media outlets that made allegations that were were in fact untrue.

The most interesting part of the editorial is that at no time does it list the allegations that were, in the writer's opinion, made out. They wrote that it was a whitewash - what finding should have been made by the inquiry? Surely if you write a report such as this you would detail a basis for the allegation?

Experience tells us that journalists are usually pretty good at glossing over details that are inconvenient for the position being taken - and this editorial is no exception.

A proper reading of the report shows that, put simply, there was little or no basis for most of the allegations made.  It doesn't take long - the report is only 72 pages long.

There were two main terms of reference:
This is Sid Vaikunta:
Photo from The Australian
The report provides a very detailed account of the steps that were taken in the investigation and looked at whether there was any sign of a cover-up or undue delay in The Star disclosing what had gone on.

The conclusions reached by the inquiry are as follows:
The second issue was a broader one, looking at more general issue surrounding the operation of the casino. This was an particularly controversial issue given that (unsurprisingly) the various allegations were enthusiastically reported by the media.

One example surrounded an allegation where a gambler "abused" a dealer, but the gambler was not removed.  The report indicates that the "conduct complained of does not automatically warrant exclusion."

Another allegation that attracted significant media attention was the allegation that a "foreign politician" had harassed a dealer and that nothing had been done. This allegation had been broadcast on Channel 7.

The facts? Firstly, it transpired that the person who had spoken to Channel 7 had not witnessed the incident, and was in fact no longer even employed by the casino when it occurred.

The incident report produced by The Star showed the following:
The report also has a detailed section about responsible gambling and responsible service of alcohol.  This section was, at least in part, informed by some anonymous information that had been provided to the inquiry.

Without getting stuck into the detail, it appeared that many of the allegations were unfounded, exaggerated or  simply distortions of the truth.

There was a detailed section devoted to a line of white powder that was found in a bathroom. An investigation subsequently found that the powder was concrete dust, not cocaine as had been suspected by some.

An ex-employee of the casino made the following allegation:
The facts, it seemed, were substantially different:
The final issue covered was summarised as follows:
Again, the reality was widely divergent:
I'm certainly no great defender of The Star or in fact any other gambling establishment.  In fact, by way of example, I've previously criticised O'Farrell for cutting the taxes payable by clubs on their pokie revenue.

However, when this report is actually read, it seems a fair and balanced review of the evidence that was received in light of the terms of reference. The Terror's editorial appears to be an oversensitive lashing out after some well-deserved criticism.

What this means for Grimshaw, and whether there will be further political fall-out, remains to be seen.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Courting Disaster

Late last week we found out that the High Court has granted special leave to the Public Service Association and Professional Officers' Association Amalgamated Union of NSW (who I'll call the PSA, for convenience) to argue that the Industrial Relations Amendment (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Act 2011 is invalid.

To understand that, we need to climb back in time a bit.

In 2007, the Labor government recognized that if the NSW budget was to be kept in check, then public sector wages would need to be tightly controlled.  Wage growth was outstripping revenue growth, and if action was not taken then enormous budget deficits would become entrenched.

The policy they came up with was that public sector wages would be limited to 2.5% except where specific productivity savings could be identified.  Sensible enough.

The problem was that, as Greg Pearce (Minister for Finance) said, "The policy was first introduced by the previous Labor Government in 2007, but that Government failed to implement it." The policy was inconsistently and weakly applied, which pretty much rendered it useless.

The Coalition decided on a different approach, and introduced the the bill in question.

What the bill did was insert s146C into the Industrial Relations Act 1996.  The section reads as follows:
It essentially forces the Industrial Relations Commission to apply the 2.5% policy.  Labor had lost multiple battles in the Industrial Relations Commission before losing government, and it was hoped that this law would effectively remove the Commission as a recourse for aggrieved public sector workers.

The PSA brought an action to the Industrial Relations Court asking that the amendment be declared invalid. Their main submission was as follows:
This was more or less the same argument that had succeeded in the notorious bikies case.  In that case, the bikie clubs challenged the legislation as compelled the Supreme Court to act in a certain way, and in that sense made the court little more than a rubber stamp. This was held by the High Court to be inconsistent with the purpose of a judiciary and, in short, breached the doctrine of separation of powers.

That decision would have been extremely embarrassing for the O'Farrell government but for the fact that the legislation had been passed by the Labor government.

This bill was a Coalition creation - and notwithstanding the fact that the 2.5% had been Labor policy, Labor had argued strenuously and at some length against it when it passed in June 2011.

I don't want to get stuck into a detailed analysis of the decision, given that it lies thoroughly outside my professional experience. Having said that, the decision appears to be a fairly straightforward one, which is usually a bad sign for any challenge. Suffice to say that the Court seemed pretty unimpressed by the PSA's argument.

That makes it perhaps a little surprising that the High Court has agreed to hear the matter.

The High Court is the highest court in Australia, and the final point of call for any party. Given that there are only so many days in a year, the court has to be selective in which matters it agrees to hear.

The court regularly conducts Special Leave Hearings where one or two judges sit and hear a large number of short arguments as to whether special leave should be granted to argue the matter before the full court.

An overwhelming majority of applications are rejected. Having a good chance of winning is not enough - the court will need to convinced, in short, that the matter is significant enough to warrant their time.

Unfortunately the transcript of the special leave application has not, at the time of writing, been published, so for now we are in the dark as to what went on at the hearing. But the news that special leave has been granted must have sent a shiver up O'Farrell's spine.

He has a big agenda.  A very big, very expensive agenda. He will have enough trouble paying for it with moderate wages growth.  If wages grow out of control, he is going to struggle to find the money he needs.

I suspect he'll be saying a little prayer the night before the High Court hears the appeal.

UPDATE: The transcript of the application for special leave has now been posted, if you're super-keen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What is a Real Job Even?

I sometimes wonder if politicians ever really listen to what they are saying.

Today Robertson spoke at the Police Association Conference.  First he said this:
And then 5 minutes later followed it up with this:
Thing is, the comment about having had a real job was a cheap shot, and one of the worst kinds.

To give you some context, this is O'Farrell's employment history:
Courtesy of Wikipedia
From the NSW Labor website
Now, who is Robertson to say that O'Farrell's employment is not a "real job"?  Moreover, who is he to say that it means O'Farrell is less fit to govern? That's clearly his implication - O'Farrell's history is deficient in some way that means he is not equipped for the role he fills, or is not equipped to truly understand what real workers (in this case police) want and need.

To me, a career in politics makes one ideally suited to his role.  What better preparation for the decisions he has to make as a Premier (priorities, budgets, infrastructure and the like) than years advising and assisting in those roles?

Robertson spent some of those working a tradie, and the rest mostly as a union official.  Now, tradies and union officials do important work, and I don't intend to disparage them - but how does that make Robertson BETTER equipped to be Premier?

Is it because he "better understands the needs of the common man"? What rubbish. Firstly, tradies and union officials earn a pretty decent income, and staffers generally don't, what with being public servants and all. Police (the audience in this case) are quite well paid.  They certainly deserve that pay - but I'd wager the average cop earns more than the average political staffer.

Staffers still ride public transport, go to hospitals, have kids that go to school, and live in the community. Their employment makes them just as well equipped as any other for a career in politics, if not more so.

My real problem with Robertson's comment is that it is just what he says he doesn't do - it's a cheap shot.  It's a fairly transparent attempt to make O'Farrell look elitist and to make the audience think "I'm better than him."

It's an particularly ridiculous thing to say when you consider that the "career politician" tag is one usually aimed at Labor politicians.  Traditionally, Liberal candidates came from the business sector, whilst Labor drew their candidates from the Union movement.

That's precisely what happened to Robertson: he was an organizer for the Electrical Trades Union, and then worked for the Labor Council of New South Wales. He became Secretary of Unions NSW and has held senior roles in the Labor party.

I'm not sure which of those jobs he would regard as being a "real job".

His comment wasn't the lynchpin of an election advertising campaign - it was just a throw-away line at a conference that no one would have heard if @KevinWIlde hadn't chosen to tweet it.

But it is sad example of the way that politicians (of both sides) use the elitist tag, explicitly or otherwise.

It's a cheap shot.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What Seams to be the Problem?

Yesterday there was a rally against the government's position of Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining.
Photo from SMH
News reports said that there were 4 000 protesters (or "just enough to cover the front of parliament house", acccording to one government tweeter).  There were speeches, sign-waving, booing and heckling, and one government minister who wasn't smart enough to just ignore someone shouting at him.
You would think a member of the Legislative Assembly would have had more practice than any of us at not taking the bait.

The CSG issue has been rumbling somewhat below the surface since before the election.  The website has been the centre of a campaign against any expansion of CSG mining, but O'Farrell and Brad Hazzard (Minister for Planning in Infrastructure) haven't really seemed very interested in what they have had to say.

What I wanted to do, if you'll allow it, is have a think about the obstacles that the protestors are going to have to overcome if they want the NSW government to take a different course.

The Issue

The biggest problem is that many people don't really understand what CSG mining is. If you're one of those people, have a look at this page.

The problem is compoundedby the fact that the gas produced is not the same as the natural gas that we use in our homes and our barbeques. People don't have any real understanding about how this gas is obtained, and with that barrier it is difficult to convince people to engage with the issue.

This is not assisted by the fact that the CSG issue is being somewhat crowded out by the constant drama out of Canberra, not the mention the Star Inquiry, as well any number of other state issues that, let's face it, are a whole lot easier for journos to write articles about.

The Problem

Even once people understand what CSG mining is, many more will not understand or appreciate the alleged dangers. There is some basic information about the dangers of CSG mining available here.

There is no doubt that the chemicals that can and usually are used in CSG are dangerous. Many have big scary names, and others are better known are certainly chemicals that no sensible person would want in their body.

The difficulty is that most people are unclear as to how these chemicals are supposed to enter our system. There is a lot of talk about water security and the water table, but for someone who hasn't lived on the land or worked in agriculture, these claims can all sound a little academic and "Chicken Little".

The Care-Factor

The fundamental difficulty for the campaigners, once the issue is understood, is that the problem really is someone else's problem.

It's not pretty, but most people are at their core pretty self-interested.  This is overwhelmingly an issue that (primarily) affects only rural people.  Of course it quickly becomes a problem for everyone once the water table is compromised or once farms start going out of business and food prices sky-rocket, but of course that is one steps further along the chain - if it doesn't affect people directly, they probably aren't going to care that much.

This is demonstrated when you see who Herald reported attending the rally:
It is a rural issue, and action isn't going to be taken until it becomes an issue that people is urban areas care about.

It's the same as the problem that Climate Change Campaigners have faced over the last few years.  "Sure, the earth is warming up, whatever, but how is that going to affect ME?"

Unfortunately, the answer in both cases is "Directly, not at all."  Of course, the indirect effects could be devastating, but that is a step too far for many people.

The Law

The final issue is that the precise position of the government entirely opaque.

We know that the Greens think CSG is bad.  Apparently the Coalition doesn't mind it so much.  Labor seems against it, but no one is so clear about precisely how or why.

As it happens, Labor did nothing about the issue until the final months of their time in power. As Hazzard has quite rightly said previously, every single CSG licence in NSW was granted by Labor with precious little regulation or control.  They seem to have suddenly discovered the issue once it became politically expedient to be against it.
From the SMH
The Liberal's have a new draft Strategic Land Use Policy that (campaigners say) is light on actual oversight and is far too deeply enmeshed in the political process.  This is a difficult objection to communicate to an audience, especially one that remains sceptical as to the actual dangers of CSG - "It's not what they have done but what this laws allow them to do" is a difficult sell.


The above 4 problems are, I suspect, going to make it extremely difficult for the campaigners to force any action from the NSW Government. Even if the campaigners were able to build some opposition to the new land use plan, it would most likely be one of those issues where people didn't really care that THAT much - certainly not enough to change their vote or write to their local member.

I strongly suspect that O'Farrell and Hazzard are very aware of this, which is precisely why they have been happy to make law without regard to the people protesting yesterday.

And that doesn't look likely to change any time soon.