Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Why does "quite a lot of them" mean the same thing as "quite a few of them?" Did it always?


My Friend Rebecca

Who has firm opinions on a number of things now has her own blog -
PAss it on

And I said I would. Though I warned her I have no readership whatever. And so she asked me why I had a blog, and I explained that it was a place to store unpublished letters to the Age. I don't know if she thought that was satisfactory.


Friday, November 25, 2005

Bosnia & Iraq

In the Age Tony Parkinson says that it’s taken ten years to sort out Milosevic in Bosnia and we should be patient about Iraq. Sorry, wrong comparison; wrong dictator, wrong timescale. What we’ve done in Iraq is a lot more as if we’d invaded Yugoslavia in 1975 to get rid of Tito, made Milosevic prime minister, and kicked off the Balkan wars fifteen years early. We’re not intervening to stop ethnic violence; we started it. The ethnic cleansing is something we still have to look forward to. And if we get out from under it in thirty years we can count ourselves lucky.

I know there's something in the John Howard Suckup Act that says we have to have Tony Parkinson, but do we have to have quite so much of him?


Solidarity for ever

John Quiggin says today:

The rigidity of party discipline in Australia is almost unique in the democratic world....

Historically, we owe this to the Labor party. In its early days as a third party, it exacted measures in the interests of the working class by swinging its support between the dominant free trade and protectionist parties. This strategy could work effectively only if Labor members followed the party line, regardless of their own views on the issues in question. When Labor became one of the two dominant parties, the tradition of Caucus solidarity continued, reinforced by the bitter experience of desertions and splits.

The Split of the 1950s added another wrinkle, as the rival groups within the party formed organised factions, which imposed their own solidarity rules. These factions still survive, though the ideological divisions between them have mostly disappeared. They are now little more than cliques, with subfactions named for the leaders who command their votes.

When the Liberal party was formed under Sir Robert Menzies, it was a point of pride to say, that, unlike the Labor party, dictated to by “36 faceless men” in the party conference, Liberal MPs were free to make up their own minds and follow their own consciences. They did not do so very often, but the distinction was a real one as late as the 1980s. The Liberals have now adopted Labor’s view on solidarity....

Political commentators in the mass media have aided and abetted the entire process. Even critical discussion of party policy by backbenchers, a normal part of the political process a couple of decades ago, is now regarded as evidence of a fatal loss of control by the leadership, or dismissed as the activity of ‘loose cannons’. The cliché ‘disunity is death’ is treated as if it were a statement of the obvious, but it would be far more accurate to say ‘disunity is life’. Politics is about disagreement and debate, and there can be no real debate when participants on both sides are required to stay ‘on message’ at all times.

Rigid party discipline might have made sense in the past, when the two parties viewed themselves as representing radically different interests and values.... But nowadays, the disagreements are, in most cases, manufactured, and party policies are changed routinely at the whim of the leadership. The measures to which MPs are expected to give their loyal support often contradict the platform on which they were elected.

The House of Representatives has long since ceased to play any useful role in the process of debating and formulating public policy.....

Until July 1, the Senate played a balancing role, and Senate committees provided scrutiny of government legislation, often leading to significant improvements. Now, unless some other Coalition Senators decide to start earning their salaries, the entire burden rests on the shoulders of Barnaby Joyce, apparently the only member of the government who regards Menzies as more than a name for ritual invocation.

The problem isn’t just on the government side. Labor should take advantage of its enforced trip to the sidelines and scrap the factional system once and for all, as a first step towards getting rid of Caucus solidarity. Rigid party discipline may have been a good idea a century ago, but today it does nothing but harm to Australian democracy.

Chris Says:
  1. Consider, though, the effect of senatorial independence in America, where the party system is comparatively weak, candidates raise their own election funds, and cross-party votes are the norm; the effect is to make every senator worth bribing individually, leading to a precipitous decline in standards. In Australia you have to buy an entire party or nothing, which at least provides a minimum cutoff.

    The deeper problem is that Australian public political theory—the ideals that politiicans appeal to when talking to the public – hasn’t moved beyond 1760. We haven’t really accepted the full implications of the party system.

    Australians are encouraged to think that MPs vote their consciences, which by a happy coincidence agree with the party line; any MP saying “I don’t believe in this motion, but I’m going to vote for it anyway’ is doomed.

    And I don’t believe any political system can operate on the basis that everybody in the house follows their conscience at every point without tradeoffs – “You vote for mine and I’ll vote for yours” – that are under that public theory immoral.

    In theory, wider debate and more independence in votes aren’t necessarily connected – that was what cabinet secrecy and cabinet solidarity were supposed to ensure.

    However, wider public debate is virtually impossible under this theory because it necessarily involves some people—those on the losing side – having to vote in the House against the position they put earlier in the party room, and thus being reproached for toadying, hypocrisy, cowardice, etc.

  2. And another thing...
    As I remember my Bagehot, the primary function of the House isn't to set policy, it's to serve as an electoral college for the executive - like the American electoral college, except that they're allowed to change their minds between elections. Though if we haven't caught up with the 1760s I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that we haven't caught up with the 1860s.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Get Real

If we’re sending more troops into Afghanistan we’ll still have the same problems – not enough people who speak the language, have contacts in the villages, understand the culture, etc. We need to start a recruitment program to find Afghans who are willing to become Australians. It’s not as if they’re suddenly going to turn up off the coast in a boat somewhere – that would be too much to hope for.


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Art and Science

Having recently purchased the NGV (Australia) Numbers for Children book I noted that two of the counts (men and trees) were wrong. Having just walked through the Potter I note that this inability to count to ten seems endemic in the gallery. Specifically,
1) in Longstaff's Sirens there are three sirens in the foam, not, as the label has it, two;
2) in Fiona Hall's marvellous Paradisus series her birthdate is given in the accompanying text as 1953 and the date of the works on display as 1962. This would seem to require an unusual precocity in a number of departments.
3) In the wall text on Buvelot the phrase "Buvelot's reputation eventually surpassed..." is given twice rather than once.
Getting one piece of arithmetic wrong is allowable; after five I begin to worry about their accounts.


How did the probes get there?

Left behind, book 4;

Buck tiptoed downstairs and flipped on the television, finding an all-news station.
As soon as he saw what was going on, he woke up everyone in the house except
Hattie. He told Chloe, Tsion, and Ken, “It's almost noon in New Babylon, and I've
just heard from Rayford. Follow me.”
Newscasters told the story of what astronomers had discovered just two hours
before—a brand-new comet on a collision course with Earth. Global Community
scientists analyzed data transmitted from hastily launched probes that circled the
object. They said meteor was the wrong term for the hurtling rock formation, which
was the consistency of chalk or perhaps sandstone.
Pictures from the probes showed an irregularly shaped projectile, light in color. The
anchorman reported, “Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to put this in perspective.
This object is about to enter Earth's atmosphere. Scientists have not determined its
makeup, but if—as it appears—it is less dense than granite, the friction resulting
from entry will make it burst into flames.
“Once subject to Earth's gravitational pull, it will accelerate at thirty-two feet per
second squared. As you can see from these pictures, it is immense. But until you
realize its size, you cannot fathom the potential destruction on the way. GC
astronomers estimate it at no less than the mass of the entire Appalachian Mountain
range. It has the potential to split the earth or to knock it from its orbit.
“The Global Community Aeronautics and Space Administration projects the
collision at approximately 9:00 A.M. Central Standard Time. They anticipate the
best possible scenario, that it will take place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Tidal waves are expected to engulf coasts on both sides of the Atlantic for up to
fifty miles inland. Coastal areas are being evacuated as we speak. Crews of
oceangoing vessels are being plucked from their ships by helicopters, though it is
unknown how many can be moved to safety in time. Experts agree the impact on
marine life will be inestimable.

I'd really love to have heard Hoyle on that.


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