Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Kevin Rudd's Reply

Kevin Rudd has been given a reply in the Oz to John Howard.

In part he writes;

The Prime Minister's fundamentalism is driven in large part by the neo-liberalism of Friedrich Hayek, who argued that the only determinant of human freedom was the market. In fact, Hayek also argued that any form of altruism was dangerous because it distorted the market. To avoid inefficiencies, altruism had to be purged from the human soul. Hayek described altruism as something belonging to primitive societies that had no place in the modern world.

By contrast, social democrats offer a different narrative for our country's long-term future. To values of liberty, security and opportunity, we add social democratic values of equity, sustainability and compassion.

Social democrats believe in the market. But we don't believe in market fundamentalism. We don't believe in an unconstrained market. We believe passionately in public goods such as education and health. We accept the reality of market failure, as we have seen most recently and most spectacularly with the failure to respond to global climate change. We also believe in the intrinsic dignity of human beings.

In the final analysis Rudd is wrong in his precepts - it is not right to ask whether one "believes" in the market, whether fundamental or not. The operation of markets is the subject of scientific inquiry, and the question of whether markets "fail" or not is an empirical question.

The question at issue is actually a moral question. The moral question is what does it mean to be good. Or another way - how ought I behave. Hayek believes to be good is to not interfere in the choices of an individual. Rudd, like I and many others, say that to be good is to treat others the way I myself would like to be treated (the so called Golden Rule.

Now is not the time for it - but the evolution of capitalism from feudalism can only occur in the presence of the moral principle of the Golden Rule.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Who Cares About Homicide

Listening to the latest reports about the state of the Civil War in Iraq (well, that's what it looks like to me) I was intrigued by the reports of the number of deaths. That on any one day there could be fifty deaths was reported as an extraordinarily high death count.

But then I got to thinking - what is the homicide rate in the US. In 2004 there were 17,357 homicides in the US, according to the National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control. Of these 11,624 were inflicted by firearm.

How many Iraqis are dieing each year? Maybe George Bush doesn't really care when there are 47 homicides a day in the land of the free? I know the Iraq population is only about a tenth that of the US - but all the same it sounds to me like in the US definition of freedom there is one thing missing - freedom from having your life taken by another.

Howard in defence of Howard

So John Winston Howard has felt it necessary to write an op ed piece for the Oz to respond to Kevin Rudd's claims Howard is "an extremist and a market fundamentalist".

It is an interesting defence that Howard puts up. Lots of arguing that the welfare state is still in place, therefore the charge is wrong kind of stuff. He is big on the idea that the Government has its eye on both the private sector camp and government services. He says "policies such as the private health insurance rebate and support for non-government schools are especially attractive to many low income earners. Why should only high income earners enjoy genuine choice?" It is a cute line but quite misleading - despite all the funding elite private schools charge over $20,000 a year.

The modern Liberal equation of competition equals choice really ignores the reality that such policies only generate choice at the top end of the market. And underneath it all is devoid of any concept of a moral dimension - except a highly inconsistent moral dimension that the role of the state is to get out of the road of economic endeavour other than to guarantee property rights (defence, contract, police), yet at the same time run a line of "ethical" moralising on issues historically associated with the Church.

This gets to the point where the likes of Tony Abbott believe that what is important is choice, except a woman's right to choose whether to become a mother.

The real issue of concern to me is that Kevin Rudd has rattled off his view of still being a social democrat, being a christian concerned with fairness, but not showing any sign yet of how he brings that about.

At least he should take heart that the PM is already digging himself in on a strategy of labelling Rudd as "the same old ALP" - because I suspect that if his Shadow Ministry stops being lazy on policy, they will genuinely surprise Howard.

Merry Christmas

Big topic in the office - and elsewhere - is it appropriae in a culturally diverse Australia to wish colleagues a Merry Christmas or should we wish them a sanitised "fesitive season" greeting?

I've come to a pretty simple conclusion that we should stick to Merry Christmas especially if connected to wishes of peace and joy. In reality we only have a "festive season" because of Christmas - so wishing people a happy "festive season" is referentially the same. Secondly wishing people a Merry Christmas doesn't mean that one is necessarily tieing anything to the date - after all we know the date of Christmas was chosen to coincide with pagan mid-winter festivals, not because it was the date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Finally, even when we practice religious tolerance we don't, and should not, outlaw prosletysing. If someone wants to say Merry Christmas because they are a believer, the fact the other person isn't a believer shouldn't be a reason to stop them. And the person receiving the greeting, even if of a different faith, should not take offence - the wishes are well intended and are offered by someone who cares about you. Only a particularly insular christian would not wish a Merry Christmas to non-believers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Happy "Liberal" Feet

Thanks to Crikey for pointing out that the movie Happy Feet is creating outrage in some parts of America.

It appears the movie has been labelled big-time objectionable by someone on Rupert's Fox channel. The ultimate criticism was that the film was like an animated Inconvenient Truth. This, of course, comes from that section of the US commentariat that thinks "liberal" is akin to "subversive radical".

What's funniest is that one of the earliest "postmodern" critiques I read was a book that outlined the theory that Donald Duck comic books were US capitalist propoganda. Yet the same people who want to criticise "left leaning" themes in cultural presentations (like, why can't they be) are the same who want an education system that doesn't teach students how to "read" texts in that way.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Murdoch and Packer Punting on Broadband

Well, we've now had the daily double - Packer and Murdoch both decrying the state of broadband in Australia. It started with Murdoch who said "When you have broadband - real broadband, not the type they're talking about here - where you get, say, 20Mbps of data into your home, it changes everything. People then spend a lot of time with their laptops and computers. In Australia we only have a couple of million people on broadband and they don't even get 1Mb."

Packer followed last night saying "I think that Telstra is in ... is perfectly entitled to say that, you know, I want to make a commercial rate of return on the investment that I'm putting in. And if it such a good deal, why isn't someone else doing it? And to the extent that the Government wants, as the Government should want, a best practice broadband infrastructure, if the Government has got to do something to help Telstra get a commercial return.

Someone might like to explain the market structure in Australia in which Murdoch and Packer are joint venture partners with Telstra in a Pay TV business - leaving Australia devoid of the competition between fixed line telephone operators and Pay TV operators that some claim would see this change. Two leading economists Joshua Gans and Jerry Haussman argued in a recent AFR article Telstra should be required to divest its HFC network as part of T3.

Is this some orchestrated campaign by Packer and Murdoch with their Payy TV partner? Or is it some softening up for the Government concerned that broadband is becoming an election issue.

I guess the final word goes to Crikey who noted "You have to almost admire the hide of Rupert Murdoch, managing on the one platform to demand major tax cuts and that the government spend $10 billion to $12 billion on broadband that will just happen to help his own business. As one of the world’s biggest content providers, there’s plenty of self-interest riding for Rupert."

Or does the final word really belong to the Pay TV consortium under its original monicker of PMT?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Jonestown Part 2

My post on Jonestown has elicited a response which I will comment on here.

The last chapters of Jonestown take us to Chris Masters core of concern. It is not so much a concern with Alan Jones, but with how the whole city of Sydney and hence NSW politics, and to a far lesser degree Australian politics, has allowed itself to become subject to the "power" of this broadcaster.

My anonymous commentor falls into this trap, trying to describe the Jones radio show as some kind of "higher democracy" and praising Jones for getting resulys. This perhaps opens up a more interesting question of whether the media (or the "fourth estate" to borrow the French revolutionary term) is performing its role. I have a colleague who decries modern media of being only interested in reporting "a horse race or celebrity", and look at the coverage of politics ad you see just that.*

I suggest people read the book if they want to claim that Jones is some kind of modern democratic form. The theory that he is accountable to his audience is wrong, given that he controls what his audience is able to hear.

Read the chapter on his voluminous correspondence, read the chapters on the causes he "chooses" to take up.

If Jones were truly engaged in some democratic form I suggest he might actually care about the conclusion in "cash-for-comment". As Hitler proved - a demagogue is not a democrat.

* As an example this weekend's newspaper coverage of both Beazley's and Debnam's leadership, both devoid of anything about what the politicians might stand for.

Milton Friedman

Charles Richardson writing in Crikey (subscription required for full item) has fallen into hagiography of Milton Friedman. To claim "his great achievement was to rehabilitate the notion, now accepted almost universally, that inflation is primarily a monetary phenomenon" is to ignore the fact that the theory he espoused was all about setting money supply targets and a supposed direct relationship. Yes, he did remind us that monetary policy was important, but he was completely wrong on how to run the policy.

And yes Friedman was a great libertarian, but his incessant drumming on establishing that the purpose of a corporation is the generation of shareholder value is responsible for much of the governance dilemmas of the 1990s and is directly responsible for the obsenity of "options".

The best column I've seen so far is by Ross Gittins in the SMH

Monday, November 13, 2006


The less than flattering review by Ross Fitzgerald in the Oz makes me feel it is time to blog on Jonestwon.

I have very nearly finished the book (about twenty pages to go) - and thus far I haven't read anything "new". I mean the story of the Queensland upbringing, the school teaching jobs, the departure from Kings, the Rugby coaching, the London arrest are all pretty old ground. The fact that Jones likes the company of twenty something males is also not particularly new, his fascination with various sporting favourites being particularly common knowledge.

The territory that Masters explores and has made headlines is the labelling of Jones as a homosexual, though I'm not sure if he ever claims that Jones is anything more than a "platonic" homosexual (though there are some fumbling moments later in the book that are never truly consumated). What I do find fascinating though is the relevation in the book about the two females he was linked to in his younger days, Madonna Schacht and Inge Bishop. Jones is claimed to have boasted of bedding them both, claims which both deny. The question of Jones' sexuality is only of interest to me because of the extent to which he seems to have constructed a lie of being an active heterosexual.

This, combined with the extent to which he morphs his own history regularly, raises some real questions about a man whose own image is one of resolute adherence to truth. This ultimately goes to the book's claim, the one that Fitzgerald dismisses as psycho-babble, that Jones suffers narcissistic personality disorder.

While using websites is not a great way to diagnose mental illness, it does seem that one could conclude that Jones is not a well man. Anyone who has subjected themselves to the experience of listening to him would both know his tendency to hold simultaneously mutually exclusive positions and that the "rages explode without warning like terrorist bombs" - a claim Fitzgerald dismisses as foolish.

Reading either transcripts where Jones is actually taken on by someone he can't intimidate, or his ludicrously pompous "correspondence" shows the measure of a man whose ludicrous sense of self-importance is clearly out of control. If Jones truly had friends in the "pick and stick" club they would help him adress these behaviours, not pander to his insecurity.

It reminds me of the film "The Aviator" and the way the relationship between Howard Hughes and Katherine Hepburn is portrayed - if Hepburn had been a true friend of Hughes she would have helped him get well, not wallowed in the insanity.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Climate Change and Media Watch

It is hard to figure out what to make of Media Watch's attack on Andrew Bolt's writings on climate change.

It seems to me that this focus on the first of Bolt's claimed ten errors isn't really in the proper Medi Watch territory of highlighting the careless or practised plagiraism, or the careless or practised misuse of information. It seems to me territory over which reasonable minds could differ and does realy plays to those who label Media Watch as a modern day commie conspiracy (or words to that effect).

On the actual matter of greenhouse/global warming, I recall an AUstralia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Canberra in 1975 where I first heard the theory of greenhouse from scientists promoting nuclear power. I believed it then as I believe it now, but not that nuclear is the answer.

As I've already posted here the Gore movie is full of unnecessary dramatisation that weakens rather than strengthens the argument.

One of the latest "sceptic" argument is that we don't need to worry about greenhouse - it is just like the Y2K problem, lots of hype - but the world didn't end then. Problem is that because of all the hype every computer program on the planet was scrubbed looking for bits of code that would fail because of the date problem. No one ever did the stocktake afterwards but most companies did find one that if they had all triggered unsuspectingly on the one day could have had cataclysmic consequences.

That for me is the lesson on climate change - how hard is it to say we should get on and fix the emissions problem because the outcome if the scientists are right is SO bad, and when it is incontrovertibly clear there will be nothing we can do.

Death Sentence

I made it into Crikey's comments section yesterday with a comment on their coverage of the Saddam Hussein verdict.

Your intro yesterday that "there is no doubt Saddam deserves to die" rests on two premises; that Saddam is guilty of a "heinous crime", and that for that crime the appropriate penalty is death. There are a number of difficulties with this proposition. To begin with if we believe in the "rule of law" you have to find a law that Hussein broke and there isn't one on the Iraq statute books. If you believe in the concept of "crimes against humanity" then the charge needed to be brought by an international court. So the first part itself is problematic, at least matching the crime to the court. The second part is that some of us believe the death penalty is never warranted, no matter how severe the crime. So I think there is a lot of doubt that Saddam deserves to die, while not defending his rule or conduct in any way. PS How many Iraqi citizens have the coalition of the willing now killed? When do George Bush and John Howard go on trial?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Justice, Closure and Victims

I am confused about how our society based on its Judeo-Christian ethics has over recent times reverted to the Old Testament version where-in justice is measured as an "an eye for an eye".

The sub-editor's description ("Instead of being dispassionate, prosecutors should fight for victims") of Miranda Devine's column summarised her argument completely (SMH, 2 Nov). Devine seems to believe the purpose of the criminal justice system is retribution for victims. In the name of achieving that retribution any legal tactic should be employed.

This is based on the assumption that, of course, the prisoner in the dock is always guilty - because the prosecution wouldn't have been mounted otherwise. That therefore any legal tactic is okay, and that to have judghements overturned because of the tactics is unreasonable because the most important right is that of the victim.

I think the pathway to this insanity was the psycho-babble of "closure". Clearly, when victims or families of victims get caught up in the legal procedures some time after a crime, that "re-opens" the set of mental and emotional traumas undergone at the time of the crime. So the victim potentially has to relive the crime.

This has morphed into the idea that the victim cannot have "closure" until after the trial. But that closure is because the trial process itself prohibits closure, not that the trial process and "punishment of the criminal" (or vindication) is necessary for closure.

The purpose of a criminal justice system is to ensure that the penalties for crime, which primarily exist as appropriate punishments designed to deter crime, are applied to the guilty. To ensure the process is just the system has very strict rules of procedure. To breach those rules is to have a system that is not just.

If guilty criminals go free because prosecutors over-step these rules, then the blame rests with the prosecutors, not the system.

To imagine that the purpose of the criminal justice system is retribution, and that retribution will be what makes the victim or victim's families feel better is simply a delusion. The teaching of the New Testament was that the victim needs to forgive those who have done them wrong. It has been a far more sturdy moral compass than the new age ethics of hate and revenge.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Climate Change

I finally got around to seeing Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" tonight in Auckland. It is a chilling movie, as the site it points you to makes out. The single most chilling fact is the direct relationship between atmospheric CO2 and temperature over the years.

Unfortunately the full power of the film is destroyed by Gore using the analogy of the boiled frog. This is the one that goes "a frog dropped in boiling water will jump out, but one put in tepid water that is heated to boiling will boil to death." I know Karl Kruszelnicki wrote in his Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend column "Myth Conceptions" that this was simply not true - indeed the frog dropped in hot water will have the protein in its muscles rendered useless, while the frog in rising temperature water will indeed react.

So it is a pity to see it being recycled in what is otherwise an intriguing movie - both about climate change and politics.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Cultivating grass

My last post received an anonymous comment that asked a question about my profile. So I thought I should put the record straight.

I have a number of hobbies/interests but my older daughter took to telling her uni mates that her Dad's hobbies were "playing bridge and cultivating grass". This was good to get a good eyebrow raise and so I took to adding it to my corporate CV and now my blog profile.

But the grass I cultivate is not the one everyone's mind seems to leap to - it is instead oplismenus. You can see some details at the Royal Batanic Gardens, North Sydney Council or Hornsby Herbarium. This is commonly known as "basket grass" and is a native grass. It is a native grass in the little it of bushland behind my house and I have been making one small patch very much bigger. The other native grass I have patches of is "right angle grass". And I had a great deal of excitement when I discovered some good patches of "scurvy weed" amongst the wandering jew.

Unfortunately I haven't developed the ability to post photos here yet so I can't show you.

And - anonymous - to organise the game of bridge we need to know who you are.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The End of Democracy

Now that is one heck of a title, but there is some interesting evidence mounting that democracy as we know it is coming to an end. That view of democracy that we have grown used to is one of representatives being chosen by the people and that this will be a process of merit, through the process of first convincing people to support you and then the electorate at large.

The creation of political parties was not a threat to that process, in fact it added to the process. The party brand communicated something about your philosophical stance, and the process of party pre-selection created a process of contest where potential politicians honed their skills.

However, in the modern era the collapse of party memberships and the creation of more electoral and ministerial staff has created the era of the "stack". This was a device most familiar to the ALP. Recently two leading (factional) warriors of the ALP have outed the behaviour in Fabian Society speeches. The first contribution by Rodney Cavalier asked Could Chifley win Labor preselection today? The second by Robert Ray asked Are factions killing the ALP?. They both conclude that it is not factionalism per se but the apparatchiks who are.

Back when Labor was still ruling supreme in Canberra and Alexander Downer was attempting to be Liberal leader, Gerard Henderson wrote a history of the Liberal party called "Menzies' Child". In it he opined that the Liberal party needed to learn the skills of developing the professional politicians that the ALP had learnt.

However, I don't think he expected the outcome that we saw described in the ABC Four Corners program The Right Stuff. That this was not merely inflammatory or one off has become clear with the more detailed description in John Hyde Page's excellent read The Education of a Young Liberal.

It is an extraordinary turn of affairs that the people of NSW and Australia at elections in 2007 will not be offered a team of candidates whose skill is policy analysis or their ability to argue a proposition, but their ability to survive in the battle of the application of patronage.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Political Blogs

Observant readers (if I have any still) will note I've added two politicians blogs to my blogroll. Join me in thanking Senators Andrew Bartlett and Kate Lundy for trying to keep democracy real.

I was hesitant to add them and sort of thought I should go looking for a good Liberal blog but relying on the Grods review of political blogs it just doesn't look like there are any out there yet.

If anyone reading this knows of good politician blogs they might like to let us all know.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Coming Collapse of China

The Economist has included a survey that has again marvelled at the impact of the emerging economies of India and China.

The lead article concludes;

But regardless of how the developed world responds to the emerging giants, their economic power will go on growing. The rich world has yet to feel the full heat from this new revolution.

The Economist is of course but one of a growing list of commentaries on the wonder of the growing emerging economies. Living in Australia it is hard not to ignore the impact the growth in China has had, as it is the source of our resources "boom". However, it is fascinating to note exactly how little attention our politicians seem to give it.

Two examples. I was listening to Peter Costello's budget speech this year and noted how according to the speech all the wonders were of the Howard Government's making and no mention of China. And today I was at an ALP forum where WA Prenmier Alan Carpenter was extolling the wonders of their 14% growth as if it was all the doing of the WA Government and very little or no mention of China.

Yet I have on my bookcase a little book called "The Coming Collapse of China" by Gordon G. Chang. The volume poses some simple questions like how long the people will remain subjegated, how long the West will abide by the WTO Charade, how long investment can be expected to continue in a regime that doesn't properly secure the interests of investors, how the state owned enterprises will unfold and most significantly how stable the Chinese banking system is.

I would not dare to suggest I know one way or the other what the future will bring. However, the list of potential triggers is so great and the number of mitigants so low, that the possibility of collapse should be in everyone's scenario plans and quite reasonably in the near term. Certainly a collapse in China would be a far more significant shock than the Asian currency crisis (and one should note it was just before the collapse of these economies that commentators had decided to agree that the Asian Tigers would continue on their high growth paths for the foreseeable future). There seems little evidence that there are any reasonable plans for the sudden and severe contractionary effects it would have on the Australian economy.

The trade deficit and the further impact of loss of minerals exports would make any monetary expansion highly dangerous as the immediate consequence would be to increase imports against declining exports. Fiscal solutions of expanded Government programs of nation building may be ignored as being archaically Keynesian, but even if implemented would take a while to ramp up.

Perhaps all the talk about infrastructure planning might be well placed - but not for a to do list in the current expansion but as a to do list when we face a contraction.

How to measure Happiness

Under the heading We're richer than ever, but not happier the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend ran one of a series of articles all trying to make the point that growing per capita GDP is all very well but it doesn't seem to make us happier.

While the overall series of articles didn't make it absolutely clear how the measures for happiness were derived it seems there are two methodologies at work.

Method one simply asks individuals the question if they believe "life is getting better". The fact that 25% say it is getting better and 40% that it isn't is then the conclusive proof.

Another method is discussed in another article on the same day - this being asking people to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 and then comparing results between countries and between time periods.

Both these methods are, however, basically relative scales. They are both in their own way seeking the measure of hapiness from zero to the greatest imaginable happiness.

If, as seems likely a priori, the greatest imagineable happiness is in fact a function of our current happiness or indeed material well-being, it seems highly unlikely that one would ever see significant shifts in happiness.

This might be thought of as causing some kind of problem for a classical utilitarian operating on the basis that a moral society (and indeed an economically efficient one) operates by having each individual operate to maximise his own happiness - but that confuses the direct comparison of the degree of happiness from State A versus State B with the concept of "overall happiness".

And ultimately the article itself revealed the weakness of the survey method. 77% of respondants thought that Government policy should focus on maximizing happiness not wealth. Yet 60% of respondants responded that relationship with their family were the most significant contributor to happiness. Conjoining these would result in a conclusion that Australian people want Government to take responsibility for their family relationships.

It seems to me that this article reflects more on the dangers of letting journalists near surveys than it does on happiness.

Note - this doesn't mean that I actually believe that single focus on the pursuit of wealth is right. It just does mean that I don't think you can conclude that people aren't getting happier.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Better late than never. While I've had some success in getting letters published in daily newspapers (including once in the South China Morning Post when in HK for a week) I seem to have lost the knack of writing for the SMH. And really only about half of my AFR letters get a run. So my new policy is to blog any unpublished letters. This one was sent the Wednesday after the Sydney Swifts mighty win in the CBT Grand Final.

I am extremely disappointed in the SMH and its readership over the coverage the paper gave the Sydney Swifts mighty Grand Final win. They have become the first premiere sports team to go through a season undefeated since St George in 1959 and the only one in the era of national competition.

Did their photo make the front page? No - look in sport. Front page of the sport section? No the sixth page.

Meanwhile, on Monday, there are the Swans on the front page for scraping into fourth spot to make the finals.

Perhaps the paper is right to ignore women's sport judging by the lack so far of any protesting letters. Of course, they too may have been simply confined to the "unimportant bin".

And full marks to Senator Kate Lundy as the only actual Minister or Shadow Minister for Sport in attendence. Even the Commonwealth Bank let down the show - not sending the CEO Ralph Norris but some bloke from marketing whose job title sounded like second assistant to the janitor.

Probably a bit unfair on the poor guy from the bank (and a reason for non-publication) but Ralph Norris should have done better.

Friday, September 01, 2006

A question of governance

I have resisted blogging about matters relating to my day job here - but recent trevails over Telstra and its privatisation raise some interesting questions of corporate governance.

The first is about the meaning of "the company". On the Friday of the announcement of T3 we saw the Telstra communications chief repeat some comments about regulation, we saw the CEO back the executive and we saw the Chair say the views expressed were not those of the company. Now the latter of these means the company as constituted by the Board, and I trust the Chair did not purport to speak on behalf of the Board without some clarity from the whole Board as to their view. If that is the case, the CEO expressed a view contrary to the view of the Board of which he is a member. In normal circumstances this would be a terminal position for one or the other.

But not in the case of Telstra. One of the key assumptions of corporate governance is that Boards are responsible to shareholders, but because the average shareholder owns such a small slice it is not in the cost/benefit payoff to any shareholder to put the effort in to address Board issues. Usually though there are big institutional shareholders or proprietorial shareholders who do take that interest. In the case of Telstra there are none.

Telstra does have one majority shareholder, but that majority shareholder wants to sell because its leader (the PM) has a philosophical belief that Government shouldn't run businesses. We know the PM looked at a number of options for "intervention" but didn't. Why? Fundamentally because the overriding philosophical belief takes presedence over the expediency of sorting out the management issue.

Will the situation change post T3? Unfortunately not, as no institution will want to be "overweight" this stock. Worse, the other governance saving grace is the possibility of takeover. But that discipline doesn't apply to Telstra because of shareholding restrictions.

The contrast to how the 6% shareholder of Telecom NZ reacted when they received bad results is stark. There the investor basically demanded the head of the Chair or the CEO - he got the chair's.

So the privatisation of Telstra perhaps leaves us in the embarassing position that no one is running the show.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fed till you're full

I finally made it along to my first Fourth Estate Domain (better know as FED) event last night. This time it was Martin Dalgleish now of PBL and latterly of Optus on the couch.

While I took some note about what Martin said - much of which I agreed with - it was the number of people there that stunned me.

Now a lot of them were clearly there just for "networking" and some of that was probably as much to be seen as to see someone else. But elsewhere in the media and comms fields we sort of bemoan the lack of interest in the "policy" debate - yet really what was discussed would have been equally at home at Mark Armstrong's Network Insight or at the telco industry's SPAN or ACIF (which merge today to become the Communications Alliance.

I have just returned from the last ever SPAN annual dinner (where I was crushed to not be selected the telecommunications ambassador - well not really, and congratulations Rosemary Sinclair). At that dinner there were people asking where the next generation of the policy advocates will come from - despite there being 500 hardy souls in the room.

The answer is that the people who will carry the conversation forward have already changed the way a conversation is run. So just maybe we in the old part of the industry need to rethink our model of how policy discussion occurs if we want to expand the scope.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ports and trade

Just back from a CEDA dinner at which the Deputy PM and Minister for Trade Mark Vaile spoke. In a speech covering trade negotiations, infrastructure and the economy in general it struck me that he was pleased with the improvement in crane rates at our container ports.

Makes you think though - our exports mostly go through bulk terminals. Our container ports handle more imports than exports - so increasing the crane rates just makes the trade balance worse - not better.

Bit like how unfair dismissal laws will stuff small business. Why? Because prospective employees can't tell the difference between a good and bad small business so you have to expect that you will be sacked for no reason by a small business so you will require a "risk premium" in your pay. Good one small business lobby - you just reduced your competitiveness.

But as Peter Hendy at the ACCI used to work for Peter Reith bad reasoning is to be expected.

Quickie on cooking

Mama Cass has asked me what I like cooking. And the answer is anything that I've got the time to try. I'm not into elaborate dishes, my favourite meals are grazing meals - so Indian curry nights are good, as are Lebanese lunches - though about all I cook then are lamb mince and pine nuts in filo with maybe the falafel. My daughters are like the old Tom Cruise add - they'll stay home if I'm cooking a lamb roast.

I love both Christmas and Easter (Good Friday) for which I now have set menus that don't change but are things only cooked that day (well, mostly). Christams is cold - but includes a turkey stuffed with a forcemeat (well actually I know do a breast and stuffed chickens instead) a really nice brown rice salad and asparagus with sesame seeds and balsamic dressing - takes the whole day the day before. Easter is a salmon pie, macaroni cheese (for non-seafood loving daughter), curried prawns (using Alice Doyle's recipe) and some fresh fish in batter.

But it is really just something I do. Next Mama Cass will want to know what grass I cultivate.....

Monday, August 14, 2006

Viva the Senate

The PM has decided to pull his immigration bill from the Senate.

Howard has realised that his Bill will not be passed and that to save face he will remove it from consideration. Great news that this odious proposal will not become law, but perhaps a bit of a pity that the Senate didn't get to perform its function.

I wonder how the five* brave coalition members in the House of Representatives feel - after all if John Howard were really the political genius he is usually credited with being he would have pulled the Bill once he saw Marise Payne's Senate committee's report.

* Technically there were three truly brave coalition members and two honourable mentions.

Reading too much into it

The Oz today has some idle speculation about potential changes in the line up of Departmental secretaries in Canberra. At the same time our friends at Crikey (again) have mentioned the fact that an article about Jane Halton in the AFR didn't ask the "hard questions".

Ignoring the hard questions piece, was the AFR piece an exercise in what the Chinese would have called "rehabilitation"? Was it really designed to see if anyone would metaphorically "mention the war".

Meaning of "democracy"

Today's Crikey has an article by Richard Farmer asking if Afghanistan is still worth fighting for.

In it he recounts a recent story of a man who was to be sentenced to death for converting to Christianity - because they still practice sharia law. The item concluded by mentioning John Howard's speech in parliament last week.

As justification for increasing the Australian troop commitment Mr Howard declared that “our efforts, and those of our coalition partners, are bearing fruit. Afghans have embraced democracy and open, democratic institutions are developing. Afghanistan now has a democratic constitution and a democratically elected president and parliament.”

It is probably about time that John Howard and others figured out that democracy means more than just having elections. The US enshrined the concept of the separation of the state from any specific religion, built on the experience of their early citizens. In fact, amongst European countries those that most rapidly adopted a separation of the church from the State were those that developed economically most rapidly. Alfred Cobban's three volume Pelican history of modern France makes a very strong case for how the influence of the church held back French economoc and political development.

At least the Australian Democrats have started to raise the debate about this in Australia. Is the response to global terrorism to support a state which has a state religion and to draw religious groups closere into the operation of our own state? Do we understand that the UK terrorists are the products of religious schools?

It is hard to believe there can be any lasting peace in large areas of the world until it is accepted that Government is a secular activity and that democracy includes religious tolerance.

At the same time we should recognise that recent attempts by Government to include religious groups in social policy is an attempt to recreate social capital. It is clear that we cannot run a society where to give someone a hand-up means the Government gives a hand-out.

But a greater exposition on that shall await another day.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Glass ceilings and ankle weights

Laurel Papworth has done the honour of mentioning that she turned up to the FITT for a bit of a laugh. I've gotta say it was a nerve racking gig - and for the record this is roughly what I said.


Tonight our team will be arguing that the Glass Ceiling doesn’t exist. This is quite probably a dangerous position for a person of my gender to take, but my team members have three important attributes which will assist in our argument. The first is that they are both definitely female.

To argue that something doesn’t exist we first need to define what that thing is. Relying on that most authoritative source – – we have the definition that “The term glass ceiling refers to the observation that top-level management in businesses consist predominantly, if not exclusively, of a certain demographic (i.e. white heterosexual males)”. It is commonly attributed to an article in the Wall Street Journal but was used two years earlier in Adweek – and heck, it does sound like an advertising kind of line.

But the metaphor itself is clearly wrong. The image of a Glass Ceiling is that there is, beneath it, this whole group of women – their faces pressed to the glass like a kid at a lolly shop window – waiting to come in.

The fact is that people do cross that so called barrier. I can think immediately of simple examples like the CEO of my parent company Telecom New Zealand. The second of the important attributes of my co-speakers is that they have also crossed that barrier.

So it is clearly a bad metaphor. It is not an “exclusive” barrier. But what should we make of the suggestion that top-level management come predominantly from this list. We all know the aphorism that Mark Twain incorrectly ascribed to Benjamin Disraeli, that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We expect our opponents will regale you with lots of the third of these at least.

We will hear statistics about the number of women on Boards, but not hear about how Linda Nicholls Chair of Australia Post built her career. We will hear about the gender wage gap including in graduate starting salaries, but not that women still under represent themselves in choosing IT and engineering degrees. We will hear claims of boys clubs and the inaccessibility of networks, but not about the women who build their own networks.

The one thing you will note in all these statistics is that they are couched in the terms that men would regard as success. As our second speaker will tell you, women are redefining “success”. The Glass Ceiling doesn’t exist when you redefine the goal.

The third great attribute of my co-speakers is that they come from a long way away – in a land where people take a great deal more responsibility for their own careers. You will hear from both of them that the Glass Ceiling doesn’t exist for those who take responsibility for their own careers and their own choices.

In summary, it is our argument that the Glass Ceiling doesn’t exist because of the evidence of successful women. That the ability to be successful is in the control of women – both to define success and plan their path to success.

If women are being held back on the slippery pole of life the analogy that is most suitable is of ankle weights below, not a ceiling above. And women have in their control the ability to remove those weights. To paraphrase Marx “Women of Australia, listen – you have nothing to lose but your chains”.


The fact that we lost is no reflection on the excellent contributions of my team mates. And I should point out that in the debate I said chains at all points in that last paragraph - and the audience let their displeasure be known.

Thanks to FITT for asking me along. Great time was had by all. (And apologies for using the same aphorism in successive bloglets.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies and ... Surveys

Ultimately you have to feel sorry for Solomon Dennis Trujillo III. All he's done is accept the invitation of the Telstra Board to be CEO and run the show exactly as any one who has reviewed his career would have expected him to.

So today we see news stories that BRW has rated him as the least admired CEO of the CEOs of Australia's top 100 companies. It really is a dodgy measure being based on surveys of faceless investment analysts - all of whom are a bit narked because the Telstra CEO does seem to spend more time managing the company than spruiking the stock (though on some reports both are less than his overseas forays).

No doubt the academy of spin known as the nowwearetalking website will have some new conspiracy theory about the survey, but I think you can't dispute that it measures what it measures. But the Telstra CEO we see is the Telstra CEO the Board hired, so if the investment community wants to draw its knives its the Telstra Chair and Board they need to invite to be the turkey at Christmas (or thanksgiving) dinner.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


John Quiggin in his blog on the Howard/Costello stuff says:

Costello says there was a deal, Howard says there wasn’t, but, as the government’s supporters will no doubt hasten to point out, the whole idea of a ‘one size fits all’ truth, the same for everyone, smacks of socialism. In a modern market system of politics, everyone can pick their own truth, as desired, and have more than one available for different occasions.

I don't buy this at all. Howard's fellow traveller's are the Quadrant right - the arch enemies of relativism.

Howard and his Education Minister Julei Bishop are determined that more "history as narrative" should be taught - that is one correct version. This postmodern idea that two people can "read the same text and get different meanings" is not for them - a fact is a fact, especially a historical fact supported by a document.

More Dems News

The ABC runs a headline Political analyst predicts Democrats' demise on their Just In feed.

Observers of politics who read a bit of history would remind all political commentators that the ALP went through many similar trevails in its first fifty years. Admittedly they had enjoyed the spoils of office, but the essential ingredients are there - the relationship between the executive and the parliamentary party, the differences between State Divisions and the national organisation.

It remains the bizarre truth that the Democrats are the natural home for a whole pile of disaffected Liberals and ALP supporters. A simple read of their charter is so much more rewarding than the objects of the ALP. Yet they simply can't establish traction.

Possibly one reason remains the origins of the party around the messianic Don Chipp, and its subsequent failure to recreate that image till the brief rise of Natasha Stott Despoja till that was rendered useless under the battles over the role of the National Executive.

Not only is it too early to call the result, we should all be concerned if that is the outcome.


Well, the Prime Minister believes that the leadership of the liberal party is the unique gift of the elected parliamentarians and that "any member of the parliamentary Liberal Party who forgets that is indulging hubris and arrogance."

As a suburban solicitor maybe John Howard is better placed to understand "contract" (which is what we mean by an agreement) than I, but my interpretation of the sequence of events is that Howard made an offer to Peter Costello, "for your consideration of not standing for the Leadership, I undertake to resign the position of Leader after one and a half terms". While the negotiation of that position may have been still going into late December, it doesn't mean that when Costello did decide not to stand that he wasn't accepting the offer, unless Howard expressly repudiated the offer.

Now, I don't think you can contract over something like agreeing to resign, but the discussions have all the hallmarks of "agreement" as would seem to be required under law.

And I don't think I've ever heard Costello actually claim that the PM has to resign for Costello. I'm sure Costello is well aware that if the PM resigns it would be open to any member to nominate. I think Costello can reasonably expect Howard to support his candidacy, and certainly not to work against it. But at no stage has Costello suggested that no one else can challenge him.

I had to get in on this early - cause hopefully there will be more to follow after Cabinet.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

How the ABC Board creates a best seller

The Jonestown story just keeps running. The David Marr item in this morning's SMH provides some more detail about the current state of play on the legal advice.

However, the article does remind us that managing risk is the Board's job. And as I said elsewhere, the ABC should and does have a different appetite for legal risk in Enterprises versus Broadcasting. Consequently I don't think the cautious approach of the Board here is a particular cause for concern for, say, Four Corners.

But it is interesting how the final chapter is playing out. The Board decision is giving the book more free publicity than anything short of actual litigation would have. So, if the new right wing ABC Board really thought they were protecting the Parrot, they should think again. Jonestown has now become one of thos things publishers love - an eagerly awaited book (and I'll want my copy on day one, just in case it does get pulped on day two).

And hopefully I'll get an answer to a question - has old Kings boy John Anderson had the gumption to say what he really thinks of Jones on the record now that he is departing the political stage?

The Democrats in the News

Great line from Andrew Murray - that he would resign more often if he could. The SMH today has a story about the demise of the Dems.

Unfortunately, I think Andrew Murray is wrong - as is the adage that "all news is good news". Yes, at last the media is taking an interest in the party, but for all the wrong reasons. And while I feel sorry for the facts Murray expresses late in the article that as a Senator he has been working feverishly away but nothing gets reported, I don't feel sorry for the fact that Andrew Murray has not really wanted to work as part of the team since he partnered Meg Lees in the GST debacle.

What's that you say - I'm a hypocrite? I want the GST to be 15% but don't think the Democrats should have voted for it? Absolutely, because the public knew what it (thought) it was doing in 1999 and the Democrats let them down. And the same weak defence is the one that might yet bring Barnaby Joyce undone - I did the dea that made the proposal better than it was to start with.

The Democrats of all the parties are the ones I'd have thought believed that as leaders you bring the public on a journey of ideas, not that you say anything to get elected then make different decisions claiming changed circumstances. And to do that you need to be clear on the motivating philosophy, not (like Andrew Murray) bogged down in verbose explanations.

GST Windfall or Fairytale

Peter Costello and John Howard have underpinned their centralisation crusade with a simple message, the States have never had it so good (fiscally) since we introduced the GST and gave the revenue to the States.

I've always wanted to test that out - because the corollary would be profligate spending by the States, which in NSW at least I can't see.

At last Ross Gittens in the SMH has - and as I suspected the truth and the Howard/Costello team are not companions.

Nor should this surprise anyone, since so many of the taxes that were wound back were State taxes.

Underneath all this there is the more distressing fact that in 2000 we went through all the political agony of the GST without getting most of the potential economic gains. The GST at 10% represented primarily an administrative simplification of consumption taxation, and not the shift to greater reliance on consumptio tax that it could have been. And let's not forget that a GST acts like a "negative tarriff" as it makes exported goods cheaper than goods consumed domestically, that is, it creates an incentive to export (which we still dearly need). Further higher consumption taxes makes restructuring of income tax to include "negative tax credits" as a substitute for multiple welfare programs viable.

I'll tell anyone who'll listen that the GST needs to be 15% to really attract benefits. But I doubt we'll ever here that out of this coalition Government. Not because they think it is unsalable, but because they are full of hubris about the genius of their economic management.

The death of the Democrats?

That's what Crikey is claiming following the little contre temps the party is having in SA. They also picked up on an Oz editorial.

It is hard to really make the call, given that sensible voters need somewhere to go and surely people have noticed that the Greens are half made up of unreconstructed Trots. Family First and the whole religion thing doesn't look like the emergence of a Christian Democrat tradition, no matter how much Fred Nile might like the name.

But Crikey is right that the Dems need to look more like what they originally were as offshoots of the Australia Party and the Liberal Movement. That is, believers in economic progrsss with a human face. Unfortunately they have allowed their economic credentials to rest exclusivley with the dour and fractious Andrew Murray, and they haven't really recovered from the disappointment of those voters who thought the way they voted in 1999 would give them John Howard PM but no GST.

So as a consequence they do come across as a bit of an odd collection of schizoid single issues rather than what they really are - great liberal democrats, more in the tradition of Deakin and Menzies that John Winston Howard (who truly is the first "conservative" this country has ever seen).

We need a "Save the Democrats" campaign - our nation needs them.

ARM still sounds like a stifled cough

Have just returned from the Australian Republican Movement's 15th anniversary dinner. Hard to describe really, you can't call it a celebration because I think they thought we'd have the republic by now.

Their new great idea is to get to a republic with a series of "plebescites", first on do you want a republic then secondly what kind.

They sort of forget that we got into the first mess because the monarchists forced the debate to be about how you couldn't ask people if they were for or against a republic until they knew what kind of republic it was. Then once there was one chosen, the monarchists effectively campaigned to get other republicans to vote against the model.

And the ARM identifies six alternate models. I recall previously seeing a poll on these in which my preferred model (Executive Presidency) only scored 6% support. Now they just refer to having included the other five in a submission to a Senate inquiry having dropped the sixth (my preference) due to lack of support.

Anyway, I think all this plebescite stuff is a nonsense. Way too many options to run through, and too much information presented in uninteresting ways. I think we should give modern technology a shot and try for "Republic Idol" or "Singing for the President".

This is a game show/reality show construct. You start out with six teams of three whose job it is to promote one of the models. Over the first two or three shows you just introduce the models, include a bit of a travelogue on places that currently use one of the models (you know, shots of the Place de la Concorde and this is where modern republics began and the guillotine got a work out, cut to Washington with Jennifer Hawkins or Catriona Rowntree explaining the US republic).

After that each week the teams are given one aspect of democracy to discuss and explain why their model is best to deal with it. So the first week could be all about controlling executive power, the second week about leadership in crisis, the third about tolerance and freedom. At the end of each show we put up the SMS and phone numbers and the audience can choose to "vote off a model" or "vote for the model you most like" (you can actually have both the positive and the negative option). Each week a model gets eliminated till we come down to the final show where the republic model is chosen. Clearly you'd want to think through the issues so that the last show is really dealing with something big.

After that there could be a super final show - republic versus her maj. Mind you, you could have her maj as an option all the way through but I'm not sure its particularly fair nor is it likely you'd get the really credible monarchy prosletysers out for the whole show.

Of course, at the end you still need the referendum.

Only problem I'm told is that no one would watch the show - but it sounds like a goer to me!!!

PS I don't usually post my ideas for TV shows here, but with John Hinde passing away yesterday I am reminded of the ABC Christmas party where I suggested to Hinde and Libby Gore that it would be a hoot to have him do a review of, I think a sports video, on Elle McFeast. Anyway I loved it when he did appear.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Sparks Fly around Jonestown

Where thee's smoke, there's fire - and I guess where there is flint, there's sparks (or is that the other way round). But we are talking about Flint, David Flint - agent double O double O and his licence to thrill.

Flint, under the heading The ABC never goes after leftie celebrities in the Oz on Thursday, wanted to have his say on the ABC decision not to publish the Chris Masters book Jonestown.

At the start of his opinion piece Flint asked "WHY on earth was the ABC so foolish as to contemplate publishing a book on Alan Jones?". The very short answer is because the ABC some time ago set up a division called Enterprises which primarily makes its money from "re-purposing" ABC production material.

Typically this is audio and video reproductions of aired shows, but it is not unusual for it to run to books related to aired shows. Chris Masters undertook research for a Four Corners episode called Jonestown, and reached the unsurprising view that extending that research to a book was probably a profitable transaction.

For the Board to now take the commercial decision that there is too high a degree of unmanaged risk should not be read by partisans of either the left or the right as being a consequence of a change (in the political sense) of approach by the Board. The left should not read this as interference in editorial decisions - that would have been the case if the original Four Corners episode was not aired - but Enterprises has always been a strictly commercial division. But equally the right is wrong to see this as the Board stopping an attack on a right wing poster child.

But it was Flint's claim, repeated in the headline, that the ABC never goes after "lefties" that struck me. The night before I had been reading Graeme Freudenberg's "Cause for Power" which is the official history of the NSW Branch of the ALP. I had just read the section covering the Four Corners show "The Big League" and the repercussions for Neville Wran of that show. The show did uncover some significant corruption, it was just that the accusation about the Premier was untrue (this was, by the way, Chris Masters first story for Four Corners).

So on a sample of one, and admittedly twenty years ago, the core accusation is wrong.

But Flint has another gripe - that there are plenty of publishers for leftie books but not of the right. He somehow doesn't seem to understand the comment he quotes from a publisher that "only books from the Left sell and a book about them would not." Similarly, in book publishing the ABC is not attempting to be a voice for the otherwise unpublished, but a commercial venture.

But even then I'm not sure the premise is correct. The Freudenberg book is published by Pluto Press, a speciality left house. Flint found a publisher in Freedom Publishing who seems to play a similar role on the right.

Meanwhile, I'm perfectly happy that the ABC seems to be making perfectly sensible decisions, first to commission the book as an extension of the TV program and then to decide that the unmanaged financial risk in publishing was too great. A pity more private sector firms aren't as well managed.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

RSS and Stuff

Despite the fact I work in the telco industry (and am by original training a mathematician and physicist) I am a technical clutz. I have set up I think correctly and RSS and an Atom feed - but Anonymous has told me my RSS feed doesn't work.

Unfortunately, I don't know the nature of the problem - and I think from other posts (and e-mails) that there are people who are making the RSS work.

So if you are trying to use it and it doesn't work - tell me more about which feed and what reader. And can anyone who is successfully using one of the feeds post a comment to let me know.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Beyond Access Regulation

It is not my intention to post here in relation to matters that are really about the core of my day job. However, I was asked my view about the decision by the ACCC in its Position Paper on its strategic review of the regulation of fixed services to continue the declaration of ULL and PSTN interconnect access for a period of only three years.

I will admit to not having yet read the detail of the paper. But I did offer the following simple reaction.

Because the 2003 legislative changes mean the ACCC has to put a "sunset" date on a declaration of within five years, the ACCC had to form a view. Using the full five years would give the perception that the ACCC doesn't take the sunset clauses seriously.

In this case though, the ACCC continues to have the (in my view misguided) belief that the speed of technological change will result in "new networks" (at least in some areas) to create an environment of infrastructure based competition.

If you have that view, offering the full five year horizon on the regulation creates an incentive for possible alternative network builders to delay investment and utilise the access regime longer. However, on the flip side, creating uncertainty about the availability of the regulated services beyond three years should also "chill" investment, because investments that rely on the access will need to be fully recovered within three years.

Ultimately, this indicates the weakness in an access regime - there is no convenient way to exit. When the Productivity Commission reviewed the telecommunications regime they explored the concept of using the anti-competitive conduct provisions "on the shoulder" of regulation. However, the decision to no longer declare the service is tantamount to saying market power doesn't exist and therefore the provisions can't apply.

An option is the creation of a "shadow period" in which the regulator maintains the access obligation on the access provider but vacates the field as a price setter/arbitrator and only relies on price monitoring/anti-competitive conduct regulation. In this way a "viable" wholesale market can evolve.

Now the problem is that someone might actually read this and think it is a good idea!

The Most Accountable Executive Since Federation

Yes folks that was John W. Howard's description of his administration in answer to a question from Kim Beazley.

This prompted me to write to Crikey the following letter...

In answer to the first question in Question Time yesterday, the Prime Minister claimed his was "the most accountable executive since Federation". It is worth wondering whether this was merely a rhetorical flourish, or whether the Prime Minister really does believe this. After all he did start in Government with a very robust set of principles about Ministerial accountability, but seemed to change his interpretations as the body count grew. Personally, I can't recall any other Executive using the "no one told me" reason as an acceptable response to questions of Ministerial proprietary. Would it be appropriate to get Crikey's readers to come up with a league table of the top three "most accountable executives since Federation"?

Crikey subsequently ran with the following snippet by Christian Kerr in their "political bite-sized meaty chunks" section;

A whole new level of accountability: “This is the most accountable executive since federation,” the Prime Minister claimed yesterday in response to attacks on changes to the Senate Committee system. Really? It's probably also the first executive since federation to elevate “No one told me” to an acceptable response to questions of Ministerial proprietary. So which executive was the Prime Minister using as a yardstick? We know it's not Australia, but could he have been referring to the 1921-23 administration of Warren Harding? Not Australian, as we said – but it fits the timeframe.

Which is kind of cute, but doesn't really fit Howard's description because he has compared himself to everyone from Barton to Keating, including the PMs who only held the office for days (Frank Forde and Jack McEwan).

Crikey also picked up on Senator Julian McGauran's continual reference to "hyperboll" (meaning hyperbole) in commenting on Beazley's description of the Senate Committee changes as "evil". He is, of corse, right that the Bomber went a bit over the top there - but Julian's line did seem to be "yes these are bad changes, but not so bad as to be evil".

Anyway, we all know that "hyperbowl" is the word that will be used to describe the final when American Football becomes a world game!

(Whoops - did anyone notice - Crikey and I both said "proprietary" when we meant "propriety". "Glasshouses", "stones" and "throwing" are words I should string together.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Folk Song Army

Gerard Henderson in today's SMH has made me think of Tom Lehrer's comic piece The Folk Song Army in which there is a refrain;

Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs,
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

Henderson's thesis is that the outrage over recent ABC Board appointments was misplaced because rather than changing the ABC all it does is has the effect of taking a critic out of the debate.

I happen to agree with him on the outrage being misplaced, but not for the same reasons. More people need to recognise that the Boards or Commissions appointed by Governments first and foremost have to address their establishing legislation, and much of their actions and activity are reflective of it. As a consequence, merely changing the Board doesn't change the "governance" of the ABC.

In addition there is a simple piece of behavioural theory to understand. People repeatedly do things that get "reinforced". An ABC Board member battling the management gets no reinforcement from anyone as it is a private battle, a Board member supporting management gets reinforced and thanked in every contact with the organisation.

However, there is another part of the Henderson thesis, "The fact is that there are few articulate conservatives in Australia and certainly fewer, per capita, than in the United States or Britain. The phenomenon goes back to the Robert Menzies era, when the Coalition won elections while the left dominated the cultural debate."

On this I cannot agree. In fact there seem to be far more printed pages by the "conservatives" - at least the economic "neo-cons" - than by any left/progressive or other like cause. Policy and Quadrant, the column inches devoted to the IPA and CIS staff, the voluminous issues from the BCA and Mr Henderson himself.

More importantly this ongoing perception that "the left" has control of the "cultural institutions" or "the opinionators" or "the elites" is strange - because if these people were as influential as they are claimed to be this should be a country which is a rabid hotbed of collectivism and social experiment. Instead we remain a highly conservative society that has four times elected the most conservative leader in the history of Australia. If that is the consequence of a "left intelligensia" then surely the conservatives want more of it.

What is the benefit to the left if it has the good songs (the articulate left?) if it is losing the battles?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Hayek Surprise

That sounds like a recipe for a new desert I know, but really it is about economist/polemicist Friedrich Hayek. Hayek is labelled by many as the founder and genesis of the revival of extreme liberalism that I refer to as "economic libertarianism".

The description of Hayek at the History of Economic Thought website states:

Hayek turned in 1944 to the political arena with his Road to Serfdom, a polemical defense of laissez-faire - the work for which he is best known outside academia. His subsequent political activities include the foundation of the libertarian "Mont Pelerin Society" in the 1940s.

It is instructing to mount against this the following quotes from pages 18 and 19 of The Road to Serfdom.

"Probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez-faire."

"No sensible person should have doubted that the crude rules in which the principles of economic policy of the nineteenth century were expressed were only a beginning, that we had yet much to learn, ...There were many obvious tasks, such as our handling of the monetary system, and the prevention and control of monopoly, and an even greater number of less obvious but hardly less important tasks to be undertaken in other fields, where there could be no doubt that the government possessed enormous powers for good and evil;"

So at least in his introduction Hayek doesn't advance the view most commonly ascribed to him. Let us see how the book ends (another day).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Recession We Had to Have … or Was It

The AFR on 1 June reported John Howard as saying of the 1991 recession “One of the myths is that in some way the recession was an essential part of economic reform process rather than policy failure.”

Howard went on to say that “I am an economic realist in the obvious sense that economic reform can only be achieved if the public is taken with one.”

It is hard to justify the severity of the 1991 recession, as it is widely recognised that it was severe because it was triggered too late. But it appears from Howard’s statements that he believes that not triggering the recession at all, or not letting it be as severe after the fact that inflationary pressures were out of control would be preferable.

Clearly the two party system that has degenerated to a “winner takes all” view of Government leads to the view that doing what’s popular is more important than doing what’s right. In Howard’s words “It’s better to be 85 percent pure in government than 130 percent pure in opposition. You do need to strike a balance between what is achievable and what represents the ideal.”

It’s not the attitude you really want to hear, is it?

Many, many years ago the first modern democrats tried this – and as a consequence Robespierre wound up following the mob, and hence the Terror in the French Revolution began (see below).

And finally – you do worry about the idea that John Howard was ever Treasurer when he thinks you could be 130 percent pure.

Note: There is no speech or transcript on the PM's website at time of writing to confirm the AFR reporting.

How to really write

Richard Chirgwin writing in the Australian telco industry newsheet "Communications Day" under the heading How to Burn your IPO really let loose on Vonage. It is a great pity that I can't link to the article, but after the style of Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald I'm simply going to quote extensively.

Chirgwin opened, "Nobody at Vonage asked one simple question: what happens if customers buy into our IPO, and the share price collapses? When I looked last Friday, the company was trading at under $US12, having kicked off at $US17. The customers took a bath, and the psychology which helped Vonage attract a loyal following is now inflicting damage."

He then described the risk that having an IPO for your customers might have if your share price goes down, not up. But then he gets into the real swing by pointing out that Vonage doesn't have "normal" customers.

"Let’s look again at the customer demographic. Granted that not all of Vonage’s customers are full-on Netheads, there would still be a greater concentration of them in the customer base than in the general public. Moreover, we’re talking about a cluster of bolshie, “beat the big bad Bellheads” Netheads. Believers in the vision have some other characteristics, however: they’re noisy bloggers, Slashdotters,
newsgroup junkies with a chip on each shoulder and a self-basting foam-at-the- mouth that would make Australia’s right-wing columnists blush."

"So: supposedly intelligent people made a conscious decision to sell shares to a customer demographic which was most likely to turn nasty if their share purchase wasn’t rewarded with a daytrader’s wet dream in the first hour. The psychology of the “customer offer” looks worse the more you think about it."

When the share price did sell, the angry customer/shareholders started cancelling in droves, only as Chirgwin writes, to then discover that the world of VoIP wasn't all they thought it was, "A scan of various blogs tells me that it’s only after the Vonage sans-culottes started cancelling their accounts that they found out that their numbers aren’t portable. Yes, customers should read their terms and conditions, just like everybody doesn’t. But these were true believers: VoIP is not
about service, it’s about solidarity and the religion of the revolution. To the utopian, there is no downside, and T&Cs are for wimps and lawyers. Now bitten by the T&Cs, the angry ex-customers are now full- scale revolutionaries."

Now that's the kind of graphical writing we see all too rarely in the business press.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


My post below got left hanging with an obvious conclusion ... what happens when politicians "follow the mob". History has a very interesting lesson there. When modern democracy was a new creation during the French Revolution there was a period of time when the Jacobins "came to power" in the General Assembly. The leader of this group was one Robespierre, and during this time was when the terror occurred in the French Revolution.

One interpretation that can be placed on the terror was that Robespierre was a believer in "direct democracy", that is, doing what the people want. In reality he had no institutional structure to accurately ascertain the wishes of the people, and certainly no structures to ensure the people wre informed and making a full set of choices.

The consequence was mob rule where the Government responded to the calls of the Paris mob. And thus the guillotine commenced its work. This was not because the Government had no control and was appeasing - it was at their time the Government's belief that this is what constituted democracy.

We are seeing our own modern version of this in our justice system. New South Wales Chief Justice Jim Spigelman has recently seen fit to criticise the populism with which politicians of both sides have taken to criticising the courts. He said "Long experience has established that such tasks are best done by independent, impartial and experienced persons, who are not subject to the transient rages and enthusiasms that attend the so frequently ill-informed, or partly informed, public debate on such matters."

This general critique is closely related to our understanding of the meaning of justice and the purpose of the justice system. The modern idea is that justice is about the victims and "closure" - for which we can read retribution. The older idea is that justice was about deterrence and remediation - and that the social response should be to forgive. As a society we are moving from the New Testament values of forgiveness to the Old Testament values of "an eye for an eye".

See also.

About Objectives

The subject of the ALP leadership just doesn't seem to go away. Despite the Bomber's supposedly very good Budget Reply speech (can anyone truly tell me what a "pact with middle Australia" is) the fact that everyone's current "not in Parliament but next leader" Bill Shorten obtained such extensive coverage in Canberra has tongues wagging again. (But, of course, we have seen Bob Carr and Peter Beattie in this cart before, and they at least have the credit of having been elected to something.)

It appears to me that the ALP's crisis is not one of leadership, but one of purpose. We have had the unedifying site of the so-called roosters (usually named as Crean, Conroy, Smith and Albanese) trying to organise the leadership, for a purpose that in the Crean leadership looked like it was about warming the seat for one of them, or at the very least dividing the meagre spolis of Opposition. We then had the Latham whirlwind and then the Latham post election Cabinet that saw front bench positions allocated to "fractions" of five, and the single most bizarre allocation of portfolios in history. Following the (and I mean this) truly unfortunate health issues Latham faced, the Bomber gets reselected and does ... nothing.

Meanwhile the roosters seem to have checked out. The only faction big enough to deserve the name remains the NSW right, but they don't really have a unified representation in the FPLP. And they certainly have no candidate.

The ALP of today has learnt many lessons from the NSW right. They think that the only thing that matters is power, and what you get to do when you have it. Unfortunately, Federal power isn't as self propelling as NSW power.

In the "olden days" - before the late eighties - the purpose of political parties was clear. It was to get "the program" implemented. Certainly people have trimmed what that might be in the post Whitlam era, and certainly been prepared to talk about the affordability of the program, but the program mattered.

Without "the program" there is nothing to do once elected. And power becomes meaningless - except for its power of patronage - if there is no promise of what you will do with it.

There are three primary reasons given against running a party on a program in the modern era. These are; the Whitlam factor, the Howard small target success, and the issue of Government co-option.

The first is greatly over-rated. It is incedibly easy to develop the program against a backdrop of fiscal responsibility. In fact, it is easier than the modern alternative of spending promises dropping from the tree like a collection of Costello budgets.

The second is a complete misreading of how Howard won in 1996. He was already operating the wedge then. He managed to isolate the Keating "big picture" from the concerns of the majority of Australians. In fact, he managed to make Keating look like what he stood for was the "big picture" stuff - rather than the real on the ground substantive things Keating had delivered. A small target will not win against Howard or Costello.

The third is the stupidest. If you define the objective as the success of the program - does it really matter which Government introduces it. In many ways the ALP Menzies faced was more successful than the ALP of Beazley - Menzies could not stray too far from the middle.

Finally, if you define the objective as being only about winning then you start believing that "disunity is death". But if you become like the modern ALP united behind a non-existant platform all that happens is that the primary vote shrinks - and the potential partisans depart to other parties or single issue causes. The Greens shouldn't be a party - they should be the thinking Left of the ALP. Many of the Democrats should be the economic Right of the ALP. Voters can be attracted by ideas and the sense that the party they vote for can be seen to be genuinely balancing issues - not merely trying to read the polls.

Ego Is Not a Dirty Word

Laurel P has provided a story about EgoSurf. This is a tool that supposedly shows you all the places that refer to one's blog - but when I ran it for me it didn't return Laurel's own blog. Yet I know she's referred to me and added me to her blogroll.

If it did what it said it would be a useful tool for the kind of net analysis I referred to below. By the way if you are interested in that sort of thing there is a very useful website for the International Network for Social Network Analysis.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Blog Links

In a virtual kind of way the links we put at the side of our blogs is the first part of creating the "multi-authored" paper though with multiple sites (see post below). The list is called a Blogroll I gather.

I thought of this as I was honoured to be added to Laurel Papworth's Blogroll. You'll note she is included in mine. And today I've added Veritas Pravda's valiant Golf,Not Tennis. From the site it appears this is intended to be multi-authored but isn't yet. I will watch with interest.

I made reference below in discussing the relevance of individuals to group outcomes one of a general category of software that performs social network analysis. This analysis could be very easily made of blogrolls from various sites, to identify "extended communities". (A similar analysis could be made of sites referred to by links in posts). Some possibly very informative research available there.

It becomes quite difficult with some blogs that have voluminous blogrolls. Hypothetically there may be interesting studies in both the roles of certain sites (some are at the periphery, others almost act as indexes), and the evolution of blogs.

Mind, this is very similar to some work that is done on academic publishing, and identifying cross-citations to determine/identify "schools of thought" (and for that matter "vanity circles" that cross reference each other to grow their citation records).

What is mainstream media?

Australia's leading alternative delivery media source, Crikey, has again been excluded from the budget lock up.

As Crikey says, this decision seems to be at odds with the whole thrust of Senator Coonan's media reforms. To remind you this is the suggestion that greater concentration is OK because new media entrants are creating competition (but only if they are able to report).

In yesterday's subscriber edition (not available on line), Crikey correspondant Guy Rundle commented on the world of blogs. He compared their early popularity and subsequent decline to CB radios - which is certainly an OK analogy as far as the rise and fall goes, but perhaps less so comparing what was primarily listened in to person-to-person versus the one-to-many model of media/blogs.

He claims that what staled the CB experience is what is staling the blog experience "its networked capacity, which makes everyone producer and consumer, and hence collapses the notion of an audience (since time does not expand, while blog numbers do).

However it is not all doom and gloom. He goes on;

"Those blogs that survive will and are evolv(ing) into multi-person sites, some with collective and decentred ways of uploading, others with hierarchies essentially identical to paper editing. This repeats the birth of newspapers out of the "pamphlet wars" of the 17th century – the latter a product of the creation of a cheap, single operator platen press. This may be the necessary stage of development required to create a media sphere which genuinely overturns the mass media model – one in which a range of well-edited moderate circulation outlets can charge and get subscriptions. Whether they could turn into full newsgathering organisations remains to be seen."

If he is right, it would be nice to be part of one of those evolving blogs. But this opens a whole new discussion about the distinction between reporting news and providing opinion - most blogs are about opinion. It also seems to miss in the evolution of newspapers the big role played by classified, rather than display, advertising. It is not really that long ago that the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Times was shipping news.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Potted (or Potty) Ayn Rand

I discovered on another person's blog profile that she listed "Ayn Rand" amongst favourite books (OK it was Laurel at Online Communities - see links).

Rand is an interesting character, best known today for two novels - Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. However, she was primarily a philosopher and polemicist. My own Rand "journey" goes back to the late 1970s when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister. Being a young lefty (a reader of Marx, but never a Marxist; always a socialist, but never a Communist) I reviled Fraser, especially so when my favourite rag - The Nation Review - explained to us all he was a follower of Ayn Rand, who professed a particularly virulent form of "selfish" liberalism. That was enough for me, but in a habit now long left behind, I read no further.

That was until the early 1990s when I was doing some work with some US consultants. They noted my still leftish tinge (what they would call "liberal") and one of them urged me to read The Fountainhead. Now this novel by Ayn Rand is quite powerful, but make no mistake this is a novel designed to sell a philosophy. The novel's hero is an architect (Howard Roark) who is highly individualistic, and the novel relates his "genius" to this individualism. As one position describes it Rand's books revolve around heroes who have all her "objectivist" traits.

One of the other characters is an art critic Toohey. The memorable exchange on P 389 goes;
Toohey presses the issue: "Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." Roark replies, "But I don't think of you"
This exchange alone made a big impact on me, because I'm a bit eccentric at times, and definitely over the top and uncaring in many other circumstances. I took faith from this that what I was doing was okay - I sort of liked the idea that that's how I would like to answer.

But what I started to become quite horrified me. Being "uncompromising" alone is not a positive value.

While The Fountainhead is entertaining, Atlas Shrugged is simply horrid. It is ultimately a book that posits that the trickle down effects of the efforts of a few great men is what makes wealth for everyone else, and asks where would the world be if they "went on strike". This is the really political book, whereas The Fountainhead is philosophical.

Now I'm not going to try to lay out here the whole basis of "objectivism" - or "enlightened self-interest" - but it is in its simplest a highly refined version of utilitarianism (or classical liberalism). That is individuals acting alone to maximise their own happiness is the best way to maximise outcomes for all. It actually goes a stage further, and suggests that one person attempting to have concern for another is wrong, because you can't know that person's interests better than that person.

This view is held up as an alternative to "collectivism". "Collectivism" itself is a word I think driven by the early 20th century development of the thoughts, when the Soviet Union was still young. But "concern for others" is a long way from "collectivism".

This "libertarianism" (a word Rand disliked) has an economic counterpart in extreme promoters of the operation of markets - that any intervention, other than laws for security, protection of property rights, and enforcement of contracts is wrong. But it is this very view that shows the flaw in the libertarian tradition - because in a society motivated by Randian values no one ever cares enough to organise the "institutions" to create property rights.

In a historical perspective, capitalism could only emerge in a society that had first accepted the ethos to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". All the early liberal and utilitarian theorists had this as an assumption - Rand not only doesn't accept the assumption, she argues it is wrong.

The Fountainhead is a rollicking good read. Unfortunately, I'm not capable of writing the book that needs to be written to sell the philosophy, not of collectivism, but mutuality.

For anyone interested Googling "Ayn Rand" finds you heaps. Here are some of the more major sites:

The Ayn Rand Institute
All About Ayn Rand
What is Objectivism
Wikipedia entry on Ayn Rand

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sport and Democracy

It is easy to confuse the coexistence with causation.

In his SMH column last Saturday Michael Duffy advanced the view that investing in sports and sports infrastucture might help develop democratic institutions in the nation states now struggling - notably in the Pacific.

Duffy points to the high correlation between participation in team sports and thriving democracies. He considers for a moment that both might have a common cause in the British Empire, but then identifies European democracies with the same feature.

There is a sense in which Duffy is right. In most team sports people volunarily "play by the rules", which is ultimately what you need to make democracy work. You need the (up to) 49% of people who didn't win to respect the decision, largely get on with life, protest occassionally and plan for the next occassion (or at least some of them). You don't need them rioting.

But it is my contention that both behaviours are ultimately driven by a value, one that is sometimes called the Golden Rule (also known as the principle of reciprocity) that says treat others as you would like to be treated. This rule is actually essential to get economies/societies to develop the "rule of law" seen as a precondition to the operation of capitalism. Yet your average "economic libertarian" will sign up to the "objectivist" ethos espoused by Ayn Rand that an individual should only act in the individual's own interest.

To make these states thrive they need to first be able to consistently meet the economic needs of their people. The creation of individual rather than collective rights in land may be an essential, though unpalatable, solution.

But also let us not forget that the trigger point in the Solomons was an accusation of corruption. As Wolfgang Kasper discusses in his January paper for CIS corruption is at the core of much misery in the developing world. One of the greatest outrages in the whole sorry tale of AWB has been the near universal "nod and wink" in Australia that paying bribes is OK to make exports happen. They never are, they should be outlawed.

The fight against corruption is far more important than developing sports - and we can begin at home.

Individuals, Society and History

Gerard Henderson provides another lead.

In today's SMH Gerard Henderson relays a Lateline inteview between Tony Jones and Robert Fisk. I haven't seen the interview, and am relying only on Henderson's report.

In the article it is claimed that Fisk's essential thesis is that the individuals at the head of the various terrorist organisations are now irrelevant. What is important is recognising that these movements are the creation of "the West". In counter, Henderson uses the line that;
One of the lessons of history is that revolutionaries should be taken seriously, since they usually do, or attempt to do, what they say they intend to do. This is true of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and more besides.

This is one of the delightful, but largely irrelevant, battles being debated in the studying both contemporary and past societies.

There are a number of social network mapping tools that can be used to determine the importance of an individual to a "society", including one called NetMap that was developed in Australia. These tools are applied by organised crime investigators to deterine how significant each individual is to the survival of the organisation. That is, the question of whether the individual is important or not is an empirical question, not an a priori one.

Similarly, as a counterpoint to Henderson, can he imagine a world order in which any or all attributes of "the West" were varied in such a way as the terrorist organisations would not have arisen. I can think of at least one, it goes something like this - the Archduke didn't get shot so the escalating armaments didn't trigger World War I, so there was no treaty of Versailles, there was therefore no World War II and thus no holocaust, and so the West wasn't wearing collective guilt over the treatment of the Jews. Or, in more recent times, the West did not practise a policy of "appeasement" of oil rich states and the propping up of various regimes merely to secure oil resources, but had instead pursued human values before economic values.

In each of these cases terrorism as we know it is far less likely to exist. That doesn't mean, however, that there is something that the West can now simply magically change and terrorism would simply cease to exist. It's one of those unfortunate features of causation, that once the cause has triggered the effect removing the cause doesn't remove the effect. Once the match has lit the fire, extinguishing the match does not extinguish the fire.

History is made up of individuals working within a social construct, each is created by the other. Historical explanation requires the interpretation of both, though it is far easier to relay as a narrative of the lives of influentialmen and women.