Things I’d like to see in the media: Journos who are comfortable with their ignorance #auspol

PEN Quiz 2007

PEN Quiz 2007 (Photo credit: englishpen)

Over the next few days, I’m writing up these shorter posts about things that I really wished were actually things in the media.  Should it so happen that a wealthy philanthropist likes the sound of any of these and would like to bankroll them, you can contact me through my ‘about’ page.

One of my key arguments is about the importance of opinion writers.  They — like ethicists and legal theorists — have the task of putting into language the intuitions of non-experts.  If successful, non-experts will have better tools with which to express their own views.

The invisible hand likes to interfere and so opinion writers (by and large) are not necessarily successful if they are clever or insightful.  They are successful if they generate a lot of traffic, either in the form of newspapers sold or views of their website.  Thus, we have the foundation for the Outrage Economy.  Not only do we share excellent pieces of writing with which we agree, but we feel the need to share things which offend us so that we can add our condemnation.

The invisible hand affects opinion writers in another disturbing way: opinion writers need to produce content on a wide variety of subjects, and thus there is an incentive to opine beyond the capacity and knowledge of the writer.  Thus we get writers who one moment are experts on asylum seeker issues before turning rapidly to the carbon tax, and then to foreign affairs, &c., &c., &c.  Far from being polymath foxes, they run the risk of becoming ‘Professors of Everythingology’.

It would benefit public debate if Australian opinion writers were more familiar with Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism:

Be sure your self and your own Reach to know.

How far your Genius, Taste, and Learning go;

Launch not beyond your Depth, but be discreet,

And mark that Point where Sense and Dulness meet.

Pope’s essay contains the core idea of what I’d like to see in the media: journalists who transcend their insecurities and have made peace with their ignorance.

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Quick Post: @gingerandhoney and @amandavanstone are two sides of the same problem #auspol

Although I’m on the wrong side of the political spectrum, I enjoy reading Overland.  I highly recommend it to others, in fact.  Some of the writers they gather there are exceptional, insightful, witty, and clever.  Jeff Sparrow’s writing about atheism is easily some of Australia’s best and I sincerely wish it were more widely read by New Atheist weirdoes.

As is inevitable for an organisation that wants to excel and push boundaries of discourse, sometimes Overland’s reach exceeds its grasp.  This usually happens when the writer has absolutely no idea about the subject matter.  Stephanie Convery’s recent article ‘The age of conservatism‘ is an excellent example of this.

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Quick Post: On the Freeness of Speech (reply to @citation_needed) #auspol #auslaw

Over on AusOpinion, I’ve argued that two recent court cases have breathed life into the entitled whining of freedom of speech advocates.

But — again — we are only hearing from one side of the debate, the side which thinks it’s intuitively obvious that Australia’s legal system failed to protect Banerji and the Occupy protesters.  The argument is a simple one: ‘Look at these people with whom you appear to agree!  If only we had a bill of rights, people with whom you agree would have been protected!’  It’s a narrow and shallow debate that overlooks the cost of free speech. [Source]

To show that the intuition is flawed, I’ve given several examples of how a constitutionally protected freedom of speech would adversely affect various progressive causes.  The point being, we need advocates to start engaging seriously in the debate with something better than absolutist slogans like ‘Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy’ and ‘The rights of all public servants are at stake here’.

Over on Twitter, M Nash (@citation_needed) has responded:

[tweet https://twitter.com/citation_needed/status/387723015343312896] [tweet https://twitter.com/citation_needed/status/387724903975489536]

On the one hand, this misses the point.  The point of my examples was not to demonstrate definitively that freedom of speech protections are a waste of time.  The point is to counter the intuition-pumps arising from the two court cases.

On the other hand, M Nash’s response is exactly the one for which I’m explicitly asking in the post:

This isn’t a debate between the hip cool progressives who love freedom and the crusty old conservatives who hate minority rights.  It is isn’t even a debate.  It’s just entitled whinging from people who opportunistically think that they would benefit from a constitutional protection of free speech. [Source]

If you think that US-style protections don’t work, put some options on the table and let’s nut them out.  Given that the mainstream media only discusses rights in terms of Bills or Charters, this would be an extremely welcome and productive development of the rights debate.

But don’t for a minute think that it’s an easy discussion.

Prima: ‘These court cases prove that we need better protections for the cornerstone of democracy!’

Secunda: ‘But the protections that you’re advocating would have major negative consequences.  Here are some examples.’

Prima: ‘None of those examples hold if you just ignore the protection mechanism that I’ve been advocating.’

Secunda: ‘So what protection mechanism do you have in mind?’

Prima: ‘We… We… We could have a whole host of exceptions to the freedom of speech.  We could have a constitutional protection for the freedom of speech, but allow the State to infringe it for matters of national security, protection of human health, for the maintenance of an impartial public service, and for the purposes of ratifying treaties.  Oh, or we could just limit the applicability of the protection.  We could have a constitutional protection just and only just for true political communication that’s in the public interest!’

Secunda: ‘Sure.  But these seem like very limited rights, and they look like they could be easily abused…’

And so on and so forth.  But this is exactly the debate that we should be having.  When advocates start braying for constitutional protections, we should hold them to account and make them defend their views.  Otherwise, it will always remain an entitled whinge-fest.

 

Laugh with me, hyena… Was Wikileaks to blame for @SenatorLudlam losing his seat? #auspol

It’s been an interesting week for psephologists and election nerds.  The Australian Electoral Commission has been formally declaring the Senate results, with perhaps the most interesting result being in Western Australia.  Where it was previously believed that the Australian Sports Party and the Greens’ Senator Scott Ludlam would take the fifth and sixth Senate seats, it now looks like Palmer United Party and the Australian Labor Party will take them instead.

The question that erupted on Twitter was: ‘To what extent was the Wikileaks Party’s insanely lunatic preference-swapping strategy to blame?’

Senator Ludlam hit Twitter to declare Wikileaks blameless:

[tweet https://twitter.com/SenatorLudlam/status/385388333536251904]

Prima facie, Ludlam looks like he has a point.  In the updated count, all of the votes cast for the Wikileaks Party ended up with the Greens Party in Western Australia.

On closer look of the results, Ludlam is incorrect.  To work out why, you have to come to grips with one question: ‘Why is it that Senator Ludlam gets a seat when Wikileaks preferences go to another party (Australian Sports Party) but he loses his seat when Wikileaks preferences go to him?’

I promise that my answer does not reduce to ‘Because Wikileaks is freaking cursed.’

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Would a trip to a remoted island ease your mind… What @AustralianLabor doesn’t understand about leadership #auspol

I’ve previously written that I’m in support of the ALP holding a leadership ballot.  Here’s a quick revist of why:

But could a ballot be used to promote and communicate a sense of unity and stability within the ALP?  Yes. […] The solution is to hold a ballot where the candidates ‘campaign’ for each other, rather than for themselves.  Ordinary ballots have candidates striving to ‘win’ by promoting themselves and tearing down opponents.  A ballot could instead have the message: ‘The ALP is overflowing with leadership talent.  Here are three candidates that we think are excellent.  Regardless of which is picked by the ALP membership, we will have a leader better than our political opponents.  We believe this so much that our candidates will promote the alternative candidates rather than themselves.’

Since then, we’ve had the leadership ‘debate’ where the candidates, Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese, have emphasised that the competition will be about policies and not personalities.

This completely misses the point of leadership debates.

The result has been a publicly civilised (though privately less so) conversation between two people who are struggling to show any sort of difference, any sort of disagreement, or any point of distinction from the other candidate.  There has been some pressure — and, certainly, enough opinion writers have been braying for it — for the candidates to talk about differences in policies and opinions.  The debate is slowly shifting into this area, with both candidates starting to discuss various quota systems and even asylum seeker policy.

But should a party’s policies be a discretionary matter for the leader?  Does the ALP want a system where its leaders start arguing that they’ve got a ‘mandate’ to pursue a particular policy?  Isn’t this one of the reasons we all criticised Rudd?

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Quick Post: What can the ALP learn from the Coalition about ministries? #auspol

English: Australian politician Craig Emerson a...

It increasingly looks like the ALP isn’t learning the lessons of the past six years.  The key question is simple to frame: ‘How was it possible for the ALP to achieve a series of significant wins and yet be so thoroughly reviled by the voting public?’

The fashion of the moment among opinion writers and bloggers is to declare everything ‘a complicated issue’.  I sometimes wonder if it leads on from policy makers in the 1980s and ’90s declaring everything to be a ‘wicked problem’.

This unwillingness to sharpen our analytic tools to concentrate on one aspect of the problem means that we’re not really discussing the issue at all.  The case of the ALP’s last stint at government is a case in point.  Nobody’s really discussing what went so hideously wrong beyond vague platitudes about ‘talking about [themselves]’, ‘leadership tensions’, and ‘Murdoch press!  The Murdoch Press is so bad!’

We should take the Mad Hatter’s advice and simply begin at the start then come through until we get to the end.  With this idea in mind, let’s start with ministries.

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Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light… Making the most of axing public servants

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of the narrative stemming from the change of government has been occupied with criticising (and, perhaps, not critiquing) the Abbott Government’s decision to scrap a number of public service institutions.  The criticism has been interesting if for no other reason than its reverence for the status quo.

The case of the Climate Commission is the most notable.  As part of the ALP’s failure to lead the public debate on climate change, the ALP established the Climate Commission in February 2011 to provide expert advice and information on climate change to the Australian community.  Since then, it’s done surprisingly little.  It barely manages to update its webpage.

During 2012, the Commission looks forward to meeting with many more, and will be producing new information on the science and impacts of climate change as well as the opportunities – in Australia and worldwide – that acting on climate change will bring. [Source: ‘About the Commission’, ClimateCommission.gov.au (accessed 24 Sep 2013)]

Recent past events include two community fora in June, then nothing since December 2012.  It doesn’t seem to have published anything since November 2012 (although this could be wrong — the website is difficult to navigate to find its latest publications).

In other words, this was an expensive white elephant.

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Soldiers on the waterfront, they wanna ship me far away… Why Julian Burnside isn’t helping

Refugee camp for Rwandans located in what is n...

Refugee camp for Rwandans located in what is now eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo following the Rwandan Genocide. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Julian Burnside has written another article for The Conversation on, amongst a wide variety of other things, his views about asylum seeker policy.  I’ve written about Burnside’s views before.  Unfortunately for the state of public discussion, we only get two sorts of contributors: the people who appeal to their intuitions to assert that all asylum seekers are terrible; and the people who appeal to their intuitions to assert that all asylum seekers are wonderful.  Neither group is adding much to the policy discussion, thus the incorrect perception that parties are in a ‘race to the bottom’ and other such slogans.

But Burnside’s most recent article demonstrates fairly conclusively the extent to which he relies on the bellyfeel prejudice of his readers.  I’ve taken an excerpt from his article and rewritten them from a slightly different perspective…

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