About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.

The paradoxes of politics

In an everyday political sense I suppose we can’t really blame Little Bill Shorten for cynically and dishonestly demonising the Abbott government’s mooted tax increases and spending cuts. After all, Abbott cynically, dishonestly and very successfully demonised Labor’s carbon and mining taxes. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as they say.

On the other hand, perhaps we really can’t blame Tony Abbott for doing this either, because Labor and the trade union movement (prominently including Little Bill Shorten at the time) cynically and dishonestly demonised the Howard government’s Work Choices system, despite the fact that it was an entirely reasonable and fair one at least once the “no disadvantage” test was restored. Then, of course, there is Kim Beazley’s (and before that Paul Keating’s) even more cynical and dishonest demonising of Coalition GST proposals despite the fact that Keating himself had championed precisely such a tax back in the 1980s.

I guess the bottom line is that dishonestly demonising opponents’ policies is the everyday business of politicians. It’s the business of the government politicians of the day to sell their policies effectively and persuade the electorate that the Opposition’s arguments are indeed dishonest scaremongering.

That would seem clearly to be the case with the current budgetary situation. Economists largely agree that weak leaders from both political parties over the last decade (Howard, Rudd and Gillard) largely squandered the windfall of the China-driven resource boom by creating permanent spending programs (largely of a middle-class welfare nature under Howard) and equally permanent tax cuts despite knowing that they were being funded by the inherently temporary proceeds of the resource boom. Presumably they all knew what they were doing but hoped that the chickens would come home to roost on some later government’s watch. It looks like the chickens have arrived, because it is now unavoidably apparent that there is a long-term structural deficit which will not be repaired without tough measures both on the revenue and spending sides of the ledger.

No doubt Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey could, if they wished, have avoided taking the tough decisions by claiming (truthfully in a narrow sense) that there isn’t a “budget emergency” and that Australia’s net debt will only peak at around 17.5% of GDP in a few years time, which is much less than nearly all of our major western trading partners. But that would be ignoring the fact that it will indeed become a larger and larger problem over the years, with a high probability that deficits will continue indefinitely into the future and the interest burden continue progressively to increase until it really does become a significant impediment to government policy. Far better to grasp the nettle now and take the hard decisions while faced with a weak and discredited Opposition with a radically unimpressive and tainted leader in Little Bill Shorten.

Of course, it could all end in tears for the Abbott government, with the apparent decision to impose a temporary income tax levy on high income earners (and perhaps increases in fuel excise) being seen by history as Abbott’s “no carbon tax” moment and a courageous decision in a Sir Humphrey Appleby sense. Nevertheless, as someone who prefers sound policy to political theatre I certainly hope not. As far as one can tell from the budget leaks, it would appear that what Abbott and Hockey have in mind is very much sound economic policy. Fortunately, I think that Abbott is a much better political salesman than either Rudd or Gillard. Moreover, with any sort of luck the Coalition should be able to keep a figurative foot on Labor’s throat through an unending stream of embarrassing news stories emerging from former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon’s royal commission into trade unions. Mind you, the current ICAC hearings in New South Wales provide an amusing illustration of the propensity of independent inquisitions to end up biting the instigator that fed them as well as the intended target.

Moreover, in a somewhat perverse and paradoxical sense, a royal commission which exposes and dramatises the skulduggery of a significant minority of the trade union movement may actually be to the ALP’s benefit in the long term. Labor renewal in my opinion depends on reducing the almost complete dominance of a tiny cabal of union and faction leaders over both Party administration and preselection. They are unlikely to surrender power willingly, but may well be much easier to displace if preoccupied by defending themselves before a royal commission and avoiding imprisonment for corrupt activities.

Are RDA race hatred law amendments needed?

bolt-still-a-dickhead1Troppo author and frequent commenter John Walker asks:


The Bolt case was just one case-  is there much information about how 18C has been applied, on a wider scale.

Its pretty hard to judge whether there is a problem needing changes to the law , or not, on the basis of just one case. Do you have any info re other cases and judgements?

Fortunately, the answer is yes.  Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was introduced by the former Keating Labor government in 1994.  In 2004 Deakin University legal academic Dan Meagher wrote a reasonably comprehensive review of its first decade of operation in an article titled “So Far So Good?: A Critical Evaluation of Racial Vilification Laws in Australia“.  I almost completely agree with his analysis and opinion, and so rather than reinvent the wheel I will simply reproduce edited extracts from his article with some relatively brief comments of my own at the end (although the whole of Meagher’s article is worth reading if you have time).

In essence, Meagher argues (and I agree) that racial vilification laws are needed, but that the current proscription of words which would be “offensive”, insulting” or humiliating” to reasonable members of a targeted race is much too vague, and consequently potentially has an unacceptably chilling effect on democratically essential free speech.  Similar conclusions have been expressed by a range of commentators well before the Bolt case.  This is not just a confected controversy beaten up by Abbotistas and Murdoch minions.

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Ukraine, Russia and the elusive grundnorm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t pretend to understand the detail of the current situation between Russia and Ukraine, but it seems entirely reasonable to fear that this may well be the most significant threat to world peace since the Berlin Wall Crisis and Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s.

Even if the situation does not spiral into open warfare (which thankfully still currently seems unlikely), it already poses a significant threat to the entire international order of stable national sovereignty and territorial integrity that has developed under the auspices of the United Nations in the wake of World War II. Situations where a nation invades a neighbour for the purpose of territorial aggrandisement are now so rare as to be almost unheard of, at least in the First World. We tend to forget that “might is right” was pretty much the international behavioural norm for the whole of human history up until that time. Indeed the entire phenomenon of European colonialism was based on a combination of the “might is right” philosophy and the inherently racist assumption of the manifest inferiority of non-white races.

It may well be that Russia has a plausible relatively recent historical claim that Crimea was once part of its territory, and its desire to secure ongoing access to the port city of Sevastopol for its navy fleet is at least understandable in geopolitical terms. Nevertheless, Russia’s apparent invasion of Crimea over the last few days is undeniably totally contrary to modern international law. If allowed to stand completely unchallenged, the modern system of national sovereignty underpinned by the United Nations may be imperilled. For example, one could imagine China using this precedent to justify a later invasion of Taiwan, to which it has historical territorial claims at least as plausible as Russia’s claims to Crimea.

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The unbearable automaticity of being

This piece is inspired by Paul Frijters’ post titled The Benefits of Being Dumb in Politics.  I don’t actually think it is possible meaningfully/reliably to distinguish between politicians who are “really smart and great actors as well, who thus have no problems with telling outright lies and with backstabbing” and those autistic egomaniacs who “are sincere because they truly do not see the inconsistencies and selfishness in their own actions and those of others”.

11. KP: In fact political discourse (and indeed human discourse in general) is a complex, interwoven continuum of truth, lies and self-deception. I suspect that the most common mix in the political arena is that the politician calculatedly oversimplifies her own position and skates over its deficiencies, while equally deliberately demonising and exaggerating the shortcomings of her opponent. Nevertheless, she fundamentally and sincerely believes (rightly or wrongly) that her own position is markedly superior to that of her opponent. She accepts that effective communication with a mass audience of largely disengaged voters inhibits the conveying of nuance and complexity. []Paul’s own attempted assignment of various particular politicians to each category appears to me to be at best arbitrary.  How could one possibly reliably distinguish between the two categories without being able to read the politician’s mind? After three hours of interviews with Kerry O’Brien I still can’t really tell where Paul Keating is engaging in calculated bullshit and where he is deluding himself.

Nevertheless, the musings of both Pauls give rise to some important points. Not even the most intelligent and well-educated of us is as reliably reflective, analytical and rational as we like to  imagine. All of us unavoidably make frequent use of heuristics in decision-making; all of us frequently exhibit cognitive phenomena like confirmation bias; and all of us mostly make moral judgements by a process that clinical psychologist Jonathan Haidt christened social intuitionism.

Moreover, there is cogent evidence that Paul Frijters’ somewhat uncharitable labelling of autistic egomaniac politicians actually identifies a widespread and perhaps even universal cognitive phenomenon, certainly one that is not confined to politicians. As far as I know, the phenomenon was first labelled as a politico-literary trope by George Orwell in Animal Farm 1984. He called it doublethink:

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The unproductive productivity debate

2012-12-03-productivity-must-be-somewhere-610As conversational topics go, productivity is hardly a barbecue stopper. Nevertheless, adopting policies that boost national productivity is really the only way for Australia to avoid a slide into national penury as our population ages and the Chinese mineral boom ends.

That’s why I was interested in an article on the subject by Peter van Onselen in The Australian a few days ago. Van Onselen raises numerous interesting points. However, I was rather puzzled by his concluding suggestion that there are grounds for optimism about the new Coalition government’s productivity reform prospects, unless it succumbs to “timidity” in which case “Abbott’s government will only be the lesser of evils” (presumably by comparison with Labor).

The most immediately obvious policy reform areas that could contribute to enhanced productivity are education and training; public infrastructure investment (especially road, rail, port and telecommunications); taxation policy; and workplace regulation.

On education and training, even van Onselen concedes that the Howard government’s record was fairly inglorious and that the early signs for the Abbott government are no more promising.

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Shock! Horror! I agree with Greg Sheridan

I don’t often agree with Greg Sheridan, and I certainly don’t agree with the whole of his article on asylum seeker policy in today’s Weekend Australian. But he certainly says a lot that is worth thinking about and makes numerous points similar to things that I’ve been saying  for years in my Troppo posts on this subject.

Of course you have to ignore Sheridan’s tedious trademark Tory rhetoric and gratuitous smears against the Right’s bête noire Julian Burnside. Moreover, you also need to be able to overlook Sheridan’s own studious overlooking of Tony Abbott’s extraordinary post-election volte-face compared with just about everything he said about asylum seekers as Opposition Leader only a few weeks ago. Sheridan’s stablemate  Peter van Onselen highlights that aspect of the emerging Abbott Prime Ministerial style in today’s  Oz.

Nevertheless, Sheridan’s perspective is  quite a bit more perceptive than most of the nonsense currently being written by mainstream media pundits. He especially highlights, albeit perhaps not strongly enough, the extent to which the goodwill and active efforts of Indonesia have always been centrally important to any successful attempt at regulating irregular asylum seeker arrivals. That was the central reason why the Howard government’s “turn back the boats”/Pacific Solution was successful, partly because  Presidents Sukarnoputri and Yudhoyono were particularly anxious to curry favour with the West in the wake of September 11 but partly also because both of them developed positive personal relationships with John Howard despite (or perhaps because of) his handling of issues surrounding East Timor’s independence following the 1999 act of self-determination. Few (including this writer) imagined that Abbott could readily emulate Howard’s success, but early indications are that he may well be in the process of doing so.

As Sheridan points out, the Rudd/Gillard government’s relationship with the Indonesian government has been far from universally positive, most prominently because of its mishandling of the live cattle export issue but also because of its confusing and inconsistent approach to the asylum seeker issue itself. Clearly the Indonesians were uncomfortable about Abbott’s inflammatory domestic “turn back the boats” rhetoric, but the assumption that this made them natural allies of Rudd/Gillard has turned out to be seriously misguided. The Indonesians are almost as unhappy as most Australians about the tens of thousands of asylum seekers flooding into their territory and waiting months or years to jump on a boat to the Lucky Country It clearly hasn’t escaped their attention that the increase in those arrivals is at least in large measure a result of Labor’s mishandling of the issue.

In any event, rather than paraphrasing Sheridan’s article I think I’ll just reproduce it over the fold and hope Rupert doesn’t get too angry:

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Stop the boats Westies

Kevin Rudd got elected in 2007 by convincing people that he was a slightly younger and more vigorous version of nerdy John Howard, with similar conservative policies except that he would abolish that nasty Work Choices legislation and introduce some fairly meaningless warm and fuzzy window-dressing like apologising to the Stolen Generations and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.

Tony Abbott just got elected by similarly convincing people that he was merely a more disciplined, authoritative version of Rudd/Gillard with very similar conservative policies and a handful of meaningless but macho slogans like stop the boats, stop the waste and build the roads of the 21st century. 11. KP: which actually seems to mean spending pretty much the same amount as Labor on infrastructure but diverting it from railways to roads so we can move the traffic jams a couple of kilometres further up the road. []

It now emerges that the rather more practically significant macho slogan that Tony failed to mention was “stop the Westies from going to uni“.  Good job too! Manifestly the only way to restore flagging academic standards is to reserve university places for all those thoroughly decent chaps and chapettes from Shore, Riverview, MLC and Scotch College, while relegating the Westies to their ordained social place in TAFE- certified occupations, burger-flipping and waiting in dole queues. Ill-considered resentment on the part of the lumpen proletariat is to be avoided through early implementation of time-honoured tactics of mass distraction like firing up the Culture Wars and History Wars to get them hating arty- farty and intellectual “elites” instead of their real enemies.

Meanwhile, the vanquished Australian Labor Party is busily experimenting with pseudo-democracy by staging a rank-and-file ballot for parliamentary leadership between two almost equally shop-soiled union/factional heavyweights.  I think I might go out and buy one of those Aussie Pride T-shirts and find a quiet pub in which to reflect on my good fortune.

Lies, damn lies and politics: restraining political porkies

Flying-PigsTo an even greater extent than previous election campaigns, this one seems to consist almost entirely of lies and grossly misleading mischaracterisations of opponents’ policies and performance. Kevin Rudd’s claim of a $70 billion Coalition black hole, his claim that Abbott has a secret plan to increase the GST, Abbott’s long-standing claim  of Labor debt and deficit (when in fact our debt is quite low by OECD standards and our economy one of the strongest in the world), and so it goes on. Rudd’s attempt a couple of days ago to justify his ridiculous Northern Territory Special Economic Zone policy by asserting that Territorians are doing it tough and don’t have a level playing field, when in fact almost the opposite is the case, is a relatively minor but amusing example of the political porky phenomenon.

Former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes wrote an interesting article on Fairfax yesterday in which he drew attention to the relatively new phenomenon of “fact check” organisations (mostly associated with mainstream media groups) dedicated to uncovering and analysing political lies and distortions. Of course, Holmes’ former TV vehicle Media Watch, and another ABC program Gruen Nation, have also fulfilled that function to some extent over a considerable period of time.  But PolitiFact (associated with Channel 7), ABC FactCheck and a similar service now run by the G8 universities’ site The Conversation, have a specialist focus on uncovering and analysing political lies. They certainly have their hands full during the current campaign.

This is a welcome development, at least if you accept that the truth might be a useful thing to know when exercising our democratic choice at election time. Nevertheless, as Holmes points out:

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Probing the nadir of punditry

Troppo readers who have followed my meanderings about asylum seeker policy over the years will realise that I have some fairly basic differences with the Greens on that issue 11. KP: although not on the fundamental fact that many if not most of them need our compassion and support – it’s a matter of how best to deliver  it and that’s where I think the Greens are both naive and self-indulgent. [].

However, I am utterly repulsed by Tory media pundits like Andrew Bolt and Ben Fordham who advance the proposition that Labor and the Greens should be blamed for the one thousand or more asylum seekers who have drowned at sea over the last few years trying to reach Australia. An interview by Fordham yesterday with Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is a particularly odious example of the genre:

Tension mounted after Mr Fordham asked if Ms Hanson-Young took responsibility for the deaths that have occurred at sea since the Rudd Government dismantled John Howard’s immigration policies. …

“You supported a policy which has led to 50,000 people arriving here ever since and 1000 plus people drowning to the bottom of the ocean and dying,” Mr Fordham said. “They’re not on the earth anymore.”

In reality, asylum seekers have full agency in their own decisions.   They are making difficult choices in situations that are sometimes close to impossible. If Australian laws are effectively changed in the ways that Rudd and Abbott are promising, all that will happen is that most asylum seekers will turn their attentions to other first world country targets that now look like a better bet. Moreover, irregular entry to many of those countries is also dangerous. Lots of asylum seekers drown while trying to get from North Africa to Italy or Spain, even more while trying to get from Cuba or South America to the United States, and some even suffocate while being smuggled overland into Europe in shipping containers.

Government authorities are not responsible  per se for asylum seeker deaths any more than police are responsible for the actions of murderers and rapists just because they don’t stop all of them.