This week 700 asylum seekers drowned when their boat capsized somewhere in the Mediterranean sea; reports suggest that a large number of these poor souls were locked in the hold of the ship and had no chance of escape. A year ago the people on this ship might have been found rescued earlier by the European Union’s large, integrated emergency response program Mare Nostrum, but unfortunately it was defunded and replaced with a much weaker local Italian response under the explicit rhetoric of “deterrent,” pioneered so effectively by Australia. Countries with significant anti-immigrant political parties and communities, most notably the UK and Germany, refused to fund the continuation of a coordinated Mediterranean-wide rescue program on the basis that rescuing asylum seekers at sea encourages people smugglers to simply send more, and the best way to save lives is to refuse to help, so that the people smugglers’ business collapses when their customers realize the risks.

The events of the last week – 400 drowned last week, 700 this week, and it’s only Monday – show how effective that tactic has been. So does the record so far this year, with 30 times the deaths recorded in the equivalent period last year under Mare Nostrum. Record numbers are crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing persecution in Libya and chaos in Syria and Iraq. These people appear not to have got the Home Office memo, and apparently think that any risk is better than staying where they are. The ideology of “pull factors,” based on the assumption that these asylum seekers aren’t really that desperate and are just looking for the best country to settle rather than a place of safety, has been shown to be completely wrong.

Last year, before the end of Mare Nostrum, I wrote that Europe has been presenting evidence against the Australian ideology of reducing “pull” factors. Since I wrote that blog post Mare Nostrum has ended and the flow of refugees has exploded. Either there is no relationship between the border control policies in place at sea, or the defenders of this ideology – if they are being honest – will have to accept that the evidence shows that the only “pull” factor at work here is going in the opposite direction of their claims, and that rescuing asylum seekers at sea is a more effective deterrent than letting them drown. Of course they won’t accept such a conclusion, and will continue to argue that we “encourage” these desperate people by saving them, when all the evidence now shows that their plight is so desperate that they don’t care about our search and rescue plans, they just want to get out. But our political masters don’t care about these people, and indeed why should they when popular columnists refer to them as vermin and cockroaches? So instead mealy-mouthed politicians in Europe try to maintain their ideology of deterrence through callousness, and maintain that they will end the flow of refugees by targeting the people smugglers – rhetoric they have used for years to no effect, probably because they aren’t even bothering to do that. And how can they affect migration policy in North Africa? Libya is a chaotic mess that the last Italians fled from months ago, leaving the people of Libya and especially its most vulnerable stateless displaced to their bloody fate. How do you target people smuggling when you don’t even have an embassy? Europe is powerless to affect events on the ground in Syria, and refugee flows through that part of the world are now so huge that it would be impossible to identify the people smugglers, let alone stop them.

Japan is another example of the emptiness of “pull factor” rhetoric. Even though Japan has only approved a handful of asylum applications in the last decade, numbers of people claiming asylum have increased ten-fold over that time. How can it be that a country which offers zero chance of resettlement is seeing unprecedented application numbers, if asylum policy at the destination is a major determinant of asylum seekers’ choices?

Abandoning people to drown is cheap and politically easy in modern Europe, but it will not deter these people, because they are desperate. It’s time for Europe to recognize that its neighbourhood has gone to hell, and Europe won’t be able to keep ignoring this problem forever, or pretending that it can stand by and let people drown out of simple callousness. If Europe is not willing to invest the time, money and lives in stabilizing Syria and Libya, then it needs to recognize that it has at least a moral responsibility to save the lives of the desperate and stateless when they put to sea. Maybe then Australian politicians will also rethink their cruel and vicious policies towards the stateless. This problem is not going to end anytime soon, but if we keep lurching towards the moral event horizon, our humanity will …

[Warning: Australian politics] I read in the newspapers yesterday that Clive Palmer, mining magnate and funder of the Palmer United Party, is going to sue two former party members for campaign financing he provided to help them get elected. Given how mercurial and weird Palmer is, the news is probably already out of date and he has changed his mind already, and I certainly hope so, because this is a legal case that absolutely should not happen. He is going to try and get back $9 million he spent on getting the two members, Glenn Lazarus and Jackie Lambie, elected on the basis that since he paid for them to get into parliament in his party, they should have stayed in his party.

I know nothing about the law but I am going to make a prediction for this court case on the basis of my understanding of Australian culture and the history of the courts in Australia: this case is guaranteed to fail. Almost no court or jury will find in his favour given the obvious chilling implications for democracy, and the defendants will be able to appeal any loss right up to the High Court. There is absolutely zero chance, in my opinion, that the High Court will find in Palmer’s favour. Even the most conservative imaginable possible array of High Court judges will throw it out in a heartbeat – or rather, in the length of time it takes them to write a dismissive and compelling judgment that will make Clive Palmer very very embarrassed.

At least it would embarrass him if he had any shame, but in case the infamous twerking video didn’t convince you this court case should be the final proof that Palmer has no shame. That he would even conceive of such a case shows how out of touch he is with Australian civic values, how little respect he has for the political process, and how he really views his party – not as a vehicle for political change but as a personal possession (to be clear, I never doubted this – but smarter tycoons might at least try to pretend it weren’t true!) Imagine if the Liberals or Labor could sue a party member every time they jumped ship or split to recover election costs – the effect on party discipline would be very impressive, but the effect on political debate would be terrible. But worse still, imagine if donors could demand repayment of their money if a member jumped ship? And if a donor can demand repayment of election expenses when a member leaves the party, can they not also demand repayment if their legislative goals are not achieved? Currently big corporate and organizational donors give money to a political party on the assumption that it will represent their interests, but not on the assumption that they can get specific legislative goals (though they often do, of course, get these). But if Palmer were to win this case they could conceivably write more specific contracts for their donations, backed up by the implied threat of civil action if they don’t get what they want. I think legal argument is the one place where slippery slope arguments make sense, since a decision sets a precedent for subsequent decisions; in this case, Palmer’s legal efforts could open the door to at least the kind of implied threats that could seriously damage political independence. And some of those donors are big givers – the unions give the ALP millions, and some corporate donations to the Liberals are in the hundreds of thousands. Everyone knows that these donors will withdraw their money in future if the party doesn’t represent them; but the possibility that they could sue for past money would surely terrify the two major parties and make them much, much more careful about toeing the donors’ line.

Plus of course donors wouldn’t have to sue over a specific lost legislative goal – they just wait for a process event (such as a member leaving or being found guilty of a crime of some kind) and sue out of spite. The mere threat to sue in such a case could convince a party to change a policy. It would be disastrous.

These considerations are why I think the High Court would take the case and then decide in favour of the defendants. Whatever one might think of the individual politics of High Court members, none of them are stupid and they are very careful and considerate custodians of the constitution. They just won’t let this happen!

I wonder if it is time Australia considered a law preventing the kind of direct ownership of parties that Palmer has used here. The party is clearly a vehicle for his own personal interests, and given that he is a mining magnate with some big business problems the conflict of interest is obvious. Fortunately for the Australian public he is too stupid to get anything right, but if some Lex Luthor type figure were to come along with the same plan it could be very dangerous. I’m not sure how it could be done in a fair and balanced way, but perhaps consideration needs to be given to a law that prevents individuals from directly setting up a party with their own money. If Palmer wants to influence the political process he should do it the same way every other corporate body does – by networking with politicians, donating money to their party without conditions, and making their case for change through long, careful deliberation through existing social organizations. Buying your own party is crass, and destructive to the political process. I hope the Australian legislature can find a way to stop it in future.

Footnote for non-Australians: Clive Palmer is a mining magnate and “billionaire” who essentially set up his own political party at the last federal election, poured his own money[1] into it and managed to get 6 senators elected. The party is called the “Palmer United Party” but the “United” part is pretty much a footnote of history now since all members bar one have left. Unfortunately these 6 senators basically controlled the balance of power in the senate, which has descended into chaos since the party became disunited[2]. Palmer is sunk in legal problems with business partners and also may be suffering some business challenges (now is not a good time to be an iron ore exporter in Australia) and many people think this party was his attempt to protect his business interests from some bad decisions, and/or to try and force changes through that would benefit his company. For example he refused to pass laws repealing the carbon “tax” until the government agreed to refund money paid since its inception, which would have been a multi-million dollar windfall for his business. It’s hard to see what his real motives were because he is so chaotic and weird, but certainly his party has not been a good thing for Australian legislative processes.

fn1: Well, a Chinese mining company claims it was their money, but that’s currently being negotiated in the courts

fn2: Kind of. It was chaotic before the disunity because Palmer doesn’t know what he wants and changes his mind by the day.

[Warning: Australian politics] Last weekend there was a State election in Australia, with popular Liberal (for overseas readers: “conservative”) premier Mike Baird up against apparently well-liked Labour (for overseas readers: “liberal”) opposition leader Luke Foley. In the context of a deeply detested federal Liberal government, and a recent crushing defeat for the Liberals in Queensland, this election was being carefully watched for warning signs of the imminent demise of the federal Liberal leader, Tony Abbott. Unfortunately for people who like to draw simple conclusions, and by extension the federal labour party, the swing against the federal Liberal party was small (about 2%) but the swing to the Labour party huge (about 9%). It wasn’t enough for Labour to win government but enough to restore them as a political force (they had previously been wiped out in the state due to rampant corruption and general nastiness[1]).

But for those of us who care about the environment and the future of modern, peaceful, developed human society there was an interesting side story, initially ignored by the media. The Greens, Australia’s environmental party, increased their seats in the lower house by 3-4, depending on the result of late counting, and also their vote share. They increased their vote share in the seat they previously held and stole at least two new seats – at least one from the Nationals, a slowly dying party of rural socialism. But in addition to this, they became the second biggest vote winner in a range of seats – most of which are staunchly conservative voters.

What’s going on here?

There is a lot of debate about this coming out in the national media, and most of it is evidence of high panic. The Telegraph (not to be confused with the British high tory newspaper of the same name – the Aussie New South Wales version is toilet paper) has two articles complaining that inner city Greens voters are too rich to care about environmental issues, and rural Greens voters are a bunch of lazy drug users. The latter story gives a detailed run-down of the economics of the electorate that has voted for a Green candidate, suggesting that the Green has been voted in because the electorate is full of unemployed drug users, but doesn’t really pay any attention to the fact that the electorate has been under the control of the Nationals since 1988. Surely if an electorate has been under the control of one party for nearly 30 years, the unemployment and drug use problems of that electorate are the fault of the 30 year party, not the newly-elected one? Perhaps the election of a new candidate is a sign that the locals don’t want this to continue? Perhaps they want change?

Meanwhile there is new evidence that the Greens have replaced Labour as the party of protest in a range of wealthy suburban seats in the north of Sydney. So now we have a situation where National Party seats are being stolen by Greens in rural Australia, and wealthy Liberal voters are switching to the Greens in preference to Labour. This has led the Australian newspaper (owned by American espionage expert Rupert Murdoch) to refer to the Greens as a “cancer on democracy” (as, obviously, any party that wins at the ballot box must be) and is surely leading to a new round of panic in the offices of Labour and the Liberal party.

What’s going on here?

On the surface it looks like Australians are starting to wake up to the environmental problems Australia faces. The new seats appear to have been won on the back of protests against coal seam gas, which is a sign of classic anti-AGW activism with the power to change seats. However, the increase in votes in wealthy areas might possibly be attributable to NIMBYism (“not in my backyard” politics), and this is certainly the line defenders of wealthy privilege are taking – but it could also be because people in those seats are starting to realize that the Liberals as they are currently composed are a threat to humanity.

Traditionally Australian media outlets have avoided talking about Green successes and trumped apparent Green set-backs, and argued that Greens in power would fail. But the federal Green politician is going well electorally, and now the Greens have significantly increased their state representation. This is a sign that people in Australia are starting to realize that the environment is their key concern, and also that the existing “mainstream” political parties do not serve to improve the wealth of the regions. Of course the Liberals could easily combat this by fielding a candidate for prime minister who recognizes the pre-eminence of global warming and understands the genuinely liberal value of local areas controlling local environmental decisions. I don’t necessarily agree with this idea, but it is naturally liberal and it is not happening because the current Liberal party at both federal and state level is essentially a legislative vehicle for developers. If the Liberals want to fix their electoral challenges and become a genuinely liberal party they need to do two simple things: ditch Tony Abbott, and find a way to destroy the influence of developers on state political parties.

Do that, and the Liberals will hold power for a generation.

fn1: And would have been wiped out much sooner, except that the religious right wing of the federal party carefully organized a hit job on the moderately liberal state leader and replaced him with a far right christian; during this vicious hit job the party leader attempted to commit suicide, and the current federal Liberal leader joked about his suicide attempt the same day.

Adventure stories for economists ...

Adventure stories for economists …

As expected, Syriza have won the Greek elections, taking a near majority and forming a government with a minority right wing populist party, and so far none of my fears have been realized (yay). As expected, Syriza’s “radical” economist Yanis Varoufakis has been selected as finance minister, putting him on a direct collision course with the Troika. Varoufakis seems like an interesting guy, and it will be interesting to see what the burden of his position does to him. He is young, an academic economist until he decided to run for parliament, seems to be quite a handsome chap, and is also a dual citizen of Greece and the Duchy of Edinburgh Australia. So now it appears Australia has two finance ministers, Matthias Corman the actual finance minister of Australia who was born in Belgium and Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister who was born, somewhat surprisingly, in Greece. Yanis Varoufakis has written a book and is also a private consultant for Valve, the game company responsible for Half-Life and Steam. I wonder if he’s a gamer?

That’s a pretty interesting background and, whatever one might think of his political views, pretty solid qualifications for a finance minister. In sad comparison, Matthias Cormann has been a political apparatchik since the 1990s, has an undergraduate degree in law, and has never written anything as far as I can tell. But in addition to writing a book and some academic articles, Varoufakis also maintains a blog. He’s just like me! And in his latest post he has promised to try and keep blogging while working as a minister, which I suspect makes him the first ever blogger finance minister. This potentially means we are going to get some kind of real-time coverage of how and what the finance minister of Greece is thinking as he negotiates with the EU, IMF and ECB on the tricky issue of Greek debt. He has previously written alternative solutions to the problems of public debt in the EU, which seem to have worked their way into The Economist. His blog is a pretty interesting read, and if he does manage to find time to maintain it while managing his new position I think it will make a fascinating and unique contribution to both the blogosphere and the disciplines of economics and politics.

This also gets me thinking: will there come a day when an active role-player gets into the halls of power, and chooses not to stop gaming? Imagine if they turned up at conferences, and you could role-play with the US president … (I bet there’d be no rules-lawyering at that table! “Why can’t I get +2? It’s in the rules!” “I am the president of the USA, you get whatever bonus I give you!”) Or if they were a regular commenter at an RPG forum, posting in between meetings with heads of state to complain about why Bards are the worst character class. Maybe they could run online role-playing sessions where they run adventures in all the trouble spots they’ve invaded and messed up, until it gets to the point that the electorate start thinking the President is only starting new wars so that he can have new campaign settings. That may seem crazy, but it seems like a better rationale for a war than the gloop we were actually fed before Gulf War 2…

Greece has been suffering difficult economic times, and it seems obvious that something has to be done. Austerity has failed Europe dismally, and the economic pressures it is creating are being released through politics of the worst kind, as extremist right wing parties grow in influence across the continent, perhaps most especially in Greece. The search for a solution is going to be really challenging for Syriza, and it is my hope that they will find a solution that makes Greeks better off, and averts the social catastrophe they seem to be sliding towards. Yanis Varoufakis seems like a man well-placed to take on the job, and it is my hope that he can find success despite the challenges he faces. I also hope he can find the time to blog about it, so we can get some insight into what happens both behind the scenes and behind the man. Good luck, Dr. Varoufakis, and I hope more bloggers in future (and eventually, more gamers) can get to the halls of power.

And remember, if you find Greek debt challenges too tough, you can always come to Australia and help out our government…

Strange things are happening in Australian politics at the moment. The Federal government appears to be shooting itself in the foot with rocket launchers, and doing everything it can to become that rarest of entities, a one-term Federal government. There are many examples of the government’s reckless desire to consign itself to the dustbin of history, but most of them are beyond my ken. However, one that touches on an issue I’m vaguely familiar with – health – stands out as a particularly egregious example of policy-making stupidity, in which the government squandered a chance to implement a potentially important policy that would have improved the budget bottom line, then doubled down on an incredibly bad policy that is guaranteed to annoy essentially everyone. In an electorate with compulsory preferential voting and consistently high electoral turnout, this really is a recipe for electoral disaster – and completely avoidable.

The policy in question is the General Practice co-payment, and although it’s a politically tricky task – better governments have floundered over it – it has a sound public policy basis and with the right political guidance a new government riding high on popularity should be able to get this sort of thing introduced. That’s what first term governments in Australia do. So what went wrong?

A brief primer on Australian health financing

Very briefly, Australia’s health system is managed primarily through General Practitioners (GPs), family doctors in the USA, who are the first port of call for health concerns. In theory every time you visit you pay the GP and present the invoice to the government-run single payer health insurer, Medicare, who reimburse you a fixed rate depending on the type of service you received (this is called a rebate). Your GP can choose to charge you more than this rebate, in which case you have to wear the difference as a co-payment. Many GPs opt to provide a service called bulk billing, in which they don’t take cash from their patients but bill the government directly for only the rebate. This makes the service essentially free at the point of care for the patient, but reduces the amount of money the GP can make; it does however reduce the overhead for the GP, since they don’t need to manage a cash system in their office. GPs in Australia are essentially private health providers, claiming fees from a government single payer, and the system is deregulated sufficiently that many large international and national healthcare providers run large, multi-doctor and very modern clinics (often with allied health services attached), all charging the patient essentially nothing. Crucially for the health financing debate in Australia, hospitals are funded by State governments, while GP rebates through Medicare are funded federally. Note that Medicare is not like the US version (only for elderly people); in Australia it is the name of the universal health coverage scheme that all legally resident Australians can access.

One big problem with Medicare is that the essentially free nature of bulk billing services (and many non-bulk billing services, if GPs don’t increase their fees) is that patients are not discouraged from attending GPs for essentially irrelevant medical problems, have no incentive to wrap their problems into one visit, and have no incentive not to visit a GP for problems (like common colds) that the GP essentially can’t treat. This can lead to over-servicing, which causes congestion and reduces the efficiency of GPs as a service. It should be noted that compared to British GPs – who essentially run a poor-quality outpatient referral service – Australian GPs provide a wide range of services up to and including medical imaging, management of chronic and potentially fatal illnesses like cancer and HIV, and even minor surgery. They genuinely are the workhorses of the system, with a lot of responsibilities, and over-servicing is a serious issue. One solution often proposed for over-servicing is a mandatory co-payment that would force all patients to pay a nominal upfront fee to discourage frivolous GP attendance.

The Abbott government’s co-payment proposal and its aftermath

Into this policy issue stepped the new, first term government, run by Tony Abbott, a conservative ideologue who is probably better described as radical than conservative (as many conservatives are). Abbott won government on a platform of trust, promising “no surprises,” and certainly didn’t promise a major health financing change that I can recall (I can find no evidence either way that isn’t blatantly political, with a quick search). Immediately after the election Tony Abbott identified the classic “Budget shortfall” (every government since Fraser, except for Gillard, has done this it seems, and Gillard only didn’t do it because she was replacing her own party leader…) and started identifying “savings” that could reduce the deficit, which was in “crisis.” One proposed measure was the GP co-payment, which would be a $7 co-payment for all patients visiting a doctor. This unannounced and unsupported policy change attracted uproar, since it would fundamentally change the way that health financing worked, and no one was expecting it. After a long period of anger and clear messages from the Senate that the measure wouldn’t pass, the government relented and reduced this co-payment to $5, apparently voluntary. That’s right, the government was going to seriously go out on a limb for a policy that would give GPs the choice to become tax collectors for the government. Would you trust your doctor if they had volunteered to collect extra tax for the government?

Once this proposal had been sufficiently ridiculed the government canned that too, and introduced a nasty and cunning administrative change that will see the rebate for a 6-10 minute doctor’s visit reduced from $37 to $17. Obviously doctor’s costs won’t change, and so for a large proportion of their consultations they will face the choice of a $20 reduction in payment, or passing on all or part of that payment to patients. This is going to represent a huge increase in cost to patients, well above the $7 co-payment. Imagine, for example, that you are seeing a decent private doctor who charges you $50 for your service. Under the old system you pay the $50 and get a $37 rebate from Medicare; you end up paying $13, a fair whack of cash but no big deal. Under the co-payment system this would have increased to $20; under the new rebate revision, unless the doctor decides to carry the extra costs, you will now only be reimbursed $17, so your new fee is $33 – a more than 100% increase! Crucially, this move doesn’t need to go through parliament, so the government can effectively charge a rebate without getting senate approval. This is a hugely unpleasant change, and without huge numbers of concessions (for e.g. the elderly and those with chronic illness) it will lead to a huge increase in GP costs. If, for example, you’re taking statins for high cholesterol, your GP is your primary source of management and your management will probably require one of these 6-10 minute sessions every three months – so your medical bills will increase by $80 a year. This is actually a lot of money to some people.

The result of this should be obvious. While the $7 co-payment would discourage needless medical visits without necessarily significantly increasing costs for patients, the huge rebate change will destroy the bulk billing system, causing many poor people to drop out of GP service and shift to Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments in hospitals. GPs will attempt not to change their cost structure, and so will double the time they spent with each patient, massively increasing waiting times – except that their poorest patients will have disappeared to the A&E. This will mean that in the end GPs will see less patients who they charge more, and A&Es will become congested with patients attending for unnecessary minor complaints. With GPs charging more per visit for less visits, total medicare revenue won’t change – but less people will be seeing their doctor on time. The budget hole will not change in the slightest, waiting times won’t change at GPs, and A&Es will see an increase in pressure.

A&Es, as I mentioned above, are funded by state governments, not the Federal government.

So the government tried to implement a potentially important but unpopular policy, and when this failed switched to implementing a completely counter productive and unpopular policy that will seriously affect everyone through increased health care costs. They showed no policy sense and no leadership. Brilliant.

What does this tell us about this government’s policy approach?

As I mentioned above, getting a co-payment through Australian politics is a tough ask, and takes political skills, but it has two major policy benefits: it raises more money for Medicare, which is generally accepted to be underfunded, and it reduces unnecessary service use, which is a major problem in free or nearly-free health systems. With Australia’s growing burden of non-communicable disease and preventable health problems it’s probably a good idea, and $5 or $7 is not horrifically punitive, though for the very poorest in Australian society it’s tough. Australians in general are wealthy though and $7 is the price of a piece of cake – it’s really not the end of the world. Nevertheless, it represents a major shift in policy approach away from the bulk billing philosophy, and steering that policy through requires a nuanced debate in which the government prepares the public, then debates with the public, then compromises. It’s also potentially the kind of policy that involves expending a lot of political capital for not much gain – the co-payment is a good idea but not necessarily the best way to solve the problems it is intended to fix, and may not be worth any government expending political capital on. Instead, this government introduced it soon after an election, in an environment where it is accused of multiple broken promises, without any preparation or debate. It even managed to anger the Australian Medical Association, historically a very pro-conservative organization (one of its ex-presidents was a Liberal leadership contender, and an ex-Liberal health minister moved on to become one of its directors, I think). But then, having angered everyone who cares, the government dropped the plan in exchange for an even more punitive and vicious policy that will obviously fail to achieve any of the stated goals of the previous policy, and probably won’t raise any extra money but will put more pressure on Australian hospitals.

Is this not the very model of political naivete? To me this is an example of a government that has no policy framework at all. They were simply looking for ways to raise money and tried to cloak them in a policy goal that they didn’t really understand or care about, and when their mistakes were pointed out to them instead of backing down and finding a better solution, they simply dropped the cloak of policy rationality and turned vindictive. And this seems to be what they have been doing for much of their policy “development” since they won office. This is no recipe for sensible government, and the GP co-payment debacle is a classic example of how mean-spirited this government is, as well as its complete lack of interest in any real policy goals.

If this is how they go about all their policy development, the sooner they become a one-term government the better.

Rebellion Pastiche!

Rebellion Pastiche!

Many years ago now I lived in Newtown, Sydney, and the areas surrounding it (Stanmore, Marrickville, etc), all of which have a recent history as the home of a large number of Aboriginal people and a bit of a hotbed of street activism (far left and far right), largely probably due to their proximity to the University of Sydney, some large inner city areas of Aboriginal housing, and some industrial areas. Marrickville, where I also lived, has a long tradition of Greek, Italian and then Vietnamese migration, and the whole area is a wide swathe of light industrial zoning with a long and proud history of unionism. As part of the post-60s wave of Aboriginal rights and green activism a large number of murals were painted in various areas of the inner west. From the train line between Redfern and Newtown passengers used to be able to see a rendering of the Black Panther Olympic salute, entitled “Three proud men”; and on the road to Stanmore there was a really creepy old guy perving on a girl on a tricycle. But the most famous mural is the “I have a dream” mural, pictured above, which was painted on the side of a terraced house in the very centre of the main commercial road, King Street, very close to the station. This mural combines a picture of Martin Luther King, his most famous phrase, the earth with Australia red in the centre, and the Aboriginal flag (the black and red squares with the gold disc in the middle). It’s a bit tacky but also a proud reminder of Indigenous struggle, painted there by a local couple many years ago. In my opinion the Aboriginal flag is a really powerful symbol, and should be used as Australia’s official flag in place of the Southern Cross[1], which is nowhere near as cool, and this mural combines that strong image of Australia with a couple of international ideas about liberation and freedom. I’m not entirely in favour of importing American ideals of freedom and struggle to other countries, but I hope my reader(s) can see the intent and appreciate its strength.

Anyway, back when I lived in Newtown this mural was starting to decay, the paint was starting to crumble, but worst of all a lot of posters were beginning to appear, mostly on the bottom left of the red part of the flag but also in the golden disc. Rather embarrassingly, most of these posters were either for far left political groups, or for illegal raves (“doofs”) that would regularly spring up in the inner west and which were also largely associated with the far left/green movement. This was in the 1990s, before the Reconciliation movement had really taken off, probably 10-12 years before the apology, and a lot of the far left hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that Aboriginal reconciliation and land rights were becoming a really important part of the political landscape – Aboriginal activism generally was seen as strongly connected to the Labour party and the Democrats, and viewed with suspicion by the far left. This might explain their willingness to put up posters on such an iconic mural (the far right couldn’t, because they had either died of heroin overdoses, been sent to prison, or been driven out of the inner city by unionist violence). My friends and I weren’t happy with this though, because as the posters accumulated and damaged the paint, and the mural got scrappier, the incentive to post more posters and slowly destroy it was growing – like litter or broken windows, the damage was encouraging more damage. So one sunny Saturday morning we got up early, grabbed a ladder, some paintbrushes and a few scrapers and some paint, and set about restoring it. We didn’t organize it with any official organs because no one was officially in charge of this mural – we just rocked up and started cleaning it. The version you can see above is probably from about 10 years after we did this, because it is still clean and in the bottom left corner you can see my contribution to the project. That corner was where most of the posters were stuck, and after I scraped them off and we repainted it I wrote this in my bad freehand:

My tiny piece of history, badly drawn

My tiny piece of history, badly drawn

I took this photo of my contribution in 2006, probably 8-9 years after I painted it, just before I left for Japan, and at this time no one had posted any bills anywhere on the mural – you can see on the wall to the side that they are using nearby wall space for a thick layer of posters, but they aren’t putting them on the mural itself. Sadly, this situation no longer pertains today, another 8 years after I took that picture. The Marrickville facebook page has a link to the picture which in March this year had comments saying that someone needs to put the “Don’t poster here” order back on. Someone must have painted over it after I left the country, and now the posters are returning. However, after many years, the mural has finally received some official respect, and the Marrickville Council have decided to Heritage List it, which means that they are now officially responsible for maintaining and protecting it. I hope this means that the posters will be removed and no new ones added. Maybe they’ll even repaint it with a better and more consistent colour palette than my friends and I used …

This was my sole real contribution to the urban community of Newtown. My friends and I got pissed at the mess, went up there and (I guess!) risked a graffiti charge in broad daylight on a sunny Saturday to repair the damage. While we worked lots of people came up to thank us and express their approval (I think one person wandered across the road to buy us a coffee or a drink or something), and I guess the police must have cruised by at some point and done nothing. Everyone seemed to treat our efforts as if they were as natural as the presence of this unclaimed and unprotected mural in the heart of the little shopping area. It was like everyone accepted it and respected it, but everyone thought it was everyone else’s responsibility. Maybe that unfocused view of its place in Newtown is part of the reason that people were able to damage it without any trouble being raised – because everyone just assumed someone else knew who was responsible for its upkeep. But in truth no one was, and our action was the only time I know of in the entire time I lived in the area that anyone took responsibility for it. And it worked! That little two sentence demand I wrote there on the wall kept the entire mural clean and free of damage for 10 years, and my guess is that if someone hadn’t painted over it the mural would still be free of damage today. Now that it is Heritage listed I guess it will get a little plaque and a bit of care and respect, and my bodgy handwritten warning won’t be needed anymore. It will be forgotten soon enough, but I am proud of my little tiny effort in preserving an emblem of a struggle that, over the time I lived in Australia, really began to assert itself and push itself into the mainstream. I hope people will remember the long slow path to acceptance of Aboriginal rights in Australia when they look at that mural, and I like to think that my tiny contribution went a little way towards preserving that mural long enough for it to make the heritage list. Hardly a radical or brave act, it’s true, but I’m proud of my little tiny contribution to one of the most important political movements in Australian history.

fn1: It actually has official flag status, but is not usually used as such.

Or, perhaps to phrase the question a different way, is the era of the small political party over in modern democratic Anglosphere politics? The question occurred to me today as I read the latest reports of the implosion of Australia’s Palmer United Party, which has been in the Senate now for perhaps four months and is already facing its first split, if reports are to be believed.

The Palmer United Party (PUP) is a new entrant in Australian politics. It is run by Clive Palmer, a mining magnate, and is variously depicted as a political insurgency or a vehicle for Palmer’s self-aggrandisement, depending on who you read. It was entertaining to watch for a while, but the major parties seem to have been fairly sanguine about it, and the leader appears to be batshit insane. There are other small parties in the Senate at the moment but they’re quirks of Australia’s mutant electoral system and won’t last. In terms of quantifiably important parties there are only really two minor parties in Australia: the Greens on the left, and PUP. We could add the Nationals to the calculation here but they are in coalition with the Liberals [Australia’s “conservative” party] so are usually seen as a “major” party despite their declining vote share and limited number of seats. The UK has the Greens on the left, and UKIP on the right, both seen as “minor” parties in contrast to the (soon-to-be-extinct, poor darlings!) Liberal Democrats. So it would seem that small parties are flourishing. However …

The Greens and UKIP are actually quite old parties now, having been formed in the early-to-mid 1990s. The Australian Greens, for example, were formed in 1996 federally, and existed before that at a State level – they emerged out of the famous Franklin Dam protest of the 1980s. UKIP in the UK formed in 1993 and was originally a small scale and largely liberal national self determinationist party, growing very slowly until it adopted its racist patois. In fact most of the small and functioning parties in both of these democracies were formed long before the modern political era – the Greens, for example, formed three Prime Ministers ago, which in Australian political terms is a lifetime. Both the Greens and UKIP are characterized by a strong political platform and ideological underpinnings, and whether or not one agrees with their policies, in political terms I think they have to be accepted as coherent. The Greens have a broad leftist environmental and social justice platform, not compatible with our social democratic institutions, built on a manifesto co-authored by one of the world’s most respected philosophers. UKIP are built on trenchant opposition to one of the core European modernizing ideas, and have a coherent and ideologically consistent central goal. Ironically UKIP probably owe a lot of their success to the European parliament they oppose, since it was through strong election results in the European parliament that they convinced the British public they might be worth backing at home. But whatever you think of their politics, UKIP put in long, hard years of work and have slowly built their platform around a central critique and ideological purpose, that taps into the core beliefs of a large part of mainstream Britain. PUP, on the other hand, went from nothing to a handful of senators on the back of their founder and lead senator’s private money. They have no fundamental ideological purpose, and no experience of politics.

But would PUP be the only party that would tear itself apart in the modern political environment, or is it impossible for any new party to form in the modern environment? I think there are three reasons why the time when parties can form and grow and remain stable has passed.

The modern media environment is much more punishing: Back in the early 1990s journalism was not yet under threat from the internet, investigative journalism still existed outside of movies, and it was almost impossible for political candidates to get caught out saying stupid things in non-official forums, because video cameras were big and expensive and Facebook didn’t exist. Furthermore, there was a general assumption that private and political beliefs could be kept separate (for example, I didn’t know the Greens’ political leader, Bob Brown, was gay even though I voted for them) and politics was treated as less of a gotcha game. The media cycle could be measured in weeks or days rather than hours, and it was much easier for small parties to keep a low profile. It was also harder for small parties to get air time, because air time was tightly controlled by a small clique, but I think it’s pretty clear that the modern media environment makes air time for small, amateur parties very dangerous. In the 1990s, “vetting” a party member involved checking they didn’t have a criminal record. Now it means sifting through blog posts, years of Facebook bullshit, dating sites, photos and footage held by friends and exes … And it also means dealing with the risk that organizations like the News of the World have been hacking your phones, something that was reserved only for heads of state in the 1990s. In the 1990s, that most horrible of things, “media training,” was a kind of boutique investment for parties that were starting to hit the big time; in the modern era, it’s a survival necessity, and the major parties have a huge advantage too. This, I think, is also part of the reason that major parties tend to recruit from within their own structure. Enforced conformity is a real bonus in the modern media culture. PUP recruits its members from actual real life, which is political disaster – real people say all sorts of stupid shit.

In modern politics you need huge amounts of money: The amounts of money floating around in modern politics can be eyewatering, and kind of embarrassing when you think about the quality of people representing you. UKIP is almost entirely dependent on a single rich, crazy ex-conservative party donor who forks money over by the truckload. After the paper mill Gunns recently launched a defamation (?) case against the Greens’ leader, he had to take a personal donation of some fucktons of money from an Australian entrepeneur in order to deal with the court costs. Nick Griffin, the only idiot ever to have tried to mainstream British Fascism through the British National Party, was bankrupted recently by court cases. That kind of thing started in the late 1990s, but when the Greens and UKIP formed these kinds of financial pressures weren’t an issue. This is especially fortunate for small parties in Australia, since they receive state funding if they pass a certain vote threshold. Indeed, PUP has been in dispute with the government over staffing levels, since they don’t get the staffing support of a major party (their seat count isn’t high enough) and that kind of support is expensive even if you’re a mining  magnate. In the UK there is a further problem of fair representation: the Greens and UKIP are denied seats in the House of Lords even though their vote share has been growing, because they aren’t “major.” The only solution to these problems is to have more money, and for a minor party to get money requires pretty exceptional circumstances. It’s pretty obvious how this works for PUP: they don’t have “policy platforms,” they have “Clive Palmer’s whim.” He is funding the party and he chooses its policy and its tactics (shudder). For the major parties this is not a huge problem – Labour have union funds and the Tories have corporate donors – and the political issue from our perspective is about governance and disclosure. But from a minor party perspective, it’s a real challenge. As an example, suppose independent leftists in the UK wanted to start a party of the workers that wasn’t tainted by the legacy of Blair and that genuinely represented workers’ demands – one imagines that such a party would be quite nationalist and anti-European, but also very socialist and strongly anti-corporate and opposed to the banking industry. Whether or not you support the potential policies of this bunch of imagined anarchists, it’s pretty easy to imagine that there’s no way they could ever raise enough money to compete successfully in modern politics. But I contend [without evidence] that in the early 1990s they could have – the Greens in Australia and the UK did [I don’t claim these are anarchist workers’ parties] through drawing on existing environmentalist networks. The kind of money you can raise from even strong, coherent community movements today will last about three minutes against a corporate-funded major party. Which is why only parties of the Oligarchy will arise now, and they’ll be so incoherent and selfish that they’ll never last.

The ideological context is much more confusing: The developed world has drifted for 20 years without a major ideological clash, and the only real ideological clash still left is that between capitalism and environmentalism – a clash that doesn’t have to exist and is, in any case, already represented by mature small parties across the developed world. Everything else has drifted into different theories of how to manage capitalism. There’s just no ideological space for modern parties, and unless something new appears – libertarianism springs to mind, but it’s been hideously unsuccessful to date – I can’t see that there is much chance of new parties being able to find an ideological niche. Furthermore, party membership is declining rapidly, and political engagement occurs in different places now. For example, wikipedia puts the membership of Japan’s ruling party, the LDP, at 800,000 in 2012. In just one week, the Japanese branch of raised 46000 signatures on a petition to deny seedy sexual assaulter Julien Blanc a visa[1]. Political organization is different now, and the way citizens engage with their polity has changed. In theory this could make political growth easier, but I think in reality it has opened new avenues of political activism, and as the Julien Blanc case in Australia showed, ordinary citizens can use these new modes of power effectively outside of mainstream political culture. This combination of a lack of centralized ideologies that can support new parties, and new alternatives to mainstream political activism in an environment of technical managerialism, make the political context very different. As an example, the Victorian police were key agents in the response to Julien Blanc, tweeting about how wrong his views on sexual assault are and updating the public on his movements. The Victorian Police, ladies and gentlemen – who were famous for tigger-happy murders in the 1990s. As another example in the same vein, if you want to see how far politics has changed in the past 20 years (since the Greens were founded, for example), sex workers can now view police as a key ally in their quest for worker safety, primarily through the activism of sex worker community associations, public health organizations, and even church organizations. This changed relationship between police and sex workers (and even injecting drug users) has bipartisan political support in Australia – Tony Abbott may wink at a radio DJ about a 60 year old phone sex worker when he thinks he’s not being watched, but he almost certainly won’t be changing the laws and social policies that affect sex workers. Obviously most of these achievements were built on first steps by a labour government, but that was only the beginning – the major achievements in sex work law in the past 10 years have been achieved through the work of a much broader coalition of forces working outside of political circles, and legislation has been almost an afterthought. In this context, the role of political parties changes and the role of new political parties becomes much harder to pin down.

There are probably counter-arguments to these three points, and other reasons why parties might be easier to form now than before (e.g. the internet). There are a couple of parties that got thrown up into the senate at the last election through sheer fluke, who everyone expects to be swept away at the next election. One (the Democratic Liberal Party) has a coherent (but batshit insane) ideological basis, and the other (the Motoring Enthusiast Party) appears to have been started as a joke but its representative appears to be taking his responsibilities seriously. Perhaps from their future we can see whether it is possible for new parties to grow in the modern era. I wonder if they will prove me wrong?

fn1: They visited immigration to appeal for rejection of his visa yesterday, I think. I personally would prefer that he were allowed into the country[2] and arrested for sexual assault at the airport. He has video evidence of his crimes. That would be fantastic.

fn2: Although it obviously gives me great pleasure to see this man being given the kind of welcome he deserves in Australia, I don’t like the idea of people’s visas being determined by popular referendum. As a resident of a country of which I am not a citizen or permanent resident, the implications of this as a political strategy are fairly obvious and not very pleasant.


Never won an election, but won every battle he fought

Never won an election, but won every battle he fought

A little-remarked upon aspect of this most recent Australian federal election has been the performance of the Greens. It’s not surprising that the media don’t report on the Greens’ results, since they hate the Greens and they can’t take them seriously as a party, but it is a little disappointing that they haven’t commented on the Greens’ performance in this particular election, since in many ways the last three years have seen their coming of age as a party, and this election presents strong evidence that they are a mature and robust member of the electoral mainstream.

By way of comparison, let’s consider the Australian Democrats, who in 1999 passed the legislation for the Goods and Services Tax (GST) through the Senate, in support of the Liberal government of the time. This decision was made under the leadership of Meg Lees, who had taken the position in 1997 just before the 1998 election, and was determined to stamp out the Democrats as a responsible party of the mainstream. The GST was extremely unpopular, and in the 2001 election the party lost 12% of its vote and one senator. At the following election the Australian electorate took them out the back and quietly shot them, as the saying goes, and now they no longer exist as a party. Basically, the party had shackled itself to an unpopular government and specifically an unpopular piece of legislation, it was struggling to define itself after the loss of a charismatic leader (Kernot, 1997) and in its flounderings it slowly destroyed itself.

The Greens took found themselves in a similar position in 2010, but in spades: having won a seat in the lower house they explicitly joined a minority government with Labor and passed a very unpopular piece of legislation, the carbon price, and they also experienced the loss of an inspirational and visionary leader – their founder, Bob Brown – just after forming government. So they went to the 2013 electorate shackled to an extremely unpopular government, identified directly with an extremely unpopular policy, and with a leader the electorate didn’t recognize. They suffered a swing against them of about 3.2% (about 25% of their total vote) but they retained their lower house seat with a swing against them of only 0.7%, and gained a Senate seat (they had 9 in 2010 and now have 10). Furthermore, the swing to them in 2010 was 4.0%, so despite their position in the minority government and the unpopular carbon price, they haven’t lost all the gains of the 2010 election. So although the swing against them is not pretty, they are still in a better position than when they went into the previous election (unlike the Democrats in 2001), they have shown themselves able to hold a lower house seat, and they have improved their representation in the Senate. This result arose despite them having been continuously painted as reckless by the major parties and the media, a very strong campaign against them in their lower house seat, the arrival of a new and seriously cashed-up independent party campaigning strongly federally (the PUP), and the Liberals preferencing them last in every state. The Democrats have never faced an electoral landscape as hostile as the Greens, and yet the Greens have survived and gained relative to 2010.

One interpretation of the swing against the Greens is that a proportion of their vote is simply anti-mainstream-parties protest voting, and that once PUP arrived on the scene some of those protesters switched. I think this is only partially true – a large portion of that vote loss is protest against the carbon price and the Greens’ role in minority government. But in this lies the key difference between the Greens and the Democrats. The Democrat rank-and-file largely opposed the GST, and Lees voted for it against the interests of her base. The Greens performed largely in the interests of their base during their period of minority government, and somehow where they voted pragmatically or compromised they have been able to communicate effectively with their voters about this. And most specifically, in exchange for all the compromises of government they won the thing they and most of their supporters most wanted, an effective carbon price. There were other policies they failed to deliver – they wanted the resources tax to be stronger – but by securing a few key gains they managed to convince their voters that they were working for their vision.

In a very well written and thoughtful essay in the Guardian recently Julia Gillard, ex-PM, stated that the most important thing for a political party is to show purpose and to stick with its purpose. For all her and her government’s faults this was a strong and clear principle of her time in office – on the whole she sailed a steady course and didn’t allow policy to be dictated to by polls or fancies. In comparison her predecessor and successor Rudd made policy like a weather vane, pointing whichever way the wind blows. I think the Greens have confirmed the truth of Gillard’s simple principle, and it can be seen in comparison with the Democrats: by sticking with their principles in minority government, explaining clearly to their voters why they do what they do, and not allowing themselves to be governed by flights of fancy or concerns of popularity or media trifles, they have retained their core vote and advanced their agenda. I am confident that the Greens would have been willing to accept electoral destruction in exchange for a sustainable and effective carbon reduction scheme, but they have shown that by sticking to what you believe and acting responsibly and rationally you can make progress in politics. I think this has marked them out as a mature and responsible party in a way that Labor under Rudd definitely was not.

A corollary of this is the possibility that Labor could have done better at the election under Gillard. I still think this could have happened – she might not have won, but I think she would have done no worse. Then at least the ALP could sit in opposition with their heads held high. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Perhaps it’s time they took some lessons on responsible government from the Greens.

Abbott and Whitlam's only common ground?

Abbott and Whitlam’s only common ground?

It’s been a long time since Australia had a double-dissolution election, but I have a suspicion we will get this singular pleasure soon, and that it will be fought out between the major parties as a referendum on climate change. I refuse to elevate my suspicion to the level of a prediction, but I’m going to lay out my reasoning here. [obviously this post is on Australian politics so if you’re from overseas you may find it a little mind-bending].

Perusing the senate election results today I noticed that the Australian Sex Party are likely to get into the Senate through Tasmania. From July 2014 the make up of the upper house will be:

  • 33 Liberal/National
  • 35 Labor/Greens
  • 1 Xenophon
  • 1 Palmer United
  • 1 Australian Motor Enthusiasts (!)
  • 1 Australian Sports Party (!)
  • 1 Liberal Democrats (!!)
  • 1 Australian Sex Party (!)
  • 1 Family First Party
  • 1 Democratic Labor Party (DLP)

So, assuming that on most crucial topics (except abortion) the DLP vote with Labor/Greens, it will be 36 vs. 33 in favour of the left, with 7 independents. To get legislation through the house the new prime minister (PM) Tony Abbott – who holds a vast majority in the lower house – will need the support of at least 6 of the independents. If we assume that the DLP and sex party vote with ALP/Greens on the carbon price, then it will be 37 vs. 39. So if one other independent – e.g. the Aussie sports party or Xenophon – refuse to unravel the carbon price legislation then Tony Abbott’s core election promise is toast. Of course it’s possible that the Aussie sports party will agree with him that “climate change is crap” but it’s also possible Xenophon will refuse to unwind legislation passed by the last government (he seems that type). From the perspective of September 2013, having promised to revoke the carbon price immediately, waiting until July 2014 and then being rejected in the senate probably won’t sit well with Abbott’s reputation.

This isn’t his only problem either. If he wants to get socially conservative legislation – on RU486, gay marriage or whatever – through the parliament he will almost certainly face opposition from the Liberal Democrats (insane libertarians) and Sex Party. For weakening tobacco legislation he will face opposition from Xenophon and the Sports Party. Basically, the range of possible permutations amongst 7 senators hailing from a range of political perspectives – from the socially extremely liberal to the batshit insane – mean that negotiating with the new senate is going to be a big challenge for Abbott even if he can be confident it will deliver him his big ticket options. It’s even possible his paid parenting leave scheme could fail, since the ALP might be able to muster enough independents to squish it even if the Greens go with Abbott.

On top of that, most of the independents will surely be aware that they are only going to be in the Senate for one sitting. The Liberal Democrats know they are simply a fluke of the ballot paper; the motorists, sexers and sporties will also be thinking that they were flukes (some of these parties got less than 1% of the vote). If they ponder on this a little, one or more of these guys are surely going to realize that this is their only chance to “make Australia better,” and that they can’t lose anything by tough negotiating. Palmer United have already suggested that support for repeal of the carbon tax may be contingent on repayment of all money already raised, and I think it’s possible that the Liberal Democrats might make their support conditional on abolishing Abbott’s Direct Action plan. The Liberal Democrats are opposed to gun control, speed limits and medicare, and at some point Abbott is going to be faced with a deal that puts those things on the table. Gun control being a matter of faith in Australian politics, he’s going to find himself over a barrel at some point if he doesn’t deal with these people.

These considerations, plus the fact that he promised to unwind the carbon price as soon as he was elected, make me think that it is in both his short term and long-term interests to run a double dissolution election before the new senate sits. He has promised a government free of surprises and chaos, “the adults are back in charge,” but he’s going to get more chaos than he can handle trying to negotiate with 7 radically different political independents, especially if they decide to use their six year term to make tough calls. He knows that he can get the trigger for a double dissolution in place before July next year, and so I suspect he will choose to pull it rather than face such an uncertain terrain.

If he does this though – or if he is forced to by intransigence on carbon pricing in the new senate after July – then he is going to face the prospect of an election fought over one topic: carbon pricing. This is going to be extremely hard for him to pull off, especially if the opposition get organized. He will need to pull off a big win too, since a double dissolution raises the risk of more Greens getting into parliament, not less. If he has introduced some nasty public service cuts this could be a very challenging election for him. It might appear that this is too risky, but I think it is going to be very hard for Abbott to maintain his popularity long term if he has to do extreme horse-trading every time he wants to get any legislation through parliament. Just as an example, today there is talk about overriding ACT legislation on same sex marriage. To do this requires approval from the federal house and senate. It is basically a guarantee that he would fail to pull this off from July next year, because the Liberal Democrats, Sex Party, and probably also Xenophon would oppose it. He will also face the continual problem of putting contentious legislation (or for that matter routine legislation) into the parliament, and having it rejected in the senate. This is going to be a goldmine for any remotely crafty opposition, and the media love this ready-made story of “legislative incompetence.” Looking at this, and with a conservative agenda to follow as well as some big corporate mates to satisfy, I think he is going to have to do something about the senate. So my suspicion is he will try to push through a double dissolution – if not on carbon then on the mining tax or paid parental leave – to try and grab a clear majority in the senate.

If he does, it will be the first democracy to go to the vote directly over global warming. Interesting times …

Tell 'em they're dreamin'!

Tell ’em they’re dreamin’!

We have an election on in Australia, the cradle of democracy, and as always in federal elections an enormous number of fringe political parties have crawled out from under their rocks. We have the Rotating Leadership Party, which is running on a platform of giving every person in Australia the chance to be prime minister for a day; the anti-Maritime party, which believes that floating on water is a satanic act and is opposed to all forms of shipping; and the Sex Party, which actually has pretty good policies. Who could be opposed to more sex? But in amongst these fringe parties we also have some single-issue groups, and in my opinion the most single issue of the lot is the Bullet Train for Australia Party. Their policies are reviewed here, and can be summarized very simply as: bullet train. This is pure science fiction at its best. Their slogan might confuse non-Australians, since it appears to advocate voter fraud:

Vote Bullet Train! Then vote as you normally would …

This is not because of special Australian laws giving nerdy train-spotters two votes each, but because of our complicated preference system, which is itself a work of science fiction and impossible for ordinary mortals to understand. But I think the Bullet Train for Australia Party has summarized their preference policy very nicely in that slogan. I also like the way their website has Australianized the bullet train by getting some pictures of Japanese bullet trains and sticking a kangaroo on them. Who could possibly hate kangaroos? And how can any technological or industrial advance be alien to Australia if it has a kangaroo on it?

The reason I think that this is basically science fiction is that there is no way a bullet train will ever be a profitable enterprise in Australia. We have 22 million people spread out over an area the size of the Magellan Cloud, living in little clusters of “civilization” separated by vast expanses of nothing. By way of comparison, Japan has 120 million people living in an area the size of Japan, with cities not too far apart that have populations the same size as Australia. That’s why they can run a train between those cities at light speed every 15 minutes, at something resembling a profit. But even then, catching a bullet train in Japan is no cheaper than flying – just enormously more convenient and comfortable. If you cut out all the in between stops (because no decent towns exist), doubled the distance between cities and then reduced the eligible population by a factor of 6 or 10, would it still be cheaper than flying? Especially given the electricity demands? And would it still be 8x more efficient than flying? And would you use a bullet train to get from Sydney to Adelaide? That’s a 21 hour bus trip at 120 km an hour, so probably a 7 hour bullet train trip. Or a 1 hour flight. Hmm, which would you choose? The only way that a bullet train would become an efficient program in Australia is if the Rotating Leadership Party were to seriously act on its on-again off-again “Big Australia” ideas, and double Australia’s population. Then, if the extra people settled in the right places, maybe it would work out.

Good luck with that.

As an aside, I am intrigued by the modern opposition to high speed rail in the UK, where it might actually be a viable investment. Apparently the HSR will cost 80 billion pounds to build, and this is a ludicrous amount of money that no modern government can afford. I haven’t done the numbers but I have a strong suspicion that the Japanese shinkansen would have cost a significantly larger portion of GDP when it started in 1958 than HSR would cost in the UK now. Had the Japanese adopted modern craven attitudes towards government spending, they would never have got the bullet train. Yet they have the bullet train, and somehow their society seems to have survived the massive fiscal impost. Could it be that sometimes massive government investment is a good idea? Which isn’t to say that the HSR is the best use of 80 billion pounds of British money, but “it’s a lot of money” doesn’t seem to me to be the best argument against it either …

Anyway, the Bullet Train for Australia Party are definitely pursuing a crazy science fiction policy, though it would be a pretty cool sight to see a bullet train heading through the desert – on the run from Darwin to Adelaide I imagine it would be able to get up to some pretty phenomenal speeds in the open spaces around Uluru. You could even build a tunnel through Uluru so it doesn’t have to deviate – then instead of climbing the rock, people can say they sped through it in a microsecond. Or you could lay the train nearby, and take iconic pictures of the bullet train shooting past the rock – contrast of old and new, etc. Japanese railways love the picture of a train running through rice paddies with hills in the background, this could be the Australian equivalent. Except that there would be only one person in the train, and enough energy to power the entire city of Darwin being used to propel it.

I think there’ll be a maglev on Mars before there is a bullet train from Adelaide to Darwin. But at least the Bullet Train for Australia Party have cornered the train-spotting vote!

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