The use of language to control the political agenda

One of the more chilling aspects of presidency of George W Bush was the rise of  the Machiavellian apparatchik, Karl Rove. Rove was the master of the art of manipulating public opinion and controlling the political agenda through the use of language, particularly in the mass media.

After the attack on the World Trade Center, Bush declared a “war on terror.”   When this type of rhetoric becomes pervasive, it effectively frames the political debate and as a consequence, the political and military actions that will flow from it. In a state of ” war”, the indefinite detention of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay without the right of habeas corpus and rendition of prisoners to countries with  brutal and totalitarian governments becomes acceptable.

During his time as Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to Bush, Rove lifted this practice to an art form.

Neal Gabler, Los Angeles Times; October 25, 2004 wrote “All politicians operate within an Orwellian nimbus where words don’t mean what they normally mean, but Rovism posits that there is no objective, verifiable reality at all. Reality is what you say it is,”

Or as Humpty Dumpty put it to Alice:

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Politicians around the world, particularly right-wing politicians were quick to learn this lesson. However, the subtle art of influencing public opinion of which Rove was a master  practitioner, degenerated into a perception that, if you keep saying something, no matter how stupid or illogical, over and over again, people  will come to believe it.

Tony Abbott and his associates in the rabid rednecked media used this technique to great effect against Julia Gillard’s government.  The rhetoric around the “budget crisis” is a case in point. Unfortunately, the Abbot government continues to think that simply shouting loud enough and often enough is enough to shape public opinion.

The seemingly endless series of political fiascoes,  back-flips and tumble  turns on policy matters is paralleled by  assertions from the coalition government that simply defy rational belief. The assertion by speaker Bronwyn Bishop that the abolition of  the Carbon Tax was  supply bill and could not be amended by the opposition  is a marvellous example of the Humpty Dumpty’s claim

However,  Bronwyn  Bishop’s appalling misuse of her power as Speaker pales into insignificance in comparison with the antics of Education Minister Christopher Pyne last week in his defence of his backflip over the Gonski  reforms.

There are signs in the polls that this trend in public is beginning to tire of this particular approach to politics


Michael Clarke’s sledge

There’s been a lot written about the confrontation between Michael Clarke and James Anderson, the stupid of which must be from Kristina Keneally now Basketball Australia chief executive, who believes that threatening to break someone’s arm on the cricket field is just ” theatre”. Well, no, Kristina and I’m sure that the many parents of children who play basketball in Australia would be horrified by your comments.

There was a time when being the captain of the Australian cricket team carried the respect and prestige equal to being the Prime Minister. That is probably still the case. But it’s hardly a comparison that we can be proud of as Australians given the antics of Tony Abbott and Michael Clarke.

When the Australian captain has to resort to threats of violence to gain a competitive edge, it’s probably time to step back and have a good hard look at the priorities. International cricket teams go on the field to win. A great fast bowler is  a powerful weapon. And it’s true that the bouncer is an accepted part of the fast bowlers arsenal because it exposes the batsmen to some danger.

It’s a delicate line to tread, the one between unsettling a batsmen by keeping them concerned about their physical safety and overtly threatening, and wishing to do, serious injury.

On one side for this line is sportsmanship, on the other side downright thuggery.

It’s a pity that the current Australian captain isn’t able to see where that line is.

Ja’mie goes off and moves on

The Ja’mie King  “Private Schoolgirl” saga has finally and fortunately come to an end. There is no doubting that  Chris Lilley is probably one of Australia’s most talented comic writers and actors. But Ja’mie only has enough substance to be a single comedy sketch. After a very short time, this character’s antics begin to wear thin and watching becomes a source of fascinated horror rather than enjoyment. There is certainly material in this program that could be developed considerable effect.

There are a number of relationships that may have comic potential.  For example, the relationship between Ja’mie and her mother Jhyll  (what’s not to love in a name like that), but it is not developed. The triangle between Ja’mie’s mother, father and his “personal assistant” is not developed.  As they stand in the current programme, these relationships are a sideways glance at the effects of the self-preoccupied narcissism of Ja’mie and her father.  The real test for Lilley as a comic writer is whether he can make these characters genuinely funny. I think it’s a big ask.

In the long run, these elements of the programme really only hint at the darker side of characters like Ja’mie King.  In most great comic characters, no matter how appalling, there is something endearing. Think Norman Gunston, Kath and Kim, John Clark in “That Games”. There is nothing endearing about Ja’mie King, she simply appalling, an accurate reflection of teenage life perhaps, but essentially extremely unlikeable.

Unfortunately, much the same criticisms can be levelled at Lilley’s creation Jonah Takalau and it looks like we’re going to get another dose of him on the ABC.

Tim Minchin, another fabulously talented comic has moved on, is playing the role of rock star Atticus Fetch on Showtime‘s Californication . Perhaps it’s time that Chris Lilley moved on as well.

Fixing the academic publishing model

The recent article in the SMH raises a series of interesting issues. The first is that the article is clearly highly supportive of the existing system for publishing academic work. The current system has some serious problems. The first is the preoccupation, Australian universities at least, with publishing in so-called “top tier journals”. This means that these journals are inundated with submissions for publication, creating a huge backlogs and delays in the publication process. The second is that these journals are often controlled by a small cabal of like-minded academics intent on defending their own intellectual territory and orthodoxy. The third disadvantage is that access to published material can be very expensive for anyone who is not a member of an academic department in a university.

The trend to online publishing will only continue. The huge advantage of such a system is that the publication process becomes quicker and the articles more accessible.  The disadvantage is that unscrupulous online publishers, who demand payment for publication, will publish any sort of rubbish. It’s interesting that the less scrupulous of these publishers appeared to be based in Nigeria. So the term “Nigerian” is now synonymous with some kind of scam.

It is time from major overhaul of the publication process.  It is probably also time to take the control of academic publications at the hands of private publishing houses.

Major research universities around the world should form consortia of online publishing houses. Universities would be able to elect to take part in the publishing processes related to any specific discipline in which they have expertise. For instance, RMIT maybe part of the consortia that publishes aeronautical engineering, Melbourne and Monash may choose to participate in the consortia for legal publications etc.

These consortia would establish an open access online repository of publications in their specialized areas.

With this system, it would also be possible to establish an open access review process for academic articles. This would have the advantage of making the review process transparent as the reviewers would be identified and have their reviews published online. The other huge advantage of such a system is that academic publication would then become part of an online discussion forum and constitute an ongoing and dynamic contribution to knowledge.

Such a system would require vision, energy and leadership. It will be interesting to see if any major University stepped up to the plate to fix a system that is quite clearly broken.

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Only two ways out of the parliamentary impasse

It’s a worrying sign for our democracy that the ruling party can only govern by excluding members of the opposition from the Parliament. And despite what the commentariat suggests, this is not a situation of Labor’s making, they are simply extracting political mileage.

One of two things must happen: Ken Smith stands down and Geoff Shaw supports a new speaker that Dennis Napthine appoints or Geoff Shaw supports Ken Smith.

Shaw has nothing to gain by backing down so Napthine should bite the bullet. Should Smith resigned from Parliament as he has threatened, the government has a good chance of winning his seat. Napthine would have the political advantage of claiming he had shown strong leadership and taken the tough decisions. He would also neutralise Labors disruptive tactics.

Getting the climate change debate wrong

In an article in The Age (25/11/13): Parliament’s mid-winter sitting hints at carbon tax repeal wait, there was the opportunity for readers to participate in an  Age Poll

What it showed was that 57% of the  14,319 respondents preferring emission trading scheme, that 28% prefer to keep the carbon tax and 4% support direct action. Hardly surprising.

This type of polling disguises the real issues.  Very few people seriously believe that direct action is going to be an effective policy mechanism for halting and reversing climate change. The real question is not which policy is the best for doing it.

The real question is how we can lift the current Australian target of 5%  to a more effective 25%.   Australia’s carbon emissions will rise 24% by the year 2020.  To break even, that is to make no change in the carbon emissions in the atmosphere, Australia will need to cut its emissions by 24%.

To make inroads in the total carbon in the atmosphere, Australia will need to reduce emissions by more than 24% by 2020.

Conducting polls that demonstrate that the current government’s policies are not popular is pointless and  draws attention away from the fact that all current policies are hopelessly inadequate.

The issue that needs to be addressed is the level of carbon emission reduction that will decrease the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Debates about the relative effectiveness of the carbon tax/emissions trading/direct action are merely rearranging the deck chairs.

Given that the amount of carbon that can be absorbed from the sphere by natural processes is likely to be relatively stable, and possibly decline given the rate that deforestation is occurring, it is important to understand that we need to get the rate of carbon emission significantly below the rate at which it is absorbed by the oceans and by the forests. It is only at this point that progress will be made in reducing the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Click here to see a simple example of this principle in action

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Tony Abbott and the art of the tumble turn

The tumble turn is a technique that swimmers use at the end of the pool to head off  back down the pool in the opposite direction. As a triathlete, Tony Abbott would be familiar with the technique. He is now perfecting it in politics.

Before the election, the then Federal opposition was not prepared to accept  Treasury as a credible source of  economic advice preferring second-rate suburban accountants to provide policy analysis. The same Federal opposition also attacked the government for its deficit spending, particularly in relation to spending done during the Global Financial Crisis, a total of some $40 billion.

In government,  Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have executed a neat tumble turn on both of these issues. The  Prime Minister and the  Treasurer are now  not only taking Treasury’s advice,  but also lifting the Australian debt limit by $200 billion.

In his column in The Age today, Ross Gittins questions whether Abbot will have the political courage to tackle the structural deficit issues that will slowly but steadily draw the struggling economy back into stagnation. Given the increase in the borrowing limit, is more likely that the government will be tempted to court popular support by spending up to that deficit limit. This will make the $40 billion spent by the Rudd government during the GFC look like a mere bagatelle.

Nice Tumbleturn, Tony

Dump and run in Victorian hospitals

The Government’s “dump and run” policy for emergency departments (The Age, 11/11/13) has been rightly criticised. It is possible to model such policies to understand the consequences before the policy is implemented. The modelling of this policy shows a number of outcomes. The first is that it will free up more ambulances to respond to emergency calls. However, the dynamics of the system mean that there are a number of unforeseen consequences. The first is that critical patients, who are at risk of dying while waiting for an ambulance, will continue to be at risk of dying if they are left unattended in emergency wards which are stretched to capacity. The second consequence is twofold.

Staffing in emergency wards will be reduced by the number of ambulance crews who worked as proxy emergency ward staff until beds became available. At the same time, there will be an increase in the number of patients increasing pressure on already stretched resources with the risk of jeopardising patient care. The final, and counterintuitive, outcome is that banning ramping will free up more ambulances to deliver more patients to the already overcrowded and emergency rooms. On balance, this policy would not appear to make an improvement.

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