October 29, 2013 | Graham

The Butler

If I’d been paying closer attention I’d have realised that The Butler was probably about race relations. But then again, maybe not. It stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, but the movie blurb seems deliberately anodyne. So anodyne in fact that if I wasn’t a political tragic, I probably wouldn’t have been moved to go and see it (that and a free ticket to the preview from Hopscotch Films – thanks Samantha Brooks).

Inspired by a true story and set against the tumultuous backdrop of 20th century American history, ‘The Butler’ stars Forest Whitaker alongside a stellar ensemble cast including Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, John Cusack, Robin Williams, Alan Rickman and Vanessa Redgrave to name just a few.  This epic drama chronicles the story of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), who for three decades served as chief butler for eight consecutive US presidents including Dwight D. Eisenhower, JFK, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  Working intimately with these world leaders at the White House, Gaines became a firsthand witness to history and the inner workings of the Oval Office.  From there he watched the changing tides of American politics and race relations, experiencing the effects as both an insider and a family man. 

While I teared-up a few times (people putting their lives on the line in the interests of humanity and justice has that effect on me) there were other times when I bristled. Forest Whitaker delivered a sensitive portrayal of his character, but there was an annoying Forrest Gump quality to it – could one man’s life really have had so many intersections with the historically notable?

The piece is also stacked-full of Democrat-aligned actors, not in itself a bad thing when they are of the quality of Vanessa Redgrave, Robyn Williams and Jane Fonda, but a pointer that this movie might lean on the didactic side.

And there was one spot at the end where I felt I’d stumbled into the longest Democrat political ad in history. They wouldn’t do that would they? Yes they could.

A number of US presidents make an appearance, most portrayed by an actor, but Gerald Ford and Billy Carter are glossed-over in file footage, presumably because nothing significant enough in race relations happened on their watch.

The most intriguing presidential portrayal was Reagan. I’m not sure what Nancy would have thought to be portrayed by “Hanoi Jane”, but Reagan came across as a personally decent, though morally wrong, man. While supporting apartheid South Africa, he is the president who ensures that the Whitehouse’s black domestic staff get the same pay as the white ones.

That there can be many ways of achieving the same ends is the central tension in the movie, realised in the attitudes of the black butler and his son.

If you want a refresher on the black civil rights movement in the US, and a reminder that while the US sees itself as the great defender of liberty, as little as 50 years ago a huge percentage of its population was still living in virtual slavery as less than second class citizens this is it.

It’s a refresher worth taking.

Posted by Graham at 7:55 am | Comments (1) |
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October 22, 2013 | Graham

Have boobs displaced breasts?

I’ve always had a slightly antique turn of phrase. It comes from early exposure to the King James version of the bible and as a child being allowed to pick-up and read any book in our house, whenever it was written.

But I’ve also thought I was very sensitive to the nuance of language, partly as a result of the activities outlined in the first paragraph. I’m certainly no fuddy-duddy demanding that the meanings of words be preserved just as they were the day they first brought into existence. Indeed that would be impossible as words are not that precise. Once they are used more than once, many of them lose their shiny bright exactness. Nouns may be fairly precise – the sun is always sol that we see in our sky – but adjectives are very slippery.

Even lexicographers whose job it is to maintain the meanings of words spend most of their time enumerating the various meanings of words at the moment, and the rest, what they meant in the past. One of the greatest pleasures in discovering the multi-volume OED in the Under Grad library was the archaeological delving into origins and derivations – who used this word first, where and when?

So I was surprised to be laughed at the other day by some of those closest to me when I referred to the human mammary glands as “breasts”.

Apparently anyone under 50 now refers to one of those parts of the body most celebrated in art and culture as “boobs”.

As if to confirm this fact, a huge billboard stands at the Valley Fiveways, above where the brothel used to be, declaring “Bonds is for boobs” – apparently the brassiere is no longer for breasts.

I’m hoping I’m wrong, and it’s just a teenage girl thing to refer to breasts as boobs, because it seems a completely inadequate word for such beautiful things.

And I say “beautiful things” advisedly. There are cultural differences, but most western societies insist that modest dress involves covering the female breast (although the same does not always apply to the male breast).

Female breasts (just can’t bring myself to say “boobs”, sorry) are eulogised in erotic literature, including the Song of Solomon in the aforementioned Bible, and they make brief and teasing, and not so brief, appearances in painting from the Renaissance on.

They also have a profound place in eroticism. Every boy’s adolescence involves a fascination with breasts, which doesn’t seem to diminish with age. It involves sideways glances at the girls at the beach, or standing next to the magazine rack in the service station queue. For girls, adolescence involves trying to stay out of the way of these gazes, without repelling them entirely.

“Boob” has such an ugly sound. While it’s not onomatopoeia I think there ideally should be a certain synaesthesia about a good word, and breasts deserve a good word, not this single syllable that just plops into conversation with no finesse. The only synaesthetic compliment I’d give “boobs” is that, looked at as a series of lines on paper, it is rounded and symmetrical, like breasts.

I’m afraid I can’t divorce the word from the meaning I originally attached to it, I think after reading Pinocchio, of “dunce”, a meaning which goes back to the 1500s. Apparently there is an alternative etymology which goes back to Germany in the 17th century, but used to refer to breasts it was slang – not a proper usage.

Which doesn’t answer the question of “Why abandon ‘breast'”?

This is the part that most interests me. Is it just the word that has shifted, or are we seeing the desexualisation of the mammaries? Displacement of breast by boob seems dismissive of the organ itself, as though it is of no account. Breast is discrete, but boob is out there, almost without the need for a bra (or is that a Bonds?)

Or am I imagining it all?



Posted by Graham at 8:06 am | Comments (11) |
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October 21, 2013 | Ronda Jambe

Homeland Insecurity

It’s coming up to Halloween, and after nearly a month in my native land, I’m spooked. It’s not just the flamboyant (and clever) displays of skeletons emerging from the ground, cobwebs on trees, and assorted ghoulish creatures displayed, red eyes blinking and heads bobbing, in the shops along with the orange candies and pumpkins.

It’s the zombie culture. Something has taken hold, and seeing how a harmless children’s event has become a major commercial centre of attraction and source of adult control and management is just a small part of what makes me nervous.

‘Fewer temporary Halloween shops in strip malls a sign of economic recovery!’ is a paraphrase of one screaming article in the local paper. All the headlines scream, the current affairs interviewees shout at each other, and the Congress marches in a trance towards a cliff of their own making.

The comedian Sebastian Maniscalco captures the angst: he ‘doesn’t get it’ – the obsession with tattoos, the gushing over free samples in the malls. I don’t get a place where people think elegant dining can take place on a highway or that Times Square is now cool because there are tables and chairs, although the decibel level would rival a jet plane.

I don’t get TV programs about Christmas decorations, or ‘storage wars’ about what is found in abandoned garages.

Yet people are pleasant, polite, helpful to a fault. They stop their cars if you even look like you want to cross the street, they run endless school and church charity functions, they help their neighbors.

But the creepy feelings won’t go away. It pops up in articles about the pornografication of Halloween and everything else, and in stupid videos and celebrity obsessions with jerks like Miley Cyrus.

The level of debate about important national issues, like health insurance reform, doesn’t touch underlying drivers such as the terrible gerrymandering of electoral boundaries or the corporate control of Congressional funding and campaigns.

Always shell-shocked after a few weeks, I can only sigh over information being neglected in the rush for pumpkin-flavoured bagels.

Old news now, still coming at them like a freight train. More Sandy hurricanes to come.

And the zombies Down Under might also like to read this old article  with your fire-reddened eyes, lots more recent ones on the same theme:

Feeling The Economic Impact Of Climate Change by Adam Frank:


Posted by Ronda Jambe at 3:30 am | Comments (1) |
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October 11, 2013 | Graham

Vale Don Allan

Regular On Line Opinion contributor Don Allan has died. An obituary was published in the Canberra Times yesterday, and he gave a preview of his death on his own blog under the title “My death has been suspended (temporarily)“.

Don was an interesting contributor – you could never be sure what position he would take, nor how broadly acceptable that position might be. I found out in his CT obituary that at one time he ran a strip club – I wouldn’t have guessed that either.

I recall having some fact-checking discussions with him, which are rare with On Line Opinion because we publish opinion. But when opinion comes from an amateur in an expert field, and that opinion is likely to be widely challenged, some checking is in order. Not only does it save our reputation, but it doesn’t harm the reputation of the contributor.

In Don’s case his interest was in nuclear fusion, a technology that has been promising much in the area of stationary energy for 50 years and failing to deliver (except in the form of solar energy where it powers everything you can see).

Strangely he never wrote for us about disability, despite being award a Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to people with disabilities, of which he was one.

Hopefully there will be some more Don Allans out there, ready to fill the void in Aussie opinion.

Indeed, Don has posthumously give us a reference. As the reader who alerted me to his death told me this morning “Don spoke positively of Online Opinion and loved the deeper discussion that is missing so much in public debate these days.” Amen to that.

Posted by Graham at 1:03 pm | Comments Off on Vale Don Allan |
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October 09, 2013 | Nick

Remuneration of politicians

I have quite a few friends who are politicians. A decent chunk of them earn much less than they could in the private sector. Some of them left much more lucrative jobs to go into politics. Others that I know undoubtedly obtained a pay rise by going into representative politics, and I wonder whether they would ever have earned as much in any other pursuit.

I make these observations because, when people argue that politicians are not paid enough, I am left wondering: how much is enough? If some people take the job despite the fact that they could have made much more, and others get the job despite being unable to command anywhere near as much anywhere else, how do you determine what is fair?

The point is important at the moment because the debate over travel allowances brings with it the debate as to what is fair remuneration for our politicians.

Outside representative politics, most remuneration packages are established in a competitive setting. Both the public and private sector work to attract people through a combination of monetary reward and job conditions.

An employer makes decisions about the salary package based on its objectives. Is it more important to have the best person for the position, or simply an adequate person? If the latter, the employer will probably offer a lower wage. The employment market proceeds upon the assumption that, all other things being equal, the more talented and effective the employee, the higher the pay.

When an employer wants to employ someone, the common process is to advertise for applicants. Each applicant competes with the other applicants by arguing that he/she is the most meritorious applicant.

There are, of course, distortions in the employment market; reasonable ones like minimum wages, and less reasonable ones like unfair dismissal laws which protect underperforming employees and make it harder for unemployed people to get jobs. That said, there is a market, and, generally speaking, it is competitive.

There is no real competition of this kind for jobs as elected representatives. The number of people who get elected because of who they are, rather than because of the political force with which they are affiliated can, in any parliament, be counted on one hand. There is really only a competitive market for candidates, and it is a market populated by people who – almost exclusively – desperately want to be elected representatives.

These are people who have already looked at the salary package and said “alright”. In each case, the applicant has to convince a party to endorse them, rather than electors to elect them. It will come as no surprise that the skill set for which a political party looks is more to do with the candidate’s capacity to win than with the candidate’s potential to contribute to a parliamentary party.

It would be unfair to say that the latter criterion is not important in a pre-selection. In my experience it is very important; just not as important as the candidate’s capacity to win.

That preference for campaigning skills over governing skills is easily understood. At any given time, a political party already has its small group of people who will do the governing if it is elected. In any season of pre-selections, it is not looking to supplement that group. It is looking for foot-soldiers able to be sent into battle to bring power to that group. If some of the foot-soldiers are good prospects for the future, so much the better.

A party candidate is never elected because the electorate as a whole has endorsed that candidate’s personal qualities. Yes, some candidates are excellent and swing the last few votes required to get a marginal seat across the line, but even then, those last few votes are obtained by selling a party line as much as they are by selling a particular candidate. That candidate’s most valuable skill is as a campaigner; his/her talent as a legislator is secondary.

All of this has to be taken into account when examining the proposition that politicians should be paid more because it is the only way that you attract the best people. My view is that the pay has very little to do with attracting the best people.

At this point, one must ask: who are the best people?

If the best people are people like Malcolm Turnbull – highly successful business people who also demonstrate an enthusiasm for public policy – then the argument falls over at the first hurdle. Politics will never be an economically attractive proposition to such people.

Parliamentary salaries could never be raised so high. Any organisation that wanted to attract the sort of people we are talking about by paying the right amount would have to pay more than $500,000 a year.

The thing is, even if you raised salaries that high, the barrier to entry posed by party pre-selections prevents the desired outcome. The mere fact that people better qualified to legislate are attracted to apply for pre-selection does not necessitate the conclusion that the best-qualified will end up in Parliament. The interests of political parties in winning elections will still trump any desire (if it actually exists) for better legislators.

This is not to say that lower salaries and poor work conditions for politicians have no effect on the market for candidates. When John Howard decided to abolish the parliamentary pension, I made a decision that the remuneration package was simply not enough. I earn a decent chunk more than a federal MP and I will have responsibilities for a long time to come. I would really like to have a crack at politics. I think I would be a strong contributor, but it will have to wait until I have raised my son to adulthood and made sure he is okay. Then, assuming I can persuade my deeply sceptical spouse, I can afford to be a bit more cavalier about my own economic position.

Similarly, plenty of people – myself included – will be heavily discouraged by the requirement basically to ignore one’s family. That said, at the higher end of the salary scale, there are plenty of people already prepared to do that.

The thing is, the logic does not stop with whether I’d be willing to be a parliamentarian. It misses the critical point: could I convince my party (the LNP) to select me as a candidate? I flatter myself that I could, but I can’t really know. As I say, those who make the decision will not prioritise my competence to be a member of parliament so much as my competence to be part of a campaign team.

So, a higher salary does not necessarily – indeed, likely will not – result in a very different make-up of parliamentary bodies. The central determinants have little to do with how much a parliamentarian is paid.

Ultimately, politics is a vocation. Most who pursue it are not motivated by money. They may be motivated by the will to power. They may be motivated by the incredible balm which apparent electoral approval offers to the ego, even though, as we all know, few individuals ever really obtain electoral approval on their own accounts. They may be motivated by the capacity, according to their own lights, to do good for their communities and their country. Most commonly, they are motivated by a combination of these things.

The discussion then has to be about what is fair remuneration in a moral sense, not what is economic in a market sense. What should we pay our politicians to be fair to them?

I think politicians’ remuneration has to take into account the following factors:
• there is any number of people willing to take the jobs they have;
• the undoubted sacrifice of family life it involves and the protection which most of the community receives against such sacrifice through industrial laws;
• the fact that, ultimately, it involves public service rather than participation in free-market activity and that public service usually involves some level of sacrifice;
• the fact that there will be a wide diversity of people in a parliament and that no argument can really be made that, on their varying skill sets and talents, one salary level is appropriate;
• the corollary that the salary is more of an honorarium to ensure that anyone who undertakes the service can live comfortably as distinct from remuneration fixed in a competitive market place;
• the further fact that a large part of what they do with their time is not directed towards public business but towards getting re-elected, which is really party business.

On that basis, it is difficult to conclude that the base remuneration of a federal backbencher is anything other than fair and adequate. It is significantly above the average income. It probably does not reflect what would be paid for a job of similar intensity in the ordinary economy, but taking into account its vocational nature and the sacrifice implicit in public service, it provides a means for parliamentarians to live comfortably.

So, I come to the issue of politicians’ allowances; what to do with travel allowances and the like? If they are really just compensations for the fact that politicians feel underpaid, then they have no real justification and should be abolished. The ethical approach is to improve base salaries and leave them to meet their own expenses.

The worst of the entitlements, in my view, is the study tour. There have been some laughable examples from both sides of politics published in the newspapers this week. For my money, the worst was Laurie Ferguson’s trip to study the plight of the Roma people in Hungary. Mr Ferguson justified it by saying he has a longstanding interest in human rights? So what?

It may be conceded that it would be better if our MP’s were more rounded, better read people, but that could be true in virtually any job that relies principally upon the exercise of intellect. I have many colleagues – both employed and self-employed – who are very well read and very well travelled. They bring the benefit of that experience to their work, but they paid for it themselves, because that is how the real world works.

There is simply no analogue in the ordinary economy for a study tour, with the possible exception of academia. In my experience, even then, academics are left to spend their own money rather than have great levels of subsidy, scholarships aside.

It seems to me that backbenchers have little to do outside their electorates other than travel to Parliament, and perhaps to do committee work. Once one comes to that conclusion, much of the difficulty with ambiguous rules and what can be claimed slips away.

The situation for frontbenchers, particularly opposition frontbenchers, is more complex. They have to travel to do their jobs. They have to do what they can to hold the government to account and this will obviously involve travelling to meet with people and to undertake research.

Of course, in this space, there is no clear distinction between what is campaigning and what is holding the government to account, but that is not a major problem. There is an obvious public interest in frontbenchers from both sides being able to travel to campaign so that the public has the benefit of hearing both sides of the argument in making up its mind.

So here is what I think is the best answer to how our politicians should be remunerated:
• backbenchers should be entitled to travel expenses for attending Parliament and for attending meetings of committees as well as to a fully funded car;
• country backbenchers should be entitled to travel expenses within their electorates;
• frontbenchers should be entitled to a fixed amount for travel expenses for whatever purposes they deem appropriate as well as the backbenchers’ entitlements;
• there should be no more study tours or publication allowances;
• there should be a small increase in salaries to allow for the loss of those benefits (say, $10,000 per annum).


Update: As is pointed out by Brosh in the comments section, the study tour has been abolished.  Judith Sloan has something to say about that at Catallaxy.

Posted by Nick at 2:50 pm | Comments (6) |

October 04, 2013 | Graham

Minor parties plan assault on political duopoly

The election of Cathy McGowan in Indi has energised some minor and micro party supporters to become more professional. Whether they can have the same success remains to be seen, but they’re getting together to discuss how to use existing organisations and new technology to take on the major party duopoly.

Calling themselves the Heart and Soul of Australia they’re holding a summit this Monday.

As Joanne Stuart from Centre for Civil Society says:

The electoral dynamics in ‘safe seats’ are often misunderstood. If an incumbent politician can be reduced to less than 50% of the vote, a community-based third candidate can win if they poll in the 20s, ahead of other groups, and receive their preferences. In Indi, the Liberal won 45%, and the traditional opponent (the ALP) just 12%. Cathy McGowan polled 30%, but because she received preferences from the Greens (8%), other minor parties, and the ALP, she won the seat.

In safe Labor seats, a reverse scenario applies. If the ALP vote can be reduced to less than 50%, and a community-based third candidate polls more than the Liberals, then preferences can enable a community win. Independent Andrew Wilkie won the previously ‘safe’ Labor seat of Denison in Hobart this way in 2010 with less than 20% of the primary vote, but received preferences from all other non-Labor parties. He was re-elected on 7 September with a swing of 18%.

Traditionally ‘safe seats’ are much easier for community third candidate to win than traditionally ‘marginal’ electorates. In a marginal where Labor and Liberal each get 40%, it is hard for a community challenger to finish second – because both of the majors think they can win and therefore campaign hard. In a ‘safe seat’, they don’t bother campaigning seriously, and it is realistic for a challenger to aim to finish second.

So watch out if you’re in a safe seat.

They are particularly targeting state elections, with planning starting at the summit.

New technologies appear to be a key to what is planned.

Craig Lambie will lead this Summit. Craig is an IT whizz and campaigner, who previously developed The Greens’ technology platform for their campaigns. Craig has begun planning a strategy and campaign platform that will enable us to develop a large-membership organization in preparation for next year’s state election campaigns, with a particular focus on the Victorian election in November.

Posted by Graham at 5:26 pm | Comments (3) |

October 02, 2013 | Graham

The Downer two-step

The chance that Alexander Downer was playing a lone hand in his comments on Indonesia is about as close to zero as possible. Australian commentary and political leadership had got to the stage where the goal of foreign policy was not to offend anyone and not much else. Abbott  needed that to change.

Downer’s comments reframed the relationship with Indonesia, helping to give Abbott much more room within which to move.

His proposition was that there is a sovereignty issue between Indonesia and Australia, and that issue is that the boats which illegally bring people here leave Indonesian ports, manned by Indonesian crews.

Subsequently we found that the Indonesian army is also involved, although undoubtedly Downer knew that from his time as foreign minister.

Since 2007 Australia’s foreign policy has veered all over the place, showing a distinct lack of understanding, nuance and self-confidence. We managed to offend countries at the same time we were trying to curry favour with them, and our fixation with winning a place on the Security Council further warped our policies and behaviour.

The contempt with which we were held was amply demonstrated by the comments from Marty Natalegawa, and the leaking of meeting notes between him and Julie Bishop.

Downer, Australia’s longest serving foreign minister, and still an active participant in Liberal Party politics was a perfect foil. Neither the current minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, nor Tony Abbott, could publicly buy into the argument without making the position more difficult to negotiate, but Downer had the standing to do it for them.

This is a very subtle, and seemingly effective, approach.

One hopes ministers in other areas are paying attention.

Over the years Labor and the left-wing establishment has been very successful in colonising public debate.

Tony Abbott has noted that “the government has changed”, but winning elections is not winning the war. The government needs a network of allies and allied organisations that can put the case for change and help to win the battles that must be won in order to change Australia.

The “Downer two-step” shows how it can be done.

Yes, results count, but results will not be achieved in most cases without argument as well. That’s an area where the coalition has been traditionally weak.

Posted by Graham at 10:35 pm | Comments (8) |

October 01, 2013 | Ronda Jambe

The Movement Against Violent Islam

The recent attacks by Al Shebab on a Nairobi mall, and even more recently the slaughter in their sleep of Nigerian students by Boko Haram added impetus to a global movement of moderate and peace-loving Muslims. They are joined by groups opposed to the bombings in Pakistan, the radicalisation of the civil war in Syria, and the ongoing violence against Christians in Egypt. Iraq is another site of ongoing religious and sectarian violence where the movement is taking hold.

These moderates know that Islam cannot function as a global creed while violence against its own people (such as the age old conflict between Sunnis and Shiites), or other religions, continues to destroy any credibility of Islam as a way forward to stability, justice and tolerance.

The Movement Against Violent Islam acknowledges the supremacy of international human rights agreements and pledges to obey national laws, while rejecting the more barbaric aspects of traditional, tribal, and sharia catechisms.

The moderates also recognise that violence and suppression of women is a big negative for their faith, so they advocate equal opportunity for women in education, the home, and the professions. Part of their manifesto is that no woman should be compelled to cover herself or wear the headscarf. They call loudly for respect to be shown to all women, regardless of their marital status or dress code.

The Movement Against Violent Islam now has groups in all countries with significant Islamic populations. It has also led to ecumenical communication between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, as a response to the increased awareness of the horrific treatment of women in those countries. This shared concern was triggered in part by the ghastly rape and murder of a young Indian woman and the shooting in the head of a Pakistani girl who advocated education for girls.

This group is gaining strength as the wider world community realises that conflicts generally are not primarily religious, but are about  control, often manifested as violence disguising anger at social injustice. The weakest groups, women and children, suffer the most, but no one is spared in events such as we are increasingly seeing. Poverty leads families to place young girls in unsuitable marriages where they are then vulnerable to fatal abuse. In Yemen, for example, a girl bled to death on her wedding night, after being married off to a man 5 times her age. She was 8.

I applaud the efforts of the peaceful Muslim community and their brave leaders, who are often targetted themselves for advocating  non-violence in politics and full equality for women. But they can take comfort in knowing that their efforts to end religious and sexual  violence is supported in such places as the New York Times. Yoko Ono’s plea for an end to all wars appeared as a full page poem in that paper yesterday, along with a cat drawing by John Lennon.

So, please, gentle readers, if you have a contact or website for the Movement Against Violent Islam, a social media site, or even know of a Twitter feed, please share it. My heart aches to support it.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 5:36 am | Comments (5) |
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