Its a nice thought but Labor is not going to soft pedal on the Greens

Today I read two articles arguing why Labor should not vigorously campaign to take votes from the Greens as we approach the federal election instead allowing both parties to focus attention on tackling the conservatives.

You can read the article by Dennis Altman here and by Nicholas Barry here.

I’m not getting into whether the suggestions by Altman or Barry are worthwhile aspirations instead I want to address their key points in our current political climate – and I just don’t buy the core political arguments being made.

The first broad argument is laying off the Greens can deliver a better preference deal for Labor; the second argument, Labor should see the Greens as kindred-spirits and work more cooperatively to maximise the non-conservative vote.

Both suggestions would have been useful to the Greens and Labor at last federal election but the current political climate is very different.

The preference argument doesn’t stack up for me because Labor is in the box seat where Greens preferences are concerned. Federally, voters must indicate a preference and I just don’t see how the Greens could or would, in the current political climate, encourage their supporters to preference Liberal. This leaves the question of the Senate and I think here, based on recent polling trends, it will be the Greens most in need of Labor preferences. I’m not convinced Labor could easily be convinced to back off attempts to retake votes from the Greens in this climate – there just isn’t enough in it for them.

The higher your vote the better position your party will be in to negotiate a preference deal. Labor will simply campaign hard, taking as many votes from the Greens as possible and only then make a final decision about preferences.

The second argument is Labor should work more cooperatively with the Greens to maximise the non-conservative vote. Since Labor has already devised a strategy to begin retaking many of the votes they have lost to the Greens over the last three election cycles its hard to see why Labor would now see any political benefit for themselves in soft pedaling on the Greens.

It is time the Greens realised Labor is unlikely to do them any favours prior to the federal poll – you can argue all you want about whether it is in the long-term interests of both parties but the fact is Labor is going to be interested only in their own political health. And if you listen to Labor figures like Paul Howes the Greens could well be the focus of a good deal of Labor’s attacks.

This means the Greens need to work out why their vote is softening, realise Labor will not be doing them any favours and start thinking seriously about where the preferences needed to retain senate seats are likely to come from.

Bringing democracy to University of Queensland Union

University of Queensland, Brisbane. Pic: UQ.

For once I get to write about democracy and not criticise events in Burma. This post is about events at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

University elections have a reputation for being hard fought. There is a combination of young people with a lot of free time, developing ideological commitments and the fact there is really no independent regulation of how elections are conducted or how incumbents perform. Since campus newspapers are owned and edited by the student associations and are published around six times per year they really can’t be expected to fulfill the role of an independent critical media.

I’ve written previously about the importance of maintaining student control over student services (there is an article from Online Opinion here) but as should be the case with any system of ‘government’ whether it is municipal, trade union, company, state or federal government there needs to be a system of checks and balances.

This is crucial to make sure a majority elected fairly at one election does not simply change the rules or disqualify opponents to make sure they remain in office indefinitely.

I studied politics at the University of Queensland, lived in the area for a decade and even helped  a pal run for UQ Union (from memory he was keen to highlight how John Howard’s Liberals taxed beer rather than champagne). But as a UQ student my political focus was off-campus where I represented the university and surrounding areas in State Parliament so I avoided ever seriously getting involved with UQ Union. But many of my friends did.

Pals contested elections and participated in on-campus debate. For many their involvement with UQ Union was their first serious political involvement and forged the beginnings of careers in politics, public policy, journalism and academia. Student Unions have been a political training ground for all parties for generations.

This is why we should take what happens with student elections seriously – it often sets the boundaries for what is acceptable in future political activity. And this is why the actions of the current leadership of UQ Union are both surprising and right to criticise.

Yesterday my Facebook newsfeed started to fill with news of friends supporting a group called ‘Democracy 4 UQU’. You can find this site here, it states “The University of Queensland Student Union has disqualified all major competitors in this years Student Elections”.

Here is the story as far as ‘Democracy 4 UQU’ is concerned:
“This year at the University of Queensland, all major competitors for the UQ Student Union have been disqualified in a blatant manipulation and politicisation of the electoral system.

The incumbent Fresh Union have modified the electoral rules the day before they announced the election to prevent competition and to guarantee control of the $16 million dollar association. By appointing their associate as Returning Officer, refusing to notify councillors of meetings and limiting recourse to an independent electoral tribunal, not to mention refusing to announce the opening of nomination or election dates they have deprived UQ Students of their right to democratic representation.”

This is one side of this story and there no doubt is another, but these concerns warrant independent consideration. There shouldn’t be anything to concern the decision makers about their decisions being open to public debate and consideration, particularly considering the size of the budget of UQ Union.

The ‘Fresh’ team has for years been associated with the Liberals. If this is how they are training their youngsters then Australian voters are right to be concerned and question what steps the Queensland Liberal National Party leadership are prepared to take to pull their younger members in to line with democratic values. And University of Queensland students will rightly question how their once prestigious Student Union has come to be unfavourably compared to some of the anti-democratic states they can learn about in the Arts Politics course.

Why the Green Vote Will Rise in 2012, article in April ‘The King’s Tribune’

In April’s The King’s Tribune I respond to Drag0nista’s piece ‘Have the Greens Peaked Already‘ and argue the Greens vote can rise in 2012. Here is the link to my article.

Also, you should encourage local publishing and public policy debate by buying The King’s Tribune at your newsagent.

Burma’s changes must go beyond the political

Yangon street near the Strand, the architecture speaks of prosperity. Sadly, that's the last mention I heard of prosperity in Yangon. Photo taken election day 2010.

Article from National Times, December 9, 2011.

Burma holds the record for the world’s oldest military regime and governments don’t break records for longevity without knowing a thing or two about effective ways to hold on to power. In this field the regime’s skills are impressive. A wrecked economy, health-care funding at medieval levels, rampant corruption, an overwhelming opposition election victory and a popular uprising led by Burma’s revered monks and still the military retain effective control. It’s through this lens Australia should consider recent decisions by Burma’s notionally civilian government and take this opportunity to encourage it towards domestic policy change going well beyond the release of political prisoners.

Let’s consider some recent decisions by the new government that have so convinced many including governments such as Singapore’s, organisations such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) and many commentators that Burma is on an un-turning road to positive change: recently scores of people who should never have been jailed in the first place were released from Burmese prisons; the Myitsone dam, regarded as a serious threat to the downstream health of the country’s most important river and the livelihoods of millions of citizens, was canned; the government is engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose party overwhelmingly won the country’s last free election; and there is apparently less direct government censorship of the media.

Of course it is good news when unfairly jailed people are released from prison, but releasing 200 of Burma’s around 2000 political prisoners cannot be considered a great leap forwards. This figure is especially galling considering the reasons for many of the jailings include “crimes” such as “speaking with the International Labour Organisation” or simply actively supporting democracy.

Likewise, the decision to halt construction of the Myitsone dam is positive. But surely no national government expects international praise for stopping a project that would cause such catastrophic consequences for its own citizens downstream. The regime’s positions on so many matters have been so bad for so long that any reasonable step is now seen as disproportionately positive and praiseworthy.

In any country aside from Burma these actions would be seen as well overdue, not worthy of praise let alone reward. But Burma has been rewarded with closer ties with western nations and a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While hardliners might find recent decisions somewhat distasteful there’s really nothing happening to fundamentally undermine the military’s pre-eminence. There’s a wiliness too in the way the government drip-feeds announcements of each successive decision.

In practical terms the regime’s desires are simple: they want the removal of sanctions for economic reasons and they want the chair of ASEAN in 2014 for prestige and political reasons in the short-term and economic reasons in the longer-term. So far, western governments such as the US and Australia sensibly haven’t indicated an immediate desire to budge on sanctions, but there does seem to be an increasing likelihood Burma will assume the ASEAN chair and host the 2014 ASEAN summit.

All of this poses a significant dilemma for western nations who are reluctant to remove sanctions too soon but want positive changes, both small and big, to continue. Australia, like the US, believes the release of Burma’s remaining political prisoners is a pre-condition for the removal of sanctions but a focus on political prisoners exclusively risks wasting an opportunity to achieve further important changes within Burma.

Australia should take the opportunity afforded by the Burmese government’s new openness to put on the table a desire to see other practical changes within the country before sanctions are lifted. Obviously the prisoner release is a given but Australia should also include a desire to see a significant increase in government spending on health care for ordinary Burmese citizens.

Burma’s health-care spending consistently ranks near the bottom of global statistical tables and, not surprisingly, health outcomes do too. According to the World Health Organisation, the life expectancy of Burmese citizens is well below the global average and poor when compared to other countries in the region. This has rightfully been a cause for significant criticism from NGOs but so far, improvements in health for Burma’s citizens is not a pre-condition for western nations removing economic sanctions. This should change.

There is an opportunity for Australia to take the international lead and make the provision of better health care for Burma’s citizens a key issue, alongside the release of political prisoners, that could lead to the removal of sanctions. This would provide genuine encouragement for Burma’s new government to re-order budget priorities dedicating more funds to health while giving western nations an important domestic goal. It would also significantly improve the lot of ordinary Burmese citizens and be a further measure against which the country’s progress can be judged.

Unlike political change within Burma, which experience shows, can be all too easily reversed at the whim of the country’s leaders, spending on health care would be more difficult to quickly reverse and would deliver positive results for Burma’s citizens in the meantime.

The Burmese government might be open to a better dialogue with western nations but the question now for Australia is whether we are open to a smarter engagement with Burma aimed squarely at delivering better results for ordinary Burmese whose welfare has for too long been invisible to the international community and, most tragically, also to their rulers.

Here is a link to the same article on the National Times website:

http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/politics/burmas-changes-must-go-beyond-the-political-20111209-1on2p.html

Dustin the Turkey and why Fianna Fáil are letting Ireland down (…again) by not contesting the Presidential election

Dustin...not in the race...much the same as Fianna Fáil

First a confession. Feck, this is already sounding Irish… anyway a confession: recently I joked my favourite candidate for Irish President, of those who seem to be in the mix, was Dustin the Turkey.

My fondness for Dustin’s singing ability and devil may care attitude is well known. And over a few Tigers we were discussing the potential entry into the race of celebrity candidate Gay Byrne and the exit of Senator David Norris. My beer-assisted argument was if a celebrity like Byrne, who claims no political affiliation, can be taken seriously then surely a celebrity like Dustin, who’s taken an interest in public policy previously advocating extending the DART to Cork, would be taken just as seriously.

Byrne, after all, never made it to Eurovision or released a single, ahem CD, with Geldof. And what’s one more bird in the Phoenix Park? At least this one can sing and I am lead to believe, use indoor plumbing [this we know because the RTE takes a dim view of guests who don’t and probably wouldn’t have them back]. Dustin himself started the rumour about a possible run via his twitter feed.

Ok, obviously, I was joking and obviously there’s no way Dustin can stand. Being a Dub he is unlikely he could garner the requisite number of council nominations. And, well, he’s a turkey.

Chirping about the faux candidacy of a celebrity bird is a result of my exasperation with the Irish political class’ treatment of the Presidency as just another office and just another election.

The Irish Presidency is hugely historically significant and a position of great honour and responsibility. For the Irish abroad the Presidency’s importance should never be underestimated. The diaspora who remember how they felt hearing President Robinson’s placement of a symbolic light in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin as a beacon of hope and welcome for the Irish abroad will know just what I mean.

This all means I’ve found another reason to be ticked off with Fianna Fáil. A long list just got a few lines longer. Last week it was the party’s vacillation about whether to nominate a Presidential candidate. Today its FF’s decision not to field a candidate because, according to news reports, it wouldn’t be in the party’s best interests.

Ireland’s biggest and historically most successful political party isn’t interested in contesting the Presidential election because they might lose. FF is only interested in the Presidency if success is assured. Were this a Cavan County Council election or an MEP ballot fear of losing might wash as a reason not to participate but when it comes to a contested Presidential poll I feel every party who can field a candidate should field a candidate.

Political parties play an important role in democracies and one of their duties must be as an important source of potential national leadership. Once they lose interest in this role, or can’t fulfill it, really all that remains is for them to turn off the lights and close the shop.

We all know FF would lose the Presidential race. Folk are rightly peeved by their stewardship of the country over the last decade but since when did fear of a loss ever give the Irish reason not to race onto the field? It would be like a Irish rugby team the pundits decided was too weak to win simply sitting out a 6 Nations – waiting for the next season. No Irish sporting team would let this happen. But that’s more or less today’s FF tactic.

Right now, Ireland’s economy isn’t far from where it was in 1990 and again Irish are leaving home in significant numbers. These are people who in other economic circumstances would prefer to build their lives in places like Dublin or Donegal or Kerry but circumstances are taking them away from home and in the coming years the Presidency will take on a significance in Irish lore not seen since the last exodus in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Domestically, things aren’t exactly rosy. So I hasten to add, the Presidency just might have some extra resonance for the Irish at home in the next couple of years.

Fianna Fáil’s tactic of hiding and waiting until people have forgotten what a mess they made of the country is also a politically silly tactic mainly because it ignores one of the simple rules of politics – while people will punish you electorally for what you have done in the past, in FF’s case throw them and the Greens resoundingly out of government, folk will only reward you in politics for what they believe you can offer in the future. Voters want to see the best in their representatives and leaders, and will frequently forgive them for past public policy failings if they can see future potential.

FF’s failure to participate is a tacit acceptance not only of their failure as a government in the past but a statement they have no positive agenda for Ireland’s future. Not participating in the Presidential poll will only make the party’s malaise worse and serve to convince even more voters FF has nothing to offer ‘going forward’. This is not only a decision that’s bad for Fianna Fáil, its bad for Irish politics generally.