Thursday, August 16, 2007

Pauline whatsername

Although rejected many times at the Australian ballot box, Pauline Hanson has announced she will run for the a Queensland senate ticket at the next federal election. She's even announced her 'hook' - a moratorium on Muslim immigration to Australia.

Of course we should bear in mind that Pauline is an equal opportunity bigot - at various times in her political career, she's targeted Asians, Aborigines, multinationals and even blamed the Americans for the September 11. Her latest spray at Muslims is unsurprising given the current global climate and her track record.

However, once again, along with demonstrating her political opportunism and bigotry, she's also highlighted he complete lack of sense. Firstly, banning Muslims is an idea that might appeal to some, but its completely impractical. I doubt very much if current Australian immigration forms even ask what your religion is - most official forms don't, except the census and even then its a voluntary question. Does she propose changing the forms, or perhaps identifying Muslims by their names or country of origin? Of course, that would allow Nik Adam (a Muslim) from Malaysia into the country but presumably Elie Yossef (Israeli activist) would be excluded. If its country of origin, perhaps Malaysian Chinese seeking entry into Australia might have a problem. Does she actually believe that any Muslim who really wanted to cause trouble in Australia would not lie on the form, or change their name before migrating ?

Fortunately, assuming that no one else will give her preferences (an Australian feature where if your first choice is not selected, their votes go into another candidate they have nominated), she has got little chance of breaking her duck and being elected (the only times she has actually been elected, it was in 1996 in a Liberal landslide where she was disendorsed but still appeared on the ballot paper as a Liberal).

Before some of our Asian or Arab friends start getting all outraged though, lets consider how many Asian or Arab countries allow immigrants to become citizens if they are not descended from Asian or Arab ancestors. Also consider that there are perhaps hundreds of people in UMNO who regard fifth generation Chinese Malaysians as 'immigrants'. I also have yet to hear Pauline, let alone any mainstream politician threaten to "bathe the sword in Muslim blood", as the current deputy prime minister of Malaysia once did (the bathing of course to be in Chinese blood).

Just because an idiot like Pauline makes these kind of idiotic comments, it doesn't mean that Australians are racist or Australia is a racist nation. However, I am waiting to hear John Howard's reaction - will he condemn the comments outright, or say he "understands and respects the sentiment but its impractical". How Australians react to John Howard at the next election if he dog-whistles to xenophobes once more will provide a better measure of whether Australia is a racist nation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why the ALP lost in 2007

Ok, perhaps the headline may be construed as a bit premature considering the Australian federal election date hasn't even been announced yet, and with Labor still miles ahead in the polls. But recent events have led me to conclude that the always difficult mountain that the ALP had to climb to win federally will now prove beyond them.

First, self-declaration here, I have been involved in polling at a senior level for almost a decade. While this blog is written anonymously I suppose I speak as somewhat of an insider. For some time now, I have been warning anyone who will listen that the polls have been way to good for Labor. This is not the first time this has happened - in 2001 (before Tampa, Sept 11th admittedly) Labor was well in front, in 2004, people believed that Latham was making good progress towards the Lodge. While Howard can't rely on another world-wide terrorist event to save his bacon, this is not the real problem.

It's not that the polls are inaccurate or poorly designed. Or that punters lie. Each of these may occur from time to time but I think that the reality is that people are saying they WOULD vote ALP in a HYPOTHETICAL election. And that is the crux of the matter - it's hypothetical. What they would actually do if they were in front of a ballot box in a real election is something else.

The problem is that the criteria people are using to determine their vote in an opinion poll doesn't necessarily match what they will actually use in a real election. In the current situation, I think the reason Labor has been miles ahead is they have been 'voting' on issues such as IR & Kevin's fresh face, and perhaps the Iraq debacle. These are all issues where people prefer Labor's position or probably more accurately, disagree with the Government's.

In a real poll, economic performance is likely to feature much more strongly in voters minds. The public still rate the Coalition way ahead on managing the economy. If people decide their votes on this criteria, Howard will be re-elected.

The real clincher for me was Labor's decision to run a TVC drawing attention to Howard's promise to keep interest rates low. This is an unbelievably naive move which demonstrates a lack of understanding of how voters think. Elections are won because the agenda people have when voting suits one side or the other. For instance, Clinton beat Bush snr (1992) because people voted on economic performance, which they believed Bush was screwing up. Howard beat Keating (1996) because people were voting on personality, which of course Howard didn't have but at least they didn't want to whack him with a baseball bat. Howard beat Beazley (2001) because people voted on border protection, terrorism and interest rates, all of which Labor was perceived as being soft on.

John Howard would love nothing more than to fight this election on the economy, including interest rates. I would imagine he knows, unlike some senior people in the ALP apparently, that Labor can't win if the election is fought on interest rates. He may have broken his promise to keep interest rates at record lows, but all he has to do during an election is point at some graphs showing interest rates were twice what they are now under the last Labor government, and insinuate that were Labor to win, they would be up at those levels again. This is why I said to a colleague several months ago that it would actually be good for Howard if interest rates went up again before the election - it would drag the media agenda towards the economy, grounds where Labor has been trounced for 11 years politically by the Liberals.

A recent poll published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday illustrates why Labor's strategy is electoral suicide:

"When interest rates rose last week for the fifth successive time since the 2004 election, Mr Howard denied he had broken his promise to keep rates low and offered his stock defence that rates would always be lower under the Coalition than Labor.

The poll asked voters whether rates would be higher or lower now if Labor had won in 2004.

Almost one-third of voters agreed they would be higher under Labor. This was 4 percentage points higher than when the question was last asked a year ago, and 12 points higher than when it was asked in April 2005.

Only 7 per cent believed rates would be lower now had Labor won in 2004. Almost half believed there would be no difference. A year ago 54 per cent believed there would be no difference, and in April 2005, 67 per cent believed there would be no difference. This seems to suggest Mr Howard's argument gains traction as rates rise."

This poll illustrates my point. What I bet it also would indicate if analysed to show it is that swinging voters - the only kind that count politically under the Australian system - are the group more likely to believe interest rates would be higher under Labor. It's been rammed home to them in each of the past three election campaigns, and many argue it's been Howard's greatest political strength. Those who are better educated and more politically sophisticated are less likely to be swinging voters, and these people are probably the ones who understand the 'fact' that interest rates are set by the reserve bank and fluctuate as much according to international events as anything the government does. Unfortunately, Labor has never attempted to counter with this 'fact' and its current strategy doesn't do it either - it simply blames Howard for fibbing.

Labor has to win a huge number of seats to move to the government benches. Since incumbency is hugely important and there will be individual MPs who stand up against the tidal flow to Labor (which will still happen to some extent), Labor requires a huge swing to win. This isn't going to happen if people are voting on the economy and/or interest rates. Its too late for Labor to convince people John Howard isn't really that good at economic management after all, which seems to be the only plausible rationale behind its further drawing attention to interest rates by highlighting them in a TVC.

Labor's only chance to make my headline embarrassing is to get back on message, and fight the election on IR, and Kevin Rudd's fresh face. At least that will ensure they get close enough to win next time.

This is one case where I sincerely hope that my prediction is proved incorrect!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Censorship by another name...

From the New Straits Times today, an interview with Malaysian Federal Deputy Information Minister Datuk Seri Chia Kwang Chye

Q: What about laws to control Internet content?
A: The government has said it will not censor the Internet. However, this does not mean people can abuse it. There is no need for any form of censorship so long as the material does not contravene any civil or criminal laws, and moral and social values. The same applies to all other mediums of communication, not just the Internet.

The Minister was talking about the Malaysian government recent focus on blogs that are critical of the government, for example Raja Petra's as I referred to in an earlier post.

Lets look at the logic of the Minister's statement. The government under Former PM Tun Mahathir promised (no doubt in order to get foreign investment in his multimedia super corridor) that the government would not attempt to censor the internet. Largely, until this point, the government has kept this promise. In a country where there are laws preventing people questioning the constitution, in particular the Malay rights and those of the rulers, and where criticizing the existence, fairness of or even the efficacy of economic privileges extended to even already wealthy Malays on the basis of race is considered worthy of keris-waving and potentially arrest under the Internal Security Act, illegal is a pretty extensive term. This has meant the internet has become a haven for people to express what they really think without fear of reprisals. More importantly, criticism of government officials of the kind that would end the career of a mainstream journalist, the type one reads everyday in most of the world's newspapers, has become a major focus of Malaysian blogs. The inability to shut down dissent and to sweep high-level misdoings under the carpet has caused the government to look for ways to shut down the blogs without calling it censorship.

Just about everywhere in the world that censorship is used, the reason given for it would be nothing other than the argument that certain information may "contravene any civil or criminal laws, and moral and social values." For instance, pornography is restricted in many countries for just that reason, and no one calls the restrictions placed on it anything other than censorship.

In reality, current Malaysian politicians have found Tun Mahathir's promise very inconvenient, and probably wish he had never made it. The tame mainstream press which declined to report on their indiscretions may still be controlled, but they are increasingly aware that more and more Malaysians are discovering the truth about their politicians online. They will know that this is only going to get worse for them as internet penetration in Malaysia continues to grow. So this newspeak (thanks George Orwell) by the Minister is designed to fool people that they are adhering to Tun Mahathir's promise while in fact making it irrelevant by introducing censorship but calling it something else.

The thing is, I think the people will see through it. Eventually these politicians will realize they need to shape up their behavior, or ship out to retirement. Fooling the people is going to have to be done in more sophisticated ways from now on rather than just coercing the messenger to shut up.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Breastfeeding allowed anywhere?

In this article, NZ MP Ms Chadwick is said to be proposing a bill which will "allow breastfeeding anywhere".

In principle I agree with this. There's no way, for instance, that a breastfeeding mother should be expected to feed a baby sitting on a toilet. That's disgusting, I certainly would not want to have to eat my lunch on a public toilet, so why should a baby?

Many shopping centres offer mother's rooms - I'm not sure about NZ, but in Australia and in Malaysia they do. Of course, if you wish to visit a cafe that's in a block of shops on the side of the road they may not have this facility. If the baby wants to feed, as anyone who has kids knows, they need to be fed regardless.

Of course, there is a certain degree of public dignity which can be observed while breastfeeding. The reality is, men and in particular teenage boys will gawk if the breast is exposed, and many women feel uncomfortable being leered at. The fact the woman is nursing doesn't affect that, not all men are metrosexual snags after all. The same public decency standards apply to the woman who is not embarrased walking down the street topless, the difference is the degree of necessity and the baby's right to have a feed.

There are ways to feed of course without gratuitous exposure. For example, my wife used to drape a lightweight cloth nappy over her shoulder to avoid exposing the breast while nursing. Her preference would be in the car or an alcove to a road-side table. There are even specially built covers for this purpose, if you want to spend the money. When I mentioned this article to my wife, she surprised me with her opposition. She feels that some mothers are gratuitous, even though facilities are provided and there are ways and means of not exposing yourself some refuse to take them. She even mentioned the analogy of cows walking along munching grass while their calf is attached to their teats. But I'm not going there...

I think a distinction should also be made between an infant for whom milk is their only food, and older children. Obviously a three year old child who walks up to the mother and lifts her shirt to take a drink is not as 'necessary' an example of breastfeeding as the newborn. Whether a mother wants to breastfeed until that age is in my view entirely her own (and the child's) choice, however, it is clearly not as 'necessary' if the society's standards regard breast exposure as offensive.