Trenchant Lemmings
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Robert Weaver
Sydney, Australia
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The weblog description is a misquotation from Steve Aylett's Indicted to a Party: What to Do, Who to Blame.
The weblog title links to the "No Country Redirect" version, for whatever that might be worth.
August 29, 2010
Tony Abbott PM, probably. Srsly.

Well, according to everybody, it's ALP 72, Coalition 72, NationalsWA 1, Greens 1, Independents 4 - in other words a likely Coalition minority government. I'm assuming the boys from the bush won't really be so uncivil as to make Tony promise not to go to an early election.

August 28, 2010
The Dolphin As Our Beast of Burden

D. Graham Burnett on dolphins and the research of John Lilly:

Suspended in warm water, in perfect darkness, Lilly became, you might say, a brain in a vat. And he liked it. Liked it enough that he took a flotation tank with him to his new St. Thomas dolphin laboratory, where it soon became an important tool in his increasingly eccentric pursuit of cetacean intelligence. His own lengthening spells in weightless submersion led him to ponder with mounting awe the sort of mammalian brain that would evolve to dwell in the deep sea. It would be, he decided, a mind like his own, only more so: fearless, deep, and self-sufficient - an expansive intelligence in contemplation of itself. Moving to the Caribbean, Lilly mostly left the electrodes behind, and embarked on a new way of getting inside the heads of his experimental animals: rather than cracking them open like nuts and rewiring them like doorbells, he would cogitate his way in, commensurating his intelligence to theirs, becoming, through strenuous exercises of sympathetic convergence, his own instrument - more and more he wanted to "think like a dolphin." Thus a nasty piece of Cold War psy-ops technology was launched on a new career path: as the head-trip hot-tub of psychedelia. Before long, Lilly, floating in the dark, was piping the feed from the hydrophones in the dolphin tanks to his own stereo headphones and trying to imagine what it would be like to "see" with sound. And that was pretty far out.
This is by no means the strangest part of this article.

August 27, 2010
Business As Usual

Oh, what the hell, while I'm here, here's Rundle again, extracted at Larvatus Prodeo:

The 2010 election result has offered that rarest and most blessed of things, a rupture and a discontinuity in the process. It’s one that makes it impossible to sell the line that the parliamentary electoral system we are ruled by has some deep-seated pole of wisdom that somehow expresses rather than imposes a political form. What the result is making clear to people is the inherent arbitrariness of the system, its closed nature, and the way in which that is obscured when a party is elected with an unchallengeable majority.

The difficulty for the business as usual crowd, is that they spend so much time celebrating the virtues of the single member electorate system, that when it throws up a number of actual single members, they can’t damn it out of hand.

And when such members begin to suggest that the process by which they were chosen could be reflexively acted on by both MPs and the public, the business-as-usual crowd panic about stability. Weird, isn’t it? Post-election Iraq has been without a government for several months, with no working coalition in sight, and this is an example of democracy at work. Australia has a few days or weeks with no majority party but a process of rational and open negotiation, and it’s a disaster.


As there's a lot of guff going around about post-election briefings. I'll link to Bernard Keane's explanation, even though it means linking to Crikey! again.

Iron Law of Institutions, Australian Style

Given that they didn’t have stability or incumbency as much of a backstop, you would have thought that painting Labor as, in the last analysis, the sane party, would have been one useful substitute.

But doing that would have required some breadth of knowledge, and Labor’s new supremos know nothing except numbers and polling – the not un-useful set of techniques that, when raised to the status of politics tout court, become a self-defeating pseudo-science. Politics will always be an art, not a science, and the character of an art is that the skills it demands can never be reduced to a series of methods. Labor’s hacks have reduced their party to this pathetic state because it’s all they know, and encouraging any other methods would endanger their control of it, retention of which they regard as a higher priority than winning.

August 25, 2010
Can't Win; Can't Learn

Jeff Sparrow at The Drum stating the blindingly obvious, as it is always useful to do:

In retrospect, the strategy pursued by the ALP in the election seems frankly astonishing, with the government trading away all the advantages of incumbency to run a campaign against itself (with, in some places, Labor leaflets promoting Gillard as necessary to save us from Rudd's 'Big Australia').

But, then, the cabal responsible for Labor's campaign - Messrs Shorten, Abib, Howes, Feeney, etc - is not distinguished by any particular record of success. You can see their reverse Midas touch in the do-nothing unions they dominate and, most especially, in the states where they wield most influence. As one minister told the Herald Sun: "The question has to be asked, why is the Labor vote so low where these people are strong?"

Well, quite. The whole basis of the Whatever It Takes school of Labor Right electioneering is that you trade principles for votes but, somehow, Graham Richardson's current disciples manage to end up with neither.
Speaking of Richo:
I think that's a real challenge for the Labor Party because you have to ask - you find the Labor Party in the classic wedge situation. You know, what they - if the Greens start snatching seats from the Labor Party, what do they do? Do they lurch to the left?
Well, actually that's Planet Janet on QandA (and I think you'll find the phrase is "lurch back to the left", you mendacious Randite ditz.)

Here's Richo:
Well, my first response will be "Over my dead body" to the last part but a lot of people will be very pleased with that so I shouldn't say it too often. I think what happened with it, the Greens went up four per cent on the weekend. Let's not get too carried away. A big chunk of that is a protest vote. If they want to hang onto those votes then some of the purity to which you refer won't be very helpful because those people weren't voting in that sense for the Greens they were voting against others and so the Greens have to work out whether they want to be a mass party or whether they want to be a purist party.
Turnbull also mouthed the "purity" line. It's funny how it will be the height of political maturity when the Greens sell out their political principles in order to become a "mass" party; but not for the Tweedleist parties to contemplate abandoning their tribal antipathies to serve in a unity government, as suggested by Rob Oakeshott. Also funny how neo-liberalism, the US alliance and other unquestionable features of the major parties' shared dogmas aren't subject to the same notion of disdaining purity.

Or perhaps Richardson and Turnbull meant purist in the ethical sense.

August 24, 2010
On Soccer and Bullfighting

Vincent Navarro explains the Catalan bullfighting ban:

[T]he Barcelona club ... was more than a soccer club. It was the rallying point for the democratic forces, not only in Catalonia but in other parts of Spain, in the struggle against fascism. The matches between Barça and the Royal Soccer Club of Madrid (favored by the Franco regime) were electrifying. When Barça won a game, the numbers of police on the streets of Barcelona would be tripled to repress the popular joy.


The Catalan revenge for the Constitutional Court’s decision [to veto many of the important provisions of the Catalan Constitution] ... came when the parliament of Catalonia voted, in late July, to ban bullfighting, which is considered by the Spanish right wing as the "national fiesta" in the rest of Spain and as important to the Spanish national identity. The initiative was led by animal rights groups, but there’s no doubt that the anger of large numbers of Catalans toward the Spanish right-wing and the institutions of the Spanish state, and especially the Constitutional Court, played a major role in the ban on bullfighting in Catalonia. Just weeks before, the press had published photographs of three members of the Court enjoying a bullfight. That did it.

August 23, 2010
Win or Lose

Although the quirks of instant-runoff voting are an extreme case, the misbehavior of voting schemes in general has been known to social scientists since the mid-twentieth century. That was when Kenneth Arrow, an economist at Stanford, examined a set of requirements that you’d think any reasonable voting system could satisfy, and proved that nothing can meet them all when there are more than two candidates. So designing elections is always a matter of choosing a lesser evil. When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Arrow a Nobel Prize, in 1972, it called his result “a rather discouraging one, as regards the dream of a perfect democracy.”

August 22, 2010
I Suppose You Think This Is No Time For Glee

I didn't watch the count because election night coverage is the equivalent of watching people discussing the very slow developing of a Polaroid. ("It's going to be a yacht!" "No, I think I see tusks. It's going to be an elephant!" "I've just had a close look at the bottom left corner and I'm convinced it's going to be Albrecht Altdorfer's The Battle of Alexander at Issus. You can tell by the deliberate anachronism!") But I did tune in after Once Upon A Time in the West to see if we had a result and ... mwahahahahah! we didn't. Gillard was finishing up her speech, Kerry intoned the basics about the hung parliament and Antony Green quickly jumped in to explain that a number of seats they'd given away were actually still in doubt, oh, and apparently the Victorians have elected a DLP senator. Oh, stop your moaning, Mexicans - that's just funny! It was in fact about as much hilarity as I could take so it wasn't til the next morning I discovered that the fourth independent was Andrew Wilkie and laughed my guts out all over again.

OK, so - so much for the 52/48 polls immediately prior to the campaign, though the Minimal Effects Hypothesis might still be able to hold on to its dignity given it's doubtful the people who gave us the massive swings against Labor in NSW and Victoria were motivated by what happened during the campaign. As it turned out, Newscorp's 50/50 prediction got the gong.

There's a still a large swag of postal and prepoll votes to be counted so it will be some days before we even know the basic composition of the House, and then they can start courting the independents to see who gets to be the government. I could speculate about what's most likely before the facts are in ("It's going to be an abstract expressionist depiction of the sinking of the Graf Spree!") but we now have two 24 hour news channels to choose from where you'll be able to watch people discussing at great length what they don't know is happening, so I think I'll skip it. And, who cares, whoever gets in will still have to deal with a Senate where NINE Greens hold the balance of power. Well, in July 2011 they'll have that Senate, thanks to our stupid constitution, which is why if we end up with a minority Coalition government we'll be going back to the polls next May. ("It's definitely going to be a weasel-like whale. In a unitard!")

I will however take this opportunity to tip my hat to the large number of Coalition supporters whose willingness to vote strategically rather than ideologically has ensured the first election of a full term* Green MHR and, possibly, the election of Andrew Wilkie, famed Howard-hating whistleblower. Your staunch desire to see the Labor candidate lose to anybody may very well have ensured a Labor government that has to lean further to the left to stay in power than one with a boring old majority would have.


Oh, and that thuggish buffoon Wilson Tuckey lost to a NationalsWA guy. Even if the NationalsWA weren't a traditional farmer's party whose politics contrast markedly with those of the reactionary gits we usually call Nationals, that would still be worth a cheer.

*In 2002, Michael Organ was elected for two years to the Seat of Cunningham in a by-election in which no Coalition candidate ran. But you knew that.

August 21, 2010

The first in the new batch of lazy "stuff wot I have been reading" posts:

The habit of money at interest also originates in Sumer - it remained unknown, for example, in Egypt. Interest rates, fixed at 20 percent, remained stable for 2,000 years. (This was not a sign of government control of the market: at this stage, institutions like this were what made markets possible.) This, however, led to some serious social problems. In years with bad harvests especially, peasants would start becoming hopelessly indebted to the rich, and would have to surrender their farms and, ultimately, family members, in debt bondage. Gradually, this condition seems to have come to a social crisis - not so much leading to popular uprisings, but to common people abandoning the cities and settled territory entirely and becoming semi-nomadic ‘bandits' and raiders. It soon became traditional for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and declare a general amnesty or ‘freedom', so that all bonded labourers could return to their families. (It is significant here that the first word for ‘freedom' known in any human language, the Sumerian amarga, literally means ‘return to mother'.) Biblical prophets instituted a similar custom, the Jubilee, whereby after seven years all debts were similarly cancelled. This is the direct ancestor of the New Testament notion of ‘redemption'. As economist Michael Hudson has pointed out, it seems one of the misfortunes of world history that the institution of lending money at interest disseminated out of Mesopotamia without, for the most part, being accompanied by its original checks and balances.

August 20, 2010
I'm Trying to Think of a Fruit That Is Beige On the Outside and Yellow On the Inside

If the increasing references to "watermelons" are anything to go by, the bourgeois gatekeepers of the establishment press seem to have worked themselves up into a state of sweaty panic at the prospect of the Greens doing extra well in the election, but, judging by many of the public responses to this sort of commentary, the idea that the Greens might "secretly" be socialists appears to be something of a selling point. (Note above my attempted punchline to the question "If the Greens are watermelons, what does that make the ALP?")

Incidentally, I've only just realised that the initials of Minimal Effects Hypothesis spells meh. So we've got that going for us.

August 16, 2010

It's not as brave a pick at this stage of the game as it might have been a week ago - although the Coalition may again move back up the charts if Tony Abbott manages to get through tonight's Q and A without choking on his tongue - but a victory for the ALP, at least in terms of the two party preferred vote, seems the likely result of this peculiarly tiresome election, as the percentages on polling day come out closest to the numbers from the opinion polls conducted shortly before the election was called, which overall favoured Labor. Here's why:

Judging from Gallup Polls in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, opinion often changes during an election campaign. Come election day itself, however, opinion often reverts back nearer to where it was before the campaign began... One explanation, we suggest, is that people become more responsible when stepping into the poll booth: when voting they reflect back on the government's whole time in office, rather than just responding (as when talking to pollsters) to the noise of the past few days' campaigning...
A recent illustration of this was the evaporation of Cleggmania in the last UK election:
[The] recent research by Robert Goodin and James Mahmud Rice suggests that something more complicated might be going on. The polls, they reveal, don’t fluctuate in the run-up to an election because respondents are simply humouring the pollsters with the pretence that their opinions are shifting - their opinions really are shifting. Looked at over a 40-year period, general elections in Britain and Australia show that there is usually a swing of up to five percentage points between the start and the end of a month-long campaign. Then on the day of the vote opinion swings all the way back again. Polls taken at the start of the campaign are invariably closer to the final result than the ones taken at the end. So it’s not that people don’t change their minds. They change their minds twice: once in response to the excitement of the campaign, and once in the privacy of the polling booth.

That was clearly what happened this time too. The polls were nearer to predicting the final result a month before the vote than a day before the vote, when the pollsters overstated Liberal Democrat support by three or more percentage points. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that people who said they had switched to the Lib Dems after the debates didn't in the end bother to vote (perhaps because many of them were, in the word politicians most dread, 'students'). But Goodin and Rice show that this isn't very plausible: there is no evidence that people whose opinion fluctuates are also somehow lazier (Australia, where voting is compulsory, is the test case here). The alternative explanation is what they call the '"Responsible Voter" hypothesis'. During the campaign people respond to the immediate pull of media-driven events. But when they come to vote they pause to reflect more broadly on the period since the previous election, which takes them back to the start of the campaign and puts all the intervening excitements into perspective.
Presumably this goes double when "intervening excitements" are notable by their absence.

Nearly always isn't always, of course; and the votes cast still have to filter their way through the lottery of our regionalised electoral system. But I don't mention this in order to shore up any optimism; to be honest, I couldn't give a toss about the major party contest, and if Labor loses my only response will be to smirk and think "serves you right for whoring yourselves to the mining lobby and a few racist bogans in marginal seats". It's just that if the Goodin and Rice thesis is confirmed again it will provide an ideal opportunity to spread the good word that everything that happens during the campaign period - every debate, every launch, every ad, every analysis of an ad, every grotesque promise, every piece of punditry and psephology and limp-lettuce-lame satire, every gaffe and spin and narrative and all the vacuous, trivial ephemera of the horse-race style coverage, every increasingly desperate attempt by the Murdoch golems to make their master's voice heard, every last bit of it - is a complete and utter waste of time.

That would be nice, is all. That and a Green balance of power, mwahahahahahahah.

Update: It turns out Wikipedia, under the heading "Minimal Effects Hypothesis", has a link to the full Goodin and Rice article (pdf). As David Runciman points out in the LRB piece quoted from above, the Goodin and Rice finding differs from the more traditional version of the Minimal Effects Hypothesis in arguing that the fluctuations in poll results during election campaigns are not illusory but merely ephemeral.

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