Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Back in blightey

I'm back. I'm jetlagged. I'm badly shaven. I'm short on coathangers.

I've managed to move into college accomodation without locking myself out this time, though getting the key to begin with was mildly amusing.

I'm getting a lot better at going long periods of time without sleep when the social need arises. And it was pretty amusing to be able to say at 8 last night: "Well, I'm on Sydney time, where it's 5 am tomorrow, and I've been up since 8 am yesterday."

So I did what any jet-lagged returnee to a Cambridge college should do: went to a committee meeting, moved my stuff out of storage and then headed down to the pub with friends.

Regular blogging will resume shortly, but I'm off to Kent for a few days orientation.

Meantime, thanks to everyone who made my time in Australia so very special (especially all those kind enough to buy me drinks, dinner or let me stay in their spare room - you know who you are and you're fabulous). Old, dear Canberra friends who organised my social life and were prepared to drink or brunch anywhere, anytime - and family who were prepared to welcome me back to my old room back, lend me a car and patiently cook dinner when I wasn't out. Melbourne friends who provided me with shelter from the rain that followed me all the way from England, scrummy food, amazing company and who lured me to see the world's funniest parish priest in action. Sydney friends who went out of their way to be welcoming and hospitable. It's really cool to think there are at least three cities in the world I could always call home. I'm fabulously lucky to know you all.

It's strange to be back on the other side of the world, but a new adventure is beginning and I'm at least a hell of a lot better prepared for it than I was when embarking on the masters this time last year!

Ahem. Forgive the sentimentality. It's the time-difference speaking. Hard-headed cynicism and my-life-as-comedy-of-errors narrative will be restored presently.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

If only I could take pre-emptive action against a few politicians

Radio National this morning covered the pointless “debate” between Labor and Liberal parties on the “doctrine” of pre-emptive self-defence. On examination, both parties are only a whisker apart (a distance that becomes chasm-like after spin).

Okay, so Labor says it would not take action inside our neighbours’ borders without consultation and invitation – and that to adopt a policy of pre-emptive strikes is destabilising and sets us against neighbours like Indonesia who don’t like the idea, and whose co-operation is needed to fight terrorism.

Fine. But are the Liberals actually backing pre-emption?

Well, no. Or only in such limited circumstances as to make it unlikely ever to happen.

Downer says that Australia would never act uninvited inside the territory of regional partners with a viable counter-terrorism infrastructure, and pre-emption would only ever really be considered in failed states, unable or unwilling, to stamp out terrorist bases.

Politically, not unreasonable. But hardly consistent with Downer’s claim the Labour policy leaves Latham unable to state categorically he would do everything necessary under any circumstances to protect Australia. After all, the Liberals policy leaves them far from free-handed.

When a radio journalist asked about the terror camps the Phillipines government has been unable to suppress Downer managed to pshaw and claim there was no link between any such small, remaining bases and plots targeting Australia. He suggested it was inconceivable an Australian government would do nothing if it was aware of an imminent attack being planned from such a base.

So, suddenly the Liberal policy is consult and proceed only when invited in the case of all but failed states, where we would only proceed when faced with imminent attack?

If this is right, it is (somewhat reassuringly) not a doctrine of pre-emption at all. It is the nineteenth century doctrine of anticipatory self-defence which claims a right to take necessary and proportionate action in self-defence when there is the danger of an imminent attack.

The only problem with anticipation is that is conflicts with anything but the most strained reading of Article 51 of the UN Charter, reserving the right of self-defence to situations where there has been a prior armed attack or Security Council resolution. (Some English-speaking academics claim that anticipation is available under the Charter, but a lot of English-speakers and almost every nation in the world disagrees with them.)

At least - though in my view illegal - a doctrine of anticipation articulates a concept of last resort action to forestall an attack and curbs its exercise with criteria that have some meaning in military law.

What is really needed is substantive debate about regional arrangements capable of looking after security issues in our collective backyard.

But that kind of detail isn’t going to sell to the voter only interested in a Tom Clancy level of foreign policy analysis. Meanwhile the term “pre-emption” just makes us sound like a Pacific-region Deputy of Bush’s Texas Ranger foreign policy.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

“Somersault”: brilliant or banal?

I went to see “Somersault”, debut feature film of Australian Cate Shortland and an official selection at Cannes, with a group of friends.

Basically, it’s the story of sixteen-year old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) a curious girl, struggling to feel comfortable in a grown-up body and – disastrously wrong-headedly - trying to reach out to others for closeness principally through sex.

After being caught coming onto her mother’s boyfriend, mostly to see if she can, she flees Canberra to Jindabyne and begins a relationship with Joe (Sam Worthington), a local grazier’s son and tries to fit into the local community.

The reactions were mixed, especially among the women: a number found it “random”, or a coming of age story that simply lurched from sex-scene to sex-scene or loaded with banal, unbelievable dialogue. This seems to reflect some viewer reactions elsewhere.

I guess this highlighted for me two love it or hate it aspects of the film: the editing (does rapid cutting from close-up detail to hand held conventional shots evoke life’s everyday impressions or sensations, or is it just kinda irritating?) and the script (do characters struggling with their inarticulacy seem more innocent and vulnerable or just tedious?).

For me, it worked. “Coming of age drama” is a pernicious label, and “Somersault” is more than that. Cornish (a twenty-something actress) manages to evoke a compelling fragility in Heidi, an adolescent mixture of reticence and boldness that is not courage so much as curiosity and a complete lack of boundaries. This makes the sex in the film neither gritty nor titillating, so much as heart-wrenchingly flinch-worthy. It makes every rejection Heidi encounters, and every act of kindness she meets too, painfully immediate.

The cinematography is often eye-poppingly good, and the use of over-bleached colours and hand-held camera work is refreshingly understated and not deliberately arty. The film progresses in a series of crystalline images, haunting everyday impressions of Canberra and Jindabyne in a familiar, biting winter. The sound design is also remarkably understated.

The dialogue was forgiveable in its capturing the emotional naïveté of adolescents who think they understand sex, but have no experience of relationships.

Overall, though, it’s just so refreshing to see cinema about places you think of as home. And if it gets a UK release, I can drag friends to it and say, “See, Australia really does get cold!” (It was also kinda strange to see someone I went to school with in an excellent cameo as a stoner rich-kid from Sydney.)

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Holiday reading round-up rodeo

Twenty word reviews (and star ratings out of 5) for the finest holiday reading a man could beg, borrow or buy second hand from friends, European hostel bookshelves or English village bookstores.

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition – Imagine a new form of cinema. Fragments of some melancholy dream posted on-line. Would you seek out their creator? (****)

Ian Rankin, Hyde & Seek – Edinburgh’s Inspector Rebus is the only one concerned over a junkie’s death. Literary crime drama examining human nature’s darker corners. (***)

Michael Innes, Death at the President’s Lodgings – a 1930s locked-drawing room whodunit, set in an Oxbridge college, where paranoiac academic antagonism turns out to be the butler. (** ½)

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections – on each re-reading the children who are so desperate to escape their parents seem more a complex amalgam of them. (*****)

Jack Kerouac, On the Road – the original literary road movie follows Dean Moriarty, First Saint of bop, beat and madness, into the post-war American night. (*** ½)

Robert Graves, I, Claudius – Roman Empire seeks CEO, madness no obstacle, being murdered by your grandmother a potential downside. Longevity goes to the underestimated. (****)

Stephen Fry, Paperweight – the comic shorter writings of a terribly funny comic, particularly wonderful are the assembled radio ravings of Professor Donald Trefussis. (****)

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises – unsympathetic (but charismatic) characters inhabit taught, beautiful sentences under the Spanish sun, while self-destructing through apathy and alcohol. Good fishing. (****)

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Humour for the legally inclined and unsound of mind

I recently found at Running with Lawyers some great, real life “things not to say to the judge”:

Your Honor, if I have to call you Your Honor then you have to call me 'El Capitan'

rates as one of the saner (and still G-rated) comments.

And this little story at Craigslist (found via gulfstream) is painfully funny, definately stupid and could easily have ended in a product liability claim.

(And for the extraordinarily juvenile, this is no way to meet a girl or treat a lady. Even accidentally.)

Substantive blogging will resume shortly.

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

A little too eager? The Bush family, a Nazi banker and the military-industrial complex

SBS recently aired a two-part documentary, “The World According to Bush”. In the second instalment, two points were put forward that I thought particularly disturbing.

(1) Dubyah’s grand-father, Prescott Bush, was alleged to have been a Nazi banker and to have profited from the use of forced concentration camp labour from Auschwitz in a factory he owned nearby; and

(2) A private holding company worth US$3.5 billion, the Carlyle group, is largely staffed and owned by ex-Republican presidential advisors, and ex-CIA and Pentagon officials. It owns a number of corporations (including European companies) with large US Government defence contracts. Its advisory board includes Bush snr, and its investors include the Bin Laden family.

The first claim is dismissed with the least research.

Prescott Bush was an investment banker – his bank had dealings with a number of German clients. One was Fritz Thyssen, an early backer of the Nazi party, but also one of the first to jump ship – leaving Germany in 1939. In a book “I Paid Hitler Thyssen confessed his role in financing the Nazis and denounced the Führer”.

Thyssen had a bank in the US - UBC – with 4,000 issued shares. Prescott Bush owned one. Bush and his other banking colleagues later told regulators that they sat on the UBC board only as an unpaid courtesy to a foreign client.

Holding interests in German companies was not illegal in the US until the passage of the 1942 Trading with the Enemy Act – at which point Bush’s UBC share was confiscated (he was later compensated $US 1.5 million).

Not very damning.

(The only thing I have not tracked down is whether when Thyssen left Germany in ’39 his interest in the UBC bank was nationalised. If that did happen, and his interest in the bank was a controlling one, then arguably Prescott Bush’s UBC client in ’39-’42 might have been the Nazi state. However, I have to stress that’s merely a possible line of inquiry suggested by the remark at Straight Dope that Hitler confiscated Thyssen’s fortune in ’39.)

Straight Dope deals convincingly with the slave labour charge: “Another company in which Prescott and his associates had a stake was the Silesian-American Corporation (SAC), which owned several industrial concerns in Poland … SAC plants in Poland were taken over by the German government after the Nazi invasion of 1939, and the Auschwitz prison camp wasn't established until 1940. No one can seriously claim that Prescott Bush managed camp inmates in any of those plants.”

That is, SAC had been expropriated and was out of Bush’s hands at the time.

The only exaggerated point about the Carlyle group, however, is the extent of its connections to the Bin Ladens: members of the wealthy Saudi family had US$2 million in it (a drop in the $3.5 billion bucket) for 6 years, and Carlyle ended the relationship after September 11, 2001. (Michael Moore describes the Bin Ladens as "significant" Carlyle investors in "Farenheit 9/11" - but while $2 million is a lot, it's clearly not huge on either the Carlyle or Saudi scale of wealth.)

Worthy of far more investigation (see the excellent Guardian article) is the close kitchen-sink cabinet relationship between Carlyle and the Bush administration, and the potential conflict of interest some of Carlyle’s members have in serving as informal advisors to the White House in a time of conflict while profiting hugely from defence contracts.

“The World According to Bush” unfortunately gave equal prominence to this genuine scandal, and ill-researched and largely ludicrous allegations – allowing some to brand the whole as lies that taxpayers should not be subsidising.

Monday, September 6, 2004

Public education

My frustration with election coverage reduced to “two sandwiches and two milkshakes” tax cuts and interest rates, coupled with the recent interest in Shane Maloney’s 2001 speech to Scotch College students has got me thinking about public education.

While education and health remain key issues in any election, the acceptable range of debate on the two topics has diverged.

While we basically now accept that (1) the public health care system is overloaded and (2) it’s a legitimate government strategy to encourage those who can afford to pay for health insurance to do so, it would be politically foolhardy to suggest that those who can afford to pay for their children’s education should be given similar tax incentives.

Obviously, education has an effect on social mobility and future earnings in a way health care does not. Further, public education clearly has a role in socialisation. It seems (at least on first glance) that private faith-based schools are less likely to place children in an environment where they encounter practitioners of other religions. This would seem a bad thing for tolerance. Similarly, it would seem intuitively a bad thing in terms of curbing sexist attitudes if adolescent males are quarantined from the rest of society in single-sex high schools (however superficially appealing the idea of quarantining males aged 13 – 18 might be).

So, public funding of private education is bad, right? It inherently diverts money from public education – robbing the poor to teach the rich?

Well, not necessarily, as: (1) withdrawing such funding entirely could overburden the public system; and (2) the bulk of government subsidies to the private sector are not going to the Scotch Colleges.

The minimum level of funding given per student to a private school by the Federal Government is 13.7% of the cost of providing education to a state school student (Average Government School Recurrent Cost – AGSRC). The maximum is 70%. The rate for a school is determined by reference the government’s Socio Economic Status (SES) index measure of a community’s ability to support a school.

The numerous private Catholic schools are the most interesting interesting case. Generally, they offer the lowest-fee form of private education, and under a bloc deal with the Federal Government get a flat rate of 56.2% of AGSCR regardless of SES assessment. According to the Senate Report on School funding, such schools accounted for 20% of total school enrolments in 2003, and two-thirds of enrolments in the non-government sector.

What would happen if all government funding were removed?

While Scotch College might be able to absorb the loss of 13.7% AGSCR per student in fee rises, lower-fee Catholic schools might well shut up shop if the alternative were a 78% fee increase.

The result would be an increase in the cost to taxpayers of education. In effect, these lower-fee schools are stretching the community education dollar by making 1.8 education places in the total system for each one student who leaves public education for a Catholic school. If all their students migrated back suddenly to the public sector there would simply not be enough funding to accommodate them and maintain present standards within present budgets.

In exactly the same way as health care, the public education budget has come to rely on private fee-paying.

Thus, anyone who is politically serious about the laudable democratic aim of having all children in high-quality public education is going to have some trouble coming up with the money when even the party of (allegedly) social investment is flat out flogging a tax cut.

Presently, some public funding of private schools is inevitable. The debate should really be about the terms on which that is going to occur and whether the Howard government has moved funding towards the top-end private schools at the expense of other schools.

Saturday, September 4, 2004

After a year away …

On arrival in the UK, the coins seemed a ridiculous collection of little sizes and shapes. Now, $2 coins seem tiny and a handful of 20 and 50 cent pieces weigh far too much.

Initially UK banknotes seemed quaintly huge and papery, now our highly advanced plastic money looks even more like something produced for a game of Monopoly.

It took a long time to get used to the damp-cold of South East England, now the incredibly dry and still cold of a Canberra winter is positively shocking.

After the light, riverbed melody of (relentlessly polite) “Southerner” UK English, the full-bodied raucous-vowelled warble of Australian English sounds as welcome and familiar as magpie song.

After a year of saying, “oh, yes - that sounds lovely, thanks” it’s quite refreshing to be able to answer a polite invitation with a drawled “yeah, OK then” without being seen as faintly rude.

After several years away now, Canberra seems to have grown a crop of swanky cocktail driven watering holes.

Arriving jet-lagged and proceeding almost directly to a cocktail-themed house party provided a strangely cosy feeling: dancing in a parquet-floored sunroom with a crowd of lawyers, consultants, political staffers, arts administrators, public servants, and graduate students it felt remarkably like any one of the parties from my last years at uni. A real Canberra homecoming.

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Please, just give me something to vote for …

Today I did my civic duty, stopped by the post office and finally filled in a long overdue change of electoral address form. This should switch me from being enrolled in a safe inner-city Labor seat to a safe rural Liberal seat. Oh, hurrah.

To pin my colours to the mast, I am definitely voting against the current government – but I am sceptical that the Labor party is offering me much to vote for.

Despite talk of a “values” agenda and the already rather shop-worn sounding metaphor of a “ladder of opportunity”, the election turf appears to have been carved out: interest rates, taxes, security and “trust” versus “truth”.

Interest rates are basically a distraction. While government policy and performance certainly influence interest rates, the majority of determining factors are in the hands of the global economy. At best, Australian governments can make things no worse than they have to be.

There has been some interesting and nuanced coverage of the “truth”/”trust” issue at Troppo Armadillo and Ambit Gambit. The essential suggestion being that the electorate (outside of “elites”) cares little about truth, as “all politicians lie”.

Also, let’s face it, the word “lie” is devalued verbal currency in politics as both sides – for cheap advantage – are willing to ignore the difference between wilful distortion, inadvertant ommision or just changing your mind over time.

“Trust”, however, emphasises what is done over what is said: and on things like refugee issues Howard has implemented policies, which while heartlessly draconian, are popular. (Thus making the children overboard scandal a potential non-issue as far as the talkback-radio constituency is concerned.)

The reasons to vote against the Howard government, from the perspective of a left-of-centre lawyer, are obvious and legion. The basic contempt for the rule of law. The attempt to place executive decision making in refugee and migration matters beyond judicial review. The chronically mean-spirited and profligate expenditure on phalanxes of QCs to defend every stolen generation case. Joining a flagrantly illegal war.

This is before we even get to its profound cognitive dissonance on refugee policy, children overboard or WMD in Iraq: if the facts don’t fit a preconceived view of policy and reality, they will be reinterpreted until they do.

The Labor “Machinery of Government” paper contains some worthwhile measures (follow the links to download), but I am yet to be convinced it represents any sea-change in the conduct of politics. At the end of the day the value of a ministerial code depends on the quality of the front bench. On a few other recent issues, it seems disappointingly thin. The promise that personal ministerial staff could be allowed to appear before Senate committees - but only where the responsible minister is unable to answer for them - seems a much smaller change than some have claimed. The talk of restoring the independence of the public service seems to be canvassed only in a terribly general passage on Ministerial Office/Departmental relations.

Thank god for proportional representation in the Senate and the minor parties. At least my upper-house vote needn’t be either squandered on a major party or risk counting for nothing.