Sunday, December 31, 2006

Los Angeles Carpark

It's stating the bleeding obvious to state that Los Angeles is a car-city, but it really is tragic to see. Large parts of the city are little more than undergirding for a network of concrete freeways that head in every concievable direction in all their loud, imposing ugliness. Urban areas are dark and unpleasant to wander around, with carparks dominating areas that in most other cities would be for shops, parks and urban space for people rather than vehicles.

The public transport system is adequate without being great, but it seems to take an almost apologetic tone, conceding early that it is a second choice and used only by those too young, old, poor, disabled, foreign or ethnic to get behind the wheel of an SUV. Apart from the superficial problem of a lack of transportation for non-drivers, its effect on the life of the city is depressing and obvious.

The almost biblical devotion to the motor car is laden with politics. To Americans, their car is their sanctuary of freedom and individuality, a private space away from the unclean and uncivilised masses outside their doorway. It is a place they can exercise complete control over their environment (the irony that they are enslaved by their vehicles is apparently lost on them) and their destination. Any attempt to suggest that they would be better off without it is met with derision and suspicion.

Intercity transportation is also laughable without a vehicle. The three hour journey from Los Angeles to San Diego took seven hours via Greyhound. The company routinely sells more tickets than it has seats, so passangers may need to wait for the second bus or beyond (with intervals beyond an hour for each bus) before getting on board. At the bus terminal, the management are clearly believers in the principles of minimalism, when it comes to both signage and cleanliness. After two hours at the terminal, we finally boarded. Half way to San Diego, we were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the laughably titled freeway, with mostly single-occupany vehicles on the road blocking our path. As a bus, we received no priority access. To an outsider, it was obvious that the two problems were linked in a vicious circle: because the bus service is so poor, most people drive themselves, resulting in traffic which slows the bus and hence worsens the service. Repeat ad infinitum. If only more of these selfish drivers were to jump aboard, our journey would be so much quicker.

Hola, Senor from California

It's kind of ironic, really, that after being parched for cheap and fast internet access in Los Angeles and San Diego, its only once I arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, that I can sit and internetify to my heart's content. So much for affluence delivering good things in abundance!

Perhaps the most noticable thing soon after arriving in Los Angeles is the prevalence of Spanish. Southern California is a genuinely blingual part of the world, not in a patronising 'to help out those who are learning English' kind of a way, but in a way that the two sit side by side with equal validity. In some neighbourhoods, English is the minority language, with an abundance of signs, newspapers and overheard conversations all in a lightening-fast Latin American Spanish. At first it's rather charming, and you catch yourself almost apologising for speaking English to someone who's preferred tongue is far more latin. They feel no need to reciprocate the apology.

Early on its rather charming, allowing an exotic foreign adventure in downtown LA. After a while, though, it becomes clear that the language divide is merely symbolic of a far greater divide. Many of the neighbourhoods of SoCal (Southern California, dummie) are hispanic neighbourhoods, with a withered appearance and a quiet poverty-stricken desperation in the air. Mind you, many of the English-speaking neighbourhoods appear just as run down. You can't help but wonder about the limited life opportunities available to Spanish-only speakers, whose job prospects are limited and whose participation in civil society is limited to the Spanish-subset. It's easy to see how early after arrival, native Spanish speakers find it comforting to be amongst speakers of their own langauge. When this divide continues a generation later, it represents a failure of integration.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Coming to America

I'm on the road again...

Today I'm heading off to the United States for five weeks, to see what there is to see. Initially I was keen to do a Red State tour of America, visiting the southern states which in recent generations have become a Republican stronghold. Alas, by the time I spent a decent period on the very blue east and west coasts, my time in the middle was squeezed. Kind of symbolic of the way most of us see the country.

So the itinerary? Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, St Louis, New Orleans, San Antonio.

Going to be in town? Drop me an email. You know the drill.

Normal transmittion with continue from the AOTW OB van. Stay tuned.

Undergrad Reflections: Your time is up

I'm sorry to say that like most uni students, I've left things to the last minute. This time, though, I've run out of time. I had some other observations I wanted to make about my time as a student, but haven't found the time to make them. Perhaps at some future point I'll return to this project and find voice once again.

As an aside, last Wednesday I was just a few minutes away from graduating when I was afflicted with a brutal case of kidney stones. Alas, I didn't last long enough to nod in the direction of the VC and receive my certificate, so my graduation remains ellusive. Most likely I'll graduate in abstentia and receive the certificate some time early next year. My time as a student goes on just a little longer!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: Student Politics 2003-2006

I've decided to cluster together these last four years for two reasons: firstly, I was strictly a spectator rather than a participant, and secondly, because my departure overseas is imminent, and I want to get this thing written before I head off.

The defining event of this period was the liquidation of student union. The event meant that a generation of the Labor Right wannabe student pollies were ashamed to show their face, and the task was left to more junior students on campus. As for the left, they found themselves in the rare position of being the responsible economic managers, and were quite effective in making this point.

One of the most interesting trends to watch has been the steady growth of the Liberal presense on campus. Early on, it was virtually non-existant. Perhaps mindful of the strong anti-Liberal feeling on campus, Liberal students were reluctant to wave the Liberal banner high. For a while, they aligned themselves with the Labor Right, running joint campaigns and driving a wedge between the left and right factions of the Labor Party. In recent years, the Liberal banner has been waved loud and proud, and with a moderate amount of success. In 2004, the Liberals had a dominant position on campus, occupying a number of positions in Union House. An extra-ordinary position for the party to be in.

Perhaps the best bit of politicking seen in my time on campus was the introduction of Incentive Voting. In effect, it's the application of the principle of compulsory voting to a campus context, but with the use of lunch vouchers for voters rather than fines for non-voters. It's damn hard to argue against, and it's electoral effect is devastating. In the absense of incentive voting, it's generally hard-core lefties who come out and vote, keenly aware of their civic duty. Moderate students, however, have better things to do with their time. In this environment, left wing factions dominate. Under incentive voting, however, the moderate, apathetic and hungary all coalesce and turn up at the polling both keen to exercise their right, and the dynamic of the election changes. From memory it was used in 2002 and 2003, and its ability to both boost turnout and the centre-right vote is extraordinary.

It's instructive to see that on average, university students are far more moderate, or even conservative, than their reputation suggests. Campus elections are generally a process of self-selection and so this average is not reflected in electoral outcomes.

Another manifestation of this is the lack of militancy on campus. In my first year, I remember the excitement of seeing the occupation of the Raymond Priestly Building, the rather austere brick building in the centre of campus which houses the Vice Chancellor and the university bureaucracy. Upset at some global injustice probably beyond the reach of the VC, the protestors took over the building en masse locked themselves inside and hung banners from the side. With loudspeakers and a decent food supply, they looked set to continue the occupation for days at least. Before long there were police on horseback, journalists, and a mass of curious rather than committed students loitering at the bottom of the building.

I stood with a group of onlookers on the side. The whole thing appeared amazingly infantile and counter-productive. The protestors all looked and sounded like mad socialists, and worst of all they looked beyond reason. With a group down below, we talked to each other and found that all of has had hardened our position against the cause espoused by the protestors, and took pity on the university bureaucrats who had been endangered by the mob inside. The protest didn't last for too long, although the court proceedings afterwards did. Several students were changed with trespass and damage to property.

From that point onwards, protest became fairly mild. There were numerous occassions when hot headed and angry shouting was used. The burning of effigies became commonplace. But all of it within a respected framework that imposed limits on behaviour. In the early years left wing students would have a free ride whenever they would launch into protest. Capitalism/Imperialism/the United States would be loudly and freely decried, banners would be waved and cheers would be vocally repeated, all without an opposing point of view heard. More recently, right wing students have beome a counterveiling force, attending these protests, shouting counter-slogans and engaging much more with the left wing students. Often these counter-protests have had more numerous attendees than the pitiful rallies they were protesting against it. Whilst at the time I was reluctant to support it because of the fear of conflict, in retrospect I can see how they forced unengaged students to acknowledge both sides of an issue rather than glibly take on the perspective on the only side represented, which was commonplace beforehand.

The effect of Voluntary Student Unionism is yet to be fully felt on campus, but I suspect it will lead to a renewed left-wing dominance. The reality is that many moderate and conservative students are quite atomised and individualistic, and will be reluctant to join a student union unless they can see tangible benefits for themselves. Furthermore, even if they do sign up, they are unlikely to be engaged politically, instead buying into the "union as service-deliverer" model. Lefties, already convinced of the inherent benefits of collective action, will sign up and vote in great number. Though it might not reflect the zeitgeist of the campus, the radical left will continue to find a home in Union House.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: Student Politics 2002

This is my personal account of a few experiences I had with the Melb Uni Student Union in 2002. For a more general overview of what was going on at the time, you might be interested in the blogs of Brent Houghton or the early days of Andrew Landeryou. My encounter with the mysterious SimplySensational654 has left me wanting to find out more. The details on this one sit toward the bottom of the post.

Student political battles are usually of little consequence. Not so those battles which occurred in 2002 at Unimelb. The events of 2002 would have existential consequences for the student union, which was driven into liquidation, and would confirm the worst suspicions that cynical students have toward their self-interested representatives.

At the time only those on the inner-clique of the student union knew what was going on - most of us watching from the outside knew little. It's remarkable to think that as we were looking on, the Union entered into the deal that would ultimately lead to its liquidation, and engaged in the sort of corrupt practices that would make third-world tinpot generals whince.

In 2002, I tried to change things - and failed spectacularly. Aware of the disenchantment most students had with the ruling Labor Right faction, and the ongoing chasm between the politics of the Loony Left with students generally, Brent Houghton and I decided to seize the moment. With the elections approaching in September, we decided that we would form a ticket which would take the moderate ground between the two major factions and capitalise on student dissatisfaction. In short, we would run the Australia Democrats 2001 "Change Politics" campaign in our very own backyard.

Brent was a friend of a year or two, also a member of the Democrats (incidentally, Brent's excellent account of these events was published a couple of years back). The previous year, he had been persuaded by Labor Right to stand for them as the House and Services Officer. He was instinctively suspicious of Labor Party politics, and had been convinced to run by Darren Ray, a former school friend of his and the Labor Right candidate for President. With the farcical elections of 2001, with most non-Labor Right candidates failing to nominate, Labor Right swept the board, and so Darren and Brent both assumed their positions as office bearers. During the year, though, Brent felt that he was being treated badly by the Labor Right machine. Part way through the year he quit the faction, and continued as an office bearer as an independent. For this he would be further bullied.

Brent and I got on well personally, and so we set about building a group of students who could run a serious campaign. We approached some Democrats members on campus, some of whom joined us. We also approached other students who we'd had personal contact with, and we knew would be sympathetic to our cause. As word spread of our existance we were even approached by a few students who wanted to be a part of it. Whilst we were flattered at the time, the correct response ought to have been suspicion rather than flattery. Our openness may have ultimately lead to our downfall. Anyhow, within a couple of weeks we'd found a group of twenty or so students, a critical mass threshold that meant we ought to be taken seriously.

Union rules at the time meant that unless we had a registered student union club, our ticket name would need to simply be the name of one of the candidates, followed by the word Ticket. We soon became The Sharp Ticket. We also needed a them for our campaign. The motif of Bob the Builder appealled to us. Though he was perhaps a little juvenile, the image of a non-nonsense character who took a can-do attitude was just the image that we were seeking to project. We planned to have our candidate photos taken with builders caps, and to base our slogan on Bob's "Can we fix it? Yes we can!" The ideas kept flowing.

Late one Tuesday night (August 20 for those who love detail) Brent and I were working late in his student office-bearer office. We'd put out a call on our email list to supporters to join us, but for this eye-glazing task, none did. We were editting candidate statements on Brent's computer, and using the whiteboard to draw up a list of names of candidates who we wished to slot into particular positions. Strictly speaking, we were in breach of electoral regulations, since the use of an OB's resources for campaign activity is forbidden. Despite this, most tickets did just that, although they did so clandestinely. Late into the night, Brent went home, and I left just a few minutes later, closing his office-bearer door behind me.

The next morning I received a call from Brent (paraphrased, but pretty close to the mark):
"Ari, what the hell have you done?"
"What do you mean?"
"I've been hauled before the Returning Officer. They're going to exclude us from the election. This morning Darren (Labor Right president) wandered by the office and the door was open. He saw all our campaign stuff on the whiteboard and reported us. Did you lock the door after you left?"

It was something I had to think about closely. I was very certain that I had closed the door behind me. I wasn't so sure that I'd locked it. Still, the idea that I had left the door open seemed absurd. If I had just closed it without locking it, then in order to see what was on the whiteboard, the door needed to be opened, in breach of privacy rules and office protocol. We'd been stitched up. Regardless, our campaign was over before it even began.

It only emerged two years later, but the Returning Officer who made the decision to exclude us from the election was from Global Tertiary Solutions, a firm appointed by, and with strong links to, the Labor Right faction who were the beneficiaries of our exclusion from the race. This was far from a level playing field.

Despite all this, what we said at the time is still correct: in a technical way, we did breach the regulations, and our exclusion was a just punishment. However the method by which this was discovered was questionable, and the likelihood of others breaching the same regulation was high.

As to just how we were exposed, things seemed all too strange. To this day, I've never been able to confirm it for sure, but the theory that those of us involved have is that we were done in by a mole. The twenty or so supporters on our email list were aware that we were doing campaign work in the office. This information was innocuous amongst supporters, but fatal in the hands of an opponent. It seems likely that this information was leaked from our list to Darren, who then either entered Brent's office on his own, or with the assistance of the Union House security guard, with whom he was on good terms and who possessed a master key for all offices.

Once we had been expelled from the elections, I started recieving some mysterious emails. The exchange started when I sent out an email to our list of campaign supporters:

Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

Thanks to everyone that worked their guts out these past few weeks to try and achieve real change in the Melbourne Uni Student Union. Your passion and determination has shown that there can be a better way to do things in this place, and that eventually these values will prevail.

By order of the Returning Officer, I am unable to campaign in any way for the student elections. I understand the reasons for the decision, and I will not be attempting to breach this order.

Soon after I recieved this response:

From : -- --
Sent : Friday, August 23, 2002 12:32 AM
To :
Subject : [sharpticket] A final Sharpticket farewell

The Sharp Ticket has finally finished.

Politics is a tough game. Those who are right always win.

And to your friends that 'jumped left' well, 'good luck' they too should have understood the difficulties that lay ahead.

Well done, you did at one stage pose a threat to the power allocation of Union House.

My response:

From: "Ari Sharp"
Subject: Re: [sharpticket] A final Sharpticket farewell
Date: Fri, 23 Aug 2002 01:32:25 +1000

Hmmmm, just who is our mole??

Regardless of which anonymous hack I'm dealing with, I can't let the statement that those who are right always win. Those with strength, resources, contacts, genetics and a bit of sheer bloody-mindedness usually win. Are these people always right? I doubt it.


Their response:

From : -- --
Sent : Friday, 23 August 2002 1:44:02 AM
To :
Subject : Re: [sharpticket] A final Sharpticket farewell

These 'hacks' outsmatered you.
These 'hacks' have not had their group shut down.
These 'hacks' are not hacks at all.

It is the collective opinion here that you have no idea what you're talking about.

All I can say to you is, that your ticket was the first to fall from grace. Those who inadvertantly escaped from the returning officer and ran to your lefty buddies will soon also be the subject of a sudden fall from grace.

The right always does win. We beat you, and your 'candidates' who ran from disaster are next.

And to you - thank you. What a clever idea building an email list. The emails proved quite interesting.

My reponse:

From: "Ari Sharp"
Subject: Re: [sharpticket] A final Sharpticket farewell
Date: Fri, 23 Aug 2002 01:51:32 +1000

> These 'hacks' outsmatered you.

I think this sentence says more than I ever could.


Their reponse:

From : -- --
Sent : Friday, 23 August 2002 1:57:26 AM
To :
Subject : Re: [sharpticket] A final Sharpticket farewell

Hilarious. A typo.

We're not the ones who are not allowed to run.
We're not the ones who knowlingly breached the regulations.
We're not the ones who deceived the students of the uni.

The Sharp Ticket acted disgracefully. And those who have run away from the Sharp Ticket can never run away from the fact that they are corrupt and disloyal. They will be found out. Their names will become remembered as the 'sharp ticket' disgrace. We will do what is morally right. We will inform the students of WHO this Sharp Ticket was and the fact it rortered the system - knowingly. The ticket is gone and ALL of its initial candidates soon will be.

They ran away from a ticket that stole from students. A ticke whose leaders, admitted to being guilty of breaching regulations.

Shame, Shame, Shame.

See you in Student Council 2003.... Actually no we wont will we??

And again from them:

From : -- --
Sent : Friday, 23 August 2002 1:59:19 AM
To :

We were all very moved by the final farewell.

> Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

But you didn't win 'any' did you....

And again:

From : -- --
Sent : Friday, 23 August 2002 7:04:42 PM
To :
Subject : speeches

Your welfare candidate managed to make a good deal. A jump from the ship that had been hit and was sinking.

But did he jump to a stable and safe ship? Or will he fall from grace just like the rest of YOU hacks?

Hmmmm.... Let us think.... Oh yes... I remember - he WILL fall... How you ask?

Well, the "sharp" ticket fell - it fell on it's own 'sword' and it cut itself up... This falling requires skill, courage and determination. The three things required to achieve anything...

It fell because people like you are in this game only for 'representative' purposes. You have no idea how the union runs. No idea about the reality of it all. You live in a little world where everything is ok...


The Welfare Officer candidate in question is Nick Demiris, a candidate who approached us out of the blue a few weeks earlier and expressed his interest in getting involved. Once our ticket dissolved he joined the Labor Right ticket, and not long after that, the Liberals. Given what we now know about Nick, this seems to be where he belonged all along. Just how genuine his commitment was to us - or Labor Right - seems highly highly questionable:

From : -- --
Sent : Friday, 23 August 2002 7:28:40 PM
To :
Subject : Re:

Let us talk pragmatically Mr. Sharp.

Your little friend who is still a candidate for welfare ob is likely to succeed. But of course, I am sure we can come to an arrangement that is mutually beneficial in terms of future elections at the union.

If you were to provide us with an 'insight' into your former candidate, who did, by the way DEFECT, we would ensure you secured a place on Student Council at the next possible opportunity.

All we require is some background material, some contact details and some insight into him.

Simply reply with this information and you shall be on Student Council at the next election.

Remember - do we want this guy to be welfare OB? Have you seen hi spolicy speech?

> I will work for the students - the position is about the rights of
>students and the protection of these rights. The position is about
>assisting those who are disabled and culturally diverse. I will work
>'above' the disgusting plague that is student politics to bring you
>accountability, and a broader range of improved services.

I mean - come on - above student politics? Does he think he is above democratically elected peers?

We need to stop him. He has too much support and he will adversely affect the powe in MUSU. He is one who would not cooperate with poltiical interests and deals, but rather 'work' for the office.

He must be stopped.

Your friends (who can provide you with support and a spot on a sure thing next time)...

Without any intention of taking up the offer, I thought I'd push things a little to find out what I could about my mysterious correspondant:

From: "Ari Sharp"
Subject: Re:
Date: Sat, 24 Aug 2002 21:57:24 +1000

Before I talk to anyone, I want to know the following:
1. Who are you?
2. Who do you represent?
3. Do you have the power from within your organisation to offer such a deal?
4. Who was the mole?

And SS654's response:

From : -- --
Sent : Sunday, 25 August 2002 2:05:13 AM
To :
Subject : Deal

Thanks for the response.

I am in a position to offer such a deal - this I can assure you. In terms of your other questions, I can't answer those just yet.

Your former candidate jumped/defected from the sinking ship and ran to a different ticket - is this loyalty or what? All we need is an insight - some background info and some contact details.

If you can provide us with this information YOU will be the person to gain. You will be the winner out of the 'deal.' A position on Student Council is what is on the table for offer.

We are not stuffing you around - be assured. Provide the requested information by Sunday 25/8 via an email to this address and we will reply by 6pm with a contact name and phone number as well as information pertaining to the agreement.

This is the only way the deal can work - otherwise, we can not be sure if you will expose us, and as such we require the information first. Again, once received, we shall email you contact details so as to set up a meeting to discuss how the agreement of you getting a Student Council place will be implemented at next years elections.

Hear from you soon.

Sadly, I can't find my response to this email. The gist of it was that I had no interest in doing a deal with a shady anonymous figure and that I found the whole thing rather tawdry.

This was the SS654 response:

From : -- --
Sent : Thursday, 29 August 2002 2:59:15 AM
To :
Subject : Re: Deal

The thing is 'mate' you wont see me round and I wont see you round. You still have no idea do you? The only clue you are now going to get is that we have had a mutual acquaintance.

And now, Mr. Sharp you fell for our little trap. You ticket was crushed.

We must thank your friend Andrew, for his fantastic posters. Their designs will do doubt prove a great addition to our material. Notably, it was interesting to read your Environment Candidates speeches, Michael and Lauren.

"A greener university - fight the issues on campus before fighting abroad" - again would these people have any idea as to how to be student politicians? NO NO NO. They would have no idea.

In response to a seperate question - the mole was not a male...

And with that, my contact with SimplySenational654 ceased. I tried emailing them a while later, but Hotmail informed me that the address was no longer active.

Over four years on, I have no great personal stake in the politics of Union House. I do, however, want to get to the bottom of just who was SS654. This has become my own personal Deep Throat (think Mark Felt, not Linda Lovelace). I have my suspicions, but I've never been able to confirm them. I was hoping the blogosphere might be able to shed some light on it. Those who were involved in the 2002 campaign know who they are, and would no doubt know something about the identity of this person. Others might have also been receiving emails from them. Of the people on the email list - of whom one was the mole - I am sure of the bona fides of most of them. There are a few, though, who I'm doubtful about.

SS654, if you're out there, drop me a line. Anyone else, a comment or email would be appreciated.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: Student politics 2001

Little did I know it when I arrived on campus in 2001, but my six years there would be the most turbulent and fractured in campus politics for decades. From the very start, I was lukewarm in my interest in the shannagans of student politics: in my view at the time, I'd bypassed student politics and headed straight to the real thing. I was the Victorian President of the Young Australian Democrats, and later that year would be preselected as a candidate for the 2001 Federal Elections. Why bother learning to crawl when I could already walk?

When the campus elections of 2001 were approaching in early August, I was reluctant to run, knowing that there were barely a handful of fellow Democrats on campus, and the other tickets were far more experienced and slick-oiled than I could possibly be. Nonetheless after some persuading by fellow Democrat and then NUS National Environment Officer Peter Zakzrewski, I nominated. Fearing the commitment that comes with a year-long appointment, I took the easy way out, and nominated for a position as a Melbourne Uni delegate to the State and National conventions of the National Union of Students, a week-long obligation, usually carried out whilst drunk. Melbourne University elected seven delegates to the NUS Conference, and these positions were elected via proportional representation in elections held simultaneously with the election for a myriad of campus office bearer and committee positions.

I paired up with a fellow Democrat, Jane Sullivan (who I haven't heard from in five years - are you out there, Jane?) and we lodged a ticket nomination for the NUS position as Democrats on Campus, filling in the nomination form and depositing it in the modest nomination box held in Union House. To avoid last minute hitches, we put it in on a Tuesday, with nominations closing on the Friday. The lodging of the ticket would prove to be the entirety of our campaign effort. Three days later I checked the election noticeboard to check the list of nominations. To my extreme shock, there were just nine nominations in total: seven from Real Students (the brand name of the Labor Right faction) and two from the Democrats on Campus.

The exact detail of what had happened eludes me, but in effect, during the week of nominations, the Labor Left-dominated Student Council had sacked the Returning Officer, believing that this would annul the nomination process, which would need to start afresh under the new Returning Officer, and so the Labor Left (as well as Liberals, and just about everyone else) had not bothered to submit their nomination. Upon their arrival the new Returning Officer, in order to meet the election deadlines already set, decided to treat the nomination process as valid. The upshot of it was that most tickets had failed to nominate, and only the Labor Right ticket had submitted their nomination, alongside the now mighty Democrats on Campus.

Come the second week of September, amidst farce and frustration, the elections were held (incidentally that was the week of 9/11, and so anger at the election was far more subdued that would otherwise have been expected). At the end of that week, the votes were tallied, and I was elected to represent the students of the University of Melbourne at the National Union of Students. Or so I thought. Appeals were submitted to the campus electoral tribunal, but to no avail. As well as my personal success, this result gave almost absolute control of the office bearer positions and committee position to the Labor Right faction, a situation which would lead to the dizzying heights of irresponsibility that was to come.

Early in December the Victorian NUS Conference came and went at Monash University in Clayton, with only hazy memories in my head of the conference being short of quorum until a delegate from the Gippsland finally arrived several hours after the scheduled start. When the important business of the meeting arrived - electing snouts to pleasure themselves in the NUS trough for the coming twelve months - I took my guidance from NUS veteran and friend Pete and teamed up with the Labor Right faction, much to the chagrin of the Labor Left folks who resented my right to be there, let alone vote against them.

A week later was the National Conference, hosted by the University of Ballarat. I'd heard about the National Conference before, thanks to interstate Democrats who had attended in past years. My impression of it beforehand - which was vindicated by what I saw in person - was that the Conference was a sad collection of drunk and horny student politicians, conducted at odd hours, and dominated by a loopy collection of unrepentant hardcore socialists.

The thing I was most looking forward to at Conference was the tension between the Liberals and the rest. I'd heard legendary stories about the Liberals' antic and the past, and wanted to verify them myself. One story had it that the Liberals had thrown a fridge out of a second storey window. Another was that they'd vandalised their accommodation. Other years they'd been banned from campus and forced to stay elsewhere. The Liberals' were opposed in principle to the idea of student unionism, and the starters was to so sought to destroy the reputation of NUS. They were Trojan Horses, and were unashamed about it. My year at the conference, the motif of choice was the Australian flag and the national anthem, which were displayed and sung prominently and loudly, a basically inoffensive act calculated to stir the tempers of the hardcore left who are so riddled with paranoia that any display of Australian patriotism was akin to racism (anti-Muslim racism was the hot button issue at the time). Time after time the Left would take the bait, successfully banning the Australian flag from the conference floor and generally getting hot and bothered. It was a great piece of political theatre. Though there were only a handful of them there, the Liberals had the most fun by far, and whilst achieving nothing at all in the formal part of the conference, achieved plenty outside of it.

Nothing much at the conference takes place before dark, a considerable achievement given that it occurs near the summer solstice. The agenda optimistically begins after lunch, but in reality it starts after dinner. Delegates stay in dorms grouped according to political faction. The committed politicos in each faction spend their time clustering around each other, as if stratergising the invasion of New Zealand. The rest, which is most of us, hang around on the lawns with each other, sipping cheap beer and wondering what the hell is taking so long. This statis goes on for hours, until eventually there is a movement toward the main conference hall.

Inside, a jumble and tables and chairs sit haphazardly, soon grouped according to faction, with Labor Left (two of them), Broad Left, International Students, Labor Right, Independents and independents all represented. At the back on one side are the Liberals, treated like AIDS victims at a Fred Nile Rally, whilst on the other was my modest group of half a dozen or so. The Democrats on Campus. From the ceiling hung the names of each of the universities represented. I soon learnt that come voting time, we would gather under the title of our respective universities. At the front stood a modest podium, and to the side of that sat a circle of chairs with representatives of each faction elected to organise the minutiae of the conference.

It was only on the second evening of the conference that the business of the conference actually begun. After a few formalities, the first issue to be decided was whether or not the results of the Melbourne University election should stand. As soon emerged, the result at Melbourne Uni had fundamentally altered the balance of power of the conference itself, not surprising given that the Uni is the second biggest at the conference, and that the delegates were almost all from the one faction - Labor Right. Without Melbourne Uni, the Left have the numbers. With us, the Right have the numbers.

The strategy of the Left was to have the Melbourne Uni results annulled, and the previous year's delegates take our place. A straight vote of the conference - with the current Melbourne Uni delegates in place - would have resulted in a failure of the annulment motion because of the existing balance of power. So first it was necessary to put through a motion that prevented the Melbourne Uni delegates from voting on the legitimacy of their own election. Debate on each of these two motions took hours and hours. The debate, of course, was farcical, given that delegates always vote as a bloc and always vote in their own interests. Not one vote was shifted either way by the hours and hours of fiery rhetoric. The Left talked about the horrible injustice of the nomination process. The Right talked about the importance of respecting due process of campus. And it would have been exactly the opposite if it had have suited them. For me, siding with the Right and maintaining my delegates position was the only sensible thing to do.

A vote on the first motion occurred at around midnight, and sure enough we were to be stripped of our right to vote on the motion of whether or not we could remain as delegates at the conference. Debate on the second motion then stretched on for hours more. Debate is probably a generous description of what occurred: the proceedings are more of a pantomime, with speakers on both sides playing to the prejudices of their faction members, inviting a call-and-response, thumping the podium, venting their spleen, and putting down the numerous heckles of their opponents. It's Parliamentary Question Time on speed.

By three in the morning, I'd had enough of being a passive observer. Extreme in my naivete, or perhaps suffering delusions of grandeur, I reasoned that if I could put my case calmly and rationally, I might be able to persuade some of the passive rump of students on the Left to cross the floor. Almost as nervous as I'd ever been, I stood before the rowdy group of students and starting making my case. I told them how excited I was to be there. That this was my first ever conference. That I want to represent my university, just like everyone else there did. And then I was interrupted. The factional leaders had finally snapped and requested that the motion be put. I never got to finish my speech.

Sure enough, the motion was put, and despite my scintillating rhetoric, the vote went against us. The 2001 Melbourne Uni delegates were turfed out, and the 2000 delegates invited back. In doing this, power had shifted from the Right to the Left. I remember being rather nonplussed at the end of it all. I'd got there by freak chance, and now the right order of things was being restored. Most of the next day at the conference was spent by the Labor Right leaders trying to overturn the previous day's decision. By this stage, though, my heart wasn't in it and I planned my trip home.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: Classroom capers

The transition from school life to uni life is tough for many people. For most students, high school is a place of intensive supervision, with a confined range of choices available and an untrusting eye constantly cast over everyone. It has to be this way, given that at that stage in our lives most of us lack the emotional maturity to make wise choices over what we study, how we study, and indeed if we study. Whilst describing the latter years of high school at many private schools as intellectual spoon-feeding is a common cliche, it is a cliche which emerged with good reason.

For me, the latter years of high school were richly rewarding, spent at a private Jewish school with a year level of high achievers and bookish conformists. There was an culture of respect for learning and a celebration of high achievement, rather than the denigration it experiences in so many other schools. It was cool to work hard and intellectualism was nothing to be ashamed of. Still, high school was spent with teachers who would be constantly putting pressure on their chargers, querying every absense and constantly putting in place deadlines to be met. It was a place where just turning up was not an option.

Once at university, external motivation disappears. Truth be told, often at high school we did what we did because of the consequences if we didn't. Come university, these consequences don't exist. Except for the ultimate: results. As a university student, motivation needs to come from one's self rather than one's environment. Lack of attendance at class, failure to do the weekly reading, failure to get out of bed in the morning... only you will know.

For me, the transition wasn't so bad. Old fashioned as I am, I had already become a believer in the idea of effort for the sake of effort. Facile as it seems, I did things because they were the right things to do, not because of the consequences. Right from the start I took the approach that turning up to class was the barest minimum of participation, and anything below that was unacceptable. With no one telling me what to do, it was a good approach to take.

There were plenty of students, though, who floundered without strong guidance. In my experience, it was students who came from schools that closely monitored their performance who found the transition most difficult. In their final years at high school they had developed learned helplessness, and university life exposed it. On the other hand, students that had come from schools which gave them more freedom were far better prepared. It's interesting to note that whilst private schools have a higher percentage of their students reach university than do public schools, these students are also more likely to change or drop out of their selected course.

Studying at university is a slackers life. For most. With two twelve week semesters scheduled each year, this still leaves the majority of the year without any need to turn up. When we do turn up, for those of us studying arts, law or commerce at least, we have just twelve attendence hours each semester. The story is a little different for those hardy souls who have signed up for engineering, medicine, dentistry etc, where upward of thirty hours a week of attendence is expected.

More important than the quantity of university study is the quality. The format of university teaching actively encourages passivity and a lack of preparation. Lectures are overwhelmingly passive experiences, were students are spoken to rather than spoken with. Tutorials, although in theory interactive, rarely seem to reach the great heights of intellectual discussion that they ought to be.

On the surface at least, lectures seem to be a remarkably ineffective method of imparting knowledge from the teacher to the student. Though technology has transformed just about every other interpersonal experience, it seems to have left university teaching largely unscathed. There are many lecturers - particularly in the arts faculty - who have such a repulsion for technology that they eschew it deliberately and instead rely on chalk-and-talk. Those lecturers who do use technology to their advantage benefit greatly from it. The reality is that not all students are audio-learners: many rely on their visual senses. Furthermore, an audience is more receptive to a message if they receive it in both visual and audio forms. There's nothing revolutionary about all this, but sadly it seems forgotten by many teachers.

Power-Point presentations is the most obvious and useful addition to any lecture. When used badly, Power-Point is painful. At its best, though, it can liven up even the dullest of lectures and can crystalise ideas that otherwise appear allusive. Over the years more and more teachers have mastered PP and use it as a part of their lectures. There are still plenty, though, who thumb their noses at it.

There is nothing accidental about a poor standard of teaching. An output, after all, is the product of the inputs. It's accepted that many university lecturers are reluctant teachers. They've earnt their place at the front of the lecture hall not because they are brilliant teachers, but because of their brilliance in their chosen field. Also, many of them resent the need to teach at all: their primary interest is research, and teaching is merely the part of the job that pays the bills.

Still, most of them would find that a one year Diploma in Education would dramatically improve their teaching skills. It's not an unreasonable expectation that lecturers possess this basic qualification if they are to teach undergraduate students. The experience would be a wake-up call to somnambulist lecturers, and would do plenty to improve the Quality of Teaching that the university seems to take great delight in drawing our attention to.

As for tutorials, I have plenty of sympathy for the postgrad students who put themselves at our mercy. The extraction of teeth is a pleasure in comparison to the sheer agony of watching a tutor extract an answer out of a group of too-cool-for-school silent undergrads. The fault here is with the students, not the teacher. Most students keep silent not because they don't know the answer, but because they fear looking stupid. The irony is staying silent looks stupidest of all.

Part of the problem might be a lack of familiarity with our fellow students, an inevitability given the sheer number of students enrolled in most subjects. There's not a lot different between a high school classroom and a university tutorial room, yet discussion often runs riot in the former, but is non-existant in the latter. Part of the problem might also be a cultural barrier - many students who went to high school in Asia are used to a passive learning style, where students are expected to listen rather than speak. For these students, overcoming their unfamiliarity with speaking up, is a significant challenge, especially when combined with the challenge of having English as a second language.

At the start of my university life, I had a vision in my head of how student life should be. Every lecture should be electrifying, every tutorial discussion scintilating, and every assignment a pleasure to research. Like most fantasies of mine, this one never left my head. Shame 'bout that.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Citizenship Test: Canadian example

There's been a fair bit of hubbab in the past few days over the government's proposal for a simple civics and English language test prior to the granting of citizenship. On face value, such a proposal doesn't seem unreasonable if we are to accept the mantra that Australian citizenship is a privilege, not a right (although as this piece points out, the exact opposite is true for those born in Australia).

Anyhow, the Canadians have had one in place for a while - well, the civics part of it, at least. For obvious reasons, the test itself is not publicly available, although this very interesting site, thanks to Your Library, allows you to take a free sample test.

For what it's worth, my entire Canadian experience consists of accidentally spilling some gravy and cheese on my chips, but I scored 80% on a sample of five questions, enough to entitle me to citizenship.

Given that few people are likely to fail the test, but plenty are likely to learn more about their country before sitting it, it seems like a step forward in the quest for an informed and civically-aware populous. If the folks from Saskatchewan can do it...

Check out the sample test and see how you go.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ari joins The Age

This evening, with only a glass of cheap white wine for company, I signed a contract to transform Ari on the Web into Ari at The Age. After an arduous application process involving a folio, a trivia quiz, a writing challenge, and a faux pas involving my gross indifference toward the suffering of others, I have been selected for the Reporting Traineeship.

Though it would be nice to think of it as a case of blogger-boy making it into the big wide world of the MSM, I suspect that my blog was a minor factor at best in my selection. The work I am most proud of - and which had a priviliged place in my portfolio - is the array of work which has appeared in a variety of other outlets, both on- and off-line, and which are featured in the charmingly honest 'Ego File' toward the bottom on the right-hand side.

Perhaps the strongest work was the stuff that appeared in Vibewire, whom incidentally are in the midst of a fundraising campaign. So if you're in the mood to help out a bunch of smartarse young upstarts ambitious young writers, click this way.

The future of AOTW is yet to be decided, but it's unlikely to continue in it's current form once I start work in February. I'll keep you posted.

2007 just got a whole lot more interesting!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: The sex and booze myth

It's undeniable that life changes once you reach a university campus. Suddenly the freedom to do things your own way becomes intoxicating. The stereotype is that an undergrad's first year is spent drinking, lazing around and fornicating with new friends. In my experience, however, this is grossly exaggerated. Perhaps in the university colleges, whose halls I never graced, hedonistic abandon is more common with the close confines of college dorms creating an unstoppable momentum. Most students, however, don't live on campus, and so are distanced from this college culture.

Sure, there are plenty of attempts by established students to woo new arrivals on campus. O-Week (later rebadged as Orientation 200X when there were not enough activities to stretch it out for the whole five days) is awash with pub crawls, where older students don stupid hats and march a group of first years who are desperate to fit in around to nearby pubs, who themselves are desperate for punters, particularly young and thirsty ones.

The only pub crawl I ever went on was the 2001 Commerce Students pub crawl. The crawl started just after lunch, and included nine pubs through Parkville and Carlton. At least that's what the dodgy photocopied map explained. I never made it past the second pub, by which stage I was already tired of seeing every third or so student remonstrate with the bouncer because, at seventeen and lacking a convincing fake ID, they were unwelcome inside. Those of us who did make it inside were squeezed into a corner, ironically unable to make it anywhere close to the bar, making small talk with fellow corner-squeezed first years. Almost without exception, the conversation would go something like this:

UGrad #1: Hey
UGrad #2: Hi
UGrad #1: So, what are you studying?
UGrad #2: Commerce. You?
UGrad #1: Commerce.
Both reflect on the folly of asking such a question on the Commerce Pub Crawl.
UGrad #2: Where'd you go to school?
UGrad #1: Whisky.
UGrad #2: Oh, Whisky. Hey, d'you know Wanker McPhee.
UGrad #1: Nah, never met him.

And so the inanities would continue until both had exhausted their supply and moved onto the next person. It was hardly a good environment to make friends, with the urge to appear hip, cool and alcoholic leading to such excrutiating pretentiousness that genuine encounters become impossible.

Although I didn't realise it at the time, the very notion of the pub crawl as a bonding activity is incredibly exclusionary. The seventeen year olds knocked back at the door were the mere tips of the iceberg. There were plenty of students who for a variety of reasons don't bond over alcohol: some for religious reasons, some because of their metabolism, and some because of cultural differences. Those of us left are generally macho, Anglo and wander around campus with a sense of entitlement.

A few years later I thought up an alternative idea for a first year socialising activity that didn't divide the drinkers from the rest, although I never put it into practice. A Park Crawl was my idea, whereby students would bring a lavish selection of picnic goodies with them, and we would move from one park to another picnicking, eating, talking, and if the mood took us, drinking. With vast amounts of lush greenery in the surrounding area, it was an idea with plenty of potential. Perhaps some other first year sick of being made to feel like a loser because they don't drink will make it happen.

As my first year progressed, I kept getting the impression that I was missing out on something. The drinking/lazing/fornicating trifecta was hardly an accurate description of my university experience. Whilst there were some who did indulge in these things with reckless abandon, I think I was probably in the majority. My steps toward socialisation were far more tentative, trying to find a handful of people with common interests rather than a vast network of drinking buddies. I was in the luxurious position of knowing plenty of people before I even started, a product of coming off the private school production line. At first, these became my network of friends, and it was only later that I sought to move beyond my social comfort zone.

Like many of my non-gregarious colleagues, the student union's Clubs and Societies were a Godsend vast nothingness-send. Initially I wasn't very discriminating in whom I signed up with. Wandering around the tables during Orientation 2001, I signed up to the club of just about anyone who smiled in my direction. I was a paid up member of the Amnesty International Club, the Melbourne University Debaters Society, the Melboure University Baseball Club, the Melbourne Uni Jewish Students Society and the MU Jugglers Club. Clearly I thought I'd have a lot of time on my hands. The club that made the biggest impact on my social circle, however, was the Political Interest Society, a group of political enthusiasts who loved to talk intelligently rather than zealously about topics close to them.

The formal structure of the club gave many students a space to be sociable. Whilst wandering over to join a group of strangers for lunch would be bizarre and unwelcome, the context of a student club gave perfect justification for this very thing. The fact that you knew from the start that you had a common interest with the people you were joining was a bonus.

Even without a romantic partner at the time, I didn't feel particularly phased or desperate to find someone. That was for more confident and narcissistic people. I was happy to hang back a little, observe others, make friends and see what happened from there. Most of us, I suspect, were looking for friendship rather than a cheap root, regardless of the external pressure to boost our credentials.

I suspect that the mythology surrounding the indulgences of uni life are constructed by those who seek to bignote themselves. People of meek and mild habits are unlikely to advertise the fact, whilst those that live flamboyantly love to let the world know. It's a shame that so many students are made to feel inadequate because they don't indulge in the excesses of uni life. Many of us are happy that way.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: What's it all about?

This is the second in my series on life as an undergraduate student. Bear with me during the boring bits, since the last couple of paragraphs offer some candid self-reflection on my drift to the political right.

I have quite a simple theory of education: education is the process of relaxing assumptions about the world. The further down the path of education we move, the more assumptions are relaxed, in search of the ultimate intellectual nirvana: a worldview completely devoid of assumptions, which sadly seems a theoretical impossibility. By assumptions, I refer to things that we accept as 'given' without needing explanation or justification.

To see this theory in action, a simple example close to my heart: the study of politics (or as those of us who wish to make the subjective appear objective might call it, political science). Without exerting much intellectual energy, you can apply the same framework to things as diverse as language, creative arts, engineering, medicine, business, economics and the law.

As primary school students, we take the world completely on face value. Our knowledge of politics is merely the recall of a handful of verifiable uncontested facts - who the Prime Minister is, what the houses of parliament are called. This is a simple reality that we unquestioningly accept, blissfully unaware that beneath these benign facts exists a dense discourse.

Then we enter secondary school, where we relax the assumption that things have always been as they are. We study to history of our country, with ideas of colonisation and social conflict and we learn about the anticedents of the institutions that exist today. We become comfortable with the idea that the things we previously took for granted had to evolve to become as they are. At this stage we are still in a headspace devoid of theoretical explanations. (For most people, this is the furthest they reach in their understanding of the world.)

In the final years of high school, we relax the idea that the present state of things is somehow an inevitable outcome of our history. We come to realise that things with which we have become familiar (such as the doctrine of the separation of powers, the independence of the public service) are in fact important and deliberate constructions put in place in preference to alternative arrangements. To use a hotly contested phrase, we come to realise that our system of government is the product of evolution rather than Intelligent Design. Ever so slowly, we come to appreciate the remarkable achievement that is a functioning democracy.

As undergraduates, we relax the assumption that institutions are important in themselves, and come to realise that they are merely manifestations of theoretical ideas. Debate, therefore, occurs at the level of these theoretical ideas, hence we are opened up to a world of liberty, democracy, justice, conservatism and the subaltern. Once we make this intellectual leap, we come to see that the neat consensus of societal objectives (peace, freedom, prosperity, equality) that we previously accepted are in fact hotly contested, and occasionally incompatible, and it is necessary to negotiate a path through. We also come to see that the institutions which purport to manifest particular ideas can in fact fail to do so. We therefore become open to the possibility of change or alternative constructions of the world.

And for what awaits those studying as postgrads and beyond, I can only speak speculatively rather than from experience. My hunch is that we relax the assumption about the nature of human beings and human society, and the study of politics begins to overlap with the study of psychology and sociology. The political meaning of the fundamental aspects of social organisation come into question, so that even the most innoccuous word, object or person takes on a political meaning.

This framework is useful at understanding the disjoint between 'elite' and 'popular' opinion. Elite opinion thinks of the world as (at least) undergraduates would, and so hold few assumptions about the way it is. Popular opinion operates with more assumptions, at about the level of the high school student. So when a given issue arises, elites concern themselves with the theoretical challenges posed by an issue, whilst the populous take the existing theoretical worldview as given and so think only of the practical implications.

Consider, for example, the issue of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. On this debate, elites concern themselves with theoretical questions of global justice and human liberty, and so take a sympathetic view of the plight of asylum seekers. Popular opinion, however, doesn't consider these questions and concerns itself only with the immediate practical effect (hordes of foreigners, threat to national security).

To the populous arguing with the elite, these adverse practical effects are the only consideration needed in forming a view, and the elite's antipathy toward these things appears foolish and naive. To the elite arguing with the populous, these practical effects are merely details to be dealt with in pursuit of a fundamental ideal.

(Sure, there are plenty of elites and the populous who defy this portrayal of their viewpoints, however this tool is useful for explaining major currents in opinion. And those who do take an opinion contrary to that suggested by the sophistication of their world view usually justify it in their own coin, such as the elite who might argue that 'mandatory detention curbs the incentive for people smugglers', or a member of the populous who might argue that 'women and children couldn't possibly be a real threat'.)

So the real benefit in a university education is helping a student understand why things are as they are, and how they could be different. University encourages you to challenge even the most foundational and permanent features of the world, by virtue of the fact that these features are constructed rather than natural.

For most students, this drives them toward progressive or even radical politics, as they come to realise that the social hierarchy that they'd previously accepted as immovable can in fact be washed away with the tides of history. All of a sudden the Anglo-hetero-normative-patriarchal-capitalist nature of supposedly neutral institutions becomes obvious, and plotting for their destruction is the only sane thing to do.

For me though, ever the contrarian, the relaxation of assumptions about the world pushed me toward a more conservative strain of politics. It become evident to me that the prosperity, peace and liberty that we enjoy in Australia and the rest of the western world is not some birthright granted to us by a higher being, but is instead the product of the wisdom and decision-making of earlier generations. Had they have made a different set of choices, we may have ended up under tyranny, in poverty and devoid of basic freedoms. Crucially, should we make a poor set of choices, we may yet end up is this dreaded dystopia, such is the impermanence of the current state of affairs. The fundamental tenets of life as we know it need defending - whether it be from religious extremists, political extremists or economic extremists - and to glibly assume that these tenets will exist ad infinitum may be fatal.

A university education forces you to take nothing for granted and recognise that every aspect of the world has a reason for being as it is and that nothing is permanent.

Or as John Maynard Keynes once said, "In the long run, we're all dead."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Undergrad Reflections: Introduction

Barring disaster when my results are released this Friday, my days as an undergraduate students are now complete. After six years of study (well, five of study, and one swanning around Europe and the Middle East) I will be a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne. Or to use my newfound postnominals, I will be Ari Sharp, BCom/BA (Melb). Whilst the university will be acknowledging my graduation in the usual way, by making me wear a silly cap and cloak whilst they ask me for money, it seems appropriate to honour it in a more personal and meaningful way.

Therefore, I will be embarking on a frothy and indulgent reminisce on my time as a student at one of Australia's eminent educational institutions. In this endeavour I am inspired by Alice Garner's recently released The Student Chronicles, which maps out the author's path to undergraduate glory at Unimelb. Though I haven't read it yet, I'm also curious about Ross Gregory Douth's experiences at Harvard, in Privilege.

Like both Garner and Douth, I come from a background whereby a university education is seen as a birthright rather than an opportunity. Both my parents received a university education, and the vast majority of my high school class went on to study at one of this city's major universities. Given this, it's easy to become complacent and take for granted the chance to spend years honing my intellect without suffering the material discomfort or privation that comes with spending your productive years rather unproductively.

Much like dreams and nightmares are supposed to help a person cope psychologically with what they've experienced during the day, I hope that these musings can help me make sense of the past six years of my life. In no particular order, I want to talk about life on campus, what goes on inside the classroom, the Melbourne Uni student political scandals of recent times, the good, the bad and the ugly of university academics, and anything else comes to mind. I guess at the heart of it I want to answer the existential question that afflicts all students at one time or another: what's the point of it all?

I probably won't find an answer, but I'll have some fun looking.

Deadly sins in Iraq

As the world waits for the Iraq Study Group to deliver its findings on how the hell we get out of this mess, Kenneth M Pollack at MERIA (The Middle East Review of International Affairs, dummy) has delivered his own critique, The Seven Deadly Sins of Failure in Iraq:

If Iraq does slide into all-out civil war, the Bush Administration will have only itself to blame. It disregarded the advice of experts on Iraq, on nation-building, and on military operations. It staged both the invasion and the reconstruction on the cheap. It never learned from its mistakes and never committed adequate resources to accomplish either its original lofty aspirations or even its later, more modest goals. It refused to believe intelligence that contradicted its own views and doggedly insisted that reality conform to its wishes. In its breathtaking hubris, the Administration engineered a Greek tragedy in Iraq, the outcome of which may plague us for decades.

One of the interesting things to note is the suggestion that the disintegration of Iraq after the invasion for far from inevitable. Logically, therefore, there is a good reason to be supportive of the invasion decision, but opposed to the gross mismanagement that occured afterwards. While we wait for Baker et al, have a read of Pollack.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sadness turns to lameness

Tragically, Big Kim's brother David died today.

Rove McManus sent his condolences to Simon Beasley.

Footnote to Israel-Lebanon report

In August, BBC reporter Orla Guerin filed a report from the town of Bint Jbeil in the midst of the Israel-Lebanon conflict. The report was one of the more blatant examples of BBC bias on the Middle East conflict, and blogger Drinking From Home exposed the numerous factual errors in the report.

In Australia, SBS aired the same report on 15 August.

Nearly four months on, and with one feisty librarian on the case, SBS issued an apology clarification for airing the error-riddled report:

World News Australia (15/8/2006)
On August 15, 2006, World News Australia carried a report on destruction in the town of Bint Jbeil in Southern Lebanon during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. The report stated that "this town has really been wiped out."

The centre of the town did suffer extensive damage and could be said to have been "wiped out" but some areas of the town suffered less damage.

A subsequent bulletin of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs states that "1,200 houses out of 1,500 were destroyed in Bint Jbeil"

It wouldn't even qualify as a Clayton's apology. As for a discussion of why terrorists chose to base themselves in a civilian area, leading to the tragedy at the centre of the report, the search for balance continues.

UPDATE 5/12, 10:30am: Should have linked to the clarification. Sorry 'bout that.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

It's Time for a change

We can count down the hours until Kevin Rudd takes over the Labor leadership and the party gives itself a chance of winning the next election. The Sunday papers were already hinting heavily that Rudd was the likely winner, and the desperate desire for a clear result means that some of the wavering Beazley backers will come to support Rudd. Look for a win of at least 10 votes.

Its worth remembering that even when he was elected Labor leader (again) in January 2005, Beazley was there primarily to steady things after the instability of the Latham era, and not to contest the next election. There was a good reason for him stepping down after the 2001 election - he was tired, people were bored with him, and he had two electoral losses to his name - and these things all held true in 2005.

The plan at the time was for Beazley to settle things down and then allow one of Latham's generation to assume the leadership close to the next election. Ideally, this would have happened earlier, probably at this time last year, but the absense of a clear successor to Beazley until now meant that it didn't happen.

Surely Beazley was aware that the party had turned to him as a boring-but-stable option, and that he wasn't the right option in the long term. Somehow he got a little too comfortable in the leader's chair.

So long, Bomber, but you always knew it was coming.

Rudd and friends
Rudd meets with the Labor caucus

UPDATE 4/12, 5:05pm: Do I win a prize?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Melb Press Club: Dr Phil "Amigo #2" Burgess

The past twenty-four hours has seen some almighty stoushes enter the public domain. Last night it was a drunken Glenn Milne taking his hatred of Stephen Mayne to new levels. Then this morning the pimple that is the leadership speculation in the Labor Party reached popping point, and a Rudd vs Beazley ballot was announced for next Monday. And Telstra and the ACCC's mutual loathing of one another rolled on.

This final conflict was fanned at the Melbourne Press Club's luncheon, with Telstra's Public Policy & Communications man Dr Phil Burgess the guest speaker. Burgess was breathing fire, continuing his vigourous assault on the ACCC, and its head Graeme Samuel, over what Telstra perceives as the unfair regulatory burden imposed on Telstra. No doubt the fine detail of the speech will be reported and dissected by the assembled media (and besides, Phil promised it would soon be online for the world to see at Now We Are Talking), but there are a few observations that struck me about Burgess's performance.

- By his own admission, Phil Burgess loves a fight. He said several times that he wouldn't be backing away from an argument, and he saw it as healthy within a democracy that competing opinions be aired, and sensible ideas be turned into policy and poor ideas exposed as such and ignored. The take-away message from today's speech was that the ACCC was a "Rogue Regulator", acting beyond the mandate given to it by the government and acting in a way that wasn't in the government's interests. It was an interesting line to run, and suggests that Telstra's stratergy is to drive a wedge between the government and regulator, a charge which Burgess coyly denied in a door-stop interview afterwards.

Dr Phil
Dr Phil

- There was a really interesting analysis in the difference between the way that lobbying and regulation occurs in Australia compared to overseas, most notably the US. In Australia, corporate lobbyists approach the government directly, and put their case straight to the decision makers. In the US, lobbyists put their arguments to the people and try to build popular support for their cause. Telstra have deliberately taken the US approach to lobbying the ACCC (and by extention, the Government) over price-setting for competitors' access to Telstra-owned infrastructure.

- Burgess doesn't suffer fools gladly. Your fearless correspondent asked a slightly sneaky question about whether it was a mistake for the government to keep the infrastructure and retail divisions of Telstra together for the privatisation given the long subsequent dispute that has arisen about competitor's access. Burgess was spitting back questions in response, giving plenty of chin music (a term that I just discovered crosses the Pacific) and aggressively challenging those who asked him questions.

- Somehow Burgess managed to keep a straight face as he played the Good Ol' Aussie Company card, hinting that Telstra should be treated better than it's foreign-owned rivals Optus (Singapore), Vodafone (UK) and Hutchison (Hong Kong). Despite his American drawl, Burgess was desperate to show that he was Australian as Apple Pie. Or something like that.

- Telstra seems to be paranoid about its public image. The Burgess enterage seemed to include at least half a dozen assistants and media advisers, helping to keep the main man on message and focussed.

Seeing Burgess in full-flight is strangely exhilirating. There's a definite contrast between Burgess's style, and the lethargic Australian approach to corporate PR. Australians don't generally like someone who big-notes themselves, but Burgess is strangely charming. He's here for the war, not for the peace, and he seems doggedly determined to win the battle.

UPDATE 5/12, 5:15pm: Dr Phil's speech is now online here (PDF).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Prahran: It don't mean a thing if you don't get that swing

So after all that, nothing much has changed. With close to 75% of the vote now counted, the swing to the Liberals in Prahran (on a two party preferred count) is just 0.5% compared to the state-wide swing of 2%. The primary votes suggest that there was very little movement amongst voters between 2002 and 2006, with small swings to the Greens (1.5%), Family First (1.2%, off a base of 0) and the Liberals (0.7%), whilst the ALP had a small swing against it (0.4%), with the absense of a Democrat and Indepedent (Abraham Lincoln!) explaining the rest.

Given the resources that were poured into this campaign by the major parties, how do we explain the lack of movement? Most likely, voters were not particularly attuned to the local battle, and shared the statewide apathy with the election campaign. As Bracks candidly confessed early in the campaign, "They aren't out there with baseball bats ready to get us."

It's worth noting that the Liberals were victorious on primary votes by a significant margin - 4% - and that Labor's victory in the seat is largely attributable to the extremely strong flow of Greens preferences. Winning the seat with less than 4 in 10 votes, as Lupton has done this time around, in hardly a ringing endorsement.

This also points to the remarkable performance of the Greens - 19.5% - who have established a firm foothold as the protest party of choice for wealthy inner-suburbanites. The only thing stopping Prahran from joining the inner-city seats which were on the verge of turning watermelon is that the Labor and Liberal votes are too close to one another, making it near impossible for the Greens to run second and leapfrog their way to victory on preferences. A significant Green vote is here to stay, and a reality that the Liberals will have to get used to if they are to win back seats like Prahran.

So it looks like Ella and Duke were right after all.

UPDATE 1/12, 5:00pm: Polly has pointed to the close battle in Southern Metro region, where the Greens, the ALP and the Liberals are each perilously close to a quota, with only two positions left to be filled. Antony Green suggests that the Greens are likely to pick up the second-last spot, and that the Liberals will just get their toe over the line for the final position:

Liberal 50799 1.0011 Quotas
Labor 50685 0.9989 Quotas

But as Antony says, this one is too close to call. The old adage about absentee votes going to the Liberals more heavily than ordinary votes will stengthen their hand. Also, the Liberal candidate in the balance is David Southwick, a Jew who will poll well amongst the prepolling religious Jews in the Caulfield and St Kilda parts of the electorate. My hunch is that the Libs will get there, meaning that Evan Thornley misses out: a great shame.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Clearly, they have too much time on their hands

From the Daily Telegraph, via Crikey about Her Maj's man in Canberra:

The whispering campaign against Major-General Jeffery recalls a story involving former veterans' affairs minister Danna Vale.

At a wreath-laying function, Ms Vale was allegedly introduced before the Governor-General.

According to Australian War Memorial staff involved at the time, Major-General Jeffery returned to Government House after the function but immediately despatched his aide-de-camp back to the memorial.

Senior memorial staff were informed that what had happened with Ms Vale was a breach of protocol and should not happen again.

Mrs Jeffery has also been targeted. According to sources close to Yarralumla, she tore strips off her husband's aide-de-camp after she didn't wear a hat to an official function whereas other women - including prominent Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop - did.

This, too, was regarded as a serious breach of protocol.

Wouldn't happen if we had a President.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Prahran: Election night results

Four more years
Four more years for Tony.

Counting has finished for the night, and it looks like Talk to Me Tony is back for four more years:


Primary Count

Justin Walker (Green)
VOTE: 19.4% SWING: +1.4%

Tony Lupton (Labor)
VOTE: 38.0% SWING: 0.0%

Clem Newton-Brown (Liberal)
VOTE: 41.4% SWING: +0.4%

Gary Pinto (Family First)
VOTE: 1.2% SWING: +1.2%

After Preferences

Tony Lupton (Labor)
VOTE: 56.3% SWING: +1.9%

Clem Newton-Brown (Liberal)
VOTE: 43.7% SWING: -1.9%

Interestingly only 67.4% of votes have been counted, one of the lowest of any electorates, suggesting that there is a high number of postal and absentee votes yet to be counted. Historically, there's a Liberal tendancy amongst these votes, but the Two Party Preferred margin seems to be too big to be overcome.

As happened in 2002, the Liberals won on primary votes, but got beaten soundly after the allocation of preferences. Most of these preferences are from the Greens. The Greens preference flow to the ALP was above 90%, an extraordinarily strong flow, especially given that Newton-Blog went out of his way to establish his environmental credentials.

Enough for now. More tomorrow.

UPDATE 1/12, 5:10pm: An anonymous commenter has asked about whether the results demonstrate the irrelevance of the internet in attracting voters. I think Anonymous is onto something. To me, it comes down the question of who is likely to turn to candidate websites, videos or blogs for information - they are overwhelmingly likely to be switched on politically-minded people who are already well-entrenched in their political beliefs. In other words, swing voters are likely to be apathetic, and therefore not spending their time online finding out about their local candidates.

More likely, the internet plays a role in keeping up energy and excitement amongst true believers, letting them know that the candidate is lively and active. Few undecided voters might have seen Clem's YouTube blog, but plenty of Liberal helpers would have turned to it for inspiration. So long as your helpers don't have the internet as a big part of their lives - ie, the DLP - you can get away with a scant internet presence. For the rest, though, it's essential.

Still, we all know how well went.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Prahran: Final thoughts

In just a few hours time, the polls will open in Prahran and the 33,000 or so rugged individualists who call this place home will have their say. The more I've watched this campaign, the less I've been certain of the result. Those watching from afar would probably have no difficulty picking it: Lupton's a well-known and well-liked sitting member in an electorate of Doctors' Wives and assorted other progressives, and should be returned easily. On the ground, though, the energy of the Newton-Brown campaign has easily dwarfed his opponents, giving the impression that he might just achieve success.

Ultimately, however, for Newton-Brown the 4.3% swing required is just a tad beyond him. Accepting that the statewide swing to the Liberals will be 2.5%, and that Newton-Brown's personal vote may earn him a further 1%, he's still short of the mark. For most voters, the local battle is a mere sideshow to the heavy-hitters - Bracks and Baillieu - and their efforts will count for far more than that of local candidates.

So for Prahran, my prediction is a Lupton victory, with a decent sized swing against him. As unfashionable as it is to say it, in this battle we've been blessed with two quality candidates, and whoever gets in will be a deserving victor. For the loser, this battle will be but a mere stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Just one sleep to go!

Gary PintoJustin Walker
Clem Newton-BrownTony Lupton
A smorgasbord of candidates awaits Prahran voters.

State election predictions

Morgan have the ALP up 53 to 47.

Galaxy have the ALP up 55 to 45.

But then again, "Last poll tips easy Kennett victory"

If both polls are accurate and the swing is consistant across the state, they'll lead to a return of the Bracks government, albeit with a reduced majority. Which sounds about right. Bracks will win the election, but this is as much a result of the commanding victory he had in 2002 as it is a ringing endorsement of the previous four years of his Premiership.

Voters aren't thrilled with Bracks, but they see him as a reasonably harmless bloke, even if he occasionally appears paralysed by indecision. It's a reflection on state and local politics more generally that voters are looking for decent administrators rather than real visionaries. When schools, hospitals, roads and water are at stake, the worst offence is rocking the boat. Mediocrity is a virtue.

Politically, there are three very different styles of battles going on.

Firstly, there are the country electorates. These are the ones made up of lifelong conservative voters who swung to Labor in 1999 and have stuck with them. It's interesting to note that these are areas with little historical tradition of voting Labor, and the Labor trend certainly hasn't carried over to Federal elections. If the working class suburbanites who voted for Howard in 1996 and never looked back are "Howard's Battlers", then perhaps these voters are "Bracks' bumpkins".

It will be interesting to see if they stick with Bracks this time around. They've got every reason to desert him. The drought is hitting regional Victoria hard, water restrictions are harsher in the country than they are in Melbourne and the Fast Train has become the Farce Train. Most likely some of these voters will return to the conservative fold, however the bitter divisions between the Liberals and Nationals are hardly encouraging. Watch for some of these seats to fall from Labor to Liberal. For the Nationals, their days are numbered.

My prediction: Ripon, South Barwon, Ballarat West, Hastings, Gembrook to fall to the Liberals.

Secondly, there are suburban electorates. The northern and western suburbs have always been Labor heartland, and nothing their will change. In the south and the east, Bracks might be on the nose, Pinnocio-style, because of his Bracksflip on tolls for the Mitcham to Frankston Freeway. But these are voters who have fallen under the charms of St Steve, and the toll reversal will be too long gone to hurt him. These seats will stay with the ALP. There are, though, a few that will fall from Labor's grasp, because the of slender margin by which they're held, and the strength of the local campaign.

My prediction: Evelyn, Kilsyth and Mount Waverley to fall.

Thirdly, there is the intriguing battle in the inner-city, where the ALP are under threat from a relentless Greens campaign. There was talk that these seats might fall in 2002, but then the Labor sitting members achieved a primary vote which was too high for the Greens to leapfrog to victory. This time, though, the primary vote will be lower for Labor and those seats look under real threat. The ALP have tried incredibly hard to publicise the preference deal the Greens have reached with the Liberals. It's a message, though, that means very little to the cynical, disengaged and Green-loving voters at which it is targeted.

My prediction: Richmond, Brunswick and Melbourne will all go Green.

So all in all, here's what I predict will happen:
- Labor will lose five seats in the country, mostly to the Liberals.
- Labor will lose three seats in the inner city, to the Greens.
- Labor will lose three seats in the eastern suburbs, to the Liberals.

Therefore, Labor will be returned with a significantly reduced majority:

Labor 51 (-11)
Liberal 25 (+8)
Nationals 7 (=)
Greens 3 (+3)
Independents 2 (=)

As for the Upper House, in each of the eight regions, Labor will win two seats, and the Liberals will win two seats. As for the final seats, here's how I think they'll fall:

- Southern Metro, South Eastern Metro, Western Metro, Northern Metro: Greens
- Eastern Metro: Family First
- Western Vic, Northern Vic and Eastern Vic: Nationals

Which leaves us with 16 Labor, 16 Liberals, 4 Greens, 3 Nationals and 1 Family First. This fine balance will make things extremely tricky for the ALP if they are returned in the lower house. Even if they were to reach an agreement with the Greens, one one of their number is elected as Speaker, they no longer have a majority on the floor of the house. Perhaps the single Family First member will become Spring Street's very own Steve Fielding. Oh the joy.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Prahran: Rules are rules

The VEC site has some fantastic dancing ballot papers...

Makes you wanna get up and vote! Makes you wanna get up and vote!
Makes you wanna get up and vote!

... but I couldn't find the specific rules relating to appropriate authorisation of campaign material. Does anyone want to offer an opinion on whether campaigning SMSs and emails are required to carry the standard "Written and authorised" tag-line? It would seem an unusual exception if it wasn't required of them, and a certain local Liberal candidate has been sending 'em out, authorisation-free.

UPDATE 22/11, 4:20pm: I found the relevant piece of legislation on the AUSTLII website (which, sadly, features no waltzing acts of parliament, nor lambadaing High Court judgements). Section 83 is the one for us:

83. Printing and publication of electoral advertisements, handbills, pamphlets or notices

1) A person must not print, publish or distribute or cause, permit or authorise to be printed, published or distributed, an electoral advertisement, handbill, pamphlet or notice unless-

(a) the name and address of the person who authorised the electoral advertisement, handbill, pamphlet or notice appears at its end; and

(b) in the case of an electoral advertisement, handbill, pamphlet or notice that is printed or published otherwise than in a newspaper, the name and place of business of the printer or publisher appears at its end.

Penalty: In the case of a natural person, 10 penalty units; In the case of a body corporate, 50 penalty units.

(2) For the purposes of sub-section (1)(b), a person who makes copies for distribution of an electoral advertisement, handbill, pamphlet or notice that is published on the Internet is deemed to be the printer of those copies.

(3) Sub-section (1) does not apply in relation to-

(a) a car sticker, an item of clothing, lapel button, lapel badge, fridge magnet, pen, pencil or balloon; or

(b) an article included in a prescribed class of articles.

(4) Nothing in sub-section (3)(a) is to be taken, by implication, to limit the generality of regulations that may be made by virtue of sub-section (3)(b).

So does a mass-circulation SMS or email constitute "an electoral advertisement, handbill, pamphlet or notice" which is "printed, published or distributed"? Hmmm, one for the lawyers out there.

Prahran: The Clem Show continues

The Clem Newton-Blog DVD has arrived in the post today for me, and presumably for most of Prahran (his only direct mail out this campaign, apparently).

The CNB motorised billboards have hit the streets.

The "Vote Ted... Vote Clem" ad is in the (city-wide) Beat magazine. This is a cashed-up campaign which continues to roll on relentlessly. All of a sudden the 4.3% swing required is looking very gettable.

It's rather prophetic to read the words of Robert Ray, the Labor veteran who was commenting on the 2002 state campaign for the The Age. Two days before the election Ray focussed on the then-challenger Talk to Me Tony Lupton, and the way he ran a strong local campaign:

Communicating with the electorate is what it's all about. An introductory card, followed up by a community survey, several leaflets on specific issues and direct mail from both Lupton and the Premier mean few residents of Prahran don't know of Labor's campaign.

A local campaign has many facets other than just leafleting. Tony Lupton has knocked on over 2000 doors, conducted policy forums, met residents' groups and spent every morning of the campaign at local railway stations. Before all this, he was involved in street chats at the Prahran Market, Toorak Village and the Hawksburn shopping centre. More than 1000 telephone calls have been made to undecided voters.

For many candidates this would be a major chore but a select few, like Lupton, revel in it. Meeting people, mixing it up, copping the odd bit of abuse is all part of the campaign. Lupton would have been buoyed by the fact that Premier Bracks has visited the electorate three times.

Perhaps Newton-Blog has stolen Lupton's campaign manual.

Word on the street, though, is that Talk to Me Tony has been hitting the phones hard, a technique that will be just about invisible to those of us watching the campaign until we see its impact on polling day.