Sunday, October 29, 2006

Prahran: Vote Clem... the Movie

Like him or not, Clem Newton-Blog is full of creative campaigning energy. This time he's heading to cyberspace to get his message heard. "Vote Clem... the movie" might not be quite as controversial as the works of the Werribee Kings, but it shows that the internet can be a local force as well as a global one.

Kudos ought to go to Newton-Brown and his campaign team for putting together the video in the first place. As for the content, it's a mixed bag.

Newton-Brown seems to have an absurdly illogical position on car parking. Setting aside the objection that it's a local issue rather than a state issue, N-B wants to have his cake, and eat it too. To start with, he makes clear that there should be no metered parking on or around Chapel Street. He then goes on to say that the car park at Cato Street, adjacent to Chapel Street, should be demolished and a public square put in its place. In other words, N-B wants to both reduce the supply and the price of a scarce commodity. Presumably he will be equipping local traders with stun-guns and pepper spray to deal with the angry mobs of dissatisfied commuters who unwittingly visit Clemsville.

The truth is that N-B is right with his second suggestion, not his first. Cato carpark would indeed make a wonderful public square and the land could be used far more effectively than it is at the moment. But the quid pro quo needs to be that motorists accept a charge for using those parking spaces that do remain, and given the significant demand, a hefty charge will be warranted. Only then will economics shift in favour of public transport.

N-B is spot on with his push for bike lanes, although he could be even bolder and argue for the Copenhagen-style bike lanes, where the bikes are shielded from passing traffic by parked cars. Given this is being tested out by VicRoads under the current government, his reluctance is understandable. He's on the mark as well with his push to clean up the Yarra, where I one day look forward to swimming, with Clem by my side.

N-B is foolish, though, when it comes to 2030. Using the backdrop of a supposedly inappropriate development, N-B plays into the hand of NIMBY local residents who love to object whenever a neighbouring property attempts redevelopment. Rather than a spirited defence of the importance of progress, economic development and property rights, N-B makes clear that he believes the real enemy is VCAT and greedy developers.

And so he calls for the abolition of 2030, ironically in part because he believes the infrastructure in the inner city can't cope with high density housing. The fact that massive amounts of infrastructure would need to be put in place to cope with a sprawling low-density metropolis doesn't seem to occur to the candidate. 2030 is far from perfect, but the underlying philosophy of containing urban sprawl and basing lifestyles around activity centres is the only viable way for the city to keep growing.

As a final aside, the emphasis of Baillieu's message at the end it interesting. Though there are probably an army of advisers who have encouraged a touchy-feely message, Baillieu has taken a different tact. In just over a minute of airtime, he uses the following phrases:

- "We've got strong plans for this state, action plans that we'll deliver."

- "A Liberal government will deliver on all these projects, because that's what we're good at, that's what we have a record at. Liberals have always delivered on time and on budget."

- "Vote for a Liberal Goverment in Victoria, because we'll deliver on time, and on budget, because that's what Liberals always do."

The language is bold, just a touch agressive, and very Kennett. Schools and hospitals get a mention, but they're presented as projects that require a keen businessman's eye. The dithering of Bracks, Thwaites et al is replaced with a crisp sense of confidence. Baillieu looks for all the world like he'd rather be an entrepreneur than a bureaucrat, and that's got to be a good thing.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Prahran: Green Games

The local Greens have launched their campaign website, and it makes their upper house intentions clear. Sue For Parliament is not some highly legalistic method of entering the hallowed halls of Spring Street, but is instead the party's site for the Southen Metropolitan candidate, Sue Pennicuik. Local Prahran candidate Justin Walker is also featured on the site, complete with the seemingly obligatory blog.

It's no surprise that the Legislative Council is where the Greens are focussing their energies. The new multi-member electorates mean that the party is in with a realistic chance of winning up to four seats, and with it the balance of power. Although the polls may vary on just how high their vote will be (Galaxy had them on 7%, AC Neilson on 13%) the reality is that this election is likely to be a watershed for the watermelons.

It will be interesting to see how the major parties respond.

The ALP need to tread carefully. The two parties are in competition for the left-of-centre vote, and so the Labor Party will be tempted to demonise the Greens as the lunatic fringe, focussing on things such as their drug policy which may scare off moderate voters tempted to dip their toes in green waters. However, come November 25, the ALP will most likely need to form an agreement with the Greens to secure passage of bills through the Legistlative Council. This is unlikely to be a fully-fledged coalition agreement, but more likely an agreement on fundamental issues which will at least ensure that affairs of state can continue. If the demonised image of the Greens takes hold in the public imagination, it will be tough to sell a deal with the devil.

Things for the Liberals are interesting as well. It must be sorely tempting for the Liberals to give the Greens a foothold in order to divide the left between the Greens and the ALP. The best strategy is for the Liberals to play dead in electorates where the Greens are likely to poll well (eg Brunswick, Richmond, Melbourne) in the hope that the Greens candidate polls ahead of the Liberal candidate whilst the Labor candidate will poll first but fail to reach the 50%+1 necessary to win. Next, the Liberals need their preferences to flow strongly to the Greens ahead of Labor to push them beyond 50%.

Tempting as it must be, it's unlikely to happen, because:
a) it would involve the Liberals playing dead, when they will need to keep their primary vote up in order to boost their upper house prospects, and
b) it would involve the Liberals preferencing the Greens ahead of the Labor Party, which would contrast sharply with the Liberal's anti-Green drum-beating.

Instead, what I suspect we'll get from the Liberals is a campaign that makes clear that if the Labor Party are re-elected, they'll be doing so hand in hand with the Greens and all their Greenish loopiness. The only way to ensure this doesn't happen, is to vote Liberal (or, alteratively, to ensure an overwhelming ALP vote, but I don't think the Lib's campaign material will say that).

In the unlikely event that the Liberals are elected in November, then the upper house - and hence, the state - will be condemned to gridlock: common ground between Greens and the Liberals will be despeately hard to find. A little scary, but sure as hell would be fun to watch.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A tale of two cities

Forget different demographics, Melbourne's two daily newspapers seem to be operating in different universes.

Over at the People's Republic of News Limited:

Poll reveals Labor backlash
Ellen Whinnett, state politics reporter

October 24, 2006 12:00am

THE Bracks Government is facing a voter backlash and could lose up to 16 seats, an exclusive Herald Sun poll shows.

Almost 60 per cent of those polled believe the Government is out of touch while half say Labor does not deserve to win the November 25 state election.

The poll shows voters deserting Labor in droves, with a swing of almost 6 per cent against the party.

Whilst over in the far more Bracks-friendly Commonwealth of Fairfax, it's a very different story:

Liberals face crushing loss at poll
Paul Austin
October 24, 2006

THE Victorian Liberals are in danger of a crushing defeat at next month's election, with the latest ACNielsen/ Age Poll showing Premier Steve Bracks on track for a landslide victory.

But the poll, conducted exclusively for The Age one month before the November 25 election, finds overwhelming public support for Liberal leader Ted Baillieu's promise to slash the number of poker machines in Victoria.

As William over at the Poll Bludger explains, this is more than just different spin on the same data:

Galaxy Research has created a buzz by showing a lower-than-expected Labor lead of 52-48 in its poll in today’s Herald-Sun. However, it comes on the same day as an ACNielsen poll in The Age showing a Labor lead of 56-44, in line with general expectations.

A difference of 4% is a substantial gap given the similarity of the questions asked, techniques used, and population sampled. And more worryingly for Bracks, it seems that Galaxy has some form at picking results, if Crikey's wrap-up of the Queensland election is any guide:

The final polls from both Newspoll and Galaxy picked the result almost exactly.

My hunch: the truth lies somewhere between the two. Given their low starting point, the Liberals would be incompetent not to receive some sort of swing toward them. The game they are playing at is a two term victory: win back some seats this time, and get themselves in a good position to win in 2008. I suspect that we might see a reverse of the 1999 election, with the conservatives winning a swathe of seats in the country, but struggling to make an impact in Melbourne. This quote from the analysis of The Age poll is telling:
Labor's vote after preferences is stronger in Melbourne (61 per cent compared with the Liberal/Nationals 39 per cent) than in the rest of Victoria (43 per cent compared with 57 per cent for the conservative parties).

Hmmm, just what does country Victoria have in store for us this time? Kennett Mark II?

UPDATE 24/10, 9:03pm: Do'h. 'Anonymous' in the comments has shown the value of proof-reading your work. Next election is indeed in 2010. 27 November, 2010, in fact.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

North Korea: Time to start talking

I've been a little quiet of late on the topic of Korea, although I've been thinking about it a lot. Last night I was listening to a couple of veteran North Asia watchers, and it crystalised my thoughts on the current reality:

The US's attempts at isolating North Korea have failed at preventing the development of nuclear capability. South Korea's sunshine policy of engagement has failed at containing North Korea. But the actions of each actor has undermined the actions of the other, so both isolation and engagement has been half-hearted. So where do we go from here?

My hunch is there's only one way to go, and it isn't reflected in popular opinion about the subject. In record time the UN Security Council raced toward further isolation, creating a resolution that would freeze out the North Koreans even more than the absurdity of their own Juche policy does. If it wasn't for the reluctance of the Chinese, the resolution would be even harsher. Some of the restrictions are necessary - such as those that seek to prevent export and proliferation of weapons. But the thrust of it seems to be to further isolate the regime.

Here's the problem: the regime has been isolated for five decades, and it hasn't fallen. Kim Jong-il relies on isolation to perpetuate his own power: it's hard to tell people that life is good when they know through comparison that it isn't. But keep them ignorant, and you can persuade them of anything.Further isolation won't endanger the regime: instead, it will bolster it. Even more peasants will starve, the propaganda will become even more shrill, the nukes will remain on a hair-trigger, and the regime will stand.

Also, if backed into a corner, the North Koreans might be tempted to use the nuclear capability that they have. The only thing worse than a man with a gun is an angry, isolated man with a gun.

The biggest threat to Kim Jong-il's hold on power is engagement. The flow of foreign goods into North Korea will likely be followed by the flow of foreign ideas, including pluralism, disseent and the affluence of the modern world. With these come threats to the suffocating hegemony enjoyed by the ruling elite. Watch the way that Romania's communists crumbled in 1989, with ideas of freedom slipping through the cracks in the iron curtain.

Although the push for isolation is gathering momentum, there are some who opt for a different tact, and they're not the usual suspects, either. Former Secretary of State James Baker has jumped on board, as this piece from Nicholas Kristof in last week's New York Times shows (thanks to Colin Rule who does what the NYT doesn't, and makes the article available for non-subscribers):

“If there’s one overriding lesson from North Korea’s apparent nuclear test, it’s this: We need to negotiate directly even with hostile and brutal regimes.

It’s probably too late to clean up the mess that President Bush has made on the Korean peninsula, but there is time to apply the lesson to Syria and especially Iran — where we may soon be facing a third military conflict in a Muslim country.

As former Secretary of State James Baker noted in an ABC News interview on Sunday: “I believe in talking to your enemies. … It’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”…

“By not having any contact, we’ve lost any way of controlling or directing the outcome,” noted James Laney, a longtime Korea specialist and former ambassador to South Korea. “As this test indicates, we’re completely out of the picture.” …

To show that talking with enemies doesn’t mean rolling over, we can also insist on raising human rights issues. American conservatives have led the way in protesting brutality in North Korea, but the protests simply aren’t effective. The U.S. government could add to the pressure by going public with satellite images of concentration camps and publicizing other intelligence about North Korean human rights abuses.

The challenge is larger than North Korea, though — it concerns how to stand up to all of the world’s rogue regimes. Notably, in the two where Mr. Bush has tried engagement he has enjoyed bits of success. Those are Sudan and Libya.

In the short term, I can see the case for isolation. An unpredictable regime like the one in North Korea will have no compunction in selling their nuclear knowledge the other rogue states or terrorist groups, and preventing this needs to be a high priority. In the medium and long term, though, the objective needs to be to bring DPRK back into the community of nations and show its long-suffering people that their interests haven't been forgotten by the rest of the world, even if they have been forgotten by their own leadership.

Can we isolate North Korea into submission? It hasn't worked for five decades, and there's no reason to think it will start now.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Review: Hephzibah

It may have been eight years after the film was made, but I've cracked it for a film review in the Australian Jewish News (Melbourne and Sydney editions!). The film is an interesting one, and certainly worth seeing if you have a curiousity for what makes a great mind tick:

Tribute to a woman ahead of her time

Film review: HEPHZIBAH
Reviewed by Ari Sharp

THE great Yehudi Menuhin occupies a revered place in the Jewish imagination: he was a fantastically-talented virtuoso violinist, as strong in character as he was in creative ability.

Less well known, however, is his sister Hephzibah. Hephzibah Menuhin is the subject of Curtis Levy’s documentary of the same name.

Originally produced and released by SBS Independent in 1998, the film is being re-released now in the hope of finding a new audience. Since Hephzibah, Levy has gone on to be the cinematographer of Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence, and also directed the controversial documentary, The President Versus David Hicks.

It is fitting that this is an Australian documentary, given that Hephzibah spent much of her young adulthood here.

Like her brother, Hephzibah communicated with the world through music. Her instrument of choice was the piano, which she embraced at a young age. When she was just eight and Yehudi was seven, the two of them performed a concert in Paris, proudly displaying their youthful brilliance.

Read the rest of the review here.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Small (minded) Britain?

The past few weeks I've been getting into the comic brilliance that is Little Britain (and you thought the scarce posting was due to work and uni commitments...). Without doubt, the content is funny, but the more I watch it, the more I see a nasty, almost xenophobic streak running through the portrayal of the characters. In fairness, I've only watched the first series, so things might be different with the recent stuff, but I doubt it.

Here's my take on it. Little Britain is a show for middle class, tertiary educated BBC-watchers (and their Australian counterparts) which takes the piss out of everyone else: the old, the decrepid, the gay, the disabled, the working class, the transvestite, the fat, the Scottish. In other words, it's cultural insiders laughing at (most definitely not with) cultural outsiders.

The dozen or so regular characters represent the subconscious prejudices of a mildly insecure audience. None of the characters represent the sort of people who might actually be watching: they're not in on the joke. A few examples helps to illustrate:

- Vicky Pollard is the 'yeah but no but' girl who is the epitome of chav/bogun. She's crass, loud, crude, chubby, and ugly, but has absolutely no self-awareness of her own ridiculousness. She is the girl that every middle class family fears hopes their daughter never becomes. And she'd never watch the BBC.

Vicky Pollard

- Andy and Lou are the coupling of the physically and mentally disabled man with his carer. Andy, as the indicisive, slightly disturbed twit, is a subject of derision and scorn, completely devoid of pity. But then so is his carer, Lou, whose noble but pathetic existance is relentlessly mocked. (The sketches, incidentally, are of panto-like simplicity: "Do you want X?" "Yeah." "Are you sure?" "Yeah" "But you don't like X?" "I know." "But you're sure you want X?" "Yeah." "Okay." "I want Y.")

Lou and Andy

- Sebastian, the Prime Minister's aid, is a sadly deluded gay man who can't take a hint. Here the contrast is interesting when the hopelessly camp gay man is compared with the serious and refined Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the straight man (in more ways than one), and is one of few characters who is never the butt of the joke. He is, after all, white, straight, male and educated.


The point I'm making is not that there's something inherently wrong with LB or that we should feel guilty and finding it funny. I'm a firm believer that the biggest offence in black comedy is not being funny: so long as it is funny, you can get away with it. And this stuff most certainly is. I think, though, that audiences are not attuned to the political nature of what they're watching, and need to face up to the fact that the show reinforces prejudices rather than challenges them.

It's ironic that there are a legion of lefties who are usually very sensitive to prejudices and stereotypes elsewhere, but will declare themselves LB fans. I suspect the BBC/ABC gives the show 'cover' from criticisms that can quite righly be levelled at the show.