Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Don Chipp: reflections on a life well lived

Growing up in the Democrats, there were two Don Chipps. There was the Don Chipp of historical record: the great warrior who founded the party, and with it a new way of practicing politics in Australia. And there was the Don Chipp of the present day: a scatterbrained duffer who had to be kept on a tight leash and with a proclivity for young and attractive female staffers. They were always two very different people.

I met Don Chipp only once. During the 2001 Federal election, I was invited to MC a small media event to launch the House of Representatives campaign for Don's son Greg in the seat of Melbourne Ports. So on a weekday afternoon a few weeks from polling day, Greg and Don Chipp, Senator Allison and myself gathered before a throng of half a dozen or so media at the Catani Gardens in St Kilda. I called upon Don to say a few words, and with great gusto he launched into a stinging rebuke of the political leadership of the two major parties. Not just the current leaders, mind you: this was a rebuke of Hawke and Fraser as well. Clearly Don had a long memory.

There was a lot to admire about Don Chipp. His decision to leave the Liberal Party, and with it his chances of regaining a government ministry after being dumped by Malcolm Fraser, was a brave one. Earlier today Senator Allison commented that Chipp's greatest legacy was the example he set by voting with his conscience. She's right, and this description could be broadened to include acting with his conscience. Chipp's decision to leave the Liberal Party and form a new fledgling party was a risky one, and shows the strengths of his beliefs. It also showed some canny political judgment, capturing the mood of voters who were thoroughly dissatisfied with both parties.

In more recent time, Don has been a mixed blessing for the party. He would only occasionally make an appearance at party functions. It was well known within the party that he could be rather unpredictable. Sometimes Don would be wise and insightful, but sometimes he would be prickly and abrasive. As as mentioned, he had a habit of refighting old battles long after they had been won and lost, often with little grace or good humour. He was also known to behave inappropriately with some women at party functions, making many women in the party weary of him, up to and including at least one Senator.

I owe a lot of thanks to Don. It was his vision and determination that led to the formation of the Democrats, which has left a indellable mark on the Australian political landscape, as well as giving me a political education like no other. I suspect he was saddened at the decline of the party. It's ironic that his actions in founding the party were ones of principle, whilst it was petty personal bickering that was the biggest influence in its downfall. Chipp was a man of integrity, and so was the party he founded. It really was Don's Party.

Any other Dems or ex-Dems who drop by the site are encouraged to leave their stories etc in the comments.

A Chipp off the old block.
Vale, Don Chipp 1925-2006

UPDATE, 30/8, 12:33am: Fellow Dem Polly Morgan has published some of her thoughts on The Don.

UPDATE, 26/9, 1:10am: My attention has been drawn to a possible misunderstanding regarding what I wrote about Don, this phrase here in particular:

He was also known to behave inappropriately with some women at party functions, making many women in the party weary of him, up to and including at least one Senator.

I writing this, I didn't mean to suggest that I was aware of specific examples of inappropriate behaviour, only that there were strong whispers - unsubstantiated, it's true - about such behaviour. As to my suggestion that weariness of Don's actions extended high up in the party, my claim is a little crazy/brave. More likely it was "perharps one Senator" rather than "at least one Senator".

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Truth, lies and spin

Following up from my critique of Corporate Social Responsibility, which reads a bit like an application to join the Chicago School, this time around I've had a chance to show my warm and fuzzy side.

Here is journal entry number two for Governance and the International Firm:

Last week I saw fantastic film about the decline of truth and the rise of spin. “Thank You For Smoking” is a dark comedy focused on a tobacco lobbyist and the brazen approach he takes to the ethics of his work, and more importantly to the truth.

As becomes evident during the film, the art of public relations and spin relies heavily on attempts to influence public opinion through distortions of the truth. The objective nature of truth is questioned, and instead truth is repositioned as merely another subjective perspective on a set of facts. In the real world of lobbying and opinion shaping, the strategy is generally two-fold: firstly, it is necessary to impugn the reliability and reputation of genuinely independent and reliable sources of information; and secondly to generate supposedly factual material of your own which will be perceived as meritorious. The lead character in the film, Nick Naylor, works at an organisation that calls itself the Tobacco Research Institute, an entity whose entire purpose is to construct distorted, misleading and highly deceptive information which can then masquerade as truth. The findings of such an entity are unsurprising: the addictive nature of tobacco is questioned, as is the causal relationship between smoking and ill-health.

It’s not just the business world which has adopted such practices. In the realm of politics and international relations, where information is hard to verify, distortion and manipulation has become commonplace in attempts to influence public opinion. The most notable example is the attempts to link the events of September 11 2001 with the former governing regime in Iraq. Factually, there has been no evidence to link the hijackers to Iraq: they were predominantly Saudi Arabian. The misnomer about the identity of the hijackers arises because of the proliferation of credible experts who either refuse to strongly assert the truth, or who deliberately mislead. US columnist Ruth Rosen has observed the trends in US public opinion on this issue:

You might say, "But everyone knows it was al-Qaeda." And you'd be right, but do most Americans really know just who those terrorists were or that they had no connection to Iraq -- that not a single one of them even came from that country? It doesn't sound very important until you realize that various polls over the last five years have reported from 20% to 50% of Americans still believe Iraqis were on those planes. (They were not.) As of early 2005, according to a Harris poll, 47% of Americans were convinced that Saddam Hussein actually helped plan the attack and supported the hijackers. And in February, 2006, according to a unique Zogby poll of American troops serving in Iraq, "85% said the U.S. mission is mainly ‘to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9-11 attacks'; 77% said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was ‘to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq.'"

It’s interesting to speculate as to the cause of this propensity to play fast and loose with the truth. It seems to parallel a similar trend that sees traditional authority figures no longer possessing the moral authority they once commanded, and hence ideas of credibility and expertise are in flux. Note, for example, that journalists have low levels of public trust (much of which is justified), and hence they are less likely to be seen as a truthful voice. Academia is also frequently under attack, with accusations of bias and questioning of motives (often caused by questions over the source of funding). Conversely, laypeople on the internet are authority figures in the ascendancy, often despite a lack of full disclosure about their identity, nor scrutiny of their expertise. Similarly, so-called “think tanks” are well regarded, a phenomena more prolific in the United States, but quickly spreading to Australia. Citizens, and their alter ego consumers, are changing in their patterns of trust, and this is creating opportunities for malevolent influences to take advantage of this.

The demonstrated malleability of public opinion gives rise to a series of challenging ethical questions for businesspeople, particularly those in the field of public relations. Firms have every right to articulate and defend a position on the merits of its product. Within a vibrant civil society, it is expected that firms will have an active voice in public discourse. This contribution, however, needs to be constructive rather than destructive: its intention must be to properly inform consumers rather than misinform them.

Whilst there is general agreement that outright lies are inexcusable in a public relations context, the consensus must extend further. Deliberate deceptions and masking of the truth is inexcusable as well. It’s one thing to dispute interpretations of facts, but it’s quite another to undermine the facts themselves. Another public relations tactic that should be frowned upon is the phenomena of “astro-turfing”, where corporations start and fund supposedly grass-roots organisations who publicly voice support for the actions of a company. This act is little short of identity theft: assuming the role of someone that you are not for your own advantages. It’s an act of fraud on the general public.

Then we come to the issue of the sale and marketing of ‘sin’ products. One of the recurring scenes in the film involves a group of lobbyists who call themselves MOD: Merchants of Death. They are the chief lobbyists for the tobacco industry, the firearms industry, and the alcohol industry, whose products collectively cost over half a million lives in the US each year. The ethical question in the work that they do extends beyond merely a discussion of legitimate or illegitimate public relations tactics. It is the essence of the product they advocate that is under ethical question. At one point the lead character seeks sympathy for other ‘sin’ industries: the land mine manufacturer, baby seal poacher and sweat shop manager. Each of these suffers a similar existential ethical dilemma.

It is worth considering whether it is possible to remain ethical while selling these so-called sin products. Of course, it is possible that ones own ethical sensibility does not consider them to be sin products, in which case an ethical dilemma is avoided. Or alternatively, the ethical dilemma can be overcome (in the cases of tobacco and alcohol, at least) by drawing upon the liberal tradition of freedom of choice, leading to the conclusion that those who suffer the ill-effects of the products are doing so as a result of earlier choices that they have made. For most, however, the negative consequences of the product must give pause for thought.

Ultimately, the film fails to come to a satisfying answer to this question, perhaps because no satisfying answer short of halting production of various sin products exists, an outcome which itself would lead to questions about the ethics of prohibition. The line that various characters in the film use to justify their actions is that it’s “what I have to do to pay the mortgage”. This answer is nothing short of an intellectual sleight-of-hand given that it can be constantly used to shift the burden of ethical responsibility elsewhere, and because its usage is virtually unlimited: a drug dealer, protection racket gangster and corrupt policeman could all use the same defence. The comparison between these groups and their legal counterparts seems rather apt.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Prahran: Clem blogs!

Guess which very funky Liberal candidate for Prahran has been in touch with the electorate's most-incisive-but-slack blogger?:

hi Ari,
good to see such a detailed commentary on the election (although you haven't posted for some time!).

You may want to have a look at my site www.clemnb.typepad.com

I have attached a flier I will be delivering next week for your information (perhaps the first political flier ever which contains neither a party logo nor headshot!)

best wishes,

Okay, I bite.

Looks like Clem wants a seat... geddit?

(Note: the panel on the right was blank in the version CNB flicked my way, so I guess that's how it will go out to voterland. Perhaps voters will write comments... which is more than can be said for Clem's blog. Joke, Joyce.)

I look forward to reading some blogging posts from the campaign trail. Politicians and candidates entering the blogosphere are becoming more and more common, which can only be a good thing for helping punters connect with their elected representatives. Bartlett does it. Turnbull does it. Turnbull's dogs do it. But guess which candidate was first to market, way back in 2001, before blogs were blogs?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Review: Thank You For Smoking

Last week I had a chance to see a preview of Thank You For Smoking. It's very dark and very funny, and certainly worth seeing if you can't get a ticket for Snakes on a Plane. Here's my take on it, from The Program:

There's a scene about half way through Thank You For Smoking in which you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Sitting around the table of a seedy café are Nick Naylor (played by Aaron Eckhart), Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner) who between them are the chief lobbyists for the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries. The topic of debate? Whose sin products kill the most people, and hence which lobbyist has the toughest job.

In the end it's a debate that Nick Naylor wins, with the proud boast that tobacco kills 435,000 Americans a year. Something to be proud of.

Thank You For Smoking is that kind of film. It takes the shrill moral absolutism of public condemnation of the tobacco industry and cleverly subverts it. The set up is pretty straight forward, but the dilemmas that emerge are not. Nick Naylor is a smooth talking public relations professional working on behalf of the tobacco industry. Desperate to turn around the decline in the number of young American smokers, he spends his days thinking up and executing schemes to change the perception of the industry. Meanwhile, in a parallel plotline, Naylor is grappling with his responsibilities as a divorced father who is keen to stay a part of his adolescent son's life.

Read the rest at The Program.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Say no to gay Zionist train drivers

Has the world gone mad?

Firstly, the horrors of Connex:

The Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign calls upon citizens, NGOs and civil society groups to stand up and demand the immediate cessation of the involvement of French companies Alstom and Connex in the expansion of settlement infrastructure around Jerusalem.
We make the call for European citizens of conscience to put pressure on President Jacques Chirac and the French government to demand that they force an end to Connex and Alstom involvement in projects that contravene international law and work against our rights as Palestinians to exist in our capital.

We call upon our supporters in all the countries where Connex and Alstom operate, to use all forms of popular pressure, protest and boycotts against them, until they end their support for the Israeli project to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem.

And secondly, the boycott of WorldPride 2006:

As individuals and groups working for the liberation of all oppressed peoples, we join in the call to boycott travel to World Pride Jerusalem in 2006 as part of the international boycott of Israel. Although the event is named, "Love Without Borders," Israel has illegally occupied Jerusalem for decades, and has functionally annexed the city. Jerusalem is a city with borders that are constantly enforced by the Israeli army. These borders -- including militarized checkpoints and towering concrete walls -- are often impenetrable to Palestinians and other Arab people.

We support the rights of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other queer-identified (LGBTIQ) people to love and live in freedom, and to demonstrate publicly to demand their/our rights. These rights should not be placed in competition with the long struggle of the Palestinian people, including Palestinian LGBTIQ people, for self-determination, for the right to return to their homes, and the struggle against apartheid and the occupation of their lands.

We urge all people who seek peace and justice to support the travel boycott of World Pride Jerusalem as a part of the boycott of Israeli goods, and the call to divest from Israel. Together we can build a free and fair world for us all.

The hatred of Israel shared by the both far left and most of the Arab world leads to some strange bedfellows. Perhaps there's some truth to this, after all.

Hat tip to Polly for the Connex silliness.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A timely intervention

An email from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis, was sent to all students on Thursday afternoon. It's a damning indictment on those whose words and actions made it necessary to send it:

Subject: Say 'no' to vilification
From: "Vice-Chancellor"
Date: Thu, August 10, 2006 4:18 pm
To: ugrad-users@studentlists.unimelb.edu.au

Universities offer a forum for vigorous debate, including discussion of unpopular opinions.

In Australia, as in the rest of the world, we are experiencing the effects of deeply troubled times in the Middle East.

At this testing moment, students and staff of the University of Melbourne must feel secure in advancing or defending their views of the world.

But equally we must respect long-established practices about the conduct of scholarly debate, however impassioned. Members of the University community have a responsibility to appreciate that people on all sides have sincerely and deeply held views.

They are entitled to express those views without suffering abuse or intimidation. Present circumstances in the Middle East are no excuse for anti-Semitism or racist behaviour. Such vilification has no place on our campus.

Glyn Davis

10 August 2006

Well said.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The "peace" movement at work

Blue and green should never be seen...

A perfect juxtaposition, really: The Greens triangles alongside the burning of an Israeli flag. Forget the politics of it, just think of the pollution.

Thanks to The Age, with a hat-tip to the mysterious "aunty" (no, not Aunty).

Monday, August 07, 2006

Words from a heartless bastard

This semester at uni I'm doing a subject called Governance and the International Firm, which is focused on, well, governance, and the international firm. For a less-cynical explanation, you can look at the handbook entry.

Anyhow, as part of the assessment I'm required to keep a journal of my thoughts on the topics being discussed in class. So that my handiwork is enjoyed by more people than myself and my tutor, I'll be cross-posting the best ones online.

So here's the first one - my argument against the folly of Corporate Social Responsibility:

One of the central discussions in corporate governance is that of the tension between the stakeholder model and the shareholder model. At the heart of the dispute is the question of to whom the managers of an organization are ultimately accountable. Traditional conceptions of the company place the shareholders as the sole body to whom management are held to account. It has become fashionable, lately, however for companies to shift toward the stakeholder model, whereby shareholders are just one of many stakeholders, along with employees, unions, ‘society’, government, the environment etc. The term which has come to describe this is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Whilst such an idea appeals to our prejudices of preferring supposedly socially-conscientious companies over exclusively business-focused ones, it is weak and flawed when it is properly critiqued.

Firstly, it is problematic in principle. Understanding the origins of the company is useful in understanding why. Prior to the legal innovation of the company, individuals would carry on a private enterprise on their own, essentially operating as a sole trader would today. They would act rationally and pursue their own self-interest and sought to make a profit from their activities. In modern parlance, they had just a single stakeholder: themselves. As these enterprises would grow, it was acknowledged that it was no longer practicable for an individual to possess the resources necessary to carry out an enterprise on their own, and so there was a need for the pooling of assets (and risk!) from multiple people. With the advent of the company, multiple people could take a stake in the business and as the business succeeded they would be rewarded in proportion to their stake. On the down side, they had no guarantee of a return, and should the business fail they would have no claim on the business’s assets. Central to this, however, is the idea that the limited liability company is a collectivized extension of the individual sole-trader: it exists to take care of its own interests and to make a profit. Modern corporations are a long way from the small enterprises of centuries ago, but their purpose and interests remain the same.

The reason why shareholders are the single most important stakeholder in a company is because they are the only stakeholder to accept any risk. When an investor chooses to invest their money, they are seeking a return in exchange for accepting risk. To expect a return without risk in fanciful, and to accept risk without a return is foolish. When the risk outweighs the expected return, the investment is no longer attractive and the investor will look elsewhere. The trend toward seeking to satisfy multiple stakeholders dilutes the importance of the original stakeholder – the shareholder – and hence increases the risk to that shareholder. With this increased risk comes a requirement for an increased return. Given that this is unlikely, the effect will be that other investments will be relatively more appealing to investors, and companies will suffer.

The shareholder is the only stakeholder that bears the burden of risk: employees, government and society can all enjoy the benefits of a company’s success, but suffer no great downfall if the company fails. Unless these other stakeholders are willing to accept the risk, or insure the shareholder against any risk, they have no moral or legal right to consider themselves as equal stakeholders in the welfare of a company.

This leads to the second problem with CSR: a principal-agent dilemma. Shareholders in a company are those who are risking their wealth in the success or failure of the company, and hence are the ‘principals’. The managers, however, have no direct stake in the company (at least in their role as managers: they may be shareholders as well) and so merely act as ‘agents’ for the shareholders. When managers decide to use company funds to spend on CSR projects, they are in effect spending the money which would otherwise belong to the shareholders. They may well find that it is very easy to be generous when they are being generous with the wealth of others. In order to avoid this dilemma, it is best if companies themselves are not the sources of charitable spending, but that individual shareholders make a personal decision about whether or not to make a charitable donation from their dividend or profit upon selling their shares.

Thirdly, the evaluation of success according to the stakeholder model is flawed. The chief argument of many who advocate CSR is that it CSR is good for the bottom line: that is, company profitability and ultimately, share price. The logic of this is an ultimate concession of the supremacy of the shareholder model. The shareholder model is a happy supporter of CSR when it has positive tangible benefits for the company. For example, the shareholder model is happy to see companies develop infrastructure in the developing world, so long as this infrastructure benefits the company. The shareholder model is also happy to see corporate philanthropy and sponsorship of worthy causes, so long as the company benefits from this public exposure. It is a flawed argument to simply suggest that satisfying multiple stakeholders is a good thing because it benefits shareholders. For the stakeholder theory to be persuasive it must show that a company is acting properly when it is satisfying stakeholders other than the shareholders at the expense of the shareholders. So long as both shareholders and other stakeholders benefit from an action, both the stakeholder and the shareholder theorists are in agreement and we are no closer to drawing a distinction between them.

Finally, there is a public policy problem with CSR. Corporations are not in a strong position to determine which worthy projects are deserving of funding and which are not. They are not experts in the field of social policy. It is absurd to expect them to play this role. This is a role best performed by governments (in theory, at least), who are able to make decisions that are in the interests of the population as a whole and show wisdom and foresight. CSR forces companies into the position of making public policy decisions that they are ill-equipped to make. For example, CSR leads to companies deciding which diseases should receive funding for medical research and which ones should not, or deciding which disadvantaged communities should receive grants, and which should not. It is to be expected that companies will simply fund those projects that generate the maximum publicity or those which are least publicly contentious. Neither of these are good criteria for deciding what is worthy of funding and what is not. A far more sensible alternative is for governments to make these decisions, funded by the taxations dollars of corporations, their shareholders and others.

Whilst the intention of stakeholder theorists may be noble, the idea is fatally flawed in practice. It is counter-productive for companies to allow themselves to get caught up in the tide of public sentiment in favour of companies engaging in Corporate Social Responsibility. Unless, of course, satisfying these sentiments is good for company profitability!

About time...

Here ends the posting hiatus. My laptop is back on deck (now with functioning wireless and broadband!) and so I've got no excuse for getting back in the rhythm of sharing my thoughts with the assorted oddballs who stumble across this patch of turf.

I've posted some select photos alongside each of the Sydney posts from a few weeks back (scroll down for those), and the full selection of Sydney photos can now be viewed via a link on the right hand side, or by clicking here.

Knock yourself out.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Not dead, just resting

Apologies for the sparsity of posts this past week. I'm enduring a technological drought not seen since the Luddite First XI were on a roll against the Industrial Revolution Social Club just before stumps on Day One.

My computer is in for repairs, the broadband cable to my Significant Other's computer is not functioning, and the dial up cord decided to join in the fun, so I'm resigned to a couple of minutes a day at a little internet cafe around the corner.

Still, those of your seeking your Ari fix can head here.

And being the first of August, I must continue at AOTW tradition and wish all those horses out there a happy birthday. All those in favour? Against?