Monday, April 9, 2012

A post in three parts: an explanatory note

A post in three parts

As a new-ish blogger, I’m still coming to terms with the question, ‘What is a reasonable blogging frequency?’ Is it when I have something to say? (That could be every day.) Is it best to confine my thoughts to a weekly post? And what about the times when there is going to be so much to say that I have to break up a post into manageable, readable chunks? This week’s blog is one of those…a post in three parts. The first two weeks of the new regime in Queensland has some of us wondering whether this is going to reinvigorate or recess the state of politics and politics of this state…

The posts in order are:
Part 1: Hubris and humility
Part 2: Women in politics
Part 3: ‘Politics is not a TV show’

They inter-relate, but you can read them separately, or in any order you choose. But most of all, the lesson is we need to be engaged with our politics and politicians—there is something to be said about the truism, ‘we get the politicians we deserve’—we just need to think about that.

By the way, I am working on building in more features to the blog. It's just at the moment, I have more things I want to say than I have time to make a silk know the rest...

A post in three parts I: Hubris and humility

Part 1: Hubris and humility

In my earlier post about tweeting from the tally room, I remarked that the blue avalanche was going to hit early and hit hard. The determined blue bars of the LNP on each electorate graph told the story. At 6.20pm I thought it extraordinary, by 6.30pm we psephies were already prognosticating on what a return to a Liberal-National government would mean. As I write, the poll is yet to be declared, Bulimba has only just been conceded by Labor’s Di Farmer and we still have a by-election to be held in outgoing Premier Anna Bligh’s seat of South Brisbane. Suffice to say that the likely make-up of the new house is 78 seats to the LNP, 7 ALP, 2 long-standing Independents in Liz Cunningham and Peter Wellington and 2 for Bob Katter’s Australia Party. In a unicameral parliament (a psephy technical term for ‘one chamber’; our federal parliament is bicameral), that’s one heck of a majority.

So, on election night, given that neither party leader saw it necessary to present themselves at the tally room for their respective concession and victory speeches, I only had some audio of Campbell Newman’s victory speech from some salubrious hotel over in the CBD. Of course he was humble, of course his team would not take advantage of the overwhelming majority handed to them by the electorate, of course it was a majority not even the party faithful could have envisaged (OK, except perhaps, Clive Palmer in one of those TV cameos that makes some Queenslanders feeling a little less…well…Queenslandish). But Mr Newman was, as he promised, ready to get to work for Queensland and bring some of his Can-Do council operations to the state level. Look out Queensland we’re in for a ride here…

A little backdrop: Queensland politics has always held a fascination for me. Sydney-born, my family moved to the Gold Coast when I was 9 ¾ years of age. The only remnants of my Sydney birthright I cling to are my football team, the mighty Sea Eagles, and Freshwater Beach; by every other measure I consider myself a Queenslander these days even down to State of Origin (I remember 1980! Besides, I already owned a maroon and white scarf…). Growing up on the Gold Coast in the 1970s and in a strongly-Liberal Party household, I recall some fascination even then with the fact that on a state-level, the Coast was green-ribbon National while federally, it was blue-ribbon Liberal. Adults around me clearly voted for two different parties though I suspect the state vote had more to do with the overwhelming politics of personality—that of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen. We on the Coast were also blessed with the other half of the ruling ‘diumvirate’ in Russ Hinze, aka Minister for Everything. Politics was very real for me even then.

Moving to Brisbane and university in 1981 saw the beginnings of another political awakening. I didn’t expect to be terribly political as a student, I just simply wanted to study Japanese, earn my teaching quals and go out and teach…but a funny thing happened on the way to teachers college. Of the many things I value about my education, learning to understand, to listen and to agree or disagree amicably with others is a trait learned and, in every way, constantly engaged. Emerging from the family cocoon to see another side of politics was eye-opening. The early 1980s of course, was what some consider to be the height of Johannesque hubris and a time when people who cared about democracy and a fair and just society were under the pump, so to speak, to stand up for what is right.

I look back and think about that time now with some disbelief. We’ve been kind of relieved that we can stand in a group of three on Queen Street Mall and chat, without fear or favour. Street marches and demonstrations, while highly controlled and over-officiated, at least aren’t completely banned. And our cultural scene here has flourished over the last few decades (although who doesn’t miss that gritty underground passion of The Saints and others…). One would hope that social norms were sufficiently embedded now to resist a return to the past…another world.

Back to the present: so it was as I listened to Campbell Newman’s speech, as I watched later the footage of Clive Palmer, as I caught the bus home from the tally room…I found myself recalling my student days and the things I learned back then…were they about to return?

Sunday 25 March I awoke to a sense of anticipation and trepidation: which way forward I wondered, or back to the past…whichever way, I thought, it was going to be all the more important to work at my day job—convincing others of the need to be engaged, to participate actively in our politics, to discard our comfortable apathy of recent times.

Monday 26 March and the curtains of another era seemed to be unveiling. Within hours, two very political appointments to Director-General positions were announced. ‘So what?’ …were the cries from one side, what about Anna Bligh’s spouse gaining a similar sort of appointment upon her accession to premier in 2009. Indeed, yes, but what wasn’t right then didn't justify repeating the dose twice, this time around…ah hubris and humility…such fleeting wisps of rhetorical smoke. My larger life-project, as we old-fashioned academics like to refer to our work, is to aim to restore trust between the governed and the governors—reinvigorate the ‘social contract’ such that we can have a polity that works in everyone’s interest. My sense on this Monday was that my hoped for reinvigoration was off to a bad start…

In this last week, the spectre of Joh seems to be lurking a little more earnestly. The news that the opposition would not be accommodated in the usual rooms in parliament house, but sent elsewhere, had such a ring of the old ‘Bellevue’ days of yore, I just had to check my calendar. The crowning ‘achievement’ this week of course was the axing of the Premier’s Literary Award about which much has been written, and far more eruditely than I should attempt. Suffice to say that in the new era of hubris and humility, it was a politically mean decision. In the scale of budgetary fiscal responsibility, it is but a small amount; and yet its value in what it says about the importance of humanities and achievements of those who strive to tell our stories is, or was, far greater. I suspect the cost of refitting the former opposition offices and accommodating them elsewhere will see the $240,000 saved in literary awards sucked down a dark hole of renovation expenditure, and you can bet it won’t be spent on Bunnings laminate and chipboard…

So, my dear and patient reader, this is the state of our politics in this state two weeks into the new era. I’m a little anxious over what I’ve seen so far. I think you need to be forewarned that my public role over the next three years at least is now clearly defined…I will be stepping up to implore us all that our politics matters—it is not about them, it is about us and what we should do to make it work. It should be less about Campbell’s can-do and more about our can-do and must-do…we’ve a lot of do, do, doing ahead of us. Won't you join with me in doing what we can-do?

A post in three parts II: Women in politics

Part 2: Women in politics

Is politics a mug’s game? Is it a men’s game? If women ruled the world would the world be a better place? While it is not a given that a female political scientist would automatically study women in politics, it is an area of political analysis that draws me in.

I happened to be living in Tokyo when the so-called ‘Madonna whirlwind’ caught the political imagination in the 1989 Upper House elections. In the previous year, the government had determined it would introduce a ‘consumption tax’, something we here in Australia would know later as a GST. Women in particular were angry about the impact the new tax would have on their household budgets and so began an engagement in politics that has interested me ever since.

I shall leave a more detailed discussion on Japanese politics for another post, or perhaps *that* book. Suffice to say, the Madonna they were talking about was not the American pop princess but allusions to the Madonna and Child…and the idea that women must be pure in politics. Japanese women were granted the right to vote as a part of the post-WW2 reforms and, as it happens, this Tuesday is the 66th anniversary of the first election in which women could vote, 10 April 1946. After an initial flush of successful candidates, the next few decades witnessed a low, single digit proportion of female members of parliament vis-à-vis their male counterparts. Superficial accounts of women in politics in Japan attributed this low figure to stereotypical views of the demure Japanese woman, always three steps behind her husband…

*Turning point*…there’s always one. Not satisfied with this sort of explanation, I thought about the experience of women in politics in Australia. The best book at the time examining the Australian experience was A Woman’s Place: women and politics in Australia (Marian Sawyer and Marian Simms, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993, 2nd ed.). Having read it from cover to cover, it occurred to me that women aspiring to political careers have many more hurdles in common, than the differences that commentators tend to emphasise. I began to look at a more comparative study of how and why women aspire to political office in a largely patriarchal institution.

I shall post at length about the vicissitudes of Japanese political women at another time, suffice to say that the ‘Madonna’ is this case was DOI Takako, leader of the main opposition party at the time (Japan Socialist Party, or Shakaito 日本社会党), a former professor of constitutional law who inspired many of the angry anti-tax women to stand for parliament. Women succeeded in relatively good numbers, and that has continued to grow from strength-to-strength, more or less, relatively speaking...

Which brings me back to Queensland…the funny thing acknowledged about politics in Australia is that when the ‘boys’ get in trouble, they’ll call in the women to fix the place or hold the fort until the tempest subsides. Carmen Lawrence (WA) and Joan Kirner (Vic) were brought in as leaders of failing Labor governments as was Kristina Kenneally more recently in NSW; and, perhaps to some extent, Anna Bligh in Queensland had to wear the opprobrium of an electorate that was annoyed with the travails of the Labor Party more generally than Ms Bligh personally.

Anna Bligh, unlike the women in other states though, had successfully won an election in her own right in 2009, the first female premier to do so. Perhaps, then, there was an element of the electorate passing judgement on her as well. Ms Bligh’s finest public moment shall probably remain her galvanising speech to the people when the floods of summer 2010-11 finally overwhelmed a state that had been desiccated under drought several years prior. It was in that speech that many suggest the strengths of women in a crisis shone through. It contrasts strongly with the poor campaigning strategy which saw the Labor Party go on a personal, and unedifying attack on LNP contender Campbell Newman. Something about being wary about casting stones unto others or some such…Women can and should conduct politics in a better frame (---opportunity lost---).

In conceding defeat over the weekend, Di Farmer the former member for Bulimba (a Brisbane metropolitan seat) rounded out a fairly dramatic swingeing of women in the Queensland parliament. With the by-election still to be held in Ms Bligh’s seat of South Brisbane and the final numbers therefore not quite settled, it is likely that there will be just over 70 men and fewer than 19 women in the new Queensland Parliament. Granted, Annastacia Palaszczuk has taken on the role of leader of the Labor Party and Fiona Simpson of the LNP will take up the Speaker’s role (first woman in Queensland to do so; and perhaps for the first time, the federal and State Speakers hail from the same region, the Sunshine Coast). The parliament hardly reflects that fact that of 2,746,844 voters on the electoral roll, more than half or 1,427,640 were women. The 19-member cabinet of the new government includes just three women (Tracy Davis, Ros Bates and Jann Stuckey) and no designated Minister for Women.

Women, by virtue of their gender, do not automatically make the world a better place. But our parliamentary institutions are lesser places for their smaller numbers. The winds of change exhaled a little too strongly here in Queensland this March…let’s hope it is not too long before a little more balance is restored.

To be continued…because we must remain ever-vigilant…  mq(O.|.0)pm 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A post in three parts III: ‘Politics is not a TV show’

Part 3: ‘Politics is not a TV show’

On Tuesday 3 April, Anne Debert, Senior Producer for Spencer Howson’s Breakfast program on 612ABC Brisbane, called me seeking a view on postal voting for council elections. Apparently, the Lockyer Valley council planned to run the election as a postal vote only, ostensibly to save money and, because they could.  Well, could they we pondered and I agreed to go into the new South Bank studio the next morning to chat with Spencer on air.

I have on my Twitter bio that I am a ‘pro-am’ psephologist because while I am no Antony Green, and my professional expertise is in Japanese and Australian politics, my passion for political analysis extends to just about any vote left standing. Give me a few moments to consider a political question and I’ll endeavour to have a reasonably educated opinion to share. Although I was aware postal voting could occur in some of our state’s more far-flung electorates—mainly to account for distances and small populations—this was the first I’d heard of a medium-sized council (approx. 21 500 enrolled voters) opting for the postal vote only option.

Anne’s question allowed me to indulge one of my secret passions: reading Hansard. Yes, dweeb for a day, I just really enjoy getting into the verbatim documenting of our democratic debate at state and federal levels. I did so prior to internet databases and recall many a quiet afternoon in the bookstacks at UQ’s library tracing my fingers over Hansard spines, seeking out a particular date, or a parliamentary session. I’m one of the few people I know who has indulged in a reading of Quick and Garran’s authoritative account of the constitutional debates of the 1890s. (If anyone is interested in the founding debates of our constitution, it is a book I can’t recommend highly enough.)

But I’ve strayed…turns out, there has been some discussion and debate on reform of council voting since about 2010 when the Law and Justice committee sought submissions on proposals to amend the Local Government Act. A number of amendments were proposed but of key interest was the proposal to give councils the option to arrange, through the Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ), postal voting only. The bill was passed in August last year (2011) and for this postponed local government election, it turns out that some 30 out 73 Queensland councils are choosing to conduct their elections via postal vote.

Well, I found that to be disappointing. As we went on to discuss on air, the actual physical process of casting one’s vote is an important civic duty for all of us, and certainly one we shouldn’t take for granted. As a student of international relations I have studied too many countries where citizens have had to fight and shed blood for the right to vote. I get a little annoyed when those who have that right can be so nonchalant about it. I find the ritual of going to my local school, aka polling booth for a day, an important aspect of community as we all partake in this quite fascinating and peaceful process of supporting or changing our governments. It was, I suggested, an important aspect of our engagement in our political process.

And then there was ‘the moment’ in the interview. A few posts ago, I noted that lectures can have that ‘unscripted moment’, a comment or question from a student, a quizzical look which can change the direction of the lecture, and leave me pondering on matters in ways I hadn’t considered previously. It is always a good thing. And so it was when Spencer challenged my ‘engagement’ assertion…why not a postal vote, he suggested, in the way we can use our remote control to vote for and against in our TV shows. Well, yes, he had a point. But, I said, politics is not a TV show! And there, dear reader, was the moment. I would hate to see our political engagement reduced to a yes/no button on a screen before us. Yes, there is some discussion about electronic voting, but I would only trust it when one could be guaranteed that you could only vote once, and not often. I don’t envisage that ever being successfully accomplished in my voting lifetime.

So my contemplative moments this week have revolved around the notion that ‘politics is not a TV show’, and nor would I wish it to become one. It has made me more determined in my role as political scientist and teacher that I should redouble my efforts to get people enthusiastic and, yes, more engaged, in our political processes. It is actually never more pressing than now here in Queensland with a government holding an overwhelming majority in a unicameral parliament (WE have to keep the bastards honest!).

Why, it has even given me pause for thought about how I might approach the politics elements of this blog. In my readings of political philosophers through the centuries, I am constantly amazed at just how relevant much of their thinking is today. ‘Reader be aware’…a kind of caveat emptor for the blogosphere. I think I shall preface my political ~ologies with a quote from my library of political philosophers…my guess is that no matter what observation I choose, there is sure to be something of great relevance to be said about politics today.

So thanks Spencer and Anne, and 612ABC. Your contribution to this blog is duly acknowledged. Cheers.