Liberals Cutting Out the Middleman

This hasn’t got a lot of attention outside New South Wales, but today, while South Australia and Tasmania are almost certainly putting the Liberal Party back in power, there will be a by-election on Hurstville Council.

Now I will admit I wasn’t even aware of the existence of Hurstville Council before this, so we are not talking a centre of power. Nevertheless, what happened should really be national news. The former councillor, Andrew Istephan resigned from council after being convicted of five counts of assault on elderly people. The jury was deadlocked on seven others. Istephan is a dentist, and was deliberately damaging healthy teeth, without anesthetic of people in nursing homes so he could bill the government under a welfare program to fix the problems he had caused. Most of the patients he did this to had dementia and couldn’t give consent. Istephan claimed he believed the nursing homes had arranged for consent from the legal guardians, but given the unnecessary nature of the operations he was performing this seems improbable.

Clearly Istephan is a truly evil individual. However, every party sometimes makes a mistake in preselection, and psychopaths are often good at being charming. One can certainly imagine someone capable of performing these acts slipping through. Parties have run child molesters before. It doesn’t necessarily reflect on the party as a whole.

But that wasn’t the case with Istephan. He was elected in 2012, not only after these crimes had been committed, but after he had been charged and the fact reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. That is the Liberal Party endorsed a candidate who had done these things, and then once he was elected to council his colleagues got together and made him Deputy Mayor. It is very hard to imagine this was a purely local decision, and that state office was not aware of, and endorsing, running him.

Now I understand that at the point the Liberals were showing this level of faith in him these were just charges, he hadn’t been convicted. Hypocritical it might have been for them to hold the principle of innocence until proven guilty while denying it to Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, but innocent he was in the eyes of the law.

However, there is a difference between holding that someone is innocent until proven guilty and backing them to this extent. If someone has been charged with a serious crime surely there is a precautionary principle that means one doesn’t place them in positions of too much power until those charges have been tested. Just as Istephan wasn’t allowed to practice dentistry until the case came to court, it is reasonable to think a party wouldn’t want to announce him as the best person to represent a ward of 20,000 people.

Even once he had been convicted his fellow Liberals on council, and the independents, rallied to his defense as a fit and proper person to hold his position. It’s likely that at least some of them didn’t really see what was so bad about what he had done. After all, these are people who endorse what is being done to innocent people on Manus – Istephan was just cutting out the middle man, although he made the mistake of doing to Australian citizens, rather than those who want to gain that status.

Istephan’s ward is in the seat of Banks, which the Liberals narrowly won at the last election for the first time since its creation. Parts of Hurstville fall into Barton, another Liberal pick up in September.

All this gets back to the point I keep making. The declining membership of political parties means that an increasing proportion will be sociopathic monsters driven less by political ideology, and not at all by a desire to help people, and more by their own agenda to get ahead. Combine that with the Randian views that are so popular within the Liberals these days and these sorts of chancers are going to crop up rather a lot. Places like Western Sydney will be particularly vulnerable, as they are where the membership is weakest. I said before that Jaymes Diaz is the Liberal Party’s future, but in some ways he is the better side – a big part of their future is actually going to be Andrew Istephan, and people who don’t have a problem with injuring elderly people for fun and profit.

Posted in Non-science (but not nonsence), Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Safety In Numbers

Reading Australian political news at the moment is like drinking from a toxic firehose. The sheer awfulness of the federal government, and many of the states, means that it is easy to miss many of the things they are doing that in another era would be the horror of the year. However, in all of this the Queensland “so called anti-bikie” laws still manage to stand out.

These laws mean that even relatively minor violent crimes (eg shoving away someone who got too close) carry an automatic minimum sentence of 15 years in prison if the person responsible is a member of a prescribed organisation. The onus of proof is reversed where people have to prove they are not associated with organisations once alleged. Special bikie-only prisons will be built, where practices of deliberate humiliation will be imposed on even the most minor offenders and people suspected of association with bikie gangs will be banned from certain lines of work. Not only does the last part resemble historical bans on Jews, it also pretty much guarantees that people will be forced into lives of crime if they can’t use their acquired skills lawfully.

The legislation does not actually mention bikies anywhere, and could be applied to the local football club should the minister take a dislike to them. Nevertheless, the provision that members of targetted organisations may not gather in groups of three or more (a rule which seems to be copied from historical South African attempts to suppress opposition to Apartheid) has been used to intimidate members of social motorbike clubs, who have been harassed by the police.

I came across a scientific connection to this nightmare recently. Dr Vanessa Beanland of the ANU school of psychology found that cyclists, and motorcyclists, are much safer in groups than on their own.

“When motorcycles were high frequency, drivers detected them on average 51 metres further away, compared to when they were at low frequency,” Beanland said. “At a driving speed of 60 km/h, this allowed the driver an extra three seconds to respond.”

It is actually possible to imagine that lives will be lost if motorcyclists continue to go for rides, but avoid travelling in packs to escape the attention of the Qld police. While the danger is small compared to the certain assault on our civil liberties, it is a somewhat symbolic example of how disgusting this legislation really is.

On a positive note, the legislation is losing support. While still probably attracting more voters than it repels, there is definitely more passion among the opponents, who extend from lawyers through to people with the most peripheral connection to motorbike riders.

The ALP has refused to commit to overturning the legislation, but in the Redcliffe by-election an independent running against it scored an impressive 10.3% while four other independents managed 4% between them. The swing against Newman wasn’t a patch on what O’Farell suffered a few months ago, and he is still pretty much guaranteed to win the next election but it is possible that this is the first time in Australian history than being tough on law and order has become a vote loser for a state government.

Posted in Other forms of politics, Psychology | Tagged | Leave a comment

First Review – Enemies of Science

Last year I promised to review The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science on this blog. I actually wrote half a review but never finished it. I don’t have experience writing reviews, but I think this is also a hard one to start off with. It tackles a hugely important subject – arguably the most important subject in the world today – and there is much to like about the way it goes about it. Nevertheless, I found it ultimately frustrating.

However, I am about to be much busier and if I am ever going to get the review posted it had better be now.

storrAs regular readers will know, I’m fascinated (some would say obsessed) with the topic of science’s enemies. So I was very interested when I heard about Will Storr’s book on the topic. We were offered a review copy at Australasian Science. I explained that AS doesn’t do reviews, but if they sent me a copy I’d review it here, noting the audience would probably be tiny. They sent me a copy anyway.

It’s a very interesting, if at times frustrating, book. It also has one serious error, which I feel the need to mention.

Storr certainly writes well, and he’s quite courageous in his ability to brave people who are often barking mad in their homes and workplaces, first giving them a chance to speak their mind, then confronting them with rather disconcerting facts. At least facts that should be disconcerting, but seldom seem to be to the people he is talking to. He even goes on a tour of Holocaust sites with David Irving and a band of deniers, some of whom might actually have killed him if they had known who he was.

Other aspects to praise are the way Storr links together various anti-science cults, from creationists and global warming deniers to people who believe meditation can cure any disease (except AIDS apparently) and UFOlogists. He doesn’t pretend these are the same thing, and in some cases acknowledges the evidence is not cut and dried, while in others in pretty much is. There’s a particularly good chapter where he interviews Lord Monkton, and largely lets some of his lesser known, and particular crazy, ideas discredit the ones his supporters prefer to trumpet.

Storr is also interesting on himself. He doesn’t pretend to be objective, and talks fairly candidly about his own history of mental illness and the often irrational ways he has taken sides in debates in the past. In some cases he reveals that he aligned himself with the scientific side of a debate having completely misunderstood the science – for example thinking creationists were wrong, but basing his conclusions on a complete misunderstanding of how evolution actually works. He is also ruthless in exposing the way even those seen as staunch defenders of science, such as James Randi, sometimes turn to the sort of behaviours they despise in others when something challenges their worldview

The frustrating aspects come in two forms. The one is that Storr sometimes misses golden opportunities to put the people he is meeting on the spot. For example, when interviewing creationist John Mackay he wields a series of claims that were never really like to challenge Mackay. What I wanted him to do was try out something along the lines of the “Why Can’t I own Canadians” letter that has become very popular among liberals online, and received a marvelous (although abridged) outing on The West Wing. I’ve always wondered how a leading advocate of biblical literalism would respond when confronted with examples of biblical injunctions they cannot possibly defend. If the Bible is not inerrant morally it is hard to see how it could be inerrant scientifically. Storr fluffs the chance.

Likewise, in bringing out the evidence for the fundamentally irrational nature of much of our decision making process Storr gives the impression – one provided all too often – that all our decisions are irrational. But this clearly isn’t true. Most of us at one point believed in Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy or both. We have fairly powerful incentives to keep on believing in these things and yet, confronted by sufficient evidence and authority we stopped. This happens in smaller ways all the time. Confronted with evidence pretty much everyone eventually adjusts their position on at least some things – those who don’t end up not coping very well with life. Storr partially acknowledges this, but it is certainly not the impression one comes away with from reading the book.

For example, (p. 276) he refers to research purporting to show that intelligence is no defence against irrationality at all. In this study a group of people were asked to produce arguments for and against particular positions. Naturally, everyone could produce more arguments for the side they supported. And intelligent people could produce more on that side than people of lower intelligence. But, Storr says, they could produce no more arguments for the other side than people of lower intelligence.

Now I realise that I am the last person who should be using personal anecdote against peer reviewed research, but bear with me here. My sister, who is on any measure you choose someone of staggering intelligence, had a favourite trick to humiliate me as a child. She would take some deeply held personal belief of mine and throw at me one reason after another as to why I was wrong. I would almost always find myself unable to make a convincing case against her. Sometimes I would stomp away, convinced I was right but knowing that any impartial witness would have sided with her. Other times she would actually change my mind, at which point she would simply turn around and bring out all the arguments for the side I had supported in the first place that I had not been able to think of, leaving me utterly bewildered as to what to think and, as I said, humiliated.

In some cases she might have been able to do this because she didn’t really care, but in most cases she did. She was passionate about many of the same issues I was. This example may be unusual, but it is not unique – I remember reading an account of a someone who did the exact same thing to a put upon sibling in a novel, and presumably the author had encountered such an event in real life, if not been the victim.

Obviously not all even highly intelligent people can do this, but some can. Whereas it is hard to imagine anyone of below average intelligence being able to do the same thing.

In other words, while intelligence may not count for much in the capacity to see both sides of a debate, it counts for something, sometimes.  This seems to be emblematic of the problems with Enemies of Science. Storr is so keen to convince us of the importance of irrational biases that he buries the fact that rationality still matters.

It must, because otherwise we would never progress. Kepler, it is said, adopted the view that the Earth went round the sun for wholly irrational reasons – he saw the sun as symbolic of God and thought the solar system should rotate around it. However, this view did not prevail because more people were born with an inclination to this previously unpopular view. It prevailed because the weight of evidence was sufficient to shift some previous opponents, and everyone entering the discussion without a fixed position. A hundred similar examples could be given.

It is important to acknowledge that none of us are as rational at sifting evidence as we might like to think, but it’s really dangerous to pretend that we are all equally prey to our own prejudices. Even before the development of science as a formal discipline bad ideas were dropped when the evidence against grew too strong. In recent centuries the process has accelerated. Our lives are twice as long, with infinitely more opportunities, because the Enlightenment allowed us to throw off some of the false beliefs that hampered progress. No longer do we blame the woman with too many cats for the fact that our child had grown ill, rather than the bacterial infection that could be cured with a dose of penicillin, nor think that ripping out the heart of our enemy on an altar will bring good rains for the next season.

As a society we have developed because some people, some of the time, abandoned the beliefs they once clung to in the face of evidence. In the meantime millions have died because not enough people did, and the survival of most of the species on Earth, humans perhaps included, depends on more people facing up to the evidence more quickly.

Consequently it is vitally important not only to understand the ways in which people resist evidence, but also what can ultimately bring most of them round. Storr is very good on the first part, terrible on the second.

Posted in Enemies of science, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Nova and Supernova

The last two months have treated astronomers with two unusually bright arrivals in the sky, one a nova and the other a supernova. Each is interesting in its own right, but I find the comparison particularly attractive.

The first thing to note is that one was discovered by an amateur, while the other was a professional putting on a show for undergrads, rather than conducting research. Both hurried to alert the professional astronomical community. It is often said that astronomy is one of the few fields of science where amateurs still make a genuine contribution. As there become more and more professional telescopes scouring the sky one might expect this to stop being true, and in some areas it is – not long ago most comets were discovered by amateurs, while now the big search programs dominate.

It’s not clear to me whether the dramatic fall in the prices of larger home telescopes is keeping amateur contributions up, or whether these two discoveries were the late examples of a dying tradition, but I think for most people there is something romantic in the idea of the individual at home with his (or increasingly her) home scope coming up with something that expands our collective knowledge of the universe. Both events are bright enough that their eventual discovery was inevitable, but with short-lived features like this astronomers appreciate every extra hour of observing time, so early notice counts for a lot.

I can’t resist noting that the way amateur astronomers rush to report their discoveries so that professionals can verify them and start important work contrasts with the behaviour of “amateurs” in many other fields. Those who term themselves amateur climatologists or experts in vaccines do not feed in what they think they have learned to professionals for assessment, rather they announce that they know more than those who have spent their lifetimes studying the topic, often topped with accusations of fraud. An amateur astronomer whose report was found to be wrong would be more likely to express embarrassment for wasting people’s time than to go on the Internet and accuse government observatories of a cover-up.

Nova_Centauri_2013Back to the events, Nova Centuari saw out 2013 for southern hemisphere observers. It peaked at a brightness of 3.3, easily visible to the naked eye under dark skies if you knew where to look. However, at 59º south that was pretty much just southern hemisphere observers, and it only got high in the sky quite late during the night, so the number of people who got to see it was probably small. I was told there was a nova in Centauri, but it is a big constellation. I had a look, and no doubt saw it shortly after the peak, but could not be confident of recognising the new star in such a large constellation. If I had known how close it was to Beta Centauri I would have had no trouble picking it out. It should still be visible in a small telescope or even binoculars, particularly if you live outside the city.

SN 2014J is quite a bit fainter, and while it is still brightening, it is never likely to be visible to the naked eye. Nevertheless, it is likely to be seen by quite a few more people – a product of being at 70º north, and therefore a possibility for anyone in the northern hemisphere with binoculars. The fact that it is located in a galaxy beloved of amateur astronomers will no doubt help, and being dubbed a supernova has a lot more cachet than a nova.

The fact that by the 21st of January we were up to J in the alphabet shows that supernova discoveries are not rare these days. However, two things make this special. The first is that Messier 82, the galaxy in which it is located, is a mere 11.5 million light years away. The second is that this is a Type 1a supernova, described by Dr Brad Tucker of the Siding Springs Observatory as “the golden goose egg”. I’m not sure if Tucker has his mythology right, but he was trying to get across that 1a supernova are poorly understood.

The nomenclature is confusing here. Type 1b and c share with 1a an absence of hydrogen in their spectrum. However, the processes that cause them are fairly similar to Type 2 Supernovae, that is a massive star ends its life with a bang not a whimper. Although there have been no supernovae of either sort in our galaxy since the invention of the telescope, 1987A gave us a close-up look at a Type 2 supernova. While much of the astronomical community would crawl over broken mirror glass for a front row seat with the benefit of the improved instrumentation of the last 30 years, the hunger is much greater for a nearby Type 1a.

2014J is the closest of its sort for 150 years, so while we wish it were closer still, it will have to do. As Tucker explained to me, “We’ve seen nearly 2000 type1a supernovae,” but none have been close enough to see what causes them. The theory is that this type of supernovae occurs when a white dwarf star lies close enough to a companion star to pull material off the companion (or should that be victim?) eventually exploding. However, this theory is largely a product of elimination – we haven’t been able to see the processes involved, it’s just the only thing we can think of that explains what occurs.

According to Tucker, we are particularly keen to learn about the nature of the unfortunate companion star. “It used to be thought that the companion was a red giant,” says Tucker. This is still what a lot of textbooks and popular science accounts will tell you. However, whenever we witness supernovae astronomers go hunting through previous images to find the progenitor stars. With type 2 and 1b/c we usually find something, at least if the source is close enough that a large progenitor could be detected. Not so with 1as. “No one expects to find the white dwarf,” says Tucker. However, in some cases explosions have been close enough that we would expect to have been able to see the red giant before it got stripped. We haven’t, so the thinking has turned to more ordinary sun-like stars, or possibly “subgiants”. Previous supernovae of this type have been too far away to pick up such stars, but Messier 82 is a different matter.

As well as tracking the light curve and analysing the spectrum for the elements present, astronomers are trying to place the event as accurately as possible. This will allow them to search old images for prospects. Give the star a couple of years to cool down and they will go back to look for stars that have moved. It is thought the explosion will shift the companion star noticeably, allowing us to identify it.

Why does it matter what sort of star is feasted upon to lead to such an explosion? Tucker says that we hope that by learning more about the star we can calibrate our models of the event itself. This is important, because 1a supernovae have a very important role in astronomy. They are used as what is called “standard candles” to give us a measure of the distance of the galaxies in which they occur, when these are too great to be measured in other ways. The speed with which 1a supernovae fade from their peak can be used to estimate their intrinsic brightness, which coupled with their measured brightness tells us how far away they are.

It was this measure that upended our understanding of the universe and won Brian Schmidt a Nobel Prize. By comparing the distances to galaxies in which 1a supernovae were observed, and the speed with which they are moving, Schmidt demonstrated that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing down as was previously thought. The finding was sufficiently robust that few now doubt the conclusion, or the existence of “dark energy” which this implies. However, the rate of expansion is still a rough estimate. A better understanding of the candles we are using should improve our precision.

Back to poor Nova Centauri. Besides being relegated to a neglected part of the sky, it lacks the same scientific significance. Nevertheless, Tucker says “anything new in the sky is of interest”. It is thought that similar processes were involved here, but instead of the white dwarf pulling off so much material the whole star explodes, mini explosions “like a string of fire crackers” are occurring as clumps of gas land on the dwarf’s surface, leading to fluctuations in its brightness despite the general downward trend. Learning more about this process will improve our understanding of white dwarves, and possibly the processes when they really go off, and being in our galaxy we get to see it about a thousand times closer than 2014J.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Burn Explanations

Asylum Seekers turned back to Indonesia claim they were beaten and forced to hold onto a hot engine until their hands were burnt. The government has dismissed these claims, saying that the asylum seekers are untrustworthy and they believe the Navy (although I can’t actually see anything where the Navy has denied the allegations).

Now I am inclined to believe the asylum seekers. This is in part because of my knowledge of studies such as the Stanford Experiments and examples such as Abu Ghraib. However, I will also admit to bias on the topic. As I’ve written about before, I have a personal stake in this, and it could be clouding my judgement every bit as much as Abbott’s is clouding his.

However, the ABC has obtained footage showing asylum seekers being treated for burns on their hands at Indonesian clinics. Trying to think through this rationally I can come to the following possibilities:

1) The asylum seekers deliberately gave themselves horrific burns in order to make the Australian government look bad and engender support for their cause.

2) The burns are faked, either well enough to fool Indonesian doctors, or the doctors are in on the scam.

3) At least seven people simultaneously got accidental burns and decided to put these to use for propaganda purposes.

4) The asylum seekers are telling the truth and the Australian Navy harbours sadists who behave in a similar manner to…lots of other people.

I suppose at this point we cannot rule out any of these options, but I have to say that 1) and 3) look to me astonishingly unlikely. Such coordinated self harm without time to plan, with potentially severe long term consequences goes against my experience of human nature. Multiple people simultaneously getting the same unusual accidental injury seems pretty odd as well.

As to 2), I’ve yet to see enough evidence to rule it out, but it is something that could be fairly easily checked – just send an independent burns expert in. So far I don’t see any sign of the government wanting to do that.

Posted in Non-science (but not nonsence) | Leave a comment

The Singer and the Science

On Saturday night I went to a screening of the documentary “The Punk Singer” about Kathleen Hanna of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. I knew little about Hanna other than that she gave Kurt Cobain the line “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, something I am quite embarressed about now. I only went because the screening was put on by the great Karen Pickering, but I loved it. Despite what I am going to say below, I would encourage everyone to see this film – a great work of art about a truly inspirational woman.

For most of the film the only criticism I had was that they didn’t tell us who some of the people being interviewed were, or only put their names up briefly. I’d have liked to see some things explored in more depth, but there wasn’t a lot that could be cut to make way for this.

Kathleen_Hanna

However, the last ten minutes are a differerent story. SPOILER WARNING for anyone who has not seen the film.

The film starts with a question about why Hanna suddenly stopped touring in 2005. This is kept a mystery for a while, but then you learn that she got sick. However, the nature of the illness is kept a mystery for quite a bit longer – appropriately because for 5 years Hanna’s illness was either dismissed or misdiagnosed by the establishment.

Eventually the film reports that Hanna was diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease. She is shown taking large doses of antibiotics for the disease and rages not only against those who deny the sexual assaults she has experienced, but also her sickness. The film unquestioningly backs up this diagnosis, quoting statistics about how common Lyme’s disease is.

The problem is that the existence of Chronic Lyme’s disease is a scientific battleground, and one that interacts in strange ways with other scientific questions that have become intertwined with political debates and conspiracy theories.

I want to make one thing very clear. I do not for a moment doubt that Hanna is sick, and that this is predominantly a physical disease. Any suggestion that she is malingering is too offensive for words, and I can see not the slightest reason to think the condition is psychosomatic. However, the fact that she has a disease does not mean she necessarily has the one with which she has been diagnosed, particularly when you consider that there are doctors who will pretty much diagnose anyone who walks into their office and complains of a toothache with Chronic Lyme’s Disease.

Since Lyme’s Disease is primarily an American phenomenon I’m not fully up to speed on it, but anything that happens in the US has implications here. There are plenty of sources if you want to follow the debate in more detail, Wikipedia a start, but here is my summary.

Acute Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection spread by tics in the northern hemisphere. It has a bunch of nasty symptoms, but can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed. AFAIK no one questions its existence.

Chronic Lyme Disease is a different matter. Some doctors believe that inadequate treatment of Lyme Disease when it first hits can lead to a range of fairly non-specific but often serious symptoms including extreme fatigue, joint pain, inability to concentrate and nausea. They prescribe large doses of antibiotics in the belief this will remove the bacterium from the system, and with it the effects.

Most medical authorities, including the National Institutes for Health, state that while some patients who have taken antibiotics for acute disease may be left with “post-treatment Lyme Disease syndrome” that additional doses of antibiotics will not help. Moreover, they dispute that the majority of people diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease have anything of the sort – in many cases there is no evidence these people were ever infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease, but certain doctors don’t see that as any reason not to diagnose them or prescribe antibiotics.

The Chronic Lyme Disease advocates have their moderate and extreeme wing. The extreme wing are clearly dangerous nutters who share the same approach as Global Warming Deniers, 911 “truthers”, people who believe NASA faked the moon landing and such like. Often they are actually the same people. They are getting in the way of an accurate diagnosis, let alone a cure, for whatever disease or diseases are affecting most of the people they claim are infected. By encouraging the abuse of antibiotics they are also hastening the day when these drugs will be no use against the diseases they still do work against. Their allegations that senior doctors are suppressing the evidence on this condition as part of some weird payola scheme is as offensive as it is absurd.

The existence of extremists does not, however, mean that the moderates are semi-crazy. For all I know the moderates are right and the medical establishment is wrong. It’s happened before, and although not nearly as common as people like to think, it will happen again.

Hanna really did have Acute Lyme Disease. Moreover, as someone who has actually been tested for a bunch of other things with nothing being found, she is a far more likely case than the people who get swept up in the enthusiasts’ net before anything else can even be assessed. So I’m quite open to the possibility that this is really what she has. I hope so, because the world needs such an amazing person well, and this would offer a relatively straightforward treatment.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but worry about a documentary that will undoubtedly send hundreds, maybe thousands, of people with symptoms overlapping with Hanna’s straight into the arms of the Lyme’s Disease advocates, including the crazy wing.

For all this, I’d really encourage people to see the film. Something that only gets a mention in the last ten minutes should not discredit the entire documentary. The more people who know about Hanna’s politics and courage and wit and tactical nous the better. But as one of the few people in a position to express concerns on this point, I feel it is my duty to raise them, and I do hope that I can discourage anyone from thinking “gee that sounds like me. I must have Lyme’s Disease as well.”

Posted in Antibiotic resistance, Enemies of science, medical science, Other forms of politics | 1 Comment

The Bernardi Shuffle? This Time It’s Different

The release of Senator Cory Bernardi’s book (check out the reviews here) has set social media on fire. Calling Bernardi’s office to ask for advice on the which hair colour to choose or coffee to buy is the latest craze. However, some people worry that this is exactly what the Liberals were hoping – that Bernardi would act as a distraction from their real agenda. I think they’re wrong.

Throughout the Howard Government we saw a regular pattern. Howard, or one of his ministers, would make some inflammatory comments that would send the left into paroxysms of fury. Debate on the topicwould dominate the opinion columns of newspapers and talkback radio. The result would be that unpopular moves elsewhere would be ignored. Moreover, it was a safe bet that some of the responses would be sufficiently extreme that they would provide great fodder for News Limited’s campaign arguing that The Left was out of touch with twue Oztraalian values.

It is hard to be sure just how significant this was in Howard’s successive victories, but I think it probably mattered. So it is not surprising that some people think this is what is happening again. Helen Razer has been most vocal on this point, but she’s had plenty of people congratulating her on this.

However, there is one crucial difference between Howard’s approach and Bernardi’s – Howard picked his issues to appeal to swinging voters.

Some of the time Howard was actually talking about issues on which the Australian public was in line with him, or indeed even further to the right, most notably immigration and refugees. At other times he was talking about topics that probably have little resonance out there in marginal seat land. I doubt that most voters in Eden-Monaro care that much about the teaching of Indigenous history. Nevertheless, Howard could count on his opponents making such a fuss about the topic that they, rather than he, looked out of touch, particularly since he could count on his media mates amplifying the most extreme comments.

However, the tactic was not foolproof. In his last term of government Howard started to overstep the mark; he certainly picked the wrong target when he went after Obama, then a long shot candidate for the Democrat nomination.

In Bernardi’s case his whole operation is pretty much one big overstep. No doubt some of what Bernardi is pushing is actually popular, particularly when he attacks Muslims. Which is all the more reason to keep the focus where it has been, on his paleolithic views on gays, abortion, blended families etc. Quite simply this is not a vote winner for the Liberals, something Abbott knows well enough to want to distance himself from Bernardi, despite agreeing with pretty much all of it. It is the right, not the left, that looks out of touch obsessing about these sorts of issues.

It’s true that some of the responses will be over the top enough to win them back some ground. I’m sure Bolt and Divine will be able to generate some sympathy using the publication of fan faction about Bernardi’s sexual relations with his dog. But overall, this simply isn’t the ground on which Abbott wants to fight. Yes, publicity about Bernardi’s views may have pushed the idea of a fee for visits to GPs off the front pages, but that will be back soon enough if the government actually pursues the idea.

No doubt some Liberal strategists, even if they lack the wild-eyed extremism that causes Bernardi to come out with these sorts of ideas, think the book’s publication is no bad thing if it re-ignites the culture wars. However, the adage about “first (dozen) time as tragedy, second time as farce” springs to mind.

What Bernardi says is not, as Razer claims, irrelevant. He is a crucial figure in nurturing young talent within the Liberal Party, and his views have plenty of support. But that doesn’t stop him being a major liability. Hate on him all you like.

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