One Term Government? Saved By the Swan?

Not long after the last election I wrote why I thought it more likely than not that the Abbott government would not be re-elected, at least with a majority in its own right. It’s been one of the few posts that keeps on getting a steady trickle of views. Looking back, I think most of what I had to say holds up well. My problem was that I underestimated just how unpopular Abbott would be.

I thought, rightly, that the government would have to be a long way behind in the polls for a long time before they would dump Abbott for someone else. I didn’t expect just how far behind they would actually be, and for how long. Moreover, I didn’t anticipate Campbell Newman losing the Queensland election, and the psychological effect this would have on Liberal Mps.

I am quite confident that if Abbott was still PM this election would be a walkover for Labor. The shine has come off Turnbull, but he is still what is keeping the Liberals in the race. I didn’t predict this particular black swan, but I think I did allow for the possibility of a black swan saving them.

1280px-Black_swan_jan09 Taken byfir0002 | 20D + Canon 400mm f/5.6 L – Own work, GFDL 1.2, wikimedia commons

why I thought it more likely than not that the Abbott government would not be re-elected, at least with a majority in its own right. It’s been one of the few posts that keeps on getting a steady trickle of views. Looking back, I think most of what I had to say holds up well. My problem was that I underestimated just how unpopular Abbott would be.

I thought, rightly, that the government would have to be a long way behind in the polls for a long time before they would dump Abbott for someone else. I didn’t expect just how far behind they would actually be, and for how long. Moreover, I didn’t anticipate Campbell Newman losing the Queensland election, and the psychological effect this would have on Liberal Mps.

I am quite confident that if Abbott was still PM this election would be a walkover for Labor. The shine has come off Turnbull, but he is still what is keeping the Liberals in the race. I didn’t predict this particular black swan, but I think I did allow for the possibility of a black swan saving them.

The fact that Labor is still in with a chance – at least of creating a deliberative (far better word than hung) parliament – is a testament to how unpopular the coalition’s policies have been. If they were also fighting against of a hated Newman government in its second term, not even Turnbull’s popularity could save them.

So where now. I think the most likely thing is either a narrow Liberal majority, or a delibarative parliament with the Coalition having more seats than Labor, and probably being put into government by the Independents and Xenophon Mps on that basis.

But whichever happens, their unpopularity will grow, and next time they are going to need not just one black swan moment, but a flock of them, if they are to win again.
By Sergio Valle Duarte – Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What’s Really On The Line In the Brexit Vote

Obama raised eyebrows with his intervention into the debate about whether the UK should leave the European Union. The thing that struck me the most about this, however, was that he touched on, if only slightly, the thing that has been almost entirely ignored in almost everything else I have read on the debate, even from those who should know better. This strikes me as strange because, as important as issues of immigration, sovereignty and economics may be, there is something far more important: The EU’s role in maintaining peace.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike the EU, but if you really think bad monetary policy and the over-subsidization of agriculture, or even forced austerity, are the worst things in the world, I suggest you have a chat with a refugee from Syria, Iraq or the DRC. Alternatively, go and stand in one of the apparently endless fields of crosses marking the war dead from the First World War. Or an unrepaired bombsite from the second. Or Aushwitz. It was a repetition of these things the EU was intended to prevent.


So forgotten is the EU’s purpose that I have had conversations with highly educated Australians who were amazed to discover that peace was even an objective of its founders. Yet how could it not have been? The groundwork was laid in the late 1940s and 1950s by people who had, almost without exception, lost loved ones or limbs in one of the two horrific conflicts that devastated Europe in the first half of the 20th Century. In that era, little was done in diplomatic circles without the awareness of the need to prevent a repetition.

Others acknowledge this was a reason for the EU’s predecessors to come into existence, but see it as an overreaction to a couple of aberrant atrocities in an otherwise largely peaceful history.

This is deeply wrong. When the first stirrings of what became the EEC, and eventually the EU, were founded, the original six members would have struggled to name a period of any length where all of them had been at peace at once. The longest continuous period without war for the six was 43 years, starting in 1871. It didn’t end well. Before that, they were lucky to get a decade in which no armies marched across the plains of one state or another. The history of Eastern Europe was no better. This is the case not just for centuries, but millennia. We now know largescale warfare in Germany goes back more than 3000 years.

The contrast since then is remarkable. For the founding six, it is now 71 years without war on their home soil. Certainly other conflicts have sometimes brought terrorism to their doors, but in terms of homegrown conflicts the worst, even among later arrivals, have been the Northern Ireland troubles and the struggle for Basque independence. Both have brought a terrible toll, but combined have killed fewer people than a single hour on the Somme or during the bombing of Dresden.

Moreover, the EU may be a big part of the reason these smaller conflicts are fast disappearing in our rear view mirror. When a substantial portion of your governance comes from Brussels, people feel less inclined to kill others over whether the remaining portion will be from London or Dublin.

It’s possible of course, that this is coincidence. That the arrival of a completely unprecedented period without war and the creation of an institution carefully crafted to bring peace just happened to occur together. Maybe. But it’s not very likely. Plenty of explanations for Western Europe’s modern peace have been offered. Most are things that are enhanced by the existence of the EU – democracy, trade, economic growth. Others are looking increasingly improbable as explanations – fear of the soviets, nuclear weapons – now that the wall has been down for nearly three decades and France and Germany show no signs of getting back to slaughtering each other.

Amazingly, I’ve even seen people argue the EU doesn’t stop wars because of the dreadful violence in Bosnia, Chechnya and the Ukraine. Umm… that’s what happens when you’re not part of the club. It would be great if the EU could create peace across the entire continent, or maybe keep its members from invading Africa and Asia. But stopping war at home was the primary intent, and success on that alone justifies its existence. It’s not as though all those other wars would have been avoided if the EU hadn’t been there.

Another argument is that we needed the EEC to prevent war, but it did its job, and around the time it became the EU it could have been wound up instead, and eternal peace would still reign. I can’t prove this wrong, but you’d want to be pretty convinced of this dubious theory before you decided to scrap an institution that’s probably the reason no one has dropped a bomb on your bedroom.

The final argument is that it may be terribly important that the French, German and Benelux stay together, and possibly the more recent members, but the UK doesn’t need to be in. True, it is unlikely that Brexit, should it occur, will lead to a revival of the war within the boundaries of Great Britain – Culloden is indeed long ago. An exit might stir renewed violence in Northern Ireland, but some might consider that a few dozen deaths a year a price worth paying.

While this argument is stronger than the rest, that’s a low bar. A UK exit will weaken the EU, placing it in more danger of collapse, and certainly make it harder for it to absorb new members.

Moreover, a UK exit could go two ways: It could lead to the economic catastrophe some have predicted, driving up unemployment and poverty, with all their associated evils. Terrible as that would be for the UK, it’s actually the good outcome for everyone else. Because the alternative is that leaving the EU is seen as a viable option, something every authoritarian leader stymied in his plans to oppress ethnic or religious minorities by the EU can wave in the face of nervous citizens.

Already Hungary is ruled by monsters whose firm desire to commit genocide on vulnerable minorities is stymied only by EU membership. The new government if Poland is possibly worse. EU membership is keeping people alive. How long after a successful Bexit, should it occur, will these countries stay in.

Even if you are entirely indifferent to the survival of Hungary’s Romany, or its few remaining Jews, consider this: If a UK exit sets off a chain reaction, how immune will Britain be from the wars that follow? Even if there is no repeat of the military engagement, no bombs raining on Leicester and Coventry, I doubt things will go well for Britain in such circumstances. If you think the small proportion of Syrian refugees making it across the Channel are a problem, wait until it is millions of French and Belgians, or even Czeck and Slovaks, desperate for somewhere to go.

Maybe such scenarios are unlikely – although the entire weight of history argues otherwise – but if there is even a chance they will occur, what could possibly drive one to want to take the risk?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Are New Yorker’s Deciding? Probably Hilary’s Second Term

New York is about to start voting as I write this, so it is possible that what I write will be proven stupid in very quick time. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. Here is my take on what is really at stake.

First up, as noted previously, I think Clinton will almost certainly be the Democrat nominee. For Sanders to beat her he will have to exceed expectations not only today, but over and over again all the way to California. A single slip would be fatal.

I also think the Republican nominee will be either Trump or Cruz. The claims for Kasich or some other white knight riding a dark horse don’t make much sense.

Should I be right about both of these, I think Clinton has a better than 80% chance of winning the election. Trump and Cruz are both terrible general election candidates. Only something really dramatic like a major terrorist attack could see them beat a candidate most Americans don’t like much, but have see as competent and mainstream.

However, which of Trump and Cruz wins could have big implications down the track. If Trump wins, Cruz will be very well positioned to be the Republican candidate in 2020. Much as the establishment might try to stop him, it’s hard to see how they beat him unless he beats himself. Which I think will put Hilary in a very good position to win a second term.

On the other hand, if Cruz wins the nomination, but is beaten by Hilary, he’s unlikely to get another go. Sure his supporters might blame it on disloyalty from Trump or some such, but the pressure for an apparently more moderate candidate, be it Ryan, Kasich or Rubio, will be much stronger. And such a candidate would have a very good chance of beating a weak campaigner in her party’s third successive presidential term.

It’s possible that the demographics favouring the Democrats will save Clinton in such a scenario, and many things could change between now and then, but it would almost certainly be a tough fight.

If I was Hillary I would be more worried by what was happening in the Republic contest than on the Democrat side.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Slow Bern

I’m seeing a lot of posts from Sanders supporters saying he can still win the nomination, and then the presidency. I consider this delusional. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think Sanders can win, provided by winning you mean something much larger. I think Sanders has a good chance of being remembered as a harbinger for a substantial shift left within both the Democrats and wider American politics.

It’s true that most of Clinton’s best states have voted. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sanders managed to win the majority of votes from now on. But to actually win (even if the Superdelegates vote in line with their states, not their preferences) he has to go close to 60% of the remaining votes. That includes states like New York, California and Pennsylvania and New Jersey all of which he will need a miracle even to win. If he scrapes through with 51% in those he needs almost 70% of the rest. Not going to happen.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Sanders’ campaign will disappear. In the long run I think Sanders will be judged ahead of his time, just as he was with his support for many of the issues now widely accepted in the Democrats.

One of the most noticeable features of the Democrat primaries has been how big a difference age makes to voting. I can’t remember ever seeing a losing candidate get more than 80% of the under 30-vote, as Sanders did in Iowa and Nevada.  His win in Michigan was built in large part on young voters being similarly strong for him, and coming out in greater numbers than anticipated. Only in the south is Sanders not dominating the youth vote to an unprecedented extent.

A lot of people looking at this are probably thinking, “sure, but the young always lean left, then they get older.” We’ve all heard the sayings, “Not a socialist at 20, got no heart, still a socialist at forty, got no brain,” “A conservative is a liberal with teenage daughters” etc etc ad nauseum. The perception that it is normal for people to move to the right as they age isn’t entirely untrue, but it is greatly exaggerated.

There is a much longer essay in why people believe this exaggeration, but for the moment I will just say this: The evidence is that generations that start left tend to stay to the left, even if they experience some shift back towards the middle. This applies even for those, such as the people who came of age in the late 60s, who were politicized primarily by an issue that subsequently went away.

Meanwhile, those people who reached voting age under Eisenhower and Reagan started off voting Republican, and have kept on doing so ever since. (more up to date but not as clear graphic here) In fact, while young voters have not stood to the right of the electorate for a long time, there have been a number of elections, such as 1984 and 1992, where they were in line with the overall vote. The youth vote didn’t really become influential until 2008.

Nor is this just about the votes. Numerous studies have been done of the values of different American age cohorts, and they have found that those who came of age in the 80s stand well to the right of those both older and younger than them.

These studies make clear that the millenials backing Sanders are not just caught up in something cool – their values are well to the left of anyone in the last 40 years, and those turning 18 appear to be further left still.

With time, this group is going to become larger and more influential. It’s possible that those who are currently aged around 10, for example, will see the world differently, but it is almost certain that at least those slightly too young to vote now will also be strongly left.

Moreover, while the ending of the Vietnam war cooled the passions of the early Baby Boomers, and ushered in a more conservative era for their younger siblings, millenial politics is being driven by racism, sexism, wealth inequality and global warming. Sadly, none of them are likely to go away.

_88952230_88952229 Those who follow in Sanders’ footsteps may have the same problems the Democrats currently do; turning out their supporters at mid-term elections, and left wing voters being badly distributed for winning control of Congress. However, when it comes to electing future presidents – and probably Congress – in those years, the left will be very well positioned.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Senate Voting Reform. Don’t Listen To Me

Most of what you read about Senate reform will be self-interested, or at least biased. That includes anything I could say. Not so much because of benefits to the Greens, although that is part of the story. Mostly, however out of personal self interest.

My expertise has meant that, hard as I try to get out, I have put under a lot of pressure to be involved with preference negotiations, and I find them repulsive and traumatic. Being placed in a situation where you have a choice between taking a deal you find ethically doubtful and throwing away the hard work of thousands of people which which you expect to be sufficient to get a candidate 80% of a quota is horrible. Even more horrible when you know that not taking the deal will likely mean some shonky candidate with a tenth of your candidate’s support will get in because they are happy to take the same deal. I don’t want to be back there, and naturally that biases my view on the reforms.

Therefore I urge everyone to consult the small number of people who both understand these reforms and don’t have any significant self-interest in the outcome: Antony Green, Charles Richardson, William Bowe, Henry SchlectaKevin Bonham and Sarah John of Fairvote.


I think so far the score is five favour with one still to declare. All the criticism I have seen has come from people either with a very significant stake in the fight, or who have made clear they simply don’t understand the way the system works/will work.

That is not to say the proposal is perfect. Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow proved that it is impossible to design a perfect voting system, and the size of the states as electorates and relative disengagement with the Senate mean that even some options that are close to perfect in principal don’t work too well here.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the version that will be voted on this week is about as good as one could get – greatly improved, by the way, by the efforts of the psephologists referred to above to get reform of the below the line voting added in.

The idea of putting more power in the hands of the voters, and less in the hands of party machine men (and just as with psephology, it almost always is men) is pretty much a no-brainer.

Consequently the arguments against have pretty much been:

1) It could give the coalition control

2) It could reduce diversity by extinguishing minor parties

3) The process has been rushed

I agree with 3), but the reason it has been rushed is largely because some of the cross-benchers were threatening to hold the government to ransom, refusing to support legislation they agreed with because they resented the possibility of losing their place in parliament. I can’t think of much better evidence that these individuals (and I note not all the cross-benchers seemed to be part of this) shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Hardly a reason to oppose good legislation just because it happened a bit fast.

On the other two points; as noted, there are others who you should believe rather than me. But the evidence is that these fears are overblown. Yes the coalition could gain control, but they did this under the current system in 2004. The real question is: Is them gaining control more likely under the proposal than the existing system. It’s actually very hard to say. One can construct scenarios where the proposed system helps them, but others where it does not. There is a fair chance that under the proposal they would not have won control in their own right in 2004, and certainly they would not have had the extra vote of Steve Fielding in the cases where they couldn’t get all of their official team to back them.

Nor will all minor parties miss out. The Palmer United Party would easily have won a seat in Queensland at the last election under the proposal, and possibly WA as well. And of course there is Xenophon, who would have a mate there as well under the proposal. If minor parties form coalitions, as Antony Green has suggested, it is likely we will have quite a few of them elected in future, and a good thing too.

There is a long term trend away from the Coalition and Labor, and the factors driving this will continue. As time goes on we will see more votes for independents and minor parties, and more of these people elected.

What will change is that the minor party that will win will be the one with real support, rather than one that flukes it, or gets a lot of preferences because they lie to people about their true positions. Do people seriously think this is a bad thing?


Posted in Psephology, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Hilary Versus Bernie – It’s Supposed To Be Hard

DEM 2016 Debate

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Entertainment value aside, there is not a lot to say in favour of the way the US runs its elections. However, it seems to me that a lot of people are intent on throwing away one of its few good points – that every four years it pretty much forces people to think.

In most countries, in you’re not one of the few signed up to a political party, you really don’t need to do too much hard thinking about politics at all. Choose the party that appeals to you most, and every few years walk into the polling booth and tick the box next to the appropriate candidate. If you live somewhere with preferential voting you might need to think about who gets your subsequent preferences. That aside, the only hard choices may be if the party you vote for alienates you so much you go looking for someone else, or if a new party appears that catches your eye.

Americans can do the same thing come November, should they choose, but millions will also make a choice before then from within their parties. For this, they can’t just rely on past decisions, they have to make the choice all over again, and hopefully that will lead to some serious thinking about what each candidate represents and their respective merits.

People considering voting for Trump or Cruz probably aren’t doing a lot of hard thinking, but things should be different on the Democrat side. Which is why I am disappointed at how many people seem to have just made a choice between Bernie and Hilary and decided that this is where there thinking can stop. They don’t need to acknowledge that there are a lot of different criteria to choose between the candidates, and it is entirely possible that each of them scores better on some. No, no, let’s just pretend that whoever we have picked is better on everything.

It’s all a bit this, really.

How You See Your Candidate.... - Imgur

Except that both candidates are far more intelligent, and three dimensional, than Jar Jar Binks.

I realize that for many Americans who are actively campaigning for one candidate or the other, they may not want to admit that they do see some points where the opposing side would be better. That’s fair enough – it’s not the job of an advocate to make part of the other side’s case.

But I’m a bit disappointed in a lot of my Australian friends on this. True, I’m mostly just going on your Facebook and Twitter posts, maybe there is a lot more subtle thinking offline, and this certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but I see a lot of people who enthusiastically posting links that all point to the same conclusion, without a lot of commentary suggesting any nuance. I’m also directing this at people I greatly respect, who will no doubt never read it, who present themselves as commentators rather than campaigners, yet are still spending most of their time on one side.

To be clear here, I’m not doing the classic “I’m so impartial” thinkpiece. I’m hoping Sanders will win, although I don’t think it is likely he will (writing this while Nevada is still voting). But in doing so, I am deeply aware of a lot of reasons to prefer Hilary. You might not agree with me on all of these, but fellow Sanders supporters, do you really agree on none?

The closest I see from most people feeling the Bern to an acknowledgment of complexity is that “they’d like to vote for a woman”. Personally I think that is pretty important. The global signficance of a woman as the most powerful person on Earth would be pretty huge. To pick just one example, would parents in places where female infanticide or sex-selective abortions are popular be quite so keen to be rid of daughters if there was a woman in the Oval office?

But it is far from the only reason. It’s true that current polling shows Sanders doing better against each Republican candidate than Clinton, but if you think that is the last word on electability you haven’t paid much attention to American history. Given how truly awful the Republican field is, I can’t see how anyone who cares about progressive politics could not be a bit worried that choosing Sanders could hand the White House to Trump, Cruz or Rubio. In particular, I’m not impressed with the blithe suggestions that higher turnout will fix any loss of centrist voters. Plenty of people have said that before, they’ve seldom been right. Moreover, while Sanders’ capacity to mobilize youth has been amazing, with Democrat attendance in Iowa and New Hampshire well down on 2008, I’m far from convinced that this vast disenfranchised mass will turn up.

Personally, I am also worried about a lot of the handwaving in Sanders promises. Certainly a campaign that was almost certainly not expecting to be anywhere near as strong as it has turned out to be can be forgiven for not thinking it needed all that much detail, but when you’re making promises this big, it would be good not to rely on magic asterisks to show they can be done. Are there no other Sanders supporters who feel the same?

Turning to the other side, I’m frankly amazed my the number of people saying, “Hilary believes in the same things Bernie does, she’s just more pragmatic.” Really? Because we’ve got quite a long record to indicate what Clinton believes, and that’s not how I see it. It’s not just that she boasts of her friendship with Kissinger and supported the illegal Iraq invasion, even after a lot of Republicans had realised it was a disaster. Someone who would vote against a ban on cluster bombs, a weapon used almost exclusively for killing civilians isn’t taking a pragmatic path to peace, they just don’t value human life very high. Nor was this a case of Sanders versus the Democratic establishment – two thirds of Democrat Senators were for the ban (Sanders was still in the House btw), but not Clinton (or Biden for that matter).

Clinton is running away quite hard from some of her record in other areas as well, such as her previous support for the mass incarceration of, well pretty much anyone the police don’t like, but do you really prefer that to someone who has opposed punitive law enforcement his whole life?

Just as I am disappointed that those posting for Sanders can’t acknowledge his weaknesses, I really wish that some of the people fiercely defending Clinton would admit that the vast amounts of money she is receiving from businesses with appalling human rights records are almost certainly going to influence her decision-making. Is it not at least a little bit inspiring the extent to which Sanders has built his campaign on small donations that couldn’t influence him if they tried?

There may be legitimate questions about the economic competence of Sanders advisers (although Robert Reich’s support should count for something), but at least they’re trying to build a better world. Doesn’t Clinton’s history of surrounding herself with people who spend the rest of their lives sabotaging every struggle for human rights and environmental justice they can bother you at all?

I know this whole post sounds whiny, judgmental and holier than thou. But I’m saying this because I I’m referring to some really smart people, much smarter than me in many cases. Which means I think it’s possible to do better. Support your candidate sure, and if you’re out on the campaign trail bury your doubts. But if you’re far enough away that your posts won’t be changing votes, or you’ve admitted that’s not your job, then take the opportunity this provides, to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and think about what an ideal progressive movement, built out of the best of each, would look like.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Martian Thoughts


I finally saw The Martian this week, thanks to some encouragement from Richard McConachy. I loved it for all the reasons many people have. But I had an additional reason to love one scene, as it reminded me of one of the largely unknown stories of Australian science.

Bit of a spoiler warning.

Towards the end of the film where Watney is lightening the load on the MAV to allow it to go high enough to meet the Hermes craft. He throws (and blasts) various bits of no doubt very expensive equipment off the MAV as if they were worthless junk, which under the circumstances they are.

This reminded me of a story told to me by David Cooke (one of the scientists in my book) who worked at the Parkes observatory for many years, including during the Apollo mission. Parkes was not intended to have a role in the Apollo 13 mission, with NASA choosing to use one of the smaller Australian telescopes. However, when everything went pear-shaped it was realized that Parkes was the only radio telescope in Australia (or indeed our timezones) capable of communicating with the craft in its damaged state.

Naturally NASA commandeered The Dish for saving the astronaut’s lives. The telescope was being used for deep space astronomy at the time and carrying equipment that was unsuited to the new purpose. Time was naturally of the essence, and it took too long to send equipment down in the lifts as well as bringing the new receivers up. So highly expensive antenna and imaging devices were simply taken to the edge of the Dish and dropped off the side. I don’t know if anyone bothered to place mattresses around the bottom in the hope of salvaging something, or if they were just allowed to smash.

Besides being amused by this story, it also serves as a reminder of just how little money matters when an astronaut’s life is in danger. Watching the film I wondered briefly whether the US and Chinese governments really would be willing to spend the vast amounts required to bring a single astronaut home should circumstances such as seen in film occur.

The answer, I think, is yes. Of course the costs involved in The Martian, amusingly parodied in this meme, would be far larger than a few smashed receivers. However, by Cooke’s account, no one blinked an eyelid at the cost. There are many reasons for this, but one is that public pressure demanded it.

Millions of people die each year who could be saved with food or medical supplies that would cost a few dollars, but when we know the individual’s name, let alone have become attached to their personality, no expense is spared. That’s not intended as a criticism. I want people to care more about the starving children they know nothing about, but I don’t think that need be achieved by caring less about the person they see on the nightly news.

We can’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars to save every endangered person on Earth, and maybe that means we shouldn’t spend that much just because someone happens to be prominent, but we should always want to.

The dust storm that kicks The Martian off is many times more powerful than anything the red planet is capable of. But that aside it is largely scientifically accurate.  And I think it also gets the psychology and politics pretty much right as well.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment