What I'm reading, and more

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. A nice instance of alphabetical serendipity. I was in Borders, looking for another of the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey-Maturin series and this was of course on the same shelf. Thirty years ago, my friend John Stephenson had sung its praises and, while I’d read and enjoyed the Myles na Gopaleen columns by the same author, I’d never got around to At Swim-Two-Birds. I found it a little heavy going at first, but now I’m really enjoying it.

While I’m at it, I’ll take the opportunity to plug John’s novel The Optimist based on the early life of the poet Christopher Brennan. When I was young, Brennan was still a legendary figure in the classic-tragic-alcoholic mode, but he seems to be neglected nowadays. The Optimist is apparently out of print, but it’s well worth reading if you can pick it up. The echoes of O’Brien and Joyce are very evident.

Labor as the natural party of government

The title of this post may seem strange when the Federal Labor Party is in such a dreadful mess. But the very fact that a party consumed by leadership brawling, facing a united government with a competent leader, a relatively strong economy and the kind of international tensions that favor governments, can still manage 50 per cent of the two-party preferred vote in a number of opinion polls is revealing.

Over at Crikey, Owen Outsider argues that there has been a long term trend towards Labor dating back to the Menzies era. I put forward a rather similar argument here, observing

In the past fifteen to twenty years, Labor has rarely lost a state election, except when it has displayed high levels of incompetence, arrogance or both. Even in the wake of fiascos like the Victorian and South Australian bank failures, the Liberals have struggled to gain a second term, and have never managed a third. By contrast, all the Labor governments on the eastern seaboard have won re-election by landslide margins, and all look set for extended periods in office.

In my view, the electorate is well to the left of the political elite (that word again!) on most domestic issues, so the Liberals can only win if attention is focused on foreign policy and (an important qualification) things turn out well for that policy.

Beazley bio

If the majority of the papers are right, the Caucus will vote for Kim Beazley on Tuesday. I thought it might clarify my own thoughts to check out his bio. He’s been a member of Parliament since 1980 and was a minister throughout the term of the Hawke and Keating governments. That makes him (along with Ralph Willis) the longest-serving minister in the history of the Federal Labor Party [Keating was briefly a minister under Whitlam. However, he spent a very profitable interlude on the backbench after his first challenge to Hawke].

Here’s a list of the offices he held

  • Minister for Aviation from 11.3.83 to 13.12.84.
  • Special Minister of State from 14.7.83 to 21.1.84.
  • Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence from 11.3.83 to 13.12.84.
  • Minister for Defence from 13.12.84 to 4.4.90.
  • Vice-President of the Executive Council from 15.2.88 to 1.2.91.
  • Minister for Transport and Communications from 4.4.90 to 9.12.91.
  • Minister for Finance from 9.12.91 to 27.12.91.
  • Minister for Employment, Education and Training from 27.12.91 to 23.12.93.
  • Minister for Finance from 23.12.93 to 11.3.96.
  • Deputy Prime Minister from 20.6.95 to 11.3.96

From that entire list, the only thing I can recall him doing is ordering the Collins class submarines. In addition, I recall that he played some role in the mess that is Australian telecommunications policy, but I can’t remember exactly what. As Opposition Leader, I can recall that he had two narrow losses and that at some time he advocated something called Rollback.

Have I missed some achievement that would mark out a future Prime Minister?


Despite repeated promises that the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme would not be on the table in negotiations about a Free Trade Agreement with the US, this NYT story says this is a key demand on the US side. Moreover

The [recently-passed] Medicare bill also requires the Bush administration to apprise Congress on progress toward opening Australia’s drug pricing system.

It’s increasingly clear that this game is not worth the candle.

Backing Beazley: a guest post

Peter Brent from Mumble has contributed this guest post, putting the case for Beazley. My own views on the topic have only hardened since the last challenge, when I wrote this, and since giving up on Crean, when I wrote this. Peter’s argument begins …

Professor Quiggers has requested a please explain for my enthusiasm for Kim Beazley.

Here it is. Let me start by saying that, like most people, I’m not excited at the prospect of his return to the nightly news. In many ways he’s a relic from another era, and there are several others in caucus I’d rather see as PM.

But I think Beazley has the best chance of winning for the ALP. If he gets the job, Labor should walk in.

Read More »

After Crean

Crean is gone. No-one gets the kind of friendly visit he received today and survives as leader. Although my opinion of Crean rose somewhat over his time as leader, I think the time is right for him to go. In retrospect, his biggest mistake was spending his first year on party reforms that no-one except Tony Abbott cared about. It cost him heaps of political capital, earned him bitter enemies within the party, and made hardly any difference to the dire state of the branches. He could have saved the day after defeating Beazley if he’d been bold and consistent enough on policy, but that was never going to happen with Latham as shadow Treasurer.

Assuming he resigns soon, the best option for Labor, if it could be managed would be to draft Bob Carr. The obstacles are immense. It would require all the other candidates to shelve their ambitions, a self-sacrificing local member to give up a seat and the Parliamentary Party not to find some way of stuffing it all up. Appealing though the idea is, I don’t think it’s a goer.

Leaving that aside, the choice is, I hope, a no-brainer. Beazley and Latham both had lots of strikes against them anyway, and they’ve spent the last six months bagging each other. Excluding a bunch of candidates who might be good but who don’t have the profile to score a win, we’re left with Rudd. He’s not incredibly exciting, but neither was Carr as Opposition Leader (neither is Carr now, for that matter). Like all the other candidates he’s not particularly ideological, but unlike them, he hasn’t committed himself to a bunch of silly commitments on domestic issues.

Even with a change of leader, the odds would be against Labor. But the closeness of the polls in two-party terms indicates the lack of either broad or deep support for Howard. With Rudd as leader, and some good luck for Labor or bad luck for the government, the election will be a real contest.

More research on speeding

One of the nice things about the US, from a research point of view is that, with 50 states, often going in different policy directions, it’s possible to do reasonably good statistical evaluations of policy, taking account of a lot of potentially confounding factors. (It’s also possible to do this badly and dishonestly, as the career of John Lott has shown, but that’s true of any research technique).

Here’s an NYT report of a study, using this approach, which estimates that increases in speed limits in the US led to nearly 1900 extra deaths over 3 years.

Update 27/11 Here’s another NYT story recognising, for the first time AFAIK, that the US trails other countries including Australia in road safety. As commenters on this blog have pointed out, the causes include not only speeding, but also more drink-driving and less effective seat-belt laws. There may also be an effect from the number of SUVs in the fleet, though this is controversial – heavy cars promote safety in some circumstances, and reduce it in others.

On the positive side, not noted here, the US moved earlier to make airbags standard equipment and has much better roads than Australia.

A final point is that the accident measure used here is fatalities per million vehicle miles. This is biased in favor of the US, since it effectively ignores passengers and pedestrians when calculating risks.

Bankruptcy and divorce

In his summary of the debates between candidates for the Democratic nomination in the US, William Saletan lists as “Second-fishiest statement” this by John Edwards

If you’re a child in a middle-class family this decade, it is more likely your parents will go into bankruptcy than that your parents will divorce.”

But unless the middle class is atypical, Edwards is right on the money. As I point out here, in the year ending March 2003, more Americans went bankrupt than got divorced.

The six o'clock swill

Monday’s Fin (subscription required) ran a highly aerated piece by Denis Dutton of the University of Canterbury about the horrors of life in New Zealand in the early 1980s, before the reforms of Roger Douglas. Phrases like “Stalinist Anglo-utopia,” and claims that “Objectively, apart from the fact that we spoke English, our inward-looking command economy’s closest counterparts could only be found in the Eastern Bloc” will come as no surprise to followers of the absurdly hyperbolic rhetoric that characterizes the advocates of reform in New Zealand. Even today, they routinely refer to Wellington as ‘Helengrad’, and talk as though the moderate government of Helen Clark has NZ well along on the road to serfdom.

But what struck me in the article was this claim about life in New Zealand “in the early 1980s”

The most notable example was the six o’clock swill, where the average punter got off work at 5pm and was required to down as much locally-produced grog as possible before the bars had to shut at 6pm. This got citizens, however drunk, home in time to the news on the government television service.

I visited New Zealand a couple of times before the reforms, and did not notice anything of the kind. On the other hand, I am just old enough to remember the abolition of the six o’clock swill in South Australia, by the reforming government of Don Dunstan. Six o’clock closing had been introduced during World War I as an emergency measure, then kept in place for fear of offending the wowser vote. On checking, I found that the history in NZ was almost exactly the same, introduced in 1918 and abolished in 1967, nearly 20 years earlier than Dutton claims.

In thinking about why Dutton would make such an obviously false claim, it struck me that he was reflecting an idea that I’ve encountered quite often in discussions with supporters of neoliberalism in New Zealand but which (with one important exception) was never seriously put forward in Australia,

This is the idea that free-market reform is naturally associated with cultural liberalisation and sophistication. It’s true that, while the New Zealand I visited in the 1970s did not have six o’clock closing, it seemed distinctly old-fashioned, much like Australia before the cultural opening up associated with figures like Dunstan, Whitlam and even Don Chipp.

The result was that the era of free-market reform in NZ coincided with the kind of cultural opening up and increasing sophisticatiion that Australia had seen a decade or more earlier. At least in the minds of supporters of the reform the two are seen as going together. There is no such association in Australia, and free-market reform is more generally seen as being associated with a narrowing of intellectual and cultural horizons.

The one attempt at linking economic and cultural liberalisation in Australia was in the rhetoric of Paul Keating. Keating routinely labelled his opponents as creatures of the 1950s (ignoring the two decades that had passed between the end of the 50s and the beginnings of reform). In his post-1993 reinvention, he suddenly emerged as a patron of culture and attracted some supporters from within the ‘arts community’. However, with the exception of this tiny group, few people on either side of the debate bought Keating’s rhetoric. Most of those who had supported Dunstan and Whitlam detested Keating. Conversely, most advocates of free-market reform remained violently hostile to art and culture, at least when its practitioners received any kind of government support or ventured to express opinions on political and social issues.