People power and its limits

The authorities in Iran seem to have succeeded in suppressing popular protests for the moment. More generally, it seems clear that “people power” has its limits, summarised by the aphorism that a successful revolution consists of kicking in an open door. That is, if a state is divided, unsure of itself and illegitimate even in its own eyes, a manifestation of mass opposition will be enough to bring it down. But a coherent ruling group, confident of its own rightness and willing to use force against its opponents, can retain power even in the face of a strongly mobilised majority of the public. It remains to be seen which of these analyses applies in Iran.

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Escalation

The Great Ute Scandal has been bubbling along for weeks but I ignored it, partly because scandals are rarely interesting and partly because I couldn’t get to the starting point of working out what wrongdoing was supposed to have taken place (compare for example the Manildra business, which involved large sums of public money and provoked no serious concern). But in the last day or two the stakes have been raised dramatically, based on the alleged email from the PM’s office urging a prompt response to the concerns of a car dealer who contributed a car to Rudd’s campaign.

Whatever the significance of the putative email may have been, Rudd’s outright denial that any such email was sent means that it will be a major crisis for him if the email turns up, and possibly a terminal one if it turns out that the email was suppressed. On the other hand, if it can be proved that the email published by the Telegraph and referred to by Turnbull was in fact a fake, the consequences will be dire for Turnbull at least (I don’t suppose the Tele could lose much credibility). As my recent spam crisis demonstrates, I’m no tech expert, but I would have thought that the headers on an email would make it pretty easy to check whether it had been sent and that erasing all trace of an email would be just about impossible. And it would be grossly irresponsible to publish an alleged email if you received it with the identifying info removed.

Update

The news that the email was a fake confirms that the outcome will be bad for Turnbull, and could be catastrophic. The worst case, but a plausible one on the evidence to hand, is that the email was the product of a fraud cooked up between Liberal staffers and one or more corrupt Treasury officials. Even the best case, that the email was fabricated for some personal reason, and passed to the Liberals along with other leaks about the car scheme, doesn’t look good. I guess, given the twists and turns so far, it’s also necessary to consider the Machiavellian possible of a (highly successful) agent provocateur, luring Turnbull into a trap, as happened (IIRC) with Ralph Willis in 1996.

Further update

It now appears that the worst-case scenario is pretty close to the truth. Grech has apparently been working as a source of leaks to the Liberal party for a long period*. Apart from the obvious disastrous implications for the Liberals, this point also casts doubt on what remains of the case against Swan. If Grech was working for the Libs all along, he could easily have generated a large volume of emails, reports and so on, without any particular pressure from the government

* The term “mole” is commonly used in such cases, but the original idea of a mole was one of an agent in place who did nothing but burrow nto the target organisation, waiting for the time to act.

Miracles of modern journalism

The sacking of Dan Froomkin by the Washington Post reminds me a remark attributed (IIRC) to Auberon Waugh on being told that Randolph Churchill had undergone the surgical removal of a tumour that turned out not to be malignant.

It is a marvel of medical science that they could first locate the one part of Randolph that was not malignant, and, having found it, immediately remove it

More from the ever-growing Wapo fan club.

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Chewing the Fat

A week ago, just before the blog went off air, I was part of the expert panel at a community consensus conference on the topic “Should there be a tax on fatty foods”. This was organised by students at the UQ School of Journalism and was largely about exploring the process, though there was also plenty of interest in the substantive question. It was very professionally organised with its own website, video and news coverage.

The setup for these exercises is that members of the public with an interest in the question get together with a panel of experts to explore the issues, and try to reach a resolution that will hopefully be both well informed and more likely to gain public acceptance than simple reliance on expert judgement. I am sympathetic to the idea, but somewhat sceptical, in the light of experiences like the Constitutional Convention on the Republic (also mentioned by Kate Carnell, former ACT Chief Minister and now CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council who was on the panel). It seems to me that the experts ability to persuade the public participants in a process like this does not necessarily translate into an ability to gain broad public acceptance.

As it turned out, the majority of the public “jury” were sympathetic to the idea of a tax on fatty foods at the outset. Opinion among the experts, on the other hand, ranged from dubious to firmly opposed. Not surprisingly, this swayed the majority of the public participants. There was some interesting discussion of alternatives, but the concise nature of the process tried here (one half-day, as opposed to the multiple weekends adopted in other implementations) didn’t really allow for a full-scale alternative policy.

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Back on air

After suffering from a particularly insidious spam attack, the blog is back on air, still with the iNove theme, and with comments preview now restored, I hope. Thanks to reader Randall Hicks who detected the links injected into my themes, to Martin Ellison who fixed the problems and to Jacques Marnoweck from Joyent who gave some extra help, outside normal support.

One thing I did during my period of enforced absence was to update my complete list of Financial Review articles, published here. Journal articles should be updated soon.