Maybe we need a degree in Western Civilization after all

I’ve kept out of the latest silly culture war so far, but I couldn’t resist this from Josh Frydenberg. After decrying a “long march to the left” in Australian universities, he says

It is absolutely critical that the next generation of students understand about where the rule of law came from, where democracy came from, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, women’s suffrage

Looking through that list, it can be described as a potted summary of the “long march to the left”  in Britain (and by extension Australia) over the course of the “long 19th century” from the French and American revolutions to the outbreak of the Great War.  At the beginning of that period, Freydenberg’s conservative precursors supported the rule of law, and opposed democracy, freedom of speech and religion and women’s suffrage. It was only after long struggles that restrictions on freedom of speech and religion like the Six Acts and Penal Laws  were repealed. The fight for (initialy male-only) democracy and women’s suffrage took even longer.

If we extended Frydenberg’s list into the 20th century, we’d get something like this University of Sydney course which covers

struggles over labour rights and working conditions in the 1900s, women’s suffrage, Aboriginal land rights, race relations and the White Australia Policy, homelessness during the Great Depression, freedom of speech during the Cold War, the Vietnam Moratorium and sexual liberation in the 1970s, the environmental movement, refugees and asylum seekers, and LGBT rights today

This course was denounced by Bella d’Abrera of the Institute of Public Affairs in a piece supporting the need for a Western Civilization course. It’s notable that free speech and women’s suffrage occur both in Frydenberg’s celebratory list and d’Abrera’s denunciation. I’m guessing that, if pressed, d’Abrera would not defend the implication that these, and other items like the end of the White Australia policy, were things to be deplored. But it would be interesting to see her present a version of history in which all the freedoms we now enjoy appeared magically and without any strugge.

Looking at this mess, I think we might need a course in the history of Western Civilisation after all. It should be provided to people like Frydenberg and d’Abrera so they can decide exactly whether they want to stop the clock at 1970, 1950 or perhaps at 1900.

The High Court: an agent of foreign influence

In a comment posted yesterday, I said

I suppose this should be obvious, but the HC decision actually creates a perfect opportunity to generate divided loyalties where none previously existed. Suppose you want to run for Parliament but your parent came here as a 3-year old from some other country. A government official explains that the process of losing citizenship normally takes years, but for special friends of the country, it can be rushed through in time to nominate. After you have been elected, an issue arises where friends of the country concerned have an opportunity to do a favour. The logic is pretty clear.

Just a day later, we have the Oz reporting almost exactly this allegation against Labor MP Anne Aly. I have no idea of the validity or otherwise of the claim, but obviously it’s one that can now be made against anyone who has fallen afoul of the Court’s absurd rulings by having an overseas born parent, but who has been lucky enough to get expeditious treatment from the foreign government concerned.

But, just as Trump’s supporters have swallowed worse and worse things from him, I’m sure the fans of the High Court’s black letter approach to the Constitution will convince themselves that it’s all to the good that foreign governments are now in a position to interfere in our elections. That’s one of the notable things about adopting a really bad idea: the rationalizations needed to defend it pave the way for worse ideas to come.

Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain

The series of absurd rulings from our High Court has now reached the point where the majority of Australians are debarred from standing for election to Parliament, unless some foreign government chooses to help them. The latest ruling means that even renouncing a citizenship you never sought and have never exercised is not enough. Unless you start the process well before an election is even called, possibly years before, you are ineligible if you were born overseas, have an overseas-born parent and (probably) if you belong to an ethnic group which has a “right of return” to a national homeland. We have yet to explore the possible limits of other exclusion clauses.

There is some poetic justice in the embarrassment now being faced by Labor and Bill Shorten, who wrongly assumed they had prepared for the worst possible cases of High Court idiocy, and gloated over the misfortune of others. But that’s small comfort for anyone who would wish the outcome of democratic elections to be respected.

Until now, the line taken by the supporters of the High Court has been “it’s just a matter of following the rules”. It’s now been made clear that following the rules is impossible. An Australian citizen, even one who has never left Australia, can be ineligible simply because of the dilatoriness, incompetence, or even malice, of a foreign government. And, according to the High Court, there’s nothing they can do about it except wait.

The stupidity and bloody-mindedness of the High Court in this matter is matched by most of the political commentariat, and a large proportion of the Australian public, who will no doubt be represented in comments here.

From experience, I know that lots of readers will not be convinced. So, I will offer a question and answer another.
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Another High Court disaster

The High Court has done a great job in messing up Australian democracy with its absurdly literalistic reading of the Constitutional provisions on dual citizenship. It’s now added another layer of disaster with its refusal to hear Labor’s attempt to have Liberal MP David Gillespie disqualified on the basis that he rented space to an Australia Post outlet.

Of course, this case is utterly lacking in merit. Had the High Court heard it, and thrown it out without retiring for consideration, I’d be cheering them on.

In fact, however, they refused to hear the case because Labor couldn’t get the Parliament to refer the case, relying instead on a “common informer”.

So, we are now in the position where a Parliamentary majority can move to disqualify anyone on the opposing side, and the High Court will assess whether they have breached any of the byzantine rules they have constructed, rules that might potentially disqualify anyone who has ever taken money from the government, or had foreign born parents, or is Jewish, or can’t document every aspect of their ancestry back to the Paelolithic era. But if there is no such majority, it seems that there is no recourse.

What’s worse is my total confidence that there will be lots of comments explaining how the High Court has protected us from the risk that someone might serve in Parliament despite getting their paperwork wrong.

Tweet trouble

According to Chris Mitchell at the Oz (paywalled, I think), I’m the mastermind (or at least a mastermind) behind the original version of Emma Alberici’s now-rewritten analysis of company tax cuts. Here’s Mitchell

In Alberici’s case a lot of weight was given to left-wing academic John Quiggin and economist Saul Eslake, a prominent commentator whose position on the central question — do corporate tax cuts eventually trickle down as increased wages? — seems to have changed over the years.

It’s nice to be so influential, but there’s just one problem. In Alberici’s original article (here), I don’t get a mention.

But maybe Alberici is presenting my ideas second-hand. Sadly, the arguments I’ve put forward on the topic don’t get a run either. Here’s the summary of my piece in Crikey (also paywalled, I fear)

Optimistic tax models put the average Australian at being 0.1% better off under the proposed company tax cuts. And the good news is they’ll only have to wait 25 years for that tiny benefit to appear!

Alberici doesn’t mention this.

So how did I get top billing? The villain, as usual, is social media. Twitter user (tweep?) Matt K asked me whether there were any mistakes in the Alberici piece and I said no. Apart from a couple of replies to further questions, that was my entire contribution, as you can see from the thread of the conversation. But, as they say nowadays, it went viral, at least insofar as a comment on tax policy can go viral.

Before I knew it, I was being attacked from all directions. Helen Razer said I was a bogus “leftist”, while Aaron Patrick at the Fin hit me from the right because I mentioned Marx and Engels in the draft introduction to my book. To be fair, Razer wrote to explain her position. By contrast, Patrick’s whole technique is verballing and out-of-context gotchas’, so I don’t expect that to change.

I do get a passing mention in the revised column, but since my name is mis-spelt, I think it’s safe to assume that I’m not a primary source. Obviously, Mitchell didn’t get around to reading the original (maybe the research skillz of Newscorp aren’t up to locating it) and assumed that I was quoted there.

While I’m on the subject, Mitchell had an amazing piece a while back (not worth linking, since Paul Kelly and Mark Latham have already trodden this ground many times) about the end of freedom of speech in Australia. The burden of it is that decent, ordinary Australians like Mitchell and Andrew Bolt, limited as they are to major national newspapers and broadcast media, can’t say what they think about Muslims, lefties and so on any more without people on Twitter saying what they think about Mitchell and Bolt. As Tim Dunlop says in a similar context, any less self-reflection and they’d be vampires.

The vocational education disaster

The combination of budget cuts and market ideology has been a disaster for vocational education in Australia. That’s the shorter version of a piece for Inside story based on my submission to the SA TAFE Senate inquiry.

Update: On the same day this article appeared, Labor has come out with a call for a major inquiry encompassing both unis and TAFEs. Whether or not my past advocacy had anything to do with this, it’s a welcome outcome.

P@ssw0rd follies

I have a piece in Crikey (reproduced over the fold) under the title ‘Our spy agencies know less about cybersecurity than the Daily Mail‘.

The central point is that our leading cybersecurity agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, has just rolled out a policy requiring users of government agency websites to change their passwords every 90 days and to use composition rules based on a mix of alphanumeric and special characters. As even the Daily Mail has pointed out, these practices are thoroughly discredited, to the point where the expert responsible for them has publicly recanted.

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The Minerals Council of Australia pushing zombie ideas

Fighting zombies is a tiresome business. Even when you think you’ve finally killed them, they bounce back as often as not. But it has to be done, and there are some benefits. When you see a supposedly serious person or organization pushing zombie ideas, it’s an indication that nothing they put out should be presumed to be serious.

There can be few zombies more thoroughly undead than nuclear power in general, except for the idea that nuclear power is a sensible option for Australia. The strongly pro-nuclear SA Royal Commission demolished this zombie so thoroughly that it should have taken a decade at least to regenerate.

But here’s the Minerals Council of Australia, which has taken a break from promoting coal to push the idea that Australia needs a nuclear power industry and that the biggest obstacle is a legal prohibition imposed in 1998. The supporting “analysis” is riddled with absurdities, some of which have already been pointed out. I’ll give my own (incomplete) list over the fold

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Millennials are people, not clones

The Washington Post has an article on millennial attitudes to Trump, broken down by race/ethnicity. The results won’t surprise anybody who’s been paying even minimal attention. Other things equal, millennials are even more hostile to Trump than Americans in general. Of course, other things aren’t equal; as with the population at large, African-Americans most unfavorable to Trump, and whites are least so, though no group is favorable on balance.

What’s surprising, or at least depressing, is the contrarian framing of this as a counter-intuitive finding, against a starting point assumption that millennials should have uniform views. I can’t blame the author of this piece for taking this as the starting point; it’s taken as axiomatic in the vast output of generationalist cliches against which I’ve been waging a losing battle since the first millennials came of age in the year 2000.

Just to push the point a little bit further, this study only disaggregates millennials by race. If, in addition, you took account of the fact that millennials (on average) have more education, lower income and less attachment to religion than older Americans, you would probably find it impossible to derive statistically significant differences based on birth cohort.