Don’t do useful research

That’s the message being given to Australian social science and humanities researchers from the systems of journal rankings adopted in many disciplines.

This point was made to the Senate recently by historians from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Greg Melleuish and Stuart McIntrye, who are more interested in researching and arguing about Australian history than in following Northern hemisphere fads

Here’s a submission I wrote in relation to Economic Analysis and Policy, the journal published by the Queensland branch of the Economic Society of Australia

Under the reward systems prevailing in most Australian universities, publications in a journal ranked B or lower has a negative rating. Despite (or perhaps because of) my success in publishing in Top 5 and other A* journals, I have been actively discouraged from publishing in B journals

As numerous senior academics have pointed out to the Senate recently, a ranking system which punishes work on Australian policy issues reduces the value of the university sector to Australia, and increases pressure for reductions in research funding or redirection to more relevant institutions.

I therefore urged ABDC to upgrade Economic Analysis and Policy to A ranking.

Why Labor lost

It’s always nice to see evidence that supports your prior beliefs, which is why it’s important to avoid confirmation bias (seeking out confirming evidence, while ignoring or discounting the other kind). Since this ANU study of voters’ choices in the leadup to the May election is, AFAICT the only one to be published so far, I can cite it without fear of this bias.

I’m not usually keen on the excuse that “we lost because we didn’t get our message across”, but in relation to the last election, I said this before the election. Commenting at the halfway point, I said

The first half of the 2019 election campaign was the worst I’ve ever seen, especially relative to the possibility for real debate. Both sides ran continuous attack ads focusing on the opposing leader, playing into the gladiatorial model favoured by the Press Gallery. Labor, in particular, seemed to have forgotten it had any policy offer.

As the past tense indicates, when I wrote this I thought things had changed. For a day or two, Labor ran ads talking up its positive policies and focusing on the whole frontbench rather than Shorten alone. But that stopped almost as soon as it started and it was back to the fact that Morrison only cared about “the big end of town”. Apart from the clunky and dated rhetoric, we already knew that. By contrast, even as a close follower of politics I didn’t know Labor had an excellent dental policy until Tanya Plibersek mentioned it after the election.

The ANU study backs this up, first by saying that lots of people changed their minds at the last minute, which isn’t consistent with deepseated hostility to Labor policy, and second by saying that the big negative was reactions to Shorten, presumably driven in part by the Liberals’ negative campaigning.

The crucial point here is that, by playing the gladiatiorial leadership game, Labor was setting itself up to lose. Campaigning on policy would have reinforced the point, obvious since the election, that the coalition didn’t have any.

Hard cases make bad laws. Bad judges make them worse

Another day, another disastrous and anti-democratic decision from the High Court. The Court has already disqualified a large proportion (perhaps a majority) of Australians from standing for Parliament. It has now excluded a huge group from any participation in our democracy, beyond the bare right to vote.

The case in question concerned a public servant, employed in the Immigration Department, who criticised the department under a pseudonym (which proved inadequate to conceal her identity). This was obviously problematic: anyone who directly criticises the policies they are paid to implement creates concern about their ability to do their job properly.

So, the Court could easily have found against the employee in a narrowly drawn judgement that simply applied standard principles of employment. Instead, as in the s44 cases, they brought down a judgement with massive implications. The decision supports a code of conduct that, on its face, prohibits public servants from making any political comment, even on topics unrelated to their job. Given past behavior, it seems highly likely that the Court will take the broadest possible interpretation of this decision.

The only remedy in this case is for the Parliament to restrict the application of the code to allow public servants the same rights as other Australians, to discuss and debate public issues, except where it impinges on their capacity to do their jobs. That’s unlikely, but at least more feasible than a referendum to fix s44.

But if I could have the entire Court sacked and replaced by seven Australians selected by lot, I would certainly do so.

It’s come to this

To say I’m depressed about the current state of Australian politics would be an understatement. But of all the things that depress me, the possibility of a section 44 case against Josh Frydenberg is the most gratuitously awful. If someone had said, ten years ago, that the Australian-born son of a Jewish refugee was ineligible to stand for Parliament because he had failed to secure necessary documents from the neo-fascist government that currently rules Hungary, they would have been laughed at, and rightly so.

Yet, that appears to be the state of the law, as rendered by our appalling High Court. I don’t know what I find worst about this. Is it:

  • The gratuitous silliness of the specific rulings in s44 cases ?
  • The absurdity of legal literalism, particularly in the context of constitutional law, where unintended implications can only be fixed by referendum ?
  • The possibility that the Court will add hypocrisy to stupidity by finding some way of rejecting the case against Frydenberg, thereby showing that there was no need for any of the previous rulings?
  • The fact that the case is being brought by a defeated Labor candidate, cheered on by lots of Twitter users, most of whom are apparently on the left?

The only consolation is that, as in all previous cases of MHRs (but not Senators) found ineligible, Frydenberg will be able to fix things up (wasting time and effort that might better be spent running the country) and win the unnecessary by-election created by our finest legal minds.

Freedom of contract or freedom of speech

A number of comments on the Folau case have made the point that Folau failed to pay attention to the terms of his contracts with Rugby Australia [1] and also with GoFundMe, with the implication that he has only himself to blame for the outcome .

That’s a cute debating point, but it’s not one that should be used by those of us concerned with protecting workers’ rights. The use of contractual terms to constrain what workers say and do outside working hours is a misuse of the power of employers and a danger to free speech on issues of all kinds. The fact that we don’t like Folau’s use of this freedom shouldn’t lead to a retreat from the principle that, within very broad limits, what we do and say in our own time is no business of the boss.

The issue with GoFundMe is less problematic: funding a legal dispute is not obviously part of the site’s mission[2]. But we should be wary of the idea that Internet platforms should be able to set whatever terms of service they like and interpret them as they wish.

fn1 As with just about everything in this case, the exact status of the contract is a matter of dispute

fn2 neither is this much-mocked request by two layabouts for money to fund a trip to Africa that is beyond the resources of the mother who is currently working two jobs to support them in idleness)..

The day after

Like everyone else, I expected a Labor victory in the election. I expected good things from that, and I see lots of bad consequences from the actual outcome.

Still, my personal disappointment is muted by the fact that I found the campaign so utterly depressing. The shift to positivity I noted a couple of weeks ago only lasted for a day. I saw the positive ad I wrote about only once. By election day, like the majority of the Australian public, I just wanted it to be over.

The lesson I draw from this election, and from Clinton’s failure in 2016, is that negative campaigning doesn’t work for the left. It hardens the resolve of the other side, and obscures the fact that most people agree with you on the issues.

But that’s not the lesson that the political class, (for whom the two sides are always interchangeable) and especially the hardheads who ran the campaign, will learn. They will conclude that the small target strategy has been vindicated once again.