So far, Somare: Papua New Guinea adjourns democracy

Confusion reigns in Papua New Guinea as conflicting rumours abound whether long-standing Prime Minister Michael Somare is about to resign. Port Moresby’s Courier Mail said Somare is planning to relinquish party leadership by the time of the National Alliance party’s national convention on 14 August. The paper quotes Deputy PM Don Polye who said Somare made his decision during a party caucus meeting last week. Polye said Somare would reshuffle the government in the next two weeks and would step aside either before or at the convention.

However, the ABC is reporting National Alliance party spokesperson Stephen Pokawin has denied the newspaper’s report. All Pokawin would confirm was that the party’s leadership would be the main topic of discussion at the convention with Polye ready to make a bid for the top job. Pokawin, the National Alliance Party’s general secretary, says the party constitution bans Somare from contesting the leadership for a third time, having won elections for the National Alliance in 2002 and again in 2007. Somare was also the country’s first PM in 1975 and won again in 1982. The next election is due in 2012.Somare’s recent actions show little sign of a man wanting to step aside. Last week he chose eight new Government ministers after three key figures including deputy Puka Temu left to form a new party on Monday. Their aim was to move a vote of no confidence and form a new government. Polye was promoted to take Temu’s job and with his help Somare hung on to defeat the no confidence motion 64-45 to remain Prime Minister.

Badly shaken by the vote, Somare adjourned the parliament for four months on Wednesday. The Speaker Jeffrey Nape adjourned the house until mid November despite the opposition’s claim it had enough votes to stop the adjournment. Nape, an ally of Somare refused to count the “no” votes and called for the adjournment. The decision caused an uproar in the parliament with cries of “dictatorship”. This angered Somare who rose across the floor and pointed at Opposition member Sam Basil shouting “Bai mi kilim yu autsait” which translated meant “I will kill you outside”. Somare was restrained by his son Arthur.

With Michael Somare now 74 years old, many see Arthur as his logical groomed successor. The National editorialised Arthur was the most senior MP from the Mamose (a region which covers Sepik, Madang and Morobe). The National said the son lives in the shadow of his famous father and won’t emerge till “the shadow moves on”. The National also acknowledges this outcome would cause “much disgruntlement, particularly from the Mamose faction that feels it is past time power were not centralised in the Sepik or with the Somare family.”

New Deputy Don Polye draws his support from the Central Highlands in the province of Enga. Polye reneged on a deal with long standing deputy Puka Temu for them to both walk out on Somare’s Government. Polye was rewarded with the deputy role, which The Australian’s Asia-Pacific editor Rowan Callick believes will cement Somare in power till the 2012 election.

New Opposition leader Puka Temu is not so sure. This is the second time in two years Somare has adjourned parliament for several months to stop a no confidence vote and Temu has had enough. He is calling for Somare to quit for the good of Papua New Guinea. “They call him the ‘father of the nation’ but he and his family are destroying the nation,” he said. “They break laws, they treat parliament like a joke. Is this what PNG wants? No, they want an end to this.” Temu said they would continue lobbying ministers and MPs who remain on the fence. “We have 45, all we need is 55,” he said.

Towards a Citizens’ Assembly: In defence of Gillard’s climate change plan

This week Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a major speech on climate change that was almost universally reviled. The left, including Larvatus Prodeo, didn’t like it because it didn’t nominate a carbon price, the right including Andrew Bolt believes Gillard is doing nothing on climate change while pretending to do something. Centrist Club Troppo’s Ken Parish was not impressed saying the deliberative democracy proposal is unlikely to work. Senior members of the commentariat like Laurie Oakes didn’t like it because it abdicates responsibility.

In rushing to condemn Gillard, no seems to have listened to what she said. Here is an excerpt of the speech:

“Global temperatures are rising. 2009 has been ranked the fifth warmest year on record globally and finished off the hottest decade in recorded history. The temperatures are largely driven by pollution created by carbon emissions. Climate change has a particular environmental and economic impact on Australia. 2009 was the second hottest year in Australia and ended our hottest decade. Each decade since the 1940s has been warmer than the last. With climate change, the number of droughts could increase by up to 40 per cent in eastern Australia, and up to 80 per cent in south-western Australia within the next six decades. Without action to reduce our pollution, irrigated agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin is projected to fall by over 90 per cent by 2100. About 85 per cent of Australians live in coastal regions. Just under 250,000 residential buildings, worth up to $63 billion, will be at risk from sea inundation if the sea-level were to rise by 1.1 metres. Coastal industries, such as the tourism industry, will also face increasing challenges with climate change.”

Julia Gillard makes a good point but is undermined by public hypocrisy. The majority does not yet appreciate “there is not a switch to flick or one single behaviour to change.” What Gillard won’t do yet is spell out what we can flick and nominate the behaviours that must change.

Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election partly on his promises to act on climate change. He came close. We would now have a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme on the books if not for the poor decision making of the five Greens in the Upper House who could not join Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce in their courageous departure from party line. It would have been a flawed ETS, possibly even counter-productive. Nevertheless, getting it on the books would have been a great start to getting it right. It also meant the 2010 election would have been a contest of ideas between Rudd and Turnbull rather than the race to the bottom it has become under Gillard and Abbott.

I don’t blame Julia Gillard for circling the wagons as she attempts to win the election. I suspect that like Garrett’s fateful 2007 joke, “she’ll change everything when she gets in” but for now she is powerless as a leader. She also knows meaningful action on climate change is impossible without a consensus. She might get that if she wins the election by a handsome majority (and if that Kingston poll is replicated widely she will get it too).

Consensus on climate change is out of the question with Tony Abbott as Opposition leader. It also needs an advocating (or at least understanding) media that accepts the inevitability of action to stop climate change. The mainstream Australian media has made no such concession. With their quotidian needs for conflict, they handle platforms to vested interests and contrarians who focus on the immediate cost and its impacts, rather than the long-term solution and its impacts.

Gillard explained what she meant by consensus. “I do not mean that government can take no action until every member of the community is fully convinced,” she said. Her solution is a Climate Change Commission. Those that think climate change is a communist plot will detest the CCC. The same people will equally loathe the Citizens’ Assembly, with its name a whiff of the French Revolution. The media will attack both as toothless tigers similar to the pointlessness of the 2008 Summit.

The devil will be in the policy detail. Gillard remains committed to a CPRS and if she wins she will be dealing with the Greens who win have the balance of power after July 2012 (the Senate election is as important as the Lower House one if not more so but is ignored by the media because it lacks the one-on-one drama). Let us hope the Greens wake up to the need to grab whatever power you can get and not repeat their mistake of 2009.

Until a proposal becomes the law of the land, we remain headed towards the final act climax of the Tragedy of the Commons. Australia’s electricity generation is projected to grow 50 per cent between now and 2030.Each of us takes a little much out of the garden, knowing all the while its stock is not being replenished. People can be educated out of their selfishness, by being bought or commanded to change. Maybe the CCC or the Citizens Assembly will help. Let’s hope it doesn’t take disaster recovery to spur us into action.

ABC News Twentyfour Seven Eleven

In 20 years time when they ask the trivia question “in what year did ABC start its 24-hour television news channel?”, I hope we will not remember the answer with a sense of nostalgia for something we’ve lost.

I have no idea what television will look like in 20 years but whatever medium it transforms into, its content will still include 7 x 24 news with a local slant. The ABC “News 24” station launched today despite the grumblings of Sky News Australia’s owners. There is no reason it cannot become the Al Jazeera of the Asia Pacific, especially if it can nail overseas broadcasting.There are misgivings, and Sky’s are not the limit. In the 1840s Henry David Thoreau noted our inventions are pretty toys which distract attention from serious things. At time, the US was rapidly linking itself up by magnetic telegraph to Britain and its farflung states. Thoreau reminded us the first news on these newfangled tubes may well have been that Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough while Maine and Texas may have nothing important to communicate to each other.Thoreau was right to sound his warning about the blandness of news into the “broad flapping American ear” but wrong about Maine and Texas. They had plenty of important things to communicate as they shared in the national imagining of a greater America. The ABC News 24 channel can fulfil a similar role here.

Managing-director Mark Scott has no doubts about its raison d’etre. He told his reporters there should be a 24/7 news channel on Australian free-to-air television and the public broadcaster ABC was ideal to run it “given our history, given our experience, given our resources given our integrity, given our independence.” He says News 24 will ensure the ABC’s future in broadcasting.

Jason Wilson said the public is entitled to be sceptical. He said the broadcaster is already overstretched and no new resources have been allocated for the channel. It means the station must reuse content from other media, poach staff from other departments and expect the journalists to work longer hours.

Wilson wonders whether ABC are straying too far from “core business” and should be looking at more innovative ways of delivering content in the post-broadcast age. “There’s no convincing case for creating yet another one-size-fits-all continuous news broadcaster when cheap, plentiful bandwidth will allow for the distribution of a plethora of niche, on-demand or streaming audiovisual content,” Wilson said.

This long tail approach leaves the audience fragmented which leads to yearning for a more centralised delivery. ABC has a role in providing informed news across Australia. When the national broadcaster was set up in 1932, the newspapers at the time (led by Keith Murdoch) resisted moves for its radio station to include news. But by the end of World War II, the ABC had a mandate to produce news despite Murdoch’s best efforts in his wartime role of Director-General of Information.

Keith’s son Rupert is still annoyed about public broadcasting impinging on his turf, but that is more of a reason to treasure the ABC. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay additional dollars for this new service. Working harder, repurposing content and shifting staff are all reasonable demands when the money is not there up front. ABC News 24 may have to “fake it till it makes it” but with broad public trust and time on its side, the oily rag can one day turn into a silk coat. I welcome its addition to the public sphere.

Awaiting election time CPI data with interest

The Australian Bureau of Statistics would seem an unlikely election game changer, yet their usually fairly innocuous quarterly Consumer Price Index due Wednesday could have profound impact. In the minutes of the monetary policy meeting for 6 July released today, the Reserve Bank Board said the deciding factor on a rate rise next month would be the July CPI figure. The Board meets again on Tuesday 3 August and a high CPI number followed by a rate rise could give the Opposition a major impetus in the last 18 days of the election campaign.

The signs are a rate rise is on the way. In the March quarter the headline rate was 2.9 percent with the all groups CPI rising 0.9 percent following a 0.5 percent rise the previous quarter. Hikes in the price of pharmaceuticals, vegetables, electricity and fuel were the main reasons for the March quarter increase. The Board said CPI inflation was expected to rise to 3 per cent in the June quarter figures partly due to higher taxes on tobacco. “The important question for the Board at its next meeting would be whether the new information materially changed the medium-term outlook for inflation,” they said.Several senior Government will be anxious smoking a few coffin nails while waiting for the CPI headline figure on Wednesday. The RBA have held interest rates at 4.5 percent for two months – still very low by Australian standards, but even a 0.25 percent rise is a bad look in the middle of a tight election campaign. In doorstops Opposition leader Tony Abbott has been hammering home the point of “upward pressure on interest rates” and while he blames government borrowing rather than new excises, an August rate rise would play into his campaign themes.

The cash rate has gone up seven times in the past year but this was after a historical low of 3.0 percent during the height of the Global Financial Crisis in 2009. Rates are still 2 percent lower than when Labor took office in November 2007 and also slightly lower than most of the period between 2001-2005 when the Howard Government dined out on the “low interest rates” they said their policies were responsible for.

Their promises were exposed as fiction as rates rose prior to the last election and they continued to rise when Labor took power. Playing politics with interest rates ignores the fact the Reserve Bank Board is independent of Government control. In Sydney today Glenn Stevens reminded his audience the Board decision would not be swayed by the election campaign. He also said the CPI figure would not be the only decision factor. As today’s board minutes noted, the health of the European banking sector has a significant impact on financial markets and global confidence which could lead to an “updated reading on domestic prices”.

Neither major party likes to draw attention to this fact because it shows how little control Governments have over the wider economy. Ken Henry (an RBA board member) and the Treasury did a terrific job to keep Australia out of recession during the GFC but the economy and the interest rate was not immune from its devastating impacts. Rising interest rates means the economy is in good shape. Politicians and the media should be reminded of that fact whenever they play games with rate rises. Lower interest rates means either the China boom has ended or the European sovereign debt crisis has spiralled out of control. Either way, a $40 a month saving on the monthly mortgage won’t mean much if there is no job to pay for it. The media needs to tell this story fully instead of falling for phony political lines about “upward pressure”.

Fiji turns the screws on the media

Opponents of Fiji’s media censorship want to set up a pirate radio station in international waters to broadcast news and music banned by the Frank Bainimarama dictatorship. Usaia Waqatairewa, the Sydney-based president of the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement, told the ABC today they wanted to put an antenna on an American or Australian registered ship located outside Fiji’s legal jurisdiction. Waqatairewa says Internet access was rare in Fiji and people needed another means of getting news the Bainimarama government isn’t letting them hear. “What we’re planning to do is to if we could in some way set up a freedom radio that does not have the control of the regime in Fiji and be able to broadcast out the real news, instead of their propaganda and what they have censored themselves,” he said.
(photo by Jachin Sheehy)
The announcement comes just days after the Fijian dictator, who has ruled since 2006, claimed the country would probably not be “ready” for elections in 2014. It also comes a month after strict new laws further inhibited Fiji’s media from honestly reporting on what is happening there. On 29 June the military backed regime introduced its new “Media Industry Development Decree 2010” which brought in a new set of strict rules governing Fiji’s media. The laws strengthen already tough laws governing the media, military intimidation of reporters, censors in newsrooms and the deportation of foreign-born newspaper executives.One executive was Russell Hunter, managing-director of the Fiji Sun before he was deported in 2007. Hunter called the laws draconian and an erosion of freedom and basic human rights. The laws give the media authority the right to demand the name of confidential sources if the story relates to government corruption. Journalists could be fined $50,000 and jailed for two years for work deemed against the “public interest or order”. The most well-known provision is the 10 percent limit on foreign ownership as it directly affects the News Ltd owned Fiji Times, the country’s oldest and largest newspaper.

The Fijian Government has given News Ltd three months to sell the paper or be forcibly shut down. It also casts huge doubt over the viability of foreign investment in the country at the very time it is most needed. News Limited boss John Hartigan said the laws eroded the “basic tenets of democracy” in Fiji. “This illegal government has retrospectively withdrawn permission for foreign media investment in Fiji, which is not only grossly unfair but will inevitably be enormously damaging to Fiji’s reputation as an attractive investment opportunity,” he said.

The Fijian media regulator said the country’s media needs to be a part of the regime not an opponent. Former Canberra-based academic Satendra Nandan, chair of the Media Industry Development Authority, said action needed to be taken against newspapers such as The Fiji Times, which had acted against the Bainimarama government. Nandan told The Australian the Times’ coverage of the scrapping of the judiciary and constitution last year was “abusive and scurrilous”. “The Fiji Times took a strong stand against the current government and the abrogation of the constitution and they didn’t consider the national interest,” Nandan said.

The New Zealand Herald says the media laws are part of an ongoing removal of Fijians’ rights including quashing the constitution, removing dissent and empty promises on a new election. With 60 percent of Fiji’s tourist income coming from New Zealand and Australia, the Herald suggest the time is right to reconsider holiday plans in Fiji. “Tourists might like to say that Fijian businesses and jobs should not be penalised for the sins of the regime,” the paper said. “But they are undermining their own country’s diplomatic efforts.”

What if they gave an election and nobody came?

Australia will get the government it deserves when the country goes to the polls on 21 August. For five weeks democracy temporarily ceases to opaque as people are reminded on a daily basis someone wants their vote.

Marginal seats will be the subject of extraordinary promises. There will be endless and persuasive marketing. Most will be on television where the masses still congregate but increasingly much is migrating to the social web where there is less control (though with imagination and humour, as Old Spice proved, it can be a successful strategy). The Government and the Opposition will spend vast amounts of money to convince the small number of swinging or disaffected voters their candidate ought to be elected.

The parties shill to a small number because the rest don’t matter. Seats with large majorities won’t change hands regardless of who wins. There are other external factors parties cannot control. The donkey vote is real and top placement on the ballot can be the margin of victory in a tight race. So too is happiness unrelated to politics which can make a person punish or reward the incumbent. And as the Sex Party notes, it doesn’t matter who you say you vote for when it gets to the unpredictability of what actually happens when it’s just you and a pen in the voting booth.

Predicting elections is not entirely impossible. If it was, pollsters would go out of business. Good polls are usually right to within 3 percent and the current polls, and the bookmakers predict a narrow win for Julia Gillard and the Labor party. That margin of error means an Abbott win is not out of the question with a targeted marginal seat strategy.

It doesn’t matter who wins, it is what they do in parliament that counts with the ugly sausage-making of changing and making of laws. In the US, Obama is proving a master at this by making left-liberals and conservatives alike hate him for being “always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.”

Both parties here will also go for half the loaf. Gillard will obviously want more of the left of the loaf than Abbott – but only by a few crumbs. When the new Prime Minister took Labor to the right with her revised immigration policy, almost 70 percent of voters approved. Gillard may personally want looser immigration rules, gay marriage and bigger taxes on mining companies. But while the majority of the people she needs the vote of do not, she is not going to step far ahead. Otherwise, she knows she’s toast.

It is not just a conservative electorate Gillard must deal with, there is also a hyper-sensitive media. If her Government was to step too far to the left, it would be demonised by soapboxes in the press and talkback radio. Television is too simple to need shock jocks or op-eds; it rules by eight minute blocks squeezed between advertisements where everything is reduced to pious homilies like “moving forward” and “working families” and “great big new tax”.

That leaves the untamed frontier of the Internet. Research shows that the brands that dominate the web are the same ones that dominate other media channels. In Australia most people get their online news from News Ltd, Channel Nine, the ABC and Fairfax. The big portals such as Google are complicating the picture but like the big newspapers in the 1890s, they are finding they can make more money by being impartial.

The radicals are still out there on newsletters, blogs and social media. But with no trust or brand awareness, they will be far from the networks of power. Journalists (and their editors) decide who is in the news and the politicians they talk to in front of the camera, mic or pen, collude to set a narrow agenda that keeps most topics firmly off the agenda, Facebook and Twitter notwithstanding.

As I’ve written before, this collusion of cosy mutual interest is the biggest threat to the health of democracy. The Gettysburg Address is a half decent stab at defining democracy with its notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

While “the people” might have been an identifiable concept in Lincoln’s time, it does not make much sense 150 years later. There is no such thing as the people, there are just people. A government of people by people and for people is too amorphous and tricky to manage. Every person is placid and contrary, irascible and content, malleable and intractable, driven and bored. It’s hard enough to please one person, a democracy that tries to please everyone is doomed to fail.

Democracy is indeed the worst form of government apart from all the others. As rotten and stinking as it is, there is nothing better waiting in the wings to take its place. So if it can’t be replaced, it’s got to be fixed.

There is a role for journalism here, or rather many roles. There needs to be more muck-rakers hunting down corruption, more fourth estate reporting on and commenting on the goings on of government, parliament and the courts, and more lobbying on behalf of those with legitimate grievances by asking questions to those who have the power to affect these grievances.

The problem for journalism is that most journalists are employed by corporate media. The single biggest threat to democracy is the corporation itself with its profit motive subsuming all other motives to the fatal detriment of the body politic. That means large numbers of lobbyists, PR flacks and lawyers working only to make more money for their company. People who don’t see society, only consumers.

Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott will be address this problem, nor indeed even admit this is the problem. If they were somehow foolish enough to stray off-message and be honest about it or even allude to it, the media would be there to gleefully humiliate them as someone who made a terrible “gaffe”.

Nevertheless until corporate greed is made to serve the public good, then democracy will continue to become as bad as all the other systems Churchill didn’t like. And “the people” will continue to treat both politicians and the media that serve them, with contempt.

Bernard Keane on the probability of a content-free election campaign.
Stilgherrian on how the media will report it.
Guy Beres on the dumbing down of Federal politics.
Mark Bahnisch on the parties’ opening salvoes.
Gary Sauer-Thompson on the importance of Queensland and NSW.

Journalists and politicians: A double danger to democracy

Journalists share an uneasy yet cosy relationship with politicians with both using media for their own ends, neither of which usually serve the public good. That these relationships pose many difficulties was shown again in two incidents in the last 24 hours.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ apparently off the record incendiary remarks at a Sydney speech were noted by a journalist and spilled into the public record today. In a second incident, NSW politician Barry O’Farrell accidentally sent a journalist a Twitter open reply that was meant to be a Direct Message. Both incidents cast unsavoury light on relationships governing journalists and their political sources.

Evans’ troubles began when he was keynote speaker at a University of NSW-Harvard University conference on immigration. The event was publicly advertised and listed on wire agency AAP’s diary with television cameras invited to capture his latest comments on the debate over asylum seekers. However Evans wanted to change the rules. He said he would do a quick media “doorstop” on arrival and asked for a closed session where he could speak frankly to academics about the issues. The term “doorstop” is illuminating because it prevents a door from opening too widely. Evans knew he could give a brief and uninformative response before dealing with the meat of the issue without prying journalists.

2UE journalist Matt de Groot was late arriving and knew nothing about the change of plan. He was ushered into the room where he heard Evans talk honestly about the asylum debate which he said was killing the Government. Evans also admitted radio talkback shock jocks were deliberately promoting misinformation to stoke up a xenophobic reaction in their listeners.

At the end of the debate, de Groot approached Evans’ media adviser for an interview with the Minister. The adviser was horrified and told de Groot the speech would not look good for the minister if reported and was off the record anyway. De Groot insisted he would report what he heard. Evans’ minders told the journalist if he did so, he would be acting unethically.

De Groot took the “publish and be damned” path approach, but it was Evans who was mostly damned today. I almost feel sorry for Evans punished for plain speaking but he has only himself to blame when the rules break down. Crikey’s editorial today put it best: “The moment your government promises a ‘frank, open, honest national conversation on the issues of border protection and asylum seekers’ then they must tell it like it is to everyone, not just a select group of officials.”

The O’Farrell slip-up was a different category error though it also involved a 2UE reporter and a senior politician. NSW Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell was sending a Direct Message to the Canberra Press Gallery journalist Latika Bourke. “Deeply off the record – I think the timetable & struggle to get candidates reflects internal poll – pre & post the ranga.” Translated, it meant the Liberals were struggling to attract quality candidates to stand for the forthcoming Federal Election and the ascension of Julia Gillard (the “ranga”) to the role of Prime Minister has made no difference.

But to O’Farrell’s horror the message was not as deeply off the record as he would have liked – he accidentally chose the Twitter reply option rather than DM making the message visible to his 3,548 followers online at the time. O’Farrell quickly realised his error and deleted the offending tweet. It was too late having been re-tweeted at least nine times and captured as a screenprint by Tally Room blogger Ben Raue.

The media immediately seized on the “gaffe”. The Australian chose to highlight the unflattering nickname of Gillard as the ranga, (from “orangutan” referring to Gillard’s red hair) though any number of commentators have gotten away with this moniker using humour as a cloak – with Gillard herself often seeing the funny side.

No one picked up on why O’Farrell should decide to illuminate journalist Bourke in this manner. The familiar tone suggested they had done this before. Forget the “ranga”, why are the Liberals’ preselection woes “deeply off the record”? Politicians use the “off the record” tag to get damaging material off their chest without suffering the consequences. Journalists, ever protective of their access to senior politicians, collude in this game and the public suffers. As Wendy Bacon and Chris Nash wrote in 1999 “journalists should commit themselves to confidentiality only in the pursuit of the public right to information and generally should seek to place as much information on the record in ways that are verifiable.”