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Federal

Nov 22, 2016

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Senators Bridget McKenzie and John Williams

With unerring timing, the conservative wing of the Coalition has delivered another blow to Malcolm Turnbull, but this time the cause isn’t mere mischief-making, but open panic within the ranks of the National Party at the rise of One Nation.

Last night two National senators, Bridget McKenzie and John Williams, defied the government to vote in support of a motion by far-right NSW Senator David Leyonhjelm to disallow regulations prohibiting the importation of the lever-action Adler shotgun, the subject of a major blow-up between Turnbull and Tony Abbott when Parliament last met. Worse, three government ministers, deputy Nationals leader Fiona Nash, beleaguered Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and vocal abortion opponent Matt Canavan, refused to vote for the government position and simply didn’t show up; not a single Nationals senator voted with the government. One Nation also supported the motion.

[Abbott and Turnbull take turns throwing the other under the bus]

The Nationals’ rebellion on a subject of acute sensitivity within the Coalition overshadowed the government’s success (bizarrely trumpeted as a “massive win”) in managing the passage of a bill cracking down on trade union governance, although the fate of its Australian Building and Construction Commission bill remains unclear. To further inflame matters, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce endorsed his colleagues’ actions in rebelling this morning.

It comes just over a week after the Nationals’ vote collapsed in the NSW state seat of Orange, where a 30+% swing against the Nationals ekected a Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate. NSW Deputy Premier and Nationals leader Troy Grant resigned in the wake of the result. Coincidentally, federal Attorney-General George Brandis — in yet another addition to his glittering career of screw-ups — was revealed to have attacked his own Liberal National Party colleagues in Queensland and predicted One Nation “will win quite a few seats in the state election”.

[George Brandis and the struggle for competence]

The days of Tim Fischer bravely backing John Howard on gun control are long gone. The Nationals are terrified of One Nation and shifting to the far right in a panic.

In doing so, they are not merely humiliating Malcolm Turnbull but have detached themselves from one of the strongest bipartisan issues in Australian politics. Since the Port Arthur massacre, strict gun control has been a subject of national consensus, contested only by a few on the lunatic fringe of politics. Just 6% of voters think current laws are “too strong“, while 44% believe they should be strengthened further; another 45% believe they’re appropriately strict now. The Nationals are thus allying themselves with the 6%, not the 89%, and on an issue where weakening regulation has a real impact on lives lost to misuse of firearms — especially in rural communities.

The Nationals have already dragged the Liberals toward them: Barnaby Joyce’s hostility to Chinese investment has now been formalised into government policy, and a massive farmer handouts scheme, disguised as “concessional loans”, has been established by Joyce. Queensland LNP MP George Christensen, who sees himself as the de facto leader of the far-right rump on the backbench, wants more protectionism and a ban on all 457 visa workers. But on the evidence so far, the Nationals will have to shift a long way further over to the right to forestall the One Nation surge — or find a way to argue for the effectiveness of Liberal policies.

News

Oct 19, 2016

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“We all have feelings of inferiority that become a motivating factor for us to develop skills, talents, and ways of overcoming our sense of inadequacy. Feelings of inferiority can give rise to genius. Unfortunately, they can also give rise to neuroses and problems in daily living when they are overwhelming or when we attempt to hide them rather than face them courageously. Adler believed that courage was the answer to many of the problems of living.” — http://www.alfredadler.org/

Perhaps some innovative, agile political science student should do a thesis on the bushfire-like behaviour of political bungles — how stuff-ups not merely pose a threat in themselves, but they can produce other stuff-ups that suddenly erupt in other areas of a government from a stray spark. In that case, the Turnbull government will furnish plenty of evidence. Yesterday Turnbull managed, with the diligence of a castaway trying to make fire, to turn a tiny, barely flickering flame of an issue — the Adler shotgun — into a roaring bonfire that rapidly consumed his ambitions of making industrial relations his new political centrepiece.

And despite getting the fire under control late yesterday, this morning, spot fires were breaking out well away from the main front as National and Liberal MPs emerged to support the loosening of laws to allow the importation of the Adler shotgun that was fueling the whole thing.

Of course, to continue and labour the metaphor (at least I’m not using shooting imagery), the whole thing was helped by Tony Abbott pouring a generous helping of petrol on things — that’s the Abbott famous for his firefighting, the prime minister who declared the budget emergency was over even if they hadn’t actually done anything because the mere arrival of the fire brigade improved things. Via Twitter — that’s “electronic graffiti” to the uninformed — Abbott, knowing full well guns had already become the issue du jour, decided to proffer his concerns about any relaxation of guns laws, contrary to his own position when prime minister, when he was happy to trade away the Adler shotgun ban to secure Senate wingnut David Leyonhjelm’s vote.

But as we’ve seen over and over again, Abbott’s a “do as I say not as I did” kind of guy on the backbench: whether it’s 18C or spending restraint or Safe Schools or the Malaysian Solution, Tony will lament that you’re not doing the opposite of what he did when in power.

Abbott was merely an opportunist, however; the real problem was Turnbull’s inability to flat-out say that the shotgun ban would remain, preferring instead to repeat that the Howard government’s gun control laws would not be watered down, a piece of lawyerly artifice that didn’t quite do the trick. And, reminded that the fate of the Adler remained in the hands of Commonwealth, state and territory ministers, National Party MPs — they’re often slow on the uptake, that lot — decided to offer their own views. First NSW Deputy Premier Troy Grant, then federal Nationals, even a WA Liberal, the man with golden Rolex, Ian “Not Quite” Goodenough.

Turnbull, desperate to talk about union thuggery and the ABCC bill, must be pulling what’s left of his hair out — especially after Bill Shorten bizarrely gave the Coalition a perfect opportunity to discuss his union links with his support for Labor hack Kimberley Kitching to take Stephen Conroy’s Senate spot. But no, keep the conversation on the idea the Coalition wants to allow more guns into the country, guys, not to mention confirming the narrative that the Prime Minister is hostage to the right within his party.

If nothing else, Turnbull is now clear — if he ever had any doubt, which is unlikely — that Tony Abbott will say anything, exploit any issue, to undermine him, even if it means reversing his own position from when he was prime minister. As Adler suggested, courage is the answer to many of the problems of living, Malcolm. Take courage.

Comments & corrections

Jun 16, 2016

5 comments

Fred Nile ruins it for everyone

Keith Binns writes: Re. “Tips and rumours” (yesterday). With all due respect to Tips and Rumours I object to the heading “How to vote, according to the Christians”. I’m a Christian and I’ll be voting Green and cannot discuss Fred Nile without reaching for a bucket. The lumping together of all Christians as far right in the media has led to a lumping of them all together in the popular imagination which is very frustrating. One of the great joys of joining the Refugee Action Committee’s activities in Canberra has been finding a group of people who aren’t Christians who don’t automatically assume I am a homophobic, Islamophobic, misogynist prick. The Faith Based Working Group of RAC is the biggest group, consisting of Christians, Jews, Muslims etc etc working together for a common humanitarian goal.

On US gun laws

Ian Lowe writes: Re. “The politics of hatred” (yesterday). Just to point out the bleeding obvious after the Orlando shootings: since the Sandy Hook massacre of school-children there have been 998 shootings causing death in the USA. Two of them have involved shooters who were identifiably Muslim. Several hundred involved the sort of weapons that have no place in a civil society. Oh yes, and 998 of the shooters were male.  So is the most serious problem Islam, or should more attention be given to ludicrous gun laws or masculinity?

Australia

Oct 6, 2015

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On Friday in Crikey, my occasional houseguest Guy Rundle put John Howard to use as a gun control ambassador. To concede that Howard was good for anything noble could not have been a pleasant thing to do. But, just as Rundle swallows my awful lasagne, he swallowed his loathing for Howard. Momentary discomfort is justified if it saves an American life, or your hostess’ feelings.

In a piece that is substantially better than all of my cooking, Rundle notes that the Second Amendment is as antique as the smooth bore rifles whose ownership it defends. This is a good argument and one US advocates for a much-needed gun control routinely make. This was part of a constitution that described an infant state exposed to attack. The US, of course, grew up to become a beautiful, heavily armed invulnerable sexy hegemon, and to argue that its citizens, who have the unfortunate habit of killing each other both accidentally and with intent, have a “right” to firearms is a bit like arguing for the “right” to scurvy. It was an unpleasant affliction that citizens were once forced to endure and need suffer no longer.

There is not one thing wrong with this kind of argument. Of course, there are plenty of arguments for gun control, the most notable one being the widespread fact of grisly death. But, for mine, there’s a certain appeal, even beyond the issue of a very decent fight like that for gun control, in looking at other stupid, old ideas. The continued enshrinement of an old “right” when the evidence of its harm is clear is a habit even of gun-controlled Australians.

In recent years, one treasurer has called his taxpayers “entitled” and another has urged them to “work, save, invest”. Let’s set aside the fact that Australians, now facing historic downturn in financial and social wealth, are less “entitled” than they have been in some time but are managing to “work, save, invest” in large numbers nonetheless and think about the intellectual age of these slogans. They go back to the time to, say, about 1789 — the year the Second Amendment was ratified.

Actually, they’re a little older than that. John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government was written precisely one century before, but it took his biggest fan and plagiarist Thomas Jefferson a few years to read it. Here, we can see the beginnings of a persistent idea that the state, which Locke doesn’t much fancy, must exist principally to protect private property. “Men,” says Locke, “have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth”. Which, frankly, is an idea he pulled out of his arse. Still, it’s a foundational idea on which the modern liberal state still stands.

In his engaging study Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, political economist Mark Blyth traces to Locke the beginning of the liberal dilemma favoured by former treasurer Hockey and other “small government” enthusiasts, “The state: can’t live with it, can’t live without it, don’t want to pay for it.” In short, the state exists only to serve the moral agreement men have, apparently, made for unequal possession. To demand a more equal possession is to disturb natural order, you entitled bastards. We will subsidise investors, mining and private health insurance industries and the rest of you naturally unequal people can get nicked.

It’s true that Scott Morrison is a more modern liberal than Hockey, but not by that much. His work, save, invest strategy comes to us from 1776. Adam Smith’s prescription of parsimony informs the current Treasurer, just as it continues to inform many European governments.

Of course, the age of an idea doesn’t necessarily impede its usefulness over time. The scientific method is still pretty useful, and it’s pretty hard to make a good argument against the usefulness of The Golden Rule. The Second Amendment, perhaps not baseless at the time of its ratification, certainly became much worse than useless. But the idea of the state as a means to maintain inequality — and both Locke and Smith explicitly describe its function thus — was probably shit from the get-go.

Irrational fear of government debt, moralising parsimony and the peculiar idea that citizens should save at the same time governments do are not ideas that have always been in fashion. Unlike the Second Amendment, this 18th-century nonsense has been discarded for long periods. But we’ve picked them up from time to time and despite hard evidence that austerity is a sure route to bust, we just can’t currently leave these principles alone.

Screwing people at the bottom half of income distribution doesn’t actually work to stimulate an economy. Let’s even leave aside the fact that such measures have begun to kill people in developed economies more painfully and slowly than firearms and say what economic textbooks have begun to reflect: making the poor poorer diminishes GDP. Wayne Swan understood that inequality is a condition of capitalism, but the sort of inequality his successors are promoting will screw it up.

There is little that is neo about neoliberalism. It’s a fossil of a dangerous idea.

My lasagne is the fossil of old Women’s Weekly cooking. Still. Rundle can eat it again knowing that it only presents mild danger. It’s not very good, but it’s not as potentially fatal as a Second Amendment or neoliberal economics.

United States

Oct 2, 2015

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Still across the border in Windsor, Canada, where the idea of thinking about one’s safety on the street is ridiculous, your correspondent came back to the Days Inn, turned on CNN from across the river, to see that there had been another gun massacre in the US. Oregon this time, at least 10 dead at a community college just south of Portland, another seven injured, with the possibility that more will die of their wounds. The shooter, killed by police, was a 20-year-old male.

There are various reports: that he invaded classrooms, made people stand up and say their religion and then shot them down, that he posted various plans on 4Chan, and was egged on by other posters, but not much more than that. An hour later, President Barack Obama appeared on all channels to give a press conference of visible anger, pointing out that he had done this many times before, that he would probably do it again, that most gun owners agree with the sort of laws — mandatory background checks, and a few other things — that the NRA fights tooth-and-nail against, and that they should put pressure on their representatives and their congresspeople.

But of course there is no chance of anything happening. The NRA’s power is monumental, the Congress is rock solid, and Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court has taken a particularly open interpretation of the second amendment as regards gun-control laws. People who agree with “background checks” in one survey will agree that “they’re trying to take our guns” in another, and on it goes.

Despite the claim by the SCOTUS majority that it is simply interpreting the original intent of the drafters of the Second Amendment, the laws are absurd. Semi-automatics that load like machine guns are fine, but, for example, over-the-shoulder rocket launchers are banned. Why? Because the founders didn’t anticipate the latter — so it does not count as a form of “arms” one has the right to bear — but a rifle that can load 700 rounds a minute is analogous to a front-loading musket. This is political ouija-boardism disguised as constitutionality.

This dilemma is for the people of America to work out, and good luck to them. They have a dual problem: the sheer plethora of firearms, together with a political-cultural framework that has pumped atomisation, isolation and a notion of winner-and-loser values to unparalleled status among a class of mostly young, white men (there are few Hispanic random shooters, and almost no black ones). In Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore pointed to the paradox that Canada had, if not as many firearms as the US, quite a lot of them, but only one massacre a decade, if that. Why the divergence? Moore put it down to the political divergence, that Canada was a social democratic society with a stronger sense of social solidarity with strangers who were fellow citizens. It is wounded white men who often specify women, “political correctness” etc as the cause of their woes. But notably, they usually don’t target such groups specifically. The massacre is a general one, against society a a whole.

But it has soared well beyond that since then. The numbers of guns have soared in the US, and so too has the atomisation. All advanced societies have become frighteningly isolated for all but a privileged elite, but the US has become a wasteland of dead burbs, dead malls, online shopping and chatrooms. The paradox is that such a society needs more gun control, not less, while it sorts itself out. It’s the countries with responsible gun control systems, such as Sweden, that, culturally, have far less need for them. When there are massacres — such as two in two years in Finland — they don’t start a chain. Or they are acts of focused terrorism such as Anders Breivik’s right-wing attack on left-wing students at Utoya.

In that respect, Australia is more like the US than it is like Canada. Massacres tend to occur in settler-capitalist societies, because massacre is simply encoded in the history — the more brutal the process, the more likely an extended aftermath. In the ’80s and ’90s, we were starting to head towards one massacre a year, with the “firecracker effect” taking over, one massacre kindling the next. Then Port Arthur, and then gun control — an all-party effort, but led by John Howard, against his own right. And no massacres — no truly random ones — since. No parallel process, of similar cultures, Australia and the US, could have been clearer — taking gun numbers down, and certain types of gun out of circulation. With gun numbers remorselessly rising, and with Senator David Leyonhjelm doing deals to get fast-loading shotguns made legal, we will get our next new massacre in the future, and the cycle will begin again.

In the interim, two proposals: the first is that one of the few people who could really talk to the American right about gun numbers and massacres and what makes a difference is … John Howard. His status in the US, among a certain coterie, is — one shudders to admit it, but it’s true — only just below that of Churchill. He’s the leader they wanted Dubya to be. Someone like David Frum, or anyone else on the right keen on gun control, should organise a speaking tour of the US. And Howard should do it, if he cares as much about the US as he claims to. Sometimes harsh truths are the currency of friendship. Whether he would have the courage to go against many of the slavering lunatics who constitute his fanbase.

The second is that there is going to have to be some pre-emptive campaign around gun control at home, targeted against the Leyonhjelms et al, and driving a wedge between those people who are of the right, but who nevertheless look on the American situation with horror. The gun lobby in Australia has nothing like the power of the US lobby, and most of its most public figures are distinctly odd and unappealing individuals. Indeed, the strongest argument against such a campaign is that it may give these people credibility that they don’t have.

And I’m no proponent of a gun-free society — the state shouldn’t have a monopoly on such means of violence. But our settings are right, and have been proved to be so. It may be time for a high-profile campaign to remind people of the bullets we have dodged over the past two decades, and what that has meant for our society. Gun massacres don’t kill anything like the number of people killed by car accidents or other means. Yet the effect on the whole society is demoralising in the extreme, turns the whole of public space into an armed camp, and drives people further inward to private existence. Canada doesn’t have it, and it is a not significant part of a fundamentally different mood either side of the border. We don’t have it, we don’t want it, and we should push back hard against the possibility of it.

crikey15

Jul 16, 2015

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“A spectre is haunting America”, began last week’s retch by the National Rifle Association, and it seems odd that a largely ultra-Republican group should upchuck an unreferenced scramble to the Communist Manifesto. But the misuse of Karl Marx only seems odd for a moment. To read this screed by a gun-toting organisation with Australia in its sights is to be lost in a polluted field where words are no longer reliably hitched to meaning. In a plea for deregulation of Australian gun controls, language itself is deregulated by the NRA. Here, you can borrow one of socialist literature’s best-known sentences and use it for your own ultra-conservative project. And then, you can accuse the Australian government of giving its laws “Orwellian” descriptions when what you yourself have done, here and elsewhere, is commit an utterly Orwellian newspeak.

The name chosen for law passed by the Howard government following the 1996 Port Arthur shootings was, claims the NRA, Orwellian. The National Firearms Agreement, which was met by widespread national agreement on firearms, is, apparently, as misleadingly applied as the newspeak word for “free”. If you’re confused enough not to understand, that’s the point of newspeak when it’s used by the NRA, the government of Orwell’s Oceania or anyone. In an attempt to clarify: we unfree Australians are being deluded by a legislative change that did exactly what it said it would do. So, in this case, “Orwellian” means “to describe things accurately to the electorate”.

Words are no longer hitched to meaning for the NRA and, as is also the case in 1984, conclusions are no longer dependent on facts. The erroneously named National Firearms Agreement, an agreement on firearms with which the nation overwhelmingly agreed, was not free. Instead, says the NRA, its cost was “a massive price in liberty”. Selecting a range of Australian gun death statistics and moments of local protest with a partial care that shames even the best cherry picker, the post, “Australia: There Will Be Blood”, is a Ministry of Truth moment. It’s newspeak, and it’s also violent propaganda. If written by a foreign Muslim organisation, this horrifying nonsense would be immediately subject to local terror laws, and its representatives would be banned from visiting Australia faster than Snoop Dogg.

The American freedom to promote the antiquated Second Amendment is upheld by recourse to a much more admirable First and so, those US citizens who retain an interest in not dying horribly can do little to hush the National Rifle Association. When the powerful organisation advances its case with slogans like “Guns don’t kill people, people do”, even in the face of Newtown or Charleston or Columbine, where maximum killing efficiency was clearly achieved with guns, Americans are forced to listen. When the NRA brings its lunacy to analysis of Australia, though, it’s tempting to champion our lack of a bill of rights and shut these online terrorists up with a bit of deep-packet inspection.

Of course, to those of us who read and were duly warned by Orwell, such censorship is abhorrent. Yes, even for an armed and foreign lobby group that seeks to impose its will and its law on our nation. We cannot ethically stop them from speaking, even if our local anti-terror laws might demand it.

But perhaps what we should do is send them a copy of 1984 so that they can read, as others have, a work that cautions against the inept imposition of foreign law on sovereign nations, of the danger intrinsic to machines and of using absolute bullshit to advance a case.

If there is anything “Orwellian” here, it is the language of the NRA, which redefines “liberty” to mean the right to wield pump-action power, “growing consensus” to mean a few especially loud nutters and the term “Orwellian” itself to mean unusually frank political discussion. But we can’t blame the NRA entirely for its tendency to conceal meaning, because just about everybody’s doing it.

Detaching words from their usual order has long been a tactic of the powerful and in his popular 1989 work on the practice, Doublespeak, US English professor William Lutz shows how even the ancients used language to deceive. Writing of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC, Thucydides was careful to describe acts of cowardice as “courage”. Describing a brutal massacre at Gaul, Julius Caesar used the term “pacification”. Newspeak isn’t especially new, but it has certainly become more common and is now hardly limited to protecting the interests of government.

Newspeak can be used by news organisations in the service of their prominence. Andrew Bolt, of course, does it often and loves to claim that social disadvantage is actually social advantage. And then, when he’s been both broadly published and read, he claims, on the front page of the Herald Sun, that he is being “silenced” even as he is shouting loudly to the largest possible audience. Recently, we read Mark Latham describe Rosie Batty as a tool of “left-feminist” agenda and not, as she plainly is in speech and as Latham likely knows her to be, an independent advocate who often concedes to her lack of familiarity with both feminism and politics.

There is perhaps no more curious and blatant moment of newspeak than that which had Rupert Murdoch describing his media competitors as “elites”. Those news organisations that dared criticise his own are not, in Murdoch’s description, smaller companies punching above their weight but powerful and privileged bullies picking on the little guys of News Corp.

There’s a spectre haunting public conversation, and it is the spectre of newspeak. We will not be unfree until we pay the high price of liberty and restore the Second Amendment rights of Australians who, to be truly unfree, must accept the law of the United States as their own. Or something. I can make little sense of all this because there is no sense to make. Save for the fact that there is one moment for which I remember Howard fondly and that is when he forced us to pay the “high price” of living with a diminished fear of bloody death.

Tips and rumours

Jul 13, 2015

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Loopholes more like gaping holes. Here’s yet another example of how our Commonwealth political donation disclosure laws are rubbish. Controversial mining company Whitehaven Coal gave a total of $20,000 in two lots to the federal Liberal Party after the 2013 federal election. The company then reported the donations to the AEC. Did the Liberal Party report the donations from the company now chaired by former Nationals leader Mark Vaile? No. The donation is missing from the party’s 2013-14 donations declaration — and justifiably, because under Commonwealth laws, a party doesn’t have to report any donation under the disclosure threshold (now $13,000), even if the total of donations from the same donor to the same party exceeds the threshold in a single financial year. Only the donor needs to report them. So you can give a branch of a political party as much money as you like, and as long as each donation is below the threshold, the party doesn’t have to mention it. Of course, you might point out that as long as the donor has to reveal it, it’s OK. Except for all the foreign donors who don’t bother filing a return to the AEC because, well, what are they going to do about it?

More selfies than a teenager’s Instagram. How many photos of a politician can you fit in one newsletter? We think Michael Sukkar, the federal Liberal MP in the marginal Victorian seat of Deakin, may have set a record with his latest effort. A tipster sent us a link to Sukkar’s six-page winter newsletter, which features a total of 49 photos of the MP with various constituents in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. While Sukkar’s face is unavoidable, one mug that is missing is that of Prime Minister Tony Abbott — and his name doesn’t get a mention once. Our tipster also pointed out the lack of mention of the Liberal Party, thinking that it could mean that Sukkar was avoiding the reference to his party, but MPs and senators aren’t allowed to reference their parties in communications paid for under their parliamentary entitlements. No conspiracy there, but these photos just scream “most marginal seat in Victoria”:

 

If you receive a newsletter that beats Sukkar’s 49 photos, let us know.

Advice we don’t need. America’s 1st Freedom, a publication of the National Rife Association of America — staunch defenders of the second amendment and believers in guns above all else — has published a letter warning against America following Australia’s example on gun laws. Titled “Australia: there will be blood”, it claims that the 1996 buyback of guns gave us only “an unexamined resolution that things were somehow better now”:

“This is the gun-control regime that our president applauds for its decisive resolve. It robbed Australians of their right to self-defense and empowered criminals, all without delivering the promised reduction in violent crime. Australia’s gun confiscation is indeed a lesson to America: It is a sign of what is to come if we hold our rights lightly.

“Somehow better now”, is how they refer to the 59% drop in homicides by guns in the 10 years following, and 65% drop in suicides with firearms.

The eye of the storm. The eastern states have shivered through some of the coldest July days on record, with snow, hail and rain leaving many of us wishing we were also stuck in Bali. Of course, these events need to have a catchy name for the media — and this one has ended up with “Antarctic Vortex”, which is quite punchy. But it turns out that the term isn’t really a scientific thing — according to Sharri Markson in today’s Media Diary, it was made up by News Corp journo Anthony Sharwood on Friday. Sharwood spent the weekend tracking and bagging news organisations that used his word — because it’s his word right, no one else is allowed to use it. Markson also took aim at Fairfax for using the phrase. Unfortunately, no one told Strewth second-stringer Christian Kerr that the term was out of bounds, or are only News Corp journos allowed?

One for the ladies. This was spotted at the Bull and Mouth pub in Horsham, Victoria, by a tipster — where “ladies” get a separate menu item. We’re not sure if the cheaper parma (or parmie for those in the northern states) is because the serving is smaller, or a reference to the gender pay gap, but we’re choosing to believe the latter.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Australia

Dec 19, 2014

5 comments

Well that’s it for Senator David Leyonhjelm, what a pity. You look at the field and try to pick a rational right-winger, but they always disappoint, they always disappoint.

I had high hopes for Leyonhjelm, too. Didn’t agree with a lot of his stuff, obviously, but was never going to. And the Skeletor-on-a-Harley image was a bit disconcerting.

But he kicked off with a same-sex marriage act, and said some good things about drug laws, and supported moves in Parliament to hold the government to account.

But there it is. His recent remarks on gun laws show that he is more part of the delusional Right than the rational Right, pursuing politics in the interest of rounding out fantasy rather than making policy.

If Leyonhjelm wants to support open gun ownership, fair enough. He should do so on the grounds of fundamental right, and damn the consequences. That would affirm the purity of libertarian politics.

It would also gain no traction in an Australia that stopped being a freewheeling, lethal frontier society some time ago and is now mostly the Sweden of the South Pacific. We’re comfortable with the notion of collective freedoms, gained by the limiting of some individual ones.

So Leyonhjelm has to find a utilitarian rationale that cuts with that grain. So there is the argument that a savvy gun owner carrying a concealed weapon could have brought the Lindt cafe siege to a stop. “This wouldn’t have happened in Texas, Vermont or Florida,” Leyonhjelm remarked, choosing places with very open gun laws.

But of course it could, and it does. As workplace and random civilian massacres began to gather pace in the US during the ’80s and ’90s, so too did the demand for closed-carry and open-carry permits for guns, and a ban on banning places where they could be carried. This had an immediate result — massacres got more frequent, more random, and none were stopped by civilian gun carriers.

Thus Texas, in 1991, gained concealed carry after the 1991 Luby’s massacre, in which 24 people were gunned down in a restaurant. Since then it has had two more random massacres, in 1995 and 1999, with six and eight murders (and many smaller ones, of course). A Mother Jones interactive map shows where the major massacres have been, and this timeline shows the endless roll-call of mass shootings across the United States.

But of courses, massacres may well have been prevented, and they wouldn’t appear on the table, right? Well, no. The gun lobby can only find a half-dozen or so massacres where civilians fired back, and in most of them, the gunmen appears to have already stopped and/or the intervening people were security personnel.

And of course we know that getting guns out of circulation reduces or practically abolishes massacres, because we are the experiment that proved it. Before and after Port Arthur is as clear an example as you need.

So Leyonhjelm’s assertion is contradicted by all the evidence. Why does he continue to advance it? He is either a) lying, b) wilfully misinformed or c) delusional.

I am leaning towards the last of these.

Leyonhjelm’s non-rational side is, after all, a bubbling stew of threatened masculinity. He’s always talking about dicks and growing a pair (now cockusing with Jacqui Lambie), comparing himself to Chopper Read for example. The gun obsession is psych 101, which is why he suggests anyone who wants less of them around has a disorder with a Latin name. It is all in service to a mythical idea of self, which is the case with a lot of flat-tax-comb-over right wing libertarianism.

The truly courageous thing would be to argue the real libertarian case, which is that the price of freedom is excess deaths, not sucking up to the idea of risk minimisation to try and smuggle your argument through.

That’s pathetic. And bound to fail. But they won’t do it. Because it would admit the gap between the public mood and their private fantasies, and if that were to occur, then there is no weaponry strong enough to defend it.

Cockusing! See what I did. God bless us one and all.

United States

Oct 28, 2014

5 comments

Guns and guns and guns in this huge space, a square room about 75 metres in each direction. Plain concrete flooring, plain beige walls, fluoros on high, the fading background of an expo centre. Trestle tables 20 by 20, aisles running beneath, back alleys and links, and spread along the most of them, guns, guns, guns. Rifles and shotguns in stand-up racks running for metres, pistols laid flat in their cases, semi-automatics on racks and cradles, their curved magazines slotted in.

Between the guns, knives. Tens upon thousands in glass cases, dainty flick, switch, butterfly with gaudy handles, neat working knives with plain bone handles, up to hunting knives, serrated edges, half a foot long, longer, brutal weapons. There are whole rows consisting of nothing but ammo stalls, piles of bullets, gleaming in clear baggies, there are gun repairers, disposal stores, with survivalist kits, home surgery kits, hand-powered generators, military rations and plain-covered manuals about how to stay hidden in the mountains. There’s a Susan G. Komen pink ribbon breast cancer stall and a couple of stalls selling pink pistols — money to the cause — and whole sections for lady gun owners, as well as a couple of jewellery and Body Shop-style places round the edges there for gals who aren’t pistol-packing mamas — there being more than a few of the latter, among the few hundred or so men circulating the room. The men divide, between tall, stacked and lean types in plain T-shirts and jeans and a whole lot of fat, old, bent and scraggly-hairy ones, who tend to favour military-style jackets and duck-hunting hats with anti-government buttons on the side.

The gals try out small snub-nose pistols, Berettas, etc, holstering and unholstering for practice, a few of the men are watching a guy strip and re-assemble a modified semi-automatic. “See. I like to use all the real estate of the gun,” one says to a crowd hanging on to his every word. This is a stall of modifieds, kept just within the legal limits — no machine guns — and he is clearly some sort of hero-figure. “So I can get a hundred rounds into this thing.” Later, I pick it up and hold it. It is a sort of sawn-off, half Kalashnikov, half Sten, light enough to wield with one hand, if you could get the hang of it, for all the situations where you need to fire off a hundred rounds without stopping in legitimate self-defence.

Talk wafts across the tables: “I got six of these different models, and I’m looking for a something something.” Six? Of the same make? How many guns does this guy own? An announcement comes across the PA. “The exhibition will be closing in 10 minutes, so if you’re going to buy a gun better do it now, so we’s can get the paperwork done.” Ten minutes is far more than you’ll need, because this is Kansas City, Missouri, a state where no background checks are required by “private gun sellers” — i.e. the branded businesses set up here — at gun shows and elsewhere. None at all. You can come here straight from Leavenworth prison down the road having done a 20-year stretch and pick up a pistol with the money they gave you to get back on the road. You can be off your meds for a week and wander out of the crisis clinic and be back on the street packing heat, in, well, less than 10 minutes. Many states are now trying to extend the background checks required of licensed gun sellers to all gun sales, and 15 states have done so. Missouri’s gone the other way, abolishing such a requirement in 2007. Since then, there have been 50 to 60 extra gun killings a year in the state. That is 350 dead, just over the total number of all murders in Australia in a year. But surrounded by the damn things, you can feel the intoxicating effect.

“Old ideas of isolationism are buried deep in the collective psyche, and the refusal of the CDC to impose a quarantine has caused dark muttering as to whether it’s America or Africa that Obama cares about more.”

The Kansas City knife and gun show — the knife sellers get antsy about being left out — is, unsurprisingly, no hotbed of Democratic support. There are signs — ”Biden ’15” and “Ebola” with the Obama round blue-and-red logo substituted for the “O” — that verge on the alarming, even the innocuous ones. “Stop Obama trashing the country,” one reads, but it is sandwiched next to a sign saying, simply, “Buy a Gun!”. The sheer, em, overshoot so many guns in the one place gives this place based around merchandise of the most real potential impact, a fantasy air, a touch of Comic-Con. The racks and racks of guns appear less a display than a set of walls against the world. That bit in The Matrix where all the guns appear at once out of nothingness — it’s all like that, something put up against the mundane world of Holiday Inns and car parks, freeways and Olive Gardens outside.

Given the overall clientele you think they’d be happy about the array of forces in the upcoming election. You’d be wrong. ‘”They ain’t worth a pinch of … y’ll have to excuse me, I won’t finish that sentence,” says Jim, behind his knives and camouflage backpacks.

The dissatisfaction is a measure not only of the general downturn towards politics on the Right — with the fading of the Tea Party, nothing that really expresses a transformative hope is on the agenda — but also perhaps a specific disappointment with the way that this election is going. For though things still look dire for the Democrats, and the Senate is most likely gone, they appear to be fighting back, inch by inch, one-tenth of a percentile by the next. That has been despite some extraordinary bad luck and bad handling of national affairs by the White House and the gaffe-prone nature of not a few Democratic candidates. Having entered the election with the Islamic State crisis dominating the news, and played on for fear value to the point where it is the question most aspiring congresspeople had to answer in TV interviews, those brutal ninjas gave way to Ebola about 10 days ago.

The CDC was unquestionably incompetent and indecisive, but much of the failure was at the state level. But it all got sheeted home to the President, and every states’ rights enthusiast suddenly becoming an advocate of big government. Ebola has hit the bullseye on every target you could want — distrust of government, distrust of science and experts, and finally, a belief that Obama is so internationalist that he would prefer to see Americans die than act to “secure the borders” by banning all entry of people flying from afflicted west Africa. In vain has the government pointed out that there are no direct flights from Ebola-hit west Africa, that other citizens coming in and out of west Africa through Lagos or Nairobi may be carriers, and that the best way to stop a global epidemic is to arrest it at the source. Old ideas of isolationism are buried deep in the collective psyche, and the refusal of the CDC to impose a quarantine has caused dark muttering as to whether it’s America or Africa that Obama cares about more.

The issue has gone live again by the decision of New Jersey governor Chris Christie to impose a quarantine on medical staff returning from west Africa — which resulted in a nurse hustled out of Newark airport to a hospital, where she was housed in a tent in the car park, with no heating, as “a precautionary measure”. Precautionary to Christie’s renewed election hopes, one imagines, but it has forced New York to follow suit, and it has simply made an end-run round the Democratic President. If the measures result in a fall in medical staff going to Africa, then it will simply make the situation worse, but that is a complicated argument to make.

And in fact, the Christie stand did not last long. After protests by aid groups, the general public, and after the nurse herself phoned CNN from her tent to point out that she had no symptoms and her current treatment was worse than being in Liberia, Christie — and Andrew Cuomo in New York — backed down, allowing her to leave for self-imposed period of self-monitoring at her family home in Maine. “Her conditions of quarantine remain in force,” Christie noted, keeping a straight face.

It’s another example of the limited effectiveness of many Republican political feints.

For all the Koch brothers’ money going into attack ads, the Republicans have stalled. In Kansas, just across the river from Kansas City, a deep-red state for half a century, both the GOP Senator Pat Roberts and Republican governor Sam Brownback are struggling. Roberts is fighting toe-to-toe with an independent — i.e. ex-Republican, mainstream — named Greg Orman, who is really running against Roberts because of the latter’s social conservatism. But the advertising on his behalf is largely targeting Roberts as a time-serving insider — how many meetings he missed, how many pay rises he voted for. The shots back the other way portray a vote for Orman as a vote for Obama, but that doesn’t seem to be frightening many people off, since Orman has said he won’t caucus with either party unless they remove their current Senate leaders. Brownback’s difficulties are even more interesting, because he is a hardcore Tea Partier who proudly announced  that the state would be an experiment and model for small-government-led prosperity. Result? He sacked thousands of public servants, slashed the tax base and spending — but attracted no new major business (it’s Kansas!) and sucked demand out of the economy. Kansas has thus fallen back into recession and had its credit downgraded. A beautifully simple ad has a hole in the ground in long focus, with dirt flying out and a shovel appearing and disappearing, as stats on the Brownback disaster scroll through. At the end, someone walks up and yells down it, “Hey, don’t you think you should stop digging?”. It seems a majority of Kansans believe so, and will vote for Paul Davis, a down-the-line Democrat, tied to Obamacare, amnesty for illegal aliens, etc, etc, come November 4.

“My own assessment of the Tea Party — whose thousands of groups are now mainly ghost sites on the internet — was that they died because much of it was fiction and fantasy, and the slow work of mass politics killed the fizz … “

That single result would show the tenuous position of the Republican Party, their false belief that they had won these states on cultural grounds and wouldn’t lose them back. It’s giving the Democrats hope that if the GOP lose Kansas and Georgia, the offset will be sufficient to hold the numbers in the upper house to 49-51, or 50-all. A victory in Georgia by Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of a former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, on some issues the most liberal member of the Senate in his era, would be an equally shocking upset, since it would bring forward the Democrats’ “new south” (or “new new south”) strategy, whereby North Carolina and Georgia are detached from the Republican South on the basis of shifting demographics — a black middle class moving there, new tech and finance sector jobs in the big cities, and a separation from the inland agrarian southern states, overly dependent on agriculture and small towns and cities. To take Georgia now would prepare it for 2016 — and to make it a key battleground state, should say, hmm, a southern woman, a southern white woman, be the candidate, that would all but destroy Republican hopes for the presidency.

So it’s nice and warm in the gun show, where these complexities don’t figure. Indeed there were a few stalls for political groups — though no Tea Party, a measure of their further decline — and I ran into a fairly lo-fi group called “Overpasses for America”. The name is no metaphor — these groups are coalesced around the activity of standing on freeway overpasses, holding up signs urging people to “impeach Obama”, “take back the country”, etc. That’s it. That’s all they do, every weekend or so. I’d seen them a day ago, on the route in — on a Greyhound bus that would have been their nightmare, rollicking, multi-hued and reeking of weed — about half a dozen of them braving the cold and indifference on an overpass from nowhere to not very much. At the gun show, they were cagey, the leader, Fred, too-neat, worried that I would “misquote” him. “We’re just a bunch of folks trying to get the country back to the constitution.” The leaflet was a bit crazier, blathering on about impeachment, Benghazi, Common Core — the nationwide minimum curriculum standards, seen as mass indoctrination — and blaming Obama for the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security. So were they Tea Party? “No, but we don’t disagree with them, but they’ve been crippled by the IRS inquiries. So we operate under the radar, see? No money, no fixed place. We pop up in different places each week.”

My own assessment of the Tea Party — whose thousands of groups are now mainly ghost sites on the internet — was that they died because much of it was fiction and fantasy, and the slow work of mass politics killed the fizz, but the Overpassers are having none of it. “See,” says Fred, “the original revolution only involved 3% of Americans, and that’s all it takes. So” — he stretches his hands expansively round the gun space — “if we could convert all of these people to constitutional government, then that’s our revolution”. “But you never will,” I say. “The best you can do is shift things a little. Are you ready for a political life that does nothing but that? Would that be enough over 10, 20, 30 years?” A pause “Well, I guess so.” Another pause. “But if we could convert people like these people here …”

I left them to their packing up, said I had to go buy a gun quickly, to shoot my dog. They didn’t hear or didn’t understand that last bit. The last thing Fred told me was that he worked for the public library system, and proudly so. “You need public libraries, because private libraries can censor the material they hold.” Thus, a man whose ideas on the matter of his work, his area of expertise, match those of any sensible centrist and leftist. But give him a clipboard and a hand-out copy of the constitution, and he is lost to fantasy, the American Right coming apart like a dum-dum bullet, but well-defended as the psychoanalysts say, behind guns, a wall of guns, a castle of guns, stacked high to the prairie sky.

United States

Oct 9, 2014

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Dull room at the Democratic county headquarters, fluoros and fake wood panelling and a plastic coffee urn in the corner. Four large tables, about eight people scattered along , middle-aged mostly, one kid, schlubby chain store clothes, no suits, no polka-dot retro dresses, no hipsters here. The buzz of phone calling: “I’m calling about I-594, have you heard about it, can I give you some information?” “Do you know in states with background checks there’s a 38% reductions in spouse killings …” “Do you know the police association supports …”

Outside, it’s cold, no mist, but a grey day after the last burst of summer. North of Seattle, in the second district, as safe as they get, and no Washington state Senate election this year, so the campaign is mainly switched to the ballot measure. The passage of I-594 will enforce background checks for gun purchases and close a loophole whereby private sales are exempt from that measure. A background check finds past felonies, history of mental health issues, restraining orders, etc. Currently they’re enforced whenever you buy from a gun shop, but if you just buy your cousin’s .22 Saturday night special, there’s no paperwork, and anything goes. Should I-594 pass, it still will in that case, most likely, but not at gun fairs and gun shows, which are deemed to be a collection of private sellers. You can get whatever you like, and that’s where a lot of those hoarding arsenals do all their impulse buying. Not hard to find, either; a quick online search shows there are eight of them within a hundred miles of Seattle in the next two weeks.

This is an example of the new strategy by the gun-control movement: state-by-state close these loopholes, tighten the regulations in ways that don’t give the National Rifle Association a big target to go up against, and no scope for a challenge in the courts. Blanket gun control moves fail not simply because of NRA money but because they stir up ideas about “freedom”, including, on the west coast, many leftists with a libertarian bent. So the campaign itself is as low-profile as possible. No rallies, no marches; instead, ads and email lists and Facebook and phone banking, to come in under the NRA radar. The NRA know what they’re doing, but can’t do much about it.

The campaign is so low-key, in fact, that when I called up to see if I could pop along and have a look, they wouldn’t let me. I came anyway, pretending to be an interested resident and hoped I wouldn’t run into the bossy woman I’d spoken to on the phone. I didn’t, but they still wouldn’t let me phone bank anyway:

“Where’s that accent from?” said a woman with a clipboard.

“England. Yorkshire.”

“We can’t have you call people. They won’t know what’s going on. Say, would you like to collate?”

Collate? Boy, would I ever! They gave me sheets of names printed on single-line sticker paper, sorted by gender and age (young and old), four sets of sheets in all. So I was to go through these and organise them by address — take any one of 10 zip codes, unpeel and stick it to another sheet. The zip codes distinguished between suburban and semi-rural names, so at the end there would be eight categories in all, young-old x male-female x suburban-rural, with a different set of talking points for all of them. The object? To maximise the chance of moving someone from “maybe” to “yes”, or from “not voting” to “voting”, while minimising the possibility of alerting a non-voting, likely “no” voter to the ballot measure, or antagonising a non-committed one to vote no.

“How come these aren’t auto-sorted by zip?”

“Hell, I just hacked these up at school,” said Jean, the organiser. “The database can’t sort zip codes.”

I begin going down the lists, unpeeling, sticking down, sometimes scraping back off when I’ve put a young woman on an old codgers. When there are 10 names on a sheet, I put it in a wire basket, which already has about a dozen or so in there. Every so often someone comes up, riffles through and takes one. They’re friendly — “hey, how ya doin’?” “slow work” — but not gushy or chatty like most Americans in, well, everywhere. It’s a grind, and purposeful. Get down the list, go home, but get it done. All very enlightened, but the list-taking reveals something a little more murky. Women only call women, men only call men. Ideally, you take a lot of your exact cohort. Far as I can tell, men lead with police support for the measure, reduction in police shootings elsewhere the law is in place (about a dozen states), women lead with domestic violence, segue on to police killings. I suspect domestic violence doesn’t get a big hearing when calling rural areas, but that might be a little harsh. But this is how a lot of liberal politics is done in America now, from ballot measures to dogcatcher to President. Targeted, scientific, smart, but also silent, orderly, siloed.

If the measure gets through, it will be another quiet liberal victory, the first such ban achieved by ballot measure, rather than law, a spark to start a rolling fire. But it is also post-public politics, stealth info bombing, oriented to the post-social character of much American life. After an hour or so of this, I have no stickers left and make my excuses — “I have to get to get the ferry”. “Well, thank you for your help.” As I leave she calls me back (“we’re all drinking at, will you come again, will you join…?”) — “you’re on our mailing list, right?”.

Outside, the fog has rolled in.