Say, have you missed my View from the Street column? Then MISS IT NO MORE!

Dear the Internet,

As you’ve probably noticed with the imminent release of The Long and Winding Way To The Top: 50 (Or So) Songs That Made Australiawhich is on shelves in mere weeks! – I’ve been writing a lot more about music of late – and also, somewhat gratifyingly, science (or more accurately SCIENCE!).

However, there’s still a part of my heart which is forever obsessed with Australian politics and after attempts to keep my snarky, lefty View from the Street column as part of the regular column-mix at Fairfax failed during their rationalisations earlier this year, I figured it was the end of it.

Except that I kept getting emails and Facebook messages from readers asking what was going on, which made me think that maybe I wasn’t the only person who missed it. And then when I idly suggested that I start doing columns again as a subscriber-thing on Patreon the response was overwhelmingly positive.

And it’ll only cost THIS MANY MONEYS!

So: last Friday I launched my new twice-a-week politics column, for which folks can subscribe for $3 a month, and the first one went up on Monday. And oh, it felt SO GOOD TO BE WRITING IT AGAIN.

So if you were a fan of V from the S, or the 10 Things column in the Vine that preceded it approximately a million years ago, then you can get it straight to your inbox or browser window simply by joining up here.

I’ve no idea whether this is the brave new crowdfunded future of journalism or a deluded ego trip as barking as a conspiracy theorist YouTube channel, but heck: it’s an excuse to look at the many, many, many wildly silly things happening in politics at the moment.

The posts will be publicly available after a week at the Patreon page, so if you’re reading this in at least six days time you should be able to see what happened back… um, now?

So if you’ve missed my snark, or just think that maybe politics could stand to be a bit kinder and smarter than the current cavalcade of up-fuckery, then come join the new thing. There’s some very nice people there.

Yours ever,





Quick primer on what could happen this afternoon with the High Court

Dear the Internet,

So, the Citizenship Seven’s fate will be announced in a barely any time at all – at around 2.30pm, specifically – and it’s important to know what’s at stake here.

Less bloody than the likely outcome

First up, there’s the least-likely possibility in that everyone is found to be totes safe. Then the three Coalition MPS – deputy PM Barnaby Joyce and senators Matt Canavan and Fiona Nash – breathe a massive sigh of relief, One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts smugly declares that he would have formed his own parliament anyway, NXT’s Nick Xenophon shrugs and keeps packing to move back to SA, and Greens senators Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlum look foolish for resigning on principle but could theoretically return to parliament (which Waters would do and Ludlum seemingly would rather not).

So realistically this only affects the fate of four MPs: Joyce, Waters, Canavan and Roberts.

Roberts is easiest to surmise: he’s probably toast. His laughably inept attempts to “renounce” his UK citizenship via means other than the very clear and well-established process are unlikely to be read as being sufficient to the requirements of the Constitution, since “yelling I RENOUNCE THEE! to an obviously wrong email” isn’t one of the methods covered.

It’s the other three which are most interesting because they have the potential to be massive headaches for the government.

Let’s assume they’re all deemed ineligible. Then what?

First up, the government becomes a minority one: without Joyce they don’t have a majority in their own right in the Lower House. Depending on who is in the chamber, this means the government could have its own legislation thwarted, assuming the crossbench are up for a fight. Joyce will have to face a bruising by election which he will probably win, even with the current scandals surrounding his personal life, and things will go back to normal.

It’s the senators which are the big problem for the Coalition because they’re from Queensland: the state which doesn’t have Liberal and National MPs but one big mushed-up combination of both labelled LNP.

In practice what this means is that MPs and senators are all part of the one party, but in Canberra they either join the Liberal or National party room because they’re really not as close to each other as you’d think. And what happens on the Queensland senate ballot paper is that the LNP executive choose (for example) a Liberal at #1, a National at #2, a Liberal at #3, a National at #4, and so on down the list.

If Nationals Canavan and Nash are deemed ineligible, they’ll be replaced by the next person on the ballot. Except the person after each of them isn’t a National: it’s a Liberal.

That means that the Liberals suddenly gain two senators while the Nationals lose them – and both had frontbench positions, no less.  And this puts the barely-stable balance between the parties wildly out of whack.

The Nationals will demand that they be given frontbench representation. The Liberals will look at which Nationals are there that don’t already have a ministry – George Christensen, for example – and say “…um, how do you see that happening, exactly?”

So the government will have a choice: elevate people who don’t even have the incandescent talent and brilliance of Matt “My Mum Did It” Canavan to the front bench, or risk splitting the already-unstable Queensland LNP alliance. You know, the one already rocked by Attorney General George Brandis described them as “very, very mediocre” when he didn’t realise his mic was on.

In any case, the results are nigh. Get the popcorn ready!

Yours ever,


PS: Want this sort of thing in your inbox a couple of times a week? Check out my brand new Patreon thing!



The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull is ALMOST HERE!

Dear the Internet,

If you have been looking at the current nightmare of bad policy, internal discord in the Coalition, Liberal backbenchers openly contradicting their leader amid upper- and lower-house embarrassments and thinking “how the actual hell did Malcolm Turnbull manage to go from record high popularity to… well, this… all in twelve short months?” then I have some good news!

9781760294885-1The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat is mere days away from release, once again through the good people of Allen & Unwin!

It lands on shelves on Monday 26 September, which is… good god, that’s soon. Very soon.

And you can order it from Booktopia RIGHT NOW if you fancy it: here’s a link! Also, how beautiful is that cover? Robert Polmear, you’re a staggeringly talented human being. I think we should run off some posters and/or beach towels.

And if you’re thinking “heavens, APS, how did you write 85k words in the space of a few months while also holding down your regular column and that other writing you seem to do?” then know it’s because I love democracy, this nation and, most of all, you. And also because I’m a bloodyminded bastard with easy access to caffeine and a playful disregard for living a balanced life.

ALSO! There will be an In Conversation event happening in October at Gleebooks on Tuesday 11 October, where I shall be chatting away with the charming and erudite Rebecca Huntley, she of Radio National and the ABC and book-writin’ and generally being an exceptional brainbox. I shall put details up as we get ’em.

I’m really proud of this book (and the last one, I should add). I hope you enjoy it too – or whatever the equivalent of “enjoy” is when you’re getting more and more frustrated about parliamentary inaction and find yourself yelling “seriously? What say you just do your damn job, you muppets!” at a book.

There’ll be more events, hopefully in non-Sydney locations, that I’ll rattle off as we lock ’em down.

Please pop along and say hi. I’ll write something illegible in your book, if you like. It needn’t even be one of mine, I’m not fussy.

Yours ever,


Marriage Equality Plebiscite: or, how to decide to have the free vote we apparently can’t have

Presumably that's where the mouth controls are located.

Presumably that’s where the mouth controls are located.

So, the Prime Minister has just confirmed that Coalition MPs will not be bound by the result of the $160 million national plebiscite on whether or not Australia should recognise same sex marriage, and that they will enjoy a “free vote” (ie: not bound by the party’s position) on the matter.

As Malcolm Turnbull explained on Friday 24 June, once the plebiscite is done and if a majority of Australians vote yes, then… um, parliament will vote on legislation to pass marriage equality, which then may or may not happen depending on whether there’s enough support for it among the individual MPs and senators.

“The tradition in the Liberal Party is that on matters of this kind it is a free vote,” Turnbull announced, adding “I have no doubt that if the plebiscite is carried, as I believe it will be, that you will see an overwhelming majority of MPs and senators voting for it.”

In other words, rather than have the federal parliament legislate over marriage (which, as we discovered when the high court overturned the ACT’s brief attempt at legalising same sex marriage in December 2013, is the sole and exclusive preserve of the federal parliament), we’ll have a plebiscite to… um, determine whether or not marriage equality should be debated in parliament.

And that’s an interesting – some might say “nonsensical” – sort of an argument, since the entire justification of the plebiscite was that the Liberal Party could not settle the issue this via a free vote. The very existence of the plebiscite, in other words, undermines the justification for the existence of the plebiscite.

Or, to put it another way, if we can apparently have a free vote, why not just have a goddamn free vote? 

The argument is that we can’t, obviously, since legislating about the legal definition of marriage is far too important a change for the parliament to do. You know, despite having done exactly that in 2004.

When marriage equality bills were introduced into the 44th Parliament by senator David Leyonhjelm, the Greens and Labor, then-PM Tony Abbott refused to even table them on the grounds that “If our parliament were to make a big decision on a matter such as this, it ought to be owned by the parliament and not by any particular party.”

Weirdly enough, when a bill which was owned “not by any particular party” was subsequently introduced by Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch and Labor MP Terri Butler and seconded by a multi-party coalition of Liberal MP Teresa Gambaro, Labor MP Laurie Ferguson, independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, and the Greens’ Adam Bandt, the song abruptly changed.

No longer was it enough for the matter to be owned by the parliament: “The disposition,” the PM Tony Abbott proudly explained in August 2015, “is that it should happen through a people’s vote rather than simply through a Parliament’s vote.”

Turnbull maintained this line after taking power, partially because it was a condition that the National Party set in order to maintain the Coalition.

“When the Australian people make their decision, that decision will stick. It will be decisive. It will be respected by this government and by this parliament and this nation,” he insisted. “Let me tell you this. If you imagine that any government… would spend over $150 million consulting every Australian on an issue of this kind and then ignore their decision, then they really are not living in the real world.”

However, the problem was that many members of the government were perfectly happy to ignore the decision: Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz made clear that “Every member of parliament will make up his or her mind after the plebiscite is held,” and questions were asked about how a non-binding public vote was going to somehow oblige MPs and senators to vote in a law.

And it turns out the answer is simple: it can’t! And it won’t!

As we just learned, in the event that the majority of Australians (calculated in a way yet to be determined) vote yes on a question (which is also yet to be determined) to recognise same sex marriage, that will not actually result in a law, which will evidently be passed or defeated in the usual way – almost as though this is just like every other law, and maybe doesn’t need some huge song and dance around it.

And of course, this wildly contradictory series of obvious rule-changing and evasions would all makes sense if the plebiscite was just an expensive, time-wasting method of placating the special terror-feelings of social conservatives in the Liberal and National Parties, but that would be cynical.

No, clearly the plebiscite was a great way to settle a controversial issue by spending $160 million in order to decide… er, whether or not to have a free vote.

You know, identical to the one which is apparently not an option.

The stupid myth of “picking winners”

Dear the Internet,

This has been on my mind for a little bit, and then became a bit of a Facebook rant, and is now a blog post on the prestigious Internet – which I think these days is pretty much the entire writing process in a nutshell. And speaking of which…

Before finally accepting that putting words on pages in some sort of order was the main – or, to put it another way, only – skill for which anyone would ever pay me money, I tried my hand at a few other doomed career alternatives including such can’t-miss wealth creators as “indie rock bassist” and “inner-city stand up comedian”. And much as I failed at them – and failed hard, let’s be clear – they did teach me some valuable lessons about the process of doing stuff.

Just check out that exquisite COMMAND OF THE STAGE!, circa 2013

Just check out that exquisite COMMAND OF THE STAGE!, circa 2013

That method is incredibly straightforward, regardless of the medium, and boils down to this: try things and see what happens.

That’s because, much as we’d like to rely on our own unerring judgement and genius insight, discovering what works isn’t a process that one discovers by any other method than simply trying stuff out.

No band ever consciously sets out to suck, and no stand up ever aspires to be humiliated on stage. The only reliable way to test hypotheses like “this joke is hilarious!” or “this chorus totally rocks!” is to put them in front of an audience and assess the subsequent reactions.

Now, this all seems like an uncontroversial sort of an idea – but perhaps it’s not as widely understood as I’d assumed.

One of the ideas underpinning the continued funding of the CSIRO is that the body tasked with Australia’s most basic scientific research should “pick winners” – that is, concentrate on areas of research that will prove commercially lucrative – rather than dick about doing wasteful, naval gazing “basic research” like mapping genomes or trying to puzzle out dark energy.

The problem is that this idea of picking winners is complete and utter bullshit – and you don’t even need to be a vaccine chemist, crop geneticist or supernova astrophysicist to understand why.

As one particularly awful date once asked to me at the time, “why do you have jokes in your set that no-one laughs at? Why don’t you just have great jokes all the time, one after the other?”

And the answer was obvious: fake an emergency phone call and leave early. But the reason my set was part-killer-mostly-filler was partially because I was pretty lousy at stand up but mainly because there’s absolutely no way to know what jokes work until you tell ‘em.

The thing that seems like a knock-down universal truth in your own head may, in fact, be complete arse – as evidenced by the grim silence that followed quips like “Newtown is Sydney’s most misleadingly named suburb – I’ve lived there for over a year now and haven’t seen a single newt.”

Want more evidence? Ponder for a moment the songs that have been huge, worldwide hits and you’ll realise that most of the biggest sellers over time aren’t the mighty multiple-writer workshopped pop hits. A significant majority of global smashes have one thing in common: they’re generally really, really odd.

They appeared because an artist had an idea and just knocked it out, and then circumstance, timing and decent marketing did the rest. The sales job happened after the work was created, because no record company executive on the planet would ever start a meeting with “You know what would definitely sell millions of records worldwide for decades? A multi-section six minute operatic ballad with no chorus about a nihilistic murderer which vamps on figures from classical Italian commedia dell’arte and Arabic mythology!” And yet chances are you’re humming Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ even as you read this.

People with an idea about the market – one might call them “marketers” – are successful if they are able to see new developments or products and go “hey, this could be popular!” Starting from the premise “here’s a thing people like that they’d like again!” doesn’t get you the iPhone; that’s how you get the Zune (remember them?).

Indeed, the invention for which the CSIRO are most often praised – wifi – didn’t come about because the organisation realised there’d be a global market for wireless communication.

It was a weird byproduct of an ultimately unsuccessful experiment to detect the theorised explosions of mini-black holes, for which the organisation needed to develop a way of unscrambling the radiowaves that such explosions would hypothetically create. In so doing, they inadvertently created a method of “unsmearing” messy data transmissions which – after about a decade of development – turned into a commercial goldmine.

Starting point: explosions of black holes. End point: a worldwide patent.

Trying stuff out can be expensive and messy – you know, like life is in literally all other ways – but it’s also the only way to actually discover things. And if the government’s going to keep making noises about how Australia needs to be innovative and agile, the idea that Australia’s key public research body should sacrifice research in favour of marketing seems an odd one.

Of course, maybe these CSIRO cuts are the equivalent of trying out a joke about amphibians of the inner west and seeing the response.

If so, federal government, learn the lesson I did: if people stand there with their arms folded staring at you with blind, barely-contained hatred, perhaps you need to try something else.

Yours ever,


How To Address The Stupid Arguments Against Marriage Equality: a cut out and keep guide

Most of these sorts of discussions end very productively.

Most of these sorts of discussions end very productively.

Dear The Internet,

One of the nice things about having a column is that I get to rant about stuff I think should be ranted about, but sometimes I just want to rant EVEN MORE. And the biggest thing that’s baffling me at the moment is the pointless and downright silly arguments against same-sex marriage being implemented in Australia.

There is a strong, sensible argument against marriage equality, and it goes like this: “I don’t like gay people and I don’t want them being happy.”

It’s intellectually honest, it cuts right to the heart of the matter, and it doesn’t mess around pretending that the speaker cares about civil rights or human happiness. Unfortunately it also makes clear how little someone’s personal ick-feelings should contribute to crafting legislation in a modern democracy.

Thus campaigners prefer to go with elaborate justifications about how they’re actually worried about protecting marriage and and preserving the sanctity of marriage, and respecting the values of tradition, because they’re largely meaningless statements that are therefore hard to argue against, and also because bigots get very sad when people call them bigots.

And then there are more practical arguments which I’m sick of slapping down regularly on Facebook, so here’s my list of responses to the current crop of stupid, stupid arguments against marriage equality. This way I can just send a link and get on with my day.

Stupid Argument The First: This is so very very important a change that we should have a Referendum, like in Ireland! You know, to see what The People think!

No, we shouldn’t. More specifically, not only do we not need to, but it would achieve literally nothing.

In Australia a Referendum can only be called in order to change something in the Constitution, and since the definition of marriage isn’t in the Constitution – it’s in the Marriage Act, a piece of Federal law – it can only be changed through federal legislation. You know, like the Howard Government did in 2004. Remember that referendum about defining marriage as being between “a man and a woman”? No you don’t, because there wasn’t one.

The other option that’s been thrown around is a plebiscite, which is like a Referendum but a) not necessarily a compulsory vote, and b) not about something in the Constitution. That’s what we had about changing the flag, for example.

The problem with that is that the Constitution prevents the Federal Parliament from limiting its own power to create laws, so a plebiscite would have to be non-binding BY DEFINITION in order to work. What’s more, it would leave any change potentially open to a High Court challenge regardless of the result.

So either way, it would require Parliament to change the law independently of any such citizen vote – exactly as it does at the moment without one.

Stupid Argument The Second: B-b-but kids deserve a mother AND a father!

Leaving aside that this is a meaningless statement – kids grow up without one or both parents all the time – this has absolutely nothing to do with the Marriage Act. Parental rights are determined by a suite of laws mainly created by the states, and if you’re worried that kids might be legally raised by same-sex couples if the definition of marriage was changed then you might want to sit down: it’s already legal.

More specifically: same sex couples can adopt in WA, the ACT, Tasmania and NSW, and a same-sex partner of a parent can legally adopt their partner’s child in WA, the ACT and NSW. In the other states a partner can apply for a Parenting Order, which is much the same thing but doesn’t remove an existing parent’s rights as per an adoption.

So if that’s the big concern then a) the Marriage Act is the wrong target and b) that battle’s already been lost.

Stupid Argument The Third: OK, let’s make all partnerships “civil unions” and define “marriage” exclusively as a church-sanctioned thing!

Well, for a start this would require altering the Marriage Act to change the definition of marriage – which is the exact thing that people are so gosh-darn worried about doing, right?

But also, this would require stripping marriage from heterosexual couples who didn’t have a religious ceremony, which is the vast majority of Australians. Removing it from a majority of straight people seems a bit at odds with arguing that it’s a precious special magical thing for man and woman to share.

Then there’s the fact that an increasing number of churches are totally fine with marriage equality, which will kinda dilute this terribly important distinction, surely?

But the main thing is that it would never get public support necessary for it to be passed. People like being married, which is why people want to be married. That’s the entire reason this discussion is happening in the first place.

But what if, on the other hand, churches want to decide that the only marriages that “count” are ones done in their own faith tradition? Well, in a lot of cases, they… um, already do.

Stupid Argument The Fourth: B-b-but the law will make religious me do gay things I don’t like!

A popular side argument to the above is “b-b-but these changes will force me, a religious minister, to marry gay people against my faith! My religious freedom will be curtailed! CURTAILED!”

Except that churches won’t be forced to marry gay people they don’t want to marry. You know why? Because they already don’t marry straight people they don’t want to marry.

Most churches at least require the couple to be part of their faith, and usually also their congregation. There are already arbitrary hoops through which people have to jump to get access to any religion’s clubhouse.

Also, let’s be realistic here: no sane person is going to decide to hold a celebration of partnership and commitment, surrounded by all the people they love most, that’s officiated by someone who openly despises them. Weddings are typically delightfully upbeat affairs, and that would kinda bring down the mood.

Stupid Argument The Fifth: But tradition! TRADITION!

Even assuming that tradition was a strong prima facie reason to not change something (which, as the replacement of the traditional practice of bloodletting with the modern alternative of antibiotics has demonstrated, it is not), which tradition are you talking about, exactly?

The first recorded marriages in history predate the major religions by a few thousand years, were in Egypt (and quite probably in other places that didn’t conveniently have a written language that was preserved in stone) and were designed as a way for families to record lineage of offspring in order to maintain family ownership of property. They were a romantic people, them ancient Egyptians.

And while there are plenty of examples of same-sex, polygamous and weird sibling-heavy arrangements in different epochs and locations, we’re perfectly cool with ignoring those traditions when they don’t suit what we like, or what our society will accept.

That’s because marriage is like so many other things that humans care about, like the unalterable word of God in religious texts, or the Star Wars prequels: people inevitably pick the bits they think are good and quietly ignore those they don’t, whether it’s prohibitions on wearing mixed-fabric clothes or the existence of Jar Jar Binks.

So inevitably it comes down to people being very selective about the traditions they want to follow, which is why we currently have the very modern idea of two people voluntarily entering into a partnership for reasons predominantly connected with love. It’s hard to see why the genitals of these people would make a fundamental difference to that broad concept.

Stupid Argument The Sixth: But changing the definition of marriage will inevitably lead to polygamy/child-marriage/dogs and cats having adorable tiny weddings!

Since those are all entirely different questions, no it won’t.

The argument behind this otherwise-silly statement presumably goes something like this: “if we alter the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act now, what’s to stop us altering the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act again later?”

And the answer is “nothing, beyond having the motivation to actually do it”.

More specifically, we can change any word of any Act at any time, provided that Parliament has the numbers to do so and can be arsed spending the time doing it. That’s literally the entire point of Parliament. They make and change and repeal laws, loads of them, all the time (for an average of 50-ish days per year, at least).

If your fear is that Parliament might alter words in a law sometime now or in the future, then perhaps representative democracy isn’t the right political system for you.

Stupid Argument The Seventh: Oh, why is this still a thing? I mean, who cares? There are more important things to worry about!

Exactly. It’s a pointless and tedious argument, and it’s going to keep going until we finally have marriage equality because more people want it than don’t. If it gets brought up in Parliament and defeated, that’s not going to make it go away (hey, it didn’t last time). It’s going to keep going and going and going and going until it happens.

You want the endless debates to finish? Pressure for same sex marriage to pass so we can all get on with our lives.

Yours ever,


Here’s the Thing: How the Abbott government learned to argue with their allies

Originally published at TheVine, 3 April 2015

Or, how to lose friends and influence people against you


One of the things that gets said with reasonable regularity in response to the government’s less-than-stellar track record with regards passing legislation is that the Opposition keep blocking things in the Senate.

It’s a standard argument used by right-leaning commentators, government MPs and angry people on my Facebook page: the reason that all this Medicare co-pay stuff, or the changes to Centrelink eligibility, or the deregulation of universities and most of the budget (still unpassed and coming up to its first smash anniversary!) gets blocked in the upper house is because of Labor’s intransigence. Why oh why do they hate Australia so much?

Here’s the thing, though: Labor don’t block anything. They don’t have the numbers. Indeed, Labor and the Greens together don’t have the numbers.

Here’s the breakdown of the 76 members of the Senate:

The Coalition has 33 senators. Labor has 25. The Greens have 10. And then there are those eight other guys.

Passage of legislation through the Senate rests on a simple majority, thus the balance of power is held by eight independent-slash-microparty senators. It is they whom control the passage of legislation, and it is they whom the government needs to convince.

More specifically, assuming that Labor and the Greens are blocking a piece of proposed legislation, they need to get six crossbench votes (assuming that all Senators are present).

So the problem must be that the crossbench are all radical lefties with a strong anti-conservative bent, right?

Um, about that.

The eight senators who determine the passage of legislation are three sorta-kinda libertarians, two puppets of a mining billionaire, a conservative Christian, a former soldier turned outspoken Islamophobe, and a dude who likes cars.

Number of radical lefties? Zero. Number of people who would, on the face of it, disagree with the sorts of policies beloved of a Coalition government? Zero.

And that’s more or less what the government thought when they got into power, which is why there was so little transition between the steady-as-she-goes promises the Coalition made ahead of the election and the right-let’s-start-cutting-everything-promises-be-damned approach they took after taking office.

Now, admittedly it’s not quite as cut and dried as the above description suggests.

Clive Palmer sank millions into creating Palmer United for the express purpose of getting his vengeance on the Liberal National Party to whom he had been such a heavy donor, and the idea was always to become a potent enough force to hurt Queensland premier Campbell Newman and, to a lesser extent, Tony Abbott.

After the election it appeared Palmer controlled four of the eight crossbenchers. The party had three senators: WA mining executive Dio Wang, former QLD rugby league star Glenn Lazarus, and Tasmanian ex-soldier Jacqui Lambie, plus the Motoring Enthusiasts Party’s Victorian senator Ricky Muir, a former timber worker who had reportedly agreed to vote with the party as a bloc.

Before too long that alliance had splintered: Muir voted independently of PUP, and Lambie and Palmer engaged in an escalating war of crazy (largely over whether PUP would support Lambie’s planned legislation banning Muslim headscarves) until she abruptly left the party.

This would, under normal circumstances, look like a godsend to the government. Sure, PUP was largely attempting to balance populist policies with opposing government measures, which led to seemingly contradictory policies like scrapping the carbon not-actually-a tax but supporting the renewable energy target. But how hard could it be for the government to negotiate with a pair of confused newcomers with right-leaning personal politics?

Instead they started a war with Lambie over defence pay, and Muir (who had struggled to find a job for the nine months between being elected and taking office) was put offside by the government’s draconian employment benefits policies.

And they’re not alone. You want to cut government spending, Coalition? That should be a slam dunk for small-government advocates like David Leyonhjelm and the Motoring Enthusiasts Party. Yet neither have proved easy to convince.

A government that openly opposes marriage equality and supports socially conservative policies in place of existing programmes (who can forget former Social Services minister Kevin Andrews cutting funding for groups that provide emergency women’s shelters, but providing discount marriage counselling coupons?) should find plenty of common cause with Family First’s Bob Day and former DLP senator and avowedly religious anti-abortion campaigner John Madigan. But again, it’s been an uphill battle.

And with the Prime Minister loudly declaiming Muslims as not being appropriately anti-terrorism, Lambie should be a strong ally – yet she’s consistently voted against every piece of legislation the government proposes, and pledged to continue to do so until there’s a pay rise for defence personnel.

The only senator one would generally predict to be opposed to the government would be centrist SA independent Nick Xenophon, but he’s voted in support of several surprising bills – including granting sweeping new powers to the Immigration Minister. The man’s a wild card.

In other words, any difficulty the government has in negotiation is not down to the opposition of the Greens and Labor, but their own ineptitude at negotiating with people who are, after all, heartland Coalition voters.

Put simple: the Abbott Government have done the seemingly impossible: they’ve found a way to argue with people that agree with them.

Which raises the tantalising question: would a new and more responsive leader make those negotiations easier?

After all, it’s impossible to see how it could make things worse…

Here’s the Thing: So, with whom will the Liberal party replace Abbott?

Originally published at TheVine, 12 February 2015

Who’ll be leading the country in the next three-to-six months? Let’s find out!


In 1969 the management theory book The Peter Principle was published, written by Lawrence J. Peter (hence the name) and Raymond Hull, whose central premise was a simple and powerful one: in every profession, people rise to their level of incompetence.

The idea goes like this: if you’re good at your job, sooner or later you’ll be promoted. However, the skills that make you a kick-arse rotisserie chicken cook may not guarantee that you’re great at managing your coworkers. If you’re a lousy shift manager, that’s where you’ll remain – but if you’re a good one, you’ll be promoted further up the management ladder. And again, good people skills may not extend to running inventory and keeping track of suppliers, so if you’re bad at that, that’s where you’ll stay. If you’re good, you get promoted again – until you find a role in which you’re genuinely incompetent.

It’s an elegant idea, and one that answers the question “why the hell is this person in this position?” with the satisfyingly correct-feeling answer “because they suck.”

Like virtually every prime minister Tony Abbott has been Peter Principled into the big chair because he was good at his previous gig – in Abbott’s case, opposition leader.

However the skills to effectively tear down a flailing government are not the same as the skills required to lead and unite a nation (we assume, since there’s no evidence he’s tried that yet).

However, it’s an all-but-foregone conclusion that Abbott will not lead the Coalition to the next election. The leadership spill was a wound that won’t heal, and history suggests that sitting leaders who survive leadership spills do not remain in power once the electorate see them as vulnerable.

Failed challenges upon sitting PMs only happened rarely. In the Liberal camp Billy McMahon challenged John Gorton in 1971 and Andrew Peacock challenged Malcolm Fraser a decade later – and the Liberals took a beating at the subsequent elections: Gorton had the wisdom to realise he was doomed and retired, thereby letting McMahon have his arse handed to him by Gough Whitlam, and the stumbling Fraser government was wiped out by Bob Hawke’s historic majority in 1983.

For Labor the situation is even more ominous: both Keating and Rudd challenged their sitting PMs (Hawke and Gillard, respectively) and failed, before trying again and… well, you know how those worked out.

Abbott’s situation is even more dire because there was no actual challenger – yet two-fifths of the party voted for Someone To Be Named Later over the sitting PM. And that’s the only reason he’s still leading today: the party want him gone, but there’s no obvious alternative ready to step up 2 the federal streets.

But here’s the thing: someone is going to be moulded into leadership material by the terrified Liberal Party, and soon. So who is it going to be?

There are all sorts of concerns that parties consider when they choose their leader and deputy. They need to be from different bits of the country – so Labor lovin’ lefities can abandon hope of an Anthony Albanese/Tanya Plibersek double act, for example, since they’re both inner-city Sydney MPs.

Also, they need to balance the factions. For example: Labor leader Bill Shorten is Right and from Victoria, his Sydney-based deputy Plibersek is from the Left.

Also, somewhat predictably, the leader is almost always from either Victoria (10 PMs) or New South Wales (12). Bigger states mean bigger name recognition.

Let’s meet the alternatives:


Centre, NSW

Best known for: your shitty internet connection, being the leader most non-Coalition voters say they’d vote for.

Pros: He’s actually smart and charming, seems like a human being with human thoughts and feelings. He’s also a millionaire, thereby ticking the “privileged white man” box that the Liberals need to feel comfortable with. And he’s not tied so closely to Abbott as to make it seem like a betrayal if he knifed him.

Cons: He’s been leader before. That’s not a huge impediment, as John Howard demonstrated, but during his tenure he made a lot of enemies in the party. While he’s a stone-cold economic rationalist he does have some socially progressive views – he’s pro-marriage equality, for example – which concern the conservative faithful.

He also takes climate change seriously, but you can absolutely rule out any hope of him leaping into the fight for renewable energy if he got into the big chair: his support for a bipartisan emissions trading scheme was what got him rolled as leader by Abbott.

Challenge potential: Easy frontrunner, which is why everyone’s just assuming it at this stage. And he should be confident: going by the spill result, 60% of the backbench basically voted for his shadow.


Centre, WA

Best known for: our not being at war with our closest international neighbour, looking exasperated next to the PM, snarking on Peta Credlin.

Pros: Like Turnbull, she’s articulate, smart and actually smiles every so often. She’s also been an effective Foreign Minister, successfully negotiating the tricky oh-yeah-we’re-spying-on-Indonesia thing with great success, despite having both the PM and the Immigration Minister actively working against her. She’s also the obvious favourite of the Murdoch Press, which historically has meant victory.

Cons: She was a lousy Education Minister under Howard, and an equally lousy Shadow Treasurer while in opposition. She’s also a female deputy of the party who has been vocal about her support for the PM, which would make a sudden challenge look distinctly Julia Gillard-esque – a deep problem for a party that used the Rudd/Gillard challenges as a stick to beat Labor with ahead of the 2013 election.

Challenge potential: Probably not any time soon, but she’d be a strong candidate to lead the party in opposition – which, realistically, is what she’s holding out for.


Centre, NSW

Best known for: saying poor people don’t drive, not understanding percentages, releasing a budget that has yet to pass, having a nice cigar after passing said budget, being the subject of 2014’s most unintentionally hilarious biography.

Pros: Politics is almost completely about economics – or at least has been since Paul Keating made it so, and no-one’s yet challenged this implausible-sounding assertion – and the guy’s the Treasurer! He knows about economics, right?

Cons: By any measure he’s been a terrible treasurer. He’s presided over rising unemployment, shrinking GDP, a diminishing dollar, an increase in debt (which he has made the biggest focus of his role by bitching about it in opposition) and – as mentioned above – releasing an unpassable budget. Also, he keeps saying incredibly ill-considered things in public.

He’s more socially progressive than you’d probably realise, but right now the party realises that he’s a huge liability – realistically the only hope that Abbott has is to cut Hockey loose. A Hockey challenge would be over before it began – at least, that’s what happened last time.

Challenge potential: Only if he wanted to go out in blaze of glory.


Right, NSW

Best known for: stopping the boats, stopping the reporting on the boats, stopping the scrutiny over what happens to the people on the boats, stopping the adherence to our international treaties regarding human rights (especially with regards people on boats).

Pros: Has genuine success in his last portfolio as Immigration Minister, although that success was entirely down to stifling reporting regarding his portfolio. Also, stopping the boats is a pretty dubious goal to start with, the billion-dollar-a-year cost and the whole abuse-of-human-rights things notwithstanding. He’s deeply beloved by the Right and seen as an effective minister. Perhaps… perhaps a little too effective…

Cons: The public see him – not incorrectly – as a hardline religious zealot with few traditionally Christian characteristics regarding things like “charity” or “humility”. His behaviour as Immigration Minister and now as Social Services Minister also – again, not incorrectly – suggests he genuinely doesn’t care about people. He’s also very closely tied to Abbott, which would make a leadership challenge look like a betrayal.

Also, when he smiles he looks like he’s going to bite someone.

Challenge potential: Slim to nil. Despite this, Abbott knows he’s a potential threat within the party – hence the move to Social Services, one of the most up-fuckable portfolios


Centre?, SA

Best known for: the most hittable smile in Federal politics, calling people cunts, looking like a private boarding school prefect that’s just masturbated into the mashed potato.

Pros: Um…

Cons: Literally everything. Even if he wasn’t associated with his attempts to gut higher education funding at the moment, he’s a man that exudes a powerful anti-charisma that makes whatever he says seem sly and venal. It’s not helped that this is also largely the qualities of what he says, though.

Challenge potential: He’s tied himself so tightly to Abbott that it’s doubtful that he’ll even keep his portfolio when Abbott goes – and since he’s managed to turn one of the safest Liberal seats in South Australia into a projected loss for the party, no-one’s going to risk letting him give it a try anyway.


Right, SA

Best known for: the whole comparing-homosexuals-to-bestiality-enthusiasts thing over which he got moved to the backbench, lying about abortion statistics, the fact that he never blinks

Pros: It would be genuinely hilarious.

Cons: We’d need to burn the country down.

Here’s the Thing: So, Chinese companies now have more rights than you do

Originally published at The Vine, 26 November 2014

Who’d have thought a deal rushed through in secret might have a few worrying conditions attached?


Trade has been enormously beneficial to the world –  at least, so long as you prefer it to war.

Throughout history the nations that traded the most became hubs of knowledge – Rome in the first century BC, Alexandria in the 6th century, Amsterdam in the 17th century, London in the 18th, Shanghai in the 19th, New York today – and there is a direct correlation between the amount of trade between nations and the global decline in armed conflict.

It’s not hard to see why. The Age of Empires was an expensive one; conquering new territory was a pricey process, and hanging onto it was even more costly.

Conversely, a trade partner offers plenty of material benefit and zero outlay on armed invasions or open-ended occupations.

Russia’s just learning that with regards its newly annexed resource-poor and people-that-expect-services-rich Crimea, and (as discussed before) ISIL are starting to face a similar challenge in Syria and Iraq.

And there’s a lot to be said for trade if, like me, you’d rather that people didn’t just straight up kill each other. It can be exploitative, sure, but it typically doesn’t end with quite so many corpses.

And the global marketplace has more countries talking and less countries bombing each other than ever before. Hell, we just had countries that have ongoing diplomatic hostilities – Japan and China, China and India, Russia and everyone else – sit down together in Brisbane the other week and have a civilised chat about trade. For all of the limitations of the G20 visit, this is actually significant progress.

Here’s the thing, though: there comes a point where free trade stops being liberating, and starts becoming dangerous and constrictive. And the newly-announced China-Australia Free Trade Agreement is a clear example of this.

As Trade Minister Andrew Robb admitted to SBS, the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement was rushed though at “five minutes to midnight” to make the photo-op that was the G20, and that there was no time to do actual modelling on how it would actually work.

Despite this, it was very swiftly hailed as a triumph of negotiation by the government, who then got very, very quiet about it.

The reasons for this were not hard to fathom as details of the deal emerged and it became clear that getting access to the massive Chinese market would require certain… shall we say, “flexibilities” on the part of Australia, and on the workings of our democracy.

But we’ll come to that. First up, let’s look at the economics.

The Nationals – the team sitting at the kids table of the Coalition dinner party – had the unfortunate job of admitting that local food prices would rise as a direct result of the deal.

Deputy PM and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce conceded that “Another market means competition, and competition means that [Australian primary industries are] going to get a better price. And we’ve got to do that – we’ve been asking the supermarkets for so long… well now they’ve got somewhere else to go.”

Hear that, Middle Australia? The same rise in your household bills that was the apparent justification for killing the carbon tax is now being hailed as a triumph for the FTA. Huzzah!

Never mind the local price rises: there’s also very little evidence that Australia will actually make anything out of the deal at all.

The “$18 billion increase in by 2015” trade number that was bandied about at the time sounded impressive, but it transpires that it’s not quite as true as you might have assumed. Especially since, as Robb said, there was no actual modelling done.

More specifically, the $18 billion increase was based on modelling done in 2005, for a very different China-Australia deal that was assumed to have been signed that year. That number was the amount estimated for the subsequent ten year period – in other words, meaningless with regards the deal that was actually signed.

What are some of the differences? Well, this model assumed that tariffs would be immediately dropped (they weren’t: the majority of reductions are being phased out rather than eliminated) and that it would include sugar and rice (which it doesn’t) – and, more importantly, that prices for thermal coal and iron ore hadn’t plummeted dramatically since 2005, which they have.

Even if the modelling wasn’t worthless, going by its own conclusions the deal was pretty lousy, giving Australia’s GDP an annual increase per year of a pitiful 0.37%, according to an analysis by the Guardian’s Greg Jericho, which is approximately nothing. Hilariously, or distressingly, the same feasibility study also calculates growth at an even more pathetic 0.04%, or “a rounding error”.

And, as Jericho also points out, our 2005 FTA with the US – spruiked at the time as a deficit-killer by then-PM John Howard – increased our trade deficit by half, to its current level of $15.4 billion.

Adorably, Howard also predicted that the deal would open up the US market for Australian automotive manufacturing, with “a very big, potential, exciting market for Holden.” So, how’d that turn out?

However, the biggest problem is “a controversial clause in the deal that will allow Chinese corporations to sue the Australian government if the government introduces laws or regulations that damage the profits (or ‘future profits’) of Chinese companies,” as Fairfax’s Gareth Hutchens put it.

This clause will also be part of the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and will retroactively be inserted into our current FTA with Japan.

And not that I wish to sound like a broken record on this subject, but… well, I bitched and moaned about the “investor-state dispute settlement provisions” as laid out in our FTA with South Korea in 10 Things back in December 2013.

You see, these clauses

… allow foreign corporations to sue our government if said government does something that the company deems threatening to its profits. For example, if you were a tobacco giant based in a country with which Australia had an ISDS, you could theoretically sue Australia for introducing plain packaging laws on cigarettes on the grounds that it was anti-competitive.

If that sounds like an alarmist stretch, be advised that this is exactly what has already happened.

See, the Hong Kong subsidiary of Philip Morris launched a High Court challenge against the Australian government over plain packaging, citing the 1993 Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Hong Kong for the Promotion and Protection of Investments. They lost the High Court case in August 2012, mainly on the grounds that they knew the laws were coming in when they bought out the Australian subsidiary’s operations, but immediately launched another case which is still before an international trade tribunal.

And if you’re wondering “hey, isn’t Philip Morris is a US company? Why is the Hong Kong arm suing us?” the answers are “yes” and “because the US and Australia don’t have a trade deal with an ISDS, but we and Hong Kong do”, respectively.

A similar case is currently before the courts in Canada where US energy company Lone Pine Resources is suing under the North American Free Trade Agreement after Quebec called a moratorium on fracking ahead of environmental studies about the likely impacts.

That’s what the China-Australia FTA already has in place, that’s what we’re about to get with the US and Japan. These clauses enshrine in law the principle that your health and wellbeing is secondary to the commercial interests of overseas companies.

Laws restricting emissions in Australia could be deemed anti-competitive and struck down. Ditto labelling on foods, or restrictions on harmful products. Want to ban a defective crib that puts babies at risk? You’d better hope it’s not from a country with whom we’ve signed an FTA.

And this isn’t crazed lefty fearmongering: as of the signing of this deal next year, Chinese mining companies will have more rights than you do when it comes to the level of pollution in your air and water.

Does this scare you? It should.

And there’s more to come.

Here’s the Thing: Surveillance Laws Don’t Reduce The T-T-T-Terrorisms

Originally published at TheVine, 5 November 2014. 

Are our new anti-terror laws necessary in order to protect us? Not if the US experience is any guide.


Making loud noises about domestic security is a sure-fire way for a government to look all strong and resolute and leadery, especially if they’re – just for the sake of argument – still attempting to pass a budget six months down the track.

However, here’s a complete list of all the domestic Islamic terror plots successfully carried out on Australian soil prior to the new security laws being passed: zero.

The closest we’ve come is the Bali bombings which, while tragic, were not in Australia. And even if you travel to less secure locales on this exciting planet of ours, your risk of being affected by terrorist activity remains much where it’s been for the last two decades: utterly infinitesimal.

We’re terrible at noticing that, though.

That people are just straight up lousy at calculating risk can be gleaned by the fact people are terrified of Ebola – a disease which is not in this country and is zero risk to anyone not actively working among the stricken – and yet so blasé about measles that they’re not immunising their own damn children against a genuine, potentially deadly and entirely preventable disease.

But measles isn’t sexy, and Ebola is. And saying “honestly, you’re fine” isn’t nearly as exciting as “you’re right, you’re under perpetual threat: that’s why we need to know your phone and internet records.”

Indeed, in the briefing notes given to the government by the federal police included the bold claim that “metadata is central to virtually every counter-terrorism, organised crime, counter-espionage and cyber security investigation.”

Here’s the thing, though: it’s absolutely not.

To demonstrate this is the case, let’s have a little look-see at the experience in the United States.

After the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 the Bush administration introduced the Patriot Act which, hilariously, is a backronym (the full title is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001″.)

Aside from have the most ridiculous title imaginable, said Act gave the government sweeping powers over American citizens and non-citizens alike, including the warrantless gathering of metadata.

The argument at the time is that it was absolutely necessary in order to track and capture terrorists on US soil. And it’s still going: collection of said data is thought to be the work of the gigantic Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, a massive data facility built last year at Camp Williams, about 40km out of Salt Lake City, Utah.

In fact, those powers have since been expanded: there was a ruling last year by the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – yep, that’s a thing you didn’t know existed – which removed the need to actually show that information collected or analysed needed to have anything to do with an investigation.

FISC Judge Clair Eagan wrote that the National Security Agency “requires neither ‘specific and articulable facts’ nor does it require that the information be material. Rather it merely requires a statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records sought are relevant to the investigation.”

So, how many terrorists has unfettered access to thirteen years of metadata caught?

The answer may surprise you: it’s one. And calling that person a “terrorist” is perhaps a little misleading.

That person is one Basaaly Moalin, a cab driver from San Diego. Access to his phone records allowed the FBI to successfully prosecute him for donating a total of $US8,500 in several transactions during 2007 and 2008 to al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Somalia.

This information comes from the New America Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington DC. Their analysis of the records of 225 people charged with terrorism-related offences revealed that “that traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations, provided the initial impetus for investigations in the majority of cases, while the contribution of NSA’s bulk surveillance programs to these cases was minimal.”

When they say “minimal”, they mean minimal: phone records were part of 1.8 per cent of investigations of US citizens, and 4.8 per cent of non-US persons.

Even in the Moalin case the phone data didn’t immediately cause the authorities to leap into action: the FBI waited two months between linking him to a number in Somalia and beginning their investigation. And while sending finances to a Somalian terror group is illegal – and also terrible, let’s be clear – it’s not exactly 9/11 Part Two.

Indeed, the authors conclude that “Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity, such as fundraising for a terrorist group”.

Possibly not worth a staggeringly expensive decade-plus international programme of surveillance and analysis, in other words.

In Australia we’ve had some big showy events to remind us that we’re all at risk all the time.

And if you dispute the use of “showy”, please note that typically police don’t invite the media to join them when they’re sending 800 police to raid a number of properties in Sydney and Queensland, at least not unless they’re confident that there’s not going to be any sort of risk involved. And the result? Two arrests, and the confiscation of a plastic ceremonial sword, which was hung on a wall.

Also, just to be clear: the people yelling about ISIL on the internet and firing pellet guns at Muslim clerics are not actually, y’know, in ISIL.

They’re angry dickbags who feel powerless and are ready to take it out on whoever gets in their way – not helped by the sharp rise in Islamophobia that’s happened in recent times. If you’re already feeling pushed around, having politicians declare you’re un-Australian and people spit on your mum when she’s on a bus is hardly going to calm you down.

Thus if you’re a proud Australian with a Facebook avatar reading “STRAYA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT” then congratulations, dipshit: you’re doing a great job endangering the nation you ostensibly care about. You’re the problem, not the folks in the mosque.

The international experience has suggested that the best – actually, the only – defence against angry loners is the people around those angry loners. Those are the parents and siblings and colleagues who can either take said loner aside and say “listen, this isn’t like you” or, if they think the situation is escalating beyond their ability to help, contact the authorities.

Concerned citizens informing the police is pretty much how every plot has ever been uncovered, in Australia and everywhere else. So can you see a potential issue with sidelining one entire section of the community off as being “other”?

So, if you genuinely want Australia to be safe and you’re not just using “security” as a replacement for “I fear brown people”, then you have a duty to make everyone feel that Australia is home and therefore that everyone has a stake in helping protect the place.

You also get the bonus of, y’know, not being a racist dickbag. That’s pretty great for everyone too.

I say this a lot – A LOT – but it’s a sentiment that apparently needs repeating:

There is no Us-And-Them. There’s not even any Them. There is only Us.