I HAVE THE BOOK IN MY HANDS IT’S A REAL THING!

Dear The Internet,

In late February 2016 I finally convinced my editors at Allen & Unwin that I should absolutely write a follow up to The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott, on the grounds that a) things were clearly getting very interesting and weird in federal Australian politics, and b) this seemed like a lot more fun than the book I was actually working on.

There ain't no feeling like here's-that-book-you-wrote feeling.

There ain’t no feeling like here’s-that-book-you-wrote feeling.

“More fun” is, of course, a relative term because – at the risk of ruining the tantalising romance of writing – trying to research and write a book on politics, as it’s happening, while also holding down a five day a week column is whatever the opposite of “fun” is.

Still, five months of frantic, occasionally painful effort later, I’m now gazing at my new 90-something-thousand word baby and thinking “OK, when do we start on the next one?”

Yes, it was a close run thing since The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat goes onto shelves on Monday, but now I have my own copy and feel genuinely relieved that I don’t have to photocopy a bunch of them for the launch.

Which, incidentally, is WEDNESDAY 28 SEPTEMBER at Newtown’s Better Read Than Dead – it’s free, but you’ll need to register here and I’ll be signing whatever anyone wants me to sign: my books, other people’s books, small animals, slow moving vehicles, whatever. Please note that there will also be wine.

Said launch will be hosted by my friend and fellow Double Disillusionist Dom Knight – and, speaking of the podcast, we did a new one just the other day with the amazing, entertaining and wonderfully gossipy Alice Workman, BuzzFeed’s Canberra-based politics wrangler.

I really hope you enjoy the book. I’m genuinely proud of it.

Hopefully see you at some book-related thing soon, friends.

Yours ever,

APS

PS: Why not read a little excerpt from the book all about the plebiscite?

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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,

APS

Election time – and some book/podcast news!

Dear the Internet,

Sure, this page’s less-then-stellar update schedule makes things look like they’ve been quieter than they’ve been. But there’s some stuff to talk about! Honest! No, really!

Podcasts! They're the future (of talking things).

Podcasts! They’re the future (of talking things).

To start with: if you’ve been thinking “I could really do with hearing APS rant straight into my ears” then be advised that m’self and Chaser/ABC radio alumnus Dom Knight have just begun The Double Disillusionists, a weekly election podcast that’s better than all those other weekly election podcasts from less caffeinated people.*

It’s at Soundcloud right now, at PocketCast, and will be up at iTunes shortly!

Also, that Australian music book that got mentioned a little while ago has been gently put aside for a little while in order to focus on a completely new book. Oh, Australian politics: I keep trying to get out, and you just keep sucking me back in.

Yes, there’s going to be a sequel to The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott, focussing on the Turnbull epoch and taking us up to the election, because I am a sucker for punishment.

And while that’s being written at a rate of knots, View from the Street is still happening five days a week at the Sydney Morning Herald, of course.

It’s going to be a busy election campaign, basically, and I’m going to spend it neck deep in federal politics. What the hell have I signed up for?

Yours ever,

APS

*Probably.

A longish rant about the changes to the Senate Ballot, because WHAT COULD BE MORE EXCITING???

Dear the Internet,

Because I don’t want to spend an entire View from the Street column delving into the minutia of the Senate ballot, I thought I’d put the thing here where reading it was rather more optional. And thank you, incidentally: I know you upper-house obsessives like to party!

Pictured: what talking about the Senate is like.

Pictured: what talking about the Senate is like.

In case you can’t remember the process that occurred between you queuing up and hitting the sausage sizzle last election day, here’s how the Senate ballot has traditionally worked: either one vote for the party of your choice (voting “above the line’), or numbering every single candidate in order (“below the line”).

Unsurprisingly, most people vote above the line – 95 per cent, specifically, according to ABC statistical machine and stone-cold genius Antony Green – partially because it’s a lot quicker, partially because the majority of people vote for either the Coalition or Labor and therefore don’t need to worry about if their vote will be assigned elsewhere on preferences, and mainly because the only real motivation to number literally hundreds of boxes is to make a point of putting the most overtly bigoted parties last on the balllot.

(As those waiting for me to get out of the damn booth can attest, it really does take a while: the NSW state election was similarly arduous, but commitment to putting Fred Nile last requires certain sacrifices.)

It’s also worth pointing out that in a normal election half of the 12 senators per state are on the ballot (Senate terms are six years, as opposed to the House of Representatives which is three – NT and ACT have two senators each, who also sit three year terms, incidentally), and thus in order to win they have to get 16.67 per cent of the vote.

Remember that number – it gets significant shortly.

If you’re first or second on the Coalition/Labor ticket, you’re all but guaranteed to keep your job (Eric Abetz is #1 on the Liberal senate ticket in Tasmania and Cory Bernardi is the same in SA, so job performance is evidently not a huge deciding factor in who gets pole position). In South Australia Nick Xenophon are also safe, and most states will also vote in a Green every election or so.

The interesting things happen at the bottom, for those parties that don’t get that 16.67 per cent vote in their own right.

Those parties allocate their preferences to other parties, and while it’s portrayed as a secretive and sinister process of “preference harvesting” it’s a) fairly predictable since for the most part the left-leaning parties preference to the left and the right leaning ones to the right, and b) that group ticket is registered with the Australian Electoral Commission, who do the counting. However, voting for one microparty makes it fairly likely that your vote will go somewhere else.

That process is affected by the number of microparties – the more there are, the harder it is to predict the outcome – and it reached its apogee (or nadir, depending on your political outlook) at the 2013 election when the Motoring Enthusiast Party’s candidate Ricky Muir won a Victorian senate seat despite only gaining 0.51 per cent of the primary vote.

The new system that’s being proposed allows above-the-line preferencing (in other words, instead of only voting 1, voters can rank the parties in order), thus ending the back room preference harvesting in favour of direct democracy, right?

Well… here’s the thing.

The new system will make it all but impossible for any new parties to emerge in the future – so you can see why it appeals to the existing ones – and with the exception of the popular Nick Xenophon in SA pretty much guarantees that the only candidates that will get into the upper house are professional politicians.

Of course, these laws wouldn’t be getting passed if it was just a good thing for Australian democracy. They’re being passed because they’re to the advantage of those passing them.

For the Coalition it’s a slam dunk: a quick glance at the cross bench will confirm that most of the independents are right-leaning and therefore easy pick-ups under the new system (which, again, shows how that both whatever else the Abbott and Turnbull governments are, they’re lousy negotiators – how can they have passed so little legislation past a bunch of people with whom they largely agree?)

Labor too are hypothesised to benefit under the new ballot – not as much as the Coalition, hence their reticence to pass the laws – and since Nick Xenophon easily romps in his SA ballot in his own right, a preferencing system would do his new party a lot of good.
It gets more interesting with the Greens, who would probably lose seats – but, crucially, in a Senate with fewer independents the Greens would be very, very likely to hold the balance of power.

The problems with implementing the laws now and then calling a snap Double Dissolution are many – aside from the fact that DD is a huge Constitutional event designed to short-circuit a major parliamentary crisis rather than being used as a petulant excuse to hold an early election before a leader’s popularity slips.

One is that it leaves the Australian Electoral Commission very little time to change the systems, although they’ve supposedly been quietly preparing for this likely eventuality for a while, if my journalistic contacts within the public service can be trusted.

Secondly, there’s the fact that it leaves very little time to educate voters about how the Senate ballot has changed after 30 years, but again: a slew of informal votes, while bad for democracy, would be unlikely to hurt the government. Exactly which votes will count is a far bigger deal than it might immediately appear, incidentally, and Green explains it with great clarity at his blog.

A third problem is rather more tricky for Turnbull, which is that DD is a full Senate election – and with all twelve senators per state, the quotas are therefore halved to 8.3 per cent.

That’s a much, much lower bar – and there’s a solid chance that high profile cross benchers like David Leyonjhelm, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus would clear it. How does Turnbull fancy a Senate where legislation is dependent on a cross bench fuming over how the government attempted to destroy their careers?

The alternative of course would be to go full term – or at least follow-through on the already-expressed plan to hold an election around September – which would give the AEC time to get software up to scratch and educate the public about this fairly important change to the method by which they vote.

But strategically – and let’s be honest, that’s why the change is being made – it would be better for Malcolm if he choses the dramatic and expensive option to go early before the government’s popularity slips any further amid disappearing ministers, children being sent back to Nauru, moves to privatise Medicare and the growing concerns over Australian property and share prices that seem to presage an economic slump.

Also, a snap DD would give the independent senators less time to remind their electorates that they exist – although who could be unaware of the sheer animal charisma of rock star senators like Family First’s Bob Day in SA and PUP’s Zhenya “Dio” Wang in WA?

And more importantly, if Leyonhjelm and Lambie carry out their threat to vote down any piece of government legislation if the new ballot becomes law, it would give the government a legitimate crisis for which a DD would be the only obvious solution.

In other words: if the changes pass – and they will – an election will not be far behind.

So don’t expect the government to rule out a GST hike, or privatising Medicare, or anything else that might be risky to take to an election: Turnbull will hanging on to them now in order to claim that he had a mandate to implement them later.

After all, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a manipulated Australian voter!

Yours ever,

APS

“Politics isn’t a popularity contest”

Some statements are uttered so often that you no longer realise what utter bullshit they are

Fun fact: this is the exact note that Andrew Peacock used in his unsuccessful spill motion against PM Malcolm Fraser in 1981

Fun fact: this is the exact note that Andrew Peacock used in his unsuccessful spill motion against PM Malcolm Fraser in 1981

It’s a cliché that politicians lie, but one of the most hilarious things that is said by pollies from all sides of the political spectrum (though most often when they’re in power) is one that is taken as some sort of noble truth when it is in fact, if you take a second to think about it, utter steaming nonsense.

And it is this: “politics isn’t a popularity contest”.

Usually it’s said to a reporter by a beleaguered politician trying to enact a programme or policy that is getting hammered with criticism in the public sphere – selling off public land or closing a hospital or some such thing – and is meant to evoke their high-minded commitment to principle over the ill-informed howls of the unwashed rabble.

“This is good policy,” this politician will declare, before sighing to indicate the terrible weight of responsibility under which they ceaselessly labour and adding “and politics isn’t a popularity contest. We have to do what’s right.”

And oh, what a condescending load of arse that statement is.

Why? Because government is completely and utterly a popularity contest.

That’s not to say that public opinion is sometimes important or electorally valuable: all politics is 100% a popularity contest all of the time. It is literally the entire job – and those who forget this fact are rewarded by not being in power for very long.

It doesn’t even matter what kind of government we’re talking about. Unpopular leaders get replaced by their parties. Unpopular parties get voted out in democratic elections. Unpopular dictators get overthrown in coups, most often by someone more popular with the military. Unpopular monarchs get assassinated by their scheming uncles and ambitious advisors.

It’s even true in popular science fiction: the Sith allegedly spent millennia carefully plotting and scheming to get Emperor Palpatine in control of the galaxy, and he blew it in a couple of decades by being enough of a jerk to make a decent size slab of the population violently oppose him. If he’d built more space hospitals and fewer Death Stars then the Rebel Alliance would never have been motivated enough to start painting up their X-Wings in matching livery.

(And seriously: Death Star? Did the Empire not even consider test marketing that name? You need to call it something people can get behind – after all, that’s why Australia’s anti-asylum seeker programme “Operation Sovereign Borders” isn’t called “Hunt Down And Scare Off The Boats Filled With Brown People”.)

Popularity is the entire job of being a successful politician. “Popular” comes from the same Latin root as “population”: popularis, meaning “by, of, or for the people”. To govern the populace, you must be of the populace: in other words, popular.

That’s not to say that governments don’t have to do things that people don’t like in the best long-term interests of the nation. In those cases they either have to convincingly argue the case so that people understand what’s at stake, or they have to plough through, take their punches and hope that they have enough goodwill in reserve to get them over the rough patch.

But any politician that says “it’s not a popularity contest” isn’t showing they’re above the fray: they’re telling you to shut up.

And that’s a great way to make yourself unpopular.

A little Xmas song for the Australian front bench

…because something’s got to distract from our terrifying new immigration laws.

"You know what's great? Satire!"

“You know what’s great? Satire!”

The speculation about whether Hockey would be knifed in favour of Turnbull set my muse alight on wings of poetical gossamer, to the tune of ‘Let It Snow’. You know, because nothing – NOTHING – is a bigger agent of change than a parodic song with political intent!

Well, the media sharks are circling,
And the PR blitz ain’t workling,
And someone’s going to have to go –
Let it Joe! Let it Joe! Let it Joe!

The front bench is kerfuffled,
And it’s time that it got reshuffled
And we can’t dump the leader, so…
Let it Joe! Let it Joe! Let it Joe!

The economy’s in the can
And the budget is yet to pass
So maybe we should get a man
Who’s perhaps slightly less of an arse;

For the economy is a-tankin’,
And these mines need investment bankin’,
And the press prefer Turnbull, so:
Let it Joe! Let it Joe! Let it Joe!

And while we’re here, you may enjoy catching up with the last few weeks of my View from the Street columns at the Sydney Morning Herald. There’s one way to find out!

"And furthermore, Madam Speaker, if the Senate will not capitulate to my demands on immigration reform, I shall not hesitate to activate the Omega Device." View from the Street: Refugee children magically become bargaining chips

One of those wildly overdue update things, with bonus explainer about governments

A special post for newcomers who are itching to tell me I’m a lefty jerk

Our national coat of arms, featuring two emblematic creatures that work brilliantly in a curry.

Our national coat of arms, featuring two emblematic creatures that work brilliantly in a curry.

Hello, internet. You’re looking well.

I’m not going to lie to you, friend: it’s been a busy old time.

That’s mainly been because of my five-day-a-week online column at the Sydney Morning Herald, which is called View from the Street – yes, I’m the titular Street (here’s today’s column, if you’re interested) – and which is most likely the reason you came here. That, or a very creepily specific porn search.

Something that’s coming up increasingly often because of said column is that I have an anti-Coalition agenda. And that’s not really true: I disagree vehemently with most of the things they’re attempting to do, but that’s because I think they’re pursuing lousy policy rather than because I have a deep-seated loathing of conservatism.

See, conservatives can have good ideas. Progressives are occasionally wrong. The way to establish the quality of a political party’s idea, in my opinion, is to ask the question: does this specific policy contribute to human wellbeing and societal stability?

If the answer is yes, then congratulations: that’s a good bit of policy you have there! If not, then it’s bad policy and should be, at the very least, taken back to the shop for some serious remodelling, possibly with a mallet.

And most of the time it’s pretty straightforward to answer those questions, especially if you bother to ask them in the first place.

So, in order to better understand where I’m coming from, here’s an excerpt from my Here’s The Thing column at TheVine entitled “Governments: Why Do We Even?” explaining that governments are around for a reason, and it’s a pretty great one.

Humans are kinda rubbish at survival on our own. We’re naked and weak and we don’t run especially fast and we don’t have tough shells or huge claws or any of those other things that more robust species have.

One major problem is our big stupid heads, which we need because of our enormous brains. We walk upright in part because that’s the best way to distribute that hefty weight, and walking upright necessitates having a narrow pelvis. Combine narrow pelvises and gigantic skulls and you need to give birth to offspring that are basically fetuses that need a hell of a lot of looking after just to survive. In just about every other species a newborn can fend for itself more or less from birth: human babies are notoriously bad at it.

What we do have – the thing that we’re really, really good at – is working together. Our big brains are great at working out what other people are likely to be thinking, and therefore changing our behaviour accordingly so we can work better together. Lots of animals do that, of course, but we’re amazingly good at it.

About ten thousand years ago we started settling down in places rather than moving around, building permanent settlements and inventing stuff like agriculture as a way to feed a growing mass of people.

Societies started to grow, and the societies where people lived better lives became (understandably) more popular with people than those where things were terrible. Stability brought prosperity, and prosperity bought neat stuff like art and science and culture. Turns out that when humans aren’t living hand to mouth, they have time to think about stuff like “y’know, this shovel could be better designed” and “hey, what do you reckon stars are?”

And that’s also where the idea of laws, and for that matter religion, comes from: a series of rules under which society is stable, and in which the constituents live better lives than they otherwise could do on their own. As this became more codified we ended up with things like governments.

And stability doesn’t sound sexy – anarchy gets a cool symbol and everything – but it’s where where big-brained, small-teethed humans turned things to their advantage. We didn’t have to fight, and we had time to think. And that changed everything.

Once you conclude that governments are in place to maintain the stability that leads to prosperity, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to tell whether something is a great idea or a terrible one. Is society made better by a particular policy? Does it hurt people, or does it help people?

If that’s your criteria, you don’t need to speculate on whether a leader is a good and moral person or not, or whether a party is sticking to their guns or betraying their base or any of those other pointless questions. You can ask “is this specific piece of legislation or policy actually helpful to people?”

That’s the important question, and the challenge for governments is to answer that question with “yes, and here’s why”, rather than angrily insist that their opinion is more valid than evidence.

Yours ever,

APS

PS:

Speaking of Here’s the Thing, I wrote one today on why we should be protesting the cuts to the ABC. Yes, I really do write a lot.  That’s why I look so tired all the time.