Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Demise of Family First

After the last election Kim at Larvateus Prodeo joyfully announced that Family First's poor result was finished. I considered it to early to be so sure. In many ways the FF position in 2007 mirrored that of the Greens in 1998. Similar vote, each party left with one ongoing Senator.

The Australian Greens had 2 state MPs and one member in the ACT assembly at this point, while Family First has two in South Australia. Granted the WA Greens, technically a separate party had 3 state MPs. However, the Christian Democrats are almost as closely aligned with Family First as the two Green parties were, and they've got two members in the NSW Legislative Council. All up the situations look pretty comparable.

Given the subsequent rise of the Greens I wasn't confident Family First were dead.
However, circumstances have changed.

Post 98 the Greens needed some wins, and they got them. First electing avid Risstrom to Melbourne City Council (not only the first Green Party local councilor in Victoria, but to the most prestigious and powerful council). Then Lee Rhiannon was elected to the NSW Upper House. Some good by-election results (along with some bad ones) kept things rolling along until WA added another couple of state MPs and Queensland got a big swing at the 2001 election. All this before Tampa.

Family First's situation has been the opposite. They didn't run in the ACT or NT elections, did badly in WA and failed to make much impact at the various by-elections.

Now the Queensland result has been devastating. In 2006 Family First got over 4% in almost every seat they contested in Queensland, and broke 10% in two. This time they are currently above 4% in four seats (although to be fair they will probably creep over in two more). No result is above 5%.

Let's acknowledge two things. Firstly it was a harder election for them. There were more independents running than last time, the Daylight Saving Party gave a bit of competition in the South-East and they had a Green in every seat (last time their best results were where Greens didn't run). A close election also usually makes it harder for smaller parties.

On top of this Family First no doubt knew they couldn't win anywhere and would not have tried that hard.

Still, all that taken into account this is a terrible result for them. They've been outvoted by the Daylight Saving mob, on totals if not averages. They've dropped totally off the radar at a time when their Senator's profile has never been higher. They've demonstrated they have no serious party machine in Queensland and should not be taken seriously as able to deliver on preference deals.

Prior to the next federal election there are two more state polls: Tasmania and South Australia. Family First didn't run in the last Tasmanian poll, and I don't expect to see them contest this one. In South Australia they will probably hold the seat that is up for re-election, but unless they can go forwards in a big way they will be entering the federal election at a very low ebb. A half senate election will see them wiped out, with the two SA state MPs hanging on as a strange reminder of times past.

I have argued elsewhere that in a Double Dissolution they have a chance of winning a seat or two, and I still think this is correct. However, even this will just delay the inevitable, since they will certainly be short term Senators.

I think we can now be pretty confident right-wing religious influence in our parliament will soon be confined to the ranks of the major parties.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Counting One's Unblessings

Pavlov's Cat has a predictably charming piece about feeling slightly depressed and trying to cheer oneself up by counting one's blessings. As she notes this can be ruined by a small voice in one's head:

The lemon tree was not killed by the 47 degree heat and is thriving. Yes, but its roots are probably what's blocking next door's plumbing.

Obama won the election. Yes, but look at the state of the world.

I particularly like this one: Labor's in federally and in nearly all the states. Yes, but how can you tell?

I think we may be observing the origins of a meme.

The first comment is also a gem.

I haven't been depressed lately (lovesick yes, but it's not the same thing). Nevertheless the last few weeks have not been filled with good news, so I would like to add my own: Cadbury's dairy milk chocolate is going to go fair trade, lifting thousands, perhaps millions out of poverty. Yes but all hope of weightloss is now definitely dead.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why the Queensland Election Matters

Many blog commentators are running with the theme, “The Queensland election hardly matters. State governments don’t do much these days anyway.” This line is perhaps a little stronger than usual because the powers of Brisbane City Council, for example over transport, mean the Queensland Government is arguably less powerful than its equivalents.

Nevertheless, I think the claim is wrong. This isn’t just because I think state governments still do a lot of important things, although I do, it’s because I think this election has far more significance for the future of Australian politics than most. For that reason its disappointing that those in a position to know regard the electorate as more than usually disengaged.

The background to this is that I have thought for some time that the Liberal Party is in danger of collapse as a serious political force. I doubt the collapse will come quickly, and I expect them to keep winning occasional state elections for some time to come. Nevertheless, I think without external salvation the combination of a declining talent base and an inability to face up to the implications of climate change will discredit them as a serious possibility for government, and without this the Liberals whole raison d’ĂȘtre ceases.

When I proposed this theory some time ago I noted that a global economic crisis in Rudd’s first term of government could change this, and give the Libs the liferaft they need. I’m sure I’ve seen one of those around here somewhere, so I think there is a real chance the Libs can avoid the fate I have predicted for them, but I still think it will be touch and go.

So why does this Qld election matter? For two main reasons. Firstly it is the first outing of the Liberal National Party, formed in a less than ideal manner. If Springborg wins then winners are grinners, all the internal nastiness associated with the formation of the LNP will be forgotten and the new revived force will breathe life into the Coalition north of the Tweed, providing them with great assistance at future federal elections.

If they lose, however, there will be deep recriminations. It should be easy to beat tired fourth term governments, particularly when the economic situation is not good. All the elements in the Liberal Party who were done over in the process of forming the LNP will reappear full of recriminations and the battle will rage throughout the period when federal preselections should be taking place. With a tiny membership in marginal Brisbane seats, branch staking will run rife. The federal campaign will be a shemozzle, and after that the recriminations will be even worse. Many areas of Brisbane already lack the healthy party infrastructure to cope if someone of talent does turn up. Give it two years of infighting and there’ll be almost nothing left, both in Brisbane and a number of regional centres.

I’d make an exception here for the loss by one or two seats. In this case its possible the party will hold together as people see themselves as being just a by-election or two away from victory.

So this election could go a long way to determining whether the Liberals are a serious force in one fifth of the country. A fifth, moreover, that is particularly heavily endowed with marginal seats.

The other major reason I think it matters is in regard to the Greens. If the Liberals do collapse I don’t believe this will usher in some sort of permanent Labor rule. But it is a bit hard to see what would represent the alternative. One possibility is the rise of the Greens to the status of major opposition party, with the ALP becoming the dominant party of the right. The obstacle to this is the way the Greens keep flunking opportunities to gain toeholds in the Lower Houses of mainland state parliaments (and of course the House of Representatives).

If the Greens could win a few Lower House seats, and their MPs be seen as doing a good job, public perceptions could really change when people are desperate for an alternative to Labor Governments. The following election could see a raft of Green MPs, and one or two elections later government ceases to be ridiculous. But at the moment, ridiculous is exactly the word.

The problem is particularly acute in Queensland. Lacking a state Upper House, and without a senator, the Queensland Greens have much less of a party structure than the other states. Historically, the quality of their candidates has also been lower on average, and this is hardly surprising. The absence of any local councillors compounds the problem.

Having temporarily acquired an MP through Ronan Lee’s defection this election offers an unusual opportunity for the Greens to make that breakthrough. Doing so would put the Queensland Greens on an entirely different footing, and provide a significant boost for efforts to win lower house seats in other states. The fact that Lee is not the favourite candidate of many Greens is unfortunate, but would not necessarily diminish the significance of such a victory. If Larissa Waters were to be elected in Mt Coo-tha, with or without Lee, the achievement would be unambiguous.

Now let me state that I consider the chance of a Green victory small in either case, and negligible anywhere else. I consider the chance of LNP failure much larger. But both will be worth watching on Saturday night.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Music To Change The World By

Thornton McCamish quotes David Nichols in The Age today on U2. "This was a band that was made for people like me - middle class male, with a social conscience. And that annoys me even more. I don't need a soundtrack to my social conscience."

This annoyed me quite a lot, as does a lot of the criticism of Bono and U2. I'm also middle class and male and I bloody well do need a sound track to my social conscience. I find activism rewarding, but also bloody hard. Music, particularly music with political lyrics, helps inspire me to do what needs to be done.

Now I don't know David Nichols. I have no idea what he has done with his social conscience. I couldn't find evidence in his latest blog posts when I googled him. If he achieves a lot without the need for political lyrics good for him, but I resent the sneering condemnation of anyone who finds music reaffirming in their beliefs.

I'd add here that U2 have never been the most important band for me in sparking my activism. As my introductory post indicates, I prefer a much more obscure solo artist. And there are plenty of others who've meant more to me than the Irish foursome. I only own two of their albums, and can't find one of those. But I like the Joshua Tree and listening to it is more likely to raise than lower my next donation to Oxfam. I'd add that lyrics opposing violence or poverty don't seem so bad when you compare them with the self-indulgent paeans to one's current love object that make up the bulk of the music industry's output.

This whole thing seems to me to go with the frequent dissing of Bono for his activism. Now there are many, many ways I think Bono could be a better spokesperson for the movement to abolish poverty. Constructive criticism is good. Even carping criticism is fair enough if it comes from people at the coalface - representatives from the world's poor or the NGO workers who spend years in hell to make a difference. But you seldom hear it from those places.

The NGOs aren't always happy with Bono (still less with Geldof), but they don't go in for slagging the pair off as Irish millionaires who should shut their mouths except to sing. They know the two have saved millions of lives. If they'd been smarter and less arrogant they could have saved more, but I'll take their achievements any day over most of their critics, who can't seem to do a damned thing to make the world a better place other than sneer at the most visible representatives of those who are trying.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Real Threat

In the last few weeks I have, by implication, been called a murderer at least twice. Once was by Miranda Devine (with slightly more toned down versions by the usual suspects). She was alleging that environmentalists had sacrificed the lives of the people who died in Victoria's terrible bushfires by opposing fuel reduction burns. That very few environmentalists do oppose fuel reduction burns was irrelevant to her, as was the fact that the Victorian government seldom listens to the things the environment movement is pushing for anyway. Oh and that many of the most lethal fires went through areas that had been burnt recently anyway.

All this is old news. However, we've now had the spectacle of a Green Party member calling all those Greens who don't oppose flouridation murderers as well. Now I, like most of the fellow Greens I have spoken, to had a pretty open mind on flouridation. The opposition to her motion to condemn flouridation came from people who were concerned that process was being steamrolled and there was not adequate time to assess the issues. Only a handful had actually made up their mind in favour of flouridation.

I have read what appear to be intelligent arguements that conclude that overall the damage from flouride is larger than the benefit, and I was prepared to consider that these might be right. I knew that anti-flouridation campaigns had been discredited by some of the nutters who were involved, but tried to put this aside. Just because crazy people believe something doesn't mean it is necessarily crazy.

But the more the anti's spoke the more concerned I became. Many of the "facts" they claimed were things I was pretty sure were wrong. For example that the WHO was opposed. So I did a little research.

It didn't take long. I'm told National Greens policy on the matter is for a thorough inquiry into the issue, although I can't actually find it in our policy volume. However, if this policy exists its now out of date, because the NHMRC has done just such a study. It's a metastudy of all the recent research in the field (which is far more substantial than I had been lead to believe) and concludes that the only negative effects are aesthetic (discoloured teeth). As someone who suffers from this I don't trivailise its significance - if it affects one's love life it matters - but its certainly better than endless painful (and expensive) dentistry.

It's true that some studies have found small increases in serious conditions such as bone fracture rates in fluoridated areas, but even more have found reductions. Overall assessment is no net effect, and this applies for all the alleged forms of damage.

The important point here is not the issue of fluoridation itself. While the dangers are vastly less than opponents allege, it is also clear that the benefits are smaller than was originally thought, and are smaller still where good dental services exist. Much of the country has survived for many years without fluoride. If it was blocked it would not be a tragedy.

The danger is to the Greens. It is essential as a party that we make our decisions based on good science. The consequence of abandoning that path are all to clear in the last, unlamented, US administration.

This doesn't mean we should jump at every technology that has been proved "safe". There are arguments against Genetically Modified foods that go well beyond safety. Even if one considers the science settled here (and I'm not convinced it is) there is a case for opposition, at least temporarily. Even with fluoride, one can argue that philosophically people should not be forced to drink something they don't want, even if their fears are groundless.

But if we oppose these things we need to do it for good reasons, not because someone read something on an unreferenced website produced by an individual with clear mental health issues. If we go down that path we are in serious danger, because we will attract to the party people who don't understand how science works, and scare of those that do.