Who needs science when you’ve got Wiki?

October 24, 2013

There are days when you read the political news and know that you’ll walk away angry.

There are days when you despair.

There are even days – rare, but they do happen – when a tiny, tiny shred of hope is kindled.

And then there are days like today, when you simply have to pick your jaw up off the floor and try not to let the sheer stupidity of it all overwhelm you.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the Coalition has a somewhat – shall we say – problematic relationship with the notion of climate change, and what might be done to mitigate its effects. Historically, the Liberal/National Parties have held more positions on the subject than might be found in the Kama Sutra. Malcolm Turnbull was toppled from the leadership just before he could commit to supporting the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, thanks to the machinations of former Senator Nick Minchin, the Coalition’s very own ‘faceless man’. As for the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the term ‘weather vane’ is used without irony to describe his feelings on the subject. Famously describing climate change as ‘absolute crap’, the PM apparently had a change of heart and was prepared to embrace the science – but only up to a point.

Currently, New South Wales is embroiled in an ongoing bushfire emergency. Of the three major firefronts, one is burning over 40,000 hectares. Around 200 houses have been destroyed, with countless others damaged. One man lost his life, and a water-bombing aircraft has crashed, killing the pilot. Between unpredictable winds, high temperatures and heavy undergrowth, the hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes are constantly having to respond to new emergencies. And it’s only October – months earlier than the ‘usual’ fire season.

Now, these are by no means the worst bushfires ever seen in NSW, or even the earliest. The fact that they are taking place, however, combined with the unseasonal weather, inevitably brings up the question of whether climate change is a major contributor. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was unequivocal on the subject. Although she stopped short of directly addressing the current fires, she pointed to studies showing that there was a known link between the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, and wildfires. She was joined by scientists and climate activists in calling for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases, and criticising the Coalition government’s determination to repeal carbon pricing.

Unsurprisingly, the Coalition rejected that argument. The Prime Minister wasn’t simply content with that, however. When asked what he thought about Figueres’ statement, Abbott replied that she was ‘talking through her hat’. Australia has always had bushfires; they are ‘part of the Australian experience’.

You have to admit, that’s pretty impressive. In one short interview, the PM managed to not only insult a senior figure in the UN, but also to dismiss the pain, stress and loss of everyone caught up in these fires. It takes real skill to be that insensitive.

But it gets better.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt was quick to back up his leader. His contribution was to flatly deny that Figueres’ statement had even taken place. According to Hunt, Figueres had a conversation with the PM in which she ‘very clearly and strongly’ said there was no link. Continuing his role as unofficial, unwanted spokesperson, he said Figueres had been misrepresented. Never mind the plethora of footage contradicting him.

Not content with putting words in Figueres’ mouth, Hunt apparently felt it was necessary to support Abbott’s arguments. Now, you’d think the right approach – especially from someone with the academic ability to gain a Bachelor of Laws and win a Fulbright Scholarship – would be to gather your evidence and distil it down to a few pithy talking points.

You’d think.

Hunt had a different idea. For reasons passing understanding, he told the BBC World Service that bushfires occurred during the hotter months of the year, and had done so since before European settlement. And just how did he know that?

He’d … wait for it … ‘looked up what Wikipedia said, just to see what the rest of the world thought’.

Wikipedia.

I wish I were making this up.

Our Environment Minister proudly announced – to the world – that his go-to source for facts and figures was an online pseudo-encyclopedia famous for its lack of oversight, inaccuracies, biases and edit wars.

A website on which the words of a scientist are indistinguishable from the words of a zealot, where celebrities are declared dead, and where harassed moderators frequently have to ‘lock’ pages to prevent users with an axe to grind from posting information that damages reputations. To say it’s unreliable is like saying a flood makes you ‘a little wet’.

Children are cautioned at primary school not to rely on Wikipedia. At secondary school, they’re positively discouraged from using it at all – and by tertiary level, it’s completely unacceptable. (I remember delivering that particular admonition to my first year students every semester – right after the warnings about plagiarism.)

The stories range from the serious to the utterly absurd. Take the long-running edit war over Caesar Salad. For over two years, editors have argued over whether this dish was invented in Ancient Rome or (relatively) modern Mexico, and tussled over the vexed question of whether adding tomatoes means you have to change the name. Then there’s the Great Scientology Edit War, which led ultimately to Wikipedia’s moderators banning the Church from editing its own pages. That final decision came after four years of back-and-forth that spilled over into mainstream media and threats of legal action, as ex-members sought to represent their negative experiences, only to have their work removed by current members bent on ‘correction’ (or sanitisation, depending on your point of view).

Oh, and let’s not forget the premature obituaries – like that of Apple’s Steve Jobs. News of his ‘death’ – originally an on-file obituary misprinted by Bloomberg – hit Wikipedia within seconds, back in 2008. Jobs, of course, was alive and well, but for the short time he was ‘dead’ on the internet, pandemonium reigned.
Perhaps this was a contributing factor in the way Apple’s stock plummeted later that year, when a fake article reported Jobs had suffered a heart attack.

Hunt himself fell victim to this sort of tampering after his statement hit the media. His page was edited to say that he ‘uses Wikipedia for important policy research’. Another gem noted that, since becoming Environment Minister, ‘He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise’. Soon after, the page was locked – but his comments about using Wikipedia are still there.

I could go on, but really, the point hardly needs to be made. Wikipedia may be handy for a quick look-up when nothing’s riding on the accuracy of your information. It may even be useful to lead you to other sources with a good deal more credibility. But when you’re the Federal Environment Minister, dealing with a serious situation in which lives, homes and businesses are under threat, you owe it to Australians to do at least some credible research.

This is the man who co-authored a thesis which concluded that a ‘pollution tax’ linked to the market was the best way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and runaway climate change. Presumably, he was required to provide good supporting references, so he hardly has any excuse for such a fatuous statement. But this is the example he’s prepared to set for the rest of the world.

Hunt is apparently happy for the world to know that our government is prepared to take the word of a group of unknown contributors – many of whom have little or no credentials – rather than listen to the experts on its own (now disbanded) Climate Change Commission. To represent us as so unwilling to even consider the possibility of a link between wildfires and climate change that we’d rather elevate a poorly-supervised website to the status of science.

It’s embarrassing. And it’s dangerous. Hunt’s ridiculous behaviour today is, unfortunately, just a symptom of the dumbing-down taking place in all areas of government right now, treating us like children and expecting us to believe whatever they tell us just because it comes from a place of power.

We need to be careful that we don’t let the sheer stupidity of it blind us to that fact – and that we don’t let it go unchallenged.

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ACT’s marriage bill is only the beginning

October 22, 2013

The ACT passed its same-sex marriage bill today. Congratulations, and it’s about time.

Picture via Sky News Australia

Picture via Sky News Australia

It’s not the bill they wanted. It isn’t comprehensive. It won’t allow trans or intersex, or non-binary gender identifying people to marry. The ACT’s Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, had the bill re-drafted after receiving legal advice that its original language would leave it vulnerable to a High Court challenge (already threatened by the Liberal government). The result was a much smaller victory than was hoped for, and no doubt there will be many, many people who feel both let down and excluded. There’s certainly a fair amount of bitterness flying around social media today.

The idea that this bill needed to be amended in such a way to even have a hope of standing up to a legal challenge is, at the very least, disappointing. At worst, it’s infuriating.

But it doesn’t take away the fact that the ACT passed a bill to allow same-sex marriage. It doesn’t take away the fact that this is a landmark reform. And it doesn’t take away the fact that a Territory government was prepared to stand up to a conservative government and pass a law that will redress so much of the damage done by the Marriage Act and its narrow definitions.

The ACT managed it through some clever legal manoeuvring, taking advantage of a loophole in the Marriage Act which, ironically, was created by the Howard government’s insistence on defining marriage as taking place between ‘a man and a woman’. Rather than attempting to change that, the new law stands alone in applying solely to same-sex couples. It operates side-by-side with the Commonwealth’s law, and the Territory is confident that this will be the defining characteristic that allows it to remain on the books.

The Chief Minister has already said that, as far as she’s concerned, there is more work to be done. She signalled that if the law withstood the expected challenge, the Territory would seek to pass further laws extending marriage to those couples excluded by the one passed today. This first law is the test.

That it should even have to be a test is utterly repugnant – but that has been the history of the bill all along.

Attorney-General George Brandis wrote to Gallagher, ‘urging’ her not to go ahead with the bill. His reasoning? Marriage should be uniform across all States and Territories. Of course, what he really meant was, ‘uniform according to one limited definition’.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the government would challenge the law. His reasoning? Marriage has a ‘traditional’ definition. Traditional, of course, meaning, ‘enshrined in law since 1984 on the basis of special pleading’.

This law hurts nobody. No one will be required to ‘get gay married’, nor will they be required to give up their heterosexual marriage. Yes, I’m being absurd, but the notion that same-sex marriage somehow hurts or undermines heterosexual unions warrants this level of scorn.

What this law will do is redress a great wrong. It will celebrates love. It acknowledges that nearly 70% of Australians support doing away with the artificial distinction between marriage based entirely on gender. To be pseudo-economic about it, having this law in place increases the Gross National Happiness – which always bodes well for governments, even if all they want to talk about is the Budget deficit or unemployment rate.

And yet.

We have a government that – even before the debate really got off the ground in the ACT Parliament – decided that this law could not be allowed to stand.

If the Abbott government carries out its threat to challenge the ACT’s same-sex marriage law, it will not be about tradition, or uniformity, or any other of its usual excuses.

It will be pandering to a vocal minority of religious lobby groups who feel they have the right to dictate that we should all live by their doctrines.

It will be vicious discrimination from a government that feels its job is to control how people live their lives, and punish them for who they love.

It will be narrow-minded pettiness from a government so obsessed with image, to the point that it cannot bear to be seen to lose even one of its self-imposed battles.

It will be the action of a government that acts like a spoiled child, refusing to let anyone else be happy unless they play by rules that only it can define – rules which it can change on little more than a whim.

And if – heaven forfend – such a challenge were upheld by the High Court, it would not be a victory. It would be a day of shame.

It’s not often I urge readers to take to the streets, to sign petitions, to campaign unceasingly and take the fight to the politicians and the media. But there are some things that should be defended, passionately and unceasingly. Marriage equality is one of those. What the ACT did today was take the first, huge step towards true equality, by locking into law the right for same-sex couples to marry. It’s not good enough for us to sit back and watch while the Federal Government acts – again – like a bully determined to get its own way, no matter who gets hurt. It’s not good enough for us to simply complain, or lash out at those who would do this to us, or the ones we love, or even the stranger in the street who deserves the same rights as everyone else.

We are better than that. And this is only the beginning.

lesbian couple


Labor’s task – unite behind Shorten, and do it quickly

October 13, 2013

It was supposed to be an exercise in participatory democracy. It was supposed to show the country that the Australian Labor Party was open and inclusive when it came to deciding who its leaders would be. Most of all, it was supposed to be a signal that Labor had moved beyond the kind of factional manoeuvring that had turfed out two sitting Prime Ministers.

It captivated news cycles, drawing attention away from the new Abbott government as pundits tried to find the flaw in the system, and waited with bated breath for attack-type electioneering that never materialised. The campaign between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was civil to the point of being almost boring. The two men praised each other’s record in Parliament, and refused to be drawn when invited to criticise. If anything, they were in danger of being seen as too similar.

The procedure was simple – the candidate who achieved an overall majority of votes would be elected leader. That majority was composed of 50% of Federal Caucus, and 50% of rank-and-file membership votes. In theory, this would achieve the most representative result, and silence those critics who insisted that Labor was entirely at the mercy of its factions, ignoring the membership.

There was an inherent problem in the procedure, however. If the caucus and the membership voted different ways, and the Caucus vote was ultimately the deciding factor, the result could easily be seen as a sign that nothing had really changed. For the procedure to be seen as truly ‘representative’ and free of factional politicking, the new leader needed to be elected via the rank-and-file vote. It’s all in the perception.

Unfortunately for Labor, the new leader – Bill Shorten – was elected on the Caucus vote. His numbers broke down this way:

Caucus vote: 63.9% (55 of 86)
Rank-and-file vote: 40% (12,196 of 30,426)
Overall vote: 52.2%

It’s absolutely clear that Shorten did not have the confidence of the rank-and-file – and with the new procedure effectively weighting the result such that one Caucus vote is roughly equivalent to 350 membership votes, it’s fair to say that this system does not provide a clear picture of the party’s wishes. Nor is it necessarily truly representative. Unless the rank-and-file overwhelmingly votes against the Caucus, their preferred candidate has little chance of gaining the leadership. More likely, factions within the Caucus will continue to exert control.

These flaws leave Labor entirely vulnerable to attack from the Coalition government, on grounds with which the latter are entirely comfortable. The situation is worsened by the election of Bill Shorten, who is perhaps irrevocably tainted by his past actions. His ties to the unions are, perhaps, the least of the problem. Labor has always drawn much of its strength from the union movement. His role as the prime mover in removing first Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard, from their positions as Prime Minister, however, is far more damaging to Labor in Opposition.

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

The attack ads and speeches write themselves. Labor has handed the Coalition a perfect way to avoid scrutiny. Take the asylum seeker issue, for example. Let’s say Shorten holds a press conference criticising the government over its high-handed attitude towards Indonesian sovereignty. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison need not answer any charge Shorten might bring – he has a script available to him to deflect attention onto the ‘ongoing disunity’ within Labor.

It’s already happening. Within minutes of the announcement, Jamie Briggs fronted the media. As expected, he called on Shorten to vote to repeal carbon pricing – but on the heels of that came the first test of the new script, courtesy of the media. What did Briggs think of the fact that the Caucus and the rank-and-file had voted differently? Briggs obligingly picked up his cue, and the rest was entirely predictable.

Of course, none of this speaks to Shorten’s ability to lead Labor. There’s no reason to believe he will be anything but a good leader – and, however flawed the new system, he was properly elected. The problem is entirely in the perception, and manipulating perceptions is a key strength of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his front bench. Shorten is vulnerable, and there’s every reason to think Abbott will exploit both his history and the leadership ballot result. Had Albanese been elected, there would be no such opportunity for the Coalition, but there is little point in wasting time on counter-factuals.

In the coming days, Albanese’s action will go far towards countering any message of disunity. He’s seen as perhaps the most loyal of Labor’s front bench, putting the party first and wearing that loyalty on his sleeve. There’s no doubt he will attract a great deal of media scrutiny, looking for any sign that his support for Shorten is anything but unconditional – and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll find one.

The heavy lifting cannot be purely left to Albanese, however. One of Labor’s major failings, both in government and during the election campaign, was its inability to clearly communicate its message. It’s true that the media had largely written the narrative, often without even speaking with Labor – or had discounted the party entirely. It’s also true that the Coalition embraces the tactic of ‘repeat something often enough and others will come to believe it’. Nonetheless, Labor did not – and perhaps could not – cut through, and the election result was partly of its own making.

Now, in Opposition, the party has an opportunity to rehabilitate its image – but it must be a party-wide effort. With Shorten as leader, an uphill battle has become that much harder. Labor needs to do everything possible to bury Shorten’s history – not deny it, not attempt to explain it away, but to drown it out with a show of unity that is not undermined by disgruntled factional members or damaged by strategic leaks. (And no, this doesn’t mean Kevin Rudd. People really need to get over it.)

Above all, Labor needs to do it quickly. It can’t afford to let the government gain any momentum with a disunity message – it has to take the fight right up to the coalface of policy, and show itself entirely unmoved by the insistence that it has no choice but to fall into line with the Coalition’s platform. If the party falls in behind Shorten and sticks to its stated principles, it can become an extremely effective Opposition.

If it doesn’t, it will only have itself to blame.


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