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A Royal Mess of Priorities

To say that Tuesday the 25th of March was an interesting day in Australian politics was an understatement. First up in the morning, we had the Attorney-General announce the long-awaited proposed changes to s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. And, as if that was not enough fuel for thought, in the late hours of the afternoon, on the day Governor-General Quentin Bryce completed her appointment, the Prime Minister announced the reinstatement of knights and dames in the Order of Australia.

Throw in the sentencing of Craig Thomson over the HSU scandal and the developing story involving Senator Arthur Sinodinos at ICAC and today could hardly have given political pundits and the public anymore fuel for debate.

After making an election commitment to repeal s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, the government released an exposure draft of proposed changes to the Act – changes which are remarkably similar to those I suggested last week. And of course that decision, which is to be debated before proceeding to the next stage, will be a heavily discussed and opined on topic in the Australian political discourse, particularly between now and April 30.

It was a government surprise coming in the late afternoon however, which really got social media talking. At 4pm, shortly before a farewell function for the outgoing vice-regal, the Prime Minister informed Australians that 2014 sees the return of knights and dames, albeit only four annually. Twitter erupted as those changes were announced. Jokes were rolled out thick and fast and the obligatory catchy hashtag was spawned.

This was a strange spectacle on Twitter. In the morning we had a very significant issue, in proposed changes to racial discrimination laws, given some substance by the government. Debate that, social media did – until about 4:01pm. Then it was all about Australia bringing back the Sirs and the Dames. And it continued in that fashion all night long. The s18c changes were paid scant regard, as with Craig Thomson’s sentencing and Senator Arthur Sinodinos’s ICAC hearing.

You are probably thinking, like me, that you know which issue was the most substantive, and which will have the biggest impact on Australian society and culture. Surely, for most reading this, it is not the return of an old titular honour which last ceased under Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Then again, I could be wrong. It all depends on whether the views of Twitter users as to what constitutes big news are reflective of that of broader society. If that is the case, then we are in a spot of trouble.

I am not entirely convinced that Twitter is always the best representation of society’s views. It is a mode for the loudest to express their views, however those with the loudest mouths often seem to express the most uncommon views in society. It is rarely a platform for the mainstream, more moderate of voices, though there are, as always, exceptions.

However, it does appear that the traditional media has taken notice of social media – as well they might when struggling to compete in a new media landscape. The major papers have, in varying degrees of absurdity, taken a stand on the smaller, more trivial issue of bestowing antiquated titles on people.

There was a theory being bandied about on Twitter, that the announcement on royally bestowed honours was used by the government as a distraction from the heat generated by the racial discrimination debate. If that is the case, shame on the majority of Australian’s for falling for it. We should have seen right through it as a non-issue and not been so incensed by what is a trivial matter in comparison.

The racial discrimination debate could change society. On the other hand, despite emotional protestations from republicans to the contrary, giving four people a year a title by appointment will have no impact on the Australian way of life. Making eminent people knights or dames will not create a renewed love for the monarchy. Only the sickening worship of these pseudo celebrities entrenches respect and admiration for the royal institution.

If republicans want a republic – and I consider myself one – we need to try much harder. If we think giving people titles will further entrench the monarchy, then perhaps we need to sharpen our arguments.

To be fair, our politicians need to learn how to prioritise better too. What was announced today was so inconsequential it should have been left off the government’s agenda for some time.

During the previous government, our political class spent a lot of energy on the often trivial nature of political debate. It seems there is a wish to continue down the path of being complicit in the dumbing down of debate and the avoidance of the hard issues.

The only question is whether we are being complacent, blissfully ignorant or willfully ignorant when it comes to deciding what matters most.

Social Media and the ‘Danger’ to the Liberal Party

Over the weekend Jessica Wright wrote an article  which appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald, saying that the Liberal Party had advised candidates not to post on social media and encouraged backbench MP’s to delete their social media accounts. The reported move comes ahead of the 2013 election and is said to have been made in order to, as one MP was quoted saying, “limit the stuff-ups and scandals.”

The reported decision from the head office of the federal Liberal Party is an interesting one and could, in itself, create more harm than it aims to prevent.

The move has already lead to a hashtag on social media site Twitter, #ThingsTooDangerousForTheLNP, with users posting examples of things which the Liberal Party might find to be either political trouble or politically dangerous.

Of course the first thing which springs to mind is the issue of trust. The party of the individual appears not to trust their own candidates to post sensible tweets and links.

Of course there has been examples of MP’s tweeting offensive remarks and that at all costs should be avoided. But the point is that candidates and backbenchers should be free to preach to the Twitterati about both their individual campaigns and the broader campaign of the Liberal Party. There may be slip-ups, but the presumption should be against that happening.

Deciding to urge prospective MP’s to close their social media accounts might also be in a bid to prevent previous poorly judged  or offensive comments from being unearthed by journalists and their opponent’s party officials.

This is a worry and should be far more of a concern to party headquarters than the less likely event of someone erring in the six to eleven months before the 2013 election. There has been a number of examples of harmful remarks being unearthed by the media, particularly during state election campaigns and there is the potential for this to happen.

But again the likelihood of this is low, though somewhat understandably an issue. But new “official” candidate accounts should be the response to this eventuality, rather than discouraging or banning taking to Facebook and Twitter to post status updates, information and tweets.

Aside from the obvious trust issues and considerations, which in the scheme of things are a minor issue, there are other factors which need to be considered around political engagement.

Both Facebook and Twitter, when used correctly, as they overwhelmingly are by political organisations and members, can be used to get information out fast and to a wide audience.

The positive potential of social media needs to be harnessed by all political parties in the age of social media.

It is true in the case of the Liberal Party that they would be hard-pressed finding fans on Twitter.

Twitter is overwhelmingly the domain of people left-of-centre on the political spectrum. What is also true of Twitter is that the politically engaged on the service generally identify with one party or another. There are very few ‘undecided’ voters on Twitter, so the potential to win votes on this platform is low.

However, Twitter’s importance as a fast and effective information source should render the relatively low possibility of attracting voters a secondary concern.

Voters will share news and policies and while this in itself will change few votes. However, the possibility of influencing the vote’s of others through Twitter users communicating with friends about their interactions with the political class is not something which should be ignored by the Liberal Party.

Voters  too want to feel like they are somewhat engaged in the political process. Twitter offers this potential more than any other platform through the ability to link-up with MP’s and candidates. While this will not sway many votes, engagement is incredibly important in both the short and long-term and may make some difference to the outcomes in marginal seats.

Facebook on the other hand is an entirely different proposition. All manner of people are on Facebook and that includes a significant cohort of voters who are up for grabs. So it follows that political party’s and their candidates should all harness this significant mode of communication for sending out information and policies which are of a local and national concern.

Again, Facebook as a pure information source, should also be positively harnessed by local MP’s and party candidates.

So of course, the two main social media platforms should be taken to with varying degrees of vigour. But they should be freely utilised.

A social media ban is foolish. Suggesting too, that candidates should not embrace the potential power of viral social media is equally silly, even for its potential pitfalls.

Generalisations Flowing and Critical Thought Lacking Over Riotous Actions

The events on the weekend in Sydney and those in the days preceding them, across the world, were horrific. There are no nice words that can be said about the protests, riots, call them what you will, that have taken place in a number of countries, both in the Middle East and across the Western world. A small portion of the Islamic community in Australia, less than one thousandth of the Muslim inhabitants of Australia took to the streets of Sydney with violence and mayhem in mind. This was met as well with the urge for a small number to parade with disturbing placards, one in particular held by a young child.

These protests provoked strong reactions from the public, the traditional media, social media and politicians all rising to condemn the divisive actions of a small proportion of people hell-bent on causing trouble and being divisive. Those speaking out against the raucous and over-the-top actions quickly included leaders in the local Muslim community which is quite sizeable in and around Sydney.

The actions of the protesters, demonstrators, rioters, call them what you will show a complete lack of understanding of the thoughts of people in relation to what they themselves say was the issue- that is, the tacky, poorly made video by an American that wouldn’t even be considered good enough and tasteful enough for a Saturday Night Live skit. This tends to indicate, as some thinkers have pointed out over the last few days,

The reactions of those responding to the scenes on Saturday, in particular on social media- read Twitter, tended toward heavy generalisations and at times showed a complete lack of critical thought and comprehension.

The protesters, if the film was the issue, fail to realise that governments all over the world, including ours and more importantly, the United States of America, had roundly condemned the mean-spirited movie. That is to say, they didn’t like it one bit either. The film wasn’t even put together by the government, just one or two intellectually vacant people, one of whom is of questionable character.

But far from just the lack of realisation that most of the West and its governments had said that the film was horrible and at the very least in poor taste and at the most, downright offensive to Islam, the actions themselves were well out of proportion to any amount of offense caused.

As for the Twitter and other social media commentary in the wake of the events of the last week, again a vocal minority blew events out of proportion, trying to link the messy visuals to the whole Muslim population. Clearly that’s not the case.  If any critical thought whatsoever was used by those who, frankly are frightened by difference in the first place and seek to cause fear when a small number of people representing a particular group they despise, then they would have realised the acts were not representative.

If the social media commentary wasn’t bad enough,the perennial Senator for divisive communities, Senator Cory Bernardi engaged in crass generalisations himself. The politician from South Australia, no fan of multiculturalism, attempted to argue that the protests of few, while yes, extremely awful and necessarily despised, signalled a problem with multiculturalism.

The problem in this case, as a number of commentators have pointed out, is not a problem to do with multiculturalism. It is, first and foremost, a problem more to do with human nature than anything else. As those same commentators, like Waleed Aly have pointed out, it is also partially down to disaffection, but again this does not mean that the actions of a small minority can be justified, even for a millisecond. But it does raise the need for greater cross-cultural dialogue.

If we are to truly understand each other, some of us must first learn to critically think, not give in to emotional reactions to events in the world around us. Generalisations do us no favours either.

It’s The Olympics, Who’s Really Putting the Pressure on Whom?

The London 2012 Olympic Games are now in full-swing. The early hiccups in the weeks prior to the games have been put behind them and the Brits are putting on a great show, albeit with crowds that have more holes than a sieve. Not all sports have started, with events like track and field and cycling yet to come where we’re in with a real shot at a number of medals, some of them quite possibly golden. The swimming, a traditional strength of Australia’s has begun though, with our athletes coming out with less of the prized gold than we’re used to and expectations dashed in some cases. We have though won silver in bronze in events we weren’t expected to with up and comer’s and dark horses stepping up when it counts.

Anyway, our performances and the reactions of varying degrees of the athletes making the massive efforts in competing at the Olympics has sparked a rather vigorous debate on social media and the opinion pages. Are we as Australian’s, are the media placing such high expectations on our athletes that they feel crushed under the pressure to deliver for a medal-hungry Australian public? Or are the athletes themselves the ones that are expecting too much of themselves? Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above?

So far Australia has won 1 gold, 6 silver and 2 bronze. So six people have come very close and further two near winning a gold medal. Our one gold came courtesy of the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay. Once again our female swimmers are the ones that are far performing their male counterparts in the pool as competition at the aquatic centre nears an end for another Olympiad.

This is the first Twitter Olympics really. Well not the first one since the social media platform has been around, but the first one where so many athletes have taken to using the medium to pass on their thoughts as the prepare to and while they compete during the London games. Twitter users have undoubtedly been putting some pressure on our athletes, sending messages to them like “go for gold” and “you can smash ’em”. So it would be easy for our athletes to get caught up in the hype and get nervous about their performances.

Although the Olympics is supposed to be about and was all about amateurs performing at their peak, these days the men and women competing are nearly all professionals competing in their chosen sport full-time. They should know or have access to tools which help them shut out the thoughts and comments of those sending messages to our Olympians, much of which is actually just hero worship, the idolising of people by the masses who’ve inspired them.

Many of these athletes have performed very well in the past to get them to the highest level of competition. A small number of them performing well enough in the lead-up to London 2012 to have that expectation of medalling, even winning put on them by all and sundry.

Are the media placing unrealistic expectations on our athletes? For the most part, no. The media have generally given athletes the “favourite” tag only if the individual athletes have performed over and above their peers in the lead-up to the event. That doesn’t excuse the over the top commentary which at times appears to shame our athletes who’ve in the eyes of the media “failed” by winning a medal of a different colour, or not at all when they’ve been expected to win a gold. Any medal, indeed just to be there is a massive effort in itself.

Could the athletes themselves be placing amazing levels of stress on themselves, such extreme expectations that they are exhausted by the stress of trying to live up to their own expectations? The answer here is likely yes. But the athletes placing such high expectations on themselves are generally those that have performed so well in the lead-in events, the heats and the semi-finals.

All athletes too expect to do their best. Those competitors that have done well at national and international events in the years and months before the Olympics will always have immense hopes for their Olympic experience. They will inevitably expect that to continue when they come to the once in four year event that is the Olympic Games. Let’s face it, with the event being that rare and the effort needed just to be able to participate in such a high level of sport being above and beyond 99.9% of the population our athletes are bound to break down to some degree if they don’t live up to their high hopes.

Truth be told, no one group is putting expectations on our Olympians above and beyond any other group. Australian’s are generally putting some level of hopes on our athletes based on past performances and the media hype. Are the media wrong in saying “hey, they’ve performed very well, they’re a great chance of a gold medal”? No. Our participants themselves are also responsible for the strain that they put on themselves knowing full well what is required and what might happen in their events.

Therefore, it seems all parties are in some part to blame for the expectations put on our athletes including in large part the athletes themselves. Much of the expectation is based on very impressive past experiences. How we as viewers and the media respond to performances which don’t live up to expectations, well that’s a different story entirely.

Farewell Speaker Harry Jenkins, Even the Ideologically Opposed Will Miss You

This morning as I was out and about I learnt over Twitter that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Jenkins had resigned his post. His reason, to sit as an ordinary Labor MP and again be involved in partisan politics with the ALP.In my relatively short time observing politics, Harry Jenkins the Member for Scullin as I have observed, has been the fairest Speaker of them all.

Compared to the noise of the MP’s he was tasked to keep in order, Harry Jenkins is and was as Speaker a relatively softly spoken umpire who had the ability to bite and bite back and be assertive as his tough role required.

His, at least in his second term as Speaker, was a job made even more difficult by natural party allegiances which in this ‘new paradigm’ had to be cast aside swiftly to fit into the new role and definition of an independent Speaker of the House.

As much as some of those on the right will hate to admit, ‘our Harry’ was one of the best of them all, giving a ‘long leash’ when required and ‘cracking the whip’ when the situation dictated it a necessity. I cannot speak for all of us unfortunately, but I wish you luck in your renewed career as an MP. I look forward to the possibility of the new Speaker calling you to order for interjections across the chamber and hope you are not the victim of too many 94a’s.

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