Wednesday, March 28, 2007

On trials

Thinking about the Hicks case I saw resemblances to the problem of trials at war. In a time of war, hot or cold, people can be put on trial for notably ill-defined offences. In Australia two examples are the IWW trials of the First World War, in which IWW members were arson attacks in Sydney. Described in Ian Turner's Sydney's Burning. Those convicted were eventually released following a Royal Commission that highlighted prosecution reliance on perjured witnesses. Some of the convictions particularly those of Donald Grant came close to convicting on the basis of verbal statements alone. The Rosenberg trial has some similarities; they were tried for conspiracy to commit espionage but effectively convicted for treason for giving away the secret of the atomic bomb this responsible said the trial judge for the deaths of the Korean War. Now Hicks faces the danger of being sentenced for September 11. Ominously judges in espionage cases in the early 1950s sometimes imposed harsher sentences than those that even the prosecution asked for. On the other side the 1944 sedition trial of former members of the German-American Bund, which in some aspects as Richard Gid Powers argues presaged the post-war trials of the left. The Australian First case during World War two also. The extreme example of such political trials was Soviet show trials, conducted according to the Stalinist principle of politics as war (like the US military commissions) which relied on the confessions of the accused. On one hand these were macabre farces but they reflected a belief, sincerely held I think by their organisers that the accused were up to something, or potentially up to something or potentially thinking about it. There is a recollection of a Menshevik victim recalling a former Bolshevik friend saying this in the early 1930s in Libebich's From the Other Shore. Confessions are dubious. Richard Posner, I think in Breaking the Deadlock comments that if a conservative who has been mugged, a liberal might be a conservative who has been arrested. Consider the fate of Martha Stewart.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Iranian questions

Via Doug Ireland an interesting article by Scott McElmee in conversation with Danny Postel on whether some American progressives are failing to provide sufficnet opposition to the iranina regime. Sya Postel:
Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons.
Would this be a fair point in Australia? Green Left Weekly has given coverage to the protests of Iranian feminists and the Greens have been vociferous agaisnt the deportation of asylum-seekers back to Iran. See also Rodny Croome here.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Conservative dilemmas

On ABC Gippsland I was asked to comment on whether the government was as right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt claimed on the ABC's Insiders showing the scent of decay (bolt repeats the claim here). It seems curious, after all in the real world of policy the government is active; consider the Murray-Darling initiative. But I suspect that the Australian right, when they occasionally look above their worship of Howard, would like the Liberals to be reformed on the lines of the US Republicans towards a Christian moral conservatism. Yet in the US this agenda is running out of steam. One sign is the shift in voter identification towards the Democrats. But it is also apparent in public opinion according to a recent Pew survey:
Increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies have improved the political landscape for the Democrats as the 2008 presidential campaign gets underway. At the same time, many of the key trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s have moderated, according to Pew's longitudinal measures of the public's basic political, social and economic values. The proportion of Americans who support traditional social values has edged downward since 1994, while the proportion of Americans expressing strong personal religious commitment also has declined modestly.
There remains strong support for many conservative positions but opinion is shifting. In many respects contemporary conservatives have to be radicals concerned with reversing current trends to moral collapse, but what if voters don't feel that life is getting worse. Still however a long way to go in the US where the Texas House of Representatives has voted against Governor Perry's praiseworthy initiative to add HPV vaccination (which parents can opt out of) against cervical cancer to required immunisations for children.

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Infrstructure and monopolies

Most of the press analysis of Labor's broadband plan shows why the authors are journalists talking rather than developing policy. Peter Hartcher is profound:
Labor could have found other ways of achieving the same internet policy aim without having recourse to the Future Fund. Instead, it has handed the Government a clear line of political attack. This is an avoidable political error.
But note how the IPA have used it to renew their crusade against access requirements for infrastructure. Says Alan Moran:
Rapid adoption of telecommunications advances is essential to our competitiveness. But by requiring any company undertaking the risky business of building a network to accept that it will be defined as an "essential facility" subject to government control is a sure-fire way of ensuring it will never be built by the private sector but be sorely missed. Peter Costello has accused the Opposition of economic irresponsibility, but the Government must share some blame. It has been in the thrall of a regulatory policy that seriously hinders the building of new infrastructure and it is within its power to correct this. To refuse to do so will make it inevitable that taxpayers again fund these facilities, with all the risks and inefficiencies that follow.
Yet voters would prefer that is if there are natural monopolies they be operated by the public sector. There were real reasons why infrastructure was provided by the public sector it wasn't just due to some mysterious zeitgeist of statism. We see a pattern with the renationalisation of state railway systems.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Stalin's lieutenant

Finished reading Kes Boterbloem's The Life and Times of Andrei Zhdanov 1896-1948. Always useful to read books that remind you of how bad communism was in practice. The most educated of Stalin's close associates Zhdanov comes across an ordinary climber which makes his willing and dutifully enthusiastic participation in the crimes of the period noteworthy. Mass executions are an entirely routine form signing process. As ideological hatchet man he was embarrassed by Lysenkoism because his son Iurii was a party official and a scientist but died before the worst of the Lysenko episode. I saw some parallels to contemporary conservatism in the ideological debates of high Stalinism; 1) an emphasis of 'culture', seen in terms of a very stereotypical middle-class respectability with realist and banal tastes in arts; 2) concern with reforming the school curriculum to emphasise a positive historical evaluation of the national past; 3) competing groups of ideological hatchet men who contested for Stalin's favour such as Mark Mitin and Pavel Yudin; 4)perhaps most of all Lysenkoism so similar to the organised critics of the global warming concerns.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Three liberals

Preoccupied with study leave haven't been posting much but will return to the fray. Three biographies I have read recently shed some light on Australian L(l)iberalism. If the neo-liberal right wants a hero they might look at Robert Lowe, the albino English barrister, who came to Sydney in search of briefs in 1842 and left in 1850 after a stormy career in local politics. His classical Benthamite liberalism made him a foe of authoritarian governors and briefly a popular hero, until his supporters were disillusioned by his laisser-faire politics and hostility to democracy. The book is by Ruth Knight, one of those female historians who never published anything else, an example of how women's opportunities were denied, others in this group include Joy Parnaby, author of a brilliant thesis on the Berry government, and Phyllis Peter, author on an excellent thesis on NSW in the great depression. Lowe seems to have been consistent, not what could be said of George Reid, but perhaps unsurprisingly he has become the hero of the alleged standard-bearers of 'classical liberalism', see Greg Melleuish's chapter in Liberalism and the Australian Federation, there was even a 'Reid Group' formed in 2003 in the name of a liberal liberalism opposed to John Howard. One day I hope to address this myth, but here Gerald O'Collin's biography of his grandfather the South Australian free trader and contemporary of Reid Patrick McMahon Glynn is interesting. It relies largely on his diaries and is somewhat unimaginative; his late marriage to a women he had hardly knew is largely unexplored. But Glynn had been a radical, a supporter of land nationalisation and he was a (sceptical) Catholic. he was unhappy with Reid's negative 'anti-socialism' and with his sectarian anti-Catholic appeal, thus despite his talent it took the Fusion to enable him to enter the ministry, having been passed over by Reid to accommodate conservative protectionists, he was shocked by Reid's promise of a campaign against 'Romanism and revolution' and his opportunist acceptance of protection. Genuine classical liberals would find him a better model than Reid. Glynn was also central to debates about the waters of the Murray-Darling. On the other side of the tariff debate was Isaac Isaacs, Zelman Cowen found time to write his biography as a Vice-Chancellor in the late 1960s when university management was lower pressure than now. Isaac's activist social liberalism land his insistence that courts should be the 'living organs of a progressive community' led him to favour expansive government powers, sometimes at the cost of civil liberties. Contemporary legal liberalism would take a different tack. But I was struck by the Coal Vend case where Isaacs wrote a massive judgement of 270 pages upholding the validity of Commonwealth action against the Vend, a cartel of coal owners, under the Australian Industries protection Act the first Australian anti-monopoly legislation. The fact that the original legislation was passed by a social liberal government with Labor support is rather neglected in some accounts of the history of Australian economic policy. The subsequent overturning of the decision by the court majority in a single judgment delivered by contemporary conservative hero Samuel Griffith gutted competition law in Australia. It is appropriate that contemporary conservatives follow in Griffith’s footsteps in their campaign against National Competition Policy, see here and here.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

History repeats

Watching the Brian Burke controversy in WA I was reminded; 1) of the controversies about Morgan Ryan in NSW and his alleged influence back in the early 1980s. This involved lots of taped conversations as well and much discussion of 'links'. One view is in Jenny Hocking's biography of Lionel Murphy; 2) Brian Burke's father, Tom Burke, was a federal Labor MP 1943-55. Initially close to Chifley he shifted towards the Grouper camp and played a key role in the Federal Executive decision of September 1951 to have Labor support the Communist Party dissolution legislation; 3) Brian Burke as WA Labor premier played a key role in the Hawke government's abandonment of Labor's commitment to national land rights legislation. Still if the pro-Labor swing in the recent Peel state by-election is any guide it won't do Rudd any harm.