23 October 2004

debasing political databases

The Democratic Audit of Australia describes how political parties use databases in Australia to entrench themselves in power.

Paradoxically, because political parties are private organisations they are exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests which can only be made to government or quasi government organisations. Political parties can log information about voters without their consent, yet they cannot be made to disclose what information has in fact been logged. Clearly this state of affairs violates core principles on which our representative democracy prides itself.

Political party databases challenge effective representative democracy in Australia in two very important ways: by entrenching incumbency advantage and violating voter privacy. The resources used for databases largely derive from parliamentary entitlements. Staff to operate the systems, telephones to acquire voter information for database entry, and postage allowances to distribute targeted literature, are all examples of the advantage given to the incumbent government and/or local member in operating political databases. Compulsory registration to vote coupled with compulsory AEC handover of voter information to political parties is also a violation of individual voters’ privacy. Political party databases storing voter information are excluded from privacy laws which prohibit the retention of such information by private organisations other than political parties. However they are not subject to freedom of information rules either. Until this situation is remedied, political databases will continue to present a threat to key values of the Australian political system.

The situation in the US is worse, far worse, than in Australia because the state legislatures write the electoral boundaries for the US congress, because they use bipartisan rather than nonpartisan redistribution machinery for state legislatures, because they do not have compulsory voting, because different localities within the same electorate use different voting methods and because their databases are more advanced than Australian parties have yet managed. Nevertheless, Australians should look at the this with alarm, especially as control of parliament gives control of the executive as well. If the US is where this is going then the future looks grim.

Whatever Happened to Competitive Elections?
Nearly 80 percent of all state legislative seats are up for election around the country this year. On paper, legislative politics look as close as they could possibly be. In 2002, Republicans pulled ahead of Democrats in the total number of seats held nationally for the first time in half a century, but by the narrowest of margins - only about five dozen, out of 7,400 total across the 50 states. This year, there are 23 legislative chambers where a switch of three seats or fewer would change the party that holds the majority.

Looking at the country district by district, however, the reality is that true competition exists in only a tiny fraction of places. Even where political strength is closely balanced in the aggregate, the vast majority of individual districts are lopsidedly drawn in favor of one party or the other, engendering no real contest at the polls.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are all battleground states in presidential voting, but they are not battlegrounds in the contest for legislative power. Republicans control them; Democrats haven't a prayer of gaining a majority in any of the chambers in those states. The redrawing of the lines that followed the 2000 Census is the primary culprit.

The ability to create the desired political effect increases every decade with advances in technology, making it easier for legislators and advocacy groups to target partisan precincts and predict their likely voting behavior for years to come. "Dummymanders" - sociologist Bernard Grofman's term for overly greedy gerrymanders that backfire - have become increasingly rare as sophistication about redistricting grows.

Good redistricting software and powerful databases were available during the 1990s - and partisan gerrymanders certainly took place well before the dawn of the computer age - but this time around, mapmakers benefited from a technological advance that at first glance seems trivial: high-quality color printing. The subtly shaded maps that were possible in the latest redistricting round allowed legislative staff to cycle quickly through dozens of permutations until their legislative bosses were perfectly satisfied and the gerrymanders were airtight. One more traditional element of uncertainty was thereby removed.

The new gerrymandering has political significance that goes far beyond the fall campaign. To an increasing extent, it governs the relations between the two parties when the legislature is in session. "You have more and more non-competitive and very liberal or very conservative districts where the only threat comes in a party primary," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor. "Therefore, there is simply less centrism, less moderation and less encouragement for legislators to compromise, just as we've seen in Congress."

Florida is electing a state legislature this year. The same article reports:

How lopsided? Of 22 contests for the state Senate, only six feature candidates from each of the two major parties, and just 34 of the 120 House races will have two-party competition. Even where there is nominal competition, it doesn’t amount to much. Two years ago, the average margin of victory in both House and Senate races was 21 percent. Incredibly, the winning margins were, on average, even higher in open districts, showing more clearly than anything how much the districts themselves favor one party’s chances.

We do not want to become Florida. before we congratulate ourselves on how much better our election machinery is, we should think about the postal vote system. The parties, not the electoral commission, administer postal votes. That should change and the electoral act should be amended to provide competitiveness as a new criterion for redistributions.

Only three seats but look at the vote

Those five are: NSW - Cunningham, from the Greens, a seat embracing Wollongong, lost in a 2002 by-election under Crean's leadership; Parramatta, from the Liberals' Ross Cameron, a self-anointed adulterer; and Richmond, on the North Coast, lost by the Nationals' Larry Anthony; and the Liberal seats of Adelaide and Hindmarsh in South Australia.

The eight seats the Liberals took from Labor are: Bass and Braddon in Tasmania, both seats embracing the top half of the island state; Hasluck and Stirling in Perth; Wakefield and Kingston in Adelaide; Greenway, in Sydney's western suburbs; and the new seat of Bonner, east of Brisbane city.

Labor went into the election with 63 seats - not 65, as keeps being misreported (Labor won 65 at the 2001 election, but lost the Cunningham by-election and the outer Melbourne seat of McMillan in a redistribution of boundaries). Labor comes out of it with 60, to the Government's 87 - 75 Liberal, 12 National - and three independents in a legislature of 150. That is not the disaster constantly repeated. Beazley, in defence of Latham, has said twice since polling day that Labor's 'grave' electoral position a month before the leadership change from Crean last December was the potential collapse of 30 seats to the Government.

What is sobering for Labor, despite the small net loss in seats, is the massive gap in the primary vote this election between Labor and the Coalition. At the close of counting on election night, Labor's national primary vote stood at 38.3 per cent, a bare half per cent above the 37.8 per cent Labor gained in Beazley's second losing election three years ago, a level of popular support which ranked as Labor's worst federally since the 1931 election that killed the Scullin Labor government after just two years in power.

However, in the two weeks of continued counting, Labor's overall primary vote went on sliding until, by close of counting on Wednesday this week, it had fallen to 37.79 per cent, eclipsing the 2001 vote achieved under Beazley's leadership. By Thursday night that figure was 37.71 per cent, and early yesterday afternoon had dropped to 37.65 per cent. No federal Labor vote in the past three-quarters of a century has registered such a poor standing.

And in another first since the formation of the Liberal Party 60 years ago, the count of the Coalition popular vote this election, by mid-morning yesterday, exceeded the Labor primary by a clear 1 million votes - 5,303,170 votes (46.5 per cent) to 4,299,220 votes (37.65 per cent). The only comfort for Latham in the figures is how strongly the disparity emphasises that Labor's marginal seat campaign, however much it has been derided, was able to keep actual losses to a minimum.

This is better than the other SMH report I've blogged, but not by a lot.

Yes, a net loss of 3 seats is not a train wreck.

Yes, Labor's primary vote is collapsng on the same trajectory as 2001.

The serious question is where those primary votes are going. If they were just going Green or Democrat and then coming back to Labor as second preferences there would be no problem as long as Labor continued to outpoll the Greens and Democrats. Clearly that is not happening.

We've just had a campaign that resembled 2001 in ignoring the values issues like mandatory detention, indigenous matters, and the war. Voters lost in 2001 have not come back. Hw long does Labor maintain this losing streak with campaigns and platforms that do not succeed?

Below the line and beyond belief

The October 9 election will be a dot in the rear vision mirror by the time the Senate representatives are finally determined. In NSW, counting to determine the sixth and final seat has at least another two weeks to run.

The reason? A voting system so complex that even if every house in the country had its own walking, talking Antony Green doll in the living room it's doubtful many more people would understand it.

In NSW, Labor's third candidate, Michael Forshaw, will probably be elected, scraping in ahead of Fred Nile with the help of the 66th preference of those who voted for the Fishing Party.

If, like more than 95 per cent of voters in NSW, you numbered a single box above the line for your Senate vote, the chances are you have no idea where your vote - or a proportion of it - will finally end up. That is decided by the parties three weeks before the election, when a preference ticket (or two, or three) is registered with the Electoral Commission.

Information on where those preferences will flow is available on the commission's website and, possibly, if you had asked at your polling booth for the 'group voting ticket' booklet, officials might have been able to show it to you. But if you could then figure it out, you would be lucky, suggests the ABC's election analyst, Antony Green.

I am not sure where to start with this string of journalistic howlers.

1. Preferential voting works the same way in single-member and multi-member districts.

2. The quota calculation is always to divide V by S+1 where V is the total number of votes and S is the number of seats. That gives you >50% in a single member district and >14.2 percent in a multimember district electing 6 candidates.

3. There's never a surplus to distribute in a single-member district. There is in a multi-member district.

4. In both kinds of district your vote is counted to your first preference. If they can't be elected your vote is transferred to the next available candidate until it can elect someone.

5. The transfer value for surplus ballot papers is calculated as (T-Q)/T where T is the total number of votes and Q is the quota.

6. The distortion in the system is the Group Voting Ticket. People voting below the line is hard work. Anyone doing it is unlikely to do it lightly. An informed media might have noticed that twice as many people cast their own preferences in Tasmania as elsewhere. They might even have noticed that Family First's lead was 4300 and the number of below-the-line votes was 60 000 in that state. The Family First candidate is unknown and the Green candidate has been a prominent state MP. Why do you think Tasmanians are avoiding the party ticket? To vote Family First or to vote Green?

Describing single member preferential voting as 'regular' and multimember preferential as 'irregular' simply proves the journo in question has no idea of his subject. He seems to condemn GVT voting, but then he calls his article Below the line and above belief.

Should votes count less if someone votes for a small party? Should voters who decide their own preferences instead of following a party ticket be penalised?

Or is the fault, dare I say, an ignorant media who declared the Senate election with insufficient information and now need a by-line to justify their own bungle? There are quite a lot of simple and informative books on voting systems. Surely the SMH can afford to go out and buy one?

If they did they would discover preferential voting is easy for the elector, you start with who you want elected and then work your way down. Pity Labor, and the media, forgot this in Victoria and Tasmania.

22 October 2004

The capitulation of modern Labor

Labor failed to stitch up a coalition between the aspirationals, who were presumed to have narrow economic preoccupations, and people who were preoccupied with moral or quality of life agendas. It was not necessary to offer much to people with non-economic priorities (for example, the Friends of the ABC) - but Labor should have at least acknowledged that they were there.

Labor lacks a set of core beliefs. The party must identify and promote them.

The ALP has a thousand tacticians - and no strategists. Giving ALP Senate preferences to Family First in Victoria and Tasmania is a classic example of a tactical decision that would have probably looked clever if it helped Labor win seats at no cost to itself. But clearly this decision was never considered strategically - when Labor's vote collapses, would the party really prefer a Family First senator to a Greens senator?

Targeting Peter Costello was both a tactical and strategic mistake. So was Medicare Gold, which proved to be a turkey, after an enthusiastic debut. The substance of the Tasmanian forests policy was right, but the timing was appalling.

The dominant role of factions has contributed to ALP demoralisation. There is a complete disjunction between the feelings of branch members, as expressed in the recent national vote for party presidents, and the policies set forth in the election.

Preselections are now the gift of the factions, who reward those who are loyal and those who accept the conventional wisdom. The first Hawke governments had probably the greatest collection of talent in Australian political history. Given more recent arrangements in the ALP about preselections for safe seats, it is unlikely such a spread of talent would be available from the House of Representatives - or the Senate, where endorsement is now generally a reward for factional fidelity.

Barry Jones, who the ALP should regard as a treasure, not an embarrassment, hits it on the head, as he usually does. The ALP's core beliefs need to run a little further up the ladder than getting a McMansion on every plot and don't mention the war. That not fly in the aspirational electorates. We lost Greenway. Let's not waste another 3 years hoping that somehow or other the aspirational strategy will achieve its aspirations.

21 October 2004

Time for the Greens and the Democrats to merge

In a last ditch attempt to save the sinking ship, the Democrats decided to direct their preferences to the Family First party ahead of the Greens. While the final Senate results will not be known for some time it seems likely that the result of this deal will be to scuttle the chances of a number of Greens senate candidates and deliver one, possibly two, Senate seats to the new conservative Christian party.

While an at times bitter rivalry has existed between the Greens and the Democrats as they jostled for similar supporters, on a fundamental level the two like-minded political parties had, until this election, worked constructively to achieve similar goals. Not any more. Not only have the Democrats harmed their own political prospects by facilitating the emergence of Family First, they have weakened the potential voice of Greens in a Coalition-dominated Senate.

It should not of course come as a surprise that the Democrats have once again made a decision that harms their own interests and their supporters. The GST deal and their refusal to unite behind Natasha Stott Despoja are clear evidence of a self-destructive tendency that, by definition, cannot last for long in politics.

In 2001 the Democrats managed to win four seats under Stott Despoja's leadership. At the weekend's election they won none; it was their worst-ever result. When the four senators elected in 2001 face the voters again in 2007 the party, except perhaps for Stott Despoja, will in all likelihood vanish. It is time for the progressive voices in Australian politics to unite.

This should happen. The Democrats would lose their conservative wing but that wing has delivered little in terms of either votes or policy. The Gang of Four coup against Stott Despoja's leadership achieved nothing except the prompt and utter destruction of the Democrats' electoral chances. The Democrats would benefit from the Greens' passion. The Greens' would benefit from the Democrats' superior understanding of the importance of process.

When the Senate results are finalised it will be interesting to add together the votes of the Greens and Democrats and see what a single party might have achieved.

20 October 2004

a spectacularly silly attack on the Greens

The media are pretty much reporting an election that has not happened yet. We don't yet know the final composition of the Senate. We're looking at Labor losing a maximum of 5 seats in the House. That's a bad loss but it is not a landslide. Losing the Senate is the result of incomprehensibly bad ticket choices by Labor in Victoria and Tasmania.

Greens are no friend of Labor
The net effect of the Greens' rise has been to weaken Labor and entrench the Coalition. On October 9, most One Nation voters returned to the Coalition, as did a substantial proportion of Democrats voters.

Despite preference deals, the fact is that, all along, the Greens have really been running against the Labor Party, not with it. Success for the Greens comes through taking seats and votes away from Labor, not the Liberals. If Labor cannot learn the lesson from its own experience, in which it gave the Greens everything they wanted in terms of forests only to see its electoral fortunes reversed, perhaps it should look across the Pacific.

George Bush owes his 2000 election victory above all to one man: Ralph Nader, the unreconstructed leftie crusader who dragged precious votes away from Al Gore. And who did Nader represent in the presidential ballot? The Greens.

This is a spectacularly silly piece of reporting. Labor did not lose the election solely because of the collapse in its primary vote and there is, in any case, no way of knowing yet whether the lost voters went to the Greens, Family First or the Coalition.

Invoking the ghost of Nader is the silliest in a string of non-sequiturs. Spoiler candidates like Nader cannot happen under preferential voting. If the US used preferential voting Nader's minuscule primary vote (vastly less than the Australian Greens') would have broken massively in favour of Gore when his second preferences were distributed and given Gore the White House.

It's bad enough comparing apples to oranges but comparing them to watermelons is worse.

19 October 2004

Zarqawi and al-Qaeda, unlikely bedfellows

But the letter doesn't make sense when one considers the bitter strategic split between Jordanian Zarqawi and bin Laden. This is the first time ever that al-Tawhid wal-Jihad has even considered abdicating its ruthless sovereignty. The al-Qaeda nucleus is a mix of hardcore Saudi Wahhabis and the Egyptians of Ayman al-Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad. Zarqawi's group contains basically Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians. They are Salafis, Islamic purists. The incompatibilities are not only ideological, but also methodological: al-Qaeda never attempted kidnappings or beheadings of Muslims. On the other hand, the black and orange brigades in Iraq are growing - these are disgruntled Sunni Iraqis increasingly attracted by the hardcore methods of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, whose symbol is black and orange.

European Union experts from a counter-terrorism special cell in Brussels tell Asia Times Online, 'We are working on the possibility that the letter may be an attempt to justify the current offensive by Iyad Allawi's government against the Sunni insurgency.' That's also the predominant popular view in the Middle East. But counter-terrorism experts also worry about the likelihood of a code message for al-Qaeda fighters - assuming the letter is authentic. The Brussels experts are particularly intrigued by the mention of Ramadan as the 'month of gifts and triumphs'. Fundamentalisms are mutually attractive. The key consequence of Bush, a born-again Christian, invading secular Iraq has been the convergence of all sorts of Islamic fanatics in Mesopotamia. As much as apocalyptic Christians view the 'war on terror' as a mission from God, apocalyptic Islamists would view 'Zarqawi's' allegiance to al-Qaeda as transcending a mere war and placing the whole thing as a do-or-die clash of civilizations.

In the end, this could be merely another US intelligence 'black operation'. Allawi wants Fallujah to hand him Zarqawi. Fallujah tribal leaders say Zarqawi is not in the city. Now, with alleged 'proof' in writing of a Zarqawi-bin Laden link, there are no holds barred to leveling Fallujah. This October surprise from 'the land of two rivers' is far from being the last.

It's a theory. It fits the facts somewhat better than Zarqawi suddenly getting struck by lightning on the road to Damascus. After all we know this White House is an empire that creates its own reality.

Google 'saved' Australian hostage:

John Martinkus was seized in Baghdad on Saturday, the first Australian held hostage in Iraq since the US-led invasion.

But his captors agreed to release him after they were convinced he was not working for the CIA or a US contractor.

He was reported to be making his way home to Australia on Tuesday.

His executive producer at Australia's SBS network, Mike Carey, said Google probably saved freelance journalist Martinkus.

'They Googled him and then went onto a web site - either his own or his book publisher's web site, I don't know which one - and saw that he was who he was, and that was instrumental in letting him go, I think, or swinging their decision,' he told AP news agency.

The other part of the Martinkus story is the increasingly shameless fabrication by the Foreign Minister of Kleenex, who announced Martinkus had ignored embassy advice and gone to a dangerous area of Baghdad.

Martinkus was abducted outside his hotel opposite the Australian embassy. Expect the customary blather explaining this discrepancy. I'd recommend the minister learn how to use a search engine but that would clearly be adopting the tactics of terrorists.

Sacked Iraqi judge likens Govt to Saddam

One of Iraq's leading judicial champions has been sacked, fanning concerns the US-backed Government is adopting strong-arm tactics reminiscent of the old regime in its war against insurgents.

Central Criminal Court's chief investigating magistrate, Zuhair al-Maliky, said the authorities had given him no reason for his dismissal, which came after repeated clashes with state security agencies over arbitrary arrests and other suspected abuses.

It was the US-led coalition that originally gave Mr Maliky the task of investigating alleged abuses by Iraq's fledgling security apparatus.

The judge insisted he was unrepentant about his crusade for due process by the security services.

'Nobody is above the law,' he told AFP.

'That's the mistake Saddam [Hussein] made. When he made some people above the law ... that was the disaster for Iraqi society.'

A former US official confirmed Mr Maliky had been engaged to probe alleged bribery and brutality by members of the police major crimes unit, back in April, two months before the caretaker government took power.

'There was a lot of cases of torture, illegal detention and corruption,' recalled Mr Maliky, adding that his investigation resulted in the arrest or conviction of at least 20 policemen.

Five of the cases involved the use of electric shock on detainees, leaving one man partially paralysed, he added.

Just another quickstep in the march to freedom.

18 October 2004

launching a magical foreign policy

Boost Phase missile defense strategy not feasible against many potential threats
The APS Study Group looked at boost-phase defense systems utilizing land-, sea, or air-based interceptors, space-based interceptors, or the Airborne Laser.

The effectiveness of interceptor rockets would be limited by the short time window for intercept, which requires interceptors to be based within 400 to 1,000 kilometers of the possible boost-phase flight paths of attacking missiles. In some cases this is closer than political geography allows. Even interceptors that were very large and fast and that pushed the state of the art would in most cases be unable to intercept solid-propellant ICBMs before they released their warheads.

A system of space-based interceptors, also constrained by the short time window for intercept, would require a fleet of a thousand or more orbiting satellites just to intercept a single missile. Deploying such a fleet would require a five- to tenfold increase in the United States' annual space-launch capabilities.

The Airborne Laser currently in development has the potential to intercept liquid-propellant ICBMs, but its range would be limited and it would therefore be vulnerable to counterattack. The Airborne Laser would not be able to disable solid-propellant ICBMs at ranges useful for defending the United States.

'Few of the components exist for deploying an effective boost-phase defense against liquid-propellant ICBMs and some essential components would take at least 10 years to develop,' said Study Group co-chair Daniel Kleppner. 'According to U.S. intelligence estimates, North Korea and Iran could develop or acquire solid-propellant ICBMs within the next 10 to 15 years. Consequently, a boost-phase defense effective only against liquid-propellant ICBMs would risk being obsolete when deployed.'

Although a successful intercept would prevent munitions from reaching their target, live nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads could strike populated areas short of the target in the United States or in other countries, shows the study. This 'shortfall problem' is inherent in any boost-phase defense and difficult to avoid.

Ozplogistan is fast filling up with reports and denunciations of faith-based politics. Over the weekend a string of much-blogged articles spoke about Bush's war against actuality, the suppression of dissent, the manufacture of al-Qa'ida and the fabrication of Zarqawi. The rhetoric is two-edged, and talks about US eccentricity as well as Bush's war on reason..

Bummer. We have our own eccentricities. Australia has signed up for the Son of Star Wars madness. Is that a commitment to doing whatever we're told or has the Man of Steel developed his own fantasies.

Son of Star Wars does not work and probably cannot work. The US Missile Defense Agency can claim it works only because they keep ignoring test results. As a high imperial official said:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

Magical thinking is a cognitive disorder, not a policy. And the Man of Steel has decided to take Australia out of the reality-based community. That decision went unchallenged in the election campaign.

Not quite yet, prime minister

2004 Federal Election. Senate - TAS Results. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)
If all votes are assumed to be ticket votes, then the final vacancy in Tasmania goes to Jacquie Petrusma of Family First ahead of Christine Milne from the Greens. However, the final margin of victory is only 4,300 votes. In 2001, one in five Tasmanian votes, or around 60,000 ballot papers, were cast below the line. Christine Milne is a well known political figure in the state, and it is quite likely that many below the line votes from the Labor, Liberal and Australian Democrat tickets will leak to Milne. The final result in Tasmania will now be known until all below the line votes are entered into the computer counting system, and the button is hit to distribute preferences.

4300 is a lot less than 60 000. Until the below-the-line votes are counted in Tasmania and Victoria we don't know what will happen to the sixth seat. It's a fair assumption that below-the-line voters are likely to be some form of protest against the ticket votes registered by the parties. Truly, it's fairly weird to allegedly report anything else until the AEC counts these votes.