4 December 2006

How to elect an opposition leader

Strangely enough, Canada and Australia both elected opposition leaders within 24 hours. Kevin Rudd was elected by a closed caucus of MHRs and senators by a vote of margin of 49 votes to 39. Stéphane Dion was elected by an open convention chosen for the purpose by party members. The election ran to four ballots, with the lowest candidate eliminated at each ballot. Dion trailed in the first ballot but gained enough votes as others dropped out to pull ahead of Michael Ignatieff and win the position. The final vote was 2,521 votes (54%) to 2,084(45%). Leadership candidates in Canadian parties run their own websites and appeal directly to party members in a way that would cause most Australian politicians considerable disquiet.

Australia's political parties, with the notable exception of the Australian Democrats are famously closed institutions with most powers exercised by the party leader or (occasionally) the caucus. Our political parties are also suffering dramatic declines in membership and participation. Opening them up with a system of primaries would do a lot to cure that problem. Canadians take the principle of party democracy so seriously that there are proposals to enshrine it in law. For instance in New Brunswick, the Commission on Legislative Democracy recommended this amendment to the province's electoral act.

2.1 All of a party’s general election candidates must be endorsed by a vote of eligible party members, in a vote that is open to all eligible party members.

2.2 To be eligible for party membership, a person must meet the same eligibility requirements to vote in a provincial election.

2.3 To be eligible to vote in a leadership or nomination contest, a person must belong to the political party at least seven days prior to the nomination contest and be a member of the party at the time of the vote.

2.4 If fixed election dates are adopted, riding associations must hold a vote of their members for the purpose of choosing their general election candidate no more than 120 days prior to the date of the general election.

2.5 Parties must advertise the date, time and location of a leadership or nomination contest at least seven days prior to the closing date for eligible membership.

2.6 Parties shall not charge a membership fee greater than $5 annually.

I have problems with both conventions and exhaustive ballots. In Australia, if we ever got this far, I suspect we'd go for a direct vote and use preferential voting. The electoral commission runs union elections. There's no obvious reason they cannot run party elections just as well.

11 November 2006

It begins

Background Brief On The Case Against Rumsfeld, Gonzales And Others Filed In Germany On November 14, 2006 (PDF)
From Donald Rumsfeld on down, the political and military leaders in charge of ordering, allowing and implementing abusive interrogation techniques in the context of the “War on Terror” since September 11, 2001, must be investigated and held accountable. The complaint alleges that American military and civilian high-ranking officials named as defendants in the case have committed war crimes against detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the U.S.-controlled Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

The complaint alleges that the defendants “ordered” war crimes, “aided or abetted” war crimes, or “failed, as civilian superiors or military commanders, to prevent their commission by subordinates, or to punish their subordinates,” actions that are explicitly criminalized by German law. The U.S. administration has treated hundreds if not thousands of detainees in a coercive manner, in accordance with “harsh interrogation techniques” ordered by Secretary Rumsfeld himself that legally constitute torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, in blatant violation of the provisions of the 1949
Geneva Conventions, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and the 1977 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – to all of which the United States is a party. Under international humanitarian treaty and customary law, and as re-stated in German law, these acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment constitute war crimes.

I don't seriously expect that Rumsfeld or any other member of this grisly gang will ever find themselves on trial for crimes against humanity or war crimes. I do expect they may find it advisable to drop any travel plans to a nation that recognises universal jurisdiction to punish such crimes. Strangely enough, the recent US legislation to give legal cover to torture may exacerbate the position of potential defendants. Similar immunity laws enacted by the Chilean junta were cited as reason for the House of Lords to grant extradition in the Pinochet case in

9 November 2006

a little more celebration

The US also held elections for many state governors and legislatures. the picture there is the same as the Senate and House elections. All states except Nebraska have a state senate and assembly. (The names of the state assemblies vary from 'House of Delegates' to 'General Court') Nebraska is unicameral, like Queensland.

As of 7 a.m. MT, Democrats control both houses of the legislature in 23 states; Republicans in 15, and nine are split. Final counts aren't available yet for three chambers in two states: the Montana House and Senate and the Pennsylvania House. This adds up to 49 states because Nebraska's legislature is nonpartisan.

Before the election, Republicans controlled 20 state legislatures; Democrats 19, and 10 were split.

I'll round up the governorships and the referendum results some time today.

What a rum result

The first executive casualty has already fallen on his sword. Bush has announced Rumsfeld's resignation and replacement by a former CIA director. I doubt Runsfeld will be the last. I do not see George Bush as a guy with a lot of ticker.

The defence appointment takes away a Democratic nightmare, winning 51 seats out a hundred in the Senate, seeing Liebermann accept the post of secretary of defence, and then seeing the Republican governor of Connecticut (Liebermann's state) appoint a Republican to replace Liebermann in the Senate. The US has no equivalent of the rule in our constitution, Section 15, that senators must be replaced by a senator from the same party.

The US congress has he same structure as the Australian parliament. (No accident. Large slabs of our constitution run word for word with theirs) States get equal numbers of senators and proportionate-to-population numbers of representatives. The Senate is a tad strange. Half the Australian senate face election every 3 years. One third of the US senate face every 2 years, meaning that not all states vote for senator at each election.

The results are now fairly well-known, although I was surprised that their famous voting machines seem, if anything, to produce results at a much slower rate than our paper ballots. It's also strange to an Australian that there's no electoral commission to provide a neutral, uniform, professional electoral service on a nation-wide level. I guess that's another story.

The US media are still treating the Senate results in Virginia and Montana as open, although they're projecting Democratic wins and I suspect Australian election commentators would have already shut up shop and gone home for the night.

Last time I looked Webb, the Democrat was leading by more votes than there are left to count in Virginia. Montana, a very small state, is down to thousands of votes, but Tester, the Democrat has led every stage at the count and the chance for his opponent to overtake him is now vanishingly small. If both win, and I think they will, the numbers will be 51/49 in favour of the Democrats. 50/50 would be a Republican win because Cheney had a casting vote if there's a tie.

Bush will not be able to govern in the same way. He's already invited Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi to the White House for lunch and the Rumsfeld resignation is further evidence. I think more's happened than just the Karl Rove 'revolution' coming to an end.

Rove and Bush thought they'd set up a permanent Republican majority. That prospect is now dead. A couple of fairly startling numbers. 1/3 of white evangelicals, the base of all bases to the Bush administration, voted Democrat. In a wide zone from Maine to Indiana the Republicans were defending 21 marginal seats and lost 21. In the Senate as a whole, the Republicans were defending 13 marginal states and lost 11. The Democrats have not lost a single senator, governor or representative. Democrat representatives and senators have been elected, especially in the West from places that yesterday were counted as solidly Republican. The very small and very Republican state of South Dakota threw out a restrictive abortion law in an initiative referendum. Arizona threw out a referendum to ban gay marriage. Perhaps they felt Mark Foley and Ted Haggert should have the right to marry.

The only significant Republican win of the night was Scharzenegger's re-election as governor of California and it's notable that Schwarzenegger ran on a very unBush platform. This is the kind of election it can take decades to recover from.

I think this means that one or both of Bush and Cheney will face impeachment in the next 2 years. I do not think the Democrats who now control Congress are setting out to impeach. I do think their new investigative powers are going to reveal incompetence, corruption and deception on such a massive scale that impeachment now become unavoidable.

In talking about US politics, it's been a truism for several years that the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Republicans, has become the party of Jefferson Davis, who was the confederate president during the Civil War. Nixon set up the southern strategy, a dog-whistle appeal to southern working class whites to vote Republican. Since 1968 the Solid South has gone from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican.

On the other hand, maybe the country, if not the party, of Lincoln remains the same. You really cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

2 November 2006

a tale of two energies

Comparing Emerging Technologies: Techno-Economic Assessment of Power Generation Options for Australia, August 2006
Solar thermal appears to be the most promising technology for large scale, baseload electricity generation from renewable energy. The technology is unique in that efficient energy storage as heat (a cheaper option than storing electricity) reduces the cost of electricity. Australia has one of the most promising solar resources in the world for this technology

Howard comparing emerging technologies in the House of Representatives, 31 October 2006
Are we going to say to ourselves, ‘We deny our nation the opportunity of taking advantage of that?’ You will never—and I have no greater authority on this than the member for Batman—be able to replace power stations, dirty or clean, with solar, wind or wave power. It is just not possible. Baseload power can only be generated in the foreseeable future by the use of fossil fuels or nuclear power. You cannot hope to use renewables in order to do that; so, if you are going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, you inevitably face a comparison on baseload generation between cleaner coal, which will be dearer, and nuclear power. The point at which those two cross each other is, at this stage, impossible to precisely determine. When we have Ziggy Switkowski’s report, we may have a better idea of where the two relate to each other.

Really, who are we to believe? And while we're at it, has anyone told Howard about the water usage of most nuclear reactors?

Solar thermal energy

Nuclear energy

1 November 2006

Dinosaurs trotted like emus

from the ABC
[Breihaupt] presented the latest on emus as proxies for dinosaurs at the recent Geological Society of America in Philadelphia.

The search for a modern animal to act as a proxy for dinosaur tracks started, says Breithaupt, because he was getting a little impatient with all the speculation about the tracks.

There was too much of what he calls 'prehistoric hyperbole'.Families of dinosaurs once walked here. But no-one knows what they looked like, as there are few fossils from this era. So after passing on ostriches, which have only two toes, and rheas, which have three-toes but overly rambunctious personalities, emus were the best alternative. Plus there was an emu ranch just across the state line in Colorado.

Breithaupt and his team now think that the Red Gulch dinosaurs were probably human-sized meat eaters, or theropods, travelling along in groups.

Somehow, Jurassic Park will just never be scary again to anyone who's ever seen an emu running. Now if they'd proposed that theropods behaved like cassowaries we'd all be in deep doo doo.

28 October 2006

A Casualty of Globalization: Death of the Unions

Der Spiegel
The following is an obituary.

The death, though, was never publicly announced -- and the tragedy is compounded by the fact that the closest relatives are keeping it a secret. But that does not alter the truth: Trade unions, as we knew them, are dead. The protector of the underdog is no more. What passes for a union today does not have the power to provide shelter.In fact, even the estate executors need protection. Unions once saw themselves as a buffer against the whims of the executives. They made sure that wages were fair. They also functioned as the political voice of society. Today, such unions are a thing of the past.

The development of a global job market, the appearance of 1.2 billion new workers and the readiness of millions more to work at any cost has robbed the job brokers of their once-powerful position.For decades, they had access to unparalleled treasures: The well-educated industrial worker was irreplaceable; the industrial robot was not yet intelligent enough; and the masses of today's competitive jobseekers were trapped behind walls and barbed wire, and sometimes simply hidden in the morass of Asian slums. These people were denied participation in Western job markets, a state of affairs which kept the price of Western labor high.

It was child's play for union negotiators to force employers to pay higher wages. The factory owner had no choice but to buy labor from the unions, because while there was a national and -- in the best case -- still a Western job market, there was no global job market that could provide the industrial skills necessary. Workers were scarce after both World Wars, and unions had a virtual monopoly on the commodity. They milked it for all it was worth.

Der Spiegel is posting these extracts from a new book War for Wealth: The Global Grab for Power and Prosperity. It's uncomfortable reading, especially in an Australia where Howard clearly believes that social democracy is about to join the Leninist state and planned economy in the trashcan of history.

On the other hand, if Howard really were surfing towards destiny, he might be able to tell the truth occasionally and not need to constantly scare us into wetting ourselves before we re-elect him.

Cue Saruman, despatching his fighting uruk-hai:

A new power is rising! Its victory is certain! March to Helm's Deep! Leave none alive!

War on Tuskers

An Elephant Crackup?
I'd have considered it a wise policy even at a more peaceable juncture in the course of human-elephant relations. In recent years, however, those relations have become markedly more bellicose. Just two days before I arrived, a woman was killed by an elephant in Kazinga, a fishing village nearby. Two months earlier, a man was fatally gored by a young male elephant at the northern edge of the park, near the village of Katwe. African elephants use their long tusks to forage through dense jungle brush. They've also been known to wield them, however, with the ceremonious flash and precision of gladiators, pinning down a victim with one knee in order to deliver the decisive thrust. Okello told me that a young Indian tourist was killed in this fashion two years ago in Murchison Falls National Park, north of where we were.

These were not isolated incidents. All across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their natural habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings. In fact, these attacks have become so commonplace that a new statistical category, known as Human-Elephant Conflict, or H.E.C., was created by elephant researchers in the mid-s to monitor the problem. In the Indian state of Jharkhand near the western border of Bangladesh, 300 people were killed by elephants between 2000 and 2004. In the past 12 years, elephants have killed 605 people in Assam, a state in northeastern India, 239 of them since 2001; 265 elephants have died in that same period, the majority of them as a result of retaliation by angry villagers, who have used everything from poison-tipped arrows to laced food to exact their revenge. In Africa, reports of human-elephant conflicts appear almost daily, from Zambia to Tanzania, from Uganda to Sierra Leone, where 300 villagers evacuated their homes last year because of unprovoked elephant attacks.

Still, it is not only the increasing number of these incidents that is causing alarm but also the singular perversity - for want of a less anthropocentric term - of recent elephant aggression. Since the early 1990s, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses; this abnormal behavior, according to a 2001 study in the journal Pachyderm, has been reported in "a number of reserves" in the region. In July of last year, officials in Pilanesberg shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles. In Addo Elephant National Park, also in South Africa, up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in more stable elephant communities.

The elephants hate us, not because of what we do, but because of who we are. They want to establish an elephantocracy reaching from Capetown to Hanoi. There is only one solution...

22 August 2006


Posting 1, 2, 3, ...

10 January 2006

All hail Emperor Ming II

Once upon a time Australia slumbered happily through the 50s and 60s under the benign neglect of Sir Robert Menzies. Menzies made himself famous for eccentricities such as reciting excruciatingly bad poetry to Elizabeth II, wanting the new decimal currency called the royal and insisting his surname rhymed with 'fling'.

To my amazement the Liberal Democrats in Britain are about to elect Sir Menzies Campbell their new leader, and he exhibits the same eccentricity about how to pronounce 'Menzies.' Australia has already had a supreme ruler known as Ming the Merciless. Can the UK Liberal Democrats be far behind?