Political personalities: Palmer and Merkel in their natural habitat

Who is Clive Palmer? What is the meaning of him? … He is a foolish passionate man, who has that endowment of the very rich, an erasure of the line between fantasy and reality, come along at a time when Australian political institutions had become sufficiently disarticulated to let him in with ease. Most people, especially those in the media, have become convinced that he is a man of no fixed character or beliefs, who rose to power through a rational political process. The reverse is the case. Palmer is a man with a coherent set of beliefs who is nevertheless a random product of an electoral process acquired in the fit of absent-mindedness.

— Guy Rundle, QE56 2014, p. 64

I have read two sensational political profiles in the last week of two dramatically different politicians: Guy Rundle’s Quarterly Essay on Clive Palmer and George Packer on Angela Merkel for the New Yorker. A great essay encourages readers to revisit and revise their opinions, and I am reconsidering my impressions not only of these two political personalities, but also the political systems that shaped them.

Palmer, the man about which Australian democracy circa 2014-5 improbably turns, is dismissed by many as a fickle showman, a buffoon with more money than sense. Rundle is clear-eyed to the man’s weaknesses and vanities, but finds a sincere constancy in his value system. Palmer’s compromises and apparent flip-flops are politics as it is supposed to be played, ground given where necessary but always in accordance with a coherent political ideology. The prevailing narratives about Big Clive are driven, Rundle argues, largely by the horror felt by a political elite that sees a more cut-and-thrust politics suddenly injected into the stable bipartisan order of professional politicians. More than a rendering of Clive Palmer, this essay is a critique of a broken electoral system defended by a self-serving political caste, “sealed off from the general public, with the process of becoming a politician deliberately mystified to keep the amateurs out”. But now Clive has flung open the door, “and god knows who will rush in”.

Angela Merkel is perhaps as different from Clive Palmer as it is possible to be. She is quiet, highly analytical, profoundly methodical and slow to commit to any course of action. It is appropriate, then, that Packer’s political profile of Merkel evokes a democracy facing the opposite crisis: rather than a sudden shakeup of party politics, the Germany described is utterly apolitical. “Merkel took the politics out of politics,” Packer quotes Georg Diez as saying, and he suggests that’s precisely what the country – paralysed by past guilt and afraid of big ideas – is looking for. The Merkel described here strives to be everything to every voter, and is motivated primarily by an instinct for power and a single central value: freedom.

It is unfortunate, but no fatal flaw, that neither Rundle nor Packer spoke with politician they profile. The essays are more like anthropological studies, eschewing the polished image presented in an interview for an analysis of the social and natural environment in which these personalities have developed. In Rundle’s case, the background is necessarily filled out in vivid detail so as not to be overshadowed by the showman in the foreground, this “man so utterly a creation of the Gold Coast that you can small the coconut oil and sand on him”. The Coast itself is a character in his critical history of Australian democracy, instrumental in the shaping of Palmer’s politics. Packer’s study of East Germany is muted and oppressive, simple but evocative, like the black and white portraits of Merkel’s evolution as a public figure that open the disquieting piece. Both essays are wonderful studies of the modern democratic politician in his or her natural habitat.


In praise of a messy democracy: Transparency, freedom, and spy scandals

Christian Kerr writes in defence of an opaque security service in the Weekend Australian this week. There are two main thrusts to his argument: first, that democracy requires intelligence services that operate in secrecy. The second essentially conflates all those have defended the publication of this information with the actions of Julian Assange.

The first argument is the most powerful. Kerr writes:

The democratic state needs an intelligence apparatus to protect its democracy from threats from fundamentalists, absolutists and other enemies of liberty.

This is certain. What it neglects is that once in a while, the enemies of liberty make it to the highest levels of the public service or are democratically elected to positions of power. Or are created there (absolute power corrupting absolutely and all that). I am by no means suggesting that all intelligence operations be carried out in the bright light of public scrutiny, or that every decision to tap phones or recruit agents be public knowledge. The point is that, especially in the highly-securitised post-9/11 environment, overreach happens, and democratic discussion of the procedures used to reach decisions is valid and necessary. Sure, Snowden leaked details of operations, not procedures, but without the subsequent global outrage and embarrassment this debate would never have happened. These leaks have shone a hot bright light on the things that are carried out in service of the liberty we democratic citizens enjoy, and have inspired a debate about the lengths we should go to protect that liberty. Perhaps we will decide that the lengths gone to are actually just about right and nothing needs to change, but the act of debating it is healthy for our democracy.

Kerr’s portrayal of democracy as a “delicate balancing act” is telling. Seen this way, democracy is a fragile thing, best left in the hands of elite professionals and liable to be broken in the raucous hands of the mob. This simultaneously belittles the capacity of Australian citizens to make adult decisions in concert with their peers and – I put to you – overestimates the capacity of our politicians to do the same. Democracy via representation is inevitable given the size of modern states, but elections are only one small part of holding our representatives to account. Our democracy is robust enough to cope with citizen engagement on an ongoing basis, and this engagement requires transparency.

Kerr’s second argument – in which he essentially accuses all those who support the ABCs decision to publish the Snowden revelations of Assange-cultism – is weaker. He writes that Assange “divides the world into heroes and villains and is quick to purge and denounce those he decides are enemies”. This is true. Quick to dish criticism out, Assange seems unable to take it. He is a crusader; I suspect he has strong authoritarian tendencies, and is not the sort of person I would like to see running my country. Kerr’s horror at the release of WikilLeaks cables to the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, allowing him to crack down on internal opposition, is beyond justified. I share it. But I think that on balance, Wikileaks has done a lot for Western democracy – go figure.

To suggest that we “wide-eyed Wikifans” must, in supporting transparency and democratic debate, endorse all the actions of the Wikileaks founder is ludicrous. It does, however, square nicely with Kerr’s picture of democracy: we choose somebody to represent us and then do no more than cheer them on until we reach the next election, trusting that whatever they do behind closed doors is in our best interest.

…a tyranny probably worse …

…a return to “free” competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, being more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.

— George Orwell*, criticising Hayek

I seriously cannot wait to bust this out the next time somebody tells me I need to brush up on my Orwell because I’m arguing for limitation of economic freedom.

And watch their head explode.

*  in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1970), cited in Funnell, W (2001) Government by Fiat: The retreat from responsibility. Sydney: University of NSW Press. p. 53.

Free Speech for Everyone (Except Environmental Groups)

Tony Abbot is determined to reform the Australia’s Human Rights Commission and amend the Racial Discrimination Act, which currently outlaws comments that may be seen as offensive on grounds of race or ethnicity. In the Australian of September 5:

Mr Abbott said: “Any suggestion you can have free speech as long as it doesn’t hurt people’s feelings is ridiculous. If we are going to be a robust democracy, if we are going to be a strong civil society, if we are going to maintain that great spirit of inquiry, which is the spark that has made our civilisation so strong, then we’ve got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company.

“We’ve got to allow people to think things that are unthinkable in polite company and take their chances in open debate.”

– See more here.

Of course, this doesn’t extend to campaigns that may be offensive to the interests of mega-corporations and the timber industry:

CONSERVATION groups seeking boycotts of products linked to alleged poor environmental practices may soon be liable for prosecution under consumer law.

The move, which could severely hamper market-based campaigns by groups such as Markets for Change and GetUp!, is to be pursued by the Abbott government.

Parliamentary secretary for agriculture Richard Colbeck told The Australian the move would prevent green groups from holding companies to ransom in their markets.

– From today’s Australian. See more here.

Gee, I hope this ideologically coherent policy-making is what we have to look forward to from here on out.

The Venezuelan elections in a single photo

From BBC Mundo’s live blogging of the Venezuelan elections (my translation):

Venezuela’s borders were closed at midday Saturday and will not reopen until 11:59 pm tonight [Sunday].

Nevertheless, some braved the strong waters of the Táchira River this Sunday, in order to vote.

For the last few hours I’ve been hitting refresh on Mundo’s blog and watching the flickering, fast-moving and frustratingly speculative flow of tweets with Lanata’s Periodismo para Todos on in the background. #ComiendoUñas indeed (biting my nails). I was feeling shirty and anxious.

Then I saw this photo. Tweeted it. That tweet got favourited, and in the twitter feed of that person appeared this one:

#WeAreVenezuela RT @jeffersonparada: They crossed the Tachira River  just to exercise their right to vote.

There was a historic turnout and enormous participation amongst Venezuelans living overseas. That, at least, is a triumph for democracy. Here’s hoping the elections are clean and the elected president manages to unite a divided country.

#WeAreVenezuela. I wish you all well.

Edited 10 minutes later to add: So, that’s it. Chávez 54%, Capriles 44%. Enormous turnout of 80.4%. I’m incredibly disappointed. May the opposition remain united and strong: this was an inspiring practice run for 2019.

En Twitter, CFK defiende su uso de la cadena nacional, ataca a los medios no oficialistas

Los tweets de @CFKArgentina:

Alrededor de las 10:30 de la noche de hoy, 7 de setiembre, @CFKArgentina emitió los siguientes tweets:

Algunas reacciones:

Que hay de malo en las entrevistas?

Como si el discurso de una sola persona no manipulara nada según su punto de vista personal; como si el interés de un pueblo entero pudiera expresarse en una sola persona.

Y las dos grandes preguntas de la noche:

What They Said: Sunday 2 September, 2012

On Twitter:

“They abandoned the peace of security and are searching for the peace of
[Hugo] Chávez, [Daniel] Ortega [of Nicaragua] and [Fidel] Castro”.

Uribe, Colombian President during the Plan Colombia years (although the Plan was launched under President Pastrana), has his knickers in a bit of a twist after his successor, Juan Manual Santos, announced the beginning of peace talks with FARC guerrillas in Havana.

Santos was Uribe’s Defense Minister, and was hand-picked by Uribe as his successor on the expectation that he would continue Uribe’s mano dura (“iron fist”) policies – policies that did, it must be admitted, result in a considerably improved security situation in the country and reduced production of coca [sp].

Still, Uribe received criticism for being too tough and possibly breaching human rights and/or democratic values, and Santos has taken a different path, culminating in the third set of peace talks to take place since the FARC initiated armed struggle in 1964 (the two previous attempts were unsuccessful).

The government has promised there will be no pardons or amnesties for terrorists, and that the initiation of talks will not mean the abandonment of internal defense. I’m thinking almost forty years of guerrilla warfare warrant another go at peace. Cuba and Venezuela’s involvement in the process don’t mean an unquestioning acceptance of their internal politics (Norway and Chile are involved as well) – they are neighbours, after all, with a stake in the region’s security.

Uribe is very fond of Twitter-bashing the successor who clearly disappointed him greatly; I’m not sure it’s terribly productive.

A few links:

Edited, Monday 3 September, to add this gem:

“#TerrorismContinues: yesterday two soldiers killed in San Andrés de Cuerquia. To negotiate with terrorists, do the lives of soldiers not matter?