Dairy, drugs and David Davis

I’ll end this period of webdiary introspection today with a summation of what I’ll report to Tom on improvements.


There is near unanimity that the diary should be snappy, the home for my comment and your short-take feedback, and that you also want longer, more analytical pieces and compilations of pieces on topics that run. That’s cool, but I want to retain flexibility and I do want the issues you want to take up to begin their life on the diary. When I shift debates off to the right, I’ll notify updates in the main diary.


The non-technical suggestions I like and will pursue are:


* to occasionally commission a considered piece on a topic, post it on a Friday and seek your responses. Suggestions on topics and writers welcome. The head of the religion deprtment at Radio National, Stephen Crittenden, has agreed to do a piece next week on rethinking the role of the States. He got interested in the issue in his role as organiser of the Centenary of Federation Deakin lectures, to run over ten days in Melbourne next month.


* to create a page listing contributors and their disclosures.


* to ask experts, insiders, whatever to comment on contributor’s pieces.


* to ask a question or make a statement asking for contributions limited to say 50 words – a short sharp taste of reader opinion.


* to have a contributor’s quote of the day box.



The technical suggestions I’ll see what we can do with are:


* Now that email numbers are getting bigger, I’m dead keen on cutting down the terribly time consuming, mechanical task of sub editing your emails in their various formats and transferring them to my work page. If there’s no big objections from you, it would be great to have a standard contribution form so everything can land on my computer in one format. This would also allow us to trial a rudimentary automatic archiving system, which would take me too much time to do manually.


* A hypertext function so that, among other things, if a contributor is responding you can quickly find the original item


* A discussion forum


* When the diary is too long, summarise longer pieces and hot link them to the full text, and use bookmarks and pop-up-boxes to aid navigation and keep the diary manageable.


To end the week, milk forces its way back with a charming contribution by Gina Desta (nom de plume till she finalises a new job), who experiences the pitfalls of solidarity and discovers a new factor in the cost-benefit equation – the aesthetics of dairy farming.


Polly Bush rejoins the drugs debate, and gives us the rundown on pollie-chicks Pauline and Natasha. Marc Pengryffyn, who’s been going for it this week, responds to Elen Seymour and Jack Robertson on foreign investment. Lastly, just because I like him, David Davis subscribes to my “charter”. I must warn you, David, more than one reader is wondering why you don’t disagree with me any more!




I just wanted to tell you that the dairy farmers can be their own worst enemy. The other week I spent my good STD money ringing a dairy farmers organisation up north to offer support and discuss my fears about buying agribusiness cows milk from cows fed on bits of animal and how big the market would be for grass-fed milk.


The receptionist was a dairy farmer (a woman), and I mentioned that I pay a fortune for Japanese soy milk, pointing out that people like me silly enough to pay over $3.00 a litre for the stuff would be happy to pay an immense premium for a guaranteed-quality, non gm-fed milk product. (I wanted to emphasise that the average consumer doesn’t know anything about milk production or that the vast majority of small dairy farms have virtually purely grass fed cows…and that this needs to be highlighted on the packaging).


I was roundly boxed on the ears over the phone for daring to buy soy milk!!! I was savagely abused and had to terminate the conversation – who needs enemies????


By the way, the main reason for my own passion about this deregulation issue is that I love driving through farmscapes and I’m acutely aware that farmers everywhere are subsidising my aesthetic pleasures to the max!





Thanks for giving my last effort a run (in Natasha, Cheryl and Pauline). It was kind of satisfying to watch the small but interesting snowball effect. I need another venting.


Marc Pengryffyn’s point on drugs decriminalization and profiteering (in Not too wanky) made me remember a Bill Leak Cartoon, and the profiteering that goes on under prohibition. It had a thug type character reading a newspaper with a headline along the lines of PM Rejects Shooting Gallery. The response from the crime boss was see, the Government is doing something for small business. Beautiful.


I also liked Robert Lawton’s warnings about bandaid approaches through harm minimisation programs (in Cut and paste). People sometimes assume because I’m an ex-user that I would naturally support injecting rooms. It’s not that I’m against them, I just think its a case of priorities.


Firstly, help should be given to those who want help. Rehab needs to see some of that GST revenue that god knows must be piling up. The availability in both bed numbers and location has definite room for improvement.


For location purposes, I did my stint at the arse end of a public hospital (think Virgin Blue at Mascot). I was the youngest there by about thirty years, and the only female except for the staff. The other patients were recovering alcoholics. Needless to say there was that element of humility having my name sprawled on the whiteboard with the only OPIATE to be seen.


But apart from the lack of confidence building measures it helped me. I know through others it doesn’t work for everyone, but if someone actually gets to that point of putting their hand up and saying “I want to stop this”, we should give them every chance to do so, rather then responding with call back in a few weeks.


Some questions and problems arise with injecting rooms. They have to be done properly, that is, the smack needs to be supplied and clean. This brings up a whole can of worms with what is and isn’t prohibited.


The problem with users supplying their own heroin is simple: people won’t come, or they’ll meet their dealer out the front, and with the current laws the potential for the plod to prohibit is, well, there. I reckon if I had scored 500 metres away from an injecting room I would’ve been more likely to make a beeline for the nearest toilet/laneway/stairwell/car than take the sensible road to supervision.


Another problem with injecting rooms is the restrictions. By law, I think those that have attempted to get injecting rooms off the ground are restricting them to 18 plus, and registered addicts. So the 15 year old user is turned away, as is the ex-user/occasional dabbler, who is probably at a greater risk of overdosing due to a decline in tolerance. And what about the virgin veins out there that want a slice? Back to the kerb.


So now I’m at this point where I’m hearing the echoes of what I imagine Fiona Ferrari’s voice to sound like: less complaints and more solutions. At the moment Im struggling.


On a different note, I’m guessing CIO readers aren’t as familiar with Aussie Post as they are with your site. What grabbed my attention (apart from the subheadings Blind Girl Begs – Give me back my kangarooand Sharks banned from city pub) was the cover picture of Hanson and Stott Despoja with the headline Who’ll be our top poli-chick – SHOWDOWN OF THE SHEILAS.


The article was most enlightening, referring to the poli-chicks holding the fate of the Australian Government in their well-manicured hands. It went for the first name approach (which you’ve recognised) and brought everything back to appearances: Natasha and Pauline are strutting their stuff in front of the voters at opposite ends of the political catwalk.


My favourite par was “Like everybody else in Australia, except for John Howard and Peter Costello, neither woman is happy with the GST. But while Natasha wants to do a bit of trimming round the edges with a pair of nail scissors, Pauline favours a chainsaw and dynamite approach”.


Poor Stott the Spoiler or Spot Destroyer got the lil nail clippers, which wasn’t exactly consistent with the photo-spread the article contained. I don’t want to fall into the trap of describing what they were wearing, but shock horror, the piccies do seem a bit suss.


There’s a lovely snap of Hanson giving the camera a peace gesture (I suspect she may actually be giving the finger to someone behind her), with a smaller picture of mainly her legs hopping out of a chopper with the caption SURVIVOR: Leggy Pauline is ready to return to Parliament.


On the other page we have PARTY GIRL: Fun and Feisty Natasha Stott-Despoja with singer Frank Bennett, referring to the smaller photo of Spotty comparing tatts with Bennett lifting up his shirt to show his (put it away Frank). The large photo has Spotty showing us her tonsils – jaw wide open, rainbow boa round her neck in the spirit of mardi gras, waving to the crowd.


It’s not the most complimentary shot of the Senator to be seen, but hey, there seemed to be a shortage of favourable snaps of Senator Lees during the leadership challenge.


The article also had a table with Pauline vs Natasha (note, not the other way around), with some very basic details comparing policies. I’m curious about Spottys description Single, followed directly with Partner is Channel 9 reporter Hugh Rimminton (proof that the media does really love her?).


Spotty’s only health policy is “supports trials of medically prescribed heroin for addicts”. While Spotty will support things, Pauline will do things, despite the fact that at the next election she will never have the numbers to form government. According to Aussie Post, Pauline will dismantle ATSIC, cut funding and repeal native title legislation. Ahh, puhlease.


I’m hoping the Post will follow up their SHEILA SHOWDOWN article with FESTERING FELLAS next issue, showcasing big Kim’s cabbage cravings and lil Johnnie’s power walks at opposite ends of the political catwalk.




I seem to do a lot of ‘I agree with you but I disagree with you’, and I’m about to do it again. To Elen Seymour: Yes, companies won’t set up in Australia if the tax regime is less profitable for them than another country that offers similar infrastructure. Yes, it borders on insanity for Australians to consider seriously discouraging foreign investment, or to stray down the isolationist path. We need investment or we don’t have industry.


However, the way things currently operate, nations that want investment are forced to compete for it by offering tax breaks, infrastructure, concessions, and, especially in the third world, lax labour and environmental regimes. The World Bank, IMF and WTO are perceived to reinforce this pattern. It’s a seller’s market, and the money knows it.


This is why people fear the multinationals so much, because it looks like they have more and more power over our lives than our governments do, and yet are accountable only to their shareholders. Sometimes, not even to them.


Our governments seem to respond to the problem by alternately sabre-rattling and kowtowing. To be fair, what other options do they have?


What role does the media play in all this? Jack Robertson said it all in yesterday’s Meeja Watch: “Finance is a Meeja Speciality which has become progressively characterised by self-generated, self-fulfilling, and self-perpetuating prophecies, all dressed up as critical objective analysis.”


The media is perceived to have been co-opted by financial cartels, either directly or indirectly. We see that politicians are exceedingly reluctant to challenge the media power of the corporate sector. The media seem to act as publicists for corporate power. At the very least they’re too often guilty of reducing the issues to black and white caricatures, and depending overly on corporate media-releases for their copy. Viva Media Watch!


Jack argues that this is all a sort of light-and-mirrors trick, and maybe it is. But, a self-fulfilling prophecy is, by definition, fulfilled. Corporate Money could capture the hegemony it pretends to have, just by convincing us they already have it. If the fourth-estate collaborates with them in this, what’s to stop them succeeding?


That’s not a rhetorical question; I would really, really like to know!


When people start to feel powerless they get panicky, and many will turn to anyone who appears to offer answers – hence Pauline Hanson. Just because Pauline Hanson is wrong about the solutions doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem. Nobody wants to live under a corporate dictatorship, but many people regard that as a real possibility. On a bad day, I’m one of them.


Perhaps nation states need to form some sort of cooperative organisation to help them deal with the power of big money. After all, the labour sector had to do it once. They called it ‘Unionism’.


The first thing such an organisation would have to do is address the economic disparity between nations. It might become less viable to allow richer nations to exploit poorer ones, for example, otherwise it would undermine solidarity. Some sort of sanctions would have to be applied to blackleg or scab nations. Maybe this would help to level the playing field. All irony intended.


As current ‘top nation’, I don’t imagine the US would go along with the idea, but their primacy isn’t beyond challenge. The EC and ASEAN are already showing healthy signs of working in this way, but they’re regional. I think we need something global.


Surely ,when faced with massive corporate power, or at least a media depiction of it, we’ve got to have more options than simply:

a) refuse to play, or

b) lie back and think of England?


Too often these are the only choices offered. I don’t think we’re too stupid to appreciate intelligent alternatives, but someone has to present them to us. Or allow us to develop our own.




In the corporate world “mission statements” can become trite and meaningless but I think your charter speaks to important issues.


In this day and age there is a great danger of falling into a well of cynicism where we ask “what is the point of anything?” This seems to be the flavour of Paul McLaren’s comments (in What’s the point?).


I think I know where he is coming from. The marketers tell me I am a part of “Generation X” and our reaction to anything is supposed to be “yeah, whatever”. I have to fight this. It is hard not to be cynical but if you extend it too far you really do start to wonder what is the point of anything and this is damaging to both the individual and society.


I am certainly not suggesting we should be naive but to lapse into a “what’s the point” downward spiral of cynicism is one of the most dangerous things I can think of. Down the bat, pack up and go home is this message. For what? Nothing? Endless, mindless whingeing from the sidelines?


You have to ENGAGE. You have to be INVOLVED. Why mutter something under your breath when you have the opportunity to SCREAM it from the roof tops?


I ask myself why I am so engaged in this forum. The better question is “why wouldn’t you” or “why aren’t you”??


At the risk of lapsing into “wankiness” I offer the words of Robert Kennedy. He suggests that there is more to life than GDP. There IS a point to intelligent debate. He had the following to say back in the dim, distant past of 1968 at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. I lived near this place in the 1990’s but feel his “ancient” words are relevant today, not just to America, but to us all. If you greet the following with cynicism and a “what’s the point attitude”… then you may as well go to McDonalds and order an extra large coffee (the ultimate expression of the bottom line and economic rationalism/efficiency). Personally – I’ll be taking something authentic elsewhere. A real coffee, offered by a real person on a real income. Anyway, here are RFK’s words:


Quality of Life


“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.


“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”


Can anyone argue the above uttered in 1968 is less relevant in 2001???


Of course most Generation Xers were in nappies or born after the above was said. Oh, sure it is easy to be cynical about the words of a wealthy man from America a generation ago. Free yourself from aversion to “wankiness” and allow yourself to THINK.


I am cynical myself about many things and even wonder why I regularly contribute to this forum. In the end though, I see cynicism as a trap or a refuge for those who are tired of life.


I think there IS a point.


I subscribe to the charter.

Webdiary charter

First published April 26, 2001, in Webdiary entry “What’s the point?”

I believe:

* that widely read broadsheet newspapers are essential to the health and vibrancy of our democracy

* that they are yet to adapt to a multi-media future pressing on the present

* that there is a vacuum of original, genuine, passionate and accessible debate on the great political, economic and social issues of our time in the mainstream media, despite the desire of thinking Australians in all age groups to read and participate in such debates

* that newspapers have lost their connection with the readers they serve

* that the future lies in a collaboration between journalists and readers.

The mission of the Webdiary is:

* to experiment in the form and content of the Herald online

* to assist in the integration of the newspaper and smh.com.au

* to help meet the unmet demand of some Australians for conversations on our present and our future, and to spark original thought and genuine engagement with important issues which effect us all

* to link thinking Australians whoever they are and wherever they live.

* to insist that thinking Australians outside the political and economic establishment have the capacity to contribute to the national debate

* to provide an outlet for talented writers and thinkers not heard in mainstream media

Not too wanky

Suggestions for the webdiary are pouring in. Email your suggestions or responses to the ideas to date by Monday, when I’ll wrap them up and give them to Tom.


Before your webdiary comments, a demand from Brian Lopez for the media to demand answers on pollies super and proof that you too can help from Alison de JongMarc Pengryffyn continues the drugs debate inspired by Polly Bush. In the Dairy update section, Mark Latham has bitten back at his critics and David Eastwood enters the debate.


By the way, Labor has finally committed itself to the Kyoto protocol even if the US stays out. It took a Greenpeace Newspoll showing public support for Kyoto to do it. Environment spokesman Nick Bolkus said in a statement today: “It is imperative that the Kyoto Protocol survives the attack of the United States. It is a critical first step in the global response to the threat of climate change…Australia’s ratification will be important for the protocol to come into force. Australia has a global responsibility to progress the protocol coming into force. With or without the US, the Kyoto Protocol is not dead and although Australia should use whatever influence it has to bring the US back into negotiations, we will not be beholden to the United States position.”




I have read your article on Politician’s Superannuation and can only say – you took the words right out of my mouth – and may I say probably out of numerous other normal working Australians. I think the great majority of us look in absolute amazement at what is offered to our Politicians both State and Federal. More senior political journalists should ask our political leaders the following questions.


1. Why can’t normal Australians expect the same returns, contributions and conditions that are given to Politicians and paid for by Australian taxpayers.


2. When can we expect Parliament to pass these laws to stop the preferential treatment handed out to Politicians.


3. If these laws can’t be passed – when will superannuation laws should be amended to allow ALL Australians the same conditions that are afforded the Politicians.


They should keep asking these questions until they get an iron-clad commitment. A combined effort by senior political journalists will be the only thing that will shame these people into making this highly unfair perk more fair for all.




I’m new to this kind of thing. Each Wednesday when I am driving to work I hear you on LNL with Phillip Adams (this week’s was on pollies super). I have just arrived home with 2 of my kids from Niagara Park community centre (central coast, NSW) where Michael Lee, Trish Moran and Kim Beazley were holding court. I tried the “pollies super” question on Kim, and after a lot of raving on about how he could have had more than $5m and that it was the short termers who really made a handsome sum, he said that yes, they’d have to look at it when they were in government.


The whole time this was going on I was surrounded by middle aged matrons nodding their heads adoringly at everything he said. He could have said he’d only have $10m and they would have still nodded sadly for him!!


I guess it’s my naivete, but I’m feeling a bit cheesed off. So there you go, a bit of “spleen venting”.


MARGO: Direct action. Fantastic.




I’d like to echo Robert Lawton’s praise of Polly Bush’s contribution on the drug debate.(Webdiary yesterday, Polly’s piece is in Webdiary, April 10) and to praise his thoughtful piece highlighting the danger that harm minimization programs could serve to mask the underlying social problems that cause much, perhaps most, drug abuse.


That side of the equation is almost completely ignored, and few politicians would touch it with a barge pole.


There is a parallel danger, however, that a focus on addressing underlying social issues can mask the fact that far too many people are suffering and dying for no good reason. That is what harm minimization addresses, and I think that morally it must be our first concern. You can’t improve the circumstances of someone who’s lying dead in a doorway.


Polly Bush talked of the diverse reasons she got into heroin; I don’t think you can simply say that poor circumstances lead to addiction .Archaeology shows that the human race has been manufacturing recreational drugs for millennia, and observations of our simian relatives suggest that we’ve been using the things since before we left the trees.


The unutterable truth in the debate is that for a lot of people drugs are fun, and some of us are always going to get into trouble with them. I really think the line is between levels of use and abuse, and that’s never going to be a solid demarcation.


Yes, there is more abuse of drugs associated with poverty and dislocation- they’re an accessible if not ideal way of dealing with misery. But even rich and happy people can get addicted – remember cocaine? Rich people don’t do it in the streets, of course, and they go to private clinics for treatment.


The best analogy to ‘the drug problem’ is the illegal status of abortion in decades past, with the associated taboo on honest discussions of sex and access to contraception. There was the same failure to admit the inevitability of unsanctioned activities despite their risks, the same constraints on open dissemination of information, the same needless, horrific death toll.


In the case of abortion, harm minimization consisted of sex education in schools, free access to birth control even for the young (*especially* for the young!) and the decriminalization of abortion itself. It seems to have worked; very few women die in backyard abortions in Australia these days, and unwanted pregnancy is way down. This was part of a wider picture of feminism and the increasing equality of the sexes – an ongoing process of social change.


Likewise, the most sensible approach to recreational drugs is to admit that they are an inevitable fact of human society, provide resources to reduce the dangers (clean needles, safe injection venues, safe and inexpensive supply, open investigation and research), encourage free, frank and accurate exchange of information, and above all decriminalize the activity itself.


Mind you, the gambling industry should warn us what can happen if governments are allowed to profit from addictive activities. There is a world of difference between compassionate tolerance and profiteering.


Abortion and sex education were pushed along by the feminist movement; perhaps it’s time for the human-rights movement to argue for the rights of addicts and drug users to be treated as an abused minority who are being denied the measures that they need for the preservation of their lives, health and place in society. Or would this just isolate them even more?


At any rate, despite the vicious rearguard action of conservatives like Howard and Brian Watters, I think we are looking at a more enlightened future, perhaps a few years off yet, and I hope that changing attitudes to drug use will come alongside more rational, equitable and compassionate approaches to many of our society’s ills. Well, I can dream.


I know this is a deeply loathed perspective in many circles, and I’ll probably get called a radical libertarian or such, but let’s face it, prohibition has failed time and time again, and has created far more problems than it has ever solved. It’s driven by narrow social perceptions encouraged mostly by religious doctrinaires of various stripes.


Of course drugs can be dangerous, but so is sport. So is childbirth. Yes, we’ll have to make changes in slow, incremental steps to allow social attitudes to catch up, but until we start making those changes drugs will continue to be a big problem for all of us. And people will keep dying.







I have to say I agree with Fiona Ferrari. When I first started reading your webdiary, I think on the day it started, the format was an editorial by yourself, with short, paragraph like comments from your readers as their mail started to trickle in.


However, that changed, rather dramatically, once you started pasting in long, long, -LONG- essays by what appear to be political and economic science students. This creeping intellectualism has destroyed the original purpose [as I see it, it is yours after all] of the site, to promote political discussion between as many varied voices as possible.


I can understand wanting to give your regulars a voice, and some of them definitely deserve one. However, perhaps an additional essays site would be more appropriate.


It used to take a coffee break to read the webdiary. Now it takes so much longer, it’s scary.




Long time reader, first time poster. I agree with Andrew Stapleton and Fiona Ferrari in part. Don’t mess with it too much.


I don’t go with Andrew on the view that the debates to be found on the net just devolve into point scoring. It’s more a case that some topics don’t have perfect solutions, communication isn’t perfect and passions often run high.


Also, whilst I agree with Fiona about avoiding things becoming too highfalutin, it’s pretty hard for it not to get down to brass tacks once in a while.


What Andrew had to say about “experts” in the dairy dereg section was interesting; that they have almost a duty of care, providing information/knowledge and trying to make sure it is understood. If we don’t get hung up on the language of being an “expert” and any hierarchical undertones, this idea sits quite happily, for me, with the spirit of Tim Dunlop’s argument for the layperson not being afraid of the issues and that being central to democracy.


I think the page is quite good at the above so far. Views, discussion, investigation and expertise all together.


I had run through in my mind, the various message boards and comment systems I’ve run into. But, more and more, I don’t think it matters too much what is done, so long as it doesn’t reduce you to an editor/moderator and occasional setter of the topic (as maintaining the diary seems to have done recently).


My suggestions: Keep the main page and have the regular contributors and anything else in a “diary”, like it is now, with a message board/thread forum (or whatever) as a kind of subsection. This is because I find the page readers/email corresponders often a breed apart from those folks inclined to become forum denizens (in general, not just because of the types of behaviour Andrew notes), so they need something. Plus it keeps the focus. Very important. A lot of demarcation on a new forum can stop it from getting going. So keep it simple and let it grow at first. If you do decide to give the regulars separate sections, precis them in the diary or somewhere. Keeps people clicking.




I agree with Fiona Ferrari (Webdiary yesterday) re the big pieces. I still want to see them, but perhaps can we make a link to them or put them at the bottom, or separate the diary into 2 sections. Perhaps you could impose a limit on contribution length, although that does sound a bit fascist. The long pieces do tend to make one feel that a contribution is not worthy unless well thought out and extensively backed up.


The other thing I would really like is to see some sort of of distinction between you and the different contributors. Sometimes I have been confused as to who is speaking where. Perhaps using italics, different colours, line separators? (MARGO: Will do.)




* More opinions from you, with less reliance on quotes from Hansard or other publications.


* Stringent assessment of readers’ submissions, like the SMH Letters Page – it took ten years of letter writing before the buggers published me. (Oops, that means this has no chance.)


* A moderated discussion group.


* A “Keep the Bastards Honest” page – essentially a page that posts responses from our pollies to closed questions on policies, ideology etc. I figure that if a prominent web site was to do this many of our pollies would have no choice but to go on record in regard to specific issues. As an example: Mail a question to all pollies “What will YOU do to ensure that public education is adequately funded so its performance as a first class system is uncompromised?” Stereotyped and answers exceeding 100 words will be dismissed as “pulling the wool over our eyes”, with an appropriately disaffected “outing” of the offending pollie!




New, improved version 2 Webdiary, now with extra added interactivity


Sorry for the title – couldn’t resist the advertising approach.


I’ve been a long time reader of the web diary, and have come really close to contributing some things, but for various reasons haven’t as yet. I suppose, in a way, I have felt almost inadequate when faced with the intellectual prowess of some of your more regular contributors – although, it must be said, certain right-wing diatribes and opinionated drivel have spurred me to the point of pressing the “send” button, then rational thought has prevailed.


Anyway, I read with interest your request for ideas for a new format, and perhaps I may be so bold.


1. Perhaps a semi-chat or discussion forum might have a place. I think the best way to approach this would be to take a format similar to the Independent Newspaper’s site under the Argument section. Certain topics are presented for discussion, generally those that have been dealt with in Argument pieces by the various contributors, and readers are invited to have their say.


I’d shirk away from getting users to register – a lot of people are reluctant to wade into a service that demands addresses, employment details etc. Just a simple request for a name would be enough to do the trick, methinks.


Obviously, the question of whether or not it will be moderated will be raised, but I think people are of a reasonable enough nature not to need a watchdog (Hmmmm, am I really that naive???)


2. The advantage I see in a forum such as this is that it allows people to easily comment in an area that is not overtly academic. Of course, the larger pieces should still be there, but this stuff should perhaps be accessible via a link on the webdiary main page. So you therefore end up having an editorial-type section, and a shorter, more accessible discussion section – a bastardisation of Fiona Ferrari’s comments.


3. Election year – yes, but there will also be elections in other parts of the world at

various times. The UK, for example, where I’m currently living (ex-Sydney) is going to have what could be an interesting one later this year. What about getting a regular piece from people living in different countries about their perceptions of local election run-ups? And here’s a shamelessly-crawly-suck-up offer – I’d perhaps be keen to contribute, although you’d better give me an electronic slapping if my work is not up to scratch (of course you would) – there, I’ll do anything for my 15 minutes.


The point of this exercise? Perhaps to let the readers know how other societies react to/deal with election campaigns, as well as how the foreign pollies act.


MARGO: I’d love pieces from expats on elections where they’re living, and you’re on, Sean.




I do hope your boss realises just how jealously your respondents wish to guard the webdiary. By all means broaden the appeal. (But how will you be able to handle the mail volume? You’ll need dozens of assistants.)


However, SMH must ensure the webdiary does not deteriorate to the abysmal quality of most reader response forums. Frankly, I have found nothing matching webdiary – even the Christian Science Monitor and Atlantic magazine online forums are dreadful.


I take Fiona’s point about keeping a mix of long and short articles, and also Andrew’s about not becoming an online slanging site where neither side really listens to contrary views. I would add a preference for starting, or at least notifying, all new topics in your daily intro (ie as you do currently).


So many issues overlap (eg greenhouse/energy, environment/population, both of these with industrial development) that strict separation into “fields of interest” would be counterproductive.


A while ago you put out feelers about what people would be willing to pay for online. Well, one likely attribute of a pay site would surely be access to something not obtainable elsewhere. Those people who phoned the SMH to enquire about Tim’s dairy deregulation piece did so, I submit, because they wanted to read the considered views of a thoughtful citizen – imagine Tim’s 7000 word piece edited to 200 words for the letters page!


As for keeping the site fresh, I suggest you try the following. As a jog to memory, list all the federal ministries, departments and organisations. Then invite readers to comment if they feel a potentially hot topic is not yet on the media horizon. I expect all sorts of things might emerge.


The goal of this approach is to keep webdiary out front, rather than allowing it to become purely reactive. So please Boss, keep the reins loose, Margo’s doing just fine. Let’s see where she takes us.


MARGO: I like the idea of being out front.The best example was the debate over the defence bill, where the Coalition and Labor wanted to give the defence force the power to shoot to kill etc against civilians. The debate was triggered by two emails from readers wanting to know more. I do get occasional reader’s suggestions for topics, which I follow up when I can. I got one yesterday which I’ll write about on Monday.




I’m deeply sympathetic to “Fiona’s” comments about elitism. My PhD, ironically, is about exactly this question: how do you get intellectuals and citizens to interact as equals. To me, it’s one of the central questions of how we get the sort of society we want.


It’s exactly why I think it is worth contributing to forums like this, because I think it does contribute to breaking down those barriers.


So I thought the milk piece, though long and canvassing some tricky stuff, was nonetheless pretty accessible. It certainly wasn’t academic, and part of the reason it was as long as it was, was so that I could spell out quite clearly what was at stake with each point I was making. I wanted people to be able to follow the exact point I was making, without presuming they had the benefit of the knowledge I’d managed to dig up.


It was also written from a position of absolute ignorance, and everything I found out I found out by staying up late and reading documents. The whole point was that I WASN’T an expert but I found out some stuff anyway. It was meant to be encouraging of others to have a go at this sort of thing and it’s a bit disappointing to find it had the opposite effect.


But if people find that sort of thing intimidating, then people like me have to be aware of that. As I say, I’m deeply sympathetic to the question, having spent the past 3 years thinking about little else and defending the position against associates who think that it’s just pointless to get the two groups (citizens and experts) together.


Andrew Stapleton’s comments raise some interesting points too. Partly, it’s about the difficulty of having discussions like this online. It is really easy for people to get the wrong idea about people’s intentions. But the suggestion that I made no attempt to understand his position is, I have no doubt, sincere, but I don’t think it is fair. Let me defend myself if I can.


Sure I got a bit narky – that is, my tone wasn’t always saintly – but I was only put off with some of what he he was saying. There was nothing personal in it, though I know how easy it is to take things personally when you are addressed in public.


But there were a number of times when I expressly acknowledged points he was making, even if I didn’t then agree with them. I think this is a really important point about about having discussions as citizens in public forums and about rising above the sort of parliamentary question-time brawling that most of us thoroughly deplore. So this is my general policy when responding to people in forums like this: I always make it a point to respond by quoting what they actually said to precisely show, first, that it’s not personal, and second, that I have actually read quite closely what they’ve said. It also keeps ME accountable.


If it sounds a bit short or angry or whatever, then that’s just the way it is, I guess. What else am I meant to do? Say I agree with something that I find trivial or trite or simply wrong? The rude thing would be to have ignored the detail of what he said and write some generalised response.


The thing is, sometimes exchanges are going to be terse or strong when people disagree about important things and I don’t think we should be afraid of that. Which is not to say that it’s easy. I sometimes wonder if people are aware of the personal risk people like me feel we are taking when we enter into these discussions. My heart is in my mouth everytime I click that ‘send’ button, especially when I’m responding to someone like Mark Latham, a professional arguer. It’s just plain scary. I don’t know why some people think it is hard for them to stick their heads up but easy for others.


All that aside, on the issue of revamping the site, two things I’d keep in mind. One is that you want it to be a site of reader interaction, which is great. But the other, I think, is that you want it to provide content, in the form of reports, essays, articles etc. I think these two things need to be kept separate to some extent, simply because the format of an “endless” webpage is difficult to read and it adds to the feeling that people are ploughing through reams and reams of material. A webboard still seems like a good idea, but I don’t think you want to give all discussion over to that format, largely for the reasons that Andrew mentioned.


In terms of content, despite what Fiona said about shorter pieces, I think it’d be a real shame to give up the ability of the web to provide a space for more detailed comment and interaction.


I mean, isn’t part of the idea to get away from some of the superficiality of normal media coverage and get some muscle and bite into analysis/commentary etc?


Part of the reason for the milk piece was precisely because all the other general coverage was so tokenistic. And where else would that piece have got published? I think it contributed something to the debate, and to more general discussion, but you know as well as I do what would’ve happened if I’d sent to any newspaper or mag in the country: reject.


How else do we break out of the habits of stale, formulaic debate unless we’re willing to open up topics to this more detailed analysis? Where else can we do it except in spaces like yours?


I am aware Fiona wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t have these longer pieces, only that on some level people can find them intimidating etc. I apologise if my piece was like that.


It was the very fact that I was intimidated by the writings of Paul Kelly and other commentators that made me go out and look at the issue. It is surprising how UNintimidating they are once you have the information yourself. But you do actually have to go and do the work.


That’s why I think the website is such a promising venue for social/political discussion; exactly because it does give ordinary bods (even men doing PhDs) an opportunity to question things we wouldn’t normally have a chance to question.


Anyway, I’d also like to say that if I can help anyone with research material or getting a piece together, then I’d be happy to do it, within certain time restraints. I don’t really think I’m part of the elite, but having done a few years at uni you almost can’t help but pick up a few research and writing skills, so if they can be helpful to anyone, please let me know.




I agree very much with Fiona Ferrari’s views. I really hope Webdiary doesn’t take on too much of a “wanky” format. Of course some “wanky” is fine but if it means those with less time, resources, interest or intellect are deterred from contributing, that would be a great pity. I am hardly promoting a dumbing down – all I am saying is that it should not become an exclusive preserve of a certain type of individual.


I don’t think we should underestimate the psychological aspects either. Competition is often exceptionally healthy but it can also have the impact of excluding people we should love to hear from. I’ve often wondered about the psychological profile of the “regular contributor”. Is it the ideas, is it the writing, is it a form of competition? Is there a common driver? What motivates them? I would like to hear what makes the regulars, well, regular. I of course exclude myself from such analysis but am nevertheless interested in the others.


I think your involvement is CRITICAL. I dont like this idea of “limited administrative involvement” from you. I always like it when you chip in one liners in the midst of people’s pieces. One liners, not detailed rebuttals!!!!!! If there is less of you I am going to visit this site a lot less often!! I am not ONLY interested in the views of the “viewers” – I most definitely want to hear your perspective. I was initially attracted to this because it seemed we were getting something NEW….we were getting more of an insiders view – in a new and entertaining format.


I see your role as being far more important than one of some kind of back seat moderator in a free for all. Not to say I don’t like “free for all” but none of this would work without you being the glue holding it together. We need to see your ideas and opinions just as much, if not more, than before. Just because Dairy Dereg is flying solo – don’t expect everything to turn. I love what has happened with Dairy Dereg but this is not some panacea which will enable you to put your feet up.


I think the idea of separate areas for debates which are up to “flying solo” is an excellent one. Dairy dereg is a good example. I know I will go back and check it every now and then. A little structure is not a bad thing.


Having said that….. I hope it doesn’t become TOO structured and involve a lot of navigating on the readers part. That gets really old really quickly.


In summary I suppose I am saying:


1. A bit wanky, but not TOO wanky (a tricky balancing act to keep a good tone);

2. Lots of Margo content with chipped in comments as well;

3. Some structure but not TOO much structure for issues taking their own wings;

4. Promotion of diversity (ie contributor diversity); and

5 Promotion of diversity of style (ie from punchy, to detailed, to emotional, to cooly analytical)


It should be thought provoking AND entertaining. So far so good!





I got a phone call from one of your colleagues yesterday who said he read in my email (Webdiary Tuesday) that I had been a student of Cheryl Kernot when she ran off to Queensland, and hinted that I might know something different to the “official ALP line”. I don’t, and told him so. Weird. I didn’t think to write down his name, unfortunately, and he didn’t mention who he works for- he woke me from a nap and I wasn’t at my best. I’d make a lousy journalist.


Anyway, to business.


I must admit that I am somewhat daunted by the longer and more erudite pieces at times, but always find it worthwhile to struggle through them. I think it’s a good idea to put the longer pieces in a side-gallery (or whatever the jargon is) and ditto for the longer running debates and the columnists, with the only danger being that they may all get ignored. Make sure you have lots of big friendly signage reminding us that they’re there. You could maybe make selections from the side-galleries to include in the front page letter stream.


Similarly, if you want to print ‘outside pieces’, like Peter Andren’s speech on Tuesday 17th April, or pieces from other journos, you might want to present them as hypertext links with a small summary.


I agree that the central letters page [front page?] should be retained as the primary focus. It’s what most people will read and is really the most important part of the project. I think perhaps you should have a word limit for the letters you put there, but I’d be generous and I wouldn’t be a nazi about it.


I agree with Fiona Ferrari that you should include yourself more in the debates – your interjections are invaluable! Apart from anything else, they help to stamp your personality on the Diary, and I think that’s no bad thing. Plus, I think it’d help solve the problem of ‘newsgroup bombasts’ that Andrew Stapleton mentions (a category of netnerd whose number I fear sometimes includes myself).


I like the format you usually adopt, where you start off with a few thoughts of your own, then introduce the day’s writers and topics before the letters themselves. As above, I like it when you inject yourself into the letters occasionally. A heading, and maybe a *brief* intro before each letter would be good as it would help when I’m trying find bits to re-read later.


If this project takes off (as we all should hope!) you’re going to find yourself selecting and editing more, of course, but I like your commitment to letting people’s voices be heard. The trade-off will be between inclusiveness and accessibility, but I think this technology is good at that kind of problem when well designed.





I have an idea for the site that you can put to Tom. How about having a regular web-chat on the site, say once a week. You could advertise a topic and readers could interact with you online on that topic in a similar way to ICQ/AOL. I suggest that you have a mediator for the reader’s questions so that the chat has some structure and coherence. I am sure f2’s web-types are up to the challenge of creating an online application to handle this feature.


I agree with Fiona Ferrari’s comment about the length of some of the pieces that you have published. I personally scan over anything that is more than a web-page in length, and so prefer brief contributions. We younger types do not have the attention span of your generation.




My vision for the site would be more policy debates getting off the ground and then given a separate space like dairy.


I’d like to see these policy debates include solutions not just complaints. Eg drug policy, higher

education, research and development, refugee policy, health policy, and ideas for reforming the electoral system to make it more democratic.


Another idea is for readers to suggest topics they’d like you to write about. Of course most of the time you should choose your own topics but readers’ suggestions may come in useful for slow news days. For example my suggestions today would include:


* Australian defamation laws (if and how they stop newspapers writing certain political stories- as a journalist you’d know more about that than me- and how they should be reformed)


* A juicy piece on what really goes on in the Canberra Press Gallery and how your perspective has changed by not being located there (if it has)


* A detailed critique of what wrong with the internal functioning of the ALP-jobs for the boys, seniority over merit etc-explaining why its like that and suggesting how they could reform it


*Ideas to help the next Government get real people involved in policy development (eg local members’ internet sites like Latham has, more summits and conventions like the NSW Drug Summit and the Constitutional Convention, more deliberative referendums, and perhaps policy debates on-line at the policy development stage-so politicians and public servants could publicly engage in the policy issues).


MARGO: My problem in researching and writing investigative pieces is that I do this diary on my own – pulling it together, writing my bit, subediting it, and putting it online. So it’s a time thing. I’ll write about the press gallery on Monday.




I think one way to “spice up” your page would be to add a regular “insider” commentary on the issues raised by your correspondents – that is, get random Fairfax journalists, TV commentators, pollies, industry figures etc to contribute their feedback or views on the readers’ points of view.


If this were to work, it would probably be wise to ensure that this is not used as an opportunity for political non-speak,or propaganda, but thoughtful response – u could do this by including a post-poll on readers’ evaluation of the contributor and a comments section.


On another issue altogether, there was a front-page photograph of Gary Toomey and John Sharp yesterday. There was also a short explanatory story by Mark Robinson on p6. Now, although I have found the whole Ansett saga fascinating, I did find myself reading Robinson’s story and going…”No..no..that’s not the story here”.


Does anyone else think it’s about time for a long critical, journalistic look at the lobbying industry, in particular the numerous influential figures who use privileged information and contacts for the benefit of companies in a way that would have been considered conflict of interest during their official career?


There seem to be a preponderance of ex-ministers (barely, in Sharp’s case), ex-department heads and other politically influential figures who are turning up in the employ, or “service”, of industries that are closely related to their areas of official duties. Am I alone in believing that this constitutes a form of conflict of interest?


Isn’t it time to consider close scrutiny and greater regulation of the post-careers of people who have access to the wheels of power? Isn’t it enough that pollies and public servants have probably the most generous superannuation policy in Australia? Shouldn’t there be a time limit (say 5 years) before one of these people can use their inside knowledge for the benefit of well-heeled businesses?





Overall, I agree with Fiona Ferrari, but wonder if I have been labelled as elitist or a PHD wanker? I hope not… I am neither!


Set up a word limit per contribution of 75 words on each topic for discussion, and then provide a forum for each separate topic to be discussed. People can refer to previous contributions by date in each topic, rather than cutting and pasting previous comments and then inserting their comments, and lastly, split the page into our comments and your repartee.


I agree with Fiona – beat us up a bit more, we love pain! See how that goes…


Nice to hear Elen Seymour’s inside story from Canada (Webdiary yesterday). Just a couple of things – I was comparing Australia extremely favourably when it comes to personal tax – on 35% less salary, I still take home more here than I did in Europe. Scandalous!


The other point is concerning Gen-Xers (I am one of them, by the way) – have we not learned that Greed is Not Good from our troubled past? There are sufficient historical examples – Rome’s collapse in the 5th was partly created by greed, the Catholic Church schism of the 16th century, the 1920’s creating the depression of the 30’s.


The Boomers had been working for a while before hedonism went to their heads – we have just gotten out of school, and we want it all now… Sad!

Cut and paste

My online boss Tom Burton wants to revamp the webdiary and we’re in the market for ideas.


What got me thinking about this was a note from Fiona Ferrari (nom de plume). She wrote:


Margo, don’t let the megawork academic pieces take over the site. I wouldn’t like to see your page dominated by men doing Phds (‘the elites’) or it will start to look like an academic journal. Don’t get me wrong – I love their stuff, but I don’t want to see the page get too wanky with people trying to show how clever they are.


One of the best things about your page is the interactivity and conversations between contributors with different viewpoints and different experiences. Some readers won’t have time to read the long dense works. Others will lack the confidence to engage and contribute due to lack of education.


I would like this page to include more pieces from ordinary people – those who are not well-paid public servants and academics with insider access. And especially from people who feel marginalised – eg unemployed people, people on disability pensions, school students, poor farmers, refugees, prisoners, people who live in public housing in the western suburbs of Sydney etc. I want to see what these people say in addition to what our most brilliant, educated contributors have to say – and I’d like to see some genuine engagement between the two groups.


You’ve said you realized you were out of touch when the Hanson thing first happened and you wanted to get more in touch. Yes – this page is giving a voice to people who are not specialists or experts but who have ideas they want to test and that is wonderful. But do you really think you are getting more in touch with the views of socially disadvantaged, non-elite Australians?


Apart from the equity aspect, I like short pieces for other reasons. Sometimes a contributor can make a very profound, interesting observation in one sentence. Sometimes the long pieces do not facilitate the same level of interactivity.


I also really enjoy reading short exchanges between contributors where you toss in your thoughts, especially when you start arguing with them. It’s entertaining. (on that point, I think you used to do that more last year and I’d like to see you engaging with what people are writing like you used to).

“So my message is – keep the page full of diverse contributions and try to promote even more engagement between writers. Be intellectual but don’t let it get too wanky.


Tim Dunlop and Andrew Stapleton, the main protagonists in the dairy debate, also had some comments on the page.


Tim wrote:


As good as it is, this situation does show the limitations of your web-page. I seem to remember you writing early on of the possibility of the site getting its own web-board or discussion list? A feature like that would allow this sort of extended discussion to happen between your “readers” and free you from administrative involvement. You could then just enter discussions as you saw fit. I reckon it could add a useful dimension to your website experiment.


Andrew wrote: Here is the feed back on what I am looking for from the web diary. Firstly I read the page because I value your perspective … that wasn’t just a crawl. Regarding the mail you post on your page, there are many thousands of news groups and listservs on the net and these groups have permanent, long term residents who own and defend a bit of their territory.


These residents do continual battle with each other but the battle is more in the nature of a high school debate or religious argument than an exchange of views. Neither side will ever concede a point or allow their minds to changed because they aren’t listening to the other party, they are looking for vulnerabilities in the opposing argument to prove their superiority.


When I read Tim Dunlop and Cathy Bannister (responding to Andrew’s dairy piece) I felt the discussion had slipped into that newsgroup mode. I didn’t feel they had made an effort to understand my points, however badly presented, the points where interpreted as what they expect an extremely right wing person to say. People are free to interpret me however they like but when it appears on the SMH web site their interpretation has added credibility.


To me what would make this page outstanding is if you enforced an editorial standard throughout the work. You sent an email to me stating that you wanted to put my email on the page, along with that you could have said “please rewrite para. 2 an 6 they don’t make sense” or “I don’t understand that, make it clearer”. I’m not just talking about my work, I thought Tim’s original piece could have been done in 2 to 3 thousand words in a formal style (intro, body, conc and bib), been interesting and had far more impact.

I realize what I am asking for will demand more of your time and may well be impossible but as I said the net is primarily tera bites of unregulated opinion and insubstantial points of view. Applying some degree of rigor without censoring the ideas would set the web diary apart.


The webdiary is a beast driven by its readers, and I’m constantly surprised where you take it, from the debate on journalism triggered by Jack Robertson last year to this year’s dairy deregulation epic.


Both these issues, like the Greenhouse imbroglio and the One Nation phenomenon, will wax and wane but not go away. But I do need to keep the daily diary fresh, punchy, and topical, and I do take Fiona’s point that I don’t want to scare off people who feel intimidated by the longer, more densely argued pieces.


I feel that the dairy debate and the wider issues it raises, is of top quality, and I hope that by putting it all together, it will become a resource used more widely than the readers of the webpage. The idea of genuine engagement rather than exchanging rhetoric, as Andrew notes, is exciting and maybe even useful. But it could drag down the spontaneity of the daily diary if each entry is put on the daily page.


What we’re planning is to broaden the idea of separating off a good debate like we’ve done with dairy, to other issues, like Greenhouse and the state of the media. The debate would begin in the diary, then be transferred. (Responses to Mark Latham’s intervention on dairy are flowing in – see the dairy update.)


There is no need to be intimidated by the diary. I publish most of what I get, and what I don’t publish is mainly stuff that’s been said before or doesn’t make sense to me. Lately, because the volume of emails has got so large, I don’t run some because the diary would be too long! I”m also starting to put entries in when they fit the theme of the day’s diary, so I’m holding some till the time is right.


I do edit for repetition and grammar, but I don’t edit for style, because it’s vital that the individual voices are clearly heard. So I disagree with Andrew’s idea that I become involved in that side of things.


Another innovation will be to have separate entries for our regular columnists, Don Arthur on the politics of ideas and Jack Robertson on the media. This will be especially useful when the election site gets up – I’m hoping we can work out a way to do instant feedback to these columns, so they’re interactive during the election.


We’ll also have a separate entry for the marginal seats reports, with updates from the writers before and during the election. (Please, I need more!)


So it’s over to you – any suggestions?


Today, Robert Lawton respond’s to Polly Bush’s piece on drug use (Webdiary Tuesday, April 10). Jack Robertson’s Meeja Watch looks at Stuart Littlemore’s demolition job on the far-right’s anti-ABC mantra, andRichard Thompson and Paul Walker also weigh in. Then to politician’s super (Webdiary Tuesday) courtesy of Don Arthur, Steve Yates and Fiona Ferrari. Richard Pawsey and Elen Seymour dive in, and finallyDon Wigan comes out swinging.






Good gritty contribution from Ms Bush.


It seems to me though that there is a huge gap in the power of government to change patterns of drug usage. Between injecting rooms and more money for rehab, and legalisation/regulation of the manufacture and supply of currently illegal drugs, what can be done except ranting.


This tone is shared by the PM’s latest efforts as well as Bob Hawke’s hamfisted “Drug Offensive” (which I always felt reinforced the attractiveness of drug use as an act of rebellion… offensive is what a lot of young people like to be!).


Polly puts her finger on the problem when she talks of boredom and thwarted emotional/sexual needs.


Last year Dr Nick Crofts, Director of the Centre for Harm Reduction at the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research in Melbourne said that supervised injecting rooms, needle exchange programs, and heroin trials were potential Band-Aids, when the real danger came from the chaotic social setting in which users lived. (The Age, 19.2.00)


Speaking at an Australian Drug Foundation seminar, he said the priority should be to “readmit drug users to the human race” by tackling social, economic and political inequities. Although he supported them, harm reduction measures had the potential to distract attention from a “higher level” of drug policy.


“If safe injecting rooms were to work, and overdose deaths decline, and street scenes disappear, much of the visible part of the problem will go away and the pressure to consider fundamental reform of bad policy will be weakened.”


But how to execute such reform, when the ability to slow social dislocation is beyond the power any government on earth?


Prior to this Dr David Penington, long term advisor on Drug Policy to the Kennett administration, had written of “the sadness epidemic”, the root of what was seen by government as the problem of drug abuse.


Anomie is at the heart of alcohol abuse, and every other illegal drug. The flip of alienation is tribalism, and the demonisation of drug users by government maintains that tribalism and sustains the illegal drug market.



How can we legislate for contentment, for meaning to life? Isn’t this something we must all examine, outside the parliamentary doors?




Watching the watchers


By Jack Robertson


Canberra Inside Out reader Cathy Bannister (WD, April 6) rightly notes Stuart Littlemore’s neatish coup in reclaiming Monday nights as his own, and on his own terms (fifteen minutes of fame once a week in perhaps the trickiest Meeja gig to sustain without turning into a self-caricature). There is a real risk in watching the watchers to such an extent that we ll all disappear up our own self-referential clackers, but now that the dust over the ABCs Media Watch has settled, its worth at least one quick decko at the net result.


Monday’s April 9 program took to a few of Abes more vocal critics, and so turned into something of a de-facto offensive defence of the much-criticised National Broadcaster. (Gail Jarvis might even have felt a tad vindicated?) Importantly, though, this was simply an unintentional by-product of the main theme a close squiz at a few of the leading thinkers associated with Melbournes Institute of Public Affairs.


The specific Littlemore story was a recent IPA-sponsored chat-fest in Balmain on perceived bias in the ABC, but its principle function was to provide the framework for a classic Littlemore deconstruction of the think-tank itself, an influential one about which I previously knew little (my pig-ignorance, incidentally, not IPA subterfuge – they’ve been around for fifty years; their illuminating website is at www.ipa.org.au).


Quentin Dempster, the sole representative at the forum who might have begged to differ from what seemed to be a general consensus on the issue at hand (predictable enough – yes, ABC bias is indeed rife), got virtually no air time. Littlemore and his team were evidently after different fish, and set out to hoist the IPA-underwritten free-thinkers elegantly on their own petards.


Thus we learned that many of the high-profile public intellectuals featured – Warby, Duffy, Pearson, et al – had various direct (or indirect) associations with this influential think tank; that the IPA describes itself as being in favour of free society and free enterprise, but in a market-oriented and general (as opposed to a sectional) way; and that it seems largely underwritten by corporations and individuals with rather similar aims.


Media Watch also whipped through examples of other articles written by the aforementioned speakers. For a public forum that was supposed to be open, the range of views on offer seemed a tad on the thin side.


Well, so what, we might ask? Public intellectuals have a right to get together, via whatever formal grouping, they see fit. Top level execs are also entitled to nurture and sponsor thinking that promotes their own or their company’s interests, too. And you have to concede that most of those featured are reasonably intelligent, informed, articulate and, presumably, genuine enough in their expressed views.


However – and it’s a great big bastard of a however – until this program, I had no inkling of the real nature of the mob that sponsored the forum. And crucially, this particular get-together was one that spawned a surprising amount of ABC-bashing in the ensuing broadsheet columns (a lot of it centred on ex-ABC staffer Pru Gowards contributions).


A disproportionate amount of coverage, in fact, given the spectacularly piss-poor public turn-out. In short, it all amounted to a blatant intellectual sting operation, running roughly as follows: a Corporate think-tank with vested reasons for criticising the ABC put together a virtually-private public forum in which various independent thinkers (most with anti-ABC track records) got to bash the ABC some more, after which they all nipped off home to their PCs, to hack out a few thousand words about how this earth-shattering Public Event demonstrated the serious extent of the problem of bias at the ABC.


I’m not suggesting there’s anything particularly sinister or X-Files to this sort of malarkey – pathetic is the word that springs to mind – but the truth is, all those powerful public thinkers came out of the whole grubby con-job looking like complete dickheads, largely thanks to Littlemore’s cool and timely skewering. Its utterly hypocritical for anyone associated with the Corporate-backed IPA to criticise ABC employees for supposedly being infected with some sort of Big Brother institutional bias. What’s Rio Tinto, then – an intellectually benign anarcho-syndicalist collective? And especially now, with Very Big Picture economic questions philosophical, sweeping, fundamental in nature – fizzing away at the hot heart of contemporary political debate, no fair dinkum intellectual who aspires to the status of free and open-minded thinker can possibly afford to have anything to do with such a blatant vehicle for the promotion of established economic agendas.



So the important result of this Littlemore was that people like me are now at least clued up on the IPA, and, if we want, we can duly modify the way we receive opinions aired by thinkers associated with it. On balance, as Cathy B pointed out, it does indeed seem that the Pated One is now even better-placed than before to kick some serious media jacksy.



On the other hand, for me the best outcome of all the Media Watch double-clutching of the last six months is that Paul Barry, one of the toughest reporters in the country, is back fulltime at the hard news coal-face, which in my opinion has always been his rightful manor. Anyone with the cojones to take on the Kezzas, the Bondies and the Elliotts – snacking on tax-dodging barristers along the way – is, frankly, just a little bit wasted on media watch-dogging.





I watched Littlemore with great interest regarding the power of the IPA. I found his dissection fascinating and sinister in that a bunch of ultra right thinkers (?) can have such a strong hold on the media and sling so much filth at the ABC. I have noted over the years that people like this and politicians in particular in making criticisms like this tend to describe themselves precisely!




I’m wondering why some sort of definitive answer can’t be provided as to why right-wing journalists including your ABC cobber Michael Duffy perversely keep recycling innuendo, slander and smear that they most know full-well to be malicious, harmful lies of the first order.


I watched closely your own reaction a month or so ago when you debated an issue involving a cynical manipulation by Andrew Bolt of Lowitja O’Donoghue with Duffy.You seemed understandably surprised at what he ended up saying, it seemed to me.


Now the whole filthy lot of them have piled on to the ABC again with their so -called “seminar”, effectively ridiculed on “Littlemore”. When IPA propagandists are letting fly their hysterical self-righteousness why don’t they also occasionally demand that the same fair-go is extended to other (real) victims of injustice in this country?






I was rolling around laughing at your helpful advice to the PM. The super issue is just perfect. It raises all the right questions; about voters and what makes us bite (disturbing), about politicians who say that cheap beer is an ‘issue’ but MP’s super is a ‘distraction’ (hilarious) and about whether Margo Kingston longs for a shit-stirring populist politician who isn’t a bigot (maybe it’s you).




Your article of 17th April was interesting but I feel our politicians lack any imagination or courage to embrace such a selfless or radical move. Why change a system that one benefits so generously from? As an example of leadership it would certainly start to break down my walls of cynicism concerning our rather pedestrian political masters.


Maybe the fair Natasha could pick up the mantle and use it when dealing with the next Federal government. Oh well, one can but dream. Or am I being conned by another fairytale?


I shall still struggle on with my own superannuation juggling act of whether to put more in or pay off my mortgage or educate my kids. Maybe I should exercise my freedom of choice and become a politician.




You are on a winner with your super idea. But I’m a bit worried that you’re giving John Howard too much help – I’d hate to see him win the next election.


That old argument that politicians need more super to compensate for lack of job security is completely unsustainable and it infuriates me every time I hear it. We, the general public, have been living with job insecurity for at least the last 10 years and we cannot access our super. We can’t even get on the dole now without enduring long waiting periods.


This is not just about pandying to populism. Andren’s call to abolish the double standards is justifiable on grounds of fairness and equity. It is also justifiable on the grounds that politicians (who regularly make decisions which result in other people having less job security) should know what it’s like to face unemployment without a generous super cushion.


I want my political representatives to be feeling the full force of the winds of globalisation and economic rationalism when they are making these decisions, not to be thinking ‘it won’t happen to me, I’ll be safe with my super’.


I agree with you that Peter Andren has been very clever in framing his legislation around the ‘freedom of choice’ mantra so beloved of the Liberals. But even if Andren’s legislation somehow gets through, I don’t share your confidence that most politicians would choose the 8% scheme over the 69% scheme. There is safety in numbers and as long as most of them didn’t jump ship they would be safe. I can just see Peter Andren being the only one to choose to give away his entitlements.


I see the Andren bill not as the solution but as a catalyst for a total overhaul of politicians’ super scheme, so at a minimum their entitlements are brought into line with those of public servants and they can no longer access money before age 55.


Now it’s up to the media to give Andren’s proposal wide public exposure. I’d love to see the media push Howard and Beazley into a corner on this one. I don’t know what the Democrats’ and Greens’ policies are on this but my suggestion to them is to support Andren and to do it very publicly.





I agree with the analysis you reported on Late Night Live. Hanson is spot on. She may espouse unappealing policies, but her political antennae are unerring (You wonder what the big Parties get for all their expenditure on policy advice!).


Everyone I speak to in my middle Melbourne circles is out for revenge against the incumbent pollies – particularly those associated with the 4 major parties. They have presided over policy settings that have increased our job insecurity and made most of us increasingly anxious about income security in old age. While they lever us into deregulated markets they cloak their own entitlements with protectionism.


“Electoral volatility” is about all we have available to express our concerns about this inequity, and this is why I think Hanson is right in her understanding of “revenge” electoral behaviour.




I thought I would wade in with a couple of comments on Jordan Serena’s statement of Australia’s advantages (Webdiary Tuesday)


Jordan: In 2000, we are still one of the best, if not the best. Our dollar has collapsed, but if you don’t go overseas and buy Australian, the impacts are relatively small on a personal level. We have gotten greedier though – the first home for a family was always a starter property – two maybe three bedroom, no ensuite. Now, a four bedroom house is considered par for the course. One car was great to have, now two is a bare minimum. Getting a job was before the prerogative, now it is the job, the title, the career and the money, thanks. What ever happened to waiting a little bit?


I’m inclined to agree,but don’t blame us Gen-Xers for wanting it all NOW- we learned it from the Boomers during the excesses of the 80’s – remember?


Jordan: Our industry has become much more efficient. Pity we don’t have enough of it. Canada, a bigger country with 30 million people, has the distinct advantage of being next door to the USA, and as such attracts a lot of dollars that way. However, it is also one of the seven biggest world economies, and participates in the G7 forum. What can’t we aim for this sort of mark? Oh. I forgot – the unions and the wharves… But hang on! The UK still has powerful unions, as do most of the other EU countries, and they seem to do OK. Germany has the highest per capita labour costs in the EU for blue collar workers, yet by delivering quality, they still manage to sell their products.


It’s not the wharves or the unions! Probably never has been. I work in tax so I can tell you exactly why Canada and Ireland etc are booming economies – low corporate tax. Really, really low PLUS R&D concessions. Canada and Ireland are riding high on multinationals coming in and either performing R&D (Canada ) or centralised service provision (Ireland). This makes companies not only more likely to want to open shop, more likely to stay and more likely to do something in that country other than have a “shopfront” – which is almost all Australia gets. AND more likely to pay their fair share of tax! This is what can really be done to make Australia competitive again…but I pity the politician/party trying to sell that message to Australians – I remember the loud squeals of people when the current Federal government did lower the corporate rate by the teensiest tiniest amount. At the very least people should realise that higher corporate taxes does not always equal more corporate tax dollars paid!

Jordan: The GST – in terms of levels of taxation, Australia’s GST is low – my time in Germany was shared between 7% GST on food and 16% on everything else. The way in which the GST has been introduced is what is criminal about it – it has killed small business, and in no uncertain terms, is creating the recession no-one said we had to have, but we think we have anyway. The point is, though, the GST must be seen in the context of total taxation reform – yes, we have received a tax cut (watch this space for the next one in the Budget), but my level of overall taxation has still a long way to go before it can be compared to Sweden, Germany or other members of the EU.


Don’t know about Europe but the personal taxes in Canada are relatively high – the MRT is comparable to Australia but the GST and PST (provincial sales tax) in Ontario total 15%. But the real killer is that legal tax minimisation is not as straight forward as in Australia – the good old deductible if not personal or capital in nature – is non-existent to the ordinary employee in Canada making apparently comparable rates actually higher in real dollar terms. So don’t complain too hard – you have to look beyond just the numbers in the taxation rates tables!

Jordan: Health and health insurance – we aren’t doing too bad, but I am sure we will do much worse in coming years unless spending is increased to ensure proper funding and – heaven forbid – new hospitals and people to staff them. Health insurance is still cheap, when compared to the US or Europe, and Medicare is a system that has worked well. Perhaps we can increase contributions somewhat to better finance the hospitals/health sector, provided it is used ONLY for that purpose, on a sliding scale, with the rich paying more than the average Mum & Dad, plus 2.4 kids.


Beware the public system that seeks to minimise treatment costs by pushing cheaper treatment options and not telling or taking away longer term (read expensive) options! Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s only the private sector that wants to do this!


Jordan: Lifestyle – best country in the world, and don’t believe any American, Canadian or South African that tells you differently…


Yep – and the best food – fresh, plenty of variety and cheap! Oh and if that labelling debate ever gets stirred up again, forget it. Companies in Oz have it easy compared to their Canadian counterparts – companies here have to have French and English on every food label (actually on anything read by the public). Imagine that Pauline! (Cheap but irresistible shot).




Since disclosures of interests are in order, I’ll declare mine. I am an ex-DEET CES network staffer, having gone out on a redundancy when the Howard Govt closed the CES in 1998. I live on a partial pension and partial dole.


As I am now aged 58, no employer wants to know me even though I’d rather still be working to help support two highschool children. I still go for plenty, but know enough about the labour market not to get too dispirited for too long when my applications are ignored.


Politically, I am essentially a Dunstan-type social democrat, which in the modern atmosphere makes me feel like the late Bill Weekes (who was the only academic I can remember to advocate industry protection at the height of the tariff abolition push a decade back).


I suppose everyone likes to feel that what they’ve done in their life hasn’t been a complete waste, and I’m no exception. My earlier career was with SA Tourism in Sydney throughout the Dunstan era. At the time I felt some real pride in what my state was doing. It even gave me minor celebrity status at parties. I was convinced then that governments could play a positive role in improving people’s lives.


It’s a view I still hold today, even if it’s tempered by the blinkered limits of bureaucracies and career politicians. By the mid-70s this view was under attack firstly from John Singleton’s Workers Party (a favourite memory of that era was of a smartly-dressed young business executive getting off the bus at North Sydney proudly displaying a large sticker on her briefcase saying, “TAXATION IS THEFT”. No doubt many barristers today still hold that view.) and later from the Milton Friedman apostles.


Neo-classical economics theory dominance was one of those unfortunate accidents of history, a bit like Lenin managing to get hold of the Russian revolution. A chain of events led to it


The oil price hike challenged stabilities previously taken for granted under Keynesian theories.


The leading government post-war economic advisers (Keynesians) were retiring and the next generation wanted to make a mark.


Trades unions in English-speaking countries had become arrogant and overplayed their positions, safe under protection policies. Thatcherism and its variants arose as a reaction to that.


Businesses, large and small, started to resent the cost of welfare state conditions and what seemed an excess of regulations. Reaganomics, even though it never really seemed to make much sense, was a reaction to that.


The principles of Friedmanism (trying to control the economy through the money supply rather than government intervention) thus had great appeal, especially amongst media tycoons (who hated paying tax more than most).


Price mechanism seemed better for allocating resources than regulations.


Reporters keen to keep their jobs or get promoted soon got and spread the message. So it gathered momentum.


It coincided with an urgent need to restructure the overprotected Australian and New Zealand economies in the wake of the Asian Tigers. The two dynamics got hopelessly intermingled.


My objections to it under whatever name – economic rationalism, Friedmanism, neo-classical economics, Thatcherism, Reaganomics – were both intellectual and ethical. It was based on a misreading of history: that the robber baron era of the late 19th century and its associated laissez-faire economics was a golden age in human progress.


True, America leaped ahead in this period, but it’s questionable how much laissez-faire economics and the robber barons had to do with it, apart from creaming off most of the new wealth. Science, agricultural science, engineering and inventions were where the real progress and wealth generation occurred. Britain and Australia made similar progress with more regulated and interventionist governments.


As it gathered momentum it took on a religious fervour, similar to Marxism half a century earlier. As with that, many assertions were generalised without much empirical evidence to back them, but heck, you had to have FAITH.


One, which perhaps because of my declared interest I always found offensive, was that governments nearly always got it wrong and on the rare occasions when they were right their timing was wrong. So governments were better off doing nothing and leaving it all to the market.


These types of views, perhaps not as openly asserted as they were in the late 80s and early 90s, still prevail in the federal bureaucracy, in what passes for thinking in the major political parties and in most of the economics and finance departments of higher education. Ultimately, however,

the contempt for public employees (a legacy of Thatcher) will backfire.


The best example of that effect was illustrated in the parting remarks of the much-maligned Meg Lees. As Margo pointed out, she and Andrew Murray won major concessions from the Liberals on food and basics, on removing some of the balance tilt to the wealthy, and in allocating money for greenhouse (for which the govt which had opposed it is now claiming credit).


Without these concessions Howard would certainly be facing the total wipeout that the Canadian Conservatives experienced. As it is, he is still on a hiding to nothing, as Meg has just experienced, but the parties will survive thanks to Lees and to Labor’s coy caution.


Lees mentioned that if Tax and Treasury hadn’t been so mean and penny-pinching in their interpretations and so slow and inflexible in their responses to genuine business concerns, the anger (which has come more from businesses – which had wanted such a tax – than from consumers) might not have been so great.


The relentless demoralising attitude by senior bureaucrats and politicians to public employees is largely responsible for these departments not being up to handling industry’s concerns.


Simply put, not enough public contact staff are employed because of the ideological obsession with reducing public service numbers. Compounding that problem has been the centralising of decision-making (as industrial democracy was abandoned), meaning that the few people unlucky enough to be out in the coalface can’t make any real decisions. I don’t know what happened in those depts but I’d bet quite a bit of money that Meg was right.


I expect that similar misadventures occurred with the GST implementation, except that they were on a much more massive scale. It seems cruel that Lees has copped some of the flak for that, while Labor has been quite happy to see the GST implemented, with no intention of removing it, while others get the blame. At least they can say they opposed it even if they are keeping it.

Disclosure and you

Now that we’re getting serious, our politics of ideas man Don Arthur has a confession. You’ll recall he’s a former official at the Commonwealth employment department who’s now doing a Phd full-time.


Don writes: “I was thinking over what you were saying on Late Night Live about Inside Out attracting people who are not part of peak groups. Here’s something people ought to know about me. I can afford to study full time because I’ve got a scholarship – it’s called an Australian Postgraduate Award (Industry). My industry partner is Anglicare (WA). I’m not exactly sure how the money thing works but Anglicare puts up some of the funds and is involved in setting the research topic. I have three supervisors, two from Edith Cowan and one from the industry partner.


“Before I saw the ad for the scholarship in the Oz I’d always thought these industry things meant mining companies, chemical manufacturers or bio-technology. I was very happy to learn otherwise. Sorry I didn’t say this earlier.”


Personally, I can’t see anything remiss in not disclosing this, unless you mentioned Anglicare in a piece, or were writing on religious charity or the like. But Don’s disclosure does raise the question of independence on this page.


I spoke to a Rotary lunch on Wednesday on the topic “Playing politics in post-egalitarian Australia” which made me think about what this page has turned out to be, and what’s the philosophy that’s come to underpin it.


1. After following Pauline Hanson around in 1998, I realised that I didn’t know much at all, had been lazy in accepting the truths of the experts without thinking about it,and was generally out of touch. I was also convinced that conversation across viewpoints was vital to national coherence and the search for a new consensus.


2. I had three main assets:

(1) I have access to information and an opportunity to scrutinise people of power because of my job and the paper I work for;

(2) I am independent. The only constraint I have is in speaking completely openly about the company I work for, although over the years I’ve come pretty close. That means I can be trusted – not to be objective, but to be honest.

(3) After going through the agony of using the “I” word in my Pauline Hanson book, I have thrown off the shackles of the myth of objectivity, which is really an excuse to hide the truth from readers, not expose it. It also falsely sets the journalist up as judge, not participant.

(4) Once you get over that one, you stop being defensive about criticism and realise that publication of criticism is a sign of confidence, and its censorship proof of insecurity. It also means that since everyone’s sitting at the same table, genuine engagement is natural.


As it’s turned out, the page has become an open ended-conversation with me as facilitator, as well as general rave merchant.


What’s the point of that? A big thing in its favour is that no-one believes anyone HAS the answers/the complete picture, anymore. We are in a transition of thinking, ideologically and philosophically, about our society and its values. To scream at and deride those who have different starting points castrates the debate, not enlivens it. It’s also depressing.


What I love about this page is that intelligent people from many starting points are interested in other thoughts. It’s exhilarating. It cleans out cobwebs and lifts feelings of disempowerment or hopelessness.


It’s also a pretty big challenge to the mainstream, in that it’s privileging ideas over who has them, and intellectual debate over rhetoric and conflict-thrill.


Going back to Don, I can’t check out every contributor and investigate hidden agendas. Basically this page is a trust exercise. I run most of what’s sent in, with my judgement being pretty simple – is it interesting, is it repeating previous contributions, is it accessible?


So it doesn’t matter who’s name is on it, in that sense, which is – apart from trying to free people from the constraints their work places put on their freedom of speech – why nom de plumes are cool with me.


But I do ask that if it would be reasonable to perceive a bias, or conflict of interest, in what you write, that you disclose this. Like the marginal seats reports – if you’re a party member, just say so. Also, if you’ve got expertise in an area you’re writing on, I’m sure readers would appreciate that information too.


Onward. Jack Robertson does Meeja Watch and John Crockett does over the SMH. Fiona Rothwell pines for a return to the politics of agitation. First-timer Paul Bannister, an expert on energy efficiency, weighs in on the Kyoto debate. Andrew Stapleton puts the case FOR dairy deregulation, and first timer Trevor Wallis picks up on the environmental objections to the policy mentioned in Tim Dunlop’s udder piece.



By George!


By Jack Robertson


Firstly, a word on the Meeja coverage of the Chinese/US diplomatic ‘crisis’ now underway, then some cheering life-signs from Aunt Abe.


Ask yourself this question – What is the worst thing that has happened during the whole kerfuffle over the Seppo reconnaissance plane that landed on Chinese soil after the mid-air collision?


Is it the ‘heightening’ of tension between the Americans and the Chinese? Is it the spectre of a new Cold War? Is it the implicit ‘challenge’ to new US President’s Bush’s authority? Is it the potential threat – by forcing world attention onto Human Rights issues – to the Chinese bid for the Games?


Watching most of the Meeja coverage to date – especially on the Box – you’d think that any and all of these ‘flow-on, Big Picture’ issues form the core of the story. The result, in my opinion, has been that the most important (and ongoing) nugget of news content has been overlooked, or at best not given the prominence it deserves.


That is this: as you read this, there is a Chinese pilot still missing. He’s probably dead already, but if he is not, he is bobbing about in a little blow-up boat somewhere in the middle of a freezing sea, scared out of his wits.


As a former military pilot myself, my first priority for ‘news’ is for ‘news’ about this poor bastard. Call me a naïve sentimentalist if you like, but surely focusing on the Human element of any story, no matter how ‘global’ its potential geo-political impact, is one crucial way the Meeja can help prevent incidents such as these being blown out of all proportion.


What is a diplomatic ‘crisis’, anyway, if not a Human misunderstanding multiplied by ten million babbling ‘experts’? The recent Colin Powell statement of ‘regret’ about this pilot’s fate is, in my opinion, a welcome move towards perspective. The Yanks are (admirably) concerned about their own blokes and blouses, but at least they are all accounted for.


And just imagine how CNN et al would be playing this if the roles were reversed. Remember the Meeja Frenzy over that fighter jock who went missing for a couple of days in Bosnia a few years back? Food for thought, anyway.


Now, to more Oz Election-relevant Meeja stuff: the entry of George Negus into the domestic political fray.


On Wednesday night (4 April), the 7.30 Report ran a segment in which the Crusty One (minus flak jacket) got ‘out and about’ in his home electorate of Cowper. The brief was ostensibly to cruise for grass-roots feedback on the GST, and that’s exactly what we got.


Negus – who was breezily open about his own link to the area – basically plonked a camera down, threw out a few curly ones, and let the people of Cowper talk about how the GST has had an impact on their working and personal lives.


There was a good cross-section of the Citizenry – farmers, small business people, an accountant, an artist, a publican, a group of oldies, and so on – and as a result we got pro-GST, anti-GST, and somewhere-in-the-middle GST comment.


The subsequent discussion also incorporated grass-root ideas on One Nation, on economic deregulation, and on the political process itself. Interestingly (and I thought most effectively), the program (apparently) did not elicit participation from the sitting member, Garry Nehl (although it did refer to him, and the fact that he is soon retiring), nor did it approach the ‘usual suspects’ (economic and political pundits, etc) for sideline comment. They didn’t even ask the editor of the local rag for an ‘overview’ of the electorate’s mood, a common tactic on such regional stories.


So rather than have the same old clichés trotted out, we got precisely what the segment promised: un-Machiavellian, grass-roots comment, perhaps of far greater value to the democratic process than any ‘professional talking head’ might have been. No doubt Garry Nehl, and/or his potential successors from all sides would have been araldited to their screens. (In fact, it turned out that one of George’s interviewees is a runner for Nehl’s slot himself so perhaps not all ‘grass-roots’ comment is as ‘un-Machiavellian’ as it appears!)


Recently, the 7.30 Report has been under implied strategic threat, both from Mr Shier’s touted reforms, and from media commentators who have suggested that Kerry O’Brien has lost his Mojo, that the program is turning into A Current Affair for chardonnay gluggers.


That the show is still prepared and able to crank out relevant, fertile, and – dare I say it, essentially good-hearted – political segments like this one, using proven journos of Negus’s calibre, suggests that there might still be some life in the Green Pen Brigade yet.


JOHN CROCKETT in Thirlmere


As much as I appreciate the publication of Tim Dunlop’s article in the Webdiary, I am disappointed with the SMH in its failure to address these issues in any sustained way on the opinion pages of the paper.


Adele Horin writes with passion and insight on the minutia of government policy as it affects our day to day lives but apart from the occasional article from professor Quiggan, neo-liberalism remains an ideology largely unexamined.


The SMH sees itself as the nation’s premier paper – a quality broadsheet – among the world’s best and yet there are times when the opinion pages in the SMH and the Daily Telegraph seem identical – Piers and Paddy, Paddy and Piers. As to why the SMH serves a daily dose of vitriol and bile from the rabid right remains a mystery.


To sum up Margo, I should not have to read an American publication such as the New Republic in order to gain an understanding of the political and social implications of policies initiated by the next step in the evolution of Conservatism – the compassionate conservative. ( for an analysis of Governor Bush’s income tax cuts on health and education budgets in Texas, look up The New Republic on the www.)





The UK general election has been postponed until 7 June. It seems that the advertising boffins however, have way too much time on their hands – the latest offering by the Labour Party shows William Hague and Michael Portillo on a Tory spaceship hovering menacingly over the City – the financial and business district of London. The advert is set to run for 5 long, really long minutes and is basically a rip-off of the Hollywood film, Independence Day.


It makes me wonder what standard of campaign we will see from Howard and Beazley et al? Will Kim portray John as the big bad business wrecker, hovering, spaceship-like over the Sydney CBD? Perhaps it will be the other way around?


Will either of them stand on their dais and dance to “Things can only get better” as Tony did here in 1997?


What are the bets that the standard ads of women in their kitchen, despairing over bills and blaming the [insert name of party here] will reign. Constant flogging of each party’s weaknesses, promises, promises.


Will we see John swaying to Aint No Mountain High Enough and Kim livin’ it large to ABBA’s The Winner Takes it All?


I want kissing of old people and babies, having a beer with the boys at the pub en route to yet another Party party, smiles, tears, laughter, reassurances. People in the streets, excitement about the future of the country, a return to the political campaigns of the sixties and seventies when it wasn’t so much about spin as agitation.


My mother has a photo taken in June 1974 of my brother and I wearing sloppy joes which said “Think again – Vote Liberal”. It was taken after a day spent campaigning for the return to power of the Liberal Party per Malcolm Fraser in the streets of Canberra. Mum and Dad had t-shirts which said “Turn on the Lights – Vote Liberal”.


My father tells the story that on the day of the dismissal of Gough, he took my brother and I down to (the Old) Parliament House and watched as Gough took his place on the steps and uttered those immortal words which, to this day, arouse such powerful feelings in Australians.


Probably the most successful (in terms of over throwing the incumbent) political campaign ever in the history of Australian politics was Gough’s 1972 “It’s Time” campaign which resulted in the first Labor government in 23 years. And he certainly picked up the ball and ran with it: ending conscription and withdrawing from Vietnam, implementing equal pay for women (and improving their entitlements generally), establishing Medibank, passing the Family Law Act and the list goes on and on. That great hulking love-it or hate-it Jackson Pollock in the National Gallery is all thanks to Gough and who cares that unemployment increased and that he spent more money than you could poke a stick at? I would too if I were PM.


It but it seems to me like there was this whole long period of the Libs running the show and then this force known as Gough flew in, wreaked havoc for a few years and then left again in extremely controversial circumstances, leaving his extremely controversial legacy all over the place. I wonder if that will ever happen again? (MARGO: Yep, if Howard loses.)




I am writing to you regarding the recent hilarity over the US withdrawal from Kyoto. I’m an energy efficiency consultant. My job, every day, consists of advising people how they can cost effectively save money by saving energy. According to the doyens of economic rationalism, I don’t exist. Why?


Because if energy efficiency was economic, it would have been done already.


It is no surprise therefore to have the likes of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics and their interestingly stacked committees say that compliance with Kyoto will cost the country. This is part of a broader process that goes much further than the committee stacking that determines the outcomes of some reports.


I used to work in solar energy research. It was great fun, I had a big solar dish I could show people and it attracted lots of PR and photos. But to be honest, it didn’t do much to solve greenhouse emissions and any energy it generated was pretty darned expensive. I have done infinitely more to decrease greenhouse emissions since I started working on energy efficiency.


What’s more we are talking about doing things that are economic today. But let’s be honest about this, energy efficiency has utterly no PR appeal. “Company fixes boiler” really doesn’t cut it against a picture of some solar cells on a roof, does it? This is not just a media problem, it’s a general societal view, perhaps part of consumerism. Creating new things is good, fixing old things isn’t very exciting.


At the other end of the spectrum there is another issue that compounds the problem. The supply side of the industry is very well organised. It has a small number of large players, and it is remarkably easy to get them around the table. The demand side consists of millions of players, and while a few big users of electricity pull some power, there is no-one out there advocating on behalf of the vast majority of the demand side market.


Result? We get supply side solutions to everything. Greenpower. 2% renewables. Fixing up coal fired power stations.


But let’s also be a bit honest about this. Getting people to improve energy efficiency is hard work. I have been working at it for years, and the ratio of opportunities identified to measures implemented is deeply distressing. Why? because on the list of corporate priorities for most organisations, energy efficiency is very much an also-ran. And before we accuse industry of being lax, I would suggest that energy efficiency is pretty much an also-ran for most of the public as well.


While I would generally agree that the Don Burke campaign is a waste of money (something a lot more aggressive might have been worth the effort – after all, we reduce the road toll by showing simulated accidents, why be all cutsie about energy waste?), I would have to stand in defence of programs like Greenhouse Challenge against the comments made by Jim Green (Webdiary April 4, Australia: Green enough for Kyoto?)


It is an injustice to the hard work and thought that has gone into the structure of the program to accuse it of being just an exercise in corporate plaque hanging. That the level of achievement of targets is only 10% is a worry but it would be far more worthwhile to identify how much has been saved overall (even if it hasn’t met targets). It’s still a result. Obviously the program is not beyond criticism but to suggest it is disingenuous is lazy.


I would also like to raise the question as to what the alternative is. It would be too easy – and indeed pretty ignorant – to say it is to regulate for energy efficiency. Technology alone does not solve energy waste (indeed often it causes it). The key problems of energy efficiency lie in better system design and modified behaviour.


Neither of these is easy, neither of them can be patented easily, and they are practically impossible to regulate. Furthermore, most of the issues are so poorly understood by the technical community that they are best considered as borderline research.


So there is no easy solution, no nice simple commercial model for success. A combination of government handholding and education appear to be the only practical future for the short to medium term.


That said, I want to make a one thing clear. If the Australian public and industry all went out tomorrow and implemented all the energy efficiency measures within their control that would produce a better than 2 year payback (that’s like getting a 50% interest rate on your bank account) then Australia would breeze through the achievement of its Kyoto target. What’s more the GDP would rise, jobs would be created and the economy would be more internationally competitive.


What stands between us and this goal is a very complex problem of which industry short sightedness is only one facet, and political short sightedness is just a symptom.




Economists and Rationalism.


Economics is only the study of the economy.


The Economy is a particular system of organization for the production, distribution and consumption of all the things people use to obtain a standard of living.


Economists try to understand what is happening in that system and what the effect of changes to the system will be.


Politicians make the decisions about changes to the system and redistribution of assets. One of the factors they take into account is advice from economists about the effects. If you think too much weight is being given to economic issues at the expense of other social concerns sack the politician not the economist.


An “economically rational” person assumes that the consumer is rational and is the person who knows best how to get the most benefit and enjoyment out of each dollar that they spend. To achieve this the cost to the consumer should be the cost of the economic resources used to produce the good.


If a government chooses to increase or reduce the price through taxes, regulations or subsidies they are influencing the choice of the consumer and reducing the overall benefit to the consumer as that consumer defines benefit.


Obviously for some things (like perhaps cigarettes, burning fossil fuel, battery hens, fox hunting, some extreme forms of pornography) the social benefit of restriction outweighs the cost to the consumer.



Dairy Deregulation


How far should income support – the transfer of wealth from one group to support another group’s lifestyle – extend?


Personally I am happy to support the income of someone who is looking for but unable to find employment, can’t work because of illness or a disability, belongs to a racial group that has been systematically discriminated against for generations, the sole parent of a young child, a refugee, etc. All of these groups are regularly vilified while the guy who is running a business that will never be viable without receiving far more support than any of the above individuals is held up as a hero. Please explain.


If someone makes a decision based on a certain set of circumstances and the government acts to change those circumstances then they have a right to expect compensation from the government. Put another way, if there is a net benefit to the Australian population by deregulating the dairy industry then it should be possible to distribute that benefit so that the farmers are at least no worse off and the general public is better off.


So why are Queensland and NSW dairy farmers against deregulation and the Victorians for it? The sector of the market that is price regulated is drinking milk which is about 18% of Australia’s milk production [2].


Queensland and NSW farmers are far more reliant on regulated drinking milk sales than the Victorians. In the former states drinking milk makes up more than 40% of sales in most regions and over 70% in a few while in Victoria drinking milk makes up less than 10% of sales [1].


Victoria has a lower production costs, at 18.8 cents/litre than the average cost of production for Queensland farmers at 24.3 c/L and NSW at 23.4 c/L in 1999-2000. The cost of production is an average and there will be farms for whom the cost is higher meaning they aren’t viable as dairy farms. That doesn’t mean the farm is of no use – what is marginal dairy country may be ideal for beef cattle.


So what are some advantages of deregulation? “Australia exports more than 50 per cent of its annual milk production, and more than 60 per cent of manufactured products are exported. While Australia accounts for less than two per cent of world milk production, it is an important exporter of dairy products. Indeed, Australia ranks third in terms of world dairy trade, accounting for 15 per cent of dairy product exports.” [2].


The value of Australian exports in 1999-2000 was 2,291 million Australian dollars [2]. If the Australian Government is not providing support for its dairy industry, access to foreign markets will be easier.


Why hasn’t the price of a litre of milk dropped? The big corporations may be ripping us off. Some other factors may include-

* It takes time for prices to reach a new equilibrium, for people to compare prices and change brands, forcing competition;

* The quantity of milk consumed doesn’t fluctuate much, which probably means consumers are not price sensitive when they actually reach for the product in the shop and so there is less market pressure to drop the price;

* The GST was introduced at the same time, further hampering price comparison in consumers minds;

* When consumers change from brand x to brand y because the competition is 2c/L cheaper they force down the price of brand x. But the different milk products are not perfect substitutes – I like Lite White as a balance between fat and flavor while my friend drinks Shape and my father would only consider full cream.


Although the farm gate price of drinking milk dropped, the price of manufactured milk increased, so cheese will be more expensive. If there is consumer resistance to an increase in the price of manufactured products producers will find it difficult to afford to drop milk prices.


Put another way, although the price of milk hasn’t dropped by much I still want it on my Rice Bubbles in the morning but if the price of cheese goes up I will substitute tomatoes on the sandwich instead and producers are squeezed.


Because Australia exports more than 50% of it’s milk production Australian’s are paying the world milk price. On 30 June 2000 the Australian dollar was worth US 0.5986 and EU 0.6282, it’s now worth US 0.4874 and EU 0.5436. Now the world price for milk has probably dropped as well because the ass has also fallen out of he N.Z. dollar and together we are 45% of world exports but it probably hasn’t dropped as much as the AUD.


From an Australian consumer’s point of view the world price of milk, and as a result the domestic price, has increased.


Other Issues with Tim Dunlop’s piece


Regulation of farm gate price is the wrong mechanism to use as protection for the environment. They will not stop large feed lots or the resulting environmental damage and suffering of animals. Well drafted and enforced laws about animal welfare and pollution are far more effective.


There are times when it is better for legislation to have clear definitions and times when it is better to delegate responsibility for defining a term. In the case of “public benefit” it is probably better not to define it. Can you imagine getting a definition of public good through the Upper House and if it did pass what would it look like?


The public good is defined as “three parts of A to 2 parts of B and a sprinkle of C”. Does this definition apply exclusively to this law or should the courts take it into account in other matters? So this legislation is then handed to someone to administer. “You will base all your decisions on this definition … we’re sorry A, B, and C are measured in different units and can’t be compared … we should have included D but we where in a hurry and the Democrat’s negotiator didn’t think of it … bad lick that three different parties are going to challenge your interpretation in court but in a few years it will get to the High Court and they will make a value judgment about what we actually meant”.


Isn’t it better to hand the job of defining public benefit to a group of people who understand the issues and are reasonable ie. will consider and weigh up different points of view? This may or may not be the ACCC. I don’t think “not defined in the legislation” equates to “we don’t know”.



1.The Australian Dairy Industry: Impact of an Open Market in Fluid Milk

Supply. www.affa.gov.au/corporate-docs/publications/cover-page/economics/dairy-industry.html


2. Australian Dairy Corporation www.dairycorp.com.au/statistics/index.htm


3. Reserve Bank of Australia www.rba.gov.au




Loved your conversation with Phillip Adams on Tuesday night. The following is an article on the need to keep small farms.There was a report done for the Clinton Administration on a similar vein. It detailed how subsidies to farmers often ended up with the large farming concerns (typically monoculture farms) and that most innovation comes from the small farm sector. (See http://www.reeusda.gov/agsys/smallfarm/report.htm)


The piece firstmentioned is from the Foodfirst website (http://www.foodfirst.org/pubs/backgrdrs/1999/w99v6n4.html) The blurb states:


“The Institute for Food and Development Policy better known as Food First – is a member-supported, nonprofit ‘peoples’ think tank and education-for-action center. Our work highlights root causes and value-based solutions to hunger and poverty around the world, with a commitment to establishing food as a fundamental human right. As a progressive think tank, Food First produces books, reports, articles, films, electronic media, and curricula, plus interviews, lectures, workshops and academic courses for the public, policy makers, activists, the media, students, educators and researchers. We participate in activist coalitions and furnish clearly written and carefully researched analyses, arguments and action plans for people who want to help change the world. Food First provides leadership to the struggle for reforming the global food system from the bottom up, offering an antidote to the myths and obfuscations that make change seem difficult to achieve. Food First was founded in 1975 by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, following the international success of the book, Diet For a Small Planet. The FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) is the action and campaigning partner of the Institute. Individual contributions provide half of our income, and volunteers and interns carry out a substantial part of our work. As a largely member-supported organization, Food First has independence, objectivity and commitment to the struggles of common people all over the world.”


On the Benefits of Small Farms


By Peter Rosset

Executive Director, Food First


For more than a century, pundits have confidently predicted the demise of the small farm, labeling it as backward, unproductive, and inefficient – an obstacle to be overcome in the pursuit of economic development. But this is wrong. Far from being stuck in the past, small-farm agriculture provides a productive, efficient, and ecological vision for the future.


If small farms are worth preserving, then now is the time to educate the worlds policy-makers about the genuine value of small farm agriculture.


Small Farm Productivity


How many times have we heard that large farms are more productive than small farms, and that we need to consolidate land holdings to take advantage of that greater productivity and efficiency? The actual data shows the opposite – small farms produce far more per acre or hectare than large farms.


One reason for the low levels of production on large farms is that they tend to be monocultures. The highest yield of a single crop is often obtained by planting it alone on a field. But while that may produce a lot of one crop, it generates nothing else of use to the farmer. In fact, the bare ground between crop rows invites weed infestation. The weeds then invest labor in weeding or money in herbicide.


Large farmers tend to plant monocultures because they are the simplest to manage with heavy machinery. Small farmers, especially in the Third World, are much more likely to plant crop mixtures — intercropping — where the empty space between the rows is occupied by other crops. They usually combine or rotate crops and livestock, with manure serving to replenish soil fertility.


Such integrated farming systems produce far more per unit area than do monocultures. Though the yield per unit area of one crop — corn, for example — may be lower on a small farm than on a large monoculture farm, the total production per unit area, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, can be far higher.


This holds true whether we are talking about an industrial country like the United States, or any country in the Third World…In the United States the smallest farms, those of 27 acres or less, have more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger farms. While in the U.S. this is largely because smaller farms tend to specialize in high value crops like vegetables and flowers, it also reflects relatively more attention devoted to the farm, and more diverse farming systems.


Small Farms in Economic Development


More bushels of grain is not the only goal of most farm production; farm resources must also generate wealth for the overall improvement of rural life – including better housing, education, health services, transportation, local business diversification, and more recreational and cultural opportunities.


Here in the United States, the question was asked more than a half-century ago: what does the growth of large-scale, industrial agriculture mean for rural towns and communities? Walter Goldschmidts classic 1940s study of Californias San Joaquin Valley, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness, compared areas dominated by large corporate farms with those still characterized by smaller, family farms.


In farming communities dominated by large corporate farms, nearby towns died off. Mechanization meant fewer local people were employed, and absentee ownership meant farm families themselves were no longer to be found. In these corporate-farm towns, the income earned in agriculture was drained off into larger cities to support distant enterprises, while in towns surrounded by family farms, the income circulated among local business establishments, generating jobs and community prosperity. Where family farms predominated, there were more local businesses, paved streets and sidewalks, schools, parks, churches, clubs, and newspapers, better services, higher employment, and more civic participation. Recent studies confirm that Goldschmidts findings remain true.


If we turn toward the Third World we find similar local benefits to be derived from a small farm economy. The Landless Workers Movement (MST) is a grassroots organization in Brazil that helps landless laborers to organize occupations of idle land belonging to wealthy landlords. When the movement began in the mid-1980s, the mostly conservative mayors of rural towns were violently opposed to MST land occupations in surrounding areas. In recent times, their attitude has changed. Most of their towns are very depressed economically, and occupations can give local economies a much needed boost. Typical occupations consist of 1,000 to 3,000 families, who turn idle land into productive farms. They sell their produce in the marketplaces of the local towns and buy their supplies from local merchants.


Not surprisingly those towns with nearby MST settlements are better off economically than other similar towns, and many mayors now actually petition the MST to carry out occupations near their towns. Local and regional economic development benefits from a small farm economy, as do the life and prosperity of rural towns. Can we re-create a small farm economy in places where it has been lost, to improve the well-being of the poor?


Recreating a Small Farm Economy


Recent history shows that the re-distribution of land to landless and land-poor rural families can be a very effective way to improve rural well-being. We can examine the outcome of every land reform program carried out in the Third World since World War II, being careful to distinguish between genuine land reforms – when quality land was really distributed to the poor and the power of the rural oligarchy to distort and “capture” policies was broken — and “fake land reforms” — when the poor have been relegated to the poorest, most remote soils. In every case of genuine land reform, real, measurable poverty reduction and improvement in human welfare has invariably been the result.


Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Cuba, and China are all good examples. In contrast, countries with reforms that gave only poor quality land to beneficiaries, and/or failed to alter the rural power structures that work against the poor, failed to make a major dent in rural poverty. Mexico and the Philippines are typical cases of the latter.


More recently IBASE, a research center in Brazil, studied the impact on government coffers of legalizing MST-style land occupations cum settlements versus the services used by equal numbers of people migrating to urban areas. When the landless poor occupy land and force the government to legalize their holdings, it implies costs: compensation of the former landowner, legal expenses, credit for the new farmers, and others. Nevertheless the total cost to the state to maintain the same number of people in an urban shanty town — including the services and infrastructure they use — exceeds in just one month, the yearly cost of legalizing land occupations.


Another way of looking at it is in terms of the cost of creating a new job. Estimates of the cost of creating a job in the commercial sector of Brazil range from two to twenty times more than the cost of establishing an unem-ployed head of household on farm land, through agrarian reform. Land reform beneficiaries in Brazil have an annual income equivalent to 3.7 minimum wages, while still landless laborers average only 0.7 of the minimum. Infant mortality among families of beneficiaries has dropped to only half of the national average.


This provides a powerful argument that using land reform to create a small farm economy is not only good for local economic development, but is also more effective social policy than allowing business-as-usual to keep driving the poor out of rural areas and into burgeoning cities.


National Economic Development and “Bubble-Up” Economics


A relatively equitable, small farmer-based rural economy provides the basis for strong national economic development. The post-war experiences of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan demonstrate how equitable land distribution fuels economic development. At the end of the war, circumstances including devastation and foreign occupation, conspired to create the conditions for “radical” land reforms in each country, breaking the eco-nomic stranglehold of the landholding class over rural economies. Combined with trade protection to keep farm prices high, and targeted investment in rural areas, small farmers rapidly achieved a high level of purchasing power, which guaranteed domestic markets for fledging industries.


The post-war economic “miracles” of these three countries were each fueled at the start by these internal markets centered in rural areas, long before the much heralded “export orientation” policies which much later on pushed those industries to compete in the global economy. This was real triumph for “bubble-up” economics, in which re-distribution of productive assets to the poorest strata of society created the economic basis for rapid development. It stands in stark contrast to the failure of “trickle down” economics to achieve much of anything in the same time period in areas of U.S. dominance, such as much of Latin America, and to the Asian financial crisis, which happened after many of the original policies had been discontinued.


Good Stewards of Natural Resources


The benefits of small farms extend into the ecological sphere. Where large, industrial-style farms impose a scorched-earth mentality on resource management – no trees, no wildlife, endless monocultures — small farmers can be very effective stewards of natural resources and the soil. To begin with, small farmers utilize a broad array of resources and have a vested interest in their sustainability. Their farming systems are diverse, incorporating and preserving significant functional biodiversity within the farm. By preserving biodiversity, open space, and trees, and by reducing land degradation, small farms provide valuable ecosystem services to the larger society.


In the United States, small farmers devote 17 percent of their area to woodlands, compared to only five percent on large farms, and keep nearly twice as much of their land in “soil improving uses,” including cover crops and green manures. In the Third World, peasant farmers show a tremendous ability to prevent and even reverse land degradation, including soil erosion.


Compared to the ecological wasteland of a modern export plantation, the small farm landscape contains a myriad array of biodiversity. The forested areas from which wild foods and leaf litter are extracted, the wood lot, the farm itself with intercropping, agroforestry, and large and small livestock, the fish pond, the backyard garden, allow for the preservation of hundreds if not thousands of wild and cultivated species. Simultaneously, the commitment of family members to maintaining soil fertility on the family farm means an active interest in long-term sustainability not found on large farms owned by absentee investors.


The Small Farm Path


To the productive, economic, and environmental benefits of small farm agriculture, we can add the continuance of cultural traditions and of the rural way of life. If we are truly concerned about rural peoples and ecosystems, then the preservation and promotion of small, family farm agriculture is a crucial step we must take.