One For The Country

Anybody who remembers that photograph of Peter Costello gleefully surrounded by newborn infants knows one thing: it isn’t only aspiring parents who can go a bit baby crazy. Few areas are as familiar with poorly designed government policy as childhood and parenthood.

So when the Federal Government this week announced an inquiry into the possibility of paid parental leave, it was tough to remain optimistic. You need only to look at the baby bonus to see that the black hole of bad policy is deep. Costly, blunt and poorly designed policy instruments have just as many unintended negative consequences as benefits.

The exact details of Labor’s parental leave scheme won’t be known until after the inquiry reports back next year, but most proposals for paid parental leave would require the Government to pay a nominated parent roughly the minimum wage for a dozen or so weeks.

Certainly, this is far better than simply requiring businesses to pay the cost of the leave out of their own pockets. The biggest risk that government-mandated workplace entitlements pose is that they make it more costly to hire workers – and the unintended consequence is that employers are reluctant to hire in the first place.

Nevertheless, for a government that proclaims itself eager to cut spending, the addition of what will probably be at least a half-billion dollar expenditure into the federal budget is not going to help the Labor Party nurture a small government image.

Paid parental leave could also break a fundamental principle of good welfare policy – the most effective policies are means-tested policies. There is no good reason for taxpayers to give the $5000 baby bonus to a family that is already comfortable enough to look after its newborn. At least the issue of parental leave has been referred to the Productivity Commission – the government’s independent research department that can claim much of the credit for advancing the cause of economic reform since its inception. This contrasts with the worrying reluctance of Labor to trust the commission with anything else important.

Inquiries into climate change, car manufacturing and international trade have all been established separately – Kevin Rudd may not trust the government’s experts to give him the answers he wants.

But the biggest problem with a paid parental leave scheme is how it encourages the redefinition of our relationship with government. The baby bonus has already established in the mind of Australians that having children is more than just a personal decision – it is part of a long-running negotiation between parents, the Federal Government and the tax office. The former Liberal government shamelessly encouraged this idea, but if what appears to be the instinct of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard is followed through, soon no one will start a family without lengthy consultations with the Australian Taxation Office and Prime Minister’s Department.

Of course, from the Government’s perspective, this is a perfectly rational approach. All those newborns that surrounded Peter Costello are future taxpayers. And business lobbyists keep urging the government to do something about the skills shortage and ageing workforce. So the government wants us to breed.

But the people whose decision could be influenced if they are given a few grand by the government may not actually be the best parents.

And the problems of ageing populations and skills shortages don’t have to be resolved by funnelling subsidies to young families. It would instead be better for children if individuals were allowed to come to their own decisions about parenthood uninfluenced by politicians desperate to pay their way out of the latest political crisis.

Perhaps if the government really thinks that we have a population problem, it could be looking carefully at increasing immigration – skilled and non-skilled – and relaxing the high costs of work visas.

Nevertheless, introducing subsidies to new parents conveniently supports Rudd’s working families narrative. It’s politically savvy to pay off your supporters.

The fundamental question that the Labor Government’s proposal for parental leave raises is whether parents should have children for themselves, or for society. But that answer is fairly clear. After all, what parent spends time thinking about how starting a family could help Australia’s OECD rankings? Hopefully none.

Rudd’s Super Summit Puts The Con Into Consensus

There is a strange fantasy held by many serious people in politics that if you get enough experts in a room, some sort of magical consensus will emerge and everything will be wonderful.

But suppose we could get a consensus about the future of this country. Would that even be good?

This fantasy appears to be the idea behind the 2020 summit that Kevin Rudd announced last week. For two days, 1000 of Australia’s best, and best-connected, individuals will convene in Canberra to nut out some solutions to our social and economic problems.

Given that it is unlikely the Rudd Government will adopt any of the summit’s proposals – at least, none they weren’t already familiar with – the 2020 talkfest is unlikely to do too much harm.

No doubt the proposals from 2020 will be as pedestrian as those produced by the half-dozen “future-oriented” conferences around the country each year. That is, we should do more on climate change, spend more on education, infrastructure and innovation, engage more with Asia, the republic is the most important issue facing Australia today, children are our future, and on and on and on.

The Government will surely be familiar with these ideas – many of them formed Labor’s campaign platform. So if the only big idea behind Rudd’s education revolution was to set up an education committee at a gigantic conference, it’s hard to avoid wondering why we bother having revolutions at all.

After all, what great idea ever came from a committee? Committees usually end up choosing the worst idea that at least two people agree on. It was a committee that chose the hideous London Olympics logo, which looks like Lisa Simpson doing something she shouldn’t.

The old adage that “a camel is a horse designed by committee” will be doubly true for public policy designed by a committee that consists of 1000 “leaders” – hardly the sort of people who are known as team players.

Nevertheless, at the end of two days, the 2020 summit will have bought off Australia’s public intellectual class. There is nothing more flattering for a self-styled opinion maker than to be approached by the federal government for ideas. With an invite list of 1000, this summit is flattery on an industrial scale.

There is a serious point to be made about the 2020 summit, and it doesn’t bode well for future policy. The summit appears to make good on one of Labor’s key election promises: a new style of consensus-based politics. Under Kevin Rudd, the party said, the states and the Commonwealth would work together and businesses and governments would work together. Even Labor’s factions might tone down their mutual hatred and start going to the same parties.

It would be easy to run a country on consensus if everybody shared the same views. But not only do people disagree on means, they also disagree on ends. For some, the aim of public policy should be liberty and the maximisation of personal choice; for others, economic and social equality. With such disparate and often strongly held views, the idea that we can all eventually agree is a fiction. But the problem with the 2020 summit is more than the impossibility of getting everybody into a group hug. The dirty secret of Australian politics is that conflict makes good government.

For instance, state and federal governments aren’t supposed to co-operate. The idea behind Federation was that the states would compete to develop the best public policy and that the Commonwealth would do the things that the states didn’t. If they start working closely together, as Rudd has assured us will now happen, it will only further erode our critically weakened federal system. We may not actually want to “end the blame game”.

Similarly, trying to get business and government working together is fraught with difficulty. Usually, the only things business want from government are money or protection from competitors. The only thing governments want from business is help achieving political goals.

And when the government works with the “community”, it inevitably ends up consulting special-interest groups who harbour ideological views not shared by the community as a whole. It is us, as citizens and consumers, who get the raw deal.

The 2020 summit is more than just a happy-clappy approach to governing. Rudd has to be careful that his eagerness to build “consensus” doesn’t leave the Government open to interest groups and poor policy.

Isn’t All This Talk Of An Apocalypse Getting A Bit Boring?

This year is the 40th anniversary of Paul Ehrlich’s influential The Population Bomb, a book that predicted an apocalyptic overpopulation crisis in the 1970s and ’80s.

Ehrlich’s book provides a lesson we still haven’t learnt. His prophecy that the starvation of millions of people in the developed world was imminent was spectacularly wrong – humanity survived without any of the forced sterilisation that Ehrlich believed was necessary.

It’s easy to predict environmental collapse, but it never actually seems to happen.

The anniversary of The Population Bomb should put contemporary apocalyptic predictions in their proper context. If anything, our world – and the environment – just keeps getting better.

Ehrlich was at the forefront of a wave of pessimistic doomsayers in the late 1960s and early ’70s. And these doomsayers weren’t just cranks – or, if they were cranks, they were cranks with university tenure.

Despite what should be a humiliating failure for his theory of overpopulation, Ehrlich is still employed as a professor of population studies by Stanford University. Similarly, when George Wald predicted in a 1970 speech that civilisation was likely to end within 15 or 30 years, his audience was reminded that he was a Nobel Prize-winning biologist.

These predictions were picked up by people eager to push their own agendas. And a subgenre of films arose to deal with the “inevitable” environment and population crisis. Soylent Green(1973) depicted a world where all food was chemically produced, and other films imagined dystopias where amoral bureaucrats strictly controlled the population – just the sort of things advocated in The Population Bomb.

In retrospect, these fears seem a little bit silly. The green revolution that was brought about by advances in agricultural biotechnology came pretty close to eliminating the problem of food scarcity. Nor did the alarmists expect the large changes in demography and fertility rates that have occurred during the past few decades.

Nevertheless, for people in the 1970s, predictions of apocalypse through overpopulation and famine were just as real as the predictions of an apocalypse caused by climate change are today. And, just like today, environmental activists and their friends in politics were lining up to propose dramatic changes to avert the crisis.

For instance, the vice-president of the Australian Conservation Foundation wrote just last week in The Age that we needed to imagine global suffering before we can tackle climate change through “nation-building” – whatever that is.

But there are substantial grounds for optimism – on almost every measure, the state of the world is improving.

Pollution is no longer the threat it was seen to be in the 1970s, at least in the developed world. Changes in technology, combined with our greater demand for a clean environment, have virtually eliminated concerns about pungent waterways and dirty forests. Legislation played some role in this, but as Indur Goklany points out in his recent study, The Improving State of the World, the environment started getting better long before such laws were passed.

Goklany reveals that strong economies, not environment ministers, are the most effective enforcers of cleanliness in our air and water. Indeed, the world’s 10 most polluted places are in countries where strong economic growth has historically been absent – Russia, China, India and Kyrgyzstan have not really been known for their thriving consumer capitalism.

Other indices, too, show that humanity’s future is likely to be bright. Infant mortality has dramatically declined, as has malnutrition, illiteracy, and even global poverty.

And there are good grounds for hope that we can adapt to changing climates as well. History has shown just how capable we are of inventing and adapting our way out of any sticky situation – and how we can do it without crippling our economies or imposing brutal social controls.

Environmental alarmists have become more and more like those apocalyptic preachers common in the 19th century – always expecting the Rapture on this date and, when it doesn’t come, quickly revising their calculations.

Optimism is in too short supply in discussions about the environment. But four decades afterThe Population Bomb, if we remember just how wrong visions of the apocalypse have been in the past, perhaps we will look to the future more cheerfully.

Next Time You Sip A Latte, Look Beyond The Feel-Good Choice

Just how fair is fair trade? Mass market retailers from Safeway to Starbucks now sell us coffee that is supposed to quench our thirst and appease our conscience, but there is more to fair trade than feel-good marketing and social justice.

Coffee has long been highly politicised. In 17th-century England, coffee became allied with the cause of free speech when Charles II shut down the coffee houses that he thought were brewing criticism of his government.

And in the eyes of modern activists, coffee is symbolic of the unfairness of international trade. Their story of coffee is of the developing world exploited by globalisation and wicked multinational corporations. And their solution is fair trade – marketing coffee under a brand that guarantees growers more bang for their beans, sustainable agricultural practices and so on.

But there is more to fair trade than meets the eye. It comes at a high price. The program carries a great deal of ideological baggage and fair trade certification is full of requirements that can limit economic development rather than encourage it. For example, to achieve certification, coffee producers are required to structure their organisations not as the small businesses that have been so successful in capitalist economies but as democratic worker co-operatives.

For fair trade advocates, the only way the developing world can compete in a global coffee market is by adopting the quasi-socialist communal structures that have constantly failed to compete in other industries.

Individual farms are unable to achieve certification by themselves – the fair trade organisation will only approve co-operatives that can contain hundreds of farms. This practice reduces entrepreneurship and competition between producers, eliminating the benefits of innovative farming techniques. And in some regions, the fair trade system encourages farmers to grow in less climatically favourable areas, depressing the quality of the coffee beans.

Nevertheless, the fair trade marketing machine is extraordinarily powerful, and the brand has revealed an eager base of socially aware consumers.

The politicisation of the coffee industry has happened in conjunction with another major change: the awakening of the Australian palate. Coffee, like many other foods and drinks, has benefited from an expansion of taste that has added, for instance, sushi and specialty cheeses to our diet. It’s worth remembering just how recently it was that mass market stores like Gloria Jean’s were seen as gourmet retailers pushing the radical idea that the flavour of our flat whites actually mattered outside niche cafes.

In the middle of this gourmet revolution, whether we buy fair trade or just good old free trade coffee is merely another one of the thousands of choices we face in our overloaded supermarket. And Australians are wealthy enough to spend extra on products we feel are more ethical.

Indeed, symbolism has become an important part of the way we dine. Similar campaigns against genetic modification and for organic and sustainable agriculture are just as much about image as reality – too often they are based on flimsy evidence and have negative consequences for producers and the environment.

The fair trade system is more than our preferences in the supermarket. At best, fair trade has an ambiguous effect on the economic wellbeing of coffee growers in the developing world; at worst, it may actually be holding them back.

Tackling Obesity – Should The Public Pay?

The demand by AMA Victoria that the State Government fund bariatric surgery for the chronically obese is no doubt motivated by compassion, but illustrates some of the ways the debate about obesity has become severely distorted. Obesity is not a public health problem and should not be treated as one.

Until relatively recently, the phrase “public health” indicated health problems that were actually public problems – sanitation, the control of epidemics, water quality, airborne pollution and so forth. But increased obesity is not a public health crisis like an outbreak of bird flu would be. Obesity is not contagious – when one person overindulges on fast food, their colleagues and neighbours aren’t put at risk. And, in 2008, nobody orders pizza without being fully aware that cheesy crusts can lead to weight gain.

For these reasons, obesity is too often tragic, but it is first and foremost a private problem. Medical campaigners who seek to redefine the parameters of public health are eliminating the crucial policy distinction between public and private health concerns. When every health problem becomes a national crisis, no medical treatment is ineligible for government funding. Bariatric surgery may be an important, even necessary, tool to treat obesity, but it does not automatically follow that it should be paid for directly by the taxpayer.

Of course, the most common objection to this line of reasoning is the simple calculation that the cost of treating obesity now is far less than the cost of treating the consequences in the future – resolving heart disease and diabetes may be more expensive than bariatric surgery.

All public policy should be subject to economic assessment. But this is a slippery slope. Britain’s National Health Service shows what can happen when the government makes all health problems its business – those calculations rapidly lose their compassion and become cruel assessments of moral, rather than medical, questions. Last week British PM Gordon Brown hinted that individuals whose lifestyle choices had created their health problems – obesity is the classic example – may be refused treatment in order to cut costs.

The only way to avoid this trap is to drop the conceit that all medical problems are public problems, and to reintroduce the idea that individuals should be responsible for their own health.

Xmas Buying Is Full Of Spirit

Before the three wise men went to visit Jesus at his birth, they first had to visit the gold, frankincense and myrrh traders. Retailers have been cashing in on Christmas since, well, before Christmas. Nevertheless, a chorus of commentators each year decries its commercialisation. The retailers who market their holiday stock in October become the targets of droll cynicism about how the holiday season arrives earlier and earlier.

According to these critics, between the Santa-themed lingerie and the mechanised excess of the Myer windows, the true meaning of Christmas has been lost somewhere on the Bourke Street Mall. Certainly Jingle Bells piped over the cheap speakers in supermarkets might be irritating, but presumably some people like it. Businesses that go out of their way to annoy their customers don’t stay in business very long. And the excruciating kitchiness of so much holiday decoration just proves the old saying “there’s no accounting for taste” is never more insightful than at Christmas time.

But there is more to Christmas than just bad taste. The opponents of a commercial Christmas have always had a distinctly political message. George Bernard Shaw, a fervent anti-capitalist and apologist for Stalin, put his case against the holiday merchandising half a century ago: “Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press; on its own merits, it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred.” Shaw was a great playwright, but was probably not very good at small talk.

The anti-commercialism message ties neatly into the common belief that we, as a society, are over-consuming. Cheap political paperbacks and moralising opinion pieces drearily list the possible consequences of buying one too many trinkets – clinical depression, environmental catastrophe, spiralling levels of personal debt, the loss of social cohesion, child obesity, economic turmoil and big houses.

The critics of the consumer society have coined an evocative new word – “affluenza”. Capitalism, they imply, is some sort of psychotic mass hysteria. And the Christmas period is a massive annual epidemic; a deranged orgy of consumption and spending.

But what’s wrong with a commercial Christmas? It really does seem like a strange complaint, even for those ideologically opposed to excessive consumption. After all, Christmas is the one time of the year that we go shopping not for ourselves, but for others.

Exchanging gifts has always been a central part of building social relationships. When world leaders exchange gifts at diplomatic meetings, it isn’t because they were conned by shiny advertisements.

And as every parent who has received a handmade present from their child is well aware, gift-giving has more symbolic importance than practical importance.

Amusingly, some biblical scholars have suggested that the gold, frankincense and myrrh given to the infant Jesus were more like gifts of much-needed medicine for a new mother. This would make the three wise men the spiritual ancestors of that uncle who always buys you “useful” presents like socks and underwear, rather than things you actually want, like an Xbox.

Nevertheless, a good gift at Christmas is one that strengthens a relationship; a bad gift is one that reveals that relationship to be shallow. Giving presents to friends and family members, even if those presents are extravagant, hardly fits into the affluenza theory.

Most of the criticism of commercialism seems to stem from a dislike of commercial activity intruding upon the “non-commercial” parts of society. How dare businesses drag their filthy profit-making into our nice clean holiday? But these critics vastly overemphasise the distinction between activities we might class as commercial and those we might class as social. The difference isn’t so great.

Commercial society is much more warm and fuzzy than is depicted by anti-capitalists. Interaction in the marketplace is inherently co-operative. Certainly, businesses do compete against each other, and this competition sounds like it is very aggressive, impersonal and distasteful. But they only compete in order to co-operate – that is, trade with their customers.

And on a practical level, the celebration of Christmas benefits from the introduction of commercial values. Vigorous competition during the holiday season keeps the prices of gifts low, allowing us to give more gifts to more people who are important to us.

We continue to agonise over the “true meaning” of the holiday. But whether Christmas is religious or secular, there’s little reason to fear that its personal significance will drown in a sea of holiday jingles and advertising.

Stars In The Net Sky

Is the internet making us stupid? That, at least, is the conclusion of Doris Lessing, this year’s winner of the Nobel prize for literature. In her acceptance speech, she argued that our newfound love of trivial inanities on the internet was replacing our previous appreciation of learning, education and literature.

It would be easy to dismiss Lessing’s arguments by claiming that she is unfamiliar with the possibilities of technology, and that she is merely defending her favourite medium, the book.

But Lessing is not alone in her view. She joins a large group of pessimists who are instinctively sceptical about technological progress and cultural change. This deeply conservative pessimism is an unfortunate attribute of modern political and social debate.

Another recent example of cultural pessimism is provided by internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of the Amateur. In it, Keen argues in a similarly unhappy tone that the internet has allowed non-professionals to drown out high-quality culture with rubbish.

Certainly, there are some remarkably stupid things on the internet. There are also some disgusting things, pointless things, and obscene things. Hours can be wasted on Facebook or YouTube or in the virtual reality world of Second Life. Wikipedia has lists of fictional detective teams, lists of historic fires, and lists of lists – all of which promise the dedicated procrastinator many opportunities for distraction.

But while the traditional book may now have to compete with the lavish offerings of the internet, Lessing’s glumness is hardly justified. For our intellectual life, the widespread adoption of the internet has been unambiguously positive.

It is hard to overestimate the educational advantages of super-abundant information, particularly when we compare it to the information scarcity that has characterised most of human history.

One famous academic paper showed that each edition of The New York Times contained more information than an individual in the 17th century was likely to come across in their lifetime.

And the variety of information now instantly available on our computer screen makes what was available to us even 20 years ago seem like a short blurb on the back of a book.

While Lessing may fear the effects of substituting reading books for online activities like blogging, a number of studies have shown that students are now far more comfortable writing than their predecessors.

Remember all those fatalistic cries that the practice of shortening and abbreviating words for text messages would irreparably damage young people’s writing skills? This was yet another misguided prediction of cultural doom. It appears that most students are easily able to tell what style of writing is appropriate for school work.

If young people do have problems reading and writing, it isn’t the internet or mobiles that are at fault, but the education system.

Even television, that passive, much-reviled entertainment, is getting richer and more complex. The undemanding plots and one-dimensional characters of a typical television sitcom 30 years ago contrast poorly with the multiple, interlinked storylines and highly developed characters of today’s programs. Compare for example the basic linear narratives of early Simpsons episodes with the intricate structures of the show’s more recent outings. Television is becoming more engaging and, indeed, more mentally challenging.

Nevertheless, cultural pessimists argue that our ancestors were better off. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Lessing argued, the literate classes were respectful of great literature. Similarly, T.S.Eliot surveyed Western culture 50 years ago and famously wrote that “our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were 50 years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity”. Even earlier, Plato criticised his fellow Greeks’ love of the emotions in theatre and poetry, believing that what he considered serious thought was dying out.

But when cultural pessimists reminisce about earlier times, they are too often highly selective. The 18th-century gentlemen who respected literature were a small minority of the total, mostly illiterate population. And cheap, poorly written paperbacks were just as large a portion of the market for books as they are today.

Doris Lessing and Andrew Keen compare the best of the past with the average of the present. With a formula like that, it’s no wonder today always loses.

People are resistant to change. During the industrial revolution, British textile and agricultural workers destroyed the new labour-saving machines, as they saw them as threatening their jobs and the world they were comfortable with.

Of course, their predictions of doom turned out to be inaccurate – the introduction of those machines was the beginning of a massive spurt of economic growth that raised the wealth and living standards of the working class.

When Lessing condemns the internet as full of mere inanities, she similarly ignores the exciting possibilities of culture now that the internet has freed it from scarcity.

But cultural pessimism is not just resistance to change. What is most striking about contemporary cultural pessimism is just how elitist it is. Not everybody can be a novelist, but anyone can write a blog.

We should be glad that cultural pessimists have found a new target in the internet – it means that our culture is becoming even more diverse, anarchic and, best of all, truly democratised.

Fame Game Filling Our Need For Celebrities

Australian soccer is salivating over the more than 80,000 people who turned up to Sydney’s Telstra Stadium on Wednesday night and watched David Beckham do at least one of the things he is famous for – take a free kick.

But unfortunately for soccer, it wasn’t sport that brought such high numbers through the gates. Most people who attended were only interested in checking out the man who goes home to Posh Spice. One host of a corporate box reported that he had to explain to his guests that the person running around the field wearing yellow was the umpire.

The question of why we have such a fascination with celebrities is a well-rehearsed one. Fame, after all, has no inherent properties. Being famous doesn’t immediately make someone more virtuous or remarkable.

Similarly, it does not, as Bono seems to believe, impart to you any great insight into development economics or the most appropriate structure for giving economic loans to African nations. If your favourite political cause has a celebrity attached, it’s probably wrong. A busy media schedule leaves little room for even the best-intentioned celebrity to study the most humane way of keeping insects off the backsides of sheep.

But those who attended the Sydney exhibition match weren’t just there because they were fascinated by David Beckham (pictured below). After all, any thirst to discover as much as possible about the soccer star would surely be quelled by his series of autobiographies, David Beckham: My WorldDavid Beckham: My Side and David Beckham: Both Feet on the Ground. It is a testament to the cynical ingenuity of English publishing houses that one person could successfully market three auto-biographies, two of which were released a year apart.

Instead, the spectators were driven by a very human, but also a very peculiar, desire to see the celebrity in the flesh. For many of the spectators at the Sydney match, part of the attraction in attending the game was simply to share Beckham’s space in the world.

Certainly, on a practical level, there are some things that you can only discover by seeing somebody in real life, rather than on television. Those who have met John Howard are able to speak authoritatively about his height – the just-departed prime minister is hardly the munchkin depicted in hostile editorial cartoons.

But our desire to see and meet celebrities is more than a desire to assess their physical attributes up close. We have an almost primordial need to confirm that celebrities are, actually, real. Genuine human communication – even if it is one-sided and yelled from stadium seating – is our attempt at breaking down the barrier between celebrity and reality.

Even better when the celebrity is alerted to those attempts at communication – nothing amuses a heckler more than attention from their target.

Watching how someone carries themself, without the distorting effect of television, somehow gives far more insight into that celebrity’s personality. Everybody thinks they are pretty good at judging character.

Celebrities, many of whom are intelligent, are acutely aware of this curiously asymmetrical relationship. And eager to convert intangible fame into tangible cash, they exploit it. Successful celebrities “up-sell” their time to wealthier fans. For sports stars, a sponsorship deal is not just a colourful logo on a shirt, it is a commitment to meet the sponsoring firm’s clients when needed.

The same is true in many fields. Many firms sponsor ballet productions so their guests can mingle with performers. Ballet companies recognise that audiences like to break down the barrier between stage and stalls.

Nevertheless, at least dancers and soccer players have a day job. Paris Hilton is the archetypal celebrity thought to be famous for having done nothing. She might not be talented, but she sure is entertaining. Her life is a train wreck; a complex human drama conveniently serialised in newspaper headlines.

And Hilton’s business model is the same as Beckham’s – when the socialite was shipped down to Australia for the Melbourne Cup a few years ago, part of her job was to entertain cup sponsors. Celebrities who are famous just for being famous are also the most cunning manipulators of this disconnection between fame and reality.

The market for celebrities seems to work fairly well – there aren’t many opportunities for profit that the famous do not exploit. Our psychological need to humanise celebrities is a demand that is efficiently supplied.

No Street Cred For Council Party Poopers

When the State Government offered councils a $6000 grant to develop street party kits last year, it was no surprise that they jumped at the opportunity. Not only is writing complicated protocol documents a major highlight of working for local government, but the Byzantine regulations that the kits were to help navigate were imposed by the councils themselves.

One part of government bribing another part of government to do what they should be doing anyway has become a staple of Australian politics. Why should councils miss out on all the fun?

The resulting street party kits are a grand monument to the bureaucracy and red tape that is impeding social and community life in Australia. These elaborate bundles of forms, rules and recommendations demonstrate clearly how the steady accumulation of seemingly trivial regulations can quickly become a restraint on community activity. The regulations aren’t those that apply to major festivals on the scale of last weekend’s Johnston Street Fiesta – they apply to small neighbourhood barbecues.

Certainly, many of the issues covered within the kits are, on the face of it, sensible. Washing hands before handling food probably isn’t a bad idea – it would be poor form to poison your neighbours while you were trying to get to know them.

But, as the City of Whitehorse demands, having to provide party volunteers with comprehensive food handling information in the form of written instructions is taking this a bit too far. Nobody wants a reputation in the street as the guy who loves to produce paperwork.

And don’t bother trying to sell any food or drink. Children’s lemonade stands are only possible if those children are able to fill out Community Amenity Local Law No. 1, Schedule 3 (Parts A and B) and Schedule 7.

The City of Stonnington’s 25-page safety plan appears to require the party organiser to assume responsibility for the safety of all guests – planning evacuation and ambulance routes, assembly areas and marshalling points, memorising emergency announcements, and strategically placing fire-fighting equipment around the party location.

Some rules are completely ridiculous. Stonnington requires party organisers to keep an incident kit close by at all times. This should contain a fluoro jacket, gaffer tape, torch, area map and sunscreen. They also require party organisers to nominate a communications liaison to negotiate potential clashes with local event venues, and to retain an electrician on call, just in case.

Street gatherings are not known for being rowdy. Nevertheless, the Moreland City Council insists that sound levels do not exceed 65 decibels. This exhilarating volume is just louder than a humming refrigerator and a little below a hair dryer. It is also above a quiet conversation. As a result, laughter, which surely ranks high on the list of attributes of a good party, is essentially prohibited within the People’s Republic of Moreland.

Presumably, the 65-decibel limit is also why many street party kits, when recommending that CDs are played at a street party, specifically nominate acoustic music. If you anticipate your street party may exceed the 65-decibel limit, you may be required to hire an independent acoustic engineer for the duration of the party to monitor your guests’ volume.

Councils and the Victorian Government recommend that a street party be held on the street itself. To do so, six weeks before the party is to occur, an application for road closure must be submitted to the local government. Forms demonstrating that the road closure has the support of more than 75% of the street’s residents must be submitted. A traffic management plan to be jointly prepared with a council traffic engineer must also be submitted, along with all the necessary fees and charges required to navigate the bureaucracy. This kind of ridiculous red tape is a major roadblock to community life.

The State Government-funded street party kits also raise another question – whose job is it to actually sit down and write them? The kits contain pages and pages of tips on how to have a good party. For instance, Whitehorse recommends that guests introduce themselves and recall the funniest thing they ever saw on the street. Developing topics for small talk is hardly a core role of government, and yet state taxes are being funnelled to council bureaucrats to do just that.

And the condescending advice that neighbours should share power tools and wave to each other when they pass on the street should make everybody wonder how stupid councils think their residents actually are.

Local governments enjoy dramatically less media scrutiny and voter interest than their state and federal counterparts. As a consequence, they are free to impose far more absurd rules than other levels of government. Local governments are adamant that they are trying to encourage street parties, but if they keep putting up these obstacles, they may not get invited to them.

Religious Right? Have A Little Faith In The Process

Christian voters can look forward to receiving special information packs about the election from the Australian Christian Lobby this week, which is bound to send yet another shudder through the inner-city left.

The bogeyman of the 2007 campaign is the idea that there is a growing religious right in Australia – an ambitious movement of social conservatives carrying the banner of Jesus, eager to take control of national politics. In God Under Howard, Marion Maddox described a Federal Liberal Party beholden to Christian groups in the same manner that the Republican Party in the United States is influenced by evangelicals. The disproportionate power held by Family First, the conspicuous musical enthusiasm of the Hillsong Church, and the revelations about the Exclusive Brethren all seem to support this view.

If this is the case, well, such is the nature of representative democracy. Theorists may declare that democracy reflects the voice of the people but it has always been susceptible to highly co-ordinated special interest groups. Organised groups with strong institutions and well-defined agendas do well in a democratic competition. But it is not at all clear that there is a religious right in Australia with the ambitions and influence ascribed to it.

The Prime Minister is fond of describing the Liberal Party as a fusion of two distinct philosophies – liberalism and conservatism. As a result, some in the ranks of the party are undoubtedly social conservatives motivated in part by religious sentiments.

But their policy influence is dramatically overstated. Eleven years of the Federal Liberal Party in government has hardly seen regression in ethical policy. We can criticise their reluctance to push for liberalisation in some areas, such as gay marriage, at least until recently. But the Government’s record demonstrates a regrettable attachment to the status quo, rather than a desire to return to the God-fearing moral codes of the Victorian era.

Neither does Family First match the description of a religious right. Its focus may be on gay marriage, internet pornography and reducing rates of abortion, but there is little material difference between Family First’s policies and the policies of the major parties.

And when we investigate the party’s platform further, it becomes obvious that on economic issues Family First is well to the left of the Labor Party on foreign ownership, privatisation, tax, workplace relations and free trade. Voters who believe that the ALP has gone soft on many key economic issues such as industrial relations would do well to have another look at Family First.

Similarly, most Christian groups are moderately left-leaning. Modern Christianity wields ambiguous and empty phrases such as social justice as easily as any Labor backbencher.

This is no surprise – the Bible provides little explicit support for free market capitalism.

The concept of a religious right appears to have been imported wholesale from the US, and uncomfortably shoe-horned into Australia’s public debate. Australia, as a country with a small and wealthy population, will always partly depend on imports. But not everything that is imported is easily integrated into the culture or embraced by consumers. Twinkies – the heart attack-inspiring rolls of cream and sponge cake – have never found a willing market in Australia despite being ubiquitous in the US. Rhetoric about the religious right is just as inappropriate in Australia as the Twinkie. The religious right, to the extent that it exists, is small and has little impact on public policy.

Why, then, the breathless hyperbole? Politics is mostly about opposition and demonisation. Perhaps the fantasy that the right wing of Australian politics is a cookie-cutter, sorry, biscuit-cutter duplicate of the hated US Republican Party helps build group solidarity on the secular left.

But isn’t there enough to enrage the left without awkwardly importing ideas from overseas? Surely rhetorical exaggeration and indignation is one area where it would be better to grow local.