Free-Rein Proposal By Canberra Should Be Hobbled Before The Pass

If the Gillard government has its way, we’ll have an extra question to answer at the federal election in September: do we want to amend the constitution to recognise local government?

Sure, this referendum sounds harmless, almost touching. Local government likes to cultivate an image of community and grassroots civic engagement. Why not acknowledge it exists in our great national charter?

Well, lots of reasons.

It’s a bit of a misnomer to call local governments ”government” at all. Administratively, they are more like state government departments.

But unlike, say, the Victorian Department of Education, they are virtually unaccountable, entirely unscrutinised, and deeply deluded about their own influence and importance. Council benches are filled with a mixture of naive do-gooders and cynical political apprentices looking for a safe state or federal seat.

No wonder a quarter of us don’t vote in local government elections. Why should we give these clowns any more legitimacy or esteem?

Don’t listen to what Canberra says. The local government referendum has nothing to do with local communities or anything like that. It’s a power play – part of a long-running campaign by the Commonwealth to free its spending decisions from parliamentary scrutiny and undermine the states.

To understand the significance of the September referendum, we have to go back to an obscure bill passed by Parliament last June: the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No 3) 2012. This bill received almost no press attention. It was supported by all sides of Parliament. The Coalition half-heartedly put up an amendment, but once that was rejected, it backed the bill anyway. The bill was made law in three hours.

Yet it was one of the most undemocratic and scandalous pieces of legislation passed in recent years. Forget the carbon tax. This is what Australia should be most angry about.

The bill authorises the government to spend money on 415 areas of public policy without having to ask Parliament for permission ever again.
It was quickly written in the wake of the successful High Court challenge to the school chaplains program. The court found that if the government wanted to spend money on a program, it was required to pass a valid law through Parliament – which it had not done in the case of school chaplains. This is not a trivial requirement. Parliamentary scrutiny is the essence of representative democracy.

The government’s solution was smart-alecky, brazen and obnoxious. The Financial Framework Legislation Amendment simply authorised spending on everything at one fell swoop – everything from United Nations contributions, to ”diversity and social cohesion” grants, to industry subsidies. Local government is in there, too. Now the government can do anything it wants. The bill even says the government can spend what it likes on ”political party secretariat training”.

The constitutional scholar Anne Twomey has described this as an ”abject surrender” by Parliament to the executive.

The proposed local government referendum builds on the 2012 bill. The Commonwealth wants free rein to fund councils directly, bypassing state governments. True, it wouldn’t be a new power. The Commonwealth has been giving money to local government for a while. Some of the most wasteful parts of Kevin Rudd’s stimulus program went through councils.

But the government thinks such spending might be unconstitutional, given the school chaplains decision and a similar 2009 High Court case, Pape v Commissioner of Taxation.

Let’s dwell on that.

The Commonwealth government believes it is breaking the law. Yet instead of ceasing its illegal practice (as citizens would be required) it wants us to rewrite the constitution instead. And all this four years after the Pape case raised the problem in the first place.

What if the referendum fails? Will it stop handing cash to local government? Of course not.

No, the real story here is how the Commonwealth is trying to erase all parliamentary, legal, and constitutional impediments that limit its spending. The referendum is just a small skirmish in a larger war.

Local government recognition has always been a tool to neuter the states. The last two referendums on this question were under Labor.

Both failed. Gough Whitlam was clear about his real goal during the 1974 attempt. States had ”little relevance to today’s needs”. Funding local government directly would undermine the power and authority of those states.

The Coalition might be expected to oppose Gillard’s referendum. Federalism is a bedrock principle of Australian liberalism. But Tony Abbott is no fan of the states, either. He supports a yes vote.

There’s a more banal reason for the referendum. Julia Gillard promised one as part of her deal with the independents. Yet that was a political decision made in the heat of 2010. It’s one promise she should break.

Happily, most referendums fail. Only eight of the 44 since federation have been successful. This one deserves to join the losers.

Double Click On The Next Digital Revolution, Then Brace Yourself

At first, the internet was treated as a curiosity. YouTube has a television segment from 1981 on newspapers experimenting with sending digital stories over the phone line. ”Imagine, if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee, turning on your home computer to read the day’s newspaper,” said the host with a bemused smile.

We all know how that turned out. The internet has played havoc with the newspaper industry. It has ripped up the music industry and intimidated Hollywood. What is a curiosity today might be the industry-disrupting, society-realigning, prosperity-enhancing and utterly essential technology of tomorrow.

Two recent innovations suggest the next few decades will be more disruptive than any other time in living memory. Right now, Bitcoin and 3D printing seem the province of geeks and hobbyists. But they’re omens of revolutions to come.

Bitcoin is a digital currency that can be used like normal money. You can buy or earn Bitcoins online and use them to purchase goods or services. An increasing number of online retailers accept Bitcoins as payment – including one of the world’s biggest dating sites, OkCupid. But unlike normal money, Bitcoins are very hard to trace, extremely hard to tax, and can be completely anonymous. With only a bit of care, you can make it impossible for the government to pry into your Bitcoin account.

Scepticism is reasonable. Bitcoin is an immature technology. It seems prone to huge swings in value, so it’s hard to be confident about using the currency in the marketplace. Bitcoin may end up fizzing out.

But the idea underpinning it is both radical and plausible: that digital technology allows the creation of an entirely new global currency outside the control of governments and central banks. Political power and power over the currency have always been intertwined. Technology may break – or at least undermine – this age-old relationship. Sound far-fetched? So did the internet.

3D printing allows hobbyists to easily and cheaply produce three-dimensional objects at home. The only costs are the printer itself and the raw material – plastics, rubber, even metal – that are made into the final object. The printers cost just a few thousand dollars.

For the most part, 3D printing is used to make trinkets. But it can also be used to make more valuable things – prosthetic limbs or replacement car parts. Or firearms. There’s a group of hobbyists in the US working to build 3D-printable semi-automatic rifles. These weapons are illegal in most countries, but may soon be easy to build in your own home.

Our legal and economic institutions are not well equipped to deal with these sorts of technological innovations. Usually, when governments want to ban or regulate something, they target its source. If it takes a big factory to make prohibited goods, it’s not hard to detect.

Complex laws and well-funded regulators manage our financial transactions. Yet imagine a world where you can store your earnings outside the government’s reach. We’re nowhere near that scenario yet. But in 1981, we were nowhere near being able to access every newspaper in the world and every song ever recorded on a tiny phone.

The economic consequences of these innovations are huge. But economies are used to change. One of the advantages of a free market is how it is able to adapt. Absolutely, those adaptations aren’t always pretty. The shift from a manufacturing to a service economy has been traumatic for some. When we can make custom industrial products in our own home, what happens to all the companies and workers doing that now? Yet we’ve been through this sort of rapid industrial change many times. And we always end up more prosperous.

Legal systems are not as flexible as the market. Politicians are backward-looking. Only this year was the classification system fixed to properly account for video games. Our laws haven’t caught up with the internet. Legislators have no idea what to do about music and movie piracy – our copyright laws are routinely ignored.

So do we want people to be able to 3D print anything they like? Well, how on earth would we stop them?

These future innovations will be enormously beneficial. It’s why viewers of the 1980s were titillated by the idea of digital newspapers and why it’s fun to imagine what comes next. They will enhance our living standards, give us more choice and greater comfort.

But if you think the internet has been disruptive, brace yourself for what comes next.

Sport And Betting Have Always Been Teammates

Victorian Greens senator Richard Di Natale has drafted a bill to ban betting odds being aired during sports broadcasts.

No, let’s rewrite that. Senator Di Natale has drafted a bill to kick Tom Waterhouse off the television.

Of course, Di Natale’s bill is no more likely to go anywhere than the other few dozen or so bills that have been introduced to the Parliament by minor parties. They are really just written for symbolic purposes.

And appropriately enough, in this case. Banning betting odds during broadcasts is the ultimate symbolic gesture – arbitrary feel-goodism masquerading as social policy.

The backlash against sports betting exposes the flimsy edifice that Australian culture has built around sport. On the one hand, we know sport is a multimillion-dollar corporate business where young and athletic men are split into groups, churned through training regimes, and paid to compete for our amusement. It is a vast money-making ecosystem.

Sport is like Hollywood, but much less risky: investors don’t have to worry about whether the creative types will come up with new and exciting stuff.

This industry is the world of Tom Waterhouse and government subsidies for stadiums and the Australian Crime Commission’s report into sports doping and the $1.2 billion the Seven Network and Foxtel paid for AFL television broadcast rights. It is a world where behaviour standards are written into player employment contracts to ”protect the brand”. People get rich, people get sacked, people get sued. In other words, sport is an industry like any other.

And that is all great. Industries are great. Yet onto this particular industry we impose a web of mythology and fantasy that tries to lift sport above a business to a quasi-religious undertaking. Nobody works themselves into a moral fervour about drug use in investment banking, or in motion pictures. But they do in sports. The sporting world is obsessed with honour and sportsmanship. And purity. It is no coincidence people keep calling for sporting codes to be “cleaned up”, or say a game was played “clean”.

The ideologists of sport proclaim it can bring communities together. In past eras – especially before the violent 20th century – they thought sport could replace warfare. These days, it is mostly about children and vague feelings of social cohesion. The federal government offers funding for a Multicultural Youth Sports Partnership Program. AFL clubs eagerly promote Harmony Day. It’s all very … romantic.

Yes, apparently there are still people who believe sport reduces social tension; people who are able to ignore the decades of violence and nationalistic politics that have swirled around domestic and international sport. And many of these romanticists appear to view the industry of sport with horror.

By now, everybody who is not a first-year arts student has come to terms with the fact that sport involves money. An older debate along these lines – about whether sport should remain amateur or go professional – looks very quaint from the vantage of the 21st century.

Sports betting is just the latest bogyman – yet another threat to that romantic vision. Yet betting on sport is as old as sport itself. One British sports historian, Wray Vamplew, says that much of the strict codification of the rules of sport in the 19th century was driven by the needs of gambling. Early punters found it hard to bet when the rules weren’t codified.

So the sudden panic about odds being broadcast on television is a bit precious – a triumph of the mythology of sport over the reality of sport. It is indicative that most critics of sports betting say they are not worried about the betting so much as seeing the odds on television. They don’t want to break the fantasy. They don’t want to see the revenue streams behind the curtain.

For the hyperbole and hand-wringing, sports betting is a tiny sliver of gambling in Australia.

The Queensland government keeps national gambling statistics. In 2009-10 (the latest year for which comparable figures are available), Australians spent a total of $18.5 billion on all gambling. This number includes everything from racetrack betting to pokies to TattsLotto. They only spent $303 million on sports betting – just over 1.5 per cent of the total.

Yet one academic proclaimed on The Conversation website last week that sports betting represented the steady ”gamblification” of everyday life – Tom Waterhouse is a sign that Australia is being buried by gambling.

The evidence suggests quite the opposite. Total expenditure on gambling has remained steady over the past decade. And if we take population growth into account, then in recent years gambling has begun to decline. Nothing here screams ”impending social problem”.

Instead, the Greens’ Richard Di Natale falls back on an old standard. ”It’s becoming increasingly hard for young kids to know where the sport ends and the gambling begins,” he said in a press release announcing his bill.

That’s the think-of-the-children argument, a favourite of censors, wowsers and reactionaries for two centuries.

It is fine to view sport through a romantic lens. But that lens won’t survive if it requires deliberate ignorance.

Beware Elite Technocrats And Their Open Disdain For Democracy

The draft of the proposed European Union constitution in 2003 included this quote, from ancient Greek historian Thucydides: “Our constitution … is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the greatest number.”

That quote didn’t make the final version of the constitution (which was rejected in 2005). A good thing too. It would have been cruelly ironic. The European Union is the exact opposite of Thucydides’ ideal.

Modern Europe shows just what happens when societies grant extraordinary power to elites and technocratic experts. Europe’s slow-burn sovereign debt crisis is exposing a massive chasm between the elite who run the European Union’s political and economic institutions, and the European citizens who have to live with their decisions.

Last weekend, citizens of Cyprus learnt all their bank accounts were going to be subject to a one-time tax of at least 6.7 per cent in return for an economic bailout.

The deal was presented as a fait accompli, negotiated between a new Cyprus president (he’d only been in the job a few weeks) and a bevy of banking officials and European bureaucrats. Approval by the Cypriot Parliament was to be a mere formality. It had all been decided.

But the bailout deal fell apart last week in the face of a massive popular backlash. People in Cyprus are like people all over the world. They don’t like it when the government steals their money without warning. One of the chants heard outside the Parliament was: “They’re drinking our blood.”

It has long been understood that the European Union has a democratic deficit. But that deficit is cripplingly obvious now that the continent is deep in economic crisis.

Indeed, much of the original idea for the European Union itself was fundamentally anti-democratic. After World War II, European statesmen worried that voters were too easily manipulated. This was a reasonable feeling at the time; Adolf Hitler did very well at the ballot box.

So the structure of European governance was explicitly designed to be full of unelected positions, as far removed from actual voters as possible. But operating out of sterile tower blocks in Brussels, Eurocrats have developed an active disdain for democracy.

As the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has said: “Decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong.”

Of course, nobody has suggested otherwise – but so what? The choice isn’t between making the right decisions or wrong decisions. It’s whether the citizens run the government or a cadre of elites do.

Anyway, the most tragic mistake made by Europe in recent decades wasn’t a national one. It was the euro currency – narrowly pushed through a series of referendums in 1992.

The euro has trapped 17 countries together in a spiral of doom. Some will survive the landing. Rich and prosperous states such as Germany will be fine. Others, such as Cyprus, Italy and Greece, have learnt that by joining the eurozone they’ve handed over their sovereignty to Brussels and their economic policy to Frankfurt.

And when the global financial crisis hit, these latter countries discovered that European authorities held extraordinary power over them.

In 2011, Greek prime minister George Papandreou proposed a referendum on a bailout package his country had been offered. He was quickly forced to step down and replaced by a former president of the European Central Bank; in other words, a European bureaucrat from central casting. According to British politician Daniel Hannan, this was nothing less than a coup d’etat. Recall that Greece is the cradle of democracy.

Of course, it was always obviously absurd that such economically disparate countries would be able to share a currency. The euro was condemned from left to right. Both Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman were vehemently opposed. But whether it would work wasn’t the point. There has always been a belief in Brussels that European integration is the most important political goal imaginable. European integration is an ideological project pretending to be an inevitability. Few can be more ideological than technocrats.

You can understand why people think handing power over to experts and political elites sounds appealing. We tend to talk about public policy as if it is merely a question of matching a problem to its best solution – the only challenge is finding that solution.

You hear such sentiments in the business community all the time. If only we could get politicians out of the way and just get things done.

That’s the theory behind all these supposedly independent government agencies we have in Australia.

But if you want to see what happens when you hand too much political power to experts, have a look at Europe. It’s not pretty.

The Left Is Misguided When It Uses A Bill Of Rights To Distribute Wealth

How protected are our rights to free speech? Two rulings of the High Court last week have brought the question into focus.

The court upheld an Adelaide bylaw that bans preaching on a city street and a federal law that forbids offensive material being sent through the post. These rulings can be added to the Gillard government’s anti-discrimination bill (which would make it unlawful to offend someone’s political opinions at work) and the proposed regulation of newspapers and blogs.

All of these laws, existing and proposed, would be quickly slapped down in US courts as laughably unconstitutional. The American bill of rights is very powerful. The First Amendment unambiguously protects free speech, free press and religion.

Yet in Australia, bills of rights haven’t had much support by liberals and conservatives. The reason is simple. The First Amendment was written more than two centuries ago. Modern bills of rights tend to increase government power, rather than limit it. This is because our human rights advocates believe that to protect human rights we simply have to transpose United Nations treaties onto Australian law.

In recent inquiries, those advocates have called for a rights act to guarantee everything from free university to welfare – all because they’re in UN documents. The UN even thinks we have a human right to high speed internet.

Instead of protecting people from the government, these ”rights” are all about obligations – obliging taxpayers to give more money to the government so it can fund more stuff.

The distinction is important. America’s Bill of Rights starts bluntly: “Congress shall make no law” restraining speech or religion. It’s all about protecting people from their government. By contrast, the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights says governments must guarantee food, clothing, and housing; that governments have a responsibility “to improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food”; that governments must ensure an “equitable distribution of world food supplies”.

In other words, governments should control more things, tax more things, redistribute more things.

If the left want to understand the reason their opponents are sceptical about modern human rights, well, there you have it.

What would a conservative or liberal bill of rights look like? It would have to be entrenched within the constitution. It would have to mean something.

Courts would be able to enforce it. Labor attorney-general Rob Hulls was very proud of introducing Victoria’s Charter of Rights in 2006 but the government can – and his government did – ignore that charter whenever convenient with no consequence. Why fill the statute books with motherhood statements? A bill of rights is a radical measure, not a tool for political self-congratulation.

Yet politicians don’t like the idea of a constitutionally entrenched bill of rights. It might prevent them from doing whatever they want. The Rudd government forbade the National Human Rights Consultation report (which received 35,000 submissions) from considering anything that would reduce Parliament’s “sovereignty”. But that’s the point – to stop Parliament from trampling our liberties. Anything less is a waste of time.

In Britain, Tories opposed to Tony Blair’s labyrinth Human Rights Act want to replace it with a minimalist British Bill of Rights. Their proposal would protect ”headline” liberties rather than a mishmash of economic and cultural aspirations. We could introduce something similar.

Such a bill would guarantee freedom of religion and association and protect people against incarceration without trial and all that good stuff. It could also have rigorous protection for property rights, for instance, and it would not dilute its right to free speech with a right not to be offended.

Yes: a bill of rights need not just be a wish list of the left. Let’s haggle.

Many conservatives object that a bill of rights would give unelected and unaccountable judges the ability to dictate public policy. Fair point. But that ship sailed a long time ago.

A century of High Court cases has taken our constitution in directions that would shock the founders. We no longer have any meaningful division of power between state and federal governments. The court has “discovered” rights in the constitution that are “implied” but not written down. Any conservative who believes we can restore a strict interpretation of the constitution is bizarrely optimistic.

So instituting a bill of rights wouldn’t be handing power to judges. They already have it. A bill of rights could take it back – allowing the Australian public to have a say on the fundamental rights with which Parliament may not tamper.

An Assault On Diet

When the National Health and Medical Research Council released its official new dietary guidelines this week, they helpfully included a sample daily meal plan.

This was a mistake. The meal plan inadvertently demonstrates how ridiculously austere the NHMRC’s ideal diet is. It’s almost comic. We’re being recommended the culinary equivalent of sexual abstinence.

For an average man, the hypothetical day begins with toast (wholemeal, two slices), baked beans (half a can), a tomato (medium size), and a glass of milk (250ml, reduced fat).

Breakfast is as good as it gets. Lunch is a sandwich (wholemeal) with 65 grams of sliced roast beef, 20 grams of reduced fat cheese and some salad. Two small coffees may be consumed at your discretion. For dinner, look forward to a tiny piece of fish – 100 grams maximum – rice, and a small, boiled potato. End your day with a glass of water. (Dinner for women: a cup of pasta, 65 grams of beef mince, kidney beans and half an onion.)

Pity those who try to follow the government’s new diet. This is self-denial pretending to be cuisine.

According to the NHMRC you mustn’t even use salt – that mineral essential to the human practice of cooking. It’s no exaggeration to say the desire for salt has shaped civilisation. To eliminate salt is to reject thousands of years of food wisdom.

Official dietary guidelines have been steadily reducing any pleasure we might draw from food. The government-endorsed diet is getting worse; more ascetic, more brutal, more surreal. It’s entirely divorced from human taste.

The CSIRO’s bestselling 2005 Total Wellbeing Diet was positively decadent compared to the NHMRC’s new rules. Male dieters were permitted between 2½ and four times as much meat for their dinner. Salt was allowed, in moderation. And the entire point of the CSIRO’s recommended diet was to help people lose weight. The spartan new guidelines are for people who already have a healthy weight.

Dietary guidelines are highly political. There are many special interests with a special interest in what we eat. Industries that find their products downgraded protest loudly.

Meat and livestock producers don’t like the idea we should eat less meat. In the United States, dietary recommendations have been forever shaped by lobbyists. The subsidised sugar industry has political clout.

But there’s a deeper ideological battle going on around nutrition.

After all, what is the point of providing ”guidelines” that are so far removed from the experiences of Australian eaters? Surely health tips should not simply be scientifically accurate, but also socially plausible.

Advice is pointless if it’s going to be ignored. If our best medical minds have decided that drawing any pleasure from food is too risky, perhaps they should rethink their goals.

In 2008, the NHMRC decided any more than two glasses of wine in a single session constituted ”binge drinking”. This decision turned the previously benign cultural practice of sharing a bottle of wine into dangerous hedonism.

But ”binge” is a moral concept rather than a scientific one – it’s just a synonym for ”bad”. Since risky behaviour exists on a continuum, this redefinition was little more than an attempt to berate people into changing their behaviour.

That was five years ago. Now public health activists are pushing the message ”there is no safe level of alcohol consumption”. Another banality pretending to be insight. There’s no totally safe level of doing anything. But expect to find ”no alcohol” on official recommendations soon.

Food and drink are deeply intertwined with cultural identity. No wonder our palate is a political plaything. Environmentalists are frustrated the NHMRC didn’t focus on sustainability. Social-justice types want more attention on equity and fairness.

In Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage, the historian Barbara Santich relates the story of a Sydney doctor who in 1893 proposed a national dish in the lead-up to Federation: perhaps a ”vegetable curry”, he thought, ”or some well-concocted salad”. Such a delicate, health-focused dish was never likely to be embraced in a land of mutton, damper, and kangaroo-tail soup.

In 2013 we still don’t have a consensus national dish (why would we want one?) but the success of MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules suggests a cultural change in food and dining. Australia is the perfect combination: a rich, immigrant, and agricultural nation. Our cuisine is starting to reflect that holy trinity.

The government’s health guidelines are directly opposed to this new culinary culture. They would strip away the pleasure and meaning of food.

Indeed, there’s something symbolic in the way the NHMRC has offered different menus for men and women. Sharing a meal with the opposite sex is getting in the way of kilojoule management.

Our new health guidelines are more utopian than honest. They may be theoretically ideal – nutritionists can argue the details – but they’re also unrealistic, implausible, and unappealing.

Maybe culinary abstinence is the healthy choice. But replacing the joys of cooking and eating with a tightly engineered formula of self-denial is unlikely to be the happy choice.

Lincoln Sheds Little Light On Some Of History’s Dark Deeds

Sometimes the reaction to a movie is more interesting than the movie itself. In Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow controversially suggests torture played a necessary role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Given that this suggestion is both untrue and politically provocative, Zero Dark Thirty has been widely condemned. Bigelow’s film seems to implicitly approve of human rights abuses in the name of the ‘War on Terror’.

Another recent film is similarly coy about civil liberties and human rights. Yet there has been no outcry about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, released in Australia last week.

Spielberg’s tale of the constitutional amendment to end slavery shrouds Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in myth. The Civil War is the ultimate “just” war. It was fought to end the vile institution of slavery. Hard to think of a more noble cause than that.

But Spielberg whitewashes some of the great stains on the Lincoln presidency. The film obscures, even ridicules, any suggestion Lincoln reduced American liberties during the Civil War.
Take one memorable scene. In Congress, a fiery New York Democrat, Fernando Wood, accuses the president of being a tyrant. Lincoln, Wood shouts, is a “violator of habeas corpus and freedom of the press, abuser of states’ rights, radical republican autocrat ruling by fiat and martial law”.

The film skates quickly over the accusation. Wood seems ridiculous. He describes the president as “our Great Usurping Caesar”. He supports slavery, a much greater tyranny. But many of his claims were correct.

The Lincoln administration declared martial law. It suspended the writ of habeas corpus, allowing the government to detain civilians without charge and without trial. And Lincoln didn’t ask permission from Congress first – a major increase in the power of the executive branch of government.

At first the administration simply wanted to enforce military conscription. But very quickly people were being jailed for doing perfectly legal things. Many civilians were locked up for selling alcohol to soldiers, even though there was no law against it. Others were locked up for “disloyalty” or using “treasonable language”. Local authorities found that incarceration without charge was convenient. They could arrest first and ask questions later.

At least 14,000 people were locked up as political prisoners during the war, according to the historian Mark E. Neely, jnr. The real figure could be twice that.

The suspension of habeas corpus was controversial. The Republican Party was supposed to be the party of individual liberty. Many Republicans were uncomfortable with Lincoln’s heavy hand. Democrats filled the gap and restyled themselves as the ”habeas-corpus party” – obvious hypocrisy from supporters of slavery.

For a long time historians believed there was a militant underground within the North that justified a clampdown on civil liberties. It is now clear that there was no such mass resistance. There is no reason to believe the elimination of legal rights helped win the war.

Lincoln’s administration suppressed at least 300 newspapers. Most of the suppressed papers were Democrat ones. Nineteenth-century journalism was proudly partisan.

Lincoln authorised torture, too. The technique, also used against civilians, is eerily familiar. It is described in historical record as a “violent cold water shower bath”. Essentially, a high-powered hose was sprayed against a person’s body until skin broke. This “shower” could last for hours. There was no attempt to cover up this torture. The president didn’t seem fazed by it at all. We only know it happened because of formal protests made by the British ambassador when British citizens were victims.

Certainly, in the American Civil War the North were the good guys. There can be no question about that. The country had been torn apart. Many of those whose liberties were eliminated supported the slave trade. They’re not sympathetic characters.

But that’s the thing about legal rights. Even bad people deserve the protection of the law. There’s no question that modern Islamic terrorists are bad. But their sheer badness doesn’t make indefinite detention or torture justified. The justice of a war says nothing about whether rights should be protected.

Lincoln’s choices during the Civil War had long-term consequences. Memory of Lincoln helped justify Woodrow Wilson’s even more considerable rights abuses during the First World War. And Lincoln’s legacy has been regularly used to defend depravities in the War on Terror – if the greatest president did it, then surely so can George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Lincoln’s memory should be a sensitive issue.

Both Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln are up for best picture Oscars in a few weeks. The storm over torture makes Bigelow’s chances small. Lincoln is just the sort of film the academy likes. It is pure Americana, at times cloyingly so. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis deserves every Oscar he can get. But Spielberg grants little room for moral ambiguity in his hero-president.

Some people have seen the Zero Dark Thirty debate as America starting to deal with the civil liberties incidents of the last decade. The silence on Lincoln suggests there is a long way to go.

This Doomsday Endgame Could Last A Long Time

Earlier this month, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists counselled the leader of the free world about the apocalypse.

“Dear President Obama,” the journal’s science and security board wrote in an open letter, “2012 was a year in which the problems of the world pressed forward, but too many of its citizens stood back.” They darkly warned of nuclear proliferation, bioterrorism, climate change, and “cyber technologies” which “could trigger a new kind of self-inflicted Doomsday”.

Yes, doomsday. The bulletin scientists are the keepers of the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic clock face that shows how close the world is to global catastrophe. The clock is now at five to midnight. Their letter announced it is unchanged since last year – the scientists are not budging. According to this well-credentialled hive mind, we’re still teetering on the edge of annihilation. Indeed, we have been for 65 years.

But perhaps the scientists would be better described as the clock’s guardians, a word which has a more mystical, Star Trek quality. That’s the thing about prophets of the apocalypse. They’re always so confident; so impressed by their own insight.

When the clock was first set in 1947, it was seven minutes to midnight. The furthest it has ever gone back is 17 minutes, at the end of the Cold War. The bulletin first threw climate change into the mix in 2007; a transparent bid for relevancy, just as using the word “cyber” is now.

The clock has some particular political views. When Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office they pushed it closer to midnight. When Obama became president they eased the clock back. Reagan had said that to end the Cold War, the free world would have to win it. This was a lot more prescient than Obama’s Nobel peace prize.

Of course, we’re nowhere near five to midnight. It’s sometime in the afternoon. The world is safer and more free than ever in history. We got through the entire Soviet-American contest without a nuclear shot fired. And even the most extreme models of global warming don’t predict catastrophic destruction but gradual change.

To paraphrase Adam Smith, there is a great deal of ruin in a civilisation. But to believe that problems threaten the civilisation itself is a triumph of fear over experience. We should not be complacent. But we should be sober. Judgment Day keeps being postponed.

The Doomsday scientists are a secular variation on an old type – apocalyptic preachers in modern garb. They’re not talking about science, they’re preying on anxiety. Why would anybody really believe “cyber technology” would bring us closer to Armageddon? No reason, unless they were convinced mankind is inherently suicidal. The bulletin’s open letter to Obama must be the first time software has been described as an omen of the end of days.

Still, a prophet who prophesied modest challenges to be overcome in the fullness of time would be ignored. The end needs to be nigh.

An American preacher Harold Camping predicted the rapture would occur in May 2011. He’d only made this prediction a few years earlier. Just as he predicted in 1992 the world would end in 1994. In other words, he gave enough time to persuade sympathisers it was going to happen, and not too long for them to lose interest.

Once again, poor old Camping had to explain why his prophecy didn’t occur. Secular millennialists don’t embarrass so easily.

This was a lesson environmental fearmongers learnt early. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) is a famous book in the green tradition but few care to remember Ehrlich included specific scenarios of starvation and nuclear winter set in the 1970s. The most fretful now simply say we’ve reached the climate ”endgame”. Here’s a prediction – that endgame will last for a very long time.

Armageddon sells. We like drama, and nothing is more dramatic than global catastrophe. The human brain isn’t very good at dealing with risk. We overestimate the likelihood of major, conspicuous events like nuclear war and terrorism, and underestimate more pedestrian dangers, like drowning in a bathtub.

And doomsday flatters those who fear it. It’s an in-group thing. While the rest of the population naively goes about their business, insiders are worrying about events to come. This is as true for the Christian kids who devoured the Left Behind books about the rapture – they are the saved ones who understand the secrets of the world – as it is for the Whitehaven hoaxer Jonathan Moylan. Defrauding the sharemarket only seems ethical if you believe coal is an existential threat to civilisation. And if you do, well, securities law is for mere mortals.

In a speech in 1903, an optimistic H. G. Wells conceded: “One must admit that it is impossible to show why certain things should not utterly destroy and end the entire human race and story.” Hypothetical catastrophe has sustained apocalyptic preachers for thousands of years.

Wells is right: we can’t absolutely guarantee the worst won’t happen. But we should ignore the people desperate to assume it will.

America Fell Off The Fiscal Cliff A Long Time Ago. Now It’s All About The Landing

Karl Marx famously said history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce.

After avoiding the “fiscal cliff” a fortnight ago, the US faces yet another budget crisis in two months’ time. Yes, another one. Another round of brinkmanship, another round of negotiations.

So, Karl, what comes after farce?

The deal struck between Republicans and Democrats on New Year’s Day merely postponed what has been termed ”sequestration”: a provision in a 2011 bill that automatically cuts government spending across the board if Congress won’t reduce spending itself. But this is all more a political crisis than an economic one. The US budget drove off the fiscal cliff a long time ago. This is the fifth year in a row the budget deficit will be above $US1 trillion – that is, there is a trillion dollar difference between what the government spends and what it taxes. Out of a $3.6 trillion budget, this is an enormous shortfall. A trillion dollars is nearly the size of the entire Australian economy.

The responses are predictable. Democrats think taxes are too low, and want to raise them. Republicans think spending is too high. Yet for some reason it’s fashionable in Australia to chalk the madness of the US budget crisis solely up to nut jobs in the Republican Party. Wayne Swan called them “cranks and crazies”.

According to received wisdom, Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats are pragmatic and reasonable while trying to negotiate with gun-wielding Tea Party fanatics across the aisle. This is nonsense. The Democrats are being just as stubborn as the Republicans, just as political, and, if anything, are more delusional about what has to be done to keep the country solvent.

In the middle of the negotiations, Obama reportedly told the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, that “we don’t have a spending problem”. Really? Spending in the US budget has doubled since Bill Clinton left office. It’s grown far quicker than inflation or population growth. What on earth would a spending problem look like?

The very bill that held back the crisis on January 1 shows how ludicrous Obama’s claim is. Buried in the 157-page bill are taxpayer subsidies for all sorts of weird and wonderful things: two and three-wheeled electric vehicles, car racing, and even asparagus farming. Reckless spending is pathological. They can’t help themselves. Couldn’t the government simply ramp up taxes on the rich? The rich are always good for money. As the Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner has written, even if the government confiscated every dollar of income the rich of America earned in one year, there still wouldn’t be enough.

Millionaires and billionaires earned $840 billion in 2010. That money wouldn’t cover the trillion dollar budget shortfall. And even if the government confiscated everything they owned it wouldn’t pay off accumulated US debt. There’s too much.

So it has to be spending. And the only way spending is going to be reduced is if Congress insists. Thank god for multiparty democracy. But we can’t exonerate the Republicans. The Iraq war and the bank bailouts happened under George W. Bush. And the reason Republicans are desperate to avoid the automatic spending cuts is because those cuts disproportionately target the military.
As they should. A massive 48 per cent of all military spending on the planet is spent by the US. The defence budget has nearly doubled since the Cold War. There are still 75,000 US troops in Europe defending against a non-existent Soviet threat. But sophisticated Republican thinking on foreign policy has disappeared to such a degree that military spending is sacred. They won’t touch it.

So sequestration may not be too bad. Having your government cuts done automatically isn’t the best way to go about things, but at least it’s something. American taxpayers might hope the next round of budget negotiations fail.

The Nobel-winning economist James M. Buchanan died last week. Buchanan made his name by developing a theory of how public spending spirals out of control.

It’s in the interest of taxpayers to keep taxes low, and in the interest of politicians and bureaucrats and special interests to keep spending high. The only solution, Buchanan argued, was to write rules which prevented politicians from being reckless with taxpayer money.

In a way, that’s what the fiscal cliff issue is all about: constraining politicians. Same with the “debt ceiling” – a legal limit on how much the government can borrow. The current proposal to mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin is just a tricksy way to get around the limit.

But Congress will increase the debt ceiling. It always has. Buchanan would say a rule about government debt is a good idea. But you have to enforce the rule somehow.

In March, Congress will kick the can down the road again. Politicians first and foremost want to get to the next election. But the US has already gone off the fiscal cliff. We don’t know what will happen when it hits the ground.

This Mindless Pursuit Of Scandal Belongs To The Past

One of the more peculiar literary artefacts of the pre-democratic world is the ”secret history”. These secret histories purported to expose sex, incest, murder, and conspiracy in royal courts. The first and most famous concerned the Roman Emperor Justinian. It was borderline pornographic, and endlessly imitated.

Of course, the stories they told were almost entirely fictitious. But truth wasn’t the point.

Secret histories were political tracts in disguise. Their significance wasn’t the purported scandals, but what the books tried to do: undermine the authority of the monarch. Secret histories were democratic politics for undemocratic times.

Australia in the 21st century is a modern democracy. So why are we just as desperate to discover – even invent – scandals as our ancestors?

Our political class has spent the past two years obsessing over a series of obscure controversies. Even if they had all panned out – if every allegation about Julia Gillard and Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson were true – it would hardly be Watergate.

Nobody had heard of Thomson until the Health Services Union scandal broke. Slipper was briefly significant when he was made speaker.

And the Gillard slush-fund scandal? At least it had the virtue of being about a prime minister. But then, we’re not being asked to hire Gillard as a lawyer in the 1990s, we’re being asked to vote for her to run the country in the 2010s.

Like the secret histories, the truth of these scandals is beside the point. Scandalmongering is politics by other means. In Britain, scandals engulf the entire political system. Australian politics is threatening to go down that road.

The Gillard government should be a sitting duck. In the past six months, Labor has proposed a dangerous internet data-retention scheme, radical changes to anti-discrimination law, and is mulling over whether to regulate the press.

But Coalition frontbenchers seem more interested in whether Gillard signed a mortgage document two decades ago. No wonder that even with its lead in the polls, the Coalition seems on the back foot.

Still, scandals are a bipartisan distraction. For most of the year, Trade Minister Craig Emerson has been saying the Coalition is too scandal-obsessed to question him about his portfolio. Fair cop.

But then the judgment in the Slipper case was released alleging a “conspiracy” between Slipper’s accuser, James Ashby, and Coalition figures. Now it turns out Emerson is deeply passionate about scandals, too. Emerson self-published an article last week asking what Julie Bishop knew about Ashby and when. He even complained the media wasn’t focusing enough on the affair.
Coalition supporters call it Slippergate. Labor supporters call it Ashbygate. Both sides are being equally ridiculous.

Labor showed the same political desperation during the Australian Wheat Board scandal. This was a rich enough controversy as it was. But apparently, for the ALP, the real issue when a Commonwealth authority bribes Saddam Hussein is whether John Howard knew about it.

Political scandalmongering doesn’t just damage its targets. By the end of 2012, both sides of politics have been greatly diminished.

A shadow minister who doesn’t talk about their portfolio area so they can pursue the story of the day may be rewarded with some brief media coverage. But they will have done nothing to mount a case against the government. Nor will they have endeared themselves with the electorate. Voters pay more attention to policy. Policy matters. Peter Slipper’s text messages don’t.

Perhaps the ministers who decide to spearhead scandal hunting think they are taking one for the team; perhaps they know they’ll be worse off afterwards. Then again, considering how enthusiastically our representatives jump on even the vaguest hint of scandal, perhaps not.

There’s nothing more jarring than when partisan hacks congratulate senior politicians for “taking the lead” on these absurdities, as if it matters. You have to wonder why some politicians are even in Parliament at all – at least, if they think there is more to politics than the raw pursuit of power.

Our ancestors eagerly devoured secret histories because they poked holes in the royal bubble when kings and queens claimed to rule by divine right. Stories that showed them as human undermined their legitimacy.

Our rulers are more humble now. But ever since Watergate, oppositions have been seduced into thinking they could pull a government down before an election is due. The more they indulge in this fantasy, the more they corrupt the democratic system they hope to run.