Lazy Luddite Log

25.7.07

Mortals Making A Difference

So John Howard falls over (literally) while walking. And Kevin Rudd gets some name of a fellow candidate confused. Both these things are big news today. I have committed both these sins from time-to-time. If I was a figure of national importance then my trippings and muddlings would become the sport of journalists and the subject of jokes at the office water-cooler. But fortunately this absent-minded klutz is saved from such attention by my relative obscurity. I do wonder however why this has to happen.

Everyone makes these kind of mistakes and yet in a politician they become the dire warning of hidden personal flaws that can jeapardise careers. We expect our leaders to be better than the rest of us and the media feeds this expectation. Or alternately the media generate this image and we then go along with it. One way or the other it only serves to reinforce my impression that the life of a successful politician sucks (this may in part be why I have only ever stood in support of another candidate rather than having any intention or expectation of winning).

So today it is all tripping and slipping but yesterday there was something in the paper that reminded me that politicians can and do make a difference. The late Walter Jona - whose name I never knew till yesterday - was a state parliamentarian who steered compulsory seat belt wearing into Victorian law back in the 1970s. This act has saved many hundreds of lives. As a policy it is nothing sexy or exciting or even particularly ideological (except if you are a US civil libertarian). It was just a worthwhile thing to do and it has made a whole lotta difference.

These things happen every now and then in our parliaments but a lot of the time they go overlooked. Politicians can make a difference - sometimes in ways most of us never will even get a chance to - but we are more interested in the times they embarrass themselves.

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18.7.07

Expanding Horizons

This is the story of a somewhat sheltered homebody who is attracted to the notion of travel. I have spent most of my life in Melbourne and feel very at home here. But I can enjoy visiting other lands and have been working bit-by-bit on that.

As a child I barely ever left Victoria. I never particularly noticed this as we did travel rather a lot within the state. The family would spend many a school holiday staying in cottages on hobby farms so I felt well travelled (compared with those kids who never get to escape suburbia). By the time I went to Germany to stay for a month with relatives (towards the end of my time at uni) I had still only been to one Australian capital city - my own hometown of Melbourne. There I was answering questions of Germans (who think of Australia as an exotic frontier land) about things I had never seen and done. This struck me as a silly thing and so on returning home I resolved to see more of Australia. I have been working away on that but very slowly.

Sometimes one needs to be given a push in the right direction and impetus for me to travel interstate came via my involvement in the Australian Democrats. I went to Canberra for a Young Australian Democrats (YADs) National Conference. I have since been back to the national capital a few times for party related things or just to visit friends whether met in the party or by other avenues. The ADs has helped me also visit Sydney and Adelaide whether for conferences or state elections. In all cases I have divided my time between interacting with party colleagues and with simply exploring the new city I am in. Every city is the same and yet every city is different - I love just wandering alone and getting 'lost' in all those tiny differences. But it is also fantastic to be shown around by locals (who will inevitably want to introduce you to the 'best' pubs and confound you with local variations on the rules of playing pool).

Another more personal impetus for travel has come simply from friends wanting to go 'road tripping'. Take a car. Put three friends into it. One drives. The second navigates and controls the music player. The third distributes the car snackfood (which occupies the fourth seat). Rambling conversations are had and tracks are sung along to. Small towns are pillaged for more snacks. Small towns are stayed in randomly once the car decides to loose an engine. Lakes of every primary colour are discovered by chance. I have travelled in such a manner with a number of friends but the most regular of such travelling mates has been Sean who enjoys improvising holidays as much as comedy sketches. Thanks to Sean I have returned to both Sydney and Adelaide and also been to Hobart.

So I still had other state capitals to get to - Brisbane and Perth. Well as of last weekend I can say "one down and one to go". An Australian Intervarsity (IV) Choral Festival was held in Brisbane and I went along as a Monash Uni Choral Society (MonUCS) member for the last few days of the event. This allowed me to go to a new city but have familar faces to fall back on and an organisation arranging billeting for me. As I was only there for a few days I was a non-performing chorister and while the others rehearsed for a concert I was free to do my wandering thang.

It was sunny and temperate. How lovely it was for me to get away for a few days from the cold and wet of this classic Melbourne winter. How fun to wander along the river and get accosted by tame Ibises or to explore the mall dodging pedestrians who seem to only walk in straight lines.


How stimulating to wander the city and see structures made of a sandstone that seemed to capture and exude sunlight (like the Anglican Cathedral and parts of the University of Queensland).

But I cannot neglect to tip my hat to the choristers themselves. I am sometimes surprised at how quickly one can feel a strong affinity with what were strangers only a day or so before. The circumstances that allow this are important. Some interest-based gathering like the choral intervarsity gives you something in common that can serve as a start to interaction. Also the existance of locals prepared to make things happen in which conversations can flow (like riding a ferry between pubs) can make all the difference. We have all made friends in the past but it sometimes comes as a shock to discover it is something we can do anew.

So this sheltered homebody had a rewarding time at Brisbane IV and is mindful that a bit of risk-taking behaviour (even if it is just making your own way from the airport into a new town because the organisers never sent someone to meet you) is a worthwhile thing now-and-then. The next thing will surely be another IV...

Update: I have indexed my seven IVs as of 2013 in this post.

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10.7.07

But Am I Sure?

I recently spent a night on the town with some friends I had made in the Australian Democrats. We get on like a house on fire but I was also reminded how much I admire them. This then got me to wondering whether I have any political heroes. The answer is that I have none. I can respect the ability or commitment of someone. I can think that political figures like Senators Allison and Bartlett and Stott Despoja are fantastic. But it is another thing entirely to say that they are my personal heroes. But what do I think that is anyway?

As I understand it, a personal hero is someone who has had an impact on how we think and feel to such an extent that we elevate them over other humans, and assess them by a new set of criteria, so that the hero becomes someone whose wisdom we accept without question. I cannot do that because someone who would have been a hero of mine made me aware that such hero-worship is a grave mistake.

The person I am referring to is one Jacob Bronowski - a scientist who in 1973 devised and presented the 'Ascent Of Man' documentary on British TV (which replayed on ABC at sometime in my teens). The documentary was a fascinating survey of the history of science and technology (and a direct inspiration for Carl Sagan to do Cosmos) but it went beyond that. Bronowski suggests that the Uncertainty Principle can also be the basis of a philosophy of human conduct and interaction.

In the closing scene of the documentary, Bronowski is standing by a pond at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp and expands on his philosophy. You can see it here on YouTube or read a transcript here (the audio-visual medium works a lot better in getting the message across). That scene was done in one take. That mud may well have in it the ashes of some of his own family and friends. It is an amazingly evocative moment in television history and it gets me every time I even think of it.

Bronowki tells us that it is a sense of certainty that allows humans to commit the vilest of crimes. Fundamentalists of whatever kind (religious or secular) will do the things they do to fellow humans because they are sure that they are right. This one scene in an old doco by some academic in daggy tweeds has done more than anything to make me committed to a moderate and consensual form on politics. So - somewhat surprisingly - if I had a political hero it would be a non-politician. But my commitment to moderation and consensus makes me very wary of hero-worship which I identify as one way in which we can succumb to fundamentalism.

Some clever sod may well ask me whether "I am sure that I am not sure" but that is just wordplay. We are talking abstracts here and on a day-to-day basis I will have to make decisions on what is right and wrong. But I can be aware that my understanding of things is at best an approximation and that there may always be something worth considering in the perspectives of others. The risk of embracing what Bronowski calls the Principle of Tolerance is that one can come across as wishy-washy. But compromise is a fact of life in a world made by forces other than our own wishes and imaginings. It is also worth noting that compromise is more than just finding an arbitrary halfway mark between what you and I want. In any case I would rather the shortcomings of compromise to the dangers of adhering to absolutes.

Do I think all this because Jacob Bronowski told me to? I would prefer you to think that I think it because I tell me to.

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2.7.07

At The Hogg & Stone

In the public bar of the Hogg & Stone everyone has an opinion and it is one they have arrived at by thinking for themselves. Reference to authority is left at the door. Succumbing to peer pressure is considered wimpy. Subscribing to groupthink is given short shrift. The floor and walls are lined with carpet to prevent the tavern from having an echo-chamber effect. Bob can drink wine with his beer-swilling mates. John likewise can drink beer with his wine-quaffing friends. Debate at the Hogg & Stone is lively. And it is okay to dissent even if you are dissenting to the dissenters...

Okay - that was just a wee bit of creative writing inspired by the title of this entry. What I am referring to are two personages in Australian political life (both more well-know from the 70s to the 90s than they are now). One is Bob Hogg and the other is John Stone. Both public figures have impressed me in the past specifically because they have publicly expressed opinions at variance with the political movements they belong to. It is to them and to the ability to dissent that I dedicate this post.

Bob Hogg is a member of both the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions and has held key positions in both over time. One would think that someone like Hogg would want to tow the party line but then in 1999 I noticed he had an opinion piece in a major paper in which he was (indirectly) criticising the then federal Labor Party opposition to the introduction of a Goods & Services Tax (GST). Hogg directed his criticism at independent (now retired) Senator Brian Harradine for having decided to decline negotiating with the Howard Government over A New Tax System. By writing this Hogg was also effectively criticising his own party colleagues for likewise opposing the GST. Why? For Hogg the introduction of a GST was an effective long-term strategy for securing core Labor policy objectives (e.g. the funding of public health and education services). The same tax (under the name Value Added Tax) had been implemented in Europe (by stablemates of the Labor Party in the Socialist International) for the same welfarist objectives. Hogg amusingly described the legacy of the Roman Catholic Harradine to his many descendents of having to cope with underfunded schools and hospitals as a result of an aging population and shrinking tax base. In the letters pages in coming days Hogg copped a lot of rather irate and even personalised criticism for daring to say something at variance with that of his party. But if we are to have any chance of assessing policy on its merits we have to do exactly what Bob Hogg did.

John Stone is both a member of the National Party of Australia and has been involved in free-market think tanks such as the H R Nicholls Society (making me think of him as more a Liberal that a National but then there are always personal and circumstantial factors in what party one finds oneself in). In the last six to eighteen months I have noticed Stone having opinion pieces in the papers in which he is roundly criticising the Howard Government for its efforts to transfer power and responsibility for all manner of portfolios from the state to the Federal level. We are in a unique time in Australian history in which all state and territory governments are in the hands of one party (Labor) while also having a Liberal-National government at the Federal level. It may be pragmatic for Howard to want to centralise his power but Stone reminds us that it is the Liberal Party that has traditionally defended 'states-rights' while historically Labor was much more into notions of centralising power by such moves as abolishing states or removing upper houses (which is why the Queensland state parliament is unicameral). Stone is scathing of Howard because his efforts to centralise power are purely self-serving and overlook the very important role states play in diffusing power in our nation. Stone wishes us to preserve this particular check-and-balance on government authority and warns that it is one that will come back to haunt the Libs and Nats once Labor returns to power as it eventually must (much as the abolition of the Queensland upper house came back to bite Labor on the bum once Bejelke-Petersen won power there). John Stone is interested in the long-term functioning of our political processes rather than in how much power his side of politics can amass here-and-now.

I happen to agree with Hogg and Stone respectively on the two issues discussed here. But I make reference to them for a much more important reason than just to express opinions on two disparate issues. I refer to them because of my concern that at all levels and in all areas of political life we are far too prone to peer pressure. It comes under lots of names these days such as 'echo chamber effect' or 'groupthink' and in all those guises it hampers our ability to understand one another and come to decisions that serve our best interests as a society. I use the phrase 'peer pressure' because in that form everyone understands what it is and recognises it as a problem whether at work or school or in the home. It happens at the political level too and it can be very difficult to overcome or even be aware of. It is something that anyone active in political life (which extends even just to friends discussing issues informally) needs to be aware of lest they succumb to or perpetrate political peer pressure.

So come have a drink with me down at the Hogg & Stone...

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