Borgen and the third party fantasy/fallacy

These days the English, believe it or not, are looking east and a bit north for their quality television; to Denmark, præcis. Fresh on the footsteps of the noir crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen), come The Bridge, and Borgen, a political drama that might well feel tantalisingly utopian for viewers living in staid Western democracies around the world. The first season of Borgen tells the story of a charismatic, principled female leader of the minority Moderate Party who manages to break the big party stranglehold in Denmark to lead a coalition of parties as Prime Minister. It is, simply put, The West Wing for the post-noughties generation. Who wants to watch the humdrum story of a principled Democrat and his team fighting for and gaining office when a lot of the real action, inspiration and colour in modern politics sprouts from the backblocks of community organising in much smaller parties?

With all the water that has passed under the bridge in recent decades, from the centre-left’s embrace of economic liberalism & New Labour’s “principled” invasion of Iraq, to the seeming predilection of conservative parties for high defence spending, “big government” and politicised social welfare, what normal, rational person doesn’t occasionally dream of a democracy where the major parties get a taste of their just desserts?

The “third party” or outsider fantasy that Borgen depicts is not so much of a stretch for Danish politics, where the government is regularly lead by coalitions of smaller parties; but it does remain a stretch for most of the rest of us. The Westminster breed of government and certainly a fair proportion of the adversarial electoral systems that are prominent internationally are structurally configured to encourage big, powerful parties at the expense of smaller ones. The United States remains the textbook case; an ironclad bastion of major parties, albeit with a Republican Party wracked with internal division courtesy of the evangelical Right and the Tea Party movements. Will we see a President of the United States who is not either a Democrat or a Republican in our lifetimes? Almost certainly not.

In the United Kingdom, of course, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are two years into their warm embrace of the Conservatives in government; they are finding that the embrace is slowly suffocating them. In local elections this week, the Lib Dems lost 329 of their 767 councillors. Since the 2010 election, support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen from 22% to 11% in a recent YouGov poll, behind even the somewhat barmy UK Independence Party (Ukip). Everyone with a bit of conscience who cared about democracy “agreed with Nick” in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who do so now. It was inordinately fashionable to agree with Nick back then – even The Guardian editorialised in support of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Now the Lib Dems have the look of a party sleepwalking towards disaster when the next national election swings around, unless some drastic changes can be made to the way they are doing business with their Tory masters.

In Australia, we’ve had our momentary dalliances with minor parties in the last couple of decades, but only impressionable students, members of the Greens, or the pharmaceutically inspired could argue that Labor and the Liberal Party are significantly waning in terms of support at elections more than they are waxing. Tony Abbott is leading the Liberals with a civilisation-crushing 51% of the primary vote, according to Newspoll; Labor may be in the doldrums at the moment on 27%, but then they have been doing a bit of foot-shooting of late and Julia Gillard is well and truly on the nose in suburbia. The Greens have showed quite an admirable level of staying power over the course of the last decade, consistently sitting at 10% or thereabouts, but arguably, Australia’s close relationship with George Bush’s Republican administration in the first half of the noughties and Bob Brown’s recent resignation may have seen their political high watermark come and go. Bob Brown was always a fairly dignified, relatively likable figure, enjoying a not inconsiderable media profile. Christine Milne, and/or whoever follows her is going to find it desperately difficult to “maintain the rage” whilst maintaining and growing their current fledgling level of support nationally. The fate of the Democrats, another worthy minor party, hangs heavily on the shoulders of would-be innovators in the Australian political scene.

For us, the Brits and the Americans, Borgen is just a twinkling of utopia; it tells the story of a place that our own countries, at least without a drastic and unlikely overhaul of our respective political systems, simply cannot be. There is more than a dash of “grass is always greener” about this, of course. Danish viewers of Borgen would – let’s not kid ourselves – probably snort derisively at any suggestion that their decidedly multilateral incarnation of parliamentary democracy is necessarily something to covet. The often brutal level of compromise and imperfection that modern democracy delivers in spades, regardless of which political party is in office, is not something that anybody yet really has the answer to. Canberra, Westminster and Washington, for many, feel so distant and so alien that they may as well orbit Alpha Centauri, for all the good they do and all the meaning they have in people’s everyday lives.

But yet, through the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and yes, the British National Party, our collective “third party” fantasy lives on. Unless this fantasy transforms itself into an organised movement for electoral reform however, it will remain a fallacious mirage: a distraction from the far more profound structural problems that so bedevil democracy in the 21st century.

Major parties and minor parties at the end of the day are playing the same game by the same rules, and sadly, it’s a damn sight easier and sexier to make a few more little, largely ignorable chips off the old block than to think about fashioning a whole new block.

Kerry meets Barack

Tonight’s edition of the 7:30 Report [transcript] was a massive coup for the ABC, featuring a relatively brief, but wide-ranging interview with U.S. President Barack Obama. One would have to think that the interview was a career highlight for Kerry O’Brien, who remains Australian television’s most credible political journalist. It’s hard to imagine many (or any) other Australian television identity managing to secure an interview with the most influential politician on Earth. Its perhaps even harder to imagine having to sit through such an interview if conducted by one of Australia’s commercial television current affairs “identities”. Actually I’m sorry for even bringing that up; it feels a bit like the cultural cringe equivalent of someone walking over your grave.

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In watching the program, one did get the sense that O’Brien’s line of questioning was tempered with just a little awe and reverence. He did, nevertheless, cover a reasonable spread of serious questions, including the war in Afghanistan, the President’s priorities now that his health reform bill has passed, and climate change. The President’s comments on his relationship with Kevin Rudd will of course be viewed with particular interest locally. One would imagine that the Prime Minister will be very pleased indeed by the glowing lip service provided by his counterpart.

One was also reminded just what a considered and thoughtful person the United States President is. It’s hard to imagine either of the previous two Presidents of the United States uttering truisms like this, on the implications of the rise of China for American hegemony:

It is in our interests, both of our countries interests for China to be successful, for China to be prosperous, because that means they’re more likely to be stable, that means they’re more likely to be able to deal with issues like the energy efficiency of their industries, and reduce pollution, and so we’re not interested in constraining China, we want China to do well. The only thing we want to make sure of is that a country like China as it is growing and inevitably will end up being the largest economy just because of the enormous size of their population, that they are also taking their international responsibilities seriously and that they recognise that with great power comes great responsibility.

Is it too early to be talking about “four more years”?

Time to grow up on the Cuba issue

There is scarcely a more foolish and needlessly punitive foreign policy in global politics than that employed by the United States in relation to Cuba. Despite it being twenty years this November since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the small island nation a few hundred kilometres off the coast of Miami is still being treated by the United States as public enemy number one. While it is lamentable that the hegemony of the brothers Castro does continue, the scale of the measures that the US continues to impose on its relationship with Cuba is out of all proportion and no longer serves any logical purpose or retains any moral support.

President Obama was quite cagey on the Cuba issue in the lead-up to his election last year. It is fascinating that he overtly talked up the possibility of having face-to-face discussions with Mahmoud Ahmaninejad of Iran and Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, but Cuba received no such special mention or attention. Could it be that the prevalence of ex-Cold War combatants in US government circles and the Democratic Party have made Cuba something of a taboo foreign policy issue? Only historical hackles and an ideological war some twenty years buried would seem to stand in the way of these two nations forging a new, realistic relationship for the twenty-first century.

Promisingly, President Obama has just announced a lift of the ban on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. This move offers some hope for the future, but it does seem a curiously restricted step forward. It is a signal that Washington is not offering a carte blanche, but is expecting some action from Cuba in return before it will move to consider lifting the trade embargo.

It is also a signal that the United States is still very worried about “saving face”. Perversely, a change in policy now would be seen by many Americans (particularly the conservatives) as some sort of backdown or an admission of failure. Still, I would have thought that after all these years, the United States would be less concerned about “saving face” than kickstarting a useful new economic relationship with a country literally screaming for American imports. When one considers the economic orthodoxy on free trade that is celebrated by both the Democrat and Republican parties, and all of the tin-pot dictators the world over whose countries the United States is happily trading with, its position on Cuba seems even more ridiculous. That’s because it is.

Come on Barack, do something about it. This is one of those issues on which just a little effort and a little willpower could go a long way towards forging a real and lasting achievement for this fledgling administration.

Nobody has got the bazooka

As the media breathlessly awaits the anti-climactic results of the G20 conference in London, you really have to pity the poor sods that we have charged with saving the global economy. I don’t think there is a living soul out there who truly believes the cream of the world’s leaders have what it takes to put capitalism back on track, but doubtless we all still hope. It’s a pretty thankless task. It seems that just about every journalist and economic commentator doing the rounds has some advice in hand for the likes of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown and their colleagues, as a pocket full of chaos descends on the square mile. Eminating from about 20 metres from where I emerged from the tube every weekday morning for about a year during 2007/08, the media is beaming in images of blood, death, and stupidity on all sides; the smashing of windows, attacks on police, and the flippant teasing of protesters by office workers.

But wait! There’s more. The Keating watchers among you would no doubt have noted that our beloved former Prime Minister intervention’s into public debate have been rather more rabid and senseless than usual in recent times. The former Member for Blaxland, has emerged once more with some fairly radical advice for President Obama:

“The problem with the Americans is this: that they have a great body of large, systemic banks which are barely solvent or maybe insolvent.

“They have to decide which are insolvent and shut them and for those that are solvent, take them over and recapitalise them.”

“The Japanese took eight years before they put any recapitalised money into banks, foolishly,” he said.”The Americans at least are doing it in year one but nobody has got the bazooka and no one wants to fire all the rockets.”

One suddenly gets a mental image of Messr Keating, bazooka balanced precariously on his shoulder, firing a barrage of rockets into the heart of the dreaded GFC. One wonders what Mr. Keating would have thought about all this latter day nationalisation talk of his twenty years ago, when he was flying the flag of centre-right economic policy in government?

It is the farewell kiss, you dog?

With the United States on the threshold of a fresh new political era, it’s probably fair to say that interest in American politics is at an all-time high amongst the hoi polloi. Even Kochie and Mel, those partially unwitting boosters of Australia’s Prime Minister, are kickstarting their day at 3AM this Wednesday morning to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. Obama, unfortunately for the Democratic Party, is on a fifth day wicket. The economic situation is dire, and expectations are positively evangelical. Expectations can do terrible things to a politician, and it goes without saying that the coming Obama Administration is probably going to turn out a little more like the second coming of the Clinton Administration than the Second Coming. With a bit of luck though, and a little bit of visionary razzle dazzle, President Obama will keep the majority of his supporters with him during his first term in office, four years that will no doubt present a few challenges beyond even this charismatic Senator from Chicago.

As the Obama Administration begins and the Bush Administration draws to a merciful close, we might well reflect upon one more little footnote to this very American story. Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at a surprisingly agile President Bush last month in Baghdad, is seeking asylum in Switzerland after being charged with “aggression against a foreign head of state during an official visit”, a charge that apparently can result in up to 15 years imprisonment under Iraqi law. One would have to think that any prospective penalty for al-Zaidi would be significantly less than the maximum penalty, given the rather bemusing nature of the attack, but the track record of the Bush Administration and its allies on justice issues leaves lingering doubts in one’s mind.

When the natural moral order of things has been dismantled, and humankind’s most self-evident rules of right and wrong have been obscenely violated by a cabal of individuals at the centre of power, one can feel all of a sudden that the normal carriage of justice could run riotously off the rails anywhere, at any time. There may be Islamic terrorist groups out there acting like unconscionable barbarians – and they are to be unequivocally condemned – but I’m not sure the Western political tradition has done itself very proud in recent years by shifting its methods and motives by inches in a sometimes similar direction. Probably the top priority of President Barack Obama in a foreign policy sense is going to be returning his nation to the moral high ground that the world so desperately needs the United States to be standing on.

Obamalanche?

Well after what seems like several millennia of campaigning and what must have amounted to countless of billions of dollars spent, the winner of the race for the White House will likely be known in less than twenty-four hours. The polls are looking very good for Barack Obama, with the Democrat ahead in most of the battleground states. Although it is undoubtedly a mistake of statistically extreme proportions to do so, it is very tempting to consider what events we may all witness in the coming hours if these early results are anything to go by:

Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location have just 115 residents between them and kept up their tradition of being the first to cast their votes on election day.

The usually Republican strongholds went for the Democratic candidate by a big margin.

In Dixville Notch, Obama notched up 15 votes to McCain’s six. In Hart’s Location they voted 17 to 10 in Obama’s favour, with two voters going for the libertarian candidate, Ron Paul. The Independent candidate, Ralph Nader, got no votes in either village.

I for one will be following the election coverage with avid interest over the course of the next day, and keeping my fingers crossed for a Democrat victory. My tip, and probably just about everyone else’s, is that Barack Obama is teetering on the brink of making history – and that tomorrow he will decisively defeat a Republican team that is tired and has provided only lacklustre competition. John McCain is not offering anything new to the American people for the future and quite frankly, is too old and jaded for the considerable tasks at hand. Sarah Palin, as John Cleese so wonderfully puts it, has done a magnificent job of dethroning Michael Palin as the world’s funniest Palin, but is not up to the job she has been nominated for.

The United States is on the verge of something wonderful – an opportunity for resounding change that only comes along once or twice in a generation. Will they now carry it through and signal the start of a bold new political era for their nation and indeed the world at large?

The very definition of bureaucratic incompetence

How is it that some 14 years after Nelson Mandela became the first ever democratically elected President of South Africa, he is still (and for at least the next week or so) technically considered to be a terrorist by the United States Government? It is an embarrassment and a disgrace for the world’s most powerful democracy that it has taken a 90th birthday party celebration to gather the necessary momentum for correcting this painfully simple legislative injustice.

One would hope that as part of this ridiculous 14 year-old oversight the US Government takes the opportunity to reconsider its processes for periodically reviewing legislation such as this, enacted as it was by the Reagan Administration in the midst of the Cold War. Laws are not things to be made and then left to rust by political parties and the bureaucracy. Both the bureaucracy and a nation’s lawmakers should be constantly striving to improve the national body of legislation as circumstances and public attitudes change, not just as policies change.

This time it is really happening… I think

And I have mixed emotions. Sure, Barack Obama has won the Democratic presidential nomination fair and square, he is a better orator, he does offer more likelihood of real change and a culture shift in Washington, and he is my preferred candidate for President of the United States. On the other hand, I feel fairly bad for Hillary. Neither the traditional conservative media outlets nor the liberal media outlets have done her any favours over the course of this gruelling and increasingly bitter campaign. One needs only to consider the nasty photographs published of her in the press over the past six months to realise that the world’s mainstream media, whether concertedly or implicitly, had it in for Hillary Clinton all along. Obama has been gifted a “cool candidate” framing by the media that has elevated his campaign to a degree that it is hard to quantify. One wonders what the result would have been if the media had ripped into both of the Democratic candidates equally over the past six months.

She would have been a pretty good President, despite it all. Of course, if Obama loses to McCain in November, this whole overblown, melodramatic saga is going to make Democrats and their supporters across the United States (and the globe) look and feel pretty stupid. The Democrats have certainly had the better and more competitive of the two nomination races. Now they really have to make it happen in the race that actually matters.

Of course, part of me will still not believe that the Democratic nomination race is over until I see Hillary Clinton utter her concession direct to camera. She has been nothing if not dogged and determined throughout, and for that she deserves high praise.

Dictators are only wrong some of the time

One of my pet hates when it comes to politics or political commentary is when someone’s opinion is condemned because of who they are rather than what they are actually saying. This sort of behaviour perhaps stems from the simplification process whereby we tend to reduce people to being either “good” or “bad” in our minds. Consider for a moment the following names, and whether you would classify them on the whole as being “good” or “bad”. You might be surprised at what your first instinct is for each one, depending on what your political tendencies are:

  • The Dalai Lama
  • Adolf Hitler
  • John Howard
  • Malcolm Fraser
  • Bob Brown
  • Fidel Castro

Of course, if you are a lefty, you might not like John Howard, but would it really be fair to characterise him as “bad”, alongside, presumably, Adolf Hitler? Realistically speaking, of course not. Any reasonable, rational person who disagrees with the Howard Government’s work would be forced, after some consideration, to place him somewhere in the middle of the scale, perhaps arguably even on the positive side of even steven if you were feeling generous (though I can’t say I am). I would imagine that someone on the conservative side of the fence would have to feel the same way about somebody like Bob Brown. Sure, you might think he is a bit loopy, but compared to some of the names who fall firmly in the “bad” column, any reasonable critic would judge him as relatively unobjectionable.

I think Fidel Castro’s column in the Guardian today strongly brings this little conundrum to mind. The topic of the column, bizarrely enough, is Barack Obama and the Democratic frontrunner’s comments on the trade embargo with Cuba, which would reportedly be continued under an Obama presidency. Now while I think most of us would probably agree that Castro has done the occasional good thing in relation to his country’s health and education systems, I think we would also agree that his militant aversion to criticism and indeed democracy is disturbing and hopelessly out of step with the modern civilised world we live in. Having said that, it is hard to disagree with the central thesis of Castro’s argument here; that perhaps the United States should take a good hard look at its own recent record on foreign policy and hop off its high horse before so harshly judging Cuba and by association the Cuban people:

Is it right for the president of the US to order the assassination of any one person in the world, whatever the pretext? Is it ethical for the president of the US to order the torture of other human beings? Should state terrorism be used by a country as powerful as the US as an instrument to bring peace to the planet?

Is an Adjustment Act, applied as punishment to only one country, Cuba, in order to destabilise it, good and honourable when it costs innocent children and mothers their lives? Are the brain drain and the continuous theft of the best scientific and intellectual minds in poor countries moral and justifiable?

Is it fair to stage pre-emptive attacks? Is it honourable and sane to invest millions and millions of dollars in the military-industrial complex, to produce weapons that can destroy life on earth several times over? Is that the way in which the US expresses its respect for freedom, democracy and human rights?

Of course there are plenty of things that Castro could have done during his lifetime that would have left the country in a much better position than it is today. However, I think in this particular scenario, the United States should have the moral stature to ignoring the ancient ideological squabbles and start engaging with Cuba again. I am disappointed that Obama, of all people, feels the need to perpetuate what seems to be a cold war mentality in an era when the next missile crisis the world is going to face is going to be quite far from this little island off the coast of Miami.

America, the land of real equality?

With the field of potential Democrat presidential hopefuls now narrowed down to just two; a woman and an African-American man, the United States is arguably in a better position than ever before in its history to finally install someone who isn’t an “old white man” into the White House. On considering this, my first thought is that it is something of an indictment of the US political system that today’s scenario has taken so long to materialise. Contrastingly, about a week ago, John Roskam from the IPA took a concertedly different tack in an SMH opinion column, attacking both critics of the Bush Administration and also the results Australia’s political system have produced in this area:

If the strength of a political system can be measured by the diversity of candidates seeking national leadership, there’s no comparison between Australia and America. In addition to Obama and Clinton for the Democrats, for the Republicans there is Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon; John McCain, a war hero; Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic of Italian heritage; and Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Christian.

Australia has had 26 prime ministers. Every one of them has been a male of Anglo-Celtic background.

There are a few points worth making about the line of argument that Roskam seems to be pushing. He is obviously correct in one sense; Australia’s short national political history is indeed almost unanimously littered with the success stories of Anglo-Celtic males. This is not something to be very proud of as a nation. However, it would seem to be drawing a bit of a long bow to use the admittedly varied field for this year’s US presidential primaries as the only point of comparison with Australia. For starters, it might also be worth highlighting the fact that of the Republican field, all but McCain has effectively been eliminated from contention for the presidency. McCain has already unsuccessfully contested the Republican nomination back in 2000, and of the two remaining Democratic candidates, one is the high-profile wife of a man who controlled the presidency for eight of the last twenty years. Throw in the fact that Bushes father and son have controlled the presidency for the remaining twelve of the last twenty years, and one could be forgiven for starting to wonder just how small the presidential gene pool really is in the United States.

The next issue we might consider is the issue of personal wealth. Throughout history, Australia’s Prime Ministers have certainly not all been financially well off like practically all of their US counterparts; the story of former engine driver Ben Chifley is perhaps the most obvious example. Tellingly, Roskam does not canvass a review of the backgrounds of a single one of Australia’s 26 Prime Ministers. As a contrast, we only need to consider some of the presidential campaign related news coming out of the United States. Recently, millionaires Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney have been forced by the US political system to pour their own personal wealth into their campaigns, in desperate attempts to remain competitive. The campaign of Mitt Romney, ostensibly the number two candidate for the Republicans through the primary campaigns, was arguably only made feasible by the fact that he had substantial financial resources under his control. While it is indeed technically possible for a poor person in the United States to become President, it is statistically extremely unlikely.

Finally, we might want to take a quick look at the current levels of gender representation in the United States and Australian governments. As of last year, 83.7% of US Congress is male, compared to 73% of the Australian House of Representatives and 65.8% of the Senate. None of these figures are particularly worthy of acclaim to be honest, but one would think that the “greatest democracy in the world”, with over double the history of Australian federal democracy, should be in a much better position by now.