Choosing what’s important Wednesday, Nov 29 2006 

Tomorrow morning we have a committee meeting, at which a document I wrote is scheduled for discussion and, hopefully, approval. At the same time, a nationwide rally about the state of Australian industrial relations is going to take place. Our kids’ school schedules will also be affected by the rally, as many teachers will attend. So, I’m going to need to juggle three priorities and try to do what’s best for my family, myself and my principles. I think I have a plan – I should be able to attend the rally and make appropriate arrangements for the kids to be looked after. I’ll get to the work meeting when I can, and if anyone has a problem with my document I’ll straighten it out later. Of course, the fact that we didn’t get confirmation of the work meeting until an hour ago hasn’t helped with planning.

Culture of Intentional Ignorance Tuesday, Nov 28 2006 

The Cole Commission’s report into the Australian Wheat Board’s payment of bribes to Saddam Hussein was released yesterday. The AWB took a deserved beating and criminal action was recommended for a number of executives, but the Commonwealth government came out of it in pretty good shape. In fact, they have quickly moved onto the front foot, demanding that the opposition apologise for suggesting any wrongdoing on the part of the government.

The AWB affair, and the government’s handling of it, strikes me as the latest illustration of the culture of deniability that the Howard government has used to good effect throughout its existence. John Quiggin talked about the state of the government’s “knowledge” in relation to the AWB scandal back in April of this year:

As anyone familiar with Australian politics could have predicted it rapidly became apparent that the government knew all about the payoffs, except in the special sense of “know” that is considered relevant in such matters. The Canadians who were offered the same deal and refused, complained to the Australian government, but AWB denied it, and the government was careful not to press them.

It seems that the government has developed a cultural norm that potentially damaging information should be kept at a distance, and in particular should not make its way to Ministers. The denial of knowledge is then used to avoid accountability. In some cases, a few heads in the public service might roll, but the Ministers are protected.

It is interesting how efficient and effective this approach has turned out to be. I would imagine there are no explicit directives about this sort of thing – that would defeat the purpose. But when something comes up that looks like a political hot potato which might be difficult to deal with, it seems like our current leaders are able to shrug and say “we weren’t told about it”. It got them through Children Overboard, played a part in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, and now it has emerged that a similar pattern applies with the AWB.

The thing is, I don’t understand how not being told, or not having sufficient follow-up, about potentially important issues can serve as an excuse. I would have thought the idea is that sensitive information needs to make its way to those who are in charge, on the off chance that it is important. A manager should know as much as possible about what is going on in the area they manage, whether it’s in a university, a corporation, or a government department. And they should be responsible for developing an appropriate organisational culture that allows for the appropriate transmission of information. To allow one’s department to develop a culture of ignorance is itself negligent.

While I’m not a fan of our current government, I should acknowledge that I am not convinced that those on the other side of the political fence would show more integrity if put in the same role. At the same time, I can’t imagine that they would be this good at it. The thing that strikes me most about John Howard and his government is that they are very good at managing political risk.

Insiders MP3s Sunday, Nov 26 2006 

I just discovered that the ABC’s Insiders is now making the complete show audio available through a podcast, which I think is an extremely clever idea for this type of TV show.

The fact is, I “watch” Insiders most weeks but I rarely look at the screen while doing so – I have the TV on and work on the computer or read while listening. Apart from the “Talking Pictures” segment on political cartoons, there is pretty much nothing that requires one’s visual attention in the show – it’s talking heads on a screen and then four people sitting and talking to each other.

When I have missed the show in the past I have usually ended up reading the transcript because I couldn’t see the point of wasting bandwidth on a video download. Now, with a 12MB MP3 file giving me the audio of the entire show, there is no way I won’t make use of it. Good job, Aunty!

Battlestar Galactica Tuesday, Oct 10 2006 

I have only seen the first series of the new Battlestar Galactica on DVD, but the sheer intelligence and relevance of the stories it tells has struck me like no other show. It seems I’m not the only one – people are talking about the value of BSG as social commentary at Crooked Timber, seedlings, and even Entertainment Weekly. The analysis of the conflict between Colonials and Cylons as it relates to the United States, Iraq, terrorism and World War II is a testament to the contribution good television can make to the level of debate in our society, and is a refreshing break from the overload of reality TV and the expanding rotation of “another week, another crime” police procedurals (remember when John Munch was a character?). Ron Moore has created a setting that starts with a fairly basic and well-trodden premise (machines turn on their creators and war between the “races” ensues) but is using it as a platform to examine a sophisticated set of issues. Anyone who likes science fiction probably already watches it, but the fact is that anyone with a brain should get into this show.

States are accountable to who? Tuesday, Oct 10 2006 

Julie Bishop seems to think the States and Territories need to satisfy the Commonwealth that they are spending their education budget wisely:

In the last funding round the Australian Government provided $33 billion to States and Territories to run their schools, and I believe that the Australian taxpayers would expect us to make the States and Territories accountable for that investment.

We already have accountability – state government elections.