Saturday, February 28, 2009

U2 Countdown

Being a U2 fan can be a hard ask at times. Bono can be so damn righteous that you almost want to vomit, and given that their first album came out in 1980, saying you are a U2 fan puts you pretty squarely in a certain age bracket that prohibits you from thinking yourself young. But no matter, I made my bed with U2 over 25 years ago, so I'm not about to leave them now.  And thus, yesterday after work I stopped by Big W on the way home and bought a copy of No Line on the Horizon.


And I have to say it's a great U2 fans’ album. There are elements that sound like they could have come off of The Unforgettable Fire, and others that even had me recalling their early albums like War. There are some tracks – such as “White as Snow” and “Magnificent” that I have already earmarked for my own U2 Greatest Hits CD.

I could do a review of the album, but I need a few more listens, and to be honest music reviewing is not my forte . Instead here's my ranking of all the previous 11 U2 studio albums.

11. October


This is number 11 for only one reason: it is the only U2 album I don’t own. I don’t have any desire to own it, and to be honest, I’m not even sure if I’ve even heard all of it. Most likely the reason is that I came to U2 when the next album War came out, and by the time I had enough money and was near a decent record store that actually had a copy of this, I was past caring about hearing it (and had heard bad things). So by default it comes last.

It is most famous for being the album that nearly broke them up – Te Edge wanted to leave, and Adam Clayton was getting jack of all the religious stuff the other three were getting heavily into. Thankfully they stuck it out.

Best track – “Gloria” – though it’s better live on Under a Blood Red Sky

10. Pop


Damn what a disappointment! Coming off the back of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, they went to the experimental well once too often. It was a good try, but it was pretty obvious this was a rushed job that didn’t have the band’s heart in it – apparently they needed to finish the album in time to go on tour (which had been planned before they started recording the album). There are some nice things on it “If God Will Send his Angels”, “Starring at the Sun” and “Last Night on Earth” are three tracks in a row that at least sound like U2 (poor U2, but still). I even quite like the final track “Wake Up Dead Man”, but I loathe “Discotheque and “Mofo” where the band tried to go techno-dance. Look it’s good to try new things, but you have to stay true to yourself. And for all the critics saying this is “underrated”, I have to say it’s their only real miss-step.

Best track: “If God Will Send His Angels

9. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb


Half of a very good album, but after track 5 you get the feeling the guys were already out the door. And heck even the cover is dull. It starts off brilliantly though – “Vertigo” is one U2 song that really demands to be cranked up loud when listening to it in a car; “Miracle Drug” has a catchy few licks;  and “Sometime You Can’t Make it on Your Own” is nice, but feels like a cast off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “City of Blinding Lights” is nice enough as well – but, to be honest, I can never remember it.

This won Best Album at the Grammy Awards which is pretty much a sad indictment of the Awards – it would be like one of the Star Wars prequels winning Best Picture at the Oscars.

Best song: “Vertigo

8. All That You Can’t Leave Behind


A very good album, but coming as it did after Pop it has tended to be over-rated because everyone was just so relieved to have U2 back again. As is usually the case with U2, the best stuff is at the front. “Beautiful Day” is as good a song as they have ever done (in fact it’s as good a song as anyone has ever done – it is impossible to hear it without actually feeling like you are having a good day). “Stuck in a Moment…”, “Elevation”, “Walk On”, and “Kite” were all great returns to form, and pretty much guaranteed the band could do at least 2 albums without having to worry about their popularity waning.  After those songs, things get a bit less listenable. “Wild Honey” is quirky fun, but I couldn’t hum “New York” or “Grace” though. “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” is a nice ending, but it’s hardly “40” or “All I Want is You”.

Best song: “Beautiful Day

7. Rattle and Hum


This was actually the first U2 album I ever bought (though I was enough of a fan to wonder why it took the audience in “Pride (In the Name of Love)” so long to work out which song it is), and thus despite it perhaps being the most criticised U2 album, I have a bit of a soft spot for it. At the time it was abused for being so overblown and self-important. It also didn’t help that Bono suggested the whole thing was just thrown together on a whim, when in fact it looked about as much of a whim as the invasion of Normandy.

Yes Bono is being a git when he says they are stealing back “Helter Skelter”, and “God Part II” has pretty insufferable lyrics. But there’s also a lot of good stuff here. “Van Diemen’s Land” makes you wish The Edge got more of a go at singing, “Hawkmoon 269” is one of my favourite album tracks, “Angel of Harlem” a truly great song. And when they get together with Bob Dylan on “Love Rescue Me” they really reach the peaks. I’m not such a fan of “When Love Comes to Town”, but “All I want is You” is about as perfect a love song as you can have.

Yes they were criticised for this, but at least with U2 you knew they put it all on the line.

I also like this album because in 1991 I was in Japan on an exchange and I frequently used to travel by train to Yokohama, and Side 2 of the album was the exact same length as the train trip from Ebina station to Yokohama station – and thus I would get on the train, put Side 2 on my Walkman and close my eyes, knowing when the last bars of “All I Want is You” played, the train would stop at my destination.

Best song: “All I Want is You” (cool video as well)

6. Boy


What a brilliant first album. It’s raw, it’s young, it’s of its time – part punk, part anti new wave. The influence of The Clash is all over it; and you have to love it for that. “Twilight” and “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart” are youthful masterpieces. “Stories for Boys” which was one of their first ever written songs is a fun, but the real talent is seen in “The Electric Co” - a great post punk song, that sounds great here, and is even better on Under a blood Red Sky. The final song, “Shadows and Tall Trees” began their habit of ending albums with a haunting slow number.

It was also a great album cover, that perfectly captured the band and their Irish roots – suggesting there was more to them than just another throwaway rock band – they were after something deeper.

Best song: “The Electric Co

5. Zooropa


Unlike Rattle and Hum, this truly was put together on a whim, and it was all the better for it. It’s a bit hap hazard; it has a few songs that probably could do with some more work – the title track and “Babyface” especially. But it came with the totally cool “Numb”. When I first heard the song I was on holidays with my girlfriend and the only radio we had was the one in the car, and where we were didn’t get a great reception. I heard a pretty staticy version of the song on SAFM, and thought whoah, this is different. It certainly showed that the influences in Achtung Baby weren’t just a one off romance. Songs like “The First Time” could have come of Lou Reed’s Berlin album from the 70s, and “Stay (Faraway So Close)”, written as it was for the sequel to Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire is a totally European influenced ballad. And then it ends with Johnny Cash singing a nuclear country ballad, “The Wanderer”. Madness I says! But brilliant madness.

All in all there’s a lot of fun to be had on this album, and it certainly rewards multiple listens.

Best song: “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” (great video)

4. The Unforgettable Fire


What a brave album. Consider that they had just defined themselves as the heirs of The Clash with the phenomenal War and then they come out with this ethereal, poetic group of songs. How could a band that sang “Sunday Bloody Sunday” also be able to do “Promenade” or “The Unforgettable Fire”, to say nothing of “Elvis Presley in America”? I nearly put this higher, because I have to say I love this album on a personal level. It brings back so many memories for me. Due to its melodic nature, it was a perfect album to have playing while studying or writing essays, and so whenever I hear these songs I am taken back to winters in Adelaide during the early 90s as I stayed up to 1-2am studying for mid-year exams.

The songs have a wonderful late night feel to me, and for some reason “Elvis Presley and America” – a totally stream of consciousness bit of piffle is my favourite song. It’s a song most U2 fans don’t even like, and yet for whatever reason – and it probably has more to do with the memories it conjures – it is among my all-time favourite U2 songs.

That said it certainly isn’t the best song on the album.

Best song: “Pride (In the name of Love)

3. The Joshua Tree


Easily their biggest selling album, and the one, without which they would not be “U2: Biggest Band in the World”. The first side contains all the hits, but I actually enjoy Side 2 just as much - “One Tree Hill” is beautiful, “Exit” (despite the fact it is so soft for so much of the song) is dark and despairing, and the ending of “Mothers of the Disappeared” is shattering in its beauty – the lyrics:

In the trees our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughter cry
See their tears in the rainfall.

are astonishing to be found on an album that sold 25 million copies.

The first four songs were all singles, and all are top drawer stuff – and they reek of America. But my favourite song is the fifth one of the album, “Running to Stand Still” about heroin addiction. I saw them perform it on their Zoomerang tour of Australia in 1993 (coincidentally on the night after I had finished my last university exam) and it was a personal highlight.

It’s a great album to put on late at night when you’re doing some writing.

Best song: “With or Without You

2. War


If you want to compare U2 to The Beatles (which was a bit of the rage in the 80s) then The Joshua Tree was their Sgt Peppers, Rattle and Hum their White Album, and War is their Revolver. A better comparison though is with Midnight Oil; any true Oil’s fan will always prefer 10 to 1 to Diesel and Dust, and so too with U2 and WarThe Joshua Tree is for the Johnny come latelies – War is for those who got on board before the band wagon started (or who want to pretend they did!)

It is the album for angry young men who want to change the world. It is the album for teenagers who care about something more than just getting a girlfriend or boyfriend; who think there are issues out there that matter. It is the album for any who want to go to a concert and put their fist in the air while the singer leads them like an army.

The cover is as good as it gets. And it encapsulates what U2 are about.

Heck the album doesn’t even have that many “hits” – “Sunday Bloody Sunday” of course, “New Year’s Day”, and that’s about it - “Two Hearts Beat as One” was released as a single, but didn’t do all that much. But it is an album of which the while is greater than the sum of its parts. And the final song of “40” is just brilliant.

After this album you knew U2 were here to stay - they were a band that mattered in the world; and what’s more they were the perfect antidote to all the hair bands of the 80s; the anti Duran Duran, the antithesis of Wham!. If you wanted to be someone who was to take yourself far too seriously, then you had to be  U2 fan, and it all started with this album.

Best song: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (of course)

1. Achtung Baby


There were two records released in 1991 that influenced rock music for the rest of the 90s – Nirvana’s Nevermind, and U2’s Achtung Baby. Nirvana released the grunge movements upon the world (and yes, I know they weren’t the first), and Achtung Baby influenced just about everyone else. Much like 20th Century poets have had to either acknowledge the influence of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or fight against it; so too with Nevermind and Achtung Baby. It’s impossible to imagine Coldplay without U2, or Pearl Jam without Nirvana, and Radiohead feels like some amazing amalgam of both.

This album marked the beginning of the third chapter in U2’s career (generally you can divide their period into lots of 3 albums beginning with respectively, Boy, The Unforgettable Fire, Achtung Baby and All that You Can’t Leave Behind – though No Line on the Horizon seems to ruin that nice pattern), and it did with a crash of guitars in The Fly – which Bono famously said was the sound of 4 guys cutting down The Joshua Tree. It was the album that people who didn’t like U2 could enjoy – I had a friend who hated U2 with a passion, but loved this album (and kinda hated himself for doing so!).

When I first bought this album (and the day of its release naturally) I put it in my CD player expectedly, and when the first riffs of “Zoo Station” began, I thought my CD was scratched. It was so unlike anything I was expecting. The album has great tracks throughout – “One” is as good a love ballad (of sorts) as you could wish for, and the final song “Love is Blindness” is “All I Want is You” as though written by Nick Cave. About the only song that I would put in the dud category is “Even Better than the real thing” – it’s just a bit too poppy  for this album. But the rest of the album is full of killer tracks.

It also spurned an amazing tour with the band going all out with a video screen multimedia extravaganza that set the standard for stadium tours by any band. They were at the peak of their powers, and they didn’t waste them.

Best song: I’ll go with “Until the End of the World

So where is No Line on the Horizon? Well after one day of listening to it, it feels like about number 6 or 7 – either before or just after Boy, perhaps good enough to replace Zooropa once I’ve given it some more time to seep into my consciousness. But regardless, the song “White as Snow” is absolutely fantastic.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Flick of the Week: "What did my brother do today? He stood up and fought for his country. And what did I do? I made a papier maché lobster head."

This week's flick of the week moves us with Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman from Sense and Sensibility to the Richard Curtis 2003 rom-com, Love Actually.

I have to admit being a bit of a softy for rom-coms - Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, Groundhog Day, heck even Two Weeks Notice (which seems to be on Channel 10 once every 7 weeks) will get me watching quite happily.

When I first heard about Love Actually, I was pretty excited - the cast was amazing, every English actor of any worth seemed to be in it - and Curtis's previous films were Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill, so good things were to be expected.

And when I finally saw it, I have to say I hated it.

And then I saw it again, and liked it a bit more; watched it when it was on TV, liked it a bit more... but despite some great actors, and a fantastic DVD commentary by Hugh Grant and Bill Nighy I still can't say I really rate it all that highly on the romcom scale.

The problems are multiple and are linked with the fact that there are multiple story lines. As is often the case with such movies, too often some of the stories are very weak, and the others seem quite good, but you wish the whole movie was about them.

The characters are all somehow intertwined - I did try and link them all up, but in the end I couldn't be bothered, and you might as well just read the wikipedia entry for the film - and to be honest, you don't care how they are connected - and mostly it is all rather incongruous (much like the group of friends in Four Weddings and a Funeral).

I hated this film for two main reasons - firstly was the stupid length Curtis went to to put forward his standard thesis that English men can only be happy with American women. He did it is Four Weddings, he did it in Notting Hill, he did it in Bridget Jones and here he does it to the point of stupidity by having the dopey "Colin" go off to America and land himself on his first night there knee deep in the most beautiful women imaginable.

Ok, it's a romcom, and not to be taken seriously, but if one part of the film is so obviously stupid and unreal, how do we treat the rest?

Especially when so much of the other stories are absolutely devoid of romance and love.

Consider the storyline involving Mark (the sadly underused Andrew Lincoln) and Juliet (Keira Knightley). The big romance in that plot is of a guy who is in love with his best mate's bride. And the big moment involves him telling the woman that he loves her (but that he is content not to have her). Call me kind of weird, but that doesn't exactly have me choked with tears.

Another story has a woman (the wonderful Laura Linley) being in love with a guy, but unable to do anything about it because she has to spend all her time dealing with her mentally ill brother. They try to go out; it fails and pretty much that is it for them. Not quite Hepburn and Tracy

But the real kicker for me is the story of Karen (Emma Thompson), her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) and Mia (Heike Makatsch). In this story Harry cheats on Karen with Mia, and buys Mia an expensive necklace for Christmas. Karen had found the necklace in Harry's jacket and expected to get it for Christmas instead is given a Joni Mitchell CD. She then goes up to her room, and with Mitchell singing "Both Sides Now", she quietly breaks down.

It is the most amazing bit of acting you will ever be likely to see. Thompson is just incredible - her tears are quiet and restrained, but by God do you feel every ounce of her emotion. I would love to be able to show the clip, but due to the Mitchell song playing it has been taken down (Warner Bros are having a legal fight with youtube at the minute).

And so the best thing about the movie is also the worst. I wanted romantic comedy, what I got was unromantic-tragedy.

Ok there are romcom moments a plenty in the movie - Bill Nighy is fantastic, Hugh Grant could do his role in his sleep and still be great, and the Colin Firth story is predictable but lovely.

But it's too hard to keep the balance - you can't show someone being trashed, and then expect us to forget about her so we can enjoy the fact her brother, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, has fallen in love with a sweary young tea lady.

Since this doing this film the only movie Curtis has written is the Bridget Jones sequel, which suggests maybe he shouldn't have tried to squish every idea he ever had into one movie - sometimes less is more.

And lacking the Emma Thompson scene with "Both Sides Now", here's a clip of Joni Mitchell singing the version that plays while Thompson puts herself through the wringer and pulls herself together again. It is just a fantastic version of the song, and has a completely different emotion than the original version.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Newspoll ALP 58 - LNP 42

You know things are bad for a political party when they are happy with only being 16 points behind in the polls.

After the week the Libs had, they must have been worried things would start to get silly in the Newspoll - 60-40 was looking realistic, 62-38 a possibility.

As it is, 58-42 is just horrible. Historically horrible. No chance in any election horrible.

In the last 4 Newspolls have given the ALP on two party preferred terms, 59%, 54%, 58% and 58%. When a result of 54% looks the odd one out, you know you're in big trouble if you're sailing on the good ship LNP. The iceberg has been hit, the life jackets are in short supply, and that shifty first mate next to the lifeboat doesn't look like he's all that keen on making sure everyone gets off safely.
The last couple of days in Question Time have been pretty childish. What with Joe Hockey trying his super-over-the-top-best to rattle Wayne Swan, Christopher Pyne trying to show off that he had spent the whole of last weekend swotting up on the Standing Orders, and Peter Dutton trying to show that he was the one who should have been opposition manager of business and not Pyne, it was all a bit try-hardy from the LNP side.

On the Government side, Julia Gillard baited Pyne by calling him a poodle in comparison to the pit bull of Tony Abbott.

This morning Abbott responded by calling Kevin Rudd a "toxic bore".

No doubt next someone will accuse the other of having cooties.

Tony Abbott's response was a bit odd really; I'm not sure if something can be both boring and toxic. Has any one ever said - "Oh look, don't touch that chemical solution, it's highly toxic"; and been given a response of "Toxic, oh how boring." Surely toxicity is inversely proportional to levels of boredom.

Perhaps Abbott just delights in oxymorons. Given his love of Workchoices you have to assume he does.

But who cares, I says. Kevin Rudd knows he's boring and he doesn't give a stuff - in fact he'll probably bore you while telling you why he doesn't give a stuff. When you can point to a satisfaction rating of 66%, do you think he would be worrying about his image?

What the Libs don't get is that he is like John Howard. And no not as in John Howard-lite; I mean that in the same way ALP supporters just did not understand how Howard could be popular, and how anyone could ever vote for him, so now Liberals don't get Rudd's popularity - they are sure this is just some long honeymoon that will blow over soon.

They've been thinking that for well over two years now...

To be honest, I don't understand Kevin Rudd's popularity either, but I know it isn't a short term romance. The Australian public are not a fickle bunch - they are into political monogamy. They don't divorce easily, and once they do, they don't sleep around, they commit again - for better or worse.

At the moment Rudd leads Turnbull as preferred PM 64%-20%. Essential Research released a poll on Monday which had the figure at a remarkably similar 60%-20%. They also asked who did voters prefer as PM - Rudd or Peter Costello. The result was Rudd ahead 62%-21%.

So no salvation there for the Libs either; and the sooner they all realise it, the better for them.
I didn't get to see much of today's QT, but I did get to see the first few questions from Turnbull to Rudd.

They were pathetic.

One of his questions quoted Wayne Swan saying that some of the pink bats that would be used in the Government's insulation rebate would likely be imported. Turnbull wanted to know if the 90,000 jobs the Government said were going to be supported by the stimulus were including overseas ones.

It was a very dumb question because the premise behind it is that buying imports is bad for our economy (which I'm sure the companies who sell imported products in Australia, and the people employed in those companies, would be a tad surprised to hear), it also implies that Turnbull logically believes that there should be some protectionist measures connected with the stimulus package; which is all the more odd given Australia's huge dependence on free trade, and the general dismay at the protectionist noises being made by Obama recently.

The question in effect reduces Turnbull's competency on macroeconomic policy to Year 10 levels - and a C Minus Year 10 student at that.

The Libs then spent the rest of QT trying to get Rudd or Swan to tell them where is a job that has been created by the stimulus packages. It's all rather odd given the Lib's penchant for ignoring any stats to do with Workchoices before the 2007 election, that suddenly now they want proof of job creation.

But still, as Rudd or Swan could point to a job that has been created by the stimulus package that hasn't even gone out yet - and December is also a short time ago economic data wise.

If the Libs think this will win them points, they are going to be sadly mistaken. The voters may think the package isn't working as well as Rudd would like, but can any of you think of one thing the Libs have said they would do? Anything? Just one thing? C'mon try harder...

Nope. They may have said something, but the message isn't getting through. All I know is they proposed something that cost about $15billion (I think???), but I could not tell you one thing about it. - And I'm a politics junky!

So here's the lesson for the Liberal Party: start coming up with something for the Australian public to think is better, because just criticising the Government ain't gonna do it. Until they realise this, they'll be stuck in the lower 40s.

Though the really scary news for the Libs is that given Rudd's popularity even this might not help.

So get used to opposition, and start clearing out the dead wood. I seriously doubt the next Liberal Party PM is on the opposition front bench at the moment - heck, he (or she) might not even be in parliament yet.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar Picks

This year I'm running the Oscar tipping comp at work, and so am not actually entering. This is just as well, I have seen hardly any of the films, and have little idea of which films should win (so no Oscar is always wrong blog on this year's awards).

But should often has little to do with the actual winners, and thus here are my tips:

Best Motion Picture of the Year
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Because it's won everything else, so why not - plus after last year's winner, the Academy would be in the mood for some feel good.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Sean Penn for Milk (2008/I)
He won the Screen Actor's Guild Best Actor Award, so that block of voters should be enough to give him the win over Mickey Rourke and Frank Langella.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Meryl Streep for Doubt (2008/I)
I would go for Kate Winslet, but I have a suspicion voting for an actor playing a "sympathetic Nazi" might be a bridge too far for the Academy, and also her role was more supportive than "lead"; so look for her "Oscar snub" to continue, and for Streep to win her third award (but only her first since 1983).

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (2008)
Voting against Heath here would almost be impossible to contemplate.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Should be Winslet for The Reader, but she decided to go for Best Actress for that, so I'll go for Cruz for no other reason than she won this at the BAFTAs

Best Achievement in Directing
Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
To go with the Best Picture, (but where is Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight?)

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Milk (2008/I): Dustin Lance Black
Milk won the Writer's Guild Award, that should be enough to convince the fence sitters to vote for it.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Roth, Robin Swicord
Would normally go with the Best Picture winner, but to take a throw away short story by F.Scott Fitzgerald and turn it into a movie, deserves an award.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
The Dark Knight (2008): Wally Pfister
Mandy Walker was robbed not to have been nominated (but then no female ever has been nominated in this category...). With The Dark Knight being snubbed for a Best Picture nomination, I'm betting it'll win pretty much everything else it can.

Best Achievement in Editing
The Dark Knight (2008): Lee Smith
As above.

Best Achievement in Art Direction
The Duchess (2008): Michael Carlin, Rebecca Alleway
For the Academy, "Art Direction" is often synonymous with "period piece".

Best Achievement in Costume Design
The Duchess (2008): Michael O'Connor
For the same reason why it will win for Art Direction.

Best Achievement in Makeup
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Greg Cannom
Tempting to go for The Dark Knight, but old Brad Pitt gets the nod.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
WALL·E (2008): Thomas Newman
If only because after doing some great scores (American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, The Shawshank Redemption) and now with 9 total nominations, he deserves to win.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
WALL·E (2008): Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman("Down to Earth")
What the hell, give Newman two wins.

Best Achievement in Sound
The Dark Knight (2008): Ed Novick, Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo
Big action, big sounds, gets them the award.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
The Dark Knight (2008): Richard King
Have no idea what the difference is between this and sound, so I'll just give The Dark Knight both.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron
Tough category, but the young/old Brad Pitt gets the nod.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
WALL·E (2008): Andrew Stanton
Put your house on this one (should have got a Best Picture nomination).

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008)(Germany)
Because it's the only onw of the five nominated films I have heard of.

Best Documentary, Features
Man on Wire (2008): James Marsh, Simon Chinn
Has easily been the most seen doco this year.

Best Documentary, Short Subjects
The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306 (2008): Adam Pertofsky, Margaret Hyde
Seriously, you think I have a reason for this??

Best Short Film, Animated
Presto (2008): Doug Sweetland
Errr...because "Presto" sounds like a good title.

Best Short Film, Live Action
New Boy (2007): Steph Green, Tamara Anghie
Because the others sound "foreign" so go with the Irish one!

UPDATE: Oh well, 12 out of 24 ain't bad... oh who am I kidding - it was terrible! I hang my head in shame!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Long way back

With all the talk this week about how Turnbull is a dead man walking, and how Peter Costello can tun things around - or that perhaps the Liberal Party should wait till next year when its stocks are really low before turning to Costello, I thought it timely to show just how far back the Opposition is at the moment.

The excellent Ozpolitics blog has a series of great graphs displaying the polling numbers according to the various polls. He has done one graph of the newspolls since 1985, with the graph smoothed out to show the trends. Here's what it looks like (the red vertical lines are elections):

What it shows is that the Liberal Party is at the lowest ebb of any party for the last 25 years. What it shows is that all those Liberal supporters who love calling Rudd "KRudd" and who think his honeymoon will wear off soon are massively misguided.

At the moment when the ALP wins a newspoll 56-44, people start coming up with stories suggesting things are tightening up. But when you look at the graph you see that no party has ever been that low. Not the ALP after Keating lost the 97 election; not the coalition when Peacock and Howard were at each other's throats.

So yeah, maybe Costello will be better than Turnbull; but were I Costello, I'd be looking at graphs like this, and saying, "No thanks", and if things keep going the way they are, in a year's time I'd be saying the same, but leaving out the "thanks".

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Liberal Party and Costello: Bound in shallows and in miseries

With the news that Malcolm Turnbull had offered Peter Costello the Shadow Treasurer's job on Sunday (ie before Julie Bishop had stepped down), has seen poor Joe Hockey's first couple of days in the job completely overshadowed by (to quote Chris Pyne) "the internal machinations and private conversations" of the Liberal Party.

Today the media was in a bit of a lather about the future of Peter Costello. Pretty much it was whatever you read last year on the subject rolled out again.

Andrew Bolt thinks it's all part of a master plan:

WHAT a debacle. The only good news for the Liberals after losing Julie Bishop is that Peter Costello is doing nothing.

Not leaving Parliament. Not replacing poor Bishop as Treasury spokesman.

That way, you see, he'll be fresh and spotless, just when the Liberals most need a new leader. And just when Labor will be looking as reckless and clueless as few voters yet understand.

I give him another year.

What a complete crock! Can you imagine that anyone will see Peter Costello as "fresh and spotless"? Err yeah, if they hadn't been alive for the last 12 years, but I don't think that includes many voters.

And not only that Bolt thinks Costello should wait another year yet! Why?

Costello knows the Canberra media inevitably turns on a Liberal leader, as even former media darling Turnbull is now finding. Best save the honeymoon effect for closer to an election.

That nasty left wing media... hang on, aren't you part of the media Andrew? And I guess it's only the Liberal leaders who have a rough time, becasue of course the media never reported anything about Rudd going to a strip club, or a lunch with Brian Burke or etc etc. But wait there's more:

Second, an Opposition leader always looks best to the public just after taking over. Again, save that honeymoon.

Good advice Andrew, best for Costello to takeover and hope the election gets called before everyone works out how useless he is.

And then there's this:

Third, Costello needs the party to be so desperate it unites in wanting him.

Yes, you read that right; Andrew Bolt thinks the best thing for the Liberal Party is for it to get to such a terrible and unelectable state that it turns to Costello close to an election to turn things around! I guess after the election he'll be turning water in to wine as a encore.

What madness. The Liberal Party at the moment is 16 points behind the ALP in the polls. They have not won any poll since 2006, and yet Bolt thinks that will all be turned around in 6 months because after becoming a complete basket case of a party, they elect as leader Peter Costello?

Balderdash, the tide in the affairs of Peter Costello was at the flood in mid 2006, both he and the Liberal Party ommitted it.

But just to prove Andrew Bolt isn't the only one drinking the Costello flavoured kool-aid, here's Terry McCrann:

There is no question that Costello is the most effective performer in the parliament. And that further, to borrow a quote from former prime minister John Howard, the 'times will suit him'
Suit him? That's an understatement - they seem to have been made for him.

Odd, that's what they were saying about Malcolm Turnbull just a few months ago. And yes he was effective in parliament with a compliant speaker and loads of Dorothy Dixers.

Here are some more McCrann assertions (note the lack of any evidence):

While Costello might have been deeply unpopular in November 2007, it would arguably be very different today, in mid-2009.

The really critical question is what it will be in late-2010. If PM Rudd goes to the election with deficits AND economic gloom, he will be toast.

With little doubt, if he then faced an opposition leader called Peter not Malcolm.

You heard it here first - Rudd is toast, because of course he'll go to the election with deficits (the horror!!!!!!) and economic gloom? And once again there's no way Rudd could beat Costello... apart from the fact he has in any poll ever asked on the subject. And of course the Liberal Party should go for Costello as leader becasue he "arguably" would be more popular than he was in 2006? Madness, I says.

But look what both of these (and any other Costello fans) forget is Turnbull. Just how do they think Costello is going to get the leadership? Do they think this is going to be the scenario:

  • In early-mid 2010 with the LNP bumping along at about 40% in the polls, and Turnbull on about 20% in the preferred PM stakes, he decides he obviously isn't PM material. He goes to his hated enemy and says, "Peter, I can't do it. I'm not up to the job, you do it, you're much better than me". He then holds a press conference where he says he does not wish for any more of the instability that has been caused by Costello to go on, and thus he is standing down as leader and wants the entire party to get behind Peter. As a result the LNP is back to 48-50% and catches Rudd wondering, "How do I attack Peter Costello, he is so fresh and spotless?"

Notice anything fanciful in that? OK try this one:

  • In early-mid 2010 with the LNP bumping along at about 40% in the polls, and Turnbull on about 20% in the preferred PM stakes, Peter Costello does what he has never done before, even against the hapless Brendan Nelson at a time when the party would have fallen over themselves to elect him, and knocks on Turnbull's door and announces he is challenging him for the leadership. He wins the spill motion and then...

Ah what happens next... do you think:

  1. Turnbull admits defeat and resigns himself to never being PM, and is a loyal shadow treasurer.
  2. Turnbull and all of his supporters vow they would rather die than see Costello succeed.

You see politics between these two is nasty. Without sugar coating things, we can say they hate each other. The only reason I could be persuaded that Costello is waiting (to use Bolt's phrase) until the party is so desperate it unites in wanting him, is that such a scenario would mean Turnbull has failed.

Gore Vidal once wrote that people in Hollywood thought "it is not enough to succeed; others must fail"; the same could be said of Costello viz-a-viz Turnbull. Had Costello taken the leadership after Nelson, Turnbull would not have failed; however, if he takes over from Turnbull then Costello would have succeeded and Turnbull would have failed. What joy for all in the Liberal Party.

And again this brings us back to the whole faulty scenario - if things have gotten that bad, it means the entire Liberal Party has become a joke; and no one can take a party from joke to victory in 6 months. When Rudd took over, the ALP was already leading - it was just Beazley who was behind. Ditto Hawke over Hayden.

If the ALP is killing the LNP in the polls, then all the lipstick in the world ain't going to hide the fact that the LNP pig is still a pig.

And if Costello wins, what happens to Turnbull - shadow treasurer? Does anyone think that will work? Does anyone think the ALP won't be able to find some cracks in that partnership to exploit? And what happens to Joe Hockey? You think he wants to go backwards? And Andrew Robb would expect some reward, so would Tony Abbott etc etc...

When Rudd took over from Beazley, the Bomber declared that was it and everyone knew it was thus. Downer resigned to let Howard take over, and no one thought of him as leadership material again, if only because he was a Howard man through and through. When Keating beat Hawke, Hawke left parliament.

Nothing like that is going to happen this time round for the Liberals.

If Costello wants the leadership he's either going to have to challenge, which will mean a divided party, or the party is such an absolute mess they elect him leader out of pure desperation.

Yep - divided or desperate. Somehow I don't think that's what most parties aim for as an image in an election year.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Goodbye Julie, thanks for the laughs.

Today Julie Bishop did the right thing and jumped before she was pushed. She gave up the job of Shadow Treasurer for the nothing position of Shadow Foreign Affairs. In doing so she avoided the Liberal party descending into a complete shambles.

As always happens with such things, the leader makes great pronouncements about how rosy things are going. Here's Malcolm Turnbull at today's press conference:

"We have great cohesion in the Coalition,” Mr Turnbull said. “We are united and we are determined to hold this Government to account for the way in which they are mismanaging our economy today, putting jobs at risk today, and mortgaging our children's future.”

Here's what Joe Hockey (who takes over from Bishop, and who had obviously been undermining her) had to say:

"Julie Bishop has done a very good job in laying the foundations for our policy platform for the next election. I look forward to continuing my close working relationship with her over the period ahead.”

Yep, bet that'll be real close. And it must be gratifying that the foundation she has laid was so solid that it wasn't even able to sustain her own position. Guess the parable of building on sand isn't one Hockey is familiar with.

Aside from Wayne Swan, (who has now had 3 different opponents in 14 months) the happiest person in politics today would have been Brendan Nelson. Bishop was his loyal deputy for about 4 minutes, before she turned to Turnbull, and crucially in the end voted against her leader. A pretty low act for a deputy, and one that would no doubt have had Nelson indulging in a fair bit of schadenfreude today.

Bizarrely Helen Coonan has taken over the Shadow Finance role - meaning there is no one in the lower house to directly go against Lindsay Tanner - and thus he can pretty much enjoy himself hitting the opposition over the head with Dorothy Dixers.

Coonan, as one of the older members of the Liberal Party, is also a big throw back to the Howard years, and reinforces the fact that the Liberal talent pool is pretty shallow in the upper house.

One of the funniest things today was the performance by The Australian. Its chief political correspondent came out with this story:

Bishop retains Turnbull backing
LIBERAL frontbencher Julie Bishop looks safe as the Opposition's Treasury spokeswoman in the short term, despite widespread concern among her colleagues over her performance.


Still it's no worse than when Dennis Shanahan suggested last week that Peter Costello could take over Bishop's role.

I'd suggest their editor might be asking them some questions about the information they're getting from their sources.

So will Hockey do any better? Probably not. Remember he was put up as the face of WorkChoices... remind me how well that went?

Also he appeared a couple Friday nights ago on Lateline against Lindsay Tanner. Hockey asserted that the country could be in real trouble if the current account goes into a huge deficit. Tanner called him on it, and said that the ALP inherited a current account deficit of 6%. Here is the exchange:

JOE HOCKEY:...And I'd just ask Lindsay Tanner the question: what will you do if the current account deficit deteriorates? What action can you take?

LEIGH SALES: Lindsay Tanner?

LINDSAY TANNER: Well, Joe, I think you better learn some economic history because in the circumstances that prevailed in the mid-1980s, growth was running strongly and that's when you get big current account deficits. We inherited a very big current account deficit verging on around 6 per cent of GDP from your government. And, to be fair, it was when growth ...

JOE HOCKEY: It was never at 6 per cent of GDP. That's - never, no.

LINDSAY TANNER: Yes it was. Yes it was. Yes it was. And to be fair, that's typically associated with growth running very strongly, the mining boom had really pumped up growth.

Unfortunately for Joe it was. In fact in the December Quarter of 2007 it reached 7%.

The current account deficit in the September Quarter of 2008 was back to 4.3%, evidence that Australians were buying less imports (to be expected when things aren't going that great economically).

Ok, so data analysis isn't Joe's strong point. What about selling policy? Try this on for size in the same Lateline interview:

LEIGH SALES: Joe Hockey, the Government's stimulus package follows the advice of the IMF to a tee. It's won the broad support of business unions and the Treasury, yet the Opposition's decided not to vote for it. What evidence or advice did you rely on in making that decision?

JOE HOCKEY: Well, we have a range of sources of advice.

LEIGH SALES: And who are they?

JOE HOCKEY: Well, I mean - you know, some of them probably wouldn't want to be identified, others I'm sure probably would. But, we had a range of sources of advice.
LEIGH SALES: ....As I said before, the IMF backs their position, business in Australia broadly backs their position. Just give me one body that has given you advice or backs your position.

JOE HOCKEY: Well, I'll tell you who backs our position, the next generation of Australians that are now going to have to pay off $200 billion of Labor Party debt and rising with an asterisk next to it.

Oh good, Hockey can't come up with one economist to back the Liberal's plan, but he can say that the next generation of Australians supports it. How comforting. He also seems to be completely ignorant of the fact that if the ALP plan involves $200 billion of debt, then the Liberal's plan involves $180 billion, with the possibility of adding another $20 billion later in the year.

Look, Hockey has spent the past 14 months huffing and puffing in Question Time - yelling "shame!" and "yeah!" and "I know you are but what am I?". He went through all of 2007 uttering "union bosses" in every sentence, and Rudd seems to actually enjoy getting questions from him in parliament. So I wouldn't expect too much of him, regardless of how "avuncular" he is supposed to be.

And after all the face has changed, but the message remains the same; and at the moment, the Liberal's message is pretty poor.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

It's Time

I heard from a blogger on Poll Bludger that Australian songwriter Pat Aulton has recently passed away. Apart from his work as a producer and writer for musicians such as Normie Rowe in the 1960s, Aulton's most famous contribution to Australian culture was writing (with Paul Jones) the political jingle for Gough Whitlam in 1972. The amazing "It's Time" song.

Below is a pretty scratchy version of it, but I have to tell you, for a true believer like me it is like listening to holy music. I know there was a lot wrong with Whitlam's Government - Rex Conner, Jim Cairns etc etc. But I tell you what, when I listen to this song, I want nothing more than to be able to vote for him. Perhaps I feel such a connection because it all happened in the year I was born. Or maybe, it's because it's Gough.

Either way, it's a fantastic song, that will never be beaten for impact - it is the "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" of political jingles.

And by the way, Turnbull can keep on talking about Rudd spending like Whitlam for as long as he likes. A vast majority of the electorate either don't know who Whitlam is, can't remember what Whitlam did, or have already formed an opinion of the ALP and Liberal Party based on Whitlam and thus will never change their votes.

At the last election Howard kept talking about the interest rates of 17 years ago; it seems Turnbull's strategy is to talk about the politics of 35 years ago. Good luck with that.

My Full Support

In the superb TV series The Games, which was on in 2000, there is an episode which features a press conference where the Minister for the Games, "Robbo", is talking about various environmental aspects of the Games. During the conference he is asked a question about an obvious stuff up to do with the environmental guidelines of the Olympics. He responds to the charge from the journalist "Nicole" that he is to blame with the following:

ROBBO: I'm glad you've got such a high opinion of me, Nicole, but I'm not responsible for everything that happens in the preparation of the Games. Nor can I do everything. Kevin Nowra of my office is in charge of the day-to-day operations at Homebush

JOURNALIST: There's talk that his position is under review.

ROBBO: Look, I'll make this clear enough even for you Nicole, Kevin Nowra has my full support.

At this point Bryan Dawe, who is watching the conference, remarks:

BRYAN: That's it for Kevin then.

John Clarke agrees:

JOHN: Yes. Say goodnight to the folks, Kevin.

Another person sitting with them wonders why:

MR WILSON: He'll be alright, he's got Robbo's full support.

John explains:

JOHN: Having Robbo's full support is often the last sound people hear. They just hear they have Robbo's full confidence and a nice man pops a bag over their head.

Now today in a press conference, Malcolm Turnbull was asked about Julie Bishop's position as Shadow Treasurer. Here's what he had to say:

"Julie Bishop has my total confidence both as the deputy leader and shadow treasurer.''

Yep. She's on her way out. Alas.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A little bit of stimulation

This morning, surprising no one, the Government did a deal with Nick Xenophon, and got his vote for the stimulus package.

And thus sanity prevailed.

Of course Xenophon could have voted against it, ensuring Australia goes into a recession that is long and deep, but that would have been something beyond the realms of stupidity, and was not really an option.

Will the package keep Australia out of recession? That is harder to say (and on the balance of probabilities unlikely) but the lessons learned from the 1990s is that you don't wait to stimulate the economy when it is already dead. Keating's Working Nation was far from perfect, but its biggest problem was it took too long - too many of the spending measures came 12 to 24 months after the policy was announced, and after the recession had already hit hard.

This package contains a good balance of an immediate adrenaline hit, and then a good 12-24 month surge of spending directed at infrastructure (and infrastructure in an area the Howard Government cared less about than any other area - education).

Malcolm Turnbull's response after being shown to be the political eunuch of the week was pretty unsurprising, he said that :

"Today the Labor debt train has left the station, destination unknown. The Prime Minister is plunging our nation into enormous and unprecedented debt. Billions of that debt will be incurred for measures that have no enduring economic effect."

I guess he would rather spend nothing and see a real enduring effect - long term unemployment across the nation.

Still his argument today was no worse than his pitiable effort last night in Parliament when he argued against the package - it was oratory that made Brendan Nelson look calm and measured:

In years to come, the schoolchildren that visit this parliament—not many years in the future—will be getting their first jobs, will be saving money to buy a house or will be starting a business, and they will need encouragement from government. They will expect to have low taxes and an efficient tax system. They will expect to have services: they will expect to have health services, hospitals, roads and all of those services that are available to us today.

They will meet governments, politicians and ministers who will say to them in the future: ‘You can’t have the services you need today. The roads cannot be repaired when you want them. Your taxes are higher than your parents were paying.’

Yep it's all about the kids - not the kids of today's whose parents may lose their jobs, but the kids of 10 years time. And I do love it when a former Minister of the Howard Government talks about health services, hospitals and roads, because given the lack of attention that Government gave those things for 12 years, you would be excused for thinking the Liberals don't know such things exist.

But still at least he was better than Julie Bishop, who gave possibly the most embarrassing performance in Parliament for many a year. She was shrill, rambling, over the top, illogical, lost and confused. Those sitting behind her were not listening, and the ALP front bench didn't even bother trying to bait her. She has no credibility, and the ALP only hopes Turnbull continues to keep her where she is.

By contrast, Julia Gillard, who came on straight after, was calm, focused, and convincing. Unfortunately they don't have podcasts of speeches in the House, but were you to see the two side by side (as those watching last night did) you would see the difference between someone who is out of her depth, and someone who views the Parliament as her own paddling pool.

The speech of the night was possibly made by Tony Windsor - the Independent for New England. Here's some of what he said:

I think there were two mistakes made quite early. One was made by the government, asking the parliament to debate and decide on something as big as this in a hurry and dividing the parliament in the wee hours of the morning. I understand the strategy, but I think it was a bad ploy in terms of gaining the confidence of the people. And it gave the opposition an area to move in terms of another reason to oppose it.

The other mistake, in my view, was made by the Leader of the Opposition, when he dealt himself out of the game. It was very important, in my view, that the opposition stayed within the game, because we have established that they agree with virtually three-quarters of the package—there is some wiggle room in terms of the application of it. But, if they had stayed in the debate and moved worthwhile amendments and tried to improve or modify the legislation, they might well have been able to establish a better policy than the one that is there.

Exactly right - I think Rudd needs to show some more conciliatory noises to the Senate, but the big error was Turnbull who saw a corner, and said, yep I'll paint myself into that!

Windsor went on:

But there seems to be another agenda built into this, and that is this latent hope that the policy fails. I do not hope it fails; I hope Ken Henry and the Prime Minister and others have got it right, because if they have not got it right they may be out of a job but a lot of other people will fail within our economy.

I appreciate the debt situation, and that is what I would be focused on if we were talking about a normal global economic situation; but this is not normal. So we should not talk about Gough Whitlam and Labor debt and those sorts of things in this type of environment. This is different.

We have got to try and design a strategy that actually smooths those bumps out. Forty-two billion dollars will not cure the ills but it might put us in a position where we can come out the other end quicker than if we did nothing or did not do enough.

Amen. As I have said in the past, Rudd is not doing this because he wants to - do you really think the ALP wants to shelve all the plans they would have had back in 2007 when the boom was still going? Do you not think the ALP could think of $12b worth of "long term" big picture infrastructure projects? And Rudd's no political fool; he knows the ALP has to be very careful to avoid being tarred with the Keating brush (and I say this as a PJK fan).

The whole point of this package is to limit the damage; to try and get us through to 2011 or so, when China and the USA might get back on board (we hope).

How bad are things overseas? Peter Martin showed this scary graph of comparing the US unemployment in this recession with past ones

The Green line is now, the red line is 2001, the blue 1990.

So we could wait I guess and hope for the best, but one might think that somewhat unwise, were one to have a skerrick of intelligence.

And so it is done. Parliament has a week off, and when Turnbull comes back on the 23rd he will be greeted with another Newspoll, and that brings us to the crux of the last two weeks.

Turnbull's decision to oppose the package had nothing to do with economics - because he knew it would pass, and thus his decision was purely political. And so what is his gain? His job now is to convince voters that regardless of what happens in the next 18 months that if the package hadn't been passed the economy would be better, and failing that, to convince the public that deficits are the biggest economic bogey man of all time.

It will be a difficult argument, especially given his already low polling numbers - the voters have not taken to Malcolm in any serious way; and it's hard to convince an electorate that you are right when they don't even want to listen to what you say.

Tony Windsor had something to say on the politics of this as well. He realised a lot of this package involved a quasi "test of manhood". He offered this advice:

I really believe that we have to back off here a little bit and forget who has the political margin to play with, who is in front, who has the biggest loan and who has not. Maybe it is time for the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Nick Xenophon and others to put their hardware on the table, maybe subject themselves to circumcision and revisit this debate.

Now that is oratory!

And with that let's end the week on an upbeat note, and in lieu of the $42b stimulus coming our way, here's a clip of the sadly forgotten 80s band Wa Wa Nee and their hit, Stimulation.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bluffing for a $42 billion pot

Today Nick Xenophon voted against the Government's $42b stimulus package. Throughout the day the Government had been doing deals with the Greens - knocking $50 off the cash handouts to be channelled towards green and local "job creation initiatives". Fielding couldn't be accommodated, basically because his plan of $4b to be spent helping the unemployed was pure pie-in-the-sky stuff. But even so, he voted for the package, suggesting in his speech that the package was better than nothing (and he made note that the Liberal Party had not really come up with any stimulus package at all, so in effect there was no alternative).

Xenophon however put forward an amendment to:

(a) bring forward $3.1 billion in funding allocated to buy back water entitlements and accelerate implementation of the Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin program; and
(b) bring forward $2 billion of the $5.8 billion allocated to water infrastructure programs in the Murray-Darling Basin under the Commonwealth's Water Plan; and
(c) bring forward $250 million in funding for pilot stormwater harvesting projects through the National Water Security Plan for Towns and Cities; and
(d) provide for the payment of grants of up to a total of $2 billion under the structural adjustment scheme

Now bringing forward things seems an easy thing to do, as though it is costless. Of course it is not, especially if those billions of dollars are budgeted to be spent in a future financial year.

But the Government called Xenophon's bluff and voted against the amendment (so did the Libs), and then it turned out he wasn't. So all scuppered?

Nope. Bob Brown (who obviously knew what was going on, and knows a poker game when he sees it) moved that the Senate immediately be suspended and that it sit again tomorrow. Pointedly Xenophon voted in favour of this (had he not, the Bill would have been well and truly dead).

So tonight the Government will sit down with Senator Nick in the hope that he is not completely without intelligence, and do a deal.

There is no gain for Xenophon for the package to be rejected. He would also know that should the package be rejected, it won't be the Government who gets blamed by the voters (he also knows the Government will blame Turnbull, not him). But Xenophon also knows his bluff is only good if he gets something. If he folds now, he will have lost all credibility. The Government needs to know this as well. It's a precarious position for both sides (precarious I guess only if they actually want the package to be passed - which I believe both sides do).

Xenophon is hoping the Government was bluffing when it said it couldn't give him more money for the water buy-back, because otherwise he gets nothing, and so the Government needs to be able to convince him that it is not bluffing when it comes back with another offer. Otherwise Xenophon will vote it down - he has no choice now, he must get something.

My belief is the package will get passed, and Xenophon will be happy - his profile will be raised, he'll be able to tell the voters of South Australia that he stood up for them. The Greens will also be happy - they've got some concessions, and a pledge from the Government to do something about the pension in the May budget. Fielding will not be completely happy, but he'll vote yes anyway.

The only person completely unhappy will be Malcolm Turnbull who will have observed all these goings on, but because of his over-the-top stance of rejecting the package from the outset, has been completely irrelevant to the process.

He will bluster that the Government mismanaged the whole thing, and that Rudd treated the opposition with contempt etc etc. No one will care. Most people have no idea how parliament works; all they know is Rudd wanted to spend $42b to keep Australia out of recession, and Turnbull wanted to do nothing (ask yourself how many people could tell you how much the opposition suggested spending).

In this hand of poker, Turnbull was the one who went 'all in' - he bet every political chip he has. Unfortunately he's found that around the table the Greens were holding 3 of a kind, Xenophon a flush, and Rudd a full house. And when Turnbull turned over his cards, it was found that he had nothing but a lousy pair of deuces. His bluff was called by everyone.

One thing Turnbull should know about poker: if you look around the table and you don't know who the sucker is, it is you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Song a Year: 1986, Russians

There comes a point in every earnest wannabe angry-young-man's life when he decides the time has come to be political and think about issues affecting the nation and the world. By 1986 I certainly was thinking about the world most deeply, and it was influencing my music tastes. Sure INXS's Listen Like Thieves was a nice fun album, or possibly I could have gone for Mr Mister, or Peter Cetera, or Lionel Ritchie Dancing on the Ceiling, but when I went out, and for the first time ever bought a tape with my own money, it was Sting's Dream of the Blue Turtles that I chose.

The reason was based on the song "Russians", and the fact that a guy in my class told me it was great and that I had to buy it (and so I did: Grog the individual 0 - Peer Group Pressure 1).

Listening to "Russians" now seems impossibly quaint - can you really remember a time when we were worried either Russia or the USA might start a World War and use nuclear ICBMs to blow the crap out of each other and any other innocent nations who merely happened to have a secret listening post out in the middle of a desert somewhere?

It is hard to recall that in October of 1985 Reagan and Gorbachev met at Reykjavik to discuss nuclear disarmament - and what's more the world waited with interest to see what they decided - according to Wikipedia they "agreed in principle to eliminate all nuclear weapons in 10 years (by 1996)". Whew, glad it's now 2009 and we can celebrate 13 years of not having to worry about such weapons...

The song was accompanied by an equally earnest video - black and white, so you knew it must be very serious. At the time Sting was the go to guy for anyone wanting to be serious about world issues. Bono would quickly take his mantle, but in 1986 Sting was the singer you would most likely see sitting at a press conference next to some guy from the Amazon with a big disc in his bottom lip talking about deforestation or some such.

The lyrics refer somewhat incorrectly to a statement made by Nikita Kruschev that he made at the United Nations; Sting sings:

"Mister Kruschev says he will bury you/ I don't subscribe to that point of view/ Would be such an ignorant thing to do/If the Russians love their children too".

And while it sounds pretty sinister, what Kruschev was saying was that Communism will bury capitalism (yeah, ok not the greatest prediction), and not in a "we will kill all of you" kind of way, but bury you as in "outlive you" - the meaning of the phrase that is often used when talking to an elderly relative complaining about his ailments: "Oh Grandpa Simpson, you'll bury us all".

But still, minor issue. Sting was making a point that nuclear war was bad, and I was fully in earnest, serious agreement, and the rest of you frivolous people could go listen to Michael Hutchence "Kissin' the Dirt", or Falco rocking Amadeus, but in 1986, it was time to worry about the world (and be sure in the knowledge that one day you would be able to change it!).

(and by the way peer group pressure can still be good - the album was great)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Newspoll: ALP 58-LNP 42

On a day when politics didn't seem to matter much, The Australian released its latest newspoll.

It revealed that the voters seem to have not particularly liked Malcolm Turnbull's opposition to the stimulus package. The ALP increased its two party preferred from 54% to 58%, the LNP went down from a glorious 'high' of 46% to 42%. This was no shock (though to be honest I was half expecting a bit more narrower a result). My favourite analysis of this poll is by Dennis Shanahan (of course) who suggests that Malcolm Turnbull is "happy" with the result.

Apparently according to Dennis: "The Liberals have been encouraged by enthusiastic responses from supporters." (yes those ones who were going to vote for them anyway), and that "Even some MPs who were against opposing the stimulus package believe Turnbull's position has generated a positive reaction from Liberals who want the Coalition to fight the Government."

Positive reaction? That would be the same reaction that saw Turnbull on dis-satisfaction rating go from 31% to 38% (his worst result ever)? Or would that be the reaction that has seen 63% of voters believing the Government is doing a good job of managing the economy (and 31% of LNP voters thought this as well).

When 31% of your own voters think the other side is doing a good job, that pretty much means the only people left supporting you are those who would often use the phrases "a long cold day in Hell" "vote for Labor" ,"It'll be" and "before I will" in sentences.

Perhaps the Liberals are getting all warm and fuzzy about the fact that 52% of voters do not believe the Liberal Party would have produced a better stimulus package.

Yes, Shanahan thinks this is good for the Liberals:

But there seem to be some undercurrents of doubt about the depth of government debt.

It's clear that Coalition voters - the voters Turnbull has to win back - are the group who most think Kevin Rudd is doing a bad job and overwhelmingly believe the Coalition could do better.

As well, the over-50s, including pensioners and self-funded retirees, are the least supportive of Labor and the most against the stimulus package.

Undercurrents? Dennis please, try a bit harder, and give us some proof, or is the fact that 50% of those over the age of 50 did not believe the Liberals would have devised a better stimulus evidence of happy times for Turnbull?

And yes, Dennis Shanahan, political editor of The Australian really did write:
"Coalition voters are the group who most think Kevin Rudd is doing a bad job"

In Dennis' next scoop he will point out that that mothers-in-law tend to support their daughters when it comes to arguments between husbands and wives.

Shanahan ends with this:

Finally, there is no clear message that most of the $12 billion in giveaways is going to be spent fast.

Except the Newspoll actually asked voters what they were going to do with the money. Only 20% said they would spend none of it (ie save it all). 63% said they would either spend all or at least half of it. 63%, sounds pretty clear to me - and coincidentally only 1% more than the percentage who think Kevin Rudd is a better PM than Turnbull. But then perhaps that is the figure Turnbull is most happy about and I know nothing.

The Victorian Fires

There is no way one can really put into words the horror of the Victorian fires.

I can do no better than recommend you read the account by Gary Hughes, that was on today's front page of The Australian. It is a 'happy' story from a day when such types of stories feel like they were in the minority. Here is an excerpt:

The house begins to fill with smoke. The smoke alarms start to scream. The smoke gets thicker.

I go outside to see if the fire front has passed. One of our two cars under a carport is burning. I rush inside to get keys for the second and reverse it out into an open area in front of the house to save it.

That simple act will save our lives. I rush back around the side of the house, where plastic plant pots are in flames. I turn on a garden hose. Nothing comes out.

I look back along its length and see where the flames have melted it. I try to pick up one of the carefully positioned plastic buckets of water I've left around the house. Its metal handle pulls away from the melted sides.

I rush back inside the house. The smoke is much thicker. I see flames behind the louvres of a door into a storage room, off the kitchen. I open the door and there is a fire burning fiercely.
I realise the house is gone. We are now fighting for our lives.

We retreat to the last room in the house, at the end of the building furthest from where the firestorm hit. We slam the door, shutting the room off from the rest of the house. The room is quickly filling with smoke. It's black, toxic smoke, different from the superheated smoke outside.

We start coughing and gasping for air. Life is rapidly beginning to narrow to a grim, but inevitable choice. Die from the toxic smoke inside. Die from the firestorm outside.

It is an incredible account.

Life is fragile, hug your loved ones.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Pour some sugar on me

Over on the Crikey website, the excellent blogger Possum Pollytics has produced some excellent graphs on the make up of Rudd's stimulus package.

Possum really has no right to call himself a blogger, because he has an unnerving tendency to use facts rather than opinion to support his argument.

He wondered about the claim that the stimulus was just a one off "sugar hit" (a nice little sound bite that the media loves so much). So he came up with this graph which breaks down the package into tax breaks-handouts and infrastructure spending (he also has more detailed graphs on the package on his site - definitely worth a read)

And what do we find? Well yes there is a big "sugar hit" now, but if you look at the next financial year of 2009-2010, there is just as big an "infrastructure hit". Then in 2010/2011 the infrastructure spending is still pretty big (around $8.25 billion - hardly small change, especially when Malcolm Turnbull thinks the entire package should only be $15 billion).

I guess the problem with selling this package is that Rudd didn't come out and announce the Snowy Mountains Scheme II.

While such a scheme would be nice and romantic (the "true believers" would be in raptures) the good thing about the education spend, and the roads and black spots spend is that the construction is Australia wide. It's a broad spend rather than a narrow deep spend (ie a tonne of money all spent in one area).

Now some of the commentary on the package has gotten a bit ludicrous. Dennis Shanahan thinks Turnbull has got Rudd on the ropes because of responses on "straw polls, talkback radio reaction and internet surveys". I do like some strong irrefutable evidence.

Over at The Age, Ross Gittins runs his economic slide rule over the package:

Since the revised forecasts are for real GDP to grow by 1 per cent this financial year and 0.75 per cent next financial year, you can see how much the Government is relying on this package to keep the economy out of recession.

Sounds like a pretty good reason for a Government to do something...

I doubt we'll escape it but, like most of the economists, I don't doubt the recession would be a lot worse without the various stimulus packages.

I agree - if we stay out of a recession, it'll be a technicality and it'll be by the skin of our teeth. But without the package? Do you really want to contemplate that?

In preparing this week's package, the Government has sought to comply with the Three-Ts rule of fiscal stimulus: measures should be timely, targeted and temporary.

The timely principle says governments should apply their stimulus as early in the downturn as possible.

Well that kills off Julie Bishop's "wait and see strategy".

Similarly, the targeted principle says the stimulus should go to those people or on those purposes most likely to get the money spent quickly. This favours governments spending the money themselves so that, at least in the first round of the money's flow around our circular economy, all the money is spent on consumption or investment.

This explains the support for spending the stimulus on capital works (now grandly named "infrastructure"). Trouble is, major capital works programs such as expressways, bridges and railways can take years to plan and get approvals for.

Almost 70 per cent ($29 billion) of the $42 billion is going on capital works projects. But Swan has tried to ensure the money is spent quickly by targeting it towards lots of quite small building projects.

Cue the phrase "shovel ready". Yep Snowy Mountains Scheme II sounds good, but how long do you think it would take to get going? Too long is the quick answer. It is a lot quicker to build a new library, science lab or school hall, especially as that building is not being done only in one place. (Still will need to get trained people to do it though... ah the skills crisis remains...)

Clearly, Swan's approach scores well on timeliness and reasonably on targeting, although this time the cash bonuses are going to many middle-income families who'll be more inclined to save them than would poorer people.

So get out there you middle class people - spend some money!

Malcolm Turnbull's argument that people would be more inclined to spend a "permanent" tax cut than a once-off bonus - based on the economists' "permanent income hypothesis" - isn't a strong one empirically.

"isn't strong" is a nice way of saying "complete bollocks"

Finally, the temporary principle says everything you do must be a once-off (even if spread over a few years) so that it leaves no impediment to getting the budget back into surplus once the economy is well clear of recession. Swan gets full marks on that bit.

OK, look Gittins is just one opinion, but the criticism that the government is just wasting the money in cash payouts lacks credibility. It asks you to believe that the Treasury went to the Government as said, look we need to pump up demand in the economy; you can do this two ways, spend $12b on a cash payout, or spend $12b on a huge infrastructure program the like of which you have been dreaming of for the 12 years you were in opposition. And then you'd have to believe the Government said, hell, we don't want to spend money on a big incredibly popular infrastructure program, we want to throw away $12b to buy votes because we have only won every single opinion poll since 2006, so we're feeling a little bit nervous given the election is 2 years away.

Please. The ALP LOVES infrastructure programs. It is embedded in its DNA. Every ALP PM worth his (or hopefully one day, her) salt would love to do Snowy Mountains Scheme II - if only because (if you want to get cynical) a lot of labourers and construction workers vote Labor.

Peter Hartcher (no doubt with a lot of inside info) writes how the stimulus package actually was worked out:

The hardest part would be to stimulate the early part of the year. Any projects big enough to influence the overall growth of the economy take years to mobilise. Rudd and his ministers wanted results in weeks and months.

They decided to simply send out cheques in the mail. It was the fastest way of getting money out the door.

The Government had done the same thing in December when it mailed $8.7billion to pensioners and lower-income families. Now they would do it again, handing out $11billion in "bonus" payments, most of it in $950 wads for families, in the first half of the year.

Cash handouts, however, are a poor kind of investment. They leave nothing of any value for the economic productivity or the social capital of the country. Rudd and his group decided that the cash would taper out and the emphasis would switch as quickly as possible to investment.

OK, so they knew cash is bad (but a necessary choice), so what to do about longer term investment:

But what sort of investments? For speed and effectiveness, the economic advice was to make them geographically diffuse.

Gillard's office had suggested for last year's stimulus package that schools be allocated big construction grants. This was rejected for the December package, but now its time had come.

Rudd proposed a grant for any householder who wanted to insulate a home. Officials were sent away to develop the details. Among other things, they had to covertly research Australia's capacity to produce, and install, pink batts.

In the final package, schools were awarded a total of $14.7billion over three years for building and maintenance. A further $3.8billion will go to home insulation.

But what about that horrible debt Malcolm Turnbull cares so much about (I swear you'd think Turnbull bought his own house with cash)?

Rudd was worried that the stimulus plan would get the Government into serious debt and wanted a plan to get it out again. He asked the Treasury for some fiscal rules. Henry came back with a number of alternatives, and Rudd adopted the Treasury's preferred option.

This was a pair of guidelines. First was that once growth returned to its long-run trend of 3per cent, any extra revenues would go towards reducing the deficit. Second was to limit the rise in government spending to 2per cent in real terms once the crisis had passed.

So there you are readers - hold them to it.

Hartcher writes one final thing:

The Strategic Policy and Budget Committee of the cabinet considered many scenarios and hypotheses, and, so far, only one event has taken Rudd and his ministers completely by surprise - the decision by the Opposition to oppose it.

I guess they foolishly assumed the Liberal Party didn't want Australia to go into a recession.