Thursday, September 30, 2010


Frank Miller’s best known work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was written at a turning point in the comics industry. It was 1985, the start of what has now been called the ‘Iron Age’, a period where the stories became darker, more violent and (sometimes) more skewed towards a mature audience. Deconstruction of characters was common; the better of these took characters apart to explore how they worked and then put them back together again, the more ham-fisted just tore characters apart and left them wounded.

The Dark Knight Returns revitalised interest in Batman. It brought us many of the modern Batman tropes, most importantly the link between Batman and his villains (positing the idea that without Batman, the villains wouldn’t exist), Batman as sociopath acting out against legitimate targets (not directly supported by the narrative, but this can be read in) and The Joker becoming a mass-murderer (with successive writers each trying to top the atrocities of the previous). All of these ideas have been used badly in successive years, but we can’t blame that on the original, which has become a classic.

A classic which I re-read recently in order to re-examine the ideas it raised. I’ve long felt that it was a piece of flawless quality which has been tarnished by its poor imitators. I have since revised my opnion, first of him, now of it. My attitude towards Miller has soured over the years; I found 300 to be not only objectionable, but boring. The follow-up to Dark Knight Returns, titled Dark Knight Strikes Again, I found virtually unreadable drivel from start to finish. Upon re-reading the original, among the genuine insights, I found poor writing, woeful stereotyping and precisely the sort of juvenile, ego-charged power trip that has marked Miller’s later works. I still found it to be a good read, though certainly not flawless. Part of this is due to his characterisation of Batman: in particular, the pleasure the man takes in inflicting harm on criminals. While he refuses to kill, he is not averse to injury; in fact, he takes actions that result in injury to his opponent even when other options are available, and expresses no remorse when criminals die, even in painful ways.

All in all, what struck me most is the same thing that occurred to me while reflecting on Saving Private Ryan. That, too, was a piece that deconstructed the war movie. It showed the gore and violence that affected and twisted soldiers and was purportedly about finding humanity in the midst of war. What it utterly failed to do was extend the same courtesy to the enemy. The Nazis remained the same faceless, unknowable, implacable enemy that they have been in virtually every other World War II movie ever made. The one Nazi who gets anything like a persona is a prisoner they allow to live... and who returns to kill Tom Hanks and is later executed by the peaceful war correspondent. For a movie purporting to be about keeping one’s humanity amidst atrocity, it certainly went out of its way to justify atrocity.

In The Dark Knight Returns, the criminals are interchangeable. Most of them wear goggles or other facial adornments that render them impossible to tell apart other than colour scheme (the one criminal who wears anything different is, ironically, a neo-Nazi). While Batman and his personal nemeses are deconstructed, the ‘criminal’ is presented as a faceless enemy to be despised and crushed. They have no redeeming features, no individual personalities. They are caricatures of humanity. They are not to be understood, not to be empathised with. They are to be hit until they stop moving. There is no problem in Batman’s crusade that cannot be solved by hitting it hard enough and the only thing that stops him from cleaning up Gotham is the Government, in this case represented by Superman (who is little more than the President’s stooge).

This is the attitude I find disturbing. It’s what lowers Dark Knight Returns from a serious deconstruction to a power fantasy. ‘What if we just beat up criminals?’ it asks, with the answer being: ‘It would be AWESOME.’ If this attitude were isolated to this work, it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, the criminal element is similarly-portrayed in other works (including much of modern Batman) and, unfortunately, real life. People in reality call for the execution of violent offenders, justifying their statements by saying: ‘They chose to be criminals, screw ‘em.’

While in fiction, power fantasies are relatively harmless, in real life, they are damaging. Crime and poverty are societal ills, but cannot simply be dealt with by hitting people. Increasing sentences tends not to reduce crime; it just makes us feel better as we take a proxy revenge against anyone who’s hurt us in the part. We empathise with Miller’s Batman because there is a part in the human psyche that enjoys being a bully. We cast our enemies as faceless evil because that justifies our actions, turns them from bullying into some form of a noble crusade against the criminal infidel.

Simple answers are attractive. We naturally prefer simplicity in our explanations. But Occam’s Razor tells us which explanations are preferred, not which are correct. Sometimes the simple answer is right. Sometimes the complex answer is right. There are indeed some problems violence can solve. In this case, I’m afraid of the people who think that hitting people solves everything.

And the comic? Well, I still think it’s pretty good. It has a glaring flaw, but Miller hadn’t quite descended into the madness that characterised his later works. A lot of it is there – the violent, hyper-masculine protagonist; the two female characters in the story were a tough lesbian (who hates Batman) and the former Catwoman, who runs an escort agency; the equating of optimism with naivete – all of which were magnified in his future pieces. As it is, it really is one of the best Batman stories. I just wish that while he was deconstructing Batman’s relationship with his named villains that he put some effort into Batman’s relationship with the criminal element.

(Yes, I'm a comic nerd. Amid the posts on politics, expect some on comics, books, movies and TV from time to time.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Faith vs Trust

There is a particularly insidious attack on science, one which attempts to undermine the whole basis of rational thought. This is one that has appeared in many avenues, including normally science-supporting, left-wing arenas. It is this: that science, like religion, requires faith. That to believe in the big bang, or evolution, requires you to hold that belief with faith, just like believing in the God of the Bible.

I want to state this very clearly: this is false. I fear that all too often, this idea is adopted by those who either have religious faith in order to defend their faith from rational inquiry, or by those who wish not to offend the religious by subjecting their faith to such scrutiny and feel that a statement of ‘Hey, we all require faith’ eases relations.

Truth, we may say, is more important than sophistry.

First, the definition I will use from here on is ‘scientific inquiry’. By this I mean observation and analysis of phenomena and the search for rational explanations which can illuminate our knowledge of the world and also be used to make predictions. I include not only the traditional sciences, but also the ‘soft’ or social sciences. This form of inquiry requires evidence. If there is no evidence for a claim, then that claim cannot be made with any form of authority. ‘I do not know’ is not an excuse to fill in the gaps with something for which there is no evidence. In short, simply because we do not know for sure where the universe came from, there is no rational basis for assuming it was created by a deity (especially a particular deity). Claims such as ‘God made it so’, ‘water has a memory’ or ‘it must have been magic’ do not help us to understand the world around us. Statements such as ‘disease is caused by germs’, on the other hand, allow us to investigate these things called ‘germs’, find out why and how they create disease, and how we can prevent that. It leads us towards further knowledge. Claims of supernatural intervention prevent further investigation.

So when Stephen Hawking claims the universe’s origins can be explained via natural means, he isn’t simply making things up. He isn’t saying that, for certain, the universe began this way. He is speaking out of knowledge – knowledge that telescopes can see a very long way away; that relativity and the speed of light mean that seeing a long way away is the same as seeing far back in time; that the indications are that at one point, the universe occupied a single space. Could he be wrong? Of course; any self-respecting scientist must admit that. But he is not exercising faith. Rather, he exercises his reason.

Now, the situation is different for non-scientists. We read books (or opinion blogs) and accept the conclusions in them. How is this different to reading the bible, or a book on acupuncture, and accepting those claims? The difference is that science has the best track record of success in terms of analysis and prediction. Alternative medicine has yet to produce significant results from the vast majority of treatments, homeopathy remains nothing more than water, dowsing has failed every test assigned to it. The history of religion is filled with failure of prophecy and a view of the physical world that has proven to be incorrect in every case that has been able to be analysed. Scientific inquiry has brought us effective medicines, weather monitoring, communication. It increases our understanding of the world on a daily basis.

When comparing the track record of science and other philosophies or beliefs in their ability to illuminate the natural world, we need look no further than this track record and ask whether science is worthy of trust. The answer is clear – it is. When evolutionary theory predicts that particular fossils should be found in a particular area, there they are. When analysis of those fossils suggests a particular lineage, DNA analysis backs that up. When the theory of relativity predicts time dilation and increase in mass as objects increase in speed, experimentation proves this (in fact, GPS satellites would be inaccurate without an understanding of relativity). Religion, of course, is not denied by science; there may well be a God out there... though certain aspects of various faiths are explicitly denied by scientific inquiry. This may be the true root of dissatisfaction with science from some areas of the community; not only religion but also homeopathy, chiropractic, astrology and the coal industry.

So when I say that I accept evolution, the big bang, relativity or climate science, I don’t do so through faith. I do so because science has the record to back it up. It has a power to bring understanding to the natural world that is possessed by no other philosophy or institution. I trust the scientific community when it makes bold pronouncements, because it does not do so if the claims are not justified. If a book tells me that the world was created in seven days, or that by drinking this pure water I will cure my insomnia, I ask: ‘where is the evidence?’ Science does not require faith, it requires understanding. To those who lack that understanding, the trust many of us have in science looks indistinguishable to faith. This does not change the essential character of our relationship with science: that it is rational and justified, requiring no leap of faith or logic to accept and trust its conclusions.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Clive Hamilton, the Greens candidate for the Higgins By-Election last year, has concluded a series of essays at The Drum concerning the anti-science nature of climate change denialism (that term being used for those who are against climate change on an ideological basis –rejecting all evidence for and embracing all evidence against – as opposed to those who are genuinely skeptical).

I could go further into the issue of climate change. I instead link to his articles, the website Skeptical Science, and the video channels for Potholer54 and Greenman 3610 which lay out all the issues for and against in excellent detail. In short, don’t believe the backlash: the issue is settled science, the scientific community has spoken. It’s up to the non-scientific community, and particularly the political community, to decide what to do about it; but simply denying the science is not a reasonable option.

I will instead broaden the discussion to include all anti-science brands out there. This trend is limited not only to the climate, but any area where science tells people that what they believe isn’t true. While certainly not the first example, the most famous is, of course, Galileo being forced to recant his findings in front of what was effectively an inquisitorial court. His reputed utterance ‘E pur si muovre’ proved to be more durable than his public statement and science won out in the end: the old Church model of the heavens as the perfect heavenly abode ended. It is important to note that in centuries prior, the Church had been the bastion of learning and research. Roger Bacon, one of the most-cited figures when discussing the origin of the scientific method, was a Franciscan. The Church supported research, copied books and extended as well as preserved knowledge. It was only once science began to show that certain church teachings were wrong that the power of Holy Mother Church was turned against the scientists.

So it is today with evolution. While the modern Catholic Church has no problem with evolution (as is true for most Christian churches around the world), there exists a surprisingly large fundamentalist, literalist backlash against the theory, both Christian and non-Christian; since while there is nothing stopping anyone from both accepting evolution and believing in a liberal interpretation of various holy texts, evolution does explicitly oppose strictly literal readings. We end up with public figures making fools out of themselves in their ignorance, showing their misunderstanding of radiometric dating, fossil records, thermodynamics and even the meaning of the word ‘theory’. They oppose evolution because they must; because to eliminate the cognitive dissonance they feel when their beliefs oppose reality, they decide to deny reality instead of adjusting their beliefs.

So it is also with homeopathy, along with much of the rest of alternative medicine. Homeopathy is focussed on specifically because it is to utterly anti-science, so opposed to scientific inquiry and rationality that it beggars belief. More on homeopathy can be found in this article and this video. The synopsis is that homeopathic remedies are simply water sold at enormous volume. Yet the defenders will insist that they work, based on anecdotal evidence and a lack of understanding of the placebo effect. When science tells them that they don’t work, that the benefits they feel have other explanations, they reject science. While homeopathy itself is rather harmless, it can lead to the sick not seeking competent medical care, or even rejecting it outright, as in the case of not only homeopathy but (more importantly) AIDS denialists or anti-vaccine campaigners. These two are deadly serious concerns, fuelled by general anti-science sentiment.

One simply cannot attack science on one of these issues without weakening it overall. The arguments used against science in each of the above areas (and others) are precisely the same: misrepresenting the state of the research, seeing debate as evidence of uncertainty instead of science’s greatest asset, dismissing science as not having all the answers, claims of conspiracy and suppression... to use any of these arguments against climate change is feeding into the arguments of those who oppose it on evolution. By opposing science on homeopathy, you give power to those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS.

If science is to have any place in the modern world, then we as thinking human beings must accept its findings regardless of whether or not they are convenient to our beliefs or ideologies. This is not to say that science is always right; but it is the institution with the greatest record of accuracy in the history of human inquiry. This is because it has no central organising theme or aim other than the search for truth. It does not ever claim to have found The Truth, either; science does not ever rest, even a ‘settled question’ (even climate change) is open for debate and will be overturned should new evidence contradict the dominant theories.

Most importantly, it is made up of people who advance their careers not by mindlessly repeating what luminaries in the field say, but by proving those luminaries wrong. If there is an angle to attack popular theories, they will be attacked. If they fail, they fail regardless of how popular they are or how well-regarded the scientists behind them: in science, theories are given prestige because they are right, not because they say something comforting.

We should follow that same ethos.

Euthanasia and choice

An example of what I was talking about in my last column has cropped up in the national media; very kind of them. The euthanasia debate has centred around rights – the right to life versus the right to choose to end it. The pro-euthanasia side, mostly on the Left, has been sounding very much like the right on this one, talking about the individual right to make one’s own decisions. The Right, meanwhile, has been... not so much sounding like the Left, but certainly putting societal interests ahead of individual. They do it for different reasons: in the case of the right, it is fear of what the change will bring and traditional concern for the sanctity of human life.

In a perfect illustration of why the ‘the Left cares about society, the Right cares about the individual’ meme is wrong, we see the Right putting forward slippery slope arguments (on The Drum (20/9), Tom Switzer used that term no fewer than three times in fifteen minutes) leading inevitably to the downfall of society. (Make no mistake, slippery slope arguments have their place; but that place is when outcomes are indicated by evidence such as historical trends, not simply as ‘if this happens, this other thing might happen!’)

Further, the arguments of the more-or-less Left show that indeed, the Left is concerned about the individuals; it’s just which rights they’re concerned about vary from the Right. Nor is it purely about government intervention: in this case, the government is already intervening and the Greens bill is trying to get them to stop. It’s a complete inversion of the conflict set up by the meme, extreme enough to be the exception that disproves, rather than the exception that proves.

This is because it is not an abandonment of principles by either party; the Right, which in Australia is actually genuinely conservative to some degree, is opposed to change, while the Left seeks a more just society, in which we do not force people to live who do not want to, at least in particular circumstances (a cancer patient in the final stages of the disease is a very different case than a teenager who is convinced that her life is over). These are the true colours of each side of politics; the ‘individual vs society’ meme is a cover for social conservatism and tyranny of property, not the actual motivating factor.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Freedom vs Capacity

A companion meme to ‘The Left wants to expand government’, and one more commonly seen in Australia, is: ‘The Left cares about the State and Society over the Individual, the Right defends individual rights.’

Again, at a simplistic and superficial level, this is appealing. The Left does traditionally put more emphasis on social programs, welfare and laws that protect minorities from prejudice. This includes laws that infringe on property rights, such as not allowing shop owners to bar individuals on the basis of race, or telling tour companies they have to allow women (or men).

Not exactly the way I’d put it, of course. As is often the case, the simple explanation is superficially pleasing but not the whole story. Here’s my version: that the Right is, traditionally, concerned with increasing freedom, yes. Freedom as defined as the theoretical ability to act in any way one chooses; the lifting of formal or legal barriers to action and choice. The Left, meanwhile, prefers to act to increase capacity: that is, the actual ability of an individual to make the choices he or she is theoretically free to.

This is a narrow distinction, but an important one. I feel it’s one not given sufficient attention in mainstream political philosophy, though sociology has written extensively about it. The basic premise is that even though we might be theoretically free to follow a particular path, there are usually obstacles in our way that prevent us from doing so. These could be personal (such as natural ability, emotional issues, drive and motivation), situational (access to resources, location, time and place, socio-economic status) or cultural (notably prejudice). In short, an Aboriginal man from Redfern is less likely to ascend to the highest level of politics or business than a white male Christian born into a wealthy family.

In an ideal world, both would be entirely free to achieve their every ambition; on this, Left and Right agree. The difference between the wings of politics is rather what they see as barriers and which barriers it is appropriate that government deal with. For the Right, the government must necessarily concentrate on economic issues; to the Left, the government has a more proactive role in shaping the cultural and social agenda.

And so we see that neither Left nor Right is more concerned about the individual than the other. Neither can really claim that they are ‘The Party of Individual Rights’. What differs, rather, is which rights they see as the most important: property rights or social equity. The former relieves formal or legal barriers to advancement, while the latter removes practical barriers.

In the future, I will expand on what I perceive these barriers to be, and what the responses to them are.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Media Burning

There is a clear difference between ‘old media’ (traditional print and televised news services) and ‘new media’ (blogs, YouTube channels, social media). Our thinking as a culture is still very much stuck in the ‘old media’ mindset – that things don’t happen unless the cameras are turned on. If we examine thethe  timeline of the development of the recent story about burning of the Qur'an by Pastor Terry Jones, this point is clear. According to The Guardian, traditional media outlets only took up the story after it had already started rolling.

First, I would like to modify our understanding of ‘old’ vs ‘new’ media. There have always been sources of information other than formal print and televised journalism. In the 1980s, when journalist John Pilger wanted to talk about things that he couldn’t broadcast on television, he turned to alternative media. In this day and age, he might have started a blog, but in his case he wrote books: books about events that were insufficiently covered by traditional media, books about the media industry itself. In a different context and time, when political organisations wanted to talk about the suffering of the black population of South Africa, they used traditional media, but they also organised protests, wrote pamphlets to be distributed at events, held talks at universities.

And so the argument that ‘new media’ is novel is itself a false narrative. Rather, the already-existing informal media dynamic has changed. The resources required to create a video or informative pamphlet have changed, now that a webcam can be used to upload a video to YouTube, or a site such as Blogspot can host your words for free. Therefore, the volume of informal media has increased. This is not new, just different and bigger than before. It’s far easier for a single individual or group to get mass attention, especially when the message is inflammatory.

It’s interesting that the people who fed the story about the Korna burning were not proponents of the event, but people opposing it. The facebook comments were overwhelmingly negative; even the first semi-mainstream (where?) report was negative. The outrage sparked a buzz, and that buzz increased in volume until the traditional mainstream media outlets simply could not ignore it.

So while many comments have been aimed at Big Media for pushing this story, I think those are mis-aimed. Big Media took it up only when they had no other choice. My advice would be aimed instead at the people who stormed in outrage: Don’t Feed The Trolls. The power the individual holds in the current media environment puts an onus on the individual to be at least a little responsible.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's all about context

Stephanie Rice is in trouble for using A Bad Word. She’s been dumped by her sponsor and under fire for being homophobia as a result... but a teammate, who is gay, defends her by saying she isn’t. How can these be reconciled?

It’s easy if you understand one thing: it’s all about context. Offensiveness always is. Absolutely anything, no matter how innocuous normally, can be offensive in the wrong context... and absolutely anything offensive can be passable in the right context.

To expand on that: I use the word ‘faggot’ with some frequency. Other words, too. The context in which I use them is one where the people who hear me know that I mean them as parody more than seriousness. When I call my friends ‘faggots’, they know that I am making fun of the sort of people who use the term, not of the people who are usually targets.

However, if I used the same word in the same way in public, the context would be different. The people around me might know what I meant... but many would not. Not only would some of those who hear take offence, but they should; because some of those who hear and do not understand what I mean would be emboldened by hearing me. They would not be offended because they like using whatever word I just came up with. The more people they hear using it, the more likely they are to have their views reinforced and not only use that word, but act in a way consistent with its mainstream intent.

Too often, our discussion of racism, sexism and homophobia focus on the words we use instead of the ideas we express. This is why ‘Dr’ Laura Schlessinger was attacked for using ‘nigger’ 11 times, when the far more offensive statement she made was to tell her female black caller (who was complaining about her husband’s friends using the same word) that if she was so easily offended, she shouldn’t have married outside her race. She got away clean from that truly repulsive statement because most of the onlookers (though fortunately, not all) were too distracted by ‘The N-Word’. This gives her clearance to say that she was attacked for simply using a word... when she was actually attacked for being horribly racist. She probably wouldn't learn anyway, but this would be a good moment to talk about the attitudes in society that lead people towards racism... instead it was just about the Word.

I say: words, by themselves, are not offensive. The ideas they conjure and the contexts in which they are uttered make them offensive. Words to put down women, homosexuals and minorities are offensive not simply because they are designed to put people down but because they reinforce cultural memes of inferiority. They are a means of propagating not only prejudice, but prejudice that results in unequal access to society for those targeted by it.

For this reasons, I find nothing truly offensive about terms like ‘cracker’. The word might betray some crassness in the speaker, and I might decide I don’t like that person on some principle or another, but it lacks the sting that ‘nigger’, ‘kike’, ‘boong’ or ‘faggot’ do, because there is no societal prejudice leading towards unequal access to society for white men like me. Or rather, there is... but the inequality is in my favour. So the least I can do is to be a big man and suck up the occasional insult.

So I can understand where Stephanie Rice is coming from. I’m willing to believe her teammate and accept that she was tone-deaf rather than prejudiced. I think she should refrain from using certain words in public, but also that we should talk about why offence is caused, not simply use ‘That Is Offensive!’ as a politically-correct fire blanket.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Country Independents

This afternoon, we’re promised, we will find out where the three Country Independents will jump. Personally, my money’s on Labor. Only two of them have to go to Labor to guarantee another Gillard government, but they have been talking about wanting to move as a bloc, so it is possible that they’ll all lump in with the Coalition, giving them the 76 seats they need.

Thus far, Labor has been more responsive to the trio’s demands on costings and reform; the Liberals’ $11 billion budget hole didn’t help matters at all. Katter naturally aligns a lot better with the Coalition (in fact, he’s far to the right of them, being a Sir Joh man himself), but he has admitted that during their 12 years in power, the Coalition didn’t do squat for the country. I’ll point out that in the last Queensland state election, the Liberal party was routed – they ended up with so few seats that the Queensland Nationals actually dissolved the Coalition in that state. I wouldn’t be surprised if Katter held the federal Coalition in similar regard. The federal National Party certainly doesn’t seem to hold any sway in policy.

Meanwhile, seeing where Oakeshott and Windsor will jump is sort of like reading tea leaves. I said before that my money’s on Labor; this is just a sense I’m getting from them. Labor’s responsiveness and what the two (mostly Oakeshott, Windsor has been a bit quieter) have been saying. It’s just the impression I get, really.

If both of those go to Labor, you can bet Katter will follow. He’s been setting this up, with his comments about the Coalition failing the bush. You can also bet that he won’t want to be the useless 74th seat on the Coalition minority. Much better to get in with the side in power. Labor, meanwhile, might be better off without him, but they can’t exactly say no to him without annoying the other two, since they have wanted to move as a group. I do worry about someone so stone-age and what he’ll do to the party’s political stances.

Fortunately, all three have been immune to the barrage of ‘Beware the approaching Left-wing dooooom!’ that came out over the weekend. A chorus of current and former Liberal Party voices echoed the same claim, that the next Labor government would be ‘the most Left-wing in history’, thanks to the alliance with the Greens. At no point did they illuminate us on exactly why this would be a bad thing. Yet again, it’s the importation of an American meme: “Barack Obama is the most liberal member of Congress,” voters were told, despite the fact that his voting record put him at centre-left compared to other members of Congress, and actually slightly to the right of the population. Again, in both cases, nothing was said about exactly what would change, or why a left-wing government would be necessarily so terrible. Just vague warnings of: ‘Doooom!’ that might have come from any bad fantasy-novel oracle.

So we’ll see what happens this afternoon. Cross fingers, everyone.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Big Government

Another meme that has seeped through from the US to Australia is one of ‘the Left wants big government, the Right wants small government.’ This is a particularly easy one to fall prey to, because when you see Australia’s left wanting to mount big social projects, it looks accurate. There was a lot of focus on the competing National Broadband Network plans for precisely this reason, because they accorded to this narrative: Labor wanted to spend $43 million and get a government-built-and-owned network, the Coalition wanted to spend $6 billion to encourage private investment. Labor big government, Coalition small government.

That’s the small picture, though. It’s also confusing cause and effect. If all the left wanted to do was to expand government, it wouldn’t need the NBN as an excuse. No, the left wants to expand the ability of government to combat social problems. The latter is the cause – the former is the way of dealing with it. Sometimes this leads to an expansion in the bureaucracy. At other times, it means simply becoming more agile, more capable of dealing with problems that exist today instead of those that existed twenty years ago (or, in the middle of a financial crisis, even more rapidly).

This fundamentally comes down to a scare tactic. ‘Big Government’ is scary – it conjures up images of 1984’s police state. When we’re asked if we think more government bureaucracy is a bad thing, we can all remember times (usually in the recent past) where we’ve run afoul of bureaucratic red tape, providing a clear confirmation bias in such a question. Anyone who’s ever dealt with Centrelink knows how this works. It also relies on the confused meanings of ‘bureaucracy’ – a term that can apply to a smooth, well-functioning body but carries connotations of waste, mismanagement and of existing only to serve its own ends.

This of course need not be the case. Nor is it in fact a clear distinction between Labor and Liberal. The NBN aside, comparing proposals side by side, it’s really hard to tell whether either would actually ‘grow’ or ‘shrink’ government.

In short, this is not a meme based in Australian political reality; it’s an imported tactic, one which has found a lot of purchase in the US, where the Left is repeatedly hammered with charges of expanding government power, even though the Republicans were the ones who were pushing a true expansion of Presidential power, giving Bush’s Presidency a near-Royal scope.

Yet another thing I’d like to see squashed before it gains much more purchase on the political landscape here.