Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Janet Albrechtsen, Prospectuses, Show Trials, and dreams of demonic sheep

(Above: demonic sheep at the Goulburn Soldiers' Club).

You haven't truly experienced the full horror of the world until you've spent a dark and lonely night in the fog, driving around in circles in Canberra, lost and unhappy as you look for shelter and find only urban planning designed to make you feel like a rat in a maze.

Eventually you find your way around, but you haven't beaten the city, you've just become a rat who's learnt to get to the end of the maze and be rewarded with a peanut.

The first hint of the horror to come is provided by the unknown genius who punched out the eyes of the sheep on the wall of the Goulburn Soldiers' Club and inserted LED's, thereby giving the sheep a demonic presence, guardians on the first outer ring of hell.

It's my suspicion that people first become members of the right wing commentariat after they've experienced the rigors of a designed city, with its very own, frequently absurd government, in a place where sheep should still be reining supreme today. The grand vision is actually a soulless, artificial entity built up from scratch, where some wag thought putting the nation's parliament underground, topped with grass and dirt, expressed something grand when actually it hints at a mole fetish.

Anyhoo, you can understand why certain scribblers develop a deep fear of politicians, and perhaps that's the best way to approach the meanderings of Janet Albrechtsen in Political deception must be penalised.

The poor thing is still upset by the government's spruiking of Ruddstra - clearly she hasn't read Glenn Milne's story about how the bush and marginal electorates are going to bring down the government for failing to include them in the grand scheme.

She lists a panoply of promises broken by politicians, and even manages a few bipartisan examples, and wonders if politicians should be held to the same standards as the treatment recently doled out to the James Hardie mob for their cynical behavior towards victims of asbestos.

Sadly she decides it'd be too hard, which is a pity because there's a few religions I wouldn't mind taking to court for a litany of failed prospectuses and broken promises.

But her alternative idea shows she perhaps stayed in Canberra too long one night, and it affected her mind:

... here’s an idea that would lift immeasurably the standards of honesty and ethics during the most critical period in the political cycle without freezing vibrant political debate. Let us require all political parties to prepare and publish carefully considered election manifestos. Importantly, let us subject these once-in-three-years documents to all the content and liability requirements of a prospectus. If it’s good enough to protect investors when they purchase shares, it’s good enough to protect voters when they elect a government.

This would mean that political parties must reveal to voters all the information then known to them, or that could, with due diligence, have become known to them, that would have a material effect on whether voters will vote for them. Voters would then understand, for example, that Labor’s 2007 election promise of a computer for every school student was not costed to include all-important school infrastructure costs.

Bizarre, because of course without any punitive sanctions, all she's describing is what politicians do already. They put out detailed and considered statements of policy, and then proceed to flout, break, ignore or tear them up once in power, and as practicalities and circumstances impose new realities on them.

... there would be an obligation to include risk factors, mirroring the same obligation placed on corporate directors when preparing a prospectus. Voters would then more fully understand, for example, that Labor’s election promise of using $4.3 billion tax dollars to fund a private sector broadband network was high risk and might morph into a $43 billion publicly contracted network.

If the election prospectus is misleading or deceptive or omits material information, the party and those responsible for the prospectus could be prosecuted by an election regulator, playing a role akin to that of the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.

The party and its leaders would have due diligence defences to enable them to show they exercised care in preparing the election prospectus and acted reasonably. But if they failed to make out those defences, a suitable penalty could be applied: perhaps the deprivation of public election funding. Why should taxpayers fund parties to be misleading?

Ah now I get it. Like any good member of the right wing commentariat, Albrechtsen is a resolute Stalinist, and would love a good show trial or two in which politicians could be hung, drawn, quartered, and strung up on a line to dry - with Canberra the perfect town to do a repeat of the witches of Salem.

It's a perfect, if idle fantasy, so naturally she's very keen to flesh out the details:

All other forms of political speech would remain exempt. So it would remain possible to make glib statements and tell the odd fib at doorstops or press conferences. But these statements would end up being measured against the election prospectus. Though only political tragics and professionals would read the prospectus (as is usually the case with corporate prospectuses), it would transform the debate because commentators could measure the well-spun doorstop line against the more carefully phrased prospectus.

This would undoubtedly make politicians more careful and less colourful. It would require them to add caveats to their promises by thinking more carefully about them. But the result would be worth it: better considered election policies and a better informed electorate.

Yep, it's a perfectly formed fantasy, and I've always thought fantasies are the best indicator of the rich inner lives of tormented souls. Like small children, bullied by peers or disciplined by parents, it's the "I'll show them", "I'll teach them", "I'll learn them" mentality of the disempowered in search of revenge.

In the end, all it allows Albrechtsen is a dream world, a fantastic world where a change in law would prohibit politicians making baseless claims about the future. But could we also have a change in the law which prohibited columnists making baseless claims about the present, let alone the future?

The timing for such reform is surely perfect. Our Prime Minister preaches about the high cost to ordinary Australia of corporate excesses and dishonest dealings in business. Surely, before he adds to the vast weight of corporate regulation, he should first - for the sake of ordinary Australian voters - submit politicians to a small sliver of the rules that already apply to business.

Actually Janet, as you and other members of the commentariat continually note, Kevin Rudd just wants to be John Howard, and acts and deceives just like that political master, though he has perhaps achieved a further layer of zen tedium which makes him a rough equivalent as a politician to Gerard Henderson as a columnist. And the reality is, a master spruiker like Howard could sell you a great prospectus, fail to deliver, then prove at his show trial that in fact it was the Australian people who failed him. It'd be fun to watch, but not particularly enlightening or informative.

Still it must have been a nice fantasy, with the only actual bit your end punch line, which you apply to politicians, but which could in fact be nicely tweaked to apply to scribblers and the urgent need to give them a sliver of corporate law.

After all, we don't need columnists moralizing about the need for lots of regulation, or show trials of politicians, for everyone except themselves.

Anyhoo, next time you read Albrechtsen, bear in mind that with this fantasy, you've seen deep into the dreaming of a lawyer, and it's just trial and punishment, Stalinist style, as the end game. That'll learn 'em, like the way the James Hardie mob got learned. It'll explain a lot of what you read in her other columns.

And now it's off into the wilds of Canberra, after a night of being an android dreaming of electronic sheep.

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