Monday, June 25, 2012

Winter reading invites tales of politics and the lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteful

The Media Pack at the ALP National Conference
Suddenly, Last Winter (Bob Ellis) Apart from the name dropping and minute by minute account of Bob’s life, the point of this book remains unclear. In a few places I wondered why we needed to know, for example, that he ate a hamburger and two lattes or what time he went to bed. But it is a good account of the game that they call politics despite it being a little vague and lacking substance. This would be good summer reading for those who love books about Australia’s strangest election (of which there are not many) as well as “Political Hacks” and “Game Players” of which there are hundreds. 

Campaign Ruby (Jessica Rudd) is a story of a political novice on her first election campaign. I must admit that I am not a great fan of the “Chick Lit” genre but I did find this book entertaining not only because it is about a favorite topic but it was fast paced enough to keep my interest. It was a little predictable at times (eg Ruby falling for journalist who later turns out to be a rat) but on the whole it was great if you needed light reading or a distraction from everyday life.            

Kevin 07

Inside Kevin 07 (Christine Jackman) This book reads like a text book for political campaigns and well researched, detailed and well written. It describes how the Kevin07 team understood Australia’s political psyche.  For the first time in many years the ALP were able to offer up a strong and discipline campaign that used successful communication and social media techniques. It is a book that highlights that their campaign was so successful that removed one of Australia’s longest and popular Prime Ministers not only from the top political job but also took his seat. I thought it was prophetic when writer Christine Jackman asks “But what if winning in 2007 was really the easy part?” History shows that it probably was.

Andrew West had his finger on the pulse when he wrote "Inside the Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteful". I found this book to be an accurate portrayal an aspect of Australia's Class System (opps, there I said it) and part of our society that Australians deny exist. I kept of giggling while I read the book as I recognised myself and others in his look at contemporary Australian inner-city life. It is short, to-the-point and well worth the read.  

This is a laugh out loud book on the last 50 years or so in politics. You might be forgiven to think that Phillip is one of the "faceless men" of Australian politics but in reality he's more of an astute observer and commentator. It's the humorous insight on the personalities that have come and gone over the past 50 years and what happens behind the scenes that makes this book so enjoyable.   

Dostoevsky identifies health risk in working a dead end job

Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that ‘deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark raving mad’.  I have to admit that I totally agree with Dostoevsky’s argument because meaning, along with fulfilment and satisfaction, gives value to your life and make it worth living.

While work is not the “be all or end all” of human existence, most of us have to spend enough time at it to make a positive or negative impact on our wellbeing.  

If you are unlucky enough to be working a job just to pay the rent and to stay off welfare, you know how draining it is to operate in a role and environment that fails to bring you very little satisfaction or adds meaning to your life.

Linda R. Hirshman in her book entitled “Get to Work.... and get a life before its too late” (2009) argues that Western civilisation has been based on the idea that life’s ultimate goal is to be all that you can be by using your talents and capabilities to the fullest and being rewarded for it.

But some jobs are not designed to be fulfilling or use an individual's skills and abilities but are still needed for our society to function, for example Nursing Assistants, Garbage Collectors and Hotel/Office Cleaners.

Having spent a year as a Nursing Assistant, I am struggling to with find meaning from it. 

Part of the role of an Assistant in Nursing is to sit there and watch patients who have dementia, delirium or some kind of alcohol or drug related “episode” which means that they are no longer grounded in reality. So Assistants have to sit there and make sure that they get to the toilet ok, don’t abscond or pull at their IV drips and/or catheter.

Being “on surveillance” as it is called, staff regularly feel the same mind numbing boredom that you get on a long haul flight except they are going nowhere fast. They often feel like a nagging mother repeating themselves again and again for 8 hours in a row.

How can just sitting there looking after the mad, bad and the sad be using people’s talents and capabilities to the fullest or can be defined as being satisfying or that it brings meaning to life?

Philosopher Alain du Britton, when writing about what people do all day, argues that meaning derives from helping people and seeing your work contributes to society. He writes ‘When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others’ (2010, 78). This should make working in a nursing related job more meaningful but somehow, in reality and from my humble experience, it is the opposite. This shows how the very concept of what constitutes “meaningful employment” is very difficult to define.
 As a role, Nursing Assistants have no autonomy or control of what they do or when they do it - their existence is micromanaged. It is like being a pack horse in scrubs whose job it is to literally bring up the rear.

This notion of autonomy has a direct link to how satisfied you are with your job. There are countless articles and books that show how having an element of autonomy and accountability in your work can raise the levels of satisfaction as well as productivity.

Rick Nauert, for example, writes Experts say that workers who believe they are free to make choices in the workplace — and be accountable for their decisions — are happier and more productive” (2011). So when looking for a role that would be remotely satisfying, (regardless what it would be) an element of autonomy would be what would make it meaningful and not something that would make you go stark raving mad. 

While my current position as a Nursing Assistant satisfies my primordial work ethic, it lacks intellectual stimulation that adds to a satisfying position. Or maybe I am just burnt out!!

Maybe being an over qualified arts grad with no experience of economic value means that I'm destined for underemployment. Perhaps I'm one of those over-educated, hyper-opinionated Nursing Assistants who wiz around the ward trying to discuss Chinese diplomacy in Africa with patients, who keep on wishing I'd just shut up and clean up their faecal accident.

When the dementia and faecal accidents all get too much I just think of the money and that it pays the bills as well as that while its uncomfortable being in purgatory, it won’t last forever. It can’t!

List of References

De Botton, A. (2009) The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (London, Hamish Hamelton)

Hirshman, L.R. (2006) Get to work and a life before it is too late. (London, Pengin Books)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Is lobbying changing EU democracy?

The world has undergone major political changes in recent times. This includes the shift away from the dominance of national government to control at a regional level. 

As a result, old norms and ways of doing things have changed. One example is the changing roll of national governments in the European region and in particular the rise of interest groups and the importance that they play in policy development and the exchange of ideas.

The question is whether these interest groups enhance or diminish democracy in the European Union.

I want to argue that, because of the changes to global political governance (which includes the rise of global institutions, regional trade and governance blocs, as well as the challenges that they pose to the Nation State), interest lobbying groups have altered the meaning of the EU democracy in a way that threatens its existence. This is well illustrated in the current European economic crisis.

While traditional democratic methods such as citizens’ participation in the parliamentary elections may have worked in the past and still work well at the national level, changes in the global political system to include a new level of government at the European level might well see changes to what we regard as democratic.

Kingdoms and later the nation state have not always been in total control of domestic affairs. Europe is now very different now that kings are no longer the ruling power. Not only has power become largely secular but the autonomy of national governments has decreased. 

 As power shifts from the national to the supranational, Beetham and Lord raise the interesting conundrum which faces the EU. They argue that on one hand ‘the only valid source of political authority lies with the people’ (1998, p. 6) but at the same time raises questions about how this concept applies to the EU when they say that ‘the legitimising belief that the people constitute the ultimate source of political authority’ raises acutely the question ‘who constitutes the people?’ (ibid).

This idea of ‘who constitutes the people’ and ‘does the EU have legitimacy’ is in danger of losing relevance when the turnout to EU elections appears to be decreasing at an alarming rate. Malkopoulou cites that citizen  participation in the EU elections peaked at 62% in 1979 with a 3% periodic drop (7% drop occurring in 1999) at each election to a grand total of 43% turn out in 2009 (2009, p. 1). These figures raise an interesting question regarding how society engages in the democratic process. If only 43% of the voting population of Europe turned out to vote in its elections, does it make the region really democratic and representative of its citizens?

On the other hand, while the number of voters in elections is decreasing, the number of interest and pressure groups are increasing at an alarming rate (Watson and Shackelton, 2009). This issue of electoral apathy is a complex one; it does signal that maybe democracy is changing from the traditional voters casting a ballot for those whom they want to represent them, to advocacy undertaken by interest groups around a particular issue – not necessarily chosen by voters.

Lobbying groups are becoming more part of the political landscape as time goes on and the reasons for this are many. As this blog has already discussed, both the development of a supranational government and the number of people voting in European Parliament elections are decreasing each election, resulting in a change in the nature of European democracy.

Watson and Shackelton argue that ‘ever since the 1970s, the number of organised interests has grown six-fold from the mere 400 or so such bodies existed at the time’ (Watson and Shackelton, 2009: p. 3). These groups range from business groups similar to chambers of commerce and trade unions who represent a membership, to international non-government organisations who often agitate around a particular issue such as environmental sustainability, womens affairs or animal rights.  

To some extent, the distance between the individual citizen and the EU political structure maybe a factor in the voter turnout. Therefore, as individuals become more an arm’s length away from the European institutions, they are less likely to vote than they would for their national parliament. While the voter turnout has never been high in countries such as Great Britain, where voting is not compulsory, the EU institution has not communicated the role that they play in the national politics and in the every-day lives of their constituents.

Another point is that the distance issue requires more resources and know-how to access the decision-makers at the Commission who develop policy and legislation.  The perceived distance between the citizens and the European government, resulting in the lack of interest in EU politics has caused democracy to shift from representing the citizens to representing only the opinions of the interest groups that lobby the decision-makers.

Since interest and business groups are very aware of how EU politics influences their business and organisational goals, they are more likely to engage with the political process and they have had to develop strategies to overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’. As Coen and Richardson point out ‘the creeping competencies of EU institutions and the establishment of the single market, in addition to pulling interests into the political orbit, also altered the political nature/structure of domestic interest groups, with an increase in cross-border activity, joint ventures and political alliances’ (2009, p. 7). Coen and Richardson mention another reason why interest groups join together to approach the EU policy makers; it is the rise of issues that come under EU control and legislation, making it more important for smaller groups to ensure that their voices are heard by those who govern them.

Another aspect of this debate is that the EU is also quite happy to develop a relationship with a ‘coalition’ of interest groups. Since the EU has limited access to funds it often struggles to develop research as well as hire expertise because both of these come at a price. On one hand Research and information is vital to the work of the EU, and without it Brussels would struggle to be relevant and effective.
On the other hand the relationship poses the question of how reliant is the EU on interests groups and the services that they are keen to offer in return for access to European Commission and Parliament Staff and the hoped-for ‘favourable’ outcome of decisions they make. Even with the work that the EU has done to improve transparency and set clear guidelines for the relationship between the EU and the lobbyists, there are still many questions regarding how much value the current structure adds to the democratic process. These still need to be answered.

Whatever your views on this issue, it appears that interest groups have filled the void left by a decrease of political engagement by citizens. Since it is instilled to those in western liberal democracies from early childhood that individuals or “the people”/demos have a role to play in our democracy, it is difficult to say whether the filling of this void by interest groups has been a positive paradigm shift. However, the rise in the number of interest groups may not be a negative. While the number of groups goes up, so does the diversity of interests that are represented. 

List of References

Beetham. D. and Lord. C (1998). Legitimacy and the European Union. (London and New York: Longman)

Coen, D and Richardson, J (2009) “Learning to Lobby the European Union: 20 Years of Change” in Coen, D and Richardon, J. (eds) Lobbying the European Union: Institutions, Actors and Issues. (Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press)

Malkopoulou, A (2009) Lost Voters: Participation in EU elections and the case for compulsory voting(Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies)

Watson. R. and Shackelton. S., (2008) “Organized Interests and Lobbying”, in: Elizabeth Bomberg, John Peterson and Alexander Stubb, The European Union: How does it Work? (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Paradise found at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2012 took place over a week in May and since I am an avid fan of the written word I was compelled to attend this festival of books and big ideas.

Even though it meant taking an overnight flight from Perth to Sydney, I soon realised that it was going to be a weekend to remember.

Not only did I get to spend 3 days in one of the most wonderful cities on the face of the planet but I also was able to attend talks on a whole range books and topics. I was also looking forward to being challenged and exposed to many new ideas.

The first session of the Weekend in Paradise was on Capitalism where Italian Economist Loretta Nappleoni was interviewed by the ABC’s Alan Kohler.

After giving a brief overview of economic history, Nappleoni articulated many of today’s economic ideas and problems including how to address youth unemployment and the lack of economic instruments available to governments to protect their national economy.

She also compared the economic growth of China with that of the West. One interesting point that she made that while Reagan and Thatcher were  making economic decisions for the 3 or 4 year election cycle, Deng Xiaoping developed economic plans for the next 30 years. 
Nappleoni also spoke about Europe and how monetary union will not be effective if there isn’t a strong unified fiscal policy in place. This makes sense that if there is a common currency as well as budgets covering foreign aid, EU infrastructure and a common agricultural policy, there should be an effective common method of collecting taxes to support the EU’s work.

She pointed out that the mobilisation of labour isn’t as easy as it is thought due to the lack of a common language. Nappleoni also warns the Australian Federal Government to look towards 2050 and be wise in its management of natural resources.

The next session was with two pretty young things - Benjamin Law and Marieke Hardy who gave a funny account of writing autobiographies and how they handled the interpretation of personal and family stories. 

After a Long Mac, my sister Jacques and I moseyed on across to Sydney Theatre where we ushered into this dark auditorium (this is very bad for anyone who has been up all night, let me tell you) for a discussion between Annabel Crab and Joe McGuiness on Ex Vice President nominee Sarah Palin. While I do not share her views, it is still fascinating to try and understand why on earth she almost became vice leader of the world’s most powerful nations.

Here is to not being married and having kids
Looking back, I wish I had attended ‘why get married when you can be happy’. It was interesting to find that, on posting the info about this session on my facebook page, several of my West Australian Baptist friends immediately reverted back to their default position in promoting marriage as the ultimate way of being.

Pity they discussed this podcast without actually realising that the session was about “the diversity of life styles offered to gay people”. If marriage is so wonderful, how about we allow gay people to participate?   

After a wonderful day on the harbour, beers with a friend in Newtown were scheduled.

Sunday at the festival started off with two writers discussing some of Sydney’s famous cases. These cases were about the Judge who tried to avoid paying a speeding fine and the other was about a murder on a cruise liner. I’m not sure that they warranted having a book written about them but it was interesting all the same and shows the dramas that humans can’t seem to avoid.

Next was a panel discussion about bullying and how though it can be as well as how it can impact the choices that you make throughout your life. Someone once said that those who are bullied at school end up having the most interesting lives and the panellists were testament to this.

Mid afternoon saw a saunter back to the Sydney Theatre, Queensland Independent MP Bob Katter was interviewed by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  Katter was promoting his new book initialled ‘An Incredible Race of People.
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