Thursday, March 27

The skills of persuasion

The following post won't make much sense unless you watch this YouTube video first:

Roy Beck is an articulate, long-standing opponent of any move by the United States to increase immigration. His views would appeal to many Australians, and the video, you should agree, is persuasive.

But before we allow ourselves to be persuaded, it's worth looking at how Beck emphasises his points.
  • Beck graphs population levels (the Y-axis) against years (the X-axis). He sets his baseline at a US population of 200 million, so the trendline rises steeply when population rises to 220 million. Start the Y-axis at zero population, and the rise would be almost imperceptible. It's not dishonest, but it can mislead an uneducated viewer.
  • The extrapolation of trendlines into the future is a hairy business at the best of times. Not much more than a century ago, some forecasters said streets would be knee-deep in horse manure as we tried to move all the extra people and their wares around our burgeoning cities.
  • Noddies. If, God forbid, you're a fan of TV current affairs shows, you've seen noddies. A producer goes back and films the interviewer nodding her head, then inserts the clips at appropriate points in the previously recorded interview. Beck focuses his camera on a succession of audience members as they nod thoughtfully.
  • Yet nowhere in the YouTube clip do you see Beck and his nodding audience at the same time. As he delivers his spiel, nothing in the vision shows he's talking to a live audience. Perhaps he is. You'll have to take it on faith.
  • You can't blame Beck for such professionalism, but his confident, articulate and forceful delivery may tend to distract people who should instead focus on the content of his address.

The gumballs demonstration at the end of the clip is clever, but is the US – or Australia, for that matter – really proposing to take millions upon millions more immigrants as an act of charity to relieve poverty and over-population in Third World countries. Really?

We can draw up many arguments about the appropriate levels of immigration, and where the migrants are to come from. I have my thoughts, and you have yours.

What we cannot deny is that immigration is vital for nations, such as Australia or the US, where the birthrate has fallen so far they are not replacing those who drop off the twig. Where will we find the nurses to staff our nursing homes?

In my next post, I expect to tell of Kanyini, a film about Aboriginal loss, and the way the film is being used in Yarn Up, a new schools project to help our children better understand Aboriginal life. Once again, I've paused to make sure any assessment goes further than my first emotional response. Please come back.

Saturday, March 22

Young Libs roll out the tumbrels

“The Senate Committee on Un-Australian Activities is now in session.” A few people shuffle their chairs, then the hearing room falls silent. The Senator fixes her gimlet eyes on the fellow standing before her.

Typical of his type, she thinks. A bit weedy. Tweed jacket with worn leather patches. Longish hair, thinning on top. A glance at the dossier shows he's never achieved tenure. A quiet word with the vice-chancellor about funding and he'll be out on the street.

The Senator sighed. Why can't they all be this easy. Not like that so-called expert she had to shout down at the committee hearing she conducted last year.

Some fellow called Dr. Alex Wodak who had the impertinence to think he knew more about drugs than she did. Thought she'd be impressed because he was president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Association and was also a senior staffer in the drug and alcohol treatment unit at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney.

Well, she'd showed him. She'd written the committee report, and made sure it pushed her zero tolerance approach to drugs. These so-called experts need putting in their place.

The same place, she thought, as these dangerously biased academics. She focused again on the hapless fellow in front of her.

Her first question is blunt. “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Greens?” The man nods, and almost inaudibly says, “Yes.” “And are you prepared to name the other members of your cell?” This time the man speaks up. “No!”

The Senator nods to the attendants, who lead him out. There's no time to be wasted – the Young Liberals are hauling another tumbrel to the door.

Perhaps I'd better move on before I mix any more metaphors, or add to the hyperbole. But whatever can the Young Liberals be seeking with their current campaign urging members to record biased university lectures and report them to the federal office?

Young Libs federal president Noel McCoy told The Australian's Higher Education section: “Lecturers and tutors are brazenly forcing students to agree with their political or ideological views and we want to catch them doing it.

“I think the public would be very concerned if they knew what was going on, so we're trying to raise awareness and get our politicians to take action.”

And yes, Mr McCoy called for a Senate inquiry.

In case you think the Young Libs were able to dream this up for themselves, their campaign copies a similar movement in the US led by conservative commentator David Horowitz.

It's reassuring to know the future of the Liberal Party is in good hands. Right now there's a danger it may fall under the control of moderates who say lack of compassion explains the party's loss of government in every Australian parliament (the biggest legislative body in which it has power appears to be the Brisbane City Council).

Just this month Gerard Henderson's Sydney Institute provided a forum for two Liberal wets, MHR Christopher Pyne and Senator Marise Payne. Pyne called for a replenishment of the party membership, “bringing new ideas, destroying rotten boroughs, creating a phalanx of new campaign workers, fund-raisers and political candidates”.

Senator Payne noted that the Liberal Party sought to be a broad church, the custodian of both liberalism and conservatism, but she also said that as a member of that church, “I have on occasion felt that only one side of the congregation was welcome at the service”.

Senator Payne also brought up the “C” word. When she'd asked traditional Liberal voters why they had switched, “the answer was, often, that we lacked compassion.”

“For example, older women, who had been giving to the collection plate at their church for decades to support the dispossessed and disadvantaged, did not accept or understand our approach to refugees – in particular the detention of children.”

portrait of Nick Greiner
Even more confronting for the hard-line conservatives was a speech this month by Nick Greiner (left). Some 700 guests turned up at the function to mark the 20th anniversary of the election of the Greiner state government in New South Wales.

Greiner is something of an eminence grise for NSW Liberal Party supporters, although he has never been able to topple the party's dominant “Uglies” faction.

He may have been the state's best post-World War II premier. Already a highly qualified and respected corporate manager, he reformed the state's public administration and financial structures after winning office in 1988.

Pragmatic rather than ideological, he worked constructively with the economic reform program of Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating.

But Greiner's premiership lasted only four years because of the tawdry Metherell affair. Dr Terry Metherell was Greiner's Education Minister but became a liability with his arrogant ideology – such as refusing to allow a new university to be named Chifley, instead making it the University of Western Sydney (a pejorative term at the time) – as well as some claims about tax avoidance. After Greiner dumped him, Metherell resigned from the party to sit as an independent.

Greiner then offered Metherell a highly paid public service job, Metherell quit the parliament, and the Libs won back the blue ribbon seat of Davidson.

Greiner found his actions assessed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption – a Greiner creation – which ruled it was corrupt conduct. Greiner appealed to the courts and won a ruling that ICAC had erred. But it was too late. Greiner was out.

At that time one could feel sympathy, but with many of us it went up in smoke when he became chairman of a major Australian company which kills people as part of the ordinary course of its business – British American Tobacco.

That's all old history, of course. Greiner has moved on to other boardrooms and other challenges. What is interesting is that the other day 700 people listened attentively as he told them the Liberal Party needed compassion.

In an interview with Andrew Clark of the Australian Financial Review, he explained: “The truth is the electorate is changing. It's becoming slightly more feminine, left brain, whatever part of the brain it is.”

As the community changed, any political party needed to understand the changing nature of its markets.

"The truth is the environment and compassion are now part of the middle ground . . . There's nothing in Liberalism that suggests you have to allow these issues to be the exclusive preserve of your opponents."

Try telling that to the Young Libs.


Read The Australian's report on the Young Libs' campaign and why one Young Lib changed classes, plus comments here and here . To be even-handed, Grumpy Old Journo tried to offer a link to the Young Libs' website, but got this message instead:

"There is a problem with this website's security certificate. The security certificate presented by this website has expired or is not yet valid. The security certificate presented by this website was issued for a different website's address. Security certificate problems may indicate an attempt to fool you or intercept any data you send to the server. We recommend that you close this webpage and do not continue to this website. "

You must be an Australian Financial Review subscriber (or take a 14-day free trial) to read Andrew Clark's article online, but you could read the SMH report highlighting invitations to developers to kick in $1000 a head to attend the dinner.

Summaries of Christopher Pyne's and Senator Marise Payne's speeches are here.

Taking the mickey out of the Young Libs is not one of life's more challenging tasks, but Lisa Pryor of the Sydney Morning Herald did it better than most. She wrote that she would not be at all surprised if the average teacher turned out to be more left-wing than the average citizen.

"This should be self-evident. Teachers are unlikely to be diehard capitalists or economic rationalists: by definition they have chosen a path which is economically irrational.

"Teachers waste perfectly good tertiary educations on doing a job with pathetic pay, with little opportunity to exercise entrepreneurial skill, bargain individually or get promoted to a fancy sounding position. It is almost as if they have a warped value system which regards community service as more important than personal advancement. "

She's not surprised the Young Libs have heard stories about teachers being biased against policies such as Work Choices – "a marginal and extreme view shared only by the Labor Party, the Greens, the churches, the majority of the voting public and most of the Liberal politicians still left in Federal Parliament."

Monday, March 17

Of moonflowers and breaking the rules

There's always a good way to waste time. And sitting here in the early hours, trying to get this Grumpy Old Journo blog back on track, I find myself drawn to the need to make another cup of tea, then take it out into the backyard where I can admire the moonflowers.

This is our original plant, growing from a tub beside the back gate. After we hacked it back, some of the prunings rooted in the compost heap and we planted them out on the other side of the house.

Those creepers have now laced themselves through a rampant bougainvillea pushing out over the roof, as well as climbing up a lemon tree which desperately needs someone with a chainsaw to prune it low enough for us to pick the lemons.

Sigh. The whole place is starting to look like one of those abandoned farmhouses you see during country drives. It's going to take days of chopping and pruning and chipping and mulching before it resembles a respectable suburban home again.

But on a moonlit night, there's little that could be more spectacular than the flowers of Ipomoea alba. They're a lustrous creamy white, about 14cm in diameter and saucer-shaped, with a small cluster of yellow-tipped stamens in the centre.

By mid-morning, each bloom has withered to resemble a crumpled sheet of tissue paper. By mid-afternoon, the ground underneath is littered with the spent blooms.

But look back up to the creeper, and it's covered with tulip-shaped buds, ready to burst open into the new evening's moonlight.

The moonflower is a relative of the common morning glory, Ipomoea indica, but took a different evolutionary path to achieve cross-pollination by attracting moths, not bees. Like morning glory, it could get out of control in bushland, so be responsible when you dispose of prunings. Check this warning by the Weed Society of Queensland (click through to "Weeds In Focus", then the January 2006 listing of moonflower).

Otherwise, it's a plant to enjoy on a bright night. And a plant which would fire up conversation if things get a bit boring at your next dinner party.

--- oooOOOooo ---

Most weeks, I put a little time into volunteer tutoring at a high school, usually in English but sometimes in geography or history.

And sometimes, if I think I've got the right sort of student, I'll lean forward to share a secret: “If you can do it better by breaking the rules, go ahead and break them. Really. You just may achieve a better result. But first, know the rules and why they exist, and why your way is better.”

In more than fifty years as a journalist, I've seen dramatic changes in the way English is used – and most, but not all, of those changes have enhanced our ability to convey information and ideas with precision and vigour.

When I was still a cadet, one might receive a letter which began: “In reply to your telephonic communication of the first inst.” Today, does anyone know their “inst.” from their “ult.”?

Teachers were still rapping the knuckles of pupils who began a sentence with “And”. As for a fragmentary sentence! Or a split infinitive! Egad! What's the world coming to?

--- oooOOOooo ---

So now, well after my formal retirement, I'm sitting at my keyboard knowing that I'm breaking rules. Some, such as my digression into topics (like moonflowers) unrelated to the main thrust of my blog, may just help me offer a more enjoyable experience for readers.

Others, like offering long essays to people too busy to read long essays, may be counter-productive. There, I can only defend myself by saying I'm frightened of being superficial, a fault I see in too many blogs.

Nor do I want to be a blogger who snatches items from The Australian and adds predictable and boring comments.

Is cowardice breaking the rules? That came to mind the other day when the Vatican presented a new list of sins relevant to the 21st century.

I looked in vain for any suggestion that celibate old men living in palaces on the other side of the world might just be in error when they tell hundreds of thousands of women in third-world countries that they would sin if they were to ask their HIV-infected husbands to use condoms.

Call me a coward, but I'm unlikely to go further down that road.

But there is one rule I regret having broken: Post frequently to a blog. If for some reason you can't, put up an explanation.

It must be about a month since I last posted to Grumpy Old Journo, and that's not much of a reward for anyone who returns to see my latest words.

My next post may be on compassion and the Liberal Party. No, honestly. The top Libs are now all talking compassion. But never fear – the torch will soon be in safe hands again. As I write this, the Young Liberals are organising dossiers on academics who show dangerous leftish or Green tendencies. You think I'm joking?