What’s been hot in July 2010

On this and the photoblog, that is. The overall view, with several hours to go, is that the Sitemeter for all the Floating Life blogs will be close to or slightly down on June, but this blog and the photoblog by WordPress stats are both up. English/ESL I haven’t checked yet. I will give the overall stats tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here is what people have been visiting in the past 31 days.

This blog

  1. Home page 1,145 views
  2. Contemplating climate change on a frosty June morning 120
  3. Fact and fiction and climate change 103
  4. Ben Eltham on Who killed the climate bills 83
  5. Claims that refugees and asylum seekers are living it up 80
  6. Monckton — the follow-up 73
  7. Martin Rees: 2010 Reith Lectures 46
  8. A couple of good pieces in the Weekend Oz 40
  9. In defence of Penny Wong 39
  10. Graham Little – Sad news 30

Photo blog

  1. Home page 492
  2. From the train window 1 – Sydney to Wollongong 20
  3. Mardi Gras Fair Day 4 – Mad Hatter 19
  4. Talking dog 17
  5. Wollongong Mall 17
  6. The amazing Surry Hills Library 1 14
  7. Sunday lunch: Trinity Bar Surry Hills – 1 14
  8. Glebe Point Road 6: Glebe Public School 13
  9. Sunday lunch: Trinity Bar Surry Hills – 2 12
  10. Paddy’s Market to Ultimo 2 – 12

Oz letter editor: disingenuous gatekeeper

Take today’s two on climate change. Such undistinguished and pathetic contributions to a pseudo-debate!

THE worldwide average temperature for 2009 was the warmest on record and 0.68C above the 20th century average ("Warming unmistakable — and worse here", 30/7).

But a more detailed reading of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s State of the Climate Report shows that the northern hemisphere made a significantly greater contribution to this figure.

The report also includes a section on greenhouse gases that acknowledges CO2 makes a contribution to the greenhouse effect, without qualifying the extent.

We should conclude that even though the world is warmer than the 20th century average, the rise is unlikely to be outside the normal range of variation over the long term.

It would be premature to attempt to reduce CO2 until a much clearer understanding of the other climate contributors are determined.

Peter Clark, Mount Gambier, SA

AS London diarist John Evelyn wrote during the winter of 1683-84 at the depth of the Little Ice Age: "Conditions were terrible with men and cattle perishing and the seas locked with ice such that no vessels could stir out or come in. The fowls fish and birds and exotic plants and greens were universally perishing. Food and fuel were exceptionally dear and coal smoke hung so thickly that one could scarcely see across the street and one could scarcely breathe".

Who in their right mind is decrying the progressive warming since the 17th century?

William Kininmonth, Kew, Vic

Take Bill first. Of course no-one is decrying the progressive warming since the 17th century. That is the strawest of straw men! I find it hard to believe such guff is worth printing. But I guess any crap he cares to write passes muster in The Oz, given his distinct lack of objectivity on the subject.

William Kininmonth is an Australian climate change skeptic. His only listed qualification is "Director of the Australasian Climate Research Institute" , but the Institute is listed as simply a trading name for "Kininmonth, William Robert", and is based at his private residence in Kew, Australia. It has no website, phone number or existence separate from Kininmonth.

He is listed as an "expert" on Kyoto issues at Envirotruth, was a member of Australia’s delegation to U.N. climate treaty negotiations, and until 1998 was head of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology’s National Climate Centre for 12 years.

His recent book launch was organised by the Lavoisier Group and was chaired by Hugh Morgan, the President of the Business Council of Australia. John W Zillman, President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, launched the book, "Climate Change: A Natural Hazard?"critiquing some aspects of the book.

In a letter to to The Age newspaper, Kininmonth wrote that "Greenhouse gases emit more radiation than they absorb and their direct impact is to cool the atmosphere."

Now for Peter who, it seems, has managed to read all 224 pages of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s State of the Climate Report 2009 and come to the amazing conclusion that “the northern hemisphere made a significantly greater contribution.”  Wow! Nor does he mention that this is entirely consistent with global warming projections, as you may see from this video of a +4C  world.

What is clear from the rest of the letter is that he hasn’t paid serious attention to what climate scientists actually say, or to the relevant physics. At the risk of seeming repetitious:

If you want as objective an account of the science as seems reasonably possible view the lecture series by Professor Richard Muller of the University California, Berkeley.

That video "deals with the physics of climate change, the data on global temperature and carbon dioxide changes, and some potential solutions. Also covered are the many mistakes that can be made, including the trap of exaggeration. He warns against the danger of cherry picking and overstating the case. When people discover that the exaggerated case is not valid, they may dismiss the problem altogether. Professor Muller has researched this topic for many years and has co-authored a book with Gordon MacDonald called Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes.

If you care to read Climate Assessment for the Year 2009 PDF you can draw your own conclusions.

I am sick of suffering fools gladly on this topic. It is no longer debatable that there is a problem called anthropogenic global warming, even if there is a proper degree of uncertainty — around 10% — on the size of the problem. The real debate is about what best to do, and "nothing" is the worst answer.

I am reminded of Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS policy in South Africa, a tragic mix of postcolonial politics and pseudoscience. The only serious publication in Australia to carry a flag for that pseudoscience was Quadrant! Kind of figures, doesn’t it? See Three magazines and an amazing AIDS story…

Where are the snows of yesteryear?

These make sad reading right now:

What we’ve lost 3

November 29, 2007

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Ancient conservative patriarch Peter Coleman (father-in-law of Peter Costello and Quadrant person in its better days) does not hold back: So what went wrong? The usual view is that the electorate, and above all the young, believe that good times come naturally. (“It’s the resources boom.”) It doesn’t matter, they think, who is in charge… [Read more…]

What we have lost: 2

November 28, 2007

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I would be the first to admit that Phillip Adams is hardly objective in his piece I quoted here yesterday, even if I agree with the general thrust of his remarks. Ross Gittins has a somewhat more sober assessment in today’s Sydney Morning Herald: A vote for honesty and decency. Wouldn’t it be great if… [Read more…]

What we have lost

November 27, 2007

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This is SO unfair! SPARE me the sentimental tosh about John Howard. Here’s why his departure is a joyous occasion. The scene: The Great Hall at the University of Sydney. The grand opening of a conference for the Centre for the Mind. Crowds have gathered to see Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon. As chairman of… [Read more…]


Martin Rees: 2010 Reith Lectures

Our Radio National is a touch behind, since these lectures have just begun here in Australia. I have heard the first of them. Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, is President of the Royal Society.

In the first of this year’s Reith Lectures, Lord Martin Rees explores the challenges facing science in the 21st century. We are increasingly turning to government and the media to explain the risks we face. But in the wake of public confusion over issues like climate change, the swine ‘flu vaccine and, more recently, Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud, Martin Rees calls on scientists to come forward and play a greater role in helping us understand the science that affects us all.

In the second lecture, not yet heard in Australia but available from the BBC, Lord Rees becomes more specific about a range of issues, including Climate Change.

…Another firm prediction about the post-2050 world is that, as well as being more crowded, it’ll be warmer. By how much is a matter of continuing research. The greater the warming, the greater the risk of tipping, for instance, gradual melting of Greenland’s ice cap or the release from the Tundra of methane, which would lead to further warming. And that’s the motive for attempts to reduce global consumption of fossil fuels.

The declared political goal has been to halve global carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050. This corresponds to a ration of 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, each person on the planet. For comparison, the current US level is 20 tonnes per person per year; European figures about 10; the Chinese level’s already 1.5; and the Indian is 1.5. In cutting these emissions, the richer countries must take the lead without stifling economic growth in the developing world where emissions in the short-term are bound to rise.

Success in halving global carbon emissions would be a momentous achievement – one where all nations acted together in the interests of a future beyond the normal political horizon. The meagre progress in Copenhagen last December didn’t instil optimism. On the other hand – odd though this may sound – the political response to the financial crisis may offer encouragement. Who would have thought two years ago that the financial system would have been so transformed that big banks were nationalised? Likewise we need coordinated, outside-the-box action to avoid serious risk of a long-term energy crisis.

The world spends more than 5 trillion dollars a year on energy and its infrastructure. There’s a glaring contrast here with health and medicine where worldwide R&D expenditures are much, much higher. The clean energy challenge deserves a priority and commitment akin to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo moon landing.

It’s sometimes said fatalistically that the UK’s stance on all this is of marginal import because our carbon emissions are only 1 or 2 percent of the problem. But we have leverage in two respects. First politically. We’ve earned international influence because of the UK government’s leadership ever since the Gleneagles G8 Summit, and because we’ve already enshrined in our Climate Change Act a commitment to cut our own emissions by 80 percent over the next 40 years. Second, we have the expertise to spearhead some of the technologies needed for a low carbon economy. We need to keep our lights on to ensure energy security for ourselves, but beyond that imperative it’s in our interest not to fall behind the Chinese in developing clean energy technologies that the world will need.

In wave and tidal energy, for instance, the UK could lead. We have the geography – capes round our coast with fast-flowing tidal currents – and we have marine technology from North Sea oil and gas. And since I’m speaking in Cardiff, I should highlight the Severn barrage scheme as well.

What about biofuels? There’s been ambivalence because they compete for land use for food growing and forests, but in the long-run GM techniques may lead to novel developments: bugs that break down cellulose or marine algae that convert solar energy directly into fuel.

Another need is for improved energy storage. In the US Steve Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist whom President Obama appointed as Energy Secretary, has given priority to improving batteries – for electric cars and to complement unsteady power sources such as sun and wind and tides.

What’s the role of nuclear power? I’d myself favour the UK having a replacement generation of nuclear power stations – and boosted R&D into ‘fourth generation’ reactors and into nuclear fusion. But one can’t be relaxed about a worldwide expansion of nuclear power unless internationally regulated fuel banks are established to provide enriched uranium and remove and store the waste. Otherwise there’s too much risk of weapon proliferation.

I think an attractive long-term option for Europe is solar energy: huge collectors – most maybe in North Africa – generating power that’s distributed via a continent-wide smart grid. Achieving this would require vision, commitment and public-private investment on the same scale as the building of Europe’s railways in the 19th century.

Some pessimists argue that the transition to a low carbon economy won’t happen fast enough, and that the international community should, as a fallback, contemplate a ‘plan b’ – being fatalistic about the rise in carbon dioxide, but combating the warming it induces by, for instance, putting reflecting aerosols in the upper atmosphere or even vast sunshades in space.

The political problems of such geo-engineering may be overwhelming: not all nations would want to turn down the thermostat equally, and there could be unintended side effects. An alternative geo-engineering approach would be direct extraction of carbon from the atmosphere. This approach would be more acceptable politically. But it seems to me right at least to study geo-engineering, to clarify which options make sense and which don’t; to explore the governance issues they raise and perhaps damp down undue optimism about a technical quick-fix of our climate.

Energy security, food supplies and climate change are the prime long-term threats without enemies that confront us – all aggravated by rising populations…

In the first lecture Lord Rees had shown an awareness of the limits of certainty that escapes most climate change denialists who are usually only too certain.

There’s no denying where science has recently had the most contentious policy impact, and where the stakes are highest: climate change.

It will feature, along with other global threats, in my second lecture, but I’ll venture some comments today too. As regards the science, there is, in my inexpert view, one decisive measurement: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it’s been for a million years, and is rising, mainly because of the burning of fossil fuels. This finding isn’t controversial. And straightforward chemistry tells us that carbon dioxide is a so called ‘greenhouse gas’: it acts like a blanket, preventing some of the heat radiated by the Earth from escaping freely into space. So the measured carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere will trigger a long-term warming, superimposed on all the other complicated effects that make climate fluctuate.

The predicted rate of warming, however, is uncertain – depending on the poorly-understood ‘feedback ‘ from water vapour and clouds, which themselves affect the blanketing. Nevertheless, even the existing uncertain science convinces me that the threat of disruptive climate change is serious enough to justify its priority on the agenda of this country and others.

This confidence may surprise anyone who has dipped into all that’s been written on the subject. Any trawl of the internet reveals diverse and contradictory claims. So how do you make up your mind? I’d suggest the following analogy.

Suppose you seek medical guidance. Googling any ailment reveals a bewildering range of purported remedies. But if your own health were at stake, you wouldn’t attach equal weight to everything in the blogosphere: you’d entrust your diagnosis to someone with manifest medical credentials. Likewise, we get a clearer ‘steer’ on climate by attaching more weight to those with a serious record in the subject.

There’s an excellent TV series by Rees which you may commence here:

The juvenile conservative

Tom Switzer may be forgiven for not knowing much about the arrival of Vietnamese boat people in Australia as he was hardly out of nappies at the time. But yes, Tom, there were boats, and Malcolm Fraser really did welcome them, just as Bob Ellis told you on ABC News 24 tonight. So, Tom, “Not by boat!”, as you so confidently stated, is really not quite the way it was.

True, Fraser went even further and organised flights for a whole lot more of them, and the far Left were totally unimpressed at the arrival of all these anti-Communist fascist “slopes” being treated so well. It was another time, you see.


Vietnamese boat people in Darwin Harbour in 1977

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Ben Eltham on Who killed the climate bills?

Today on ABC’s The Drum Ben Eltham has posted Who killed the climate bills?

John F. Kennedy, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, once said that "victory has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan."

Not so climate change legislation, which has now failed in both the US Congress and the Australian Senate.

Both defeats can claim many parents: climate change skeptics, conservative politicians in opposition, well-funded lobbyists, vested interests in industry, the complexity of the proposed bills, the failure of international negotiations, and the complacency of ordinary citizens. All have conspired to defeat flawed but necessary attempts by progressive governments here and in America to combat rising fossil fuel emissions and the warming global temperatures they cause.

Close followers of Australian politics are of course well aware of the torturous and repeated failure of the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in the Senate. After two efforts to get it up in 2009, the government gave up in April, marking the beginning of the end of Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership. Since coming to power, Julia Gillard has promised a citizen’s gabfest and a renewed effort to build consensus on the issue – but no price on carbon any time soon.

Across the Pacific, we’ve seen a similar story play out…

But who is really to blame for the failure? In another hard-hitting column in The New York Times, liberal economist Paul Krugman makes the obvious point that we should "follow the money":

"The economy as a whole wouldn’t be significantly hurt if we put a price on carbon, but certain industries – above all, the coal and oil industries – would. And those industries have mounted a huge disinformation campaign to protect their bottom lines. Look at the scientists who question the consensus on climate change; look at the organizations pushing fake scandals; look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you’ll find that they’re on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades."…

There are, incidentally, left-wing versions of climate change contrarianism, notably Alexander Cockburn of Counterpunch.

We should never be more vigilant than at the moment a new dogma is being installed. The claque endorsing what is now dignified as "the mainstream theory" of global warming stretches all the way from radical greens through Al Gore to George W. Bush, who signed on at the end of May. The left has been swept along, entranced by the allure of weather as revolutionary agent, naïvely conceiving of global warming as a crisis that will force radical social changes on capitalism by the weight of the global emergency. Amid the collapse of genuinely radical politics, they have seen it as the alarm clock prompting a new Great New Spiritual Awakening.

Alas for their illusions. Capitalism is ingesting global warming as happily as a python swallowing a piglet. The press, which thrives on fearmongering, promotes the nonexistent threat as vigorously as it did the imminence of Soviet attack during the cold war, in concert with the arms industry. There’s money to be made, and so, as Talleyrand said, "Enrich yourselves!" I just bought two roundtrip British Airways ticket to Spain from Seattle and a BA online passenger advisory promptly instructed me that the CO2 "offset" cost would be $7.90 on each ticket, which I might care to contribute to Climate Care. It won’t be long before utility bills will carry similar, albeit mandatory and much larger charges. Here’s a forewarning of what is soon going to happen, courtesy of Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times, under the menacing title, "Towards a true price for energy”…

But most contrarians come from the Right. In Australia Quadrant provides a very handy anthology of their arguments, including not only Cardinal Pell but also one of my Facebook friends! Two things struck me as I browsed.

1. It is remarkable how many of the contributions really come from a prior ideological or political conviction rather than from actual scientific considerations. Even the heading quote of the set confirms this:

“Today’s debate about global warming is essentially a debate about freedom. The environmentalists would like to mastermind each and every possible (and impossible) aspect of our lives.”

Vaclav Klaus
Blue Planet in Green Shackles

2. It is sad how they have in the past twelve months latched on to one debunked guru after another: first the egregious Lord Monckton; latterly the US radio weatherman and blogger Anthony Watts*.

In a comment on Ben Eltham’s post Old Bill asks: “How does one obtain a qualification to discuss climate change? Is there a B.Cli.Ch.Dis? Perhaps one needs to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society?”

Well, the good news is we don’t have to rise to the heights of election to the Royal Society as those already there have delivered their verdicts on climate science already: they respect it, they respect its methods, and they endorse its findings as far more credible than contrarian or denialist positions. My own position as (like most of us) a total amateur is 1) the more I read about the science of climate change the more sense it makes and 2) when I see people like Stephen Hawking, Lord May of Oxford (FRS since 1979 and former President of the Society), and our own Nobel prizewinner Professor Peter Doherty have no trouble accepting the conclusions of climate science then what weight should I give to dissenters whose views so often prove suspect?

If you want as objective an account of the science as seems reasonably possible view the lecture series by Professor Richard Muller of the University California, Berkeley.

That video “deals with the physics of climate change, the data on global temperature and carbon dioxide changes, and some potential solutions. Also covered are the many mistakes that can be made, including the trap of exaggeration. He warns against the danger of cherry picking and overstating the case. When people discover that the exaggerated case is not valid, they may dismiss the problem altogether. Professor Muller has researched this topic for many years and has co-authored a book with Gordon MacDonald called Ice Ages and Astronomical Causes.”

If you know a bit about physics already consider The Physics of Climate PPT. Nothing hysterical there.

Fact is just about every reputable scientific academy and journal in the world will give you the same answer: the science is at least 90% certain. Why contrarians want to go for the 10% of uncertainty as the part of the equation to base our policy responses just defies even everyday common sense. Of course the trouble is the observed changes so far really are very small, and the possible catastrophic changes are highly unlikely to happen quickly or in the lifetimes of us or even of our children, though there is uncertainty about that too as they may well happen rather more suddenly than predicted. What does make sense is to do all that is reasonably possible to mitigate future changes due to man-made components of climate forcing while we can. Adaptation to changes we cannot mitigate is also important, but the trouble is the more we debate and wait the less mitigation will be possible and the less pretty adaptation becomes.

Yes there is a debate to be had about the most effective forms of mitigation, and the following is I think fair comment:

But the current inertia really ought to be a concern.

Another good source of information I have not mentioned in earlier posts on this subject is The Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Meanwhile, another issue comes via ABC: Selling the farm is a special report by Radio National and the ABC News Online Investigations team.

Foreign interests including state-owned companies from China and the Middle East are increasingly looking to Australia to secure their food production by purchasing key agricultural assets.

The sale of agricultural land is exempt under Foreign Investment Review Board regulations and the FIRB’s attention is usually triggered only by the sale of companies whose assets exceed a $231 million threshold.

In recent years, and especially since the global food shortage in 2008, China, South Korea, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have all been engaged in massive agricultural purchases around the world and in Australia – as outlined in these maps of Australia and the globe.

New South Wales Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan says Australia risks losing control of its wealth-creating agricultural assets. He believes the Federal Government is not paying sufficient attention to the issue of global food security…

* I’ve been thinking about his famous expose of inadequacies of US weather stations (see the video above) and been wondering why he didn’t go on to say “the temperature in Godzilla NC today might have been 83F” whenever he did a weather report, as presumably he relied on these stations for his own weather reports. Unless he has his own network of people with cuckoo clocks all across the USA who SMS him whether the little man or the little woman has appeared that day.

Late addition

In defence of Penny Wong

Activists are foaming at the mouth about the following exchange that occurred on Q&A last Monday night.

DANIELLE RAFFAELE: My question is directed to Penny. Penny, you say that you support your party’s decision to be against gay marriage, even though you are gay yourself. How can you sit idly back and allow yourself to remain silent about the obvious inequality that you are kept in?
PENNY WONG: I’m glad you asked me this question, because I think it’s important for me to explain to you how I approach this issue and politics and the first thing I wanted to say to you is that by virtue of who I am, prejudice and discrimination are things I have some firsthand knowledge of and when I entered the parliament, I did actually think very carefully about how to handle being Asian and gay and in the parliament, because it hadn’t been done before, and I thought a couple of things. One of them was about how I would handle it personally, and that was to be absolutely open about who I am, to never shy away from that and try to be dignified, even when it might be difficult and part of the reason I did that was I thought it was very important to show that you should never be ashamed of who you are, even when there are people who would try to make you be, and I thought that was one of the best things I could do in terms of how I handled it. On the issue of, I suppose, reform, there are a number of us in the party – Anthony Albanese, Tanya, others, who have worked very hard to try and improve the parties position and policies on gay and lesbian Australians and I can remember in 1998 at a national conference I was at, I think Richo was there, was the very first time we actually had in the platform any reference to discrimination on the basis of sexuality. And since that time I think you’ve seen progressive improvements, modernisation in the Labor Party’s platform and at the last election we went to the election with the most comprehensive set of law reform in relation to gay and lesbian rights that the country has ever seen and we have delivered them all. We have delivered them all and they are important things. They are things such as parental recognition of children of same sex relationships under the Family Law Act. They are recognition of same sex relationships as de facto relationships in federal law, in Veterans Affairs, in terms of Medicare access. These are things which make a real difference to people’s lives. Now, I accept that you and some other people in the community would like us to have a different position in terms of marriage. That isn’t the position in the party but what I would say to you is do take a moment to consider what we have tried to do, what we have advocated for and what we have delivered for gay and lesbian Australians.
CHRISTINE MILNE: Well, this is a lack of leadership, I have to say. This is a real lack of leadership and this is another example of the prime minister’s lack of leadership. Virtually as soon as she became the prime minister she ruled out going to marriage equality. She ruled out getting rid of this vestige of discrimination and she went on to say it’s not religious. So is it historical? Is it cultural? And if it’s historical and cultural, it is the responsibility of the Prime Minister to lead this country to a better place and that is what we need to be doing and we’ll have legislation – we have legislation. We put it to the parliament before. It was voted down by everyone except the Greens. We will be putting it in there again in balance of power in the senate and we are hoping that this time whoever is in government will go to a conscience vote on this because I’m confident that the Australian community really wants to see this change and Julia Gillard should offer leadership in this regard.
TONY JONES: All right, I’m going to throw that back for a brief response to Penny Wong and I suppose the key question there is whether a conscience vote under the circumstances…
PENNY WONG: Yeah, I don’t agree with conscience votes and I’ll tell you why, and that’s also from a feminist perspective. If we’d had conscience votes in the Labor Party on a range of issues – well, we obviously have on abortion, but on other issues, there are many reforms which would not have been achieved. I have a view that you join a team, you’re part of the team and that’s the way, you know, we operate and people sometimes like that and sometimes they don’t but that’s…
TONY JONES: We’ve got one quick response from the audience there.
TONY JONES: Sorry, just hang on, Graham.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, just Malcolm Turnbull openly disagrees with Liberal policy on ETS. Why can’t you openly disagree with Labor policy on gay marriage?
PENNY WONG: Well, because, as I’ve said…
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Look, I’m amazed somewhat by these questions, really. You would not have had many of the things that have now happened that she’s already referred to if people like Penny weren’t in the Labor Party and weren’t pushing for them. There are a lot of people in the Labor Party who don’t agree with this stuff. At the moment there’s nowhere near a majority but there will be. There will be over time because Penny will work for it and it will get up in the end. But give her a break, for God’s sake. She’s part of a caucus. There’s a whole lot of them. She doesn’t run the government, she’s a part of it. A part of it. There’s a think called cabinet solidarity…
AUDIENCE MEMBER: She can have an opinion.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: …and if she wants to break it she gets nowhere. You’ll lose someone who fights for your cause. That, my friends, is dumb. Big time dumb.

My sympathies are entirely with Penny Wong, and Graham Richardson sums things up rather well.

It’s one thing to indulge in the romance and drama of activism, but it is quite another thing to accomplish real change in the real world. Penny Wong has clearly accomplished a great deal, especially given that the issue – sorry readers – is for most people quite marginal and unimportant and one on which the country is clearly divided. We are certainly better off than most countries as a result of the changes the government has managed to bring in.

My own view is that in the long run the government should register all unions between consenting adults equally and get out of the business of defining marriage. Leave that to the churches, and leave people to form the unions they wish, churched or not is up to them.

Of course that then raises rather more than gay marriage. Why not polygamy? Well, why not indeed? Also, note I said “consenting adults”… Where would that leave arranged marriages?

Nothing is ever as easy as it looks.


MG1978.s A couple of other bloggers who read this blog have posted since: Penny Wong, same-sex marriage and why you can’t change things within the Labor party (Benjamin Solah) and Lay off Penny — it takes all types to make change happen (Adrian Phoon). Adrian starts thus:

When I first read about Penny Wong’s comments on same-sex marriage, I was extremely disappointed — and, truth be told, angry. Here was a high-ranking cabinet minister who also happened to be gay. Yet here she was, proclaiming a need to respect one particular “cultural, religious, historical” view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

I wasn’t the only one who felt disappointed. Bob Brown claimed he was horrified. Tim Dick of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote passionately about Wong’s failure of nerve. This morning, Samantha Maiden has commented on abuse hurled at Penny Wong from within the gay community.

Meanwhile, the condemnations on Twitter and elsewhere rang loudly against Wong’s betrayal of the gay community.

By the time she appeared on Q&A on Monday, the attack had reached fever-pitch. When, inevitably, she was called on to discuss same-sex marriage, her words were measured — but also, I think, heartfelt…

I’m glad I have quoted the Q&A exchange in full; what I couldn’t capture is the emotion Penny was clearly feeling.

Let me stray into some history. In 1978 I was living and working in Sydney. Did I really notice the first Mardi Gras? (Poster on right.) No. What I did notice were the TV interviews around it, and they (and it) were products as much as causes of a movement going back earlier in the decade, partly motivated by cultural changes, such as the performance of Hair in Sydney, by the ideas sewn by the demonstrations against conscription and then against the Vietnam War in the late 60s and early 70s, by events overseas, by the lively weekly newspaper Nation Review which ran gay and lesbian personal ads, by TV soaps like Number 96, by the phenomenal pink safari-suited Don Dunstan as premier of South Australia, and so on and so on. The Mardi Gras parades were certainly part of the mix and those pioneers who took part, not all of them lefties either, certainly had courage and are to be honoured, but they were not the sole cause of the ultimate success of gay rights in NSW. What was happening was a climate where that success became more likely.

When success did come it was mainly down to George Petersen, member for Illawarra in the NSW Parliament, who lobbied from within the Labor Party and after two failed private member’s bills finally won cabinet – especially Neville Wran – over.

The third issue in which George’s parliamentary activity was a major factor in a civilised outcome was homosexual law reform. George, for a number of years, conducted a parliamentary agitation for homosexual law reform, and he heated up the parliamentary atmosphere by initiating or supporting several private members bills on the subject, which failed. Under this constant pressure from George and others, finally, in 1984 the Premier, Neville Wran, moved a bill for homosexual law reform, which, while not perfect, as it left the age of consent at 18, still effectively legalised homosexual activity amongst consenting adults.

Any woman who requires an abortion and can have it in proper medical surroundings, and any gay man who can engage in sexual activity without fear of arrest, and any unfortunate prisoner in a jail whose time inside is not as cruel and barbaric as it once was, might never have even heard of George Petersen, but they owe him a lot.

Leaving aside whether gay marriage is the crucial issue many claim it to be, keep in mind that Penny Wong may in the end have proven more effective in its eventual acceptance than many now give her credit for.

Some of the commentary leaves me with the jaundiced view that often noisy activism is about making the activist feel powerful or self-righteous. Is that too harsh? It’s to participate in theatre after all, and that is to some very satisfying, but the real deals almost always happen somewhere else.