tales from urban dilettantia

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Mystery Man

Over the past few weeks I’ve managed to read far more random Wikipedia pages than anyone needs to read, and as a result, have become a little obsessed with a most peculiar mystery.

In December 1948, the body of a man was found on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, South Australia. The identity of the man remains unknown. The investigation encompassed a code, two copies of a rare copy of a book of poetry, an unnamed nurse and the paternity of her child, a mysterious poison, spies, wild speculation, a stored suitcase, and ultimately many more questions than answers.

If you wish to appreciate this baffling time-drain with me, here are some good places to start:

1. The Wikipedia article on the Tanam Shud case.

2. A fascinating set of pages from Honours students at The University of Adelaide, focusing on students’ attempts to understand and crack the code associated with the mystery. They also include a great timeline, a list of common misconceptions about the case, and a list of known facts about the dead man.

3. 2009 and 2010 videos from the University of Adelaide students relating to the case.

4. Parts 1, 2 and 3 from an ABC Inside Story documentary on the case produced in 1978. (Includes footage of the suitcase and clothing discovered in storage, which were subsequently lost by police.)

5. Some clarification and amended statements from a witness originally interviewed for the 1978 documentary.

6. Parts 1 and 2 from an ABC Stateline report on the case in 2009.

I have no further insights to add to the content linked above, but I hope you enjoy puzzling over this very strange tale as much as I have!

Election How-To #1

Are you an Australian citizen?
Know nothing about politics?
Care nothing about politics?
Usually vote for the guy your Mum and Dad always voted for?
I wrote this for you.

2010 Election FAQ For The Non-Political

I have to vote, right?

Technically, not quite. Yes, you have to turn up to a polling station on election day and have your name ticked off. However, you have every right to put a blank ballot paper into the box and refuse to exercise your right to vote. (Personally, I’d like you to remember that the vote was a hard-won right – and ladies, many women served jail sentences and even died to secure women’s suffrage – before you decide not to exercise your vote. However, it is an option.)

What if I don’t like any of the candidates?

I’ve heard this said a lot, but almost always by people who haven’t actually bothered to inform themselves about any of the candidates. Sure, there might not be some perfect candidate running in your electorate who stands for everything you believe in and is your perfect political match. Every person in every seat over there in Canberra is a human being and unless you run for election yourself, none of them is going to be…well, you. However, I’ll bet you if you start looking around you’ll find that there are candidates in your electorate who stand for things that you abhor and would never vote for. If you can’t get motivated to vote because you’ve found someone great to vote for, at least get motivated to vote to keep the rabble out! (A little cynical, I know, but I’ve often numbered a ballot paper backwards from most-despised to most-tolerated. Perhaps it’s just easier to get passionate about what you don’t want?)

Aren’t all the parties pretty much the same now?

This has been said quite a lot in recent years, and perhaps to some extent there is a convergence. However, if you do your homework, you’ll see that even the two major parties have different policies on many issues – economic, social and environmental – and the minor parties offer some very different alternatives. Don’t believe they’re the same just because someone told you so, or because it’s chic to be cynical. Make up your own mind.

But what’s the point in voting for a minor party? Isn’t it a waste of a vote?

I’m amazed by often I hear this in Australia. It’s a myth and utterly incorrect. We are very fortunate to have a preferential voting system in place here, which means that we not only vote for who we like best, but also for how much we like every single candidate in our electorate. Look at it this way – say James, Sarah and Amanda are running in the election. You vote for Sarah, whom you like best, but she gets the least number of votes of the three. So the election officials take all the voting cards where Sarah is number one and distribute them to whomever was numbered two on each card. Even if Amanda received less number one votes than James, she can still win the seat by receiving enough number two votes to tip her over the line. It’s a little more complicated than that, but fundamentally, the system averages out how much voters like every candidate and the candidate who is preferred on average wins. The beauty of this system? You can vote for anyone you want and if they don’t get elected it won’t be wasted, but will trickle down to the person you prefer next after your first choice.  (Also, it’s inherently democratic because it allows you to express an opinion on every candidate, even if the one you like best is a from a small party.)
2010 edit: Each first preference vote in the House of Reps goes pro rata to determine public funding for the party / candidate of choice, provided they receive more than 4% of the vote.  So even in a safe seat you are helping to finance your preferred candidate’s political activities by backing them as #1.

I live in a safe seat; my vote makes no difference anyway, right?

I know how you feel; I live in one of the safest seats in the country. However, the idea that your vote makes no difference is a myth. Certainly your vote for the House of Representatives (the lower house) might be a tiny drop in the ocean. However seats in the Senate (the upper house) aren’t divided by electorate but by State and Territory, and your Senate vote has the power to make a big difference to the legislation that will be passed, rejected or modified by the Senate over the next four years.

Why is the Senate important? Isn’t it the party who wins the most seats in the House of Reps that forms a Government?

The Senate is great; the Senate is our sanity-check! While legislation can be introduced in either house, it’s generally introduced in the House of Reps and then moved through to the Senate where it is debated and amended. This can make a massive difference to the law that comes out the other end of the process, and is often something people forget about. It’s quite normal for one or a group of the smaller parties to hold the balance of power in the Senate over the four year term, meaning that the bigger parties have to negotiate with minor party Senators to get new legislation through, amending the legislation until enough people are happy with it for it to be passed.

Are you making this into some big moral thing?

I am, rather. Look at it this way; we have compulsory voting in this country. This means that every person has a right to vote. However, it also reinforces the idea that every person has a responsibility to vote. If you do one political thing in the next four years do this: devote even a few minutes towards taking this seriously and actually thinking about it. Even for five minutes, try being a responsible person who wants to make a considered, intelligent and informed call about what they want to see in the future. It’s a wonderful and by-no-means universal thing to be able to – simply by right of being an ordinary, Australian human being – have the power to personally say what you think should happen to yourself, your loved ones and all other Australians in the future. To have the power to define your own leaders and the decisions to come. It’s not a perfect world, nor a perfect system, but you’ve been blessed with something pretty damn special, so grab the opportunity with both hands and be thankful for it.

What do I have to do to be able to vote?

Firstly, you have to be enrolled (if you’re not already, you’ve missed the boat for 2010.)  Next you have to decide who you want to vote for; you can write it down on a piece of paper and take it into the voting booth with you if you need a reminder. (I always do this, because I would hate to throw my vote away just because I made a careless mistake!) Finally, you need to turn up to a polling booth on election day and cast your vote.

Where can I vote?

Why shouldn’t I just vote for the guy Mum and Dad always voted for?

It’s about being a grown-up and taking responsibility for yourself. Sure, you might do your homework and come around to the point of view that Mum and Dad were onto something good, but the world has changed a lot since the day that they first went out and voted the same way your grandparents did. Don’t be a sheep; make sure you know what you’re voting for.

But it’s too hard; how can I know who to vote for?

I’m planning to post as many useful links as I can in the weeks to come, to make the research easier on everyone. However, there may come a time in every person’s life when they have to suck it up, put their fingers to the Google and do a little research of their own. Be brave; it’s better to have tried your best and not be 100% certain than to have voted like a lemming!  (In fact, I have lingering suspicions that intelligent people don’t see things in black and white and will never be 100% certain.)

How do I fill out all the forms?

I’m going to post a separate FAQ covering all the nuances of filling out the forms closer to the election date; look out for it!

Can you tell me who to vote for?

Nope. In fact, nobody should make that decision but you. Not your parents, friends, teachers, churches, husbands or wives. People voting en masse for a particular candidate because they are blindly following instructions rather than using their own brain undermines democracy throughout the world. Don’t abdicate your vote to someone else; treasure it and do the best you can to make it count!

So, should I vote for someone who is good for me, or good for the majority of people?

I don’t think that the Philosophy 101 unit I took in 1997 adequately equipped me to deal with this question. Personally, I believe that a society where even the poorest of people are well fed, educated and cared for is going to be a safer and happier one for all citizens. However, there are arguments for and against altruism, so this is a call that comes down to your own belief system.

I’m still confused; can you help?

Absolutely. I’ll be posting election how-to information for beginners right up until Election Night. If you want to access any past posts, they will all be tagged with ‘election how-to’, and I’m going to do my best to help you find all the stuff you need to make an informed choice for yourself, your family and your fellow citizens.

Why are you doing this? Wouldn’t you rather promote the people you want to win?

Sure, I have my own opinions. But I happen to think that the democratic process is more important than my personal opinions, and it’s going to mean a hell of a lot more to me to know that my friends and family are out there making their own good choices than to hope people tick a box because I said it was the right one.

Election How-To

The Federal Election was called over the weekend, and will be held on Saturday 21 August 2010. If you’re not enrolled to vote, you have a tiny bit of grace to get it done.

Australians not enrolled to vote have until 8pm tonight to enrol.  Australian who are already on the electoral roll but have moved address have until 8pm on Thursday July 22 (that’s this coming Thursday) to update their details. ‘

While it’s now too late to post your enrolment form, you can still take it to any Australian Electoral Commission office in person, or fax or email it to an office between the hours of 8:30am and 8pm today.

Location and contact details of AEC offices: http://www.aec.gov.au/contact

Information on returning enrolment form: http://www.aec.gov.au/enrol/send-form.htm

If you’re not sure if you’re enroled correctly, you can check here: http://www.aec.gov.au/check or by calling 13 23 26.

While the AEC website will tell you that it is compulsory for all Australian citizens aged 18 years and over to enrol and vote in the 2010 federal election, this is not technically the case. In October 2007, the AEC confirmed that “it is not an offence to vote informally in a federal election, nor is it an offence to encourage other voters to vote informally”. The significance of this is that it is compulsory for you to enrol to vote and it’s compulsory for you to turn up to a polling place (or submit a postal vote form), but it is fine to put a blank ballot in the box if you so choose, and so abstain from casting a vote. (While I don’t personally believe in abstaining, I do think you have a right to accurate information.)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be running an updated version my ‘election-how-to’ series from 2007 on my LiveJournal and my blog at flyingblogspot.com – if you have any election-related questions over the next month that aren’t addressed in the series, ask in the comments and I will do my best to find you an answer.

But in the meantime, if you’re not correctly enroled, go do it now!

Interesting Times

Interesting, interesting times in Australian politics today.

For non-Aussie readers, we’ve been drawing to the end of our first term of centre-left government under the Australian Labor Party after well over a decade of conservative rule.  This morning, the Labor caucus voted to depose Kevin Rudd as party leader, replacing him with Julia Gillard who has just been sworn in as our new Prime Minister.

In a historical context, this is an extraordinary day. Gillard is our the first female Australian Prime Minister. And not to detract from this, I must say I’m deeply grateful that I live in a time when a woman (and a non-religious, unmarried woman at that) can become PM.  However, setting this aside and measuring up Gillard by her politics, I’m becoming increasingly nervous in the leadup to the coming election.

Gillard’s generally regarded as Labor-left, but the factional powers who have enabled the coup come from the conservative Catholic Labor-right boys’ club.  The people who have run New South Wales into the ground, pushed back against emissions trading & carbon legislation, and fought to protect Labor’s Western Sydney seats by attacking refugees in the media.  For me, they’ve long represented the worst of the party, and I’m concerned that they’re going to demand repayment for their support.  Gillard’s track record as Shadow Minister for Population and Immigration and reference to ‘strong management of our borders’ in her press conference point in one particular direction, and  I fear that immigration policy will form the requisite pound of flesh.

She’s an excellent parliamentary debater, a strong public speaker and I have little doubt that we will see some great moments on the campaign trail as Australia’s first female Prime Minister comes up against Australia’s favourite misogynistic opposition leader.  But in a broader sense, I struggle to see positive policy change coming out of the spill; there’s just doesn’t seem to be a realistic incentive at the moment.

To be electable, Gillard merely needs to placate the mining industry, promise ‘safe borders’ to mop up the Western Sydney seats and generally appear to be less of a dick than Abbott in the media spotlight.  Given the current parliamentary balance and restrictions around calling a double dissolution election, emissions trading legislation can’t be pushed through, and civil liberties issues such as web censorship aren’t a deal-breaker to the wider public.  The things I care passionately about have become, at least for the next few months, political side dishes at best.

If there’s one thing that will break my heart in the coming election, it will be yet another racist, fear-mongering wedge-issue campaign.  Prove me wrong, Julia.  Prove me wrong.

Politics, News, Eggs and Link Spam

The last couple of weeks have been rather a hive of political activity.

I suppose everyone’s seen the WikiLeaks / CollateralMurder.com news unless they’ve been off-planet for the Easter break. I’m not sure I can add anything by commenting on this; it speaks – poignantly and heartbreakingly – for itself.

Malcolm Turnbull announced on Tuesday that he won’t be running in the coming Federal Election, and interestingly first released the news on Twitter. I respected him, appreciated the direction in which he attempted to steer conservative Australia, and I’m genuinely sorry to see him go. Later in the day, Nationals MP, Kay Hull, announced she wouldn’t be contesting the 2010 election either, a decision that may shake things up a little if the Libs start eyeing her seat of Riverina.

In state politics over in Tasmania, the hung parliamant saga goes on. And on. While Labor on ten seats appear keen to handball the ordeal of minority government over to the Libs (also on ten), the Tassie Greens are using their five seats to broker a power-sharing agreement. Meanwhile, the whole mess will fall into the lap of Tasmania’s Governor, and I will rant angrily yet predictably about the monarchy after a few drinks down at the pub. Interestingly, this peculiar situation isn’t an entirely unprecedented one; anyone remember the 1989 Tasmanian Election and its aftermath, or are we all too young?

Running a little ahead of Australia, the Brits have called their general election. Gordon Brown is playing the middle-class card for all he’s worth, and the Greens have fielded the largest number of candidates in the party’s history. For anyone interested in following the action, The Guardian are running a very comprehensive, live-updating site. (I found out today that the Home Office has granted my citizenship application, but of course as a non-resident I’m not eligible to vote.)

Possum over at Crikey has written a good piece on politicking, bad statistics and immigration: Net Arrivals

And finally there’s been much said recently on the topic of the institutionalised protection of child sex offenders by the Catholic Church. Michael Nugent from Athiest Ireland posted a critical analysis of Ratzinger’s apology a couple of weeks ago on his blog. As an ex-Catholic, and indeed as a human being, this is a topic that fills me with a cold, cold rage, and it impresses me to see someone with the capacity write so rationally and analytically on the subject, rather than mirroring the vitriolic rant to which I would be inclined to descend.