The Null Device

2004/10/10

Australia has made its choice, the Tories have been reelected with an increased majority, and look like gaining control of the Senate as well (current predictions show them set to have half the Senate in their own right, with a Family First senator giving them a majority, in return for a religious conservative legislative agenda). The Greens did well, but, with Labor having collapsed under them, they will be unable to do much with all their Senate seats. So, what can we expect in the next three years?

For one, we're likely to see a stepping up of the culture war. The election has shown that Australia is polarised, between a small, cosmopolitanist minority in the inner cities who voted Green, and the majority of Herald-Sun-reading suburban battlers who back Howard. Given the acrimony before the election (other parties directing preferences away from the Greens as if they were One Nation, and scare ads about the Greens standing for drugs and paedophilia), and the Family First factor, the prospects of a new, triumphant Howard government waving the olive branch of inclusion seems unlikely. What seems more likely is that the boot will come down hard, and the culture war will become uglier, dirtier and more brutal, with the full weight of a completely controlled legislative apparatus being used to instill "Australian" values and punish the deviants who resist them.

What will this entail? For one, more censorship. Under Howard, Australia had already become quite a censorious society (witness the banning of Baise-Moi in the cinemas a few years ago), and will do so even more as Family First push for children and adults to be protected from filth. Expect more controversial films to be denied classification, or film distributors to even stop bothering trying to get a rating for anything controversial in Australia, while many films which are shown will only be shown in expurgated editions. More internet censorship is on the cards. Family First proposed a national censorship infrastructure, like Singapore's, funded by a $10 annual levy on each user; it is not unlikely that the Howard government will borrow this idea. After all, the current censorship arrangement (as secretive and undemocratic as it is) still doesn't stop children from viewing filth at a few mouse clicks (as any tabloid journalist will be happy to demonstrate). And national censorship infrastructures have been shown to be workable; Singapore, China and Saudi Arabia have them, and Britain now also has infrastructure in place to block web sites (it is presently used to block a few child pornography web sites, but could be pressed into service to block the next equivalent of Spycatcher or David Shayler at the drop of a D-notice, but I digress). Some in the Liberal Party even suggested, some years ago, blocking all adult content from the mainstream internet, requiring those perverted enough to look at such content to register for access through a special proxy server. Registration would, presumably, limit one's career prospects in certain industries, just in case your Suicide Girls habit made you into a kiddie diddler.

With Australia's new family-friendly cinemas and internet, the country's reputation as a modern, cosmopolitan society will suffer. Film and arts festivals will lose any edge they had, attracting little in the way of anything controversial but instead presenting only comforting banalities. Sydney and Melbourne will once again give up their claim to be world cultural capitals and fall back to being big provincial towns. And don't expect anything like Piss Christ being exhibited in an Australian gallery; chances are, Andres Serrano wouldn't even get a visa. Welcome to relaxed and comfortable Australia, where decent people needn't fear having their sensibilities offended.

Other consequences of the Culture War could be loss of reproductive choice (current health minister Tony Abbott mentioned his opposition to abortion, and with Family First's new influence, it could be banned or restricted), institutionalised discrimination against homosexuals (they are, after all, deviants who have no place in Howard's idealised 1950s suburbia), continuing denial of indigenous rights, not to mention a policy of pure spite towards refugees.

And then there is the US-Australian Free Trade Agreement, in which Australia signed over vast swathes of economic sovereignty to the US in return for access to US markets for its sugar industry, only to find out that that wasn't part of the deal, but pressed on anyway out of loyalty. Since we're adopting wholesale the US software patent system, we can expect small Australian software companies to go out of business, unable to risk the cost of patent litigation, or be bought out en masse by multinationals with patent portfolios and cross-licensing agreements. Within a few years, the Australian industry will be little more than a branch office of US multinationals. Open source may not escape unscathed; given the broadness of software patents, anything without a multinational with a huge legal department behind it will be too much of a risk for anybody to use, distribute or support. And then there's our adoption of US copyright laws without actually having a Constitutional fair use provision, as the US does, which means that anyone with an iPod is committing a crime.

If there's one good thing that may come out of the new, repressive, paternalist Australia, it is the prospect of an underground culture flourishing in pockets of resistance. After all, it was the roiling undercurrents of resentment in Thatcher's Britain that gave us everything from alternative comedy to the explosion of British indie music and art. (Not that the Thatcherites took their credit for that happening on their watch; they were too busy promoting their view of proper British culture in the form of Lloyd-Webber musicals and insipid Merchant-Ivory costume dramas and the like, their own equivalent of "Relaxed and Comfortable".)

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2004/10/9

Wired has a piece about the Smart car, the European microcar which is half the length of a regular car, seats 2, has plastic panels which are interchangeable like mobile-phone fascias, has a Bluetooth-enabled dashboard which cooperates with mobile phones, is apparently remarkably safe in collisions for its size and gets better mileage than the Toyota Prius hybrid car. Smarts will soon go on sale in the US, and Americans (whose love affair with huge cars is legendary) seem to be taking to them better than expected. Though even if they don't, the company is planning a miniature SUV for the US market.

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It looks like the Tories have won the election with an increased majority, thanks, in part, to the unanimous support and careful news-management strategies of Australia's handful of media proprietors. Labor haven't conceded yet, though former opposition leader Kim Beazley did appear on the ABC, saying how anything other than being thoroughly wiped out is relatively good news for the ALP. The Greens seem to be holding up well in the Senate, though there is a massive swing to the Tories there, which could result in an outright government majority; if so, the fact that the much-publicised Christian Fundamentalist parties won't hold the balance of power is cold comfort.

Update: it looks like the Tories are likely to win half of the Senate and Family First are set to get a Senate seat in Victoria, giving the Right control of the upper house. And so, Australia will wake up with a reactionary, culture-war administration wielding absolute parliamentary power.

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