Sep 30, 2013

NSA Internet Spying Sparks Race to Create Offshore Havens for Data Privacy - WSJ.com

Google Inc., GOOG -0.20% Facebook Inc. FB +1.69% and other American technology companies were put on the defensive when Edward Snowden's allegations about U.S.-government surveillance of Internet traffic emerged this spring.
Outside the U.S., some companies and politicians saw an opportunity.
Three of Germany's largest email providers, including partly state-ownedDeutsche Telekom AG, DTE.XE -1.35% teamed up to offer a new service, Email Made in Germany. The companies promise that by encrypting email through German servers and hewing to the country's strict privacy laws, U.S. authorities won't easily be able to pry inside. More than a hundred thousand Germans have flocked to the service since it was rolled out in August.
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Politicians outside the U.S. are pushing new data-privacy rules in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations.
"We can say that we protect the email inbox according to German law," says Jorg Fries-Lammers, a spokesman for one of the German companies, 1&1 Internet AG. "It's definitely a unique selling point."
The U.S. National Security Agency has acknowledged collecting email data about Americans through phone and Internet companies. Silicon Valley companies have said that they don't give the government unfettered access to user data but that they are barred from disclosing details.
Fueled by the controversy, countries are seeking to use data-privacy laws as a competitive advantage—a way to boost domestic companies that long have sought an edge over Google, Microsoft Corp. MSFT +1.53% and other U.S. tech giants.
"Countries are competing to be the Cayman Islands of data privacy," says Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank that receives funding from the tech industry.
While establishing these islands of privacy might make for good marketing, the initiatives face hurdles. Laws demanding that data be stored in-country can give domestic Internet-service providers a boost but also could raise their customers' costs.
And creating domestic walls for online service runs into a hard reality.
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"It basically ignores the entire Internet," says Ronaldo Lemos, director of the Institute for Technology & Society, a Rio de Janeiro think tank. "This data has to circulate. It's going to be sent to Miami, to Europe. It's not going to be sitting idle."
Nevertheless, some European leaders are renewing calls for a "euro cloud," in which consumer data could be shared within Europe but not outside the region. Brazil is fast-tracking a vote on a once-dormant bill that could require that data about Brazilians be stored on servers in the country. And India plans to ban government employees from using email services from Google and Yahoo Inc.YHOO +2.44%
U.S. companies are watching such developments with trepidation.
"We should all be nervous when countries impose costly new requirements on companies as a condition of serving their citizens," says Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. "It means fragmenting the Internet and putting the economic and social opportunities it creates at risk."
Google declined to comment for this article, and Yahoo didn't respond.
It is too soon to tell if a major shift is under way. But the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation estimates that fallout from revelations about NSA activities could cost Silicon Valley up to $35 billion in annual revenue, much of it from lost overseas business. A survey conducted this summer by the Cloud Security Alliance, an industry group, found that 56% of non-U.S. members said security concerns made it less likely that they would use U.S.-based cloud services. Ten percent said they had canceled a contract.
"We talk to our sales leaders, who talk to customers every day, and this has the potential to significantly erode the trust of customers around the world," says John Frank, a deputy general counsel at Microsoft.
It could be tough for U.S. companies to undo any damage, particularly when the extent of NSA activities is secret and other nations have been critical of the U.S. On Tuesday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in a United Nations address assailed U.S. snooping on her country. Last week she canceled a planned visit to Washington.
European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, who supervises the European Union's digital portfolio, has been encouraging the bloc's companies to tout their privacy creds. "Privacy is not only a fundamental right," she said in Estonia this summer. "It can also be a competitive advantage."
For small German companies competing against big ones—like online-security company Symantec Corp. SYMC -1.32% and Amazon.com Inc., AMZN -0.66%which provides corporate cloud services—the NSA surveillance program "is a present from heaven," says Oliver Dehning, chief executive of antispameuropeGmbH, which builds spam-protection software. "It's kind of an opportunity to strike back and protect our home market."
He turned the Snowden leaks into a marketing campaign, tweeting about the news and speaking at industry conferences about how Germans can protect themselves from spying.
Symantec and Amazon declined to comment for this article.
Some of the promises of the would-be data islands could be tough to meet.
While much of the legislation proposes that information about citizens be located in-country, that overlooks that the data may need to be transferred elsewhere.
And laws requiring domestic hosting could raise the price of computing. The in-country hosts could have trouble competing with the economies of scale enjoyed by big U.S. companies, says Jim Reavis, president of the Cloud Security Alliance. Also, it could well be less expensive to use a data center in another country than to build one at home.
Country-specific computing can have its own privacy concerns, meanwhile. Some countries pushing domestic hosting—Brazil, for example—don't protect the privacy of citizens' Internet data, so consumers wouldn't be safe from their own governments' eyes. Brazil made 715 requests for Facebook user data in the first half, according to the company.
Because Germany has strict privacy laws, Email Made in Germany says customers who send email to fellow subscribers can be assured the U.S. and German governments will have a difficult time accessing the users' messages. Customers see a bright-green check mark next to messages sent by fellow subscribers. A gray check appears next to messages from other email providers. That means Germans can ensure their privacy only for email to people on German soil.
Even some companies that seek to profit from fears about U.S. snooping acknowledge that law-enforcement agencies in other countries want to catch up with Washington's capabilities.
"In the long run, there won't be any difference between what the U.S. or Germany or France or the U.K. is doing," says Roberto Valerio, whose German cloud-storage company, CloudSafe GmbH, reports a 25% rise in business since the NSA revelations.
"At the end of the day, some agency will spy on you," he says.
—Loretta Chao contributed to this article.
Write to Elizabeth Dwoskin at elizabeth.dwoskin@wsj.com and Frances Robinson at frances.robinson@wsj.com

Ten reasons not to fix computers for free - TechRepublic

Do you feel like a heel if you don't want to fix computer problems for friends and family? Hear are some of the reasons you shouldn't feel guilty. 
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Like most IT pros, I have had plenty of friends and family members ask me to fix their PCs. Although I have always tried to help people whenever I can, I have come to the realization that with a few exceptions it is a bad idea to fix people’s PCs for free.
Don’t get the wrong idea. There are some people that I truly don’t mind helping. I would never refuse to help my wife with a computer problem, nor would I cut off my mother. Unfortunately though, the majority of those that I have helped have abused the situation. As such, this article is a list of ten reasons why I don’t recommend fixing PCs for free.

1. Future problems are your fault

When a friend or family member asks you to fix their computer, they do so because they do not know enough to fix the problem themselves. Because the person typically does not understand the cause of or the solution to the problem, they probably also are not going to understand which problems are related and which are not. As a result, anything that happens to the computer after you touch it may be perceived to be your fault. All the computer’s owner knows is that the problem did not occur until after you worked on the computer.

2. People may not respect your time

Before I stopped fixing computers for friends and family, I had a big problem with people not respecting my time. Friends would call me at all hours of the day or night and expect me to drop whatever I was doing, drive to their house, and fix their computer right then.

3. Things sometimes go wrong

The third reason why I don’t recommend fixing people’s computers for free is because if you break it, you bought it. I have never personally run into a problem with this one, but I do know someone who brought a friend’s laptop home to fix, only to have his three year old daughter knock the laptop off the table and break it.

4. People don’t value things that are free

People seem to be conditioned to accept the idea that the best things in life are those that are the most expensive. This can be a problem when it comes to fixing people’s computers for free, because your advice might be perceived as carrying no more weight than anyone else’s.
To give you a more concrete example, there is someone in my family who constantly calls me with computer questions. I try to be nice and answer the questions, but often times this person does not like the answer. In those situations this person will tell me that my brother, my aunt, or somebody else in my family with absolutely no IT experience told them the opposite of what I am telling them. Inevitably, this person ends up ignoring my advice.

5. They expect free tech support for life

When you fix someone’s computer for free and you do a good job, you can become a victim of your own success. The next time that the person needs help, they will remember what a good job you did. In the future you may be asked to assist with everything from malware removal to operating system upgrades.

6. People adopt risky habits because they are getting free tech support

This one might be my biggest pet peeve related to helping friends with their computer problems. If a friend or family member assumes that you will always be there to bail them out when they have computer problems then they have no incentive try to prevent problems from happening. As such, they might adopt risky habits or even do some things that just do not make sense.
I will give you a couple of quick examples of this one. I have one friend whose teenage son infected his computer with all sorts of malware while trying to find free adult content on the Internet. The infection was so bad that it took me all weekend to fix. I suggested to my friend that he either keep his son off of his computer, or only allow him to access the Internet through a hardened sandboxed environment. A few days later my friend told me the infection was back. After asking him a few questions, I discovered that he had given his son the admin password so that he could “download something for school.”
The other example was that I once did a hard disk replacement for a family member. I won’t bore you with the details, but the hard disk replacement was anything but smooth. There were issues with everything from BIOS compatibility to the physical case design. After spending all evening working on it, I finally got everything working. By the time that I arrived home I had a message on my voice mail from the person whose computer I had just upgraded. She said that she had let her eight-year-old son disassemble the computer because she wanted him to learn about computers, but he couldn’t figure out how to put it back together.

7. It doesn’t end with computers

Another reason why I don’t recommend doing free computer repairs for friends or family is because the job might not end with computer repairs. Once the person figures out that you are good with electronics they may have you working on other things. For instance, I once helped a neighbor recover some data off of a failed hard disk. Two weeks later he had me on the roof helping to realign his satellite dish.

8. Things can snowball

Sometimes when you fix a friend’s computer for free, the expectations of free technical support can snowball into free support for everyone. I once fixed a computer for someone in my family. When I was done, the person told me that they have a friend who is also having problems and asked if I could look at that too.

9. Your service isn’t just free, it is costing you money

For instance, you are probably spending money on gas to drive to your friend’s house. You might also end up using supplies such as blank media or printer ink. I have even had friends who expect me to supply them with the software licenses.

10. Fixing computers is too much like work

The best reason of all for not fixing friend’s computers for free might be that doing so is too much like work. If you spend all day at work fixing computer problems, do you really want to deal with the same thing when you leave the office?
What is your policy on volunteering your tech skills for friends and family?

Sep 28, 2013

Lifters snuff out light on hill | The Australian

SAY what you like about those 21 minutes and 14 seconds of our lives that we will never get back, but Saturday's concession speech was authentic Kevin.
The tender glances from Therese told us this was the Kevin she knew, the Kevin who meanders dreamily past the fixtures and fastenings, wondering what the heck he had been sent to Bunnings for in the first place.
"The marvellous tapestry of modern Australia," the departing prime minister mused.
"The mosaic of our multicultural nation fashions such unity out of diversity."
It's a speech, all right, but doesn't it need something to hold it up? "Hearts are heavy across the nation ... unswerving courage ... strength in Labor sinews ... new ideas for the future."
Out of the corner of his eye, Rudd spots what he's looking for. "Ben Chifley's light on the hill still burns bright across Australia ... Ben Chifley's light on the hill will continue forever."
When Kevin gets lost in the superstore of aphorisms, he heads instinctively for the light on the hill, that rousing catch-all invocation that adds purpose to whatever barmy, statist progressive idea happens to come into his head. Chifley coined the phrase in the 1940s, about the time he hit on the idea that a great way to improve the wellbeing of the toiling masses would be to nationalise the banks.
"This action of the government springs from one thing only within the Labor Party, and it is a fundamental thing: the love of humanity itself," he told parliament during debate on the Banking Act. "Honourable members opposite may sneer at that remark ... but let it not be forgotten that there is a light on the hill which guides the movement of which we are members."
The invitation to sneer was seized with relish. "The Prime Minister spoke of 'a light on the hill' as if the only light in the world is the particular beacon which he has set up and lighted," mocked the Country Party's Hubert Anthony. "That is the kind of statement generally attributed to a fanatic who would slaughter every one who does not accept his pet dogma."
The Liberals' Percy Spender said that for Chifley to speak of the light on the hill "is something like the devil quoting scripture". His colleague Eric Harrison demanded: "Let us forget all this airy nonsense and get down to facts."
Joe Abbott said people were "sick to death of the foul and vile administration of the government ... 'the light on the hill', the 'golden age' and the workers' 'honeymoon' ".
Those who insist they are on the right side of history have generally got things horribly wrong. Chifley's ascent to the light on the hill led the Labor Party off a cliff, a fall from which it did not recover for another 23 years.
An imaginary beacon, like an imaginary friend, may be a source of private comfort, but it is a dangerous guide to public policy. The opposition ridiculed Chifley mercilessly, through debates on the shipping bill and wheat stabilisation right up to 1949 when, just as they did on Saturday, the people voted to stamp the damn thing out.
Some commentators have described Saturday's election as a Seinfeld moment, a plebiscite about nothing. It was a choice, as they put it, between failed vision on the one hand and lack of vision on the other.
If vision was what you were after, it's a fair point.
If, on the other hand, you were over vision, growing weary of Rudd and his plans for the industries of the future, to train apprentices and help families under pressure, because you think these are things people should be encouraged to do for themselves, then the result of Saturday's election was a matter of some consequence.
In 1949, the country made a historical choice in favour of Robert Menzies's practical liberalism and against the nationalisation of industry.
On Saturday, Australians decided in favour of Tony Abbott's evocation of the Menzies spirit and against the nationalisation of everyday life.
Abbott's cultural critics struggle to see anything coherent, let alone virtuous, in his philosophy of life. Yet rarely has a conservative leader presented a manifesto with such grounded philosophical underpinnings.
His constant reference to a state that favours lifters over leaners should surely have struck a chord by now. It is a phrase from the Forgotten People radio talk, delivered in 1942, in which Menzies contrasts the socialist dystopia of Chifley and John Curtin with his classical liberal ideals.
"Many of my friends will retort, 'Ah, that's all very well, but when this war is over the levellers will have won the day'," Menzies said. "But I do not believe that we shall come out into the overlordship of an all-powerful state on whose benevolence we shall live, spineless and effortless; a state which will dole out bread and ideas with neatly regulated accuracy; where we shall all have our dividend without subscribing our capital.
"If the new world is to be a world of men, we must be not pallid and bloodless ghosts, but a community of people whose motto shall be: 'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.' Individual enterprise must drive us forward." As Menzies put it, "leaners grow flabby; lifters grow muscles".
Abbott's rhetoric is less ornate, but its message is unmistakably Menzian: "Government doesn't create wealth, people do; no country has ever taxed its way to prosperity; we'll cut red tape; a hand-up not a handout."
The performance of the Coalition will ultimately decide how soon Labor will return to play around with the machinery of state in pursuit of its technocratic dreams, assuming Labor does not switch, as it should, to a more practical course of action in the meantime.
At his campaign launch speech, Abbott described the election as "the most important in a generation", and he may yet be right, but it will depend entirely on his ability to win the battle of ideas and resist the temptation to meddle in places where governments have no right to intrude.
As Abbott says himself, "Our country will best flourish when all of our citizens, individually and collectively, have the best chance to be their best selves."

Sep 12, 2013

Close relations between PM and foreign minister will help abroad | The Australian

THE election of an Abbott government has quite substantially changed Australia already. It may be temporary but the election marks a national shift to the Right. Tony Abbott is no ideologue, but he leads a centre-right coalition.
Add to this the right-wing populist votes for Bob Katter and Clive Palmer, and the many small right-of-centre fringe parties, and you get a centre-right primary vote in Australia near 55 per cent. (Given the billions of dollars of taxpayer money spent trying to create a left-of-centre political culture, through the ABC, SBS, many university departments and countless government propaganda arms such as Climate Commissions, Human Rights Commissions and so on, this is a salutary declaration of independence by Australians.)
Abbott is starting off in a way that gives him a chance of consolidating some of this change. It was smart to delay the swearing in of the government until next week, probably Wednesday.
Abbott and his team have a three-year term. It is the core of wisdom to spend a week and a half sorting out machinery of government issues, not to mention the composition of the cabinet. Politicians who try to "hit the ground running" inevitably fall and break a leg. Abbott has learned the negative lessons of the Whitlam, Rudd and Gillard governments and the positive lessons of Bob Hawke and John Howard. The first is to pay attention to good process.
A government is often defined by the lessons of history it chooses to learn. The Hawke government in its heyday in the 1980s was so successful in part because it was constantly haunted by the catastrophe of Whitlam. These days Labor and the Left sentimentalise the Whitlam era. Swallowing this sentimentality, failing to remember that Whitlam was so bad he led to the two worst landslide losses in Labor's modern history, was a grave intellectual failing of Labor over the past six years.
The Whitlam government was a disaster - shocking economic management with terrible results in inflation and unemployment, and an absolute contempt for the proper processes of Australian institutional government, from the loans affair to the attempt to raise election funds from the Iraqi Ba'ath Socialist Party.
Hawke was determined that his government would be the anti-Whitlam government. As a result, Hawke was extremely conservative on national security and a positive model of due process and sound cabinet government.
One apparently minor matter is illustrative. Hawke required his ministers to have a chief of staff, or deputy, from their respective departments. Howard, who also lived through the Whitlam era, did something similar. He made ministers vet their proposed staffers with his office, not to exercise micro-management, but to make sure that as well as political loyalty, ministers' offices contained policy competence and administrative experience.
As a young man, indeed as a young minister, Abbott had a certain impatience with process. Not any more. Ten years on the front bench under Howard cured him of that.
In foreign affairs, Abbott will form a tight partnership with Julie Bishop. She was central to arranging the telephone conversation on Tuesday with Indonesia's Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The signs are Abbott and Bishop will work closely together. Bishop started in the foreign affairs shadow portfolio with a few stumbles, which is inevitable for any newcomer, but she has steadily mastered the area. Importantly, she has put in the leg work to establish good personal relations all over Asia. This is an inestimable benefit.
Abbott and Bishop are close. That wasn't always the case but it is now and has been for some time. It makes Bishop much stronger. The closer a foreign minister is to their leader, the more powerful they are, because every foreign interlocutor knows that the prime minister will cash any cheque the foreign minister writes. Alexander Downer and Howard represented such a partnership, which got stronger as time went on, although the Howard government generally became a little ragged in its last years.
The Coalition is not likely to proceed with its old idea of having a separate minister for aid and development. There will be a cabinet level trade and investment minister, but Bishop will be the senior portfolio minister. Tourism will be brought into the foreign affairs portfolio and will deal exclusively with attracting foreign tourists to Australia. AusAID is likely to be much more closely integrated with the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Abbott government will dispense with Labor's ludicrously long-winded ministerial titles, where half of question time was spent reciting the Gettysburg Address length of sub-portfolio identities.
Bishop has got an unfair rap over the decision to cancel Steve Bracks's appointment as consul-general in New York. Labor timed this appointment with maximum weirdness, almost condemning it to end in tears. It was announced in May, made official one day before the election was called but not due to start until weeks after the election.
After the appointment was announced Bracks was still taking part in Labor Party political activities. This is asking way too much of an incoming government. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Bracks who is a fine person and would have been a good consul-general. But if Labor wanted him to take up the position it should have sent him months ago.
The whole rationale for political appointments to diplomatic posts involves three considerations. Does the person satisfy basic competence and standing? Bracks certainly did. One positive reason you'd make a political appointment is special background relevant to a post - an Indian expert for New Delhi, a trade expert for the World Trade Organisation . The second is that the host government knows a political appointee is especially close to the Australian government that appointed him. Neither of those apply to Bracks with a Coalition government in Canberra.
But established political appointees almost always finish their terms when a government changes. Labor political appointees Kim Beazley in Washington, Mike Rann in London, John Stanhope in Christmas Island and John McCarthy in the Vatican will all be confirmed under Abbott.
The two most likely names for the New York post now are former Howard government minister Nick Minchin, and Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd. Neither may want it, but the Abbott government will have big work ahead internationally.

Sep 11, 2013

HP launches Cloud OS for Moonshot and other HP systems - Computerworld

HP announced a number of updates for its HP Cloud IaaS (infrastructure as a service). It now offers the ability for enterprises to set up VPNs (virtual private networks) to connect on-premises clouds and their resources on the HP Cloud, using HP's work in software-defined networking (SDN).
The service offers a new way to upload lots of data to the HP Cloud. Users can now send their hard drives to HP, which will upload the data itself to the HP Cloud Block Storage and HP Cloud Object Storage services. HP Cloud now also offers larger instance types -- up to 120GB of memory and 16 processor cores per instance -- that would make the service more suitable for big data analysis and high-performance computing workloads.
The company's Autonomy business unit also introduced some new software at the conference as well.
Autonomy has customized its line of content management software to offer, as a cloud service, a suite of hosted services to help organizations with marketing campaigns and their associated metrics.
The Autonomy Marketing Performance Suite provides Web content management, online market testing and analysis, management of multimedia content, and augmented reality services for mobile devices. Customers can use one or more of these services separately or together.
Autonomy has also updated its TeamSite content management software, upgrading the user interface to accommodate specific user roles -- such as site manager, editor and creative publisher -- and making it easier for Apple iPad users to manage the entire approval process of posting a new website.
Autonomy TeamSite 7.4 also has new connectors for CRM (customer relationship management) and social media applications, a reference architecture for setting up an e-commerce platform, and can now support rich media management and email marketing.
TeamSite is also now available as a hosted service, said Gabriele DiPiazza, vice president of marketing optimization at HP Autonomy.
On the services front, HP launched a new set of cloud consulting services, which aim to help organizations with networking, security and controls, and with using the HP Cloud.
During the keynote at the conference, CEO Meg Whitman assured HP enterprise customers that the company has moved past its management difficulties of the past few years.

Sep 9, 2013

Emirates A380 engine had significant damage amid emergency: report | The Australian

Emirates
An Australian Transport Safety Bureau report says there was significant internal damage to an Emirates A380 engine which forced the plane to return to Sydney. Source: AP
AN Emirates Airbus A380 superjumbo that was forced to dump fuel and return to Sydney late last year had suffered significant internal damage to one of its four engines, according to air safety investigators.
The A380 left Sydney for Dubai on November 11 and was climbing through 9000ft when the crew heard a loud bang and saw that the exhaust gas temperature on the number three engine was over the limit.
Shortly afterwards, the engine shut down by itself and the crew jettisoned fuel and returned to Sydney to land safely.
An Australian Transport Safety Bureau report released today found that the increase in exhaust gas temperature and the shut-down were the result of significant internal damage which had started within the high pressure turbine module.
A nozzle in stage two of the high pressure turbine had likely been exposed to hotter than expected operating temperatures and had eventually failed.
Two other engines used on Emirates A380s had experienced a similar problem in the preceding weeks and the manufacturer was addressing the issue, including with a beefed up trend-monitoring program.
"During the previous flight, the engine health and trend-monitoring program had identified a performance trend shift with this particular engine and it was due to be inspected upon return to the main base in Dubai," investigators said.
Investigators said manufacturer Engine Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture of General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, had issued a service bulletin in 2010 for the replacement of nozzle parts with more durable components.
Another service bulletin was released in December after the Australian incident, requiring direct inspection of nozzle segments that had not yet been replaced. This was backed up by a US Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness directive.
New limits subsequently set on trend monitoring would also have seen the damaged engine inspected two flights prior to the Sydney-Dubai trip.
"While the distress to the high pressure turbine was severe enough in this case to result in an in-flight engine shutdown, the associated risk to the safety of the continued flight were relatively low, given the failure had been contained and the operator's procedures were effective in managing the shut down," the report said.
"This occurrence also pointed to the value of real-time engine condition monitoring, since advanced warning of engine degradation and efficiency loss allows inspections and corrective action before damage progresses to a level where it can cause an in-flight shut-down."

Megaphones just make us turn down the volume

Illustration: Simon Letch.
Illustration: Simon Letch.
My friend James looked decidedly hang-dog yesterday. He's part surfer, part hippie, part hard-working photographer and his politics are very much to the left. He loathes the idea that Abbott is now prime minister. It is an attitude not hard to find in my world. So I gave James a hug. We've enjoyed working together for many years, so why would political differences interfere with friendship? Mateship is far more important than politics.
This is the innate strength of Australia's political culture, its overall detachment from politics, its discomfit with overt partisanship. There is a wisdom to this detachment. Many people love to describe the Australian public as apathetic but that is merely patronising.
Kevin Rudd was right when he opened his concession speech on Saturday night by saying the best thing about Australian politics is that once the voters have made a decision, the country just gets on with it, government and Parliament resume functioning, and simply do so under new management, or under a freshly re-endorsed management.
Rudd then proceeded to speak on, and on, and on, with much self-congratulation. This is why the public had just removed him from power, an irony utterly foreign to him. At least he was good natured.
Similarly, his predecessor, Julia Gillard, was dignified in her self-removal from the political theatre and invisible throughout the campaign. It was a dignified silence. When she modestly broke this silence via Twitter on Saturday, her comments were gracious to both sides of politics.
The night's big winner, Tony Abbott, was restrained in his acceptance of victory and mercifully brief in both his remarks and his triumphalism. His elevation to the highest office provides a remarkable narrative arc, from defeat and marginalisation, to sudden and accidental leadership, to becoming prime minister with a thumping majority.
There will be much fine-combed analysis of the results and the reasons but one over-arching storyline that may be ignored is the punishment, by the voters, of the most shrill elements of politics. The electorate's whip was applied to both sides. The most famously abrasive member of the Coalition, Sophie Mirabella, was soundly rebuked by voters in the Victorian regional seat of Indi.
Mirabella should have been invincible, sitting on a 9 per cent two-party majority at a time of a national swing to the Coalition. Instead, she is fighting for survival against rural independent Cathy McGowan. The result has gone down to preferences and postal votes. Even if Mirabella survives, as expected, Abbott will have pause in elevating her to a ministerial post. She has excess political baggage, she sets a certain tone, and the voters have just given Abbott a very broad hint.
At the other extreme, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of the Greens is also fighting for her political life in South Australia. If she is saved, as expected, it will be because of a significant commitment of resources by the Greens and a very poor vote for Labor in South Australia.
The biggest loser in the election is the leader of the Greens, Senator Christine Milne. On her watch, the national vote for the Greens has collapsed 28 per cent from its result in 2010. While the Greens appear to have lost no seats, their national vote is down to 8.4 per cent. It has not grown in 20 years.
In the Senate, the balance of power looks likely to be held by an eccentric group of independents, most of whom appear at least open to negotiation with a Coalition government.
In a long press conference on Sunday, Senator Milne gave no hint of contrition, introspection or compromise. Compounding this apparent narcissism, this inability to self-admonish and self-correct, she dismissed the idea that an incoming government has a mandate to implement its major policies. She described the idea of a mandate as ''exaggerated''.
Senator Milne and the Greens might want to contemplate this: every issue they have fixated upon has become politically problematic. The environment, the most important issue because environmental health is the foundation of society and economic survival, has, thanks to the Greens, become associated with the extreme left instead of the reforming centre.
The cause of gay marriage, which the Greens have embraced fanatically, has just had a resounding defeat. There's no way to spin out of this. The electorate was presented with a clear choice by Rudd and the Greens on one side and Abbott on the other. The Greens wrapped themselves in the cause of gay marriage and their overall vote has been smashed. Labor has just been thrown out of office.
The cause of refugees, with which the Greens identified above all other issues - even though throwing the borders open to all-comers in the name of bottomless compassion is a patently reckless environmental policy - has seen the Greens vote crash.
Do not expect humble introspection. All I heard from the Greens and Labor was an endless spin cycle, as if the machine is broken.
The spectacular exception to the electorate's general rejection of shrill politics is the success of Clive Palmer, the coal mining magnate, whose performance during the campaign was reliably truculent. Palmer is a preposterous blowhard. His political organisation is not so much a party as a tantrum.
Expect Palmer and his party to receive media attention out of all proportion to his numbers, as happened 15 years ago when Pauline Hanson burst upon the scene. In time, her shrillness was her undoing.

Sep 7, 2013

Cleaning up Labor's mess | The Australian

WHY should the Coalition have to clean up the mess each time Labor governs? It must be galling to come to power every turn of the electoral cycle and have to clean up the debt of the previous team.
The Kennett government in Victoria had to clean up the Cain-Kirner mess, as is the Newman government in Queensland cleaning up the Beattie-Bligh debt. The first recommendations of the Queensland Commission of Audit to the Newman government in February were to arrest the deterioration in the state's financial position and to pay down debt to regain the Queensland government's triple-A credit rating. Will an Abbott government have to do the same for Rudd-Gillard? Reluctantly, of course it will, but how quickly?
The Queensland audit provided a philosophical statement about the state government's role in the economy. "The role of government should be directed towards the provision of core services that the private sector is unable or unwilling to provide." The Abbott government should start with these sentiments. Then it should move slowly on repaying Labor's debt. Not only does this strategy leave more room for better priorities but it also leaves a reminder to Labor that it doesn't deserve another crack until its debts are cleared, which will take more than two terms.
As long as progress in paying down the debt is steady, the federal government is in no danger of losing its triple-A credit rating. Leaving a bit at the time of the next two elections is a good reminder to the electorate to not give Labor another chance just yet. Governments must be punished for the debt binge.
It needs to be appreciated that the level of debt (to gross domestic product) is not as large now as it was in 1996 when the previous federal Coalition government came to power - roughly 30 per cent then and 20 per cent now. And the Hawke-Keating governments had done a powerful lot of good in promoting a more productive economy. The productivity conversation was transformed from a rare national productivity case before the then Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission to conversations in tearooms and boardrooms across Australia. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating overspent, but the productive economy they left did a great deal of the work for Howard-Costello in paying debts. The same could not be said for the Rudd-Gillard governments.
It would be tempting to consider laying charges against Labor ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan, Penny Wong and Stephen Conroy for wasting $250 billion of Australian taxpayers' money. But, hey, Australia is a liberal democracy and we don't like to be seen to exact revenge. Perhaps an apology would do it.
Having to pay off the previous government's debt can slow mightily the work of establishing new directions and the "easy" options, selling government assets, have all but been exhausted - although some items come to mind. Making room for new ideas or just refreshing old ones, such as defending our borders, is more difficult when borrowing.
In his first speech as Productivity Commission chairman, Peter Harris said: "In making the case for change, government is not always part of the answer. We rely on firms to address the productivity task."
The Abbott government's big job is to make room for the productive sector of the economy. Harris asks whether Australia has the necessary structures that offer incentives in favour of productivity-oriented reform, and whether government, which has "all the tools that they find so useful in fiscal and monetary policy", has all the tools that it needs "in micro-economic reform".
Business groups need to create the demand for reform; that is the hard task and one they failed in recent years. Several industry groups were as weak as water over the carbon abatement response to climate change and selling Work Choices. Too many corporations are fiddling with the triple bottom line, spending superannuants' and shareholders' money appeasing green pressure groups. At the very least, the Coalition should stop subsidising those non-government organisations demanding more regulation and spending.
For example, when money is easy, governments can continue to ramp up foreign aid and restore the defence budget. When money is tight, something has to give. The government has opened the door to using the aid budget to stop the boats. After that has occurred, foreign aid should be rolled into foreign affairs and that aid that has no security element should be abandoned. If people want to donate to foreign-aid charities the tax incentives are there, but there is no need for government to toss in more. Better the money is used in defence and trade, the two really solid and sure means to a safer and more prosperous world.
The Coalition needs to stop subsidising the demand for regulation. Remove advocacy groups that undertake no charitable works from the charitable tax exemption system. These groups are free to do as they wish, but the taxpayer should never subsidise their regulatory demands.

Sep 4, 2013

An Australian Nate Silver? - Mumble Blog | The Australian

SINCE Nate Silver’s fame was well and truly cemented with the US presidential election result, some have suggested that Australia “needs a Nate Silver”.
Silver, who blogs for the New York Times, rose to fame with PECOTA, a system for forecasting baseball players’ performance. (Wikipedia entryhere.) I can’t claim to know much about that, but assuming it does what it’s supposed to it sounds like a work of great genius and originality. 
What he did for the presidential election was more mundane: synthesise the voting intentions opinion polls and produce state-by-state and overall odds.
Silver wasn’t the only person to do this, just the most famous. Simon Jackman, an Australian academic at Stanford University (who sometimes writes for this newspaper) was another, and he came up with pretty well the same odds.
On election eve they gave Obama about an 80 per cent chance of victory and Romney about 20 per cent. That 80 per cent encompassed everything from a narrow win to a big win. What was unusual was that all the polls were right in all the states. I wonder what the odds of that were?
The fact that Obama won didn’t make Silver “right”, and if Mitt Romney had won it wouldn’t have proved him “wrong”.
If anyone was “right” it was the opinion polls. Silver no doubt crunched them in a very sophisticated way, digging beneath the surface by obtaining details from pollsters and doing some of the weighting and other manipulation that pollsters generally do themselves.
In 2008 Silver apparently got all the states right except one (Indiana) but what that really meant was the polls got all the states right except one.
It was surprising to learn afterwards that the Romney camp actually expected to win the election. One imagines a campaign team operates two mindsets concurrently: the realistic one and the hopeful one. That’s fair enough. On one level you know you’re not likely to win, but on the other you say “I’m feeling pretty good; we might just do it.”
And the polls, while great in number, all showed it being reasonably close. They weren’t pointing to a landslide.
But it seems the Republicans really expected Romney would be comfortably elected. For that belief to take hold they had to have hard-headed number-crunching types telling them it was so.
And people like Karl Rove and Dick Morris did do that. They too had convinced themselves; they thought most of the pollsters’ and Silver’s assumptions and measurements regarding turnout of different groups of people, such as Latinos and Blacks, were wrong. (Read Morris’ mea culpa here.)
There was also something about surveyed Independents (when Americans register to vote they usually have to describe themselves as “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Independent") slightly favouring Romney. Usually whoever Independents vote for wins. But everyone knew Independents this time consisted of an extra group of people to the right of the Republicans who would favour Romney. People were saying that before the election; there was no excuse for not realising it.
Camp Romney created its own reality, from the ground up.
But back to the original proposition of an Australian Nate Silver. For such a creature to exist would require two things. The first is lots and lots more published opinion polls. Americans don’t just have 14 times the poll data we have (14 being the approximate magnitude of their greater electorate size); they have more than that.
The second aspect relates to the electoral architecture and makes the task even harder. Americans particularly poll the “swing states"—those that tend to go to the winner and which have more than a handful of Electoral College votes. The Australian House of Representatives has three times as many “electorates”, 150 of them currently, and they are of equal size. To predict seat-by-seat, pollsters would have to survey individually all that have the slightest chance of being in play.
That would be a massive task. The economies of scale do not remotely exist.
Currently the closest we have are people like Pollytics and Poliquant. Both have a Nate-like understanding of stats and they average and weight and project the latest published polls to give a two-party-preferred number they then apply to the pendulum, or state-by-state bits of the pendulum. (Pollytics has other “secret” data but that would play only a small part.)
To me this is going a bit overboard given the meagre data available. (They both also make other calculations.) We can all see the recent published polls and can get the vibe ourselves. It will be more useful during the campaign. But any “prediction” will still be based on uniform swing, from a very small number of polls.
Nate reckons he’s not that much into politics actually. With the election out of the way, sport is creeping into his blog.
Which is here.
Comments short and on-topic please.