Voting below the line

My name is Bookgrrl and I am a politics nerd.

I picked up a politics subject when I was at uni to replace a subject I didn’t pass and was instantly hooked. It became one of my majors of my Arts degree, along with French.The timeliness of the subject matter really appealed to me. I was learning about Modern Middle East Politics as the Gulf War was happening, the fall of Communism as it was happening in Eastern Europe and the evolution of the EEC into the EU with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

One of the aspects I loved about it was the lecturer’s insistence on the library being the laboratory of the humanities- it was where we students did our research, began to extrapolate our theories (or simply sit in the light-filled space and dream).

My love of politics has never really left me. It was always special going in to work when I was at Parliament and the buzz of a sitting day was intoxicating.

Electoral systems were fascinating as were the impact of electorate redistributions, I subscribe to Antony Green’s election blog, and I am one of those sad people on a Saturday night who will watch election coverage. I even vote below the line for the Senate. I have even stopped and chatted with the candidates, because in Ballarat, your local member can be your neighbour, a parent at the same school your kids attend, and even a friend on Twitter :).

I still get a buzz queuing up on election day, and the other thing that REALLY excites me is the local sausage sizzle at the primary school!

However, try as I might, it’s not easy getting enthused about this Saturday. I have no desire for either of the major parties, and I am tired of all the scare-mongering about asylum-seekers. It’s as if both parties are fighting to see who can be the most appealing to the idiot vote, and their refusal to release costings of their policies until it is too late to properly scrutinise them displays such utter contempt for the public. I am tired of seeing politicians parade their families as ornaments to their campaign- I want a leader who can lead, who has sound policies that benefit us all, not because he has attractive offspring.

As much as I want to, I don’t want to cast a donkey vote or vote informally- by luck of birth, I can vote. As for whom I will cast my vote…it will be a female candidate :).

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Being Speechless

I wanted to write a review about James Button’s book Speechless: A year in my father’s business. James Button, a journalist, was approached to be the speechwriter for Kevin Rudd  in 2010 and to help provide him with a ‘voice’, with what eventuating is a year in which speeches are written and left unspoken, policies drafted and rewritten in lanugage that doesn’t really say or promise anything, and families that are left behind while the game of politics is played.

I wanted to write about how James, as the son of John Button, a man that has loomed large in Labor politics (and the Geelong Football club) had the enviable position of having been entrenched in politics from an early age, and being able to report as a member of the press. However as a public servant there is the tradition of remaining silent, and impartial, which is somewhat at odds with the journalist’s impetus to report and expose.

However every time I sat down to write the review, I started reflecting on my own experience of being a public servant. The public servant to many is a faceless individual and a cog in the unwieldy machine that is government. And while that is the case for many public servants inhabiting big buildings in central business districts of Melbourne, Sydney and in regional centres, there are also teachers, nurses, social workers, doctors, police officers who are also far more visible to the public.

As a librarian, I have worked in local government-operated libraries, within the State Library of Victoria, and for the last 10 years at the Victorian Parliamentary Library. My roles as a librarian have ranged from being frontline staff, to working behind the scenes, to serving the staff and members of an institution/organisation.

Working where I work, I am bound by a Code of Conduct which form part of my conditions of employment, contravention of which constitutes misconduct. The Code emphasises Responsiveness, Integrity, Impartiality, Accountability, Respect and Leadership.

As a librarian, reference/information requests remain confidential, and the identity of an individual requesting information is never disclosed to a third party. If I were to leave Parliament, I am still bound by confidentiality provisions. We have to be apolitical in our dealings with our users, and not let our own opinions affect the level of service we provide. We are not permitted to make public comment unless authorised to do so, and when making comments in a private capacity, we have to ensure that these comments are not perceived to be official and are our personal views only.

It is often extremely hard to discern what I can and cannot say about work. My friends know where I work, and the general nature of my job. If I am peeved by internal rumblings at work, or with particular individuals, I grumble to Mr BG, and to my work colleagues. Online, I tend to err on the side of caution, and talk about the generalities of my day, libraries in general, books, the kids and nerdy stuff.

Initially I picked up James’ book for the details surrounding his tenure as speechwriter to Kevin Rudd, but what I found more interesting was his experiences in Canberra as a public servant, wrestling with bureaucratese/waffle, and his discussion of the impact of the public service upon Australian society. I appreciated it all the more because he was a single voice amongst the ranks of the speechless.

A politician walks into a bar…

The words, deeds and actions of  Members of Parliament will always come back to haunt them. Television soundbites, press mentions, inappropriate tweets and email exchanges with a constituent can be retrieved, reviewed and rehashed for perpetuity.

Before the electronic age, there was Hansard, an official record of the politician’s speeches and utterances within the legislative chambers. Named after  Thomas Curson Hansard, an early publisher of parliamentary transcripts, it is now produced in most Westminster democracies, including the state and Commonwealth Parliaments in Australia.

It may not have the catchy soundbites of a doorstop interview, but Hansards are useful for tracking down the rationale of legislation through second reading speeches, reviewing the inaugural or maiden speech of a new Member of Parliament, or reviewing circus question time with the likes of Paul Keating, who certainly had a way with words :).

The Australian Commonwealth Parliament has just finished digitising its Hansards and now date back to the first sitting day of 1901. This is certainly a laudable project, to ensure that this body of work is available to the public. The only problem is, is that it’s not exactly easy to find…

Actually I have to rephrase that. It is easy to find from the home page of the Parliament Website, and it is easily browseable, if you know what you are looking for. If you are searching for a speech in Hansard, you have to do this through ParlInfo, and this is not entirely evident from the site, unless you click on a generic ‘find’ link.

Hansard is only a small part of the huge body of information which is generated by the Commonwealth Parliament and form part of a larger database called ParlInfo Search . ParlInfo Search contains over a million records all relating to Parliament business and was launched in 2008 as a federated search facility.

Your advanced search screen looks like this

There is no native Hansard search interface. While the guided search provides a narrower focus and  is more suited to searching Hansard, I found the Advanced Search yielded more results.

The people who use this on a day to day basis are familiar with the interface and embraced it. These users include

Non-profit groups such as Open Australia, Getup, legal firms,accounting firms, educational institutes, libraries and other parliaments…

All aboard ParlInfo Search: the journey towards integrated access to bibliographic and full text information from the Parliament of Australia http://www.vala.org.au/vala2010/papers2010/VALA2010_46_White_Final.pdf Accessed 1 June 2011

However it is through OpenAustralia, that the most usable way to access Hansard has been developed. Their aim is to help people keep tabs on their elected representatives by monitoring what they’re saying in Parliament.

I understand that both sites have different user groups, with OpenAustralia aimed at the more general public, hence the difference in the search interface. However, there is a question which still niggles me- why couldn’t the Australian Parliament have done this in the first place, rather than rely on a third party to filter their info into a useable format?

At any rate, whatever way you wish to view them, those pollies can certainly talk, and talk and talk and talk…

Book Review-The Party Thieves

In August 2010, Australia went to the polls to decide between two leaders who were relatively untested, mainly because they had wrested power from former leaders who were classified as “party thieves”- Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, whose leadership styles tended to ignore those of their respective parties to their detriment.

With the subtitle of this book being the Real Story of the 2010 Election, the election itself is almost an anticlimax to that which preceded it. The events leading up to the leadership challenge of both these leaders are outlined with a comprehensive analysis of the leadership styles of the Leader of the Oppositon and the Prime Minister.

As a self-confessed politics geek, I would have found it fascinating, but I was reading this in bed NOT to put myself to sleep. For a start, The Party Thieves is readable. Barrie Cassidy has a great writing style which engages you and makes you want to turn the page.

Cassidy has a wealth of personal knowledge, experience and contacts gleaned from years working in Canberra as a political correspondent, press secretary and political adviser for Bob Hawke and as currently as host of Insiders. This vast experience shows particularly when he compares the influence of staffers under Rudd had grown, at the expense of Cabinet, and how policies were increasingly shaped by focus groups, rather than simply being tested after their development.

It is this insider aspect which makes Cassidy’s  analysis of Rudd all the more perceptive. He paints the former Prime Minister as an authoritarian who wanted to micro-manage everything and alienated Cabinet and Caucus to the extent noone was sorry to see him go.

It also cuts through the hyperbole and analyses the role of the Labor factions and the impact of state politics upon the federal election result. It also looks at the impact that the change of leadership within the government also impacted upon the result.

It may be old news, but the changes it wrought upon the Australian political landscape were substantial, with Australia’s first female prime minister, a minority government with the balance of power in the House of Representatives held by independents and a member of the Greens. For this alone it is definitely worth a read.

Changes

We have a woman prime minister! She’s Victorian! And I’m fully prepared to overlook the fact she’s a Bulldogs supporter. I only hope that Julia Gillard will be able to be known more for her gender.

This is my favourite memory of Kevin.If he can remembered for anything it should be this…

My morning was immersed in getting kids dressed and ready for kinder and doing the weekly shop, and it was only for watching last night’s breaking news on ABC that I knew there would be a #spill this morning. Master BG was mightily cheesed off that his morning TV was rudely interrupted by news, and Miss BG was unimpressed that I had the radio on in the car tuned to ABC Melbourne while heading off to the supermarket.

Had I been at work, my day would have been full of checking twitter feeds religiously, and eagerly discussing the news with colleagues. However life goes on and I have to go back to the supermarket to get the dishwashing detergent I forgot.

Take my breath away

I remember being called into the lounge room 20 years ago to watch TV. Huge crowds of people were streaming through a checkpoint in a country halfway across the world. The Berlin Wall was coming down and I was watching it with everyone else in the world. I just remember feeling chills up and down my spine- this was HUGE.

I was in my first year of my Arts degree and as chance would have it, studying German. My German teacher was estatic with the news unfolding, and I think my French teachers were happy for their German counterparts, but somewhat cautious of what the future would bring. I think in many ways the advent of the European Union has meant that the prosperity of Germany has meant prosperity for Europe.

At the time in 1989, I was also studying Jewish History- I could not help but wonder about another event which had taken place 51 years earlier in 1938- Kristallnacht. It seems as if 9/11 is a momentous date both in Europe as well as the United States.

Another momentous occasion this week with the passage in the House of Representatives of the Healthcare Legislation . The first I learned of it was the tweet I received from @Jenelle. A truly joyous occasion, and one I hope is repeated in the Senate.

Digital Fortress

An interesting, if somewhat hefty report (238 pages) from the Victorian Parliament’s Economic Development and Infrastructure Committee which had recently conducted an inquiry into Public Sector Information which has called for improved access to Government information with the creation of an Information Management Framework, and assessing what information is to be made available to the public.

Okay, it’s really only interesting to e-Government and library nerds like myself. If anyone has had to spend their working time trying to elicit information from public servants and accessing what little information government departments place on their website, you too would be jumping for joy.

However, it must also be accompanied by a change in the mindset of bureaucrats who seem to think that all information is to be locked down. I was once in contact with an individual from a government authority requesting information. Informed that I had to present an FOI request in order to get that information, I went online and found exactly what I had asked for from their website.

A searchable data directory was also recommended for the information which the public sector holds, as well as data repositories for higher education institutions to be established as a condition of funding from the Government.

The report also looked at the use of open source software which was being trialled in the Department of Justice. The use of open source software is growing in the public service- the Department of Premier and Cabinet‘s website was redesigned using Joomla!. There are parts of the public sector which are avid users of open source, especially in my last job. This was partially due to a lack of funds, the IT guys were knowledgeable, and they didn’t think much of proprietary software.

So two thumbs up from me because the report and the committee recognise:

  • That information can be a social and commercial benefit, that information has value and should be accessible to all.
  • The value of open source software in making this information accessible.

Hopefully the Victorian Government responds to the report in a positive manner and adopts the recommendations. *fingers crossed*