Thursday, August 30, 2007

How not to deny one is gay

Courtesy of Kerron Cross: A Tale of Two Cities?. US Senator Larry Craig issues a statement about an incident and denies being gay. Look out for his first words.

Not the best phrase to use, is it?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Ten years is long enough

It seems strange to think that it's been ten years since the death of Diana. Especially given the way the Daily Express seems to have a story about her on the front page every week. What good is it to constantly be raking over the ashes of her life?

It's time to move on.

On second chambers: The Bundesrat of Germany

Continuing my look at second chambers around the world, we now turn to look at the Bundesrat of Germany.

Composition: 69 votes. Members are appointed by the Länder (state) cabinets and are invariably members of the cabinet, headed by the Ministerpräsidents (state premiers). In theory a Länder can appoint a single delegate. Votes are allocated in proportion to a state's population, with between three and six per state. There is an upper limit of 6 votes per state. Each state casts a single block vote.

Fairness of representation: This is a curious set-up for by and away the most explicit "representing the states" upper house I've looked at so far. And yet voting power is rooted in population size, rather than the equal votes for each state model in Australia. The allocation is slightly biased to the smaller states. As each state casts a block vote (a split delegation abstains but this de facto is a no vote) the principle that members are voting on behalf of what their states want is upheld, though as the state and federal party systems are much the same the potential for partisan voting is still present.

Powers and conventions: All legislation must be introduced in the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat has the power to block legislation in all policy areas that the Basic Law (constitution) grants power to the Länder or where the Länder have to administer federal regulations. (This proportion has grown - from 10% in 1949 to about 60% in 1993.)

On other legislation the Bundesrat has a temporary veto that can be overturned by a further vote of the Bundestag. If the Bundesrat blocks something with a 2/3 majority the Bundestag needs a 2/3 vote to overturn it.

Conflict resolution: For federal only matters, there is the mechanism for the Bundestag to overturn the Bundesrat's block. If the absolute veto is wielded then either house or the government can convene a committee to work negotiate a compromise. That compromise must be passed by both houses, but neither can amend it. There is no mechanism to dissolve the Bundesrat. Consequently when it has an opposition party majority then a stalemate can occur.

Protector against the tyranny of the majority vs bastion against democracy: One problem in recent years has been the tendency for opposition parties to use the Bundesrat as a way to frustrate the government of the day, rather than to protect the interests of the states. However as the Länder have competency in the areas where they have an absolute veto then requiring explicit consent is a way to prevent conflicts between the two. The Bundesrat does have strong powers so can take a stand against a majority in the Bundestag, though can not totally block it.

Anything else?: There have been calls to move to a system of directly electing the Bundesrat, similar to the Australian Senate. The German constitution explicitly bars referendums and plebiscites on any matter bar changes to Länder borders, so there is no option to put a contentious matter directly to the people to break a stalemate.

(Although not directly covering the Bundesrat, one notable feature of the German system of government is that the Chancellor can only be removed from office by a constructive vote of no confidence, which must nominate a successor to have effect. So unlike the Australian system, with all the problems exposed in the 1975 constitutional crisis, the German government's survival cannot be threatened by the upper house.)

Anything worth copying?: To be honest very little at the moment. The UK isn't yet fully federal and would need devolution in all four parts, with each chamber wielding equal power, in order for the similar powers to work. Devolved parliaments sending a ministerial delegation to an upper house to cast a block vote is remarkably similar to the EU Council of Ministers and likely to provoke many of the same objections. The dispute mechanism is also rather weak in producing an outcome. And without the provision for a matter the two houses can't agree on to be put to the people, whether directly through a referendum or by a new election for both houses, there isn't a way to overcome some of the stalemates.

Doctor Who - Time-Flight & Arc of Infinity

It's been slightly delayed but here are my old reviews of the latest Doctor Who stories released on DVD from the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.

It's a double bill this time, as the latest release is a box set containing two stories. First Time-Flight:

A damp squib ending for the season

It is difficult to know where to begin with this story. It shows a degree of ambition and an attempt to bring more realism into the series through its use of Concorde, but at the same time the story is poorly structured, contains several inconsistencies such as the complete disappearance of Angela Clifford (though Judith Byfield's performance is so unspectacular this oversight is not exactly missed) or the Master adopting a disguise for no apparent reason that he abandons some considerable time before his goal has been apparently achieved. The story also contains a lot of technobabble that makes very little sense and might as well be magic, whilst the Doctor initially establishes himself with the authorities not through his actions but by name dropping about UNIT. [Those who get wound up on UNIT dating might nitpick for this story clearly having a contemporary setting yet it appears to be set some years after the Doctor's time with the taskforce and then wonder why Mawdryn Undead gets all the flack for this but who cares about that can of worms anyway?]

Peter Grimwade's script is fundamentally flawed from the outset and is further let down by some atrocious dialogue. The story starts with the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan still coming to terms with Adric's death in Earthshock but quite quickly they stop their tears and seem to forget about their late friend. It would have been better to have established that some time had passed since the events of the previous story rather than this half-hearted attempt at characterisation which fails to satisfy any of the conflicting demands of the story and the ongoing narrative. Apart from this switch, both Peter Davison and Janet Fielding give competent performances but they are not at their peak, indicating perhaps a dissatisfaction with the whole production, whilst Sarah Sutton is noticeably weaker than usual as Nyssa. Anthony Ainley returns as the Master but gives first an almost comical performance as Kalid and then fails to make a strong presence whilst the disguise is shed. None of the guest cast make much of an impact at all.

The production values feature some good filming at Heathrow, but it is clear when stock footage of Concorde is being used, whilst the intercuts of film of the cockpit interior or closeups of the engines with the videotape of the prehistoric studio set or CSO illusionary Heathrow result in many shots being ineffective. he stock shot in Part Four of Concorde taking off with the landscape CSOed in front of it is particularly poor. The studio sets generally show little imagination at all, whilst the Plasmatrons seem to be little more than lumps of grey plasticine with legs that just stand jump around when they appear. The result is that much of the story is tired and so the season limps to a conclusion. The only noteworthy point at all comes when it appears that the Doctor has abandoned Tegan when he and Nyssa escape in the TARDIS. This apparent departure makes for a memorable final shot for the season, but otherwise Time-Flight is a complete damp squib for Peter Davison's first year to end on. 1/10
Next Arc of Infinity:

An illogical and lacklustre story

Season 20 kicks off with the first story set on Gallifrey in five years. However very little at all is established in this tale about the Doctor's home planet and the result is that we get yet another tale of a treacherous member of the High Council teaming up with a renegade in order to prolong the latter's full existence, alongside trips into the Matrix, the Doctor facing a sentence of death and a slow investigation process. The result is that this entire section of the story feels unimaginative, tired and worn out. Omega returns in this story as a mystery villain but there is no reference to him whatsoever before the ending of Part Three and so there is not the slightest clue as to who the villain is. The Three Doctors may have been repeated just over a year before this story's original transmission, but this is not enough in itself to make the revelation at all surprising beyond 'it isn't the Master this time.'

The other half of the story is set in Amsterdam and once more sees the series undertake overseas location filming. Unfortunately Amsterdam lacks world famous landmarks other than its canals, whilst its famed Red-Light District and liberal laws on drugs are not exactly appropriate to show in a series like Doctor Who. What we're left with is a generic European city and whilst it is nice to see an acknowledgement that there is more to Earth than London and the Home Counties, the Amsterdam location feels extremely superfluous. There's an attempt to explain it by making the point that Omega needs to be below sea level for his fusion booster to work, but he could just have easily hidden himself in the depths of the London Underground to carry out exactly the same task. Worse still it seems highly bizarre that Tegan gets caught up in the action by accident, so far from home. The result is a story that suffers from a highly illogical and lacklustre plot and is let down further by the dialogue. There are few memorable scenes other than the moving one where Omega is wandering around Amsterdam and sees the music wagon and smiles as he realises what it is like to experience a proper existence.

The acting is not especially spectacular for this story. Colin Baker makes his first Doctor Who appearance as Commander Maxil, but the part is so relegated to the sidelines that there is little scope for development. Also bizarre is the way that Maxil and the Castellan disappear from the room between Parts Three and Four, with the former not reappearing at all in the story. The rest of the cast give straightforward performances, but none stand out. However of the regulars Sarah Sutton gives a strong performance as Nyssa, benefiting from not being around Tegan for much of the story, and so the character shows more potential than usual.

The production includes some nice location footage in Amsterdam and the imaginatively designed Ergron costume that looks like a humanoid pteradon but neither are fully justified in terms of plot. Otherwise we get to see a small scale Gallifrey and a few sets for the interiors in Amsterdam, but little spectacular. The whole result is a story that tries to be memorable but fails abysmally. 2/10
Doctor Who - Time-Flight & Arc of Infinity can be purchased from

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bill Deedes 1913-2007

I've just heard the news that Bill Deedes, or "W. F. Deedes" or Lord Deedes - a man of many names - has died. (BBC News: Journalist Lord Deedes dies at 94) He has always been such a fixture of the press.

He was also the last surviving member of the cabinets of Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. With his passing an era of government truly enters history.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The CIA's latest weapon!

The Central Intelligence Agency might be wondering if that name is an oxymoron. One of their latest actions has been vandalising the Wikipedia article on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to add the exclamation "Wahhhhhh!" to his plans for his presidency. (BBC News: Wikipedia 'shows CIA page edits')

When challenged, a spokesperson for the CIA stated:

I cannot confirm that the traffic you cite came from agency computers.

I'd like in any case to underscore a far larger and more significant point that no one should doubt or forget: The CIA has a vital mission in protecting the United States, and the focus of this agency is there, on that decisive work.
So let's run that by one more time. It's essential for the protection of the United States that articles in an encyclopedia that anyone can edit are vandalised! Where on earth do they get their spokespersons from? Don't they check to see if they fit the second word of the Agency's name?!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I'm back

Just another quick note to say I'm now back, although I've been catching up with bits and pieces.

Tomorrow sees the release of A-Level results, a godsend for journalists trying to find something to fill up space in a very slow newsweek. Good luck to everyone awaiting results and don't pay too much attention to the annual "A-Levels are getting easier!" outcry. It wouldn't happen if they came out in the same week as the Queen's Speech.

On another matter altogether, is anyone else having trouble getting Five and its offshoot channels on Freeview?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Going away

This is just a quick note to say that I'll be away for a few days and so unable to update the blog.

See you all soon!

Friday, August 03, 2007

On second chambers: The Senate of Australia

Continuing my look at second chambers around the world, we now turn to look at the Australian Senate.

Composition: 76 members. 12 from each of the six states and two from the two territories, elected as follows:
*Under the normal electoral cycle: Only 6 of the senators from each state are elected at each "half-election", serving for two three year terms. All the Senators from the territories are elected in a normal "half-election". The terms are fixed; however the timing of the elections is sufficiently flexible that most elections for the House of Representatives are timed to overlap with a Senate election.
*In a "double dissolution": As part of the conflict resolution mechanism (which I'll come to below), the entire Senate is dissolved and put up for re-election, alongside the House of Representatives.
Election is by Single Transferable Vote. The number of candidates can immense - at the last election there were 78 standing in New South Wales. Australia has compulsory voting and it is compulsory for a voter to deploy all their preferences. A voter has two ways to cast a vote. They either rank all candidates in order of preference (yes even if there are 78!), and remember they've also just preferenced a House vote. Now you can understand the value of "How To Vote" cards recommending an order of preference. Or they can formally opt to have their vote redistributed in accordance with an order lodged by a party - for this they just mark a box "above the line". It's controversial in some quarters, especially due to horse trading, but frankly it's just a quicker way to vote the way a party suggests than copying out the How To Vote card.

The other point of note is how mid-term vacancies are filled. Until 1977 a state legislature would just appoint a replacement, with an unwritten convention that they appoint the nominee of the ex Senator's party. In 1975 (and we'll be hearing a lot about 1975 as we go) this convention was breached twice (and altered the balance of power in the Senate). A 1977 constitutional amendment now requires the new Senator to be from the same party, but doesn't require them to be the party's nominee. And some state legislatures have just declined to appoint a new Senator, leaving the seat vacant.

Fairness of representation: As I've said before, it's not always clear exactly what is the basis of representation in upper houses so the term "malapportionment" is best avoided. Depending upon how you look at it, the Senate either has a very fair representation for the states, with all having the same number of Senators, or a very bad voter-representative ratio with Senators from Tasmania representing an electorate many times smaller than those from New South Wales.

In a federal system a bicameral legislature with one chamber based on equal representation for the people and the other on equal representation for the states has some merits. However as the Senate is directly elected (as opposed to, say, the Bundesrat in Germany, which I'll look at in another post) and partisan it's questionable as to whether or not Senators are always acting in the interests of their state or their party.

The territories are the weak point in this as they don't get equal representation (but have even smaller populations). And when the Northern Territory was offered statehood in a referendum in 1998 it was only offered 3 Senators, rather than 12. What would be patently unfair would be for the original states to have more Senators just because they were the first in the federation.

Powers and conventions: The Senate is extremely powerful by the standards of second chambers and it's not for nothing that the term "Washminster System" is sometimes used in place of Westminster System. The Senate has near equal powers to the House of Representatives. Budgets ("Supply") and Appropriation Bills must originate in the House and cannot be amended by the Senate, but otherwise the Senate is in quite a strong position. It can reject Bills outright, unless the government initiates the double dissolution process (again, more on this later).

One particular point of note is that the Senate has the power to reject Supply. This is one of the most contentious matters. In practice the Senate has almost always not exercised the powers, and for most of the last 32 years the Senate has either been controlled by the government of the day or had the balance of power held by a party with an explicit stance against exercising the power to block Supply.

But in 1975, the one year in which the Senate did block Supply, constitutional chaos ensued. Strictly speaking the Senate didn't vote down Supply but rather passed deferral motions and set on a confrontational course with the House of Representatives and the government, who held office by virtue of their majority there.

Conflict resolution: A formal mechanism is built in, with the presumption that the House will prevail if it's the will of the people. If the Senate repeatedly refuses to pass a Bill, the government can advise the Governor General to call a double dissolution in which both the House and Senate face re-election by the people. (In practice a government will store up several bills and take them all to the people in one double dissolution.) Then a special joint session of House and Senate is called and the final fate of the Bills is settled there. The House generally has about double the number of members the Senate has, so is expected to prevail in a joint sitting. (In practice only one joint sitting has been held, in 1974, with the other double dissolutions leading to either the incumbent government losing power, gaining a majority in the Senate or not having the numbers to win a joint sitting.)

The situation in 1975 was more complicated, with both the Senate and government of Gough Whitlam standing firm. Whitlam asserted the Senate were challenging the more legitimate House and should pass the Budget, the Liberal-Country controlled Senate demanded a new election in the hope of gaining power for themselves. In the end the Governor General dismissed Whitlam and appointed the Liberal leader, Malcolm Fraser, as Prime Minister. This was the most controversial event in the political history of Australia and ever since there has been no real consensus on a way to resolve the issues involved.

Protector against the tyranny of the majority vs bastion against democracy: A tricky one this. In recent years the Senate has generally had no one party majority (although the last election proved a narrow exception) and so governments have not had free reign. However when an opposition party can secure a majority - and as well as at an election this can happen if state legislatures refuse to appoint replacement senators for government vacancies - then it can set on a course on confrontation.

Since the double dissolution takes the entire Parliament, house and both halves of the Senate et al, to the electorate it is in theory hard for the Senate to frustrate the will of the people long term. However if the elected government doesn't have a majority in the new Senate or the numbers to win in a joint sitting then it can't get its way. This should be because of ticket splitting and voter caution, though given the different voter-representative ratios in the Senate it is entirely possible for every voter to vote the same way for both chambers and still return different majorities.

And of course 1975 shows the dangers when a Senate feels confident to take on the House and both government & Senate adopt a strategy of waiting for the other side to crack.

Anything else?: Everything above here pretty much sums it up. But see the end of the piece for more about 1975 for those who don't know the full gory story.

Anything worth copying?: Hmm... Staggered elections, multi-member constituencies and stronger powers with a clearly defined resolution mechanism are all very attractive. Less attractive is the ability to block supply and drive a government from office, but that could easily be denied in the creation of UK chamber. However the model of the chamber is very clearly one of representing clearly defined interests, not revising, and as the UK is not fully federal then these interests would be very hard to define. I can't envisage a chamber based on equal representation from England and Northern Ireland (to take the two extreme) would be workable. Equally I can't see giving the poorly defined English regions an equal number of members would be too popular with Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland, and even within England there's also the issue of regions with smaller populations like the North East having the same number of members as the South East.

But the principle of an "equal say" second chamber could at least be a way to tackle other issues like the West Lothian Question.

Post Script: I've made many mentions of the events of 1975 so for those who aren't familiar with them, I'd recommend a look at Wikipedia: 1975 Australian constitutional crisis.

And also here's a special bonus feature from YouTube, featuring the satirical character Norman Gunston on that momentous day:

Isn't it incredible how open and relaxed the Australian political system was then? And even at the height of political battle the Aussies can still laugh!

I'm not going to take this long!

I see in the news that Brian May has finished his PhD thesis after thirty-six years. (BBC News: Queen star hands in science PhD and Live!: Brian May Hands in Thesis for some pictures.) May will now have to defend the thesis at his viva on the 23rd. Vivas are nominally open - I wonder if this will be the first time people will have to be turned away due to limited space?!

But before anyone asks, I don't plan to still be finishing my thesis when I'm sixty!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

For Mayor of London this blog will be backing...

As the battle for the Conservative nomination for Mayor of London gets going, I'm just dashing this quick note to announce that this blog will be backing:

Andrew Boff

Andrew recently set out his stand in, amongst other places, Interview: The Tory who wants to boff Boris.

And I am encouraged by comments on ConservativeHome: Andrew Boff sets out themes for his primary campaign.

See also Andrew Boff: "To give London's voters the power to propose binding propositions on the executive or to recall the Mayor" in which he details a radical proposal to restore power to voters.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

London is safe

BBC News: Öpik 'won't run for London mayor'

Need I say anything more?

So when's the asteroid getting here?

Here I come to destroy the day!I've blogged about the possibility of Lembit Öpik running for Mayor of London before (see Is London doomed?) but it seems he's really is considering it! (BBC News: Lib Dem Öpik 'may run for mayor')

He is at least aware of a serious problem:

The only issue is my constituency is 205 miles away.
Here's the map again for anyone who wants to check, courtesy of Liberal Democrat Voice: Lembit for London:

But if Öpik does run, I'm scared for London. Being backed by Öpik is a kiss of death. So when's the asteroid getting here?

July on this blog

Time again for the monthly look at who's been visiting this blog. For those who wish to see stats for earlier months you can now click on one of the labels at the end of this post. Comparisons are with the stats for June.

First off the sites most people come from:

  1. Google (-)
  2. (-)
  3. Mars Hill (-)
  4. (NEW)
  5. Wikipedia (-)
  6. Young Unionists (+4)
  7. Tom Watson MP (NEW)
  8. Caroline Hunt (+1)
  9. Facebook (-2)
  10. Political Opinions (RE-ENTRY)
Dropping out of the top ten are Facebook (at 11, down 4), ConservativeHome (at 28, down 22), MyBlogLog (disappearing altogether) and Imaginary Walls (ditto).

Rather a static month in general with several staying in their current place.

Then we have the top ten search engine requests that brought people here:

  1. laura blomeley (+8)
  2. what does your birthday say about you (-)
  3. tim roll-pickering (+1)
  4. seals of office (+1)
  5. antonia bance (NEW)
  6. 2007 senators nominated by taoiseach (NEW)
  7. non oxbridge prime ministers (-)
  8. problems with christian unions (-)
  9. millwall loonies (NEW - no rotterdam this time)
  10. female conservatives (NEW)
Another mix of the regular and the new. Meanwhile one of the eyebrow raising searches is nightlife in epsom ewell sutton england - if you need to resort to Google it shows how bad it is!

Finally as ever we have a list of all the cities detected that people are in:


Thank you all for reading!


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