Bring on the number twos! – the week in review

Aug 24th, 2008 | By David Harper | Category: Opinion, Science Fiction

David Harper: This week was a week of number twos on a variety of fronts. In the United States, Joe Biden became Barack Obama’s newly minted sidekick (a.k.a. vice presidential selection), while in Australia, the minor parties and independents in the Senate geared up to take on their new roles as the second reviewers of Rudd Government legislation. Meanwhile, in the entertainment world, the first spin-off series of popular sci-fi television series Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, was cancelled, only to be replaced by a second spin-off series, Stargate Universe.

Obama picks a VP candidate

Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for November’s US presidential election, announced yesterday that his senatorial colleague, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., would be his vice presidential running mate. Mr. Biden, who has been in the US Senate since 1972, has been the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2006, and was previously in charge between 2001 and 2003.

Senator Obama’s choice was an important one, and the effects on his campaign, and the opinion polls, will be interesting to watch. On the positive front, Mr. Obama will undoubtedly try to lean on Mr. Biden’s vast foreign affairs experience to counter charges from the Republican camp that his inexperience would be dangerous for voters to ignore. Secondly, and more interestingly, Mr. Obama has already tried to integrate Mr. Biden into his preferred narrative of change. “Joe Biden is that rare mix — for decades, he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn’t changed him,” Mr. Obama said in a speech given shortly after the announcement. Frankly, Mr. Obama’s assertion is a little unbelievable, as Mr. Biden has been a professional politician for over 35 years. Nobody, let alone a six-time senator, emerges unchanged from Washington. The real test is whether the changes have been beneficial for the Mr. Biden’s constituents, and Americans more generally.

On the negative front, news emerged shortly after the Obama announcement that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was not seriously considered by the Obama campaign as a possible vice presidential pick. This news is sure to enrage the more militant of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters, who still feel that their candidate was cheated out of the nomination by Mr. Obama. Even if he did not wish to seriously consider Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama should have gone through the motions in a determined effort to placate Mrs. Clinton’s supporters. Having failed to do so, he runs the risk that a vital percentage of the core Democratic constituency may stay at home come election day – or, worse, vote for Senator John McCain, as some have previously threatened.

A preview of the new Senate

When the new Australian Senate begins its sittings on Tuesday, the Rudd Government will be faced with a need to practice consensus politics with a variety of second fiddles. In this case, the number twos are Family First Senator Steve Fielding, who was elected in 2004 and is returning for the second half of his six year term, newly elected independent Senator Nick Xenophon, formerly a member of the South Australian upper house, and five Australian Greens senators, led by Bob Brown.

Senator Fielding and a number of Greens senators have previously been used to being ignored by the government of the day. The Greens and the former Howard Government never saw eye-to-eye, and the Coalition relied on the now-defunct Democrats (no relation to the US party) and two independent senators to pass legislation between 1996 and 2004. After the 2004 federal election, when Senator Fielding was sent to Canberra on the back of Labor Party preferences, the Government narrowly won an outright majority, albeit an occasionally shaky one thanks to outspoken Nationals (now Liberal-National) Senator Barnaby Joyce.

The Greens and Family First have therefore largely been content to propose unrealistic amendments to legislation and – especially in Senator Brown’s case – spend their time criticising government policies without having to deal with the political realities inherent in having to be a part of the governmental process. Mr. Xenophon, similarly, was known more for his media stunts than his contributions to government policy during his time in the South Australian Legislative Council.

As the Democrats found to their ultimate peril, cooperating with the government of the day to pass legislation alienates elements of their constituency, particularly the “protest voters” who identify with the protests and criticisms that are far easier to continue with when a party (or an independent) has the luxury of voting against everything without consequence. The Greens in particular have opposed virtually every proposed law since 1996, giving them significant credit among disaffected voters, particularly Democrats supporters disillusioned with their party’s cooperative stance on issues like the Goods and Services Tax.

In the new Senate, the minor parties’ ability to freely oppose the government has been greatly restricted. Legislation that the Opposition votes against will now require the approval of both of the minor parties, as well as Mr. Xenophon, to become law. Thus every unpopular or controversial decision by the Rudd Government may well be held against the Greens, Senator Fielding and Mr. Xenophon by their constituents. Senator Fielding, who comes up for re-election in 2010, is particularly vulnerable, as he only achieved a quota of votes on the back of substantial Labor Party preferences, given at the behest of former leader Mark Latham. Labor is unlikely to repeat this mistake, and Senator Fielding’s already fading chances of re-election will depend entirely on his performance over the coming two years.

I suspect that the political realities of dealing with its fractious new allies will force the Rudd Government to propose better thought out and more balanced legislation – something that was at times sadly lacking during the Howard Government’s final term of office. This means that absurd policies like FuelWatch will probably be quietly abandoned – likely with a sigh of relief on the part of Kevin Rudd and his cabinet. In addition, the emissions trading scheme and the forthcoming changes to the industrial relations system will be more equitable than might have been the case if the Rudd Government only had to contend with the Greens, who want unobtainable carbon reductions as well as the re-unionisation of the entire workforce.

Effectively, the reality of the new Senate is that all of the minor players are now the Rudd Government’s ‘number twos’. Together, the decisions taken jointly by Labor, Family First, the Greens and Mr. Xenophon will be judged collectively by the electorate. Mr. Xenophon has little to worry about in the short term, as he is not up for re-election until 2013. But Senator Brown and Senator Fielding both have a lot to lose. If they are too obstructive, as they have been known to be in the past, the business of government will grind to a halt, although a double dissolution of parliament remains, as ever, very unlikely. If, on the other hand, they are seen to be too cooperative, they will be punished by the electorate and probably suffer the same fate as the Democrats, who were finally consigned to the history books at the 2007 federal election after being rendered impotent in 2004, when they lost the balance of power to the Howard Government.

Stargate is dead, long live Stargate!

And now for something completely different. During the week, the US-based SCI FI Channel, a division of NBC, decided to axe the Stargate SG-1 spin-off Stargate Atlantis. Atlantis, which never had as strong a following as its progenitor, has suffered over the years from casting difficulties, weak writing, and a poor timeslot. The show will therefore finish up at the end of its fifth season, although the various ongoing plots that have been developed over the years will be wrapped up in a 2 hour TV movie. No doubt SCI FI agreed to conclude the series in this manner thanks to the success of this year’s two-movie finale for the longer-running Stargate SG-1 series, which was cancelled last year after arguments regarding its budget.

Fortunately for Stargate fans, the long-planned Stargate Universe series, which has been stuck in development for some time, has now been green-lit to replace Atlantis on SCI FI next year. The new series will revolve around an Ancient spaceship that was designed to seed Stargates throughout the universe. According to the plot overview released by the producers, a team from Earth travels to the ship, the Destiny, but becomes trapped on the vessel and is forced to come along for the ride after it departs on its programmed mission.

On the downside, does this sound something like Star Trek Voyager to anyone else? Stargate Atlantis and the TV movie Stargate The Ark of Truth have become synonymous with recycled plots, and if the plots for Universe turn out to be as rehashed as the premise, the new series might not last very long. Atlantis started out with a strong first season, and should have been far more original than it in fact became. At first, the producers blamed the poor writing on the fact that SG-1 and Atlantis were running simultaneously, but, despite some excellent episodes, season four proved to be more of the same. In addition, the decision by Amanda Tapping (“Colonel Samantha Carter”) to depart Atlantis after the largely unnecessary killing off of Torri Higginson’s character “Dr Elizabeth Weir” deeply destabilised the franchise. Hopefully the producers will import some fresh writing talent for the new series, something that is desperately needed, and be blessed by a more stable cast. Otherwise Stargate Universe will deservedly suffer the same fate as other short-lived spin-offs, such as the Babylon 5 offshoot Crusade and Rick Berman’s longer-lived, but much maligned, Star Trek Enterprise.

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