Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Very Corporate Wardrobe Malfunction

As a Crystal Palace fan and a Cardiff resident, football's not been very good to me this week. And with Gloucester RFC not setting the world on fire and Gloucestershire CCC a long way from being back in action, America's been providing my sporting fix of late. Which would be fine if they could manage to hold something as simple as a Super Bowl without dragging politics into it.

It all started with a player who isn't playing in the Super Bowl and may well never do so. Tim Tebow has just finished his final season as quarterback at the University of Florida, having won both a National Championship and the Heisman Trophy during his four years with his hometown alma mater. Tebow has long been subject to nationwide scrutiny, particularly now as he moves into the professional ranks where long-standing questions about the suitability of his own personal skill set to the NFL will finally be answered.

Tebow's initial claim to fame, however, came well before his recognition as a professional-calibre player. He was one of the first players to benefit from a 1996 Florida law allowing home-schooled students to play for the high school team of the school district in which they lived, but moved with his mother to an apartment in a different district so that he could play for a bigger school that passed more. At first the move was controversial, since conventionally-schooled players could not move districts with such ease, but Tebow is now the poster child for efforts to give the same rights to home-schooled children in other states.

And then, with his place in professional football still tentative and millions of dollars resting on his every action between now and the draft in late April, Tebow decided to wade right into the middle of the abortion battle and in that most public of American settings; a Super Bowl ad.

You see, the reason Tebow was home-schooled is that his parents are missionaries who wanted their children's education to reflect their Christian values. And Tim certainly wears his faith on his sleeve, or more accurately on his eye black which regularly carries references to biblical passages. But on Super Bowl Sunday, he'll wear it in an $2.5million ad for Focus On The Family which, as the name suggests, is an anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-evolution lobbying organisation.

There are two minor problems with this. In the first case, CBS had previously banned such advocacy ads altogether, notably in 2004 when the United Church of Christ, Barack Obama's own denomination, were prevented from running this ad welcoming gay and lesbian members;

Perhaps more pertinently, however, there is the likelihood that the ad itself will be, well, bollocks. It's expected to feature Tim and his mother, Pam, "telling their personal story", namely that while Pam was pregnant during a missionary trip to the Philippines in 1987, she contracted amoebic dysentery and suffered a placental abruption after which she was advised to have an abortion. Which is fine, except that abortion in the Philippines has been illegal since 1870, specifically prohibited in the constitution since, gee, 1987 and carries a six year jail sentence for anyone performing or receiving one. If you can find me a doctor who advises an abortion under those circumstances...

Meanwhile, CBS have been reviewing ads for the back-up list for the Super Bowl and saw fit to reject this fine example of the advertising executive's art;

Because, of course, a major television network isn't an enormous hypocrite, oh no...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Choose Life, Choose Method Of Choosing

Reading through the Lib Dem blogosphere I'm often struck by the recurring thought; "Would we mind fixing one thing at a time please?" I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised, therefore, to find that thought cropping up elsewhere. Not that Geraint Talfan Davies and the IWA are trying to fix multiple things at once, of course. But they do call useful attention to something we often seem to be.

Mind you, I am surprised that it wasn't the Lib Dem blogosphere that alerted me to a House of Lords Constitution Committee investigation of referendums; I'd have expected geekery-a-plenty on that sort of thing by now. Then again, given that Wales is the only part of the UK likely to have a referendum (that actually matters and has a cat's chance in hell of being answered in the affirmative) in the near future I suppose we do have the most immediate interest in that investigation's results.

That referendum is a statutory requirement of the Government Of Wales Act 2006, but you have to ask yourself why? As the IWA point out, Britain's referendal history has a lot less to do with questions of vital constitutional importance and a lot more to do with political expediency. Britain didn't need a referendum to join the EEC in 1973; it needed a referendum pledge from Harold Wilson in 1974 to placate the TUC whose opposition to it had divided his cabinet. Every European referendum pledge since stems from the divisions in John Major's post-1992 government; Maggie herself happily signed the Single European Act without a thought to a referendum because she was politically strong enough to do so. As for Lisbon, it's the subject of one of my coursework essays so I'll let you know when I've finished it...

Meanwhile, the 1979 devolution referendums were the result of a minority Labour government facing opposition in its own ranks, notably from Neil Kinnock. And of course, once you'd had the 1979 referendums you had to have the 1997 ones, which begat the GLA referendum, which begat the North East regional referendum, which begat, which begat... Heck, if instead of specifically creating the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, Labour had gone the whole hog and established regional government for the whole UK (which is, of course, exactly what they should have done) the whole thing would have been essentially a local government reorganisation and you wouldn't even have needed the referendum on constitutional grounds.

For Wales, then, the IWA's picture is gloomy; a powers referendum that shouldn't be necessary, whose result will depend more on the wording of the question and the internal battles of the coalition over timing and that might be lost when losing it simply isn't an option. And now it may not even be the last word; Jack Straw has already said that any future move towards a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction would need a referendum, which for such a technical and fundamentally necessary reform is simply bonkers.

For Liberal Democrats, however, the IWA ask a far more searching question; what does this proliferation of referendums mean for representative democracy? Obviously we were talking about fixing the political process long before it became a hot button topic, but now that it is we shouldn't start pretending that every policy idea in that direction is sacrosanct. Saying as many do that we should put more issues to referendums is fine in and of itself, but when you're already talking about PR, an elected second chamber, votes at 16, election finance reform and power of recall, at some point you have to ask yourself what the result of all of that would be.

To put it another way, if we delivered PR, elected second chamber and election finance reform, three things we've only been promising since the neolithic, wouldn't that do the job? Or at the very least, isn't it worth giving those things a chance to do the job before jumping into things like referendums and recall powers that really do change the nature of democracy? Having suffered so long from the effects of a political system that was designed by throwing lumps of constitutional concrete into a pile and hoping it ended up as a house, I'd like to think we were employing a little architecture in sorting the mess out. Either way, I suspect the committee's report will be an interesting read for the Lib Dems and for everyone who's waiting for One Wales to get on with it.