Wednesday 13 December 2006


Alexander sited "a sticking by your mates" justification again for Australia's presence in Iraq. Pity he wasn't referring to the Iraqis..

There he was again in the US this week spruiking the same nonsensical justifications for the continued Australian presence in Iraq. Alexander Downer sounding like a yob after a pub or schoolyard brawl said “we stick by our mates through thick and thin” “we are Australians and basically with our mates, we don’t go around bagging them”.

So those of us that criticise the Iraq War are guilty of that most vile of international breaches - criticising our mates. Thank goodness Americans of all political complexions have moved their analysis of Iraq onto more meaningful terrain. Unlike Australia, the US is engaged in a real and robust debate about the current failure and the best solutions to the Iraq disaster. Impugning the patriotism of those who question the prosecution of the war is starting to taste bitter there at least.

Iraqis watching may have thought that they were the mates that Mr Downer was sticking by. They would be wrong of course. The Foreign Minister’s comments confirm that the Iraqis are ancillary to the rationale underpinning our participation in the failed occupation of their country. Our mates are the rapidly disappearing and disgraced extremists of the Bush Presidency. We are there in blind support of this failed Presidency and policy as it limps towards oblivion with Australia’s international standing in its back pocket.

Thursday 30 November 2006


John Howard’s declaration that history, hindsight and his visits this week to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, have provided no reason for him to review his views on the morality or strategic merit of the Vietnam War should shock Australians. Apart from the disastrous diplomatic implications of his position, these views put Howard at the most extreme edges of thinking on the war. The massive involvement of foreign forces in Vietnam caused untold death and destruction and prevented a local solution to the conflict. Just as important though, the extreme brutality of the war ensured that hard line leaders flourished in the victorious Communist north. Moderates and reformers were marginalised for years. Vietnam is moving on. John Howard isn't. We should be more than alarmed if the same strategic mind is guiding the war on terror and our presence in Iraq.

Published in the Australian Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers.

Wednesday 22 November 2006


John Howard’s continual references to China as a reason for not signing Kyoto has finally drawn a response.

It is up there with John Howard’s greatest deceptions. Australia, we are told, has refused to sign on to the Kyoto protocol because it does not make demands of China or India in respect of emissions.

The Prime Minister neglects to advise Australians that we are, on a per capita basis, the worst greenhouse polluters on the planet. The average Australian is responsible for greenhouse emissions many times greater than that of the average Chinese or Indian.

It’s taken longer than one would have expected but the Chinese have finally had a gutful of this dodgy defense of Australia’s refusal to sign up to Kyoto. Last week, a Chinese delegate at the United Nations conference on climate change in Nairobi, took a swipe at Australia’s position pointing out that with a population 65 times that of Australia, China’s emissions would naturally exceed those of Australia. He also pointed out that greenhouse damage would be dramatically higher if China’s per capita output matched that of Australia.

There are two reasons why developing nations have been free of Kyoto’s targets to date. One is that on a per capita basis, developing nations are still massively behind the developed world in current emissions. The other reason is that serious greenhouse damage has been accumulating over the past century and industrialised nations have been the culprits. So developing nations are reasonably being given some latitude before being required to adhere to strict emissions targets. It won't stay that way of course and nobody has ever intended it should.

Economic prosperity will also ultimately be a facilitator of greenhouse emission reductions in the developing world.

Australia’s position on climate change is ugly not only because of our excessive per capita greenhouse gas emissions. We are also a major exporter of greenhouse inducing resources. So not only do we have an appalling per capita record on greenhouse emissions, we are also deriving significant economic benefit from other country’s addiction to greenhouse gas producing energy. We are simultaneously the world’s worst greenhouse junkies and dealers. Not a proud record.

Australians appear ready to take action to address this situation. Their efforts are obstructed by a Prime Minister who continues to deceive and reject joint international efforts on climate change. There are signs that even the Prime Minister is turning. He has for some months now been attempting to refashion himself as Mr Green. This week he also asserted the right of the Chinese to pollute at liberty clearly feeling uneasy about their earlier rebuke. Fortunately for the world, the Chinese are taking a more proactive and multilateral position on climate change than Australia. Shame.

Monday 20 November 2006


The collapse of the neo conservative foreign policy project in the US will create some serious challenges for its most vocal international supporter, John Howard's Australian government.

''I believe in talking to your enemies,'' “it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies.'' And so with these simple words uttered in early October, former US Secretary of State and Republican elder statesman, James A. Baker III dispatched 6 years of neo conservative dominated US foreign policy.

Bush’s neo conservatives have been on the back foot since the Iraq War started going pear shaped. Condeleeza Rice has done her best to add some nuance to US diplomacy since becoming Secretary of State. Baker’s comments added further pressure. The Democratic congressional triumph last week, Donald Rumsfeld’s departure from the Pentagon and the appointment of Robert Gates as Defense Secretary will together, spell the definitive end of the radical foreign policy experiment of Bush and his band of neoconservatives.

Critics have been raging against the Bush administration’s foreign policy for a long time. Many of the critics have been Republicans. Baker was the most senior Republican insider to voice such an unequivocal refutation of the black and white world of “you’re with us you’re against us” and the “Axis of Evil”. The Bush world view, flushed of all complexity, has been a party to the most thorough breakdown in international affairs since the end of the Cold War - the Iraq fiasco, increased North Korean and Iranian belligerence, intractable violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories and a marginalization of moderates across the world’s toughest trouble spots.

John Howard and Alexander Downer have made Australia the world’s most visible and vigorous advocate of the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld view. Now that this view is being turned on its head in the US, where does it leave Australia? Looking as silly, weak and obsequious as we have looked throughout the past six years? Worse.

Throwing in our lot with the neo cons without reservations, conditions or doubts was always a reckless choice for Australia. The US is big and powerful enough to change course and the world must adapt. Not so Australia. No, we need to carve out our own space using very careful measures of idealism, realism and self-interest. The Howard and Downer Doctrine, also known as the “Doctrine of Holding On Tight to the Bush Banana” (thanks to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for the Bush banana line) does not meet any of these criteria. Instead, Howard and Downer have pursued a foreign policy that checks out the biggest guy in the room, makes sure he’s an acceptable cultural match (the United States) and then jumps aboard the policy train without question and with scant reference to Australia’s complex position in the global political schema.

The biggest problem with the current complexion of international politics is that while the US remains the biggest guy in the room, there are an increasing number of other reasonably hefty fellows (China, India, Russia, Brazil) making their presence felt as well. And while the US will remain the biggest guy in the room for a generation, even the best US policies will see its relative importance shrink dramatically in our lifetime.

Perhaps more important though, regionally, Australia will also find our ASEAN neighbours more economically and militarily robust over the coming decade. If our policy framework is simply a pale version of US policy, we will not be well placed at all to deal with our increasingly strong and demanding neighbours. Predictable areas of disagreement in Indonesia and Malaysia will be Australia’s approach to Middle East and Islamic issues. Australia’s role in the Iraq War and the wider war on terror have already damaged our standing with our Islamic near neighbours. Our blind loyalty to US positions on Israel will also have been noted.

As militant Islamists seek to assert themselves in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, Australia needs to frame policy that does not play into extremist hands. Our support of the Iraq debacle, the neoconservative foreign policy position and our uncritical support of anything out of Israel, plays very badly in our region. Any regional growth in Islamic militancy is very very bad for Australia. Yet the Howard government has pursued policies that play into the hands of Islamists.

Australia’s positions on these issues may have met the most crude and highly dubious realist measures - a view that the US is the most powerful nation so an alliance provides reflected security, strength and comfort. This view also offers the Howard government continuity with Australia’s long standing US alliance. It plays well with the electorate. It shows zero leadership however. A real leader would be preparing Australians for a foreign policy environment that is far more complex and where the US alliance alone will not suffice.

The Howard government has firmly established a view of Australia in the region and the world as a nation totally entranced by extreme US power and ready to cross any ideological and policy bridge to accommodate the wishes of that power. Nobody should respect us for that. Watching Howard redefine core and non core foreign policy positions (eg. David Hicks, global warming) is already proving fascinating.

Tuesday 14 November 2006


October 5 2006

Australia's values debate looks increasingly insular, anal and of a diminutive nation from afar

John Howard and Kim Beazley have been trying to out muscle one another recently on Australian values and immigration. I have not heard a clear definition of what these values are. I have heard welcome references to fairness, tolerance, respect for women and compassion from leaders pushing the “values” barrow. These seem like pretty reasonable things of us to demand of our intending migrants. So why am I so repelled by the discussion?

There are a number of reasons.

The first is the notion that these are Australian values? They are without doubt some of the finest of human values and they are to be found in all cultures to varying degrees. The notion that these values are uniquely Australian is absurd and points to an increasingly delusional and inward looking political culture confused about the nation and its role in the world.

Secondly, how successfully do we as a nation practice these “Australian” values? John Howard has presided over the most dramatic abandonment of values of fairness, decency and compassion of any political leader of my lifetime. A values test might prevent “valueless” outsiders coming in, but what can we do with those already here in our Anglo community that do not meet these standards – e.g PM Howard, Minister Ruddock et. al.

And here in India, it all looks so damned irrelevant to the real challenges facing Australia. No matter what your position on migrants and their English language skills, Australia’s status as a mono-lingual nation is a disaster for our future. Those that peddle some fanciful insular mono-cultural, mono-lingual view of Australia condemn the next generation to an ever diminished role in an international community where the Chinese, Indians, Russians and Brazilians rub shoulders with our traditional US and European cultural companions. Australia is less prepared by the day for a role in the not too distant future. The manner in which our leaders on both sides of the political divide conduct the debate drags Australia in a regressive direction that is immensely damaging to our future.

Tuesday 25 July 2006


Apple's rightful dominance of the legal music download business to date should not be allowed to develop into long term market control.

I have previously written on my conflicted feelings towards Apple. On the one hand I own and admire many of their products. On the other hand, I have endured appalling customer service experiences as an Ipod and notebook customer. I’ve also heard of more.

Perhaps the most disturbing Apple development is the stranglehold they now have over music downloads. The Ipod / Itunes tie up which prevents Itunes users from using non-Apple players is contrary to consumer and artist interests and also compromises the development of new digital music player technologies.

France has been the first nation to notice this nasty development. Other European governments and consumer groups are now also taking notice.

The issue is that once you are an Ipod owner, Itunes user and Istore music consumer, you are locked into the Apple universe forever in respect of the music you purchase or load into Itunes. Should Sony or another company come up with a player more suited to your needs and interests in the future, you’ll need to purchase your music again and burn your CDs again. That means the more loyal you are to Itunes Music Store and the greater your commitment to the legal acquisition of music, the greater your punishment will be should you elect to abandon the Apple stable.

Apple claims to have engineered this arrangement in the interests of copyright protection. When copyright protection initiatives harm the interests of honest, high spending consumers most, as Apple’s approach does, the merit of the argument is at best weak. Apple may have also noted the Windowsesque consumer leverage their well-intended copyright initiative avails them of.

The Ipod is an impressive device. Myriad problems with batteries, screens and general reliability make it a far from perfect machine. The kind of market power Apple is obtaining in the music download business will increase the already high arrogance levels consumers experience from the company and diminish Apple’s innovation energy. More importantly, other more nimble players will be deprived the opportunity of bringing new and improved products to market.

Word is that other great market control freak, Microsoft, will have a rival product in the market before year’s end. Bring it on. And let’s see some other products out there from other companies as well. And let’s make a sensible level of player interoperability a feature of all players.

Apple has been a great innovator in digital music and its staggering worldwide marketshare in legal music downloads and its enormous profits are a just reward for its innovation. Apple should not be able to leverage its justified initial high market-share into market control. The French and now Norwegian governments are right in pursuing legislation requiring that Apple make its music downloads compatible with a range of music player devices. Aren’t we capitalists all about competition? Doesn’t competition produce the best outcomes for all?

Surprised we have to learn that from the French and the Norwegians.

Tuesday 18 July 2006


Have you noticed the difference between Howard’s tone when he speaks about Iraq and Timor? On Iraq he remains filled with the missionary zeal and “never cut and run” glory of war nonsense scripted by his patron W.

On Timor he’s irritable, impatient and patronising.

This is despite the fact that Timor is our near neighbour and its security has urgent implications for Australia.

Which of the Howard personas is real? Have a listen.

These observations are based on listening to the Prime Minister across a range of media. His comments on Timor have been heard mainly on ABC Radio's AM and PM programmes.


In a career full of appalling lines, could this have been W’s most ridiculous moment?

When President Bush chastised President Putin over Russia’s disappearing democracy at the G8 meeting, Bush suggested the Russian President should look to Iraq as an example of democracy and press freedom.

In light of his administration’s increasingly scurrilous attacks on US press freedom and the Republican manipulation of the 2000 election, perhaps he was not sufficiently confident about proposing the United States as a model democracy?

As for Iraq, well the US government has been revealed as paying bribes in order to manipulate the Iraqi press. On democracy, the US refused to accept leaders produced by the Iraqi democratic process – but finally got its way. As for democratic institutions, law and order and civil society in Iraq – well let’s not go there.

Putin responded to Bush’s proposal with predictable contempt. The former KGB head was no doubt very pleased that that the self appointed champion of democracy opposite was a man whose democratic credentials are in tatters at home and abroad.


The word terrorist will likely go down as the most abused of the new millennium. Since September 11 2001, it’s been used to justify actions of all kinds by all kinds of governments. The latest crisis in the Middle East is no different.

Terrorists are evil we are told because of their contempt for civilian life. They actively target civilians. Seems reasonable.

So then how do we treat a military campaign that accepts large civilian casualties and tiny military casualties? Surely this also constitutes terrorism?

The count when I last checked after 6 days of fighting: 170 killed in Lebanon (mainly civilians) and 24 in Israel. As I write, reports of another 50 Lebanese civilian deaths filter through.

What is Israel’s proportionality calculus? What number of civilian deaths would constitute an excessive response or an overreaction to the kidnapping of soldiers and the shelling of Israeli cities?

The moral imperatives would be sufficient for many to justify wholesale condemnation of Israel. However moral arguments are also inextricably connected to arguments of legitimacy, strategy and ultimately effectiveness. It seems extraordinary that Israel’s leaders could really believe they are buying Israel’s security with such wholesale disregard for civilian life.

Israel’s right to defend itself is given. The havoc that the destructive force of Israel’s military is wreaking goes way beyond any reasonable definition of self-defense. Does such a strategy offer any prospect of peace?

Israel once again has refused to accept (along with the US) Tony Blair and Kofi Annan’s proposed international peacekeeping force. Why?

Israel looks, sounds and behaves increasingly like those it rightly condemns.


I have long been astounded by the Pentagon’s decision not to keep civilian casualty records in Iraq. What better measure of the success of a military campaign in an insurgency environment where hearts and minds are central, than its success in keeping civilian casualties in check? The contempt this decision shows for the Iraqi people flies in the face of all the grand rhetoric about bringing freedom and civilization to a long-suffering people. Once again, Bush, Cheney, Rummy et. al. have lowered the bar for the treatment of civilians in combat. It seems the Israelis as well as the US soldiers involved in the now frequently emerging Iraq atrocity tales, have taken note.

Wednesday 12 July 2006


There is something obscene in the spectre of one of the world’s most sophisticated military forces, Israel, being launched against the Palestinian population in the rescue of captured Israeli soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit .

Corporal Shalit is yet another young victim of a conflict with a seemingly endless capacity to destroy life – mostly Palestinian life. I don’t know what an appropriate Israeli response to the kidnapping is. I do know the route that Israel has chosen to pursue meets no international legal, moral or even effectiveness criteria. The desperation being imposed on Palestinians now and since the election of the Hamas led Palestinian Authority provides perfect conditions for the continued supply of Palestinian militants pathologically opposed to any accommodation with Israel.

Every profoundly uneven contest in history has seen the weaker party resort to so called “terrorist” activity – the struggle for a Jewish state included. This does not justify the actions of Palestinian militants of course. But it does explain them.

A state that wields its power against the defenceless as Israel does, diminishes itself and its claims and ultimately compromises its own future by swelling extremist ranks.

Most Israelis accept and seek an accommodation with the Palestinians. Most Palestinians seek the same. Nobody is served except those on the extreme fringes when Israel unleashes its vast military power killing civilians, crippling hospitals and devastating already bleak Palestinian lives.

Whether there is any prospect of peace with Hamas is difficult to know. The same might reasonably be asked of recent Israeli governments. There have been many occasions – especially during the interlude after the death of Arafat and prior to the election of Hamas - where it seemed that the US sponsored and mutually agreed “roadmap” was wilfully sabotaged by Israel. Israel continues to work on an assumption that its military strength and the US alliance will provide permanent security in a hostile region becoming more so.

The approaching multi polar world will be far more complex however. Add to that Israel’s demographic timebomb - where Palestinian births outnumber Israeli births dramatically - and it seems a brave and painful gesture for peace is Israel’s only option. The US and Australia’s support for Israel’s approach to the Palestinian problem damages our countries and ultimately builds the delusion that Israel can continue to depend on an unassailable military advantage supported by the US as its primary negotiation tool.

A world where Russian, Chinese and Indian economic and military power will reshape international relations everywhere, will also complicate Israel’s capacity to depend on its overwhelming military strength as its only lever in dealing with Palestinian national aspirations. Add to that the strengthening of Iran, the ongoing instability in Iraq, and the argument for a radical Israel inspired solution for peace becomes more urgent. Hamas may be a hopeless partner for peace. Israel needs to prove that. Every new day of misery imposed by Israeli occupation and Israel’s total refusal to open a channel to test the democratically elected Hamas led Palestinian Authority only provides fuel for those intent on Israel’s destruction.

Thursday 29 June 2006


Warren Buffett's enormous donation to philanthropic causes should also impact the way we view vast wealth and social obligation

After giving most of his 54 billion USD fortune to philanthropic causes, Warren Buffett agreed with another generous American donor, Andrew Carnegie, who said that “huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society” (from Fortune magazine).

It’s an obvious point to many of us but a radical statement from one of the world’s richest men and it flies in the face of the rampant individualism that prevails in the US and here in Australia.

Most discussion of affluence in the US and Australia focuses on the individual achievement. It’s rare that the far more complex picture that creates vast wealth is painted.

Bill Gates’ wealth is founded largely on the astute appropriation of the ideas of others, the successful marketing of these ideas and an extraordinary and brutally created and maintained near monopoly in computer software. These are feats of brilliance. But they do not necessarily represent the highest in human values.

That other computer icon Steve Jobs has a reputation for being the more ethical of the two players. I’m not convinced. The biography “Icon” by Jeff Young and William Simon suggests Jobs’ greatest skill has been catalyzing others’ ideas into marketable products. Jobs’ creative achievements are in strategy and identifying opportunities. The real credit behind Apple’s wonderful product range for the most part goes to others. Jobs has exercised Gatesesque single mindedness, brutality and determination to obtain market dominance through control. This is most vividly demonstrated in the Itunes Ipod tie up that shuts out competing players.

The roles of Gates and Jobs have been vital in the success of their businesses. Their talents need not be diminished but the talents of those around them deserve plenty of acknowledgement as well.

Gates and Jobs have provided commercial acumen and raw determination more than creative talent. It’s not surprising and not to be condemned. But nor should we look at people like Gates and Jobs as individual creators of wealth. The contributors to their success are usually very close behind in terms of importance but a long way behind in terms of wealth (Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen is perhaps an exception).

The only point here is that the gap between the celebrated leaders and those who have contributed immensely to their success is usually not so great. The wealth gap from those key contributors tends to be very substantial however. As in all things, luck plays a key role in wealth creation as well.

Similarly, the wealth gap between the very wealthy and the regular worker in no way corresponds with their relative contributions to wealth and society.

There’s nothing wrong with wealth creation and rewards for innovation and commercial savvy. There may be a point where the gap becomes excessive however. Do the actions of Messrs Gates and Buffett not also represent a view that the wealth gap is too wide?

As the gap between the very very wealthy and the rest of the population grows ever greater, the acknowledgement of society’s contribution to wealth creation is a big deal. I don’t ever remember Australia’s previous wealthiest man, Kerry Packer, acknowledging society’s role in his wealth creation. The only social comment I can recall from Packer was when he “marveled” that people paid tax given the way politicians waste public money. Politicians may waste public monies but Kerry seemed not to have noticed that ordinary people’s taxes (I understand he didn’t pay much) paid for the roads he drove on, the education and health systems that provided him with a quality labour force and the legal system that protected his empire.

For all their generosity, Messrs Buffett and Gates still retain many billions. As gestures of generosity, giving away billions and retaining a few, may not be wholly remarkable. It is wonderful however to have those resources being applied to some of the world’s most pressing health and education problems. The acknowledgement of a debt to society by two of the world’s richest men increases the obligation of all of the wealthiest to recognise the same.

Sunday 25 June 2006


Here in Vietnam, if you ask a local which team they support in the World Cup, they will normally tell you Brazil. It’s not rocket science. They choose the favourite to win. It’s not creative, it’s not principled, but it has a very sound pragmatism to it. It is not dissimilar to the way John Howard takes his political positions.

John Howard has managed to establish himself in the minds of many as a strong leader. Strong he is – but it’s mainly reflected strength. It’s all about hanging around with the big guys. His strength is consistently applied to the defence of the strong. John Howard seeks out the political equivalent of Brazil in his decision making - the policy position that will keep him on the right side of the big guy, the right side of the winners. To date Howard has cleverly managed to combine staying on the right side of the big guy with staying on the right side of the electorate.

Howard’s reputation for strength has been earned on a few key issues – the war in Iraq, Asylum policies and Industrial Relations. His strongarm control of the Government and the bureaucracy has also burnished the impression of Howard as Superman.

There are some signs that Howard’s affection for the big guy may be starting to present some political challenges.

Howard dutifully followed the biggest of the big guys, George W. Bush to war in Iraq in the face of widespread international opposition and with significant electoral ambivalence. Australians are ambivalent about the war in Iraq but Howard has managed to look strong throughout. Unlike Bush and Blair, he has paid no political price for the debacle.

His recent decision to allow Indonesia to exert significant influence over Australia’s asylum policies, whilst a logical extension of Howard’s “go with the big guy” foreign policy school, leaves Australians, including a good many members of the coalition, feeling uneasy. Australians are familiar with leaders following the US into conflict. When the big guy influencing Australian domestic politics is Indonesia, concerns surface.

Howard’s abandonment of David Hicks to a system of justice that most of the rest of the world and many Americans find abhorrent may also present Howard with some problems. If the UK government takes up Hicks’ case after trying unsuccessfully to date to block his UK citizenship bid, Howard will look very silly indeed.

The US’s major ally in Iraq, the UK, refused to allow its nationals to be held in Guantanamo Bay and succeeded in having all of them released. Howard has done nothing to obtain a just legal process for Hicks. If a newly adopted UK takes up Hicks’ plight or succeeds in having Hicks released, lots of questions will follow. In any case, Howard’s acceptance of justice Guantanamo style marks him out as unique in Western democracies. Americans are nowhere to be found in Guantanamo yet Howard is happy for one of his own to be held there seemingly indefinitely without trial.

On industrial relations, Howard thought he kicked another goal for his mates at the big end of town with policies that fit more with the new China than they do with Australia’s working traditions.

The impact of these policies on working Australians is now being documented. They have functioned to reduce wages and conditions of workers at the low end of the income hierarchy. The impact is so widespread however that many Australians are feeling uneasy about what these changes really represent in terms or our values. The claims made by the Prime Minister and his Minister for Industrial Relations when selling the changes are being proven false in practice and the examples of appalling employer actions are receiving wide publicity.

The asylum seeker issue presents Howard bashing the weak at its worst. Incarceration of children, children overboard lies and the general efforts of Howard and his Government to present desperate people (most of whom have been proven legitimate refugees) as queue jumpers, terrorists or otherwise undesirable people, took Australia to a moral low point as a nation.

With the Coalition backbench rebelling on this issue, perhaps Australia is prematurely beginning to move beyond the cruelty of the Howard years.

The examples of Howard lining up behind the big guys are many. Apart from the war in Iraq, kowtowing to Indonesia and Industrial Relations, Howard has also worked assiduously to service the interests of our uniquely powerful media monopolists. In his efforts to court two big guys – or families – at once, he is facing every little guy’s nightmare – being stuck between the big guys. Rupert Murdoch’s surprising attacks on Howard’s new media duopoly preservation policies last week put him head to head with the Packers and no doubt left the PM scrambling to measure which indeed was the biggest of these very big forces.

The wealthiest private schools, pharmaceutical companies and the medical industry have all been beneficiaries of Howard’s eye for where the power lies.

On the environment, Howard’s minimalist response to global warming fits nicely with the US policy while placing us at odds with the rest of the developed world. Increasingly, the environment may express itself as a big guy in its own physical right and Howard may look like he chose the wrong big guy. Australians are looking increasingly concerned about global warming and look likely to lead government in action.

The pattern is simple. Howard looks where the power is and goes with it. It is ideological though. Howard claims to be a conservative. And he is. He exercises his conservatism in radical ways though. He looks for power and those with it and then finds ways to preserve and further entrench that power.

Howard’s pandering to power is matched by an astute political sense. His mobilisation of the “aspirationals” has shown he is strips ahead of Labor on strategy.

After 10 years, there are signs that the seemingly invincible might be starting to crack. Just like in football, if your allegiance is based purely on staying with the strength, ultimately the landscape gets complicated, competing teams emerge and new big guys turn up. If there is no principle in the platform, there is a danger of being exposed after ten years. Choosing a new team might be an option in football but it’s more difficult in Federal Government. Industrial Relations, new asylum laws framed to appease Indonesia and the Iraq War will present greater problems for Howard as the next election looms. Australians may also decide that it is time to join a credible and established international effort on global warming.

Howard may control both houses of Parliament and exercise unprecedented Prime Ministerial power but life is proving more complicated than expected. A functional opposition may be even able to pose a serious electoral challenge.

Wednesday 14 June 2006


The unfolding scandal over the massacre of civilians by US Marines at Haditha in Iraq has been frequently compared to the massacre of civilians at My Lai in Vietnam in 1968. In scale, there is no comparison. At My Lai, somewhere between 300 and 500 civilians were slaughtered by a platoon of 30 US servicemen. In Haditha the number of civilian deaths is believed to be 24.

The President is promising justice at the end of the enquiry. We’d better hope that his conception of justice is more developed than that of President Nixon.

Despite extensive testimony from witnesses as well as graphic photo evidence, the 13 officers who were charged over the massacre at My Lai were later acquitted. Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty, court-martialled and sentenced to life in prison. He spent three days in prison before being transferred to house arrest. Three years later, he was pardoned by President Nixon - an extraordinary and infrequently cited action from a President with an impressive catalogue of infamy.

Perhaps this is where the young Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld learned their regard for civilian life and justice. They both cut their teeth in the Nixon Whitehouse.

Wednesday 24 May 2006


John Howard’s recent US visit was largely overshadowed by speculation about the PM’s departure from office. We may have been better served by focusing on the PM’s relationship with President Bush – touted as the closest between an Australian PM and a US President in recent decades – and its implications for Australia down the track.

Bush is a disgraced President with an approval rating of 29%. His macho unilateralist foreign policy embraced by our Johnny with great enthusiasm is also dead. Its greatest exponents – Cheney and Rumsfeld are also disgraced and held in greater contempt than the President. They owe their continued tenure to the President and the President only. His is a government that provides permanent cover for insiders irrespective of their incompetence.

On the world stage, our Johnny is a standalone in his blind advocacy of Bush Presidency positions. Tony Blair (another leader in a terminal tailspin) might have gone into Iraq alongside W but even he’s not been able to stomach Bush masterstrokes like Guantanamo Bay, wider Middle East (Israel) policy and global warming denialism. Our Johnny though, he’s taken the lot. Hook line and sinker. He’s even returned to Australia a nuclear evangelist (he knows how to pronounce it too!).

Unlike Bush and Blair and for reasons that should give Australia considerable cause for pause, Howard remains an unassailable figure in Australian politics. He dominates the landscape.

So where does Howard’s love affair with the George Bush’s US leave Australia? If only 29% of Americans like Bush’s America, the middle and long range dividend for Australia from the Bush – Howard love in is likely to be slim indeed.

Bush’s floundering power looks likely to be clipped in November congressional elections. Lacklustre Democrats may regain control of congress unleashing Clinton era style enquiries into the administration’s serial mendacity. This time the issues will count too!

Even if the Republicans retain congressional control, Republican unease with Bush grows daily. And even if the Republicans retain the Presidency in 2008, with Guiliani and McCain as current favourites, there is no prospect of a Bush clone winning the primaries. In other words, all practically foreseeable electoral outcomes spell an end to Bushism.

John Howard has attached Australia’s foreign policy to a US posture that is breathing its last and is reviled the world over. If there is to be a dividend we’d best extract it soon.

As the next President – Republican or Democrat - goes about cleaning up the Bush mess - salvaging something in Iraq, winding down Guantanamo and developing a credible global warming position – and I believe all of these things will occur – the obsequious nobodies that provided the cover for Bush’s reckless policies on the international stage will not be top of mind. Closer to home, from Denpasar to Delhi and from Shanghai to Saigon, local people will recall Australia as a nation that Vietnamese tell me “da theo duoi My” – follows the tail of the US – a more elegant phrasing of one of Mark Latham’s lines. Following the US tail has been a habit of Australia’s for a long time. Never before has it required such a wholesale abandonment of our values or a distortion of our national interest. At least we can be confident that Bush’s time is past – even though the Presidency has just under three years to run. The damage it has wrought to the US and the world is enormous. The damage that Australia’s complicity has wrought to our reputation will take some undoing as well.

Wednesday 26 April 2006


What an eventful day of public transport happenings!

On my way to the city aboard the 412 bus, I squeezed into my seat. I wouldn’t say I’m much overweight but Sydney buses don’t make much space for large people. I sat beside a woman, showing appropriate disinterest. I immediately sensed she could have been cast as a nasty character in a Kath and Kim episode - miserable from the start. Can only guess why.

As we approached Central, she said “excuse me” and indicated she was about to alight. I closed the biography of Gandhi I was reading, picked up my backpack and swung my legs into the aisle. At the time this seemed a thoughtful thing to do. I was balancing the need to keep the aisle clear as lots of others were also leaving the bus at Central, while making space for my seated companion. She was unimpressed with my efforts.

She yelled “ stand up you idiot” in a gentle effort to persuade me that her passage would be made easier if I left my seat. I obliged, was shocked and somewhat amused and wished her a wonderful day. Perhaps Gandhi had rubbed off.

On the way home, Gandhi served me well again. This time the bus was so crowded there was barely standing room. I had my backpack and another shoulder bag which, added to my own bulk, was quite an imposition on the aisle space.

As I made my way down the aisle, a smallish Indian man in his late 50s (I’m 41) jumped from his seat and insisted I take it. He pleaded with me as he was so pleased I was reading about Gandhi. Only after a determined (but polite of course) refusal on my part, did the bald Indian man retreat back to his seat. Apart from minor wound and public embarrassment of being offered a seat by a man so much older, it was a moving scene. The other passengers were amused.

How wonderful I thought that this Indian man identified so much with the greatness of Gandhi. He was ecstatic that an Australian commuter might be reading about his country’s great hero. What a wonderful role model for a country to have. I wondered how I would respond in a crowded Indian bus if I saw a man reading of one of our heroes – Kerry Packer perhaps?

And what of my earlier encounter?

I have been reading Gandhi’s biography in fits and starts for about three months. Almost through it now. I think I’ll keep it on hand!

Sunday 9 April 2006


When a hard disc fails, what rights does a consumer have to recover data from the faulty drive? My recent experience with Apple came as a big surprise.

I’m a reformed Apple zealot. Like most Apple zealots, my passion for the company and its products was beyond good reason. Like an aggrieved former zealot, my contempt for the company and its practices now runs deep.

My story is fairly simple.

In October 2005, the hard drive in my Apple Powerbook G4 computer melted down in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam – where I spend a lot of my time. I hoped beyond hope that the problem was software related and spent lots of time communicating with Apple service people in India via Skype. It became clear after a while that this was likely a hardware meltdown. The machine was a little over one year old but I’d purchased an optional three year warranty package known as Apple Care. All good apart from the immediate inconvenience – or so I thought.

After searching for an Apple service centre in Ho Chi Minh City unsuccessfully, I decided to defer the repair until I returned to Sydney where I purchased the machine. In Vietnam, there were plenty of people ready to sell Apple equipment, none it seemed were able to service them. The Apple website did not seem to offer any assistance in locating service centres either.

So back to Sydney I headed with dodgy computer in hand. On arrival, I dropped the machine at the Apple Centre Broadway. They advised shortly thereafter that the hard drive was dead. I paid for a 24 hour express diagnosis – who can wait for the repair of a work laptop?

After eight days or so, a new hard drive was installed (seemed like a long wait to me) and I then started to focus my attention on recovering data from the faulty drive. Problem was, I was due to head back to Vietnam right away.

I am fairly good with backup but I was concerned I may have lost some precious image files. It was worth it to run a recovery from my perspective to ensure that these weren’t lost.

I asked the service centre to see whether they could recover data. They instigated a recovery ($282.00) that failed to locate the data I was concerned about. By this time I was back in Vietnam and in a mild panic about potentially lost data.

Dino had previously recommended a professional data recovery centre specialising in extracting hard to access data from dodgy drives. I thought I should get hold of the drive and give this a go.

That’s when the trouble began.

Apple Broadway advised that I must purchase the dud drive at full commercial value of a new drive if I wanted to take possession of it. I was appalled. All I wanted was to recover my own data. Apple could have the drive back after that. The only value of the drive was my data. How could Apple charge me to access that? Wasn’t I an aggrieved customer already having experienced a failed drive 13 months after the purchase of my Powerbook G4? The drive had no other value. Surely that was my right?

Not according to Apple. If you want to access your drive, you need to buy it back! I only needed it for a week or so! Nup. I was told I had to purchase it.

Under duress from Vietnam, my prime concern was the data so after much protest, I passed over $374.00 to purchase the dodgy piece of hardware at the centre of the fiasco.

On my return to Australia in January, I decided to take this outrageous policy up with Apple. 3 months later, I have made no headway. The trail of correspondence is below if you have time to read it. I have spoken to four Customer Service people.

In essence then, if an Apple customer wants to recover data from a faulty Apple disc, even under warranty, that Apple customer must buy the faulty disc. Shocked? So was I.


After sending this story and all of the accompanying correspondence (7 long emails) and advising of my intentioning of taking legal action, Apple finally agreed to refund the cost of the disc - After 6 months and untold hours of squabbling. It shouldn't have been that hard. Shame on Apple!

Thursday 6 April 2006


It is one of the more exquisite ironies of our time. Messrs Bush, Blair and Howard spend a good part of their careers telling us that governments are very bad at doing things like providing health care, education, building public infrastructure etc etc. Small government is good government we are told. The private sector does things best. Governments invariably waste money and stuff things up.

Then they ask us to trust them and their governments with our most precious asset of all – our freedom.

Well sorry guys, I’m happy to entrust government with lots more involvement in health, education and transport – something you seem less interested in - but get your dirty hands off my hard earned freedoms.

Of course I didn’t earn my freedoms. I happily inherited them though. They were hard earned over many centuries by all kinds of people using all kinds of means. If they lived now, they’d be dismissed by the Right as members of a reviled “commentariat” – unionists, political activists academics and idle bods who think that government requires scrutiny and analysis and good governance is a permanent struggle.

It seems to me though that these guys brought us democracy, the rule of law, labour standards, free press etc etc.

So now we’ve reached the point where we’re headed backwards. So many simple but important values trashed in a few short years - habeas corpus, freedom of the press, access to information, right to a fair trial, rights of children to humane treatment, compassion for victims of torture and abuse – all diminished. Our small government guru Howard has extended government significantly – but only in the most pernicious liberty destroying way.

If you want a look at where this might all be going, the story of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna, extraordinarily rendited from Gambia in November 2002 gives some direction. They’ve received minimal coverage in Australia from what I can tell. I spotted their story in the SMH last week. Their case is in the UK courts and getting more press there.

These two guys were initially considered terrorist suspects when a suspicious device was found in their luggage at Gatwick Airport in the UK. They were later cleared by MI5, released and travelled on to Gambia to start a business. The suspicious device was found to be a souped up battery charger.

The CIA it seems received the initial data from MI5 without the subsequent clearance. They then dropped one of their special “extraordinary rendition” flights into Gambia and packed the two boys off to Guantanamo Bay where they have languished since.

How many other Guantanamo detainees have similar stories? How many terrorists have been created by the existence of Guantanamo? What of David Hicks? Whether Hicks is innocent or guilty, the Australian government’s refusal to defend his right to a proper judicial process is another of its countless gutless acts. Even our recent and beloved visitor Tony Blair insisted that British nationals be released from Guantanamo Bay. A request the US government accepted. None of them have been charged since.

Perhaps the most appalling thing about the war on terror has been the disposal of many of our great if imperfectly practiced legal traditions. This is not a wet plea for a kind and gentle approach to horrible crimes. No, it is based on a view that these traditions evolved not from nice soppy people that wanted to feel good about the way they treated their neighbours but that they are the best means for safe guarding the rights of all people. In turn they are the best hope against unjust or extremist government that leads to disaffected or victimised minorities who become the likely perpetrators of crimes against a state.

So why did we have September 11 when all of these rights were in some sense in tact? - Too many reasons to go into here. No level of “civilisation” or anti terror edicts will completely protect us. The question is whether we are safer or not because of extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, approval of torture and the dilution of our domestic freedoms?

Every time we lower the bar, we give energise extremists and dictators. Every new Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo story creates another terrorist for our diminished system to defeat.

British agents set men up for CIA detention

MI5 tip-off to CIA led to men's rendition,,1741076,00.html

Richard Ackland Innocence ignored at Guantanamo

Tuesday 4 April 2006


The recent third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by US and coalition forces revealed the woeful state of conservative opinion writing in Australia.

I collect my media in a haphazard way here in Saigon. Sometimes I read opinion on the internet. More often I manage to pick up second hand editions of The Australian, the SMH or the Financial Review from the newspaper boys on Dong Khoi St. It was this random process that availed me of the following pieces marking the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq – Greg Sheridan’s “The Iraq War is a noble cause” 23 March, Miranda Devine’s “From Iraq’s front line, it looks like the media has lost the plot”.

If you’re familiar with these columnists, you could probably predict their positions on the Iraq war. Sheridan and Devine are dependable defenders of the Howard universe and supporters of the Iraq adventure. Their two pieces seemed, with precious little supporting data, to expect us to trust that all would be OK in Iraq and that it is a just and necessary campaign. Both writers fail to address the key arguments posed by the war’s opponents. Nor do they provide accurate accounts of the current realities.

The Sheridan and Devine pieces demonstrate the truly low quality of conservative opinion writing in Australia – predetermined partisan party political positions with facts tailored to fit. The referenced pieces exemplify the appalling lack of intellectual discipline and rigour that characterises most conservative writing.

I have frequently marvelled at Greg Sheridan’s capacity to hold down the Foreign Editor’s job at our only national daily while rarely if ever exhibiting incisive or fresh analysis. He gushes when referring to his heroes Howard, Blair, Downer, Bush, Wolfowitz, (past) et. al. There is a palpable childish excitement in his writing. (Take a look at this piece following Blair’s vist,5744,18646472%255E25377,00.html. )

He favours the US invasion of Iraq (perhaps it’s best referred to as past policy as it has few advocates today) far more than most US Republican members of Congress not to mention Democrats or the US people.

The core premise of Sheridan’s piece is that despite an appallingly executed post military campaign, “the Iraq War was the right war against the right enemy at the right time waged for broadly the right reasons.” He contends that there was no viable alternative but war. While Bush, Blair and Howard have retrospectively appropriated the “bring democracy to Iraq” rationale, Sheridan posits that Saddam’s desire to acquire nuclear and chemical weapons and to dominate the Middle East was in itself sufficient justification for war. His total incapacity to realise his fantasies is of no consequence. Harbouring the fantasies alone it seems was a sufficient cause for war.

It is logical that Sheridan should be arguing for a more urgent military campaign against a more menacing and much emboldened Iran not to mention North Korea. He does not endeavour to apply his dodgy justification for war to other international trouble spots however.

That Sheridan can make his grand case for the Iraq War without addressing the consequential strengthening of Iran drains his piece of any credibility.

Sheridan’s work always reads as though it has been written to please his US and Australian foreign policy mates. He shows just how out of step he is though when he concludes “Perhaps that makes me a neo conservative. So be it.”

Neo conservatism is on the nose the world over . Condi is doing her best to wind back the failed approach. If The Australian is a mainstream newspaper, is it appropriate that its foreign editor be a self avowed neo conservative? Imagine the outrage if a leftist equivalent, say Noam Chomsky, was appointed Foreign Editor! Where’s Gerard Henderson’s outrage at the extremist infiltration of our newspapers?

The low point of Sheridan’s piece is when he poses the question “Is it wrong that Iraqis vote?”. The suggestion that opponents of the war have an ideological objection to Iraqi or Middle Eastern democracy echoes Howard and Downer nicely but is not worthy of someone purporting to argue seriously about the pros and cons of the war. Pathetic!

The nice thing about Miranda Devine’s piece is that it doesn’t even attempt to present a coherent, fact based position. She asks us to trust that things in Iraq are OK as a friend of hers working in the Green Zone has told her so. Near the end of her piece that is typically disjointed, Devine suggests“ The anti war protesters who are picketing Rice might try having more faith in the Iraqis and the brave soldiers like my friend who are supporting them.” Of course there is no connection between protesting against the war and having faith in Iraqis or admiration for soldiers in the front line. These connections, like the one made by Sheridan are cheap, dishonest and intellectually untenable.

According to Devine, the media is painting an inaccurate picture and the reality is much brighter. We should be assured things are going quite well in Iraq because Devine’s friend has told her so. How so? How can the Iraq disaster be overstated?

It occurs to me the media does not sufficiently report on the depths of the disaster.

The media gives coverage to events deemed visually interesting like car bombings, mosque bombings and the various atrocities committed by Islamic terrorists and sectarian militias and the Abu Ghraib abuses. None of these are pretty stories to be sure. The reality may be worse. Any wider reading on Iraq paints an even more disturbing picture that is inexplicably ignored in the Sheridan and Devine analysis and rarely featured in any media coverage of the war. Some thoughts that come to mind –

• The enormous loss of military and civilian lives.
• The creation of a jihadist magnet and a fulfilment of an Al Qaeda dream by seemingly validating claims of US imperial ambition in the Middle East.
• The emboldening of Iran through the creation of a great Shia sphere of influence.
• Enabling the flourishing of sectarianism that threatens to descend into civil war.
• The weakening of US military esteem and capability as well as the dilution of the standards of proof required to justify military action.
• The failure to assemble a true coalition of modern democratic powers.
• An enormous diversion of military and financial resources that may have been put to any number of more effective uses. Some current estimates put the likely cost of the Iraq war at 2 trillion USD. Original Pentagon estimates expected the war to cost around 50 billion USD. (Australia has spent around 1.5 billion AUD in Iraq so far.)

In the US and the UK, the Iraq debate has transcended party politicking. Some of the most vigorous critics of the war are Republicans or Conservatives and senior military people. Take a look at Condi’s mentor and Bush senior National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft’s views on the war, or former Middle East Envoy and CENTCOM Commander, General Anthony Zinni who has just weighed into the debate again demanding the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld for incompetence. Zinni’s work is especially compelling. His critique before the war has been largely vindicated and his comments since are persuasive. His experience in the Middle East is extensive and he is a respected member of the US military establishment. Sorry Greg, his work seems to be more credible than yours.

He comprehensively despatches Sheridan’s dismal arguments.

As with most major issues facing Australia, the quality of the debate on the conservative side is woeful. Defenders of the war like Sheridan and Devine trot out their spurious facts and leave the hard parts out altogether. There is no wide dissent from the establishment as there is in the US on the Iraq war or much else. Howard walks from scandal to scandal without a bruise. That can’t be a good thing in democracy.

Some interesting pieces that demonstrate the emptiness of the Sheridan / Devine position –

Thomas L. Friedman: Iraq at the 11th hour

Gen. Anthony Zinni, USMC, (Ret.) Remarks at CDI Board of Directors Dinner, May 12, 2004

What turned Brent Scowcroft against the Bush Administration?

Tony Walker and Brian Toohey also had very interesting pieces on Iraq in the Australian Financial Review on 18 March 2006. It is hard to believe they’re righting about the same conflict as Devine and Sheridan.

Tuesday 28 March 2006


24 FEBRUARY 2006

The best thing about leaving Sydney on Wednesday 15th February to return to Vietnam was that it ensured I was away for the Packer memorial on the 17th and all the associated nonsense.

So much has been written about Packer that there is perhaps not a lot to add. I’ll have a shot though.

Packer’s shameless and ruthless exercise of political power has been widely discussed. The funeral line up of political, business, sporting and entertainment luminaries led by a fawning John Howard was evidence of the broad reach of Packer power.

So what else was there to this man?

Presumably to know his best attributes, you’d refer to his great admirers. Alan Jones clearly had the family’s endorsement. He was the MC at the Memorial Service after all. So what did he say?

In his Packer obituary published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 December, Jones’s obsequious portrait failed in its desperate efforts to create a legend. Jones recounts two of the classic Packer anecdotes. One concerned his bullying rants at a 1991 parliamentary enquiry where Packer “marvelled” at the fact that people pay tax at all given “the way politicians wasted it”.

The other was the tale of the huge tip given to pub staff in England to spite another establishment down the road where Packer had been refused service because they were closed. The tip we’re told was conditional on the enriched advising their unfortunate neighbours of Mr Packer’s pathetic use of his largesse.

No, nothing endearing about these portraits yet they are thrown around by Jones to demonstrate what a great bloke old KP was.

The reality is that they both reveal what a singularly unattractive persona we are choosing to lionise.

The Parliamentary enquiry performance revealed a man utterly contemptuous of the system that provided the infrastructure for his extraordinary accumulation of wealth. It may be a boring point to make but the Packers, the Pratts, the Singletons and every other wealthy person in the country depend on the education, health, judicial,transport and other infrastructure to do anything. These things happen to be funded by the tax system. It may be an imperfect system, but I did not see Packer presenting any worthwhile alternatives. Nor it seems did he go to any lengths apart from selective acts of benevolence to replenish the tax system for its contribution to his success.

Another oft recited Packer anecdote concerned his tacky proposal “I’ll toss you for it” when colliding with someone who’d won millions in a casino. This tale is especially grotesque and speaks only of complacent billionaire deluded by his material achievements and ready to show them off in the most tacky fashion.

Nothing of the humble, straight talking, modest down to earth Aussie bloke that those beholden to the big fella - who are now writing or rewriting his history - are attempting to overlay on the more apparent reality.

Perhaps the most interesting point about all of this is alluded to in former Packer man, Richard Walsh’s piece on the big man in the Herald today. The celebration of Packer tells the story of Australia’s power elites and where they’re at - especially the Howard government and its values. Howard has embraced the Packer legacy like no other since he became Prime Minister. Horrifying. I’m not sure whether Packer adoration flows into the wider community. Certainly Packer interest runs very high. I know that from talking with newsagents around Sydney about sales of the Packer memorial edition of the Bulletin magazine. It’s been reproduced repeatedly and must have injected a new sense of purpose into the moribund weekly.

I have another big beef with Packer though. It’s about casinos.

I frequently ponder which entrepreneur gets to take the moral high ground when the casino operator, the brothel operator, the porn peddlar and the drug runner come together. I don’t have an easy answer. The drug runner is breaking the law of course. But the social costs of gambling are very high - surely on a par with drug abuse? Casino operators gain respectability from the exclusive nature of their licenses and the huge amounts of money they pour into government coffers. Despite the money and glamour, it is a tawdry business by any measure preying on the desperate. Its operators do not deserve to hold esteemed positions in society. The Packers have increasingly viewed the gambling industry to be the future source of their wealth. Little recent attention has been given to this critical feature of the Packer empire. We’ve preferred to focus on his media and sporting business exploits.

So Kerry, don’t take any of this personally, after all I didn’t know you. I’m sure the affection expressed by your close friends and family is sometimes genuine - especially from those whose financial or political well-being was not connected to your empire. You may even have been a nice bloke. No, this piece is directed more at ourselves, our media and power elites and our polticians. You did what you did. We should view it for what it was.

Our country needs much better role models than you if we’re going to manage the challenges of this century. And we’re going to need to be measuring value using instruments more sophisticated than the size of someone’s bank account or the length of the trail of fawning politicians they leave. Let’s hope some better role models are out there!


2 MARCH 2006

As Iraq experiences its most ugly chaos since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Australia’s role in the whole sorry saga seems more surreal than ever.

Iraq is Australia’s Clayton’s war - the war you have when you’re not having a war. But we are at war and for the Iraqis at least, the consequences of that war are profoundly real.

I have long been fascinated by Australia’s role in Iraq, its media coverage and its political impact.

George Bush’s popularity is at an all time low. Tony Blair’s legacy is irreversibly stained in the Labour Party, Britain and the world. The lies and mismanagement of the Iraq War are the main political baggage weighing down these two leaders.

John Howard meanwhile celebrates ten years of office with no significant political fallout from his decision to involve Australia in the Iraq tragedy - nor for his propagation of lies to support our involvement. Iraq will hardly rate a mention as we review the past 10 years.

There is no better demonstration of our sickly democracy than this. Australia went to war for a lie, the war is a mismanaged disaster and our Prime Minister barely has to answer for his role in the tragedy.

Australia’s involvement in Iraq is of course much smaller than that of the UK and US. We have fortunately been spared combat casualties as well. Nonetheless, the symbolism of our membership of the coalition is important internationally and our contribution on a per capita basis is substantial.

A review of US and UK media reveals that Bush and Blair are brought to account for their Iraq decisions on a daily basis. Both the media and opposition largely spare Howard any Iraq based discomfort however.

Why so?

I would suggest four reasons -

1. An Easy War - Iraq may be hell for Iraqis, Americans and Brits but it seems we are able to wage war there without loss of life. This is not discredit the bravery of those who are serving there. Nor does it suggest that theirs is an easy or safe lot. No, the easy lot is for the government that sent our troops to Iraq and the Australians who elected that government that rise each day without a moment of thought for our complicity in the mess.

The Australian news is fascinating. Most reporting seems to assume that Australia is not even engaged in the conflict. The government is rarely required to explain a strategy or purpose. Reporting on Iraq, usually by foreign agencies, never connects with Australia’s presence there and certainly never presents any Australian position on strategic or other matters. Despite watching the news and reading the papers avidly, I cannot name the place where Australians are serving. Nor have I seen any pictures or footage of Australians in action. I assume the same is the case for the rest of Australia.

So far at least, for Australia and the Howard government, it’s been an easy war. Let’s hope it stays that way for our troops.

2. A compliant media - Australia’s media seems largely happy with the government’s performance on Iraq. There are exceptions of course. The commentators you would expect to dissent do.

The contrast with the US and UK press is striking. In these countries, the connection between US and UK policy and the Iraq War is implicit in reporting. Rising casualties and large and influential progressive media in these countries ensures that Iraq remains in public consciousness.

Led by the New York Times and the Washington Post, the progressive US media still plays a big part in agenda setting. A raft of magazines like the New Yorker, Harpers and Vanity Fair provide in depth reporting on the issues. Even the CBS and NBC television anchors still have a degree of missionary zeal in their presentations. The US blog network is also proving a highly effective political force with some blogs attracting audiences bigger than city newspapers. Check out or

Progressive talk back and comedy shows like The Daily Show also ensure the general population gets some critical appraisal of the war.

Our own Rupert is there of course waving the flag for W on the popular FOX network.

In the UK, the classic stalwarts, The Guardian and the BBC ensure that the government remains accountable. The Conservative press doesn’t mind putting the boot into Labour over its war either.

In Australia, well nothing much happens at all. With the exception of the opinion pages, progressive press (SMH and AGE) has gone lifestyle. The ABC struggles on against the odds but is increasingly cowed by the government.

Meanwhile, the press that actually penetrates the wide community - Channels 7 an 9 news and current affairs, talk back radio and the tabloids maintain the illusion that Iraq is a far away war being fought by Americans and Brits.

Rupert Murdoch’s support for the war is widely known and this view is reflected in most news and editorial writing in his publications.

3. A dead opposition - Labor is a disaster. Kim can’t spend his time trying to out Howard Howard on most security and defence issues and then mark out a meaningful Iraq policy. Latham and Crean both lucidly and credibly opposed the war and took firm policy positions. Kim’s views on Iraq have dissolved into the noise of his general ramblings. Once again he fails to pack a punch.

4. You and I - Maybe this should come top of the list. I’m gradually accepting the idea that you can’t just blame the Howard government, the media and the opposition for the political mess we have in Australia at present. No, it’s a reflection of who we are. Australians have traded many of the values of our nation for their mortgages and economic prosperity. It won’t stay this way. But that’s the way it is for now. Nobody really cares about Australia’s role in Iraq - providing our economic and security comfort zones aren’t impacted.

But that’s where the complacency will end. Despite appearances, our participation in Iraq is not without consequences. Any honest analyst from Mick Keelty down (that has not been muzzled by the PM) confirms that our presence in Iraq increases the risk of terrorist attacks against Australians. Common sense would arrive at the same conclusion. And this is a war that was concocted only on a lie to make us safe.


7 MARCH 2006

Condoleezza Rice’s current visit to Australia comes at a time when the United States is reassessing the global implications of China’s rise. The reassessment is long overdue as it is in Australia.

John Howard has lulled much of Australia into a political coma with strong economic performance and the promise of a relaxed and comfortable time. The Chinese government has seduced its own people and the world into a similar uncritical state with staggering economic development and a promise that (nearly) everyone can have a share. Few want to look hard at the implications.

Australians may be feeling relaxed and comfortable but some agitation might be in order. China’s rise should be one source. 

China’s achievements during the past twenty years have been staggering. Beneath the incredible economic performance are amazing human achievements. The Chinese have engineered the greatest poverty alleviation programme in history. The redirection of policy led by Deng Xiaoping following the death of Mao has transformed hundreds of millions of lives from dire squalor.

The Chinese aren’t just richer either. They’re undoubtedly more free as well. Free to have a shot at cashing in on the country’s economic bonanza, free to enjoy a restricted internet, free to enjoy international travel, free to enjoy increasing but still limited opportunities for expressing political views. Chinese people have dramatically more control over their lives today than they did twenty years ago.

All in all it’s a very positive story of progress - albeit from a horrible base. Life for the Chinese through the 50s, 60s and 70s was truly dire (in fact it was pretty awful for most Chinese during the hundred years that preceded Communism as well). It remains pretty bleak for hundreds of millions of rural poor.

The rub is that until now, we’ve been viewing China as a nation on its own development mission with upside for our own economy but with little possible downside - notwithstanding occasional verbal skirmishes with the Taiwanese.

That’s we’re we’ve been wrong.

China’s continuing rise in the coming twenty years will be a fraught and complex affair. Some of the signals of where we are headed are already visible.

China’s impact is now moving beyond economics. China’s economic power is starting to naturally manifest politically.

The first territory for the battle has been in the all important internet and technology sectors. Some of the world’s major technology companies, Google, Microsoft, Cisco and Yahoo have all seriously compromised their products in order to ensure no offence is caused to the Chinese government. Microsoft and Cisco sell products to the Chinese that support “the Great Firewall of China”. Most appallingly though, in 2005, Yahoo volunteered private email correspondence to the Chinese government that resulted in the imprisonment of three Chinese dissidents (see

If China is able to exercise significant influence in the corporate world now, what lies ahead? Especially as the barriers between technology and media companies collapse? Will a China two or three times more powerful economically than it currently is be shaping the way we live in the West as well? It seems likely. Will it seek to use its power to influence the way media in the West behaves? It seems likely also.

It’s not just companies bowing to the wishes of China. Governments are proving highly accommodating as well. In Australia, we had the outrageous situation in 2005 where Chinese government officials were given access to Chinese asylum seekers. Would this have happened before China became the underwriter for our minerals boom? Have the advancements in China’s human rights situation been sufficient to justify such access?

China is making its mark on the international political landscape as well. China has long taken a “see no evil” view of international affairs. It is happy to trade with and actively support pariah states like Burma and Sudan. Many of the world’s most repressive states would prefer to have investments from a “no questions asked” Chinese government than frequently more complicated investments from western companies that are sometimes at least, subjected to media, government or popular scrutiny.

In our region the Burma case is the most striking. Any western efforts to isolate the shocking Burmese junta are undermined by China’s economic and political courtship. Perhaps the most sound argument in favour of greater western business engagement in Burma is that it can counteract the Chinese activity. A boycott that does not include the Chinese is not a boycott at all.

And then there is China and Japan. China’s relationship with Taiwan is a source of tension and global concern. Recently, increasingly fractious interaction between Beijing and Tokyo presents a further regional challenge that shows no sign of receding.

China’s aggressive efforts to secure necessary energy and other resources to fuel its expansion will also present increasing challenges in the years ahead.

China’s emergence in the coming decades as a massive power seems all but assured. The character of that massive power depends on what happens domestically in China. There are two probable scenarios.

China will either commit to a more ambitious domestic political reform agenda - there is some evidence of momentum in this direction - or it will continue to pursue economic ends without any real political relaxation.

We should be hoping for the former.

Spare a thought for China’s leaders. I do not envy them. Post Tiananmen Square, both liberals and hardliners must squabble daily on the best course forward. The sudden promulgation of a democratic state seems unlikely in the extreme - and may even be foolhardy. So even those who wish to achieve a democratic end, must ponder a complex process of steps to create proper foundations. Western democracies did not suddenly present. Nor will successful democracy suddenly present in China.

One expects a more liberal and democratic China to be a less belligerent international player. Of course recent history shows that big democracies (aka USA, UK and Australia) are still very capable of belligerent foreign policy.

The absence of credible state advocates of freedom and human rights in the era of Bush and Howard has given succour to the hardliners in China’s ranks and tyrants the world over. You can just imagine the sniggering about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq War, extraordinary rendition, the abandonment of habeas corpus, mandatory detention of child asylum seekers - (should I continue?) when US or Australian officials deliver their homilies to the Chinese on human rights.

The obsession with the war on terror, the counterproductivity and incompetence of so much of its execution, and the accompanying abandonment of hard fought and time honoured liberal democratic values, will be the legacy of the Bush - Howard era. It has distracted us all from the most important foreign policy challenge we face - the challenge of China. We need those abandoned values more than ever at this time.

I am far from a total pessimist about China. China’s development could play out many ways - some good, some bad. I am also very conscious that the challenges that face the Chinese government any day of the week are massive - corruption, environmental disaster, rural poor, crumbling health system, domestic calls for liberalisation - and that there are many highly capable and committed people working in the Chinese government to achieve good governance, a more liberal domestic political climate, prosperity and a positive role in international affairs.

The Chinese will shape their future largely themselves. A West diminished by a disgraced and weakened superpower makes it less likely China’s continuing rise will be as we might wish.