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 crooksandliars.com or dailykos.com

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 www.booyahoo.blogspot.com).

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.