Sunday 18 November 2007


OK. The Foreign Minister Lord Downer didn’t say that. But during last week’s debate with Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, he again expressed his disgust that the leader of the opposition might address the Chinese President in – Chinese!

Downer accused Rudd of being a show off – implying that Australians who acquire foreign language skills should keep these to themselves -= presumably so that our mono lingual nation can go on feeling relaxed and comfortable about this monumental national failure.

Downer then made a very unconvincing effort to showcase his French. I am no French speaker but his effort sounded like a text book self introduction – hardly an exhibition of fluency. It was an exhibition of a schoolboy jealousy and hatred that must have amused the Diplomatic fraternity gathered for insights into the big foreign policy issues of the day.

What a joy it will be to despatch this goose – our longest serving Foreign Minister – from the world stage next week – please!

Thursday 8 November 2007


Bank claims on interest rates ring hollow

The long suffering banks are sounding serious. They cry they will be forced to pass interest rate rises to borrowers in excess of the official rise of .25%. Most are talking imminent rises of .5%.

The reason being provided is that instability in international credit sources means banks are themselves paying a premium for cash required above what they are holding in deposits.

So why are we not seeing more incentive in the deposit markets?

The two banks I use, HSBC and Commonwealth have not raised their savings deposit rates following either recent rate rises. It would seem to be a logical way of boosting deposits and reducing exposure to international sources of funds.

Looks more like a profit lunge than a cash shortage driving interest rate rises in excess of Reserve Bank movements.


John Howard is an unconvincing flag bearer for democracy and the rule of law

So John Howard called President Pervez Musharraf on Sunday to condemn his declaration of emergency rule?

Presumably Howard believes that amidst the chaos, Pakistan’s best hope for turning the tide on its growing Islamic insurgency is through democracy and the rule of law.

Musharraf must be amused.

Here in Australia, a country facing none of the security threats faced in Pakistan, Howard has presided over an unprecedented attack on the pillars of democracy. He has supported the suspension of habeas corpus, he has attacked the independence of the judiciary and the public service, and he has presided over greater concentration of media ownership as well as restrictions on media - all in the name of national security. His tacit support for the US prison at Guantanamo Bay and the unlawful detention of David Hicks all belie any claim he could put to President Musharraf that democracy and the rule of law triumphs over all challenges.

Further, the war in Iraq that he still aggressively advocates has created a rallying point for Islamist radicals around the world that has directly contributed to destabilisation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

How might Howard respond if Australia faced the threats Musharraf faces in Pakistan? If there was an algorithm that measured actual threat against freedoms suspended in Australia and Pakistan, we might find that the two countries are closer than we think.

Howard will be a more convincing champion of democracy on the world stage when he champions liberal democracy in Australia.

Monday 29 October 2007


Vietnam's impressive economic development dominates headlines. Alongside the staggering growth rates, the country's economic powerhouse, Ho Chi Minh City, is at the beginning of a construction binge that looks disturbing at best.

I'm not sure how many Asian cities I've heard described "once the Pearl of the Orient". Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou) Saigon, Hanoi, Phnom Penh Penang come to mind. There are others. The Orient clearly once had many many pearls. Now though, it seems no city makes the claim.

Most Asian cities gave up on being beautiful decades ago. Asia's achievements in development and poverty reduction are impressive. And it isn't surprising that development has taken precedence over aesthetics in cities of rampant poverty and

Rapid development has taken its toll however and as a new phase of development in Asia begins, many city governments are rediscovering the ultimate economic and lifestyle importance of attractive, functional, liveable cities. Unfortunately, for the moment at least, it seems that Ho Chi Minh City is not one of them.

In this city, formerly known as Saigon, any resident old enough will wax poetically about Pham Ngoc Thach St, Le Quy Don St or the Rue Catinat of the fifties and sixties. Despite being embroiled in a horrible war, by all accounts, the Saigon was a handsome city of tree lined boulevards, gardens, villas and parks. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the city's architectural development froze. Building was largely confined to shacks and small extensions built to cope with an increasing population. They were tough years in a country shattered by decades of war and frozen by hardline Communist economic policies.

The city I discovered on my first visit in June 1990 was a very rundown version of the city the Americans left
in April 1975. It wasn't pretty but it had an appealing scale to it. Many French era architectural marvels lurked behind the makeshift shacks that normally faced the streets. And you could get around - the traffic consisted mainly of bicycles and motorcycles. Cars were a rarity.

Plenty changed in Ho Chi Minh City after the city began opening up to the outside world in the 1990s. But it was
n't until the last few years that the city's physical character started to change at a dramatic pace. The pace of change has now moved into top gear.

Most Vietnamese naturally applaud the development and the improved living conditions they now enjoy. There is also plenty of support for the "modernisation
" currently under way. There is however increasing unease about where the city is headed and what kind of place it might be for the next generation of Vietnamese. A more prosperous future seems assured. But what of the city?

Despite being surrounded by vivid examples of appalling city planning throughout Asia, Ho Chi Minh City seems to be on a blind fast track to join the world's great lost opportunities of city planning and development. In some ways it's more distressing since there are so many cities from which Saigon could learn. Drive down any major street of the city and you'll find a bizarre mix of structures emerging on tiny pieces of land with little or no architectural merit and frequently at the expense of far more attractive structures.

What is most tragic abo
ut Ho Chi Minh City is the the increasingly evident gap between what the city could be and what it looks likely to become. Some enlightened planning could make Saigon a very attractive city still. It's not yet too late, but the clock is ticking and the bulldozers are moving. So what should be done?

The French era layout around which Saigon evolved was never built to handle the population it currently serves. It is hopelessly inadequate for the city's future. That leaves 2 options - put much of the new city into new areas (the long argued "official" plan), or clear the old city and start again (a scary thought).

In practice though, neither is happening. Instead there is a seemingly under regulated construction boom in the centre with mainly unattractive commercial buildings going up everywhere - with little or no improvement to roads and transport infrastructure.

Simultaneously, the new cities of Districts 2 , 7 and beyond gather momentum also.

During the ma
ny years I have lived in this city, the talk on the street has always been that the "new" city would be created in new areas across the Saigon River - Thu Duc and Saigon South. It seemed very sensible. There is plenty of development going on in these areas too. But District 1 and the other picturesque historic parts of the city look likely to lose their charm.

Near my house in Tan Binh district, a 10 story office building is going up in the middle of residential area where the street width is less than 5 metres. Gridlock at the end of the street is normal already. When the new building comes on line, things will be far worse as cars and motorbikes jam
this tiny lane. There are no car spaces in the new building and no real space for cars on the streets. And that story is indicative of what is going on across the city - construction everywhere gorging the narrow streets with large commercial buildings at the expense of the old and without any accompanying infrastructure.

There seems to be little consideration of how the already jammed roads and barely existent public transport will carry the tens of thousands of new commuters to these buildings.
Saigon has almost ground to a halt. I recently bet a taxi driver that I could walk the further 2 kilometres to my house faster than he could drive. Sure enough, I won. The 5 kilometre journey from my home to city centre takes 10 - 15 minutes in the late evening and between 40 and 70 minutes in the day time. I can walk to the centre faster than I can drive 50% of the time.

But walk you wouldn't. If Saigon's roads are dangerously dysfunctional, the city's footpaths are virtually unusable. Parked motorcycles clog the pavements and where there is an open patch, the overflo
w of motorcycles from the busy streets will frequently fill the gap at high speeds. The pavements are also favoured by motorcyclists travelling at speed the wrong way up one way streets. A relaxing city walk is not an option in this city.

There are no easy answers of course. A city with an economy growing at 10+% will face any number of bottle necks as well as a daily temptation to adopt easy short term fixes. The challenges the city faces are not confined to managing rapid development though. Corruption and kickbacks are also feeding the city's despoilment as its officers and those state companies sitting on prime land seek to carve off a slice of the economic boom for themselves.

Still the great aesthetic and atmospheric opportunity for the city continues to be in and around District 1 - the city centre. Even now, this area has few high rise buildings. Most of district 1 consists of lowrise shophouses that have a wonderful scale to them. If they were preserved and renovated
and developed by the region's best planning minds, these shophouses could underpin an attractive district of boutiques, small business spaces, apartments, restaurants and other public facilities. There is still plenty to work with - although increasingly, the rows of shophouses are interrupted by unsightly mini high rises of up to ten stories with frontages of around 4 metres.

Of course Saigon needs its big commercial buildings. Putting them in District 1 makes no sense from an infrastructure and planning perspective however. And an opportunity to create a great city for its residents and visitors will be lost also.

What seems to be lacking is an integrated view of the city. Each piece of land seems to be viewed purely as an isolated opportunity to bring a huge cash windfall without any consideration of the creation of attractive functional integrated spaces. Just as disturbing is the lack of public space and the seeming disregard for this in current planning. Ho Chi Minh City's district 1 has no significant public parks by any regional or global standard. Nor does it have significant recreational spaces for restaurants, bars, shopping and walking. Yet it could.

Saigon's growth obsession has produced lots of wealth and opportunity
for its people - who are of course still poor by any measure. It will take a visionary, clean and assertive city government to reign in the current binge to ensure an attractive, functional city survives for the next more affluent, educated and demanding generation.

Tuesday 14 August 2007


The Hicks and Moti cases reveal a very different level of enthusiasm in Alexander Downer for seeing legal cases promptly brought to justice.

David Hicks must watch with envy, the Australian government’s pursuit of Solomon Islands’ Attorney General Julian Moti. If only Alexander Downer was as committed to bringing him to justice, irrespective of the diplomatic implications, he must think.

Australia is pursuing Moti on charges of child sexual abuse that have been heard and dropped in Vanuatu. The case looks fragile (See David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s piece here) but Australia’s pursuit of Moti has created major tension across the Pacific.

The pursuit of Moti is in stark contrast to the government’s limp efforts to bring Hicks to trial. And the Foreign Minister is at his imperious best when criticising the Pacific nations that have helped Moti elude Australian courts. A very different tone indeed to that used in relation to the US government and the Hicks case.

It seems that the Foreign Minister’s righteousness and moral outrage are a function of his measurement of the relative world power of the nation in question and his own prejudices rather than the substance of the legal or moral offense in question.


“Every complex problem has a simple solution – which is wrong.”

I don’t know who wrote that line but I love it. It captures so much of the political debate under Howard.

Want to stop porn being peddled to children online? Build a firewall.

Want to stop child abuse in indigenous communities? Send in the police and the army, prohibit alcohol and don’t complicate important initiatives by consulting affected communities.

Want to stop terrorism? Repeal those old and flaky pillars of the legal system like habeas corpus – they didn’t have Islamic terror in the 14th century right?

Want to remove a cruel Iraqi dictator? Forget the details and ignore those wimps arguing for caution. Get in there and do it.

Want to safeguard Australia’s security? Spend billions on new high tech weapons. The bigger and more expensive, the safer we’ll be.

Want to win an election? Buy off, one by one marginal electorates across the country.

Get the picture?

John Howard has been a man for his times. Australians have had their ten years of wilful ignorance and over-simplification. We’ve had our ten years of indulgence. We’re richer we’re told. But nobody feels as relaxed and comfortable as the Prime Minister assures us we should.

Reality is catching up with John Howard’s ever simplistic and easily digested prescriptions.

A firewall is no more an adequate measure for dealing with the proliferation of pornography in schools than the army and police are the best people to deal with the complex issue of child abuse in indigenous communities. These measures might at best be a small part of a complex solution.

John Howard doesn’t like complex solutions. But it seems Australians are starting to realise that many of our biggest problems won’t be fixed by simplistic and politically packaged prescriptions. Climate change has probably played a part in this process. The hollow ring to Howard’s line “ Working families have never been better off” is probably also biting.

Reality is catching up with Australia and Howard is looking the worse for it.

Wednesday 8 August 2007


John Howard is on a desperate pre-election scramble that shows his real contempt for accountable government and the expertise in government departments and the professions. This week's hospital debacle in Tasmania adds to a long list of policy disasters built on a contempt for specialist expertise and an obsession with tactical politics. The prospects for the massive indigenous intervention can't be good.

On Monday, John Howard told reporters that while he fully acknowledged the crisis outlined in the recent report on child abuse in indigenous communities (read political opportunity), his government felt no obligation to respond to the recommendations of its authors (read, insufficient hysteria, too many complex long term strategies and not enough guns and jeeps).

Howard has used the report as the basis for a massive intervention in indigenous affairs the likes of which we have not seen in his eleven years as Prime Minister. Yet this massive intervention is taking place with minimal consultation and widespread condemnation from the report’s authors, indigenous leaders and communities and experts who have long been dealing with issues of aboriginal health, welfare and development.

Most Australians, including indigenous leaders, would agree that the situation in indigenous Australia is chronic and requires a massive reevaluation. In the past few days, the costs of this intervention have leapt from the originally planned tens of millions to half a billion dollars in its first year. But what form should the intervention take? And what are its prospects of success when it shuns broad consultation with Aboriginal community leaders and many of those with expertise in Aboriginal communities not to mention the Opposition? After decades of failure, what prospect is there that a Government can engineer a policy revolution in indigenous affairs that has any prospect of success in six weeks?

The emergency response to the findings seemed appropriate. Who could argue with a huge, immediate effort to curb child sexual abuse? Minister for Indigenous Affairs Brough said that if you don’t agree with this intervention “you either don’t have a child or you don’t have a soul” (read - you're with us or you're a child abuser). So we now know how to view the broad opposition to the initiative.

It’s a disturbing way for a government to develop policy but it has plenty of precedent. From global warming, the Murray rescue plan, the Iraq War, the war on terror and military deployments in the Pacific and Timor, there is a common trend – condemn the expert.

Expert opinion has been ignored or condemned across most of the Howard government’s major policy blunders. In the long term, Australia will pay.

Experts should be analysed, scrutinised and critiqued. They should be heard. The Prime Minister is right in saying that good leaders will on occasions act against prevailing expert advice. Good leaders however can be entrusted to do so in the best interests of the community. Mr Howard's record on defying expert opinion speaks for itself - a series policy disasters for Australia from Tampa to Iraq and an occasional quick political thrill for the PM.

Many of the country’s most senior public servants know how it feels to be on the wrong side of an argument with the Howard government. When Treasury Secretary Ken Henry was reported to have criticised the government’s Murray Darling Plan, Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded dismissively,

"The Treasury does not know how much it costs to pipe a channel, how much it costs to replace a Dethridge wheel with a computerised flume gate, and how much it costs to line 10 kilometres of leaky pipe along the Murrumbidgee River," he said.

Treasurer Costello added, "Treasury's no water expert; Treasury's good at treasury; Treasury has not been engaged in water,"

The fact of course is that Treasury and Finance are normally involved in every costly policy initiative just as Finance departments would be involved in any major initiative in a corporation. It’s called responsible governance. Treasury knowing about Treasury is enough.

Police Commissioner Mick Kealty is a changed man since his 2004 brush with Howard orthodoxy that Australia’s presence in Iraq in no way impacts our position as a target for terrorists (see my previous post).

The Howard government’s oft recited contempt for elites includes the “elite” minds of its own military, science, economics, foreign policy, intelligence, police and other areas of the public service establishment. The Iraq War and climate change may be the most glaring cases of wilful disregard of widely expressed expert views. There are many others. And the quality of our most important analysts must have suffered terribly under this culture.

With the same pig headed “shock and awe” mindset being applied to the indigenous intervention, it will take a miracle for it to succeed.

Tuesday 31 July 2007


The Howard government's habit of putting its political ends before reality has taken a toll on competence in Australia that will take years and a commitment to open and accountable government to address.

The Haneef debacle reveals again the real crisis at the heart of the Australian Government and many branches of the public service over which it presides - competence.

Mick Keelty has always struck me as a bright, measured and straight talking Police Commissioner - until Friday. It seems he has learned how to survive as a servant of the Howard machine. In 2004, he famously took an ear bashing from Howard minders for stating the obvious, that Australia's presence in Iraq would make the country a bigger terrorist target. But there he was on Friday as the Haneef case collapsed in disarray, a man transformed from his earlier candour, after years of answering to his political masters, sounding like a a Howard Minister after yet another bungle.

Keelty insisted he had nothing to be sorry for and that he was happy with the work of the Federal Police. This is the despite the fact that an innocent man (remember the presumption of innocence?) had been incarcerated for weeks, his prosecution been bungled with incorrect evidence and his reputation trashed in the media. Instead of once again stating the obvious, that there was cause for great public and official concern at the conduct of this case, the Commissioner followed the line we've seen so often before from Howard's Ministers and Howard himself - never admit error - irrespective of how little analysis is required to see the error or how disastrous the consequences of the error might be = Iraq.

And so we've seen from Tampa and "kids overboard" to the Iraq War, AWB and Immigration debacles, a refusal to acknowledge fundamental error when it occurs.

But any organisation, be it government, business or even a sports team, that refuses to acknowledge and address fundamental error, sets in train a corrosive process that rewards incompetence and punishes those determined to achieve high standards. And so after a litany of failures that have gone largely unacknowledged and unaccounted for, we should assume that competency levels in government and bureaucracy are at an all time low. Consider the proud, committed and effective members of the Federal Police who watched their boss trot out the "we did a great job" line and think how deflated they must feel - knowing the boss is setting the benchmarks for their work. And then think of their equivalents in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the military and the Intelligence Services over Iraq and AWB. It's a culture that by definition rewards mediocrity and political manoeuvring at the expense of the higher goals of public service. Welcome to Howard's Australia.

Nothing threatens Australia's security, not to mention its economic well being and general prosperity more than a culture where a base political end always trumps a thorough analysis of an issue or a proper discussion of a failure. That is John Howard's Australia. You need only look at the debates raging in the UK and the US to see how politically lame our discussion has become.

Wednesday 18 July 2007


Australia continues to conduct its Iraq discussion with surreal detachment and in step with the White House

Last week, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki declared that Iraqi security forces could secure the country whenever their American supporters opted to leave.

“We say with confidence that we are capable, God willing, of taking full responsibility for the security file if the international forces withdraw in any time they wish,” Mr. Maliki said in a press conference.

In the same week, Nicholas Kristof referenced polls taken earlier in the year that reported 69% of Iraqis believe that the presence of foreign troops makes the security situation worse.

These two facts alone should provide a compelling enough argument for an exit from Iraq as soon as possible. After all, isn’t the Iraqi government supposed to be in charge with the Iraqi people? How come we know General Petraeus better than we know the Iraqi PM, President, Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers put together?

And what does Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer have to say?

On Sunday, the ABC (Australia) Insiders programme interviewed Downer who had recently returned from Iraq. In what is supposed to be an opportunity for sound bite free discussion of issues, he once again showed how appallingly infantile Australia’s public discussion of the Iraq War is.

The Foreign Minister was able to dismiss the intense bi partisan rebellion in the US Congress over Iraq by saying “I mean there's of course a lot of politics in Washington over all of this and here in Australia we can probably disregard some of the politics of politics, but on the ground the situation at the moment is a little better than its been.”

Made it sound like we were talking about a trivial spat in a local council.

The Foreign Minister has managed to remove himself from the ugly detail of a war that’s claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, more than 3600 US soldiers, undermined international anti terrorism efforts and reduced the standing of the US and Australia around the world. But in Australia he can get away with describing contemptuously Republican and Democrat efforts in Congress to end the war as “the politics of politics” – reminiscent of the Prime Minister’s extraordinary comments about Barack Obama earlier in the year.

Since the Coalition government is such a monolithic Howard driven beast, the FM has forgotten that debate is supposed to be part of the democratic process.

So what is Australia’s position on the big questions of the future of the Iraq conflict? Does Australia endorse the grand diplomacy strategy advocated by many to engage Iraq’s neighbours in the stabilising the country? What of the Iraq Study Group recommendations, which may now be again under consideration by the President and have the endorsement of Kevin Rudd. Does the Downer Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply shift with W in his own good time? What are the Foreign Minister’s views apart from vague recitals of White House propaganda? What is Australia’s position on the complex issues?

You hear the big issues of the Iraq War being debated daily in the US. Not so in Australia. It seems that Downer gets his Iraq analysis from the same guy that gives Dennis Shanahan his opinion poll analysis – “it’s all good despite the evidence”.


The loopy outbursts and threats of violence from sections of the Islamic community that accompanied the recent decision to confer a knighthood on author Salman Rushdie demonstrated again the serious dysfunction eating away at Islam. Whatever Rushdie’s crimes against Islam, the bloodshed advocated by his detractors disgraces them.

More distressing is the Islamic world’s apparent capacity to unite in violence against proposed affronts to their religion in the West, while the horrors being perpetrated by Muslim against Muslim most graphically in Iraq, Afghanistan and now increasingly in Pakistan goes on without any serious united outcry from Muslims. Where is the mass movement for Islamic moderation?

There are Islamic leaders fighting the hard fight for moderation. I only wish they were more capable of transforming theirs into a powerful and visible global movement.

Of course the prosecution of the war on terror and the wider actions of the US, Australian and other Western governments have made the job of moderates the world over harder.

And just in case you thought that the Catholic Church had moved on from the dark ages, Pope Benedict has recently started to express views that – minus the calls for mindless slaughter – are as useful to global and religious peace and unity as the utterances of extremists of any religious complexion.

Last year, he managed to incite Islamic violence by quoting a 14th-century Christian Byzantine emperor who was harshly critical of the prophet Muhammad .

Two recent pronouncements have in my view been even more provocative.

In Brazil in May, the Pope said that pre colonial indigenous South Americans were “silently longing” for the faith graciously bestowed by the marauding colonisers. Then last week, he restated an earlier view that other non-Catholic and non Orthodox Christian faiths did not in fact constitute “churches” due to “defects”. These defects were in part bound up with the fact that “other” Christian churches could not trace a continuous line to the apostles. You don’t need to be a religious historian to know that the “direct line” in question here is one drenched in bloodshed and horrors that would provide great inspiration to fanatics of any faith.

It’s Talibanesque in its blithe self-certainty. And it’s remarkable that in the same week this same church with its direct and superior line to divinity announced a $660 millionUS settlement for more than 500 cases of child abuse in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Is there any relationship between this self proclaimed sense of supremacy and these abuses? What price do we pay in the wider world for similar concepts of religious supremacy?

Friday 22 June 2007


China's fixation with control exceeds its interest in health and safety

I’ve just uploaded a selection of photos of China to the photo sharing website Flickr. The pictures are pretty standard tourist fare from across the country. It’s a positive colourful portrait. Take a look here.

But just as I have been loading these images, the Chinese government has been banning Chinese users from accessing Flickr. Why?

Well because although there are many millions of photos displayed on Flickr by hundreds of thousands of users, a few hundred are images of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the protest movement. And China is not happy about these few images.

China is ready to block the world’s favourite photo sharing site with millions of positive images of China and life the world over, because of a few images that ruffle the feathers.

Meanwhile, 100 representatives in Japan’s ruling party have also riled the Chinese this week by revising the severity of the 1937 Nanjing massacre from the Chinese estimate of 300,000 to 20,000.

That's a lot of denial! And a lot of historical debate for a world ever less interested in teaching history.

China’s justified outrage at Japanese revisionism loses a lot of steam while China is unable to run a critical eye over its own past – Tiananmen Square and the cultural revolution especially.

And the China Flickr story happens to coincide with other still unfolding China scandals in which Chinese companies have been found exporting poisonous chemicals for use in foods and pharmaceuticals. In addition, all of the toys withdrawn from US shelves recently because of health and safety risks were all manufactured in China. The food and pharmaceuticals scandal has claimed several lives internationally and many more in China.

When it comes to controlling the internet and the media, not to mention spreading its economic and military power, China seems to have limitless resources and skill. Its resources for policing the quality of food, pharmaceuticals and toys sold domestically and for export seem to be far more limited.

Resources -
Japan and Nanjing
Flickr and China

Tuesday 1 May 2007


Australia's monolingual handicap is a national economic, security and cultural disgrace

It seems to me one of the most damning policy indictments of the Howard era. On page 29 of Saturday’s Australian Financial Review (28 April), Luke Slattery outlined the appalling state of second language learning in Australia and its impact on Australian business now and in the future.

The decline of language learning during the Howard era flies in the face of our growing integration into the regional and world economies.

Australia’s shameful record on language learning has been apparent to me for a long time. In the 1970s and 80s the Catholic High School I attended in multicultural Auburn in Western Sydney was perhaps less than 40% Anglo Australian. The rest of the students were mainly Lebanese, Croation, Italian, Greek, Serbian, Vietnamese and Turkish. Students attending this ethnically diverse school were not given the opportunity to learn a second language. It wasn’t an option for us.

I didn’t become aware of how appalling this was until I travelled in Europe for the first time in the late 80s. It was there I realised that being monolingual was the unusual state rather than the other way around.

Living in Asia during the past 13 years has further heightened my awareness of Australia’s linguistic handicap.

Slattery’s AFR piece focuses on how our second language aversion damages our business competitiveness. Business schools the world over have recognised that second language skills help make better businesses from the CEO down. Most Australians in business are being left behind by this movement towards a multilingual global workplace. Even compared to Great Britain, the United States and New Zealand, Australia is at the bottom of the pile. That puts us at the bottom of the bottom of the pile in the OECD.

Australia’s retarded second language development is not only a handicap to our business development. It has serious security and cultural dimensions also.

Fewer Australians are studying Asian and regional languages and cultures than at the start of the Howard government. This is despite the fact that we now have Australian troops deployed in Timor, The Solomons, Afghanistan and Iraq and we have a pressing security concern with Islamic extremism in Indonesia. That Australia can massively increase defence expenditure without a parallel investment in language and cultural learning represents a terrible diseconomy. From Baghdad to Washington and from Kabul to Dili and Honiara, top military brass reiterate that these battles can’t be won with weapons alone. If language and cultural knowledge are vital weapons in the conflicts Australia is presently engaged in, we should feel vulnerable.

Then there is the simple cultural dimension. By many measures, Australia’s multiculturalism flourishes. How much richer might it be if all Australians had a wider interest and understanding of the many cultures in our midst?

Correcting Australia’s language handicap is a ten-year investment. Our current and future economic, security and cultural needs require that this investment be made quickly.

Thursday 19 April 2007


As America suffers, mourns and asks why, following this week’s senseless tragedy at Virginia Tech, Iraqis in Baghdad may be hoping that it will give the world a tiny insight into the horror that is their daily existence in a city of daily suicide bombings of even greater lethality.

As we are bombarded with intimate details about the life and motives of the Virginia killer I wonder whether we might be better equipped to fight our “war on terror” if a similar public analysis of the lives and motives of the perpetrators of suicide bombings around the world occurred. Given how prolific they are, it is incredible how little we know of them. Most people would be hard pressed to name more than one of the September 11 hijackers. Few could say anything of substance about them.

And as we read of the lives shattered by 23 year old Cho Seung-Hui’s bloody rampage, it points to an obscene contrast in the lack of detail presented on the hundreds of faceless simple people who fall victim to hideous violence in Iraq each day.


Facing an election on matters of grave national and international importance, the amount of media interest in the Rudd Vietnam story has been ridiculous

An outsider arriving in Australia last week would have assumed that Kevin Rudd had hurled abuse at Australia’s Vietnam Veterans and poured scorn on their service. The amount of media energy expended on this story once again shows a democracy terribly distracted from the many serious issues at hand by nonsense.

Hours of television and millions of pages of newsprint were devoted to a beat up of monumental scale. Whatever is being said about the “false dawn” service planned for Vietnam, it was always dependent on the agreement of the veterans who were intended to participate in it. Major events, including those as reverent as an Anzac service often make compromises for television coverage. It can easily be argued that such tweaking gives a wider audience an opportunity to share in the event complementing its significance.

The idea that it is sacrilege to canvas the possibility of an earlier service with interested parties is extreme. Neither is there any indication that Kevin Rudd was involved in such canvassing.

So, his failure was to miss an email from an important military figure - an unfortunate oversight. The lack of perspective of many commentators who suggested that Rudd’s failure on this matter was comparable to the Howard and Downer oversight failures with the AWB in Iraq is distressing.

The Blairesque “spin at all costs” style of his media machine is the only thing that the Opposition Leader needs to apologise for.


Paul Keating's normally fine critical eye seems to be losing its focus with China

Paul Keating is probably John Howard’s most longstanding, vigorous and vicious critic. Sometimes his critique is more vicious than valuable. He’s amusing to listen to but you sometimes come away wondering more about Keating’s visceral hatred and bitterness than the particular issue that he is discussing.

I’m a great Keating fan. I think he was a great Prime Minister. I admired his mind, his vision and his readiness to take risks for the good of the country both as Treasurer and Prime Minister. I shook his hand at a Condell Park polling booth in the 80s and again in Vietnam in the 90s. I found him an inspiring leader. His capacity to embrace the full range of national issues from the economy to indigenous affairs, foreign policy and the arts was remarkable. He made Australia think big and broad about its past and its future.

In contrast, the Howard years have been small minded and uninspired. Howard expressed contempt for the “vision” thing from the outset and he has been true to his commitment to vision free government.

But this piece is about Keating not Howard.

And I’m starting to have some serious reservations about 21st century Keating. As a very high-end business consultant with a special interest in China, there is a sense that Keating might be losing some of his breadth of vision and appetite for risk.

Last week’s Sydney Morning Herald carried a belated story about a recent Keating speech, Banks Servicing Communities in the Context of a Burgeoning China - 26 March 2007, (available on Keating’s website). The crux of the story is Keating’s expectation that China will exercise its great power in the coming decades magnanimously.

Keating says,

It will deal through these structures (regional groupings such as ASEAN + 3) with, I believe, a great degree of maturity and regard for the nations which are party to its growth and development and central to the peace and order of the region. I believe China will adopt a quite considerate approach to the countries around it.

These words sound more like the anodyne pronouncements of China’s Foreign Ministry than those of an incisive international analyst. Keating, after broaching so many uncomfortable truths about Australia seems to be reluctant to acknowledge all the complexity that will accompany a Chinese ascendancy.

I heard similar pronouncements of unfounded optimism on China's rise some years ago from the former PM at a lecture at Sydney's Seymour Centre.

Keating’s optimism about China is far from well founded.

It is way too early to call what kind of player China will be on the international stage. The signals are mixed. To express such confidence about China’s future international posture may be good sense for Keating the business consultant, it does not seem to take account of the variable signals China is sending. It seems also to diminish a man from whom we expect to hear candour.

China’s support for the government of Sudan, in order to reap the energy dividend from the country’s oil wealth, hardly constitutes responsible or benign international citizenship. China has actively thwarted international attempts to get UN peacekeepers into Darfur. There are signs recently that China’s position here may be changing. It is too early to be sure.

In Myanmar, China’s “respect” for sovereignty has seen the establishment of a very significant economic beachhead in a country that is home to one of the planet’s most odious regimes. China’s broad economic activity in Myanmar significantly diminishes the impact of any international boycott. Arguably the contest between China and India for the affections of Burma’s rogue regime negates the strategic rationale of an economic boycott as a device for bringing political reform to the country.

In the Pacific, there is also a sense that China and Taiwan are involving themselves in local politics in ways that are not always helpful to the countries involved.

The world also continues to accept a less than enlightened position from China on Taiwan. Similar issues in other parts of the world would be resolved by referendum. Not with China. And nor does anybody in the corridors of Western foreign ministries see the need to at least suggest a democratic solution. It’s hard to imagine a similar position being adopted by the developed world in any other case – especially when Taiwan’s flourishing democracy is considered.

This is not to assume a negative view of China’s likely future position in world affairs. It is to argue that it’s too early to know - and to suggest that Mr Keating’s China interests are colouring his normally finely tuned critical eye. One can’t ignore China’s continued poor record on human rights or its current influence on world affairs when projecting a likely future role. There are definite causes for optimism – as there are causes for concern. Mr Keating can’t be expected to hector the Chinese. Nobody would benefit from that. A more measured position would be more credible. In China, measured voices calling for change are getting a hearing. Keating would be better using his enormous talents and likely influence to present something more nuanced and original than something from a Chinese Foreign Ministry template.

Friday 30 March 2007



The piece below was written in January 2006. I have decided to publish it on this blog after listening to Pilger speaking with Philip Adams this week on Late Night Live about Bobby Kennedy. In a few simple sentences Pilger managed to despatch all American Presidents including and since Eisenhower to a hell of ethical ignominy.

The question I was hoping for from Adams was "Is America unique in its capacity to churn out the worst possible leaders? Do other countries (apart from US allies of course) ever produce leaders of equivalent moral depravity as the United States or is it a special US gene? Has there ever been a relatively good leader in the US or anywhere else?

Pilger's angles on so many issues are absurd. He is one of the few progressive writers who fits the ideological template so over played on by Henderson, Devine and others.

Perhaps the most adsurd outburst from Pilger was an effort to place Clinton and Bush in similar camps in terms of creating international chaos and destruction. This is patently ridiculous and shows the simplistic untextured views that provide Pilger his platform.

Anyway, here is the piece from early 2006.

John Pilger’s new book is called Tell Me No Lies. It’s a collection of some of the most important investigative journalism of the past six decades. I have only read some of the book but with familiar names like Wilfred Burchett, Seymour Hersh, Greg Palast and Eric Schlosser aboard it is sure to be an excellent read.

Here in Sydney, the book’s release coincides with the John Pilger Film Festival and I attended last night to view two of Pilger’s Vietnam documentaries – The Quiet Mutiny (1970) and Last Battle (1995) and to hear the man speak in person.

Pilger is a man revered by some, hated by many. I’m really not sure how to place him. I sympathise with so much of what he has to say. Yet, I feel very uncomfortable with his approach and analysis.

In my first few years of living in Vietnam, I made a point of reading many of Pilger’s books including Heroes and later Distant Voices. I have also read A Secret Country and The New Rulers of the World. I had a great regard for Pilger and his morally charged crusading style. He had a big impact on my twenty something world view. My worshipping of the campaigner has subsided in recent years and I have struggled to make sense of my ambivalence.

Last night’s films crystalised my dilemma.

Pilger forces his positions on the reader or viewer and often uses either dubious techniques or thin and questionable arguments to make his case. A favourite Pilger subject matter and one about which I have some knowledge is Vietnam – during the war and after. A viewing of Pilger’s film on post war Vietnam (1995) provides few insights into the reality of the country and would likely be viewed as offensive and patronising to Vietnamese of all political colours. Pilger cannot transcend his pre 1975 Vietnam War era headspace. He can view the Vietnamese only as victims – mostly of American misdeeds.

Massive as these misdeeds were, Vietnam’s story, like so many of those that Pilger reduces to morality tales drained of all complexity, is one of more grey than Pilger is able to acknowledge. Americans and South Vietnamese tarred with one brush = evil imperialist / corrupt traitors. Vietnamese and Vietnamese villagers = practitioners of high morality and justice. Pilger does not state these things. His presentation of the “facts” and his glaring omissions paint the picture for him.

It’s hard to pick Pilger’s most grievous distortion. Two howlers do spring to mind (I’m finishing this piece some weeks later now). At one point in the film, Pilger laments the Vietnamese government’s abandonment of collectivised agriculture in the 1980s. You would have to search very hard through the villages of Vietnam and through to the most hard core Communist cadres to find someone to support Pilger’s position on this. Rural and city dwelling Vietnamese have vivid memories of the total breakdown in the food supply that followed collectivisation (there was plenty of corrupt distribution also). Starvation was rampant and even those in there mid to late twenties in modern Vietnam remember!

The other grievous distortion is Pilger’s obliviousness to the extraordinary positive energy of Vietnam. Vietnam’s story is one of tragedy and determined recovery. The recovery is imperfect of course. But to spend time in contemporary Vietnam and not be swept up in the positive energy of the place requires the most dogged war correspondent nostalgia. I have seen it frequently in Vietnam with war correspondents.

Pilger’s approach to the world has won him a legion of admirers in Australia and abroad. I still agree with a good many of the positions he puts on many issues. The problem is that his approach can only reinforce existing entrenched opinion. His style and discipline will never open any closed minds. He’s like an aged rock star belting out the tunes that made him famous to his old fans – but unable to reach out to a different audience. And surely the different audience is the one that really matters?

Monday 19 March 2007


The lack of depth and highly partisan nature of Australia's Iraq discussion reflects poorly on our media and our democracy

Last week I watched the PBS Iraq war documentary, “The Dark Side”. With a particular focus on Vice President Cheney, the programme looked in detail at the use of the attacks of September 11 to build the case for the disastrous war in Iraq. It was amazing viewing, especially in light of the seniority and credibility of those in the defense and intelligence establishments who chose to speak out about their experiences and in some cases contributions to the Iraq war debacle and the lies upon which it was built.

Bob Woodward’s book State Of Denial is similarly remarkable in its detail and its sources. The picture of deceit, arrogance and incompetence Woodward paints is astonishing. What is also incredible is the depth of the sources. These are not partisan Democrats, New York Times liberals or any of the usual bogeymen. They are mostly senior Defense (including former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld) and Intelligence personnel or White House insiders. Their credentials are impeccable.

There are now dozens of serious films and books on the Bush administration’s deceit and incompetence in Iraq. The electoral consequences of this outpouring and introspection by both those associated with the war and its opponents took its toll in November’s congressional elections. State Of Denial must have helped put the final nails in Donald Rumsfeld’s coffin also.

Diverse views on the Iraq conflict coexist in the Republican Party, the Democrat Party, the US right and the liberal left.

Australia is a key member of the alliance that elected to wage war in Iraq. So where are the books and documentaries about the incompetence and deceit that led us into the war? Where are the senior military and defence officials that feel sick with their involvement? Where are the senior members of the Liberal government who think it’s time there was some honesty in the discussion of why Australian soldiers were sent to Iraq four years ago?

Australians have been opposed to the Iraq War from the outset. If our politicians are able to take cover from the absence of Australian combat casualties, they should be forced to account for Iraq’s downward spiral into violence, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, the creation of an al Qaeda hothouse, an emboldened Iran and a rallying call for terrorists the world over.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom have endured painful introspection over the Iraq war and especially the decisions that led to the conflict. Australia’s debate has been far less far reaching. Australia is weaker for the low quality of our Iraq debate and less likely to learn the painful lessons that Americans and Britons are now all too conscious of. Australia’s media has a lot to answer for.


Brian Toohey seems alone as an Australian journalist who has sought to unravel the inside story of the Howard government’s short cuts to war. His most recent piece in the AFR March 17 – “Howard’s choice: when to recall troops” and a similar piece this time last year, stand out.

For a glimpse of the The Dark Side documentary, click here

Tuesday 13 March 2007


The Murdoch press's Australian flagship is in election mode

The Weekend Australian has assumed its non-too subtle election posture during the past fortnight. A similar position was assumed prior to the last election. The paper’s opinion writers are not only almost unanimously supportive of the coalition. They seem to be strategic campaign partners.

And so we’re off again.

Perhaps the most outrageous piece was a front page leader on March 3. It ran “Hicks ‘al Qaeda’s 24 carat golden boy”. The message was clear. And the millions of people who read the headline that Saturday but never even purchased the paper let alone read the story, carry it with them. Problem was that the story leader and the story content were profoundly different. The piece went on to tell of how Feroz Habbasi, a former Al Qaeda operative and Guantanamo Bay inmate had retracted all of his statement about Hicks including the ’24 carat claim’.

Just imagine your own name or perhaps that of Mr Murdoch or Chris Mitchell (Editor in Chief of the Oz) in a front page leader in The Australian - Mr ‘select name’ serial 'select crime' only to read the article to discover an untested and since retracted claim was the basis for the leader. And then you have a sense of editorial standards Murdoch / Mitchell style.

So was this just sloppy leader writing or something more sinister? Read the Australian for a few weeks and judge for yourself.

David Hicks is clearly an issue of deep concern to the Government. You don’t ignore an issue for five years only to champion it with vigour unless the electoral alarm bells are ringing. And who benefits from the airing of untested claims about Hicks and his Al Qaeda activities?

Whatever Hicks’s crimes, he deserves a proper trial.

Not all of the Australian’s opinion writers are in the conservative camp of course. Philip Adams clearly is not. Matt Price would seem to have progressive sympathies but is more cynical than anything else. Paul Kelly can come down on either side. Noel Pearson’s views fall in and outside both camps.

What distinguishes Shanahan, Sheridan, Albrechtsen, Pearson (Christopher) et. al. from those listed above is their ubiquity in column inches, the rabidity of their views and their almost totally dependable political partisanship.

Philip Adams may be the most “liberal” of The Australian’s commentators but he can’t be depended on by Labor or anybody else to sing to the prevailing ALP chorus. Same for the rest.

The Conservative chorus joins Howard in perfect pitch – almost without exception. How dreary. Don’t listen to me. Read them and judge for yourself.

Gerard Henderson and others frequently lament the failure of conservative commentary to penetrate in Australia. Of course the shock jocks penetrate but it's difficult to find penetrating conservative opinion writing. If conservative writers could decouple from the Howard government and stand up for conservative issues, we’d all be better off.

Thursday 1 March 2007


Kevin Rudd's foreign policy views are very persuasive. He's overlooked one issue though.

Kevin Rudd’s willingness to sit by the computer and put some substance to the soundbites is a welcome development. His piece on Christianity and politics in The Monthly was a good read that ruffled the Abbott feathers no end.

His latest foray in The Diplomat magazine is another good read.

Rudd accuses the Howard government of being driven by political battles and lax on policy. He writes “ history will record the Howard government as one of the laziest governments since Joe Lyons was prime minister in the 1930s – a government of politics first and foremost and of policy last and least.”

Rudd then sets out to draw clear distinctions between the government and Labor on foreign policy issues. On the US alliance, he supports a strong alliance but one with a capacity for differences. On multilateralism – he laments Howard’s obsessive bilateralism and proposes a course of “middle power diplomacy” where Australian influence in international bodies such as the UN can be strengthened. On Asia he proposes a concerted push to make Australia an insider in regional groupings. He views the Pacific as a notable failure of the Howard government and proposes less paternalism and more investment in the development of educational, cultural and economic ties in addition to the current military and policing roles.

It’s a persuasive piece indeed.

But its failure to present a Labor view on the Middle East and especially Israel was remarkable. The Howard government’s lockstep position with the US administration in support for Israel has distinguished Australia from an international community that, whilst largely supportive of Israel’s right to exist, is increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s actions.

How does Kevin Rudd view Australia’s position as one of the Israeli government’s most unquestioning allies? How does this position play out in the Middle East, with our most important neighbour Indonesia, and in our own Middle Eastern community? Does it accurately represent our democratic and human rights based traditions? Does it serve our security interests?

It would be hard to argue that these issues are not amongst the highest of Australia’s strategic priorities. Why then did Kevin Rudd’s lengthy piece not reference them?

Tuesday 27 February 2007


Australia's discussion of an expanded US military presence was light in the extreme.

While Australia’s recent discussion on hosting an additional US base focused on Peter Garrett’s evolving views and little else, Italians were engaging in a rather more robust discussion on a proposed expanded US presence in their country. It became so robust last week that Prime Minister Romano Prodi was forced to resign as his fragile coalition collapsed in disagreement on the issue.

The crisis in Italy occurred as the full extent of the US programme of “extraordinary rendition” became clear. Extraordinary rendition is the US policy of kidnapping foreign nationals for “rendition” to third countries like Syria and Egypt where brutal interrogations can occur away from the interventions of US and European justice and human rights standards.

Italian courts issued indictments against 26 US officials involved in a “rendition” on Italian soil. A EU report also linked 1245 CIA flights with the kidnappings. German courts have previously issued 13 similar indictments againts CIA and other US officials.

The nine-month old Prodi government collapsed in a brawl that combined the rendition controversy, the proposed expansion of US bases, and Italy’s contribution to the battle against the Taliban.

If Italy’s democracy is disturbing in its vigour and vicissitudes, Australia’s seems alarmingly predictable when the US alliance is under discussion. There was a stampede from both sides (with a handful of exceptions) to affirm the unequivocal joy felt at the the prospect of a greater US military presence in Australia.

It would seem reasonable to assume that a new advanced communications centre might assist controversial procedures such as extraordinary rendition. Yet I did not hear this or any other possible implication of the bases referenced.

Apart from the lexical lunacy of “extraordinary rendition” the practice is up there with pre-emptive war, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in the list of Bush administration disasters since September 11 that have diminished the West and ultimately made us less safe by undermining the very civilisation supposedly being protected.

Extraordinary rendition has gone very wrong on several well documented occasions. A Canadian man, Maher Arar, was snatched by the CIA at New York’s JFK airport as he returned home from a family holiday. He was then sent to Syria for a year of torture and interrogation. He was subsequently released back to Canada without charge and has been awarded millions in compensation. The Canadian PM has even extended a personal apology for the involvement of Canadian intelligence. The US is unmoved.

A German man Khaled el-Masri was similarly kidnapped, sent to Afghanistan allegedly subjected to torture and subsequently released.

If the proposed new base in Western Australia will implicate Australia in the excesses of the war on terror Bush / Cheney style, a more rigorous debate on whether bases and these strategies make us safer, would be healthy.

Tuesday 13 February 2007


John Howard's latest lapse of diplomatic judgement fits a pattern

John Howard’s lapse of judgement in describing Barack Obama as the Presidential choice of Al Qaeda was not his only recent diplomatic blunder.

In a far less widely reported statement, at the end of the APEC conference in Vietnam in November last year, the Prime Minister told the ABC that his support for the Vietnam war had not changed since the 70s. History, hindsight and his time Vietnam provided no cause for the PM to review his position on that war.

It reveals lots about the Prime Minister. It puts him at the far extreme of opinion on the Vietnam conflict. It also shows a man congenitally indisposed to reviewing his opinions as the body of available knowledge on an issue increases and previously held ideas are debunked. This theme runs through his tenure with the most glaring examples being his intransigence on Iraq, David Hicks, the aboriginal “sorry” issue as well as global warming.

Even on those rare occasions when political necessity requires that the PM amend a previously held position, there is a sense that he is deeply uncomfortable and that he still holds his previously disproved or revised position.

His recent embrace of the reality of global warming is so reluctant that on the world stage, Australia still sounds like a denialist state. The government continues to accuse Labor of extremism for holding positions that are now orthodoxy in Europe and through many parts of the United States.

Mr Howard’s recent assault on the concept of multiculturalism seems to represent a resurfacing of his 1980s views – described by many as racist at the time. While immigration numbers have been robust under Howard, the assumptions underpinning the welcome are changing.

The Prime Minister says “I think in public life you take a position, and I think particularly of the positions I've taken in the time I've been Prime Minister, I have to live with the consequences of those both now and into the future.

And if I ever develop reservations, well I hope I would have the grace to keep them to myself, because I think you take a position and you've got to live by that and be judged by it.”

How desirable is it that a Prime Minister might view a sensible revision of a flawed view as a failure of character? Isn’t the ongoing development of our views based on our developing knowledge a fundamental feature of progress? Even for Prime Ministers?

The PM’s comments on the Vietnam War were also outrageous from a diplomatic perspective. Even if the PM holds such extreme positions, it is totally futile and destructive to voice them – especially when the country in question is your host. The implication of the PM’s position must be that the current government in Vietnam is not legitimate.

The Vietnamese government did not respond to this diplomatic outrage as far as I am aware, but it was surely noted and cannot have helped relations.

Having spent the past 15 years living and working in Vietnam with people from both sides of the conflict, I found the comments grotesque and staggeringly insensitive. Most of Vietnam’s eighty million people have spent the past thirty years moving on from the conflict and focusing on the things that unite them. There is no doubt that the presence of foreign forces in Vietnam prolonged the war and heightened its brutality. The recovery has been difficult. It’s not an easy process and John Howard’s comments did not show any appreciation of its complexity.

For all its messiness, Vietnam’s achievements during the past 30 years have been impressive. And the newly appointed Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung seems determined to take Vietnam’s reconciliation to greater heights. So why would an Australian PM want to focus on a divided past?

After attending a ceremony at Long Tan commemorating Australian service in Vietnam and in a further expression of incredible insensitivity, Mr Howard said “It's a sensible, mature act on the part of the Vietnamese Government not to raise any objection.”

“ A sensible mature act” eh? I would call it an exceptional act of graciousness that the Vietnamese would sanction such a ceremony. After all, Australians were a foreign force in Vietnam fighting in a civil war. Local people in the area would have suffered terribly during the battles fought by Australians. And Australia’s enemy in the conflict allows Australians to return to remember a battle in which hundreds of their comrades died? If the Vietnamese government exhibited “maturity” in permitting such a service, what was the prime minister exhibiting by throwing into question the legitimacy of the Vietnamese government thirty years after the war?

I shudder to think what the real implication of diplomacy Howard / Downer style with all its prejudices and baggage - has been in our region – especially in Timor, the Pacific and PNG. That story is yet to be told.

Sunday 11 February 2007


The Prime Minister's attack on Barack Obama reveals the real nature of his commitment to the United States

So now it’s clear. John Howard is not the great champion of the US Australia alliance that he and his looney foreign policy pundits propose. Rather, he is the champion of the extreme ideology propagated by messrs Bush and Cheney. It's an ideology that has brought us the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, hopelessness in the Palestinian territories, extreme shifts and emboldenment in Iran and Russia and grave US economic vulnerability to China. Most Americans have rejected this ideology both in opinion polls and at the ballot box. There is no Presidential candidate from either side of US politics endorsing the failed Bush agenda. John Howard has recklessly pinned Australia’s fortunes to it and refuses to change from a failed course.

The Prime Minister’s criticism of Barack Obama’s Presidential candidacy revealed how out of touch he is with the overwhelming resentment of the Iraq war in the US and here in Australia. His characterisation of Obama as Al Qaeda’s preferred candidate was an outrage and a signal to Kevin Rudd of the appalling lows that Howard will dip to in the coming election campaign.

Greg Sheridan, Gerard Henderson, Miranda Devine et. al. have all propagated the notion that the Howard government has developed a uniquely powerful relationship with the United States. This is a myth. Howard’s attachment is to the incompetent extremism of Bush and Cheney and not to the United States. It's an attachment that has damaged Australia's standing worldwide and will require a major shift after the next US election regardless of whether the successful candidate is a Democrat or Republican. The post Bush correction is already under way in the US. There are signs a Howard version thereof might soon begin here too.

Wednesday 7 February 2007


Malcolm Turnbull's first Ministerial performance and scepticism

There he was, on his first major parliamentary foray as a Minister, Malcolm Turnbull in full High School debating mode. His contrived performance had an air of High School debate about it too.

The case for Mr Turnbull, prescribed by debating captain Howard was “Labor’s position on the environment is extremist and ideological”. Turnbull was on the “affirmative” side of course and elected to pursue the argument that the opposition was bereft of necessary “skepticism” on climate change and appropriate responses.

It’s amazing that Turnbull would have the gall. Labor is proposing that Australia should attempt to come up with a position that puts us in touch with the rest of the world on climate change. It may not be perfect but it’s better than the enormous amounts of nothing that has been achieved here to date. Let’s apply our skepticism to real solutions. But our decade of denial will require some serious catch up.

No skeptic can abide the Government proposition that by some miracle, Australia's coal and other global warming related industries will survive the coming decades without major changes and probably pain. Let's prepare for it! The enlightened thinking seems to run that for every job and dollar lost in coal mining, new ones will be found in cleaner energy solutions. Howard and Turnbull are condemning Australia to last place in the energy innovation sector - a sector that is already producing great opportunities worldwide.

It was interesting to hear Turnbull, one of Howard’s new boys, extolling the importance of skepticism. Perhaps the saddest feature of the Howard decade has been the lack of scepticism in the Cabinet. While the Iraq War has torn the US Republicans and UK Labour to bits, Howard still feels no political heat over his decision. The past and present criminal absence of skepticism that put us there and keeps us there, is something that future Liberal aspirational cohorts Costello, Ruddock, Abbott et. al. will some day have to answer.

And where is our skepticism on anti-terror laws, the efficacy of our war on terror, our Pacific strategy, Guantanamo Bay and its attendant legal abominations and the Howard education and health policies?

Turnbull’s celebration of skepticism was absurdly misplaced yesterday. A healthy dose of skepticism is just what the country needs though. More and more of it please Malcolm. It will transform the Howard government. It’s even more powerful of course when mixed with conviction!

Tuesday 6 February 2007


President Bush will sleep less easily than normal this evening…

So the Prime Minister will be “harassing” the United States to commence the trial of David Hicks expeditiously? What a turn it is! What’s left of the Bush administration should be on notice. Their most obsequious and unquestioning of supporters on the international stage is wavering. He may be only cutting and running from his five year disinterest in David Hicks’ plight at this stage. But watch for more.

The Prime Minister has smelt a very ugly stench in the political wind. There’s David Hicks mixed up with greenhouse gases first. Watch out for some more nuanced positions on Iraq as the election approaches too.

Where is the Prime Minister who after his November 2006 APEC love in with W expressed his disgust at leaders that recant on previously held positions? Howard was even ready to say on Vietnamese soil that he saw no reason to revise his support for the Vietnam War. Howard may remain steadfast on Vietnam. I’m less convinced he’ll stay the course in Iraq – especially as support for the war collapses in the US Congress and throughout the country. The inevitable Howard repositioning on Iraq will be an extraordinary study in spin.


Borat's popularity is easy to understand. So is the eternal appeal of the nasty school prank

I’d heard lots of good things about Borat. Even in Vietnam, I was still able to sense the cult of Borat that followed the release of the movie last year.

So seeing the movie was one of the great cinematic let downs of my life. Yes I enjoyed some very big laughs. I expected more though. Especially since the movie has now won a Golden Globe award conferring a totally misplaced artistic or other credibility.

Borat was a mostly tasteless effort that seemed no more clever than a well funded art school movie from a group of students with serious serious nerve.

The worst part about Borat however is its cruelty. Yes, the anti-hero Borat is cruelly exploitative across the board. Borat is a gratuitous abuse of the power of the camera, the filmmaker’s knowledge of what he is doing and the generosity and good spirit of most of the victims. It is a well funded ruthless school prank for mass consumption.

So what does it tell us about the US? Precious little – except that most people will go to exceptional lengths to extend hospitality to a stranger and continue to give him the benefit of the doubt until the extended hand has been comprehensively mangled.

Yes, and I’ll be a sensitive sod and say that it was unnecessary to take Kazakhstan down with the story.

Borat may be a low order abuse of power in the bad bad world we live in but I'm glad I wasn't one of his victims.

Wednesday 24 January 2007


2006 tossed up more big issues than usual

By any measure, it was big one. All years have their share of major highs and lows, but I’d venture to say that 06 was a year that rounded off some of the events of the past five or six years and provided an unusually large number of clues to the coming decades.

Iraq might be a good place to start. While catastrophe has long been predicted there, even the worst projections became reality. 06 was the year where the full disaster of the US and coalition intervention there manifested. The untold human catastrophe for the Iraqi people, and those Americans impacted, is tragically only the first wound. In 2006, it became very clear that the war in Iraq has reduced the options of the US when dealing with other international menaces. The most obvious of these is Iran. But the Iraq war has reduced American influence dramatically in dealings with all actors on matters of international importance.

Iraq also changed the US political landscape in 2006. After his re-election in 2004, George Bush seemed unstoppable. The electorate seemed wilfully blinded to the realities that were already becoming increasingly apparent in terms of war, foreign policy, economic policy and competence. Suddenly in 2006, the Iraq War and numerous domestic issues resulted in a massive rebuke of the Bush agenda in Congressional elections.

The Democrat Congress has a big job ahead. The world is watching. A workable strategy in Iraq is the most pressing challenge. Just as important for the long term will be the reassertion of America’s interest in justice, human rights and a foreign policy that values multilateral support. These values after all were major contributors to the pre-eminent position the US achieved in the twentieth century. Working out whether the "war on terror" has been an overstated foreign policy endeavour in the context of all other global threats will also be important.

While 2006 brought into focus declining US power and influence, and the failures of the Bush administration, it also demonstrated the correctional capacity of democracy – even one as plainly distorted by money and media as the US democracy. Time will tell whether the Democrats are up to the task before them.

2006 also showed us the nations that will assert increasing power in the decades ahead – and gave some clues as to the kind of influence they will assert.

China’s mission toward superpowerdom continued relentlessly. The economy continued to boom, the Chinese and the world continued to benefit from the boom and China’s courting of international favour also continued apace. China is everybody’s friend it seems. Little willingness was shown to assert moral leadership – especially in its dealings with some of the world’s most odious regimes – Sudan and Myanmar come to mind.

Should we be surprised? China’s favourite foreign policy mantra refers to “staying out of other country’s internal affairs”. It’s a convenient position. It allows China to exploit commercial partnerships with international pariah states while furiously denying the rights of others to meddle in its own internal affairs.

Domestically, 2006 was a year where some real texture started to show in China. Lawyers, human rights activists and journalists were imprisoned and silenced – as they have been for decades. There were more of them though. And they made more noise and they connected to more people.

Ever more sophisticated technologies were deployed to control the rapid spread of the internet, blogs and email. Yet a fledgling progressive China continued to show its face. The media was instrumental in the country’s biggest corruption case, the ousting of the mayor of Shanghai, and differing views on matters from corruption to governance to the environment, to health policy, surfaced and were tolerated to varying degrees. Rural protests over land and the gaping void between rural and urban incomes soared.

China’s complex domestic challenges are there for all to see. Is it really likely that China can be a progressive global influence when its internal affairs are in such chaos?

China’s neighbour and the other Asian colossus, India also continued its inexorable climb in international economic and political influence. India is a wonderful contrast to China with its feisty and frequently dysfunctional democracy, a free press, a dynamic literary and artistic scene and an open vigorous political debate operating in parallel with embarrassing illiteracy, dire poverty, the effects of the debilitating caste system and the frequently appalling treatment of women.

India is making great progress in addressing some of its most chronic problems. China is a decade ahead of India in development terms. Yet India has some definite advantages as well.

The contest between China and India really began to take shape in 2006. Let’s hope that the economic victor is also the nation that makes the greatest progress in conferring freedoms and rights on its peoples.

Russia once again became a regular page one story in 2006. And it wasn’t good . What we saw was an increasingly authoritarian government, murdered journalists, mysterious offshore poisonings and energy blackmail against former Soviet states. Like China and India, Russia will play a very big part in the coming decades. And present indications suggest that the newly ascendant Russia may not be a warm and cuddly player on the international stage.

The Israeli – Palestinian conflict also took some sharp turns in 2006. The election of Hamas at the start of the year represented a sharp shift for Palestinians frustrated at corruption and a seeming inability of the Fatah movement to make meaningful progress towards a Palestinian state. It was a shift away from secular and moderate politics to an Islamic party that refuses to recognise Israel. The Palestinian people were roundly punished by Israel and the world for exercising this democratic right with vital funding to the Palestinian Territories suspended plunging the already miserable territories into greater despair. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could calculate that this situation makes Israel and the West safer.

Even more disturbing for Israel however was the humiliation it suffered in its war with Hezbollah. The picture for Israel is awful. Hezbollah has proved a capability both for engaging Israeli forces in ground battle and for striking Israeli cities with conventional weapons. This capability will only continue to improve in the decade ahead. Whilst Israel has overwhelming military superiority in its region, the deployment of such overwhelming force carries grave implications for civilians and the threat an all out Middle Eastern conflagration. Israel will face ever-greater threats. A brave peace initiative may not guarantee security but it is the best chance Israel has. It will certainly give Israel a long absent legitimacy in its battle against extremists.

2006 was also a very big one in Australia. Kevin Rudd’s elevation to the Labor leadership enlivened the political discussion. Rudd’s Howardesque demeanour, his policy energy and vigour have all lifted Labor’s prospects dramatically. The government had to contend with the AWB scandal, the deteriorating situation in Iraq and rising interest rates.

Howard is changing too. One of the world’s great global warming denialists is slowly embracing the idea. He’s softening up in other areas too. After five years of disinterest, the Prime Minister is suddenly concerned about the plight of David Hicks. He has also been reasserting his interest in the social safety net. He’s starting to sound like a liberal!

The Prime Minister’s highly tuned political instincts may well be sensing a shift in the national mood away from the bribe cult of recent years. Polls on issues as diverse as climate change and the Hicks case show a nation looking beyond Howard spin and also demonstrating some readiness to embrace personal sacrifice for a national outcome.

So is the Howard selfish cycle coming to a close? Perhaps. Certainly there is a mood shift. Still, in perhaps the most audacious of carefully electorally calibrated bribes, in 2006, Howard and Costello presented Australians with non-means tested tax-free superannuation in retirement. This policy means a continuation of Howardism will see a nation where Australia’s university students will pay some of the highest fees in the world, an ever diminishing pool of young workers on modest incomes will pay a high percentage of tax to support a tax system that gives the ever fortunate and numerically enormous baby boomer generation a tax free income from their superannuation – irrespective of the size of that income. Many will receive an annual tax-free income of hundreds of thousands of dollars and more. It would seem that such a policy is unsustainable. But its revision will require that baby boomers and the elderly look beyond the Howard bribes to the interests of their children and grandchildren. It will be interesting to watch.

Australia became even more acutely aware of our geography in 2006. Problems in East Timor, PNG, the Solomons and Fiji suggested that our immediate neighbours will require an ever increasing diplomatic and aid effort. It’s very hard to know how well the Howard government is managing these issues. The handling of the East Timor issue raises doubts. And it’s hard to imagine the embarrassing Alexander charming our neighbours as well.

Yes, 2006 was a big one. Plenty of indications of very complicated times ahead. Yet amidst the ugliness there were also positive signals. People everywhere from the United States and other western nations through to China and Russia, struggled to achieve outcomes against the odds. In Australia too, there were signs of a shift to a more inclusive and far sighted view. 2007 promises to be interesting!