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.