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?