Tuesday 28 October 2008


The Republican base may have brought George W. Bush two presidential victories. This time, pandering to it may be the downfall of John McCain

Two standout moments in the McCain campaign have graphically illustrated the delusional ideology that has helped put the US on the brink of economic collapse.

The first was back in September when Joe Biden made the seemingly self evident statement that paying tax was patriotic. The comment was seized upon by the McCain Palin team as they rallied their flag waving base, to symbolise the supposed dangers of an Obama presidency.

At those same rallies, McCain talked of his plans to freeze government spending except in the "valid" areas of expanded government - defense, security and veteran's entitlements. He failed to connect the simple fact that it is tax that pays for these programmes.

McCain plays to a US nationalism that waves the flag but doesn't pay its way - much the same nationalism of the Bush years.

More recently, the McCain campaign has been referencing Obama's comments to Joe the plumber "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody". Obama made this seemingly self evident comment in the context of a conversation where he argued for reducing taxes on low and middle class incomes (less than 250K US). Yet once again, the mainly Christian Right Republican base, is horrified at the prospect of sharing some of the enormous wealth concentrated in hands of a few with the wider American population.

This comment has been the inspiration for the psychotic screams "socialism" "it's socialism John" that have peppered the increasingly rabid McCain - Palin outings.

The United States, like every country in the developed world, has a progressive tax system that by definition "spreads the wealth around". Indeed, Adam Smith, one of the ideological fathers of capitalism enshrined the concept of progressive tax in his work.

It's just that the US does a worse job of spreading the wealth around than most developed countries which is why its health and education systems as well as its national infrastructure perform poorly by OECD standards for most of its population.

That these two points have become iconic for McCain, shows his desperation to mobilise the Republican base at a time when its policy bankruptcy has left the country on the brink of ruin - and plenty of Americans can see that now.

He deserves to be punished at the polls for that. Let's see if he is.

Monday 27 October 2008


Malcolm Turnbull's empty confidence busting outbursts are the enemy of mortgage trust investors and the economy as a whole.

Any consumer of the news media during the past week - from channel 9 news to The Insiders would reasonably have drawn the following conclusions -

* That the Government's guarantee of bank deposits was made without proper consultation with Treasury and the Reserve Bank.
* That this same guarantee precipitated the freeze in mortgage funds that has occurred during the past week.

Neither of these conclusions are true.

While the first was comprehensively refuted by both Ken Henry and Glenn Stevens last week, the prevailing impression of the week remains, without a shred of evidence, that somehow, the Government, the Treasury and the Reserve Bank colluded to deceive the general public about the level of agreement upon which the guarantee policy was founded. The Australian newspaper, which created the myth on its front page, remains unrepentant in spite of the comprehensive debunking of it by those at the centre of the story.

As for the other prevailing myth that the guarantee has precipitated the freeze of mortgage funds, consider this analogy. A fire burns in two buildings. Building A contains the fundamental supplies and assets of the community. Building B is sprawling and contains some of the community's other assets - important these are - but not near as fundamental to the community's survival as those in building A. The fire brigades arrive and use all resources to extinguish the fire burning in building A with its essential supplies. Meanwhile, damage is inflicted to building B before the fire brigades can allocate resources to quelling the blaze.

Do we blame the fire brigade?

Like all analogies, this one is clumsy in parts. But there are some irrefutable points that get virtually no media attention.

* The run on mortgage funds is the result of the financial crisis - the fire. Mortage fund investors feel insecure like all investors in non-cash assets the world over. While "putting out the fire" in bank deposits made them a more a attractive asset to hold, the inherently risky nature of mortgage funds has always been a feature of these assets - and it's a feature that has brought investors higher returns in the past than boring bank deposits.
* The Government's action to sure up the banks has made every speculative instrument less attractive - mortgage funds, shares, derivatives and commercial and residential property. Should the Government be moving towards guaranteeing these financial instruments as well?

Malcolm Turnbull has revealed the reckless damage that he is ready to inflict on Australia for his political gain. If Mr Turnbull had a genuine disagreement with the Government's position in matters of such grave consequence, he would be compelled as opposition leader to voice this disagreement and advocate some alternatives. He has done no such thing. Instead he has sat on the sidelines as Wrecker in Chief destroying confidence and adding nothing to the real policy discussion.

Of course the Government should and is taking steps to try and improve the liquidity of mortgage funds but any Government actions are likely to be of minimal consequence until there is increased confidence in the basic assets of mortgage funds. Malcolm Turnbull has consistently and wilfully undermined confidence in his comments over the past few weeks.

It has been interesting to see the extent to which the opposition leader has become the champion of the victims of the frozen mortgage funds. You would think from the furore that these funds are lost. They are not. They are tied up in property which is by definition less liquid than cash.

You would also think that these investors are the only Australian victims to date of the economic crisis.

There would be few people who have not experienced a decline in wealth during the past twelve months through falling superannuation, shares property and a collapsing dollar.

Malcolm's empathy with mortgage fund investors springs from his ability to distort their misfortune to score a political point.

Many Australians have been experiencing the bitter taste of the previous decade of reckless lending and speculation for more than a year now. They weren't so lucky as to have excess liquidity available to invest in mortgage funds or shares. No, they're the people in the less privileged suburbs of Australia who have negative equity in their homes or who have had their properties repossessed.

Malcolm hasn't been able to voice any empathy for them as this might impugn him, his investment banking past and the previous Government. He's quite content to trash the confidence in our system and institutions at a time where confidence is everything. Malcolm is the enemy of confidence. He's the mortage fund investor's illusory friend.


Paul Kelly's piece in the Weekend Australian was rational and Kerry O'Brien's interview with Malcolm was the first I've seen to expose the ruthless political animal dressed up in a lawyer's eloquence and pre-crisis banker's self confidence. The AFR coverage was also measured.

Wednesday 22 October 2008


Malcolm Turnbull got his first real workout as leader of the Opposition last night. He didn't come out well.

It was good watching the unflappable Malcolm Turnbull in a flap last night on the 7.30 Report.

Kerry O'Brien once again proved his skill as journalist - interrogator. As he digs deeper into the whole banking guarantee question and the financial crisis, Turnbull is playing with fire.

At stake is confidence in our banking system and the success of our responses to it. Turnbull's strategy is to test the boundaries here for a political point that looks increasingly flimsy.

The big issue is the one raised by Ken Henry yesterday and concerns the extent to which Turnbull's reckless speculation about the previous $20,000 guarantee covering bank deposits in itself contributed to the need for a hasty but essential response. I for one was surprised and alarmed to discover two weeks ago that the integrity of our savings was being brought into question amidst all of the assurances about strength of our banks. Malcolm Turnbull began that discussion. Everybody knows that when it comes to the banks, perceptions of security are everything. In a time of international turmoil, the sensitivity is heightened.

It should be remembered that Turnbull spent months berating Wayne Swan over the impact of his declarations - proven correct - that the "inflation genie" was out of the bottle in the Australian economy. If there was a self fulfilling element to Swan's inflation references, it was dwarfed by the impact of Malcolm Turnbull's decision to raise questions about the $20,000 guarantee cap at a time of global banking turmoil.

Turnbull revealed his real concerns late in the interview when he said "What about this Kerry, what about someone who's taken their money out of a cash management trust, paid an exit fee, put their money into a bank because they wanted to get the benefit of the Government guarantee.

And they're now going to have to pay a tax to Wayne Swan for doing... for taking advantage of a guarantee Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd told them on the 12th of October was free?"

As any changes being mooted by the government to the guarantee concern only those holding deposits in excess of one million dollars, Turnbull's comments reflect his real interest. He wasn't able to voice any pleasure at the fact that the bank deposits of the rest of the population were safe. Nor was he able to point the finger at his former investment banking colleagues who created the mess - those same guys who levied the sacred "exit fees" Malcolm refers to. Now he's concerned about his other mates moving their millions to guaranteed bank deposits and expecting it all to be free and easy - and taxpayer funded. Aren't those the attitudes that got us here in the first place?

Sunday 17 August 2008


Martin Indyk's recent visit to Australia seemed to raise questions about where the middle ground on Israel resides.

I recently had an opportunity to hear Martyn Indyk, twice US Ambassador to Israel during the Clinton Presidency, speaking here in Sydney. Indyk has been of special interest to me not least because he lived much of his childhood here in Australia and ascended to some of the most senior foreign policy positions in the United States government. In addition to his Ambassadorial roles, Indyk has served as a special advisor to President Clinton and has also advised the Presidential campaigns of both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama on Middle Eastern issues. This is a man of influence and a reputed moderate.

JERUSALEM 0308 95.jpg
Which way moderation?

Indyk's speech at the Lowy Institute in Sydney did not offer lots of optimism - especially on Iran. But he did look forward to the end of the unilateralism of the Bush era and the beginning of a new more humble but engaged US Middle East policy. Indyk held out the hope that a diminished US with a new President may be able to finesse a more effectual policy approach than the unilateralism of the Bush era.

Towards the end of his speech, Indyk was asked whether there was any support in Israel for the notion that Iran's quest for nuclear weapons might simply be for deterrent purposes.

Indyk's response seemed reasonable. He said

"If you are the prime minister of the Jewish state. And you have the responsibility for ensuring the survival of the commonwealth. And that is your primary responsibility because the state has been destroyed and was recreated in a kind of a miracle."

And there you've got in this generation, a leadership in Iran that is saying they want to wipe Israel off the map" "What would you do?"

JERUSALEM 0308 90.jpg
The Dome of the Rock from nearby the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Invoking Israeli "miracles" may be unhelpful.

Indyk's argument that a strong Israeli response to repeated Iranian threats of annihilation makes sense. It is not hard to take sides when Iran's President is at one side of the ring.

That same evening I saw Indyk on the Lateline TV programme.

My ears pricked up when I heard him again reference the Israeli "miracle" and Israel's previous destruction. He said "And you know leadership of Israel which has a special responsibility for preserving the Jewish Commonwealth. Having been destroyed before and recreated is some modern miracle. They are not going to tolerate it."

Indyk's references to Israel's "miracle" and its destruction in ancient history are both disturbing. That he referenced the "miracle" twice in a day - seeming to elevate Israel's raison detre beyond the mere human machinations that we assume to be at the heart of the creation of the rest of the world's nation states, represents to me, a drift from moderation. That on both occasions, "the miracle" is described as a "recreation" linking back to an Israel that existed in ancient history concocts a lethal religious - historical fusion that is not unlike that which inspires most of the world's most deadly troubles from the Middle East to South Asia. Those who use ancient history fused with religious allusion as a platform for contemporary claims to statehood are not normally viewed as moderates.

Indyk did not dwell on this issue. Rather, it was a fleeting reference to the ideological platform from which he operates. His references to Israel's "recreation" seemed to imply that its destruction had occurred in a time so recent as to be vivid in the memories of contemporary Israelis. It was remarkable that a man on the progressive side of politics could make such a sweeping and controversial historical assertion and not feel the need on either occasion to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians, the troubled circumstances of the founding of Israel and the contemporary Palestinian claims to land now occupied by Israelis.

No one can deny the remarkable achievement that Israel's creation and survival under threat represents. History is full of "against the odds" stories and Israel has notched up more than its fair share. But that's what they are - "against the odds" stories. It does nothing to diminish their historical significance or the commitment of the founders of Israel to focus on the human elements of their achievement.

George Bush was excoriated for using the language of the Crusades in his post 9/11 speeches. In a region permanently on the brink of bloodshed, it is remarkable that one of the most experienced diplomatic voices of moderation should use references that would not sound out of place from the mouths of the most rabid Islamic or Hindu extremist.

It is hard to believe that someone as practiced in the art of diplomacy as Mr Indyk could use such inflammatory language by accident.

What is important about the "miracle" and "recreation" characterisations is that they are neither even handed, nor moderate.

Monday 4 August 2008


Apple has escaped the botched launch of its MobileMe service largely unscathed. It's a sorry story of a monumental tech stuff up, an infatuated media and a woeful service response. It should make alarming reading for anyone dependent on email.

Apple's Iphone launch must be one of the most comprehensive hijackings of a fawning infatuated media by any company in the history of journalism. It's staggering. For weeks the Iphone's image has been more visible in the editorial pages of newspapers and on their websites than it has been in advertising. And it still hasn't stopped.

Apple's much vaunted "cloud" became ethereal for nearly two whole weeks for many users

The Iphone is impressive. But not that impressive.

I have a strange sympathy for the likes of Nokia, Samsung, Sony and Motorola all of whom make very good phones and have had models with similar features to the Iphone for more than a year.

But the real story of the media's unhealthy love affair with Apple concerns the launch of the company's new MobileMe software suite - the software companion that synchronises desktop email, calendars and more with the Iphone. Selling for $139AUD, MobileMe is the updated version of Apple's .mac email product. It's impressive in its ambition. It's implementation has been a disaster.

I have been a .mac customer for four years. My email account was down for almost two weeks. Communication and customer service were nonexistent. Apple in Australia pleaded that they had no information and there was no local service for the product.

The company was more concerned about maintaining public confidence in the intergrity of the MobileMe and keeping the Iphone juggernaut afloat than communicating openly with affected customers. It was assumed that the outage would last a day or two. Apple did nothing to advise of likely duration but the tiny coverage (a single line message) the issue received hidden well away in the user accounts section of the MobileMe page seemed to imply that the outage was a minor glitch that would be quickly addressed. At two weeks, the glitch was anything but minor.

As the outage approached a week, I became concerned about the status of messages received into my account during that week. Would they be lost?

It took Apple one week to start to engage in a meaningful way with affected customers on these issues. This followed ever increasing outbursts of anger and disgust on Apple's messageboards and other websites.

When Apple finally restored my service after twelve days, their new synchronisation system wiped four years of archived messages from my laptop. After nearly two weeks of no email, the wiping of my archive was too much. Remarkably though, on the fourteenth day, my archive was restored in full and MobileMe service has been working fine ever since.

The experience has raised some fundamental questions about the trust we bestow in our email service providors - not to mention the media that should be alerting us to the big issues.

Apple botched the launch of MobileMe and it barely rated a mention in the press. And the failed MobileMe launch was the story. It showed how vulnerable we are as we depend ever more on companies like Apple, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to manage email - the backbone of so much of our personal communications. It also showed how remote and unaccountable Apple is when things go wrong.

And the Apple service is paid for. What standards can we expect from Google, Yahoo and Hotmail when their services are free?

Monday 21 July 2008


The release of Apple's mobile me Iphone software is a disaster for one customer - me! And I don't even have an Iphone.

During the past week, it's occurred to me that I'm doing business with a great many companies where the relationship is way out of balance. I need them many many times more than they need me.

After four days without email, thanks to a prolonged outage of the Apple email system, and with little by way of apology or direction from Apple, it is pretty plain that my email is a much bigger matter of concern to me than it is to Apple.

Today, the company announced a record quarterly profit of $1.07 billion US.

While Apple enjoys a zealotry from its fans and the media that might provide inspiration for a Presidential candidate or a religious cult, their haste to keep their new products and the profits flowing appears to have bowled over their impressive technical team.

Waiting for the Iphone, Apple Store Sydney

The release last week of the software companion to the Iphone, known as MobileMe, is a disaster for at least one customer. Demobilised me.

I've been a subscriber to a service called .mac for the past few years. It's like a hotmail, yahoo mail or gmail account. It has some extra features, but it also has a catch. It costs $139 per year. For that, I have assumed that I would have an email platform of unrivalled stability - and perhaps some customer service as well.

On Saturday morning, I woke to discover that my .mac email was down. I wasn't too alarmed. I recall experiencing outages of a few minutes before.

It's now been four days since I've received any email. And I'm worried.

Apple have confirmed that the problem is at their end. They haven't provided any other information or service that might indicate they appreciate the seriousness of an email system disabled for four days.

My Apple mail account is where my personal life resides. Having lived abroad for many years, a lot of my personal relationships are maintained by email. For the past four days, anyone who sends an email to me assumes that it has gone through - but it hasn't. Who knows what I might be missing out on?

And then there's the banking, credit card, newsletter and magazine subscriptions. They are essential aspects of modern life. And I'm being deprived of all of them by an overly ambitious Apple keen to sign up as many Iphone customers as possible to its inadequately tested MobileMe service.

It's certainly made me very conscious of how dependent I am on email.

But that's just the start of the story.

Just as disturbing as four days without email, is the faceless beast that one encounters when service is required.

Apple is ubiquitous. I can't open a newspaper or walk down the street without being clobbered by an image of the Iphone or an Apple icon. Yet Apple's service is less ubiquitous. In fact there is nobody in Australia to discuss this problem with.

Despite paying a significant annual fee, there is no phone support for my .mac email account. Furthermore, after extensively scouring the Apple website, the only mention I can find of this problem is a simple line "1% of MobileMe members cannot access MobileMe Mail. We apologize for any inconvenience."

It's a lottery I didn't care to win. But given the seriousness of email continuity and certainty that I am one of thousands of Apple customers experiencing this prolonged outage, I am appalled by Apple's communications with its aggrieved customers.

A company with any regard for its customers and proper recognition of the seriousness of a protracted email outage would make a more comprehensive statement on the problem available on its website.

Such action would of course draw wider attention to the problem.

Apple has clearly reasoned once again that PR should trump all other concerns - especially a claimed 1% of MobileMail users.... and especially when there are record sales and profit figures to release.

Monday 14 July 2008


World Youth Day provides an incomparable opportunity to see the energy and dynamism of the Catholic Church's young flock and contrast this with its institutional rottenness

The youthful exuberance on the streets of Sydney for World Youth Day captures the celebration of humanity that is at the heart of great spiritual movements.

It could even warm the heart of a long lapsed Catholic. That is, until the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell, takes to the stage.

It's hard to imagine how he could be more adept at diminishing the church's best Australian moment in decades - and how perfectly he embodies an outmoded institution of cold, bloated, self importance and inhumanity.

Over the past few days, Pell has expressed views across three issues that put the church at odds with a great many of its adherents and the wider community. Such is the extremism of these views, they must also be theologically contentious. And they most certainly provide rich fodder to those dismissive of the church as an institution whose negatives far outweigh its positives.

First and most damningly, Pell's intervention to minimise the sexual abuse case of Anthony Jones revealed at best, an incompetence so dire as to render him unfit for the position he holds and at worst, a mischievous callousness. Cardinal Pell's apology to Jones, in the face of a media catastrophe, lacked compassion. His posturing rings hollow and he has failed to publicly express any empathy for the victim.

After last week, you might have expected that the Archbishop would keep his head down and just smile for the cameras during the Papal visit.

But no. Perhaps fearing the imminent end of his run of World Youth Day induced superstardom, Cardinal Pell yesterday shared some further personal positions - on global warming and population growth.

Remarkably, the Archbishop used his World Youth Day press conference to burnish his credentials as a climate change sceptic - washing down the Pope's global warming message of a day earlier.

Finally, the Cardinal expressed concern that birth rates in Western countries are insufficient to maintain current population levels.

Curiously, he neglected to mention that the world population continues to grow, and for the first time in history, food supplies are stretched and fuel supplies are drying up. In the past year, food shortages and inflation have forced millions around the world into starvation. There are real concerns about the earth's capacity to support the demands its present population are imposing.

In the face of these facts, the Archbishop's call to action was for Catholics to go forth, procreate and save the West with a population explosion. Implicit in this message is a cultural and racial bigotry that values a child born in the developed West over those born in the developing world or those born into non Christian cultures.

The world does not have a population growth problem. The world has a population problem. Population control is viewed as one of the best instruments for decreasing global poverty.

Many of the participants in World Youth Day come from developing countries where the populations are implored to have small families. To them, the global food and resources crisis is a daily reality.

I wonder how Cardinal Pell's message was received by these pilgrims? I wonder whether they realised that by virtue of their country of birth, they were excluded from the Cardinal's populate or perish call?

Monday 7 July 2008


Loyal customers seem to have become disposable items for our banks and telcos.

Imagine you've been a loyal customer at your local pub for years. One day, you grab your schooner and pass over your $3.50. The barman thanks you politely for your years of patronage and moves to serve the next customer. You overhear the next customer referencing the new drinker's special- for new customers only. Right before your eyes, the barman offers the new customer a fifty percent discount on all beer for the next three months.

For being a new customer, he pays half the price that you, a longstanding and loyal customer pays.

After years of loyal patronage, would you feel a little neglected? I know I would.

I've never studied business, but in my years of working in business, I have always operated on the principle that the cultivation and retention of long term customers is the most important of all commercial objectives. What better measure is there of a company's success in its customer relationships than a portfolio of long term customers?

It seems many large corporations have moved on from this simple and seemingly obvious commercial principle.

Over the past year, I've watched phone companies and banks release product after product to woo new customers that effectively punish long standing customers. Optus, the Commonwealth Bank, HSBC Bank - are some that I've noticed.

I have been an Optus home phone, mobile, TV and internet customer for most of the past 10 years. When my home phone contract recently lapsed, I took a look at my Optus options and selected a new plan. I then became aware that Optus provided a very significant additional discount new customers on a new plan that an old customer (me) with a raft of current Optus contracts (my homephone was out of contract) was not entitled to.

I pointed out my disappointment and the seeming lack of commercial sense in this approach to Optus personnel to no avail. It made me ponder my relationship with Optus and the company's non existent recognition of my years of loyalty.

I moved my mobile phone contract to Three (I've had my issues there too - I'll cover these at another time) and took up a house phone contract with Skype (more issues....). I stayed on Optus for broadband and TV.

I've seen both the Commonwealth Bank (I've been a customer for nearly 40 years) and HSBC (I've been a customer around 10 years) do the same thing with high interest offers for new deposits in recent months.

In these cases, new customers have been offered a generous additional 0.5 per cent on their savings above the interest rate paid to existing customers.

The commercial principle in all these cases is that the loyal customer can be neglected while the new customer (likely a swinging customer) is to be courted.

You really have to wonder what they're teaching in business schools. It's a reversal of the commercial rationale behind the loyalty schemes that are run by airlines, hotel groups and other businesses.

I'm guessing there must be some special MBA marketing courses covering industry sectors like banking and telephony. These industries are defined by two features - they lock customers into long term accounts or plans, and they can reasonably assume that customers will require their services, or those of their competitors for life.

It seems that the two lessons being taught in these classes are -
* Expend all marketing and customer service resources on new client conversion.
* Once signed up, allocate minimal resources to the ongoing management or functioning of the customer relationship.

Presumably there is some study out there in the land of corporate academe that posits that clinching the initial deal with a new customer is more commercially valuable than a relationship of long term loyalty. Promiscuity pays!

And it seems to me that the students of this MBA course unit are heading up marketing strategy in major banks and telephone companies across Australia. I suppose the best way to counter this is for customers to offer no loyalty to any company and constantly switch mobile phone service providors and banks - but who has the time for that? - or is that the whole point?

Friday 6 June 2008


I barely had time to recover from the excitement of Barak Obama's successful Democrat nomination before he revealed that the expectations created by his soaring rhetoric will not be borne out by an Obama Presidency.

It didn't take long. Barely days after his successful bid to for the Democratic Presidential candidacy, Barack Obama has revealed the full theatrics of his claims to taking the US into new political territory.

For reasons I still do not fully understand, the test of any politicians mettle in the US and in Australia, is their readiness to speak truths about the issue of Palestine. There are few who are ready to do this. Apart from Jimmy Carter, I can't name a Western leader who is ready to acknowledge the full suffering of the Palestinians and the problematic antecedents of that suffering.

Kevin Rudd was able to speak truths about China in Tibet. He has been unable to do so in relation to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

And so Barack Obama has shown he is not so very new at all. His colour is different. His rhetoric is soaring. But if he can't stand up to AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), who in Washington can he stand up to? Or is AIPAC really that powerful?

I have referenced previously my amazement that Israel's internal debate about its future and the Palestinians is far more textured than that of the governments of the US or Australia.

Barack Obama's decision to take such a strident position on Jerusalem is a great disappointment. I've not even heard such a view expressed even by George Bush. Outbushing George?

Saeb Erakat put it simply, "What this does is undermine the moderates like us and give so much ammunition to extremists in this region."

And whether you believe the Palestinian problem contributes one per cent or ninety nine per cent of the fuel of Islamic extremism, it contributes something.

We all lose from Barack Obama's position - including Israel.

Wednesday 28 May 2008


Kevin Rudd's capitulation in the face on a cheap 5 cent argument to a non opposition has not been a good look

Not a pretty picture. Kevin Rudd must have received some very nasty advice that the petrol price issue was hurting his working families - and more importantly their view of him and his government. Presumably Brendan Nelson's five cent discount offer must be getting a reception in the electorate. Of course it would.

Labor's announcement that it would review the GST on fuel excise as part of its broad tax review sounded lame and it was.

With almost three years before an election, an opposition in disarray and stratospheric approval ratings - not to mention the fact that any goose can see that petrol price rises are a global issue - Kevin blinked. It's worse that it happened after the case had been reasonably put that the government's hands were tied. But then Kev said "we have done as much as we physically can to provide additional help to the family budget".

It seems more than likely that this political blunder and the opposition's response backed Kev into a corner and produced the policy turnaround we've seen over the past couple of days. It seems Kev panicked.

During the election campaign, most progressives and those with their eyes on the country's best long term interests squirmed when Kev matched the then Howard government's proposed tax cuts. The argument was that it was a necessary compromise to get Labor over the line. We listened. Labor got over the line.

And since then there have been plenty of decisions to be proud of. The new government has had a great opening six months. Australia is a better place. But we've only focused on the symbolic and the political low risk agenda to date. And there hasn't been an opposition.

Kev needs to hold his nerve. He will face far bigger challenges than this in the years ahead. And the opposition will certainly become a more formidable foe.

Australians are going to need him to rise to the issue rather than stoop in the face of Nelson's faux outrage - or a Turnbull charge. The debate about fuel prices has been shocking. The ugly confluence of fuel, food and interest rate inflation must be causing real pain to many. A week of argument and now a Labor capitulation over five cents a litre has been a distraction, diminished the government and helped nobody.

We're going to need Kev to show some nerve.

Thursday 22 May 2008


George Bush was presumably unaware that he was likening his Israeli hosts to the appeasers of the Nazis when he spoke in the Knesset last week.

While President Bush's address in the Israeli Knesset last week may not compare to his "Mission Accomplished" speech for bad judgment and timing, it may be just as revealing of the "Second Life" world that the President inhabits. It was idiotic to invoke Nazism on that occasion - and now, his Israeli hosts have made him look even more absurd.

Marking Israel's 60th anniversary, he said, “Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Mr. Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

Bush may have intended to deride the foreign policy plans of Barack Obama, who has repeatedly stated that he would talk to America's enemies - including Syria and Iran. One can assume he was not aware that his Israeli ally whose sixtieth anniversary he was honoring, was busily preparing behind his back to defy his prescriptions and commence peace negotiations Syria.

Bush shows no sign of wavering from his "with us or against us" strategy despite the carnage it has wrought and its abject failure from a strategic and anti terror perspective.

One hopes that Israel might, in its own best long term interest, be serious in its claims that it is contemplating "painful" concessions to both the Syrians and the Palestinians in the name of peace. There are no easy choices for Israel - only certainty that the brutal orthodoxy of the past decade is bankrupt.

As the Bush era draws to a close, the policy symbiosis between his administration and Israeli hardliners looks likely to fade. The long term interests of Israelis and the Palestinians - not to mention the "war on terror" urgently require a new willingness to negotiate and a more sophisticated historical paradigm than the appeasement of the Nazis.

Friday 16 May 2008


Australia's political leaders once again find an uncommon and inexplicable unanimity on Israel's sixtieth anniversary

Morris Iemma is the latest Australian politician to join the predictable queue to heap unreserved praise on Israel on the 60th anniversary of its founding. Kevin Rudd beat him to it a couple of weeks ago.

It is indeed an extraordinary achievement that this small and complex nation, whose very birth is one of the most contentious events of the twentieth century, enjoys unequivocal support from both sides of Australia's political establishment and has done for decades. At least Israel's democracy is more vibrant. A broad array of views are expressed by politicians and citizens alike on Israel's troubled existence.

It is a great shame that Kevin Rudd's moral compass prompts him to take a stand in a Beijing University and express a complex and candid position on Tibet, but does not produce a similar nuanced view of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

The Chinese must look with envy at the achievements of Israel's propaganda allies. Already a big customer for Israel's high tech weaponry, perhaps they should seek a public relations consultancy as well.

And the Arabs - including the hundreds of thousands living here in Australia?

Saturday 10 May 2008


More on grog...

Since my previous grog blog post, the debate about "alcohol driven violence" has continued in Sydney. More blood has been spilt in and around pubs.

A few days after that post, I was walking down King St Newtown with a friend. From afar, we could see two men kicking and breaking open boxes. As we got closer, we could see the two young men had all the accoutrements of well to do college boys. We also were able to see what they were doing.

The boxes they had been kicking had been left outside the Newtown St Vincent De Paul office. They were kicking the boxes and their contents across King St. They were were kicking clothes that had been donated to St Vincent De Paul.

I guess this appalling behaviour would also be classified as "alchohol driven violence".

I hope as the debate evolves, we'll be able to decouple "alcohol" and "violence". I am not suggesting there is no connection between alcohol abuse and violence. Alcohol certainly makes the violent more inclined to violence.

Even more than a war on alcohol however, our culture needs to declare war on violence.

After all, getting violence out of pubs will likely simply shift it elsewhere.

We may have an increasing number of female CEOs, a female Deputy Prime Minister and successful women everywhere we turn, but the dysfunctional manhood that sees violence as an instrument of first resort for negotiating the world is proving remarkably resistant in the face of wider social change. It is quite possible that the achievements of women in recent decades as well as developments in technology and the economy have left a whole swathe of men even more alienated and more inclined to violence.

A discussion about alcohol abuse is very worthwhile. An open discussion about mindless male violence, its origins and the models it has in our culture is even more urgent.

Sunday 27 April 2008


Sydney's discussion of "alcohol" driven violence lacks depth - and research!

Sure Sydney has a problem with violence in pubs and clubs. But I think alcohol's getting a bad wrap and our culture of violence is getting off way too lightly.

The logic of the discussion seems to be that alcohol causes violence. Take away the alcohol and close down the bars and violence will go, or so the argument seems to run.

I've spent a shameful amount of the past twenty five years in pubs and bars around the world and many of Sydney's bars and pubs really do have an undertone of violence that is markedly worse than many other parts of the world.

So does alcohol affect Sydneysiders differently to drinkers in other parts of the world?

In the interests of research for this piece, I took myself up to nearby Newtown last Friday night - Anzac Day - for a look. I reasoned that Anzac Day would be an especially good day to conduct my research since even greater than normal amounts of alcohol are consumed on this important national day.

The first violence I noted occurred as soon as I walked in the door. Ok, it was implied violence but it was nasty. The bouncers did their welcoming work with all the grace of Stalinist gulag wardens. Good start I thought. I already feel like a victim of violence before my first drink - and that was from the staff.

Happily, things got better from there. Despite very high lubrication levels, the atmosphere in the bar was festive - helped along by a good band that had the room in its hands.

Around midnight, an incident. Young exuberant girlfriend of young wasted but harmless boyfriend climbs on his shoulders to watch the band. Not an unusual event in a packed bar of dancing revellers on Anzac Day.

Gulag warden immediately frothed. Fangs appeared.

He rushed at the couple with great enthusiasm and then strangely grabbed the boyfriend and ejected him without warning or discussion. Girlfriend was free to stay. Perhaps disappointingly for Mr Gulag, she was disinclined.

Within 20 minutes in another show of Anzac Day fervour, an older woman hurled herself at her boyfriend. She landed safely in his arms. No harm.

With the same ferocity as first time, same warden rushed to the scene and at once applied his large heavy hand to the removal of the man without warning or discussion. In deference to judicial consistency, this man's girlfriend was also permitted to stay - even though she was sole offender.

The women did well that night but the atmosphere of the evening was damaged by the mindless intervention of the security guard. A warning might have been appropriate and given the fun, festive vibe, would certainly have sufficed. Zero tolerance gone mad. And two blameless men are thrust out onto the street angry at the treatment meted out to them.

I doubt that either of these men would have carried their anger for long. It was likely from their manner through the night and from their reaction to the nasty bouncer intervention that they had never been thrown out of a pub before. Appalled as they were, they retained their good nature despite the absurdity of their ejection.

The situation could easily have had a different outcome.

A patron more inclined to violence might have vented anger at the bouncer's lack of judgment - perhaps resulting in a brawl in the bar. Or, perhaps worse, the ejected patrons might carry their anger elsewhere, ready to explode at the slightest provocation in another venue.

These were the only moments of violence I encountered that night - and they were bouncer driven.

The Sydney bouncer culture is largely one of aggression and violence and it gets many patrons off on a bad footing. The more easily provoked will carry this through their night.

It's time bouncers were taught judgment and to, as the saying goes "go quietly and carry a big stick". At the moment, they're the worst of any city I know.

Of course there is much more to the problem than bouncers..... there are the venues themselves.

Sydney's bar and club scene has become a wasteland of mostly uninteresting venues and unimaginative entertainment. The proliferation of poker machines has taken any creativity out of the industry that might once have existed.

I just returned from London - another city with plenty of pub violence. What was nice about London however was that while there has been a surge in industrial scale drinking venues like those found here in Sydney, it is still possible to find old style pubs packed to the rafters with young patrons simply sitting around drinking and talking. Even here in Newtown, these are becoming harder to come by as the template style slick bar replaces the old pub.

The overdue decision to license smaller venues should give Sydneysiders better options for nights out and decrease the ubiquitous alcohol factories that are so often at the centre of the violence.

Even more than bouncers running amok and unimaginative industrial scale drinking outlets, the violence in our pubs and clubs should prompt a good think about dysfunctional manhood in our culture. That would mean asking hard questions about all violence - not just that "driven" by alcohol.

It's hard to know whether these problems really are worse than ever before - but in any case, the perpetrators and victims are invariably men - although women are constant victims of harassment in pubs and bars as well. It would be interesting to see whether there is a correlation between harassment of women and violence across venues.

I didn't expect I'd ever find myself in agreement with an Australian Hotels Association President but here I am. Newly elected Scott Leach argued in yesterday's Herald, "Much of the problem lay with generation Y, and there should be more focus on personal responsibility.

"I think there's a feeling out there amongst a lot of people that community values have dropped, and there's absolutely no fear of police or respect for police, and I think police would support that," he said.

Not sure whether I buy the detail of his argument but I certainly agree that there is a need to look at the culture of violence and not get too simplistically focused on alcohol in isolation.

And I still want to be able to have a late night drink in peace - hopefully in more interesting venues than are currently on offer.

Let's take a good look at violence and binge drinking. But let's not confuse them.

I want my beer and drink it too!