Thursday, June 21, 2018

Is democracy heading into the night?

Winston Churchill is reported to have said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

If that was indeed the old statesman’s view, it was probably formed by incidents similar to the Australian Liberal Party’s recent annual conference.

As Ministers from the ruling party looked on in horror, grassroots delegates merrily passed a resolution from the youth wing favouring privatisation of the country’s public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Also endorsed by the conference was a call to follow United States President Donald Trump in moving the country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Ministers rushed to assure Australians that conference resolutions are only “advisory” and that the Government has no intention of acting on either.

This is true, but so is the fact that the young bucks behind the motions do have the power back in their branches to choose candidates to represent their views at future General Elections.

In what may well be a taste of what is to come, a moderate party vice president was voted out and replaced by a conservative.

What was even more disturbing was the way experienced conference delegates who should have known better surrendered to the artless youngsters in the debate over privatisation of the ABC with not a single dissenting voice from the floor.

Commentators said it was a clear indication that the party was moving further to the right, abandoning the middle ground it had been so careful to cultivate over decades.

Or is this simply that more rational minds are deserting politics, disgusted with the freeloading, hype and self-interest that infects public life today?

This may be the reaction to what is generally seen as a wave of populism sweeping the Western democracies, highlighted by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s America and the growth of anti-migration sentiment in Europe.

One can imagine Young Liberals in their Make Australia Great Again baseball caps, gleefully plotting their disruptions in the full knowledge their resolutions will hijack the conference and make them instant media stars.  

Populism has achieved so much in the few years since it made its appearance – savage divisions, people at each other’s throats, escalating trade wars, soaring inequality, children in cages — so why not try some of it in stable, multicultural Australia?  

Churchill lived in a world when the electorate decided who would govern every three to five years, with the professionals getting on with the job in between.

He is also on record as saying that democracy is a poor form of government, even if others are far worse.

Maybe he realised from bitter experience how easily democracy could be subverted by ruthless leaders with a message the people wanted to hear; that the line between it and mob rule was paper thin.

He would have recoiled at the resort to the referenda, tweets, focus groups, opinion polls, endless electioneering, stunts, political point scoring, posturing and grandstanding that passes for democracy today.

Mass communication is the platform from which demagogues can present their simplistic answers to the world’s most complicated questions and get away with it. The genie is escaping from the bottle and the question is whether the stopper can ever be replaced.   

Friday, June 15, 2018

Boris plays his Brexit Trump card

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been at it again — blaming the Civil Service for his Government’s woeful handling of the negotiations to exit the European Union (Brexit).

This time his target was the Treasury, which he described as the “heart of Remain”.

In comments which were apparently off the record but nevertheless recorded, Johnson said the Treasury did not want the initial friction and disruption caused by the UK’s exit  

“They are sacrificing all the medium and long-term gains [from Brexit] amid fear of short-term disruption,” Johnson is reported to have said.

“That fear of short-term disruption has become so huge in people’s minds that they’re turning wet. Project Fear is really working on them. They’re terrified of this nonsense. It’s all mumbo jumbo.”

Johnson’s reference to Project Fear, a term used during the 2016 referendum to deride any claims of negative effects of a British EU withdrawal, clearly indicated he is aware that the tide of public opinion is turning against Brexit.

However, it is what he said next that startled his audience.

Johnson said he had an increasing admiration for United States President Donald Trump.

“Imagine Trump doing Brexit. He’d go in bloody hard. There’d be all sorts of breakdowns. All sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad, but actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

Johnson was presumably referring to Trump’s executive orders making it easier to sack Public Servants he disagreed with, the legality of which is being challenged by public sector unions in a dispute that could reach the Supreme Court.    

It led to a sardonic question in Parliament when Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn asked if Prime Minister Theresa May was going to ask Trump to take over the Brexit negotiations.

May’s answer was drowned out by cheering and laughter as Johnson sat beside her, grinning sheepishly. 

The best that can be said of this unedifying incident is that Johnson, no stranger to alcoholic refreshment, was speaking at a dinner given by the Institute of Directors, following a drinks reception hosted by the Conservative Way Forward think tank. 

From the time during the referendum campaign when he claimed withdrawal from the EU would allow an extra £350 million ($A622 million) to be spent on the National Health Service, Johnson has proved he has a fertile imagination.

His blunderings into areas outside the purview of the Foreign Office, such as his support for a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland, have proved a constant irritation to his colleagues.

However, most commentators believe that Johnson, who led the Brexit referendum campaign, is unsackable, and May is stuck with him to the bitter end.

A friend of Johnson’s claimed the dinner meeting was held “under Chatham House rules” and it was “disappointing” his comments had been publicised.

Better advice would be for the Foreign Secretary to think twice before sounding off rather than relying on conventions that are simply irrelevant in an age where anyone with a smartphone is an instant publicist and broadcaster.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The day the dream died

I cried when Robert Kennedy was murdered.

I’ve only done that for one other politician, Sir Winston Churchill, but for very different reasons.

I mourned Churchill for his visions – for winning the unwinnable war in 1940, and then six years later, for a ‘United States of Europe’ as the best and perhaps the only way of guaranteeing the continent would not plunge back into the cycles of conflict that had plagued it for millennia.

Churchill died an old man in 1964 after a career that stretched back into the previous century. He had made mistakes, many of them, and there were people who cursed him for it, but his ability to see a way forward, to understand what the future required of the present, set him apart.

Against him, the current crop of leaders we are burdened with are, to misquote the Bard, a collection of petty men and women who peep about to find themselves dishonourable graves.

Kennedy was different, denied the chance to put his mark on history by an assassins’ bullet, he is frozen in time. He is forever a young-looking 42 with the boyish smile and the fashionably long hair of the day flopping over his forehead as he worked the crowds.

At the moment of his death, 50 years ago today, the United States Senator from New York had just won two American Presidential Primary Elections, including the crucial one in California.

He was on his way to the Democratic Convention in Chicago where he would still have to fight for the nomination, but momentum was with him and, from the vantage point of hindsight, most commentators believe he would have won there and gone on to defeat Republican Richard Nixon in November.

All that belongs to the vast collection of ‘what ifs’ peppering history, and we can never know how he would have handled the turbulent years that awaited in the 1970s, but there are indications he would have managed with greater success than those who were eventually handed the task.

He was an efficient organiser, managing his older brother’s successful presidential campaign in 1960; as the nation’s Attorney General, a job he never wanted, but was told by his father, Joe, that he had to take it because the president needed his good counsel, he was a hard-working crusader against organised crime.

His ability to handle crisis manifested itself as the world came close to nuclear war over Russian missiles stationed on Cuba, less than 170 kilometres from the US mainland. It was Kennedy who was sent out by his brother to negotiate a secret deal with the Russians that pulled both countries back from the brink of conflict.     

Above all, he had the ability, almost unrecognisable today, of a leader who was prepared to acknowledge his mistakes, learn from them and adapt.  From a ‘reds under the bed’ hunter of communists on the staff of Senator Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s, he became a champion of the poor and underprivileged in the next decade.

The rich kid from an entitled family could drop in on the homes of poor blacks and – this set him apart from other politicians who try the same thing during election campaigns – not seem uncomfortable and out of place.

Even so, he was shocked at what he found. He famously said to an aide: “I’ve been in third and fourth world countries and I’ve not seen anything as terrible as this.”

When he promised to do something for them, these forgotten people believed him.

As the train carrying his body made its slow, painful progress towards his final resting place in Arlington Cemetery they lined the tracks, many carrying his picture taken from the walls of their shacks.

In his eulogy, Ted, the youngest and last survivor of the Kennedy brothers, quoted the theme of Bobby’s campaign – a phase he used at the end of almost all his speeches.

"Some men see things as they are and say: Why? I dream things that never were and say: Why not?"

Rest in peace Bobby.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Saudi Arabia keen to play Trump’s game

In a clear sign Saudi Arabia is making hay while the Washington sun continues to shine on it, Riyadh says it will not award any more contracts to German companies because of that country’s pro-Iran stance.

This is a reference to Berlin’s continual support for the Iran nuclear deal which US President Donald Trump has condemned and no longer recognises.

While all parties to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which as well as Germany and the US, included China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the European Union, were united in its support, Saudi Arabia fumed in silence.

But with the US outside the deal and ready to reimpose stringent sanctions on Iran, Saudi feels it can play the Middle East strongman card confident in receiving applause from the White House.

This was born out by comments from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who does most of the talking for his country these days.

Bin Salman said he has been deeply offended by the German Government — a complaint which seems to have stemmed from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s description of Saudi meddling in Lebanon last year as “adventurism”.

Saudi Arabia is a significant trade partner for Germany, accounting for exports worth more than $A10 billion in 2017, and the move to shut it out can only be interpreted as a turning of the screws by Washington’s staunch ally in an attempt to kill off the JCPOA for good.

However, a closer look at the realities facing Riyadh suggest bin Salman is playing a dangerous game.

Internally he is the driving force behind Vision 2030, a long-term plan to wean the country off its dependency on oil revenues and bring the conservative autocratic kingdom into the 21st century.

One of his poster policies is a decree to end the ban on women driving their own cars which he has been portrayed as a first step in attracting more females into the workforce.

The Crown Prince has also reigned in the power of the country’s religious police, allowed cinemas to open and promising a more “modern, moderate” form if Islam.

None of this has endeared him to the country’s clerics who follow the strict branch of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, and there are persistent rumours that a lightly reported incident of gunfire near the royal palace in April was actually an abortive coup.

The country’s failed attempt to prop up rebel groups in Syria, and its mismanaged campaign to restore an ally to power in Yemen has damaged the country’s image as a military power capable of being an effective block to the rise of Iran in the Middle East.

As Emile Hokayem, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies stated in a recent article in the New York Times, who prevails in the rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh will come down to capacity and competence.

“Iran has the networks, expertise, experience and strategic patience to fight and win proxy wars at low cost with plenty of disingenuous deniability. The Saudis simply don’t, which is why seeking to beat the Iranians at this game is dangerous and costly,” Hokayem writes.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

US – Europe stand-off over Iran deal

The Trump Administration’s anti-Iran rhetoric was stepped up this week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying the United States will crush Iran’s influence in the Middle East by imposing the “strongest sanctions in history”.

Speaking to the Heritage Foundation think tank, Pompeo went on to say the sanctions would include targeting Iran’s “malign cyber activity” and that the Islamic State’s operatives and their Hezbollah proxies around the world would be “tracked down and crushed”.

The Secretary’s colourful language is straight out of President Donald Trump’s lexicon, and indeed Pompeo is no more than a mouthpiece for his boss, in contrast to his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who was sacked for daring to disagree over the handling of the Iran issue.

By withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in which Iran agreed to roll back parts of its nuclear program in exchange for relief from some sanctions, Trump now has the freedom to act in any way he sees fit, but there are other parties to the deal — China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union — all of whom are still supporting it.

The crunch will come if the US’s “strongest sanctions in history” results in moves against companies from these other partner countries who continue to have links with Iran. Pompeo says they will be “held to account” — that could mean banning them from doing business in the US.

Most observers say that in a choice between the US and Iran, most firms would feel they had to abide by the Trump-imposed sanctions. Should that happen, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would declare the JCPOA null and void and reactivate the country’s nuclear program, including its weapons component.

Antagonism towards Trump’s ‘my way or the highway’ attitude is mounting in Western countries. France’s Minister for Finance, Bruno Le Marie, said it was not acceptable for the US to play the economic policeman of the planet. In Brussels, the European Commission is actively considering ways to get round any future sanctions.

Strategic intelligence expert Caroline Galacteros believes the EU should face down Washington and continue to work with Iran within the JCPOA.

“It’s up to us to decide in the end if we really want to accept this extra-territoriality of US law,” Galacteros said.

“If Europe sticks to the deal and the Iranians are cautious and won’t hit back, because that’s what Washington is probably expecting of them, then we have Europe and Iran sticking to the deal as well as Russia and China.

“It will transform the balance of power.”

That is going a little too far. Most multinational European companies simply cannot afford to have their US interests endangered, which brings us back to the possibility of a major powder keg being lit in the already over-heated Middle East, resulting in a conflagration unprecedented even for that conflict-wracked region.

Monday, May 21, 2018

No land in sight on a sea of uncertainty

The speed at which international affairs develop these days is breathtaking. Politicians, diplomats and commentators are being left behind.

The previous norms by which events were judged no longer apply. We cannot say with any certainty what will happen next month, let along plan for a world in which future generations will survive.

The United States and North Korea were at each other’s throats, each threatening the other with nuclear annihilation; then it was all smiles with a summit in the planning stages and suggestions that US President Donald Trump could be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; now the talks may be called off as North Korean President Kim Jong-un sets new conditions.

Similarly in the Middle East, where Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem has upset decades of careful (if unsuccessful) diplomacy. His withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is another savage blow to the status quo.

Veteran observers say it is like being cast adrift in an open boat with no rudder or sails. The old certainties no longer exist. Anything could happen.

There are many in the Trump camp who applaud this. They say the old order had failed to bring results; that the president is a disrupter forcing those who had been comfortable behind the barricades of their beliefs to face new realities.

The problem with this reasoning is that throws into the dustbin decades of knowledge and experience built up by thousands of foreign affairs specialists. Their expertise is rendered useless. Diplomacy becomes a guessing game, a series of gambles in a world where gambling can be very dangerous and consequences unknown.

I have written before about the dangers of a Trump-Kim summit, mainly because for all his tough talk the US president is desperate for a deal to burnish his image and to flip a Twitter-finger at all his detractors.

Trump’s track record shows he has no patience with the niceties of negotiation. To put him in the ring with Kim and his team at this time could easily lead to catastrophe.

Similarly with his decision to come down heavily on the side of Israel in the Middle East, which is having the effect of rekindling enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause among neighbour nations that might have been leaning towards putting pressure on Hamas to be more reasonable.

There is no hope of the US regaining its position as a neutral umpire in efforts to solve the impasse, even if a future US President tries to do so. Arabs have long memories.

There is very real danger in cutting loose from the Iran nuclear deal. Here we are dealing with a sophisticated nation of some 80 million; a country that had successfully repelled the better armed and Western backed forces of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during eight years of war.

President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate by Iranian standards, caught flack for even treating with the Great Satan. This rebuff holds the danger of driving the Government into the hands of extremists who might well want to develop the nuclear bomb to annihilate Israel (and probably Saudi Arabia for good measure).  

To be fair, the world that Trump inherited in January 2017 was already fraught with risks and uncertainties. What he has done is increase these dangers without having any kind of containment strategy. Worse, he has abandoned or alienated all those who might have been able to point a way out of the mess.

I believe Trump sees the world outside the borders of the US as an annoying sideshow, but his crash-though-or burn-attitude to international problems has us gripping the sides of our seats. What comes next? Who knows?   

Monday, May 14, 2018

The US needs a Leader of the Opposition

During a career in which I have been able to observe political systems around the world, I always harboured a special affection for that of the United States.

It seemed that the checks and balances built in by the framers of the US Constitution back in the 18th century and its subsequent amendments were as near a perfect design for the stable and harmonious workings of a democratic system that humankind could devise.

How wrong I was.

I had fallen into the trap of thinking that the system was all powerful, imposing restraints and boundaries upon those who operated within it. It had, after all, resisted invasions, a civil war, two bloody all-encompassing 20th century conflicts and a host of smaller, but no less vicious foreign adventures as well as the Great Depression.

It has taken the headlong sprint of technology and the Trump White House to reveal that the system is, in fact, a fragile thing, dependent on the good character of generations of people of goodwill for it to function smoothly. Today its faults are revealed by those who refuse to operate it as it has been operated in the past; in some cases to even acknowledge its existence.

What is needed in the US today, and what it patently lacks, is a cohesive political opposition. There is no one figure in the party currently out of power, the Democrats, under whom it can mount a cohesive alternative to the president. There is no leader of the opposition.

The defeated Democrat Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is on the lecture circuit; of the figures in office that might perform this role, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his House of Representative counterpart Nancy Pelosi, are ageing and uninspiring.

Presumably newcomers will emerge in a general flexing of muscles as the 2020 election season nears, but that is still many months away, and anyway the candidates will spend most of the time fighting each other before a clear front-runner emerges.

It has fallen to the media to perform the role of opposition and critic to the Trump White House, but journalists are always susceptible to the criticism of “power without responsibility”, or to frame it in the president’s more simple language, purveyors of “fake news”.

An example of how desperate the situation has become can be seen in the increasing numbers of Republicans who have become critical of their own president. Chief among them is former presidential candidate John McCain whose attempts to provide an alternative to Trump’s barrage of anger and spite has drawn derision and in the case of the nominee to head the CIA, Gina Haspel a comment which has quite rightly been described as “insanely despicable”.

American constitutional government worked well when it was respected by those who used it, when liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats could cooperate with each other on the presidential agenda of whoever happened to hold the White House.

Today the flood of executive orders; of hirings and firings; of direct appeals to the mob over the heads of lawmakers, has demonstrated fundamental flaws in the body politic.

The much maligned Westminster Parliamentary system is often messy and chaotic, but at least those in power must meet their critics face-to-face a few metres apart in the debating chamber, where the alternative Government and those who might lead it, are on display every day.

Perhaps there are other better ways of conducting democracy, but in the days of the Trump White House, I have no idea what they might be. Answers must be found because the alternatives on show in many nations around the world are unthinkable.