Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ukraine on a knife-edge

Refusing to buckle to pressure from Moscow, the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia have signed trade and political association treaties with the European Union – moves that have set them on the path to eventual full EU membership.

The Kremlin’s outrage at this rebuff to President Vladimir Putin’s long-term plan to rebuild the old Soviet Union through a Russian-dominated Eurasian customs union, was tempered by the refusal of Ukraine to also sign up to the agreement, leaving that country open to seek closer ties with its giant neighbour.

On the face of it, the choice between the Russian grouping and the European Union seems a no brainer. The EU has 500 million consumers and an economy six times the size of the Eurasian Union. As an example of the kind of support available in Europe, Brussels immediately offered Moldova’s 3.5 million citizens visa-free travel within the 28-nation bloc.

But there are other considerations for Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, to ponder.

An elected leader, Yanukovych’s constituency is based in the eastern part of the country where attachment to Russia and nostalgia for the old Soviet Empire is much greater than in the capital, Kiev. While paying lip service to the idea of a future with the EU, his actions have been more in keeping with an old-style Soviet Commissar, principally with the jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko, the opponent who he narrowly defeated in the 2010 poll.

Many observers believe Yanukovych hankers for an authoritarian style of administration less sensitive to the rule of law and human rights, and looks enviously at neighbouring Belarus where President Alexander Lukashenko rules as though the Soviet Union never ended.

However Ukraine is not yet Belarus and in 2015 Yanukovych must face an electorate clearly weary of rampant corruption, organised crime, cronyism and a security service that models itself and uses the same tactics as the original and much-feared KGB - a population that has taken to the streets of Kiev in strident protest at his Government’s failure to embrace the EU.

The demonstrators are backed by a recent public opinion poll showing that some 45 per cent of Ukrainians favour joining the EU against just 14 per cent who preferred the Eurasian Union.

Sadly, in Ukraine today pay-offs and political pressure from Moscow can have just as equal force as public opinion. How Yanukovych deals with the latter will be keenly observed in the lead-up to the country’s 2015 poll.  



Friday, December 27, 2013

Is Yasukuni worth the fuss?

Here we go again: Japanese Prime Minister visits Yasukuni Shrine; angry protests from China and South Korea as this edifice is supposed to contain the spirits of Japanese war dead that include individuals who were convicted of war crimes after World War II; the United States, Japan’s ally, says “tut-tut” and leaves it at that; Japanese PM is totally unrepentant and likely to repeat the process again at some future date.

Come on, guys, isn’t it about time we used some common sense here? The war has been over for almost 70 years. Yes, there were some rather nasty things done by the Japanese during its occupation of parts of China, but aren’t nasty things done in all wars throughout history? Didn’t Genghis Khan do a few nasty things in his sweep through Asia? Aren’t there some pretty nasty things going on today is Syria and South Sudan? Wasn’t the Holocaust a nasty business as well?

Of course, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is being a bloody minded in visiting the shrine just at this time, but it should not take a Nobel Laureate to work out that it is nothing to do with the honouring Tojo Hideki and his crew back in the 1940s and everything to do with raising the finger to Beijing in 2013.

Abe, in common with many colleagues on the conservative side of Japan’s politics, is afraid his country is being sidelined in the Asia of the 21st century, its efforts in lifting itself from the ruins of war to become a world economic powerhouse unappreciated. He has listened to one too many speeches made by politicians around the world and including Australia about “the rise of China”, and he has had a gut-full.

Hence the continuing row with China over the disputed island chain in the East China Sea, which Japan administers and calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyus; hence the visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. It is essentially Abe telling the world that Japan is still around and specifically to Beijing: “you want to be Asia’s top dog? Then you’ve still got us to deal with”.

Beijing has been naïve to allow itself to be manipulated by the Yasukuni controversy. After all, the Head of State, Emperor Akihito has not visited the shrine since he came to the throne and his father, Hirohito, stopped going after the 1978 decision to include the war criminals. Surely that should carry greater symbolic weight than the occasional decision to visit by a transient political leader?

As it is, Abe has achieved his purpose. The world’s attention is switching back to Japan. China, while making its usual comments about Abe’s "extremely dangerous" direction, is looking rather powerless. The deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations to new lows is something to be deplored and, indeed, feared, but it seems unlikely that there will be significant improvement as 2014 dawns.       


Monday, December 23, 2013

Khodorkovsky will fight from afar

Former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky can hardly be blamed for not wanting to get back into Russia’s political fray as an opponent to President Vladimir Putin. Ten years in detention, most of that time spent in a Siberian prison camp, would sap the energy of the most determined rebel.

There can be little doubt that Khodorkovsky regrets his initial decision that Russia’s new generation of wealthy businesspeople, the ‘oligarchy’, of which he was the richest and natural leader, could control the country’s strongman.

So for now the man who was once among the world’s richest, will enjoy the small fraction of wealth he was able to spirit away overseas in a semi-retirement spent in Germany and elsewhere. He is adamant that the struggle for power in Russia is not something in which he wants to be involved. He will not even return to the country for fear that he might be detained again, or at least have his passport confiscated.

But he will travel; he will give interviews and probably write books. His insight into the workings of Putin’s Russia – and the details of how opponents of the Kremlin are dealt with – will make interesting reading.
It should be remembered that Khodorkovsky is no saint. He started his business empire in the 1980s when then President Mikhail Gorbachev began to open up the Soviet Union to the world. After the Soviet collapse he was first on the bandwagon buying up former State-run enterprises at bargain basement prices and accumulating huge wealth through the acquisition of Siberian oil fields as the head of his giant company, Yukos.

A chancer who rode his luck until it failed him, Khodorkovsky was probably guilty of at least some of the things for which he was eventually charged – involving fraud and tax evasion – but then so were a lot of other people.
Getting on the wrong side of the Russian leader is a dangerous business and Khodorkovsky is right to fear Putin may be setting himself up as a President for Life. Centuries of living under the absolute rule of the Tsars followed by the equally totalitarian regime of the Soviets have left Russians with little experience or understanding of democracy. For many the authoritarian rule of a strong leader is preferable to the ‘democratic’ turbulence of the 1990s.

Putin has filled the gap: Two terms as President, followed by four years as Prime Minister with a trusted ally filling the presidency and now president again, means that his hands have never been off the levers of power. So far he has circumvented the Russian Constitution rather than destroyed it, but Khodorkovsky will not be the only figure in the West watching and waiting for the next move from the man in the Kremlin.     


Saturday, December 21, 2013

US law enforcement goes over the top

The case of the Indian junior diplomat who was arrested and strip-searched in New York recently has inflamed passions in both countries. In India the focus has been on the insult and humiliation to Devyani Khobagade, the Indian Deputy Consul General in New York, while in the United States and other Western countries the emphasis has been on her alleged crime, claiming on a visa application that her maid was to be paid a certain amount while actually paying her considerably less.

While there have been demonstrations in front of the US Embassy in New Delhi and calls for counter reprisals against American diplomats in India, Ritwik Deo, writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper raged against India’s privileged and cossetted middle class for believing itself above the law and always expecting special treatment.

Ms Khobagade is not the victim, Deo wrote. Her maid is the victim. Indians are missing the point.

Except that what has being arrested, handcuffed, held in detention, strip searched and cavity searched got to do with the offence of visa fraud? Was there a need to arrest her at all? Would it not have been sufficient to have summonsed her to appear at a police station or a court to explain herself?

To this reporter, used over many years to the Australian way of doing things, US law enforcement has always seemed way over the top with defendants handcuffed for minor traffic offences and appearing in court in leg-irons.

In Australia Ms Khobagade would most certainly have been ordered to pay her maid at the stated rate with full back pay and possibly further compensation; she may have faced further prosecution for the fraudulent statement, and her Embassy would have heard about it. But it is highly unlikely she would have spent any time in detention being subjected to indignities to her person.  

This could be passed off as an isolated incident involving an Indian official in the United States, except that it is not. In April I wrote about the detention and apparent harassment of Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Minister Mohammad Azam Khan at Boston’s Logan Airport.

The Foreign Minister in the former BJP Federal Government, George Fernandes, was strip-searched twice in Dulles Airport while on an official visit and India’s then Ambassador to Washington, Meera Shankar, was given a public ‘pat-down’ at an airport in Mississippi in 2010, apparently singled out from a group of about 30 passengers because she was wearing a sari.

This diplomatic row will blow over. US Secretary of State, John Kerry has telephoned Indian National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon to “express regret” over the incident. In diplomatic speak this is the apology you make when you are not making an apology. Mr Kerry also hoped the incident would not harm US-India relations.

There lies the crux of the matter. For all the breast-beating about Ms Khobagade not being above the law and grossly underpaying her maid, the fact is when you start actions against a person who is in any way a representative of another country you will face consequences, whether your actions are justified or not.

Certainly justice has to be done, but surely in a less dramatic fashion than that occasioned in this case by Manhattan law enforcement officials.





Friday, December 20, 2013

North Korea’s Kim set for a long rule

The official broadcasts of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are as stultifyingly boring as always: Congratulations sent to overseas leaders newly appointed or who have reached some milestone; gifts made to the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, from the City of Moscow – and always a swipe at the Republic of Korea in the south - students in a ‘surprise demonstration’ having their posters removed by the ‘fascist police’.

The view from Pyongyang is that of a State which is a haven of tranquility and happiness in a sea of capitalist misery and despair which requires million-strong armed forces and a nuclear capability to ward off the arch-enemies, South Korea, Japan and the United States, who plot to wipe the North off the map.

And yet there are now clear signs that all is not well in the socialist paradise with the hurried execution of the man thought to be the young Kim’s guide and mentor, his uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek.

Add to that unconfirmed reports formerly influential figures close to Jang have either disappeared or are seeking refuge in China and you have all the evidence of a palace coup. Whether a failed plot again Kim that was discovered, or Kim just deciding to free himself from influences that did not appeal to him, remains unclear.

Earlier this year in trying to unravel the Pyongyang puzzle I suggested that Kim, who has lived and studied in the West and is a fan of American basketball, may be seeking to make North Korea more accommodating to the international community. I believe that view is wrong. Kim obviously prefers the the trappings of power to the opportunity of watching live exhibition matches between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

I also wrote around that time that as Kim began to establish himself it would begin to dawn on the old guard that this youthful leader would probably be around until the middle of the century, something which might exercise their minds as to the whether this was in their interests – that theory sits far more comfortably with the recent events.

It is believed that Kim escaped an assassination attempt earlier this year which might have been the source of the current retribution. The clampdown was swift and unusual even by North Korean standards. Executions are usually reserved for common ‘criminals and agitators’.

However, as the President of the Pacific Forum Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Ralph A. Cossa, points out, the reprisals will probably have the desired effect.   Remember the old maxim about ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys?’” Cossa writes.

“Kim went straight for the monkey. Can you imagine how scared the chickens must now be?”



Thursday, December 12, 2013

BJP turns screws in State polls

Significant gains by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a series of Indian State elections at the weekend has dealt a severe blow to the Congress-led Government of Manmohan Singh with a national poll due within the next six months.

The BJP’s most spectacular success was in Rajasthan when it picked up an astonishing 84 seats, mostly from the Congress Party, to hold a two-thirds majority in the State. Congress also collapsed in its former stronghold of Delhi, but here the spoils were shared between the BJP and a newcomer, the Aam Aadmi Party. The BJP has the most number of seats but no overall majority and a fresh election is likely in the near future.

Add to this comfortable wins in Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, where it was already the ruling party and the BJP looks in excellent shape to return to power nationally after 10 years of Congress rule in New Delhi.

What are the reasons behind the resurgence of a party its opponents have always sought to portray as a narrow, secular organisation representative only of the militant wing of Hinduism?  The new Chief Minister in Rajasthan, Vasundhra Raje was in no doubt, being quick to thank the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, for his aggressive campaigning in the State.

Since being named as the man to lead the BJP in the national poll, Modi has hit the campaign trail, addressing huge crowds in all parts of the country. A slick campaigner, he has embraced social media, something that has boosted his popularity among the young.

Modi, who in a dozen years as Chief Minister of Gujarat has transformed the State into an economic powerhouse, is also the darling of big business, and the Indian stock market surged on news of the BJP’s successes.

Where does this leave Congress, the ruling party for three quarters of India’s 66 years since independence? For most of that time it has been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has provided three Prime Ministers, and Congress insiders would like the latest member of the family, Rahul Gandhi, to be the fourth.

Unfortunately Gandhi is ambivalent about taking on the job and has proved to be a less-than-effective campaigner. BJP officials gleefully point out that their party won all the seven Rajasthan seats where Gandhi spoke on behalf of the Congress candidate.

Some Congress sources are now suggesting that Rahul’s mother, Sonia, for long a power behind the scenes and the widow of the last Gandhi Prime Minister, Rajiv, would make a better opponent for Modi. Younger members of the party are even going so far as to say it should ditch the Gandhi family altogether.

As one pointed out “there are many quality people in the party whose career paths are blocked because the ultimate seat is always being kept warm for a Gandhi. This really isn’t a healthy position to be in.”   




Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mandela’s example must live on

My best memory of Nelson Mandela goes back almost a quarter of a century to that February day in 1990 when he emerged from the house where he had spent the final few days of his captivity to meet the world’s media.

He walked alone down a long path to the front gate to end the fevered speculation that had surrounded the news of his impending release. What would he say? Who would he blame for the centuries of oppression of South Africa’s black people and for his own 27 years of often brutal captivity?

At that moment he held the future of his nation in his hands.

And then he began to speak, and there was a surreal, almost dream-like quality of the speech he gave. There was no bitterness; no rancour, no demands for reprisals, just a calm, reasoned explanation of the arrangements for a transfer of power to the country’s majority.

It was the kind of address that might be given by the leader of a party that had just won an election in a democracy, but without the triumphalism even that would have involved. He reached out at once to all South African citizens in the name of freedom, in the name of democracy, but above all in the name of peace.

Today his work is over, but there is still much to do. South Africa’s crime rate is unacceptably high, corruption is rife; many black people feel they are still not enjoying the fruits of freedom; many of the richer whites feel isolated in gated and guarded communities.

The task to continue to build South Africa is now in the hands of a new generation of leaders led by President Jacob Zuma, a controversial enough figure for many of his country-people, yet in his address to the nation, and to the world, in which he gave the news of Mandela’s passing, there was enough to suggest that he recognises the path pointed out by the first president is the one to follow.

South Africa’s position as a functioning democracy with a developed economy makes it the natural leader of the African continent and a model for others. Its role in this century will be crucial. It should be the hope of all freedom-loving people that Mandela’s example will live on long after the man himself becomes part of history.     




Monday, December 2, 2013

Israel must not dictate Iran peace terms

The preliminary agreement (and preliminary should be stressed) between Iran and the six major countries plus the European Union over Iran’s nuclear program should be welcomed.

It represents the first major breakthrough in relations with the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution and is a step towards bringing it back as a full member of the community of nations.

It is also confirmation of the more conciliatory approach of President Hasan Rowhani since he took over from the mercurial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this year. Rowhani is a man the West can deal with in a way that was never possible with his predecessor.

There remains the obstacle of Israel, which immediately denounced the accord, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that it was a bad agreement, giving Iran a relaxation of the sanctions imposed on it, while still allowing it to pursue its nuclear program.

In essence, Netanyahu’s statement is correct. Any final resolution will leave Iran with a nuclear capability, but only for peaceful purposes. There are plenty of countries around the globe in similar positions – Japan and Germany to name just two.

This will not satisfy Netanyahu whose sees anything less than a total dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program as containing a latent threat that Teheran could at some time in the future upgrade its capability to produce a bomb that would then threaten Israeli cities. His stand is totally unacceptable to Teheran and the negotiating powers know it.

Any final deal will have to include strong and continuing verification procedures to ensure that Iran is keeping to its part of the bargain – that its nuclear program is designed purely to improve the living standards of its people, by reducing domestic dependence on fossil fuels, leaving the country able to export more of its abundant reserves of oil.

It won’t satisfy the current Government in Jerusalem which will certainly be exerting pressure on the Israeli lobby in the United States Congress to scupper the deal. President Barak Obama, who has been seeking this agreement since the early months of his Administration, needs to stand firm.

Failure now would be a crippling blow to the Rowhani moderates in the Iranian Government and likely take the country back on to a more confrontational path. The West simply cannot afford another 30 years of an Israel-Iran stand-off complicating the issues in an already dangerously turbulent region.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Older people the solution – not the problem

The Productivity Commission has reported that the ageing population presents a severe threat to Australia’s economy – much more severe than previous estimates.

A remarkable achievement for these learned and no doubt highly-paid experts to have unearthed a fact that a junior demographer in the 1970s would have been able to reveal – if Governments in those days had bothered to listen.

I could go back further, mindful of a report in the 1960s which stated that if the current demographic trends continued there would come a point where there would be just two workers for every one retiree. However, that was a UK publication, so I simply mention it in passing.

These latest reports show that, for the most part, Australian Governments have been asleep at the wheel for the past 40 years when it comes to adequately preparing for the collapse of the country’s working-age population. Note my difference, the Productivity Commission, the Treasury and others, always put the problem on older Australians – too many of them – rather than productive working younger people – too few of them.

It is so much easier to blame the inevitability of people getting older, over which Governments have no control, than the shortage of tax-paying workers, which Governments could and should have fixed over the past three decades.

One way of tackling the problem should have been a far larger compulsory superannuation fund. The Hawke Government belatedly introduced one at nine per cent in the late 1980s, but there it has rested ever since, woefully inadequate. Successive Governments since have either actively blocked further increases or simply elected to do nothing. What we should have in 2013 is a scheme at around 15 per cent with an employee and well as employer component.

Secondly we should have looked to immigration far more than we have to reduce the age of our working population. Yes, I am well aware that this would be a short-term fix; nevertheless it ought to have been part of the equation. Despite the long drone from unions about immigrants taking jobs from Australians, evidence has shown this is clearly not the case and that new arrivals actually create jobs in the medium to long term by setting up small businesses and creating demand for services.

Finally there should have been a far more sustained effort to encourage young people to have more children. This goes beyond slogans like former Treasurer Peter Costello’s “one for the mother, one for the father and one for the country”, or even baby bonus rewards. What is needed is a comprehensive package of easier and affordable childcare available to all, more attractive maternal and parental leave and tougher laws to ensure that all employers understand that they cannot disadvantage their employees who take time off to have and care for their children.

The Productivity Commission’s answer, is, as usual, weighted against older people, with pensions and retirement ages lifted to 70. While higher age levels are needed, a draconian increase to 70 is unfair and possible unsustainable as there are a number of occupations where people would simply not be able to perform adequately at such an advanced age. This would mean (presumably) that they would have to receive some other form of taxpayer-funded assistance.

Many older people are prepared to do their bit. But to designate them as ‘the problem’ is unhelpful and just plain wrong. They are not the problem; they are a significant part of the solution.           




Saturday, November 16, 2013

Disaster response will lose Beijing respect

Beijing’s initial miserly reaction to the Philippines typhoon disaster has lost it considerable prestige among its Asian neighbours, reinforcing perceptions that it is a ruthless and self-centred power whose rise is something to be feared rather than welcomed.

China’s original offer of $100,000 from the Government matched by the Chinese Red Cross was greeted with disbelief by the international community alongside donations from Australia ($30 million), the US ($20 million plus extensive civilian and military support), Japan ($10 million), United Kingdom ($70 million) and so on.

China later revised its contribution upwards to $1.75 million, mostly in tents and blankets, but still below totals from Taiwan ($4 million), Indonesia ($2 million), India (15 tonnes of medical supplies) and, perhaps most tellingly, the Swedish furniture chain of Ikea ($2.7 million).

So what is the reason for this poor treatment of the Philippines from the world’s second largest economy that has, in the past, been generous with similar appeals around the world? The answer appears to lie in the dispute between the two countries over a series of tiny islets in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s claim to various islands and atolls in the area has been well documented. It has also had disagreements with Vietnam and Indonesia, but it is the Philippines which has been most willing to challenge China’s claims over a formation known as the Scarborough shoal about 160 kilometres off the Philippines coast.

While Manila cannot hope to face down its giant neighbour militarily, it has taken its case to arbitration at the United Nations – and there it has a good chance of winning.

China bases its “indisputable rights” in the area to the fact that it has been fishing there since the fifth century AD, but as one maritime legal authority pointed out to me “the world has changed somewhat since the days of the Roman Empire and claims based on a practice 1600 years ago have to withstand 21st century geopolitical realities”.

Leaving all that aside, it has been universally recognised in the past that when disaster strikes, political considerations are put aside in the face of the need to bring relief to human suffering. The fact that in this case China appears not to have accepted this is an indictment of those who wield power in Beijing.        




Thursday, November 14, 2013

The decline of education

There is no doubt that higher education in Australia is in transition – some would call it crisis – as the pressure mounts for universities and their equivalents to be “relevant to modern society” and produce the workers who will “fuel the 21st century economy”.

The words in inverted commas are not mine but ones I have seen in innumerable media releases churned out by Federal and State Governments – and because these Governments hold the purse strings, the places of higher learning have to take note.

I really wish however, that there was a little more “push back” from the leadership of the these institutions, pointing out that education should go beyond cramming for qualifications that will earn the right kind of job.
Sadly, many key figures in academia seem eager to acquiesce in this trend. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Professor Stephen Parker, looks forward to the day when a great deal of his institution’s infrastructure will be redundant because students will come on to campus less often and for shorter periods.

In his vision students will do increasing amounts of their learning online, working with videos and text “reserving every minute of personal time of the teacher to smaller group encounters where students defend and discuss their work”. 
This sausage-machine mentality may produce the short-term results that politicians want, but there are so many flaws. One being the assumption that by 18, all young people know exactly what they want to do with their lives and therefore the courses they should follow.

I quote an academic from an American university who believes that in addition to providing its students with qualifications, higher education should be equipping them to answer four questions:
What is worth knowing? What is worth doing? What makes for a good human life? What are my responsibilities to other people? 

If the trends in Australian higher learning continue their answer to the first question would be: The information that gets me a job; to the second would be: My job; while the third and fourth questions would probably not be answered at all.
Higher education should be shaping a person to make a worthwhile contribution, not just to an employer, not just to the economy, but to the community, locally, nationally and globally. Above all it should teach that minds should be open to all influences, and to develop the maturity to judge them, to accept them, or to reject them.

It should teach them about compassion about justice and yes, about a fair go; it should point out to them that the society they have been raised in is just one among many on this earth. Part of that knowledge doesn’t come from the internet or even from the lecture hall, but from interaction on campus in all sorts of contacts, formal and informal. It comes from debate and discussion, not just about work, but about the world in general. What’s right; what’s wrong, what should be preserved; what needs to be changed.
If we don’t do that, we deserve to be judged as the generation that for its own, selfish, materialist ends sought to impoverish its young people by denying them the basic knowledge of what it means to be human.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

China’s censors working overtime

China’s censors have been busy in recent weeks. Most recently there was the strange case of the car that somehow eluded the tight security that generally surrounds Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, crashing through barriers and exploding, killing the three occupants, two nearby tourists and injuring about 40 others.

Pictures of the incident taken from innumerable mobile phone cameras quickly blossomed on to the internet and were just as hastily removed from Chinese social media sites such as Renren and Sina Weibo. The sanitised Government version initially referred to the incident as a simple traffic accident and when that looked patently ridiculous, as a terrorist attack.

The names of the three people in the car identified them as members of the Moslem Uighur minority from the far west of the country, and five ‘suspects’ have since been arrested.  

There the matter, as far as the Government in Beijing is concerned, rests.

Chinese social media played its part in alerting Western journalists to another case, which otherwise might have gone completely unnoticed. A former street vendor, Xia Junfeng, was executed for killing two officials who were punishing him for operating an unlicensed shish kebab stall.

At first sight there seemed little unusual about the incident in a country that routinely executes hundreds of its citizens every year, but the execution of Xia touched a raw nerve among members of China’s massive blogosphere.

Many who followed the case believed that the evidence at Xia’s trial had been rigged to show him in the worst possible light and that he, in fact, killed the officials, known in China as chengguan, in self defence while they were beating him up.

However, the greatest anger was directed at comparisons with the another killer before the courts, Gu Kailai, the wife of a disgraced Politburo member, Bo Xilai, who was convicted of poisoning a British businessman, but was given a suspended death sentence. It is likely that she will be released from prison within a few years.

A professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, Tong Zongjin, summed up the mood when he said that if Gu could escape the death penalty after killing someone with poison, Xia should not have been put to death.   

Once again the censors struck and within a few hours all comments on Xia’s execution were swept clean. The official record of his death, among thousands of others, is all that remains – another example of the fact that in this socialist paradise there is still one law for the powerful and influential and another for the masses.   


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tallest statue sparks giant row

A plan to build the world’s tallest statue in the Indian State of Gujarat is fuelling controversy throughout the nation and may yet feed in to next year’s national election.

The project has been instigated by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and will honour Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the country’s first Deputy Prime Minister and one of the founding fathers of the Indian Republic.
The 182-metre tall memorial, about twice the height of New York’s Statue of Liberty, has been named by Modi as ‘The Statue of Unity’. He says as well as attracting visitors from all over India and the world, it will be a long-overdue tribute to one of the nation’s foremost statesmen.

But there is far more to it than that.
Modi is almost certain to be the leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s general election, due in the middle of 2014. Opposing him will be the incumbent Congress Party dominated by the Gandhi family. It is still quite possible a member of the latest generation, Rahul Gandhi, will be Modi’s opponent for Prime Minister, although he has denied it. 

Patel served as deputy to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is Rahul’s great-grandfather. While the two were Cabinet colleagues, they were often at odds, most fundamentally over the fledgling country’s economic path. Nehru favoured a socialistic planned economy, Patel was a free marketeer.
Nehru also sought close relations with China, believing the two Third World giants could dominate Asia in partnership; Patel warned that China would only see India as a dangerous rival, a fact borne out by the short-lived war between them in 1962.

Patel is also credited with doing the hard work that forged India into a single State out of a ramshackle collection of principalities. He is often referred to as India’s Iron Man.
With Nehru’s socialism long abandoned and India’s economy booming under a free-market system, many historians now believe that the country would have been better placed today had Patel been Prime Minister in those early days.

Add this to the fact that Patel came from Gujarat and is revered there, and Modi appears to be on to a winner. When the Federal Environment Ministry announced that they would investigate the statue project – which also includes a visitors centre, garden, hotel and convention centre – veteran BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu hit back, saying the intervention was inspired by the Gandhis who did not want to see Patel memorialised.
Naidu went on to list 450 schemes, projects and institutions that are named after various members of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

The massive statue will not be completed for four years, if at all. Well before that the BJP will be hoping it will have done its work in helping to propel Modi to the leadership of the world’s biggest democracy.   

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tony Abbott – a man for his people

There are many things I don’t like about Australia’s 28th Prime Minister, but there is one quality which I have to concede to him – his honesty.

Tony Abbott is not afraid to hide the fact he has a particular vision for the kind of society Australia should be - and feels he has a mandate to achieveit. He might well agree with the words of former American President George W. Bush: “You are either with us, or against us.”

Abbott recently hosted a media party at the Prime Minister’s residence in Canberra. Invited were journalists and commentators such as Piers Akerman, Janet Albrechtsen and Miranda Devine, all resolute pumpers of the Abbott message during the election campaign. In fact News Corp was overwhelmingly represented while the ABC was absent.

The lopsided guest list was an accurate reflection of the Abbott philosophy. “There tends to be an ABC view of the world, and it’s not a view of the world that I find myself in total sympathy with,” he was quoted as saying.

“But others would say there’s a News Limited view of the world.”

After more than four decades of reporting on election campaigns in several different countries I have become heartily sick of the routine victory speech by winning leader in which they say they intend to govern for all, including those who opposed them.

It is a ritualistic reaching out to defeated opponents which means nothing and is forgotten after election night; the first election promise to be broken. Governments govern for their supporters, for the policies and philosophies they espouse and those who don’t like it can go hang. If there is any compromise, it will be forced upon them by political realities – such as in Australia’s case, a hostile Senate.

The Abbott Government will not be governing for people who want curbs on fossil fuel mining; who want a moratorium on logging in old growth forests; who want a continuation of the carbon tax or its replacement with an emissions trading scheme.

He will not govern for those who want a super-fast fibre optic broadband system; cheaper tertiary education or an increase in overseas aid; not for the supporters of Sea Shepherd, those who believe Australia should have a fast train network rather than more roads, or for those who believe gay people should have exactly the same right as heterosexuals to marry.

But none of this will matter because he will lead a Government for the people who voted for him and will be doing his level best to make sure they get as much as he can give them to keep them happy between now and the next election.

It is the way all Governments have played the game since Federation. In many ways it is an inevitable part of any democratic system.

At least Tony Abbott has the courage to admit it.   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Information management at new heights

Journalists who deal with public institutions have been used to information management or ‘spin’ for many years now, but in recent times, especially it seems among conservative administrations, it is taking on a more aggressive and distinctly sinister form - to the point where the ultimate result could be loss of freedoms and the undermining of democratic traditions.

Before I am accused of paranoia let me present a few examples, in Australia and around the world.

In Queensland NGOs have been told it is a condition of receiving State Government funding that  they do not criticise the Government in their area of expertise. So an organisation, say a regional art gallery, which has its annual grant cut in half, can’t go to the media to complain because it is still receiving the smaller amount of money and if it speaks out could end up with nothing at all.

In Canada, a survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service has found that 90 per cent of Federal Government scientists feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do.

The Institute found that 86 per cent of the scientists, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, thought they would face censure or retaliation if they spoke up.

According to the survey, nearly half (48 per cent) were aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry and/or other Government officials.

Institute President Gary Corbett said the scientists were working in “a climate of fear”.

In the United Kingdom dozens of local councils are bypassing traditional media and putting out their own newspapers. These are far more sophisticated than the occasional newsletters of the past, appearing in newspaper form and at frequent intervals.

Inevitably, the councils who produce them portray themselves in the most favourable of lights.  

The Government at Westminster has been critical of these ‘Town Hall Pravdas’, saying they are a waste of ratepayers’ money, but to date has done nothing to halt the practice.

There are more subtle – and widespread – ways of ensuring ‘inconvenient truths’ don’t get into the media, the main one being to stonewall. Calls are not returned; information is withheld. When a reply is made it is often by email couched in dense, bureaucratic language that could mean anything, or nothing.

In the past this would not have mattered so much when skilled journalists cut though the blather, found other sources who were willing to give the real story and threw the rubbish back in the faces of its presenters. But today media outlets are under unprecedented pressure as declining circulation, ratings and advertising forces cutbacks in staff. Often media releases and statements are taken at face value with little or no critical examination.

Ironically, one of the reasons UK councils give for the Town Hall Pravdas is that mainstream journalists are no longer available to properly cover local affairs.

As a result, the initiative for generating ‘news’ is shifting from traditional media to the sources of news themselves and that is a very disturbing trend to anyone who believes our national institutions need to be held to account.  





Thursday, October 24, 2013

Print revival? Afraid not

I have come across an article written a few weeks back by Eric Spitz, part owner of an American media company whose flagship is the Orange County Register based in Santa Ana, California.

I was intrigued by the headline – ‘US in the midst of a print revival’ – news to me, but worth a read.

As it turned out, the only evidence of this ‘revival’ was at the Register itself which, under Spitz and his business partner, Aaron Kushner, has undergone something of a renaissance. According to Spitz in the past 12 months the Register has hired 350 people, established 25 new sections, revamped its weekly community papers and launched a weekly set of magazines.

He states there has been a rise in both subscription and advertising revenue, although he doesn’t give exact figures, and on the basis of that makes two assertions. One I have sympathy with, the other I must reject.

Spitz says that media companies the world over made a huge mistake when, with the advent and growth of the internet in the early 1990s they put their content on line for all to see – for nothing.

“I don’t know many industries that can survive pricing their core product at zero,” he says. Quite right: Media companies were sucked in to the early internet hype and thought they could use their webpages as shop windows for their print editions. It didn’t work and when networks such as CNN and, in Australia the ABC, began to put all or most of their content online for nothing, newspapers felt they had to follow suit.

As a result while consumers are quite happy to buy everything from groceries to motor cars online they have become used to – and expect – to get their news for free. Good luck to Spitz and the Orange County Register if they feel they can turn back the tide. As examples of the successful use of paywalls Spitz quotes the Wall Street Journal (specialist news unavailable in the same content or quality elsewhere) and Groupa Reforma, which apparently is the largest media company in Mexico (hmm..). We shall see.

Maybe the bolting online news horse can be persuaded back into the stable, but Spitz’s other assertion, that newspapers will remain the prime location for advertising, is completely wide of the mark. He maintains that digital advertising does not work, that people almost never click on to online advertisements, while overlooking the massively popular websites that sell cars, homes, relationships and 101 other things.

I spoke to a real estate agent quite recently who said he now does all his business online. A survey taken last year shows that 80 per cent of prospective home buys go first to

It is the classifieds - the ‘rivers of gold’ - rather than display advertising, that are lost to newspapers, probably for good. It is a body blow to the industry that may not be fatal, but will certainly change it radically in the years to come.   


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rudd going now is stupid

Leaving aside former Attorney General Nicola Roxon’s highly-charged and emotional attack on her one-time boss, Kevin Rudd, as a bastard, her view that he should quit Parliament at once for the good of the Labor Party is downright stupid.

Roxon is not alone in this opinion – a number of Labor Parliamentarians have said Rudd should go without, it seems, paying any attention to the likely outcome of such a move  

Rudd retained his seat in Griffith by a slender margin at the election. The fact he was Prime Minister and constantly in the national spotlight probably got him over the line. Should he resign now Labor would face a by-election before the end of the year with an unknown candidate and while the Abbott Government was still in its honeymoon period.

In other words, Griffith would likely be lost, adding to the conservative majority in Parliament and providing yet another highly-publicised body blow to a disheartened party struggling to get back on track with its new leader.

 I believe Rudd will go just as soon as he sorts out a job for himself at the United Nations or some other international agency, but far better it be somewhere into the New Year, say in April or May, when the Coalition has had time to make a few mistakes and get itself offside with the electorate.

A by-election then could have just the opposite effect than one held in the next few weeks – a strong Labor win would bring new energy to the membership and credence to the view that it can bounce back to make a real contest of the election in 2016.  

Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen was being polite when he reacted to Roxon’s outburst by saying all former Labor leaders deserved respect.

Instead he and new leader Bill Shorten should tell the Rudd Must Go faction to zip their lips and leave it to the former Prime Minister to decide when he departs the scene.