Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Calling time on this political circus

If there is one thing that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of an election date on September 14 has done, it has highlighted the need for reform of our electoral process.
We need longer terms – four or even five years between elections – and we need them to end on fixed dates rather than on a Prime Minister’s whim.

Whatever Gillard’s reasons – whether she really thought it would bring certainty for business and quell endless speculation about when the date would actually be, or whether it was a ploy to put the Opposition on the back foot and cement her position as leader – the reaction in the media has been almost unanimous and quite predictable.

“Australia’s longest-ever election campaign” was gleefully hailed by one outlet after another. As far as most political journalists are concerned we have entered election mode and that’s how they will covering politics from now on through to September.
It suits them because with Australia’s ridiculously short three-year terms federally, there is precious little time for any introspective reporting on whether a particular policy or initiative is good for the country or not. The Government announces it, the Opposition attacks it, and so the ping-pong ball goes back and forth until the media tires of it, or the next item is produced for the treatment.

We spend more time on reporting on whether or not a particular MP misused his credit card years ago, or whether a spouse should or should not have undertaken a journey on government expense (and how this will affect the outcome of the next election) than we do on the actual art of governing. I am not saying the aforementioned incidents are unimportant or should not be exposed, just that we spend far more time on them at the expense of other worthy political issues.
Short terms have been exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle to the point that many journalists see political reporting as only a contest between Government and Opposition, with the next opinion poll as the all-important measure of who is on the front foot and who is on the ropes. More importantly, this is also beginning to affect politicians who are becoming more interested in backroom machinations and the quick fix than visions of where a well-governed country should be headed.

Longer, fixed terms are not the silver bullet, but over time they will at least provide the framework for a saner, more rational style of governing, rather than the three-ring circus into which we are currently descending.    

Monday, January 28, 2013

Israel acts on chemical war fears

Fears that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile may be turned against Israel have led to a surge of diplomatic activity in Jerusalem, only days after a complicated and inconclusive general election result.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held an emergency meeting of his Cabinet resulting in National Security Adviser, Yaakov Amidror, being sent to Moscow to seek Russian help in pressuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to keep the weapons secure.

Cynics may suggest this is a ploy by Netanyahu to hold his embattled coalition together, and in particular to weaken opposition to forming an alliance with the right wing Jewish Home Party. However, it does seem that after months of inconclusive fighting, the two-year-long civil war in Syria might be reaching a decisive – and dangerous – stage.

Moscow is one of Assad’s few remaining allies, but in a significant development over the weekend, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that the Syrian President’s hold on power was nearing its end.

Assad had made a serious mistake in not seeking negotiations with more moderate opponents at an earlier stage, and it was now too late, Medvedev was reported as saying. “Every day his [Assad’s] chances of survival are growing slimmer.”

This raises the possibility of two nightmare scenarios. One that if Assad feels he cannot win by conventional means he may order the use of chemical weapons against the forces of his opponents. He has said he would not do this unless the West entered the war on the side of the opposition, but it would be simple enough for him to manufacture an excuse if his situation becomes desperate.

The second – and this really concerns Israel – is that the chemical weapons fall into the hands of militant elements of the opposition, including Al-Qaida; or Hezbollah, which fights on the side of the Syrian Government. Unconfirmed reports out of Syria suggest a battle is taking place between Government troops and an Al-Qaida led faction near the largest chemical weapons base of the Syrian Army outside Aleppo.

Writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, commentator Alex Fishman said that if chemical weapons were brought into Lebanon [presumably by Hezbollah] Israel would not hesitate to use military force to eliminate them, a move that would certainly plunge the Middle East into the biggest crisis since the 1972 Yom Kippur War.   

Monday, January 21, 2013

Gandhi rallies the Congress faithful

It wasn’t quite a coronation, but the elevation of Rahul Gandhi to vice president of the All India Congress Committee is, without doubt, putting him on the road to lead the governing Congress Party coalition into the next Indian general election in 2014.

Senior party members, who know they must choose a Prime Ministerial candidate to replace the ailing 80-year-old Manmohan Singh, have been calling for, even demanding, that Gandhi play a greater role in Congress politics. Their reasons were obvious. After a decade in power, the party is embroiled in a slough of corruption scandals.

India’s once spectacular economic growth has slowed and there are mounting complaints from the military that it does not have the manpower and equipment to defend the country properly – a highly sensitive subject given border tensions with China in the east and Pakistan in the west.

The Congress grandees’ reasoning is that only the Gandhi name (Rahul is the great grandson, grandson and son of former Prime Ministers) can give the party a fighting chance of a further five years in office, but the 42-year-old backbench MP has, up to now, been reluctant to put himself forward and last year declined a Ministerial appointment in Singh’s Government.

Instead, he has been content to work behind the scenes within the party structure and these most recent moves have brought him to second place in that hierarchy behind his mother, Sonia.

This somewhat roundabout way of rising through the ranks mattered little to the 1200 delegates gathered in Jaipur who were ready to treat what in all other cases would have been a routine vice-presidential acceptance speech as a much needed morale-booster for the Congress faithful. In fact, they got more than they bargained for.

After beginning in traditional fashion, saying the people of India were his life and pledging to fight for their betterment, Gandhi then launched into an attack on the Government system that would have done credit to any opposition speaker.

“A handful of people control the entire political space…it doesn’t matter how much wisdom you have, if you don’t have a position, you have nothing – it is the tragedy of India,” he said.   

All the public systems – administration, justice, education and politics – were designed to keep people with knowledge out. Mediocrity was rewarded.

He pledged himself to work to transform stagnant, out-dated systems and promised to bring younger people, with new ideas, into the political process.

Such words from a representative of the greatest establishment family in Indian politics are surprising to say the least, but it may be that Gandhi has been playing an artful game by keeping out of the turmoil into which the Singh Government has descended in recent times.

By staying on the sidelines in the Lok Sabha, while building up a power base within the party structure, he can use the pulling power of the Gandhi name, while portraying himself as an outsider ready to tackle the problems that his own party created.

However, much will depend on him being able to lift what has been up to now a very moderate campaigning style, especially, as seems likely, he will be up against the charismatic Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, of the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014.

In recent times Gandhi has supported Congress in state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with a singular lack of success, while his intervention in the Gujarat poll late last year was a disaster as Modi swept into a third consecutive term on a landslide.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Israeli poll likely bad news for Obama

Israel goes to the polls on Tuesday, but the result is already seen as a foregone conclusion – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be returned with his party leading a centre-right coalition – and this is bad news for United States President Barack Obama as well as Palestinians hoping for Israeli agreement on a separate state based on the now occupied West Bank.
While the alliance between the US and Israel has been a foreign policy fundamental  for both since the State of Israel came into being in 1948, never have the leaders been so far apart in their philosophies and beliefs. Quite bluntly they don’t like each other and unlike other personal tiffs between past US presidents and Israeli prime ministers, they make very little effort to hide it.

Only recently, the White House leaked a damning assessment of Netanyahu by Obama as a “political coward whose policies pose a greater threat to Israel’s existence than Iran’s nuclear program”.

“Netanyahu,” Obama is reported as saying “is incapable of making concessions to the Palestinians because he has become a captive of the Jewish settler lobby”.

Netanyahu came perilously close to directly interfering in US domestic politics with an ill-concealed preference for Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in the November presidential election. He has also defied the president by giving the go-ahead to settler housing in highly-sensitive areas of the West Bank which, if continued, will have the effect of cutting Palestinians off from East Jerusalem, which they consider should be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“Everyone understands that only Israelis will determine who faithfully represents Israel’s vital interests,” Netanyahu said in a recent speech to an army audience.

Added to this is a divide between the two countries on how Iran’s nuclear program should be handled. Netanyahu believes that Iran has “crossed the line”; is undoubtedly on a course to produce nuclear weapons and should be prevented from doing so by strikes against its nuclear facilities. While not necessarily disagreeing on Iran’s intentions, Obama wants more time for non-military solutions to work.
Some insiders believe that Netanyahu would prefer to back away from a direct confrontation from Washington which is, after all, one of its few international friends and major financial supporter. Outwardly a big win on Tuesday should strengthen his hand to take this course, but due to the perverse nature of Israeli politics the effect could be just the opposite.

The likely crushing defeat of the moderate Kadima Party, which polls predict will lose 26 of its 28 seats, and the failure of the once mighty, now moribund Labor Party to make any headway, means that the new composition of the Knesset will be more conservative.  Major winners are likely to be the right wing Habayit Hayehudi and Ihud ha-Leumi parties who steadfastly oppose relinquishing any of the territories Israel won in the 1967 war.

As a result Netanyahu will have less room to manoeuvre to pursue more liberal policies, and his hard-line stance towards negotiations with the Palestinians and the two-state solution, is likely to continue and may even strengthen.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hopes for swift end to Mali crisis

With very good reason, the world is against the Islamic militant forces who are seeking to take over Mali. France acted swiftly when the beleaguered Government of its former colony sought help and sent in 750 troops backed by air power with more to come; for once the United Nations Security Council lived up to its name and unanimously backed the French action; the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Germany have either provided support to the operation or promised to do so; West African nations have promised troops.
t is not hard to see why. The original insurgents, Tuareg tribes in the north of the country seeking to establish their own state, have been infiltrated by Islamic militants from other parts of Africa – for instance, al-Shabab, one of the main rebel groups, is Somali-based.

The initial aim of northern independence has been replaced by a campaign to take over the entire country, subjecting it to a harsh version of Islamic law. This has already begun in the areas controlled by the rebels with reports of mutilations and executions for offences real or imagined, usually for supporting the government.

A radical Islamic state in the middle of West Africa would certainly have a destabilising effect on the entire region, while providing a new base in which terrorist groups would train and from where they could strike.
Yet just 12 months ago Mali, although one of the poorest nations in Africa, had been held up as a model of democracy. Since 1992, presidents have been elected, served their terms and stood down when the constitution required it. However, the Tuareg insurgency destabilised the Government led by Amandou Toure leading to a short-lived military coup, then a return to civilian administration.

Taking advantage of this confusion, Islamic radicals, many fleeing Libya at the end of its civil war, established themselves in the north, expelled government troops and began to move on the capital, Bamako, leading to French President Francois Hollande’s decision to intervene.  
Hollande will be hoping for a swift victory and his elite Legionnaires will probably provide it once enough of them get on the ground. However, while most of the fighting is still being done by Malian Government forces, the rebels continue to hold their own and even make small advances, despite the presence of French air power. An attempt to retake the strategic centre of Konna has so far failed.

Meanwhile, the rebels are threatening to execute French citizens they have detained in northern Mali while militants have called for jihad against French people and property in France and throughout the world. For the time being at least, the international community has to face the reality of yet another flashpoint of crisis.    

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dangerous to ignore Chinese ambitions

An article by Charles Emmerson in Foreign Policy Magazine makes the proposition that the international situation in 2013 has similarities to that of 1913 when, of course, the world was on the brink of the Great War.

He writes: “The leading power of the age [2013 the United States, 1913 Britain] is in relative decline…a rising power [2013 China, 1913 Germany] is jostling for position…democracy and despotism are locked in uneasy competition. A world economy is interconnected as never before by flows of money, trade, and people and by the unprecedented spread of new, distance-destroying technologies…”

Having built up the argument, Emmerson qualifies it, correctly pointing out that in 1913 Germany was a newcomer on the international stage, while China had been a global power in past centuries and is simply returning to the position it once occupied; in 1913 Britain’s decline was there for all to see – it had slipped behind Germany in industrial production some years previously – while, despite endless predictions of doom, the US is still far and away the world’s largest and most innovative economy.

However he then goes on to say that in 1913 Germany was actively seeking an overseas empire [correct - German East Africa, German New Guinea and elsewhere]  while “China eschews the idea that it is an expansionist power (though it is perfectly clear about protecting its interests around the world).”

It is quite amazing that Emmerson can lump Chinese expansionism under “protecting its interests”. In doing so he has acquiesced to the game China plays, which is to push its territorial ambitions under the guise of regaining areas and spheres of influence that it claims is its by historical right and was taken from it during its time of weakness in the last decades of imperial government. A few examples of the greater China policy:

Tibet: China invaded the country shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, claiming it was historically part of China, even though at the time Tibet was clearly an independent, sovereign nation.

India: In 1962 China invaded India and captured large swathes of territory, although it later withdrew in the knowledge that with the end of the Cuban missile crisis, it would face pressure from both the Soviet Union (then allied to India) and the United States. The border between the countries is still in dispute and China has produced a map showing the entire Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Southern Tibet.’

Hong Kong: In initial negotiations in the 1980s, China rejected out of hand a proposal that Britain continue to administer the territory, although the island of Hong Kong and Kowloon had been ceded to the United Kingdom ‘in perpetuity’ and only the New Territories were subject to a 99-year lease.  While no referendum was ever held, it is quite reasonable to suppose that a majority of Hong Kong citizens would have preferred continued British rule and eventual independence.

Taiwan: Although the People’s Republic has never ruled the island of Taiwan, to which the defeated Nationalists retreated at the end of the Chinese Civil War, Beijing continues to insist it is a renegade province which it will reclaim one day.

South China Sea:  China simply refuses to concede ground on its claim to islands in the South China Sea, bullying smaller neighbours such as the Philippines and Vietnam with statements that they are ‘historically’ part of China because of long-standing Chinese fishing interests there.

The pattern is clear. Beijing makes claims on territory based on flimsy historical associations and then rejects all protests on the ground that it is interference in its internal affairs.

On this basis China might well feel it has a right to vast areas of Central Asia, while the 15th century Chinese admiral, Zeng He, extracted tributes from most of the then kingdoms of south-east Asia and took his fleet as far as the Persian Gulf and the East Coast of Africa.

Emmerson’s claim  that 1913 and 2013 have much in common is really no more than a good piece of headline-grabbing journalism, but his suggestion that the West should not equate China’s pursuit of its own interests with territorial expansion is flawed and dangerous.  


Monday, January 7, 2013

Another round in UK’s European preoccupation

In a year when most rational commentators agree the United Kingdom should be concentrating its efforts on economic growth and the reduction of unemployment, it appears that the country is set for yet another chapter in its interminable debate on European membership.

Prime Minister David Cameron set the scene in a BBC interview in which he said he was “entitled and enabled” to seek a repatriation of powers from the European Union when other countries sought changes in their obligations in order to make the euro work more effectively.

He also foreshadowed that long-running goal of the right wing in British politics – a referendum on whether the United Kingdom remains within the EU - while repeating the mantra of Conservative leaders of the past two decades, that he does not favour a UK withdrawal.

Cameron is seeking a raft of measures, including a bar on non-British EU citizens claiming social security benefits even if they are working in the United Kingdom – anathema to Brussels which sees it as a move against its goal of a single European jobs market.

As changes to EU treaties require the unanimous support of all member countries, Cameron may feel he has the leverage to get what he wants. However European Governments might find a way round a British veto, possibly by making arrangements among themselves without resort to EU law.

Such a path would be complicated and time-consuming and would leave European leaders fuming at yet another example of British spoiling. These is a growing feeling within the Brussels bureaucracy that that it would be no bad thing if a referendum were to result in Britain’s exit.

“There is no doubt that the British attitude is hindering European development,” a senior European Public Servant, who did not wish to be named, told me. “They should decide once and for all – if in, play a full and constructive part – if out, then they can negotiate some kind of arrangement such as the Norwegians have but at least allow us to get on with our work.”

Cameron’s latest ‘get tough’ attitude is certainly influenced by the rise in the polls of Ukip, formerly the United Kingdom Independence Party, that is dedicated to seeking British withdrawal from Europe. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is actually a Member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg where he spends his time lambasting his fellow MEPs and the European Commission as a bunch of worthless and expensive time-servers.

Cynics say that Cameron will call a referendum and blame Ukip if the vote is for withdrawal – a massive act of cutting off the nose to spite the face considering that a full 50 per cent of Britain’s trade is with the EU.

The question should also be asked as to whether EU membership is such a burning issue among the electorate - Even Ukip supporters put it third behind the economy and law and order, while a previous referendum on EU membership in 1974 saw a two-to-one vote in favour of staying in.

While Britons exercise their national pastime for grumbling when it comes to the EU and will probably never agree to give up their beloved pound in favour of the euro, the disadvantages of quitting will weigh heavily when, and if, they are called to the ballot box to vote on the question.     

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Rape is not just an Indian problem

I had hoped to resume this blog in 2013 on a lighter subject, but unfortunately the fallout from the gang rape and murder of the young woman in New Delhi has produced some disturbing trends, not just in social media where the more left-field opinions are to be expected, but also in the so-called respectable publications and on television talk shows. They demand a critique.

It seems that many commentators are judging not the individuals, or even their social backgrounds and upbringing, but the Indian nation as a whole. I have heard and seen opinions where India has been described as a barbarous country where women are treated as chattels or legitimate objects of titivation; that the country values its women less than its men and has no interest in respecting or protecting them.

Well, let’s take stock for a moment.  These attitudes certainly exist in India – but they don’t in the so-called enlightened and progressive West? A lot has been made of the fact that a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India. I have seen just one reference to the published statistic that a rape occurs every two minutes in the United States.

Both these figures are horrific and inexcusable and in India the wave of revulsion has been shown on our television screens and in our newspapers almost daily since the gang rape occurred in mid-December. There have been marches and candlelit vigils and did you note that while the media focused on the women in the streets there were actually just as many men with them?

And when the frustration boiled over and the police turned nasty, men were there in the front row taking the lathi lashings and the bursts from the water cannon. When the Indian President’s son and Congress Party MP made some disparaging remarks about the protesters the outcry was so great he was quickly forced to apologise but even so, I wouldn’t bet much on him holding his seat at the next election.

In contrast to this let’s take a look at the cases of Jill Meagher, raped and buried in a shallow grave in Victoria this year and Joanna Yeates who had the life strangled out of her by a perverted next door neighbour in the United Kingdom just before Christmas in 2010.

Both these cases were high profile in their two countries. Both held the attention of their nations for a while, and with both there was great sadness, mourning and fine words from the political leaders.

But did either produce one skerrick of change, either in legislation or in other initiatives to confront rape and make the streets safer for women? If so, I haven’t heard of them.

Yet in India, I am willing to bet that the groundswell of protest and soul-searching now being felt throughout the nation are the beginnings of beneficial effects on social attitudes and that politicians, fearful of losing their jobs, will enact laws to make their towns and cities safer places for all their inhabitants.