Thursday, December 18, 2014

Are we losing out to evil?

It would be easy to think that the civilised word is losing out to the terrorists after the events of the past few days.

In Sydney the central business district is brought to a halt for almost 18 hours while a deranged gunman who claims he is connected with Islamic extremism holds hostages in a café. The siege ends in a hail of bullets leaving two innocent people dead.

In Peshawar, northern Pakistan, seven Taliban gunmen target a school and massacre 132 children and nine staff in an act so abominable it almost defies description.

And in the United States, Sony Pictures decides to scrap release of The Interview after hackers, almost certainly acting on behalf of the North Korean regime, threaten death and destruction on a 9/11 scale if  theatres show the movie, a comedy in which North Korean President Kim Jong-un is assassinated.

At first sight it seems ludicrous to put the third incident against the other two where so much blood was spilled, but I believe its long-term consequences for the West could be even more significant.

In the first two cases, the perpetrators paid for their crimes with their lives – little comfort to the victims and their loved ones, but at least they will never kill anyone again.

But with Sony the terrorist hackers (because that’s what they are) achieved their objectives without any danger to themselves. In fact they have probably learnt from their actions and are even more capable of striking again.

The group, which calls itself the Guardians of Peace, had already shown its abilities by hacking into Sony’s computer system and stealing a wad of emails, staff salary details and social security numbers which it published on the internet, as well as proof copies of five yet to be released movies.

The threat to movie cinemas seems less realistic, but it nevertheless had most chain owners running for cover. Before Sony’s decision to withdraw The Interview there had already been a string of cancellations of the scheduled Christmas Day opening in the US.

But what many terrorism experts fear is the extent to which the hackers could bring down crucial systems such as electricity grids, water and sewerage utilities and Government computer operations.

Could they, for instance, hack into a major dam’s network and flood towns and cities? At this point probably not. Government and utility computer defences are likely to be far more secure than that of Sony, which is already being criticised for not taking better care of its secrets.

Our leaders also seek to play down the fears. US President Barak Obama says there is no credibility to the hackers’ 9/11 threat – and he is almost certainly right. However, the extent to which terrorists can disrupt the normal running of society simply by threatening to do something, cannot be discounted.

Years ago, during the Northern Ireland troubles, a prominent British politician suggested to me that if just 10 per cent of a community’s population refused to be governed, the entire community would become ungovernable – in the digital age there is potential for chaos to be spread without a single person being physically present.

We are heading for very interesting times.      

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Is Australia becoming too ‘China dependent’?

Treasurer Joe Hockey is known for some interesting quotes, but his recent suggestion that China will have a billion of its people raised into the middle class by 2030 stands out from the rest.

Given that China currently numbers 1.3 billion people and its population growth rate is falling (at just 0.47 per cent it is ranked 159th in the world) there will not be many more Chinese around in 2030 than there are now. In other words Mr Hockey is suggesting that something more than 80 per cent of the nation’s population will be designated ‘middle class’ in just 16 years.

That would be an outstanding achievement, especially as the current estimation of the middle class in China is around 150 million people, mostly living in the capital and the eastern coastal cities.

Of course there is really no scientific definition of ‘middle class’ and it may be that people living a few percentage points above the poverty line will be counted as ‘middle class’ by the statisticians in Beijing, but leaving aside this argument it is the reasons behind Mr Hockey’s optimistic statement that are most concerning.

Once again the Treasurer is holding China up as Australia’s lifeline to continued prosperity as the century progresses. What is most worrying is that it is increasingly looking like the nation’s only lifeline. As Griffith University academic, Tom Conley pointed out in a recent article Australia is already the most China-dependent economy in the world.

The nation’s exports to China have grown from 8.5 per cent of the total in 2003-04 to 32.5 per cent in 2013-14 and with a free trade agreement in the offing they will grow further.

So, if things go wrong in China – economically or politically – then Australia will be hit harder than any other nation

Dr Conley says Australia is in need of a Plan B and suggests it should be based on a diversification away from the resource industries that that have provided the bulk of our exports to China in recent years.

Given the plunge in world prices, notably for iron ore, this make a great deal of sense, but I would add to it by suggesting the Federal Government should actively encourage exporters to look at other potential destinations to at least stem the growth in China’s market share.

The most obvious example is India – a nation similar in size to China but at the moment taking just one tenth of the goods and services we send to Beijing. Like China, India is becoming more prosperous and under the new Government elected in May is embarking on a program of rapid economic expansion.

Last month Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Canberra pushing for a free trade agreement. While he got a polite reception the fear is that our exporters, blinded by the Chinese ‘miracle’, will see no urgency in such a deal and put it on the back burner.

As Dr Conley gloomily concludes: “If policymakers simply believe that China will sustain Australia’s prosperity over the next 20 years, then many Australians will think there is no reason to change tack – until it’s too late.”     

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Taiwan – where a vote means something

Taiwan’s Prime Minister, Jian Yi-huah resigned after his ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) suffered a landslide defeat in the country’s local and municipal elections, saying he took “political responsibility” for the heavy losses.

The responsibility lies with the policies of the KMT itself which ordinary Taiwanese see as making the country too dependent on mainland China for its economic wellbeing. The election results reinforce the views of the people, made clear earlier this year during massive demonstrations against a planned trade pact with Beijing.

The result will give new impetus to the China-sceptic Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which held power from 2000-08. A DPP victory at the Presidential poll in 2016 would infuriate Beijing which sees Taiwan as a renegade province that must eventually return to the motherland.

If Taiwanese have any doubts what that might mean they have only to look across the Taiwan Straits to Hong Kong where long-running pro-democracy demonstrations are being put down with increasing police violence.

The demonstrators there are calling for the right to freely elect their leaders – something that was promised by China when it took over Hong Kong from the British in 1997 and declared it a Special Administrative Region.

After years of procrastination, Beijing said the election could take place in 2017, but only with candidates it has “approved”, something that demonstrators believe will result in a meaningless contest between pro-China stooges.

The difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong is stark. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and the will of its electorate is paramount. The young people who took to the streets to celebrate the KMT’s downfall know that they have a stake in their country’s future – and that future does not involve taking orders from an authoritarian clique in far-off Beijing.

In contrast Hong Kong is treating its young activists (the vast majority of the pro-democracy demonstrators are under 40) with baton-charges, pepper spraying and beatings. Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying has said there is “not a chance” that Beijing will water-down its right to decide who Hong Kongers should vote for.

And in an incredible statement for the representative of a political philosophy that supposedly espouses the establishment of a classless society, Mr Leung said free elections were not possible “because they would result in the poor dominating politics”.

In a further indication that Beijing is strengthening its hold over Hong Kong, a delegation of British Members of Parliament on a fact-finding mission have been told by the Chinese Embassy in London that they would be denied entry into the Special Administrative Region.

The delegation wanted to review Hong Kong’s relations with the United Kingdom 30 years after it negotiated terms for the handover. Beijing said that would be interference in its internal affairs.

It is no wonder that young Hong Kongers are casting envious eyes at the freedoms their counterparts enjoy across the Taiwan Strait.

And no wonder that as far as the youth of Taiwan are concerned, reunion with the mainland is a dead issue.          






Monday, November 24, 2014

Democratic India’s South Pacific push

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned ‘democracy’ five times during his speech to the Australian Parliament last week.

There were also numerous references to ‘security’ and ‘cooperation’, and this key paragraph:

“We should collaborate more on maintaining maritime security. We should work together on the seas and collaborate in international forums. And, we should work for a universal respect for international law and global norms.”

Nothing could be clearer from the Indian leader’s message: India and Australia should provide the foundation for a democratic consensus that respects the rule of law and opposes those that would subvert it.

He never mentioned China, but Beijing is never far from Modi’s thoughts as he frames his nation’s new policies for the Asia-Pacific region.

It was no coincidence that Modi’s next stop after Australia was Suva for a meeting of Pacific Island leaders where he announced a basket of aid and other support.

This included a $1 million fund to help these small countries cope with rising sea levels resulting from climate change; support for tele-medicine and tele-education projects; promotion of trade links, relaxation of visa restrictions and the establishment of a regular Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation, with the next meeting to be held in India in 2015.

His intentions are clear. India well be a significant player in the Pacific region and a counterbalance to China’s growing influence there. His emphasis on maritime security and the need to respect international forums would certainly have been noted by countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, currently locked in disputes over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Disputes which China resolutely refuses to take to international arbitration.

Was it any surprise that almost before Modi had left, Chinese President Xi Jinping flew into Suva to sign a flurry of Memorandums of Understanding with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama including…wait for it…”provision of goods to address climate change” and “visa exemptions for Fijians travelling to China”.

China has courted Bainimarama since 2006 when he ousted his country’s democratically-elected Government in a military coup, a move that would have delighted Beijing which prefers to deal with authoritarian Governments rather than “inefficient” democracies.

For a while it seemed that Fiji might be the key to China’s influence in the South Pacific, but Bainimarama has chosen to return to the democratic path and this year his party won a general election which was considered to be fair.

Beijing must now tread more carefully, trading on the Fijian leader’s dislike of Australia and New Zealand, which opposed his previous dictatorship. India, however, is quite another matter.

It will be fascinating to see how this all plays out in the months and years to come.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Beware of Chinese bearing gifts

The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement needs to be studied line-by-line.

It needs to be tested by academics, business, community leaders and politicians. There should be a national debate, led by Parliament certainly, over not just the headlines, but the fine print. Who wins and who loses; and whether the wins more than balance out the inevitable losses.

Unfortunately Australians are not going to get that opportunity until after the agreement is signed, sealed and delivered next year. That means the much-heralded announcement this week is little more than a statement of intent with a few headlines (dot points as one academic described them) put out mainly for publicity purposes in the wake of the G20 summit.

Certainly the initial sampling is positive – in fact the headlines suggest a better deal than most had reasonably hoped for. Meat, dairy and wine producers will benefit from reduced or eliminated tariffs; iron ore, gold and coking coal will have their tariffs removed; service industries – education, tourism, health and aged care – will have new or improved access to the Chinese market.

But there are other areas that need further investigation. Why, for instance, is China insisting on having the right to bring its own people into the country to work on projects in which it is investing?

Prime Minister, Tony Abbott says this will not happen if the right kind of Australian skilled labour is available, but who decides whether this is the case or not? Chinese investment in Africa has been accompanied by thousands of its own workers, with locals relegated to the most menial of tasks – if at all.

When all these factors are considered it should be remembered that Beijing never does anything that will not overwhelmingly bring benefits to its own interests – if not immediately then down the track. It makes no concessions that can’t be turned to its advantage at some point.

China seeks to dominate this region. It promotes its own brand of government as more suitable for developing nations than “chaotic and inefficient” democracy. The counterweight to this is, of course, the United States and the US’s major ally in the area – once famously called its ‘deputy sheriff” - is Australia.

But Australia has become increasingly dependent on its economic relationship with China to maintain its prosperity. The Free Trade Agreement will significantly increase that dependence.

Money talks – and could there be a time when Australia’s desire to maintain a reasonable standard of living for its people outweighs traditional ties with nations that have shared values and love of personal freedoms?

In short, could Australia’s dependence on trade with China eventually force it into Beijing’s orbit?  

Only time will answer that question but I was concerned when I heard Tony Abbott, in his eulogy of the deal, say that he now ‘trusted’ the Chinese leadership.

Trade by all means, but trust is another matter.

Beware of Chinese bearing gifts. 



Sunday, November 16, 2014

Modi wins G20 statement on tax dodgers

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gained an important victory at the just-finished G20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, winning an assurance from the summit of a formula for the exchange of tax information between countries.  

Modi made the repatriation of what he described as ‘black money’ his priority for the meeting of world leaders, saying that fast developing technologies for moving capital around the world had outstripped the ability of authorities to keep track of it.

As a result, super rich enterprises and individuals were getting out of their responsibilities to pay a fair share of tax, the Indian PM said.

He especially wants action against countries which set themselves up as tax havens at a time when multinational companies are increasingly seeking them out.

The G20’s final communique gave him what he wanted — promising that moves already under way with the OECD to reform international tax rules would be completed by next year.

Modi’s comments come in the wake of reports that India’s economy is now expanding at its fastest pace in more than two years as manufacturing begins to recover from its longest slump in more than a quarter of a century.  

Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Australia in 28 years, is staying on for a two-day State visit, the highlight of which will be an address to the Parliament in Canberra tomorrow

Monday, November 10, 2014

Let their minds fly free

I have just read yet another story about a program designed to ensure students are ‘job ready’ when they leave school or university.

The term is much-loved by the Minister for Industry, Ian Macfarlane, who is constantly promoting the idea that young people must be taught in such a way that they can step seamlessly from their education years into the workforce.

Last month, for instance, Macfarlane was planning reforms of training packages to deliver “what students need to get a job and what industry needs to enhance its productivity through access to the right skills”. A week or so earlier he was delivering “the next tranche of reforms to make the skills and training system more job-focused.”

Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne delivers much the same message, announcing a $12 million plan to encourage more school students to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) “to ensure young Australians are equipped with the necessary skills for the economy of the future”.

Now, I have no intention of arguing that young Australians should receive the training that will enable them to have prosperous and happy lives; or that more students ought to be encouraged to consider the STEM subjects.

My concern is that the balance is tipping too far the other way and that subjects that do not have any obvious pathway into employment are steadily being neglected.

In a recent article, a research scholar with the Institute of Public Affairs, Stephanie Forrest, warned of the “fall of literature”.

"We now have a national curriculum for English, and from the Foundation Year to Year 10, it contains scant mention of any Western literature,” she writes.

“In general, the English curriculum — that is, a curriculum that should arguably be concerned with teaching students to read, write, speak fluent English, understand grammar, and read literature — is far more concerned that students should become ‘ethical, thoughtful, informed and active members of society’.

“The curriculum also frequently alludes to lessons relating to ‘ethics' — particularly relating to the notorious cross-curriculum priorities: ‘Sustainability', ‘Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia', and ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures'.”

Once again, there is nothing wrong with children learning about ethics, sustainability or engagement with Asia, or in better understanding Indigenous culture, but in the past these were subjects that young people with a well-rounded education chose to pursue outside school or at tertiary level.

These are subjects which are far better ‘learned’ than force-fed in the classroom.

A nation needs scientists and researchers as well as it needs plumbers and electricians. It also needs philosophers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists. It needs young people whose minds are attuned to range over the full gamut of thoughts and ideas and to accept or reject them as they mature into young adults.

One of Ms Forrest’s most telling comments comes when she quotes ‘a representative of a prominent teachers' organisation’, who said he could not ‘sell’ the study of classic literature to the majority of teenagers.

The trouble is, no one is even bothering to try.

By force-feeding a teacher’s view of ‘ethics’ and ‘sustainability’ rather than allowing young people to develop their own ideas on the subjects, we are pushing them into narrow corridors at a time when their minds should be expanding to embrace the full richness of knowledge that gives life meaning.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Soothing words and provocative actions

Less than two months ago it was all handshakes and smiles. Chinese President Xi Jinping, on a state visit to India, said he was committed to resolving the border dispute between the two countries “at an early date”.

“China has the determination to work with India through friendly consultation to settle the boundary question,” he told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Seven weeks later it is now clear that on the border question at least Xi brought nothing to New Delhi except empty words. Chinese incursions and provocations have continued, both on the borders with Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

China has sent troops by boat and land well across the Line of Actual Control (LOC), which serves as an unofficial border, in the Pangong Lake area of Jammu and Kashmir and has reacted angrily to Indian plans to build border posts along the LOC in Arunachal Pradesh.

In response to the latter initiative Beijing once again mouthed the usual slogans. “China’s position on the China-India boundary question is consistent and clear. We are committed to finding a solution to the boundary question with the Indian side through friendly negotiation as soon as possible and working together to safeguard peace and tranquillity along the border,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said.

China’s position is anything but consistent and clear: A mixture of soothing words and provocative actions. Modi obviously has little faith in any negotiated settlement over a dispute which has dragged on since the 1962 war between the two countries and indeed goes back to an agreement signed between the British Raj and the then Government of Tibet a century ago.

In announcing the new border posts, the Indian Prime Minister also called for a considerable strengthening of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) which guards the frontier.

Indeed it is believed that a beefed-up and more aggressive ITBP faced down the latest Chinese incursions on Pangong Lake.

It is quite clear that by an overwhelming majority the inhabitants of Arunachal Pradesh regard themselves as Indian and would prefer to be sending their elected representatives to the State capital in Itanagar and the Lok Sabha in New Delhi than having to obey diktats from far-off Beijing.

A settlement there and in Jammu and Kashmir can never be reached in the face of constant flare-ups and heightened tensions.

The thinking among some Indian observers is that Beijing wants nothing more than complete annexation of the disputed territories and is simply dragging things out until it can find an Indian Government it can bully into acceding to its demands.

With the Modi Government at least, that is a forlorn hope.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why democracy is always the best way

In Tunisia the ruling Islamic Ennahda Party has been defeated by its secularist Nidaa Tounes opponent in parliamentary elections.

 In Brazil, incumbent President Dilma Rouseff held on by the skin of her teeth against a right-of-centre opponent and in Ukraine a coalition of pro-European parties will hold a substantial parliamentary majority in an election in which separatists in the east of the country chose to play no part.

While the results will generally be considered good news in Western capitals, the most significant winner is democracy itself. The outcomes have not been challenged; the will of the people in three countries has been respected.

These elections were held when the concept of democracy itself is under more challenge than at any time since the end of the Cold War: Elected Governments in Iraq and Afghanistan battle Islamic insurgents who want nothing to do with one-person-one-vote; in Russia, democratic freedoms are being steadily undermined in what is fast becoming a State regressing into a mixture of Soviet/Tsarist authoritarianism.

China, which has never known democracy (except possibly of a very limited kind in the early years of the last century) aggressively advocates its style of Government as best for nations in the developing world.

It points to the legislative logjam caused by the United States’ admittedly complicated system of checks and balances, even to the recent disturbances in Hong Kong – which it authored by its refusal to allow true democracy there – as the ‘dangers’ of extending political power beyond a small ruling clique.

Even in Australia which as a nation has known no other form of government, democracy has its detractors. In a recent article Ian Marsh of the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, bemoaned the country’s “failing democracy”.

“The recent record is of a system that is largely gridlocked. Short of crisis, political leaders are trapped in a short-term cage,” he writes.

It cannot be argued that Governments the world over are facing momentous change, largely brought about by a technical revolution that allows instant communication of ideas and philosophies that in the past might have taken decades to mature and develop.

But what system is best suited to adapt to these changes – in China where ideas that do not accord with the rulers are censored and their proponents persecuted and jailed? In North Korea where anyone who steps out of line simply ‘disappears’? In Russia where opposition journalists are harassed and murdered?

Or in democracies were differences, often fundamental and sometimes violent differences, are there for all to see and the people and their leaders strive to find answers in the full light of day?

Ballot boxes and voting booths do not solve problems in themselves, but they are the places where solutions can start to be found. The way forward may be slow and frustrating, but in the end it is always the best way.

They know that in Brasilia, in Kiev and in Tunis. They should be an example to us all.








Friday, October 17, 2014

Getting rid of the Raj

It sound like something from the days before independence in 1947, but India’s Inspector Raj system is widely considered to be a significant drag on the nation’s ability to do business in the 21st century.

In addition, its critics charge it is a fertile breeding ground for corruption and a major example of the mind-boggling bureaucracy that has plagued the nation ever since its founders embraced a Soviet-style planned economy in the 1950s.

In those days, anyone who wanted to set up a manufacturing plant had to gain a licence from the Government. Once the licence was granted the business was subject to periodic checks by Labour Ministry inspectors to ensure it was fulfilling its terms.

The inspections were meant to cover areas such as workers’ conditions and whether factory owners were profiteering by selling their goods at a higher rate than stipulated, but over the years the system became mired in corruption.

Inspectors, who had total discretion over which premises to visit and how often, would accept bribes to overlook deficiencies in one company, or to harass a rival organisation; compliance paperwork involved filling in 16 different forms at regular intervals — an onerous task in a nation of small business owners where some 84 per cent of manufacturing workers are employed in workplaces of 50 or less.   

Under the new regime, inspectors will lose their right to choose which factories to visit. Instead a computer will select organisations — and the inspector who will visit — at random. Reports must be submitted within 72 hours and any significant changes recommended will be subject to review.

The form filling will be reduced from 16 to one online submission.

Successive Indian administrations have backed away from the task of addressing the nation’s rigid labour laws for fear of a trade union backlash, but the Bharatiya Janata Party Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in May on a platform of industrial reform, is sweetening the pill with a number of pro-worker measures.

These include easier access to provident fund accounts and insurance schemes and a faster system for addressing employee grievances.

The reforms are a key component of Modi’s Make in India program, which aims to attract massive overseas investment and create 100 million jobs over the next decade.





Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Toilet talk and zombies in New Delhi

There’s been a great deal of toilet talk in New Delhi recently — and I don’t mean of the scatological kind.

To be more accurate, it’s talk about toilets, because in a departure from the usual political rhetoric, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been putting the subject high on his agenda.

Actually, it makes a great deal of sense because more than 600 million Indians – that’s about half the population – have to defecate in the open. There is no other place to go.

Last year the problem took a deadly turn when two village girls, who went out into fields to relieve themselves after dark, were set upon by a gang of youths, raped and murdered.       

Modi’s aim is to have toilet blocks built in every one of the tens of thousands of rural villages that do not have sewerage connections. To ease the burden on existing services in towns and cities, he is calling for more toilets to be installed in bus and rail stations.   

Recently IT billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates was in the Indian capital and came away impressed with the Prime Minister’s passion to fight poverty and improve the health of his country’s poorest people.

“He’s setting aggressive goals and pushing people to get them done quickly,” Gates said afterwards.

“He is having a lot of intense meetings with various Ministers asking them what they can get done in 100 days; can they make their goals more concrete, more ambitious?”

Modi has repeatedly said he wants sanitation to be available to all Indians by 2019 — the same timeframe he has set for cleaning up the River Ganga, sacred to Hindus, but in places little more than an open sewer.

One issue on which he is taking some flack is his decision to pump more money into the nation’s ‘zombie industries’, inefficient State-owned businesses that have been kept afloat through generous subsidies from the previous Congress-led Government.

The companies were set up in the years following independence in 1947 when India was following the Soviet Union’s model for development. Most run at a loss and at least 20 have stopped production altogether yet still pay their staff full wages.

Modi led his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in May campaigning on a policy of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ and it was widely believed the zombies would be the first casualties.

While a number have been slated for closure, the Government believes around two-thirds could be revived with targeted injections of finance.

The move has drawn shock and ridicule from some critics who claim Modi is shrinking from the hard decisions.

However, the Prime Minister can point to his success in resuscitating zombie companies in his home State of Gujarat during his 13 years as Chief Minister there.

Some 20 publically-owned companies returned to profit through a measured injection of funds, the appointment of independent boards and a ban on political meddling.

Given that nationwide the zombies employ tens of thousands of workers, one final effort to turn them around may be worth the risk.  





Thursday, September 18, 2014

UK must now prove it’s ‘better off together’

Victory for the No campaign in the Scottish referendum was not unexpected. While media commentators love to trot out the ‘too close to call’ cliché, the fact is that apart from a couple of hiccups about a week out, No was always in the lead and this was mirrored in the final result.

However, while the margin of around 10 per cent is substantial, that other cliché about a ‘comfortable victory’ should also be avoided. This is no time for triumphalism. More than 1.5 million Scots did cast their vote for independence and that should be exercising some minds back at Westminster.

Among the mass of tweets and comments on the result was one from Canada which decried the fact that ‘Scotland has voted to stay subject to its English overlords’. While North Americans have a habit of poking their noses into United Kingdom affairs, usually with a breathtaking amount of ignorance, this statement is worth noting.

Do many Scots really consider themselves to be second-class citizens in relation to the English? The sheer imbalance of population means that democracy works against them. It had been hoped the granting of limited self-government and a Parliament at Edinburgh would go a long way to satisfying the inevitable frustrations north of the border, but for a significant proportion of the population apparently not.

In the last few days of the campaign, when it seemed the momentum might be shifting towards Yes, British Prime Minister David Cameron made some hasty commitments to grant further powers to Edinburgh. He will now be held to that promise.

The question for the Government – and for the Parliament at Westminster - is now what form those powers will take and how it will affect the United Kingdom as a whole.

There has been discontent among English MPs over their Scottish colleagues voting on English matters while the English no longer have a say over much of what goes on in Scotland. It is fair to surmise that if further powers head north that discontent would increase.

There have even been suggestions of an ‘English Parliament’, perhaps based in Birmingham. Where that would leave Westminster one can only guess.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has conceded defeat. But is this defeat in the battle or the war? One thing is certain: a Yes vote would have sundered Scotland from the UK forever. The permanency of a No victory…? Well, I am not so sure.

Salmond and his Nationalist colleagues know there is a wellspring of discontent with the status quo among many Scots. Independence has been beaten back today, but what is to stop him or his successors maintaining in a decade or so that ‘that was then and this is now’ and calling for another referendum?

The weed of instability may have been cut down for now, but there is more work to be done on both sides of the border if it is to be finally pulled out by the roots.              


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Xi’s visit major test for Indian PM

In the days leading up to the State visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India, Beijing has been up to its usual games.

Xi will come bearing the promise of Chinese largesse. Apparently he is ready to make investments worth $100 billion which, his diplomats have noted, will be three times that which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi obtained from his recent visit to Japan and probably a fair bit more than he will get in his forthcoming visit to the United States.

Money like this will always be at a price, whatever country you are dealing with. Mostly it comes in areas such as the promise to buy things the donor country wishes to sell, or special concessions to set up industries that can produce goods cheaper than is possible in the donor’s homeland.

This is a quite normal part of the give and take of international dealing and is well understood by all parties.

But with China there are always the hidden concessions. In this case they were set up a few days ago when Chinese troops violated the Line of Actual Control between the countries in Jammu and Kashmir and penetrated two kilometres into Indian territory.

Around 200 members of the People’s Liberation Army, complete with bulldozers and other equipment, were seen constructing a road which Indian officials said was an attempt to link with outposts on the Chinese side of the border.

Indian troops confronted the incursion and the Chinese eventually withdrew.

The incident was serious – as Beijing claims large areas of Jammu and Kashmir as well as most of the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh - but not serious enough to halt Xi’s visit. He will be greeted with all the usual honours accorded to a foreign Head of State, and Beijing will claim this as proof that India is not committed to the current border and is ready to accept China’s claims.

The same goes for a recent agreement between New Delhi and Hanoi for a joint oil exploration project off the Vietnamese coast – intruding into the South China Sea which Beijing claims as its private lake. China has criticised the deal, describing its sovereignty over the area as “undeniable”.

So will Modi be forced into concessions in order to promote the massive infrastructure projects that are so dear to his heart and on the promise of which he was elected in May?

New Delhi says the borders will be discussed during the visit, but most commentators suggest there will be little or no movement on an issue which has dragged on since the 1962 war between the two countries.  

In many ways this is a visit for the Chinese to sound out the new Indian PM and to see how far he will buckle under the inducements of support for high speed rail, industrial parks, highways, ports etc.   

They will find the Indian leader a far different proposition from his quietly-spoken predecessor, Manmohan Singh - a man who is prepared to call a spade a spade, ready to take as much as they are prepared to give, while offering as little as possible in return.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ian Paisley’s legacy in Northern Ireland

The recent death of Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland sent me thinking of my meetings with the man during his campaign for the United Kingdom Parliament in June 1970.

I was working as a reporter in the province and covered much of his campaign. It was the beginning of what became to be known as the “Troubles”, with the long-dormant Irish Republican Army (IRA) finding new life on the back of the Catholic community’s legitimate demand for civil rights.

Paisley led the Protestant resistance to the Catholics’ campaign and the subsequent crackdown, first by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, then supplemented by the Protestant-dominated ‘B Specials’ began the spiral into violence.

At the time of his campaign for Westminster, Paisley was already a member of the Northern Ireland Parliament, having won a by-election for the Bannside constituency a couple of months earlier, but he had set his sights on Westminster.

It was a warm night when the result was declared and the atmosphere in the crowded hall in Ballymena in the North Antrim constituency he was seeking to capture, was stifling. Paisley won by less than 3000 votes, upsetting the sitting Ulster Unionist candidate Henry Clark who had previously held the seat with an almost 30,000 majority.

Despite the relative closeness of the final result Paisley was undaunted and in typical fashion told his cheering supporters that “the hand of God had been at work” in the Province to ensure his election.

Paisley was never again seriously challenged for the seat and held it for 40 years; standing down in 2010 when his son, also called Ian, was elected in his place. At one point he was a member of three Parliaments – the Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster and the European Union in Strasbourg (although he opposed the United Kingdom’s EU membership).

It was in Strasbourg that he caused outrage when he interrupted an address by Pope Paul II to the Parliament, calling him the “antichrist” — in the subsequent uproar he was ejected.

But Paisley mellowed as he aged, and in 2005 agreed that his Democratic Unionist Party should share power with Sinn Fein, in the past referred to as the political wing of the IRA. He became First Minister, with Martin McGuinness, a man he had once denounced as a terrorist, as his deputy.

The two worked well together and at news of Paisley’s death last week, McGuinness described him as a friend.

While I knew Paisley only in his early days, I had always thought there were two sides to his character. The firebrand orator, denouncing the Pope as “old red-socks” and the Dublin administration as “that priest-ridden banana republic” was, in personal conversation, quiet-spoken, reflective and witty.

That he loved Northern Ireland there is no doubt. But it was always to be a Protestant Ulster, tied to the British Crown forever.

For that reason there will be many who have celebrated his death, but in the end perhaps his most important legacy will be his pragmatic decision to lead the fierce ultra-loyalist Protestants he represented into mainstream politics, giving reasonable hope that the bitter antagonisms that have plagued the province for so long will gradually fade into history.    


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Modi taps into Tokyo’s treasure

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on safe ground during his recent visit to Japan. For a start he was meeting his counterpart, Shinzo Abe, a declared Indophile who is on record as saying he wants closer links between the countries.

The coincidence of two essentially conservative administrations meant there were few ideological differences. Finally cultural and religious ties that have their origins in the spread of Buddhism from India to Japan mean that the nations have usually been on good terms. Modi must have known from the outset that he was among friends.

The two men have one more thing in common – distrust of the expansionist aims of their big neighbour, China. Japan is in dispute with Beijing over ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, while China lays claim to 90,000 square kilometres of Indian territory in the State of Arunachal Pradesh and another 38,000 square kilometres in Jammu and Kashmir.

Modi made no secret of his position when, in a speech to Japanese businesspeople, he deplored the “expansionist tendencies among some countries which encroach upon the seas of others”.

At about the same time he was giving this address, the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi announced that a scheduled meeting in Beijing between its Minister, Sushma Swaraj and her Russian and Chinese counterparts would not now take place.

It may well be that Modi did not want India involved in a high-level meeting with Russia while most of the rest of the world was condemning its military adventures in Ukraine; more likely he did not want to place Ms Swaraj in the position of possibly having to defend his remarks in the capital of the country they were so obviously aimed at.

Meanwhile the Indian PM got what he came for – some $35 billion in Japanese investment and financing over the next five years for infrastructure projects such as smart cities and the cleaning of the River Ganga.

Japan will participate in the establishment of India’s first bullet train network, while New Delhi has agreed to buy Japan’s US-2 amphibious rescue and reconnaissance planes in a deal which may eventually see a plant to manufacture the aircraft set up in India. 

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are due to make visits to New Delhi over the next few months. Both will receive cordial welcomes – but by now both will also understand they will be visiting an active player in Asia’s diplomatic games.



Thursday, August 28, 2014

Palmer’s ignorance – China’s arrogance

The recent outburst of Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer against China was boorish, disgraceful and deserving of censure. The mining magnate had no right to use his position as a Member of the Australian Parliament to launch an attack on another nation, simply because he is having business difficulties with a company based there.

Having said that, the response of China’s Ambassador to Australia, Ma Zhaouxu also deserves some examination. In more or less refusing to accept Mr Palmer’s belated apology, Mr Ma stated: “the Chinese people are never to be insulted”.

What he really means by this is that the Chinese people are never to be criticised, never to have their actions questioned. The Chinese people – or at least the single party that comprises their Government – are always right. Those that dare to question their actions always wrong or, in the special jargon that official Chinese statements use “mistaken”.

We have increasingly seen this demonstrated in Beijing’s bullying treatment of those small South East Asian nations which dared to resist its claim to virtually all the South China Sea as its sovereign territory.

Its arrogance is highlighted in its refusal to test its case before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea because as far as it is concerned there is no case. It is right and everyone else has to live with that.

And when the Philippines refused to buckle to Beijing’s will it was punished with an initially meagre humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation of that country – a response that was upgraded in the light of a storm of unfavourable publicity.

Add to that, its persistent publishing of maps showing large swathes of Indian territory as part of Chinese Tibet and its row with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, and it is easy to see why Beijing is regarded with fear and mistrust by many people in its region.

And to go off at somewhat of a tangent, what about the boorish, ignorant attitude of the Chinese football supporters in the Asian Cup game between Guangzhou Evergrande and Western Sydney Wanderers this week?

The Australian team members were subject to late night abusive phone calls and banging on their hotel doors on the eve of the match, a car deliberately swerved into the team bus, causing an accident of the way to the stadium and during the game bottles were thrown and lasers flashed into the eyes of the players.

None of this was reported in the local media and complaints to the Chinese club have been ignored.    

As I said at the beginning, Clive Palmer was wrong to use gutter language in what is essentially a corporate dispute. He is now trying to mend fences.  

If China really wishes to be a force for good in its neighbourhood – if it really wants to be a partner, rather than a master in the region - then it could begin by accepting there might be value in points of view other than its own.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What price 44 Indian labourers?

Many years ago in the United Kingdom a veteran news editor explained to me his rule for judging the weight he gave to stories on any given day.

A pedestrian run over in the High Street outside the office equalled 10 people killed in a gas explosion in another UK town.

That equalled 100 miners dead in a disaster in Germany and 1000 killed in an earthquake in China.

“Of course, if there was anyone from here killed in the Chinese earthquake we would give it much greater prominence,” he added.
I thought of this advice after reading an article by Indian journalist Shishir Gupta who is trying to remind the world that there are still 44 Indian labourers missing in northern Iraq since the Islamic State took over the territory more than two months ago.

Since then the Government in New Delhi has been making persistent but as yet futile efforts to discover their fate. Families have agonised first with reports that the labourers were all dead, then by apparent sightings of two of them.
Gupta has been told by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs that the reported sightings of two of the labourers in Mosul were difficult to confirm because the grainy picture showed them with beards.

This could be an indication that the mostly Hindu workforce had converted to Islam in order to avoid execution.

The Ministry official said further intelligence suggested the men were alive and being held in a cement factory on the outskirts of Mosul.
“In the absence of any bodies or pictures of executions, we will consider the men to be alive and will continue to seek their extradition,” the official said.

The world heard briefly of the Indians in the first hectic days of the Islamic State’s advance. Since then the horrifying pictures, first of a seven-year-old Australian boy holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier, then the beheading of American journalist James Foley, have dominated news from the area.
The boy and his family are out of reach; Foley is dead. There is still some hope that 44 men, who went to work in Iraq to better themselves and their families, are still alive and can be saved.

While the American, British and Australian Governments are right to be outraged by the events of the past weeks, it is to be hoped they are not overlooking the plight of the labourers simply because they come from a country far away.