Thursday, January 30, 2014

No problems with this GG

I see nothing wrong with the appointment of former Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove as Australia’s 26th Governor-General in the same way as I saw nothing wrong with the appointment of Quentin Bryce as the 25th.

The two are very different, but then Australia’s population is diverse. Ms Bryce was the first woman to hold the job, and that was certainly overdue. She promoted human rights at the time when human rights needed a champion.

It is true that a good number of military men have held the position in the past, but General Cosgrove is cut from a different set of cloth than his uniformed predecessors.

For a start he has put himself about since retiring from the army in 2005. His best-known work in this period was to head the recovery taskforce after the devastation caused by Cyclone Larry in North Queensland in 2006, but he also accepted the position of Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University and has served on a number of boards, including that of Qantas.

He has said that as Governor-General he wants to do a great deal of travelling, not just to the State capitals and regional centres but deep into rural and remote Australia and to play a role in closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

He also has the common touch – and now I have to get to the real reason for writing this blog: my personal recollections of the man.

During his time as Chief of the Defence Force, I was a senior journalist on the Canberra Times. The newspaper was going through a painful transition under its new owner, Rural Press, and I found myself dabbling in a number of roles, including writing stories on defence and the military generally in the vacuum caused by the retirement of the long-serving Defence and Aviation Correspondent, the late Frank Cranston.  

This brought me into contact with General Cosgrove at a couple of ceremonial events and for one interview, all successful enough, but then he always knew how to handle the media and I can hardly say we were great chums.

A few weeks later an overseas company was trying to sell helicopters to the ADF and had arranged a public presentation at Old Parliament House in Canberra. I was Business Correspondent by now, but having recently been involved in defence matters was thought to be the best person to send along to get the story.

My deadline was pressing but I was very politely told by the company’s officials to shove off and wait until they had made their pitch. I noticed General Cosgrove surrounded by the company’s senior marketers as you would expect, so decided to hang around on the fringe of the group in a desperate attempt to pick up some information at second hand.  

To my astonishment, Cosgrove, on noticing me said:  “Hello Graham, glad you are here” and shook my hand my hand, before resuming his conversation. Within one minute I had been taken aside by a couple of the company’s leading executives and given all the information I needed (and a bit more) for my story.

Was it coincidence? Did the General just want to greet the journalist he had spent a bit of time with in the past? Or was he genuinely helping out someone who he guessed was in difficulties?  

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. What I do know is that I am not going to quibble about another former military man taking up residence at Yarralumla.   



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Questioning the privatisation obsession

Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used as his principle theme the need for international trade to expand in order to increase prosperity all round and lift millions of people in the developing world out of poverty.

That’s something we can all subscribe to – providing the benefits of trade are distributed fairly among populations by their respective governments.

A secondary point, urging smaller government and increased outsourcing of State functions to the private sector, seemed almost as non-controversial. After all it has been the mantra of the right-of-centre and centre-left since the days of Reagan and Thatcher.

The concept that Abbott and many before him are supporting is that anything run by a government is inherently clunky, its employees too numerous, indifferent and uninspired, while in the real word of the private sector the profit motive results in sleek, lean service-orientated operations where motivated staff work hard to provide, in the words of biz-speak ‘world’s best practice outcomes’.

And yet.

Leaving aside the outpouring of papers from right-wing think tanks whose ideologically hand-picked experts fulfil the demands of their paymasters, I am still in search of one reputable, independent, rigorous piece of research that supports this proposition.

Of course there are many examples, most commonly from Stalinist and former Stalinist States, of impossible five-year plans, fudged figures, and rampant corruption, but there are also many thousands of private business failures each year, and at least a proportion of these result from just the inefficiencies and poor planning that are regularly blamed on the public sector.

The move towards privatisation is unrelenting, no matter which side of politics is in power; the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank demand slashing cut in the public sector of governments that have suffered greatly in the Global Financial Crisis – somewhat ironic considering the crisis resulted in the first place from gross mismanagement by private sector banks and other lending institutions.

I was interested to read that in the United Kingdom there is a growing chorus calling ‘enough’. A cross-party group of Westminster MPs is backing a Private Members Bill which would make public ownership the default option, give the public a say over whether services are privatised and make private companies running public services more accountable.

MP Elfyn Llwyd, who is supporting the Bill, says public opinion is on its side.

“Outsourcing companies need to be held to account and privatisation should not go ahead unless the public supports it,” Llwyd says.

The MPs are supported by a grassroots movement called We Own It, whose Director, Cat Hobbs, says people are “sick of the endless stream of sell-offs and outsourcing deals”.

The Bill has no hope of success in a Parliament where both major parties are devotees of privatisation, but the subject could well be an issue when the next election comes round in 2015.   




Sunday, January 19, 2014

Tighten penalties for character assassination

In the midst of the Leveson Inquiry into the standards of United Kingdom newspapers following the phone hacking scandal comes another example of just how ruthless some national titles can be in pursuit of what they consider to be a good story.

Former Bristol teacher Christopher Jefferies, who gave evidence at the inquiry, has successfully sued a whole clutch of national media titles for things they wrote about him during one of the most high-profile murder hunts in Britain’s recent history.

Around 8pm on 17 December 2010, 25-year-old landscape architect Joanna Yeates left a Bristol pub where she had been having Christmas drinks with work colleagues to walk home to her flat in a nearby suburb. On the way CCTV cameras caught her shopping first for a pizza and then for a couple of bottles of cider. She was never seen alive again.

Two days later her boyfriend, returning from a family visit several hundred kilometres away, reported her missing. On Christmas Day her body was found under a pile of snow near a local golf course. She had been strangled.

Jefferies, who was Yeates’ landlord and lived above her flat, was the initial suspect and was held in police custody for three days. During that time the media went overboard in what amounted to a calculated character assassination. A series of lurid headlines described him as “strange”, an “angry weirdo with a foul temper”, and even without any evidence to back it, “a Peeping Tom”.

Much was made of his long and wild wispy white hair and his so-called eccentric habits; journalists found some of his former pupils who described him as “weird, posh, lewd and creepy…a sort of nutty professor”.

Of course none of these epithets describe a cold-blooded murderer and the media knew it.

The reasoning for printing the slurs was obvious – because Jefferies had been arrested and not yet charged, editors, assuming he was the murderer, declared open season on him for the titivation of their audiences.    

The gamble failed. Jefferies never was charged and was guilty of nothing other than being, in some eyes, something of an eccentric. He was released and Yeates’ next door neighbour, Vincent Tabak, was eventually found guilty of the crime. Even though Tabak was charged on 22 January 201, it was more than a month later before police officially cleared Jefferies of any involvement in the murder, something that later earned him an apology from the Chief Constable.

Jefferies received substantial damages and two of the papers were fined for contempt. This was not enough and criminal charges should have been pursued against publishers and individuals who authorised the libels. I do not believe in blanket regulation of the media because 99 per cent of the media behave within a voluntary code of conduct, but if individuals can go to jail for phone hacking, as seems quite possible, then there should be similar sentences for the deliberate character assassination of an innocent man.

I can only agree with Conservative MP Anna Soubry, herself a former journalist, when she said in the House of Commons: “What we saw in Bristol was, in effect, a feeding frenzy and vilification. Much of the coverage was not only completely irrelevant, but there was a homophobic tone to it which I found deeply offensive.”


Sunday, January 12, 2014

High productivity can match our incomes

I have noticed a new phrase creeping into the Australian discourse, favoured by politicians and business leaders alike. It is “high-income economy”.

It seems that in the last few months our “high-income economy” is being blamed for a range of ills: Lack of international competiveness, loss of jobs overseas, factories closing, the plight of Qantas. The “high-income economy” has replaced “the high Australian dollar” as the favoured bete noire now that the dollar is not as high as it used to be.

It seems that something has to be blamed and I would suggest the focus on people’s wages has come about because employers feel they will get a more sympathetic reception from the current Government on this issue. It shouldn’t be the case. In Opposition Treasurer Joe Hockey made his position quite clear. Speaking to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia less than a year ago he said expensive labour “is not a bad thing”.

“Australia’s standard of living must not go backwards. There is no national benefit in cutting wages,” Mr Hockey said.

And of course he is right. While a reduction in the pay of say car workers would be of temporary benefit to the vehicle manufacturers, the flow-on effect to a host of other industries, from major retailers to local coffee shops, would be disastrous. There would be calls for more wage cuts, including a freeze or a lowering of the minimum wage, and so would begin a sad race to the bottom.

In another part of his address last year Mr Hockey said he believed Australia could compete effectively against low-income countries such as China and India providing our productivity was higher. Monash University academic Rebecca Valenzuela echoes this when she says Australia needs to invest more effort in this area “making people better trained and knowledgeable workers, smarter and efficient managers”.
“We also need to invest in good infrastructure, in the latest technologies, in advanced research and education – all for ensuring that we can turn products and services that are new, unique and of high quality to service the growing demands of a more sophisticated consumer,” Dr Valenzuela says.

Spot on, and I suspect this is also part of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s thinking when he announced that Parliament would be repealing 8000 laws on the statute books as part of a plan to slash red tape and release $1 billion a year currently taken up in a host of compliance measures.
While I suspect Mr Abbott’s staffers have been working overtime to dig up a load of obsolete regulations that have never been repealed because they no longer apply, in order to reach that headline-grabbing figure of 8000, the concept is encouraging. But it will only work if employers use any new freedoms to build a more technologically-equipped and productive Australian economy.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Will Iraq be a second Syria?

The fall of Fallujah and at least part of Ramadi to rebel groups led by the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL) is the biggest challenge yet to the Iraqi Government of Nuri al-Maliki – and indeed to the entire Iraq project which began with the US-led invasion of the country a decade ago.

The two major objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom were to depose dictator Saddam Hussein over what was to prove the fallacious claim that he was about to use ‘weapons of mass destruction’ against his neighbours, and to turn the country into a model democracy that would be a template for the rest of the Arab world. The first was quickly achieved; the second has proved a long and painful process whose outcome is increasingly in question.  

American combat forces exited the country more than two years ago, leaving behind advisers who were supposed to complete the training of Iraqi forces, including both military and police. For many observers, it was a case of the US “declaring victory and running”.

Since then the al-Maliki Government has had to contend with a continuous series of bombings, suicide attacks and general unrest, especially among the Sunni minority, once dominant under Saddam, which now saw itself steadily marginalised. This kind of sporadic violence has been commonplace in the country, but the taking of significant territory and the expulsion of Iraq’s security forces, takes the crisis to a new level.

The difficulties for Baghdad have been intensified by the civil war in neighbouring Syria. It is believed that the ISIL, which has links with al-Qaida, initially set up training camps for the Syrian rebels in the remote Iraqi desert, the current conflict breaking out when Iraqi security forces tried to dislodge them.

Fallujah and Ramadi were easy targets. They are situated in Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold and the area that gave US forces most trouble post-invasion. It is not clear whether the ISIL is in full control or whether there are other anti-Government forces involved. What is clear is that Baghdad’s authority has been flouted and so far the Government has been unable to do anything about it.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has confirmed that the Obama Administration does plan to help Baghdad with the rapid supply of sophisticated weaponry but there will be no “boots on the ground”. In other words this is a fight for Iraq alone. The country’s military is reportedly massing for a determined effort to retake the lost areas.

Should it fail it would be a body blow, possibly a fatal one, to the al-Maliki Government and any hope of a stable administration in the country, with the prospect of another Syrian-style conflict wracking the already strife-torn Middle East.     



Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gandhi ‘outstanding' for PM – really?

The announcement by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he would not serve another term was hardly unexpected – the man is, after all, 81 years old and has been in the job for a decade. The fact that he has anointed Rahul Gandhi as his successor in the coming elections is not a surprise either, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty having dominated the ruling Congress Party since independence, providing three of the nation’s Prime Ministers.

Singh described the 43-year-old Gandhi as having “outstanding credentials” to be the next Prime Minister of India, although it is hard to see what these credentials are apart from being the son, grandson and great-grandson of former leaders.

Gandhi is a back-bench MP in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) of the Indian Parliament. He has never held Ministerial office, and indeed declined the offer of one under Singh. Moreover he has been a lacklustre and unenthusiastic performer on the campaign trail. In recent State elections his presence did nothing to stop a rout by the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

 He is a vice president of Congress, a post he has occupied for less than a year (his mother, Sonia, is the president) and is on record as saying he would prefer to work behind the scenes reforming party structures.

Singh also launched an attack on Opposition Leader and Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi saying he would be a disastrous Prime Minister. “Anyone who has presided over the massacre of citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad should not be made prime minister,” Singh said in a reference to the Gujarat Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002 in which more than 1000 died.

BJP leaders have been quick to point out that the riots occurred very early in Modi’s first term and in the intervening years Gujarat State has become a model of economic development. Modi himself has always claimed he did everything in his power to halt the bloodshed.  

Singh, who served as Finance Minister in the Government of P. V. Narasimha Rao during the 1990s, is rightly credited with liberalising the country’s economy after decades of doctrinaire socialist stagnation.  The early years of his leadership saw these reforms continued, to applause both at home and overseas, but in recent times his administration has been mired in a succession of corruption scandals, which he has seemed powerless to control.

Manmohan Singh deserves to be remembered as one of India’s better Prime Ministers. GDP has grown at an annual rate of 7.6 per cent over the last decade and the national income is close to $2 trillion, but his subservience to the Gandhi dynasty and his promotion of yet another Gandhi to lead his country may well prove to be at odds with the tides of history.




Friday, January 3, 2014

Why Kerry has to keep visiting

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has predictably gone on the offensive for his meeting with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during the current round of attempts to find a peace framework between Israel and the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

In his opening statement Netanyahu said he did not believe the Palestinians were taking the peace process seriously, pointing to the welcome given by President Mahmoud Abbas to the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

The Israeli leader referred to the group as “terrorists”; however it is unlikely he would have authorised the release of anyone regarded as a serious terrorist threat to the State. Israeli security forces regularly trawl up rock-throwing demonstrators useful for later release as goodwill gestures during a high-profile visit such as Kerry’s

Netanyahu has also brought a temporary halt to the approval of new settlement housing on the West Bank, but again this is window dressing designed to put Israel in the best possible light during this brief period of world attention. The building of settlements has become an increasingly thorny issue as Palestinians see more and more of their already tiny State being whittled away.

Despite Kerry’s dogged optimism – “the time is soon arriving where leaders are going to have to make difficult decisions…but it is not mission impossible,” he said – the prospects for a lasting settlement remain as elusive as ever.

I believe Netanyahu would genuinely like to go into serious negotiations, even to the point where territorial concessions could be made over the settlements. However, the reality of Israeli politics means that the views of religious extremists and nationalists have to be taken into account.

The Palestinian side is a mess. Abbas’ claim to legitimacy is under severe question as constitutionally elections should have been held in 2009. His Fatah Party remains in deadlock with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Despite several attempts elections still seem a long way off.

The determination of the US Administration to find a solution cannot be in doubt. Kerry has made 10 visits to the area in less than a year, but even this effort by the world’s major power the talk is still about a “framework” to set “guidelines” for “negotiations”. In other words talks about talks about talks.

The US has to persist. Its influence and interest effectively blocks the involvement of other more radical Middle Eastern elements from interfering in the Israeli-Palestinian equation while keeping Israel’s finger off its nuclear trigger. 

It would be a dangerous day for the world should any Washington Administration decide to walk away from this problem, however intractable it seems.  


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Risky path for Egypt’s rulers

Growing concern over the escalating political strife in Egypt has led to the military Government taking the ultimate sanction of declaring its main opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist group, blaming it for a spate of bombings and attacks against the police.

This is far from a new tactic: countries around the world regularly declare troublesome organisations to be terrorists. In many cases there are very good reasons for doing so, in others it is simply a political move to silence opposition.

Australia recently went down this path by declaring the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, currently a participant in the Syrian Civil War, a terrorist group, with the aim of stopping the steady trickle of Australian nationals heading over to Syria to fight for it.

In Egypt’s case there is a difficulty. The Muslim Brotherhood was until the middle of last year, the national Government. By some estimates it still has the support of some 30 per cent of the population, and in a country of more than 86 million, that’s an awful lot of people to prosecute and lock up.

So obviously the current Government must adopt other tactics – that is the arrest some key leaders, agitators and a few ordinary Brotherhood supporters trawled up at one of the many often violent demonstrations taking place across the country; the hope being that the vast majority will be cowed or at least persuaded to give up their radical ways and return to business as usual.

As is often the case, journalists are among the targets. In Egypt it was the arrest of  four Al Jazeera journalists (one was later set free) accused of joining the Brotherhood and making biased and false reports that damaged the country’s reputation abroad.

If biased reporting is a crime then the staffs of organisations ranging from Fox News to the Sydney Daily Telegraph had better watch out. The arrests are simply a way to silence reporting that does not accord with the Government’s line – something that in this information-charged world where anyone with a mobile phone is both reporter and camera-person, is doomed to failure.

The Government could quite possibly have more success with its overall strategy of silencing dissent, although judging by the examples of Libya and Syria the harder the crackdown, the more the population tends to push back.

What it is in danger of doing is creating a vacuum that will be filled by even more radical Islamic groups bent on turning Egypt into an Iranian-style Islamic State - that would be a savage blow to any hope of future peace and stability in North Africa and the Middle East.