Sunday, August 28, 2016

Farage shows Trump how it is done

It was no surprise to see former United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage on the same stage as United States presidential contender Donald Trump the other day. They are very similar men.

Both are unabashed populists, very good at telling their audiences what they want to hear; both pose as champions of the common people against a complacent and uncaring establishment; both play fast and loose with the truth.

Trump sees Farage as a shining example of how this policy actually worked during the European Union referendum campaign: Short, simple messages repeatedly hammered home to people who want to believe them. When the rebuttals come they are inevitably too complicated and anyway are produced by the contemptable elite who are never to be trusted.

Perhaps the best example was Farage’s signature claim that Britain’s National Health Service would benefit by £350 million ($A604 million) once the UK quit the EU. It was wrong; it was proved wrong time and again, but the message still resonated – slap it on the sides of enough buses and people would believe it.

Of course Farage was not around to take the consequences. After one last joyous nose thumbing at the European Parliament he left the scene, leaving the Brexit campaigners to wipe their websites and pretend the claim had never been made.

For Trump the situation is different. Having taken control of the Republican Party he has had time to think about what he said during the primaries and was beginning to wonder if he should not be more ‘presidential’. Farage was there to reassure the candidate. Never mind what you say, just keep saying it. Forget the substance, it will be drowned out by the applause.

Build a wall right across the southern border with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it. Pardon? No details, it will just happen if you elect me.

Over the past weeks there has been endless analysis of the EU referendum vote, including one article in which journalist Jeremy Fox argues that the supposed link between immigration into the UK and Brexit doesn’t stand up.

Fox found that in many cases, areas which had the least amount of immigration had the highest vote to Leave while others that had seen a considerable influx of immigrants seemed quite comfortable with the newcomers and were among the higher votes to Remain.

This left the Guardian newspaper to argue, quite reasonably, that it was the fear of immigration, not immigration itself, which was the driving force in Leave’s victory – and fear, of course, is bread and butter for those that want to ram home their points, however spurious.

Most sadly of all has been the spike in overtly racist incidents since the referendum vote, often directed towards second and third generation Britons who have absolutely nothing to do with the current immigration debate.

It may be this can of worms which will be the lasting legacy of Farage and Brexit.   

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Stop moaning, Australia was great at Rio

Growing up in the United Kingdom, one of my fictional heroes was Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track.

Every week I would wait for my Rover comic to be delivered in which Alf battled against seemingly impossible odds to maintain his career as a world-class athlete.

He hitch-hiked to major competitions after working all night; he lodged with his aunt where his bed was a mattress on the kitchen floor. Despite being short of money for good equipment, Alf always trounced the opposition and set world records for the mile (in those pre-metric days mile racing was a really big deal).

While Alf is just a story for small boys, there is more than a grain of truth in the depiction of difficulties faced by athletes at that time. Under the despotic rule of Avery Brundage, the Olympic Games were strictly amateur and athletes caught accepting money for their sport faced automatic life bans.

When the privations of a shattered Europe in the aftermath of war is considered, it is a wonder that teams from the continent were ever competitive — and no wonder that Australia with its healthy, well-fed athletes did so well in the Olympics of the 1950s and 60s, despite having a tiny population.

With Brundage off the scene and the Olympics moving towards full professionalism Australia led the way by investing heavily in Olympic success with its Institute of Sport and scholarship systems identifying its best talent.  

But the world has caught up again and Australia has slipped down the medals table in the 21st century — sixth in Beijing, eighth in London and 10th at the just completed Rio Games.

Already the recriminations are beginning. Inquiries are going to be held, fingers are being pointed; every individual failure analysed to destruction.

But hey, there are nations that can only dream about being 10th in the world. They celebrated all night in Kosovo when judo player Majlinda Kelmendi won the country’s first gold medal…ever.

They were dancing in the streets in Suva when the Fiji men’s rugby sevens took out the gold medal round, and when Monica Puig of Puerto Rico brought off what was arguably the biggest upset in Rio by winning the women’s tennis singles while ranked 34th in the world it was party time in San Juan.

So why is Australia complaining about eight golds, 11 silvers and 10 bronzes?

Australia has a population of 23 million. All nine countries ahead on the medals table have populations far in excess of that. Only a raving patriot can expect Australia to come close to the United States (318 million people to choose from), China (1.3 billion) and even the United Kingdom, almost three times Australia’s size.

Then there are the nation that could not equal Australia’s performance — hosts Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, and Canada, a similarly prosperous nation with a larger population which could manage only 20th place.

Critics will no doubt say Australia is expected to do well because it is a ‘sports mad’ country. Maybe, but so are many others. When Iceland reached the European football quarter finals, half the nation was on hand to welcome the team home. Anyone who wants to see sports madness personified should visit Eden Gardens when the Kolkata Night Riders are closing in on a win in the Indian Premier League.

Sport is enjoyed by people around the world. Australia has no claim to uniqueness in this regard.

Our interests are also spread thinly. We invest heavily in money, resources and spectator interest in Australian football, rugby league and cricket, sports that will never be in the Olympics (perhaps cricket might have a show in the future if the interest in 20-20 becomes more widespread).

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disparaging these sports which provide recreational outlets and spectator interest for hundreds of thousands of Australians. It is simply that Olympic sports like archery and beach volleyball are going to have to take their place in a long queue when it comes to resources and player interest.

The days of Alf Tupper are gone for good, but in a highly-competitive, professionalised sporting world let’s celebrate the fact Australia still punches well above its weight. We should stop whining because we are not quite up there with the United States, China and (horror of horrors) the UK.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

MPs, unions slam UK ‘Two Child Policy’

A proposal by the United Kingdom Government to limit child benefits to a woman’s first two children “except in the case of rape or other exceptional circumstances”, is back in the headlines after it was revealed that Civil Servants would have to interrogate victims seeking support for a third child.

Initially introduced by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, what has been labeled as Britain’s ‘Two Child Policy’ resulted in thousands signing a petition calling for it to be scrapped.

Now the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents most Civil Servants, says it is firmly against the policy and the impact it might have on its members. 

Union Secretary, Mark Serwotka spelt out his opposition in no uncertain terms. He said the PCS was very concerned over how the policy might operate both for claimants and the union’s members who would have to implement it.

“We do not think anyone should have to conduct such an interview and we would want this policy abandoned,” Mr Serwotka said.

Scottish National Member of Parliament, Alison Thewliss, who has led the campaign against the policy from the beginning, called it “draconian”.

“We think the policy on limiting tax credits to the first two children is appalling and tantamount to social engineering, but to put a woman who has been raped in a position where she needs to declare that to a Government official is just abhorrent,” Ms Thewliss said.

“This also stigmatises the child involved, which is surely against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This proposal has no place in the 21st century and should be dropped.”

Perhaps worst of all, Mr Osborne introduced the measure without any real plan as to how it might be implemented. As another Scottish National MP, Eilidh Whiteford pointed out, 85 per cent of rapes go unreported for a variety of reasons.

“Will a criminal conviction against the rapist be required?” she asked.

She believed women should not be placed in the humiliating position of having to prove they had been raped to a Government Department in order to gain benefits.

Mr Osborne is no longer Chancellor, but his successor, Philip Hammond has so far shown no sign of reversing the measure. If it is, as Ms Thewliss believes, an attempt at social engineering, then similar examples around the world suggests it is doomed to failure.

China’s One Child Policy led to a lopsided population, disruption of traditional family ties, and has now been abandoned. A mass male sterilisation campaign in India during the 1970s resulted in the Government losing office.

In fact this is not so much about trying to persuade women to have less children, and more an attempt to save money by a Government that sees itself plunging ever deeper into debt in the tumultuous years ahead.

But whatever savings have to be made they should not be at the expense of the country’s most vulnerable and innocent citizens.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Time for Sturgeon to bite the bullet

In yet another attempt to extract a morsel of good news out of the mounting chaos in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, the Daily Express newspaper has proclaimed that Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Europe dream is in “tatters” and that Scotland “will have to leave the EU with the rest of the UK”.

The evidence for this is based on a meeting between a European MP representing the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), David Coburn and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

As Schulz has refused the comment on the meeting, one can reasonably assume the account comes from Coburn relayed to the rabidly Brexit Express which would have puts its own interpretation of the exchange into its report.

It is no doubt an attempt to counter Sturgeon’s own comments on her recent meetings in Brussels in which she said Scotland was “in a strong position” to block Brexit.

The truth is halfway between these two extremes. There is no constitutional basis for Scotland to prevent Brexit — that idea came from UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s tireless attempts to pour water on the post-referendum tempest by seeking to win Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party over to accepting an EU withdrawal.

Sturgeon would prefer to see Scotland keep continuous membership of the EU after a new vote for independence. That is probably not going to be possible, in which case she will have to bite the bullet, leave as part of the UK and then apply as a separate country, assuming a second referendum succeeds.   

As for whether Scotland is entitled to a second referendum, I can only quote former UK Prime Minister David Cameron in the lead-up to the first vote: “Scotland’s best chance of staying in the European Union would be to vote to remain part of the United Kingdom”.

Surely it’s about time for the Scots to stop taking anything that comes out of Westminster at its face value.

Meanwhile, the future of several hundred British ‘Eurocrats’ who have made their careers serving Brussels is in doubt. For the moment it is business as usual. The new British Commissioner, Sir Julian King has been handed the EU’s anti-terrorism portfolio after Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva said that as long as it was still a member the UK was expected to continue to play an active role.

Of more concern is the fate of the 1,700 retired British Eurocrats who currently have their pensions paid by Brussels. That process will continue as long as the UK remains in the EU and makes its contribution to the European Budget. However, Brexit puts the arrangement in doubt.

Monday, August 1, 2016

What ruling? China flexes its muscle

China is emerging stronger than ever from what seemed to be a significant setback to its insistence that most of the South China Sea is its sovereign territory.

Less than a month after the International Court of Arbitration, sitting in The Hague, ruled unequivocally that it had no legal basis for its claim to control the maritime area and the islands and reefs within it, Beijing is carrying on as if the decision was never made.

It was initially buoyed by the surprising soft reaction from Washington with American Secretary of State John Kerry urging that the impasse be solved by negotiation between China and the aggrieved nations that border the South China Sea, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.

This is exactly what China has been advocating for years. However, it has a unique idea of ‘negotiation’ in which it puts its case and everyone accepts it.

While the Government in Manila has sought to play down the United States’ stance, the feeling on the streets is that the Philippines, which brought the case to The Hague, has been hung out to dry and will now have no choice other than to acquiesce to the Chinese position which claims waters to within a few kilometres of the country’s coast. 

In a recent meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Laos, China was able to bully enough members of the 10-nation bloc, many of which are dependent on it for economic aid, into simply ignoring the issue.

It has been careful to watch its back with its giant neighbour, India, avoiding a possible flashpoint over the expulsion of three of its journalists accused of “irregular activities” by issuing a rare admission that they were in the wrong.

Having secured its position among its immediate neighbours, Beijing turned the blowtorch on Australia which had called on China to respect the decision of the International Court.

A ringing denouncement of Canberra’s position was issued in an editorial in the Communist Party’s ‘unofficial’ newspaper, Global Times in which Australia was described as a “paper cat with an inglorious history” whose actions could be ignored.

This came at the same time as the Foreign Ministry issued a statement more or less telling Canberra to “behave itself”.

Then came a ploy that Beijing has used before, ordering its students studying in Australia onto the streets in Melbourne for a demonstration supporting its stance.

In yet another flexing of its muscle, Beijing has tightened the screws on Hong Kong, ordering that anyone intending to stand in the forthcoming Legislative Council elections there must sign a declaration pledging allegiance to the Basic Law, especially the articles that state the city is an inseparable part of China.