31 January 2009

In history's page

Australia Day should remain as 26 January because it is a focus for debate on Aboriginal issues, by Aborigines and non-Aborigines alike. It serves a similar function to Anzac Day in this regard, and the fact that it makes some uncomfortable is no reason to avoid the issue.

Australia Day used to be a grab-bag celebration of all things Aussie: and so Don Bradman shared the stage with Joan Sutherland, John(ny) Farnham, and the occasional scientist who can explain in clear English why their field matters. Offstage, barbecues and backyard sport and prangs on the freeways heading into the major cities presaged the effective start of the working year. For many Australia Day is still like that, and insofar as people like Tony Abbott and other conservatives have thought about it at all, it should stay like that: good on ya mate and pass the snags.

At the Bicentennial celebrations in 1988, a group of Aborigines barged into a re-enactment of the first British landing at Sydney Cove and threw the actors back into the water. It was around that time that Aboriginal groups began to celebrate 'Survival Day' - if 'celebrate' is the word, they were occasionally sombre and drew in all sorts of other themes related to Aboriginal disposession - Mabo, Stolen Generations, deaths in custody and much else besides.

There is no better day to discuss what it means to be Australian than Australia Day, and that's why it should remain as 26 January. 'What it means to be Australian' includes relationship to, responsibility for and reconciliation with Aborigines. This is why non-Sydneysiders are wrong to sneeringly regard the day as "Sydney Day", with the implication that such a day does not, need not affect them. We'd hardly want to mar, say, Wombat Creek Foundation Day & Race Meeting with such weighty matters.

In the same way, Anzac Day is a focus for reflection on all matters of Australian arms - not just on the landing at Gallipoli, but Great Uncle Frank's wounds from Balikpapan, the appalling military leadership of the 1960s (Robertson of the Melbourne was a pisshead, the Long Tan veterans deserved VCs not MCs), what is being defended at Tarin Kowt, etc., etc. Anzac Day is inadequate as a full national day because it is so outward-looking, some corner of a foreign field and all that; it is Australia Day that provides the focus for what it means, as some would have it, to be a Strain.

Dodson was wrong to suggest that the day itself be moved to some less sensitive day. When would that day be? What should we do on 26 January, because without a commemoration of some sort it would be more likely, not less so, that Aboriginal issues and perspectives would be ignored. Even now, the media kerfuffle followed by Rudd's smug put-down has crippled any authority that Mick Dodson might have gained in his temporary role; he's just another mouthy black now rather than an educator and a leader, and more's the pity. Another opportunity wasted in the interactions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia over their country.

16 January 2009

Spoiling the environment

You know the Federal Libs are not fit to govern, nor are getting ready to govern, when you see a shambles like we've seen from them recently. The Shadow Minister for Families Families Aborigines and Families will jabber on about anything but his own portfolio. The Shadow Ministers for Education and Communications are having a spat over the environment. Someone from the Eye Pee Yay is attempting to explain why the Liberal Party should stay a course that the voters have rejected, and in framing this as a philosophical matter goes against the very principles of not only the Liberal Party but his host organism.

This is such a lame headline. It's one thing to downgrade sub-editing in the name of marketing, but a good headline is a marketing tool: no sensible person wants to read an article with such a headline. However, now that you've clicked that link, let's just go ahead:
In an article in the Herald this week, the Liberal Christopher Pyne called for his party to be more centrist and to lead the debate on carbon reduction ...

"It would seem that Christopher Pyne is advocating a significant move to the left, rather than to the centre," Senator Minchin writes.

Sure, if you assume that any and all concern for the environment is exclusively the preserve of the left.

Look at East Timor as an example of policy courage: only the far left gave a damn about East Timor, but when the time was right the Liberals realised it was an issue of human freedom: they stepped in and took the issue off the left. For the Liberal Party to exclude itself from the carbon reduction debate is to ignore a substantial issue for governing this century. Step up and take the issue off the left,or at the very least make it a matter for mainstream political debate. The Rudd Government is vulnerable on this issue, and an aspiring Coalition would be stupid to ignore any area of vulnerability for this government.
He commends Mr Pyne on his contribution to the debate, "but there are many of us who respectfully disagree with his conclusions".

It's hard to be respectful when you're such a patronising dickhead.
Senator Minchin told the Herald it had been the achievements of the Howard government that had dragged Labor towards more conservative policies and it would be a "big mistake" to blink now and take a backward step.

There's nothing conservative about carbon pollution. Rather than just reporting what Minchin said, this journalist should consider whether Minchin's words are at all valid. Labor dragged the Howard government into an acceptance of Medicare. I notice that the Gordon-below-Franklin is still undammed and that the Snowy Mountains Scheme is still publicly-owned, just as they were under Keating, Hawke, Whitlam and Chifley.
Senator Minchin said while he and Mr Pyne might have their political differences, they were able to work "very well together" in seeking to reform the party's state branch structure.

Get Minchin to prove it, Mark Metherell, don't just quote every damn word that dribbles out of his face.

If Minchin and his ilk were unconcerned about these matters, they'd brush them off at a doorstop interview or in a Quadrant article. Not so, it seems: Minchin has stooped to missives unto Fairfax publications, because Tom Switzer seeking resurrection as a philosopher simply isn't enough. Yes, the man who put Brendan Nelson where he is today is seeking to become Australia's own Bill "Wrong About Everything" Kristol.

It was Tom Switzer, as editorial page editor of The Australian, who demonstrated the limits of loyalty. The Coalition could have won the 2007 election had it changed course a bit, but Tom insisted that they stay the course to disaster. Dennis Shanahan made himself a national laughing-stock by insisting throughout 2007 that any day now, any day now, Howard will turn things around by staying the course. Well, he didn't but Tom is still stuck in that wreckage and fighting off rescuers with crap like this.
... notwithstanding the loss of conservative government, the centre of political gravity in Australia remains conservative. No longer, for instance, is welfare seen as an unconditional right.

In the era of the baby bonus and the $1400 grant to play the pokies, the expectations generated by Howard himself, oh yes it is.
No longer are activist judges rewriting our constitution.

Not that they ever were.
No longer are Australians ashamed of our past, pessimistic about our future and unsure about our place in the world.

No, Rudd's apology helped lance the shame. Howard's frittering away the benefits of the minerals boom has put the lie to the latter two though.
In this environment, why should Liberals lurch left when Labor could only win power by moving right? Why should a right-of-centre party run to the left of a church-going, family-values Labor leader almost as conservative as the prime minister he replaced? Indeed, Kevin Rudd - first as opposition leader and then as Prime Minister over the past 13 months - has had a lot more in common with John Howard than he has with Phillip Adams.

As opposition leader, Rudd not only styled himself as an "economic conservative" but also mimicked Howard on virtually everything from opposition to gay marriage and teacher unions to support for anti-terrorism laws during the Haneef debacle and the federal intervention in remote indigenous communities. Such tactics worked a treat. He convinced key segments of the socially conservative working and lower middle classes in marginal suburban and regional electorates to vote Labor again after their 12-year affair with the Coalition.

This does not help Liberals explain why, when confronted with the real John Howard and an imitation, the voters clearly chose the imitation. Such an explanation is necessary to help Liberals choose what they should retain, what they should discard.
What about Rudd's record since he's been PM? True, he has jettisoned some of the former government's positions

Switzer goes on to describe a number of substantive issues, such as the Kyoto protocol and combat troops in Iraq. He treats these as though they're ephemera, just because they don't suit his argument.
But take a closer look at Rudd's other positions.

Yes, let's. They tend to be ephemeral culture-wars bullshit: Bill Henson, straw-man stuff on teaching history, and teasing Rudd for being too busy to put asylum-seekers at the very top of his agenda.
In this environment, do Liberals win electoral kudos by becoming more progressive? In fact, the most politically important voters remain not the so-called doctors' wives from metropolitan Australia, but the so-called Howard battlers from middle Australia, particularly in outer suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane and sunbelt seats of Queensland. It was these people who formed Howard's core support. It is these people to whom Rudd has appealed in the past two years. It is these people to whom today's Liberals need to appeal in coming years.

They may not read Edmund Burke but they are a temperamentally conservative lot, wary of change, believing that efforts to transform anything quickly will have, as Burke wrote, "pleasing commencements" but "lamentable conclusions".

I've read Edmund Burke from front to back and nowhere does he talk about carbon-induced climate change. Maybe that's why he's not widely read: in this important twentyfirst century issue, Burke isn't much help. The environment is an issue where people are looking for leadership, and Howard would not provide it. Switzer and Minchin insist that the Liberals must not be seen to provide it. You get into government, Tom, by providing leadership on the difficult issues - not keeping the home fires burning to give stale leftovers the appearance of freshness.
After all, it would have been crazy for Australia, heavily dependent on fossil fuels, to slash its greenhouse gas levels at a high cost in jobs and cash when no nation that matters would follow our lead.

After all, it would be crazy to ignore the fact that Garnaut addressed this directly, when he said that Australia is so far behind other countries' initiatives and so immediately affected by global warming that it would be crazy, crazy to accept that Australia could get too far out in front of this debate. Think of all those coal-mining votes that the Liberals would lose, Tommy!
But in their rush to outflank Labor on the environment, there is a risk that Malcolm Turnbull and his spokesman Greg Hunt could further alienate the party from the very constituency they need to win back (not to mention the energy-intensive industries that will be slugged by the trading schemes).

Now we see what he's really getting at here. Rudd was happy to get the voters onside and leave the polluters to the Libs. This only works when the polluters are riding high and happy to shell out donations to the Liberal Party. When times are hard and Labor's in government, and polls show they'll stay there, donations are not so forthcoming. That leaves the Libs shackled to some unpopular corporates, just like the UAP - and we all know what happened to them (and you won't find that in Edmund Burke, either).

The other trouble that you have Tommy, is that these industries are mendicant industries. They rely heavily on government to maintain their profitability. They're rent-seekers, Tommy - now I know you're new to the Eye Pee Yay, but they take a dim view of rent-seekers there. Start standing up for rent-seekers and the Eye Pee Yay will cut your research, fella.
It is another for Liberals to insist that a single-income family should pay more to run their air-conditioner, fridge and stove, computer and large flat-screen television. Middle Australia may not understand emissions trading but they understand hits to the hip pocket.

When did the Liberals do that, Tom? Not trying to undermine sound policy with a scare campaign, are you Tom? Especially when people are prepared to pay a bit more for less pollution (all the polls say so Tom - read any lately)? Having put Brendan Nelson where he is today, are you really sure you want to take on Malcolm Turnbull?
For these reasons, it would be a mistake for Liberals to embrace a progressive agenda in a political landscape that remains conservative.

Insofar as they were reasons, Tom, and insofar as you ignore the fact that all Australians expect their government to take them forward. People are looking for leadership on environmental issues, and God help us all if only Chris Pyne and Kevin Rudd are providing it.
As Peter Costello argued on these pages recently:

Oh dear. Oh dear, dear, dear. The time when you could quote the Former Deputy Leader as the final word on anything have passed Tom. Besides, if Costello believes that there's only a carbon reduction scheme between him and the Lodge, do not doubt that he'll weave it into the Liberal tradition somehow.
If Liberals cede the nation's heartland to Rudd, they might as well kiss the next election goodbye.

If? If? It's 2009 and the damage has been done, Tommy old son, and you're proposing to make it worse. This insensate man reminds me of another Tommy from a previous age:
He ain't got no distractions
Can't hear those buzzers and bells
Don't see lights a flashin'
Plays by sense of smell
Always gets a replay
Never tilts at all
That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball ...

- from 'Pinball Wizard' by the Who

11 January 2009


No, we are not all Gazans now. Never were.
Samson that great city, his anatomy on fire
Grasping with gnarled hands at the mad wasps
Yet while his bearded rage survives contriving
An entelechy of clouds and trumpets.
There have been interpolations, false syndromes
Like a rivet through the hand
Such deliberate suppressions of crisis ...

- Ern Malley, 'Documentary Film'

My sympathies are with the Israelis. They've been shelled hard and often by Hamas, and now they've struck back. The idea that Israel is bound by international law while Hamas (and the Iranians) aren't, that dead Palestinians is more of a human tragedy than dead Israelis, is sheer bullshit and indicative of the sort of thinking that can only make the carnage worse.

Gaza is a dump because the people there have elected a Hamas government. Resources that should have been going toward schools, hospitals and other public utilities have actually gone to lobbing missiles into Israel. Now, inevitably, Israel has struck back hard, and have hopefully decapitated Hamas (it is too much to expect that Palestinians should be cowed by this show of force, any more than Israelis are). The always impressive Martin van Creveld has given grounds for hope that the Israelis have a plan and are working to it.

The Palestinian imam who said that Israeli children are 'now' a legitimate target is being disingenuous, because he and his mob have clearly always believed that. However, the Canadian commentator who claims that Israel is the new South Africa is being silly.
The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa.

No, the best strategy is for the Palestinians to stop voting for the Hamas platform of Heartbreak and Squalor. The parallel here is not South Africa 20 years ago but Northern Ireland in the last decade.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, when the people of Northern Ireland realised that Sinn Fein promised only Heartbreak and Squalor, they began to turn on them. The IRA had two choices: it could repress the people, or it could renounce the violent policies that led the people to Heartbreak and Squalor and adopt a statesmanlike approach that put people's lives ahead of tribal allegiances. The trouble Sinn Fein faced was that they lacked the resources of a state, so Gerry Adams took the only option open to him other than suicide.

Hamas don't appear to be afraid of suicide, or as afraid as one should be if one truly believes in Allah and that he is just. But let's set aside the protagonists for the moment and return to the font of silly proffered us by Klein:
In the midst of the assault roughly 500 Israelis, dozens of them well-known artists and scholars, sent a letter to foreign ambassadors in Israel. It calls for "the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions" and draws a clear parallel with the anti-apartheid struggle. "The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves ... This international backing must stop." ... Economic sanctions are the most effective tool in the non-violent arsenal: surrendering them verges on active complicity.

The key to the effectiveness of an arsenal is not how big it is, but how well it is aimed. It is aimed at the wrong people. You can't launch economic sanctions against a community that produces nothing, nor target the sponsors (Iran) whose main export (oil) is easily disguised as to its origin. Thus, productive Israel can be and is targeted; while a community that can't get out of its way is neither hindered from doing harm nor helped to do something positive.
Since 2006 Israel has been steadily escalating its criminality: expanding settlements, launching an outrageous war against Lebanon, and imposing collective punishment on Gaza through the brutal blockade. Despite this escalation, Israel has not faced punitive measures - quite the opposite.

Being shelled all day every day from Gaza is 'punitive measures' enough. Yeah, I think the settlements are needlessly provocative but that's not a death sentence. Anyone in Gaza who allows a mortar to be launched from their home because their pissed off about Lebanon deserves what they get. If Hamas had thrown themselves on the mercy if international law in 2006, they'd be entitled to its defences now.
For instance, in 2007 Israel became the first country outside Latin America to sign a free-trade deal with the Mercosur bloc. In the first nine months of 2008, Israeli exports to Canada went up 45%.

Canada is not a signatory to Mercosur, which covers countries in South America.
Of course [Israel is not South Africa]. The relevance of the South African model is that it proves BDS tactics can be effective when weaker measures (protests, petitions, backroom lobbying) fail.

Shit, if BullDustStrategies don't work with Zimbabwe (another state that protects itself from economic sanctions by gutting its economy), what makes anyone think they are any sort of all-purpose protest vehicle?
Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic.

But it relies on dogma in order to be applied in this particular instance - including the dogmatic insistence that while Palestinians have suffered at the hands of Israelis, the reverse is either not true or not important.
The reason the strategy should be tried is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work.

Work towards what? How is this bullying different from ... oh, never mind.
This one [Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less] I'll answer with a personal story. For eight years, my books have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But when I published The Shock Doctrine, I wanted to respect the boycott. On the advice of BDS activists, including the wonderful writer John Berger, I contacted a small publisher called Andalus. Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus's work, and none to me. I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis.

Our modest publishing plan required dozens of phone calls, emails and instant messages, stretching between Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Paris, Toronto and Gaza City. My point is this: as soon as you start a boycott strategy, dialogue grows dramatically. The argument that boycotts will cut us off from one another is particularly specious given the array of cheap information technologies at our fingertips. We are drowning in ways to rant at each other across national boundaries. No boycott can stop us.

In Klein's previous works, she has demonstrated this boomerang logic: seeking to prove one point she actually proves its opposite, ta dahh!! She didn't tell us what ends Andalus is activating towards, but she has demonstrated that all her activity in changing publishers does is create activity without necessarily creating progress - an accusation she levies against capitalism generally. Given how porous borders are, and given that Klein's offerings aren't exactly Lady Chatterley's Lover, she needn't have bothered.
Several days into Israel's Gaza assault, Richard Ramsey, managing director of a British telecom specialising in voice-over-internet services, sent an email to the Israeli tech firm MobileMax: "As a result of the Israeli government action in the last few days we will no longer be in a position to consider doing business with yourself or any other Israeli company."

Ramsey says his decision wasn't political; he just didn't want to lose customers. "We can't afford to lose any of our clients," he explains, "so it was purely commercially defensive."

Political, kind of - but gutless, definitely. Ramsey could have cancelled all of his Palestinian suppliers, as I said earlier, because there aren't any. And his Zimbabwean and Burmese ones, too.

While the Israelis could have managed this better, the idea that they are uniquely culpable in the Palestinian conflict is garbage. So is the idea (or tactic, dogma, call it what you will) that Israel should be subject to legal and economic sanctions which are irrelevant to their tormentors. Even if you accept that there are faults on both sides, as I do, the break in the cycle can only come with Palestinians recognising that Hamas make their lives nastier, more brutish and shorter than a loving god would have them be.

I can usually take BHL with a grain of salt but here he is excellent, on the moral dissymetry of Hamas and Israel and the fact that, well, the Palestinians have only themselves to blame.

Update: JM this one is for you:

Now stop commenting as I'm sick of you.

07 January 2009

Plans for Sydney

The plans for a metro under Parramatta Road and a more densely-populated inner-west spell doom for Labor - not merely electoral defeat in 2011, but a removal of the structural bias that has seen Labor govern NSW for 60 of the last 80 years.

The inner-city Greens have the ability to take seats like Balmain and Marrickville, and force safe Labor seats like Drummoyne, Strathfield and even Auburn and Parramatta into the arms of the Liberals. Hopefully they would also take out the awful Kristina Keneally. People who live in the inner-west fancy themselves as village-dwellers, and successive Labor governments have stopped short of disturbing this idyll with infrastructure that the rest of the city desperately needs. If you ever wondered why the M2 jerks to a halt at Strathfield, why the M5 dumps traffic in Alexandria or why Victoria Road and the Anzac Bridge approaches have to mince around Glebe and Pyrmont, blame a Labor ward-heeler from the inner city.

The challenge is now on the Greens to turn their back on voter-repellent hippies and select credible candidates for these winnable seats. They have no excuse for not winning three or four seats in the Legislative Council, either.

The proposals by Infrastructure Australia may have merit if you take the politics out of it. Leichhardt needs more mass-transit than Petersham station and the 470 bus can provide. However, the dark satanic flats rising above Marion Street projected on the cover of Tuesday's SMH was provocative to say the least. This is the sort of slow-burn political issue that will make No Aircraft Noise and Callan Park look like trifles. State and Federal Labor won't present a united front behind these proposals - the politics are just too hard, so watch for these plans to be quietly strangled in Canberra.

This issue has popped up while Nathan Rees is overseas, and by the time he gets back it will all be too late. The whole idea of Rees was to minimise Labor's losses at the next election: with the Greens forming a second front to the fight against the Liberals, Labor has no chance. It will not have the easy ride back into office that Bob Carr had, facing only a Liberal government taking tough decisions and no real Greens threat. The next Labor government in NSW will have to completely rethink its approach to electioneering, McKell/Wran-style.

The Federal Minister for Infrastructure is Anthony Albanese, who represents Marrickville and Petersham in the House of Reps. He leads NSW Labor's fight against the Greens. A politician of his calibre should never have let these plans see the light of day without a careful media management strategy - a very careful strategy, given that there is no constituency more resistant to spin than inner-city lefties. A Labor rout in inner Sydney would be a direct threat, not only to his wife in Marrickville but also to himself. Tanya Plibersek in Sydney is also vulnerable. The Feds go to election before State Labor does, and woe betide Labor if a 'protest vote' gets out of control in the inner cities.

As per my debate with Unrepentant Whitlamite last month, the dissonance between central planning and community activism within Labor has been resolved in favour of the former, with dire results for Labor as a mass membership and community representative organisation. The pincer is closing on Rees Labor, whom nobody will miss. Yet, if you start writing off Labor governments like that there won't be any. Given the rudderless state of their opponents this should give pause to anyone who'd hope to be governed well.

06 January 2009

Counterfactual: the Timor Gap, 1978

After much hand-wringing over whether or not it should officially recognise the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the Australian government came to a decision that was both bold and provocative.

The Fraser government announced that Australian mining companies would begin exploration for oil in the Timor Sea, and that Australian naval fleet centred on HMAS Melbourne would protect them. It accepted the reality of Indonesian occupation of land territory without using the legally-specific term 'recognition'. It abrogated the right to regulate mining exploration 'in the absence of an East Timorese government".

President Suharto denounced Australia, and ASEAN leaders declared the move 'insensitive'. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew offered himself as a mediator. An Indonesian official who made a speech in New York denouncing Australia was laughed at. When Australian warships moved into the area and saw off a standoff with a small Indonesian flotilla, Australians rallied behind the Fraser government. The country had retreated from Asia after Vietnam and the closure of the Butterworth Air Force base. Prime Minister Fraser felt sufficiently emboldened to meet with China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. Independence movements in West Irian and Aceh progressed further than they otherwise might have.


Who would have thought that Andrew Peacock would look so craven, and John Howard so principled, over that lefty issue of East Timor, eh?