16 December 2010

Disaster on Christmas Island

The disaster on Christmas Island weighs heavily upon us all, and it should be a pivotal event in our history.

If we were in a time where we relied more heavily on the sea than we do today, it would be as significant as the wrecks of the Dunbar and the Malabar were to nineteenth-century Sydney; probably equivalent in impact on people individually and collectively to 11 September 2001. If a hundred or so whalewatchers, ferry passengers or surfers were dashed against cliffs it would be a tragedy. What compounds it here is how desperate these people were for the sort of freedom that whalewatchers, ferry passengers and surfers take for granted: how far they came to escape real danger, how they hoped for better from us, how close they came to getting it.

This event isn't quite the bankruptcy notice for the entire "remote processing" model, but hopefully it helps set things moving in that direction. The political response is fittingly sombre but beyond the deaths of the individuals concerned politicians are clearly, as it were, floundering. At yesterday's press conference with the Acting PM, some clown of a journalist asked him a question about banking reform that would have been inane even in context.

There is something in this for both sides. First of all, those people who scrambled down the rocks doing as much as they can demonstrated where Australia's attitude to refugees is really at, something that Scott Morrison and Phillip Ruddock cannot imagine let alone understand. Those who regard undocumented arrivals by boat as something that can and should be stopped, and those of us who regard boat arrivals as inevitable and deserving of better treatment than they experience, can all be sad about what has happened. Then comes the anger: you can be angry at the idea that lax government policies leading people to a false sense of security, or you can be angry that lives have been wasted because insistence on the fantasy of a "queue" overtakes the reality that people at sea need basic humanitariian assistance before they need "processing".

Surely the anger at "lax government policies" and "queue-jumping" should be balanced by acceptance for those who make it through the rigorous and time-consuming assessment system, and compassionate treatment of those going through it. Using this incident as another stick to beat Julia Gillard with in the absence of such compassion is stupid and wrong, and if the emotion behind such denunciations is confected then so too are notions of a "queue" or "assimilation"; and if your immigration policy is based on layers of bogus assumptions then perhaps such a policy ought not be imposed upon the way this nation is governed.

Now is the time to test the assumptions that we have about asylum seekers, and from that testing develop a policy that addresses what works for those who are genuine, and for Australia; and what works against those who aren't and those who merely profit from people-smuggling. It may be too much to ask any sitting politician to do a frontal assault on notions of bigotry, because you can't defeat a notion (just as you can't go to war against 'terrorism' or 'illiteracy').

It is not too much to ask them, however, to stop referring to those who arrive by boat without documentation as "illegals", or to pretend that they pose more of a threat to this country than a drunk and sunburned detachment of the Barmy Army - who has arrived by plane with documentation in order, like that matters - who roam the streets of our cities looking for a fight and a chunder. The perpetrators of September 11 arrived in the US by plane and had all their doco down too.

It is not too much to ask to stop referring to notions of a "queue" that can be "jumped". We are within our rights to, and we must, work out the bipolar relationship our government appears to have with the UN in deciding who is a refugee and who isn't, and how applications can be prioritised and expedited. It is not too much to ask to regard detention in the same way as a prison sentence or an enforced stay under medical treatment rather than a state in which one's rights are suspended indefinitely, guilty until proven innocent. We have a right to clear away notions underpinning government policy that bear no relationship to reality.

Let's get away from sleigh bells, let's get away from snow
Let's make a break some Christmas, Dear, I know the place to go
How'd ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How'd ya like to spend the holiday away across the sea?
How'd ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How'd ya like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?

How'd ya like to stay up late, like the islanders do?
Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe.
If you ever spend Christmas on Christmas Island
You will never stray for every day
Your Christmas dreams come true.

How'd ya like to stay up late like the islanders do?
Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe
If you ever spend Christmas on Christmas Island
You will never stray, for every day
Your Christmas dreams come true

On Christmas Island your dreams come true.

- Jimmy Buffett Christmas Island

The disaster on Christmas Island isn't limited to the wreckage of one boat. The whole idea why the Howard Government put asylum seekers on Christmas Island was to keep it out of the public eye - and when it had to be in the public eye, to control access and pictures via the limited transport links with the island. When that decision was taken, all of a decade or so ago, mobile phone cameras were unknown. The internet hackers who brought us Wikileaks were, if not unknown, certainly underestimated in terms of their capacity to inflict reputational damage upon politicians and government.

The 'positive' reasons for locating a prison processing centre there are gone. The negative reasons - far from healthcare and a sizeable Australian community within which to find employment and other amenities of social life - are not only still there but brought into awful reflief by this incident.

By the time MSM get there, only mawkish talking-head shots and driftwood will be available to them: it is a story they can only follow, not lead. Perhaps this is why Jonathan Green's response is so perplexing:
This was of course a tragedy ... The details are still sketchy.

We're allowed to feel sad for those who have died, but we may not ask wider questions until the journosphere are good and ready to supply them. Until someone from Channel Nine puts a microphone in front of some bedraggled survivor who has lost their family and asks "how does it feel?", we do not have any right to form any opinions whatsoever based on the information before us, nor may we compare/contrast it with information gained from other sources.

Green clearly regards himself as a journalist in online exile rather than a practitioner of his occupation in a different medium. I always wonder what journalists mean when they talk about "the blogosphere" - Green clearly regards it as a sideline, subordinate to the MSM, the same way his site is and the same way Bolt-Blair are adjuncts to core business at News Ltd. The ABC usually takes great care to not position itself as a leftwing lightning-rod for News Ltd but pieces like Green's don't help, and nor do they lift the debate to a point where Bolt-Blair are shown to have little to offer. Yes, there are some boofhead commenters on those News Ltd blogs just as you'd find on talkback radio, but strangely this doesn't lead commentators like Green to condemn radio out of hand.

This blog, however, is not part of any wider media enterprise. It isn't printed in a newspaper and nor is it cross-promoted on radio or TV - therefore, according to Jonathan Green and hence The Drum and possibly even the ABC or even the MSM more broadly, we here at The Kidney Of The Nation are officially outside the "blogosphere", and thank goodness for that!

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
'This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.'
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from publick haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.

- Shakespeare As You Like It Act II Scene I

Merry Christmas everyone, and may 2011 be better for us all.

14 December 2010

Is that the best you can do?

I have no idea about what would be best for this country in terms of banking reform, so I won't criticise Swan's proposals on that basis. I will note, however, that Swan's idea of reform basically involves tilting the rules against smaller players and in favour of big ones, extending guarantees of taxpayer underwriting to all participants indefinitely. Swan is hyping his reforms far above their actual significance in terms of making the Australian banking system better, or even significantly different.

Wayne Swan was the Treasurer who introduced the stimulus necessary for Australia to ride out the GFC in 2008. This was achieved with a number of gimcrack measures such as the $900 cash gift, the home insulation thing and the school building fund. This shows he has an eye for parish-pump politics but his approach to the big picture can't be anything but piecemeal.

Actually, no he doesn't have much of an eye for parish-pump politics: you're only as good as your last gig. In Anna Bligh's last election win in 2009, Swan intervened to pull off a last-minute victory for his party, which they have since squandered. Since then, Swan was a late and hesitant convert to getting rid of Kevin Rudd, and only snagged the Deputy's job because nobody else wanted it. Any concept of understanding for Queensland politics by anybody to the left of George Brandis is a dead letter after this year's Federal election: nine seats in the Deputy PM home state were won by the supposedly hapless LNP. Retirees and children alike lined up for a shot at Swanny and Kaiser and got away with it, and at Queensland's next election they'll do so again.

Swan cut his political teeth in the aftermath of Whitlam, where talk of sweeping reform made Labor flinch, and he criticised Paul Keating in his final, reform-exhausted years. Now Swan has grown weary of reform, but without any enduring achievements to show for it. Yes, he may end up balancing the Budget, but so what? Alan Stockdale strived for that end and look where it got him; beloved by his party in his own state and pretty much a non-entity in the eleven years since leaving office. Nick Greiner was more successful since leaving office but his aims of economic capability were similar and Labor slid back into government, scornful of anything longterm and running NSW into the ground. Liberals in SA have nothing to show for giving Labor time and space to rebuild its economic credibility.

Swan, like Treasurer John Howard before him, has done the country no favours by tilting the balance in favour of complacency and arrogance on the part of major banks.

Banks require competition to keep them honest, but not to the point where they take mad risks like the US and European banks did up to the GFC. Banks also require some level of security in regulatory and financial terms; there have to be consistently applied regulations and they can't just be raided each time the government or its cronies need some cash. The trick is to strike some sort of balance; a balance harder to strike since the GFC smashed a previously stable-looking consensus. There are no cues worth taking from Washington or London, two similar jurisdictions which set the rules of global capital to a much greater extent than Canberra does. How do we get banks to improve their ramshackle IT systems and shed bloated middle-management?

Joe Hockey shows some signs that he gets this, but when it comes to convocations of thinkers addressing the big issues nobody ought confuse the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party with Plato's Academy. The degree to which Hockey's critique is valid is the key to his party's political fortunes over the next three years; economic competence is a matter of the next three years, not the past three. Hockey can't do the heavy lifting by himself. Tony Abbott, get across finance sector reform fast: you might have to sacrifice a press sec or two to get a finance sector adviser, but it will be worth it if you get into government by breaking the second-best politician to have come out of Nambour.

There should be a cheeky backbench member or committee putting out papers that differ with Swan's sense of direction, like Turnbull's first-term tax ideas that got up Costello's nose; that there isn't is a testament not to political cohesion but weakness on the part of this government. That Gillard can't get rid of Swan or even get a rocket up him shows how limited her government is.

(Who, exactly, would be Treasurer if Swan fell under a bus, or overreached himself politically? Chris Bowen? Too early, too up himself too soon if overpromoted, no evidence of any reforming instinct. Tony Burke: same as Bowen but less capable and numerate, raised in the Bob Carr school where the snappy one-liner trumps all. Craig Emerson, maybe? Simon Crean? You can see the problem here).

We have a government that is sharply limited except in comparison with its opponents, and a complacent banking system: and these are the foundations for our country/economy to adapt to far-reaching and rapid economic, technological and geopolitical change? Really?

11 December 2010

Luke Walladge thinks you're irrelevant

Luke Walladge wrote this about Wikileaks. Mostly, his attitude is that if there's any government information that you need to know about, Luke and people like him will give it to you.

But first: let's identify where Luke does have a point and get it out of the way, it won't take long:
Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have joined the Pentagon in criticizing WikiLeaks for risking people’s lives by publishing war logs identifying Afghans working for the Americans or acting as informers.

Fair enough too. The very people so named could have been the people to lead a post-Taliban Afghanistan, similar to the way that the Adenauer generation saw off the Nazis and rebuilt Germany after World War II. Those people are targets thanks to Wikileaks. Assange lost more than he gained by that, and has clearly learned his lesson given the often trite nature of much of the material released so far.

Now, back to Mr Information Control:
Whatever your thoughts about the war in Afghanistan, whatever your feeling about the war in Iraq. Whatever you think about the United States, about the diplomatic protocols, Julian Assange is not your friend.

Someone doesn't have to be your 'friend' for you to agree with them, or even to have some degree of sympathy for him and what he's trying to do. Walladge has started his piece with that expression of ambivalence, what-ev-errrr, and he doesn't get the idea that people have opinions and need information to build (or rebuild) them. The history of secret intelligence shows that too much information tends to be denied wrongly to people rather than too little, which has passed Walladge by.
The information disclosed over the last week, with plenty more to come, is not heroic or devoted to people power or full of promise for the Brave New World.

Most of it is tittle-tattle. It does show, however, how vulnerable systems can be and how better security is an urgent need rather than something to get 'round to once you have time. I don't know what Walladge means by "people power" or "the Brave New World" (I've read The Tempest and the Huxley book too: the challenge stands), and I suspect he doesn't either. He's trying, in PR-style, to sneer away an argument he can't defeat.
Rather, it has the potential to disrupt the diplomatic processes that help humanity to avoid conflicts by promoting effective communication between nations with different social, political and economic systems, needs, and interests.

It does nothing of the sort. Russia is run by crooks: to be caught saying so changes nothing. Sarkozy is vain, Kevin Rudd overestimates his abilities in foreign affairs, Desperate Housewives has more influence in the Middle East than a Voice of America-style media outlet - spare us such high-minded pompous rubbish.
If leaks such this as can’t be prevented, then open and frank diplomatic communication must be severely constrained. Lives are threatened. And for what? For who? I know one thing, it’s not for you.

Probably not you either Luke, but let's leave that aside. Open and frank diplomatic communication will continue to take place. The US has a tradition of investigative journalism that has smoked out bigger secrets than this, leaving government powerless to stop its release. Countries other than the US still have their cover intact - for now.
Julian Assange has a worldview that includes demolishing what he sees as "authoritarian, militaristic and corporation-friendly Western systems of government". Assange is a dangerous anarcho-Marxist with paranoid tendencies and enough conspiracy theories to keep the Grassy Knoll Society busy for a month. He views the US as "essentially an authoritarian conspiracy".

Whatever. The thing is, Wikileaks and its current revelations is bigger than Assange and his "paranoid tendencies" (interesting bit of amateur psychology there Luke). Personal slurs are part of the PR armoury and Luke gives it his best shot. The grassy knoll thing is pretty funny. He follows this with another dissection of military secrets and their impact on people who ought not have been targets, which I've dealt with. If Assange was just a wacko, why is he so 'dangerous'?

Dangerous to whom, exactly? To use a Walladgism, "For who [sic]? I know one thing, it’s not for you". Leaving aside the Afghan people identified earlier, and in the example that takes up the middle third of Walladge's piece, my suspicion is that Walladge protests too much. My name won't be in any of those documents. My interests won't be damaged in any way, and neither will those of our country.
It is entirely possible, and indeed probable, that the latest disclosure of information has the potential to disrupt the diplomatic processes that help humanity to avoid conflicts. How is this a good thing?

Great bit of framing there Luke. Is the only role of diplomacy to help avoid conflict? What about the creepy initiatives to get DNA samples and credit-card details from leading UN officials, good luck framing that as essential to securing world peace. Can we still have conflict avoidance without bullshit like that?
We don't need to know the details of confidential diplomatic cables.

Speak for yourself. Somewhere there's a cable that needs to be exposed. For mine, it was the Chinese attitude toward North Korea, but if I find a cable that's equally better out than in I'll let you know, Luke.
There is a reason why the US president has a national security briefing every Monday morning, and you and I don't. There is a reason why Cabinet proceedings in Australia are in confidence, and you and I are not a party to it. In a representative democracy, we invest trust in individuals to make decisions on our behalf, with the knowledge some decisions will never be known to the public.

I'm a fan of representative democracy too, but bad decisions should be exposed. Tim Dunlop's piece in my previous post detailed the role of the Iraq War in showing people that the great and good can't always be trusted. For others, it's Watergate; this assertion by Walladge that people in powerful positions should be left to get on with the job is nonsense. Assange is not the first person to leak government secrets and the idea that leaks represent a structural threat to the country is garbage.
Do not confuse Assange and his henchmen with crusaders for free information everywhere. They are not. Transparency is, in general, a good thing. Ideologically-driven information dumps are not.

By "transparency", Luke means PR people like him crafting information in a way that makes whoever's paying him look better than they might otherwise. This is an ideology in itself, which is why it's bullshit for Walladge to blast Assange for having an ideology. It's also why you laugh out loud when Walladge says this:
It’s all very well to talk about governmental processes and democracy. Let’s not cheer someone who undermines those things.

Julian Assange has done nothing to undermine democracy, whatever his motivations. Luke Walladge, however, would starve citizens of a democracy of the information they - we - need to participate in debates that shape government policy.

Yes, debates that shape government policy. In a democracy it is necessary to have debates with differing viewpoints, but it is not sufficient. Among an educated populace like Australia, the US and many other countries, we need detailed information about the workings of our government: including information that makes people in power look foolish or even venal.

PR people like Luke Walladge encourage public debates that proceed in an orderly manner toward the ends to which they have been paid to direct such debate. Public debates with multiple viewpoints and access to hard data are a nightmare for PR professionals: journalists and others may be divided over Wikileaks but PR people are unequivocally opposed.

The parallel here is with the links between tobacco consumption and cancer: hard data was released to the public domain establishing such links unequivocally, while tobacco companies employed quality and quantities of PR professionals to pooh-pooh the hard data without being able to refute it scientifically. The facts have given the momentum to anti-tobacco measures in public policy and private lifestyle. Likewise, the facts presented on Wikileaks have the potential to produce public policy outcomes that PR people can't control. That's why PR people hate it: show me a journalist who hates Wikileaks and I'll show you someone with too much PR jizz on their face.

I agree wholeheartedly about protecting people from violent reprisals where they're doing the right thing. Where I depart from Walladge is that I lack the blanket trust that he has that we have full access to all the information we need - thanks to PR pros like himself. I have to doubt Walladge's commitment to representative democracy when he comes out with this:
Would you like the entire contents of every SMS and email you ever sent anyone, your bank details, your private medical records and the like to be made publicly available? Of course not.

My private details are not equivalent to expenditures by the Commonwealth Treasury on matters which go against what I would wish my country to be. What sort of person conflates private matters with public ones? Public officials whose egos are invested in their positions to the point where they can no longer be trusted to execute their responsibilities in the public interest - and suckholes like Luke Walladge who act for them.
There are many who opposed the US ‘Patriot Act’, or the supposed terrorism legislation of the UK, or even the abuses and power of the Crime and Corruption Commission in Western Australia.

The defenders of these Kafka-esque impositions have long argued diminished privacy is worth the supposed benefits of security and safety.

Luke, mate, this is the very case that you've made all along - and now you're undermining it by calling it "Kafka-esque"? We do enjoy great security and safety in Australia, and partly this is due to covert operations. You can overdo the whole cloak-and-dagger thing, and this is where your piece fails because you hadn't realised this until just before the end. So you accept that some official secrecy is bad - so much for the blanket condemnation of Assange, but then PR dollies have a greater need for their story to be clear than true.
Assange is not presenting “facts”.

Oh yes he is. Actual cables with real impressions and actual policy positions. If he'd forged them all this would be a different scenario altogether.
He is not a whistleblower. A whistleblower, by their very name and nature, involves a particular incident or incidents of corruption, ineptitude or wrongdoing - not the ad hoc disclosure of confidential information.

As a PR person, Walladge can deal with whistleblowers: smears, assertion that black is in fact white, the whole armoury of that 'profession' to muddy the waters and say that it's the whistleblower's word against everyone else. What he can't deal with is having people's words flung back in their faces, which is what happened with Wikileaks' release of the SIPRnet cables. That's why Assange is 'dangerous': he's beyond the capacities of PR professionals to deal with.

He doesn't have an agenda against anything for which you can prepare an 'Information Pack'. Calling him a "Marxist" in this day and age is quaint rather than genuinely menacing: talking about the 'proletariat' is a bit like calling for horse-drawn vehicles to replace those powered by internal combustion. Assange presents information in its raw form: PR professionals, mate, don't worry about the raw stuff and spin it to get you to view it in a certain way that makes you (not) act the way the people who pay PR professionals want you (not) to act.

Imagine a PR campaign against Assange: it would be long on untested assertions and short on addressing the issues raised by Wikileaks about US foreign policy. It would be laughed away by the sort of people who make Luke Walladge's life hard - people who take the time to gather information, think and act to secure better public policy outcomes.
Assange and his co-conspirators at WikiLeaks talk about democracy and freedom of speech, all the while seeking to give succour and comfort to the enemies of that philosophy.

Free speech in a democracy inevitably gives comfort to enemies of free speech and democracy; again, this is not new to the Wikileaks phenomenon. Where these principles differ from other methodologies of government is that those who hold to those beliefs know that free speech and democracy are worth having and are strong enough to withstand the challenge. Autocracies can't cope with free speech and democracy because they aren't strong enough in themselves, not because they lack the PR services of Luke Walladge. You can condemn anybody for giving succour to the enemy if you speak out against any government policy really, but it's so absurd that few people other than Luke Walladge really try to advance this ideology (and oh yes, it is an ideology).

I don't agree with Julian Assange on everything, just as I don't disagree with Luke Walladge on everything. I agree with the general idea that we should have access to more information about public policy than we currently do: but if I was a PR professional like Luke Walladge I'd probably be less encouraging of the idea of an informed populace challenging government decisions with freely available facts and logic.

10 December 2010

Relationship breakdown

If you want a simple explanation about why bloggers are different to journalists, and not some distasteful threat or parasitic e-form of that declining profession, read Tim Dunlop's piece on old and new media. I was so ready to agree with the whole damn lot until I re-read the first two paragraphs under Section 2. Then I was happy enough to say that I agreed with it but for those two paragraphs, but they kept irritating me while I was playing defence in soccer and my team lost 0-1.
The other problem the mainstream has (and here I largely mean that part of the media that reports politics), is that they are a part of the process of the stories they themselves cover. You cannot separate the tactics and strategy of politicians from the way the media reports those tactics and strategies.

To put it simply, for many in the audience, the media are as much a part of politics as the politicians themselves, and you can’t understand the behaviour of one without examining the behaviour of the other.

This isn't so in political reporting today, and the difference matters because the journalists are insecure about their relationship with politicians - social media only opens up a new front and makes this insecurity rampant paranoia.

1. A short history of the Federal parliamentary press gallery

Since the Federal Parliament was first convened in 1901 it has featured a press gallery. Three Prime Ministers - Deakin, Scullin and Curtin - had been journalists. When Scullin lost he did what politicians do when condemning their parties to years in opposition: he said that the government had a great message to sell but complained that the press was against them.

Until Menzies' time the entire press gallery could fit into the billiards room at the Lodge. The journalists of this era, such as Alan Reid and Ian Fitchett, were heavily partisan but they could fake apolitical reporting really well: when old people flinch at modern opinionated reporting, that's the era they want to return to.

The first Prime Minister to really make use of the media was John Gorton. Gorton was a cabinet minister under Menzies and he liked journalists, and they liked him. When he ran for the Liberal leadership in 1968 following Holt's death he used the media to reflect favourably upon himself as a potential Prime Minister with real popular appeal - popular appeal being synonymous with press gallery appeal, apparently.

Gorton's opponent in that contest, Paul Hasluck, had been a journalist himself before and during World War II, an era where to be a journalist meant keeping secrets and boosting morale rather than hard-hitting exposés (bombs and bullets hit hard enough). Hasluck had been a minister for long enough to disdain journalists for their ignorance and putting questions from the tops of their heads rather than as a result of in-depth research. He eschewed the media, and his party eschewed him.

The then-Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, did the same in outmanoeuvring Arthur Calwell: he got to know young journalists, schooled better and for a more technocratic age, and spent time with them. He set up choreographed moments of banter in Parliament, usually copied verbatim from nineteenth-century badinage in the House of Commons, and let selected journalists know when the show would be on. Journalists felt like they were participating in something big, an impression reinforced by Whitlam's rodomontades about urban planning, ancient Greece or whatever.

Gorton continued doing his share of cultivation too. Even after losing a record number of seats in 1969 journalists liked Gorton, but the momentum was with Whitlam. Then, in March 1971, a press gallery journalist named Alan Ramsey wrote a story that forced the then Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, to resign and ultimately brought down Gorton himself. A journalist brought down a Prime Minister!

The Liberal Party elected Billy McMahon as leader and PM even though they knew the press gallery hated him. McMahon had not cultivated journalists at all, and they in turn made fun of his ears. In this period journalists began releasing books about Whitlam. They were mostly so replete with religious terminology that Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam's press secretary, may as well have been credited as co-author.

In 1972 the press gallery's favourite, Whitlam, beat Mr Funny Ears. Each minister in the new government got a press secretary, and their jobs were to write stories for journalists so that they wouldn't go after any nasty scoops. The journalists increased in number and got nasty scoops anyway, about loans and stuff, and the Opposition played on what was in the press and then the government fell again, in a hugely spectacular fashion that would keep Paul Kelly in pocket money for a generation.

Every Prime Minister from Whitlam to Rudd had to cultivate the press gallery in order to get that job. Leaders of major parties who sucked at dealing with the press gallery (Bill Hayden, Alexander Downer, Simon Crean) never got to be Prime Minister.

2. Julia Gillard and the 2010 Election

The people within the ALP who were undermining Rudd were pretty assiduous in building contacts within the media, but that isn't the same as wanting to become Prime Minister yourself. Gillard had a strong media profile but there was not a lot of in-depth schmoozing of the media like Rudd had done, and Howard before him, etc.

One day, that all changed. One morning Julia Gillard decided she would roll Rudd and become Labor leader and Prime Minister. The next day the Federal Labor Caucus met to confirm her as leader. There was no time for schmoozing journalists; from a press gallery point of view it was like Lady Macbeth, one minute she disappeared off-stage and the next thing we know the king is dead.

There was lots of technocratic stuff for Gillard to do behind closed doors, a bit like the first days of the Whitlam government. Soon afterwards there was an election. Journalists teased Gillard by filling every press conference with insider-drivel like "are you frustrated at not being able to get your message out?". Gillard hadn't bothered to schmooze them, and now she expected media attention, just because she's the Prime Minister? What about that guy who used to schmooze us all the time, let's ask about him! Yeah, let's make fun of her ears!

If journalists covering the 1983 or '84 elections had done this to Bob Hawke, he'd have ripped them a new one and the editors of a different era would have sacked them.

Meanwhile, former journalist Tony Abbott has done the traditional schmoozing of the press gallery over many years.

3. Julia Gillard since the 2010 Election

Ms Funny Ears somehow remained as Prime Minister, despite "not being able to get the message out" via the journosphere.

Today, the journosphere never gives Gillard much credit. Her approval ratings are neither strong nor weak: she's there to do a job and she's doing it. Journalists who bag her are ignored by Gillard and by the public. Media fads (e.g. "Is Mark Arbib a spy?) pass her by without her looking insouciant. No journalists are fawning over her because there's no reward for doing that: not from Gillard or the media. Gillard is perfectly polite to journalists but she just doesn't need them to stay as PM.

Journalists claim that Australians disdain politicians, but only those who read journalists' output and can't look past it do that. Australians disdain people who make a big deal when they are just doing their jobs: highly regarded professions like nurses don't big-note themselves but journalists and politicians do. Gillard has not experienced the media love-in that usually accompanies the rise of a PM, which suggests that she'll ride out media disaffection more easily than her predecessors could.

4. People who play by the rules and do the right thing

The Opposition Leader, with his no less funny-looking ears, played the traditional media game. He was praised for curbing his effusive personality and reciting dull lines like someone talking in his sleep, saying the same lines over and over until the journosphere reported it. For all that, Abbott lost the Prime Ministership: yeah, he came close but so did Billy Snedden.

Abbott just looks skittish when he plays the traditional media game (Question Time theatrics, stunt press conferences). He can't seem to bring disparate criticisms of the government (Turnbull on the NBN, Hockey on financial sector regulation, Bishop on Assange, Morrison of Nauru on immigration) into a cohesive whole; but no journo is looking for that, and none want to dissuade such a try-hard player from playing the game the way they feel it should be played.

When Abbott calls the government to account and demands inquiries and investigations, he gets equal-time coverage but no journalist wants to follow him down the rabbit-hole. They're quite content with the information they get spoon-fed, thanks very much, and of course Mr Abbott would clamour for openness: he was so open in government, but that was several media cycles ago. When he says he wants transparency it's apparently best to take him at his word, especially if there's no countervailing response from the incumbents.

5. On top of that, the twitter

Fancy slaving away all day to put together 600 words, and then answer a phone call from a radio station where you read half what you've written down the line, and then on top of all that you have to go on the twitter with the sort of things journos write there, e.g.
@latikambourke: oh, me too!!

@journostudent: Thank you so much! Takes a skilled journo can do that ;)

@awelder: You can't criticise journalism without being a journalist yourself.

This article from The Guardian says that all Australians are racist bogans: arseh.at/0mgWTf

Phew! Talk about hard work.

There has always been feedback to journalists' work. Newspapers have a Letters to the Editor page; fervent correspondents had and have zero impact on the news. Likewise, radio stations have talkback, which they open, control and close at will while giving the impression of breezy engagement. The least amenable medium to popular input, television, has also been the most popular medium.

The idea of a 'fourth estate' is that it holds the powerful to account. It is not geared to being held to account itself. It transmits, and to receive feedback only clogs up the transmission. Social media is all about feedback and conversation, and while journalists are happy to receive praise they can't distinguish between constructive criticism and destructive carping. They are used to journalism as a small world where practitioners know one another: they are not used to a big world where they don't. When journalists complain about 'anonymous' bloggers, they don't just mean people with names like '@$i9'. They mean: how can I accept personal criticism from someone I've never met?

Information exchanged in blogs and on Twitter looks like journalism. It can even be better researched and written than journalism, particularly in specialised areas which journalists encounter regularly but struggle to come to terms with (e.g. psephology, economics, law, war), particularly given a professional culture of shunning research and winging it.

Journalists can get all shrieky about how you need years of dedication and training to do journalism properly, but you don't really. I can tell you it's not hard to write a press release - and so it's not that hard to rewrite one or splice a couple of them together, which is what most journalism is.

Most journalism involves reporting announcements (or even pre-announcements: "X will announce today that ...", followed by the soupçon of substance that the article is built around). Announcements are made for the benefit of journalists. They can be light on detail and even lighter on any link to the subject matter (e.g. "The Government will spend $50m on [whatever]" - well gol-ly, that's a lot of money! Is it enough? Is it too much? Are they spending it on stuff that doesn't matter? Which lobbyists pulled that off? Journalism rarely answers the questions that need to be asked, and thereby devalues itself). Announcements don't impress people, only journalists are impressed by announcements.

You can go on about Zoe Daniel dodging bullets to report from Bangkok, or Paul McGeough being raided by Israeli commandos en route to Gaza, or Sally Sara explaining the intricacies of politics in Pakistan - we all agree that's real journalism (well, almost all: none of those people were nominated for Walkleys). That sort of journalism is all too rare and is probably the sort of journalism that will survive the technological change afoot at the moment. High-value journalism is the one area that hasn't been tried, whereas bean-counting and hype has been done to death and journalists can't imagine any different environment in which to work. Being subject to incompetent and tyrannous management themselves, they can't understand why voters and taxpayers complain about it from government, or sporting organisations.

The idea that journalism can be knocked out by hordes of non-professional journalists writing for free in a declining market freaks out the journosphere. They're insecure and lack belief in the value of their product. They've lost the ability to critique something like federal politics because the clichés of old do not work (the last hung parliament of 1940-43 was subject to restrictions on reporting and all of the journalists who covered it are dead). Of course they're going to lash out, or meekly toddle off into PR jobs where they can mess with the heads of frazzled journalists. What they're clearly not going to do is change the way they work, because insecure people can't admit they were wrong without a collapse of the collective ego. When your ego collapses, your relationships with others inevitably break down.

They can't admit that those of us outside journalism can dictate terms to those inside, or that you can have a Prime Minister who is well regarded for not truckling to the media. Watching an edifice collapse from inside the edifice must be frightening, but from the outside it can be beautiful and impressive. With a bit of perspective you can see that the destruction of one thing can lead to the creation of another, and that to adapt to change you have to get over yourself. Social media can teach you to get over yourself and deal with people who read your output, journalism might teach you to deal with input providers but it can't teach you to relate to people who need information.

04 December 2010

The game being played

I think it would have been great for the Soccer World Cup to have come here in 2022. My kids will be tweeners then, and it would be a good lesson in winnowing out the hype and bullshit from a big event to see why that sport is the activity that most other people are most likely to be interested in. It is idle to proclaim that hardly anybody in Australia is really interested in soccer: this is changing on an almost daily basis, a fact keenly observed and feared by stalwarts of AFL and the Rugby codes. Australia hasn't dodged a bullet so much as a Phaetonic jag that we're not ready to put to good use.

FIFA have stitched themselves up: the next World Cup is in Brazil, where the football will be great and the parties will be fun but the infrastructure almost certainly won't cope. The next one is in Russia, where the money will all go to kleptocrats, facilities will be second-rate at best, service is non-existent and the experience for fans will be crap. Then, Qatar: it's a FIFA requirement that bars stay open into the night following matches, a hard ask in a Muslim emirate a missile lob from Iran and Saudi.

By this point it will be established that the FIFA World Cup is inherently dodgy. Over that period Europe will be poor and old, it won't be the overwhelming presence in world soccer or much of a presence in anything else that it is today. China will want the Cup and China shall have it. If Europe is to get it again, you'd have to back the Czechs or the Dutch.

It's at this point that we will have to ask what sort of World Cup soccer is to have (Australians all, let us have done with this arrogant abrogation of the generic term 'football' to one code only). If you want a competently run World Cup, one that fans and players and administrators all agree is excellent, Australia will become an inevitability.

Australia will have to earn it, though. The A-League is getting better and establishing a real following, to an extent that no sport but basketball has really done since World War II. Finally, Australians are playing soccer beyond puberty. If we host an Asian Cup and do it well, if we host a Women's World Cup (not much room for graft but an event where organisation and participation will count for a lot), our claim will be strengthened to a point where surfing kangaroos can't touch it. A global shift in economic power will render time-zone incongruity from Europe irrelevant.

By then, the toxic Sepp Blatter should be long gone. Blatter courted Australia's vote when first elected, then went back on every undertaking he gave. When he was about to be rolled an Australian vote saved him by a single vote, and Blatter again reneged on a deal that would have made it easier for Australia to qualify for the World Cup. Now we're in Asia and competing strongly: the achievements in Australian soccer have come despite Blatter, not because of him. If the Swedes are hankering to arrest someone, leave Julian Assange alone and can old Sepp.

Andy Anson's mouthing off has not helped his 'country' (FIFA should insist that the UK play as one country or not at all): a bit of quiet stiff-upper-lip would have been better for their chances. If the Canadians decide they want the World Cup for themselves, the US will miss out again (the US-FIFA campaign this year, combined with last year's failed IOC campaign for Chicago, demonstrate that Hillary Clinton is not delivering on Obama's foreign policy aims). FIFA will not deliver a sequence of World Cup venues to English-speaking countries, particularly arrogant declining powers: Australia as a rising power has much to do, but much to hope for.

Mark Arbib is running the line that Australia's campaign for World Cup '22 was perfectly fine except for the votes cast - now where have we heard this before? Could it be that this tactical genius has no feel for politics beyond petty internecine manoeuvrings in his own state and party? When he was Employment Minister, a journalist asked him for the unemployment figure and he tried to bat it away - it was gotcha journalism, but a pattern is starting to emerge. Arbib is looking like a legend in his own lunchtime, someone whose performance as a minister does not match the high expectations set by those with an inflated view of internal Labor politics.

Gillard was right to stay away from this madness but it would be wrong to assume that soccer won't become a political force in Australia, as the other football codes are. Soccer politics is in its infancy in this country (I'm not counting the inter-ethnic conflicts of old here, which were irrelevant then as now) and the Libs are ahead of other parties. No other activity is bringing Australians together like soccer increasingly is. Watch that space, politically and commercially, and for the sake of that simple and elegant game itself.

02 December 2010

Right away

It's now or never for the Labor Right. They have to take over the Federal Government this side of Christmas, or they'll die a slow death as a political force in this country. They've had two good goes, but unless they move now it's all over.

The NSW Right saw off communism in that state during the third quarter of last century while other states wrestled with it as a legitimate part of the labour movement. It used that clarity of purpose and resilience to reclaim state government in NSW less than six months after Whitlam was annihilated at the polls. The NSW model was adopted by Labor in other states, however grudgingly, and was increasingly adopted in federal government throughout the 1980s and '90s, under Hawke and then NSW's own Paul Keating.

After Keating lost there was a second round of Labor right dominance. Labor was back in power in NSW but led by Bob Carr, a man geared around short-term announcements (he had the Olympics foisted upon him). Staffers who had done the hard yards through opposition and had seen off the Greiner-Fahey government, and who had either declined or not been offered jobs with HawkerBritton, were swamped by refugees from the Keating government. These grizzled veterans from Canberra were jaded with reform (Greiner and Fahey had done most of the heavy lifting anyway), and fearful of accusations of financial recklessness (like Victoria and SA) that they were fearful of the very kind of long-term, expensive projects NSW desperately needed then - and even more so now.

It was Carr's chief of staff, Bruce Hawker, who developed the most recent model of promise 'em anything and recant within the first six months of office, so that the public end up grateful to Labor for anything they get. This model relies upon a hopeless Liberal Party, a given until recently. Blending this model of low expectations and small-scale deliveries was people like Tripodi and Roozendaal, delivering behind closed doors for property developers, the one group of capitalists who can't decamp to a more favourable jurisdiction. Again, this model was exported around the country: people like Rann and Beattie became better examples of the new Sussex Street model than, say, Maxine McKew. This round continued when Labor's Right united in December 2006 to remove one honorary New South Welshman, Kim Beazley, and replace him with another, Kevin Rudd.

This model started to wear out thanks to the various scandals that have seen 13 NSW ministers dumped but still in Parliament, fearful of byelections even in the heartland, and equivalent examples in other jurisdictions of eyes-off-the-ball. Its last hurrah came in mid-2010 when the Right united across the country to dump Rudd for Julia Gillard. It's over, but the Labor Right - and far too many outside it - fail to realise that.

Mark Latham wrote in today's Australian Financial Review that the Right will push on against Gillard, and replace her with Chris Bowen - but he would say nasty things about Gillard, wouldn't he. Bowen denied that he was plotting against Gillard - but he would, wouldn't he.

The question is: with what? With pig-headed self-belief powered by nostalgia? While Latham may be excused for not getting it and seeking attention for its own sake (but he isn't even a blogger!), nobody in the journosphere who is sucked into this story by a total lack of sense, judgment, any understanding of recent history, or of basic political reality half-witted news editors panicked by the declining relevance of organisations that have lumbered them with miscalculated bonus targets "the 24 hour news cycle" has any excuse for believing the Labor Right can deliver on anything.

The best example of centrist Labor government anywhere in the country, the Bracks-Brumby government in Victoria, was voted out last Saturday. This occurred despite unanimous agreement from the journosphere that Ted Baillieu was allowed a few seats in a bit of a protest but nothing like the 13 he needed to win government. You can bellyache all you want about ungrateful Vics, as many Labor activists no doubt do: but if you've got a choice between recognising political reality or listening to self-serving twaddle from Graham Richardson, what are you going to choose? Watch how Tim Holding can't get the numbers and is reduced to Costello-style impotence: if Holding gets monstered by a plodder like Andrews, what is Labor Right good for?

The worst example of centrist Labor government anywhere in the country, the Princess Wonkyhair government of NSW, has played every card from the Labor Right deck only to see the heartland of Labor Right to its biggest defeat since 1904. A few days ago the papers all published pictures of her scowling uncomprehendingly at the camera, as if to say: are you really prepared to give up on this? (To which the answer is, oh yes, as soon as possible). The main gripe against this government is that it has failed to face up to the big issues in governing this state, and the exodus of sitting MPs only reinforces that. The Labor candidates replacing them are the sort of nice-but-dim people who usually get trampled when they get in the way of the big beasts: the very sort of unimpressive people who occupied the Liberal benches during the 1940s, '50s and again into the late 1970s.

Other examples of Labor Right at work, Anna Bligh, Mike Rann and the Northern Territory Shire Council, are in the departure lounge - perhaps without the sniggering contempt due to Keneally (even her own State President, a Labor Right scion, won't vote for her!), but there nonetheless.

In the Federal government, however, let's look at the Labor Right:

  • Bowen has his work cut out in immigration. Paul Howes used to have "a bee in his bonnet" about immigration when a Labor Left minister held that portfolio, but the bee seems to have gone to sleep now that his factional mate is on the job, despite little actual change to policy outcomes. Bowen's only initiative so far is to engage in a Sydney obsession - to go looking for real estate (I hear the Adelaide Hills are nice this time of year!).

  • Tony Burke has it all ahead of him in the Murray-Darling, way too busy to be hitting the phones and causing trouble.

  • Stephen Conroy has taken the nearest thing this government has to a concrete achievement, the NBN, and ruined it with his my-way-or-the-highway approach.

  • Lacking anything substantial to stuff up, David Feeney has grizzled about not getting a big white car. Someone write that self-pitying fool a letter and tell him how life could be worse: sic 'im, Desperate Houso!

  • Rod Kemp and Andrew Thomson would have come through with the FIFA World Cup, so would John Brown and Les Johnson - Mark Arbib's was set to work on an organisation that, like the Labor Right itself, is just a network of stitch-ups; his attempts to reflect some credit on himself for this whole episode can only ring hollow;

  • Arbib and Joe de Bruyn have checkmated one another over gay marriage, but when it comes to getting around the Labor Right, gay and lesbian Australians will - like love itself - find a way.

  • Billy Shorten is being very, very quiet. Too quiet, perhaps, but befitting a man whose way of operating has been publicly found wanting - and who understands that knowing when to shut up is an essential part of playing the long game. For all I know, BShort could well be doing the difficult job of explaining to Tim Holding why it's a good thing that nobody will vote for him right now.

Australia's most fearsome political machine? Makers and breakers? Pfffft.

The Labor Right is finished as an election-winning political force in this country, a statement against which no evidence exists. The idea that they are powerful enough to knock off another Prime Minister is the fantasy of men whose time has passed - including Latham, but especially including others whose careers might otherwise seem very much alive.

01 December 2010

The final days of North Korea

The idea that China may abandon North Korea as an independent state and prepare it to merge with the Republic of Korea is easily the most important to come from the recent Wikileaks release. It's a matter of global importance, in the way that tittle-tattle about Prince Andrew and Berlusconi isn't.

Don't let the tentative language belie the deep and serious changes underway here: the seismic changes in what used to be Eastern bloc regimes in 1989 was expressed in similar terms, intending to review this minor detail or moving to discuss that aspect of whatever. Note the sheer absence of angry denunciations or even the odd bit of ordnance since that release: North Korea is finished. China is managing the transition to a Seoul-led government, which will probably involve:

  • North Korea's nuclear weapons going to China;

  • Members of the North Korean elite fearful of prosecutions and persecutions to also go to China;

  • ROK (the Republic of Korea, a.k.a South Korea or the Seoul regime) to take the starving millions, polluted landscape, buggered infrastructure, &c., and

  • US forces will probably be required to pull out of ROK as part of the deal, and will get the USS Pueblo back, which will suit the Obama Administration down to the ground.

Australia has skin in this game. Lest we forget, 339 Australian servicemen gave their lives fighting for the ROK in 1950-53. There are tens of thousands of Korean migrants in Australia. ROK, China and Japan are three of our biggest trading partners, and there was considerable diplomatic effort invested under both Rudd and Downer in building as good a relationship with North Korea as any country other than China could possibly have.

What are the responses from our leaders to this important event? What options are available to them? These are not merely legitimate but important questions for Australians to be asking right now.

In response, we have the usual mix of me-too bland nothings and utter crap from "wire services" in the foreign news sections. Maybe there is a lot going on behind closed doors right now, and hopefully the Foreign Minister can bring himself to trust us enough to bring us into the debate sometime soon, being an intelligent man capable of getting over himself and learning from recent experience. Australian consideration of this major issue appears to be limited to this from the Federal Opposition, that from Gerard Henderson and something else from Greg Sheridan: and very limited it is too.
North Korea's recent attack on South Korea highlights the increasingly erratic behaviour of Kim Jong-Il and his military regime, and represents a dangerous escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the broader North Asia region ... It is not in Australia's national interests for the situation on the Korean Peninsula to deteriorate to a point where open conflict appears inevitable. Not only is South Korea an important trading partner, it is a valued friend and key regional ally.

That is what we can expect from our alternative government. The bits covered by the ellipsis cover recent events that you can dig up in a Google search, and read like a try-hard essay from a not particularly gifted first-year uni student in international relations. Why have a whole newspaper column and stuff it full of pap, showing once again that people should be relieved that your lot aren't in government now?
Pressure is now on China to join with the rest of the international community in condemning North Korea's attacks. China is uniquely placed to use its leverage to insist that Pyongyang cease its aggressive acts and tone down its inflammatory rhetoric, and start respecting international rules and norms.

Julie, pet, it's too late for that. North Korea is buggered and its whole reason for existence - to act as a buffer between China and The West - is a dead letter. We need more from China than to condemn the deaths of those on Yeonpyeong Island. We need to see how far China has gone in effectively liquidating a sovereign nation, and how it is mitigating the impact on its own territory and people that will come with the inevitable collapse. If you were a worthy potential foreign minister, you'd have put some thought into that and would now be showing Australia how we minimise the risks and maximise the possibilities this situation presents to us.
The world can only hope that China can influence North Korea to stop war-mongering.

Because, if we do not succeed then we run the risk of failure.

North Korea has a fair degree of unexploited mineral wealth - opportunities for Aussie companies but they'll detract from export opportunities here. Will North Korean refugees "jump the queue" ahead of those from, say, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan - happy lands apparently, where asylum seekers are being sent back? Any public policy issues to consider there, Julie?

What do you mean, they never occurred to you? Don't worry, they never occurred to the renowned foreign policy brain that is Gerard Henderson, either.
There is a certain predictability about international diplomacy in north-east Asia.

I never cease to be amazed that conservatives like Henderson or Janet Albrechtsen can describe events as 'predictable', and then demonstrate no idea as to how to deal with them. If it was so predictable, Gerard, why did so many people have to die? Why such fear and loathing abroad?
Once again, the communist regime in North Korea has launched a unilateral military attack on the land and people of the democratically elected South Korean government. And, once again, the former Democratic United States president Jimmy Carter has effectively said that the way to handle the current crisis is to ask the dictators in Pyongyang what they want and then to give it to them.

That's right: Gerard Henderson could have foreseen the whole thing, but people just have to die so that Hendo can play culture wars with Jimmy Carter.
Carter opined that "it is entirely possible" North Korea's actions "are designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future". Well, anything is possible. Especially since virtually no one - including Carter himself - knows anything about the regime in Pyongyang, including its leader, Kim Jong-il, and his son and anointed successor, Kim Jong-un.

Yairs. While Jimmy Carter was getting top-level briefings on the best intelligence about North Korea and China, Gerard Henderson was marking dim-witted essays like Julie Bishop's at the University of Tasmania. He does not demonstrate any sort of superior understanding of that arcane and obscure regime himself, mind you.
Carter's view that all North Korea wants is a bit of respect has been around for some time.

Well yes, Gerard, since 1976 or thereabouts. The debate has moved on from 1976, though. You could have used the latest developments as a stick to beat Carter with, but instead you're sucked into the 1976 vortex too. If you read Carter's article, he implies that regime change in North Korea can only be imposed militarily from the South and the USA. In 1976, China was not as strong as it is today, and North Korea was run by one of the great strategic geniuses of the twentieth century (Kim Il Sung, I mean, not Gerard Henderson).
There are no easy answers to the continuing crisis on the Korean peninsula.

You don't have to be a strategic genius to come up with something like that: Jimmy Carter came up with something similar in the article Henderson refers to:
Dealing effectively with North Korea has long challenged the United States.

If you read Carter's article, he's not calling for appeasement at all. He's calling for talks. If some fool from Pyongyang can jabber away to a junior staffer in the Jubilation T. Cornpone Room in Washington while the Chinese are pinching North Korea's silver (and plutonium), this could be a solution that works for everyone.

Gerard Henderson has grossly misrepresented Jimmy Carter. Henderson is not stuck on a hillside in Kapyong in 1951: it's worse than that. He's stuck in 1938, equating Carter to Neville Chamberlain, completely ignoring the situation we face today and utterly unable to describe it, let alone develop a sensible response.

1938 was the last time the conservatives were right and the moderates wrong about world affairs. When the Soviet bloc collapsed in the 1980s, it was the conservatives who were most dire about 'the evil empire' and were convinced they were just playing possum, while the moderates accepted Vaclav Havel for what he was - and mourned the Tiananmen protesters for what they might have been.

Speaking of utter inability leads us to General Sheridan:
On Sunday, the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the [USS] George Washington, will lead a joint US-South Korea military exercise in the Yellow Sea.

Yes it will, giving Chinese naval intelligence lots of luvverly new data and making it harder for the Chinese to smooth the dying pillow over the face of North Korea. Note that the belligerent Sheridan misses both points: if China are in the drivers' seat here, and they have been since Macarthur overreached himself sixty years ago, is it not appropriate to consider their perspective?
Even as they cancelled exercises, the Americans said they would send an aircraft carrier back to the Yellow Sea whenever they chose to do so and the Chinese had no right of veto over who sailed in the Yellow Sea.

Big talk from a debtor to its creditor.
Now attention is swivelling directly to China. Australia's Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, expressed a Western consensus when he said the world expected China to be much tougher in its dealings with North Korea.

Yes, the world's attention is on Korea not because of so much violence and death and fear, not because a major power has changed its mind; but because Heavy Kevvie has made a speech. Really, Sheridan.
Rudd has spoken at length to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to the foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan and other regional nations. Soon, the US will attempt to lead strong condemnation of North Korea in the UN Security Council.

Beijing's response will be critical in judging whether it is acting with any goodwill in this matter, or whether it should be judged to be to some degree complicit in North Korea's actions.

It will also demonstrate the limits of bullhorn diplomacy. The whole idea of Rudd as a Mandarin-speaking representative of this country (whether as junior diplomat, PM or Foreign Minister) was that he might engage a bit more sensibly with China. Instead, he's doing nothing different to what Stephen Smith or even Downer in his more sober moments would have done.
There are two unpredictable dynamics at work, one in North Korea, and one in China.

Ah yes: the wily Orientals.
But perhaps the worst element of the situation is China's role. Not once this year has Beijing uttered a word of criticism of its close ally.

Close ally? Really? What does China get out of the North Korea relationship except embarrassment? The fox does not condemn the chicken before eating it.
Sometimes Beijing's leaders say they do not have decisive day-to-day influence on Pyongyang. But this justification lacks all credibility if Beijing will not even utter condemnation of Pyongyang's behaviour.

And if they did, what? Would North Korea continue their defiance (a Beijing pantomime) or would they snap back into line (clear evidence of Beijing control)? Plenty of time to do that, more in sorrow than in anger, once North Korea lies eviscerated at their feet.

Sheridan ends by declaring his intellectual bankruptcy. His last four paragraphs ignore the possibility of China switching off North Korea's life support (that "blood ties" stuff is intellectually dishonesty verging on lazy racism) and can't bear to assume that China is smart, strong and skilful enough to lance its own boils.

Sheridan's article assumes Australia is irrelevant to Korea (except, of course, for the decisive intervention of Rudd on the world stage). He might be right, but there's no need to rub it in.

Sheridan referred to China exerting itself in the region, but missed the possibility that it might be strengthening its position, not weakening it, by letting North Korea go. Missing the point is his singular talent, charming in a young idealist but somewhat pathetic in a Foreign Editor. China's geopolitical position was strengthened, not weakened, when the neighbouring USSR dissolved in 1991. Korea is the tenth largest economy in the world and a competitor with Chinese manufactures: saddle it with the wreckage of the North and see how long Seoul remains a competitor, turn that buffer zone around. None of these occurred to Sheridan, fixed as he is on gunboat diplomacy and Washington gossip.

And there you have it: our politicians and media serve us so badly when it comes to big, world-changing events. We can't even articulate our interests, let alone act on them, but I still think it's a slander to suggest we have the politicians and media we deserve.