19 April 2007

In a position to help

I sometimes agree with Christopher Hitchens and sometimes disagree, but always in reading his writings is it necessary to be on the ball and engage with what he's saying. This article, however, only requires that the discerning reader believes that the President of the World Bank has higher obligations than the social politenesses one might experience at Washington drinks parties.

First, let it be said that it doesn't matter a damn whether, or how well, you know Wolfowitz or his girlfriend. You can live a good and helpful life without knowing either; it is not at all mean-spirited to hope for such an institution to be run well and to benefit those countries that need its help.

Second, the relationship between Wolfowitz and his girlfriend is none of your business or mine. What matters is the sheer lack of credibility that Wolfowitz and his institution have in combatting corruption. The World Bank employee who has to front officials in third-world countries and tell them that siphoning off World Bank money for their private gain - that person has been nobbled by Wolfowitz. Maybe he should send his girlfriend to do that job. Maybe he should do it himself. Maybe he should send Hitchens.

Third, I have no opinion on the World Bank's position vis-a-vis Uzbekistan. None (there, that should sink any accusation that I'm opinionated!).

Once you get over that, Hitchens' article starts looking thin. There's the surly tone of anyone who picks on my mates picks on me, the kind of emotional buy-in to issues that usually brings with it a powerfully analytical intellect expressed in simple prose. On the face of it, it's chivalrous of him to stick up for Shaha Riza - but the very idea of someone well-versed in the ways of Washington going out with a high-profile man and not expecting her private life to come under scrutiny is mind-boggling. It's both patronising and, for someone who made his name as an investigative journalist, hypocritical for Hitchens to go down this path.

The issue of Wolfowitz's past is entirely valid. The very idea that a man might ascend to a position without considering his recent performance in other positions is absurd. Can we now admit that it was Wolfowitz, and not General Shinseki, who was "wildly off the mark" about the issue of troop numbers required to meet objectives in Iraq - and if so, can it be doubted that Wolfowitz busily ignoring good advice at the World Bank now? The similarity of his career path to that of Robert McNamara, another smart and diligent man who bungled a war, is inescapable. It is absolutely fair game for those who criticise the man and his impact on American life.

Aha, you say, but why did Wolfowitz take so long to release these nonincriminating internal memoranda? Who acts so defensively if they have nothing to hide?

"Aha" is something I say rarely, if ever. As for Wolfowitz, he is a leading member of a governing clique who genuinely believes himself to be above scrutiny, and it is possible Hitchens is trying to insinuate himself into such company to enjoy the rarified pleasure of action without repercussion. Those who hammer away getting people like him and his dining companions to disclose what they do and why with the public resources entrusted to them do important work. It would be fair if they did something similar to a Clinton appointee. It would be fair if people started scrutinising similar actions in Australia by the Howard Government, and in NSW by Sorry Morry's outfit (actually it would be more than nice; you've gotta keep your hopes down). It's part of the whole transparency thing: if you won't practice it yourself then you're the wrong person to demand it of others.

And, if you're the sort of person who doesn't practice what he preaches but still likes having a powerful job, it's incumbent upon people like Christopher Hitchens to demand disclosure and to investigate why a senior official would demand publicly that others do the opposite of what he actually does. Perhaps Hitchens could use his slight knowledge of such people to expand his knowledge and convey it to readers, or perhaps he has just grown weary of questioning the way things are done around here.

17 April 2007

Choices that work

While AWAs are being signed nobody is sticking their neck out and lauding them in principle. There is no groundswell of public support for the government can point to, and while it's unpopular it's not being modified, so as you'd expect Howard has given a key sales role with no resources to a moderate. Notice how, in the Health portfolio, Senator Patterson looked weak as she stood fast as directed by Howard; when the heat got too much he replaced her with Aboott, who backed down furiously and had resources galore that were denied to Patterson; yet Abbott has the reputation for firm resolution and Patterson is political roadkill. Loyalty, eh!

With his current portfolio Joe Hockey will either have the moderation leached from him, like Ruddock; he'll collapse intenally, like Vanstone; or he'll cop the blame from the right for failing to defend the indefensible. Hockey has a key role to play in pulling the Liberals together when they next go into Opposition, but none of that matters to Howard loyalists and their post-Howard Götterdämmerung fantasies.

WorkChoices was an idle piece of work slapped together by a government that had not expected to have a fifth term, it's too late to back down on it (but those aspects that really jar with teh focus groups will be watered down between now and the election). It is the first piece of IR legislation in which major employer groups and unions were not closely consulted in the development process.

The reason why the employer groups have not rallied behind WorkChoices is because they have no skin in the game, it is a monument to their irrelevance. When was the last time the Australian Industry Group (which has the silly abbreviation of Ai, the greeting made famous by Ali G), the National Farmers' Federation, Australian Business Ltd or VECCI actually drove some reform? They are being ignored on infrastructure and tax reform and pretty much everything else. The glory days of leading reform and careful consideration about policy in the 1980s are well behind us. Employers' First (the old NSW Employers' Federation) only makes an appearance to complain about lost productivity over public holidays - mean and irrelevant.

A Rudd Government will almost certainly replace WorkChoices with legislation developed in close consultation with unions and employer bodies. This will bury the issue politically for the rest of the next term of government, but beyond that dissatisfaction will emerge with legislation drawn up by orgajnisations increasingly irrelevant to the working lives of most people, what with declining membership and a move away from corporatism. It will be interesting to see how much of WorkChoices (or, for that matter, Jobsback!) is fished out of the bin, dressed up and wedged back into the statute books in order to regulate working relationships into the second decade of this century.