19 April 2006

Papua, Indonesia and Australia

Papua (pronounced Pahp-wuh) was not part of Indonesia when it became independent after World War II, but remained a Dutch colony until it was annexed by Indonesia's corrupt Suharto regime in 1969. Since then the enormous Freeport copper mine there is worth about 10% of Indonesia's export income, and over a million indigenous Javanese - and proud Indonesians - have (been?) settled there.

It shouldn't really be part of Indonesia. In the 1960s some thought Papua should be part of some Melanesian federation including Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, but this probably looks better after an idle glance at a map rather than a detailed examination of the issues on the ground. The Papuans may be forgiven for not wishing to become part of other countries.

Papua should be a separate country, but it would be a poor one. Could it be 'independent' of the dodgy rackets that prop up Nauru (and I include the Australian government's "Pacific solution" along with Russian mafia money-laundering)? Could it be 'independent' of the racialist politics that bedevil Fiji? Could it develop even the threadbare institutions that the battle-forged East Timorese have? Are we being fair in throwing one of the world's most backward societies into the deep end of economic globalisation and geopolitical game-playing - or is it patronising to even ask such a question? Take the Indonesian boot off their faces, proponents argue, and we'll see.

Indonesians fear that Australians want to chip away at their country until the mighty Javanese Empire consists of nothing but little island statelets. Firstly, Australia has more than proved its loyalty to Indonesia over the years, regardless of the occasional paranoid hissy-fit from Jakarta. Secondly, a constellation of battling states (the kind that Downer once called "busted arse countries") would be a nightmare for Australia in terms of foreign policy, as well as policing illegal movements of drugs, people etc. Thirdly, paranoia keeps wayward Indonesians from straying too far from the official line, and Australia is as close to a credible whipping boy as they have (familiarity with other neighbours Malaysia and Singapore seem to have bred contempt for them as credible threats to the Javanese Empire).

Those responsible for Australia's foreign policy are under the pump over Iraq. The last time Indonesia expanded its real estate holdings was in 1975, which carefully coincided with a political crisis in Australia. It would seem that political crises here translate to negative political outcomes in the immediate region, which in turn create problems for Australians at home, and which strengthen the Javanese Empire to the point where piss-weak Australian politicians feel the need to truckle to it (Gareth Evans' idea of distancing Australia from Asia was to wipe Suharto's semen off his chin). A strong Australian foreign policy able to negotiate the realities of power with the aspirations and rights of people? Now that would be a great idea. Pity we don't have a government that can pull it off.

18 April 2006

Local and/or general

It's stupid to talk about local community activism at a time when local power centres are atrophying. The local shop, the local bank, the local pub, many local facilities are dying of neglect, so when big corporate/government takes it away people are too busy to notice. Local government is a joke that will dither over your backyard shed but will happily allow a massive shopping centre to use your one-lane street as an access road.

It is not surprising that this spurious and unsupportable kind of localism was favoured as The Way Forward by beef-witted Mark Latham. Only someone desperately out of touch with both his local community and with the workings of big centralised government could claim this as an agenda. That's not to say that there are no means for government to support, say, a family looking after a disabled child as opposed to their being institutionalised; it's just a mistake to assume that a public-policy buzzword comes ready with its own policy agenda, tracking systems and efficiency measurements. It's hard for pollies to claim that they helped people help themselves; such people tend to get sucked in by a demagogues and it takes a generation to pull the decentralisers out of the rubble that the demagogue leaves behind.

We live in an era of government bloat, with unnecessary government jobs at every level and claiming credit for work not done. I thought a John Howard-led Liberal government wouldn't have a bar of that, but I was wrong. It'll take time, it'll take a number of people with a clue between them, it'll take hard work to turn this around.

13 April 2006

Climate change

Earth's climate is changing to an extent that can't be explained by the fluctuations of the seasons. Scientists are almost unanimous in asserting this, and those who deny it tend to nitpick, define the term narrowly, or deny that industry is to blame. In other words: proof is strong, proof against is weak, that the weather is generally getting warmer.

How then to explain stupidity like this? Has a latter-day champion of free enterprise started bagging capitalism, reverting to his leftist roots? When this happens you can tell the poor conflicted bugger has been put in a spot he doesn't want to be in. Nobody expects David Morgan or Richard Pratt to singlehandedly turn this phenomenon around but endorsing overwhelming hopelessness is in nobody's interest - not even theirs.

there is nothing Australia can do to change it in any way we could measure.

In any case where there is a problem requiring a practical solution, I'd back Australians to be among the leaders in developing a solution (insert references to stump-jump ploughs, wine casks, Hills hoists and aircraft black-boxes here). It pains me greatly that we don't have a government that will back the spirit of its people in this way. When the problem is as big as climate change, blame is a secondary issue. If only there was a way to stop him starting sentences with: "so".

It might not even be a problem. The House of Lords report even suggested we might not be worse off with warming, on the whole, given how much better plants will grow.

This would be the House of Lords in Britain, then, stacked full of people who donate to the Labour Party of Britain, which might end up with a climate similar to that of modern Australia. It is the Australian climate which will be altered for the worse. The Lords is not famous for having its finger on the pulse of a fast-changing world, and they may underestimate the visual pollution involved when Poms get their kit off whenever the temperature goes above 20*C.

Why complain about emission controls? Emissions occur when a machine is not efficient enough to extract all of the energy in its fuel. The push for greater fuel efficiency is entirely consistent with the advances arising from the advances of capitalism. So, however, are angry pop-eyed little shits let off their leashes to bite the ankles of those who are trying to make a positive difference in the world.

12 April 2006

And govern New South Wales

Costello was right to knock back NSW on the GST share, and it pains me to say that because I live in NSW. The State is appallingly run and has been for a decade at least.

Tricky Micky Egan surfed an economic boom the like of which we haven't seen for a generation, and the State coffers have next to nothing to show for it. He managed Carr Government ministers by having a hissy fit - the wharfies and bricklayers who used to make up Labor Governments would have tossed him down a staircase rather than put up with his nonsense, but Carr always stood up for him in the absence of any real clue about economics. The effete bunch of ex-staffers encrusted on the government benches of State Parliament wouldn't know how to put a wake-up call behind the play anyhow, so you had this pantomime where the State Budget was always in surplus provided you didn't count certain key items of expenditure and imagined that certain moneys had been received when in fact they hadn't. The routine buggering of state-owned enterprises such as the utilities have left NSW with pitiful infrastructure at a time when utilities need comprehensive overhaul.

Iemma bleats about the State's financial position as though it were just a situation, like the weather, but if he had any balls he could have stood up to Egan. If he had though, he wouldn't be Premier. My language fails at this ineptitude, but it was ever so.

In keeping with the pantomime theme the Liberals go all red-faced when talking about the State's finances. They haven't got a plan for fixing it and are just fingering the chink in Iemma's armour in their clumsy way. The Liberals generally, and Debnam particularly, overestimate the importance of economic management in State politics anyhow. Economic performance is one element in the delivery of services. It's the nature of those services that determines whether a state is run well or badly.

The problem with the rise of the Christian right (they have the right to say they're Christian, even though actual good works and charity are scarcely seen) in the NSW Liberals is that they have no idea about the delivery of those services. Building a new road or rail line will benefit families, but it may disadvantage families in its path. Medical technology and administration are moving at a rapid pace, far too fast for the dull wits of the NSW Liberals' Taliban: the nearest thing they have to a clue is to, say, complain about gay nurses, which will drive down the appeal of a profession suffering dire shortages. Suppressing abortion is a political non-starter, and while they are smart enough to know this they are dumb enough to think they can sneak it through regardless. Everyone is in favour of standards and principles in education, but preaching at children or banning sex-education will only alienate another generation as happened in the 1950s/60s without any discernible improvement in skills and employability (or even the liberal values of criticism and questioning, yer Taliban are big on obedience and rote learning).

All of this makes for a Liberal Party that is genuinely unappealing, fronted by a leader who is too weak to stand up to them, and who therefore is going to allow an appalling government to remain in office indefinitely.

Moderate liberals look back on the leadership of John Brogden fondly, a time when all the clouds that lour'd upon their house (the demise of the Fahey Government, Howard's purge of moderates from the Federal party and the perceived defections of Ruddock and Coonan) seemed buried. Actually, at the time the rudely-stamped moderates were lukewarm and unfocused in their support for him - though try finding anyone to admit that now. Brogden was fully awake up to the Taliban, who in turn regarded him as a 'useful idiot' for his popularity and thought he'd give them carte blanche in office. They became frustrated when he stood up to them. All that Brogden was accused of can be found in spades among the Taliban and their fellow travellers. Debnam underestimates their clout and determination and his own ability to handle them - his first interview on ABC's Stateline saw him choke rather than take them on.

And now the moderates, rueful in retrospect, toast Brogden as "king o'er the water". The Taliban haven't hit their peak yet but their fall is preordained more firmly than any preselection deal. This may take some time to work through, and may require a bit of intervention from those who are sick of Labor but who can't see any alternative.

It is the nature of political commentators to make ill-informed predictions, so here's mine:

2006: Liberal preselections replace some duds with other duds. Some are Taliban duds, some are newbies perceived as no threats to anyone, while moderate liberals (far too many of whom can fairly be regarded as duds) fare no better than they ever do.

March 2007: Debnam leads Libs to bit of a swing against Labor but not nearly enough. Brogden returns as Member for Pittwater, McTaggart thanks Iemma for f*cking him over on Mona Vale Hospital.

2007 sometime: Chris Hartcher, Member for Terrigal, retires from politics. Replaced by Legislative Council leader Michael Gallacher.

2007-08: Debnam steadily undermined by Taliban, replaced as leader by Gallacher.

2008-10: Gallacher becomes one-note Johnny on law-n-order, on other areas of policy mouths platitudes placed into his mouth by Taliban. Uncomfortable at being perceived as front for Taliban, even less able to stand up to them than Debnam.

2010: Liberal Party faces decision - does it want to be a Taliban party or not? David Clarke dragged into spotlight snarling and self-pitying like the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, once people get a good look at him his appeal shrivels.

11 April 2006

I know about as much about government policy as the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia

Scary, eh?

At some stage, various parties will ask me to send one of their number as my representative in Parliament in overseeing the government of the common wealth. Having done my time on the other side of that divide, I shall laugh and the parties concerned shall move on to someone else.

Telco reform

In the early '90s Kim Beazley proposed that what was then Telecom Australia be divided into infrastructure on one hand and wholesale/retail sales on the other. It was a good idea, and it was sacrificed to the Hawke-Keating rivalry within the ALP government at the time.

Today, the Federal government holds 51% of a company that is too big, divided about its priorities, and led by a bunch of cowboys who are fattening the beast for market rather than training it for its purpose. The opportunity to sell Telstra has passed, and the idea that the Howard Government has any vision to catapult Australia into a new realm of possibilities facilitated by advanced telecommunications is clearly rubbish.

Telstra should be split along similar lines to the early '90s Beazley model, and if Beazley's wealth of ministerial experience had any value at all that's just what he'd propose. An Australian telco infrastructure company that could become a battleground for new and better technologies, topped with a gaggle of retailers and developers battling for better deals with customers. The bush gets their service without being a charity case, the ICT industry gets a whole new realm to work on, fuelled by international interest in an infrastructure so vast yet so underutilised, and retailers don't have to go cap-in-hand to a competitor that has all of the arrogance and complacency of government with the sharp elbows of a competitor.

There's a recipe for Australia to prosper technically and culturally into the 21st century, and as such there's nothing more you can do than sit back and watch it die.

10 April 2006

Tax reform

Peter Costello came to office with the idea of doing away with tax returns except when you want to claim a deduction. I liked that idea. I wonder what became of it. Had Costello ploughed ahead with that idea he might at least have some reputation as a reforming Treasurer, rather than just the guy who crossed the t's and dotted i's on GST.

It's stupid that pensions and other similar payments are above the tax-free threshhold. Money comes from Treasury to Centrelink, is deducted by Centrelink and sent back to Treasury, and so on, millions of dollars sloshing around Canberra like the dirty water in the bottom of a boat. You can't be serious about tax reform until you address this growing liability on the public purse. Similarly, the company rate is basically inseperable from the upper tax rate, so how about one tax rate from $(poverty line/welfare recipient income level) to about $100k, and from there up it matches the corporate tax rate.

Why is it that the further away from Canberra you are, the better your ideas?

More broadly, the Liberals talked about the interface between tax and welfare, so that the phenomenon of working poor being worse off than welfare recipients would be done away with. This would be a genuine economic and demographic shift to the sunlit uplands, squarely benefitting the "Howard battlers" that keep this government in office. Surely the best way to ward off growing disenchantment is to get this work under way, so that if the Coalition flukes it back into office in '07 they'd have a groundswell of gratitude that will keep them going beyond 2010. That would create the kind of momentum that gets past difficulties like losing a Foreign Minister or a Coalition partner. But, if they're not serious about holding office then I don't want them there.

One thing I will say in Costello's favour: good on him for slapping down Michael Costa on GST allocations. Sydney as ridden the wave of a decade of economic growth and thanks to Bob Carr, they've blown it. What more do you buggers want?

Now that you're not going to become PM any time soon Mr Costello, how about knuckling down to some work on tax reform? May as well get started, that way if you do get there your successor as Treasurer will know where to start. Or you could just piss off.

07 April 2006

The USA and Cuba

The US government has embargoed Cuba since 1960, and it's been less than an enormous success. Castro is still in office and while he is your standard journo-imprisoning dictator, he still seems popular and will be hard to shift.

The reasons why the blockade (el bloqueo) is still in place has little to do with Castro. Experience with nominally Communist regimes show that they can be overwhelmed by a tsunami of cash if opened to world trade. It may be so that the charming boulevardes of Havana would be uglified by fast food logos, but that's up to those who live there rather than a government in an ongoing snit that it can't engineer a junta.

El bloqueo is still in place because Cuban emigres have become politically and economically successful in Florida, a key state in US elections. Those emigres control trade networks to (and largely within) Cuba, so that Cubans have to be connected to them in order to get the meagre offerings they offer (and a well-connected Cuban can get access to pretty much anything, as much as any well-connected person in any country). Lifting the blockade would cut out these middlemen. Pre-Castro Batista used to be in cahoots with the Mafia, now present-day Cuba is all but owned by a Miami Mafia who ply their trade out of sight, out of mind of the US Justice Department.

If Florida went Republican and the rest of the US went Democrat, you might see some movement on this policy. Castro would claim it as a victory, but would dither and grumble about preserving his socialist dreams and shake his spotty old fist at overwhelming twentyfirst century consumerism like everyone else his age. If Fidel Castro died, his brother Raul would be unable to get the support necessary to hold it together.

Alternatively, who knows what W might to in his last two years? Nah, not with his brother as Governor, and the Dems might claim credit after he copped the grief from the right. You'd probably need a Democrat who lost Florida to do this, or a Republican with some guts like McCain. You may even need a Hispanic President. Alternatively, you could piss about for another 46 years.

05 April 2006

Give Kim a break rest

Like some old bull yearning to prove he can still mix it with the young guns, Laurie Oakes writes that we are all being too mean to Kim Beazley and should give him (Beazley) some credit.

Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. Poor Kimmoye.

The reason Kim Beazley "is still accused of lacking aggression" is because, for every blustery speech, you can be sure there will be a backdown on a major issue or two - a slide on Telstra here, a fudge on political donor disclosures there. He can't help it. He's facing a government whose momentum enables it to defy gravity and he lacks a core set of beliefs of his own, so by his fudges shall ye know him.

The issue of West Papua is one such. Labor could support Papuan independence, but that would alienate Australia's largest neighbour which fears ethnically-fuelled disintegration. Labor could oppose Papuan independence, but that would hark back to the old Hawke-Keating days where "distancing Australia from its Asian neighbours" involved Gareth Evans wiping Suharto's semen off his chin.

Notice how Kevin Rudd has stayed well away from this issue? Smart bloke that Kevin. Mind you, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has also been vewwy, vewwy quiet, can't be seen in public until he has picked every scrap of chaff off and there are no flies on him either. Anyone with as much press gallery experience as I have (0) would be asking questions a this point.

It's all very well for Beazley to criticise the dire state of Indonesia-Australia relations, but you know that a well-aimed question about how Labor would avoid annoying the Indonesian government ever about any issue whatsoever hasn't been asked. To be fair, it can't be asked by any journalist in the Canberra press gallery because it's such a hard question for Labor to answer, so anyone who asks it would be regarded as incorrigibly anti-Labor and any information flow to that journalist would stop dead. Oakes should use his standing to ask such questions, but he's just one of the lads see.

"There is, of course, more that Beazley can do", writes Oakes. "Here are three suggestions", a ridiculous position for a true but misunderstood leader. Do you think Bob Hawke in 1982 or John Howard in 1995 was jumping through hoops like this? Kim Beazley in 2006 won't either, but that's because he is no closer to becoming Prime Minister than he was in 1996. Labor have wasted a decade under a dithering and ineffectual leader, and they have nobody (not even "most political commentary" or even Julia Gillard) but themselves to blame for that.

Oakes does not explain what would happen if Beazley failed the ticker tests that he and Michelle Grattan have set for him. Kim Beazley doesn't need a break, he needs a rest. He's had his go. He's had more than a fair go, he's having someone else's go by now. Stick a fork in him, he's done.

When the Liberals were in Opposition, people like Wilson Tuckey and John Moore were regarded as men of significance, gatekeepers to the party's numbers and its chances of securing government. History shows that the Liberals returned to government only when these titans had become burnt-out husks. Could not a similar case be made for Wayne Swan and Stephen Smith? They form the stoppers in that giant gasbag that is Kim Beazley.

03 April 2006

Clive Hamilton: old snake oil in new bottles

So there was Clive Hamilton at the Sydney Writers' Festival a few years ago, with Robyn Williams, having a right old lefty love-in about rapacious capitalism. Now I hate love-ins (loves-in?) because it's not only those present who get screwed. I put it to him that the reason why publicly-listed companies are so focused on growth is because the major shareholders tend to be awash with superannuation funds, and that they are struggling to afford to pay out to all those baby-boomers in a few years - hence it is baby-boomers wishing to earn while not working who are putting the pressure on companies for ever-greater profits.

Well! I was hissed, old Robyn glared at me, and Clive whimpered something about baby-boomers receiving a lot of criticism (as well he might, the room was chocka-block with baby-boomers straight out of yoga class who looked to Clive for an excuse to let them off the treadmill). Dodged the question as artfully as ever Peter Costello might. It's still a good question and his subsequent book doesn't address it, and I doubt he ever will (especially as many of his bosses are super fund trustees themselves). To be fair to him he can't do so without coming across as some wacky alienating polemicist who, to quote the Beatles, ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow.

I was reminded of Clive when I read this, a morality tale for a post-morality age. It is possible to be cheeky without being offensive, Clive, and a real thinker would have pondered the why and wherefores of echoing the Fred Niles and Steve Fieldings of this world - along with other examples of hypocrisy. What's left is less the question than: what's the point? The brand in question has been around for years and is on its way out, two more reasons why it is mystifying that Clive should make it a target. Surely there have to be bigger targets than a declining foreign clothing retailer, but that assumes Clive has a clue.