18 December 2006

Defence tactics

Labor has attracted a lot of criticism about Joel Fitzgibbon becoming Shadow Defence Minister, a trier up against one of Howard's most effective ministers. Beazley has forgotten more than Fitzgibbon has ever learned about Defence, and this may well be true whatever happens over the coming year. However, why would Labor fight an election on Defence? How could it win? Insofar as it's not a contradiction in terms, the genius of Fitzgibbon is becoming apparent.

Steve Lewis from The Australian said Fitzgibbon would appeal to ordinary defence personnel, and he may be right. Those personnel sick of being treated as background for Howard's photo ops may find a sympathetic ear, provided Fitzgibbon doesn't get a big head about his Important New Role.

For the Opposition though, Defence is a management issue. During World War II Missouri Senator Harry Truman initiated investigations into defence maladministration, a campaign that catapulted Truman to prominence and ultimately the Presidency. In the 1980s Congress uncovered similar waste, such as $1000 toilet seats and other examples of overcharging that dented the Reagan Administration's image of strong defence and financial prudence. So too, by careful graft the Labor Opposition can undermine one of the Coalition's real policy and electoral strengths, to get the traction that the wider issue of Iraq hasn't achieved.

Fitzgibbon may be the man to do it, provided he doesn't try and tackle the big stuff. Stories like this are absolute gold for Labor. The Brendan Nelson of old would be all over this, but maybe it doesn't seem to matter when you're off to Washington for chats with Condi. I hope his driver took him past the Watergate - those second-rate burglaries can get messy.

Apart from updating the electronics it isn't clear why the FA-18 needs to be replaced with the F-35. Even if Australia has not been sold a dog of a product this time, the only real argument that can be made is in favour of maintaining the status quo of military hardware among powers in our region. A lot of money to be spent for no apparent gain, apart from the possibility of keeping in sweet with the Americans. Watch hardware costs drop with the advent of pilotless drones capable of speed and payload, then smack your forehead at those who couldn't, wouldn't wait for the sales.

There probably is an argument for increasing defence spending, but it is also true that organisations with unlimited budgets get complacent and wasteful. There are few things more useless than a complacent defence.

Politically, a promise to provide better equipment and crack down on the time-serving lunkheads who constipate any effective fighting force would do wonders for Labor, putting them at least even in an area where they are traditionally weak (even with the overhyped competence of Beazley as leader). Someone so frightened of women cannot claim to be effective at facing the enemy (and it's surprising Labor hasn't made more of this). Members of the Defence Forces are strong Coalition voters - a focus on the basics while neutering any strategic concerns would do wonders for morale and recruitment, giving the ADF the sense of an organisation that's going somewhere. Politically, making defence personnel disposed to Labor would put several Coalition seats in peril.

Howard will move where he has to on Iraq, changing course as far as possible without imperilling a consistent image of pro-Americanism. He might investigate lax security at bases if he had to, but by then it might be too late. He'd lack both the wider context and the small-scale managerialism on an issue built up as a core Howard value. For Labor to take the high ground on Defence would be a grave danger for the dominant political tactician of the past dozen years. It might even lead to a realignment about what the Australian Defence Force is for, and should do - but it's way too early to tell, and too much to expect Fitzgibbon to do it by himself.

13 December 2006

Koutsoukis strikes again

Kevin Rudd and the Federal Labor team can take great comfort in the coming election: Australia's worst political journalist says he can't win. Jeanette Howard may as well start packing for the shift back to Wollstonecraft.

Poor Jase began with some bitchy and shallow impressions and ended by showing that he'd be better off following Lillian Frank around and gushing about her new hat. The politics thing is beyond him.

So Rudd's family looked tidy and happy, as you'd expect from any middle-class family suddenly thrust into the public eye. Given that Rudd is up against Howard, when you see Howard with his wife and kids do they not also look well-turned-out and Pollyanna-happy? Given that Rudd has posited family values as a field on which he is taking the fight to Labor, isn't his own family a metaphor for a wider issue, and a comparison with the incumbent? Dollink, vaht do you mean, a vider issue? Have some more champagne, Jason!

The most detailed description in this piece was of a person who is not a public figure:
The nation was also introduced to Julia Gillard's other half, Tim, a rugged chap who came dressed in a gray vinyl jacket, dark pants, fawn leather shoes, his shirt hanging out and the general demeanour of a man who had just managed to crawl out of Chasers Nightclub in time to make the early flight to Canberra.

- someone who could quite easily be, on JK's description, mistaken for a journalist.

Joe de Bruyn ... One of those self-styled feudal lords

Does de Bruyn really style himself as a "feudal lord"? Is this not something hung on him by lazy journalists? Why do Labor leaders put up with this guy, Jason? More to the point, what was he wearing? The nation has a right to know! (see what comes of lowering your expectations so far that you have to limbo under a Jason Koutsoukis article?).

Jason's main criticism of the new Labor frontbench is that it's, like, so yesterday. Great analysis that. Real insight into the alternative government for the nation.

No commentary linking the fact that Hurley left and that another de Bruyn person, Mark Bishop, isn't contesting the next election. How does that play with your aside about de Bruyn, Jason? What about his close working relationship with Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott?

What about the fact that journalists bemoan message discipline but when they uncover any departure from it, they punish it harder than any backroom operator ever could? Ever thought to reflect on that, and what it could mean about the way a future government (and your job, Jason) might work?

Nor has he scored many — any? — hits on the Government in his portfolio area of consumer affairs and health regulation in the past two years.

Where might those hits be, Jason? Why don't you conduct an investigation into this area and watch a minister reel before the sheer might of your journalistic skill. That way, you can help your nice mate Laurie while creating some of that political theatre you love so much.

there are still too many of the same old faces sitting at the front.

Well, the government doesn't do all-out-all-change when it reshuffles, and any combination of members of the Federal Labor caucus will include some who've been there a while. Let's leave aside Jason's impression that Labor MPs sit with their faces.

Is Queenslander Arch Bevis, after 16 years in Parliament, getting a bit long in the tooth?

Probably, but this is a man who's weathered more than his fair share of storms over that time. He might have something to say if you listen to him. What was he wearing, Jason? How old is Bevis, anyway? As old as the PM? As old as the average Howard government minister? As old as the average baby-boomer swinging voter?

New MPs such as South Australia's Kate Ellis or the former recording industry executive Julie Owens might lack experience, but they don't lack energy and at least they are something new.

Any qualities other than energy and novelty that a government minister would require, Jason?

Can Rudd win the next election? Anything can happen between now and then, but with 16 seats to win — some of them with margins as high as 5 per cent — you would have to say it's highly unlikely.

Let's look at the last time there was a change of government: fair swing there. The last time there was a change of government, ten years ago, is probably more instructive than the massively different political landscape of 1972. Poor Jase was so caught up in his lunge back to 1969 that he failed to explain why 1972 - not 1996 or even 1983 - is the model Rudd should be following. Part of the criticism of Whitlam's government was that it was full of ideas that had spent too long in the bottom drawer, that spending less time in Opposition (a la Hawke and, in his second chance, Howard) might be a good thing.

His first achievement was to take on the party organisation, a battle from which he emerged as the indisputably dominant figure in the ALP.

More recently, Simon Crean did the same thing and ended up nowhere. Analysis, Jason! Analysis! The last leader to fawn over Gough didn't make it and is hardly a role model going forward for anyone in today's ALP.

Besides, if Rudd waits another five years to become PM all those pissed-off Liberal backbenchers will just get more frustrated, won't they? Better to put them out of their misery a.s.a.p., eh?

The next commentator who complains that journalists have a level of observational and writing skill that mere bloggers lack can just piss off. The journalistic experience of Jason Koutsoukis, and of everyone who regards him as a respected colleague, counts for nothing. Anyone after that who bleats about media ownership laws restricting voices and limiting the ability to hold government to account, will need to explain away this pointless individual.

06 December 2006

Iraq, Fiji and Australia

Never thought the first two countries had much in common, eh? Me neither.

Australia has 500 personnel in Iraq who are guarding a detachment of other foreign troops (foreign to both Australia and to Iraq). This is not a significant strategic deployment in itself. It is a non-UN peacekeeping mission, currying favour to an ideal more important to the current government than involvement with the UN. The Diggers are there because Australia needed to maintain good relations with the Bush Administration, and are still there because this need has not entirely disappeared.

At this point I'll just take time out to express my irritation at the Prime Minister of Australia referring to the President of the United States as "the President". One can understand why Americans refer to Bush as the President, and one can understand that if you are briefed relentlessly by Administration officials then in time you might also, as they do, refer to "the President". Bush is not the President, he is not our President; indeed thanks to Howard we do not have a President of our own, assuming we need one. There are other Presidents. The argument by his supporters that Howard is not in lockstep behind Bush fails until Howard has the discipline to stop this verbal tic, which may however become another indication of the twilight of Bush.

Iraq has an elected government which cannot govern that country without help from US and UK forces (other forces, such as Australia's, make little difference and need not be missed by Iraqis if they weren't there. Withdrawals might embarrass the US and British governments but the difference to the balance of power in Iraq would be scant). The Iraqi government faces threats from four sources:

  • well-organised and funded Sunni and Shia forces;

  • Saddam loyalists who can't imagine Iraq without him, funded by AWB money and other scumbags; and

  • a criminal rabble, not entirely separate or separable from the Saddam loyalists.

The rabble is the weakest link because one or both of the two major forces will demonstrate their power by wiping them out or co-opting them. The Shia have 60% of the population of Iraq and 85% of that of Iran, apparently, so they have to be the favourites. Getting the rabble off the streets is one of the central features of any government, so the first cleric who does this is a long way toward supplanting the government.

According to the Prime Minister, the elected Iraqi government asked for our help, just like the "invitation" from the government of South Vietnam in 1965.

Australia has military personnel near, but not in, Fiji. They are offshore despite the fact that the elected government asked for Australian help. The elected government proposed to grant amnesty to the fools behind the 2000 coup and this would have caused more trouble than it's worth in terms of the stability of that country, let alone its future. The overly large Fijian army has already got the rabble off the streets, and hopefully the Australian force of the coast is large enough to pose a threat and keep the Fijian army from doing anything too rash. The personnel are there to react to any possible damage to "Australian interests", though it is more likely that attacks on property will be overlooked in favour of any damage to Australian people, represented in greater numbers in Fiji than in Iraq.

Australian property interests in Fijian tourism, real estate and manufacturing are significant, in a way that Australia's presence in Iraq is not. It has become a destination for outsourcing production that Australians will buy but for which we won't pay top dollar, like clothing. Drugs and illegal fishing moves past or through Fiji and other countries. They receive aid and the Australian government has a responsibility both to minimise wastage, and to overlook any wastage occurring as part of the longterm good.

In both countries, with its different tactics, Australia is trying to ensure longterm stability, with a view that instability there could ultimately threaten us here. However, in Iraq Australian troops are a figleaf for someone else's embarrassment, while in Fiji Australian troops play a vital support for Australian interests and a check on excesses by belligerents.

In the late nineteenth century a German military officer, Carl von Clausewitz, wrote that war is a continuation of politics by other means. His successors practiced, and had practiced against them, war on such an overwhelming scale that we may now regard the insertion of military forces as an expression of political failure and limited imagination. One can support the job the military have to do, and accept the necessity of them having to do it, while at the same time condemn the ineptitude of the policies - and yes, the policymakers - who led them there and us here.

The insertion of troops into Iraq represents a failure for Australian policymakers to imagine an alliance with the United States as a whole rather than just the Current Occupant. The waiting game off the coast of Fiji represents a failure for policymakers to recognise our true national interests and engage effectively with leaders of that community, and other communities across the Pacific, over time. The imbalance in our foreign policy is clear: too little focus on important foreign policy matters, to much focus on marginally relevant but big-picture stuff.

The fault of this failure is political, and generational.

While Australian politics and policy has undergone profound and far-reaching change since 1983, foreign affairs has been run by only three ministers - a political stability unmatched in any other area of policy, including the economy. Each of them liked to grandstand on the world stage more than do the nitty-gritty on the security of our region.

It's fair to give the benefit of the doubt to Australian diplomats in both Iraq and Fiji, they did what they could: but what they could do was limited in the absence of political support, all the more if their stern warnings and alarums were ignored. It is, however, an indictment on their work when one of Australia's genuine experts on the region is not a diplomat, not an academic, but a long-serving correspondent from the hated ABC.

There is also a generational issue. Australian diplomats have experienced a minister who doesn't want to be told anything controversial, and a chain of authority that also practices a blind-eye, deaf-ear, passive-aggressive approach to accountability. Even those who are working their way up DFAT on the eminently diplomatic get-along-to-go-along principle know that consistently ignoring bad news leads ultimately to disaster (they'd know it all the more immediately if Terence Cole's guns had been trained on DFAT). The future of Australian foreign policy will involve a greater focus on the region. Those who would be part of Australia's foreign policy going forward need to change the way they work. But what they might need most of all is a new minister, maybe a series of new ministers.