30 November 2009

Reflections on the climate change debacle

Perhaps I have been around politicians for too much of my life, but for what it is worth this is my take on the cynical machinations on climate change policy to which we have been witness over the last couple of years:

- When in April 2007 the Labor Premiers and Chief Ministers of all the States and Territories, plus the then Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, commissioned Professor Ross Garnaut of the Australian National University to undertake a review of the impacts of climate change on Australia and produce medium- to long-term policy recommendations, this was seen as a wonderful way of putting pressure on John Howard in an election year. John Howard, you will recall, relied on people like Cardinal Pell, Alan Jones and Janet Albrechtsen for his climate change thinking, and harnessing the powerful intellect of Ross Garnaut to the cause was bound to help position the ALP as progressive and forward-looking on climate change (not that any of the State and Territory Administrations had actually done much, but they are all prepared to position themselves at any time as people who are about to do something about the issues du jour).

- At this stage Kevin07 was not expected actually to win the election; the hope was that he would get Labor close enough to the line for someone like Bill Shorten to get them over the line in the following election.

- By this time, however, everyone had stopped listening to John Howard. His promise to spend billions saving the Murray-Darling Basin (as he had every election since 1996) had sunk without trace, and it rapidly became clear that Kevin Rudd was in with a chance. In fact things became so desperate for the Coalition that even John Howard was prepared to promise an emissions trading scheme, if that was part of the price of getting back in. The rising star Malcolm Turnbull was badgering him about it, and we all know that Malcolm can be quite persuasive on occasion.  Besides, there could always be masterly inactivity once John Howard was safely back in Kirribilli House.

- Once Labor actually made it and found itself holding the reins of office, the idea of having a hard-edged and forthright intellect like Ross Garnaut preparing the policy framework suddenly didn’t seem like such a great idea any more, and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong was quickly assuring all and sundry that this well resourced 17-month study by one of the best policy minds in the country would be “just one input into the Government’s thinking”.

- The Government’s insistence that its emissions trading legislation had to be enacted prior to the forthcoming Copenhagen meeting was a stunt which had more to do with wedging the Opposition than any substantive need for the purposes of the negotiations. The normal process with complex multilateral negotiations is for the parties to meet and thresh out the deal (“forge” is the term preferred by politicians and journalists, a Freudian slip if ever there was one) and then come home and pass whatever legislation is necessary to implement it. If everyone passed their legislation first, there would not be much left to negotiate. Following the normal procedure would have put the Government in a much stronger position to get its legislation passed. If the Government came home from Copenhagen and said, “This is what everyone else is doing, and this is the best deal we could get” (which was what happened after Kyoto, and what has happened in the wake of every multilateral trade round) it would be very difficult for the Opposition and the minor parties to stand in the way of giving legislative effect to the international undertakings that the elected Government had negotiated in good faith.

- Malcolm Turnbull probably understood all this, knew that some of his backbenchers were recalcitrant denialists, and also knew that there were deep flaws in the legislation. Overall the Liberal Party put the position that the legislation was not acceptable in its present form.

- Penny Wong responded by demanding specific amendments, no doubt confident that the Coalition would be unable to come up with an agreed set, and could thus be held up to ridicule and contempt.

- Malcolm Turnbull and Ian Macfarlane managed to get the Party Room to agree on a slate of amendments. It was an ambit claim, no doubt intended by many in the party to be unacceptable to the Government, so that the legislation would fail but this could be sheeted home to the Government’s inflexibility.

- If this was the thinking, it failed to come to grips with how keen the Government was to get anything that could be described as an emissions trading scheme across the line. Also, the Government members involved no doubt sensed that if they gave Mr Macfarlane a good deal of what he had been briefed to seek, this would really expose the fault lines in his party on the issue. So to the surprise of many in the Liberal Party, and the horror of some, Ian Macfarlane returned with a deal that he had negotiated with Penny Wong, a circumstance that blew the Liberal Party of Australia into tiny fragments.

No-one comes out of this saga with much credit, because on both sides it was always about politicking and had very little to do with climate change. This behaviour is not unique to Australia. As Secretary to the Department of Primary Industries and Energy I attended the Conference of the Parties in Geneva in July 1996 (COP2) and the Kyoto negotiations in December 1997. There was a lot of political posturing and we were lectured a lot by people (the Americans, the Canadians, the British and numerous Europeans) who signed up to heroic cuts and then either did very little, or were able to make significant reductions at very low cost to themselves because of their particular circumstances.

The fact is that Western democratic governments are so absorbed in managing the 24-hour media cycle and getting themselves over the line at their next election that they have a very short attention span and have no intention whatsoever of inflicting any measurable pain on their electorate for the sake of preventing something from going wrong in the distant future, however predictable that something might be. The politics is served by looking as if they are seriously preparing to do something, without ever actually getting around to doing it.

It is this concern with posture rather than action that explains why there has been so little attention given even to the sorts of no regrets or low regrets measures that would be worth doing in their own right – measures like improved energy efficiency in buildings and transport, improved public transport, reafforestation etc. Taking any action on anything requires a commitment to getting something done (a risk which all contemporary politicians seem determined to avoid, who knows what might go wrong) and a commitment to spend money which is then unavailable for bribing the electorate.

The posture without action approach also explains why expectations for the Copenhagen meeting have collapsed so dramatically in recent months, as it became more and more evident that the preparatory work required for the meeting to achieve anything simply had not been done. No doubt Copenhagen will produce a ringing “we’ll do it next time, you can depend upon it”-type declaration, and we will flop into another inadequate outcome in a year or two’s time.

We are poorly served.

For earlier posts see Climate change: a plague on both their houses and Climate change: a plague a’ both your houses (still).

Malcolm Turnbull is not the wrecker

It is a startling revelation of how out of touch with mainstream community thinking the party of Menzies has become that Malcolm Turnbull is seen as the wrecker of the Liberal Party of Australian because he has sought to associate the Party with action on climate change.

Malcolm Turnbull is not the wrecker. The wrecker is Nick Minchin, the man who was a senior member of the Howard Government that went to the electorate in 2007 promising to introduce an emissions trading scheme, who as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate participated in Party Room deliberations that led to Ian Macfarlane being commissioned to negotiate a deal with Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, and then, as cool as you like, went on prime time television to assert that the majority of Liberal Party members did not believe in man-made climate change.

We all knew there were denialists in the Liberal Party, but here was one of its most senior members putting on the public record the assertion that the majority of the Party is in that camp. Truly frightening.

Turnbull will fight them all the way, but at the time of writing it looks as though he will go down with the ship, and the amiable Joe Hockey will be drafted to “unite the Party”. He will be “supported” in that role by Peter Dutton or perhaps the current deputy, Julie Bishop. Either way, it will be a seriously lightweight team, which seems to be what the hard right of the party wants.

And what do they do next? What do they unite the Party around? Acceptance of the mainstream peer reviewed science (which is where Hockey stands and everyone knows it), or the position of the wreckers who cling to the notion that “the jury is still out on the science”, or even, “the planet is cooling”, but either way, have no intention of ever agreeing to action on greenhouse gas emissions? Palming the issue off to a Senate Committee is alright as a means of buying time (and entirely justified by the flaws in the Government’s ETS which I hope never sees the light of day), but a substantial slab of the Party has no intention of agreeing to any action ever, so what does the new leadership team take to the next election?

Turnbull is right in saying that the Liberal Party is headed for catastrophe, but his antagonists have seized the wheel of the ship on a dark night in a storm, without a thought about what happens next, and there seems no way back. They will be first into the lifeboats, he will go down with the ship.

If there is a change of leadership, there is a wonderful opportunity to outflank the Government if only the Coalition had the wit to take it. They could go to the next election promising to implement the recommendations of the Garnaut Report, rather than the dog’s breakfast and rentseeker’s picnic that is currently before the Parliament.

28 November 2009

Declare war on the war on drugs

A couple of weeks ago a friend and colleague sent me the link to this article by Johann Hari, Johann Hari: Accept the facts – and end this futile 'war on drugs', published in The Independent on 11 November 2009. It makes what to me is a compelling case for abandonment of the law enforcement approach to the drugs problem, and in so doing crystallised ideas that have been running around in my head for a long time.

Hari acknowledges that the proponents of the "war on drugs" are well-intentioned people who believe they are saving people from the nightmare of drug addiction and making the world safer. In arguing that their approach has failed he makes three main points:

- The drug war hands one of our biggest industries to armed criminal gangs, who unleash terrible violence across the country.

- Under prohibition, drug use becomes more hardcore.

- The drug war doesn't reduce drug use – but the alternatives can.

After outlining the benefits Portugal has experienced since it decriminalised the possession of all drugs on 1 July 2001, he continues:

So the drug war doesn't achieve its goal of reducing addiction. All it does achieve is horrific gang violence – and in some cases the cartels gut whole countries like Mexico and Afghanistan. It does unwittingly press people into using harder and more dangerous drugs. And it does waste tens of billions of dollars that could really reduce drug addiction, by spending it on treatment for addicts.

If you are still not convinced, consider the following paragraphs from Shanon O’Neil’s article The Real War in Mexico: How Democracy Can Defeat the Drug Cartels, published in Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009:

Brazen assassinations, kidnappings, and intimidation by drug lords conjure up images of Colombia in the early 1990s. Yet today it is Mexico that is engulfed by escalating violence. Over 10,000 drug-related killings have occurred since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006; in 2008 alone, there were over 6,000. Drug cartels have begun using guerrilla-style tactics: sending heavily armed battalions to attack police stations and assassinating police officers, government officials, and journalists. And they have also adopted innovative public relations strategies to recruit supporters and intimidate their enemies: displaying narcomantas -- banners hung by drug traffickers -- in public places and uploading videos of gruesome beheadings to YouTube.

From [their] increasingly sophisticated operational structure, Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations aggressively moved into the markets for heroin and methamphetamine in the United States, as well as the expanding European cocaine market. They extended their influence down the production chain into source countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. They established beachheads in Central American and Caribbean nations -- which in many cases have much weaker institutions and democracies than Mexico -- where they worked their way into the countries' economic, social, and political fabric, to devastating effect. They widened and deepened their U.S. distribution route. In the words of a recent Justice Department report, Mexican drug cartels now represent the "biggest organized crime threat to the United States," with operations in some 230 U.S. cities. They also diversified their domestic operations, with participants expanding into kidnapping, extortion, contraband, and human smuggling.

... Estimates of illicit profits range widely, but most believe some $15 billion to $25 billion heads across the U.S. border into the hands of Mexico's drug cartels each year. This money buys guns, people, and power. Compiled from thousands of retail drug sales in hundreds of U.S. cities, much of this money is wired, carried, or transported to the U.S.-Mexican border and then simply driven south in bulk. Mexican criminal organizations then launder the funds by using seemingly legal business fronts, such as used-car lots, import-export businesses, or foreign exchange houses. Laundered money not used to fund criminal operations or pay off officials in Mexico is often sent back to the United States and saved in U.S. bank accounts.

The number of drug-related deaths in 2008 far surpassed those for any other year in Mexican history. Disputes between rival criminal organizations have led to open gun battles on major city streets, often in broad daylight. Death threats have forced dozens of law enforcement and government officials to resign. Extortion rings in many cities prey on businesses, forcing owners to pay to protect their operations and employees. The fear of kidnapping plagues the upper, middle, and working classes alike.

O’Neil is not arguing for drug legalisation, far from it, although he does acknowledge that reduced demand for drugs in the United States would lower the drug profits that corrupt officials, buy guns and threaten Mexico’s democracy. On this ground he argues for drug-treatment and drug-education programs and other measures to rehabilitate addicts and lessen drugs’ allure for those not yet hooked.

But while drug treatment, drug education and drug education are admirable elements of social policy, they have no hope if they are swimming against the tide of a policy approach which has been a demonstrable failure since prohibition of alcohol was introduced in the United States in the 1920s. O’Neil unwittingly acknowledges this in his concluding paragraph, which begins:

The best the United States and Mexico can hope for in terms of security is for organized crime in Mexico to become a persistent but manageable law enforcement problem, similar to illegal businesses in the United States...

Is that really the best we can hope for? Let’s stand back a bit and get a grip on what is happening here. There is such a demand for illicit drugs in the United States that the economic rents created by their illegality sets up a cash flow into Mexico which is on the same scale as the $25 billion remitted annually to family and friends in Mexico by Mexican and Mexican American populations living in the United States. It is more than double the $11 billion earned by Mexico’s tourism industry.

This illicit cash flow rather dwarfs the $5 million that the United States gives to Mexico in official development assistance (that is not a typo, it is million, not billion), and indeed the less than $40 million in security assistance that the U.S. was providing to its neighbour until last year.

United States security funding for Colombia is on a larger scale at $600 million, but this is just attacking an upstream component of the Mexican problem.

In short, the criminalisation of drug use creates massive crime, violence and corruption in the United States, and makes important neighbouring states all but ungovernable. There has to be a better way than this, and that better way is to recognise that the need to take drugs is a psychological problem, and addiction to drugs is a medical problem.

Note: Shannon O’Neil is Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Director of the CFR task force on U.S.-Latin American relations. His full article may be viewed here. To access it you will need to be a subscriber to Foreign Affairs or fill out a free one-time registration.

26 November 2009

Climate change: a plague a’ both your houses (still)

The climate change antics on both sides of politics over the last few days have transported me beyond the point of looking for stray cats to kick to the point where convening a wrist-slashing party seems more appropriate.

This has been pure, bloody-minded politics, nothing more, nothing less. The science and the economically efficient way to respond were children overboard a long, long time ago.

The Government demonstrated its real form on evidence based public policy the day Senator Wong declared that Professor Garnaut’s yet to be completed report would be “just one input into the Government’s thinking”. Garnaut delivered the Government a silk purse, one of the best public policy frameworks we have seen in many a year, and since that time Senator Wong has worked tirelessly to convert it into a sow’s ear, a public policy tragedy. No noisemaker or rent-seeker is to be left unappeased, and we are left with a dog’s breakfast which will tie us all up in red tape, create significant opportunities for corruption, and do almost nothing to abate our emissions. Through the course of this year, the Government’s objectives have been limited to

- Wedging the Opposition. They have certainly accomplished that.

- Having a piece of legislation that they can call an emissions trading scheme; it doesn’t matter what it does, as long as people are trading emissions. And don’t fall for all of that stuff about needing it in place before Copenhagen. The normal procedure in multilateral agreement making is to negotiate the deal and then put the legislation in place, not the other way around.

- To offend as few vested interests as possible.

The Coalition has been driven by denialists, a small number of whom have at least been honest enough to say that is what they are, covert denialists who hide behind the fiction that we are rushing unilaterally into abatement, and people who seem to have a tribal political attitude that they just don’t like the sort of people who want to do something about climate change. There is fury in the Liberal Party, a price it is paying for John Howard giving the likes of Cardinal Pell, Janet Albrechtsen and Alan Jones far too much oxygen on this subject.  John Howard loved doing it because it infuriated all the sorts of people he didn’t like, but now there is a price to be paid. There are many Liberal voters who have lapped all that nonsense up in good faith and genuinely believe that climate change is a massive conspiracy by scientific boffins to scare us all to death and get more research funding for themselves in the process. Tonight, it looks as though the Liberal Party has become a prisoner of that belief, because there are just too many of its core supporters phoning and emailing in to be ignored.

The Liberal Party is in such turmoil that the legislation may well fail to pass the Senate. It is to be hoped so; the package is so bad that it would be better to rip it up and start again. As an old boss of mine used to say back in the 1960s, there are times when half a loaf is worse than no bread. Back to the Garnaut Report, I say.

For an earlier post on this subject, see Climate change: a plague on both their houses.

25 November 2009

The Palin memoir

We are advised by the front page of today’s edition of The Age that Sarah Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue, has become one of the best-selling non-fiction books, selling 300,000 copies in one day.

What I want to know is, who decided that it was non-fiction? As my late friend Alex Buzo wisely observed, autobiography is a form of literature “with greater recognition given to the author” (see Alex Buzo, A Dictionary of the Almost Obvious, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1998.

Other examples:

- Bill Clinton’s My Life (is there some deep metaphysical reason why he gave his autobiography the same name as Trotsky’s – Моя Жиэнь?)

- The Peter Costello book. Even the name of the author is fictitious – his father-in-law wrote it: it’s “Peter Costello with Peter Coleman”. Buzo foresaw all this in 1998:

 – Most autobiographies were the work of ghost writers, then came the ‘as told to’ brigade, and now, finally, ‘with’.  

Defence acquisition: on budget isn’t everything

A small item in the Australian Financial Review, Tuesday 24 November 2009, p.10 (Defence savings plan by John Kerin) informs us:

A Defence think tank has argued the Rudd government should move to greater military off-the-shelf (MOTS) purchasing because the global market and exorbitant cost of defence weaponry demanded it. Australian Strategic Policy Institute co-author Andrew Davies argues in a paper on defence procurement that defence’s three big recent MOTS acquisitions, Abrams tanks, C-17 air transporters and Super Hornet fighters were all on time and on budget.

With all due respect, the more important question is whether we needed any of the above equipment at all. Each of them was fast-tracked without going through the full rigour of capability analysis that the ongoing commitment of such large licks of the Australian defence budget should receive:

- The Abrams tanks were purchased because the German Leopards we had in service were to be retired. But did we need to replace them, and if so, why and with what? Did we need such heavy tanks – in our region they are harder to move and harder to deploy. Will we ever use them?

- The $2 billion acquisition of the C-17 was a rapid decision of then Defence Minister Brendan “I don’t muck about” Nelson. The decision seems to have been driven by the need to be able to fly the Abrams tanks around. It is probably a nice-to-have, but whether it passes the test of being essential and unavoidable is a debatable question.

- The $6 billion acquisition of the Super Hornets was decided without conducting a competition.

MOTS purchasing seems to embody a certain danger of a shopping list approach to defence purchasing – an influential service chief gets the ear of the Prime Minister or Defence Minister and suddenly a large slice of the defence budget is committed. When we buy an Australian design, at least there is a proper process of analysis and debate about what we really need. Only then is it worth considering whether there is a sufficiently close approximation that can be purchased off the shelf.

For the record, the Collins class submarine project, one of Australia’s greatest technological achievements of all time, was completed for within 3-4% of its original budget after allowance for inflation. Most of the alleged cost over-run was to meet changed operational requirements and technological obsolescence, the latter being routine in the fast-changing world of high tech IT-intensive military equipment.

22 November 2009

Hillary is a liability

An article by Michael Crowley in The New Republic, 16 November 2009, entitled Reset Button: the gaffes of Hillary Clinton, republished in The Weekend Australian, 21-21 November 2009, p. 22, reveals that it is beginning to dawn on the Obama Administration that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a liability (read article here).

This is hardly a surprise. Mrs Clinton’s appointment was more about what was good for the Democratic Party (“hold your friends close and your enemies closer”) than what was in the national interests of the United States, and since her appointment she has shown no particular aptitude for the role. Since her appointment she has:

 - made some bizarre appointments (passionate Israel supporter Dennis Ross, who has never been to Iran, as an adviser on Iran – see Hillary's envoy: not everyone is cheering, Iran: Hillary’s envoy (contd.), and Making U.S. Iran policy)

- kicked people she felt she could afford to kick (the Pakistanis on her recent visit to Islamabad, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, journalists), but

- pandered to people who she thought could harm her political aspirations (Binyamin Netanyahu).

- gone in too strong on critical issues and on being forced to retreat, flopped too far in the other direction, leaving US policy in the Middle East, for example, in a mess from which it is unlikely to recover (see, for example, Middle East: US policy all over the place, Game, set and match to Mr Netanyahu, and Weekend at Bernie’s for Middle East Peace).

- adopted far too hawkish a policy towards Iran, which has hardened Iranian attitudes and got the United States exactly nowhere; when she speaks about Iran she always leaves me with the impression that she is addressing audiences in Israel and New York rather than  Iran.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says

...Clinton has no regrets. “To the extent there is a change in approach to the world, it involves a genuine dialogue, not just a delivery of polite diplomatic points”.

The crack about polite diplomatic points might sound fine but anyone experienced in the foreign policy arena knows that there is a point to being courteous in the conduct of affairs of state. Diplomats are the medium of communication between sovereign states, and the point about being sovereign is that sovereign entities make their own decisions. Broadly speaking, there are three ways for one sovereign entity to secure the cooperation of another: persuasion, bribery, and military coercion. Persuasion beats the hell out of the other two, and courtesy is one of the fundamental arts of persuasion.

The best thing that Mrs Clinton could do for the foreign policy interests of the United States would be to find something else to do, and fast.

Thirty years of Iranian history in three minutes

An article by Mark Bowden in the Wall Street Journal 18 November 2009, entitled How Iran’s Revolution was Hijacked, gives as good a potted summary of the thirty years of Iranian history since the 1979 revolution as you will find in a few hundred words.

Mr. Bowden, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is the author of Guests of the Ayatollah and, more recently, The Best Game Ever, both published by Atlantic Monthly Press.

Read Bowden’s article here.

Good season at Val d’Isére, 2009

The 2009 ski season at Val d’Isére was a great one. Here are the photos to prove it.
For most of two weeks we were blessed with a combination of bright sunshine and very low daily maxima (typically about -10 °C)  which meant that the hard packed snow never melted, never became icy.


21 November 2009

Menuhin EMI recordings revisited

In Yehudi Menuhin: The great EMI recordings I noted the remarkable set of 50 CDs of Yehudi Menuhin’s recordings which EMI released to mark the 10th anniversary of his death on 12 March 1999. Spanning the period of 70 years he recorded for the company, this great collection of course includes his iconic recording at the age of 16 of the great Elgar Violin Concerto, with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

I have now had the set long enough to have been able to listen to each of the CDs at least twice. It is a magnificent collection, richly deserving of Gramophone Magazine’s October 2009 award for Re-issue of the Month. And in spite of the vintage of some of the recordings, the sound quality is good; the sound engineers have done a great job.

Amongst the many other recordings are the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin, a 1932 recording with George Enescu of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins, the Beethoven and Brahms concerti with Wilhelm Furtwängler, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 accompanied by sister Hepzibah, Menuhin’s only recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Sir Adrian Boult, lesser known works such as violin concerti by Vaughan Williams, Walton and Williamson, and pieces by Gershwin and Grappelli with the great Stephane Grappelli.

The set can be obtained from my favourite source of classical CDs, the UK-based Presto Classical, for £108.26 plus £2.60 postage and handling. Thanks to Gordon Brown’s brilliant management of the UK economy and the consequent realignment of exchange rates in our favour, that will cost Australian buyers just about exactly $A200, or $4.00 per CD.

For the moment the direct link to the page on which the item is to be found is here (page 16 of the list which results from putting Menuhin in the search box on the home page), but Presto Classical moves them around a bit from time to time.

US double standards in the Middle East

On the one page (Page 19) of today’s (21 November) edition of The Age, we have two reports of Middle Eastern countries presenting the United States with an outright refusal to comply with its demands.

The first, Israel shrugs off international criticism to expand settlements in East Jerusalem, by The Age’s Jerusalem-based Middle East Correspondent Jason Koutsoukis, reports on the Israeli decision to build another 900 housing units for Jewish settlers in occupied East Jerusalem. On the Obama Administration’s reaction, Koutsoukis says:

US President Barack Obama sharply criticised the new development plans this week, saying that he thought it would make it difficult for Israel to make peace with its neighbours.

In May, Mr Obama issued a strong demand that Israel cease settlement construction both East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has steadfastly rejected that, insisting upon Israel’s right to maintain Jerusalem as an “undivided capital”.

The second story, Obama threatens to punish Iran, by Lorne Cook in Brussels, reports that leading world powers were scheduled to meet in Brussels last night to discuss Iran’s entirely unsurprising rejection of the deal under which it would send most of its stock of low-enriched uranium abroad. On the Obama Administration’s reaction, Cook says:

Mr Obama stepped up pressure on Iran after it dismissed the fuel deal, which emerged from talks in Vienna that Iran held with France, Russia and the US.

He warned that Washington had “begun discussions with its international partners about the importance of having consequences”.

“Our expectations are that over the next several weeks we will be developing a package of potential steps that we could take to indicate our seriousness to Iran.”

So Iranian refusals must have consequences; Israeli refusals draw regretful observations that the behaviour might create difficulties for Israel (as if it had no impact on the rest of us!).

One sad aspect of this is that I do not see any prospect of any of the above issues being resolved without some sort of Grand Bargain that resolves the Palestinian issue, relieves Iran of the threat of Israeli military action, and recognises the inescapable fact that Iran is a major player in the Middle East (thanks in no small measure to the Bush Administration’s wonderful idea of invading Iraq in 2003).

For further background on the Iran nuclear situation see Iran position on nuclear deal no surprise. For background on why sanctions against Iran are a bad idea see Choke point: the Strait of Hormuz, Iran: Sanctions are in the air and Iran: sanctions still on the agenda.

For analysis of the extent to which United States Middle East policy is a mess, see Middle East: US policy all over the place, Game, set and match to Mr Netanyahu and Weekend at Bernie's for Middle East Peace.

19 November 2009

Confusion of names and forms

It is time to give careful thought to the doctrines of the Chinese Legalists, the most radical of the ancient Chinese schools of thought, who flourished towards the end of the third century B.C. The Legalists accepted no authority except that of the ruler and looked for no precedent. The aim of politics was control of the state and of the population, a control to be achieved through an intensive set of laws, backed up by generous rewards and severe punishments.

The Legalists rejected the moral standards of the Confucians, with their dedication to the cultivation of virtue, the development of the personality of the individual, government for the people, social harmony, and the use of moral principles, moral example and moral persuasion.

In many ways the ethos of contemporary Australian politics is closer to that of the Legalists than the Confucians; every smart young professional politician knows that politics is about gaining and clinging to power, whatever it takes, and that bleating about ethics and standards of public behaviour is for the naïfs who do not understand politics.

This being the case, let us introduce that great Legalist principle, the absolute requirement, on pain of severe punishment, for strict correspondence between “names” and “forms”, or as we might say, between the form and the substance. In his great synthesis of Legalist thought, the Han Fei Tzu, Han Fei Tzu, prince of Han (d. 208 B.C.) writes:

Whenever a ruler wants to suppress treachery, he must examine the correspondence between actuality and names. Actuality and names refer to the minister’s words and deeds. When a minister presents his words, the ruler assigns him a task in accordance with his words and demands accomplishments specifically from that work. If the words correspond to the task and the task to the words, he should be rewarded. If the accomplishments do not correspond to the task or the task not to the words, he will be punished. If the minister’s words are big but his accomplishment is small, he will be punished. The punishment is not for the small accomplishment but for the fact that the accomplishment does not correspond to the words. If the minister’s words are small and the accomplishments are big, he will also be punished. It is not that the ruler is not pleased with the big accomplishments but he considers the failure of the big accomplishments to correspond to the words worse than the big accomplishments themselves.

This would be a fine standard by which we the people, collectively the ultimate power in the land, could judge the promises, pretensions and general ducking and weaving of those who set out to rule us and exercise power over us – a good ruler to run over the delivery of election promises, for example, and the nomenclature which is applied to various policies, programs, institutions and offices.

What are we to make, for example, of the following:

(1) A Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme which does no such thing, which ostensibly sets out to put a price on carbon but then seeks to protect everyone from adjusting the way they do business to such an extent that there is a net outflow of funds from taxpayers to energy intensive industry?

(2) The Coalition members and business people who run around describing this pathetic excuse for an emissions reduction program as a massive new tax? A massive new tax that transfers incomes from taxpayers to heavy industry?

(3) “Tough but humane” policies for asylum seekers? When I hear that phrase I hear “tough”. When Malcolm Turnbull hears it he hears (horror of horrors) “humane”. Which is it?

(4) Ministers who call their minders “advisers” but permit them to act as Vice-Ministers, taking decisions and giving instructions,  although they have been elected by no-one and have no authority to do so (more on this subject later).

The list goes on ad infinitum. I think we should set very rigorous requirements for Ministers to perform strictly in accordance with their undertakings, and deal very harshly with any behaviour that smacks of “confusion between names and forms”. Otherwise there is treachery which undermines the power of we the people.

Source: A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 251-261.

Inventive Australia

Australia Post has issued a new set of 55 cent stamps celebrating “Inventive Australia”. The inventions commemorated on the five stamps are:

- the Esky and the wine cask
- the ute and the B&D Roll-A-Door
- the Victa rotary lawnmower
- the Hills hoist
- Speedos and zinc cream.

These are great innovations which benefit us in our everyday lives, and are no doubt viewed with some affection by most Australians, but how much more inventive are the following:

- The “black box” Flight Data Recorder, developed in 1956 by Dr David Warren and his team at the then Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, now a part of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO). These are standard equipment on airliners worldwide, and the prime source of information for all post-crash investigations.

- The Mills Cross radio telescope. The Mills Cross was built by Bernard Mills at CSIRO’s Fleurs field station in the Badgery’s Creek area west of Sydney in 1954, in the very earliest days of radio astronomy. The explanation of this innovation is somewhat technical, but it was a very cost-effective way of simulating a large parabolic dish (such as was subsequently built at Parkes), and producing higher resolution scans of radio sources than had previously been achievable. Each arm of the cross was 1500 feet (450m) long, running N-S and E-W, and consisted of two rows of 250 half-wave dipole elements backed by a plane wire mesh reflector; the individual dipoles were aligned in an E-W direction. The beam could be steered in the sky by adjusting the phasing of the elements in each arm.

Subsequently Professor Wilbur Christiansen of Sydney University used the same principle to establish the Chris Cross, a cross built of steerable dishes.

A second and larger Mills Cross, with arms approximately a mile in length, was built at Hoskingtown near Canberra. Following the discovery of the pulsar, the researches of this Mills Cross between 1968 and 1978 yielded 75 per cent of the then known pulsars.

The linking of dispersed elements to simulate very large arrays is now standard practice in radio astronomy around the world.

 - Atomic absorption spectroscopy, a technique for determining the concentration of a particular metallic element in a sample, which was developed in the 1950s by  lan Walsh and his team at the CSIRO Division of Chemical Physics in Melbourne.

- The Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), the unique over-the-horizon radar network, with arrays near Longreach in Queensland and Laverton in Western Australia, which provides wide area surveillance of the northern approaches to Australia. JORN was developed by DSTO, building on fundamental research into the physics of the ionosphere undertaken at the University of New England in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was one of the world’s leading centres for ionospheric research. The key researchers at UNE at that time were Reg Smith (my honours supervisor), a specialist in radio wave propagation in the lower ionosphere, and Frank Hibberd, a specialist in ionospheric fading.

Perhaps at a time when we are concerned to promote the “national brand” we should be celebrating these great achievements rather than the Hills hoist and the Victa mower, much as we love ‘em.

It would be remiss of me to fail to mention that these particular innovations were all the product of government research laboratories, and that they proceeded without the necessity for the researchers to obtain co-funding from industry. This flies in the face of the Howardesque ideology that if industry is not prepared to contribute to a research program, that is a sign that it is not worth undertaking. I look forward to the day when government research establishments can pursue their research without the requirement to raise industry co-funding.