30 June 2010

Climate change: no need for an inquiry on the science

In a letter to the editor published in today’s edition of The Australian Financial Review, former Treasury Deputy Secretary Des Moore, now Director, Institute of Private Enterprise, writes about Prime Minister Gillard’s comments on the need for a “lasting and deep community consensus on climate change”, and concludes:

Gillard would demonstrate her capacity as a leader if she established an independent public inquiry to test her belief in the need to reduce emissions of CO2.

I have news for Des Moore. An independent public inquiry on the effect of atmospheric carbon dioxide has been in progress for over 150 years, through the normal processes of peer reviewed published science.  To the extent that any science is ever settled, the core science of global warming is; it is very basic undergraduate physics, which has been confirmed experimentally for over 150 years. The arguments and uncertainties are about the secondary effects and the consequences.

-  A paper about the warming effect of the planet’s atmosphere was first published in 1824 by the great French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier, with a follow-up paper in 1827. Fourier established the concept of a planetary energy balance, a balance between the planet’s heat gain and its heat loss, and proposed that the atmosphere shifts the balance towards higher temperatures by slowing the heat loss.

-  Beginning in the late 1850s, the 19th century Irish physicist John Tyndall FRS undertook reliable experimental work which established that the warming effect was due to the absorption and re-radiation of infra-red radiation by a number of gases, notably water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane.

-  A quantitative analysis was undertaken in the 1890s by the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, who was the first to predict that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and other combustion processes would cause global warming.

-  The black body temperature of the earth – the temperature at which it would stabilise if all incoming radiation were absorbed and re-radiated - is 5.5 °C. Since the Earth's surface reflects about 28% of incoming sunlight, in the absence of the greenhouse effect the planet's mean temperature would be far lower - about -18 or -19 °C instead of the much higher current mean temperature, about 14 °C.

-  Given all of this, I think that the onus is on the climate change deniers to explain to the rest of us why adding about 30% to the burden of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would not raise the temperature of the planet.

The theory is supported by a great deal of direct observation and measurement of global warming and of the secondary effects of that warming.

If Julia Gillard were to announce an independent inquiry into “the need to reduce emissions of CO2”, most reasonable Australians would draw a perfectly reasonable conclusion that she had taken leave of her senses.

There is a legitimate role for economists in the climate change debate, but their role begins where the science leaves off. Science can tell us what we need to do; economics can tell us the most economically efficient ways to do what we need to do. We would all be better served, however, if people whose training is in law and economics rather than science would refrain from raising confusion about matters which they are equipped neither to understand nor debate.  The economics is challenging enough; leave the science to the scientists.

29 June 2010

Some reservations about the Gillard ascendancy

While I am generally pleased with the replacement of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard, there are enough nagging doubts and reservations to cause me to refrain from throwing my hat in the air. Among the principal ones:

(1)    I worry about the use of the term “negotiation” in relation to the forthcoming interactions between the Government and the mining industry.  This is not a negotiation. The Government makes laws, and persons both natural and corporate within the jurisdiction are meant to obey them. 

Accordingly, a self-respecting Government does not negotiate with private companies what they are prepared to accept. What it does do in relation to a matter as complex as a resource rent tax is discuss the matter in detail with the affected parties and hear what they have to say about any perceived problems with the design of the scheme, for the principal purpose of avoiding any unintended consequences.  These discussions should be on the basis that there will be a resource rent tax, but the Government will actually be listening to what the miners have to say about the design of the tax.

Perhaps I am just starting at shadows, perhaps it is just a bit of sloppy language, but in someone who chooses her words as carefully as Prime Minister Gillard appears to do, I worry and wonder.

(2)    I worry deeply about language that suggests that the Government sees the need to take time over establishing a new consensus on climate change, time which I guess will be measured in years, not weeks or months. Consensus is great, but in this domain we need leadership. The deniers will never agree, and neither will the large emitters if they see that it is going to cost them something, as cost them it must.  Efforts to establish consensus will simply give the antagonistic interest groups time to redouble their efforts and cause further delay. The Government knows what the issues are, it knows where everybody stands. It is time for the Government to make some decisions and get on with it.

(3)    All of the language about understanding the anxieties of people about asylum seekers arriving on our shores fills me with foreboding. Although she said some reassuring things on her first 7.30 Report interview, words critical of attempts to inflame the issue, I fear that she is going to do the politically pragmatic thing on this issue, rather than the right thing.

In saying this I am not drawing an unfavourable contrast between Gillard and Rudd.  When Rudd said he was not going to take a lurch to the right on this issue, he did it from the comfortable position of having already lurched, through the outrageous suspension of processing applications for asylum from Sri Lankans and Afghans, not to mention tasty little numbers like incarcerating people in Leonora, a remote mining town in Western Australia.

(4)    I see no sign that Prime Minister Gillard will adopt any kind of balanced position in relation to Israel and the plight of the Palestinians.  On the contrary, if her performance at the Australia-Israel Leadership Forum last year is anything to go by, we can expect a continuation of the reflexive obedience to Israel’s interests that has come to characterise Australia’s approach to the Middle East over a long period of time. Speaking just six months after Operation Cast Lead (the Israeli invasion of Gaza) she empathised with Israel’s angst about Hamas firing home-made rockets over the barrier fence, but had nothing to say about the civilian casualties in Gaza.   In her remarkably enthusiastic address to the Forum on 22 June 2009 (see transcript here) she spoke of our wonderful shared values, and spoke about how “exclusion and humiliation breed despair and hatred”, but did not seem able to cross-reference this to what motivates the Palestinians who have been dispossessed for over 60 years, and lived under brutal military occupation for over 40 years.

(5)    On foreign policy more generally, she has little if any background and one does not acquire a sure touch in this area overnight.  That is not a disqualification, but the likely consequence is that she will adopt very “safe” approaches at a time when some imagination and critical judgements are needed. We need a Government which is prepared to challenge some tired old positions, but the likelihood is is that foreign policy will more than usually be an extension of domestic policy by other means – the key driver of foreign policy positions will be the desire not to offend any particular domestic constituency.  The attitude to Israel is probably a function of this, and we can expect to see an uncritical approach to the US alliance because the political imperative will be to avoid being characterised as “leftish” or soft on national security or a danger to the alliance.

Again I am not drawing an unfavourable contrast between Gillard and Rudd.  Rudd brought little to the development of Australian foreign policy, in spite of all the  claims and posturing to the contrary.

I hope I am wrong about all of the above. Time will tell.

28 June 2010

Reflections on the leadership change

Forests have been clear felled to provide the paper on which to print all of the commentary that has been published in the last few days about the collapse of Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership and the election of Julia Gillard to lead the Australian Labor Party.  I don’t intend to try to cover all of the ground, but for what it is worth, here are some of the principal things that strike me:

(1)    There has been a lot of silly and uninformed commentary, including from Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, all of whom ought to know better, about Kevin Rudd having been elected Prime Minister, and Julia Gillard not having been as yet.

The Australian Constitution provides for a Westminster system of government, as a result of which we do not elect our political leaders directly.  Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister of Australia as a result of three conditions being fulfilled. First, he was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives, as the local member for the Brisbane seat of Griffith.  Second, in the 2007 general election the party which he led achieved a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, and in accordance with our constitutional practice was entitled to form a government. Third, prior to the 2007 general election, he had been elected by his parliamentary party to lead it, and not surprisingly, he remained the leader after the election.

So unless, dear reader, you are on the electoral role as a resident of the Federal Electorate of Griffith, or are a member of the Parliamentary Labor Party, you had no say whatever in Kevin Rudd’s ascension to the Prime Ministership, except to the extent that you contributed to the election of a Labor majority in the House of Representatives.

(2)    The leadership of the Labor Party being a matter for the Labor Party itself, there is nothing inappropriate about the Party deciding to change its leader.  The transition was organised by elected members of the Parliamentary Labor Party, and the only people who had a say in it were elected Parliamentarians.  We will get our chance to express a view on this come election day.

(3)    For all of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s silly hyperbole about “Sussex Street Death Squads”, even the machine men of the NSW Right cannot organise a change of leadership unless the party is crying out for it.  The principal architect of Kevin Rudd’s misfortunes was Kevin Rudd himself.  Put another way, Julia Gillard was not a solution looking for a problem; Kevin Rudd was a problem crying out for a solution.

(4)    Kevin Rudd liked to think of himself as a “policy wonk”, and someone who understood the workings of government. He was neither, and in fact was very much the type of politically aligned operator that has reduced public administration to desperate incapacity in just about every jurisdiction in the land.  His sole experience of Federal Government was as a very junior diplomat on a posting to Beijing, a position which gives neither leverage over, nor insights into, the policy development process – or for that matter program implementation.  He then became chief of staff to Queensland Premier Wayne Goss, and subsequently the head of the Queensland Cabinet Office. Both of these positions are close to the centre of power, but they confer on their occupant power without responsibility, and are remote from what goes on inside the government departments that are at the beck and call of the political leadership.

(5)    The problem with this kind of career trajectory, of which we have seen no small number of examples since the 1984 Dawkins reforms of the Commonwealth Public Service, is that the chosen ones can go straight to the top without the discomfort or inconvenience of running a major organisational unit of a government department. The typical career path is from middle management to chief of staff or senior adviser, followed by appointment as a department secretary, or perhaps warehousing as a deputy secretary until a suitable vacancy at the department head level turns up.

This career path flies in the face of a very substantial body of management literature (see for example the work of Canadian organisational psychologist Elliot Jacques) which holds that no-one, no matter how talented, can be an effective senior manager without having matured as a manager at lower levels. One learns to manage great complexity by first learning how to manage programs and projects of lesser, but steadily increasing complexity.  Armed forces understand this well, but not modern politicians. If you seek explanation for the poor quality of government services (including infrastructure planning and development) that surrounds you, and the extraordinary levels of waste and mismanagement, seek no further than this.

(6)    Among the many things that Kevin Rudd did not understand was the value of an effective Cabinet process.  Clear evidence of how central the Cabinet process is to a Westminster system of government is the fact that it has endured for centuries, without ever being mentioned in legislation or, in Australia’s case, the constitution.  The central principal of Cabinet government in our system is that, while Ministers are each commissioned by the Governor-General to administer certain enactments as defined in the Administrative Arrangements Order, there are some things that an individual Minister could do that would have the potential to bring the Government down.  Accordingly, for these strategic issues, it is a matter of basic survival to ensure that these strategically significant issues are discussed by the whole leadership team, with a collective decision being made as to whether any given proposal is or is not a good idea.

Beyond that core issue, there is the question of ensuring, in relation to any idea that the Government wishes to proceed with, that all of the downsides and risk factors have been considered, and the requirements for successful implementation have been thought through.  The standard model for achieving that in Australian Federal Cabinet practice is to require any Minister seeking significant policy change to place a submission before Cabinet.  Cabinet submissions are required to be succinct (usually not more than seven pages), with clear recommendations, and costings agreed by the Department of Finance.  The proposing Minister’s department is required, in the course of drafting a submission, to consult all other departments upon whose responsibilities the proposal could have an impact, and to include in the submission a succinct statement of each department’s “coordination comments”. The submissions are then supposed to be lodged with the Cabinet Secretariat in time to be circulated to all members of Cabinet ten clear business days ahead of the meeting at which they are to be considered.

It doesn’t always work like that (I have known times when the ten day rule has been more honoured in the breach than the observance) but at least this standard model provides for the orderly conduct of government business, and for Ministers to take informed decisions based on thorough briefing from all relevant departments and agencies.

(7)    In this context it is useful to contrast the decision-making process which led to the RSPT debacle with the process by which the Fraser Cabinet deliberated on the taxation of the mining industry in about 1976, in response to an Industries Assistance Commission report which the Whitlam Government had commissioned in 1975.  In the circumstances of the day the Treasury (at that time having the functions of both the Treasury and the Department of Finance) was extremely powerful, and the former  officers of Rex Connor’s Department of Minerals and Energy, of whom I was one, were treated in some quarters with considerable suspicion. But thanks to a properly run Cabinet process, the Department of National Resources was able to achieve a substantial reversal of the Whitlam Government’s ill-advised decision to move from immediate write-off of capital investment in the mining industry to write off over forty years or life of mine, whichever was the less.  It is ironic to think that if the Treasury had had its way back then, mining investment would have continued to be written off at 2.5% per annum, and we wouldn’t be agonising about super profits in the mining industry because we would barely have a mining industry.

(8)    A more subtle benefit of an effective Cabinet process is the opportunity it provides for the training of the next generation of public servants.  You can send public servants off to all the courses in the world, and there is a place for some of that, but there is no substitute for junior and middle level officers having real responsibilities, and real opportunities to contribute to the major issues of the day, under the supervision of experienced senior officers. That level of junior officer engagement and supervision takes a little more time, but it is an investment in the future of public administration in our country.  If the Prime Minister demands that everything be done by yesterday, it can only be done by very senior staff who can get it right first time – there is no time for any reworking. The result of that is overworked senior staff, and bright young people beneath them whose talents are being neither utilised nor developed.

(9)    No-one who read the article about Kevin Rudd by Scott Prasser, co-editor of Corruption and Reform: The Fitzgerald Vision, published in the 11 January 2007 edition of The Australian (see Scott Prasser: Rudd’s ruthless style entrenched Labor) can have been surprised either by the style of the Rudd Government or the way it ended.  The key content is:

... aided and abetted by partisans such as Rudd and others recruited from academe and elsewhere, the Goss government implemented a new political fix of increased centralised control, partisan appointments across the public service, media management, continued executive dominance of Queensland's unicameral legislature and skilful containment of Fitzgerald's anti-corruption watchdogs such as the Criminal Justice Commission.

Where the Fitzgerald report suggested the public service needed to be able to "provide independent, impartial, expert advice" and to operate in an environment "without concern for the political or personal connections of the people and organisations affected by their decisions", the Goss reforms ensured greater political control through increased politicisation and centralised processes of a more competent administrative machine.

No connection between asylum seekers and population

One of the nasty little dog-whistle messages that is in the air at the moment is the notion that “border protection” (code for institutionalised inhumanity towards asylum seekers) has some connection with the current debate about the appropriate growth trajectory for Australia’s population growth. It doesn’t, as the following statistics demonstrate:

-  The outcome for the 2008-09 Migration Program was 171,318 places, an 8 per cent increase on the 2007-08 figure of 158,630 places.

-  The planning level for 2009-10 was reduced to 168,700 places, a 1.9 per cent decrease.

-  The number of boat arrivals in 2008-09 was 1,033, and the financial year to date figure for the current financial year was 4,916 as of 19 May 2010.

-  In calendar year 2009 the total number of asylum applications was 6,170 – more than double the 2,750 boat arrivals for the calendar year.  As everyone knows, most asylum seekers arrive by plane.

What these statistics show is that boat arrivals really amount to little more than rounding error on the formal migration program.  If we accepted every single boat arrival as a permanent resident, the effect on the size of our population would be barely discernable.

This evening on the ABC Radio National program Australia Talks, conservative commentator Tom Switzer opined, in response to a question from program host Paul Barclay, that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would make the question of asylum seekers a centre-piece of the forthcoming election campaign. I am sure he is right.  The Coalition’s excitable spokesman on immigration matters, Scott Morrison, never tires of telling us that the country is being overrun by boat people, and that the government must somehow “stop the boats”. Tony Abbott himself nominated stopping the boats as the first of the three policy issues by which in his view Prime Minister Gillard must be judged.

We need a reality check here.  At a time when the Global Financial Crisis is just starting to show us what it can really do, when the public transport systems of our two largest cities are collapsing around our ears, when the state of the nation’s infrastructure generally is a disgrace, when no political party has anything useful to say about climate change, when the Murray Darling Basin is in a state of collapse, and the war in Afghanistan is deteriorating day by day, we are asked to believe that the number one issue facing Australia is the annual arrival of a few thousand asylum seekers.

The reason why Tony Abbott gives the issue such prominence is not because of its inherent importance.  I suspect it is because he understands the “push” factors that are driving the increase in boat arrivals, and is delighted to highlight an issue over which he knows the government can have little control – politics at its basest.

Through the prominence which they give to the issue, our news media are complicit in making it politically difficult for governments to adopt the humane approach required by our international obligations to asylum seekers.

27 June 2010

Synthetic CDOs: it’s gambling

Spend two minutes of your life finding out all that you need to know about synthetic CDOs by watching this YouTube clip of Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat, Missouri explain to a bunch of Goldman Sachs executives what CDOs are all about: gambling, pure and simple.

No doubt Senator McCaskill lacks the sophistication of the Goldman Sachs execs she is addressing, who are undoubtedly the smartest guys in the room.  She is new to Washington, having been elected only in 2006, and has lived in Missouri all her life, like three generations of her ancestors.

Maybe that is why she is able to see the CDOs for what they are. Judge for yourself at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2Rt9iN159U

17 June 2010

Iran is not the main problem

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says that Iran’s nuclear program is the most difficult peace and security issue the international community will be confronted with over the next twelve to eighteen months.

Wrong.  The most difficult peace and security issue the international community will be confronted with over the next twelve to eighteen months will be the one it has steadfastly refused to confront since 1948: the ongoing consequences of the unjust division of Mandate Palestine, with 83% of the land going to the relatively recently arrived Zionists and just 17% to the original Arab inhabitants, with catastrophic consequences for the dispossessed Palestinians.  The invasion of the Suez Canal Zone in 1956, the wars of 1967 and 1973, the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, the Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, the Israeli blockade of Gaza since 2006, and the invasion in 2009, all attest to that.

Now Israel has the most right wing and extremist government in its history, a government that feels it owes nothing to anyone in the outside world, and that any step it chooses to take in the name of Israel is justified.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an appalling person.  But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not the most dangerous man in the Middle East. Binyamin Netanyahu is.

16 June 2010

Calling BP names

A few days ago US President referred to BP, the company at the centre of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, as “British Petroleum”, much to the consternation of the British Government and others.

It was a cheap shot.  British Petroleum formally changed its name to BP plc in 2001. It is a global energy company which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange as well as the London Stock Exchange. Having over the years taken over Burmah-Castrol, ARCO and Amoco, it has almost as many US shareholders as UK shareholders on its share register (39% and 40% respectively).

It was a cheap shot in another way.  While BP owns the Deepwater Horizon project and must take ultimate responsibility for the ongoing disaster, let us not forget that the wonderful US icon Halliburton was the company that did the physical work and must have something to answer for.

And if we want to play the game of calling BP by historical names, I have a much better idea. Having on 12 June just passed the first anniversary of the stolen election in Iran, and while the air is still ringing with the cheers of those find something to celebrate in the strengthening of sanctions against Iran, why not go the whole hog and refer to BP as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).  Then we could all be reminded of the events which set relations between Iran and the West on their current trajectory.

It needs to be remembered that it was on behalf of the then British Government-owned AIOC that CIA’s Tehran station chief Kermit Roosevelt (now there is a good Democrat family name) organised the 1953 coup that, with the backing of the British Government and the complicity of the Shah, overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq, who had had the temerity to nationalise the Iranian oil industry – meaning, in effect, nationalise AIOC. 

The coup came after the British Government had unsuccessfully contested the nationalisation at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.  

It is not as though the Americans had not sought to avoid the circumstances which triggered the nationalisation.  The Iranian Government was resentful of how little benefit Iran was receiving from AIOC’s lucrative business exploiting its finite reserves of oil – a position that Australians ought to empathise with while Prime Minister Rudd is banging on about the need for a super profits tax on the Australian mining industry. No skills were imparted to Iranians – the British did not wish to take the risk that Iran would one day be able to run its own oil industry – and Iranian oil industry workers not only worked for a pittance, they worked and lived under appalling conditions.

The Americans politely suggested to the British that they really should do something about the Iranian Government’s concerns and the plight of AIOC’s workers, only to be told rather patronisingly that Britain had far more experience at dealing with “natives” than the US did, and knew what it was doing.  

And so tumult in the Iranian oil industry ultimately became tumult in the streets of Tehran, and culminated in the CIA-led, British-backed coup, following which the Shah got rid of all that silly democratic stuff about electing governments, and AIOC was re-privatised, except that this time around the original AIOC was only permitted to own 40% of the new company – that was part of the US-UK deal.

So we really do have a lot to be thankful to “British Petroleum” for.

12 June 2010

Promises, promises

As a sweetener to the Western Australian public Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised Western Australia $2 billion for infrastructure development to be funded from the proceeds of his proposed resource rent tax on the mining industry. He has made a similar promise to Queensland.

Two comments:

(1)    The merit of a tax has nothing to do with all of the wonderful things that a government could spend the money on.  The merit of taxes is all about tax principles and tax design, a key aim of the latter being to raise revenue without distorting business decisions.

(2)    Things being as they are, a Kevin Rudd promise is not exactly a bankable document.

Flitton on the relationship with Israel

Diplomatic editor Daniel Flitton had a very worthwhile opinion piece on the strains in the relationship with Israel in the Friday 11 June edition of The Age – see Sparing Israel the rod spoils the friendship.

After noting that the interests of the two countries are not automatically in sync (something one could wish that the two major political parties had recognised many years ago) and discussing the case of the stolen/forged passports, he observes in relation to the intelligence sharing relationship that Australia has many sources of intelligence about the Middle East, notably the long-standing intelligence sharing arrangements with the United States and the United Kingdom, and observes:

Israel may well have a better idea of what is going on in its region than does Australia - precisely because it is Israel's region. Australia's interests in the Middle East are rightly more limited. Having a good understanding of what is going on in the world should not be confused with wasting time on problems that have little direct impact on our interests. Bureaucratic resources are not infinite and hard decisions must be made about where our priorities lie.

Besides, with few exceptions, when countries share intelligence it is received with a big question mark over why the information is being passed along. Is the material intended to inform, or to influence? Australia might be a friend of Israel but, as the passport episode has shown, there is good reason to carefully assess the motives of its spy agencies.

The question about whether intelligence is passed on to inform or to influence is of fundamental importance and applies to all our intelligence relationships. We should not always assume that what we are being told by our great and powerful friends can be taken at face value.

06 June 2010

Freebairn on the resource rent tax

There is a fun thought experiment you can conduct on the basis of a recent remark by distinguished economist John Freebairn, Ritchie Professor of Economics at Melbourne University (see Melbourne University profile of Professor Freebairn here), who was one of the key consultants in the design of the resource super profits tax (RSPT).

A piece in The Weekend Australian Financial Review, 29-30 May 2010, (Why an economist loves this tax... by Patrick Durkin) states:

Freebairn guesses only half-a-dozen experts and economists in Australia would intimately understand the workings of the super profits tax.

The fun is in considering who these cognoscenti might be, and who might be left outside that charmed circle.

First, consider the fact that Freebairn was a signatory to a statement by 20 economists that came out in support of the tax during the preceding week (see text of Statement and list of signatories here).  Freebairn seems to be saying that at least fourteen of his co-signatories did not really understand what they were signing.

Second, let us try to figure out who the six cognoscenti are.  Presumably Freebairn himself is one, and Ken Henry another.  Apart from Ken Henry there were four other members of the Tax Review Panel. If we include all of them there would be no room for anyone else. 

That leaves no room for the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner or Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard.  They wouldn’t try to sell us something they didn’t really understand, surely?

And what about the senior Treasury official, Executive Director (First Assistant Secretary) David Parker, who is chairing the Government’s consultation panel? 

And the people at KPMG Econtech who did the modelling that showed that the resource industry would grow after this substantial tax was imposed on it?

We seem rapidly to run out of room, and can only conclude that numbers of people who have played a key role in the design of this tax, and the decision making and advocacy thereon, do not really understand what they are doing.

Was Kevin Rudd looking for this fight?

Shortly after the Government revealed to a startled world its thinking about the particular form that a resource rent tax might take, an old Treasury colleague of mine commented to me that the fight that had broken out with the mining industry was no accident – it was a fight that Kevin Rudd wanted to have.

That is certainly the view of Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher, for whose views I have a great deal of respect; see Big miners gave Rudd the fight he was looking for, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 2010.

Hartcher begins:

One of the most mistaken ideas to take hold in politics in recent weeks is that Kevin Rudd has somehow been shocked that the big miners are reacting ferociously to his proposed new mining tax.

To believe this, you'd have to think Rudd some sort of moron. He certainly did not decide to spring a big new tax on the richest companies in the country, just before an election, in the expectation that they would calmly invite him to tea to negotiate.

Rudd wanted a fight. That's the whole point.

In explaining what the Prime Minister wants to achieve in taking on such a large and well funded industry, Hartcher says:

First, it is designed to make him look strong. Second, it is set up to position him as the champion of the values of Australian fairness against the miners' self-interest. Third, it makes Rudd a fighter on behalf of "working families".

And fourth, a fight generates its own publicity - it is filling the national political headspace on the subject of Rudd's choosing. Stories about ceiling insulation bungles and school hall rip-offs are bumped in the face of this titanic struggle.

I am inclined to think that there is also an element of political incompetence involved in this. As I commented in Resource rent tax: what happened to the nemawashi?, the Government would have been well advised to publish the Henry Tax Review the day it was delivered to them, accompanied by a statement that this was an independent review, and the Government would consider it carefully and announce its decisions in due course after consultations with affected parties and relevant experts. This would have given the Government the opportunity to gauge the reactions to all of the recommendations of the report, to gain a broader spectrum of expert opinion on each of them, and to design a suite of policies that it could both explain and sell.  But I can just hear the inexperienced spin doctors counselling the Prime Minister not to put the report “out there” until he had all the answers – otherwise “you will only encourage speculation and might lose control of the debate”.

If it is true that this is a war of choice – and I am sure the Prime Minister is happy to have the fight – we really do need to talk about Kevin (see We need to talk about Kevin) it would have to stand both as one of the greatest acts of irresponsibility and one of the greatest acts of narcissism in modern Australian political history.

01 June 2010

Reflections on the Gaza blockade

The world is understandably in uproar about the loss of life on board the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara as it tried to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza yesterday.

Some observations on the event, and the context within which it happened:

(1)    Take no notice of assertions by Israeli Government spokesmen like Defence Minister Ehud Barak or Israeli Government mouthpiece Mark Regev that the violence was started by the protesters.  The maintenance of the siege on Gaza is itself the first act of violence – the forceful prevention of innocent civilians from acquiring the daily necessities of life to the extent that they can afford them.

(2)    So too is the enforcement of the blockade, whether on land or at sea. It is a statement that we make the rules, and if you proceed we will apply to you whatever force we consider it expedient to apply.

(3)    The interception in international waters of a civilian ship of a country (Turkey) with which Israel is supposedly at peace is an outrageous act of piracy, as is the kidnapping and detention of all of the people on board the flotilla.

(4)    The fact that the one of the most powerful armed forces in the world could not figure out a way to take control of a civilian ship without killing ten people and wounding many more is an act of egregious military incompetence.

(5)    In particular, no-one who wanted a peaceful solution would rappel commandos onto the deck from military helicopters at four o’clock in the morning, given the numbers on board. This was no doubt intended to generate shock and awe; the trouble with that is that one cannot be sure whether, when the adrenalin starts to pump, the reaction will be flight or fight. In this case it seems to have generated anger and fight, a response which Israeli Government spokesman Mark Regev puts down to the fact that they were all radical Islamist extremists with links to terrorist organisations. He might find that explanation satisfying but I doubt that many others will.

(6)    The incompetence on display is born partly of the extraordinary aggressiveness of the Israeli Defence Force.  It is so habituated to the application of overwhelming violence that it seems incapable of graduated responses, and it is accustomed to applying lethal force with no questions asked, no accountability.

(7)    The aggressiveness is also born of hubris – the Israelis believe that they can do whatever they like and there will be no reckoning to pay. The Americans unwittingly reinforce this attitude.  When the Americans say that they are absolutely committed to the security of Israel they mean that the Israelis can afford to lighten up a bit, the most powerful nation in history is on their side. What the Israelis hear, however, is the message that it does not matter how badly they behave, the Americans will support them.

(8)    Consider what happened on the deck of Mavi Marmara yesterday and ask yourself whether you really believe that there were no war crimes committed by the Israeli Defence Force during the invasion of Gaza, that there is nothing in the Goldstone Report which requires investigation (as our own government would prefer to believe).  I don’t believe a word of it, and at least one Israeli commentator has made that connection – see Akiva Eldar’s Border Control/Did someone say Goldstone? in the left of centre Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, 1 June 2010.

(9)    There is no shortage of despairing Israeli commentary about this debacle.  See for example Bradley Burston’s A Special Place in Hell/The Second Gaza War: Israel lost at sea, published in Ha’aretz on 31 May 2010.  Burston writes:

A war tells a people terrible truths about itself. That is why it is so difficult to listen.

We were determined to avoid an honest look at the first Gaza war. Now, in international waters and having opened fire on an international group of humanitarian aid workers and activists, we are fighting and losing the second. For Israel, in the end, this Second Gaza War could be far more costly and painful than the first.

In going to war in Gaza in late 2008, Israeli military and political leaders hoped to teach Hamas a lesson. They succeeded. Hamas learned that the best way to fight Israel is to let Israel do what it has begun to do naturally: bluster, blunder, stonewall, and fume.

Hamas, and no less, Iran and Hezbollah, learned early on that Israel's own embargo against Hamas-ruled Gaza was the most sophisticated and powerful weapon they could have deployed against the Jewish state.

Here in Israel, we have still yet to learn the lesson: We are no longer defending Israel. We are now defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel's Vietnam.

(10)  More in similar vein from Gideon Levy in Operation Mini Cast Lead, Ha’aretz, 1 June 2010:

Like in "Mini-Israel," the park where there is everything, but smaller, Israel embarked yesterday on a mini Operation Cast Lead. Like its larger, losing predecessor, this operation had it all: the usual false claim that is was they who had started it - and not the landing of commandos from helicopters on a ship in open sea, away from Israeli territorial waters. There was the claim that the first act of violence came not from the soldiers, but the rioting activists on Mavi Marmara; that the blockade on Gaza is legal and that the flotilla to its shores is against the law - God knows which law.

This action also featured the pathetic focus on "public relations," as if there is something to explain, and again the sick question was asked: Why didn't the soldiers use more force.

Again Israel will pay a heavy diplomatic price, once which had not been considered ahead of time. Again, the Israeli propaganda machine has managed to convince only brainwashed Israelis, and once more no one asked the question: What was it for? Why were our soldiers thrown into this trap of pipes and ball bearings? What did we get out of it?

If Cast Lead was a turning point in the attitude of the world toward us, this operation is the second horror film of the apparently ongoing series. Israel proved yesterday that it learned nothing from the first movie.

(11)  The first law of digging holes is, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Israel has yet to learn this lesson. It responded to the election of a Hamas Government in a free and fair election in 2006 by imposing collective punishment on the people who elected it, in the form of a blockade, a blockade so rigorous that 80% of the people of Gaza depend upon humanitarian aid from the UN, and the people whose homes were destroyed in the Israeli invasion cannot rebuild because no cement is allowed in. This has done nothing to undermine Hamas, and the efforts to turn the people of Gaza against Hamas have been more successful in turning the West against Israel.

(12)  Israel is now digging another hole.  I heard on the ABC program PM this evening that Sydney Morning Herald journalists Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty had been offered immediate deportation from Israel, but first they had to sign a form acknowledging that they had entered Israel illegally, so they had declined (a bit pedantic of them really – given that they were kidnapped in international waters there was a certain illegality to their entry, it’s just that it wasn’t their doing).  Presumably all of the six hundred foreign nationals who are now being held in gaols all around Israel have similarly refused to sign. No doubt there will be some stout souls who will go on refusing for a long time, in which case they will become an increasing embarrassment to Israel.

(13)  On PM this evening I heard Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying in Parliament that the only durable solution is two states living in peace side by side. Forget it, the two state solution is dead.  Talk of a two state solution is now nothing more than a fig-leaf behind which the likes of Tony Blair hide their ineffectuality.  Time to start thinking about the mechanics of the one state solution – which is what exists at the present time, really.

(14)  As far as the way out of this mess is concerned, I am with Gideon Levy in an interview on PM this evening.  Israel had better start learning to talk to Hamas.