27 May 2013

Pilger on Gatsby and Iraq

In today’s online edition of The Guardian, Australian journalist John Pilger surveys the mess that is contemporary Iraq, under the headlines

We've moved on from the Iraq war – but Iraqis don't have that choice

Like characters from The Great Gatsby, Britain and the US
have arrogantly turned their backs and left a country in ruins

After surveying the horrendous spike in cancer cases and birth defects which local doctors and World Health Organisation researchers attribute to the use by US and UK forces of over 300 tonnes of depleted uranium (a metal which is highly toxic aside from its radioactivity), he writes:

Iraq is no longer news. Last week, the killing of 57 Iraqis in one day was a non-event compared with the murder of a British soldier in London. Yet the two atrocities are connected. Their emblem might be a lavish new movie of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Two of the main characters, as Fitzgerald wrote, "smashed up things and creatures and retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clean up the mess".

08 May 2013

Kill anything that moves: the real American War in Vietnam

In a 14 January 2013 post in the US Veterans' blog Veterans Today, Sherwood Ross reviews Nick Turse's book "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (Metropolitan Books), a book which argues that the My Lai Massacre was no isolated event. Ross begins:

"Massacres of civilians by U.S. forces in Vietnam were not rare aberrations but everyday occurrences, an authoritative new book on the subject charges.

"Worse, the massacres were a result of deliberate Pentagon policies handed down from the very top, often to build false “body count” figures that could lead an officer to promotion. The inflated body counts reported civilian dead as combatant Viet Cong when they were actually women, children and old men.

"The massacre of more than 500 civilians at My Lai on March 15, 1968, by the Americal division’s Charlie company, 1st battalion, 20th infantry, has long been portrayed as a solitary episode ordered by Lieutenant William Calley. He was the only one of 28 officers involved who was convicted and although sentenced to life imprisonment was paroled after just 40 months.

"Yet episodes of such barbarism “were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam,” writes Nick Turse in his new book, “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam”(Metropolitan Books). Turse is a fellow at The Nation Institute whose investigations of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam have gained him a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction and a fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He writes that he spoke with more than 100 American veterans across the country “both those who had witnessed atrocities and others who had personally committed terrible acts.”

"Turse reports the Pentagon has gone to great lengths to cover up the true record of U.S. atrocities in Vietnam: 'Indeed an astonishing number of Marine court-martial records of the era have apparently been destroyed or gone missing. Most Air Force and Navy criminal investigation files that may have existed seem to have met the same fate.' "

Read the full post at http://www.veteranstoday.com/2013/01/14/many-u-s-my-lai-type-massacres-in-vietnam-covered-up-by-pentagon-reporter-charges.

Iain Cobain on Camp Nama

Iain Cobain of The Guardian writes that British soldiers and airmen who helped to operate a secretive US detention facility in Baghdad that was at the centre of some of the most serious human rights abuses to occur in Iraq after the invasion have, for the first time, spoken about abuses they witnessed there.
Read his account, published in the 1 April edition, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/01/camp-nama-iraq-human-rights-abuses.
I wonder what consideration our Government gave to the fact that this is not an aberration, but part and parcel of the American way of war. I think we must have had some understanding because my understanding is that, like the British, when we think we are likely to capture prisoners we like to take an American along to be the official captor, so that we don't find ourselves in the legal position of handing prisoners over to the Americans. That is a fig-leaf. The real question is, do we want to associate ourselves with this kind of behaviour, and do we think it contributes to the chances of success of whatever exercise we are engaged in?

Andrew Farran on the loss of the Australian grain industry

Below is the full text of a piece by my colleague Andrew Farran, of which an edited version was published in today's Weekly Times. It is a sad story of Governments paying insufficient attention to what is going on around them

In a later post I will explain the true intent of the Wheat Export Authority - established on my advice as a shield against the extra-territorial application of US anti-trust law, but rendered ineffective in that regard before it got under way, as a result of government succumbing to pressure from an uninformed industry.

The loss of the Australian Grain Industry – No Accident
by Andrew Farran
The loss of Australian control over the production and international marketing of grains, particularly wheat, is no accident and can be traced back to the establishment of the Australian Wheat Board and the ‘single desk’ for bulk exports in the late 1930s; to the mishandling of its later privatisation; to misconceived policy stances over free trade in international commodity negotiations; to a government failure to stand up for its trade interests in Iraq between the Gulf Wars; and finally to short-termism on the part of major Australian investors and superfunds.
In the late 1930s the government of the day established the Australian Wheat Board with the single desk for bulk wheat exports. This ensured that wheat growers, many of whom worked marginal farms, got a fair go with storage and trading. To some this looked like agrarian socialism rather than rural efficiency. Internationally, particularly among North Americans, the AWB and the single desk was anathema and became a target for destruction.
It took decades to destroy, regrettably with Australian government connivance (both sides of politics). Unlike the Reserve Price Scheme for wool market stabilisation in the 1980s, the Wheat Board was a success, both in terms of quality controls for exports and profitable marketing. Advised by the then Department of Trade it had access to the best market research and analysis available. This was done for the national benefit for a commodity that was critical to the well-being of the economy.
Now the industry has toppled. With the forthcoming third of the major disposals - GrainCorp to the US monolith Archer Daniels Midland - its control rests in foreign hands. This takeover means that 75% of eastern Australia’s grain production and 90% of Australia’s bulk grain exports are controlled from North America. The currency exchange advantage to the US will also disadvantage Australian wheat in international markets.
Shareholders and the major superfunds more interested in quick profits and short-term deals ensured this outcome. It is as if the nation’s assets were being capitalised in order that we might become rent-seekers dependent on foreign enterprise and investment rather than our own endeavours. 
How did this happen? First, in an environment of indiscriminate free trade, anything looking like agrarian socialism had become an anachronism, even if structured to rationalise the handling of specific aspects of a unique industry. The AWB as originally structured was not a socialist concept. It was a monopoly for the wider good, a rare type which nurtured farming enterprises, big and small, in its sector.  
Secondly, with privatization AWB’s monopoly over bulk exports was exposed to US anti-trust (monopolies) laws which were deemed to have extra-territorial reach. This could have been circumvented had the government of the day stuck with its plan to establish a Wheat Export Authority (WEA) as a government entity immune from US laws. This could then have directed the AWB’s international trading operations. But the government succumbed to grower pressure to drop the WEA without realizing the implications.
Meanwhile wheat farmers were being required to live on their wits with little government assistance while our trade negotiators persistently sought to leverage a free trade objective against agricultural protectionists in the then European Communities and the US. The futility of this policy was evidenced year after year by the refusal of those countries to yield an inch on protectionism except for unavoidable budgetary constraints. Meanwhile grain growers here were kept marginal without market support no matter how critical their overall importance was to the economy. Over time lay social and cultural failure quite apart from struggling family budgets.
Thirdly, while retaining many of its original features the single desk fell victim between the two Iraqi Wars which gave its enemies the chance they had waited for. Iraq had been a major established market for Australian grains but its market share was under siege by external interests that were virtually directing and funding the UN sanctions regime imposed on that country. For food exporters to Iraq there was no longer a level playing field. Australia was to be either cut down or cut out.
Meanwhile the Iraqi population, leaving aside Saddam Hussein with his non-existent weapons of mass destruction, had to be fed. If Australia were to be cut out others would be cut in - and that was what was to happen. Strategically the AWB negotiators had to find a way to stay in. Technically it involved some degradation of the sanctions regime, but this was happening everywhere at the time. The sanctions regime had in effect already failed. When AWB was ‘exposed’ the government went defensive, and into denial, instead of calling it for what it was. To have held ground shouldn’t have been too hard, at least for a government that subsequently lied in going to war a short time thereafter, in defiance of the UN and international law – a war in which the resulting levels of death and destruction made any kind of trade infraction a relatively trivial matter.
Not content to leave the structure of our wheat trade at risk to US pressure, both major parties then sought to make capital out of the AWB’s predicament, chipping away at it with, as it turned out, a largely nonsensical Royal Commission, with rising threats of criminal prosecutions (which by and large have fallen by the wayside for want of credible cause), and cranking up earlier arguments about ‘market forces’ against this one-time successful but now floundering international market manager.
In these circumstances AWB succumbed to its own take-over, and the subsequent inability of the surviving firms (that is, the former ABB Grains and GrainCorp) to hold their ground has led, or will lead, to the lot going over to the North Americans, just as planned decades ago. Yet we still regard ourselves, in international trade circles, as a foremost agricultural nation. Not for long it seems!

04 May 2013

The University of New England Mace

This is beautiful silver mace was donated to the University of New England in 1957 by its then Deputy Chancellor, Phillip Arundel "P.A." Wright, a New England grazier and a great benefactor of the university.  I took this photo during the afternoon tea on the Southern Lawn which followed its first outing at the Graduation Ceremony in April 1957.

P.A. was a remarkable man, and his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is well worth reading (see here). Among his other claims to fame, he led the campaign which led to the New England National Park being gazetted in 1934, and was the father of the great Australian poet Judith Wright.

He was a member of the committee that successfully campaigned for the establishment of a university in Armidale in the 1930s, was a foundation donor to the University College and a member of its Advisory Council from the time it was established in 1938, and of its Council from the time it became an autonomous institution in 1954. He was Chancellor in my time at the University in the early 1960s, succeeding the first Chancellor, Sir Earle Page.

My father carried the mace in university processions and on all academic occasions from the time it was donated until 1994, the year before he died. He had become the default person responsible for University ceremonial after helping to organise the 1955 ceremony at which Governor-General Sir William Slim installed the first Chancellor, Sir Earle Page, and in 1960 was appointed the University’s first Esquire Bedell, a ceremonial post that harks back to mediaeval times when University Chancellors were for very good reason preceded by a gentleman carrying a mace.

In our own more troubled times, note the 1950s-style security on this valuable object – none, it’s just on public display on a table for the duration of the afternoon tea.

Defence Minister doesn’t get Defence timescales

In the course of an interview between ABC chief political correspondent Sabra Lane and Defence Minister Stephen Smith on Radio National’s PM program yesterday afternoon, the following exchange took place:

SABRA LANE: The Government says its spending on Defence will be increased to 2 per cent of GDP when the financial circumstances allow, got any rough idea as to when that might be?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not putting a timetable on it.

SABRA LANE: But you've got respected analysts like Peter Jennings who say it just shouldn't be left to chance you should be able to give people an idea of when that might be.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't want to shop Peter, but Peter was intricately involved in a former life with the detailed working of the 2009 white paper, he was one of the people who thought that you could map out for Defence a guaranteed share of spending with dedicated growth paths from 2009 through to 2030 - over 21 years. Well life is not like that and the global financial crisis taught everyone that life is not like that.

I have news for the Defence Minister. When you are dealing with defence procurement and capability development, life is exactly like that, or at least it needs to be, because acquisition of a complex defence platform takes twenty years or more. In order to manage such projects and be in a position to enter legally binding contracts between the Commonwealth of Australia and the supplier, the Department of Defence needs to know how much money it is likely to have over the relevant timescale:

-  Planning for a replacement for the Oberon Class submarines began in the late 1970s, the winning design was announce in 1987, and the submarines were built between 1990 and 2003: major capital investment over a quarter of a century.

-  Planning for the replacement for Collins began not later than 2007. These boats will enter service in the 2030s.

-  Australia signed up to the Joint Strike Fighter program in 2002.  The first tranche of 14 aircraft will be delivered no earlier than about 2017-19, and it will be well into the 2020s by the time we have full capability. Meanwhile we will have to make a stop-gap purchase of Super Hornets.

All of these procurement projects require very substantial complementary expenditure on facilities, crews and crew training.

The fact is that if Governments want Defence to manage its procurement, facilities investment, through life support and training programs efficiently and effectively, it needs to give the Department reasonable predictability of funding. This is not a year-by-year business.

03 May 2013

Agriculture policy déjà vu.

It was with a weary feeling of déjà vu that I heard on ABC Radio National this morning that we are to have a new agricultural assistance policy to replace the Drought Exceptional Circumstances framework, a new policy that will emphasise encouraging farmers to be prepared for drought rather provision of assistance after disaster strikes.

Wear déjà vu because that is exactly what we thought we had achieved in the Department of Primary Industries and Energy in 1997, the second year of the Howard Government. After months of hard work and inter-departmental consultation by folks like Ken Matthews and Vanessa Tripp, National Party Leader and Minister for Primary Industries and Energy John Anderson put a submission to Cabinet which emphasised farmers accepting more responsibility for managing the risks involved in a business which is by definition prone to the vagaries of the weather and to natural disasters. The leitmotif of the submission was that farming is a business, not a lifestyle choice, and managing the business is in the first instance up to the farmer. Accordingly, the focus of Commonwealth policy would be on creating financial instruments which would enable farmers to even out their highly variable income from year to year, assisting marginal farmers off the land, and providing training and counselling for those who were forced to move off their farms.

One of the stellar achievements (we thought) was that Cabinet agreed that we would no longer be in the business of providing interest rate subsidies, spectacularly bad public policy which disproportionately channels funds to the most highly indebted farmers, some of whom should no doubt be assisted to move off the land rather than being assisted to remain on it.

Unfortunately this part of the package was blown away by President John Howard when it faced its first test. I say President because Prime Ministers are as their name suggests first among equals, people who run a Cabinet and consult their colleagues before making any important decision, after giving their colleagues due notice and giving them time to obtain advice from their departments; Presidents don’t need to bother with all that bureaucratic stuff, they get things done, they just issue Executive Orders.

Soon after the policy was adopted President Howard donned his Akubra and his elastic sided boots and went off to survey flood damage on the Namoi – in the heart of John Anderson’s electorate of Gwydir. At his caring and concerned best he spoke on camera to a local farmer and asked him how the Government could best help him. “We are really going to need an interest rate subsidy” said the farmer. “Done” said President Howard, with John Anderson standing at his side.

So we were back in the business of interest rate subsidies, but now we are going to change all that.

La plus ça change, la plus le même chose.