Friday, December 2, 2016

Now Sharif is Trump’s best friend

United States president-elect Donald Trump has wasted no time in involving himself in the politics of the Indian sub-continent, but his apparent eulogising of Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif and of Pakistan in general, has raised some eyebrows in New Delhi.

When Sharif called in to formally congratulate Trump on his election win, he was unexpectedly showered in praise, Trump telling him he was ready to play “any role desired” to resolve the country’s outstanding problems.

He told the Pakistani President, who he has never met, that he thought him “a terrific guy with a very good reputation who is doing amazing work”; that Pakistan, which he has never visited, was “amazing with tremendous opportunities” and that Pakistanis are “one of the most intelligent people”.

This storm of appreciation was all the more perplexing to analysts across the border in India who had just been digesting Trump’s earlier campaign rhetoric in which he described Pakistan as probably the most dangerous country in the world that only India could keep in check.   

“India is the check to Pakistan,” Trump said then. “You have to get India involved...They have their own nukes and have a very powerful army. They seem to be the real check...I think we have to deal very closely with India to deal with [Pakistan].”

With US-India experts trying the make sense of all this, one possibility is that Trump’s suggestion he play “any role desired” to help with Pakistan’s problems might refer to an attempt to help broker a solution over Kashmir, long a thorn in the side of Indo-Pakistan relations. However, another commentator took a more pragmatic line.

“Trump is casting about, saying anything that comes into his head at any one time,” the commentator said. “I would suggest we take everything with a grain of salt until after January 20 when he gets his hands on the leavers of power.

“Then, if he continues to make pronouncements like this, we will really have to start sitting up and listening.”  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Why Trump may turn on his Public Service

In a series of articles celebrating the rise of Donald Trump to the threshold of power, the far right online magazine, American Thinker, has focused its blowtorch on the Federal Public Service, claiming that its “reform” should be one of the major priorities of the incoming Administration.

This is hardly surprising. With his own party in control of both Houses of Congress and a conservative addition to the Supreme Court likely to be appointed early in his term, there is little to stand in the way of the Trump revolution other than the country’s Public Service.

Not that it should obstruct workable legislation of course — simply offer reasoned argument why some of Trump’s more harebrained schemes cannot be implemented.

I have already written about the impossibility of raising funds for a wall across the Mexican border by any way other than from general revenue; similarly any attempt to place tariffs to ‘protect’ US jobs is the best way to launch a ruinous trade war that would eventually cost jobs in the US and around the world; banning Muslims entering the country or even keeping a register of them would be subject to constitutional challenge.  

Writing for American Thinker, Thomas Lifson urges Trump to mobilise public opinion against the Public Service and any Democrat lawmaker that might try to defend it. Lifson wants protections against dismissal removed, backing his argument with just one case of misbehaviour among the 2.8 million employees.     

“Real change in the behaviour of Federal employees will require what organisational change experts call ‘unfreezing’. This means that old habits and assumptions must be broken. Nothing works better than fear,” Lifson writes.

And eventually he gets round to what he calls his nuclear option: De-unionising the Public Service.  

“President Trump could ban Federal employees from union membership with an executive order,” he writes, urging the next President to gain support for such a move through a campaign stirring up traditional suspicions that anyone who works for the Government has to be arrogant, incompetent and lazy. 

The past is always fertile ground for examples supporting conservative arguments and Lifson cites at length Government opposition to unionism from the 1930s — a time when many thought collective bargaining was the backdoor to bolshevism.

The intentions of American Thinker are clear: To emasculate the Federal Public Service though fear and threats. To drive out those who might offer any advice other than what the incoming Administration wants to hear and to replace them with inexperienced, docile sycophants who know little and care less about how government works or of the limits of its abilities and powers.

That will be the start of a journey to a very uncertain destination – and because America is America, the rest of the world will be dragged along for the ride. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Little new in the ‘Trump phenomenon’

The victory of Donald Trump in the United States presidential election has set far-right hearts beating faster from Moscow to Manhattan. Champaign corks popped in the Kremlin and the ultra-nationalist member of the Russian Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky was happy to accept comparisons with the president-elect.

In the United Kingdom, the UK Independence Party’s on-off-on-again leader, Nigel Farage was quick to link the June Brexit vote and Trump’s triumph with a win f or little people over the establishment elite.

In Australia, Queensland Secretary of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, Jim Savage predicted Trump’s win would “give more confidence to those previously too embarrassed to speak out. The ones opinion polls miss.”

So, are we on the verge of a new conservative dawn, the end of political correctness, the reviling of established leadership and the rise to power of the Geert Wilders and the Marine le Pens of this world?

Afraid not — it’s all been said before.

Not quite in the same way of course, but remember the anti-Vietnam War protests and before that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? They were considered to be game-changers in their day: The voices of common people refusing to be silent in the face of nuclear-armed superpowers and an unjust war against a poor peasant nation.

These were movements that were going to remake the world and usher in a golden future of peace and harmony, but in the end it was the established governments that signed nuclear non-proliferation treaties and the elites that negotiated the end to the Vietnam War. Throw them a few bones and mass movements have a habit of petering out, leaving their leaders looking tired and irrelevant.  

Today Trump rides high with his promise to “drain the Washington swamp”, but it is far more likely that he will find the swamp closing over his head after a few weeks there, just as every other president before him has found.  Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all claimed to be the outsider who would free the country of Washington’s shackles — but their administrations have come and gone and little has changed.

To take just one example: Trump’s proposal to build a wall across the border with Mexico — and to make Mexico pay for it. He knows that’s not going to happen so now he says he will tax the money that migrants send home to Mexico to foot the bill.

I would love to be a fly on the wall at the Internal Revenue Service when Trump’s representatives are told the cost of administering such a tax would be double, triple and more than the revenue it would raise — of the centres that would be set up in Canada, the Bahamas, perhaps even Moscow, where the money would be sent instead before being passed on to Mexico.

Populism is in vogue now as it has been at many times throughout history, but its fundamental flaw remains — simple answers to complex questions that remain stubbornly complex when the answers are applied.

Rail against globalisation, but globalisation is here, is staying here and will continue long after the voting is done and the silent majority has returned to its smart TVs and Ipads. Changes, if any, will be on the margins. The dogs bark for a while, but history marches on.  

Democratic government is best practiced by pragmatic politicians supported by a professional bureaucracy. That might not go down well in Kansas or North Dakota — or Outback Queensland or South Shields — but it is something the New York billionaire will have to learn quickly if his administration is not to descend into chaos.  


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

May’s Indian pitch fails to impress

While British Prime Minister Theresa May’s first foray into post referendum trade negotiations is not quite a disaster, it is hardly a roaring success either.

She came to New Delhi full of the usual slogans about Britain being “open for business”, but open to more Indian students to attend UK universities? Ah, that is a another matter.

In fact there were times when she sounded more like some colonial era governor laying down the conditions that must be met in order for the imperial power to allow a few crumbs to fall from its table.

India wants more UK visas for its students and workers; that was met with, in effect, a straight ‘no’.

May said it would be considered if New Delhi persuaded its illegal immigrants in the UK to return home — a demand that left many people here scratching their heads. How is it India’s responsibility to round up illegals and over-stayers in another country? Surely this is work for British authorities.

She was much more forthcoming when it came to allowing in rich Indian business people ready to invest in the country – but many who witnessed her statement saw it as just another attempt to lure India’s best and brightest away for good.

This is anathema to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has long campaigned for highly skilled members of the country’s diaspora to return and help build the India he dreams of being a dominant power by mid-century.

May’s hardline approach is at odds with the post-Brexit realities for her country. If the UK is to make any kind of success of its life after EU membership, it needs India, whose economic growth is the envy of the world.

The spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, summed up the mood when he said the Government would continue to raise concerns regarding people mobility with the UK.

“Mobility of people is closely linked to free flow of finance, goods and services,” Swarup said.

The partnership can flourish — there is actually more sympathy for Britain here than in much of the white Commonwealth — but it must be a partnership based on equality and mutual respect.

This was simply not on display during May’s address. Instead, as one participant remarked, she was more like a schoolmarm berating a class of recalcitrant children.

It was not a good start and if the UK PM is going to get anything out of this relationship other than a few smiles and friendly handshakes, she will have to lift her game.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Parliament’s Brexit role upheld

Gina Miller has done a valuable service to the cause of Westminster democracy by bringing the Brexit issue before the British High Court.

By doing so she allowed the Court to place a restraining hand on the alarming encroachment by the executive on the historic rights and privileges of Parliament.

In handing down the Court’s ruling, Lord Chief Justice John Thomas said it was a fundamental rule of the United Kingdom’s constitution that Parliament is sovereign and can make and unmake any law it chooses.

That is in direct contrast to the actions of Prime Minister Theresa May and her cohort of Brixeteers who now constitute the Government of the United Kingdom.

Ms May was ready to bypass Parliament entirely in some of the most important and fundamental negotiations  upon which the country has ever embarked. If she had had her way MPs at Westminster would have been reduced to spectators, an irrelevance as her Eurosceptic team locked horns with Brussels over the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Now on the back foot for the first time since she rushed to take advantage of the post-referendum confusion in the Conservative Party to snap up the top job, she is trying to justify her untenable position.

“The country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum approved by Act of Parliament and the Government is determined to respect the result of the referendum,” she said in a statement.

So having authorised the referendum, Parliament’s role is done? The 650 MPs chosen by the people are to play no part in the process that follows that will affect every man, woman and child in the nation? 

The fate of the negotiations should rest entirely with Boris Johnson, David Davis and their acolytes? I don’t think so. Already the cracks are beginning to widen within the Conservative Party as MP Stephen Phillips announced he would quit Parliament over “irreconcilable policy differences with the current Government”.

For her pains Ms Miller is now being subjected to a torrent of vile abuse, with internet comments that she should be “raped” or “killed” interspersed with the usual wearying collection of expletives not deleted.

Her background  (she was born in Peru, is half Guyanese and has lived in the United Kingdom since she was 10) has led to the inevitable demands that she should “go back to where she came from”, while the fact she has been financially successful in her career seems to provoke particular outrage.

Sadly, this is the kind of treatment she must expect from the flag-waving, drink-sodden larger louts of the far right, but she is a tough person — a woman who accepts this is the price she must pay in order to ensure that ideological fanatics will not use the slim majority of the June referendum to take the country on a course that could easily wreck its social, economic and political fabric.   

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Pioneers in an endangered world

Waiting for my partner to choose some shoes for a wedding, I became conscious of an old but familiar song playing on the radio station the shop used for background music – John Denver’s tribute to the research vessel, Calypso which Jacques-Yves Cousteau piloted around the world for more than 30 years doing much publicised oceanographic research.   

Aye, Calypso, the places you've been to,
the things that you've shown us, the stories you tell.
Aye, Calypso, I sing to your spirit, the men who have served you so long and so well.”


The rather cheesy lyrics were inspired by Cousteau and his crew as they sailed Calypso in search of the ocean’s secrets. The television series, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau that ran in the 1960s and 70s embellished the voyagers’ mystique.

Cousteau was an aggressive self-promotor, happy to accept the accolades of those who claimed him as the inspiration for the modern environmental movement, but there were others, before he came to prominence, that in their day were just as well known for bringing the natural world and its wonders to early television screens.

There was Armand Denis, the expressive Belgian who, with his English wife, Michaela, brought African savanna and Asian jungles to life on BBC television in the 1950s and 60s.  Filming in Africa, On Safari and Safari to Asia were compelling viewing, making them the true pioneers of wildlife documentaries.

If Armand and Michaela dominated on the land, Austrians Hans and Lotte Hass reigned supreme at sea during the same era, making more than 100 films — although for many adolescent schoolboys the attraction was Lotte in a swimsuit rather than the creatures the couple filmed.

Then of course there is the legendary David Attenborough, the only one of these early adventures still with us — championing the cause of environmentalism as he moves into his ninth decade.

They worked in the golden age of nature documentaries when television was unlocking exotic places and animals that had previously been seen only as backdrops to cinema dramas. Their work might have been in grainy black and white, but they were the first in their field and for a while audiences were enthralled by the wonder of it all.

The advent of colour television brought a revival during and after the 1970s, but in the 21st century these productions have largely retreated to specialist channels or as settings for reality television shows. The planet has been fully explored; many of the land and marine animals that once thrilled us are under threat from human population explosion and exploitation.

We are constantly warned of the number of species facing extinction; how some of our best known and loved animals will soon exist in zoos, if at all — but little if anything seems to change.

The supreme irony would be if the work of these early filmmakers will one day be our only link with a world where animals roamed wide and free — or simply remembered in a romantic song about a time long gone.    




Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Water row points to a troubled future

A recent row between two Indian States over rights to the water of a major river they share highlights a problem that will be affecting many more parts of the world as the century progresses.

The Cauvery River rises in Karnataka and flows across southern India, through Tamil Nadu, to empty into the Bay of Bengal. Disputes between the two States over its waters have been a regular occurrence since the colonial era, and flared again earlier this year after India’s Supreme Court ordered the Karnataka State Government to release additional flows to its neighbour.

Initially Karnataka, which controls the river flow mainly through the Kabini Dam, refused citing violent demonstrations in its major city of Bangalore against any additional release. It claimed it needed the water for drinking, while Tamil Nadu required it just for irrigation.

However, when monsoon rains proved better than expected, Karnataka relented and said it would release more water “to protect the interest of its farmers”; in fact much is expected to flow on to Tamil Nadu.   

While this may seem little more than a local spat, eventually resolved, the underlying issues have global implications. The journal Science Daily recently reported on a study by Aarhus University in Denmark that predicted there will not be enough water to meet world demand for drinking, irrigation and power generation by 2040.

The author of the report, Benjamin Sovacool said electricity was the biggest source of water consumption as power plants needed cooling cycles in order to function. Worse still, the research showed that most power systems did not even keep count of the amount of water they were using.

“It’s a huge problem if the electricity sector does not even know how much water they consume, and together with the fact that we don’t have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon,” Professor Sovacool said.

But for many of the world’s population, the crisis is already here. More than a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Climate change means that once predictable monsoon rains are regularly failing. In the Middle East deserts are encroaching on previously fertile areas.

Announcing a major investment in desalination plants because its fresh water sources were drying up, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates said water was now more important than oil.

But in poor and landlocked countries, desalination is an impossible luxury. Here lack of clean water leads to inadequate sanitation, and diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever flourish. The worst casualties are among children, with more than a million dying from these diseases each year.

Most Governments continue to play down the threat of global water shortages, but with a resource which is absolutely vital to human survival, and with the world’s population still rising, the possibility will be ignored at our peril.