Friday, February 17, 2017

Why globalisation has to work

Fears about a reaction against globalisation found a powerful voice in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this week when he said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that there were increasing demands to “withdraw from the connected world”.

Citing fake news, polarised views and “filter bubbles” for damaging what he called common understanding, Zuckerberg said the globalisation movement had underestimated the challenges it held for some people.

He urged Governments and private enterprise to “build the infrastructure to empower people” so that globalisation worked for everyone, not just for some.

Economic historian Harold James went further, saying the election of United States President Donald Trump and the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union suggested the international appetite for globalisation was collapsing and that this could plunge the world into war.

"We're swinging back again from an era when everyone thought globalisation was inevitable, to a period when people think there's really a big problem with globalisation," James said.

The Princetown professor said this era was becoming very like that which existed in the first decade of the 20th century when there was a nationalist reaction against globalisation that led to World War I.

Zuckerberg and James are wrong to believe that globalisation can be permanently derailed. We are living through a period of profound change — the main thrust of which is a movement away from the Westphalian system of nation states to an increasingly globalised world order.

This movement has been going on for some time, probably since the advent of transnational railway systems in the 19th century. Its progress was interrupted by two world wars, but has been continuing apace since, with the establishment of the United Nations, the European Union and a host of other bodies existing for the extension of international cooperation.

By the 1970s financial markets were fully globalised and not long after new technology brought instant communication to anyone with a smartphone.

There can be no retreat from this whatever populist politicians promise and however many demonstrators take to the streets. History does not have a reverse gear.

But Zuckerberg is right to point out that more must be done to help people through this inevitable period of change. Not to do so will produce more Trumps and Brexits as the old order thrashes around in its death throes – and yes, the very real possibility of Professor James’ war. It has happened before.

When former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, flushed with his Brexit victory, said he looked forward to the day when the entire European Union was dismantled and it was back to sovereign nations trading amongst themselves, he was harking after a time that never really existed in the modern era, except briefly and in a wasteful and highly unstable way.

The present system, in transition and in need of moderation, certainly has to be made fairer, but is far more preferable to Farage’s utopia which brought the Great Depression and two world wars.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Making sense of Trump’s Wonderland

The Trump Administration’s erratic relationship with Pakistan has taken another turn when White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus went on television to suggest that it could be added to the list of countries whose nationals will be banned from entering the United States.

Observers across the border in India said they were surprised that Pakistan had not been named in the first place. “Pakistan has long been a hot-bed of terrorism. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic State…they are all there,” one said.

Even so, this did not stop the then President-elect Donald Trump handing out lavish praise to Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif in a telephone call last December, Trump saying he was ready to play “any role desired” to resolve Pakistan’s problems.

Despite never having met Sharif he described him as a “terrific guy with a very good reputation for doing amazing work” and that Pakistanis were “one of the most intelligent people”.

But hold on. During his campaign for the White House a few months earlier he described Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries in the world and he intended to work with India to keep it in check.

This latest version of the relationship resulted in a flurry of advice on how to cope with Pakistan’s “continuing loss of influence with the United States Executive Branch”.

Analyst Sasha Riser-Kositsky urged Sharif to reign in local radical cells or risk losing some or all of the multi-million dollar funding that Washington provides to help Pakistan’s widening current account deficit.

In particular, he must deal with the Haqqani network that is closely associated with the State Intelligence Agency, Riser-Kositsky said. 

Maybe, but it could be equally prudent simply to wait for the Administration’s next change of attitude. After all, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Jalil Abbas Jillani was quoted just the day after Preibus’ statement as saying there were “indications of good relations” between the two countries.

“If you see the Republican Party presidential manifesto, there are two paragraphs on Pakistan in a very positive light,” Jillani said.

For the moment at least, the US president is dealing in broad brush strokes. It is unlikely he has heard of the Haqqani network, and isn’t interested in, or doesn’t understand the intricate problems the Pakistani Government faces in balancing the demands of religious fundamentalists, the ever-restive army and volatile public opinion in dealing with extremists groups.

In this climate, the best advice for President Sharif would be to keep his head down and stay under Trump’s radar until the wild ride of the past two or three weeks begins to slow.

If indeed it does slow. In considering the times we live in, it is hard to argue with veteran British Parliamentarian Ken Clarke, debating that other chaos-generating disaster, Brixet which he likened to Alice’s Wonderland.

“No doubt somewhere there is a hatter holding a tea party and a dormouse in the teapot,” Clarke said.

In 2017, the whereabouts of the hatter is beyond doubt, but for most of the world, it isn’t going to be much of a party. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Is this Trump’s bid for immortality?

Following events since the United States presidential inauguration, I find myself wondering why a man like Donald Trump, wealthy beyond most people’s dreams, surrounded by beautiful women and sycophants to do his every bidding, should feel the need to venture into the unfamiliar — and unforgiving — world of politics.

The traditional answer of course is a desire to wield power; to make and unmake the laws by which the rest of us have to live — and no person on earth has more power potential than the President of the United States.

Trump, approaching his seventh decade may have begun to worry about his legacy: That in half a century’s time people might gaze up at one of his many public buildings, now looking its age and ripe for demolition, and wonder why it had such a funny name.

Wealth does not purchase immortality, but American presidents get their names in history books.

And yet…how many people ready history books?

How many presidents are fixed in the public imagination? George Washington certainly; Abraham Lincoln yes; Franklin Roosevelt maybe.

But who remembers William Henry Harrison, Martin van Buren or James K. Polk? Just being President of the United States does not necessarily buy immortality.

So, musing in his office high up in New York’s Trump Towers, the billionaire might have wondered that with no nation to found, no slaves to free and no Great Depression to combat, just what does it take to be remembered?

Might he have thought of a military leader called Julius Caesar who brought down the Roman Republic and set the greatest empire in the known world on a different trajectory? Or an obscure Corsican soldier called Napoleon Bonaparte who rose through the ranks to trample all over Europe. Never mind that one was assassinated and the other died in exile, their names live on.

So power is only half the equation: To be truly remembered it must be used consistently and aggressively to turn the world upside down.

Trump’s path to the presidency was only stage one in the Grand Plan during which he convinced people that the most powerful nation in the world needed to be ‘great again’; that it was about to be overrun with alien hoards who cared nothing for Western values; that around the world plots were hatching to strip Americans of their livelihoods, forcing them into poverty and servitude.

The United States must fight back, use its might while it still had it…and he would lead the charge.

Might this have been the thinking high up in Trump Towers a year or so ago? If it was, the first part of the Grand Plan has been wildly successful and the past few days have seen just the beginning of the next stage.

Perhaps I’ve got it wrong. For all our sakes I hope so.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Finding truth in the ministry of lies

Watching the initial press conferences of the Administration of United States President Donald Trump, it is easy to see the unique challenges for journalists as they attempt to cover the White House over the next few years.

Never before have they had to deal with being openly and brazenly lied to; never have they faced situations where they are told that black equals white and every colour in between.

This became all too clear during the harangue handed out by Trump’s new Press Secretary, Sean Spicer over the media’s coverage of the inauguration, accusing journalists of deliberately using pictures that made it seem there was a low public attendance at the ceremonies when in fact he claimed they were the best attended, most watched in presidential history — in Washington, the rest of the US and around the world.

After then accusing the press of making up attendance figures because no attendances had been released, he then offered a string of ‘official’ figures comparing Trump’s inauguration with that of the swearing in ceremony at former President Barack Obama’s second term in 2013.

That the media can cope with — the inaugurations of second term presidents are rarely as well attended as their first — it’s a twisting of the figures to suit an argument that can easily be rebuffed. But how to handle the outright, straight-faced porky that this was the biggest, most magnificent show Washington had ever seen without degenerating into a ‘yes it is – no it isn’t’ squabble that benefits no one?

Director of the Ethical Journalism Network, Aidan White says that journalism is facing a crisis with the rise of racism, misinformation and political propaganda that were features of the US Presidential campaign and the British vote to leave the European Union.

However, he remains optimistic that “although there may be more rumour, speculation, fake news and misinformation as the information market moves online, there is a growing movement to strengthen the craft of journalism”.

That is fine as long as there are people still prepared to listen and watch, but what if the genuine practitioners of ethical journalism are buried under a flood of State sponsored propaganda and falsehoods? Social media has given governments the platforms they need to by-pass traditional journalism, and if governments turn rogue with all the resources they have at their disposal, what can individuals do against them?

Perhaps one of the most worrying developments in the past few days is the threat that the White House Press Corps be relocated to a larger venue where more journalists, bloggers and tweeters could also be accommodated.

No doubt the Trump people would claim that they were democratising Administration coverage, taking it away from a small, exclusive elite and opening it to a wider selection of media more relevant to today’s world. In fact it would be a very effective muddying of the waters, further confusing the public about who and what to believe.

Facing what one member of the Press Corps called “a hellscape of lies and distorted realities”, the only hope is for professional journalists to close ranks — the early signs are not good.

When Trump used a press conference to accuse CNN of publishing fake news and refused to take a question from its representative who was then threatened with eviction, no colleagues came to his aid. A mass walk-out might have been effective, but it did not happen.

This was a victory over the free press that President Vladimir Putin of Russia would have applauded: Isolate your critics, reward those who promise to be compliant.

Despite some signs of disquiet, Trump can probably count on both Houses of a Republican-dominated Congress to go along with the new Washington regime. He will quickly ensure a majority of like-minded judges in the Supreme Court.

For ethical, professional journalists determined to seek out and report good old-fashioned truth, the capital is going to be a lonely, even hostile place.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

History’s plan: The great lurch forward

We are living in a time of profound change, when history’s forward movement is interrupted by violent lurches one way or another. Suddenly nothing can be taken for granted; a way of life that seemed constant is challenged and, in some cases, swept away.

This is nothing new, it has happened at regular intervals throughout human existence, the most recent examples being the French Revolution which overturned the principle of absolute and sacred monarchy and, in the last century, the rise of fascism as an alternative to existing systems of government.

Ominously both these events resulted in long and ruinous wars, and indeed changes of this nature are often followed by conflict, especially when the leaders of the day fail to mitigate the excesses, or simply go along with them.

The momentum for another profound change has been building over the past couple of decades and Friday, January 20, 2017 with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is part of it.

Trump is like no other American Commander in Chief, and not just because of his regular, one could say obsessive, use of social media throughout the election campaign and up to the eve of inauguration day. From what can be gleaned from his tweets, interviews and election statements, he seems bent on a drastic realignment of the American view of the world, moving closer to Russia and confronting China.

Not content with overturning the US’s long held foreign policy positions, he has apparently decided to undermine the European Union, championing Britain’s vote to leave and giving encouragement to those elements that seek further disintegration of the bloc.

Talk of building walls to keep out immigrants, and raising tariffs to protect American industry run counter to the people movements and trade liberalisation which has been steadily taking place over the past seven decades. Admittedly the results have been patchy, there have been losers as well as winners, but it does not take a Nobel Laureate in economics to see that closed borders and protectionism will, in the end, hurt far more people than they will benefit.

With Trump on the verge of the presidency, the hard right and its populist over-simplified remedies for complicated questions, is becoming steadily more aggressive throughout the world

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described allegations of Russian meddling in the US election that saw Trump triumph as “the final spasms of those who realise their time is coming to an end”.

In a speech in which he berated the United Nations as a farce, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked forward to the day when “Israel will be able to rely on many, many countries to stand with us at the UN. Slowly but surely the days when UN ambassadors reflexively condemn Israel are coming to an end”.  

Even in Australia, a presentation advertising Australia Day which displayed, in part, two young Muslim girls with headscarfs was withdrawn after violent threats — including burnings and shootings — were made to the company responsible.

Would this have happened a year ago? Probably not.

However, there is another way at looking at all these events: That they are the last angry death throes of ultra-nationalism as it becomes increasingly irrelevant and ineffective in a world where the challenges require global responses.

The rise of nation states under what is usually referred to as the Westphalian System, filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the feudal order and the waning influence of the Catholic Church as a temporal power in the 17th century. It has been the basis for government, albeit of many different hues, for more than 400 years. Its time is almost up.

We are indeed on the cusp of profound change — but is it the change we think we see, or something that we haven’t quite grasped yet? Maybe it is Trump, Brexit, Putin, Netanyahu and all the flag-waving nationalists who represent the final spasms of a dying era.

To take another example from the past: At the beginning of the fifth century, how many Romans thought their empire, which had lasted 1000 years, would be gone in another 50?

Change on this scale is bound to be painful; we are in for difficult, maybe even dangerous times, but history is a harsh taskmistress — and she will not be denied.


     

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Public Service news from around the world

One dollar wages threat to PS

WASHINGTON (January 5): American Public Servants are feeling just a little more threatened this week after Congressional Republicans gave themselves the power to slash the annual salary of any individual Federal worker to as low as $US1, and the budget of any individual Federal program right down to zero.

Republicans revived an obscure provision enacted by Congress in 1876 that empowers any Member of Congress to submit an amendment to an Appropriations Bill that targets the funding of a specific Government program or employee.

The rule was devised before the advent of a non-political, career Public Service and has been rarely invoked. The fear is the revived law could be used to cut programs supporting things like the Clean Air Act, which some Republicans may not approve.

The rule appears most disconcerting when viewed in the context of the incoming Administration’s apparent hostility toward the independence of the Public Service.

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PS head sacked — again

BANJUL (January 5): Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has sacked the head of the country’s Public Service — for the second time in six months.

Sulayman Samba was initially dismissed in June last year, seven months after his initial appointment then reappointed two months later. No treasons were given for either sacking.

Mr Samba has held many senior positions under President Jammeh including Deputy Secretary-General and Permanent Secretary for various Government Ministries.

President Jammeh’s mandate is due to end on January 28 after he surprisingly lost the election to Opposition candidate, Adama Barrow. Despite initially conceding defeat, Mr Jammeh is now refusing to hand over power and has vowed to fight off any foreign military intervention.

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Ill wind blowing in public sector

OTTAWA (January 10): Canadian Public Servants took a record number of sick days in 2016 according to annual job market statistics released by Statistics Canada.

The average public sector worker missed 13.5 days of work last year compared with 8.3 days for workers in the private sector.

The gap between public and private sector absenteeism has been widening for years but last year that disparity hit an all-time high, as Government workers took 5.2 more sick days than those in the private sector.

According to a separate study as much as 80 per cent of the sick-leave gap is the result of the make-up of the Government workforce. Workers in the public sector are generally older, there are more females than males, and most are unionised — all three of those groups tend to take more time off. 

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Senior professors shown the door

KUALA LUMPUR (January 8): Malaysian public universities have been stripped of their senior staff with 156 out of 506 professors, aged between 61 and 70, not having their contracts renewed last year due to budget cuts.

Chief Executive of the National Council of Professors, Datuk Raduan Che Rose said the trend might affect Malaysian universities’ ability to compete internationally.

While the official retirement age for professors is 60, those past that age have usually continued to work under contract, subject to the ability of their respective institutions to pay for them. It is this group that has been most affected by funding cuts.

“In order to compete internationally, the country should find ways to retain our professors to at least up to 65 years old and also attract good foreign professors into our system,” Dr Raduan said.

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Former EU envoy to retire

LONDON (January 8): Four days after his shock resignation as the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers has quit the Public Service with immediate effect.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: "Sir Ivan Rogers did not seek any further Civil Service appointment and has therefore resigned from the Civil Service with immediate effect.”

It is understood Sir Ivan will receive three months’ pay in lieu of notice, in line with standard Foreign Office terms, but no special pay-off was offered or sought.

In a fiery message to staff announcing his resignation from the Brussels post, Sir Ivan had hit out at the "ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking" of politicians and said Public Servants  still did not know the Government's plans for exiting the European Union.

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Workers quit posts to fight poll

NAIROBI (January 8): Kenya’s Public Service could be facing a personnel crisis as hundreds of workers, including Cabinet Secretaries, heads of Government Agencies and national and county employees hand in their resignations to contest this year’s General Election.  

Some county [Local Government] executives have already tendered their resignations even before the February 8 deadline.

The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2016 requires Public Servants who want to contest the election to leave office six months beforehand.  

Chair of the Public Service Commission, Margaret Kobia said resignations would be accepted by the Government and those leaving would hand over to the senior-most officers in their Departments “so there will be no vacuum”.

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More work needed on PS reform

WASHINGTON (January 5): The United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) says it has made significant strides towards a more modern Government personnel system, but has urged future Administrations to allow it to continue with the work.

Acting Director of the OPM, Beth Cobert said there was a need for more comprehensive reforms that addressed structural challenges to improved Government-wide performance.

She suggested Congress bring together lawmakers, representatives from the President’s National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, members from industry and academic experts to develop new recommendations to modernise personnel policies.

She also suggested Congress consider targeted legislation to help Agencies more quickly bring in students, recent graduates and young talent with mission-critical skills.

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Call to whip PS into shape

KUALA LUMPUR (January 11): An organisation representing former Malaysian Public Servants has urged heavier punishment, including whipping, be imposed on officials found abusing power and involved in corruption.

The Alumni Association of the Administrative and Diplomatic Officers said corruption involving large sums of money among Public Service officials was disturbing and damaging to the reputation of the service and the country.

It said public officials should not abuse the positions and power they had been entrusted with to betray and commit criminal breach of trust.

"It should be noted that there are countries that impose the death penalty on Public Servants found guilty of corruption, especially those in senior positions," it said.

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Chief gets free hand to fight corruption

LILONGWE (January 7): Malawi President Arthur Mutharika has sworn in a new head of the country’s Public Service, challenging him to “root out corruption wherever he finds it”.

Naming Lloyd Muhara as the Chief Secretary to the Government, President Mutharika said he had a lot of confidence in Mr Muhara and Malawians had high expectations of him.

 “I want you to root out corruption from the Civil Service. Your office is mandated to discipline, to suspend and to fire people, President Mutharika said.

“I want wrong-doers to be fired and prosecuted. We are better off parting with people who bring performance down than keeping them in the system. The time for playing games is over.”

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Government workers on the rise

OTTAWA (January 9): The number of Canadian Federal Public Servants employed in and around the national capital of Ottawa is now at its highest since 2010, when the previous Conservative Government began cutting jobs.

Statistics Canada said the total number of Federal employees working in the National Capital Region in 2016 jumped by 14,000 to 145,000, representing a 10.5 per cent increase over the previous year.

Experts said the growth was directly tied to the Liberal Government carrying out election promises to create new programs for Canadians.  

Describing the current Government as “hyperactive”, President of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, Emmanuelle Tremblay said that after deep cuts into services there had been a realisation that Departments “cannot function below the bare bones".

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Restive workers want promotion

ABUJA (January 10): There is mounting concern in the Nigerian Federal Public Service over a failure to promote qualified employees, some of whom have been stuck in their current posts for more than a decade.

Now the workers say they are tired of waiting for head of the Public Service, Winifred Oyo-Ita to take action on their behalf and may take their case directly to President Muhammadu Buhari.

Most of the affected Public Servants are due for promotion from Assistant to Deputy Directors and from Deputy to Directors. Many of them do not have many more years to spend in the Public Service either on account of age or years of service.

It is believed the stagnation stems from the suspension of the tenured policy by the Government whereby all Directors who had served up to eight years on one post had to give way to new candidates.

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PS troubleshooters to be expanded

LONDON (January 5): A team of young United Kingdom Public Servants is set to double in size in 2017, after Whitehall's operational delivery chief, Ruth Owen said Departmental leaders had been won over by the new model.

The Surge and Rapid Response Team was set up in 2014 after the Passport Office and HM Revenue and Customs, which have both reduced frontline staff numbers in recent years, drew flak for customer service failures.

Problems at the two Agencies prompted Ministers to order the creation of a flexible team of Public Servants able to quickly support frontline or back office staff anywhere in Government, either in response to an immediate crisis or to help with anticipated surges in demand.

The team began with around 200 newly-recruited apprentices, whose contracts require them to be available at 24 hours' notice.  So far the team has worked to support organisations including the Foreign Office, UK Visas and Immigration and the Rural Payments Agency. 

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Union opposes pension reforms

KINGSTON (January 6): The main union representing Jamaican Public Service workers says it is unhappy with a proposed reform of workers’ pensions.

President of the Jamaica Civil Service Association, O'Neil Grant said the Pensions (Public Service) Bill, which the Government hopes to pass into law by April, would have the effect of reducing the value of the pension.

"It is going to go down from an accrual rate of 66.66 per cent to about 60 per cent in terms of the last salary," Mr Grant said.

The Government wants to pass the Bill as part of a $US1.7 billion ($A2.2 billion) standby arrangement with the International Monetary Fund.  

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Workers told to be wary of gifts

JERUSALEM (January 10): Senior Israeli Public Servants have been reminded of the rules forbidding public officials from accepting gifts and other benefits, the Civil Service Commission saying it could be considered a criminal offense. 

The warning follows investigations being conducted against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on suspicions that he accepted such gifts and other benefits from private businesspeople.

The person in charge of disciplinary matters at the Commission, Assaf Rosenberg said he decided to clarify the rules after receiving requests to do so from a number of people in recent days.

"Public officials are forbidden to accept gifts, except according to the conditions set in law and the Civil Service regulations," Mr Rosenberg said.

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Poor quality PS ‘threatens reforms’

ACCRA (January 11): The head of a leading Ghanaian think tank says the poor quality of the country’s Public Service could thwart the plans of the new Government to introduce reforms.

Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Governance, Emmanuel Akwetey said President Nana Akufo-Addo would need to decide if he would just take the machinery that existed within the public sector or change it.

“The Civil Service is broken in many ways and if we want to fix it, we have to look seriously, first of all, at the political relationship and bureaucratic relations… the relationship between politicians and the bureaucrats, Dr Akwetey said. 

“The human factor and the political situation within the Public Service could be a very significant constraint to its achievement and I think we might have to look at that carefully.”

The full Public Service News international news service resumes on January 24 at psnews.com.au/aps/world