Thursday, November 29, 2012

Muslims accused of 'stealing' Christmas

Seven years after cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, published in a Danish newspaper, triggered world-wide protests leaving more than 100 dead, the country is again at the centre of another controversy, this time involving the actions of its own Muslim immigrants.
The row springs from an unexpected source, a meeting of the Egedalsvaenget Tenants Association in the town of Kokkedal, about 30 kilometres north of Copenhagen. With Christmas approaching the association’s board received a request for funds to set up a Christmas tree and festive lights in one of the housing estate’s public areas.
The request, for the equivalent of $1000, has been routinely approved in past years but on this occasion, the board, which now has a majority of Muslim members, turned it down.
Fuel was added to the flames when local media reported that the board had voted for the equivalent of $10,000 to fund a large communal celebration of the Muslim holiday of Eid earlier in the year.
As the controversy mounted Muslim members of the board attempted to back-pedal, saying the request was refused simply because no-one wanted to take on the responsibility for setting up the tree, but the board’s chair, non-Muslim Karin Leegaard Hansen, rejected this, saying she had been willing to organise the project, but that it had been voted down along racial lines.
The impasse took a sinister turn when a local television crew, sent to Egedalsvaenget to report on the story, were attacked by masked youths and forced to retreat unharmed but with considerable damage to their vehicle. The crew claimed their attackers were Muslims seeking to silence media coverage of the incident.
If so, they made a grave miscalculation. The story has sparked anger throughout the Scandinavian country and is now being covered overseas.
An anonymous donor has offered to cover the cost of the tree and it does look like the Christian residents of the housing complex will be able to celebrate Christmas in the traditional way. However, the incident has left a bad taste and threatens to put the question of Muslim immigration at the top of the Danish, if not the European agenda, as 2013 nears.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Is Modi India’s next PM?

Indian state elections can be robust affairs, but the campaign currently being conducted in Gujarat is extraordinary even by these standards, with the Chief Minister being branded a ‘monkey’ and the Opposition Congress Party described as the ‘forces of darkness…an evil that must be swept away’.
This is on top of the routine accusations of bribery and general corruption that both Congress and its main opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hurl at each other as the two-phase poll, on December 13 and 17, approaches.
What makes the election especially interesting is the speculation surrounding the flamboyant, BJP-supported Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who is seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Commentators are saying that if he is successful he will be ideally placed to make the transition to national politics and lead the BJP into the election of 2014.
With the ruling Congress Party in a degree of disarray following a series of corruption scandals – and uncertainty about who will succeed 80-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – Modi, easily Gujarat’s longest-serving Chief Minister, could well be the next leader of the world’s biggest democracy.
The Chief Minister has some impressive credentials, but also some skeletons in his cupboard. He achieved hero status last year when, on a visit to China, he claimed to have been instrumental in securing the release of 13 Indian diamond traders who had been jailed in Shenzhen on customs offences.
However, he is still dogged by accusations that his then fledgling administration did not do enough to stop Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in which more than 1000 died. Allegations that he actually encouraged violence against Muslims were rejected in court.
None of this appears to have affected his popularity in his own state and most recently he poured scorn on the ‘Cong’ (the BJP’s derogatory name for Congress) and its president, Sonja Gandhi, who visited the Gujarat on the election trail.
“Cong has no role to play in Gujarat, Sonia’s speech had nothing in it; the newspapers didn’t even publish it, just big pictures,” Modi said.
Congress’ main hope lies among the rural poor where the party’s national policies have led to some development, but while opinion polls are few and generally unreliable in India, the feeling is that Modi will win again.
If so, the 62-year-old will be ideally placed to take a shot and the top job in New Delhi.    

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hamas ploy – keep it on the battlefield

In just over a week’s time the United Nations is scheduled to vote on whether to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a non-member observer State. On the face of it, this seems rather symbolic, regularising a situation that already exists. Palestine will have no more rights to do anything at the international body than it currently enjoys.

Its representatives can already address the General Assembly, take part in meetings and co-sponsor resolutions. They are not able to vote, or become voting members of any UN Committee. None of this will change.

But symbolism means a lot in Israel and the fact that Palestine would be accorded the status of a ‘state’, something that Israel has steadfastly refused to accept, is seen as a significant setback by the Government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is why a few days ago Netanyahu seemed ready to scrap the Oslo Accords, agreed by former leaders Yasser Arafat (Palestine) and Yitzak Rabin (Israel) almost two decades ago, that gave the Palestinians some degree of autonomy and promised more in the future.

What has generally been forgotten in the current turmoil descending on the Middle East was that the threatened stick was followed by the proffered carrot.

A day later Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman put forward a draft document offering the Palestinians immediate recognition of statehood within provisional borders as an incentive for dropping their UN bid.

In other words, Israel was trying to wrest the question of statehood out of the international arena and back to face-to-face negotiations with the Government of Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank.

It was then that the Hamas rockets began to fly.

Why? Because any moves along this line would have left Hamas isolated in the Gaza Strip and enhanced Abbas’ standing as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people. Hamas always has and continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish State – a ‘push them into the sea’ mentality, which is quietly being discarded in many Arab capitals.

Hamas’ resort to arms is a calculated ploy to remove the Middle East peace process off the negotiating table and back to the battlefield, where it knows it can garner world attention and sympathy.

It is now inevitable that the UN vote will go ahead on November 29 and that Palestinian recognition will pass with an overwhelming majority in the veto-proof General Assembly. As I said at the beginning it will mean very little, apart from setting back the peace process generally, which has been Hamas’ aim from the very beginning.   

Monday, November 12, 2012

Away with the slash-and-burn merchants

In Greece another round of financial stringency has been voted on by the Parliament. The 2013 Budget has been passed with a diet that has become all too familiar to the population – more spending cuts, more raised taxes. The demonstrations that followed were small in comparison with those of the past. Demo fatigue has set in, or perhaps Greeks are now more concerned with survival and lack the energy to take to the streets.
In Australia conservative state governments continue their attacks on spending, to the point where in NSW Departmental hard copies of annual reports are reduced to four, in black and white, produced in-house on computers and photo-copiers.
The aftermath of the global financial crisis is stretching out over the years, with Governments of all shapes and sizes seemingly having no answer to it other than cut, cut, and cut.
And yet in California in the wake of the elections there, Governor Jerry Brown senses a change in mood.
“The cutting has got out of control,” Governor Brown told a television program. “And in California you can only cut schools and universities so much and then people say ‘enough already’ - and that’s exactly what they said on election night.”
Governor Brown was referring to Proposition 30 (a type of referendum that is voted on at the same time as the national and state polls) in which Californians voted, by a margin of 54 per cent to 46 per cent, to increase personal income taxes for individuals making more than $250,000 a year.
They also agreed to accept a temporary sales tax increase that will affect almost everybody.
The result means that the extra revenue raised will negate the need for spending cuts on education. Opponents fume, saying there will now be no reform of the education system.
But for so long ‘reform’ has been conservative jargon for slash and burn. Doing more with less has been the buzz word for too long. ‘Efficiencies’, when pushed past a certain point, cease to be efficient. That point has not been lost on the good people of California.
And so back to Greece. I have no doubt that genuine reform is needed there, especially in the workings of the bureaucracy. By some accounts if the country simply collected all the taxes it is owed, it would not have a financial crisis.
If so, isn’t there a good case for increasing the numbers of tax inspectors and really making them earn their pay instead of, as has happened, slashing them?
Maybe it is time to reject the methods of the slash-and-burn merchants, whether they are in the International Monetary Fund, or the bean-counters in the corner office. Maybe it is time for ‘stimulation’ to replace ‘austerity’ as the buzz word for the future.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

GOP’s blunder – right man, wrong message

The Romney-Ryan ticket was the best the Republicans could have put forward in 2012. It had all the hallmarks that Republicans support, ticked all the boxes that should bring out the voters in the handful of swing States were elections are decided.

Romney should be heading for the White House now because he was the right candidate for Republican America, which took to him after initial reservations about his Mormon background when he quickly shifted his position rightwards - and especially after he selected the solidly conservative Paul Ryan, an ideological hero of the radical right Tea Party movement, as his running mate.

The United States is a conservative country more at home with pro-business, small government Republicans than Democrats who are often perceived as wild-eyed free spenders contemptuous of traditional American values of family, community and church.

Apart from a few decades following Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, Republicans have dominated the White House since the Civil War and even when Democrats have won, their tenure has been short-lived.

So what happened to Romney, apparently a Republican ideal, who is left counting the Electoral College votes that got away, consigning him to a question for trivia quizmasters of the future?

Right candidate, wrong message. Romney failed to win over enough of the uncommitted voters who would have put him over the top because they had heard the slogans about ‘new directions’ and ‘fresh starts’ from so many other candidates in so many other elections. Obama had used them with success in 2008, but coming from a young man seeking to be the nation’s first black president, they sounded believable.

Romney is a white, late middle-aged male, one of a number of the kind who have tried unsuccessfully to win the White House for the Republicans (remember McCain? Remember Dole?) by attempting to be what they are not – youthful, exciting, stimulating.

There is nothing wrong with an ageing white Baby Boomer running for the White House on the Republican ticket as long as the message matches the image (Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ hit the spot). Romney needed to have portrayed a strong calming persona, inspiring hard work, dedication to the flag, and a grim determination to dig America out of the hole that Republicans say the Democrats have dug.

If he wanted to see how it was done, take a look at Vice President Joe Biden.   

Instead he set the same manic pace as his younger opponent and in the final stages of the campaign, and especially when Hurricane Sandy interrupted the schedule, began to appear old and frazzled. Not a good look when talking about bright-eyed visions for the future as the final raft of uncommitted voters headed to the polls.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Big Society’s death by a thousand cuts

For British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Big Society was at the heart of his domestic agenda. It was going to transform the United Kingdom in a way not seen since the introduction of the Welfare State in the immediate post war years. It would ensure that at the next election, due in 2015, he would break the shackles of his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats and institute a Tory dynasty that would last for decades.
The Big Society also interested conservative forces Down Under. Tony Abbott eyed it as a way in which he could carry out the slash and burn of the Australian Public Service which is a requirement for incoming Liberal-National Governments. The slogans – putting government in the hands of the people; social action; cash-back for housing tenants – seemed the ideal sugar coating for the bitter pill that inevitably comes with smaller government and reductions in public services.
The idea that Cameron and his cohorts formulated was a shift of services traditionally provided by central government, to local government, voluntary agencies, charities and to groups of active citizens.
Under the plans organisations such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross would be given money to expand their social welfare activities. Civic programs would be established with a strong voluntary element; ‘free’ schools would be formed by concerned parents and teachers.
In the Big Society ideal, the people would be working to deliver the services they wanted to themselves “collective goals that would be more diverse, more local and more personal”.
That was the ideal. In reality the Big Society is in big trouble – some say it is dead in the water – a victim of the Coalition’s own austerity policies in the face of the continuing economic crisis.
Instead of receiving additional funds, grassroots voluntary groups are facing cuts in their budgets, some charities are saying that may have to severely reduce services or even shut up shop if the financial stringency continues. The Government has managed to cut thousands of jobs and do away with a swag of Agencies in the Public Service, but so far the outsourced services that were supposed to have been a replacement have – apart from in a few upmarket and privileged areas – been either sub-standard or non-existent.
Chief Executive of the social enterprise group Turning Point, Lord Adebowale, still supports the Big Society, but says it has lost momentum. Another critic from within Government, who did not wish to be named, said cutting the Public Service was the easy part of the experiment.
“We’ve done that without putting in a proper replacement structure. It’s all ad hoc. People are hurting and they are blaming us,” he said.
Words that Tony Abbott might well consider before he rushes in with a copycat program should he win Government next year.  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Major General Alan Stretton 1922-2012

I first met Alan Stretton some years after the Darwin cyclone, the event which will always be linked with his name.
By that time he had retired from the army and taken up a career as a lawyer in Canberra and it was on a local issue that he first got in touch with me as a journalist on The Canberra Times. Over the years we spoke often and I got a number of good stories from our interviews, both over the phone and while enjoying hospitality at his Canberra apartment.
I remember his very public criticism of the Australian Government’s decision to join the coalition of nations that invaded Iraq. “Any suggestion that there is a connection between Saddam Hussein and global terrorism is ludicrous,” he said.
A dedicated St Kilda fan – and a player for the club in the 1940s - he convinced me that even with a soccer background it was positively un-Australian not to support a team in the AFL, so now the Saints’ result is always the first one I look for at each weekend during the winter.
Our contacts tailed off after he retired to the South Coast and I last saw him at his son Greg’s 60th birthday party a few years back. He was genuinely glad to see me again and to chat about current affairs.
Strangely enough we rarely talked about the events following Christmas Eve 1974. While justifiably proud of his achievements in evacuating some 36,000 people from the stricken city “and not losing a single additional life”, he lived in the present and looked to the future.
Alan Stretton wanted a better, fairer Australia, and used his position and his reputation to work for that end. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

China concerns behind diplomatic double talk

United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Edgard Kagan was at the Australian National University yesterday to deliver an address on US Engagement with the Pacific Islands and the Region.
It was largely a restatement of established American policy – the US was focused on expanding its position in the region; it had strategic and moral interests there and intended to pursue them more vigorously in the future.
Even during some pointed questions on West Papua and Fiji, Kagan tended to duck behind the traditional rhetoric. The US would continue its warm relationship with Indonesia and through that restate its position on human rights, leaving it to the country’s developing democracy to do the rest.
On Fiji, he took a slightly stronger position: The US had a strained relationship with the current regime and was waiting to see whether the Fijian Government’s rhetoric about an eventual transition to democracy would match its deeds.
And to China – it was a “complex relationship – we encourage China to play a bigger role in the world”. However that role had to be one that promoted peace and stability.
Sometimes with these events it is necessary to read not just between the lines, but between what is between the lines. In diplomatic speak “complex” can mean very unsatisfactory, perhaps even antagonistic. “Encouraging” China to play a bigger role in the world that promotes peace and stability means that its current role is unlikely to do that.
The US is in a power struggle with China in the Asia Pacific. China is seeking to extend its influence in what it considers to be its own backyard, which is hardly unreasonable unless it begins to aggressively promote its values and political system; then we have trouble.
Fiji is a case in point. Suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum is less of a problem for Commodore Frank Bainamarama if China wants to be his friend – and of course China has no problem with the fact that Commodore Bainamarama is a military dictator. It might even encourage him to retain his grip on the nation and continue his game  of moving political reform back into the far distance.
Success with Fiji could open the way for bigger fish – Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, maybe even Indonesia.
There was one point where I thought Kagan’s carefully manufactured guard slipped just a little. While answering a question about whether Russia still had a significant role to play in the Asia Pacific, he urged his listeners to look beyond China when they considered the region.
“The rise of Asia Pacific is not just a China story, there is ASEAN, the continuing role of Japan, Korea and India,” he said.
The point being that with a couple of exceptions, these nations are either democracies, or tending towards democracy, and that overwhelmingly, they support the US presence in the region as a counterbalance to the growing influence of Beijing.
Kagan said he was optimistic about future developments in the Asia Pacific and, of course, it is the duty of diplomats to be optimistic, in public at least.
But even optimists have to be prepared for the worst.   

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Let’s not be too hard on Lance

Former Spanish cycling champion and five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurian still believes Lance Armstrong is innocent, saying that it is not drug tests, rather the testimonies of others, that have brought down the man once described as the greatest road cyclist of all time.
Indurian is to be admired for his loyalty to a friend. I also defended Armstrong time and again, pointing out that not one of the hundreds of doping tests during his career proved positive and suspecting that the smears, years after he had retired, were more to do with attempts to block his possible political career, than to clean up the sport of cycling.
But I can do so no longer. The evidence is compelling and to believe otherwise would be to accept that a cohort of former teammates, support staff, administrators and media personalities are colluding in a giant conspiracy, in many cases willing to wreck their own reputations, in order to destroy Armstrong’s.
Yes, Lance Armstrong is guilty as charged, but does he deserve to take all the blame? Or to quote the Bard, is he a man more sinned against than sinning?
And aren’t all of us culpable in his fate?
For decades now sport has been obsessed with gold medals and world records. People of my generation may remember that line about winning being less important that taking part, but for those born later “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” is much more familiar and much more in keeping with the times.
And anyway, isn’t the Olympic motto “Faster, Higher Stronger”?
But how fast, how high and how strong? In the century and a bit since the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, gave those words to the world there have been sporting performances that he could never have dreamed of. Last placed athletes in the heats of some events at London 2012 would have been finalists in London ‘48, and gold medal winners in London ’08.
Better training techniques and equipment, improved diets, healthier living and the lure of fame and fortune, coupled by winners in some events being proclaimed by a hundredth of a second, has made Faster, Higher, Stronger a reality for decades, but are we reaching human limits in some events?
At the London Olympics we had our share of heroes but it will not be long before we will want someone who is faster than Usain Bolt, who will collect more medals than Michael Phelps.
The outstanding performances of today are just marks to be beaten next time on the merry-go-round. The party has been going on for decades.
But now, in some events at least, we may be at the point where we can go no further – no further unaided by some form of chemical stimulus that is.
Many people believe that the Tour de France is the supreme athletic and mental test – three weeks of highly competitive road cycling, up and down mountains in all sorts of weather with just a couple of rest days and always a centimetre of ill judgement away from a bone-shattering crash that can destroy hopes of success, ruin a career and in a small number of cases, end a life.
Maybe the Tour has reached those limits; maybe we have to realise that if we want our future sporting heroes to be drug free, we are going to have to accept they are human.
And maybe we should not blame Lance Armstrong too much. He was, after all, just giving the public what it wanted.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

UN win for 'India's friend'

Australia’s stunning victory in winning a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council has been welcomed in India, with initial comments along the lines that the world’s largest democracy now has a firm friend at the highest level of the international body.
The decision, coming so soon after Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s successful visit, has made Australia the current flavour of the month in New Delhi with commentators heralding a new era of improved relations between the two countries.
Although this will not make great ripples at home, it is extremely important in India which still believes it is threatened by neighbouring China 50 years after the two countries fought a fierce and unresolved border war.
The boundaries between the two are still a subject of negotiation, and talks to find a solution have dragged on over years and decades. In more recent times China has become more aggressive in its negotiations and has produced maps showing the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Southern Tibet’, an implication not lost on political and military leaders in New Delhi.
For the moment the Congress Government is content to restrict the rivalry with its Asian neighbour to matters of economics, but the same cannot be said for the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In a recent speech BJP President Nitin Gadkari said his party would give the border dispute top priority if it was voted back into power at the next election, due in 2014.
Mr Gadkari said this should give a clear message that while India had no intention of attacking a neighbouring country, “it will not tolerate any violation of its borders by any neighbouring country”.
His words are significant, coming as they do almost exactly on the 50th anniversary of the 1962 conflict. It is possible that the BJP leader is simply using the date to make a bit of political capital. On the other hand he may see an increasing desire among the population to put the matter to bed.
It is worth noting that China chooses moments to advance its cause when world attention, and especially that of the United States, is distracted. It invaded and claimed Tibet as its territory during the Korean War and launched its attack on India at the height of the Cuban missile crisis.
A strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facilities would present a similar opportunity.
This is pure speculation, but there is no doubt that Australia is preparing to take its seat at the UN during interesting times.   

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Towards a paperless newspaper

Executives of Guardian News and Media in the United Kingdom have spent the past few days furiously denying reports that the group, which publishes the Guardian and Observer newspapers, is about to ditch its print editions and publish entirely online.
The reports, by Katherine Rushton, the highly respected media, telecoms and technology editor of the rival Daily Telegraph, indicated the move was the most dramatic of a series of desperation measures to halt the steady flow of annual losses by the group, which currently stand at around $69 million.
In response, senior figures at the Guardian have said that while digital-only newspapers are in the group’s distant future, print would remain the foundation of the organisation for many years to come.
That rather sums up the dilemma that newspapers are finding themselves in around the world, and especially in Australia where Fairfax is courting death by a thousand cuts.  Circulations and advertising revenue have been steadily shrinking and the initial response – slashing resources and jobs – is doing nothing to reverse the trend.
A string of British regional newspapers (including the one I trained on, the Express and Echo at Exeter) are dipping their feet in the digital water. Former dailies, they have become weeklies with their journalists breaking stories 24/7 online and the weekly print edition serving as a synopsis of the news for the dwindling band of readers who still want to have it in their hands.
Properly managed, this is probably the way to go, but in Australia most of the newspaper world is still in denial. Worse still, the growing reliance on ‘citizen journalism’ as a way of cutting costs is eating in to the only advantage newspapers still have – news, features and comment that can be relied upon because of the expertise and professionalism of the people who produce it.
To return to the British example, Rushton highlighted this trend in an article earlier in the year. She quoted Guardian executive Adam Freeman telling a conference that newspapers should move towards an “open vision for journalism, relying on lay people who may not have any formal expertise, as a key to the future”.
“Experts because they care about the subject matter as much as we do - they don’t have to be called ‘professor’,” Freeman said.
For that read giving the fanatics, the crazies, the compulsive letter writers, in fact anyone with an opinion on anything, however unfounded and out of left field, freedom to pontificate in the news columns and on the websites.
If anything is designed to kill off newspapers – and probably destroy journalism as a profession – it is giving untrained egotists and zealots equal status with men and women who have studied, trained and done the hard yards to be able to call themselves journalists. This will be putting media outlets on the same page as anyone with a computer and a compulsion to publish their words to all who care to read them.
Instead of throwing their long-standing, highly-competent and respected staff on the scrap heap, managers could do well to nurture them as the key to the survival of newspapers in the digital age.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Change in Burma – too little too late?

Burma’s rulers are gradually coming to terms with democracy. On Sunday, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is holding its first national conference at which it is expected to elect new leaders and declare that it has become “a party of the people”.
The rebranding is timely. The next General Election is scheduled for 2015 and it is widely expected that the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, will win most of the seats that are open contests (under the constitution the military still has the right to appoint 25 per cent of members in both the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament).
But can this transformation honestly be affected? The USDP was originally the political arm of the military junta that ruled the country for almost half a century. Officially it has 16 million members, but just how many of these are true party faithful rather than opportunists relying on Government patronage is highly problematical.
The USDP contested the last election in 2010 winning around three quarters of the seats, but it was a poll boycotted by the NLD after many of its candidates were deemed ineligible. Now the NLD is back in the ring and recently swept 43 of 44 seats in by-elections.
As the party in power, the USDP has some breathing space to popularise itself with the electorate, but that will be no easy task in a country that lags well behind its south-east Asian neighbours in economic development and is still riven with unrest among its many ethnic minorities.
Some observers feel the key lies in whether significant numbers of the six million Burmese who live overseas can be tempted back to help with national reconstruction. Htun Aung Gyaw, a former student leader who has just revisited the country after decades in exile, says there is a vast pool of talent living in various countries of the world, including Australia, who could make a major contribution.
“Burma needs skills from all fields which exiles could easily provide. The bureaucracy is very weak, every sector has untrained people, but to encourage exiles to return, the Government must issue a blanket amnesty,” Aung Gyaw said in an interview.
And that may be a tall order for a Government which in the past has been highly suspicious of any views and opinions that ran counter to its own. While progress is being made, it is unlikely that a few statements and slogans at a single conference will represent real change.
Most likely the Burmese will have to wait until 2015 before beginning that process in earnest.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Speaking the unspeakable – peace with Israel

In an article that is setting the Arab world back on its heels, a former top Syrian commander has denounced the 64-year enmity with Israel as a waste of lives and resources which could have been better spent on education, healthcare and the improvement of human rights.
Writing in Arab News, a Saudi Arabian English language newspaper, Abdulateef al-Mulhim said it was “time to stop the hatred and start to create better living conditions for future Arab generations”.
What is truly surprising about this is not that it is an opinion expressed by an Arab – there are many who would agree with his views, even if they do not support him openly - but that it has been expressed in print in Saudi Arabia, usually regarded as one of the most conservative Arab States and an implacable enemy of Israel.
Some commentators are regarding this as the first sign of shifting sands under the hostility and hatred that has bound many of the countries in the region together for so long – and perhaps concern over the way non-Arab Iran’s perceived pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability could be leading the Middle East into another ruinous war.
In his article Mulhim is quite frank about the futility of continued opposition to Israel. He points out that while the Arab world has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives on the conflict over the decades, it has allowed corruption to flourish and basic services to languish at home.
And meanwhile what has been happening to the Jewish State? “It has the most advanced research facilities, top universities and advanced infrastructure,” he writes.
“Many Arabs don’t know that the life expectancy of the Palestinians living in Israel is far longer than Arabs in many Arab States and they enjoy far better political and social freedom than many of their Arab brothers.
“Even the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip enjoy more political and social rights than some places in the Arab World.”
Whether or not Mulhim is the mouthpiece for a movement for change within the Arab Middle East, his words should not be lost on Israeli politicians as the country prepares for a General Election. Israel has not done enough in recent times to revitalise the peace process and a newly-elected Government would be in an excellent position to change that.
It is true that due to the heroic efforts of its people, Israel has managed both to successfully defend itself and to achieve a reasonable degree of prosperity since independence in 1948, but with a true and lasting peace it could do much more. Israelis are beginning to realise this, but the question remains whether they will feel confident enough to express this view at the polls on January 22.   

Monday, September 17, 2012

Europe on the Mend

Dutch national elections do not normally excite much interest outside of Europe, but on this occasion they were closely watched and the outcome hailed as a sign that the continent is at last coming to grips with its four-year economic and political crisis.

With all votes counted, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was returned with an increased number of seats for his centre-right Liberal Party. While Mr Rutte talked tough during the campaign when it came to more bailouts for the tottering Greek economy, he is certainly in favour of keeping the Netherlands in the Eurozone and the European Union itself.

The man who campaigned on an exit from both, Geert Wilders, of the far right Freedom Party, took something of   bath from the electorate, losing nine seats, and can now expect to be left out of any governing coalition. His views are widely considered to have been far too radical for the conservative Dutch and he has been punished accordingly.

So is this the first indication that Europe generally is turning the corner? Not in itself perhaps, but the signs are increasingly encouraging. Germany’s Constitutional Court has declared legal a move by Chancellor Angela Merkel to make contributions to the European Stability Mechanism, a permanent bailout fund that will be able to put out small economic fires before they become all-consuming blazes.

At the same time a decision by the European Central Bank to re-start its bond-buying program had the required effect of lowing interest rates on Spanish and Italian bonds.

Europe has a long way to go, but the so-called experts who grabbed headlines a few weeks back with their warnings of an imminent collapse of the euro and perhaps the EU itself have gone strangely silent.

The world needs a strong and prosperous EU, one that can play its full part in world affairs and especially in a surging Africa where its traditional ties, dating back to colonial days, can do much to counter the growing influence of China.

As billionaire business investor George Soros said during a recent interview with the International Herald Tribune newspaper, the EU is about more than deficits, currencies and bonds. Europe is also a political and moral idea – one worth preserving.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Missed chances on the Korean peninsula

It seems the West has lost the chance to ease North Korea out of its Stalinist straightjacket.

Earlier this year I wrote an article in On Line Opinion suggesting that with the accession of Kim Jong-un to the leadership there might open a window of opportunity to promote reform

This was not based on any fanciful notion Kim, with his background of study in Switzerland and his apparent liking for Walt Disney characters, was going to lead a movement out of the shadows, but that there might be others in the Pyongyang who could be encouraged to do so.

The theory was that if Kim, still in his late 20s, became entrenched in power, it was likely to be another 40 years at least before another change in leadership, something that might exercise the minds of others in the North Korean hierarchy who would like to see a move towards a more accommodating stance to the outside world in their lifetimes.

However, it appears policymakers in Western capitals have put too much faith in Kim himself – that the fact he likes fast food outlets, mini-skirts and American basketball meant he was ready to open North Korea to the world and perhaps even abandon his reckless policy of intimidation against his closest neighbours.

It was quite obvious earlier this year when North Korea negotiated a food-for-nuclear-missile-freeze with the United States and then almost immediately launched a test missile that it was business as usual. The Obama Administration immediately cancelled the deal perpetuating the one-step-forward-one-step-back situation that has existed for decades.  

So if the opportunity for some quiet undermining of Kim’s nascent regime has been lost, what next? The signs are that South Korea is losing patience with the continual provocations from the North which in recent times has torpedoed a South Korean navy ship and shelled an island with the loss of civilian and military lives.

The South Korean command structure is outraged by these acts and wants a re-write of the rules of engagement to allow a more aggressive reaction than occurred after these incidents. An election in December is quite likely to result in an administration more sympathetic to these attitudes. The possibility of an all-out war cannot be discounted.

In the meantime floods and famine continue to ravage North Korea, food shortages are worsening, and Kim perpetuates the methods employed by his father and grandfather of removing anyone who is a threat, or a perceived threat, to his regime.

There may yet be people within the palace guard who are sickened by these antics and are prepared to act, but the chances of this happening are lessening by the day.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Gas finds put spotlight on an old crisis

Cyprus, the little problem in the eastern Mediterranean that the world would rather forget, surfaced again recently in a dispute over who controls potentially rich natural gas fields offshore from the divided island.

That division resulted from an invasion by Turkish forces 38 years ago in support of the Turkish minority in Cyprus and to stop a possible attempt to unite the island with Greece. A ceasefire was negotiated that left Turkey in control of roughly one third of the country and there, despite numerous attempts at a resolution, the situation has rested.

Complications have been created by the proclamation of the Republic of Northern Cyprus – an entity recognised only by Turkey - and Cyprus’ entry into the European Union. Brussels has made it clear that any progress on Turkey’s own long held ambition for EU membership is contingent on a settlement on Cyprus. For the Government in Nicosia, that settlement must include Turkish withdrawal and reunification, albeit with guarantees and some autonomy for the Turkish Cypriots.

Any resolution would also have to take into account demands by the Greek Cypriots who fled their homes in the north that they recover their property. The Government of Northern Cyprus has made a good income from selling these dwellings to wealthy Europeans as holiday and retirement homes. A settlement will depend on a ruling of who owns what and what compensation should be paid.

Opinion is divided over whether the latest gas finds will bring the two sides together or exacerbate tensions. An American company, Noble Energy, based in Houston, is leading the exploration along with Israeli partners. So far the consortium has been dealing only with the Greek Cypriot Government which considers it has the sole right to issue drilling licences

This is now contested by the northerners, backed by Turkey, who say they also have a claim on the waters surrounding the island. They have demanded the consortium stop drilling and that Nicosia put a freeze on issuing licences.

The United Nations, which has manned a buffer zone between the two parties since 1974 is hailing the gas discoveries as a wealth generator that could help solve the compensation problem and lead to reunification. Less optimistic observers see them as just another resource to be squabbled over with the United States and Israel now also involved. Only time will tell who is right.  

Saturday, September 1, 2012

When 70 is still too young to retire

Those of us of a certain age are well aware that the traditional retirement age of 65 is often no longer an option thanks to the global financial crisis and the likelihood many of us will live into our 80s and beyond. However, the conventional wisdom was that another few years of full-time earning would repair the damage and at least allow us to enjoy life by the time we reached 70.

A new study in the United States claims that even this later retirement date will be optimistic for many, especially those in low-paid jobs.

The Employment Benefit Research Institute, using 2007 as a benchmark, estimates that no more than 52 per cent of people aged 50 to 59 then would be able to have an adequate retirement income by the time they reached 65.

But this figure rose only to 64 per cent if they worked on until 70.

Of course these figures apply to the US, which has a different (and many would say highly inferior) superannuation regime to the compulsory superannuation system that operates in Australia.

We should be thankful for the fact that compulsory super exists in Australia. It would have been even better had the Howard Government not canned a contribution rise from nine to 10 per cent of income when it took office in 1996 and there is a compelling case for that figure to be raised to 12 per cent now. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The politics of rape

The US election campaign never fails to throw up its quota of candidates with wacky ideas. In the past climate change got its share. In 2012 it seems that abortion is back in the limelight.

Politicians on the far right of the pro-life movement – those who oppose abortion under any circumstances – are well aware that overwhelming numbers of Americans support abortion in the case of rape victims. This has led to some quite amazing statements as the candidates scramble to find excuses to justify their positions.

Tom Smith, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Pennsylvania, likened a pregnancy resulting from rape as similar to having an unwanted pregnancy from premarital sex. Something he said had happened to his daughter.

“She chose the life – and I commend her for that. She knew my views, but fortunately for me she chose the way I thought,” he said.

After close questioning from reporters on whether rape and premarital sex were indeed the same things he replied: ‘No, no, no, but, well, put yourself in a father’s position. Yes, I mean. It is similar, this isn’t, but I’m back to the original, I’m pro-life – period.”

Quite reasonably asked to clarify this remark he said the method of conception was not important, what was that it created a life.

Earlier, another Republican, Todd Akin, of Missouri, claimed that ‘legitimate rape’ could never result in conception as the victim would be too traumatised, essentially saying that any raped woman who became pregnant must have participated in and even enjoyed the sexual act.

This incredible statement drew fire from all sides of politics and Akin later withdrew the comment calling it rather appropriately “ill-conceived”!    

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Revisiting the death of journalism

Almost two years ago I wrote in this blog about the death of journalism, or at least the journalism I have known and loved for more than 40 years. I don’t think I have ever felt so depressed by a subject. In fact, it turned me off blogging and I did not make another contribution to Towards a Better Day until earlier this month.

With more time on my hands than I have experienced since my first job in the mid-1960s I have revisited the website and, tentatively begun to resurrect it. That article is still there, now two or three down on the list, and what it says seems just as relevant and prophetic at a time when heavy staff cutbacks have affected the newspaper where I spent much of my working life The Canberra Times in Australia’s capital.

In search of something new to say on the subject I came across the transcript of a speech by the Federal Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, until recently my local Member of Parliament.
In his address, part of The University of Canberra Public Lecture Series, Leigh analysed the problems and attempted to set out solutions to the malaise that professional journalism – and especially newspaper journalism – finds itself in today. He asserts that good quality, investigative journalism still matters, still influences public opinion and perceptions and, in some instances, can still change history. However, its voice is being smothered by, on the one hand, restructuring resulting from the continual leakage of advertising revenues to the internet and conversely, by the falling cost of getting a message out there that encourages everyone with an opinion and a computer to be a ‘citizen journalist’ (although Leigh never uses the term).  

“The big technological shift in media has been the falling cost of disseminating ideas. Cable and digital television have expanded the number of channels. Digital radio will have the same effect on that medium. Ubiquitous broadband has allowed news to be conveyed through a host of electronic media. Among Australian adults who are online, almost all use social media, with 76 per cent using Facebook, and 10 per cent using Twitter. About half of all Australian politicians tweet,” he says.

This has led to what he describes as ‘information inequality’. For people who seek the news, there has never been a better time, Press conferences are played live on television and radio, transcripts or reruns of programs missed can be easily obtained, thoughtful bloggers abound and tweets can provide the headline links to almost any subject under the sun.

But at the same time for the less engaged sections of the population, the result has been information overload. At one time everyone read the same newspapers, listened to the same radio broadcasts and watched the same television programs. For the people who were more interested in Lara Bingle than Laurie Oakes, something of Laurie Oakes filtered through. Now they can immerse themselves in a diet of Bingle, swimsuit models, celebrity chefs, with a good lashing of sport and be unaware, if not of the Prime Minister, then certainly their local MP.

“I believe that changes in the media are one of the factors making this group of Australians more disconnected from politics. In effect, technology has widened the information gap between the most-informed and least-informed members of society,” Leigh says.

He suggests a number of solutions without really recommending any: a stronger and more effective complaints mechanism; subsidies for genuinely quality newspapers; giving newspapers which subscribe to a code of conduct tax deductible gift status.

But the nub of these arguments concern politicians themselves. Ministers and Shadow Ministers have surrounded themselves in a cocoon of advisers who worship the 24-hour news cycle. The 10-second grab is worth more than the carefully explained policy. The story that makes headlines in the morning is dead by the evening. There is now a deliberate and determined attempt to dumb down the electorate’s consumption of news, to shorten attention spans. Slogans and catch-cries have replaced reasoned arguments and analysis.

Is this what the public wants? I believe it is not. But it is what politicians want because they know many of their slogans and catch-cries won’t stand up to detailed inspection. The new journalism is a golden age for the populist with a simple message.

Questions like ‘is it feasible?’ and “who pays?’ can wait until after the next election.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A very foolish man

Avigdor Lieberman has a reputation for being something of a loose cannon in Israeli politics. The Foreign Minister seems to be constantly in the headlines often for espousing policies that are at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud-led coalition Government.

However, Lieberman's latest move was a shocker even by the standards of the wayward Foreign Minister.

In a letter to the members of the Middle East 'Quartet' responsible for overseeing moves towards peace in the region - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, Lieberman called for the ousting of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the grounds that he headed 'a dictatorial government riddled with corruption' and was an obstacle to peace.

He proposed staging new elections in the West Bank to bring about a government that would be 'more realistic and legitimate'.

While no one really quarrels with his description of the shortcomings of the Abbas Government, the letter is a blatant intrusion into the affairs of the Palestinian Authority and comes at a time when the level of violence is beginning to subside.

In addition, an election held now could only have two possible outcomes - the reelection of Abbas or the emergence of a more radical administration led by Hamas, the current rulers in the Gaza Strip, increasingly popular among Palestinians but regarded by Israel as a terrorist organisation.

For the moment at least, there is no real alternative to Abbas, with all his faults, remaining in power and any attempt to tinker with that arrangement would be the height of stupidity.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tomorrow's Tory top man?

There is a rising star in the ranks of Britain's Conservative Party. Mark him well, because despite being in Parliament just two years he has designs on the Tory leadership and, at 38 has time on his side.

Dominic Raab wants to re-brand the Conservatives in his own image - and for many in Britain that picture would not be pleasant. He wants to truncate unfair dismissal laws, abolish the minimum wage and renegotiate The United Kingdom's membership of the European Union with a list of demands that would probably end with it leaving the EU altogether.

The current David Cameron-led Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is failing. Two years of  tough economic measures since its election in the wake of the global financial crisis appear to have brought little benefit. The economy stagnates, unemployment is high (for Britain) and the perennial anger with the European Union is reaching high water marks. On top of this there is talk that the Liberal Democrats, who have seen their popularity plunge since joining the coalition, may leave and go into opposition in the hope of regaining lost popularity. This has led to widespread speculation that the Government will not last until the end of its term in 2015.

If that is the case an early election would almost certainly see the return of a Labour Government that narrowly lost in 2010. It would not take much of a swing in voter sentiment to bring this about, but how Labour might deal with the malaise it inherits is problematic and there would certainly be very little in the way of a honeymoon period from an electorate remembering the last dismal years of the Blair-Brown administration.

This is where Raab may seize his chance to grab the Conservative leadership with a campaign rather like the Thatcher call for action in the late 1970s. A weak and indecisive Labour Government would be a juicy target and who would bet against a return of a new look, right-wing Tory party around 2018?

A lot of what Raab says is sheer nonsense. Britons are not, as he claims, among the worst idlers in the world, working among the lowest hours, retiring too early and with no interest in bettering themselves. Britain's work rates compare favourably with many of those in the EU and, further afield, Australia and New Zealand. The unions do not dominate working life in the way they might have done 30 years ago However, Raab's simplistic catch cries are music to the ears of the Tory faithful and - of course - to the big business the party needs to mount a successful election campaign.

Should Raab ever climb the greasy pole he will moderate his views in office. There hasn't been a Prime Minister in recent times who has not faced the need to compromise. But just how far he will be prepared to go - and whether he take his party and a majority of the nation with him - will be interesting fodder for speculation over the next decade. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

End this brand protection stupidity

Now that the London Olympics are over, isn't it time to review some of the ridiculous and heavy handed tactics relating to advertising and 'brand protection'.

Of course a sponsor who sinks millions of dollars into supporting a major sporting attraction does not want to see its main competitor getting a look-in for free. Of course genuine 'ambush marketing' has to be prevented for the good of the advertiser and the reputation of the organisers of the event who struck the deal in the first place.

But some of the lengths to which organisers go in their enforcement of branding restrictions are just plain stupid and verge on harassment. The latest Olympics have produced the usual crop, but there are instances that date back to the Sydney Olympics and even before.

Take the example of the corner Olympic Cafe. The Greek owner had proudly named his establishment some 25 years previously, but suddenly found that he was in contravention of legally enforceable branding restrictions and was ordered to remove the sign. After negotiations it was finally agreed that he only had to obliterate the 'O' of Olympic for the games period.

A group of ticket-holding football supporters were told they could not enter a stadium because they were wearing shorts that sported a rival brand to the sponsor of the tournament. They were finally allowed to watch the game in their underpants.

Pimms, a long-standing and beloved English liqueur, which is as much a part of the annual Wimbledon tennis championships as strawberries and cream, had to be renamed 'No 1 Cup' for the Olympic tournament because it was not a sponsor. Pimms did not want to put up signs or claim that it was in any way supporting the competition, it simply wanted to be on the drinks menu as it had always been. The organisers were firm in banning the P word.

The Goodyear Blimp became simply the blimp during the Olympics and journalists who turned up at the Games with Dell and Apple computers had to have the logos of these non-Olympic sponsors taped over.

The Australian team - who else - breached the blockade by smuggling in Kangaroo Condoms - for the gland down under - manufactured by Ansell, a rival of the official condom supplier (yes they even have one of those) to the London Olympics.

This last example is a healthy reaction to the over-zealous attitude to brand protection. Event organisers may claim that  advertisers demand exclusivity, but this should not be at the expense of individuals' freedoms to wear what they like (providing this does not contravene other laws relating to obscenity and racism), buy computers that they like, or drink their favourite tipple.

In the end, advertisers need the Olympic Games, the World Cup football finals and a host of other major events around the world. If they didn't they would not support them and the problem would not arise.