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.