Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jaitley's last push for a GST

Winter is coming to New Delhi. With the daytime temperatures falling under 30degC and slipping into the teens at night, the capital is already shrouded in smoke from thousands of fires.

The weather may be cooling, but the temperatures are still high over at Parliament where the Government is seeking to use the 20-day winter session to push through a host of Bills to round off the year.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition is desperate to see 2015 off on a high note after controversies over the antics of some of its right-wing nationalist supporters and the mauling it took in the State election of Bihar.

The Government has a raft of Bills it wants to see passed, the jewel in the crown being the long delayed legislation to introduce the country’s first Goods and Services Tax (GST).

In Singapore on the latest of a string of overseas visits, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told potential investors that he wanted to see the GST in place by April 1 next year. His message was that despite setbacks, the economy was set to expand even faster than its current seven per cent annually.

“Runways for the take-off of the economy have been made; reforms are happening in a big way that will transform the system and help people realise their dreams,” Modi told a meeting of the India Singapore Economic Convention.

He said reforms already in place had made India the most open economy in the world.  

However, as the Prime Minister was talking up India’s prospects overseas, back home the BJP is facing an Opposition revitalised after the Bihar result and convinced that the ‘Modi Magic’ is on the wane.

The man charged with steering the GST Bill though both Houses of Parliament (Opposition parties have a majority in the Upper House, the Rajya Sabha) is the Minister of Finance, Arun Jaitley, widely considered the most capable of Modi’s lieutenants.

Jaitley has said he is willing to compromise over some aspects of the GST legislation but not over a key demand of the Opposition Congress Party that the rate be constitutionally capped at 18 per cent.

The Finance Minister has said that including a set rate as part of the constitutional amendment needed to bring the GST into law would make it unnecessarily difficult to move the rate either up or down in response to future market developments.

Because of the mechanisms needed to bring about the abolition of more than a dozen State taxes the GST will replace, it is crucial that the legislation be passed in the current session. Most commentators believe that while the Opposition may go to the wire with a number of amendments, this time the Bill will get through.

“Jaitley has thrown everything into this — it’s the biggest tax reform in India’s history,” one said. “If he can’t get it though, nobody can.” 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

It's Widodo who should be building bridges

Most of us would have seen the pictures of the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, jollying along with his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, earlier this month, together with the accompanying reports that Turnbull was “rebuilding damaged ties” caused by the execution of Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in April.

It is, of course, inevitable that Australia-Indonesia relations will normalise. Individual can, and will, harbour grudges. Nations cannot afford to do so.

However, I found it demeaning that it was Turnbull who had to do the bridge-building; that the impression given was of a naughty boy who had to apologise for daring to question Indonesia’s right to put who they choose  up against a wall and pump bullets into them.

Given that it was Widodo who was the prime mover in these legalised murders – he could have stopped them with the stroke of a pen – I would have thought he should also be doing his share of apologising; or at least recognising that Australia’s abhorrence of the death penalty might have upset a good number of its citizens and he understood that.

He could at least have apologised for the way his minions thought it was all a big joke (remember the pictures of Chan and Sukumaran taken with their jailers on their way to the execution site?) Perhaps he might have said that on reflection the trademark grin he was wearing when he signed the death warrants was just a tad tasteless.

Instead it’s business as usual in Indonesia with the Chief of the National Narcotics Bureau, Budi Waseso, stating simple executions are no deterrent (a revelation that could have come to him much earlier if he had read any of the research done on the use of the death penalty in any number of jurisdictions the world over).

In a rambling speech at a stage-managed display of the Bureau’s latest drug haul, Waseso said convicted drug traffickers should be force-fed drugs until they are dead.

“The prisons get more crowded, the numbers of prisoners increase, the capacity of prisons is limited, so we must think of solutions and when these perpetrators have the intention to kill, and they commit mass and premeditated murders, then to ensure the country is not at lost, then let these people pay the consequences of what they’ve done,” was just part of what he said.

The drugs were then burnt so they did not “grow feet” and walk out of police storage – a ringing endorsement of the nation’s law enforcement officers.

Equally of the prison system where, he said, convicted drug smugglers carried on their trade, even on death row; or indeed of his own Bureau as sufficient narcotics still get though his net to satisfy the needs of Indonesia 2.5 million regular users.

Waseso has an answer for this failure – it is his country’s “geography” and “democracy” that can be blamed for the easy entry of the drugs.

Democracy is the problem. Ah, now  we can see where he is coming from ; anyone so enamoured with medieval-style torture techniques would obviously see democracy as a hindrance to the  solutions he so wants to implement.

And just to keep the record straight, I do believe drug smugglers should be punished, short of blowing them away or force-feeding them narcotics.

I also feel we should never forget the factors driving that country to the north of Australia and the kind of people who are put into positions of authority there.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

South Sydney would be an A-League disaster

Very occasionally I am tempted into revisiting old ground to write a piece on sport and especially on the game I once played and still love, Association Football.

While I am no longer active in this area, I was a sports writer for many years and I have a long memory, that’s why I reluctantly feel I must contradict former SBS Television football guru, Les Murray when he says a club based in South Sydney — a third Sydney team in Australia’s premier A-League competition — is, in his words, a no-brainer.

Mr Murray has joined the growing debate over whether the New Zealand-based Wellington Phoenix should be thrown out of the competition and, if this happens, what would replace it to maintain the 10-team format.

He supports the removal of the Phoenix and states that Greater Sydney, with a population of 4.4 million, could easily support a third team in addition to Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers.

Mr Murray points to the extra income that would be generated from more Sydney derby matches and says that if Sydney cannot support three A-League teams there is something wrong.

Well I think there is something wrong with some of Mr Murray’s basic assumptions, but first let me pay tribute to him as one of the great figures of Australian football. If it had not been for his unflagging efforts the game would not be where it is today. He deserves every football supporters’ gratitude.

It is precisely this devotion to the game he loves and to which he has devoted his life, that has allowed a flaw in his reasoning. He passionately believes that what he calls the Beautiful Game has no equal and it is only a matter of time before all Australians see the light and turn to it.

I share much of his sentiments, but reality paints a different picture. Of the 4.4 million Sydney-siders a good many are diehard supporters of their favourite rugby league team, or of the successful Sydney Swans Australian Football League club, or of the NSW Waratahs rugby union side.

Or (shock, horror in this supposedly sports-mad nation) there are quite considerable numbers who have not been inside a sports stadium in their lives and have no intention of ever doing so.

Western Sydney is a place unto itself and the Wanderers would probably not be greatly affected by a third Sydney team, but Sydney FC Chairman, Scott Barlow has every reason to be concerned at the prospect, and coach Graham Arnold is correct when he says some of his club’s supporters would leak away.

Both have been slapped down by the dead hand of Football Federation Australia and Mr Murray counters with that old saying “you can change your wife but you can’t change your football team”, meaning that Sydney FC supporters would stick with the club no matter what.

That might be true of the United Kingdom, where the saying originated. Indeed I always look for the results and news about my home town club, even though it is a mile distant from the Premier League.

But it is not the case in Australia where fickle sports supporters will desert a club that does not provide it with continuous high-standard entertainment.

Change clubs — and even change codes. Remember basketball that was taking Australia by storm in the 1980s and is now virtually on life support, at least at elite level.

I said at the beginning that I have a long memory: Long enough to remember the hubris that surrounded the early days of the National Soccer League (NSL) as it expanded through the late 1970s and 80s at suicidal speed from the original 14 clubs to 24.

When the crash came the poor old NSL was in damage control for the remainder of its existence. No matter what it did, the brand was irreparably tarnished, and organised elite football had to start all over again. 

The idea that new franchises can be plonked down in an area just because a lot of people live there, smacks of those bad old attitudes.

I hold no opinion over the fate of the Phoenix except to say that I played football in New Zealand and it is a brutal, punishing market for any sport other than rugby union.

If Wellington must go I would suggest another overseas replacement from our own Asian Confederation — one based in Singapore or perhaps Jakarta could be invited as long as due diligence is done and financial support established.

Something like would be an embellishment to the competition — an injection of much-needed excitement — rather than trying to re-slice the already existing pie.


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pushing the boundaries of government secrecy

The Leader of the United Kingdom House of Commons, Chris Grayling, must be in the running for the most remarkable statement to come from the Government of David Cameron so far when he attacked journalists for using the nation’s Freedom of Information Act (FoI) to generate stories.

Mr Grayling said that journalists who researched stories through FoIs were “misusing” the legislation.

He said the Act was not designed for journalists; rather it was meant to be used by ordinary members of the public who wanted to understand the workings of government.

His comments have understandably brought on a storm of criticism, with the UK Society of Editors describing them as “ridiculous”. However, they can also be seen as the tip of the iceberg in an insidious campaign by those in power to keep increasing amounts of what they do away from public scrutiny.

In Britain the Government has set up an Independent Commission on Freedom of Information which many see as the first step to watering down FoI legislation.

Its war against the media was highlighted just a week ago when Junior Minister James Wharton urged his constituents to boycott their local paper, the Northern Echo because of its supposed anti-Government bias.

Australia now has the most secretive Government since World War II with information on its operations against refugee boats on the high seas constantly withheld “for operational reasons”.

Recently Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton refused to give information on the Government’s actions in the case of a Somali woman in asylum-seeker detention who alleged she had been made pregnant by a rapist. He said he would not comment “to protect her privacy”.

This was even though it was the Government’s treatment of her, rather than the woman herself, that was being investigated.

However, the media must take part of the blame for this deteriorating relationship. Cut-backs in the face of declining advertising revenues and falling circulations mean there are fewer journalists to do the work of holding those in authority to account.

As a result more statements — from governments, local authorities, police and private organisations — are being taken at face value. Highly-paid ‘media managers’ are having an increasing influence over what we read, hear and see.

Journalists who do question what is being presented are often met with a blank wall. Organisations know that a ‘no comment’ or simply a refusal to return calls will probably see off the over-worked questioner forced to move on to easier subjects that will quickly fill column centimetres or air time. 

I do not believe corruption is endemic among the Governments of either the United Kingdom or Australia. Compared to the goings on in some less fortunate countries their ethical standards are high.

But to suggest there is no role for the media to investigate or question their actions, or as Mr Grayling suggests, leave it to individual members of the public to find out what is going on, is to undermine a cornerstone on which our democracies have been established.