31 July 2010

Confident, optimistic and forward-looking?

“We are a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people”, Julia Gillard told Kerry O’Brien on the ABC’s 7.30 Report last Monday 26 July.

That is not the way we strike me these days. We have done some confident, optimistic and forward-looking things, but most of them were a long time ago: establishing universities in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1850s, building the Sydney-Melbourne railway line, universal suffrage, female suffrage, the secret ballot, the Flying Doctor Service and more recently the Snowy Mountains Scheme. None of them was ever tested with a focus group.

A contemporary example of a forward-looking project is the National Broadband Network.

But consider the following:

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people ever tolerate an election campaign of the irredeemable irrelevance of the one we are enduring at present, with both leaders evading the issues of substance and drowning us in trivia?

- Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people get itself into such a state about a tiny trickle of asylum seekers? The prevailing attitude hardly has the heroic ring of Emma Lazarus’s poem at the Statue of Liberty:

 ...”Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore....

Rather, we are the huddled masses, cringing (most of us) on the southeast corner of one of the richest and most sparsely populated countries in the world, waiting with Prime Ministerially understood anxiety for the next boat to appear over the horizon 5,000 km to the northwest.

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people require to be reminded constantly by its political leadership that they are “doing it tough” but that the nanny state will ease their “cost of living pressures”? Of course there are people experiencing hardship in every country but these remarks are not addressed to them – we do very little for the genuinely poor, there are not enough votes in it. These remarks are addressed to the employed Australian middle class, the ones with houses, cars, kids and an array of consumer durables.

The notion that the employed Australian middle class is “doing it tough” is just plain laughable. Peer over the wall into the outdoor prison that is Gaza and you will see people who are doing it tough.  Go to a variety of working class neighbourhoods in the big cities of the United States, or visit a camp for Afghan refugees in Pakistan or Iran. Take a look around Calcutta or Bombay, or the slums of Manila.

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people be incapable of responding to climate change, even when opinion poll after opinion poll indicates that the public regards it as an important issue that needs to be addressed?

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people be as chronically incapable of investing in the nation’s infrastructure as we seem to be?  We snivel and whine about the urban sprawl and about congestion in our major cities, but when forward-looking people proposed construction of high speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne, or even just from Sydney to Canberra in the repechage event, the forces of darkness were hell-bent on killing the idea stone dead.  The French were forward-looking when they began the development of their high speed rail network, an investment that over time has transformed the way the country lives and works. To borrow a phrase from Nike, they just did it, rather than spend 25 years talking about it.

High speed rail could have a similar transformative effect in this country, opening up realistic options for providing for the inevitable growth of the nation’s population, and killing off short-haul aviation like the busy Canberra-Sydney route. 

And did I mention that governments of all complexions have been searching for the site of a second Sydney Airport since the 1940s, and that Mascot was only ever meant to be an interim location for an international airport (see the Parliamentary Library backgrounder here; see also my December 2009 post Déjà vu on second Sydney airport. Ennui too.)? I guess we could say that the governments of the 1940s were forward-looking; they knew that we needed a new Sydney Airport. It’s just that no-one got around to building one.

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people sustain over decades one of the lowest national research and development spends in the industrialised world, and ruthlessly suppress curiosity-driven research?  We regard R&D as a regrettable cost. Forward-looking people regard it as an investment. They know that not every research project will produce a patentable widget within the next twelve months, and they know that a proportion of it will not bear fruit at all.  But they know that the modern world was built upon a foundation of research, and much of the most important of it had no clear commercial return in view, just the notion that there are some things we should find out more about.

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people achieve less than the OECD average expenditure on education (between the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Lithuania on the 2005 data published in a recent OECD report) and a mediocre performance on tertiary education?

-  Would a confident, optimistic and forward-looking people regard the expectations of its major alliance relationship as being unexaminable, beyond discussion, even as trillion dollar budget deficits and the rise of other military and economic powers indicate that the military role of our ally must decline?

As a society I think we are looking pretty pathetic at the present time. I will begin to think we take ourselves seriously when we start to get serious about investing in education, research and development and transformative infrastructure (not just palliative care like too little too late tollways), and when we start to get serious about our changing strategic environment.

And we should remember that cannot expect others to take us more seriously than we take ourselves.

30 July 2010

A bit of economic competence would be nice

Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are presenting themselves to the electorate as superior economic managers.

Like Julia Gillard (and visiting Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz)  I think that when it comes to navigating our way through the uncertainties and risks of the Global Financial Crisis the Government has a pretty good story to tell.

But when it comes to debating economic concepts, neither leader has a clue.

In the course of a Senate Estimates hearing on 27 May 2010 Treasury Secretary Ken Henry said in relation to the Opposition’s suggestion that proposed Resources Super Profits Tax that might put pressure on the cost of living (1)

I learnt in high school in the study of economics that profits based taxes cannot affect prices.

Nevertheless the Prime Minister said during the “great debate” that the Opposition’s “levy” (an additional 1.7% of company tax for large corporates) to fund its paid parental leave scheme would flow through into the prices of goods purchased at Woolies and Coles.

Two points to be made here:

-  The Prime Minister seems to disagree with her Treasury Secretary on the question of whether profits based taxes can flow through into prices.  Does she, and if so, on what basis? Given that she does seem to disagree, how does she reconcile that with her profits based tax on the mining industry, which she says will not be a “great big new tax” as claimed by Tony Abbott?

-  When the Prime Minister made the point during the debate that the costs of his levy would flow through into retail prices, Tony Abbott was not sufficiently on top of the subject to challenge her on the consistency of her position with that of her Treasury Secretary’s sworn testimony at Senate Estimates. All he had to say was, “Hang on, your Dr Henry told Senate Estimates that he learnt in high school that profits-based taxes cannot be passed on”.

I have waited with bated breath all week for one of the economic luminaries from the Coalition (the ones who blather on unceasingly about “Labor’s reckless spending”) to make this latter point, but none of them can do it – not Abbott, not Joe Hockey, not Andrew Robb.

If he were not so bored by economics Tony Abbott could also make the point about the resource rent tax that there is no basis in economic theory for differing rates of company tax, otherwise there would be a misallocation of resources. Instead the Coalition demonstrates that it is in a parallel economic universe by prattling on about debt in the country with the lowest public debt in the OECD.


Is it because they are Brits?

The Prime Minister has told us all that when it comes to discussing the immigration program we shouldn’t feel constrained by political correctness, so I am going to throw caution to the winds and indulge in a bit of politically incorrect commentary and thinking aloud.

Like Suvendrini Perera in her thoughtful opinion piece Population debate hides an ugly racism in today’s edition of The Age, I believe that there is an underlying coherence to the current debate about population with its confusing references to crowded cities, asylum seekers, lack of infrastructure and a new-found concern for our fragile environment. 

The well-springs of this underlying coherence are, I believe, in common with Suvendrini  Perera, common or garden racism.  Both North Asia and the Indian Sub-continent are now larger sources of migrants than the United Kingdom, and I think that when Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott say that there are too many migrants, what they are dog-whistling to the western suburbs and rural Queensland is that not enough of them are of “the right sort”- not enough of them look like us.

There has been a strong streak of racism in Australian society since 1788, but it is also fascinating to reflect that this unworthy debate is being led by immigrants from the British Isles. One of my first supervisors and mentors in the Public Service, himself from the UK (Shetland Islands) and in his way an exemplar of the Scottish Enlightenment, used to say to me of British racial attitudes that in Britain a conservative is a person who believes that “the wogs begin at Dover”, whereas a progressive is someone who knows they don’t begin until Calais.

Are we seeing a bit of this here?

28 July 2010

What happened to professional public service values?

A paragraph of a news item about asylum seekers in today’s Australian Financial Review caught my eye this morning.  An item by John Kerin headlined Labor accused of dishonesty over boat arrivals commenced with an account of a familiar rant by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott asserting that the Government’s refugee policies were making Australia “a magnet for boat people”.  

The next paragraph read:

The Opposition was responding to reports that the government had been warned in April by immigration authorities that its high success rate for accepting refugees was a significant “pull factor”, with between 5000 and 10,000 asylum seekers expected to reach Australian waters this year.

One must make allowance of course for the possibility that the Opposition Leader is putting his own particular slant on what the Department of Immigration might have told the Government, but this story has a disturbing ring of truth to it, because we know that earlier this year the acceptance rate for Afghan asylum seekers took such a dramatic downturn that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees started asking questions.

If the Immigration Department has indeed advised the Government that the high success rate for refugees is acting as a pull factor, with the implication that the success rate should be reduced, then that would indicate a disturbing lack of professionalism on the part of the Department.  Departments are supposed to administer the law, and advise Ministers on what the law requires, without fear or favour.

Under the UN Refugee Convention, all refugees are entitled to have their individual claims assessed on the merits, without regard to what the act of granting their application might cause other people to do.  A refugee is a refugee. There is no provision for refusing refuge on the grounds that granting it might induce others to come. Accordingly, the advice as reported sounds more like telling the Government what it wants to hear than something in the finest traditions of the Australian Public Service.

It is appalling that the policy positions of both major parties are framed in a legal vacuum, as though the content of the UN Refugee Convention which we signed up to in 1951 did not exist. The only reference to the Convention which I have heard is the Government’s stipulation that offshore processing must take place in a signatory country. The Government is very coy about explaining why this is important, because it denies to asylum seekers important rights which they have under the Convention – the presumption that detention will be a last resort and will be for as short a time as possible, the right to undertake paid work at the going rate, the right to access the legal system. The Government seems to want asylum seekers to have these rights in the offshore jurisdiction, but is unwilling to grant those rights here.

25 July 2010

Alex Buzo’s ‘Macquarie’

This week is your last chance to see the Wayne Harrison’s new production of Alex Buzo’s Macquarie. It is being presented at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta by The Alex Buzo Company to commemorate the bicentenary of the great Governor’s arrival in the colony of New South Wales.  The season closes on 31 July, so don’t miss out. Tickets may be obtained by visiting the Alex Buzo Company’s website here.

For some more background on Alex and the company his daughter Emma founded to produce, promote and perpetuate her father’s works, see my previous post The Alex Buzo Company. See also The dam that Zihni built.

Strange priorities

Opposition leader Tony Abbott chose a lunchtime address at the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce on 19 July to make his first major speech of the election campaign – an odd choice of venue to my mind. The subject on which he chose to make one of his first major policy pronouncements was even more odd.  It was reported in the 20 July edition of The Age in a piece by Jacob Saulwick, under the headline Loyal to Israel despite killings.  Saulwick’s account reads, in part:

He lashed out at the government for flinching in its support of Israel, using his first big speech of the campaign to pledge fidelity to the Jewish state. He suggested the government overreacted to the Israel Defence Forces' attack on an aid flotilla that killed nine activists, while signalling that the Coalition would never side with United Nations resolutions condemning Israel.

"Of course the Israeli government does from time to time make mistakes," Abbott said. "What government doesn't from time to time make mistakes?

''I want to assure you that a Coalition government would never support a one-sided UN resolution against Israel to curry favour with an anti-Israel majority.

"And we would never overreact to any international incidents because we appreciate that Israel is under existential threat in a way that no other country in the world is."

Well, that’s got the Australia-Israel crowd on side, but it doesn’t do much for the rest of us.

We will leave aside the fact that the phrase “existential threat” is straight out of the Binyamin Netanyahu playbook, except to say that it is palpable nonsense – the reason why Israel behaves so badly is because, with one of the most powerful armed forces in the world, a substantial deployed nuclear strike force, and a demonstrated willingness to deploy lethal force at the drop of a hat, it is not under “existential threat” at all.

The important point for this post is the fact that Tony Abbott felt moved, from the outset of his campaign to become Prime Minister of Australia, to declare his undying loyalty to another country.

Julia Gillard made her feelings known a long time ago. She was Acting Prime Minister when the Israelis invaded Gaza, and while she condemned Hamas for shelling southern Israel, she pointedly refused to criticise Israel’s response. The Jewish Chronicle, 29 June 2010 (see here), quotes former chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress Isi Liebler as in the following terms:

A former leader of an Australian Jewish group, Isi Leibler, praised Ms Gillard’s election as “outstanding” for Israel and said she is “one of Israel’s closest friends.”

Colin Rubinstein, Executive Director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council welcomed her election in the following terms (see here):

Julia Gillard has our congratulations and best wishes on assuming the prime ministership of Australia.

We have valued the ongoing commitment she has shown with regard to Israel’s security and her understanding the complexity of the conflict and challenges Israel  confronts  while it seeks a genuine peace with its neighbours.

As Acting-Prime Minister during the Gaza War in January 2009,  her    resolute and principled  articulation of the Australian Government’s supportive position was much appreciated by the Australian Jewish community and all of Israel’s friends.

Having been to Sderot,( she was a Rambam scholar in November 2005),  unlike so many of Israel’s critics she  understood  and  defended Israel’s right and need to defend its civilian population against repeated and indiscriminate missile attacks from Gaza.

It is odd that we live in a country in which it seems that a prerequisite for high political office is to pledge undying loyalty to some other country, a country whose national security is supposedly under threat.

Odder still that neither of them seems disposed to disclose to us, even at election time, their thinking about how they propose to secure our national security.

What about Defence?

One week into the election campaign it is clear that both pretenders to the highest public office in the land consider that the only national security issue worth discussing is how best to deal with the trickle of lost souls arriving in our north-western waters. There are some other national security issues that I would like to hear from them about in order to be able to exercise an informed choice:

-  What is their position on the 2009 Defence White Paper and the Defence Capability Plan that was derived from it? Do they remain the basis for Australia’s defence policy and our defence force development?

-  In particular, do they agree that the principal task for the ADF is to deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia by conducting independent military operations without relying on the combat or combat support forces of other countries?

-  Do they agree, as the White Paper states, that this means that the ADF has to be able to control our air and sea approaches against credible adversaries in the defence of Australia, to the extent required to safeguard our territory, critical sea lanes, population and infrastructure?

-  Do they agree with the priorities contained in the White Paper, which prescribe that the future force of 2030 will be a more potent force in certain areas, particularly in undersea warfare and anti-submarine warfare (ASW), surface maritime warfare (including air defence at sea), air superiority, strategic strike, special forces, ISR and cyber warfare?

-  Will there be 12 boats in the next generation submarine fleet that will replace the Collins class?

-  Will they be designed and built in Australia?

-  Do they think that the enhancement of the Australian Defence Force that is contemplated in the Defence White Paper can be substantially financed by savings? (I do not – see Defence savings: the impossible dream).

-  The Rudd Government’s planning guidance for Defence is that its budget will be increased in real terms by 3% per annum until 2018, after which it will be increased by 2.2%.  Will this planning guidance remain after the election?

-  What do they have to say about the war in Afghanistan? What is the future role of Australian forces there? Please explain the connection of the war in Afghanistan to Australia’s national security, and set your answer in the context of a grotesquely under-resource war in which most of the ISAF (NATO) participants are determined to avoid conflict, a war which we seem to be in the process of losing.

There are many more questions to which I would like the answers, but the above would do for a start.  There is much more to national security policy than offshore processing of asylum seekers or “stopping the boats”. Please explain.

Climate change forum report issued

In Joint forum on climate change on the Australia21 blog I gave my extemporised summary of a high level group meeting on climate change and Australia’s response to it which was held at the Australian National University on 12 July.

The meeting, hosted by Australia21, Universities Australia and the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development, included some of the nation’s leading climatologists, economists, climate policy experts and representatives of Australian business.

The question under discussion was “What are the best available policy options for reducing greenhouse emissions in Australia in the context of the Copenhagen result and the delay of an Australian CPRS [the government’s proposed emissions trading scheme]?”   

The formal report of the forum has now been issued, and copies have been forwarded to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Australian Greens .  The executive summary appears below. The full report may be downloaded from the Australia21 website here, and the covering media release may be accessed here.

Executive Summary

Australia21, Universities Australia, and the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable
Development combined to host a high-level forum of twenty-seven experts in Canberra on 12 July
2010. The meeting was held in the context of a forthcoming national election. This Australia21 report provides an overview of the forum discussion and outcomes.

The purpose of the meeting was to define how Australia could most effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in the aftermath of the Copenhagen discussions and the deferral of the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The participants included climatologists, economists, social scientists and policy experts from a range of national institutions and businesses.

A brief review of the scientific consensus about climate change and Australia’s response to date reaffirmed that climate change is a public policy issue requiring urgent attention. Furthermore, far from being a world leader on this matter, Australia is now lagging behind many other developed and developing nations in producing mechanisms to mitigate and adapt to global warming. Yet the Australian electorate seemingly remains impatient for effective action.

The science clearly indicates that there is likely to be increased danger with increased warming and that in the face of grave risks and uncertainties associated with rising emissions Australia must move towards becoming a resilient society. There is the likelihood that feedback effects that are relatively unpredictable in their timing of onset could lead to ‘tipping points’ that would produce irreversible changes to our landscape and ecosystems, and place additional stresses on Australia’s regional and urban infrastructure and its food production systems.

It was concluded that plans for adaptation, mitigation and transformation must be developed in our national response to these changes, recognising that the climate of the future will hold the likelihood of ‘high impact-low probability’ events, of which the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a striking example.

Much of the discussion centred on the potential role of carbon pricing in constraining greenhouse emissions and the practicability of various pricing approaches, including different ways of moving from where we are now, to a situation where a carbon price would result in trading of emissions entitlements as well as real reductions in the nation’s emissions - which are still continuing to rise.
A known and predictable price will offer business a clear understanding of the future costs they face, and will also facilitate investment in innovation in non-polluting energy production. Pricing could be introduced without disturbing the budget bottom line and made appealing to the public and industry, if the property rights on emissions are distributed effectively.

There was firm agreement that a new national narrative on emissions reduction should be developed, and on the importance of depoliticising the debate so as to reflect the magnitude of the environmental, economic and social aspects of changes to our climate.

While regulation for energy efficiency and strategic roadmaps for alternative energy technologies are vital elements of climate policy development, the meeting concluded that Australia should develop a pricing and market mechanism to win the support of the vast majority of Australians. A pricing and marketing mechanism will reduce business uncertainty and increase incentives for investment, at the same time as it contributes to rapid and essential reduction in emissions. There are a number of ways this could happen, and it should commence now.

An independent institution to manage a carbon price could assist in informing a carbon market and in educating the community. Any such institutional structure should be at arm’s length from the political process in much the same way as the Reserve Bank manages monetary policy.

The group is concerned at the way this policy is currently being handled and urges all political parties to work together to produce an effective carbon pricing policy. All political parties should engage in the scale and management required to create Australia as a low carbon society – and to bring it into the centre ground of national public policy.

The forum has offered its support to all parties to assist them to build an attractive and common pricing mechanism into their policy platforms.

24 July 2010

We need to talk about Kevin (again)

In the course of the program launching the ABC’s 24-hour news channel on Thursday 22 July, ABC political editor Chris Uhlmann broke a story that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd treated Cabinet's National Security Committee (NSC) with "casual disregard".

The ABC quoted unnamed Commonwealth officials and Cabinet sources as saying they had been shocked at Mr Rudd's attitude to the committee, which is the key Cabinet body which makes decisions on defence and national security issues.  Mr Rudd had missed some meetings of the committee and on other occasions had kept it waiting or sent his chief of staff, Alister Jordan, to deputise for him.

Reactions to this report have ranged from outrage to a shrug of the shoulders.  I think it is a serious matter and raises a number of important issues about both national security and the way our country is governed, as well as shedding light on the style of Kevin Rudd:

(1)     I am shocked at the notion of a ministerial staffer deputising for a Minister under any circumstances whatsoever, let alone at a meeting of Cabinet or a Cabinet committee.

Ministerial staffers are not Vice-Ministers, they are personal staff - advisers and managers of the ministerial paper flow. They are not elected, they are not selected by any systematic merit-based principle such as one finds in the Australian Public Service, and they are accountable to no-one except the Minister who appointed them. Every political party in Australia is insistent that the personal staff of Ministers are immune from being called before Parliamentary Committees, on the grounds that they are simply advisers and the Minister is the one who is accountable.

Such a situation is barely tolerable when staffers confine themselves to their supposed advisory and facilitating roles, as anyone familiar with the Children Overboard case knows. When they go beyond that and begin to become actors in the political process, we have the perfect setting for plausible deniability: the Minister can claim that he/she didn’t know, or that the staffer misunderstood the instructions in some way, but the individual concerned cannot be questioned or called to account. John Howard raised this to the level of an artform.

(2)    The National Security Committee is chaired by the Prime Minister.  It meets only at his initiative, and at a time convenient to him. If an NSC meeting is called and then the Prime Minister is either very late or fails to show, something strange is going on.  At the very least it bears out the many stories that one hears about the chaotic processes of the Rudd Government.

(3)    The situation is the more remarkable given the former Prime Minister’s reputation for micromanagement. He certainly doesn’t seem to have been micromanaging the agenda of NSC, which suggests that he accorded it a low priority.  This is not the same as saying that he accorded national security issues a low priority, but it is important to note that NSC is the highest decision-making body in the land on national security issues, and the only forum in which all of the key players are gathered together and able to interact with each other simultaneously.

(4)    If anyone did need to depute for the Prime Minister, that person would be the Deputy Prime Minister, not a staffer. If there were something the Prime Minister wanted to inject into the meeting, the meeting Chair (DPM) would be the appropriate person to carry his message, and the meeting Chair would be the appropriate person to give him a debrief after the meeting. There is no need for the Prime Minister to send a staffer along to “represent” his interests, and given the complexity of the matters under discussion, a person who is not experienced in national security issues is likely to be an unreliable carrier of both the input and the outcome.

(5)    Given that Ministerial staffers are only advisers, one wonders why the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff needed to be there at all.  If the person he advises is not present, why does he need to be present? What value would he add?

(6)    Apart from the discourtesy involved in keeping some of the busiest people in the land waiting for hours and failing to turn up to his own meetings, the reported behaviour indicates a lack of basic management awareness. The time of these busy people is a scarce resource not only to them but to the government they serve. They can serve the government better if the government is careful not to fritter away their time (not to mention goodwill).

(7)    The situation makes me wonder also whether the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff had all of the security clearances that might be required for participation in anything that might come up at National Security Committee, and if he did I would wonder why. The Chief of Staff’s role is to run the Prime Minister’s Office, not to advise him on national security matters, and the Prime Minister has a National Security Adviser.  The Chief of Staff would of course be cleared to a high level, but access to the most sensitive national security information is rigorously compartmentalised on a “need to know” basis – access to it is limited to people who cannot do their job without it, and there is no access until the individual has had a detailed briefing on the sensitivity of the material and the instructions for handling it. I can think of many things that the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff would not need to know.

Kevin Rudd responded to the ABC report by having a spokesman issue a media release the following day. In my view the exculpation in the media release only made things worse – a classic case of “when you are in a hole, stop digging”.

(1)    The media release states that Mr Rudd attended “all critical meetings”.

This is an acknowledgement that he did not attend all meetings. How many of the 50 meetings which were held during the Rudd Prime Ministership were “critical” meetings? On my understanding of the plain English meaning of the word critical they can only have been a small proportion. Presumably there was a larger number of meetings that were very important but not critical – he does not affirm that he attended all of those.  And if they were not seriously important, why were they listed for consideration at Cabinet level? If they were not important enough for the Prime Minister to attend, why have a Cabinet meeting at all?

Also, we don’t know which meetings are “critical” until they are over. When you have forces engaged in military operations there is always breaking news.  I can recall some very important issues being raised at NSC without notice by Admiral Barrie and me, simply because they had arisen at short notice and it was appropriate to raise them and get an NSC decision so that we could take the necessary steps to deal with them.

(2)     It is actually acknowledged in the media release that Ministers were represented (the spokesman’s word) at Cabinet meetings by Ministerial staff – unelected, unaccountable. I never heard of such a thing. Of course there are times when the Prime Minister cannot attend – when he/she is overseas. In my experience NSC meetings were chaired in John Howard’s absence by Acting Prime Minister John Anderson, and they dealt to finality with the matters on the agenda. I never saw John Howard’s Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodonos at an NSC meeting, and I cannot imagine John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke or Malcolm Fraser permitting a staffer to substitute for a Minister at a Cabinet meeting. As for interstate travel, Cabinet timetables should be organised to fit with the PM’s travel program – and vice versa.

This last aspect is perhaps most worrying of all. If the culture of the Rudd Government was that staffers can substitute for Ministers, and that carries over into the Gillard Government, then heaven help us.  Assuming that Labor is re-elected, the Coalition and the Greens had better push for a Senate Inquiry to re-open the question of the accountability of Members of Parliament staff, last examined under a Coalition Government in 2003. My submission to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee on that occasion can be downloaded from here – it is Item 7 on the list of submissions received.

23 July 2010

We already have a Citizens’ Assembly

The Prime Minister’s announcement today concerning climate change is beyond disappointing.

After telling us here that the price of inaction is too high a price for our country to afford, she goes on to announce two pieces of inaction:

-  the creation of  “an independent, properly credentialed source of information and expert advice – a Climate Change Commission – to explain the science of climate change and to report on progress in international action”.

-  the establishment of “a Citizens’ Assembly – to examine over 12 months the evidence on climate change, the case for action and the possible consequences of introducing a market-based approach to limiting and reducing carbon emissions”. This is because she wants us to have “a real debate involving many real Australians”.

It is hard to know where to begin in commenting on this limp bit of decision avoidance, but here are some observations:

(1)    We already have a community consensus on climate change, established in the 2007 Federal Election. Both major parties promised us in 2007 that if elected they would introduce an emissions trading scheme, and of course the Greens were in favour. If ever there was a mandate for a government to actually do something, this was it.

To the extent that the mandate proved “fragile” it was because the Government, having joined the Garnaut inquiry process while in opposition, shredded the consensus established by Professor Garnaut’s widespread consultation by consulting everyone all over again and in the process initiating a rent-seeker’s picnic. It is hard to escape the impression that Kevin Rudd thought that the Garnaut Inquiry, initiated as it was by Labor State Premiers, was a wonderful idea for wedging John Howard but not one he wished to act upon when he found himself in office – he was motivated by politics not, as he claimed, by evidence-based policy.

(2)    We already have a Citizens’ Assembly – it is called the Federal Parliament. We elect its members through a regular, open democratic process and delegate to them the power to make decisions on our behalf. 

Why is it an improvement to have a couple of hundred of our fellow citizens selected by some mysterious process to decide on our behalf whether and when we are all ready to “move forward” on climate change? I am ready now.

And what is this reference to “real” Australians?  I was born in this country, as were my parents, grandparents and a string of ancestors before them going back to 1822, so I think I am entitled to think of myself as a “real” Australian, but I suspect that having a couple of university degrees and senior level policy experience disqualifies me from being considered “real “ in this context. An odd position for a Prime Minister who proclaims the virtues of education to take.

(3)    Why do we need a new “independent” body to “report on progress in international action”? Why can’t it be done by our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with its network of embassies in every country that matters on this issue, plus the Department of Climate Change?

(4)    Why do we need an “independent, properly credentialed source of information and expert advice” to explain the science of climate change?  To the extent that we need to explain this issue to the public (and we do), isn’t that the job of the Minister for Climate Change and her Department – perhaps with a few tens of millions of dollars worth of government advertising thrown in?

(5)   To the extent that we need an “independent, properly credentialed source of information and expert advice”, what about the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee, led by the Chief Scientist of Australia, the very able Professor Penny Sackett? What about the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), one of the most trusted public institutions in Australia?

(6)   Why is it that every time we want to consider a new issue (not that this one is new), we have to set up a gaggle of new bodies that have to start from scratch – recruiting staff, finding a place to sit, printing business cards, designing their letterhead etc.?

(7)    We already know everything we need to know about this issue – about the science, the timescale within which we need to act, the various policy choices for pricing carbon. What we need now is a government that is prepared to take some decisions – to get on with the responsibilities of government.

22 July 2010

Molan and Barratt on Afghanistan

On Wednesday 7 July Major-General (Retd.) Jim and I discussed the prospects for the war in Afghanistan at the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This session was video-taped by Slow TV (www.slow.tv.com.au) and has today been posted on the Slow TV website.  It may be viewed or downloaded in Flash Video or MP3 audio here.

Cordesman on Afghanistan

Below is the official ABC transcript of an interview between ABC TV’s Tony Jones and Anthony Cordesman, co-director of the Middle East program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It went to air on ABC TV’s Lateline program and is reproduced in full because it contains a number of important insights into how the situation in Afghanistan came to be as it is, what current US policy really is, and how it might evolve from here. Rather than attempt to summarise it, and risk putting words in Cordesman’s mouth, I give you his views as he stated them.

The original transcript can be seen on the ABC website here.

ABC Transcript

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: David Cameron and Barack Obama may be on the same page when it comes to an Afghanistan exit strategy, but according to our next guest, the conduct of the war has ramifications which will continue long past the 2014 date set for Afghans to take over their own security.

Anthony Cordesman is the co-director of the Middle East program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and his latest assessment on the war in Afghanistan is a scathing indictment of US policy. He joins us now in our Washington studio.

Thanks for being there.


TONY JONES: As strategists argue over whether the war in Afghanistan is winnable, you've described the conduct of it as one of the worst examples of war-time leadership in American history. Tell us why.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Well first, let me be very careful. What I described was what happened between 2001 and 2009. The fact is that the United States did not have a strategy. It did not resource the war, it did not provide the troops it needed, it didn't put the proper pressure on Afghanistan, it did not manage the aid effort.

It basically flooded money into the country in ways which were a primary source of corruption. It never provided the resources or the trainers to create effective Afghan forces. Now beginning in the middle of 2009, a lot of that changed, and part of the problem we face is those changes take time.

You can't waste eight years in a war and suddenly turn things around overnight. So we're getting all kinds of deadlines that aren't really deadlines. We're really creating an experiment in civil military operations now for which, in many cases, we have no clear precedents. So I think we need to make a very careful distinction. We made very serious mistakes in the past. We've made a new beginning. That beginning will take more time than many politicians like, and we really don't know the outcome yet.

TONY JONES: Do you blame - obviously, the majority of that eight years was under George W Bush, but do you blame both presidents for mismanagement?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think it's difficult to blame presidents. A lot of these problems occurred because of weaknesses within the Department of Defense. There is failure, almost a complete failure, of leadership within the State Department to even engage in the war in realistic terms at the top, not in the field.

And there were very serious weaknesses in the National Security Council which focused on Iraq. You can't personalise this. It was a broad failure in the United States' national security structure.

But it is a failure which in many ways has been corrected, and you now have a level of leadership, particularly in the country team in Afghanistan, which offers significant hope, that you can turn this war around.

TONY JONES: Do you regard president Obama's chief sin, if he has one, in the conduct of the war, as his setting of this arbitrary deadline for withdrawal of American troops beginning from July next year?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think we need to be very, very careful. The president had a speech written which put that deadline in largely for domestic political purposes to deal with his own party. From the start, that deadline said it was conditions based - that there might be almost no meaningful reductions in 2011 - but it has been misinterpreted virtually all over the world as some kind of deadline for significant US withdrawals.

And it's been misinterpreted in spite of the fact the secretary of state, secretary of defence, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, all clarified it within 48 hours of the speech. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you send the wrong signals, and the president did that.

But he also has made repeated efforts to correct it, and when president Karzai came to Washington, he referred again and again to an enduring strategic partnership; he made it clear this was not a deadline in any rigid sense.

The problem we have here is there is a large scale desire on the part of many countries to leave as soon as possible, and many see the American signal as what they would like to have happen, and not what the president said.

TONY JONES: We've just seen Afghanistan's first major international conference. President Karzai, who's been backed largely even though he's a beleaguered president, says his own deadline for Afghan security forces to take over is now 2014. Is that a realistic deadline?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: There's no real way to know at this point. One thing we have to understand is at the start of this year, having set all of these goals to expand Afghan forces, we had exactly 23 per cent of the trainers and partners needed to train that force.

Now the number has sharply risen, largely as a result of US deployments, but we're still chronically short, not only of trainers, but of the resources and facilities. A lot of those won't be fully operational until this fall. Can we meet the goal?

First, it's not a real goal in any sense. You're talking about a formal transfer of responsibility in which there will still have to be very significant US and allied forces, and where virtually all of the money to pay for Afghan forces will still have to come from the outside.

It's like the other goal: the idea that somehow 50 per cent of the aid goes through the central government. It's a nice goal, but the fact is that depends on an anti corruption drive that hasn't begun, and in the real world what's actually happening is you're putting significantly more aid money into honest Afghans at the provincial, district and local level and bypassing the central government.

So this was a nice exercise in political symbolism, but to make it real is going to be something, at best, that's going to take several years.

TONY JONES: Here's another recent quote, a quote from your latest assessment: "It's time to stop demonising Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda and focus on the broader threat." What are you getting at?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think part of our problem is we keep looking at Al Qaeda, but everyone knows that given the demographics, the poverty, the lack of effective secular government, in much of the Islamic world, Central Asia, the Gulf, North Africa, there are going to be continuing Islamist extremist movements, which will have a violent terrorist character.

And those are not going to disappear when you get rid of Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. You have to look at what is a mix of different movements, some of which are affiliated with Al Qaeda and some of which are not. You have to look at the causes behind this extremism and terrorism. If this turns into a hunt for Bin Laden, and to some extent it has, it's a little like the hunt for Aidid in Somalia.

You miss the point. Even if you win, you haven't done enough with the broader threat to really contain or limit it.

TONY JONES: It's interesting to hear the language, though: "It's time to stop demonising Bin Laden and Al Qaeda." Could you imagine having even gotten away with saying that in the years straight after September 11? Have things changed enough that you can now reconsider policy to that degree?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think many counter-terrorism experts made it very clear from the start that the political tendency to focus only on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda missed what the real threat, the real set of forces affecting this part of the world, really were, and if you go back and look you'd find, for example, that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in describing what he called the long war - and this was back in 2001 - warned that these threats would be enduring, that they weren't tied to Bin Laden, that they weren't tied to Al Qaeda.

If you look at virtually any report on terrorism or counter terrorism, you see that this talks about a host of movements scattered throughout the world and not simply Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. I think the problem has been political; it's far easier to communicate in terms of one name, and in terms of media, where you take a complex story and you pin it down to one set of names, rather than covering what's really happening.

TONY JONES: The Taliban are also a complex story. Is it time for the United States to stop simplifying that issue and to allow serious negotiations with elements of the Taliban?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think we need to be very careful. The United States has never opposed negotiation with elements of the Taliban. What it has done is press hard to not negotiate with extreme elements of the Taliban like the Haqqani network or Sheikh Omar. It's also pushed hard in Afghanistan, as has Australia and every member of ISAF, that if you're going to talk about reconciliation, you have to have facilities in place, you have to have programs in place - this can't be a matter of words or paper agreements which basically end up empowering an enemy which still thinks it's winning.

So the real question is not whether we should negotiate with the Taliban; it's negotiate effectively and to clearly distinguish between the elements we can deal with and the elements which are so extreme that no matter what happens, they will never honour an agreement.

TONY JONES: To go much broader, your conclusion is we have to get to grips with the sheer scale, as you put it, of the US mistakes in Afghanistan that led to the rise of the insurgency there, because we're likely to see a century of wars just like this in failed or failing states.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think that's a grim conclusion. I wish I could say that we had the ability to reverse all of these structures country by country, but the fact is that sheer demographic pressure alone means that much of this will continue to get worst in at least some countries through 2050.

The people, in some ways, are already born; the models are already there. We look at places like Yemen or Somalia, we look at countries where the population pressures, the economy, the failure of secular government threatens the State, and they extend from essentially North Africa into Sub-Saharan Africa, across Central and South Asia into East Asia.

We have to understand that this is not just one or two countries or movements, and if we're going to deal with this we have to be willing to work with the moderate states and moderate regimes. We have to look beyond counter-terrorism to the problem of a broader approach to dealing with foreign aid, with helping these countries develop and cope with these population problems.

The history of things is that we have often paid lip service to these kinds of issues and focused on narrow counter-terrorism. If that happens, then we do face an almost indefinite future with one extremist movement after another.

TONY JONES: Briefly on this point, do you think this president and this state department are capable of doing what you want them to do?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think this president has made a beginning. I think secretary Clinton has attempted for the first time to actually reorganise the State Department in ways which would actually enable it to cope with these issues.

But the exercise that she has initiated, which has a rather peculiar acronym: the QQDR, is so far not really producing any clear plans for action. We made progress inside Afghanistan in the country team there - in Pakistan - we are now attempting to reorganise part of the effort in Iraq.

But in broad terms, has the State Department come to grips with this, or the National Security Council? The honest answer is I don't think anyone in Washington believes they have.

TONY JONES: We're nearly out of time, and for a very big question I'm about to ask you: on war in Afghanistan you say there are still two big questions: is it worth fighting? Can it be won? Do you have answers to both of those?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think if we fully implement the strategy that the president and NATO recommended; if we really concentrate on anti-corruption, on civil military operations, on ensuring we really have a population-orientated strategy, we properly resource it, we do not support corruption and power brokers, and we deal with Pakistan effectively, the answer is this is still winnable.

But if we only focus on the threat and we don't correct the broader problems that built up over the last eight years, then this is not a winnable war.

TONY JONES: Anthony Cordesman, we'll have to leave you there. Once again, we thank you very much for joining us tonight.