30 September 2010

From the maiden speech of Adam Bandt

Extract from the maiden speech Adam Bandt, Greens Member for Melbourne, delivered in Federal Parliament today Thursday 30 September:

Ironically, it is usually those who want the fewest barriers for money to move across borders who want to build the strongest walls to stop people doing the same. But when we lock asylum seekers and refugees up indefinitely, in city and desert prisons, we have more than enough evidence that we destroy their lives and the lives of their families. There is a palpable hypocrisy in saying the threat is so dire that we must send our soldiers to fight in places like Afghanistan, and yet when people flee that threat we close the door on them.

29 September 2010

Non-sequitur in Treasury’s approach to infrastructure

There seems to me to be a non-sequitur in Treasury’s advice regarding infrastructure in its incoming government brief as reported by John Kehoe in the 28 September 2010 edition of the Australian Financial Review (see Treasury laments infrastructure mess on page 3).

I am fully in tune with the first couple of propositions:

Treasury criticises the lack of a rigorous, coordinated and long-term infrastructure plan by governments, especially the states

-  Infrastructure Australia has found it difficult to identify ready-to-deliver nationally significant projects for the government’s fiscal stimulus packages.

Indeed, I think the Opposition got off far too lightly in relation to the Howard Government’s abject failure to do anything about the nation’s infrastructure – yet another example of the Rudd-Gillard Government’s inability to communicate a simple story when it had a good story to tell. It allowed the Opposition to berate it from one end of the country to the other with tales of waste and mismanagement relating to school buildings and pink batts, but where were all the infrastructure projects that the immensely capable Howard Government had ready and raring to go, just waiting for funds to be available?

Where I part company from the Treasury is when it goes on to say:

The government’s capacity to finance infrastructure will be limited given its budget circumstances

- ...investing in the right kind of infrastructure and using infrastructure more efficiently...requires appropriate regulation and pricing, private investment, and contestable and competitive infrastructure markets.

-  [A] proposed overhaul of Infrastructure Australia includes ensuring rigorous cost-benefit analysis of all proposed projects...

-  [The Government should] enhance the national infrastructure pipeline, to provide a portfolio of potential investments for the private sector including superannuation funds.

My problems with this part of the brief are:

-  I have no sympathy whatever with the notion that the government’s “budget circumstances” place significant constraints on its capacity to finance infrastructure. This is a function of the current bipartisan political obsession with budget surpluses, which makes no sense when we speak of national infrastructure, which ought to be financed by borrowings and repaid by the successive generations that use it (generational equity, anyone?). The Australian Government has an immense capacity to borrow.

-  Many infrastructure markets are not, and cannot be, competitive in any meaningful sense. If I am dissatisfied with the train service from my suburb to the CBD (I am), what do I do? Catch a different train to somewhere else?

-  Cost-benefit analyses are all good clean fun, but in order to qualify for the term “rigorous” they would have to take account of external, as well as internal, costs and benefits. In other words, we are interested in social costs and benefits, not just whether the revenue stream that can be captured by the operator provides a hurdle rate of return on the operator’s investment.

-  This is where the non-sequitur comes in. If we want infrastructure to be financed by superannuation funds, the cost-benefit analysis they will do can only take account of internal costs and benefits, even though many of the benefits (and costs) will be external, often manifesting themselves via impacts on the value of land.

There are other problems. Cost-benefit analysis of any major infrastructure involves non-linear mathematics and is acutely sensitive to the initial assumptions. To take a simple example, Westgate Bridge reached its design traffic flows years ahead of projections because its existence changed the pattern of settlement and land use to an extent that it induced a lot more traffic.

Transformational infrastructure like fast rail or the National Broadband Network will have so many unanticipated impacts on behaviour that anyone who talks about “rigorous cost-benefit analysis” is simply talking nonsense.

Then there are the bureaucratic tricks. The Speedrail project (fast rail between Canberra and Sydney) of the late 1990s was set up to fail. In undertaking its cost-benefit analysis, the private consortium was required by the forces of darkness to take account of all external costs, but not to claim the value of any external benefits.  This meant that, like the consortium before it that looked at fast rail between Sydney and Melbourne, it could not take account of the enhanced value of land in proximity to the track, and it could not bring to account the benefit of deferring or eliminating the need for a second Sydney airport.

I always thought that that one had more to do with the Howard Government getting a good price for Sydney Airport than anything to do with a rational approach to national infrastructure.

The bottom line is that if the Government wants private investment in infrastructure then “rigorous” cost-benefit analysis has nothing to do with it, unless we try to take account of social benefits through messy community service obligation payments and confusing allocation of responsibilities between the public and private sectors of the kind that has made Melbourne public transport the nightmare that it is today.

Classic Howard: attack a straw man

In John Howard’s recent address to the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation he deployed his classic tactic for attacking his critics – set up a straw man (words they did not say) and then attack that, rather than address their real arguments.

He said, inter alia:

There is a tendency to see a response to terrorism in terms of placating alternative philosophies in the hope they will accommodate you and abandon aggressive designs on your society…

For the record, my response to his response to terrorism had nothing to do with that, nothing to do with that at all.

My response to his response to terrorism is that terrorist acts, no matter how egregious, do not warrant:

(i)      Joining us in a war with no clear purpose (Afghanistan);

(ii)    Involving us in a war (Iraq) that was illegal, was against a country that had nothing to do with the outrage complained of (the attack on the World Trade Centre), and was just plain dumb;

(iii)   Compromising our civil liberties and the rule of law in this country; or

(iv)   Converting ASIO overnight from a security intelligence organisation to a secret police force with draconian powers and minimal training for its new role.

Any time Mr Howard would like to address those issues I would be interested to hear his views .

28 September 2010

Direct from Boggabri, for one night only

Thus did organiser and MC Philip Bailey introduce brothers James and Robert White, and Robert’s son Anthony, for one of the moments of sheer delight in the Gilbert and Sullivan Singalong which was staged at the TAS Old Boys’ Dinner on 10 September to celebrate the launch of Jim Graham’s memoir A Song to Sing-O – a rendition of “Three Little Maids from School”, which James and Robert had sung, with Graham Giblin, just fifty years previously, in the School’s 1960 production of The Mikado.

They didn’t ham it up – no nonsense about singing it falsetto or anything like that, it was simply transposed for male voices, a good song well sung:

It was good fun, and a wonderful reminder of that performance all those years ago, as captured in Jim’s memoir.  As the second photo shows, Bailey himself played Poo-Bah, as perhaps befitted the Senior Prefect of the day, and a very fine Poo-Bah he made.

By 1960 these performances were beginning to do a modest amount of touring. The photo below was taken on a trip for a performance in Inverell:

James White has been Visual Arts Master at the School since 1994, and is a well know artist in his own right, having become a member of the prestigious Australian Watercolour Institute in 1991. For more about James, see here and here.

For an earlier post on The Armidale School’s 2010 Old Boys’ Weekend, see The Class of 1960, fifty years on.

The photos from 1960 were scanned from Jim Graham's A Song to Sing-O.

To acquire a copy of A Song to Sing-O, please get in touch with the School’s Director of Development, Cressida Mort (cmort@as.edu.au). If you email Cressida, she will send you the book, and you can either send a cheque or ring the School and pay by credit card. The price is $45 including postage and handling.

26 September 2010

Latest acquisitions: the Amadeus Quartet

Collected from the local post office agency first thing on Saturday morning:  a 5-CD set of the Amadeus Quartet playing the complete Brahms String Quartets, Quintets and Sextets, and a 7-CD set of the Amadeus playing the complete cycle of sixteen Beethoven String Quartets plus the Grosse Fugue, both issued as part of the Deutsche Grammaphon Collectors Edition series.

I already had some of these recordings on vinyl, but not many, as I already had on vinyl the complete cycle of Beethoven Quartets, the wonderful recordings made by the Hungarian Quartet, and the Leon Fleischer-Juillard Quartet recording of the Brahms Piano Quintet. So I decided to see what the Amadeus had to say for themselves on this central chamber repertoire.

Having no interest whatsoever in the footy grand final I have managed to listen to all twelve CDs over the course of the weekend, and they are everything that one would expect and hope – wonderful, seamless ensemble playing of the kind that emerges only when people have been playing together for a lifetime and become completely attuned to one another so that the quartet seems to become a single musical organism rather than four individuals playing.

The Amadeus Quartet was born out of the hardships of Jewish displacement arising from the Anschluss and internment during the Second World War. The violinists Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel and Peter Schidlof were driven out of Vienna by the 1938 Anschluss. On the outbreak of war all three of them were interned as enemy aliens. Brainin met Schidlof in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Brainin was released after a few months, but Schidloff remained in the camp, where he subsequently met Nissel. Eventually Schidlof and Nissel were released, and the three of them studied under Max Rostal, who taught them free of charge.

Through Rostal they met cellist Martin Lovett, and in 1947 they formed the Brainin Quartet, with Schidlof playing the viola. They renamed themselves the Amadeus Quartet in 1948, and that year gave their first concert as the Amadeus Quartet at the Wigmore Hall, the performance being underwritten by Imogen Holst. The quartet disbanded in 1987 upon the death of Peter Schidlof. By this time they had made some 200 recordings.

For the Brahms Quintets and Sextets they have their regular collaborators Cecil Aronowitz on the second viola (Brahms wrote his quintets for a second viola rather than a second cello, which gives them their distinctive, more nasal sound) and William Pleeth on the second cello.  Christoph Eschenbach is the pianist in the Quintet in F minor op. 34, and appears with Karl Leister (clarinet) and Georg Donderer (cello) in the Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Violoncello in A minor Op. 114.

Karl Leister joins the Amadeus Quartet for the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet on B minor, op. 115.


Historical background comes from Wikipedia here.

Treasury to Coalition on climate change

The Treasury seems to have prepared some pretty blunt advice on climate change policy for an incoming Coalition Government, according to an article by Sid Maher in this weekend’s edition of The Weekend Australian (see report Big new tax only option, Abbott told here). 

I have been involved in the writing of these briefs for an incoming government and their presentation to the new Ministers. They are, properly, scrupulously polite. On the whole they take the announced policies of the incoming government as a given, and direct themselves to how those policies might most effectively be implemented. Only rarely are incoming governments briefed that the policies on which they have campaigned are, in effect, ill-advised, and when it does happen, as in this case, it is usually with good reason.

According to Maher, the briefing book prepared for an incoming Coalition Government warned that the commitment to reduce national emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2010 “cannot be achieved without a carbon price unless significant economic and budget impacts are to be imposed”.

The article goes on:

"A broad-based market mechanism which prices carbon, driving large-scale abatement through long-term investment in low-emissions technologies and changes in behaviour by both producers and consumers across the economy, is the only realistic way of achieving the deep cuts in emissions that are required," Treasury said.

"A market-based mechanism can achieve the necessary abatement at a cost per tonne of emissions that is far lower per tonne of emissions than alternative direct action policies."

The briefing said the sooner an emission trading scheme could be implemented the better. "Too much time has already been wasted - for which the Australian community will necessarily pay a high price."

Appropriately for parties that describe themselves as conservative, the Coalition parties, when it suits them, loudly proclaim the virtues of markets, often preceded by the word “free”, but this position seems to be ideological (faith-based) rather than analytical (derived from established principles) because they seem to struggle to understand what markets do, actually.  What Treasury is trying to tell them in the above paragraphs is Economics 101: the function of markets is to allocate resources efficiently, the corollary of which is, if you want to allocate resources efficiently, you will need to rely on market mechanisms.

Politicians behaving badly

It seems half a lifetime ago that we had Tony Abbott talking about a “kinder, gentler polity” and, even after it became clear that Julia Gillard had the numbers to form Government, declaring that the Coalition really wanted Parliament to function properly.

For example, at the 14 September media conference at which he announced his Shadow Cabinet (see transcript here), he said in response to questions:

- We’re certainly not going to be disruptive.

- I think it’s in the Coalition’s interest for the Parliament to be a well-functioning Parliament.

- I think it’s in the national interest that we have a far more independent Speakership than we’ve had in the past.

It is now clear that all of the above was simply part of Tony Abbott’s “whatever it takes” approach to politics, his preparedness to agree to anything necessary to get him what he wants, but all of it disposable if it fails to secure that end. The talk of a “kinder, gentler polity” came when he was seeking the support of the country independents, and it is now clear that the mask of the responsible parliamentarian that he was wearing at the announcement of Shadow Cabinet was an affectation associated with lingering hopes of persuading the country independents that in backing Julia Gillard they had make a big mistake.

Tony Abbott did not get what he wanted and now we see the real Tony Abbott, red in tooth and claw, as the case of longstanding Liberal Parliamentarian Alex Somlyay’s withdrawn candidature for the Deputy Speaker’s chair illustrates.

To understand the significance of what has happened to Mr Somlyay over the last few days it is necessary to go back to Annex A of the signed agreement between the Australian Labor Party and the country independents Mr Tony Windsor (New England) and Mr Rob Oakeshott (Lyne). This was signed on 7 September 2010, ten days before Messrs Windsor and Oakeshott announced which side of politics they would support to form government, so we may assume that an equivalent signed agreement exists between the country independents and the Coalition.

The relevant section of Annex A is paragraph 2, which refers to the Speaker. Here it is in full:


2.1 Independence

The role of the Speaker will be independent of Government.

If the Speaker is drawn from a political party then the Deputy Speaker will be drawn from an alternate political party and both the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker will:

•   abstain from attending their respective party rooms; and
•   when in the Chair, be paired for all divisions.

If the Speaker is non-aligned, then the same pairing arrangements would apply.

The Speaker and Deputy Speaker can participate in Private Members’ Business but cannot vote.

Members of the Speakers Panel will be temporarily paired when occupying the chair during votes.

2.2 Power of the Speaker

The Speaker will rigorously enforce the Standing Orders of his or her own motion.

That was back then.  When, pursuant to that agreement, independent Rob Oakeshott put his hand up as a candidate for the election of a Speaker, the Coalition raised doubts about the legality of the arrangement (something that doesn’t seem to have bothered them at the time they were negotiating with the independents). After a meeting with Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne, Oakeshott announced that he was no longer a candidate and accused the Coalition of moving away from the reform agreement that had been hammered out during the negotiations about who would form government.

Mr Oakeshott was more polite than I might have been tempted to be under similar circumstances.  He referred to the arrangement under which he might be Speaker as requiring “good will” from Members of Parliament. I think what he means is “honourable behaviour”, something he is clearly not confident will be displayed by the Coalition.

According to Coalition spokesman Christopher Pyne it wasn’t the arrangement that was at issue, just the legality of it. As reported by ABC News here on 21 September:

Mr Pyne says the Coalition does support the agreement, but has concerns about its legality.
"We've got to make sure it's constitutionally valid," he said.

"What we've asked the Government is for the Solicitor-General to give an opinion, as the correct person, about the constitutional validity of pairing the Speaker.

"We'll get that in the next couple of days, the Government will get it and they should make it available to the Opposition.

"Then we'll all know whether the speaker has a deliberative vote and a casting vote or whether that's unconstitutional and they can only have a casting vote."

The Government did what the Coalition wanted and sought the opinion of Solicitor-General Stephen Gageler.  The Attorney-General’s website summarises Mr Gageler’s Opinion in the following terms (see here), a reasonable summary in my view but if you want to satisfy yourself a PDF of the Opinion is downloadable at the link at the foot of the page cited:

The advice considers whether there is any constitutional impediment to a pairing arrangement between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and another member from an opposing political party. The advice deals with a possible arrangement involving a pairing of members from opposing parties.

The Solicitor-General has advised that there are no necessary constitutional impediments in such an arrangement, subject to certain provisos.

One proviso is that the arrangement could not give the Speaker a deliberative vote nor deprive the Speaker of a casting vote. The arrangement entered into by the Government and the Opposition does not breach this proviso, as the Speaker would continue to exercise a casting vote only, consistent with the Commonwealth Constitution.

A further proviso is that adherence to the arrangement by the “paired” Member could only be voluntary. The pairing arrangements agreed to by both the Government and the Opposition are voluntary.

The Government notes the Solicitor-General’s advice that there is no necessary constitutional impediment to a pairing arrangement between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and another member from an opposing political party.

The Solicitor-General’s advice has been provided to the Opposition.

Now of course the arrangement doesn’t suit and the Coalition is adamant that none of its members will sign up to be Deputy Speaker (not that anyone is under any pressure, mind, Christopher Pyne just knows that no-one would want to).

As I said in Tony Abbott has a point I think that the arrangements for pairing an independent speaker would become rather messy, but it was the Coalition that signed an agreement to this effect, and the Coalition that said “Let’s ask Stephen Gageler”. When the chosen arbitrator returned the wrong verdict the Opposition took its marbles and went home.

The point of this low-rent campaign to reduce the Government’s margin from two to one becomes clear when we see what the Opposition has in mind regarding the normal processes of granting pairs to enable Ministers to perform their duties and the Parliament to operate. The Opposition is going to reserve to itself the right to deny pairs to Ministers who are absent from the Parliament – always its prerogative, but only used as an act of bloody-mindedness.

According to a report in today’s edition of The Sunday Age (see here), the Coalition’s response to accusations by the Government that it was failing to act on a guarantee of creating a pair for its MPs absent from Parliament is:

But new Liberal whip Warren Entsch said he informed the government last week that in situations like pregnancy, genuine illness, bereavement or family issues, a Coalition pair would be offered to preserve equity in Parliament.

He said that when ministers were absent a partner would be offered when it was ''in the national interest'' and relevant to responsibilities.

''There'd have to be a bloody good reason for them not to be present,'' Mr Entsch told The Sunday Age.

Two points are noteworthy here:

(i) The Opposition is apparently going into business as a medical authority, because it will be in the business of deciding when a Government MP has a “genuine illness”.  There would appear to be some important issues here, not least the privacy issue – what information will a member unable to attend Parliament on grounds of illness have to provide to the Opposition in order to satisfy them that there is a “genuine illness”? And if the Government MP’s medical adviser counsels the MP that he/she is not fit (or would be unwise) to attend, but the Opposition decides otherwise, presumably the Opposition’s view will prevail? Will we see Government MPs carried into the Chamber on stretchers?

(ii) The Opposition is also setting itself up to be the arbiter of the national interest when it comes to Ministerial travel. This is an odd Constitutional notion for an Opposition that displays such delicate sensibilities about the spirit of the Constitution that it cannot form a pair with the Speaker even when the Solicitor-General says that there is no Constitutional impediment to doing so, subject to certain provisos.

The whole basis of our Constitutional practice is that it is governments, not oppositions, that determine the national interest. Each individual Minister has a commission from the Governor-General that makes him or her the lawful decision maker in relation to all legislation which he/she administers in accordance with the Administrative Arrangements Order, and all matters relating to his/her Department. That means by definition that if Ministers decide that their duties require them to be elsewhere, then that decision is final, subject of course to the views of the Prime Minister. We cannot have a situation in which lawfully empowered Ministers have to satisfy a test set by Mr Warren Entsch before they may be absent from the Parliament.

All of this is constitutes a very bleak outlook for the effective operation of the Parliament, which is of course the whole idea. Apart from the prospect of constant mischief about pairs (could the Government safely have the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister away as at present? – pairs are a purely voluntary, non-binding arrangement and could be withdrawn at any time, even after a Minister leaves for overseas), expect the Division bells to be working overtime. Motions are normally carried on the voices, but any member is entitled to demand a division, and it is a classic tactic for disrupting Parliament.

I had hoped for a significant improvement in the workings of Parliament when the country independents negotiated the reform arrangements, but I was overlooking the fact that Tony Abbott is a one-trick pony; he is a wrecker, not a builder.

23 September 2010

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs

The thirtieth anniversary of the 23 September 1980 invasion of Iran by Iraq seems as good a time as any to recommend a remarkable book about Iran and the impact of that terrible war: Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, Harper Collins, 2004. The title is an ironic reference to the rows and rows of headstones in a cemetery in Tehran where the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war are interred.

Bellaigue, an Englishman who lives in Tehran with his Iranian wife and writes for The Economist and The New York Review of Books among others, gives us a background to Shi’a Islam, modernisation under the Shah, the Iranian revolution, the origins and conduct of the war, the Iran-Contra scandal and the ongoing hostilities with the United States. These are all there, but they serve as a backdrop to street-level views of Iranian life, and insights into the lives of ordinary Iranian citizens, liberally sprinkled with the views of the people who had been involved in these momentous events.

The cover blurb gives a good feel of what this remarkable and moving book is about:

Beside the highway that leads south from Tehran, the necropolis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rises from the sweating tarmac like a miraculous filling-station supplying fuel for the soul. However, the paint is peeling even before the complex has been completed, and the prayer  halls are all but deserted.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution is out of gas; but what happened to the hostage takers, suicidal holy warriors and ideologues who brought it about? These men and women kicked out the Shah, spent eight years fighting Saddam’s Iraq, and terrified the West with their militancy and courage. Now they are a worn out generation.

In this superbly crafted and thoughtful book, Christopher de Bellaigue gives us the voices and memories of these wistful revolutionaries. Mullahs and academics, artists, traders and mystics – the author knows them as an insider, a journalist who speaks fluent Persian and is married to an Iranian, and also as an outsider, a Westerner isolated in one of the world’s most enigmatic and impenetrable societies.

The result is a subtly intense revelation of the hearts and minds of the Iranian people, and what it is to live among them.

21 September 2010

Why Intelligence Fails: lessons from Iran and Iraq

Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War is the title of a book by Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, published by Cornell University Press, 2010.

It examines in detail two major intelligence failures: the inability of CIA and the wider intelligence community to understand the turmoil in Iran leading up to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and the misjudgement of Iraq’s programs of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the period preceding the 2003 war.

Jervis had had a twelve month assignment as a scholar in residence with the CIA in 1977, and in November 1978, when the CIA realised that the Shah was in much more trouble than the intelligence community had appreciated, he was invited to return and appraise the intelligence effort – in particular, to examine the quality of the work in the light of the information that the analysts had available. The first part of the book is largely a version of his report, with necessary deletions (“redactions”) which he assures us do not change the story, and with contemporary commentary.

Then follows his analysis of the extent to which there was intelligence failure in relation to Iraqi WMD, and why it happened.

In his final chapter Jervis discusses broader issues of the contested relationship between policymakers and intelligence, in relation to which he makes the insightful comment that:

...despite the fact that decision makers always say they want better intelligence, for good political and psychological reasons often they do not, which is part of the explanation for why intelligence reforms are rarely fully implemented.

He concludes with a discussion of various reforms, “both those that are overrated and those that involve greater training and greater infusion of social science and are worthy of more attention”.

This book is no light read, but it well repays the effort for anyone who has a serious interest in the craft of intelligence, and how it can best support policymaking.

The amazing Rory Stewart

Roderick “Rory” Stewart OBE FRSL (Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature) is the Conservative Member for Penrith and the Border in the House of Commons, having been elected in May 2010. Prior to that he had a remarkably varied and adventurous career, culminating in a number of prestigious academic appointments including being appointed in 2004 a Fellow in the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, and becoming in 2008 the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights at the same university.

From 2000 to 2002 he walked alone across Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey of 6000 miles, during which time he stayed in five hundred different village houses.

The Afghan leg of that journey involved walking alone from Herat to Kabul in early 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban regime. Rather than opt for the conventional southern route via Kandahar, he opted for the direct route, which involved crossing the Hindu Kush in the depths of winter, accompanied only by the large mastiff that he had been given for his own protection early in his journey. In taking this route at this season he was following in the footsteps of Babur, the first Emperor of Mughal India, who had made the journey when his fortunes were at a low ebb early in the sixteenth century. Babur kept a diary of that journey, the Baburnama, a copy of which Stewart carried with him.

Stewart’s account of his amazing Afghan journey, The Places in Between, was published by Picador in 2004, became a bestseller, and won several awards. For anyone interested in Afghanistan, or travel, or adventure, or simply far-away places with strange sounding names, this is a memorable read.

A good overview of the amazing career (so far) of this man who has yet to turn forty can be found at his Wikipedia entry here.

20 September 2010

Tony Abbott has a point

I usually take with a grain of salt any commentary by Tony Abbott to the effect that he is concerned to see the next Parliament operate effectively.

Effective operation of the next Parliament is in fact Tony Abbott’s worst nightmare, because he knows that if the Parliament operates effectively there is a good chance that we will see a repeat of the experience of the Steve Bracks Labor Government in Victoria: after a term of minority rule, Bracks was re-elected in a landslide, and Labor has been governing in its own right ever since. In the present case, Julia Gillard will be the beneficiary of the quality control that results from a return to Parliamentary governance, rather than the presidential rule that has afflicted us for fifteen years or so.

If it all works out, this will mean that Tony Abbott’s political career peaked last month, on election night.

This is a serious risk for Tony Abbott.  Managing the minority government’s business through the Parliament will require, apart from good will and good faith, patience and negotiating skill, the former being a key ingredient of the latter.  During the seventeen days from the election to the outcome in which it became clear that it is Julia Gillard and not Tony Abbott who commands a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives on the key issues of confidence and supply, Julia Gillard, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott demonstrated that they have negotiating skill and patience in the required quantities, and I think we can safely say the same about Greens leader Bob Brown, the other key personality in making this situation work.

Tony Abbott does not have the required negotiating skills – he is too anxious for a quick result. That is why he is today the Leader of the Opposition.

As for wanting the Parliament to work effectively, I think we can see what he has in mind when he says that he is going to hold the Government “ferociously to account”.  This is Tony Abbott’s way of indicating that his approach to politics will continue to be to invent a Shrill New Slogan about Everything. People will tire of that long before three years is out.

All that said, I nevertheless share with Tony Abbott a concern about how workable it would be in the current environment to have one of the two country independents upon whom Julia Gillard’s Government depends, Rob Oakeshott, occupy the Speaker’s chair.

In principle the idea of an independent in the Speaker’s chair is a good one, but I have two concerns, aside from any legal or constitutional questions that might arise:

- The fact that, in order for Oakeshott to be able to vote for or against each Bill as he sees it, it will be necessary to make pairing arrangements for each individual piece of legislation. This will drive everyone nuts before much time has elapsed. Also, I am sure that when it comes to the point Tony Abbott will get up to all sorts of tricks with pairing, for which he will always be able to confect a reason and portray it as “holding the Government to account".

- The arrangement strikes me as being at odds with the notion that we want the Speaker to be a more commanding authority figure in the Parliament. Having a Speaker who has to negotiate pairing arrangements all the time, and is thereby exposed to the risk of getting caught up in Opposition antics regarding pairs, would not be a good look.

19 September 2010

Alex McGoldrick’s ‘A Memoir of Arabia’

My friend and former colleague Alex McGoldrick has just published his A Memoir of Arabia, an account of his time as Australian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia,  the Gulf Emirates, the Sultanate of Oman and the Yemen, from 1988-91.

Prior to accepting this post, Alex had had a long career as a senior officer of the Department of Trade, with postings to the Australian Embassies in Washington and Brussels, and was then appointed as Australian Ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. It was from there that he was asked to accept the appointment to Riyadh.

There are not many people sitting by the phone in Paris waiting for the call to go to Riyadh, and Alex would be the first to admit that he was not one of them, but he took up the challenge with characteristic good humour and he looks back on his time there with warmth, in spite of the obvious difficulties and the remarkable frustrations.

His timing was not the best: he was in Riyadh during the 1991 Gulf War, when the Iraqi Scud missiles were falling, but his having been present during such times adds to the interest of the tale he has to tell. An issue of less prominence but greater difficulty from Australia’s point of view was the extraordinary tensions that led to and arose from the 1989 Saudi rejections of shipments of live sheep, and the long-term suspension of the trade.

I visited Riyadh twice during Alex’s time there; first, in late 1988, in preparation for a proposed visit by Bob Hawke which did not in the event take place. The second occasion was in 1991, about two weeks after the fighting had stopped, when I came in as a member of Trade Minister Neal Blewett’s delegation and after a high speed car convoy to Taif to call upon the Kuwaiti ruler, who had taken up residence there, we all flew in to Kuwait on a Saudi Air Force C-130 (Hercules), arriving there on the same day that Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf first entered the city, thereby being the first Ministerial-level foreign delegation to visit that looted and burned city after the Gulf War. Alex himself had been in with his New Zealand colleague a week before.

This is a personal memoir, not a history, and as such it contains much to interest the general reader. It is a good story, gently told.

A Memoir of Arabia is on sale in the better Canberra bookshops, and is in the process of being distributed nationally by a major distributor. For those who are keen to get their hands on a copy promptly, it is available from the National Library of Australia Bookshop here at the Recommended Retail Price of $27.45.

The Class of 1960, fifty years on

The weekend of Friday-Sunday 10-12 September was Old Boys’ Weekend at The Armidale School (TAS) and for the Class of 1960 it was of course the fiftieth anniversary of the year we sat our New South Wales Leaving Certificate, and we decided to make it a big one.

After years in the grip of drought, Armidale has had some rain, and the School looked a treat:

The weather throughout the weekend was brilliant – not a cloud in the sky, calm, mild – 15.4 deg C max on Saturday, 18 on Sunday.

A group of us had decided that a fine way to commemorate the year would be to commission a painting by classmate Harry Pidgeon, and commemorate also our late classmate Alex Buzo, for which purpose we sought the participation of Alex’s daughter Emma who had kicked off Old Boys’ Weekend 2009 with her revival of Alex’s first play, Norm and Ahmed (see Norm and Ahmed go to Armidale).

We asked Harry to paint something that captured the feeling of an aspect of the New England landscape, but left him to decide how to give effect to that.  The result is stunning, Rising Moonbi, a painting in acrylic of the moon rising over a granite tor, so characteristic of the Moonbi range which rises so steeply to the tablelands from the village of Moonbi north of Tamworth, and of the tablelands country itself.  In early maps the village and the mountain range are labelled Moonboy, apparently a reference to the fact that the ascent of the first part of the range was so steep that the teamsters had to yoke the bullocks or horses of several teams to one wagon and haul them to the top one by one, an operation best performed at night, but for which it was necessary to have a “moon boy” walking ahead showing the way and scouting for obstacles. The painting represents also the brightly coloured birds which suddenly appear out of the rather dull coloured landscape.

On the Friday afternoon I went with the 1960 Senior Prefect, Philip Bailey, and with Harry Pidgeon, to the Hoskins Arts Centre to do the last minute setting up of the painting for the presentation, to talk to Headmaster Murray Guest about where it might best be displayed in the long term, and to talk to Pat Bradley, the School’s Business Manager, about how it would best be lit at the presentation function:

Pat arranged for it to be lit from a gallery above, with stunning effect; the painting glowed, but it was not evident where the light was coming from, or indeed that it was lit at all.

Needless to say, we paused for a photo-op; from left to right your correspondent, the artist, and Philip Bailey:

No photos by me from the presentation ceremony – being the MC for the occasion I was not in a good position to wield the camera, and I will post later any good photos that come to hand from the occasion.  There were two presentations: Harry’s painting, unveiled by former master Jim Graham (see below), who fittingly had started his 43 year career at TAS in 1956, the year that the bulk of the Class of 1960 had started secondary school.

The second presentation was a presentation by Emma of a photo of Alex from the 1970s, framed with a bio that Emma herself had written. Thanks to Visual Arts master James White for the photo.

I could not help concluding the presentations by observing that the Class of 1960’s most important gift to the School was Emma herself, as she will be taking up duty at the School from the start of next year as drama teacher and manager of the Hoskins Centre. For more on Alex, Emma, and the company Emma founded to produce, promote and perpetuate the work of her father, see The Alex Buzo Company.

On Saturday morning we had a casual brunch in Big School, which had been the centre of the School’s activities in the 1950s – assembly hall, place of Saturday night films, roll-call, exam room, and place of Saturday morning detention:

Needless to say we had invited Jim Graham, and a photo or two was taken:

Before we left we set up Harry’s painting there for the rest of the day, to be on display for the many visitors passing through:

We then went off for a tour of the School’s new trade training centre:

which is also a community sports facility:

After that we went to the barbeque on Back Field (Hoskins Centre in the background):

and watched the First XV play the Old Boys:

As none of us made the cut for the Old Boys’ team we watched from the sidelines:

 The Old Boys’ dinner was a treat, with the nice touch that the boys who handed around the canapés were wearing the Norfolk jackets which we were obliged to wear night and day, summer and winter. The Norfolk jacket did not survive the 1960s as the basis of the uniform.

At the dinner, Paul Griffiths launched A Song to Sing-O, Jim Graham’s memoir of 43 years’ involvement with musical drama at TAS (to acquire your copy see below):

Jim responded and delivered an amusing address about the hazards and delights of attending decadal anniversary gatherings of old boys:

After that, a Gilbert and Sullivan sing-along organised by Philip Bailey, with the willing participation of some of the current pupils, as well as girls from NEGS and PLC (a refreshing development, we didn’t see much of them in our day) and some stars from yesteryear, of which more in subsequent posts:

following which we retired to Lower Maxwell for coffee:

On Sunday morning there was chapel for those who were inclined either by conviction or nostalgia; girls from PLC & NEGS joined the choir:

followed by the annual Passing Out Parade of the cadet unit (participation in which was a compulsory activity in our time):

following which Richard and Lynne Bird turned on lunch for those who were able to attend, on the distinctly provençale terrace of their lovely home at the foot of the Devil’s Pinch a few miles north of Armidale:

where there is a granite tor just across the road:

Needless to say, before going our separate ways, we paused for a final photo:

And a good time was had by all.   Our special thanks to Cressida Mort, Donna Jackson and Shona Eichorn, who did so much on the spot, both beforehand and throughout the weekend, to meet our incessant demands and make the whole weekend run so smoothly.

And just for the record, here we are, the Class of 1960 as photographed half a century ago:

To acquire a copy of A Song to Sing-O, please get in touch with the School’s Director of Development, Cressida Mort (cmort@as.edu.au). If you email Cressida, she will send you the book, and you can either send a cheque or ring the School and pay by credit card. The price is $45 including postage and handling.