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Three thought provokers

These have come my way via Arts & Letters Daily.

1. "The Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan" by Nicholas Schmidle (Foreign Policy March 2009)

After eight years of a White House that often seemed blinkered by the threats posed by Pakistan, the Obama administration seems to grasp the severity of the myriad crises affecting the South Asian state. The media has followed suit and increased its presence and reporting, a trend confirmed by CNN’s decision to set up a bureau in Islamabad last year.

And yet, the uptick in coverage hasn’t necessarily clarified the who’s-doing-what-to-whom confusion in Pakistan. Some commentators continue to confuse the tribal areas with the North-West Frontier Province. And the word lashkars is used to describe all kinds of otherwise cross-purposed groups, some fighting the Taliban, some fighting India, and some fighting Shiites.

I admit, it’s not easy. I lived in Pakistan throughout all of 2006 and 2007 and only came to understand, say, the tribal breakdown in South Waziristan during my final days. So to save you the trouble of having to live in Pakistan for two years to differentiate between the Wazirs and the Mehsuds, the Frontier Corps and the Rangers, I’ve written an “idiot’s guide” that will hopefully clear some things up…

2. "Human Nature" by Mark Dowie (Guernica Magazine May 2009) — in the paradox and unexpected consequences department.

Is modern conservation linked with ethnic cleansing? In an excerpt from his new book, the investigative historian explores the concepts of wilderness and nature, and argues that the removal of aboriginal people from their homeland to create wilderness is a charade.

"One way to guarantee a conversation without a conclusion is to ask a group of people what nature is." —Rebecca Solnit, University of California…

3. "Fear masquerading as tolerance" by Christopher Caldwell (Prospect May 2009).

This article has resonance for Australia, but I suspect our experience with immigration and multiculturalism has been different from Europe’s in significant ways. Nonetheless I add this to paradox and unexpected consequences too.

…The Europe into which immigrants began arriving in the 1950s was reeling in horror from the second world war and preoccupied with building the institutions to forestall any repetition of it. Nato was the most important of these institutions. The EU was the most ambitious. The war supplied European thinkers with all their moral categories and benchmarks. Avoiding another explosion meant purging Europe’s individual countries of nationalism, with ‘‘nationalism’’ understood to include all vestiges of racism, militarism, and cultural chauvinism—but also patriotism, pride, and unseemly competitiveness. The singing of national anthems and the waving of national flags became, in some countries, the province only of skinheads and soccer hooligans.

Prompted by the US, which was addressing its own race problem at the time, and with the threat of communism concentrating their minds, Europeans began to articulate a code of ‘‘European values’’ such as individualism, democracy, freedom, and human rights. These values were never defined with much precision. Yet they seemed to permit social cohesion, and their embrace coincided with 60 years of peace.

Europe was an attractive place for immigrants. But attraction and admiration are not synonyms. The Ottoman empire and China both had a ‘‘power of attraction’’ for westerners in the 19th century. But it was not out of any admiration for their systems of government or their ideals of human rights that Europeans signed treaties with, settled in, and disrupted the national lives of those two countries. It was because they were rich places too weak to look out for themselves.

The EU was not dreamt up with immigrants in mind, but it wound up setting the rules under which they were welcomed. Postwar Europe was built on an intolerance of intolerance—a mindset that has been praised as anti-racism and anti-fascism, and ridiculed as political correctness. Our interest here is neither to defend it as common sense nor reject it as claptrap. It is to understand, first, what Europe was thinking when it welcomed immigrants in such numbers—something it would not have done at any previous moment in history—and, second, what grounds Europe had for dealing with newcomers in the often naive and overindulgent way it did…

 

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Pondering the Defence White Paper

There has been so much said about the latest Australian Defence White Paper that I haven’t much to add, except that it would be a good idea to actually read the thing. Some of those below clearly have and some haven’t.

I am not at all surprised by some of the things therein. For example, it is hardly surprising that it takes into account the various larger countries in our region, which I see as inevitable rather than anti-Asian. Who’s to say what may happen over the next twenty-one years? It may be we find ourselves working closely with China in certain circumstances, complementing their superior forces with our own, or we may find ourselves working with Indonesia, or India, or whoever. The USA may well not be such a power in our region by 2030. We can hardly project no change in our defence capability by 2030, can we? Of course there is a very good chance, personally, that I will be dead by 2030 so won’t get to see our shiny new military gear, and it may also well be that costs and dates will blow out so that some of it doesn’t arrive in due time.

But can you imagine in 2030 our having our present capability unchanged, whoever is in government? Imagine someone in 1920 planning ahead to 1941. They didn’t, of course…

tmphoto

Here’s a selection of posts:

 

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Counting the unemployed

I have raised this issue before: Unemployment rate: fact or fiction? Then (2006) I noted: “I still am amazed that people like Howard can keep a straight face when they talk about the subject.” The Australia Institute has drawn attention to this again.

unemploymentThe criteria for “employment” include having worked for pay for ONE hour in the past week. See the Australian Bureau of Statistics for this and other criteria. These have not changed under the present government.

3.9 The definition of employment used in the Labour Force Survey aligns closely with the concepts and international definitions outlined above. Employed persons are defined as all persons 15 years of age and over who, during the reference week:

  • worked for one hour or more for pay, profit, commission or payment in kind, in a job or business or on a farm (comprising employees, employers and own account workers); or
  • worked for one hour or more without pay in a family business or on a farm (i.e. contributing family workers); or
  • were employees who had a job but were not at work and were:
      • away from work for less than four weeks up to the end of the reference week; or
      • away from work for more than four weeks up to the end of the reference week and received pay for some or all of the four week period to the end of the reference week; or
      • away from work as a standard work or shift arrangement; or
      • on strike or locked out; or
      • on workers’ compensation and expected to be returning to their job; or
  • were employers or own-account workers, who had a job, business or farm, but were not at work.

However, it must be said that this highly unrealistic definition is in fact a basic standard set by the International Labour Organization. That I had not taken into account in my earlier entries.

Compare the US Bureau of Labor Statistics How the Government Measures Unemployment. The US figures are based on similar criteria to ours, except they start the count at age 16 and have a different attitude to family businesses.

…employed persons are:

  • All persons who did any work for pay or profit during the survey week.
  • All persons who did at least 15 hours of unpaid work in a family-owned enterprise operated by someone in their household.
  • All persons who were temporarily absent from their regular jobs because of illness, vacation, bad weather, industrial dispute, or various personal reasons, whether or not they were paid for the time off.

From that site you can also get a useful and up-to-date international summary.

Nonetheless, The Australia Institute is quite right. Unemployment figures are a partial truth at best. Real experience is somewhat different.

 

On OzPolitics and Bishop Holloway

A couple of items which attracted my attention in today’s Australian.

1. George Megalogenis: Nation leans to the Left.

This makes a great deal of sense, I think.

IT’S the trend that dare not speak its name because neither side of politics is accustomed to thinking about the electorate in this way. But Australia, for the time being, has tilted leftward in a way it has never done before.

Every Newspoll since Kevin Rudd became Labor leader in December 2006 has seen the Centre Left gather more than 50 per cent of the primary vote; a prospective landslide in anyone’s language. Centre Left in this context means Labor and the Greens. The Coalition, by contrast, has not reached 40 per cent on its primary since the previous federal election.

Even in its reform heyday of the 1980s, when Bob Hawke enjoyed record approval ratings, the Centre Left never had more than a month’s worth of Newspolls with a primary voting intention above 50 per cent, namely in June 1987. Back then the nation’s third party was the Australian Democrats, an offshoot of the progressive side of the Liberals. Today the third party, the Greens, is to the left of Labor…

The original in print has a handy graph.

2. Stephen Jewell:  Doubting cleric’s church in exile.

I have in the past referred you to Richard Holloway, former Anglican Primus of Scotland: here and here. He has just published a new book, Between the Monster and the Saint. Australian publisher Text has taken it up. On 6 April Phillip Adams interviewed Holloway. It was an excellent interview.  I have also uploaded the relevant extract to my new eSnips account.

 

Fibre optic network way overdue

The Rudd government can still surprise us, it seems. See Government unveils plans for bigger, faster broadband network, National Broadband Network an ambitious plan and Kevin Rudd joins The 7.30 Report.

Previous schemes, including the one for fibre optic to local nodes and copper wire thereafter, always seemed a bit curate’s egg to me. For a small example: Sydney Boys High internally went fibre optic some years back – five or six, if I remember rightly. Internally this made a huge difference, but of course the internet came into the school down copper wire, being strangled further by the Department of Education net nanny. So internet speeds improved a bit, especially with ISPs offering better speeds, but there was always the fact that what was inside the building was severely limited by the old technology delivering it to the building. That’s true of homes and businesses everywhere.

The only thing that could provide real improvement is for the whole system to embrace fibre optic technology. That is what the government now proposes.

It strikes me that Opposition reservations are analogous to favouring investment in Cobb & Co stage coaches rather than railways in the 19th century. Perhaps the Howard government should have led on this five years ago? If they had we would now be well on track…

See also Australia To Lead The World At Something Good.

Update 9 April

Piers Akerman gets stuck into this today: $47 billion to be flushed down a broadband pipe dream. Citing one economist, Piers opines “Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has rolled out a fantasy of jobs, dividends and consumer benefits that would make Australia the envy of the world, if the goals were achievable. Not only is the cost greater and the proposal far more complex but there is a total lack of any supporting data to justify Rudd’s grandiose claims for the new project.”  He concludes: “Finally, Rudd is attempting to flatter the electorate with the promise of a NBN that no other nation in the world has attempted. There is good reason for this. Most nations are not stupid enough to take on untried technologies, assume massive debt and commit to vast schemes unless they can see and demonstrate a proven benefit.”

On the other hand, last year Telstra laid Fibre Optic, that “untried technology”, from Australia to Hawaii. And then in another part of the world:

From having no undersea cable links to the rest of the world, East Africa is now poised to have three.

As a result, many businesses are investing in finger-sized underwater fibre-optic cables that will open doors to the rest of the world.

It could not come too soon. Currently, many African countries rely heavily on satellite connections for internet and telephone calls.

Developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia embraced fibre-optic technology several years ago, and now boast over 500 cables. But the developing world is far behind; Bangladesh – with a population of over 150 million people – has three fibre-optic cables, while the whole of Africa has just ten.

And the advantages are:

Advantages of Fiber Optics

Why are fiber-optic systems revolutionizing telecommunications? Compared to conventional metal wire (copper wire), optical fibers are:

  • Less expensive – Several miles of optical cable can be made cheaper than equivalent lengths of copper wire. This saves your provider (cable TV, Internet) and you money.
  • Thinner – Optical fibers can be drawn to smaller diameters than copper wire.
  • Higher carrying capacity – Because optical fibers are thinner than copper wires, more fibers can be bundled into a given-diameter cable than copper wires. This allows more phone lines to go over the same cable or more channels to come through the cable into your cable TV box.
  • Less signal degradation – The loss of signal in optical fiber is less than in copper wire.
  • Light signals – Unlike electrical signals in copper wires, light signals from one fiber do not interfere with those of other fibers in the same cable. This means clearer phone conversations or TV reception.
  • Low power – Because signals in optical fibers degrade less, lower-power transmitters can be used instead of the high-voltage electrical transmitters needed for copper wires. Again, this saves your provider and you money.
  • Digital signals – Optical fibers are ideally suited for carrying digital information, which is especially useful in computer networks.
  • Non-flammable – Because no electricity is passed through optical fibers, there is no fire hazard.
  • Lightweight – An optical cable weighs less than a comparable copper wire cable. Fiber-optic cables take up less space in the ground.
  • Flexible – Because fiber optics are so flexible and can transmit and receive light, they are used in many flexible digital cameras for the following purposes:
    • Medical imaging – in bronchoscopes, endoscopes, laparoscopes
    • Mechanical imaging – inspecting mechanical welds in pipes and engines (in airplanes, rockets, space shuttles, cars)
    • Plumbing – to inspect sewer lines

Because of these advantages, you see fiber optics in many industries, most notably telecommunications and computer networks.

 

On the juvenile rhetoric of the American Right our Right is right…

Gerard Henderson is an Australian conservative commentator with whom I at times agree. While he may be many things, insane is not one of them. Today he exposes the overblown rhetoric of the US Right while not himself being a total Obama groupie: All the way with Obama’s world.

…Obama is not the left-wing socialist that some of his right-wing critics in the US maintain. On Fox News, Glenn Beck runs the line that Obama is some kind of leftist fascist intent on destroying individual liberties. This view has been challenged by, among others, Fox News presenter Bill O’Reilly. But, due to Beck’s polemical force, it is likely that his opinion will have some impact on the American electorate.

The evidence suggests that, on foreign policy and the economy, Obama is acting a bit like a liberal politician in the JFK mould. Obama once advocated the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq by mid 2008 – he now wants the US troops to pull out when the elected Iraqi Government, under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki, is regarded as capable of surviving. Also, Obama has committed additional forces to Afghanistan and the US remains active in hunting down Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

On the economy the Obama Administration is in the tradition of Democrat predecessor Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. This approach may, or may not, be the most appropriate response to the global financial crisis. However, it is not redolent of socialism, still less fascism…

While surfing through the now excellent again BlogExplosion I have encountered some mindblowingly awful “conservative” US blogs – rank and unbelievably bad some of them. Honestly, I wonder where their brains are! They certainly don’t make good advertising for their own country – but then of course there are many other US political and current affairs blogs that are first rate. But there is something about US conservatism that is totally sui generis, and quite terrifying to an outsider like me. Our local wingnuts look good in comparison, and Henderson – not really a wingnut – even better.

Meanwhile the Earl of East Sydney is in all sorts of bother.

KEVIN Rudd’s mid-air outburst at a female RAAF cabin attendant has done nothing to dent the Prime Minister’s popularity, which has soared to near-record levels as Malcolm Turnbull’s rating has hit a new low.

The Opposition Leader’s rating as preferred prime minister has fallen to 18 per cent, putting Mr Turnbull on practically the same rating six months into the job as his predecessor, Brendan Nelson, had after the same period.

Mr Rudd’s satisfaction rating jumped by five percentage points in the latest Newspoll, which was conducted exclusively for The Australian from Friday night to Sunday afternoon – a period during which Mr Rudd’s apology for his angry outburst, the outcome of the Group of 20 leaders’ meeting and the imminent arrival of the Government’s $900 stimulus cheques were all headline news. Labor maintained its strong and steady primary vote lead: 47per cent compared with the Coalition’s 36 per cent.

The two-party-preferred result, based on preference flows at the last election, puts Labor’s lead over the Coalition at 16 percentage points, close to its post-2007 election record high, as voters choose to stick with Labor to manage the economy through the global crisis and rising domestic unemployment.

Just as his popularity increased despite the August 2007 revelation he had been drunk in New York strip club Scores, Mr Rudd is preferred as prime minister by 67per cent of voters, while Mr Turnbull recorded his lowest preferred prime minister rating of 18per cent, down two points on the previous poll…

 

Good commentary on Australian economy

Over in the sidebar you will see various perspectives, Oz and other, on the current economic crisis – an area I am far from expert in. Not listed there are Jim Belshaw’s posts in his Management Perspectives blog.

I commend them to you.

 

I too was offered a free trip to China…

… and M was once thought to be a Chinese spy.

Back in 1990 when I first met M, then very recently arrived in Australia, I was living in Paddington at PK’s place – and a nice place it was too. The first morning M appeared at breakfast PK was quite nonplussed – being of Lithuanian background he had fairly strong Cold War views in some respects, though not in others. He did indeed suggest soon after that M may be a Chinese spy. He later changed his mind and may even deny the story today. ;)

No doubt among the very large influx of Chinese students at that post-Tiananmen time there would have been some spies, mostly there to monitor the other students. Chinese were used to being monitored. M solved the problem back home in China by joining the neighbourhood spooks – hiding in plain sight, you could say. The neighbourhood committee of spooks also had a benign role; as well as reporting suspicious activity they were agents too of social welfare. M claimed he was particularly lax on the reporting side, especially given his own association with quite a few westerners.

My students at the language college I then worked in more or less assumed someone could be a spy, or “a boss” as they tended to say, and sussed one another out before they started opening up about certain topics.

About a decade later I was offered a free trip to Shanghai by the parents of one of my SBHS students – and not to influence me, as it was offered after the exams. As M said, they were just being Chinese and were grateful I had helped their son. I found a face-saving way of refusing the gift.

Where I tutor in Chinatown there is a prominent display on the wall of photos of the principals in the company with leading pollies, including Mr Ruddock. This is part of the Chinese way of business – establishing your connections or guanxi.*

“Guanxi” literally means "relationships", stands for any type of relationship. In the Chinese business world, however, it is also understood as the network of relationships among various parties that cooperate together and support one another. The Chinese businessmen mentality is very much one of "You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours." In essence, this boils down to exchanging favors, which are expected to be done regularly and voluntarily. Therefore, it is an important concept to understand if one is to function effectively in Chinese society.

The importance of "Guanxi"

Regardless of business experiences in ones home country, in China it is the right "Guanxi" that makes all the difference in ensuring that business will be successful. By getting the right "Guanxi", the organization minimizes the risks, frustrations, and disappointments when doing business in China. Often it is acquiring the right "Guanxi" with the relevant authorities that will determine the competitive standing of an organization in the long run in China. And moreover, the inevitable risks, barriers, and set-ups you’ll encounter in China will be minimized when you have the right “Guanxi” network working for you. That is why the correct "Guanxi" is so vital to any successful business strategy in China.

Although developing and nurturing the "Guanxi" in China is very demanding on time and resources, the time and money necessary to establish a strong network is well worth the investment. What your business could get in return from the favors for your partners are often more much more valuable, especially in the long run, and when you’re in need. Even domestic businesses in China establish wide networks with their suppliers, retailers, banks, and local government officials. It is very common for individuals of an organization to visit the residence of their acquaintances from other organizations, bringing gifts (such as wine, cigarettes, etc.). While this practice may seem intrusive, as you spend more time learning the Chinese culture, it will become easier to understand and take part in this practice that is so central to successful Chinese commercial activity…

We should keep this in mind as we contemplate the Joel Fitzgibbon affair and the activities of Ms Liu. Still, the narrative is very much, and not entirely wrongly, taking what I may call the PK route. See Greg Sheridan in today’s Australian.

NO nation makes a greater espionage effort directed at Australian military and commercial technology than does China.

It was because of China’s massively increased espionage activities in recent years that in 2004 the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation set up a new counter-espionage unit.

But the problems China poses for a country such as Australia in the security and espionage field extend far beyond what might be regarded as traditional espionage.

Beijing has the most unified and co-ordinated sense of national power of any big nation on Earth. Modern China is not a democracy, but it is a very effectively functioning modern state.

It has a highly competent bureaucracy that seeks to penetrate all sectors of Chinese society and serve what the ruling Communist Party regards as the broader national interest. This includes monitoring, and where possible influencing, Chinese business people and students in their activities overseas.

This is a highly elusive matter, extremely difficult to quantify.

The overwhelming majority of people of Chinese ethnic background living in Western societies such as Australia or the US have no relationship with the Chinese state.

And most of those who do have any relationship with the Chinese state have an entirely wholesome one, such as doing business with the Government or promoting cultural exchange.

But the Chinese Government seeks to use every resource it can to gain information and to exercise power. That includes, on the testimony of Chinese defectors and Western intelligence agencies, often using business people and students as agents where it can recruit them…

He isn’t entirely wrong, far from it in fact, and does at least qualify what he says; but the framing of what he says does tend towards suspicion of Fitzgibbon and Liu, and Fitzgibbon must have been especially dense not to have declared those two trips.

And of course they spy, we gather intelligence – but that is another matter.

Back in the mid 90s I had the opportunity to meet the former Minister of Culture Wang Meng who was visiting from Beijing. He was at that stage on the outer, as he had publicly refused to congratulate the troops after Tiananmen. He still had plenty of guanxi though, apparently. After all, he had been able to come to Sydney. I was interested because I had read some of his stories (in English of course) and they were rather good. M was not so interested and didn’t go, saying he simply didn’t trust anyone in a high position.

See also Australia China Connections.

Update

* Helen Liu sure gets around.

liuhoward

Kind of relevant… See Strange Maps: 368 – The World As Seen From Chang’an Street.

 

Just a tad loaded, don’t you think?

A quickie today as I have to see Dr C in the morning and tutor this afternoon.

After yesterday’s update to my entry on “framing” and the literacy debate I was struck by today’s Yahoo7 poll: “Is Kevin Rudd buying his popularity?”

morganpoll

What happened to (for example) “He’s doing a good job” or “The Opposition have been pathetic”? No prizes for guessing which response is winning. It isn’t the last one…

 
4 Comments

Posted by on March 25, 2009 in Australia, media watch, Political, politics

 

Two from The Oz

1. Malcolm Turnbull

I am not going to go here much. Neither has anyone else so far as it stands at 2.20pm with COMMENTS: 0 at the end. Sure is great at phrase-making though – almost Keatingesque:

It is bad enough to have Rudd trying to turn himself, in the blink of an eye, from an adherent of the cautious, responsible economic conservatism of Howard into a slightly more genteel version of a foaming-at-the-mouth radical such as Hugo Chavez.

But to add to that effrontery, we see him every day in the parliament denouncing neo-liberal extremism as he describes me as "the member for Goldman Sachs".

Which seems to be one of Mr Turnbull’s principal beefs in a piece that carries ad hominem to new heights.

I congratulate the Rudds, especially Therese Rein, on their success. Their business grew into a very substantial one in Australia and as other countries followed the Australian approach, grew there as well exporting the expertise developed by them when they seized the opportunity created by Howard’s decision in 1998.

But what are we to think of the wealthiest Prime Minister Australia has ever had, a man greatly enriched by the privatisation and outsourcing of government services, standing up again and again to denounce the very policies from which he and his family have profited so extensively.

It is more than a bit rich. It is as hypocritical, as chutzpadik, as his essay is absurd.

Whether or not Rudd’s essay – which I have read—is the world’s greatest analysis is beside my point really; I would agree that he glossed over the Hawke-Keating years in that essay. On the other hand he is far from alone in his concern that “neo-liberalism” is bearing fruit as we speak.

Whether Mr Turnbull’s essay prevents the Cato-like return from the plough of Peter Costello remains to be seen.

It is probably a good idea to compare Mr Turnbull’s essay with Michael Stutchbury’s feature in the same paper: Too big to resist. Makes Turnbull’s essay seem quite unimportant.

2. Phillip Adams

It’s probably fair to say that Phillip Adams writes and talks far too much, and sometimes it shows. Of course the last person who should say that is a blogger as obsessive as I am. Today is one of his better days.

Early in my newspaper career one of Australia’s most respected educators sent me a stern letter.

Dr James Darling didn’t mince words in his eagerness to mince me. "Dear Mr Adams, I do not approve of you. I do not like what you write. However, I understand that you may have some influence with young readers." He proceeded to attack my most recent column in which I’d been unusually pessimistic about the state of the world.

I’d got a bit rabid, and morbid, from a bite of the black dog, to employ Churchill’s metaphor for depression. Instead of being moist of nose and waggy of tail, as was and remains my puppyish style, a crisis in the Cold War had me snarling at the reader, provoking Geelong Grammar’s most famous headmaster to thrust quill into inkwell. Darling told Adams the cries of pain I was hearing in the world – and these are his exact words – "are not the pains of death but of birth", and recalled other moments in human history when observers had made the same mistake. Confusing – and these are my words – the deathbed with the labour ward. Among his scholarly examples, Greece in the 4th century BC.

Time to reread the old darling’s letter. At a time when the news is not merely of deficit and depression, but of Armageddon and apocalypse. When editorials read like suicide notes. When Obama in his inaugural and Rudd in every other utterance have the sky falling and the end nigh. The bears have killed the bulls and black dogs prowl in packs.

Dr Darling, later Sir James, was right. Forget dodos and dead parrots and cheer the arrival of stork and phoenix…

…This could be the time for the biggest rethink in generations. For improvements to the way we run our businesses, farms, governments, societies, personal lives. We should listen to the Dr Darlings and the Ismail Serageldins because pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s not enough to rebuild Henry Ford’s Detroit. It’s time to build William Blake’s New Jerusalem.

So why can I share the hopes, but not necessarily the optimism? Because I well remember another moment like this. And so do you. It was quite recent. The end of the Cold War…

The orchestrated dread of communism yielded to the dread of Islam – or what Christopher Hitchens called "Islamic fascism". It was as if we were addicted to fear and couldn’t live without it. The Cold War was reborn as the War on Terror – and we returned to paranoia. The moment was utterly, tragically lost.

Let’s demand better – the best – from our governments, societies, scientists, corporations and ourselves. Let’s not lose this moment.

 

Time for a poll

Turnbull Cartoon by Cathy Wilcox

Turnbull Cartoon by Cathy Wilcox

I have from time to time lately lamented the party politics and power plays that to my mind corrupt our country’s approach to riding out the world economic downturn, partly because I see the issue as being as important as being at war and partly because I am cynical enough to believe that if the Libs, or God forbid, John Howard, had won the 2007 election we would be no better off today than we are now — or not much better off, or even worse off. See the cartoon on the right from today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

As usual you can choose more than one answer or add one of your own.

 

For many kids Civics is arid, deadly dull and is thus hard to teach

That, I suspect, is part of the problem behind the story in today’s AustralianStudents do badly in study of civics. I really don’t think results would have been much better fifty years ago when I was fifteen.

STUDENTS’ knowledge of Australia’s system of government is lower than expected, with only one in three Year 10 students knowing what the Constitution is.

The national assessment of civics and citizenship in Years 6 and 10 found about 54 per cent of primary students and 41 per cent of high school students met the proficiency standards for their year. But about one in five Year 10 students failed to meet the Year 6 standard.

"This was especially the case in relation to information about the constitutional structure of Australian democracy," the report says. "Lacking such fundamental information will restrict the capacity of students to make sense of many other aspects of Australian democratic forms and processes, and they may, therefore, be disadvantaged in their capacity to engage in meaningful ways in many other levels of civic action or discourse."

At Year 6, students are expected to recognise the division of governmental responsibilities in a federation, identify a link between a change in Australia’s identity and a change in the national anthem, recognise the benefit of different political parties and the federal budget.

By Year 10, students are expected to recognise key functions and features of parliament, analyse the common good as a motivation for becoming a whistleblower, explain the importance of a secret ballot, and recognise how the independence of the judiciary is protected. On the Constitution, Year 10 students were asked "what is the Australian Constitution?" and given four possible answers: the rules about how the major Australian political parties are run; the policies of the Australian federal government; the framework for the ways Australia is governed; all the laws that Australian citizens must obey…

Look at the last paragraph there! Did I know all that fifty years ago? Answer: NO! What do we expect then? Why, aside from pious hopes, should we expect 100% of kids to have mastered all that arcane matter?

On the other hand, kids today do have advantages. In the web world there are some marvellous sources of information. Even the Book of Answers from the last government’s ill-conceived citizenship tests is not a bad resource on these and other matters. But then there are sites such as Australian Politics and Oz Politics. Certainly it isn’t hard to find out these days; in my day it was less easy.

There is a big role here too in well organised excursions to parliaments and courts, as many schools do. The information people there are often brilliant, and the whole thing becomes more concrete. On the other hand bureaucratic responses to child safety issues have made organising any excursion a logistic nightmare, so I suspect there has probably been some reduction in such activities. A shame. Mock courts and parliaments are another approach that can bring these matters to life.

Coincidentally, yesterday I found myself with a 15-16 year old from China, a recent arrival whose English is developing, trying to help him with a Legal Studies task on the rule of law – and a whole host of other key terms all crowded into one or two of his school lessons. A challenge. We did our best.

I decided, having checked the Oz Politics site, to take their test again. Now last time – I think around four years ago? – I scored thus:

I was curious to see if I had shifted. Well, here is the answer:

neilpol

I have changed a little, slightly less “left” on traditional values and slightly more “left” on economic issues.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, education, personal, Political, politics

 

Noted: major post by Jim Belshaw

This is not on his personal blog, so won’t appear in the Google Reader: More economics 101 – the economics of Malcolm Turnbull.

While my focus in this post is on the underlying economics, I should make my own views clear so that you understand where I am coming from.

There is some truth in Mr Turnbull’s comparison with the Whitlam Government. It has seemed to me that that Mr Rudd is in a rush for other reasons. I have suggested that we should take a deep breath – less haste, more speed. I have also pointed to what I see as specific weaknesses in Mr Rudd’s initiatives, weaknesses linked in part to current administrative and public policy systems that create delivery problems.

The international downturn has been faster and wider than I expected. The impact on domestic confidence has also been greater than expected, given the underlying strength of the Australian economy. For that reason, I have been inclined to support the Rudd measures.

I do not share Mr Turnbull’s stated concerns about the deficit so long as we do not create a structural deficit. I am also less worried about Government debt.

Overall, my view has been that the downturn provides an opportunity to do new things, to catch up on past neglects, thus laying the basis not just for future growth, but also for long term improvements in our social and physical infrastructure. Part of my argument for less haste, more speed i[s] to ensure that we get the best results.

Finally, I have argued that the various stimulus measures taken round the world will pull the world out of recession. As that happens, the Australian economy will boom again. However, I have also expressed the concern that the global stimulatory measures will overshoot, creating problems in the opposite direction to those we face as present.

Jim’s views are his own, as he makes clear in the disclaimer I have just quoted, but with his background in economics, history, and public administration they are certainly worth a look. See what you think. Clearly Jim has done a lot of work on this post, which seems to have caused him to set his personal site aside for the moment.

 

Kevin, Peter, Malcolm … and Jim … on 2009 not being 1996…

Or why George W, John H, and all the merry crew of retirees and yesterday’s people are no longer relevant and perhaps never were.

Which would be too harsh, I suppose, but I can’t help wondering about all the economic pap we were fed for the past decade or two. You can’t help wondering what, had he been re-elected, John H would be doing right now. Surely he must deep down be dancing little jigs in some back room of his mind because he wasn’t re-elected, and can just sit and polish the gong George W gave him in his dying moments, while the good luck he traded off flies away.

To be fair, Peter van Onselen does point out in today’s Australian that Peter Costello was not totally off the mark towards the end:

NOT being listened to when you are right is one of the most frustrating things a person can experience. In this respect, Peter Costello is sharing a little of the experience of Cassandra, daughter of king Hecuba of Troy.

In ancient Greek mythology she had the gift of prophecy but was cursed by Apollo and denied the power to persuade.

In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, Costello as treasurer warned that a financial tsunami was on the way, and Australians should be careful about who they voted for to run the economy.

To be sure, when predicting the tsunami Costello was first and foremost referring to what would happen if China floated its currency, the yuan.

That hasn’t happened yet.

But he was also referring more generally to what would happen if China’s economy faltered. Data released this past fortnight indicated China’s growth has dramatically slowed to 6.8 per cent. By Chinese standards that puts them in a virtual recession.

More important, Costello’s tsunami comments also made reference to the impact the US sub-prime mortgage crisis would have on world economies, including Australia’s. That impact is now known as the global financial crisis, the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

Costello was ahead of the curve in predicting it…

In politics, Costello was alone in cautioning that an economic meltdown was on the horizon. While Labor was talking up the risk of high inflation, John Howard was campaigning on his promised ability to reduce unemployment to less than 4 per cent. With the financial crisis now in full swing, unemployment is expected by some to hit 9 per cent. Had the Coalition won the election Howard’s unemployment pledge would have sat neatly along side his 2004 election pledge to "keep interest rates at record lows"…

Now, it appears, Kevin Rudd is firing all his guns in the pages of the February Monthly. Paul Kelly outlines the argument:

KEVIN Rudd has put his ideological spin on the global crisis – arguing the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years represented by Thatcher, Reagan, Greenspan and John Howard has failed.

Rudd has defined himself, his Government and his re-election strategy by declaring that only social democrats and the Labor Party can recruit state power to save capitalism.

He has thrown the Liberal Party on to the trash heap of history, saying it is "the political home of neo-liberalism in Australia" and that the former Howard government aimed to reduce state power "as much as possible".

Declaring that a failed 30-year epoch in world history has come to a conclusion, Rudd says the crisis means "one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place".

The new epoch is about using state power "to save capitalism from itself". Rudd’s aim is to hold global neo-liberal policies responsible for the catastrophe and the Howard government as local upholder of these fatal ideas. His game plan is to position Labor as the long-run political and ideological winner from the crisis.

In his latest essay for The Monthly, to be published next week, Rudd turns the global crisis into a decisive ideological event. The resort to government intervention demanded by the crisis fits perfectly with Rudd’s philosophy. He presents Malcolm Turnbull with an ideological challenge by insisting the Liberals stand on the wrong side of history.

The significance of Rudd’s essay is that Labor will become the party of ideological attack and neo-liberalism and its backers will become the targets. This is a device to keep Labor united during the coming recession and the Liberal Party on the defensive…

Kevin Rudd has written (well too) for The Monthly before – but not as Prime Minister. Some may wonder about that, but I do plan to give what he says consideration. It may also be – but then I am naive – that the real significance of the article is not the party-political one Kelly refers to. What if it is just true?

Sojourners’ Jim Wallace, currently in Davos, would seem to be part of an ever-expanding choir. Mind you, he has been a member for years.

Every morning when I wake up in Davos, I turn on my television to CNN in my hotel room. And every morning, there is the same reporter interviewing a bundled-up CEO with the snowy “magic mountain” of Davos in the background. The question is always the same: “When will this crisis be over?” They actually have a “white board” where they make the CEO mark his answer: 2009…2010…2011…later.

But it’s the wrong question. Of course it’s a question we all want to know the answer to, but there is a much more important one. We should be asking, “How will this crisis change us?” How will it change the way we think, act, and decide things — how we live, and how we do business? Yes, this is a structural crisis, and one that clearly calls for new social regulation. But it is also a spiritual crisis, and one that calls for new self-regulation. We seem to have lost some things and forgotten some things — such as our values.

We have trusted in “the invisible hand” to make everything turn out all right, believing that it wasn’t necessary for us to bring virtue to bear on our decisions. But things haven’t turned out all right and the invisible hand has let go of some things, such as “the common good.” The common good hasn’t been very common in our economic decision-making for some time now. And things have spun out of control. Gandhi’s seven deadly social sins seem an accurate diagnosis for some of the causes of this crisis: “politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice.”

If we learn nothing from this crisis, all the pain and suffering it is causing will be in vain. But we can learn new habits of the heart, perhaps that suffering can even turn out to be redemptive. If we can regain a moral compass and find new metrics by which to evaluate our success, this crisis could become our opportunity to change….

If we wait until the economic crisis is over to get back to business as usual, we will have missed the chance we now have for re-evaluation and re-direction. Some of the smartest people in the world are assembled here on the mountain. But are we smart enough not to miss the opportunity this crisis provides to change our ways and return to some of our oldest and best values? Almost half the world’s population, 3 billion people, live on less than $2 a day — virtually outside of the global economy. Maybe it’s time to bring them in.

There are some interesting comments on the thread following that post.

Oh — and Malcolm? Well, he tries…

 
 
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