Friday, January 23, 2009

Handing The Knife To Brutus

It’s difficult not to start feeling a little sympathy for New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees. At every turn there are people like me who have already written off the re-election prospects of the government. But that is just a minor nuisance compared to the virtual insurrection which has been bubbling away within his own cabinet. Having been appointed to lead the party only a few months ago, the very people who appointed him seem to be having difficulty with the idea of actually following. But then, maybe they weren’t expecting him to actually think for himself.

Reports have emerged that the Premier has summoned the ring leaders behind the alleged plot to replace him with Frank Sartor, and told them to stop the white-anting. He is reported to have said, “I’m sick to death of me and my Cabinet being forced into these distractions which frankly are an irrelevance to the people of New South Wales.” And he’s right. It is an irrelevance to the people, who don’t care who is Premier so long as the schools can teach our children, the hospitals and treat our sick, and the trains, buses and ferries all run on time.

The people of New South Wales are not even remotely interested in the Labor Party drawing straws to see whose turn it is to be Premier. The people are fed up with the inability of the government to deliver on promises which are made by one Premier and then withdrawn by the next. The people no longer trust or believe that the government is able to manage the affairs of the state. For that to stand any chance of ever changing, first the government must demonstrate that it can manage itself.

The Premier was also quoted as saying, “I simply will not allow this to continue. Disunity is death and anyone (who) doesn’t understand that shouldn’t be in politics.” While that might be true at some level, there is always disunity in politics. The true art of politics is drawing together a range of divergent and sometimes conflicting interests and somehow managing to create a working consensus. Unfortunately for Nathan Rees, you don’t achieve that just by wishing for it, or even demanding it. It has to be imposed, not by force, but by the engagement and enrollment of all players.

The fact is that people like John Della Bosca have been in politics for a lot longer than Nathan Rees. He, and his accused co-conspirators, know that unity doesn’t count for a damn thing if nobody votes for you. That’s why they may still be prepared to back a new horse between now and the election. Whatever Nathan Rees might tell them about unity, discipline and loyalty won’t make the slightest difference if there isn’t some sign that his leadership is attracting votes.

Whether it is said that Nathan Rees is not providing effective leadership, or that his colleagues are not providing effective support, ultimately amounts to the same thing. They will lose the election. No wonder the Premier is so keen to promote John Robertson to the cabinet… he doesn’t appear to have many friends there at the moment. Of course, John Robertson is also spoken of as a future Premier, so perhaps even that could be seen as handing the knife to Brutus.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In The Name Of Islam, Stop The Extremists

At the risk of being labeled “Anti-Islamic”, the reported remarks of Samir Abu Hamza represent a threat to our community and our way of life. Hamza is not just a radical ratbag spouting nonsense, he is a person in a position of influence and responsibility. He is the President of the Islamic Information and Services Network, an independent organization in Melbourne. He is a cleric whose teachings have the capacity to influence significant numbers of people.

In a sermon originally given in 2003, but more recently distributed on the internet and now reported in the mass media, Hamza offered his teachings under the title of “The Keys To A Successful Marriage.” In the lecture he advised that under Islamic Law it is a husband’s right to demand sex from his wife whether she wants to or not. He states that it is the wife’s obligation to accommodate such a demand. “She must respond,” he says. And if she doesn’t then as a last resort it is permissible to beat her. In his view, it is impossible for a husband to rape his wife, even if physical force is required to obtain her participation.

It is obvious that the teachings are completely incompatible with not only Australian community standards, but also Australian law. It is also out of step with responsible mainstream Muslim teaching, and other Islamic figures in Australia have denounced his views. But Hamza he is not alone. Others have articulated similar teachings based on fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran. Every time such teachings come to light, the same platitudes are offered, and the same denials are made.

But the problem is that somehow these idiot extremists are allowed to represent themselves as spiritual leaders and are allowed to preach their extreme views with a level of legitimacy which they have not earned. It is often said that the responsible leaders of the Muslim community need to do more to denounce these extremists, but that is not enough. Responsible leaders of the Muslim community must prevent such ratbags from holding positions of influence in the first place. They must ensure that unsavoury lunatics are not permitted to label themselves clerics and set about teaching in the name of Islam. They must no longer allow the name of Islam to be brought into disrepute.

While the fanatics are allowed to spread their influence, they pose a threat to all of us. As long as young followers are subjected to such messages of intolerance, hatred, and prejudice, then the greater the danger of creating more fanatics. If young people are taught by so called “religious” leaders that the law is wrong, then there is the risk that some of them will disregard the law. And as long as others allow the teaching of extreme values, the threat will grow.

This is not simply an Islamic issue. It is a community issue, because we have all chosen to live together. Australia’s multicultural record is not unblemished, but is nonetheless magnificent. It works because most of us have learned tolerance and respect for each other. Beating and raping your wife is neither tolerant nor respectful, and is certainly not Australian.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Can Obama Do It?

The long path from obscurity to the White House for Barack Obama has been signposted with symbolism at every step. It is also a path which he has seemingly traversed quickly, despite the rather drawn out process of an American Presidential election. Four years ago he was a new senator, now he is the President before having even completed his first term in the Senate. By any measure it would seem to be a meteoric rise to the top. His natural talent for eloquence, along with his clear intellect, as well as the orchestrated use of symbolism has no doubt helped to propel his success. History and circumstances have conspired to make Obama the right man in the right place at the right time, making him a symbol in his own right.

And all that before the sound of his voice uttering the oath of office has finished reverberating around the Washington Mall. But rapid success and a smooth tongue are often seen as signs of a hollow man, a snake oil salesman whose patter is more impressive than his product. Is it possible that all of the symbolism, the fine words, the confident demeanour, are nothing more than the products of a well crafted marketing campaign? Or is President Obama really as good as he looks?

His inauguration speech has pushed all the right buttons, addressing the obvious challenges of our time right off the bat. The catchphrase that “We have chosen hope over fear” will be remembered in history for centuries, and the renewal of the recognition that “All are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness” has been designed to inspire hope and confidence in the face of looming adversity. These things are important components of leadership, and rightly belong in such a speech. But these things are also vague generalities which offer no specifics for the years ahead.

Now of course the real work begins. It’s time for the rousing rhetoric to be accompanied by decisive action. It’s time for specific measures to be articulated and implemented to achieve these high minded aims. With the raging Obama-mania, and the overwhelming tide of goodwill which exists, comes the opportunity to introduce those measures. But the task ahead is to not only meet the challenges of the times, but also to meet the expectations which have been heaped upon one individual.

From the lofty heights of President Obama’s current popularity the risk of disappointing expectations is all the greater. Like a movie which has been over-promoted, just being good won’t be good enough. The task before Obama is to be great. Can Obama do it? At this moment in history millions of Americans are responding “Yes he can.” Whether they are right or wrong is history which has yet to be written.

While it is easy to be cynical and remember that all politicians are human, and therefore prone to the same flaws and failures as all of us, now is the time to be hopeful for the future. Not because we should place all our faith in President Obama, but because we must have faith in ourselves.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Light At The End Of The Economic Tunnel

There are two things that I keep hearing about the Global Financial Crisis. One is that “Things will get worse before they get better.” The other is “Nobody saw this coming.” While the first observation would appear to be reasonable, the second is simply not true. The problem is that the people who did see it coming had been treated as crackpots accused of “crying wolf”, and subsequently ignored. Now that those “crackpots” have been proven to be right, they continue to be ignored as an inconvenient reminder that the mainstream experts were wrong.

Now it seems that everybody is convinced that things really are bleak, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd this week observing that “the magnitude of the Global Financial Crisis almost beggars belief.” Mr. Rudd has foreshadowed further efforts by the government to stimulate the economy which can be expected to include tax cuts, infrastructure spending and increases to welfare. This can only add up to a budget deficit, but deficit is no longer a dirty word as even hard case economic rationalists are falling to their knees to worship once again at the alter of John Maynard Keynes. The near death experience has led them to see the light and reach for their rosaries.

While it is absolutely vital that the Government continues on its path to stimulate the economy and protect the disadvantaged, the problem is the sheer scale of the global crisis. The fact is that no matter what measures Australia implements, the international financial storm is beyond our control. To some extent that is why the Australian Government must continue to pursue its course. The crisis will continue to happen whether we like it or not. What matters is how we deal with it.

So here are the crucial points. First, jobs will be lost. That means it is essential that a financial safety net continues to provide support for workers who will be needed when the recovery does begin. Second, capital values will fall. Yes, the sharemarket has already dropped about 40% last year, but it’s not over yet. Housing prices are still too high when considered as a multiple of average income, and regardless of the supply and demand conundrum, people cannot buy what the cannot afford. Thirdly, consumer prices will fall. This is already happening, and although it will provide some relief for consumers, it will also sharpen the slowdown in the economy.

Access Economics has warned that Australia’s economic prosperity will unwind “scarily fast”. In some ways however it might be better to suffer a rapid readjustment rather than a protracted period of decline or stagnation. The most important point however is not how we respond to the crisis now, but how we rebuild our economy afterwards and in the years ahead. This massive readjustment is also a huge opportunity to reconsider how the global economy functions, how business is done, and how governments around the world protect the interests of their citizens.

If there is a light at the end of the economic tunnel it should be this. It is an opportunity to put an end to the hollow practices of financial engineers and corporate privateers who have essentially raided the financial system, depleting it of value and leaving it to collapse. It is an opportunity to return to the idea that corporations actually make something other than just money, and that the system should exist to serve the people, and not the other way around.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The George W. Bush Legacy Will Be Remembered For Generations

It’s almost time to say farewell to the man described by some as the worst ever President of the United States. On Tuesday (or Wednesday Australian time) George W. Bush will leave office as Barack Obama is sworn in as the new President. While much of the world is focused on the idea of a new era of hope and optimism, despite the enormous difficulties which currently exist, some of us are wondering just what the late night comedy shows are going to do now. After eight years of endless entertainment there will be no more Bushisms. Or will there?

Like so many other people I have received emails with hundreds of quotes attributed to W. They are absolutely hilarious. How could someone be so incredibly stupid and yet be elected to the highest office of the United States, and some would say the most powerful office in the world? Forget for a moment that the 2000 election was actually decided in a courtroom instead of at the ballot box, and just think about the ramifications of having a President who said such things as “If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.”

The only trouble is that he never actually said that. Neither did he say “I stand by all the misstatements that I’ve made.” Nor “We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.” Although I have laughed along with everyone else at these so called “Bushisms”, a journalist friend of mine took it upon herself to look a little more deeply into the matter. It turns out that many of these quotes were originally spoken by none other that one time Vice President Dan Quayle. Many more were simply invented by humourists and comics as “Quaylisms”, which have somehow morphed into “Bushisms”.

To some extent that’s not so surprising, and public figures such as both Quale and Bush are fair game for comedy. But the truth is so much more bizarre than the myth. There is no need to invent Bushisms, because the man really has said so many genuinely ridiculous things. He really did say “They misunderestermated me”. He really did say “I’m sure you can imagine it is an unimaginable honour to be living here.” He really did say “You can’t take the high horse, and then claim the low road.” He really did say “It will take time to restore chaos.”

There are just as many real Bushisms as there are imaginary ones, but it seems that the legend has become bigger than the man. I would imagine that as time goes by, more and more strange phrases will be added to the Bush lexicon. It is such fertile ground that I see no reason for people to stop inventing new Bushisms for years to come. In fact there is every chance that in centuries to come history will remember Bush for his legacy of malapropisms long after it has forgotten about his failed foreign policies, and his utter abrogation of all the principles of democracy and justice for which the United States is supposed to stand.

That must be what Bush meant when he expressed his hope that history would judge him kindly.