Friday, December 10, 2010

If Kevin Was Scared, He Was Right.

Is it really any surprise that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd admitted to American officials that the outlook in Afghanistan “scares the hell out of me”? Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has chosen to misquote that observation to create the sensational headline “Rudd: Scared
As Hell”. It’s a spin which is not an accurate representation of what was actually said in the leaked diplomatic cable. It is a headline which appears to be designed to give the impression of a fearful man pathetically cowering in the corner, whereas the original statement that the situation in Afghanistan “scares the hell out of me” means something else altogether. It is a commonly used colloquially turn of phrase which does not necessarily mean that the individual concerned is literally scared.

Even so, wouldn’t it make sense to have just a little trepidation about the potential for disaster in Afghanistan? In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that anyone who was in full possession of the facts about Afghanistan who was not at least a little apprehensive would have their sanity in doubt. If anything, the observations revealed in today’s instalment of the Wikileaks saga would seem to indicate that out then Prime Minister had a fairly good grasp of the seriousness of the situation, as well as pretty clear idea about the effectiveness of the strategies of the various nations involved in the conflict. If Kevin Rudd was at all afraid of everything turning to custard in Afghanistan, it’s hard to see how he was wrong.

The nature of the mission in Afghanistan is such that Australia has been dragged into a “Catch 22” situation. There was never any doubt that Australia should be a part of the effort to overthrow the Taliban and confront the threat of Al Qaeda, partly because of our alliance with the United States, but also because Australia has just as much interest in defeating terrorism as our allies do. The problem has been in the strategies employed to accomplish that mission, and in the evolving nature of the conflict. The mission now is not the same as it was when it began, but that doesn’t make it any easier to simply abandon it.

Regardless of anything exposed by the Wikileaks drama, there is still a serious challenge confronting both Australia and the United States in attempting find a lasting resolution in Afghanistan. Denying the extent of that challenge and branding Wikileaks as a terrorist organisation isn’t going to help in any way to achieve that. In fact, it’s a convenient distraction for those who have been responsible for making a mess of it to hide behind. Real terrorists are those who randomly kill and maim innocent people in the pursuit of often irrational ideological goals which do not recognise or respect the rights of others. By any definition, what Wikileaks has done is not terrorism or even aiding terrorism.

In contrast, those calling for Julian Assange to be executed are in truth revealing themselves to be dangerously close to the dictionary definition of the word terrorism: “The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Just Who Is Running Our Country?

When the Wikileaks scandal began to unfold, Prime Minister Julia Gillard referred to Julian Assange as a criminal and described the Wikileaks website as illegal. Later, she said that the “foundation stone” of the affair was the illegal leaking of the original documents. Now she says that the publication of the documents is “grossly irresponsible”. At first, Attorney General Robert McClelland said that Australia was assisting the American Government with their investigation of the leaks. Now, the Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd, himself something fo a victim of unflattering revelations, has finally laid the blame where it belongs: the United States government itself.

Mr Rudd said in an interview with Reuters, "Mr. Assange is not himself responsible for the unauthorised release of 250,000 documents from the US diplomatic communications network. The Americans are responsible for that." In a few short days, our government has gone from labeling Mr. Assange as a criminal to the vastly different position of pinning the blame on the Americans for not keeping the documents sufficiently secure in the first place. In the face of questions over just what it means to be an Australian citizen, Mr. Rudd has found it necessary to reassure Australians that Mr. Assange is receiving the appropriate level of consular assistance from his own government.

And while we have a strong and close friendship with the United States, today’s revelations of just how close the relationship is between some of our politicians and the American consular staff raise the question of just who do our elected representatives represent? Senator Mark Arbib, one-time faceless man and current Federal Minister, is described today by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “Yank in our ranks” thanks to the revelation that he has been a long term secret conduit of inside information described by the Americans as a “protected source”, meaning that his identity was to be kept confidential.

What does this mean? Is he representing the people who have elected him? Or is he effectively an agent of the Americans, who may be very close friends, but let us not forget are in fact a foreign power? If Mr. Arbib has been having discussions with American representatives and reporting back all the details to our own authorities, that’s one thing; but if the traffic of information has been a one way street, that is getting dangerously close to espionage. It really is enough to make you ask just who is running our country: our government or the Americans?

And speaking of the Americans, there can be little doubt that some of them would love to get their hands onto Julian Assange to make some sort of scapegoat out of him for having embarrassed them so greatly. The smirk on Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ face when given the news of the arrest of Mr. Assange was enough to send chills down the spine. I’ve said it before, and it’s worth saying again: for a nation which is founded upon the principles of individual freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of belief, the United States seems to so easily forget just what it is supposed to stand for.

Hopefully, Australia won’t make the same mistake just because some of our politicians have been embarrassed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Patron Saint of Free Speech?

The exponentially disproportionate condemnation of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange emanating from the United States government and its allies has become so strident as to prompt the simple question “why?” While his arrest has been based upon the allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden, there is little doubt that the intensity of the effort to pursue and capture him has been driven by the Wikileaks episode. It’s easy to believe that his supporters may be correct when they claim that the charges are politically motivated, and are nothing more than an attempt to ensnare Mr. Assange in a process which will ultimately see him delivered to the jurisdiction of the United States, where some consider him to be such a threat to national security that he should be killed. If there is a genuine allegation of any sexual offence, it should of course be investigated and dealt with. However, that is a completely separate matter from the release of classified United States diplomatic documents.

So why are the United States and her allies so angry at an individual who is after all only the middle man. It was not Julian Assange who actually leaked the documents in the first place. He has merely published the contents, just as countless newspapers and media outlets around the world have done countless times before. If, instead of giving the material to Wikileaks, the original leaker put all the documents in a big cardboard box and sent it to the Washington Post, wouldn’t the Post have done exactly the same thing? Of course, the Post, or any other media outlet, would have fallen upon the material with great glee and enthusiastically examined it, harvesting every salaciaous story it could from the contents. And if Wikileaks is in some way out of order in publishing the material, isn’t every other media outlet in the world also out of order for endlessly republishing it?

The great irony of course is that Western democracy in general, and especially the United States, is supposed to be founded upon principles of freedom which include freedom of speech. In fact, the Americans make such a big deal about free speech that it is specifically protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, along with the freedom of the press. By both standards, Julian Assange has done nothing more than exercise his right to speak freely and to publish. And yet the nation which not only claims to defend freedom and individual rights, but was actually founded upon those principles, is the very same nation which is so aggrieved by the idea than anyone might actually have the audacity to exercise those rights.

The reality, however, is a little different. Mr. Assange and his organisation have angered a significant number of very powerful people, and that is always a dangerous thing to do. Further, it is clear that he can expect very little support from the established media, partly because substantial sections of it are very cosy with the authorities, and partly because old media interests tend to view the so called new media as a major threat to their own existence. Traditional media is struggling to remain relevant and viable in the face of citizen journalism and social media, while also wrestling with their own attempts to make the transition into the digital world. While he has a large number of supporters, and some of them are also powerful and influential, even they may be powerless to help him.

Even if we choose to view Mr. Assange as the patron saint of free speech, there is a real risk that he will become a martyr in the process.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Service Should Be The Selling Point

With Christmas fast approaching it has been suggested that more Australians than ever before might be tempted to do their shopping on line. There’s a number of reasons why people would do so, including the buoyant Australian dollar trading close enough to one for one with the once mighty US buck, the relative ease of shopping from your own lounge room, and the increasing confidence people have with on-line transactions as they become a common feature of modern life. E-bay has become a household name, and for some people a way of life, and off shore retailers are making the most of the opportunities presented by cyberspace. And while there are bargains to be had, customer numbers will no doubt continue to grow.

It’s no wonder then that local retailers are starting to become disgruntled. The big stores, represented by the Australian National Retailers Association, are campaigning for shoppers to keep their dollars here in Australia, ringing Australian cash registers, and supporting Australian jobs. Many retailers are also calling upon the government to find a way to impose the GST on internet purchases so that the traditional retailers are not disadvantaged. Some of them, such as Bernie Brookes at Myer and Gerry Harvey at Harvey Norman, have proposed to set up their own off-shore operations at the expense of their own stores in order to compete.

But, is online shopping really a threat to our big retailers, or is there something else going on? While the tax issue might give the off shore operators some slight advantage, surely you would have to think that postage or freight costs would offset that benefit. While there is something attractive about shopping from the comfort of your own home, it can also be an inconvenience when you cannot actually hold an item in your hands or try on a piece of clothing before making a decision to purchase. And then there is the time spent waiting for delivery as opposed to the instant satisfaction of taking the item at the point of sale the moment you hand over your cash. And of course, if there is a problem with the item, it can be difficult to return, and even more difficult to demand a refund, when you have bought it on-line from the other side of the world.

Keeping all this in mind, is it possible that our local retailers have missed the point? Could it be that they should really be asking themselves about their standards of customer service and their price competitiveness? I have been to one of the big electrical stores with a warrantee problem and they were no help at all, sending me away to deal direct with the manufacturer. I was literally no better off than I would have been if I had bought the item on-line. I have purchased a watch on-line from Florida and paid $220 Australian dollars for a well known brand name item which would have cost me $695 or more at the big department stores here in Australia. That’s not a price difference that can be blamed on the GST, and it means that Australian Retailers need to lift their game.

Regardless of anything else, on-line shopping isn’t going to go away. Traditional retailers are going to have to find a way to co-exist successfully. That means playing to their strengths and using the advantages that they clearly have over their competitors. It’s time that the big retailers remembered that their physical presence in the marketplace is actually a competitive advantage, not a liability, because it gives them the ability to deliver vastly superior service. Once they realise that, and start to make customers feel welcome again, I’m certain that they will find a way to survive, and perhaps even to thrive.

Monday, December 6, 2010

So Where’s The Christmas Spirit?

It’s just under three weeks until Christmas, and the festive season is about to get into full swing. Christmas parties are looming, the mad rush top the shops to buy presents for family and friends, and of course the rising tide of Christmas cheer when total strangers are actually nice to each other and wish each other a “Merry Christmas”. Only, I’m a bit worried about the whole “peace on Earth and goodwill toward all men” thing. What with apparently random shootings on the Gold Coast, newspaper headlines screaming about international tensions, renewed concerns about the impact of violent computer games making young people more aggressive, and a friend of mine reporting an incident where she was threatened by an angry motorist, it seems that “good will” is a little thin on the ground.

Have we really evolved into a more violent, aggressive, and obnoxious society, fuelled by an elevated sense of entitlement and disregard, and reflected in the increasingly ghoulish violence of our predominant cultural art forms in movies, television and electronic games? It is certainly easy to believe that courtesy and manners have long since been rendered extinct by a wave of abusive language and behaviour which now seems to be accepted as normal, at least in some sectors of the community. In fact, it can even be a stretch to call it a community anymore when so many people seem to be so rabidly anti-social.

While it can be all too easy to become fearful for the future in the face of senseless acts of aggression, it is important to keep them in perspective. Most of us want nothing more than to be treated with the same consideration that we are happy to show others. Most of us are equally mortified when this doesn’t happen. Most of us are able to watch a movie or a television show about a murder mystery without becoming murderers ourselves. But as always, it is the minority who attract the attention. It is because hideous behaviour is the exception rather than the rule that it stands out so much, and gets reported on the front pages.

The truth is the majority of motorists just want to get to where they are going without any drama, children are still influenced more by their parents’ behaviour than by any other factor, and decent people still don’t go around shooting random strangers. So if the Christmas Spirit seems to be a little difficult to find just now, it’s probably because we are paying too much attention to the things which are going wrong, and not enough to the things which are going right. It’s not enough to complain about the world becoming a more unfriendly place without being prepared to become a little less unfriendly ourselves.

As always, if we really want to find the Christmas spirit, we have to look within ourselves.