Monday, January 29, 2007

Fisk as alienated intellectual

Never put your head in a paper tiger's mouth

Some Englishmen still go out in the midday sun. Some others just do lunch. It seems that the English born journalist and author Robert Fisk had elected to take the second option when he was interviewed live from Beirut on ABC TV Lateline last Wednesday. At the conclusion of the program presenter Tony Jones described the interview as “rather unusual”. You can say that again.

Fisk’s considered position on the West and the Middle East is set out at length in a 1300 page book The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (Fourth Estate, 2005). Yet those who saw Fisk’s 11 minute interview with Jones may have got a clearer sense of his essential thesis compared with those who have waded through his recent tome. It was as if the commentator was somewhat relaxed on the job (so to speak) and, consequently, spoke with greater candour than would usually be expected from The Independent’s man in Beirut.

Fisk commenced by telling Jones that the likes of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Iraq supremo Abu Musab al-Zarqawi “don’t actually matter”. According to his view, they are “part of the bestialisation…of those people we want to hate”. He added that “the organisation which bin Laden has created exists, so the individuals per se don’t really matter much anymore”.

One of the lessons of history is that revolutionaries should be taken seriously – since they usually do, or attempt to do, what they say they intend to do. This is true of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and more besides. Bin Laden said he would attack the West and has done so on many occasions, including on September 11, 2001. Al-Zarqawi has said that he would wage an insurgency against the United Nations approved government in Iraq and its Western allies (including the United States, Britain and Australia). Currently al- Zarqawi and his fellow terrorists are waging war on soldiers and civilians alike in Iraq.

Yet, Fisk maintains, neither man actually matters anymore. Why? Well, according to this view, bin Laden and al-Zarqawi are essentially creations of, wait for it, the West. They are mere figures “to be hated and to be bestialised in front of the television screens” and depicted by Western TV producers as “the latest mad lunatic, the latest fanatic, the latest terrorist whom we have to be concerned about”. It was as if the likes of bin Laden and al-Zarqawi had not chosen to send out their own video and audio revolutionary messages with the expressed intention that they be reported on Western TV. But they have.

When Jones implied that Fisk might be underestimating the significance of al Zarqawi’s most recent revolutionary message, Fisk responded by positing the suggestion that “these people [are] being put out before us as caricatures…to hate” by George W. Bush. So it’s all Bush’s fault, apparently. When Jones suggested that bin Laden was a problem, Fisk responded: “It’s a problem for you, isn’t it.” The response was in the affirmative. Whereupon Fisk quickly backtracked and acknowledged that it was a problem for him as well.

A similar confusion emerged when Fisk maintained that the West is “helping to create the creatures of evil”. Fisk gesticulated an inverted commas sign when saying the word “evil” – implying that he did not necessarily believe that the murderer al-Zarqawi was necessarily evil. Al-Zarqawi’s Iraqi civilian victims, and their families, would hold a different view – no doubt. When Jones argued that the West just could not ignore al Qaeda in Iraq, Fisk again backtracked declaring: “No; absolutely not; you’re right”.

There followed a Fisk “look, look, look, look” interjection and it was soon good night from Jones. And it was still lunch time in Lebanon. The acclaimed author of The Great War for Civilisation signed off by implying that the “injustice in the Muslim world” is due primarily to “Westerners”.

In his recent book, Fisk describes war as “the total failure of the human spirit” and comments that he knows of an editor “who has wearied of hearing” him say this. The author then asks “how many editors have first-hand experience of war?” Fair enough. But how many journalists have first-hand experience of government? For example, the fact is that Britain and its allies had few options in 1939. It’s difficult to see how a determination to stand up to Hitler can be equated with a total failure of the human spirit.

Fisk’s position is much the same about the First World War in which his father fought. He argues that William Fisk fought “in the trenches of France because of a shot fired in a city he’d never heard of called Sarajevo”. This is simplistic at best. William Fisk found himself in a trench on the Western Front because Germany invaded Belgium and France. The elected politicians of the day had to make a decision whether to resist German militarianism or not. Journalists are not required to make such decisions.

Fisk stands in the tradition of the alienated Western intellectual. He has many fellow-travellers. The playwright Harold Pinter used the occasion of his 2005 Nobel prize for literature address to question whether the West ever has any “moral sensibility”. Pinter’s discomfort with the US and Britain is so intense that he went so far as to support Milosevic in Serbia. Then there is John Pilger who told The Green Left Weekly (November 3, 2004) that “while we abhor and condemn the continuing loss of innocent life in Iraq, we have no choice but to support the resistance”. The likes of Arundathi Roy and Tariq Ali have expressed similar sentiments.

There is a plausible case against the US/Britain/Australia policy in the Middle East in general – and Iraq in particular. However, blaming the West for virtually all the problems and injustices in the Middle East is a cop-out. Especially since Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, are the principal victims of the attacks by radical Islamists. In ignoring this in his rather unusual, albeit brutally honest Lateline interview, Fisk demonstrated that he was, well, out to lunch.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Greens misplaced judgement

Red faces if Greens keep on about an independent Papua

FORTUNATELY, Australian foreign policy is not run by the Greens. However, watching the TV news at the weekend it was easy to get the impression that the likes of senators Kerry Nettle and Bob Brown represented more than just a minority party as they advocated independence for Indonesia's province of Papua, sometimes referred to as West Papua and previously titled Irian Jaya.

Certainly, East Timor obtained its independence from Indonesia in 1999. Yet it is important to remember that this was made possible by the Asian economic downturn of 1997, which contributed to the collapse of the Soeharto government. If the Soeharto regime had remained in place, it is unlikely that East Timor would have become an independent nation. The Australian-led and United Nations-sanctioned peace enforcement operation went into East Timor in 1999 with the approval of the (post-Soeharto) government in Jakarta.

Jakarta has always placed greater importance on Papua remaining part of Indonesia than East Timor. The former was part of the Dutch East Indies, over which the Netherlands retained sovereignty when Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1949. East Timor, on the other hand, was a Portuguese colony and was not a factor in the Indonesian independence movement. In the end, Jakarta conceded (albeit reluctantly) its control over East Timor. It is most unlikely to do so with respect to the provinces of Papua and Aceh.

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Australia's political leaders advocated that West New Guinea (as it was then termed) should not become part of Indonesia. It did so essentially for two reasons, one altruistic, the other strategic. Robert Menzies and his ministers pointed publicly to the ethnic differences between the native-born inhabitants of New Guinea and Indonesia. But, privately at least, there was also concern at the security implications of the radical nationalist Indonesian leader Soekarno gaining territory next to Papua New Guinea, for which Australia had responsibility at the time.

Australia's position is spelt out in detail in Alan Watt's The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy: 1938-1965. He demonstrates that "the fundamental reason why Dutch and Australian policy on West New Guinea failed was lack of support by a Great Power able and willing to back it up, in the last resort, by armed force". Neither the US nor Britain was prepared to become embroiled in what would have been termed a colonial war in defence of a colonial power (the Dutch) against a newly independent nation.

Eventually the Menzies government accepted the realpolitik of the situation. West New Guinea was placed under the control of the United Nations in 1962 and transferred to Indonesia the following year, pending a plebiscite to be conducted no later than 1969. The plebiscite was inadequate by any standard. Yet by the time it was conducted in 1969 the matter had been effectively resolved.

As Peter Edwards points out in Crises and Commitments, total opposition to the Indonesian claim on West New Guinea "was one point on which there was almost complete agreement across the political spectrum, from the left wing of the ALP to the Democratic Labor Party and the RSL". As Edwards documents, only the Communist Party "took the opposite view". Australian communists at the time much admired Soekarno. Now support for an independent Papua is coming, in the main, from what is left of the extreme left.

That was four decades ago. Indonesia is Australia's closest large neighbour and it is the world's largest Muslim country. In recent times, Indonesia has become a democracy. Under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's leadership, it is one of the few Muslim nations that have free elections and a free press. Also, Yudhoyono's Government has presided over the peace agreement under which Aceh will be given a degree of autonomy.

Both the Coalition and Labor favour the retention of the present entity of Indonesia and both believe this can co-exist alongside considerable autonomy for the province of Papua. Where appropriate, Australia should continue to accept asylum seekers from Papua. But, if possible, this should be done in a matter-of-fact way and without triumphalism. There is some misunderstanding over the recent decision to grant temporary protection visas to 42 Papuans. The decision was made by Department of Immigration officers and not by the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Howard Government.

The Greens, along with some commentators, are pressing for this decision to become a precedent for an independent Papua. On March 25, The Age ran a front-page lead titled "Cry freedom: Papua's plea to the world". Little wonder, then, that some opinion leaders in Jakarta believe that there is a stirring among Australian journalists, and within Australian non-government organisations, in favour of Papuan independence that will eventually affect the Australian Government.

Calls of "cry freedom" for Papua are likely to be counterproductive. The same can be said for angry cartoons, of the kind drawn by Bill Leak in Saturday's Weekend Australian. What is needed is a low-key response to the present tensions, which have seen Jakarta withdraw its ambassador from Australia for what are termed (in diplomatic speak) consultations.

The Greens and their supporters on the issue are engaged in symbolic politics. They do not have the responsibility for running foreign policy. Nor will they suffer personally if their megaphone diplomacy leads to even harsher rule in Papua. Last week, Bob Brown alleged that "there's a sense of racism in the way in which the Australian Government and Opposition treat the West Papuans".

This suggests that the Greens' judgement is as misplaced about Australia as it is about Papua.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Blair and Howard

Knowing the enemy makes leaders friends

TONY Blair is a long-time friend of the ALP leader, Kim Beazley. John Howard's first official meeting with the British Prime Minister, in 1997, was somewhat cool. Yet today the social democratic Blair is closer to the politically conservative Howard than he is to Beazley on foreign policy and, to a lesser extent, national security.

Blair and Howard are motivated by different political philosophies.

What unites them is that both are incumbent, democratically elected leaders at a time when radical Islamists have indicated their intention to attack - and if possible destroy - Western societies. In other words, Blair and Howard have to take decisions for which there are consequences, or to refrain from taking decisions, for which there are also consequences.

As Howard conceded last week, there is probably not majority support for Australia's involvement in Iraq, although the Government's general approach to national security is popular. Yet at least Howard has broad support within the Liberal and National Party Coalition for his foreign policy stance. Blair, on the other hand, has foreign policy critics within the Labour Party and also has to endure attacks from the Conservatives. Little wonder, then, that after a tentative start Blair and Howard have developed a certain closeness, born of sharing mutual adversaries. This was evident, once again, when the two met in Canberra yesterday.

Iraq aside, Blair and Howard have their critics on national security. In Britain there is opposition to the Prevention of Terrorism Bill 2005. In Australia the Anti-Terrorism Bill (No. 2) 2005, introduced into Parliament on November 3, has also ignited controversy.

The bill was referred to the Senate legal and constitutional committee, chaired by the Liberal senator Marise Payne. Virtually all submissions to the committee were hostile to the revamping of the sedition laws by modernising them and changing their focus. The Government accepted a number of the recommendations in the committee's report. These changes were reflected in the act, which was passed on December 6 and which came into force on January 11.

In view of the continuing controversy about the legislation, on March 1 the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to review Schedule 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act (No 2) 2005 and Part IIA of the Crimes Act 1914 concerning the recently amended provisions dealing with the offence of sedition. The Law Reform Commission is to report by May 30. This followed concerns expressed - especially by members of the legal and artistic communities - that the new provisions concerning sedition would be used to eliminate free speech, or worse.

The inquiry will be conducted by Professor David Weisbrot (president), Brian Opeskin (deputy president), associate professor Les McCrimmon (commissioner), Justice Susan Kenny (part-time commissioner) and Justice Susan Kiefel (part-time commissioner).

On March 20 the commission published an issues paper titled Review of Sedition Laws. The issues paper seeks community consultation and the final chapter of the document contains a list of questions to which the authors of the report would like responses. Weisbrot and his colleagues make it clear they have not reached any "definitive conclusions" about their ultimate findings and recommendations.

Even so, the paper indicates that - at this stage, at least - the authors do not share the hyperbolic concern ignited by some of the critics of the federal and state governments when this legislation was canvassed late last year. For example, the paper refers to a "misunderstanding" of the construction of criminal responsibility evident in submissions to the Senate committee and comments that legal distinctions can be difficult "for non-experts and sometimes even for experts".

On a number of key issues the Law Reform Commission gives support to the case presented by the Attorney-General's Department to the Senate committee. The paper finds also that the focus of the sedition provisions in the new legislation "has been shifted to the protection of Australian constitutions, governments, authority and defence forces, rather than those of the British Sovereign and her 'heirs and assigns' or 'dominions"'. What's wrong with that?

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Law Reform Commission will propose some small changes to the Anti-Terrorism Bill and/or the Crimes Act when it issues its final report. However, judging from its issues paper, the commission is most unlikely to embrace the stance of some of the critics of the Government's national security legislation who believe that under the new sedition provisions Australia is on the way to becoming a police state or a fascist regime or even that the legislation will substantially diminish democratic rights.

The fact is that national security legislation is aimed at real or potential terrorists. Not at those academics, actors, civil libertarian lawyers, film directors, playwrights and writers who oppose the Howard Government on this (and almost every other) issue. As Judith Brett, who is something of a critic of Howard, says in Relaxed and Comfortable (Quarterly Essay, Issue 19 2005): "Howard horrifies many of the cultural and educational elites in part because he has no interest in them."

The fact is that Howard knows Australia has real enemies. Just as Blair understands that some Islamist revolutionaries want to destroy democracy in Britain. That's why they have so much in common despite their differing political philosophies.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

State Elections in Australia

Still plenty of life in the Labor Party

The strong ALP vote in last Saturday’s State elections in South Australia and Tasmania demonstrates that, despite the self-induced controversies of recent weeks, Labor is not in a terminal condition. In Australia, all the main political parties are State based. Consequently, success at a State level ensures the viability of the winning party.

At the Federal level, Labor’s problems are not that dissimilar to those experienced by the Coalition in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For over a decade the Liberal Party could not determine whether Andrew Peacock, John Howard, John Hewson or Alexander Downer was the appropriate leader – before deciding on Howard in January 1995.

However, this instability reflected the fact that, for most of its time in Opposition after March 1983, the Coalition had to contend with a popular Labor leader in Bob Hawke and a relatively strong economy. It was only the replacement of Hawke by Keating, the return of Howard as Liberal leader and, most importantly, the impact of the international recession of 1991 that made it possible for the Coalition to win in 1996.

The Australian system of preferential voting – which entails that a vote for a candidate finishing third or lower can only be valid if the elector expresses a choice between the two most successful candidates – benefits the major parties. Labor lost badly under Keating in 1996 and under Mark Latham in 2004 but its total vote was still 46 per cent and 47 per cent respectively. Beazley scored 51 per cent in 1988 and 49 per cent (in a difficult electoral environment) in 2001. Right now, Labor is a long way from office in Canberra. But it is also a very long way from collapse, especially since it is in government in the six States and two Territories.

In the early 1990s some critics of the performance of the Liberals went so far as to predict the party’s demise. For example, Judith Brett wrote that “the Liberal Party in the 1990s seems doomed”. Now Dr Brett has become something of an expert on the Liberal Party’s success. Today similar forebodings can be heard about Labor. In his recent booklet What’s Left?: The Death of Social Democracy (Quarterly Essay, Issue 21), Clive Hamilton writes that the ALP “has served its historical purpose and will wither and die as the progressive force of Australian politics”. He champions “the need for a new political party”.

Clearly Hamilton has no idea of just how difficult it is to finance and maintain an extant political party – let alone establish a new one which, in its initial years at least, would not be eligible for public funding. It’s just pie-in-the-skyism.

Much the same can be said of Hamilton’s view that there is an opening for a new political party to accommodate his theory that “the people are still not happy”. Hamilton wants us to believe that “most people would rather be poorer, provided others are poorer still”. Really. And he asserts that “when consumers are at the point of making a purchase, they are sublimally asking themselves two questions; who am I?; who do I want to be?”. Rather than, say, “will the plasma TV fit on the wall?” or “will my behind look big in this?”.

There is not much hope for Labor or, indeed for a new political entity, in Hamilton’s thesis that the way of the (political) future is to convince the electorate of what he terms “the sickness of affluence”. Little wonder, then, that Hamilton accuses Beazley of engaging in “reactionary politics”. As Liberal leaders in the late 1980s were bagged by the right, today Beazley is criticised from the left. It’s quite de-authorising.

What’s Left? has some kind words for The Latham Diaries, where the former Labor leader referred to Australia’s (alleged) “record levels of discontent and public angst” and mocked “the temporary escapism of material goods”. Latham’s diarised despair was so great that on January 9, 2002 he wrote that “democracy is rooted”. Or did he?

Latham’s friend and one-time colleague Julia Gillard discussed The Latham Diaries in the interview she did for the ABC TV Australian Story episode which went to air on March 6, 2006. In part of the interview which was not aired, but which is transcribed on the program’s website, Gillard reveals that Latham's opus magnum “wasn’t a full diary”. Rather, he kept notes “of things he thought were important…and then took that contemporaneous record and worked it into the diaries”. She openly wonders “whether his recollection” at the time of writing his diary entries was engulfed “with more bitterness than at the actual time”. Good question.

In any event, a majority of the Australian electorate rejected Latham’s solutions to their real or imagined problems. The fact that Latham led Labor to such a crushing defeat in 2004 (which made it possible for the Howard Government to obtain a Senate majority) was due not to the operation of the factions but rather to their collapse. In other words, Latham became ALP leader in spite of the factions. And factions did not stop Mike Rann or Paul Lennon from winning at the weekend.

Federal Labor’s contemporary problems are partly home-grown and, as such, are capable of resolution. Then there are the difficulties imposed by the Howard Government’s incumbency at a time of a strong economy and widespread concern about national security. The benefits of incumbency are enhanced by compulsory voting.

Labor’s problems will not be resolved by electing a colourful leader or coming up with a big idea – both were tried in 2004. Sure, the ALP has its discontents. But it is wishful thinking to predict the destruction of Labor or to envisage the creation of a new mainstream party.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

About Howard Haters

Haters their own worst enemy

THE party's over, for the time being, at least. Last week's hubris-lite functions, celebrating John Howard's 10th anniversary as Prime Minister, suggest that he is not overly loved. Rather, he is very much respected and admired by his supporters, who stop somewhat short of adulation. And he is much hated by many of his opponents.

In this sense the term Howard-haters is a reasonable word usage - if only because Howard really is despised by many members of the intelligentsia who have the ability and capacity to state their case publicly. So much so that some well-educated Australians blame him for virtually all the nation's (alleged) social ills. The it's-Howard's-fault refrain is heard repeatedly across the land.

In recent times the publisher Richard Walsh has blamed Howard for the fact that Test fast-bowler Glenn McGrath is a "sullen sledger". How's that? According to the journalist Andrew West, Howard is responsible for "the corruption of Australian history by the post-modernists".

Some may believe that young Australians have a natural interest in new technology. But no, according to the journalist James Norman. He says Howard has fostered the interest of young people in "consumer technologies" and, consequently, "utterly anaesthetised and practically disengaged" young Australians from the political process. A letter writer to The Age linked Howard to the sad plight of a pensioner who was found dead in his car in a suburban shopping centre - some time after his car was booked. According to this view, the parking officer's error was due to Howard-engendered "greed".

Quite a few of Howard's critics are so shocked by Howardism that they are willing to acknowledge that they do not know anyone who votes for him. Not a soul. In spite of the fact that, at the October 2004 election, 53 per cent of voters expressed a preference for Howard over Labor's Mark Latham.

Writing in Dialogue (published by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia) in early 2005, Professor R.W. Connell recalled an election night dinner party, held in inner-city Sydney, where not one of his fellow guests knew anyone who voted for Howard. He described those present as members of the intelligentsia. Interviewed by The Bulletin in April 2005, the Melbourne-based playwright Hannie Rayson described herself as part of "the left" and referred to her political opponents comprising "the right" and being on "the other side". She declared: "I don't have cause to meet such people in my life; they don't tend to hang around Fitzroy."

Connell is scheduled to speak at a conference organised by the leftist magazines Overland and Arena in Melbourne next weekend on Howard's Australia. His topic is "Australian values". Yet Connell is on the public record as saying that he does not know a man or a woman who supports the values of a majority of the population who vote for Howard. How come?

It may sound strange. But in intelligentsia land, you can get through an entire day without hearing anything but criticism of the Howard Government. Here's how such a day in the life of a Howard-hater might work - via live radio/television, Foxtel iQ, iPod, tape, video, DVD and newspapers.

Arise and read the editorial and letters and opinion pages of The Age, Australia's most politically imbalanced broadsheet, judged on its coverage of the national security and industrial relations debates. Admire the cartoons of Michael Leunig, who has drawn Howard as a masked, kneecapping IRA terrorist. Look forward to next Saturday's Herald in the hope that, again, Alan Ramsey will describe the PM as a "duplicitous toad" and refer to him as "Little Johnny". Check The Australian to see if cartoonist Bill Leak still maintains "we are all little Johnnies now; smaller, meaner and less attractive".

Go to work in a university humanities department and talk to your Howard-hating colleagues. It's morning tea time. Go online and check out the most recent criticism of Howardism in John Menadue's New Matilda journal of (almost identical) opinion. Agree with editor Jose Borghino's view that Howard is the "hamster version" of Robert Menzies.

Break for lunch. Drop into an inner-city bookshop to check out the latest Howard-hating thesis on the Morry Schwartz-owned Black Inc's publishing list, including such titles as The Barren Years: John Howard and Australian Political Culture. Admire past copies of Black Inc's Quarterly Essay, featuring the likes of Mungo MacCallum and Guy Rundle. Buy the most recent issue of Schwartz's quaintly named journal The Monthly, featuring yet another (very long) article by Robert Manne bagging Howard.

Spend the afternoon on research. Order a DVD of Robert Connolly's taxpayer-subsidised film Three Dollars. Re-read Rayson's taxpayer-subsidised play Two Brothers. Prepare a workshop on how to establish socialism in at least one country .

Drive home listening to the ABC Radio National's Perspective program, followed by Sandy McCutcheon's Australia Talks Back. Tune into ABC TV's 7.30 Report to see which cabinet minister Kerry O'Brien is interrupting. Check out how alienated George Negus is on SBS TV. Go to sleep listening to Phillip Adams' Late Night Live program. Dream of Gough Whitlam, Howard Dean, George Galloway. Wake up - read The Age.

The problem with much, but not all, opposition to Howard is it is obsessive and consequently has little impact in the marginal seats in suburban and regional Australia. Opponents of Howardism would have much more impact if they threw the switch to rationality with respect to the Prime Minister and ceased their consistent condemnation of Kim Beazley and Labor.

Right now, the irrationality of so many Howard haters has the unintended consequence of enhancing Howardism.