Saturday, 23 January 2016

January 2016

I have not written for half a year here. Looking back on what I wrote in most recent posts I am pleased to rediscover what I said, that it still seems to make sense... and almost that there is nothing more to say. Things seem so cut and dried in our political system right now when our Australian Prime Minister has an approval rating of 80%, we know so little about what his policies and capabilities ... and we have an Opposition Leader with popularity below 20% and policies which may be quite good but who will never be seen as a leader.

In the right column I quote two fiction writers on the importance of empathy. We need to read and think and put ourselves in the places of others.

We also need to be aware of history. I commented on a recent quality article at The Guardian about Saudi Arabia and the oil outlook as follows (links and some tidying now added). My intention is just to offer one subject among many where we can benefit from deeper understanding rather than just instant manic policy lurch or godlike strategic pronouncement:
Can I offer these thoughts for those who scoff at Saudi princelings. 
in 1900 the only member of the British cabinet who was not a princeling was Joseph Chamberlain, the millionaire who moved his politics to the right to become a monster of empire and start the Second Boer War. That he came from Manchester: Manchester that rose to wealth on the backs of poor Irish workers and, earlier on,  southern American cotton picking slaves, then empire-cheap workers. From such sprang mighty Immodest Britain. 
Can I note as historical record that the beginning of significant oil taxation in the west began with the first oil shock in 1973, when the Saudis organised OPEC and prices went up. That the intention was to restrain consumption but it is evident that consumers are not so daunted by price... until we compare with the effect of negligible restraint in the USA and the persistence there of gas guzzling. Thank you Europe for restraint, taxation, more sensible prices and vehicles. And thank you Saudis for taking a hold of your resources and getting the world on a slightly better course. 
Can I mention that the great USA-Saudi-Aramco relationship can be traced to the rivalry between Lawrence of Arabia and Philby Senior, father of Philby Spy, for influence in London. Lawrence was the bigger charmer and sold London on giving first place to relations with Amman and Baghdad. Philby, fuming over his conditions as consul in Jeddah [dip toes here] and annoyed that London had spurned the Saudis, introduced the Americans, which some might say a greater betrayal of England than his boy achieved. But not greater than Lawrence's betrayal of us all, teaching Arabs the virtue of blowing things up. I cite Basil Liddell-Hart's opinion on that, Lawrence's responsibility for legitimising terrorism. 
Can I also note that turbulence in Iran can be traced back to British and American intervention. says that the 1953 coup was the CIA's first success, but we may well consider the long view and the dreadfulnesses since the 1970s especially. 
Can I mention to those that scoff at free education and capital expenditure based on oil in Saudi Arabia that Australia's roads and hospitals and schools have been sustained in the last several decades by China and others buying resources. 
And note that indicative of our higher intellects we will abandon public schools and hospitals before we abandon road spending. Or consider sensible redistributive taxation. Electing conservative leaders similar to those in the UK and USA who though in the great scheme of things not hugely rich perversely consider it a goddess-given virtue to work wholeheartedly for the 1%. 
If people don't begin to see such perspectives then ... Well the world will be as much at risk as if its fate were in the hands of young history-naive children in banks and trading places wherever.

Partly when people are scoffing at Arabia and enthusiastic about bombing we can see race prejudice. Partly we can see the influence of computer games and enthusiasm for swift winner hits. And desire that problems can be solved from a safe distance.

We have a problem in the Australian state of New South Wales that the only planning body is the roads authority: therefore we get world's-best roads proliferating without much tethering to comparative value of expenditure of billions of dollars on this or other purpose, or on other means of transport, or other more modest standards for roads. Similarly in national strategy, we have mainly a defence-oriented, or rather defence-force-focused way of making policy. And for so long as we have members of the defence force in Afghanistan and Iraq it is necessary for governments to mindlessly chant what a wonderful job they are doing to good purpose... though this is really precisely when we should review rigorously. This extraordinary review of the last decade or so by George Soros is a good place to start any thinking about the future.

In Washington the US President exclaims that Australia is the second largest contributor to war against ISIL, read this fodder for Murdoch tabloid. But in Australia we have no debate on this extraordinary contribution, there is just the macho--national-security-bug-squash reflex. There is no discussion of our own direct contribution, by going to war in Iraq in 2003, to precisely the problem of ISIL.

We march to the drum beat, policy subordinated to that of a major ally partner, let no one discuss the decline of American power, the demonstrated inefficacy of military force, the demonstrated fact that our essays in war create monstrous new problems.

In this bright new year, emerging from the summer holiday season in Australia, we do look with horror at the dreadful prospect of a possible Republican president in the United States. In the 1970s when I was counsellor and acting Minister in the Washington Embassy, it was a bit droll to have Prime Minister Fraser visit President Ford and say "I agree with you" and the next year visit President Carter and say "I agree with you"... when obviously these presidents did not agree with each other.

We have an election late this year in Australia too. We enter the election year with a recently-installed-in-party-coup conservative Prime Minister Turnbull with a popularity of 80%, being a man of elegance, eloquence and wealth, about whose policies there is deep uncertainty. We have an Opposition Leader, Labor's Bill Shorten with popularity <20% whose appearances in public are fumbling and excruciatingly embarrassing, and whose policies may be more merciful but ... it is unimaginable to think of him as an inspiring leader, driving us towards whatever future, commanding relations with other countries. So we may expect the nation to continue with negligible mental preoccupation beyond rages of Facebook and Twitter. And the price of petrol. And the smoothness of roads. And the occasional annoyance about people who have no work. And occasional mad paroxysms about people who are different. Government spending will be significantly altered with the commencement of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in 2016-2017... We wait to see from where funds will be taken.

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