A break with tradition. The standard response of the Federal Attorney General for 50 years has been to refuse to answer questions about national security. That tradition was broken last week when Robert McClelland released this press statement:

This unequivocal response to suggestions that Ms Helen Liu was some kind of security risk would satisfy any reasonable person. In this age of whistle blowers, neither an Attorney General nor a head of ASIO would expose himself to being proved wrong by the leaking of information to the contrary. Yet the slur of being called a spy continues to be fostered by the Murdoch press — no doubt at the urging of members of the Federal Opposition who have no concern at trashing an innocent woman’s reputation in their pursuit of the political scalp of the Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

It is ugly politics at its worst.

The Turnbull mistake — Chinese votes. The last Australian census shows some 670,000 people of first, second or third generation Chinese origin. Add on those whose Chinese ancestors arrived up to 150 years ago and that’s a substantial bloc of voters that the Liberal-National Coalition is at risk of alienating with its rather crude suggestion that to be an Australian Chinese is somehow to be a security risk. Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull’s advisers have identified the streak of xenophobia among white Australians that is clearly present and believes he can win more votes from them than he loses among coloured Australians. I doubt that they are right.

Talking down the rates. Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan is another minister who has chosen to avoid the normal form of words that are applied when someone asks about the activities of a statutory body under his control. Treasurers traditionally leave comments on possible interest rate decisions up to the Reserve Bank which makes them. But from Japan yesterday Treasurer Swan told the Reserve Bank that it has room to cut interest rates further. Talking at a business function, he said that while the bank had cut the cash rate further and faster, and to a lower level, than in living memory, “importantly, however, it has room to cut rates further if necessary — a luxury that many of the world’s key central banks no longer have.”

The market seems to agree with the Treasurer. The Crikey Interest Rate Indicator has a clear majority believing that the Reserve Bank will cut rates again at its April meeting.

Another promise kept. Special Minister of State John Faulkner continues to practice what he preaches. In opposition he was a persistent critic of the Liberal-National Coalition for its refusal to provide timely information about the cost of Government propaganda campaigns. Now as the minister in charge of such spending, he has released, with his colleague the Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, the first half year report on Campaign Advertising by Australian Government Departments and Agencies.

The historical data in the report shows clearly why Labor was critical of the use of government money to advertise in the lead up to an election.

In the six months to 31 December last year, television stations were the beneficiaries of half the government’s advertising expenditure:

Melting down to a jobs and social crisis. The price that will be paid for the failure of the Group of 20 to agree on a policy to stimulate the world economy was spelled out in Rome overnight in a speech by Angel Gurría, the OECD Secretary-General:

This meltdown is rapidly turning into a jobs and social crisis. Labour market conditions are weakening throughout the world, as companies are cutting production, closing factories and dismissing workers. Our latest projections (to be released officially tomorrow) indicate that the unemployment rate in the OECD area could approach 10% by 2010 compared with 5.6% in 2007. This implies that the crisis could swell the rank of the unemployed in the OECD by about 25 million people, by far the largest and most rapid increase in OECD unemployment in the post-war period.

And the job crisis is spreading rapidly around the world. The International Labour Organisation estimates that world-wide unemployment could increase by 40 million people by the end of this year.

The most disadvantaged labour-market groups — youth, low-skilled, immigrants and temporary workers — are already bearing the brunt of the rapidly rising unemployment. They are the first to lose their job and tend to have only limited access to social safety nets. And since they also face serious difficulty in finding a new job, they run the risk of becoming long term unemployed or discouraged.

Restoring global growth is an economic and political priority, but also an ethical, moral, social and human imperative.

Meanwhile, back in London, the officials of the G20 countries are unable to reach agreement on any specific policies to avoid the gloomy prediction of Mr Gurria from coming true.

Peter Fray

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